“most people don’t ask ‘why?'”

Among the sentences I’ve heard more than once, including ‘I’m really a loving and giving person but I’ve decided to become more selfish’, which basically can be translated to ‘I’m really a selfish person and I’ve finally decided to acknowledge that’ is this one about why questions.

I remember a ‘group’ once (I don’t do groups and this is partly why) where a person of apparently less than average intellect came up with this statement with the most smug and self-satisfied expression on her face. ‘Most people’, it seems, don’t ask ‘why’ questions.

First of all, yes, I have a problem with the way the concept of ‘most people’ is used. In more than (I would reckon) 90% of cases they are referring to an entity that they despise. ‘Most people’ don’t think about ‘x’, where ‘x’ is the topic under discussion. I heard a Quaker once say that ‘most people’ worship car boot sales rather than God. That’s what I mean.

Sadly, my impairment notwithstanding, I tend to identify with this entity. So when you insult ‘most people’, that’s me you’re talking about. So I look at this oft-repeated statement that ‘most people’ don’t ask why questions and I start to look around.

First of all, what is a why question? It occurred to me that a lot of why questions are actually how questions. A standard undergraduate physics exam question is ‘why is the sky blue?’. The answer is that molecules in the air scatter blue light from the sun more than they scatter red light. So we get more blue light hitting our retinas.

That’s not a why question, it’s a how question. If it were a why question the answer would be along the lines of either God decided to make that our experience or as users of the English language we came to a consensus to call that particular colour blue. Either of those would have failed the exam.

As a shorthand, I personally (you might disagree) look at a why question and see whether it could be rephrased as a ‘how come’ question. How come the sky is blue? Blue photons are scattered more and so they hit our eyes more.

If it’s a real ‘why’ question, it can be translated as ‘for what reason…’

Why did I decide to clear out my wardrobe today?

I was noticing there was a load of stuff in there I haven’t worn for several years.

Why now?

It’s getting too full.

Reasons. Of sorts. Psychologists might be looking at mechanisms – you have a need to clear out your mind so you’re clearing out your wardrobe instead. That is an attempt at turning my decision into a how question. What are the mechanisms by which you came to think that clearing out the clutter in your wardrobe was what you really had decided to do? Blows free will out of the window for a start.

Leaving aside the knowing smirk from my friendly neighbourhood psychologist, I find myself wondering what a why question really is. It seems to me that often enough it’s prompted by a need to apportion blame. Why don’t you talk to me more? Why did you vote Leave? Why did you invade Iraq?

We ask why questions when we can’t understand the thinking behind a decision someone has made. No need to ask why if you already know why. Why questions are about values that don’t fit.

And so the experts have to decide whether this was actually a why question or whether it was in fact a how question after all. The experts have to decide whether we are responsible for our actions or somehow impelled to do them by some mechanism outside our conscious awareness.

No wonder it’s called the ‘hard problem’. But meanwhile, it seems to me that people are asking why questions all the time. And it’s all about assigning responsibility.

And (a separate point entirely) generally someone else’s responsibility.

Water of Life in beta

The final book in the trilogy has been more of a struggle, partly because practically all of the plot elements in the first two just ‘came out’ and now they are putting constraints on the final outcome. It’s a bit like a puzzle, with all the pieces there but a couple of wrinkles in how they fit together. It’s all there, now, except for the penultimate chapter which still needs some work. So I go through my days, and holes in the nights, with Paul and Madelin never far away.

The book is first and foremost a spiritual journey, or if you prefer, a chronicle of how Paul learns to lighten up as he makes new friendships and gets out more. The process becomes a positive feedback loop, where the more he learns to relax with people the more people can be relaxed with him. More than one reader has commented that they don’t identify with him and can’t find any empathy with him. But in Flaming Sword he’s still very bitter and going over old memories. In Coals of Fire he still lapses occasionally but he doesn’t use the F word half as much. All his insights have to be repeated, like a spiral, you learn the same thing again but on a higher level. Eventually it sticks, like the muscle memory in taiji.

