Monday, 22 February 2016

Legacies


Having seen the movie, The Witch, over this past weekend - I was impressed by its evocation of the 17th century - especially its depiction of how our faith governed every aspect of our values, our perceptions and our approach to life.

With no real knowledge or access to knowledge, those early pioneers were awed by and afraid of everything. Imagination blossomed and flourished in that garden of ignorance. Not knowing what was possible and impossible - made everything possible, everything real.

The sum total of individual knowledge was contained within our minds and within the pages of the one book most people in the new world had any access to - the Holy Bible. Civilization gradually changed all that. A proliferation of books from a huge range of experts and gifted scribes constantly set new limits and defined the boundaries of possibility. Humanity's growing knowledge base gradually eroded the power of religiosity and ignorance and finally brought our imaginations into check: the fantastic became mere whimsy, monsters became metaphorical and we lost our fear along with our sense of wonder. Anything that went against accepted truth, or which seemed to be unprecedented – was regarded as suspect. We had the hubris to think, "How can any condition exist in the real world without having been documented by now?" We could indulge in fantasy with the certainty that it wasn't real. Spiritualism became a retreat for those bored and repressed by the suffocating weight of knowledge.

A similar restlessness, curiosity and yearning for the excitement of the unknown led us to seek out things we did not yet know for certain - to invent new challenges and try find new roads forward.
In the mid-20th century, science fiction gave our imaginations someplace to go that was largely ungoverned by our prejudices and our then-current knowledge. It egged the actual scientists to push harder and go further. In that way, speculation allowed us to open new doors and examine new possibilities. And to look again into the vast and mutable face of the unknown. The thrill seekers and adventurers among us quivered with joy.

And our knowledge-base kept on growing and growing and growing. The computer revolution at the end of the millennium made all history, literature, math, geography, science and speculation available to everyone. But the unstoppable onslaught of information forced us to develop and use filters. No human mind can contain more than snippets of the vast knowledge now available to us.

The next great flood does not involve water.

Knowledge is becoming our enemy - because we don't know what to do with it all - other than sift through it endlessly. Reduce it to the finest grains. We may glean nuggets of insight, which will seem like nothing measured against the knowledge we already have. But all it will leave behind is quicksand - absorbing everything without a trace.

No human can comprehend the singularity that is well and truly upon us. It's like trying to understand God or infinity. The vastness renders us insignificant, reveals us as pilgrims shivering and praying at the edge of the wilderness - clinging to our own stubborn truths because we dare not open our minds to what they cannot possibly comprehend.

The rejection of the unprecedented is our knee-jerk reaction to being thrust into an uncertain future. We retreat into the tried and true. We hole up in our little hovels, afraid to go out, because the woods are full of witches. We may even turn out to be witches.

As the father in The Witch might have said, "That's what comes of going beyond our station."

Mere humans; we can't hold a book and absorb its contents. We need to read one page at a time. No one can wish their way to the top of a mountain. No goal worth achieving can be reached holistically - but only by figuring out the next handhold, placing the next piton, taking the next step that needs to be taken, to scale this one small cliff face. And then we can think about the next and the next.

If we have mastered any one skill as a species, it is the skill of reductionism - of thinking small and taking one step at a time. So I wonder that we don't have a greater appreciation for the little things: the snippets of wisdom the eldest of us have gathered in our long lives that can help our children to move into the future, inspired rather than overwhelmed by the manifold possibilities.

There is a way forward - a place we can go where the old rules no longer apply. But once we go there, we will no longer be human.

People of my generation are the last refugees from the pre-information Age. Beyond here, anything is possible. Beyond here, our ignorance becomes evident once again. Beyond here, there be dragons.


Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Staying the Course

If I hadn't devoted 2/3 of my life to a singular goal, I would have given up writing completely by now. As it is, the twelve year break I took from writing – from my mid forties into my late fifties – demonstrated a number of important things. Most of my equally talented and accomplished friends succeeded to a greater or lesser degree during that time where I walked away. So my timing was horrible. It was like making a long term investment – and then pulling all my money out just before the big payoff.

But that was just one of the many miscalculations I made during my multi-decade career arc.

Mistake one: dismissing a lack of natural talent as a minor impediment. Grammar was never a particular strong suit of mine. I loved the flow and natural poetry of language, I loved the vividness of something beautifully described, I loved being to express my thoughts, clearly and succinctly – but I had to take remedial English courses in University to help me understand and remember the actual rules of grammar and punctuation. I've always been able to create a brilliant sentence or even a brilliant paragraph, but my prose inevitably descended into awkward phrasing and clumsy summarization.

My mind was filled with stories – but was frequently tripped up by the chore of translating those vivid stories to the page before the sheer effort of correcting my own natural ineptitude dragged me down and I started getting bored and distracted with the process. The tendency was to reach for the next shiny object – a new story that would flow out of me so easily that I needn't worry about getting mired in the process.

