The truth in fiction

I can’t recall exactly where I read this but I think it might have been a book by Karen Armstrong; certainly it was a book on mythology. To paraphrase: the truth in a myth is not in the events it relates but in its reflection on ourselves. A myth is “true” in the sense in which it describes a psychology or worldview or peculiar mode of thought. By form this is usually culturally applicable, and that is what gives myths their widespread power. Heidegger made a similar point about art generally and its relation to a specific culture, giving the example of a Greek temple as that which built the world of the Greeks, the world for the Greeks, defining their entire as-Greek lives in its structure, symbolism, messages, relations, associations. A myth, naturally, is one element of this, but what an element it is.

Our myths are rather less exciting than those of the Ancient Greeks, but they are no less reflective of our inner lives, and in so being they also teach us a great deal about our societies. We writers, you and I, are contributing to this with each fictitious word we pen. What is this “fiction” then? Is it really “untrue” or “made up”? We are now of course a tiny step from the all-important question of: What is reality anyway?

Two years ago, and I can hardly believe that I remembered this, I posted on perspectively-bound writing. That is a related topic but it is not what I’m trying to get at today. Nor is my concern here with any kind of empirical accuracy, any kind of direct relation between A and B that demonstrates consistency or measurability. Instead the issue at hand is closer to introspection, to what fiction reveals not of our externals but of our internals, what fiction tells us about how we feel our way through our worlds and our little lives. Epic battles have been replaced with the committing and the hiding, or the solving, of crimes, grand and glorious warriors with damaged and conflicted everypersons, heroes with unheroes. It’s hard not to be depressed by that, isn’t it?

And so we find ourselves, and our psychologies, shrunk down to the “me”; but I do not think that is an altogether bad development. In fact, I think it’s quite healthy, both for you and I and for humanity at large. The truths that we are now telling ourselves through our modern mythologies are only ever “true” (as in accurate) in so far as they teach us about how we are operating in our environments, about how we are moving in the places in which we find ourselves. We did not ask to be born and we had no choice in the where, when, and what of our births. To go back to Heidegger, we find ourselves thrown into our worlds. As writers we perhaps know this better than anyone since we do the very same thing to our characters. The truths that we reveal by our words and our works need have absolutely nothing to do with the events that are happening in our “real lives” nor our “real world”; instead they can, and should, have everything to do with our mental experiences as modern people going through the gauntlets of our modern institutions. There is nothing empirical about this. Nor is this a paen to the genre of magical realism. It is rather a suggestion, a song, to that which grows within in strange and subtle ways, that which takes shape and form not in centimeters and grams but in function and expression. Truth value here is determined by usefulness, by applicability. What does your book teach me about our ways of life? Our societies? Our globalized cultural aspects and our stubbornly localized ones? What truth is there in your fiction that I can find, if I am similarly directed, by casting a hard gaze within? “Reuben, Reuben, tell me truly true/I feel afraid and I don’t know why I do…” That “why” is where the truth in our fiction shows itself, that “why” is our area to explore and to expound, that “why” is where we shine.

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Time and spending time

For those of us living in post-industrial/digital societies the central question now facing us, and it is one that faces us daily, has become: How do I spend my time? For nearly all of us the daily struggle simply to stay alive has been removed as a topic of concern, in one way or another and to a dizzying array of varying degrees. Some of us are just barely getting by, but getting by, while others of us have so ridiculously much that King Midas would faint right off of his golden throne. Every minute of every day does not need to be spent towards obtaining enough food, water, access to shelter, etc., that many of our forebears had to pursue. The twelve-hour, six-day work week is a thing of the barely studied past, let alone the remembered past. We are healthy and wealthy but not, at least in this one regard, wise. That “one regard” is, again, time. What do we do with all of the time that we find on our hands? How do we use it? How do we prevent it going from a blessing to a burden, openness to boredom to ennui to…? Time, when noticed – and noticed by either its abundance or extreme lack – is only ever now, always now, an ever-becoming, ever-transforming. It is the one thing we can be sure of, certain to have because it’s right there – this moment, this great blank I face and must fill. This now. Only, ever, always. What I do with it is what I make myself, make of myself. It defines and creates the me I face daily in the mirror. I am my time.

