Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Why External Evaluation Really Helps

GrrlScientist often posts amazing stuff. Today was no exception.

I've been angsting over my comparative writing ability. I know - really stupid. After a certain technical competence is achieved, and a certain facility with words and style, it is so subjective.

But - this fascinated me. How do we assess ourselves, and others? How accurate are we in those assessments?

Interestingly, the less competent you are, the better you seem to think yourself. Competent people tend to over-rate others' performances, thus lessening their self-perceived skills.

Heartening conclusion: training and education - objective skills, do make us better at these judgements.

illusion of superiority

Anger as Ink

What motivates us?

Compassion? Anger? Hate? Love?

What makes us want to keeping pushing, struggling to accomplish what needs to be done?

Life sets up more than sufficient obstacles. Just the every day work of surviving holds us in place, keeps us from reaching out too far towards what we want.

Other people hold us back. Not only out of spite or their needs, but simply because we are tied to them through so many types of bonds. But those bonds hold us to them, and thus back from what we want to become.

We set obstacles for ourselves: inertia, apathy, fear - oh yes, fear. The fear of failing, the fear of being laughed at - even the fear of succeeding.  I want this. But what if I get it and I don't like it after all? Then what have I?

My biggest motivation seems to be anger. Initially at other people, then at the fool I am, but also at myself for believing I cannot do what I've set out to accomplish. For believing what others want me to believe rather than admitting, or even allowing hope of admitting what I know to be true about myself.

Anger is what forces me to realize that I am my own worst enemy. I cannot rest until I cause problems for myself, and then, when I've made enough of a mess, I can finally recognize it and start to clean it up.

The price is high. It is not a good way to accomplish your goals - alienating people, deliberately making problems for yourself. But if it increases the pressure enough that an explosion, however small, happens, then I suppose it's worth it. Anything to get out of despair and back into action.

Hopefully someday action will come without such finagling. Leaving a trail of self-destruction is not the best way to get out of a swamp and onto solid ground.

But to be angry at all is, for me, an amazing thing. It means I am finally learning that I don't have to bow my head and take blame for what others impose on me. I am not stuck. I can break out.

So anger becomes the ink to my pen. I can write, because I have to prove I am not incapable, not stupid, not such a fool as life, and the habits I've learned in life make me believe I am.

Having once done so, well, there's a whole world of new problems to face. But at least anger gives the energy to meet the challenge.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

We All Need Fans

A writer's life is a hard one. No real-world feed back, no assessment of your abilities - and even if you get published, reviews are subjective. Well, obviously grammar and spelling, sentence variety: those sorts of things are objective. But what works for my critique group is slashed out by my editor, and I am so confused.
Which is why I love humor. I need a laugh to balance all the angst.


Friday, June 24, 2011

Damn Good Writing

A writer writes good words. Some authors, even successful ones, can't do that, but they have An Idea that trumps their lack of facility with words.

A good writer has both ideas and words.

A Damn Good Writer writes with the passion of someone who's just been fired and is pouring out their rage onto an email that, hopefully, will never be sent. Or a lover who is alight with the glory of that first love-making. Or a parent whose child has died. Or a child who didn't get what they wanted for christmas.

Raw emotion. Blazing, searing, terrifying, elating: the feelings that pull us out of ourselves, out of thought and reason.

A Damn Good Writer not only can write those emotions, they can then take them and craft them to distill the essence of those emotions into clear, accessible prose.

And when A Damn Good Writer does this, the words burn on the page.

We cannot all be writers. Even fewer can be good writers. But to be a Damn Good Writer - that is the hope and the despair of longing.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Cracked, and Writing is Despair - when it's not elation

I was doing my morning's routine of reading comics, then blogs. Science, philosophy; and there's a few writing ones I like to follow. Though for writing I mostly use Twitter - a random idea jumps out and says "Here! This is what you've been needing to think about!" For which I am truly, truly grateful.

