Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Obfuscation: What I Meant Was…

I had to laugh a little as I read my post here from the other day, and felt at least some explanation was probably in order. It read like something I would have written five years ago, abstract to the point of frustration. Good writing, at least in my books, speaks plain and grounds itself in concrete examples. Winter is Coming was, in some ways, an experiment in tone. (It was supposed to FEEL like a snowfall, if that makes sense) Even then, I felt I owed you all, if not an explanation, a quick summary of what I was trying to express.

As I've mentioned here before, I've spent the past four months world-building for my fantasy novel. It's creative work, but it isn't story telling. Not exactly. (Although one could argue that building histories and cultures for countries is still story telling, it has a much wider lens than working on the main narrative of a single novel.) Good fantasy explores not only the cultural and historical makeup of a new world, but looks at the human condition through use of another world. A good fantasist does this in the construction of their world and through their characters. In other words, magic isn't just magic, and the hero's quest is more than the story of a boy or a girl who learns they have special powers. Not all fantasies achieve this (and there's no way of knowing whether I'll be able to, either) but the good ones do. Fantasy is similar to TV shows like Mad Men that use the forty year culture gap to explore ideas that matter to us now. Ultimately, it's about perspective. Reading fiction, specifically good fantasy, is not only entertaining (if the story sucks, nothing else matters), it should also make us think. Think about who we are and who we're becoming. Think about ideas of eternity and religion and culture. That fantasy and science fiction are growing in popularity should be no surprise to those who pay attention to the culture and how it is changing.
Most of us talk about the speed and shallowness of our culture, recognize it on some level, but tend to simply put our heads down and get on with our lives. We have families and jobs and it's all we can do to keep up. We Facebook and Twitter our thoughts in two or three sentences, skim the headlines, surf the television, all at a speed that would make our grandparents blanche. As a result, neurologists tell us that our brains are changing. Our attention spans aren't what they used to be, and the thought of spending time really digging more deeply into a hot topic or a novel seems like a great deal of work. What not let Stewart or Beck or O'Reilly to give it to me in chunks I can absorb, and do it in a way that's entertaining? We do it in the church as well, waiting for mega-pastors and bloggers to explain difficult theological nuances in witty and pejorative terms. Technology widens our scope of learning, but narrows our perspective. And from my chair, that is far more dangerous.

The Horizontal world I spoke of, and forgive the fantasy construction here, is the world of rationalism and logic. It's your everyday world, the one where we listen to the radio and chat with friends and absorb the evening news. It's the world in which we go to church and listen to the sermon and sing our songs just in time to watch the NFL or take the kids to the park. It is the world we see and hear and touch. But it isn't the only world out there.

What's ridiculous to me, and I include myself here, is the amount of time wasted in arguing why our beliefs are better than our neighbours. Go to most religious websites and you can find discussions about particular doctrines that are neither grounded nor gentle. Mostly, it's a bunch of strangers insisting that they're right, dammit. To what end? Is that our life then? Is that our religion of choice? Any religion that is based on its ability to distinguish itself from other religions is missing the whole damn point. Look, to pompously argue about the correct form of theology within a philosophy that accepts the supernatural is self-serving garbage. It may make us feel better, but in the end it's as useful as two water dishes for your dog. For heaven's sake, at least tell us that you were just too lazy to refill the one dish. Don't offer us these self-righteous excuses about why everyone should own two dishes.

That'll be the goal here as we go forward, and I promise in the future to speak plainly and not obfuscate. We may disagree, but hopefully you won't be re-reading sentences wondering what I was trying to say.

Religion can a great tool for justifying our behaviour. Slavery? Done. Racism? Yup. Mistreatment of women and gays? Absolutely. Environmental degradation and hatred and self righteous pandering? Sure. It's all in there. But let me say this clearly: the person who reflects compassion and empathy, the one who works hard to give to others and sacrifices to make the world a better place, the one who tries to love people and tries to be gracious, that person knows God better than any so-called person of faith who can articulate the seven rules of sanctification and mouth the correct sequence of statements regarding the proper belief structure. We religiously minded people do that for the same reason we want two dishes for our dog: because we can and because we're lazy. So this week, if you get a chance, take some time away from the bustle of the world to think about things. Think about who you are and what you want to become. Think about eternity and religion and our culture. Spend some quiet time in prayer and meditation. We shouldn't spend all of our time in those worlds, it isn't healthy, as we are social beings after all. But if we don't go there at least occasionally, we're bound to miss some of the beauty and mystery of life, and perhaps miss the good things God has in mind for us, religious or not.


