Sunday, October 17, 2021

Duck Tales

Adorable little idiots
Our neighbor left to go camping trip this week. Before she went, she persuaded us to look after her ducks. Her flock consists of six adults and two juveniles, the latter of which require a little extra love and care because of their small stature and status. If they aren't kept apart from the adults, they run the risk of being run the risk of being picked on or injured. 

This also means the juveniles can't share the same coop when it's time to tuck in for the night. To keep them safe, we brought them home to sleep over in a large plastic tub that was padded with pine chips.

Our dog was oblivious to the new arrivals. She sniffed the bin once, decided it wasn't food, and ignored the ducklings the rest of the week.

The cat was much more curious. She perched herself high on a bench seat where she could see into the tub and keep a careful eye on the ducklings. But even she eventually lost interest. Just like she'd done when we got our dog, the cat once again resigned herself to an intrusion she just had to live with.

Now, after a long week of careful observation in which I've studied both juvenile and adult ducks alike, I'm pleased to report I've learned a great deal about them. And if I had to summarize my findings – if I really had to distill the things I've discovered down to a single essence – I would say, without qualification, that ducks are the stupidest birds I've ever met.

Cute? Yes. Funny? Absolutely. But none of this means they're intelligent. When it comes to actual brain power, ducks might as well be aquarium gravel.

Here, here's an example: Between letting the ducks in and out of their coops, taking care of the ducklings, providing fresh food and water, we visited the ducks at least four times a day. We timed these visits to align with the same schedule our neighbor had already established, because we did not want to alarm the poor ducks. We just aren't those kinds of people, like the ones you see wearing hockey masks and hanging around by the pond. Yet despite our precautions, every time we showed up the ducks would fly into a panic.

You'd think they saw us disembowel a fowl with the way the whole flock reacted. Never mind that during each visit we refilled their food and freshened their water; never mind that we added clean bedding to make sure they could get nice and dry. None of this made any impression on the ducks we were there to serve. If anything, they regarded us with more suspicion at the end of the week than they had at the very beginning. It was like they were so sure we were going to kill them that with each passing day their dread only grew worse. These ducks refused reassurance.

The ducklings weren't any better, in spite of the fact that they required even more care and handling than the adults. If I picked up one duckling to put back in the pen, his brother would cheep and cheep and cheep like he was vowing unholy revenge for my crimes. It wasn't until I placed him in the pen, too, where he could see that his brother was fine, that the duckling would calm back down. 

In a way, it was sweet, these two little ducklings watching out for each other. But no matter how many times we went through this routine neither one ever got used to it. Even rewarding them with food made no notable difference. If Pavlov had done his experiments with ducks, he would have died completely unknown. 

Then, today the ducks surprised us. This morning we let them out of their coop to enjoy a day in the pen. When we peeked in a little bit later, the ducks had escaped to go waddling all over the yard. Somehow, they'd found their way free.

But how? We couldn't figure it out. We inspected the perimeter of the entire pen, looking for an obvious escape route. Could they have squeezed through this little gap? Could they have dug under here? Could they have hopped up to this ledge and run along on the fence line? Each possibility seemed less likely than the last, but obviously something had happened. We took down the fence and herded them back in the pen, then repaired and reinforced anything that looked slightly suspect.

Because this is the thing that I've learned about ducks: Individually, each one may be dumb, but as a flock they will figure things out. Like ants spreading every direction until one stumbles over a picnic, ducks will constantly poke and prod and test everything they possibly can. And as soon as one makes a discovery, the rest will hurry to join.

While I don't know exactly where the ducks got through, I can tell you how it must have happened: One duck, poking along the perimeter, found a way to wriggle on out. This one lucky duck then sent up a quack that attracted all of her fellows, each of which then followed her lead. Despite having the collective intelligence of a set of car keys, through enough trial and error they found their way to success.

What they did with that freedom was the same exact thing they did in their pen. They waddled around, poked at the grass, quacked at the breeze, and they squabbled. Until we went over to herd them back in the pen, at which point they panicked and scattered.

Fortunately, by then I knew how they thought – whatever direction they needed to go, I just had to stay on the opposite side. Maneuvering them now seemed very simple. After all, we'd been at it a week; by the time they got loose this morning, the ducks had us very well trained.

Sunday, October 10, 2021

The Hard Question

EDIT 10/13: 
The original version of this blog included a discussion of Robert Kolker's "Who is the Bad Art Friend?" As more information has come out, I've become less and less comfortable with Kolker's version of events, as well as the discussion around them.

Suffice to say, I've decided to excise that part of the post. My points about stubbornness and persistence can be made without referencing a situation I'm unqualified to comment on.

This week, I read and enjoyed this interview with Ted Flanagan. At one point, Flanagan talks about what it takes to be a long-haul writer, and he draws a comparison to his experiences in training to become a Marine:

No one would mistake me for Rambo.

But I was stubborn, and I mean STUBBORN, unafraid of exhaustion, drowning, heights, physical and mental pain, whatever you could throw at me, so deep was my desire to be in this unit. They could kick me out, but I’d never willingly quit.

I think this same kind of stubbornness should be in the toolbox of every indie writer. I am blessed to have a book coming out, but I’d still write no matter whether anyone read a word of mine or not.

At some point in their careers, every writer has to stop and ask themselves why they keep going. Because no matter how successful they've been, or how much they've been published, those highs are just the tip of the iceberg, obscuring a literal truckload of failure and rejection. It takes a particular kind of personality to keep writing each day, knowing your daily work might be literal garbage. (Whether that mindset is stubbornness or insanity probably depends on who's asking.)

At any rate, when Flanagan says he'd keep at it no matter if he had any readers, I believe him. That's the reality for most writers, most of the time. But living in that place of rejection, and trying to find purpose in work that nobody cares about, is no easy thing.

Instead, it becomes very tempting to focus on other accomplishments. I'm as guilty of that as anyone, holding up other parts of my life for praise because I was so sick of being alone at the keyboard. Can't finish a novel? Hey, that's okay – announce you applied for an MFA program instead! Can't sell those short stories? No worries, my dude – just adopt a new dog and post pics!

But none of that allows you to escape the same difficult question: "Why do I write?" It's something every writer I know wrestles with, sometimes for years. And hell, it's not hard to see why: How can anybody look at a thumb drive filled with unpublishable stories and think, “Yup, this is it! This is what life's all about!”

Instead, faced with a lifetime creating things that no one will see, a lot of people – maybe even most – will pack up and focus on the rest of their lives. They'll go back to school, or start a family, or throw themselves into a high-paying career; anything that leaves a visible trace to prove they haven't been wasting their lives. None of these pursuits are incompatible with being a writer, but for some they're a whole lot more satisfying.

For those that don't pack it in, the writers who choose instead to keep plugging away with little to show for the effort, the rewards are pretty abysmal. Those writers get to keep answering the same hard question over and over: Why am I still doing this?

That's when the temptation to seek outside approval feels most compelling. But when you do a thing not for itself, but instead for the validation of others, you award them power over your purpose. You're asking them the hard question because you're afraid of how you might answer when you're there at the keyboard alone. But – and truly this is the hell of it – you're the only person who can.

Sunday, October 3, 2021

Back, Better

A couple weeks ago, I fucked up my back.

It happened, as ever, while exercising. I was at the very end of my workout, doing my final few squats, when something went terribly wrong. A tired leg slipped, my back tried to compensate, and everything went all to hell.

I should say that this kind of thing is not new. Back injuries are one of those things that seems to happen to me every couple of years. In 2019 I was training for a marathon when I got that twinge in the middle of my run. You know the one. The this-is-going-to-suck flash of pain that signals it's too late to stop what's coming, even if it's not clear how bad it will get.

Twelve hours later, the spasms kicked in. For the rest of the day I cycled through waves of what felt like charlie horses rippling across my back, and there was no way to know when they'd stop. I'd start to get comfortable, and ask my wife something simple like “Could I have another aspirin?” But instead it would come out as “Could I haaAAAAGGGHHHHH” as my back muscles tried to wrench themselves free from my spine.

Luckily, the spasms only lasted a day. I didn't feel great after that, but I could at least walk around. This time, although the pain wasn't nearly as bad, it turned out to be a lot more debilitating. For instance, when I lay down on the floor to stretch out my back, I realized I couldn't pull myself up. The muscles just wouldn't cooperate. 

"So this is how it all ends," I thought, lying helpless as my dog licked the top of my head. Preparing, no doubt, to eat the meat from my corpse once I'd finally expired. Suddenly those Life Alert commercials didn't seem so funny. (And the price for their services? Very reasonable! These are the things you learn while you're stuck on your back like a turtle.)

Standing up was not the least of my problems. As it turns out, your back is actually quite useful. Without it in service I couldn't lift my own shoes, let alone pick up a weight or go for a run. I couldn't even walk without being tilted forward at a 45-degree angle, like I was perpetually on the verge of a somersault.

