Thoughts


7
Nov 19

Holograms replacing musicians? And eventually–political leaders?

“The Spectacular, Strange Rise of Music Holograms”, the Washington Post tells us. “Dead musicians are taking the stage again in digital form. Is this the kind of encore we really want?”

Buddy Holly on stage, as a hologram. Happening now. As predicted years ago–along with many other things, like deep fakes–in my A Song Called Youth cyberpunk trilogy.

Another current real-life phenomenon is Pretend People on Instagram: Talking, real-looking CGI generated “models” and “influencers”, unnaturally beautiful human-seeming creatures with names and histories–who are entirely fabricated. They are not real physical persons. They’re an elaborate form of animation. Yet many people believe in them as if they are real. These scripted 3-D CGI animations have legions of fans ogling them with goo goo eyes as they coo over them. “I love your new look, Elisha!” In Japan, right now, 3-D anime characters who sing are already replacing singing acts.

In the USA we’ll inevitably generate new acts, designed by “entertainer designers”, like those computer generated media darlings on Instagram. (After all, you don’t have to pay a computer generated performer.) The music will be computer generated too. People will believe in them and write them mash letters and start fan sites for them. Fake scandals about these fake characters will appear in Us Magazine and on Entertainment Tonight. They’ll be “interviewed” on talk shows. “I love the musicians I’m working with now…”

We’re setting people up to be manipulated by computer generated imagery in deeper ways than ever. It’s all part of the general process of hemming people in with media illusion, so they don’t know what’s real, or they don’t care. So they’re hyper distracted, and easily manipulated.  And when will politicians, political leaders, be replaced by carefully crafted holograms? What will be the social agenda of the Pretend Person programmers? As in my A SONG CALLED YOUTH novels: https://store.doverpublications.com/048681789x.html


31
Oct 19

Is harmony chaotic? Is chaos harmonic? A study suggests…

“Perceptions of Musical Octaves Are Learned, Not Wired in the Brain” ~

“Singing experiments with residents of the Bolivian rainforest demonstrate how biology and experience shape the way we hear music.”

So we’re told in the article linked at the bottom of this piece. And I’m sure they’re quite right. But that’s not the whole story.

Of course, we always had suspicions about the relativity of the musical scale and musical values, in a way.  Remember The Addam’s Family? Morticia, at least on the show, played a form of dissonant–to our western ears–Japanese music. It was based on real Japanese music but it was supposed to be another example of the innate bizarrity and “That’s Just Wrongness” of the Addam’s Family. (I love all formats of The Addam’s Family by the way. I have always had a terrible crush on Morticia, especially in her movie form. Female beauty is a matter of perception too).  Musical sounds emitted by youth often repel the aged.  A good many foreign musical styles at first can sound grotesque to the close-minded listener–but we learn to appreciate them, to hear their beauty. American music, at first, sounded quite ugly to many people in Asia. It grew on them and they adopted some of it and combined it with their own forms. This demonstrates not only the relativity of musical values but also the wonderful plasticity of our aesthetics.  So, it’s not terribly surprising to hear that the octave is not wired in to our gray matter.

Still, Pythagoras saw–or rather heard–things from another angle.  He heard mathematics in music. Harmonies and harmonics could be parsed mathematically–and math is our way of perceiving logic and the orderliness of some aspects of nature. Even chaos can be mathematically measured, it seems to me, since any object will break down into chaotic parts according to specific  laws–laws of physics which follow mathematical rules. Standard harmonics does seem to have some cosmic resonance, if not always a neurological one.

