Growing as an Author: A Reflection

Posted on 17 May 2015 | No responses

Picture it: Sicily, 1942. Marne, 1992. As a student half-way through my high-school years, I indulged the fantasy of being a writer. Much of what I wrote in those days was, believe it or not, snail-mail correspondence, primary to my aunt who at the time dwelt in Oregon. But I did other writing, too. Mostly flash fiction about powerful wizards, as I recall, inspired by the Lord of the Rings, with my content consisting mostly of scene descriptions and almost zero dialogue. That summer of ’92, as the calendar inched toward September and the resulting issuance of my driver’s license, was my final big rural summer-vacation hurrah before I started working and thinking about what happened after I graduated. It was the last time I experimented with creative writing for more than a quarter century.

In the early ’90s I wrote on a then-innovative Brother word-processing system, the WP-3400, the kind with a daisy-wheel electronic typewriter attached to an amber CRT monitor, supported by a 3.5-inch drive for storing documents. The unit is long gone, but I still have the little cube I bought to store my disks, complete with a description of which of the dozen floppies contained specific types of files: On the back, in pencil, I noted which slots held my disks dedicated to correspondence, school papers, mail merges, “author stuff,” and my diary. The Brother unit was the successor to my first typewriter, a 1930s-era Royal KMM, the kind that so enchanted me that last year I bought a replacement KMM on eBay that now sits on my living-room desk and occasionally gets pressed into service for envelopes and checks.

In college, I didn’t spend much time doing creative writing. Much of my work as a writer either focused on Latin translations (if you’ve never studied a foreign language deeply, you’d be surprised at how translating original works to and from a different tongue sharpens your sense of syntax) or journalism. By the time I resigned my editorship at the Herald, I could write an 800-word editorial in about 20 minutes, with the resulting product solid enough to go directly on the page with very little editing on its journey.

Corporate life after grad school and newspapering led to corporate documents, rendered in corporate prose using corporate fonts. Then I experienced a brief period wherein I feared that corporate life might prematurely cut me loose, so my evenings pivoted to freelancing for online service journalism websites, mostly generating short-form how-to content related to finance, technology or careers. When you write, and then later edit, 400-word freelance articles in sufficient volume, you learn even more about what does or doesn’t work with English usage.

But non-fiction and fiction are wholly separate beasts. I recall — still with a sense of wide-eyed astonishment at my own inflated sense of self — the way I dived into my first experience with National Novel Writing Month in 2011. I remember Duane telling me the details of NaNoWriMo on Oct. 30. On Nov. 1, I began to write a detective story I only sort-of thought through. But I had believed that because I could churn out near-perfect non-fic prose in large quantities in short periods of time, it couldn’t be all that hard to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days.

I fell short of my 50k goal that year by roughly 48k words. Try as I might, I couldn’t wrap my head around the right way to tell my story. The following year, I tried again, with no creative writing exercises between events to hone my craft. Again, I fell short, but by only roughly 30k words. The year after that, after dabbling with different short stories, I eked out a “win.” Last year, same deal.

None of my NaNo novels are truly complete. Sanctuary — my 2013 victory– is fundamentally solid, but Chapter 4 vexes me still and fixing it will requires a stem-to-stern rewrite. Last year’s Aiden’s Wager stands around 60k words and is targeted for 85k when it’s done. I know how to finish it because the blanks have been fully plotted, and I think the story has real legs, but I also need to strip a lot of the graphic depictions of what amounts to torture porn from the middle chapters before it’ll be safe for polite audiences.

And I’ve been published as a fiction writer, with this year’s Providence, a novelette included in the Brewed Awakenings anthology.

Now I labor as a publisher, receiving queries from authors and editing selected works. I find I’m writing more things — fiction, non-fiction — but also thinking more carefully about how those pieces are presented. I also recently perused my own writing archives to uncover various trends. Such as:

  • My personal blog has moved away from short essays on a given cultural or political topic, to more occasional but longer essays interspersed with factual updates about what I’ve been up to. The trajectory points to longer, more substantive pieces submitted less regularly.
  • I’ve grown more precise about English style even in my informal work, mostly as a reaction to the frequently committed style errors I’ve seen in some of the service-journalism editing I’ve done over the last few years. Many English constructions are common enough that most people don’t think about them, but which still get a “substandard” label by the guardians of linguistic orthodoxy. Increasingly, I default to more conservative usage.
  • I’m more acutely aware of the mechanics of long-form fiction than I used to be, and such knowledge colors how I approach a new fiction story of any length.

Let me share my evolution specifically related to the production of long-form fiction.

