OADA and Character Drive

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Character motivation is also part of the OADA model (see my August 25 and Sept. 2 posts). Fiction writing classes often emphasize the importance of knowing what the protagonist wants. What the protagonist wants gives focus to the story and forms a basis for whatever motivation s/he might have. All characters have wants even though it’s the protagonist’s wants that the story centers on.

The truth is that wants say a lot about a person; they can be incredibly telling. For example, suppose one of my middle-age characters has wanted to be a successful novelist all of her adult life, yet has failed to complete her first manuscript. We immediately know that she is not applying herself; no one has to tell us this. More telling is when we learn she has no plan to achieve what she wants. She is either a person who can delude herself or she is trying to delude others.

Some wants have a time limit. Suppose my nineteen-year-old character wants to break into major league baseball. He has joined a minor league team and is doing all the right things. However, we all know he only has a limited number of years to make it into the majors. That’s the nature of professional sports. It also happens to be pretty typical of other pursuits, like the performing arts.

Our character’s plans for achieving what s/he wants comprise his forecasted trajectory through the story. If the want is significant enough, at some point it shakes up his routine existence. Also, it is typical that a preliminary trajectory may be altered along the way. The character may realize that the grind of going to medical school, for instance, is more than he bargained for. Or the wannabe thespian character may decide to leave New York City after years of disappointing audition outcomes. Characters, like people in the real world, should be a work-in-progress. We learn from our mistakes; we try new things knowing they may not work for us; and we have varying levels of risk tolerance at different ages. Adult wants can be tied to human traits such as determination, work ethic, biases, beliefs, talents, and life styles.

How much of the above an author wants to deal with in a story is s/he’s call. However, a common complaint from fiction readers is that too many of our characters are overused. I think much of this stems from using simplified character. Humans are complex; we don’t always know what we want and we certainly can have multiple wants – sometimes conflicting wants. Our wants can be short-term and long-term. Logically, the short-term is more about intermediate wants whereas the long term is about goals and dreams. That said, many characters (like people) move their dreams into the short term. I once met a young lady working in a NYC smoothie shop who had been there six years trying to break into theater. After I made my purchase and left it occurred to me: how many more years was she willing to try before she either succeeded or gave up?

Interestingly, there can be interplay between wants and self-identity. Our character may desperately want a big house on a hill, a CEO position at a big company, a few million dollars to spend, or to be a star on a TV show. S/he may never feel happy about themselves if they go through life not achieving such goals. On the other hand, some who do achieve their goal allow it to define them. They can’t very well separate who they are from: 1) their occupation, 2) their domicile, 3) their need to be in the public’s eye, or 4) their expensive toys. As an aside, several best-selling authors have mentioned that, despite their photographs on their books and at bookstores, most of their readers wouldn’t recognize them if they were alone in an elevator with them (as many have been at events such as workshops). So, if one strives for fame and fortune, perhaps writing novels is not the optimal career path.

I’ve been focusing my fiction work on characters who are complex and adapt to the events that influence their lives. They have multiple wants and priorities for fulfilling them. They can see opportunities when they present themselves. They also fail. In contrast, it’s easy to find many drama series on TV that have grown stale. The reason is clear: even though the characters appear to have their wins and losses over many episodes, they never really change. I insist on one quality for all my protagonists: they must learn from their mistakes.

 

OADA and the Routine

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In this post, I want to talk more about the OADA model for writing (see my August 25 post). The accompanying illustration shows more of what comprises OADA. While further OADA development is needed, this graphic introduces the ROUTINE SCRIPT as well as other stored matter that resides in our MEMORY. Let’s face it – no one can function without memory. Not only that – without memory we have no identity. Don’t believe me? Then talk with someone who has firsthand experience with the unfortunate souls suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s.

When I sit at my computer and start writing with a fresh, blank screen I do what a lot of “pantsers” do: I think about my characters interacting with situations. I tend to think this way because that is how life unfolds to us humans. When folks hear about something happening to a friend or relative, only part of the news is the event itself. The rest of the news is how it affects them. For example, suppose Sam’s close friends know he lives paycheck to paycheck and is just scraping by. If they learn Sam was mugged by a street gang and his injuries will keep him laid up for a few weeks, their first thoughts revolve around his medical condition. Once they know he will recover, their thoughts shift to how will he pay his medical bills and recover his lost wages. The mugging was the event; being injured and penniless is the situation.

Another way to think about this example is that Sam has been temporarily removed from his routine (day-to-day) life and now faces new challenges. During Sam’s routine existence his OADA process pretty much ran on automatic. Sure, he still observed, assessed, made decisions, and acted; it simply wasn’t anything noteworthy. For example, he observed that it was going to be a cold day so he assessed that a light jacket was advisable. He decided to wear it, thus he grabbed his jacket and put it on. This routine existence is represented by the ROUTINE SCRIPT shown in the graphic under the MEMORY area. This doesn’t mean Sam doesn’t have hopes, dreams, plans, wants, and the like. It simply means all those things are stored another place in his memory, perhaps in the location called PLANS, WANTS, & EXPERIENCES.

Now, however, Sam is confronted with a new situation. Now his OADA process is running in high gear, thrashing around in his memory searching for ideas and options based on his experiences and knowledge. Sam’s mind, like most of ours, thinks in terms of questions: how can I recoup the money I’ve lost from missing work? How can I get money to pay my medical bills? How can I avoid another mugging – I didn’t have any money on me anyway?

Fortunately, Sam’s friends come by and let him know they can help with the bills. He has done a good turn or two for all of them over the years and thinks perhaps they can help solve his problem. Each of them gives him a slip of paper with the amount they can contribute. Luckily, Sam sees that his friends will indeed help him over the hump. With their help and his short-term disability income, it should be enough to get him back on his feet.

Stepping back for a moment, I don’t see that I have much of a story to write at this point. I don’t have anything against happy endings but I do want to avoid routine and predictable situations. The truth is that the day-to-day routine of our characters plays an important role in a story. It provides the backdrop, the reference from which we (as readers and writers) can recognize what’s changed. We can also better understand what the character is thinking and feeling when things change by knowing what passed for the status quo before the change.

I could build a story by making Sam’s situation more challenging. Let’s say he is about to divorce his second wife and will have to pay more alimony (he’s still paying alimony to his first wife). This pretty much means the help his friends offer is not going to get him where he needs to be. He has to consider more drastic action, like selling his car or subleasing his apartment and moving in with his brother Larry.

There are more options for Sam to look at, any number of which will cause him to depart his routine life. Then things will start getting interesting. However, I’m going to stop here with this example because it has illustrated my points.

There are two more points I want to make on this topic. One is that making changes in Sam’s life could eventually lead to his establishing a new routine. In other words, routines are not permanent but over time can be re-cast. This underscores an aspect of human nature: most days in our lives are, well, routine. The second point addresses the unique challenges that science fiction and fantasy writers face when they are worldbuilding. They have to consider what is routine in their world and what is not. Since their worlds are different from what we human readers know to be normal, they have to clearly make us aware of the distinction between routine events and the unusual.

 

OADA Model for Writers

Understanding human behavior in military operations has long been of interest to defense analysts. For several decades I made a living performing analysis and simulation of pilot performance and air combat for the Air Force. Our primary focus was on simulating the human decision making process. One process model we used extensively was comprised of four steps: 1) observe, 2) assess, 3) decide, and 4) act, or OADA. The general idea behind this and similar models is that, when we humans perform rationally, there are clear steps we follow. The first is to observe the situation around us; the second is to assess any changes in our situation; the third is to decide what action (if any) to take if a situational change occurs; and the forth is to take the selected action. Naturally, this is a continuous process we humans “run” in our minds over and over again while we’re awake. The most basic instinct of humans is survival and this process model supports the survival impulse.

As an illustration, suppose I’m walking down the left side of the street when I observe a truck coming towards me on the same side of the street. I initially think nothing of the truck, of course, unless I observe that it is being steered erratically. If its motion is erratic I quickly assess this information and decide to smartly walk toward the left, away from the street and to a nearby brick building. The truck now has my full attention as I observe its continued erratic movement. I move faster and notice an entrance into the building that I can duck into. I observe that the truck has not reduced speed and is now coming over the curb, heading in my general direction. As it does I run into the recessed entrance and try the door. It opens and I enter just as the truck’s front corner hits the front of the brick building and it starts to buckle. I jump as far into the building foyer as I can and, seeing a woman behind a large custom desk, yell to her to take cover as I crawl for the left side of the desk.

In the above example it is obvious that I’m continually observing the situation, assessing what has changed, deciding what I should do about it, and then doing it. When writing about a protagonist (or any character) in a story I find it useful to keep this OADA model in mind. Why? Because I can logically consider what my protagonist is thinking about and what s/he is doing. If nothing much is going on around him, he may be thinking about his goals (wants) and the plans he has developed for reaching them (foreshadowing). Or he may be mulling over events of the past (giving the reader a taste of backstory) or formulating questions or issues that will serve to guide his future activities. In other words, there are many things our characters can be doing and much of it goes on in their minds. Why is this so important? Because knowing this information gives the reader clues as to the character’s worldview and what meanings they associate with what situations. For example, a woman may be in a dangerous situation but feel that as long as her pet Rover is with her she can fend off any attackers. The reader may understand and even relate to this viewpoint but may have a different assessment of the situation. The point is the reader understands why the woman acts the way she does.

There is much more to say about the OADA model and ways to expand it to serve as a tool to help us writers navigate character behavior. This is the first of several posts I plan to write on the topic so stay tuned.

 

Blame Transference

Novels are a rich resource for examining human behavior. To be sure, human behavior is what story writing is all about. When we read a novel and see some parts of ourselves in it this makes the novel more meaningful, more real, and more relevant. We may also see character behaviors that offer insights into the behavior of people we’ve encountered.

From this we might conclude that authors possess extensive training in human psychology. It’s true there are authors who have such training but my research suggests they are a small minority. Apparently this is not a big handicap for most novelist judging by their success. However, readers must judge for themselves how well an author captures human behavior in a story. I observe that many adults have a good grasp of human behavior. Indeed, one need not be old to have encountered many human emotions in one’s self and in others: anger, sadness, excitement, elation, enthusiasm, curiosity, apathy, disappointment, hubris, revenge, and many others. Furthermore, most adults have some understanding of how people relate to each other, including displays of: respect, envy, pity, jealousy, abuse, disregard, resentment, love, and hate. Most emotions can be expressed either against things or against ourselves, or against other people.

In this post, I want to draw attention to blame transference. The word blame suggests that something has gone wrong and there is the issue of who’s responsible. The responsible party is of course the one to blame. The consequences of such blame depend on the circumstances, but a screw-up at work could result in loss of pay, status, or even the job. Our egos can also suffer when we do the adult thing and accept blame when appropriate.

Blame transference is all about people assigning their blame to someone else (or something else) who is not responsible. For example, if Sue has a lousy childhood because of her parent’s dysfunction then they are responsible. Whether Sue blames them or not, interestingly, is another matter. Suppose Sue grew up never feeling unconditional love from her mother. She might blame her mother for this – except she has another conflicting emotion: the desire to put her mother’s needs above hers in an attempt to win her mother’s praise and acceptance. Sue has confused and even replaced the underlying long-unmet need for maternal love with a here-and-now need for her mother’s praise and acceptance. An objective observer might suggest to Sue that as a mature woman she accept that the past cannot be changed and acknowledge her mother’s shortcomings (even confront her if Sue feels the need or will). Further, Sue would do well to seek praise and acceptance elsewhere. Unfortunately, there are not enough objective observers around and Sue doesn’t get the insight she needs until much later in life.

I can say without hesitation that I’ve been guilty of transferring (my) blame to others on several occasions. In general, I can say that at the time (thankfully years ago) I knew I was reacting badly to a difficult situation but didn’t realize I was “taking it out on someone else.” Fortunately, life has a way of educating us as we age and are better able to look back and see things for what they were. As a result, I now do my best to look out for potential transference situations, both in myself and the people around me.

I don’t think fiction writers give this behavioral phenomena as much attention as it deserves. Considering that it can and does cause all manner of problems in people’s lives it should be on the short list of problems for protagonists to have to deal with.

