Category Archives: Uncategorized

Thoughts on Gratitude

When I was working at a housing rehab nonprofit in New Orleans one of our celebrity donors was working on-site working with my friend Josh. She asked Josh how much he and the rest of us were paid and he explained that we have a living stipend of about $12,000 for ten months.

She said,  “You get $12,000 a month?”

“No,” he said, “$12,000 total for ten months.”

When he had his back turned and was holding up a piece of drywall, he felt her reach into his pocket and leave something there. Josh’s first thought was that her boyfriend, who was present and a lot bigger and stronger than him, was going to beat the shit out of him. Then Josh realized she had put a hundred dollar bill in his pocket.

Josh told this story to me and our supervisor later. Our supervisor just nodded and said, “And you know what you do in a situation like that, right?” We both shook our heads. He said, “You say ‘thank you’ and mean it, and you accept their generosity.”

I hate accepting help. If someone offers their time or money or any other resource to me, I usually decline as politely as possible. God forbid I’d ever ask for it in the first place. At least, that was my way for most of my life, but after that conversation and my term of service in New Orleans, my attitude started to change.

When I moved to the Twin Cities, I finally got a job where I was paid more than a living wage (after about six months of job-searching). It was then that I was finally able to donate my time and money to my friends’ arts projects and causes in which I believe. The first, of course, was NPR.

But, being able to support these organizations is a privilege. I earn more than I need to live and I’m happy to give what I can. With that in mind, that’s ironic because I was irked by how vehemently most people try to refuse help.

I’m a fundraiser, which is a skill set that few people have and even fewer enjoy doing. Since many of my friends and acquaintances are artists, I’ve offered on several occasions to help out by finding grants, patrons, and audiences, but usually people would decline or never follow up.

“Philanthropy is vanity,” so the saying goes. To be upset that people didn’t want my help was childish. But there is something about how refusing help categorically does bother me, but for a different reason than vanity.

In American society, we are raised to believe that hard work leads to success is a natural law just like gravity is the reason objects fall toward the earth. You get out exactly as much as you put in. A person’s success in life is how much wealth they’ve accumulated.

The insidious flip-side of that attitude is that failure is entirely your fault. To accept help is to be weak and shameful, because you shouldn’t need it in the first place. After all, we’re pioneers. If you can’t survive on your own grit, you don’t deserve to. It’s individualism taken to the brutal extreme.

But then, isn’t there something a little insulting about accepting someone else’s help? Who wants to be in a position where they have to accept gratuity from someone better off, let alone admit it? It’s humiliating to say that you can’t make it without assistance.

Maybe not. None of us are self-made and no one lives in a vacuum. As babies and seniors, we’re more or less entirely dependent on other people. We rely on others for our education, resources, and consumers of our work. So why is Giving different?

I don’t believe in altruism. You’re always getting something whenever you give, whether its in an actual monetary transaction or making a donation to a food shelf for the good feeling it gives you. That doesn’t mean that doing something that mostly benefits someone else is invalid because there might be a bit of selfish intent. We all depend on one another. What’s important is realizing that generosity, reciprocity, and empathy are essential.

To give is Good. And so is to receive gratefully.

Leave a comment

Filed under Nonprofiteers, Rant, Things That Happen, Uncategorized

Prompt: Someone you used to know

A friend of mine recently contacted me to say that he was in acting school and I keep coming up in his subconscious. The context is that there’s an exercise the actors do in which you imagine talking to someone you know well and act it out.

As acting techniques go, that’s on the kinder end of the spectrum. Another friend of mine in college told me about when her teacher made her do a monologue given by Allison in Proof. The character is afraid she’s beginning to exhibit signs of schizophrenia and so my friend’s teacher made her go sit in the corner and scream “Please, God, don’t make me crazy!” For five minutes. I saw her a few hours after this and she was still chain smoking. And they say writers are masochists.

But, I can’t claim the moral high ground. When I directed plays, I used to make my actors shout their lines at each other. Besides the fact that it’s amusing as hell, it actually is very effective in getting people to memorize their parts.

