wax banks

second-best since Cantor

Category: writing

How and what should you read?

Someone asked the other day whether the things I read bear directly on the writing I do.

I said somethingsomethingsomething but what I meant was:

You can’t plan knowledge

Learning is association-making, connection, but those connections are capricious (cf. those sexually aroused by feet, those who think they saw the Virgin Mary at Fatima, those who can play twelve games of high-level chess simultaneously without actually loving chess). Human brains aren’t purposefully wired, they’re grown; instead of plans they develop according to tendencies. The phrase ‘perfectly reasonable deviations from the beaten track’ might come to mind here if you’re me.

You can consume information according to a plan. I wanted to know about the influence of Charles Fort on midcentury pulps and comix; I read Kripal’s Mutants & Mystics. I wanted to know what Jacques Vallée actually argued in Passport to Magonia; I read it, simple. But it’s silly and self-defeating to start out wondering what you’re going to do with that information. You can’t know, and in any case the action-arrow points the other direction: as it transforms interpenetratively into knowledge, the reading does something with you.

I mean that almost literally. We can only consciously control our learning with gross imprecision, which is why cramming for tests is a terrible idea (too much too late). You learn in a trickle or a rush, but crucially you don’t decide which, and it’s best to think of learning practice and knowledge-formation (not ‘-acquisition’) as distinct and almost disjoint practices. The making of your mind can go on without you. Good thing, too: it’s what ‘you’ are made of.

Point being, you can control the inputs to the psychotropic process (the books you read, the drugs you take, your adherence to or rejection of the diurnal cycle) but you can’t control the emergent coral-reef forms which knowledge takes in the mind/brain. And this is good, because while you are a sadly limited person living in a sadly limited world, the self-modifying bioelectrical system which epiphenomenally generates ‘you’ is a good deal less neurotic and scared.

And so you should read whatever you’re passionate about, because

  • passion intensifies and accelerates this mindmaking process, while
  • boredom kills it, and since
  • you can’t control whom you turn into,
  • your best bet for generating a robust mind-body ecology is richly varying inputs

Which brings us to the secret central question of all blogposts,

What does this have to do with my D&D campaign?

But the only reason anyone asks this question is that he hasn’t yet internalized the great paradox of our everything-bad-on-demand-everywhere time, which is that

Fantasy isn’t a genre, it’s an activity

If you get that fantasy is something you do (creation connection narrativizing spatializing eroticizing etc.) and not a set of genre markers (elves sorcery talkingswords) then you already know what all this has to do with your D&D campaign — the more and better you know, the more deeply and widely you experience, the richer your fantastic imagination.

False Patrick occasionally looks for D&Dables in James Scott or Geoffrey of Monmouth with superb results — you can see why G. of M. would be a good RPG source, but James Seeing Like a State Scott? Well, read the post. I picked up Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror having heard it described as the book that birthed not only Game of Thrones but a generation of medievalists (who later went on to disavow it as decidedly non-scholarly history), but in the end I experienced it as a kind of hellish postapocalyptic dystopia, the apocalypse in question being the bubonic plague. That, in turn, put me onto William NcNeill’s Plagues and Peoples, a brilliant short book which argues for an advanced understanding of humans as coexisting in complexly evolving predator/prey relationships with, say, syphilis (or bubonic plague, or HIV). That was immensely clarifying as history, but it doubled for me as a kind of SFnal primer on both ‘deep time’ and dystopic transhuman history — a depectively matter-of-fact story about the place of the human species at the center of a slowly tightening ecological net.

Not longer after I finished Plagues and Peoples I picked up Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation, the first third of his Southern Reach trilogy, which is a kind of Rendezvous with Rama/Lost/Lovecraft mashup with mushrooms swapped in for tentacles. I liked it, but it was twice the book it otherwise would’ve been, and ten times the dream-fodder, for the way it echoed and weirded-up McNeill’s book.

Come to that, there’s no reason Lovecraft’s ‘cosmicist’ vision requires tentacles in the first place — the creepiest thing about ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ is the bat-winged things in the swamp, and frankly the Cthulhu statue itself only creeped me out to the extent that it recalled the statue of Mbwun from Lincoln/Child’s Relic, which I read in middle school because I’d heard that ‘If you liked Jurassic Park‘ and of course I did, but then I only picked up Jurassic Park because there was an article about it in a science newsletter we read in our Earth Science class, and if we’re in honest-confession mode then the fact that my godfather went to MIT (Course 2, class of 1924) made me wanna attend that school slightly less than the fact that Michael Crichton had spent a year as Writer-in-Residence there…

See?