The Perfect Murder Mystery

I’ve read my fair share of mystery novels. It’s a genre I enjoy, although I’m not an expert sleuth. Even so, after years of exposure to mystery stories and “true crime” TV shows I think I’ve got the hang of what an aspiring villain should not do when committing a murder. It’s pretty straightforward – just look at those who got caught and what they did wrong, and avoid repeating the same mistakes.

The first thing a villain must do if committing the perfect murder is have a plan. Whatever the villain does, he/she must not commit a murder at the spur of the moment. The reasons for this are evident in the subsequent rules that follow.

Rule #1: No crimes of passion.

Another painfully obvious observation from true crime stories is that law enforcement is always looking for links between the victim and the killer. These include relatives, in-laws, co-workers, bosses, love interests, and rivals. Clearly, as detectives find and identify links, they hope to discover all possible suspects and then narrow in on the guilty party.

Rule #2: No known relationship to the victim.

Hitchcock’s 1951 movie Strangers on a Train gives us an interesting twist on this rule. In the story two men who meet on a train explore the idea of each killing someone the other wishes to have killed. One wishes his wife dead and the other wants his father dead so he can get his inheritance. Because they are otherwise strangers, this “exchange” of murders represents a good example of Rule #2.

However, another thing that becomes obvious from these stories is that people who go soliciting other people to do their killing make a crucial mistake: now at least one other person knows about their nefarious plan. If the other person goes to the police (before or after any murders happen) the villain is exposed.

Rule #3: Confide in no one.

This was the error made by the murderer in Hitchcock’s movie. Once one of them killed his co-conspirator’s intended victim, the co-conspirator knew he did it. Later a witness verified who the killer was when the “innocent” co-conspirator refused to go through with his side of the deal.

So, we come to the situation where the villain must do the dirty deed himself. The first smart thing to do is to make sure that no forensic evidence is left at the scene of the crime:

Rule #4 Leave no forensic evidence at the crime scene.

Next, it is wise to put as much time and space between the villain and the victim’s death as possible. The classic example of this is the killer secretly damaging the brake lines on the victim’s car. Later, the victim drives down a dangerous road and the brakes fail, causing the car to fall down an embankment and kill the driver. Naturally, the villain is careful not to leave a trace that he was the one who damaged the brakes. Also, the villain is many miles away at the time and place of the driver’s death. A similar but more dramatic approach is to mount an exploding device under the victim’s car. The car ignition could turn on the device and blow up the car and its occupant. Even better, the use of a time delay would trigger the explosion some time later, likely after the car was driven away. This scheme increases the likelihood that the car is moving when the explosion occurs, probably making the crime scene more complicated for the police to analyze.

Rule #5: Ensure separation in time and space between the killer’s actions and the time/place of the murder. Go for the appearance of an accident.

Complying with all the above rules is very nearly impossible. Thus, the villain needs a technological solution in order to achieve the perfect murder. Specifically, the villain needs a non-human (i.e. robot) co-conspirator that can do the dirty work yet never “spill the beans.” This could be something as simple as a flying drone programmed to fly to the victim’s location and crash/explode on them (essentially a smart bomb). Or it could be a sophisticated humanoid robot that gets the job done much like a human would (using a gun, knife, explosives, fisticuff, etc.). As long as these robotic devices are not traceable back to the villain, and the villain ensures he has a solid alibi, a perfect murder appears possible.

Now having laid down the theoretical requirements for the perfect murder mystery, there is only one concern left to address. If, as Rule #2 states, the villain has no relationship with the victim, why would they want to kill them? In true crimes, interestingly, this situation occurs rather often. It occurs every time a drug addict kills a stranger while attempting to rob them.

 

Read More Fiction – Simile Sins

Successful fiction writers have a few pieces of advice they all have in common. In this post, I want to address this one: read more fiction. According to this popular viewpoint, one of the best ways to learn how to write fiction is to read a lot of it. In the past few years I’ve tried to follow this advice by both reading more fiction and reading a wider range of fiction. Outside of my mainstay genre of science fiction, I’ve read mysteries, thrillers, YA, and adventures. This has given me a broader perspective on many aspects of story writing.