Back to the first friend and his subconscious. The exercise he described sounds a lot like one of my favorite prompts, which I will now share with you.

Ideally, someone else is supposed to read this aloud. It’s almost a form of meditation or therapy, but this will have to do.

Imagine you are in a place you know very well. It’s a place you find comforting and meaningful. Maybe it’s your childhood bedroom, your college Animal House-style living room, a church sanctuary, your old office (assuming you liked that job), or your favorite bar.

You walk in, and you are alone. It’s quiet and peaceful. But, there’s a difference: the walls are covered in pictures. Photos of friends, family, people you associate with a the place you’re in, and people who never set foot there.

One picture, in particular, catches your attention. You walk over and study it. It’s of someone you know very well, but haven’t spoken to for a long time. Suddenly, that person walks through the door.

Write the conversation you have.

#

(Iowa City, the Ivy House. The living room is crammed with furniture buried under layers of junk, jackets, and books. It smells like pizza, dust, and wine. Autumn. The back door opens, closes, and someone walks through the mudroom, kitchen, and library and stands in front of me. It’s Siouxsie Sioux from the Banshees.)

SS: You know, we’ve never actually met. I don’t think this is really in the spirit of the exercise.

Me: (Aside to the audience in the style of Shakespeare or Frank Underwood) In the three years that my friends occupied the Ivy House, about twelve people lived there sporadically. They left all sorts of stuff behind, particularly the guy who occupied my room before I moved in. One thing that he left was this poster. At first it terrified me, but then Stockholm Syndrome kicked in. Three months later, when he came to collect his shit, I hid the poster and have had it with me ever since.

SS: I can hear you.

Me: The People need context.

SS: There’s really no context to explain why I’m here.

Me: Why don’t we talk anymore, Siouxsie?

SS: You graduated college. As imaginary friends go, I had some staying power.

Me: What does that say about my current state?

SS: I’m not going to speculate. So, what do you want to talk about?

Me: … Want to go to Uglies?

SS: Sure.

(Exit all. End scene.)

#

This is a great prompt to exercise writing dialogue. The idea is that if you write a conversation between yourself and someone you know well, the dialogue will sound more natural. That’s the trick to writing dialogue — you have to know your characters and their intentions well enough that they seem to you like old friends.

Leave a comment

Filed under Anxieties, Prompt, Story, Uncategorized, Writing

Defending “Nothing in Particular”

Lately, there has been a lot of talk about the rise religious non-affiliation in America. While everyone expected the usual angry rants from the conservative right, a lot of material has been put forward by the “Nones” (I know the term is offensive to some, but I kind of like it). Being unaffiliated, and having had a rough time of it when I was a kid, I’ve tried to look for stories about my own experience. So I was surprised when I found nothing out there.

Or, at least, I have found practically nothing from the agnostic point of view, but plenty from the atheist and militant anti-religion camp. A few months ago I read Alternet’s Greta Christina’s “Christianity’s Faith-Based Freakout: Why Atheism Makes Believers Uncomfortable” which resonated with me, for the first half at least, and was compelled to write the following. I was reluctant to publish it because talking about my faith makes me uncomfortable, but I’m tired of reading gems like this, which is basically hateful trash and makes all of us Nones look bad. Moreover, I haven’t read anything expressing my point of view. Then I read Christina’s article and thought I’d found a voice I liked, but was mistaken.

Christina relates several stories about professed Atheists and other Nones being asked, and sometimes forced by friends and family, to “go through the motions.” They weren’t allowed to not practice religion. This fit my own experience, and I appreciated finding out I wasn’t alone.

But I take exception is the second half of Christina’s essay where she says,

“Religion relies on social consent to perpetuate itself. But the simple act of coming out as an atheist denies it this consent. Even if atheists never debate believers or try to persuade them out of their beliefs; even if all we ever do is say out loud, ‘Actually, I’m an atheist,’ we’re still denying our consent. And that throws a monkey wrench into religion’s engine.”

