The current dawning of the Coronacene reframes and underscores an always-salient truth: Real success in writing is just doing it. Just inhabiting the act itself. Just seeing new words appear on the page. “The search for meaning distilled in an act . . . an act of meditation, an act of prayer . . . giving yourself over to sustained concentration, thinking deeply about the world around you, about your life,” as Adam O’Fallon Price lucidly and movingly puts it in an essay at The Millions:
Things that, as an author, you usually take for granted as bedrock facts of your world—a healthy reading public with disposable time and income, or the continued solvency/existence of major publishers, for example—suddenly seem made less of granite than of sand. We are advised to isolate and quarantine, and we have no idea, really, what is to come. Now, more than ever, if you are a writer, there is only you and the work-in-progress. But then, that is really always the case. . . .
Success. As I have done many times before, I interrogated this word. What is success in writing? I came to, as one so often does at these times, an unsatisfying bromide that nonetheless possesses the dull and stubborn ring of truth. Tertiary success in writing is actual or “actual” success, what we are conditioned to foolishly hope for: sales, awards, packed readings, a large and vociferous readership. Secondary success is simply getting a novel written and published—again, a huge feat for anyone to accomplish at any level of publication. But primary success—the real success—is the days and weeks and months and years of satisfying, engaging work it takes to produce the book, no matter what happens to it afterward.
We are dust, after all. Most books are dust. Nothing lasts, and short of believing in a conventional afterlife where you are admitted to some kind of successful writers’ VIP lounge, there’s no sound reason to obsess about writing a successful novel. To return to Kahnemann, what behavioral science teaches us, over and over, about happiness is that success does not really make us happy. A minimal level of financial security is a precondition for happiness. Connection with people we love makes us happy. Physical exercise and movement makes us happy. Food makes us happy. And doing something meaningful makes us happy. This is the real value of writing: it is the search for meaning distilled in an act.
Writing is, ultimately, an act of meditation, an act of prayer. It is giving yourself over to sustained concentration, thinking deeply about the world around you, about your life. It is a way of communing with yourself, and even if this regular practice results in publication, the real hard-won value is in the millions of moments that led to the book’s existence. Every day that you sit down, for as much time as you have to work, you should be grateful for the opportunity to do a meaningful thing even if—maybe, especially if—it is only meaningful to you. As much as possible, you should inhabit the act itself, seeing the success in each new word that appears on the page.
More: “Our Work and Why We Do It“
In light of yesterday’s awful mosque attacks in New Zealand, I feel led to start with this except from a 2003 PBS interview with Thich Nhat Hanh. After an extensive conversation about Buddhism, Christianity, mindfulness, and other such matters, and their relationship to gritty large-scale matters of war and violence, the interaction ends with this:
Q: What is so tantalizing about talking to you is the wonderful promise of your teachings at the personal level, and the frustration of not seeing how it can change the policies of big institutions, such as government.
A: It is the individual who can effectuate change. When I change, I can help produce change in you. As a journalist, you can help change many people. That’s the way things go. There’s no other way. Because you have the seed of understanding, compassion, and insight in you. What I say can water that seed, and the understanding and compassion are yours and not mine. You see? My compassion, my understanding can help your compassion and understanding to manifest. It’s not something that you can transfer.
Are you burned out on collapse? According to a recent article on “the hidden psychological toll of living through a time of fracture,” you’re not alone. As the writer astutely observes, “When reality itself has turned into something like a grotesque, bizarre dystopia, then just making contact with it is deeply psychologically stressful.”
Douglas Rushkoff has offered a brief and typically insightful reflection on the deep cause and possible cure for our culture of doom and collapse: the Internet is acid, and America is having a bad trip. (Seriously, his thesis is profound.)
Meanwhile, journalist and author Nick Bilton writes in Vanity Fair that “No One Is at the Controls” as “Facebook, Amazon, and Others Are Turning Life into a Horrific Bradbury Novel.” It occurs to me that his thesis — that the Internet now runs itself, that “nobody is behind the curtain” of our digital dystopia — resonates with the horrific discovery of the empty movie theater projection booth in Lamberto Bava’s Demons. The characters storm the booth after the horror movie they’ve been watching comes to life and fills the theater with raging, murderous demons. But their horror is compounded when they discover there’s no projectionist. In other words, nobody is responsible. Nobody is making the nightmare happen. The equipment all just runs on its own. As one of them fearfully observes in a line of dialogue that resonates with overtones of cosmic nihilism, “Oh, God, then that means no one’s ever been here!” (Watch the scene.)