A consequence of reading more is I also read more closely. And hence, also more critically. I think this is natural for me as I’ve spent much of my life analyzing things. I tend to read the first sentence of a paragraph, consider its meaning, and then go to the next and repeat the process. I mentally combine the meanings as I read along and form a collective overall interpretation of the paragraph. If the paragraph is well structured it is clear to me what it says and what it accomplishes in the narrative.

I’ve found that some sentences can be very disruptive to this process. The nature of this disruption can be described by my reaction to reading one of them; usually the reaction is, “Say what?” I’ve noted that certain types of sentences cause this reaction more often than others. Specifically, this seems to happen the most when I come across similes.

Many fiction writers either believe, or have been taught, that similes are essential creative “brushstrokes” in the world of literary fiction. There’s no doubt that a well-formed simile is a joy to encounter. It tends to enrich us, perhaps even provide us insight. On the other hand, poor similes can throw me right out of the story. What follows is what I consider a pretty good simile:

“Getting Joe to take out the trash is like trying to push a rope.”

What makes this a good simile is that we are all familiar with rope and we all know that, while it works well for pulling things, it is not good for pushing things. Unfortunately, rope does not give us any insight into Joe.

The following is a sentence I arbitrarily picked from a published fiction novel involving sailboats:

“His fingers kept crawling up the sides of his jacket like crabs”.

Not bad in my view. We’ve all seen crabs or videos of them and have seen their sideways movement. There may even be a bit of insight if the jacket wearer’s fingers are slender.

Let’s try another one, also from a fiction novel but this one was published by one of the big five publishing houses:

“The blossoms smelled like sex as the warm breeze scattered a confetti of pedals upon us.”

Ugh! I have all kinds of problems with this sentence. First, I did a Google search and there are many opinions about what sex smells like. Only a few mentioned anything about blossoms or the like. Second, sex doesn’t really have much to do with the paragraph this line appears in (take my word for it) although the first-person author may have had romance on her mind. Third, the phrase a confetti of doesn’t work well when we all know that confetti is composed of different colored very small pieces of paper. I would drop out the phrase entirely. Here is how I would have written the sentence:

“The warm breeze scattered the fragrant blossom pedals upon us.” 

Of course, this is no longer a simile. However, we all have experienced fragrant blossoms and can readily envision the wind scattering them on us. Sometimes as writers we work too hard to try to form creative, enriching similes. I’m especially mindful of the definition of words when composing a simile. If I end up with a simile that I feel might be a stretch, or is awkward, I take it out rather than risk throwing the reader out of my story.

Here is one last one –  taken from a book on fiction writing:

“Fiction writing can be a difficult, lonely job – like crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a bathtub.”

This is pretty good although I’m not a big fan of it. On the one hand, I get what the author means. On the other hand, why the Atlantic Ocean? The Pacific Ocean is by far the largest ocean. Perhaps the author didn’t think people would know that, or be that picky; after all, the Atlantic is the second largest. I think I understand the bathtub: we all are familiar with them, they have no locomotion, and no way to steer. Also, they are too small for much company. Thus, the trip would certainly be slow going and lonely at best.

Unfortunately, the bathtub offers no insight into writing (not even if one is talking about the shower scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho). Another reason I am not a fan of this simile is that, while I’ve done a lot of travelling, I’ve never crossed the Atlantic Ocean (so I have no personal reference as to how big it is). I have flown across the Pacific Ocean, but that goes back to my earlier comment. Lastly, there is a strong element of danger in crossing an ocean in a bathtub that has no counterpart in fiction writing.

If I had tried to write this simile I would have left the ocean and bathtub out of it. Rather, I’d have gone for phrases like self-incarceration with extended periods of solitary confinement. The thing about self-incarceration that appeals to me is that, interestingly enough, it would give me plenty of time to both read and write fiction.

