My first-ever ebook review!

Dtcwee has written an awesome review of my new ebook on amazon.com.au:

“Then what about me?” Tom demanded. “What am I meant to do?”
“You’re doing it.” The old gnome said simply. “Even if that means being confused and complaining a lot and being ill at ease…”

Schoolboy Tom Gunn ventures into the forest to find a cure for his sister’s illness, and a way for his family to move back to the countryside, away from alienating suburbs. Lost within, he agrees to join forces with a sorcerer to create a a magical world. However, nothing is as it appears, including the act of creation itself.

From beginning to end, I felt primarily grateful to the author for keeping the paragraphs short, the action relentless, the scope focussed, and the headcount low, even if it meant disjointed themes and leaving loose ends.

A rambling chronicle this novel is not. The pace is rhythmic, the language clear, and the few important points are not glossed over or lost in belabouring. You will not have to flip back or search for a name or event.

Yet, this discipline makes room for complexities seldom explored in heroic fantasy such as anxiety, the paralysis of will, and even the function of the genre. By avoiding errors of indulgence, a modest tale is delivered well, rather than becoming – as often happens – a grand epic that exceeds the prose carrying it.

This ebook was a charming and cheap way to spend several hours thanks to the author recognising – in a self-referential nod – that creating a world is less important than telling a story.

Intrigued? Check out To Create a World

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Fiction update: my writing timeline

So, in 2007-08 I wrote a novel.

We don’t talk about the novel.

In 2010 I had my first article published, and in the six years since have had 101 articles published online, as well as some in hardcopy through my old job in bioethics, where I really got my start in writing.

In December 2012 I revisited fiction, reviewed my old work and started thinking about where I went wrong.

I don’t remember the details, but let’s guess that in early 2014 I started seriously trying to work out how to write fiction. That brings us up to the end of 2015 where I finally found an approach that has worked for me.

Here’s the detailed timeline, derived the various documents I’ve been working on:

November 21st 2015 – started plot

21 hours of writing and 7,000 words

December 21st 2015 – started first draft.

85 hours of writing and 36,000 words

February 18th 2016 – finished first draft.

Eviscerating critique by wife

February 21st 2016 – started second draft.

Still a huge amount of work to do!

It’s been surprisingly difficult, but I have to say that it completely overshadows my nonfiction work in terms of the creative process and personal impact.

I even wrote on this blog some time ago, when I was struggling with fiction, that nonfiction seemed superior because it dealt entirely with reality.

But now it feels like nonfiction has lost its appeal. Whatever I might write at present would feel ineffectual and ultimately pointless. Perhaps it’s just a phase, but I’m glad to have finally discovered the real power of fiction.

More on this later.

 

Are you really a cynic?

I thought I was cynical, until I read the following chart courtesy of etymonline.com:

humor

As the table indicates, for me to be a cynic I must be exposing moral nakedness to the respectable for the sake of my own self-justification.

This is not what I thought cynicism was. It’s not what I do.

What I do is much more like privately expressing pessimism in the face of adversity for the sake of my own relief: sardonicism.

A cynic is someone who justifies their own actions by exposing the moral “nakedness” or hypocrisy of others. Like a drug addict who argues that “we’re all addicted to something”, or a thief who argues that “the rich cheat on their taxes”.

Sardonicism is instead like bitter laughter during hard times. Pessimism – expecting the worst – becomes a defense against adverse events.

Are you truly cynical, or sardonic?  The two are not mutually exclusive – I can use sardonic pessimism to cynically justify my actions, and use cynicism to justify being pessimistic. None of this is very positive, grounded as it is in defensive and negative perspectives of life. Like any defense, it may well be our least-bad response to danger and adversity, but it’s not good to live for long in a defensive state.

A response to adversity ought, ideally, to free us from adversity. Once we are free we can abandon the response. If we never abandon the response, it is either because we are unable to free ourselves – suggesting the response was futile – or because we anticipate recurrences – suggesting the response is only barely sufficient.

Unpacking sardonicism further: I use my expectation of the worst to provide relief when bad things happen. Adversity is easier to deal with when it falls short of one’s worst expectations. “Is that how hard you can hit me? I’m kinda disappointed.”

But pessimism is a self-inflicted injury designed to dull your sensitivity to disappointment, hurt, grief, and longing. Expecting the worst might limit your disappointment, but it also leaves you mired in a kind of desolation where nothing really good can happen. “Good” is not simply the absence of evil.