Her point is that atheism is objectively better than theism. That belief in God, or any religious dogma, crumbles before skepticism and dissent.

Defending your beliefs is admirable, but using that to de-legitimize someone else’s is just mean-spirited.

Anyway, her argument is flawed because it works both ways: if an atheist’s nonbelief should be threatening to a theist, so should the reverse. I know a lot of rational, well-informed believers (and there are a whole hell of a lot more of them than us Nones), but that doesn’t make me uneasy about my convictions.

That said, I’ve never felt oppressed for my lack of religiosity – just insulted. I don’t harbor ill-will towards religious people, and I know I’m privileged to have grown up in a town where expressing my differences didn’t get me ostracized or make me the target of a hate crime.

Still, I don’t like narcissism, or evangelism, or the glib way anyone with firm beliefs denounces someone else’s. And I’m really skeptical of absolutes.

Since the nineties, it’s become less stigmatized to identify as non-affiliated – whether that means calling yourself atheist, agnostic, indifferent, or just nothing in particular. I’ve noticed a lot of articles written by atheists, especially responding to a late-2012 Pew Research study that found that one in five Americans identify as “none,” which is an all-time high (in 1990, it was 8%). Most spend a lot of time dwelling on “why?” Why is non-affiliation becoming so popular?

Explanations range from the rise of the internet to mainstream American religion’s intolerance of gay marriage. Others argue that because media has given us so much access to atrocities all around the world, and the ability to talk about it, that it’s hard to believe in an all-loving god. No matter what the reason, there seems to be a consensus that religion, not God, is dying in America

I’m skeptical. Written language has been around for a long time, but remembering things hasn’t gone out of style, like Plato feared. That may be a bad comparison, but my point is that people always think the world is ending and it never is.

I feel there’s a simpler explanation: there have always been a lot of atheists/agnostics/desiring–non-affiliates and it’s only now become socially acceptable to be openly None. I’ve got nothing to back that up, so it’s just a hunch.

Here, I’m tempted to draw a parallel between Nones and a plethora of innate but formerly unrecognized identities, but I’m not entirely sure that’s fair. You choose religion, not sexual identity.

Or do you? Beliefs, I mean, not religion (which you can choose) or sexual identity (which you can’t choose). Can you choose to believe in something? You can choose to put your faith in a political party, but could you make yourself believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster? Or Russell’s Teapot?

I cannot bring myself to believe in an omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent God. The idea strikes me as absurd (no offense meant to believers). My rationality prohibits it, because I can’t reconcile the idea of an OSPB God with the Problem of Evil (or Suffering). I’ve been fair to the apologists and looked for arguments against me, and the most compelling one I’ve found is that Good necessitates Evil, but that doesn’t seem right because of the whole omnipotent thing.

And I’m frankly insulted (and believe others should be, too) by Pascal’s Wager, which basically says “if God exists you have nothing to lose and everything to gain by believing in God.” It makes Belief into an act of ultimate (literally) selfishness.

Similarly, I can’t convince myself not to believe in God. That may be a vestigial sympathy from my upbringing and cultural heritage, but it’s about as entrenched as my belief in causality and the intrinsic worth of human life.

So, I’m an agnostic, which is the reason I’m writing this in the first place. Plenty of atheists and theists have thrown in to this debate, but I haven’t seen anyone give a passionate defense of agnosticism. Moreover, a lot of the authors who’ve discussed the Great War between non-affiliation and religiosity talk about agnostics and the other Nones who don’t identify as atheist with bafflement and contempt.

Somebody’s got to stand up for the “nothing in particulars.”

Agnostics get a bad rap. In the Life of Pi, the narrator says, “To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation.” Richard Dawkins feels the same way, calling agnosticism “intellectual cowardice.” (I like to think agnosticism is even more hardcore than atheism, because it even finds the certainty that there is no god suspect. In that way, atheists actually have more in common with theists than agnostics do.) Most people seem to think the philosophy is milquetoast at best or, like atheism, heretical/sacrilegious/irreverent (choose your term) at worst.

