Speculation

Speculation. Why do we speculate? Why do we wonder?

There was a time and place in history when it was believed the sun was a fiery chariot. If the chariot was driven too close to the earth, the earth would be scorched by the flames and be barren. Alternately, if the horses of the sun chariot pulled too hard on the reins and veered off course, the earth would be plunged into frozen desperation. It took a god to drive the chariot along the middle path of the heavens.

But, the stars are not made of fire. Fire is an oxidation process, a chemical process. Three elements are needed for fire to happen: oxygen, heat and fuel. Without one of these ingredients a fire cannot start or continue.

Stars are massive, luminous balls of plasma held together by their own gravity. For most of its life, a star shines due to thermonuclear fusion in its core which releases energy that traverses the star’s interior and then radiates into outer space.

Almost all elements heavier than hydrogen and helium were created by fusion processes in stars. Which means the stuff we are made of originated in the stars. But it took several millennia of questioning thought, testing, and speculation to come to this hypothesis.

We are a species of scientists and artists. We are dreamers. We speculate, imagine, brain storm, play, experiment, and problem solve. We are constantly curious and questing. We are constantly seeking the truth, but the truth is a slippery chameleon that changes with the environment. As new understandings arise they change the complexion of the truth. We must be ever curious and questing. We must be looking for the universal truth that will touch souls now and in the future. We must search out the theory that will revolutionize thought and move humanity’s collective understanding forward. We must remember once upon a time the sun was a fiery chariot and we still have not successfully managed to replicate the cold fusion of the stars.

The interests of this blog, my diary, lie in what is, what could be, what will never be except in the imagination, and what might be if the frame of reference is shifted a wee bit. I like to explore ways to nudge the point of view, the reference. I enjoy devious questions. Like, why? And, what if?

I will post my thoughts on writing, creating artwork, developing a creative habit, techniques to develop creativity, interesting information that I encounter in my wayfaring travels over the landscape of the internet, my adventures in trying to make money doing creative endeavors, and whatever else strikes my fancy because far flung ideas, images, and information combined together can lead to innovation.

 

 

Flow

Flow is a concept that was first conceived of by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. It is the mental state of operation in which a person in an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity. It is characterized by single-minded immersion in an activity. It has been suggested that perhaps flow is the ultimate in harnessing the emotions in the service of performing and learning. Sometimes when people are referring to “flow” they call it being in the moment, present, in the zone, wired in, in the groove, or keeping your head in the game. Flow is an amazing experience. It is feeling spontaneous joy. Almost rapture. It is being effortlessly in such a focused and yet relaxed state that nothing else matters. Not even one’s self or emotions.

I have experienced flow. Not for many years. I am hoping that I will experience it again. I can remember being in the flow state while painting and being so focused on discovering new colours and new ways that the colours could be combined to work with one another that I lost track of time and over 12 hours passed. Another time I was dancing under the stars in a courtyard and reggae was playing. I closed my eyes and focused on the music hitting my breast bone and let go to synchronize my small movements in my body to the tempo of the music. I was pulled out of flow by a friend who commented that I appeared to be in a state of rapture. I can remember being in flow while drawing, writing, doing watercolours, and making collage. Sometimes reading, studying, and pursuing knowledge will do this as well. There is a lightening that happens with flow.

Ten Factors accompany the experience of flow according to Csikszentmihalyi. They are as follows:
1. Clear goals (expectations and rules are discernible and goals are attainable and align appropriately with one’s skill set and abilities). Moreover, the challenge level and skill level should both be high.
2. Concentrating, a high degree of concentration on a limited field of attention (a person engaged in the activity will have the opportunity to focus and to delve deeply into it).
3. A loss of the feeling of self-consciousness, the merging of action and awareness.
4. Distorted sense of time, one’s subjective experience of time is altered.
5. Direct and immediate feedback (successes and failures in the course of the activity are apparent, so that behavior can be adjusted as needed).
6. Balance between ability level and challenge (the activity is neither too easy nor too difficult).
7. A sense of personal control over the situation or activity.
8. The activity is intrinsically rewarding, so there is an effortlessness of action.
9. A lack of awareness of bodily needs (to the extent that one can reach a point of great hunger or fatigue without realizing it)
10. Absorption into the activity, narrowing of the focus of awareness down to the activity itself, action and awareness merging.

