Can Modern Human Beings Create A Sustainable Environment?

Posted April 4, 2015 by fencer
Categories: Awareness, Culture, Environment, Internet, Politics, Science

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Change Resistance as the Crux of the Environmental Sustainability Problem
by Jack Harich, System Dynamics Review, 2010, 37 pages
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Is it our nature as human beings that we must be so intractable and incapable of change, even against our best interest?

Must the culture to which we belong remain so bent on turning everything into commodities and markets that it becomes less and less possible to live in a decent, dignified way in a healthy world?

Is nature itself doomed by humans unable to get a grip on themselves, like addicts who repeat the same destructive patterns over and over again while constantly talking ineffectually about their plans to get better?

I’ve often wondered about these things, but rather pointlessly without any particular insight, as the world’s stresses mount. But I came across Jack Harich’s paper a while ago, and the analysis he makes of the situation from a systems perspective seemed to actually get at the real difficulties.

I can’t claim any special knowledge about the systems approach, but it does seem to be about the interdependence of things and events.  You can’t look at completely independent elements this way — but what do you know, the world does seem to be wholly interdependent, if not interpenetrating!

Systems Thinking

Systems thinking comes out of General Systems Theory as formulated by the Austrian biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy in the 1930s and 40s with application to everything from biology to cybernetics to the social sciences.

“Cybernetics” is almost a quaint term to me, probably undeservedly so.  But it seems to go along with images from the last century of revolving magnetic tapes on massive IBM computers, and 1970s talk about feedback loops.

But it is actually about information, in all its aspects, and how it changes and makes a difference in the world about us.  Witness all the gadgets and the distracted people.

And of course it can’t help but bring to my mind the book Psycho-Cybernetics, that wildly popular self-help book from the 1960s by cosmetic surgeon Maxwell Maltz.  (I can still see that cover.)

Actually Maltz’s field, although one might be snide about it, was instrumental in developing what the book tried to say: that only with a positive self-image can one strive towards goals worth having, and be able to correct one’s path along the way. In his experience, many of his patients still felt ugly after his surgical attempts to beautify them.  Although perhaps others benefited enough to pursue goals in life with a renewed self-confidence. He saw human behaviour as a negative feedback, cybernetic system.  (It seems to me, though, that self-clarity is just as important as self-image in any such system.)

This can only be peripheral to Jack Harich’s more academic considerations in his article on change resistance and environmental sustainability, although his approach is all about correcting a path that leads nowhere.  And maybe humanity is coming to have a self-image problem….

The situation is that after at least 30 or 40 years of well-intentioned effort, humans have failed to move towards living sustainably on this planet.  The science of environmental sustainability is unable to solve its central problems. Harich proposes a new paradigm, a new way to think about the problems.  But first we need to understand the “old” way.

The Old Paradigm

He identifies the old paradigm as focusing on “proper coupling” as the central problem to solve. Proper coupling occurs when the behavior of one system affects the behavior of other systems in a desirable manner, using the appropriate feedback loops, so the systems work together in harmony in accordance with design objectives. For example, if you never got hungry you would starve to death…. ”

“In the environmental sustainability problem the human system has become improperly coupled to the greater system it lives within: the environment.”

He notes that in 1972 the publication of The Limits to Growth brought the problem of environment sustainability to the world’s attention and defined the problem as how to devise economic and ecological sustainability that could last far into the future.  How can the ecological and economic systems be properly coupled? More elaborations of coupling mechanisms were proposed such as “a broad natural capital depletion tax, application of the precautionary polluter pays principle, and a system of ecological tariffs.”

In 2007, the fourth Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report encouraged governments to create incentives to mitigate environmental problems.  Another way to promote proper coupling.

The New Paradigm of Change Resistance

Harich recounts a discussion years ago over a difficult problem with a young engineer from the U.K., who suggested that if you’ve looked at a problem from every angle and still are stumped, then you probably have a missing abstraction.  Find it, and the problem becomes more solvable, he says.

So to Harich, change resistance is that missing abstraction.  The term describes the tendency of a system to continue its current behavior, despite the application of forceful measures to change that behavior. The main feature of this is that the status quo represents an equilibrium between the barriers to change and the forces favoring change.  And the status quo today, as Harich points out, is an unsustainable world.

When anyone attempts to solve sustainability problems, the system maintains its balance by automatically increasing the barriers to change.

He proposes decomposing difficult social problems into two more workable sub-problems: 1) overcoming change resistance, and 2) achieving proper coupling — that is linking proper consequences to actions, as in universal suffrage or the dangers of smoking tobacco. (His analysis depends on having a relatively democratic society.  Unfortunately, the democratic features of the developed world are also increasingly in question.)

For sustainability, there is obviously massive change resistance.  This indicates, Harich says, an implicit goal of the system in which we find ourselves. He identifies a process of “Classic Activism” which has been long used by citizen groups to solve problems of the common good that governments are not addressing.

Most environmental literature, including The Limits to Growth and the IPCC assessment reports can be seen as part of the Classic Activism of finding the proper practices; telling people the truth about the problem and proper practices; and exhorting, inspiring and bargaining with people and groups to get them to support the proper practices.

The Process of Classic Activism Fails

Harich describes how while Classic Activism works on some problems, it has failed to adequately address the global environmental sustainability problem.  His diagrams of the feedback loops at play are fascinating.  (Check out Figure 3 on page 45 in pages 35-72 of his article.)

He says classic activists don’t see the feedback mechanism of systemic change resistance or assume it is only a minor issue, easily solved by overcoming individual change resistance.

He cites an interesting table from Donella Meadows on places to intervene in a system in increasing order of effectiveness.  At the low end are playing around with subsidies, taxes and standards, moving to the higher leverage items of addressing the goal of the system, and even transcending paradigms.

In his model of the process of Classic Activism and its failures, there is no discussion of why social agents are motivated to solve problems and also to resist solving problems.  It’s just how the loops function.

Basic to his discussion is the “common good” as the mixture of “industrial production, social factors, environmental health and other elements that optimizes quality of life for all living people and their descendents.” Hirach writes, “In a common good problem, altruistic activists stand on the side of the truth of what will benefit the common good, while selfish special interests resisting change cannot.”  [ His emphasis.] He goes on: “Overall, one side employs the truth about the need for proper practices while the other side utilizes bold lies, half-truths, spin, sophism, reality as they see it and all sorts of twaddle.”  (Twaddle, I’m sure, is a technical cybernetic-type word….)

But “deception” is a defined term, meaning the act of convincing others to believe what is not true or only half-true, not out of malice necessarily but as a way to achieve the goal of resisting change.  Thus deception is an objective term which describes a certain kind of observed behaviour in Hirach’s model, and which serves to play the largest role in political decision making.

