Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Strange Evolution of Tales

Well, V has been in holding pattern for awhile, but for good reason: the story itself, that is, not in its details but in its very essence, is still evolving. But it is indeed evolving, rapidly and dramatically and in quite unexpected directions.

If there is one thing I have learned as a fiction writer, it is that stories, the truest and best stories I am capable of writing, must write themselves at least as much as I write them. This is definitely what happened with Bluebird, and it is what I am allowing to happen with V. Bluebird sat for two months between my latest and greatest vision for the story and the start of the actual writing. What I have discovered in the last month is that V is not quite at the point of being ready to be written. It is in the process of letting me know what it is.

And I can tell you that this unfolding revelation is nothing if not surprising. The story as I imagine it now bears only a minor resemblance to the story I originally conceived six years ago. That story was born at a much different time in my life and reflected my life at that time. Out of necessity, it is being drastically reshaped to reflect my life at this time, and this process is being guided not so much by my conscious effort as by the powerful gravitational force of the world in which I currently live.

The science fiction element of the story is becoming far less central, although it will undoubtedly remain important, since the whole concept of the tale has to do with eros and cosmos. But the space travel elements are moving more into the background, as a sort of underlying context, giving a greater stage to the earthbound, human aspect of the story.

In fact, one critical item I am still not sure about is the exact relationship between the two parallel narratives: on the one hand, the space exploration program, and on the other hand, the protagonist's life story. As in some postmodern novels, I am starting to feel that perhaps the two narratives will exist in different orders of reality that bear an ambiguous relationship to each other and to objective historical truth. I also am starting to feel that, whatever the relationship between the narratives might be, I don't need to be overly concerned with attempting to explain it, or even fully to understand it myself. After all, it is not history I am writing, but poetry.

To further complicate matters, a third narrative is suggesting itself to me. What makes this one particularly interesting is that it involves Thomas Fairchild, the protagonist of The Bluebird of Happiness, thus creating a link between the two novels without making V an actual sequel. I had already been thinking that Thomas's poetic masterpiece would be referenced in the fictional future of V, but now that element is becoming much more prominent. I am starting to think that part of the story will entail the protagonist conducting research into Thomas's life and work and the relation between the two, in an attempt to understand his own situation.

In any case, what I have realized the most is that I am not so interested in the science fictional elements as I am in the more earthly, realistic, and human elements. This is perhaps because I have discovered in recent times that real life is far stranger and more fascinating than any fantasy we can devise.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

It Helps To Know People

The first draft of the beginning of V has found its way to the scrap heap. This is hardly surprising; I half expected it. It's just part of the writing process. I made a new start the other day, just typing up a few opening lines, but it was enough to give the opening of the story a new feel and the novel itself a new start. Of course, it remains to be seen whether and how long this version will last.

This novel has gotten off to a very slow start, despite the sudden new vision I had for it recently. That in itself is nothing unusual either (the speed and ease with which I wrote Bluebird was indeed the unusual, almost freakish, phenomenon). What is more remarkable at present is the specific reason I have discovered that the novel has gotten off to such a slow start.

It is something incredibly basic and simple, something to which in hindsight it seems amazing that I had not given more thought. That element is characterization. One thing that made Bluebird so easy to write was the fact that the characters were so vivid and real to me, as well as so particular and highly individualized, perhaps even to the point of being eccentric. I felt that I was writing about real people that I knew, and was merely reporting what they did and said and thought and felt.

This new story, on the other hand, has never had very highly developed characters. It has always been more abstract in terms of the people populating the story. I probably did not give this more consideration earlier because, unlike Bluebird--which, for all of its experimental flourishes and jumping around in time and different modes of reality, remains essentially a conventional narrative--V has been conceived from the start as more highly experimental in form. Basically, I had never even considered characterization to be as important for this story as it is for more traditional novels. The same has held true in terms of plot--V has not, and is still not, conceived as displaying what most readers would consider a coherent or easily comprehensible plot, although one is present under the surface and will no doubt be gleaned by the perceptive reader, though more intuitively than rationally.

So, going in, the fact that I did not have highly developed characters did not concern me, because, being the type of experimental novel that I intended it to be, the conventional elements of the traditional novel I did not regard as essential as they normally might be. It was to be written from a more purely subjective and psychological point of view, in which the first-person consciousness of the narrator blurs into more objective styles of writing such as news articles and scientific reports. This, in fact, is part of the theme of the story, i.e. the relation between subjective and objective views and descriptions of reality.

However, I came to realize just the other day that the new inspiration I had would work much better, and be more truly inspiring, if I were to have characters who were more real to me, who were more developed as characters. Their characterization in the story would occur in a different manner, perhaps more ambiguously and mysteriously, than it did in Bluebird or in most other novels, but it would still be helpful if I, the author, knew who these characters were. This is similar to the plot, which, though it will be ambiguous and mysterious to the reader, is something that should at least be known to me.

If I know who the characters are and what the plot is, I can choose to reveal them in whatever way I please to my readers, in whatever order and to whatever degree of coherence. The fragmentation of our experience and knowledge in the modern world is something that has been of great interest and concern to me, and this is part of the reason why I am choosing to take this approach to the story. I seek to explore the relationship between our fragmented experience and the possibility of an underlying unity or coherence to things.

In any case, I came to see recently that if the protagonist in particular, the male cosmonaut, was more concrete and defined and partially drawn upon myself, he would be much easier and more intuitive for me to write. This is true of the other characters as well, though not nearly to the same degree, since the story is to be written for the most part from the protagonist's point of view and has much to do with his attempts to know other people, who always remain to some degree mysterious.

And one thing that is quite silly is that the protagonist, as of this writing, does not even have a name. Again, in experimental fiction, this is not always a requirement, but in this story I have no reason to leave him anonymous. In short, I've realized I want to know more about who this guy is. I need to sit down and have a few talks with him, perhaps, so that I can then be better equipped to tell his story, and to make V a far more human and emotional tale, as it was already becoming, than a purely intellectual and conceptual exercise.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Dream of a Depressed Poet: Part 4

The angel at the Gates of Happiness spoke again unto me, saying:

Your suffering, O poet, is no greater in degree than that of your fellow mortals; yet it is different in kind.

***

You have been blessed with many causes of happiness, for all the beauty of the world is there for you to enjoy as it is for all members of your race.

***

Your mission, poet, is to celebrate the good. Even in your songs of mourning, you affirm what is good by your sorrow at its passing.

***

Your proper attitude is not only that of celebration, but of gratitude. The true poet harbors no resentment, but only a humble and grateful spirit for all the good that has been given.

***

Your peculiar suffering, O poet, no greater than yet distinct from that of your kin, is this:

There is a happiness which is granted to most of your kind that is denied you, although you desire it more than any other good.

It is a happiness which you have never once possessed;

and it is a happiness which you never once shall know.

***

Your friends believe you suffer for a happiness which you once held, then lost. Yet in truth you grieve for a happiness which was never for a moment in your hand.

They do not know the true nature of your suffering, nor the true object of your sorrow. Like the nature of your treasure, that is only for you and your Maker to know; you may only speak of it in symbols and in myths, those great tools of the poet's art.

***

Your deprivation seems to you cruel and unfair; but what did you ever do to deserve any gift, O mortal? The gods dispense their gifts as they please.

None deserve the good they have. If they had deserved anything, they should have no reason to be grateful.

***

Your poverty, though it seem a curse, is in truth a blessing to you, O poet. It enables you to receive the strange and wondrous treasure that is given to poets, for which all the world counts as loss.

***

If you had the happiness which you desire, you should not have the happiness which is properly yours, and which is the true fulfillment of your being.

***

The fulfillment of your desires does not consist in your own satisfaction, but in the happiness of others. For this reason your tears shall become refreshing water for your kin; your blood shall become sweet wine to lighten their spirits; and your cries of sorrow shall become songs of beauty and of joy.

***

You are not made low as an act of cruelty but as an act of grace. The grape must first be crushed in order to produce wine.

***

Suffering is the lot of mortals. Your holy mission, dear poet, is to sing sweet songs full of truth and beauty and divine grace, that you may ease suffering on the earth, not only your own but also that of your fellow creatures.

In this way shall your loss be made gain, and your tragedy triumph.

***

For it is through your words, O poet, like the works of all those who bring love and grace, that the gods kiss the hearts of men and bring healing to their souls.

Thus spoke the angel.

***

I awoke from the dream, and, pondering these things, took pen in hand and crafted a song such as I was capable of making.

