And yet another side of Bob Dylan

Since he was awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature last week, the things being written about Bob Dylan have ranged from the ridiculous to the sublime. The Editorial Board of the New York Times, in a piece they titled How Dylan Became Dylan, wrote, “Dylan becoming Dylan wasn’t going to happen in small-town Minnesota. It was on the narrow streets of Greenwich Village that he got his early gigs and press attention (a 1961 review by a Times music critic, Robert Shelton, was an important career boost).” So there you have it. The Empire State, with a lion’s share of the credit going to the New York Times and its agent, stakes its claim to the Laureate. Dylan showed his gratitude early on for members of the board by writing a song about them entitled Ballad of a Thin Man.

It might be an educational project to research how many favorable reviews music critic Robert Shelton gave in the early 60’s so that it could then be ascertained how many other musicians became as accomplished as the guy from Minnesota. But that kind of work won’t be attempted by this freelancer. And before we get to the interesting stuff, it might be worthwhile to note here that the odds of Dylan accepting the award are 50/50 at best and dropping daily. According to CNN, the Swedish Academy has given up trying to receive confirmation of the prize from Dylan. A detail which may or may not be relevant to this case is that the Academy’s administrative director has the given name Odd.

Never mind the backwards looking praises being penned for Dylan these days. By far the most interesting looks at the man and his work are being done by Scott Warmuth on his site called Goon Talk. The latest one, dated Oct. 16, might be his best. It concerns the tangled web of another, different Robert Zimmerman, Edgar Allen Poe, Bob Dylan’s book Chronicles: Volume One (2004), and something called secret writing. If that post doesn’t interest you, probably nothing else Warmuth wrote about Dylan will.

I haven’t read everything on Goon Talk. But one piece in particular really got me thinking. The possibility it raises is a fascinating one: Does Bob Dylan engage in a kind of literary game in his “memoir” Chronicles? The name of the game is Connect The Dots. And the point of it is to create a portrait of the artist. By connecting the dots, we will get the real Bob Dylan. Warmuth has convinced me that Chronicles: Volume One is basically a literary jigsaw puzzle, a fine example of the secret writing Poe had in mind in his essay “A Few Words on Secret Writing”: “As we can scarcely imagine a time when there did not exist a necessity, or at least a desire, of transmitting information from one individual to another, in such manner as to elude general comprehension; so we may well suppose the practice of writing in cipher to be of great antiquity.”

What are the dots to connect in this case? To get the full treatment, visit Goon Talk here. This is my version of the quick and dirty. Dot number one: jazz giant Charles Mingus and his autobiography Beneath the Underdog: His World as Composed by Mingus (1971). Dylan called the book “riveting reading” and read the opening passage from it on his radio show Theme Time Radio Hour. In that book Mingus describes the multiplicity of personality, the complexity of identity, “In other words, I am three.” For the sake of clarity, I’ll quote it here:

‘In other words I am three. One man stands forever in the middle, unconcerned, unmoved, watching, waiting to be allowed to express what he sees to the other two. The second man is like a frightened animal that attacks for fear of being attacked. Then there’s an over-loving gentle person who lets people into the uttermost sacred temple of his being and he’ll take insults and be trusting and sign contracts without reading them and get talked down to working cheap or for nothing, and when he realizes what’s been done to him he feels like killing and destroying everything around him including himself for being so stupid. But he can’t – he goes back inside himself.’
‘Which one is real?’
‘They’re all real.’
”The man who watches and waits, the man who attacks because he’s afraid, and the man who wants to trust and love but retreats each time he finds himself betrayed. Mingus One, Two and Three. Which is the image you want the world to see?’

Ok, so Dylan admired the book and drew attention to its opening passage on his radio show. What’s the big deal in that? As Warmuth shows, in Chronicles: Volume One, even in its very beginning, Dylan is coming at us as Dylan One, Two and Three. In the opening passage he is simultaneously saluting Mingus, stealing his ideas about identity, and giving us a portrait of the artist as a young man in New York. The real Dylan is an assemblage.

