follow and confirm
- July 2015
- June 2015
- January 2015
- March 2014
- January 2014
- August 2013
- July 2013
- June 2013
- April 2013
- January 2013
- December 2012
- October 2012
- July 2012
- June 2012
- May 2012
- January 2012
- December 2011
- October 2011
- September 2011
- June 2011
- April 2011
- March 2011
- January 2011
- December 2010
- November 2010
- October 2010
- September 2010
The California Quartet–It’s been a long journey from Coachella to Sacramento. From Eddie in The City to Vincent in the Speaker’s office smoking that cigar; from Ricky’s exodus out of the Valley to Cal to Beast’s blood rituals, it’s been a fun ride.
This is the Introduction to Pig Iron 18, published in 1992. I’m posting in response to Molly Best Tinsley’s reaction to the Republican Senate’s finding that Humans have not caused climate change. Molly’s observation is that her garden thinks it’s March already:
THE WORLD OUT OF WHACK
Ecological Morality and Environmental Hypocrisy
in the Second Half of The Last Century
of Humans on Earth
and other Hyperbole
Art, Ecology, and the Esthetics of Ugliness
in their relationship to the Aristotelian Fallacy: Art should Imitate Life
Out of whack: (colloq.) Not in proper condition.
The world is out of whack. There are too many people and not enough resources. Every year we add a population the size of Mexico. About 90 million people.
Imbalance. There are three aspects to the imbalance that keep us from bringing ourselves into harmony with the planet: 1) Ecological morality; 2) Environmental hypocrisy; 3) Economic Matrix.
The problem is this: We are ecologically amoral in our treatment of the planet; we have lived and continue to live as environmental hypocrites exploiting the resource base. The reasons for this are embedded in the economic matrix which measures wealth, happiness and well-being in goods and quantity rather than spiritual health and quality of life. We are in effect at war.
All wars are fought for control of a resource base. In this war the antagonists are the human race and the planet.
Gaea is suffering. Unless we take some very strong stands we can expect the environmental facism to continue. How long can we continue to rob the environment before we get caught and have to pay the price? In fact, we get caught every day, we just don’t know it. One day it will come to us that there is nothing left. What does that mean? It means we will be sterile, the land will be sterile, the water will be undrinkable. One way to deal with a limited resource base is to make fewer demands on it. And that means fewer people with each person expecting less.
Ecological morality is held hostage by environmental hypocrisy and the economic matrix. We destroy what we ought to save. We’ve gotten ourselves into a bunker mentality, a Gotterdammerung frame of mind, and the result will be a wipeout.
To paraphrase Fritjof Capra, we are in a crisis, and this crisis is essentially one of perception. At its root, the problem is one of hierarchies. Where do human beings belong in the scheme of things?
If the world is out of whack, how has it gotten that way?
We are supposedly in a time of rejection of the cartesian duality of mind and body. In The Quantum Self, Danah Zohar sums it up: “Equally affected is our attitude towards Nature and the material world. If our minds, or conscious selves, are wholly different from our material selves as Descartes argued, and if consciousness has no part to play in the universe as Newtonian physics implies, what relationship can we have to Nature and to matter? We are aliens in an alien world, set apart from and in opposition to our material environment. Thus we set out to conquer Nature, to overwhelm her and use her for our own ends, never minding the consequences” (20).
Gaea. From the Middle Greek, Gaia. Also Ge.
We have to put the world right again. If the problem is fragmentation, then the solution must be synthesis. But is it that simple? Can we undo the damage and set things right? How do we reverse what’s gone?
We are aware of the fragmentation, we see the need to rebuild, but we still have let science divide our brain into two parts: the left brain and the right brain. The left brain is creative, the right brain is analytical. Or is it the other way around? Does it matter? This is another duality that takes the place of the Cartesian duality and makes it possible for us to avoid responsibility for ourselves and our being in the world. It is, after all, one brain. The left half and the right half both will get zapped by the same carcinogen. We know the problem, but how do we get back on track and instill a sense of ecological morality not just in the young, but in ourselves? How do we pick up the pieces and make the world whole again? Is it possible?
