Just a Little Diametric Opposition

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Lately I’ve discovered a new favorite food condiment. It’s pepper jam. The combination of sweet and spicy, two flavors that usually stand in contrast to one another, is a very arresting experience. Each side of this pairing has to be kept in just the right balance, though, otherwise one side overwhelms the other and ruins the effect.

And just what is that effect? What is it about contrasting tastes that captivates our fascination and pleasure? To answer this I consider the wisdom of our friend Ishmael, in Moby Dick. “To enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself. If you flatter yourself that you are all over comfortable, and have been so a long time, then you cannot be said to be comfortable any more.”

If ever I eat something sweet, and nothing but sweet, soon enough the sweetness of it will be lost on me and the food becomes disinteresting. But when I eat something with contrast, let’s say a salted caramel, then I am constantly experiencing both the salt and the sweet at the same moment. I cannot become over-saturated with either because the other keeps it fresh and novel. By entertaining two tastes at once I am able to longer appreciate the depths of each.

This same principle holds true for writing as well. If we present our themes and characters to the audience and they are all very similar to one another, the reader will quickly become over-saturated and the work will feel flat. But by allowing multiple contrasting elements to occupy the same page the story will become textured and interesting. Over the last month I’ve been trying to do just that, writing stories that walked two lines at once, and with each story I tried to capture a different facet of contrast in writing.

To begin with I posted The Last Grasshopper, which dealt heavily with themes of birth and death, old and new. However the piece was meant to challenge the idea that these elements are actually the opposites we initially think them to be. These themes were presented against a backdrop of seasons changing continuously from one to another and then back again, suggesting that birth and death are not dichotomous from one another, but may actually be two points along a continuous spectrum. A spectrum that, in fact, cycles back on itself, meaning that neither of these two states is able to exist without the other.

In this way I was trying to echo an idea from one of my favorite stories of all time: L’homme qui Plantait des Arbres (The Man Who Planted Trees). In this tale we meet an old man who has spent his entire life planting seeds in a stark and barren wasteland. Over the course of years and then decades, an entire half century in all, this man sees his life work accumulate in massive and lush forests, an entire transformation of the surrounding climate, and a joy of life restored to the locals who live in that region. The situation at the beginning of the tale and at the end seem to belong to completely opposite worlds, and yet they occupy the same geographic space. The tale suggests that barrenness and lushness exist on the same continuum as one another, in fact they define the continuum, and traversal along it would not be possible without the presence of both. And that traversal is negotiated simply by the amount of steady, continual cultivation we are willing to commit to.

That challenge of continual good effort was examined more closely in my next story. Cursed presented a father and a son who both loved one another, and yet had a terrible rift due to their contrasting priorities. The father was trying to relieve the son of a moral burden, but prematurely, before the son was able to naturally overcome his own failings. The result was necessary conflict. They cannot avoid one another, they are father and son, but they cannot see eye-to-eye and so there is opposition. I meant for this to be a reflection of life experience, where we strive for good, but by necessity live a world with constant opposition to that good. We cannot simply divorce ourselves from all the evil, we just have to try to wrest something good out of an eternal battle.

I find a very similar sort of message in the John Steinbeck novella Of Mice and Men. Here we have men who hope. Though they have been beaten down before in life yet they must still hope because that is human nature. However there is no reason to assume that their hopes will be realized, and in the face of increasing opposition we start to feel that their “hopes” are actually only “wishes,” ones for which there will be no granting. The story ends tragically, a somber end that does not rest in the greener fields that were hoped for. Or does it? It seems the story suggests that the contrast of evil and good may find their roots in the world around us and the world that awaits after death. Perhaps here wishes get crushed, only to be granted afterwards.

That idea of solutions that come outside of the box was something I wanted to explore in my third story. In A Minute at a Time we again meet a father and son at odds with one another. It seems, again, that neither can find relief except for at the expense of the other. But then they relinquish their goals for a moment of honest vulnerability. They commiserate together and realize that at their core all they really need is one another. I meant to suggest that opposites can be resolved, and perhaps that resolution comes at a cost of letting them go.

Of course overcoming opposition at a cost is a very common theme to stories. Perhaps the evil of the world can be defeated, but what sacrifices are you willing to pay to accomplish that feat? The video game Alan Wake provided a meta commentary on this. In that story the titular character finds a dark story manifesting itself into the real world, establishing a plot of wanton destruction. As a writer, he is trying to redirect the arc of that story, a feat that was previously attempted unsuccessfully by a poet, Thomas Zane. As Alan Wake explains, Thomas Zane failed because he tried to rewrite the ending of the story to be bright and cheerful at no cost. As Alan says: “There’s light, and there’s darkness. Cause and effect. There’s guilt and there’s atonement. But the scales always need to balance. Everything has a price. That’s where Zane had gone wrong. There’s a long journey through the night back into the light.” He writes a new ending, one where his objective is obtained, but only at great cost, the loss of himself. The story accepts this offering, and thus ends things on a bittersweet note.

