The mental shift that separates young writers from old writers.
“I wish I had more time for my writing.”
“I quit my job to work on my writing.”
“My writing is very important to me.”
What do all these sentences have in common? It’s that little word, MY.
But it’s not your writing.
Are you a young writer or an old writer?
It’s not about age. Some old writers are 24, some young writers are 64.
Young writers are clinging onto the belief that somewhere inside them is a special piece of writing that will express who they are to the world. It’s uniquely theirs. And one day, they’ll write.
Old writers know this ain’t so. Old writers know that what they have is skill and technique, a knowledge of the craft. And the tighter their craft is, the more of all kinds of writing will come through them.
Old writers write. All the time. They can’t stop. The craft is like an engine inside them that needs to produce words every day.
Young writers struggle to get started. They’re looking for that special piece of writing. Once they find it, they’ll write it. Because it’s theirs.
Such neuro-linguistic cues can be useful. Oh sure, you might say “my writing” in total innocence. But 9 times out of 10 it’s a clue that your emotional attachment to that special piece of writing only you could ever write is greater than your clear headed commitment to the craft.
We’ve made up meditation out of thin air and desperate need. But that only makes it more important.
“Meditation is an ancient spiritual practice passed down in unbroken lineages from enlightened beings like the Buddha.”
This is a bad idea.
And this is the first in a new series of critical essays by me, Damien Walter, playing my part as “The Critic”. I’ve been looking for a new way to do high quality critical writing for a while now. Maybe this new place called Substack is it? We shall see.
I think we need to be brutal in taking apart bad ideas, and inspired in opening up good ones. I intend to do just that in these essays. They’re going to range from political theory to spiritual practice, stopping off at sci-fi novels and superhero movies along the way. For now it’s free to subscribe, but at some point I’ll tick the box for paid subscriptions and only those kicking in a few $$$ will be able to answer me back.
I’m ten years into a Buddhist meditation practice, which means I’ve gone through the peaks of belief, out into the dead calm of a crisis of faith, and am now docked in the harbour of this over extended metaphor taking some time to consider the journey behind me.
“meditation is the most important idea you can learn as we head toward the year 2020”
I can’t even begin to prove that meditation is any good for anything. It might be nothing more than sitting around doing…nothing. And the scientific evidence otherwise is…sketchy at best. I suspect – my intuition and experience both tell me – that meditation is the most important idea you can learn as we head toward the year 2020.
But I can’t prove it.
What I CAN say about meditation with relative certainty…
…is that it isn’t old.
The fake histories of meditation.
Lineage is a great marketing strategy. It gives the student meditator confidence that the practice is worthwhile, and it gives the meditation teacher ownership of what they are teaching. Unless you’ve had the mantle handed on from some dude who got it from other dude going all the way back to Buddha, you ain’t the real deal.
This is bullshit. In the technical sense of the word…IE information that we believe because it appears to be highly salient to our situation.
Here’s a more honest appraisal of what’s really happening between meditation teacher and student. The teacher is just a regular fucked up human being, who has struggled through a lot of life’s suffering, and found some relief in meditation. And the student is much the same, and they’re working together to see how meditation might help.
You can read all about the histories of various meditation lineages. There’s a convenient wiki on the matter. I’m not disputing that meditation goes back some way, maybe to to the historical Buddha (whoever that was). Most of the techniques of meditation taught in Vipassana or Zen were developed in the 19th or 20th century as part of religious revivalist movements, or even as part of the New Age movement.
But none of that matters. Lineage or no lineage, scientifically proven techniques or no, meditation presents every person who studies it with the same challenge.
Only you can teach you to meditate.
What’s happening inside your head right now? Maybe you’re lost in a maelstrom of thoughts? Maybe you have a mind like a crystal labyrinth? Maybe the whole damn cosmos is unfolding inside the nexus of consciousness called You.
I can never know. The essential nature of being You is that only You can have any true insight into You.
