Ten Books

So, a lot of my Facebook friends have tagged me to ask about ten books that influenced me in some important way. It’s hard to pick only ten – I live in a library, after all, and have done since I was nine years old – but here’s ten, anyway, that have been on my mind recently. But I want to say more about some of these titles than the pithy paragraph of a Facebook status update. So here we go:

1. Mike Scott, Adventures of a Waterboy.
This is the autobiography of one of my all-time favourite musicians, Mike Scott, frontman of The Waterboys. I got my copy this afternoon: it was waiting for me when I got home from work. I read the first 120 pages in one sitting. It’s magnificent. Knowing his music, and knowing many of the places he speaks of (like him, I too lived for several years in the west of Ireland), reading this book is really taking me somewhere. It is not normally the intention of an autobiography of a celebrity to provoke philosophical thoughts, but this book is making me think of priorities in my life that I need to change. What an adventurous, magical, and real live Mike Scott has lived: and what a routine, almost ‘establishment’ life mine has recently become.

2. Jeff Mitscherling, Aesthetic Genesis.
I read an unpublished draft years ago. It’s an attempt to instigate a new ‘Copernican revolution’ in phenomenology the philosophy of mind: it argues that consciousness is a product of intentionality, not the reverse (as is hitherto believed), and so consciousness may well be something spread out on the earth, everywhere. It seemed exciting, powerful, esoteric, and new. I felt like I was thinking thoughts no one had ever thought before. I have a copy of the complete published work now, and I’m enjoying re-discovering it.

3. Arthur C Clark, 2001: A Space Odyssey.
A book that gave me the same feeling as #2, when I read it for the first time at 10 years old. Its exploration of mind, and computer intelligence, and paranoia, and the prospect of extraterrestrial life, gave to me a lifelong interest in science and philosophy. Although, admittedly, I already had that interest in science, due to the gift of a telescope when I was very young, and this next book:

4. Roy Gallant, Our Universe.
A children’s book about astronomy, produced by the National Geographic Society back in 1980, and I think the first book to reveal a world beyond my local world. Scientifically, it’s now hopelessly out of date. Pluto was still a planet, back then! But it’s lavishly illustrated, and delivers a sense of wonder far better than any religious book I knew at the time.

5. Nichols, The Book of Druidry.
This one seems less revolutionary to me now, than it did when I was 17, a gift from my friend A.D. But back then it was the book that I wanted to be true. It gave me a new model of a wise man that I could look up to, and maybe aspire to become. I think of myself as a philosopher more than as a pagan, now. Indeed as I look back on my life, it seems my paganism was never about ritual or magic, as it seems to be for perhaps most other pagans I know. But my paganism was always about the earth, and about music and friendship and storytelling. And food! And sex. And I remain committed to ideas like pantheism, gnostic neoPlatonism, and humanism. I first encountered these ideas in this book.

6. Browning, The Nameless Man
I include this fiction title, partly because I read it a week ago, partly because I think it’s important to support indie and small press writers, and partly because it’s a gentle-yet-firm expressionist painting of a novel. It’s the story of a man who declines to give his name, visiting Jerusalem, and seeking shelter in an abandoned house along with other pilgrims, while sectarian violence rages outside. Much of the novel involves the nameless man giving speeches, and thus the story can be compared to other philosophical novels like Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael, or even Gibran’s The Prophet. Yet there’s something different here: clues about the nameless man’s identity are dropped early, and I enjoyed the puzzle of guessing his name and the anticipation of finding out near the end whether I was right. Further, the nameless hero doesn’t merely descend from on high to tell it like it is: he has a struggle of his own to complete, and by the end of the novel it is mostly resolved – mostly, but not completely, thus preserving the novel’s dramatic tension. The author’s strong grasp of philosophical concepts and of human relations, added to a touch of rage at the social injustices perpetrated in the name of religion, make the reading very satisfying. And I have a signed copy. I’m delighted.

7. Gregory, Gods and Fighting Men.
This book made the world magical for me. It did so twice: first in my 20s, reading “the story of my people” (or at any rate my father’s people), and again in my 30s when I went to live in Ireland and got to visit the places described in the book. I know that a lot of strict Celtic Reconstructionists hate this book, and so do a lot of modern Irish for that matter. They can all suck it. The book is a masterwork of Irish language, folklore, mythology, and nation-building. I still read it, once a year, and have done for nearly 20 years. Lady Gregory is for me what writers like JRR Tolkien and JK Rowling are for so many others.

8. Karsten Harries, The Ethical Function of Architecture
I bought this book after the author visited NUIG on the academic lecture tour, and I was a neophyte grad student. Loved every word of his talk, so I bought the book. Loved the book too. It’s an intellectual play on space, time, and meaning. Besides, it’s kind of rare to find a philosophy book with photos and illustrations.

9. Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil.
This book is dangerous. Don’t read it unprepared. But read it. Every last remaining vestige of the so-called european ‘Enlightenment’, with its pompous pretentiousness, is utterly and savagely destroyed by this book. And rightly so. And on top of that, it’s a delight to read. It’s like reading the score of an opera. A Wagnerian opera! And I say this as a man committed to the importance of rationality and social justice. But what Nietzsche sees in the gaping hole in the world that his act of destruction leaves behind – well, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

10. James Lovelock, The Ages of Gaia.
Probably the first book of environmental science I ever read. I once heard the author speak on CBC Radio, and was fascinated first of all by the sonorous and grandfatherly sound of his voice, and then by the astonishing power of his simple idea: that the earth ecosystem as a whole behaves as if it is a single organism – and this is a scientifically testable idea, not just a visionary hyperbole. I went on to study environmental philosophy precisely because of this book.

It seems this “10 Book” facebook thing was the subject of some data-mining. So, if you participated in it, you just handed to an advertiser a load of personal information they can use to target-market shit to you. Sucker. But I must admit, the results are interesting. Follow this link to see for yourself.

