The Commencement Address

by Matthew Lowes

This year, the graduating class at the high school where I work asked me to deliver the commencement address. I was honored to do so, and I took the task to heart. It was a rare opportunity to speak to a group of young people at a transformative point in their lives. And with the parents, family members, and friends of graduates, as well as colleagues and members of the larger community gathered in the gymnasium, it was the biggest audience I’d ever had the opportunity to speak to. I’d like to share these words with you as well, so what follows is the speech I gave, pretty much word for word as it was delivered.

COMMENCEMENT ADDRESS

Delivered on June 9th, 2018 by Matthew Lowes

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I have to say, I am deeply honored to speak with you on this momentous occasion.

Some people expressed surprise that I would accept this task. But honestly … this is an honor I could not refuse. I am immensely grateful for the education I received, and for all my teachers, both in and out of school. So to me, to stand before a group of graduates and address them like this, is one of the highest honors imaginable.

Of course, I quickly realized that being honored is not really enough in a situation like this. It’s more of a … you know … you have to say something meaningful kind of situation. And so here I am, charged with saying something meaningful to you — something that might make a difference in your life and how you see yourself and the world.

It’s a tall order.

A few of you seemed concerned about what I would or wouldn’t say. You came around and asked me to say something specific, or asked if you could see the speech. But frankly, I turned down all requests. What would be the point of me speaking if you all knew what I was going to say. Also, I admit I didn’t entirely know what I was going to say yet. But since you all asked me to speak, I knew that I would have to speak from my heart.

The truth is, I know you just well enough to know that I don’t know the funniest anecdotes to tell, or the greatest accomplishments to highlight. But I know you well enough to know that I am grateful to have met you. And I know you well enough to know that some of you have struggled to be here, and others have overcome incredible hardships. And I am immensely proud of every single one of you.

Your accomplishments have encouraged us all. Your struggles have touched our hearts. And your presence has brightened our days.

Each one of you is worthy of far more time than I have here.

Nevertheless, I hope that I can give you some piece of advice, or a perspective on life that might be helpful. And with that in mind, I don’t want to reminisce about past glories, nor speculate on all the great things you may do in the future. I don’t want to pretend that there haven’t been hard times, or that there won’t be hard times to come. I’m sure there were, and there definitely will be.

Instead, I would like to talk about this moment, right now. For it is always in the present moment that we are living. It always has been, and always will be now. In this way, everything that has ever happened has happened today, and everything that ever will happen will also happen today. That is when our lives are unfolding. And this will always be the case, for you, for me, for everybody.

So let’s think about this. The past, as we remember it, is already gone. The future, as we imagine it, will never really arrive. It will always be now. This present moment that we are experiencing goes on throughout our entire lives. So how we live, here and now, is always what really matters.

This may seem obvious, but it’s a fact that is so easy to lose track of. It’s so easy for us to become distracted, unconscious of our remarkable existence in this present moment. And it’s so easy become wrapped up in our thoughts about what has happened and where it’s all going, or to become entranced by our ideas about who we are, what we’re doing, what we’ll become, what we’re capable of, what we should or shouldn’t do in the future, what could happen, and what it all means.

Of course we need to remember the past, to acknowledge and learn from it. And we need to plan for the future as well, to set course now for our greatest aspirations. But never forget that the present moment is all there will ever be. Whatever you do, even when you’re remembering and planning, you will always be doing it now. And even when you are not really doing anything, you cannot help but not do it now.

So whatever joy you seek in life, you can only find it in the present moment. And whatever you intend to accomplish, you can only work towards it in the present moment. And whatever problems may arise in your life or that you perceive in the world, you can only solve them in the present moment. And whatever kind of person you wish to be, you can only be that person now, in the present moment.

Life can seem incredibly complicated, but the truth is very simple. Moment by moment, we live these beautiful lives. They are filled with soaring heights, mundane plains, and abyssal depths. But whatever happens, have courage for the moment. For all we can do is attend to ourselves and the situation at hand, always living in this present moment.

Wisdom has not changed throughout the ages. But it’s up to you to discover what it really is. I can only give you a taste, point in the general direction, and encourage you to discover it for yourselves.

To all those ends I say: Be kind, be curious, be loving, be truthful. And I say all these things in the deepest possible sense.

Endeavor to find out who you really are and what your true potential is. I assure you, it’s way bigger than you can imagine.

And through it all, always strive to understand what it is to be a good person.

It won’t always be easy, but moment by moment, if we can just be that, everything else will take of itself.

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Thank you, and congratulations to the Class of 2018!

