Writing About Time

In fiction, both written and on-screen, there are certain “uninvented inventions” whose properties transcend any one story. We know how these things work, how they operate, and when they appear in a new story we understand their import just as well as we understand anything familiar from the real world.

Faster-than-light travel, for example. Virtually all fiction that deals with interstellar distances employs some method of getting around the problem of relativity for both travel and communication. Usually, either the method involves shifting to some alternate form of reality where the rules are different (subspace in Star Trek, hyperspace in Star Wars), or using a wormhole or some equivalent artificial shortcut to render distances moot (2001: A Space Odyssey and its sequels, Ursula K. LeGuin’s Hainish Cycle). In reality, it’s far from clear whether any such thing is even remotely possible, but in fiction we’re used to it. We buy it, emotionally speaking.

I once attended a talk by a philosophy student who referred to these things as “unfilled categories,” or perhaps a similar phrase I now forget…she included not only technology but also biological and spiritual phenomena that exist in the popular mind, but not otherwise, pointing out that some of these categories have since been filled (space ships and robots, for example). She argued that the category “undead” has now been filled by…wait for it…frozen sperm. Human sperm can’t live more than 48 hours, and dead sperm can’t impregnate a woman. Since frozen sperm can be thawed and used years after collection, it violates both the “live” and “dead” categories and is therefore undead. The talk was very entertaining, but logically, quite sound.

Uninvented inventions, or unfilled categories, can be used to explore possibilities. As I’ve discussed before, over a century of fiction dealing with the possibility of artificial life has prepared us to ask some very important questions about the genetic engineering technology we now have. Writers can also use uninvented inventions to avoid having to deal with certain inconvenient truths, such as the speed-of-light barrier. Finally, there are simple flights of fancy—like time travel.

We all know how time travel in fiction works.

Young Marty McFly, for example, goes back in time and meets his parents as teenagers. Unfortunately, his mother-to-be ends up more interested in him than in his father-to-be, so he must play matchmaker for his parents or disappear, never having been born. He is successful, and returns to his own time, pleased to discover that his intervention gave his father the necessary confidence to become a much cooler dad. Everyone lives happily ever after (after the sequels). Right?

Right, but if Marty McFly had failed in his matchmaking, and ceased to exist, then how could he have interrupted his parents’ courtship? He wouldn’t exist! Logically, it should be impossible to go back in time and change history in such a way as to prevent the time travel in the first place. For the same reason, all plots that involve someone going back in time to solve a problem shouldn’t work, because once the problem is solved, the motivation for time travel disappears. There are other severe rational inconsistencies. And yet we are all so familiar with the conventions of fictional time travel that these plots work emotionally.

Look, I’m not trying to say that everybody is doing time travel wrong. Fictional conventions have their own integrity, and many of these stories are a lot of fun. Why do children returning from Narnia revert to their old physical age but retain their memories of their years in the otherworld? Because magic, that’s why. As long as fiction is sufficiently believable to permit willing suspension of disbelief, that’s good enough.

And yet if you really want a story about what time travel is like, the current body of stories won’t provide.

The central problem with typical time travel stories is revealed when you imagine what the story looks like from the perspective of an objective observer in a normal time sequence, not the time-traveling protagonist. Take Marty McFly, again. He and the DeLorean appear suddenly in a farm field out of nowhere, thus violating the First Law of Thermodynamics, which states that matter and energy can neither be created nor destroyed. Where did they come from? The future? But that’s not a “where.” How and why does traveling in time mean showing up in a place where your existence cannot be accounted for by the laws of physics?

When time traveling, shouldn’t you show up in a place where you actually were at the time you are going to? Shouldn’t going back in time look like rewinding to an earlier part of the movie? An earlier page of the book? Shouldn’t time travel simply be a form of perfect memory?

The reason I bring all this up is that, as delightful as the typical time travel narratives are, it would be nice to see what a good writer could do with a clean slate and a rigorously logical approach. What stories might be possible with time travel framed as a shift in perspective, not quasi-physical movement?

This is the central difference between science fiction as it is typically practiced, in which the story comes first and realistic speculation may be compromised as needed for the good of the story, and science-based fiction, which is what I write. In the latter, an adherence to realism itself generates the story.

The result is not necessarily without wonder and whimsy. Remember that as flexible and powerful as imagination is, fantasy is always limited by the imaginer. Reality is where we can go to be surprised.

Realistic time travel has been done in fiction, by the way. Read Slaughterhouse Five, by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

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Lost Stories, Part IV

I am, little by little, telling the stories of the various novel ideas I’ve had along the way but did not pursue. Could I go back and finish them? Maybe, in at least some cases, but the issue is I don’t really want to. It’s not that I gave up, it’s that these projects never acquired the necessary vitality to come to term. And yet, each of them helped develop some aspect of my style or my process, or some theme or maybe a character that is part of my creative life, still.

These stories are part of my story.

I had been going in chronological order, but the last one I described dates from my late teens (my Star Trek novel-that-wasn’t), and there is another from my early adolescence I’ve skipped over. Here it is.

