Of hamsters and pink robots

THE WRITER’S LIFE

The best laid plans of mice (men had nothing to do with it, of course) sometimes work out in unexpected ways. Those of a religious persuasion might attribute these strange happenings to guidance from God. Other, broader thinking individuals, would say it’s simply a matter of being connected.

Pink Robot

It’s the weird coincidences which writers are sometimes accused of using for convenience (“Suddenly, a trap door he’d not noticed before, provided a potential escape…” might be something you’d read in a Dan Brown novel), but which do happen in real life. There are few pure coincidences in my fiction, and I make it all at least plausible through background research.

My last published story (‘So Long and Thanks for all the Animals’) was inspired by Douglas, and a song. My next one (‘The Long Now Clock’, out this weekend) came about because of something I heard on Ancient Aliens. A future story, about two hamsters called Hannibal and Lecter, was for a young friend, test reader and occasional literary muse, who has a pair of Roborovski hamsters named after her favourite film character. Given they sound like Russian cyborgs, I couldn’t resist.

It was my latest completed story which relied most heavily on real-life coincidences, not to make the story work Dan Brown style, but a series of things which shaped the way I told the plausible story.

I wanted to further explore sexual alignment and identity (in an asexual story), and the interface between humans and technology, as we become more merged, and the (rather worn) concept of sentient IA, as the lines between human and technological species blur, so I wanted to be original. I wanted to convey feeling and thoughts, from different perspectives, and I wanted to do this with flash fiction. The latter wish, was to make what turned into a bit of an experiment, effective through speed of delivery (a bit like a cartoon).

So I was looking for a lot of meaning in not many words. Having been encouraged by my writing peers to not be embarrassed to be proud, I’m rather fond of what I’ve come up with. It started when I heard something about ‘The Zeigarnik Effect’, so I researched it.

In psychology, the Zeigarnik effect states that people remember uncompleted or interrupted tasks better than completed tasks. In Gestalt psychology, the Zeigarnik effect has been used to demonstrate the general presence of Gestalt phenomena: not just appearing as perceptual effects, but also present in cognition.” (Wikipedia). That became:

People are better when remembering the actions they didn’t complete. Every action has potential energy, which can torture its creator when stored. Release is the metaphorical pressure cooker letting off steam, a camel’s broken back, or a reject pink robot with Tourette’s…

My protagonist is a small pink robot, whose AI has a defect. She’s from the Pink Ladies range of assistant droids and she’s called Frenchie. She came about when I watched a documentary on Grease, with a greater emphasis on the play which preceded the film (my stories are littered with references, tributes and nods, to films, people…), and someone texted me. A conversation of some length followed, after which she was able to look at something in a different way, and a problem became a solution.

Most of all, I wanted to write a story about the way the mind works, in all its sometimes cracked ways; about how understanding can change attitudes; and of how that can be achieved simply by looking at things differently. And all I have is words on the page, just text.

The result, is a flash fiction story (about 750 words), of Frenchie and her depressed friend (Sandy, another robot), serving tables at Zeigarnik’s Kitchen. The facial expressions of the androids are conveyed with pre-emoji ASCCI emoticons, and thoughts in something similar to hashtags. An editor thinks it works too (“An interesting experiment. I don’t think we’ve ever had a robot with Tourette Syndrome”), so it’s out in a couple of weeks.

It is true that many stories use the well-trodden path of throwing up gradually more challenging obstacles, then for these to be overcome in a denouement (“Then he woke up”, not being one a fiction writer would get away with), and the story of my life is one such example.

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Talking to the universe with cannabinoids (how to use the force)

THE WRITER’S LIFE | DEAR DIARY

Have you ever bet something on a ball of paper going into a waste basket? Then when it doesn’t go in, made it best of three? Whether consciously or not, we all ask questions – rhetorical and specific – of whom? Who are we speaking to when we ask if a certain person likes us, or whether this too shall end? God? Ourselves? No-one? And sometimes we might notice little things, like a certain thing or person being in a particular place, something someone says on TV, or just a weird coincidence. Could those be the answers to our questions, or at least clues?

Cannabis-BrainImage: Waking Times

Am I off my nut on weed? No, but cannabis does open the mind. It’s a medically proven fact: A cannabinoid is one of a class of diverse chemical compounds that acts on cannabinoid receptors in cells that alter neurotransmitter release in the brain. It was more imaginatively summed up in a recent Lifehacker post:

Essentially, cannabinoids’ effect on our brains is to keep our neurons firing, magnifying our thoughts and perception and keeping us fixed on them (until another thought takes us on a different tangent). That’s why when you’re high, it’s really not a good time to drive, study for a test, or play sports that require coordination, like tennis or baseball. Like alcohol, caffeine, and sugar, cannabinoids also affect the levels of dopamine in our brain, often resulting in a sense of relaxation and euphoria.”

