Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Philosophy of StoryNoir

I have been a writer for a long time. It has been a great and happy occupation. It gives me solace and diversion in troubled times and in good times recreation and delight. I have written much, mostly from personal experience; I am a puzzler over experience. I get inspiration from the Internet and my computer too. My computer has eased the terrific burden of constant retyping, which has allowed me to edit a piece till I am vaguely content. Also, I have finally been able to make artistic decisions and stick to them. My characters appear, they explain themselves. I have learnt over the years some general understandings. Perhaps you will find them interesting.

Autobiographic writing is not my favorite. I dream of writing imaginative stories. I have tried for a long time to learn how to use the imagination. I didn’t want to let the imagination get extreme. Usually that’s what happens. As we all know, wildly imaginative writing can be popular. But even if you have art burning inside you, you shouldn’t need to suspend disbelief to the point that you wonder whether you must be cracking up! Why should I feel like a lunatic for reading a book and actually believing in it? Even worse, suppose I am writing the book? Truth interests me, and it is in my nature to be skeptical. But I don’t think anymore that truth, in the sense of experience, has much to do with the real world. Truth has more to do with the unreal world. When you are driving in traffic and an extra long stop light irritates you, the stoplight is engaging you in a truth of experience. But truths of experience (data) like stoplights come and go. Untruths flicker and vanish, they may be suitable to the occasion, but truths of experience may act similarly. The kind of experience that concerns me is stubborn and persistent. This experience has a quality of truth that finds a niche in the world and it persists, and damned if you are not stubbing your toe on it your whole life! That's what I mean by realism: not what comes and goes but rather the patterns that are incessantly THERE; and it seems like at times they're gonna drive you crazy, so you try to forget about them, ignoring them. So I try to stick to these truths of experience. The fact that although important, they are ignored or forgotten is, I think, worth puzzling over. I try to be realistic. I haven’t gone off into fantasy. The upshot is that if you go by this notion of stubborn facts the writing must be believable. You don't have to drive yourself crazy wondering why you have to suspend belief to such an extreme. But you still have to use your imagination to get there. Stubborn facts don't just present themselves; everybody has to search for them.

Now, I’m thinking of the word fair. It disturbs me that a fair-minded person in this world tends to sound like a radical, or like a person who has let his imagination get the better of him. You take a fair-minded person trying to explain why it is better to compromise with another person than kill him. Such people clear the air, but how has it come to be that they sound so weird? I used to be a nihilist and an anarchist. I still love the theory that least is best. If you want to improve something make it simpler. My youthful nihilism, which simplified everything it couldn’t end, eventually made it a little easier to believe because in reducing the number of blockhead pre-conceptions, it made my perception of the real world a little truer. (I hope!) So I try to convey that perception because it has been a struggle to learn to believe in it myself. The result is that I want to be fair to my characters and not kill them off when they slip up or don't seem useful anymore. They must persist if I am ever to reach truths that persist. I hope I am fair and balanced in how I judge them.

I don't mean to suggest that everything I write about actually happened. Something similar to it did happen to me personally, else I wouldn't be writing about it. But I’m only a soldier, a lover of the written word, not one of the brass. I'm not interested in the doings of the brass, what I’m interested in is the greater world, which exposes the darkness that surrounds the self. The fact that we can actually turn back darkness into light is what makes us human, and a little less than angels. What I have tried to write about are the mysteries that surround every one of us, to turn back that darkness a little. Well, a man can always dream. In my life I have been a terrible dreamer, and not much of a success. Any kind of light can be a long time dawning.

Another word, balance, has bothered me for a long time. Everybody thinks about Ulysses’ avoidance of extremes. Now suppose. You want to write a best seller. But you want to be loyal to your upbringing and your mother’s admonition about not lying, and true to the experience of the world you have gathered over a lifetime. So invoke balance. Stand there, let them take their shots. Maybe they’ll even take you seriously. In other words: show up! The guys who are out of balance will disappear. But you'll show up.

When I was a young fellow, I used to search all over, town and city, for stores that sold used paperback books for a nickel. There was always some crazy guy in there who’d give you a cardboard box, and pretty soon you were walking out with fifty or a hundred books, a big pile of them anyway, for ten bucks. My dream was that one day I’d find a book that had everything you could imagine in it. Not The Holy Bible, which, of course, is okay for starters—I spent days loitering over it—, but a for real scuzzy paperback that had everything in it, and no bullshit. Then I’d screw around with it and keep it in my back pocket. Leaves of Grass, plenty of good reading there, I used to tell myself, better get started, time is wasting; and other books passed the time. Now I'm dreaming that one day I'll write that big book with everything in it and no bullshit. It will explain everything I know about noir and storynoir.