Wakeup Call Catastrophes

He observes that most environmental progress is made piecemeal as a result of some “wakeup call catastrophe” such as the discovery of the Antarctic ozone hole or acid rain or the Love Canal. “…Reliance on the use of Classic Activism and wakeup call catastrophes to overcome change resistance will not work, because by the time large enough catastrophes occur to solve the complete sustainability problem, it will be too late.”

As Harich sees it, the main problem for Classic Activism is that change resistance is much more likely to be systemic than local or located within individual agents.

Getting at the Root Cause

The root causes usually identified as important in hampering environmental sustainability such as population growth, economic inequality, lack of cooperation and maladapted values are not the deepest root causes of inability to change.  They are only intermediate and pseudo root causes to Harich.

Harich warns that what he will present as possible solutions “may appear impossible.”  Such impossibilities as universal suffrage and the end of slavery as an institution could be considered similar.

The modern corporation can be viewed as a kind of life form, following the same principles of behaviour that genetic life forms do.  He cites an abundance of literature showing that large for-profit corporations are “now the dominant life form in the biosphere.”

The Goal of the Dominant Life Form on the Planet

WEFstrip

The corporations’ goal of maximizing profits is mutually exclusive with the goal of Homo sapiens to “optimize quality of life for those living and their descendents, which includes protecting the environment on which we depend for life.”

This is identified as the root cause of “improper coupling.”

Harich asks us to conceive of the modern corporation being re-engineered to be a trusted servant of Homo sapiens, which historically was the original idea.

The new re-engineered goal would be serving our species as its highest priority, “by optimizing components of quality of life as stated in its charter,” both in general and for specific outputs of the corporation.  Goal achievement would be measured by contribution to a sustainable quality of life index.  Others have already done much work on such an index, Harich says.

“Such an index would be expressed in percent of goal achieved.  A negative amount means a company performed so poorly it should be penalized.  Over 100 percent indicates expectations were exceeded.  The index would be calculated by each company as part of normal accounting.”

This is one suggested approach and will require further experimentation and refinement.  Harich says, for example, instead of an index something called the Triple Bottom Line could be used.

“The new goal must be as simple, unambiguous, measurable, and motivating as the one it replaces: profit maximization.”

Corporation 2.0

He calls this Corporation 2.0 and says it could be introduced on a gradual basis over a couple of decades.  Solving common good problems, because this advances the goal of Homo sapiens, would now benefit the new corporations.

“Imagine what it would be like for large corporations to work as hard to solve the sustainability problem as they have worked in the past to not solve it.”

So all seems to depend on redesigning the modern corporation — and Harich expects “strenuous resistance from the corporate life form to loss of dominance.”

So then he goes on to ask what is the root cause of change resistance to corporate redesign?

“The root cause appears to be deception effectiveness high enough to thwart, weaken, or delay changes that run counter to the goal of the corporate life form.”

The corporations’ have promulgated two high-impact beliefs to further their goal: 1) corporations are good and essential to society’s wellbeing, and 2) growth is good because gross domestic product (GDP) and the stock market are the best indicators of a nation’s wellbeing.

Harich says both points are only half-true.  It is only the production role of corporations that is essential, not the way they are currently defined.  And GDP doesn’t measure quality of life.  Serious disasters automatically raise the GDP as more is spent to reconstruct, for instance.  And the stock market is a kind of con game.

High Deception Effectiveness

But how to overcome the high “deception effectiveness” behind systemic change resistance?

Harich suggest pushing “on the related high leverage point of general ability to detect manipulative deception.”  This might be done by more and better education on how to detect common fallacies (see end of this post for an example); independent political truth rating organizations such as FactCheck.org; corporate environmental responsibility ratings; and the use of quality of life and sustainability indexes.

Unfortunately, the current ability to detect manipulative deception is very low.  But if it should ever start to rise, “deception effectiveness” will then start to fall, and the corporations’ two high-impact beliefs will begin to lose credibility.

Hirach points out that worst historic excesses of dictators, kings, warlords and other tyrants were eventually, in a way now intuitively obvious, reduced by the addition of the voter feedback loop.

“This could also be called the ruler benevolence feedback loop.  Is the system missing the corporate benevolence feedback loop?”

*       *      *

In some ways, Harich’s analysis in systems-speak is stating the obvious.  But his approach does have the advantage of providing of a more-or-less objective means of detailed analysis in terms of all the feedback loops that govern our way of life.

In his model, you can add or modify a feedback loop, and observe in a verifiable, repeatable way what kind of impact it might make on the whole system.  It is a quite detailed, technical representation that one should read his paper to appreciate.

You can read more on Jack Harich’s site about the sustainability problem at Thwink.org.

And finally, here is a summation of the Truth Test as presented by Robert Gowans and included in Harich’s article as a table:

“Table 3. The truth test

1. What is the argument?
2. Are any common patterns of deception present?
3. Are the premises true, complete, and relevant?
4. Does each conclusion follow from its premises?

The truth test is a simple test designed to tell whether a statement is true, false, or just plain nonsense. This allows voters to tell reality from illusion. They can then answer the question every democracy depends on: Is this truth or deception?

By using pattern recognition you can determine the truth of most political appeals in little more than the time it takes to hear or read them. All that is required is to learn the patterns.”

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Note on cartoon source:

From Marc Roberts Cartoons

The Aging Learning Guitarist Keeps On

Posted February 11, 2015 by fencer
Categories: Art, Culture, Guitar, Internet, Music

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

I’ve got to keep on keepin’ on
You know the big wheel keeps on spinnin’ around
— Steve Miller, Jet Airliner

At this point on my guitar learning adventure (as previously chronicled in such posts as The Impatience of Learning Guitar and Manchild with Guitar), I’m trying to challenge myself to play in more difficult territory and perhaps be able to claim to have some intermediate skills eventually, rather than to be just a beginner.

I’m still taking lessons from the same rock guitarist and music producer I’ve gone to for several years.  They are funny kind of lessons, but they have evolved over time and suit me.  I bring in a piece I want to learn how to play.  One time it was a simplified, if still complicated, Bach tune, another time a very fast (for me) blues-rock number.

I’m not quite sure what Eddy thinks when I bring along something like these to learn, at the edge of what I’m able to do.  He very patiently goes through each piece with me as we work on phrasing and technique.  As a working musician and quite a good teacher for a young guy, he’s a master at simplifying, if only temporarily, until I get up to speed on difficult passages.   I tend to throw my hands up in dismay at my effrontery in even thinking I can play them.  But we work through that, and with more practice than I like to say, I make progress.

