Category Archives: Essays

Short and longform explorations of interesting ideas.

The 6-step story pitch

So there you are, face to face with the most important agent in your industry. Instead of turning to jelly, use this 6 step pitch process.

Join the Rhetoric of Story with course code STORYTEN. https://goo.gl/YDLxoH

Shot on the best camera for vloggers. http://amzn.to/2AQ2UPX
Audio by Rode. http://amzn.to/2AgfBSR

Thanks to Sarah’s House for being a great location: https://www.facebook.com/sarahhousecafeintown/

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Stop using guns as a symbol of personal empowerment

We don’t like guns because we like guns. But we DO like guns. Gun manufacturers don’t make $billions every year selling guns to farmers or even armies. The AR-15, America’s bestselling gun, is a sexy-as-hell consumer item. Like a lethal steel iPhone but significantly less useful.

I appreciate the vocal efforts of Hollywood A-listers campaigning for better gun laws. But it won’t mean much as long as Hollywood keeps churning out the high production value advertisements for firearms it calls “action movies”. Matt Damon wants you to do as he says when he says ban guns, not do as he does in a career based on shooting guns while looking super cool.

And super empowered.

I went on a mini-rant about guns-as-power-symbols over at my friend Ahimsa Kerp’s blog.

“Most guns, and basically all swords, only exist to kill people. Only a psychopath believes that killing people makes the killer powerful. And yet in stories we present guns and swords as symbols of personal empowerment, that heroes use to fight their way to self-realization. This is so pervasive, most people actually believe it. Imagine if we stopped using guns and swords as this symbol, and started using books instead? That would be closer to reality.”
–Damien Walter

I hate to break it to the middle aged dad-bods out there, but none of you will ever fight your way up 80 storeys of Nakatomi tower while shooting baddies to rescue your wife from Alan Rickman and save your marriage. You are, literally, 82 million times more likely to save your marriage by reading insightful books than by buying a Desert Eagle .45

And yet, from 24 to Taken, we watch the strange modern day ceremony of average middle aged men shooting their way to personal empowerment. And it’s not just the dudes. You can barely walk into a cinema or switch on a tv today without finding somebody liberating their inner agency by blowing somebody elses head off with a gun.

You could make this symbol ANYTHING. If our media churned out thousands of hours of entertainment a year in which average dudes found personal empowerment through the symbolic device of a monkey wrench, then average dudes all over America would manifest a fetisistic relationship to wrenches. They might even go around hitting people with their wrenches, but with a thankfully lower death toll than today’s sickening gun massacres.

People are impressionable. In the 1920s, an entire generation of women were persuaded that cigarettes, of all things, were symbols of personal empowerment, through a cleverly orchestarted marketing campaign arranged by Edward Bernays, father of “public relations” IE legitimised propoganda.

I doubt any Hollywood movie makers will see this blog post (but share it widely to increase the chances). However, you’ve heard the message here, and the chances are, you’re a storyteller. YOU can help change this situation, by using your gifts to NOT replicate the lazy, lethal story archetypes, that lead us to see the gun as a heroic symbol, rather than WHAT IT REALLY IS – a nauseating symptom of deep social sickness.

Replace the gun in your story with a book.

Or maybe a wrench.

Help me write gun free stories as a patron.

 

What does a nomad writer pack for 4 years on the road?

Hello! My name is Damien Walter, and I am the nomad writer.

I’ve been travelling since November 2013, across Thailand, India, Malaysia and Indonesia. I’m a slow traveller, staying at least two months wherever I go. My main base of operations is Chiang Mai, the “digital nomad” capital of the world.

Read Slouching Toward Nimmanhaemin: Digital Nomads are a 21st Century Counter Culture.

My travels are entirely funded by my work as a writer. I make words for The Guardian, BBC, Wired, Independent, Buzzfeed, Aeon and quite a few more. I’m a pro blogger / copywriter / wordsmith for more businesses and brands than I care to recall at this time. And I self publish under a few names that, nope, I am absolutely not telling you here!

I also teach writing. My course The Rhetoric of Story is a Udemy bestseller. Before escaping to travel I was director of the certificate in creative writing at University of Leicester, with research published by Oxford University Press and Cambridge. I spent a decade leading workshops and literacy projects as a community worker in Leicester, UK.

So, what does a nomad writer pack for the road? To mark four years of nomadic living, I’m going to show you everything I travel with. And, SPOILER ALERT, it’s much less than you might expect! I am a committed minimalist in nearly all things, especially travel. This level of minimalism, like my nomadic lifestyle as a whole, are only possible because of technoloy and the internet.

Follow all my nomad writer adventures, read all my stories, and get all my courses as a patron. $1 is great, most of my patrons give under $5.

You can find me on Twitter @damiengwalter or on YouTube where I will soon be beginning a new vlog series.

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So. Going from right to left, in a kind of up-down zig zag…

My backpack is a TT Carry-On 40 from Lowe Alpine. Now discontinued, but you can find similar alternatives. To keep travelling simple and cheap, I limit myself to a single backpack that I can carry on to international flights for no extra baggage fee, then walk out the other end without waiting for the carousel. I find 40 litres to be more than enough for my few posessions.

Camphor soap and mosquito spray. The downside of life in Asia are mosquitos and the dengue fever epidemic that they spread. Mosquito spray is always useful, and I buy these little bars of camphor soap wherever I find them because they smell amazing! Actually, the best way to avoid mosquito bites is avoid dusk times 4pm to 7pm when they are most active, so that’s my daily exercise time.

Creative Cards! I use index cards as part of my writing process. I went so far as to launch a kickstarter for deluxe index cards in early 2017, and had this prototype made. The kickstarter failed, but I got a really cool box for my cards.