The sight of myself in the mirror was also disturbing. Suddenly my hips were no longer level, and my belly button had migrated three inches left. If I tried to straighten myself out, I found that I couldn't. If I tried even harder, a back spasm would underscore the point my body was trying to make clear – if I wanted to heal, I had to be patient.

This left me with some time on my hands. I'm not much of a Pollyanna, but if there is a silver lining to injury it's that your habits will change whether you like it or not. When this happens, it's not unusual to ask yourself: Did I even like what I was doing before, or is there something I might want to change?

So over the last couple weeks I've started to wonder if there might be a better use of my time. Exercise is good, sure, but what if I spent those hours weeding, or mulching, or rebuilding our deck? What if I painted the house, or repaired our old fence, or finally replaced the water-logged laminate on our dining room floor?

I began lifting weights in our basement because during COVID I couldn't go to the gym. And yeah, having my own space for that stuff was actually pretty great. I didn't have to wait on any machines, or share any equipment. I could put on Star Trek and finally watch every episode of the original series. (Do you have any idea how many "Earth-like planet" episodes there actually were? Kirk fought Nazis, the mob, Ancient Romans, and Communists way more often than Klingons.)

But as much as I've enjoyed it, it's gotten pretty routine. Even a bit stale. Which might be why I started riding my bike so much this last month, which put a small bit of strain on my legs; which is maybe why they couldn't get through that last set of squats, and how I got here to begin with.

These are the dangers of boredom, I guess, and all the more reason to change some things up. So that the next time I'm stuck lying prone on the floor, it'll at least be on top of fresh laminate.

Sunday, September 26, 2021

The Strange Structure of "Billy Summers"

SPOILERS: This post contains several fairly specific spoilers for "Billy Summers"

In Save the Cat! Writes a Novel, Jessica Brody maps out a beat-by-beat breakdown of how novels are structured. She also provides several examples that follow the same basic formula, but are as varied as Misery, Pride and Prejudice and The Kite Runner.

Reading her book is a pretty humbling experience. What she's articulating feels so fundamental, so obvious, that's it's almost embarrassing to realize you didn't think of it first. At the same time, it's hard not to feel grateful that somebody did, since now you can learn how it's done.

(The book itself is an adaptation of Blake Snyder's classic on screenwriting. In her introduction, Brody writes about the first time she read Snyder's book, and it sounds like she had the same thunderclap of revelation I did. Around we go.)

What really convinced me that Brody and Snyder were right was when I tested out their ideas for myself. For reference, here's an abridged version of Brody's beat-by-beat breakdown of the first half of a novel:

Setup (1 – 10%)
Sets up your hero's life and their status quo world

Catalyst and Debate (10% - 20%)
Disrupts the status quo world with a life-changing event. Hero debates what to do.

Break into Act 2 & B Story (20% - 25%)
Brings the hero into the second act, where they will try to fix things the wrong way. Introduces new characters who will represent the b story and guide the hero through the “upside down” world of the novel

Fun and Games (25% - 50%)

Delivers on the novel's premise; this is what the story is “about”

Midpoint (50%)

A false defeat or a false victory that raises the stakes. There's a shift from “want” to “need” as the hero realizes they can't continue as the person they were. There's now no going back.

Because they're so clearly defined, they're also pretty easy to test. For my experiment, I chose a few favorite novels and opened to their literal middles. If a book was 300 pages, I opened to page 150. I wondered: Could it really be so precise?

By god, yes. In book after book, the Midpoint beat showed up just as Brody described. A body would be discovered, or a battle won, or a revelation finally made. There were lots of ways this moment might happen, but in every case it was clear that "shit just got real." The stakes would be raised, and the hero would be left with no choice but to go on.

Ever since then, the Save the Cat! model has been in the back of my mind whenever I read a new book. I guess that's probably normal. Once you peek behind the curtain, you can never look at Oz's big floating head in quite the same way. Now I always catch myself noting the beats – “Okay, here's the opening scene, now here's the set up, and this, of course, is the catalyst ...” Most of the time writers stick to the formula. But once in a while they will not.

Billy Summers, the new Stephen King novel, starts out like a pretty straightforward revenge story. The title character, a hitman who only kills “bad guys,” decides to accept one last big job before he retires. The trope is so common in crime fiction that King lampshades it frequently throughout the book. Early on, Billy think self-consciously about how “one last jobs” are always bad luck in the movies. Later, on the eve of his revenge, he reminds himself he's "no Sylvester Stallone."

