Avoiding Discouragement During the Pandemic

I am deep into writing a story that is sprouting into a novel, and so I hesitate before devoting my writing time to this instead of that. However, I rationalize the side trip by contemplating that if I help only one other person cope with the current emergency, it will be worth it. If I help several, it’s a cause for celebration. If I help many, well, all the better.

I had better preface this, though, by admitting that I have not always been able to cope successfully with the present circumstances. In fact, I got so low last night I had to call one of my adult sons into my room and unload my bullshit on him. I just couldn’t handle it alone. I had sat down for my evening session of creative work (I spend the day ghostwriting articles to pay the bills) but I was so numbed with discouragement that all I could do was stare at the page. I don’t often get to that state; I’ve got a lot of perseverance and stoicism despite whatever is going on around me. Suddenly, however, it overwhelmed me and I needed help. Once I blurted it all out, I was better and could get back to my writing.

This morning I got to thinking about coping mechanisms and jotted down some notes. Here are some things that help me (usually) stay upbeat and persistent regardless of the situation around me. Take it for granted that my writing is number one on the list. That’s such a basic truth that I didn’t even bother writing it down. My minimum daily creative word count is presently five hundred words, and I manage that six days a week.

One of my principal sources of inspiration and entertainment is reading. I read for an hour to an hour and a half every day and go through a book every week to ten days – depending upon its length, of course. I used to go to the library and browse the new book shelves at least weekly, but now that the library has been closed for months and shows no sign of reopening, I have to look elsewhere for reading material. Basically I have three sources: books on my shelves that I have bought but never got around to reading (I am rapidly running out of these), books I own and have read but want to reread (I still have plenty of these), and books that I order online. Sometimes I spend long periods of time online looking for books to order, and I am always thrilled when I find new titles with potential.

Exercise is crucial to my mental and physical well-being. Three days a week (Monday, Wednesday, and Friday) I follow a home exercise regimen that I have kept for years. It consists of about an hour of power yoga and calisthenics such as pull-ups and pushups. Additionally, I walk for one and a half to two miles seven days a week regardless of the weather. Lately I have had to walk a bit slower due to my own negligent behavior. Weeks ago I took a five mile walk to a shop, up and down hills, because I didn’t want to risk going on public transport. My poor 67-year-old legs wore out and I am still recovering. So I go slower, but I still make sure that I walk the walk.

One of the best ways to forestall your own discouragement is to spend your time caring for others. Right now I have three of my sons (ages 18 to 28) living with me, and I stay busy (when I’m not writing) shopping and cooking and cleaning our small two-bedroom apartment. There’s not much spare space around here, believe me. One of them is moving out at the end of the month, but that’s not the point. The point is that it is a joy and an honor to help take care of some of the greatest human beings on the planet. (The other great ones are my two absent sons.) I hope you feel the same way about your loved ones and you get a thrill out of offering them service and considering their well-being as important as your own.

Pursuing career goals is critical to me. In my case, I can do it from home because all of my long-term goals are related to my writing. Getting those words done each day contributes greatly to my peace of mind. You may not be as committed to writing as I am, but perhaps there is something else that catches and holds your interest.

Above all else, despite the way that life seems to be throwing shit-storms in our path these days, we have to have patience. We have to remember that historically disasters always eventually come to an end. This too shall pass. Really.

That’s what I wanted to say, but before I close, I’m going to indulge in a moment of shameless self-promotion. Remember above when I mentioned my avid search for new reading material? Perhaps you are looking for good things to read too. I’ve written more than twenty-five books, including novels, short story collections, and memoirs. You can find a list of them and links on my Available Books page. Give some of them a try. You won’t be disappointed.

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Book Review: Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand

This is another book that has been on my shelf for years after being purchased at a library book sale. The need for reading material during the pandemic drove it into my hands. It’s a good book. It has a strong story, it’s meticulously researched, and it has high-quality writing. In it, Hillenbrand tells the life story of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic runner who was a bombardier during World War II until his plane was shot down by the Japanese and he became a prisoner of war.

The story starts out in Torrance, California, where Zamperini was a rowdy teen involved in petty theft and other troublemaking activities. He finds direction, however, when he realizes that he can run fast. At his high school and then at USC he sets long distance running records. He gets so good that he becomes a part of the U.S. Olympic team of 1936 that goes to Berlin, Germany during the rise of Hitler’s Third Reich.