Tarot Cards. I’ve been travelling with this pack of medium size atarot cards, the classic designs by Pamela Coleman-Smith, since 2011, bought during a three weak stay at Ocean Beach, San Diego. I do occaisional tarot readings for good friends and patrons. (Please don’t call this the Rider-Waite deck. A E Waite basically stole these designs from their true creator.)

Merrell Trail Glove running shoes. Running is, for me, the natural brother to writing. I run most days, although by last year I had lost so much weight that I replaced some runs with yoga or weights. Barefoot shoes are by far my favorite, giving a much closer relationship to the road or trail. They’re also hard to come by in Asia, so I do also have a pair of Adidas, as these old Merrell’s are on their last legs :(

Samsung A7 2015 model purchased in New Delhi for around $180 unlocked. I’d been travelling with an iPhone 4 until buying the A7, so it was a major upgrade at the time. It’s due an upgrade itself now, but I’m waiting for a good dual-camera phone that I can integrate into my workflow for video.

Kindle Voyage. My latest purchse, and an upgrade from my previous Kobo. Reading is a huge part of professional and personal life. It would simply be impossible for me to travel as I do now before the rise ebooks. The Voyage is a really great ereader, although this is probably the world’s most expensive model as I had to puy THREE sets of import taxes to get it to me in Thailand.

Samsung Galaxy Tab-A with S-Pen + Microsoft Foldable Keyboard + plastic stand. This is my main workhorse writing rig for the last year or so. It’s two main advantages over a laptop are a genuine all day battery life, and the S-Pen which lets me handwrite on the screen, both killer features. The Microsoft keyboard is superb, but I actually quite often write using the touchscreen. I’m a convert to tablets, and will likely upgrade this rig with a iPad Pro 10.5 as my next purchase.

Thule Stravan 13″ Macbook shoulder bag. So. Look. I have what I have to describe as a shoulder bag fetish. I spent YEARS searching for the perfect shoulder bag. And the Thule is it. It’s like somebody read my mind for every possible use case I might have, and covered them ALL. It’s also cheap, you can find them under $30 if you look around. Dear Thule…do NOT stop making these!

Mid-2011 11″ Macbook Air. These things are the workhorse of digital nomad’s everywhere. Go into a cafe in Chiang Mai, Berlin, Oaxaca or basically anywhere with mobile workers, you will see these everywhere. They’re lightweight, mobile and remarkably tough. My Macbook has fallen down flights of stars, tumbled onto concrete and had water and coffee thrown over it. In 2015 the Indian heat swelled the Macbook’s battery up into a giant chemical tumour. First the keys started to pop off, then the aluminum casing ballooned into a rugby ball shape. I was in the himalayan hill station of Dharamsala, so it stayed that way for three whole months. When I eventually installed a replacement battery in Thailand, the case popped back into shape and I’ve been using it as normal ever since! Today I only really use it for video editing. It’s perfectly capable of rendering 1080p 60f video in reasonable times. If you’re going nomad, I still think this should be your first piece of kit. But, I suspect I will finally retire my Macbook Air when I switch to an iPad Pro.

Macbook Charger. These bastard things are the weakness of the Macbook. I’ve had to replace this FIVE times in four years. They’re heavy, relative to the thing they charge. I’m looking forward to an entirely USB-c future withought bulky chargers.

Terrorist Scarf. So, if you’ve ever seen a Hollywood movie with a racist depiction of terrorists as the baddies, they will be wearing this kind of scarf. You can pick up one of these for almost nothing in any traveller district of the world. And they are SUPER useful. Worn around the neck you can use this as a face mask against dust. Unfolded it will protect against bright sun or gentle rain. Spray the scarf with mozzy spray and sleep under it if you are sharing a room with bitey insects. Stuck without a towel? This will do the job. Douglas Adams was wrong, a towel is actually a heavy, useless travel item, but a light scarf is essential. WARNING: do not wear your terrorist scarf through security checks…

Patterned Tablet Sleeve. Not an essentail item, but a light weight tablet sleeve is a fine day-carry that you can keep your essentials in if you are cafe hopping. This one is a handsome hand made fabric, but for the life of me I can’t find the maker.

Notebook(s). At one point I was travelling with 4kg of paper notebooks. I have to handwrite, it’s part of my writing process, especially for stories. I also love buying notebooks, so I really have to restrain myself! I now handwrite on my tablet, but always have at least one paper notebook as well.

Lamy Safari Fountain Pen. These are the best pens, bar none. Ink cartridges can be hard to find, so I stock up whenver I do.

Uni Kuru Toga mechanical pencil. These are the best pencils, bar none.

Tin Cup. I drink herbal teas based on nice ingredients from wherever I travel, with fresh cut ginger and lime as my default. I like to have a nice big cup to brew in. This one holds about half a litre!

The photo at the top of this piece is taken on my new camera, a Canon 200d, the lightest dslr you can buy and, as I’ll explore in a seperate feature, the best vlogging camera ever made. But for four years before that I travelled with this Sony Nex F3 mirrorless, itself a very good camera. I’ve published hours of video shot with this, and sold hundreds of photos for features and stock taken with it. Don’t believe anybody who tells you that a smartphone camera can match a dslr or mirrorless. It’s nonsense. For professional use they don’t come close.

Rode Videomicro. Getting good audio is the hardest challenge in vlogging / solo filmmaking. This tiny beast, here pictured with its dead cat windsock, makes it much easier. It’s a tiny, surprisingly good shotgun mic that is powered from the camera, so no batteries needed.

Baby Taylor 3/4 acoustic guitar. I really only do three things in life. Writing / storytelling. Running. And singing / playing guitar. I travelled with cheap guitars for three years, that were abandoned / destroyed in various situations. Last year I stole my brother’s Baby Taylor (actually exchanged for my old Faith Saturn) and now pay extra to ship it when I move, in total violation of my carry-on philosophy!