Because Eddy loves to work with music, even my efforts, he’s taken to recording them in his home studio.  I think he likes to record me because I’m not going anywhere in particular with what I’m doing, and there are no expectations or demands or requirements on him for the finished results.  We just get to play around.

I now have a half-dozen or more recordings of my renditions.  They sound pretty good after he’s done splicing and editing them meticulously together.  They’re fun to have and to show off to any friends or family whom I can impose upon….  And I get to learn a little about music production, although half the time I’m not quite sure what he’s talking about.

All Along the Watchtower

My latest project is to learn to play All Along the Watchtower, that wonderful version of a Dylan song by Jimi Hendrix.  I think that’s my favorite Hendrix tune.  So I gathered together a bunch of instructional videos off of YouTube, got some sheet music together and backing tracks, and presented it to Eddy as what I wanted to do next.  I have to hand it to him, he didn’t blink, and started putting the backing tracks and the original song into ProTools to work on.

I want to do it like a Ventures tune, an instrumental version including the voice parts, which you don’t find done so much.  Although I had started trying to learn the opening rhythm section and the first intro solo, it was a bit of a shambles.  It’s another example of me ruing my ambitiousness.  So we’re going through the song step-by-step.  We’re up to the second solo and it’s starting to sound not too bad.

Hendrix was a monster player, as every guitarist realizes.  He played like there was absolutely no barrier between his musical will and his hands and fingers expressing that will on the guitar. And he must have had incredibly strong hands to bend the strings like crazy as he does.  Eddy has got me cheating on some of the more extreme bending, but it still sounds good.  And there’s one very fast passage so far — I’m working hard to get it into my fingers so I don’t have to think about it, and just do it.

There are many great solos in this song, and even if I’m not able in the end to play any of it very well (although I hope for better than that!), I’m still learning a lot by pushing at the boundaries of my ability in this way.  Even if I feel like a schmuck when I flounder, as I often do….

Useful Guitar Learning Resources on the Web

In my guitar journey, in addition to the useful sites mentioned in previous posts such as the great Robert Renman’s two — Dolphin Street and Master Guitar Academy — I have found some very good additional sites.  Almost all of these sites have a free lesson component and then offer lessons or material to buy.  The proportion of free on the ones I’ll note here is quite high.

The kind of free instructive material is also important — some of the most commercial sites just offer fragments to entice you rather than anything useful.  I think the better sites like Renman’s are actually very smart marketing — I’ve learned a lot from his free stuff and I’ve gone on to buy several lessons I wouldn’t otherwise have been interested in.  I know the detail and care he puts into them.

1) Fundamental Changes — Lots of lessons “In the Style of ….” (Dave Gilmour, B.B. King, Keith Richards, etc.) which are good for picking up new licks, and also many videos on theory and technique (Harmonics on Guitar, Chromatic Notes in Solos, etc.).

2) Fret Jam — Very clear and well taught videos (and written material) on many aspects of guitar musical theory, in particular.  For instance, one recent free lesson is on “Suspended Guitar Chords — How and When to Play Them.”  Another recent article is “The Best Guitar Chord Software & Chord Tools On the Web” which will lead you to a number of other good and informative sites.

3) Fachords — Although it also has free video lessons, the most interesting part of this site I find are the free online Guitar Apps .  These include a scales finder, a chord finder, fretboard trainer, speed trainer, interactive scales harmonization, and more.

There is just so much good guitar instructional material on the web.  I am guilty of buying more books, having more links and downloading more videos than I will probably ever go through in the detail they deserve.  I just wish it was all available when I was a kid, when I made my first unsuccessful stabs at learning the instrument.

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Home

Shanghai Before Christmas 2014

Posted December 29, 2014 by fencer
Categories: Awareness, China, Culture, Photography, Travel

Tags: , , , , , , ,

“The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.”
– G.K. Chesterton

I’ve become an old China hand, at least in some superficial ways.  I’ve been to Shanghai a number of times over the years, and less frequently to a few other parts of China.  I’ve seen the Great Wall, the terracotta warriors at Xian, the peculiar karst hills of Guilin, the giant Buddhas of the Longmen Grottoes, and stood with the fighting monks of the Shaolin Temple for a special photo.  But sadly I only am able to speak the most limited of Chinese, in stock phrases to smooth my way, and certainly not to converse at any length.

Mostly we go to Shanghai, because that is where my wife’s family lives.  Shanghai has changed a lot in the 20 years or so I’ve been going there on a semi-regular basis.  It’s now a city of high-rises, high-end shopping centres and high-volume car congestion.  Without the Chinese characters there are many places where if you were set down unexpectedly it could be almost any modern city in the world.

Fortunately for me, my in-laws were always cosmopolitan and well-travelled, especially my wife’s mother and father, unexpectedly so in Chinese of their generation.  This befitted their role as medical doctors in demand at international conferences and other gatherings.

In a way they became my second set of parents, after my own passed on many years ago.  They always welcomed me into their relatively humble apartment, where in any conversation one might hear Mandarin, Shanghainese, English and French.  As a Canadian, my high-school French actually became occasionally useful.  And my wife’s dad spoke passable English, which certainly helped.

The reason we went back for only just over a week this time was the final ceremony to lay to rest the ashes of my wife’s mother, who died earlier in 2014.  She was a social live-wire even as she turned 90 years old, but endings find us all.  It’s been very difficult for her husband of almost 70 years, especially since they were closely together all those years not only as partners in life but colleagues in their profession.

I remember her most fondly for her jolliness, her sincerity and her intelligence.  When they last visited us in Vancouver in Canada back when they were young folks in their late seventies and early eighties, they always seemed such accomplished travellers.  Mom always liked to be photographed in front of every tourist sight-seeing mecca.  Dad worried about plane tickets and travel arrangements.

There were the rituals of packing, going to the airport and final waves as they left us each time.  They weren’t able to visit us in the last decade or so — visas were refused due to their increasingly fragile health.  So we — my wife more often of course — went back to see them in Shanghai.

Her father now copes as best he can after his loss with the assistance of the extended family.  Although his health remains relatively good, he doesn’t smile much any more.

But he’s taken up occasionally singing and humming quietly to himself, whether to lift his spirits or as a way to commune with his wife, I don’t know.

As we packed up to return to Vancouver, as we rolled the luggage into the living room and I worriedly checked that I had my passport and our tickets, Dad looked up at me with a brief, clear smile.  There was acknowledgement of past moments together, of getting ready to go.  We are all just travellers here.

—————

Whenever I go away from home, I’m keen to take photographs.  I always hope that like Chesterton above, I will learn to see the places I know when I return with a little bit of that same exotic feeling and a refreshed eye.