War breaks out, and Zamperini joins the U.S. Army Air Corps as a bombardier. During a mission his plane goes down. The only survivors are Zamperini and two other men, who spend 47 days slowly starving at sea surrounded by large deadly sharks before being captured by the Japanese.

The next section of the book details Zamperini’s arduous experiences in Japanese prisoner of war camps. The conditions are horrendous. Besides the inadequate food and filthy living conditions, the men are beaten and otherwise humiliated regularly. Most of them, despite their feeble conditions, have to work long hours at grueling manual labor. For Zamperini, most of his time as a POW is spent in camps overseen by a Japanese overseer nicknamed The Bird, who takes a personal dislike to Zamperini and does him best to make Zamperini’s life a constant hell on Earth.

As the war approaches its end, the prisoners are tormented by rumors that the Japanese are soon to issue kill orders; in other words, they plan to exterminate all the POWs under their care. This does not happen, at least for Zamperini and his fellow prisoners, and the war comes to a conclusion after atomic bombs are dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

When Zamperini goes home, he has serious post-traumatic stress disorder. He is beset by nightmares and flashbacks in which he is tormented by his nemesis The Bird. He gets married, but his mental instability and alcoholism nearly cause a divorce. However, his wife persuades him to attend a revival meeting by Billy Graham in Los Angeles, and at the second meeting Zamperini goes to he gives his life to Christ. Abruptly he experiences a profound change and his nightmares and flashbacks stop. He devotes his life to telling his story and helping disadvantaged children.

As you can see, Hillenbrand tells several stories here: Zamperini’s conversion from rowdy teen to Olympic-class runner, his dangerous missions in the Pacific Theater during the war, his survival with his crewmates on the life raft in the middle of the ocean, his long stretch in a Japanese POW camp, his deterioration once he got home, and his ultimate redemption and renewal as a Christian. Each segment stands on its own as a riveting adventure, and all together they comprise an epic and fascinating life story.

My only qualification was with the Japanese prisoner of war camp section. It was horrific and exciting, but I felt it went on a bit too long describing similar tortures over and over again. That’s the only point at which my attention lagged for a short period of time.

Otherwise, this is a first-rate historical adventure told in clean prose with plenty of thrills and lots of emotional impact.

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Book Review: Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed

I want to preface this review by saying that I tend to avoid books that are touted far and wide as must-read bestsellers because they so often disappoint. That’s why in the past I never seriously considered reading Wild. All that “now a major motion picture” hype. However, I got into the mood to read some travel memoirs and did some research into possibilities, and Wild showed up again and again on the lists I consulted. I read about it and – what the hell – decided to give it a try. I found a used copy of the hardcover on Amazon and here I am.

Having said that, the next thing is to say that reading Wild for me was wonderful and profoundly satisfying. I can’t remember the last time I had such a fully absorbing reading experience. Even more than usual I looked forward to my daily reading session. (I usually read for an hour or so in the afternoon after a short nap before plunging into another bout of work.) When I read it, I would become so absorbed that I completely lost track of everything else.

In short, after Strayed’s mother died her family fell apart, she had casual sex with a multitude of men, she started using heroin, and she divorced her husband. To put her life back together, she got the crazy idea of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail from Southern California to the Oregon border all alone. Later, when she found that she had to bypass part of the snowbound Sierra Nevada mountain range, she revised her route and hiked all the way to the Oregon-Washington border.

If this was a simple account of a hiking trip it would not have impressed me so much, but what it is really is a journey of self-discovery. And the reason that I empathize so profoundly with Strayed’s story is that our journeys of self-discovery are similar in so many ways. When I had to burst out of the physical, psychological, and spiritual rut I was in back in the mid-1970s, I didn’t take a long hike; what I did was get rid of anything that wouldn’t fit into a small duffle bag and start hitchhiking: first across the United States, and then around Europe, the Middle East, and the Indian Subcontinent. My initial travels lasted a couple of years, but I eventually lived overseas for thirty-five years.

In my comparisons here, though, I am referring to my time on the road when I was desperate to discover who I was and find my voice as a writer. So here we go. As I was reading Wild, I started listing similarities between Strayed’s journey and mine, and they got so extensive that they filled the piece of paper I was writing on; I had to write smaller and smaller until the paper is a mass of tiny squiggles. I’ll try to sort them out for you.

