Writing Near and Far

The next book on my reading list is The Stand by Stephen King. Most bestselling novels share one impressive self-evident fact – they are very readable. Stephen King, John Grisham and George R. R. Martin are masters of the craft. Somehow I have only ever read one other Stephen King novel. It was The Shining, and I was disappointed. (Here’s why.)

I read bestsellers for the same reason that I watch blockbuster movies. I’ve spent a lot of time on the other side of the fence snubbing my nose at commercially successful filmmakers, writers, etc., while remaining unpublished myself, so I’ve decided to try to undo some of my pretentious conditioning. These people sell books because they are masters at writing in the active voice.

Active/Passive

When two people speak casually they fall into rhythm without having to think about their subject. If one person tells a story, he or she speaks continually, with no pauses to think about the logical ordering of words. This natural dynamic creates a polarity between them: Person A uses short words in sentences easy to understand; Person B listens and gives minimal feedback until a break in the flow occurs, or they think of something and interrupt. Or they pull out their phone.

Likewise, most bestselling authors use short words in sentences easily understandable. Their prose is fluid and well-ordered and we, as readers, follow along quickly, understanding everything that transpires. Because the prose is so direct and active, we lock ourselves into “input” mode, accepting ideas in order without breaking off in distraction at our own tangential thoughts. We absorb the writing because it puts us in a passive, receptive trance.

I read The Associate by John Grisham very quickly. The first few chapters flew by and I went to bed. In the morning I realized I didn’t like the main character and wasn’t intrigued by the plot. Nevertheless, while I read the book I wasn’t thinking about these things, I was simply reading along. The deeper I got into the book the more greedily I read, even as I was rolling my eyes about the story. It was like an addiction, like being addicted to Fruit Loops even though they ruin your mouth for the day. At the end of the book I complained that it offered no food for thought. The reading experience was one of the easiest and most natural of my reading career. That says something.

George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones is written in a very plain voice. His prose draws no attention to itself and we’re left with pure story. It took more than 2000 pages for me to realize that A Song of Ice and Fire is the work of a master. The prose is third-person and seems omniscient, but each chapter features a different character, invisibly bringing the reader deeper into each character’s reality by subtly detailing how diverse characters act and react, notice or miss detail in a complex world.

This style of writing is processed immediately, meaning A) it is comprehended at once; and B) it is not mediated by thought.

The Other Side

Another style of writing is at least equally masterful, though you don’t see people reading these books on the subway. Some writers write in a more complicated, elliptical style and effectively ask the reader to think in parallel with the prose. This risks losing the reader to distraction because readers have idiosyncratic mental correspondences, and each reader ends up thinking something slightly different. In this category I include authors like Thomas Pynchon and Jorge Luis Borges, whose stories open into big ideas for the reader to take or leave.

These works can be tough to digest as the reader must make leaps of thinking to understand the ordering of the prose. A book like Gravity’s Rainbow is so dense with ideas and correspondences that every reader ends up with his or her own version of the story. What I get from the book will differ from what you took from it, and that contrast will show us both something about how we perceive the world. I find that interesting.

Borges’ short stories compress such huge ideas into so few pages, each gleams like a diamond. The worlds of Philip K. Dick may seem naively constructed, but the ideas put forward make his work great. The Schrodinger’s Cat Trilogy by Robert Anton Wilson happens through shifting quantum realities where characters spontaneously change names, personalities, etc., and it is only the ideas that carry the story through.

The Synthesis

Balance matters. There’s a correspondence between symmetry with beauty. Use both sides of your brain, and read both types of literature. Then, and only then, consider going outside for some exercise, right after another cup of coffee.

A long while ago I decided would read what I wanted without worrying it might be over my head. It can be frustrating because we feel dumb when we don’t understand. But understanding things is a matter of time and will. When you come across an unfamiliar word, you have the option to look it up in a dictionary. Doing that developed my ability to “stick with” tough books. I’m positive this practice has increased my attention span. Unfortunately I can’t say whether I’ve become smarter, or better at bullshitting because I know more words. Either way, it’s rewarding to finish a difficult book.

I used to write vague screenplays and abstract stories that must have left amorphous impressions on the few people who read them. Now I make efforts to absorb the style of these bestsellers hoping to balance myself out. There is no denying that King and Grisham write clearly and precisely, and that’s admirable. That economy of style is difficult to master, and it’s one of the reasons Ernest Hemingway won a Nobel Prize. Hopefully with this blog motivating me to write clearly, concisely, and regularly, I’ll find some balance, round out my style, and publish in a professional market.