Here are a few photos from our trip.  In Shanghai, there are many locals, such as taxi drivers we ran across, who resent Westerners always looking for the run-down parts of Shanghai to take photographs.  They feel insulted by foreigners who don’t have a proper and respectful attitude towards the modernity of present-day China.

But the older, and not always run-down, streets of Shanghai still embody what all the sterile modernity can never do, a sense of community.

More Shanghai photos will be seen on my photo blog, The Suspended Moment, as time goes by….

One short note about the photos: we came across a park where every day in mid-afternoon there would be community dancing.  The local gossip was that many affairs were initiated at these events….

Stepping Lively

Stepping Lively

Sidewalk Cobbler

Sidewalk Cobbler

Shanghai Santa Claus

Shanghai Santa Claus

Shanghai Alley Fancy Entrance

Shanghai Alley Fancy Entrance

The Five Stages of Collapse – A Book Review

Posted November 1, 2014 by fencer
Categories: Awareness, Book Review, Culture, Environment, Politics

Tags: , , , , , ,

The Five Stages of Collapse: Survivors’ Toolkit by Dmitry Orlov, New Society Publishers, 2013
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This book is one long challenge to most of the notions we received as part of our schooling and socialization. …It questions what being properly socialized means: is it being able to ignore the obvious signs of incipient collapse that makes you a well socialized individual?
Dmitry Orlov

As the world, or at least many places in it, seems to lurch from one crisis to another, one may be forgiven about thinking about stability and the direction of things as a whole.

I came across this book recently and found it surprisingly objective and cool-headed as it describes the end of the world as we know it.  Orlov anticipates that unsustainable crises will really start to bite by the middle of this century.  The financial, commercial and political systems will crumble, to be followed potentially by social and cultural collapse.

orlovThis is not a “survivalist” book about retreating to the renovated bomb-shelter with your shotgun so much as it is an attempt to describe the mechanisms of social decay in our way of life.  It is survivalist in the sense of that being forewarned may help to ease the transition to the changes that are coming.

I look around where I live on the west coast of North America which in many ways is one of the best places to live on Earth.  But more and more, from transportation systems, to sewers, to water supply, to education (including the universities), to medicine, to communication, to food supply, I find I often whisper to myself: we can’t afford our infrastructure.

In addition, there’s all the damage we continue to do to the land, water and air that sustains us.

Standing Outside the Mainstream

Over the years, I can see that I’ve been influenced by the thoughts of men, and women, who manage to find a place to stand outside the mainstream.  There’s William Irwin Thompson, cultural critic and historian, who out of yogic meditation brought forth his critiques of academia and society.  There’s author Doris Lessing, whose seeking led her to the objectivity of the Sufism of Idries Shah, and wisdom about humanity.  Also there’s Wendell Berry, whose livelihood upon the land gives him an essential grounding that expresses itself in his poetry, prose and politics.  I think of Thomas Homer-Dixon who found useful points of reference in the decline of the Roman Empire and the ecology of forests as a civilizational model to look at our society’s resilience, or lack of it.

In the case of Dmitry Orlov, his perspective and independence of thought seems to come mainly from being ex-Russian.

Orlov and his family left the Soviet Union in 1976, as part of a wave of emigration used by Moscow at the time to rid itself of undesirables and dissidents.

Orlov has observed, and sometimes experienced, currency tribulations, widespread surveillance, the abuses of a police state, and the rise of a criminal/oligarchic class that has now largely integrated with the former KGB agents who currently run Russia.

I’d like to run through a little of what Orlov has to say about each of his five stages of collapse.  He includes fascinating case studies that highlight points he’s making, some of which I find disagreeable.

Orlov appears to have no ideological agenda to further, other than his sympathy for anarchism and family as a means to community.  He says:

“There is no agenda here – just the assumption that collapse will happen, the conjecture that it can be analyzed as unfolding in five distinct phases and, based on quite a bit of research, the conclusion that each phase will require a different set of adaptations from those who wish to survive it.”

Stage 1: Financial Collapse

The result of this first stage is that financial institutions become insolvent, savings are wiped out and access to capital is lost.

Orlov’s point is that the global financial system is a mental construct which confidence maintains, and if confidence is lost, as we could see in 2008, it starts to unravel and fall apart.

The financial system is a house of cards built on ever-increasing debt in order to grow.

He sees usury (lending at interest) as the inevitably rotting root of the system.

“…We have become dependent on global finance, which is based on fiat currencies (ones unsupported by any traditional, fixed store of value such as gold, silver or land) that are loaned into existence by banks, at interest.”

Money in our system does not conform to the laws of physics – everything else diminishes with time.  Usury, in Orlov’s view, makes financial collapse inevitable.  Usury is only viable in an expanding economy.  “Once economic growth stops, the burden of usurious debt causes it to implode.”

And so we see the collapse of the economies of sovereign states, such as Greece, on the large scale, and at a smaller scale, the bankruptcy of cities such as Detroit.

The only remedy that central banks of any nation have is to print more money, which inevitably devalues it.  We have seen this up-to-now slow process over my lifetime – a dollar now is worth much less than what it did in 1980, say.   In the US,  the dollar has lost 8000 percent of its value in the last 41 years, Orlov says.

Orlov observes that although our economic system depends on infinite growth, once that endless growth fails to materialize, what then?

He proposes storing value in real commodities although that has its limits.  Are there alternatives to money that  communities can create for themselves?  He looks at barter and other systems of trading.

Although he concedes he may be hopelessly idealistic, Orlov sees the ultimate solution in strong, extended families that pool all their resources and are presided over by elders, who band together and form a larger community and create self-governance by a council of such elders.

The inevitable end of the fossil-fuel era, and the dream of never-ending expansion it engendered, will necessitate a return to older, smaller scale means of exchange between individuals, families and communities.

Iceland as a case study

Orlov uses the instance of Iceland which suffered a financial meltdown due to the events of 2008 and after, and then began to recover.   Iceland is one of the few places in the world still small enough to have direct democracy rather than the degenerate forms of representative “democracy” many of us are subject to.

Iceland’s approach was to let financial institutions go bankrupt rather than prop them up by printing more money.  Orlov argues that Iceland made a heroic and wise decision:  the failure of banks freed up resources for productive activities that benefitted the entire society.

Stage 2: Commercial Collapse

This review will go on much too long if I delve in depth on each of the stages, so I will just touch on highlights for the remainder.  For the intelligence and general contrariness of Orlov’s thought, leavened by his good humour, I urge you to take a look at the book itself.

Our commercial system has become one of increasing numbers of middle men, each scratching to take as much out of the money chain as possible.  It too will not be sustainable.

