J.P. Donleavy, an early literary hero of mine, was quoted in Playboy (May, 1979) as saying, “Writing is turning one’s worst moments into money.”
Would that this were so. Meanwhile, another spin on the essence of writing is going the rounds on Facebook:
In other quarters, writers instead turn whiskey into piss and engage in binge writing in the intervals between their alchemical endeavors. (I encountered the expression “binge writing” listening to a Letterman interview with Hunter S. Thompson.)
But let’s leave the last word to Norman Mailer:
“Writing books is the closest men ever come to childbearing.” (NY Times Book Review, 17 September 1963)
Typically, perhaps, he leaves the female writer’s experience out of this account. So maybe we can instead allow me the last word:
Writing books is the closest women ever come to knowing what it’s like for men to come as close as they ever can to giving birth.
And there you have it, another fine aphorism hot off the press.
Illustration from Platt R. Spencer, Spencerian Key to Practical Penmanship, 1869.
Portrait of Hunter S. Thompson from "Gonzo: The Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson," by Peter Bradshaw (Guardian, 19 Dec. 2008).
Whiskey is of course a false Muse.
Back before New Year’s, I posted a couple of blogs that meant to ease writers into the process of writing, rather than only talking about writing. I was subsequently sidetracked by the need to outline some flaws in the Scheme of Things, but now I’m back into this solipsistic writing workshop. But all we’ve discussed so far is only part of the story. Now I’m going to talk about The Muse Effect.
In my experience, that's the most common question people ask, immediately after you are introduced to them as a writer. (Actually, it's only the second most common. The most common is "Can you make a living at it?" this question being expressed in tones of wonder. And well they might. Wonder, that is.)
Creative writing does require discipline. Just what, however, does this proposition really mean? Is it no more than a matter of chaining yourself to a computer?
Here’s where the discipline comes in, I believe:
1. First, you have to be willing to bang your head against the story for days, even weeks, even when you can’t really see the story and have no idea where it’s all going. In short, you have to be prepared to behave like a nutcase for a time, at least at the outset.
2. Once the story is up and running, you’ve got to have the discipline (and the financial resources) to resist all the demands on your time and attention that threaten to derail the project. Once derailed, you’ve got to go back to Phase 1, except this time it should be easier, since you’ve already proved to yourself it can be done. In my experience, it can take just as many days as it did the first time (usually five to seven), but it’s easier to have confidence that all the head-banging will prove fruitful.
To write fiction, you've got to become obsessed, to some extent, by the problem of the story. With non-fiction, on the other hand, the lumber is generally already there. With fiction, you really need incentive to keep going even when you can’t see where you’re going or, sometimes, why.
THE MUSE WEARS BLACK LEATHER
Contrary to popular belief, writing fiction can be easy. Properly undertaken, it hardly requires any self-discipline at all.
Most people think of the Muse as a sweet young thing. She (he/it, I suppose, depending on the writer's proclivities) comes draped in lengths of diaphanous cotton and smelling of soap, an apparition in soft light who gently massages one's creative faculty, smiling and whispering excellent suggestions in one's ear. But that's malarkey. Properly courted, in fact, she comes stalking at you in black leather boots and carrying a whip. The Muse is a disciplinarian bitch.
The hard part is attracting the Muse in the first place (always supposing you really want to mess up your domestic life in this way). But once you do, writing can be more like demonic possession than work. When the spirit seizes you, like it or not, you write. Something outside or beyond you begins to direct proceedings, dictating additions and deletions, legislating revisions. The stories start to appear as though by magic. In this state, it takes no self-discipline whatsoever to write.
Writers talk, for example, about the point at which a story can take on a life of its own, where the characters start saying and doing things that seem just right, somehow, but which nevertheless were no part of the writer's conscious design. Rather than working from any preconceived plan, enjoying instead the surprise of real discovery, the writer seems at this juncture to be merely an amanuensis for some higher inspiration. Indeed, it is at times such as these that the activity of writing is most satisfying, almost magical. This is the Muse at work. (I speak from the perspective of the writer, of course; in my own case, some readers may wonder where all this magic, where all of these autonomous, practically flesh-and-blood characters have got to in my stories. Never mind; subjectively the experience is still a magical one.)
Here’s the thing: Ninety-nine percent of the people who claim they're going to get around to writing a story one day never will. And that's at least partly because they never reach the stage where they have an affair with the Muse. From time to time most of us feel certain vague urges, an almost erotic hungering to create. But don't mistake this for the real thing. Sitting down with nothing but one of these spurious rushes of creativity, only to be faced then with the enigma of the blank page, you'll be lucky if you get beyond a single pointless paragraph. The infinite possibility represented by that expanse of featureless paper can quickly drain any passing creative lust.
