Ideas, Impatience, and Agnostic Prayers

Some people think that the hardest part about writing is getting ideas. I disagree, primarily because I’ve always had ideas (even a few good ones). Furthermore, I know the best way to get ideas: thinking. Bill Watterson said it best: “Shutting off the thought process is not rejuvenating; the mind is like a car battery – it recharges by running.”

Think about anything you want, and the more you think, the more ideas will show up. If you’re a little lucky, they might turn out to be good. If you don’t get any good ideas, stick a few mediocre ideas together in the meantime. If you don’t get any ideas at all, go do something else, but don’t stop thinking. If you only get a stupid idea, it’s better than nothing.

Then you write. Writing will produce more ideas, which will help you write, which will produce more ideas, and so on. Writing, like all art, is a combination of ideas and effort. You can’t just wait for ideas to show up, and you can’t just wait for a novel to write itself.

So I wrote a novel. Like most novelists, I only had a vague idea of what to do next. First, you have to find a literary agent. Then, the agent finds a publisher. Then, something. The process is crystal clear. I wrote a query letter, which is essentially how authors pitch their books to agents. You pitch the book to a multitude of agents, and if one of them finds it interesting, they’ll contact you and offer to represent you. (By the way, if any literary agents are reading this, they should feel free to contact me.)

In the past couple of months, I’ve sent out about 45 emails and 6 letters. I’ve gotten a couple dozen rejections, which I expected. I don’t mind the rejection, because I know how to deal with rejection. It’s the same way I deal with acceptance: action. Action is my greatest ally, largely because inaction has been my greatest adversary for more than a decade.

I hate the waiting. Most agents take at least 6 weeks to respond to a query, for better or worse. I keep thinking of a line from FLCL, my second favorite anime: “Each day we spend here is like an entire lifetime of dying slowly.” It’s a bit melodramatic, but I like it. I can’t shut off my brain while I wait I wait for responses, so ideas keep coming. Some of the ideas are good, of course. I write them down.

But some of my ideas are actually horrifying questions that sneaked up on me. What if the book is terrible? Am I pitching it correctly? Is there an audience for it? What if the ideas aren’t compelling enough? Has it been done before? Will it stand out from the thousands of books that don’t get published?

Then the worst question of all: What if it doesn’t matter? What if there’s nothing I can do to succeed?

I want to act! If the novel sucks, I’ll write a better one! I have the ideas! I’ll make the effort! I don’t know what to do!

I need this.

Of course, there’s always self-publishing. I could self-publish my novel without too much trouble. Then another question sneaks up: If the novel doesn’t interest agents, will it interest readers at large? The evidence suggests otherwise. Setting aside the notable successes of self-publishing (all four of them), I can see that amazon.com is flooded with unfinished and uninteresting novels by tens of thousands of aspiring authors. They weren’t ready for primetime, so they settled for public access.

I’m not ready to settle yet, so during my waiting period, I took action. Next month, I will be lecturing about cryptography and steganography at a science fiction convention in Provo, Utah. It’s called Life, the Universe, and Everything (www.ltue.net). I’m not sure what specifically I’ll be doing, because I’m still waiting for an email response. Sigh.

Anyway, sharing ideas is the central reason I became a writer, and sharing mathematical ideas still counts. I’m looking forward to teaching this material, and hopefully I’ll encounter a lot of people who share my interests. I’ll probably meet some agents and other writers face-to-face, which will be a valuable experience.

As I wait, I’m worrying about the winter weather, the car trip, the expenses, and a million other concerns. If it all falls through, I can at least play 52 Pickup (actually, 100 Pickup) with the business cards I ordered. In the meantime, I’ve been checking my email far too often. Any response is better than nothing, right?

I also wanted to share a coping mechanism with the other agnostic waiters of the world. It doesn’t matter if anyone hears them; the value comes from saying them.

Steven’s Three Agnostic Prayers:

1. I don’t understand.
2. I can’t control everything.
3. I’m not sure what I should do.

The Right Religion

Fortunately, I was born into the right religion. I was very lucky. My religion is different from other religions because we have the right book. It was written by the right prophet, an exceptional individual. No one before or since has been right about how the world works. Our beliefs make sense. All you have to do is think about them and they fit together perfectly.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of people out there who belong to the wrong religions. Their books were written by ordinary people with no idea how the world works. I can’t believe what they believe; it’s just so silly. All you have to do is think about their beliefs and they never make sense.