Things not pictured – various essential documents like passport, bank cards etc. USB cables etc. Clothing…I have some shorts, tees, shirts, 2x jeans, sandals. That’s it.

Things I don’t travel with – Asia is the land of cheap gadgets, so I end up buying things like bluetooth speakers over and over again. It’s actually cheaper to buy a new camera tripod than pay to transport them.

If you have questions about nomad writer life, drop them in the comments below.

Patron support helps me give free stuff to the world, and frees me up from paying gigs to tell more interesting stories. A dollar a month is great.

Read Slouching Toward Nimmanhaemin: Digital Nomads are a 21st Century Counter Culture.

Join my online course, The Rhetoric of Story. Course code STORYTEN.

One very useful thing to know about depression

Through the month of September 2017 I fought a small scale conflict, against an army of negative thoughts and emotions that had claimed the territory of my mind. I recognised this mental state well. It was what we commonly call depression.

To win this fight, I needed strategies. I went back and reviewed the best thinking on depression that I have found over the years. And with that work under my belt, I want to share one insight into depression that I find very useful to know.

Like many people who experience childhood depression, it began for me with a parent. My mother had all the symptoms of severe depression, and in my early teens I experienced severe depressive episodes. I went from an A student to a school dropout, and by age eighteen I was was living alone, working minimum wage jobs, struggling with drug addiction, and caught in a trap of poverty and zero self esteem.

The path out of the place was long and tough. It involved many insights and changes, too many to talk about here. By 30 my life had improved a lot. I had returned to my life’s passion – writing. A stroke of good fortune had sent me to America for a summer writer’s workshop. I enjoyed the experience hugely. One morning I woke up to the bright San Diego summer, looked into the mirror and thought.

This is what it’s like to not be depressed.

My second thought was…I will not go back to being depressed again.

I had many more life changes ahead of me to make good on that promise to myself. But, with some lapses, it’s a promise I have kept. I just turned 40, and for almost all of the last decade, I have been depression free. When I have had minor relapses, as occured last month, I’ve been able to go back to the ideas that helped end my depression. And in particular, one idea that I want to share with you.

“Once we recognise the state of depression, the next step is to understand it.”

Depression is a subtle and complex opponent, with many causes. But the experience of depression is quite consistent. The mind falls into a negative state, it becomes hard to see anything positive in life, and an overwhelming feeling of “depression” permeates all of our experiences. Depression, while it may be a slightly vague word, is about the best term we have for this state.

It’s my personal belief that many people, perhaps even a majority of people, live with depression without ever recognising it. Many people self medicate their depression with alcohol, or over eating, or other coping strategies. Others angrily deny that depression even exists. These people, in my experience, are victims of the worst forms of all engulfing depression.

So, a happy thought for those people honestly and openly talking about depression…you are ahead of the game. You recognise the problem. However severe your depression is, once you see it, you have everything you need to escape it.

Almost. Once we recognise the state of depression, the next step is to understand it. I did a lot of reading to try and understand the causes of my own depression. I found compelling arguments for the physical causes of depression. And I found equally compelling arguments for the psychological causes. Both are useful. Then I found one idea that, for me, pinned together both – physical and psychological – into a unified model of depression. That’s the idea I want to talk about.

Among the most established treatments for depression is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. CBT is a solution for many people. But it is also controversial. CBT trains people to examine their thought patterns, and to change or stop negative thoughts that might cause depression. I’ve never done CBT. I know some people swear by it. I know for others its ineffective, and can sound like a kind of “brainwashing”.

One issue with CBT is relapse. People often experience a cessation of depressive symptoms, then some weeks or months later, the depression returns. In an attempt to tackle this issue, a scientific study was conducted into combining CBT with Buddhist “mindfulness”, also an established treatment for depression. The approach proved successful, and Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy or MBCT is now a widespread treatment.

This post is not an advertisement for either CBT or MBCT. I have done neither. It’s also not an argument for Buddhism, mindfulness, or meditation as the solution to depression. I am a Buddhist practitioner, but I don’t believe it’s a path for everybody. Instead, this is about one idea, that I first encountered when reading about Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy, that I believe is very useful in understanding depression.

Anti-depressant drugs are the most widely used treatment for depression. They work, in many cases. I have never used them, but I am absolutely not here to argue against their use. Anti-depressants work by replenishing chemicals in your body and brain which, when their levels drop to low levels, seem to be associated with the depressive state. Topping up those levels can provide some level of relief from depression.

There is an ongoing debate about whether depression is caused by the negative thought patterns that CBT treats, or by the chemical imbalances that anti-depressants treat. The research into Mindfulness and CBT revealed a third possibility, that I find most useful. It’s the idea I’ve been working toward. It’s a little hard to explain, not because it’s complex, but because it doesn’t quite fit with how we think about thinking. In a single word the idea is.

Rumination.

Imagine a motor car, left switched on, with its engine running. With enough petrol the engine will run indefinitely. That is until it burns through its supply of oil. With the oil gone, the pistons and other moving parts in the engine begin to grind against each other. When that happens, the engine quickly starts to damage itself, becoming less efficient, and finally breaking down.

On the chemical level, your brain ia a little like this car engine. Your brain has chemicals that work a bit like oil, easing the connections between brain cells. In normal operation your brain can produce these chemicals at much the same rate it burns them. But when you start thinking really hard, you burn these chemicals at a faster rate than you produce them.

This is one reason why intellectual effort is literally tiring. As you exert your brain, these chemicals burn out, and thinking gets harder. Eventually, you have to stop thinking so hard and do something that uses little or no brain power, like watching Game of Thrones. Of course your brain is still doing things, even when you sleep, but at a sustainable level.