But, we’ve got the majority (of the minority) on our side. The Pew Study divided the “Nones” into three groups: atheists, agnostics, and ‘nothing in particular.’ Seventeen percent identify as agnostic and “Among the ‘nothing in particulars,’ about eight-in-ten (81%) say they believe in God or a universal spirit – and a plurality of those who believe in God say they are ‘absolutely certain’ about this belief.”

Religious affiliation is declining in the United States, but that doesn’t mean spirituality and faith are, too.

I think that most of the Nones would agree that faith is complicated and emotional and there are more immediate things begging our attention. That’s how I felt about it for years. For most of my adult life, I’ve just side-stepped the problem and not thought about it. The technical term here is apatheism (functional indifference to religion and theism) or, in my case, pragmatic agnosticism.

Those are the terms that probably best describe most Nones. Jezebel’s Madeleine Davies writes a pretty good sum-up, “I guess I’m an atheist. Or I would be if I identified as anything, except — like a lot of my peers — I don’t… The only thing that unites us is the belief (if you can even call it that) that there is no god. This is also why (for me), the idea of an atheist convention is so stupid.”

I included that last part because I do think atheist conventions are anything but stupid. I’m sympathetic to her definition of identity (or lack thereof), but conventions and institutions like the Secular Coalition of America are important. The religious majority throw us together into one big pot and are distrustful of non-theists. By virtue of other people’s prejudices, it’s important to have an advocate to prevent and combat discrimination (or worse).

Back to my original point, just because I choose to be unaffiliated doesn’t mean I’m not paying attention to the conversation. I’ve studied religion and philosophy, but, until recently, I haven’t asked myself how I felt. I can, of course, only speak for myself, but I think that my sentiment is shared by a lot of the Nones out there.

The English biologist Thomas Henry Huxley coined the term “agnosticism” in 1869, and defined it thus,

“Agnosticism, in fact, is not a creed, but a method, the essence of which lies in the rigorous application of a single principle … Positively the principle may be expressed: In matters of the intellect, follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard to any other consideration. And negatively: In matters of the intellect do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable.”

Wikipedia offers a more technical definition that goes, “Agnosticism is the view that the truth values of certain claims—especially claims about the existence or non-existence of any deity, as well as other religious and metaphysical claims—are unknown or unknowable.” I prefer the former, but the latter describes what most people think of as “agnosticism,” that the existence of god (OSPB or otherwise) is impossible to prove to disprove.

There is a political angle to this. Bertrand Russell has a terrific short piece about how rationalism cuts two ways. Basically, he says there are limits to human knowledge, so everyone needs to calm the fuck down and stop doing things like burning people at stake.

For me, agnosticism means embracing skepticism, humility, and pragmatism.

It’s an attitude more than a method or view. Treat other beliefs with respect and listen carefully, because you might find some new ideas useful and appealing. Realize that there’s a sliding scale of certainty. There are things we can be pretty certain about (like that you’re reading an article about agnosticism right now) and others that are basically impossible to prove (like the non-existence of, well, anything).

That suits me. I write grants for a living, so structured arguments based on documented facts are kind of important to me. But I have also experienced transcendental feelings, have spiritual leanings, and am frequently afflicted with sensawunda.

And this isn’t all to say I don’t have firm beliefs or that agnosticism prohibits them (like not burning people at stake for disagreeing with me). I believe education and health care are rights, Ayn Rand’s Objectivism is ridiculous, we have a responsibility to care for our environment, that people are mostly good but capable atrocities, and a plenitude of other things. Moreover, I think I have pretty legitimate reasons for believing all of it. And if you disagree, then I’m more than happy to fight you on the issue.

I’m not evangelizing here, or trying to denounce anyone else’s firmly held convictions. It seems to me that in all the angry clamor someone needs to point out that there’s a middle ground and you don’t need to submit entirely to one dogma or another to lead the Good Life.

Sometimes, it’s fun to just marvel at how interesting the world can be without absolute truths.