“Only you can open up your inner landscape and take the epic quest to explore it.”
“Know thyself.” Through history echo the words of the oracle at Delphi. So apparently simple, so deceptively hard. Who are you? Are you your name? Are you your nationality? Are you the process of evolution that birthed you? Are you the outcome of the Big Bang? Once we start to ask this question, we’re thrown into a depthless ocean.
Meditation is a set of useful tools for learning who you are. Mindfulness. Concentration, Compassion. They’re useful. They’re very, very useful. A good meditation teacher can show them to you, and talk you through part of the journey they might take you on.
But from there, you are on your own. Only you can open up your inner landscape and take the epic quest to explore it.
Meditation is a 21st century survival technology.
Ancient lineages as marketing strategy isn’t just a bad idea. It’s a bad idea that stopes us seeing the really, really good idea about meditation.
The Nine Dot Puzzle is a famous psychological example of “frame breaking”. To solve the puzzle you have to break the frame that your mind projects over reality.
Life in the 21st century is an endless series of frame breaking exercises. Are you frustrated, desperate, overwhelmed and angry with the circumstances of your life? The answer lies entirely in how you frame those circumstances, your ability to break that frame, and to construct new frames as you change and grow.
This is the task that meditation has evolved to help us with.
As 21st century beings we’re uniquely challenged by change. 21st century life means re-inventing ourselves many times over, titanic changes of self and circumstance that our ancestors, who lived and died in one place and as one person, could barely have imagined.
Meditation isn’t a practice passed to us by our ancestors. It’s a technology we’re innovating right here and now in the 21st century. The best meditation teachers are nothing more than your fellow passengers in these times of change and upheaval, who’ve learned a few techniques you might find useful.
Taking apart bad ideas, and opening up good ideas, is essential. Meditation as ancient tradition is a bad idea. Meditation as 21st century survival tech is a good idea. Because the good idea is a much better place to start learning.
The job of criticism and the critic is to ruthlessly take apart bad ideas to make space for good ones. I’ll be publishing high quality critical essays via this Substack newsletter as and when I can. The more subscribers I gather, the more time I’ll channel into the task. Help spread the word. Tell your friends. Tell your enemies.
I’ve gone from writing a regular column on scifi books for The Guardian, to a year without reading novels. What happened?
I keep having the same conversation about novels. I tell people that I don’t think anybody is reading novels any more. Usually, the response is outraged. I have a lot of writer friends. Clearly, none of us like the idea that the readers are drying up. Then I dig a bit and it becomes clear – they haven’t actually read a novel themselves in years.
My primary evidence for the death of the reader is the death of my own reading. It’s been a year since I’ve read a novel. “Well you must just be one of those dumbasses who doesn’t read!” I hear some folks thinking. That would be less worrying, wouldn’t it? But the truth is that, until quite recently, I was a professional reader.
While I was writing my regular column on sci-fi books for The Guardian I was getting through five or six full books a month, and looking at maybe two dozen in part. Plus reading for reviews with SFX magazine and elsewhere. I would trawl through the new releases looking for anything promising. And while doing that, something happened.
I was finding less and less I wanted to read.
How the novel lost its magic.
I remember as a kid spending afternoons at the local library, selecting books as though I was selecting magical portals to step through. Then I would rush home and lose myself in the magic for hours, days at a time.
Of course we all grow up. We can’t spend our whole live teleporting to other realms. But, at every new stage of my life, new kinds of book would open up new kinds of magic for me. I found The Wind Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami when I was twenty-eight. A whole decade of new reading experiences began there, authors like Michael Chabon and Alice Munro came along and reading stayed electric.
But now in my early forties, I haven’t found equivalent new voices. The last novel that really caught me was Noah Hawley’s Before The Fall. Beautiful storytelling from the show-runner of Fargo, a real talent. Maybe I haven’t looked hard enough. Maybe it’s out there waiting to be found. The new seam of novelistic beauty just waiting for me, the reader, to mine it.
But I don’t think it’s me. I think, dear novel, that it’s you.
There’s no doubt the novel is facing some stiff competition for our attention. Hands up who doesn’t spend 100% more time on social media than they did 20 years ago when it didn’t exist? The smartphone is engineered to swallow as much of your eyeball time as it can. Which, often, is all of it.
But I don’t believe the novel is as vulnerable to digital distractions as some might say. We’re all HUNGRY for deeper experiences that stop as from paddling in the shallows of social media. When high quality tv drama of film releases come along, we’re there for them. But not, it seems, for novels.
No, I think a more serious ailment is afflicting the novel. And I fear it’s a self inflicted malady, that it’s going to take quite some time and care to care get over. But that healing process can’t even begin until the novel admits it has a problem. Maybe at a kind of metaphysical AA meeting for dying art forms.
“Hi. I’m The Novel. And I’ve been arrogantly over sure of myself as the natural home of high quality storytelling.”
The novel was always where people who valued real high quality storytelling went to find it. Films and tv had their moments, but they were largely packed with junk. But over the last couple of decades the tables have turned. Prestige tv shows are where we go now for the best storytelling. Novels seems more and more junky. Call it the Dan Brown or Fifty Shades effect. However it happened, I just don’t expect to find good storytelling in novels anymore.
Ebooks aren’t helping (but they could)
As a writer, I find NaNoWriMo inspiring. Yes new writers, you go for it!
As a reader, I find the idea of having to read anything written as part of NaNoWriMo truly horrifying. My time is precious, and your 50,000 word novel written in a month ain’t getting a second of it.
Increasingly, this is my feeling about the entire field of digital publishing. It’s hard to find anything polite to say about the Amazon Kindle self-publishing scene, the writerly equivalent of America’s Got Talent, except without the talent.
If anything killed the magic of the novel, it’s seeing the novel utterly degraded and disrespected by the fevered egos who crank out junk and self publish it on the Kindle. I really wish this didn’t effect how I see the novel, but inevitably, it does.
And mainstream publishing isn’t all that much better. They don’t seem to invest anywhere near enough into developing talented new writers. New writers are published too early, then disappear before they have a chance to develop, which rarely happens before half a dozen lesser novels have been published.
All of which is really a great shame. Because ebooks and digital publishing could so easily unleash a renaissance in novel writing, as a space for experimentation and the development of new talent. But instead we just get endless cash in genre novels, all with their cadre of fake reviews.
Can the novel redeem itself?
2019 has been my worst year as a reader. But I’m hopeful, and excited, that 2020 will be better.
Everything has a cycle. The novel has produced incredible richness of storytelling and works of art over the centuries. I’m sure it will again. Right now we’re at the bottom of the cycle for the novel. It’s swamped by really awful work, packed full of imitative genre fiction. But it’s when an art form is at its worst that you might start to see green shoots of renewal popping up.
If the novel’s going to win me back as a reader, it will have to tear down and rebuild how it does the art of storytelling. As the tv show went through a complete revolution to give us Mad Men or Breaking Bad, I can see signs of the novel entering a similarly revolutionary period.
I suspect it won’t be Kindle self publishers OR authors with traditional publishing deals showing us the way. The internet is so rich with unexplored publishing opportunities, I suspect the novels that grab my attention back as a reader will be quite untraditional in how they are published.
Have you spotted authors re-inventing the storytelling of the novel? Give me a lead, I’d love to read them.
Why do readers love some novels, but not others? Often we do hand wavy gestures at this kind of question, while intoning the magic word “subjective subjective subjective”. Yes, different people like different things. But there are a few qualities which many, many popular stories have in common.
There are six core qualities for a strong commercial novel, which I use as signs that a novel might be pretty damn good! I can’t guarantee that every writer, editor or publishing professional knows these, but I can say that if your aim is to create popular stories that reach a wide readership, hitting these markers certainly won’t hurt.
If you find these useful, take a look at The Rhetoric of Story, a short course exploring the 7 foundations of powerful immersive storytelling. Use code STORY10 for 90% off.
High Concept – the whole concept of a high concept has a bad reputation with some writers. But the truth is, if your book doesn’t have a singular focus that is original and engages the reader’s attention, very few people are likely to expend time and effort on reading it. This is clearly true of commercial fiction. Harry Potter is the story of an orphan boy who goes to magic school. Each volume is a new school year. It’s clear, and it frames everything else that happens in the story. But this is also true of literary fiction. Underworld by Don DeLillo is a multilayered tapestry of human life and politics. But stitching it all together is a baseball, hit on a home run on the first day of the Cold War, and the novel follows all the lives the baseball touches, through to the end of the cold war. A high concept and a half!
Larger Than Life Characters – most people, faced with a terrorist takeover of a jet liner, stay in their seat. Your characters are the people who get up and organise to take the plane back. Playwright David Mamet argues (correctly I believe) that the single most fascinating thing in the world is a strong willed human being. Most people aren’t strong willed. They conform to the world, rather than bending the world to their will. Your characters are absolutely not “most people”. When Luke Skywalker hear’s there’s a princess in trouble, he races off to rescue her. Again, this is as true in a small and intimate story as it is in an epic. Most people hang around in crappy, abusive relationships for years. Your character is the person who walks out the door, and your story is what happens next.
Use course code STORY10 and get The Rhetoric of Story for…guess how much?
Inspiring Locations – one of the reasons we pick up a novel is to experience places and experiences unlike our daily life. There’s a reason why James Bond’s adventures don’t take him to Slough or Clacton-on-Sea. Or why Star Wars isn’t set in a galaxy quite close to home. On the immediate level, locations that have natural beauty, or even alienating strangeness, are the ones readers will gravitate towards. A tropical paradise, an urban metropolis, an icy moon orbiting a black hole, or the rolling prairies of Montana. These are places many people might like to experience. In a more granular analysis, inspiring locations tend to attract interesting people. If you want to write a political thriller, it’s not going to work set in a provincial town in Derbyshire. You simply won’t find many political power brokers in Bakewell. On the other hand, it’s exactly the kind of place you might find a retired crime solving lady like Miss Marple. There are no absolutes with location, but you do need a good one!
At their most fundamental 99.99% of the stories people love are about relationships between siblings, children and parents, best friends, lovers or lifelong rival.
Close and Intense Relationships – How many stories can you think of that are about families? War and Peace is an epic that spans a continent. But it’s really about two families. Think very hard about your life. How many people are you really, deeply and truly related to? A dozen? At their most fundamental 99.99% of the stories people love are about relationships between siblings, children and parents, best friends, lovers or lifelong rival. And if they aren’t, they are about relationships that gain equal intensity. In Red Dragon by Thomas Harris, the lead detective and the serial killer he is pursuing barely meet. But they share elements of the same pathological personality, that manifest in different ways. A profound and intense relationship.
High Stakes – is your story about saving the world? Lord of the Rings is. Every life in Middle Earth turns on Frodo’s mission to destroy the One Ring. Epic stories turn either on the fate of the world, or of a city or community of another kind. The heroes actions avert a disaster, or bring a gift, that improves everyone else’s life. And the stakes must be equally high within the context of a smaller story. Jane Austen isn’t talking trivia when she describes Elizabeth Bennet’s quest for a happy marriage in Pride and Prejudice. Every other moment of her heroines life turns on her marriage, at a time when most women were trapped in loveless unions of economic advantage. What would not have worked is if Jane Austen had based the story around Lizzy’s regular sewing circle evenings, which while fun, had little bearing on her fate. You get the point.
