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
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
(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/.
IN ALL THE STEAMING LANDS there are none so pious as the villagers of Imperny. And yet, even within that island of serene certitude, Prosatio Silban found a disturbed soul.
The cook had parked his galleywagon a-purpose, on the edge of Imperny’s market square closest to the local shrine. but his “COOK FOR ANY PRICE” banner had attracted only one breakfast customer — a serious young man who had picked his way half through a plate of Random Eggs. He sighed and looked up at Prosatio Silban.
“I have not seen you before, nor do I expect to again,” he said. “May I impart a stranger’s truth?”
“The eggs are not to your liking,” the cook began.
“No! No, they are perfect,” replied the young man. “But I am not, or rather my understanding isn’t. I cannot decide whether or not my prayer is effective.”
Prosatio Silban, a former holyman who long ago decided to feed people’s bellies instead of their souls, had ceased to wonder why his gods wouldn’t let him alone. Instead, he asked, “What do you mean?”
“I was deep in my devotions this morning,” replied the other. “And it occurred to me: am I praying because I am grateful, or am I grateful because I am praying? In other words, do the gods grant me peace of mind, or am I fooling my mind into peacefulness?”
Prosatio Silban thought for a time. “Does it matter?”
“Yes. I think. Yes.”
“Because by one I am doing the gods’ will. By the other, I am silly.”
“But that is already true, in the eyes of those who don’t share your particular piety,” Prosatio Silban said. “If you live for others, you will be concerned with what they think of your actions. If you live for yourself, you will be concerned with what you think. But if you live for the gods — you won’t care what anyone thinks.”
The young man smiled. “Pass the tomatoes,” he said.
Posted in Writing
THERE IS A Conversation THAT I’ve been having with a friend since we were both in high school, and the initial-cap in that word is due not to the colloquy’s duration but to its content.
Its thesis is simple: that Something Connects All This. Being a spiritual sort of guy, I feel more comfortable describing It in terms not far removed from the religious. Not so my erstwhile colleague and former brother-in-law Ransom Stephens. Ransom’s a physicist by inclination and training — passionately curious about why and how the universe works the way it does — and though we long ago realized that our different takes on the Ultimate Essence stemmed from a subject-not-Object orientation, we’ve never let that get in the way of a good 3 a.m. walk-and-talk.
Not surprisingly, his first novel — The God Patent — deals with those exact issues. As Ransom describes it: “A laid-off engineer trying to rebuild his life gets caught between science and religion in a battle over the origin of the universe and the existence of the soul.” TGP is one of the featured titles on Scribd.com, and clicking on the above link will not only help support a rising Northern California writer but will make it easier for all of those with a book or two in us. Check it out, and tell ‘em Neal sent you.
HAVING LITERALLY AND FIGURATIVELY “DONE this in my sleep(1)” on occasion as ahem an award-winning reporter for the Sonoma Index-Tribune and Sonoma Sun (and freelancer for the Novato Advance, Petaluma Argus-Courier and The Bohemian) and being somewhat-to-greatly rankled by what passes for “news” these days outside of local outlets and the Daily Show, methinks it urgent to spread some of the skills needed to excel in The Game. Let’s start with the Interview.
The goal of the Interview is to extract information from someone who has it: whether they’re an eyewitness, a neighbor, a mayor, a relative, a senator or just a bunch of old guys reminiscing about Frank Sinatra in the backroom of an old Sonoma bar at 9:30 a.m. on a weekday. You will want to have the following:
- Tape recorder (smaller the better, and with a counter)
- Pad and pen(cil)
- Relevant and brief questions (what, when, where, how, maybe why, and — most importantly — “Anything else you want our readers/listeners to know? Anything I should have asked you, or that you’d wished I’d asked you?” This often yields the best quote of all.)
(Make sure that either tape or pad includes “the scene.” Include lots of color and context, body language, etc., but don’t go overboard at the expense of the nut-o’-story(2); include at least three relevant details. Some disdain tape recorders, but if you’re like me you’ll want people to tell you things in their own words — and you’ll want to quote them accurately. The counter’s for noting what point in the Interview contains The Quote.)
Two types of Interview there are: Field and Telephone.
Field Interviews are, by their nature, unpredictable; this is where your tape recorder is paramount. Identify yourself to the interviewee and give them a graceful way out: “I’m Clark Kent with the Daily Planet; mind if I ask you a few questions?” Keep as open and friendly a face as possible(3). If they consent, begin recording with something like, “This is Clark Kent of the Daily Planet on today’s date, and we’re speaking with …” Let the interviewee speak (and if necessary spell) name and title into the recorder; it both indicates consent and is a good way to break the ice.