The Cat Story

This one never even had a working title, not that I can remember, anyway. It barely even had a plot. And yet there was a while when I was developing it alongside the unrelated Central American novel, and I was fairly sure both would be completed and published someday. Perhaps that’s what makes some of these memories so poignant–I had such high hopes. I was twelve.

The basic idea for the cat story was that ordinary house cats turn out to be a highly organized and hyper-intelligent species, and that at some point in the near future they simply decide to take humanity in hand. They decide, in essence, that humans have botched things up pretty badly and can no longer be allowed to run things.

So, the cats completely re-organize the United States (I don’t remember if the coup was worldwide or only in the US), and fix all our political economic, and environmental problems for us. Everything fixed, we’re allowed to regain our autonomy, presumably chastened.

I had a few scenes planed out involving the cats’ initial revelation of their abilities and intentions, as well as their visit to my my school: the Head Cat was touring various institutions to see which ones would be allowed to remain and which would be closed down or altered. He traveled in a car driven by an ape, who also held a red velvet pillow with gold tassels for the Head Cat to sit on when he wanted to talk to humans so that he could converse at eye-level with us. My teachers were nervous, but they eventually made the grade.

But that was about it.

I don’t know why I didn’t write in that humans would protest (of course, we would) or fight back. I don’t know why I didn’t give the cats some kind of force or method of coercion. Instead I had them more less announce “we’re in charge, now,” and humanity just said “ok.”

Probably, I just wasn’t interested in plot or character development or human reactions. I was interested in an alternate version of the United States. The cats, and the idea of the novel itself, were simply an excuse to day-dream about a better way to run my own country. I spent a great deal of time and energy figuring out all the changes the cats were going to make. I saw my book as a way to introduce my ideas to the world, and perhaps someone would act on them.

What were these ideas? I remember only two.

  1. There would be a lot more protected green space. To that end, there would be buffer zones several miles wide created along all state boundaries from which all traces of civilization, except maybe a few highways and train lines, would be removed. There would also be habitat corridors created to connect all parks and wildlife preserves to the buffer zones and to each other.
  2. There would be a second type of political subdivision of the country; in addition to the states, there would be communities, and each community would have its own citizens and its own laws, but not its own land. In essence, it was an optional tribal system, where you could join a separatist group, opt out of some (not all) of the American legal system, and opt into a separate system.

I remember having a bit of an argument over that second one. I was explaining the whole system to my mother’s boyfriend, and as an example of a possible separatist community, I suggested Nazis. He was not amused. I had no idea how to extricate myself, and I let the subject drop. But, really, I didn’t mean to imply support for racists and such–I was trying to choose a deliberately extreme example, to say even Nazis would be free to do what they want to other Nazis. That was the key. The separatist laws would only apply to group members, and you could leave a group any time you wanted, for whatever reason. The Nazis would be harmless, because no Jews (or Gypsies, or gay people, etc.) would opt to join the Nazi group.

I don’t remember why or when I let the project drop, or even how long I worked on it. I do know that by the time I entered boarding school, at age 15, I had all but forgotten about it. Only recently did I begin thinking about the project again–and realize that the ideas of the cat story have never really left me.

Where Did the Cat Story Come From?

The cat story sounds juvenile, in no small part because I was myself juvenile at the time, but it grew out of my conviction that there is a better way to run this country and my doubt that we will do the right thing voluntarily. I still hold that conviction and that doubt, and I still hope that fiction can prompt public conversation–and maybe action–in spite of that doubt.

My thought that the US could be different than it actually is came from a school assignment, one of the best classroom activities I’ve ever heard of. We had been studying American History and so we, as a group, started to rewrite the US Constitution. We pretended that our class was the original constitutional convention, and we debated, discussed, and voted on many of the questions that the real Constitution covers. Who counts as a citizen? Who gets to vote? Who can hold which office and for how long?

We never finished the project–I think the teachers ended it because it was taking too long, and the point had already been made; the way our country runs is not written in stone. It could have been different than it is, and it is not out of line for any American to think about ways it might be better.

I thought and thought…and the cat story was one early result.

Where Did the Cat Story Go?

I have not stopped thinking about how else things might be run. In fact, the book I’m writing now began as a variation of the same daydream, where an outside event pushes humans to make some major changes we would not otherwise accept. The only difference is that this time the outside force is a killer pandemic, rather than a coup by hyper-intelligent house cats.

This time the daydream remained a daydream. I did not pretend that a scenario could be a novel if it lacked a plot. But then one day a plot and some characters bloomed in the world the daydream had created, and I started writing. The new book is not a vehicle to talk about political fantasy, and in fact very little of the fantasy made it into the story. That post-pandemic America will one day have a tricameral legislature–or a new and improved (Nazi-free) version of my optional tribal structure–is irrelevant to the plot and does not appear in the book.

But daydreaming about a better Constitution remains a preoccupation of mine. It has been a fertile daydream, and maybe someday it will help, somehow.

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“That’s Our Word, Now”

Recently, Bill Maher used “the N-word” publicly (to refer to himself, jokingly), subsequently issued an apology, and was later “schooled” on the subject, on air, by Ice Cube.