At first, I did what so many writers do: I sat down and started typing, tabula rasa, into Microsoft Word. Admittedly, for my first NaNo try, I did possess a vague sense of what I wanted to accomplish, but it was a back-of-the-cover blurb instead of a fully fleshed plan. I had some names and a sentence of two of demographics for my characters, but that was about it. I started the first chapter with no sense whatsoever about who the murderer was or why he (or she) did it, despite that the first chapter opened with the murder. My core learning is that I’m not good at turning on a spigot, transcribing the result and arriving at a product that looks like a coherent novel. Some writers can do it, but I’m not among their number.

With my second stab, I tried writing with Scrivener, to rely on its additional bells and whistles to keep my writing notes organized. I had a much better sense of the story arc; I knew, chapter by chapter, what the main plot sequences entailed. I also had some more fleshed-out character descriptions before I started the work of writing. What derailed me, though, were two problems. First, I aimed too high; I planned the first volume of a sci-fi trilogy instead of a stand-alone story, so when I filled in the chapters, I had to think about not just one work, but two other works that weren’t even well-considered skeletons yet. Second, I obsessed about little things far too much for a first draft. I spent a week on my opening chapter (which, I still think, was awesome, but too polished for the early drafting phase) and I spent several hours researching minor details, e.g. the physics of what happens when a grain of sand hits a person in a space suit at half the speed of light. In short: I mostly fixed the planning problem from the year before, but I got tripped up in trying to be too perfect the first time around.

With Sanctuary, I got the formula right. I planned the plot in detail, with scene-by-scene descriptions of the major plot movements or points I had to cover to keep the story straight. I walked into the story with a clear sense of who my main characters were, and I included a major subplot specifically to advance one character’s emotional development despite that the story was developed as a crime thriller. By Nov. 30, I had a complete novel in hand. And because I didn’t obsess about the details, I left myself occasional notes to fix things on a second read. One big fix requires a subplot rewrite, but … that’s the point of writing. You never let it go after a first draft, ever.

By last year, Aiden’s Wager built on my previous improvements and I fell into the rhythm much more quickly. I thought less about plot and character from a big-picture perspective, and more about nuance. It mattered to me that I got point-of-view consistent and appropriate for certain scenes. I cared that some characters changed as the story unfolded and others didn’t, and that certain characters demonstrated specific mannerisms or verbal tics. Instead of focusing on an event-driven plot, the story revolved around the main character’s rapid slip into Stockholm Syndrome and how he couldn’t quite break himself out of it without help from the family he rejected. So telling the story of the main character as he progressed from cocky rich boy to angry rape victim to willing submissive — and how he found the path back to wholeness — required more character development than plot twisting, and much more dialogue both internal and external than I was accustomed to writing. In particular, I had to write the main character’s girlfriend very carefully so that her demeanor in the early book hinted at, but didn’t telegraph, her later betrayal and then remorse.

I still have a long way to go as a writer. My “novelist voice” is solidifying, I think, and that’s an exciting place to be. I’ve already thought about what my next novel will cover — no spoilers! — and with the notes I’ve committed, I’m confident this one will be my best one yet.

Rare is the author whose very first novel gets published. Many successful writers admit to having drawers of early manuscripts gathering dust in a corner, because the craft of novel writing comes with practice. Every new manuscript that gets put into the drawer is stronger than its predecessor. Every new manuscript teaches the author a lesson about what does or doesn’t work for how he, as an artist, executes on his craft.

I know I’m a planner. I write only when the entire plot is graphed, the characters are fully fleshed and each scene has a purpose. So I have largely mastered the basics as they relate to a writer with my procedural biases. Now I’m working on more complicated things: Voice. Consistent and appropriate POV. Nailing a scene description with verbal economy. Obscuring didacticism with skillfully rendered dialogue.

I think writing is much like building a house. If you’ve never done it before, you stress over pouring the basement walls, framing the studs, running the plumbing — the basic stuff that’s second nature to a typical contractor. The more you grok the foundations, though, the more you stop thinking about the basic infrastructure that you’ve already mastered and jump ahead to the detail of the cabinetry or the shape of the marble on the countertops. The best architects looking at a field during a groundbreaking ceremony don’t think about drywall or concrete; they think about what vase will perfectly complement the leather sectional they’ve planned for the living room. So also should good authors progress so the fundamentals become instinct and they spend their creative time on the ornamentation that elevates a craftsman-like story into a work of transcendent art.

Writing coaches scold their charges: “Just write every day,” on the theory that habituation leads to success. It doesn’t. Learning from your mistakes to grow your skill matters much more than mere volume even will.

The Moral Assumptions Within Income-Inequality Arguments

Posted on 9 May 2015 | No responses

Throughout all the Sturm und Drang of the politics of wealth redistribution — intensified since the 2008 financial crisis — various groups assembled to review options to moderate the gap between rich and poor. Usually, such groups issue reports filled with dismal statistics and urgent demands for sweeping economic change, couched in language that suggests, but never justifies, a moral imperative to act.

