Forking it Over

As I scan the pages of Writer’s Market—digesting fluff advice and skipping from one market listing to the next as a fortunate stone does across a pond—I still imagine how life will be as a professional. “To churn out word after word at the drop of a hat (dime),” I wonder often, “am I made out for this sort of life?” There is a certain confidence this occupation requires, a kind of trust all ‘creative professionals’ must fork over. Indeed, there is true forking taking place here, but it is not a unique one.

There is a strange and fuzzy relationship between writer, written work, and reader. When a writer sits down to write, there is a sense in which the writer does not simply just dump thoughts onto a page—they think about who they’re writing for, what they’re writing for, how they want to be seen. In a sense, the act of writing has an effect on the person writing. I remember reading Orson Scott Card’s introduction to his classic Sci-fi “Speaker For the Dead.” He claims that, after creating an outline for the book, he found himself lacking the maturity to write such a book. It is only after several rewrites that he gained the mental maturity to write such a book.

Are the two entities separate: book and writer? The line is a marred one. The book creates the man while the man creates the book; it may be better to say that there is a reciprocation going on. Better still, we could say that books and people emerge and gain definition simultaneously. I could say that I don’t know who I am until I’ve lived life, until I’ve painted a great piece of art, until I’ve written a bestseller. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I am undefined until I’ve lived life, until I’ve painted a great piece of art, until I’ve written a bestseller.

Writing books, I think, is not a matter of just writing books. It turns out to be the path you walk on, even if you treat it as “just a job.” Like every good path, the ground underneath gives way a bit, leaving an imprint in the ground and a little dirt on everyone’s shoes: something is taken, and something is left over. Like it or not, I am changing with each word, and each word is changing with each thought.

Beginning my writing career will be a messy business. Other people—companies, magazines, journals, papers, publishers—will dictate the terms under which I write, the content they desire and, ultimately, whether or not my content is good enough. That is a vast amount of influence over my character that others wield. Then again, how is this situation any different from any other social situation? It seems that the conditions of the artists world are less foreign than is immediately apparent.

So which way should I fork, what must I fork, and who made the fork in the road? The Writer’s Market would lead me to believe that I must find, or make, a niche in the market. I can only assume that it takes a bit of fast-talk to convince an editor that a certain column is worth publishing—enter the query letter. What sort of person will I become if I succeed? If I fail? How will the act of writing inform my life, and the lives of others? I have already been “informed” that my previous/current work in ad-copy is the first sign of “selling out.” True or not—putting aside what “selling out” means in the first place—those words still have an effect on something.

In the next few months, I should tread carefully: there is a lot going on here that I want to take in.

Can God Be Spoken For?

When Christian evangelicals try to spread the word of God, they are often turned away or given dirty looks. “Why?” I asked myself, “they’re only trying to help people the way they know best.” Even if their help isn’t the right kind for me, it doesn’t hurt to talk things through—right? Two weeks ago, I was approached by a Christian couple, hard at work recruiting members to God’s flock. Instead of turning them away, I decided to see how a pair of intrepid young shepherds would respond to the ramblings of an incoherent crazy person.

They asked the usual questions (I paraphrase): do you know that Jesus Christ died for your sins? What is your relationship to God? What are you doing this Sunday? My answer to the first two questions began: to believe that God is some greater being who judges, loves, and thinks seems odd. Who does God worship at night, I asked. Himself? Someone greater? Us?

A person might take my question one of two ways (this is not exhaustive, however). They might think that I was hinting at some sort of recursive problem in place. If God is just a “thing” that knows everything and can do everything, then he is just a human being with special powers. Thinking of God in this way sounds a bit offensive, and it should be.

A second way one might take my question is to say there’s something wrong with a God that is an authority figure. To disagree with God, perhaps, is treason against the sovereignty of the universe and is worthy of punishment. In human affairs, totalitarian rulers all have opponents—in such a description, I’ll call Lucifer the condemned revolutionary in God’s kingdom. Could it be that God has no more grounds for punishment than Stalin?

Both readings of the problem with God share a common theme: anthropomorphism. There is something fishy about likening God to humanity. Genesis describes the moment God created Mankind in his image, but images are odd things. In all images, we could say, Man places himself into them. God’s grace, the evil of Lucifer, and the beauty of their eternal struggle—mankind sees itself in these images. Is it that God created us in his own image or that God is merelyunderstood in light of our own image? A little bit of both.

