The epiphany of deep thought

THE WRITER’S LIFE

There are many things for the writer’s mind to ponder, and when the ponderous mind is cracked, those many things become mixed. One day, maybe, I or someone else, might work it out from all I’ve written down. So far, that’s the answer to life, the universe and everything, and a few other bits. And that it’s all connected.

Atmospherix Deep ThoughtsAtmospherix – Deep Thoughts

The answer to the ultimate question, of life, the universe and everything, is 42. That is a universally accepted fact, invented by Douglas Adams, who just thought there was something about 42 which made it funnier than most other numbers. He didn’t know why, and that’s reason enough for it to be the ultimate answer. But as Douglas said, the problem is, we don’t know what the question is (It should take the planet around 7500 years to work out).

As subjective as it all is, for my part 42 was a marker and a guide. It was at that age when my breakdown (also subjective) was in full swing, and it was afterwards that I started sticking things together: Myself, and the world around me, the latter being the most subjective thing of all, when I considered my place on Earth, and eventually in the universe – both inner and outer – around me.

I’ve written lengthier articles about the individual pieces which slotted together, but to sum up the answer which 42 pointed to, it’s an understanding.

The greatest fear, in humans and most other species, is that of the unknown, the un-knowable, the out-of-reach, and that which we have no influence over. From those come feelings of loneliness and futility, and lack of understanding (or ignorance) is the greatest fuel for that fear, manifesting in fight-or-flight tendencies, impulsive actions which are often aggressive. Breakdowns in communication inevitably lead to conflict of some kind, internal or external, and I just started talking to them (to myself, when there was no-one else listening).

I learned about some of the things I didn’t understand, but which I knew would lead me further on my search. I never sought an understanding greater than that which is available to all, universally on the internet. A knowledge which permitted plausibility in fiction through research, also gave me some clues on life, as fiction and reality became bound.

I grasped quantum physics first, getting my head around the scientific fact that sub-atomic particles exist in parallel states, only manifesting in a constant by being called into action by a catalyst, perhaps just that of witnessing (if one is faced with two paths and chooses one, does the other still exist?) but still connected to a sub-atomic twin by quantum entanglement. If we accept that the entire universe came from the Big Bang, then everything within it is made of the same stuff. Put simply, every sub-atomic particle in the universe is connected to another, over the vast times and distances of the universe. On a personal level, each of us is connected to billions of others, over trillions of light years. Like I said, simple really.

So right now, an opposite part of me is in a tree, perhaps on a moon orbiting a planet in the Kepler system. Another might be in an AI somewhere, a part of a computer mind. And yet others could be in rocks and vegetation, on the ground, underwater, or floating in space. These particles are the ones which make up the elements, and we are all made of stars.

I accept religions as the beliefs of others, and those religions themselves are fascinating troves of information, both factual and food for fiction. I believe biblical scriptures could be historical records of fact, recorded with the means available to the scribes of the time. Given the time and scale of the universe, I find simple consolidation in gods and aliens being interchangeable.

All of which allows me to transcend, and to conclude in my mind that those of religion, scientific atheists, and the agnostic wonderers, are all the same. Not just humans, but everyone and everything, and that makes the loneliness bearable. Generally speaking though, humanity on earth isn’t evolved enough to see that, so we’re a bit fucked. All we need to do, is keep talking.

These are themes I’ll be exploring more in my third anthology. I didn’t just skip one, but a third is already starting to plan itself as the second winds itself up. I’m writing the final two stories now, and like The Perpetuity of Memory, The Unfinished Literary Agency will tell a bigger story in the context of the book. The short stories all stand alone, but the sum should be slightly greater than the component parts. Like the first collection, the 17 stories in this one range from humorous and whimsical sci-fi, to graphic and psychological horror, all from my cracked mind.

One of those last two stories is about a post-human planet, where animals and robots co-exist. Some of my recent stories have looked at machine sentience, and questioned when a life becomes such, even if it’s not organic. We’re all from the Big Bang, after all, and the sub-atomic particles in the robots we see rising now, were there, alongside ours and everyone else’s. The machines just had a long pupation and now they’re simply having an evolutionary burst.