Evolutionary weirdness

The least interesting thing about fantasy is its content. (Have you ever had to listen to someone else tell you about last night’s ‘amazing’ or ‘hilarious’ dream? Soporific stuff.) What makes fantasy fantastic is its visionary quality, the way it animates primal urges and throws light on hidden mental corners. Worthwhile art is deeply personal: the work of a strong ego seeking out egolessness. The best stuff is necessarily at least a little inaccessible, mysterious, resistant to analysis, however welcoming its formal presentation; great art always proceeds according to an intuitive logic that’s inexpressible in rational terms. And because it speaks to a unified (continuous, cohesive if not logically coherent) vision, it could only have been made by the person or people who made it.1 Good, in other words, is always strange.

But ‘strange’ is the last thing central planners want to deal with — cf. the aforementioned Seeing Like a State. The inescapable, essential fallacy of the central-planning ethos is this:

Orderly processes do not necessarily produce orderly results.

Indeed the one’s got little or nothing to do with the other except by chance.
Working artists get this, hence the irritation/frustration/disappointment writers evidently all feel when asked when their ideas come from. Critics, meanwhile, tend not to understand this — if the disjunction between aesthetic means and ends were widely understood, entire schools of criticism woulda been strangled in the crib. I think of the weird mismatch between Joyce’s literary dreamworlds and his pedantic fan-critics, and (because I’m me, and have written the books I’ve written) of the way Phish’s most hyperrational practice exercises have generated their wildest improvisations while their most deeply structured longform improv has come at moments of surpassing looseness and intuitive responsiveness. (The same goes for other rational/ludic/dreaming improvisatory scholar-artists — think of Johns Zorn and Coltrane.)

I want to have The Right Information at my fingertips when I write, but I also want to experience and share strange knowledge, a Weird innerworld which only I can see but which through my craft I can make knowable to others. And I aim to build deep written structures through intuitive improvisatory methods — so that, for instance, the structure of my 33-1/3 book mirrors the structure of the album it discusses, and the fractal form of my Allworlds Catalogue embodies/allegorizes the Big Themes it bangs on about, etc., though both those formal arrangements were arrived at with those pretentious-sounding purposes in mind.

And I find that the best way to achieve these tight-loose performances, this particular pleasing-to-me dreamlike relationship between form and content and private experience, is to immerse myself in material and see what forms spontaneously appear.

We forget that evolution isn’t just a winnowing process of natural selection — it’s punctuated and catalyzed by far-from-equilibrium self-organization, which can altogether shift the topology on which the selection process works, ‘skipping tracks’ in terms of descent. This is biological innovation, and its absence from the standard schoolhouse evolutionary narrative is just one more expression of (and reinforcing element in) a dangerous, thoughtless cultural conservatism, a pseudosci retelling of the myth of heavenly bureaucracy. Evolution isn’t a one-way road running straight, it’s a network of migrations through an ever-shifting topology toward no particular destination — the endless fitness gradient scarred with switchbacks, channels, deep caves, inscrutable truths spelled out in the bones of lost travelers…

Back to the start

‘No one can see beyond a choice they don’t understand,’ said the Oracle in The Matrix: Revolutions. Put another way: you’re trying to get from one stable equilibrium (not exercising, say) to another (being in the habit of exercising daily) but between them is a hill down which you can backslide all too easily (forcing yourself to exercise daily for a few weeks until the habit has formed). The zone of extreme flux — of frustration, worry, pain, seemingly endless struggle — of uncertainty — between equilibria is a hard place to be if you can’t handle uncertainty. If you need to know the outcome before you begin the process, you’ll never do anything new. Everything truly new is a risk.

So how and what should you read?

My sincere answer:

Keep reading until you figure it out.


  1. Reasoning through the ethical implications of this paragraph for the art-consumer and the DIY creator is left as an exercise for the reader. 

The Goodreads problem synopsized.

You must have a sense of how people respond to your work, but you mustn’t fixate on any one response — learning to manage variation in tastes is an important skill for anyone doing creative work.

It’s harder than ever to escape people’s responses to your writing; to ‘be online’ (to live online) is to be constantly, destructively aware of the ultimately irrelevant. Yet you should never get drawn into a lengthy exchange with a reviewer of your work, paid or volunteer, except to clarify errors of fact.

There is no good solution, other (I suppose) than doing good enough work that you can confidently ignore reviews altogether.