The things that will prevent flow from happening are things like depression, stress, and anxiety. Csíkszentmihályi hypothesized that people with several very specific personality traits may be better able to achieve flow than the average person. These personality traits include curiosity, persistence, low self-centeredness, and a high rate of performing activities for intrinsic reasons only. People with most of these personality traits are said to have an autotelic personality. One cannot force a flow experience to happen but there are three conditions that are necessary to achieve the flow state:
1. One must be involved in an activity with a clear set of goals. This adds direction and structure to the task.
2. One must have a good balance between the perceived challenges of the task at hand and his or her own perceived skills. One must have confidence that he or she is capable to do the task at hand.
3. The task at hand must have clear and immediate feedback. This helps the person negotiate any changing demands and allows him or her to adjust his or her performance to maintain the flow state.

Flow can enhance learning, performing musically or in other arts, creating art, hacking, writing code, writing, doing science, or in athletic performance. Group flow where an entire group of people pulls together to create flow in a kind of brainstorming session is possible. Csikszentmihalyi has proposed that it might be possible to create playgrounds to elicit the flow phenomena more frequently and Montessori education has been studied and found to allow children to experience flow more frequently.

Flow is akin to spiritual states described in such world religions as Buddhism, HInduism, and Taoism. Flow is an innately positive experience. It is a feeling of bliss. It is also a positive force because it allows for optimal performance and skill development.
Flow has been documented and shown to correlate with performance enhancement. Researchers have found that achieving a flow state is positively correlated with optimal performance in the fields of artistic and scientific creativity. Flow also encourages the further development of skills and personal growth. When one is in a flow state, one is working to master the activity at hand. To maintain that flow state, one must seek increasingly greater challenges. Attempting these new, difficult challenges stretches one’s skills and creates greater confidence. It becomes an upward cycle where the skills are expanded, performance improved, there is greater confidence, and greater willingness to attempt more difficult challenges and strive for more. It is self rewarding.

Thoughts from Researching Lisa See

I was reading yesterday about the author Lisa See and her various writings and this spawned some different thoughts.

First, her autobiographical book about her family is entitled On Gold Mountain and it is the story of her family coming to the United States and settling in California. As I was reading about this book, I read something in an interview with Lisa See where she commented on that the book that people remember about World War II is the diary of Anne Frank. This is a book written from a very intimate perspective from the experiences of one girl as she is in hiding. Lisa See said something about how this kind of intimate view can sometimes illustrate a story more than the grand perspective.

So this inspired me to think about the intimate story versus the grand view. I was wondering about what kind of science fiction or fantasy stories could be told in the intimate view and what commentary on the current time, past time, or future might be made depending on the stories and the themes. What about an intimate novel told from the perspective of a girl who is a “slip-gene” daughter trying to escape oppression and war in a series of star systems and has been detained for questioning on a Federation space station for six months? What about the story of two brothers who have been captured in a raid on their planet and are being transported to become slaves? What about the story of a street girl who sells processing time that utilizes her brain and does brain damage but the processing time has benefits/minuses to be compared with her real time life?

I am still thinking about what kinds of things are possible and what stories might come from an intimate telling.

Secondly, I read about the background for Lisa See’s novel entitled Peony in Love. The book utilizes a classical Chinese opera called The Peony Pavilion that was first introduced in the late sixteenth century. It was very popular. It also spawned a phenomena whereby lovesick maidens wasted away. The opera is about a character named Liniang who sees her true love in a dream and wastes away and is then brought back to life by the love. Educated and isolated young women from the upper classes of China would see this opera and then waste away and die in hopes of having some control over their lives. These women had little control and were married to men they would never see prior to their marriages. The hope in starving was that they would get some choice in who they would marry. The opera also inspired another book that was written by the three wives in sequence of one man that was called The Three Wives’ Commentary. It was a piece about The Peony Pavilion and it was written by women. Lisa See wanted people to know about this book and other writings that were published in China by women– thousands of pieces of poetry, literature, and commentary were written by women and published in China at a time when little was written and published by women anywhere else in the world.