This of course goes doubly for our characters. As creations of our imaginations they are people squared, human beings driven into the corners we craft for them, and forced to deal with their worlds as made entirely for them, without the choice to bend themselves in relation to it because we bend them for them. Maliciously or graciously as we determine, with beneficence or meanness in what we give. What then do we make of the worlds that we plunk them down into, and what do make of them in those worlds? A few months ago I wrote a post called “Boring crap about nothing” that considered the differing structures of stories with an external or internal focus and the fact that all characters, as people, have issues of identity, enjoy experiences and must react to those experiences, that feelings play just as central (or ought to) part in their lives as they do for us. To those ideas let’s now add time.

We could take the lowest-common-denominator, most-mainstream-of-mainstream approaches and have our characters running from one event to the next, never a moment to spare and never a second unaccounted for, leaping between car chases, explosions, helicopters spinning out of control, fisticuffs on a precipice where a well-placed branch tips the villain over the edge at just the right moment and the hero immediately celebrates in a long-postponed passionate kiss with the other hero; cue ending them, zoom out, fin. If we are very good we might be able to make a story like that mildly entertaining, maybe even a page-turner, but it will be instantly forgettable. And that because it will be so far from life as we actually live it, escapism in the absolute worst possible sense. Opposed to this we could keep many or even all of those elements (though I for one wouldn’t) but, considering time, we present our characters as confronted with the same conundrum that we all face: Here I find myself with minutes or hours to spare and must decide what to do with them. What our characters do then decide will tell the reader volumes about them as people, and will fill out our stories with a realism and vibrancy that all of those action-packed rolls of toilet paper lack in spades. Truer to life is truer to us, and all the more impacting for it. A story like that would be something that sticks with you, a story like that would be worth telling. And re-telling. A story like that would be worth spending your time on.

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Must we come to terms with money?

Ebooks can be given away very easily, Smashwords has a simple setting for this and even allows it specifically for libraries while other users pay whatever non-zero price you’ve decided on. Amazon’s Kindle, similarly, allows all sorts of ways that pricing and royalties can be adjusted. What is transferred from producer to consumer is, after all, simply bit strings, code that a machine translates into its root binary system and passively runs on its hardware. There is nothing there, really, and so nothing can cost nothing and no one is hurt. Paperbacks, on the other hand, require real physical production, and that means the use of resources for both manufacture and delivery. The most an author can do is to lower a book’s asking price down as close as possible to the production costs (keeping in mind that the printing service will take its cut as well); in my own case what that process worked out to was that I could make no less on a paperback copy sold than five cents. I was getting that nickel come hell or high water – unless of course I bought the copy myself and then gave it away by hand.

But what is this nonsense? “I could make no less”? And it isn’t at all that “There is nothing there, really, and so nothing can cost nothing and no one is hurt.” There is plenty there! Tens of thousands of hours of labor and who knows how much energy expended. That’s something all right! It is, of course, it is, and as our own Terms and Conditions state, an artist ought to be able to live by their work. Ought to. Welcome, however, to 2017. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, even by the mid-nineties it was being predicted that the way to make money from creativity was no longer through sales but through fame – give stuff away for free and then milk the celebrity you are thus able to “buy” yourself for profit, focusing particularly on niche audiences. (That has actually become a rather established formula amongst fan writers, by the way.) Does it work? Well, for some. For everyone else… Again, welcome to 2017.

I am in two minds about the stilted and unsatisfying relationship my writing has with money. On the one hand I would love to be able to afford to write full-time and to have a cool writing closet tucked away in some building’s loft where I hole up and am able to give myself exclusively to a keyboard, but on the other hand I have a family that hugely benefits from economic stability and I also realize that my day job provides quite a bit of grounding that I otherwise wouldn’t have if left entirely to my own devices. In that case I’d probably go even weirder than I am now. Not pretty. The main problem, as I see it, is not that I want to chase money, but rather that the world we live in forces us to chase money in some manner or other. Being read is really all the reward I’m after for the huge investment of time and effort that I put into my writing. But simply being read doesn’t help pay the rent or the kids’ daycare.

There is a deeper question to all this, though, and that is in the approach. I don’t want to live in the world we live in where everything is commodified, quantified, and disposable. I want to live in a world where art is freely shared and freely enjoyed for its own sake. Let’s trade: your new album for my novel. Why not? Such trends are happily taking place in some quarters, and the net (and of course ebooks, emusic, e-etc.) has made it all that much more possible, but still the thought sticks that work really should be recompensed monetarily. Perhaps it’s our inability to think in terms beyond the financial, perhaps it’s a result of the incessant consumerist brainwashing we’re all treated to daily, perhaps it’s just a marker of the historical era we’re passing through. I am not so naive as to think that giving my books away will help to make the world a better place – but then again, maybe it will; for you, at least, if it brings a smile to your face for even a moment. After all, an ebook wouldn’t cost me anything to send, and I’ve got some paperback copies just sitting on a shelf gathering dust to boot. But there I go again thinking in terms of “cost” – that’s the habit we’ve got to break, the monkey we’ve got to get off our backs. Here’s an offer I’m willing to make: In perpetuity throughout the age of the known universe, anyone who sends me a request through our DSB contact account is welcome to a free pdf of anything I singly author. Take that, capitalism! (The capitalists will naturally just see this as me shooting myself in the foot, but you and I, we know better. 😉 )