“School” is the verb used by the Daily Beast in the article I’ve linked to, and it is a good word, carrying, as it does, not only connotations of criticism and dominance, but also the idea of education. Ice Cube not only told Maher that he was wrong, he explained why Maher was wrong, and he did it in a very caring and friendly way.

Among other things he said, “that’s our word, now, and you can’t have it back.”

Now, I could go on at some length about bad words and their use–and I may, in another post. I’ve already written about not using them. Generally, I find it personally, artistically, and politically irritating when a word for a group of people is declared unusable, even in quotes. The “N-word,” for example. Why can’t I just write the word? Simply state the word that this post is about, simply so we’re all clear about what I mean? I clearly wouldn’t be using it at anyone, and by refraining from using it I’m not really doing anything to help. Nobody is going to say “Hey, Caroline Ailanthus didn’t write the N-word in a blog post, I guess that means I shouldn’t call the cops on that black man for looking suspiciously brown. And hey, when I go into work tomorrow, I’m going to give that woman with the black-sounding name a job interview. Her resume looks really good, and I’ve been being stupid.”

And I could use the word. Perhaps in another post I will. But it feels unclean and transgressive to do so, and I’m aware that it is becoming standard not to.

Like I said, I could go on at great length about why eliminating words in this way is a bad idea, why it’s much better to reclaim those words, or claim them for the first time, as has been done with “gay” and “witch.” I may be right…but I admit that part of my irritation here is simply that I don’t like being told what to do. I’ve never used the N-word for real (as opposed to when quoting someone else or when discussing the word itself), and I probably never would have, but I’ll probably never order a beer, either, yet it would irritate me if someone told me I couldn’t (I’m a teetotaler by choice, and find the scent of beer unpleasant, anyway).

But it’s not my word. I’m white.

Ice Cube’s articulation of principle, that the N-word belongs to black people now, is simple and clear and immediately intuitive. He’s right. I’m sure that he is right, and in putting it that way he makes a lot of other things make a lot more sense to me. I had thought that the public eclipse of the N-word indicated a curious weakness, a willingness to cede the meaning of the word to those who use it as an insult, as a weapon–in contrast to the word “gay,” which was an insult and is no longer, thanks to the work of gay people to claim it for their own. But if you own a thing, that means you get to decide what to do with it. Ice Cube is asserting that he, and those like him, do own that word now, and have simply decided not to share it. There is a lot of power in that.

(I don’t assume this decision was unanimous; no group of people has only one perspective)

This whole idea, that a people can own a word and deny its use to outsiders, reminds me of another issue I’ve seen floating around, one with particular resonance for writers: cultural appropriation.

As a white writer, is it ok for me to have a black protagonist? As a gentile, is it ok for me to have a Jewish protagonist?

As a storyteller of European descent, I feel comfortable with European folklore–Baba Yaga, Cinderella, the Big Bad Wolf, and that wonderful fool, Jack. But what about Changing Woman? Coyote? Brer Rabbit? Rainbow Serpent? Is it ok for me to tell their stories, and if it is not, why not?

On the one hand, yes of course it is ok to write about people who are unlike oneself and to learn from other people—otherwise, we’d all be engaged in nothing but the most navel-gazing of memoir. On the other hand, to write about someone else over their objections just because we can, without even trying to understand why, is obnoxious at best.

Of course, there are a couple of different issues, here, but the one I want to talk about is ownership—who can properly by said to own an item of culture?

Here is a way to think of the issue that should make sense to writers: copyright.

I own these words. I don’t own the individual words, but I do own this particular arrangement of them, the one you’re reading now. International and US copyright law says that the act of creating copyrightable material confers copyright all by itself. If I don’t register the copyright I might have a hard time defending it in court, but the underlying principle is that we own what we write because we write it.

That is a very specific approach to intellectual property, and it’s obviously not the only possible approach. The law could have been written differently, and until relatively recently, it was. The underlying philosophy could also be different–it’s easy to imagine a society where individual creative output is simply not considered ownable, or some other variation.

Definitions of property in general are culturally variable. We know this, because we argue about definitions. Can a human being be owned? What about human tissue? Does the fact that something is owned mean it can’t have rights before the law, or do animals have rights? Can land be owned? I learned in school that Native Americans sold land to European colonists because they did not imagine land could be owned the way an object can be–they thought they were selling non-exclusive use rights only. I have since learned that was at best a radical oversimplification, but it’s an interesting idea and food for thought. Actually, in modern American law, land ownership doesn’t work the same way object ownership does, which is why we can be taxed on our land every year, but only pay taxes on objects at the point of sale. There are other avenues of philosophical contention. But you get the point.

One particular form of ownership we tend to struggle to understand is the commons. The term is most familiar in reference to shared pasturage, in part because that’s what the famous park, the Boston Commons, once was–a place where city residents could all graze their cattle.

The Tragedy of the Commons” is the idea, introduced in an article of the same name by Garrett Hardin, that common ownership of land is terrible for conservation because users lack any personal stake in the health of the land as a whole. Each user has instead an economic incentive to get as much use out of the commons as possible in order to compete with other users who are doing the same, leading to degradation of the whole. But as my friend and teacher Charles Curtin has argued, that’s not what a commons is. A real commons is not land owned by nobody and used freely by many independent individuals, but rather land owned by a community. Community members don’t act as independent agents each pursuing their own self-interest. They share a sense of group identity and group responsibility, and they also are subject to a system of community-enforced rules–graze more than your fair share of cattle on the commons, and your neighbors will ensure you pay for it.