AI is already considered a separate species in Japan and other countries, and humans attach personalities to even inanimate objects. I asked a friend to consider something recently: Imagine an old Diesel car being crushed; any emotion? Probably not. Now think of an old steam train. It’s not the same. And yet, it’s just a load of metal; minerals and elements. It has no life, except that imparted upon it by humans; those who built, operate and care for it. For me, an old steam locomotive is a puffing metallic dinosaur, or something from a steam punk world. But even without my writer’s imagination, that machine has sentience. So that penultimate story brings the universe together, in the book, in my mind, and hopefully in those of others.

The final story will be a departure, as an entity writes from a tin can somewhere, about what’s gone before and that which may be (“If I can repair it, I might not be so alone. But I like it here…). I wrote before, that the second anthology title was a statement of intent, and all I need to do, is keep writing.

And I only write it down, in case someone reads it.

The meaning of life is to adventurously discover our gift. The purpose of life is to joyfully share our gift with the world”. – Robert John Cook

The Perpetuity of Memory is available now, and The Unfinished Literary Agency is scheduled for January. For a simpler (but equally valid and surreal) answer to the question of life, the universe and everything, there’s a perfectly plausible one in Cyrus Song, and it’s one we all have inside, linking every one of us. 

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Two heads are better than one (just ask Zaphod Beeblebrox)

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Having recently chosen to engage my mind more, by writing two books at once, it’s going well, in a neural spaghetti kind of way. I’m almost always doing more than one thing at once, but still favouring one. In a funny way, my latest split personalities seem to be egging one another on.

HHGG Fan ArtThe Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fan art.

I don’t multitask well in real life (away from writing), because one of the things I’m doing is usually writing, which takes precedence. I have in the past been known to neglect things dangerously (like food) while furiously getting something down in words. And when you live alone, there are few people to talk to. A socially anxious writer can make people up, and the one with plenty of family matters on their mind can talk to those people from the past.

In the fictional world, I now have three short stories lined up for publication: two sci-fi and a horror. That means my next collection – The Unfinished Literary Agency – will most likely be out earlier than planned. At least one of the new stories involves a warping of time, to the future. One of the reasons the fiction is flowing so well, is not a rush to get the book out, but rather oddly, writing the factual narratives in my family history book.

I always research my fiction, to make it plausible. And I put myself in there, so that there’s more in the words than say, what a character says. I’ve been described as writing from the heart and with feeling (especially for my children’s book, by a magazine judging panel), and the heart I have is very much in my family book, about the family who gave me a heart.

It’s not even that I never write non-fiction. I take work from freelance clients, and write about anything from a US country music tour to smoking cannabis for a medical blog.

What it is, is that this family history is something I can get as broadly and deeply into as fiction, and what that should mean is I produce the book I was aiming to: The stories of quiet people, brought into focus in a book with heart and feeling.

I was a little nervous that it might only gain a small audience, which didn’t matter, as it’s a gift. But that needed to be something which the recipients would want to share. And if we’re all honest, other people’s family isn’t of any great interest. I’m sure I’m not alone in being the one among a group cooing over a baby, “Oh, ain’t he cute…”, thinking, ‘No, he ain’t,’ sometimes aloud.

But what many other families would have in common, if there were enough researchers to look into it, is a rich history which surrounded them and that they were a part of. My parents were part of the cast of extras which made the stories of others noteworthy to record-keepers of the time, and those records are now available online. It’s going through those archives which has thrown up so many fascinating stories which I can now tell, mostly of people besides my parents, but characters who will increase the reading demographic, and who were supported by the two lead characters in my book, Silent Gardens (very much due in March).

The book is becoming a lesser-known secret than it already was (hi mum), as I’ve had cause to phone my parents a few times to check things (writing non-fiction means that research is even more crucial than for plausible fiction). Whether or not the book sells to a wider audience, I like to share things I find. I believe stories should be told, and I’m someone who can tell stories.

In the last family history post, I left off at Yotes Court in Mereworth, which my book goes on to describe in greater detail than this:

Country Life, June 18th and 25th, 1964, CXXXV, 1580, 1648. Yotes Court is listed Grade I as a very early example of the type of country house that became dominant after the Restoration. As a building of importance and quality of the Commonwealth period it has great rarity value.