The Quanta article tells us, “It appeared that the same notes in different octaves, like high C and middle C, didn’t sound alike to the Tsimané as they did to people in the U.S.” They theorize these rainforest folk actually perceive sounds differently, in ways they were taught to perceive them. This suggests that we also, here in the USA,  in our turn perceive sounds–octaves, harmonics–as we’re taught. It’s a learned perception, sure. I can remember hearing “Do, a deer, a female deer, ray, a pocketful of sun…” in  The Sound of Music as a child. I was taught do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti…and back to do, in elementary school and the corresponding sounds were played for me. I was told this was a basic pattern used in organizing music. I accepted that.  And it is used that way–for some people. On the whole, I perceived it that way. This perception was broken down, or at least much modified, later, when I came to deeply appreciate alternative forms of music, like the stochastics of Xenakis and the tortured and strangely gorgeous sounds of Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica; like the Velvet Underground’s Sister Ray; like the barely controlled music of Blue Cheer’s Vincebus Eruptum; like the wildest free jazz. Some of these forms incorporated walls of raw sound, chaos; others traded in the superimposition onto background rhythms of seeming dissonance which nevertheless had an alien, cutting beauty. So it’s possible to unlearn conventional harmonics, conventional musical values! Or rather, to put the standard harmonics and structure aside, so to try something else; to take in a different sort of nourishment at the feast. What is this yellow thing, a lemon? I have never tasted one before. I bite into it. Holy crap, that’s intense! What joy! And soon after I appreciate oranges more, even as I begin to like Sweet and Sour Chinese foods.

It all reminds me of Wittgenstein’s idea that our way of perceiving the world is filtered through the language we’ve been taught.

So–it appears that our most basic American and European rigid musical structures are not wired into our brains from the start.  However–there is such a thing as recognizing and relating to felicity in all its forms. And we are attuned, in some wise, to felicity. To harmony. It’s the sonic version of things going well at home. Of being loved. Of the right word falling into place. Naturally we respond to it music. The rainforest folk presumably do the same–but they represent it differently.

Dissonance–why does it tend to set our teeth on edge? Notice that danger is associated in nature–not always, but as a sort of trend–with dissonance. Predators generally do not make conventionally harmonious sounds–hawks shriek;  the wolf snarls and makes other blood curling sounds as it prowls; bears on the attack make a glutinous angry roaring; mosquitoes make an unpleasant humming whine. (Some owls, who are predators, hoot pleasantly but there are owls that shriek). The rattlesnake’s warning is not a pretty sound. It can be well used in a composition–I’ve heard it done–but in itself, it’s an unnerving sound. And think of the sound of an erupting volcano. A tree exploding as lightning strikes.  A building will make many alarming sounds when it’s collapsing. Many birds do make conventionally “prettier” sounds. We associate them with the friendly side of nature. Jays make a raucous sound, and will do you little harm–but they are rapscallions.

Now, chaos can be used in thought-out, planned compositions, as well as in improvisation–Zappa’s Uncle Meat, say, or his Weasels Ripped  My Flesh.  Or consider a Jackson Pollack painting. But one of Zappa’s or even John Cage’s more chaotic sounding compositions are planned, not random, and Jackson actually composed as he painted, coming up with uproarious chaotic but still patterned paintings…

https://www.quantamagazine.org/perceptions-of-musical-octaves-are-learned-not-wired-in-the-brain-20191030/

[thanks to Jim Baldwin for providing the grist for the mill, here]

 

 


22
Oct 19

“Do Not Be Daunted by the Enormity of the World’s grief.”

“Do not be daunted
by the enormity
of the world’s grief.
Do justly, now.
Love mercy, now.
Walk humbly, now.
You are not obligated
to complete the work,
but neither are you free
to abandon it.”

       The Talmud


22
Aug 19

ARE YOU THE CANARY IN THE COAL MINE?

There are so many canaries in so many coal mines.

This summer, I’ve noticed only a small fraction of the butterflies we used to have. Last year, experts said butterfly populations have dropped by fifty per cent. Half. Around here it seems less than half. Honey Bees also–very few here. There used to be a grand summer buzz of bees. Not now. Down 40% since last year, the experts tell us. Even the hardy, ubiquitous wasps are few. I’m not fan of wasps but it’s spooky when they vanish. Frogs are vanishing from creeks. I could quote dire statistics on sea mammal deaths. Whales, dugongs, sea lions. Salmon are dying from the  heat increase in northern seas. Here’s the latest headline from the American Association for the Advancement of the Sciences: “Neonicotinoid insecticides cause rapid weight loss and travel delays in migrating songbirds”…What do you suppose that augurs for songbirds? Well I’ll tell you.

