Category Archives: Writing & Publishing

Olaf Stapledon on how science fiction defeats fascism

With fascism growing at a terrible pace today, Olaf Stapledon’s words from 1937, written at the height of the Nazi menace, hold meaning for all sci-fi fans, readers, and writers.

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“Perhaps the attempt to see our turbulent world against a background of stars may, after all, increase, not lessen, the significance of the present human crisis.”

~Olaf Stapledon

I’m privileged to be a part of the worldwide science fiction community. As a writer and blogger, as a graduate of the Clarion science fiction writers workshop, as a regular columnist on SF for The Guardian, and as a lifelong reader and fan.

Like many in the SF community and beyond, I’ve watched the emergence of modern fascism with bleak Lovecraftian horror. It feels as though our little world of sci-fi readers and writers got an early foretaste of this when a group of far right activists turned the Hugo awards into a platform for their bigoted ideology. But there’s a good reason why the Sadly Rabid Puppies targeted the world’s biggest SF award – science fiction can be a powerful way of resisting fascism.

The small minded nationalism that lead to Brexit in the UK, and the outright racism that fueled the Trump campaign, have left the whole world in no doubt that the far right is making its strongest push to assert fascist ideology on us all since the 1930s. That time it lead to global war. Today we are all searching for any way we can prevent that tragedy repeating. How can science fiction be more than an escape from today’s reality? One of the greats of the genre has an answer.

Writing in March 1937, at the height of the Nazi threat in Europe, the legendary science fiction author Olaf Stapledon wondered what response he and other writers could make in such dark times.

“In these conditions it is difficult for writers to pursue their calling at once with courage and with balanced judgment. Some merely shrug their shoulders and withdraw from the central struggle of our age. These, with minds closed against the world’s most vital issues, inevitably produce works which not only have no depth of significance for their contemporaries, but also are subtly insincere.

Stapledon is keen to identify that a central risk for any writer, artist or creator in the face of terror, is too hide. But Stapledon sees an equal and opposite risk, for writers who “take up arms” as political activists.

“The very urgency of their service may tend to blind them to the importance of maintaining and extending, what may be called the ‘self critical self consciousness of the human species’, the attempt to see man’s life as a whole in relation to the rest of things. This involves the will to regard all human affairs and ideals and theories with as little human prejudice as possible. Those who are in the thick of the struggle inevitably tend to become, though in a great and just cause, partisan.

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These words, that so accurately capture the conundrum faced by writers today, were written by Stapledon for the introduction to his seminal SF novel Star Maker. It’s a story that reaches beyond the bounds of human existence, to life in the broadest possible sense, on the galactic scale, and has been inspiration to generations of SF authors. And it’s a novel that, far from worshipping only at the altar of science, also dives headlong into the spiritual.

“At the risk of raising thunder both on the Left and the Right, I have occasionally used certain ideas and words derived from religion, and I have tried to interpret them in relation to modern needs. The valuable, though much damaged words “spiritual” and “worship”, which have become almost as obscene to the Left as the good old sexual words are to the Right, are here intended to suggest an experience the Right is apt to pervert and the Left to misconceive.”

That experience, in Olaf Stapledon’s thinking, is to see the world from a perspective beyond the human individual, or any political ideology. Stapledon believed that the highest calling of science fiction was to show us the universe, our world, and our selves in new ways. To see our “turbulent world against a background of stars”.

“The attempt to see our turbulent world against a background of stars may, after all, increase, not lessen, the significance of the present human crisis.”

As the last year has unfolded, and the peril of our new political situation has become clearer, my thoughts have gone to Star Maker many times. Seeing our moment in the full context of our history, and potential future, is a form of self-healing, and a way to reorient our perspective away from the immediate tumult, and back to the bigger, universal, picture.

Fascism can only win by reducing us to the most narrow minded and bigoted ways of seeing the world. Science fiction is a perfect way to show people the widest, most imaginative, and most hopeful ways of seeing. As SF readers and writers we might choose activism, we might choose withdrawal. But if we really want to make a difference, our best tool is to write, read and promote great science fiction.

 

A FEW CONTEMPORARY WRITERS I FIND HOPE IN:

Ramez Naam

Monica Byrne

John Scalzi

Malka Older

N K Jemesin

Dave Hutchinson

Tell me the writers helping to inspire your resistance on Twitter and Facebook.