Leave a comment

Filed under Progress, Progressivism, Rant, Religions, Things That Happen, Uncategorized

Two Farmers

I started listening to Intelligence Squared debates recently and have enjoyed as much as I hate them. The level of civility (usually) and cogency of argument are refreshing compared to shows like Cross Fire or Politically Incorrect, but I dislike the way the motions are phrased, because they usually presuppose and give bias to one side or the other. For instance, I just listened to he Big Government Is Destroying the American Dream episode, the title of which assumes that we have a Big Government and that big government is Bad. Predictably, the side arguing for the motion won, but the part that really bothered me was Art Laffer’s comment:

“… [I]f something doesn’t work in a two person economy, it’s not good economics. Take two farmers, that’s the whole world. If one of those farmers gets unemployment benefits, guess who pays for it? The other farmer.”
What a ludicrous and brutal claim. How can the economics between two people have anything to do with financial policy? If that were true, we wouldn’t have two separate fields, micro and macro economics, that operate according to completely different rules and in completely different environments.

Nevertheless, for the sake of argument, I’ll roll with it.

So, let’s say our two farmers are named Mary Room and Cato Schroedinger. They’re the only two farmers after some horrific apocalypse.  According to Wikipedia, citing the Future of Humanity Institute, the most probable apocalyptic scenarios are (ignoring global warming) molecular nanotechnology weapons and artificial intelligence. We’re all familiar with the latter thanks to Terminator, so we’ll go with that route.

Mary and Cato are the last two farmers on earth, probably as a pet project of our new AI overlords. They are both master organic farmer-survivalists the likes of which are only seen in the Swiss Family Robinson. Everyone dies during the winter, which leaves them both ample time to assess and come to terms with their current situation:

MR: Everyone’s dead.

CS: I guess so.

MR: You checked online, right?

CS: Of course.

Having prepared for this moment their entire adult lives, they’re set. They’ve got one-acre farmhouses with cows, chickens, seeds, woods, and all the things one needs to run and independent farm. Because they are both of the same opinion about how the world’s going to end, their farms are adjacent.

Things are going well. Everyone’s dead, but they have a crop coming up, sufficient canned food, and the high morale that only comes with vindication. Being both pragmatists, they decide to re-start the human race and fuck as often as possible, which isn’t often because running a farm independently is really hard work.

But then, Cato’s cows and pigs die. His field is hit by a drought, which inexplicably affects him without hitting Mary (AI overlords). His well dries up, his farmstead burns down, and his chickens are eaten by wild boars.

So, Cato goes to Mary’s homestead and explains the situation:

CS: I’m going to die. Please help.

But, little did Cato realize that Mary was a student of the Chicago school of economics. She replies:

MR: How is that my problem?

After a protracted debate about the free market and entitlement programs, Cato goes back to his homestead and never returns. Mary assumes he died, but isn’t sure. She is sure, however, that if she had shared her food she would have just given a free lunch (breakfast and dinner) to a slacker who didn’t have the determination to survive in the post-apocalyptic reality of the world. The AI overlords reward her with a piece of cake, but in private comment:

A1: They really thought that was a good idea?

A2: Well, they are made of meat.

Meanwhile, the two writers left alive and thrown together in a cramped apartment somewhere else on the depopulated earth spend a few days grumbling about how they don’t have the writing tools they prefer, drink, scribble, make awkward sexual advances, and then die of dehydration.

We won’t discuss the two remaining CEOs. It’s too gruesome.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Rant, Story, Uncategorized, Writing

New Year’s

On New Year’s Eve, my girlfriend and I went to a comedy performance and party at the Fox Egg Gallery. After the show a handful of us stayed around to help clean up and have a small celebration. Of course, someone started singing “Auld Lang Syne” and one of the performers said, “That song means something very different to me after this godawful year. Fuck old acquaintances.”

The general consensus going around the room was that 2014 was productive and awful. Everyone said that they had accomplished a great deal over the past twelve months, but they had no idea how much they  would have to pay for it. I tend to read (extremely) progressive media and there seems to be tentative optimism that we may see major reforms in social justice and take steps toward addressing climate change. I wonder if it’s not all just wishful thinking at the beginning of the New Year.