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The Town I Loved So Well

Last week, for my 40th birthday, I visited Elora, the village where I grew up, and which I still think of as “home”. My parents have sold the house, and after they move out it will be much harder for me to visit the village again. So I shot something like ten thousand photos of the house, and of the Elora Gorge. Here are a few of them.

For 31 years, this was my family’s home.

The window in the library – the room in which I decided to be a writer, and wrote my first stuff.

The library. For the computer nerds out there: yes, that is a fully functioning Apple LC-475, on the desk.

Living room.

A path in “my” forest, the Elora Gorge Conservation Area.

That path leads to this landmark: “Hole in the Rock”. (Such an imaginative name.)

Cedar tree roots growing over a rocky ridge.

The much-photographed merging of the Irvine and Grand rivers, overlooked by Lover’s Leap.

This small plateau is the exact spot where I had a number of “spiritual experiences” (for lack of a better word) for the first time in my life. It is the very place where, at the age of 17, I thought I could hear the voice of Herself, in the trees above and the rapids below. And so I decided to become a philosopher.

I’ll post a few stories of growing up here, over the next few weeks or so, maybe. Meanwhile, here’s my sister Nuala’s very fine story of what our house meant to us. Also, if you will forgive the hucksterism, here is a selection from my 2010 book, Circles of Meaning, in which I described what it means to have a home.

As a child, in my free hours after school, or on weekends when I had no responsibilities, I would ride my bicycle all over every street in my village. Perhaps this is because I had many brothers and sisters, and therefore could not find true privacy in the house. But it’s also true that I wanted to explore the village everywhere, and claim it as my own. My family moved to the village a week before my ninth birthday. By the time I was ten, I knew the streets by the shape of the cracks and potholes. I knew the houses by the friendly and unfriendly dogs that would bark at my passing. I knew the bushes where wild raspberries grew. In the winter I knew the shapes of the snow drifts, and the best toboggan hills, and I knew spring was coming when the cedar trees threw off the snow that covered their boughs. There was a conservation area to the west of the village. It started at the place where the Grand River cut a deep gorge through the limestone, eighty feet deep, and it went on forever. I knew this terrain as intimately as I knew the streets and tracks and parks of the village itself. I knew the sinkholes and shallow caves where I could hide, together with a stash of pebbles to throw at passing tourists. I knew how to race through the trees at top speed without crashing into the crags and steppes. I knew the overlooks and plateaus where I could watch the beaten paths, unseen. I invented names for those places, and stories of battles and romances and escapes from danger that happened there. And I had a regular route that took me to each one, in its sequence, like a sentry on guard. These were my sacred places, and this was my land.

The Elora Gorge Conservation Area is where I made the first intellectual and emotional discoveries which deserve to be called ‘spiritual’. What made the landscape spiritual was not something supernatural: I was not seeing visions or experiencing trance states. Nor was there something new every time I explored it. Moreover, the forest was not untouched by civilization. Paved roads, water wells, stone walls, campsites with electric hook-ups, and other signs of human management could be found everywhere. Some of the landmarks of my route included a ruined stone factory, a ruined mill race, and a hand-pumped water well. (That well, by the way, has been filled in, and an unspiritual pressurized tap in a concrete base was installed nearby to replace it. I’m annoyed.)

Yet I think that I knew, somewhere in my childhood mind, that when I raced through the trees on the riverside at full speed, or when I scaled the cliffs of the gorge without any safety harnesses, or did any number of reckless and dangerous things with no thought of injury or death – on those days I knew that I was strong. What is more – when I set out and ran my regular path from one secret place to the next, and saw that all was in order, I was most truly myself.

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In five days, I will turn 40 years old.

Turning 20 and then 30 didn’t feel like much of a milestone. When I turned 30 I was living in Ireland, and I went out to the local with a handful of friends. It was a great night. I wish those friends were here. But it didn’t feel like much of a transition from one stage of life to another.

Turning 40, somehow, does.

When my dad turned 40, I was 11 years old. We rented the gymnasium of St Mary’s School, invited over a hundred guests, hired a caterer, and a DJ, for a surprise party for him. I gave a short speech about how much fun my dad could be. My uncle Noel gave an even better speech. When the DJ opened the dance floor, I didn’t want to dance with anyone, so I danced with a balloon. It was a very fun night. Looking back on it, I think that the occasion taught me that there’s something important about 40, as a milestone in life.

And why is that? Well now that I’m almost 40 and no longer 11, I can reason about it much more clearly. It’s not that I am now “all grown up”, because I’ve felt like that since my mid 20′s, when I began grad school, got jobs, and ran a labour union. And it’s not that “40 is the new 30″ because that’s nothing more than a meaningless anxiety-inducing, reality-blind marketing ploy.

I think what makes 40 feel like a milestone is something like this. My future is no longer fully “open”, “free”, “full of potential”, as I was often told by the adults around me when I was in my late teens. Rather, the reality is that my life is now only partially free; it is strongly configured by the results of all the choices I’ve made over the years, and the accomplishments, failures, opportunities pursued, opportunities declined, and all the forces set in motion by those things. Therefore, here at two-score years less only a few days, I look around my life, and I realize: This is it. What I have now, what I have worked for all my life up to this point, is what I get for the rest of my life. I look around my friends, my work, my material possessions, my state of health, and my world, because this is it, this is what my life has led to, and this is what it will be until I die.

And when might that be? Men in this society of mine, and in this generation, live an average of around 80 years now. So if I do manage to live to this average age, then my 40th birthday marks the half-way point of my life. That, too, is “it”: I’ve only 40 more years to do whatever I may want to do with life.

