Last week I was led to quote one of Bradbury’s famous bits of life advice — of which there are many — to one of those students. It was his line about leaping off cliffs and then building your wings on the way down. Afterward, I got curious about the provenance of this quote, and this led me on an Internet search for its source or sources. Eventually I was led to an excellent 23-year-old interview with Bradbury in South Carolina’s Spartanburg Herald-Journal, obtained by them from the New York Times news service, and presently readable thanks to Google’s news archive.
The title is “Learning is solitary pursuit for Bradbury.” The journalist is Luaine Lee. The date is October 17, 1990. And the interview shows Bradbury offering some really lovely articulations of ideas, insights, and anecdotes (many of them familiar but all of them neverendingly fascinating) from his personal mythic journey. Read the rest of this entry
You can take your pick of Cassandras: Michael Crichton, Mary Shelley, whoever made Gattaca. Literature and pop culture never stop obsessing about the bastard spawn of technology and biology, although movies love to have it both ways, wallowing happily in high-tech gadgetry even as they deplore its effects.
Feverish as all this artistic angst is, what’s remarkable is that it barely keeps pace with reality. We are hurtling ever faster toward a point of no return. Consider that, just earlier this year, MIT researchers managed to implant false memories in mice. Or that the now-common procedure of preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) lets would-be parents in fertility treatment test their multiple embryos for defects and discard the embryos they don’t want. One of these days, we may also be able to slow down aging by stopping the degradation of telomeres. (Telomeres are the caps on the ends of chromosomes that keep them from fraying.)
. . . Given how close reality has come to surpassing imagination, what do the Atwoods of the world have to offer? Only what good novelists have always offered: a sense of the tragic, a respect for the power of malevolence, a grasp of how things go awry. In her most recent works, a trilogy in the anti-utopian tradition of Brave New World and 1984 that she began with Oryx and Crake in 2003 and ended this September with MaddAddam, transhumanism meets capitalism. In place of Orwell’s totalitarian state, Atwood gives us an all-powerful genetic-engineering industry. Biotech corporations have superseded governments and turned criminal. Since they are so good at keeping people healthy, they have to come up with new profit centers, so they add viruses to their vitamins.
– Judith Shulevitz, “Margaret Atwood: Our Most Important Prophet of Doom,” The New Republic, September 25, 2013
Also see the September 20 radio interview with Atwood (nearly an hour long, downloadable or streamable) on NPR’s On Point:
Margaret Atwood writes “speculative fiction” — but don’t call it science fiction, she says. It could all happen. And maybe it is. Her latest novel is the culmination of a mind-bending trilogy story of the end of the world that seems all too hideously possible. The world, debauched and wrecked by human over-reach. A designer plague has wiped out almost all of old humanity. Gene-altered pigs and a successor race of leaf-eating humanoids are all over. A new Genesis story is unfolding. For a new world. Up next On Point: novelist Margaret Atwood, and after us.
– “Margaret Atwood Will Make You Afraid of Her Tomorrow,” On Point, NPR, September 20, 2013
From the late 1980s to the early 2000s, I kept a longhand journal. It was where I learned the sound of my own inner voice and the rhythm of my own thoughts, and where I gained a more conscious awareness and understanding of the ideas, subjects, emotions, and themes that are, through sheer force of gravitational passion, my given subject matter as a writer and human being.
This writing discipline, which was powered by a combination of conscious will and involuntary compulsion (so deeply intermixed that I could never fully figure out where the one left off and the other began), began to alter itself spontaneously with my plunge into Internet culture circa 1995. To condense a very long story to a single sentence, almost from the very minute I entered the Internet fray, my desire to write by hand began to dwindle until it almost disappeared — but it remains something that I deliberately return to from time to time for inner recalibration and recentering, and I invariably find it so full of beneficial, soul-healing effects that I wonder every time why I ever abandoned it to begin with.
Now comes digital culture commentator Tom Chatfield, writing in City Journal about information age anxiety and the danger that we will be utterly swallowed by the vortex of digital noise and distraction that we have created. And he talks cogently about this very issue: the relationship between, and in fact the conflict between, the clear-souled act of writing by hand and the swirl of digital noise and distraction that otherwise cocoons us:
I have noticed, for example, that I think and feel differently depending on whether my cell phone is switched on or off. The knowledge that I am potentially contactable subtly alters the texture of my time. According to a Pew Research Center survey, 67 percent of American adults have experienced “phantom” rings, thinking that their phones are vibrating or ringing when they aren’t. I now try to build some uncontactable time into each of my days — not because I fear technology but because feeling able to say no as well as yes helps me take ownership of my decisions. Without boundaries, without friction, value slips away.