Time and energy devoted to pessimism could be better spent cultivating that which our pessimism seeks to defend: the full integrity of our own selves. Yet as a defense, pessimism doesn’t even try to avoid life’s blows, merely to soften them. Like bracing for impact, it hopes merely to not be taken by surprise.  Such a strategy makes sense only if we already believe that the evils in life are unavoidable, that we will be surprised unless we exert the constant vigilance of a pessimistic mind.  Pessimism is an attempt to take control of a hostile and adverse environment by adjusting one’s expectations to it.  It treats fear – the anticipation of evils – as one of life’s indelible characteristics.

That the world is full of evils is hard to deny. That these evils sometimes take us by surprise is also evident. To adopt pessimism in an attempt to at least forestall surprise makes sense, but is ultimately a terrible way to live. I didn’t understand this when I was younger, but time has exhausted my patience with pessimism.  Avoiding sorrow is not the same as pursuing happiness, and rejecting the pursuit of happiness for fear of increasing the risk of sorrow shows an incomplete understanding of happiness and sorrow, good and evil, in the first place.

I have arrived at a position in life where the greatest obstacle to my own happiness lies in my efforts to avoid suffering and sorrow. More importantly, the need for positive direction, for creativity, and an inspiring purpose demands that I put aside pessimism and attend, for once, to the makings of a pleased and happy frame of mind.

 

 

 

Adelaide Feng Shui

The great Jesuit missionary to China Matteo Ricci was apparently not a fan of Feng Shui:

“What could be more absurd than their imagining that the safety of a family, honors, and their entire existence must depend upon such trifles as a door being opened from one side or another, as rain falling into a courtyard from the right or from the left, a window opened here or there, or one roof being higher than another?”

I’m not much of a geomancer myself, but as a hypervigilant person I appreciate the wisdom in, say, never sitting with your back to a window, or not having the front and rear doors of your house in alignment such that anyone standing at the front could see you running out the back.

But it’s not all about finding a position of strategic advantage in anticipation of violent attack; there’s also an aesthetic quality to the arrangement of buildings, furniture, and landscapes that is hard to ignore for all but the most insensitive people.

So I don’t know if it’s just aesthetics or something more deeply wrong with the arrangement of Adelaide, but coming back from interstate the dissonance is palpable.

First, there’s the plain.  Adelaide was built in the middle of a great, flat, seemingly featureless plain running between the hills and the sea.  It’s as if someone came in with a giant steamroller and rolled it all flat before settlement – though I’m yet to find such a myth in Aboriginal Dreamtime.

As such, Adelaide was built without any real limits on its expansion, offering our forbears the kind of absolute freedom that only dampens creativity.  The Adelaide plains are like an immense blank canvas, freedom without inspiration, growth without a corresponding challenge.  As such, what you get in the bulk of Adelaide is not real development but just ‘more of the same’, suburbs replicated without end, their limited character distinguished only by minor variations in age and more significant variations in socio-economic status.

What is lacking is a sense of proportion.  The plain would ‘work’ if there were something more significant to offset it: if the hills were more like mountains, if the city centre was a hive of overbearing towers and economic activity.

Better still if the plain were not a plain at all, if the city were forced to bend and blend into a range of natural undulations and contours, if the land itself had demanded more of its inhabitants, drawn from them some creativity, some ingenuity in response to genuine limitations of space and shape.

The founders of Adelaide responded to the lack of limitations by putting aside imagination, planning the city in an immense grid of parallel and perpendicular roads, thus proving for all time that the geometric elegance of a habitation is inversely proportional to its innate human character.

As Adelaideans will attest, it’s impossible to lose yourself in Adelaide since 99% of the major roads, not to mention the smaller streets, run either North-South or East-West.  Roads that run otherwise are the exceptions that prove the rule, at least one of which having thereby earned itself the moniker ‘Diagonal Road’.

Entering Adelaide via the hills, the grid-like feel is subtle yet all-encompassing. Look North up Portrush Rd, or West down Cross Rd and its as though you can see to the farthest reaches of the city.  The front door and the back are very much in alignment.

Such flat, uniform geometry is unnatural, and if there were some other profound redemptive feature it might not matter so much. Yet in a city that struggles to find a reason for being, Adelaide could hardly afford to be so regular, so unforgiving, so clear and up-front.

This unnatural arrangement is just one of the small yet significant contributors to the strangeness of Adelaide, a strangeness I am intent on unravelling as we ponder the mysteries of my adopted home, this uncanny city with no reason for existing.

 

Finding a balance

This morning I managed to give myself a migraine.

