Non-fiction books

Art and suffering

HAPPY SAINT PATRICK’S DAY!!

Here’s a good amount of blathering on some thoughts I’ve been wanting to blather about for a while.  I just finished (by recommendation) Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, which sort of reminded me I wanted to blather about these thoughts.  It’s a good book, though it’s really not as much about the craft of writing as the other books I mentioned in my last post are.  In many ways it’s more about life philosophies and how they relate to writing.  It’s extremely funny at times, and has some very poignant moments.  I’m not sure I agree with all of Lamott’s thoughts, but it might just have to do with my interpretation of her words.  She almost seems to encourage people to delve into their sufferings for material; to bathe in the unpleasantness they’ve experienced in their life for their writing.  While I do agree with a lot of the other things she says (and really enjoy how poetically and humorously she says them), the suffering issue somewhat inspired this post.

These thoughts are somewhat random… I’m not sure I’m trying to make any overall point, I’m just making observations and suggestions to myself for the most part.  Hopefully it won’t sound too corny.  But let’s face it: deep down in our hearts we’re all corny and sentimental.  (Get it?  Cuz that’s, like, sentimental right there?)  Anwyay, here I go:

Suffering can’t be compared

I think everyone suffers.  And I don’t think suffering can really be compared because we can only ever be one person.  When someone says or thinks something like “I have suffered more because I have been so ill all my life” or “I grew up with such and such a life and such and such happened to my family and nobody else can know what’s that like” or even “oh, I am clinically depressed and take medication for it, so it’s clear I suffer more than most!” … I think that’s one of the highest forms of arrogance.  It’s such a ridiculously huge assumption.  I think you can know someone for years and years and never know how they’ve suffered.  I guess the main thing I don’t like about such an assumption is: why does it matter?  Why do some people have to compare their suffering to others?  Are people who suffer more better?  Are they more deserving of good things?  Even if we could journey into other people’s minds and find out how much suffering there is, what would we want that to change?  People who suffer more get bigger paychecks and better houses?  People who don’t suffer as much should be punished so suffering is equal for everyone?

Anyway, the point is, I think suffering is non-comparitory.  We can’t journey into other people’s minds, and I think it’s stupid to assume one can assess another’s level of suffering by anything else.

Who cares if you suffer?

Since I think everyone suffers, and I don’t particularly like suffering myself, why should I care about someone else’s suffering?  That said, I think it’s natural for us to care about each other as people, and if someone we know well is obviously in a lot of pain we’ll want to ease it if we can.  But that’s not because we’re interested in that person’s suffering, it’s because we’re interested in that person.  We don’t like that person’s suffering.  We’re not interested in it, we want to get rid of it because it’s annoying and it can spread.  Would anyone want to be around a friend who’s just gloomy all the time?  I doubt it.  I think we naturally try to avoid such people, they don’t make us feel very good.

A suffering character

Though I don’t much care for the suffering of others, when I’m reading a fictional story, something really weird happens.  I’m not sure what the psychological reasons are behind it, but I want the main character to suffer.  If the main character goes around happy for the entire story and experiences no conflict at all, I feel that the story is rather empty.  If I don’t care for other people’s suffering, and if I don’t like suffering myself, how come when the story is fictional I all of the sudden desire it?

Maybe some other part of my mind does want to suffer after all, but it wants to suffer with the meaning a good story can provide.  It wants to suffer for something, for some cause.  I already know I’m going to suffer in real life anyway, so why not use stories to daydream that there’s a worthy cause for all this suffering?

The suffering artist and letting it out

I know there are plenty of artists who use art as a way to “release their emotions” … I guess it’s kind of a self-therapy.  I guess whether or not such an act is useful depends on how it’s done.  I think sometimes it can help the artist find answers to his problems.  I like to think that writing literature is, in a way, searching for answers within oneself.  That might sound corny, but I think it’s really true.  Where else are you going to find any moral answers you can believe in?  (That’s not an argument for moral relativism, by the way!)  But I think “letting it out” can also help an artist to continue to hurt himself if the artist becomes dependent on such feelings to produce art, if that makes any sense, or if it just encourages the artist to dwell on terrible feelings.