Glancing out my window, I saw children playing merrily in the street, old men and women smiling upon them with gladness, young men and women embracing in love. Though I could not join them, I was nevertheless happy for them, and that happiness was true.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Dream of a Depressed Poet: Part 3

The angel who stands guard at the Gates of Happiness spoke unto me, saying:

It is wise, O poet, not to ask the gods for a muse, for they might grant you one.

Then, and only then, shall you know suffering.

***

The muse is a kind and a gentle muse; she will at least allow you to live.

***

The muse shall devour your burning heart as Beatrice consumed poor Dante's. If it is greatness you seek, you must pay for it dearly.

To most it is not worth the price; this is why there are so few great poets.

***

The muse is granted you that you might desire the unattainable and pursue the impossible. Only in this way may you understand the nature of your calling and the purpose of your art.

***

The muse holds in her hand the bluebird. It is the bluebird's song that you must ever seek, listening in the darkest depths of night, and it is the bluebird's song that you must ever transcribe into your mortal tongue.

To translate the bluebird's song is the most difficult of earthly tasks, and it shall be your lifelong challenge.

***

The bluebird lit briefly before your wondering eyes long ago. Her song was sweet and good and true, and you shall never be allowed to forget it, however much it pains you.

***

The bluebird you desired more than life, and you desire her still more than life. You would give up the riches of the world only to hear her song. That is what makes you a poet.

Thus spoke the angel.

***

The gods, according to their pleasure, showed me the bluebird, then placed her forever out of my reach. I first hated the gods for their injustice, until I learned that in truth she belongs to no one but her Maker.

***

The bluebird was not given to me as a possession, but only as an inspiration.

***

In my poverty, I yet possess treasures untold: the wondrous vision of the bluebird, and the divine inspiration of her song.

***

The bluebird inspires me far more in her wildness than she would if I kept her in a cage.

***

The bluebird is a messenger of grace. Through her song I am continually blessed and purified.

***

I never held the bluebird in my own hand, and never shall. This is my emptiness, but in that emptiness, I am granted a strange and wild freedom.

***

My freedom is this: I no longer must invest time and strength and soul in the pursuit of happiness, since happiness has been made impossible for me.

I am free, therefore, to become that strangest and wildest of all creatures: a poet.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Dream of a Depressed Poet: Part 2

The oracle spoke unto me, saying:

O poet, your greatest temptations are those of Despair and of Pride.

For this reason you must learn the ways of Hope and of Humility.

***

You are not to be pitied; nor are you to seek pity; nor are you to pity yourself.

Your suffering is no greater than that which is the common lot of mortals. You are merely given the eyes to see and the mouth to speak the jewel that is formed in the fire, and thereby help to ease the suffering of your fellow creatures.

***

You are not to be glorified; nor are you to seek glory; nor are you to glorify yourself.

Yours is not to be glorified but to glorify. You are but an instrument for the divine purpose, a servant to the will of the gods. You, poet, are merely the messenger between heaven and earth. You did nothing to deserve your gifts, which are granted you at the pleasure of the gods.

Thus spoke the oracle.

***

Would I refuse the diamond that is produced in the crucible in exchange for the coal that lights the evening hearth?

--It is a great temptation, because even poets are human.

***

I am not allowed to eat when others are at table; I am not allowed to make merry when they gather round the fire. I must instead remain forever hungry and cold, my abode the dark and lonely night.

***

The poet is condemned to remain outside, forever outside, and this is why he sees what others cannot. Only in the cold emptiness of night, far from the warmth of the dinner table, do the stars become visible.

***

Far happier it is to have food in one's belly and friends at one's side than to stand alone in the cold dark longing for the unreachable stars.

--Yet far less conducive to poetry.

***

I have been granted a special grace to aid me in my calling. It is a great and wondrous secret, a treasure beyond compare. Yet I may not tell my fellow mortals what it is. They therefore believe that I have nothing, when I am rich beyond my dreams.

***

The only difficulty I face is that I must never touch or spend any of my treasure.

I therefore live as a pauper, though wealthy beyond imagining.

***

They believe me to be aimless. But it is simply that my aim is beyond anyone's reach.

***

They believe me to be ambitionless. But in fact none could possess greater ambition, for my goal lies higher than the tallest mountain peak.

The fact it is impossible to attain only makes it appear that I have failed. But that cannot rightly be called failure which was never possible to begin with.

***

They call me a dreamer. Yes, I say, for my dreams are my only possession. No other riches are attainable to me, and no other riches are desirable.

***

The poet's dreams are not meant to come true. They are meant to be turned into poetry.

***


The gods do not will you to be happy; they will you to be a poet.

--Thus spoke the oracle, and I sighed.


Sunday, September 23, 2012

Dream of a Depressed Poet: Part 1

Below is the first part of an extended prose poem on the nature of the poetic vocation (though it may apply only to a particular species of poet rather than the class as a whole). Like all poetry, this should be read as fiction, not fact; myth, not history; symbolic expression, not literal doctrine. The relation between poetry and truth is always complex and mysterious.

***

Dream of a Depressed Poet



In daylight, I saw nothing but emptiness.

In the oblivion of night, my blinded eyes met with a strange and sparkling truth.

***

It has been said unto you: "Do not let the perfect be the enemy of the good."

But I say unto you: "Do not let the good be the enemy of the perfect."

--Unless you wish to avoid becoming the most miserable creature under heaven.

***

If you are capable of avoiding this fate, by all means avoid it. It is better by far to enjoy the good that is possible than to desire the perfect that is impossible. Some of your kin lack this capability, and are called Poets.

***

My friends cannot be blamed for believing me to suffer over the fall of my kingdom; their eyes cannot perceive the more cosmic passion of which that collapse was but an unhappy effect.

***

Buildings burn and collapse all around me, but my heart is afire with a far different flame.

***

The fall of my kingdom, tragic though it was, merely cleared a space so that I could see, at last, the true emptiness of my existence, the sublime Olympian emptiness that is the peculiar gift of poets. I have been able to think of nothing else since.

***

If the gods have made me to suffer, it is for the good of my fellow mortals. No suffering happens in vain.

***

The way to Olympus is not smooth but strewn with rocks; not straight but winding and obscure; not safe but careening precipitously over cloud-shrouded cliffs.

***

The Muses darkened my eyes at birth so that I might see another light than that by which my fellow mortals see the world. This is the way they mark poets and set them apart from those who are destined for happiness on this earth.

***

The bright and cheerful sun was blotted out for me by the fair and gracious moon so that I might behold the wondrous, eternal stars.

***

Wandering birds never light until they find their true home.

--For this reason, the poet is doomed to be a lifelong wanderer on the earth.

***

This world is an unfulfillment; it cries out for another.

--So says the poet, and the happy ones laugh and turn again to their feast.

***

It is a fearsome thing indeed to awake to a dawning awareness of one's destiny, when that destiny is to be a poet. Few fates are more fearsome than that.

***

The angel has blocked my way to the Gates of Happiness, and will not be moved.

***

Do not be despondent, my friend, if you find you are unable to lead me through those gates. You are, after all, only human.

No mortal, however pure of heart, may overturn the will of the gods.

***

It was said unto me:

"Do not be disdainful of this cup of suffering, O mortal. If God saw fit to sacrifice His own dear Son, and to let Him bleed and be broken for your pitiable race, then consider it an honor to be chosen for your painful calling. Your blood shall produce Beauty, and your tears Truth, and these shall be your gift to Man."

***

My destiny was revealed to me: strange, terrible, and fearsome it was, yet also good and lovely and true, and full of tender grace.

***

The poet is sentenced to perpetual loneliness and heartache. For this reason his days are shortened.

--At least in some things there is a mercy.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Beginning of "V"

I am obviously being much more open about this novel than I was about Bluebird. Below is the beginning passage (for now at least) of my 2nd novel, code-named "V". I must note that the entire novel will not be written in this style. The style will actually vary quite a bit; as I mentioned in the previous post, some passages will take the form of scientific, academic, or journalistic writing, for instance, and the rest (the majority of the text), while being more personal and poetic, will also exhibit variety in style. The below opening passage is conceived, as is much of my writing, like the quickly changing scenes of a movie. It is like a preview of the entire story.

*** 


  I awake to a world of mist and memory. The sound of water rushing…

  In the end, it was her eyes that mattered most. The sound of soft rain on our umbrellas…

  I pick up a cup of coffee and read the headline:

VENUS SHOT FAILS
11 Cosmonauts Presumed Lost; Declared Heroes

  In the Hall, she lights a candle for the fallen, crosses herself, bows her head, and prays.

