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Monthly Archives: May 2013

A Writer’s Voice

"Words have the power to both destroy and heal.
When words are true and kind, they can change our world."
—The Buddha

Or they can, you know, kill somebody.

I’ve gotten a sequence of complements and critiques on my writing lately, mostly complements, and it has led me to a mode of metacognition. That’s thought, about thought, and in this case an analysis of its mechanisms. The discovery that it has led me to is that, while I might not be capable of it yet, this mechanism can be documented.

There’s an old model, established by Malcolm Gladwell in his book “Outliers”, called the 10,000 hour rule. I haven’t personally read that book yet, but the phenomenon has wound its way into much of the text that I have, particularly in the realm of social psychology and cognitive neuroscience. The concept is that in order to acquire a fundamental precision and beauty in any art or technique, you need roughly 10,000 hours of practice. That’s just an estimate; some people reach their goal much sooner than others. However, no one is born knowing how to play a guitar or program a computer, and in the way of talent development and the learning process it’s more or less the case.

I have been writing since I was ten. I’ve indubitably learned a hell of a lot since then. My first independent attempt was to write down an idea I had, which struck me as valid for a novel format. I reached about two pages, from the beginning, before I got tired and had to stop. It was in crayon.

Come on, I was ten years old.

Whether or not that began a trek into literature that has accumulated 10,000 hours I do not know; I’ve had a lot of other things that I’ve been doing. However, I obviously wasn’t committing anything to memory at the time; my focus was on writing something down that could be committed by someone else, to their own memory. It hadn’t occurred to me that the sheer practice of the action could be teaching me something. The more important point, even if a secondary one, is that what I learned I may have learned on a subconscious level. I may not know that I know it.

Every writer has something known as a “writer’s voice“. That is, a specific dialect and personality that finds its way into their writing, by which they can be identified, like a psychological fingerprint.  I read a rather enjoyable book once, a combination effort of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchet, titled “Good Omens“. There was an afterword, not a part of the story but a story about the story, discussing the beautiful obsession that Neil and Terry pursued their work with, hammering away at every idea they had until they were too physically tired to continue. Neil took nights, Terry took days, on a clockwork schedule. All the same, I could feel the difference in the writing; when Pratchet was writing, I could tell, because he followed a specific pattern, whereas Gaiman followed a rather different one. There was a seam in the book, not a painful one but to an analytical writer it was noticeable. They were not the same man, their experiences and their base dispositions were different, their subtle lessons of the trade had been given by differing circumstances. The rules they followed were sharply distinct.

Guitarists have been described to me, in casual conversation, as having a “guitar voice” defining the way the guitar sounds in their hands; a difference in picking or the way they hold the string down that ever so subtly changes the timbre. It may not be limited to art. Perhaps programmers have a programmer’s voice, changing the nature of the code on the basis of experiences, good and bad, that they have had in the past. Mathematicians may have a mathematics voice, altering the way they approach problems on the basis of what they have done in the past. This is an innate part of our humanity.

So, as I walk home from my (dreaded but accepted) 4:00 AM job the other day, I begin to wonder, in idle meditation, about the metrics of my pursuit of short stories. If semantics can be measured quantitatively, regardless of whether it has, and through it potential story content is compared to story length, could a statistical relationship be formed? Could a thermodynamics of the creative mind yield usable results? Could I use it to better my own writing?

One such psychology text, “Introducing NLP“, by Joseph O’Connor and John Seymour, was on the subject of the communication of a thought from one mind to another. It presented me with four levels of technical capacity: unconscious incompetence, conscious incompetence, conscious competence, and finally unconscious competence. If I could roll back the lesson that jumped through raw experience into unconscious competence, the final stage of talent, to conscious competence and have it exist in both states at once, then I would have a manner in which to pursue a more academic study of my work. I could amplify my methods, and document the intricacies of the method for the rest of the world. How this is to be done, remains to be seen.

 

 
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Posted by on May 27, 2013 in Meta-Media

 

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Steel Addiction

I’m seriously getting into this piercing thing.

When I was fifteen, I suffered a head injury that had me in a wheelchair for quite a while. Before it happened, I was gearing up to do one simple thing—get an ear pierced, with a ring. Not both ears, just one, with a plainly visible heavy ring. Of course, when you wake up from a month long coma that has you in such muscular lethargy that you can’t even get out of bed, or the wheelchair, getting your ear pierced is the least of your concerns.