If your interviewee is an emergency responder at the scene of something horrible, look for the guys in the white helmets (fire) or in a vehicle on the radio (police or also fire). Remember that while California Penal Code section 409.5d gives you legal access anywhere (your state or country may vary), you are a low priority to those trying to bring things under control. Keep your questions brief and to the point (that’s also a good general rule) and stay well out of the way (I usually back against a tree or something).
Interviewing witnesses and families can be dicey: some folks want to be in the newspaper and some don’t. Don’t push it; some may have a beef with the paper, or reporters in general, or be drunk, or indefinably weird in a way which makes you wish you’d studied finance. Be professional, as though you’re doing something serious (you are). Sometimes that can be contagious.
Interviewing someone who’s been traumatized by tragedy is invasive and, occasionally, necessary. Use extreme care. There is no other advice I can give you.
Other types of Field Interviews (e.g., press conferences, meeting interviewees at their office) are similar enough to the Telephone Interview as to make a good segue.
Telephone Interviews are easier in one way than Field Interviews, if you’re typing the conversation directly into your word-processor (typewriters, not so much). You’re limited in that you can’t see your interviewee’s eyes or body lingo, but if they’re not answering the phone you get to tell the secretary or voicemail “If I don’t hear from you by 2 p.m., I’ll have to write “Could not be reached by presstime.” (You’d be surprised how often this actually works, especially for those whose newsworthiness depends on public image.)
As nothing else comes to mind at present, I hope this helps those either curious about The Game or eager to play. As Edward R. Murrow said, “Everyone is a prisoner of his own experiences. No one can eliminate prejudices – just recognize them.”(4)
(1) Much to either the amazement or confirmed suspicions of my former editors, if they’re reading this.
(2) Picked this up from a former editor-in-chief, who referred to the summing-up paragraph of any story as the “nut graf.” Being a hick, I don’t know if that’s a universal term.
(3) On the other thumb, I used to work with a guy (also award-winning) whose favorite tools were gruffness and insouciance. Whatever works. It’s my nature to befriend people, so I go with that; also, I’ll come right out and say “Explain this to me so that I can see it the way you do.” It seems to me that a successful reporter should pretend to be the dumbest guy in the room — and pay close attention to the people trying to explain things.
(4) He also said “To be persuasive we must be believable; to be believable we must be credible; credible we must be truthful,” which is even more important. Your byline is your reputation — cherish it!
Posted in Writing
IT’S NOT ALWAYS NEWS WHEN a rabbi writes a book — but when he writes about Vulcans, Ferengi and Klingons, it’s bound to raise at least one fascinated eyebrow (I’m looking at you, Spock).
Rabbi Yonassan Gershom‘s Jewish Themes In Star Trek is exactly what the title says it is. As part of its recent release Rabbi G. has assembled a JTiST portal with more than two dozen links to Trek-related Judaica, from the origin of the Vulcan hand salute to whether or not Ferengi are anti-Semitic stereotypes (he doesn’t think so, and neither do I). He also tackles some of the issues raised by J. J. Abrams’ latest Star Trek film, both Jewish and fannish, and seems to intuit the unspeakable truth of Nerd Religion. Diftor heh smusmah, and mazel tov!
SHE WAS WALKING UP THE hill toward us through the sea of sprawled bodies surrounding the stage at Laguna Seca Speedway, where some friends and I were enjoying three days of the Grateful Dead and Los Lobos in the summer of 1988.
My own life was at a crossroads. I was coming from a year aboard the Golden Hinde II (many stories there, oh yes) but hadn’t decided whether to hitchhike to Alaska and work on a fishing boat or return to the Northern California Renaissance Faire and eventually settle into landbound life. So I stayed for an indecisive interim with some Humboldt County friends who invited me to join them for the show.
(This was also the hitchhiking trip where I heard a sound from ‘midst the roadside bushes, stuck in my hand and pulled out a little black kitten. But that’s another story; or maybe just another part of the same old story.)
So there we were on the hillside between acts (Ralfh, Sputnik, a friend of Ralfh’s, and me), and here comes this partly naked woman. The event itself wasn’t strictly topless, although she was; straight red hair, green eyes, medium build, about my height, and the most striking expression: a mix of “I can’t believe I’m doing this” and “What’s the big deal?” She was angling up the hill, trailing headshakes and sympathetic laughter, perhaps to meet a friend or take in (or be) the all-encompassing view, and she was headed right at me.
As I am something of a magnet for strangeness, and because it was a Grateful Dead show, I would not have been surprised to know her. I didn’t, but as she passed she gave me a beatific and knowing smile.
“Don’t tell anyone I’m naked,” she said.
“I won’t,” I said.
And for 22 years, I didn’t. I hope that, at this late date, she forgives me.
Posted in Writing
For those who don’t know, Known Space is a 60-light-year-diameter bubble and a thousand to a billion-plus years of human history. It’s also a pile of novels and short stories written in a breezy 1970s-Southern-California style depicting a leisure-filled vision of cheap space travel, engaging aliens and lifespans in the centuries.
