Category Archives: From the journals

The resulting text is beside the point: Journal of 11 September 2016

Dog blur with two tennis balls. 10 Sept. 2016

Dog and I walked the big block through a nearby subdivision and the park to the roads that would get me back home, with an additional loop through another subdivision to see where an acquaintance and her chickens live. We’d left at 5:50 a.m., still kind of dark, and got back home at 7.

I could do some grading today, blogging, laundry, mowing. It’s the first NFL weekend of this season, but I feel guilty now when I watch concussionball (maybe calling it “concussionball” will help me stay away.) I’m fighting my tradition of watching football on Sundays more than I’m fighting some love of the game.

So, M and I went to diner yesterday, got iced cream and fake bacon (for our cuke sandwiches) on way home. We sat outside and talked about carbon and iron in steel, whether that’s an alloy (it is, according to Wikipedia articles), and I wondered about carbon as a semiconductor and transistors. But I did read lots about steelmaking before going to sleep, 2 p.m. to nearly five, and got up and wrote my two paragraphs for a history teacher colleague’s slideshow of memories of the events of 11 Sept. 2001. I copied my text — I liked it, a decent bit of writing about how it seemed the U.S. went nuts after 9/11, and how Guantanamo, Afghanistan, Iraq Wars, these are still going on. And then I blogged that, and I got a reblog this morning.

And we ordered pasta and pizza from LaRosa’s, paid the $36 bill with the $50 bill we got in mail from M’s mom. The delivery person was the slick-hair, rolled-cuffs hipster dude whom I tipped only 10% last week, so I gave him 20% here, $8, plus $4, which makes 48 — and why mess with $2? — so the whole $50. And we had a nice dinner at the table. M cleared off two-thirds of it — the north end, with bills and pens, M said overwhelmed her. And I put on the swing music channel on TV, but too many slow songs, including Harry Connick Jr.’s “Save the Last Dance For Me” and Sarah Vaughan’s “My Favorite Things,” so to jazz channel. At 8, we watched the “Star Wars: Force Awakens” (broadcast on several channels of Starz simultaneously). My reaction to “Force Awakens” — it’s okay but mostly dull because it repeats so much of the first “Star Wars” movie’s plot and character points. Adam Driver as Kylo Ren is kind of menacing but also funny at same time, and sometimes uses a Christopher Walken vocal cadence.

Bed 10:35, sleep probably about 11. It’s a lovely, cool day.

Cat rain. 10 Sept. 2016

I’m feeling like I need to address some things I wrote yesterday, but I’m not sure what. I mean, not to make corrections, but I feel I criticized without making the turn toward the positive, by which I mean going beyond the criticism of old ideas to get to a new idea, an idea of how to do things better.

I looked up Auburn University, wanted to know what town it was in — Auburn, Alabama. Got to philosophy department website. Under “What can You Do with a Philosophy Degree?,” the first line is “The study of philosophy is its own reward.” It continues: “It deepens and intensifies engagement with fundamental questions regarding the self, others, and the world that arise in everyday life. But the study of philosophy also offers great practical rewards. It cultivates skills in clear thinking, writing, logical criticism, and it increases the power and discipline of the imagination.” Later, under “Our Programs,” it says, “Auburn’s Department of Philosophy holds to high standards of reading, writing, and conversation.” I like including “conversation.” Further, “It expects students to become adept at criticizing the views of others and their own views,” which statement I love for its “fuck you and your idea of college as job prep” boldness but also because it’s kind of like what I was saying yesterday, or trying to say yesterday, about writing poetry.

Back at 8:18 after copying the quotes above and after 10 minutes or so reading about transistors and semiconductors after M and I talked about them yesterday. I’d said, as we sat on deck and watched dog roll around in the grass, clover, and dandelion foliage, that chemistry class terms like “compound” and “mixture” are vague, and to apply them to what we could see in the yard is hard because we don’t see any elements. We don’t see O2 in the air — and what we do see — the wood of the deck, plant leaves, dandelion leaves, are made of so many compounds (which we also can’t see — what we see is tissue). Anyway, I’ve critiqued science before, and it’s not quite what I want to do right now.

