One Man’s Meditation: Merlin, Motivation and Letting Go

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.

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17 Responses to One Man’s Meditation: Merlin, Motivation and Letting Go

  1. Wm says:

    This is excellent, Scott.

    And I’m very pleased that Monsters & Mormons is causing this kind of reaction. Next suggested stop: Millstone City.

    • Scott Parkin says:

      Wm and/or Theric…please drop me a line at my home email (scott at parkinfamily dot org). I would like to chat with you about the thoughts, goals, and intents of M&M before writing a review for BYU Studies. I’m still trying to find an angle for the kind of essay-review I like to write, and getting your thoughts would be useful.

      Honestly, my struggle is that I like the idea of the anthology a lot more than the execution of it (so far, at least—five stories from the end). I have a story that I’m telling myself about your goals, but I would very much like to get the real poop before I speak that story out loud.

  2. Mark Penny says:

    We’re the same age. Don’t forget to factor in the MLC, which isn’t a one-timer, either.

    In twenty years, they’ll be marveling at the diversity and inventiveness this group has produced.

  3. This is a very cool essay. I like the mixture of resistance and resilience as you face the personal reframe. And I like the insight that this sort of mixture of reactions can drive a field forward…

    Neat stuff to think about.

  4. Great post, Scott. I’m only a couple of years behind you and very grateful to have a salary. However, when it comes to my creative writing, I’m in a darker place than I’ve ever been. I have two book projects I really want to work on, but I can’t conceive of a realistic audience for them, and thus I’m not able to motivate myself to put in the effort. (The thing that has ruined my connections and conceptions of an audience and isolated me more than anything else is the gay issue: I’m too openly conservative about that issue to appeal to liberal Mormons, let alone secular non-Mormons, but I still write realistically and graphically enough to alienate conservative Mormon readers–including my own family members–even though we share anti-gay beliefs. And yes, I’ve been rejected by agents because they found something anti-gay I wrote on the Internet, plus both my books have fairly strong counter-gay threads in them that raise alarms for secular-minded people, which in my book includes many liberal Mormons.)

    I know, I know, we should write for ourselves, but if I’m going to do something for myself, it’s gonna be something more relaxing, not work. Yeah, I can get a buzz occasionally when creative writing seems to be going well, and it can lift my self-esteem to be productive, but I find myself less willing than ever to park my butt in a chair and work. The only time I ever write creatively for an hour anymore is if the universe hands me the perfect circumstances on a platter, but this only happens every two or three weeks, not enough to really move forward. I guess I just don’t believe in the enterprise enough to really carve out the time and drive myself anymore.

    Deep down, part of it is that I don’t have any particular sense that creative writing is one of God’s priorities for how I should spend my life, and I don’t see much evidence that it’s much of his priority for anyone else either. I think it’s something we enjoy doing and reading for mostly vain, sensual, human reasons. I think God mostly wants us working on practical stuff and serving other people, not on vain imaginations. At least, that’s where the evidence seems to be pointing for me at this point, as I observe Mormon culture and my own experience. But don’t worry, I’m still reading and watching plenty of other people’s creative stuff, mainly because I don’t like the spiritual disciplines that I could otherwise fill my time with.

    Ah, well, maybe tonight will be the night it all changes and I start working consistently again on my books…

    • Scott Parkin says:

      Different struggles, same result. I have no problem with the value of telling stories (we seem to disagree on that; I see it as one of many useful gifts working in concert with others for our overall development and benefit—both speaking and hearing are worthy gifts), I just can’t seem to find a market-relevant way of telling my own stories.

      There’s an audience for every story; it just may not be large enough to allow us to do that as our primary vocation. Which then invokes the (necessarily personal) hierarchy of priorities. Do I write instead of doing something else? Do I stick with my own areas of interest and seek a market, or do I change my methods and approach to engage an existing market? Am I an artist or a craftsman?

      I hate not knowing how to get where I want to go. Especially when it appears I have to start over again. Struggling with the question seems like at least one of the points of this whole life-exercise-thingy. For some of us that struggle seems harder than it appears to be for others.

      Luck, peace, and progress.

    • You wrote, “Deep down, part of it is that I don’t have any particular sense that creative writing is one of God’s priorities for how I should spend my life, and I don’t see much evidence that it’s much of his priority for anyone else either.”

