Reflections on Aphorisms #98

Making myself be really disciplined with my morning today so that I can get more than one aphorism in in the day. Still focusing on Rochefoucauld’s Maximes for now, but doing more than one lets me get a little variety in.

Aphorism 137

Cunning and treachery are the offspring of incapacity. (Maxim 126)

François de La Rochefoucauld

Interpretation

I think there’s a little room to argue that the relationship here is not unilateral, but I generally agree with Rochefoucauld here.

What I have found in my own life is that when I am most honest I push myself to be the best I can be so I can live without shame. Of course I know I have my little faults; I’m not particularly industrious. 

I say this after waking up before dawn to go for a run, getting a lengthy morning walk in afterward to get tea (and more exercise), doing a significant amount of reading for coursework, writing two blog posts and change (though I still have to post one), and taking only about an hour and a half of down-time in between these things, but the truth is that today has been shaping up to be a good day compared to average. Being self-employed makes it more important to stay conscious of my faults.

Plus, now that I’m honest about it, I feel more of a need to compensate for my flaws, which is useful.

But one of the things about dishonesty is that it tends to breed other problems.

It’s very easy to become complacent with where you are when you’re not honest with yourself (the theme of the year when I was a freshman in college was “self-deception” thanks to Goethe and Tolstoy), and that makes it easy to let hubris and vanity take over.

And, of course, there’s an importance to valuing yourself. You always have the very basic thing, that you are a being of potential and inherent human value (if you belong to a religious or philosophical movement that doesn’t want everything to just end in chaos and blood), but self-esteem is more than just that. You need to believe that there’s something in particular that you can do, and it’s good to let yourself think that you’re at least passable after it. After all, God looks at his creation and sees that it is good in the Bible, and while we’re pitiable things in comparison to God the Bible also argues that we are made in the same image: the likeness of the creator.

So figure out what you make and be honest with your abilities. If you’re not good at it, get good at it. And let yourself have that confidence. Don’t fool yourself into complacency, but remember that pretty much everyone’s been able to struggle through life to get where they are. Lottery winners and trust fund babies may have had more struggle than they are often made out to have overcome, too, and if nothing else they’ll get theirs later when senescence hits like a truck.

Part of the reason why we resort to vices is that they’re easier than virtue. If you cultivate one or the other it’ll grow, but unless you’re very careful it’s easy to build vice. Only the masters can bring themselves to a state even an imperfect observer can call virtuous.

So figure out what you can do, do it, and learn how to live along the way.

It doesn’t sound easy, but it’s sort of a package deal.

Resolution

Master my craft.

Use honesty as a mirror.

Don’t let doubt destroy potential.

Aphorism 138

The malicious have a dark happiness.

Victor Hugo

Interpretation

One of the things that you observe about the really, truly evil is that they find what they are doing to be not just acceptable, but good.

I’d equate it with the satisfaction of being an artisan. One of the things that I really love about writing is that once in a while I write something and it turns out better than I thought it would be, and it gives me a chance to feel like I have birthed something great.

Evil doesn’t enjoy benign creation, but rather the creation of shrines to the self, the idolatry of the mirror.

I believe that we’re all attuned to the nature of existence. Call it a conscience, as I do, or the collective unconscious, as Jung did, Socrates’ daimonion, or anything you like, but we all have some fundamental realization that the world is greater than us and substantially driven by forces that we are not in control of, and that there is a way that we should behave in response to this.

This is the nature of tragedy that flows throughout our lives, because we are not in tune with the universe and we are not perfect beings. We will eventually face, if nothing else, the fact that we decay.

That’s really a terrifying notion. We may be familiar with the concept of finititude, but we have nothing to use to apply that concept to our own lives, except perhaps sleep. And sleep itself is imperfect, because we know that we will awaken from it. It can also hold its own terrors and mysteries.

Shakespeare got it right when Hamlet remarked that death is “to sleep, perchance to dream” but I don’t think he ever intended to give us an answer to Hamlet’s dilemma.

One of the only ways that we can protect ourselves from death is to make something that lasts beyond our time.

But that’s hard.

Not just in a “you’ll have to sacrifice” hard way, but in a “you’ll have to sacrifice and you’ll never know if it worked” way.

There’s layers of self-doubt to get through, and then one needs to make a big enough mark on reality for it to be reflected forever.

And, if you look at it that way, we’re specks of dust on a larger speck of dust.

How can we leave any legacy worth leaving?

The answer is simple: to set our expectations on what we are.

If you think about it, every human being is made up of cells that can be traced back to one progenitor. We’ve been shaped by our mothers going back for centuries and millennia. One could look at that and say that we’re the product of a biological machine, a sort of cancer that hijacks everything around us and uses it to replicate ourselves. The right (or wrong) sort of person would even go so far as to condemn us for that.

But I like to look at it and see the awe of the cosmos. We are part of something great and massive, so big that we can never hope to be more than a note in a chord in a measure in a song that resonates through time.

I’m religious, so this is something that may not resonate with everyone, but I feel a sense of God’s purpose within us. We’re motivated to live in line with something greater than ourselves.

When someone falls to evil, they replace that prime directive, the goals that God has set, with the desires that they have.