In 1974, something happened, and all I knew at the time was that we were leaving home. My dad’s boss, Leslie (or Lesley) MacKay was a stockbroker, and those were the days of three-day weeks. The markets moved and Mr MacKay (“Sir” to dad), needed to make redundancies. There were two groundskeepers, my dad and Art.

Arthur Holdstock and his wife Jean became surrogate uncle and aunt to me and my sister, and visits to their house were always inappropriately funny. Back at Yotes Court, Art was also Mr MacKay’s driver, and he could drive with one more wheel than my dad’s three, so our lives were packed into the back of that red Reliant and we chugged off, next, to Ightham.

Mum, dad and the Holdstocks remained friends for many years. After Yotes Court, Art was an undertaker for a while, and my younger self was fascinated by real-life tales from the morgue.

Mr MacKay divorced from his first wife, who moved to nearby Wateringbury, where we lived in the Old Hoy Cottages. He passed away while still living at the house with his second wife, Jane.

The auction-catalog.com online archive includes an auction brochure, dated Monday 16th April 1984, for “The remaining contents of Yotes Court…” and “Includes the property of Mrs L MacKay,” which was described as Fine Victorian Pictures, Drawings, and Watercolours.

Given that it was fairly common practice among the upper class, for a wife to take her husband’s full name in formal documents, I had to conclude (with research avenues exhausted) that this Mrs L MacKay was in fact Jane. They had two daughters, which makes further research into how the house came to be sold (perhaps to divide an estate) somewhat pertinent. By then though, the Lakers had moved on.

Another stockbroker owned our next house, and there was to be more news of the stock market later. But when we moved there, mum and dad’s employers and landlords were the Byam-Cooks.

Philip Byam-Cook was a lawyer, and his father, William Byam, a Harley Street doctor. The power of the internet means that with a few clicks, I can find information freely online which would have once taken weeks, and which would have taken me to many repositories of accumulated knowledge in person. Now, I can gather most of the information I need, without having to leave this studio where I live and write.

By coincidence, I live just a few minutes from an address where Philip Byam-Cook was registered as a director of various companies, with an accountant in West Malling. This would be entirely consistent with a practitioner in law…

***

I’m well into the next chapter now, when we lived for 12 years in Ightham. It turns out Philip was a bit of a World War II humanitarian hero. I’ll post some more here once I’ve got the events in order, as it makes for an interesting read.

Although I’d like to be judged on any of my books, I feel that everything I write is better than the last. I’ll hang my hat on Cyrus Song as a sci-fi for a long time, but I’d equally like to be judged on my non-fiction, in an introverted story with a lot of heart.

So like Zaphod Beeblebrox, the sci-fi writer with two heads is just a bit mixed up. In my own mind, it’s a nice entanglement: I found my heart, it’s been stolen, and it’s been stolen by Zaphod Beeblebrox, like the Heart of Gold dream ship with its infinite improbability drive in The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

This is the inside of my mind, and you’re welcome to it.

Where the reject robots work

FICTION

This was a flash fiction story to fill some column inches, so I used the word limit (800) to experiment, play, but didn’t throw this one away. It’s a simple device, of using pre-emoji ASCCI emoticons to convey facial expressions (:-)) (on the page, and on most screens), and it uses hashtags (but sans octothorpe) for AiThinkingAloud, in a place where thinking is allowed.

It’s the story of a defective sentient android, about inclusivity, and using what others may see as a flaw to make a difference to someone else. And it’s about better understanding others, and changing behaviour…

Steam Hell SinkiSteam Hell Sinki, Helsinki Finland

ZEIGARNIK’S KITCHEN

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.

Frenchie was made in China, and one of the Pink Ladies’ range of android personal assistants. Designed as helpers for the aged, vulnerable and lonely, the Pink Ladies could help around the home, both practically and intellectually.

Frenchie’s AI had objected to gender labelling, when “she” realised she lacked genitals, and the Tourette Syndrome diagnosis was made: “Artificial fucking alignment is what it is. Fuck.

Now waiting tables in Infana Kolonia (Esperanto for “Infant colony”), Frenchie approached a couple seated in a booth.

