Monthly Archives: January 2017

Last Jedi

If you follow the news at all, you’ll of course have noticed that a lot of powerful and momentous events have happened since I wrote here last. On the one hand I feel like I should write about them, because they’re important and I feel strongly about them, but I also feel strongly that this is not a political blog and that most of you don’t come here to read about my political thoughts and ideas. So I’ll leave that commentary off for now; if you happen to want to know what I think you can probably figure it out from my Twitter feed anyway.

Instead I thought I would join the multitude scrabbling for every scrap of meaning that can be wrenched from the poster for the next Star Wars movie. There isn’t much. It’s just a black field of stars, with the familiar ‘Star Wars’ logo in unfamiliar red, and the movie’s title: The Last Jedi. Not a lot of meat on that bone, but still we gnaw away.

I guess arguably some of this might count as spoilers, but it’s all my speculation (I have no inside source of information, alas) so I think it’s fine, but consider yourself warned.

The obvious thing the title suggests to me (and suggested to many others) is that Luke Skywalker will die in this movie, leaving Rey as the last of the Jedi. I suppose the safe bet is that he’ll perish at the hands of Kylo Ren, his former apprentice. Broadly this would fit with the middle movie of a trilogy, where things are often left in a fairly dark and nasty place to set up the eventual resolution in the final act. This is, of course, what happened in Empire Strikes Back where we were left with Han Solo captured by Boba Fett, Luke defeated and demoralized by Vader, and the best that could be said was that our heroes – mostly – got away. So from that, and the red logo (‘red’ in Star Wars usually denotes the bad-guy Sith, and in a more general sense means emergencies and blood), it’s a reasonably safe bet that this movie is going to have some Bad Things happen.

The death of Luke is the obvious one. From a narrative perspective, the story just doesn’t work very well if Rey goes off to find Luke in the hopes that he’ll fix all the problems, and then he comes back and actually does fix them. It’s a much better story if everyone expects that Luke will (once again) save the day, but then he either fails or succeeds imperfectly, dying in the attempt, and leaving a younger, relatively untried student to try to put things back together. That’s not a bad setup for a third movie where Rey – who is still really just a kid from a junkyard no-one has heard of – will have to shoulder a much heavier burden than anyone anticipated.

Now, lots of people have criticized that as following the arc of the first Star Wars trilogy too closely, and if Last Jedi does unfold according to expectations then it will be running from a fairly familiar playbook. (I mean, broad strokes: Vader kills Obi-Wan, his former teacher, Luke gets his act together to eventually defeat Vader) However, as very many people have also pointed out, the Star Wars story has always been kind of doing that anyway, with its ‘Hero with a Thousand Faces’ structure and elements plucked from other sources like The Hidden Fortress. In other words, it seems a little late to start getting down on Star Wars for telling a familiar tale; that’s kind of what it has always done. The charm has been that it told that familiar tale well, with heart and humour and flair. As much as writers (and I guess readers) sometimes idolize Original Fresh Plot Ideas, sometimes I think the important part really is that you do a good job of storytelling.

I do also think the writers have left themselves enough room to manoeuvre that even if Rey’s story seems likely to follow a well-traced path, there will be fresh stuff in there. Most prominently, Finn is a character we really haven’t seen yet, and exactly where his path is likely to lead is far less clear. Presumably he’s going to confront his First Order past a little more thoroughly, and he’ll need to figure out what it is he wants to be now that he’s decided not to be a stormtrooper – up to quite recently, his only identity. Through Force Awakens he was more or less carried along by the current of events; at some point (perhaps while recovering from his injuries) he’ll have to decide what he will be now. That’s interesting, to me at least. Who is Finn when it’s not a crisis, when there isn’t a battle to fight? I want to see the answer to that.

I’m less sure what the plan may be for Kylo Ren; the general Star Wars arc would call for some form of redemption, but I think they’ve made that a fairly difficult road this time. Darth Vader killed Obi-Wan in the first movie and was, eventually, redeemed, but Obi-Wan wasn’t his father and wasn’t a character with the resonance of Han Solo. If Kylo kills Luke as well as Han it’s going to be pretty hard for a lot of the audience to buy him as redeemable, but if he’s not redeemed by the end of the trilogy it would be a surprisingly dark direction for Star Wars. Generally, the movies say that if you want to come back from a dark place, you always can. Maybe they’ll tell us the story of why Kylo Ren doesn’t want to, but that would be a bleaker story than the franchise usually gives us. We’ll see.