The political forces in the economic matrix are so strong that they have been able to subvert nearly every attempt at ecological regeneration or environmental rehabilitation. In those rare instances when something has gotten out of the two houses of Congress, such as the SuperFund for cleaning up toxic waste sites, implementation has been eviscerated by delays through local politics, infighting and business jeremiads about fair share, leading to court battles about responsibility. The latest corruption comes in the Bush Administration’s plan to redesignate all the wetlands in the United States in such a way that they can be developed. This is another attempt to make a problem go away by redefining it. We need only to think back to the Reagan years when the Department of Education tried to re-define catsup as a vegetable in school kids’ lunches.
Meanwhile, civilization continues to fail. The resource base erodes, the population increases and chaos with it. An ecological morality can be defined as accepting responsibility for our acts. When we were unconscious beasts acting on instinct, we got away with a lot. But as conscious beings we have to become responsible. Ecological morality, and its opposite, environmental hypocrisy, are linked in responsibility. Unfortunately, what happens today is that the magnate says, yes, we’re responsible, pays the fifty thousand dollar fine, and continues to export poisons to the Third World.
Somehow, business leaders fail to see that the end of civilization will have a negative effect on their businesses. They seem to think that they can move away from it, but there, they run up against the first limit in a world of limits: where are they going to go? The devastation is so complete, that there is no where on the planet they can re-locate that has not been affected by the greed and insensitivity of those who preceded them. The bottomline, shareholder obligations, is a stranglehold. It is very strong. And it is enigmatic. So enigmatic that business leaders fail to see that their shareholders have to live somewhere; they fail to see that the profits they take result in the degradation of the quality of life that their shareholders are making their profits to purchase.
I can foresee a time when there’s nothing left but chickens, cows, pigs, horses, sheep, and fungus. Then, no doubt, business will find a way for us to use animal dung as currency. The greed is universal, endemic, and epidemic. The greed is so destructive that we will shoot our own feet off rather than cut back on our expectations.
We are in a time when there can be no more compromises. There can be no more trade-offs against the environment. We have despoliated it to such a degree that all acts against it are now criminal and cannot be tolerated. There is no such thing as a small, insignificant project in an environment which has been degraded.
Garrett Hardin, in his doctrine of Lifeboat Ethics, says that when there are too many people, we should let them die. There are too many people. Do we let them die? Is this too hardhearted? Why are there too many people? Because, some have said, we have become too good at death prevention. We worry about keeping people alive and at the same time destroy the environment they depend on. We bring children into the world, keep them alive but we don’t care about the quality of life they will be forced to choose.
Part of our problem is that we are addictive. We’re addicted to chemicals, to electricity, to gas, to cars, to money; we’re addicted to any and every thing that we can produce, and we are addicted to throwing things away. And we’re addicted to producing people. Seattle artist Kathy Ross writes: “The reality of addiction is related to the reality of oppression and environmental destruction. Addiction is an attempt to fill the void where self respect and peace ought to go. We can’t respect either ourselves or the world so we trash both. It is the same impulse.”
How does this translate into environmental hypocrisy? Take the example of hospitals. The costs of health care delivery systems destroy the environment because it is cheaper to throw things away than it is to recycle them. As a result, the death prevention business becomes the death causing business. The medicrats save lives and irrevocably erode the quality of life on the planet. We save our people’s lives, then ask them to live in an environment that is so polluted we wonder why anyone would want to live in it.
Is Cartesian thinking dead? No, it is not. It is very much alive when we consider the waste disposal business. We do not see any relationship between ourselves and the world around us. It has existed and still exists so that we can exploit it.
Resources are not unlimited. The first limitation we bump up against is the land. The second is the water. The third is our inability to conceive of a resource base that is limited and act within its limits. Our vision and our creativity become the means of our own destruction. How do you explain that to the birds?
Richard Nelson, in The Island Within, writes: “Any animal knows more than you do.” What is this animal wisdom? I posed this question to Dr. Dee Boersma, a scientist at the University of Washington. She gave me this example: “In the Galapagos Islands, when El Nino is running, the sea birds simply do not propagate if the food source begins to diminish. Any bird, operating on environmental sense, knows more than human beings do in this regard. Under stressful conditions, birds abandon their young and then do not conceive others. For other species, scientific studies show that when a female’s body fat falls below a certain level, she stops ovulating. The resource base drives reproduction. In human society, we are hypocritical in providing just enough fat to allow the female to reproduce, but not enough to assure the survival of the offspring. Living should be accompanied by quality of life, and not just a brutish existence in which barely enough is eaten to survive.”
