Monthly Archives: April 2014

Rereading the Screwtape Letters as an Atheist; Part Six

I have written a lot about the ideas in this book, but very little about the story itself. That’s because this is an idea-centric book, but there is still a plot, and shame on me for neglecting it. What’s at stake is the soul of the Patient; whether he ends up in heaven or hell. I have been focusing on the ideas about right and wrong behavior, rather than religion, but in some ways that is a skewed analysis of the book, because ultimately Screwtape and Wormwood’s goal is not to make The Patient a bad person, but an unbeliever. In other words, even if The Patient becomes a fairly decent person, if he leaves the church he will presumably still descend to hell, and Screwtape will have won.

This is a story problem for people who think often about the fairness of the whole concept of hell, because it raises the question of whether we should really be rooting for heaven. What kind of loving God is really fine with eternal punishment like that? Ultimately we have to hope The Patient avoids hell, as that is clearly not a pleasant end, but there’s still an open question of whether the God he is worshiping is really worth following. Chapter Eight is where Screwtape attempts to explain something of heaven’s perspective, for Wormwood’s benefit. (Important linguistic question; does this, in fact, make him an angel’s advocate? I think it has to.) While Screwtape is an unreliable narrator, under these circumstances it seems he is motivated to be, at the very least, truthful to his understanding of the topic. His information may be flawed, but he is a high ranking tempter, and therefore something of an expert. Here on Earth, the best debaters make themselves as familiar as possible with the arguments and viewpoints of their opponents, so it’s safe to assume that Screwtape’s information is at least moderately reliable.

So what is the excuse of the God of this book’s universe? Free will, of course. “He really does want to fill the universe with loathsome little replicas of Himself – creatures whose life, on its miniature scale, will be qualitatively like His own, not because He has absorbed them but because their wills freely conform to His… You must have often wondered why the Enemy does not make more use of His power to be sensibly present to human souls in any degree he chooses and at any moment. But you now see that the Irresistible and the Indisputable are the two weapons which the very nature of his scheme forbids him to use.” He goes on about this for a while, with very pretty words, but he’s ultimately just repeating the same point again and again; God does not reveal himself in some unambiguous way because apparently, if he did, he would override our free will. It’s an argument I’ve heard before, and it sounds nice and noble. Except for the part where people go to hell for no crime worse than being skeptical of the existence of a being who refuses to produce evidence of his existence. That part is pretty terrible.

Then there’s the question of how proof, or strong evidence, would override free will. I can think of two possible interpretations of what Screwtape is saying. Number one, he’s talking about an intense revelation that would have a Lovecraftian effect on our minds. Our little minds would break, and we would end up speaking devout gibberish in a mental hospital. All right, I’m really okay with that not happening. Doesn’t that still leave the option of leaving behind a lot of indirect evidence to help persuade skeptically minded people like me? It really wouldn’t be as hard as a lot of believers make it out to be. Remember, I was raised Christian, and I was reluctant to let go of my beliefs for most of my life. Losing my faith was downright painful. If the Bible had contained, instead of a highly folkloric tale about seven days of creation, a description of the origins of the universe that would conform with later scientific observations, that would have helped enormously. Fix the science and history in the Bible and throw out the more batshit rules, and I might still be a Christian. So might many atheists in the world of Screwtape Letters. So why let us live in a world where facts about the natural world make unbelief even a plausible viewpoint? Interpretation number two; good, convincing evidence would override free will, because it convinces us instead of giving us a chance to exercise our faith. This makes even less sense, and I include it only because I’ve heard something along those lines argued in real life; i.e. God put fossils in the ground to test our faith. You could as easily argue that the lack of good evidence was overrides free will, because it makes intellectually honest belief impossible for many people. Free will is screwed either way, so you might as well go with the humane version.

So as a reader I’m still left with the question; how is a God who would let the universe operate this way really a better alternative for The Patient than Screwtape? Why should I, the reader, care that The Patient ends up in heaven if it’s run by someone who operates the universe like this?

And that, to me, is the biggest failing of this book. It’s not that it sometimes talks about prayer and church and things I don’t really relate to. That’s not really an objective issue with the book, just an example of how it fails to overlap with my personal current interests. The biggest failing of this book is that it’s based on a particular religious view that raises some troubling questions about the God at the center of it. Screwtape’s line about making “loathsome little replicas” is supposed to be read contrarily. He thinks it’s a disgusting idea, but we are meant to think it sounds admirable and glorious. But if God is someone who would allow the eternal suffering of millions just so the remainder will be transmuted copies of himself, what does that suggest about him? To me, it says he’s a callous narcissist. So are we supposed to turn into callous narcissists ourselves? Or are we supposed to turn into entities much like him, except instead of being narcissistic about ourselves, we are enamored of him to the exact degree that he wants us to be, and callous about the fate of those who have failed his little test?

Screwtape may have a point. Loathsome indeed.


