I can’t afford to be embarrassed

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I’m a published urban fantasy author with two novels on the shelves, one of which, FROST MOON, won an award. I have two more novels in the can and I’ve just finished coediting an anthology with twenty stories based on an idea I proposed. I’ve read extensively on writing theory and even have written a few articles on the subject.

So what am I doing with a copy of WRITING FICTION FOR DUMMIES?

Doing whatever I can to get better at what I do, that’s what.

Once a friend saw the huge stack of theory-of-fiction books in my Library, one of which is “Novel Writing for Complete Morons” or some title a lot like that, and he remarked “wow, it’s probably been a long time since you had to look at that one.” Well, that happened to be true, but not because I read the book, then wrote some novels, and then grew beyond it.

The truth is, I’d already written one novel – and chunks of six or seven others – when I got “Novel Writing for Complete Morons.” Heck, I may have already written FROST MOON at that point. But I’m a book hound, and I look at everything. I came across the book, probably at a bargain bin. And I saw a chapter I can use. So I bought it.

I actually love reading overviews. I can dive deep into a technical book, but sometimes it’s only stepping back and summarizing the text – either by reading a summary, or writing one yourself – that enables you to hang the details upon a coherent whole. Even when the overview isn’t interesting, sometimes the book itself has details you simply can’t find elsewhere.

In the case of WRITING FICTION FOR DUMMIES, I saw it in a bargain bin, flipped through it – and found a section in a chapter on editing scenes, a task I’d just been struggling with on my third Dakota Frost novel, LIQUID FIRE. So I bought it, and tonight read a few chunks, some of which are good for structuring scenes, others of which were helpful in overall novel structure.

Some of that information is review; other parts are completely new. It doesn’t matter. It helped me move forward.

Creative expression is driven by ego, but it’s stifled by snobbery. Don’t get embarrassed by what you need to do to improve. If you were trying to climb out of a pit, would you hold your hand back from a rung that was candy colored and clearly intended for children? No. As long as the rung is solid, you grab it and pull yourself up.

Anything else is just hurting yourself in an effort to look good.

-the Centaur

Pictured: WRITING FICTION FOR DUMMIES, atop THE POETICS OF THE MIND’S EYE by Christopher Collins, a study of visual imagination in literature and cognitive science. See how hard it is to be honest with yourself and do what needs doing? Here I had to bring along a technical book I’m reading and use it to prop up the For Dummies book in an absurd attempt at credentialing.

No, I’m sorry, ladies and gentlemen: I may have happened to have picked up THE POETICS OF THE MIND’S EYE at about the same time as WRITING FICTION FOR DUMMIES, and I may have had it in my reading pile because I was evaluating whether to recommend it to a friend who works in the field of visual imagination, but the one has little to do with the other.

I, a published author, picked up WRITING FICTION FOR DUMMIES, and it had useful information for a problem I was trying to solve. Don’t be embarrassed about things like that: do whatever you have to to help yourself get better. End of list.

Humans are Good Enough to Live

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I’m a big fan of Ayn Rand and her philosophy of Objectivism. Even though there are many elements of her philosophy which are naive, or oversimplified, or just plain ignorant, the foundation of her thought is good: we live in exactly one shared world which has a definitive nature, and the good is defined by things which promote the life of human individuals.

It’s hard to overestimate the importance of this move, this Randian answer to the age old question of how to get from “is” to “ought” – how to go from what we know about the world to be true to deciding what we should do. In Rand’s world, ethical judgments are judgments made by humans about human actions – so the ethical good must be things that promote human life.

This may seem like a trivial philosophical point, but there are many theoretically possible definitions of ethics, from the logically absurd “all actions taken on Tuesday are good” to the logically indefensible “things are good because some authority said so.” Rand’s formulation of ethics echoes Jesus’s claim that goodness is not found in the foods you eat, but in the actions you do.

But sometimes it seems like the world’s a very depressing place. Jesus taught that everyone is capable of evil. Rand herself thought nothing is given to humans automatically: they must choose their values, and that the average human, because they never think about values, is pretty much a mess of contradictory assumptions which leaves them doing good only through luck.

But, I realized Rand’s wrong about that – because her assumptions are wrong, that nothing is given to humans automatically. She’s a philosopher, not a scientist, and she wasn’t aware of the great strides that have been made in the understanding of how we think – because some of those strides were made in technical fields near the very end of her life.

Rant rails against philosophies like Kant’s, who proposes, among many other things, that humans perceive reality unavoidably distorted by filters built into the human conceptual and perceptual apparatus. Rand admitted that human perception and cognition had a nature, but she believed, humans could perceive reality more objectively. Well, in a sense, they’re both wrong.

Modern studies of bias in machine learning show that it’s impossible – mathematically impossible – to learn any abstract concept without some kind of bias. In brief, if you want to predict something you’ve never seen before, you have to take some stance towards the data you’ve seen already – a bias – but there is no logical way to pick a correct bias. Any one you pick may be wrong.

So, like Kant suggested, our human conceptual processes impose unavoidable biases on the kind of concepts we learn, and unlike Rand wanted, those biases may prove distorting. However, we are capable of virtual levels of processing, which means that even if our base reasoning is flawed, we can build a more formal one, like mathematics, that avoids those problems.

But, I realized, there’s an even stronger reason to believe that things aren’t as bad as Kant or Rand feared, a reason founded in Rand’s ideas of ethics. Even human communities that lack a formalized philosophy are nonetheless capable of building and maintaining systems that last for generations – which means the human default bias leads to concepts that are Randian goods.

In a way, this isn’t surprising. From an evolutionary perspective, if any creature inherited a set of bad biases, it would learn bad concepts, and be unable to reproduce. From a cognitive science perspective, the human mind is constantly attempting to understand the world and to cache the results as automatic responses – what Rand would call building a philosophy.

So, if we are descendants of creatures that survived, we must have a basic bias for learning that promotes our life, and if we live by being rational creatures constantly attempting to understand the world who persist in communities that have lasted for generations, we must have a basic bias towards a philosophy which is just good enough to prevent our destruction.

That’s not to say that the average human being, on their own, without self-examination, will develop a philosophy that Rand or Jesus would approve of. And it’s not to say that individual human beings aren’t capable of great evil – and that human communities aren’t capable of greater evil towards their members.

But it does mean that humans are good enough to live on this Earth.

Just our continued existence shows that even though it seems like we live in a cold and cruel universe, the cards are stacked just enough in humanity’s favor for it to be possible for at least some people to thrive, it also shows that while humans are capable of great evil, the bias of humanity is stacked just enough in our favor for human existence to continue.

Rising above the average, of course, is up to you.

-the Centaur