I Dislike Telling Stories

I dislike telling stories. People always say, start at the beginning, and I get lost looking for it. Stories don’t really have beginnings; they’re more like cats. They like to wander in and out as they please, and you’re left picking up small furry corpses and thankful they didn’t bring in a live raccoon this time. As for endings – most people have a pretty good sense of where stories should end. The problem is, they end – and then they continue. It’s like the drive-through scene in Dude, Where’s My Car: “And then? And theeeeen? AND THEN?”. 

I think of stories more like moments of small revelation, piling up. When enough of them accumulate, the mystery or displacement or unease driving your interest in the whole thing collapses like a house of cards into a (hopefully) satisfying sense of resolution…until the accumulation begins again. Call it the Snowdrift Theory of stories.

The trick with revelations and resolutions is they are incredibly subjective. Monsieur Poirot closing a case is, realistically speaking, the middle of five or six other narratives that have likely been going on since about the middle of Dame Agatha’s novel. (Some of my most enjoyed early reading material was Agatha Christie’s murder mysteries. One of my earliest life lessons: Blackmail Never Pays.) One can imagine characters coming home for dinner, chatting over mid-century modern and martinis  – “Oh darling, you’ll never guess what I heard today. It was the stepson all along!” – and then getting back to the all-consuming business of their own storyline. 

So: every story is just a point of view. Call it the Point of View Theory of stories. 

It’s also hard to pinpoint stories because, once you know people for a while, you just hear snippets of their life, fading in and out like a radio station. 

For example. For most of my life, I thought I knew a story in full. A boy grew to the age of 14, ran away, Did Drugs, Became An Alcoholic, Was Saved, married, and lived happily ever after as a carpenter in the mountains of New Hampshire. It was a pretty good story.

After he lived happily ever after, his wife started hearing voices telling her to divorce him. They were separated for a while and then she came back. They lived happily ever after, again. They restored an antique barn. 

After they lived happily ever after, again, he learned he had Hepatitis C. 

His wife said she didn’t have time to take him for blood transfusions. 

He got sicker and sicker. 

His wife, a very loud person, talked about praise and martyrs. 

Sometime in the winter, he died. His family didn’t find out until after he’d been cremated. It felt like he just got lost somewhere in the winter and never came out to springtime. 

The last part isn’t completely true, because it isn’t true to him; that’s not how he would tell it nor want it told. But it’s true to the pain of loss, like dark water under ice, in the silence of wintertime woods. And even that isn’t an ending, because it doesn’t explain how the dark water and the silence now runs through other lives, changing them in small everyday ways. 

Words are different from stories, because words don’t try to give an ending. The purpose of some words is just to help you find a way through. When you’re walking through dark woods, you don’t look to the right or to the left; you look at the path, because if you look away you might lose it. It’s also a bad idea to think too much about where the path goes, either in hope or fear.

From the Point of View Theory, I work with words, rather than stories. I work with words, at the end of stories, outside and around the stories I see, a framework of understanding and a misguided attempt at benediction. I try, over and over, to make some sort of path through the confusion and mess and fear. Faith, hope, and love may abide, but in order to “abide” I have to understand where I am – in the thick of it. 

From the Snowdrift Theory, the cards come together to say something like: I may not see a beginning, and I certainly won’t see an end. Lives and events happen around me, some of which I may be aware of and some of which are beyond my understanding. I try to make a neat framework of understanding, but the system is greater than the system. 

Pay attention to what is in front of you. You may not see it again. Seek to craft a way through that is better than what is on either side, for anyone who may follow behind you. 

Like most stories, this has no true end. But I’ll leave it here. I may wander into it again, like a cat wandering into a kitchen. Or sometime in the future I may again happen on my own tracks, leading into stories for which I can find no beginning or end.

The Fine Art of Oracular Precision: A Handout

I’m reading Superforecasting: The Art & Science of Prediction (Philip E. Tetlock). Yes, I feel like an oracle-in-training every time I say it. 

This book has a lot to offer, and a casual reading would unjustly reduce it to the usual one-dimensional bestseller-fluff. At exactly 27% of the way through (according to my library’s app), there’s a 93% chance I won’t finish it in the next 1 day 22 hours before it reverts to its cyber-shelf, en route to the next reader who has it on hold. I’ve already re-requested it. 

I haven’t reached the stuff that turns me into the Oracle (Matrix or Delphi). But I’ve reached an excellent, if brief, discussion on the use of precise language and the translation between quantitative and qualitative communication. My inner Teaching Assistant wants to print it off and hand it out to any undergraduate student I see. 

You lucky reader, you. 