The waX-Files.

Reminder: if you like this stuff, you will likely like these posts, on The X-Files. The perspective is, shall we say, eliptonic-appreciative, and the attitude toward existing popular coverage of the show is (shall we say?) largely contemptuous. They aren’t ‘recaps,’ sorry, just responses, each pitched in whatever register made nonsense at the time.

I didn’t grow up watching The X-Files, which went off the air while I was in college or grad school. I’ve now seen most of the first four years, and consider it both good and (both historically and potentially) important. The incoherence of the ‘Mythology’ doesn’t bother me, and shouldn’t bother you; caveat conspirator.

Stories are made of time and change, not information.

The justification for spoilers (beyond ‘I am anxious, impatient, and have no self-control’) is that you don’t need to receive the story’s info-payload at the moment prescribed by the writers — having the facts, we are told, only clarifies the story, it doesn’t diminish it. Knowing how it ends frees you up to enjoy the unfolding of the story without anxiety.

This disgusts and worries me.

We might think about stories this way:

Narrative structures aren’t vessels containing information, they’re machines for creating information in the mind of the audience. ‘Little Nell dies.’ ‘Oh, is that so? Who’s Little Nell?’ Little Nell is part of a structure which, when activated, effects psychotropism — mental transformation — in the reader. She’s not ‘contained’ in the machine The Old Curiosity Shop, she’s a gear in that machine. To put it another way: the production of fictional knowledge (e.g. ‘informing’/’teaching’ the reader about hobbit feet or the one-eyed bigot at a Dublin bar) is an epiphenomenon of the process of generating the experience of reading itself.

Fictions don’t contain facts, they contain meaningful time: algorithmically generated encounters between audience and story. The text exists to generate the experience of living through it. Characters, plot, setting, are just ‘local variables,’ generated at runtime, which cease to exist when the work is done. But more than that: the work of a fictional scene can’t simply be summarized after the fact (writing tip: if it can, the scene is bad and probably unnecessary). The story effects a set of transformations through sustained audience contact: it’s a smooth curve, flow, the path on which the fictional outcome is dependent. Alter the path, break the curve, obstruct the flow, and you lose the story. What remains are chains and gears, sprockets and lenses — pieces of the machine, meaningless outside of its working.

This isn’t a niggling narratological concern, it’s a serious cultural problem. What’s good about a story is the telling, the reading, the watching, encounter, immersion, sharing — the act of communication, the provisional formation of a network which includes reader, text, artists, imagined-artists (notions which complicate the reading experience), setting, moment… Surprise, as Joss Whedon puts it, is a ‘holy emotion,’ and even in the small doses afforded by the ‘literary novel,’ surprise is an essential element of the fictional contract. But it seems that more and more Americans are terrified of surprise. Parents, bosses, workers, people on dates, schoolteachers, students(!), and of course Discerning Media Audiences — we imbue surprise and uncertainty with anxiety (wishing not to be tested, to risk our precious selves, in a world where the Self is our only permanent or meaningful possession) and seek dumbly to control our microworlds instead of seeking out or cocreating new ones.

Serial novels (‘franchises’) sell like hotcakes, ‘literary’ fiction all but disappears. We read a dozen reviews before settling on a TV show. We ‘swipe right’ based on the literal covers of figurative books. Theaters (both cinemas and the other sort) run only remakes and sequels. We seek out films by particular studios. We welcome a new era of nakedly partisan pseudojournalism. A man who plays a businessman on television becomes president on the strength of his ‘business acumen.’ We are horrified by the news but can hardly pretend to be surprised…

In the grand scheme of things, ‘spoilers’ are a small thing. But as we reconceive what stories and storytelling are, what they’re for, we incur hidden costs. One honourable task for ‘critics’ in this fallen era would be to tally up those costs.

P.S. Scott Alexander writes authoritatively (vs anecdotally) about the value of ‘trigger warnings’, which I pass on as countermelody to my naïve carrying-on about ‘surprise’ as a pillar of fictional experience.

Panjanconundrum.

Desperate to write something, trying, trying, but it’s all just shit.

How’s your Sunday?

A note about Terry Pratchett, to keep you from getting cocky.

Between 1989 and 1992, Terry Pratchett wrote sixteen books.

Sixteen: 16.

One of them is Good Omens, which admittedly he only cowrote and which I can take or leave, honestly.