“… [This] can be characterized as cascaded failure, in which the first failure (which happens when the assumptions underlying contemporary financial arrangements suddenly become regarded as untenable) has a knock-on effect on commerce (due to a lack of commercial credit), which in turn, has a knock-on effect on government finances (through a rapidly shrinking tax base).”

The so-called free market is based on a system of property law, a legal system able to enforce contracts and a law enforcement system that can deter economic crime.

Orlov notes that without the legal, enforceable basis, the Russian experience shows that the free market becomes a criminal market, “where debts are settled for pennies on the dollar by having creditors murdered.”

He ends this section with a case study on the Russian Mafia.

Stage 3: Political Collapse

Political collapse can only be disruptive.  “The ruling classes and the classes which serve them (the police, the military, the bureaucrats) generally refuse to go softly into the night and allow the people to self-organize, experiment and come together as autonomous new groups adapted to the new environment in their composition and patterns of self-governance.”

One obvious result of this is that “for the sake of preserving national unity, a failing nation-state often looks for an external enemy to attack, preferably a weak, defenseless one, so that it poses no risk of reprisal.”

In his discussion, Orlov makes a strong case for anarchism, despite our conditioning to see the typical anarchist as an antisocial and bomb-throwing terrorist seeking violent overthrow of the existing order.

Orlov points out that as a student of nature, anarchism makes sense as a system of cooperation and can be seen everywhere among animals.  He notes the Russian scholar Peter Propotkin’s writings on anarchic cooperation as essential to the success of many species.

Orlov’s personal definition of anarchy is “absence of heirarchy.”  He also draws from recent research into “complexity theory” by physicist Geoffrey West.  It leads him to think that collapse is not an accident but an engineered product by those who “think that a higher level of authority, coordination, harmonization and unity is always a net benefit at any scale.”

Governments are good at certain things, Orlov is very willing to admit: maintaining a national transportation infrastructure, a reliable post office, and a fast internet….

Orlov’s case study to conclude this section  is that of the Pashtuns, who occupy a tribal area between Afghanistan and Pakistan.   They continue to succeed in defying all the empires and nations that have arrayed against them over the past century – the British, the Pakistanis, the Soviets and most recently the U.S.

Their governance is semi-leaderless and self-regulating.  Some of their governing methods date back to Athenian democracy or before.  Orlov admires their hardiness and tenacity.   He doesn’t mention too much about their ties to the Taliban and the related negation of the essential worth of the female population, which really can’t be seen as a survival trait.

Stages 4 & 5: Social & Cultural Collapse

“Few places are likely to remain sufficiently insular to escape the onslaught of internationally displaced groups driven from their land by a variety of forces, from political unrest to economic dislocation caused by globalization to habitat destruction caused by rapid climate change.”

In Orlov’s view, it will be better to concentrate on a safe way to be, with others, rather than some imaginary, for most of us, safe place to go.

Communities who already live with hardships of one kind or another will be more resilient than, say, gated communities of the affluent.

In his discussion of social collapse, Orlov sees organized religion as a binder among people and communities that will endure and may assist in regenerating society.  (I think of the classic science fiction novel A Canticle for Leibowitz in this connection.)

Personally, organized religion appears pernicious, undesirable and unnecessary, but I can also see its utility in building and sustaining a sense of community.

Orlov is not as strong in his thinking in this part of his book, and he admits to that.  If we get to this stage, whatever happens after social and cultural collapse will be up to each of those who survive – there may not be a lot of useful prescriptions.

His case study for social collapse is the culture of the Roma, the Gypsies of Europe and North America who have learned to survive in difficult circumstances.  They are a nomadic and insular, even secretive people, but they are well-suited to thrive in a disordered, disorganized society.

The Case of the Ik

For a case study on cultural collapse, he cites the famous anthropological research of Colin Turnbull on an African tribe called the Ik, which Turnbull published in the book The Mountain People, in 1972.  I remember reading that book many years ago, and being dismayed about the Ik’s profound abasement as a society and what it may show about ourselves.

As Orlov says, the Ik are rugged individualists – to a fault.  Their language is unrelated to any others in their vicinity, but has characteristics of Middle-Kingdom Egyptian.  Under a permanent suntan, their skin is red not black like the surrounding African tribes.

The Ik are a post-collapse society which has been under stress for many, many years.  They were once nomadic hunters and gatherers, but various colonial and national authorities took their hunting grounds away from them and made them settle and try to subsist on barren land of no agricultural value.  The result has been intermittent famine and starvation.

Their language has lost all of its pleasantries and niceties.

Their village compounds consist of concentric circles of stockades penetrated by small and cryptic openings as a defense against their closest neighbours.

They seem to have almost no emotion except for occasional gruesome hilarity at the misfortune of others.  They do their best to eat alone and in secret.  Children are abandoned early and  learn to feed themselves by watching baboons.

As Orlov observes, it is rare to have an anthropologist spend two years with a tribe and come away urging that the object of his study be broken up into small groups and settled far away from their homeland.  Turnbull was traumatized by his stay with the Ik.  Turnbull realized that we all have a bit of the Ik in us, and that people of the developed world are becoming more “Ik-like.”

The Ik show a way of surviving cultural collapse.  It’s better not to have to go that far.

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The Experience of Nothingness — A Book Review/Participation

Posted September 5, 2014 by fencer
Categories: Awareness, Book Review, Culture, Politics, Remembering

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

The Experience of Nothingness, by Michael Novak, Harper Colophon Books, 1970

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In my teens and twenties I often experienced extended bouts of dark moods. One could call them depression, perhaps, although I prefer melancholia.

These bouts are difficult to write about because language, or at least English in my hands, fails to grasp their essence.  I could say they were marked by feelings of overwhelming hopelessness and pointlessness about existence, but that would be wrong, because there were mainly no feelings, and the absence of feelings was itself painful and paralyzing. And even this statement doesn’t quite approach the silent, immobilizing emptiness spiralling downward.

Fortunately, by my late twenties I left these periods of bleakness largely behind. I think meditation, and physical activity in the martial arts, helped enormously. But I also found when I was visited yet again by desolation that reading certain books would, if not relieve the condition, at least give it a … space within which to work itself out.

For me what worked was one particular book by Krishnamurti, that interesting and deep man of spirit, called The Wholeness of Life.  It is a series of dialogues primarily with the physicist David Bohm, who shared a radical austerity of inquiry in coming to understand ourselves and the human condition.  I had a number of books by Krishnamurti but for some reason that particular book, with its severity and abstruseness, was the right foil for my bleakness of spirit.