First of all, Strayed and I were about the same age, in our mid-twenties, when we made our journeys of self-discovery. Both of us were attempting something extraordinary to try to fix our lives. We were both determined to forge ahead and not go back no matter how much adversity we faced. Strayed would say the litany of “I am not afraid” to herself over and over when she’d hear strange sounds on the trail; I would often deliberately go into questionable or dangerous situations because I didn’t want my fears to overcome me.

We both had packs that held all the belongings we had. She had a backpack that she called “The Monster.” I had a long olive-green duffle bag that held my sleeping bag, jacket, toiletry kit, a few extra clothes, notebook and pen, and a book. Strayed would burn the single book she carried when she’d finish it; I would exchange mine with a traveler for another one. Strayed stopped wearing underwear as a hassle to wash and an unnecessary encumbrance on the trail; I did the same when I was on the road.

Body washing was always an issue. Strayed writes of getting extremely smelly and dirty and what a luxury showers were. That was the case for me too on the road, especially in places like the Middle East where I’d have to go to a bathhouse and pay to use a shower.

Then there is the matter of food. Strayed describes the ravenous hunger that she experienced as a result of hiking all day long day after day. I hiked for a week in the Olympic Mountains when I was young and remember how that hiking hunger was, but as an even more extreme example, I ran out of money in New Delhi once and went hungry. I was sleeping on the floor of a cheap hostel with a dozen other hippies waiting for some money to come through; in the meantime, I would walk the streets, look at food, and long for it, and at night I would dream of tables laden with feasts and then wake up and have nothing to eat.

Strayed kept running out of money on the trail, and that happened with me on the road too. I always had to budget carefully and I was often near broke. Once I was broke and had my passport stolen in Iran, and I had to beg on the streets for two weeks before I could get a new passport and move on. Another time I was in Madras, India, and when I counted my money I figured I could just barely make it back to Europe overland, but then I would miss going to Nepal. I decided to go to Nepal anyway. When I finally left Nepal, that’s when I almost starved in Delhi.

Strayed describes the close relationships she developed with fellow travelers on the trail, and that happened with me too, especially as I went farther east. We would form bonds and travel together for a few days. Sometimes I’d meet women and we’d enjoy casual sex and then go our separate ways. The road would bring us together, and eventually the road would break us apart again.

As with Strayed, I would often meet strangers other than travelers on the road who were kind to me and helped me in various ways.

As for family and friends from the past, Strayed would receive packages at infrequent stops along the way. On my journeys, in the days before cell phones when long-distance phone calls were prohibitively expensive, the only contact I would have with my parents and others were aerograms, which I would pick up every couple of weeks or so at the post offices in major cities. These were blue pieces of paper that would fold up and stick together so you could put a stamp on them.

And finally I would like to mention the solitude. Strayed met people along the way but for the most part she made her journey all alone, and so did I. There were long stretches when I was completely by myself. Once I walked up into the Himalayan Mountains alone, just following trails with no map or guidebook. I would go hours without seeing another person. There would only be the immense mountains and the wonderful silence and stillness.

In conclusion, sharing Strayed’s journey was a wonderful experience for me. If you are interested in an account of my time on the road, check out my memoir World Without Pain: The Story of a Search.

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Book Review: A Song for a New Day by Sarah Pinkster

The novel A Song for a New Day, which recently won the 2019 Nebula Award for best novel, has received significant attention for its uncannily accurate prediction of radical social distancing following a series of plagues and terrorist attacks. What’s surprising is that the novel was written and published before any glimpse of the current pandemic. In Pinkster’s near-future dystopia, legally mandated distancing and isolation has continued long after the epidemics and social disturbances that brought it about have ceased due to ongoing paranoia and the efforts of massive companies that have sprung up in disaster’s wake to continue to reap profits from customers trapped in their homes.

Pinkster’s prophetic insight is interesting, but it is not the novel’s most important theme. The main character, Luce, is a rock guitarist and singer. Enforced isolation has caused all legitimate music venues to close. To find audiences, she is forced to go underground, first by setting up her own venue with illegal live music, and later, when that gets busted, by going on the road and finding places to play wherever she can.