Case in point: Laura Kiesel, writing for MainStreet, quotes a recent Oxfam International report alleging that the wealthiest 1 percent of the world’s wealthy now control 48 percent of the world’s wealth, and that the 85 wealthiest people on earth control as much wealth as the 3.5 billion people on the bottom end of the scale. Let us assume, prima facie, that the Oxfam International report is accurate. Many commentators immediately jump to the assertion that such an imbalance of wealth is politically and morally objectionable.

Question: Why is wealth imbalance morally objectionable?

One common rhetorical strategy is to assert that a specific cohort of people find imbalance to be unfair. And if it’s unfair, then clearly it’s unethical. Recent polling suggests that Americans making above $70k favor redistribution methods by about 54 percent, but for households below $30k, the rate jumps to 74 percent. The less you have, the more you resent those who enjoy plenty, and the more you’re excused for your resentment. A delicious interplay of argumentum ad misericordiam and argumentum ad populum.

Resentment, though, isn’t a compelling moral justification for the confiscation of another’s assets. (Although, I suppose, it could be a perfectly valid political justification, depending on the health of the state.) We haven’t really gotten to the heart of the question, yet, so let’s come back to Oxfam. Kiesel’s article addressed the group’s “Seven Point Plan” to reduce income inequality by clamping down on tax dodging, offering free/universal health and education, shifting tax burdens from labor/consumption to wealth, moving toward so-called living wages, introducing equal-pay laws, guaranteeing a minimum basic income and agreeing to “a global goal to tackle inequality.”

The ideologically astute will no doubt observe that Oxfam’s laundry list hews astonishingly close to the default policy preferences of the Far Left and includes major policy points that aren’t central to the goal of significantly flattening the distribution curve. Either Oxfam and its coreligionists have cornered the market on the best way to make everyone’s life better, or they’re singing to the Marxist-Leninist choir from The Hymnal of the Righteous.

Righteous. A curious term. An interesting tidbit about moral philosophy: It’s the twin to aesthetics. Go to any Philosophy 101 textbook worth its salt and look at the various trees of specialization beneath philosophy as a discipline. You find theories of fact — metaphysics, epistemology, ontology, etc. — and theories of value. There are only two value theories in philosophy: ethics and aesthetics. The first addresses the question of what is right, and the second, what is beautiful. But their approaches are largely similar, and they deal with similar concerns about universality and interpretation.

Within the discipline of moral philosophy, several paradigms assert themselves. None really offers a compelling, immediately obvious justification for the assertion that income inequality is, ipso facto, a morally blameworthy scenario:

  • Divine Command: In the Christian world, the highest commandment is to “love God with all your heart, and to love your neighbor as yourself.” In practice, this commandment preaches individual generosity to the poor and the avoidance of ostentatious consumption. Significantly, Biblical norms address an individual person’s responsibility to assist the poor, not a state’s obligation to prevent poverty. It’s a big leap to claim that Scriptural injunctions to alleviate the suffering of the least well-off requires the coercive power of government.
  • Natural Law: This approach is probably the least favorable to wealth distribution among all the main ethical paradigms.
  • Deontology: A good deontologist is a slave to duty. Although a person can assert some duty to help the poor, someone else can assert a counter-duty to maximize the efficiency of capital. Duty-based ethics is more about process and intent rather than outcome; a duty-based claim in favor of redistribution can be countered with a duty-based claim against it.
  • Consequentialism: In the mode of moral reasoning that elevates the outcome above all other considerations, the moral nod goes to the person who can make the most sound and convincing claim about what will follow if some action is or isn’t undertaken. As such, consequentialism itself — like deontology — is indifferent to the plight of the poor, except in those cases where a person advances an argument related to the poor that’s more compelling than the counter-argument.
  • Egoism: If you’re a “have not,” you want to become a “have;” if you’re a “have,” you want to avoid becoming a “have not.” Because the locus of moral reasoning is on the self, egoism does not readily admit to compromise positions for sweeping social issues.

So the point of the bullets, above, is to merely indicate that there’s no obvious, inherent moral imperative to support wealth redistribution. Many, many arguments pro and con litter the rhetorical landscape, some more convincing than others, but the fundamental point is that redistribution is a conclusion, not a premise, within the broader economic debate.

Question (again): Why is wealth imbalance morally objectionable?

Many worthy arguments both favor and oppose the significant redistribution of capital. I think, though, that the real question here isn’t moral, it’s aesthetic. People look at the juxtaposition of a wealthy person like Bill Gates or Carlos Slim or a prince of the Saudi royal family, relative to an emaciated child living in the slums of an Indian metropolis or in a camp in the East African desert, and find the comparison to be not beautiful.

It takes a callous soul to argue that it’s beautiful that some people live in palaces, dining on endangered species, while other people live in rape tents, dining on a few bugs and table scraps. Inequality, in its extremes, is ugly. And because it’s ugly, we are tempted to flip from the aesthetic to the ethical side of the philosophical coin and therefore conclude that it’s also inherently immoral. (Such a move is common: Think of how many book and movie villains aren’t just evil, they’re also deformed in some physical or psychological manner.)

The thing is, many ugly things are perfectly OK from an ethical standpoint. Controlled burns of national parks, for example. And many beautiful things are morally repugnant: Look at the formal photos of a child bride on her wedding day for a case study.

The moral dimension of wealth inequality cannot be trumped with the “ugly” card. We need reasonable debate to ensure that the self-righteousness that comes from privileging our moral positions as assumptions instead of arguments, yields to a degree of good-faith pragmatism that keeps us from demonizing the Other. Even when the Other is a guy worth billions of dollars and you’re left paying for a useless graduate degree in puppetry.

Because when your aesthetic sense tricks you into thinking that your moral preferences are normative, you won’t stop at income inequality. You will, like Oxfam International, subsume a whole list of policy preferences under the pristine banners of Progress, giving you the joy of righteousness while guaranteeing your efforts will come to naught.

Murphy is ready for his close-up, now.

Posted on 8 May 2015 | No responses

Murphy is ready for his close-up, now.

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Recent Writing/Publishing Posts of Note

Posted on 3 May 2015 | No responses

I’ve been doing a bit of blogging to flesh out the content on the Caffeinated Press site, mostly about writing/editing and the business of publishing. Synopses of my recent posts follow.

  • How Much Scene-Setting Is Too Much … Or Too Little? – Scene-setting isn’t easy. There’s no magical paint-by-numbers approach for getting it right. When done well, a perfectly described scene can make a story; when done poorly, the story collapses.
  • 21 Books That Moved Me – The world benefits when authors tell their stories. But the stories that move us the most are informed by a deep understanding of the trends and ideas that undergird them. This understanding comes from reading or otherwise experiencing each individual plank on the scaffold of our story.
  • On the Effective Attribution of Speech in Fiction – Balancing diction and tone and rhythm to generate a character’s authentic voice makes for tough work for any author. But perhaps even more important than a character’s voice is the structural framework into which that narration sits.
  • Points of View – One of the most common structural reasons a person’s manuscript may receive the cold shoulder from an agent or publisher follows from the apparently random admixture of narrative points of view within a story.
  • Reflections on Fusion Genres – The technical term for a novel that blends more than one genre or sub-genre into a single story is fusion genre. Very many fusion books are good. But because there’s a higher barrier to market than with straight-genre work, very few publishers are willing to take them on, and in the crowded self-publishing world, the sheer volume of available works means that any one story almost assuredly will be lost in the crowd.
  • Every Voice Matters – Few would deny the truism, but the underlying lesson is observed more often in the breach: That every voice matters and deserves a chance to be heard.
  • Handling Feedback with Grace – Good writers know that the trial-by-fire from beta readers or professional editors is what brings our newborn manuscript through its long, painful adolescence known as “rewrites” until we finally have a mature product ready for the market.
  • How to Query Like a Pro – To find a publisher, you’ll need to perfect your query package.
  • Tips for Robust Self-Editing – Before you submit your work for a peer critique, give yourself a robust self-edit. Look for common punctuation or grammar challenges that often burden less experienced authors.
  • The One Mistake That Thwarts Aspiring Writers – Before you submit your work for a peer critique, give yourself a robust self-edit. Look for common punctuation or grammar challenges that often burden less experienced authors.

Send me your ideas for post topics related to writing, editing and publishing — I’d be happy to draft something that answers your questions!

Philadelphia Freedom

Posted on 25 April 2015 | No responses

With a dram of Glenmorangie at hand and a cat on my lap, gather ’round, kiddies, cuz grandpa’s gonna tell you about his last few weeks.

National Quality Summit

Wednesday through Friday, I attended the National Quality Summit sponsored by the National Association for Healthcare Quality. The event, held at Penn’s Landing in downtown Philadelphia, focused on transitions in care. Credit to the NAHQ planning team: The event packed a lot of good information shared by top industry experts like Dr. Eric Coleman and Cheri Lattimer. The more intimate venue — the Summit replaced the longstanding general conference this year — gave in-person and virtual attendees more time to network and more time to think through the QI implications of managing a whole person across every setting where clinical services get rendered.

Health care, as an industry in the U.S., really sucks at transitions; the subject is probably the next big area of improvement on a national scale. Glad to see NAHQ taking a leadership role in setting the agenda.

While I was there, I enjoyed the chance to re-connect with colleagues I’ve gotten to know over the years, because of the small-group lunches, the general reception and the invite-only president’s reception. I met new colleagues, too, thanks in part to a focus group with Abbott Nutrition (and what a learning experience that was — we too rarely include dieticians in our care-planning teams despite the effect of nutrition on readmissions and complications).

The only downside? I wish I would have planned to do some sightseeing. Looks like a lot of fun things to check out in Philly, but I didn’t allot myself enough time to take it all in.

Planning for The 3288 Review

Last week Friday, John, Elyse and I met at John’s charming front porch to start our detailed planning for The 3288 Review, the forthcoming literary journal sponsored by Caffeinated Press. John’s obvious enthusiasm for the project is infectious, and Elyse’s practical wisdom keeps our ambitions on the straight-and-narrow. We’re targeting a mid-August release. Next planning meeting is this coming Monday; I expect (ahem!) Alaric to grace us with his presence.

The Merry Widow

Last Sunday, I trekked to the East Side of the Mitten for a full day of merriment with April. We did brunch at the oh-so-tasty Pantry then drove to downtown Detroit to catch The Merry Widow, an opera featuring famed soprano Deborah Voigt and tenor Roger Honeywell, conducted by Gerald Steichen. We had excellent seats (close enough to peer into the orchestra pit!). The excursion marked my first, but surely not my last, visit to the storied Michigan Opera House.

Funny aside: After the mid-afternoon event, I took April home, but we stopped at American Grand Coney for a quick, informal dinner before I dropped her off. I wore grey dress slacks, a burgundy shawl-collar sweater and white shirt with a burgundy paisley tie (same shade as the sweater, mind you). She wore a stunning black-and-white dress. We sat down in the restaurant and the waitress said something to the effect that she’s never seen such well-dressed customers before, a compliment that made my hot dogs extra tasty.

Célébration au manoir Dimondale

But before the opera, I spent the evening with Tony, Jen, Joe, PPQ and The Good Doctor at Dimondale Manor. We first dined at a local roadhouse, then retired to the palatial estate in the sticks for an evening of snacks, Tony-style mixology and darts. The revelry continued until after 3 a.m., but the chance to spend time with such amazing people was well worth suffering through my 7 a.m. alarm. And although I was displaced from The Blue Room, the air mattress in Jen’s office was astonishingly comfortable.

The Community Welcome

On April 6, the board of directors and a few of our anthology authors enjoyed a “community welcome” sponsored by Schuler Books and Music. We had more than 40 attendees and Schuler sold more than half the stock they purchased. The enthusiasm of the SBM team and the way our guests were so engaged with our presentation and the Q&A session really inspired me. We done did good — and my mom and my nephew even made an appearance!

Sic Transit

Seasons change, and people too. I learned of one workplace transition on my way to Philly. Just before that, I learned that my primary section editor at Demand Media Studios was departing. I wish both of them the very best as their careers take exciting new turns — even as I weep to myself over all the forthcoming changes.

Cards Against Humanity … With Thy Family

On the 3rd, I dined with Jen, Dave and Tawnya as we settled up on our arrangements for our forthcoming diving trip to Bonaire later this spring. It’s going to happen! So that was fun. But on my way from Lowell, my brother texted me. That day was his birthday, and he and my sister-in-law and my mother were at mom’s house, enjoying snacks and beer and playing Cards Against Humanity.

I showed up, and had fun — but wow. You learn a lot about people by playing that game. :)

… And With Thy Friends

But at the infamous “sushi night” at Steve and Brittany’s — wherein the Lady of the House learned that guzzling an entire bottle of wine on an empty stomach makes for a poor life choice — we also played the game. With a table full of gamers, only one of whom was a paragon of virtue.

Anyway. A quiet(er) week awaits.

A Better Person, or a Happy Person?

Posted on 11 April 2015 | No responses

While working this morning on a blog post for Caffeinated Press, I had included a throw-away line (since deleted) about how the breadth, not necessarily depth, of someone’s reading history made for a more well-rounded writer.

That segment and its implications have been percolating ‘twixt my earholes for the last few hours. I think I originally intended the idea to mean that exposure to many different genres makes for a better author, insofar as writers benefit from engagement with different rhetorical devices, modes of writing and standards of literary excellence. In short: “Diversity makes you stronger.”

But I’m not sure I really believe the diversity argument. After all, it’s not exactly rare for the D-word to get tossed out as some sort of MacGuffin, a trinket to be prized for its own sake, when really, what we’re talking about with D-word euphemisms is some other subject we’d prefer to avoid discussing plainly.

When I visited prison inmates during my time volunteering for the Catholic diocese and the Michigan Department of Corrections, one of the slogans I frequently heard was: “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.” The inmates believed, based on their own experiences, that life’s a hard teacher, but if you pay attention and at least get a passing grade, you’ll survive. Put differently, it’s not the exposure, but the engagement that counts; you can’t just drive past 8 Mile, you need to walk the block, too.