At this point I felt that things had gotten quite heavy. What’s more I didn’t want to leave things feeling like all this war of opposition had to always be so grim and unpleasant. The fact is most of us actively enjoy doing sacrificing for another’s happiness. And we often find that we have guidance and help in our long journeys of self improvement. Gifts from Daniel Bronn…and Jerry was meant to capture that more cheerful side of contrasts. Daniel is happy and kind, Jerry is jaded and reserved. Now in the first half of the story these two sides have been shown as being in opposition to one another. In fact that first half ends with Jerry planning to terminate his own employment to get away from the friction he is feeling.

Next week I’ll be completing that story, and in that second half we will see that like salt and caramel, the Daniel and Jerry can combine for something greater. Daniel, with his wealth and compassion, will provide the means for the charitable contributions. Jerry, with his experience on the rougher side of life, will be able to actually deliver the gifts with a needed dose of empathy and understanding. They’ll still be two very different men at the end, but that won’t be putting them in opposition any more. This is actually a theme I’ve explored before on this blog, in one of my very first stories: Scars and Soothing.

Hopefully this series of stories has been to illustrate the infinite possibilities of mixing and matching the many contrasting flavors of story-telling. Keep your stories interesting by putting them at odds with themselves. Give them tensions by establishing fundamental opposition. Give them nuance by suggesting those contrasts may not actually be so opposed to one another as originally believed.

I’ll see you next Thursday with the end of Gifts From Daniel Bronn…and Jerry. After that we’ll be finished with this bittersweet series, and on to something entirely new. I’m excited to see with you what the new year will bring!

Live a Life

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Professionally I work as a software developer. The industry has come a long ways since it exploded among the workforce a half century ago. A lot of those changes, particularly those related to work/life balance, I am very grateful for. Things are generally a lot better in the tech environment, although you can still find some sectors holding onto those less-than-ideal business patterns. For example, video game development studios and tech startups still commonly maintain a mentality that employees need to work 80-hour weeks, coding until they crash on mattresses under their desks. There persists an unhealthy expectation that if you work for these industries then that work has to be the single most important thing in your life. Family relationships, social interaction, and even mental stability are all secondary to pursuing the company’s creative vision, and must be sacrificed as needed.

Of course the tech district isn’t entirely unique in this mindset. Any sort of entrepreneurial or artistic field tends to demand the same voracious pursuit of craft and career at the expense of all else. And of course, given that story writing is also a creative industry, it is plagued with its fair share of workaholics as well.

And to be fair, professional competition and poor management are actually far less demanding taskmasters than our own inner passions can be. Sometimes people work ridiculous hours because they choose to do so. And so there is perpetuated the idea of the artist that cannot be tied to family, or community, or religious devotion, or any other obligation that distracts from their personal muse.

It’s an understandable conclusion. The natural assumption would be that minimizing certain aspects of one’s life in order to maximize others would result in more time for the things that matter most and greater advancements in them. Moderation in all things sounds far too limiting, a sure recipe for mediocrity in all things. Is it, though?

In reality this “focused” approach to life is nothing more a narrow approach to life. It only results in being less developed as a person, and, ironically, less developed creatively, too. For the sake of those creative passions, sometimes you really do need to take a break from those creative passions. Here are three reasons why that is the case.

1)  Experience

Write what you know. It’s advice we’ve all heard before and there’s some good reasons to heed it. On the surface level this means to draw from your actual experiences, to give your voice to the corner of life that you have inhabited. It means you shine a light that is informed and authoritative. When Herman Melville penned the experience of the Pequod in Moby Dick, there was an authenticity in his details that was only possible due to the years he had spent as a sailor and whaler. He not only captured the specifics of how a sailor would perform his chores, but also the specifics of what went on in the heart of the sailor during those very moments.

Even further, though, the advice is advising you to write about the truths and perspectives which you personally hold. Don’t write about some trendy cause if you don’t actually have passion for it. Don’t promote conclusions in your story that you, yourself don’t believe in. When audiences viewed Schindler’s List for the first time they were touched by the film’s deep earnestness, which in no small part was due to the fact that the subject matter clearly mattered to Steven Spielberg, given his personal history in the Jewish faith.

Write what you know, write what you feel, write what is true to you.

But how are you to write any of this unless you have been able to actually experience it? How can you convincingly write of heroes standing for what they believe in until you’ve gone out there and found a cause that is bigger than yourself? How can you speak of the power of love until you can say you would choose the happiness of another over your own? Going back to the example of Schindler’s List, Spielberg had the rights to the story a full 10 years before he began producing the film. Why? Because he didn’t feel “mature” enough to tackle the subject. He wanted to experience what it was like to have a family and find his place in the world.

Being grounded in the full breadth of life gives you a foundation from which truly sincere stories can be told. People want stories that speak to their heart, after all, and we find those in the ones that were spoken from the heart.

2) Breaking through the monotony

I remember writing my first little stories in my mid-teenage years. I churned out a fantasy adventure, then followed it up with another fantasy adventure, and topped it all off with a third fantasy adventure. Even when I wasn’t trying to write a sequel to a previous story, all my tales felt exactly the same.

It’s really not very surprising. At the time I was very much being influenced by the new Lord of the Rings films, as these had arrested my attention like nothing before. I knew I wanted to write about things that excited me, and there was very little else that did then.

Today I still think fantasy adventure is pretty exciting, and I still like to dabble in some of those original ideas I had. But I’m not limited to only that anymore. I’ve discovered a fascinating world of math and logic, and I’m excited by stories involving time travel, conundrums, and the systematic discovery of new theories. I’ve experienced very poignant emotions at home with my family, and I’m excited by stories that explore relationships, how they are built and how they break, and what constitutes a healthy one.

Even better, I can mix and match these various themes together for entirely new expressions. I could write about relationships among fantasy characters that travel through time. In fact, I did just that very thing and I loved it!

I trust my point here is clear. If you aren’t hunting for new life experiences then you aren’t going to be finding new wells of passion from which to draw, and your writing will run the risk of growing stale and repetitive. Next time you find yourself repeating the same tired paths in your stories, put down your pen, go outside, and walk a road you’ve never been down before.

3) Only as strong as your weakest link

Humans are complex beings with multiple fundamental needs. When it comes to our physical nature we know that each of those needs has to be met and kept in balance. We cannot give up on eating, and then compensate for that deficiency by drinking an excess of water. Though we may be wonderfully hydrated, we will still die.

Why would it be any different for our emotional, mental, or spiritual natures? Absolutely we have creative needs that we must make time for, but we cannot expect an overabundance in that category to compensate for starving our social needs. Any accomplishment in one area of life is only impressive insofar as it is not counterbalanced with a failure in another.

Celebrities provide the most public insight into individuals who strive to excel at some facet of their lives. It seems that a good portion of that pop culture is comprised of artists whose lives are falling apart due to dedicating too much of themselves to their singular craft. Fortunately, another good portion is also made up of stars whose lives are rebounding after they took a serious look inside, identified which parts were being left undernourished, and are now giving themselves the self-care they always needed.

When one part of us suffers, all parts of us suffer. If you give your craft 90% of yourself and your mental health only 10%, your work will not ultimately rise to the level of that 90, it will drop to the depth of that 10. Life is not a game where we can min/max our attributes and expect to come out ahead for having done so.

 

In conclusion, moderation in all things is not antiquated advice, it is not some myth that is obsolete in our world of speed and competition. It will always bear relevance to us, because our nature as humans remain the same, even though the world around us may change. That nature is such that we achieve our greatest capacities when we are balanced between all our various sectors of life. Moderation in all things is not mediocrity in all things, rather it is fulfillment in each. If you truly love your creative aspects, take a break from them to truly live your life to its fullest. You will be happier, fuller, and even more creative for it.

For my next short story I wish to focus on just one of the topics I referenced above, specifically that idea of taking inspiration from our real life experiences. At this point in time the seasons are rapidly changing where I live and my mind has been caught up with themes on the passage of time and generations, the death of one year and the birth of the next. I’m going to try and capture those sensations and write them into a short piece for Thursday. Come back then to see how it turns out.

Balancing Fantasy and Authenticity

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Humans are funny things. We’re just as capable of finding meaning in a wild flight of fancy as in a calm, lifelike drama. We can learn rudimentary life lessons from wizards and space pirates, and we can live out power fantasies through the “neighbors next door.”

It’s not as though fantasy and authenticity are an all-or-nothing affair, either. To some degree every story straddles a balance between the two. The most imaginative of all fantasies still requires something relatable to establish a common grounding, otherwise the reader will not be able to understand what is going on. Consider the following passage

The Collans repeatedly phased through the entire Baryth spectrum, giving rise to the deepest Gerru yet. It coalesced with the Hinter fields and the resulting Delawa washed over them all.

This is meaningless without any context. It’s perfectly fine for an author to make up characters and phrases, but if you’re going to reference a Baryth spectrum you first need to define it in terms that are grounded in my real world understanding.