  My hand touches her inner thigh, her red lips sigh. The sound of candles flickering in the night…

  The loneliness of the evenings while she is away. The cold blue glow of the television. The sound of empty laughter…

  Their dead faces, devoid of light and love, lost to time and the endless black.

  The harsh light of a strange Antarean star, penetrating my frayed mind… oscillating wavelengths of sanity… exerting its salvific gravitational pull on a damned soul. The sound of agonized and hope-filled screaming…


Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Another Novel Idea

Well, while I am supposed to be busy editing and marketing The Bluebird of Happiness, it seems I might just launch into writing another feature-length fictional tale, erstwhile known as a novel. This "new" novel idea actually originated from a seed of an idea I first had back in 2006 and which has been gradually developing since then. Since completing Bluebird, I had already decided that this particular concept--I'll call it V for now--was the next major work of fiction that I wished to tackle, perhaps as early as this fall.

Just today, my ideas about it began to reach what you might call a critical mass, the point at which the story starts to seem real and vital enough that the writing of it begins to feel like a compulsion. I doubt that the writing of it will happen in anything like the burst of energy and inspiration that produced Bluebird in about six weeks--in fact, I doubt whether that is a repeatable phenomenon at all--but V has, as of today, arrived at the point where it suddenly feels imbued with inspiration and passion in a way that it never quite had before.

The key factor that has pushed V to this critical mass is a fresh conception of what the story is essentially about, which has given a more definite shape to its inner structure. This is similar to the process that gave shape to Bluebird a few months ago, and it is perhaps no coincidence that the motivating and shaping force is pretty much the same thing that gave impetus to the previous novel. In essence, V became all the more interesting and important and real to me as a story today because I suddenly saw a way to relate it more directly and vitally to my current feelings and concerns.

I don't mind revealing a little about the story at this time. It is set in the future and involves parallel narratives, one the history of a space exploration program, the other the autobiography of a male cosmonaut (that is the term used in the story) and his complex relationships with other people, including family and friends, but focusing particularly on his relationships with three different women over the course of his life. The story will not be told in strict chronological order but in a more subjective and psychological way, combined with some technical, scholarly, and journalistic styles of writing. I think of the basic theme of the story as eros and cosmos; that is, the relationship of human love and longing to the universe itself. It is, like Bluebird, a story of epic and tragic proportions, but then, it wouldn't be a Steven Holland story otherwise, would it?

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

What Is Love Anyway?

Philosophers have a way of asking what seem to be obvious questions, as though they were born yesterday. Questions like, "What is place?" or "What is love?" Many people would simply reply to the latter, "What a stupid question. Everyone knows what love is."

But the philosopher's whole point is to show precisely that we don't know what love is, not really. As with anything else, when you really start thinking about it deeply and trying to define it, you soon get lost and confused. Even your physical surroundings and your own self can start to dissolve when you spend any time thinking deeply about what they really are. If it serves no other purpose, philosophy reveals to us how ultimately mysterious everything is.

And what could be more mysterious than love? What is love, anyway? The problem is made more complex by the fact that the English word "love" actually refers to a number of different phenomena, so that any discussion of love without further clarification will inevitably result in a confusion of tongues. The Greeks did better in this regard by having at least four different words to describe four different things that English speakers all lump together as "love":

1. Storge, familial love or affection.

2. Philia, friendship.

3. Eros, sexual or romantic love.

4. Agape, unconditional love.

It is very important to note two things here:

1. The above brief definitions of these Greek words are oversimplified and potentially misleading. Eros, in particular, as the term is used in philosophy, is far broader than its commonly understood meaning of sexual love.

2. These four types of love, though they are different, can of course coexist in various combinations. For instance, one might very well feel all four types of love toward one's spouse.

In this series, I am primarily interested in focusing on eros, which, as I say, means far more than what the above simple definition suggests. Since it is connected and related to the other loves, however, I will also inevitably touch upon each of them in the course of my musings. But it is primarily eros that has become of particular philosophical interest to me. I am especially fascinated by Plato's ideas on the subject, which I explored this summer while composing my novel.

One thing philosophy accomplishes is that it shows us how our concepts are often unclear, and that we can conflate and confuse things that should be differentiated, or that we might fail to see that what we think are a variety of phenomena are actually different aspects of one and the same thing. In the case of love, it has become very clear to me that we fail to make certain crucial distinctions, a mistake that leads to much unnecessary unhappiness.

We have already touched upon one of these problems, which is inherent in the English language, and that is the fact that we have but a single word that is used to refer to a variety of phenomena, thereby generating confusion when anyone speaks about "love". My next step is to attempt to show that even the subcategory of erotic love needs further subdivisions in order to help us understand and properly respond to our desires and feelings.

In an age that is split between puritanical overcautiousness and Freudian oversexualization, it is nigh impossible to arrive at a proper and healthy understanding of eros, in all of its complexity and richness and fullness, without the aid of philosophy. Because of the peculiar misunderstanding of eros that characterizes modern Western (and especially American) society, much damage is done not only to relationships and individuals but also to the potential for happiness that exists in each of us and in each of our lives.

My hope is that with a proper understanding of our desires, much unnecessary fear might be overcome and that more people would be capable of having fuller and richer and deeper relationships with more people. We have become liberated sexually at the grievous and unnecessary cost of having become more repressed in terms of our nonsexual relationships.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Why Be A Philosopher?

Twenty years ago I made a fateful and, some would say, horrific decision: I chose to become a Philosophy major.

As I described in an earlier post, I felt at the time that I was setting out on a lonely road, a path far less traveled. Prior to this decision, I had not even considered majoring in something as seemingly esoteric as philosophy. I had felt most drawn toward Art and English, and indeed most of my friends seemed to be majoring in either of those two fields. At the time, I had actually just chosen Psychology as my major, for purely practical, career-focused reasons. However, after the first day of Intro to Philosophy, I was hooked. I promptly changed my major, and as they say, the rest is history.

Philosophy is perhaps one of the few fields of human endeavor that can attract followers with a zeal that is almost like being in love. Plato spoke of eros as a love of the good, a love that draws us passionately toward the sublime. He believed that philosophers, poets, and artists, in addition to (as we say) "platonic" lovers, are compelled by eros toward the various objects of their love. In the case of philosophers, this object is wisdom. The very word "philosophy" actually means "love of wisdom". It uses a different word for love, philia, but it echoes Plato's notion that philosophers are motivated by love.

It should also be noted that philosophy, poetry, and art are fields that are traditionally thought of as notoriously lacking in material rewards. Philosophers, poets, and artists, generally speaking, do not choose their fields for any practical reasons. It can verily be said that their passions choose them. There are not many other fields to which someone would choose to devote their life without any hope or expectation of monetary recompense. These fields, traditionally, are labors of love. They are specifically labors of eros, and to their devotees they can indeed feel quite erotic, in the sense of being driven by a burning passion for a beloved object, a passion for which one is willing to sacrifice and risk appearing to the rest of society as a crazy fool.

(I will note here briefly that what I am describing is also true of platonic love, but I will address that more fully in my series on love.)

In the summer of 1989, after I graduated from high school, I was very inspired by the movie Dead Poets Society. Although I had been a lifelong writer, that movie was one of the major early influences that pushed me in the direction of poetry (I had primarily just written fiction up till then, plus a few song lyrics). From my perspective now, it is evident that this movie demonstrates the idea of poetry as an object of eros. For those who love it, it produces a passion that is itself like being in love, and that makes material concerns seem pale in significance next to the spiritual rewards it provides. I have long seen philosophy in the same light, and I used to think that if I became a philosophy professor (which I had once planned on doing), I would want to impart a passion for philosophy to my students that was very similar to the passion for poetry which Mr. Keating imparted to his.

As poets are in love with and passionately seek out beauty expressed through the medium of language, philosophers are in love with and passionately seek out wisdom expressed through the medium of language. Language is an imperfect tool, but it's the best we've got. The poet is specifically charged with the task of figuring out how to make language an ever more powerful tool. The philosopher is somewhat more limited, in the sense that he must restrict his use of language, unlike the poet, to the rational and literal (generally speaking, though there have been exceptions to this rule; but in those exceptions, the philosopher becomes something of a poet).

So what are the rewards of philosophy? Do philosophers ever actually acquire the wisdom that they seek, and if so, what does that do for them?