By contrast, this is quite lovely: Composer James Agnelli created music by using the position of birds on electrical wires to represent notes. Then he facilitated the production of this short film about it. Also see the brief explanation of further background at The Daily Grail.
In his recent commencement address to graduates of the Bennington Writing Seminars at Vermont’s Bennington College, poet and author Garth Greenwell communicated some riveting advice and wisdom on living the writer’s life: “To write a story or a poem or an essay is to make a claim about what we find beautiful, about what moves us, to reveal a vision of the world, which is always terrifying; to write seriously is to find ourselves pressed against not just our technical but our moral limits. . . . That intimate communication between writer and reader, that miracle of affective translation across distance and time, is the real life of literature; that’s what matters.” His words on the place of literary awards and sales figures are particularly astute: “The soul one pours into a novel or a collection of poems, the years of effort a book represents — what possible response from the world could be adequate recompense for that?”
This explain a lot: A secret brain trust of scientists and billionaires, unofficially headquartered at Silicon Valley, has embraced belief in UFOs as a new religious mode.
And then there’s this: “The British military is recruiting philosophers, psychologists and theologians to research new methods of psychological warfare and behavioural manipulation, leaked documents show.” Apparently the project comes with a communications campaign to help manage “reputational risks” for participating academic institutions. Quoth one Cambridge scholar interviewed for the linkedGuardian piece, “Now I don’t want to be too academic about this, but it’s very striking that a programme designed to change people’s views and opinions for military purposes would spend some of its money changing people’s views and opinions, so that they wouldn’t object to changing people’s views and opinions. See what they did there?”
An essay at The American Scholar titled “The Sound of Evil” provides an interesting cinematic-cultural-sociological analysis of the avenues by which classical music in movies and television have become synonymous with villainy
A free symposium titled “Detecting Pessimism: Thomas Ligotti and the Weird in an Age of Post-Truth” will be held this June at Manchester Metropolitan University’s 70 Oxford St. The announcement explains that “Ligotti is increasingly seen as one of the key literary horror and weird fiction writers of recent decades whose works present a unique, bleak and controversial portrayal of both human existence and society.” The symposium “will comprise of [sic] two panels with papers delivered by staff and students on Ligotti and the weird mode, and will include a keynote delivered by weird expert Professor Roger Luckhurst. They will explore the works, philosophy and influence of Ligotti within a diverse range of contexts, from philosophical nihilism and pessimism, weird fiction and horror to his impact on film and television.” (Tangential side note: About half the presenting scholars were involved in my Horror Literature through History encyclopedia.) Even if you, like me, will sadly be unable to attend, you can still read this piece containing brief interviews with some of the participants about their thoughts on Ligotti and his work.
While the rest of the US raves breathlessly on about AOC and Wells Fargo or whatever, I much prefer to slow down and savor a delicious interview with Whitley Strieber about his outlandish experiences and the way his career as a major and still-rising horror novelist was derailed when he became America’s most prominent paranormal lightning rod.
December saw the publication of Peter Bebergal’s Strange Frequencies: The Extraordinary Story of the Technological Quest for the Supernatural. Teeming Brain readers will recall that Peter was one of the panelists on the Teeming Brain podcast “Cosmic Horror vs. Sacred Terror.” His new book offers “a journey through the attempts artists, scientists, and tinkerers have made to imagine and communicate with the otherworldly using various technologies, from cameras to radiowaves.”
T. E. (Ted) Grau, who produced a handful of fine articles for The Teeming Brain a few years back, is presently on the final ballot for the Bram Stoker Award for his novel I Am the River. Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review, saying that “Grau’s poetic prose and stunning evocation of time and place, from the killing fields of Vietnam to the haunted alleyways of Bangkok, form a fever dream of copious bloodshed and many shades of gray.”
Speaking of horror, the crowd-funded documentary In Search of Darkness is in its final stages of production. I only learned about the project recently via a tweet from long-time Teeming Brain friend and fellow religion/horror adept John Morehead. Here’s the official description, followed by the official trailer. The description reads like a feast, while the trailer feels like a time warp to my misspent, VHS-saturated adolescence.