For me, 2014 was nothing if not unusual. It’s the first year since I was a freshman in college that I haven’t moved. It’s the first time since graduating that I’ve held the same job for more than a year, and I’m starting to think that I may have found a career. On the other hand, I feel like I haven’t made much personal progress on a lot of fronts, particularly with my writing and community involvement. Sure, I’ve published a few more short stories and now I’m a producer for the Minneapolis Story Club (and, unexpectedly, now a member of some kind of Story Arts), but it’s hard not to feel that I’m running in place. Or maybe this is just a sign that I’m getting older because the jarring life transitions are going to be fewer and farther between.

When I started writing this post, I had this quote stuck in my head from Dorothy Parker, “I hate writing. I love having written.” Consulting Wikipedia for material and to procrastinate, I learned that she was good friends with the great mime Harpo Marx, which felt meaningful to me because I don’t just hate writing, I hate not writing. I enter a vicious circle of uncertainty, because I often want to write about issues that concern me, but I can’t find anything meaningful to say about them. So, I tend to stay quiet, which, for most of issues I care about, is part of the problem.

I often hear people talk about how much they hate the New Year, because it’s just a time for making and breaking promises. I’ve always liked the holiday, even though I have rarely kept my resolutions. Sometimes I think it would be easier just to make a list of all the things I won’t do, because that feels more honest. For instance, I won’t run a marathon, nor will I force myself to do things I loathe “just for the experience.” I will not write what I think other people want to read. I will not be timid. I will not tell myself to play less video games. I will take things less seriously.

That seems reasonable, and a lot better for my mental health.

Leave a comment

Filed under Anxieties, Rant, Things That Happen, Uncategorized

Gray Gideon

Gray was probably the first person I knew who took writing poetry seriously. He’s the only person I’ve met with the name “Gray,” and I loved him for that.

Many people who are mourning right now knew him far better than I did, but I still feel compelled to share my thoughts. The greatest tragedy I can think of is that not enough good memories of a person are shared.

Frankly, I have no idea how I met Gray, except that he was friends with all of my older friends, and I was that freshman in high school trying to spend time with the artsy kids. There were a few of us who got together on a semi-regular basis at a coffee shop called Cafe Diem and discussed poetry, art, literature, and music. We called ourselves PALM (get it?). I remember Gray was taking college courses in creative writing and literature and I thought that was so cool.

My most vivid memory of Gray, though, was one time when I went to his house with the same friends from PALM. We were sitting around talking and the house phone rang. Gray picked it up and immediately shouted, “WHAT?!” A moment later he cringed and walked into the other room saying, “I’m so sorry. This is Gray.” It was my mom calling to see when I would be home. She was justifiably insulted, but I was amused then and I still am now.

The last time I saw him was at a Stewart Davis concert in 2006. He looked unwell then, and I worried about him. But in the years after, it seems that he did exactly what I expected of him when I knew him in high school: become a magnificent artist.

Friends and acquaintances aren’t supposed to die in their twenties and thirties. That’s really the only take-away.

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Thoughts on Lamenting the Death of Literature

Recently, I finished reading Christian Rudder’s Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One’s Looking), and one of the chapters that really intrigued me was his discussing the differences between the way people write on Twitter and other social media compared to the way the language is used in other literature. He sites the work of linguist Mark Lieberman who found that the average length of a word in a Tweet is longer actually longer than you’d expect: 4.8 characters (as compared to Hamlet with an average word length of 3.99 characters). The most common words used in Twitter also includes a lot more nouns and verbs than the hundred most common words used a survey sample of recently published books.

What does that mean? If you only have 140 characters, you use words that do more work. Does it spell out the death of our language and literature? No. Does it mean that the way we write is changing? Yes. Is that a good or bad thing? Neither.