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Create the Narrative that Creates Our Future, by Eric Witchey

I post this today because this week, over 100 years after scientists first described the carbon emissions greenhouse effect, the President of the United States changed the national narrative on climate change (Svante Arrhenius, 1896).

Source: Alexandrum79 via iStockPhoto.

Source: Alexandrum79 via iStockPhoto.

Create the Narrative that Creates Our Future, by Eric Witchey

A person can be, at least for a little while, logical and rational. Most of us believe we are rational and logical.

Most of us are also wrong.

In fact, even among the well-educated, very few people receive the kind of training that improves actual logical, rational thought. People are trained to apply analytic skills to specific problems, but that’s not quite the same thing. Consider the flame wars that take place when two trained professionals have invested themselves in two separate solutions to the same set of problems. Each solution may solve the problems. Each may have been arrived at via skill and application of sound methodology. However, the battle of egos and emotion that takes place has nothing to do with rational, logical thought.

Human beings are physiologically built so that emotional responses have greater sway over decisions than conscious, executive function.

Certainly, cognitive training increases an individual’s ability to override that tendency. However, a system made up of many people, no matter how well organized, is always irrational. A crowd, a tribe, a company, a state, or a nation is always irrational. In order for a system of people to act effectively on a decision, the decision must fit with the dominant, emotionally satisfying narrative adopted by the individuals who make up that system.

In other words, we internalize stories and act on them as if they are true. Facts are quite irrelevant.

Why do you suppose salesmen and marketers are trained to evoke an emotional response rather than to present facts? Why do you suppose they round up and shoot the independent journalists during a military coup?

Only when facts embed themselves in the system’s foundational irrationality does a culture change for the better—be it a family, a tribe, a community, a county, a state, or a nation.

Cultural inertia is not the tendency of a culture to remain as it is unless acted upon by an outside force. Cultural inertia is the tendency of a culture to act according to an unquestioned narrative until the narrative changes from the inside.

Consider this popular narrative: “The only deterrent to violence is more prisons. If people know they will go to jail, they won’t do the crime.”

Ignoring the logical fallacy of over generalization, consider that it is possible that a potential criminal is so hungry, so afraid, so sick, so threatened by poverty and the absence of less destructive opportunity that the crime has great survival value because the potential gain translates into food and shelter. Even getting caught will at least provide food, shelter, and guaranteed medical support.

A system that acts on the deterrent narrative easily steps forward to embrace this addition: “The cost of prisons is too high for the taxpayer. Privatization can alleviate that cost.” If we believe the former statement, the latter statement is a fairly reasonable step toward the apparent betterment of the social system.

…Unless the private companies receive tax incentives and the judicial system is required to fulfill incarceration quotas in order to maintain profitability.

Here’s a statement that actions demonstrate people accept even if they don’t believe they accept it. “Water in a clear plastic bottle is more pure than tap water because utilities can’t be trusted and magic places exist in the world where water is perfect and we put that perfect, magic water in a bottle so you can buy it. And Convenience. And recycling. Good. Good. Good. Buy more.”

Of course, the more bottled water we buy, the less the local utility is financially viable and the more we complain about our water quality. In other words, we pay thousands of times more for water that came from a tap through a filter outside our town or city, and we thereby undermine the low-cost system that provides our water. And, for spending a lot more, we get the added bonus of loss of public infrastructure and additional layers of environmental damage in production, distribution, and post-consumption.

The facts are known. The facts are even known to most people on the street. The decision to buy that bottle of water is either unconsidered or justified in the moment.

We have serious science that speaks to crime rates, to gun deaths, to global warming, to water losses, to contamination factors, to floating oceanic continents of plastic waste, to the destructive economic effects of corporate feudalism, and to the endless repetition of domestic violence and crime as a result of failed social support and underfunded education.

The facts are available.

However, fact does not have enough social mass to create systemic change.

Factual knowledge has to become part of the tribal folklore that is repeated in ignorance as truth.

Huge campaigns to create the viral narratives that said that seatbelts are good, littering is bad, and cigarettes kill had to be undertaken in order to make the tribal truth a part of the unconsidered oral tradition of the many anthropological tribal systems that, combined, make up our nation. Only when the new narratives took root as fact in hearts and minds did the new narratives replace the old, profit-driven narratives.

Then, cultural change took place.

