Harry Potter

Harry Potter shaped my entire generation.  It is literally no exaggeration to say that.  When I was growing up, the book releases were, I kid you not, actual events.  Our local Barnes & Noble in town would decorate its interior and then at midnight, once the release embargo lifted, dozens of us Potterheads would stream into the store to buy the new book.  Kids were dressed like witches and wizards with the robes, scarfs, and everything.  It was truly a sight to behold.  This day and age, I can’t conceive of a book, any book, inspiring such a turnout.

When I reflect on HP and what it made it so special to me (it was literally released right when I was in junior high school so I was smack middle in its intended audience), I have to point to its worldbuilding more than anything else.  In an interview, Rowling once remarked that she felt “the foremost responsibility of an author is to give the reader a full security and confidence that someone’s hand is unwaveringly at the rudder.”  This quote has always stuck with me.  When you read HP, it always felt like there was a firm hand at the rudder, effortlessly guiding the ship. The world was so rich and fully realized that it felt real.  Not only to middle-graders, but to adults too.  Rowling had a talent for moving the action at a good clip while including just enough mise en scène to make the whole enterprise believable.  It was a tremendous accomplishment.

I have found writers to generally fall into three camps:  “Character-driven” (RCW’s Spin); “Plot-driven” (Da Vinci Code); or “Worldbuilding-driven” (HP).  Personally, I don’t really read for characters.  I like Plot and Worldbuilding.  To me, characters are largely a vehicle for the worldbuilding and whatever “message” or “experience” the author is trying to impart.  For instance, in HP, Harry’s essentially a vessel.  Sure, he experiences pangs of lust for Cho Chang, affections for his friends and family, and ambition for Quidditch, etc.  But the guy doesn’t really have a personality.  He’s a cardboard cutout– the generic middle-schooler that turns into a high-schooler.  There are set pieces like The Big Sports Tournament (The Tri-Wizard Cup) and The Big Dance (The Yule Ball), but mostly –to me at least– Harry’s a paint-by-numbers kinda character.  Which I think is Rowling’s intention.  Because what is fascinating about the HP books is the worldbuilding.  You’ve got Hogwarts and Diagon Ally, the Wizarding High Court, minister, government, and currency.  Etc, etc.  Harry’s just basically there to be an empty seat to take you to Gringotts and everything else.

Harry Potter possesses a kinda bland universality.  Meaning, I don’t really know where Harry would stand on policies like universal basic income, abortion, or reparations.  Again, I think this is Rowling’s intention; that is, Harry doesn’t have very specific politics (other than general banalities like “believing in courage and loyalty”) so he doesn’t run the risk of alienating any potential readers (or their parents!) who may not share his values. It’s a good strategy to sell as many books as possible!

The Highest Gear

Desperation is a strong driver.  I sometimes think about J.K. Rowling when she was a single-mother, working in that coffee shop writing Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone with baby Jessica sleeping in the carry cot beside her.  Divorced, Rowling slaved away on a children’s book for five years that she had no idea if anyone would like or even ever read.  I often wonder, what must have that been like?

It’s a well-studied phenomenon that only when we are backed into a corner with our backs up against the wall that we fulfill our true potential.  Only in our most desperate and hopeless hour, when all appears lost and that there’s no way forward, do we realize our true mettle.

While having a safety net may feel sane and reasonable, and is sane and reasonable, it also holds us back.  It makes sense, right?  If you’re operating with the knowledge that there is limited or no consequences for failure, then you can never quite hit that highest gear.  In fact, one reason –when you have the safety net– that you don’t hit that highest gear is because you don’t even reach for that highest gear.  To be clear, the highest gear, beyond the redline, is safely ensconced inside the “break-glass-if-emergency-box.”  There’s a reason that the shifter doesn’t normally go there and is behind lock and key.  It’s a level of performance, a flow state, that is holy.  It’s also one that’s driven by a certain amount of determination that can be only fueled by anxiety and a genuine sense of danger.

Sometimes, I think of the act of writing –especially, long form– as a Faustian trade.  You’re putting all of your heart and soul into a work which may never see the light of day.  And yet, you continue with the project, day after day, driven only by an unproven faith and delusions of grandeur.  Only a (very-potentially-tragic) misguided confidence keeps the entire enterprise afloat.  You literally won’t know, and can’t know, until the deed is done when the final word is written.  It’s legitimately a kind of insanity.

A Special Circle of Heaven for Artists

Often, I contemplate the nature of doing good. Listening to a lot of Sam Harris and Peter Singer unavoidably makes these questions top-of-mind, I suppose. Devising a sensible metric isn’t as straightforward as it may first appear. For instance, one’s mind may gravitate to “obvious” answers such as Mother Theresa, Dr. King, or Gandhi. But a quick read-up on any of them quickly yields heaps of criticism. Mother Theresa, winner of the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize, believed that “the sick must suffer like Christ on the Cross.” Christopher Hitchens wrote especially scathing take-downs of the patron saint, “[Mother Teresa] was not a friend of the poor. She was a friend of poverty. She said that suffering was a gift from God.”

Meanwhile, there is the entire question of unintended consequences. Setting aside Dr. King’s affairs, there remains a larger unanswerable question whether his non-violent approach itself (a la Gandhi’s as well), was actually “the way to go?” Malcolm X advocated “black nationalism” and a more “any means necessary” philosophy. Is there an alternate version of history, a more violent timeline, that actually ends in more equality and ultimate peace?

Rather than grapple with complicated legacies and unanswerable questions, as I’ve grown older (and my mind less supple to entertain impossible conundrums) I’ve grown to take a different tact: I now firmly believe artists –ie. creative people who produce works that spread inspiration and joy– are probably as good as one’s going to get in this life we lead. Bill Gates is currently on a crusade to save Africa and the most impoverished from malaria. But is Gates just hastening human’s extinction with overpopulation and resource depletion? Similarly, Norman “Dwarf Wheat” Borlaug (winner of the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize)hero or villain?

But with artists, eg. Tom Cruise, Taylor Swift, Tina Turner, George Lucas, J.K. Rowling– the work they put out into the world has touched the lives of hundreds of millions. Billions, in the long-run. Or I think of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Whether you are Christian or Muslim or Buddhist, black or white or Hispanic or Asian– it is likely you’ve at one point been touched by Journey or Van Halen— and your day brightened just a little by that interaction. Probably, maybe?

In closing, I feel Salvatore Sanfilippo, creator of Redis, said it best in his recent goodbye letter as he stepped down from the open-source project he helped found. Pretty much sums up my current sentiments exactly:

“I’d rather be remembered as a bad artist than as a good programmer.”

Salvatore Sanfilippo – Creator of Redis

A New Fiction Writing Project Begins!

So things on the health-front have unfortunately deteriorated recently.  I think Bagel, having been gone for over two months, certainly contributed to that, to some extent.  But of course I don’t blame her at all; I’m glad she’s off doing what she wishes to do.  She’s currently still abroad and having just finished training, she just flew off again, to yet another country, to actually begin her real job.  I’m very excited for her.  We still talk nearly every night over video chat and that certainly helps.  But currently, more than ever, I’ve been gripped by an ever-expanding loneliness, especially when it is late at night and I am alone in the apartment.  During the day, when I’m feeling well enough, I can escape to the library or to cafes and achieve some level of human interaction.  But at night I’m left by my lonesome.  And consequently, I think the illness has unfortunately become worse recently and more debilitating.

To this end, one of my doctors suggested I take on a new hobby to try to organize my time into a more specifically-directed activity.  The thinking is that by taking on a more active hobby, it could possibly help me feel better.  Because of the illness, I’m unable to perform any kind of strenuous physical activity so exercise and sports are out of the question.  And while I’ve always reads lots of books and watched TV shows, these activities are too passive.  So as we shift into a more palliative mode of care, doc suggested I try writing; specifically, writing fiction.  Of course I’ve always journaled.  But the idea now is I would try to marshal whatever mental energies I could summon into weaving together a story.  It’s an interesting thought.  And many decades ago, when I was a child, I’d always dreamed of wanting to become a writer one day.  So hell, why not.  Maybe one day I’ll look back on all this with great amusement; let’s write a story.

To start, before I begin writing in earnest, I think it’s necessary though to establish a tone for what is to come.  A sort of “organizing principle.”  Having read a lot of fiction, I feel all authors possess an “organizing principle” when they write fiction.  JKR writes with a childish whimsy with a firm grasp on worldbuilding.  Lev Grossman writes similarly, but more adult material.  John Scalzi is a shamelessly commercial writer, hugely successful, whose prose centers mostly around quippy dialogue.  So after some thought, I’ve decided that my organizing principle, if it can be called that, will take after what I affectionately refer to as the “Michael Bay/Fast & Furious” model.  Even when there are explosions happening on screen and a $100M-worth of special effects blasting into your eyeballs, I never want the personal and intimate human story to be lost.  It’s a tightwire balancing act of never losing focus on the personal while still acknowledging the sweeping grandiosity of the world writ large.  Because, yeah.  Whenever I write, I do wish for there to be a twinge of spectacle.  Larger than life characters and plots.  Monstrous villains and gallant heroes.  I strongly feel an important component of fiction lies in its ability to give the reader a chance to escape from the mundaneness of the real world, into another more exciting, funnier, adventurous world.  That’s my aim at least.  How well I achieve that humble aim, well, I leave to you, dear reader.

Authorial Responsibility & Burden

In my humble opinion I feel an author possesses exactly zero authorial responsibility and burden apropos meeting some kind of standardized set of social expectations and norms.  I just finished listening to Hank’s Green interview with B&N and also saw that J.K. Rowling has stirred up controversy again, this time for casting Claudia Kim, a South Korean actress, as Nagini from the Harry Potter books.  Apparently this is a huge faux pas because it propagates a sort of “unhealthy ‘Asian Dragon Lady’ stereotype.”

For all the culture warriors out there expressing outrage:  Take a breath, calm yourselves, and please sit down.

Rowling owes all of you people nothing.  The same way Lucas owes all of you people nothing as well.  If you dislike their creative decisions and the choices they’ve made, the door’s right there.  Please show yourself out.

I’ve heard that there are broadly two camps of thinking when it comes to this topic:  Camp A thinks that an artist creates for themselves.  Camp B thinks that the artists creates for their audience.  I plant my flag firmly in Camp A.

Continue reading “Authorial Responsibility & Burden”