writing


This is really a very long complementary comment to a blog post by author Vandana Singh, On Why People Don’t Like Science, Especially Physics.” It was too long to post on her site (and be fair to others). Read her post first, then, if the mood strikes, read mine. Reading me first will result in a “whatever” (not the fun John Scalzi blog) and probably keep you from VS’s blog.

so…

In the west, we’re very product oriented. Science is not a product, it’s a process, so what good is it for me (the crowd of me, not the me of me)? 

We also don’t see it as romantic. We like romance (I don’t mean love stories, I mean anything that produces a swell of emotion). 

We, the people, like mythology (religious or otherwise) much more than science. Why is that? The diversity of “magical” or mysterious or “alien” or beautifully complex things in the “real” world make the shallow mystique of most stories/myths (and I include anything that insists on explaining our universe as a magical (by)product or project of supreme beings) look like kids crayon work (which has its place, perhaps as a starting point but not as a primary source of wonder). 

We also like to look at pictures (because we like romance) and see most of the world this way. There’s a well known Feynman anecdote where he compares what he sees when looking at a stunning cloud formation with what the nonscience-minded see. The latter see the pretty picture, slightly animated in its rolling elephantine (and alien) movement–Feynman saw that, too, but he also saw elements working together in fantastic and beautiful complexity to make that picture happen not just in the sky, but in the light that travels to our eyes, and how we process that light as information, and feel about it, and–good lord you fools, do you not see it! In other words, he saw something that engaged him on all levels and that, ironically, was more far romantic than a sky painting. I read that anecdote when I was much younger, and have never looked at anything the same since. (Or, more accurately, when I see something as a just another pretty picture, I use this anecdote to kick myself.)

There’s another very large set of people, who like to know about science, in a popular sense–these sciency things are out there and they are very cool, and I can read about them in very slick periodicals, on websites, and watch amazing digital videos available everywhere. Now that’s entertainment! Well, it’s a step in the right direction. I’m a member of that audience, but I know it’s not science that I’m watching; it’s a science-related product.

We think science is expensive (and often it is), and must be funded, mostly by corporations (who, and I say this without cynicism, do almost nothing that is not attached to their bottom line). We’re often told that we only need simple tools and often nothing more than our senses and perhaps a recording device (pencil and paper, cheap camera). But those aren’t romantic and are not pushed as science products in the places where we shop. We’re all about the products.

When we’re kids, we don’t need a reason to investigate something. Or, we have the reason we need–because the thing or event is there, or it isn’t there. And why isn’t it there? Or why is it? Then, as we get older, we encounter the “so what” factor–useful if we enter business or other funded worlds but one that has less use in everyday science. Perhaps it’s that factor that parents, teachers, and others need to address or help us discover as we grow up. Great teachers do that–my high school chemistry teacher, a purposeful eccentric, didn’t spend much time on telling us the “so what”–but he did help us figure it out for ourselves. My father, a deep thinker (his ongoing labor of love), lives in a world of science, but it took me years to understand what he gave my brother and I in our tromps through the woods, our visits to science museums, and other places where he exposed us to the world and its complexities (or, sometimes, beautiful simplicities–because systems aren’t always complex, at least on the surface). Now I see that he was/is a “citizen scientist”–a person who incorporates science into his daily life, and that he was so caught up in it privately that he was unable to express what he saw and felt for his children. We thought he was boring and a pain (he’s still a bit pedantic, but that’s his chosen communication style, and I can kid him about it). Older now, I  have an inkling of what he still sees everyday, and realize that we do not have to be fantastic teachers of science to our children–that if we embrace the world ourselves, doing the least, dragging our children into the world, as we did in their first moments, we’ll increase the odds that those kids will think science is so frikkin’ cool that they eventually, like us, weep when they consider how little time they have to learn even a little about a bit.

(Note, I’m not an atheist or a particular sort of agnostic, or a scientist, but I am saddened by people who hold spiritual beliefs that intentionally limit their view of the world. My wife and I encourage our children to accept and not shun those people–we know a bunch–but not be held back by them, either.)

 Return to Vandana’s post and the other reader comments.

Postscript: I’ve made Feynman’s anecdote my own over the years. The version I read long ago is not so elaborate or excitable, but is no less meaningful to me.