Interestingly, each of the above changes to national, internalized narrative came about because of the costs to the nation as a whole. Seatbelts translated into lost profits for insurance companies and to lost working person years in the national economy. The same for cigarettes. Littering? Well, that one may have grown out of the zeitgeist of a time when environmental consciousness was first gaining its legs and the power of a public service announcement hadn’t been fully understood by corporate interests. Frankly, I don’t know. I suspect that today the public service ads might be about caution while driving near the crews that our privatized prisons provide in order to keep our national byways scenic.

What is clear is that when a corporate, profit-driven narrative no longer generates profit, the failed story is abandoned. The corporation seeks new products, new markets, and new narratives.

Once a fact-based narrative takes emotional hold, it is much harder to supplant because action based on that narrative creates demonstrable long-term benefit.

People like benefits.

Case-in-point, ACA (Obamacare). Most people have already forgotten that Obama’s original plan was a single-payer solution that has been demonstrated to work in many developed countries. The Republican/Democrat compromise position was the ACA, which is actually based on programs that have failed in other countries.

The compromise came to be because for one side it got us closer to a working plan for the common people. The compromise worked for the other side because history had shown that the ACA would fail very publicly and result in a moment in which existing insurance companies would step up, “compete” across state boundaries, and save the day. The rhetoric was that the new competitive marketplace would result in fewer court cases, lower premiums, etc. None of these benefits of competition are supported by objective study and fact. In fact, the opposite is true (The exception is the court cases because people who buy insurance from a company in another state would have to go to that state to sue. Consequently, it would be harder to sue, so there would be fewer cases).

So, the planned failure was labelled Obamacare in spite of the fact that Obama’s plan was very different. Fortunately for millions of Americans, myself included, the anxiety over medical costs and affordable care was so great that a compromise position intended to fail ended up succeeding in spite of precedent.

The rhetorical association of the ACA with the current administration began immediately. “Obamacare” succeeded as a national narrative. Both advocates and opponents used the term freely. One side used it with pride. The other side used it as a pejorative.

The legal attacks on Obamacare became very serious when numbers started to show that the program might actually work because American healthcare is so screwed up that a system that failed in other countries actually improved the U.S. healthcare system.

By the time the more serious attacks began, it was too late. A new, non-factual narrative was nearly impossible to present to a nation that was clearly seeing immediate benefits.

ACA isn’t perfect. Neither is the single-payer system. The point here is that the ACA narrative’s success is based in the consumer’s emotional need and actual, subsequent benefit.

Facts can support cultural change for the better, but culture only changes when the facts become an emotionally compelling story that can be repeated by people who have no direct knowledge of the science that verified those facts. The change is sustainable when benefits reinforce the tribe’s emotional attachment to the narrative.

Corporate marketing people know the power of story. Ask one.

Politicians know it. They won’t tell you, but even an untrained observer can examine their rhetoric and point to carefully crafted narrative. A trained observer can tell you how and why the rhetoric was designed the way it was.

I know this firsthand because I have been hired to create narratives to present politically volatile concepts as positive change. I also know it because I am a story teller.

Story tellers have always known the power of an emotionally compelling narrative.

The Shaman was the story maker and teller—the conscience and consciousness of the tribe.

Consider that stories told by Sumerian shamanic leaders many thousands of years ago still influence beliefs and behaviors. ISIS justifies beheadings, destruction of property, and slavery based on the modified, interpreted, handed-down narratives from Sumerian stories. Evangelical Christians justify narrative modification of historical fact and science by citing handed-down, interpreted, modifications of the very same Sumerian tales. Both Israelis and Palestinians justify violent action against one another based on differing narrative modifications and interpretations of the same handed-down Sumerian tales.

Are you a little uncomfortable—maybe even angry?

If you are, you are proving the point of this little essay.

Stay with me. Take a breath. Check the facts later. The point of this essay doesn’t change because you are uncomfortable. It doesn’t change if the things I have said are true or untrue. Notice that the only thing actually cited in this essay is the first presentation of greenhouse effects by a scientist. That is a fact.

Right now, consider your emotional response in contrast to a rational response to available historical data. Factual data has no emotional content. Facts just are. If my little narrative above is wrong, it’s just wrong. If it’s right, it’s just right.

Where does the emotional reaction come from?

Regardless, the emotional response to a narrative that doesn’t agree with your own is real. No matter what the facts are, the emotion drives the desire to take action. Why do we live in a world of “trigger warnings?” When do we form those deeply held narratives that affect our emotional responses to everything in life?

We form them in early childhood.

Before we were five years old, we internalized most of the emotional connections to the narratives that cause our reactions in life. How old were you when you went to your first Sunday school class, heard your parents’ first atheist attack on organized religion, attended Hebrew school, went to temple, mosque, church, or synagogue? At what point in the development of your brain did the narrative that caused your reactions form?