Anyways, on one of the philosophy blogs I followed a link and discovered that  the book I've been working one for the last year is, apparently, a cheap flimsy watered-down version of the sort of novels some very famous (in the right circles) (which I obviously don't inhabit)  (which is another point of despair) person has been writing for many years now.

All my hundreds of hours of research, my hundreds of hours of writing, my in progress hundreds of hours of editing - for what?

And I am sunk once again in inescapable gloom.

What's the point? I know I am not unique, that no one is unique, that every story has been told thousands of thousand of times... but I was feeling pretty good about my book up to that moment.

I used to be a very stable person. Not without upheavals, but generally rational, reasonable, and not prone to gloom.

Since becoming a writer, my life is the proverbial roller-coaster. And not with slow steady swings from elation to despair.

Oh no. That would be too easy. Like a toddler with a light switch my brain leaps from extreme to extreme, within the same bleeding sentence.

So then I find this: http://www.cracked.com/blog/how-to-become-author-in-5-incredibly-difficult-steps/

I don't know how I hadn't seen it before. Cracked is a wonderful place for researched information in a quirky, irreverent style.

Being able to laugh, even though being reminded yet again (and I didn't need the reminder - I never forget) that I am not in the tiniest bit unique, made me feel better.

And I will write today. How could I not? It is who I am, for good or ill.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Dinner With My Editor

I just sent off a bunch of questions to my editor, hoping to avoid another round of machete-like pruning.
Of course, his ruthlessness is exactly what I want from him, and is showing me how to be at least slightly more ruthless on my own.
No matter how clever I think the words, are they absolutely, unequivocally essential?

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Procrastination or Humor?

I'm not sure how what to classify this.
An astonishing amount of work went into it.
I immediately enlarged it and tried to find the themes, motifs, characters in my stories. Hence, a tool for procrastination (as if I didn't already have too many!).
Enjoy! (click to enlarge)


Saturday, June 11, 2011

Life, Cilantro, and Philosophy

I must issue a disclaimer.

I am not a philosopher.

I've taken quite a few philosophy courses. For several of those I was fortunate enough to have a professor whose chief concern was making us think, rather than memorizing dates and themes. It is no surprise, then, that the philosophy professor in my novel takes this approach to her basic classes: teach them to think, to understand how to frame an argument, to identify fallacy, and you have given them skills that will enhance their lives.

Life, to me, is about ideas. Glorious, inspiring, thought-provoking ideas. Comfortable or not, ideas spark what is unique in us – our thoughts and dreams.

Human thought and action are shaping the world. I come down fully on the side of naming this the Anthropocene. We are too powerful a force to be ignored, even geologically. And what we do is not always good for the present or the future. But as a species, we seem to be helpless against beliefs. 

Beliefs and ideas are not the same. Some are working-valid. I believe that people should obey the law. The law says you do not allow religion in the schools. I believe that people who pray in school are criminals and should be held accountable as such. These are beliefs, but they are based on facts.

I also believe my cats are the most adorable creatures that ever lived. I know this is false. It is my opinion-belief. I can believe it if I wish, but I cannot, must not expect others to agree with me.

I know the difference between belief that is a personal opinion, and belief that is based on some evidence, and facts.

When I say 'I admire Bertrand Russell', this does not mean wholesale endorsement. Then I would be a Russell-ian, a follower rather than one who reads and thinks based upon what is read.

Following kills the mind. We need to learn to think. To question, analyze, and evaluate based on evidence, not authority.

When someone says, 'It's true. I read it in a book' they are admitting they aren't thinking for themselves. It doesn't matter what book it is – they are accepting dogma.

Now, if they say, 'It might be true. I read a report...' they are more likely to be thinking. First, they have qualified their statement, pending further proof. Second, they are reading reports, or studies, trying to get as close as they can to actual evidence. Third, they are not just reading the headlines, but the substance.

When I write about philosophy and writing, I am not issuing proclamations. I am offering connections I've seen, ideas that I've appreciated. You may, and almost certainly will see them differently.

And that is the beginning of dialogue – rational discussion of ideas. And that, to me, is the greatest joy in life.