It wasn’t to fit in, it wasn’t to impress anyone, it was entirely for me. My earring, in a specific style, just the way I wanted it. That was nearly fifteen years ago.

Come to notice it, I am in need of a shave. Big day.

Come to notice it, I am in need of a shave. Big day.

A few weeks ago, I went ahead and did it, and got that freakin’ ear pierced. Mild acute pain, nothing serious like the more skittish among us tend to claim, and a solid fourteen-gauge ring hanging from it. Healed perfectly. I got a brilliant piercer, by the name of Phil, to do it. He runs a place in Santa Fe called Talisman Tattoo & Body Piercing. He gave me some straight-forward cleaning standards and techniques to use, a little advice on what not to do and what to expect, and sent me on my way. Looked great, felt great, accented my typical facial expressions and body language perfectly.

Given the effect and the price, I decided before I got home that I would be coming back to the place. The question was what to get pierced. I thought about another earring (in the same ear), or maybe an eyebrow stud as has been suggested to me in the past. I even thought about getting a quaint septum ring. (They really aren’t that much of an issue in Santa Fe.) The point was that I felt like myself, completely liberated with all illusions of what adulthood offers dispelled. I came to realize, for the first time in nearly fifteen years, that the possibility may exist but I probably won’t die before tomorrow. I felt like myself.

So, three weeks later (today), I got my left nipple pierced. We returned to the place for a tattoo and piercing show, during which piercings were half off.

Phil Temer, The Man Himself

I went with stainless steel, both times; it’s important to me that any body art I get gels well with everything already established on me. Stainless steel has a clear mirror shine to it, and was designed for surgery to begin with, so it felt like an excellent start. The ring in my ear is a closed ring, but the one in my left nipple has a bead on it. Given the top-heavy nature of a closed ring, it tends to migrate until the opening is inside the piercing, which is both irritating and a bit of a problem if left alone. I’ve heard my share of horror stories of people allowing the piercing to heal over the opening.

Now, I didn’t exactly need a sedative for something like this. That head injury I briefly touched on? It redefined pain for me. And, while I’ve found that after a painful experience like that one you tend to respect pain more than ignore it, this didn’t faze me at all. No topical pain killers, they’re unnecessary for it, though he may have used a disinfectant. The artist makes a mark across the nipple with a mild ink, showing the entry and exit points, giving you a chance to critique it. After I gave him the go ahead, Phil pushed a relatively large and hollow needle into my flesh.

The idea of having a fourteen gauge hollow needle shoved into your nipple may initially sound horrifying to some of you, but let me tell you, there is a reason that they are hollow. It does not hurt more than a solid needle, in fact, it probably hurts less due to the lack of stretching pressure. The tissue removed is mostly cutaneous, perhaps containing a little fat, and fat is designed by the body to be disposable to begin with. After the needle reached the surface on the other end, he let go of it and grabbed the ring.

Smarts so good.

Smarts so good.

There is another reason that the needle is hollow. Phil bent the ring open, and hooked one end of it to the back of the needle. After that, he pushed the needle through, and dragged the ring with it. The feel was seamless, no bump or nook as it entered, and none as it exited. After that, he pulled the needle off, and straightened the ring. If I remember correctly (and I’m hardly a body piercer myself), the last step was to pop on the bead. I may easily have forgotten a step, as I said, it isn’t what I do. I’m a writer. This was a melding of surgery and artwork.

So, I’m pondering what to get next, as I will get something, next. The concept of engineering my own jewellery has crossed my mind; one thought was to find something unique from “Principia Mathematica” (Isaac Newton) and engrave the relevant alchemical symbols onto the stainless jewellery, then have it stapled in my upper ear (through the cartilage). (Same ear.) I don’t know what it would be yet, but that work has served as a founding philosophy for me on many occasions. I have encyclopedias of angels, demons, gods, and symbols, many of which nicely work their way into body art. Nothing is out of the question in the long run, but for the moment I would prefer it to be a more overt insignia.

As for tattoos, it’s not out of the possibility but it isn’t something I intend to get yet—I have real ideas for a very unique kind of ink, which I haven’t developed yet. I won’t speak on the details, but it would cover a large portion of my body and be the most unusual thing anyone has ever seen in someone’s flesh. Also, naturally, any ink I got would be concealable in formal settings. But first, develop the ink, get a proof-of-concept going. Otherwise, it isn’t likely that I will ever get anything other than an eloquent tribal tattoo in the fashion of the Māori, on the upper arm or thigh; possibly a more fundamental symbol on my upper or lower back surrounded by comparable art, and consistently in India-ink black. Hideable, beautiful, elegant.