What do I have to show for my 40 years on this earth? Perhaps more than some; certainly less than many others. I earned my Ph.D and became a professor – in fact, as of last week, I am on the tenure-track. I taught myself to play guitar, and I compose my own music. I’ve published 15 books, though it’s hard to tell if anyone understands them; some are certainly better than others, and at least one which I wouldn’t mind if everyone forgot about it. I’ve lived in three Canadian provinces and two foreign countries; I’ve visited all ten provinces, five American states, and eight countries in Europe. I’ve amassed a private library of over 700 books, most of them classics in the philosophy, literature, and mythology of Western civilization. In fact I still remember what my first “library” looked like: a row of books, their spines facing out, on the top shelf of my locker at Centre Wellington high school, right next to a poster that said “Grow Your Hair.” I suppose these are interesting accomplishments, but “under a certain aspect of eternity” (as the philosopher Spinoza says) they all look rather small.

And like many people who reach the 40th year, I have had my share of tragedies. Many, now, are the friends of mine who have died; some of those friends were lovers, and I love them all still. Twice now, I conceived a child with a woman I loved, and both times, including just last week, nature took its course before the child was born. And there are some friends who are no longer part of my life because I was an asshole and I pushed them away. These tragedies and failures are also what I have to show for my forty short years. And these, too, are small beneath the aspect of eternity, but at the halfway mark of my life they loom large: the things that remind me of them still make me wistful and nostalgic, even after many years.

My brother Turlough likes to joke that growing up is a trap. And it’s not like there’s no lack of evidence to support that claim. We grow up, and then we have to deal with jobs, responsibilities, obligations to others, old injuries and health problems which once were ignorable but now linger for weeks.

But as my partner MC reminds me, growing up is also pretty good. It brings financial freedom, political rights, greater awareness of the world, greater ability to reason and to imagine, and of course much better sex. And most of my friends who are in their 40′s now, or beyond, assure me that their 40s were the best years of their lives. So it seems I probably still have much to look forward to.

And I must say that it seems I will be living my next forty years surrounded by some truly talented, beautiful, and extraordinary people. You all know who you are. And this, too, is small beneath the aspect of eternity, but it is the still small voice heard above all other voices. There is a light which shines from those who make music and tell stories and share philosophy together. It is the light of culture, the light of eudaimonia, the light of human lives bravely and wonderfully lived. If you were traveling through the air over the earth, you could look down and see it, like glowing candles in dark fields, illuminating the land around it, shining out to the universe. This light warms us like hearthfire and sustains us like air; it is all we know of ourselves, it is all we see of the world around, it is all we ever become. But, ah! It is the light that creates, the light that blesses, the light of all lights, the light of reality itself. It is the feeble fragile thing which banishes the heaviest darkness. It says no more and no less than this: “I am here” – the most important three words anyone can say.

There isn’t going to be a big party for me like there was for my Dad (I just don’t have that many friends) but there will be a potluck gathering, and some guitar playing, in the house in Elora where I grew up. It will be nostaligic, too, as my parents have sold the family home and it may well be the last party we host there, before we move out, and the new owners move in.

But I hope that on this last day, the light of culture shall shine from this old house, this place of many stories, this second Tir na n-Og, this fortress built by many hands against the envy of less peaceful folk, this nurse, this nest of happy children, this little world, this Maple Villa set by the village green, this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this Canada.

Let us all make such a light, with the little time we are all given to live. And life shall be good.

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Accessible philosophy: What can we do to make philosophy more accessible, and less weird, for the general public?

Recently, the famous American scientist and media personality Neil DeGrasse Tyson made a grand sweeping dismissal of philosophy. Read about it here.

My knee-jerk reaction, of course, was to dismiss Tyson as one who doesn’t know what he’s talking about. His argument misrepresents philosophy in general, misrepresents the philosophy of science, and comes dangerously close to painting all branches of philosophy with the same tar that he paints philosophy of science. These are the fallacies of straw man, and hasty generalization. His style was patronizing and asshole-ish, too.

Suppose we set that aside for a moment and asked where this anti-philosophy attitude came from. Tyson is not the first to declare the end of philosophy – philosophers themselves have done so a few times over the years. Here’s Martin Heidegger doing it, in a 1975 documentary film. As observed by my friend GB, on my Facebook page (where I shared the link to Tyson’s comments yesterday) philosophers tend to do a bad job communicating to the public what we do. Philosophers often use a unique and highly specialized vocabulary, and we talk about very weird and obscure concepts, making the whole thing seem esoteric and confusing to outsiders. I suppose that’s what makes it easy for people like Tyson to dismiss us so casually.

Yet another friend of mine, also with the initials GB, observed that this isn’t the case, well not as much, outside the English-speaking world. Here in Quebec we’ve got Charles Taylor, who was one-half of the Taylor-Bouchard Commission on “reasonable accommodation of religious minorities”, a major political policy research text. Francois Lyotard was commissioned by the government of Quebec to write a report on “the state of knowledge” (i.e. an education policy report), which effectively initiated postmodernism.

In the English speaking world, there’s Bertrand Russel, who invented the peace symbol, and campaigned for the total abolition of nuclear weapons. Did six months in jail for it too. There’s Peter Singer, who invented the animal rights movement, almost single-handed. John McMurtry is one of the leading intellectual influences on the Occupy movement and its predecessor the Anti-Globalization Movement, and also one of the forces behind the Zeitgeist films. And he’s a former footbal player with the Calgary Stampeders – how cool is that! And there’s Alain de Botton, who has done lots of TV and film, and who curates museums, publishes a philosophical tabloid magazine, and runs a kind of humanist life-coaching organization called “The School of Life”.

But I suppose these outstanding examples look like no more than exceptions that prove the rule. Ask someone at random to name three philosophers, and they might name two of the ancient Greeks and stop there.*

The question I want to ask is this: what can philosophers do to make philosophy more accessible, more relevant, and less weird, for the general public?

Here’s some suggestions.