Featuring compelling critical takes and insider tales of the Hollywood filmmaking experience throughout the 1980s, In Search of Darkness will provide fans with a unique perspective on the decade that gave rise to some of the horror genre’s greatest icons, performers, directors and franchises that forever changed the landscape of modern cinema. Tracking major theatrical releases, obscure titles and straight-to-video gems, the incredible array of interviewees that have been assembled for ISOD will weigh in on a multitude of topics: from creative and budgetary challenges creatives faced throughout the decade to the creature suits and practical effects that reinvigorated the makeup effects industry during the era to the eye-popping stunts that made a generation of fans believe in the impossible. In Search of Darkness will also celebrate many of the atmospheric soundtracks released during that time, the resurgence of 3-D filmmaking, the cable TV revolution and the powerful marketing in video store aisles, the socio-political allegories infused throughout many notable films, and so much more.
Finally, a recent piece by Glenn Greenwald deserves to be read by everybody of all political persuasions: “NYT’s Exposé on the Lies About Burning Aid Trucks in Venezuela Shows How U.S. Government and Media Spread Pro-War Propaganda.” It presents an utterly damning account of collusion between the U.S. government and U.S. corporate media to foment Venezuelan regime change through brazen lies, thus perpetuating a long and sordid tradition in America’s international relations.
New (and old) book projects: An encyclopedia of horror literature and a collection of horror fiction
Frontispiece to Frankenstein (1831 edition). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
On a morning when I’ve just finished up with several days of responding to publisher copy edits on Ghosts, Spirits, and Psychics, I’m happy to announce the birth of another book project: I have just signed a contract with the same publisher (ABC-CLIO) to edit a two-volume reference work to be titled Horror Literature through History: An Encyclopedia of the Stories That Speak to Our Deepest Fears. This is all still in the early developmental stages, and the book itself won’t appear until late 2016 (at the very earliest). But I can tell you that the structure and approach of this particular project will make it something special. I will of course say more about the whole thing as additional information becomes available.
Oh, and speaking of available information, I can also report that my long-hibernating omnibus collection of horror fiction from Hippocampus Press, To Rouse Leviathan — which has been greatly delayed by my own mercurial creative cycles and outer life circumstances — is still very much alive.
“True mysteries give more energy, more questions every time you find an answer. I truly think that searching after mysteries is the source of the immortalization of the human soul. If I ever write anything that makes someone consider that maybe they don’t know everything about everything, then I have succeeded.”
— Don Webb
Don Webb is many things: magician, philosopher, teacher, literary critic, writer in a dozen different genres, proud Texan. He is the author of the Shirley Jackson Award-nominated tale “The Great White Bed” (2007), the mind-bending mystery novels The Double: An Investigation and Essential Saltes: An Experiment, and the double title The War with the Belatrin: Science Fiction Stories / A Velvet of Vampyres: Tales of Horror. His non-fiction books include Uncle Setnakt’s Guide to the Left Hand Path and The Seven Faces of Darkness.
Don has also been a friend and collaborator for many years. For Echoes from Hades, he graciously agreed to settle in with me for a fireside chat in which he waxed eloquent on art, magic, love, and all things in-between. Read the rest of this entry
From an excellent new profile of Alan Moore in The Observer, focusing mainly on his rejection of Hollywood but spinning out into various and sundry areas of deep fascinatingness (as befitting his fascinatingly deep and varied person), a statement regarding the deep intertwinement of magic, consciousness, creativity, and writing:
This business of being a practising magician, which he first announced in the 1990s (about the time his beard started to grey, and he got the snake-shaped stick). Is it for real, or is he playing? “It’s a major part of how I see the world. Looking like I do, halfway to Gandalf before I’ve put a foot out the door, you’ve got to diffuse… ” And for once, Moore fails to find an eloquent end to his sentence. He tries again: “There is an element of playing. But what’s behind it is very serious.”
Pick a card, any card? No, says Moore, it’s not about tricks. To him it’s about consciousness — and quickly he gets away on a tangent about the limits of the mind, flitting through Freud, Alan Turing, Paracelsus and Twelfth Night before arriving at an explanation that makes reasonable sense. Moore sees magic as a form of meditation, an outlet for his seriously vivid imagination.
“Do I believe, for example, that by using magic I could fly? No. How would you get around gravity? Impossible. Do I believe that I might be able to project my consciousness into a very, very vivid simulation of flying? Yeah. Yes, I’ve done that. Yes, that works.”
Does it require that you take… “Sometimes you have to take drugs, yes. Sometimes you can do it with dreaming. Sometimes you can do it with a creative act. Writing is a very focused form of meditation. Just as good as sitting in a lotus position.”
