IWATH

Recently, the tor.com web site published a lovely article by Leah Schnelbach offering words of writing wisdom from David Mitchell (author of Cloud Atlas and several other novels).

If you’re a writer (or want to be one), I strongly recommend reading the article itself. But let me highlight the concept of IWATH, short for “I was there.” An IWATH moment in a piece of writing is something that makes the reader believe that the writer/narrator had to have been there when the action took place. It makes a scene seem absolutely real.

In my mind, IWATH means a detail so distinctive that it doesn’t seem like something generic that a writer might just toss in without thinking. For example, imagine a suburban backyard. There are lots of “standard” things you immediately think of: a patio, a barbecue, a swing-set, a vegetable garden, and so on. Some backyards may not have all of these things, but the features are common enough in backyards (at least in North America) that in a piece of fiction, they won’t attract much attention.

In other words, such details aren’t memorable. They’re what you’d expect. They don’t make you feel as if the writer is describing a specific backyard at a specific time. They give you a backyard that’s vague and generalized: one that doesn’t feel truly real.

An IWATH detail stands out as something that isn’t the same-old same-old. It needn’t be aggressively weird, just non-generalized. For example, the teenagers of the house may have placards laid on the lawn and they’re painting protest signs because they’re going to picket their school the next day. At the moment, they’re debating the pros and cons of putting an asterisk in place of the U in FUCK.

Suddenly, the scene is specific: not just any backyard, but a backyard belonging to a specific family whose members do specific things, and this is a specific time on a specific day. Whatever happens in the yard may have nothing to do with the protest at all—the business with the signs may just be a background detail. But it’s a non-generic detail. It seems like a real thing, so it makes the rest of the scene seem real too.

My first writing teacher, W. O. Mitchell, called these impertinences: details that make a scene feel real because they aren’t what a writer would just trot out when writing on autopilot. The tor.com article says that Mitchell tries to put three IWATH moments into every scene. If you’re a developing writer, that’s a great goal to aim for.

[Picture of clouds from flagstaffotos.com.au [GFDL 1.2], from Wikimedia Commons]

Sharing: August 16, 2018

More things I like:

Anime: Puella Magi Madoka Magica
I mentioned this in a previous post but I want to recommend it again…partly because I’ve now seen the whole series, and have started to watch it again from the beginning. So many little things in the series take on a completely different meaning once you understand what’s really going on. One particular character’s lines never mean what you originally thought they meant. Well worth watching and re-watching.
Casual Reading: The Princeton Companion to Mathematics
It’s big and expensive and frequently goes over my head even though I have a master’s degree in math…but I still had to own the book and don’t regret buying it. I’ve been working my way through it for several years now; I try to read a bit every day. It really is the best advanced-level introduction to the entire field of math that I know of. And here’s a cheat: if you think you might be interested, download the free sample of the book from Kindle. You’ll get lot of free reading so you can see if it’s your cup of tea.
Writing technique: Writing longhand
I do most of my writing at the computer, either in Scrivener or Microsoft Word. But if I really get stuck, I sit down at the dining room table and write longhand on loose-leaf paper. Writing longhand is a different experience than keyboarding. It happens at a different speed, and with a different mind-body orientation. If my brain is in a rut, or if I find myself inhibited when writing a particular scene, writing by hand almost always gets me out of the rut. Sometimes I write whole stories by hand. I think it gives them a different feel from the work I write by computer. Give it a try.

 

Lazy Good Intentions

We’re all familiar with the saying, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” But does that mean we should act from bad intentions? Obviously not. Nor does it mean that we should never do anything at all. Doing nothing can have worse results than doing something wrong.

The problem isn’t with good intentions. It’s with lazy good intentions. Half-assed good intentions. You vaguely want to do the right thing, but you don’t want to do the work of figuring out what that thing is. You want to do what will make you feel good about yourself, without seriously considering the actual effects on others.

I was prompted to write about this because I’ve been reading work by people who aren’t straight and/or white and/or male. There’s a feeling among those of us with social privilege that if you act from benevolent intent, then it’s unfair for anyone to criticize you, no matter what the effects of your actions are. And of course it’s true that no matter how carefully you might try to make the world a better place, sometimes it doesn’t work. Things go wrong; bad luck happens.

But often, problems don’t arise from bad luck but from thoughtlessness. You don’t try to see things from other people’s point of view. You don’t try to foresee easily predicted consequences. You don’t do your homework about how your actions might be received, but blithely go ahead with what you want to do, just assuming that your good intentions will make everything work out right (or at least make it impossible for anyone to complain).

This is the epitome of privilege. People without privilege damned well have to consider the consequences of their actions. For them, good intentions mean squat, and they can’t expect the benefit of the doubt. People without privilege have to understand how their actions might be received; they have to do their homework, deal with any possible glitches, and never assume that meaning well is good enough.

Those of us with privilege (and hey, I’m a straight white middle-aged male) have to start thinking more about how what we do is received. I already know I have good intentions. Now I have to make sure I have good results…and that means paying attention to others before and after I act, doing my best not to make mistakes from glib assumptions and definitely trying not to make the same mistake twice.

