Posted tagged ‘learning’

Thinking About Theme in Writing A Novel

October 25, 2018

Quite a few books on the craft of writing advise again and again to formulate the theme for the novel you’re working on.

I always have a tough time with that.  I’ve never been sure with the fiction I’m fighting what “theme” means.

Going back to one of my first inspirations for how to write a novel, which never quite worked for me, the book Structuring Your Novel: From Basic Idea to Finished Manuscript by Robert Meredith and John Fitzgerald  (1972) says:

“All traditional novels demonstrate that certain people have had certain experiences,  and these experiences comment on life, leaving the reader with some conclusion about the nature of existence that can be factually verified.  This conclusion is the theme of the novel.”

The Delphic nature of theme

Clear?  Not for me.  What does all this abstract vague stuff mean?  “Factually verified?” It’s kind of an amorphous cloud that gives me no hint about how to write and incorporate theme, if indeed it is important.  If I am baffled by what the theme is, how can I allude to it?  I just want to write a story that moves people.

A more recent book, Plot Perfect: Building Unforgettable Stories Scene by Scene, by Paula Munier (2014) bases its entire method on you knowing what the theme is of what you’re writing.  “Chapter One, The Power of Theme.”

She tries to simplify the problem (she seems to recognize that there is one, especially for such as me).

“Theme is simply what your story is really all about.”  (My emphasis.)  She gives the examples of Game of Thrones and The Hunger Games. Their themes are about power.  That is nicely clear.  For what I write though in the novel I’m revising — it doesn’t seem to fall into one easy classification.  (And maybe that’s a problem.  But let’s assume for now that clarity on this may be possible if I can just wake up to it….)

Munier acknowledges that there may be more than one theme.

“Themes speak to the universal; they address the human condition.”

She also advises: “Try writing your first and last lines now, whether you’ve finished your story or not, and make sure they embody your theme.”  This begins the process of embedding the theme in your writing.

Sounds like good advice, except I still haven’t been sure what my theme really is!

Theme as armature

In the writing craft book Invisible Ink: A Practical Guide to Building Stories that Resonate,  by Brian McDonald (2010), he uses “armature” to make the concept of theme more accessible.

He describes armature as the internal framework upon which a sculptor supports his work.  In the wider sense, the armature provides the same kind of focus that makes jokes work.

McDonald says he uses jokes as an instructional tool. “Just as all elements of a joke support the punch line, so should every element of your story support its armature.”

That helps a little with my understanding but I’m not completely out of the woods yet.

And then there’s the advice from a craft book and author I respect, Steven James in his book, Story Trumps Structure: How to Write Unforgettable Fiction (2014) .  (These books always promise you the unforgettable moon.)

“So stop trying to define your theme.  Write a story to tell the truth about human nature or our relationship to eternity and the divine, and your story will say more than any theme statement ever could.”

Okay!  I don’t have to spell out a “theme.”  Yet somehow I’m still not satisfied.

My go-to book for general writing inspiration (and not for its method so much), The 90-Day Novel by Alan Watt (2010) says:

“Once we begin to develop a sense of the world of our story, we can begin to inquire into the structure questions…. But as we continue to inquire into the structure questions, and we hold our story loosely, it becomes more specific.”

He is saying when we ask universal questions, which is another way to discuss theme I think (nowhere does Watt talk about that subject directly), over time the framework of a story emerges.  Images reveal themselves to us.

I’m working on the second draft of a novel, in part waiting for beta-readers to finish having their say.  It seems to me, with my very limited experience, that it is difficult to know what the theme of a work is exactly at the start.  The resonance isn’t there until you discover what you’ve written.

At the beginning, trying to come up with meaningful theme statements for this novel, I know now that such ideas were only partial, and a distance removed from any deep feeling of mine.

Revenge and justice

At the beginning of the science fiction novel I’m writing, I thought I could say the themes were about revenge and justice.  A young man suffers the murderous intention of a ruthless ambitious man, and is dispossessed of his family, his wealth and his future.  The story chronicles within the context of a future failing earth his commitment to exacting that revenge, and how that turns out to be insufficient for the meaning of his life.

But it was something else that Alan Watt wrote that I read a while back now that twigged me to a theme I can get my heart around.  After all that.

“Many of us are writing stories of freedom, but struggle to imagine what that might look like for our hero.”

The stars aligned, the moon came over the bow, the seagulls flew over me screeching, and tonight I finally realized what the damn theme of this novel is.  It’s a story about freedom.