Hardin made the mistake of confusing collective ownership with no ownership at all—and most of his readers made exactly the same mistake, which is why his idea has become received wisdom in some circles. That a community might have its own cohesive identity and authority seems counterintuitive to many, possibly due to an erosion of community itself, an erosion that is at least in part deliberate. Conquest and colonization obviously seek to undo their victims’ authority and autonomy, and the same processes operate within imperial countries as well, against local-scale communities and subcultures, to create economic and political unity and preclude dissent. The basic tension between community and centralized authority has been written about extensively by Gary Snyder and other authors. Suffice it to say here that multiple forms and systems of ownership exist and that to deny the existence of someone else’s system is an effective way to rob and demoralize them simultaneously.

You don’t own this land in MY lawbooks, therefore you don’t own it at all, therefore it is mine.

Now, is it possible that the concept of “commons” can be applied to intellectual property as well? Might communities own their stories, their songs, their names, their hairstyles, and everything else, the same way they own their land?

I don’t mean “creative commons,” a legal status within copyright law, I mean the principle that communities own their own cultures simply by virtue of having created them.

We agree that stories can be owned, as can technologies, as can names—we do it through the legal mechanisms of copyright, patent, and trademark, but might there be other mechanisms not currently recognized by US law but still carrying moral weight?

By this logic, I can’t tell the stories belonging to a culture I’m not part of for the same reason I can’t appropriate stories belonging to a corporation I’m not part of. If I want to tell a Star Trek story, I have to follow the rules laid out by Paramount Pictures, which owns the copyright—and Paramount is under no obligation to allow outsiders to tell Star Trek stories at all. They own it, and that means they get to decide what to do with it. What anyone else thinks they should do is irrelevant.

As writers, we don’t like being told what to do. We don’t want to be told we can’t use certain words, names, storylines, characters, motifs, or symbols. White writers specifically, unused to being subject to the rules of communities not our own, chaff against restraint especially. Sometimes we suspect a strange double-standard might be in play; since our culture is available freely to everybody, shouldn’t all cultures be?

The thing is, no it isn’t. My novel, To Give a Rose, is an item of mainstream American culture, and if you try to pretend it’s yours, or even to make and sell copies of it without my permission, I will sue you. Some items of my culture are available freely, but not all of it is.

We’re used to respecting copyright. That means both obeying copyright law and acknowledging the copyright holders have the right to make whatever decisions they want to about their work, not arguing against or second-guessing decisions we don’t like or don’t understand. We’re used to respecting trade mark as well—I can’t use the word “Xerox” without the permission of the people who own it. They’re ok with some use (I don’t have to refer to “the X-word”), but should I use it in print, uncapitalized, as a synonym for “photocopy,” or in order to say nasty things about the brand, I might well receive a “cease and desist” letter. As writers, we’re taught to respect intellectual property both because we’d rather not be sued and because these laws benefit us as well.

The N-word is owned as common property by black people. Ice Cube, acting as a representative of that community, recently issued a cease-and-desist letter on air to Bill Maher. The stories of Brer Rabbit, and the stories of Coyote, and the stories collected by the Brothers Grimm are also each owned collectively by communities, and those communities have a right to decide who gets to do what with those stories under what circumstances. The German people seem willing to share freely, but that’s their choice. Whether Disney or Warner Bros. received permission to re-tell Brer Rabbit and Coyote, respectively, I do not know.

I own these words. Because I have not registered copyright for this blog, I might not win in court if my copyright were challenged, but that doesn’t change the fact that I own them, and no ethical professional writer would plagiarize me. I could also choose not to defend my copyright, granting anyone anywhere permission to copy my stuff at least under some circumstances, but that wouldn’t change the fact that I own it (legally, copyright may be sold, given away, or lost, but it cannot be abandoned. There is no legal mechanism for giving intellectual property to the public domain–my Dad, a fellow writer, checked).

That community ownership of intellectual property cannot be defended in court and that such owners sometimes share their material freely does not lessen the moral weight of ownership. We writers might not like being told what to do, but if we want our ownership respected, we had better respect other forms of ownership as well.

That means when someone says, “this is ours, you can’t have it,” don’t argue.

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It’s Back! It’s Back!

My novel, To Give a Rose, is back among the living! You can, once again, buy it!

I’m not going to go through the entire saga of why it was out of touch and why it took so long to get it back. I’m just glad I can say I’m a published author without an asterisk again. All thanks be to Stefanie Fowler at Saltwater Media for making it happen.

Seriously, I used to think that once I found a publisher willing to say yes to my book, I’d basically be done. Perhaps there’d be a few loose ends to tie up, but basically I’d have done my part, hooray, I did it! And it would be time for other people to do their parts while I got on with writing the next book. Perhaps it works that way with some publishers, with some books, but in my experience, being a writer is a lot like being a parent in that your responsibilities change, but they never really go away. You’re never really done.