The real problems begin when your brain enters a state in which it can’t or won’t stop thinking too hard. One example are states of high anxiety. If you’re really worried about, say, a trip to the dentist, your brain can just kick into a high gear that you can’t switch off with an episode of Star Trek. We’ve all been there, and it can be awful. High anxiety can incite periods of depression. But usually these states are temporary, and the depression often passes with them.

A more dangerous situation arises when the brain begins to obsessively think about an issue on the unconscious level. Maybe there is a difficult situation at work. Consciously, you think about it now and again. But unconsciously, your brain is chewing it over all the time. And it’s burning brain oil* in the process. One name for this persistent, often unconscious thinking, is rumination.

* not actual brain oil, metaphorical brain oil

Rumination has many forms. We ruminate on short term problems. We ruminate on childhood traumas. We ruminate on imagined futures. You name it, your brain has a habit of ruminating on it. Sometimes rumination is conscious. You know you are doing it, but you just can’t seem to stop. Distraction doesn’t work, your mind carries on ruminating behind the scenes. Even when we sleep, the rumination just carries on.

Rumination places your brain into a state of overwork. Hours, days, weeks even months in this state use up the brain’s resources, and it begins to degrade. Like a dysfunctional app on your laptop or smartphone, a ruminative process can eat up all of your brain’s processing power and destroy its chemical balance, leaving you tired, unfocussed…and depressed.

Rumination opens up a different, and I believe very useful, way of understanding depression. Negative thought patterns and chemical imbalance aren’t sole root causes of depression, they are parts of a depressive cycle of which rumination is also a key driver. It’s not what you think that’s the issue, it’s the sheer repetitive length of time you spend thinking it.

Rumination overworks your brain, this depletes important chemicals, without which your brain functions poorly, which create negative thoughts, which you then ruminate on, which overworks your brain, which…creates the negative feedback loop that makes depression so very dangerous.

Rumination is the idea I find very useful to know about depression. It is not in itself a solution to depression. But many of the recognised treatments for depression intervene in the cycle that rumination causes.

  • Anti-depressants replace the chemicals that rumination depletes, but they don’t stop the processes depleteing them.
  • CBT and talking therapies unpick the negative thoughts that we ruminate on, but rumination will always find a new focus.
  • Sleep slows rumination and gives the brain time to recoup, but rumination can keep going even when we sleep.
  • A piece of cake, a pint of beer, a shot of heroin, provide a pleasure hit that can disrupt rumination, but it often comes back.
  • Distractions like a good book or video game session can push rumination aside but it can, again, keep going in the background.
  • Solving the problem that you are ruminating on helps, but a brain trained to ruminate will likely find another fixation to continue ruminating on.

If we can reduce the rumination itself, all of these treatments become much more effective.

I do not present rumination as equally useful for everyone. We all have our own ways of conceptualising the world, and rumination will not fit the model that everybody works with. But. If you do find the idea useful, I think there are two ways that it can help reframe depression in useful ways.

First. You do not have to stop having negative thoughts in order to stop being depressed. Which is good, because we all, however happy we are, have all kinds of negative thoughts. Negative thinking and depression are not the same thing. You can be happy, and yet often worry about whatever it is you worry about. These aren’t mutual exclusive states.

Second. You can’t think your way out of every problem. In fact, there are whole categories of problem that are completely insoluable to thought. When we’re depressed we often believe that if we can just think of a solution to this or that problem, then that will resolve the depression. In fact, thinking too much about the problem, IS the problem.

If rumination is the problem…how do we stop ruminating?

There is no way to reboot the brain. Stopping ruminative thought processes is very hard. I haven’t found an answer to the problem of how. My personal path to escaping the depressive cycle, and limiting rumination, included counselling, meditation, exercise, healthy diet and making important life changes. I don’t believe there is a singular “magic bulket” treatment for depression.

But understanding the role of rumination in the cycle of depression was, in and of itself, an important breakthrough for me. It reframed depression from a scary happening that I had no control over, to a recurring problem that I understood and could begin to control. And learning about rumination lead me to ask, when I felt depression approaching, what am I ruminating on? Identifying ruminative thoughts is, very often, all that is neccesary to defuse them.

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The full research on MBCT and its insightful model of rumination and depression is available in a new editions: Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy for Depression.

If you’re interested in exploring mindfulness further I recommend reading Thich Nhat Hanh, the Zen vietnamese monk who founded the Buddhist sangha I attend in the city of Chiang Mai.

For a deeper exploration of meditation, I recommend American teacher Jack Kornfield.

I hope this idea is of some use to you as a reader. You can talk to me about this on Twitter @damiengwalter. And you can help reduce my existential angst about turning 40 by backing me as a patron.

Five questions the new Blade Runner must answer

Any Blade Runner fan who doesn’t have mixed feelings about the Blade Runner 2049 sequel probably isn’t much of a fan. Hollywood sequels have a bad track record of course. And while the presence of Harrison Ford might encourage some to hope for a sequel as mighty as Star Wars: The Force Awakens, many of us also (vaguely) remember Indiana Jones and Crystal Skullymajig.

But let’s be crystal clear about one thing. Blade Runner has a strong claim to greatest ever scifi movie ever (with only 2001: A Space Odyssey really in contention for that crown). It also has a good shot at greatest ever movie, no exceptions. Agree with those claims or not, Blade Runner is a profoundly important story, with a place in our cultural life that only a very few works of art will ever reach. The chance to revisit that story is profoundly exciting.

These are my personal questions, going into Blade Runner 2049, that will act as a bellwether of the story’s quality. If the answers to these questions are absent, I suspect the film will be an empty, pretty husk. If they are present, even if the film is not the masterpiece of the original, there will be something there to satisfy me.

