HANGING BY OUR COMPUTER IS a sheet of paper I look to for inspiration. Sometimes it inspires me, sometimes it depresses me, but always it gets me back on the horse. It’s called “Why (and How) We Write.” If you too find it useful, please hang it by your computer.
1. Do it for the buzz.
— Stephen King
2. Finish what you start. Keep submitting until it sells.
— Robert Heinlein
3. a) Fanaticize yourself
b) Fanaticize something greater than yourself
c) “Sheer delight in what you are doing.”
— Robert Anton Wilson
4. a) Arrange events in linear order
b) Now arrange them in narrative order.
c) Write the story.
d) Revise the story.
— H. P. Lovecraft
5. “Most of the characteristics which make for success in writing are precisely those which we are all taught to repress … the firm belief that you are an important person, that you are a lot smarter than most people, and that your ideas are so damned important that everybody should listen to you.”
— Robert Anton Wilson, reprise
WE WERE FIVE MEN PLAYING draw poker.
“Ante up, gentlemen,” said R. “Nickel apiece.”
The cards went round once, twice, thrice.
B coughed. T took a sip of his Cuba Libre.
R sent the cards round again. And again.
We lifted our hands.
“Oh! Ghawd! Damn!” said K. “I’m betting TWENTY BUCKS!”
“Fold.” “Fold.” “Fold.” “You idiot.”
Posted in Writing
Tree-shaded northwest corner.
…is that a fiddle?
Morris dancers leap
Today! Where a month ago
Two Jews laid tefillin!
Laughing under the same trees.
My town. Sonoma.
Posted in Writing
ALL I REALLY HAD IN mind was helping out my colleagues — I didn’t know I’d also be helping myself.
I’m referring to today’s North Bay Bohemian article titled “There to Be There: Police chaplains ride the thin blue line of compassion.” Aside from this blog and an occasional email, it’s the first thing I’ve written since I got sick back in November, and the fact that my friends (and, more importantly in this case, the subject) are pleased with the results is both gratifying and mystifying. The gratitude is probably obvious, but the mystifying-ness may require an explanation.
Newswriting has always been an effort for me, partly because I was trained in the journalistic arts by some very ethical, dedicated and talented people (i. e., Ed LaFrance, Darryl Curtis, David Wesley Page, Bill Hoban and, chiefly, the late Mr. Robert Lynch). It’s a sort of exquisite agony to know that whatever I write will be read by people who want to know what’s going on; the internal monologue usually goes something like this: “Did he really say that? What was her inflection? Have I checked the facts enough? Why isn’t this quote more quoty? Did I really catch the essence? Do I know enough about this to sound authoritative? Is there more to this than I’m aware? How do I know I know?”
If I’m making this sound hard, it is. If I’m making it sound hideous, then I haven’t fully explained the absolute, timeless, all-encompassing, immediate, pulse-pounding thrill and joy which underlies it all. Because truly, there’s nothing in the world I’d rather do — sometimes I think there’s nothing else in the world that I even know how to do. And after nine months of semi-isolation and attendant self-doubt, it’s nice to know I can still do Neal Things.
In any case, the Law Enforcement Chaplaincy Service means a great deal to me. Poor health forced me out of last year’s academy, and while at this point I don’t know if I’ll be able to enter this year I want to help however I can. I hope the article fulfills that need, and I hope you enjoy it too!
Posted in Writing
(AS A FOLO TO THE previous post, and at the urging of sinister forces who would prefer I remain nameless, I now present a reprint from the bygone Bulletin of Obscure Research, Far Corner (v1n5, c. 1991): an interview with the late Robert Anton Wilson, who wrote about everything Dan Brown does (and much, MUCH more) but did it first and funnier. He was and is a great influence on both my writing and my thought, and I hope his fans will be amused rather than disappointed by this previously Lost Interview (which is transcribed with errors intact rather than scanned, at least for now). And if you’re listening, Bob — thanks for the cartography lessons.)
THE FAR CORNER INTERVIEW: ROBERT ANTON WILSON
[picture taken from the inside back cover of The Illuminati Papers (1980 ed.)]
Every publication worth its salt must, from time to time, feature interviews with the Heavyweights of the Field. Unfortunately, most of the heavyweights of the fortean/weirdological field do not share the philosophy of the staff here at Obscure Research Labs; and hence, either do not return our polite inquiries or (more often) write us rude letters requesting money. Fortunately, there are exceptions to these stuffed shirts of pseudo-inllectua; and one of the most delightful is the dsitinguished Dr. Robert Anton Wilson.