At first I thought my eyes were just a little blurry from sleep. I was reading the news online, but there was something wrong with the text.  Soon a ‘crack’ appeared to my left, hovering in space and moving gradually forward, like a kaleidoscopic worm made of bees.  The proper name for this is an ‘aura‘, which gives entirely the wrong impression.  It should be called ‘a visual representation of the pain you are about to experience’, or ‘doom vision’; something like that.

Fortunately I knew exactly what it was, and why I was experiencing it.  The past month or so I’ve been struggling with the self-imposed pressures of being a freelance writer.  I made myself sick within a couple of weeks through the simple thought that every moment I wasn’t writing was a moment wasted.

Eventually I realised what was going on and recalibrated my sense of urgency.  I don’t after all, have to write an article every 1.5 days. To do so is neither feasible nor desirable.  Even 1 per week would be a vast improvement on my previous output, and a sustainable increase in my freelance career.

But last week the situation changed again, as my wife was offered a day per week of work at her old job.  I ended up looking after our son for the day and a half that she was busy, thus cementing my role as part-time stay-at-home dad.

It turns out that looking after an eighteen month old is one of the most exhausting things I have ever experienced in my life.  Without sounding like it ought to, being alone in the house with my son for so long left me mentally exhausted.  I don’t know how my wife managed to do it while I was working, though I now understand why I typically had to pick her up off the floor by the end of each day.

So with my wife out of the house for one or so days this week, I added another ingredient to the strange part-time stew I’m cooking.  I’m now trying to balance being a part-time freelance writer, a part-time PhD student, and a part-time stay-at-home dad.  Thus far they add up to more than a full-time load hence my lack of activity on the writing and the PhD front this past week, hence my all-consuming sense of urgency to nonetheless get ‘something’ done, hence my fruitless staring at the computer screen first-thing this morning, and hence, I believe, the premonition of cranial catastrophe that followed.

Fortunately, knowing the cause meant I could immediately drink some water, go lie down, and tell myself reassuring things like that it doesn’t actually matter whether or not I have an article published this week, that looking after our son is a far greater challenge and will take some getting used to, and that these are still early days, and we have much to learn toward building a life that is as good as we would like it to be.

How Google Works

A friend sent me this slideshare presentation about the creative management philosophy behind Google.

If you’ve experienced a corporate environment, you’ll appreciate what they’re getting at.  If you haven’t, you might just want to skim through anyway:

 

I had two thoughts while reading this.

On the one hand, I wanted to send it to the CEO of an organisation I used to work for; an individual who strongly believes in innovation, but whose attempts to nurture it within the company met with what we might describe as institutionalised inertia combined with professional selfishness.

On the other hand, I have a terrible feeling that this feel-good Google story is exactly the kind of thing that would end up being played at a major staff meeting, with key individuals adopting the language and buzzwords but not actually changing their behaviour or the way the organisation functions.

Let’s face it, if the presentation didn’t have ‘Google’ stamped all over it like a corporate imprimatur, it’d be some weird and hopeful yet ultimately fruitless pep talk that we idealists would cling to while management moved invincibly onward, muttering ‘runs on the board’, ‘lets kick some goals’ and ‘bang for our buck’.

After all, the harsh reality is that if the ‘smart creatives’ were really so smart, they wouldn’t end up in the position of total professional dependence on managers whose own creativity and smarts are entirely devoted to self-interested career advancement.

If this sounds overly cynical, don’t worry. It’s just the voice of experience.  Cynicism should have been my KPI, given how steadily it increased over the course of my experiment in corporate employ.

The good news is that individuals may now be well placed to exercise the birthright of the ‘smart creative’, unencumbered and therefore unexploited by the increasingly impersonal machinations of big business.  To be free of dysfunctional corporate systems is one example of how, on a lower income, our lives can nonetheless be much richer.

 

 

 

The superior man needs an income

The subtitle of this blog indicates the ambivalence of the virtue traditions towards utility. Whether Chinese or Western, philosophy has never sold itself as the means to everyday ends such as wealth, power, prestige, or any of the untold lusts and desires that drive human behaviour.

Yet we are so used to thinking and speaking in terms of utility that we can hardly communicate the excellence of this path. Everyday terms, utilitarian terms of ‘skill’, ‘values’, ‘proficiencies’, and ‘outcomes’ seem out of place when discussing virtue, wisdom, reason, and the countless fields of inquiry to which philosophers have turned their attention.

Nonetheless this is my challenge: I have been asked for the sake of my future employment prospects to elucidate my abilities; and while it may be tempting to simply write ‘analytic skills and problem solving’, I feel it doesn’t really do justice to what is on the one hand my most obvious ‘proficiency’, and on the other hand the greatest obstacle for my future employment. Anyway, here goes:

Whenever a situation, problem, usual or unusual circumstance comes to my attention I can’t help but try to understand it. By understanding I mean separating the essential from the non-essential, analysing all constituents or components, observing their many interactions and relationships, and determining their purpose or significance as individual parts, a greater whole, and one thing among many.