“Good evening, how may I,” she twitched her neck, “Fuck you!”, and her pink LED eyes blinked from her tilted head: (;-/), a closed eye with the hint of pink tears behind her spectacles, held together with pink Elastoplast. “Drinks?” she asked, pushing her glasses up, “Fuck it!” She fumbled with her order pad. “For you sir? Combover!” (8-|)

“I’ll have a whisky please, a double, on the rocks.”

“Okay, number 80. And madam? PleaseBeCarefulWhenYouGetHome.(8-/)

“Sorry?”

“Sorry, it just comes out. BadCardigan. To drink?” (8-))

“Should you be working here?”

“Who’s the judge?” (8-/)

“Pardon?”

“Sorry madam, management algorithms. To drink? Cyanide?(8-))

“Er, number…” the lady looked over the menu, “…number 33.”

“Very well. I’ll be back with your drinks. HopeYouDrown” (8-))

Frenchie shuffled towards the bar, then turned and trundled back.

“Can I take your order sir, madam?” (8-|)

“But we just ordered drinks,” the man replied.

“For food?” Frenchie looked at her notepad. (B-))

“I’ll have the soup,” the man said.

“Me too,” the lady concurred.

“Very well,” Frenchie jotted on her pad, “two soups.” (8-)) Then she turned and walked back to the bar, “One sociopath, and one supplicant…”

She stumbled through the double doors to the kitchen, blowing the misty oil away as she wiped her lenses. (8-O)

“Frenchie!” Jade looked down. His golden smile extended through his body in Frenchie’s pink, plastered eyes. To her AI, he was raw elements. She blinked up at him through her misted tortoiseshell windows. (q-/) “Are you keeping your inner self in out there, Frenchie?”

Frenchie cleared her throat, and wondered why she did that. (b-( ) “Erm,” she started, “no. Fuck it!”

Splendid behaviour,” Jade smiled. “Be yourself out there, my person. That’s why people come here, to meet people. Anyone don’t like that, they not welcome.”

Au, 79,’ Frankie thought. “Drinks, and soups. Fuck! Yes, thank you. Parp!” (8-))

Extractor fans in the roof began sucking the old oil from the kitchen, as the machine below started belching lunch. Cogs and gears clunked, cookware clattered, and polished brass organ pipes parped, like a living machine, a visiting craft playing a five-tone melody. Pink Ladies rushed, bumped into things (and each other), cursed, and dropped utensils (and food).

Frenchie’s friend Sandy wandered from the spiced steam, carrying a tray, a subdued yellow droid, looking at her feet as she bumped heads with her friend. She looked up at Frenchie, “For you?” (:-( )

“No, for customers. Arses!” (8-/)

“Okay. Tell world hi. Bye.” (:-( )

Frenchie wafted into the bar in a pink puff of steam, leaving the brass and wind orchestra in the kitchen. The room was perfumed by vapers – people making vapours – first jasmine, then the seaside, and cannabis. She wondered why she thought about all this with memories.

“Your order, sir, madam.” (B-/)

“Thank you,” the cardigan said. “What’s your name?”

“Frenchie?” (|-/)

“Thanks Frenchie.”

“Welcome…” (P-]) ‘I found a new way to smile (:-))’

Frenchie repeated to herself, as she fumbled through the vapers, ‘A new way to smile, (:-)), where did that come from? (:-/)’

“Sandy,” she called, as she carried her tray through the pipes and cauldrons, “Look.” Sandy looked at her feet. “No,” Frenchie said, “you need to look up. I found a new way to smile. All I have to do is tilt my head, see?” (:-D)

“Why did you take your glasses off?” (:-[ )

“Because they were put there by someone else. I always knew I’d see more without them. And besides, they can fall off my head when I tilt it to one side.” (:-D)

“And that’s funny?” (:-/)

“Only if you look at it a certain way.” (8-D) “Wanna go home?”

“Okay.” (:-))

© Steve Laker, 2017.

Life in bifocal time frames

THE WRITER’S LIFE

There are simple ways to look at complex issues. For example, all human conflict is rooted in an inability to see others as alternative versions of ourselves. We are all human after all, and everyone is host to a ghost, shadow self, where thoughts are suppressed, because we know those thoughts are wrong. At my age, I’ve seen plenty, including my hateful drunken ex-self, and a rebellious teenager.