My friend, Cat Newsheller has been trying for a couple years to save a small wetland in her community. The area is a natural drainage basin for underground streams. As she works to preserve this wetland, the local community college is trying to build a new gymnasium on it. Cat maintains: “We don’t need a gymnasium. We need a natural classroom where people can see what is left of the world. But I tell that to the people on the committee and they get glassy-eyed. Everyone is afraid of facing the truth. You get along better with people if you don’t tell the truth. We really don’t need all this stuff. But who’s going to listen to that? The problem with humanity is that people have no relationship with their environment, we just don’t see ourselves as part of it. The solution is to recognize that we are.”
What’s wrong with poverty and why is poverty equated with dirt? The land becomes synonymous with ugliness in the city. It symbolizes poverty and disenfranchisment. In Mexico City, where millions of peasants migrate, they are finding that what worked in a village doesn’t work in the city. Normal agrarian practices become filth in the city. The dirt floors of the village houses translate into grime. In the country, sweeping the floor meant moving the dirt from inside the house back into the environment where it was recycled by natural means. In the city, sweeping the dirt outside results in an accumulation of filth and grime and litter. We have not changed our attitudes, we have merely changed locale. We are all land dwellers and at one time we all had houses with dirt floors. The land cannot absorb our wastes when it is sterilized. The solution to pollution used to be dilution. But the way we are going, there isn’t any way to dilute it all. Our future depends on how we manage rot.
But what are we doing about it?
“”Vous, Hypocrite lecteur, mon semblable, mon frere,” as Baudelaire says. Any time you call your readers lying hypocrites you run the risk of offending them. But that is what I am doing. As you read this, you are a hypocrite because you have driven your car today. You have consumed your share of the chemicals that our unethical companies export to the third world. You and I are the same. Last night, I ate a salad made of lettuce grown in Mexico. It was probably sprayed with para-quat applied by Mexican laborers who didn’t wear protective equipment. I am guilty. We are all guilty.
What can we do? If we can’t change our thinking, how do we expect the emerging industrial countries in the third world to change theirs? We could start by not buying the chemicals. We could sacrifice a little convenience to the common good. Don’t use hair spray. Take the bus a couple times a week. Sacrifice a little time. Make the chemical companies be responsible. Touch the bottom line by infusing it with morality.
If we had a medical system that guaranteed health care, would we need so much money to purchase a health care plan? If we had a government that guaranteed our child’s college education, would we have to accumulate so much wealth in order to provide? We are suffering from a crisis of perception. We are suffering from a failure of government as much as we are suffering from a devastated environment. They are one and the same. Socialism is a nasty word now that Communism has failed. But do we really expect every individual human being on this planet to acquire the resources necessary to provide for his or her offspring and retirement?
We need to look beyond self to see ourselves in the others. We can only expect a lowered quality of life as a result of our exploitation of the resource base. Limited resources mean that only the rich will be able to live well. The rest of us will go hungry and live in sub-standard housing and do without the things that our predecessors took for granted.
We are living in the time of the sins of our fathers. Their recklessness has caught up with us, disregard for the planet is killing us. We know what their mistakes were, but we continue to consume and to breed.
Our refusal to accept the right of other creatures to share the resource base will result in the extinction of our own expectations; it will cause social upheaval and will dislocate millions of people. Our leaders, who take their lead from our unrelenting greed, and who refuse to act, commit the most cynical act of all.
I once I asked my brother-in-law, a banker, why we couldn’t have a steady state economy. His answer was that growth was good, and fast growth was even better. It didn’t matter that his bank was lending money to buy houses built on some of the richest agricultural land in the world. Growth to him was and is good. There were no consequences. Just keep on growing. Keep on consuming. No limits.