A parallel story concerns a woman named Rosemary who is a talent recruiter for the top online virtual music site. For much of the book, Rosemary comes across as a blend of blundering/naive and deceitful/manipulative, until at the end she somewhat redeems herself by making a few wise decisions.

The main story, however, belongs to Luce and her motivation to write her songs and play her music no matter what, even if it means defying massive music conglomerates and unjust laws. Her determination to persevere as a musician, even if her audiences consist of only a few appreciative people, brings to mind the contemporary state of artistic endeavors, pandemic or no pandemic.

I can’t really speak about the musical field; I haven’t picked up a guitar or written a song in decades. However, I am familiar with the current state of publishing, and I know that there are also parallels in the musical business.

In short, the mainstream publishing world is run by massive conglomerates whose primary purpose is, of course, to increase profits. The artistic value of what is published holds far less importance. I’m not saying that good work doesn’t get published by the big outfits, but rather that a lot of excellent writing is ignored in favor of whatever faddish books will become popular and turn a profit.

In the past, writers (and musicians) had no recourse other than to keep pounding on the doors of the publishing houses until they were let in – or not. Now, though, there are alternatives. Numerous platforms are available for self-publishing, and many self-published authors find audiences and make good livings. Other writers find fulfillment in blogging. Like Luce throughout most of the book, the main point is to share the music, or in the case of writers, to share the words. Making money is a secondary consideration. Traditional publishers have sometimes picked up the work of self-published writers and distributed it through mainstream channels, but that’s not the point either. The point is to play music or to write stories or do whatever else you do as a means of artistic expression, and then to put it out there so that people can find it.

My favorite part of A Song for a New Day is part three, when Luce buys a secondhand van and takes off on the road. I can empathize with that; I’m a road person myself. I often daydream about getting back on the road, and my series about The Senescent Nomad is a sort of wish fulfillment because I can’t under the present circumstances do it for real. I could be wrong, but often while I was reading I felt that Pinkster was drawing on personal experiences concerning circumstances and especially emotions. If not verity, the book at least has verisimilitude. Not often has the publishing of a novel been so timely.

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On Rereading The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe

I first read The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test back in the early 1970s when I was dabbling in the psychedelic culture from the perspective of a university in the San Francisco Bay Area. Taking psychedelics and smoking pot was almost all I did in those days, and my mind got really messed up. When I read about the exploits of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters and how flippantly they dropped acid, played tricks on one another, palled around with the Hell’s Angels, stood up to cops, and went back and forth across the United States in a bright Day-Glo bus bursting with all the colors of the rainbow, I felt as if I was reading a Marvel comic for all the reality it afforded. I could barely pull my mind together after taking acid in that fairly conservative California university; I couldn’t imagine doing it under the circumstances that Wolfe describes in his book. Kesey famously asserted back then that you were either on the bus or off the bus. I would have been off the bus for sure.

Acid (and other hallucinogens like mescaline and psilocybin) messed me up; they didn’t center me or elevate me to a higher plane of existence. My first trips were confusing; subsequent trips were far worse: dark and paranoia-inducing and debilitating. Group scenes in close, confining spaces never did it for me as far as acid trips were concerned. The best trip I ever had, a trip that was purely positive and no negative at all that I can recall, was when I dropped acid with another traveler and we hiked up into the Himalayan foothills surrounding Katmandu. We had a wondrous, enchanting time; never mind that we got caught high up in the middle of nowhere with darkness coming on and had to spend the night in a cabin with a Nepali patrol that was guarding restricted areas in the mountains. You can read about that adventure in my memoir of my road days World Without Pain: The Story of a Search.

I enjoyed reading Michael Pollan’s new book How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence, but I don’t know if I would want to take psychedelics again even under the controlled circumstances he describes. The approach is too formal, too contrived. I think that if I experimented with hallucinogens again I would either want to be alone or with a soul-mate.

Anyway, back to Tom Wolfe’s book. It is written in a stream of consciousness style that Wolfe is obviously using to try to get into the spirit of the whole Merry Pranksters movement. The problem is that the style hasn’t aged well. When I first read the book I thought it was ostentatious; this time I found it annoying. There is page after page of run-on sentences that don’t really go anywhere. This becomes particularly acute during Kesey’s time as a fugitive down in Mexico while he was attempting to escape various charges of possession of marijuana. In one chapter, for instance, Wolfe goes on and on about a stinky red tide along the Mexican coast but doesn’t advance the story at all. I understand why he adopted this style, but I wish he hadn’t done it. He could have said so much more if he were only more straightforward. After all, he had access to Prankster archives and was able to interview many of the key players. He could have written an in-depth historical study that would be relevant even now. As it was, I feel that he went for the cheap thrill.

