Monday, October 23, 2017

The Birth of a Story

I started writing professionally while living in Ireland seven years ago. My wife and I were WWOOFing and needed some sort of income. I found a place to write how-to articles online that would pay me for it. So after spending the day working on the farm I would spend the evening writing articles about whatever I could explain quickly enough to make it worth the pay. It was good work, especially in its flexibility, but it also created a growing need in me to do more with my words. How-to articles are an okay way to make some money, but they don't do much to scratch the creative itch.

I had tried NaNoWriMo the year before (let us never speak of that manuscript again), but there was something missing in my writing. I didn't know what it was (in many ways I'm still learning). But on the nineteenth day of June I began to discern what it was. I had lost the way from my head to my heart. I wasn't reading for pleasure. My thoughts weren't connected to my passions. Something was broken, I realized, and needed to be mended.

Reading for pleasure after a day of farming in Ireland, kept company by Nala the dog.
It was there,  looking out over the fields and farms in the fading light of a long summer day, that I first realized that while studying theology in seminary had been a great experience, I hadn't maintained a connection to my feelings as I engaged with my thoughts (and the thoughts of others). One of the simple indicators was that I hadn't been reading for pleasure. Books, that used to be my joy and refuge, had become toil. I started to fix that while sitting in a field in Ireland.

In many ways that's where the story that became The Exiled Monk was born. I still had far to go before it would become the story it is today, because I had far to go to become the writer I am today. Stories are, to be sure, a plot with characters. They are sentences and paragraphs and chapters arranged together in a particular way. They are all of that, but they are also more. Stories are the resonance of experience and empathy shared in such a way that they connect people together. I had to relearn this truth by relearning my own story as both a series of events with characters, and also a connection to myself--a reconnection of my head and my heart--shared in a way that connects with others.

For me faith had become an intellectual exercise. I had studied and exegeted and researched and understood the history and logic of my faith, but I had lost the feeling of my faith. But it was in that losing, that disorientation, that I began to understand my own story. The faith I grew up with had been a steadfast support for me. When I didn't have a place to belong in school I always knew I belonged at church. When the expression of emotion felt dangerous, I could always emote through religious practices. But when those were all analyzed, systematized, and circumscribed by intellect I lost the way to belonging, support, and vulnerability. It would take me years to begin to find the way through, the way to reconnect my head and my heart, and this story helped me to navigate that wilderness.

I'll share more about the creation of The Exiled Monk in the coming days.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

What Took So Long? My Lack.

I thought I would have this book done years ago. I thought I was mostly done when I launched my Kickstarter (I had over 50k words already written). I thought it would be easier than it was.

The short answer to why this book took so long is that it took me that long to grapple with my lack.

We are all stuck between our lack and our desire. We wrestle with them, being drawn forward by desire and restrained by lack. The message that I heard was to just follow my desires, to never give up, to keep going and I could achieve everything I ever wanted. That's true, except for my lack. Rather I should say lacks, because there is much that I lack.

The first two attempts at a Kickstarter failed. But I kept going, following my desires. The third attempt funded. So I started working on the story, editing and submitting it for critique. Through that process I found out how much I lacked in being able to give and receive critique. With many thanks to my critique partners for their patience, we learned together what worked and what didn't. We learned how to deconstruct each other's stories so we could see the bones in our own. We fought. A lot. We wrestled together with our lack of critiquing ability and learned how to do it better.

I threw out 60% of my story due to critique. It wasn't the story I wanted to tell and it was better and easier to cut a huge amount and write more. But I didn't know that at first. I lacked the vision to see my story through the eyes of a reader, through the eyes of someone who doesn't already have the whole world in their imagination. But I learned, thanks again to my critique partners and to the many resources available for teaching the structure of story (my twin podcast buddies Writing Excuses and Grammar Girl have been invaluable in helping me to wrestle with my lack). So I ended up cutting 30k words and writing 70k more to make a better story, to make up for what the original lacked.