All this is caused by habitat loss, anthropogenic climate change, pesticides, too much land given over to industrial agriculture and meat mega-ranches, herbicides –which harm more than weeds–and other wonderful innovations of humanity. A new giant plastic garbage patch has turned up in the North Sea. Oceanic Dead Zones proliferate. Recently rain and snow has been found to be suffused with tiny plastic particles. Plastic particle pollution is found  in “extreme concentrations” in the Arctic, I read. NINETY PER CENT of fish stocks are used up. “Bird population in steep decline in North America” the headline says. Today the Washington Post reports that North America has lost three billion songbirds. That’s got bird numbers down 29%. Scientists blame habitat lost first, then pesticides, then cats.

It’s all the same cause–humanity. No, more specifically, human greed.

Greed! Greed is behind the mindless use of pesticides, and herbicides; it’s behind the fires in the Amazon destroying the forests needed to clean the air, and destroying the animals, the butterfly and bird habitats there; it’s behind denial about greenhouse gases causing climate change; it’s behind over-fishing and the over-production of plastics and the destruction of habitats needed for …butterflies.

We humans are interconnected with the animal world. I wonder who’s next?

Me? You?

You may as well take another Prozac and turn on the latest tragic superhero fantasy. What else would you do?


3
Jul 19

The Cruel Irony of Amazon “Fulfillment Centers” CAN End. If…

John Oliver’s entertaining and horrifying report on Amazon’s so-called Fulfillment Centers was scathing, was very much needed, and nearly made me despair of humanity. But–there’s hope for at least some mitigation of the near-slavery conditions at these giant warehouses, if Amazon CEO and owner Bezos is shamed or sued into doing the right thing. Or–if we simply persuade him that the right thing is not really problematic for his bottom line. I have some suggestions for reorganizing the Amazon mega-warehouses they call “Fulfillment Centers”.

The Problem. The ironic label “Fulfillment Centers”–which sounds like an unwitting euphemism for erogenous zones–draws bitter laughter from those who’ve worked at these macroscopic rat mazes. Workers are under constant threat of being fired if they don’t keep up an unnaturally high rate of moving goods in the vast warehouse, where the oh-so-urgently needed items are scattered almost at random all over the enormous building. There is some effort at organization but not enough. Fetching from distant shelves is a process  done on foot, some people traipsing fifteen miles in a day. Some of them are elderly people. There really isn’t time to go to the bathroom, because you’ll fall behind on the required rate of package transportation and you’ll be fired (not a hollow threat). And you only took the job because you really, really needed the 15 dollars an hour. In some centers people have collapsed. The psychological pressure is as taxing as the physical stress. The breathless promise of hyperfast delivery to spoiled consumers means a constant push push push for faster faster faster. It’s worse than that, really–watch Oliver’s acidly funny if nightmarish report.

Common sense solutions occur to me, but they’ll require Bezos investing money in the remedies–and of course that’s an onerous burden on him since he’s merely a billionaire many times over and one of the richest men on the planet. Oh what the hell, I’ll offer them anyway.

Here’s the First idea: Bezos, shut down one center at a time (or sections of a center at a time). While the other centers or sections continue status quo, the designated one is reorganized so that items are more rigorously stored by type. One area is a series of hardware sections, each hardware section specializing as much as possible. Workers are reassigned or hired to take over each such center, one or two per each. They obtain the needed product with relative ease, and give it to a freight tram–little three wheeled things with small truck beds–whose driver trundles it along the wide aisles to the delivery people. No one then has to go on these epic warehouse hikes. Also,  build more localized bathrooms–an expense and a worthwhile tax deductible one…Rinse and repeat with every section, and every Fulfillment Center. Gosh that might use up half of one of Bezos’s many billions. He might have to do without …without, uh…nothing at all.

Second, adjust the speed of delivery requirements. Amazon often delivers with astounding rapidity. It doesn’t need that breathless speed to be an enormously profitable business. It’ll remain,  robustly driving independent bookstores and record stories and hardware stores and clothing shops out of business. Bezos will continue to make billions.

Third, pay a higher wage, hire more people, and offer real benefits. I’m all for unions but Bezos is hardcore anti-union. If he hires more people (to ease the burden on employees) and improve their pay and benefits, he won’t have to engage in union busting–people will be less inclined to try to unionize. It works at CostCo. But if he can’t bring himself to go that far, he could pretty much end the rising public condemnation if he takes steps one and two alone.