Personally, I think when I’ve been really miserable, I’ve used art more as a way to “keep stuff in” … to get my mind off it, to be able to focus on something else.  I don’t like remembering the bad times, I don’t want to use them as fuel for my art.  When I look back on my art, I don’t want to be reminded of the bad times that inspired it.  That said, I still think every memory, good or bad, will influence my work whether I like it or not.  And I can’t very well write about a character suffering if I don’t recall some of my own suffering.  But I guess I use art more to “search for answers” (like I said above) and to sort of escape the suffering and let my mind go to a different world for a while more than I use art for making any sort of record of my suffering.

Dreams can be stupid

I don’t know how it emerged, but at some point having a “dream” became a very romantic thing.  Children are raised being encouraged to “follow their dreams” and even adults are encouraged to continue to pursue them.  Woah!!  Doesn’t it matter at all what the dreams are?  I think it does.  I’ve talked to artists who long dreamed of becoming rich and famous, of having their work influence thousands or millions.  And then their dream doesn’t come true and they become bitter and think about giving up.  I guess the real problem is that it became more of an expectation than a dream.  It became something they expected to achieve, and something they were depending on to find happiness.  That’s just stupid!! I can understand the natural desire to want fame and fortune, but if you’re secretly expecting such things and depending on them for happiness, you’re an idiot.  Just stop wanting them!  Stop!  Now!

Maybe their are two kinds of suffering: physical suffering that comes from nerve endings and such, and emotional suffering that comes from wanting.  Obviously we’ll always have to want something, like at least a next meal and to sleep every now and then and to have some air to breathe.  If we didn’t want and work towards things we need for survival we’d just sit there and die.  Some stuff we naturally want but we don’t really need to survive, like our loved ones to be around forever.  They die and we cry at their funerals, but that sort of suffering still comes from us wanting them.  Or as I mentioned earlier we naturally want others to not suffer.  So if a loved one is going through a particularly very rough time, that might make us suffer too, because we want them to feel better.  It all comes from us wanting stuff.  And then there’s the really unimportant stuff like wanting money and fame and this award and to be seen as that kind of person.  I guess that sort of wanting is natural too, but it’s the dumbest and most useless sort of wanting.  The sooner we can get ourselves to stop wanting such things, the better.  So if one of those bitter artists is thinking about giving up on their art because they’re not famous yet, I have a real tough time thinking of anything encouraging to say.  You shouldn’t be wanting such stuff!  Or at least you shouldn’t be depending on such stuff.

Being loved

Perhaps the desire for fame comes from the desire to be loved.  (And perhaps this is the source of relationship problems too?)  I think all humans have a natural desire to be loved, but it’s the oddest of desires because we can never really know whether or not we have it.  How can you tell if someone loves you?  I guess the most natural way to tell is attention.  So that’s why people want fame, that’s why people want attention.  It can be a sign of love.  And if you love someone else, how else can you show that love besides giving that person attention?

But they’re still two separate things, love and attention.  Love is something you do in your brain; it’s a silent act and you don’t have to move any of your limbs.  I think in many ways it can also be unconscious, or subconscious.  It’s not often (at least, I’m guessing) you sit there totally thinking only about your love for someone else (though it might be a good exercise), but then when that person leaves forever or dies, tears can just come out of nowhere, and you suddenly realize how much that person meant to you, even though you didn’t consciously realize it.  (Perhaps love itself is a form of wanting?  A wanting for interaction with or dependence on that person?)  Attention, on the other hand, is something you do, something you give, with words or a listening ear or some gift or whatever.

Anyway, I think people can love you without giving you all the attention you crave.  And I think people can give you attention without loving you.  So, while love might be expressed by attention, I don’t think attention is necessarily always an honest sign of love.  Therefore: stop wanting attention!  I think that’s a huge challenge, but I still don’t think it’s a very good thing to want.  Not that it’s something you should reject, of course.  But if you have it, don’t trick yourself into thinking it always means you’re loved.  And if you just want to be loved, just realize there’s never going to be any way you can really tell whether or not someone really loves you.  It’s something you’re just going to have to believe in.  And if it’s all up to your faith, you shouldn’t need the attention anyway.