Poet, scientist, author, guru, wise guy and internationally-known weirdo, Dr. Wilson scarcely needs an introduction to the readers of this publication. He is the author of several books on psychology, conspiracy theory, literary criticism, magick, history, epistemology, sexuality, ontology, fortean study…but is probably best known as either a) The co-author (with Robert Shea) of the Illuminatus! trilogy, b) a frequent contributor to such magazines as Magical Blend and Gnosis, or c) the Inner Head of the Ancient Illuminated Seers of Bavaria, Inc. When we interviewed him, the Good Doctor had been under pressure due to book deadlines and lecture dates; but despite a severe case of eyestrain he graciously allowed us to pester him.
FC: Many publications have interviewed you, and yet it seems that none have asked you what we feel to be some Burning Personal Questions. I realize that you are a busy man, but we’d like to ask you: what did you want to be when you grew up?
RAW: The emir of Kuwait.
FC: Okay. what makes you happy?
RAW: Lotsa bucks.
FC: Is there any truth to the persistent rumour that Illuminatus! will be made into a movie?
RAW: There have been stage productions of Illuminatus! both here and abroad but although it has been optioned for films several times nothing has come of that as yet.
FC: When the Schrodinger’s Cat trilogy was issued in one volume (New York; Dell, 1988) we could not help but notice certain shall we say alterations or differences from the 1979 edition. Could you comment on this?
RAW: Three men in black visited me with editorial suggestions. Glimpsing their tentacles I felt it wise to obey.
FC: Turning back to the personal stuff: What is your favorite food? And do you have any recipes to share with our readers?
RAW: Anything full of cholesterol and sugar which is expensive and accompanied by raw oysters and vodka martinis. Recipes I leave to experts.
FC: Before we leave, are there any Words of wisdom for the aspiring fortean?
RAW: Smash those paradigms and keep the lasagna flying!
We’d like to thank Dr. Wilson for his patience; we’d also like to thank his wife, Arlen, for her help. Incidentally, among other things the Good Doctor is currently publishing Trajectories, an ongoing journal of ideas and opinions. It’s $6 from the Permanent Press, PO Box 700305, San Jose, CA 95170.
More metaphoragings RAW and ORL: http://metaphorager.net/tag/robert-anton-wilson/ and http://metaphorager.net/tag/obscure-research-labs/.
0. CONCISION AND PRECISION ARE ESSENTIAL components of the modern metaphor. What your end-user metaphorager is looking for is light in the mouth and easy on the fingers, especially when describing social groups — you want something tight enough to express the point but loose enough to avoid looking like a stereotyping (and -typical) fool.
1. The challenge is greater when describing cultures within a geographical area. Specifically, what to conversationally call those of us residing between Mexico and Canada? “Americans” leaves out residents of those countries, as well as everyone south until the Patagonians (who, despite their patient excellence for crafting outdoor gear, are sticklers for self-affiliative accuracy). Likewise “USAtians,” which makes us sound like some exotic water dog; “USAers,” which is either a cheerleading squad or a reality-show; “Yankees,” which I object to as a diehard Red Sox fan; and “United States citizens,” whose formal appeal is outweighed by its clunkiness.
2. Therefore, I suggest “Lower North American.” It’s got a nice cadence (“LOWuh NORthuh MEruh Can”), easy informality and even compresses to a txtable “LNA” (which so far as I can see will only confuse us with amplifiers, shy nucleotides and members of the new Let’s Not Ask public-ignorance campaign).
So, friends, next time you’re stuck for a self-descriptive metaphor for hepcats, expats and diplomats, reach for smooth, satisfying Lower North America. Remember: Lower North America. It’s where we are now.
(Link here: http://metaphorager.net/lna)
Posted in Writing
The old woman sat, softly singing, on a blue wooden chair in the middle of the vast cobbled square, rippling a carpet of birds with each cast of her hand.
Tall jagged buildings loomed on all four sides around her — blocky and black-windowed, granite-yellow in the light of the dying sun, their shadows not quite lengthened to cover her frail red-shawled form. The air was cold and redd’d her cheeks as the birds fought for dried corn and cracker crumbs.
A tall man strode toward her — dark blue and broadshouldered, a cap visor shading all but a dour mouth.
She rolled with the blow which sent her sprawling.
Fluttering clucks roared the birds swept round and round him. He raised his arms, alarmed; they were wings and he dwindled, his voice a querulous chirp among hundreds.
She felt herself, sighed, and satisfied, arose. She shifted her shawl and sat, singing softly and scattering seeds.
Posted in Writing
The first thing I noticed was that I couldn’t see or hear anything. And on top of that, I could barely breathe.
My knees and hands already hurt from the rough steel floor. The hose I was helping to drag weighed a ton, despite that the two other guys in front of me knew what they were doing and were holding up their end better than I was. When I tried to lift my head, my helmet smacked against the top of the airtank cinched on my back, forcing me to look at the floor or squat back on my heels. But I was previously told to stay as low as I could, so that didn’t seem like a good idea. In any case, my face mask was halfway fogged up, so all I could see — and that dimly — was a dull red glow at an indeterminate distance ahead.
The man closest to me, who had previously told me to stay an arm’s length behind him, turned his head in my direction. “Flaghhh! Flagghhn!” he shouted above the muffled white noise of fire and smoke generators and the clicking whine of my airtank.
“What? I can’t hear you!” I replied.
He gestured me forward, then put his mask close to mine. “Flagghn toff the fire!” he said urgently, and crawled forward.
I scooted forward along with him, crawling past a sheet of flame under the stairs to my right and toward the further glow which resolved itself into an upward-licking fountain of fire boiling up to and against the ceiling.
The man in front of him aimed the hose nozzle at the fountain. Through my soaking leather gloves, I felt the canvas tube jerk softly as he opened the nozzle, sweeping it in an arc parallel to the floor.
My breathing became labored and painful. I felt like I was trying to suck the whole airtank into my mouth with each desperate breath. My chest hurt and I fought the urge to claw the constricting mask from my face.
“I can’t breathe!” I shouted.
No one heard me.
I tapped the shoulder of the man in front of me. He leaned toward me, a caricatured shadow against the leaping flame behind him.
“I can’t breathe!” I repeated.
I’m not sure what happened next. I think he managed to hear me, and communicate my distress to the man in front of him, then pointed behind me. Somehow or other, I found myself crawling toward the door by which we’d entered, keeping my right hand on the wall so I wouldn’t get disoriented. The safety officer opened the door for me, and I stood up and outside in one motion, trying calmly but desperately to reach the fresh sweet air millimeters away on the other side of my protective headgear.
Succeeding with careful dignity, I inhaled deeply and walked over to sit down on a low brick wall edging some bushes behind the Valley of the Moon main firehouse.
It was 8:30 a.m., Sunday, April 28, 2002. I had just had my first real taste of structural firefighting, and I felt like a wuss.
Cut to a month or so earlier…
When I first returned to the Index-Tribune and was heartily reacquainting myself with the “fire guys,” I was discussing what I’d missed with a longtime and close contact who had since become the training officer for the entire Valley fire service. He’s one of the local “old-timers” hereabouts, one of four or six with whom I used to chat (frequently and happily) and who exude the quietly confident competence that’s particular to people who have done what they love for so long that it’s first nature to them. The annual Valley volunteer fire academy was just starting up, and as I love to write the stories behind the stories — especially about the fire guys, who before Sept. 11 were commonly perceived to be doing nothing all day except waiting for the alarm to ring — I asked him if there would be anything particularly interesting to tell people about.
“Well, we’ll be having the fire trailer come down here,” he said. “How do you feel about putting on turnouts and an SCBA and doing some live fire training?”
I replied as I usually do (and as he and everyone else in the Valley fire service expects) when a similar suggestion is made.
“Cooooool!” I breathed. “When?”
The arrangements were made, and we spoke again a day or two beforehand.
“Should I bring my yellows?” I asked, referring to the wildland turnouts (Nomex protective clothing), emblazoned “PRESS,” which I wear when covering big grass fires.
“No,” he said. “Structural firefighting is a whoooole different ballgame.”
Something in the way he said that sent a tickle of apprehension through my brain. He asked me if I was claustrophobic and if I’d ever done any scuba diving, then when I said “no,” asked if I felt okay about using a SCBA (self-contained breathing apparatus, or airtank and mask) with only five minutes’ instruction.
“Yes,” I said, wondering what I was getting into. Then he asked me for my shoe, pant and jacket sizes, and said he’d also get me some gloves and a helmet.
I arrived at the VOM station around 8 a.m. to find a couple of dozen men standing around the main engine bay in various states of firefighter undress, checking airtanks and other equipment and making small talk. My contact introduced me to one of the fire captains (we both felt we’d met before, but couldn’t tell) who proceeded to suit me up and briefly train me in the art of how to stay alive and breathing inside a burning building.