Did Rachel live?
A story that ends with the words “it’s a shame she won’t live” begs the question, which audiences will all be taking into the sequel, “did she live?” Rachel faces the same fate as Roy Batty et al. But while we saw them fail and die, and while we were told no solution existed, it remains possible…perhaps even probable…that Rachel survives. A high profile spat between Sean Young, who plays Rachel, and the Blade Runner producers, now looks like it might have been manufactured to cover secret scenes filmed by Young for the sequel. If so, the natural question becomes, what did Rachel do next? I think it’s very likely that the fate of the Blade Runner world in this sequel will be deeply determined by Rachel’s fate.

Is Deckard a replicant?
Most Blade Runner fans are aware of the popular theory, suported by Ridley Scott, that Deckard is himself a replicant. The prime evidence for this is the unicorn dream sequence, restored to later edits of the movie, and the origami unicorn left outside Deckards apartment, suggesting that his dreams – like Rachels – are known to his creators. While it remains a theory at the moment, Blade Runner 2049 will almost certainly confirm it either way.

Blade-Runner

Is Ryan Gosling a human?
No, this isn’t a dig at the acting talents of the Goslingator. He’s no Brando, but he’s waaaay less wooden than Keanu Reeves, and probably in a similar ballpark to the younger Harrison Ford. But as his character is the clear analog to Deckard in the original, we’re all going to be wondering about his humanity. As will he. I think you can expect Gosling’s search for his own human identity to be central to this sequel. That said, if the writers are really ambitious, the film won’t be about Gosling’s character on anything but the surface level.

Story is the operating system of human consciousness.

Are all the humans replicants?
Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep is the original novel by Philip K Dick that Blade Runner is, very very very loosely, based on. It’s a broken work of genius, less incoherent that other classic PKD novels like Ubik or The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. But it’s still dominated by wild concepts, at the expense of some very shoddy writing and flat pack characters. PKD spins his novel in an even weirder direction when Deckard visits a police station entirely staffed by replicants. The suggestion is that everybody in the world of the novel is a replicant. Story hints about Blade Runner 2049 tantilse with the possibility that it will explore this radical idea.

Can humanity recover its empathy?
Philip K Dick was the greatest myth maker of the 20th century, spinning metaphors for the strange new realities technology has thrown all of us into. Both his novel, and the Blade Runner movie, are modern myths about the human capacity for empathy. Replicants are a fiction, but our capacity to dehumanize and enslave other humans is as great as ever. Blade Runner 2049 has an incredible job to match the original as a treatise on empathy, and our human awareness of our own vulnerability and mortality, without which empathy cannot exist. I wish it luck in the task ;)

Tolkien’s myths are a political fantasy

In a world built on myth, we can’t ignore the reactionary politics at the heart of Tolkien’s Middle Earth.

What is the Rhetoric of Story?

It’s a double-edged magical sword, being a fan of JRR Tolkien. On one hand we’ve had the joy of watching Lord of the Rings go from cult success to, arguably, the most successful and influential story of the last century. And we get to laugh in the face of critics who claimed LotR would never amount to anything, while watching a sumptuous (if absurdly long) adaption of The Hobbit.

“A balanced telling might well have shown Smaug to be much more of a reforming force in the valley of Dale.”

On the other hand, you also have to consider the serious criticisms made of Tolkien’s writing, such as Michael Moorcock’s in his 1978 essay, Epic Pooh. As a storyteller Tolkien is on a par with Homer or the anonymous bard behind Beowulf, the epic poets who so influenced his work. But as works of modern mythology, the art Tolkien called “mythopoeia”, both Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit are open to serious criticism.

To understand why takes a little consideration of what we really mean by the word “myth”. The world can be a bafflingly complex place. Why is the sky blue? What’s this rocky stuff I’m standing on? Who are all these hairless chimps I’m surrounded by? The only way we don’t just keep babbling endless questions like hyperactive six-year-olds is by reducing the infinite complexities of existence to something more simple. To a story. Stories that we call myths.

Science gives us far more accurate answers to our questions than ever before. But we’re still dependent on myths to actually comprehend the science. The multi-dimensional expansion of energy, space and time we call the Big Bang wasn’t literally a bang any more than God saying “Let there be light” was literally how the universe was created. They’re both mythic ideas that point at an actual truth our mammalian minds aren’t equipped to grasp.

Myths are a lens through which we investigate the mysteries of the world around us. Change the myth, and you can change the world – as JRR Tolkien well knew when, alongside other writers including CS Lewis, he began to consider the possibility of creating new myths to help us better understand the modern world – or if not to understand it better, then to understand it differently. Tolkien borrowed the Greek term “mythpoesis” to describe the task of modern myth-making, and so the literary concept of mythopoeia was born.

41W+RH8kJgL._SY346_.jpg

Tolkien’s myths are profoundly conservative. Both The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings turn on the “return of the king” to his rightful throne. In both cases this “victory” means the reassertion of a feudal social structure which had been disrupted by “evil”. Both books are one-sided recollections made by the Baggins family, members of the landed gentry, in the Red Book of Westmarch – an unreliable historical source if ever there was one. A balanced telling might well have shown Smaug to be much more of a reforming force in the valley of Dale.

And of course Sauron doesn’t even get to appear on the page in The Lord of the Rings, at least not in any form more substantial than a huge burning eye, exactly the kind of treatment one would expect in a work of propaganda.

We’re left to take on trust from Gandalf, a manipulative spin doctor, and the Elves, immortal elitists who kill humans and hobbits for even entering their territory, when they say that the maker of the one ring is evil. Isn’t it more likely that the orcs, who live in dire poverty, actually support Sauron because he represents the liberal forces of science and industrialisation, in the face of a brutally oppressive conservative social order?