Even while arriving at this understanding, inspiration comes into play, both drawing upon and contributing to understanding. How are a pencil and a knife similar? You can stab someone with a pencil, you can carve your name with a knife, and let’s not forget that you can use the knife to sharpen the pencil. Such partial analogies as these require understanding, and they also further understanding. But they do not arise from any process within our control. Inspiration, creativity, are free. The best we can do is prepare the ground – ourselves – for the work they will bring.
As understanding and creativity progress they draw in questions: what is this like? How does it work? What is it for? What is its purpose? How is it being used? Answering these questions necessarily brings thoughts of improvement, enhancement, efficiency and waste; after all, if we understand how something works, we can also see why it isn’t working as well as it might.

Understanding and creativity can also uncover alternative ways of achieving the same goals, and alternative goals to which these existing methods may be applied. There might be nothing wrong with your method, but a different method could achieve the same goal more easily. Or your method might be so good that we could apply its lessons to other areas of life.

But ultimately understanding is its own reward and these other things are just potentially useful by-products. Philosophers seek to know, and at the same time they ruthlessly scrutinise the integrity of their own knowledge. That is why we have a convergence from the West: “He, O men, is the wisest, who, like Socrates, knows that his wisdom is in truth worth nothing”, and from the East: “The Master said, ‘Yû, shall I teach you what knowledge is? When you know a thing, to hold that you know it; and when you do not know a thing, to allow that you do not know it;– this is knowledge.”

That is why I characterise this deep desire to understand as both a proficiency of sorts and a hindrance. It is clearly the basis of my skills yet it leaves me with little regard for the utility of those skills. I find I’m driven to understand with an intensity that dies the minute I turn my mind primarily to profit. Only in writing, thus far, have I found a balance of understanding and creativity for which people have been willing to pay. If other avenues exist I hope to find them, or else make writing a career to sustain myself and my family.

A Scrupulous Writer

“Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.” -George Orwell

The more I write the more I recognise a difference between what I find interesting and what I think I ought to find interesting.

It mirrors the difference between genuine creativity and a lesser form of productivity that is almost entirely shaped by expectations, pre-existing tropes, and derivations of genre.

In his 1946 essay ‘Politics and the English Language’, George Orwell wrote that:

“modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug. The attraction of this way of writing is that it is easy. It is easier — even quicker, once you have the habit — to say In my opinion it is not an unjustifiable assumption that than to say I think. If you use ready-made phrases, you not only don’t have to hunt about for the words; you also don’t have to bother with the rhythms of your sentences since these phrases are generally so arranged as to be more or less euphonious. When you are composing in a hurry — when you are dictating to a stenographer, for instance, or making a public speech — it is natural to fall into a pretentious, Latinized style. Tags like a consideration which we should do well to bear in mind or a conclusion to which all of us would readily assent will save many a sentence from coming down with a bump. By using stale metaphors, similes, and idioms, you save much mental effort, at the cost of leaving your meaning vague, not only for your reader but for yourself.”

The first person to write that some fact or principle is ‘key’ was creative, even poetic. Yet the metaphor has since become a common synonym for ‘important’ or ‘vital’, and we use it without considering its metaphorical source. We use it and many other words without truly thinking, because thinking is very difficult and turns writing into hard work.

“A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: 1. What am I trying to say? 2. What words will express it? 3. What image or idiom will make it clearer? 4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? And he will probably ask himself two more: 1. Could I put it more shortly? 2. Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly? But you are not obliged to go to all this trouble. You can shirk it by simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you — even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent — and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself.”

The ideal for a writer is to be fresh, vivid, and clear. Orwell’s “ready-made phrases” are like heavily-processed junk food: convenient, easy, enjoyable in small doses, but lacking substance and ultimately sickening.

The same dichotomy of fresh and stale applies to creativity in general. In a recent review of his memoirs, the lauded Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki criticises the pervasive consumer-culture of Japan, and the self-referential nature of its mainstream creative industries:

“The largest problem facing the manga industry is that the people running it are anime fanatics, known as otaku in Japan. These “sickly otaku types,” as Miyazaki called them, were reared on manga and Japanimation, and developed an inordinate desire for them—their shape, scale, motion, symbols, and narrative tropes. Such children, “locked in [manga’s] own enclosed world,” became illustrators themselves, reinforcing the enclosure. With their arrival in the industry, characters became boxier, eyes ballooned, and, to be frank, breasts grew larger. The expressiveness of the manga industry was further attenuated, a cycle that cheapens and thins the general taste of Japanese society. These otaku, “raised amidst the clamor,” Miyazaki said, “probably can’t be the flag bearers for new images.”