[Image of “The Good Intent” by Glyn Baker, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Road_to_Hell%5E_-_geograph.org.uk_-_38556.jpg]

A Simple Exercise in Plotting

For those who want to work on creating plots, here’s a simple exercise I got from Impro by Keith Johnstone. It gives you practice at bringing things together into a (relatively) integrated whole.

Start with three sentences describing unconnected actions. For example:

The tree swayed as the wind increased. Two ships passed each other in the night. My brother got out the deck of cards.

(You can create these sentences yourself or have someone else do it for you.)

Once you have your three sentences, write three more sentences to tie all the actions together, as in

I got out my own deck, and as the ship where I was held captive sailed past my brother’s, we felt each other’s presences and simultaneously turned the top card. I could tell we had both turned over The Storm. The wind that had previously been scouring the land immediately veered seaward, heading directly toward us.

(I promise I had no idea that I’d go in that direction when I wrote the original three sentences.)

This is the sort of exercise can be used as a warm-up whenever you start writing. It takes less than two minutes, and can kick your imagination into gear. Note that you aren’t going for a finished story; you’re just bringing separate actions together into something more unified.

Don’t overthink the exercise, or try to do anything brilliant. As with most improvisation, it’s better to do what strikes you as obvious rather than straining for something clever. You’ll soon find out that your “obvious” often takes other people by surprise. They may even think it’s brilliant.

[Picture of ship Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Youngamericaclipperblackandwhite.jpg]

Sharing: August 4, 2018

More links:

Anime: Puella Magi Madoka Magica
“Puella Magi” is Latin (sort of) for “Magical Girl”, and this anime series is a very dark vision of what being a magical girl might be like. A cute talking animal offers to make “contracts” with girls who show promise. They can have a wish come true, no matter how miraculous, in exchange for which they must become magical girls and fight witches. Yes, becoming a magical girl is the price, not the reward. And things go downhill from there. (This is a 12-episode series now available on Crunchyroll.
Manga: Knights & Magic
This starts as a run-of-the-mill Gary Lou series (i.e. about a male version of a Mary Sue). However, it eventually changes to deal with the engineering process, showing the effort needed to turn a brilliant prototype into a practical, reliable product. It’s an unexpected swerve, and more interesting (to me) than just a normal Fantasy Mecha series. (FYI, the series is ongoing, available on Crunchyroll.)
Hobby: Cross-Stitch Embroidery
I don’t do as much cross-stitch as I used to, because my eyes aren’t as good as they once were. (My left eye is well on its way to having a cataract, but the optometry clinic says I shouldn’t deal with it yet. Apparently, for best results, you’re supposed to leave cataracts until they really start hampering your vision.) Anyway, I still do an hour or two of cross-stitch a week. It’s pleasantly relaxing, and like an oyster making a pearl, I end up with pretty pictures as a side-effect.

 

Karma

Continuing on with my thoughts about Buddhist principles, it’s time for one of the biggies: karma.

Most Westerners grew up in an environment strongly influenced by monotheistic notions. This is true even for people not brought up to be “religious”. Thus, many Westerners see karma as some external source of “divine” justice doling out punishments and rewards based on the things you do. If, for example, you hurt somebody, some external force of fate will soon hurt you back in order to balance the books.

But this is a crude and materialistic idea. It requires a godlike something to maintain an ongoing ledger and to have the power of manipulating the universe to smack down people who deserve it. It also tacitly requires something like eternal life or reincarnation to make it work…because let’s face it, a lot of truly nasty people live fairly comfortable lives, whereas other people who haven’t done much wrong can be subject to horrible suffering. The only way to justify this with conventional notions of karma is to say that what you go through now may be influenced by something you did several lifetimes ago…and if you do bad things now, you’ll eventually get punished, maybe a dozen lifetimes down the line.

To be fair, this is exactly what some Buddhists believe. They would say that karma may not get you in this life, but it will hit you hard in the next or the one after that. However, I have trouble believing such an idea. I have trouble with reincarnation in general, even though people I respect completely believe in it.

So let me suggest a different take on karma: one based on plain old neurology.

When you choose to do something, you strengthen neural pathways in your brain so that the thing becomes easier to do again. When you repeatedly choose not to do something, the existing pathways in your brain for that action will gradually weaken.

That’s it. That’s the mechanism of karma. Nothing external. All internal.

When, for example, you give in to anger, you strengthen your mental pathways for giving in to anger. You make it more likely that you’ll give in again, with all the consequences that might follow. On the other hand, if you don’t give in to anger, you strengthen your ability to resist anger. Your “give in to anger” pathways will slowly weaken.

This doesn’t mean you’ll never get angry. It means you’re less likely to act on your anger. The Sanskrit word “karma” literally means “action”. The actions that you do or don’t take will strengthen or weaken your patterns of behavior.

Remember that in Buddhism, pain and suffering are two different things. You can feel pain without suffering, and you can suffer even when you aren’t in pain.

