📚 Now reading: Earth is But a Star. And a musing about reading anthologies.

Earth is But a Star, edited by Damien Broderick.
A science-fiction anthology of far-future/dying Earth stories and essays, by writers including Jack Vance, Gene Wolfe, C.J. Cherryh, Arthur C. Clarke, Brian Aldiss, and Robert Silverberg. A fascinating, if cerebral, read through contemplations on humanity and Earth’s far-distant future.

This book is out of print. I first saw this in a local library and was so taken by the theme that I determined to buy a copy by hook or by crook. I ended up emailing the publisher, a small university imprint, and asking if they had any copies leftover from the original print run. Remarkably, they did and were willing to sell. So I had the whimsical experience of calling up and buying an OOP book directly from its publisher.

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Unlike novels, the format of anthologies encourage dipping in and out of it as you please, picking and choosing which stories to read, not needing to read anything in order. Earth is But a Star has fiction interspersed with essays, so it’s tempting to just read all the fiction and then check out an essay or two, maybe read them later. (But face it, “read them later” never happens.) But I resolved to read the anthology in order from cover to cover. In doing so, I noticed something.

This habit of dipping in and out of a collection of stories is encouraged (or exacerbated) by publishing in the Internet age. News websites, blogs, online fiction ‘zines; and the practice of saving articles to Instapaper or Pocket… it’s so easy to read a piece of writing online that is isolated and removed from any surrounding context. Even online fiction ‘zines present their issues less in book-form with stories nestled between covers and lined up in a certain order, but as a landing page from which one clicks on links to stories. Apart from being linked from the same page, an online story or article has no spatial or temporal relation to the other stories in the issue. Less sense of a chronology, more sense of a radial branching network. That’s the kind of pattern that arises from a hypertext medium.

Whereas a physical ‘zine or anthology has stories in some sort of sequential order. Sure, a webpage has that too (the links are in some order), but a physical book embodies that orderly restraint more stringently than hypertext. One subconsciously assumes that there is a purpose to that order, and I’m certain there is.

Even so, one can still dip in and out of an anthology. It’s easy to jump ahead to the next story if the current one doesn’t hold your attention. Especially in Earth is But a Star, where I’m vastly more interested in the fiction than in the essays. But I resolved to have some self-control and read from cover to cover, missing nothing.

But I think there’s more to this than self-control: it’s being willing to surrender myself to the journey within the book. I’m relinquishing my choice to dictate which order I read the stories, and allow the book (and the editor/s) to lead me from page to page.

In this Internet age where reading material is rife and often disembodied from context, and the consumer is the one dictating how and in what order to consume media, it is a discipline to relinquish this choice and submit oneself to be led in a specific way. But I think there’s something profound in this submission. I’m accepting that the editor has purpose and meaning to this narrative trajectory they want me to go on. That there is a meaning and motive behind this journey, and that is worth exploring and pondering, even if I don’t agree with the trajectory. That every stop made, be it a short story or an essay, is a worthy stop to make right here, right now, at this point in the anthology. By surrendering myself to a journey directed by someone else, and resolving not to miss any stops, I get to experience a narrative different from mine.

Yes, it’s something (relatively) trivial: reading a fiction anthology cover to cover. But if I can’t submit my attention and choice to an anthology editor, am I willing to submit to some more important story? If I can’t take time to read a fiction collection in order without missing anything, how can I expect to take time to read and thoroughly investigate some bigger, more serious news issue, from all angles?

Sustaining attention through a narrative trajectory is a habit to cultivate in the trivial occasions as in the more serious occasions. Best I start with a science-fiction anthology.

🖋️ To write a novel is to grow a tree.

Jess (@herself at Micro.blog) wrote a post on her writing process, which struck a chord with me. It’s turned into a rumination of my own ongoing writing journey.

She wrote:

Over the summer I spent a week or so seeing if I could fit my novel into the seven-point story structure. I did this for each sub-plot, and then even went so far as to step out each scene, staggering the various sub-plot developments along the number of scenes I decided I had to write.

Then I went away on holiday. Came back, three weeks later, and couldn’t bear the sight of the thing. A spreadsheet — what was I thinking? Even now I look back at it and want to shake myself. It’s just too much.”

Truth. Truth.

A novel is not a house to be built, but a tree to be grown.

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At first, I was going to respond to Jess’ post by documenting and sharing my own writing process. I wanted to share my outlining, the 7-point-plot-structuring I do, the world-building wiki I’ve created, and how all of this “process” helps me and facilitates my own novel-writing.