As part of researching writing (and writing about) about war as story background and young women and girls in war (who have suffered loss and have lived both in war zones and backwaters affected by war) I’m reading through Riverbend’s blog on being a young woman in occupied Iraq (which is interrupted(?) in late 2007 with a post titled “Bloggers Without Borders”), Chris Hedges War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, Jack Womack’s Random Acts of Senseless Violence, and Bruce Sterling’s The Caryatids, tempered (meaningfully) by Polly Horvaths’ Everything on a Waffle and The Trolls, and James Thurber’s The 13 Clocks. This is difficult because it means (temporarily) putting off anticipated new books by two friends: Vandana Singh’s The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet and Tony Wolk’s Lincoln’s Daughter.

Why am I blogging this? Partly as a self-reminder, partly as a whispered apology to the latter two authors. Also, because anyone who stumbles across these sidewalk chalk scribbles before the monsoon should know about the aforementioned blog and books listed–they are all great, from hunkered down great to tip toes great, and should be read, for their contents and what they can teach about writing and often brave storytelling.

I currently have very little time to write when I’m not tired. We are staying focused and generally positive following a paycut (at least I currently have a job–that’s the feelgood phrase, right?) and diminishing obvious opportunities. But the tools–at least online tools–that companies have developed to sell or link people are available to all of us (self-begetting selling and marketing tools) to use for commercial purposes, from simple things to selling books on Amazon to helping people market their businesses using social media. Once you start digging, connecting, trying things out, you find more that you can do, and then can start sorting opportunities into things that can generate income now or in the long tail, or things that don’t seem to have income potential but are very interesting and may reveal a new location on your treasure hunt map.

It also may keep you from happy but pointless fantasies of tazering Republican politicians. But that’s not fair–we’re in this mess because we stopped being citizens and started basing our lives on getting the lowest price. There’s no such thing as paying little up front without someone–eventually each of us–losing in the long term. And that’s where we’re at. Maybe this is a good opportunity to learn how to be profitable as citizens.

Did I contradict myself in these paragraphs? I don’t think so–the first is about the need for surviving short term in a way that doesn’t damage other people (I hope), the other involves long term learning, thinking, skills building, and, hopefully, understanding and helpful and meaningful action.

This blog entry linked below thoughtfully describes critical skills needed by the modern writer of near future SF: The Burden of the Modern Science Fiction Writer. And because it’s so articulate, so strained with responsibility, and filled with belief–and so narrow in scope–it’s important to respond (because it pushed a button). Two excerpts follow, only to reflect the tone, not replace reading the entry:

To write fully believable, near future science fiction today, you almost need to be voracious antisocial polymath, deeply conversant in half a dozen technical fields, as well as familiar with ongoing social, economic, and environmental change.

….

Or—let me clarify—you can write about these things without understanding, but probably not in a believable manner.

And that’s the burden of the modern science fiction writer. If you want to write believable near-future fiction, you can’t choose a single point of advancement. You need to have a good understanding of advances in many different fields, and you need to be able to imagine how these can come together, for good or for bad. And to be really believable, you’ll need to know more than you ever wanted to know about how the world works, economically and socially, as well as where the trends are heading.

It really works if you replace “modern SF writer” with scientist, researcher, or anyone else seriously trying to advance a field or synthesize a body of knowledge. And it may work for a very narrow definition of SF, near future or otherwise. Unless you’re writing technical or science-heavy SF, an intelligent layperson’s understanding is more than enough to tell stories categorized as SF. You may need to research one or two topics in depth and you should have your work checked by sympathetic experts, but the blog writer seems to offer a very limited perspective of near future SF (or he’s splitting genre hairs on what is and isn’t SF, and aren’t we freakin’ tired of that by now.) Trying to gain the kind of expertise he describes will prevent most people from writing–not out of fear (although that, too)–but because they’ll be so busy lookin’ up and learning about (a nerdy twist on preventing the wrong people from writing).

You still need intelligence and a healthy curiosity complex. You still need big chi writing and storytelling skills. You need to be a what-if junkie. And you need to be able to focus on the key ideas and let the rest swirl around you like flotsam (or, depending on the scope of your story, filter most of it out and let the reader’s mind rest on the key elements–often near future stories are big brained blitzkreigs that are a wonder to read, but can also leave you dizzy. 