What I wrote for my colleague’s slide — I wonder if she’ll edit it? I am glad the public discourse isn’t so single-mindedly fearful as it was then soon after Nine-Eleven. I saw in Rockford Register-Star Sunday paper I pulled out of someone’s delivery box this morning an article about how there was unity after 9/11 but partisan divide now — but what seeming unity there was after 9/11 was driven by fear.

But also there was the underlying partisan bullshit of Bush Administration, tax cuts and what not, and so here we are now, with Trump as GOP leader, but thank God there’s more dissension, questioning, now then there was then — “then” especially being the lead up to 2003 Iraq invasion. It was creepy how isolated I felt then in questioning that war. Andrew Sullivan was for it, I read later. Hillary Clinton voted for it. Now Trump brags that he wasn’t for it — he’s a liar, but at least we’re against that bullshit now. So much stupid, wasteful, violent, and illegal torture shit was done in the name of 9/11. Yeesh.

I don’t normally want to get political with my blog. But, you know, sometimes it’s okay to just make a point rather than being always aesthetically focused or experimental (as with form and content — blerg, that distinction).

Back now at 8:40 after paging through some of Tristram Shandy to which I saw a reference in the GQ article of Jonathan Safran Foer I saw yesterday, how young man Foer seemed to try things typographically that he wasn’t aware others (Sterne) had done before. Form isn’t my main interest now, if it ever was. Sure, I probably tried a few things with form, but soon discovered I wasn’t all that interested in form merely (and after I wrote my one-memory-a-year memoir thing — in 2005? 2006? — I learned Nora Ephron did a similar thing in one of her I Feel Bad about my Neck essays. How could she be curt with people and also expect their welcome, their indulging of her insecurities, in her essays?)

Form is something anybody can alter. It’s range-bound and, like any limited set of ideas, somebody will try, or will have tried, each of the options in this set — like how people say the multitude of writers on Twitter seem to come up with a common set of jokes for any big event — comedians aren’t all that unique if they’re merely reacting to things.

I put my text about 9/11 up on my blog partly because it’s okay to make a point, partly because the text is well-written, and partly because, well, it’s nice to have my blog as as a repository of my writings — an archive of sorts, and not just a place for recent thoughts (which hasn’t been my use of the blog lately) and recent creative writing pieces. My journals are a level removed from making a point.

From earlier: That Auburn quote — “the study of philosophy is its own reward” — sounds like my idea that the purpose of writing poems is writing poems! The purpose is in the doing! The purpose isn’t to come up with something saleable, or something that will improve my reputation, or even something that will communicate. It’s possible to use writing for these purposes — commercial, career, and communicative — but any of those put the purpose into the product. The goal is outside you. You’re using writing and words merely to accomplish something else in the world — but you don’t need to!