These are very good questions. It has been said that philosophers do not ever actually attain wisdom, at least not in full, as the fullness of wisdom is a divine prerogative and not a human one. And it would not be befitting a true philosopher to claim that one is in fact wise. The word philosopher, after all, means "lover of wisdom", not one who has already attained wisdom. One can only hope and imagine that, inasmuch as they pursue the object of their love, philosophers do in fact acquire at least some measure of wisdom. But it is a quest that can never be completely fulfilled. It is the same with any eros. Poets and artists can never completely satisfy their hunger for beauty, just as the platonic lover never finds the fulfillment of his desires. It has also been said that all eros is unrequited love, in the sense that it is a perpetual longing and desire that never finds ultimate satisfaction and fulfillment.

For this reason, any devotee of eros will seem a little crazy and even pathetic to those who do not share their passion. But to the devotee of eros, everyone else is failing to see what they are seeing, which at worst can lead some of them to feel superior, and at best can lead them to want to share their vision with others and to inspire them with the same passion and enthusiasm.

So what does the attainment, or at least the pursuit, of wisdom do for the philosopher? Why such passion for wisdom?

Wisdom, assuming it is true wisdom, helps us to see things as they really are: the world we live in, human life, ourselves. It is about understanding the true nature of things. And that understanding, in addition to being valuable knowledge in itself, also helps us to live the best life possible. It is particularly important to have a sense of what is important, i.e. of what one should value most and what one should value less or not at all. As Socrates said, the unexamined life is not worth living.

Pursuing philosophy, as I said, can seem a lonely path. It can feel like wandering off into the woods. But it is a journey well worth undertaking. As Thoreau said:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.
Philosophy, then, far from being an esoteric pursuit for a few academics in the ivory tower, is something that everyone should practice in some way. It simply means to think deeply about life, to know why you believe what you believe, to examine your values and priorities, to reflect on and understand what is truly important, and to live life as though it matters. Because it does.

Friday, August 31, 2012

The Book of Love: Introduction


The topic of love has not been addressed by philosophers nearly as much as it deserves. It is evidently one of the most important aspects, some would say the single most important aspect, of human existence, and yet one must search far and wide to find mention of it in the works of great philosophers. Plato is a notable exception (from his ideas we derive the term "platonic love"), but by and large philosophers seem not to have regarded love as being of great philosophical interest.

Love has always been of great philosophical interest to me, at least since around 1989, when, as I mentioned after my daughter was born, I came to the conclusion that the ultimate meaning of life could be found in the phenomenon of love, as an irreducible good for which no further explanation is possible or necessary.

In the late 90s, I briefly toyed with the idea of writing a philosophy book about love, particularly the variety known as eros (which does not, as I shall explain in a later post, mean the same thing as sexual love, though there is certainly overlap), and even more particularly the subcategory of eros that is the painful experience of unrequited love.

Since my separation this year, I have been thrust into a sort of existential relationship space which has given me cause to revisit and examine afresh my ideas about love in all its forms. The novel I wrote this summer, in fact, largely revolves around these themes (though it is also about much more than that). Even more recently I have begun to revive my old idea of writing a book on the philosophy of love, with special focus on the special problem of unrequited love. What I am doing right now in this blog is to attempt to start fleshing out my thoughts on the subject, in preparation for the writing of such a book.

You may well ask why unrequited love should be of such special significance from a philosophical point of view. One reason is precisely the fact that it is unhappy, and anything unhappy can lead one to become philosophical. I should also point out that when I say unrequited love, I mean something more than the transitory and superficial phenomena that we call crushes and infatuations. I have experienced plenty of those, but I have had two experiences in my life of a more lasting and profound type of unrequited love (feelings and experiences which I drew upon in the writing of my novel), and it is this more serious type of psychological suffering that might well cause one to wax philosophical (as well as wax poetical).

But it is not just unrequited love that I wish to examine and analyze for meaning. I am also recently much more interested in examining the nature of things like friendship, eros in general, platonic love, courtly love, and the phenomenon which psychologists call "limerence" and which the rest of us call being "in love" (or romantic love). I am particularly interested in examining the relationships among these various but interrelated phenomena, and in showing how many of our common conceptions about them might be mistaken and therefore counterproductive.

These are all very real phenomena and I don't think they can be readily dismissed by philosophers of the human condition. Each of these phenomena tells us something, not only about ourselves, but also about reality. Human beings are certainly a part of reality, and the things we feel, and even the things we invent, can all provide clues as to the nature of the world that produces us. The philosopher's task is to start with the familiar facts of human experience and to dig down through all the layers to discover what these phenomena can tell us about the nature of ourselves and of the world in which we live.

Though philosophy inevitably and necessarily involves some level of abstraction, my own style of philosophizing tends to be more personal and essayistic. I will no doubt draw upon and make reference to my own experiences, but I will not reveal the actual names of other people in order to respect both their privacy and my own. This project is not intended to be a confessional but a philosophical meditation. It is just that I like to relate my philosophical speculation to concrete experience as much as possible.

To some degree, I have already devoted much writing, in my novel, to speculation, meditation, and analysis of and on these subjects, but nonfiction writing provides a different means to think about and present the topics and issues. Fiction (including poetry) and nonfiction can address things in complementary ways and can work together to create a fuller picture. In both modes of writing, my discussion of these topics is meant to be exploratory rather than dogmatic. I am not providing definitive answers (as though I had them) as much as I am simply asking questions and exploring concepts in a search for understanding and truth. In this ongoing series of posts, I hope to begin painting a fuller picture of love, its nature and its meaning and its possibilities, not only for others but also for myself.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

One Thing

Only one thing the heart desires
When found, nothing more is sought

And lacking what it desires most
All the world is not enough.

***

Steven Holland
August 26, 2012

Sunday, August 19, 2012

After Thoughts

In some sense it is not technically true that Bluebird is my first novel. Back when I was 19-20 I wrote two novels, which mercifully no longer exist. Both novels were set in a fictional Florida beach town and revolved around a cast of high school students (the second novel being a sequel to the first). I wrote them in notebooks, so I don't know the word count, but the first took up about 200 handwritten pages (I write pretty small) and the sequel took up about 300 pages. They were written within the span of one year. About two years after finishing the sequel, I destroyed both novels, together with a large number of my other writings, because I already felt that they had become embarrassing.

Nevertheless, I am very glad that I wrote them. They were certainly good writing exercises and invaluable practice in the art of writing not only novels but also realistic fiction. I don't think they were all bad; in fact, I think there was much good in them. But they're all gone now. Only a handful of family and friends ever read them. Someday I may write up synopses or summaries of the stories, in case future scholars might ever be interested (hey, you never know). I can still remember much about them, and I don't mind if people know about them and have some idea of what they were like.

My 2008 blog fiction The Librarian's Apprentice was not meant to be a novel. When published in book form it came to 117 pages, which would qualify it as an accidental novella. Prior to this my longest surviving work was the novella The Holocaust of the Children (1999), which is about 42 pages or so. (Incidentally, I also wrote a novella, in notebook form, when I was 18-19. It came to just over 50 pages, and, like my early novels, is no longer extant.)

In any case, The Bluebird of Happiness is what I regard as my first "real" novel. My early novels I consider now to be juvenilia. The one I have just completed is a mature work. I never really feel perfectly comfortable talking about my own work, but allow me for a moment to reflect on what is undoubtedly my greatest literary accomplishment so far.

It is hard to express the excitement I feel about it without coming across as sounding like I am praising my own work. But I wish to express my great delight at discovering what I was capable of writing. I always hoped that I had it in me to write a great novel; and, without actually claiming that I have in fact written a great novel, I will say that I feel much more confident in my abilities and talents than I did only several weeks ago. This novel is truly a breakthrough for me as a writer.

I feel fairly confident in saying that the story is of epic proportions. I'm not talking about the book's historical or cultural importance necessarily, I just mean the story itself. A hundred thousand words is actually fairly average for a "literary" novel, but because of my concise writing style, its scale and scope are greater than the thickness of the volume might suggest. It is meant to be an epic and even a sort of (post)modern myth. The protagonist, Thomas, is deliberately cast as a mythic figure, and the story, though centered in more or less the present day, looks across his entire life, encompassing scenes from near infancy to just after his death (as an old man, decades in the future). I consider it to be my own personal Citizen Kane, and purposely took that film as one of my main inspirations.