But that's energy and enthusiasm. There is nothing I'd rather do than sit in front of my computer and write. For me the undocumented life is not worth living. The simple object is to write a best seller, but the complicated object is to get read. How do you do that? Sex, violence (guns and war always help), and love and family. If you can convincingly write about kids, that’s a good thing. A few writers have been lucky that they can write about kids. Something for the head, something for the heart. If anybody can explain to me how you get read, I'll listen to everybody.

Some other items (not in order of importance) I am pretty sure about:

— I’m usually not interested in anything that doesn’t have some sort of climax somewhere close to the end.

— Almost everything I try to read is about a third too long, even Holy Ye Christmas! books. The popular taste is inured to it; it’s another opportunity to speed read and accomplish something. Think again.

— If I don’t know the story by personal experience, I’m not interested in writing it. But I hate journalism and my stories are anything but memoirs.

— I don’t know what imagination is. I think it’s something you’re born with. If you are a person born with it, maybe you could explain it to me.

— I like to dump my subject matter into the road and drive over it about a thousand times with a ¾-ton pick up. To leave it fluffed up is a sin. Once it's flattened then you load it. You don’t want to drive away with less than a full load. It is something that has always bothered me. Too long, too much stuff. Either you understand this or you don’t. I don’t have any words for what I am trying to get at from my love of brevity. Not minimalism. That is a professor’s word, and I don’t even know what it means. The deep wisdom silence spins off. There are people who think I am not brief at all.

— I like the illusion of spontaneity. Who invented the words “flash fiction”? Is that supposed to leave the impression of an insult like teenybopper used to? But I like it and crave to obtain an effect that is immediate, that “flashes” at you. And best of all: the work is all figured out when you finally write it down as if on an impulse. Then you don't have to spend the best part of a lifetime worrying it to death (and ruining it).

— This all goes hand in hand with the classical drill that inculcates clarity. Clarity sure helps. It is hard work, though, and good luck to the player. You have good days and bad days. On a bad day you can't get the mud out of the writing because you don't even know it's there.

— One thing I’m pretty sure of, I have noticed that a time comes for everything. I owned a paperback copy of Isaac Babel’s stories for almost twenty years before the cobwebs cleared and I could finally see in them a philosophy of storytelling that I could build on. Take John Milton! What a struggle I had with him! How could I ever read that? I must be dumb. No sense going to school any more. Eventually the time came. I like to read, and I’d read a lot more than I do if I didn’t love to write so much.

— The big objective: avoid journalism. A man does not avoid a rat carrying the plague like I avoid journalism. In my younger days we used to sit around wondering why we didn’t want to write journalism. Some of us eventually did. And there was a scholar among us, too. But to this day I’ve never sinned that way. Journalists are all dickweeds, though some of the ladies are cute.

— I don’t set myself up as anybody’s conscience. I am not a doctor, so I can’t tell you what happens in the ER. I can’t write a glossy detective story either. Criticize another writer? Don't be ridiculous. But write a potboiler? Maybe. I have ideas. I don’t intend to mirror my age, wouldn’t know how to even if I wanted to. I’m a guy who loves to write. I’ve been doing it all my life on the back of cereal boxes, on file cards, little notebooks, big notebooks and now on my computers. In college I cut an amusing figure. People shook their heads in bewilderment and smiled: I didn't look smart enough to put one foot in front of the other! Still it can’t be that of all the millions of words I have written nothing of it can be any good, can it? Given the even possibility of happy accident.

— Face it, the object is to finish the work, and like it enough to believe somebody ought to read it.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Internet Shock

What is on the internet? I have noticed it seems easier to find out stuff than it used to be. It is a striking difference over one lifetime, although I wonder what is the meaning and importance of this stuff that has become so much more available.

The modern internet, which started modestly only fifteen or so years ago, has become an immensity of data that lots of people insist is information, meaning they claim for it a certain definite credibility. Maybe they are vaguely skeptical, which is natural and normal, what they were taught by their parents in childhood, but they insist that most of it has truth value. That’s why the idea comes to mind that this stuff is information.

There is an awful pile of it; what are we to do with it all?