By an attentive bit of textual analysis, Warmuth goes on to show how Dylan lifted phrases from the Mingus book in order to draw attention to the sophisticated game being played. This “phrase lifting” is not about plagiarism. Dylan isn’t using Mingus’s ideas or turns of phrase out of laziness. The words themselves are rather commonplace: “pocket-sized”, “leather upholstery”, “too light for a heavyweight.” No, their real usage is as sign posts telling us we are still on the secret path.

Here is another one of the dots in our game. As Warmuth has it, “In his book Mingus writes about how when he was a young boy he would bring pieces of broken pottery to Simon Rodia, who was building the Watts Towers at the time, essentially casting Rodia as a mirror image of himself. As I mentioned above, Mingus’ book famously begins with the sentence, “In other words, I am three.” The portion of the book regarding Rodia and the Watts Towers begins with, “At that time in Watts there was an Italian man, named Simon Rodia – though some people said his name was Sabatino Rodella, and his neighbors called him Sam.” Three names – in other words, Rodia is three as well.”

So the architect Rodia was important to Mingus. What does he have to do with Dylan? The answer is hiding in plain sight, on one of the most famous album covers in history, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Dylan and Rodia. Side by side, indeed. And center right, looming in the back row, is Edgar Allen Poe. It certainly feels like a game. Warmuth deserves a lot of credit for sniffing out the trail of bread crumbs leading out from Dylan’s book. If puzzles are your thing, this one looks inviting.

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Second-rate writing

Simone de Beauvoir, author, essayist, social critic, and titan of feminism, wrote an influential essay in 1951 titled “Must We Burn Sade?” In it the infamous marquis is assessed through the lens of the reputation that he has garnered, and de Beauvoir finds both positive and negative aspects to his work and legacy. It is not my intention in this post to explore in depth any of Sade’s works, rather I want to think about a particular claim that de Beauvoir made regarding him; but prior to that I think that a few short comments must be in order. To begin with, Sade’s treatment of women must really be seen as abhorrent even granting him some leniency for the historical times and aristocratic position in which he was born and which shaped him growing up. Even his strongest female characters, such as Juliette, were heavily masculinized in both behavior and outlook. Nevertheless, and this is a point that de Beauvoir makes too, he was a courageous analyst of the human condition. He forces us to see just what lurks within our species, and he also cast a terribly bright spotlight on the corridors of power. Purely from a literary point of view he experimented and innovated with the narrative forms available to him in quite remarkable ways, but he was also not above using scandalous fiction to chase sales (look at the evolution of the three versions of Justine for an example of this). In all I suppose that we must regard his legacy as mixed at best, and perhaps see in him a particularly flawed but particularly insightful and brave human being. (A historical tidbit here: During his time in the Bastille Sade kept a meticulous record of his daily masturbatory activities and achieved the astounding average of seven times per day – this was a man in his middle years, keep in mind. He had his wife send him a custom made anal dildo to assist in such endeavors.)

The claim then is this: de Beauvoir criticized Sade for being a second-rate writer because he wrote for himself and not for his readers. Is that a fair picture of second-ratism? How might we assess second-ratism and to what extent can a claim like that really be taken at face value? A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post on things that we need to keep in mind when writing characters’ perspectives and within that issue is of course another very important perspective to keep in mind: that of your reader even though, at the time of any writing, such people are purely and simply potential readers. We can have no idea who will pick up our books, essays, shorts, etc., what their particular backgrounds will be, or how they will be feeling at that moment when they begin reading (assuming that they do and don’t merely stop at the title). Once that threshold has been crossed, however, and the potential reader becomes an actual reader, then the journey they engage on becomes our doing and our responsibility. How will we structure that? In de Beauvoir’s view Sade did not consider this point (or maybe just not enough) and she may be right in that. How much, though, do we consider that point? Earlier this year I also posted on the question of writing for your audience or for yourself and as it’s a topic that must come up often it’s probably worth revisiting in a few words. There I admitted to leaning towards writing for myself in the sense that I am averse to currently popular modes of writing but that I thought every writer must find a way to balance their own expressive needs with those of their readers’ needs. The effort that a reader puts in must be respected and honored. In thinking about de Beauvoir’s remark on Sade though a new angle to this problem presents itself: Does writing for your reader mean following extant writing customs?