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Viking myths made men fearless. What do our myths make us?

A myth is more than just an old story. In their day, hundreds or thouands of years ago, myths shaped reality. WOAH! That’s a big claim, right? That the Ramayana actually shaped the reality of the people who read it two thousand years ago? That’s like saying Star Wars: Rogue One is shaping our reality today. Maybe it is. Story is how our mind works, and the stories we tell say everything about how we think.
“If Viking myths made humans fearless, I think ours tend to make us fearful.”
If like me you have a new addiction to the Vikings tv show, you’ve probably been doing some thinking about Viking myths. Stories of Odin One-Eye, that eye given to look in the well of knowledge, resonate especially in the frozen months of northen climates. Thor, Loki, Baldur, Freya and the other gods have never truly gone away. Their still on every cinema screen thanks to Marvel, and being read by millions thanks to authors like Neil Gaiman.
Viking myths described a world that was remarkably small. The world was only as wide a longboat could row. The gods lived just overhead, but out of reach, in the heavens above. And they watched and judged our lives. Men and women lived out their destiny, and fought bloody battles to pursue their fate, all to be judged well by the gods. Where today we see the universe as infinite, Vikings saw their cosmos as eternal. An endless battlefield, on which the eternal dramas of gods and men cycled forever. A mortal man was just a shadow of a greater reality. The point of life wasn’t to live a long life in safety and comfort. It was to commit acts that would echo in eternity.
Vikings weren’t alone in this worldview. The myths of the Greeks and Romans, and of the ancient Hindu world, all painted a similar picture. These were all pagan mythologies, and warrior cultures. We idolise these times, because they were well suited to the telling of great heroic tales. Of course they were, by our standards, brutal and unjust times, filled with terrible human suffering. But that’s to judge another reality by our own standards. Those who really believed the pagan worldview had no reason to fear death or suffering. Those things were just a gateway to eternal life.
Vikings is impressive as a tv show because, under the guidance of writer Michael Hirst, it dedicates a lot of time to the clash of Viking culture with the Christian culture of Anglo-Saxon Britain. In a memorable scene, a small band of Viking warriors in a “shieldwall” obliterate a far larger Saxon army. The Vikings are better warriors because they do not fear death. The weird mashup of pagan and juedo-christian beliefs that were Anglo-Saxon Christianity made them fearful of death, and of the judgement that would be made upon their sinful souls.
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If stories are the operating system of human consciousness, then myths are culture specific upgrades, each new version bringing new features and retiring some old ones. Viking myths made men fearless. Christian myths made us compliant. They took the wild heroism of Viking and pagan cultures, and tamed it into the more stable, communal Anglo-Saxon world. We’re a thousand years or more on from that cultural shift. What do our myths make us?
Our tv screens are filled with heroic tales. And you don’t have to look far to find overbearing patriarchal sky gods still stalking the world. But the real myths of the modern world are stories told by science. A universe some 12 billion years old, measured by the speed of light in a vacumn. Life emerging from a blind process of evolution. All of it beginning with a Big Bang. A very 20th century idea, reflecting all the bullets, combustion engines and nuclear bombs that kept recent history banging. And we do have all these stories of powerful machines, The Terminator or The Matrix, determined to enslave or kill human life.
If Viking myths made humans fearless, I think ours tend to make us fearful. Terrified specks of animate matter in a vast inanimate universe. Once the gods walked with us shoulder to shoulder. Now there are no gods. No eternal drama of life. Only an infinite empty universe, not even ambivalent to our cause, but utterly unaware of it. These are the stories that shape our reality. These are our myths. And even a fearless Viking would find them soul shudderingly bleak.
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We don’t out fight conservatives. We out create them.