I had several thoughts that were inspired by learning all of this. One was about the circumstances around The Peony Pavilion and how this particular opera touched the souls of so many women and inspired a type of fantastical hope that caused their demise. The opera had a type of power because it was relevant in an incredibly meaningful way at that time and place. I am still thinking on what would be something that would touch so many in such a powerful way (and hopefully not so destructive a way) now in our time and place.

I was also just thinking about how the facts of things are sometimes obscured. For instance, I did not know that there were thousands of women writing and publishing in China in the seventeenth century. I know now and I will go looking for translations of some of their writings. The slippery representation of history via perspectives from the present is nothing new.

I was also thinking about the way that Lisa See wrote the character of Peony in Peony in love. Peony is a “hungry ghost” through much of the novel and a great deal about Chinese ritual, customs, and metaphysics comes through. This got me thinking in some different directions and I may need to email a friend or two to brainstorm with me.

Thoughts Released Like Birds

I have too many ideas fluttering through my mind all at the same time and they are playing tug of war with my attention to establish which one will receive the prize of my concentration. Currently none of them are winning so this post may be a little scattered. I am going to release them all in a flock.

Poetry
I awoke this morning with lines of poetry flitting like sparrows at the edges of my dreams. Must deal with the poetry. I wrote a few yesterday that did not greatly impress me, but the poetry nags at me sometimes until I work on it. Poetry can be worse than a spouse and much harder to clean up after.

Art
I was thinking on art last night and decided that I like the idea of art in the here and now. Something that takes on value for the uniqueness of being placed in a particular context and at a particular time. If I draw a chalk drawing on the sidewalk, it has a certain interactive life that a museum masterpiece will never have. It is by its nature temporally situated. Not timeless. Because even as a memory it will change and fade. It can only be actively encountered by someone who takes the time to observe it and remember it and maybe photograph it. It has to be experienced in some ways. If it rains, the art changes. If it is smudged by foot traffic, it is a new piece. If it is vandalized, it has been co-opted or enhanced. It becomes potentially a dialogue in any of these situations as opposed to being static communication. Further, does it change the sense of geography? I am not sure.

Culture
Is culture a function of geography or mind? I live on the North American continent and consider American culture part of Western culture as opposed to Eastern culture. But American culture is certainly not European culture and American culture is certainly not remotely like any of the tribal cultures of the native people that occupied this continent prior to the invasion of people from Europe. So what defines culture and where is it derived from? How long does it take for a distinct culture to arise in a geographic location?

New Orleans and New York have distinct personas and a sense of unique cultures. Writing from the American South has a unique regional flavor so to speak. The Midwest of America is really only unique as a region in its sense of blandness. So is this Midwestern culture? Recently I was reading about Theodore Roethke who grew up in Michigan and how his poetry has a definite sense of nature about it. Michigan, outside of Southeastern Michigan, is very rural. Would writing that comes from Michigan then have a rural, natural aesthetic? Or a gritty urban feel because of the factory culture and the automotive industry? What defines and creates culture?

Over the weekend I was in a discussion about cultural appropriation. It occurred to me this morning that as an American I am not sure that I can do anything but appropriate other cultures. The US is such an infusion of different cultures I think it is unavoidable. I live in Ann Arbor. We have a huge international community in Ann Arbor. There are several Asian and Middle Eastern grocery stores. We have Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, Christians, and every conceivable religion in our small Midwestern town. I have met people from every continent on the planet in Ann Arbor and heard many different languages. I don’t know that I could describe succinctly the “culture” of Ann Arbor. Which part of Ann Arbor? Which subgroup?