In a literary sense, a stronger writer is one who engaged in the struggle rather than merely observed it. For example, an author’s voice and rhetorical approach for a story about a young woman contemplating abortion will differ significantly depending on whether the author has had an abortion, protests against them, or is utterly ambivalent to the issue. Your depth of experience (laying on the table waiting for a surgical D&C, vs. studying the laws and stats and joining prayer chains, vs. not caring a whit but writing anyway on a work-for-hire assignment) matters more than how widely studied you are about the procedure. Right?

Maybe. But maybe not. The activist knows the subject, but not necessarily all the context on the margins that lead to a more sound interpretation of that subject. Perhaps an ethicist or a physician can speak more soundly about abortion, in toto, than the activist who undergoes the procedure or the cleric who wages spiritual warfare against it.

The better question is: From the perspective of a writer, is it more advantageous to master the niche but forego context, or to have lots of context but no real depth? There’s no good answer to that one, I’m afraid, but it’s a valuable paradigm for assessing how well a given story works.

In the context of an author’s reading habits, though, I think “the struggle” manifests itself in tackling hard material simply for the pleasure and the challenge of doing so. Too many writers of my acquaintance content themselves to reading the things they like while avoiding the things they dislike. Although at first blush such a sentiment may elicit a self-evident “Duh,” the problem lies in the Venn diagram of what I like vs. everything else. A sci-fi author who only reads sci-fi will have a solid heartbeat on the genre, but he hamstrings himself from the perspective of the totality of his art as a penmonkey.

Distilled, I think it’s a comfort question. We read what we like and we like what we read because it’s more enjoyable to read for entertainment than to read for self-improvement. The fantasy fan who consumes nothing but fantasy surely profits in her own mental world. Yet can we not say that the person who reads challenging things — histories, the classics, autobiographies — encounters new things in new ways that leaves her better off than if she had played it safe?

A recent re-read of The Meditations by Marcus Aurelius reinforced for me the value of using every action as a learning moment, even actions intended as leisure. So perhaps a different way of phrasing the “reading for fun” question is, Is it preferable to read to become a better person, or to read to become a happier person? For the two prospects, although they occasionally overlap, aren’t exactly synonymous.

Do I read The Brothers Karamazov because I should, knowing that I’d gain new insight about the human condition but also dreading the book’s length and density? Do I grab the latest Nicholas Sparks throw-away pulp just to pass the time?

These are tough questions. It’s hard to begrudge a reader the right of escape. But for an author? I think an author’s reading list needs to be less comfortable, more challenging. We owe our readers that much.

On Bakeries, Pizza Shops, Florists and Same-Sex Nuptials

Posted on 5 April 2015 | No responses

Dismay.

I can’t think of any other word to describe my impression of the brouhaha sweeping the country about the collision of same-sex marriage and the religious beliefs of small-business owners.

Off the bat, I’ll declaim what I believe to be self-evidently true: The radical monoculture of the Totalitarian Left tears at our shared social fabric. I could go on at length about the subject, but there’s not much I can add to what’s already been published by conservative commentators the last few weeks. Even for conservatives like me, who are supportive of gay rights, it’s difficult to be allies when the most prominent spokespeople of the Left have gone Full Alinsky on us, adopting hate-filled rhetoric and violent intimidation along the You Will Be Made To Care axis of “argumentation.”

That said, I am skeptical that a plain and faithful reading of Scripture justifies a small-business owner refusing to supply a same-sex wedding. There’s plenty in both Scripture and Tradition to bar a faithful Christian from being one of the spouses in a same-sex marriage … but serving as a contractor? One could, I suppose, elucidate a fairly subtle theological argument to justify non-engagement with a same-sex wedding in any capacity, including as a vendor, but it’s an argument — an interpretation of religious norms, not a plain-text reading of one. And the nature of many of these arguments I’ve encountered recently suggest that there’s not much theological nuance there; the arguments have all the superficiality of a post-hoc rationalization, a thin veneer disguising overt discrimination.

In other words: I throw the bullshit card on the idea that there’s a specifically religious reason compelling enough to justify the denial of service to same-sex clients. Especially when the very folks who argue their religious rights are violated by acting as vendors for a same-sex wedding also argue that those weddings are invalid in the eyes of God. So what’s the religious problem, then, in catering a make-believe wedding? The only way the religious-exemption logic holds is if the objector conceded that same-sex marriage (even civil marriage) is divinely sanctioned — but then, divine sanction erases the claim for a religious exemption. The mind boggles at the irrationality of it all.

To be sure, many Christians profess significant problems with homosexuality and the expansion of marriage to same-sex partners. Those problems are rooted in valid readings of Christian theology. I believe very strongly that Christians should not be targeted or persecuted for adhering to those beliefs. I also believe very strongly that gays and lesbians should not be ostentatiously refused public accommodation by businesses, through the self-serving and open-ended assertion of religious liberty.

These Christians are also Americans. The civil law has recently opened a gulf between what’s legally permissible and what many Christians view as being morally permissible, regarding the institution of marriage. Squaring the circle between private faith and the public Constitutional order isn’t easy, but there are ways beyond public foot-stomping to remain true to your faith while fully participating in even today’s more permissible social climate.