It is at this point that most people quit, usually for the rest of their lives. How can it be that one's very soul is swollen with the passion to create, inflamed with all this inchoate meaning and beauty, yet nothing comes? In fact, this is the moment of truth. The people who go through the rest of their lives announcing their intention to write a novel, just as soon as they find the time to sit down and await inspiration—these are the ones who feel the urge pass for the moment, then shrug and turn on the TV. They decide to wait till they're "in the mood."
Those who recognize the necessity of getting something—anything—down on paper, on the other hand, stand a chance of becoming a writer. The first hurdle any writer faces is that of actually starting something.
It might help to remember this: It's a mistake to think you must know what you're going to write before you write it. You always know more than you think you do, for one thing. The trick lies in coaxing it out. Writing is a process of communing with the page. A story emerges through the evolution of the text as a critical dialogue between the writer and that text as it emerges. The essential thing, initially, is to begin the dialogue by getting something down in writing. It doesn't matter what; anything will do so long as it starts the process. Don't think. Write. (At this point the Zen writing master hits you with a big stick.)
But this is only the beginning. So far you are on your own, real inspiration yet to come, the gods willing. What may follow is days and days of long hours spent in frustration, doubt, and despair at ever seeing the story come to life. You suspect that the story is not really a story, that you aren’t a writer. You think of a hundred more constructive ways to spend your time. You flail about, to all appearances a total loony. This is where discipline is truly needed, although "pathological orneriness" may be closer to the mark. The whole procedure can seem just as creative and almost as enjoyable as banging your head against a wall. But that's as it should be. You can't simply wait for the Muse. You've got to go after her, offering whatever tribute she demands, seducing her with much earnest head-banging and tearing of hair.
Then one day you get up and, right in the middle of your morning shower, you find yourself abruptly mugged by inspiration, dragged by the ear into your study, dripping suds all the way to your computer. By lunchtime you may be given time to rinse off before eating. Lunch itself will as likely as not be interrupted by an idea or two that demand noting down before they evaporate. And this state carries over from day to day. You now embarrass yourself by making notes in the middle of dinner parties, scribbling away in taxis, wondering whether your lover would mind if you interrupted proceedings, just for a moment, to record a sudden notion that has occurred at this most awkward of times. Everywhere you go, bits of everyday experience start to take on new significance, as you find yourself interpreting much of what you perceive in terms of story material.
Well and properly seduced, now, the Muse obliges by making your work even easier. When you awake in the morning, so long as you can get to your computer before too many distractions arise, the story that finally seemed so intractable the day before pours out onto the page by some process akin to automatic writing. As a Graham Greene character, a writer, once put it, this morning gift of the Muse is more like remembering than actually creating something new. You find that some part of your mind has been busy all night, and the story has worked itself out even as you slept. With any luck, then, the Muse welcomes you in the morning with that day's episodes ready for dictation.
This state is the ultimate reward for many writers. (I say nothing of Hollywood contracts and suchlike.) It is not, however, considered a total gas by family and employers and other people with claims on your time.
And, having once achieved union with the Muse, this is by no means necessarily a permanent arrangement. Most writers will still encounter a problem of discipline, notably in the conflict between the demands and temptations of bread-and-butter work (in my own case it was as a professional writer and editor of non-fiction), and the desire to develop whatever talents they have as fiction writers.
Writing short stories and novels requires assiduous courtship of the Muse. This campaign, however, is constantly interfered with by the seductive promise of almost instant gratification and (relatively) instant money as a non-fiction writer, or lumberjack or whatever. With fiction, the pay-off is generally slow in coming even if you write something good. (I know, I know: what about the author of Fifty Shades of Grey?) Even if a publisher decides to pick it up, it can be years before it sees print. And then it might not sell. In the meantime, writing fiction is a lonely business, one viewed with considerable suspicion by your peers. (Unless of course you are already established and rolling in money, in which case it seems quite sensible to everyone.)
Concentrating on non-fiction allows you to see the product in print within a reasonably finite time-span. People are actually reading what you write, and you get to enjoy a certain recognition. You get invited to cocktail parties; you are offered freebies in hotels. You get to go on cruises. More importantly, perhaps, the money normally follows within months at the outside, and you get to eat. In submitting to the demands of the Muse, on the other hand, you flirt with divorce, starvation, unless you’re of independent financial means, and, to outward appearances at least, a thoroughly boring existence.
But what precisely would a book about yours truly be about? Not the life, since no writer really has a life unless, in the American manner, he succumbs to block and becomes a dipsomaniac.
- Anthony Burgess, talking about his first British biography.
In this regard I can refer you to one of my writerly occupational hazards: "Ersatz creativity " (And here's a way to exercise "discipline" in face of the Internet, another occupational hazard: "Some good things to do with an Internet addiction.")
I’ll conclude with a few tips.