Okay, I know that there are many critics who would disagree with me; however, as I was reading this I searched for a biography of Kesey or a more traditional history of the Pranksters and came up short. This is all there is.

The book goes into Kesey’s early experiences with LSD as a paid experimental subject in a Stanford lab. This is when he was writing One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. From a suburb near Stanford Kesey and friends move to some property he buys near La Honda, and there they start getting into the wild behavior that eventually leads to the cross-country bus ride and the staged Acid Tests. One thing is obvious from Wolfe’s account: Kesey and the Pranksters were an anomaly. Kesey was only able to finance all of their escapades because of his first two successful novel sales. In the beginning, all of the Pranksters were white, and almost all came from elite or middle-class backgrounds. The Prankster culture was very male-dominant and macho. Wolfe takes pains to describe the ripped physiques of the male prankster leaders, especially Kesey the ex-wrestler and his friend Babs the ex-military man, and also Kesey’s fascination with the violent Hell’s Angels motorcycle club.

No, I wouldn’t have made a good Prankster. Their motto was “Never trust a Prankster,” but for me, the hippy culture was built on love, understanding, and trust. Without trust, what’s left? What’s the point?

Still, it was an interesting journey to read this book again. It certainly stirred up a lot of memories. It made me ponder my past in the light of my present and appreciate how far I have traveled, how much I have learned, and how much I wish I could have taught that young insecure acid head that I used to be.

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Book Review: The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

This novel reminded me why I love good science fiction. I haven’t felt that tingling thrill lately, and by lately I mean in the last several years, when a novel of science fiction or fantasy moves me so much that I find it hard to put it down. I used to get that feeling often in my youth when I discovered the field and I began to explore its great works. That was back in the late sixties and early seventies during the so-called New Wave of speculative fiction when writers such as Ursula K. Le Guin, Harland Ellison, Roger Zelazny, Samuel Delaney, and others were successfully bringing literary values into the field.

This novel, though, The Calculating Stars, has it; and by it I mean that indefinable power that propels readers through pages. I suppose I have become jaded; I didn’t expect it to be quite that good.

It’s an alternate history novel. It starts out in the early 1950s in America. A meteorite hits the east coast of the United States, decimating much of the eastern seaboard. It soon becomes evident that it is an extinction-level event; in a short span of years the Earth’s temperature will rise so much that the planet will become uninhabitable to humans. The only solution to save humanity is a global effort to start up a space program.

All of this might sound like standard science fiction fare, except Kowal tells it with a profound twist. It is written in first person by a woman who has a doctorate in physics, a genius who can do complex equations in her head. Her husband is the chief engineer in the space program, and she is one of its human calculators. These are exclusively women mathematicians who in lieu of sufficiently reliable computing machines do the calculations to put astronauts into space on paper using slide rules.

But Dr. Elma York, the protagonist, is a pilot as well as a computer, and she wants to become an astronaut. In misogynistic fifties-thought, it is inconceivable to submit women to the dangers of space, despite even the obvious argument that self-sustained colonies are impossible without procreation.

Thus much of the novel details how York and other determined women fight the biased male mindset to prove that women, and also African Americans, have the talents to become assets in space exploration. The amazing thing is that although this story is set in the 1950s, it is relevant today. We are still struggling with equality for women and for minorities. We may have made some progress since the fifties, but we still have a long, long way to go.

One thing that I appreciated and that works extremely well in this book is the voice of the main character. She is intelligent, determined, courageous, and sexy, but she is also flawed and vulnerable, aware of her weaknesses and constantly fighting to overcome them.

So yes, this is a good book, a real page-turner. It’s one of those novels that doesn’t come along often, but when it does, it should be read as widely as possible.

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Book Review: The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science by Richard Holmes

I came across a description of this book while I was cruising lists on the internet looking for interesting reading material. At this particular time I was searching for nonfiction, and this appeared on a few lists of worthwhile history books. The descriptions sounded intriguing, and check out that subtitle. What could go wrong, right?