This post is my answer to the political battles of the last 12 months. To Brexit, to Trump, to the resurgent racist #AltRight, and most of all to a kind of conservatism that I do not see as an enemy, but which seems to see me as one. But it doesn’t quite begin there.
I’m a writer, and the essay is one of my favourite forms. I love storytelling the most, but there’s also a need in this world to speak plainly about what we think. My best essay to date was published three years ago by Aeon magazine. Entitled “Sparks Will Fly”, it was an essay about what I call “Creator Culture”, the idea that technology and social progress are making all of us, instead of passive consumers, active creators.
That essay was brought back to my mind this week with the publication of a new and rather fine audio edition. Listening to this new narration, I realised that my essay of a few years ago had already answered, in part, the political realities I find myself chewing over today.
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Read more at Aeon magazine.
I write to understand. I write because, until I go through the disciplined process of composing disparate ideas into a coherent argument, I don’t truly know what my position is. Through the summer of Brexit and Trump I thought through a number of written responses. Most weren’t trying to understand. They were a call to arms. A fight-them-on-the beaches rhetoric, certainly a feeling many liberals hold today. But I don’t think fighting conservatism is ever the answer. Instead, we need to out create it.
Conservatism is not a creative ideology. It relies, always, for growth and new energy, on liberalism. Five centuries ago, not torturing people to death was the new liberal idea on the block, along with the Earth not being flat. Conservatives were outraged. They always are. But deep down conservatives know they are always doomed to lose, because the the only true alternative to growth and change, is stasis and death.
“the strains on our social order created by high speed progress are the core of 2016’s many political conundrums”
In political terms 2016 grew out of two problems. The less serious, but more dramatic, is the huge new influence of crazed demagogues in our political system. Nigel Farage and Brexit, Donald Trump, Steve Bannon’s Breitbart, the various petty agitators conglomerated as the #AltRight, and their early cultural indicators like Gamergate and the Sad Puppies, are all the same problem. Social media empowers demagogues, and the left has a few of its own to admit to (Michael Moore, Oliver Stone and Adam Curtis, I’m looking at you…and anyone on the left who repeats the junk they put out without questioning it.)
But these demagogues are exploiting a deeper and far more serious problem, of which they are only one of many symptoms. It’s an age old social conflict, from which many of humankind’s greatest achievements, and worst failures, have sprung. We’ve had these same arguments at every stage of social growth, from the transition from hunter-gatherer to agrarian society,  to the emergence of industrialism, capitalism and of course communism. Today this struggle is out of control, and causing serious problems.
On one had we have the forces of social progress, most often championed in Liberalism. On the other hand we have the forces of social cohesion, represented in bulk by Conservatism. I choose to call the goal of conservatives “cohesion” because I think it’s important, actually essential, to acknowledge that the basic aim of conservatives – a stable social order – is not in and of itself a bad thing. And that the strains on our social order created by high speed progress are at the core of 2016’s many political conundrums.
What are people really saying when they talk about wanting manufacturing jobs back? Well, in large part they just a want a stable work life, that allows time with their family and friends. Instead, increasingly, we have debt fuelled lives, insecure jobs with crazy work hours, and crumbling family relationships. I’m sure everyone recognises that new reality, and feels a little grief at least for the losses. Nearly all of us can react in deeply conservative ways, when change places our basic happiness at risk.
“For decades, technology and globalization have made us more productive and connected. This has created many benefits, but for a lot of people it has also made life more challenging. This has contributed to a greater sense of division than I have felt in my lifetime. We need to find a way to change the game so it works for everyone.” Mark Zuckerberg
The balance between liberal progressive ideals, and conservative calls for social stability, must be a constant negotiation. Neither position is right, they are forces that must be forever balanced and rebalanced. That negotiation has, in recent decades, collapsed into polarised, partisan name calling, around increasingly illogical positions on both left and right. This failure allows the worst aspects of both sides, the demagogues, racists, regressives, bigots and outright criminals, to flourish.
Fighting conservatives won’t re-establish that negotiation. And, let’s be honest here, liberal progress is not achieved through conflict. Activism, of course, plays a part. But it has never been the primary tool of social progress, because it so eaily becomse self-defeating, unleashing exactly the forces of anger and hopelessness that liberal progress must stand against. Instead, liberal progress has a much more powerful tool.
We create the future we want to live in, then we invite others to come and live there with us.
The great stride forwards in progress between 1950 – 2000 weren’t the product of a fight. Millions of creative people, entrepreneurs, artists, technologists, writers, academics, executives, politicans and many more, just went ahead and CREATED a more interesting world, and the vast majority of people decided they would rather live in it. There was no single vote, no great battle, no president or CEO decided this. It evolved, and the engine of that evolution was creativity.
If you genuinely want to argue that the world of 1950 was a better place, you won’t get a serious answer from me. The world of post 2000 is riddled with problems. But a return to the past is an answer to none of them. Both the political right and left have fallen into a lazy disdain for modern society. Mindless hatred of state spending on one side is matched by mindless hatred of corporate innovation on the other. Again, these are forces to be balanced through negotiation, not absolutes to be won by force.
All of which is really a preamble to my simple point. Many of my very good liberal friends are preparing metaphorical (and perhaps a few literal) baseball bats, to combat the conservative enemy. A level of muscular resistance is useful. But. Please, please, please. Do not let your anger steal away your true power, which is and always has been your creativity. We can create a better world, but we can only fight our way to a worse one.
We may want to fight conservatives, but we don’t have to. Real victory will come from continuing to create a better world, for everybody, especially those who struggle most to see what we can all create together.
My new course on Creative Intelligence launches later in 2017. Join my writing school (entirely free) for updates, and get a taster with my free intro course on Storytelling for Writers.
No comments here. Come tell me your thoughts on Facebook or Twitter.