I think that it is fair, given the content of at least his libertine novels, to say that to a large extent Sade did write for himself (although not entirely as his works are filled with political and philosophical commentaries that were clearly addressed to his society at large) in the sense of his expressive concerns. However that does not mean that experimenting with form, style, or content automatically makes a work written for its writer and not readers. If I am averse to mainstream writing concerns, as I mentioned being in the earlier post I referred to, that is not the same as being unconcerned with how a reader interacts with my work. That is something that I now see and which didn’t occur to me before. (Should I thank de Beauvoir or Sade for that?) If an accusation of second-ratism is to be made I think that it must be directed at those writers who do not even approach their writing from the point of view of a reader; that is, from the point of view of initial ignorance regarding the work and what it wishes to relate. To be second-rate in this sense is important and to be avoided (if a writer wants to be read anyway) for it could lead directly to a work that cannot be understood. Ironically this result has sometimes been pursued with the reader in mind, William S. Burroughs might well have written at least some of his works in the way he did in order to confuse the reader. He wrote for his readers to boggle up their minds; was that writing for himself? Would it be if his own mind were boggled up and thus that is what he pursued? If so, can we call him second-rate? The questions keep coming, yet in all of them we are trying to figure out where we stand in relation to our work and where the reader stands in relation to our work, and thus first, second, third, on-to-infinity-ratism seems to fall by the wayside. What is really pertinent is that at all times we are thinking from perspectives, and those perspectives inform how we create.

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A reminder: “Hollow” BPO

The fall tends to be a busy time but don’t forget about our upcoming By Prescription Only: Themed Writing showcase. This year we’re accepting poetry as well as the short stories and essays that we’ve focused on so far. The final deadline is the 14th of November but early submissions are very welcome. All of the details are below; good luck and happy writing!

  • Theme: Hollow
  • Type: Essay, poetry, or short story
  • Length: Up to 8,000 words
  • Format: MS Word or TextEdit file
  • Title: Centered, Times New Roman 16 point; with a byline below also centered and in 12 point
  • Text, font and size: Justified; Times New Roman, 12 point
  • Spacing: Single, with block quotes separated by an empty line on both sides; paragraphs indented but section breaks separated by an empty line and three centered asterisks
  • Footer: (on the left) © Your Name 2016 (on the right – stretched to fit the length of the footer)
  • Quotation conventions: Double quotes (“hollow”) with embedded single quotes (‘hollow’) for reported speech, single quotes for reported thoughts, double quotes to mark text off (e.g. so-called “~~”), song titles, etc.
  • Italics: Use for emphasis, book/magazine/TV show/film/album titles
  • Spelling: British English, American English, Australian English, Canadian English, Kiwi English, whatever. Just be consistent.
  • Referencing: Any standard convention is fine as long as it’s used consistently; both footnotes and end notes are acceptable, though any applicable footnotes will not be included in the opening section posted on the site (but will be visible in the downloadable file)
  • Deadline: 14 November
  • Send to:
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Head-jumping, or How characters (don’t) experience the world

It has often been pointed out that modern fiction tends to make fairly heavy use of the omniscient narrator device, the storyteller who knows absolutely everything that is happening both internally and externally to each character involved in the action being related. This can allow the writer to add many layers of detail to their work and can give the reader a much richer experience. It can also, however, allow for a great deal of complication.