He doesn’t do interviews, and Top Gear doesn’t exist any more, but I can imagine Paul being persuaded to be the ‘star in a reasonably priced car’, given that Jeremy Clarkson is always very polite and kind to his guests on the show. I also fantasise about his choices on Desert Island Discs as I drive my lovely eight-year-old MX-5 to my taiji classes with the music playing. None of that is in the book of course. In ‘real life’ (funny I should think of it that way), Madelin drives a 4×4 crossover and if either of them ever owned an MX-5 it would be Madelin. But somehow when I’m driving i’m always Paul.

Of course the way things are going, in 20 years’ time we’ll all be in electric driverless cars, probably not personally owned – you just take the nearest one you find on your smartphone, but I’ve not gone into the futuristic thing in great detail. I sort of think that the twenty-year hiatus in our island’s development has allowed us to resume where we left off when the virus hit. It makes it a lot easier to think about, and to make a thought experiment about how we can build a community that really does include everyone without being blighted by secret police.

Anyway, I want to put in a word for my two kind friends, Anne and Kacy, who have been looking at the third book as it exists so far. I’ve had some very valuable feedback, both on the tiny typos and grammatical ambiguities and on the larger plot theme, and I realise that they can never now really enjoy the final version because they’ve seen it under construction. It was a bigger ask than I realised it was, and my thanks to them are truly heartfelt.

I have basically one more wrinkle to iron out. Thank you for waiting.

Flaming Sword in Tuscany

image1A kind reader sent me this photo after reading FS on holiday. This is the nearest I’ve ever got to Tuscany, in fact I don’t think I’ve ever been to Italy. It’s a beautiful part of the world.

The glass of red wine is apposite too – my favourite tipple!

Working on third book

I want to say that I’m flattered, touched and delighted by the number of people who have enjoyed the first two books and are asking for the third one. Thank you all,  from the bottom of my heart. These things are very personal, and people who know me have been generally reluctant to look at it, probably out of embarrassment. What has really surprised me is the number of men who have made the effort to take a look, finished it and asked for more! I mean, what with its being a transgender persona.

As I’ve said before, I wrote them because I needed to say certain things and found that fiction was the best vehicle. The first two books wrote themselves; they were my own stream of consciousness in my Vian mode. (I’ve started on Madelin mode in ‘Madelin’s Journal’, which I may well publish soon.) But the third book is different. I can’t just ‘find out what’s going to happen next’ by sitting down at the keyboard. I have to have some kind of ending in mind. Some kind of resolution, tying up loose ends. All loose ends have to have some kind of – well, at least mention – I mean for instance Vian’s parents probably won’t appear again and will be forever an unfinished element in his life. We all have those.

I’ve read that there are two kinds of writer: the ones who write furiously and edit at leisure and the ones who plan everything down to the last detail before they’ve set down a single word. I’m the former type; I don’t have a plot in mind. I respond to what happens and deal with it – or not – Vian’s autistic, and has his meltdowns. And his comfort zone has been pampered by twenty years in the seraphim.

But for book three I don’t even have a title yet. Spoiler alert – it will be a happy ending. I find unhappy endings unsatisfying. It has to be satisfying. I don’t think that’s too much of a spoiler. In the end, life is all about making our own death a happy ending.