What I realized (or re-realized) last Friday is that this is an attitude/process I can also take when writing poems — is that the resulting text is beside the point. It’s not the point of my writing, but it’s beside the point. The point is to write in a way that’s enjoyable, that’s interesting, and any text that results, it doesn’t matter what that text goes on to do, if anything. Whether something I’d write would make money or get me in trouble or be completely ignored, it doesn’t matter (though I try to avoid trouble) because it’s done for me! It’s over. Something I realized decades ago was that once a journal notebook was filled, it’s gone dead for me. Now I’m not quite going to stick to that because something else I’ve been thinking lately is that editing can go on indefinitely! You can pick up an old text and pick out the best parts and publish these on blog — and even there, you can always go back and keep editing! If you never go to print on paper, you never have to stop editing. There doesn’t need to be one version of a text. This is a striking new paradigm for writing, or at least for publishing. Publishers don’t really care about process at all. They just need product to sell, whether it’s actually all that good or not. Lots of books sell lots of copies, only be soon forgotten. They’ve made money! But see, if you’re like me and don’t need the money, then, shoot, you never have to be done. I’m thinking of Thoreau’s quote: if quality matters, time doesn’t. I took that to be a statement about product, but it doesn’t need to be. And the quality doesn’t have to be a judgment about the text or walking stick (Thoreau’s example) but an abstraction toward which one works, an abstraction that in practice may not be distinguishable from what I called “interesting,” as in, do what seems most interesting with the words as you make poems. You could mechanically put words together and call it a poem. (I have an expansive definition of poem — “whatever words you put together, we’ll call that a poem,” I said in my writing classes on Friday as I assigned magpo.com to them.) I’m even reminded of the Pirsig quote in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance — “The real motorcycle you’re working on is yourself,” something like that. Now, I don’t usually like to see myself as working on myself — that feels like self-consciousness, self-monitoring, exhaustion — but, yeah, if you’re the only thing that’s really alive, you know?

Just moments ago, I saw the “For Sale” sign on a neighbor’s lawn — those specific words sound sad, like the owners are no longer willing to care for that particular property. Whatever feelings they had for it, desires for it, are gone. The real feelings of caring that are gone are their marriage-bond-love. Damn, it makes me sad. I keep dwelling on this divorce — maybe I’ve never quite gotten over my parents’ divorce.

I thought, while walking on Mill Road this morning, of using all four senses during my walk. I saw some dudes get out of a car at the park, and car left, and two or three dudes walked under picnic shelter and then — ? And I wonder a little about whether they’d come after me for witnessing their drug deal — which probably wasn’t a drug deal, of course — but other people could. I need to be aware of others, who could come after us or just accidentally hit us on the roadway. Also I can hear, feel the cool, smell the air — I tried smelling some leaves on shrubs in northwest corner of park — they didn’t smell much. They’re not putting out any volatile chemicals except oxygen and water vapor, which, since there’s already O2 and H2O in the air, probably doesn’t smell. If I crushed a leaf, there might be smells through the release of plant chemicals, but I didn’t want to do that. Tried to avoid stepping on a bug this walk, too.

So I’m back after making eggs, cheese, and rice and starting laundry. I guess I had two things to say/reiterate: one was that I write journals because I like to write, and I do like clearing my mind, etc., the emotional benefits, and I like to document my life, but I also just like to write. My journals are me writing about real stuff, real experiences, as myself. When I write poems, as on magpo.com, I’m less tethered, just going with what I see, more pure intellect, less tied to me. Both are okay, just different.

Sunday evening: I’m having self-doubting thoughts about the quality of my writing. But I can dismiss those. We can ask whether anyone’s (even published writers’) works are all that great.

Byron, Illinois, aerials. 9 Sept. 2016

[Journal Sunday, 11 September 2016, starting at 7:36 a.m. ]

Commencement of journals, adulthood

My journals start with the end of my senior year of high school. I had graduation practice and then went to work at the electronics store where I worked renting videos. The next day, I was awarded the Bronze R for having third-highest grade-point average in my class, but the elderly presenter was off her game and called me by my dad’s name. The following year, she was replaced.

 

29: 1st day out. Grad practice, work after.

30: Graduation day. Got Bronze “R.” Mary Carney called me “Gene” and handed me the notecard she was reading from. Went to Matt D’s open house, then Dawn’s, Chris K’s, Kim’s, stayed late and played volleyball.

 

[Entirety of the 29 & 30 May 1992 journals, the beginning of an informal, personal writing habit I practiced irregularly from age 18 to age 30, then daily since]

What I share when I publish my journal writings

My current journal notebook.

