Friday, December 18, 2009

Dead Man Writing

I’ve had a few close calls in my life, brushes with death if you will. All of these have happy endings, none of these left me with more than a few scuffs, bruises or in some cases a bit of lost skin or scratched bike or car paint. I’m sure you can say the same, being one hanging out with the living. These are dangerous times in a dangerous world after all. Here are a few of my close calls:

· Trout-fishing, the time the farmer’s prize bull was in the pasture with no fence between him and my fishing buddies and me. (Saved by the bull never actually choosing to charge us, just bawl and stomp as it followed us out of the pasture.)

· Just about run over by a very old, very large car in the alley behind the public library and the Jr. High (Saved by the catlike reflexes of the gray-haired woman peeking over the steering wheel. This was witnessed by an entire math class and resulted in a new school rule against this particular shortcut.)

· Opportunities to drown; Flooded Mississippi river during the mayfly hatch with a crumbling bank that left me neck deep in the swirling current; an exhausting swim with an injured arm in a tranquil gravel pit. (Saved by swimming lessons and my refusal to panic)

· Adventures in youthful ignorance combined with alcohol and a car that felt really good going 100mph on dark river roads. (Saved by? The grace of God? Bacchus? ?)

· Near-collision with a house-sized, orange, industrial dump truck, hauling ass out of a ditch in reverse, almost over the top of my Chevy Berretta. (Saved by my willingness to swerve into the lane of oncoming traffic rather than be flattened by the giant truck).

· Shooting range accident with a .44 caliber bullet fragment hitting me in the face (Per the doctor digging in my face at the time: saved by my steely chin vs. being hit an inch or two higher or lower in something softer and more bleedy.)

· A collapsing 35W bridge. Saved by my choice of the slow route heading to my class at the U of M that night. I ended up arriving in the area about 10 minutes after the bridge had fallen, one bridge over. I have no proof I would have ended up on the bridge had I taken 35W that night, but it would have been a close one.

There are many more incidents I could add to this list and probably many more that have happened I’m not even aware of where bad outcomes including death were a possibility. Didn’t I tell you it’s dangerous out there? As far as “Saved by” I could have also said in all these cases, “good luck, good timing, fate/destiny and/or guardian angel(s)” as the reason why I walked away and continued on living instead of the alternative. And hey, if I get to stay in the land of the living for a while longer, any of the above are good enough explanations for me.

This year the week of Thanksgiving I had my latest near death experience. Now, don’t get me wrong, this WASN’T one of those exciting near death experiences where I was clinically dead for a half hour, saw a tunnel of white light and my dear departed relatives beaconing to me, or fiery angels hovering over my hospital bed, no, none of that—this was routine surgery here in 2009 America (about 5% of us will have this surgery sometimes in our life; about 99.6% will survive it). My appendix in an enflamed fit of rage had decided to go bad and had to come out. Again, only a close call, a minor brush with death. As I was in the excellent care of a surgeon who I had been told had literally done over a thousand operations like mine, maybe this operation wasn’t even that—really nothing more dangerous than a drive on Interstate 494 during one of our Minnesota blizzards?

Yet—when I asked the kind resident prepping me for the operating room, “What are my other options besides surgery?” She replied as nicely as she could (and my recollection may be clouded by the morphine I was on at the time), “None. Left alone your appendix will probably rupture spilling infection and the contents of your digestive system into your abdomen resulting in eventual death.” Hey, I asked. As I was not in favor of the side effect, death, I signed the consent form for the surgery (which did listed DEATH as a possible side effect) and was wheeled off into the operating room. So I was never really close to death, was I? Yet, I have approximately 3 hours of missing time, under anesthesia with a breathing tube down my throat, where my body was not truly breathing only on it’s own. Not breathing for 3 hours could be construed by some people as death.

But everything worked out great, and I have no complaints about my experience. I was released from the hospital on happy pills (sleepy pills, really) the same day I was operated on. I had lunch that same day, I returned to work with a minor pain in my side one week later. All in all, I am quite pleased; dead man writing.

So that’s really my point here. I feel once again I’ve walked away from a close call and get to keep on doing what I like to do: living. I’m trying not to be too melodramatic here, but rather than dying of a burst appendix or a bad reaction to the anesthesia or a flubbed operation or…. I’m still walking, breathing, living, spending time with my friends and family, and writing. Yes. Writing. For a writer that is a big deal. After death I’ve heard you put out fewer pages. After death my 80%+ finished book would stay that way.

My favorite author Ray Bradbury has said, (and once again I’m paraphrasing, although this time, no morphine) that “time is the writer’s enemy” that “every book completed, every story finished is a way in which the writer can thumb his/her nose at death.” Sounds good to me. You’ll have to excuse me now. I’ve got a book to finish.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Digital Rights Throw Down

Looks like the inevitable digital rights clash between authors and publishers is unfolding before our eyes.

Things started to windup on Dec 9 when a couple of different publishing houses announced they were going to withhold publishing e-books until several months after the hardcover version had been released.

A few days ago, Stephen R. Covey said see ya to his longtime publisher Simon & Schuster and let the world know that he would had signed a three-year deal to move all of his e-book rights to Rosetta/Amazon.

Then Random House has declared they own the digital rights for all old contracts that do not specifically mention digital rights.  Sounds fishy?  This guy thinks so.

You can find an overview of the broader issues here.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

In Praise of Time

"The people in this book might be going to have lived a long, long time from now..."

So starts Ursula K. Le Guin's Always Coming Home, a novel written as though it were a text created within a new discipline: an archaeology of the future. It includes the record of the poetry, stories, lives, mythology, philosophy, religion...of a peoples who are not yet living. The 525 page novel also includes maps, over 100 pages of glossary and index materials, and, in a box set, even a cassette recording of the music and poetry of the Kesh.