The currently available linguistic and cognitive science suggests that a strong emotional response to material like the above is actually a survival response left over from the child who first learned the narrative. In the environment in which the child learned the narrative, acceptance, and by extension food and shelter, were connected to demonstrated belief in the adult-presented narrative.

We are not thinking creatures. We only think we are.

We are feeling creatures.

The facts are only good if they appear in narrative that supports emotional responses.

Little-by-little, linguists, cognitive scientists, sociologists, psychologists, historians, anthropologists, philosophers, and storytellers are making the knowledge of this phenomenon part of cultural awareness. I’m doing it right now.

Consider the development of the science behind our cultural understanding of climate change. The first presentation of the concept of greenhouse carbon emissions impact on the future environment was presented late in the 19th century—over 100 years ago. Not quite that long ago, I wrote bad poetry about climate change when I was in high school. Back then, the Carter administration worked hard to address the known issues of fossil fuel dependence and emissions outputs. Do you remember when coal-fired power plants were first required to install re-burners and scrubbers? Do you remember when catalytic converters were first required on automobiles? Thank you Jimmy Carter for all you have done for the individuals that make up our nation and for the planet as a whole. May you beat your cancer and live long. We need your personal interpretation of the handed-down stories of the Sumerians. I think you got it right.

Do you remember that before Reagan was governor of California, California residents could go to state universities for free? After Reaganomics installed the narrative that higher education is a personal privilege rather than a national investment in the future, no such luck.

Nationally, Reaganomics put an end to the liberal nonsense of the Carter administration.

The very successful electric car experiment disappeared without trace. New, horribly incorrect narratives about emission controls pushed deadlines out into the future. Education funding was cut. Private colleges were encouraged. Banking restrictions were cut. Some of us remember the first time we saw a credit card that offered a deferred 20% or more interest rate. Before Reaganomics, interest rates like that were illegal and, quite literally, only offered by loan sharks. Mining in federal lands became easier. Regulatory agencies became run by people from the industries they were intended to regulate. Okay, that last one was a lie. That wasn’t really new. It just got worse. Prison and schooling for profit gained support.

Am I making a partisan attack?

No. I’m registered an Independent. I’m pushing buttons to get people to test their personal narratives. Most of the above is verifiable public record. The sad part is that the bits people agree with, they won’t check. The bits they disagree with, they won’t check. In other words, as long as we are comfortable in our beliefs, we don’t bother with facts.

People who actually want to test their personal narratives, and this narrative, can simply go to the federal government sites (.gov–not .com, .bus, .edu, .org, or any other dot) that track and present law making, modification, and federal spending numbers. Go to several. Each agency is presenting its own narrative.

Hurry, though.

Legislation is in the works to make it illegal for citizens to access raw data.

Yes, really.

The government changes that move toward controlling the narrative are already visible. Actual raw data spreadsheets showing military and education spending were available in three clicks as recently as five years ago. Now, the raw data is buried. At the surface level, it is interpreted for us in graphs and charts. We have to dig for the raw data. In some cases, we have to submit a formal request via the Freedom of Information Act channels and hope to get a useful result someday.

118 years after a scientist presented the greenhouse gas problem, only very expensive disasters, clearly rising sea levels, public outcry, and some creative rhetoric has made the popular oral narrative of climate change shift from “Don’t be silly” to “Oh, shit. We better pay attention to this.”

Think about Al Gore on his world tour and receiving the Nobel Prize. Piggy-backed on his rhetoric of “Oh, shit” is a message about how we got to this moment by letting profit-based corporate story via political rhetoric override objective science.

It is no coincidence that at the same time this message is finally taking hold in our tribal consciousness, background attacks on funding to university research, attacks on NASA funding, and attempts to mandate “pragmatic usefulness” of federally funded research are underway.

So it goes.

The fight for the human ability to survive and thrive on this planet is about money and who tells which story to the tribes.

We fiction writers are storytellers. Whether we work with scripts, shorts, poetry, or novels, we reach deeply into the consciousness of the people who make up the tribes. We are often the first to reach into the consciousness of the tribes because we touch the youngest minds and hearts before they develop into consumers of political and corporate narrative. Because we are the shamans, the people who create the magic that forms conscience and the illusion of rational consciousness, we have a responsibility to look deeply and carefully at possible narratives that will become part of the emotional decision making that creates a future in which the planet is a place where human beings can survive and thrive.