I recently talked to a forest resource manager who told me that the slow growth of wood is what makes it strong. Fertilizing the trees on farms causes the wood to grow too fast. The rings are too far apart, so that even the quality of the wood that we grow is inferior. This will, of course, he said, be denied by the tree farm people. But they cannot be believed because they are key factors in the economic matrix that drives our consumption. The meretriciousness of their self-serving and prevarication about the effects of their practices on the environment are obvious. You have to remember that it wasn’t until the 1950s that companies like Weyerhauser and Georgia Pacific even began to think about reforestation. Our own hypocrisy is intensified when we allow them to lie to us about what they are doing and how it will affect us and the future. The choices are: Slow growth or no growth.
Gordon Wood, a Seattle artist, works downtown and rides his bike eight miles one way, sixteen miles round trip, rain, shine to work. His art is an environmentally focused art that looks at the exploitation of the natural environment and the serious damage we are doing to it to feed the economic matrix. Too few of us dare to be like Gordon Wood, he lives his convictions, he believes that something can be done about the problem. Gordon Wood believes that you to choose life, and life implies sacrifice.
The Northwest is seen as paradise by some, and as an unlimited resource base by others. In the past fifty years, Paradise has had its wild salmon runs devastated, its forests clear cut and its rivers polluted just like every other locale in the economic matrix. California wants water from the Columbia River. All those billions of gallons of water will fill millions of swimming pools. But what about the salmon? Can salmon spawn in swimming pools in the California sunshine?
The Northwest gave the world the Hanford Nuclear Reservation and now it’s anybody’s guess how much of the Northwest is threatened by nuclear waste. Nuclear energy, we are told, is safe. Only too late we learned that it isn’t the energy we have to deal with, it is the waste. The French dump it in ocean, the future be damned. We are more circumspect. We dump it at Hanford where, over a thousand year period, it will leach into the Columbia before it goes into the ocean. In the meantime, the water table is contaminated, so people move away. This creates economic depression, so the remaining workers demand that Hanford be made into a National Nuclear Dump to make jobs.
So what other kind of environmental thinking is taking place in the Great Pacific Northwest? A lot of thinking, not much action. Solveig Torvik writes in the Seattle Times, “One thing seems a safe bet in this sea of uncertainty: If the salmon vanish while corps officials (Army Corps of Engineers) study, they’ll justly take the blame, enhancing their reputations as eco-bums. If they step out front to surmount this nettlesome technical challenge, they’ll be heroes. There’s one more prediction that safely can be made about all this: If, knowing what we now know, we Pacific Northwesterners let our wild salmon perish, perplexed coming generations will understand at least this much: that we did it on purpose, not in ignorance. They will know we weighed the salmon in the balance and found them wanting, unworthy of our sacrifice.”
It should be perfectly obvious that we can’t talk about ecological morality without confronting environmental hypocrisy. We say that we need to preserve the wilderness, but we refuse to take the land out of the economic matrix; we say that we need to stop the pipelines bringing Alaskan crude to the Puget Sound for refining, but we won’t stop driving our cars long enough to send our message to the economic gurus and banking barons. We say we want to preserve the spotted owl habitat, but we confuse the spotted owl with the deeper problem of the shrinking resource base and we say that the spotted owl and the eco-radicals are taking jobs away from loggers. Finally, we pass toothless growth management acts designed to make developers responsible, but we refuse to pass the funding acts and tax increases that will put enforcement teeth into the law.
Yes, we in the Northwest are ecologically aware, but we are also hypocrites. As I said before, you call your readers hypocrites, you run the risk of offending them. Well, it’s about time we got offended, it’s about time we looked at the truth. We want our cars and we want our environment too. We can’t have it both ways. We have to make a choice. Either we get on our feet and lead the way to environmental salvation, or we shut up and once and for all get on the economic bandwagon and let the environment go to hell around us. The downside is that by continuing to go in the direction we’re taking, we undercut our own quality of life. Each decision to consume in the present, limits future choices. Human beings use about 40 percent of the world’s primary productivity. What this means is that we are stealing not just from the future, but from every other living creature.
How do artists approach the question? When I managed the Pig Iron Press display at Seattle’s Bumbershoot Literary Festival two years ago, I passed out manuscript requests for The Environment: Essence and Issue. I asked artists to try to define ecological morality in this time of severe exploitation of the resource base. I thought that Northwest artists would be a good source for commentary on this issue. Meanwhile, rain forest acreage the size of the state of Texas has been devastated to make cattle ranches. I’m afraid there are no answers in the artists’ imagery, there is only further documentation of the ruination and devastation; there are poems about dying fish and vanishing forests, but there is no blueprint for salvation.