The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings aren’t fantasies because they feature dragons, elves and talking trees. They’re fantasies because they mythologise human history, ignoring the brutality and oppression that were part and parcel of a world ruled by men with swords. But we shouldn’t be surprised that the wish to return to a more conservative society, one where people knew their place, is so popular. It’s the same myth that conservative political parties such as Ukip have always played on: the myth of a better world that has been lost, but can be reclaimed by turning back the clock.

Whatever the limitations of his own myth-making, Tolkien’s genius as a storyteller rekindled the flame of mythopoeia for generations of writers who followed. Today our bookshelves and cinema screens are once again heaving with modern myths. And they represent a vastly diverse spectrum of worldviews, from the authoritarian fantasy of Orson Scott Card’s Enders Game, to the anti-capitalist metaphor of The Hunger Games. The latter is so potent that the three-finger salute given by Katniss Everdeen has become a symbol of freedom. What clearer sign could there be that the contemporary world is still powered by myth?

Originally published in The Guardian.

The principle of creative opposition

I’m reading Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon. It’s the most fun I’ve ever had reading a Pynchon novel. And I think I know why.

Creative. Opposition.

Pynchon is an ideas man. High-concept, conspiracy theorist, humanity as an organic mishap in a grinding clockwork universe kind of ideas.

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Inherent Vice is a small scale, comedy of errors, sundrenched California noir novel. It’s still Pynchon, but with the vast conceptual frameworks snipped into human insights.

This is a brave and good thing to do as a writer. Or any kind of creator. Figure what your strengths are, realise they are also your weakness, and locate a force to oppose them.

  • If you’re a writer of intimate character studies, place your characters in a galaxy spanning quest.
  • If you’re a sculptor of monolithic bronzes, apply those shapes to a pendant.
  • If you’re a songwriter of zippy pop ballads, work with an industrial techno collaborator.
  • If you’re a great cook of French meat dishes, experiment with a vegetarian menu.
  • If you’re an international businessman, spend a weekend running a market stall.

You get the idea. This might not produce your bestseller or top 40 hit, but it will reignite your creative engines. And it might produce your bestseller or top 40 hit.

Creative success can be its own trap. We always need something to resist, a force to challenge our strengths, a source of creative opposition.

Join my course for storytellers.

Or ask me a question on twitter.

The top 5 Iain M Banks novels

30 years after they were first published, the Culture novels of Iain M Banks are more popular than ever.

Our first image of Iain M Banks’s Culture universe is a man drowning in sewage: a stark precedent for what was to come. And 30 years after its first publication, Consider Phlebas remains a novel grimily opposed to the shiny rocketships and derring-do of most space opera. Banks broke the genre apart, and with a little inspiration from M John Harrison and Ursula Le Guin (and some outright theft from Larry Niven), he created a series of space opera novels that remains unmatched.

But for all his mastery of high-octane action sequences, and the sheer invention of his Big Dumb Objects, Banks’s science fiction – credited to M Banks, his fiction going without the middle initial – has lasted because his deft balance of galactic scope with human-scale stories. Stories of loss, grief, rebirth and self-discovery are the core of the best Culture novels. He did not write sci-fi and literary novels – he was a master of storytelling that combined both.

These are my top five Culture novels, but I could have included at least five more. I’d put Use of Weapons at six, which might perplex fans of Banks at his most gung-ho. Seven would be short-story collection The State of the Art, which contains only brief glimpses of the Culture. Matter (eight), Inversions (nine) and Surface Detail (10) all have their own strengths, but lack the genius of Banks at his best – which I think you’ll find here:

 

Five: The Hydrogen Sonata
The final published Culture novel was a return to top form for Banks. The Gzilt are ready to “sublime” to the the next plane of existence. But first some old scores must be settled. It’s the most openly satirical of all Banks’s SF novels, offering an angry critique of “third-way” liberal leaders like Tony Blair. But the star of the show is the Mistake Not, a Culture ship of “non-standard” type IE packing lots of high-level weaponry. It shows exactly how tough the utopian Culture can be.

Four: Excession
Minds – sentient thinking computers – are the secret stars of the Culture novels, but here they take centre stage. What do virtually immortal, super intelligent AIs do for fun? Among other things they play out decades-long plots to topple less developed, more barbaric civilisations. But even Minds sometimes run up against opponents they can’t outwit. Featuring the Affront, a race literally named for how outrageously evil they are, this is Banks at his most playful, comedic and inventive.

Three: Consider Phlebas
After almost drowning the hero in sewage in it’s opening scene, the first published Culture novel goes on a rip roaring killing spree across the major sights of the Banksian universe. Space pirates, ringworlds, cannibal cultists, a lethal card game, and a Planet of the Dead… the Culture is shown through the eyes of those who hate and fear this machine lead society, creating by far the darkest of all Banks’s science fiction writing.

Two: The Player of Games
Both a love poem to the joy of game play, and a warning against the psychology of the game player, the story of the Culture’s best gameplayer, who is on a quest to compete against an alien society where games decide real world hierarchies, is the most complete and accessible book in the Culture series. This makes it a good starting point for the Iain M Banks neophyte, and also the first book I recommend to non-science fiction readers curious about the genre.

One: Look to Windward
I suspect that Look To Windward was Iain Banks showing off at the peak of his talents – and what a great show it is. The meddling Culture have accidentally set off a caste war in a civilisation they were trying to liberate. A young, high born officer, maimed in battle and broken by grief, is manipulated to commit a terrorist attack in revenge against the Culture. Meanwhile, an exiled composer creates a symphony to mark the light of an ancient super-nova, seen at two points and six centuries apart, by the immortal Mind who blew the star up. The fact that half the cast are six limbed tiger-like predators somehow only adds to the poetry. Look to Windward is where Banks’s interleaving of science fiction imagery, and literary themes,reaches it’s own symphonic climax, making it not just the greatest Culture novel, but perhaps the greatest ever science fiction novel.