- Lower the price of philosophy textbooks. For every college and university professor who assigns an expensive textbook, there are hundreds of students who don’t have the money. With the proliferation of free or nearly-free philosophy resources on the internet and in libraries, including my own textbook on logic and critical thinking, there is simply no excuse for any philosophy teacher to put a financial barrier between her students and the knowledge they seek. Indeed, I claim that any philosophy prof who makes their students spend money on a textbook, when there’s a cheaper alternative of equal or greater quality, does a moral wrong. And publishers which charge three-digit figures for books that students will use for 15 weeks and then give away or throw out, also do a serious moral wrong.

- Make philosophy, especially the critical thinking skills and the history of ideas, compulsory at high school and/or college and university. No, I’m not kidding. Most European countries do it; Quebec does it at the CEGEP level. The rest of Canada should get with the program already. So should America. No, it would not be hard. I once taught logical positivism to a group of 10-year-old kids. It was easy and fun. Anyone who says that analytical thinking skills are beyond the abilities of the average high school student is simply wrong. And I can prove it.

- When philosophers write books, they should write for the public, not just other philosophers. I mean it when I say I don’t give a shit about the academic publish-or-perish rat race. I think professional philosophers should stop caring about trying to impress each other and justify their tenures, and start caring about the love of wisdom again. I’ve written 15 books now and none of them are published by “academic” publishers who distribute mainly to specialists and libraries. Some were written for the pagan community (a move which, it now appears, may have been limiting.) But the books I’m most proud of were written for everyone. Of course, this means that I’ve probably shut myself out of ever working for a university ever again. Hiring committees take one look at the spine of my books, then declare them “not academic books” and dismiss them. I saw it happen once. But I stand by my claim that philosophy belongs to everyone, and therefore, philosophers should write for everyone.**

- Get philosophers on television and film. And yes, I know how dangerous this is. When philosophers are asked questions by students or other researchers, they take their time and give the most complete and comprehensive answer they can. But when they are asked questions by journalists, and encouraged to give quick sound-byte answers with minimal preparation, they end up sounding like idiots. Philosopher James Rachels wrote about this in a fabulous essay called “When Philosophers Shoot From The Hip.” But suppose there was a TV talk show, Top Gear style (without the casual misogyny and racism), featuring philosophers as main personalities. They could start each episode with a question, then bring on special guests and randomly selected audience members to debate the question, go on location to places around the world where something philosophically interesting happened, play logic puzzle games or strategy games, and crack jokes with each other. It would be a lot of fun. There’s no reason why philosophers should have surrendered all public discourse on philosophical themes to psychologists like Dr. Phil, or well-spoken but occasionally asshole-ish scientists like Tyson, or even religious fanatics like [REDACTED]. Imagine a drama series about a team of philosophers who investigate crimes, or supernatural events, or outer space. That would be no less awesome than shows like House, or Bones, or Breaking Bad. In fact, I volunteer to write the script of the pilot.

Let me close on what might be an “appeal to tradition” point. Some of the greatest philosophers in the canon of Western thought were not professors. Spinoza was a lens grinder. Socrates was a stonemason. David Hume was a pool hall hustler. And they wrote their books or taught their ideas to everyone, and for everyone, not just other philosophers. If we contemporary philosophers can do no better, then it is perhaps partially our own fault that people like Tyson tell us we don’t belong here anymore.

I invite you to use the comments thread on this blog post to make more suggestions about how philosophers could make their work more accessible to everyone.


*Well, if we selected people truly at random, from the whole human race, you’ll likely be asking someone from Asia, and you’ll get Confucius or Buddha.

**I’m a big fan of Open Court’s pop culture and philosophy series. A friend of mine was published in one of their most recent titles, “The Muppets And Philosophy”. Love it.

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What is (my) fantasy fiction really about?

As most of you know, the majority of my books are nonfiction, and my background is in philosophy and drama, and not literature. Why, then, did I write fantasy fiction? And can fantasy fiction be philosophical? Many critics believe that fantasy writing is frivolous and escapist. Here’s a short argument for why that criticism is wrong.

In fantasy fiction, the arc of the plot depends in some way on a bending of the rules of reality as we presently know them. But that, it seems to me, allows writers to draw special attention to something in our real world, and in our real lives. Good fantasy can be full of magic spells, fantastic monsters, and amazing landscapes – but it has to be about characters, in the end. Bad fantasy is about a character learning to cast a magic spell, or striving to kill a supernatural monster. Good fantasy is about life and death, fate and free will, reality and illusion, and similar natural immensities. In fantasy fiction, characters confront those things with heightened urgency. As we follow the story, perhaps we may learn something about the nature of those immensities, explore new ways to respond to them, and learn something about ourselves as human beings. As the philosopher Paul Ricoeur taught, literary fiction is the laboratory of good and evil:

…it is in literary fiction that the connection between action and its agent is easiest to perceive and that literature proves to be an immense laboratory for thought experiments in which this connection is submitted to an endless number of imaginative variations.

(Ricoeur, Oneself as Another, p.159)

Think of Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings”. It isn’t really about a ring of invisibility. It’s about war, death, and courage. Similarly, the Harry Potter series isn’t really about students learning to be wizards at an English boarding school. It’s about friendship, and growing up, and it’s about fascism and the nature of evil.

Similarly, my “Fellwater” series may look like it’s about people descended from various ancient gods, who have been fighting each other for more than two thousand years. But it is actually about whether there’s still a place for heroes in the modern world, and whether conflicted or flawed characters can be heroes too. It’s about power relations, and cult recruitment, and misanthropy. It’s about what it is to have a home, a history, and a purpose.

It’s also about secret castles in the north, and Irish skinboats that can fly, and giant gorillas with four arms, and people who pull swords out of thin air and start fighting with them. So, the series is rigorously intellectual, clearly.

Lots of philosophers have written poetry and fiction to explore philosophical themes: Jean-Paul Sartre, Umberto Eco, and Iris Murdoch come to my mind as examples. And while I wouldn’t compare my works to theirs, still I like to imagine that I’m following their footsteps.