To summarize: Sherman Kent had a PhD in history, and a history at Yale University. In 1941 he left academia for the agency that would eventually become the CIA. He retired from the CIA in 1967, after shaping the field of intelligence analysis through some of the U.S.’s most textbook-worthy Cold War history. 

As someone whose job involved estimating likelihood of the sort of events that could lead to nuclear holocaust, he recognized that he and his colleagues could write a report, agree on the language, and put it in the hands of decision-making officials without ever pinning down exactly how certain they were of their best guesses of likelihood. To address this, he agitated for the use of quantitative definitions of certainty, and produced a table detailing the numerical definition of commonly used qualitative phrases. 

Certainty According to Sherman Kent:

CERTAINTYTHE GENERAL AREA OF POSSIBILITY
100%Certain
93% (give or take about 6%)Almost certain
75% (give or take about 12%)Probable
50% (give or take about 10%)Chances about even
30% (give or take about 10%)Probably not
7% (give or take about 5%)Almost certainly not
0% Impossible

(Source note: The title is mine, the table is reproduced as found in Chapter 3 of Philip E. Tetlock’s Superforecasting. Tetlock cites Sherman Kent and the Profession of Intelligence Analysts, Center for the Study of Intelligence, Central Intelligence Agency, November 2002, p. 55.)

I’ve been collecting notes on the idea of “truth” as applied to writers. Sooner or later it will come spilling out in a post, but for now Mr. Kent’s table will have to stand on its own. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have 83% of a book to finish in the next 1 day 21 hours 32 minutes.

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts! Be sure to share the exact percentage of certainty you have regarding how helpful the above is.

Marushka

From Taking Notes to Entropy

“Note taking.” The consonants convey precision, powered by a carefully methodical mind and a professionalism so rigid you could iron a dress shirt on it. Secretaries, administrative assistants, and paralegals are all note takers. Their reputation puts bleach and .925 silver to shame. Each of these fields is, by definition, someone you can depend on – the sort of person who raises a point of order during the Apocalypse, probably holding up the proceedings for the next several centuries. (This is one explanation for the notoriously, and consistently, delayed end times across religions). 

In short: a person who takes notes is a person who is unfazed by anything, because they know the correct procedure at all times. They do not experience doubt or anxiety. They are impossible to intimidate. And they don’t forget. They’re like Koschei the Deathless in Russian mythology: untouchable, because their impetus is not in them but in their notes. (Koschei habitually hid his life in an egg, but he’d modernize with an iPhone or Blackberry.)

I fantasize about being a person who takes notes. I am not a note taker. I am a person who writes notes. There’s a difference.

The difference is in the method. Note takers organize information as part of a system. I organize information the same way the Big Bang organized atoms: a lot happening in a very short time, and almost everything is still under construction (don’t get me started on the black holes). You can tell when a note taker has written something, because retrieving information is easy. The same cannot be said of the Big Bang or my notes.   

It’s not that I have a bad memory. I am able to remember where a given set of idea-scribbles is across two currently active notebooks, two phone apps, four email accounts (including both sent and draft emails), and three stacks of scratch paper representing the 6 months of work prior to the two current notebooks. Oh, and my pockets. When I’m at work and unable to use my phone, I write ideas on paper and shove them in my pocket for later (or the laundry, whichever comes first). Not nearly often enough, I clean out my pockets and read through all the notes and try to condense them into a typed document, so they’re easier to locate (read: less vulnerable to the washing machine. Hopefully.). 

Earlier this year I became aware of how crucial the act of writing things down is to my development of ideas. Since then, I’ve been stealthily observing my own write-it-down behavior. Aside from the whole Schrodinger’s Cat issue (observation may change the outcome, but the cat isn’t happy either way), I want to understand why I write everything down in hopes of structuring my thought processes towards more reliable productivity (read: stacking the odds for the Inspiration Problem, as discussed in a later post). 

Here’s a metaphor. You’re assembling a jigsaw puzzle, and you’ll come into contact with all the pieces, but you won’t always know it’s a piece when you find it – and the pieces are spread across your lifetime instead of the coffee table. 

Here’s the metaphor, rephrased. I expect myself to create something. Someday, every unusual thought that goes through my head (as judged against both external and internal standards) may be useful, or necessary, for that something. Thus, I write my thoughts down so they won’t escape. 

In the process, this creates another fear – that of incoherence. I have a hard time organizing information into sequence, the before-and-after linearity of a temporal system. What if I never make sense of what I once thought? What if I’m never able to filter, refine, and connect them into something that makes sense or is valuable to others? 