It brings its own sort of happiness, in the vein of Milton’s Lucifer, because we can be our own masters. There’s a price for that: we wind up living in hell. But hell is the place that God (or, again, the collective unconscious or daimonion if you favor a secular interpretation; this will have a different conceptual meaning but it is not all so different in execution) does not reign supreme in, so it is the one place that we can possibly hope to master. The wicked have found their paradise in a barren wasteland, because we can lord ourselves only over dust and ash.

Resolution

Always find joy in creation, not destruction.

Listen for God’s voice, and follow that path.

Don’t put myself above my place.

Review of Justice Velocity

Justice Velocity (affiliate link) lives up to its name: it’s fast-paced high octane roleplaying.

Now, that’s right up my alley, so when I heard about it I had to go and check it out.

I’ve played various examples of games that claimed to be action-oriented, and the question is always how well they do at streamlining and simplifying play versus how well they do at making the game feel thematic. I’m going to focus my review on that, today.

The Overview

Justice Velocity runs about 70 pages. I’d say it’s done really well; there’s not a whole ton of art, but what’s there is good and thematic, and the cover does a really good job of getting players involved.

I’m going to take a moment to talk about what I perceive as the target audience of this game: people who want a break from their regular game or who are not roleplayers (or not frequent roleplayers) who like action films.

That’s not to say that you couldn’t play Justice Velocity for a long campaign as a stand-alone game, but I think this is outside of its primary wheelhouse. It’s 70 pages, and a lot of the rules for stuff are “do what seems cool” instead of highly fleshed out and meticulously balanced things.

And you know what? I like that. It’s a game that respects the intelligence of its players; it’s simple enough to play without the rulebook being referenced all the time, but elegant in its threshold-based 2d6+modifiers mechanic.

Now, it’s not going to let you achieve a lot of mathematical whimsy, it’s a thin book, but one of the things I’ve learned as a game designer is that sometimes people need a game they can play without worrying about a bunch of math, and Justice Velocity is in a genre that lends itself to raw cinematic action and hits that niche.

Now, with that said, it is simple. If you like Shadowrun or GURPS or even D&D you might feel like you’re moving to a much simpler system.

But that’s where we move into the more specialized parts of this review.

Is it Sleek?

Yep.

One of the reasons why Justice Velocity is 70 pages is because it sticks to very basic rules for everything but cars and gunfights (or fistfights, if that’s your speed) and doesn’t complicate those terribly much either.

But the rules actually deliver on that.

It has rules for grid-based play, but the book recommends theater of the mind for most combat (and trackers for vehicles, which is a must). If it’s a one-on-one cinematic moment, you can easily do away with the trackers in vehicle races and chases, both of which can be represented at varying degrees of detail.

It’s worth noting that while I describe Justice Velocity as simple, it has an attributes, skills, special abilities, gear, and usually vehicles to track. That’s a handful of moving parts, but it doesn’t worry too much about the nitty-gritty. Gear is handled entirely by GM fiat (which could cause issues), and advancement is very simple.

One nice thing is that whenever the rules extend beyond simple mechanics, they are very clearly explained and usually get a nice in-depth example. I’m willing to bet that people who play Justice Velocity and want to stick to the rules-as-written experience all play pretty much the same game, which I can’t say about every roleplaying game out there. It’s tremendously clear, and I could probably run almost every part of the game from memory after reading it once (the one exception being the vehicle rules, which get a little more detailed).

Now, I will say that I am a little concerned that the point-buy system might not actually work the best for what they’re hoping to achieve. This might be the only time in history that I’ve ever said those words. There’s a certain amount of character overlap because it’s a game primarily focused on guns and cars, and a good handful of character options aren’t about guns and cars and are unlikely to be taken.

So you’re in an odd place where a lot of people are going to have the same skills (in theory; in practice you never know), and a lot of skills might not be represented. Combat skills come free, though, so it’s more a question of what would matter.

In this way I think the system is perhaps over-streamlined. Skills all cost the same, for instance, and characters don’t necessarily start with any skills. So you wind up with a situation where a lot of people are going to have a couple skills (especially Driving) but not necessarily have any skill represented.

This is probably fretting about nothing; skills give a +2 bonus, but there’s no penalty for not having them. The majority of a character’s bonus is going to come from other sources anyway, but it might have been nice to have a couple free knowledge or language skills, especially as a way to ground people, or have them cost 1 point instead of 2 during character creation.

A small concern I have is that in theory Will could be a little strong because it feeds skill rolls, gives limited uses of a bonus die, and boosts HP. However, since the distribution curve of attributes is relatively slender (players spread 20 points across five attributes) I don’t see a huge problem barring a couple weird situations I’ll discuss elsewhere.

The important thing here: the rules are simple enough for players to understand without needing to read (always a good point, especially for a game you could play impromptu and a genre that fits that style), and a competent GM can take them a long way.

Is it Thematic?

Yes. Eight hundred times yes. It may have a little testosterone poisoning, but it’s both self-aware and blissfully unconcerned about what people think about it.

Cars. Guns.

You want ’em? Justice Velocity’s got ’em.