But I’m pretty sure I’m the first philosopher to write about giant gorillas with four arms.

Please consider supporting my fundraising campaign for an editor for the series. Click Here to find out more.

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Writing is not mysticism

For me, the whole process of writing is inevitably wrapped up in the discovery, invention, and revelation of knowledge. Writing calls something out of the darkness and into the light, and gives it a name. Writing, one might be tempted to say, is conjuration magic.

But do not mistake my meaning: for writing is not mysticism. When I say that writing calls something from the dark and brings it to the light, I intend a deliberate creative activity and not a mere vision which the writer passively witnesses and records. The revelation is an act of the writer, and not of someone unknown to the writer, someone behind a curtain (to whom we are commanded to pay no attention). As a writer I make definite decisions about what words, what sentences, what symbols, and so on, shall be used to tell the story.

It’s when words come together with other words to form sentences, paragraphs, arguments, ideas, stories, experiences, and events-in-time: there, the conjurer’s magic happens. What things become when they join together with other things is full of the unexpected. There, the writer might be as surprised as the reader by what creature was born from her page.

But again, this is still not mysticism. For it is possible to understand everything there is to understand about what emerges from this magic, whether we are using fiction, nonfiction, poetry, or even for that matter any form of expressive art including music, theatre, architecture, photography, dance, or painting. I can understand it in one sentence. The sentence is a question, and the question is: “Can you hear me?”

For writing, although it is an essentially solitary activity, is also a summoning. If it is a conjurer’s trick, the otherworldly creature that the writer hopes to conjure is a human being, a reader, a listener, a collaborator, a friend. Whatever else the writer might be saying, at the same time she also says “I am here! Is anyone else out there?” And maybe someone will answer back: “Yes, I can hear you! I am here!”. To me, that kind of answer, that kind of revelation, is just the most wonderful thing in the world.

The mark of the quality of writing may well be found in the kind of people that the writer hopes to summon. A poor writer may want nothing more than a passive audience: he wants people who will listen and read, and then uncritically praise him. (A different kind of poor writer is one who can’t tell the difference between constructive criticism and personal abuse.) A better writer wants to engage the audience in a dialogue: she wants others to read and hear her words, but she also wants to hear what they will write and say in reply. It might be praise – but it might also be contributions, criticisms, suggestions, discussions, implications, arguments and counter-arguments, interpretations, even satires and parodies.

This kind of dialogue is the magic that configures and summons the sacred.


Would you like to be part of this dialogue? Click here to join my fundraising campaign on Kickstarter, and help me get my fiction series properly edited and prepared for the world.

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Self published books have (almost) no quality control. Here’s something we can do about it.

Here’s a reason to support my Kickstarter campaign to hire an editor for my novels, which has nothing to do with me or my books. It’s that a lot of self published books, perhaps most of them, have almost no quality control. But this is not a reason to stop reading self-published books. Rather, it’s a reason to change the way self-published books are put together. And my Kickstarter is an attempt to set a precedent in that direction. As I shall explain.

The problem is this: Readers can never be sure that a self-published book has been proofread for consistent spelling and grammar, or edited for continuity and similar matters. Nor can it be easily known whether the design and layout was done by a professional. Some are, and some aren’t, and you can’t know for sure until you buy the book and start reading.

If you read indie or self-published books, you already know it’s harder to enjoy a story, or even to be constructively critical of a story, when spelling errors and typos and continuity slip-ups get in the way.

But this isn’t because indie writers don’t care. They do. It’s because most indie writers simply don’t have the money to hire the editors and designers they need. I certainly don’t, even though I have the ‘safety net’ of a decently-paying day job.

My big idea is that self-published writers can use crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo to help overcome the problem of absent quality control. If my fundraising campaign is successful, you, the backers of this project, will help me set a new precedent. You will show that it is possible for independent writers to prove that that their work is quality-controlled, engaged with the audience, and professionally prepared. They’ll be able to say, “My book has been professionally edited and designed, no less than a book published by a big international publisher, with the financial support of the readers, and the Kickstarter backers.

A statement like that on an indie book’s back cover would make me trust the book much more readily. I would feel as if the writer respected me as a reader. I hope it would do the same for you.

Not only that: by backing my project, you’ll show that it is possible for indie writers to get their book up to snuff at less cost to themselves, without short-changing their editors and designers.

Then the main thing indie writers will have to worry about is how to persuade people that their book is interesting enough to be worth a few bucks in advance. And that, I think, will bring the interesting-ness of the book to the front of reader’s and writer’s minds.

Which is where it belongs. Not behind the technical issues of comma splices or weird page breaks.

At the time I write these words, Fellwater is 36% funded, with 33 backers. There’s only $2,035 to go. Can we make it to the target, and beyond? Only with your help! :-)

If you want to know more about the books before backing the project, click here:

And to back the project, click here:

Please, if you care about the quality of the books you choose to read, and you want to support independent writers and not only established writers, then support my project. If my project succeeds, you can point other indie artists to it as an example of what the possibilities are. And I’ll do what I can to help them, too.

And thank you for your support.

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Bren’s Guide to Writing

Over the years, I’ve noticed that I follow some unacknowledged “rules” in my own writing, especially in fiction. So over the last few months, I started writing them down. Here’s what I got so far.

Bren’s Rules (actually, they’re just guidelines) for Writing

The first rule is that you should fall in love with words, languages, and storytelling. Your language both limits and liberates you. Know how it works. Be a serious student of words, sentences, paragraphs, catchphrases, proverbs, tropes, neologisms, alliteration, rhyme, syllables, phonemes, definitions, propositions, arguments, fallacies, and speech-acts. Be a lover of the best of them; be the nemesis of the worst. If you do not care about your language – if you are not interested in what words can do and not do, and what they can be twisted into doing – then you should try a different field of art.