It’s a subjective thing, but for me it means that I can think much more deeply about things, and for longer, not just when I’m high, but as a regular user of cannabinoids. My own atheism is explained on this blog, most recently in my quasi-religious posts about quantum physics and lucidity. Together with the personal statement on my Typewriter page, these are the means by which I reconcile religion with science. Smoking weed has been helpful in allowing me to consolidate things in my mind, and take on a more spiritual view of life, the universe and everything. Living alone helps too.

So very often, I’ll sit and read, write, question and learn, for many hours. And sometimes, I’ll stare out of the window from my desk, or make a nest on the sofa and listen to some music, and I’ll think aloud (yes, I talk to myself. I live alone). My IQ and my knowledge will only get me so far, and I’m hungry for more, so I ask questions of my heart and my head. I balance my own needs with those of others, but I can’t help but follow a dream, however unscientific that may seem. And if I dream, if I put my mind out there, sometimes I get an answer.

Religious people might call it a message from God, but I believe the universe talks back. I believe there is something out there, and the best term I can think of, is it’s a force (not unlike that in Star Wars), which can be used. I’ve not started practising Voodoo yet, but it’s one of many belief systems based ultimately in spirituality. But I’m no more a spiritualist than I am a Christian: I’m an atheist and I believe in forces greater than us in the universe, which is perfect common sense really.

At an existential level, the universe (The Force, “God”…) can give us huge signs as a wake up call, whether individually or collectively. My personal non-religious epiphany came when I was quite literally in the gutter: Drunk and on the streets, with no-one and nothing. Many agencies conspired to get me better, including a great deal of work on my part, but it was something which made me reflect on things I didn’t understand. It’s obvious to me now, that if I’d been more attentive of the warnings in the first 42 years of my life, I might have avoided a breakdown. But with hindsight, I’m grateful it happened.

Nowadays I’m a writer. I’ve only had the courage to call myself that for almost two years, since I built a portfolio and a track record. But I’ve been writing full-time now for nearly four years, mainly fiction. My stories are imaginative, but I like to think that they’re plausible (they’re researched thoroughly), certainly in the sci-fi genre (where much of the research is scientific). A good story needs to be affecting but believable. As writers, we can’t rely too much on chance, even though wildly coincidental things do happen in the real world.

As someone who’s been accused of relying on coincidence in the past, Paul Auster no less, set out to demonstrate how strange coincidences happen in real life, by asking National Public Radio’s Weekend All Things Considered listeners to submit their own stories. And lots of people had tales to tell, with over 4000 submissions to Auster’s request. My personal favourite was this one, from Linda Elegant in Portland, Oregon:

The Chicken

As I was walking down Station Street early one Sunday morning, I saw a chicken a few yards ahead of me. I was walking faster than the chicken, so I gradually caught up. By the time we approached Eighteenth Avenue, I was close behind. The chicken turned south on Eighteenth. At the fourth house along, it turned in at the walk, hopped up the front steps, and rapped sharply on the metal storm door with its beak. After a moment, the door opened and the chicken went in.

Weird things really do happen, and not just in America. And not many in my fiction writing, but those odd signs and coincidences are there in my real life, like they are in everyone’s, but often unseen or dismissed.

Through learning and practising, I am able to dream lucidly. Essentially, when I’m asleep, I’m aware of being in a dream, and I can interact with whatever that contains. My dreams are still surreal, but I’ve learned how to recognise when I’m actually in them.

Dreams, or the dream scape, are visions of the universe, much of which we don’t understand yet. One day, perhaps we will. For now, dreams are a representation, some of which we understand. That’s what surreal is: Not quite real, but comprehensible. Only with further thought and learning do those things become easier to accept. As Ted Arroway said to Ellie, near the end of Carl Sagan’s Contact, “We thought this might make things easier for you.”

Much has been written (by others) of dream meanings and interpretations. As far as I’m concerned, that’s as subjective as the dreams themselves, and people’s personal interpretations are therefore what they make of their own dreams. But I also believe that three people live within each of us: the person we think we are, the person others think we are, and who we really are. I treat my own dreams as a combination of the three.

There are no great messages or revelations in my dreams, but they fuel my active mind. Others may recommend keeping a dream diary. All of my thoughts (both wakeful and dreamed, as the two become virtually indistinguishable sometimes in lucidity) are in notebooks, my short stories, my novels, and on this blog. This is my universe as I see it. If I can get all of that, just by keeping an open mind and dreaming, it gives you an idea of how much is out there. Again, none of my dreams contain neon signs, but now that I look back over four years of writing, I can see that I’ve been somehow guided.

