On Getting Married, Thomas Aquinas, and the Fine Art of Procrastination

eu4_2So, a friend of mine gave me a free copy of the game Europa Universalis. It came out of nowhere, he literally just messaged me on facebook to ask if I wanted a copy. I’d never played the game before, but it is both fun and addictive. It does teach some amount of history, geography, large scale economics, management and strategy, and all of these things are good. Honestly, I think that in manageable increments the game could be a great teaching tool (which is something I’m always on the look out for–if anyone wants to teach their kids about bioethics, policy-level politics, Japanese history, Chinese history, or large scale geography, strategy, and management in a way that is entertaining and enjoyable then I have suggestions for you). Unfortunately, the game is seriously addictive and I’ve managed to get sucked into it to the point of coming close to neglecting my other responsibilities. I haven’t yet–everything that I need to get done is getting done. I’m spending time with God, bills are getting paid, research is getting read, Alayna is being taken care of, etc. However, I have noticed that I’m spending exorbitant amounts of time with the game (…and I might add that I’m not sleeping as much as I should…).

hulkWhat I am facing at the moment is what Aristotle called akrasia and Aquinas called cupiscence. Both suggest a certain weakness of the will (actually that’s literally what akrasia means–the cupisciple desire is the desire for good things, but when those things are desired more than they should be [such as a glutton overeating] then cupiscence becomes a very bad thing). In Aquinas’ terminology I am giving something that it inherently good (i.e. rest, relaxation, and moderate education) a greater hold than it should have. Why does this matter? Well, speaking in Thomistic terms the solution to an overwhelming desire for more of a good thing than one should have is the irascible desire (or the desire to do difficult things–in this case, playing less of the game). So, there are virtues that Aquinas assigns to both the cupisciple and the irascible powers (or faculties/abilities), and these are temperance and fortitude (or courage).

aquinasSo, the answer to my problem is to practice 1) temperance in my desire for downtime, relaxation, and gameplaying, and 2) fortitude when my desire threatens to overwhelm my good sense. Now, prudence (a moral/intellectual virtue that Aquinas assigns to the practical reason [as opposed to the speculative reason]) tells me that I am, in fact, playing this game more than I should be, and that I need to cut back on it, and perhaps even cut it out complete if I’m going to be successful in playing less. It also tells me that I’m going to need to plan other things to do when I want to play the game–such as exercise or do research. So, what does any of this have to do with writing?

Well, 1) this is (to a point) me showing off some of what I’ve learned in the last couple of months. 2) This is also me trying to actually apply what I’ve learned so that Aquinas’ theories are not merely theoretical to me, but practical as well. 3) I actually do think that Aquinas’ conception of man’s nature can be very helpful for writers. Aquinas sets out five powers (vegitative–or the ability to grow and reproduce; locomotive–or the ability to move; sensible–or the ability to be aware of surroundings and form desires; appetitive–or the ability to make choices; intellectual–or the ability to reason from a given premise to a proper conclusion). Each of these power has multiple sub-powers, but the ones that matter most are the sensible (which is broken into the cupisciple power that desires and the irascible power that resists) and the intellectual (which is broken into the speculative reason that deals with theoretical knowledge and the practical reason that deals with applied knowledge). He also identifies virtues and vices common to each power. For instance, temperance and concupiscence are the primary virtue and vice of the cupisciple power. Fortitude and cowardice are the primary virtue and vice of the irascible power. Prudence and imprudence are the primary moral virtue and vice of the practical reason while art and unskillfulness are the primary non-moral virtue and vice of the practical reason. He also assigns science and ignorance, wisdom and foolishness, and understanding and lack of understanding as the primary virtues and vices of the speculative reason (science and ignorance having to do with knowledge of mundane secondary things such as biology, geology, or positive law; wisdom and foolishness having to do with divine secondary things such as soteriology, ecclesiology, hamartiology, etc; and understanding having to do with first principles–or those things that are known by intuition and that cannot be proven [such as the rule that two contradictory claims cannot be true–for instance I cannot be both caucasian and not caucasian, though I could be both caucasian and asian]).

virtue chartAquinas’ detailed understanding of the inner structure of the human being as a divinely created and inspired rational animal gives us a lot to work with when it comes to character development. For instance, understanding your characters in this way might make it very clear why John struggles to keep putting his work in the appropriate place in his life (perhaps he has an overly strong cupisciple attachment to it or an overly weak irascible nature). Perhaps Genevieve has a well-developed scientific virtue, but a very under developed sense of prudence and understanding which leads her to be a rather amoral sceptic when it comes to living everyday life. Ultimately, starting from a descent understanding of Aquinas’ view of the structure of man’s nature can definitely lead to some interesting character conclusions, but I leave that to you.