I feel confident, too, in saying that the story is packed full. Not just in terms of the narrative, which is dense and ranges widely not just across Thomas's life but also into his dreams (i.e., his night dreams), his writings (he is an author too), and his innermost thoughts and feelings. It is also packed full in terms of symbolism and intricate interconnections among various parts and elements of the story, and in references to other artistic works, including especially works of music, film, and poetry. I have no doubt that it is the kind of work that readers and critics can spend a long time unpacking. There is much that is mysterious, even to me as the author, and open to a range of interpretations. I can't wait to hear what some of those interpretations might be. I will surely learn some things about the story that even I don't know. I especially look forward to readers making connections or gleaning understandings that I had no idea were there. So if you read it and you make a connection, please feel free to share. Don't assume that it was intentional. Probably most of them are intentional, but there is surely much waiting to be discovered.

The ending of the story, now that I have written it, is particularly striking to me, in a way that I had not intended or foreseen. Even though I conceived of the final scene the day before I started writing (this scene was the final spark that set fire to the actual writing), it surprised me when I actually wrote it on Friday. Its effect is somewhat different than what I had anticipated, but, like so much else about this story, I think it is even better than what I had planned to do. Even in the final moments, as my fingers typed the last sentences, I did not realize the exact form the ending would take, nor the precise effect it would have. I think part of the reason I was breathless immediately upon finishing was because the ending knocked the wind out of me. It is, as I had imagined, very quiet and subtle and understated, and I think that makes its effect all the more powerful. I felt as though I had just been hit by something enormous, but I didn't actually feel it hit me. I only felt the dazed aftereffects. I think it was the full immense weight of the entire epic and tragic story, let down at the end by the fall of a feather.

I couldn't be more pleased with the way the ending actually came out--as I said, it is better than what I had planned. The ending, even to me, is very mysterious. I actually do not fully understand its meaning on a rational and intellectual level. I have been trying to interpret it and understand it myself. But I know the meaning is definitely there. I felt it viscerally as soon as I had typed the last word, and every time I re-read it or even think about it, it still hits me. I don't even know why exactly. I just know there is something very enormous and profound suggested by that closing scene, something far too deep for words.

I say all this not to proclaim my own abilities as a writer, because as I keep saying this was not something I even intended. The ending made me feel, more than any other aspect of this incredible writing experience, that some larger forces were at work. Call it God, the Muses, whatever you will. This story was given to me so that I may give it to you. To me, the entire purpose of art is to help us connect with the ultimate meaning and mystery of life. True art is spiritual, not commercial. I will consider this work a success if it acts as a vehicle for grace in the lives of those who read it.

Friday, August 17, 2012

My First Novel


Today I completed my first novel, The Bluebird of Happiness. From July 3rd to August 17th of this year, I underwent the longest sustained burst of creative inspiration and poetic passion that I have ever experienced as a lifelong writer, and produced a work that has far surpassed my wildest expectations.

The story had its genesis way back in 1999. At the time, it was titled The Terrible Blue and revolved around a young man named Thomas and his struggle to find meaning in what he felt to be the cold emptiness of the contemporary postmodern world. After years of false starts, changes to characters and plot, uncertainty, lack of inspiration, and occasional total abandonment, it all started coming together this year, and all the more once I began the actual writing.

Along the way, I changed the title to The Bluebird of Happiness. The reason for the new title, besides the fact that I just liked the way it sounded, had to do with the fact that I had come to see the novel's primary philosophical theme as happiness. I consider Bluebird to be a philosophical novel, meaning that it revolves around some of the deepest and most important questions we can ask about human life. If you could boil down the novel's theme to an essence, it would be something like this: Is true happiness possible for human beings?

To find out my answer, you will just have to read the book. Anyway, I don't know that I necessarily provide any definitive answer as much as I simply explore the question to its heights and depths and furthest reaches, suggest some open-ended possibilities, and leave much for the reader to ponder after the last sentence. My style of philosophical writing is not to provide tidy conclusions (because I don't know all the answers) but to get people to ask certain questions and to think for themselves.

The novel also explores themes such as beauty and love and home, and how each of these relate to each other and to happiness. One of the most important things I attempt to do in this story is to question our assumptions about and explore the possibilities of human relationships.

I should also point out that it is more than just a philosophical novel. It should certainly not be read as merely a philosophical essay in fictional form. It is meant as poetry, and should be enjoyed in many ways, for the language, the ideas, the feelings, and above all else it should simply be enjoyed as a story. The enjoyment will sometimes be painful, but even in those moments it will be, I think, beautiful and meaningful.

As I have already described, earlier this year I suddenly had a grand new vision for the story. Readers who know me personally may well wonder, while reading, why I chose the story that I did, and how much relation it bears to my actual life. With regard to the latter question, I can only echo what I said before: this is a work of fiction. The events in the story never happened. The characters in the story never existed. The novel is not a secret code to my life story, and it is definitely not a roman a clef .

When I said that I am telling my story through the novel, I did not mean that literally. If I had written The Wizard of Oz, I would also be telling my story through it. I would just be using more fantastical means to do so. In this story I am using realistic means, but that does not mean I am writing about real life in a literal sense. It is about real life only in a symbolical sense, as all literature is. It provides a shared dream through which we may interpret and understand real life. But it is still a dream, and should always be regarded as such.

So why did I choose this particular story? Well, for one thing, I'm an author and I can choose to write whatever story I want to write. It just struck me as a good story idea, and a particularly good way to explore my chosen philosophical themes. I saw in it great beauty and great power, and I hope that I have successfully conveyed my vision in these pages.

The story really came alive when I actually started writing in early July. At that point it became a true vision, overpowering me and driving me toward its realization and completion. I was under the control of the Muse, taking dictation as she revealed the true story to me, the one that I had not even guessed at during the previous 13 years of torturous evolution. I was constantly surprised and delighted at what emerged from my pen (figuratively speaking).

You will probably not understand Thomas. But that is okay. As he says of himself, "I'm not meant to be understood." And you may not even like him. He is not meant to be a hero but more of an anti-hero, although I think you will come to have a greater understanding of him, and probably even some real love for him, by the end. And that is one of the grand things about fiction. It helps us to understand, not only life, but each other.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Final Stretch

I have written over 80,000 words and am headed into the final stretch of this novel. As I suspected would happen even when I first started writing, my heart is growing heavier as I near the end of the story. I don't know if the story is a tragedy so much as a story that expresses the tragic sense of life. If it is a tragedy, it is not so because it is about death, but precisely because it is about life.

Also as I suspected, the characters have become very real to me and I am reluctant to part with them. But part with them I must, so that I can let them go and allow other people to know them too. In some strange sense that is surely true for all fiction writers, my characters are almost like my children. I did in fact conceive them and give birth to them. I do not always approve of everything they do or say, but I love them nevertheless. I allow them to suffer, but only for their own good. And in the end, despite their many flaws and mistakes and perhaps incomprehensible choices, I am proud of them.

No matter what becomes of this novel, it has been well worth the writing. It has been something like a catharsis. Even if I never earn a single penny from it, it has been one of the best investments of time and effort I will ever make. As I said earlier, it is like a distillation of my soul, and plenty of my soul and my blood have been poured into it, with much more still to come in the final pages.

Looking back, the way this story idea survived over the many years, and the way it is flowing out of me now, it seems that this story is something I was meant to write. It is not my place to compare it to the works of other artists, but in terms of my own art, it is without doubt the greatest thing I have yet produced. I used to wonder if I had it in me to write a real literary novel, meaning a full-length, serious, deep work of art that has at least the potential to stand the test of time and find readers in future generations and, yes, perhaps even be given to English majors. Only time will tell if these events come to pass, but if nothing else I have learned that I can at least write a novel. I am frankly surprised at how well it has turned out. I don't know if that statement expresses pride or humility, or some mixture of both, but it is in any case true.

One of the strangest and most wonderful things about artistic creation is that it often seems as though the artist is merely the vehicle for some higher reality that is being channeled through him. As I have often said, to a very large degree it feels that this story is just coming to me rather than being something I have to consciously construct. Of course, I still need to take my inspiration and consciously mold it into its actual form, but I am also surprised at how easy it has been to write such a long work.

I have occasionally looked back at passages I wrote well before and been struck by symbolism or foreshadowing or other connections that I did not intend to put there and did not even notice while writing them. The effect of writing this novel has been like being caught in the grip of an ongoing visionary seizure. There is something obsessive and compulsive in the writing of it, even though I undertake it willingly and gladly.