First I tried on the boots, then the jacket, then took off the boots and jacket so I could pull the boot-tops up inside the pants and put both on in two smooth motions. This is why the protective gear is called “turnouts” — you keep them at the foot of your stationhouse bunk so that when you turn out to answer the alarm at 3 a.m., you can slide into the boots and pull the pants up to your waist, slipping the suspenders (yes, they’re red) over your shoulders. I donned the coat, slipping my thumbs through the loops in the ends of the sleeves which keep the sleeves from riding up and exposing bare arm-flesh to the flame’s tender kiss. Everything fit me as though it had been tailored. I told the firefighters that my wife wanted to know if I could borrow the turnouts for the evening, and they laughed heartily and knowingly.
Next, a white Nomex hood went over my head and bunched down around my neck. The breathing mask went on, held by netting and straps and surprisingly forming a tight seal despite my short beard. Then the Nomex hood was pulled up over my neck and the top of my head, slightly obscuring the edges of the faceplate which had already begun to fog slightly.
The fire captain explained the workings of the SCBA tank — how to turn it on, how to connect it to the mask, how to disconnect it without losing any of its 20-minute air supply. After a quick run-through, we left the bay and walked toward the Mobile Live Fire Trainer parked behind the station.
This was a huge blue semi trailer with a six-foot by eight-foot hut sitting on top, which I later learned was one of the simulator’s three rooms — the upper “bedroom,” connected by internal stairs to a “kitchen” and “hazmat storage area” (think “paintcan-filled garage”) below. Propane jets and peanut-oil burners provided the fire and smoke inside the non-flammable trailer. As explained by the man in charge of the simulator, the captain and I and one other firefighter were to be a team which would go inside the “house,” crawl past a burning wall to knock down the fire in the hazmat area, pull back, climb the burning stairs to quench the bedroom (after passing our hands under the “bed” to check for “victims”), then reverse course downstairs and douse the kitchen.
As narrated at the beginning of this piece, I didn’t do so well. But our team was one of several cruising through the simulator in various rotations, so I vowed to do better on the next session. (The captain and other firefighter, who had completed their rotation without me, graciously told me I wasn’t at all a wimp and asked me if I wanted to be nozzleman on our next attack. I told them I’d think about it.) Meanwhile, I had caught my breath, and walked around doing my reporter thing, talking to some people I knew and a few I didn’t. (I always enjoy that part, and sprinkled with the interviews were quite a few “Welcome back!”s from people I didn’t know I had missed when I was away.)
The next rotation was a slightly different scenario: We were to climb an external ladder to the bedroom, carefully enter it (“There’s a foot-and-a-half drop that’ll knock you on your ass if you’re not careful,” warned the trainer), knock down the flames against the far wall, then proceed down the burning stairs, make a hairpin right into the corridor leading to the garage, douse the garage, then double back into the kitchen and put out the fire there. The captain asked me again if I wanted to be the nozzleman, and I heard myself saying, “Sure.”
I climbed the ladder, connected my airtank to the face mask, and stood waiting while the other members of my team flaked out the hose on top of the trailer. Now that I had been through this already, and had learned of the simulator’s fool-proof safety features, I was a bit more prepared. I realized that my earlier breathing problems weren’t caused by panic so much as ignorance — I had never used an airtank or been in a situation where I had to regulate my breathing, so I took steady, deep breaths as we prepared to go inside.
I pushed open the door to the burning bedroom, stepped over the edge and crouched low on the deck, clutching the hose and nozzle with my right arm and hand while my left grasped the nozzle-release lever. Take that, I thought as I opened the hose.
The water blasted into the base of the flame-wall on the other side of the room. “Sweep it!” came the muffled yell from the fire captain behind me. I slowly swept the nozzle from side to side, quickly dousing the fire.
Wow, I thought. That’s pretty cool.
“Down the stairs!” shouted the captain over the omnipresent din.
I crawled forward and paused at the brink, seeing flames licking a foot or two below me. “Just go ahead!” he shouted, barely audible.
I slowly descended the stairs, dropped to hands and knees, and, waved on by the safety officer sitting in the corner, turned right 180 degrees and dragged the hose with me.
This time I paid attention to my breathing, which while still labored was a lot less difficult. Approaching the flaming garage like Charles Atlas’ reborn 98-pound weakling returning to face the beachfront bully, I braced against the wall to my left and opened the nozzle.
“Closer!” shout-whispered the captain behind me.
I scooted a bit closer, directing the water jet toward what I thought was the base of the flames slightly above the garage floor. But I couldn’t see through the thick smoke! I could see my hands holding the hose, and I could bloody well see the fire, but the water jet might as well have been invisible. I swept it back and forth anyway, but nothing happened.