The narrator who is all-knowing can relay what is happening from the perspective of each character involved, of course, but can also do so from a bird’s-eye view of the story proper, informing the reader of what is happening in the world that is unbeknownst to all and sundry; a kind of meta-storytelling, if you will. (Sometimes the writer will even employ meta-storytelling in its full sense where the narrator addresses the reader directly about the story that is being told to them.) This can have its advantages but it can also burden the reader to some extent, especially when they need to keep track of just who within the book knows what and who has yet to learn – or maybe will never learn – what. A number of classic whodunits have exploited writing techniques such as this and many of us have probably found ourselves keeping notes and making charts as we try to untangle Colonel Mustard from Missus Smith and the question of the tooth found with its filling missing. Then there is the further twist where the knowledgeable narrator is actually revealed to be one of the characters taking part in the story being told, only later in time say, and now knowing what they didn’t know then. Knowing so much, in fact, that they are even able to get into others’ heads.

This getting into others’ heads, whether from an outside and non-involved narrator’s perspective or from that of a character-cum-narrator, is what is known as head-jumping. In such instances the narration describes the inner lives of multiple characters in addition to the events themselves. Bob was feeling and thinking this while talking to Katy who was feeling and thinking that. We the reader know what they know about themselves but we the reader also know what they don’t know about each other. A giant “Caution!” sign is erected on our path here. Bob can’t possibly know what Katy is feeling and thinking and she can’t possibly know what he is. That is how life works, that is a basic fact of the type of animal that we are, and yet that is precisely what all too many writers find it very easy to forget. What Bob and Katy can know is how the other is behaving towards them, their facial gestures, their actually spoken words, stutterings, half-starts, displayed reactions. That, however, is the whole of it. What Bob may have wanted to say or considered saying is entirely unknown to Katy and she can never be made to react to such. She has nothing to go on but what has appeared before her in the form of Bob and his expressed conduct. If a writer desired it the narrator could be made to fill a sort of go-between role here, listing what Katy does and does not know and therefore she decides to say Y in response to Bob rather than the X that she had been inclined to say, but such a usage strikes me, at least, as a fairly heavy-handed manner of writing. Nevertheless, the main danger that is always faced in such omniscient accounts is that the reader will forget the epistemic position each character holds and become lost along the way or worse become confused and angry that Katy would say that to Bob despite his very clearly intending something different by his words. In such instances the reader can easily lose empathy for the very characters that the writer wishes to maintain it for.

The key here, I suppose, is to make sure that you as the writer are keeping track of everything yourself, and that can be quite difficult because there is yet another position to consider: your reader will not know where you are planning to take the story. As you write you will naturally have an endpoint in mind and hence what happens is moving towards that; that is your position of superior knowledge vis-à-vis your reader. Your reader though knows only what has been told to her. Now on top of who within your book knows what about whom and where, why, when, you also need to remember what your reader does and doesn’t know about all the characters who do and do not know about each other and about the situations and contexts in which they are moving. If the importance of careful planning weren’t clear yet it must be very explicit by now; our garden is suddenly littered with thorns. What to do? If you are writing this kind of a book then I would suggest keeping up the head-jumping yourself. When writing Bob really get into Bob’s point of view and pause your thoughts on the story’s arc and structural elements, and when writing the narrator’s sections head-jump over to how your reader is understanding things. Only when you return to the scaffolding you have erected for yourself as the creator of the account in question will you be firmly (and solely) in your own head – be sure to keep it clear.

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Doing what’s been done

When I wrote Randolph’s One Bedroom I thought that I was doing something original. The book consists of twenty short stories but it is not strictly a collection of short stories per se because all of the shorts contain the same protagonist and numerous recurring supporting characters. The shorts also contain character development and growth, both for the protagonist himself and for some of the other characters. The careful reader will moreover note that the events relayed in the book take place over the course of a single calendar year, so that there is a strictly linear progression somewhat submerged in the background as well. I described the book as containing “serial shorts”, wishing to conjure up in the reader an image of a serialized TV program wherein each episode is a stand-alone story but whose characters and world the viewer gets to know little by little as the season goes along. The same is true of the book and so I thought the comparison apt. At the time it did occur to me that I was most likely neither the first nor the only writer to have produced such a work but I still thought that I was at least working somewhere outside the mainstream even if I was skirting the mainstream by doing so. I then found out that there is an entire genre of such works. Oops.