Staying in Practice with Short(er) Prose

“You’re doing NaNoWriMo, right?” people keep asking me.

“Uh, no,” I reply. “Not this time. Sorry. I’ve got too much else going on right now.”

“Come on! You should do it!”

“I mean, maybe I’ll try a little bit. But, realistically, I just don’t see it happening this time.”

“Lame!” they chide me.

And I almost wonder if they’re right. NaNoWriMo (or National Novel Writing Month, for those unfamiliar) is designed to help you actually write something even in the midst of your busy schedule by setting reasonable goals for each day and having many people all writing at once to help keep each other accountable. And I know I’ve been the one on the other side of the spectrum at times, encouraging and/or pressuring my friends to be as gung ho about creative writing as I am. So what does it say about me that I’m not willing or able to put forth the effort this time around?

I did participate in and successfully complete NaNoWriMo three years in a row, but that was back when I was still an undergrad. Now that I’ve moved up in my education and taken on more commitments, this is my third year in a row not doing NaNo, and I do kind of miss it. I even have a plot outline in my brain that I’ve been wanting to get out on paper for some time now. But it’s looking again like this November is not going to be that time.

The good thing, though, is that even though I’m too busy to do NaNoWriMo, it doesn’t mean that I’m not writing. It doesn’t even mean that I’m not writing for fun. As I touched on in another post, while it’s been a while since I’ve tackled any larger works of fiction, I’ve shifted my attention in recent years toward shorter prose of various different styles. In addition to writing for this blog, I write articles for an ezine, I’ve dabbled or tried my hand at other online magazines and forums, I recently put out a few posts full of lighthearted anecdotes on my personal blog, and have of course been writing academic papers for my grad classes too. While part of me looks forward to the day when I can work on my novel(s) again, I dare say that I’m not exactly being slack in my writing right now.

Image taken from studentleadercollective.org
Image taken from studentleadercollective.org

Maybe you’re like me, and you want to stay in practice with your writing, but the thought of a huge, lofty project seems daunting or unrealistic right now. If that’s the case, then you may benefit from hearing what I’ve been doing to try to stay in practice even in the busy times of life:

  • Be disciplined. We’ve probably all heard before that good writing requires discipline and dedication. I don’t really have anything new or profound to add to that conversation, except that I’ve been finding that it really is true. While it’s not a novel, working on short prose and academic writing like I’ve been can be plenty daunting on its own, especially if you’ve taken on several different projects like I have. This week I put out two posts on my personal blog, because they had been in my head for a while and I wanted to get them out into the world, but I also had this blog post due and the next article for the ezine, along with at least five pages of a rough draft for a grad paper. How do I do it all in the same week? The only answer I can really give is discipline and making writing a priority. Lately, after all my other homework and reading is done, I’ve usually been using the last hour or so (sometimes more) of my day before bedtime to write, instead of to watch TV or whatever. It’s a good time for me to get a lot of thoughts out in a relaxed manner (as long as I go back and edit later when I’m less tired). Of course, each person’s schedules and habits are different, but I’m willing to bet that you have time to write in your day if you just work a little bit and prioritize to find it.
  • Be flexible. Being flexible can incorporate a few different things. For me, working on several short pieces at once, it means that I have to be able to go back and forth easily; sometimes I’ll work on two or three or four different pieces in the same day or night, and I have to be able to focus on each one without letting the mental shift feel too jarring. But flexibility also means writing what you can when you can. If you’re not sure what to write in the absence of one grand, overarching project, then just take whatever smaller opportunities come your way, or start a journal or blog about your own personal experiences. If you don’t have a huge block of free time in your day that you can devote to writing, then use the smaller times you do have, and cram it into five or ten minute slots wherever you can. Since there’s no one definite formula for good or consistent writing, you need to find whatever works for you and be willing to do it, even if what works for you is drastically different from one day to the next.