You’ll still be crazy rich if you take these steps, Jeff Bezos. You’ll continue to  have Everest-high piles of  cash for your Blue Origin space program–I’m truly all for space programs, yours included–and you’ll still be able to do pretty much anything else you damn please…


20
Jun 19

CULTURE SLASH #3 – A COLUMN FOR THE AGHAST by John Shirley

LATEST POINTLESS “NEWS STORY” FROM CNN – Headline: “Walmart is getting rid of its blue vests. Here’s what the new ones look like” – no, really. That’s the actual headline. And there’s nothing else in the article of any interest whatsoever. Why does “no one cares!” not matter to CNN? And this did not appear in some kind of business affairs section. No, it was of general interest! To no one.

Years ago, I worked as an assistant at a marketing company. Firms would give us press releases about their new products to the marketing company, which the market outfit sent, almost verbatim, to contacts at newspapers—and which sometimes appeared in newspapers just as we at the marketing company had written them. This creeping laziness took root in the moldering loam of cynicism. I’m pretty sure this Wal-Mart “news” piece originated with a Wal-Mart press release. And we see actual articles about “the new burger from Burger King”—and nope, it’s not an ad. Or is it? Does CNN get revenue for pieces like this, revenue it isn’t letting us know about? Anyway, if you’re going to publish articles of no serious interest to anyone, how about this, which is at least accurate reporting: Latest Processed Food Garbage Offers Even More Calories and Carbs For Customers Who Prefer To Feel Like Crap.

YOU’LL SUCK PLASTIC AND YOU’LL LIKE IT – “Globally, we are ingesting an average of 5 grams of plastic every week, the equivalent of a credit card, a new study suggests. This plastic contamination comes from ‘microplastics’ — particles smaller than five millimeters — which are making their way into our food, drinking water and even the air.” That’s CNN too and it’s one of their actually newsworthy pieces. It’s also ironically appropriate. We’re choking sea life with our plastic waste, after all, so we deserve to choke on it too. And the comparison to swallowing a credit card’s worth of plastic has a certain unintended poetry—mindless consumers lean heavily into credit. They use those cards like—well, like crazy. And their mindless consumerism encourages the plastic-bound throwaway culture that’s wrecking the biosphere.

NEW FRONTIERS OF SHALLOWNESS: “They Have Millions of Instagram Followers, but They’re Not Real People” – New York Times …Fans of songs by “Lil Miquela” were shocked to hear that the supposed singer who has supposedly “worked with Prada” and supposedly “has a tattoo designed by a fashionable artist”…isn’t real. She’s made of pixels and voicing and she’s designed to attract followers and likes. But there are lots of these fake human beings—literally fake, not just “ha-ha, he’s so fake”, and it’s not just vapid teens who get sucked in. Adults, too, gape ingenuously at these glittery, disturbingly real-looking “persons” on Instagram and YouTube. You have to be remarkably shallow—like a millimeter-deep pool of liquid graphene—to believe that these creatures are real. They look realistic but everything about them, to those who’re paying attention, says they’re not even as real as scripted actors in full make-up. They’re CGI. And they’re not based on anyone in particular—they’re based on glamorous tropes. Their followers are so conditioned by hand-screen media their reactions become utterly knee jerk–they really don’t give their brains time to process what’s real and what isn’t.

Deepfake news stories—visual lies  now on the way to your cell phone, to further condition and distract you–come to mind, too. It’s another level of deceptive CGI… People have always been prone to falling under the sway of superficial media personalities —ask your favorite demagogue or popstar—but humanity has reached a new level of inane pliability. Which means we can be led…anywhere.

ANTI-VAX MILLIONAIRES – From the Washington Post: “A wealthy Manhattan couple has emerged as significant financiers of the anti-vaccine movement, contributing more than $3 million in recent years to groups that stoke fears about immunizations…” That’s a hedge fund manager named Bernard Selz and his wife, Lisa—gibbering paranoids who are doing a lot to stimulate anti-vaccine hysteria.

Here’s what will eventually come about, in your lifetime, because of people like this:  major plagues that will kill millions of people. You think the new measles phenomenon is bad? Pshaw. That’s nothing in comparison to what anti-vaxxers will shower upon us.

Thanks to climate change, viruses and bacteria once found only in relatively remote regions of the world are increasingly able to spread far and wide—to places where more people throng. The more people an infectious disease reaches–the more people it will go on to reach. It will expand exponentially…Plagues will arise. Hard working scientists will make vaccines available to counter major new pathogens and anti-vaxxers will block the vaccines. And when humanity realizes that millions could have been saved if not for anti-vaxxers, people like Mr and Mrs Selz may well end up being prosecuted for manslaughter. And they’re very likely indeed to be vastly, hugely, multitudinously — sued!

THE DNC IS GOING TO FORCE ME TO DO SOMETHING I DON’T WANT TO DO. And yes—I will submit to any DNC nomination, whoever it is, as the alternative will be worse….I have this sick feeling that the DNC is going to force me to vote for Joe Biden. Despite his long history of racial insensitivity predicating his recent senescence-driven racial gaffe; despite his history of being demeaning and handsy-grandfather inappropriate with women…despite all, I will be forced to vote for him if he gets the Democratic nomination because, well, as I heard Stephanie Miller say, “In the general election we have to vote for any carbon-based lifeform who isn’t Trump”. And she’s right. Even a blundering glad-handing, toe-stomping, clueless, badly aging white guy, like Biden is preferable to Trump. Biden would at least  return us to sanity. Mostly. He would see that competent people are named to cabinet positions. He would do pretty well with international relations.

But compared to someone like Elizabeth Warren,  Biden is an empty suit. Please, DNC—I’ll vote for an empty suit if I have to, but for pity’s sake don’t make me.


1
Aug 17

FINALLY saw ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS: THE MOVIE

I finally, finally, FINALLLLLLLYYYYY saw ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS: THE MOVIE. I saw it on cable. I meant to go see it in the theater but it was nowhere near me and people slagged it so…however, I enjoyed it, it made me laugh a lot, and seemed simply an extension of the show with a great many more celebrity cameos. (Barry Humphries has a good part in it!) I can see why many Americans were not thrilled by it, I suppose, first of all you need to be a fan of the show, which I am, and second, you have to get past the way that it’s sort of less concentrated, in its movie form–the TV show is visually concentrated in a few sets, the occasional street scene, and we’re very much involved almost face to face. The movie has a sort of movie distancing, at least for awhile; also the accents fly thickly, and to be perfectly honest, I’ve gotten so I often watch British television (a great deal of my tv watching) with the subtitles turned on! And I recommend that with this one. It’s bubbling with bizarre imagery, it’s a farce, Pats is still Pats, Eddy still Eddy, Bubble is still Bubble…played by the fabulous Jane Horrocks… and it had cool music in it too…

There was some controversy about how they had a white person play a Japanese person but this turned out to be *absolutely*, as it were, BULLSHIT…the character was Scottish….And the movie did NOT flop–it cost less than four million to make and made 34 million BEFORE the DVDs and cable…


3
Mar 14

Phantoms of the OSCARS

I only saw part of the Academy Awards and lost interest, but I liked Ellen Degeneres’s comic hosting, especially her line about Liza Minnelli who was in the audience. ‘”I have to say that is one of the most amazing Liza Minnelli impersonators I’ve ever seen in my entire life,” she said, pointing out Minnelli sitting in the audience. “Good job, sir.”‘ Good drag queen joke. Not sure Liza got it, judging from her expression. But if you missed the show, it was a kind of combination of self-adulation, and self-loathing –the latter in the comedy, as if to make up for the narcissism. Here’s a translation of what most people besides Ellen Degeneres said, if they were introducing people or accepting: “I gratefully KISS YOUR ASS. I kiss YOUR ass, Warner Brothers, and I kiss YOUR ass, Paramount, and I kiss YOUR ass, producer, and I kiss YOUR ass, director, and I kiss YOUR ass everybody else.” So just imagine that over and over again and you have the show, except for that hideous backdrop during the “Happiness” song where they actually had a giant non-ironic happy face. Speaking of movies, during that bit I kept thinking, “The horror…the horror…”

Kim Novak is probable getting acidic tweets about her appearance on the Oscars. The poor thing–she’s 81, trying to look 18. Girl, that surgery and that botox is not working. You’re a poster child for “the older you get the less cosmetic surgery works” or possibly “the more cosmetic surgery you get, the less it works.” A little neck tuck, that I can see. But apart from that most of these people look worse with the surgery than if they just let themselves age. It’s as if they have no respect for old people, which is ironic. But also it’s about the fact that they can’t really see themselves as they are *even in a mirror*. They get this extreme and grotesque unworkable surgery and then they *see* something else in the mirror. They mentally edit it. So long as there are no wrinkles they can seemingly see what they want. It’s living satire. Poor kid. i felt bad for her. She was so good in Vertigo. Her cosmetic surgery is now nauseatingly vertiginous. One feels, looking at it, one is falling into another and terrible world, to paraphrase PG Wodehouse.