I guess I could also say: stop wanting to be loved!  But I think that’s a good thing to want, and I think it’s perhaps the only thing that it’s impossible to not want.  But it’s not something we can ever really know we have from others, not in this world at least, so the most we can do is give ourselves the faith that we are as loved as we want to be, even if we don’t feel we’re getting any attention at all.  We shouldn’t need the attention.

A bad place

I suppose another thing that can cause a lot of suffering, besides physical pain and wanting stuff, is being in a bad place.  Actually, I suppose that is a form of wanting something: you want to be out of that place.  But there’s a lot less you can mentally do about it.  Trying to stop yourself from wanting the things I already mentioned is hard enough.  What if you’re stuck somewhere?  I really don’t know.  I guess you just have to hold on to something until you’re able to get out.  Sometimes a place is the problem (or a person is the problem).  I can’t think of much else to do besides trying to get out of there as soon as possible and in the meantime just doing all you can to get you’re mind off it.

Whew, thank you for reading all that.  All that philosophy or whatever it was (blather, I guess) tired me out.

By S P Hannifin, ago
Non-fiction books

Favorite books on writing

I recently finished a novelette of around 11,400 words.  (I’m using the SFWA‘s definition of a novelette: a story between 7,500 and 17,500 words.)  I think that’s the longest work I’ve ever written and actually finished.  The story is called Dreamgiver, and you might be able to guess what it’s about: a man has the power to give people dreams.  I’m sure it’s been done in fiction somewhere before, but hopefully my story still has some newnesss to it.  I could probably write many more stories from that same idea; I think it leads to a lot of possibilities.  I could probably write a series of novels based on that premise, if I could actually finish writing novels.  I’m not sure the name Dreamgiver is the best, but it’s straight-forward and to-the-point.  It sort of instantly tells you what the story is about.  That said, it does seem just a wee bit cheesy to me.  But then, my writing probably seems cheesy to some people, so I guess it will match.

Anyway, I’m going to send this story through Critters some time to get it critiqued, though I realize I won’t get many (if any) because of it’s length.  Right now my previous short story, No One Was Abendsen, is in line waiting to get critiqued.  I’ll be very interested to see how people react to that story as it was somewhat experimental for me.

I’ve got some other ideas for short stories floating around in my mind, so I’ll probably try my hand at another one before I get back to composing music.

Favorite books on writing

First, I’ll just tell you what the books are:

The Art of Fiction: A Guide for Writers and Readers and The Art of Nonfiction: A Guide for Writers and Readers by Ayn Rand

Characters & Viewpoint and How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy by Orson Scott Card

And now I’ll blather about my reasoning:

I think reading books on writing is much easier than actually writing, so I think it can be dangerous for wannabe writers to constantly seek out books on the subject.  They can only be helpful if you actually spend some time writing.  No amount of reading can replace that.  That goes for the other arts as well.  You can’t learn how to compose music by reading music theory books.  You just have to do it.  I think sometimes there’s a fear of failing, so the wannabe artist spends more time reading about the subject than actually practicing it.

Similarly, beware of writing about writing.  I think writing about writing is also easier than actually writing.  There seem to be a lot more people wanting to talk about writing tips and hints and how-to’s and strategies than there are successful authors.  I don’t think that’s necessarily bad in and of itself, people can talk about whatever they want, and even unsuccessful authors can have some very helpful tips.  Just make sure you don’t forget what it’s all for: actually writing.  (On a side note, sometimes it seems like some writers who write about writing just sort of regurgitate advice they’ve heard before and don’t really understand why it exists.  For instance: “show, don’t tell!”  Make sure you filter any writing advice you hear through your own opinionated mind; you are allowed to disagree.  Never blindly follow advice, otherwise you can’t really follow it.)

That said, there are very few books on writing I’ve read all the way through.  Usually I find books on writing to be empty or boring or pointless or simply a collection of regurgitated advice.  I find advice like “make your main character interesting!” completely unhelpful.  Duh, I wanna make my character interesting.  If a writer doesn’t know that intuitively, full time consideration of another endeavor might be in order.  (On a boring a tangent, I hate when people suggest you need to know every tiny little thing about your character, like their eye color and height and shoe size and favorite ice-cream, as if you’re playing The Sims.  That’s great if it helps you, but to me it’s a complete waste of time.)