What the Muse likes:
- Demonstrations of blind faith and commitment, no matter how fickle she may appear at times.
- Some attention before sleep in the evening.
- Availability first thing in the morning.
- Shared experiences (books, people, interpreting things in light of your project).
- Trinkets, little gifts (in lieu of chocolates, try presenting files of notes to draw upon from time to time, just by way of priming the pump).
The dominatrix muse is adapted, with apologies to artlovers everywhere, from “A Flying Muse, with Harp” (Tate Gallery, 19th century, British School).
A version of "The Muse wears black leather" appeared in the Bulletin of the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand (FCCT) some years ago.
In the last post, we looked at stories as products of a process. The writer doesn’t proceed like this: “I have this story in my head, and now I’m going to record it in written form.” The text isn’t a given that merely awaits transcription. It’s often—perhaps usually—the product of a writing activity. It didn’t exist before being realized in that activity, not even in the mind of the writer. In such cases the writer doesn’t adopt the role of Divine Clockmaker, the creationist’s standard argument for how this story we call reality has been structured. What looks as if it must have been the product of deliberate design in the Beginning is instead a product of evolution.
The writing activity, we may suggest, is typically a conversation with the page, a process wherein the text evolves in the back-and-forth give-and-take of proposition and critique, experiment and revision.
To perform this trick successfully, you have to wear two hats: that of the writer/editor and that of the reader/editor.
You don one hat and then the other, role-playing on some level—switching back and forth and back and forth as the prose passage develops. The writer proposes a word, a phrase, a sentence, a paragraph. At each step, the writer swaps between the standpoint of the writer—proposing—and the reader or editor—critiquing. At each step of the way, the writer proposes a change and the editor—the same person, wearing a different hat—either accedes or doesn’t. And so on. In principle, this applies to virtually any written text. Even a shopping list, as we saw in the last post.
If the mutation-selection evolutionist analogy doesn’t work for you, try the following instead. Good fiction might be described as a dream that appears on paper, and the process of writing could be compared to the process of precipitating, or depositing, that dream on the page. From this perspective, we may think of the story as something like a pearl — a bit of existential grit wrapped and wrapped in words to ease the irritation, whatever its source. And the result is sometimes beautiful, the bit of sand which inspired the whole process quite hidden. And, as in a dream, perhaps even the writer can't interpret the story without help.
Many books about writing recommend a largely mechanical approach to plotting. And perhaps that’s the only way you can really try to teach someone how to construct a novel.
If we view the writer’s job as that of precipitating a dream that may be enjoyed collectively, however, of gradually producing a pearl around that bit of emotional or intellectual grit that somehow seems pregnant with a story, then there may be a danger that the mechanical approach will close the writer off to the process of discovery—and to that blessed state where the Muse finally intervenes, and the characters and situations themselves take on a life of their own, surprising even the writer himself. (That blessed state will be the topic of a later post.)
Maybe it’s better to embark on that “voyage of discovery" so many veterans warn you against. This may not be the best way to write a genre novel, but it could be the best way to write a literary novel, one that more certainly approximates the shaggy disorder and surprise of real life.
Realistically, the best approach may be one that falls between the two:
* Always try to extend a working plot outline ahead as far as you can see at any given moment. But remember that it’s only a working outline, and is subject to radical change at any time.
* Don’t panic if you can’t always see you’re going. Writing a novel has to be a daily job, to some extent, where you plod along, spinning those words, not letting the uncertainties get you down or the frustrations get your blood pressure up. This is akin to the nearly universal craving to know how your life is going to turn out—the future hasn’t arrived yet, and you have to live in the here and now, just as the story you’re writing hasn’t been written yet, and you have to get on with the business of writing it.
Rather than a Divine Clockmaker, perhaps the writer is more like Richard Dawkins’ Blind Watchmaker (though Dawkins' account is arguably only partial). E.L. Doctorow has famously expressed much the same thing in another way:
In a later post, we'll meet the Muse, and argue for an optimum writerly modus operandi. But first, just as a break, we'll interpose a couple of other, non-writerly matters.
Illustration, above: "God the Father," Ludovico Mazzolino (1480–1530) . This file is from Wikimedia Commons and may be used by other projects.
I wanted to be a writer from the time I was a kid—the notion just smacked of romance and freedom. It also had the advantage of annoying my father, who wanted me to be an engineer. But I was 40 years old before I wrote anything for publication.
Twenty years before that, having just spent a couple of years working underground in an Ontario nickel mine, and having more money than I'd ever seen in one pile before, I took a year's sabbatical. I thought this would be a good opportunity to start my life as a writer. And no doubt it was, but I never took it. I partied for twelve months, mostly in Jamaica and Montreal. I guess I thought I was collecting experience. And waiting for inspiration. Big mistake.
"Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent hard work." Thomas Edison
“I only write when I am inspired. Fortunately I am inspired at 9 o’clock every morning.” William Faulkner
"A writer is someone who writes. " Somebody, probably a bunch of people
But there's more to it than that.
Half the people I know—maybe more, now that digital technology makes life so much easier—say that, someday, they want to write something. Most people never do. Most people never even get started.
In this post, I’ll begin with a first, and often insurmountable, psychological hurdle:
Actually starting something
No matter how powerful your lust to create, the enigma of the blank page, that field of infinite possibility, can prove a more powerful detumescent.
The typical reaction:
- The sudden immediacy of all those little chores you've been putting off.
- The decision to wait for when you're "in the mood."
- The decision you need more life experience first—I once partied away a whole year in Montreal that way.
Rx for the dreaded blank-page syndrome:
Write! Don't worry too much about what you write, just scribble something on that page.
And this is important: Don’t think. Write! You always know far more than you think you do. What you “know” is something that evolves in a dialogue between you and the text. The process of communing with the page, the surprise of discovery. (See also Writerly occupational hazards: Premature thought.)
Here’s the thing. That story probably doesn’t exist. Literally. It’s probably not even there in the writer's own head. Not yet, anyway.
How do writers know what they’re going to write? Let’s demonstrate. Anybody can write a shopping list. All you do is jot down the needed items, right? Wrong. Even with a piece of writing that simple, the author probably doesn’t know, at the outset, what’s going to appear on the list. The text actually evolves from a conversation with the page, a dialectical process starting with the first word or words that appear on the paper. Where, for example, did the following story come from?
Peter is a writer. Things aren’t going so well, and he needs a break, maybe a walk to the corner store for a few essentials. Julia, his partner, is always telling him he has a leaky memory, he should make lists, so he decides to make a list. The light in Julia’s study has burned out, Rex won’t eat Captain Cal’s Carp for Canines even with ketchup, there’s no soap for the kitchen sink-full of dishes, and Peter needs avocados for tonight’s guacamole. So he scribbles “lightbulbs,” “dog food,” and “soap” on a piece of paper.
At that point his internal editor stands back and asks: What kind of soap? He adds the word “dish.” “Dish soap” is followed by “hand soap,” since Peter now remembers they’re almost out of it. Hand soap in turn evokes the cheesecake his girlfriend Julia made the evening before, though he would never tell her that, and he adds Sara Lee poundcake to the list. The list continues to ramify. Not only does he think of things he had in mind before he sat down to write, other items are inspired by the list itself, even by the process of composing it. His pen starts to skip and he scribbles “refills,” going over the letters again a couple of times so they’re legible. Perhaps that last item isn’t part of the process, strictly speaking, but it could well feed back into it by evoking “notepads,” “envelopes,” and “ravioli”—which are, after all, another kind of envelope. Then he remembers they are almost out of Parmesan cheese. Here’s how the list stands thus far:
Did Peter know what he was going to include in that list before he wrote it? In this case—probably in most cases—definitely not. Not aside from the first three items. The list was a voyage of discovery. A simple shopping list. Think how much truer this is likely to be of a short story or a novel.
Even where revision remains at the level of specifying “hand soap” rather than merely “soap,” unforeseen ramifications may swiftly follow, as with “poundcake.” How much more far-reaching the effect where the internal reader/editor (or, in one case, a partner named Julia) advises the novelist: “Not ‘Brian.’ No private eye was ever named Brian.” Names, after all, are like dehydrated characters—just add the right context and full-blown people blossom forth. Their stories furcate, unwinding ahead down this road and that one dragging their authors along after them. In this case, the dialectic becomes even more fertile where the internal reader/editor or, last night, a woman named Julia suggests: “Wouldn’t the situation be more dramatic if the cop’s partner was black? Or, even better, a black woman? Let’s call her K.T. Cruz.” Should the writer agree, the novel-to-be is going to be vastly different from the novel-that-might-have-been, wherein the cop-protagonist’s partner was a red-headed cracker named Billy Bob Pudbuster.
As a story evolves, inspiration for new plot directions, new characters, and unforeseen action increasingly springs from the text itself. The manuscript-in-progress itself soon begins eliciting ideas from the writer. From the writers’ point of view—from within this process—the most impressive instances of this appear when the very characters that they have created start showing signs of autonomy, doing and saying unexpected things, even making decisions about plot and theme (decisions about their own lives, essentially). This often comes as a real surprise to their authors.
Take a more immediate example. I composed the above paragraphs after writing down the question "How do writers know what they’re going to write?” and the phrase “a conversation with the page.” It was essential to get those words down on paper first. I rambled on from there, not knowing where things were headed, and I found myself bemused at what emerged from the process. If I hadn't had other deadlines, who knows where things might have led?