Multiple Points-of-View – we all see the world through our own eyes, but the world is crowded with many points of view. It’s a fundamental aspect of human psychology that our view is fundamentally self centred, and therefore inaccurate. To show us the full picture then, stories need to take us through multiple character’s points of view. Many novels do this literally, such as the hyper-succesful Game of Thrones books by George R R Martin, which dedicate one chapter at a time to each of a half dozen POV characters. Other novels stay in a single POV, through which we encounter numerous other characters who see the events of the story very differently. Either choice is fine. The important issue is that, one way or another, we see the world of the book through more than one limited, subjective set of eyes.
Think any of the above is new? Not a chance! Go read the Mahabharata, the ancient Hindu myth, and you’ll see it has all six!
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It’s worth noting that these six points can also make a brilliant structure when pitching a story idea. Don’t try describing a convoluted plot in a few sentences. Set-up the concept, introduce the location, pin down the characters and their relationships, then hit your audience with the stakes. You’ll see film trailers do this over and over again, because it works.
It looks like the slickest open world AAA video game ever made, but have CD Projekt Red found new meaning for old cyberpunk metaphors?
Damien Walter writes on culture, politics and sci-fi for The Guardian, WIRED, BBC, Independent, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine.
The girl in the black vinyl minidress, shit-kicker boots and neon hair braids told me she was a cyberpunk. “Wow,” I answered, shouting over the club’s thumping techno-trance beat, “I love William Gibson.” I may as well have name checked Samuel Taylor Coleridge at a Metallica gig. She stared at me for a while, then shouted back “I’m not into the Bee Gees.”
Pop culture rarely recognises its influences, especially when they are literary. But it’s a testament to just how closely attuned William Gibson’s work was to the zeitgeist, that in 1992, less than a decade after it was published, the cyberpunk ethos he imagined in fiction had migrated into reality.
Neuromancer, which celebrated the 35th anniversary of its publication this year, was one of those books I read over and over again as a teenager, tearing through Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy and the handful of short stories he had published through the early 80s in Omni magazine.
Hungry for more, I picked up the Mirrorshades anthology edited by Bruce Sterling. Despite strong stories, such as Solstice by James Patrick Kelly and Petra by Greg Bear, the truth was that none of the other writers who became associated with cyberpunk were doing what Gibson was doing.
Does sci-fi help us escape reality…or decode it?
The science fiction and fantasy novels I’d read before Neuromancer all offered shades of escapism. Going back to the SF genre after reading Gibson, I realised with disappointment that, with few exceptions, escapism was all it offered.
Gibson expressed his own discontent with the the genre of SF in his 2011 interview with the Paris Review, describing his early novels as a “dissident influence” against the genre.
I wasn’t reading William Gibson to escape reality, I was reading him because his writing was the best description I could find of the reality I was growing up in.
It wasn’t predicting the future that made Neuromancer important. It was how the novel decoded, through the metaphors of sci-fi, the complex reality of late 20th century society.
As teenagers in the 90s, feeling the early shockwaves of the high speed technological disruptions now tearing our world apart, Gibson was less a science fiction writer than a prophet. An invaluable guide to the chaos being unleashed by technology.
Gibson found the ideas for Neuromancer while watching kids playing arcade games. Not the games themselves, but the disembodied aspect of the kids starring into screens, inspired the concept of “cyberspace”, where humans live outside their bodies in abstract symbols of data.
Only a few decades later, and you’re likely reading this essay while gazing into a smartphone screen, largely unaware of your body or the world it rests in, while your consciousness moves in the abstract world of pure data we now call, not cyberspace, but the internet.
Scifi is made of metaphors.
William Gibson’s achievement was to create a set of metaphors that seemed the only accurate description for the future as seen from the 1980s.
Cyberspace for the abstract data realms of the internet. Cybernetic limbs and inset “mirrorshades” for the contempt for the flesh that abstraction would create. Sim-stim celebrities for our obsession with mediated experience. And the list goes on.
