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I’ve Got a Secret

I think we each need a cave.

One of the drawbacks of living inside one’s own mind is the temptation to think that all other minds function in the same way. That our outlook and perceptions are the de facto standard and that others are to be weighed in the balance. That the idea we now have must be useful to all other right thinkin’ folk.

Of course, we don’t enunciate this too well or too loudly in case we are labeled as prejudiced bigots or narrow minded, or white Anglo-Saxon males. Sigh.

I bring this up because I have been forming the idea that we are all in need of something. But this idea came from my mind – there’s a lot of unused space up there – so it may have little relevance to the rest of you oiks. (“oiks’ is a generally disparaging word for other folk. I’m working on my people skills)

And the idea is this: we need a cave.

Reading a book is a great way to let the brain fizzle along on autopilot; the ravages of the day make a bit more sense, the various emotional explosions which have occurred can be triaged as we spin our mental wheels. We can get lost in the story and let the mind make sense of our life.

As a young lout I would position a favourite and comfy chair in such a way that I could see through the front door and across the road to a small park. Trees and grass, blue sky and rustling leaves. The inner psyche would heave a small sigh and try to make sense of my day – why my best mate called me a dill, why the teacher looked at me funny, why the girl I was desperate to meet looked at me funny, why the dog looked at me funny. Hmm, I’m seeing a pattern here.

But it worked, the mental time out allowed me to sort stuff out and pop it into a repressed cupboard in the emotional warehouse. And I’m a big fan of repressed cupboards because I like to look normal.

Of course, now that I’m a well known sage I no longer need the frippery of a mental time out – but perhaps you do?

But do you have a chance? Is there some peaceful time in your day for a spot of quiet reflection and angst driven soul searching?

Or does the tyrant of Social Networking demand regular sacrifice? Must update Facebook/Myspace status, must finish that tweet, must txt my peeps, must write that blog (yeah, I know), must…….not be alone.

Because then I would have to think.

Well, I suspect we need to have the opportunity to think, to think quietly, to reflect. A lot of this can take place while reading a book but some cannot. And that’s when we need our cave.

My sainted wife and I go to a quiet spot in the hills and do some thinkin’ and stuff on a regular basis. It’s our cave.

Actually, it’s a luxury cabin in the treetops overlooking a lake. Beautiful spot.

I may be psychically repressed but I’m not stupid.

Watching a Train Wreck

Watching a strong willed character slowly dig a big hole for themselves can take your mind off the everyday woes of the world. This, perhaps, is why Greek theatre has managed to retain a vibrancy and life after thousands of years. Let’s go watch that sucka burn.

Here’s a tip – give yourself a treat and dig into the Oedipus plays. You’ll amaze your friends and impress your mum. Dad might let you borrow the car.

Our cinema experiences tend to fall into flashy or emotional sprints, not a lot of time for intricate set plot set up and then sit back and see what happens. No, going to the movies, though I love it, ain’t gonna give me a real fix in the Deep and Meaningful department. (Shameless plug) 

For that we need to hit something a bit meaty and here is where I drag my old mate, Oedipus, onto centre stage.

Do you ever get that tingly feeling in a book when you can see what has to happen and you find yourself going “ooo….ooooo…” and wriggling a lot? Not because you need a comfort stop but because you just so want to watch the story unfold. Oedipus does that; there is a point in the story where we – the audience – get the inside dope on what has been going on before Oedipus does. And we all hold our breath as we watch the big guy work out that he has, in fact, killed his dad and married his mum. Oh, ewww!!!

Now that’s watching a train wreck.

This story is a great example of allowing a set of events to occur which drives the story forward with remorseless logic. No “it was all a dream” moments, no polar bears on the island, no sense that the author is making it up as they go.

Things happen in our lives, and some of the events we encounter are pretty grim. Like Oedipus we will all get news that sometimes rocks us to our foundations but they joy in the human condition lies in our ability to choose. To choose how we react.

We can’t help what happens to us but we can chose how we respond.