But the truth is, it doesn’t.

I’ve recently come to terms with this fact: my process is quite ineffectual. Instead of facilitating my writing, it’s hindering it. I haven’t written for several months. More recently, I attempted to edit and continue writing the story I was working on, and every time I sat down, I felt an overwhelming sense of malaise and despondency. Writing is just too hard, and I’m not up to it.

Some of it is procrastination and avoidance on my part, but I think it’s also a problem of comfort.

Now, I actually like putting up such structures that organize information. It’s familiar, enjoyable, and I’m well-versed in doing this kind of architectural work. But when it comes down to writing, this structure backfires: there’s too much of it, and it causes friction with writing. Whenever I write, the writing is usually fun and free-flowing. But when I start putting up outlines, wikis, lists, etc, around the writing, all that scaffolding ends up stifling the actual doing of the work, to the point that writing is no longer fun.

I’ve tried to reinvent my process many times, try out different strategies to see what works, if there is a silver bullet for my writing process. And just when I thought I had it figured out, I discover that it’s not producing the ultimate result: finishing a novel.

It is frustrating. To the point that I look at all this scaffolding and feel that overwhelming urge to throw it all out. Burn it down. Start afresh. What was I thinking? Even now I look back at it and want to shake myself. It’s just too much.

Burning everything down is well and good. But what will I do after I’ve started afresh? If I burn down this ineffectual house I’ve built for the novel, am I just going to build a new house on top of it?

And that’s where things have to change. I’ve been going about it all wrong. I should not be building a house, but growing a tree.

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The Everyday Novelist, hosted by author J. Daniel Sawyer, is my favourite writing podcast. I’ve been listening to it since its inception. One thing Dan has said since the beginning, and continually stresses, is this: The hardest writing obstacle to overcome is to get out of your own way. To rid your mind of all its obstacles (whether in-built inhibitions or imposed from external sources) and let the subconscious self flow into the story. This head game is always the biggest challenge, every author contends with it throughout their career. And the more intellectual you are as a person, the harder it is to get out of your own way.

In my conceit I keep insisting that Dan is wrong, and I’m the exception to this rule. And I keep discovering that he’s right, and everything I’m doing to “scaffold” my novel and systematize my process has only served to obstruct the writing of them. Sure, the scaffolding helps for a while, but in the long run, all I have to show for it is mental chaos, half-finished drafts, and a sense of being roughly shaken out of a fever dream and back into ugly reality. Oh, what was I thinking? It’s just too much.

And Dan is also right about it being harder the more intellectual you are.

I’m a born systems thinker. I think in processes, and my inner life is a network where everything is connected to everything else. Everything in life is slotted somewhere into this network.

I’m pretty good at building objects, but I’m not great at growing living things. (Just ask my pet bird. Poor fellow. I take better care of my electronics than I take care of him, sigh. 🙁 )

I’m not giving my novels enough time to grow. When they start sprouting, I immediately come in with all that wiki-ing and outlining and scaffolding, to try and systematize things so that I will know what to do next. Indeed, *I* will know what to do next. But my creative process won’t — indeed, it ceases to flourish, and the story itself is stunted and remains half-grown.

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Perhaps this scaffolding is a sign that I don’t trust myself: I will forget the details, or it’ll be too big for my brain to hold. Maybe I will need those scaffolds eventually to help. But the first order of the day is to write. And if I’m not writing because the scaffolds are causing too much friction, they are not helping. I’m just standing in my own way, and what I need to do is to throw away the architectures and learn how to grow a tree.

I think I have to be intentional about resisting this reflex to systematize. It’s so ingrained that I can’t imagine not doing it. But that’s the point that The Everyday Novelist is making. Dan says, and I paraphrase: “your subconscious is the wellspring of all the brilliance of your writing, but you’ve been conditioned by external and internal inhibitions to put a lid on it. What you need to do is to blow the lid and fall down the well and let that water gush out of you. This is the key to becoming an everyday, long-term career writer.” (He says it all the time, in those episodes and many others; “head games” is one of the biggest tags in the podcast archive.)

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A novel is not a house, but a tree. You build a house; you grow a tree. There’s no way to build a tree, unless you want a faux-tree that bears an image of the thing but has no breath of life in itself.

I see now that my process is just encouraging the creation of faux-trees. Some of the real stories may live, but ultimately all of them end up being stunted and stifled. The faux-tree looks good, but the real story is suffering and may not grow to its full potential.