Are artists articulate commentators capable of making a meaningful social commentary, or are we strictly peripheral to the debate about the fate of the world? If we think about it for a while, we see that far from leading the world, the art community has participated almost nonchalantly in the destruction of the world.
Artists are guilty of the esthetics of ugliness. The Aristotelian fallacy which says that art should imitate life has led generations of artists into ugliness. We are guilty of letting devastated reality dictate to us instead of using our powers to create alternatives to the destruction which our compadres are bringing to the world.
At the root of the artists’ complicity is the economic matrix. We sacrifice beauty to shock because shock translates into cash. How much advancement in artistic thinking has there been since the naturalists and the surrealists said they wanted to shock the bourgeoisie. They have triumphed. Shock has given way to ugliness and ugliness to deceit and deceit to hypocrisy. Most artists, painters, poets, writers, are Johnsonians in that we are doing it for money and money and money. What else is there? We have taken our instruments and coated them with blood. We are no longer making art, we are participating in a sacrifice of the world to our own gain. Most of us are no better than the Georgia Pacific moguls who slaughter forests for money. They just do it directly.
I am an urbanite. Most artists I know live in the cities. As artists, our life is in the city. The people who buy and enjoy our art are there.
What can we do as artists? We can refuse to create ugliness. That’s not to say become Pollyanna. But refuse to make ugly, stupid art. Draw, learn to tell stories. To be effective, I think, means we have to invent and adopt an entirely new aesthetic. In the past, we have tried to let form and content be the same. The result has been that if we wanted to make a piece about chaos, we dissolved the form into a chaotic jumble of pieces. If we wanted to write about madness, we went into stream of consciousness and wrote word salad. I would like to see art that once again interprets the world instead of shitting on paper and calling it painting. If our anger is so deep that we are reduced to that, then maybe the problem is better dealt with on the psychiatrist’s couch than on canvas or in print.
As artists, we have to accept responsibility for the world as it has become. We can show a new way, instead of continuing to run with the notion that art is destruction of form.
We all know what the problem is, but art has gotten locked in a tight little loop of bitching about and then depicting what everyone already knows. In the process we are losing our audience. Not because that audience is insensitive, but because they already know what the problem is but don’t know how to get out of it without sacrificing some of the standard of living they enjoy. The role of the artist could be to offer alternatives to the world by creating another reality that reintegrates human beings into the world and lets us see it not as an enemy but as an extension of ourselves and ourselves as an extension of it.
The good art of the next century will be art that doesn’t fragment, it will be art that shows the continuity of being; it will be art that allows us to imagine things that cannot be and have never been. If the problem is disintegration, then the solution must be integration. To integrate, each of us will have to give up something.
I had hoped to be able to define an ecological morality. But I am not certain it can be done. Environmental sensitivity is an individual mind-sweep, and there isn’t time to wait for each of us to make it. As we, in the United States, become more aware of what we are doing, other places in the world are beginning to imitate us. They are not imitating us as we move into a new consciousness. They imitate us as we were in the 1950s. And we will pay for that.
What will we do when a billion Chinese start to run automobiles? Already the coal dust in China has disastrous health effects. The Chinese are building nuclear plants. What will they do with their nuclear waste? They plan to dam the Yang Tze River. What will happen to the fishing industry in China as a result?
We do not have time to wait while 850 million humans on the Indian Subcontinent become environmentally aware. We can’t even get everybody in this country to agree that there is a problem.
Is guilt the first component of an ecological morality? Is shame the second? If so, how do we instill them?
Can we, as artists, do something positive? Can we forget what is gone, and turn our attention to the present, look at what is left and make something out of that? Maybe. But painting a picture is not enough. Writing an essay on environmental hypocrisy is not enough. We have to do something. But what? I suggest that we become politically active, that we get down right militant. I suggest that we use our art in a political way. I suggest that we get serious about evolving a new aesthetic and move away from the craft of alienation. I suggest that we make politicians pass an environmental litmus test and hold them to it. It’s time to get political. Either that or designate who among us will become the first New Cave-Painters, then sit around and wait for the end of the world.
I’m not ready to do that. Time is running out. I know that; you know that. What is missing is the program that we can adopt that will salvage the world.