My father has objected to the idea of this kind of art, on the notion that I will be unemployable. The reality, which it has taken me nearly ten years to realize, is that if these fabled people were going to employ me, they would have done it by now. I’ve played by the rules, lived by the code, and kept it a little too sterile for too long now without results. If you hire me, you will look at my references and my accomplishments, and you will apply my skills to a clearly specified end goal with an immediately available pay check, and you will do it because you know my capacity on the job. If you’re more worried about body metal than you are about my results, then you don’t know what you’re doing, and I’m not interested in working for you anyway. (I’ve made that mistake twice already.)

The addiction has set in. I feel beautiful, I feel confident, and I feel like myself. It’s bliss.

 
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Posted by on May 26, 2013 in Body Art

 

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Famous Rejection Letters

Goddamn hilarious.

Cristian Mihai

letterFor any aspiring writer, a rejection letter, regardless of the provenience of said letter, is one of the most dreaded of objects. In this line of work getting rejected is considered a sort of literary murder – people are knowingly destroying something you’ve spent time on, and a lot of it. But the thing is everyone got rejected, more or less. I can think of very few instances when writers found publishers/agents from the first try. Or the second, or the tenth.

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Posted by on May 22, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

Pre-Publication Syndrome

So, I write this, not because I have a particular topic for it but because right now, I need to write.

I’m stuck in that moment before first publication, a moment that in my journalism days I didn’t even realize existed. You don’t get this feeling on a journalism piece; journalistic writing is published at a set time, on a set date. You scramble to get it done on time, working fast, efficient, and thorough. And, after what some might consider the busiest twenty four hours of their lives (if that), they actually decide not to publish it, then it is for the better. If it’s actually so bad that instead of chopping it up and hashing it up like journalism editors are prone to do, they actually decide to throw it out and take a bath on the quality of their product, then believe me, you did not want it published. (Don’t worry, everything I ever wrote was published; but I’ve dealt with all forms of flak on the job.)

Fiction, so it seems, is quite different. I don’t have the twenty-four-hour rush to get the story done, I have a three month wait just to find out if the story is published. I’m not the last best hope on the story, either; I’m in line next to a thousand other people, all trying to fit into the five or six writers that are going to wind their way into that issue. We are all in competition with one another, and we all know it; it isn’t personal, it’s just real. It has, needless to say, made me quite stressed.

So today, I have a dozen projects that I could be getting to. I’m working on building a game, just for my dear Sparo; I’ve got an additional short story coming along; I have a few books I want to finish reading. I have all of Sunday. And in spite of this, I look at the page or the code or the book and all I can see is noise. I find myself cooking simple things for breakfast, lunch, and dinner (bacon and eggs, pre-packaged stuffed clams, take-out curry soup, etcetera), artlessly. I cling to simple procedures, like relatively easy-to-follow video games, to feel like I’m accomplishing something even if something mundane. And slowly, the sun drifts down toward the horizon, and I know that my day is coming to an end.

I’m a little closer to my 4:00 AM sustenance shift at the warehouse tomorrow, a little closer to death, a little closer to destiny. Yes, I’m stressed.

I think back on other great works, like the Tao Te Ching, and remember the story behind their writing. Lao Tsu wrote it because he had to; he was stopped by an imperial guard after leaving the monk business, who demanded by his authority that he should record everything he had discovered as a monk (of the greatest anarchist in history). I think of Emily Dickinson, who lived her entire life without publishing anything, and became famous beyond description for her brilliant poetry post-mortem. Neither of these stories are comforting to a man with one place left to go. Then, I think of more recent people, like J.K. Rowling, not that I’ve ever read a single Harry Potter book. (I’m not avoiding them, I just have so much else to read.) I remember being told that she was in a situation analogous to my own when she published, properly, her first book. I remember that that light isn’t out yet.

Then, as it is prone to, my sense of statistics and probability kicks in and I scramble for some kind of a backup plan; then my sense of hope kicks in and my backup plan circles back to doing the same thing I’ve always done. I travel down a mental road toward mechanism, which is like fatalism but with a sense of responsibility, and the question of choice.

Then I shut up, check the oven, and get back to playing “Half Life 2“, “Mass Effect“, or “Aquaria” until I’m creatively capable again. Most probably, I’m just depressing right now, the biggest clue to that being my ongoing headache and the suspect link I’ve been finding between inflammation and depression. I can say this, if you can’t control your own emotions you cannot control your own writing; one solution has to come before the other. I take the anti-inflammatory ibuprofen to resolve both at once, and hope for the best.