So you can't blame a guy for expecting this to be a pretty formulaic story, a strict genre piece smart enough to wink at the reader. In some ways that's true. The overall plot unfolds the way you'd expect: The hit doesn't go according to plan, Billy is betrayed by the people who hired him, and he goes on the lam while he plots his revenge.

Where things get interesting is when King strays from the Save the Cat! model. For one thing, King spends a very long time on the set up – the first 30% of the novel is all about Billy's day-to-day life undercover in a small Texas town. While he waits for the chance to make his kill, Billy gets friendly with his new neighbors. He plays Monopoly with the kids down the street, hosts barbecues, chit-chats with tenants who share his same office building. (Billy's cover story is that he works as a writer. He even starts work on a memoir to help make his story seem more authentic.)

When the catalyst finally happens, and Billy discovers that he's been betrayed, we're pretty deep in the novel. And then, while Billy hides out in a basement apartment, he suddenly has a new problem quite literally dropped on his doorstep. A van appears outside in the rain and dumps out a young woman who's just been sexually assaulted.

The woman is Alice Maxwell, and she will serve the role of the B Story character for the rest of the novel. What's surprising is that she doesn't fulfill this function until after the Midpoint. That's when she wakes up in Billy's apartment and, thinking he's the man who assaulted her, catches him off guard with a knife.

The Midpoint here still serves it's typical function: After evading capture, Billy is now caught off guard by an innocent who recognizes him as the assassin who's been all over the news. As a hitman who only kills “bad guys,” he won't dispatch this unfortunate witness, but he also understands the risk in offering her help. After everything else that's gone wrong, this moment is his “false defeat” when the stakes are raised and all his careful planning is thrown into jeopardy.

But because the Midpoint also serves as the start of the B Story, we get a second Fun and Games beat. Billy tracks down and takes care of the men who hurt Alice, and then the two of them set off on a road trip to find the man who betrayed him. Even though it comes late in the book, it's also what the novel's "about:" a road story of an unlikely duo teaming up together to take their revenge.

Finally, there's one more complication to this off-kilter structure. I mentioned that Billy was writing a memoir; this book-within-a-book follows its own set of beats, but I think there's an argument to be made that the "Memoir Billy" is also a distinct separate character, serving in the B Story role. Memoir Billy shows up not too long before the 20% mark, and as a character he functions to guide Billy through an interior journey of remembering some terrible things he's tried very hard to forget. In this part of the novel, the Catalyst isn't Billy's betrayal – it's the moment he's given a laptop and told to write something as part of his cover.

For as much as Stephen King telegraphs Billy Summers as typical crime fiction fare, the structure is much a lot more complicated than he might have you believe. Which is the great thing about writers like King. When you understand the rules of storytelling, you also understand how to break them.

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Turning Points

“In the military, to deliberately inflict injury upon oneself so as to avoid service is called malingering. It's a court-martial offense that is punishable, in some armies, by death.

The habits and addictions of the amateur are conscious or unconscious self-inflicted wounds. Their payoff is incapacity. When we take our M1903 Springfield and blow a hole in our foot, we no longer have to face the real fight of our lives, which is to become who we are and to realize our destiny and our calling.”

-Steven Pressfield, Turning Pro

“Sobriety wasn't supposed to be like this. I thought when I finally quit drinking for good, the universe would open its treasure chest for me. That only seemed fair, right? I would sacrifice the greatest, most important relationship of my existence – here I am, universe, sinking a knife into my true love's chest for you – and I would be rewarded with mountains of shimmering, clinking gold to grab by the fistful. I would be kicking down doors again. In badass superhero mode.

Instead, I woke up at 5 am each day, chest hammering with anxiety, and crawled into the closet for a few hours to shut out unpleasant voices. When will I screw this up again? What failures lurk beyond these four walls? I trudged through the day with shoulders slumped, every color flipped to gray scale. I spent evenings on my bed, arm draped over my face. Hangover posture. I didn't like the lights on. I didn't even like TV. It was almost as if, in the absence of drinking blackouts, I was forced to create my own.”

-Sarah Hepola, Blackout

About a week ago, on impulse, I threw my copy of Turning Pro in a bike bag just before I set out to ride. Ten miles in, when I stopped to drink water on a park bench, I pulled out the book for company.

I'd read it once before, years ago, but this time I was reading it sober. And maybe that's why I was so surprised to realize that most of the book is about addiction. Chemical dependencies, sure, and also addictions to failure, fighting, sex, the internet – all the ways you can let time slip through your fingers while avoiding the life you supposedly want.