 

“They lived for different futures, but they were each other’s unrecognized halves, and what fascination between them did come to pass was lit up, beyond question, with grace.” – Thomas Pynchon, Against the Day

 

 

Interiority Complex

I grew up Roman Catholic but never felt anything “holy” when I went to church. It was something like school – something that had to be done. Maybe this is my own personality, or maybe it’s the religion itself. It was the Romans who killed Jesus, after all.

Watching Twin Peaks in high school I realized something mysterious existed just below the surface. That feeling of mystery eventually spread from the television to all parts of my life, but it wasn’t until late university that I took an interest in other religions and philosophies and became preoccupied with getting to know the unknown.

Middle Eastern and Asian religions appealed to me aesthetically. Spires and colourful mosaics, sitars and multi-armed deities seemed more appropriate to worship, but this is likely because those schema were culturally alien to me and therefore had a stronger connection to the unknown.

Discovering yoga, meditation, shamanism and other techniques in my spare time helped me augment my nervous system and take an active role in the development of my consciousness. Those self-disciplines used to seem socially unacceptable somehow, probably a result of the anhedonic attitude of Roman Catholicism. Oddly enough, now I can find that “holy” feeling just about anywhere quiet.

When I read The Varieties of Religious Experience by the American philosopher William James, I was impressed with how clearly he laid out my some of my convictions. Why should anyone be able to call into question the authenticity of my interior reality? Experience shows me what is true and false, especially in those tricky interior realms where language breaks down. The value of those experiences is personal, but it infuses everything I do.

At one point in my life I would have called myself an atheist. Fortunately, having had my mind blown by interior experiences, I realized that “God” was just a word, a tool used to describe the unification of everything, and I didn’t have to worry about believing or not believing because the name is not the thing named. What matters is cause and effect. If I can sit still and see the universe as a unified whole, it doesn’t matter to me what path brought me there. The personal sacred experience is what matters. I’ve been meditating twice every day without fail for many years because it’s worth it.

One of my favorite words is psychedelic, from the Greek psyche, as in “mind”, and delos, “manifesting”. Psychedelic = Mind Manifesting. Unfortunately the word psychedelic is all caught up with drugs, hippies, trippy colours, and other bullshit that take away from what the word could mean. I find the definition of this word in dictionaries to be lazy.

Psychedelia should be synonymous with art. I believe all art to be psychedelic. What you are reading right now is a written manifestation of my mind. I had an idea, I thought about it, and made it manifest. Tattoos are psychedelic too; a person finds meaning in a symbol and they alter their physical body to represent that idea. Music works similarly.

Art is a sensory creation that adds something unique, meaningful, and valuable to the mental landscape. That’s what real art is to me, anyway. The rest is just filler. Industries apply the word “artist” to anybody who writes a book, acts in a movie, plays a song, without questioning the value of what is made. An unfortunate amount of movies, music, and books are either meaningless, or their meaning has no value. Fortunately for the world some people take art seriously and give out in love what is taken in by contemplation.

Literature is telepathy. Music is empathy. Film is orchestrated hallucination. These are powerful tools we’ve developed. If you can find transcendent meaning in a piece of art, let that be an acceptable road to the sacred. Incidentally, Catholic and Jewish religions are already based on a book, aren’t they? Sometimes I get a kick imagining that the authors of the Bible were intentionally trying to write the weirdest novel ever.

What I’m trying to say is that you should all pay close attention to “In Your Mind” by Built to Spill.

Cinematic Ontology: “World on a Wire” vs. “The Matrix”

Ontology is the study of being, or reality as it pertains to our existence. Film is arguably the most absorbing art form for dealing with this issue. After all, films represent realities of their own. 8 1/2; Blade Runner; Solaris; Inland Empire and The Tree of Life are all masterful ontological film-essays. Film effectively orchestrates sense data to engage the mind. In this way, it’s kind of like real life.

I just had the pleasure of watching World on a Wire, recently released on Blu-Ray by the Criterion Collection. Rainer Werner Fassbiner offers up a three-and-a-half-hour psychological detective story set in the merging realities of a dystopian future and the virtual reality it has created. This German masterpiece is Chinatown set in the world of The Matrix, though it predated both.