Disney will remake the Star Wars prequels. Rogue One proves why.

The only thing I’m going to say about Rogue One is this…it’s a perfect prequel to A New Hope. In every possible way. Any more than that would risk spoilers. Go and see it, you will argee that in many ways it’s the film the Star Wars prequels could have been.
“Anakin Skywalker is Anders Breivik, Timothy McVeigh and Dylan Roof all rolled into one archetype.”
I remember my excitement going to see Phantom Menace in ’99. And the sick disappoint at how very bad it was. It damaged my faith in Star Wars for a very long time, until Force Awakens…awakened my new hope (sorry).
Rogue One makes me even more excited for Star Wars. It shows Disney as a studio – arguably the only major studio – willing to take risks on darker, more nuanced storytelling on a major scifi franchise. And yes, also more political storytelling. For a story arc of the sheer size and epic grandeur as Star Wars to work, those things have to be there.
And of all their many failings, the Star Wars prequels worst sin was the absolute failure to convey the darkness of the story they were telling. If Star Wars begins with A New Hope, then the stories that preceede it are the destruction of hope. The prequel trilogy is about the triumph of tyranny over the republic…how can that not be a political story?!
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Anakin Skywalker’s story arc is the darkest tale that can be told. He is the holder of power that can, literally, save the galaxy. Instead he is corrupted by an ideology of hate. His arc turns on a fascist terrorist attack where, with his own hands, he murders children he was sworn to protect. Anakin Skywalker is Anders Breivik, Timothy McVeigh and Dylan Roof all rolled into one archetype.
Disney has a history of understanding the long term value of great storytelling. For decades it only released it’s movies on special occaisions, and shunned video releases for years. It’s a very different company since Pixar’s reverse takeover, but it’s business commitment to storytelling is even greater.
Rogue One proves that Disney want future audiences to be able to watch Star Wars as one flowing, seamless saga. It wants to own one of the all time archetypal narrative arcs, the ultimate Heroes Journey, as told in every culture from Hunduism through the Norse myths, recast for the modren age. That’s a product it can sell to audiences for decades to come.
The Star Wars prequels just aren’t good enough to fulfill that ambition for Disney. It won’t happen soon, it won’t be announced until they are ready, but have no doubt that those films will be remade to fit Disney’s high standards of storytelling. I for one welcome it, because with Anakin’s story told in its true darkness, Star Wars will be greater than ever.

What is the most important skill any writer can master?

Regular readers will know that I’m more that a little bit passionate about the power of storytelling. Over the summer I’ve been creating a course in The Rhetoric of Story, filming a series of seven video lectures in locations including Bali, France and Italy. The full course is almost complete, with just one more lecture to record at my current location in Thailand.

Chiang Mai is my favourite city in the world, so I was very happy to get back here after a summer of wandering. And even happier to get an invite to talk to the cities fantastic writing group. Chiang Mai is a city of writers, so it’s an honour to be asked to share some of my teaching with them. The talk was really well attended, with about 70 fellow writers there to hear what I had to say.

The talk went so well that I’ve decided to offer it as a short course on the Writing Practice, my online school. It’s a brief introduction to some of the content from The Rhetoric of Story, presented in a conversational style, with comments and questions from the audience. Follow the link below to learn more.

Storytelling for Writers. A new FREE course from the Writing Practice.

PS – I just need THREE more patrons to hit my target of 40 for my SUPER-PATRON promotion. Go on…you know you want to… https://www.patreon.com/DamienWalter

 

This is my 1000th blog post

And I have nothing very special to say. I started this blog ten years ago to help me write more. It has done exactly that. So, to all my readers over the years.

