On Aging

So we’ve cracked the code on DNA and life expectancy is racheting up greatly in the developed countries. Will we all end up a bunch of geriatrics in our nineties or past the century mark dealing with a host of other issues our predecessors did not have to concern themselves with: losing control of bodily functions, or our mind, watching our friends (even children) pass away and having to build new relationships all the time when we would rather not bother? Losing vitality at the moment when we need it the most to face these personal changes and losses. When I see the new growth industry in nursing homes, I think we have already arrived.

There is a lot of hope for the longevity camp when I see athletes in their 50’s ( and even 60’s) performing at the Olympics ( not winning, though). But I have only to visit one of those nursing homes and see the not•so•lucky ones parked in legions of wheelchairs, doped out of their minds, forgotten by loved ones who are embroiled in their own life struggles, waiting for the end that is less forthcoming than the ready supply of drugs•on•the•hour that keep them thus suspended and manageable by care workers.

Is being propped up with a host of medications preferable to passing away with dignity, and with all faculties intact when one’s purpose in life is served? Would euthanasia become an over•the•counter purchase in a pharmacy, as much as DNA controlling drugs would be in the future?

The House of Words

I enter the House of Words every day to find the appropriate ones that describe my stories. These stories come as pictures in my head, snapshots that fade no sooner they appear, like dreams. My job is to run after these illusive images with a quiver of memory arrows and shoot them down, sticking them to the page; then retrace my path and attempt to describe them with words pulled out of the House of Words.
Sometimes I am stuck for words in the heat of emotion: I open my mouth but only heat blazes from my eyes and ears; my mouth remains a void, and my heart a mass of pain.
Or I use the wrong words in speech. I use wrong words when I am lazy and relaxed, especially with loved ones or with those I feel safe. And those words cut and hurt and cause pain, even to me upon later reflection.
I must tour the House of Words thoroughly and often, practise and play with its wealth of choices, store the good ones for future use, index and memorize them, so that at the right time the precise word will jump out, written or spoken, to illuminate my thoughts, desires, fears and pains, revealing my depth to an audience.

Why I read

I read to reach beyond myself; to tap into the collective consciousness of writers greater than me. I read so that their ideas, techniques and styles will rub off and enleaven my own writing.
I read to discover new words, and for new ways of employing words. I read for my own education, with the hope that I can live many more lives than the solitary one I have.
I read because I want to cover as many geographic regions of the world that my physical body will never have the time or money to visit. And being there within the pages of a book, savour the sights, smells and cultures that flourish in those places.
I read because it is fun and harmless; I do not suffer the mindlessness of TV, the need for alcohol to fuel my senses or for others to keep me company.
I read with the hope that my example will light a fire in my children and grandchildren to come, so that they may continue reading and extend the collective consciousness of my family line towards that ultimate consciousness • being one with God.
I read because I am.

On Editing

A writer once went out into the fields of imagination and created an animal with a lion’s roar, a giraffe’s neck, a cheetah’s speed, and a horse’s gait; he gave it the vegan diet of an elephant, the conceit of a cat and the faithfulness of a dog. The animal, which the writer decided to call “Novel” due to its uniqueness, took on the colours of the rainbow as it danced in the light of a fading sun. Both writer and his creation played and frolicked until it was time to go home.
At home, he met his friends, fellow writers, who did not like the lion’s roar (too frightening) and the cheetah’s speed (too racy). The writer took them off Novel to please his friends. He met his editor, who was livid that a giraffe’s neck could go with a horse’s gait (inconsistent). The writer met his publisher, who said, “How can I sell this…this…thing?” More cuts were made to appease all aggrieved parties. Finally, the publisher was happy and petted the animal, saying, “Now you are understandable and non•threatening. Everyone will want to have a clone of you in their house. They will enjoy you on their lap in their armchair beside the fire on a winter’s evening. They might even let you live in their bookcase.”
As the publisher walked away figuring out how many clones he would make, the teary writer sat dejectedly with his animal, now reduced to a tiny dog, and said to it, “Who are you?”

Collective Guilt

A colleague of mine recently wrote to me that that members of her American family are debating the issue of that nation’s collective guilt over the Iraqi war. In Canada, federal politicians apologized last month on behalf of our collective guilt over the treatment of First Nations peoples in residential schools. Reparations were made in Japan only recently over the treatment of Korean “comfort women” during the second world war. Catholics baptize, in the belief that they are washing away the original sin of their great ancestors Adam and Eve. The list goes on…
Complacence feeds this guilt while activism, however ineffective, salves our conscience. Therefore writers write, philosophers ponder, teachers teach, politicians protest and militants militate against this tsunami of mankind’s inconsiderate historical harvest that threatens to wash us away; a flood built up of every action our ancestors took for selfish gain. And yet, salvation ( heaven, nirvana • call it what you may) is a personal journey and attained by actions of the self for the self. Even aid workers risking their lives in Africa are banking brownie points in heaven. So these past actions must have been justified at the time in the eyes of the committer, however flawed they sound to us now.
Is the key to reversing this tsunami, or at least to reduce it to a mild tropical storm, a set of self•less actions based on moral teachings, taken at a global level, in every country, in every little hamlet, for a sustained period (something akin to the 1000 years of peace foretold in the Book of Revelations), in the hope that every new good reaction will neutralize the old bad actions?
Or do we do what most people do during hurricane season: batten down the hatches, stock up on food and stay indoors in the hope that this thing blows over, that Newton’s law will fulfill itself automatically?
Or, if we still feel that salvation is a personal journey,do we do what is within our control to make this world a better place • practise random acts of kindness • a smile, a gentle touch to someone burdened, a song that infuses an audience, a poem that touches the heart, a lesson that places a younger person on the right path?
Collective or not, the guilt is within each of us, and that is the battle that needs to be fought with the tools given to us.