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The pain of editing, the pleasure of the next

Like any activity writing has its rhythms, its flows, ebbs, and tides. There is the idea phase, where a seed takes root, begins to send out tendrils, makes connections, and gradually, very gradually, a concrete shape takes form and presents itself. That is an exciting period, a feverish period, but hardly anything really gets done.

Then there is the initial writing, the first draft, the burst of creative energies that sees words splattered across the canvas, across the walls, the floor, the ceiling. Just get it out! seems to be the only driving mantra, and however carefully plans may have been laid or structures drawn up during the idea stage things have a tendency to shift – perhaps greatly.

Editing. Oh boy, here is where the trouble comes, where the fun ends and the work, the work, the work, sets in and bares its chest, demands to be respected, to be dealt with, to be endured. All of those wounds that were self-inflicted to your preciously tended little sprouting during its riotous first draft growth period now begin to fester and ooze, dripping pus all over your keyboard and desktop. Disgusting. Who wants anything but to wipe that up, toss out the filthy cloth, and try to forget that it ever happened. Except that to do so would of course be to invite disaster.

What is the point of a writing project, anyway? Why commit to something that will not reward you materially and possibly not even emotionally? Why think that you have anything of enough worth to say that it will justify the tens of thousands of hours of labor involved? Why does anyone create anything?

Creation is the most enjoyable part. Where the rubber hits the road, as the saying goes, is in the refining. And it is there that one’s motivation begins to wane. We all know we won’t get rich from our writing – those days, for however short a time historically speaking they might have existed, are long, long gone – but those of us who keep at it have accepted that, and anyway money is hardly everything and almost never worth pursuing for its own sake. We all find our reasons and on we go. Until we hit that wall: editing.

Stuck in the grind of what seems like, and usually is, a process that doubles or triples the primary investment put into the formation of the project, our thoughts begin to go elsewhere. To the next. The next! Without even noticing it another seed has begun to take root, to send out tendrils, to form connections, and a loose, almost phantasmagorical outline. What I’ll do after this… How does a writer react to this phenomenon? Ignore it? Embrace it? Put what one is editing on hold? Shelve it, table it, dump it? None and all of the above, I’d say; any guidelines offered on judging the worth of a project that I could come up with would be so vague as to be meaningless. What is more pertinent, I think, is the act of deciding itself.

Editing is the hardest of hard work, yet it is also extraordinarily important. Crucial even. It is also potentially endless and so some caution is in order not to overdo it. Editing is where all the consequential choices are made and where vision goes from dream to reality. Only you will be able to judge if your current project is worth what a full edit involves, but if it is worth it then surely you have to see the thing through, no matter how tempting those next ideas may be and no matter how many unforeseen rounds it suddenly seems to require. If you’re going to do it then you have to go full bore, anything less would be betrayal. And then, having finished all that, comes the joy of stretching your fingers out and starting to water that cute little seedling.

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The Master of All Easter Eggs by Nick Cody

The final story in our By Prescription Only: Themed Writing showcase on the theme of Hollow comes from the author of Cata fame, Nick Cody.

Warning label: The following story is entirely a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, events, etc. are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. The author acknowledges the trademarked status and trademark owners of various products referenced in the following works of fiction, which have been used without permission. The publication/use of these trademarks is not authorized, associated with, or sponsored by the trademark owners. Some stories in this showcase contain adult themes, so reader caution is advised.

The Master of All Easter Eggs
by Nick Cody

Namaste, YouTubers! CineSeekers here with more commentary on everything movies. Remember to click “Like” and “Subscribe” to get our latest posts!

Remember that clever hoax from 1999 convincing the entire world that Stanley Kubrick had died? The pranksters must have been betting that the uber-famous director’s reclusive nature would help perpetuate their game. To this day no one knows who did it or why. Or, more accurately, loads of conspiracy theorists claimed to know but all failed to convince the general public. When one of those vloggers came out with the idea that it was Kubrick himself who launched the original announcement of death in order to promote his movie Eyes Wide Shut, the great director stepped forward and quashed all rumors with a live interview on CNN wherein he quoted that great line by Twain, drolly delivered: “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”…

To read the rest as a free pdf, click the “Download Now” button below.