In the end, no matter how many readers or how few my novel may have, what I hope for it the most is that whoever reads it will see the beauty and the truth I am attempting to communicate. You (if you are in fact to be one of my readers) may not fully understand it, at least not at a conscious and rational level. I do not claim to fully understand it on this level myself. But I think that, like all poetry, even though it does speak to the mind, it speaks even more deeply to the heart and the soul. I can't explain in concise terms what it means, or exactly how the ending makes me feel, but I know that it is something very real and meaningful that I wish to share.

The German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer spoke of literature creating a fusion of horizons between the reader and the author. In other words, the "horizon" or world of the reader can meet the horizon of the author, thus creating a shared understanding. Art is one of the most powerful means we have of bridging the often seemingly unbridgeable gap between the loneliness of our souls, in which we often feel that no one can truly share our experiences and thoughts and feelings. When it is successful, a literary work can create a quiet and marvelous space where, at least for a moment, two souls can touch, even if separated by centuries, and find communion in their shared human experience. If in reading my story you and I can create a shared horizon, a shared understanding of truth and a shared appreciation of beauty, then I have greatly succeeded.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

On the Eerie Similarities Between Sex Scenes and Horror Stories





Sometimes it is not what you say, but what you don't say.

We live in vulgar times, an age in which the explicit and graphic depiction of sex and gore is the norm. My problem with graphic depictions of sex and violence is not that they are too strong, at least not in the sense of achieving their intended effects (though they are often too strong in the way that the smell of a garbage heap is, i.e., extremely offensive to good taste). Rather, my problem with them is that they are too weak.

They are weak and ineffectual because they show too much. They represent an unrefined sensibility that works on the assumption that more is always better. Take it from me: sometimes more is less.

See, the problem is that explicit depictions of sex and violence work against the full power of eroticism and horror. Both of these qualities relate to some of the deepest and most powerful of all human feelings, those connected with sexual love and the continuation of life, in the case of eroticism, and in the case of horror, those connected with fear, particularly fear of death and the unknown.

H. P. Lovecraft, one of the greatest horror writers of all time, famously said that "the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown". Old horror movies were far less gory and violent than today's, but they tended to be more mysterious, atmospheric, and moody. Classic horror (as opposed to modern horror) aimed to suggest rather than to show, and this is precisely where its power resided. The more you leave to the imagination, the more room is given to genuine psychological horror--those creepy feelings that something dark and fearsome and possibly evil is lurking out there, or perhaps very close at hand. This type of horror--which I consider to be true horror--is more often than not caused by the presence of unknown and unknowable supernatural entities or forces, rather than by bland and banal human murderers. True horror suggests that there is more to reality than our modern scientistic worldview affords, and therein lies its truly subversive power: it challenges our very concept of reality, our philosophical assumptions, the very ground beneath our feet.

The depiction of sex works very much the same way. Pornography, whether written or visual, leaves little or nothing to the imagination. It is focused on the physical body to a degree that could be considered clinical and therefore the very opposite of sexy. Truly erotic art, however, like true horror, focuses more on the psychological aspects of the experience, and suggests more than it shows. Its power lies in allowing the reader to fill in his or her own blanks, just as classic horror does. As the Symbolists said, "To name is to destroy; to suggest is to create." The power of suggestion is very powerful indeed, and is a potent artistic weapon that is too often neglected in our age of vulgar--and totally unexciting--excess. Trying too hard often results in failure; my advice to writers and filmmakers is to kick it up a notch by taking it down a thousand.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

From Beyond




We felt it first, faint as raindrops on the world,
but distinct, as animals sense distant tremors.
Something enormous and impossible had risen
and was nearing from out the tremendous black,
from the fathomless depths of the night ocean,
approaching our sleeping city by the sea.
The bay had been shrouded by an eerie fog,
a voiceless harbinger of the terrible visitation.
Its waters moved, displaced by the unknown,
by unseen forms and forces, unexpected presences.
 
The weight of unimaginable hooves fell upon the crust,
the low, thunderous beat of titanotheric tympani.
The waters rippled, the earth gently trembled,
the scent of prehistoric mists filled the gloom.
Then we beheld the wondrous, awful sight,
as the gigantic green-gray shapes emerged
from the abyss of night and time:
   the towering Brachiosaurus,
   the neverending Diplodocus,
   the colossal Brontosaur.
 
The titanic beasts waded up from the deep,
unsummoned yet dreadfully arrived,
shaking the earth beneath their fantastic feet
and all our earthly certainties.

***

Steven Holland
October 6, 2006

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

What This Story Is Not About

As I progress through the writing of this novel, its meaning becomes more and more clear. However, I am certain that even when I have written the last word, the meaning of my story will remain somewhat mysterious, even for myself. It is not meant to be a political or religious tract, nor a scientific or philosophical treatise. It is poetry, in the broader sense of that term (which, by Aristotle's definition, can be taken to include all fiction). Because of that, its meaning will always be indeterminate and ambiguous, open to a range of interpretations.

I have no doubt that it will make you feel something. What that something is may vary from reader to reader, and, as with many works of literature or film or music, it may be something you can't fully describe or explain or put your finger on. But it may, if I am as skilled of a writer as I hope to be and am capable of conveying my vision effectively, still be powerful and deeply affecting (as the story is for me). Many of my favorite works of literature, film, and music leave me with profound feelings that I can't ever fully understand or analyze. I may not know what I am feeling, exactly, but I definitely know it is something real and important, something much bigger and deeper than ordinary everyday emotions and thoughts. That is the effect of great poetry and art, and it is the effect I hope to achieve.

I don't mean to sound melodramatic in saying this, and this is something that is true for many, many artists and their works, but an important aspect of this work in particular, perhaps more than any other work I have produced, is that it is born out of suffering. This concept is very important to the story itself, as it has much to do with suffering producing beauty.

I won't get into further details today, but, just to clear the idea out of everyone's mind, I wish to make one point clear. Many who know me know that my marriage ended recently. This story has nothing whatsoever to do with that. The only relationship between that event and this tale is a very indirect one. Simply put, the dissolution of my marriage opened up a space for another, quite unrelated phenomenon to surface within my soul, something that was simultaneously beautiful and painful. That mixture of beauty and pain gave a whole new inspiration and new life to a story idea that had been sitting around for many years. I consider it a gift, and I wouldn't trade the pain for the world, because, together with the beauty from which it is inseparable, it inspires me and enables me to use my talents more fully and powerfully than I ever have. I feel that it is a flame, causing both suffering and illumination, that is driving me to reach my full potential as a writer.

The nature of this beauty/pain/inspiration is something deeply personal and in any case would be hard to explain or describe in a short space with full justice and without the potential of great misunderstanding. The novel, among many other things that it is, is my way of explaining it. Although the details of characters and events are purely fictitious, the underlying heart of the story, its themes and meanings, its emotions and ideas, are all very real. I am telling you about something that actually happened and continues to happen to me, but not with the literal facts of my autobiography. I am telling it through another person's story--a fictional person who is not me, and does not in any simple or direct way "represent" me, but who nevertheless experiences things very similar (though by no means identical) to what his author has experienced.

By telling it in this fictional form, I hope to tell my own story to its fullest effect, free from the nitty gritty details of true history. I am turning it into poetry, which as Aristotle said is more philosophical than history because it shows us universals rather than particulars.

My recent inspiration and the art it is producing have given birth to a strange new vision, a vision which forms the philosophical core of this tale. To me, it is strange in a good and beautiful way. I know and expect that some readers will simply find it strange, or perhaps not understand it at all and so not know what to think. The ending, though I find it to be powerful and profound, is also ambiguous and open. I wish to leave the reader, not with tidy conclusions (in terms of either plot or philosophy), but with a sense of wonder and possibility, an aching sense of the deep importance of human life and love, and a desire to know more. Not that there will be a sequel... the unfulfillment that drives us perpetually toward truth and beauty is part of the point.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Let Me Preface This By Saying...

I am writing this note mainly for family and friends who may read the opus currently under production in my secret laboratory:

"The following is a work of fiction -- not autobiography, not biography, not history, not a personal journal or diary -- but fiction, plain and simple."

For those who have forgotten, fiction means that it is completely made up.

The reason I feel the need to stress this is that, like any writer, I am drawing upon real life to find the ingredients for this concoction. People who know me will notice specific autobiographical details in the two main male characters, but this in no way means that either of them is "really" me. They are not me; they are fictional characters. I have put something of myself in them to make them more real, more believable, and therefore more powerful as characters. But that just means that they have some of their creator's DNA. Each is his own unique and independent person.