In my latest, and still as yet untitled work (I’m waiting for it to come naturally, though with the writing portion of the process completed I think it will be soon), I have created a chapter device which I think is entirely my own – at least in its whole if not in all its parts – though again that may just be due to my paucity of knowledge and I will later be embarrassed once more by thinking too much of my own work. I won’t say here what the device in question is because I don’t want to spoil the surprise, but I will say that the idea for it, like very many ideas which are felt by their bearer to be quite striking, came to me suddenly out of the blue, unlooked for and unexpected. A bolt of Thor’s lightning, a whisper of the muse, a nudge of the daemon. But please do keep an eye out for the book to appear in either late 2017 or early 2018 following the standard lengthy and painful editing procedures; more on that later, of course. The question, at any rate, that presents itself here is: Does all this (purported) creativity really matter?

I may well find that my allegedly unique device has been tried and true in the great annals of fiction writing – at least at some point – but aside from having to wipe the egg from my face that will not particularly bother me because I did not wish to add the device to my book solely because I thought it was new. Rather, I wanted to include it because it works, and indeed given the thrust and structure of the story being told I am convinced that it works exceedingly well even if it does make a fairly considerable demand on the reader at that point in their interacting with the book. Some readers will be turned off by it I’m sure, some will find it curious, and some will find it intriguing – maybe even fun. This I think should be the main criterion that we consider as writers. Forget about the old “But it’s been done before!” objection that you hear from tired keyboard hacks continuously depressed that they weren’t born as James Joyce. Of course it’s been done before; in a world of seven billion people who have been writing for at least five millennia what hasn’t? Naturally some things haven’t but whether what you want to do is one of them or not is, I’m sure, entirely irrelevant. Our only concern should be does it or doesn’t it work? If it does, and specifically in relation to the piece or book in question, then its inclusion seems entirely called for. There is little point to doing something just because it might be unusual, and if it has to be forced in it will undoubtedly be a poor fit. If, on the other hand, it slides into place and makes the whole more beautiful than it was then by all means go for it. Its originality must be secondary to the practical matters involved but if it in fact is original, unique, the first of its kind, then kudos to you for another feather in your cap. And if not then kudos to you anyway for making your writing that much better. When a reader closes the back cover, turns the last page, or exits the file, that is all that will matter. The brass tacks, at least how I see them, consist in this: Experiment yes, but always with an eye on the big picture.

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Solitude and self-sufficiency

As our long-term readers will know, we at Drugstore Books have mostly been painfully ignorant of that part of the internet dubbed “social media”, and indeed of nearly every other part as well. We were wired in different times and none of this came naturally to any of us, though we can perhaps be given credit for trying. Well, recently our own Paul j Rogers set out to correct all of that and as far as I can tell he has been successfully social media-ing for many months now. I’m able to keep track of some of his activities via the right sidebar doohickey on the front page here, where I can see all of his latest tweets since I don’t myself tweeter. One of his recent ones in particular caught my eye; it was a reposting of a Kurt Vonnegut quote to the effect that, paraphrasing, talent abounds but what is rare is the tolerance for putting up with the writing life.

