The Ubermensch of Self-Reflection

Self-reflection is impossible. No one can self-reflect. You might think that you can self-reflect. I am sure that you do. You’re told to do it every day by someone – your brother, your sparing partner, a billboard or newscaster – and you think that you really do. I used to think that it was possible for some people to self-reflect. But it isn’t Not for anyone!

Honestly, consider yourself right now, reading this, thinking, “Well, I self-reflect. I’m doing it right now. I am self-reflecting on my self-reflecting! Obviously I am. It’s stupid to say that I don’t because I do. I’m doing it right now! It’s as clear as anything ever was!”

Yeah, but, no, you’re not. You only think you are because you’re trapped in that head of yours. It isn’t self-reflection at all. It is just you tricking yourself that you’re self-reflecting. I can hear you this very moment, thinking, “Just because you say that I don’t self-reflect does not mean that I don’t self-reflect. I do. I know I do.” But as much as you might think you are self-reflecting, especially if you use words like mindful and empathetic, you’re not. You’re the opposite. You’re only doing that because you think it’s good and right. It’s like smoking. You stopped doing that because you were told it is bad and wrong, when it isn’t. That’s because you’re all ego and super ego. You’re all you. That’s all there is to you. Nothing else. Certainly not someone who can self-reflect.

I am the same as you. All I can do is reflect on how I self-reflect. I mean, I can also reflect on you reading this. But that’s not me. That’s you. And I can even reflect on how insightful I am for realizing that no one can self-reflect. Not you and not even me. Which is all so very clever. Or it’s not. But it isn’t. I come to realize that the more I self-reflect. Which goes back to the main point. You can’t self-reflect.

To paraphrase Nietzsche, one can only self-reflect if you,1) become yourself, 2) accept what life brings and avoid self-hatred and 3) overcome yourself and find true peace. You got to be on a lot of Oxy if you think you can really do any of that. And if you do – think that you can do that, that is – then you can’t – self-reflect that is – because you can’t. In others words, like Joseph Heller wrote in Catch-22, the more you think you can self-reflect, the more you can’t. It’s as simple as that.

Young Chronicles VII: Der Schinken Isn’t Chicken

Young Chronicles I-IV details a 1972 school trip to Northern Ontario, while Young Chronicles V-VI offers a brief account of a family car trip to Prince Edward Island in 1974. This section of Young Chronicles jumps ahead nine years to my hitchhiking trip across Canada. The adventure took 71 days, covering over 10,000 miles in 110 different cars along with two extensive bus rides. I made copious notes, much of which is embarrassingly trite, but that’s the point of this, right? Anyway, I aim to share the most interesting and amusing bits and see where that takes me.

I had just finished my first year at university and I thought I knew everything there was to know and decided to set out to discover “The Canadian Soul”. Yes, I wrote that phrase down. My aim was to ask everyone what they thought about Canada, what it meant to them, where the country was going. I think I asked a total of five people in the end. That said, I did document every ride and many of the things I saw and thought (ad nauseum) along the way.

Day One (June 3, 1983) Mileage 0-344

Ride One: Toronto to Ajax in Rally STX van (blue) with John Hulme, who told me that picking up hitchhikers was “against company policy”.

Ride Two: Ajx to Hwy 115 Turnoff in VW Rabbit (beige) with Buecklie, originally from West Germany. He gave me a Medallion cigarette and told a long anecdote about ordering what he thought was a chicken sandwich because the word “Der Schinken” sounded so much like chicken. It turned out to be ham. He and the waiter thought this was very funny and later became friends.

Ride Three: Hwy 115 Turnoff to Ottawa Turnoff in 1977 MGB with a large red-bearded man. His daughter did Pepsi commercials but hated the stuff.

Ride Four: Ottawa Turnoff to Cornwall in a 1979 Thunderbird with Eugene Bugala who was a Catholic priest. He liked Canada because it was free and nice with a European flavor. He also considered the maple leaf a satisfactory symbol for the country.

Ride Five: Ottawa Turnoff to Montreal 1977 Dart (brown) with Tim Paquette. He lit a joint, played Peter Gabriel’s San Jacinto on his car stereo and then explained his video concept for the song which involved blue spotlights and children running through the jungle. He took me around the neighborhood as he delivered pizzas and then picked up his girlfriend Cathy before heading out to The Maples Tavern. It was a low-key place that was later busted by the Quebec police who were arrogant, their thumbs in their pockets and hats tilted back. I stayed the night at Tim’s house.

