Why First, Then How

The Prophets of Science Fiction caught my eye last night.  It’s on Netflix, I was puttering, I write borderline SciFi…  it seemed like a good idea at the time. Except it wasn’t.  Seriously, could it have been more depressing?   Philip K. Dick’s androids and memory planting and general exploration of what it means to be human, what constitutes reality, and the slippery nature of both humanity and reality is one thing.  The fact that people are actively trying to make the technology of his imagination happen is a totally different thing.  This thing where you can program a robot with life-like facial features to respond like a person, like a deceased person, like your deceased spouse…

There is way too much asking of “how” and not nearly enough asking of “why.”  All this stuff we’re attempting to stave off: death and boredom and loneliness… I know it’s easy to be theoretical when someone else is having the miserable side of the human experience, but seriously.  If there wasn’t the darkness, we wouldn’t have stars.  There’s no equivalent to the second law of thermodynamics that I know of which regulates the mix of good and bad in a life.  Yet, we’re supposed to die.  We’re supposed to experience boredom and loneliness and loss and pain.  We’re supposed to break down and be participants in the cyclical nature of death and rebirth.  Everything from redwoods to galaxies are born small, expand to their capacity, and collapse back into nothingness to start the process over again as the fuel for a new birth, expansion, and death.

Everything we do to try and take ourselves away from the dark side of the experience of reality just makes it worse.  The ecological havoc, the social ambivalence, the death of empathy.

Here’s what I think.  Ask why before you work out the how.  Do no harm.  Listen to Rilke when he says let it all happen to you, the good and the bad.  Live the life you have.  Live all of it.  Do what you can.  And love.

Love hard.

Compass Over Maps, Agile, Everything Wrong with Everything

It isn’t like I have the “right” approach.  I’m just pretty sure that most of the time, the traditional application of command and control doesn’t work.  In fact, I can’t help thinking that the notion of a “right” answer is all wrong.  The variables are too many, the unknowns growing exponentially, the way we each fit into the world so highly precise, trying to define a single path from here to there is deeply unlikely.  The traditional framework for problem solving just seems so egocentric.  Like there’s one problem and one solution and if you just sit and think about it long enough, you can figure out the “right” answer and get there.

I’ve never seen it work.  Not personally, not professionally, not in organizations.

We’ve gotten used to the the thinking that organization and process and procedure solve everything.  That if you want efficiency, if you want success, you’ve got to make it bigger, impose standardization, make it all repeatable.  It just seems like we get so stuck in thinking that there’s one way to approach the issue, this one way we’ve been using all this time, that alternates rarely get explored.

Meanwhile, it is messy.  We’re concocting organizational schemes and building boxes for everything to fit neatly in and reality looks at those boxes and hierarchies and laughs.  Then it goes and does whatever the hell it wants to.  It’s entropy, and entropy always wins.   At least when it comes to physics.  Clearly, I don’t always win.

Would it be such a disaster to admit that we don’t know?  To stop trying to turn everything into a factory?  To bow to the inevitable and pick a direction on the compass and head there instead of trying to plot out on a map every step?  How much are we missing when we’re searching for “right,” trying to make reality conform to our myopic supposed to’s, instead of interacting with what is?

Hell.  I for sure don’t know, but I don’t think that puts me at a disadvantage.  Since I don’t know, I can at least figure it out.

Real Butter

Yesterday, I had reason to step foot in a health food co-op in pursuit of organic, free-range chicken.  Part of me loves the grocery stores that don’t sell coco puffs.  All those varieties of honey.  Tea that is going to save my life.   Incense.  Coconut milk.  Tofu hotdogs.  Real butter.

Okay, sarcasm aside, I’m super excited about real butter.

So I’m up and down the aisles, feeling virtuous about blue tortilla chips, and I make it to the vitamin aisle.  There is a supplement for everything.  And I’m turning in circles in this aisle, the ecologically sustainable lighting bouncing off of gleaming bottles, and beginning to feel fear encroaching.  Eventually, I figure out that I’m having the same problem with the store that I have with religion.  The message is that if you do the “right” thing, you can control your outcomes.

In religion, it is conformity to the scriptures that the culture chooses to emphasize.  Hate gay people, ignore the part that says you can’t eat meat and milk together.  No more cheeseburgers for you, my friend.  In political ideologies, if you just defend this aspect of our definition of freedom, then you will be on the right side of history and if we can implement the ideology across the board, then everything is going to be okay.

It’s all this fight against uncertainty.

And you can do the same basic thing in the aisles of your local health-food store.  Bee pollen.  Antioxidants.  Ayurvedic herbs.  If you just cut out enough stuff – partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, high fructose corn syrup, aluminum: and add in the right things – organic everything, a mysterious mix of herbs and vitamins, whatever.  Then you can control things like cancer, aging, wrinkles, Alzheimers.

I can see it.  Why wouldn’t you want to create the best possible conditions for yourself and your health as you move through life?  If you can just not eat off of aluminum and reduce your chances of getting Alzheimers, that makes sense to me.