What is the life of a writer? It is first and foremost, I think, one of solitude. A preference for solitude, a willingness to exclude oneself and to eschew the social in favor of being left with one’s own thoughts in order to put them down on paper. This necessarily means missing out on quite a lot of what most people consider to be the finer points of life, or at least the most enjoyable points. Existing as a hermit in this way can have negative results on one’s psyche, and although such results might well prove beneficial for one’s art few of us, I’d wager, would profess a preference for ending up in the madhouse (metaphorically or otherwise). To be alone as often as we’re alone, and to thrive in such conditions, is of course not for everyone, and such considerations were no doubt a part of what Vonnegut had in mind. To be a writer is to turn oneself into a cactus; it is to take offense at someone’s suggestion for a drink or a meal together because it takes time away from your project; it is to object to being considered enough that one finds oneself invited to a party; it is to feel a deep annoyance at having to continually think up reasons to turn down those who simply wish to spend time together. It is to be a jerk. A prickly jerk. It is moreover to enjoy existing in that way, and to finding and building on the aloneness that writing requires through the cultivation of the inner strength – or obstinance – necessary.

Yet that is not all. It is also to desperately wish, to yearn, that the scribblings that one pours all of those hours and personal resources into be read, and, having been read, be appreciated. Now that is a tall order, a very tall order indeed. Just who do we all think that we are? The modern world is awash with media, waves of print pour over us in constant tides that could not be held back even if we wished to. Said print might come in tiny length determined bursts or even in the quasi-language of “hi how r u?” but the print is there nevertheless and one need not ever look far for something to read. Something to think about, though, well that is another matter. And that is generally what we go for, what we try to produce, even when we are primarily trying to simply entertain. After all, if it is just entertainment that a person is after they will hardly go for something to read; something to watch will do much better. And in doing better the time will be more smoothly, and more enjoyably, passed. But there will be no growth. So we sit in the dark in our little rooms and burn our eyes out on the dancing fonts that cascade across the canvases of our digital paper and imagine that someone will someday read all this and think something that we wish to cause them to think, or think something related to what we wish to cause them to think, or think something against that which we wish to cause them to think, but will anyway think. And then think well of us? That, I’m afraid, is much too much to ask.

Mr Vonnegut, I tip my hat to you again, sir.

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This year’s BPO

Welcome back after our summer break (winter break for our Southern Hemisphere friends, of course)! To get us started we want to begin by announcing our next BPO. Our By Prescription Only short story and essay showcase will run at the end of the year this time around and we’ve also decided to incorporate poetry for all those interested. As such there have been some slight changes to our submission details (see below) but nothing major. The theme we’ve decided on is “Hollow” and as the deadline is fairly close to when we’ll begin to run the pieces we’d like to make a point of encouraging early submissions in order to give yourself enough time for any edits that you decide to make following the feedback from us. And remember, what we do is to offer free editing services and the exhibition of your work, allowing you to reach a broader audience; full copyright privileges will always be your own. We also archive all of our past entries so if you’re curious to see how a completed work will look head over to our BPO page. Happy writing and we’re looking forward to what you come up with!

  • Theme: Hollow
  • Type: Essay, poetry, or short story
  • Length: Up to 8,000 words
  • Format: MS Word or TextEdit file
  • Title: Centered, Times New Roman 16 point; with a byline below also centered and in 12 point
  • Text, font and size: Justified; Times New Roman, 12 point
  • Spacing: Single, with block quotes separated by an empty line on both sides; paragraphs indented but section breaks separated by an empty line and three centered asterisks
  • Footer: (on the left) © Your Name 2016 (on the right – stretched to fit the length of the footer)
  • Quotation conventions: Double quotes (“hollow”) with embedded single quotes (‘hollow’) for reported speech, single quotes for reported thoughts, double quotes to mark text off (e.g. so-called “~~”), song titles, etc.
  • Italics: Use for emphasis, book/magazine/TV show/film/album titles
  • Spelling: British English, American English, Australian English, Canadian English, Kiwi English, whatever. Just be consistent.
  • Referencing: Any standard convention is fine as long as it’s used consistently; both footnotes and end notes are acceptable, though any applicable footnotes will not be included in the opening section posted on the site (but will be visible in the downloadable file)
  • Deadline: 14 November
  • Send to:
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Back in September

