Mayday, Mayday

Not that I’m really in distress, just a little frazzled.

I’m back from the Manufacturing Extension Partnership conference, and trying to get lots of loose ends gathered together — tying them will have to wait — before I head out again for Dave Wolverton’s writing workshop. At least today I got my web site updated, and bills paid.

Onward …

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The Wave-Particle Duality of Truth

Today on TED I watched a video of author Amy Tan talking about something near and dear to my writerly heart: creativity. Late in the presentation she made a comment about catching “particles of truth” as opposed to the whole truth, and I immediately thought of the wave-particle duality of light and wondered about truth: what wave-like versus particle-like characteristics does it present?

And of course I thought it would be great to write a science fiction story along the lines of “The Wave Theory of Truth.”* Of course, right now I don’t have any idea how I would begin such a tale, and I’d be much better served hammering the keyboard trying to build my novel. So I’ll have to leave this idea for another day. (C’est la vie.)

Anyway, aside from her slides being hard to read, you might enjoy Amy Tan’s TED talk.

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* Not to be confused with the odd (in my estimation) entries available on the web that include the phrase.

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Why I Write Stories

On my shelves are books by people at least tangentially related to me, but which I have never read. I’ve picked them up, thumbed through them, and put them back again more times than I can count.

The history of the Page family is interesting mostly for the plate in the front with the same coat of arms that’s engraved on my onyx tie tack (which may have been part of an official seal); the printed version is much more detailed than the signet, with the motto Spe Labor Levis (“With Hope, Labor Becomes Light”) proudly emblazoned on the scroll. I haven’t cared to read it because marriage and adoption make that family name about thrice-removed from me (that, and the fact that it’s 115 years old and not in great shape). In a similar way, the slender chemistry book is interesting primarily in establishing for me a link between nitric acid and the manufacture of explosives, but it’s not something I care to pore over. I feel certain my descendents and others further removed will feel the same way about my nonfiction, which I’ve tried to make timely but will never be timeless.

If I can write some decent stories, however — with lively, realistic characters facing difficult challenges — stories that speak clearly and perhaps powerfully, stories refined in the crucible of professional editing and publication — maybe they will be more than bookshelf curiosities. At this point in time that’s still an “if,” but I keep plugging along. And maybe as my body returns to the elements of the universe, someone can read my words and find some value in them.

That’s why I write stories.

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Reading AUDACITY

As if I don’t read enough already — slush for Baen, science and current affairs articles for my university job, and a little (precious little!) pleasure reading — on the advice of a good friend I started reading Senator Obama’s The Audacity of Hope. (I love libraries.) It’ll be slow going, I think, since I’m using it as my “put me to sleep at night” reading.

I was interested in his characterization of his run for the Senate as “one last race.” Famous last words, as my mom used to say.

And I wasn’t sure how to take his detailed descriptions of the Senate chambers — the doors and damask and all that. On one hand, I was surprised that anyone other than an interior decorator or architecture buff would be so observant, and so was skeptical that he actually wrote that part himself. On the other hand, I was a little jealous that I’m not that observant … and I think my writing probably suffers as a result.

More on this subject at another time. Break’s over; back to the slush.

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Underperforming … the Story of My Life

Best of the Web Today pointed us to this article from The Boston Globe, which reported that administrators, principals, and teachers in Massachusetts are agonizing over the impact to morale of labeling schools “underperforming” or “chronically underperforming” that generate poor test results.

We can only hope that those administrators, principals, and teachers agonize half as much over why their schools turn out so many graduates (and non-graduates) who read poorly, figure poorly, and reason poorly compared to the numbers of graduates they turn out who read, figure, and reason well. Inasmuch as (to give them the benefit of the doubt) they presumably are doing their best, they have a point: hanging a label promotes more shame than improvement, because the label itself doesn’t explain how to improve.

Who among us hasn’t experienced the difficulty of doing one’s best without knowing exactly what to do or how to do it? We might label ourselves as “underperforming” or worse, but if we’re serious about what we’re trying to do we will find someone to teach us what to do and how to do it well. If we’re not serious, we should look for something else to do.

My writing career is like that. Some things I do pretty well, others not so well at all. So I seek out people who, hopefully, will help me overcome my weaknesses; which is why, in six weeks, I’ll be in Utah at Dave Wolverton’s writing workshop.

I hope those educators can do the same: admit their weaknesses, and find real experts who can help them overcome those weaknesses. But as long as these things have been going on (far longer than the decade-and-a-half since my book came out), I don’t have a lot of hope.

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Long Day on the Road

Drove to Asheville today, for a meeting of the Advisory Council of NC State’s Minerals Research Laboratory. The MRL has a long history of innovations in mining and helping companies evaluate and improve their mineral-related exploits, so it was good to see some of their operation and meet some of the key folks.

In addition, I got to chat for awhile this morning with another Industrial Extension Service writer, and then to chat this afternoon with one of my buddies from Orson Scott Card’s 2004 Literary Boot Camp. So it was a full and productive day all around.

What wasn’t so good, however, was turning around and driving back this afternoon. A little over 8 hours of driving for a little over 4 hours of meetings made for a very long day. But I’m home now, so all is well.

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At Least I Wrote Something Today …

… even if it wasn’t much. 😮

Originally I thought that tonight I’d finish the novel chapter I’m working on, but I didn’t make it. I got caught up in one scene, and think I may have overwritten it (by which I mean — at the moment — put in too many extraneous details). But I’ll save that evaluation for another day, because I’m tired and I have a long day of travel and meetings tomorrow.

Which, of course, means I won’t finish the chapter tomorrow, either. 😡

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Boredom Sets in and We Die

Which of my high school friends came up with that phrase, which we repeated at some point in almost every class? I think it was either Joe or Shawn, but it was so long ago I’ve forgotten the source. How long ago? In those days, many of us carried pocket knives — from Barlow, Boy Scout, and Swiss Army knives to more exotic blades like butterfly knives — to school without fear of reprisal; and not too many years before, an afternoon hunter could keep his shotgun in his locker during the school day.

But enough reminiscing.

What brought to mind that mantra of frustration? I thought of how sharply it contrasts with a Boston Globe article I read yesterday: “The joy of boredom,” by Carolyn Y. Johnson.

As [Richard Ralley, a lecturer in psychology at Edge Hill University in England] studied boredom, it came to make a kind of sense: If people are slogging away at an activity with little reward, they get annoyed and find themselves feeling bored. If something more engaging comes along, they move on. If nothing does, they may be motivated enough to think of something new themselves. The most creative people, he said, are known to have the greatest toleration for long periods of uncertainty and boredom.

The usefulness of boredom, in spurring us to explore new possibilities, makes sense. It seems that a key factor is what we find rewarding. I slogged away for years at writing THE ELEMENTS OF WAR, “with little reward” except my own satisfaction; frankly, it’s brought more than its share of disappointment (q.v. my entry yesterday). But the same is true for most of my writing. The internal reward keeps me going, even if the pursuit becomes difficult (and yes, boring).

Sometimes that internal reward is barely enough; I hope for more. I keep writing and sending out stories, etc., in my arrogant belief that they have worth beyond the confines of my own mind. So far the world mostly disagrees, so I labor — I slog away through the boredom and doubt — to prove the world wrong.

Boredom sets in … and I write.

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