To make paint matters of divinity as Human matters on the scale of infinity seems short-sighted. In other words, we make God seem like “less” than what a God can be. I feel that God is so much more, if such a thing exists at all. Does God “love” in the conventional sense of love? Teach in the conventional sense of teach? Does God rule all of existence—what would it mean for something greater than us (in the the more “transcendental” sense of “great”) to do any of these things?

At this point, my new-found Christian friends seemed confused. Like a broken vinyl record, they reminded me that God looks over us, teaches us valuable lessons, and makes the impossible possible. And like a bad DJ, I would respond, “doesn’t make sense for God to ‘look over us’ or ‘teach us lessons'”—at least not in a conventional sense. The image of God is more than just a pretty picture that accords well with the human psyche. My words seemed to confuse them—to be honest, they were confusing me at that point as well.

What is God then? What could “it” be? I am sure our questions were, at that point, one in the same. I’ll save my preliminary conclusions for the next time. The punch-line is coming soon.

Getting Lucky

I do not claim to be a great political mind—when it comes to “being well rounded,” political theory is an edge that needs to be filled in—but Quentin Skinner’s recent comments on Machiavelli struck a chord. His discussion of “fortuna” in The Prince seems particularly useful. “If you’re going to attain greatness, somehow you’ve got to be lucky,” Skinner explains, “One of the really deep points Machiavelli wants to make is that there is no such thing as a successful politician who hasn’t been phenomenally lucky […] the question for Machiavelli is ‘how do you get lucky.’” Like a startled cat, or a confused hound, my ears are raised.

I think of the current candidate for President of the United States: Barrack Obama. If Obama hadn’t stood against the Iraq War efforts in 2002, would he have been considered Presidential candidate material? Without the confusion following 9/11, perhaps there would not have been an opening for such a campaign. In some sense, Barack Obama is on a wave generated by the trends in this country; his current success can surely be attributed to knowing when to act and how to act, but it must be attributed to the state of current affairs.

Such stories concern me on a personal level. A great thinker might be born into the incorrect time and burn at the stake, while the dullest-tool-in-the-box may be born into an era where ignorance is considered humble and honest and he may become leader of the next social movement. These sorts of occurrences happen often enough. As a writer, I ask myself, “what wave can I ride? Is it even possible for someone of my personality to become as prolific as Nietzsche?” There are millions of blogs, and so what are the chances that this one will become successful?

The question, as I’ve seen from Skinner, is how a person comes to have some control, understanding, or even a vague foresight over the fleeting possibilities of luck. It wouldn’t surprise me to see someone disturbed over this question, for what source could we consider reliable to inform us about luck? To consign a bit of any outcome to chance seems to take power out of our hands. After all, our current lack of knowledge about the future doesn’t translate into a perpetual ignorance—many of us all want to feel as though it is possible to know everything, even if we cannot in our current state.

To this I respond: we must admit that not everything, as of yet, is a reality. Further still, not everything can be a reality simultaneously. Making choices as to what exists and what does not also includes knowledge of the world. Knowing one position may make it impossible to know others. The lucky or (in Skinner’s language) those who get lucky cannot just act any way they would like, at any time they would like, toward anyone they might like (or despise!). The truly fortunate know which waves to ride, how to stay steady, when they will come, and, most importantly, when to ditch the wave and avoid death. Perhaps we don’t need to know everything, since that may not be possible in the first place, and it may just be enough to know to “wing it.”

It can be argued that luck is nothing but a revelation despite ignorance—some event occurs at the benefit of a lucky person who happened to be at the right place at the right time. We all have, as children, found an unclaimed bill laying on the floor. Whatever denomination it was, we all knew what it meant: free candy, free food, free arcade rounds. We call it good luck, and all of the kids in the playground would call it the same. It may be tenable to say that it is only because of a lack of knowledge that children would call this luck. Science, skill, understanding, would yield a more consistent result. Let us ask, then, what if one child happened to have the ability to know every situation in which money were misplaced? That child would have the ability to be lucky at every possible occasion. Would that make the situation any less “lucky?”

I think it would not: there is still an element of chance involved, even with absolute knowledge. Even if I know that a highly coveted twenty-dollar bill is teetering on the edge of a person’s back-pocket seam, there is no guarantee that the money will fall. Luck, good and bad, is a series of happenings that we cannot guarantee; “getting lucky” is a matter of knowledge and manipulation. None of us are God, after all, and there are no guarantees.

Perhaps the scientist presses her luck doing experiments; artist takes a chance with each brush stroke; and each step of life is a gamble. Kinda makes life seem more exciting, doesn’t it?