The Impossible World of World Building

World building is writing hell. As incredible – even fun – as the idea might sound, it isn’t. By anything being possible, there is no place to start. Even if it seems like a matter of just picking and choosing and away you go, it isn’t. Not for me. While I might have the germ of an idea – such as using dark matter to fuel an inter-generational spaceship – fleshing that out is akin to chronic constipation. My writing practice is centered on the small things – an image or line of dialogue – and going out from there. It is an inductive approach to writing, finding the bits of evidence to create the whole, such as the serval image at the watering hole that begat My Bad Side.

Photo Credit: Michael Nichols, National Geographic

I didn’t know what that image meant at the time, but I knew it meant something and used it to find what might be next.

Building worlds demands the opposite to my approach to writing, a deductive method, going from the big picture to develop the small, focusing on time machines or warp drives, creating a story from those. This is what grinds my flow to a halt. If I can’t see where I am – the details of what it looks like to live on board a spaceship – I am perpetually stuck.

I got into the world of speculative fiction by accident. The protagonist in an earlier book, Dee Sinclair, stumbled ahead and wondered aloud if she might venture on to something else. As far-fetched as her world appeared at the time – a sex performer holed up with her pet serval – it was nothing compared to Greenland where she witnesses a fledgling world constructed before her eyes. This is the outset of Anori, the first book of The Cx Trilogy.

The crux of the speculative/sci-fi genre is world building, something beyond what we live in today. It isn’t just a matter of a propping up a couple of rocket ships and having characters walk about in space suits. Every detail has to be in tune. My most effective world building elements in Anori are Holoweb and Second Skin because they were simple to envision – a three-dimensional version of today’s internet and a spray-on fashion statement – and only a step ahead of what we have now.

I raised the world-building stakes in the second book of the trilogy, Aqaara, where Dee boards a generational spaceship bound for a planet light-years distant. Daily life aboard the spaceship took a long time to create, not just the details of the sleeping quarters and gatherings places but, more importantly, the mindset of leaving Earth to never return. I was in the Highlands of Scotland while mapping out this world, a far cry from outer space but at least isolated and quiet.

I planned the design of the ship while hiking, soaking wet, through the silence, but could not attain a genuine sense for what it felt like to live in this space, to sleep and eat, to lose all sense of time with a lunar or solar cycle, to see people every day – there was no day! – and to not know when, if ever, the journey might come to an end. That took another two drafts – in Puglia and then New York – to get it so it seemed like it really was so.

The final book, Mina, demands a literal new world. That’s where I am now. The temptation to settle for lunar landscapes and prehistoric beasts remains hard to resist. After all, what do I know about another planet’s flora and fauna? I have settled on a leopard seal/hedgehog hybrid as the creature atop of the food chain, as well as string of camera-stealing starlings. Who knows what the deep seas will offer? Something astonishing should happen soon.

My challenge with world building has given me pause. As transfixed as I can be in the fantastic landscapes of science fiction – where absolutely anything is possible – the writing craft must remain the focus. In other words, while the visions presented in this genre might be spell-binding, the characters, dialogue and construction of the narrative remain the foundation. My aim in writing The Cx Trilogy is to bridge the gap between literary fiction and speculative fiction, and not just build worlds but build worlds where we can literally picture ourselves alive and wondering. We will see what Dee’s progeny find next.

Oxy Thinking

I am now six weeks out of a double knee replacement which was made sless (slightly less) arduous because of the Oxycontin. It’s a very fine drug for many obvious reasons but mainly because it made me realize the silliness of thinking rational or, more to the point, the importance of slurtionality. That’s a word. I know it.

Anyway, what I want to say is that I came to understand things with my newfound thinking patterns, some very important things such as why Amy Klobuchar and Lois Griffin (the Family Guy wife) have the exact same voice. To understand the importance of understanding this, you only need to superimpose the voice on the girl from the Best Buy computer ads and see how many products would then be moved.

Oxy knowledge is also visual, surrendering such sparks as a metallic box of oily relics, a gurney that drifts to the left and the distinct memory of writing these things down, which means that the essential difference between spiritual and intellectual nausea is laid bare in Rachel Maddow’s speech patterns. (I know what you’re thinking.)

The point is that I’ve lost it. It’s all gone from my brain because I have weaned myself clean. All right, just one a day. Just the one! The point is that I see things right and true now. I believe in the Values and Beliefs committee even if they did find me guilty of things the chairwoman is guilty of (and not me). I’m good. She’s good too. All of them. And who really cares about any of that? We’ve all got other things on our minds.