A bearish old man is crossing our neighborhood. He is ragged and acting kind of funny, up and down, herky-jerky, and it sounds like he is calling for his lost dog. It can get depressing; he won’t go away, and yet he is out there acting funny. Suppose he really is looking for something? You would prefer not to get involved. But what does he mean by hanging around? You would rather shut him off; but he won’t shut off. What springs up naturally is close to fascination. The skepticism kicks in. But suppose all this data spinning in and bearishly crossing our neighborhood is not quite real, in fact it is just static, electrical interference? and you can’t shut it off? Or even worse, suppose some of it is static and some of it is information, important information, in fact, with a definite truth value? Suppose it is fluttering in the air: a handsome young man shot in the head point blank on the streets of Cairo in real time.

When I remember the neat, correctly and expertly written articles in the Encyclopedia Britannica and compare them with the evolving and often confusing entries in Wikipedia, which did not exist till a few years ago, I feel that something has changed. I can still get the Britannica article (though not free) but the Wikipedia article is built in and it must be sufficient for my purposes, though perhaps mildly skewed, mustn’t it? So the notion behind my research is superficial, and I may not even be aware of it. Wikipedia data is easy to get and it is right there right now.

But there is more to this story: the situation deepens. The information is close enough in accuracy, and besides it never shuts off. Aren’t we so very little people with all this data surrounding us that we are ignorant of? What are we supposed to pay attention to? A sense of frustration, even shock must come over us. Our bearish, ragged stranger calling for his dog demands that we wonder what is important. What of this information is important? Is his dog the one who will bite me? The true object in the idea of self-education, which is what you do after you get out of school, is to learn to think for yourself. If the information is written in such a way that it is not understandable or is faulty even in little ways, if you haven’t managed to teach yourself how to think about it—most people never do—then it is useless. It is fallacy, illusion.

What is new about the sense of frustration at the besieging confusion of data? Ptolemy kept about him a few wise men, and their numerous sayings must have been at times confusing. The speed of change is one wonder. What, if anything, is being improved? But that’s the eternal question. Time is relative. Ptolemy’s rush of affairs may have troubled him as much as ours troubles us.

It is not normal for human beings to concentrate upon any one thing at length. History chronically complains about short attention span. A new war fought over the same ground every generation is the usual thing. It is normal to be hardened toward human mortality. Though information abounds, it is in the air, soon it is going to be in a corner of our eyeglasses, what has become different?

My personal interest in the Internet has to do with the simple and uneventful way that it seems to flow on. It flows on inside out; and without telling you, when you get the hang of it, events start happening. And it is fun to be gadget conscious. The question is where does it get you in the real world? A new war flies by, numerous the dead, with rumors aplenty but little honest recognition, debate airy, brief. Laws are now on the books whose aim is to prevent people from killing themselves texting while driving! Parents struggle with their children to eat and exercise rather than melt away like little wizards in front of a video monitor. Who am I to chastise them, when I, an old man, am apt to do similarly? It seems to me I have heard rumors of a headachy kid glued to a book.

Freedom, human equality remain spotty. The rich continue to run truth and justice; the poor have no say in anything, though they are not slaves any more. (Come to think of it, isn't that different in the last 4,000 years?) But it’s hard to get away with specific acts of despotism any more. Intellectuals continue to admire despots secretly, for they are capable of action. But little changes have evolved. Bad things tend to happen in secret, and unless you have been drunk all the time or you have smoked too much pot or you are just naturally dim perhaps you have noticed that secrets even about small things are hard to keep. But once the secrets get to the people, they remain ignorant. Experience is labelled as obvious and eschewed even via outright lying. The imagination runs rampant; the mass media, whether the New York Times or NBC are no less ripe with illusion than was the daily news in the kingdoms of ancient Greece. Sources remain unnamed; rumor rules all. One must study hard to approach the truth, and modern scholars are often not willing to be helpful.

What of all this welter is important? I don’t think there is any way to figure it out, but you know it when you see it. Test now for one second if this can be made understandable: an ancient Egyptian people runs about in a window in the corner of my video contesting with each other to the death over an idea, a dream.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Philosophy and Mr Miller

As long as I have lived in the foothills of western Maine, I never learned anything about Mr Miller. That is similar to a grown man who does not own a one-half inch ratchet. It means that either you haven't fixed anything or the machines you own are indestructible. Another example: if you don't wear long johns this time of year in Maine, you don't go outdoors much or you are a flaming radical. Same thing: if you live in a trailer in Maine, and you don't know Mr Miller, you are either lucky, rich enough to pay the repairman, or you are freezing to death. Though not rich, for a long time I was lucky, then suddenly I was not so lucky.