 

The King (Stephen) and I

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It never occurred to me that I should compare my life to that of any of my contemporaries. Of course, like most people I’ve always kept a general awareness of what people my age are doing; but I haven’t done a side-by-side comparison of myself to anyone. The idea came to me while reading the first part of Stephen King’s memoir On Writing. Early in his book Mr. King mentions he was born in 1947, the same year I was born. As I read on I discovered he had childhood measles, which I had, as well as having to have his tonsils removed. Me too. At this point I decided it would be interesting to look more into the similarities and differences between the highly popular writer and myself. In particular I was looking for actions, events, and/or influences in our respective lives that likely factored into the different career paths we took. Since I’ve never met him I used only what he provides in his book.

As I read on, other things we had in common during childhood included liking science fiction and comic books. He mentions that the newest 1950s technology (black and white television) was late in coming to his family. It was late coming to mine as well. Perhaps the greatest similarity of all, however, was his early display of interest and talent in story writing, and my early display of interest and talent in comic book art.

Regarding my early interest in art, during the first four years of grade school I was the “go to” kid for doing art projects in my classes. I think this came about when in second grade I was so fascinated by a newspaper comic strip called Dondi that I drew three full-size panels of a similar character and showed them to my teacher. She was so impressed she mounted them on the bulletin board for the school to see. I had used India ink and artboard – all very professional looking. Then in third grade (or was it fourth) another teacher had me do all the artwork for a large paper mural that she put on the wall. My mother was so proud of me she came to school and took several 3.5×3.5 inch photos of the mural, which showed a mapping of national parks. The two photos she took are at the start of this post. I did the small drawings that are shown around the outside of the map boarder. I also added lines running from them to park locations on the map.

The significance of showing these photos of my mural artwork is not to impress anyone (not that they would). Rather, it offers some proof of my artistic bent at an early age. For example, the teacher did not ask for volunteers to do the drawings; she simply asked me to do them.

As it turns out, however, I was humbled by the accomplishment Stephen King recounts early in his book. He writes that he was ill much of his first-grade year; so much so that he missed much of school and was held back a year. While homebound much of that first year he mentions reading many comics and writing a few stories. Most notably, he describes putting together a 4-page story that he had laboriously hand printed for his mother to read. Wow! I can’t help but be impressed – I don’t remember much about my first grade but I’m pretty sure I couldn’t have written even a 1-page story by the end of the school year. In those days first grade Dick and Jane books were very basic i.e. “see Spot run.” I have to believe this action was a pivotal time in the author’s life, signifying a deep interest and talent in story narrative.

I no longer feel dismayed about never having gone anywhere with my artistic talents. While I did enjoy drawing, I did not display a comparable level of natural aptitude for art that King did for story writing. He mentions that his mother was highly supportive of his talent, and I can say my mother was highly supportive of mine. In those days the attitude of most parents towards their children was, “children should be seen and not heard.”  Fortunately, some mothers back then understood more about nurturing young sons than about useless, archaic proverbs.

The Hero’s Journey Revisited

I recently attended a writers’ workshop where The Hero’s Journey by Joseph Campbell was discussed. Campbell identified a pattern of events while researching stories and myths involving a person embarking on a journey. The general pattern can be illustrated by drawing a circle with a person starting (at home) at the top. Moving clockwise along and down the circle as time passes, events happen which result in the person beginning a journey. During the journey more events happen, including a number of challenges the traveler most overcome and fears he/she must conquer. During these events the traveler moves through the bottom of the circle and starts up the left side. Finally the traveler returns home (back to the top of the circle) and is a changed person. Not only is the traveler transformed, but he/she returns with what Campbell calls the elixir – meaning some sort of knowledge, or awareness, or potion that helps transform the world into a better place.

The movie The Wizard of Oz is a good illustration of Campbell’s pattern. In the movie Dorothy unwittingly takes a journey to Oz, a strange place with unusual characters who either want to help her or harm her. Dorothy wants to return home but discovers she must first accomplish several tasks. In the end, she successfully returns home with the realization, “There is no place like home.”

Most people wouldn’t necessarily call Dorothy a hero nor is her epiphany that there is no place like home all that enlightening for adults. Nonetheless, the movie shows how the pattern can be generalized in more than a few ways. There are some individuals who even suggest the pattern captures the meaning of life: that is, each of us embarks on a journey through life that hopefully results in new knowledge that helps human-kind.