It’s the sort of game I’d be totally happy just kicking back and playing, and one that’s a great rainy-day or missing-player backup game. I don’t know if the rest of my group would enjoy it, because they’re not really into the genre like I am, but if you ask “Could I use this game to recreate X?” and X is any major action movie of the last 20 years, the answer is almost certainly yes.

The one exception I’d point out is that the rules are very focused and tight. You wouldn’t be recreating Netflix’s Bright, for instance (but why would anyone in their right mind?) or some of the other genre-action hybrids like superhero movies, but that’s not the point of Justice Velocity and they don’t lie and pretend that it is.

Vehicle chase rules are a stand-out positive part of the ruleset. I don’t think I’ve ever seen them better elsewhere, and it has one of the few random tables to help with inspiration for obstacles and boosts that you might encounter while racing around a city.

They do get a little complicated compared to the other rules, and it would’ve been nice to see perhaps a little more of the under-the-hood dice in the way of examples (the first example is a little vague on what exactly people rolled).

The Elephant in the Room

Before I move on, I want to quickly address a couple issues I do have with the game. I don’t want to be too negative here; they’re not deal-breakers, but they are things that I would be remiss if I overlooked.

A lot of things are left to “roll with it” mode. I’m a believer in the intelligence of average (and even slightly below average) players and GMs to figure out what the heck they want from their games, so I’m totally fine with this.

The problem is that if you don’t know what you’re doing, or even have an idea of it, you can really easily mess stuff up.

Character advancement is practically nonexistent; though it’s present the rules are basically “Throw some AP (Advancement Points, of which each player gets 10) at it”, and the method for determining that is left up to you. If players expect AP every session in a fifteen session game, you’re going to run out of options for them very quickly before they start stealing the spotlight from each other, and I don’t think the book is clear enough about that.

One of the suggestions is to base AP gained on Will, which is probably the only big balance issue I see; the game is generally loose on balance, but as an exercise in collaborative storytelling I don’t see a problem here. With that in mind, you could expect to see people gaining 2 AP per session and people gaining 6 AP per session if someone were liberal with AP (I don’t think anyone who read the book would go beyond that), and the people who started with high Will could easily dominate the competition.

Keep in mind, however, that they are clear that the idea of the story isn’t to follow people gaining bigger numbers but to follow high-octane action. Not having advancement is not the issue; not being consistent with it is.

For a group that’s already frequently roleplaying, I think this is a non-issue. People will use the method they like from other games. It’s for first-timers and infrequent roleplayers that I see this becoming an issue, which is why I’m hesitant to openly recommend what would otherwise be an excellent first-time game, unless the GM has experience.

If there were two things I’d change about Justice Velocity, I’d put a lot of the things that currently are just given the “season to taste” treatment into organized tracks for “high-power”, “baseline” and “high-stakes” play so that things like the rates at which you refresh resources and how to handle character death could be communicated to players directly. This would make it playable by novice roleplayers and address 99% of my concerns about the game.

The second is that I’d tweak the AP costs of some things or give starter packages for players.

Other things are all nit-picky. The sample enemies are next to sample PCs and other content in Chapter 3, when it might make sense to move them to the GM-specific section in Chapter 7. There’s inconsistent capitalization in the Abilities table. The word roll is misspelled as role once.

Very nit-picky. This game is well-edited and obviously lovingly playtested to get rid of any significant errors, and while it’s not A-list Hollywood production value, it’s probably the most solid indie title I’ve seen in a while.

The Verdict

I really like Justice Velocity and don’t regret buying it. Will I recommend it? Conditionally.

If you’ve played other roleplaying games and want something fast and light that’s built with some really solid chase scenes, this is an easy option to recommend. I feel like its bespoke mechanics do a better job than, say, Savage Worlds, which would handle the action movie genre well but has a lot of extra stuff to handle other stuff as well, for the particular milieu it occupies.

It’s also easy enough that you can play it with your friends who are interested in roleplaying games but think that “dice” is what you do to vegetables when you’re cooking. Because you can pretty much play with just a couple six-sided dice, you can really easily play anywhere, and you can make characters super-simply by using a point pool system, which is great for both speed and balancing some of the otherwise frenetic moments, and despite my griping about a couple small elements it’s tremendously well-made with room to customize it to fit your needs and the theme you’re going for.

That there are two things I’d change about the game, and both of them are easily resolved by a good Session 0 or a savvy GM is a good sign. I’d like to see a second printing/edition with a little more bulk (perhaps delivering on more of the Kickstarter goals?) that keeps the underlying stuff exactly as it is.

The Curse of the Writer

Yesterday I woke from sleep (or, rather, trying to sleep, because the process has always been a drawn-out one for me) twice to work on a story. Both times I was consumed by a fit of energy and a desire to write so fervent that it was just a step below a religious experience.

This energy is brilliant, it flows through me like a river flows when a dam has burst, it fills me with a joy that is difficult to describe because it is something so pure that it lacks words. It is purpose, completion, motivation, drive, flow, unification of the self, inspiration.

I’ve felt it before, but not as strongly, not as vividly. It still echoes and resounds in my soul.

But there are things that threaten to drive it away, and not just sleep deprivation.