Find the words in your language that can do what you need done. If those words do not exist, invent them.

Write as if every word is inevitable.

I have two languages in which I’m fluent: spoken English and written English. These are two different languages. Learn the difference; play in the space between them.

Read what other people in your field are writing. Know the climate and the weather of the intellectual environment in which you are working. It is also the environment in which you are thinking. And it is the environment where your audience lives.

Do your homework. Even fantasy fiction, which doesn’t take place in the “real” world, requires research.

Do not waste time, procrastinate, or distract yourself. But do not force the creative powers, and do not rush. Do whatever you must do to put yourself in the mind to create, and then take your time. Treat the work as if it is a living thing, with its own requirements, and its own gifts.

Don’t write about magic, or technology, or political ideology, or the like, even if you’re writing fantasy, sci-fi, or a thriller, or whatever. Instead, write about people – people who happen to live in a magical, or high-tech, or power-shifting world, as the case may be. Let these things stay mostly in the background, where they can serve the story about the people.

Decide early which characters are smarter than others, stronger than others, more dominant than others, and why. Decide who looks up to whom, and who looks down on whom, and why. Even a fairy tale is full of power relations.

And some of those power relations will not be obvious to the characters themselves.

And some of those power relations will change.

Be a serious student of human nature, even if there is no such thing.

A stumbling block in the plot, or a bout of writer’s block, is a sign that you should go back into an earlier point in the story, and change something.

Build a world that readers would want to explore. Make sure part of it is inviting enough that readers would want to live there. The world doesn’t have to be completely safe. It just has to be interesting.

Don’t write “strong female characters”. Instead, write female characters who are interesting. The so-called strong female character often ends up being nothing more than a woman who is good with a weapon and quick to anger. Such characters are ultimately uninteresting: they serve only to fill a kind of quota. Instead, be aware of your own background and experiences, and write about interesting people who have different backgrounds and experiences: different genders, different cultures, different ethnicities, different religions, than your own. But don’t make them different for the sake of being different: make them different for the sake of being interesting.

Characters are interesting because of the way they change over time. Write about how and why those characters change.

If you are depending on the character’s appearance to make him or her interesting, then you are not really writing; you are costume-designing. And there’s nothing wrong with costume designing; but don’t let it do all the work of character designing.

For that matter, make all your characters interesting. Even the villains. Especially the villains. Nothing is worse than a boring villain.

Write interesting heroes, too. Heroes who are unambiguously good are not truly interesting. Heroes who are conflicted, morally compromised, weak or foolish or afraid, or even sometimes un-heroic, are at least interesting. But if you write heroes who are in some way un-heroic, then be sure that they change in a way that redeems them.

Unless, of course, you are writing an anti-hero. But in that case, you still need something in the hero that the reader can see in herself. Heroes, even anti-heroes, must be identifiable; that is, the reader can identify with her. That, too, can make them interesting. Let the reader see herself in an amazing place, doing amazing things.

Characters have reasons for why they change. They might be simple reasons, silly reasons, illogical reasons, even selfish reasons that make your readers mad at them. But they have their reasons, nonetheless.

Those reasons have to make sense. Readers will accept a foolish reason or a complex reason, but they won’t accept an unintelligible reason.

That’s what a story is, after all. A story is a character who changes over time.

Write about characters who have problems. Sometimes the problem is the villain; sometimes it’s an event in the world; but sometimes the problem is something within the hero.

Problems have to be rational, too. They have to be the kind of problem that a reader could recognize in the real world. Even if it’s the kind of problem that could only exist in a science-fiction futuristic world, or a magical fantasy world. It doesn’t have to be complicated. It just has to be not-stupid.

That, too, is part of what a story is. A story is a character with a problem.

Don’t include characters from marginalized cultural, gender, or ethnic backgrounds for the sake of filling some kind of quota. There is no quota. But do include characters from different backgrounds when doing so would make the story interesting. And be aware of the actual state of cultural diversity in the real world around you, and reflect it in what you write.

All characters have voices. Even the secondary and tertiary characters have voices. Make sure those voices are heard. Make sure they, too, are interesting. At the very least, give them names.

If there are political or moral statements to be made, let the characters make them, from their own perspectives. Don’t put it in the narration. Don’t turn the whole story into a polemic.

But do decide early how much the narrator will know. The reader will see only what the narrator reveals. So decide whether the narrator is omniscient or not, and decide what will happen “off stage”. Whether you write in first person or third person, decide whose point of view will be featured, and whose thoughts the reader will hear.

Every character wants something. And every character needs to deal with other characters to get it. The different ways characters deal with each other to get what they need – whether it’s cooperation, or aggression, or trade, or threats, or seduction, or whatever – is part of what makes them interesting.

Every chapter must end on one of the following notes: an advancement of the plot, an important revelation about a character’s life, a moment of peace and beauty, a decent cliffhanger.

Keep the expositions short; and when they are done, up the drama.

Let your most important phrases, proverbs, and statements appear in a character’s dialogue, and not in the narration.

Do not, do not, and I repeat DO NOT end the story using deus ex machina.

Let nothing get in the way of your writing time. Not even your best friends. Turn off your phone and internet while you’re writing. Let friends and loved ones know you will be unreachable for a certain length of time. Be willing to decline invitations to parties or dates in order to make time to write. Writing is an inherently lonely activity. (It’s reading, not writing, which is social.) If possible, write in a place where you can be fully alone. For my part, I find it almost impossible to write with anybody nearby, even if they’re in another room and behind a closed door.

While writing, don’t play music with lyrics. You need the part of your brain that processes language to write your book. If you must have background music, choose instrumental music, or music in a language you don’t understand. I usually write with classical music in the background, or with silence.

Know who you are writing for. And “writing for yourself” isn’t enough. Have some person or group of people in mind. Use the work as a way of telling that person you love her.