I came to the conclusion over the weekend that for the purposes of writing fiction, I am nervous about the idea of cultural appropriation with the intent of creating a certain flavor in the fiction. I still feel this. I think if an author is creating a piece with a certain theme or intent and pulling a trope from the folklore of a culture it needs to be well thought out, respectful, and done in a quality way to preserve cultural meaning or expand meaning. Creating something that is shoddy is derogatory to the culture of origin and does damage. A superficial treatment of cultural elements does not introduce that culture to a wider audience or broadened anyone’s understanding, it creates misunderstanding. It also could lead to a type of overexposure and non-caring dismissal of the trope. As in the case of vampires.

Time Machine

Imagine yourself transported back in time two hundred years to the year 1809. In 1809 Robert Fulton patented the steamboat. Napoleon Bonaparte ruled France. The Industrial Revolution was beginning. People were immigrating from the British Isles and Europe to the United States. Gaslight was first used in Pall Mall in London two years prior. Only wealthy people had flushing lavatories. Edgar Allen Poe was born. The steam driven printing press had not yet come into being.

Do you think a person from two hundred years ago could imagine our world?

Last night I was up late reading stories over the internet and a post from a friend in southeastern India came into my inbox. I posted back that it was midnight where I was and asked him what time it was where he was. He answered that it was a hot and humid day and there a breeze coming off the ocean.

How long would it have taken a letter to travel around the world two hundred years ago?

This week I am traveling across country. I will travel approximately 1400 miles in a span of hours.

How long did it take for the first ocean going steamer to cross the Atlantic?

Think of all the medical technologies available to us. Cholera killed thousands in the nineteenth century.

Think of all the information available to me, an educated woman, over the internet. In the early nineteenth century, only a small percentage of the population was considered wealthy or middle class and a woman would have probably been uneducated and worked either as a servant, prostitute, street seller, or in horrific conditions requiring hard labor.

Travel forward in time now. What do you see two hundred years in the future?

Colors

Colors make my soul sing!

I took the afternoon today to bake sugar cookies and make cards. I love to play– just play with art materials. I collect all sorts of papers and markers and just stuff in a kind of magpie fashion. About two times a year I go to the hardware store and I just collect all the little paint sample cards so that I can bring them home and make collages. I have a whole drawer of them at home. I also like to change the colors on the walls and play with the colors in my environment.

Today as I made cards, I played with bright green, deep purple, orange, red, vibrant blue, black, and yellow cardstock. I looked over some of my paint card samples and was amused at the names– things like “Serious Violet”. This makes me smile because I have never considered violets to be particularly serious. They have always impressed me as being a little frilly around the edges and the sort that you invite over for tea to get them to come out their shell. I asked my friend Deforest about the name Violet and if he thought Violets were serious and he said that the name reminded him of Shrinking Violet of the Legion of Superheroes. Violet reminded Zach and Kelly, who are over as well, of violence and vampires. So maybe violet is serious.

This got me thinking about other color names and I polled the folks at my house for their ideas. Here’s the list:

Magenta

Magenta reminds me of a Latin dance with dramatic posturing and much down clicking of heels. Deforest thought of the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Zach thought of the printing colors.

Azure

Azure made me think that it sounded like the name of a god worshipped on a far off planet where the alien humanoids live on atolls and islands surrounded by calm seas. Zach thought of dragons– green skinned, wise, and powerful. David thought of blue skies and fighter planes flying in formation.

Indigo

For me, Indigo is a leather skinned caravan leader with kohl rimmed eyes who pulls his scarf over his face to block out the sand from his mouth and nose. Deforest and David thought of The Princess Bride and Inigo Montoya. Alex thought of the Indigo Plateau in Pokemon.

Ochre

For me, Ochre brought up images of thin muscular men with dried mud grey upon their skin and sculpted hair dancing with unfocused eyes about a raging fire. My second association was a yucky slimy vegetable, which free associated into gigantic tanks. Gigantic tanks being ogres and ogres being like onions (think Shrek). Yes, definitely free association night at my house.