In fact, the real problem here is the perfect storm of a brand of Evangelical conservative Christians who want to make a stand, and be seen making a stand, for their disapprobation of gay rights — in opposition to far-Left ideologues eager to pick a fight with the “bitter clingers.” So we’re left with the rank idiocy of the Indiana and Arkansas RFRA bills but also uncharitable lawsuits against bakers and florists who prefer not to celebrate that which they morally oppose. The veiled threats of the far-right blogosphere contributes, too, with its denunciations of the “caving” by Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, while far-left activists delight in vitriolic denunciations of alleged intolerance that are untethered to reality. All of this drama constitutes a self-inflicted injury for Christian conservatives.

Let’s look at this from the perspective of a devoutly Christian baker, caterer, florist or wedding planner. You’re behind the counter, conducting your trade in peace. You go to church on Sunday, you tithe, you pray. And then Adam and Steve sashay into your storefront, ready to place an order for a sheet cake for their upcoming wedding. What do you do?

When you walk the Path of Martyrs, eager to be seen as making a stand for Jesus, you tell Adam and Steve that you can’t support them because you’re a Christian and won’t be a party to their sin. Cue the raging public shitstorm. (And, in a sense, the religious hypocrisy — viz Matthew 6:5.)

In a more reasonable world, when Adam and Steve cross your threshold, you smile at them, congratulate them on their engagement, ask friendly questions about their color choices, and enquire about the date of their ceremony. Then you appear crestfallen when you say that you can’t accommodate that date because you’re already booked solid that weekend, but you’d be happy to refer Adam and Steve to Jane’s Bakery across the street. And wouldn’t you know it, Jane just came back from a confectioner’s conference and she has some really great designs for contemporary his-and-his cakes!

Better yet, you mark that date on your calendar and genuinely take it off as a day of prayer, thus protecting you from the accusation of lying while deepening your relationship with Jesus. Sure, you’ll lose some revenue, but consider it as an investment in your treasure in Heaven. Net result: Happy customers, happy proprietors. You have rendered on to Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and onto God that which is God’s.

The cynic view, of which I’m increasingly persuaded, is that all of this drama has very little to do with gay marriage. If Adam and Steve want to get married, fine; you’d think they’d find vendors who support them, instead of compelling vendors who don’t. Human decency, and all that. And you’d also think that small-business owners would recognize that baking a cake isn’t a sin, even if you don’t like your customer.

What we’re seeing is, I think, less a genuine question of gay rights or religious freedom, and more a paradigmatic question of whose orthodoxy will govern the terms of engagement in the naked public square. So in a sense, all of this drama is small-small potatoes skirmishing in a much larger and more significant cultural war, a conflict wherein certain modes of thinking that contradict the Authoritarian Left must be rooted out, suppressed, denounced — while certain practices that conservative activists despise must be de-legitimized in the name of “freedom.”

Don’t be distracted. None of this is really about a nuanced view of Christianity, or about gay marriage. Rather, it’s about competing claims to the power to coerce normative values on the larger body politic.

Hence, dismay.

Catch-Up Day

Posted on 31 March 2015 | No responses

I took a vacation day today. The last few weekends were packed with agenda items, and the evenings have been larded with sundry activities that leave me wishing for a few extra hours each night. Now I need to do a little catch-up, which is harder to do when you’re sitting in your office chair with a tasty cup of coffee and a cat gently snoring on your lap.

Updates follow.

Workplace Transitions

Life in the office has been interesting. My department — Quality Improvement Analytics — is now simply called Clinical Analytics, because the QI function has been pulled from my boss and given to a different leader in the organization. So instead of having a subject (QI) and a competency (analytics), we are now simply a competency. I lost two current staff members in the transition, but I am hiring a new senior analyst right now and can hire a new entry-level analyst in July.

The upside? I can still do QI, but subsumed under the larger umbrella of care-model transformation. If we play the cards right, my boss and co-manager and I will re-shape our shop into a clinical analytics center of excellence. I mildly grieved for the loss of the “quality” designation, but in the long run, this transition may free us to do more work of greater significance than when we were boxed into the QI space.

Caffeinated Press Launch

Our first publication — the Brewed Awakenings anthology — has already turned a small profit after its March 2 launch … despite not yet even being widely available on the Ingram catalog. So we’re pretty happy about that. If you haven’t yet purchased your copy, go here. :)

On April 6 at 7 p.m., we’re holding an event co-sponsored by Schuler Books and Music, the area’s largest independent bookseller. All are welcome to join us at the 28th Street store. We’re planning a roughly 90-minute session targeted mostly to writers. We’ll also have a book-signing table.