The question is: do I want to keep doing what I’ve always done, because it’s comfortable and familiar, end up stifling all my stories, then throw in the towel and say that writing is just too hard? Or do I care enough about my writing and my stories to do something unknown and uncomfortable?

Maybe I should burn everything down and start afresh. And by that, I mean burn everything. Delete all the outlines and notes. Delete my world-building wiki (which contains as many words as all my half-finished novels put together). Throw every single chunk of scaffolding out — or at least, put them onto a USB drive and stuff it into a hole too small for my hand to fit in. Keep nothing except the most recent old unfinished drafts. From here, just write or revise off into the dark. And resist the instinct to build more scaffolding, resist it to the bitter end.

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I started writing in 2014, for NaNoWriMo. I started a novella, and finished it. I’ve been writing ever since, during NaNo season and off-season, but ever since that first one, I’ve been unable to finish any long-form story.

That, I think, is the key. When I started in 2014, I didn’t know any better. I didn’t have any clue about How to Write a Novel — I just wrote, and I finished what I wrote. But now I know something, and so I bring in all the strategies I’m learning and architectural tools I’m familiar with, to try and systematize a helpful process. And in so doing, jammed a lid onto the novel-finishing source.

I am very afraid of never finishing a second novel. It is a thought that haunts and hounds me. Which is why I’ve pushed so hard at all subsequent ones. I think this fear is the very thing driving the scaffold-building, which is ultimately killing the things I want to keep alive.

Maybe I will just have to tear down all the scaffolding and risk utter death. Yes, perhaps those half-grown trees may die. Perhaps they have to, for the sake of future trees I’ve yet to plant. That is very painful to come to terms with. Kill your darlings, eh? These are whole novels, whole stories, and all the beloved characters therein, that face utter death.

Then again, who knows? They may die, but equally, they may live too.

Is it better to risk death and the unknown for a chance at gaining true life, or play the familiar and safe and remain in this limbo of quasi-existence?

(Seems like what is true for faith and eternity is also true for story-telling.)

Time to delete a whole lot of files.

🖋️ To silence the devil of Should.

Last night, desperate to meet a deadline I couldn’t put off anymore, I started writing again. Why, why, why did I let fear and performance anxiety block me up for two months. Writing is such a life-giving exercise, and getting back to my story and characters was like CPR to the soul. The fear dissolved and was replaced by joy and flow and energy. Why did I think a break was a good idea?

I revised 4 pages at the beginning of the story. Amidst that joy, I kept hearing the malicious whisper. Revising? Again? Unproductive! Why are you going over old territory when the best thing to do is finishing the novel? You are LATE, Vega. Two months late. You need to catch up and meet your goals.

Silence! Ah, not listening to that devil of Should who cracks the Whip of Expectations. I can’t listen to it anymore, because it sucks away the joy and leaves paralysis. I am amidst my stories and characters again, and that’s all that matters.

I jumped into my story at around 6pm. When I looked up, it was 2am. Four pages only, but four more than yesterday.

One day at a time.

Strangeness

Was oddly restless and fey after work, so I went for a walk by the river. I need to walk more: there is something to be said about disconnecting from all intermediary forms and immersing my direct senses into the immediate moment without mediation. And then to let my thoughts run wild.

Run wild they did, mostly in the existential direction today, and I found myself praying an undercurrent without really being aware of it. The sky was bruised with deep blue clouds, and the setting sun cast a last gasp of gold and radiant white upon the oncoming storm. It was surely going to rain tonight.

I ended up at the boathouse, on the pontoons the rowers used to lower their boats into the river. I love this pontoon, because it gets me right on the level of the water at some distance from shore, and gives me the impression of walking upon the river itself. Nearby was a power line that stretched across the short span between the banks.

On the power line hung the carcass of a bird.

Continue reading Strangeness

Scraps of life.

Written 20 November 2015.

The other day I had to deal with scraps at work.

Ther were poster paper that had shapes cut out of them, leaving the imprints of shapes and ragged ends. A clean sheet, but with a bite taken out of it, thus no longer appropriate to be used for a new poster. Yet, most of it was clean and unmarred, so it seemed too good to throw into the trash or even recycling. And so many of these marred poster papers!

That made me a little bit frustrated. Scraps, scraps! What to do with them? They’re not ruined completely, but they are imperfect. And here in this place, everyone wants perfect things. Paper with a bite taken out, like this, is neither destined for trash nor worthy of the drawer. What to do, what to do?

In the end, I trimmed off and shelved some, and binned others.