I was misled by the fact that this process occasionally worked. I could indeed maintain the brilliance for a page, several pages…even the length of an entire story. I would send the story out into the world and editors would indeed fall on it with glad cries! The feeling of accomplishment is the most fulfilling thing I have ever experienced. But that elation always faded fairly quickly and the works I crafted in it's wake – no matter how excited I was about them – pretty much never lived up to their predecessor. So I had a pattern. A shining success followed by five years of slogging and discouragement. Another success – then five more years of mud diving. Trying to increase my output in order to shorten that five year wait only resulted in my falling back into bad old habits.  So my lack of natural talent was a major impediment rather than a minor one. It took decades to overcome, by which time, most of my contemporaries from my youth had long since surpassed me.

I'm not saying that the mission I had set for myself was futile. In the forty years I've been writing, the quality of my output has increased exponentially. I can now declare myself a master of the basics. I can copyedit with the best of them. I can create immaculate prose on demand. But the time it has taken me to reach what is essentially the starting point for most groundbreaking writers is a huge handicap. If I had been this good when I was 25, the world would have been my oyster. Success would almost certainly have bred more success rather than undermining my self-confidence. Prolificacy would have been inevitable.

But the point is – I wasn't this good when I was 25. Not even close. And had I realized what a long hard slog I had ahead of me, I would probably have set a different course. There was so much I had to learn – not only about writing well, but about creating three dimensional characters (which didn't come easily for someone as innately antisocial as I am) and creating immersive settings (which was even more difficult given that I had moved 20 times by the time I was 18 years old and never developed a deep appreciation for any location. Settings were blurry, and creating a sense of place has always been elusive.

I've never been one to court sympathy and say "alas poor me." I've lived a very rich life. So many others have it so much worse. But all these things were impediments toward achieving the career goal I had set myself at the age of 14.

As I reached middle age and found myself barreling toward the personal singularity of decreptitude – I looked at what I had accomplished and was somewhat satisfied. I had written a number of acclaimed stories – even though 95 per cent of my output was either unpublished or buried in little magazines that started plummeting into obscurity the moment they were published. My ratio of success had doubled. Instead of writing a good story every five years, I was writing two every five years. At that rate, I might have a publishable collection by the time I was 90. A number of personal issues piled onto that – making me feel like an utter failure. My fantasy world was crumbling and in the real world, I wasn't even capable of making a decent wage on an ongoing basis.

I took a salaried job and set about rebuilding my life – one with more realistic and attainable goals. But it wasn't long before I was once again overwhelmed with ideas and carried away by my aspirations. Anchored by a stable and loving relationship, I almost made a go of my entrepreneurial venture (a magazine to help new Canadians integrate in this country). Even though it didn't make much money – it was making a difference in society and genuinely helping people. My need for creative expression was satisfied by my venture into stone sculpture – with my partner in love and life as my companion. While it was and continues to be gratifying to create beautiful things, I watched so many of my contemporaries in the writing field begin to achieve real success. I couldn't help telling  myself that if I had only hung on a little longer and tried a little harder, I might be there with them (not a sure thing by any means).

I was nagged by the realization that I had climbed almost to the top of the mountain before turning around and coming back down. I kept staring up at the mountaintop and yearning to feel that sense of accomplishment that I had found with my first professional story sales. It felt like the forty years I spent learning my craft had been a complete and utterly stupid waste.

On the flip side of that, I looked at the career status of my most successful contemporaries and realized that there was no entrance to Smaug's treasure trove at that pinnacle. The most successful of my contemporaries were living about as comfortably as moderately successful bankers or stock brokers or business owners. Some of the best writers I had ever known have never been able to make a good enough living from their craft to live well on their writing income alone. Almost all of them needed to work other jobs to make ends meet – and live about as well as a somewhat successful plumber or welder or grocery manager. The crown was clearly made of fool's gold! But still I pined for it, willing to give almost anything to finally achieve the unrealistic career objective I had set for myself back in high school.

So, I went back to writing, despite that fact that I couldn't hope to catch up with colleagues who had long since left me in the dust. Despite the fact that I now have to compete against brilliant writers half my age who are much more connected to the 21st century zeitgeist than I could ever be. And there are so many of them!

The population of the Earth has more than doubled since I started writing and media has become so much more ubiquitous – sweeping everyone into its thrall. There are five times as many talented writers now vying for that false crown. So instead of getting ever closer to the success I craved, I'm probably further away than ever.

But even if success has become more elusive than ever – writing is what I do best – what I do better than almost everyone else. I love being able to help my stories realize their full potential. And I daresay, I'm probably writing a brilliant story per year now. If I keep it up until I die, I may be creating a brilliant story every three or four months! I'll finally fill a short story collection worthy of sitting on the same shelf with my literary heroes. I might even finish a few of the novels I've been working on forever.

My heirs might make enough to go out for a really nice meal after my funeral. Or not. But as I drift into that final sleep, I'll be able to look back on my life satisfied that I actually followed through, fulfilled my potential – and there's a chance, however faint, that some of my stories will be read and will inspire future generations.


Maybe I'm just holding onto this dream because I'm too stupid to give up. Or maybe it's because I am finally smart enough not to.