Some people are very good at automatically imposing external structure on internal thoughts. I’m not. It takes a lot of time and conscious effort and feels initially unwieldy, akin to writing Alice in Wonderland using an Excel spreadsheet (of which, given Lewis Carroll’s mathematical background, I’d be interested to see the results). But I believe it’s necessary, because I (or at least part of my brain) believes the subjective experience of thought/idea/emotion is close to meaningless if it isn’t communicated; communication is the only way to add it to the collective human knowledge pool, and even then it’s a gamble. It may vanish in the next world war or computer server crash or book burning frenzy. It may be read by precisely one other person. The one thing I hope to count on is the one thing (alright, one of many) I can never fully comprehend: the process of subtle reinforcements or perceptual shifts through which humans make memories or add knowledge into pre-existing intellectual frameworks. To restate: the way humans add little bits of knowledge into their heads, forgetting about them until they boil back to the surface and tip the balance on some decision. 

There it is again, the theme of forgetting – of losing pieces. Note taking is a precise record of what happened. Writing notes is more about the gaps, the places you piece together what might have happened, what could have happened, and what almost certainly will never happen but should – after the facts have packed up and gone home in despair. It’s an attempt at making a study out of uncertainty. You’ll never catch up; it will always be just out of reach, like your shadow, or breadcrumb trails in a dark forest. That’s the wonder of it. You know where you might have been. You only know Schrodinger’s cat may be alive or… ah, may be napping. I realize the infinite futility: making sense out of chaos, when Entropy is enshrined in the current laws of the current universe. I’ll never see the whole jigsaw puzzle. By the time I know enough to make sense of it, half the pieces have been stolen by my imaginary cat and the roommates have Marie Kondo-ed the rest. But the pieces are still out there, somewhere. They’ve drifted off to visit someone, or something, else. 

As a means of storing a life, it’s not bad. In the stories, Koschei usually dies when they find the egg holding his life. He could take notes from me.

The Ten-Minute Lifetime

What can I do in ten minutes?

I recently – within the last month – realized something. Like most blinding insights, this one seems deceptively obvious. I have been confronted with it (by others) since first grade, and in the years since I have confronted it (on my own) in as many ways as there are threats, rage, and delicious distraction. 

I have a short attention span.

The preceding statement is neither accurate nor precise. The truth is this: when I have a thought – any thought – it’s connected to another thought.

And that thought is…yes. Connected to another – no – three other thoughts, six, twelve, darting caffeinated-hummingbird thoughts. Related, or diverging: it makes no difference.

I call this fractalization, or rabbit-hole thinking.

If I want the thought that started all this mayhem, the Patient Zero (it may be the date of someone’s birthday, or critical insight into an essay, or my new improved plans to clean the kitchen [an ongoing campaign]) – I have to track it down, tackle it, pin it to paper (or text) and carefully move onwards from that point with the greatest of caution, like Hobbits taking a shortcut. 

Having accepted this means accepting that two decades of self-experimentation has not altered the basic way my brain processes information. So I’ve decided not to fight my brain; it’s ill-advised to argue with someone who controls your central nervous system, after all.

Honestly, I don’t even mind that my thoughts play Pinball Wizard. My main frustration at this point is that they don’t give me a little time to catch up – a sort of permanent mental whiplash. But I’ve learned not to expect more than ten minutes of focus. 

To this end, I think with a notebook. I think through handwriting – cursive, preferably, the rhythm of loops and dashes acting as a sort of resistor to crackling tangents. I cover the page and I put down everything, drawing lines between sections in classic conspiracy-theorist style until the page looks like a bowl of spaghetti minus the sauce. 

All these written notes move to the computer, and I start rearranging them, chopping and splicing and cutting and resuscitating (lightning rods involved only rarely). 

When ten minutes looms (like midnight), I step back and try to view the writing as a system. What acts on it? What does it act on? What, logically, should be related to it? What can I safely say is always external to the system? Are there patterns, does it remind me of anything? If so, trace why. If need be, return to the notebook. 

The important thing is this: I finally understand that there are different types of focus. Reading (taking in information) is different from brainstorming (making connections), and both of these are different from writing (producing, making new thoughts, “adding value”). It is to writing, specifically, that the ten-minute window applies. 

Thus, if I want to produce anything meaningful I have to give myself time. Together, these three types of focus are part of a larger system of thought, always humming along in the background. It can take a while (sometimes years) for new additions to be integrated, assimilated, the changed meaning they give the whole understood. Like Shiva, the line between creation/chaos is “yes.” Unlike Shiva – with instantaneous-infinity to work with – my thoughts have a ten minute lifetime.