Nurses and Teachers; a Purely Frivolous Post

I work as a special education teachers aide. Right now I am working with a preschool autism class, and I love it, although it has its tough moments. One of the disadvantages is that, when a substitute is needed, there is a short supply of people who both like working in that environment and who we like having around, so often we are stuck with whoever happens to volunteer for the job.

Today we were in that situation, and for the most part, we got lucky. The substitute was friendly, good with young kids and pretty good at jumping in or staying out of the way as needed. She had only one issue; her previous experience had been as a nurse.

I am pretty familiar with the quirks of both fields. I work in one. My mother works in the other. They are both entirely admirable occupations, but being in one or the other tends to breed very different habits, particularly when it comes to cleanliness and germs. A nurse, for example, when going to eat in a restaurant, will go wash their hands. They will then dry their hands with a paper towel, take the towel over to the restroom door, use the handle to open the door, wedge their butt in between the door and the frame, and then toss the towel in the trash can at the last minute. A teacher will say, “fuck it, I’ve already been sneezed on six times today. What more can they do to me?”

As a result, we got a little extra entertainment today, watching her jump up and run for a baby wipe every time somebody did a little thing like eat their boogers. I don’t think she will need to go to the gym today.

Three Types of Writer’s Block

One of my goals is to write a lot, every day. There are many different types of writing that I do; emailing ideas to my friends and my sister, posting on this blog, work on stories I’m drafting, scribbling out ideas I want to shape into stories, and so on. An advantage to this is that when I have a type of writing I don’t want to do, I can shift over to a type of writing I’m more into right now.

A disadvantage is that when I have a type of writing I don’t want to do, it’s really easy to ignore it in favor of a type of writing I’m more into right now.

I’m a big believer in noticing the reasons why I fail to do something I want to do. If I can take care of the root cause of my failings, it seems reasonable to assume I’ll start doing better at the thing itself. In the case of writer’s block, I’ve heard of a lot of advice, which seem to be either helpful or utterly counterproductive, and not in a friendly consistent way. Advice A on Tuesday works like a charm, and then completely falls flat on Thursday. Advice B, which wasn’t cutting it on Monday, is exactly what was needed on Wednesday. Very recently, I came up with a theory that the reason one type of advice might work one day and fail another is that there are three types of writer’s block.

Type one is when you’ve got another thought burning in your head, and when you sit down to write something else that really needs to be finished right now, it’s like trying to talk to a friend across the table in a club where the music has been turned up way too loud. You can’t catch the words that make up your “need to write now” idea. The “want to write now” idea is drowning them out.

It can sometimes help to promise yourself you can write the fun idea once you finish the other work. This is especially effective if you can set a time or word count limit. If you’re really lucky, you can combine the two. My sister used to find connections between the papers she needed to write for college and the topics she was interested in now, so she could slip the writing she wanted to do into the writing she needed to do. However, sometimes the urge to write your fun idea is too much. You might as well try to write while you need to pee. If both of those tactics fail, just indulge yourself. Get the fun words out. At least it’s still practicing your craft, and maybe the words burning in your brain will take you somewhere good.

Type two is when your internal editor won’t shut up. There is something wrong with the words that are coming out the ends of your fingers, and the part of you that knows something is wrong wants you to stop before you completely waste your time on this shit. A lot of writing teachers will tell you that you need to ignore your internal editor, and keep going until you’re ready for the editing process. This is good advice, some of the time. Other times, fixing a problem now, before it grows, will keep the writing fun in the long run.

The trouble with being a writer is that when you start working, you don’t have a clear medium to work with. A painter has a blank surface, and a palette of colors. A sculptor has a lump of clay, or piece of rock or wood. They both know that, at that blank canvas/misshapen lump stage, they don’t have what they want, but that’s okay. They have a crude form they can shape into what they want, and they know the rough parameters they have to work with; whether it’s five square feet of canvas or a whole wall in a cathedral, whether there’s already a sticky out bit of branch that can be carved into an arm or whether they have to whittle the whole thing down before they get a nice arm going. There is a shape they can project their ideas of their final idea onto.

Writers, on the other hand, have the inner idea of what their finished work could be, but nothing to project that idea onto. They won’t have anything like that until after they have hammered out either a first draft, or a very detailed outline. They can discover halfway through writing a short story that the scope of their idea demands, at minimum, a longish novella, or that they are trying to mash two short stories into a three novel trilogy. Before they can create their finished project, they must conjure up their medium from scratch.

Sometimes the internal editor is objecting to a perfectly moldable lump of clay. It sucks, but it’s supposed to suck right now. Other times, it’s trying to tell you that you’re making more work for yourself later. You’re making a little canvas when you need a big canvas. That pointy bit on the wood needs to be longer, or you won’t be able to carve it into a well proportioned arm and your Grecian goddess will look like she has phocomelia. (note to self; write about a diety with phocomelia… maybe based on Hephaestus…) The trick here is not to ignore your internal editor, but to train it. Teach it to recognize when to shut up and when to pipe up. There is no shortcut to doing this. It’s a lifelong process that is the essence of the craft of writing. It’s the reason for writer’s workshops and books on the craft, the purpose of alpha readers and writing groups. Try listening to it one day and see how it goes, try ignoring it the next and see if that works out better. If this was easy, it wouldn’t be nearly as worth doing.