Rose

For me, Rose is the name of a tragic heroine from a romance novel and I can picture a lovely young man falling to his knees, covering his face with his hands, and crying out for his beloved Rose who has left him because she thought that he no longer cared. David and Deforest thought of Dr. Who. Kelly thought of Snowwhite. David added that Rose was Dr. Occult’s assistant.

Scarlet

For me, Scarlet is a long legged femme fatale who sways seductively on impossibly high heels while keeping the seam on the back of her stockings a perfect line to follow over the curves of her shapely calves. She throws a smoldering look over her wide shoulders and puckers full lips in an invitation, before walking out of the office of a hard nosed private dick who is left with his cigarette dangling ineffectively from his slack mouth. Deforest thought of the Scarlett Letter. Zach thought of Scarlett Johansson. Kelly thought of scarlet fever. David thought of Scarlett O’Hara and Gone With the Wind.

Viridian

For me, Viridian is a pale villain in a well cut, black frock coat. His green eyes twinkle with intelligence and mischief as he twists his thin, waxed mustache.

Cerulean

Cerulean is a virgin priestess with a serene demeanor who protects the sisters of her order by stepping forward and confronting the barbarian warrior who has defiled their temple and taken the women as slaves.

Chartreuse

Chartreuse reminds me of a card playing gambler who smiles too widely, laughs too loudly, and is prone to violence when discovered cheating in a round of seven card stud.

I could go on dreaming of tangerine, teal, vermillion (Viridian’s sister no doubt but I haven’t decided if she is virtuous or a siren), Ebony ( a black goddess who rules with a solid sense of justice and a divine sense of beauty), bone ( a starved addict who watches with too large eyes), lavender, turquoise, bronze, ecru, periwinkle— all the beautiful colors!

Random Magic

I went for a very long walk this morning.  I left in the cold, dark silence and as I walked the sun spilled yellow light in a golden haze over the grey clouds.  Early in the morning there is a hush that lingers in the air like a soft blanket.  You can wrap yourself in its stillness. As the washed out colors of night began to take on vividness with the dawn, small dark birds came to life and twittered in the trees.  I have heard the coyotes sing at dawn. Today I saw tracks in the softening earth.

While I was walking I was thinking about magic.  Last fall I began writing a series of poems about spells and magic.  I am still working on these.  Last November, I asked a smattering of friends why they thought people would do magic.

One friend said that he thought that fun was a good reason.  As in kids experimenting and it was fun. Like “Look, I can turn my hair green.  Now purple.”

Most people thought that wizards, mages, witches and those others who might practice magic would do it to have extraordinary power and/or for wish fulfillment.  Love spells are about having power over another person to force them to love the caster.  Seems to me that it kind of defeats the purpose.  Or spells to pull in great wealth.  The fantasy of great wealth is the ultimate panacea because supposedly with great wealth the person will get the beautiful women, luxury items, comfort, and happiness.  Power is just power.  Power to do anything and control all circumstance.

Magic is kind of the ultimate get out of jail free card, uber inter-dimensional free bus pass, bag of magical holding— i.e. whatever you want it to be.

Which leads me to my next thought.  In fantasy literature very often the magic appears very similar. Why?  It could be anything.  It’s magic.  It is a fantasy.  It could be done and conceived of in any way that the author imagines.  Too often it reads like neo-pagan literature.  Why? Who says that it has to follow the prescriptions of any particular religion?  As fantasy authors we can make up whatever we want.  There is no authority over my imagination.

Which leads to another thought.  For me, the magic in fantasy stories has to be tightly conceived, have relevance to the story, and not be a mere plot device to rescue the author from some unsolvable situation in which they have stuck their characters.  In the magical realities of a fantasy realm the magic has to be part of the reality and something that the characters could live with.  If the magic is not conceived of tightly enough or appears too random, it would be a very chaotic place.  The society of the characters would not be able to survive if the magic was some hideously random thing that could pop up and do whatever strange thing just happened to occur to the author.  It would be a lawless place because how do you create society and order when you have the ultimate and random power of an undifferentiated magic?

Anyway, just thoughts.  Probably have more later.

Villains: What is the nature of evil?