And it is this response that makes us human, and also makes us interesting. We want to see how the other person deals with the bad news, we watch as the accident happens and we see a little of ourselves in that response.

Which is what makes a story, doesn’t it? We have a protagonist, a situation and then we want to see what happens. So long as we have sympathy for the character and believe the situation then we will accept the story.

Go, Sophocles!

I Didn’t See That Coming!

 A friend of mine once said “The whole world’s mad except me and thee”; smug complacency from moi until I heard the rest of the statement, “And I’m not too sure about thee.”

This friend obviously had a slippery grasp on reality for it is my worldview which is the true and correct one and if everyone else would just understand that then we would all be in a better place – rainbows and unicorns on every street corner. World peace.

Which is a very nice deception we play upon ourselves, certainly there is some head nodding towards tolerance and empathy, but if we think that the other point of view is correct then we adopt it and hey presto! It’s now our point of view. No real issue with any of this, the world needs lots of variety and discussion, a healthy society demonstrates its robustness by allowing dissimilar views to happily coexist. We need a bit of friction – a rugby game between two teams where everyone supports Australia would be a bit depressing to the other side (New Zealand comes to mind). Put that gun down, sir! I am using an analogy, however close it may be to what the world should be, it is not reality. Yet.

The snag, of course, pops up when an author carries these sentiments into their work and does not understand that different people, different cultures, perceive the world through their own set of biases and prejudices (prejudicii?).

I know I’ve rambled on about this topic before but I am, at the heart of it, an insufferable bore. So I intend to bleat again. (Okay, no more NZ jokes).

 I am brought to this point by the novel I am currently wading through, I’m no quitter but it is danger of being flung against a wall. The protagonist is yet to encounter anyone who responds in a way which is surprising to him – the bad people are bad people but bad according to his rules; there are bullies and tyrants, misunderstood wise old men (put me down for one of them) and family units which all think exactly the same way. Unless there is a tormented teen and then of course he/she/it acts exactly like a tormented teen would predictably respond.

 Gak! Does the world really behave according to our own rules? Not the real world, one of the intriguing aspects of encountering another human being is the gobsmacking realization that they are, in fact, total nutbags.

As writers we have an obligation to take a deep breath and write like we are someone else, not just ourselves in another body at another age.

This current novel is a SF space opera, the big canvas. Yet I feel I am reading the adventures of Joe Average in Smalltown USA. The aliens behave remarkably like a bunch of good ol’ boys with the upper echelons resembling greedy capitalists complete with irritating laugh.

So come on, my fellow scribblers, let’s exert the brain and stretch the boundaries of good taste. Let’s have out characters behave in ways we can’t even consider – oh, wait, that’s the problem, isn’t it? We can’t consider how these people behave because we can’t…well, so it goes.

What’s the solution?

Get a life. Go out and about and mix it up with folk of whom you know not. Not a Christian? Go to a full on evangelical service. Dislike noisy, rowdy people? Hit a public bar on Friday night. Avoid getting your intercultural hits from stereotypical movies (Why, yes, Mr. Miyagi is exactly like all Japanese/Chinese/Korean folk so I’ll base my character on him.)

And then write up a storm, write so that people don’t know what is going to happen next. Just like the real world, especially in SF.

I’ve got some characters I’m trying to work into my new yarn, and they are just so not me. Zombies; better yet – Nazi zombies. From another dimension. In outer space. Oh, yeah, brother, bring it on.

I could be wrong, though; maybe they are a little like me.

The Gatekeepers

I like to write and I think I do good work. My sainted wife enjoys reading my stuff and the dog loves it, can’t get of my scintillating prose. And there are a few critical readers who willingly (crazy people) cast their jaundiced eyes over the old magnus and feel confident to tell me that my stuff is doing okay.

Generally they fall about laughing and point out my glaring plot holes, typos and passing acquaintance with grammar BUT when I have fixed up the quivering mess they seem to think that’s not bad. On a good day. Going downhill, if you squint.

 So this is all well and good I hear you ask, but so what?