A critique session or two ago, Claudia mentioned that she couldn't figure out the correct verb tense to use for a particular spot in her novel, because her main characters are time travelers. (They are also interesting, stubborn, hilarious, and sexy; you will want to get to know them, trust me.) Anyway, when I picked up Always Coming Home from the library shelves and, on reading the first line, put it immediately in my pile to check out.

They might be going to have lived a long, long time from now.

Oh yeah. It sounds a bit off. It stops your brain from continuing on the paths that it wants to go along. It catches you up. And suddenly you are thinking. About time and reality and how you fit in, and then you're just loving Ursula for what she's done to you.

Soon after I started reading the novel, a student in one of the philosophy classes I teach said, and I quote, "If I have to think about time travel right now, I think my head is going to explode."

Which I loved, because that's my job: getting students' heads to explode. Getting my own head to explode. I speak figuratively, of course.

At core, philosophy should be getting our brains to wake up from the ruts they so easily get stuck in and start seeing ourselves, other folk, and world (aka: Life, The Universe, and Everything) in new and startling ways.

And thinking about the mechanics and paradoxes of time travel is a lovely way to make your brain swivel inside your skull.

In my novel, which also includes some time travel, I'm attempting to uncover non-human understandings of time. How would Beryl (a bear disguised in human skin) understand time? How would a tree?

Thinking back on my years in philosophy, I can see the history that has led me to become the writer I am:

In an African philosophy course I took as an undergraduate, I learned that not everyone thinks of time linearly: my instructor, Ifeanye Menkiti, talked about how time in some African understandings includes a distant past, a present, and a near future, but no far future, instead the line of time bends backward from the present/near future toward the past, rather than continuing on indefinitely into the future.

In my dissertation I examined the work of James Hamill, who studied Navajo logic and some of the ways their system of reasoning differs from Western/European systems, precisely because they have a circular sense of time, while ours is linear. Which again, in my very limited understanding, might imply that there is no far future, the present always circling back to the past, the past circling back toward the future/present.

I'm currently teaching Simone de Beauvoir in my ethics class. Beauvoir is very suspicious of too tightly holding onto a project. We act unethically if we hold on so tightly that we are looking only at the far future of the project's realization, concentrating so hard on that end, an end so distant from ourselves, that the present means nothing, that the means we use to get to that end are completely subordinated to that end, that we do whatever it takes, sacrifice whomever it takes to get to the end. Instead she suggests that we concentrate on the near future.

How cool is all that? Pretty cool if you're a sci-fi loving, philosophy geek.

In my novel, I've taken what I've encountered in philosophy about time, and used it to figure out how time might be understood by the more-than-human world. Especially the spiders. They've just got to have a super-freaky understanding of time. My bet is that of all of us they're the ones who see time most clearly of all, what with all the eyes and the spinning.

But like Claudia, I have to think hard about how to communicate other species' understandings of time in a human language. In a critique session that is coming soon to a cafe near you, I'll find out how well The Sclibblerati think I've done with capturing the spiders... But as a preview it goes something like this:

I'll end as I started. I end as I start. I will end as I will start. I will have ended as I did once start. I would have started as I will be going to end.

No seriously, I really mean it. I'll end as I started: with a little Le Guin Wisdom:

"What was and what may be lie, like children whose faces we cannot see, in the arms of silence. All we ever have is here, now."

Friday, December 4, 2009

How do you find your muse? (TMI)

How do you find your muse?

I think that's a question that plagues all artists. I think it's a safe bet to say that we all would like to be able to instantly tap into that creative center that drives our best work.  But, as we all well know, that doesn't usually happen.

In an effort to find Lady Muse, we end up doing all sorts of crazy things. We develop routines in the hope that repetition will entice her. We play tricks on ourselves. We pull out that one song that worked last time. We read something inspiring. 

And we hope that Lady Muse shows up.

So what do you do when she doesn't? Do you grind it out? Do you get frustrated and walk away?

Well, ladies and gentlemen, look no further. I'm here to tell you that I have found the magic formula for unlocking Lady Muse.

Now, if I were smart, I would hold on to this secret and use it to my advantage.  If I were smart, Lady Muse and I could go all the way to the big time. I could finish my never ending first novel, dive into the sequels, find myself on Oprah, host Iron Chef, and wind up the celebrity guest at a formal White House dinner.  (Yes, you are cute, Sasha.)

But I'm not smart. Well, I'm kinda smart, but mostly I'm just a Midwestern guy who’s too nice for his own good.

Yeah, I can hear your hearts pounding with anticipation. But I won't make you wait anymore. Here goes. My secret formula for unlocking Lady muse.

Step one: bang your head against your desk
Step two: walk away
Step three: repeat step one
Step four: eat, drink, be merry
And the magic ingredient: take a shower

A shower?

Yep, I'm serious folks. I don't know what it is about a shower, but Lady Muse sure does like it. And I know that's the magic ingredient because I've tried all the others by themselves and they don't work. For instance, I can't just walk away and come back, because I've tried that doesn’t do it. And it isn't the food or the drink because I really can't write well after an evening of debauchery. But the shower on top of all the rest? That's the ticket.

But here's what's weird. I can't just get in the shower, rinse off, and call it a day. No, the room has to be hot, and the hot water’s gotta be flowing, and – wait for it – I have to be washing my hair.  Yes, it seems that Lady Muse loves her some shampoo and I don't have the faintest idea why. Maybe she's a big Aveda fan. Or maybe, maybe she just likes those hot suds running down my neck and - TMI!

Whatever the reason, I'm just glad that I found the key to unlock Lady Muse because let me tell you, I come up with the coolest things when I'm washing my hair.