Non-Fiction > Fiction

I can’t read fiction when I’m writing. I can’t read novels or short stories. I can barely watch a film. I can’t buy into any of it because it isn’t real. I know that someone made all of this stuff up, and so it isn’t interesting. More to the point, the fact that I know it is made up makes it irrelevant because it is untrue. My suspension of disbelief has been annihilated. Instead of the world being offered, I can only picture the writer plodding along, trying desperately to con me with turns of phrase and magic imagery but ultimately failing. I only see the artifice.

Even if I were to accept the falsity of the fiction, I obsess over the writer’s style. I focus solely on the literary devices and consider how I might employ the same tools myself. Whatever the reasoning, reading fiction is too distracting when I’m writing. And so I don’t do it. Read fiction that is.

Non-fiction is the only option, literally the only thing I can enjoy when I’m writing. The non-fiction author still has to be able to write, but this is more a craft than an art. Its primarily about the material, which is always interesting because it is real. This stuff actually happened. These people and places existed, simple as that. The content can be almost anything for me, anything from Krakatoa’s infamous 1883 eruption or the tragic history of the caviar industry to the life of Bobby Orr or the making of The Wizard of Oz. Whatever the story, they are filled with gems.

For a sense of theme, the big picture, as it were, I am reading Sue Prideaux’s description of Friedrich Nietzsche’s writing of Also Sprach Zarathustra in her book, I Am Dynamite: A Life of Friedrich Nietzsche: At some moment in prehistory, Nietzsche conjectures, there arose some specific practice that was bad for the community. It led to the imposition of punishment. This was the moment of the construction of morality. Burdened with bad conscience, we turned against ourselves in misery and self-loathing. Man ‘is like an animal who batters himself raw on the bars of his cage.’ The antidote to this slave morality is the Ubermensch, the free, affirmative, independent spirit. The moral quality of this higher man is driven by his life force, his will to power. (273-4)

For a sense of place, I found a clear portrait in Margaret Horsfield’s Cougar Annie’s Garden: The chill of winter can be piercing here, for cold air flows down from the mountains at night, settles damp and low in the garden, trapped by the forest all around. Even on clear winter evenings, a bank of mist flowing over the mountains is a common sight, cold air streaming down to hover low in the garden where ground frost can be sharp and boardwalks icy. (80-1)

Characters are everywhere – at work, on the subway in the pharmacy – but it is always interesting to see them rendered in non-fiction, what details are developed, what action highlighted. In Natalie McLennan’s auto-biography, The Price: My Rise and Fall of Natalia as New York’s #1 Escort, the details she offers are all the better because they are matter-of-fact: As the weeks went on, days and nights got more and more frenetic. I’d fly to Florida for a four-day appointment, come back and immediately do a ten-hour appointment, followed by another two-hour job. I’d then sleep five hours and start all over again. I spent about $100 per day on cabs. There’s nothing sexy about arriving to an appointment smelling like the Canal Street Subway station. Oh, and those fuck-me shows are definitely not made for walking. My body was all lean muscle from copious sex and lack of food. (60-1)

For my latest work, Mina, set on a distant undiscovered planet, I am looking out for tales from the edge, where creatures beyond our imagination roam. Nathaniel Philbrick offers his well-researched version of the white whale attacking the ship in In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex.The whale began snapping its jaws and thrashing the water with its tail, as if distracted with rage and fury. With its huge scarred head halfway out of the water and its tail beating the ocean into a white-water wake more than forty feet across, the whale struck the ship just beneath the port bow. No longer going backward, the Essex was now going down. (82-3)

The Fear IV: San Francisco

The Fear struck again in early 1986. This time it would stay with me for quite some time. I flew to California with my girlfriend. We were to spend half the time in the Bay Area for a few Grateful Dead concerts and a couple of university interviews at Stanford and San Francisco State for my intended M.A. program in film, and the other half in Burbank for an interview I had scheduled for my thesis at Walt Disney Studios. I felt off from the moment I stepped on the plane and found myself incredibly agitated while renting our car.

We got to a hotel in Oakland and walked to the concert hall. The show was all right; it would have been a lot better if I had avoided drugs. The notion of trying anything again – this was my first attempt since that dreadful night in Columbia – was a source of great worry for me, but as my belief in confronting fears was a bit of a mantra, I had no other choice. I suffered through waves of intense fear and doubt, but felt quite calm and somewhat relieved by the end.