A good piece of poster paper with a bite taken out. Something pristine, marred. It makes one uncomfortable. It is neither ruined, nor perfect. It grates on the contemporary self that likes things neatly packaged, clean and tidy. When I look at these marred paper, I feel a sense of helplessness. I can’t do anything about those bites taken out. Does it make these papers worthless?

It made me wonder: who will save these marred things? This is an era where such imperfections aren’t tolerated. Scraps don’t fit. They’re neither bad enough to be written off, but not perfect either to be showcased for their original use. So where do they go? Where do I keep them? In a drawer, where they most likely will be forgotten, and maybe never used, because of the bite taken out.

Is anyone perfect? What will I do with the people who have bites taken out of their apparently polsihed and tidy selves? Will I bin them too? Try to find a pigeon hole that will fit them? Or put them aside and try to forget them, and leave them in that twilight place of being forgotten and unused? Scraps make me uncomfortable, because it’s a reminder that the world and its people aren’t easily categorised either.

A new year’s resolution.

For a variety of reasons I won’t get into… My mind is fragmenting, my attention is in pieces, and moments slip through the cracks and away into oblivion.

Because I wasn’t paying attention, various aspects of my life became needlessly complex.  So it’s time for me to take control again, and swim against the current of complicating technology and atomizing reality.  Discipline my attention span into sustained, languid channels.  Simplify, simplify.  Remember, remember.

Thus, a new year’s resolution for 2015 is to write more in this blog.  This discipline, which was also a joy and sanity check, got pulverized about five years ago.  Now that the dust of life has well and truly settled, it’s time to rebuild it.  Even if it means rebuilding it brick by brick, rebuild from the start again.

I especially to get back to reviewing books etc, and writing about the world, even if my world is (no, seems) a lot smaller than it used to be.  The what and the why.  Because I have to remember.  Oblivion is a lousy place to be in.  So, begin blogging again.  Even now, begin.

There, I wrote it.  I can’t say anymore that I forgot it.

What I want for Christmas

I want to know greater and greater joy, that comes from being more and more in Jesus’ presence. Heaven rejoiced when Jesus was born, when the world went in darkness and ignorance. I want to have the same joy that the angels had on Christmas.

I want to be less selfish, especially if I’m deep in my own thoughts, where I’m prone to forgetting about the world. I want to be mindful of the needs around me, and not just know but also do — especially unto the people closest to me. To be full of grace and love towards all around me, the close and the far.

Peace on Earth, goodwill to Man.

Wonderful, continued.

The Holy Spirit breathed a question into my mind this morning.

“How much do you want God’s presence? –Wait. Let’s rephrase that. Do you want God’s presence above all else?

And the answer that comes from my life is: No, I don’t. I don’t want it that much.

“Why not?”

If I take a certain tack, the question is easy to answer. But that’s the wrong tack to the wrong answer.

So I answered: I have forgotten the great story of my life.

I have gone to the lesser stories that delight for the moment. All those stories eventually end, and I’m left with that dissatisfaction and hunger for something greater. But the Great Story that God the Author is writing will never end. And my story is woven into it. Yes, God is writing my story and he is writing it perfectly.

How could I lose my delight in the Great Story, unless I had forgotten it? How could my life take on this grey cast, if I had not started thinking that the Great Story is not for me?

Spirit of God, remind me again of my story that you are writing. Truly, in the humdrum busy of life, I gradually forgot and forgot, until it became a faraway echo. Bring me back to wonder — how wonderful you are, and how wonderful is my life because you are the Author and you write a perfect Story.

“Remember not the former things,
     nor consider the things of old.
Behold, I am doing a new thing;
     now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
     and rivers in the desert.
The wild beasts will honour me,
     the jackals and the ostriches,
for I give water in the wilderness,
     rivers in the desert,
to give drink to my chosen people,
     the people whom I formed for myself
that they might declare my praise.
—Isaiah 43:18-21

In singing waters; in silent waters.

Written on 13 January 2013.

We are holidaying in Cairns.

What enchanted me upon first sight were the tall mountains overlooking the coastal lowlands. Green mountains covered in pristine, burgeoning tropical rainforest. This part of Australia is verdant green with no brown. Having lived in dry, mostly brown landscape for the last 10 years — even the southernmost portions of the nation are green mixed liberally with brown — this is a startling sight. A welcome sight.

We were riding up early in the morning to the Tully. The road up afforded the most charming view of high rainforested hills reaching up to the pure blue sky, some of their heads dreaming in fluffy white clouds.