And that wraps it up for us. We’ll be back with new content in September, including another By Prescription Only series in the second half of the year. Also, don’t forget that this is the final week of Smashwords’ site-wide July sale. Get your free copies of Randolph’s One Bedroom and Tomorrow, as the Crow Flies while you still can:

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Readers and non-readers

A forewarning here to begin: This post could well come off as snobby. It isn’t intended that way, of course, but I do think it’s fair to exercise a bit of judgment and a bit of criticism when it comes to this topic. And the topic, as you’ve no doubt gathered, is reading. Or rather reading or not reading, which boils down to activity or passivity, engagement or perception, growth or stasis.

I started to think about this because a couple of people have recently told me flatly that they are “not readers”. I was surprised to hear that both because the two in question are intelligent individuals interested in the world around them and because I hadn’t ever really imagined a life without reading. In hearing that some people quite simply never read though (and here of course I mean never read anything of length as of course they read in the sense of labels, emails, printed advertisements, etc.) I was forced to consider what that might be like and what some of the personal results might be. In thinking about that I then started to think about capabilities and potential, growth and development. Quite naturally central to all of these concerns are the imagination and the act of thinking itself.

When we read we are engaging all sorts of parts of our brains and processing information at very high levels. To get an idea of how important this is think of how a computer might “read” something. In that case the machine just chugs along following the instructions laid out in its code without having anything going on at any kind of metalevel. A computer cannot interpret anything even if it can solve problems (and sometimes creatively solve problems as with recent AI software that plays go or chess with impressive skill); a computer cannot be right or wrong, it can only do or fail to do (and that is not the same as being right or wrong). For a computer “reading” its instructional code no feelings are in play and no personal experience is occurring. Such might even well be impossible as, for instance, if a computer is programmed to “feel pain” it will not actually be feeling anything, it will simply be alerted via a sensor or sensors that it is in a place where potential damage may happen and ought to move. Try placing your hand on a hot stove and see if that is the only information your brain gives you. A computer is, and will remain I think, at a much, much lower mental level than we are even when we are at our laziest.

Let us now consider our laziest. I suppose that a non-reader spends a great deal of time watching things, and even if those things are videos of professors giving lectures about particle physics the viewer is using much less of their brain than they would be if they were reading about the topic purely because of how the information is being received. Of particular importance here, I think, is the difference in imagination. If the video includes charts and graphs and images about the particles being discussed (as it likely would) then very little imagination needs to be engaged at all. If the video is only a person talking then some imagination might come into play but not a great deal as too much attention will need to be focused on the words being said; the act of listening takes up a lot of energy (as all married couples know). Additionally, and for the same reason, there will be less critical thought going on and more intuitive judgments as to whether or not the viewer agrees with the speaker. This is why politics is such an emotional business; in the gut reaction world of debate the actual content of what is being said takes a backseat to the perception of what is being said, and if that damned bastard dares to disagree with how I see things then I will need to defend not only my point of view but my very self. I’m on the line here! Or so we naturally tend to feel. Not so when reading.

When we read we are far removed from the writer who produced what we are reading and who is the “speaker” in question. We cannot hear her and she cannot see how we are reacting. (This goes for watching a video too, of course, but there we can see the speaker (even if he cannot see us) and that engages all sorts of natural social reactions from our biological programming – think of how excited people get about soap operas.) This distance gives us the space and the time to slow down and consider. We also do not need to engage our listening faculties and therefore have lots of energy to spare which can be used for judging or critiquing or expounding on or appreciating what we are reading. We are moreover deeply engaged in the use of our imagination, and this goes for nonfiction as well as fiction as whatever it is that we are reading we need to visually take in the type, process the meaning of the words, place them in their context, and then – amazingly, really – interpret the whole lot and apply it to our lives and situations. This is an incredibly complex and remarkable human ability. To simply sit and perceive something is the polar opposite of all this; it is artlessly to let the meaning, interpretation, images, sounds, and contextual interplay be handed to you with your only mental effort being to stay awake and pay attention. This may have its place, we all love sitting on the couch after a long day and being entertained (and historically our time is no different from the past in this regard; theater was of course the first TV), but if that is all we ever do then I think we have lost something very beautiful and we have willingly minimized our human potential.

