Story bias; also, the apocalypse.

I’ve been thinking about stories: how ubiquitous they are, and how terribly important to making it through the winter.

The flip side of this innate bias toward stories is that we turn everything into a story, don’t we? When we’re telling loved ones about our day, we try hard to turn it into a proper narrative with a rise and fall. And especially when we go further back, the episodes we recall the most from our deep pasts are those that have some great punchline or a deep emotional resonance, using the same language and tugging at the same feelings as a good fictional story do.

Is this why I am often fighting my own anxiety about the future? I’m seeing my own future in the same terms as I see the unread bulk of a novel I’m just beginning. In that novel, in those pages that fit in my hand, something is going to happen. Someone made it happen, and it’s only going to go one way. It’s going to turn out one way or another, and then it will be over.

Plus, any novel worth its salt will lay out all the threads of that story early on, and they will twist and braid until they come to an appropriate conclusion.

That isn’t at all what life is. It’s not foreordained to turn out one way or another. It’s not even foreordained to turn out at all, except in the certainty of eventual death 💀 (Oh God, it’s turning dark, stay with me). But until then, there’s never a final word.

So this difference between real life and story life—the fact that one has an author and an arc and a tidy ending, and the other has—who knows what?—it makes it hard for me to remember that stories can actually taint our own view of our lives. It can make us overinterpret the past, picking through like story weavers for the threads that prove why the path we’re on now is the right one and always has been, or was never the right one from the start, or finding proof that so-and-so has always been trustworthy or has always been a rat.

And we overpredict the future, or at least I do: we get a thread going about how it’s set to work out, and then we just think all we have to do is follow that thread until we reach the end of the spool.

And we see signs everywhere along the way, like mystery readers looking for the keys planted by the author about whodunnit.

But life is episodic, not advancing toward anything in particular. It waxes and wanes, and some things happen for no apparent reason at all. To the extent there’s meaning, it’s earned through reflection and by applying lessons learned to our future behavior.


This Sunday marks the end of the liturgical year, for those who use the Christian Lectionary. At the end of the year, right before we go into advent, the readings get into the Apocalypse. They are the terrifying prophetic visions of the prophet Daniel, and a bit from Revelation.

The word “apocalypse” itself, in Greek, means something like “revealing” (and this is why the book “Revelation” is called that: in Greek, it’s “apokalipsis.”) It’s when the curtain is drawn back, and we can see the truth that has always been present, waiting for our attention. Apocalypses can happen in our own lives whenever our patterns are disrupted, whenever tragedies (large or small) strike and shake us. Whenever something forces us to reckon with truths we hadn’t wanted to face.

In ordinary speech, “The Apocalypse” is a single event that some people think will happen, just like an earthquake or a war may happen. But there’s another way to look at it, and it’s one that makes quite a lot of sense along with the fact that the lectionary has us read about it every year at the end of the church year: it’s episodic. It’s repeating. Like the seasons, it recurs regularly.

But recurrence isn’t enough to destroy surprise. Every winter we’re surprised by the cold and dark, and we remark about it in conversation: “I can’t believe how dark it is so early!” Every year, literally like clockwork it happens, and yet we never remember how it feels. It never loses the capacity to shock. It’s just like watching a show over and over. Even though we know the characters will eventually fall in love, say, some part of us can still be on the edge of our emotional seats not knowing if they will-or-won’t.

Likewise the Apocalypse is something we can feel in our own lives all the time. It would be one thing to wait for a single event, a cataclysm that will happen once in time, in someone else’s distant future. But don’t we all feel the rise and fall of our own story lines of our own expectations that are met or not met, or are met in surprising and possibly mindbending new ways? When thing are revealed, and the curtain is drawn back, and we can be so surprised by our own lives. That is apocalypse.

Our lives are all a craving for story, because we crave for it all to make sense. And the beautiful thing about stories is—they do make sense, more than basically anything else. They survive so long, long after the linear events are over. They thrive, and take on new meaning, and keep us warm even in the surprising dark of the longest nights of the year. They remind us of the promise of the recurrence of longer days, of spring, of rebirth, of respite. Of revelation.

A story for the night.