Thank you.

Today I’m starting a new journal. 2017 is an exciting year for me, for reasons I can’t share quite yet. But I’ll be charting my creative progress through the year, exclusively for my supporters on Patreon. To kick things off I’m offering SUPER-PATRON level membership for anybody who joins on or before Sunday 13th November. Any level of support will get your name on my Super-Patron page up to and including that date. The first post in the new journal is coming soon.

Thank you.

Thank you.

Thank you.

Quick thoughts on Westworld

Just caught the first episode of Westworld. I suspect it’s a show I’ll be writing about more. Some first thoughts, not so much about the show, as about why I think it matters.

Science fiction is the art of metaphor. It gives us ways of thinking and talking about things we can’t otherwise easily talk about. In that regard Westworld is science fiction at it’s best. A metaphor of such cut glass clarity was spun in the first episode that my mind is still turning over where it might go. What is it a metaphor for? Well, if I could say that we wouldn’t need the metaphor, would we?

And we do need metaphors. In fact, we need better ones. The robot / android as a metaphor for human life is a powerful one. It’s not just in Westworld, or movies like Bladerunner. In daily life our culture routinely talks and thinks about human life as being like a machine. We describe the brain as a kind of computer. We treat education like programming that computer. We fix the body by replacing it’s parts. Worse, we treat people like machines. We force ourselves and others into mechanistic processes, especially in the workplace. We don’t fit well into those processes. Because, of course, we aren’t machines at all.

You might be among the people saying, “Damo, Damo, Damo…we are BIOLOGICAL machines, but still ultimately machines”, but that’s not really my point. For a time the machine was the best metaphor we could find for the state of being human. But it’s taken us as far as it can. Wherever you look, you see the limitations of the machine metaphor for life. So we need a new, and more nuanced, metaphor. And that, I think, is what Westworld has joined the struggle to find.

That’s interesting. I’ll catch up with episode 2 during the week, and see what progress it has made.

Game of Life: the coming attention economy

I like this story in The Independent about China’s plans for a social scoring system.

In this world, anything from defaulting on a loan to criticising the ruling party, from running a red light to failing to care for your parents properly, could cause you to lose points. And in this world, your score becomes the ultimate truth of who you are – determining whether you can borrow money, get your children into the best schools or travel abroad; whether you get a room in a fancy hotel, a seat in a top restaurant – or even just get a date.

I also love the implicit suggestion that we don’t already live in a world where a point scoring system determines whether you can get a seat at a restaurant or *gasp* a date. It’s called money, we’ve had it for a few thousand years, and the only people who don’t think about it much are the people who have it.

One of the things about being 1) a writer and 2) a digital nomad, is that I meet a fair few people who have a lot of money. Swiss bank account type money. People whose whole life is spent jetting from one yoga retreat to another. Once you reach the point where you don’t have to think about money, it simply becomes a way of…keeping score. Because that’s all money is, the point scoring system in the weird Game of Life that is modern society.

What is interesting about the Chinese plan, is how very closely it mirrors exactly what is happening already in the online world. We’re already in the mid-phase of replacing money with a new scoring system that’s better adapted to digital life. How many Twitter followers do you have? What’s your business’s score on TripAdvisor? What’s your products star rating on Amazon? And on and on. The internet is made of point scoring systems, of more or less relative value.

A lot of people are upset about Vine closing. The 6 second video sharing app had some dedicated users. Can’t they just share videos elsewhere? Sure. But imagine you had $10,000 in the bank, then the bank just closed. That’s what just happened to Vine users. A big Vine following had a value, and that value just got deleted. Social networks and internet life aren’t just fun and games at this point. The time you spend garnering attention online is an investment. Invest in the wrong things, your time will be wasted.

If this all seems kind of far fetched, perhaps you haven’t being paying attention to what’s happening in our economy now. Consider this thought experiment. Imagine everything in the world is free. Food, cars, holidays, healthcare. All of it, everything you could possibly want, free. In that world, what still has value? It’s the thing that every big brand, every media company, and every kid on YouTube today are all fighting for. Your attention.