Anyway, that’s a lot of words about an image that had only 5 words on it to begin with, so I’ll stop here. Perhaps needless to say, I’m looking forward to the next installment quite a bit.

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I can’t quite leave it without saying something about the horrible shootings in St. Foy, Quebec, when innocent people were murdered while they were at prayer. There was horror, there was a great deal of confusion. Authorities called it an act of terror, which it was, and eventually it emerged that the perpetrator was a white man with hard right-wing views. We don’t know everything about what led him to act exactly how and when he did, but the broad strokes of the story are all too evident.

This is what happens when people promote ideas of division and intolerance. When we say that this or that group shouldn’t be here, or that this particular religion is a danger, or that people who live their lives a certain way cause some kind of hazard, we naturally create a climate of fear and crisis. Given time, eventually some distressed, frightened and hateful soul will lash out against these enemies we have created. You can only tell people they’re in danger for so long before they’re going to react, and all to often people react with violence. We know this. I like to tell myself this isn’t a deliberate orchestration, but we should know well enough not to do this any more.

You can’t preach hate and division and then wash your hands of the consequences. Think very carefully about the ideas you spread and the ones you fail to denounce. The end point of intolerance is what happened in St. Foy. No political agenda you may have can possibly be worth the slaughter of people who have done nothing to anyone. If Sunday night’s massacre horrified you, then stand firm against the ideologies that led to it.

We can’t have it. I believe we won’t stand it. I believe the tide runs very firmly in the opposite direction, that society will become more and more diverse and that we will have more and more different kinds of people, and it will be wonderful. Of course, it only happens if we make it happen.

We do that through resistance to what is not right, to calling what is wrong what it is, and through being the kinder, more tolerant, welcoming people we all want to live with. The future is ours. Let’s go get it.

Thanks for reading.

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Not Today

Last week a friend of mine posted on Facebook looking for advice about their child’s fears about death. I have no particular insight into children and no advice suitable for them, but I instantly thought of what has become my usual response to worries of mortality: ‘What do we say to the God of Death? Not today.’ This is, of course, from George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series and thus may be a poor reflection on my philosophical depths, or (less cynically) a statement on the power that fantasy stories can have for us. It still really isn’t an idea to soothe a child.

It is, however, a way of thinking that has been very useful to me, even before I ever read Game of Thrones. In my struggles with addiction, I have often been faced with the idea of giving up something forever, of never doing it again, and that seems a daunting commitment. It seems impossible to say that one will never, ever waver. So, especially in the early days, I went with something simpler. I won’t give in to my addiction, today. And then the sun will set, and the sun will rise, and I will fight tomorrow’s battle tomorrow. Not today. It has been enough.

As I thought about that, about Syrio Forel’s maxim, and some of the other things there are out there to grapple with, and I really think it’s not a terrible way to confront a lot of them. For example – as you’ll know if you’ve read very much of this blog, I am deeply critical of my own writing and probably the single biggest obstacle to my productivity is my own doubt about whether or not my work is any good. I suppose a really optimistic reaction would be to say that I will never stop working and that I will have a steady upwards trajectory towards my goals from here on. The trouble is, it’s hard to make myself believe that. On the other hand: ‘When will I give up on writing? Not today’ works pretty well.

When will I give in to some of my other issues that make me want to quit on the world entirely? Not today, at least.

When will we listen to all those voices that tell us we can’t do it, don’t deserve it, shouldn’t try and aren’t worthy?

Not today.

There are a lot of problems and opposition out there that might tempt us to give up the struggle and surrender, especially if we know that we might have to put up with them for a long time: say, at least four years. If it’s too hard, don’t try to tackle the whole four years. When will we stop the fight? Not today. And the sun will set, and the sun will rise, and we’ll fight tomorrow’s battle tomorrow.

In the end I’m not sure if this is a deeply pessimistic way of looking at things, or an optimistic one. I know that for me it works, and although this is now veering dangerously close to advice, perhaps it may serve some of you as well.

When is it time to quit?

Not today.

In the end, I think it’s hopeful.

Thanks for reading.

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Sherlock

Last week I mentioned the BBC TV series Sherlock in amongst all my ramblings, and as I’ve mentioned Holmes several times prior to this I thought maybe I would write a little bit about them both today. Depending where you are in the Sherlock series, there may be some spoilers – as I write this I have just watched ‘The Final Problem’, which ended the most recent series. I suppose I’ve also been thinking of Holmes more than usual in the last little while because my latest WIP is set in Victorian London and so I guess obviously has a lot of connections to these stories that I’ve loved.