Mural by @jasjyotjasjyot, Metropolitan Branch Trail, 2019

It’s that time in late fall where most of the leaves have fully given up any pretense of hanging on. The ginkgos near me never even bothered to turn yellow this year, but simply shrugged and tossed all their green onto the ground last week. It’s that time of year when the sidewalks are red and yellow and brown and make a satisfying crunch, but the view overhead is of the spindly claws of trees and the dim winter sky. Night comes at 5. Christmas decorations are up. It’s almost, basically, winter.

And especially in winter, there is an impulse to stay in, get cozy, and hear a story. In the vast imagined past, this is what we did when it was cold and the night was long and the outdoor work was done. We sat and listened to a bard, or a skald, or our grandmother, tell the old ballads. Now we tend to rely more on video stories passed on to us by strangers, and books written by strangers. But the impulse is the same. There is something comforting and necessary about a story.

In fact, when was the last time you went a week or even a day without consuming a story, whether on TV or through a book, or from gossip, or from the news? Perish the thought, honestly. It’s almost as essential as eating.

I’ve always been a huge consumer of fiction, both in print and in video. I’m a glutton for stories. But in the past few years, I’ve been focusing on writing my own, too. It turns out that story creation sometimes feels altogether bizarre. If one follows the instructions from writing guides about story arc and plot points, it begins to feel a bit like painting by numbers. This is especially true in fiction with any particular constraints, such as genre requirements (in Romance, for example, each story must have a happily-ever-after, unless the author would rather avoid the hassle of being published) or length requirements (a 22-minute comedy episode for TV can’t go on until the story comes to a natural conclusion, unless of course the natural conclusion happens after 22 minutes). So instead of just following the heroic imagination wherever she may wander, a fiction producer must make sure that there is, for example, a reversal of an expectation somewhere about ⅔ of the way through, just in time for the all-is-lost moment and the final battle.

I couldn’t help but wonder: is every story just random decoration on a formulaic foundation? If I want to write a book with a “proper” story line, am I doomed just to spin a wheel and pick some settings, some character traits, and some quirky plot details, and tape them to a shape someone else made? What would be the point of that? Why would anyone want it?

But I never stopped consuming stories. And after I’d gotten my little education in the thou-shalts of story structure, I started being able to see them so clearly in what I was consuming. The grid marks of the A-plot, the B-plot, the arc, all became more visible.

To my surprise, that has done exactly nothing to diminish my hunger for stories. I still get caught up in whatever magic it is that makes me care about characters. I can still even feel the magic the second or tenth time through a beloved story. I still get pulled into the suspense or get tense at the will-they-won’t-they even when I know for sure that they will, and no one will die.

It’s not just paint by numbers. It’s not just the same thing in different clothing, different settings, with a fistful of clever jokes or some strokes of soaring prose. And that makes no logical sense, really.

At the end of the day, we must be hard-wired for it. It’s like what fetch is for a dog: an activity with no apparent rational value, except the deep joy it instills, and the chance it gives us to connect with others. In the dog’s case, it is communication with the beloved humans. In the humans’ case, following a story is a chance to connect with both the people in the story, who may or may not be real but who are human nevertheless, and with the people who made the story and those beside us on the couch or in the rest of the world who also enjoy it.

Next time, I’ll be exploring the idea of story when it comes to the absolutely true, apparently one-direction movement of life. So stay tuned.

November writing update.

It’s November, as you might have noticed. As a writer who exists on the Internet, I know that November can be a time of great pressure and great disappointment. November is “National Novel Writing Month,” abbreviated to NaNoWriMo, and many hundreds of thousands or maybe billions of people (who knows, really?) participate by pledging to write a full novel in a month. For NaNoWriMo purposes, a full novel is anything 50,000 words or longer. It does not have to be, and indeed is probably not even supposed to be, “good.” It’s just supposed to get us out of our perfectionistic delay and onto the keyboard.

Several times, including his year, I’ve half-committed to doing NaNoWriMo. This has produced a few stunted partial novels in previous years, books I had semi-planned but which I didn’t have nearly enough juice to complete, especially when there’s a target of at least 1,667 words every day to stay on track. If you skip a day or two, the writing debt piles up and the lure of a blurry, Thanksgiving-induced tryptophan oblivion becomes too much to resist.