The last time I remember seeing cosmetic surgery that hideous was on the Academy Awards was when Liberace accepted a special Oscar…That surgery was hideous, looked very new…and he looked terrified. I felt for him too.

I am saying that women in Hollywood should NOT HAVE TO have that kind of surgery–they shouldn’t be bullied into that kind of delusional extreme self modification. I’m saying it does not work and it only opens the poor thing up to ridicule. I feel my post was entirely sympathetic. This is not an ordinary situation. This is not “her dress is awful” or “she’s overweight.” I don’t care about that. this is not about minor cosmetic surgery. This is about self disfiguring due to delusion.

Basically I felt the 2014 Academy Awards lived up to its standard dismalness.


6
Oct 13

…a lovely drive in the country…

Ah a lovely day for a drive in the country. First thing I saw, just as I was pulling the out from the house, was a dead squirrel–then a shadow swept over it. A very distinct shadow–we have a good many turkey vultures around here. The vulture landed, not seeing me at first, settled on the squirrel and began to peck its eyes out. Not kidding, right for the eyes. It blocked my car, pecking eyes the while, and then it noticed some dead squirrel entrails lying separately, and hopped over to peck them. I had never observed a vulture at work up close so I put on my car’s “blinkers” in case any drivers came up behind me and the blinkers went TICK…TICK…TICK in exact time with the pecking of the vulture at the entrails…Then the vulture seemed to notice me. It cocked its head and, looking put upon, flew away…I drove around the squirrel…In the country someone had dumped a full sized hot tub by the side of the road, an octagonal thing of fiberglass, dumped with other items by another sort of vulture…There were many bicyclists on the country road and one of them, a young lady wearing the sort of teardrop shaped helmet that points backwards, was crouched by the side of the road with her pants off, apparently peeing, just on the other side of a metal barrier. She was not in the least concealed. Her helmet seemed to point at her out-thrust buttocks. It was disconcerting…I drove home–and the squirrel was gone. But then I saw wasps buzzing about the sidewalk, where its remains had been moved. The vulture flapped into view, and went back to work on the squirrel…PECK…PECK…PECK. When the vulture noticed me, it flapped irritably, and dragged the squirrel corpse–into my yard. . .A lovely day for a drive. . .


14
Sep 13

Writing Is Seeing: Ideas and Exercises for Writers

[i wrote this piece for a book of essays on writing by various writers, book published by Penguin]

When I was a very young man at the Clarion Workshop, I was a fan of Rimbaud and of later artistic radicals, like the Surrealists. I liked their brashness and their florid manifestos. One day, when I was exactly that young at the Clarion Writer’s workshop, Harlan Ellison was being encouraging (if that’s the word), and asked me what my writing method was. Aglow with self importance, I arched an eyebrow and looked into the infinite distance with a visionary air and said, “I eat with my eyes; I taste with my ears.” Well, this was pretentious as all Hell, and sounded silly, no doubt, especially as I didn’t know much about writing at the time. However, it turns out that when I think back to the ludicrous behavior of my youth, when I wincingly consider my jejune fancies and mile-a-minute images and insights, I sometimes see, besides boyish foolishness, that I was, after all, quite right–at least about some of it. Being a bit of a misfit, I had nothing to lose, so I just tore open my frontal lobes and let the impressions pour in and the corresponding ideas pour out, with very little preconception. The results were highly uneven — but sometimes, because I didn’t know I could not do a thing, I could do it. And I did. And, in fact, I was right to try to “eat with my eyes” — that is, to look around me without expurgation, with the maximum intake and honesty, with the assumption that the normal way of looking at life is muddied — and that it’s possible to see more, always more if one looks hard enough; if one gets out of the way of perception.