But I know how to help them. I have to teach them. Otherwise, they might not go to the right place when they die. The wrong place is terrible. It’s full of people who believed the wrong things. If they had just learned the right things, they would be okay. So I will find people who believe the wrong things and teach them. Once they believe the right things, they’ll be okay. They will read the right book and go to the right place when they die.

Everything will be all right if they can just see how wrong they really are.

Some Thoughts on Sin

I am taking 2 Catholic theology classes this semester, so I’m forced to approach this question again.

Is the desire to sin innate?
If it hinges on “fallen humanity,” then where did it come from?

Look at the first sin.

The desire was natural. The fruit looked tasty and sweet.
Eve had been warned: if you eat the fruit, you will die.
She did not understand evil. She did not understand death.
Did God tell her the truth? Did she die because she at the fruit? Not immediately.
If death was impossible before the fall, how would she know what it was?

(A separate question: Is it possible to love if you don’t understand what you’re doing? In other words, is it possible to understand love without knowing the alternative? If not, were Adam and Eve truly devoted to God? Did the knowledge of good and evil make them capable of agapic love?)

Sin is a natural desire corrupted. According to tradition, the best way to satisfy all human desires is through God. So sin comes from a flawed attempt to meet natural desires. Knowledge would make it clear that sin is pointless, but we do not have that.

Michael J. Himes says repeatedly that it is good to be created. “I’m not God, and that’s a good thing.” Does God understand what it is to be created? Not from experience, according to tradition. God and created things are separate. So how are we supposed to know it’s good to be human (if it actually is)? We can’t really take God’s word for it.

I think Christian morality is a bit like a sober person giving advice to an alcoholic. “If drinking is such a problem, don’t do it.” “Why drink if it costs you so much money and time?” “Just have one drink and stop.” All of our moral guidance in the Bible comes from God (or Paul. Heh.), who is comfortable making several pronouncements. For instance, he mentions many ways that humans make themselves disgusting to him. Later, he was Jesus and didn’t sin, but we cannot give the messiah too much credit. First of all, he knew the best way to live was without sin. If he had the desire, he could reason through it. If he didn’t have it, there was no problem.

If Jesus truly understood the concept of infinity (and God), then he never experienced the most universal human crisis: doubt. He was a man (?) who never needed to ask if God existed. I’m told Christ’s sacrifice was the crucible of salvation. How can I respect the Lord for passing a test when he knew all the answers? (Then again, perhaps his power did forsake him in the end.)

As I see it, if being human is a good thing, humans certainly don’t know it. If being human is a bad thing, God doesn’t know it. We are told that Jesus is supposed to bridge the gap, but he was not human. He did not have the human desire to sin. If that is not innate, then he didn’t have the ignorance that causes it.

Either way, sinlessness is a bit tricky. I think people should accept that their desire to sin is natural, not from Satan, not to test them, but because they are trying to fulfill a natural need. We always excuse ourselves later, and that’s a shame, because there isn’t any reason to make excuses.

As far as I’m concerned, sin, as defined by God, is just an option, and “righteousness” is another. There is no difference, because morality is not God-given, it comes from human experience. Period.

A Poem

Our Life After Life

We’ll stoke the flames and curse our names,

But from time to time we’ll admit

With voices clear that our faith was sincere

And religion still isn’t worth shit.

 

We’ll rue our lives from 9 to 5,

Then head home and make love immoral.

If love is taboo then I guess we’ll have to

Fuck or have sex or just oral.

 

We’ll drink and curse, or do much worse,

At this point there’s nothing to lose.

It might seem odd, but soldiers for God

Have done worse than swearing and booze.

 

We’ll do our best despite failing the test,

And our future together is bright.

It would break my heart if they tore us apart,

But otherwise, things are alright.

 

In Heaven, they say, that day after day

Is supposed to be limitless bliss,

But if I were there and you were down here,

Then I would trade it for this.

Contrary Evidence: A Brief on Belief

I want to describe faith as I see it. I’m sure many people will disagree with me, and that’s fine. Just try to understand my perspective before you dismiss it completely.

Let’s start at the beginning. What does it mean to believe something? I am going to reduce that complicated concept to a fairly simple system by taking out most of the subtlety. Bear with me.

First, let’s talk about claims. A claim is a statement that can be determined in some fashion to be true, false, or in some cases, unknown.