But one of the greatest lacks that I continue to wrestle with is the lack of control. While the story is in my head or on my computer, it's in my control. But when I take it to critique group or send it to beta readers or send it out to Kickstarter backers I lose control. It's not my story anymore. The story that I imagined will never be imagined by anyone else. The characters will look different, the land will feel different, the fear will connect with different fears for each reader. I can't make anyone else read the story that I wrote and loved. I can't control that. And this is a lack that I need to learn to live with.

The Exiled Monk isn't mine anymore. Wrestling with that took a lot out of me. I love this story and I want everyone else to love it too. But I can't make anyone do anything. And that's okay.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Hope in the Midst of Fear

I have hope today. Even though last night Charlotte was seized by riots, even though black people are being killed by police (173 so far in 2016), even though my friends and neighbors live in fear.

My hope isn’t because things are good today. People are dying. People are rioting. People are arguing. Things have been pretty bad lately. 

My hope isn’t because I think racism is over. It’s not. People of color still face discrimination from police, lawyers, judges, employers, and strangers.
No, my hope is because we are talking about this. We’re talking about race, we’re talking about discrimination, we’re seeing the effects of our systemic problems, and that’s the only way we’ll begin to fix them. 

These problems are deep, ingrained. It’s the atmosphere we breathe, the background of our very existence. Our nation was founded with racism in our very Constitution declaring that black men were worth only three-fifths the value of a white man. For nearly a century our nation allowed people to be owned, not based on the content of their character, but on the color of their skin. The bloodiest war we ever fought was over the rights of states to determine whether it was permissible for black people to be owned, property, less-than-human. After black people were set free, given the right to vote—not as three-fifths of a person but as a whole person—laws were created to keep black people in their place, so they wouldn’t rise above, claim too much, think that they might be equal to a white person. Organizations were created to protect the “sanctity” of whiteness and to remind black people, with violence and fear, that they would never belong. Those laws were repealed, eventually, and declared unconstitutional. Those organizations have been rightly deemed hate groups and terrorist organizations. 

So here we are, breathing the atmosphere of what’s left. There’s nothing in the Constitution that says black people are less-than. There’s nothing in state law that allows black people to be owned. Nearly all of the laws that were used to keep black people from integrating with white people, from holding jobs, from living where they please, from voting in elections, have been stricken from the books. Hate groups have been outed as such, labeled as mongers of fear and terror. 

What’s left is unwritten, unspoken. What’s left is us. 

We carry within us the blackened, sickened, withered lungs of those who have breathed the air of our nation’s racism for generations. We have addressed the spoken, the written, the overt. We have elected a black man as our president. We have opened the door of freedom. But then we turned our backs on those wanting to step through that door. The freeing of the slaves wasn’t the end. The demolition of Jim Crow wasn’t the end. The Civil Rights movement wasn’t the end. The election of Barack Obama wasn’t the end. 

The end comes when we look within ourselves and see the darkness there. 

The end comes when I look within myself and see the darkness there. 

I didn’t put it there. I didn’t intend to see black people differently. But I consumed TV and movies which represent black people disproportionately as criminals, as sidekicks, as magical old people, and as the first to die with the fighting starts. I consumed news stories which highlighted the problems within the black community, the use of crack, and the prevalence of gang violence, without stopping to look at the same crimes being done by white people with slightly different names. Cocaine instead of crack. The KKK instead of the Crips. Lynchings instead of drive-by-shootings. I was told in a thousand silent, subversive ways that white equals good and wholesome while black equals bad and scary. 

To be sure there are exceptions. But those exceptions are most notable because they are the exceptions. They show us that the standard within our culture has been a negative connotation to black skin. 

I have hope today, not because racism is over—it’s not. My hope is because we’re beginning to see racism for what it truly is, not a Constitution or institutionalized slavery or Jim Crow laws, but a culture that places a higher value on some lives because they’re white. 