Are things really changing faster (as the blog writer says) or do we just have more access to change information (perhaps both, but I think the rate at which information is available is increasing faster than change, and that people confuse the two–learning more faster can be a catalyst, but it can also cause people to hyperreact and initiate unhelpful change). Perhaps it’s this increase in awareness that makes detail-rich near-future SF harder to write: because as readers we’re more aware, we expect more detailed accuracy in our stories? But at what level? How many readers know what’s accurate and what’s not? The key word in the excerpt is “believable.” But to who? The person with real understanding of the concepts or things described or the layperson to whom it sounds good. 

I think there’s good karma in trying to get it right–and writers get it wrong all the time, without ruining the story. And no matter what you do, if you write in a manner that appeals to the reader’s sense of belief, they will believe you, for better or worse, even if it’s schlock in a dross. I hold up the insanely profitable Dan Brown as Exhibit A (setting him down now, as wealth and bad taste have made him rather portly). If you’re writing for a younger audience and you get it wrong but make it believable, you can still spark enthusiasm/interest for the real thing(s), with no damage done. (If you’re wrong for an adult audience, you may generate little cults–fortunately, SF cultists usually practice their rituals in the safety of conventions and online.)

No, if you want to blow it, write characters who lack integrity (a sense of wholeness), are mysteriously inconsistent (writer’s puppets), are boring or otherwise fail to provoke sympathy or interest. Everyone but the jackasses will forgive you for screwing up world details–no one but your drinking buddies will forgive you for screwing up characters.

A friend recently posed the question, based on this article about the first sentence in A Chronicle for Leibowitz:

“What’s in _your_ first sentence?”

My smart ass response was “90 days or 90 dollars!” Then I started imagining first sentences, with one starting a riff (on the potential adventures of Nan):

Terrence O’Keefe’s introspective moments were typically inspired by a base reaction: this November morning, his muse was the cold air worrying at his crotch as he waited for the walk sign.

and

Nan tucked her parents into their drawer, kissed their noses, and turned off the light.

Funny how just one or two words changes can shift the meaning of the sentence; here, from creepy cute to bizarre to psychopathically creepy cute:

Nan folded her parents into their drawer, kissed their noses, and turned off the light.

or

Nan backed her parents into their corner, kissed their noses, and turned off the light.

Do we go on to learn, in the case of tucked or folded, that Nan is actually tucking a photograph into a drawer, that her parents are no longer with her–dead or missing? Is it a horror story, a missing parents mystery, a tale of freeze-dry cryo suspension? Or a loving suburban monster? It’s a nifty sentence, but if I were to go on with it, I’d better alert the reader fairly quickly unless I wanted to dance around the plot–then I’d better be sure I’m doing enough to keep them interested instead of annoyed.

If this woman was Nan’s next door neighbor, the story might start with:

Every afternoon, Nan turned her sprinkler on high to paint a rainbow above the fence, just to hear the neighbor lady scream.

(I need to work on that sentence. But I love the idea.) 

There are some authors, Graham Greene was one, who can set the tone and let you know what kind of story you were in for, in just a few short words. Other writers (in control of their prose) may intentionally use that first sentence to mystify; perhaps to set a mood or make you feel what the character’s feeling.

The first sentence in Walter J Miller’s A Chronicle for Leibowitz is: 

“Brother Francis Gerard of Utah might never have discovered the blessed documents, had it not been for the pilgrim with girded loins who appeared during that young novice’s Lenten fast in the desert.”

Miller might have been carefully satirical in his opening sentence and also struggling with the text, eventually deciciding to just get on with what turns into a great post-apocalyptic story. Only he would have known, and it probably doesn’t matter. That first sentence is done in the comical, humble, exploratory voice that matches the story and characters. It’s not perfect, but it’s good enough and doesn’t really distract us. Or maybe it is perfect for the right reader.

Vandana Singh, an author out of Delhi, Portland, Austin, and leaf country (and incremental points between), has written six rich essays on writing, cognition, colonization, publishing, animal communities, and our biosphere at Jeff Vandemeer’s blog, Ecstatic Days

all in the form of smart conversation starters (and more). She’s moved on, a blog sitter while the owner was out of the country, and while she has her own site, she seldom sits still long enough to update it (leaving it in charge of her technologically capable daughter).