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Paper Boats by Paul J. Rogers

Next up in our latest By Prescription Only: Themed Writing short story showcase on the theme of Hollow is a contribution from the always very interesting Paul J. Rogers.

Warning label: The following story is entirely a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, events, etc. are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. The author acknowledges the trademarked status and trademark owners of various products referenced in the following works of fiction, which have been used without permission. The publication/use of these trademarks is not authorized, associated with, or sponsored by the trademark owners. Some stories in this showcase contain adult themes, so reader caution is advised.

Paper Boats
by Paul J. Rogers

Human beings are malleable and vodka should be banned. Perestroika Vodka definetly should be banned (without question), and everyone has something they dislike about themselves (if they’re honest). Those thoughts, more or less, had strobed underneath each eyelid as Nikki Baxter had woken to the world this morning. She’d then vomitted her morning coffee and gone back to bed.

Her latest attempt at getting up was proving more fruitful. Seated at the kitchen table, a towel wound around her head after showering, she spun the coffee dregs inside her cup. (That coffee, by the way, was a fresh cup, the contents of the first having left the house via the plumbing several hours ago as mentioned.) She reached for her phone and then an eyebrow arched as she examined the browser…

To read the rest as a free pdf, click the “Download Now” button below.

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Let’s Hear It for Sam by Andrew Oberg

Our latest By Prescription Only: Themed Writing short story showcase on the theme of Hollow continues this week with a little piece by me.

Warning label: The following story is entirely a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, events, etc. are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. The author acknowledges the trademarked status and trademark owners of various products referenced in the following works of fiction, which have been used without permission. The publication/use of these trademarks is not authorized, associated with, or sponsored by the trademark owners. Some stories in this showcase contain adult themes, so reader caution is advised.

Let’s Hear It for Sam
by Andrew Oberg

Spring never came for Sam. The weather got warmer, of course, but his mood was not subject to the buoyancy that such seasonal changes typically brought. He told me, standing there with his brown eyes peeling and tall, rotund frame as unsteady as an ice sculpture forgotten in the sun…

To read the rest as a free pdf, click the “Download Now” button below.

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Gabriella by Hamish Spiers

This week we begin our latest By Prescription Only: Themed Writing short story showcase on the theme of Hollow. To get us started is a piece with real heart from Hamish Spiers.

Warning label: The following story is entirely a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, events, etc. are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. The author acknowledges the trademarked status and trademark owners of various products referenced in the following works of fiction, which have been used without permission. The publication/use of these trademarks is not authorized, associated with, or sponsored by the trademark owners. Some stories in this showcase contain adult themes, so reader caution is advised.

Gabriella
by Hamish Spiers

About 2.5 million years ago, magma rising through the Earth’s crust about a quarter of a mile from here caused it to expand, forming a mound that increased in size until it became a mountain. It then exploded in a violent eruption, so I’ve read, and has been silent ever since.

There’s a village just a few miles from its base these days, a little to the west of where I’m sitting right now, and many little farms scattered about the rolling foothills and picturesque plains surrounding it. The locals wonder what I’m doing here. I wonder that myself…

To read the rest as a free pdf, click the “Download Now” button below.

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Who cares about your self-expression?

The Age of Poetry, such as it was, has long since passed us by. The epic poem is dead, mythologies are now related via cinematic retellings and anime-style mash-ups, stories are told in tweets and unfinished, unpunctuated, ungrammatical social media posts. The fan girls and boys have taken over. Relaying how the Death Star was blown up from a thousand different points of view will get you more clicks than any literary undertaking. The net has smothered all art, a pillow pushed firmly down onto humanity’s face. Welcome to Tomorrow, welcome to Today.

Or so the thinking goes, at any rate. As early as the mid-nineties comfortably-placed visionaries like Esther Dyson were predicting that the way to make money from creativity was to offer free content to all comers, thereby establish (a degree of) fame, and then use the fame – not the creations – to get paid. That formula, if such it is, seems to be the only really viable one out there for the modern day artist who shuns both a day job and a life on the dole. And who can blame them? Day jobs are a major drag and eat away incessantly at the time that could be devoted to projects. And the dole – barely adequate at the best of times, marginal and uncertain at the worst. Raise a family on that. And so we find ourselves stuck.