In my opinion, the best writing books are not actually books on “How To Write”, they are books on “What This Author Thinks About Writing”, and I think that’s the way it should be.  Writing is an art, not physics.  It is guided by people’s tastes and opinions, though some academic writing books might want you to believe otherwise.  Therefore, I think the best writing books for you are the ones written by the authors you already know you enjoy.  For some reason, I think that kind of helps you know where they’re coming from.  Because you already like their fiction, you’ll probably agree with most of the advice the writer gives and the opinions he or she has.

If the only writers you like are ones that have nothing to say about the process of writing, then you’re out of luck.  Too bad; I guess you can never be a writer.

Fortunately for me, that’s not the case.  Two of my favorite authors are Ayn Rand and Orson Scott Card, and they both have books on writing, so those are pretty much my favorite books on writing.

Ayn Rand’s Books on Writing

I can’t say I agree with all of Ayn Rand’s philosophies, but I’ve found her writing to be quite immersive.  In my opinion, she’s fantastic at describing characters’ motivations and attitudes.  Her stories also have very strong themes, which I think is lacking in some of the fiction I read.  So much fiction these days is purely about the action and has nothing to say beyond that.  It’s like the author saw an action movie and just wanted to regurgitate it with different characters.  Anyway, Ayn Rand talks all about themes and how they relate to plotting.

Rand also talks about creating believable characters and dialogue.  Usually I think some beginning writers (I’m obviously a beginning writer too) think those are the easiest things: creating believable characters and dialogue.  Personally I’ve found it difficult.  When you have two characters who have completely different world-views, you really have to get inside their heads for each line of dialogue.  Back and forth and back and forth you have to go between trying to trick yourself into believing things you don’t.  Tricky, in my opinion.  Well, some scenes aren’t, some scenes are pretty fun, especially if you’re writing humor.  Other times, it’s just plain hard.

Finally, Rand talks about style and writing descriptions.  If you’ve read her fiction, you might know she can be very verbose in her descriptions, and in my opinion, it works.  For her.  I think if you try to mimic her, you’ll just come off as being far too wordy.  So, in my opinion, what she has to say about style is very helpful.

Although The Art of Nonfiction is about writing nonfiction, I think a lot she says in that book still applies to writing fiction, so it’s a great companion to the other one.  I won’t blather much about this book, though, because I have a headache.  If you like The Art of Fiction, then The Art of Nonfiction is also worth a read.

Orson Scott Card’s Books on Writing

As I stated above, I find that characters can be quite tricky.  Fortunately, Orson Scott Card wrote an entire book on the subject: Characters and Viewpoint.  However, don’t let the title trick you into thinking this book is about a small subject in fiction.  Characters without stories and stories without characters are extremely hard to find; they’re very strongly linked.  Thus, in my opinion, learning about creating characters is learning how to create a compelling story.  So it’s not like you’d get this book and then say “Oh, now I need a book on plot!” . . . though Card doesn’t talk about it by itself, you’ll still find that it relates strongly to characters (character development, duh!).  That said, this book is part of a series called Elements of Fiction Writing, the other books by other authors.  I found this addition to the series to be the only one worth buying.

Card’s How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy lets him deal with the entire subject.  There is just a wee bit of overlap, and Characters and Viewpoint I thought was overall more helpful (for me), but this is still a very worthy mention.

The End

These books aren’t long; they’re all under 200 pages.  I’ve found them so useful that they are among some of the only books I reread every now and then.  They’re the most worth buying, in my opinion, or at least checking out from a library.

To restate what I said above, I think the best books on writing for you will be the ones by writers you enjoy.  I’ve taken a look at many books on writing, and they can certainly get empty and useless.  Above all, don’t blindly agree with what you read in books on writing.  Just because it’s published doesn’t mean you have to like it; you’re allowed to disagree.  There are no “rules” in art, only observations and opinions.  Think for yourself.  Then when you come across a book on writing you do agree with, it will be far more helpful.  Ayn Rand and Orson Scott Card do not agree on all subjects when it comes to writing, as is evident by these books.  So I get to determine who’s right and who’s wrong.  Neener neener.

So writeNow!