I had a bath and found was horrified by the blue tiles. They were too even and clean, too polished for a sane person to consider. Panic descended. The worst part of it was I couldn’t corner it, couldn’t explain it; it was a shadow cast from nothing. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing with my life. All of my writing belittled human existence. I was always trying to get outside of the human context. Who the hell did I think I was to do that? The notion was asinine. I had just something called Bare Cage which reduced humanity to a seventeen page one-act play with a naked man and woman, a dead bear and a machine housed in an impenetrable cage, while I was at work on a screenplay entitled Home which featured a house as the main character and the people that moved through as incidentals, while thirdly, I was writing notes for a proposed novel I had entitled Popo Know, the piece from my cat’s perspective. It was as if I didn’t think I was human, like I was above it all, like my vision was beyond the grasp of any other. It was totally fucked.

The next day when I went to the corner bakery, I felt as bad as ever. I was panic-stricken when a stranger asked me a question. I had no idea what he said. I just looked away and pretended he didn’t exist. I pointed to some buns and left as quickly as I could. I was supposed to get ice as well, but didn’t feel up to it. The rest of the day went fairly well. I looked at a couple of the sights in San Francisco, visited San Francisco State University – they had a decent program even if the campus was horrendously ugly – and went to the beach. We went to our second show; it was Chinese New Year’s and, for the event, the Dead had lined up the San Francisco Chinese Orchestra as the back-up. I weaved my way to the front and then thoughts of death and suicide crashed upon me. I wasn’t about to commit suicide, but my understanding of the notion was extremely precise. The gun, the knife, the rope, they were all emblems of clarity. Life was a waste; anybody with a mind could see that. Why the hell not wipe it out? All was blackness and doom. Concepts such as love and freedom were lies to make the imminent collapse of the universe digestible. The wise and loving gods were salesmen speculating on preferential stock. Music was a waste of time; life was a waste of time.

“Shit.” I lost my balance. The last thing I saw was a girl blacking out; I collapsed on top of her. I desperately tried to stand. I opened my eyes to find them clouded and the stadium shrouded in blackness. The houselights had gone out. The band was coming on. Some people helped guide me from the floor and out into the concourse area where I listened to the music float through the halls and watched the crazies and their children dance.

The next day I drove down to Stanford. I fought the feeling all the way down. It was pushing me very hard. We came onto the main, palm-tree-lined avenue into the campus. Sunshine blazed onto the impeccable scene of lush beauty. Hordes of happy cyclists crowded the paths…and then it assaulted me. What was stopping me from swerving the car and plowing through these joyous curs? What the hell was the point of staying on the road? The road was a fucking waste of time. These self-satisfied fuckers needed to understand the precious gift of life…and so did I. This was a farce. My little role in this pathetic jumble was a wasteful pursuit. All the cloaks and masks…why was I supposed to value this mass of conceit?

I slowed the car, forced simple thoughts of hockey and sex into my head and parked. We visited the film faculty, found out my program had been cancelled and left.

A couple of days later I had my interview at Walt Disney studios. I asked the woman my prepared questions and, as she answered, thought what a waste of time her and my life really were. Amazingly, I managed to ask her all of my questions and, a few hours later, when the necessity of the answers returned, wrote them down. I learned to control the feeling over the next few months until early that summer, when I went tree planting, and it finally went away.

The Banal Evil of Going Down the Middle

We live in a mess of a world. Nothing whatsoever points to anything working out for any of us. And, truth be known, we deserve come what may. That’s because we lie and cheat and steal and destroy. Each and every one of us do this, not in an occasional mistaken manner, but in a purposeful self-centered way.

We like to distract ourselves with food and drink, music and books, and even go on to think that there is hope as we look at the beauty in the words of Aeschylus or the brilliance of Hawking, and even think that we just have to get rid of this Trump fellow and it will be better .

But the answer to silly idea is a very hard no. It isn’t Trump to blame, as shitty as he is, nor even Putin nor Bolsonaro. These psycho-loons are just a symptom of what the real problem is: us, me and you, the ones who allowed it to be. It’s the evil of the middle road, making decisions to eke out a little bit for ourselves, convinced that no real harm is done by a trip somewhere nice or buying another bag of chips. That’s how the Nazis rose up. And it is how they will do it again.

I feel like I’m 10 years old. I don’t have a clue what I’m doing. That’s my shitty excuse. I’m always looking to get away, avoid responsibility. I move from one thing to the next with no genuine aspiration, nothing true or wise. I like to write. That’s it. I like to live in that pretend world so that I can think that I know things. Yeah, I’m a stupid kid.