I don’t need to have a particular idea to write about in order to write just what comes to mind as I write. It’s OK, too, if ideas/topics do come to mind — and I’d like to keep these in a journal-context. I’m not sure how much I should say in my posts about how to read these posts of my journal writings — reading my journals just to spend a little time with me as I wrote, generally in a calm, reflective way. I’m thinking here how I read Sam Pepys’s journals sometimes during my lunch just to get out of the newsy/topical realm and get into the calm, life-goes-on, slice-of-life thing.

Sam Pepys didn’t publish his own journals. They would definitely be different, or at least there’d be a discrepancy between what he wrote and what he published, if he had published them while he lived. Why keep a journal, except for the experience of keeping a journal — which IS enough, of course. It can be kinda interesting to read the journal of someone known to you — family member, friend, etc., — like the family friend’s journal of his teen-aged road trip that I was shown a few years ago. Problem is that the main interest in such a document would be familial — because you knew the writer — rather than looking at the text itself, the text needing to justify itself — a task I face, since I have no descendants.

These journals are about the past, and the past is safe because it’s done, like how I drove myself into a new city, into Philadelphia, in 1996, at age 22, and it was scary then because I didn’t know that I would be safe, but now, no scares, because I did it and got home and it’s all done — closed off, secured in the past. It doesn’t have to be distant past – I’m feeling OK now about (my wife) M’s surgery because it went well — I know the outcome now, but I didn’t when I was writing on the 1st or early on 2nd of July. And of course, as I sit here and write today, as I write right now, I don’t know how things will go today, tomorrow, next year.

These journals are on a cusp of the future — I write now in safety about what happened yesterday, and I write now in concern for what may happen in near future, and that could be a kind of tension there. But I suspect that there’s never really much to do about the future, and when I’m writing, I’m usually pretty calm, not all that anxious about future nor grief-bound to the past. Even when I wrote about Papa’s death, it was the morning after, so I was over the immediate shock of it. It’s OK that I’m not writing at the immediate time after his death or writing immediately after whatever I did yesterday.

I read at Vox today an appreciation of L.A. Times food writer Gold, how he wrote about eating, not food, and how he wouldn’t take notes as he ate. He wanted to have the experience — 5 times at each restaurant — before he’d write, and then he’d try to share that experience with readers. That’s not really what I’m trying to do, share the experience from the past. The experience I’m wanting to share is the reflecting, the processing, the remembering, during the next morning — which will have a calmer tone than texts written moments after the heat of the experience.

These texts written at journaling time will have that calm, day-after, reflective aspect — and that’s kinda cool, because I don’t have to adopt some kind of persona. I am reflecting — there’s a transparency to my prose that way. I’m not writing years later to describe a scene thru haze of memory and nostalgia (like To Kill a Mockingbird, among so many other texts). My texts are without the artifice of persona, of trying to project a certain mood or tone or whatever — that’s the simplicity — but they’re also exactly what I want them to be: in time (not written years later but written each day, they’re time-capsules of what I thought on the day each was written) and also they are partial (I don’t try to write in that Voice of Authority that I can fall into, that voice I used as a reporter. When I sit and try to explain a topical (including historical) idea, I tend to adopt that distant, authoritative tone, and I think there’s a more natural tone — even enthusiasm — when I write text in my journaling voice). I like that my ideas are tentative, not final declarations, and I like that I show process, not just product. I like all these aspects of my journals, but I think today’s — what I’ve written above — might be the best way to explain what I’m wanting to do in publishing my journals.

From 24 July 2018 journal.

Message-Writing Versus Mind-Writing

In my personal writing, I’m not usually responding to existing texts (by reviewing books or responding to others’ arguments or making pointed allusions), and I’m also not usually making new texts that present an idealized, heightened reality or consciousness (such as poetry that uses language intensely, or novels that depict some mythic struggle). Instead, I’m usually trying to take my text-making into the world, writing about where I am and what I’m seeing, hearing, and thinking (examples here, here, and here).