Dead people do exist in the dream scape, but they’re not always the cast of a nightmare. I’ve written before of how quantum physics allows ghosts to exist, and I wrote a story – Cardboard sky – about exactly that. People in dreams are real people, alive or dead, who are able to be there: The living who imagine and dream, and the dead who now live in a different physical form. Dreams are our way to meet them, out in the universe, where they now live. Lucidity in dreaming took me months to achieve, but it’s ultimately easiest to get there (eventually) by repeating, before sleep:

“Tonight I will receive and remember the messages of the dream world.”

Look out for synchronicity, those strange little coincidences. A call from someone you were thinking of; suddenly seeing something which suggests a third way, when we’d already considered two competing ones; a book falling open, a snippet of information, a number popping up. These are coincidences, but we know that those are common outside the realms of fiction. They seem more common than they actually are, because coincidences are more memorable than anything less subtle. It’s the way of the force, to guide us gently. So conversely, when things are a bit shit, that’s because we didn’t notice the more subtle signs. I’m living proof of this. Now I’ve learned to not live blindly thrashing around, but with a greater awareness of all around me. I opened my eyes and my mind.

There are those who believe that physical health can be improved with spiritual healing. Not being a practitioner of anything particularly physically strenuous, I’m not qualified to have an opinion. But what I do know, is that my mental well-being has improved over the last four years. Now with a permanent base, I feel secure enough to question my mind, rather than fear it. My depression and anxiety are chronic, and I have medication to help, but my questioning and exploring mind keeps the dark dog to heel most of the time.

By questioning and examining even the small things, I can play devil’s advocate with myself. If I have any kind of internal or external conflict, I’ll always try to understand my opposer’s point of view, so that I might better understand it. I much prefer debate to argument, because the latter always breaks down by definition, never leading to a solution. If you try to see things from another perspective (how others see you), that viewpoint becomes easier to understand. And it can be applied to bad things happening too, and how those could just be one of many subtle signs from the universe. To use an example:

Some unspecified time ago (many, in fact), I was involved in a relationship. For whatever reason, that partnership ended. In one particular case, I was very deeply affected. Essentially, I’d lost a life, and I was trying to hang on to it. I treasured a particular bracelet: Just a cheap, leather strap, but it had an emotional connection. So when that bracelet was stolen, I was distraught. I’d lost my one and only link to a person who’d been a part of my life. I was upset, and I was angry, at whomever had taken it from me. But then I realised there was no point. With that last connection gone, so was she. And the thief was the one who’d facilitated that. That was a whole different way to look at it. And just like my breakdown, as time went on, I realised it was for the best. And like my breakdown, it was of my own making. But unlike that, it’s as though I had a guide. Some would say, a guardian angel. From an atheist point of view, given the science behind my own atheism, angels do exist. Like the ancient gods and aliens of theorists, angels in religious texts are one scribe’s interpretation of a witness statement, or of their own vision. So mine are of my own dreams and imaginings.

Problems and delays can often be overcome if you think differently. Where there are two obvious but conflicting routes, there is often a third, less obvious one. If you’re stuck somewhere, use the time to think. As I myself once said: “Imagine you’re in a room, with no visible means of exit: how do you get out? You could stop imagining. Or you could use your imagination.” If I’m ever delayed by trains, unable to leave a train station, I’ll find somewhere to sit and write.

If you pay attention to things around you, it will inevitably lead to further discovery. Something you see while you’re out and about in the world, something on TV, in a book, or in a newspaper: Look it up and learn more about it. This works especially well for me when I’m adding to my film collection. If I like a film’s direction, production, camera work, costumes, or whatever, I’ll make a note of the crew credits and look up more of that person’s work. If I watch a documentary, I’ll often look into a subject further, inevitably leading me into a day-long Wikipedia session. And from all that learning, sometimes a question will pop up in conversation that I’m able to give a qualified answer to. It’s nice to be informed. Another recent personal example, from nature:

One of the many avian visitors to the flat roof outside my studio, is a wagtail. The window in front of my desk looks out on the flat roof, so I see the little chap quite a lot. So I decided to learn more about him. He wasn’t pissing me off, but I wanted to know more, and as well as wagtails’ characteristics and taxonomy, I looked into their spiritual meanings (because I was writing):

“Seeing a Wagtail is a reminder to stay cheerful. It is a healthy practice to make ourselves feel light and happy. Being cheerful and gregarious to others will earn us the same treatment which in turn makes our lives happy and worth living.”

I live a life of discovery and exploration, not of conflict and blinkered belief. Whether you’re awake or dreaming, smoking weed or not, the universe is out there.

My books are available on Amazon.