By S P Hannifin, ago
Fiction books

Reading and writing and blah blah blah

Been a while again, eh?  I submitted my short story, Oberon’s Paradise, to yet another publisher, this time online magazine Strange Horizons.  They publish stories about once a week on their site free for anyone to read.  The story’s been rejected three times so far, but it never hurts to keep trying.  I’m also trying to get back into the habit of critiquing other people’s work through Critters, a free online writing workshop, and I’m hoping to put my newer short story, No One Was Abendsen, through the critique line.

I also finished another orchestral piece for my album which I call On the Edge of a Dream.  So far my album is up to a bit over 20 minutes, so I’m about a third of the way there.  One song that will be on the album, White Castle Waltz, is already available on iTunes and CD Baby.  I must say, it’s pretty cool seeing one’s work on iTunes, even if they’re not really a selective distributor.

I finished reading Dan Ariely’s book Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, and I have a few quotes from it to put up on my Book Quotes blog.  It was a very good book, definitely worth a read if you’re interested in non-fiction.

I also finished reading a fantasy book by Kage Baker called The Anvil of the World.  It was a short book that came out in 2004, and I think it’s out of print now.  I wanted to read a book by Kage Baker because I had read a few of her short stories and enjoyed her style.  It was pretty light reading; the plot never got extremely thick or dark and the world never seemed very complex, but it was still engaging and believable and very humorous.  Not a bad read at all.

I’m still reading The Lord of the Rings (50th Anniversary Edition), a nice all-in-one volume I got for Christmas, but now I’m also reading T. H. White’s The Once and Future King, the book of the legend of King Arthur, which has definitely been enjoyable so far, especially since I already know how parts of the story go, and this book kind of fleshes things out.

And… I think that’s really all I have to blather about for now.  Kinda boring, eh?

By S P Hannifin, ago
Non-fiction books

Songsmith and irrationality

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In this episode I blather about Microsoft Songsmith and the book Predictably Irrational.  I am a bit out-of-breath at the beginning of the podcast because I was running around the house…

First, I mention that my short story Oberon’s Paradise has once again been rejected because it’s such a terrible story.

Second, I respond to comments made on the tech news podcast, TWiT regarding the new music tool from Microsoft, Songsmith.  Songsmith is discussed in this episode of TWiT.  The awkward and cheesy ad for Songsmith is here on YouTube.  (It might be purposefully cheesy to be funny, but it’s still a bit awkward, I think.)  An interesting video describing the creation of and research behind Songsmith is here.

Third, I talk about the book Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions by Dan Ariely.  I’ve only read the first two chapters so far, but I’m pretty sure I’m going to have to buy the book because it’s so fascinating and eye-opening for a foolish predictably irrational person like me.  I first heard about the book in this podcast episode, an interview with Derek Sivers.

By S P Hannifin, ago
Music composition

Driving home from work

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I recorded this driving back from the place I drove to during the last podcast.  The sound quality is awful because I recorded this in the car again.  You don’t have to listen!!  In this episode I blather about:

– I orchestrated a tune called The Cornish Wassail for the free album A Garritan Community Christmas.  I put the piece at the end of the episode.  It’s my first orchestral piece to utilize the piano!  What do you think?

– Saw the book The Complete Guide to Blogging.  Looks interesting, I’d like to buy it, or get it for Christmas.

– I failed NaNoWriMo at 34K words, but continue to work on The Book of Harbringer.  I blather for a bit about my writing experiences.

Sorry for the horrible quality, my car made a lot of noise.  Zoom, zoom, zoom!

By S P Hannifin, ago
Writing

Happy birthday to me!

I turned 23 years old today, and WizardWalk.com turned 5 years old.  Yay.  Woohoo.  So begins my 24th year of life!

In my 23rd year of life, I didn’t get much music written.  Last year I somehow managed to write over ten pieces, but this year I think I only finished four more, Opuses 42 through 45.  I haven’t uploaded all of them to my MP3s page yet, but I think they’re all on YouTube.  Only four, that’s pretty dismal.  Oh, I also did a Christmas tune orchestration, I orchestrated the Cornish Wassail tune.  I’ll be releasing that soon; it’ll be part of a free Christmas album released by Garritan this holiday season.

Besides writing music, I did get graduate from college.  I suppose that’s the big thing.  No more school.