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We went white water rafting. So much fun! The mixture of calm water and class 4 rapids was an exhilarating ride all the way down. We rafted most of the time, but often went overboard to float in the water too, letting the current carry us in the quiet stretches. In the midst of the churning, clear waters, I could imagine them singing, making a joyful noise towards God — and I felt unafraid, because God’s nature made by the Creator could not harm me. Indeed, I laughd for delight and joy in myself. The rapids are roaring with praise to God, why should I refrain?

A wonder to be drifting in the river past volcanic basalt cliffs, past banks burgeoning with riotous greenery, past grand verdant trees and epiphytes, pure pristine nature rising high above us as we ride down the waters.

I love water and doing things in and on it. Together, the rapids and I rejoiced and shouted for love to God.

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The next day we went on a cruise to snorkel off the Great Barrier Reef.

Coral grows to a maximum depth of 30m, so there was much to see from the surface. What a beautiful sight, to see corals and fish in another universe. One perceives the ocean to be a quiet world, so it was surprising to hear the sound of parrotfish eating coral. Of all things to hear in the water — the crunching munchings of fish?

Fish swam here and there, going about their daily lives, ignoring us human beings. In the slightly deeper waters, schools of tiny fish would swim around, scales flashing, all in synchrony. I found myself often swimming amidst a school — the fish swimming around me, dodging but not fleeing — yet always beyond arm’s reach. What a joy to be amidst animals, God’s creation so indifferent and unafraid!

Even one of the reef fishes approached me, studying me as if inquisitive, peering first through one eye and then the other. Eventually it swam away — but then it came back again sometime later. (Or was it a different one?) I dared not reach out in case I scared it off. But oh, it looked at me just as I looked at it, fascinated at how different we were, creatures from two separate worlds.

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The trip was blessed. I felt such a strong sense of gratitude, praise and thankfulness at all I’d experienced. Neither the bad sunburn on the tops of my thighs, nor the really bad seasickness that nearly put me off the snorkelling, could change the overwhelming thankfulness of my heart. How wonderful was God’s creation, what a privilege to partake of it! The joyful roaring waters of the rapids, the silent magnificent waters of the ocean… for ages they had all worshiped God together. And today, I join them.

{Psalm 42:7, Psalm 89:9, Isaiah 51:15}

Between here and then.

Man, that last post was a downer. Have I always written such melancholy thoughts?

Probably so. I think the lighter thoughts aren’t making it. It’s clear that Velivolans v.2 is taking on a more serious tone than Velivolans v.1. The days of shooting the breeze in my blog are over: I no longer have much desire to write about miscellany and random thoughts as I did before. It could be that I just don’t think such thoughts anymore. Or if I do, they don’t feature enough on my consciousness that I’m driven to talk about it.

Or, I simply don’t want to share them with you. My relationship with you the audience has changed. It’s not personal. But the Net is no longer my place of confidence.

I had been speaking a lot in the years I did not blog. Speaking to a bodied, familiar audience is not at all like writing to a disembodied, anonymous audience. And that bodied audience has become more important when it comes to personal confidences. I’ve always said, I write more for release than for memory. Once I’ve exhaled those thoughts out of my system, that’s done, there’s no need to express them elsewhere. Most of the thoughts that were once shared in a blog have now been transferred to friends-in-body.

(Hm. In those years, I had also been dealing with — and overcoming — fragmentation of personality and continuity. I think this change of attitude towards blogging is an outcome of that. Well, good change, I say.)

I’m still figuring out where I want to take this blog. Writing in a public setting to a disembodied audience who has no continuity or relationship to my life doesn’t quite fit anymore. Perhaps like outgrowing a set of once-comfortable clothes. Even after writing the posts below, my words feel awkward and a bit clumsy. How did I write in the past? Where has that muse gone?

It appears that this blog is going to be an archive for those in-between thoughts. Thoughts worth recording, but not in my paper journal. Serious thoughts that I may not feel like sharing with friends-in-body. Book reviews and other such things that haven’t yet found a physical audience to hear.

I’m not sure how many light-hearted thoughts may make their way in here. Usually, those happy thoughts find an audience long before they get down to a blog. I may be thoughtful and melancholy, but I’m certainly not like that all the time. (Well fine, maybe I am most of the time, it’s just expressed differently. Hard to convey expressions in writing.)

Truth is, my life is happy. Has its ups and downs – whose doesn’t? – but it’s mostly upbeat and cheerful nowadays.

We’ll see where this blog experiment goes.