Monday, January 24, 2011

Life, the Universe, and Everything

Like a biology student dialing down a microscope to see parameciums on a slide, I've tried to narrow my focus for this topic from "life, the universe, and everything*," to something more specific. 

Sex is an obvious choice. What's more messy, funny, and embarrassing than sex? And yet, my motto is that there's no such thing as a bad orgasm. Flawed? Oh yes. Orsum? You have to ask?

Writing is flawed. Not just typos and grammar and stuff like that. When a reader reads a story, they assume that's the way the story was meant to be, that it was planned just so, and that the finished product is the only way that story could have turned out. A good writer will make the ending seem inevitable. Even if the reader wishes, for example, that Romeo and Juliet's plan to escape and live happily ever after had worked (I don't.  I hate that story. Good riddance, couldn't have happened to a more worthy couple, etc.) they accept that's the way that it had to happen.  Creation is a messy process though.  From the first word, nothing is inevitable. The writer may have an ending in mind, but there are infinite paths between points A and B, and sometimes, many times, we writers take the wrong path, only to finally stumble on the right one by a series of trial and error. Messy, and inefficient. But when it's finally right, it's orsum.

My desk is seriously flawed. It's surrounded by stacks of books that teeter on the edge of collapse. Right now, there's Mark Twain's autobiography, a Chinese food take-out menu, the disaster recovery notebook from my day job, James Burke's book The Pinball Effect, the latest issue of Filament magazine, computer cables, a statement from one of my publishers, copies of three calls for submission that I probably won't have time to write for, the enrollment form for the Saints and Sinners Literary Festival, a copy of the Journal of Narrative Theory, a cat, and the 4th volume of the manga Ooku between me and the monitor. The top three items in the stack immediately to my right are promotion postcards from one of my books, the hardcover copy of the young adult novel A Clockwork Angel, and my favorite reference book for writing science fiction: Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice to all Creation by Olivia Judson. The rest of the stack is similarly in the non sequitur vein. On top of my computer tower is a cheap statue of Mary appearing to three sheepherder children given to me as a joke from a gay Catholic poet after I threatened to bring him world's tackiest Virgin Mary shell art as a souvenir from Venice. Over the years, the statue has been festooned with Mardi Gras beads and a collection of the plastic baby Jesus dolls from King cakes. A huge crown with a finial like a martini glass covers Mary's head and shoulders. Around the neck of one of the kids is a ring that was a throw from the Muses' Mardi Gras parade that another creative friend sent to me.  It's a weird little shrine. To what, I have no idea.  

As I'm writing this, R makes breakfast for me. He slides the plate onto the one open spot on my desk without comment since he knows that when I'm actually typing it's not the time for chitchat. I use the edge of the fork to cut into the fried egg and bright orange gloop oozes across the plate like lava to be sopped up by a piece of toast. Just the way I like it.  

Which brings me back to this idea, that no matter where I try to focus on the slide with a cross section of my life, it's all greatly flawed while being all kinds of awesome in big or small ways. Life, the Universe, and Everything.  That about sums it up.

*The title of Douglas Adam's third book in the the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which refers to the search for The Answer to life, the universe, and everything. That philosophical question is much like this topic.


  1. God, I love this! You've described your working chaos so vividly!

    (Got to check out that Dr. Tatania book. I'm really having trouble with my sci fi.)


  2. Lisbet, I use Dr. Tatiana's etc. to help figure out biologies for alien species. For example, I wanted to write about a gender shifter. There were three examples in her book of creatures here on earth that shift gender, so I had three plausable, sustainable models to draw from. I picked the one that made the most sense in the context of the story I was telling. There are more things going on in your back yard that you ever imagined. More genders, more savage lust, more cuckholding, you name it! Plus, it's funny, a bonus for any biology textbook.

  3. The chaos around/on your desk screams 'writer!' to me for some reason. Maybe it's because my own desk is rather similar - a littler of notes, on overstuffed ashtray (yes, I have that bad habit), a number of academic books, a handmade notebook I think I've just found a special use for, parts of a disassembled vibrator (I'm male, I'm supposed to be repairing it), a drumstick (I don't play the drums), and stapler among many other things.

    I do like the idea of things being flawed and awesome at the same time. And there's a certain ring of truth to it.

    I could swap Douglas Adams quotable quotes with you indefinitely because he was of the wittiest and most insightful, yet whimsical, writers I can think of. But maybe that's for another day...

  4. Fulani - I'd lose the Douglas Adams show down in a flash, but I do love his work.

  5. Hi Kathleen

    That is as fine a description of a writer's sacred space as i've ever read.

    Mine I carry around with me from coffee shop to coffee shop in a beat up brown bag.

    What is it about that book title by Dr. Tatania?? I just had to look it up in google books and its sounds like something I want to read, as soon as i finish "Parasite Rex". The natural world is not only weird, but weirder than we can imagine.


  6. Garce - It's written like Dear Abby, only for spiders, fungus and fish. And you're right, our natural world is weird beyond belief, which is why we don't have to go further than our own backyards to find aliens.

  7. On re-reading the list of stuff on your desk, the Journal of Narrative Theory caught my eye. It looks very cool - maybe even a place for me to brush off bits of my PhD, update them and turn them into a proper academic paper!

  8. Fulani - it's dry reading, and frankly, over my non-MFA-holding head most of the time. But I do try.


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