I loathe alarmist comments about how Twitter is making children unable to understand words of more than two syllables or how kids these days don’t have the attention spans to read Charles Dickens. It’s not just ridiculous and wrong, but it’s distracting from the actual, and much more interesting, situation of how the way we write is changing. And how it’s not.

Just to be clear, we’ve never had long attention spans. Or, at least, not as long as the golden-age-thinkers want everyone to believe so that we can feel ashamed of ourselves and go back to the Good Old Days before social media and television. Charles Dickens work was published in serial, most fairy tales can be recited in ten or twenty minutes, stage plays have basically lasted around 90 minutes since antiquity, and even the Odyssey was probably recited in hour-long, nightly sessions. Today, people are perfectly willing to sit through three-hour long movie adaptations of The Lord of the Rings and we all consume and produce far more text than any generation before us just through email, social media, online articles, and texting (people who text, alone, produce an average of 41 texts per day). Not that the everything posted on Twitter and Facebook is high art, but just because that’s the medium doesn’t mean it necessarily isn’t.

Technology, political climate, cultural trends, and a plenitude of other factors influence art, style, and dominant themes. That writers today don’t write the way they did two hundred years ago is a good thing – it’s what makes our literature unique and interesting. Just as terms like modernist and Victorian conjure up a zeitgeist and particular texture of prose, a few decades from now some academic will come up with a term that sums up whatever it is we’re doing these days.

In the meantime, I intend to enjoy @VeryShortStory and the random witty FB posts of my friends.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Where Ideas Come From

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine asked me where I get my story ideas. I was thrilled because it seems like this question is some sort of rite of passage. In Stephen King’s On Writing, he talks about how fans ask him (and every other author he knows) all the time. His answer is basically that good ideas just come to you sometimes and you have to remain open to and aware of those sudden flashes of insight. Comic artist Warren Ellis said something to the effect that he fills his mind with a lot of junk and stories sometimes emerge, sort of in a primordial soup kind of way.

My favorite, and the one that resonates most with me, is the observation, I think it was Neil Gaiman, that, “The difference between a writer and other people is that when a normal person brakes their arm they shout, ‘Take me to the hospital,’ but when a writer breaks her arm, she shouts, ‘Get me a pen!'”

Everyone has great story ideas all the time, whether real of fiction, it’s just a matter of writing them down. I’m not saying every time you have a flash of insight you immediately sit down and write out a story, but most of the time you just have to give your intuition the benefit of the doubt.

My story, “Where You End and the World Begins,” has a frankly bizarre genesis, and it didn’t come to me all at once.  It started with a friend of mine mentioning that his mother used to belong to some cult-like church that kept trying to compel the family to come back. One day, when the acquaintance was a little kid, some of these church members apparently came to the house while his mother was in the shower and tried to lure him into a car. His mother’s parent-sense tingled and she ran out of the house naked, grabbed him, and yelled at the parishioners to leave her family alone.

Somehow, that’s where the zealot in the story came from.

The second component, the main character who has a preternatural talent for finding things, was a little more personal and ongoing. I lose things a lot. I’m forgetful and I have a bad habit of setting things down in places the don’t belong. I’ve long wanted to be able to hire a contractor whose job it is to find all the things I’ve misplaced.

That’s it. Two weird bits of information that became a story.

So, if you’ve ever wondered where ideas come from, you already know. It’s just a matter of paying attention and writing them down when you can.

And if you’re doing Nano, get back to it.

Leave a comment

Filed under Things That Happen, Uncategorized, Writing

Innovation, like Greed, Is Not Good

When you work with words all day, you start to develop strong opinions and Feelings about them. For instance, I love the words “intransigent,” “autumnal,” “evanesce,” “obtain,” and “logic.”

Likewise, there are words I loathe, and most of them are the kind you run into all the time if your a grant writer, like me, in RFPs, advertisements, and “About” pages. Words like “utilize”, “synergy,” “actionable,” “scalable,” “impactful,” “resourceful” (actually, pretty much any time you turn a pithy noun into a active-sounding adjective), and the list goes on.