A true statement is one that is true in all cases. In other words, it doesn’t vary based on changing things. An asinine example would be “1 equals 1.” True statements are based on proofs (arguments) composed of other true statements. Basically, you start from axioms, simple statements that are just accepted as true, and work your way to more complex truths from there.

False statements are those that are not true in all cases. They may be true most of the time, but if there are exceptions, we say they are false. They may not ever be true. In the strictest sense, if we can’t prove a statement from arguments based on axioms, we say it is false. However, in the interest of open mindedness, statements that haven’t been proven to be true or false can be said to have unknown truth value.

If you didn’t get that or you don’t care, let me sum it up here: a claim is true or false. (It may also be unknown.) In essence, claims have truth value that is objective.

Beliefs, however, are subjective. Basically, for a given claim, your belief is the truth value you assign that claim, based on your perspective (knowledge, emotions, gut feelings, anything). I have to be very clear here: beliefs are based on your understanding.

Because people’s beliefs can and often do differ from the objective truth value of a claim, they don’t necessarily agree on what the objective truth value is. Getting past that is difficult and sometimes impossible.

Those are the basics. Now let’s explore.

What does it mean to believe something? This time, I don’t mean by definition, I mean in the real world. Beliefs should determine your decisions, your actions, and in many ways, your life. For practical purposes, I will call decisions and actions consistent with one’s beliefs “virtue” and decisions and actions against one’s beliefs “sin.”

Let’s look at some of the subtleties. First of all, some people say what you believe determines what happens to your immortal soul. That doesn’t make any sense. Here’s why: you don’t choose what you believe. If you don’t believe that, I’ll make an effort to change your mind.

Pick a simple belief you have, or even a complex one if you like. Say, “the sky is black at night.” Now, choose to believe otherwise. If you can, congratulations, you’ve proven me wrong. But be honest. Do you really, sincerely believe it isn’t true? Why not? If it’s because of another belief, no problem! Choose to not believe it! If that doesn’t solve the problem, I don’t know what to tell you.

If choice can’t change your beliefs, then what can? Evidence. Evidence is anything in the world that can change your beliefs. It takes a lot of forms: events, other people, thoughts, art. Sometimes it can come out of nowhere. There are two kinds of evidence: corroborating and contrary. Corroborating evidence is evidence that is consistent with your beliefs. Going outside at night and seeing a pitch black sky would be an example. Contrary evidence is evidence that is not consistent with your beliefs. For instance, going outside and seeing a white and purple striped pattern in the sky.

Anyway, where does all of that leave free will? I say that you always have a choice in a given situation: act virtuously or sin. In other words, follow your own rules or “act up.” I don’t know what to say about that, though. Does choosing to sin mean you are weak? Do virtuous choices improve you somehow? I don’t know.

I think it’s more important to look at evidence. Encountering contrary evidence is a very difficult situation. The basic decision is to change your belief or forget about the evidence. If you see an orange sky at midnight, you can always just go to bed. If you never see it again, the abundance of corroborating evidence might make up for it. Either way, what survives is doubt. If it sticks with you, you might have to change your belief. If the sky isn’t always black at night, why not? You can explore the reasons and all of the possibilities.

How about the opposite situation? Say you have a belief, yet you never see any corroborating evidence. What do you do? Should you continue to act as if that belief is true, or act otherwise, basically changing your mind? How do you keep a belief when you desperately want to hold on, yet can’t seem to find any support? How long can you continue to ignore contrary evidence, really?

Let me conclude by just saying that beliefs are not excuses. As simple as it would be, writing off a decision as okay because it was consistent with your beliefs is unacceptable. Doubt is a great burden, but it can also be the key to finding what is true. If you make a decision without any doubt, then it’s probably okay. But I believe that when you really make a choice or take an action with negative consequences, then your doubt will have been there. If not, I don’t know what to say.

An Update and Some Thoughts on Insanity

This past weekend I went to the great state of Wisconsin with Alan, Lindsay, and Cori. Despite the 10-hour trip each way, it was a good time. We managed to avoid a serious religious debate until about 1.5 hours out of Lincoln. Then it started in full.

Anyway, we slept 5 people in a “3-4 person” tent, and the closeness was pretty impressive. Think sardines. Lindsay got to visit her friend Paul, and the rest of us settled for waffles and pot roast. I also got some exercise running down a hill to the lakeshore and walking back up (ugh). I had some really good raspberry beer, although I was unable to buy some more to bring home. Maybe next time. I also had some Wisconsin cheddar cheese curds. I ate almost the whole bag by myself. I am fat.