    Image taken from busywriting.net
    Image taken from busywriting.net
  • Be creative. If you’re used to writing creative fiction, then the idea of shorter prose may not appeal to you as much at first. But writing blogs, articles, and other short works doesn’t mean you can’t still be creative and let your own unique voice shine through. There’s not room in this post to delve thoroughly into what constitutes the genre of creative nonfiction, but it’s basically telling a story the same way you would in fiction–except that the story just happens to be true. You can still give things your own interpretation and your own personal spin and narration. Just because you’re writing something short and (arguably) more serious doesn’t mean you can’t express yourself and have fun with it, too.

I realize I haven’t said anything particularly profound and new here, but this is what has been working for me recently. Still, if anyone has any good tips on how to balance writing short projects with everything else in life and also work on a novel somewhere in there too, I’d be glad to hear them! 😛 But whatever you’re writing this month, keep at it and be consistent! You never know how it might help you stay “in shape” as a writer and improve your craft for the future.

The Power of Parody

Hello! I’m Sam, and this is my first post for The Art of Writing. I’ve loved writing in many forms (stories, poems, or whatever I’m in the mood for) ever since I was little, and I still try to practice it pretty regularly to this day. When I’m not writing, I’m taking classes toward an M.A. in English, reading a whole lot, and secretly fighting crime in dark alleyways at night (but don’t tell anyone). If you like what you see here and want to read more from me, you can find my personal blog and more info here.

But now that I’ve introduced myself, I’m afraid I have a confession to make.

I’ve got to admit, I haven’t actually been writing much fiction lately.

It’s not because I don’t love writing fiction. I truly do enjoy it when I get to do it. I have several story ideas and novels in my head that I hope to finish writing and/or editing one day. But, for a variety of reasons, it seems that I’ve gravitated away from fiction in recent years to focus more on articles, blog posts, and other forms of shorter creative non-fiction (such as the one you’re reading right now). So when I was asked to contribute to a blog about writing fiction, I didn’t really know at first what I would write about.

“I don’t have much recent experience to draw from,” I said to myself. “I really haven’t been writing much fiction lately except for…except…”

This poster was created by Jef Castro of Entertainment Weekly, based on Patton Oswalt's monologue from Parks and Recreation.
Poster created by Jef Castro of Entertainment Weekly, based on Patton Oswalt’s monologue from Parks and Recreation

And then I remembered the one fictional work that I have been working on sporadically: a parody mash-up co-written with two friends, in which we basically decided to see just how many different fandoms and references we could combine and simultaneously poke fun at in the span of one epic tale (or trilogy). It’s a quirky, over-the-top, very tongue-in-cheek amalgamation of Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, Super Mario Bros., Batman, Doctor Who, classic literature, and much, much more.

Now, being a blatant rip-off of quite a few other works, this story of course is not what most of us would call “serious” fiction, and it’s hardly “literary” by anyone’s standards. This supposed subpar quality is inherent to works of parody, or at least to people’s common connotations about them. But that’s no reason for either readers or authors to completely write off parodies as insignificant or juvenile. After all, any story, even a parody, still has to be good by a certain standard of judgment; it still has to conform more or less to certain criteria, adhere to common conventions of fiction, and accomplish what it sets out to do as a story.

For someone who hopes to write more serious or original fiction, writing a parody can be a good way to gain some easy practice. Here are a few reasons why:

  •  Tropes and conventions are exaggerated. Parody is a good way to explore and play with common tropes or conventions in fiction, since they’re intentionally exaggerated and ridiculed in parody. In fact, it’s not uncommon for some parodies to include metahumor and directly announce the plot points they’re following or the sort of work they’re poking fun at. If you’re writing a parody, you don’t have to be subtle; you can go over the top and be painfully obvious with plot points and character development. If you’re in the experimental stage of writing fiction, this overt use of story components may help you to more concretely map out the narrative elements that make up a legitimately good story.
  •  Parodies are fun, not serious. As mentioned above, nobody expects parodies to be brilliant, profound works of fiction that will endure in the canon of literature for generations. They’re inherently meant to be lighthearted and fun in tone and by nature do not take themselves as seriously as other works might. These qualities take a lot of pressure off of you as the writer! You don’t have to come up with something original or groundbreaking when you’re writing a parody; you can rearrange existing elements of a story, or combine those elements with your own ideas that may or may not be fully fleshed out yet. Overall, you can let loose and relax just a bit. You can write something just to write, or to get into the habit of writing, without caring overmuch about how good or literary it is. You have the freedom to try different things out and see what works and what doesn’t. You can just play around and have fun!
  • An illustration of Mark Twain, printed by the Washington Times in 1907, reprinting the Philadelphia Inquirer
    Illustration of Mark Twain, printed by the Washington Times in 1907, reprinting the Philadelphia Inquirer

    Parodies still carry some weight. Even though parodies are for fun and not “serious,” don’t make the mistake of thinking that they’re less important or worthwhile pieces of fiction, or that you can make a good one with just a halfhearted effort. An enjoyable parody isn’t just haphazard elements strewn together; it still has familiar characters and a functioning story with a beginning, middle, and end. It should also have a good amount of humor and wit, cleverly satirizing certain conventions with varying degrees of subtlety. Even classic authors such as Jonathan Swift and Mark Twain relied heavily on satire, on pointing out and exaggerating the flaws in institutions or certain types of literature. Well-made, entertaining parodies must do this to some extent as well. To use another example, I also wrote another parody in recent memory, a Christmastime poem blatantly imitating Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas. I largely filled it up with jokes, laughs, and cultural references, but I also based it on my own real-life experiences and tried to at least touch on a legitimate moral about the importance of family and fellowship. Even though it was lighthearted and fun, it wasn’t completely meaningless or devoid of serious significance. If you’re truly dedicated to writing fiction and serious about wanting to hone your craft and skills as a writer, then you’ll still put your best thought and effort and personal feeling into it at all times, even if you’re just practicing with a parody.

So, if you have the misfortune to be visited by writer’s block in the near future, or if you’re like me and you haven’t been able to find the opportunities for “serious” fiction lately, then I encourage you to try writing a parody of your favorite book, movie, or TV show. Figure out what sort of plot and character formula makes that story work, and play that up a lot in your parody. But also look for the flaws or ridiculous aspects in the work you’re imitating and be sure to exaggerate those for comedic effect. Consider what messages your use of satire will send, overtly or subtly, about the work or genre you’re imitating, or about life and the world as a whole. Don’t be afraid to play around and see what works for you, and as you continue to write, try to notice how your own storytelling style begins to develop and differ from that of the original author. Use this time and this opportunity to hone your skill and your own unique voice. And in the midst of it all, don’t forget to have some fun!

J-ing with Style

My focus today is on that dreaded “J” word. The one that is often mocked and ridiculed. Sometimes it goes by the even more sissified word that begins with… a “D.” That’s right, today’s topic is on journaling.

As kids we are often encouraged to journal, or write in a diary, by our parents in teachers. As adults, we are often encouraged to journal by our shrinks. But, what makes us hesitate to write out our lives and our thoughts in a book? Why do we make fun of those who do? I’ll admit, for the longest time I was one of those who publicly scorned journals, and yet secretly attempted to keep one. But, I was HORRIBLE at it. I never had the discipline to write in one daily. And then I would feel guilty and stop. And then I would feel guilty about stopping and begin again. Vicious circle repeat.

Nowadays, almost everyone is a journaler whether they know it or not. It’s called blogging. Whether you blog about your life, your political aspirations and opinions, or your favorite recipes, you are journaling. And that’s what has allowed me to come out and proudly proclaim to you today, I JOURNAL. I even have a physical journal. I first really started journaling while I lived in Russia. Then, when I arrived back in the States, I kept at it. But, it’s different for me now than it used to be for two simple reasons.

