Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Charles and Emma, by Deborah Heiligman

I think the Darwins knew how to make love with their brains.
(Not to mention their bodies. Ten children?!)

As a writer, talking about writing and being a writer is one of the more complicated tasks I'm forced to undertake. The concepts are somewhat ethereal, a nuance which doesn't help matters. But what complicates the questions even more than the abstract notion of successful writing is that I'm not entirely sure what makes a writer tick.

Much easier is discussing what a writer is not. A banana. Aloe vera. Invincible.


The concept of a writer scribbling and tapping furiously in a lonely garret must have some basis. And sure, when it comes down to putting ink on the page, no one can do it for the writer. But neither can the writer do it by himself. Leastwise, I can't.

Writing is a labor of love. But what many readers overlook is that both the labor and the love are shared. Like its other forms, the love that goes into a book, a story, a treatise, or a poem (and ultimately into the writer who makes them) is varied, passionate, and weird.

Stephen King's wife held bloody towels under his nose so he could continue typing. That's love. J.R.R. Tolkien shaped the central relationship in his legendarium after his romance with his wife -- and as for life imitating art, their shared tombstone bears the fictional characters' names. That's love. Bill Bryson's overweight, middle aged, out of shape friend joined him on a trek along the Appalachian Trail just so Bill would have someone to hike with. (Not to mention a wife who was chill with him disappearing into the wilderness for weeks at a time.) That's love. Emma Darwin, a faithful nineteenth-century Christian, debated the nature of creation with her husband Charles for decades -- not in hopes of talking him out of his ideas, but out of a desire to help him test the mettle of his theories and make them as strong as possible before publishing them. That's love.

I might say that I can only hope to be as successful as those authors. But that's not true -- I can work my tail off in an effort to be as successful as those authors. I believe I can do it, too. My writing may not be as evocative, as epic, as humorous, or as revolutionary as theirs (yet). But I have one thing each of those authors has, the one thing without which they could not have written their books.


Anything can happen in a book. So in a very real way, love makes everything possible. With freedom like that, let's see what we can accomplish together, shall we?

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Brain That Changes Itself, by Norman Doidge, M.D.

Once in a great while, you find a book that knocks you silly while you're reading it and that changes you. This is that book. Only, it turns out that every book you read alters your brain. This one just helps you recognize the process.

This week, in the midst of reading The Brain That Changes Itself, I recommended it to a friend who is uniquely religious and incredibly well educated. She seemed intrigued by my description of the brain's phenomenal plasticity as outlined by Dr. Doidge, but straight away she declared that she would be unsatisfied with the book. She believed it, like other science books, would fail to take account of the soul while fully addressing the physical aspects of the brain.

Leaving aside the point that science and religion are two different games and applying one to the other is like playing tennis by Dungeons & Dragons rules, I had two questions for my friend: If you believe God in whatever form created the universe, is it not reasonable to think that by better understanding his handiwork you could better understand the nature of him? and, What is so wrong about finding miraculous that which we have here, on this planet, in this physical universe, without having to ascribe to it some unattainable, and by definition incomprehensible, religious context?

The questions are more important than the answers, so let's leave behind my friend and her responses. Whatever your beliefs on the physical brain's relationship to the mind/spirit/will, we now have empirical evidence that the brain is malleable well beyond our infancy. Environmental and social factors shape it, certainly. But the really cool part is that our thoughts alter the actual structure of our brains. Our minds can define our cranial anatomy!

Tell me, how does that belittle or ignore the presence of the soul? Our consciousness, at least as much as our environment, has the capacity to shape how we function. We determine ourselves!

Since reading The Brain That Changes Itself, I can hardly move a finger or take a step without wondering why my brain is organized the way it is, and how I'm changing that organization with each action and each thought.

Yes, our brains are products of our early childhood, of our most formative and plastic years. But no part of that programming is set in stone. Which means your conscious thoughts have control over yourself to a greater extent than most Western societies ever believed. Do you feel incapable of working at your computer without first checking Facebook and conquering another game of Spider Solitaire? You can alter that neuronal pathway to make your routine what you want it to be. Do you feel like you'll never be able to ride your bike up that steep hill? Visualize yourself doing it enough -- really working to accomplish it -- and your brain will actually strengthen itself for the real deal.

Those are the routinely applicable aspects of this book, the everyday motivational abilities our consciousness has over the physical aspect of our brains. The real inspiration comes from just how freaking powerful the brain is, to the point where it can compensate for its own damage and help stroke victims relearn movement of paralyzed limbs, help autistic children differentiate sounds and distinguish interpersonal cues, and help elderly people keep their brain activity young.

Call our brain plasticity an inconceivable accomplishment of evolution or a gift from God, whatever fits your worldview. Either way, its abilities astound me, and this book reconfigured my mind. Literally.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Inherent Vice, by Thomas Pynchon

It's like The Maltese Falcon with long hair, surfer rock, and reefers

The very distinction between mystery stories and hardboiled stories is the neatness of the world in which the detective snoops. Saying that an Arthur Conan Doyle or an Agatha Christie (or heck, even an Edgar Allan Poe) mystery is comparable to a Dashiell Hammett or a Raymond Chandler novel is like saying pennies and pipes are the same because they're both made of copper.

In one case, the ills of the world stem from a single source, and logic and level-headedness can riddle out the problem. Cut down one rotten tree to save the forest. In the other, crimes are less clear-cut, stickier, and far more wide-reaching. Cut down one aspen, and its roots will still feed a hundred other connected trees.

Isn't life hardboiled? How often can we solve a problem with a single solution while preserving the world as it was? You're overweight; the solution is not simply cutting calories or taking longer walks, but a range of approaches without a definite end point, some of which are outside your immediate control. Your nation has an epidemic of mass shootings; where in the nebulous web of causes and possibilities can you reduce the chances of death by firearms?

Logic does not help solve your problems when your ex-girlfriend runs off with a real estate magnate, when a dental surgery office has ghostly but undeniable ties to a drug cartel that's also a schooner, when your culture swaps the very use of logic for spiritual guidance.

Wait. Those may not be your problems, precisely. But Doc Sportello tackles them in Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice. Pynchon's take on the hardboiled is spot-on, even after factoring in the translation to the psychedelic sixties. Pot is spiked instead of scotch, and Hollywood starlets are replaced by Gilligan and the Skipper. But Doc's problems are the same in principle if not in details to our more mundane individual conundrums. The same core issues infest Sportello's world as infest Sam Spade's and Philip Marlowe's -- and ours.

In some ways, the world never changes. From decade to decade, era to era, through cultural upheavals and technological sea changes, we deal with the same shit over and over and over. We might yearn for simpler times, but let's face it -- they never were simpler, and they never will be. Real problems are often interconnected, complex, and tangled. Their threads stretch back as far as we do, and their frayed ends are not in sight.

But does that mean we don't try to riddle the unsolvable, untie the Gordian Knot, square the circle? Hell no. Just because we can't uproot the whole forest of vice and unhappiness and serious problems doesn't mean we don't face it anyway. I think that's what the hardboiled authors realize -- we can't solve the world, but we can define it. We can make it more than livable. We can make it whatever we want it to be.

Doesn't that sound more intriguing than simply excising the problem spots from an otherwise pristine and unchanging world?