Our physical and virtual bookshelves house her non-Euclidean YoungUncle stories for “kids” (and people like me), and other large and small press collections with her short stories and novellas (Delhi, Of Love and Other Monsters, Thirst, The Room on the Roof, and much more). More importantly, she’s active in the health of this planet and its inhabitants, is a proactive parent, and a science teacher (professor of Physics at a Vermont college). In 10 fast years, from our first meeting in Portland through a mutual writer friend, I’ve watched her grow from a surface timid but interesting writer to a frequently published author whose work often sets me back in my chair and keeps me delighted, curious, and invested. I’m very proud to know her, even if geography keeps our friendship limited to correspondence, am inspired by her achievements and results, and am hungry as a pirate in a punt to obtain her first complete story collection, The Woman Who Thought She Was A Planet and other stories.

The following links on reading or using e-books sparked this entry of mine. (Links from Steve Shervais, a friend, writer, and systems scientist who has little time for reading or writing when he’s teaching, but is incredibly adept at skimming the Web for interesting articles and essays):

Reading
vs
Snacking

Note, this isn’t the monologue of a luddite, nor does it try to synthesize/summarize the volumes written about paper vs. online and their ability to save or behead the publishing industry–both with their advantages and disadvantages, often tied to subforms of each, and access to them.

I was in Powell’s City O Books yesterday working away from work (am there again now after being excused from jury duty, taking a break before heading into the office) bathing in the comfort and inspiration of 10 foot high loaded bookcases, and thinking about how a book’s physical presence, volume, mass, color gives me immediate tactile, emotional, olfactory, and visual feedback, a sense of how it will fit into my life from its start to finish (first impressions are often wrong–being a longtime book lover, I recognize book lust now when I feel it, and often carry a volume with me for a bit before buying or checking it out to let my hormonal response settle).

I like reading online–but typically only short pieces: articles, essays, and other materials harder to find quickly or easily (or at all) in the limits of a single store or library. I do have a lot of e-books, essays, and stories in different formats on my laptop, because they’re portable en masse, give me a convenient welcome alternative to work when the computer’s open, and they were free–but reading novels on the screen is usually a last resort for me (there’s a free seat on the commuter train and I don’t have anything in print to read, etc.).

Unlike paper-based books, e-books are elusive, never requiring a commitment, and fall too easily into the model encouraged by Internet browsing–they encourage snacking. Word bites. (Don’t we already snack far too much than is healthy–people often confusing snacking with sampling for the purpose of evaluation.)

I’m also never excited by opening an e-book. It has no presence to remind me that it needs to be read. I am sometimes moved to respond by reading some online material, but almost never inspired to originate. A book, however, will often kick my ass after only a page or passage. It’s a source of creative frisson (with fresh pepper, if I’m lucky).

Maybe we’re the last generation who will view books as a paper-based format. I’m not a luddite and like adapting to technology, but no longer for its own sake. I’d like to have an e-book reader that gives me more than my bookshelves can hold, that connects me to libraries, and that I can cozy up with. Maybe the next gen, or gen squared, will develop electronic books and readers that ground and inspire them in the same way that paper does for us, and hopefully in new ways.

Or maybe books shouldn’t be too easy to get. The online model encourages ownership (or rental) of far more books than we can read. It encourages dipping (often desirable second time around and very easy in an e-book–perhaps that’s the real market for them). Online storage never gives us the real sense of how many books we have and our duty to them. Online, they’re just lists, pictographic or text. Often accompanied by advertising (if you liked Joybuzz, you’ll love Shocking Tales Over Tea) prodding you into the next purchase. It isn’t long before you discover (and maybe not if you’re lucky) that the e-reading model is more about collecting and contributing to meta data, into lists of books, talk about books, uninformed opinions about books, than in the narratives and ideas and actions they inspire.

Closing bits: A book also doesn’t have DRM (yet). And it doesn’t bluescreen. And without books on my living room walls, there’d just be paint.

Time to return to work and, this evening, my own overly patient pile of books on the bedstand.

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