For one thing, most of these words are substitutes for perfectly good and more simple words, like writing “utilize” instead of “use.” And those that don’t indicate that the writer is frantically shuffling through a thesaurus for a term that sounds more sexy, these words are typically meaningless. What does “actionable” Mean? Okay, yes, it’s obvious what it’s implying, but that’s the problem: it’s implying, not explaining. These words are deliberately vague. They allow the writer the dodge the messy business of actually giving you a detailed account of what’s going on.

The word I hate most, and I think is used far too often, is “innovate” (or any variation thereof… though that’s just ahead of “unique” in the list of words I think no one uses correctly).

This word is used so often by businesses, nonprofits, foundations, and everyone else that it is meaningless. What’s worse is that the concept itself (“new,” “different,” “pioneering,” etc.) has developed a devoted following and cult of personality.

I have noticed in the past few years that more and more philanthropists, businesses, and activists have made “innovation” their central goal. In other words, people have taken up a Gordon Gekko-esque mantra of “Innovation is Good.”

What bothers me about this is that, particularly in the area of philanthropy, more grant programs and prizes seem to be exclusively focused on “innovation.” Certainly, trying something new is a good idea. But in the growing enthusiasm for originality and uniqueness, it seems like people are sacrificing the ends for the means.

Innovation is neither good nor bad. It’s just different. Because of our insistence that everything be innovative, perfectly good and productive projects and organizations are overlooked in the pursuit of the New.

Take Catholic Charities, for example. Sure, they change their programming every so often and check to make sure what they’re doing is working, but generally they are pretty good at delivering social services to people in need because they have been doing it since forever. Or Good Will. Or Habitat for Humanity. All of these organizations have been operating for decades and are very good at what they do,  but there is a growing pressure from foundations and corporate giving programs that being effective isn’t enough. You have to be innovative. You have to be Different and Cutting Edge.

Is Innovation Good? If it leads to better results, sure. On its own, it’s just a buzzword.

This buzzword, however, is becoming a problem. When the obsession with Innovation overshadows the actual work that needs to be done to help people and solve systemic problems, we have left the realm of reality and entered a weird space of entrepreneurial ideology where the definition of Good is being Different-from-the-other-Guy.

Nonprofit service is about addressing a need and creating benefits for society. Anything that advances those causes is good, but praising the means over the ends is like building a house to make a better hammer.

1 Comment

Filed under Nonprofiteers, Uncategorized, Writing

Publications! Laziness! Excuses!

I’ve been lazy. And thoughtful. Often, those things go hand-in-hand with me.

The trouble is that last sentence. I spent five minutes trying to figure out another way of saying this without using a cliche, but only came up with more.

Instead of writing, I’ve been reading a lot lately. Books and articles, from Moby Dick to Salon. The more I read, the less desire, or the more hesitant I am, to write. I like the stuff I read too much, and what I put down feels hopelessly inadequate.

This isn’t griping. It’s an excuse. And I’m not ashamed of providing excuses. It’s just honesty.

But, I have good news to share! First, I narrated a story for PseudoPod (my favorite horror podcast). It’s “Train Tracks” by WP Johnson and you can find it by clicking here.

Second, I sold a story to my favorite science fiction podcast, Escape Pod! I can’t begin to say how honored and thrilled I am. I’ve been listening to Escape Pod (like PseudoPod) for years. Sometime in the next couple of months, they will post “The Law of Gravity,” originally published in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine. More details to come.

In other news, I will now be supporting Mimi Nguyen and Jaime Amy Ann is producing Story Club Minneapolis. Since moving to the Twin Cities, I’ve gotten superficially involved in the performance story telling scene and now I will have the chance to do more. If you’re Twin Cities-based, I strongly encourage you to come to the Bryant Lake Bowl on the third Saturday in November to listen to some stories or share one of your own.

That’s enough for now. It’s been a long weekend. I’m going to try to be more dedicated to this blog-thing I’ve got going.

Leave a comment

Filed under Announcements, Publications, Story Club, Uncategorized