It’s summertime for us in the Northern Hemisphere; take up a book and beat the heat by exercising your brain a bit. Who knows where it will take you? And on that, here are two for free, courtesy of Smashwords’ site-wide July sale:

Posted in Thoughts on Writing, Reading & Books | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment


There are two main schools of thought on when to give a title to your work in progress, and any number of variations between those poles. The question mainly concerns the timing but there are perhaps some unforeseen consequences that result from the stance you take on the choice, and it is those that this post will concern itself with. The question then, boiled down to its simplest, is this: Before or after?

If a writer decides on the work’s title before they have started writing or before they have made very significant progress then there is a good chance that the title itself will play a deciding role in how the events in the narrative develop. This may not necessarily be the case, however, if the writer is the sort that prior to any actual typing meticulously plans out each character, scene, and detail beforehand and then unfailingly sticks to that blueprint. I am not sure how many writers there are of this type though; my own approach is radically different and so it’s hard for me to imagine working in that way. At any rate, if a writer does not have virtually the entire novel planned out then the subconscious pull the title exerts on the thought processes undergone when engaged in writing is at least likely to be moderate and may even be significant. That could be a positive, however, guiding the writer as she directs her characters towards their goals and the overall plot’s climax. The title may even be a clue as to the nature of that climax, or to the broader meaning that the author wishes to express through their work, as Nick has pointed out in regards to Thomas Pynchon.

On the other hand, if a writer instead puts off deciding on a title until the entire work is finished – perhaps even stubbornly refusing to consider a title before then and banishing thoughts related to such when they unintentionally crop up (that’s where I’m at with my current project) – then the writer is creating a sort of distance between the events within their book and the presentation of those events via whatever the title may turn out to be. The freedom from being influenced by the title you’ve chosen, whether subconsciously or consciously, may carry a price though. After all, a book’s title is crucially important as it is the very first approach a reader will make to your work and we needn’t labor the point of how important first impressions are. Still, there may be good reasons to keep one’s options open, and perhaps primary amongst them might be a positive view of intuition and the benefits that can come from trusting it. After the final words have been typed and the entire story arc has been neatly tied off (or purposely left open) then there will naturally arise within the writer – any writer – a feeling towards the project and that feeling may perfectly capture the mood and the ethos of the book. It is a bit of a gamble, I suppose, but trusting that that inner voice will carry through could have better benefits than deciding on the title ahead of time.

Of course, even if a title is chosen ahead of time, and I’ve done that with essays in particular on many occasions myself, an author can always take a loose view towards it and allow themselves a commitment-free attitude. The guiding effects of the chosen title will still be there but not to the degree that they become overriding. If, as the project develops, it becomes apparent that the title just somehow doesn’t fit anymore, then it can always be jettisoned in favor of another that is more apt and the exercise of having first chosen a title that the work outgrows will have been instructive when it comes to deciding on another title. The bottom line quite naturally is that there are no hard and fast rules but that, as with everything related to writing, it behooves the author to think through this point ahead of time and consider what they would prefer: a guidepost on the journey or a flash of insight at its end.

Of the titles to my existing projects, only Tomorrow, as the Crow Flies was decided ahead of time. With the others I preferred to put the choice off and let the project tell me itself, as it were, what it wished to be called. As I said, that’s the approach I’ve taken on my current work in progress as well. And speaking of, don’t forget that ebook versions of Randolph’s One Bedroom and Tomorrow, as the Crow Flies are free all month on Smashwords as part of their site-wide July sale:

And if you like those, I still recommend getting the paperback versions.

Posted in Writing Craft & Self-Publishing | Tagged , , , | 1 Response
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