Anyway, the point is that we won’t make the right decisions just because we don’t really want to, not in our hearts, not in our genes. We want to go to Disney Land. And we feel good about that because anyone can do that. What else could there be?

The Five Basics of Novel Writing

Basic #1 You need something gnawing at you, some sort of singular understanding of the key to existence or just a character in panda jammies.

The first book which I wrote was inspired by the image of a group of prostitutes being driven across the country in a tractor trailer. Don’t ask why, but that was the idea that came into my head late at night in a Parisian apartment. It developed into my first novel The Sacred Whore.

My second book was based on the impossible idea of a landowner refusing to mine a rich deposit of gold to keep his land pristine, which evolved into Manitou Island.

My latest work, a speculative trilogy about a generational journey to another planet, was borne out of an image of a serval by a watering hole.

Photo credit: Micheal Nichols, National Geographic

This image was the impetus for four books and some fifteen years of writing.

One thing to be careful of in your inspiration mode is the issue of the moment. Avoid delving into a topic that has recently impacted you. In other words, you need at least a couple more years before writing your Covid-19 piece.

Basic #2 Manage your work as it comes out of you, bit by bit. You need to write what needs to be written, which could be anything from a full outline to a character description or snippets of dialogue. Whatever it is, build out from there.

The key to this step is patience. You have to wait for the moment and/or characters to reveal themselves. I came to understand this when writing The Sacred Whore, I was stuck in the middle of the book and realized I had way too many characters (something like 20) and decided to eliminate half of them. The funny thing was that one of the characters I tried to eliminate – Chantal Deschampes – immediately wanted back in the story. It wasn’t my idea. It was hers. That’s when I knew I had something.

Basic #3 When you’re stuck, go back to the beginning and go through it again. Get the momentum you need to continue and just plow ahead. You have to face the simple fact that a lot of what you have already written is junk and will eventually be deleted.

It’s like being stuck in the snow or mud in your car. You’ve got to go back, dig out the rear wheels, clean the path, and get a little space to move ahead. You have to do this again and again, so much so that your first page gets rewritten a hundred times, which can be a good thing. Or not. But don’t worry about that now.

Basic #4 Leave the work alone for a long period of time, at least half a year. If not more. Let it ruminate. Your eyes need to be new. Let go of everything you held tight and see if it still works without you wishing it along.

This is probably the area that I personally need to work on the most. I can be impatient and move ahead when I should be waiting. I have only recently learned to enlist the work of a professional editor. Hopefully that helps me turn the corner at long last.

Basic #5 It’s time to share, to submit to agents, to attend conferences and workshops, to do that over and over again. You need a tanker load of luck with this. I’ve had the equivalent of a toy tugboat. I’ve tried for many years now and have even had a few decent conversations and follow-up emails. But then it ends.

Leaving me with the pictures of sunsets and goody bags of pens and paper. And so I take the hint and start all over again.

Woody Allen, Existentialist

I never bought into the whole religious thing. I thought it was all a big hustle. Didn’t ever think there was a God; didn’t think he conveniently favor the Jews if there was one. What were my sins? Kissing Barbara Westlake when I should have been hanging up my coat? God, there’s much worse. The Germans putting us in ovens. First attend to that. (32-3)

I envy people who derive solace from the belief that the work they created will live on and be much discussed and somehow make him “immortal”. All the people standing over Shakespeare’s grave and singing his praises means a big goose egg to the Bard. A day will come when all of Shakespeare’s play, for all their brilliant plots and iambic pentameter, will be gone with every atom in the universe. After all, we are all an accident of physics, not the work of intelligent design but, if anything, the work of a crass bungler. (73-4)

Excerpted from Woody’s Allen’s autobiography Apropos of Nothing.

Young Chronicles VI: Prince Edward Island to Montreal

June 1974

We drove right to the border of Nova Scotia and Dad said, “Let’s go to Nova Scotia.” So we did. It was cool.

We came to Hartland which has the longest covered bridge in the world. So we went into the covered bridge. It was neat-o.

We had to go across the Saint Lawrence River. Montreal is on an island. Well, instead, of going on a bridge over the river, we went under it via highway.

After we watched the election – which Stanfield lost and Trudeau won (Boo! Boo! Boo!) – we changed the channel and watched The Lucy Show and Dick Van Dyke.

This morning I woke up and somebody was knocking at the door. So mom got out of bed and opened the door. It was dad with the dog in his hands. Then he said, “She was sleeping on my stomach.” So we took her and mom went to the other room with dad.