I have hope because today hurts and in that hurt I see the beginnings of change, not to our laws but to ourselves. I don’t pretend to know how long it will hurt, but I do know that unless we’re willing to hurt, to cry, to be afraid with our black brothers and sisters, we won’t move our culture. We need to hurt, to see human beings like Terence and Trayvon and Eric and Anthony and Walter dead without a trial or conviction. We need to hurt, not respond in anger or fear or contempt, not to explain away or justify. Just hurt. Grieve. Weep. 

In our tears are the seeds of change. And that’s why I have hope today. 

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The Hitler Card, Godwin's Law, and Why the Future is Bright

If you have been in an argument on the internet you've almost certainly encountered the Hitler Card (or Nazi Card or reductio ad Hitlerum). There's even Godwin's Law which states "As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazism or Hitler approaches 1."

The form is simple:
Person 1: We should do X.
Person 2: You know who else wanted to do X? The Nazis/Hitler! 
And the argument is effectively over, not because anyone won, but because everyone lost.

The First Hitler Card

I was watching Ken Burns' documentary The National Parks recently and I came across, what might be the very first instance of the Hitler Card being played. I had to pause the show and research for a bit. Sure enough, it was a straight-up Hitler comparison in an argument about national parks.

Here's the short version: Wyoming politicians didn't want to give up land around Jackson Hole to an expanded Grand Teton national park. The president wanted to preserve the land and so used the Antiquities Act to name the land (much of it donated) as a national monument. Locals were upset because they wanted to use the land for grazing and other commercial enterprises. A part of the opposition was an opinion piece written by journalist Westbrook Pegler (who had opposed many of the president's policies).

Pegler said:
"President Roosevelt and Harold Ickes have recently perpetuated in the state of Wyoming an act of annexation which follows the general lines of Adolf Hitler's seizure of Austria." -- "Fair Enough" Daytona Beach Morning Journal, 18 June 1943
That's right. The first Hitler Card was played while Hitler was still in power, while the US was at war with Germany, and it was played against President Franklin Roosevelt.

Yeah. That happened.

Jackson Hole National Monument

Look on a map today. There is no Jackson Hole National Monument. It doesn't exist anymore. 

During the height of the protest a local Jackson Hole resident, who would later represent Wyoming in the US Senate and then become governor of the state, Clifford Hansen, joined a group of men that led an illegal cattle drive across the national monument land. 

Congress passed a bill abolishing Jackson Hole National Monument. The president vetoed it. Wyoming sued and appealed to the Supreme Court. They refused to get involved. 

It took until 1950 for tensions to settle and for a compromise to be worked out. Now, there is no Jackson Hole National Monument because all of that land has been folded into Grand Teton National Park. 

In his interview on The National Parks, Hansen apologized for his opposition to the park and said that he's glad he lost. In his opinion, the Grand Tetons are a Wyoming treasure. 

Hitler versus Progress

It often feels like we'll never get anything done. It often feels like everyone is dropping the Hitler Card to avoid dialogue and prevent change. It has been that way since Hitler was alive and leading the Nazi Party.

Progress isn't driven by obstructionists. Progress is driven by people who care, who believe, and who consistently work over time, despite being called a Nazi or compared to Hitler, to make things better.

The short term feels apocalyptic. The short term feels stuck. The short term feels like nothing good will ever happen. But we don't live in the short term. We are people whose lives span decades, we are a nation that spans centuries. We have seen obstruction. We have seen panic. We have seen arguments derailed time and again. But together we've moved forward.

Change Happens

Clifford Hansen was one of the most vocal opponents to the expansion of Grand Teton National Park. If Twitter had existed, he likely would have retweeted Westbrook Pegler's article comparing FDR to Hitler. But at the end of his life Hansen was a changed man. Not because the Hitler Card worked, but because it didn't. It was a short-term distraction technique, but the people working for a national park weren't distracted, they weren't dissuaded, they weren't defeated by harsh, empty words.