But even more important for me during those periods was the book The Experience of Nothingness by Michael Novak, found one day in the remaindered bins at Barnes & Noble in New York City perhaps 40 years ago.  I still have it, a thin paperback, with the remaindered punch hole through the cover in the upper right.

tumblr_mckkm5hLMS1royxsyo1_r1_1280At the time I was also reading and inquiring into Buddhism, especially Zen, where one can hear much about emptiness and fullness and so forth.  But none of it seemed to touch on the experience of emotional nothingness the way this book did.  I knew nothing about the author.  But it is helpful to keep in mind that this book came about in the midst of the counterculture of the late 1960s and the upheavals spawned by the Vietnam War.

The book is divided into four sections: 1) The Experience of Nothingness, 2) The Source of The Experience, 3) Inventing the Self, and 4) Myths and Institutions.

I will take a look briefly at each section.

The Experience of Nothingness

What got me to walk out of the bookstore with this newly purchased slim volume in hand were statements such as this from the very first page:

“The experience of nothingness is an incomparably fruitful place for ethical inquiry.  It is a vaccine against the lies upon which every civilization, American civilization in particular, is built.”

In this first section, the author chronicles what can be one course for the development of this experience.  First pervasive boredom as regular life loses meaning, then slow collapse of shared cultural values as they too begin to seem a sham.  Then helplessness.

“It is also the recognition that those who wield power are also empty, and that I, too, if I had power over my own life, am most confused about what I would do with it.”

Novak also points to the culture’s lack of inculcation in the young of discernment about what is beautiful and brilliant.  “For it is demanding to teach children ethics, beauty, excellence; demanding in itself, and even more demanding to do so with authenticity.”

In the end, he says, for those of us who come to see emptiness all around, “To choose against the culture is to experience nothingness.”

But more encouragingly, “Whatever the massive solidity of institutions, cultural forms, or basic symbols, accurately placed questions can shatter their claims upon us.”

The author examines the various myths which shape the sense of reality in universities, but that’s not so interesting here.  But I did find insight in such statements as:

“The fact that a man abjures the word “myth” and thinks of himself as hardheaded and exclusively realistic does not count as evidence that he is not acting out a myth; on the contrary, it furnishes an index to the power of his myth over his mind.”

Novak uses the metaphor of “horizon” to link a person and his world in a mutual defining relationship.

“In a certain sense, the concept of horizon is anti-humanistic, for it does not suppose that ethical action is wholly conscious or wholly self-originated.  On the contrary, the concept of horizon emphasizes that the self and its world interpenetrate at every point.”

So, Novak goes on to say, “The experience of nothingness arises when we consciously become aware of — and appropriate — our own actual horizons…. We do not know who we are.  Yet we keep inventing ourselves.”

The Source of the Experience

There is considerable discussion in the context of the times, during the Vietnam War, when the emptiness of the American myths about itself became more apparent.  At the time, I was not too caught up in that dimension of his discussions.  That emptiness always seemed obvious and unremarkable to me.  My concerns were much more self-centred….

The author discusses the uncertain foundations of “objectivity,” and how it relies on the cultivation of specific subjective states.

“But largeness of mind and soul is quite different from a pretended objectivity.  For a pretended objectivity serves the establishment, the well off, and particularly the government.”

When the claims of objectivity from various institutions come to be shattered, the experience of nothingness begins to appear.

“The source of the experience of nothingness lies in man’s unstructured, relentless drive to ask questions.  … The capacity of the ‘drive to question’ to question itself — is what makes it the source of the experience of nothingness.”

So then what of nihilism — defined as the rejection of all religious and moral principles?  Novak invokes Camus’ arguments in such works as The Rebel to distinguish between the honesty inherent in the drive to question compared to the dishonest and inhumane conclusions of the worst of nihilists such as say Hitler or others of that stripe.  The main distinction is the recognition of the community of human suffering.

Inventing the Self

Necessarily, Novak brings up the nature of ethics often.  For him, “it is not generality or universality that gives an action its ethical weight, but precise and complete appropriateness. (His emphasis.)

“…The primal formlessness of the drive to understand leads to experience of the void.  But the capacity of my drive to question every one of its operations creates for me an ideal of authenticity and honesty.”

So what is acting well?  “Acuity in perceiving the point of complex ethical situations, acuity in hitting the mark, is the pivotal capacity. … but the heart of the matter is singularly difficult to hit, while the number of ways by which one can miss it are nearly infinite.”

Following Aristotle, Novak says that to become a good man is to grow in the courage to discern honestly, and in the courage to act as one discerns.

In the end, we will choose the myths we will live by.  Kurt Vonnegut said in Cat’s Cradle that we should “live by the foma (harmless untruths) that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy.”  Novak puts it this way:

“But excellence in health and morality are measured by a choice of myths that maximize personal and communal development in these four values: honesty, courage, freedom and the ability to value other persons for themselves.”

Myths and Institutions

In this last section of the book, Novak explores what the experience of nothingness can mean for our political institutions.

To him, institutions do not exist to be effective, but chiefly to provide reassurance.  So politics becomes the realm of illusion and education the realm purely of technocratic effectiveness for the benefit of institutions.  What currently passes for democratic institutions are inadequate.

“The experience of nothingness teaches a man the poverty and limitations of all symbols.”

In politics, the author notes:  “Certain key words repeated again and again are mentally restful to political audiences.  To attack the prevailing symbol structure of a group is to awaken the threat of chaos. It is also to arouse intense opposition….”

He declares: “The promotion of conditions in which men can with increasing frequency become honest, courageous, free and brotherly is the criterion by which institutions are judged.  Institutions have no other purpose.”

Towards the end of the book, Novak concludes, “The myth appropriate to the new time requires a constant return to inner solitude, an unbroken awareness of the emptiness at the heart of consciousness.  It is a harsh refusal to allow idols to be placed in the sanctuary.”

A note about the author, Michael Novak

As I mentioned briefly above, when I first encountered his book, the author Michael Novak was unknown to me.  And really that background was of no interest.  But it’s intriguing to find out that at the time of book’s writing, he was a Catholic theologian who obviously had been working through his own dark night of the soul.

In later years, he went on to become perched on the far right branch of American politics.  Back during Obama’s second election campaign, I was thinking then of writing something about how influential this book was in my life, so I looked up the author.  Not that Obama has turned out so great, but the opinions on display on Novak’s blog at the time were on the irrational far edge of the Tea Party spectrum.  It’s interesting that it is difficult to find much record of those positions now — his blog and current writings are positioning him as an elder statesman.

Other sources have described him as “a founding member of the ‘theocon’ political faction, a loose grouping of Christian writers closely associated with neoconservatives who blend religiously informed social conservatism with foreign policy militarism.”

His thought, and approach to life, must have changed.  Another lesson about idols in the sanctuary.

I remain thankful, though, for this book that he made as a different, younger man.  It greatly eased my more youthful version.