The impression I got was that it was a blend of biographical accounts of scientists, explorers, and writers of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. However, although Coleridge, Wordsworth, and other literary luminaries are touched on in passing, the book mainly covers the careers of a few major scientists, with a few sensational accounts of explorers and adventurers to spice it up.

It starts off with a bang with a long, detailed account of Joseph Banks and his voyage to Tahiti with Captain Cook. Banks was the ship’s botanist, but he also had an affinity with the Tahitians that allowed him to interact with the locals in a way that most of the ship’s crew members were unable to do. This was the one major expedition that Banks went on; afterwards he settled into leadership of the British Royal Society and acted as a mentor and cheerleader to other up-and-coming scientists and explorers.

Next Holmes tells the story of William Herschel and his sister Catherine, extraordinary immigrants from Germany who revolutionized the study of astronomy. This story too is fast-paced and fascinating.

Holmes then goes into an interlude in which he traces the development of hot air balloons in England and mainland Europe. It’s fun, if light compared with the in-depth biographies that have preceded it. After this, he is back to the story of the Herschels as William discovers the planet Uranus and maps the heavens while Catherine becomes an acclaimed comet hunter.

Another interlude follows in which Holmes traces the two expeditions of Mungo Park as he explores the reaches of the Niger River in West Africa. Park was not so much a scientist as a pure explorer with a desire to go to places where no Europeans had ever been before. He disappeared somewhere along the Niger River during his second expedition to Africa, and his body was never found. Tragically, his son Thomas went into Africa to search for Mungo, but he died shortly after beginning his quest.

The next major player in the book is Humphry Davy, who rises from humble origins on the Cornish Coast to become a celebrated chemist. The first chapter on Davy focuses on his experiments with nitrous oxide, or laughing gas. For a time Davy became addicted to the gas, and offered it in a party-like atmosphere to many celebrities such as Coleridge.

The next interlude focuses on medical experiments during this era and culminates with an account of the writing of the novel Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. After that comes another chapter on Davy in which he invents a safe lamp for coal miners to use; this revolutionizes the industry and saves scores of miners from violent deaths caused by underground explosions.

Everything that I have described so far makes for terrific reading and comprises most of the book. However, in the last few chapters the book kind of winds down and loses its momentum. In wrapping up the story of these great men Holmes goes into too much detail about trivia, at least in my opinion. He goes on for page after page describing scientific papers they write, and he even includes one mediocre poem after another. Davy may have been a brilliant scientist, but he was not an exceptional poet, and some of the poems that Holmes elects to reprint would have been better off forgotten. This applying of the brakes after so much adventure, both intellectual and physical, earlier in the book changes the tone and pace and made it difficult for me to finish it. Too bad. Apart from the last two hundred pages or so, it’s a great read and I recommend it.

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Book Review: The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin

This book made me nostalgic, not because Ursula Le Guin was one of my teachers at Clarion West in 1973 (although she was) but rather because it carries an ambiance of the seventies. It fits right in with the so-called New Wave of speculative fiction that appeared in the late 1960s and early 1970s by such writers as Le Guin, Joanna Russ, James Tiptree, Jr., Samuel Delaney, Roger Zelazny, Harlan Ellison, and others. During that time, writers attempted to break out of the genre tradition of mere entertainment and write literature that was relevant to contemporary issues. There was also a considerable upturn in prose quality and stylistic experimentation.

The Lathe of Heaven is a fairly short and simple story with just three main characters. It deals with the nature of reality. George Orr is a man who discovers that when he enters a state of effective dreaming, his dreams change the reality around him. His psychologist, a man named Haber, creates a device to manipulate the dream state, and he sets about to hypnotize Orr and control his dreams. His aim is ostensibly to make the world a better place for humanity, but every change he causes Orr to bring about makes things worse. He eventually refines his machine with the intention of bypassing Orr and taking over the dreaming himself.

Every time Orr dreams and the world changes it gets more and more bizarre. What makes this novel somewhat anachronistic is that it was first published in 1971 and the supposedly future dates that it postulates have long since passed. It doesn’t really diminish the fun, but it’s part of the background that readers have to keep in mind. The best thing is to enjoy the ride and consider it a trip into an alternate universe that keeps evolving as Orr dreams and as Haber fails miserably in his attempts to control the messy results.