Change isn't driven by words alone, it's driven by consistency and action over time. Neither will change be stopped by people spouting harsh, empty words. Don't be distracted, don't be dissuaded, change is not so easily defeated. Keep working, keep taking action, keep making the world around you a better place. If you do, you'll probably be compared to Hitler, just like Franklin Delano Roosevelt was.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Outrage Porn Leads to Outrage Impotence

You may or may not have heard the term "Outrage Porn." If it's a new one to you, here's the short version. Outrage porn refers to the use of outrage to drive content, especially on the internet. Headlines and articles pander to a sense of moral outrage over whatever is the latest thing. People click on the headlines, share, and comment. That's like gold to online media sites so they make the next story more outrageous. Kind of like pornography but instead of using lust they use outrage.

Outrage Inc.

In recent memory people have been outraged over the shooting of a gorilla to save a child, the questionable use of a private email server, the death of a child from an alligator attack, and probably something about body shaming (I'm guessing, I don't usually run in those circles).

The system works well. Media finds stories that strike a nerve. Is someone being a bad parent? Is a celebrity doing something wrong? Is a politician being a hypocrite? Is there someone that can be judged or shamed to allow the readers to feel morally superior?

Great! Write it up, slap on a click-bait headline, and watch the ad revenue roll in!

It's a business and your moral outrage is the commodity being monetized. In the same way that sex sells, by appealing directly to your lizard brain, bypassing your rational mind, and driving a response that you have before you're even aware that you're doing it. It's almost exactly like smelling popcorn when you walk into a movie theater. The sensory stimulus gets sent to your limbic system to see if it's something to eat, fear, or mate with. Popcorn smells like food so your brain tells you that it is and, without spending much time at all processing, your brain will often send signals to your mouth and stomach signalling hunger. You just want it. You don't think about it. You don't process whether or not you're actually hungry (at least on the first round).

Sex works the same way. You see an image and it triggers the parts of your brain that help you to find a mate. You experience lust. Your body starts to react before your brain can process much (at least on the first round). You just want it. You don't think about it.

Diminishing Returns

If you work in a movie theater there's a good chance that you're immune to the smell of popcorn. It might even be off putting to you. You've smelled it so many times that your limbic system doesn't really register it anymore, at least not with the desire for food. 

People who consume a lot of pornography can become impotent as a result of the desensitization. They feed sexual stimuli into their brains, like a drug, and with each round the stimuli has less and less effect. Stimulus is increased, more and/or different porn is consumed to get the same effect until that doesn't work. Then, eventually, there's no room left to increase the stimulus. Impotence results. 

Our limbic system is a survival tool. It keys in on what's different in the environment to search for threats and aids to survival, then it triggers rewards for doing things that lead to survival. Good job finding food for today; here's a hit of dopamine. Good job finding a mate; here's some endorphins and hormones. Good job getting away from that tiger; here's a flood of relief. When all of that works well we're automatically reminded, by our desire for those good neurotransmitters, what's good to eat, what leads to mating, and what alleviates fear. 

But most of us aren't on the brink of survival. Most of us have plenty of food and little reason to fear (finding a mate is still a universal human struggle). 

So we find ways to get those good neurotransmitters anyway. We eat fatty, salty, sweet food in excess because it feels good. We devour images of sexuality because it feels good. And very often we seek out fear because it feels good. 

The Joy of Fear

Wait, wait, I bet you're thinking, how can fear feel good? 

It's not the fear, exactly, but the good neurotransmitters that your brain releases after you've conquered fear. It's like going down a slide on the playground. Most of us had the moment (or moments) of frozen terror at the top of the slide. Staring down the long, metal expanse and seeing certain death. Weighing the the danger to life and limb in going down the slide. Trying to decide if every other kid that went down the slide was just lucky or if it's actually safe despite all of the warnings your brain is shouting at you. Then you go down the slide. You feel the wind in your face and the g-forces on your body. You arrive at the bottom unscathed. Your brain rewards you for surviving. Good job; here's some dopamine! 