Oh, the cilantro? Cilantro is like belief. A little bit can add spice to life. Too much, and it destroys everything else.

My evidence? Mostly anecdotal, I fear. Although I have read that cilantro is one of the love/hate flavors. Few people are neutral. Which makes me wonder why so many restaurants glop it into everything in great hulking handfuls... sorry.

Even a small amount of cilantro and I cannot taste anything else. I could be eating the most exquisite food in the world, and all I'd taste is that chalky, pungent (disgusting) flavor.

New tastes, new impressions, new ideas are too precious to miss.

I try not to be cilantro.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

All Roads Still Lead to Philosophy?

Another great procrastination tool. I really need to start a site just for that subject.

I tried the 'all roads' after xkcd published his comic  (read the mouse-over). At that point I found one heading that lead to a loop. It seems to have been fixed now. I read at Measure of Doubt that Wikipedia was working away to fix things after the comic was so popular.

Of course, the first thing I entered was 'cats'. And then 'chocolate'. Their paths meet in Mathematics.

And speaking of cats - I, too, love cats. But rainbows? Really?

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Ante-Meridional Arrogance - or - The Tyranny of the Lark

I read writing blogs. How to Write. How to Edit. How to Solve All your Writing Dilemmas.

I do get some useful hints. But I have to complain about one thing. 

There is a conspiracy against night-people. 

Over and over I read how the best time for writing is early in the morning. 

The house is quiet. Everyone is asleep. The day hasn't begun. My mind is relaxed.

Yeah, my mind is relaxed at 7 am, too. Soundly relaxed. 

There is no inherent reason why getting up early is more virtuous or more productive than staying up late. 

Point by point from the above:

'The best time for writing'. No. When I'm up at night, my mind is more focused, my thoughts cooperate, words come easily. Editing works better, perhaps, during the daylight hours, but not writing. 

'Everyone is asleep'. This is more problematic. If at all possible, everyone in my family  is asleep in the morning. Including me. And we are all awake at night. But we are all working at our desks, not bothering anyone. Students, teachers, writers, you see.

'The day hasn't begun'. When I wake up, I'm thinking about everything I have to do that day. The to-do list looms large in my mind, thwarting my writing compulsion. I have to get that list cleared before I can focus on my work. At night, it's done, or it is to do in the nebulous, far off tomorrow. Night time is off-time. 

'My mind is relaxed'. As above, my mind is very relaxed in the morning. Foggily, dazedly, dreamily relaxed. I do occasionally wake up with an idea. I jot it down in my handy bedside notebook, and go back to dream some more. Often the process repeats several times, and when I wake, entire scenes have become clear. I've even got an outline for an entire novel that came in those blissful wake, doze, write, dream cycles.

Why do morning people insist they are superior? Arrogant, boastful, condemning. Totally unable to see what is so apparent to night people: it doesn't matter when you do your work. It matters only that it gets done. You criticize me for sleeping until 10. Shall I then criticize you for being asleep at midnight? I could, with equal justification.

We should start a campaign. Let us call all those sanctimonious morning people at midnight, and ask why they aren't being productive. “You're wasting the day!” we could exclaim, horror filling our voices. “You're wasting your life!”

No, alas, the justification is not equal. Along with the rampaging extroverts (of whom I shall write another day) our world is run by morning people. But listen up, folks. We've had indoor light for millennia. Since the days our ancestors first built fires to light the darkness, we've been able to stay up late. And what do people do when they stay up late around a campfire? 

They Tell Stories.

Stories and night are a natural partnership.

One final note. People who wake early are known as Larks. People who stay up are Night Owls. 

Which bird is associated with wisdom?

Further reading:

AL Kennedy did a magnificent, marvelous post on the ideal writing day: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/jun/09/al-kennedy-ideal-writing-day 

In the interest of proving I lack bias, I shall also include: Cracked.com http://www.cracked.com/article_19174_5-unexpected-downsides-high-intelligence.html   The first entry is on night owls and intelligence. But note – they include my caveat, that it's most likely not the late hours, but the high stress that's causing the negative effects. And as for interrupted sleep, well, if those blasted early birds would just leave us alone....