So the writer—his name is Peter—originally sat down to produce a shopping list, afraid he might forget dish soap, dog food, lightbulbs, and avocados. With the writing of the first word, he entered into a communion with the page, and the list he took with him was a product of that conversation—not something he had held in mind and intended to transcribe. And he did forget the avocados—something he had had in mind before he sat down. But the writing process distracted him from it, not to mention his running out of ink in the middle of things. And his girlfriend—let’s call her Julia—didn’t get to try his tacos with refried beans and guacamole. He made ravioli instead and she told him it sucked. So he told her how her poxy cheesecake tasted like hand soap, and the next thing he knew he had tomato-and-basil sauce in his hair and there was ravioli everywhere.
Ruthie was nothing like Julia. For one thing she made a tasty pumpkin cheesecake; for another she liked Peter’s ravioli. She liked everything about him, in fact. Not only that, she paid her share of the rent. And Julia had taken the stinking dog with her. Peter was as happy as he had ever been.
Sometimes writers have a sense of what they want to write. A bit of brainstorming on the page, a few ideas doodled, and it may fall together in broad outline. They go on from there to fill in the blanks.
As often as not, however, writers have only the vaguest notion of what it is they want to write. This is perhaps more typical of the fiction writer than it is of the person setting out to write an essay or a report. In this case, a single doodle—a snatch of dialogue, a name, a scene, a suggestive statistic—may appear pregnant with a story. The writer simply pursues the path it points towards—following on, never sure what remains to be uncovered or developed around the next corner, and the next.
Whatever you do, don’t wait till it’s all together, explicitly, right there in your head. Chances are you’ll never write anything except, maybe, relatively straightforward things such as reports.
Over the next few posts on this blogsite, we’ll focus on
1. other psychological hurdles, especially for new writers;
2. where ideas come from; and
3. a strange phenomenon we can call the “Muse Effect.”
Today I present two gnomic items of writerly advice. Subsequent posts will expand upon them.
These are aimed first of all at myself, who knows better but, it seems, keeps forgetting. In fact, in drafting this second of a series of futuristic novels, the sequel to Syn, I’ve been committing these most basic of errors.
2. Don’t wait till you know what your story is before you start writing it.
In fact, the story often doesn’t yet exist. It’s not as though it’s somewhere there in your head, simply awaiting discovery. Not only isn’t it there, it isn’t anywhere else either. At least not till you evoke it though a give-and-take conversation with the page.
To find out what this really means, stay tuned for some follow-up posts:
“The Conversation with the Page”
“The Muse Wears Black Leather”
- Friedrich Nietzsche
1. Expanding on Nietzsche’s insight
The writerly impulse to be admired rather than understood is generally associated with certain stylistic horrors.
Right away, seeking the admiration of “knowing and over-acute readers,” the unwitting writer serves up long and complex sentences like a tangle of spaghetti. The more clauses the better, eh? And you should pack each sentence with as much information as possible, so both writer and reader can congratulate themselves and each other on their perspicacity and champion short-term memories.
A closely related blunder is the profligate use of polysyllabic words, notably latinate instead of Anglo-Saxon. Lumbering sentences full of 20-dollar words are typical of academics (establishing their street creds), bureaucrats (establishing their creds plus obfuscating both lack of real substance and responsibility for any actions referred to, supposing any actions were ever undertaken) and a certain class of writer (pretending to wisdom and hoping to score skinny babes in leotards who read critical theory for fun).
Note to the reader: If that last sentence made ready sense, congratulate yourself — you qualify as one of Nietzsche’s “knowing and over-acute readers.”
Nietzsche’s advice could also be taken as a riff on the following venerable wisdom, phrased in one way or another by any number of red-hot writers:
That’s a recipe for literary disaster, akin to dumping cement in the soufflé mix. Much better you simply spin a ripping good yarn with engaging characters and dramatic relationships. You may then find (as I believe Isaac Bashevis Singer has suggested) a universal message for humankind in fact emerges by story’s end, a message that takes readers — perhaps even the writer himself — by surprise.
2. Doing what I say you should never do
Having said all that, I’m currently busy trying to dig myself out from under a rubble of ideas, both solid and only half set. I need to better frame a story that uses novel worlds and lofty themes as simple background. I’ve beaten the first and second installments in a science-fiction series, I believe, but the next book is flirting with the soufflé-as-boat-anchor syndrome.
Part of the problem lies in the fact that my narrative lies in a future 50 years down the road, and I have to construct a succession of convincing worlds within a speculative evolutionary framework, all the while presenting, within these worlds, compelling characters ensnarled in engaging relationships. (Sara: Do not conclude, merely on the basis of that last sentence, that it’s really only bohemian babes I’m after.)