If you're not an adrenaline junkie constantly seeking danger by jumping out of airplanes or surfing with sharks or playing with fire, you can still get some good neurotransmitters through fear. 

Fighting feels good. Not losing, not being injured, but fighting and feeling like you've won. Conquering another. You have vanquished a foe and lived to fight another day. We've made sport of this feeling, first through blood sports and then through organized sports. We can win. We can conquer the fear of loss, the fear of shame, the fear of unworthiness. 

Outrage is a form of fighting. We set the stakes, not as a physical contest, but as a mental and emotional battle. The survival of our sacred values is threatened so we fight, and when we win we feel those good neurotransmitters, at least for a while. 

The Impotence of Outrage

Just like with food or sex, we can become desensitized to fear. We can become accustomed to the good neurotransmitters the we feel when we've been outraged and so need more and more outrage to achieve the same level of good feelings. Eventually, if it goes on too long, we lose the ability to become outraged at all. 

Outrage can be a very good thing. It can help us to identify real threats to our values and to our society. It can lead us to make necessary and lasting changes in ourselves and in our communities. Outrage is an appropriate response just like lust and hunger are.

But we can't mate if we've become impotent, we hurt ourselves when we eat too much, and we can't affect change through outrage if we're numb to it. 

Mass shootings have horrified and outraged the nation on what feels like a regular basis. Violence by police against minorities seems to be epidemic and systemic. Yet change seems glacially slow. Mass shootings keep happening. People of color keep being hurt by law enforcement. The tensions rise, the outrage builds, and for some it boils over into even more violence. 

And so it goes. 


For someone who has become desensitized through overuse of pornography the impotence can feel permanent, but it's not. Through a long process of avoiding sexual stimulus a person can become resensitized. The same thing can happen with food, changing cravings and rewiring the reward system in the brain. But it takes time and effort. Most of all it takes conscious thought. 

The appeals to our limbic system are so powerful because they can effectively bypass our thoughts. The responses are automatic, almost. 

Your brain immediately gets ready to respond. Your mouth waters at the scent of popcorn, your blood flows at the sight of sexual images, your heart races at the hint of danger. But then you get to choose what's next. 

You get to choose to buy the popcorn or not. 

You get to choose to pursue sex or not. 

You get to choose to follow your fear or not. 

It's not an easy choice. If you've become desensitized, you might not even be able to choose every time. The cascade of neurotransmitters and neural pathways flows along like a mighty river. Sometimes all you can do is be tossed along and hold onto a branch to keep your head above water. But when you've cleared the rapids, you can reassess, paddle toward the shore, make a plan for next time. 

Outrage can be a good thing. We need it to help us deal with the massive, systemic problems around race and violence in our country. Please stop wasting your outrage on celebrities and politicians and gossip and parents who are trying their best (or not).

Thursday, June 30, 2016

New Short Story in a New Anthology -- Chronicle World: Feyland

I like making up new worlds. That's a big reason why I love to write scifi and fantasy: I get to imagine everything about the world. But there's also a danger in getting to make up everything about a world. Laziness.

Yeah, I know, it seems like the least lazy thing to have to make up the geography, history, demography, and thaumaturgy of a place (and it's not an easy task), but for my imagination it can be easier than having to fit the pieces of parts of a story into a world that already exists.

Robert McKee in his book Story talks about the power of creative limitations. He compares limitations to the weights in a gym that offer resistance. The limitations might be harder to move, but the act of moving them, of working within them, pushes creativity.

In Chronicle Worlds: Feyland I got to push against the weight of another author's world.

Anthea Sharp has a series of books set in a near-future where there are hover cars, fully immersive virtual reality games, and a new game "Feyland" that becomes a portal to the very real land of Fairies.