Not that I’ve ever been a parent, but I have parents, so I’m not entirely ignorant of the process.

So, the writing and editing is done, for better or worse. If I find a typo now, it’s too late! Now I have to resume marketing, a thing I do not know how to do, but will have to invent. It doesn’t help that I get overwhelmed easily and stall out, like an engine given too much gas at once. But I suppose I’ll figure that one out, too.

The other thing happening this year is I’m turning forty. I refuse to be intimidated by this fact. Older is what you get if you don’t die first, and I’m quite happy not to have died yet, thank you very much. I’m also quite happy that I am starting, ever so slowly, to stop judging myself for not being able to get done everything in a quick and straight-forward way. So what if it’s taken almost twenty years to shepherd this book from an idea into print? So what if I’ve become a great writer in the interim but have no idea what I’m doing in relation to marketing? So what if I don’t post to my blog and to social media really as often, or as regularly, as I’d like? We’re all going to die with items left on our to-do lists, anyway.

It’s not that short-comings and lapses and oversights don’t matter. They do. There are consequences. It’s that things happen over which we have no direct control and some of those things happen inside our own skulls. Others happen in the big, beautiful world out there, and in no case do I fully understand why everything is so gosh-darned difficult all the time, when it really looks like it shouldn’t be–and flagellating oneself for all of that or any of it is pointless.

I’m almost forty years old. I’m happily married, I’m currently healthy, I live in a place that is not a war zone, and I’ve managed to find a way of not only keeping my imaginary friends but getting other people to know and care about them, too.

Life is good.

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Killing Your Darlings

Among writers, the phrase “kill your darlings,” refers to editing away those parts of a document that don’t really belong, but to which you are attached. For example, those 22 pages of backstory that don’t really add anything to the plot, but which you included anyway because you’re proud of it? Yup, a darling, one that ought to be killed. A darling might actually be a character, or it could be a phrase, an idea, or even a spelling. I went through a phase of capitalizing words I considered spiritually important, like Sun and Moon. An editor explained why I should not do that and I acquiesced. Sigh. Darling killed.

Refusal to kill darlings is self-indulgent, and writers should never indulge themselves at the expense of their readers–or at the expense of the message or story they are trying to convey. You do that on your own time. When you show up for work, you’re a messenger, and you’ve got to get yourself out of the way.

One of the best pieces of writing advice I ever encountered was that writing is something like exploring and testing a structure, like a building, and that it is imperative to knock down any wall that you find does not actually support the structure–including those that originally seemed to be the point of the piece. So it’s not about denying your feelings as a writer, since you have to be able to feel when a detail has become unexpectedly important (or unexpectedly unimportant) to the story. It’s about jettisoning the self-indulgent.

But “kill your darlings” can mean something else, too.

Fiction writers, not infrequently, write about the deaths of their characters. And we like our characters, love them, sometimes. This is especially poignant when you consider that a lot of fiction writers consider our characters real. We argue with them, listen to them, take dictation from them…the objective reality of the situation is far from clear (are these beings fantasies? Alternate personalities? Ghosts? Faeries? Is their autonomy an illusion, or are they really real?), but the subjective sense is insistent; fiction is a collaborative effort between authors and their otherwise invisible friends.

To be clear, writing a death scene does not end the relationship. There’s still editing involved, after all, and maybe revisions or flashbacks to write. Even after a book is done, it’s sometimes possible to retain a connection with its protagonist. Writing a death scene does not cause the invisible friend to vanish. But it’s still hard. You write the thing and think maybe if I just wrote it differently. Or, if I don’t type these words, if I type different words, this person I care about can live longer. Happier. I am in charge. I could do this. Except you’re not in charge. Fiction writers are never in charge, not really. You have to be true to the story, as well as true to the people in it, and the story says this person dies here.

Fiction writing feels like observation, more than anything else. Changing the plot once it is established in your mind would feel dishonest. You’d think but that’s not what really happened.

I don’t tend to go easy on my character’s lives. Some writers do, at least for their protagonists. I mean, I used to kind of wish I were a Barbara Kingsolver character. Sure, they go through some difficult things, but they usually end up self-possessed and personally fulfilled by the end of the story, with a circle of loving friends. A really hot guy usually appears somewhere along the way. But I don’t envy my own characters.  I put them through too much. And sometimes I feel bad for that.

Many years ago, I noticed a line in a Don McLean song that triggered one of the most productive trains of thought I’ve ever had:

Weathered faces, lined in pain, are soothed beneath the artist’s loving hand.

The artist in question was Vincent van Gogh, and the line recollects the painting, The Potato Eaters. But what jumped out at me was the verb, “soothed.” If painted faces are unhappy, how can the painter be said to have soothed them? After all, the act of painting is what put those pain-lines there to begin with. Wouldn’t a compassionate artist paint happy people?

Of course, the entire point of The Potato Eaters is that they aren’t happy. That is their truth, and van Vogh honored that truth in his painting. A painting about happy people eating potatoes would be a painting of different people. Turning those frowns upside down with a stroke of a brush would be an act of denial, not of kindness.

Is it possible, then, for an artist (or a writer) to enact compassion by creating a character in pain, and thereby witnessing and honoring the truth of that character?