Monday, November 22, 2010

Winter is Coming

    The wind blows hard, ruffling a loose piece of plastic on the other side of the balcony. I zip up my jacket, breathing in the bitterness of the night. I can still hear the faint roar of cars from the highway, but it seems muted by the cold. Everything is else is quiet. No loud music or shouts from below. No screeching tires or sirens wailing in the distance. Nothing but stillness and cold. The mug of coffee warms my fingers, and I sip it slowly, savouring the sweet tinge of hazelnut and cinnamon. It's been a month of inactivity and sameness, a month of grays and browns, all of which can mean only one thing: winter is coming.

     For a writer, gray is not a bad colour. It certainly beats blue or yellow or green, and it definitely beats black and white. Most writers live in gray, and prefer to work in it. That said, sometimes it's better not to have the colour of your thoughts mirrored in the world around you. During those times, it's hard to tell where one world ends and the other world begins. Not the "real world", because no such place exists, but the world we dwell in horizontally with others, the one where we exchange greeting cards and small talk and common cultural expressions. The one where we can or must find a reason for everything, and the one that many people claim to be "true" or more "true" than the others. As worlds go, it's definitely important, primarily because of the relationships we establish that give us our identity there. Unfortunately, too often it is the only world in which we spend time, the only one that we designate as important.

The question here, you understand, is not about Religion. Our temptation towards the Horizontal world is true of those who are both religious and those who aren't. This past month for example, I've engaged in discussions with many Christians who only spend time in the Horizontal world, and aside from perhaps a few moments of prayer, ignore the rest. The two groups are the same in that we both build our identity in the place our culture treasures above all else. Both sides may argue what separates them from the other at length, but in the worlds where silence reigns and the hum of culture drifts into the distance, the differences fall away. That the two groups disagree and argue the merits for their various constructs in the Horizontal world means nothing apart from our mutual fixation on building our portfolios of distinction. And when we do that, when we argue and march and yell and sigh at each other, as I've done here and on Twitter too many times to count, it means that we're in danger of losing our identity in the other worlds at the expense of this one. It is a warning, and one that most of us insist on ignoring, myself included. We don't want to acknowledge the other worlds. We don't want to hear from them or see them or even tacitly admit that they exist. Because when we do, we have an idea what will happen. Something deep inside tells us that the time we spent in the horizontal realm, the realm of the senses and relationships and activity, will have been largely wasted. Understandably, that is a pain we are hesitant to face. Throughout history however, there have always been those who have sought ways to address this idea of living in different worlds.

    In the 4th and 5th Century, there was a group of people who decided that the horizontal world was too shallow, that they needed to get away from the immoral culture to find God. Some of this was steeped in Greek Platonism, the idea that anything mortal was evil. That only the spiritual was pure. And so they did things, like moving into the desert, or in the case of one man, chose to live on top of a giant stone column. When I first started reading about these Aesthetics, I laughed and shook my head. Loons, I thought. All of them. These days I'm not so sure. What would happen if we could see all of the worlds in all of their complexity? What if we could see the complete narrative behind our own actions, or the realm of the spirit, or the realm of those who died? What if we could witness our actions from the perspective of somebody else fully and truly? Perhaps these people were merely running away from their responsibilities, or perhaps they were simply crazy, but who are we to judge, when we do the same thing, albeit in a different world?

    The truth is that over the course of our life, we will live many lifetimes. Most of us will switch jobs and friends and partners and locations, and for those of us who do not, our horizontal world will still change as we experience new things and grow older. And in a culture that prizes change and speed above all else, it necessitates that we spend as much time as we can there, if only to keep tabs on the construction of our identity. As a result, the vitriol and vehemence we find in politics and talk shows and blogs such as this one can sometimes get out of control. It's hard to step back when that step will only take you to the same spot you were a moment ago.