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A Walk With Hank

October 12, 2018

I invited my friend Henry David Thoreau along for a walk the other day, a bit of a hike actually.  I wanted him to come home with me up north, to the Bulkley Valley in British Columbia.  It’s a beautiful place, half-way between the two Princes of George and Rupert.

My two brothers and I, and our mother, lived there once upon a time, in a log cabin not far off the highway, surrounded by a forest and local farmers’ fields.

It was a sizable rural place with a couple of neighbours, where we boys took access to the wild for granted.

There were rolling grassed hills next to wheat fields, poplar, cottonwood and willow along the winding creek, and heavier coniferous forest on the upslope side of our property and down to the Bulkley River.

Henry David Thoreau likes to ramble

Hank likes to ramble through the woods for hours at a time so I invited him along to follow a stream down to its river.  Maybe chat with a neighbour kid going fishing down the creek, if we run across one.  See what else we find.

thoreau.jpg

We start at the Deep Creek Bridge on a gravelled sideroad and walk up our short driveway to the log cabin on a long terraced meadow.  Then we cut across the yard in between the cabin and the big workshed thrown up by a logging contractor one winter.  Then down the slope to the creek’s old floodway and the big dark cottonwoods.  One will have fallen over, bridging the creek.

It was always easier to get down to the river on the other side of the creek, and it was prettier over there too, so that was usually the way we went.

We made our way along the rough bark of the cottonwood and over the creek.  Hank finally managed to throw out a few words.  Whenever we get together, I keep waiting for him to say something, the wiser and more profound the better.  This is hard on him I’ve finally realized.  He looks at me now and again inconclusively, and keeps his mouth shut for long periods of time.  This is something that I feel a little dismayed about.  He could probably cite a few annoying things about me, so I never bring it up.

An early morning walk

At long last he says non-committally,

“An early-morning walk is a blessing for the whole day.”

This was good.  Early morning it certainly was, with a golden light and the palest blue sky.  Perhaps the beauty of the day could unleash statements beyond the obvious.  Eventually.

“Hank, come with me over here.  That’s the big pool where I used to fish along the creek below the cabin.  We can just see the roofline from here.

“I believed there was a massive fish, at least one and probably more, in this deep, deep pool.  I would dream about this fish, so huge and wise, surging from the depths, refusing to take my hook.  It always cheered me enormously.”

Hank took a look at the pool and at me.  He said:  “All good things are wild and free.”

This is why I like to tramp around with Hank.  Eventually, he just can’t help himself.  Get him to open up just a little and before too long he will say something profound in an offhand kind of way.

I hoped he was going to warm up a bit now.  (I’m sure he finds my expectations tiresome.)

I say, “We can follow the creek along here.  There are many great little places, you know, as the creek winds downstream.   Each one unique.  Not just the look of the place.  It’s more the light, the feel.  And changing every year with maybe a different log and a different ripple, and a subtly different bank to form the channel.”

Launch yourself on every wave

Hank said thoughtfully:  “You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment. Fools stand on their island of opportunities and look toward another land. There is no other land; there is no other life but this.”

I was about to say something snarky about relevance, Hank, really…. but then I thought it over.  Maybe he’s on point.  Everything changes.  The only constant is this moment.

“Does Waldo agree with you entirely on that — although I know you overlap a great deal?”  I ask this due to other infrequent conversations with Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Hank nodded.  “Mostly.  He likes to fancy it up with high-falutin’ language.”

We pushed away ferns and dead broken hollow-stemmed plants to get to a really special place nestled in a wide curve of creek that amazingly looked exactly the same as it did when I was a kid.

The log was just so, mossy and aslant, and the creek ran over it between the ferns.  The largest part glinted fluid white — a tiny waterfall — while downstream the noisy creek roiled and splashed past us over gravel, rocks and boulders.  Drops sprayed on our walking boots where we stood in the shadows.  We both breathed in, deeply.

We went on. But then Hank stopped and turned:

“By my intimacy with nature I find myself withdrawn from man.  My interest in the sun and the moon, in the morning and the evening, compels me to solitude.”

Ah, a bit confessional today.  He is a loner, as I have been, but he is much more so.  I feel sad for him although he would reject that.

Hank smiled ruefully and continued to stroll onward over the grassed path in the narrow benched area around the creek below the hills.

On the gentle hills nearby we could see metre-high mounds of anthills, although some were reduced to their grass bases.  Those had the twigs and dark debris of their structure scattered.

“The bears like them,” I said.  “Must be a feast.”