The Sumerian shamanic leaders created the best narratives they could for their people. Their world was small and constantly threatened by famine, disease, flood, storm, and violent foreigners.

We need to do better. We can no longer afford simple, authoritarian, insular, prescriptive narratives. We can no longer afford us/them narratives. We most certainly can’t afford the profit as success narrative. It is quite literally killing us.

Our narrative about four simple variables will determine the fate of the human race. 1) We live on Earth, a closed system. 2) We currently rely on finite resources. 3) We have created competing, growth-based economies. 4) We allow unchecked population growth.

Any decision, personal or political, that does not mitigate or eliminate one of more of these four variables is tacit support for self-inflicted human genocide.

Humanity, created by god, gods, or random interactions in a chaotic system, is only an experiment in this vast universe. In modified, handed-down Sumerian terms, our god or gods loved us so much that he, she, it, or they gave us opportunity and free will. How we treat our world and, directly or indirectly, each other is entirely on us.

Tell a good story—a story that creates hope, tolerance, and survival.

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Switching It Up

By Cynthia Ray

changes

Part of writing a story is deciding what form it will take, or what genre. Fantasy, Science Fiction, Horror, Crime, Literary, Romance, or Non-Fiction all have different audiences and different rules.

Usually, the story itself tells you how it wants to be told.   As an experiment, I once wrote the same short story over in three different genres and found that there was one way that brought out the main conflicts and themes better than others—one that made the story shine.

I’ve been thinking about this because I’m stepping out of my usual genre of short fantasy fiction, to write a non-fiction book. Yes, I said non-fiction book. This will be different for me; very different.  This book won’t let me go. It had nudged me for months, and now the nudges have turned to kicks-so I had to concede.

switching horses

Since it is a little scary, and a stretch for me, I decided to do some research on other authors that had switched genres to see how they fared and found some interesting facts.  Many authors have successfully “switched it up”.  Here are just a few:

  • Did you know Ian Fleming, prolific author of those iconic 007 spy novels also wrote the children’s story “Chitty-Chitty Bang Bang”? He told the story to his children and they loved it so much he wrote it down.
  • Roald Dahl, author of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “James and the Giant Peach” also wrote hard-boiled crime stories. One of his more famous stories is “Lamb to the Slaughter”, in which a woman beats her husband to death with a frozen leg of lamb, then cooks the murder weapon and serves it to the policemen who comes round to question her. Yikes!
  • Anne Rice, famous for her vampire novels, also wrote erotica novels early in her career, including BDSM. Apparently she was 50 shades ahead of her time.
  • And E.B. White, author of “Charlottes Web” wrote the writers non-fiction classic, “Elements of Style.”

Part of my fear of stepping out and starting this new project stems from a failed attempt to write a non-fiction book. A publisher of business books once asked me to write a manual on facilitating virtual meetings. As an expert on the topic, I thought it would be easy-peasey, but writing about it turned out to be dull, boring and painful.

To my chagrin, I discovered that I didn’t want to spend all day facilitating virtual meetings, and then come home and write about the process. Needless to say, I never delivered the product and took on all the inherent guilt/shame that such an experience brings.

I’ve learned from that first foray into non-fiction. Here’s how it will be different this time:

First of all, I’ve discovered something called “Creative Non-Fiction”. This genre is exactly the kind of non-fiction I want to write.  Erik Larson’s book, “Devil in the White City” is a good example of this kind writing. Lee Gutkind describes Creative Non-Fiction in his magazine by the same name.

“Creative Nonfiction, defines the genre simply, succinctly, and accurately as “true stories well told.” And that, in essence, is what creative nonfiction is all about. In some ways, creative nonfiction is like jazz—it’s a rich mix of flavors, ideas, and techniques, some of which are newly invented and others as old as writing itself. Creative nonfiction can be an essay, a journal article, a research paper, a memoir, or a poem; it can be personal or not, or it can be all of these.”

Next, the topic I’ve chosen to write about is something I am passionate about (more about that later), and have a lot of fire behind.  It requires research and interviews and is something interesting enough to hold my attention for the long-haul.

And finally, I have realistic expectations of the amount of work involved and what it will take to deliver the book to paper that is in my head. Right now, I’m on fire with ideas, outlines and plans. I wake up in the middle of the night with inspiration, but I know that in only a few months I’ll be knee deep in trashed drafts wondering why I started the stupid project in the first place. I can’t wait!

drafts

My New Pal

By Cynthia Ray

Recently, my friend and long-time love was hospitalized with a serious illness. Saying that he had a “brush with death” doesn’t come close to the visceral and gut-kicking experience. This is what it was like: Death grabbed me by the shoulder, spun me around and slapped me, leaving a throbbing bruise on my cheek, then pulled my face close to his and said, “You think you can ignore me? You think you can live your life as if I didn’t exist? I’m tired of being the invisible guest in everyone’s life. Wake up, sister! I’m your salvation.”