Going back and getting a master’s in creative writing was supposed to help me teach, but the mere act of pushing myself into that stream has awakened the writer that has been dormant for some time. But it also opens a door to the unknown.

You see, for all the joy that I’m feeling as I give myself more permission to write and bask in the presence of like-minded individuals, there is a lingering shadow that comes along.

I’m losing the mysticism. Now, that’s not a literal statement. After reading Carl Jung, a part of me will always be drawn to mystery and secrets, a part of me that also knows that they will never be achieved.

But actually opening the door to craft, that’s something that’s scary. You step into a shallow stream, and you can walk across to the other side. You step into a deep river, and you’ll be pulled to the bottom.

I’ve only been a critical reader for a minority of my life, and one who reads for the sake of writing for a short time.

And it makes me nervous to go forward and take that plunge. I’ve been reading King’s On Writing, and one of the things that he talks about regularly is the idea that one grows as a writer by writing and reading.

But I’ve always read as a reader.

My first memories involve books. Most of my second ones too. I stop and read signs. I read all the legalese in contracts and license agreements (well, in contracts at least). I even play games you have to read, for crying out loud.

I’m slightly obsessive, in the sense that if I don’t have something to do I slip into anxiety. Reading is one of those things that can satisfy that, so that I don’t have to run around the room pacing (in multiples of five steps), wash my hands until they bleed, or chatter excitedly to myself. Usually I combine these things, when possible (especially the pacing; I like to get the steps for my fitness tracker and it makes the anxious reptile brain part of me very proud when big numbers show up), but in the case of the last resort reading by itself is enough.

And the curse of the writer is that you cultivate something inside you that reads in a different way than my adolescent reading for pleasure. You read to learn.

But, looking back on it, did I ever read except to learn? Poetry, perhaps, or the master-works of someone like Ishiguro or Dostoevsky (or Tolkien), whose prose can transcend the banality of life.

Isn’t the beauty just a way to teach? Isn’t the consumption of beauty just an attempt to learn?

In the introduction to his book, The Stuff of Fiction, Douglas Bauer writes of reading a story and analyzing it:

After coldly, ruthlessly, dissecting it, all you have to do to bring it back to life is read it again.

Douglas Bauer, The Stuff of Fiction, page 4

The problem is that I’m not sure I believe him.

But this joy of writing is something that could transform me. All change comes with the risk of destruction, but I also suspect that the changes we bring upon ourselves are not really changes, but awakenings.

So I will seek that awakening, risking the writer’s curse.

At the very worst, I’ll be pacing about wringing my hands at the end of it, which is not all that different from how I am now.

Reflections on Aphorisms #97

Today was a good day overall. Not a hyper-productive days, but I give myself a reprieve on Sundays. My morning was not particularly a high point (I need to stop getting in arguments online), but the rest of the day proceeded more or less amicably.

The best part is that I feel like I am going to be very well-prepared for tomorrow, which is a good feeling to go to bed with.

Aphorism 136

There may be good but there are no pleasant marriages. (Maxim 113)

François de La Rochefoucauld

Interpretation

One of the things that I am convinced of is that we have a false association between that which is good and that which is pleasant.

Of course, there is something to be said for the idea that good things often lead to good outcomes; on a certain level this is naturally inherent, whether it is because you believe that good actions are in line with God’s will or because what we define as good is in line with what has been evolutionarily advantageous (or, if you’re someone like Carl Jung, both).

I’m not a married man. I might be a marrying man, but I’ve never really committed to relationships. This doesn’t mean that I look down on commitment; I actually respect it quite a bit, but I haven’t found within me the spark I need to do so.

Rochefoucauld’s point here speaks to me in part because some of my hesitancy with long-term relationships revolves around this notion. I’ve been blessed enough to have a generally pleasant life. There have been some interludes of misery, often quite profound misery, sometimes misery that has scarred me and sometimes misery that I can’t even remember. To give an example of the latter sort, I did quite a number on my foot this morning, for instance, swinging it back into a plastic hard-shell case and then forward into the runner of an office chair, which I was pulling toward myself. Only when trying to recall this sort of insignificant misery did I remember it, so I don’t think it’s worth mentioning.

The profound and awful misery, the kind I can remember, centers around the worst treatment I’ve ever received. I don’t believe there’s anything wrong with unkindness (in small doses), though I also believe that it tends to be counterproductive, but there’s a point at which one crosses the threshold to deliberate destruction. Only upon reflection do I look at some of the examples of events in my life which could reasonably be called unjust. A “mentor” who took every opportunity to condemn and tear down. Companions who were quick to coerce with fists and manipulation, but slow to provide support. 

The thing that scares me the worst out of everything in the world (except perhaps dark outdoors spaces) is that in these situations I was incapable of seeing the damage I was sustaining. I knew on an intuitive level, but I never was able to communicate what it was. I sustained tremendous losses both on a practical level (thousands of dollars of wasted tuition, months of wasted life) and a psychological one (exaggerated feelings of inadequacy, a lingering block against looking people in the eyes).

I guess that this pain, although not the sole factor, is a major block in me developing serious relationships. As much as I hated receiving it, I would hate to become that thing which brings profound misery into other peoples’ lives. I want to believe that we can call these things evil, that they can only stem from malicious intent; Jordan Peterson has an excellent working definition of evil which can be paraphrased as “the deliberate causation of harm” if you don’t recall his much better way of saying it. 