And this has served me. So, I advise writers to do the same: to start with the assumption that they’re not really so conscious as they think they are; not so perceptive as they think they are. To make a conscious, deliberate effort to look at things they are used to and see them in ways they are not used to. Try to see the extraodinary in the mundane — not necessarily the fantastic, but the deeper reality. It is there if you look for it. Don’t use drugs to open your perceptions–just open them.

Look around anywhere, really look, and you can see new characters, possible stories. Be a Sherlock Holmes of characterization. What does that stranger’s distinct choice of clothing mean? Does that man’s reddened knuckles and the bruise on his sad wife’s cheek mean what I think it does? Look closely at her and make an educated guess. How about that man, in the subway—his hand keeps reflexively moving toward his shirt pocket, and drawing back. Is he reaching for cigarettes? Or something else?

My feeling is, a great deal of good writing originates in good observation. It’s people-watching, sure, but it’s also watching nature, it’s absorbing urban, pastoral and suburban settings. It’s trying to see familiar things as you never saw them before.

One key to increasing one’s observation is being aware of the degree of one’s awareness in the first place. When I’m out interacting with the world, how much am I lost in some gray study, in a daydream, or in my smartphone. To what extent am I really inhabiting myself, really seeing…and feeling, smelling, hearing…what’s there? If I turn my attention toward my own level of awareness, I’ll discover that typically I’m not very aware, as I move about the world. I’m dreaming that time away; I’m brooding, or caught in haste, in anxiety, in petty fears. Which means I’m not seeing what’s around me—I haven’t got enough attention left, after all that distraction, to really look at the world I’m in. If I don’t really see, I don’t have material for convincing writing.
Verisimilitude, believability—that’s a key to persuading a reader that what you’re describing is real. Where do you get it? From observation—from observing yourself, people around you, the world around you. To get there, work on being in the moment. Step out of the usual half-aware state we’re too often in. Being “in the moment” helps you see things as they are—and it may bring you insight into the human condition…

Everyone is a character in a novel, in a way. A good writer can find the human dilemma, the human condition, in any situation, because it’s always there if you’re really looking close. Drama is always all around us but usually we don’t see it because we’re not paying attention.

EXERCISES:
1. Go to a place that’s tediously familiar to you, the supermarket, or the post office, a place, perhaps, where you have to stand in line and normally can’t wait to get away. Deliberately use the time there to practice observing. Turn your attention to people and things around you, as if you’d never seen anything like them before. Pretend you’re from Mars, if you like. “So this is what creatures look like on this planet; so this is how they behave.” The main thing is to see them freshly—and telling details, truths about them, will likely jump out at you. Look freshly at the place as well as the people. As a writer, any environment is a potential setting. Look closely, more closely than your default setting, wherever you are.

2. Are there people in your life who drone on, and you say, “Uh huh…uh huh…” –as you only half listen, at best? Find one! Let them drone on…but this time really listen, no matter how genuinely tiresome it is. Think of it as a sort of homely telepathy—in a sense, you’re actually hearing their free associations, their unconscious concerns, their fears. An example: “I told Bill I didn’t want to go to that doctor again, he always makes me wait, I don’t think his assistant likes me…” What does that boring, self pitying complaint actually say? It says they’re going to the doctor, so they’re worried about their health; it says that it may be that the choice of doctors is in Bill’s hands, whoever he may be; it says they’re a little afraid of the doctor’s assistant, generally worried about being disliked, perhaps even a tad paranoid. It’s an indirect, unconscious statement of fear, of anxiety, and considering the implications might open up your compassion for that person, which might in turn give you insight into them—they, or someone incorporating their attributes, might become a strong character in a story.

3. Go to some place you like going to, perhaps a beach, a trail, the opera, whatever you enjoy—and try to see aspects of it you’d normally filter out, or not notice. Forget about “good” or “bad” –just look for what is. Linger in one spot and look at it more closely than normal. Again, try to see it as if you’d never seen it before. . .You’ll be surprised at how the familiar is also the unfamiliar, and how much a deeper perception of it can enrich your writerly description.

also be sure to copyright your work:

this essay copyright 2013 by John Shirley, all rights reserved