3. Godly vicissitudes
Meanwhile Sara is asking — politely enough, for someone who lives with a struggling youngish writer — whether I couldn’t see my way clear to abandoning my future worlds long enough to take out the garbage, which is currently stinking up this world she and I share in common.
Theologically unschooled as I am, I have to ask: Did God really take the seventh day to rest, or did Mrs. God drag him away from Genesis to attend to a few chores in some other sphere? That would explain all the half-finished business here on Earth, including badly designed knees.
“Sore knees,” Sara says, “come from too much sitting around building worlds. Don’t try to blame them on taking the garbage out. Or on God.”
Of course Sara is Buddhist, and may not entirely understand such matters.
Nietzsche portrait by Hans Olde.
"God Creating the Universe" by Virgil Solis (1514-1562)
The central irony of our age: a powerful totalitarian drift promising individual empowerment. (Epigrams'R'Us, eh?)
Are we modern folk evolving as mere arms & legs for our smartphones? The reality of current tendencies may be even more sinister than that. I'm too sleepy to develop that notion any further just now. Here's just one piece from a swelling chorus of unease, one that may be too restrained and coming too late, at least from my paranoid early-morning POV:
There’s been much news, of late, concerning the planarian worm, which is effectively immortal. Unfortunately, this version of life everlasting offers little hope to us humans.
But there’s a fix, one that doesn’t mean we have to begin reproducing asexually if we want to persist to the planarian extent. Of necessity, I’ll argue, we’re already, always and forever, living in our “afterlife.”
Having our sex and living forever too
Here’s my theory, for whatever it’s worth, and in full knowledge that I may well have reinvented the bicycle yet again (and that these arguments will make Bill the Mathematician’s eyes bulge with indignation).
First I’ll ask you to read the following epigraph to a short story involving serial suicide leading to redemption I wrote many years ago and never got around to publishing. (What’s the hurry, eh? At least in light of the cosmological scheme about to unfold before Bill’s bulging eyes.)
One way to make sense of quantum theory is to view our universe as an infinite number of overlapping, superimposed realities which are split apart into separate, alternative worlds each time an observation is made, with the result that the universe is constantly splitting into innumerable near copies of itself. …
[O]ur own bodies are part of the world, and they too are split and split again. Not only our bodies, but our brains and, presumably, our consciousness is being repeatedly multiplied, each copy becoming a thinking, feeling human being inhabiting another universe much like the one we see around us. … This vast multiplicity of realities raises an intriguing question: why do we find ourselves living in this particular universe rather than one of the myriad of others? Is there anything special about this one, or is our presence here simply random?
Immortality for secularists
Let me introduce you to Joe Atheist, and let’s say circumstances conspire to kill him. He’s walking down the street one sunny afternoon and he’s flattened by a piano that drops from just outside a fourth-floor apartment.
In adjacent Universe A1, Joe quite likely dies a similar death at about the same time, circumstances in A1 being much the same here as they are in the first universe—and as they are in an infinite number of other adjacent worlds wherein Joe dies in this way.
As we move from the infinite number of Universe A1s to the infinite number of Universe A2s and then to the A3s and so on, things get more and more different. Joe A remains much the same person, and his consciousness is virtually identical across them, and events leading to his close encounter with the piano remain similar.
At some point(s), though, circumstances become different enough—perhaps metal fatigue in a bolt on the block and tackle doesn’t become critical till a second later, and the piano misses Joe by inches. Or Joe sleeps through his snooze alarm and takes a taxi instead of walking. And this Joe goes on enjoying life till he’s killed by a rogue cleanerbot 15 years later.
Generalizing from Joe’s experiences, maybe the conscious me that prevails, no matter what happens to any given instance, or probability, of me parallels the quantum particle that is really a superposition of every probability, of all potential positions and momentums, of every state it could be in, where one particular observation collapses it as this particle, with this position and momentum, determining one state of affairs as that one prevailing.
The “original” Joe Atheist is dead—in some sense, maybe to the extent that this universe, from Joe’s POV, is no more—as perhaps are Joes A1 through A1+n dead in a succession of adjacent universes. But Joe’s consciousness effectively persists in Joe A11 and in 11+n Joes who are aware only of a close call, and they thank their lucky stars.
In short, every time Joe, or you or me, is killed, a cognate consciousness persists in the next most adjacent universe(s) where circumstances are sufficiently different to avert that particular death. Your continuous sense of self persists in adjacent versions of your selves, always with “your” sense that there’s just one of you.
Given that every event, every decision in the universe, causes that universe (whichever universe is currently “that” one) to branch, and so on and so on, successively adjacent worlds proliferating constantly without end, we can say that each and every one of us conscious beings is necessarily immortal. Every time one of our determinates snuffs it, our sense of self and consciousness segues seamlessly right into the next most feasible universe, and we’re never any the wiser regarding the no doubt infinite occasions of our demise, which are never really untimely, since we see now that death holds no real sting.