Yesterday at school, as I was writing my own poem as my creative writing students made theirs, I’d thought of an earlier poem of mine, and how it was good — it was special, it felt poetic — because it used language intensely. Poems could be thought of as having a certain intensity of language that one doesn’t hear in most daily conversations. That’s why poems are fun to read — they’re heightened, intense, just as stage plays and fiction show characters and situations that are more heightened and intense than daily life. And that’s the attraction — I enjoy O Brother and Jesus Christ Superstar and “The Raven” and Of Mice and Men and To Kill a Mockingbird because these works show things that are stylized, that go beyond my common experience of reality. Even certain nonfictions, too, are heightened — breathless news stories, gloriously polished literary essays.

But I’ve also questioned the values of thinking of my own life in this heightened way — seeing my life and thinking it should be more dramatic or funny or whatever. I suppose one could try to live an intense life — one could cause drama, live outside the law, do drugs, hitchhike.

Literary works (and maybe art works generally?) that convey a sense of a world heightened, a reality made fantastic — this is generally considered a sign of “good” poems, fictions, and nonfictions. It’s a world that values artifice and revision-unto-perfection as a way of pushing texts away from real life.

It wasn’t that long ago that I questioned the need to revise — there’s a whole other value system, I’m learning, that values artifice less and spontaneity more — not improvisation, exactly, but particularity. How did a person (each person?) live? What did someone do and think at the time, from in the midst of the action, or soon after — It’s a value system in which the daily journal is preferred over the end-of-life memoir.

Literary texts are often judged by a standard of how heightened they are, how well a novel compresses life, or gets to the story. My objection to stories (such as here and here and here) has been that stories are artificial and arbitrary. Even when I make a story of some experience from within my lived life, that’s not a necessary story but merely one interpretation by my mind at that time.

In “good” texts, the writer is supposed to hide the effort required to make the text (as a Taylor Mali poem puts it: “I make them show all their work in math
and hide it on their final drafts in English.”) But if I’m writing as myself, about the particulars of my recent experience, I am going to discuss the work of writing — as Steinbeck kept a journal of his process of writing The Grapes of Wrath.

When someone writes an intense poem, others can sense the quality, perhaps intuitively — maybe because we are trained/acculturated, from an early age, to appreciate language and stories — and we must be trained to appreciate new art forms. And I feel the writings I’ve done from particular places and dates , these don’t feel as valuable. Maybe I need to train my readers to see the value (as no doubt people had to be trained or taught to appreciate Ulysses). I’ll sometimes read to my students segments from my journal writings done in particular places as if these segments depicted something intuitively funny. I’ll read a quote or something I think is funny or absurd, etc. — for example, the discussion of dog-mating in my writing done at Washington Square Park. That’s OK, but it reduces the rest of the freewrite to excess writing that could be cut. I told a student to edit some things out of her recent essay, as these things seemed unrelated to her essay’s thesis. But in a place-writing, in any particular writing-as-myself freewriting, there is no thesis to guide the writing, so there is no off-thesis material!

There’s no organizing principle but the writer’s mind, the writer’s consciousness. This is what I’ll refer to as mind-writing, as distinct from message-writing: a discrete text, containing its own introduction/beginning, conclusion/ending, message, and justification for that message being important or entertaining. The mind-writing doesn’t need or imply the existence of readers the way message-writing does. The mind-write doesn’t seek money or approval. It may seem standoffish but it’s independent. As a blurting of the writer’s mental voice onto paper, it’s actually more intimate than the message, which is prepared for — and may pander to — readers. The mind-write is just the author talking (and before I would publish one of these, I may edit out the parts I don’t want to share — which option I need to have in order to be open and honest during the writing — but I also don’t need to revise the mind-writing, so the text stays as close to what was originally written as possible).

Several years ago, I read part of a writing-advice book that said aspiring writers should not write journals, as these are too self-indulgent, but should write letters, as these are written to a reader. At the time, that advice felt right, as if this advice were from the only correct perspective on how to write. But now I’m better at seeing the arbitrariness of judgments, or, let’s say that judgments made by comparing any particular piece of writing to a certain standard aren’t arbitrary, because judgments made in accordance with standards are necessary — what’s arbitrary is accepting any particular standard.