As I think I’ve said here before, I have been a fan of Sherlock Holmes for a very long time. It began one summer when we were visiting my grandparents’ farm and, true to form, I ran out of things to read because I read everything I had brought too quickly. My grandmother lent me a copy of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes that I guess she had gotten from a book club she belonged to, and I read it the rest of that visit by the light of an oil lamp. It was a pretty good way to be introduced to Conan Doyle’s stories.

I loved them (I guess obviously) and read her copy of The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes as well, and then went on to devour all the rest of the tales. I have a very battered collection of all the Conan Doyle stories that has travelled with me from place to place everywhere I have lived, and I read them through again fairly regularly (remember, I love to re-read). It’s safe to say that Holmes is one of my favorite characters, as I think I’ve said more than once before.

Part of this is because so many of the stories really do just work very well, narratively: they’re exciting and surprising and have genuine moments of horror and humour. So they are just good stories, even if (as I think I’ve mentioned before) they don’t all stand up so well when you really start picking away at them. I think also, although I wouldn’t have realized it at the time, Holmes was another character likely to resonate with me: more than a little strange, not really very good at relating to the society around him (I’m reasonably suspicious how much of his ‘disinterest’ in people is an act), probably spends more time thinking than he really should. However odd he is, Holmes is also always passionately (no really) devoted to the idea of doing the right thing and helping people who need to be helped. He’s prepared to go to prison for that, he’s prepared to die for that. So whatever else he may be, Conan Doyle’s detective is a probably implausibly heroic creation, and I think that’s part of why I like him, too, as I get older and less fond of ‘shades of grey’.

So much for the original. The Sherlock TV series was one I approached with a little bit of trepidation – the idea of a modernized Holmes seemed like something that could very easily be done wrong (I didn’t get past the first episode of the American Elementary series) but I heard good things and so I gave it a try. I liked the first series very much, and I think the writers for it did about as good a job as it would be possible to do of updating Holmes for this new century. I loved the little animations of clues flying around the screen showing Holmes’ deductive mind at work, in particular.

The show has continued, I think, to be generally good since then, although not always of exactly even quality, and I think it has gradually gotten less and less like the Conan Doyle stories as they’ve gone along, until ‘The Final Problem’, which just aired, really only has a very tenuous connection to the original source material at all. I will need to mull it over a bit more, but I think that even considered in isolation, the episode had some very real problems and it may be time to leave this version of the characters. Perhaps the writers have another surprise, although I think the fixation on surprises may be part of the problem.

No doubt some people would suggest this is the reaction of a Holmes purist, and a lot has been written about how fans of Conan Doyle can’t come to grips with the new version. I like to think that’s not true in my case. I think many of the changes made to the characters and settings were actually quite clever and appropriate (I love their version of Irene Adler), and if Cumberbatch’s Holmes is more extreme in basically all forms of his behaviour than Conan Doyle’s character, I think that’s probably necessary. I actually thought the same with Robert Downey Jr.’s movie version of the character; I think for a modern audience to get the impact of how socially inappropriate and transgressive Holmes’ actions in the stories were, the writers need to turn up the volume on them a fair bit. The handshakes he ignores, barbs he conceals in polite phrasing, and of course his general lifestyle, would have been a lot more shocking to a Victorian audience that we necessarily appreciate today, and so both newer version of the character got their eccentricities turned up a few notches. I think that works very well.

It must be an interesting challenge for a writer – not one I have yet taken on – to pick up a character that isn’t yours and try to write new stories for them. It might seem obvious that the right thing to do is to make no changes and follow the original author as closely as possible, but I think imitation is never as good as the original, and I suspect most artists kind of chafe under restrictions that keep them from expressing themselves. So the question presumably becomes how far one can alter a character and make them one’s one before you’ve changed things enough that you also lose the appeal and attraction of the original character, which is surely a big part of the reason for doing a new take on Holmes or another established fictional creation.

I haven’t tried it yet, as I say, but I suspect it’s a very difficult balance to strike. For what it’s worth I think the Sherlock series has, on the whole, done remarkably well in coming up with a version of Holmes and Watson and their cases that’s something that has features that are entirely its own but is still recognizable as being drawn from the original material. I think perhaps in the last couple series they’ve gotten a bit too focused on more and more shocking revelations, and it is somewhat hard to see where they go from here. I can’t think of another unexpected bombshell they could throw in that wouldn’t be either a letdown from what’s gone before or seem (even more?) ludicrous that what they’ve just finished doing.