This winter started so mildly that the oil delivery for my heater didn't come till late in the fall. An occasional fire in the wood stove kept the faith. I had plenty of firewood. My wife said, "He only delivers kerosene to outside tanks." "We'll get half-and-half," I said. That means half kerosene and half no2 fuel oil. My mistake was not listening to either my wife or the oil delivery man.

Everybody I know burns wood. I burn wood most of the time. Trouble is, the temps go down below zero and Mr Miller, our furnace, comes in handy. It is a hard job keeping a house, any house, warm with a woodstove when the temp has dropped below zero. If Mr Miller won't work when you need him, then you might want to think about fixing him. When you burn firewood, you don't need Mr Miller till you really need Mr Miller.

Finally, the big day came when the fuel truck drove into the dooryard. I said, "I want half-and-half." "You sure you want half-and-half?" Said the delivery man. I thought he was just trying to sell more kerosene. Kerosene is almost a dollar more than no2 fuel oil. Then he said, shrugging, "Okay." Meaning, you asked for it. It didn't take me but a couple of days to learn that no2, which when mixed with kerosene used to flow to -40f, now gels at 32f no matter what it is mixed with. Now why would they want to sell shit like that in the happy northwestern backwoods, up Maine? First cold day, Mr Miller stopped and refused to start again.

They tell you to bleed the fuel line. But suppose something is wrong with the pump? When the fuel line is bleeding, the fuel should pour out the bleeder tube. I use a clear plastic tube to see whether or not there are bubbles. It may take awhile to free up the line, but a big glob should squirt through the plastic tube and into the collection bottle. It should be a light brown, and then it should flow in a steady stream. When you have it near right, if nothing else is wrong, Mr Miller will start up.

Mr Miller takes a surprising amount of fuel; the nozzle on mine runs at a gallon an hour. So when I bleed, and a dribble is coming out, something is blocking the fuel line. Time for the compressor, another tool I couldn't imagine a jump-suited rustic living without. The wife may not be too happy about revving up an air compressor in the living room. Mine is loud, but it uses house current. Rev it up to 110 pounds per square inch. Disconnect the fuel hose at the pump and the tank outside; insert the compressed air nozzle in the end of the pipe INSIDE the house—don't squirt heating fuel in the house, it stinks awful, takes forever to go away—push the nozzle firmly inside the pipe, and pull the trigger. May need two hits or more to clear the line. Once empty before you reconnect outside, open the valve under the tank to make sure the fuel is healthily flowing out of the tank. If no healthy flow, some people use a block heater on the tank. Or they wait till spring. You have a problem. If you do get plenty of fuel pouring out of the tank into your collection pot, reconnected the fuel line to pump and tank and bleed. Fuel should pour out. And Mr Miller should get enough fuel to start even when bleeding.

But in my case Mr Miller still would not start. This is when repair work reminds me of philosophy. There is to it basic logic. the concept of if...then comes up. Isn't that philosophy? Every time I do repair work, that question prods me. "Humm, sounds like philosophy," I think. There is to fixing something a certain fascination. It is not similar to the delight one gets in a picture or a poem or a story. Our broken something should work but does not. There is nothing delightful about that, especially when the something puts heat in the house on a below zero morning. Both ends of the if...then equation are pragmatic, concrete. But they still require thought. What does that mean? It means that if there is no blockage of fuel up to the pump which must be pumping if any fuel is moving at all, then the blockage of fuel must be somewhere on the other side of the pump before it sprays into the combustion chamber. In order to run, the furnace needs two things: fire and fuel. If we have already tested for fire—the test for fire is as simple as the test for fuel—then the fuel line must be plugged up somewhere else. The only other place that the fuel line could be plugged up is at the nozzle. So I removed the nozzle assembly and unscrewed the nozzle and sure enough a sandy, coarse film spewed out. Once I replaced the nozzle, which cost $10 at the hardware store in town, and set up the gun with electrodes in the proper position, and I ran the fuel, the heater started. A bottle of HOT! heating oil treatment poured into the tank helps. I guess it works; so far it has seemed to. Trickery by modern chemistry.

My house is properly heat efficient for an old trailer. Today has been below zero all day, and wind driven snow crosses my window sideways. It is the sort of day an old man stays inside without wondering what he is missing outside, and a pile of good books lies handy nearby. Mr Miller lopes along like an experienced war horse, starting and stopping in casual rhythm. Now Mr Miller is acting decent, my marriage, which had been fussy, has calmed down. Philosophy did it, that old if...then thing I was telling you about. That's what did it. Mr Miller only happened to be around.
Last modified: Sat Feb 7 15:00:45 EST 2015