Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Writing Magic -- The Lecture

Tonight I'll be talking about magic and magical systems in terms of writing, and things to think about when writing a magic using character in a story.

The thing that I want you to go away with is that -- as long as a magic using character has limited powers -- the reader doesn't care so much about how a character does magic as much as they care what the magic does. (Or, if this is a magical battle, who wins.) An author doesn't need to include details about magic in a story unless it provides setting, forwards the plot, or reveals character. However, just as it is helpful to know some science when writing science fiction, it's useful for the author to be clear about how magic works in a fantasy story set in a magical world.

The other thing that I want to touch on is that well written magic -- much like a well written city, forest river or mountain -- can act in a story like another character. It can be nice or mean, it can be steadfast or fickle, and it can be something that interacts with the character in revealing ways.

When writing believable magic, the author needs to know A) how magic interacts with the physical and social environment, B) the laws of the magical system so magic is used (or not) consistently, and C) how magic interacts with the magic user. This does not necessarily mean the characters have to know these things -- the discovery can be part of a character arc -- but it will be easier to write the magic if the author has these things clear.

MAGIC AND THE ENVIRONMENT

A system of magic always operates in a particular cultural and social setting. For example, think of a car mechanic or a support desk worker or a ham radio operator -- what are some stereotypes around these professions? Now go back fifty years, are the stereotypes different? Now one hundred years. Magic using characters will have cultural roles and expectations based on a specific geographic location and time (see questions).

A system of magic will operate in a physical environment, too. Generally, the author needs to have some idea about where the energy to power spells is coming from, and what magic can not do. Sounding out magic's limits brings up the roles of what I'm going to arbitrarily call fortune, karma, and fate.

  • Fortune or luck, which magic can alter, is usually about roulette wheels, coin flips, or being in the right place at the right time. It's small, short-duration circumstances.
  • Karma, or cosmic justice, which can be delayed or sped up by magic, relies on the cosmos "remembering" a person's good or bad deeds or luck and rewarding or punishing them. Usually, an "evil" magic user will postpone punishment through a kind of deal with the devil, or a "good" magic user may take on someone else's karmic debt (or seek to magically aid an evil-doer's birds to come home and roost).
  • Fate (sometimes called "wyrd") is the limit of a person's life which cannot be changed by magic. It may be a character's fate to kill their father; and there are tons of stories of magic users (and scientists, for that matter) and their hyjinx as they try to go beyond the normal fate of humans (mortality).

Moving from Magic and the Environment, we move onto the Laws of magic.

LAWS OF MAGIC

Most magic in fantasy books is similar to historical magic theory from Western Europe. An author can save some time by using the freebies available from the wonder tales of the West and the North (and my apologies for not being familiar with other systems of magic).

Sir James Frazier and Isaac Bonewits have done most of the footwork formalizing magic. So I'm going to give some examples of various "laws" of magic that many readers will be familiar with.

The supreme Egyptian God Ra gets bitten by a snake. Pained by the serpent's poison, Ra eventually allows his secret, true name to be transmitted from his breast into Isis's so that she can heal him. This gives her power over the poison and over Ra, and she becomes the Egyptian mistress of magic.

This is an example of Law of Knowledge, and its corollary, the Law of True Names: Knowledge is power, and the more you have, the more powerful you are. If you know something's name, you have power over it.

A witch creates a wax doll of Charles Atlas, and writes "Charles Henry Atlas" on the doll's base. She says, "By my art, be thou not a poppet of wax, but be Charles Henry Atlas." She then adds more wax to the doll's arms and chest to build up its muscles even more. She places the doll in her terrarium and Charles becomes the Hero of the Beach.

This is the Law of Similarity, which states that a result resembles its cause.

An ancient Egyptian goes to the doctor to be healed. As part of the healing, the doctor pours clean water over the patient out of a wide pan shaped in the form of an ankh, the Egyptian hieroglyph for life. Both know that the life-giving power of the symbol of the ankh will be carried by the water to the patient.

This is The Law of Contagion -- the water, once in contact with the ankh, transmits some of its healing power to the patient.

