Friday, January 27, 2017

Being In a Place

Every so often, I find myself feeling down, wondering where the magic that bound me to stories has gone, or forgetting about it completely. I get so caught up in analyzing, picking apart storywriting techniques, that I forget the most important reason stories are so powerful.

Stories transport you to another place, another time, another life. The lessons you learn, the experience you gain, the questions you mull over in your mind, all come from seeing through another person’s eyes, feeling their body, breathing the same air. You learn because they learn. You see because they see. You understand because they understand. This is the difference between a story and an essay. In other words, a story draws people into it when it feels real. If a book pulls this off really well, I find myself with the same uncertainty about the future as in real life, feeling that the rest of the book is not decided yet, and any of a few outcomes are equally possible. This illusion of reality is the hidden source of magic that gives stories such draw and keeps readers engrossed in them for hours at a time.

The big question is how we can give stories this power of illusion. I think the answer is not to force it, but allow it to come to you. I have heard writers speak of the creative process as listening while the stories come to them, as if already existing in the ether. It is as if the writer is not creating them, but only solidifying them onto the page. In fact, I have this experience myself every now and then. It is not random, but happens when you are in a certain frame of mind. For me, this is most often when I am doing a repetitive task that does not require mental activity, like walking. With practice, writers can get themselves into this frame of mind more easily.

When you do this, you may find that your characters are doing things that are not directly relevant to the story. For instance, if they are on a camping trip, you may find yourself describing the details about how the viewpoint character builds the fire, with the kindling in the middle and larger sticks in a teepee structure around it. You’ll find yourself describing how the earth feels beneath their feet, how the meat sizzles and smells good as it cooks. You’ll find yourself writing a conversation about this or that, like real people would have around a campfire. In other words, it will feel like a real night out. Just let it happen.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Cosmoids In Our Image

Recommended Pre-Reading:

Last week, I defined the word, “cosmoid” to mean the entire picture of a person’s understanding of reality. Cosmoids include worldviews, paradigms, beliefs, and conceptualizations of truth, knowledge, and understanding. Each of us has our own cosmoid, and no two people’s are alike. For some of us, our cosmoids are open to some types of change or expansion; for others, not so much. Regardless, we all believe our cosmoid is closer to reality than it really is. After all, if we knew of anything closer, then it would by definition be our new cosmoid.

Defining cosmoids opens up all kinds of rich and deep topics to explore. Today I am going to focus on a flaw most of us, if not all, have in our cosmoids: we construct our internal world to look like us. There are three ways we do this: with our bodily form, with our behavior, and with our perceptions.

To see this, we do not have to look far. Our stories, our poetry, our mythology, and our art are positively full of instances when we ascribe human characteristics to animals, trees, the sun, the moon, the Earth, the wind, the water, the sky, and even the fabric of reality itself. We have tales of goblins, ghosts, orcs, trolls, elves, fairies, demons, golems, and all manner of creatures that look like humans.

Even in science fiction, which is supposed to be more realistic than other fantasy, we find aliens with two arms, two legs, two eyes and ears, and an upright walk, just like humans. Star Trek in particular is famous for this. In the Next Generation (spoilers) episode “The Chase,” the writers try to explain away this oddity by having the characters discover that the first humanoid race billions of years ago planted DNA all over the galaxy, seeding the planets so that human-like form would one day evolve—as if the random changes of base pairs and natural selection over eons of random climates could be seeded! (end spoilers)

In fact, it is not only with aliens that we implicitly associate intelligence with the human face, but intelligence in general. Artificial intelligence, gods, spiritual creatures, you name it, we imagine them all with human faces.

Sometimes it is not the human form that we impose upon the world, but human behavior. We might think of great oaks standing guard, rivers dancing, the wind running, and the sun smiling. Scientists even find themselves explaining models to people using human terms, like particles “wanting” to move toward each other or genes puzzling over how to get themselves reproduced. Being aware of this, I try hard to avoid using anthropomorphic language when I explain scientific concepts unless I am actually talking about humans.

These two ways we project ourselves into our cosmoids are fairly clear once we see them pointed out, but he third is the more subtle, and to me, by far the most intriguing. We impose our perceptions onto reality. We are all familiar with the scene of a child afraid of the darkness in her bedroom. In fact, most of us remember what that felt like when we were in the child’s place, and we still feel it now and again. As children, we fear the dark because we cannot see into it. Because it is murky and mysterious in our perception, we begin to believe that reality itself is in a state of quasi-existence, where anything we fear might become real.