But don’t assume they will read it. In fact, assume they won’t read it. That way you won’t worry about pissing them off. So, write as if you are speaking to a particular person or a particular audience that you want to reach but probably never will.

If that last “rule” seems absurd, that’s okay. Trust me when I tell you, it works.

Once in a while, write during the wee early hours of the morning, after having had just-slightly-but-not-quite-almost-too-much-to-drink. And if what you’ve written still makes sense the following morning, then keep it. If it doesn’t, cut it out.

Don’t be afraid to make cuts. Not all your work will be genius. A lot of it will suck. Just accept that a lot of the time, your work will suck, and You will suck. Except when you don’t suck. So mercilessly cut out the parts that suck. Save them elsewhere if you think you might be nostalgic about them. It might be the case that a piece of writing sucks only because it’s in the wrong place. The right place for it may present itself later.

Avoid encouragement-memes. Avoid “tips for writing” articles that offer no more than cheerleading and self-esteem-building. You should be strong willed enough to motivate yourself without it. And that kind of help often makes people feel worse, not better, about their work. That said, it’s okay to seek help and advice from others. You should seek that kind of help often. But look for specific practical help, not amorphous pop-psychology.

Trust the intelligence of your readers. Write as if they are at least as smart as you are, and probably smarter. If you use a cheap trope in your story, assume your readers will see through it and that they will be pissed off. Don’t play to the lowest common demonator. No, I did not mean to say ‘denominator’.

Write to address yourself to something happening in the real world that you want to change. All good writing is activist writing. It wants to think about things in new ways. It wants to show us something that we might have never seen before, or that we might not want to see. Good writing wants us to do something or try something we might not have done, or tried. Write something which speaks to a real debate, a real controversy, a real injustice, a real problem, in the real world.

Write as if what you’re writing doesn’t matter at all – but if you don’t write it, you will die.

Following these rules won’t make your book awesome, not on their own. You may be an awesome writer, but you still need an editor.

And pursuant to the last point: want to help me hire one? Click here to support my Kickstarter campaign! There’s some great exclusive rewards, including audiobooks, and a never-before-seen novella. And please spread the word, too!

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Whatever happened to the pagan community statement on religious sexual abuse?

With yesterday’s revelation that the well-known pagan musician and author Kenny Klein had confessed to possessing child pornography, a criminal offence, there’s been a little bit of renewed interest in the “Community Statement on Religious Sexual Abuse” which I helped to write, back in back in 2009.

I’d like to say a few words about what happened to it.

The version of the piece which appears on my web site (here) is the most up-to-date version that there is. No further work was done on it since that time, because most of the various contributors and critics had lost the will to continue with it. There was a lot of disagreement, often angry disagreement, about whether the statement went too far, or didn’t go far enough, and so on. I’ve included below a list of the common criticisms, as I saw them on Jason Pitzl-Waters’ blog, and on my own website forum (which I’ve since taken down, to stop the spambots from filling it with 419 scams). But there’s one group of criticisms that I’d like to draw special attention to.

There were a lot of angry voices who continued to demand the right to perform sexual acts as part of initiation ceremonies, even when the inductee would not be warned in advance about the nature of the ceremony, and even when the inductee was legally a minor. The most common argument in favour of that position was an appeal to tradition; which is normally a fallacy of logic. Some said that initiatory surprise was an important part of the drama and the power of the ritual, and that therefore initiatory surprise had to be preserved, even when it involved a sexual act. Some also justified it by saying that if they were disallowed from performing such a ritual, that would be an unjust limitation upon their personal freedom. Some people even went so far as to claim that the utterance of any moral statement, or even ordinary moral indicator-words like “should”, constitutes oppression on someone, somewhere, somehow. Even when the “should” was a condemnation of sexual abuse. Some voices really were that absolute with their rejection of all ethical propositions.

Frankly, I think a lot of these arguments are nothing more than a kind of cover-up or a justification for a situation that can be far too easily twisted into a criminal act. I think that no tradition, however old, can be ethically acceptable if it permits such surprises on its initiates, or keeps secrets from them about whether they would have to undergo a sexual act in their initiation. And I think that if someone seriously and truly believes that he can harm others and ignore their feelings and rights, all in the name of his personal freedom, well then he has simply not learned the first thing about ethics.

But when I raised these objections, my voice was drowned in all the shouting about the importance of initiatory surprise and craft secrecy. And I eventually gave up trying. There’s no sense in debating someone who only wants to shout about how right he is and how oppressed he feels when someone raises a criticism. It’s worth noting that I wasn’t always the most polite debater around the table. I apologized for it back then; I do so again now. But nonetheless, the strong resistance against the statement, in the name of tradition and freedom, left me feeling disenchanted with the pagan community. For a long time I doubted whether I should remain part of it.

But I still think the statement is important. I’d like to see it spread around, talked about, argued about, modified by different groups to suit their specific needs and priorities, and incorporated into the policies of any pagan organization which offers teaching, or public services, or which collects money from members.

(To save space on my blog, I have moved the record of the criticisms of the statement here.)

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A Straight White Male Writer Grapples With His Privilege

There are a lot of fantasy and sci-fi writers in my FB and Twitter feeds. And a lot of those writers are feminists, of one degree or another. So, I’ve been seeing a lot of discussion about white male privilege in popular fantasy and sci-fi television, film, video games, and literature.

This discussion of privilege appears in, for example, statistical surveys and professional research which proves that the overwhelming majority of stories in mass media feature a straight white male protagonist. Or, the discussion might be about the prevalence of the ‘damsel in distress’ trope, or the way the male hero always gets a girl in the end. This sends a politically charged message to readers about role models, about which race or gender has the potential for greatness, which race or gender is always the villain or the sidekick, and so on. Or, the discussion might be about the way the overwhelming majority of celebrated writers in the genre are straight white men.