— Tom Lamont, “Alan Moore: why I turned my back on Hollywood,” The Observer, December 15, 2012
For more on the same or a similar theme, see my A Course in Demonic Creativity, especially chapter three, “A Writer’s Guide to the Psyche” and chapter eight, “The Discipline of the Demon Muse.” For more on Moore, see my long essay “In Search of Higher Intelligence,” which is mainly about the deeply entangled experiences of Aleister Crowley, Timothy Leary, and Robert Anton Wilson with these matters, but which also mentions Moore’s experiences and contributions (as well as those of his fellow author/magician/comics auteur, Grant Morrison). You can also find the same essay in slightly revised form, sans the Moore and Morrison references, in the October 2012 issue of Paranthropology.
Image by Matt Biddulph (http://www.flickr.com/photos/mbiddulph/3590341986/) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Recently in his blog for The New York Review of Books, Tim Parks — novelist, nonfiction writer, translator — has offered some strikingly interesting and cogent reflections on the relationships among and between art, authorship, law, money, ownership, individuals, and twentieth-to-twenty-first century sociocultural realities. Their background is, first, the rise of writing as “a well-defined career track, like any other middle class professional,” and, second, the calling into question of current copyright laws and their long-term or even near-term viability as the opening of international publishing markets and the birth of the Internet have posed extraordinary difficulties for policing and enforcement, and also for the establishment of clear ethical boundaries.
In the last thirty or forty years, the writer has become someone who works on a well-defined career track, like any other middle class professional, not, however, to become a craftsman serving the community, but to project an image of himself (partly through his writings, but also in dozens of other ways) as an artist who embodies the direction in which culture is headed … It became clear that the task of the writer was not just to deliver a book, but to promote himself in every possible way. He launches a website, a Facebook page (I’m no exception), perhaps hires his own publicist. He attends literary festivals all over the world, for no payment. He sits on the jury for literary prizes for very little money, writes articles in return for a one-line mention of his recent publication, completes dozens of internet interviews, offers endorsements for the books of fellow writers in the hope that the compliment will be returned … [I]n the publishing culture we have today any idea that a process of slow sifting might produce a credible canon such as those we inherited from the distant past is nonsense. Whatever in the future masquerades as a canon for our own time will largely be the result of good marketing, self-promotion, and of course pure chance.
— “The Writer’s Job,” February 28, 2012
Paradoxically, then, almost the worst thing that can happen to writers, at least if it’s the quality of their work we’re thinking about, is to receive, immediately, all the money and recognition they want. At this point all other work, all other sane and sensible economic relation to society, is rapidly dropped and the said author now absolutely reliant on the world’s response to his or her books, and at the same time most likely surrounded by people who will be building their own careers on his or her triumphant success, all eager to reinforce intimations of grandeur … But if too much money can be damaging, dribs and drabs are not going to get the best out of a writer either … The key idea here it seems to me is that of a community of reference. Writers can deal with a modest income if they feel they are writing toward a body of readers who are aware of their work and buy enough of it to keep the publisher happy. But the nature of contemporary globalization, with its tendency to unify markets for literature, is such that local literary communities are beginning to weaken, while the divide between those selling vast quantities of books worldwide and those selling very few and mainly on home territory is growing all the time.
— “Does Money Make Us Write Better?” July 20, 2012
Copyright…is part of a mass of legislation that governs the relationship between individual and collective, for the most part defending the former against the latter … Copyright gives the writer a considerable financial incentive and locks his work into the world of money; each book becomes a lottery ticket … [C]opyright keeps the writer in the polis, and indeed it is remarkable how little creative writing today is truly revolutionary, in the sense of seeking a profoundly different model of a society … As soon as we put it like this, as soon as we imagine, or try to imagine, the extraordinary confusion, creative and otherwise, that might occur, the many and fragmented ways people might enjoy and share and despair of putting together reflections and entertainments in words for each other, you can see that it is not going to happen; there is still an enormous demand for the long traditional novel, for works that reinforce the idea of individual identity projected through time and achieving some kind of wisdom or happiness through many vicissitudes. There is simply no form of escapism, mental immersion, or sustained illusion quite like the thousand-page fantasy narrative, whether it be the endless Harry Potters or the Millennium trilogy; if to have that experience we have to guarantee a substantial income to its creator then society will continue to find a way to do that, in the same way European soccer clubs still find ways to pay exorbitant salaries to their star players. Copyright, we see, is not essentially driven by notions of justice or theories of ownership, but by a certain culture’s attachment to a certain literary form. If people only read poetry, which you can never stop poets producing even when you pay them nothing at all, then the law of copyright would disappear in a trice.
— “Does Copyright Matter?” August 14, 2012