From these three Laws can be deduced a bunch of corollaries.

To improve their minds, the ancient Greeks ate walnuts, because the nut meat looks like a brain.

This is the Doctrine of Signatures at work -- the attributes without mirror the qualities within (usually used in alchemy).

The star, Sirius, rises just before the sun and the Nile floods its banks. The sun is seen within the constellation of Cancer, and the first fruits of the season are ready. Bad stars signal a cata-strophy.

These are examples of "As Above, So Below."

Galahad travels to a distant wasteland. Ruling over the wasteland is the wounded Fisher King. In order to heal the land, Galahad must heal the Fisher King.

You're seeing a form of Heiros Gamos, or sacred wedding between the Land and Monarch -- The quality of a land or state is a reflection of the quality of the ruling monarch, or the quality of the monarch's "spiritual marriage" to the land.

Frazier and Bonewits did their research before 1970. Some additional laws that have come into vogue in "real magic"

The wizard Lythande is trying to get rid of a magical sword. She casts a banishing spell on the sword, wrapping a shirt she really loves around the sword before burying it as part of the spell.

OR

Devon Monk's elevator pitch for "Magic to the Bone": "Forget the fairytale hocus-pocus, wave a wand and bling-o, sparkles and pixie dust crap. Magic, like booze, sex, and drugs, gave as good as it got. Using magic means it uses you back, and every spell exacts a price from its user. Usually the price is pain, but sometimes when Allison Beckstrom uses magic it does more than make her hurt. It takes her memories. Some people get out of paying the price by Offloading the cost of magic onto an innocent. Then it’s Allie’s job to identify the spell-caster. "

This is "Nullum gratuitum prandium" ("There's No Free Lunch") at work -- In order for magic to work , something must be destroyed or sacrificed.

In Lackey's MageStorm series, one of the magic users is trying to figure out why a magical artifact is doing unexpected things. He is very careful not to think of the artifact in terms of a living thing, because he doesn't want to accidentally give the artifact magical "life."
OR
In Dion Fortune's Dr. Taverner series, a character is being harassed by an illusion spell of a snarling hell hound -- he knows the hound is in his head, but catches himself referring to the spell as if it were a real dog, giving it the ability to harm him in real life.

These are examples of the Law of Blake's Vision -- if the magician can imagine something, he or she can make it happen.

My Mother, when faced with some of my teenaged antics, would clench her teeth and smile -- and it was as if my "Nuke a Gay Whale for Christ" button did not exist.
OR
Denethor, the Stewart of Gondor, gazes into the palantir of Minas Tirith. He sees many things useful, but eventually, he sees only what Sauron, The Dark Lord who has another palantir, wills him to see.

These are examples of the Law of Crowley's Will -- if a magician believes something strongly enough, her or his will or belief will cause it to happen.

In "Oathbreakers," Lackey's magician, Kethry, avenges the death of a friend by channeling her anger (and the anger of her comrades) for use in a revenge spell. "Emotion is power" she thinks.

This is an example of the Law of Gardner's Frenzy -- if a magic user works themselves into a high pitched emotional state while spell casting, the energy of their emotion can be used to power a spell.

LAWLESS MAGIC

Or, you can be like Emma Bull and forget about the Laws of Magic. In her book, "War for the Oaks," a Phooka explains to Eddie, the main character, that she mustn't try to explain away an ointment's powers on her in scientific terms like lumens. "It's magic," he says. Because the Phooka is a supernatural being and Ms. Bull has established his trustworthiness as a character (at least in terms of Seelie Court Magic), the reader accepts his magical explanation.

Or, you can have your magic be a sensitive application of natural science. On an anniversary of the Great Ring's destruction, Frodo is unwell, and is found clutching at a crystal pendant given to him by Galadriel for comfort. Is the crystal "magic" or is Galadriel a clever psychologist?


MAGIC AND THE MAGIC USER

So to review. Magic doesn't exist in a vacuum, it operates in a social, cultural and physical world. It also presumably is enough of a formal system that a writer can figure out some magical laws. All that's left is to talk about the Magic User -- remember the Magic User?

Magic users are in a profession, and like any profession, there are dispositions, skills, talents and workman's comp issues. -- Remember Devon's character? -- If the writer figures out how magic changes the magic users ahead of time, it's more opportunities to have a full character (see questions about magic-users).


WRITING YOUR OWN SPELLS

A magic wielding character will use magic for the following purposes:
Magic to tie or bind, to charm or beguile, to heal, restore, or to protect. To Hex or curse. Magic "tricks" to fool the uneducated rustics. Magic to see the future or the past. Magic spells as weapons.

Most of these are straight-forward, but I want to take a detour on divination. Divination attempts to answer the question, "Will X happen, and if so, when?" Some folks try to get around this by asking what they should know. In most cases, oracles consisting of tokens usually answer in the form 1) a description of the querant, 2) what they hope for, 3) what's in their way, and 4) the probable outcome.

I also want to pause about magical attacks. Historically, a magic user would curse or hex somebody: they would throw a lock down a well and mess up some guy's manhood; they would sprinkle water on the ground and flood the farm next door; or they would pun someone's True Name and mess up their spells. Usually in fantasy books the spell casters are more direct and one reads about magical darts, magical lightning, summoning magical avatars to fight for you, magically freezing one's opponent or sending them to sleep. Just so you know.

A magic spell or ritual typically has the following stages: 1) purification (participants and/or place), 2) a statement of intent, 3) a summoning of magical powers or allies, 4) the performance of a magical act, and 5) the dismissal of powers. The magic user generally uses special words, chants, songs, gestures, or tools to perform a spell. A period of recovery may happen afterward, and it's typical for magical characters to over-reach their magical reserves and suffer afterward.

As another technical aside: Dion Fortune writes that a 20th C magician would call up both the positive and negative forces and then banish the negative ones to be sure that the spell worked. Spells are a simultaneous summoning of what is wanted and a banishment of complementary powers.

MAGIC IN STORY

But, really, all of this is really window dressings for the story. The role of magic in a story is not to provide proof of anyone's laws of magic but to provide opportunites for magic-using characters to use their skills to take risks in order to save something they love. Magic use should reveal character, show setting, or move the plot forward.

Fantasy Magic Tropes & Freebies

Just as science fiction has faster-than-light communication, wormholes, anti-gravity, AI, and anti-matter power sources, fantasy magic also has tropes and freebies an author can use. But be careful: don't bore the reader or waste their time.

Sources of Magical Energy:

  • Ways to create / raise magical energy:
    • drumming,
    • repetitive chants,
    • singing,
    • sex,
    • drug use,
    • dancing,
    • bloodletting,
    • pain,
    • strong emotion,
    • trance,
    • sacrifice,
    • using available "magical tides" (full moon, etc),
    • induction of energy through a ley line,
    • using a magical artifact,
    • getting a "gift" from a deity.
  • The moon -- when it's full, work put in toward goals reach their fruition, magic is stronger and it's a good time for fortune telling; when it's dark, mysterious forces of regeneration are at work and it's a good time for fortune telling.
  • The solar festivals -- the days of the solstices and equinoxes and the four days in between are special days. The two big ones are Samhain or Halloween, when the veils between the worlds are thin; and Beltain or May Day, which is a fertility festival (and the veils between the worlds are thin). There may also be regional differences over which a solar festival marks the new year, during which contracts are renewed or broken.
  • Sex magic -- a man and a woman represent different ends of a battery, and the energy of sex can be used to generate spells. Of course, Dion Fortune makes dark hints about man-to-man sex and The Left-Hand Path (oddly enough, Saphic sex never comes up).
  • Other Planes / Worlds -- this is can take the form of people/objects from the underworld/overworld are inherently magic in our middleworld. Or it can take a cue from Theosophy and can get complicated with magicians existing simultaneously on astral, mental, ethereal, abyssal and elemental planes -- and the magician usually direct events on one plane and create a reaction on the physical plane.
  • The Chakras. Sanscrit for wheel, these are seven energetic centers in the body that a magician can use to send or receive magical power.
  • Magic is a combination of water pressure, magnetism, and germ contagion.
  • Magic as an alternative world Science (i.e. Devon Monk's "Magic in the Blood").
  • Human mortality as a source of power. (Lackey's "Serrated Edge" stories)