I sometimes write in longhand simply to re-create some of this friction. When I write with a pen on paper, words flow with the sense that they exist just half a sentence ahead of the nib. The mechanical slowness of writing helps me feel words as objects as well as ideas, with a synesthetic pleasure in their arrival. Composing into a physical notebook helps writing and reverie mix, often unexpectedly: sentences and phrases arrive out of the blue. Pens and paper are themselves simply the technologies of another era. There’s no magic in them, no fetish to worship. It is the experiences they enable — not what they are in themselves — that I value, alongside the gifts of more recent innovations.
Yet I struggle to live up to my own plan. I check my e-mail too often. I ache for the tiny endorsement of a retweet. I panic at an hour’s loss of cell-phone reception. I entrust ever more of my life and library to third parties, from Amazon to Apple, whose “ecosystems” seem to absorb me.
Where is the still point of the turning world where I might stand, understand, and take back control?
– Tom Chatfield, “Anxious in the Information Age,” City Journal 23.3 (Summer 2013)
I can tell you that my own experience parallels that of Mr. Chatfield with uncanny precision. Perhaps yours does as well.
Relatedly, I encourage you to go and read Mitch Horowitz’s recent article about taking a “massive leap forward in your writing through one simple exercise.” And what is that exercise? It’s very simple, and also simply revolutionary, says Mitch:
First, identify a piece of critical writing that you admire — perhaps an essay, article or review — but above all, something that captures the vitality and discretion that you would like to bring to the page. Then, recopy it by hand.
In the action of copying the piece by hand — not typing on a computer or tablet — you will discover the innards and guts of what the writer is doing. Writing by hand, with pen and paper, compels you to become mentally and even physically involved in picking apart the work. You will gain a new perspective on how the writer says things, how he deploys evidence and examples, and how his sentences are designed to introduce details or withhold them for later.
– Mitch Horowitz, “How to Take a Massive Leap Forward in Your Writing through One Simple Exercise,” The Huffington Post, September 19, 2013
Mitch goes on to describe how his hand-copying of an article by Jack Curry in The New York Times “reinvigorated my own passion for writing — and led me to focus on metaphysical history, which resulted in my two recent books: Occult America (Bantam, 2009) and One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life (Crown, Jan 2014).”
Again, my own experience parallels what’s described here, because I myself have gotten enormous authorial mileage from copying down by hand the work of other writers.
And now you’ll have to excuse me, because I’ve got to log off, pick up a pen, and spend some time blackening a few pages in the notebook (as in, a bound stack of real paper pages, not a petite laptop computer) that awaits my real-world attention. But before I do, if any of this speaks to you, then I suppose the upshot is obvious: go thou and do likewise.
If you find yourself in Waco, Texas in October 2013 — specifically, on Friday, October 25 — and you’re in the mood to celebrate the Halloween horror season in style, be sure to come join us for the fourth annual Dark Mirror horror film festival. Four classic horror films. Informative introductory talks by vampire expert and religion scholar Dr. J. Gordon Melton, Baylor University film professor Dr. Jim Kendrick, and yours truly. All the junk food you care to buy (popcorn, candy, chili cheese nachos, hot dogs, soda, water). What’s not to like?
Thessaly la Force: It struck me when you said we must “trust the peripheral vision of our mind.” It seems like a muscle in your body that you have to develop by training some other part of you.
Marilynne Robinson: One reaches for analogies. I think it’s probably a lot like meditation — which I have never practiced. But from what I understand, it is a capacity that develops itself and that people who practice it successfully have access to aspects of consciousness that they would not otherwise have. They find these large and authoritative experiences. I think that, by the same discipline of introspection, you have access to a much greater part of your awareness than you would otherwise. Things come to mind. Your mind makes selections — this deeper mind — on other terms than your front-office mind. You will remember that once, in some time, in some place, you saw a person standing alone, and their posture suggested to you an enormous narrative around them. And you never spoke to them, you don’t know them, you were never within ten feet of them. But at the same time, you discover that your mind privileges them over something like the Tour d’Eiffel. There’s a very pleasant consequence of that, which is the most ordinary experience can be the most valuable experience. If you’re philosophically attentive you don’t need to seek these things out.