Anyway, Paul and his friends were pretty cool, although they ate most of my Nutella. My tolerance for long car trips has increased. I avoided getting drunk and instead enjoyed the humorous exploits of others. I feel I have grown as an individual. Or something.

As for the job hunt, nothing has happened. I continue applying and all I have to show for it is the occasional automated rejection notice. I am on the alert for updates however. I also need to find a gym in the area and begin a for real exercise regimen. My other goal is to find a place where I can practice the piano on a daily basis. For that, some patience would be nice, because I still suck at the piano and have no tolerance for it. My only hope for improvement is ceaseless practice and something that I enjoy playing.

Money is starting to run short. I know I probably shouldn’t have gone on a trip this weekend, but it was worth the enjoyment. I’m good for another month, but after October I’m going to be sweating for cash. I hope I have some job prospects by the beginning of October or I won’t be able to build a bankroll for November. One opportunity that looks good is being a police dispatcher. I’m hoping to at least be asked to take the exam, because I will probably kick ass at it. No news on that front until Sept. 25, though.

I am having to miss out on movies in theaters, but I at least have digital cable to fall back on. New Top Chef and Dinner Impossible tomorrow! I love my food programs. Fatness ahoy. Anyway, there are few really exciting movies coming up. so I don’t mind a bit of a wait. I do miss Netflix, but even $15 a month can be prohibitive.

Tomorrow I’m planning on discussing religion with Alan. I enjoy a good argument/discussion, particularly when it comes to religion or politics, because they are just so damned fun. Besides, I have to evaluate my own beliefs once in a while.

I’ve been musing since my suicide attempt on what insanity means. I’ve been meaning to mention it somewhere but I keep forgetting. Anyway, here I go.

When you break it down to the simplest components, insanity is just a shift. It works like this: one day, something that seemed unreasonable for your whole life suddenly makes perfect sense. You wonder why you never thought of it before. Suicide is one such thing. It seems like a perfect solution to all your problems, even though most people would disagree. That’s another part of insanity: minority opinion. Anything you believe that falls below a certain percentage of the population is probably insane.

That’s about all I have figured out. I’m still trying to figure out what it all means, though.

Speaking of insanity, I met my the new psychiatrist I’m going to work with in Lincoln. The whole place was very big and not at all what I’m used to. My psychiatrist in KC worked alone and made his own appointments and everything. This place was a large, well-oiled machine. I much prefer the more personal approach, but then again I haven’t met my therapist yet. So I suppose we’ll see what happens.

I just hope the job hunt improves. That might be asking too much though, because my resume/background record pretty much sucks ass. Sigh.

Evil

After I finished the last homework I will do for the weekend, I decided to treat myself to a Mountain Dew. Unfortunately, I only had a 10 dollar bill, so I had to buy the bottle in person at the Union. I headed over there with my sawbuck and waited in line behind a girl getting Original Flavor BuglesĀ®. The cashier was beautiful, she had red hair and a lovely voice. She said hello to me, which the clerks rarely do at the union, and I asked her for a Mountain Dew. She retrieved it from the refrigerator and scanned it. I handed her my bill and she gave me my change, saying “8.75. Thank you.” I turned to walk out of the Union. as I was leaving, I passed three frat guys in business suits. I was putting my change in my wallet when I noticed that it was a ten dollar bill, three singles, and three quarters. I paused as I slipped the coins into my change pocket.

This was the archetypal “moral dilemma.” Here I had a chance to benefit from a mistake anonymously, with no one noticing. I’d been warned about this dozens of times. I knew from years of Sunday school that even though no one would notice, God would. Of course, I don’t believe in God, so that’s easily avoided. I also knew that I would notice. That was trickier, because I do believe in myself. So I had to start parsing my morals.

I am so used to doing good things that it almost happened without thought. I was going to turn around and tell her, after I waited in line behind the three frat boys, that she had mistakenly given me five extra dollars. I wish I could say that I had a serious moral quandary on my hands, but in reality I thought for a split second about doing good. I thought about all of the times that I do good things for people for no reason with no expectation of being compensated. I thought about what good deeds have done for me, and came up empty-handed. And while I can justify my actions all I want now, the only reason that went through my head was simply that I didn’t want to do a good deed. I had no good reason to do anything wrong, but I was so tired of doing right that it wasn’t even hard.

I continued walking out of the Union. After a while, I drank some of the soda. It was warm.