The attention economy has been one of those ideas kicking around since the early days of the internet. And now, along with machine learning and self-driving cars, it seems like it’s actually taking form. But I wouldn’t get too excited about it’s utopian possibilities. I very much doubt that extreme poverty will be a major feature of the world a few decades from now. But the kind of micro-managed behavioral shaping emerging in China very much will be. Do you enjoy playing games? Because our emerging future is going to look and feel much like a huge game. With no end. And no way to stop playing.

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The minimalist worldbuildng of Diana Wynne-Jones

Guest blogger Jean Lee explores the world-building of Diana Wynne-Jones. The classic British children’s author was a master of creating fantasy world’s because she knew when to keep it minimal.

Learn more about the inner workings of storytelling with the Rhetoric of Story.

My grandfather adored the study of little things and how they worked. His rough but steady hands handled sheet metal in the day and models at night. I still have the windjammer he built from scrap metal, a glorious creation nearly 3ft high with metal strands for rigging and tiny port holes. He often wished he had gone into watch work. I can imagine him before a worktable covered with cogs and pins, spirals and screws, all vital to the watch’s creation.

“Any part that halts the story’s inner workings does not belong.”

Stories are very much like watches. Any character, detail, plot point—all are necessary to serve the story. When the watch has just the right number of parts, it will function. Too many will clog its workings, making it useless.

Yet it’s so tempting, isn’t it? We want readers to fully appreciate the craftsmanship. Surely they can only do that if we use every. Single. Part. So we cram it all in: the ill-sized versions that helped us find the proper fit. The duplicates, the broken. And rather than a working piece of beauty, we finish with a monstrosity of parts appreciated by no one.

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Diana Wynne Jones proves one does not need to overload a fantasy with world-building for the reader’s sake. Her fantasies for children follow people through various lands, dimensions, and times; of course the setting matters, but it only makes up a few gears in the works. Therefore, her attention to setting is limited strictly to its function within the story. For instance, Howl’s Moving Castle, one of her most well-known stories (also adapted into a film by Studio Ghibli—a marvel in its own right), begins with one of the most succinct bits of world-building one could ever hope to find.

“In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three.”

One sentence in, and we already know we’re in a different country where magic is commonplace. We also get a touch of foreshadowing: why would Jones include the cog about being the eldest of three unless it matters? It does: two sentences later we learn the protagonist, Sophie Hatter, is the eldest of three daughters.

51wy1cz212lRecently I finished Drowned Ammet, the second volume in Jones’ Dalemark Quartet. Surely her epic fantasy spanning centuries would have loads more world-building, yes? Well, she does include a map. That’s different. But her sparse world-building style continues here, too. Take this first line.

“People may wonder how Mitt came to join in the Holand Sea Festival, carrying a bomb, and what he thought he was doing.”

So, we have a sea culture, and some level of technology. As the story continues, we learn there is unrest due to the extreme divide between rich and poor. Jones doesn’t take time to describe the slums, the currency, or the weapons. She gives us whatever makes sense at the time for Mitt to learn. It’s Mitt’s story. The story needs what he needs. No other parts required.

I find myself at the worktable now, parts strewn about the story’s frame. So damn small…and yet, one protagonist takes in only so much: that which she needs to complete herself. Jones has shown me that any world-building detail must serve a function in the protagonist’s experience; one cannot throw a handful of cogs in for “background,” or “context.” Any part that halts the story’s inner workings does not belong.

That is why stories such as Jones’ still run flawlessly today.

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Jean Lee has been writing all her life, from picture books in preschool to a screenplay for her Masters in Fine Arts. Nowadays she blogs about the fiction, music, and landscape that inspire her as a writer. She currently lives in Wisconsin with her husband and three children. Learn more at: http://www.jeanleesworld.com

Doctor Strange : Nope, Buddhism won’t give you magic powers

SPOILERS AHEAD.

It’s a familiar story by now. A straight white male – and it almost always is a straight white male – is living a kind of ordinary life when BAM! Events transpire that send Mr. Straight White Male on an epic adventure through which he gains Incredible Powers of magic and / or kung-fu. Star Wars? The Matrix? Every goddamn “Heroes Journey” narrative ever written. And now here we are again, with Doctor Strange.

“And it’s definitely not magic. Quite the opposite, Buddhism teaches its students to engage with the reality of the here and now.”