Mashups and Plotting a Story

I find mashups on the web are like plotting a story. You could take different dynamic webpages, cut and rearrange them into a brand new master web page that refreshes continuosly as its components change and update.
Similarly, I could take the daily newspaper, cut out all the juicy news items (man robs bank, woman jumps off bridge, flooding in the Prairies, forest fires in Northern Ontario etc.) and rearrange them into a sequence that gives me the mashup of a plot. I could then follow each plot thread dynamically until they lead to some form of conclusion (or not • stories don’t have to be conclusive these days as they seek to mirror reality as far as possible • a sign of current reading tastes).
So all to say that the concept of mashups is not new; it has existed since old Homer started writing novels. Now, was he the first novelist? Ah, but that is the topic of another discussion…

Are Writers closet Politicians or vice versa?

Many exiting political leaders, whether through retirement or being voted out of office ( or deposed, exiled, overthrown • as extreme forms of replacement) tend to write their memoirs soon afterwards, as if trying to capture that lost glory of being numero uno, as if wanting to expose the bad people and systems that led to their demise, as if asking the populace for another chance. They usually write about an imperfect universe; one fraught with human frailty where perfect solutions are impossible and closure out of reach. They write for closure.
Fiction writers create their own universe, where they preside as universal ruler, able to manipulate situations and characters at whim; build them up and put them down. They create worlds where closure is possible and theirs to bring about, if they so desire. The writer is therefore in an enviable situation relative to his political peer.
I wonder if that is why virtual communities like Second City, Facebook and others are proliferating; where the ordinary man on the street ( aka the politician • for we need politics even to survive in jobs, marriages and social relationships) creates this alter ego, the avatar ( aka the writer) in the virtual world, to be able to gain greater control and force closure when needed?

There are more writers than readers

With all the material available in blogs, self•publishing, memoirs, e•mail, instant messenger and other formats • there appears to be more writers than readers. Shrinking leisure hours due to the 24×7 work week restricts time for reading even further; and when you have to factor in time to read blogs and e•mail and instant messenger and all the other stuff that did not matter ten years ago, what is left for quality reading is abysmal.
There once used to be a mid•tier list of published books; they seem to have vanished into the realms of self•publishing or even up into the bestseller list which are marketed so hard these days, some people buy them out of curiosity. I wonder how many books sit on shelves • purchased due to peer pressure or in a spirit of self•indulgence • and are never read? I have many of those too: some purchased at book launches by writers I know but am too polite to refuse an autographed copy from • after all, they buy mine!
And so they sit • books in search of readers, books mined from the collective consciousness of an aging but educated generation that feels each member has at least one good story in them.
Has this cycle occured some time before in history or is this the first time? And what do writers do in this cycle? Continue to write books and stories that come from within and hopefully inspire readers, or chuck up the pen and take up golf or some other hobby that thare aging bodies can cope with? Any insights from anyone reading this would be welcome. I sometimes feel that I am the man on the island sending out notes in bottles with this blog. Hopefully, there is still a reader out there who is not overwhelmed with blogs, e•mail, self•publishing, bestselling non•sellers, memoirs and instant messenger to stop and read this • and write back!

The hurry to write

Writing comes in bursts of anxiety, like those pangs of mortality that strike us every time someone known to us dies. What if it is me the next time? Gee I’d better write it all down for my progeny before its too late. But the images and experiences that accumulate and get stored in this hard drive I call my consciousness is a vast territory to be mined. I am not sure I can write it all down, at least not in this lifetime. That is why “writer’s block” doesn’t mean much to me. Writer’s block occurs when the writer and the editor start off on the same foot at the same time (this will be the subject of one of my later posts).
The rush to write creates its own excellence ( by page six I am on a roll) and its own garbage ( by page 10, its pretty much a regurgitation of an old tape somewhere; the cliches abound and the drama sags). I don’t think I will ever enter a 3•day novel writing contest for that reason.
My hope is that one day (before that mortality thing comes up with my number) I will be able to collect these anxious bursts of writing and sift through them to leave behind a few gems from amidst the flotsam of my life’s experiences.

Quality vs. Quantity

I recently received some editorial feedback that two linked short stories would be better extended into a novel. Taking that feedback to heart I have been cranking out an average of 10 pages a day over the last three weeks. And yes, the plotline is still intact, with plenty more room for character development, sub•plot introduction, scene setting, musing, poetry and other embellishments. But the pace flags in places; how does one keep it up? Often, I wonder whether the original stories had better quality.
The shortest story I ever wrote was 10 words: “Nine months after the blackout in Toronto, he was born.” Now perhaps, this was too short. I missed on the factors that led to the great power failure in this world•class city (a bomb, perhaps, to add intrigue), the love affair that led to this character’s birth, why his parents (were they even married?) preferred to make love in the dark…oh, the lost opportunities!
Somewhere between my 10 word story and the full fledged novel lies the optimum length of story. How does a writer know when it is time to switch off the computer?