Share thoughts on focus, fractals, and thought-wrangling!

Marushka

Manifesto of a Recovering Perfectionist

“When something is perfect, it’s like a gem. It just hangs there, it’s smooth and there’s nothing to, to sink your teeth into…”

Author Christopher Paolini, from a lecture given at the Austin Public Library, Austin, Texas, 2/28/2019

I free myself from being exceptional.
I free myself to treat my efforts with good faith, and to make my efforts in good faith.

I will pay attention to hesitations.
I will seek the roots of hesitations.
I will have patience and compassion for my slowness.

I will let myself break things.

I will let myself acknowledge ineptitude, not with self-deprecation but with self-honesty – nothing more, nothing less.

I will let myself see success when I have made a step forward.
I will let myself see steps forward.

I will accurately understand my attention span.
I will design tasks for my attention span.
I will be patient with my brain. I will let it show me it’s strengths.

I will step back from self-consciousness, and replace it with honesty.

Does my work have purpose? Does my work fulfill that purpose?
Is my work fulfilled?
Am I fulfilled?

Perfection is unnecessary.
Perfect.

Dead Pan

Writing became easier when I realized: mine is a morbid muse.

I can’t help it. Sex, death, and disgust are the things people remember best. I have too much gag reflex for the third, and too little suspended disbelief for the first – so you see what I’m left with.

It doesn’t help that a lot of my relaxation reading revolves around culinary topics, so when I try to use “active language” it is liberally sprinkled with verbs like cut, chop, dice, and sauté. (I frequently self-edit injunctions to “add a splash of…”.) Fortunately my distaste for outright gore rescues me from Hannibal Lecter territory; mine is a “dry” kind of death. Deadpan, if you will… and probably with a splash of sherry.

Recipes welcome in the comments!

Marushka

Works Consulted, Vol. I

Every once in a while, I meet someone who changes my life. The fact that many of these people are dead at the time of meeting has, if anything, improved our relationships. Here’s the first installation of my collection of shades, authors whose work and ideas shape my own.

Sir Terry Pratchett (d. 2015) Unleashed the Discworld novels. His writing style is inimitable and addictive – the only writer who literally never has a dull moment in his work. Even the punctuation has personality. His use of allusions, wordplay, references, world building and narrative commentary shows what you can do with fearless narration; he has one of the most distinctive third-person omniscient narrative voices ever. I’m on my tenth re-reading of some of his work and I still discover new references and jokes. Did I mention it’s make-your-airplane-row-uncomfortable hilarious?

Ray Bradbury (d. 2012) There’s a certain breed of writer who could have only evolved in the early-to-mid twentieth century. Technology and psychology both played a crucial role in their style, voice, and subject – particularly the cross-pollination of these two fields sparked by industrialization and two world wars. In Bradbury’s case, his writing was birthed by his love of the emerging genre of the fantastic, science fiction, and christened by the Entertainment Trinity of radio, television, and film. His descriptive language is some of the best. Unusual metaphors and strong, atmospheric scenes play across your consciousness like shots from a film, with a deep attention to detail wrapped in language you can never forget.

R. Buckminster Fuller (d. 1983) The ultimate twentieth century renaissance man, a jack-of-all-trades become social-technological visionary. His writing style varies but always incorporates a stream-of-consciousness current, sweeping you along on his ego until you’re convinced of his plans for Spaceship Earth. He invents words to convey meaning (e.g. Dymaxion, ephemeralization, synergetic, tensegrity) – and, despite your initial disbelief, three weeks later you find yourself proselytizing the term’s use for something that would have taken a paragraph to otherwise detail. Essential when you need language to upend the status quo.

Victor Papanek (d. 1998) Yes, there’s a pattern of technologically-influenced social visionaries here. Papanek’s work is a bit more grounded than Fuller’s. He’s blunt, acerbic, and fed up with a social order in which technology is thoughtlessly deployed for materialistic rather than humanistic ends. If you want to take apart the system with dryly ruthless commentary and put it back together with socially-responsible design, his ideas and writing is well worth consulting.

Writing Prompts and Other Surprises

It’s a simple equation: (Wish To Write + Ideas) * X = Writers Block. X may equal procrastination, perfectionism, fear, distractions, or that shadow that’s been growing in the corner of the room for the past hour and from which you’re now pretty sure you can hear breathing and muttering. At any rate, you need help (or at least your writing does; you yourself may be beyond rescuing).

To which I say: good luck, try writing prompts. They’re these handy little open-ended phrases created by other people with the sole purpose of getting you started. I recently Googled “writing prompts” and came up with this list of 60 (which is two month’s worth of one a day, as they helpfully point out).