The Age of Poetry; did it ever exist? And who really cares about poetry anymore anyway? Of all the useless drivel navel-gazers let leak out of their mouths surely that is the lowest, and nothing could be more trifling than short poetry, for crying out loud. A poem is bad enough, but a short one? What’s the point? Could there possibly be a point? Well, take a few minutes to read some selections from NOON and you tell me. The spirit of the Beats, the spirit of the haiku-ers and the tanka-ists, lives on, and theirs are words that cut, words that bury, words that infect. Reading them we find ourselves moved, brains activated, emotions touched, vitality restored. Humanity restored. There is something far deeper to the creatures we are than the garnering of clicks or the making of money, and my wager (pun intended) is that all true artists know that, have always known that. The pulse of a human being is not reducible to the ticker tape of the market; it wasn’t in the days when ticker tape was actually in use and it isn’t in our digital times. The internet may have ruined a great deal of what we once held dear and what made us real people – rather than specks of datum – but it is here now, and clearly here to stay, and so the business of shaping it to our artistic ends had better be gotten on with.

So who cares about your self-expression, especially since it doesn’t pay? We do, and I would certainly think that you do too. Outlets for art now abound, and there need be no fame-chasing involved in the process. Here’s one: next week we’ll start running our latest By Prescription Only series on the theme of Hollow. What will you find there? Short stories that each, in their own way, touch on modernity and the shambles we’ve made of our potential. No one will get paid for any of it, and yet each piece reflects many hours of labor. Was it all worth it? Will the number of readers each submission garners justify the time and effort put in? Would a single reader justify the time and effort put in? Those are questions for the writers, of course, but for myself I would set the bar so low as to say that the mere act of creation is its own reward. Self-expression. Money be damned. Woman does not live by bread alone, and all the rest of that. See you next week!

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Loving a book

Objects are meant to be static and to occupy a single place in the world. We think of the things that surround us as being testable, probable, picked-up-and-examined-able. We turn them over, look at their various angles, set them down, and go on our ways. Normal, everyday interaction. Yet some objects give us a little emotional jolt, something that the “decluttering guru” Marie Kondo has dubbed “spark joy“. (I know, the label is a terrible one, and ironic that her sequel on decluttering gives the same advice as her first book but with illustrations. When decluttering her clutter which version of her book do you throw out?) What is this reaction all about and what does it mean for the books in our lives?

Primarily I would define that pleasant little affective perk in terms of association. Almost always, at least for me, when a physical object triggers something emotional in me it is because of its associative memories. It brings back a time, a place, a person, a face, a feeling, a thought, a whole encapsulated era of my life that gets shrunk down to this. A couple of years ago when my mother decided to sell her house and move she told me that she found some things of mine that I needed to go through. Amongst those items I found an old textbook from a History of Pre-Soviet Modern Russia class that I took which instantly transported me to my uni days, who I took the course with, the lectures I sat through, and the incredible tandem the professor once indulged in on why the Chinese built the Great Wall in the manner which they did. I have no love for that book and I wouldn’t say that it gave me any “spark joy” moments, but it was fun finding it. And then there were all those copies of the books that I did – or do – love to be re-discovered as well.

I’ve moved close to twenty times so far in my life and books have unfortunately often been the victims of those choices. A necessary evil, mostly, but there are some that I simply cannot bring myself to get rid of. Some massively bulky ones like From Hell, but also some slim and tender ones like an old Washington Square Press version of The Communist Manifesto (follow that link to see the cover version I have in mind), as well as a very beat-up used (and original) copy of Reasons for Moving by Mark Strand that was given to me by a dear colleague just before I left the US for Japan (where, perhaps amazingly, I’ve stayed all these years). What do these books I mention have in common? Nothing, of course, except that they all mean something to me. And something very special at that.

This is the real beauty of a book that you hold in your hands, a beauty that contains within it some of the considerations I’ve noted elsewhere but also a lot more. It’s a beauty that is entirely reflective of you and your singular path through this stunning world that so awes us when we take a moment to look at it. Those books and many more have shaped my life in ways far beyond the usual factory mold elements of family, country, language, time, geography, DNA, economics, local schools, neighborhood friends. My dancings with them have been the movements of my being and relating to them through my senses brings all of that rushing back. It’s no secret that an ebook does nothing like this but with an ebook the words are still there and they might be enough to conjure up a shadow of the memories that a real book does. On that count I suppose that many of us are very different and much depends on our personal stances towards the digital. For me what it means to love a book is far too special to be put into bytes of ones and zeroes, but then I’m of the type that has always preferred bites over bytes for everything. Some books will always stay on my shelves.

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