That got my attention. I sat next to my love, held his warm, living hand, and looked into his  eyes. Everything that was not important melted away; and most things seemed trivial and insignificant in that moment. The love we have always had for each other lit up the room.

Later, I wondered why we can’t connect like that all the time, not just with each other, but with family and friends, with strangers, with the grocery clerk at Fred Meyers.  When all we have is each other, why do we separate ourselves?

The experience forced me to reconsider everything in my life. What doesn’t matter anymore? What makes me feel connected and whole? What puts me to sleep? It is easy to become complacent and distracted; busy making grocery lists, doing laundry and balancing checkbooks while life goes on around us unnoticed and unfelt.  The sense of urgency and immediacy that I felt sitting on that hospital bed can fade away if I let it.

I don’t want to fall back into sleepy forgetfulness. After experiencing true, deep connection, nothing else will satisfy. Death is my new pal. He hangs around with me all the time; he says he doesn’t have that many friends, and it’s refreshing to have someone invite him in on a regular basis. The more I hang out with him, the more alive I feel.

This is more a blog about living than writing. However, there is a connection between writing and staying awake for me and I intend to continue to dig deeper into that in the coming months.

death

The Quiescent Writer and the Path of the Five Whys

By Cynthia Ray

The 5 Whys is an iterative question asking technique developed by Sakichi Toyoda, used in process improvement work.  Questions are used to explore the cause and effect relationships underlying a problem.  Asking why at least five times is a way to get to the root cause of something.  I’ve used this technique to understand issues, but never on myself—until now.

Recently, a friend asked me how my writing was going, and I muttered something about not having as much time to write as I would like, being too busy, etc.  Later, as I mused on the conversation, it hit me like a chunk of nasty space rubble—all of my excuses were a sham; I was lying to myself.

I’d written steadily for a few years, but looking back over the past few months, it dawned on me that I was not writing at all.  I’d become a Quiescent Writer, which is to say, no writer at all.  Quiescence is a state of inactivity.  How the heck did I get here?  Heres where the Five Whys come in:

The First Why:  Why did I lie to myself about not having time to write? Sure, my time is limited, but time is like money; we choose to spend it on what we choose to spend it on and I was choosing NOT to write, and not because I didn’t have time.  Everyone has time, and much has been written about how to make time to write, how to motivate oneself to write.  It wasn’t that.  Then what?

The Second Why:  Why didn’t I want to make time to write?  Was I bored with writing?  No, I love creating worlds and working with words.  That still interested and fascinated me, but perhaps I wasn’t writing the right kind of thing?  Fantasy and science fiction are fun, but maybe I’m a frustrated literary crime fiction novelist?  Nah, if you aren’t writing, what does it matter what you are not writing.  I got the feeling I was avoiding something.  The cold splash of fear in my stomach told me I was on the right path.

The Third Why:  What am I avoiding by not writing?  The answer sprang up from my gut and brought tears to my eyes.  FEAR.  A giant red-eyed demon kind of fear.

The Fourth Why:  What am I afraid of?  What is the fear?  Of failing?  Maybe. I certainly like to be successful; I like to feel competent, but there’s more.  Mediocrity?  Yes, that’s there, I never want to be in the middle of the bell curve, I want to be better.  The fear came into focus.  I had reached a certain point of proficiency with my writing, and couldn’t seem to get to the next level.  I became frustrated at not being able to write through that ceiling.

And instead of pushing through, I stopped.  Like scaling a mountain, and halfway up realize you are out of shape, and instead of pushing through, or doing something to strengthen yourself, you just lay down and cry about not being strong enough to get to the top of the mountain.  I had just laid down and given up.  I was afraid that I would never be better than right now.

The Fifth Why:  Why did this fear of not being good enough paralyze me and stop me from doing what I wanted to do?  This vein of fear went very deep, to the very root of me and I didn’t want to face what it might say about me as a writer, as a person.  I stood on that chasm and visited with the red-eyed demon for a while.  Turned out he was a hologram, and not real.   I find that I am a courageous person, a brave person, and I decided to keep going.

I will be setting a new writing schedule, but taking a new gentler approach.  I don’t have to crash any ceilings or fight any demons.  I can sit on my patio and smell the flowers, and write to my heart’s content.   This journey to root causes of things will make me a better writer.  Why?  Sorry, I’ve reached the end of my answers for now.