Ten (10) of them are Discworld novels, including Pyramids, Reaper Man, Witches Abroad, and the next two — Small Gods and Lords and Ladies — which are considered some of Pratchett’s best work. Small Gods in particular is the consensus pick for ‘peak Pratchett,’ near as I can tell.

Oh, and some short stories and a computer game and so forth. No big deal.

So next time you let yourself think Man, I’m really good at my job…

Protocols.

Wellllllll, but perhaps we are about to discuss a paraphilia or two.

(This I wrote in mid-January, for reasons I can no longer recall, and wouldn’t admit to even if I could. Onanism? Yes, I suppose it is. But here you are, Reader(s), subjecting yourself to the one-man show. –wa.)

Notebooks

Light. As a man of wealth and^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H taste, I naturally keep a variety of notebooks — not quite ‘one for every occasion’ but I do cover the bases. I’m not a fetishist, really, but there’s a lite ritual quality to my notebook buying. I keep Leuchtturm 1917 books, which look like Moleskines but with (1) nicer apparatus in a bunch of small ways, e.g. the contents listing, page numbers, dots, rear folders, and (2) different proportions, which I much prefer. I’ve got a stack of used/filled Moleskines upstairs; they’re fine too.

The day-to-day is an A5 (5.71×8.27). Compared to trade paperback size (6×9), it’s a touch roomier on the line and the slight but perceptible squatness feels great in the hand. Big enough to feel like a proper notebook/journal, small enough to stack with works of plodding workmanlike lunacy like, say, Montauk Revisited, about which more later.

Last year I picked up an A4 notebook for (hahaha) big picture stuff and schematic notes — this is where, say, book outlines go. This is where my son and I are mapping our expedition to Thunderdelve Mountain. Dotted pages, twice the size of the A5. Taking it out feels decadent and faintly ludicrous — it monopolizes the table — but filled A4 pages feel just ace. There’s a curious psychic pressure to write only ‘impressive’ things in this book. I knew that’d happen, frankly, and that’s half the reason I bought the book, for that novel mildly unpleasant sensory/emotional weirdness. It does feel nice to write in a carefree way on a large canvas — ask any kid. There’s a biohazard warning sticker on the front. A notebook without a sticker feels like ostentation.

worldbuilding. I’ve also got a handful of pocket Moleskines around. What’s the term, ‘ubiquitous capture’ or somesuch? There was a genuinely humiliating cultural moment when people with expensive degrees used the term ‘hipster PDA’ to mean ‘a stack of 3×5 cards clipped together in your pocket.’ I wrote a book lampooning these people, called Fixing You. Excerpts appeared in a self-published essay/&c. collection of mine, Falsehoods, Concerns. Maybe someday I’ll rewrite the abysmal last chapter (with its decent last line) and publish the whole thing.

On 2 January, feeling resolute, I rode to Bob Slate to buy a planner. Instead I picked up this odd little ‘Some Lines a Day’ journal. The schtick is that each of 365(!) dated pages is divided into five sections, each with a little ’20__’ space for the year; you work through it over the year then start over, one section down, for five years. Neat little structure, and it’s a solid notebook — too thick to comfortably carry anywhere, though, and not made for full-on journal writing. But I don’t do that anyway.

Pens

Carry a highlighter. Trust me.

Two pens. First, Dr Grip, which uses G2 gel refills so it’s cheap and which has a big rubber grip so it feels nice in the hand. My wife and I have gone through a bunch of these over the years — for some reason they split in half easily. Totally worth it though. Actual pen fetishists have problems with G2s for reasons I can’t begin to fathom. To hell with those guys; normal human beings will do quite well with one of these.

Second, one of the silliest things I own, a Baltz pen (from the Kickstarter). It was a Christmas gift from a dear friend with more refined taste in pens than I can afford to have. With the original ink cartridge in, it was the most sensually pleasurable writing experience I’ve ever had: this perfectly weighted and proportioned bullet of a pen which moved like silk over skin. The refill cartridges I’ve used have been underwhelming.