The question arises, of course, how do we empirically test this fine hypothesis, potential solace to one and all, including skeptics of every ilk except for those who won’t buy the infinite-universe model we’re dealing with here? If we do buy it, then the only reasonably ethical test that springs to mind is suicide, just to see what happens. Indeed, scientific rigor would suggest a series of suicides.
The problem is that we have no evidence our consciousness has any awareness of its cognates in adjacent universes. So you will always be conscious of yourself in the here and now, not in your experience of the not here but instead there. And you can never actually die, no matter how hard you try to kill yourself, since in the manifold of constantly bifurcating universes circumstances will never conspire to have you succeed in killing yourself, at least from the POV of your consciousness. Okay?
So we’re left, I would argue, with no more than a logically persuasive theory of necessary and inevitable immortality. Empirical proofs will have to wait.
In summary, and referring back to the Paul Davies epigraph, above, it’s hard to see how we aren’t all immortal—that every time circumstances “kill” us, we don’t really die. Our sense of self persists in some adjacent universe, probably a bunch of them, where things are different enough we’re still pretty much who we were but in circumstances where we didn’t die. And even if that next version of us is killed right afterwards, we’re still conscious in the next manifold of adjacent worlds. And so on, with some version of “me,” related more or less closely by family resemblances, slipping and sliding, bobbing and weaving and always there, somewhere. Always alive. Never conscious of ever having actually died.
Like it or not, death is always circumvented by a persisting contiguous consciousness in some other universe(s).
In fact, each and every one of us is always alive at various different ages, maybe all of them, in all kinds of different circumstances, in an infinite number of universes. All at the same time. Where unfortunate happenstance extinguishes any one of these expressions of a personality, at any age, adjacent versions remain self-conscious yet unaware of this, though they may well go, “Whoa! That was a close call,” as the car that nearly hit them speeds away. Or the piano flattens the person right in front of them.
An infinity of other (potential) universes, meanwhile, has never included any version of who “you” are, and never will.
That much is plain. (And that loud pop-pop, just now, was Bill the Mathematicians eyeballs exploding with indignation.)
Heaven and hell for secularists
Live hard and live fast, for we are, each and every one of us, by nature bulletproof.
Corollary 2 (also a caveat regarding Corollary 1):
To the extent you can act in ways that make your current determinate self and the universe with which it is coupled a better one—i.e. in terms of the prospective conditions it would provide for a happy outcome in your determination in a next-most didn’t-die adjacent world, you should live “well,” i.e. in a moral and ethical manner. And--to the extent that makes it more likely your own next determination will try to act in a similar way--you thereby optimize the chances your person (consciousness, “self,” personality) will then manifest in worlds progressively more conducive to a good life. (And I reinvent the bicycle, again and again, without end. See Robert Thurman’s Infinite Life for a Buddhism-inspired take on immortality.)
Behaving badly, of course, will tend to have the converse effect.
And Bob’s yer uncle, eh? Not only have we provided a palatable concept of immortality for Joe Atheist, we’ve established secular grounds for a heaven and hell.
I’ll leave my arguments for the non-existence of Richard Dawkins for another occasion.
* A friend has sent me a link to “Quantum Suicide: How to Prove the Multiverse Exists, in the Most Violent Way Possible,”something I’ve read only after writing the foregoing. It presents a nice take on the suicide test we’ve proposed.
* A recent Boston Review essay considered a few thinkers and their various takes on the afterlife. Go ahead and read it, if you enjoy philosophers dancing on the heads of pins.
Savage Chickens cartoon used with permission.
The second multiple universe cartoon is from Max Tegmark's website.
Here on my eight-floor balcony, watching the sun retire across the river to the west, I can almost hear the waters advancing from Saphan Kwai. Or is that merely the kerfuffle of conflicting rumor? For weeks, here in Phya Thai District, we’ve awaited the floods from the north as they advance with glacial alacrity. One of the many rumors, inconsistently promulgated by government officials, was that we might well be spared altogether.
Ultimately, though, it seems the hi-so spirits of the place have been insufficiently propitiated. Or perhaps too many of the locals have succumbed to premature evacution (current phrase, not my coinage), their lack of faith offending our spiritual guardians. Because last night and this morning, Twittish wisdom had the flood arriving in front of Big C at Saphan Kwai. Since, however, we’ve been given to understand that this was not the flood proper, but only prophylactic pumping of the drains, and that the area is dry again.
Nevertheless, the inexorable tide of umpteen zillion Olympic swimming pools equivalent, the standard measure du jour, continues its near-imperceptible rush towards us. As it has been doing for weeks.