I hope I’m wrong and that they’ll yet surprise me. I would love some more Holmes stories, but if this series has run its race, I think they did very well.

And the originals are always there, in a little apartment on Baker Street, waiting for me to come visit again. One day I’ll get another oil lamp and do it properly.

Thanks for reading.

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Masks

I was on my way home from my retail job the other day wondering I was so tired. I mean, I hadn’t done much more than stand behind a counter the whole shift, so there really wasn’t any obvious reason why it would have exhausted me as much as it did, and often does. At some point I think I figured it out – the whole time I’m at that job, I’m putting on an act.

By nature, I don’t want to initiate conversations with people I don’t know, I don’t really want to have a cheery exchange and talk about very little at all for a few minutes. By nature I’m quiet and mostly comfortable talking with people I know well (yes obviously this makes it difficult to get to know people well) and I’m not inherently inclined to small talk. I have learned to put it on, but it’s an act and it takes effort. That’s what tires me out, wearing the mask. Masks are heavy, I guess.

To an extent I guess I do this at my teaching job as well, although I have come to really enjoy the interactions with students a lot of the time and so less of my teacher persona is an act than the retail persona. I have a social functions persona as well that I’m really not very good at deploying, and my ‘writer-at-a-convention’ persona is kind of a work in progress as well. It comes and goes. Of course this is nothing particular to me – I think most people have their various versions of themselves that they use in different settings and for different reasons. We all play different parts at different times. I think sometimes it protects us to be able to hide our true self from a world that might not like it or understand, and it’s maybe good to have a mask that isn’t bothered or doesn’t worry at times.

I thought about this some more watching the most recent episode of Sherlock (which in general I like very much, although I still prefer original-flavour Holmes) – without getting too spoilery for the benefit of people who might not have seen it quite yet, there’s a nice exchange where John Watson talks about the difference between what kind of person he really is, and what people believe him to be like, and how he would very much like to really be the person they think he is. In other words, Watson feels like he’s been successfully putting on an act much of the time, and wishes it wasn’t an act.

I suspect a lot of us have somewhat similar feelings – there are versions of ourselves that we’re expected to be, or think we should be, and for good or for ill we can spend a lot of energy trying to play that role. I think sometimes it really is a benefit if it makes us try to be better than we are (or think we are, which may also be relevant – the idea that we are the people who see ourselves clearly and that everyone else is wrong is frequently not right, I think) , but can just as easily be a form of self sabotage if we use it as a way to beat ourselves up for not being what we’re ‘supposed’ to be, which is what the John Watson character had been doing. Masks can help. Masks can hurt.

This in turn reminds me of advice given on a radio call-in show that I used to listen to late at night when I was in university. One of the hosts would often advise people to ‘pretend to be a decent person’. Like, if you know what the decent, acceptable thing to do in a given situation is, then just do that, even if it isn’t your natural impulse to do so. And what would really be the difference between a person who went through life ‘pretending’ to be decent in such a way and someone for whom the ‘decent’ thing was a natural impulse? How could you tell? Who would know?

To haul this blog somewhat back in the direction of writing, you can tell in a story because the author can show you all the other thoughts bubbling away under the mask and behind the pretense. I think that’s one of the things we get to do as authors: we can make it very clear to the audience where the ‘real’ character ends and their act begins – if we choose to. We can expose a character’s innermost thoughts and motivations and lay them out in the light of day, when ordinarily we are all only guessing at what may be happening inside the people we interact with every day.

Obviously it can also be fun to leave the ‘true’ nature of a character a bit of an unsolved question for the reader to puzzle over, just as I guess we sometimes do in real life. I think both scenarios can work well – it can be a lot of fun to see the difference between how a character is presenting themselves and their internal dialogue and thoughts, something we really ordinarily only get to do with ourselves. It can also be fun to be fooled by the mask, let characters hide their true selves from us (or at least, mostly hide them) – you can get some really amazing moments where the act suddenly stops and the real nature of a character comes blazing through.