Fiction writers have said that all they need for a story is for a stranger to come into town. When you think about it, this scenario is just a different slant on the journey pattern. It is the stranger who is the one on the journey.

The pattern can be generalized to include journeys that don’t involve physical movement. Any major life event can signify the start of a journey: high school graduation, getting married, joining the military, getting a college degree, getting a new job, joining a convent, having a baby, and getting divorced. Some of these activities involve physical travel, but the journey they represent is bigger than simply getting out of Dodge.

Two key aspects of this pattern are that the traveler: 1) confronts fears, and 2) undergoes change. The change can be anything from a transformation to an epiphany. Further, a journey (and a life) can be comprised of a series of smaller micro-journeys with each one beginning when an event occurs. Presumably, at least some of these events are prompted by decisions the traveler made based on what was learned in a prior micro-journey. The event can also be in the form of another person’s influence.

While Campbell’s findings were based on studies of stories and myths, I think their application to real life is undeniable. This suggests that the stories and myths themselves contain insights into the human condition.

Anyone thirty or older can point to events and/or decisions they’ve made that have had a major impact on their lives. In my case, the first big life-altering event that occurred to me after high school graduation was receiving a draft notice from Uncle Sam. It prompted my enlistment in the Air Force, from which I received an honorable discharge four years later. My transformation from this micro-journey included not only much-needed maturity but also being able to afford a college education.

Do each of life’s micro-journeys take us from a place of stress and put us in a better place? For the most part I think they do. Of course, much depends on the makeup of the person/traveler. If it didn’t, why would anyone care about the story?

 

Good Art and the Truth

 

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Old covered bridges are like walks on the beach: it’s hard to find someone who doesn’t like them. So, what do covered bridges have to do with good art and the truth? I’m here to explain. As always, there is a story behind the explanation; happily, it is neither long nor complicated. The photo is of an oil painting I did in the summer of 1965. That day in July I was on-site at the Jacoby Mill Road covered bridge just a bit east of U.S. Route 68 off of Clifton Road in Xenia Township, Ohio. I had stumbled onto the bridge some weeks earlier when I was looking around Greene County for possible landscapes to paint. Having just graduated from high school, I was driving my old 1947 “high school kid” car. I parked as far off the road as possible which was difficult as the area was heavily wooded.

Now, switch to this past summer (2016) when I was attending a writers’ workshop. One of the speakers at the workshop repeated a quote I’d never heard before: “All good art gets us closer to the truth.” For some reason I couldn’t help but embrace this quote. Perhaps it was because it sounded so profound, so insightful. Unfortunately, my enthusiasm abated as I carefully listened to the speaker and realized that his narrative wasn’t helping me understand the quote. I still didn’t understand it when I left the workshop but it stayed with me (I’m like a dog with a bone on these kinds of things). I later sent an inquiry to the speaker via email but even after reading his reply I was still not satisfied.

It wasn’t until I got to thinking about this covered bridge painting that a possible interpretation of the quote occurred to me. In looking at the painting I have to admit that back then my artistic virtuosity clearly showed a lack of skill in both craft and technique. And yet, I think I could argue that the art is good for one reason: it is the only image of the bridge from this vantage point that exists today. This wouldn’t be so significant a statement except that the bridge was badly damaged by arson five years after I did this painting (1970). The county tore the remaining structure down shortly thereafter and cleared the site. Today, only parts of the abutments remain.

So, my painting gets us closer to the truth by giving us an image of what the southern entrance to the bridge looked like in 1965. The painting does not exhibit much detail or photographic accuracy, but it does honestly portray what my eyes saw then, as best I could capture the image in oils and canvas.

In fact, this explanation works even better when I thinks about the word closer in the quote. As noted, the painting does not provide detail or photographic accuracy, so it can only get us close to the truth. The same can be said of the limited number of black and white photos of the bridge that exists, taken from other vantage points. Since nature is in full color, black and white images only get us close to the truth.

Do I conclude from all of this that my painting is good art? The answer, in my view, depends upon the criteria one selects to quantify good. I select that good means the honest representation of something that no longer exists and for which any other representation differs. In this sense, my art is good.