1,667 words a day is a lot. When I was writing Book One, a good day was 500, and an incredibly good day was 1,000. So 1,667 is basically inconceivable, like an ultramarathon or a layer cake. A blinding effort that’s just going to make me sleepy to consider.

Copyright 2019

Nevertheless, I’ve been trying (until the last few days, when things have gotten away from me, as they have a tendency to do). Sometimes it’s good to push toward a difficult goal, and other times it is good to relax into enjoying what’s already present, and maybe the real work is in figuring out which times are which.

Anyway. I’m thinking about writing again, so here’s an update:

Book One is sitting in limbo at the moment, but at some point in the not-too-distant future I think I’ll do another round of edits on it and then start shopping it around to various literary agents. People on the writing internet call this upcoming stage the “trenches,” which feels a tad overdramatic even as someone who wrote a book involving a higher-than-average amount of literal trench warfare (and, after all, it’s Veteran’s/Armistice Day, to boot). But I haven’t been there yet, so what do I know?

Seeking publication, whether through the traditional course (finding an agent who sells to editors and publishers) or self-publishing, is inherently about self-promotion. So this, shoving my words into the world, is practice. Thank you for being present as I practice.

Speaking of which, here I am—writing. Over the past three or so months, I’ve written something north of 25,000 words here, which basically means if I keep this up for a year I’ll have written 100,000 words—a hefty novel’s length. What is this blog? Why is it? We’re still not sure. But that’s okay for now. Whatever it is I’m heading for, I’m practicing for it, I suppose.

And then there’s Book Two, the one I’m sort of trying to NaNoWriMo my way through. Until a few days ago, despite the gremlin who had been plaguing me previously, the draft was flowing fast out of me. I was writing a ton of words without terribly much wailing and gnashing of teeth, which is pretty ideal. It’s a low-stakes, low-drama endeavor, and it’s something I don’t really ever expect to do anything with. So that makes it easy to go ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ and just keep at it (which, coincidentally, is as close as I have to a life philosophy at the moment).

Copyright 2019

There are times when I get a little tipsy on self-pity during my commute or my work day and I wish I could just be a book person all the time. But then I shake myself and realize: I am. Through tremendous fortune, I am able to read and write constantly, both for leisure and at my day job. And I go home in the evening and work on my novels and write this blog. In what way am I not a book person? It’s so easy to see the lack, even in the midst of abundance. Ain’t that always the way.

And here’s the thing: you’re probably a writer, too. Compared to any of your ancestors, even as recently as your parents, you write all the time. You write emails, and texts, and maybe tweets and Facebook comments, and Google reviews and who knows what all else? As linguist Gretchen McCulloch writes in the very worthwhile examination of online language Because Internet, we’re all writers now. We’re all experts in tone and nuance, learning together in a worldwide, real-time experiment when periods are passive-aggressive and when lowercase letters are ironic. We are all creative, producing brand-new combinations of words all the time, fresh additions to the English corpus. (McCulloch suggests an experiment: Google the last text message you sent containing more than ten words, and put quote marks around the whole thing. You’ll likely find no results, meaning you more or less invented that particular sentence).

Any one of us can coin a word or compose a sentence that has never been said before, and it now exists in the language as soon as we utter it, whether it winks in and out for a single moment or whether it catches on and endures in the minds of people yet unborn.

McCulloch, “Because Internet,” 269

So say it with me: you’re a writer. I’m a writer. We’re all doing it.

Time, as a symptom.

(Pair this post, if you dare, with a listen to my absolute queen Joanna Newsom’s album Divers, which is all a meditation on time and what it means to love another person in the face of the temporary span of a life. It’s a ton of fun. Here’s a sample:)

And what lies under now the city is gone. Look, and despair.

“Sapokanikan,” Joanna Newsom

I recently spent a week with my parents in some of the National Parks of the Southwest. We went to the Grand Canyon (very grand indeed), Zion, and Bryce Canyon. These are all fantastic places to spend time, and I would highly recommend them. The views, man.