Learning to Drown

Learning a new language is something like learning to drown, at least at the level I’ve been taking it. This Summer I’ve nearly made it through an eight-week intensive course in the German Language, and I can attest that the drowning simile is somewhat accurate (or just useful).

This might seem to be a bleak way of looking at it, but I swear it makes sense—the simile is not an attempt at melodrama. Imagine your first week in a serious language course (meaning, it is called an “immersive” or “intense” course): everyone is scrambling with their dictionaries, the professors speak only the language you intend to learn, and there is a sinking suspicion that the following weeks will be even more of a pain than once anticipated. It is like being on a sinking ship. There you sit, upon the tipped mast, watching the ocean creep up the now immersed (and vertical) deck. You can see your fate, your inevitable drowning, snarling at you from below–the waves bite at the air, longing to fill their mouths.

At this point, I felt optimism. You can do it, I assured myself, You’ve taken languages in the past. Soon, though, those waters would soon be in splashing distance of my feet almost able to grip at ankles or even shins. It was somewhere around the introduction of the Indirect Object that it started to make sense: I was drowning, but it was a good thing. Our professors assure us that German’s many subtle details will one day “click”–it seemed a common enough thing to say, but there is truth to this statement.

Imagine the point where the shipwreck victim is finally neck deep. Her body, in all good intent and will, resists first few splashes of water that try to enter her lungs. After a while, her resistance becomes more painful as more that a few splashes try to enter where they are not welcome. Eventually, there is a painful giving up, a concession, a surrender—the ocean wins.

This is a horrible vision to have when sailing, but in a German classroom, it is a welcomed comfort. Right now, our minds (all of the students) are resisting the language by instinct. We try our hardest to take the water in (of course I wouldn’t do this on the open ocean), but English is my first language: fresh air is my first love. I keep gasping for air by instinct, waiting for the day when instinct will cease to function and the language can finally seep its way in. This is when the language “clicks,” when the language is finally not an object of thought, but a matter of instinct; in other words, I will have learned the language when I have drowned.

I only hope that I can learn to drown sooner rather than later.

Academia and Serious Students

Lately I have been thinking about College. What occupies me is not limited to exams, papers, and classes–but the institution itself and how we fit into it. An example from class, though, would be appropriate. At the beginning of the quarter, I was told that Kant’s Critique of Judgment is a discussion of how “nature comes to know itself” and how it manifests in the act of judgment. “Isn’t that what Hegel said?” my first instincts told me. My second instinct: “what the hell are we talking about?” It was at that moment that I remembered how far removed from the real world (common knowledge) our theories can be. The idea of “reality” itself is up for philosophical/intellectual debate, and I wonder why. What do we gain from talking about things this way?

Even more odd is how students start to see the entire world through the eyes of their textbooks. Like a demented Tootsie Roll commercial, I could imagine sophmores singing “whatever it is I think I see becomes psychology to me!” I’ve seen it: psychology recruits analyzing characters in movies, philosophy sophists prattling about dialectics, and science students trying to explain everything in terms of collapsing wave-functions. These acts seem downright ridiculous, but they seem like an attempt to make sense of the things they have spent so much money to learn. If not, then they are just attempts to sound clever.

It could be asked, “Why the hell are you in philosophy then?” I can only hope that there is some insight, some point, to be gained from all of this. Asking why we are talking about something–or why we speak of things in a certain manner might be a way of staying on the right track. It might be that, through questioning the legitimacy of the authors we have chosen to read, we will “thicken up” our understanding of life at large.

I won’t make any such appeals this time though–there’s something fishy here. Intellectual debate seems like a burden, a parasitic disease, that creeps it’s way into every aspect of the serious student’s life. It becomes difficult to watch movies or talk to friends without thinking about aesthetic puzzles, Aristotle on rhetoric, or whatever catches your fancy. The serious student–without a way to mix everyday life with her coursework–is left covering her mouth to keep herself from mentioning an unsightly philosophical problem. Even as I write this, I think to myself: “do I sound pretentious?”

The question to consider is how to be serious without alienating oneself. It is tougher than it looks, the ones I’ve seen keep a false distance from their work. With a few students, I would never have known them to care about their work until they stepped foot into a classroom. Philosophy, psychology, politics, biology, and all other subjects are in conversation with the world at large. Academia plays it’s part in the way the world works. Why should we treat it as if it were something to be done behind closed doors? Perhaps a discipline that proclaims to know “how nature comes to know itself” should be conducted behind closed doors.

There must be a better way to think about this.