Mind-writings aren’t trying to impress readers or make a case that they’re important or that they have a “good point” to make. But when I have a message, I gotta explain why the message is important/valuable, or how entertaining my movie or novel is. I don’t need to hype my mind-writing — the most I could say to advocate someone read a piece of my mind-writing would be, I guess, “spend some time with my mind” — which doesn’t make any promises to improve anyone else’s life.

I have posted to this blog texts that I think make “a good point” — heck, even this post now, which appeared largely in this form in my journal this morning, is making a point, spreading a message. But my criteria of what’s valuable are, as explained above, arbitrary. I do sometimes tell my students certain ideas or methods that I think will help them as writers — and I don’t think my advice is bad, though I know it may not be what each of my student-writers needs to hear.

But I find it kinda cool that it’s possible to step aside from the normal standards by which we judge most creative writings. I now see that I’ve tended to judge my own journal-writings (mind-writings) by message-writing standards, so in considering this distinction, I’ve freed myself to see my mind-writings on their own terms. I can see that I don’t need to make points, or to boil down my writings to summary messages. I don’t need to argue for my ideas or defend ideas against others’ argument. I’ve felt that was right for a long time without understanding why that was OK.

But if I’m not writing to anyone else, why would anyone else read my mind-writings? I’m not sure, though I still feel there’s value in reading them, even if I’m not sure what that value would be. My answer at this point: People could read my mind-writings to get a sense of what it’s like to be alive in a particular time and place as a particular writer, a particular mind in this world of particulars. I’d love to find the mind-writings of those who lived as settlers in my home state 200 years ago, for example — and hear what it was to walk through unplowed prairie or ride a stage coach. And I hope to find journal-writings done by these people. When I’ve read some of Thoreau’s journal, the writing there seems so much more intimate and up-to-date — like he’s a real, relatable person — than he seems through Walden.

And even if readers don’t find mind-writings all that compelling, I will keep writing them because, well, it’s a fun part of being alive.

Saying things can influence other people

It’s B.S. to declare things, like, for example, those people who declare they’re not gonna eat meat any more, or they’re gonna bike to work every day. But the attraction to doing this — I’ve felt it — is in having something bold to say. To make such a declaration is an act of artifice, of course; you don’t need to declare something like this — you can just do it. But I’m also thinking of all those writers who do stunts — The Year of Living Biblically guy, the Paper Lion project.

And this brings me back to the point about everyday living. Why not describe the normal world around you? Let’s find the words, the forms, that will convey this — the beauty of a calm world, the non-magical thereness, which is itself kinda magical, of every real thing in your there-place: the wood of the table I’m writing on, each scratch and worn spot and stain (there’s now a strawberry-colored circle-stain, apparently from where I set a tea cup on a pink Post-It note).

I put on my Byronfest “SECURITY” t-shirt and I thought of the lady at my Pensacola hotel pool who shouted “security” as a joke, but in her accent it sounded like “seh-KYER-tee,” and I thought that it’s not just that she said it that’s funny — it’s that it was really happening around me — and readers won’t have that sense if I, as I did in my 3rd hour creative writing class last Wednesday, merely repeat what I heard. I need to convey to readers something else, maybe that I was there in that real palace on an average day, and suddenly this weird event breaks thru my expectations, breaks thru my consciousness, draws my attention, disrupts my calm mind filled with expectations. And the world is so often interrupting/disrupting.

And now in these two paragraphs above, I’ve created a spectrum, a pair of opposites, a paradox, or something. I’ve talked about wanting to convey the (how to name it: the calm magic? the blunt thereness?) of the things around me, and I’ve also talked about the disruptions of these expectations. But these aren’t actually opposites at all but versions of the same thing — things that are real, are really happening, near me. That’s a terribly dull, vague way to say this exciting thing (this type of writing that excites me, anyway). I’m trying to convey to readers who aren’t present what’s so amazing about here and now — maybe what’s really amazing is my mindset when I’m looking and writing [see here and here for examples], and that mindset would not be shared by the person reading my words. That reader would be in an abstraction (words, ideas) mindset while reading, not looking around himself/herself.