Since I've worked in technical support (and computer sales, and computer training, and computer repair, and writing about computers and software) I couldn't help but wonder what the help tickets must look like when someone accidentally falls into a mythical realm instead of a video game. I also wondered how people from different cultures would interpret the Celtic-Anglo land of Fey.

The constraints of Anthea's world made me think of things that I wouldn't have considered otherwise. I researched the fairie-like legends of Africa and Asia, North America and Central Europe. I learned about the beneficial fairies that helped the Aborigines of Australia and the awful demons that preyed upon the people of India.

I chose to set my story in a call center in India, partly because it has become such a cliche in tech-support circles and partly because I wanted a chance to look at the unique culture of India (in actuality many unique cultures) interpreted through the lens of Feyland.

Ranjeet Nagar keeps getting odd support tickets that don't seem to have anything to do with the game and certainly don't comply with his script. He doesn't have a testing rig to be able to figure out what's going on and unless he can find one the demons that used to frighten him as a child will pour into his world with very real terror and harm.

Read my story, "Tech Support" and eleven other fantastic tales set in the world of Feyland. It's only $0.99 for the launch (until July 6th)!

Monday, June 13, 2016

How to Be a Billy Goat in the Wake of Tragedy

Our world suffers tragedy. Often. Trolls use tragedy to stir up conflict but what are billy goats supposed to do? 

If you want to catch up on why you should be a billy goat you can do so here:

As I sit down to write this the United States is reeling from an attack on a nightclub in Orlando. Fifty people died and fifty-three more were injured. The club, Pulse, is a gathering place for the LGBT community. Responsibility for the attack is claimed by ISIS. 

Social media is filled with responses. People are grieving publicly. Emotions are high. 

Dialogue versus Diatribe

If you want to be a billy goat that means you want to find and cultivate opportunities for dialogue on the internet. You want to offer an alternative to the trolls that do so much harm to individuals and communities. Sometimes that means not engaging. 

When our lizard brains are in control, when our limbic system is reacting, when our bodies are deciding if we should fight or flee, we can't really listen. And if we can't listen, we can't engage in dialogue. 

In moments of national or international tragedy the limbic system of the internet is reacting. All of social media is running through a fight-or-flight response. There's no space for listening and no space for dialogue. 

There will be plenty of people posting. There will be plenty of responses to the tragedy. But there won't be dialogue. Not yet. 

Don't be Silent

Just because there's not a chance for dialogue doesn't mean you can't show support for those affected by the tragedy. Grieve. Mourn. Weep. You don't have to be silent in the face of great evils in the world. 

As you choose to add your voice to all of the others, show extra care. Everyone's emotions are tender. Everyone is on edge and looking for threats. Do everything you can to not become another threat. Avoid politically charged statements. Avoid religiously charged statements. Find ways to support, to love, to grieve without adding to the fear and anger that are boiling. 

Grieve First, Then Engage

I'm not suggesting that we let tragedies pass us without reflection. I'm not advising that we avoid having conversations about the hard topics. In fact that's exactly what I'm hoping billy goats will do. We desperately need to have these conversations about these difficult topics so we can work together to heal from tragedies and to prevent future tragedy. 

But first we need to grieve. 

First we need to get past the white-hot pain, that is so intense that we can barely stand to be near it, let alone touch it. First we need to allow our brains to adjust to the new reality of the world that includes this tragedy as a part of it. It might take a few days or weeks before things have calmed down enough for dialogue to happen. 

Start with Unity

Especially in the midst of grieving a tragedy, there's a tendency for social media to move toward the solution first. While it's possible to have dialogue about possible solutions, there's often a long chain of reasoning that leads to a proposed solution.

More guns will fix it. 
Fewer guns will fix it. 
Walls fill fix it. 
Open borders will fix it. 

We're clearly not united on our solutions, but we can easily unite around the problems. We all want to fix it. We all want to stop tragedies from happening. Start there and see how far the conversations can go. Work to understand why people are so confident of their proposed solution. 

But not now. For now just grieve.