      Can it be that there are no other persons besides me whose patriarchal blessings admonish them to develop their writing skills (followed by a specific charge related to using those skills)? And yet, even I was unaware of what that passage in my blessing meant for more than twenty-five years (during which period everything else that was foretold happened), until now the writing is the only thing left to do–and due to traumatic injury, chronic illness and permanent disability, it’s also the only thing left that I can do.

      • Th. says:

        .

        We’re all in different stages of life and career and writing. And of expectations, mortal and divine.

        • I’d thought I understood what was on the paper when I put it in the safe. It wasn’t until half a lifetime later (after the excrement had collided with the ventilator and the air had cleared), that I reread the paper and saw how superficial my understanding had been, overlooking the prompting and warning about the good and bad that came to pass. Even so, more years elapsed before I woke up with a story idea that wouldn’t go away, and at last figured out that I was meant to write fiction. Stages of life. Yeah.

      • Mark Penny says:

        My patriarchal blessing isn’t specific about writing, but it admonishes me to pursue and further my education so that I can be qualified to accomplish many things I’ve been given the talents to accomplish. Given financial constraints, I’ve had to take a fairly broad interpretation of education, but I’d say it’s working out in general.

        Good luck and God bless with this part of your life, Christine.

  5. Th. says:

    .

    I cannot express how pleased I am to affect someone’s ideas on the possible at the same level as James, who has certainly had that affect on me. I choose to believe that Mormon literature has an exciting near future even if, at times, like Chris, I feel like it’s a heckuva bother.

    Excelsior!

    • Scott Parkin says:

      I’ve made a conscious decision to read a wider variety of both stories about Mormonness and stories by Mormons, at least partially because as an individual writer I find myself somewhat blocked by the nagging intrusion of my own Mormonness into my conception of worthy storytelling, so I want to increase the sample size of observed, integrated expressions (one of the great values of anthologies) that I can use to draw generalizations for my own selfish benefit.

      Admittedly, this is one of those things currently in transition in my own mind. It’s easy to fall into a comfortable pattern of only reading stories of a type that you know you already like, and falling into a sort of conceptual/creative statis.

      From a pragmatic standpoint, stasis can be good if you’ve found an audience and you’re producing works that appeal. That’s how livings are made—being creative within a very narrow slice of the possible (specialization; micro-targeting). I was immensely creative within the narrow slice of technological supports to IT asset management and IT service delivery (still am), but failed to make the transition from one tool vendor to another—at least partially because I had insufficient independent identity/cachet in the larger community outside that as employee of a company.

      (Yeah, talking about the joy of ITAM and ITSM tends to be a conversation killer. But there’s a special elegance to creating integrated processes that meet the needs of multiple, independent, and sometimes hostile stakeholders to create both a mechanical and conceptual unity that really stokes my coals. Fortunately—or unfortunately, perhaps—I can transfer that same joy to telling any story about any subject. I’m more than a tad promiscuous that way, and that hurts the creation of a limited and well-defined brand. It also gives me the uniquely unuseful talent of being able to kill conversation in a wide variety of ways, using a wide variety of subject matters.)

      Which is a little bit of my current quandary. I’m more interested in drawing the conclusion than reveling in the process; more interested in being there than getting there. But storytelling is fundamentally about the journey, and you can’t just backfill from the end. As a wise writing teacher once said, writing is not the opposite of reading.

      So many things to integrate; so little time. So many unique voices, none of which is mine (this unintended rhyme brought to you by a nagging lack of sleep).

      Still, to paraphrase sf character Paul Atreides: Fear is the mindkiller. Recognizing the hazard is pointless if one doesn’t then navigate around it. Which doesn’t make it less scary, just (somewhat) better understood.

      And to quote another sf character (G’Kar reading from the Book of G’Quan): “The future is all around us, waiting in moments of transition to be born in moments of revelation. No one knows the shape of that future, or where it will take us. We know only that it is born in moments of pain.”

      I gotta work on that brevity thing…

      • Th. says:

        .

        I’m trying to read outside my current habits as well, but mostly it’s resulted in new stacks of books I haven’t quite read yet. Which is a shame because the more varied the input, the more varied the output. Sort of like GIGO, but positive.

      • Wm says:

        I hear you, Scott. My professional, artistic and critical brand and skillset is all over the place. Being an omni-vorous generalist gives me an edge, in my opinion, but it can be hard to make that case in a world of specialization. I think that that is beginning to change in my industry (communications/marketing) but have yet to really test that assumption.

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