We walked silently side by side for a time.  The grassed floodplain narrowed and we passed through several copses of poplars, their silver leaves shimmering.

Living a sort of border life

We came into a clearing, the rushing creek noisy at our side.  Up ahead we can see Harold, one of the neighbour kids from long ago, with a fishing rod.  Before we got to Harold to say hello, Hank paused our stroll again and said:

“For my part, I feel that with regard to Nature I live a sort of border life, on the confines of a world, into which I make occasional and transient forays only, and my patriotism and allegiance to the state into whose territories I seem to retreat are those of a moss-trooper. Unto a life which I call natural I would gladly follow even a will-o’-the-wisp through bogs and sloughs unimaginable, but no moon nor fire-fly has shown me the cause-way to it. Nature is a personality so vast and universal that we have never seen one of her features.”

I musingly repeated, “Unto a life which I call natural I would gladly follow….”  Hank nodded and made a wry expression.  Not only is he introspective today but serious and unfixed in his mind.

By this time young Harold looked behind and marched over to us proudly, holding up a very respectably sized Dolly Varden trout.  I mocked astonishment at its size, and Harold and I both laughed.

There were grave congratulations for Harold from Hank too, and the boy beamed at us.  “I want to have this for lunch,” he said shaking the fish by the stick through its gills.  We waved at him and he ran off back towards civilization, upstream.

I wonder whatever happened to him….

“It’s not far now,” I said.

“What’s that?” Hank asked cheerily.  He really doesn’t care where we walk as long as we go.

“Half a mile or so,” I said.  “Where Deep Creek finds the Bulkley River.”

In the old days, with relatives visiting or new friends we wanted to show off to, in the summers we would take them down to the mouth of Deep Creek just as we went now.  Our mother usually acted as the master of ceremonies.  Might take some snacks, but typically we just meandered our way down and back. We would return to the cabin with an appetite.

The path downstream Hank and I followed now became a little tricky as it worked through brush and over deadfalls.

Finally Hank and I could see the wide turbulent river, the dark forest on the other side and the easy loop of sandbars through embedded fallen trees where Deep Creek met its joining.

Drown all our muskrats

Hank said, “The life in us is like the water in the river. It may rise this year higher than man has ever known it, and flood the parched uplands; even this may be the eventful year, which will drown out all our muskrats.”

I wasn’t completely clear what he meant, being unfamiliar with metaphorical muskrats, but it sounded hopeful.

“My mother is here,” I told Hank.  He raised an eyebrow.

“After she died, we brought her ashes to this place, my brothers, our wives.  We said a few words choked with emotion at this spot.  Then one of my brothers took the slick white cardboard container of her remains and released the ashes to the river in a swirl of white and gray powder.”

“You said your good-byes,” Hank said.

“Yes.”

“At death our friends and relations either draw nearer to us and are found out, or depart further from us and are forgotten,” Hank observed.

We watched for awhile where the creek’s clear waters merged into the murkier, swifter river.

“Time to go back.”  Hank nodded.

“Thank you for this,” he said.  “It reminds me of the woods around Concord.”

He said one thing when we walked back to the cabin I remember well.  He commented we shared a common experience when we shook hands just before he departed:

“My imagination, my love and reverence and admiration, my sense of miraculous, is not so excited by any event as by the remembrance of my youth.”

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Notes:  This imagined walk with Henry David Thoreau follows upon something similar I did in a post a few years ago now about Ralph Waldo Emerson, Chant the Beauty of the Good.  I finally got around to doing the same thing with Thoreau….

It took a different path than I anticipated.  Thoreau was a serious man and quite distinct in temperament from Emerson, although they shared many of the same views.  They were the Transcendentalists.

A good way to learn about Thoreau and Emerson is by quotations.  The best source I’ve found for Thoreau online was at Henry David Thoreau Quotations Search.  This is part of  the Thoreau Institute at Walden Woods site.

On the Need to Make Music

August 21, 2018

Since I’m retired (whatever that means), I have more time to excavate long-ago crannies of my life.

I was reflecting on when one transitions from boy to teenager.  “One” being me, of course, as the overwhelmingly predominant source of my material.

This was in northern Canada (although the Bulkley Valley in north central British Columbia is not that far north really).

Young and impressionable, after listening to the inspiring music of the late 1960s from afar through a few records and more importantly, night-time rock radio, I longed to create the same emotions I felt.  I wanted to rock, to move people, to express truth.