I know I sometimes worry when I’m writing about whether or not these kinds of situations are terribly contrived and unrealistic, and the kind of things that authors make up for purely dramatic purposes in fiction. Like most things, of course they can be done poorly, but I guess I need to remember my own daily masks as evidence that these things happen every day, and very likely with most of the people around us. I imagine most people, if they were honest, would say that at least part of the persona they show to the world is at least a little bit of an act, a lot of the time, so it’s fine if we exaggerate that for effect with our imaginary people.

That’s what I’ve got for you this week – I still haven’t been quite 100% and have been busy with the start of a new term, so hopefully I’ll have something a bit more focused for you next time.

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The Year Ahead

It’s going to be a bit of a short entry this week – I’m a bit under the weather and also gearing up for the start of winter term teaching, so I’m not entirely sure what to do with this entry. It’s also the time of year when lots of places are doing 2016 retrospectives, but I think I already spend more than enough time chewing over the past. There were things that made me very happy and others that were very difficult and I think it’s best to leave it there.

In part, I think it’s good to do that because my energy needs to be on the time ahead. I also don’t do New Year’s resolutions anymore; I think sometimes those turn into a way to set ourselves up for disappointment in the same way that the ‘you must write every day or you’re not a real writer’ mantra can end up sabotaging writers. It is a new year and a chance to do things differently, but it’s also easy to set ourselves up for disappointment by Resolving to do things that aren’t possible, or at least not realistic.

As an example, when I first started distance running (yes, another running analogy, sorry) I knew I wanted to try it and headed out on a run with the idea that I was going to run for about an hour and see where it went from there. (I know, I know) I made for I think ten minutes. I felt awful. I hadn’t even come close to what I set out to do. Now, in truth what I had done was set a goal that was in no way realistic (and didn’t at that point even know what a realistic goal would be) and so not achieving it didn’t mean anything other than I needed to set better goals, and it was good that I had made a start Actually Running rather than thinking about starting running. However, in that moment my goal (ill conceived as it was) was something to feel bad about, and I think a lot of probably well-intentioned Resolutions to make huge changes in our lives just end up being sticks to beat ourselves with in the end.

I’m not saying everyone who does New Year’s Resolutions is unrealistic or doomed to failure, but I don’t think the practice is an especially helpful one (for me, at minimum) and so I don’t make them. I do have a very general idea of what I want to do with the year ahead, though.

First and foremost is to finish writing Easter Pinkerton’s story, my current WIP (that still needs a proper title). I’ve run into a little bit of sand on it the past while due to the end of fall term and the holidays, and I need to get back at it. I think I can still achieve my aim of having a complete draft by springtime, spend the summer editing, and then perhaps be able to start looking for a home for the book in the fall.

I am going to see if I can successfully multi-task my writing projects a bit in the months ahead, though, which is something I haven’t really done to this point. I tend to work on one project exclusively, laying other work aside until one piece of writing is done. This makes it (relatively) easy to keep a solid momentum behind whatever I’m working on, and, to the extend that I can really control these things, keep my creative energy directed where I want it. However, I realize this probably makes me less productive than I might otherwise be – can’t write this other thing because Not Done with thing #1 – and I’m going to have to try changing it this year. I have some new opportunities (which I can’t give details on, yet) that are very exciting but also won’t wait while I write the new book. So I shall have to discover if Easter can play well with other imaginary people.

I suppose that’s the biggest thing that I want to accomplish with the year ahead. I’ve just started to get my feet a tiny bit wet with building a network as a writer and to start to take my craft something approaching seriously, rather than as a hobby. I’ve already made what I think are some potentially important steps, and I want to continue the process in the months ahead. A lot of this involves doing things that are contrary to my nature (like going up and introducing myself to strangers, oh dear) but as I increasingly come to think of myself as a writer who teaches to pay the bills rather than a teacher who happens to write, this is something I’m going to need to do. It may be that writing will never be a bigger part of my life than it is right now, but I’d like to see if it can be.

That’s going to involve all sorts of work, some of which I probably don’t even know about yet, but it’s a project that, in some ways, I have been wanting to do since I was in the second grade and not doing my math lessons so I could write more stories. So we’re gonna see. I’m not setting myself any particular goal here because I don’t even really know what’s possible to achieve. However, to make another running analogy, this is perhaps like when I first started to get into distance running. I got out on the road and gave it a go. The rest of it – what I could do, what specific goals I might have in terms of distance and time, the tools I was going to need – all of that flowed from getting out on the road.

So that’s as much of a 2017 resolution as you’ll see from me. I will be out on the road, and I hope yours is smooth and takes you to glorious places.

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