DAMO: Rebranded

My general approach to productivity is: if I don’t remember to do it, it’s probably better undone. But I do handwrite a ToDo list every couple of weeks. Not to remember things, but to forget them. A swirl of tasks in the mind gets in the way of more creative thinking. Writing them out as a list is like house cleaning.

Looking back at lists for the last few years, I have a variety of entries along the lines of “Social Media WTF???” and “Blog vs. Patreon!” or “FB page…what is it?” There are a lot of exciting tools today to publish writing of all kinds. In fact, there are far too many, and they can easily stop being useful, and start using you.

Social media is heavily “gamified”. Facebook and other social networks want your attention, and they’re setup to grab it and keep it, by playing on the dopamine hit we get from the little red status alerts indicating people are showing us approval. Social networks are potentially powerful tools. But I suspect for most writers, they are really just an addictive time sink.

Social media. You can’t live with it. But you probably can’t live without it either. I’ve taken the puritan path of switching it all off. But it’s like a starvation diet to solve a fast food addiction. Creatively and professionally social media is HUGELY important. But as it grows more and more powerful, using it without being used by it means much greater self-discipline.

So I set aside a few days to seriously look at and plan out my social media use. My website is recategorised to make sense of the 1000+ posts and essays I’ve written. My patreon page is completely rewritten. I’ve rediscovered my Facebook page and reduced my Twitter usage. Welcome to the new DAMO: Rebranded.

As I shared with my patreon backers this week, branding for writers is a counter productive activity. But that still leaves us with these powerful tools built, in large part, for projecting a brand image. I suspect I’m far from the only writer both intrigued and deterred by the struggle to use them in a balanced way.

The trouble with intersectional political alliances as illustrated in Star Wars

Intersectionality is a powerful idea conveyed in an overcomplicated word. But Star Wars is a great way to understand it better.

One thing I love about scifi? It provides all the best metaphors to help folks understand the fierce complexities of contemporary politics. Mid-way through the snap UK general election a lot of Harry-Potter-as-political-metaphor memes went around, like Corbyn Black saviour of the muggles, or my own tweet on the theme.

They work well, Harry Potter is after all one huge metaphor for British class structures. Scifi & Fantasy are genres that tell stories as metaphors, and the best of those metaphorical narratives are always applicable to our actual reality today. Lord of the Rings as allegory for World War 1 is well known. But the mother of all scifi political metaphors today must be Star Wars.

Star Wars is a metaphor for a very specific kind of social / political / military conflict. It happens to be the dominant conflict of our era, fought in many forms, and in many places, for well over a century. Amusingly, many people only woke to Star Wars metaphorical meaning with the release of Rogue One, which amped up the political commentary to levels that even weak willed fanboy manchildren could not miss.

A diverse alliance of rebel forces fight for Liberation from an imperial force aiming to Conserve the priviledge and power of one single racial / cultural / gender identity. That’s the political background of Star Wars in a sentence, and it’s also the politics of most 20th and early 21st century conflicts. From WW2 Nazis vs Allies, to the fierce polìtical conflicts tearing up the USA today, it’s the fight between Liberal vs. Conservative powers that we see repeated time and again.

“Admiral Ackbar feels his people are the real leaders of the rebellion, and as allies the humans should probably damn well shut up and take orders.”

Liberals face a serious problem in this battle. Consider the Rebel Alliance. It’s made up of the most diverse possible set of allies. Not even cross species, it includes military and other forces who literally come from different evolutionary systems. Star Wars never goes into it in depth, but we have to presume the Rebel Alliance has overcome a lot of infighting to unify conflicting agendas into one coherent strategy.

From what we see, Rebel X-Wing pilots are predominantly male, blue collar guys with security / technical backgrounds. In contrast the alliance diplomatic corps lead by Mon Mothma and Leia seem to be mostly women with liberal arts / humanities educations. These two groups probably see the rebellion very differently, and have to continually negotiate to find a good working relationship.

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The Mon Calamari cruisers can take on multiple Imperial star destroyers at once, but were only coverted for military function after the Mon Calamari were targetted and nearly wiped out by Imperial forces. No doubt Admiral Ackbar feels his people are the real leaders of the rebellion, and as allies the humans, who basically caused all these problems with their history of colonialism, should damn well shut up and take orders.

Who knows what the Bothans want from the whole thing, but many of them died to recover those plans, so they probably expect a cut of any political settlement when the Republic is re-established.

In real life we have a word for the problems of factionalism faced by Liberal political alliances.

INTERSECTIONALITY.

It’s a word much mocked by Conservative a*holes. And perhaps with some cause, because while it represents a very useful idea, it is in itself an overly complex term, drawn from academese, expressing the tendency of intellectuals to cloak their discussions in invented jargon. Intersectionality emerged from academic feminist discourse of the 1980s, but is widely used today in the raucous online arguments spawned by social media. But for all its problems, intersectionality does literally mean what it says.

Intersectionality means this. That gender discrimination, racism, classism, homophobia, ableism and other social justice causes all INTERSECT. They share a single common cause. And they all benefit by working together. All of these groups: women, people of colour, LGBT, the working classes, and many more, are all victims of political oppression. And the people doing the oppressing are the Empire. The political and economic elite of the day. The 1%. For whome class, race and gender are all convenient pretexts to divide and conquer the masses they rule over.

Without a widely held concept of intersectionality, of shared political interest, it’s all too easy for different groups of people suffering under political oppression, to blame each other for their problems. Look at the situation today, where the white working classes in America and Europe are told to blame poor immigrants for the lack of jobs. In fact both groups are equally exploited by the 1%. If they work together they can improve their situation. But that can only happen if they recognise the intersection of their shared interests. Otherwise the divided will always be defeated.