It may be my innate nature as a sort of diviner of any thread of information I can find, the impulse to be a real-life Sherlock Holmes, that leads me to these moments of paranoia and anxiety. However, these afflictions are a strange thing; they are never pleasant to bear, but when they are resolved they can lead to the most beautiful and intricate ideas I have ever had. Perhaps what I really need right now is a moment of stillness, and perhaps a little luck.

 
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Posted by on May 19, 2013 in State of the Moment

 

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Calamari Chowder

No shell.

No shell.

For those of you that are allergic to shellfish, or whom have lovers or friends that can no longer enjoy them, I present an alternative. Sparo does, unfortunately, react to shrimp; and she likely reacts to other shellfish as well. Every now and then, you get a serious jones for clam chowder; and of course it’s out. However, squid are not shellfish.

They aren’t even vertebrates.

So, this should work out pretty well for you. You will need:

Chowder, made from calamari, shellfish free

Chowder, made from calamari, shellfish free

  • a decent meal’s worth of calamari, breaded and fried
  • freshly ground black pepper (to taste)
  • sea salt (optional, to taste)
  • preferred calamari seasonings
  • about two cups of milk
  • one pint cream
  • several large russet potatoes, chopped
  • corn (Sparo’s suggestion)
  • three or four cloves of garlic
  • chopped green onions

Make in a crock pot, on low for most of the day. If your calamari are not already fried, you may consider breading them with a measure of spices and doing this first. The squid should be chopped into bite-sized rings, but as it isn’t easy to find whole squid this has probably been done for you.

Add the calamari to the crock pot, along with the potatoes, milk, and if using it then corn. Add the cream, and stir with a wooden spoon, and start the crock pot on high. Dice the onions and crush the garlic under the flat of a blade, then chop it and add to the pot. Cook for at least six hours, until the potatoes and milk have blended into a decent chowder.

After the first few hours, I suggest tasting the soup with the wooden spoon, and then adding an appropriate measure of pepper and sea salt. For a soup like this, you are generally playing it by ear. Decent additional vegetables include chopped celery, or chopped black olives (conservatively). The soup can also benefit from a little parmesan cheese, if you have the taste for it. I generally don’t recommend adding lemon to it, or to any hot milk dish, as the acid tends to interact with the dairy in an unpleasant way. The dairy denatures—it’s complicated. It’s not that it isn’t possible to combine the two properly, it’s that it’s a task, and the flavor would not blend well with a chowder.

The differences between this and clam chowder are mild and pleasant. I’m sure you’ll agree.

 
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Posted by on May 13, 2013 in Recipes

 

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A Rather Excellent Split Pea Soup

All this time writing and I completely space on updating the blog. Well, mostly. Anyway, I’ve made a number of original things over the past week or so and they all deserve a place on this page, inclusive of an excellent split pea soup.

I tried to take a photo of it; did take a photo, actually, but the lighting in here combined with the unique color and texture of the soup makes for an unpleasant looking and entirely false sort of blue-grey.

Definitely not what looks like. I'm not even sure that it's the same bowl, come to think of it.

Definitely not what looks like. I’m not even sure that it’s the same bowl, come to think of it.

 

So, as to what you can expect, it’s a very rich green. It’s almost a thin gelatin, liquid when hot but congealed when cold. For ingredients, you will need:

  • About 32 oz. dry split peas
  • A couple of ham steaks
  • one bunch green onions
  • four cloves of garlic
  • one to three tablespoons coriander
  • one and a half tablespoons curry
  • two cans chicken stock

Well, really, you can measure the spices to your own taste; all curries are different and I honestly eyeballed them to begin with. If you would like a vegan preparation, simply ignore the ham and replace the chicken broth with water, with a little sea salt to add zest. I’m not a vegan—not even distantly—but I respect the lifestyle.

Meats

Seriously, not a vegan. Most days, I’ll eat anything that so much as looks at me funny.

Begin by soaking the peas in water, overnight. They will rise by about twice their dry volume, so have room in the pot to compensate for that.

After the peas have expanded, drain the water out, and empty into either a heavy kettle or a slow cooker; my preferred method is the slow cooker. Add both cans of chicken stock, along with the spices, and turn the slow cooker on high.

