September, 2013

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.

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

Sep 13

Shortly After the Hawaii Molasses Pipeline Disaster, the Marshmallow Pipeline Exploded, Leading To

New disaster in Hawaii–the little multicolored marshmallow pipeline has exploded. The explosion led to the rupture of a hot chocolate pipeline which in turn led to the disastrous spill of a delicious soothing before-bed treat. Birds have been seen picking marshmallows out of their feathers and looking alarmingly…irritated. Meanwhile the damaged bourbon whiskey pipeline in Tennessee has nearly been repaired, with thousands of volunteers drilling small holes in it to suck it dry until the plug could be set in place.

In Seattle, a pipe carrying millions of gallons of free trade organic coffee has exploded, boiling thousands of pairs of hiking boots…

Sep 13

Campaign Financing: An Ethical Tight-rope Walk

Thinking about campaign financing. . .All through history, it seems to me, people have compromised their ethics and morals to get things done–that is, those people who had ethics and morals. Some have compromised more, some less. I’ve compromised mine in my time. People rationalize this, and it’s complex, because up to a point compromising one’s ethics is, in some cases, ironically, the most ethical and moral thing to do. Sometimes the lesser of evils *is* worthwhile effectuating. Often it isn’t. But the rationalization applied to compromise, when it’s worthwhile, can be like a slowly building bad habit, even an addiction. Addiction, as addicts know, is a disease. Good people succumb to the rationalization of making deals for the sake of campaign finance–eg, “I’ll allow these food-safety rules to be relaxed to some extent, so that I can be elected, so that I can work for people’s health in other ways, or perhaps later reverse the slackening of regulation. It’s for the best in the long run.” It’s an ethical tightrope at best. Most people are going to fall off the tightrope. Most people will succumb to cynicism and compromise at its worst. Most people, after all, are not saints…The only way to mitigate the problem in America is to eliminate the current model of campaign financing.

Public financing is an option even now–but not *really*, as long as the alternative is available. One can’t compete in an election, Obama discovered, without the ability to raise campaign financing money freely. That is, one can’t unless we eliminate that ability and require everyone to use public financing of political campaigns, and public financing alone. And we should.

Sep 13

Can Consensus Sometimes Be a Societal Sickness?

Sometimes it almost feels as if given geographical areas are somehow assigned consensual points of view, notions of reality that are collectively held, amongst people in that region, in some Jungian, almost telepathic way. As if –for example–liberalism is literally in the air in Berkeley and the direst conservatism literally in the air in parts of Texas. But more likely, we, as social creatures, absorb social cues, as we go about our community. Signs, declarations of various sorts, remarks at barbecues and parties, attitudes picked up in public schools–but each one contrived out of a multiplicity of little social impulses and messages, cues and semiotic indicators, adding up to a point of view, a perceptual slant which can be as much as fog, ultimately, as anything else. This conceptual consensus for a particular area began, at some point, in the murky past. Then it reproduced. A societal meme; a virus, even a sickness, of presupposition.

This doesn’t mean any one community’s point of view has no insight or truth to it–but it means that objectivity, amongst gregarious creatures, is rarefied and precious.

Sep 13

The Surveillance Pendulum

Intel services not infrequently go too far. We are right to rein in the NSA. But it’s naive to suppose that the Boston Bombing is the last attack on the USA by terrorists within our country. We’re stuck in an awkward place. We’re going to endlessly vacillate, probably, between too much surveillance…and too little. Recently it was learned that jihadists have been actively trying to get cover jobs within the USA, as part of a plan to launch attacks from within…When outrage scales back surveillance, we’re more vulnerable to those attackers. There may well be an attack us, perhaps in some great mall or chemicals plant, and a great many will die. Then the average person will be outraged that “this was allowed to happen” and will demand to know why we weren’t protected…with more surveillance. But those who worry that surveillance could degenerate into a police state are *right* to worry about that. At the same time people at the NSA etc are right to try to do their jobs by surveilling as much as they’re allowed. And they probably *have* stopped some major attacks already. They missed one in Boston. They stopped others. So we’re all wrong and right at once and, as far as I can tell, we will swing pendulum like back and forth between the poles of denouncing internal surveillance and demanding more. Just do not imagine that more attacks–and more severe attacks–will not come. Sadly they will.

Sep 13

You’ll CHOKE on this BURGER and LIKE IT

Life imitates satire, especially on fast-food commercials. This has been the summer of giant fast-food hamburgers, piled high with unprecedented condiments–one with onion rings on it (that one “eaten” by a very slim model who would never touch such a thing and probably spat out each bite after a take), others with enormous patties and, perhaps, lumps of fried fat in between–one commercial follows another, franchises competing for hugeness, each burger more along the lines of a skyscraper than the last. The commercials seem to visually suggest that each burger is so big as to be almost inedible.

Expect, soon, a special option: for .99 cents more an employee comes out with a special plunger, and forces the columnar mass of food whole down your throat.

Sep 13


Life imitates satire, especially on fast-food commercials. This has been the summer of giant fast-food hamburgers, piled high with unprecedented condiments–one with onion rings on it (that one “eaten” by a very slim model who would never touch such a thing and probably spat out each bite after a take), others with enormous patties and, perhaps, lumps of fried fat in between–one commercial follows another, franchises competing for hugeness, each burger more along the lines of a skyscraper than the last. The commercials seem to visually suggest that each burger is so big as to be almost inedible.

Expect, soon, a special option: for .99 cents more an employee comes out with a special plunger, and forces the columnar mass of food whole down your throat.

Sep 13

Extremism: The New Toxic Starbucks of the Internet

On a bit more than a hunch I googled “how liberals are” – the first two entries that came up were just what I expected. “Persecution: How Liberals Are Waging War Against Christianity …” and “Secular Sabotage: How Liberals Are Destroying Religion and Culture in America…” – no wonder we have police chiefs firing his weapon at imaginary liberals on youtube. It used to be that liberals were, in the minds of conservatives, just an irritating bunch who were “a little pinko” or “prone to taxing and going easy on loafers and slow to bomb commies”. They were people a conservative could snort at, and dismiss–or vote against. But now in the minds of an increasing number of ordinary people, “liberals” are murdering, devil-worshipping plotters against the family and the church, ready to turn us over to an atheist dictatorship. The term has gotten to be a septic epithet…

The internet is famously a mixed blessing. And giving extremist rhetoric a much, much, much wider audience is part of the mixture. When I was a kid, I saw a billboard for the extreme-right paranoiac John Birch Society–once. It warned about communist plots against our water…And I saw a John Birch Society pamphlet (I think it was in a barber shop). Once. But now it’s as if the John Birch Society, or its equivalent, is almost a kind of Starbucks of lunacy on the internet. There are flat-out, blatant anti-semitic screeds on youtube. Real NeoNazi propaganda stuff. White Supremacists websites are common. Sites claiming that Obama is planning to put all gun owners or Christians in concentration camps are common. This is not conservatism; this is extremism.

These toxic memes are plots against our “water”–they’re poisoning the collective conceptual well.