Of my parents and me, two of us arrived in a new decade in the last year. We thought, in not quite so many words, that a trip to the parks would be a good opportunity to mark the passage of time. Our trip also happened to coincide with All Saints’ Day (or All Hallows’,) and All Souls’ Day, when quite a lot of people are considering all those who have come before us.

So that’s fun.

But you don’t have to be in landscapes like these long to understand that the kind of time you can count in birthdays, or even in entire human civilizations, is nothing in comparison with the kind of time that is cleaved open and on display in a canyon.

You learn at the Grand Canyon that, even though you’re looking a mile down into a few billion years of rock history, which the river has carved through in the last five million years (give or take!), there are a casual 270 million years of rock history that eroded clean away before the river had a chance to cut into them. Just—270 million missing years, and what you’re looking at is the rest.

You see these amazing landforms that basically defy logic. It’s rock behaving as rock has no business behaving. You know better (because you watched the video in the rangers’ station and you read the plaques) but it looks like rocks are growing like trees. It looks like rocks are flowing like molasses. It looks like rocks are flopping like pancakes, one on top of the other.

The whole thing is just time and mutation. Volcanoes beget flatlands. Marshes give way to oceans, which give way to deserts, which rise thousands of feet to become mountains, and then rivers file them down into chasms, revealing the history from within. This happens not at all silently, but wordlessly.

And even though it all took a few million or billion years, depending on how you count, it’s also changing every year. The spooky hoodoos of Bryce Canyon are inherently temporary. Every winter, ice pushes them apart more, and every summer their rocks fall. I saw it happen: a dozen or so rocks the size of my fist tumbled quite mundanely off a cliff as I hiked below. This, day after day, is how plateaus become walls, walls become windowed, windowed walls become towers, and towers crumble into hillocks, then into flatness. The high land will erode, 1-4 feet every century, who knows how far back? Until the infrastructure of the park, which sits atop the plateau looking down over the canyon, will be eaten away and gone.

We happen to be able to see it now, but it’s anything but permanent.

It’s enough to make you wonder what “conservation” is all about. We wouldn’t be wise to attempt to conserve a hoodoo. We’d do more damage to the park by trying to freeze it in time than by letting it be. What it is is something that exists for a time, maybe a few decades, and then collapses. It wouldn’t be conservation to turn it into something else entirely—something that lasts forever. That would be transformation. (Appropriate for Halloween, perhaps, when zombies and monsters of all kinds roam, but not for All Saints’ Day, when we peacefully remember those who have come and gone before us.)

Maybe conservation is, instead, giving all the entities that make up the Earth a chance to make their own story, in rock or tree or fur or desert.

So it would seem to be true:

when cruel birth debases, we forget.

When cruel death debases,

we believe it erases all the rest

that precedes.

But stand brave, life-liver,

bleeding out your days

in the river of time.

Stand brave:

time moves both ways,

“Time, As a Symptom,” Joanna Newsom

On long walks out there, I started to think about sandstone. You’re surrounded by it in that environment. Sand is everything: it’s the desert, and it’s the ocean floor, and now it’s the canyon. But it’s just sand. Walking along the canyon bottom you feel it underneath your boots, just as slow and yielding as a beach. What’s beneath your feet used to be the canyon walls above you. It’s the bits that have disintegrated lately.

If you touch the walls as you pass, you might rub off some sand. It comes easily, when it’s ready. But underneath the loosened part, there’s hard sandstone. It’s not ready, not yet. But give it a year or a thousand and it will blow away too.

That’s stone, and we’re people. We live on different time frames, by a factor of many zeroes. But like rock we always change, even until we die. That’s the wonderful thing about being alive. The change doesn’t all happen at once, and it doesn’t happen in an orderly way. We’ll find that there are places that are a little looser, a little more ready to give. We can be grateful for those. The rest might be a little tougher. That’s okay. Give it time. Because the loosening of what’s easy, the letting go of the stone that’s ready to be sand already, makes room for more change. And the loosening of that loose sand is what slowly, imperceptibly, loosens the hard stuff.

And Time, in our camp, is moving

as you’d anticipate it to.

But what is this sample proving?

Anecdotes cannot say what Time may do.

“Anecdotes,” Joanna Newsom