Oh, I also began my “melody project” … I haven’t been working on that at all this month, but I’ll definitely get back to it, there are a lot of things I’d love to experiment with it.

I’ve been having a bit of an Internet hiatus really this month, since I’m trying to do NaNoWriMo; that is, I’ve been trying to write 50,000 words of a novel in a month.  I’ve got five days left, and to be honest it really doesn’t look like I’ll win, I’m currently behind at about 33K words.  It would still be possible to catch up though, so who knows.  I will say that so far I’ve had the best progress I’ve ever had trying to write a novel.  Most importantly, perhaps, is that I actually planned out the entire plot so I know exactly where everything is going, and I’ve been sticking to it, not adding things that screw everything up like I did with The Game of Gynwig.  Anyweigh, my novel this month is called The Book of Harbringer.  I’ve made a little website about it here, which also contains the first few chapters.

I guess that’s pretty much it!  I think the rest of the week will be mostly dedicated to celebrating Thanksgiving.  We’ve got some relatives coming down so my family can’t cheat and go out to eat like we usually do.

By S P Hannifin, ago
Computer games

Generative systems, games, and music

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This is the new blog! Hope you like this new WordPress version! As you may be able to see, I was able to import all my old posts so I’m not starting over completely from scratch.

Perhaps the most significant change to this new blog is that I’m now trying to make a little podcast out of it. Hearing a voice may be somewhat more interesting, or at least more fun for me to produce. That said, I’m sure I won’t be able to record something for every single post, just as I know I can’t post every single day, but I’ll see how it goes.

I got my 2nd rejection slip of ’08 earlier this week for my short story Oberon’s Paradise. I have three or four more magazines I want to try selling it to, then I don’t think I’ll be able to resist the urge to just podcast it with some incidental music, as I think that would be fun to create. I have a few other short stories I’m working on, but nothing near completion yet. And I should really get back to writing my other two novels as well sometime.

SporeAlso earlier this week, I found a very interesting video on YouTube with game designer Will Wright and some musician that I’ve never heard of. They were talking about generative systems, which Wikipedia calls “systems that use a few basic rules to yield extremely varied and unpredictable patterns.” So, they are basically systems which are good at producing emergent properties. The video from YouTube is just a clip from a much longer talk they gave (available to see here) which I could not resist sitting through. In the longer video, you get to see Will Wright talk about the role of generative systems in games and, more specifically, in the upcoming game Spore. He also touched briefly on the subject of applying generative systems to narrative stories, which I also thought was pretty fascinating.

Anyway, this is the YouTube clip.

One other thing that caught my attention in the longer video. Take a look at what they say about music:

Will Wright: Can you imagine any sort of even this past computational filter that would pre-listen to the music, analyze the structure, look for a pattern, whatever, that would at least prune out the 90% that you obviously don’t want to listen to and let you focus your efforts on the 10% that has some promise?

Brian Eno: Would you like to work on that for me?

Will Wright: Sure, I would love to. You just have to give me the algorithms, I’ll cut it right up for you.

Brian Eno: No, it’s, funnily enough there’s been a lot of research into that, because you know there are always people trying to figure out how you write a hit.

Will Wright: Oh, I see. Formalizing the–

Brian Eno: Something I wouldn’t mind knowing about.

Will Wright: The hit generator.

Brian Eno: So there’s been all sorts of attempts to do that, but they’ve been astoundingly unsuccessful so far.

I would agree that for the most part, most people exploring that area have been unsuccessful (though I honestly believe it’s only a matter of time) but I wonder if Mr. Eno is at all familiar with David Cope’s awesome work? His computer program doesn’t write music in exactly the way Will Wright describes, but I’d still say Cope’s program is, in a way, a form of a generative system.

So, as I have started writing a book on the art of melody (or started planning it, really), I think I will definitely explore the subject of a generative system for melody. I’m not sure I’ll do anything really new, but it must be a fascinating area of study.

Oooh, I just visited Mr. Cope’s site, and it looks like he’s got two free rough-draft books up temporarily, one on musical suggestions for beginning music students and one on … of all things, board games! Games, music, generative systems, it’s all related! I love it!

😀

By S P Hannifin, ago