On the other hand, even a narrative that strives to capture true-life characters and events must take some creative liberties to fill the gaps in our historical records. Otherwise it isn’t a story, it is just another one of those historical records, a mere timeline of occurrences. For example, when Napoleon was in exile on Elba there must have been a moment of decision that led to his triumphant return to France. We know the world events that likely influenced his decisions, but we do not know exactly which point it was that convinced him the time was right to return. Any narrative of this man’s rise then fall and rise then fall would likely feel compelled to capture this pivotal turn between the two halves of that trajectory. As such the narrative would need to fabricate some fitting scene for this moment, one that is at least true to the man if not the history books.

On Thursday I posted a story where I tried to give a very down-to-earth report on the fictional end of the world. I knew that I wanted to employ an understated style of narration and avoid any melodramatic statements, so that I could create an authentic atmosphere for this tale of mankind’s demise.

At a certain point, though, I had a narrative decision to make on where that commitment to authenticity ended. I had in mind a symmetry of astronomers and archaeologists discovering the signs of the world’s impending doom simultaneously from the heavens above and the earth below. These signs would be foretelling of events that would be pretty extreme, and in extremity comes all sorts of complications with authenticity. And so the decision I faced was between maintaining that narrative symmetry, or else trying to be more authentic to the principles of physics, astronomy, and geology.

Ultimately I decided to go with the narrative symmetry. I was already giving a fictional account and I didn’t take issue then with bending the natural laws to fit my purpose. I made that decision simply by examining what mattered to me as the author, what points were most important for me to convey, and then being true to those cores. Another author with different priorities would be perfectly justified in making the opposite decision. In fact, in other stories I, too, would make the opposite decision to favor the more authentic approach. Consider the following mostly true account of the real-life mathematician and logician Kurt Gödel.

Kurt Gödel was a contemporary of Albert Einstein, and even a good friend of his. Where Einstein shook the world with his advancements in physics, Gödel defined some of the greatest principles of mathematics and logic to this day. He discovered his love for these sciences in his youth, and completed a dissertation in that field when only 23 years of age. This dissertation, called the Incompleteness Theorem, turned the entire scientific world on its head when first published. One of the most intriguing applications of this work has to do with how it defines the limits of science. You see the Incompleteness Theorem proves that there are truths which are true, but which cannot be proven as such.

This proof does not dispute the fact that the natural holds universal truths and mathematical principles, but only establishes that not all of these can be discovered through the calculations of science. This discovery came at a time where mathematicians were beginning to boast that soon they would have answers to every question in the world. The Incompleteness Theorem proved that they would not.

Gödel not only provided the proofs in the papers he wrote, he also illustrated them tragically through his own life. Though he maintained an amazing genius and a strict regime of reason in his professional work, yet he held onto deep and irrational fears in his personal life. In June of 1936 a personal hero of his was assassinated by a former student, having been given tea laced with a fatal poison. The loss shook Gödel personally and deeply and germinated a paranoia in his young mind, specifically a fear of being poisoned himself.

Though Gödel maintained his composure well enough to lead an accomplished and fulfilling life, the fears persisted and grew as he advanced in years. By the time he reached 70 years he refused to take any food that was not prepared for him by his beloved wife, Adele. She remained his singular constant, the only one whom he dared to trust. When, in 1977, she was hospitalized, he ate nothing at all, shriveling away to a mere 65 pounds until at last he died. She soon followed him.

Gödel remains one of the greatest geniuses the world has ever known, seeing the facts and realities that others never could. Yet for it all there was an incompleteness to him, much as the one that he had defined for the science he loved. For in them both there were mysteries and shadows that defied all reason, questions that could find no answers.

As I said at the outset, this story is mostly true, there was only one point in this account which I fabricated. Gödel did, indeed, have a personal hero that was killed by a former student, and it was this event that sparked his deep paranoia. However that professor was not assassinated via poison, but rather shot with a common pistol. I do not know why a shooting resulted in Gödel fearing poison more than guns, but somehow it did. Changing the method of assassination gives the story a better symmetry, however in this case I would choose to err on the side of authenticity. The literary qualities are already remarkable as they are, there is foreshadowing and allegory, triumph and tragedy, character and plot. All these authentic elements I would argue should be allowed to shine more brightly by repressing the urge to fabricate any enhancements to them.

If in your own stories you find yourself testing that line between the fantastic and the authentic, I recommend you pause to take in your narrative side-by-side with your objectives. There isn’t a cut-and-dried answer as to where you should draw that line of authenticity, you simply have to weigh what principles are the most important to you in this tale and what is lost be being more imaginative versus more realistic. In the end all your story really needs to be true to is itself.

 

This Thursday I’ll be sharing a new short story that walks the line between what is real and what is imagined, and that within its own narrative. Our main character will be a psychologist helping a patient to tease the truth of actual events out from the truths of the heart. I hope to see you then.