Magical Characters:

  • The Familiar -- usually an animal, but sometimes a magical creature. The familiar historically was an animal helper sent by The Devil, but today is a kind of corrective lens (and character foil) to help the magic user focus spells by virtue of their being more "in tune" with magical forces.
  • Alistair Crowley (The Edwardian shock-jock of Magick) is Back From The Dead and Boy Is He Pissed.
  • The "Magic Negro/Native American/Celt" who exists solely to pass a magical secret/wisdom to some white guy.
  • The Shaman (who used to be the Witch-Doctor, but is now The Nobel Savage, a New Age Celt or Politically Correct). Shamans in real life are indigenous people who have usually had some sort of dis- and re-integrative personal ordeal. This allows them to get into an ecstatic state during which they may act in the spiritual world on behalf of their tribe.
  • The Dead Mentor -- shows up at convenient moments to help the character solve a problem or at inconvenient times to initiate a training session.
  • Womyn Who Run with Werewolves -- this goes in cycles.
  • The Sexy Vampire Sidekick / Ally -- Before "Twilight" there was Diana Tregarde's vampire lover.
  • The Magical Child Victim -- can either be a voluptuous nubile woman or else a small child whose sole purpose in the book is to show the reader how evil the antagonist is, or illustrate how pain and death magic work.
  • The Templars. Magic-using knights for Christ (or the Goddess, we're not sure)!


Magical Items:

  • The Magic Potion or Spring: typically gives the drinker Great Strength, Youth, Forgetfulness, makes them Fall In Love, or fall asleep.
  • A cauldron or bag of plenty.
  • Something from Atlantis; 'sposed to be good for you.
  • Magical weapon -- blade glows when nasties are near; swords that posses their owners; weapons that specialize in slaying dragons, giants, etc.; and, finally, the talking, thinking weapon.
  • Silver -- silver bullets kill the werewolf, silver mirrors zap the gorgon.
  • The Holy Icon -- the cross stops the vampire, returning the crystal skull closes the cosmic circuit (just in time!)
  • Curse focus -- the one's I've seen are coins that attract bad luck, the little figurines that attract magical lightning, or the "hot potato" runestone that got someone eaten by a black-and-white movie demon.
  • Spells are written down on a slip of paper for use later.
  • Talisman -- something, usually metal or crystal, worn with a magical inscription or prayer on it. Can be used as a magical battery! Especially if it has an amethyst, ruby, or diamond in it.
  • Amulet -- an object, like a rabbit's foot, that brings luck or protection.
  • Special plants as ingredients for spells (Oberon's rose, mandrake) or that control or limit magical creatures (wolfs bane, garlic, moley).
  • Crystals, especially in jewelry, as magical items, typically providing invisibility, a "shield", or magical energy storage. The sages of Atlantis used crystals in their magical workings, and the historical Hero the Mage writes about the Egyptians "capturing the effluxes of stars" in their crystals.
  • A circle drawn on the ground can be used for protection or for summoning angels and daemons. Historically, a summoning magic user stood in a protective Solomon Seal or and summoned a being into a constraining magic triangle.
  • A five pointed star in a circle, or Pentacle, if not proof of the work of a magic user nearby, is also a kind of magical on-switch.


Magical Plot Devices:

  • The magic user blanks out and The Powers of Goodness guide them through the story climax (happens in Tolkein. In "Burning Water" by Mercedes Lackey gets around this by having a supporting character blank out).
  • That Old Magic is Back. (And it just crashed every technological / industrial society on the planet. Damn.)
  • The Return of Atlantis. Or C'thulu. Or Dragons. Or King somebody....
  • The main character can only safely use a magical item as long as they have no or an unclear idea what it actually does.
  • The Hunting Lodge (traceable to Dion Fortune's "Tales of Dr. Taverner"). A league of Good Magicians in a White Lodge act as a magical police force or U.N. to check the power of Evil Black Lodges and solitary Black Adepts.
  • The Broken Taboo or Geas. Taboos in a society are limits or protocols for people to safely approach or contain power. Break the taboo, and you diffuse the power. Sampson retains his strength as long as he is unshorn; Cú Chulainn eats dog meat and dies in his next battle.
  • The Good Magic Folk Mercilessly Persecuted by [insert Repressive Institution here] (Naomi Kritzer's "Fires of the Faithful" does a nice twist on this).
  • The hitherto unnoticed Small Folk go on a Quest to find the One Power Item that will overthrow the Dark Monarch ("Lord of the Rings," "The Sword of Shannara," etc).
  • Human ability to radically change as a source of non-human renewal (see Patricia C Wrede's "Snow White & Briar Rose," Emma Bull's "War for the Oaks").
  • A group of young adults, more-or-less by accident, performs a ritual and finds Excalibur or summons Puck (i.e. Rudyard Kipling's "Puck of Pook's Hill") or stumble through some sort of Land of the Lost Portal.
  • Real Elves, Faeries, Dwarves, Goblins, etc. move to a Big Urban City. Mayhem ensues. (deLint's Newford Series, "War for the Oaks")
  • Someone discovers "the lost magic chord" and gains mastery over some phenomenon (this one is based on medieval music theory and probably an old Victorian song by Sir Arthur Sullivan).
  • The magic user uses "mage sight" to see magical energy sources or magical residue or another magic user's magical signature.
  • Knowing enough to start a magical operation, but not enough to stop it (the Sorcerer's Apprentice).


Magical Misc:

  • Terms out of a Fantasy Role Playing Game manual: magic missile, levinbolt, etc.
  • Magical bards worth their salt should be able to make people laugh (or dance), move them to tears, or soothe them into sleep.


For more, see also:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Fantasy_tropes

Checklist for Writing Fantasy Story Magic


MAGIC AND CULTURE:

  • Is the setting European, African, Asian, Polynesian, American, or completely made up?
  • Is the culture tribal, ancient, medieval, industrial, modern, hybrid/steampunk, future, or urban?
  • Is magic valued, tolerated, proscribed, or forbidden?
  • Is the magic folk magic, ritual magic, book or "school" magic, or state magic?
  • Are there specific classes of magic user, for example, apprentice, journeyman, master, adept?

MAGIC AND THE PHYSICAL ENVIRONMENT

  • What effect does magic have on the environment?
  • Does using magic deprive plants and animals needed resource?
  • Does magic residue form any waste products and do these waste products harm the environment or attract magical scavengers?
  • Is the magic work against the natural (or divine) order of the universe, does magic suspend the order, or is it "super-natural" in that it is so in tune with the universe that it can manipulate universal order in ways non-magical forces can't?
  • What is the role of the spirits (ie resurrection, summoning the dead, conversing with the dead)?
  • What is the role of magical creatures (ie griffons, dragons, etc)?
  • Are seers seeing an unchangeable future, or the most likely future? How does magic interact with luck, karma, and fate?
  • Are certain plants / animals / minerals / spirits immune to magical spells ? Absolutely necessary for magical spells?

MAGIC AS A SYSTEM:
  • Is the story's magic based on a historical magic system?
  • Is magic a science with laws, or is it poetical art -- is it High Ritual Magic or is it a Non-formal Mystic Something, or is it like working with animals like horses, elephants or cats?
  • Are spells influencing the physical plane, a non-physical plane, or some combination of planes?
  • Is it parapsychology and psychic powers?
  • Is it placebo effects, suggestion, and psychology?

MAGIC USERS

  • Is using magic something anyone can learn, is it a talent one must be born with, or is there a magical technology which allows anyone to wield magical artifacts?
  • Do magic users get carpel tunnel syndrome, or trick knees from using magic?
  • Do magic users have special dietary needs?
  • How much time to magic users have to spend practicing magic?
  • Does the magic user like using magic? Is it fun, or a compulsion, or does it hurt but it's for the Greater Good?
  • If the magic user does not master the magic, does the magic master the magic user?

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Summer Solstice

I wake up a few minutes before my alarm. Today is Solstice and I want to see the sunrise. I reach over and peer under the window shade; the sky outside is grey with clouds. For a few seconds I consider skipping the Neopagan thing. Decades ago I used to be able to wake up without an alarm clock. Now I roll over and try to get a little more sleep. My attempts to get more sleep would be more successful if I went to bed earlier. My alarm goes off and I rise.

In the eighties, in Corvallis, I used to watch the sun rising when I ate breakfast. In the nineties, at Arcosanti, the rising sun shone through the eastern wall of my bedroom, which was all glass. In the years between and right now, I've fallen out of sync with the rising and setting sun -- our Eugene house points to the south. I stumble around in the pre-dawn light and get dressed. A glance through the kitchen window confirms the clouds are all over and the chance of watching the actual moment of sunrise is slim; which is too bad, because I'd like to see the shadows of the sunrise streaming from a point on the northeastern horizon.

Outside, the temperature is about sixty, and it's not raining. I feed the cat and walk up the hill. I sing to myself: "Darkness is rising / even if this is the brightest dawn / nobody can hold / back the dark," and laugh.

I'm heading for the College Hill reservoir. It's a concrete bunker a few blocks uphill, set halfway into the hill's crown. The flat roof is accessible to the public -- a rectangular collection of dark grey concrete slabs with dirty white caulk at the seams. Along the roof's edge, three foot high concrete pylons support a metal rail and hurricane fence. Within the last six months, very tall, green-painted iron fencing has been placed around a small house on the top and a door along the north side.

As I walk there, I pass by very nice houses with manicured lawns. Runoff water from a sprinkler system runs down a driveway and into the sewer. I pass by the eastern buttress of the reservoir, leave the sidewalk, and take a side path skirting the northern edge. The combination of early morning light and gravel scrunching under my feet brings back a Sonoran memory of walking up the hill to Arcosanti in the mornings.

At last I'm walking up the concrete stairs to the top -- a dark grey concrete exercise in planar geometry. Someone has left behind a plastic six-pack net, so I pick it up. No one else is present. I'm a lone point on a plane bound by a fence. I walk to the eastern end of the slabs. I'm in the middle of a city, but the only city sound I'm aware of is the sound of a train pulling into the station two miles away. Occasional crows, sparrows, robins and other birds call to one another from the trees to the north and south of the reservoir. It's too early for the scrub jays.

When I reach the eastern side, I remember a few things I should have remembered earlier. One, there are some tall pines and maples growing between me and the eastern horizon, so even on a clear morning watching the sunrise would be difficult. Second, one of the houses has a really bright halogen porch light. I step back from the edge and amuse myself by moving my head so that the halogen light appears to rise over the tip of one of the concrete fence pylons. Finally, there's the east hills of Eugene. I'm pretty sure that the calculation for a 5:30 AM solstice sunrise I'd gotten from the US Naval Observatory did not include residential hills with porch and street lights twinkling on them in it.

Then I make a new discovery. On the street below a beat-up, white pickup truck appears. A woman in sweat-attire jumps out, slams the door, and jogs to several porches with a bundle of newspapers. The truck pulls forward, stops, and the driver jumps out with another bundle and slams the door before jogging to other houses. The pickup's hazard lights tick on and off. The passenger catches up to the truck, jumps into it, slams the door, and revs the whining starter engine. And then I know: It's them; the people who've been waking me up at five-something in the morning for the last two years -- I'd recognize that door slamming and engine whine anywhere. And all these years I thought it was an unknown neighbor. Blame is much more fun the less generalized it is.

At five-thirty I wonder if the sun is above the horizon. At least three sets of crows begin a raucous good morning to each other, which reminds me of battlefields and cheery Childe Ballads. I wonder if the crows know the time of sunrise without a clock or chart. Rosy-fingered dawn is beginning to make her dactyl appearance. Sort of. There are two layers of clouds above me -- a low layer of thick puffy clouds that looks close enough to touch, and a wispier, much higher layer. In the northeast, but not on the horizon, an opening in the clouds is like a window looking out on an archipelago of salmon-edged grey islands in a pastel sea.