Stories are spun from elastic band-like tension. Conflict is the axis upon which a story revolves. The conflict may be internal — one of ideas, conflicting responsibilities, or emotions. The conflict also may be external. At this point in our history, it appears as though literary form requires depth to our conflicts. There is no such thing in modern literature as pure evil.

Consider that our comic book heroes and their nemesis have all acquired complex characters and bad guys no longer simply do things because they are evil. Villains have to have tortured pasts that give rise to unique obsessions and the desire to inflict harm. Even in our everyday reality, serial killers no longer are simply an evil walking the streets. They are former abused children whose sense of humanity has been severed and hence they take a gruesome pleasure in killing and inflicting harm.

Recently, as in last summer, I reread Paradise Lost. Despite the difficulty of the text, it is by far one of the most glorious pieces of literature ever written. And the passage where Lucifer rallies his forces in hell is stunningly beautiful. Lucifer is seductive. His words are a flow of sensuous poetry.

Evil has to have an allure. Or it has to have some complexity. Or it simply isn’t believable because it is lacking real power. Perhaps, in a different age when the audience for written works was more trusting and wanted to believe and be swept away by the adventures of written stories, evil could be without depth. However, now it has to have more life than that depicted by wide brushstrokes and the designation of villain.

This leads me to thoughts of what really constitutes evil. I do think evil walks the streets. But it is not a personification. It is choice. The choice of those who would choose to do harm.

I do not think carelessness is evil. Selfishness can be depending on the circumstance. Thoughtlessness is also grey.

Is a person who robs automatically evil? No. It’s complex.

Is a person who hits another automatically evil? Not necessarily. Again, it could be complex.

In addition to the the choice of the person committing evil there is also the evaluation of others and the context of the situation.

What to your mind makes something evil? How would you construct an “evil” character?

Poemicide

Earlier today I had an idea for a poem.

Ideas. Ideas are slippery things.

Poems. Poems are like dust that you can see on your hands and then gets blown away in the wind. Or like fragile dandelion fluff.

Slippery and easily blown away. I think that kind of describes the ideas for poems quite well.

So right now before I get to the point where I am overtired, bleary eyed, and making random rhyme schemes via my overly enthusiastic interest at odd moments in my rhyming dictionary and the way certain phoneme groups roll around in my mouth, I am attempting to resurrect the ghost of the idea that I had earlier for a poem.

It sprang to mind somewhere between my fourth and fifth travel mug of coffee today. I may have to meditate on that part of the day.

I also have been thinking on a poem I wrote a couple months ago. It had a slight magic quality to it that when I rewrote it…. Well, let’s just say that I killed it. Poemicide.

Maybe I will attempt to resurrect it from its obscure literary graveyard. Hmm, I wonder what incantations I should say and what ancient gods of poetry I should invoke.

I think I need to start musing on my own process for writing poetry and become more self aware in regards to where my own ideas come from.

Hero of One’s Own Story

Hero of One’s Own Story

I once heard an interview on NPR in which the woman who was being interviewed had been held hostage in Afghanistan. She talked about dignity as your sense of self. Dignity as meaning a person did not want to do anything they might look back on and think to themselves that they had embarrassed themselves. Or that they had acted in a way their children would find embarrassing. Everyone is a Hero of One’s Own Story.

This thought is sticking with me this morning. A friend once told me everyone is the hero of their own story and that when writing characters for fiction a person should keep this in mind. Further, when writing stories one should keep this particularly in mind in regards to the villains in a story. Flat villains suck.

I have been thinking about the composition of characters for the last couple of days. In my opinion interesting characters have ambiguities and inconsistencies. For instance, light resides amongst the darkness. The best villains are fleshed out real people with motivations that are real and consistent. Their personalities make sense and are consistent. Darkness blends amongst the light. The best heroes feel like a friend, neighbor, or relative with thoughts, feelings, and understandings that are fractious, inconsistent, and ambiguous. But whether the characters are heroes or villains they should act not from a sense of what the author feels is simply crucial for the plot, but rather they should take on an almost life of their own. Somehow they should touch something universal in the human condition.