Also, perhaps even more troubling, certain of my family and friends may be quite surprised to notice little bits of themselves in a given character, or perhaps a certain situation or event will seem remarkably similar to some real situation or event involving you and me.

If this happens, don't be alarmed. None of the characters is "really" you, and none of the situations or events in the book are meant to be dramatized re-creations of anything that happened in real life. To be completely accurate, I should say that the events in the book are not directly about events in real life; that is, it is not fictionalized autobiography. But the entire story is certainly about real life, and it is in some sense specifically about my life.

What I mean is that I am taking my entire life experience, my philosophy and my feelings, and am transforming them into art. It is about real life in the way that any novel is, and it is about my own life in the way that any writer's work is. The characters, situations, and events are not real, but they naturally bear some resemblance to real life, and naturally they even bear some resemblance to the real life that this author has lived. And yes, in some cases, I even take specific details from real life and real people and turn them into details of fictional life and fictional people. That is what writers do. The reasons for what details get included may not always be clear, even to the author. But inspiration leads where it may. So, if you see some tiny fragment of yourself or your life in my story, don't read too much into it; just feel flattered (I hope) that some exceedingly small part of you or your life ended up in a classic work of literature (well, a boy can dream, can't he?).

Writers are always told to "write what you know". In one sense this is unavoidable; in another sense it is impossible. It is unavoidable if you take "what you know" to include literally all of your experience, which most emphatically does not mean only what you have personally, directly experienced. I wouldn't want family and friends to think that I have done everything my characters have done, or that I share all of their views and sentiments. They are all other people to me, and I am reporting what they have done and said and thought, not what I have done and said and thought.

The mantra "write what you know" is impossible in the sense that you will be severely limited in what you can write if this is taken to mean only what you have directly experienced. Writers rarely actually do that; they research, they observe, they imagine, whatever it takes to fill in the blanks that are not supplied, and in some cases, cannot be supplied, by their actual lived experience.

While we're on that topic, I should also warn my more sensitive readers that this is not a G-rated novel. If it were a movie it would very definitely be R-rated. Any serious writer writing about real life in a serious way cannot sugarcoat reality; it must be shown as it is. That is the only way to make it real and effective and powerful -- that is, if one is writing a serious realistic novel with any aspiration toward literary quality and significance. My characters use the "f word", they drink too much, they take drugs, they engage in sexual practices that some would consider perverse, they condemn traditional religion. All of this is not there to be sensational or shocking. The Bible, after all, contains descriptions of behavior that would be considered quite shocking and repulsive by anyone's standards. All of these behaviors on the part of my characters are part and parcel of the story and its philosophical and moral meaning. Every word is there for a reason, even every "f word". As Martin Luther said, the devil is God's devil.

In comparison to a lot of what is out there, my book is actually quite tame in terms of behavior. Like I said, I am not in it for shock value or cheap sensationalism. I only put in what needs to be there in order to tell the story to its fullest power. But I do feel that, to many readers (not necessarily the more "sensitive" ones mentioned above, but perhaps especially to the most worldly among us) my book might be considered rather shocking in a way quite different from what people usually think of when they think of something shocking.

It would be very difficult, as well as undesirable, to attempt to explain what I mean without having you read the story itself. But suffice it to say that the shock I foresee, for at least some readers, lies not in superficial details of the story but in its underlying philosophy, and the hopefully powerful way in which that philosophy is expressed, which will make it all the more troubling for those who do not understand it. It is neither left nor right, far from conventional yet equally distant from what is commonly regarded as countercultural, and will no doubt seem strange and incomprehensible to many. I only barely understand it myself. It is a powerful new vision for me, and, like much else about this story, is not something I planned or even imagined prior to writing. It is something I am discovering as I continue to unravel the story and gradually realize where it's taking me.

The more I write this story, the more I feel that I have been blessed with something original and profound. It is something which only began fully revealing itself once I started writing the story earlier this month, rather than during the previous 13 years of imagining and planning, and feels more like a gift than an invention. I look forward to the remainder of this journey and the treasures I will continue to discover along the way, and I look forward all the more to sharing those treasures with you.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Explorations


In setting out to explore the unknown and the strange, I did not seek to abandon my homeland.

I had already been exiled from my homeland; it had become a place no longer to be found except on old maps of consciousness.

Far from an abandonment, my searching is a quest to return to my homeland, to discover it still miraculously existing somewhere among the million stars.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Why Symbolist Poetry?

In attempting to give an answer to the above question, I am actually attempting to answer two distinct but related questions: "Why write symbolist poetry?" and "Why read symbolist poetry?".

I first want to make clear that I in no way look down on poetry that is more straightforward and easier to digest. Much, if not most, of the greatest poetry ever written has taken a form that, while often dense and challenging, is at least more or less clear in its meaning. Symbolism, in the sense I am using the word, is a modern development that arose in the 19th century, and which has been criticized, then and now, as obscurantist, elitist, or, worst of all, gibberish with no real meaning, only a flashy show of words.

I did not always write this type of poetry. In fact, when I first started writing poetry, at the age of 18 (1989, if you're keeping track), it was as far from symbolism as one could imagine. The verse I wrote at that time was mainly in the form of song lyrics, and tended to be very straightforward, obvious, and deliberately simple, even at times childlike in its simplicity. Song lyrics by nature tend to be simpler and more direct than poetry that is written primarily to be read. Reading allows more mental space for dense, complex, difficult writing that the reader may take time and effort to interpret and experience deeply, far more so than the quickly passing words to a song. This is exactly a large part of the pleasure that many readers take in reading challenging poetry and prose, and nowhere is this pleasure greater than in poetry, which is the most intense form of language out there.

My verse writing began to evolve in 1997, when, under new inspirations and influences, and in a dawning awareness of my vocation as a poet, I began to more finely craft my poems and create lines that were denser and more complex in syntax and imagery, and poems that were more nuanced and subtle in meaning. My move toward all-out symbolism, however, began in 2008, based upon new readings that helped me more fully understand what symbolism is about.

All language is symbolic; words symbolize ideas, which themselves symbolize things, whether those things are concrete objects or abstract entities (whether abstract entities actually exist outside of our ideas has been a matter of philosophical debate for centuries, and a topic too large to get into here; suffice it to say that they at least exist in the human mind).

Since language is symbolic by nature, poetry is of course symbolic too. One thing that poetry does is take the inherent symbolism of language and use it to its fullest potential. It does this in large part by taking full advantage of the inherent ambiguity of words. It has been said by many philosophers that words cannot fully capture reality. This turns out to be not only a weakness but also a strength of language. It allows words to be imprecise, which in turn allows them to be ambiguous. And ambiguity, though often seen as a disadvantage (especially in practical situations where maximum clarity is needed), can be a very powerful tool. It allows language to be more flexible. It also allows words to resonate with unspoken and often only dimly understood, yet deeply affecting, meanings.

This last quality is the power of suggestion, which simply means that words often say more than they say. This suggestive quality of language has many uses, from flirting to literature. One thing symbolist poets try to do is to bring out the full suggestiveness of words, so that the poem will have many possible layers of meaning. These layers of meaning are not randomly juxtaposed but intricately interrelated, and are discovered by means of intuition rather than logic. Some would say that poetry of this type accesses a logic that is deeper than logic, the sort of logic that we experience in our dreams. It doesn't make sense, and yet, deep down, it does.

The way to access this deeper logic is by not only transcending conventional waking logic, but also transcending empirical waking observation. In other words, symbolist poetry attempts to see reality the way we see it in dreams. Dreams often seem confused and confusing, but they access deep, hidden truths that cannot be expressed in the simplified language of logical thought or seen in the clear light of day. In order to see the stars, the sun must first go down, and this is what happens when we dream. The bright light of conscious, rational thought, imposing its own valid but limited understanding on the world, has set, our minds are overtaken by the dark night of sleep and unconsciousness, and the celestial lights that are known as dreams appear.