Miyazaki’s critique of otaku culture is surely relevant to the creative culture of any nation, where consumption and production risk becoming a closed circle. Miyazaki’s solution is likewise a familiar one for any creator struggling to break free of the all-too-accessible repository of images and ideas to which we are, as consumers, exposed on a daily basis. The struggle to be original rather than derivative, and fresh rather than stale, begins with the kind of creative nourishment that only reality can provide; the ‘new images’ that can only arise from the creator’s direct contact with the truth and integrity of the real.

“To bear “new images,” to make films that liberate, the filmmaker must himself be liberated, free of the customs of the genre. That’s why Miyazaki frequently stresses that he does not “watch film at all” and describes his own career as an ongoing effort to escape the yoke of his great forebear, Osamu Tezuka, the father of manga, creator of Astro Boy, and Miyazaki’s greatest influence. That’s also why he strongly urges that, if an illustrator is to spur audiences to seek and love the world, he must himself be filled with its riches. That is, he must gain an intelligent understanding of it by cultivating “a constant interest in customs, history, architecture, and all sorts of things.” Otherwise, he “can’t direct.” And if he doesn’t have time to study, he must “look carefully at what is right in front of [him].” If he fails to do so, no matter what he makes, “it turns out to be a film we’ve seen somewhere, or something we’ve seen in manga.”

The circle of consumption and creation is not entirely vicious: the evolution of an art form depends upon generations of growth and refinement, and it does indeed seem ‘curmudgeonly’ for Miyazaki to criticise a younger generation of creators in an industry that has expanded and changed remarkably within his own lifetime. In any creative field the pioneers enjoy the greatest integrity, uninhibited by either established ‘customs of the genre’ or by the commercial forces of a mature industry with its own ideas of what works and what presents a viable consumer product.

But within the confines of a mature industry, Miyazaki correctly identifies the depth and breadth required by any creator to go beyond the stale and customary, and embrace the ‘new images’ that are the substance of true creativity.

Stifling Creativity

What is it that stifles creativity?

I have an idea, and then an almost undetectable movement in my mind nullifies it.

If I gave this movement words, it would say “don’t worry. it’s not important. it won’t matter” and surely part of me agrees.

But the part that wants to write is stymied. It’s very difficult to be productive when your own mind is telling you your creation has no real significance.

I’ve tried to trace out the contours of this strange mental landscape where intriguing thoughts and moving ideas can fall away as sudden as their first appearance. I’ve searched for a logic or a balance to it: maybe my desire to publish distorts and inflates the apparent worth of ideas that don’t really have enough substance? Like someone who falls for get-rich-quick schemes, confirmation bias exagerrates the evidence of success and hides any evidence to the contrary.

If I forget about wanting to write, I will recognise worthy ideas and motivations when they do arise. Yet the fear is that this laissez-faire, natural approach will not be enough, that I must really push if I want to get anywhere. I’m too easily caught up by hopes and expectations, and for all the stress and strain that follows, accomplish little more than anxiety. Such fears are totally contrary to my own deeper beliefs.

This lesson is reflected in Zhuangzi’s anecdote of the archer:

“He who is contending for a piece of earthenware puts forth all his skill. If the prize be a buckle of brass, he shoots timorously; if it be for an article of gold, he shoots as if he were blind. The skill of the archer is the same in all the cases; but (in the two latter cases) he is under the influence of solicitude, and looks on the external prize as most important. All who attach importance to what is external show stupidity in themselves.”

This idea of the natural, ‘ziran’ 自然 , is prominent in Daoist philosophy and we shall return to it in future posts. For present purposes ziran means that it is better, in relation to new ideas, to let them arise naturally and without pressure. Having a purpose in mind distorts perception, judgement, and reflection, even to our peril.

You cannot force your creativity, though you can feed it. We can also, like the archer, hone our skills through hard work and diligent practice. These aspects of self-cultivation mean that hard work does take place, effort is fruitful, and creativity remains spontaneous and free, because these diverse functions retain their proper place, the correct relationship with one another. External influences – hopes and expectation, worries and fears – throw our internal state into disorder such that we end up trying to be creative by force, make our efforts spontaneous and diffuse, and, in Daoist terms, neglect the root in favour of the branches.