In that case, I can say to my protagonists, I’m sorry you had to go through that. I’m sorry everything was so difficult for you. But you didn’t go through any of it alone. I was always there with you, watching, and all of it meant something. And when you come to die, I will still be with you, putting words to things, and caring about you.

Would I accept that, were I in his shoes?

I might. And I might be in his situation. I don’t know that I’m not somebody’s character, and that possibility is preferable to some others. It is an existence with meaning. Many people have described God as an artist, so that idea isn’t new or without merit.

If God is indeed a writer, then praying for a happier ending is pointless–the scenes we get are the ones the plot demands. Something bigger than us is at stake. No writer singles a favorite character out for better treatment at the expense of the plot. The flipside here is that pain and difficulty don’t have to cause anyone to feel abandoned or meaningless. You did nothing wrong, and God loves you just as you are. This is just the way the story goes.

But the issue of writing about a protagonist’s death is a bit different than writing about pain, because no matter how gentle I was with my characters, they would still die eventually–whether I wrote about it or not. I don’t typically write about immortal beings. I’m not deciding that my characters die, therefore. That’s a given. I’m deciding that when they die, they get to do it with my company, my witness. Wouldn’t that be a comfort? Isn’t that better? And yet to write about the death of a character I like is still difficult.

These scenes are difficult, but, curiously, not final. Right now, for example, I’m working on a short story (possibly a novella) that ends with the death of my protagonist, Andy. And yet, I’m simultaneously working on other stories in which that same character is very much alive. I can see his life as a whole in my mind, and I can focus on any point within that life that I want to. I can watch his birth (natural. Afterwards, his parents argued about whether to have him circumcised), his childhood (lonely, often frustrated, but stubborn), his adolescence (prescribed Ritalin for ADD, he saved and sold the pills and used the money to buy a mountain bike), or any other part of his life. The are all equally real. His death does not end him, except in the sense that an object, such as a pencil or a fork, has an end. One end of a pencil is pointy. The other one usually has an eraser.

Now, my non-fictional friend, Gary, died recently. I don’t know the circumstances of his birth. I know very few of the episodes of his life, only those which he has told me. Even if I did know him much more intimately than I do, his death would still rob me of further experience of his life, because I can’t experience the past as vividly as I experience the present. I have his letters, and shall keep them, but it does matter to me that I won’t get another letter from him. And yet, since the end of the fictional Andy does not invalidate or destroy his middle, and the end of a pencil does not invalidate or destroy the pencil, why should the end of Gary invalidate or destroy him? He exists only in the past, but he does exist.

Once you kill your darlings, the world starts looking different. And that’s a good thing.

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Lost Stories, Part III

I’d intended to do my “lost stories” series in chronological order, but intention and fact tend to be two different things. And I’ve been reading a lot of Star Trek books lately.

See, one of my lost stories, one I actually came very close to writing, was a Star Trek book.

I mean a novel written within the world of Star Trek, for those who are not familiar. I am, indeed, a Trekkie, of the moderate and largely literary sort. I enjoy several of the TV shows and the movies, but I’ve always liked the books best (original series, please). The special effects are much better, for one thing. For another, freed from the constraints of episodic TV and movies, the books can get into an incredible richness of detail about the characters, their cultures, their universes.

As a kid, I knew only that I liked the books. I liked having an essentially infinite supply of stories about the same characters, the same narrative structure, and the same types of adventures. I liked being able to revisit the same complex fantasy whenever I liked. I never thought that they were all excellent literature–I recognized most as good only if for readers who are already emotionally committed to Trek. A few I considered genuinely good novels. As an adult, though I no longer read Trek often, I stand by these judgments and I am, moreover, impressed that so many authors managed to effectively capture the voices of the same characters and to follow to same plot formulae in creative and vivid ways.

Anyone can write a Star Trek book. I looked up the rules in the early 1990’s, and as I recall, you need to ask for permission from Paramount, which owns Star Trek, but permission will likely be granted if your story has the general structure and tone of Trek and focuses on the main characters. It is ok to introduce additional protagonists, but the officers of the Enterprise cannot be marginalized. You also have to conform to all the known “facts” of the fantasy, as laid out in extant TV episodes and movies–but subsequent TV episodes and movies do not have to conform to extant books, only to the other TV episodes and movies.

I figured I could do all that. And I probably could have. Except that I didn’t. After doing all of the pre-writing and taking some notes, I realized that I was more interested in my original characters than in the Enterprise officers, and that keeping the focus where Paramount wanted it would be irritating. I let the project drop.

And yet the story had its points and I’d like to share it in some form. Here it is.

My Star Trek Story

I forget whether it ever had a working title. Its premise grew out of a guess I had made about why Spock has so much trouble controlling his emotions.

For those who don’t know, Spock is a Vulcan/human hybrid. The Vulcans are logical, principled species who are generally understood to have no emotions. Spock looks Vulcan and strives to act Vulcan, but he has human emotions and so struggles with his dual nature–but even within canonical Star Trek, it is made clear that the general understanding of Vulcans is wrong. They do have emotions, but transcend them through an inner discipline that mixes logic and spiritual practice.