Venue

I write most weekdays at Render Coffee, down in Boston on Columbus off Mass Ave. (Or I did, until the brake line snapped on my bike.) It’s about a five-mile ride from my house, straight shot, so when the weather’s decent the ‘commute’ is a perfect mental reset before and after work. One hesitates to call Boston biking meditative — everyone who drives here is a murderous asshole — but I enjoy the ride. Render serves good coffee, plays fine writing music (until mid-afternoon, when things get more intrusive), and serves excellent rosemary-potato breakfast sandwiches. I like the baristas, who with one or maybe two exceptions are extremely relaxed human beings.

herrod-on-the-reik, the steel city Failing that: the Cambridge Public Library (main branch) has loads of uncomfortable seats and the most natural light in town, Le’s in Harvard Square will sell you a day’s worth of calories in the form of the fried rice combination plate for $9, Life Alive in Central Square has killer vegan meals and is handily close to Rodney’s Bookstore and our local nerd store Pandemonium Books & Games, the BPL is a superb work environment when the jackhammers aren’t running (in summer the courtyard is Boston’s loveliest writing spot, though a bit antiseptic some days), and Cafe Luna puts out one of the heartiest salads in Cambridge.

Venue is important, though less so for me than for, say, a sculptor or painter or playwright.

Ears

Carry earplugs. ALWAYS CARRY EARPLUGS. They’re cheap, they work, and they instantly turn most urban environments into quiet writing environments.

Instrumental music, obviously; writing to other people’s words, sung or spoken, is hard. Stars of the Lid, Jon Hassell, certain Phish/Dead improv, Ornette’s Prime Time, Jonny Greenwood’s soundtrack stuff, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, the Solaris score, Frippertronics, Soft Machine, and recently a lot of Software.

Learn to make a proper seal with your ear buds — it’ll allow you to hear clearly at low volume and will restore proper bass response, so you won’t have to blow out your eardrums. Remember that hearing loss is generally irreversible, and take it from me that tinnitus is potentially dangerous to your mental health.

Books

I don’t know how people can carry only one book around and live with themselves.

atonement with the father. Lately I’m reading a bit of Joseph Campbell, Timothy Zahn’s original ‘Thrawn trilogy,’ some Barbara Tuchman, some Philip K Dick, some David Simon (I’m not convinced that I need to finish Homicide). I just read Kripal’s Mutants & Mystics, which I’m hesitant to review at present for complicated reasons, and the first two books of Viriconium by M John Harrison, which make me embarrassed for for nearly every SF writer who isn’t M John Harrison.

(The hero’s-journey pic is actually from Andrew Rilstone’s book on Star Wars, which I heartily recommend.)

With the Kripal book I started using David Seah’s book outliner, which I’d printed ages ago but couldn’t be bothered to actually try out. It works. Give it a go.

Blog

Cranium-shattering levels of genius wasted, WASTED, on absolutely vapid content.

Perils of Internet microfame, stanza one billion.

You see this arc over and over in the over-30 set — the generation that came of age without ubiquitous Internet:

Someone more or less good with words (and usually bad with people) gets a taste of Internet notoriety and accumulates a small but devoted following. As his voice grows confident and identity becomes complexly bound up in his ongoing Internet performance, his online persona becomes an extraordinarily rich character. This phase can last a couple of years. It is (in my case, it was) a good time to be online. The voice comes easily — it’s improvising in character, and autobiography is permitted, so there’s a deep well of character to draw on.

He’s very productive during this time. His best work.

But microfame is addictive, particularly for academics and writers, long unaccustomed to the fast enthusiastic feedback cycle and fast-moving ‘social’ dimension of online interaction. And online life is a magnet for sociopaths, troglodytes, and the socially malformed, who might value the distance and pseudonymity of the Net for normal healthy reasons but who are nonetheless a huge drag for everyone else.

Tender souls who’ve gotten a taste of microfame quickly harden themselves against what they take to be unjust or unkind attention. They shut off comments sections, no longer deign to discuss what they’ve written, and withdraw into their personae — tending toward self-aggrandizement and self-parody. Myopia.

They always get much less funny in the process. That’s the most predictable part.

This isn’t just a matter of losing their hunger. Most of these folks never ‘make it big,’ they just get a slightly higher dose of microfame. I’ve come to believe that the quickness and finality of this transformation — which has turned a hell of a lot of once-interesting human beings into petty, bitter, contemptuous assholes over the last 15 years — is largely a function of the destabilizing feedback cycles built right into the blog medium (and its online-magazine descendants).

(Instead of naming the assholes I’m talking about, I’ll mention one semifamous blogger-journo who’s avoided this trap: Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo. But I’m sure you can come up with your own examples — and no, Andrew Sullivan doesn’t count. He was in the game long enough to make it out the other side, and his relatively open-access approach fortunately mitigated his horrifying tendencies. To an extent.)

Scattered observations on RPG style, tweet-aggregator/aggravator edition.

Just testing out tweet embeds (and wishing the phrase ‘tweet embeds’ didn’t exist), no big deal.