I’ve decided never, for any reason, to look at the Twitter feed again. Gossip is always a powerful stimulant, but in time of crisis Twitter is crack cocaine. In the good old days, people would just get on with life and, if a giant flood appeared, they’d say, whoa, a flood, and deal with it. When it passed, they’d get back to other matters.
Of course all that’s easy enough for me to say, still safe and air-conditioned in my apartment as I make guacamole, croques monsieur and salad with which to surprise Sara when she gets home from work already heartened by thoughts of that half bottle of wine in the fridge. Only a few kilometers from us, meanwhile, large numbers of people are suffering abject misery. (I fear that us relatively privileged folk hereabouts will suffer our real crisis only after the floods have abated, and the social, political and economic fallout hits us.)
Of course there’s every reason to believe our neighborhood will finally indeed be flooded within days. Though how deeply and for how long is anybody’s guess. If you want considered opinions ranging from no flood at all to 10-12cm to 1.5m standing from a few hours to a few weeks, consult #thaifloodeng, an amazing confluence in itself of observation and information from every source imaginable. Everything you need to know from subduing feral crocodiles in black water to whether the reported invasion of green mambas is for real or a hoax, from how to safely test standing water for electric current to how to volunteer for relief efforts.
A graphic representation from Japan showing, as of 27 October, the Great Flood Monster about to gobble up Phya Thai District and other parts of so-far untouchable “inner Bangkok.” (The situation has become even direr since then, of course.)
For more on the respective powers of myth and science in flood control, see the latest posting on Somtow's World.
First photo (above): “A resident pulls her belongings as she wades through her flooded neighborhood in Thon Buri outside Bangkok on October 28, 2011.” (Bazuki Muhammad/Reuters) From the Boston Globe.
Second photo “Children play in a flooded street in Sena district, Ayutthaya province, about 80 km (50 miles) north of Bangkok, on September 12, 2011…” (Reuters/Sukree Sukplang) From The Atlantic.
Does Fate reflect a wormish agenda? We looked at aspects of this question in the last two posts. Read on for even more sinister developments.
Once upon a time within some dimension or another, a species of worm with an interesting civilization embraced a complex body of beliefs, not all of them consistent with one another, but that is in the nature of things.
Their consciousness, if we may call it such, was a collective phenomenon; taken individually, these worms were rather dull. Be that as it may, one of their collective beliefs was that human beings, being highly nutritious, were the best food they could eat. More than that, however, tradition had it that, if one regularly consumed sufficient quantities of people meat, one could become as wise as a human being. Here again, of course, we speak of the collective, for individual worms would always be relative blockheads, in the final analysis.
Marvelous are the ways of evolution. This worm, a species of the ubiquitous pinworm (Enterobius spp.), was among other things a parasite specializing in human beings. It employed a so-far unidentified stealth strategy to conceal itself during the lifespan of its host. Then, at the moment of the hosts’ death, it employed some unknown mechanism to morph, passing itself off as a blowfly or, where appropriate, some other insect larva. A maggot. Why it would have evolved this capacity remains a mystery. Why would it be important to appear a newcomer at the death of a host, rather than a resident adopting new behavior? If this represented a response to some pressure from its environment, what conceivable threat could that have been? (The alert reader may ask how it is the narrator does not know this, yet purports to understand features of the worms’ belief system. To answer that question would be to reveal too much.)
In any case, over the millennia this protean worm, essentially a superorganism, learned that people were nutritionally superior — and tastier, if collective consciousness may be said to appreciate such things — if they died in a state of stress, organs and meat nicely conditioned by the flood of assorted hormones associated with such emotions as fear, anger, lust and envy. Over quite a long time, then, this worm evolved a special parasitical relationship with human beings. Truly astonishing are the ways of nature. Here we had a worm fed and sheltered by a human host upon which, following its death, the worm, disguised as a maggot, would feast. Driven both by gluttony and by its desire for transcendent wisdom, the worm eventually evolved neuro-chemical means of inflaming all the appropriate human emotions needed in turn to drive vastly accelerated reproduction and subsequent slaughter, an ever more generous cornucopia of prime organs and meat for the worm’s dining pleasure and, it believed, ultimate enlightenment.
But humans were smarter than they were wise. Suitably inflamed, they developed more and more catastrophically violent ways of resolving conflict at the same time they learned to enjoy promiscuous lust without spawning the offspring that had in times past required so much care and feeding. The worm feasted beyond its wildest imagining, yes, but ultimately the boom proved unsustainable.
Certain traditions, in certain dimensions, hold that the worm did in fact finally achieve full human wisdom. That would have been around the time the humans themselves wised up. Which was just too late. Alas.
Moral of this story: No matter how wise the collective, individual worms will always be blockheads. (Evidence, notably recent political behavior in the USA, suggests the converse is true among human beings.)
Thanks to Von Glitscka for permission to use his Doodle Creature (above).