So I’m taking a middle way – Buddha-style – and writing what comes to mind but with some background idea of where it will lead. This is a new element and I suppose it’s just about dragging the unconscious kicking and screaming up to awareness. It’s a balancing act, especially for an autistic. Awareness isn’t always a blessing. We’re already aware of so many tiny things. Perhaps the big things get lost in the noise. I need to bring them out and find a place for them. All part of the ongoing spiritual journey. I’m not expecting my kind readers to wait until I’m enlightened before i finish the chronicle of Vian’s journey, that would be a very long wait, and it’s not something that can be hurried. I’ve been creeping up on it surreptitiously for decades. At the moment I’m learning woodturning – poking very sharp things at fast-rotating pieces of wood and hoping that the result won’t be firewood. And spraying myself – every nook and cranny – with shavings, which get all over the house. Not a distraction exactly, the purpose is always there, but you can put a piece of wood on the lathe without a clear idea of what you’ll take off the chuck when you’re done. Just like the way I write. I have a vague idea, but the wood has its own characteristics – typically I put a piece that looks ‘interesting’ between centres and see what happens. I have yet to experience what a fellow member of the local club told me about, being sprayed with fragments of woodworm larvae, although I did cut one in half on the bandsaw once. I examine every piece of firewood before burning it, just in case it might be fodder for the lathe. And I suppose I do the same with the book. It goes in the gallery, or it goes in the fire.

But one thing I won’t do is try to shoehorn what I’ve read, even from the likes of Alan Watts, into Vian’s experience unless i know at first hand what he’s talking about. I will not repeat received wisdom. I did it before, decades ago, and it didn’t feel right. I’m old enough now to know what I know and what I don’t.

Coals of Fire finally ready!

IMG_20150624_142241335When I wrote the first two books, the whole thing took about eight months. Since then, thanks to feedback from kind friends and my own re-reading and learning new things all the time, it’s been extensively edited. They say ‘write drunk, edit sober’, which is very good advice. Thing is, I’ll try to cut out stuff and end up with more words than I started with! The result is that Coals of Fire actually ends earlier in the story than the original stream of consciousness did. This does give me a head start on the third book, whose title is yet to be decided.

Coals of Fire is available in paperback now (apparently) and the Kindle edition is available for pre-order.

Click here for the link to my author page on Amazon.co.uk.

I’d be really grateful for more reviews of both books!

Autistic fiction

The Poor in Spirit series is first of all a high-functioning autistic spiritual journey including a satisfyingly bitter rant about religion and quite a lot of stuff about philosophy, taijiquan and the Dao. But it’s also a romance, and a thought experiment about sustainable living, not a million miles away from the Green Party manifesto as it turns out, except for one radical idea about public money.

Autistic characters make a useful plot device – it’s like a special power. The excellent Millennium series by Stieg Larsson is a case in point. Lisbeth has a memory like a photocopier and uses it to splendid effect. Yes, I read the whole trilogy. Couldn’t put it down.

My main characters include two high-functioning autistics. They don’t have particular savant skills, but they’re just weird enough to have a string of uncomfortable memories (which, I hasten to add, I don’t document in the story). But in the scenario they are in the right place at the right time, and they get it right.

When I got my own diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome my main feeling was ‘that explains a lot’. It explains why my comfort zone so often evaporates unexpectedly; why I haven’t had a career even though I’ve got three degrees; why I still blow it, time and time again; why I’ve always wondered whether I’m spiritually disabled, born blind in the deepest possible way.

So I hope the series gives some insight into what it’s like to be ‘my kind of autistic’, as well as being enjoyable to read.

And in the end, I’ll find out whether I am actually spiritually disabled, and I’ll deal with it if it turns out that way. So far, it’s an open question. But now in my early sixties, it doesn’t matter so much any more. I just have to say this stuff while I still can.

By the way, you can pronounce his name how you like but I pronounce it to rhyme with ‘Brian’. As in life of.

Print version coming soon!

FS proof copyThis is the first proof copy of Flaming Sword. We’ve made a couple of corrections so the second one will be here soon. Then we’ll put it up on Amazon at the princely sum of £6.99.

I am vastly impressed by the Amazon CreateSpace service. They can print a book within a few hours, on demand. So I’m not reduced to having to store a garage full of books. Fantastic! Good for the planet, good for everyone. I love technology.

The Kindle version in the UK can be found here.