    And yet, even in a culture where Rationalism and Logic rule uncontested gods to the religious and non-religious alike, where Distinction and Uniqueness service us with knowing smiles, there are moments when the other worlds crash through the barriers of time and senses. They are dreams we cannot explain but yet haunt us. They are times of inexplicable kindness and felt love, when the look on our loved one's face or the happy gurgling of a baby make us swallow with an undefined sense of wonder. They are times when we are death's only witness, and as such, are filled with the undeniable sense that there are many things we will never understand. These moments are both comforting and discomfiting. Comforting in the sense that we can revel in the possibilities that exist, discomfiting because we don't fully understand what those possibilities entail. And so, we avoid these worlds, we avoid the pain, and we march back to the altars of Logic and Rationalism, content to build our identity in their shadow. In the haste and hustle of our world of choice, we do not realize what we're doing, and by the time we figure it out, by the time we work up the courage to spend time in the other worlds, it's too late. Twilight has faded, and winter has arrived.

    My fingers are white from the cold despite the fading warmth of my coffee. I put the mug down and rub my hands together before slipping them into my pockets. I have more than a few regrets in my life, but times like these, times of prayer and silence and exploration, have never made the list. They are all too rare, even for someone who spends most of his work days behind the quiet tapping of the keyboard. For as much as I like to dwell on possibilities and God and faith, I still prefer the horizontal world. I still prefer the world I see and hear most easily, the one where I can tell you what I know and why I know it, the one where I can disagree with you and still know that everything is as it should be. It's the other worlds I fear. The ones where Logic and Rationalism do not rule, the ones where Existence itself is questioned, where Purpose reveals its true self, and where Story is much more than a book. Those are the worlds I try to avoid. And yet, I know I do it at my own peril. Especially now. My dreams have been strange lately, my times with Bethany filled with a euphoric melancholy that I do not understand, and my writing has become steeped in black and white, the colours of Anger and Distinction. And so tonight at least, I'll brave the cold. It's time to visit the other worlds for a while. Winter is coming.




Tuesday, November 09, 2010


My apologies for not posting lately. This is the longest stretch in a while, and for those of you checking back here, I appreciate your patience. I have in mind at least three articles for this site, along with a couple of movie reviews, but for the moment I am 'dug in' to the work on the novel. I imagine other fantasy novelists could tell you the same story, as I've just reached the 32,000 word mark for the GUIDE to my novel's world. Yup. 100 pages. And that's just the guide. I hope to be finished the guide by next Friday, at which point I can start the re-write of the 600 pages I've already written. Much of that will have to be changed, but I will be able to follow the same storyline, at least. Having said that, I've picked up a few tidbits from the news lately...

Election Notes

Anyone who reads this blog regularly will know where I stand on this issue, but for those of you who don't, let me just say that the Tuseday midterms in the US were pretty disappointing. At this point, I'm not sure what people want from Obama. He ran his campaign on health care. He promised a stimulus package, one that all economists agreed was necessary. And now he's spending too much?

Most people forget that as late as 2000, both presidential candidates talked about getting rid of the debt. Gore even campaigned on it. (Bush mentioned it, but wafled on it and then dropped it. Little did people know how he was about to become the biggest spender in presidential history.) Imagine now, only ten years later, and the US debt is so high that people are scared the economy will collapse. And yet, it was a Republican presidency that pushed the deficit and debt skywards. A big part of that was the war on Iraq, which only happened as a result of lies from the same administration doing the spending. The past two years, the Senate has suffered filibusters (from the Republicans) more than any time in its history. And yet somehow people think that they deserve to be back in power?

It seems as if the talk shows are driving the narrative here. I'd encourage people to pick up some of the books that have come out recently, like Obama's Wars by Bob Woodward, and take a closer look at things.

None of this matters however, if the Democrats do not learn how to communicate what they have done and why it is good for the country. They have too many smart people in their party not to figure it out, but until they do, the Republicans deserve to be there, because governing is as much about communicating as it is making decisions.

Recommended Reading

This is mentioned in my Reading section, but in case you missed it, I highly recommend both Patrick Rothfuss' The Name of the Wind and Brandon Sanderson's The Way of Kings. Tremendous reads, both of them.

Again, I hope to have a new article up by the end of the week, everyone. Thanks again for your patience.