So, if Vulcans have emotions anyway, why do Spock’s human emotions give him trouble?

I’ve always liked Spock. Lots of people do, and I have posted a tribute to his excellent actor, Leonard Nimoy, elsewhere in this blog. I’ve always liked Vulcans and the descriptions of how and why they do what they do. But I never encountered a clear explanation of why Spock’s status as a hybrid should make Vulcan discipline hard for him–except for mine.

My idea is that Vulcan emotions and human emotions are subtly different, such that techniques designed for one don’t work well on the other. Spock’s problem isn’t that he is more emotional than Vulcans are, it’s that his more human psyche isn’t a good fit for the techniques Vulcans use to handle their emotions–and as a result, those techniques don’t work well for him.

So, what would happen if another hybrid had the reverse problem? A character who looks human and was raised as human, but with a Vulcan’s emotions?

Plot Synopsis

My main character, Stephen (a human name that follows Vulcan naming convention), is the son of a female Vulcan/human hybrid and a human man. He is raised on Earth, as an Earthling, but soon develops behavior problems. His parents can’t handle him. He’s defiant and volatile. He is sent to a boarding school for problem teens, but the program proves totally ineffective. Eventually, the staff reach out to Spock, who is famously the first hybrid, and he comes to see the boy. Spock recognizes that Stephen is the inverse of himself, that the boy has Vulcan emotions and needs Vulcan training. Spock arranges such training, and then returns to his job in space.

Stephen stays at the boarding school, and the program is altered for him in some way. Soon, he’s doing well and on track to graduate.

His best friend, however, is doing badly (as some humans do–the school’s program sometimes fails). The friend tries to commit suicide and Stephen uses the Vulcan mind meld (a telepathic technique), which he has just learned, in order to bring the boy out of his coma and convince him to live again. A few months later, the friend is kicked out of school for other reasons, but Stephen goes on to graduate.

Many years later, the Enterprise is coping with some kind of violent crisis on some colony planet, and they discover the crisis is being caused by none other than Stephen’s old boarding school friend, the one who got kicked out. Either Stephen is already on board, or Spock remembers that he knew a friend of the instigator and gets Stephen. In any case, it turns out that the friend became a villain because of his unresolved issues from his adolescence and Stephen resolves the situation by drawing on the memories of their friendship. The end.

Points in the Story’s Favor

You can see what I meant about not really being interested in the Star Trek part of the Star Trek story. I wanted to explore Vulcan nature from a new angle, and I wanted to write about a kid in boarding school, since I was a kid in boarding school at the time. To make a real, cohesive story of it, I’d have to make that the focus, and Paramount would not have approved.

But there were a few scenes and images that I liked.

  • Before Stephen’s birth, his mother-to-be sits in the window of her second-floor college dorm room, doing homework. A human man, Stephen’s father-to-be, stands below her window and plays a flute for her, courting her. No emotion shows on her Vulcan face, but she is impressed nonetheless, and leaps from the window to join him, landing easily thanks to superior Vulcan strength.
  • Stephen and his friends are lying out on a grassy field on campus at night, watching space ships come and go overhead towards a nearby spaceport. The huge machines make no noise as they fly. The sight impresses them, but it a normal part of their life.
  • Spock arrives on the boarding school campus, but he’s been in space a long time and has gotten used to automatic doors. So, walking around in Stephens dorm, he shows an almost imperceptible awkwardness as he comes to closed doors. It takes him a split second to remember he has to open them manually.
  • Stephen walks his friend to the campus gate on the day the latter is expelled. The weather is misty and cold and Stephen feels like a failure. Afterwards, he walks through campus and finds the executive director of the school, whose name is Michelle DiAngelo, sitting alone in a gazebo, wearing an off-white Irish sweater with drops of fog clinging to it. MC sits with her without speaking, and after a moment, she begins to sing “Bobby McGee.” She feels like a failure, too.

Looking back on it, I still like my premise. I think somebody should write a Star Trek book with that premise, but it should be someone who actually wants to write about the Enterprise officers, too. But, looking back, I can also see that the story was far more autobiographical than I thought it was at the time.

I was, as I said, at a school for problem teens. My problem was that I was depressed, but I wasn’t defiant, like most of my schoolmates, nor did I do drugs or engage in other conventionally risky behaviors. I just wasn’t the sort of kid the school was designed to handle, and while I rarely got in trouble, I could never make the program really work for me, either. I did try, and I was trying very hard during the period I thought up Stephen’s story. Unfortunately, no one thought to contact Spock for me, and I was eventually kicked out.

I did, indeed, feel like the hidden, unacknowledged alien, though I wasn’t consciously aware of that at the time. I was not merely a well-behaved depressed kid–my mind seemed to work a little differently. It still does.

Of course, lots of people think they are different or weird. Many of them are right. There are lots of ways to be abnormal, and Vulcan culture itself presents a succinct articulation of why that’s not just ok, but definitely good–the concept of IDIC, or Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations, the simple assumption that the goodness of diversity is a self-evident truth. I’ve often wondered if Spock’s status as a kind of double alien is precisely why the character has become so incredibly popular and stayed that way for so very long.