1) A journal doesn’t have to be a “Dear Diary” experience. From the beginning of my recent journal adventure I cast away with they typical cliche of writing down only what you did. My journal is small enough that I can carry it with me anywhere. As a result, it has become my “miscellaneous, catch-all drawer” if you will. Any random thought that pops into my head that I want to remember to dwell on later goes in. Any story idea, art idea, etc. If I have four lines of something that resembles a poem, it goes in. This means my journal is more closely a reflection of me than any “Today, I went to the store” entry could be. Especially, when you consider the random sketches and half sentences that have been collected in there.

2) When I do write about my day, I throw out the cliche. Think of it this way. If you were a historian, or even a random reader, who found your diary 50 years from now, would you rather read “Today I went to the store.” Or “Today I found out that the Fred Meyer store is what occurs when Wal Mart and JC Penny have a love child that exploded.” The same basic information is conveyed, but the latter has a little extra spice.

Essentially, it’s as if you were making a story out of your life. And, if you want people to read it, you have to make the brand “YOU,” not “Generic.” It can also serve as good practice for writing stories, and you can switch perspectives for even more practice. Write about your life in first person. Then do another entry from third person.

“All great writers begin with a good leather binding and a respectable title.” James Barrie in Finding Neverland

As an example, I will give you a peek into my journal.
A good friend of mine and I were discussing Thanksgiving last night. One of the statements he made resonated with me. Basically, he was iffy about the whole holiday, as it was just another excuse for people to gorge themselves under the pretense of “family togetherness.”

And it made me think of my family. My whole extended Robinson clan of a family. Every Thanksgiving and/or Christmas, my mom’s side gets together and – celebrates. That means two grandparents, one great-aunt (who acts like a 50 year old), eight parents, eleven grandchildren, and an assortment of friends and significant others all gather into one three bedroom house to “enjoy” each other’s company.

Now, looking at it and the amount of food consumed by this clan of twenty-two plus people, it may be easy to group us into the category of superficial Thanksgiving-ers. But I don’t think that would be true. Now, I’ve never really celebrated Thanksgiving with any other family (well, I did celebrate it with my aunt-in-laws family once), so I don’t know how others celebrate holidays, but this is a little how ours goes.

One by one, the families trickle in. My memaw is already in the kitchen, her foster bedroom during these holiday days, and the house is filled with the aroma of freshly-baked, homemade rolls. A batch of fresh dough is sitting on the counter, because she knows that my aunts and uncles can’t pass by without taking a pinch.

The women congregate in the front living room and in the kitchen while the guys crowd around the tv in the den. Football is on. The Cowboys. And, even though most of the family has drifted away from their Cowboy-obsessed phase, it’s still football. Their boos, catcalls, and cheers can be heard down the block. Well, at least my brother’s voice can.

The grandkids have split themselves up, roaming about the house, sneaking into the kitchen for pre-feast bites, talking with aunts, cheering or booing the cowboys, facebook stalking their friends, inviting old friends over. We do it all.

“Dinner. Everyone gather round. Cassandra, go round up the guys.” My Memaw’s proclamation is like a magnet, attracting the family to her (or at least to the food in her hands). We gather round, hold hands, and then . . . “Ohhhhhhhhh say can you see, by the dawn’s early light…” Yes, we break into song. Yes, my family is very patriotic, but the tradition of singing the “Star Spangled Banner” before our great meal actually has nothing to do with that. It started several years ago as a joke. I’m sure it happened because the boys were watching football, and the national anthem got stuck in their head. Still, whatever the reason, before we pray, we sing the anthem (usually loud and out-of tune).

We then bless the meal, fill our plates, and recreate Darwin’s theory of Survival of the Fittest: The quickest get a seat, the losers get the floor (or a really uncomfortable, small, black chair). We go around and state our thanks as is “traditional” Thanksgiving behavior, but after that we talk. And we talk. And we talk some more.
Then, after the food has begun trickling its way down our digestive courses, the music begins. With four pianists and a whole horde of singers in the family (and a grandmother who doesn’t take no for an answer), the singing can last for a while. A long while. Days even.

Now, my family isn’t perfect by any means, and we do have our arguments, our petty differences, our annoyances, but we’ve been given a great gift. We have two parents/grandparents that have made it their life mission to make sure that they keep the family together. And because we all love them, and we deep down we really love each other, we get together. We catch up. We celebrate the love that has filled this house for over twenty years of family togetherness.