Greed, for example, is a cause of suffering because it’s an unwholesome fixation on getting something. You can’t stop thinking about it. You need it…and even if you get it, you want more. That’s suffering. And giving in to greed just makes things worse. It makes you more likely to give in to greed again in future…which leads to more fixation and more suffering.

Resisting greed helps you resist greed in future. Even better is cultivating more wholesome patterns of thought and behavior (good karma). If you counteract greed with generosity and feelings of gratitude for what you already have, you reduce any suffering from current greed and make future bouts of greed less likely.

So karma isn’t imposed from some external force. It’s a set of patterns you’ve built up inside you over the course of a lifetime. Unwholesome patterns make you fixate and suffer; wholesome ones loosen you up and (gradually) free you from fixation.

The ideal is eventually to have no karma: no automatic patterns of behavior running your life. You may still have unpleasant experiences—that’s part of what it means to be human, including your eventual death—but they just are what they are. You don’t add extra suffering to whatever pain comes along.

[The picture is the so-called “endless knot” often used to symbolize karma. By en:User:Rickjpelleg, first uploaded to en.wikipedia on 20:13, 28 October 2005 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.]

Denial

It’s been a while since I talked about Buddhist concepts, so let’s look at denial.

The Buddha observed that being in denial is a major source of unhappiness. If you ignore truths about yourself or the world, you end up out of sync with reality. This is a recipe for suffering—sooner or later, reality wins. So denial is a defense mechanism that’s guaranteed to fail eventually…at which point you have to face the truth anyway, or else double-down on denial which only puts you farther out on a limb.

Being in denial is often unconscious. Once in a while, we might recognize that we’re deliberately ignoring something important, but usually we suppress that recognition as quickly as possible. We distract ourselves with other things, or we tell ourselves stories to cover up or deflect uncomfortable feelings. And it’s certainly the case that sometimes we just aren’t ready to deal with some truth. It’s too raw, or we feel too battered to cope. It can be a mistake to confront something huge when we’re not ready.

So what to do? This is where meditation and meditative practices come in. There are many many forms of practice aimed at many many results…but in Buddhism, two types are especially important:

    1. Focusing and calming the mind. Left on its own, your brain hops all over the place; or maybe it goes round and round in circles; and sometimes it just zones out into numbness and blah.

      So the first meditative practice is almost always working to focus your mind on a single thing. You might focus on your breathing, or a sight or a sound or a repeated phrase…but always something simple. You practice doing that for longer and longer until you’ve trained your brain to focus and settle down.

      The classic metaphor is letting mud settle out from muddy water. Stay still long enough and the mud will go to the bottom, leaving the water clear.

    2. Once you can focus and set aside distractions, then you begin a different type of meditative practice: just watching your body and mind with awareness.

      Body awareness is enormously important. Some people think that meditation means denying your body, but we’ve already said that denial will mess you up. You aren’t trying to repress your body, you’re trying to feel it fully.

      So for example, if you find yourself bored, what does boredom feel like? Tension in certain places? Itches? Sleepiness? Restless thoughts? But the point is not to suppress any of your natural experience. Simply notice it and be aware, without making up any stories around it.

Building up awareness is your tool for avoiding denial. By increasing your awareness of body and mind, you eventually can notice when you’re lying to yourself. “I’m not angry!” (Then why are my shoulders so tense?) “I don’t care what he thinks!” (Then why have I spent the last ten minutes going around and around inside my head inventing ways to crush him in an argument I know we’ll never have?) “I didn’t mean anything, it was just a joke!” (Then why am I so fiercely insisting that she’s the one in the wrong for being offended?)

At the same time that you’re building up awareness, you’re building your capacity to face what’s what. As I said before, denial is a defense mechanism, and some people have gigantic burdens to defend themselves against. Meditation doesn’t make your problems smaller, but it makes your capacity for truth larger. Eventually, it may let you face anything (including the biggie: you and everyone you care about are going to die).

BUT NONE OF THIS IS EASY. The first time you try “focus meditation”, you’ll discover what Gandhi called Monkey Mind. Your thoughts skip all over the place, despite how much you try to focus them. Even after days, weeks, and months of practice, you can still get distracted sometimes. As for “awareness meditation”, that’s a lifetime of work. As soon as you become aware of some pattern of denial you’ve been caught in for years, you realize there’s another one just beneath it.

For this reason, it’s really helpful to find support: a teacher and/or a like-minded group of people who can keep you going, and also call you out when you go into denial about no longer being in denial…because it’s shockingly easy to lie to yourself at every step along a spiritual path. You can get stuck in comfortable ruts, or just as easily get stuck in ruts that aren’t comfortable but are familiar—patterns of behavior that you know aren’t helpful but you still fall back on anyway.

And getting stuck in ruts about meditation is just as easy as getting stuck in other patterns. You can believe you’re doing great paying attention to your body and mind, when really you’re just running through patterns on autopilot.

Speaking of patterns, this gets us to karma…but let’s leave that until next time.

[The picture of the couch at the top of this post is from the Wikipedia article on Denial. I believe it is Sigmund Freud’s couch. Freud was in denial about a great many things. Photo by ROBERT HUFFSTUTTER [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons]