20 January 2014

A Different Kind of Research

The last part of 2013 was a whirlwind of writing goodness for me. After ten months' worth of false starts and personally upsetting events, I abandoned myself to the NaNoWriMo gods and rebooted my writing habits. Although I have and continue to put a lot of energy into short stories, I've been working for a while now on writing novels. I know a lot of you writers are working on longer pieces. All I can say is you have enormous volumes of respect from me. Novel drafts have always felt like an intimidating investment to me, especially given how much you can learn about different plots, character development, techniques, etc., etc., from short stories.

Nonetheless, it's good to be well-rounded. After multiple tries, I guess I feel as though writing a novel is becoming a lot easier, in the sense that I don't feel as inclined to race around, arms flailing, yelling "I don't know what I'm doing!" the entire time.

In preparation for November (and, as it turned out, most of December), I built an idea loosely based on this post on the Siberian Ice Maiden. I did a bunch of reading about Pazyryk art, I constructed a soundtrack, I brainstormed back story, and I mapped major plot points.

I also worked my way through Where the Spirits Ride the Wind, an amazing book by Felicitas Goodman. I stumbled across her work while I was researching the history of standing meditation postures (that's a thing). Goodman was an anthropologist who experimented with using ritual postures, found ubiquitously in ancient art, to induce trance states and allow the participant to experience trance journeys. This is done both with and without the use of drugs. Goodman's experiments proved that it was possible for people to feel and visualize altered states solely through the ritual posture and the use of rhythm instruments (drum, rattle) played at a certain interval. (In her book I think she suggests 200 beats per minute.)

Not content to merely speculate about the potential meanings of different postures, she decided that the thing to do was to try them and see what happened. She gathered volunteers (readily accessible - this was the '60s), took them through a simple breathing exercise to induce relaxation, had them assume whatever posture they were working with, and played a rattle at them for fifteen minutes.

The results were pretty remarkable: not only did people experience visions and feel that they were travelling outside of their bodies, but different postures created different experiences for the participants. Not that everyone saw the exact same thing, but there were trends among the imagery the participants experienced. Each posture, it seemed, attuned the person to a different mode of consciousness.

There is substantial debate in Goodman's field about the validity of this research, primarily because by necessity her work with postures and trance was performed outside of the context of the cultures that originally created the postures. (Some of the postures she worked with were originally part of cave art, so it wasn't her fault, really.) I can understand the problems any science has with incorporating subjective experience into its data set. Fortunately for me that has no bearing whatsoever, since I decided to use Goodman's results personally. It seemed to me that the ideal way to do research for a book with heavy Shamanistic themes was to do something Shamanistic.

Assuming the Bear Spirit posture might win you new and larger friends.
I've got about twenty years' meditation experience, enough to make me interested in just about any non-drug related way to blow my own mind. (Nothing against using drugs to achieve altered states...just I've found I personally don't need them.)

There's something a little bit...extra, I think, about writing and reading fictional narratives all the time that helps with things like guided visualization. When you're a writer, you're used to the images flowing non-stop into your mind. When you do a meditative exercise like a visualization, the process can be similar although the goal is different: rather than telling a story or reading someone else's story, you're opening yourself up to imagery for the purpose of understanding yourself better, receiving guidance, or even healing.

Partly through meditation, I've learned to no longer think of the images, plots and ideas that spring forth with writing as simply generated by my own psyche. I haven't read enough Jung to know if I understand the Collective Unconscious correctly, but I do believe that we float in this pool of ideas, any one of which can express through any one person at any given time. (I think there's more going on than a collective idea pool, but that's a post for another time.)

One way to look at the mind-body is as a receiver for signals from outside. In the ancient world, this was such common knowledge that it barely required mentioning. Psychologist and Princeton Professor Julian Jaynes famously wrote about this state in his The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, in which he pointed to abundant evidence that, up until about 1000 BC, all people experienced a constant influx of messages (orders, points of strategy, insights) from sources that they personified as the Gods. (Jaynes thought this was an inferior state of mind, and also a delusion. Everybody's entitled to an opinion, Julian.)

Many writers will tell you that they've experienced writing-as-trance. "I don't know where that came from" is a common experience following a particularly intense or focused writing session. (Or the related notion: "Where the hell did that come from?") So why not induce trance and see what comes up?

Because one of the aesthetics I'm working with in this book is Pazyryk culture, I went on a search for traditional music from this region. Through the Free Music Archive, I found Siberskya Vichora, a highly listenable group that researches, performs, records and preserves traditional Siberian music. A couple of their songs are on the soundtrack for my novel.

A little further poking revealed Russie Sibérie: Musique de la Toundra et de le Taiga. The first track on this record is a sixteen-minute jam by people playing the Khomus (more commonly known in the English-speaking world as the Jew's harp, mouth harp, etc.). If you haven't heard what it's possible to do with this incredible instrument, here you go (stick with it to 3:30, especially you like techno). The Wiki page notes that "since trances are facilitated by droning sounds, the Jew's harp has been associated with magic and has been a common instrument in shamanic rituals."

I decided to listen to Russie-Sibérie while sitting in bed and planning my novel. I wasn't planning to trance. In my mind, I thought I still had to find the right piece of music - preferably, a repetitive rattling or drumming piece - before I could try it.

A minute or two into the Khomus track, I felt my entire energy shift and knew I was going out. I stuck with the novel planning for a bit, making a few sparse notes on my main characters and thinking about what kind of future setting I wanted to create. By the time I was done with that, it was very clear to me that I was going. I wasn't sure where I was going, mind you, but I knew I was going. I didn't keep my mind on the music: I just let myself flow with it, and let the imagery that came to me present itself in whatever way it wanted to.

I don't remember moving into the landscape, but shortly I was in an area of flat grassland with a grey sky overhead. A small animal, walking on its hind legs, approached me. In my mind I was calling it a badger but I have no idea really. It handed me a small, glittery object. I held it for a moment and looked at it. It seemed to be a sort of prism in which lights shifted constantly. It shone with an interior light. I knew just what to do with it: I parted my rib cage and placed the object inside my torso. I had the sensation of the object unfolding, and a liquid warmth racing down my limbs. I saw streams of light running in tiny rivulets all throughout my body.

"That's your novel," the badger said. "It's in your nervous system now."

I felt it was time to go, so I climbed up through a hole in the sky. Just as I got back into my body, the music stopped.

Okay so that happened.

What also happened is that I had a really smooth writing experience. Opposed to my usual drop-down-dead effect at the end of November, I felt okay by the end of the first 30 days of writing. It was a lot of work. It's always a lot of work. It was emotional. It's always emotional. By November 30th, I was about 70k into the draft. I was tired but I had enough juice to keep going through most of December. I finished the draft 'round about December 20th, at about 108k. I won't say that anything especially magical happened while I was writing. It's always magical. I will say that I didn't worry as much as I usually do about how it's going. I trusted.

Badger power.

13 January 2014

Dark Corners by The Flight

Directed and animated by the fabulous Kevin Weir of Flux Machine.

08 January 2014

Sisyphean Triumph, Promethean Binding, Red Rubber Gloves, Zombies Vs. Vampires, and a Free Flash Fiction Course


Andrew Leon at Strong StrangePegs offers us a story of unusual feats of strength involving hills, boulder-sized trucks, and putting one foot in front of the other. Simultaneously, he inspires us to keep publishing, promoting, and generally getting our stuff out there.


Over the holidays I re-read Prometheus Bound, the play by Aeschylus. (I read the Philip Vellacott translation, which is both elegant and modern, so I recommend it, but this one looks okay.) I mention it because hey, did you know that before Prometheus gave humanity fire and a little education, Zeus considered us to be an inferior blunder and was planning to wipe us all out and replace us with something better?


I've been listening to the excellent Pseudopod for a while, and hands down my favourite story they released in 2013 was Christine Brooke-Rose's "Red Rubber Gloves," narrated by the incomparable Kim Lakin-Smith. (The previous sentence contains a lame joke if you've listened to the story. My apologies.) Along with its sister podcasts, Escape Pod and PodCastle, Pseudopod offers some of the finest encounters with short fiction you're likely to have. I've written about this before, but one of the best things about the Pods is the way they meticulously match reader and story. Lakin-Smith's precise and unrushed narration really allows this story's hypnotic and horrifying repetitive nature to shine through. Load "Red Rubber Gloves" onto your mp3 player or perch your laptop next to you and have a listen. Better yet, listen while you're doing dishes or chopping up some nice, red meat for dinner.


Zombies vs. Vampires, right? If you are *ahem* of a certain vintage, you'll remember the explosion of blood-sucking deliciousness spawned by Anne Rice and others, the resurgence of interest in Bram Stoker's work back in the 1990s, and sundry other events that resulted in David Bowie starring in a vampire movie that never once used the word "vampire." In an excellent column for Nightmare Magazine, Nancy Kilpatrick considers some of the many factors that make zombies the more salient of the two monsters in this modern world of ours today ("And Then the Zombie Killed the Vampire").

In order to jump start my year, I'm working my way through Holly Lisle's free flash fiction course (aka "How to Write Flash Fiction that Doesn't Suck"). Flash is great because you can practice building character, setting, situation, and all that without the investment of a longer story or (gasp!) a whole novel manuscript, and, thanks to our ever-decreasing attention spans, it's more salable than ever. The course includes three lessons in fill-out-these-forms format, and helps you draft five different stories simultaneously, so it's great if you don't feel like writing, and when you're all done, you'll have a lot to show for it. If you're skeptical, this review is worth reading even if all you get out of it is how to write curmudgeonly reviews.

06 January 2014

Long Time No See; Everything Old is New Again

So yeah. I changed back from Dynamic Views. As I was doing my end-of-year review, one of the things I wasn't as happy with as I could have been is the fact that I drifted away from this blog. Generally speaking I put myself out there much less this past year. I didn't submit very many stories, and I didn't revise and sub the several novel manuscripts I'd planned to at least dip into.

In terms of writing, it was a very introspective year. I took a course or two. I thought about what I do and how I do it. I wrote a quarter millions words, much of them taken up by two novel manuscripts. That went well: I think I finally started to get how to plot a long form work this year, without things going all crazy and somebody going on a weird killing spree or the whole thing ending up looking like one of those movies from the 1980s where the only way to resolve things was to enter some weird, abstract place of terror and delight because all your problems are ultimately in your mind. (See Drop Dead Fred for a prime example. Seriously, that template for resolving plots is completely lodged in my imagination.)

A lot of my energy went into teaching tai chi and qigong. I developed a couple of courses and ran more workshops and worked on making my classes even more awesome. I also focused a lot more on basic organization of our household, setting up some routines, and working on my basic writing habits - i.e., figuring out when are the best times to do writing, and how to find more time if I have to skip a day for other stuff. In other words, how does it all fit into my life?

One of the things I realized is that I come here, to the blog space, as much to connect with you guys as I do to post crap about me. I benefit quite a bit more from seeing what you're up to than I do from beaking off abut what I'm up to. Although I liked the way Dynamic Views looked, the interface was never as smooth as it should have been, and lacked the same gadgets that Blogger's simpler templates have: specifically, the blogroll widget. I know some people think they're messy, but I love the little reminders that tell me when you guys have posted recently. I know that Blogger does this on the back end too, but like to keep track of some of you on the front end.

The fact that that sounded dirty to me means this post is done. I won't promise to post more frequently. We all know how that goes! But now that I can see how you all are doing, I promise I'll drop by more often.

Happy 2014!