At some point I had to stop and wonder: What was I thinking when I read it the first time? I couldn't remember, but the question nagged as the theme of addiction came up again and again. Had I really missed the point so badly? Did I really keep drinking while Pressfield warned against all kinds of addiction?

Well, yeah. I did that a lot. I read books on alcoholism and sobriety and mental discipline. I took little steps that I hoped would turn into magic bullets. Like for instance, after I read Roy Baumeister's book on willpower, I started to buy lots of gum. Baumeister's book referenced studies that showed sugar could help you stick to decisions. So I figured, what the hell? I'd chew tons of gum for the glucose and to keep my mouth too busy to drink.

It didn't work, obviously, but my heart was in the right place. Sometimes. Other times it was absolutely not, and all I wanted was a big bottle of Dark Eyes to get me through a long weekend.

In Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing, Kierkegaard spends an almost pathological amount of time trying to catalog every possible kind of “double-mindedness” he can think of. For Kierkegaard, the only thing truly worth desiring is The Good, but setting your heart in a single direction is not as easy as it sounds.

For example: Let's say you desire The Good because you figure it will help you avoid getting in trouble. “Not so fast!” says Kierkegaard. “That's double-mindedness. Sure you want The Good, but you're also scared of punishment.”

Okay, then. So say, instead, you desire The Good because of the benefits it brings to your life? “Nope,” says our favorite Dane. “You're not focused on The Good. You also want that reward.”

(If Kierkegaard just left it at that he could make his same basic point in a much shorter book. But Søren being Søren, he just can't help but go through every single example of double-mindedness he can possibly think of. This is one of those things I find extremely endearing about him as a person, even when his work gets tedious to read.)

Although Pressfield takes a lighter touch, large sections of his book are a similar kind of cataloging. If Pressfield's idea of “turning pro” is analogous to Kierkegaard's “purity of heart,” then “Resistance” is Pressfield's equivalent to “double-mindedness.”

Resistance, in Pressfield's cosmology, is the force that tries to stop us from doing the creative work we were put here to do. It is tenacious and deadly, and while it can manifest in obvious ways (like drinking yourself into a stupor), it can also be subtle.

And so Pressfield spends several chapters describing how those subtle manifestations can appear. Maybe you distract yourself with travel, or sex, or trashy TV. Maybe your career's the distraction – you might throw yourself into a day job designing sneakers, but know in your heart that you really just want to paint.

I thought about this while I read Turning Pro. And then, when I finished, I read Blackout, Sarah Hepola's funny and moving account of her own struggle with alcoholism. What surprised me most was how familiar it felt. Some recovery memoirs tell tales vastly estranged from my own experiences, but Hepola's hit much closer to home. We had similar childhoods, similar friends, similar experiences in the working world (although mine on a much smaller scale – while Hepola was moving to New York to work for a nationally-renowned publication, I was churning out copy for plumbers and HVAC repairmen).

In the book, Hepola gets sober only to realize that it hasn't fixed everything. Maybe it hasn't fixed anything. She writes about the fear that follows those moments with the loss of her anchor. What now? How? What if I screw it all up again? Is sobriety still worthwhile if it doesn't get you the things that you want? Is it an end to itself, or were you chasing something else all along?

If the past is the best predictor of the future, alcoholics have good reason for concern. How many times did I “quit” just to pick up again later? How many bottles poured down how many sinks, each one supposedly the last?

And yet something still drives you forward. From one mistake to the next and the next until finally, hopefully, you stop. What is it that at last makes the difference? The answer is rarely so clear. Here's how Hepola describes it:

“Quitting is often an accumulation. Not caused by a single act but a thousand. Drops fill the bucket, until one day the bucket tips.”

What are those drops? Pain. Shame. Remorse. All pointing the way back to the path. As Pressfield explains, “Why is shame good? Because shame can produce the final element we need to change our lives: will. Epiphanies hurt. There's no glory to them. They only make good stories at AA meetings or late at night among other foot soldiers in the trenches. These soldiers know. Each has his own story, of that ghastly, hideous, excruciating moment when it all turned around for him.”

“The eager traveler who travels lightly does not … learn to know [the path] as well as a wayfarer with a heavy burden,” Kierkegaard writes. “The one who merely strives to get on does not learn to know the way as well as the remorseful man. The eager traveler hurries forward to the new, to the novel, and, indeed, away from experience. But the remorseful one, who comes behind, laboriously gathers it up.”


Lately I've been in the bad habit of not quite finishing books. I get antsy toward the last twenty pages or so, distracted like a fickle...