I walk around and look for a vantage point that will reveal anything else about this sunrise, but there isn't. I sit down, pull out my Book of Art and pen box. When I open the box, three of my glyphs are on top of the pens: Circle, Healer, and Dream Eye. Well, I had been thinking of new good habits to start with the Solstice, and I am the only one here on the enclosed top of the reservoir -- so the accidental oracle seems appropriate.

I jot down a few notes and then rise. It's nearly six and I haven’t seen the sun yet. I linger, unsure if I want to stay a little longer, or if I want to go find some tea and possibly some chocolate. The shifting clouds have closed the northeastern window to a crack, which the sun limns in golden red. The clouds are longer now, less puffy and more stretched -- like long low hills. One looks just a bit like a sleeve with an open hand extending past it, and I'm reminded of the Ace cards in the Rider-Waite tarot decks with their hands appearing out of clouds. Then the sun appears in the cloudy hand and I see a gigantic Egyptian hieroglyph for "offering." It's strange and wonderful -- surely in three thousand years of ancient Egyptian history someone must have seen a similar sight of a cloud arm offering forth a sun (or a moon) -- and reinforces my belief that the cosmos gives us little signs if we pay attention.

I notice an abandoned bottle of water, mostly empty, leaning against the eastern fence, so I pick it up. Above me, there's a deep blue hole in the pink-tipped clouds.

I leave the reservoir. We need tea, and I'm entertaining a purchase of chocolate. I walk downhill, toward the store. When I pause to admire blooms, I notice more runoff water from a different manicured lawn.

The mini-mall parking lot is empty and the irrigation system hisses as it sprays Oregon grape and other native plants. I wonder why people don't water in the evening, when the water will evaporate less than it will during the day.

The white concrete plaza in front of the stores is quiet. The café, ice cream and tea shops have their outdoor furniture bundled together with security wire and locks. Weak sunlight brightens shines on concrete, glass and steel. There is a strange lack of people going through the supermarket's doors, and I wonder where all the early Saturday morning coffee drinkers are. Classical music from the supermarket becomes more audible as I approach, but the double glass doors do not slide open. The lights are on, but the store won't open for another forty minutes.

No chocolate (or tea) for me. I head home.

Back on our front porch, I sit with the cat and give her an extra long lap session. I think and write and clean the house. And this is what I come up with: Every day is a new gift, don't waste it. There's always little things you can do to clean up your act. Take the time and space to dream new ways and let the unneeded go.

I'm sure there's more -- but now, I'm going to write.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Writer Quiz

John Burridge took the Which Writer Are You Most Like? Quiz with the result:

John Burridge.

You are the type of writer who is mistaken for a philosopher, theologian, or Egyptologist. Although you tend to write more fantasy than science fiction, you are able to write in both genres -- frequently mixing the two. World building is your strongest speculative fiction suit: your fantasy typically includes intricate magical ritual and your science fiction has complex aliens. The Achilles' heel of world building is the tendency to get bogged down in "Tolkien Sclerosis."

The humor in your pieces leans toward sarcasm and irony, and the targets usually deserve it. Frequently, you are the funniest person you know.

While you tend to write stories which teeter between the edge of esoteric and incomprehensible, you like your prose and stories direct. It takes someone like Charles Dickens hitting you over the head with a symbolic clue-by-four to make you realize that Aslan is Christ. Try to remember that next time you're working on a first draft.

Your voice is hypnotic, which insures when you read your flash fiction that the audience will love it. Unless it's Sunday morning and you're not feeling too well because you spent the previous night guzzling too much Pepsi and dancing to 80's music.

Your non-fiction has been described as "a slice of life translated from an alien tongue."

The closest Wordo you live to is John Burridge.