The call goes out: to redress this inequality, we should write stories with heroes who come from different backgrounds and identities. And we should seek the stories written by people who come from all those different backgrounds and identities.

Now, at the same time, one of the most common pieces of advice that new or aspiring writers may hear, is the advice to write what you know, and write what you love. You’ll write a better story if it’s set in your own world, whether that’s the world you see around you or the one that you imagine. And you’ll write a better story if you write about worlds, problems, and ideas that you care about. Prima facia, this is unobjectionable, even valuable advice.

Now, let’s build an argument.

  • Proposition 1: we should create more stories with greater diversity of characters’ identities.
  • Proposition 2: we should write what we know and love.
  • Proposition 3: I, as a writer, am a white, able-bodied, heterosexual man, one might say a privileged man, whose experiences are already prominent in the mass media.
  • .

    I could conclude, from propositions 2 and 3, that the experience of the white straight able-bodied man is the kind of experience I should write about.

    But I could also conclude, from propositions 1 and 3, that I should write about different experiences, not just my own.

    Which conclusion is better?

    One possible answer: the second conclusion is better, for reasons like these. We shouldn’t prefer the book about the straight white man, just because it’s about the straight white man. That story isn’t necessarily any better or worse than another, for that reason alone. In the same way, we shouldn’t prefer the book about the gay aboriginal woman, for instance, just because she’s a gay aboriginal woman. Her story may or may not be any better than anyone else’s, for that reason alone. (Thus we avoid the genetic fallacy.) But the straight white male character gets more attention, for reasons that have nothing to do with the artistic qualities or flaws of the story. So, we should write stories with greater variety among the characters, in order to give everybody’s story a fair chance.

    But we could also prefer the first conclusion, for reasons like these. If a privileged writer (like me) writes about characters from marginalized identities, he’s almost certain to get those characters wrong. He doesn’t know much about what their lives are like, and he won’t know how to speak with their voices. Carried further, it might be said that he should not even try to speak with their voices: to do so would risk the problem of colonialism. For the sake of this discussion, let’s define colonialism as the harm that arises when members of a dominant culture discourage or prevent members of a marginalized culture from defining themselves. Imagine a white man telling a black woman how to look and speak and behave as a black woman ‘should’. You see the inherent absurdity of the situation. Carried far enough, it’s not just patronizing: it’s oppression. A privileged writer risks colonialism when he writes about marginalized characters. So he shouldn’t do it.

    We might dismiss both conclusions by claiming that an artist should be allowed to write about whatever the hell she wants, and that if readers don’t like it then they don’t have to read it. These two statements are irrefutable, but they do not dismiss the problem, because they still presuppose the same power relations. Something is said, something else is not said, someone is speaking, someone is prevented from speaking, someone is spoken to, and someone is spoken about. And so a reality is configured. And we still have to ask: who is configuring that reality, and what reality is configured?

    I do not know what the answer is. That’s part of why I wrote this article: I’m asking you to help me find the answer.

    Here’s a brief survey about how I’ve handled this problem in my own fiction, so far. (Warning: Spoilers.)

    The first novel in the series, “Fellwater”, was written in 2006. At the time, my purpose in writing the story was to pursue a kind of catharsis following an event in my personal life. And I wanted to create a story that reflected my feelings and my world at the time. (That’s why the lead male hero, Eric Laflamme, looks like me.) So I wasn’t thinking about the quasi-political implications of my artistic choices. Consequently, all the characters are caucasians. And the story fails the Bechdel test. But the male hero does not get the girl in the end. He achieves a victory, but it’s a pyrrhic victory which emotionally scars the “strong” female at his side, so she leaves him. That ending, while unhappy, seemed to me more true to life; certainly, at the time it seemed more true to my life.

    The second novel, “Hallowstone”, introduced the first non-white major character: a woman named Ildicoe Brigand, who is of mixed racial heritage. She would appear to be the female prize for the male character when he achieves his victory. But the male character is emotionally scarred from the events of the previous novel, and he doesn’t grow a spine until near the end of the story. Even then, it’s she who must come to his rescue. And although they share a kiss, she immediately leaves him again. She has unfinished business of her own, which the reader learns about in the third novel. And while writing Hallowstone, I learned about the Bechdel test, and I made sure the story passes it.

    And in that third novel, “Clan Fianna”, the leading male character of the first two stories becomes a member of an ensemble cast, and is no longer a singular hero. We also see more ethnic diversity: we meet a Hindi family, and a group of West African muslims. These are secondary characters: not because they don’t deserve to be primary characters, but because the primary characters were established in the previous novels. But I can always write another story which features them in more prominent roles, and in the future I plan to do so. The world of The Fellwater Tales will not be the only world I will write about.

    Finally, the lead hero of the spinoff novella, “Jillian Brighton”, is a thirteen year old girl. (Writing not only from a female perspective, but also a child’s perspective, was particularly challenging for me. But also personally rewarding, too.) And I’m almost finished another spinoff story in which the main heroes are the same West African muslims who we met in Clan Fianna.

    Through my two decades of participation in the pagan community, and through my years as a college prof, I’ve come to know, and often to love, people of many different ethnicities, backgrounds, genders (it appears that there’s more than two), sexual orientations, political views, and so on. When I write characters who are not straight white able-bodied lower-middle-class men, I think of the people I’ve known over the years who are like the characters I’m writing about, and try to imagine what life is like from their point of view. And I sometimes write to them, and ask them how they would view or respond to certain situations. This is part of the research writers should undertake, when they write about characters vastly different from themselves.

    I will never know an experience of life other than my own. That is the nature of the immensity of loneliness. I suppose it’s possible that someone reading this will point out another invisible privilege I possess which I’m taking advantage of here. But I can make a serious effort to understand and empathize with the life-experiences of people who are unlike myself – not only for the sake of writing better fiction, but also for the sake of becoming a better human being. Reading and writing good fiction about characters different from oneself may be an excellent instrument for this moral project.

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