Spock is often used as a fictional example of autism. He may, in fact, have been intended as a metaphor for autism and for analogous forms of divergence from the neurotypical mainstream. If so, he’s revolutionary–because it’s always very clear that there is nothing wrong with Spock. He’s not human, and he’s not quite Vulcan, either, and that makes things difficult and painful for him, but no one ever seriously suggests that he should be fixed. In fact, his being precisely who and what he is often helps literally save the world.

I’m sure I noticed that and responded to it as a kid. Spock embodied something I desperately needed to hear–that it’s ok to be different. But with Stephen I took it one step further, very specifically declaring that treating the different as though they were not different is toxic. A Vulcan raised as human develops problems. A human raised as Vulcan develops problems, but a neurotypical kid raised as autistic would probably have issues, too. Everybody needs the guidance appropriate to their own nature to grow up well. It’s just that we don’t all get it because nature varies.

That’s roughly the conclusion I came to as an adult after reading up on dyslexia and autism and other forms of neurodivergence–my own particular version of neurodiversity theory. Only recently have I remembered Stephen and realized I’d already had the same idea, expressed in metaphor, twenty years earlier, at a time when I knew nothing about neurology, nothing about the neurodiversity movement, and wasn’t even thinking of myself as a neurodivergent person. At the time, I was deeply embedded in a pop-psych worldview and its not-terribly-helpful assumptions. I didn’t have any of the information or conceptual frameworks I needed to understand what I was really dealing with.

All I had was Star Trek. And I nailed it.

And that, friends and neighbors, is what good fiction can do.

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The 4541st Sacred Thing

A few weeks ago, my brother-in-law (my husband’s brother, not my sister’s husband, for those of you keeping track) had to downsize his lifestyle fairly abruptly. I won’t get into why. The point is that we, his family, suddenly became responsible for dealing with his massive collection of books.

Perhaps because he couldn’t help move the books himself, my brother-in-law gave us complete discretion over what to do with his library. We could have tossed them all in the Dumpster. We could have kept them ourselves. We could have sold them all and kept the money. He didn’t care. Whatever made it easier for us to help him was what he wanted done.

And there were a lot of books.

Seven bookshelves, some of them double-stacked, plus enough books in piles to fill all those shelves again. And a small storage unit filled with even more books. By my estimate, based simply on how much space they took up, I think there must have been at least 4,000 volumes.

My parents-in-law were tossing around the idea of just tossing them. I announced that I’d sort through all the books myself, if that’s what it took to save them. They seemed unconvinced. When my father-in-law casually announced that he planned on dumping them—actually planned—I startled both of us by ordering him to do no such thing.

You have to understand that, 1) I am almost pathologically agreeable and, 2) my father-in-law is a gentle and cheerful person whom no one has likely ordered to do anything since he left the Army 71 years ago.

But I did talk back to him. And I did save those books.

About half were religious in nature (my brother-in-law is a preacher), and most of those went to local churches and church members. The others were an eclectic mix dominated by history, Sherlock Holmes (mostly written by people other than Conan Doyal), and Star Trek. There were classic novels. There were cookbooks. There were guides to talking to women (written by men). There were Spanish textbooks. There were at least three copies of “Goodbye Mr. Chips.” And on and on.

My husband and I sorted through the collection together and boxed everything up. Each of us claimed a couple of boxes for ourselves. I made up boxes to order based on the interests of various friends, while he made multiple runs to area libraries for everything else Eventually, we even took the bookshelves—two of them look very nice in our room, the others we lugged up to the attic. We sold a few boxes but will not keep the money. My bother-in-law seems pleased to know that his collection is safe.

Why did I do this? Why did I insist on it being done? It’s not so much that I wanted to have them, or wanted my friends to have them, or wanted to make sure these books could be enjoyed by others—while I wanted some of those things for parts of the collection, there were others…let’s just say my brother-in-law and I do not have entirely convergent taste in books. Those guides to women, for example? I hope those were gag gifts. Really.

I guess I just consider books sacred.

As a writer, I don’t want to see anybody’s book treated like trash, even if the content is ridiculous. That’s somebody’s life work, there. Writers, editors, printers, sometimes illustrators, the labor of many people filled up those pages, and that effort deserves respect. But my respect for books goes beyond that.

Books carry culture, for better or worse. They carry history, learning, voices, ideas. Books have been copied over by monks, burned, saved from burning, smuggled into and out of oppressive regimes, prisons, and the bedrooms of adolescents. Books have both preserved and toppled empires. Books are the medium by which the dead can speak and the isolated can hear.

Books are also the medium of the free press, or part of it. What that means, at least to me, is that the act of investing pages with an item of culture has significance beyond that of the item of culture itself. I can think a book is stupid. I can think a book is insulting, hurtful, and just plain wrong, but that does not give me the right to destroy it or to allow it to be destroyed. I don’t want other people destroying books that bother them, therefore I don’t have the privilege, either. Free speech is free speech. The truth of our culture must be preserved.

Does that mean I think that literally all books, everywhere, must be preserved no matter what? No, probably not—and yet I cannot be the agent of their destruction. They’re books.

Which makes this thing we try to do, as writers, pretty awesome, if you think about it.

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