Ten years ago, in Baseball (Pig Iron 9), I ended my allegory, “The Game Against the People,” with Gaea saying,
My skin, my trees, my life stripped off reveal the wounds (my rivers raped, they will not heal but bleed forever) made with steel I gave to men who thanked me not, but dug their grave. This life I’ve born—my hope, my joy—is death. My lungs, once clear, can barely now take breath. In pain I lie as work of man turns rain to death and melts my fish while in that brain I gave for lie, ideas are born that kill. Quickly! Quickly! Before Rose my will. My plea is rough, my song in ancient rime, whose rhythms are life, whose cycles my soul. I need you. Do not turn away this time, you are the only loves I can expect to find. “eight, seven, six….”
Not much has changed in ten years. We’re still slaughtering . Gaea, and the NEA is taking away support for activist artists.
The switch is in our heads, but we haven’t turned it on yet. We’re still hoping we’ll get rich so we can go away someplace where it won’t matter. We are still children thinking that the infinite mother will provide for us infinitely. Right now, the infinite mother’s milk is running dry. And we just keep on sucking.
“”5, 4, 3, 2….”
Boersma, Dr. Dee. “Breeding Patterns of Galapagos Penguins…” Science Magazine
30 June 1978: 1481-3. Personal Communication.
Capra, Fritjof. The Turning Point. NY: Bantam, 1987.
Hardin, James Garrett. Lifeboat Ethics.
Nelson, Richard. The Island Within. NY: Random House, 1991.
Newsheller, Cat. Letter.
Ross, Kathy. Remarks preceding an exposition
of her work, October, 1991.
Torvik, Solveig. “Conflict on the Columbia.”
Seattle Times 11 Nov 1991.
Villani, Jim, ed. Baseball (Pig Iron 9).
Youngstown: Pig Iron Press, 1982. 78.
Zohar, Davah. The Quantum Self. 1990. NY: Morrow, 1991.
Saint Teresa in Ecstasy
In Memory of MC Escher
Writing the Way I See It
©2014 by Jack Remick
(Note: I wrote this essay for a German e-zine called Haute Culture. They wanted something about the origin of The Weekend Novelist Writes a Mystery and a little bit about my ideas on why we write. The essay was to be translated into German but it never made it. Haute Culture never got off the ground so I’m posting it here as a caveat.)
Writing, The Way I See It:
The most vexing question writers often get asked isn’t “Where do you get your ideas?” but “Why do you write?” It’s a pretty good question. There are probably as many answers as there are writers.
The way I see it, however, writing is a personal way to participate in the greatest socialist enterprise ever. Writing transcends culture, language, family, tribe, politics. We do it and we do it for any number of reasons with any number of results.
We’ve been writing for thousands of years—we’ve written in mud, on bone, in stone, on parchment, and on paper, and lately we’ve written on screens using binary or hexadecimal code. Before we wrote we told stories by drawing animals on the walls of caves. So far as we know, humans are the only critters that can write their history—tell about our past, capture our present and project our future. Writing, it seems, has grown out of us as we grew out of our primate past. So the answer to the big question why do you write is another question—how can you not?
To me, writing is what makes us human. I love to write. I started out, as did every reader, scrawling something like an alphabet on paper. I graduated to ink, to a typewriter, and then to this computerized, digital universe. (In my novel Blood, this archeology of writing plays an integral part in the story.) In a way, my writing mimics the history of our writing, but deep down, writing is more than keeping a ledger or tracking illuminated manuscripts in a monastery or counting cows in the pasture. Writing for me means telling stories. Writing means invention. I, for one, write to survive. I have a cartoon on the wall of my writing room that says “When not writing, I get weird”.
I started my writing life as a poet. In his rather controversial book, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Julian Jaynes drew a lot of flak for saying that the first poets were gods. He didn’t mean that poets were gods, but rather that poets believed they were taking dictation from the gods (of the right hemisphere). I wrote poetry long before I ever heard of Julian Jaynes, but something in his work rang a bell.
Fiction was my next stop on the writing road. I wrote short stories, I studied writing, fiction, art, linguistics, etymology, philology, and psychology. The deeper I got into art and the history of language, the more I understood the work of C.G. Jung, Roman Jakobsen, Saussure, Lévi –Strauss, and C.S. Peirce. From these writers, I learned something about the way the human mind works.