I hungered to play music, to play guitar, to stir people.  There was nothing I wanted more, in the way of the young.  My failure to accomplish anything in that realm, through a combination of lack of musicality, of lack of instruction, and without proper equipment, had a rippling effect through my life that even at this remove I can glimpse. (I fear that it was mostly lack of musicality.)

I wonder if there isn’t something similar for every young person, an object or area of immense emotional sustenance if only it could be brought fully into one’s life.  In my case, I think it was rock music and guitar.  For some other young one, it might be racing motorcycles, or painting landscapes, or being a comedian.  I think there must be some such for every one, although it might only be foggily felt, or deemed too mundane or too special to receive encouragement.  There are artesian wells of yearning in the young that the adult world often tries to cap.  Or the yearning is allowed to exhaust itself through indifference.

In some ways my failure at music helped make me remote, painful, standoffish, insecure, and melancholic. Although as a teenager, this probably was the normal state of affairs!

RamblersPhoto1I was the nerd who sat and listened, the only audience in the noon-time classroom, while the school sock-hop band – voice, guitar, drums and bass – practised Secret Agent Man and Wipeout for a dance.  I couldn’t play, but at least I could listen….

The poor old school band was surprised at receiving such attention at their practice times.  There was something obsessive about it, I admit.  I always clapped after they finished playing.  They were unsure how to acknowledge their audience of one.

It is true that passion does not necessarily signify talent.  I am a good example of that.  But now in the latter half of my sixties, I learn to once more play guitar and appreciate the modest musical abilities I do have.

I am lucky enough to have some rewarding recording experiences thanks to a music teacher and producer.  It means a lot to me, and makes me want to do more.

The fountain is bubbling in my heart again, like a boy.

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Note: Image is of the band, The Ramblers, from the site GarageHangover.

Plodding Through the Sucking Swamp of First Draft Novel Revision

April 27, 2018

OK, it’s not quite as bad as that.  Almost just about, though, sometimes.

I’ve written a lengthy first draft, and since I’m pretty new to this whole cool, impressive novel thing, I’ve dithered about buckling down to revision.  (If you’re curious, it’s a science fiction revenge and redemption novel, with alien contact.)

I did take a number of months hiatus after finishing the first draft.  I found that easy to do.  (I did keep jotting down ideas and advice to myself, so showing some good instincts there, I hope.)

The problem is I have no idea of what good revision means, in an operational sort of way.  This is similar to my problem about writing a story.  I had no idea what a story really is.  I am still not entirely clear.

And my first response to the revision problem was, just as for story, to find and read as many books as possible on the subject.  You’d be surprised at how many there are, although I didn’t buy all of them.

I’ve read quite a few by now.  I can recommend a couple that will end up probably helping me:

Layer Your Novel, by C.S. Lakin, and Rock Your Revisions by Cathy Yardley.

Although I’m definitely getting to grips with revision now, I still plan to read Blueprint Your Bestseller (uh-huh) by Stuart Horwitz which promises a way to “organize and revise any manuscript.”  We’ll see.

One of the big things dragging me down has been perhaps an over-sensitive appreciation of the problem of structure.  How do I see the structure in what I wrote?  How do I make the story big, better?  One starts to get bogged down in the theory.  But I have found some approaches that make sense in starting to get an overview.

Peering Through the Thickets

When I was thinking about starting the novel,  I wrote kind of a scene by scene treatment where I wanted to go, which inevitably in the doing went down unforeseen and different paths.

So my first step, after reading the whole thing once, was to complete a list of all my scenes, along with the necessary scene questions.  This was good advice from Cathy Yardley.

By going through all the scenes, I’ve read the draft a second time.  The second time around, it was as if I was reading it for the first time.  I found so much that I hadn’t caught at all.

For some background, I wrote the first draft without going back and editing anything.  Just get it down and worry about all the rest later.  Sometimes the sequences are disjointed and out of kilter because I was still discovering what the story was.

Most recently I’ve been working on a list of every character in the book, along with penetrating questions about the main ones.  But every character, even the most minor, has a visual, or if not, I make one up.

I worked on characters quite a lot before starting writing, but only after writing the first draft am I able to see possible connections and oppositions between the characters I didn’t before.

I’ve only now really started to get a sense of the characters.  They were thin specters in a haze previously.  This is not to say that they’re somehow completely clear and real in my mind – there’s still much fog wafting about.

Up until now, I’ve put off any line-by-line editing because of my structural concerns and worry about where to best add or delete new scenes (and/or sequels).

But even so today, for the very first time, I did some line editing of the first chapter.  That’s going to be fun, improving and making the words come alive.  (I would like to think.)