If you were a British football player, you would be John "Budgie" Burridge.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Toxic Writing Fears

On the writing front... I had a morale-building discussion the other night. The down side of writing (for me, anyway) takes several toxic forms. Sometimes I feel like a fake (which apparently happens to writers who win Hugo and Nebula awards). Sometimes I feel like I'll be really really lucky if I get a footnote in the Annals of the Earth (my footnote will be on the Wordos' page and will be something along the lines of "the gay one"). Sometimes I feel really old (I won't think too hard about age when I'm speaking with 22 year old writers). Sometimes the Money Daemon sits on my shoulder while I'm writing and asks pointed questions about Jobs and Hobbies (hello, last I checked the National Endowment for the Arts received less money than a lot of folks). And probably the most toxic of all, sometimes I feel like the stories I write are a schizophrenic's self-referential ravings (it was pointed out to me that the latest offerings weren't quite so confusing to the table as I thought).

The discussion wasn't so much a "here's what to do" one so much as a "here's my fears as a writer, too" one. It was cathartic, but also good to hear some of the unhelpful things I tell myself coming out of someone else's mouth about their own process.

Back to writing!

Monday, June 08, 2009

LGBT Pride Month

President Obama has proclaimed that June is LGBT Pride Month. So I guess I need to post my thoughts on same-sex marriage.

I see marriage as a ritual that builds a spiritual vehicle. The lovers involved are pledging not only to uphold and maintain each other, but to uphold and maintain the spiritual vehicle. Participating in a marriage is the process of building something larger than, and inclusive of, the participants. I think the usual phrase is called, "building a household."

Socially, for good or for ill, marriage is one of those milestones our society uses to judge if you are a Real Person or some kind of unhappy, unloved, juvenile delinquent.

Mark will probably say something wildly practical, like "marriage is doing the dishes for each other."

On the spiritual front, if a particular religious flavor wants to reserve the ritual of marriage to a certain set of people, well gee -- that's their religion. My preference is to reserve marriage to lovers -- emancipated adults able to choose whom they love.

However, in the USA, marriage is also a business contract. Straight married people receive all sorts of tax breaks prohibited to same-sex couples. Oregon's actually pretty nice about some credits; but if either Mark or I kick off, we do not receive the other's Social Security benefits because the Federal government does not recognize same-sex marriage partners. My health insurance, granted through Mark's employer, is a taxable benefit -- the same benefit would not be taxed were we straight and married.

And it doesn't stop there. Hardy Meyers, then acting Attorney General for Oregon, pointed out in an opinion a few years ago that children of same-sex couples are monetarily discriminated against by the government because of the sexual orientation of their parents. This makes them a minority class deserving of special protection -- which they don't get.

So. Yeah. It's Pride Month. You know what I think I'd like more than a proclamation? Or a parade? I'd like it if religions were left alone to have whatever religious marriage ceremonies they can come up with and I'd like it if all married couples had the same taxes regardless of the genders of the spouses involved. It'd be easy to do -- either give everyone the same tax breaks, or abolish marriage tax breaks.

I think this is the part where I'm supposed to conclude with, "Yes, We Can."

Arms Shoulders Knees and Toes...

The last few weeks my left shoulder and arm have bothered me. When I'd reach for something I felt like an old 70's aspirin commercial -- the one where shadowy old folks try to lift their arms inside of to what looked like a giant stopwatch cutout.

I'm pretty sure it was caused by reaching for a poorly placed mouse. For the last few days I haven't used the Macintosh and my arm has improved noticeably. Right now, I've got the laptop on top a CD case which is improvising as a computer podium. As long as I remember to unplug the network and power cables, Mark won't bring things crashing to the ground when he spins the case looking for a CD.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Total Eclipse of the Heart (Literally)

OK. I guess this has been making the rounds... but it's the funniest thing that I've seen in quite some time. I sort of liked the original song, and I grew up in the age of M-TV, but I'd never seen this video before the other day.




I'm trying to decide if I would have thought the video was cool if I had seen it when it first came out. I probably would have found it oddly compelling ("...the gayest man on earth would call this over the top...") and silly at the same time. I've got to admit, the flying zombie choir boy freaks me out.... I'm not sure what the producer was thinking.

I'm not sure if I should be frightened or not, but a lot of my dreams are kind of like this. Well... OK, bunches of half-naked guys are not dancing in my dreams, but the dark halls and candles sort of remind me of the "John, Prince of Darkness" dream I had about ten years ago.