In that amalgam of genius that our culture inherits from those minds, I found the way into the archetypes and archetypal language and the deeper I got into that language and the more novels I wrote, the more I realized that I was telling stories that had already been told a hundred thousand times, but with this exception—my heroes wore Levis and drove custom built Ford cars instead of riding warhorses and wearing chain mail. My heroes lived in Kansas and California but they were still on the same Quest that drove Perceval to seek the Grail. Maybe, I thought, there was something to that Jaynesian notion of taking dictation from the gods of the right hemisphere and maybe there was something to that Jungian notion of archetypes and maybe I was a writer along with a million other writers telling the same stories over and over.
But then, I asked myself—did it make any difference?
Isn’t writing the great socialist enterprise? There are no limits to learning to write as long as you have someone to help you. Writing breaks class barriers. There are no privileged positions in the writing world.
As a writer of novels, stories, and poems was I keeping something alive that started with the cave paintings at Chauvet and the oracle bones of China? Isn’t that what writers do? Don’t we keep the traditions alive and carry on? In Darwinian evolutionary thought, it’s not enough to survive, we have to survive and procreate. Our books, our novels, our stories, our poems are our cultural and intellectual progeny. They are our future and our past, they are at the same time our present. They tell us what we were at that time and in that place—be it Japan or China, Egypt or France. Writing is what makes us human. Anyone and everyone can learn to write.
I’ve now written or co-written sixteen books ranging from an epic poem to a handbook on mystery writing. My novels have a variety of female and male protagonists. They track protagonists on their personal Grail Quest. They tell stories about King Replacement (think Tristan and Isolde or, in French Tristan et Iseut). They tell stories of the Coming of Age of young men through ritual combat and of young women through emerging from the Chrysalis (or, that greatest of all female coming of age stories—the Ugly Duckling). They tell stories of l’amour lointain, and they tell the story of Romeo and Juliet (think Piramus et Thisbe when you read Josie Delgado, A Poem of The Central Valley). As I write each new novel, I realize that I am not creating a thing, I am participating, through language, in a long standing cultural event and that makes me very happy to be a writer. As I write each novel, I tell the story of Eddie Itubi (The Deification) or Ricky Edwards (Valley Boy) or Mitch Monroe (The Book of Changes). I tell the story of Olive (Lemon Custard), Gabriela (Gabriela and The Widow) but I am also telling the story of every man and every woman struggling to find value and meaning in a chaotic world where it’s not enough just to survive, but to survive and propagate. My novels detail the struggles of each character to survive and to find love. In that sense my novels are about having babies. Both physical and metaphoric.
As I progress through time, I become interested in passing on to other writers some of the techniques and insights I’ve picked up along the way. To that end, I have taught university courses, run workshops on writing, and mentored dozens of novelists and poets as they search for their own path through the forest (remember Perceval’s quest here—the forest is a metaphor for the descent into the unconscious mind where the truth lies hidden under a dozen impossible tasks.) To pursue my intent to help other writers, I’m the co-author of a book on mystery writing titled “The Weekend Novelist Writes a Mystery” with Robert J. Ray. We also maintain a website dedicated to writing—Bob and Jack’s Writing Blog. On that website, readers will find biographical information as well as a very thorough set of writing techniques the purpose of which is “to make good writing better.”
Creating The Weekend Novelist Writes a Mystery:
A few years ago Robert Ray and I formed a writing partnership. We had discovered the power of Timed Writing (which we learned from Natalie Goldberg) and we added a few dimensions to the concept. We now call it Structured Timed Writing. As we developed that idea, we put together a short book on how to write a short story. Our publisher nixed that and said we should write a how-to for mystery writers instead. The Weekend Novelist Writes a Mystery is the fruit of that collaboration. The Weekend Novelist Writes a Mystery is a how-to for neophytes and experienced mystery writers looking for new techniques, inspiration or simply a disciplined approach to the chaos of putting a mystery together.
When you write a mystery, what’s the first thing you do? Most writers start with the sleuth or the detective. Get that Sleuth built and away you go. But when Bob and I were creating The Weekend Novelist Writes a Mystery, we had four insights that got us going in the right direction.