Symbolist poetry attempts to speak to us in the language of dreams, which is the language of the unconscious mind, following strange and mysterious logics that we only barely understand, if at all. When reading a symbolist poem, it is almost beside the point to focus too hard on trying to interpret it, as though it were a puzzle that needed to be (or could be) solved. The symbolist poet wishes his poem to remain a mystery, although one that still provides knowledge and truth. The truth contained in the poem can be best accessed by not making too much of an effort to find it, but instead allowing glimpses of it to appear, unbidden, as you read and take in the images and words. Just as attempting to see the stars by turning on bright lights is self-defeating, so too is attempting to understand a symbolist poem by working out a rational system of definite interpretations. The meaning of a symbolist poem, like that of a dream, is like a faint star that you can only see obliquely out of the corner of your eye, which seems to disappear when you look directly at it.

Symbolist poets work on the assumption that ultimate truth lies beyond our capability to fully capture in words and rational thought, and that this ultimate truth of things can only be suggested. We get, not a full and clear picture of it, but only fleeting impressions, those brief snatches of otherworldly music and dim traces of ethereal light that haunt the deepest, darkest recesses of the mind, hinting at something marvelous and wonderful which we can never fully perceive in this earthly life. The symbolist poem is an assertion, and a reminder, that there is far more to reality than meets the eye.

Monday, July 9, 2012

The Passion and Devastation of Writing

In the first six days, I have written over 7000 words, so I'm averaging over 1000 words per day. At this rate it would take maybe two months to complete, which would mean by the end of the summer. Of course, there's no guarantee that this pace will continue. I'm grateful to have gotten off to a great start, but I know that the middle section could be tougher going.

My writing these days is animated by a passion that makes me feel like I am in love. I think that perhaps such feelings of passion arise any time we find ourselves close to something that our souls long for, something that most deeply fulfills our being, whether it be in relationship with others or in the work we do or in the simple enjoyment of things. But I think also that the passion I am experiencing is further intensified by the nature of the work I am producing, as I have never really felt this way before when writing anything else. This story, more so than anything else I've written, is intended as a deeply serious and, I hope, profound, work of art, something that, while it may not make any bestseller lists, I like to dream might prove itself to be an enduring contribution to literature. I wouldn't dare to say, nor would it be seemly for me to say, that it is in fact a great work of literature. I'm just saying that this is the hope I have for it, and the way I envision it. I have many other ideas for stories and novels, and if I am blessed with the time on this earth to write them all, and if I am further blessed with even a minor literary reputation either during or after my lifetime, I do believe that this first novel of mine will always remain thought of as one of my most important works. Note I am simply saying one of "my" most important (like a personal best), not necessarily one of the most important in all of world literature.

The reason for this is that this story is, I have come to realize since starting to write it in earnest, something like a distillation of my soul. I feel it has at least the potential to be one of my greatest personal achievements because I am, as they say, pouring my soul into it, in a way and to a degree that I never have before. In the writing of this novel, I am focusing on my highest ideals of beauty and truth, and attempting to express them in the best and most powerful and most beautiful way that I am capable of doing, according to such gifts and talents as I have. I am looking at life, and writing about life, in the largest possible way, with a view toward ultimate meaning.

I am doing all this through earthly, imperfect, and real characters. Among many other things, I am attempting to show the coexistence in human life of vulgarity and sacredness, despair and ecstasy, and I choose to do this through characters who are not necessarily role models or heroes, who don't always do or say or think admirable things, but whose souls nevertheless hunger for the good, the true, and the beautiful. I believe their very imperfections and flaws will make their encounters with goodness, truth, and beauty all that much more real and powerful. These characters become more real to me, fuller and richer human beings, the more I write them. I feel, as many writers do, that I am discovering them more than I am actually creating them. It is great fun to write about them, as though they are actual living friends. I know, too, for that reason, that I will be sad to say goodbye to them at the end.

But I think there will be something even more difficult about coming to the end of this novel. Even though I say this is a serious and hopefully profound work, it is far from being thoroughly serious in its tone. I only hope it is half as fun for others to read as it is for me to write. I am filling it with all the passion for life that I am capable of feeling, which comes out in ways both playful and mournful. But despite all the fun along the way, I know that the end, at least for me as the writer, will be emotionally devastating. Not because of any overt tragedy--no one dies, I can reveal that much--but just because the sheer weight of the story, the reality of the characters and their souls, will make the beauty and truth I wish to convey, the profundity of life which it is my aim to express as clearly and powerfully as I can, fall heavy on my heart. It is something I can sense from here, near the beginning, but I know I will not feel its full effect until I actually reach the end. It is by no means a tearjerker, and I am not one who likes easy sentimentalism. In fact, the ending is not highly dramatic at all. If anything, it is quite understated. But the most beautiful and the most profound things often have the effect of devastating us, in a very good and healthy way. It is an effect as joyous as it is melancholy, and it feels like a strange, wondrous mixture of both. To me, that is the ultimate passion for life that we can feel... like fire, it lights us up, but also lays us waste. It is something that breaks us open.

This story, at least as I envision it in my head and heart, does that to me, and my hope is that I will be successful in translating that vision into writing... like all art, it is a communication and a sharing of what truth or beauty one has seen, and the artist's greatness lies in his ability to communicate his vision from his own mind and heart and soul to that of another human being as fully and powerfully as possible. I have seen, and continue to see, something beautiful and devastating, and my passionate quest right now is to try and make you see the same thing. It is something that cannot be summed up in a sentence, but will take at least about 200 pages or so of fictional storytelling to explain, and that can only be explained in the exact form which this novel finally takes.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Artistic Inspiration, When It Happens

There is a novel that has been gestating in my head for many years now, going through many changes and mutations while still on the drawing board (and through occasional attempts at actually writing it). One thing it has lacked until very recently, however, is a profound sense of inspiration, the kind that brings both great clarity and urgent motivation. I am experienced and practical enough as a writer to know that one can't always rely on inspiration to get writing done, but for a major, long-term project like a novel, it certainly helps. Looking back, I'm not sure why I have stuck with this story idea as long as I have. There have in fact been times when I abandoned it altogether, but somehow it always ended up resurfacing after some new spark of an idea cast a fresh light on the material. It is almost as though the story keeps insisting that I write it, even when I don't fully want to.

This novel, though, I am happy to say, has really come together for me both conceptually and emotionally in the last couple of months. In the past, I had a large number of ideas about the characters, their personalities, motivations, stories, and relationships, but there was always some crucial element that was missing. It was as though the story had no real center, but was rather like a fairly formless nebula spinning around in the dark recesses of my imagination.

However, about two months ago, in a way very indirectly related to a major change in my life circumstances (more like a long chain reaction than a direct cause, and by no means about that real life event), I happened upon a simple yet strong central idea for the novel. In one sense, it already had a central idea, but one that was abstract and merely philosophical. What really animated it was a concrete central idea, a new and clear conception both of the main character and of his primary, motivating conflict, in very specific and particular terms, something that made the philosophical premise immediate, human, and real. Suddenly, like a new sun appearing in the midst of the nebula, light was cast on the whole region and the clouds began to form into clearly defined planets and moons, an ordered system brought out of primeval chaos.

So, for the last two months, in between and during many hectic changes in my life, I have been secretly, busily organizing all of my myriad ideas for the story, selecting the best ideas from the many years of imagining and conceptualizing, while continually dreaming up (sometimes literally) new ideas to add to the mix. I have finally come to a place where it feels like the story is more or less there, just waiting for me to write it. I have to stress again that I do not believe this is a necessary condition in order to write a novel or any other major work--but it is of course very welcome and provides great motivation and direction, and might be just the kick I needed to actually get started writing it in earnest.

To top things off, yesterday, on a mundane Monday morning at work, entirely without intending or expecting to, I conceived the final scene of the novel. It simply occurred to me, unbidden, so suddenly and naturally, in a way that made it seem, as artistic inspiration so often does, as though it was given to me from an external source, rather than being the product of my own effort.

This idea was very simple, yet it struck me as quite poignant, and a perfect way to close the novel. Like many of my favorite endings, it is understated, subtle, yet quietly powerful. I know I run the risk of sounding like I am praising my own work, but I speak only of the idea's effect on me as it presented itself to my mind. It genuinely made my heart ache, and that was evidence that I had stumbled upon something good. I just thought, "Yes... that's it." It is so obvious in hindsight, an image that serves as a concise summation of the novel's theme and its very title. Like any artist with inspiration, I only hope I can do it justice in the finished product, which means, if I am successful, that it will make your heart ache too.

I am happy to say that this morning I began the task of setting words to paper (or screen, as the case may be). I normally don't publicly discuss my ongoing writing process, but blogging about a large-scale project such as this may help to keep me accountable to my work. I know it will most likely be a long haul, but the journey has at last begun.