Lord help me, they’re terrifying. They work. Because I would rather write ANYTHING than come up with a response to, for example, #25, “If I knew then what I know now.” I do not jest when I say this: upon reading this prompt, I immediately started to second guess everything I ever learned and descended into utter “what is the meaning of life” existential madness. (Sample brainloop: Do I REALLY know more now than I did then? Or do I just ASSUME or HOPE that’s the case because present-me needs to feel superior to past-me? What is the “now” versus “then” they refer to, anyway? What is time? Where is that video of Henri the Cat?)

Compared to that, I’ll happily focus on writing topics that don’t induce use of the Caps Lock key any day.

But some of these prompts did resonate with…something, inside me. They may yet emerge once I’ve had time to think them over. #45, “I open the last book on earth.” Immediately, I remember the power of Fahrenheit 451‘s conclusion. People become books – ” ‘Walk carefully. Guard your health. If anything should happen to Harris, you are the Book of Ecclesiastes. See how important you’ve become in the last minute!’ ” (Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451).

I find depths of insight in Bradbury (more on him later), and this scene in particular has shaped my view of societies, cultures, and the accumulated learning that is the best excuse for civilization. Knowledge emerges in unusual ways, sparked by odd chemistries and catalysis and chimerisms. The rational world provides a framework, but something else flutters around its bars, just out of sight. As a writer, allowing this mental ecosystem to emerge and evolve is one of the most difficult tasks – it is far too easy to go in with pruning shears and over-critical judgement, as it were, and accidentally exterminate a few evolutionary lines – and then spend the next several days staring at a blank page, wondering why everything is so scorched-earth quiet.

Hence my newfound respect for the writing prompt. I envision it as the equivalent of a night vision camera, allowing me to capture elusive species in their undisturbed state inside my head. It surprises them as much as me – and I find surprise is a wonderful antidote to self-criticism, because you can’t argue with it. You can analyze it, yes. But you know you were surprised. And since it is notoriously hard to tame – unlike that thing in the corner – your best bet is to leave the windows open and hope a surprise flies in. Or try writing prompts. Because if I knew then what I know now…you get the idea.

For a wonderful exploration of the element of surprise, look up Terry Pratchett’s Thief of Time. And as always, please share surprises or writing prompts in the comments!

Marushka

Why Write? Morbid Remoras.

“Particles of raw inspiration sleet through the universe all the time. Every once in a while one of them hits a receptive mind…”

Terry Pratchett, Wyrd Sisters

At the age of six, I was obsessed with Julia Child and Agatha Christie. Six is also when I discovered reading, which pretty much takes care of the rest of this section.

However.

At nineteen, my job involved filing back issues of Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, a cheerful publication from the CDC that contains statistics on ways to die. (The fact that there are, in fact, statistics indicates that it is not just one individual who has died this way, but quite a lot of people.) This – combined with concurrent classes on economy, policy, and design – focused my attention on ways to improve society through systemic change.

The obvious outcome of all this is – I now write. Because the thing is, people don’t typically like systemic change. People do like novel ideas, as long as they’re safely locked in a page (or Kindle, or PDF). And that’s fine. Most broad measures of systemic change are terrible. They’re the product of people like me who don’t actually live (or die) any of the stuff we like to talk about and analyze and take apart (Heaven forbid putting it back together again, we’ve already lost most of the screws and our betta fish ate the instruction manual).

The takeaway of the above paragraph is this: systemic change isn’t very good for effecting systemic change. Ideas are much, much better. They’re subtle. They’re like the cultural equivalent of remoras, those fish that attach to sharks and won’t come off. Certain ideas never really seem to die; they fade in and out of view, hovering at the edge of the zeitgeist for a few millennia or so, and when you’re least expecting it they come bursting out of the woodwork. Voila, my friends, there you have the Copernican theory of the solar system, or some other such inevitable-in-retrospect idea. Likewise, a good idea attaches to a person’s mind. Over the course of that person’s life, the idea will meet many other people and ideas and may produce some unlikely hybrids – but if conditions are just right, and enough idea-remoras of the same type are present, the ideas will have the sort of frenzy you usually see on something narrated by David Attenborough and, in a matter of months or a few years, produce what an army of squabbling politicians, PR gurus, and scientists couldn’t do for decades.

My job, as a writer, is simply to nurture particularly helpful remoras by placing them in a context where they can meet the right people. Sort of like dating coach for brains. And fish.

Ah, metaphors. At any rate, now you know the raison d’être. Feel free to share any remoras on books, systemic change, or nature documentaries in the comments!

Marushka