I’m not sure that all suffering comes from evil, or at least not conscious evil.

In this sense, I think that one of the difficulties in having a good relationship is that it’s painful, because you need to rid yourself of the things which make you evil. That’s not possible, because we’re flawed and victimized and broken and incapable. But if you do it right you get most of the way there, which is really all we can ask for.

With that said, I think that Rochefoucauld is wrong.

There are good and pleasant things in the world. That’s part of the reason the world exists, at least according to my faith in God. We’re given this sandbox to explore, and sure sometimes the sand is made of dead things and we’re responsible for a great deal of harm, but just because we suck doesn’t mean that we’ve been rejected and sent to a sort of grand cosmic penal colony. Actually, it might, and given my fairly dour take on things like original sin and the total depravity of man I suppose that I kind of believe that. But that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing good in the world.

And if there’s one thing good, it’s two people coming together in a union that makes something more than 1+1. Marriage is a tool for the creation of families, and the creation of children, and there’s something divine in that.

I’m also from the sort of sect that is totally fine with marital relations and doesn’t make you feel guilty about them. I don’t know what the rules were back in Rochefoucauld’s day (Rome was sometimes a bit of a stickler about these things), but at least in more Protestant sects marriage is a pretty good deal on that front. We read the whole “be fruitful and multiply” commandment as being a free pass, basically.

Yeah, the moment to moment may sometimes suck, but it’s that passing sort of misery; the “accidentally slam your foot into something behind you then compensate by trying to fracture your toes on a chair” sort of misery. It’s not something that you’ll look back on later and even think about, because unless you let it become pathological and obsessive, you’re not going to care. The good parts will win out in the end.

To wrap up, because I’ve gone longer than usual:

  1. Marriage is generally unpleasant because we’re unpleasant.
  2. Connecting to people means opening yourself, and you can get hurt (or worse, you can hurt them).
  3. I’m going to remain happily single until I work out some of my issues.
  4. Man, marriage could actually be a good thing.

Resolution

Be the person someone would marry in their right mind.

Recognize that there is no perfection in a person.

Don’t let scars eat at my soul. That’s a stupid way to give the wicked what they want.

Reflections on Aphorisms #96

I hope to get back into the habit of doing more than one aphorism a day. That won’t be today or tomorrow because tomorrow’s Sunday and I probably won’t do two, and today I waited far too long and it’s basically my bedtime.

Aphorism 135

We sometimes differ more widely from ourselves than we do from others. (Maxim 135)

François de La Rochefoucauld

Interpretation

We grow and change, which is perhaps our one good innate quality.

However, we also waver. I think the Stoics had a good term for this: inconstancy. To be fair, I’m not 100% sure it was the Stoics. I know they didn’t like the character trait, I just don’t remember the term they used.

One of the things about inconstancy is that we can be inconstant in ways that are significant in our lives in ways that others can’t.

Before I begin, though, I want to address the main point here.

I don’t think that there’s a person who is particularly more self-similar than other people. More routine, more dependable from the perspective of the outside world, perhaps. But ultimately we are 90% us, and 10% the moment.

Now, you can make a concerted effort to change yourself. We’ve seen this over and over through humanity’s history.

Of course, doing so does make you differ from yourself, but there’s a philosophical question here:

Does making a conscious change really change you?

I don’t believe so.

Now, that may sound oxymoronic. Changeless alteration.

But the reality is that if you have within yourself the ability to change yourself, the transformation is not really a transformation at all. It is simply an actualization.

If you choose, then the choice is a part of you. Nothing changes and nothing is lost.

So how is it that we can differ more widely than others?

Because our inconstancy often leads us to the same results by different means. If I want to do the right thing, I will do the right thing. If I don’t want to do the right thing, I may be shamed into it. If I have no intention of doing the right thing but am merely unaware of the opportunity, I may do it by habit.

I think the Stoics are too hard on inconstancy. There’s a value to it. It lets us make decisions in context. Of course, moral inconstancy is bad. We want to operate at the highest moral level we can as often and as totally as we can.

But we also want to explore all the choices we can make that do not contradict our morality.

Resolution

Experience new things.

Become what I can be if I set my mind to becoming the best I am.

Spend all time in contemplation of God.

Review of Bird by Bird

Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird (Amazon affiliate link) offers a different look at writing than you are likely to see in other writing books. It does so with passion, zeal, and above all else a sense of clarity and purpose which combine make it refreshing.

I’ve read or listened to quite a few books on writing recently, like John McPhee’s Draft No. 4, which I also highly recommend (my review), but Lamott takes an approach that is conversational and cordial, making the reader (or listener) a co-conspirator with her in the ups and downs of life as a writer.

Two of the most challenging parts of writing are finding a spark, figuring out what you want to write, and then figuring out how to transfer it to paper. Lamott focuses on these two subjects almost to the exclusion of everything else, but she does so with such depth and from so many different angles that she never repeats herself and covers a good portion of everything else that you would want to know as a writer on the side.