I started reading Larry Niven when I was eight years old. Then, I didn’t understand much beyond the cool spaceships and moving sidewalks. Now, I can appreciate his familiar descriptives (“The beach was a perfect beer-party beach.” “Ever notice how all spaceships are starting to look the same?”), ledes (“It was noon of a hot blue day.” “Then, the planet had no name”) and occasional asides to the reader (“Harry Kane used a word your publisher will probably cut”). I also like how fannish his stories are, filled with references to everything from filk to fanspeak.
But these days I find I’m enjoying his immortals. Cheap longevity, in Niven’s universe, makes philosophers of us all (except for those it makes bored and master-criminally ambitious), and the dialog between those of double- and triple-digit age captures the instant impetuousness of the former and thoughtful wisdom of the latter. At 47, I’m beginning to understand why it takes so long to acquire wisdom (or something that looks like it) — it can take years of repeated exposure to varied but thematic circumstance before a human being begins not to take the Universe personally. Even then, it’s a crapshoot whether or not he’ll learn what else it can teach; until then, it’s difficult to learn anything at all.
But Niven shows us that learning is easy — as well as fun, and occasionally profitable. Here’s to Known Space and the brave souls which it inspires!
In the entire time I covered the Sonoma City Council, I only took the podium thrice: once to ask for clarification, once to offer my then-employer‘s help with disseminating something of civic importance, and once when the mayor declared 1/17/01 as “Neal Ross Day” when I first left the Index-Tribune. (Geeez.) Tonight will be the fourth:
Mr. Mayor, members of the City Council and of the public, thank you. I’m Neal Ross Attinson, 21 France St. #1, perpetual part-time rabbinical student and former full-time reporter.
It’s a busy night, so I won’t take up too much time, and anyway I?m more comfortable sitting over there writing than standing up here talking. But I was told that a few people wanted to know where I’ve been for the past few months, and since most of those people are integral to the city in some way it seemed appropriate to address you tonight.
Many of you know I was covering the city and public-safety beats for the Sonoma Valley Sun until incapacitating abdominal pain took me off the job in December. Without going into details (which are available at my blog, metaphorager.net — for the record, m-e-t-a-p-h-o-r-a-g-e-r), suffice to say that after five months, 40 pounds, two surgeries and six hospitalizations there’s no relief and no clear diagnosis yet. But we haven’t given up.
Last Wednesday, my pharmacist informed me that my health insurance had been canceled, and two days later I learned that I was no longer employed by the Sonoma Valley Sun. That being the case, I wanted to thank some people without whom I wouldn’t be here now.
A Yiddish proverb says, “Life is with people.” A reporter has to be (or pretend to be) the dumbest guy in the room in order to learn as much as he can. If he’s not dumb, he soon learns that everyone he meets is his teacher. I was going to read a list of my teachers during the past eleven years … but instead: If I ever wrote anything with any degree of accuracy, compassion or insight — or if, while talking with you, my eyes (or yours) lit up with an “Ahhh…HA!” gleam — I owe you the shiniest of apples. To those people whose tragedy and privacy I invaded in order to tell the public their stories, I offer my apologies, as well as my gratitude for your trust.
Most of all, I thank Ann, my wife and best friend of 20 years, for not giving up — and for not letting me give up. The Talmud says that a man only lives through the merit of his wife; if that’s true, I should live forever.
Thank you, Sonoma Valley, for letting me write about you — and thank you, Mr. Mayor, for letting me speak. Good night.
I must say that feels very weird to do this. Since a reporter has to know “everyone in town” (as Mark Twain points out to great tragicomic effect near the aft end of Roughing It), it makes sense that people might wonder where he went and why he isn’t coming back. But I don’t usually think in terms of “everyone in town” (rather, the 100 to 200 people who are engaged with it) knowing me. One never knows where the teacher will be next…
He was cleaning up his galleywagon late one night at the edge of one of Soharis’ more workaday fish markets, making ready to fold down the canopy-bulkhead, when the Siddis appeared.
Now, to understand this story, you must know that cosmopolitan Soharis, perched on the edge of the Rimless Sea and the Lands of Exile beyond the sunset, is the sort of place where one may expect to meet almost anyone at almost any time. But at that, it is rare to meet a Siddis — more properly the Siddis, since only has one ever been seen anywhere, and of that rose-red robe-wrapped one little is known save that they or he inhabited a city somewhere in the Great Eastern Desert and their or his presence portended unsettling things.
Prosatio Silban was intrigued. He was also tired from a reasonably profitable day selling fish skewers and goat pasties to Soharis’ shop-clerks and porters and was looking forward to putting his feet up. But he could not deny a hungry customer. “Good evening, sir.”
Posted in Writing