But somehow, this ongoing fight against chaos and entropy does something horrible to my sense of balance.  Ideology, religion, health-obsession, they share this common assumption: if I do xxxx, then everything is going to be okay.  I want everything to be okay too, I really do.  But the luxury of believing that I have control over that is no longer available to me.  In that dichotomy between wanting to be correct enough to prevent disaster and the recognition that such things simply are beyond any of our control, I get nervous.  Really nervous.

Three chocolate bars and some eco-friendly laundry detergent later, I ran.  Can’t we just shrug our shoulders and admit that we don’t know and we aren’t in control, and you just do the best you can with where you are?

Oh, because pragmatism doesn’t sell stuff.  Only fear sells reliably.

A Contest and an Offer

The Contest

Book two – The Camellia Reckoning – is getting to the home stretch of the drafting phase.  I’m fleshing out the rest of the Ministries in the New Republic, and I need some names.   The prize on offer is the naming of one of the following:

Chief of Staff to the Minister of Enterprise:

Minister of Infrastructure:

Chief of Staff to the Minister of Infrastructure:

Minister of Administration:

Chief of Staff to the Minister of Administration:

Being the author and just a little willful about the names, I’m going to pick winners by the best suggestions.  It will be completely subjective, but in my defense, the names do have to fit with everything else.  I’m looking for a mix of male and female names, and for these characters, I’m leaning towards classic names that aren’t overdone.  Lance, for example, was on my list of potential male names.

The rules are as follows:

1) you must be a follower, either here on the blog or on Twitter.

2) You get one name submission for every retweet or re-blog.

3) Send your proposed character name and a link to the re-tweet or re-blog to a.reid.williams (at) gmail.com.  You can put multiple submissions into a single e-mail.

4) Do all of this by midnight, 7/31/2014.  I’ll post the results on Saturday, 8/2/14.

The Offer

For any readers who are in book clubs…  I will send a signed copy of the book to the first ten people who convince their book club to read the book.  If your book club is interested in talking to me, I’ll join the post-reading discussion as well.  We can figure out the logistics on a case-by-case basis.

If you’re interested, e-mail me (address above).

Thinking Makes It So

In the world of american enlightenment, that pastel colored sparkly melting pot of spirituality and philosophy made of zen, individualism, money worship, Christianity, fiction, manifesting, reincarnation, reinvented druid mythology, superhero stories, astrology, shamanism, grandmas good sense, and the kitchen sink, this truth shows up again and again.

You are what you think.

There is nothing good nor bad but thinking makes it so.

Change your mind, change your life.

Which sounds good until I break my toe, and let me tell you, it hurts all by itself. I don’t have to think it hurts, that part comes naturally.

Beyond that, no one tells you how. It isn’t like we can’t wrap our logic around the impact of our thoughts.  If I am awake at three in the morning, thinking, I’m perfectly aware that my thoughts are a problem.

Yet and still, I’ve never been able to convince myself that an unwanted event was wanted.  You want what you want, you feel how you feel.  Trying to tell yourself otherwise doesn’t help. That turns into the feeling about the feeling, and nothing good happens there.  Which makes me wonder if, beyond the obvious part where an event is just an event, it is our feeling about the event that determines whether or not we call it good or bad, the “nothing good nor bad but thinking makes it so” bit isn’t a little unhelpful.

After all, that particular quote comes from Hamlet and you’ll note that he doesn’t have that epiphany and immediately thereafter rejoice in his uncle’s marriage to his mother.  Nope, he carries on feeling like shit and the play grinds inevitably to a sad end.

Where I’ve found incremental progress is in paying attention.  Notice the incremental part, because I’m pretty rubbish at it.  Aside from my inability to achieve perfection in this, things do go *better* when I just pay attention.

I’m fighting myself again.

I’m talking bad about my body again and all it is doing is hauling what I think of as *me* around.

I’m resisting what is and it isn’t working.

I don’t know how to stop all of that.  I do know how to take a deep breath.  I do know how to ask these things questions.  Like is it true that no one will love me if I have wrinkles around my eyes?  I do know how to pay attention.  I do know how to drive like a crazy lady in the general direction of the pool because swimming makes it easier to be balanced.

It isn’t what to do that we have difficulty with.  For the most part, we know the right answers.  It is the *how* that kills us.  The best how I’ve got is to notice when I’m fighting myself again.

The intermediate step is to notice, and then to remember to breathe.

I think the advanced approach is to notice, to breathe, and then to start gently asking the thing that’s troublesome questions.  Are you true?  Are you helpful?  Are you going to get me closer to where I want to be?  Are you constructive?

Super advanced is to not judge the troublesome thing or the answers you get when you ask it questions, to just let them be what they are.

But like I said, if I remember to implement this at all, I do it so unevenly as to ensure I never hold myself up as an expert.  It’s just the best I’ve got by way of a how.

Pretend

A panhandler asked me for a dollar to buy a cup of coffee on my way home from work.  I don’t carry cash as a rule, but I took out my headphones to hear his request and then answered him in full sentences.  I watched three other people walk by like he was invisible even as he spoke directly to him.  Granted, I think I’d be too ashamed to ask strangers for money, but how horrible it would be to have people react like you simply don’t exist?