At some point our Straight-White-Male-Hero-Destined-To-Master-KungFu ends up studying with someone who looks a lot like a Buddhist monk, in something a lot like a Buddhist temple. Because, as we all know, Buddhism IS the gateway to to an altered perception of reality that unleashes powers of magic / kung-fu, right? Doctor Strange literally travels to Tibet (Nepal in the movie, because, you know, Hollywood doesn’t want to alienate the Chinese market) where he meets the “Ancient One” (who in the movie is randomly CELTIC, see above reason) who inducts him into House Gryffindor, so he can fight the evil Slytherin menace. Oh wait, getting my magical induction stories confused.

It’s all great. I love the Doctor Strange movie, and I’m a sucker for this kind of story. But then I (mostly) conform to its demographic targeting. And I love the more recent twist of having a really cute straight white woman in the lead role, although I’m honestly not sure this is as radical a demographic shift as is sometimes claimed. I’d like to see more dowdy middle aged protagonists go on magical adventures. They’re the ones, I think, who really need it.

Enjoying the read? You can help me write more.

But can we please clear something up here? BUDDHISM IS NOT THE GATEWAY TO SECRET MAGICAL POWERS. It doesn’t matter how many thousands of hours you spend in meditation, you’ll never be able to summon power from other dimensions, conjure cool looking glowing sigils with wavy hand movements, or indulge in the joys of astral projection. Got it?

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“Oh Damo!” I hear one of you sigh, “You’re just taking this all too seriously! Nobody believes Buddhism can REALLY give them magical powers. Any more than they believe they can really upload their mind into a computer to achieve immortality! Oh, wait, loads of people do actually believe that…” As, in fact, do many people really genuinely believe Buddhism will give them magic powers. And much as I would like to blame this on Hollywood, it’s a much, much older problem.

While I’m lucky not to have had my hands crushed in an automobile accident, my own life took me into the Himalayan mountains, to study at the Buddhist temples in Dharamsala. I’ve been a student of Buddhism for eight years now. I stepped out of a successful, creative career – that was killing me incrementally – and Buddhism was part of what helped me transition to a different kind of life. Now I live in Thailand, a Buddhist nation, to study Theravada Buddhism. In 2015 I travelled across India, to the capital of the Tibetan government in exile, and home of the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, to study Mahayana Buddhism.

That’s my path. No doubt, if enough people read this, somebody will crop up who’s all like “Well I went to Nepal and I TOTALLY learned how to do hand wavy magic stuff you just got the wrong brand of Buddha Damo the cheap stuff without the MAGIC” and OK, fine, I have met some of those people. They are welcome to their beliefs. And you can have those arguments within Buddhist circles, they’re absolutely part of the dialectic learning process Buddhist teaching guides students through.  Because from some angles, Buddhism can seem quite magical. Which is why it’s important to remember that it isn’t.

When the Buddha was asked about things like magic powers, he always had the same reply. And he got asked a lot. India of 2500 years ago, around when it’s believed the Buddha lived, was a melting pot of every kind of spiritual belief you can think of. Spiritual teachers made a good living wandering the land, giving out all kinds of teachings, with the secrets of magical powers among them. And the Buddha spent years of his life studying these paths, before eventually arriving at the Middle Way described in Buddhism. So when people asked about gaining magical powers, the Buddha would simply say, that’s not what Buddha teaches. Buddha only teaches the way out of suffering. (Buddha talks about himself a lot in the third person. I know, right?)

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Essential Doctor Strange Volume 1. Guess how much?

Doctor Stephen Strange is seeking a way out of suffering. After his hands are shattered, he wants a cure. And most people who come to Buddhism are suffering. It might be a terrible illness. It might be depression. It almost certainly centers on some kind of loss. Loss of power, loss of status, loss of love. All of Buddhist teaching resolves down to the question of suffering, and how best to deal with it. And of course, gaining magical super-powers is a SUPERB way of dealing with suffering. Woosh! Just wave your magic wand and the cause of suffering is fixed! Except when it isn’t. Which is most of the time. One of the reasons I like the Doctor Strange movie is because it doesn’t let the character off the hook that easily. Strange has to accept that his hands will never truly recover. He has to accept his suffering.

The acceptance of suffering is, as best as I can express it, the starting point of Buddhism. You really have lost your job. You really do have a broken arm. You really have lost the person you love. From that acceptance, the pain might transform to something else. Or you might have to accept that it’s going to stay a long time, maybe for your whole life. It’s not easy. Nobody can do it without great attention. And it’s definitely not magic. Quite the opposite, Buddhism teaches its students to engage with the reality of the here and now, as deeply and fully as they possibly can. Which is why there’s a great irony, and no small danger, in how the entertainment industry constantly makes Buddhism a gateway to magic, fantasy and escapism.