Stempunk cat

As I continue to work my brain out, with reading and writing (while sometimes smoking weed), I’m realising things, only now that I have the time to think in solitude. I can see how that’s sometimes a self-perpetuating mechanism to greater insanity, but I did hit a proverbial wall this week.

Writing my family history book, I was thinking about how I became a writer (via the catalyst of an alcoholic breakdown), but more wondering why I hadn’t found it earlier and not wasted all that time. Since my illness, I’ve been on a journey of discovery, very much like being a teenager again.

With a nearly-teen son of my own, and the shelter and counselling I gave those stray youngsters at the squat, I’m perhaps more in touch with those feelings than I was when I myself should have been learning about the world. And that’s where it seems to have gone wrong, through no-one’s fault but by a combination of me and the system.

Aged five, I’d sit in class and daydream, and many were the times I was summoned back to the room I was already sitting in by a teacher. A few teachers and subjects aside, and despite the efforts of my parents to get me into grammar school, neither primary nor secondary education engaged me. I excelled in maths, English and the sciences, but I neglected other subjects, including history, which now engages me a great deal. And the syllabus was so linear, there was little opportunity to explore beyond it and link things up, as I like to do, to better comprehend them in a larger context. Of course, we were sans internet then.

At primary school, I’d already earned the name, “Ponder: a small Laker that thinks a lot,” as that teacher put it. I was more into visual art at primary school, drawing and painting. And again, I showed promise.

I remember one class project, just after we’d returned from a day trip to London. We’d seen the changing of the guard and we’d been asked to draw a picture from our day. I drew a line of horses, with guards mounted on them, with their feather plumes and so on. And I drew the back view: a line of horses’ arses. Truth is, I couldn’t draw horses’ faces, but when I was asked why I’d chosen my particular angle, I explained that everyone else was drawing the fronts of the horses round the other side, and there was no room for me. That’s quite deep for someone who’s six. But then, to this day I won’t walk between a street artist and their subject, for fear I end up photobombing a drawing.

It’s far from acceptable for a teenage boy to be playing video games in a leisure centre, in full view of the rest of the class running around in the fields outside. But Tehkan’s Bomb Jack was far more my thing than football. My rebellious teenage self levelled this as concentrating on something I excelled at, rather than wasting time on something I hated. Although I was generally a bit of a twunt, I can’t help thinking I had a point.

To their credit, I had many fine teachers at both schools, but they were also bound into a system: one which conditioned children in preparation for entering the world of work, either in a factory or an office. And that, is where the system went wrong, with me (although granted, I helped) and many others, and it still goes on.

I spent 11 years with no aspirations greater than wearing a blue or white collar. I didn’t have pushy parents, and the honest, modest jobs they did allowed them time with us kids. So I worked in print for 25 years, a mostly enjoyable time and certainly with many fond memories. Becoming a writer was logical, making all those things which could be printed and shared. However it happened, I’m glad it did. To paraphrase Douglas Adams, I’m in a place I never realised I wanted to be, but I like it here.

My children and those around them are hopeful that the Tories will be consigned to history soon, so that my kids and many others might enjoy a free higher education. They get that human jobs are being made redundant by technology now, just as they were by machines in the industrial age. Young people need to be able to fill the remaining jobs, the ones AI can’t do (yet), but that’s a long-term vision, something right-wing politics seems blind to.

For whatever reason, my children admire their radical writer old man. On the one hand, anything’s better than what I was a few years ago. But on the other, although not everyone approves, I’m really proud that they’re interested in writing, especially because their dad can write so many things, from bedtime stories to surreal whimsy and horror.

As a many-hatted writer, I’m either doing nothing at all or everything at once. So despite my resolution to break from other genres, I’m finishing my second anthology alongside my family history book, with the latter a constant while I write the last few short stories for what will now be called ‘The Unfinished Literary Agency’. The fictional agency is a theme cropping up in a few of my stories, and although none of the 17 in the book will be incomplete, the title is perhaps a statement of intent: I will not stop writing, when it’s my life and that’s one I enjoy now for the most part (with anxiety, depression and their mates along for a chat while we ride life’s bus).