And our literary journal, The 3288 Review, is starting to get a masthead. Yay for that. John has done yeoman’s work in researching the current state of the literary-mag universe.

Travel

Spring has sprung, and with it, my travel schedule begins to blossom. In about three weeks, I’ll be looking forward to dinner with Tony/Jen and PPQ/GoodDoctor at Dimondale Manor, followed by an afternoon at the opera in Detroit, with April. I’ll be in Philadelphia for a few nights, the week after that, and plan to be in Bonaire over Memorial Day week for a diving trip with Tawnya, Dave and Jen.

In theory, I have the 360Vegas Vacation II in mid June, but I’m not sure whether I can attend given other priorities stacking up around the same time. Then Seattle in early August for the Joint Statistical Meetings and likely the VIMFP in mid October in Las Vegas. Somewhere in the middle of all that is an overnight trek to Chicago, too. Mid-May, I think.

And lest I forget: I have an invite for an autumn visit to see Jared and Sarah in Abu Dhabi.

Fitness

The Bonaire diving trip reminds me that strapping a steel cylinder to your back and plunging 100 feet into the ocean is a much more pleasant experience when you’ve got adequate cardiopulmonary function. I’ve been hitting the exercise bike several times each week. I’ve discovered that my normal evening routine of “cigar + cocktail + news” actually has one element that’s truly important to me: the news. And hey, guess what? I can read the news whilst cycling away the pounds. Burning 800 calories is preferable to consuming 300 calories, I guess.

It’s actually pretty easy, now that I have a new routine locked. I can log 25 or so miles in about an hour on the bike and not even think about it, given how my attention is focused on the content scrolling across my tablet. I shall not be “that guy” on the dive team who forces everyone to the surface because he’s sucking down the nitrox like it’s candy.

What I’ve Been Reading & Watching

I rarely watch television. I cut the cord with Comcast in late December and haven’t looked back. On Netflix, though, I did catch the 13 or so episodes of the first season of Helix. Interesting program.

Books, though? I’ve resumed reading more than just the day’s headlines, usually grabbing a book while enjoying dinner. In the last few weeks, I’ve finished Roll the Bones by Dr. David G. Schwartz. “Dr. Dave” is a leading academic expert about casino gaming, from UNLV; I purchased a copy of his book from him in 2013. He even autographed it for me. Anyway, I’m done with it. Fascinating historical survey of gambling, from pre-history to today. And last night I finished a re-read of The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.

Oh, and I also wrapped up Political Order and Political Decay by Francis Fukuyama. Fascinating theoretical construct there. I am, I think, largely persuaded that the biggest political challenge in the contemporary United States isn’t “partisan gridlock” or “ideological warfare,” but rather elite repatrimonialization of state institutions by conflicting groups of elites. If you enjoy political theory — and who doesn’t? — I recommend this book, plus the first volume of the two, The Origins of Political Order.

Sundry Observations

And for your grab-bag of short takes:

  1. Looks like our friends from Denton, Dallas & Beyond will be a headliner at the 2015 VIMFP! :)
  2. Tony and I had an unrecoverable glitch that affected two of the podcasts we recorded in late February, but now we’re back on track.
  3. The Michigan Republican State Convention went well. It was held in February in Lansing. I was pleased that Dave Agema doesn’t seem to be a mainstream character. Now, if only he’d resign or get removed ….
  4. Much of my free time has been spent on CafPress stuff, but I’ve had the chance to do some fun things, including hang out with Scott and Jeremy at Logan’s Alley for the KBS tapping a few weeks ago, and visit Tony and his wife at their new palatial estate in Dimondale, Michigan. Also got to enjoy a premium cigar with Matt at Tuttle’s and crash the “bestie date” with Brittany and April for South Pacific a couple Fridays ago. (I really should attend more performances at the Civic.)
  5. The 50-year-old Grand Rapids Press building is now tumbling down. A once-iconic brand is now outsourced to MLive Media Group, thus guaranteeing that we really don’t have a newspaper anymore in this town. It’s sad, really.
  6. Still planning — I hope — to do a weekend backpacking hike with my brother this season.
  7. Easter is coming. Already. I had some aspirations for Lent, but tempus fugit.
  8. I’m trying to write more. And partially succeeding at it.

— 30 —

A Thoughtful Gift!

Posted on 16 March 2015 | No responses

A Thoughtful Gift!

via Tumblr http://ift.tt/1GVLOPt

Like to Read? Then Have I Got a Book for You ….

Posted on 14 February 2015 | No responses

We’re launching Brewed Awakenings, the house anthology of Caffeinated Press, on March 1. The inaugural volume of the anthology features eight novelettes written by West Michigan writers.

Not only did I write a story, but I edited the volume and managed the production of the title. Buttload of work, not all of which is completely wrapped up as of this post.

Copies are now available for order; they’ll ship on March 2. But why wait? BUY NOW. BUY, I SAY.

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