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Photo source note:  A cover similar to my copy, from the Strand bookstore blog, another great Manhattan bookseller.

Thoughts On Building A Novel

Posted June 27, 2014 by fencer
Categories: Art, Awareness, Science Fiction, Writing

Tags: , , , , , ,

I’ve had ambitions towards writing most of my life.

I wrote science-fiction short stories as a kid from time to time for my own amusement.  I did find them frustrating, unsatisfying.  They never quite turned out as well as I imagined they should.

I liked to write stories with unexpected endings for school.  Typical what-I-did-on-summer-vacation fare, with the last sentence something like, “Then I turned into a wolverine.”  This amused my friends more than the teacher.

But the urge for writing wasn’t so strong that it shaped what I wanted to do with my life.  I haven’t known what I wanted to do, really, for most of my adult years.

I went to university and got a degree in psychology, figuring it was more valuable to understand what makes people tick instead of learning how to be an engineer, to mention one alternative.

I learned more about rats in psychology at that time and school than about people, I’m afraid to say.

The Urge for Writing

Then I thought, what about writing, as a reporter?  I went on to more university to study journalism.  That didn’t work out so well, either, although I did eventually end up working in one ghetto or another of that field.

I still had ideas about stories though.  I should be able to write a novel.  I read them all the time — science-fiction, modern day thrillers, even an historical novel or two.

My big ideas about subjects for novels — almost always science fiction — came to me in the form of settings or milieus.  I would start collecting material and background information, but when it came to actually write anything, the lack of any characters to speak of left me completely bogged down, as one might expect.

One lengthy period when I was out of work, just as I turned thirty, I did force myself to write a first draft of a novel by slogging through three pages a day, every day.  Then the same thing to revise it.  It was a non-science fiction story, this time, kind of an adventure/thriller, about an out-of-work character getting into trouble while on a canoe trip around the Bowron Lakes.  This is a famous location for canoeing here in British Columbia, a journey over a group of lakes, rivers and creeks that form a rough circle that can be travelled during a week or so.

The geography of the location helped give coherence to the structure of the novel’s story, and its grandeur and variety were something to ground and inform the main character.  This journey mechanism is a useful one, I would learn later.  But at the time I just floundered on with it and got to an end.  That effort now sits in a drawer someplace in this house.  Again the result felt very unsatisfying.

There have been many more ideas since then.  Some would take seed and sprout into mind maps of spaghetti notes on a big sheet of paper on the wall.  Others might get elaborated in a notebook in the first flush of enthusiasm, before realizing that what I thought could be a story was going nowhere.

I Don’t Know How to Write a Story

But now, most recently, I have a science-fiction idea that seemed to come this time with characters dimly attached.  It’s become more than just an idea over the last few years, as I collected notes and reference material.   But again, just as I started to get going with scenes and world-building, it all bogged down again.  I really don’t know how to write a story.

The last post or two on this blog have been about my struggle with story, and my efforts to learn more about it.  I have no craft.  I have read many books on writing that sounded good and were full of advice but gave me no tools.  Although probably I wasn’t ready to receive what they did have to offer.

But working through John Truby’s book, The Anatomy of Story, I’ve found a guide that I’m actually able to bring to bear on what I want to write.

Many years ago, in yet another novel-writing attempt, I tried to follow Structuring Your Novel: From Basic Idea to Finished Manuscript by Robert Meredith and John Fitzgerald.  It actually has most of the structural necessities I’m learning from Truby’s book, but it is presented in a more abstract English Lit kind of manner that I was never able to fully take in.  I thought it was a great book at the time though, and looking at it again now, I still do.  (I still have the same paperback, $2.50 in the US, $2.75 in Canada.)

This Time, It’s Going to Work!

So where am I now?

I’m working through Truby’s 22 steps list — an expanded version of his minimum Seven Story Steps — to build a novel.  It’s not like a three-act or any other imposed structure — besides being much more detailed and contoured to every kind of story, it allows creative flexibility.  It’s not so much an overlaid scheme, as one that grows out of the characters’ “yearning” (to borrow Robert Olen Butler’s term for the desire lines in a story), and associated obstacles.

I’ve got about 25 pages of detailed notes about the wheels and gears of the story itself — what will turn and drive the events of the novel.  A kind of story treatment….  This is all new stuff for me — I never had the advantage of having done that kind of work before.

Besides that, I’ve come to learn, whether or not it is ultimately true or not, that it is most useful to think about a novel as something that I, the writer, discover.  The parts of the world or characters that I don’t know yet, I am beginning to have the confidence that they will reveal themselves, at least partially, as some already have, while I fill in the pieces around them.  At the same time, all is in a partially obscuring fog, subject to change.

I forget which writer said it, but writing a novel is something like driving down a road in the dark with your headlights on.  You can only see a little ways ahead.  You can still get to your destination.

The thought of world-building, especially in a science-fiction story, can be overwhelming.  But I’m coming to realize that only where the world intersects the characters, like a cross-section in an engineering drawing, does it need to be so detailed, and the rest can be alluded to in the background.  Specifics can stand for the whole, and they are much more writerly.

There are aliens, or at least alien artifacts, in this story.  How can one portray the really alien?  I haven’t figured that one out yet — or I should say, I haven’t discovered what it might be.  Giant ants or robots with laser eyes are so… human.

Now, I haven’t actually gotten back to writing the novel yet, after seizing up after getting a few scenes done.  The next major job in my preparation is what Truby calls the scene-weave.  In some ways again it is like the process that Butler describes that I posted about a number of years ago.

It makes me think about learning guitar.  I’ve practiced hard and I think I’ve learned a piece, and then when it falls apart when I try to play along with a backing track or to show somebody, I realize I’ve just started the process of learning it.  There is much, much more practice necessary.

So the novel-writing preparation will go on for a while yet.  It’s just that this time, I have real hope of being able to write with somewhere to go.

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Notes:  There is a whole industry built around selling advice to would-be writers.  This takes the form of an avalanche of books on writing, magazines and also software which promise to make your novel writing a breeze.  I’m tried a couple of the novel-writing programs over the years in my desperate quest.  They don’t work very well, because the story that’s going to live for you can’t come from a ready-made scheme or formula.

Related to that, but also possibly useful in some ways, are various story-planning worksheets, or beat sheets.  These feature various versions of what their authors see as the necessary structure of a story, coded as “beats” or the major plot events that a story must have.  Such a beat sheet might have the “Four Major Beats” and the minor beats to fill them out in a table to allow you to script your story events.

(As with many of these story-planning worksheets, a lot of well-meaning and even useful story advice comes out of the National Novel Writing Month — or NaNoWriMo — endeavour where people make a commitment to write a novel during the month of November.)