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Writers And Philosophy: A Series

Why would it be important for a writer to know about philosophy? Writers write. Philosophers philosophize. Whatever that means.
Philosophy is a way to understand the world we live in, including ourselves.
Philosophy is also a structured method of inquiry based on rational arguments.

If the word philosopher makes you think of a guy in a toga, or, for a more compelling character, a naked guy running down the street shouting 'Eureka'*, you're right.

If the word philosopher makes you think of emaciated, unkempt people with shaggy hair and glasses, you're also right. Ditto for tweed jackets with leather elbow patches and employing, even if not actually using a pipe (props are good in character descriptions).

Philosophers are also perfectly normal people you could pass by on the street with nary a second glance.

It isn't the appearance that matters. It's the mind.

Philosophy is using mind to understand the world. It is a method for looking at an unknown and using reason in an attempt to make it known.

Find correlations. Propose a hypothesis. Create rational arguments to support your idea. Then argue, in the active sense of the word, with other thinkers.

But it's not just talk. Philosophy also requires continuing observation, seeking new information and adjusting your position to fit facts as they are confirmed.

Sounds a lot like science, doesn't it?

Science is a product of the philosophic mind. Without embracing a quest for knowledge; true knowledge, not myths or illusion; our world wouldn’t have medicine, indoor plumbing, or computers.

Pick something you really like. Now thank a scientist for it. And even more, thank a philosopher. They laid the ground work that became the scientific method.

That habit of using their mind is why philosophy is important to writers.

Writers create.

They create worlds. Characters. Plots. They devise and solve mysteries. They explore facets of human nature. They delve into the relationships between people.

All these are aspects of the philosopher's work. The methods used to solve real problems in the real world will also help a writer master the complexities of their created world. Focused thought, questioning and analyzing motivations, settings, even plot points: the philosophic method will help you see where you've left holes or created inconsistencies.

Approach your story as its Official Philosopher. Can you make sense of the world as it is presented? Can you use facts given to predict other aspects of that world? If not, then the world is irrational and incomplete. If yes, then you've got a real world to explore with your characters.

In this series we'll explore several facets of storytelling, and show how a philosophic outlook on these points might enrich your creations.

* Eureka – from the Greek heur─ôka, meaning 'I have found (it)'
The legend: Archimedes got into his bath, and realized that the water spilling out was equal to his body's volume. Hence, the image of him running naked through the streets.
He was later asked to determine the purity of a gold crown, and used his displacement theory to solve the puzzle.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Science and Uncertainty

Four posts today, all on the topics of what we think we know, what we actually do know, and how we go about distinguishing between the two. And having distinguished, what do we do about it?

First up, recognizing that uncertainty is not an excuse for ignoring probable danger. The context here is global climate change. There is enough evidence to know that the climate is warming. Even if it were entirely natural, we still need to be working hard on ways to minimize the disruption (gentle word) climate shift will cause.  And yet the reaction is all too often complete denial (humorous take on argumentative reasoning here) or accepting it's happening, but not that it will cause problems. Neither response will help. Hence the phrase in Professor Juan Cole's post: "The Big Oil and Big Coal executives attempting to stop efforts to reduce emissions are thus in effect mass murderers of a future generation."

Read also Chris Mooney on uncertainty as a response.

Then there was a delightful post about established beliefs in science. Eventually testing wins over belief. That's why science improves the way we live and belief can't. Without science, we'd all be living in caves eating raw food and dying of simple injuries and diseases. But we'd have our beliefs! Such a comfort. The first hand account by Mpemba is a joy to read. And I loved footnote six. Finding observational information in all sorts of strange places.

Last is a distressing post about how we alter our own behavior to fit perceived stereotypes about ourselves. Apparently the ruling bodies of the Educational Testing Services want to keep women and minorities out of higher education? (don't sue me - change your testing!)