Daily Archives: August 13, 2014

Tour Travel, Whatever and Comments

In just under two weeks now I will begin my tour for Lock In, which will take me all over the United States for four weeks, with only a couple of short breaks back home to do laundry and sleep. My schedule for this one is unusually packed at times — there’s one stop where I have three events scheduled for one day — and besides that I will be hopefully seeing friends and otherwise while I am out and about. Naturally this will have some impact on what I post here and the amount of time I have to commit to dealing with it.

In the past I’ve solved this problem by having guest bloggers and/or having a substitute moderator (the ever-fabulous Kate Baker) sit in on the site and wield the Mallet in my absence. This time I think I’ll try something a little different. Primarily:

From August 26 through September 20, I’ll be turning off comments on most posts here.

What posts will have comments off?

1. Posts created before August 26, 2014;

2. Nearly all of my posts from 8/26 – 9/20.

Which posts will have comments on? 

1. Big Idea posts (to let the authors discuss stuff with readers/fans);

2. Possible occasional posts I create when I have a few hours free and feel like chatting with all y’all. These will be contingent on schedule and internet availability, and will likely be on only for those times I have the ability to actively sit on the thread, after which I will turn them off.

Why turn comments off at all?

1. So that while I travel I don’t have to daily wade through spam that somehow manages to avoid the automatic filters, which is, alas, considerable;

2. Because I’ve decided that I might want to write about things here while I’m out and about that usually requires thread moderation, which is the thing I know I won’t have time for;

3. Because I’ve never turned off comments here for a considerable amount of time and I’m curious what if any effect it will have on readership, etc;

4. Because Twitter/Facebook/Google +/etc give people the ability to more readily comment on what I write here than they would have had a few years ago, both to me and to each other (assuming they are using social media, which I suspect most people are at this point), and yes, I will probably be on Twitter a lot during the tour;

5. Because point 2 notwithstanding, based on personal experience, if I leave comments on I will be tempted to jump in and participate/moderate, which will distract me from what I really need to do: focus on the tour and the humans who have come to see me on it.

So that’s the plan.

For those of you wondering if this means I might be considering having comments off generally now: No. The site’s had comments for over a decade now, and it’s better for them. Come September 21, the comments will be back on across the whole site.

As for what sort of posts to expect here while I’m traveling, I think a few years of touring has gotten you used to what to expect — posts of events, reminders of where I am going next, scheduled Big Idea posts, and occasional other stuff as time/interest/sleep allows. You know. The usual.

In any event, I’m letting you know all of this now so it won’t comes as a surprise on the day of the tour. You have two weeks to prepare! Should be enough.

Thoughts? Put them — of course! — in the comments.

But Doctor, I am Pagliacci

Following Robin Williams’ death and my brief comments about depression in my entry about it, I’ve had some people ask me for some more detailed thoughts on the subject, and whether I myself have ever experienced depression. I wrote about the subject in 2010, as part of a Reader Request Week, so if you’re interested, here’s the link to that. The short version is that while I have had events in my life where I was almost certainly depressed (as most of us have, I suspect), I’m not someone who suffers from depression as a disease.

But again, I know a lot of people who do. I suspect that some of this is because I know a lot of creative people and the correlation between depression and creativity is well known and well documented. But I also suspect this is also because I know people, and I suspect that depression, as a chronic and persistent ailment, happens to a lot of people regardless of their creativity. One of the silver lining positive things about knowing many people with depression is that it’s gone a very long way to hammer against that bias against mental illnesses that I have as part of the background radiation of life — the bias that tells you that someone with a mental illness isn’t merely sick but is wrong in some ineffable way. I know that’s incorrect and actively unhelpful now; I hope it makes me a better human and a better friend for my friends who have depression.

On the tangentially-related topic of humor and depression, the world seems to be largely divided into two camps — the camp who is apparently oblivious to the idea that funny people, especially professionally funny people, might have a darker side to their life (“He was funny and seemed so happy! Who knew that other side was there?”) and the ones who are all too familiar with that aspect of the life of a “funny” person — they’re the ones who, after hearing of Williams’ passing, tweeted something along the lines of the quote I’m using as the headline (context, for those of you who don’t know).

With the former camp, it’s easy to be exasperated, especially if you write humor yourself. Where do these folks think the capacity for humor comes out of? If you don’t have an understanding of the whole wide range of the human condition, your attempts at humor are going to come across as insipid at best and cruel at worst; there’s a reason I note that the failure state of “clever” is “asshole.” People who are really funny — the sort of funny more complex than a banana peel on a slippery floor — are funny because they know people. They’re smart. They’re observant. And, very often, their own life experience, with all its ups and downs, is the reason why know which keys turn the lock on the funny.

It’s easy to become exasperated with people who don’t seem to know this, but it’s also at least slightly unfair, because it’s process — it’s backstage matter. Most people don’t live with a professional comedian or humorist, they’re merely entertained by them, and they’re entertained by the output, not by the process. We laugh at the joke, not that the work that goes into it. Likewise, humor feels easy and light; we laugh at it, and laughing seems like the simplest thing in the world to do. If people don’t know about the darker parts of the minds that create humor, it’s at least in part because it often ruins the humor to dwell on it.