Lamott captures the spirit of writing without feeling preachy or over-romantic. I think of Colum McCann’s Letters to a Young Writer (my review) as an example of a book that is sentimental rather than practical, basically a collection of calls to action and motivational speaking rather than an example of what writers are likely to encounter. Lamott, on the other hand, takes the experiences from her own personal perspective, giving the reader emotional attachment and lending them part of her drive.

Lamott is bitingly sarcastic and incredibly funny. She is transparent about her personal crises, leading to a book that shows both the bigger picture of the publication process and the smaller moments that make up the triumphs and ordeals of the writing process; from the feel of getting galley copies in the mail to the shared anxiety of calling another writer on the day of publication to realize that neither she nor he achieved the runaway success that they had dreamed of.

I wouldn’t suggest this book to younger readers due to some of the language and content in it, but it is still one that I would recommend to novice writers because Lamott never does anything that might come across as intimidating or elitist (at least, not without lampshading it in a devilish self-aware fashion). You get a feel for her personality and character and how her life has motivated her to write:

“I try to write the books that I would love to come upon, that are honest, concerned with real lives… and that can make me laugh… Books, for me, are medicine.”

I think this is a meaningful outlook, and it’s worth noting that unlike some authors Lamott leaves it to the writer whether they want to have any overarching message or ideas. If all you have to say is a small truth that you learned from something that happened to you, Lamott gives as much encouragement as you would expect if you were to say that you had figured out the way to fix the universe. She also avoids giving too much of a dogma. A large part of her advice is to figure out methods that work for the individual writer, as a more airy and vapid individual or someone who wishes to sabotage their potential rivals might, but she actually gives enough advice and framework to make it possible to follow that path.

I went into this book with no knowledge of Lamott or her work, and left feeling like she had given me an intimate look into both her writing process and her advice for writers. Comparing it to something like Stephen King’s On Writing, which is definitely more autobiographical and takes longer to get into the craft side of things, or John McPhee’s Draft No. 4, which is heavily predominated by craft.

I’d recommend Bird by Bird without reservation. It’s like having an intimate conversation with a great writer, and even barring an interest in writing it’s funny enough to be worth reading. That it has surprisingly practical and down-to-earth writing moments tucked underneath every joke and anecdote is a triumph that makes it sublime.

Becoming a Writer

I’ve been reading Stephen King’s On Writing (Amazon affiliate link), and I just had an epiphany that I figured I’d write about. Obviously a lot of it is inspired by King’s ideas, and I just hit a section about two-fifths of the way into the book where he talks about paragraph structure (of all things).

Context

I’m in the process of going back and getting my Master’s degree, a MFA in creative writing. I don’t think I’m a great writer, at least not in the traditional sense. I write a lot, certainly. My output is good, probably in the top 1%, maybe in the top 10% of the top 1%, if you just look at words published over time that aren’t about myself (though I’m not sure that you can count anything as being written about anyone but the author).

Creative writing kills me.

I’m just not a novelist. I’ve written a ton of shorter stuff, but there’s a reason why the longest thing I can recall writing that was pure creative writing (i.e. not a game) capped out at twenty-thousand words.

It’s because I don’t tell stories well.

Not for lack of trying, mind you. I love telling stories.

But I also love writing in general.

And if I may toot my own horn, I write pretty well. I don’t always hold myself to a high standard on my blogs, but I taught writing and I learned writing and if I have to get down in the dirt and seriously write I can turn out some stuff that you wouldn’t expect.

That doesn’t mean I can write anything.

My most painful writing experience, and one of my greatest triumphs, wasn’t rejection in the traditional sense. It came in an English class in my freshman year of college, ENG 104 (yeah, I’m an honors student, I do the combine two-semesters-in-one and try to over-achieve thing).

I forget what exactly the prompt for the essay was, but the professor had already made clear to me that she thought I had a lot of potential (this is the academic way of saying that you’re giving someone an A but don’t think they should get cocky).

This is not surprising. I probably write up to a million words a year, even if a lot of my output gets thrown out (metaphorically; I keep everything unless I lose it) or winds up little tiny things that don’t go anywhere.

One of the reasons why creative writing slays me is that I don’t do it very often relative to everything else. I like blogging and writing about stuff in general. I suppose in school we’d call it “expository writing” or “descriptive writing”, though in reality those terms mean about as much as a liar’s promise.

The Epiphany

And that’s where my epiphany comes in. I was pacing around reading (gotta get those step goals for the fitness tracker), and I had a sudden realization that the secret to mastering creative writing is the same as the secret to mastering the sort of writing that I feel pretty comfortable with.

You get your butt in seat and you do it.

I realized while reading about paragraph length of all things that there was some truth here.

You see, other than when I fret over an intro paragraph (always the most important point of your work) or a conclusion containing or not containing something, I’ve put any thoughts of proper paragraph length aside for a very long time.

This is technically untrue; as a teacher I’d lecture students on how to write a formula paragraph, but I never had to think about it when I was writing. I just knew whether I’d said what had to be said in a paragraph.

And that’s something that I need to figure out about creative writing. I’m comfortable with my paragraphs, but I’m not comfortable with my stories. Yet.