If this definition of good art seems a little accommodating or perhaps self-serving, consider how things must have been in the Renaissance Period. In those days of da Vinci and Michelangelo, consider that the only means of representing the human form was by art (painting, sculpting, and drawing). There were no photographic plates, no instamatics or Polaroid’s, no digital bitmaps, and no videos. Indeed, these methods were the only means of generating an image of anything.

Thus, I believe I have succeeded in providing an overall interpretation of the quote. Naturally, this is only one interpretation and others might possibly surface. Until then, I’m sticking with this one for sure.

In closing, I mention an insight I learned from taking several night classes in oil painting in mid-1970: our eyes can play tricks on us. Often when I paint what I think I see I come to realize the colors on the canvas are wrong. I learned that my brain needed to be trained and any preconceived notions dispensed with. Art has been letting me know the truth ever since.

Suspension of Disbelief

Worlds to Colonize

Surely everyone familiar with the arts has come across the phrase suspension of disbelief. When we see a play or read a novel, it is clear that the play or the novel is a representation of reality. We are not flies on the wall, watching and reading about real people living their real lives (or being able to crawl into their minds, as we can with written stories). Even so, most people have little difficulty suppressing this fact in order to enjoy the play or book. The representation need only be sufficient to permit the audience/reader to suspend disbelief.

Many stories go further in their reliance on readers to suspend disbelief. For example, superheroes and talking animals can make for entertaining stories even if they don’t exist in the real world. For these genres, each individual must decide for themselves how far they are willing to suppress disbelief for the sake of entertainment, education, and/or examining imaginative ideas.

Far future science fiction stories like Star Wars have a unique place in this essay because their reality is defined at a time well into the future. This greatly facilitates suspension of disbelief since who knows what will happen by then. True, modern science suggests certain SF tropes will likely never exist. These include time travel, matter transporters (beam me up, Scotty), and faster-than-light space travel. On the other hand, modern science also hints at developing technologies that make plausible major advancements in human immortality, highly intelligent and mobile robots, and routine interplanetary space travel for non-astronauts.

To explore suspension of disbelief further consider one SF story I’ve read that takes place in a far future where mankind has colonized a number of planets in another part of the galaxy. In the hundreds of years since colonization, unfortunately, most of the colonies have failed and those remaining are in dire shape. The colonies were failing because: 1) the environments were very harsh, 2) the colonists’ equipment was getting old and failing (insufficient spares), and 3) supplies like seeds and medicines were low or exhausted. In other words, the colonies were not self-sustaining and there was (for some unexplained reason) no help available from earth.

I find the basic premise of colonizing planets believable. As for the harsh planet environments, our growing knowledge of exoplanets supports this view of planet diversity. Just because humans colonize a planet doesn’t mean it is very earth-like. In all likelihood, it is not.

However, I was unable to suspend disbelief of several presuppositions within the story. The first was the idea of humans colonizing planets without the goal of self-sustainment. No reason is given why taking this extreme risk is justified. It seems simply suicidal to me in view of the anticipated challenges in resupplying colonies. Second, nowhere in the story are intelligent robots even mentioned. Sorry, but in my opinion humanity will be relying heavily on intelligent robots to help us make our way into space. In fact, this has been much the case already. Consider all the space probes we have already sent into our solar system to gather data (New Horizons, Voyagers 1 & 2, Cassini, Pioneer series, Rosetta, Deep Space 1, Deep Impact, Vega 1 & 2, and many more). These probes foreshadow the smart, highly mobile robots that will help us successfully make our way deeper into space. They will be doing the dirty work or completely replacing humans on risky missions.

Of course, we all know that conflict is key in storytelling. The author thus needs to come up with challenges to be overcome. However, if it seems to me that a challenge is inserted to make the story work, rather than portray a realistic aspect of world building, I lose interest. I also recognize that SF writers are, by and large, not in the business of forecasting the future. So, if their future worlds don’t fit with my views of the future, that’s on me. Their job is to write entertaining stories.

My point in all of this is that knowing a person in the literary sense means understanding where they draw the line on suspension of disbelief. And if they don’t even read SF, well, I feel compassion for those who never ask, “What if?