The Monte Carlo Process, by Eric M. Witchey

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Monte Carlo Process, by Eric M. Witchey

This week, I’m teaching fiction writing classes, so I’m thinking teacher thoughts. I’m also thinking about the Manhattan Project.

Yes, these things are connected.

During the Manhattan Project, according to Sam Kean’s The Missing Spoon, a wonderful book about the development of the periodic table, row upon row of women called “computers” were given pieces of large equations to solve. The experiments to which the equations belonged were theoretical constructs created by physicists. The fragments were functions as variables to larger, more complex calculations. In order to solve for a large number of possibilities, one variable would be changed in order to derive an outcome. This way, without modern computing, a thousand almost identical calculations could be tested for outcomes. Of course, the outcome they were looking for was a boom. Most results were useless, but the results that contributed to a boom were cataloged.

And what does this have to do with writing?

Any writer who has been at it long enough to become bored with what they do on any given day will, eventually, find themselves engaged in their own Monte Carlo process. The Monte Carlo process is different from mere trial and error. It is a test of a known construct with one minor modification.

In writing, on the simplest level, it is changing a character’s hair color. Suppose a young black woman, lean and willowy, grew up in a small steel mill town in Ohio during the rust bust of the 80s. She was part of a second generation Kentucky Coal family who had moved to the steel economy to support the war effort in the 40s. Her grandmother was a wilder, a sort of hedge witch, and her grandfather was a fallen, but not really a bad, angel. Of course, nobody in her family believed he was anything but a travelling salesman. Let’s call our young lady Sirona just for fun because that’ll get you some teasing in public schools (FYI: Sirona is a Celtic goddess of healing).

Obviously, we can go on and on about the life of our young lady. However, this is enough to illustrate the Monte Carlo process.

We take all the characteristics we have come up with for this young woman, and we write a few scenes from her developmental life. In each scene, we are testing her characteristics to see how they influence her behavior and the behavior of others. We might write her fist day at grade school. We might write her first kiss. We might write her earliest memory of the kitchen in the home in which she grew up. We might write a scene in which she is defending a bullied child, a cat, a dog, or even a tree. We might write a scene in which she is trying desperately to get out of the house for reasons we don’t yet know. We might even write a scene in which young Sirona heals someone or something. If I were doing it, I’d likely also play with scenes in which she encounters her long missing grandfather or has to deal with her thoroughly insane grandmother. I do like to play with insane people who turn out to be the only people who really understand the world.

I digress.

So, all of these scene tests are about discovering who our young woman will be on the page. None of them are scenes we plan to keep. None of them are scene we expect to be in the story in which she will be playing a role. They are just little writer games that we engage in to keep our own ennui at bay.

The above is all normal, but now we add the Monte Carlo process. Having actually done the above and not just wondered about convincing ourselves that we thought about it and therefore understand it, we change one thing about our young woman.

Just for fun, let’s make her hair a brilliant, fluorescent, natural, pale purple—not dyed. Actually, red will do, but I figured I’d get a little more extreme because of the witch and angel connection I discovered while writing the last couple paragraphs.

Now, we rewrite the same scenes. If, as is the idea, we allow the change to have an influence over the dynamics of the characters in the scenes, we will get a different set of behaviors from both the secondary players and Sirona. By doing this little trick, we come to understand both who she was before we changed her hair and who she might be once we have changed her hair. By changing only one variable at a time, we develop a sense of how she can become a more, or less, extreme influence on any story into which we might place her.

And, as with the Manhattan Project, the ultimate goal is a boom.

Every time a characteristic gives a more dynamic result on the page, we keep it.

While this process is a tool that does help in the development of character, it’s most likely that a working writer will not have time, or the inclination to spend the time, unless they are engaged in the writer’s equivalent of doodling. However, many of us do doodle in words. Additionally, many of us find ourselves teaching characterization, and one of the difficult things to get students to internalize is the fact that every aspect of character influences their relationship to the world around them. Something as simple as hair color changes the experience of the character in their world. One variable changed can mean the difference between meh and boom.

During one seminar I did for a bunch of truly creative middle school students, the kids had come up with a young woman troubled by family dynamics. Meh.

She was rebelling. Double meh.

She wanted a tattoo. Yeah, whatever.

She was expected to go into the family business. Yawn.

The business was a mortuary. What?

And all she really wanted in the world was to become a chocolatier.

Boom!