 The people I really want to impress don’t fall into any of the aforesaid categories – the ones I’m after are the literary gatekeepers, the agents and publishers. It’s their opinion which is the one that counts to a journeyman author like moi.

 Having your mum say she loves your work might give you a few warm fuzzies but her words won’t cut it on a Query Letter. Even the manuscript appraisal services (and, my, aren’t there a lot of them?) are not able to pass you through the hallowed door into the mysterious world of publishing. Well, it’s a mysterious world to me; you, dear reader, have undoubtedly kicked a few goals already and have entire bookshelves of your published works sitting nearby. Sigh.

 Which leads me to the BIG question, do we have gatekeepers for other aspects of our life? I suspect we do, and we give ‘em too much power.

 I get decidedly cheesed off when a young ‘un feels that they are a bit worthless because they have come up short in the looks/money/weight/charisma/job/you name it department. Poor little mites have let society dictate who the gatekeepers are going to be in their lives. And it’s always someone fitter, stronger, better looking, more successful than where they happen to be at the time.

 Makes me want to spit. And say bad words.

 I accept the artificiality of the literary gatekeeper, I enter into the agreement that they have the final say over what gets into print. It’s part of the deal for us scribblers.

 But what I cannot accept is how each one of us blithely surrenders the power to make ourselves feel good to an outside body. And it’s not just the youth who are the victims, although this is where it all starts – Us grown ups still allow the media (of all types) to dictate to us.

 So have a think who your gatekeepers are, sit down and give it a few moments. And then decide whether or not you want to continue to give up this power, the power to make you feel good about yourself.

 Take it back. Join me and the dog – we’ve come across to the light and left the dark side. He tells me I’m pretty special and I believe him.

 Good dog. You’re not so bad yourself.

I am not a good audience member in a lecture, my mind wanders whenever the speaker makes a thought-provoking comment. The little grey cells seem bent upon chasing down the various nuances contained in said comment; my reverie will eventually end and I’ll come up for air wondering what on earth is going on in the speech.

Very frustrating and caused me no end of trouble at Uni – I became a past master of the thoughtful dribble. You know the sort of thing, the lecturer challenges you for a comment and so you engage in a little charade like “Well, sir (try to get the sex right), I’m just a little confused by how what you have said gels with your opening comments. Perhaps you could help me out by illustrating the link.”

 It rarely worked, of course, but one has to make an effort. Appearances, old man, stiff upper lip.

I’m sure none of you share this particular vagary of the mind, you’re all incisive and capable of multi-tasking the old noodle, rarely sidetracked.

 However, on the off chance that you understand this position I have a case to make which supports the need for books. There! A painless segue into the writer’s world.

 Lectures, sermons and the visual media are useful for expounding an idea. But they do not allow for the time needed to pause and reflect on each topic as it comes along. A lot of movies, for example, make wonderful, thought provoking points – especially SF flicks – but we cannot stop mid film and lean over to our compadre and discuss said point. I exclude the random comments such as “Far out! Didja see that! How cool was that scene!”

 Coffee afterwards may help.

 The internet does allow for an argument to be paused yet, let’s face it, we don’t. It’s a skim and flick though medium, dipping a toe in and then moving on. I do not talk here of the forums and threads, they allow for the exploration of an idea but I would categorise these as a conversation, merely in an electronic medium.

 No, the only technology which allows for a line of thought to be paused at any moment is the book, the printed page. How many of us have come across a thought provoking comment in a book, and then sat back, thumb in book with a mind off and galloping?

 The danger with pursuing a focus on non-print technology lies in the subtle eroding of the thinker’s ability to perform deep analysis of an idea. Thinking takes effort and time, quiet contemplation and reflection. A linear information flow which does not allow the user to pause and perhaps go back over the material may lead to a society where we are unable to philosophize.

There is a joy in looking up from a book, a piece of fiction, and gazing out of a nearby window while mulling over what we have just read. A gentle muse.

My lecturers claimed I was daydreaming and never did accept my explanation that I was deep in thought, caught up in the joy of their academic journey. Can’t blame them, I didn’t buy it either.