So that’s what I’m working toward. The only way there is to do, to keep doing, and to do again.

Reflections on Aphorisms #95

Much more productive today, though mostly in the sense that I got a lot of reading and more exercise in. I did get a little bit more writing done, and spent some time on productive extracurriculars as it were, but not a whole lot of finished writing today. I’ve got a few posts written that just need a final layer of polish and a posting, including a review of Bird by Bird and my tablet that I’ve been using to do a lot of my writing recently.

Aphorism 134

The love of justice is simply in the majority of men the fear of suffering injustice. (Maxim 78)

Interpretation

The sincerest convictions are backed up by a willingness to sacrifice the self.

This is one of the greatest forces for progress in the world. Without it, we would not have civilization.

The problem is that our motivations stem not from principle but from desire.

This is something that keeps us from becoming what we could be.

Desire gives us guidance, but it is flawed.

One form of desire is the desire for security.

However, we are not good at evaluating risks and threats. We are wired to be wary of our environments, to see monsters lurking in the dark. Sometimes this is even a pathological element that hides itself within our psyche, a fear of the unknown that cripples us.

This does not need to be restricted to literal darkness, either. Anything that is foreign or alien can produce reactions drawn from fear.

One solution to this is to try to know everything.

This is a flawed path. Our capacities are limited. Our ability to comprehend is limited. Even our use of language to convey information is flawed. The best tool in the repertoire of any living creature malfunctions.

The great problem with trying to overcome fear through acclimation is that there will always be something new to fear. A worse problem is that we assume that knowledge is going to strip away fear. Knowing that the flame burns does not keep it from doing harm. Knowing the proteins that make up an insect do not make it less abhorrent to one with a phobia.

Familiarity breeds contempt, nothing more. We may lose our fear from packaged experiences. We may overcome it through exposure.

Courage is the solution. It requires a willingness to sacrifice. Nihilism is not courage, because the loathing of the self is not the same as the will to improve the world.

Courage is just one of many good and noble guiding principles. Justice is another.

Justice is difficult because even the noblest fall. This is the reason why we recount tragedies. We look at the darkest parts of history and psyche. We tear the veil from our eyes. We remember the dead before we inter their remains. Even if we focus on life, we confront death. 

We know that there is a part of us worthy of condemnation.

But we do not live in a world where things can be broken to pieces and survive.

To destroy the worst in us would be to destroy us, even if it is part of a metamorphosis.

In weakness of will, we seek to punish the offenses rather than eradicate their source.

We may not be able to succeed in the nobler agenda.

But we can always look into ourselves and find that which is rotten and wretched.

If we seek justice, we must start with ourselves. We must cut out that which is profane, that which is corrupt, that which is loathsome. Through these sacrifices we prepare ourselves to live in line with our convictions.

Resolution

Do no evil.

Live by principle.

Distinguish between sacrifice and pain. One has meaning. The other does not.

Reflections on Aphorisms #94

I didn’t have a super-productive day today, but part of that’s just down to sleep (again), going to see Toy Story 4 (which I will probably do an in-depth analysis of), and also just not feeling my best (in large part due to lack of sleep).

I’m not going to beat myself up over it. Tomorrow will be a better day.

Aphorism 132

The head cannot long play the part of the heart. (Maxim 108)

François de La Rochefoucauld

Interpretation

One of the things that people overlook in this modern age is that we’re built and wired to function a certain way. We try to force ourselves into a particular mode of being.

I’ve recently talked about the issues that surround the idea that one can live a rational life.

One of them is that the value that can be derived from things is not clear by logic.

Let’s take for example the art of taking a vacation.

No matter who you ask, you will get a different response to the proper process.

I like to go in basically unknown. I’ll look at maps and try to see if there’s any particular risk associated with my choice of lodging or route, but I don’t bother with a planned-out itinerary or anything like that. I’ll choose a thing or two I want to do each day, and if I can get them done, that’s great. If not, I’ll do whatever I feel like.

My father is the polar opposite of this, and I can recall countless trips with him that involved enough activity to make the return to daily life a welcome break from the vacation. He has vacations that run on timetables.

Lest I make him sound too unbearable, he’s grown a lot more conscious of others’ needs in the past few years, so this is more of a childhood reflection than something that is a current issue I’m just griping about on the internet.

Part of the reason that I don’t plan my trips other than just picking potential destinations and not even being particularly faithful to them is that it makes it a lot easier to follow my emotion, rather than my reason. I’ve had great experiences in lowly places.

The philosopher/investor Nicholas Nassim Taleb once wrote that he went out to an expensive and fancy dinner that he hated, then went and got cheap pizza, and he could never figure out why the pizza didn’t cost as much as the expensive dinner.

I’m the same way. I’m just as happy with a couple dollars worth of pizza as I am with the best experiences, and part of the reason for this is that I don’t let reason get in the way of planning my life.

Sure, there might be restaurants in San Francisco that I’ve never gone to that would have been within my reach, but Jenny’s Burgers by Golden Gate Park offer a nice half-pound burger that doesn’t break the bank and leaves me happily sedated with satiation.