At night, she snuck out of her room in the funeral home in order to go to an abandon grade school where she had set up a little kitchen. There, she secretly made chocolate animals…

I love working with kids. They have no sense of how things “should be.”

So, back to the Monte Carlo process. Imagine you are teaching 15 creative people characterization and story development. As a group you come up with a set of character attributes that cover a range of physical, psychological, and social values. Each person has the same set of values, and each person is given the same set of circumstances in which they must place their character. In fact, you can give them a very constrained set of scene goals and outcomes. However, they must interpret setting through character, and they must come up with the conflicts and emotional changes in the scenes. Then, you change one variable for each and every writer.

They write.

The outcomes of the scenes might be the same, but if the writer has grasped the rippling nature of the change to one variable, the path to that outcome is very likely to be different in each and every scene. If it is not different from the paths the other writers took in their scenes, then the variable was not understood as an influence on who the character is and how they relate to the world.

Fifteen writers writing the same scene while only one variable has changed can provide the group with a huge leap in insight into how details really are critical to understanding character and how they behave on the page.

Boom

The Epiphany or “Eureka!  I have it!”

By Cynthia Ray

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January 6th is the feast of the Epiphany in the Christian tradition, celebrating the arrival of the three wise men to the child Jesus.  While it can mean the literal recognition of the Christ within, this story may also be understood in a symbolic way to help us to understand where inspiration comes from and how to tap into it.

These Magi, or magicians, represent the conscious mind coming to the realization of the light or truth which the subconscious mind has given birth to after a long period of gestation-a personal epiphany.  The Magi were visionaries, they believed and followed a star that had meaning only for them.  Others may have seen the star, but only they knew where it would lead.

If we accept this, then how can we undertake such a journey?  Why would we want to go on such a perilous undertaking?  What star would we follow?

Recently I heard Ursula LeGuin’s famous award acceptance speech.  In it, she gives an admonition to writers and artists to become visionaries.  LeGuin says, “I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries — the realists of a larger reality. …”

Hear Ursula LeGuins speech here

Wow!  That hit me right in the gut.  As writers and artists shouldn’t that be our highest quest?  To be realists of a larger reality.  To show truth, to inspire, to lead.  If so, once our intellect, or conscious mind decides on the quest/question and sets the conditions, then the subconscious mind does its work, hidden in the deeps of the universal mind, where all truth awaits.  Follow the star.

In the Star Tarot card,  the two pots of water represent the two aspects of mind, the conscious and subconscious. The functions of the Star card are Meditation and Revelation; exactly what an Epiphany consists of.

The Star

Epiphanies are experienced as a sudden realization or illumination of thought.  They are often described as a “flash of genius”.  Archimedes illustrated this exactly when he jumped from his bath and ran naked from his house, exclaiming  “Eureka!  I have it!” after he discovered his groundbreaking method to determine the density of an object. Newtons theory of gravity is another example of an epiphany, triggered by his observation of a falling apple.  You have probably felt that way a time or two when something fell into place.

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In both cases, these scientists had spent a lot of time contemplating, thinking and focusing on specific problems with their conscious mind.  Meanwhile the subconscious, a beautiful fertile receptacle that allows and nurtures all seeds planted there, brought forth  seemingly miraculous answers to the questions posed.  These experiences are memorable to us and even seem supernatural, but they are the natural result of the creative process we put in place with our focus.

So in order for an epiphany to occur, there needs to be:

  •  A clear question
  • A desire to know and understand something
  • A time of contemplation and focused thinking, where one wrestles with the issue, studies and labors to understand

We could not do better than to consider Ursula’s admonition in this, looking for hope, a leading out of the dark and how we could express that in our art. What if we all asked, “What can I, as a writer/artist, do to show new ways of being to a world in need of awakening, of hope?”

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While the conscious mind is occupied with these things, below the surface, in the deep waters of our subconscious womb, things will percolate, grow and gestate, until they rise to our consciousness, born seemingly out of nowhere and “it all becomes clear.”

Embrace the knowing that our subconscious will eventually and inevitably give birth to what we are seeking and focusing on, whether it is the resolution to our characters dilemma in our story, or startling perceptions about mankind’s current state.  This is the star we must follow.

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Whether it is a shared wisdom we tap into and from which our Epiphany springs, or from our own personal depths, the fact is that there is a deeper wisdom which will answer all of our questions if we put them out there and meditate, contemplate and stew in them long enough.  What a powerful tool we have at our disposal!

Wishing you many Epiphanies in this new year, in a world that is a better place to be-because of you and your work.

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