Which isn’t to say I’ve never done it.  I’m bad when approached in a car.  And I’m unlikely talk or give you money if you are insulting Democrats, just because the cognitive dissonance… I mean really.  You want my handout, but God forbid the government use tax payer dollars to help out homeless vets. Which you also claim to be.

But this is a project for my awareness.  I’m gonna try not to act like people don’t exist. 

Except on a crowded metro.  There, I reserve the right to pretend I’m in my happy place.

Good Thinking ≠ Good Writing

Twitter has had a cluster of quotes and conversations about writing well being thinking well in the past few days.  This is one of those opinions that is so misleading and so unhelpful, but yet will weigh heavily on the minds of would-be and already writers.  Please know, at least in my experience, it is categorically untrue.

I didn’t have the luxury of being a wunderkind writer that wrote a brilliant debut at 18 and went on to success after lucrative success.  I’ve been hugely lucky in that I’ve been able to spend my career focused on words, but that’s been a function of putting my obsession with words into the service of some pretty mundane environments.  Over the years, I’ve served as an editor for a lot of people, a lot of smart people, working in the biggest bureaucracy we’ve got.

Every one of them, I promise you, thinks.  And thinks well. The vast majority of them do not write well.  And the vast majority of them believe that, just because they can think, they can write.  Which makes convincing them of the need for an editor quite difficult.  When you go to someone and ask them to re-arrange a paragraph, or break a sentence up, and they write like they think, all of a sudden, you’re criticizing their thought process.  That’s a pretty personal criticism.  Most of us feel like we’re scooping a bit of our brain out when we write and smearing it all over the page.  To have someone say “do over” creates defensiveness and resistance.

Which is unfortunate, because it is categorically wrong to say that thinking well translates into writing well. Maybe I am misunderstanding.  Maybe the implication isn’t that think well = write first draft well.  But even if that wasn’t what was meant, that’s too often how it is taken, so I’m going to carry on. There are a two reasons why equating thinking well and writing well spells disaster. In no particular order:

1) Thinking is not always orderly.  You jump from sensation to impression to memory to intuitive leap and back.  When you’re thinking about an area that you have significant expertise in, you jump whole steps in the chain of logic because those are thoughts you’ve already had before and you can short-cut them.  Get an engineer writing a paper for the CEO and the CEO is going to be annoyed because it isn’t going to make sense.  Why?  Because the engineer is going to assume that the CEO knows some of the same things the engineer knows and so he’s going to skip those parts, which is going to make the CEO feel stupid or annoyed or convince the CEO that the engineer is stupid, none of which are good outcomes.  This problem shows up in fiction too – I can see everything that I’m writing about clearly, I know how everyone feels and why they do what they do.  That may or may not be clear to a reader, though, and if I don’t go back and adequately line up the bread crumbs, my audience is never going to get where I’m going.  We think first and then impose logic second.  But if we want an audience to come along with us, whatever the subject or the goal is, then we’ve got to offer them the second iteration, the part that has been subjected to logic; not the first, the initial random blurt of knowledge, impressions, imagination, feeling, and assumptions.

2) The initial draft in writing is about the writer.  What do you know, what do you want to say, what do you see, what do you feel.  That’s the only place the writer’s ego should be allowed to play.  Every subsequent draft is about the reader, and making it about the reader is an entirely different mindset, a whole new set of skills.  If all you care about is what it looks like from behind your eyes, keep a journal.  If you want to write for an audience, figure out how to care more about what they need than what you need.  If you ever find yourself saying “just read through the first thirty pages, it gets really good after that” then you haven’t made the leap.  An author asks strangers to give up both money and time to join them on a journey.  That’s pretty damn presumptuous, and the author has to earn the right to that presumption.  That means editing.  That means that thinking well does not mean writing well.  Because if it did, you wouldn’t have to re-write and edit until your eyes bleed.

It is true that disciplining yourself to writing well over a period of years – and many years – makes it easier to create a first draft that needs progressively less editing.  I’ve been doing this for so long that I write to order my thoughts instead of writing, then creating order out of the initial blurt.  I think more clearly when I write, my writing doesn’t improve because I’m thinking more clearly.  In fact, the messier it is up there, if I can cram more ideas into the space between my ears and leave them alone to rub up on each other, the more depth I can bring to the page.  I’m better as a writer when my thinking is messier.  It is in the writing process that order is imposed.

But I’d never try and bring that initial mess to an audience as a book they were supposed to pay good money for.  I’m asking them to trust me.  I have to earn that trust, and the first step down that road starts with putting away the notion that every word, exactly as it flows forth from my fingers, is perfect and perfectly arranged because I’ve been granted the gift of thinking flawlessly.

So if the assertion that thinking well means writing well has intimidated you or empowered you to ignore the need to edit everything ruthlessly…  in the first case, take a deep breath.  It’s a rotten assertion.  In the second case, get over yourself.  Smart does not make you aware of the audience.  The thing you create through writing is an act of service to the audience.  That places some heavy demands on you, the author.  The first of which is to set your ego aside and admit that your first draft is going to suck.  It’s okay, though.  You’re in good company.

“The first draft of anything is shit.”  ― Ernest Hemingway