Part of the problem with reason replacing emotion is that reason looks outside the self. My first epiphany of this was when I decided to become a teacher instead of a pharmacist. Both professions are worthy of respect, but one of them didn’t hold the same value to me. I knew that no matter how much I helped people as a pharmacist, I wouldn’t have a personal connection with the vast majority of them, and I wouldn’t get to see them grow.

Of course, I’m also unlikely to be getting a sports car any time soon, but I’m satisfied with my old early-2000s Honda Civic (even if the airbags are in a perpetual state of product recall). It’s a coupe, which is sexy in its own way even if it’s not a fancy car, and it drives really well.

Putting reason into things can reveal all the issues with them that we put up with.

However, our reason is not solid, and we very quickly wind up compounding its errors. Our emotion is just as flawed, but we’re intuitively aware of this. They work together, not separately. With both emotion and reason, we can balance our observations, thoughts, and responses. With just one or the other, they quickly wind up astray.

I read one of Jonathan Haidt’s books in which he mentioned that people who have damage to the part of the brain that produces emotion have a hard time making decisions and wind up making really bad decisions.

Even if logical thought remains intact, the driving force that orients us to our goals is always going to be emotion. A vacation that turns into a forced march doesn’t feel like a vacation (in fact, it’s turned into a common trope of stories centered on youth in America), and a life that turns into calculated mathematics doesn’t feel like life.

Resolution

Balance my emotions with my reason.

Remember why I do things.

When planning, think about what the result will feel like.

Reflections on Aphorisms #93

Got a lot more writing done today than I did yesterday. Didn’t keep track, but I think it was in the area of about 4000 words.

Also finished listening to Bird by Bird, which I plan to write a review of later on in the week.

I’ve had the burst of inspiration I need to finish up most of the current freelancing I’m doing. Now the only thing that remains is to turn that inspiration into good writing.

Aphorism 131

Our temper sets a price upon every gift that we receive from fortune. 

François de La Rochefoucauld

Interpretation

There’s an old cliche about not looking gift horses in the mouth.

Our brains are wired to function in a primal mode most of the time, even if we aren’t conscious of it. We’re not thinking rationally because reason is something that has to be learned and consciously practiced, and even then we’re emulating it rather than really owning it as a function of our being.

So when we see something good, our first reaction is to look for the trap. Maybe our newfound bounty will attract larger, more dangerous scavengers.

A manifestation of this is that we’re often more critical of the good things in our life than we are of the bad ones.

Think of how many ways a loved one can annoy or irritate you. If you’re a writer, like I am (kinda), you will have realized (or will soon realize) that they can be very distracting, especially if they take advantage of your “free time” when you need to be exercising the discipline of writing.

This is only exacerbated by the modern era.

If only we lived without the joys of modern telecommunication. We’d just have to deal with constant uncertainty and lose access to the ability to get in touch with all our business associates, friends, and distant relatives at any moment!

A small price to pay, is it not?

However, it is much better to have both loved ones and technology in our lives. There are costs associated with them, either in the form of the dollar or the investment of time, effort, and emotion that accompanies relationships. We call this sacrifice, in case anyone was curious.

If you don’t have loved ones and you don’t have technology, you probably feel it. I don’t think I’d be able to write a thousand words per hour (I have written 400 words in eight minutes just now) without an electronic device of some sort. I could maybe pull it off with a typewriter, if I were really disciplined and had time to practice. My handwriting is so abysmal due to my pitiable manual dexterity that I doubt I would ever reach anything close, and I’d struggle to stay legible, in manual writing.

Perhaps I could have made do with dictation, but that’s only become trivially inexpensive in the modern day with the advent of computers that do it, and even then you wind up with all sorts of issues.

But technology is also our greatest distraction in the modern age. It’s full of wonders, delights, terrors, trivia.

It gives us a way to spend our whole lives doing nothing at all, like reading the blogs of master’s degree students or taking a voyeur-like interest in videos of cats, and those are at least redeemable uses of the internet. Cats are good for the soul, and mine has been deceased for some months. I live vicariously until my lifestyle and fear of loss return to a state which will allow me to welcome a new companion into my life.

We are often better at finding the benefits in our suffering than in our strength. My cat passed away right before I was due to leave town for a week and a half; she was killed by a stroke and if it had happened when nobody was around to check on her she would probably have died of thirst and hunger. The designated catsitter would have been informed of her reclusive tendencies and thought nothing of the disappearance until it was too late. Although her passing was difficult to deal with, there was a small glimmer of relief in the sense that we were able to be there with her as she suffered and were able to have her put down before she suffered terribly.

On the other hand, if you asked me what the benefits of my teaching job were before I left to go back to school full-time, I would have hemmed and hawed and had a really hard time giving you a concrete answer that really spoke to the truth. It’s not that I don’t miss teaching (I cried for hours on my last day), but rather that it’s easy to overlook how nice things were when you were busy actually dealing with them, how much watching students grow brings meaning and satisfaction to your life.

Resolution

Appreciate the strengths of the good things; they may not be so obvious as they are made out to be.

Accept pain when it offers opportunity and improvement.

Remember that most things I have, even the things that are “intrinsic” to me, can be taken for granted and lost. Do not let that cause anxiety. Instead let it encourage me to use what I have when I have it.