On the flip side of this I personally get exasperated by the “but doctor, I am Pagliacci” response as well, because I think in many ways it trivializes depression. Humor needs knowledge of humans and empathy; it doesn’t need depression. From everything that I know about it from friends who have it, depression doesn’t heighten your access to the human condition, it deadens it — takes you out of the place where you can create and where you can say anything about life, funny or otherwise.

I get that tossing about the Pagliacci quote can be an attempt to be understanding — or at least be an attempt to explain — but I think it just ends up being the equivalent of a mental shrug. Of course that funny person was doomed. That’s just what happens to funny people. That’s no more correct or helpful than being surprised a funny person wasn’t happy all the time.

I’m not saying a comedian or humorist can’t take their depression and make it funny. Of course they can — it’s in the heart of humor to make you understand something by making you laugh about it. But the depression isn’t why they’re funny. Depression isn’t helping them be funny. Depression is a thing they have to route around. Sometimes they can’t. That fact deserves an acknowledgment more than a shrug and a quote about a sad clown.

I don’t have any answers about depression, in no small part because my own direct experience of it in my own head is (thankfully) limited. What I do know is that for my own part I want to be done with people being hesitant or ashamed about a disease that happens to them, despite the fact it takes place in the part of the body where who they are lives. Treating it differently than other ailments of the body doesn’t do anyone any good and does active harm if it keeps people from getting help.

I also want to be done with thinking that depression is anyone’s fault. This piece in Slate, addressing the people who wondered why Robin Williams didn’t know that people loved him, speaks to that. This piece, by Erica Moen, speaks to that. Countless pieces out there by people who deal with depression speak to it. They know what they’re talking about, because they live it.

For my part, I’m listening. I think we should all be doing that.

The Big Idea: Jon McGoran

Big ideas sit at the heart of many novels (there’s a reason why I call this feature “the big idea,” after all). But not every good idea — or big idea — makes it through the culling process on the way to the writing of the actual novel. Jon McGoran talks a little about this process in relation to his newst thriller, Deadout.

JON McGORAN:

I love big ideas. Almost everything I write starts out with one. Many writers will say that character is the most important thing, and for the finished product, I think that’s probably true. But nothing gets me excited about a new project like a Big Idea. And one of the things I like best about Big Ideas is the way they lead to other ideas.

As a writer, I love (and sometimes hate) to write. But my favorite phase of any project is that initial Big Idea stage, the honeymoon, when the ideas are coming in a rush, anything is possible, when the early research is leading me off in all sorts of directions. As I start to outline and give the story structure and focus, it gets a little more like work. There is an element of sadness, too, as some of my littler ideas get left by the wayside (with every intention — rarely realized — that I will come back for them some day).

That’s a sadness I deal with often. I’m one of those writers who is constantly having ideas that I think are big. Usually they are story premises that hijack my energy and enthusiasm. (Sometimes, oddly, they are novelty gag items. Go figure.) I write them down or leave a memo on my phone (thank you, iPhone voice recognition!). Then they go in a folder on my computer.

The odds are not good for them. I mostly write novels, and chances are slim that any one of my daily Big Ideas will make the cut and become the focus of a six-, nine- or twelve-month project. It pains me to see them go to waste. So, if I can work in more than one idea — without detracting from the story — so much the better.

The Big Ideas for my novels Drift and its sequel, Deadout, came from my day jobs.  For many years, I’ve been involved in writing about and advocating for issues of food and sustainability. Over time, I noticed that the food stories I was writing during the day were becoming more frightening and bizarre than the mysteries and science fiction I was writing at night. It started with things like irradiation, dangerous chemicals, and factory farms. But when genetically modified organisms (GMOs) started taking over our food stream, I realized food politics could be a great theme for a thriller.

Partly this was because GMOs represent such a paradigm shift in how food is grown, because they seem so inadequately tested, and because they’ve quietly taken over so much of the American foodscape. But a lot of it is because GMOs are alive, and once they’re out, they’re out. As a human who eats food, I found it alarming. As a writer who likes Big Ideas, it made me wring my hands and cackle with glee.

The GMO story already reads like a thriller — big corporations using their political and economic power to quietly spread bio-engineered new life forms across the globe and onto unsuspecting consumers’ dinner plates. That’s a great (or terrible) starting point. The more I thought about it, and the more I researched it, the more story ideas I saw.

At the same time, I realized a lot of people didn’t know much about GMOs, how pervasive they are or even that they exist. It was like a perfect storm: a rich premise with lots of potential, and an important issue that begged to be explored.

In addition to GMOs, Deadout focuses on colony collapse disorder, the mysterious syndrome that is causing much of the world’s honeybee population to disappear. It also expands on many of the other themes in Drift, including corporate misbehavior by biotech behemoths and efforts to push GMOs through foreign aid and trade agreements, issues I explore even further in the third book in the series, coming out next year.

These are topics I’ve written about journalistically, and even satirically, but fiction —especially novels — allows a writer to reach different people and explore issues more deeply. Still, while I might love my Big Ideas, I try hard not to let them get in the way of the narrative. Because no one will ever see them if they don’t keep reading. And besides, for me, ultimately, the biggest Big Idea is a good story.

 —-

Deadout: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.