Create the Killer first: We discovered that you’re far better off if you create the Killer first. Look at it this way—until the Killer kills, the Sleuth sits around drinking coffee. So, the technique we came up with was a set of writings for the Killer. Here’s the first one:
My name is The Killer. I was born in a city called Lethe. I got my first taste of blood when my brother cut…and I bagged my first kill one day in December…and…
In any mystery, there are three main characters: Killer, Victim, Sleuth. Work them in that order and you get this: The Killer kills because he or she has a problem. The Victim dies because he or she gets too close to the Killer. The Sleuth has to confront the Killer in order to make him pay for being the bad guy.
Modular Scenes: The second insight we had into the mystery process was the Modular Scene. Modular scenes are bread and butter for the mystery novelist. A modular scene is a self-contained unit. It stands alone. It helps the writer to control the bulk of information—physical detail, clues, facts, place names, character bios—that makes up mystery writing. Modular scenes take the mystery out of mystery writing.
These scenes are present in every mystery ever written. You’ve seen them—the Sleuth questions Suspects. The Forensic Scientist gives the sleuth a report. The Sleuth interviews a Witness. The Sleuth visits the Victim’s abode. All of these are Modular Scenes. Here are a few more:
Lab work –
Pathology lab report —
Forensics lab report —
Crime scene –
Recreating the Crime–
Suspect list —
Suspect interrogation —
Sleuth reporting —
Helper reports –
Police reports –
Expert testimony –
In the appendix of The Weekend Novelist Writes a Mystery, you’ll find a complete list of Modular Scenes. For the beginner or the expert, knowing about these scenes lets you plot an entire novel before you write a line of dialogue.
Crime Scene and Backstory: After much study, Bob and I came to our Third insight: the Crime Scene is the result of a Caper or a Murder Plan. The Sleuth has to recreate the Arc of Death (if you’re writing a caper such as Rififi, Topkapi, or The Italian Job, your main focus is on the path to the payoff.). To create the Arc of Death, the sleuth recreates the crime in reverse—Here’s a body. How did it get here? Who wanted the Victim dead? Working back to the moment of death, the Sleuth lays out the story from Present to Past, from Ending to Beginning. This, of course, is Backstory at its finest. Here’s the kicker—and it links back to the idea of creating the Killer first—the writer must know what the reader finds out. That is critical to the success of a mystery. In The Weekend Novelist Writes a Mystery, we suggest that writers spend a lot of time creating the backstory on the main characters because, to repeat, the writer has to know what the reader finds out.
First There are Places: Insight number four came to us when we were in the Rewriting section of the book. All novelists know that the art is in the rewrite and in the rewrite, the question becomes—in a scene, what do you write first? In other words, if you write your mystery in scenes (which we recommend), what’s the first part of a scene? The answer we found isn’t “start at the beginning” but start with place. Start with the setting. First there are places. Characters enter a place and they talk and do stuff. Characters talking and doing stuff creates conflict. In the mystery, conflict leads to murder. Now you’ve got something for your sleuth to do–find the killer.
The Book of Changes, the third volume of The California Quartet, is in the chute and should arrive sometime in October, 2013. Here’s what you’ll get:
The Book of Changes: (coming in October 2013 from Coffeetown Press.)
“Beast” is a pure innocent with one simple goal–to become an expert on the Middle Ages. He comes to Berkeley, the Cathedral of Learning, in 1971, a time of political upheaval, hallucinogenic drugs, group sex, and electric, acid, psychedelic, mind-bending rock and roll. On his quest for meaning he hangs out with a Harley-riding dwarf, a raven-haired Gothic artists’ model, a sorority girl turned nymphomaniac, and the heir to a family of French aristocrats with a bloody history dating back to before Joan of Arc.Beast soon discovers that he can’t live in the past but has to embrace the present, with its traps and land mines and the horrors of bad acid trips and death by napalm and motorcycle.In the Cathedral, students still go to class, fall in love, get laid, study in libraries, win awards, even graduate, but the world is burning and Berkeley supplies the fuel.
I’ll be the keynote speaker at this conference on May 18. I’ll be running these two work shops as well:
Story, Structure, Style
First and Lasts, Characters and Their Objects