But much as I continue to love Neuromancer as a work of fiction, it’s scifi metaphors haven’t aged all that well. Reading cyberpunk today is like opening an old draw full of VHS movies and music cassette tapes from the 80s. You still remember what they’re for, but in the age of streaming and downloads, they’re long redundant metaphors for media consumption.
Which makes the shiny slick trailers for CD Project Red’s Cyberpunk 2077 more than a little interesting, especially for those of us who where there for cyberpunk the first time around, and have watched it mutate then stagnate over the decades.
Have CD Projekt Red found new use for old metaphors?
Like every other rebellious subculture from hippies to hip-hop, cyberpunk was quickly reabsorbed in to consumerism. By 1999 the imagery of cyberpunk, much of it originating from Japanese anime such as Akira and Ghost In The Shell, was so familiar that it could be recycled wholesale as a Hollywood blockbuster in The Matrix. In literature, cyberpunk was quickly ground down from a “dissident influence” to a worn-out sub-genre, as hundreds of books co-opted Gibson’s style but entirely missed his meaning.
Cyberpunk became one of a number of paint-by-numbers generic settings that a story might be set in. Epic Fantasy – elves, magic swords, dungeons. Lovecraftian Horror – mist locked American towns, mad occultists, lone investigator. Cyberpunk – grim dystopian city, cybernetic implants, mirrorshades.
As Cyberpunk became a cultural go-to for unoriginal storytellers, Gibson’s career went its own way. But in 2003’s Pattern Recognition he riffed on the cultural forces that had mutated his cyberpunk invention, as the novel’s protagonist, fashion hunter Cayce Pollard, encounters a display stand of Tommy Hilfiger.
“My God, don’t they know? This stuff is simulacra of simulacra. A diluted tincture of Ralph Lauren, who had himself diluted the glory days of Brooks Brothers, who themselves had stepped on the product of Jermyn Street and Saville Row, flavoring their ready-to-wear with liberal lashings of polo knit and regimental stripes. But Tommy surely is the null point, the black hole. There must be some Tommy Hilfiger event horizon, beyond which it is impossible to be more derivative, more removed from the source, more devoid of soul.”
William Gibson, Pattern Recognition.
Tommy Hilfiger is a billion dollar brand, and Cyberpunk 2077 is likely to be the entertainment franchise equivalent. But will it be a simulacra of simulacra? A diluted tincture of the Wachowski brothers, who had themselves stepped on Katsuhiro Otomo. Will Cyberpunk 2077 do anything original with these recycled metaphors, or will it be the event horizon of cyberpunk, beyond which it is impossible to be more devoid of soul?
The wildy popular Witcher games suggest that CD Projekt Red is quite happy to throw together a 100% generic Fantasy (capital F) setting and think not a jot about what any of these aging metaphors mean. And the shiny shiny trailers seem to suggest that they’ve done much the same with Cyberpunk 2077.
Can cyberpunk mean something real for gamers in 2020?
But. It’s possible there’s something much more interesting in the game. It’s totally possible to reinvent cyberpunk anew, even if the source material is old.
Being a cyberpunk obsessed teenager in the 90s was like living half your life in a digital mind-control experiment, as new digital media and the nascent internet claimed more and more of our attention.
Here in 2019, where screens occupy every corner of our world, I’m guessing being a teenager is like living 99.9% of your life in a digital mind control that is no longer experimental.
It was this pervasive cultural coercion that cyberpunk kicked against, whether it was through books like Neuromancer, or kids getting dressed up like goths to go to their local nightclub.
Can old cyberpunk symbols be made to mean something new for the millions, maybe even billions of gamers, who will play CD Projekt Red’s long awaited masterpiece?
It would be great if it did. Never have a generation needed subversive art to kick against the mental conditioning pumped through them by online digital media.
But something tells me CD Projekt Red aren’t in the subversion business. At least not when it comes to their bottom line.
Writer. Story geek. Travelling the world while writing a book.