All I can do thru ideas is point out that one could be looking around. Write a text where you say “stop reading this text! Take five minutes — a full five — to look around you! Then come back later” — a text that points away from the text. It’s possible to do that, sure, but it’s dull as a text?

It’s easier to say anything than do it. Saying’s still valuable, of course, as it can influence others. I write to an audience of people like myself — like my younger self. But my younger self would eventually go on to learn these things anyway (as I have done just today). Well, if I give a leg up, then that next young person could surpass my learning, and that’s kinda the goal, I guess. Each teacher, each creative artist, would, if being honest, like his/her followers (audience) to surpass his/her accomplishments? Else it’s just an ego wish to be loved.

I thought this morning, while doing my daily back-stretches, that it doesn’t matter exactly how many reps I do. It’s not like if I count to 15, then suddenly my body is triggered to, say, do some reset of all bones and muscles to perfect alignment, like resetting a computer to get back to a clean slate.

Words — no physical thing in the world responds to words. There’s no “open sesame” or “abracadabra” (though I guess there’s starting to be — you can talk to your Siri, your Echo, and it’ll do some things for you) by which things react. Words only work on other consciousnesses — people, dogs, and computers, which, OK, are not exactly conscious, but they approximate consciousness when they respond to voice commands or to keystrokes, for that matter. Printers do things in physical world when we press keys — so do computerized cutters, robots — maybe that’s not conscious awareness but it’s a form of consciousness?

Of course, conscious beings don’t need to be told what to do, either. Responding to verbal commands is only one of our handy features.

Why I normally tell stories is because the story relates something unexpected happening. So why would I tell something that’s not surprising? Well, maybe to establish a baseline? or to be calm, convey calm? I’m not sure.

Be skeptical of stories

This is an uncertain time, and it’s scary for that reason.

People may prefer the certainty of stories from the past over the scary uncertainty of the non-story of the present.

Traditional stories — satisfying stories — are always moral. When a bad guy wins, or when a random event happens to a main character, that’s not a traditional, satisfying story. My dad’s death wasn’t a good story at all — he died in a car accident though no fault of his own. There was no lesson for me to learn from this accident, except that sometimes in real life, people get killed and it’s not their fault. Bad things happen to good people. Real life isn’t a satisfying story.

Religious reasoning seems to fill the role of explaining the inexplicable for some people. I’m thinking here of those religious leaders who say natural disasters are caused by God’s displeasure with human behavior. That’s a cop-out, of course. Why do random and bad things, and randomly bad things, happen? Well, God’s either not all-good, or not all-powerful (which would include not existing).

These times feel uncertain. Of course, every time, every present moment, is uncertain. There’s certainty only in looking back at stories of the past. But stories can be told only about the past! We tell stories mainly to teach each other for the benefit of the future.

But stories don’t serve us well in a time where we can’t really figure out what’s going on, and where the old stories, the old expectations, don’t seem to apply. What I learned from watching the first episodes of the Vietnam War last week was that stories — the stories the U.S. war leaders told themselves — can be bullshit.

I used to think that “be skeptical of stories” was a content-belief, but last night I thought that being skeptical isn’t a content statement but a process statement.

We may not need stories. We use them to guide (in some sense) our actions, our behaviors — don’t do what bad guys do.

Being skeptical of stories is a valid process, a valid orientation to the world, a useful way to live, it seems. If you hold on too tight to any belief, you’ll be let down, led astray.

Creativity is like stretching

A creative experience is like a stretching session: if it’s not a big of a challenge, you’re not doing it right, not getting anything out of it.