Sunday, January 13, 2019

Aphorisms as Story Prompts

I’d like to begin this new year on an encouraging note. This is not as easy as it sounds. I’ve always had something of a reputation as a grouch—and who can blame me? Have you SEEN what’s going on in the world lately??? It’s hard to feel like my writing matters for a whole lot in a time when three quarters of the world seems bent on destroying itself, the people charged with governing cannot govern themselves let alone whole nations, bald-faced treason and rampant atrocity are “normalized,” blithely excused as “missed opportunities” or “no big deal…” Well fuck! So much for beginning the year on an encouraging note.

Some people turn to drink in times like these. I turn to great books. The drunks probably have more fun in the short run, although I am seldom hungover in the morning, and I almost always remember the night before. Reading acclimates the mind to inspiration, and if there’s one thing we need in these times, it’s inspiration! Great stories—great books—can change the world when people are allowed to imagine and to dream. Great books—great stories—can teach us how to think about thinking, sharpen our ability to reason, and inspire us to build without first needing to destroy. But before any of this can happen—going back to first causes as it were—there needs to be an idea.

I love writing aphorisms; they are to the essay what micro-fiction is to the short story.  An aphorism is the world writ small, a galaxy contained within a nutshell, the tiny icon contemplated by a mystic, who builds a heaven in his head. Someone—I think it was Lawrence Block in one of his books on writing—said that the short story, whatever form it might take, is, in essence, an exploration of an idea. So it occurred to me yesterday as I was desperately trying to come up with a topic for today’s post, that aphorisms can be so much more than snappy memes on Facebook. Aphorisms can make brilliant story prompts!

I write aphorisms about the things that interest me most deeply; human relationships, sex, religion, politics, creativity, and the craft of writing. Here are a few from the past several years, three or four of them even dressed up as snappy, Facebook-ready memes.

People who are deeply embarrassed by sex tend to treat it either as a joke or a crime, in either case, a transgression of the natural order.

Every discovery, no matter how small,  expands context

Ignorance is not a virtue. Willful ignorance is the most egregious of all mortal sins; it is the suicide of the mind.

In a Universe of unceasing change, permanence is unnatural

Monogamy—happy marriage in particular—makes for abysmal erotica

Men claim to be builders, but they are all too eager to destroy in order to get what they want. Women are the true Creative Force of humanity.

When the poor have nothing left to eat, they will eat each other—or so the rich try to convince themselves.

First step: get so good they can't ignore you. Second step: continue to improve to a point where they are compelled to take you seriously. Third step: keep pushing towards that point where you no longer have to take shit from anybody. Once at this exalted level you may comfortably rest on your laurels, safe in the assurance that your publisher will accept any random piece of crap you send their way. So long as they can sell something with your name on it, no one will ask any questions.

To be circumspect in the bald face of evil is to be complicit in that evil.

We are a strange mystical confluence of flesh and consciousness; a matrix of meat and bad judgment

We secretly delight in chaos—so long as it affects somebody else. Something deep within us welcomes anarchy. In a life that has become too predictable—too comfortable—we are thrilled by the notion of chaos, seeking change for change’s sake, no matter how disastrous such change might be when played out in reality.

The difference between a gentleman and a jerk is simply this: a gentleman does not assume that women were put on this earth to cater to his every whim. Companionship is not an entitlement or an inalienable right. If I am lonely, or bored, or horny, those are MY problems to deal with. Nobody is under any obligation to keep me company, or entertain me, or supply me with nooky on demand.

Our economic paradigm is nothing more than the old company store on a global scale.

I employ beautiful language in order to expose ugly truths.

I’m not writing about sex; I’m writing about people. It’s just that I don’t pretend that real people don’t think or talk about sex, or spend at least part of their time having it.

There is, I’ve found, a certain grounding value in music or writing that bores me benignly; that is, neither irritates nor annoys me so much as to be a distraction, but allows me to employ my imagination without wandering too far afield.

It is not necessarily a writer’s job to answer every question a reader may have. Better to leave a little mystery beyond the margins, an enigma that makes the story memorable, something to haunt the reader long after the book has been closed.

For me, writing has always been a means to self-knowledge. It is also the arena in which I endeavor to face down my demons. Through regular daily practice, I sublimate my fears, anger, and the ugliness of  depression into something cathartic, beautiful, luminous and self-edifying. Through my characters I imagine an alternate reality and a different past for myself. And so it is, that through the cursorily-glimpsed lives of transient characters, we may construct new worlds in which to escape the miseries of memory.

To survive is to turn and embrace the miseries that would overwhelm us. To live is to rise above them.

When describing inspiration, we often fall back on the Biblical metaphor of Pentecost, that is, a decanting from above of mental energy—thoughts, images, ideas, wisdom— gifted by some higher intelligence outside and separate from ourselves. A more apt metaphor may be that of a geyser or a volcano erupting within ourselves. Though inspiration may be initiated by external stimuli, those things—mentally abstracted—must come into contact with something uniquely the artist’s own. Inspiration comes, not from above, but from within.

Magical thinking is the confusion of a metaphor with the thing it is supposed to signify. One might artfully compare the human body to a mechanical system; but the magical thinker’s mistake is to take the comparison literally and believe accordingly, acting as if the body truly were a machine. 

When I was young I aspired to be a great man, and ended up being an asshole. Now I know that the highest aspiration is not to be a great man but to be a good one. I thought that being unusual made me great; but uniqueness is not the same thing as greatness. In the end, I would rather be a simple, good nobody than a famous jerk.

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