Three personal micro-essays loosely connected by theme.
A popular version of the Arthur legend has Merlin living his life backwards.
I’ve always thought that was a cheat. A cop-out of philosophy that excuses the author from explaining why a powerful man backs an apparent loser, justified as reasonable response to empirical future fact. A fundamental fraud as story because it denies me as a reader any concrete reasons of motivation that I can consider, learn from, and possibly adopt in advance of the result that justifies the choice.
I’m an inherent structuralist, a systemic thinker, a rationalist. In my worldview, things happen for reasons, the spiritual is just the rational that hasn’t been explained yet, and mysticism is an excuse for fuzzy logic and poorly articulated thought. Intuition is the lazy man’s way of denying responsibility for a bad decision based on weak logic. The subconscious may exist, but until it’s exhumed it’s at best only marginally (and inconsistently) useful.
In other words, know what you believe, have reasons for that belief, and know what those reasons are.
Which is not to say that I’m a literalist in fiction. I make no demands that things be mundane or even real, only that they exist for reasons known to the author and discoverable by the reader—even if the reason is because it clarifies a metaphor or reveals a conceptual incongruity. Art is when that reason is both rational and conceptually revelatory. I love absurdism precisely because it so carefully reveals the disconnect between perception and reality, and invites the reader to ponder that gap.
But even absurdism relies on a well-understood model of reality from which it can depart.
As a reader I have a lot more flexibility with the unreal, because as long as there is some internally consistent model or structure for it, I can follow the author wherever it leads. As an author, though, that has proven a difficult barrier to overcome, because my mind seems made to structure and interpret models, rather than create the unmodeled.
In other words, I have to work out the reasons before I can write the story. The pieces and parts have to make sense to me in advance of the telling. I can interpret a read story after the fact, but I struggle to tell a story I haven’t interpreted before the fact.
As a science fiction writer and sometime fantasist, that has proven to be limiting. As a Mormon writer that makes character creation a challenge at times, as my own viewpoint is so hopelessly informed (limited?) by a well-defined set of cosmological assumptions.
I’m well into my second year of unemployment. The reasons are many and varied (having mostly to do with a lack of a bachelor of anything degree), but the effect is a persistent sense of panic about how I can make any sort of successful future from limited available materials.
That should be great source material for a fiction writer. I have insight into another side of human experience, and plenty of time to write. But it’s hard (for me) to write *instead* of looking for a new job. It’s hard to devote the time and energy to a pursuit (fiction writing) that has yet to show either social or financial rewards despite twenty years of part-time engagement, when I have bills to pay and a daughter to send off to college.
I’ve spent the last twenty months trying to get re-employed, and it’s slowly sinking in that I may no longer be re-employable doing what I did (software product management) at the level that I did it (enterprise software development; products that cost $50K plus). I still do contract work, but those are becoming fewer and further between.
In other words, my assumptions about my employment future are breaking down at an accelerating rate. I’m quickly losing the handle on how to rescue myself short of a full reset. The model I had in my mind of how things (should) work is being forcibly deconstructed in such a way that I can no longer pretend otherwise. It appears that I have lost the game I was playing.
It’s disorienting, and more than a bit frightening. I find myself wondering if it’s time to scrap all my assumptions and start over again—by going back to school full-time at the age of 48. Reset my entire life at a time when many are starting to plan for relaxation and eventual retirement.
I’m relatively lucky. My wife has a job (making about half what I used to make) with some exceptional educational benefits that can enable that reset. But where that idea was unthinkable two years ago, now it’s not only feasible, it’s also no longer risky. The context has completely changed, and what was once a selfish dream has become a positive opportunity.
All I had to do was give up hope. Or rather, lift up my eyes and dare to consider other possibilities than the dry, fruitless road I found myself on.
Strangely, I no longer feel guilty about writing fiction. Okay, a little guilty…but I can manage it.
One of the things I’ve noticed as I’ve started to write fiction again is that many of the limits I used to feel are lifting. The details don’t all have to make sense, though I still prefer that they do. Strong emotional response on-camera is okay. I’m willing to forgo rigorous (and defensible) realism for useful realishness that opens more avenues of investigation. I’m starting to let loose on both subjects and approaches.
It’s a late start, and I still have to overcome more than twenty-five years of practice at living in a very tiny and well-defined box, but at least I’m open to the possibility. With practice I hope to get better at it, and perhaps even start to make some legitimate sales (and perhaps a bit of useful coin as well).
But it’s taken a horrible wrench to do it, a nearly complete upheaval of my thoughts and plans and assumptions. No promises that it will be any good, but it will be different—and at least it’s movement.
Over the last few months on this blog we’ve discussed what can and should be done in Mormon literature, what can’t or shouldn’t be done if we want to be seen as legitimate and take our rightful place in the larger literary canon. The conversation has revealed some fundamental differences in assumption and method and goal. It has led to the occasional overstatement and more than occasional harsh critique.
It seems to me that we are in the midst of a rather startling expansion of our traditional concepts of Mormon literature. As I’ve been reading Monsters & Mormons off and on over the last two months, and some of James Goldberg’s and Theric Jeppson’s short fiction over the past month I’m struck with how very different some of that work is from the traditional canon and assumptions I’ve had about Mo-lit over the last twenty years.
And it’s intentional. There’s an active effort going on to expand the possibilities, to rethink what we can and should be doing with our unique voices and viewpoints. A lot of it makes me uncomfortable, but the more I consider it the more I think it’s a useful discomfort, a forcible reset that I would rather avoid if I can, but that will ultimately open up more and better opportunities for future paths that are very different than those blazed early on.
I suppose I’ve failed in the primary goal of the blogger, which is to ask questions that spark discussion. But for me this has been an odd month of resets, reconsiderations, and integrations, and I wanted to take a minute to articulate some new hopes and ideas that have started to seep into my long-static and nearly ossified brain as a direct result of integrating my own life experience with the more conceptual discussion going on here.
It’s movement, and that has to be useful—and perhaps even interesting.