World on a Wire is a smooth, stylized film noir that that happens to be “science fiction”. It avoids projecting future technologies that might in time look outdated or embarrassingly naive. Here the technology is incidental; it’s the psychological journey that counts.

Fassbinder’s protagonist leads the action, and this is what makes the film great. All philosophers and scientists at some point, despite their metaphysical babble and mathematical systems, have to deal with reality through experience. Whether experience is sensuous, cerebral, or mysterious depends on the individual’s character, and character is story.

People may say that plot is story, but I would argue that plot is simply the sequence of a character’s actions and reactions. There are, after all, no stories devoid of characters.

The protagonist is the character the audience empathizes with. You can get a sense of the intended audience of a movie by looking at the protagonist. In World on a Wire, Fred Stiller is a smart, cynical guy searching for meaning. By contrast, Neo from The Matrix is a confused geek.

I remember people raving about The Matrix. Watch World on a Wire. Originality in The Matrix took the form of newly-realizable computer-cartoon effects. The ideas behind The Matrix were good enough, just unoriginal. Obviously ridicule is the only reason for me to mention Avatar. Ever.

I once saw a philosophy book based on The Matrix in which the Wachowski brothers claimed they crammed more philosophy into the movie than anybody will ever know (I’m paraphrasing; I didn’t read the book). This strikes me as the statement of someone who wants you to think they’re smarter than they are.

Don’t get me wrong, when I saw The Matrix I thought it was okay. Films made as showcases for new special effects have a way of being amusing. This is a dangerous thing. In this way, producers get kids to spend their time watching stupid nonsense. See Transformers or 300 for an example of a bunch of stupid nonsense.

Perhaps the most recent film along these lines is the remake of Total Recall. I don’t remember enjoying the original movie despite it being based on a short story by Philip K. Dick (I’m an admitted Philip K. Dick-head). By the looks of the trailer, they’ve put most of their efforts towards making the movie look like a video game. Does anybody else get the impression that, since The Matrix, the plan has been to assault our senses to distract us from the story?

World on a Wire, though made for German television in 1973, felt fresh like a true classic. It isn’t afraid to ask about reality, and its final moments roll out a beautifully enigmatic truth.

 

 

 

Real Is My Middle Name

Real is my middle name. It’s true; it’s on my birth certificate.

When I was thinking of ways to gain experience and exposure as a writer, I kept coming back to conclusion that a website and blog is probably the best way. Somehow a couple years went by and I’m just getting to it. This is a good thing, as two years ago I wasn’t writing regularly. My blog would have sat vacant like my accounts at other networking sites.

To find a market writers need a niche. If you can write the same type of book every year like most bestsellers do, you can make a good living. Obviously it helps if your niche is interesting to the majority of the public. Somehow despite knowing this, I can’t seem to specialize.

Grey areas interest me. I’m logical but I’m drawn towards ideas that lack clear definition. I like things a little fuzzy, like that point when music becomes noise (Bardo Pond), or when a film takes a weird left turn (Lost Highway).

The ultimate grey area is between the “real” and the “unreal”. I get a kick reading philosophical takes on reality, religious experiences, hallucinations, dreams, and all that fringe stuff that keeps our skepticism sharp without killing our sense of mystery.

Dictionary.com says “real” is:

1. true; not merely ostensible, nominal, or apparent: the real reason for an act.

This sounds reasonable until I tell you a real lie.

2. existing or occurring as fact; actual rather than imaginary, ideal, or fictitious: a story taken from real life.

This definition claims imagination is not real. By extension, thinking is not real and does not exist. That’s an interesting one to think about. If I think I’m thinking, do I cease to exist?

3. being an actual thing; having objective existence; not imaginary: The events you will see in the film are real and not just made up.

So you mean to tell me that non-actual things aren’t real!?

And so on. William James is rolling over in his grave. America existed as an idea before it was founded. As an idea is actualized, does it undergo grades of reality, or does it remain unreal up to a point and then—boink—it’s real? I’m curious about that boink, about that gap between the real and unreal.

Mind the Gap.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As you can tell I also get a kick calling bullshit on things. This is my niche, if I may call it that. I’ll use that trope to discuss literature, music, movies, meditation, and anything else I can boink into words.