Chop the ham into bite-sized cubes; if you have a bone, go ahead and throw it in, it will add flavor. Add the cubes as soon as they are ready. Dice the green onions, short of the very tips, and shuffle the chopped bulbs and stems into the soup. Peel your garlic, and crush it carefully with your palm under the flat of a kitchen knife; chop the crushed garlic as finely as you reasonably can, and scrape it into the pot. Allow to simmer in the slow cooker for at least six hours, preferably all day.

The completed soup will be a nearly homogeneous paste, in a brilliant green color. Season with sea salt, black pepper, and/or ground red chile.

Split pea soup is, even at its most basic, a relatively complete meal. It’s easy to overdo it when trying to improve it. While generally I encourage people to be creative, I will caution you about this; there is a capacity to the number of ingredients you can add to this soup. If you are going for something vegan, you may want some form of additive to make up for the lack of ham. A spicy tofu or perhaps chopped eggplant would do nicely, but serve it as a side. If you would like to add something to the soup itself, red potatoes would do very well and are not as likely to lose their consistency. In any case, this soup is excellent when served with a little toasted pumpernickel, perhaps with some butter or cream cheese.

By my count, this was around eight nutritional and filling servings.

 

 
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Posted by on May 12, 2013 in Recipes

 

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“Spirit of the People”

Aquí Demogorgon está sentado
en su banco fatal, cuyo decreto
de las supremas causas es guardado
por inviolable y celestial preceto.
Las parcas y su estambre delicado
a cuyo huso el mundo está sujeto,
la fea muerte y el vivir lúcido
y el negro lago del oscuro olvido
(Libro II, estrofa 19)

I had an epiphany the other day.

It was not a high time for me, I’ll admit to that much. I was seriously hurting in the self-esteem. This is actually not that uncommon a thing for me, I depress periodically along with a score of other odd little issues; so, resulting from the empiricist mechanism that I subscribe to, I have developed a reflex action to protect me from it.

When things get so bad, below a certain threshold, I automatically step back and look at everything in the third person. I look at where I am, what I’m doing, and what I’m thinking; I think about what point “A” is, objectively, and what point “B” I’m moving toward. Then, when third-person-self has a strong comprehension of what’s going right and what’s going wrong, it makes adjustments. Wakes me up. Sets me on a more correct path, however narrow it may be.

When this reflex hit, I noticed something incredibly odd, and may have accidentally solved a millennium-old riddle. As we grow up, we take on the lessons presented to us without question. We learn what we are expected to be, and we expect as much as ourselves; habits, nurtured during an age in which we are willing to believe that the world is perfectly functional and kind.

For many, certainly for myself, these become invisible faces, staring down at us and judging our every action. They become the face of our ideal, the origin of a great deal of terror for many. I recognized that many of these things were without faces, the imagined correspondence with them simply the result of demographic systems stemming from a bad and blind economy. Others had no correspondence, mere shadows of what we expected the world to be and an equally blind determination to credit ourselves with our own disappointment.

I realized that I had heard this story before.

There was a god once named “Demogorgon“, a word meaning “Terrible Spirit”, or “Spirit of the People”. His/her earliest confirmed mentioning was in the fourth century, by the scholar Statius. A powerful and fearful spirit, associated with the underworld, the original, the primordial. The name itself was taboo for quite some time.

The catch was that before this author mentioned Demogorgon, there was no written work regarding him (or, seriously, her; for spirits of this nature that term is moot). I have never personally believed that it was meant to be taken so literally. Demogorgon, “King of Fairies“, was never real; Demogorgon did not need to be. He was the cast and crew of our imaginary audience, our judge and jury; he had power over us that was immeasurable. Best of all, he did not exist beyond our own minds, ingrained in us as a function of the mind.

Later references described the shape of Demogorgon as formless, infinitely vague, and dynamic. Suspicious. It was seriously said to be either male or female, largely dependent on the circumstances. Try looking it up on Google Images; you’ll just get a seemingly infinite number of portraits of some kind of two-headed-baboon-thing and metal bands, neither of which (needless to say) have anything at all to do with the myth.

Endless power, ascribed to something that must hold sway over us and could not exist. This is the riddle; this is my answer. This, I would imagine, is what Statius was trying to get at. I haven’t read the piece, Thebaid, myself; at least not yet. Now, I may have to, preferably with a reference to its original language (ancient Greek). Now, when I perform this reflexive fissioning of self, I can stare this dæmon in the face, and analyze it. I have a further grip on whom, and what kind of a machine, I am.

I’ve been nothing but roses ever since.

 
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Posted by on May 9, 2013 in Meta-Media

 

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