In the hands of a lesser writer this all might not work, but Le Guin was an excellent writer throughout her career, and the quality of her prose eases the journey into one skewed reality after another. What begins as a fairly straightforward tale on the nature of dreams and attempts to manipulate them turns into a profound speculation on what is real, what is imagined, and how dreams fit into the metaphysical mix. Le Guin alludes to this when she touches on aboriginal beliefs concerning the relationship between dreams and reality. As Orr’s dreams progress and the changes get wilder, Le Guin also introduces a race of aliens that seems to understand his cosmos-altering dreams and treat them as, if not commonplace, at least recognizable and acceptable phenomena.

It makes you wonder about this reality that we wake up to every morning. We take for granted that the universe around us has remained unchanged as we sleep, but we have no way of knowing if that is really the case. The universe might change drastically from day to day, but we would never realize it because our memories adjust to compensate for the changes. There is no way to prove such a far-out worldview, but no way to refute it either. We don’t really know what is going on for sure, do we? It brings to mind the movie The Matrix, in which almost everyone in the world is living in a computer-induced delusion, but they wouldn’t believe you if you told them about it. One thing that The Lathe of Heaven does well is cause readers to question the reality that they take for granted. Are you sure it is what you think it is?

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On Rereading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values by Robert M. Pirsig

I have just finished reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance for the third time. I first discovered it back in the 1970s just before I set out on the road to find my voice as a writer. I traveled differently than Pirsig. He headed west on a motorcycle, his eleven-year-old son on the back, traveling with friends and staying most of the time in motels. I headed east alone with a duffle bag, using my thumb to request rides.

The second time I read this book was in Greece while I was raising my young family. This third time, I picked up a newer edition at a library book sale and waited for an opportune time to read it. Pandemic-imposed isolation and scouring my shelves for reading material provided the impetus.

As I mentioned, the book concerns a father-son cross-country motorcycle odyssey. Part of the time they are alone, and part of the time they travel with friends. Pirsig alternates between descriptions of the journey and of his search for quality (or excellence), mainly expressed through a study of classic philosophers. However, there is a twist. When he was a college teacher, he became so involved with his quest for meaning that it became an obsession and he lost touch with reality. He was committed to a mental institution and subjected to electric shock treatment until his past personality was effectively wiped out. He remained locked up until he formed a new personality, and this personality is the one writing the book. He calls his former self Phaedrus and writes of him in third person. The story is about Pirsig describing Phaedrus’s search and at the same time coming to grips with the fact that he is not the same person that he used to be. He is also attempting to deal with his relationship with his son, who has known him both as Phaedrus and as Pirsig.

There are wonderful passages where Pirsig describes the differences between classic and romantic thought, the relationship of repairing and maintaining a motorcycle to the practice of Zen, and Phaedrus’s studies and reactions to Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, Kant, and other philosophers. I have to admit that at one point about two-thirds of the way through the book my interest in some of the more involved and convoluted philosophical inquiries lagged a bit, but overall Pirsig has a clear, simple, and effective writing style that makes even the more esoteric passages easy to understand.

Interestingly, this book was rejected more than one hundred twenty times before it was finally accepted for publication. Most likely that’s because it didn’t (and doesn’t) fit into any neat marketable categories. The editor who took a chance on it accepted it because it was an important book and deserved publication, but it was never expected to see a profit. It quickly became a bestseller and has remained in print ever since, selling over five million copies. Somehow it has resonated through the decades with people on their own quest for values.

You don’t have to agree with all of Pirsig’s thought processes to enjoy and benefit from the book. In fact, it doesn’t really matter if you do or not. The important thing is that you consider these things on your own quest for quality. Getting back to my trip east in search of truth, as I read about Phaedrus’s pursuit of excellence I recalled my mindset when I set out on the road those many years ago. I was fully focused on what I was doing. I had fun, sure, but I wasn’t there on holiday. I was on a serious mission, and as far as I was concerned, I was prepared to head full speed into the void to find what I had come for. Books like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance remind us that we are not here just for the bullshit bells and whistles; there is significant profundity in life, and it is up to each one of us to search for it diligently until we find it.