I’ve also read that editors can spot any story based on these beat sheets a mile away.  The method tends to give its products a certain artificiality.

The question is, does Truby’s guide lend this artificial aspect?  I don’t think so, although it could degenerate into formula.  In Truby’s words, he wanted to “lay out a practical poetics — the craft of storytelling that exists in all story forms….

“You are the never-ending story.  If you want to tell the great story, the never-ending story, you must, like your hero, face your own seven steps.  And you must do it every time you write a new story.”

An Even Better Book About Story

Posted May 24, 2014 by fencer
Categories: Awareness, Book Review, Science Fiction, Writing

Tags: , , , , ,

“Human growth is very elusive, but it is real, and it is what you, the writer, must express above everything else (or else show why it doesn’t occur).”
John Truby, The Anatomy of Story, 2007

In my ongoing quest for story, in which I unconsciously emulate the character in a novel seeking essential answers about writing and being thwarted at every turn by external circumstances and the weaknesses of my own character, I’ve encountered John Truby’s book, The Anatomy of Story.  (Or maybe that’s just barely consciously….)

In any case, Truby’s book is like the main course after the appetizers of the previous post, “The Synergy of Two Books About Story.”

Truby is apparently something called a “story consultant” in Hollywood, and comes more out of the screenwriting milieu than novel writing, but his book on story is universal enough to cover all the varieties.  It is rich with ideas and in depth, even more so than the previous two books I looked at here.

He wants the writer to get away from artificial divisions like “three-act structure” to get to grips with the natural characteristics of compelling stories.  His goal, he says, is this:

“In simplest terms, I’m going to lay out a practical poetics for story-tellers that works whether you’re writing a screenplay, a novel, a play, a teleplay, or a short story.”

truby--anatomy_smallHe has no use for terminology like “rising action,” “climax,” or “progressive complication,” or any other approaches without real practical value for storytellers.

I’m not going to attempt to mention everything he covers in 421 pages, but I will try to hit some of the high points that appealed to me.  Perhaps this can serve as an introduction to what I think is one of the better books on story, and writing, that I’ve read.

The dramatic code is central to his analysis, and the foundation for most of the structural elements he describes in stories.

In the dramatic code, change is fueled by desire.  According to Truby, the dramatic code is at the core of human psychology.  It’s an artistic description of how a person can grow or evolve.

Premise and Designing Principle

The writing process is about decisions, Truby says, and the first important guide to those decisions is the premise of the story.  “Your premise is your inspiration.”  It should contain the ingredients of the first flash of excitement when the idea of the story first arose.  The premise allows the writer to explore the story, and the form it might take, before it’s actually written.

Truby counsels that finding the gold in a premise, takes time, a lot of time.  He recommends taking weeks to sit and sift the premise.  And he provides a suggested methodology to get the most out of it.

I’ll list the steps he discusses without going into them in detail.  I’ve found them fruitful and their names are quite descriptive:

1) Write Something That May Change Your Life
2) Look for What’s Possible
3) Identify the Story Challenges and Problems
4) Find the Designing Principle
5) Determine Your Best Character in the Idea
6) Get a Sense of the Central Conflict
7) Get a Sense of the Single Cause-and-Effect Pathway
8) Determine Your Hero’s Possible Character Change
9) Figure Out the Hero’s Possible Moral Choice
10) Gauge the Audience Appeal

That’s a lot to think about.  In my own case, with the story I’m working on, I’ve already sorted a lot of this out, perhaps more by luck than design.

Finding the designing principle, no. 4 in his list, gave me a lot to chew on.  It has a very specific meaning to Truby — it’s the internal logic of the story, the organizing principle that unifies it.  And he says, the designing principle is difficult to see, and in order to work, it must be original.  He gives the example of the movie Tootsie to illustrate his meaning:

Premise —  When an actor can’t get work, he disguises himself as a woman and gets a role in a TV series, only to fall in love with one of the female members of the cast.

Designing Principle — Force a male chauvinist to live as a woman.

Or taking James Joyce’s Ulysses:

Premise — Track a day in the life of a common man in Dublin.

Designing Principle — In a modern odyssey through the city, over the course of one day, one man finds a father and the other man finds a son.

The Seven Key Steps of Story Structure

According to Truby, a good story has a minimum of seven steps (it may have more) in its progress from beginning to end.  These are not external structural requirements, such as imposing a three-act structure.  He says, “They are the steps that any human being must work through to solve a life problem.”  How these steps are linked will be up to the author, in order to provide the greatest impact.

1) Weakness and Need.  The main character is missing a crucial characteristic, has a profound weakness that is holding him or her back from gaining what the character truly needs.  Our hero, though, should not be aware of his need at the beginning of the story.

2) Desire.  This is different from need, which is the character overcoming a weakness.  Desire is a goal outside the character.   Desire is more obvious and allows the reader to want along with the hero, and provides what the reader or audience thinks the story is about.  Need is more hidden and linked to self-revelation by the end of the story.

3) Opponent.  Truby says seeing the main character’s opponent as purely evil “will prevent you from ever writing a good story.”  The opponent must be seen structurally: the opponent not only wants to prevent the hero from achieving his desire, but is competing with the hero for the same goal.  Truby gives the example of a detective story: “It appears that the hero wants to catch the killer and the opponent wants to get away.  But they are really fighting over which version of reality everyone will believe.”

4) Plan.  The hero’s plan is organically linked to desire and the opponent to be overcome.

5) Battle.  The battle is the final conflict over the goal between the hero and opponent.  This could be an overt event of extreme violence, or a confrontation through dialogue.

6) Self-Revelation.  This most completely can come in both psychological and moral forms.  The hero sees himself or herself honestly for the first time, and takes action to prove that changes have occurred.

7) New Equilibrium.  “The hero has moved to a higher or lower level as a result of going through his crucible.”

The Character Web

Although there’s much more to explore in what Truby presents, the final thing that I want to mention, and that made a great impression on me, is what he calls the web of character.  All the characters must help define the others.

Many of the characters serve as opponents to the main character, although they may be a friend or lover, and may be even better people than the hero.

Truby talks about allies, fake-ally opponents, fake opponent allies, subplot characters and the story functions served by them.  For instance, he thinks of subplot as a very specific device — a way to show how the hero and a second character deal with the same problem in different ways.  “Through comparison, the subplot character highlights traits and dilemmas of the main character.”

He goes on to detail how to create a great hero, how to create character change in the story, and how to build conflict.  For instance he describes how better stories go beyond a simple opposition between the hero and main opponent and often use what he calls a four-corner opposition.

I’ve barely scratched the surface of the nature of story as presented by Truby.  But I’ve found the book very useful and even inspirational.  And with my own work, it lets me see the way forward.

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