It really requires getting in the scene with characters, as if in some battle arena where you, incorporeal, closely observe the goings on without fear of a knife in the ribs.  One or two specific true-to-life descriptions in the scene can do so much, I’ve found, and being imaginatively in the scene with the characters facilitates that.

I’m sure I’ve got much, much more to learn about it.

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A note about a couple of useful tools in revision – for me anyway.

My favorite thesaurus, online or offline: Power Thesaurus.

This customizable random name generator is my favorite.  Still using it in revision, after forgetting to put in names of minor characters…. Behind the Name .

The End of the Novel First Draft

November 13, 2017

“A man who is not born with the novel-writing gift has a troublesome time of it when he tries to build a novel. I know this from experience. He has no clear idea of his story; in fact he has no story. He merely has some people in his mind, and an incident or two, also a locality, and he trusts he can plunge those people into those incidents with interesting results. ”      — Mark Twain

Well, I did it.  Finished the first draft of a science fiction murder thriller alien contact novel set in the far future.  Lot going on there.

I’m now in the recommended fallow period after finishing a first draft.  Let it sit, compost itself.  How long?  Some say this rest period should be at least a couple of months, others say it’s been so long since that first chapter got built, one can begin again on it almost right away.

I feel like I should wait two or three weeks, at least, and probably more.  Get some distance or perspective on the whole concept of the novel.   Be able to start reading the thing almost as if I’m encountering it for the first time, at least to get started.  I made it a point during the writing of the first draft not to go back and do any changes at all.  Or even to re-read critically what I’d written.

But I haven’t stopped working on it really.  I am going through C.S. Lakin’s The Twelve Key Pillars of Novel Construction to see what I can do to improve broad story structure when the time comes to dig in.  I quite like her approach to writing, and I think this will be helpful for the revision.

The whole question of revision is daunting.  I’ve got a book on that subject to go through as well: Manuscript Makeover by professional editor and author Elizabeth Lyon, which appears to be highly recommended.  One of her purposes is to help the writer develop his or her own revision style, which tipped me towards thinking her guidance will be helpful.  It’s not a one-size-fits-all cook book.

This isn’t the first novel I’ve completed.  I wrote one many years ago in a frustrated flurry of determination, often overwhelmed by how badly the process seemed to go.  But I did finish the first draft and the second too.  I should really dig it out again, if for nothing else but to see who I was trying to be and what I managed to write thirty-five years ago.

This time around, I kept up a writing schedule (and a light number of words per day as a preemptive strike against my innate restlessness) which in the end produced a lot of words over a year and a half.  I did a lot of work in story preparation before I began the writing — I put together, with the guide of John Truby’s book, The Anatomy of Story, a story treatment that was very helpful to get me started and to keep me going.

But for about the last half of the first draft, I put that treatment aside and tried to follow instead where the story was leading me.  Alan Watt’s advice in his book The 90-Day Novel — although it took me a lot longer than his prescribed time — meant a lot to me with words of wisdom such as:

“It’s liberating to know that we don’t know our whole story.  When a seemingly mad idea pops up, we must follow it in our minds for a moment to see where it wants to take us.  In the first draft, we can not assume with total precision the direction our story is heading.  By exploring the opposite direction, we may discover it is a temporary detour that offers a more fully realized conclusion.”

What have I learned?

First off, I’ve learned that I have no idea whether this effort will amount to anything in the end, although I have hopes.  But I intend to persevere until it gets into a near-publishable state, and see what happens.

I’ve realized that a lot of what makes satisfactory writing is developing emotional resonances for the characters and for the meaning of the story.  I have a long way to go with this in the revision.

I’ve learned the gratification of keeping to a schedule and watching the words pile up, and giving myself the freedom of putting off the whole notion of whether they’re really good words.

I’ve come to understand how obsessed with story I am, just like everyone else in the world as we distract ourselves through film and music and books.  Occasionally we discover real meaning through story.  For us who want to write creatively, this obsession becomes more conscious, and in its compelling way, comes to capture our thoughts. We want to make stories that can speak in the same way that others, at the height of the best story-telling, have moved us.

Even as I take a pause on my science-fiction extravaganza, I find myself mulling over a character, two actually, and a situation, and certain conflicts and back-story for a down-on-his-luck private investigator in present day Vancouver.  It’s starting to form itself like this science-fiction story did, similar to Mark Twain’s quote above.  Maybe there will be more than one first draft to revise down the road….

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Can Modern Human Beings Inhabit A Sustainable Environment?

April 4, 2015

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

February 11, 2015

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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