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The Difference Between an Author and a Writer

Before I embarked upon my detailed explanation I wanted to be sure that I had my terms right, so I looked them up in the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. According to the primary definitions in this source, an author is “the writer of a literary work (such as a book),” whereas a writer is “one that writes.” Note that an author is someone who has written something in the past. A person can call themselves an author if they write and publish one thing and never write again. A writer, on the other hand, is someone who writes in the present; in a broad sense, a writer is someone whose occupation, career, calling, or pursuit is writing, and this is not an activity that was only performed in the past, but it is ongoing.

Many people are satisfied to be authors, and sometimes their stories or books are very successful. They might write one important work that attracts attention, wins awards, and makes them famous, and then they are content to rest on their laurels and allow themselves to be referred to using the “A” word. A famous example of this is Harper Lee, who wrote To Kill a Mockingbird and then for the rest of her life never published another work. In contrast, my old Clarion West teacher, the famous speculative fiction writer Harlan Ellison often pointed out that he was a writer and not an author. He made it clear that authors are people who have written something, but writers write because that is their occupation, their function, their reason for existence.

I fall definitively into the camp of the writers. I can’t not write. I have to write. I don’t mean that I do it all day to the exclusion of everything else, but I schedule time for it every day, seven days a week, and I set myself a goal during that time of writing at least five hundred original words. If I am in the midst of proofreading a story or book I excuse myself from the work count, but otherwise I do my best to accomplish it. Most of the time I manage easily, especially if I am working on a long project. It is more difficult if I’m writing short stories, because then I have to have a fresh idea and start again from scratch every week or so. I’m not overly hard on myself; I allow myself the grace of a day or two if I have to gather my wits and launch them again in a new direction.

However, I finished the first draft of my latest novelette on Wednesday, and it is now Saturday. I have been mulling a new story over in my mind, but it has not germinated sufficiently for me to begin writing it. I don’t have to know the whole thing in advance; even the first scene is enough to get started, but I don’t even have that. I have an idea, and I have some characters. I have written extensive notes on the ideas and characters. I have taken walks during which I turn over the ideas that I have in my mind and explore alternatives of viewpoints, settings, and so on. I look at what I have from various angles attempting to get some sort of tenuous grip on the material. So far, nothing.

And this brings me to the point of this essay. It is painful to be not writing. It hurts. It depresses me. I can’t stand it. For me, it is the most excruciating pain I can experience in the pursuit of my art. That includes rejections. Those are painful too. I should know; I have received thousands of them, and every one of them hurts. It pains me that I put my heart and soul into composing the best stories I can, the stories I feel that no one else out there is writing, and then have them be summarily dismissed by editor after editor, or to write and publish twenty-six books and over one hundred stories and yet still not have them earn enough to support me financially. This pain, though, severe as it is, is not nearly as acute as the pain of not being able to write.

After all, you can’t make people like your work. Different people have different tastes and that’s just the way it is. When it comes to selling stories to magazines and anthologies and selling books through marketplaces such as Amazon, the creative act is over. We are talking about selling, and selling is business, and business has nothing to do with the creation of artistic works. Writing, on the other hand, if done purely, is an act of creation. You are all alone with your thoughts and your inspiration and you use words to sculpt these into expressions that others can understand.

To me, sometimes writing seems like bricklaying; I build one word upon another because I know that’s how they are supposed to go. Other times, I am scarcely conscious of what I am doing; I am in a state of emotional ecstasy. This often happens when I get near the end of a story. The sensation of bricklaying often takes place in the midpoint of a work when I inevitably question my own abilities. It can simply be a matter of getting too caught up in the details and losing sight of the larger perspective. It’s good to keep in mind under these circumstances the viewpoints expressed by Medieval bricklayers: they were not laying bricks; they were building cathedrals.

In conclusion, I realize that there is no cure for the malady I have just described. At least for me, it is terminal. Right now, I work eight or ten hours a day researching and writing essays that I ghostwrite for other people. This pays my rent and bills, but none of it counts towards my daily word count. That’s what I accomplish late at night when I am done with the rest. When I think of retirement, I never consider it in terms of cessation of effort. Instead, I think in terms of being able to do my stint of creative writing first thing every day instead of having to put it off until last. Even if I had sufficient income to comfortably provide for my physical needs, I would still write seven days a week. Because I’m a writer, and that’s what writers do.

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