The captain’s hands reached around me, pulling the nozzle sharply upward. I saw the flames billow back against the aqueous intrusion, nodded, and swept with gusto. The flames flickered, hung on for about 20 seconds, then went out. Gotcha, I thought, shutting off the nozzle.
Then a fresh sheet of fire broke out about three feet above the first, washing the ceiling in lambent scarlet. I swore, then attacked it in calm fury.
When that enemy had been routed, I swore again when the lower bank re-ignited. But I grimly set to the task a third time, wondering if this was one of the unpredictable conditions faced by firefighters when they’re doing this for real.
Slowly, I became aware of a burning sensation at two points on my left cheek. With alarm, I realized it was the metal buckles on my face-mask straps beginning to heat up. If they don’t get any hotter, I’ll be okay, I thought. Uncomfortable, but okay. I continued spraying the burning garage wall.
They began to get really hot. Painfully so.
DAMN IT! I screamed to myself. Here we go again. I continued sweeping the garage wall, and when it was finally out, I motioned to the captain. “My face is burning,” I shouted calmly, tapping my face. “I think I need to leave.”
He nodded, then shouted “Back out and up the stairs!”
I didn’t know he meant that literally. The flames extinguished, I dropped the hose (breaking rule #1, as I learned later) and turned my back on the now-smoking garage (breaking rule #2), headed down the corridor, climbed the stairs and went through the bedroom to the sunny Sunday morning outside.
Postscript: As I told a couple of longtime fire service contacts before I left the VOM station, “I’ve been covering the fire beat for three years, but I don’t think I really understood it until today. It’s one thing to know this stuff from the outside — it’s quite another to be engulfed by it. And even though I’ve pretty much understood why you guys do this, I didn’t understand how. Thanks for shooting my personal learning curve through the roof!”
HE COULDN’T TELL WHETHER HE
loved beauty or women more
until the day he called his mom and said
“Guess what? I’m marrying a sunset.”
Posted in Writing
“ARE YOU ALL RIGHT?” HE asked from behind his newspaper.
She thought, I have never been all right a day in my life. None of us have. We see too much — think too much — don’t act enough — enchained by our own ignorance — body only lasts 70 years — most of it medicated — back hurts — feet hurt — can’t go a day without water, week without food or year without sex — world run by idiots and asshats and nobody gives a damn once the cameras are turned off — too stupid to solve the problems we keep generating — chattering “Do your best. Do your best. It’ll all be okay” — bad teaching for a situation nobody knows how to prepare for — age and loneliness and the soul’s slow dying in its own insta-dry filth. And you with your face in that ghawdam newspaper.
“I’m fine,” she said, and picked up her book.
Posted in Writing
“FROM SPACE, OASINE WAS AN otherwise tan ball flecked and dotted with green – but none of its inhabitants had ever seen it.
“Few of them, in fact, had been outside their own birthplaces. These were oases of various shapes and sizes whose populations, separated by trackless desert, varied from savagery to the sophistication allowed by circumstance and caravan. In one of the latter, called Fint by its blithe and industrious residents, and on one of countless cloudless days, a crowd of gawkers, mockers and the curious gathered at Horolan’s Pier for the maiden voyage of the good ship Deeper.”
Thus begins Under Oasine, a science fantasy novel relating the adventures of three unlikely heroes (Twiz, Ij and Hapler) who discover that their world is a lot bigger than they had thought — and it (along with everyone on it) needs their help to survive.
I’m telling you this for two reasons: 1) partly to avoid through preemptive imprimature a repeat of the “Matrix incident”, and 2) mostly to motivate myself (as with the Prosatio Silban stories) through risk of public humiliation should I flake.
Somerset Maugham once said: “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately nobody knows what they are.” Although a skilled news reporter, I know nothing about writing novels save what I could glean from Stephen King’s On Writing, Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method and Simon Haynes’ How To Write A Novel. There is great advice to be found in each of these, but after mumbling it about my own muse is telling me to chart what I want each chapter to do and where I want it to end, write a thousand words a day until I reach 45-50,000, then look for an agent and a movie deal.
Blogging a novel may be dicey for aspiring writers who want to sell their works: the idea is still catching on, and while it can raise a persuasive buzz some publshers may see “blog” as “previous publication.” My task here will be to navigate the narrow path between these two extremes — and entertain the hell out of whoever reads what results. To this end, I plan to post the first two chapters, with synopses according to clamour. Your task will be to tell me whether or not I’m successful.
Posted in Writing