But. If we can remember that magic is just a metaphor, a way of talking about things we can’t talk about literally, then like all myths, it can be very useful to think about. The Doctor Strange movie works so well because it’s aware of its own metaphorical meanings, in a way that a story like the vomit inducingly awful Batman vs Superman never even came close to being. If you find the time to see Doctor Strange, I hope you’ll tell me what those wonderfully woven magical metaphors meant to you. I’d love to know!

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This exercise will make you a stronger writer (WARNING: it’s hard.)

My experience, during 6 years teaching creative writing to university students, is that most writers don’t want to do this exercise. To be fair, it’s hard work. But it’s also the single best way I know to develop your skills as a writer, or any other kind of storyteller.

“But Damo,” I hear some folks in the back saying, “Big shots like Stephen King din’t do no structural analysis exercise and look where they is now!”  To which I say, actually, Stephen King holds a BA in English Lit, taught English in the classroom, and even suggests this exercise in On Writing. So, there.

In more general terms, writers resist this exercise because it seems to go against the imaginative and intuitive parts of the writing process. A good story is like a great magic trick. As soon as you analyse it, the illusion is destroyed and you’re left with some smoke and a bunch of mirrors. But it’s not your job as a writer to believe the magic, it’s your job to create the illusion.

Think of this exercise as some short term pain in exchange for a lot of long term gain. And isn’t the the definition of exercise? If it was easy, we’d all be running the Boston marathon every year. But we aren’t, because getting really good at anything requires specialised effort and ultra-determination. So for those of you traipsing on the long and winding road towards literary genius, think of this as a deep muscle workout for your skills as a storyteller.

(This is one of the 7 super exercises I set my students on The Rhetoric of Story. Join in! If you have questions about story structure, that’s the place to find the answers.)

EXERCISE 6: STRUCTURAL ANALYSIS

The best way to learn about the structure of anything is to break it apart and then put it back together again. It may not work again, but you’ll learn a vast amount about how it worked. This is as true of stories as anything else.

Step One – choose a story that you know well. I’m going to assume here it’s a novel, but it can be a screen or stage play or any other form of storytelling. It’s important you know it well, or the exercise won’t work.

Step Two – you’re going to be writing a “structural analysis” of this story. It’s important to actually write this, your mind won’t really absorb the detail if you just think about it. Imagine you’ve been commissioned to analyse this story by a publisher. You need to deliver a professional report that captures the detail of this story’s structure.

Step Three – begin from the top level of structure and work your way down. Here are some suggestions for what you might be looking at:

  • Top Level
    • what are the major parts of the story? Or acts in a screen or stage play? What happens in each?
    • who is the protagonist? What do they want?
    • who are the major characters? What are their relationships?
    • what are the forces of antagonism and how are they manifested?
    • what is the dramatic question? How does it manifest as plot?
  • Mid-Level
    • what is the turning point of each chapter / scene?
    • how are the chapters structured?
    • what plot devices, like tension, suspense and mystery, are employed?
    • how do the character relationships change and evolve over time?
  • Bottom Level
    • what is the balance of beats / dialogue / description / scene setting in each chapter?
    • what point-of-view is employed? How are POV shifts handled?
    • what is the narrative voice? Who does it belong to?
    • how is the style determined by word and sentence choice?

This is very far from an exhaustive list. Depending on your understanding of story, you might approach the analysis quite differently. That’s fine. This isn’t about applying some rote understanding of structure. It’s about seeing how the story actually works on the page (or screen / stage). It’s the difference between driving a car, and deconstructing the engine to see how all the constituent parts go together. Capiche?

Step Four – outline a story based on your structural analysis. So, if you’ve discovered your chosen novel has four major movements, with one hundred and twenty scenes, following seven characters, and so forth, you’re going to outline a novel with that structure. Take this step as far as you want. A two page outline may be enough. You might, on the other hand, decide to write the whole damn thing!

IF you complete this exercise to Step Three, and feel you need some feedback, post your structural analysis on your blog, with a link back to this post, and pop me an email on: damiengwalter@gmail.com. I’ll get to as many as I can.

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