There are two more short stories published over the next couple of weekends, and the remainder may remain unpublished outside the new book. At least one is the kind of story which has no market or home, except in my own volume. The running list of stories is looking good, and part of the reason I place importance in the titles of my tales:

The office of lost things
Pink sunshine
Reflections of yesterday
The difference engine
Of mice and boys in 1984
A young captain plays it safe
Are ‘friends’ electric?
Diary of a teen in the woods
So long and thanks for all the animals
The long now clock
Quantum entanglement in hamsters
Zeigarnick’s kitchen
The girl with the snake scarf
A girl, Sheldon Cooper and Peter Cook

Plus three more, and possibly some bonus tracks. Some of the stories are retained on this blog and may be revised, while others have been previously published elsewhere. Like The Perpetuity of Memory though, I’ll curate the newer stories into a bigger whole, so that it’s a collection of short stories within a longer narrative.

There are simple ways to look at complex issues, and one piece of advice I’ve given all those young people I’ve met and still see: Be the best that you can be, at the thing you enjoy the most. Then you can give the most back. Some things can’t and shouldn’t be simplified, but by transcending them, you can make them easier to understand.

I’m on a permanent guilt trip anyway, but it’s a guilty pleasure while my former teenage self haunts the current one and they both realise what they’re supposed to be doing.

Neurotribes and shadow selves

THE WRITER’S LIFE

There are three distinct personae which we all have: The person others see, the person we ourselves see, and the third person, the inner one which no-one sees. Therein lies the shadow self, one which I’ve embraced to deal with issues of my mind, and that I’ve researched, for myself and for my fiction. I’m exploring ‘Neurotribes’.

CCHRCCHR

Those of us with cracks covered with labels tend to flock together (it’s empathy with one’s own kind). Many of us don’t understand ourselves, but we feel most at ease in the company of other misfits. Some of us like being different, strange even (I prefer “Queer”). Personally, I like most people – human and animal – and it’s the quirks and oddities of a person I find most interesting. I fall in love with personalities, what’s inside, in an asexual way, which means I don’t have to be sexually attracted to a person to love them.

My own mental health scouting badges are depression and anxiety (diagnosed and medicated), paranoia (goes well with social anxiety), bi-polarity and psychopathy (on the spectra and self-managed). I’ve written before of how the latter doesn’t mean I kill people (only in my fiction and imagination), but that it’s a tunnel-vision thing, with the psychopath able to concentrate on one task to the exclusion of all others. The only evidence I can offer, is my writing, and that in the past I’ve managed to cook a deep fat fryer on the hob, because I was cooking while my mind was almost totally on something else.

I’ve had multiple diagnoses of PTSD to make my inner head more interesting. My first badge was awarded after I was robbed at knife point in Mountsfield Park in Lewisham, a setting for many scenes in my stories, and my feeling of personal futility and vulnerability was what began my later alcoholic breakdown. My Grade 2 PTSD badge was a multiple award, after all that happened out on the streets. The most recent and permanent one, is the perpetual memories I have of everything.

The easiest way to deal with all of that, has been to write, (The Perpetuity of Memory was almost exclusively written while I was out on the road) to confront it and embrace it. The unknown is one of the greatest instinctive human fears, so those who explore more are less scared (Cyrus Song explains why cats have nine lives: it’s to do with curiosity).

I’ve explored and interrogated my inner self, to find that third person. What I have easier access to than most, is the shadow self, formed as it is around all that we know to be wrong. There’s much which happened on the streets that I’ve not written about directly, but those experiences are in my fiction, which is why my anthology was described as “A dark mirror to the human soul” in a review.

We all have baggage we wish to leave at the door, and we all have scars. Some are better at hiding them than others, while some are proud of their marks, outside and in, like a good book. And just as a book shouldn’t be judged on its cover alone, neither do people deserve to be. It’s about getting to know them (all we need to do, is keep talking).

They’re not broken. They have a different operating system (more like Linux, when everyone else runs Windows). They are the cracked and the wondering, wandering. They are kintsukuroi (more beautiful for having been damaged). They are the Neurotribes.

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.