. . . [I]t’s finding access into your life more deeply than you would otherwise. Consider this incredibly brief, incredibly strange experience that we have as this hypersensitive creature on a tiny planet in the middle of somewhere that looks a lot like nowhere. It’s assigning an appropriate value to the uniqueness of our situation and every individual situation.
. . . I think that we have almost taught ourselves to have a cynical view of other people. So much of the scientism that I complain about is this reductionist notion that people are really very small and simple. That their motives, if you were truly aware of them, would not bring them any credit. That’s so ugly. And so inimical to the best of everything we’ve tried to do as a civilization and so consistent with the worst of everything we’ve ever done as a civilization.
MORE: “A Teacher and Her Student“
During the recent NecronomiCon 2013 — a conference of all-things Lovecraftian held in HPL’s beloved Providence — I participated in a panel on weird fiction. During the lively and interesting discussion, the opinion was expressed that much weird or horrific fiction seems to be written from a “bleak existentialist perspective.” While that may well be true, I was nonetheless struck by how this perspective is anathema to my own.
A survey of the genre may well support the notion that those who create or consume Horror art are a minority of grim realists who have come to accept, and even revel in, the myriad miseries of life on Earth. Their art could be seen as a cry against a society dominated by sun-blinded optimists who waltz blithely through life, convinced of its innate order and pleasantness.
But I suggest that the situation is far more layered than this.
I do not personally write from a bleak perspective, for this implies a state of powerless frustration over a set of natural and societal laws that hold the human species in their thrall. My fiction is a celebration of transgression of all laws, of transformation, and ultimately of transcendence. It is not a nihilistic lament. Read the rest of this entry
Here’s a really nice pair of paragraphs expressing a dead-on and truly significant point, from a review by Margaret Atwood (!) of King’s new novel Doctor Sleep, his much-heralded sequel to The Shining:
King is right at the center of an American literary taproot that goes all the way down: to the Puritans and their belief in witches, to Hawthorne, to Poe, to Melville, to the Henry James of “The Turn of the Screw,” and then to later exemplars like Ray Bradbury. In the future, I predict, theses will be written on such subjects as “American Puritan Neo-Surrealism in ‘The Scarlet Letter’ and ‘The Shining,’ ” and “Melville’s Pequod and King’s Overlook Hotel as Structures That Encapsulate American History.”
Some may look skeptically at “horror” as a subliterary genre, but in fact horror is one of the most literary of all forms. Its practitioners read widely and well — King being a pre-eminent example — since horror stories are made from other horror stories: you can’t find a real-life example of the Overlook Hotel. People do “see” some of the things King’s characters see (for a companion volume, try Oliver Sacks’s “Hallucinations”), but it is one of the functions of “horror” writing to question the reality of unreality and the unreality of reality: what exactly do we mean by “see”?
From the perspective of cognitive psychology and clinical neuroscience, when it comes to treatment, a good nightmare is a dead nightmare. Since the days of Freud, we have been hell-bent on eliminating all varieties of bad dreams equally without discrimination and as a result, we know surprisingly little about ordinary nightmares. That’s a problem that isn’t going to go away by itself.
My own life has been sculpted by the gritty winds of horrible dreams, leaving me confused about how to work with the dark energies that are stirred up for days afterwards. For example, for years, I was tormented by dreams of being chased by wolves and packs of angry dogs. Usually I would wake up from fright, but sometimes not before one of them sank their teeth into me or scratched at my hands and face. In waking life, I’m a dog lover who raised and trained several dogs. In particular, I helped raise a beautiful German Shepard mix named Bandit who was also a quarter wolf. So my nightmares do not come from a fear of unknowing, but rather a legacy of love, which always confused me further. What am I so scared of?
A few years ago, I told a psychotherapist friend about my wolf dreams and my inability to proceed when the animals attack, despite often becoming lucidly aware in the dream. As with many lucid dreams, my self-awareness seemed to bungle the dream rather than provide clarity. There are no guides in the lucid dreaming literature besides a somewhat pedantic attitude that eliminating fear will shift the dream. I didn’t want to eliminate the wolves, though. I wanted to work with them somehow. Should I fight them off? Allow myself to be devoured as some sort of initiation rite?
She suggested a different approach: “Reach into your pocket and pull out a gift for them.” I was struck by the simplicity of this action. I asked how would I know what to give them and she answered, “That is up to the dream, not you.” Read the rest of this entry