Can X-Wing pilots and the diplomatic corps ever work together?

One of the most bitter divides between liberal causes today is along the fault line of gender vs. class. You can see this in the fight between Berniebros socialists vs. Hilary Clinton feminists that broke out in the 2016 US presidential primaries. This is an old, old conflict. Socialism evolved through the late 19th and early 20th century as a political movment focused on liberating working class men, and has always clashed seriously with feminism as it emerged over a similar timeframe, as an ideology lead by middle and upper class women. Berniebros vs HRC Feminists is only the latest flareup among groups who should be alies.

I’m not here to offer a solution to white male working class socialism vs. white female middle class feminism. Only to point out that if X-Wing pilots behaved with the rank misogyny of Berniebros, the Rebel Alliance would never have even formed, let alone found victory at the battle of Yavin. Then again, maybe X-Wing pilot assholery was only resolved by the more intelligent, better educated diplomatic corps never lowering themselves to the level of trading insults.

A better word for the intersection of shared political interests?

The oppresive power of communism was cast off in part because political leaders like Lech Wałęsa in Poland could draw on the idea of Solidarity. Maybe today we need to stop using a confusing term like intersectionality, and return to using simpler words like unity or togetherness.

Of course Star Wars has it’s own word for intersectionality. The Force is, after all, what surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together. So next time you see a Star Wars fanboy making an ignorant rant about intersectional social justice warriors, maybe just calmly point out that he’s taking sides against Jedi knights wielding the Force.

Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it.

A good friend needed help facing the blank page. I found this quote for him. Now I present it too you.

(It’s often attributed to Goethe, but in fact the authorship is unknown.)

Please share with anyone you think might love it.

“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back – concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth that ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans:

That the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way.

Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.”

A small thing to help you be more creative.

Follow me on Twitter: @damiengwalter

Yes, Corbyn can win. Here’s how. #GE2017

We live in strange political times. Around the world far right leaders are adopting traditionaly socialist policies to get elected. Trump promised huge public spending on infrastructure. Le Pen is promising a huge rise in social benefits. What’s going on?

The bottom line is, working and middle class people in America and Europe are poorer than they once were. So much poorer that we are falling into the conditions of developing nations. Wealth is capitalising in the hands of the very rich. Ordinary people can no longer afford college, to own a house, or access proper healthcare. The far right can see this, and are exploiting the fear it’s creating.

In the UK we have one political leader who is offering hope instead of fear. Jeremy Corbyn is similar in politics to Bernie Sanders in the US. A traditional, centre left, democratic socialist. His political offer is similar to the existing policies in the Nordic nations or Germany, all much more equal and fairer societies. But in the UK, that makes him look like a far left radical.

Like Sanders, Corbyn has faced bitter opposition both from conservatives, and the liberal wing of his own party. The liberal agenda doesn’t address poverty effectively, and opposes the policies, like tax rises, needed to tackle it. So a leader like Corbyn faces intense opposition from people who are, theoratically at least, on his side, making his position look much weaker than it really is.

Unlike Sanders, Corbyn succeeded in becoming leader of Britain’s major left wing party. And now with the calling of a snap election by the Tory party, Corbyn has a shot at putting Labour in power. We’re being told that Corbyn absolutely can not win. But we’re being told this by a media entirely owned by conservative and liberal interests, who aren’t presenting a fair picture. In fact, Corbyn has a good chance. Here’s why.

Learn how millions in the West have been crushed into poverty with Thomas Piketty and The Economics of Inequality.

Because of the high expectation of a Tory landslide victory, Corbyn can win simply by holding the ground that Labour currently control. If the Tories don’t gain significantly at this point, it will be seen as a rejection of their destructive stance on Brexit and their austerity policies. And winning is much more difficult for the Tory party than the polls reflect.

To win a large majority, conservaties need to win a raft of small towns surrounding cities like Leicester, Shefield and Manchester in the midlands and north of the UK. These places, which have suffered worst from growing poverty, have protested by voting for UKIP and Brexit. Pollsters are giving the Tories a major advantage on the assumption that UKIP / Brexit votes will translate to Tory votes. This assumption is almost certainly false. Corbyn and Labour are much more likely to hold all these seats, maintaining the status quo, than polls suggest.

In the south the Tory party face a huge resurgent threat from the Liberal Democrats. The south east in particular has been tipping from conservative to liberal for the last 30 years, with constuencies like Guildford flipping yellow to LibDem. Factor in Brexit, which the south east voted against, and there’s a strong possibility the Tories will lose significant seats to the LibDems in this election.

If Labour holds in the midlands and the north, and the LibDems win significant seats in the south east, then the Tories lose their majority and we are into a situation of coalition government. Corbyn would almost certainly emerge as leader of any coalition government in those circumstances. Even if he didn’t, this outcome would shatter the current Tory leadership.

Add to this, that only four days into the election campaign, Labour and Corbyn have halved the Tory poll lead. How? Corbyn’s team have been planning for a snap election. They have a raft of policies ready to go, like the end of college tuition fees, and raising taxes on earners over £70k. These policies offer hope of a fairer and more equal society to millions of Britons who have been crushed into poverty by both conservative and liberal policies over the last 40 years.

The real question on which this election turns is this. Will the people of Britain see and vote for the economic justice in the policies Corbyn and Labour are offering? If so, you can expect your next PM to be Jeremy Corbyn. If not, it will be Theresa May. But as poverty and inequality grows even starker, you will eventually see a far right leader exploit that anger to sweep to power in the UK. And that will truly be a dark day.

One of the major barriers to a Corbyn win, is the perception that Corbyn can’t win. If you agree with this post, please share it on social media. Follow me on Twitter @damiengwalter