It is by this sense of quasi-existence that we believe all kinds of strange things, from superstitions to conspiracy theories. It might be true, we are afraid it is true, we believe it is true. Other things we believe because we want them to be true. This is how we can have concepts like magic and feel like they mean something. A month ago I came to the conclusion that magic is an effect without any mechanism linking it to its cause, or even with no cause at all. This cannot happen in a real universe, but to someone whose cosmoid allows things to exist in a quasi-real state between perception and reality, magic makes sense.

There are even things we believe without knowing, because we just don’t think about it. Take color, for example. Why do we say that oak leaves are green in the spring, and that they turn red and yellow in the fall? It is not because of some innate property of “greenness” or “redness” that the leaves have; rather it is because the leaves reflect specific combinations of wavelengths of light, some of which make it into our eyes, where it is translated into electrical signals, which travel up our optic nerves into our brain, where our consciousness interprets the signals as colors. Yet though there are many intermediate steps between leaves and the color green, we still call leaves green.

We think that things we feel and perceive must be objective. Things like peace, love, pain, honor, worthiness, etc. We assume that because we sense these things, they must be a part of the external universe, when really they only exist as interpretations in our minds. A thing is not beautiful in itself, but only as each person sees it. As they say, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Even if a painting touches the hearts of every human who sees it, to an alien from a planet unlike ours it might look like the most formless of postmodern art.

Humanized cosmoids make for powerful poetry and wonderful fantasy. You want a magical object? Make it a crystal, which looks different colors when viewed from different angles, when light passes through it, etc. If it is strange and enchanting to us, it is our instinct to think it must be strange and enchanting to the universe too. Try to imagine Narnia without talking animals or tree spirits or wicked witches. It simply wouldn’t be Narnia. There is just something about imagining the world has a heart, or Time has a beard, that makes us warm and happy all over.

The more we come to understand the world, the real world, for what it is, the more we realize we are not the center, and it is not about us. For some people, such an idea is too horrible to imagine. But there is something about thinking and considering, about being honest with yourself and your beliefs, that is liberating. There is a relief and peace that comes with following reason and evidence wherever it leads, even through the seemingly dark and scary places. And when we do, our cosmoid reshapes itself to be more like the cosmos.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Cosmoid: A Definition

Cosmoid: The sum total of a person’s perceptions and subconscious beliefs of reality; the whole of what a person sees and thinks reality to be.

For the past several years, I have been intrigued by how people see the world. From the radical zealot to the enlightenment thinker to the toddler whose mind cannot comprehend basic mechanical motions, the world of the mind fascinates me. But wanting to talk about this subject I ran into a barrier, one common to so many people when philosophizing: the English language is missing a word.

There are a few words that come close to what I mean. Worldview, for instance. But “worldview” implies that you know you are looking at the world from a certain perspective. You can easily flit in and out of worldviews, never changing anything you actually believe about reality. The concept I want to describe is more rigid and encompassing than this.

Some people use the terms “subjective reality” or “subjective truth” (or to be even more confusing, drop the modifier, “subjective”!), but this seems sloppy to me, as “reality” and “truth” are objective by definition. Rather, what I want to talk about is the world as it appears to be real and true to people, a subjectivity that appears to the person experiencing it to be indistinguishable from objectivity, and I want the word for it to not be easily confused with something else.

Cosmology is another word that comes close to what I want, but does not quite make it. A cosmology is a set of beliefs about the nature of the world, but it tends to mean the big things, like the size and shape of the universe. Cosmology is also the name of the field of science that studies the size, age, structure, origin, and fate of the universe, so it can also be confusing if used when speaking of someone’s understanding of reality.

The cosmos is defined as the objective sum total of reality. This is the kind of thing I mean. But rather than actual reality, I want to speak of the structure of it that people build up in their minds. A small, personal mimicry of the cosmos; a cosmoid.

Everyone has their own cosmoid, and every cosmoid is a little different. For example, over Christmas break I was shocked to find that no one in my family knew what antimatter was. What was perfectly mundane and ordinary for me, having lived and breathed physics for the last six or seven years, was completely alien to them. It was not part of their cosmoids.

Understanding cosmoids can help tremendously with writing characters. A cast of characters who each have different beliefs and different understanding of the world opens up the doors to all kinds of themes and intrigue to explore. It can also help you relate to other people with views different from your own. I think “cosmoid” will be a very useful word, and it will open the door to many discussions that I have wanted to write for some time.