Look, a Talking Plant

Some people like people. They enjoy hanging around in crowds, shooting the breeze, waffling on at length and sharing their sunny disposition with all and sundry. They’re out there and sometimes in yer face. Bless ‘em, the extroverts.

Then there are the curmudgeonly types who sit in caves and inhabit basement rooms owned by their mothers. Reclusive, inward gazing introverts.

We generally fall into one of those two categories, rarely at one end but somewhere along the spectrum with perhaps a bias towards outgoing or hermit. And thus we go through each day, content to wallow in our own desires, not bothered by encountering those from the other end of the range – we just step aside and walk around them. The world turns and we turn with it.

Except, dare I say, for the poor misbegotten fools who take up the pen and decide to pen the odd opus magnus. For them, dear reader, we hold a special circle of hell – I’m sure Dante had it in mind at about level 3 – a place where the introspective writer must leave the sheltered confines of his (or her) tiny garret and go out and about. Pressing the flesh and kissing babies. Yuk!

I don’t mind people, can take ‘em or leave ‘em; but I hate with a passion the vapid gatherings of social intercourse known as ‘networking’. Gak! I’m a writer, I like my own company, will accept my sainted wife hanging around and perhaps –on a good day with a following wind – the dog may flop at my feet. But that’s it.

And now I discover that I must schmooze with the best of them, exchange pleasantries and meaningful comments. Make myself known to those with influence, chat up some significant players.

As a chat up merchant I have a history of gobsmacked females who stared at me as if encountering a vaguely hirsute plant. Generally followed by embarrassed silence and then a trail of loud guffaws as I slunk away. But it seems I must revisit this era of social dismay and become a winning personality with all and sundry if I am to succeed as a writer.

“Oh, death where is thy sting?” ain’t in it when it comes to social conventions. But I’ll have a crack at it so be warned – the next unkempt, bearded lout who sidles up to you and mutters a phrase into your lug hole may be yours truly.

 Have some Madeira, my dear.

Danger – Thinking Ahead!

 As much as I try to avoid it there comes a time when I must have a little rant. Just pass me that soapbox, please. And the megaphone – no, not that one, I want the big one.

IS THIS THING ON? Whoops, sorry.

Okay I want to talk about thinking (half the audience rise to their feet, the rest remain comatose).

I have this pet theory – we think in words. Real words, stuff we pick up from conversations, our pals and the odd bit of text we trip over. Perhaps I should make a small caveat – I have no scientific basis for this theory, I just like it.

We don’t think in colours, or shapes. We attempt to find solutions or tease out arguments by thinking in words. As a teenager (so very long ago now) some of the most impacting times took place with my mates in a heap of a car as we talked about the problems of the world and dug away at the big questions. All the philosophical stuff – why be good? Is honesty the best policy? What’s wrong with looking after number one? Can I ask your sister out? That last one has left a bit of a scar.

So, to be a better thinker it may be beneficial to have a lot of words in the old noggin. Big words, too, stuff that lets you consider the many different varieties and subtleties of a concept. Maybe even some polysyllabic terms, pinch the odd word from another language and you have a cool little resource for meandering through the next dinner party. Impress your mum.

Being able to think also gives you a good friend – your brain. It is a distinct pleasure being able to argue two sides of a case as well as watching from the sidelines – all in the confines of the little grey cells. And yes, the voices in my head are talking only to me so please don’t be jealous.

The best method of putting words into the brain may be to memorise the dictionary but if a spot of context is required then perhaps this is not the optimal course. Maybe just reading a good book would suffice. A book with a bit of meat in it, one that stretches the capacity and opens up a few doors in the mental cranium. Lets in some fresh air.

Therefore I urge youse all to read, read some of the classics, read something big, get outside your comfort zone.

My mercantile heart will not let me conclude this small diatribe without a self promotion plug: Valentine and the Devil is great start to your reading career! Nah, I don’t believe it either. Pass me that copy of Winnie the Pooh – now that’s good brain food.

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