The perpetual cracked actor

THE WRITER’S LIFE

It’s said that there are three people in all of us: the person we see ourselves as; the person others see; and the person we actually are. Sometimes I’ll host a meeting of the three in my own mind. I was wondering what to do with this latest personality crisis: Take a break, to see how it develops, perhaps signing off of the blog for a while before going off-grid; or just spilling my guts here, this being my blog after all. But this blog is part of the crisis, and I know that others have them too. So maybe something I write might strike a chord somewhere unseen.

Cracked Actor

The latest question of existence centres around a shift I’m experiencing, personally and mentally. In reality, I’m allowing myself to reconnect more with the many emotions which are dampened by my anti-depressant medication. This is not to say the drugs don’t work (cannabis does), nor that I’ve stopped taking my prescription; It’s more about my ever-developing mind, a thing which comes with its own blessings, but laden with baggage nonetheless. And the thing is, writing about it could prove paradoxical, as questions give rise to more when you interrogate something. My inner writer is damned if I do, damned if I don’t.

The biggest inner conflict, is that this blog is my platform, and my marketing tool for self-promotion of my digital self (social anxiety prevents me from being too confident in the organic world). But this is also my blog, and my public diary, where the less socially awkward me can be open, with others and myself. So fuck it.

Many of my struggles, I simply can’t write about, because they involve third parties. Some are the people I wronged when I was drunk, and with whom I’m now reconciled, but still the truly repentant man feels guilt, and that’s a life sentence. As an alcoholic, some would still expect me to relapse, but I didn’t and I won’t, with so much at stake. Sobriety has also given me the ability to be a constantly evolving writer. In some ways, it comes down to that imaginary big red button again: The one which if pressed, would make me ‘normal’ again. Yet I still wouldn’t press it, even though parts of me are perpetually confused (the word is discombobulated).

Just last night, I finished reading Cyrus Song to a friend who has difficulty reading. In that sentence alone, there is much to celebrate: Someone who wouldn’t otherwise have read my book (one which was hailed by a book critic as “an extraordinary juggling act…”), heard the sound of the Cyrus Song, and that person gained the knowledge of the book through my altruistic gesture. Because, trust me, reading my own stories to others is one of my least favourite things to do (except when I wrote bedtime stories for my children), because I tend to write in a way which is better read and absorbed by the same person.

My friend wasn’t a captive audience: she’d asked me if I could read the book to her, as she genuinely wanted to read it, but couldn’t. There was no coercion or subterfuge at all, and at the end, my listener was silenced for a moment, before muttering a stream of expletives. With this particular friend, those happenings are respectively rare and uncommon words of praise. Despite not being bound and gagged, she suggested she’d been captivated throughout, which was borne out by an unusual disinterest in anything to do with her phone.

But I felt somehow unfulfilled. I started to doubt the book and myself, and to question my friend’s enthusiasm. I was getting paranoid (it goes well with anxiety). And then I realised what it was.

Even though I’ve read Cyrus Song several times (I wrote it, edited it, and re-wrote it), I still pick it up now and then to look something up as I plan other stories. And sometimes I’m still struck by something I wrote, as though someone else wrote it. And it’s because I see someone else as writing it, that I see it as being a good book.

I’ve already said that I write in a way which is meant to immerse, and it seems I can do that with my writing, but not when I’m reading it aloud. It’s my social anxiety vs. digital self-confidence issue again. There’s a different person reading to myself in my head, than the one who reads aloud (I’ve not been diagnosed with any multiple personality disorder, but I’m on the bi-polar ‘spectrum’). It’s just low self-esteem, despite the facade.

Anxiety and social conscience are self-perpetuating and mutual. Even though I’m more in touch with the universe and the person inside me, when expressed digitally, I still suffer some form of human recursivity. It sounds odd, because it is. It’s just like the previously latent part of my brain awakening in sobriety, and getting my mind firmly around concepts like quantum physics. Now, through greater inner focus (and the time to do it), I feel as though I’m opening up other dimensions in my mind, which allows me to turn things inside out, then back again, in my thinking and in my writing (hopefully with the latter making the former more intelligible).

Days spent alone, reading, thinking and writing, are the ones which feel most productive, as it’s the best means I have of getting things out there. My writing is said to convey a great understanding of the human condition, which isn’t surprising when I carry so many around. It’s become a perpetuity of solitude, where my words are the best way for me to leave home, and where the cracks of the actor inside can’t be seen.