Type three is nearly the inverse of type two. It’s the type that kills you before you even get started. It comes from knowing ahead of time that the gap between your lump of clay and the masterpiece in your head will be massive. It comes from knowing that the world is full of aspiring authors, and many of them are crap. Most of them, in fact, are crap, and who are you to think you’re going to be successful when so many other people are failing?

Well, when you ignore this fear, sit down and write something, you’ve become someone who practiced their craft instead of talking about doing it, so that’s pretty awesome. If you’ve read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, you know the difference between the masters and the novices is 10,000 hours of practice, so if you’ve been working on your writing for a thousand hours, you’re a whole tenth of the way closer to that than anyone who has only been talking about writing for a thousand hours. So the way to beat this type of writer’s block is do whatever you have to do to sit down and write. Go to a place that puts you in a better writing mood. Tell yourself that after you hit 600 words, you can have cake. Get one of those standing treadmill desks and combine your writing time with your exercise time. Tell this type of writer’s block it is bad, naughty writer’s block, and it will have no fudge today.

On that note, I’m going to go watch some old How I Met Your Mother episodes, as that was my designated reward for ignoring Type Three and finishing this post. Yay me!

In Praise of Olaf, the Actual Character

I recently saw Frozen for the second time. I understand this puts me behind the average Frozen fan by about ten viewings, but in my defense I am rather broke. It’s popularity makes me very happy; it has thoroughly earned it’s reputation. The story is great, the sisters are wonderful characters, and “Let it Go” is somehow still great even on the three hundred and fifty-seventh listen.

Also it has Olaf.

(spoilers lie ahead)

When I saw Olaf in the first trailer, I expected to hate him. I wasn’t even consciously aware that I didn’t expect to like him, until he sang “In Summer,” and completely won me over. The reason for my prejudice was that he fit into a particular subtrope of plucky comic relief; the child-appropriate buffoonish wisecracker. The type is easily identified by being short, either exaggeratedly scrawny or chubby, and a bit ugly. Nearly every animated children’s film has had one since Timon in The Lion King. There is nothing wrong with a character fitting a trope, but a trope alone doesn’t make a character. Characters have motivations and goals, for example. They help move a story along. They should, unless they are extremely minor, have a couple different character traits that contradict each other; it’s this contradiction that people mean when they talk about rounded, complex characters. The interaction between two or more seemingly incompatible traits is what gives each character a unique fingerprint. Aurora and Cinderella are boring because they don’t exhibit any character traits beyond what that Disney Princess type requires. Belle is simultaneously a romantic daydreamer, and an independent pragmatist, which makes her a character.

Even more so than the Disney Princess, this character type tends to be written to trope specifications, written for marketing considerations rather than to serve the story.  He makes the little kids laugh, and so he sells a lot of toys (I can’t think of an example who isn’t male). Over time, Mushu from Mulan, Donkey from Shrek, Phil from Hercules and everyone else of their ilk have blurred together into a mega-character. They lack any personality traits that make one significantly different from another or interesting in their own right, they rarely do anything in the story besides deliver a few lines of exposition and punch out some mooks in the final showdown, and they rarely have relationships with the other characters beyond following the protagonist’s lines with witty commentary. They are the trope itself, changing shape to photobomb the stories of characters who actually have something to do.

With his first song, Olaf established himself as a character, not a caricature.

Olaf’s buffoonery comes from a well-meaning naivete. He’s gregarious to a fault, so as he rattles off he says things that are unintentionally farcical. Unlike most characters of his type, he doesn’t intend to be snarky. His intentions collide with his utter cluelessness, so in the same sentence he can be polite and impertinent. In contrast to his childlike innocence, he also has a protective sense of responsibility, shown early on when he tries to protect Anna and Kristoff from the evil snowman. He’s an optimist who wants the people in his life to be happy and healthy, which is why, despite being a snowman, his ideal time of the year is summer. His traits contradict each other, but in a harmonious way that create an image of a whole person.

He also actually serves the plot, particularly at the end. If it were not for him, both protagonists would have died, Anna because she would have frozen and Elsa because Anna wouldn’t have been there to save her. Furthermore, he doesn’t just act as a body who happened to be in the right place at the right time, but as Olaf.  might do some things, but will rarely do something that is in their character to do. When the average Disney buffoon provides exposition, it’s not because they are wise, but because because the writers shoehorned some information in their heads to justify their presence. When they attack a mook or provide distraction in the climax, it’s not because they are brave, but because this is the scene where everybody is fighting, so of course they are too. Olaf proactively makes his way into the castle, picks a lock with his carrot nose and lights a fire for Anna despite her protests that he will melt, because what else would someone as protective and kind as Olaf do?

In addition to serving the story, he serves a unique thematic role. Early on in the story, building snowmen is set up as a symbol of Anna and Elsa’s relationship when they were happy and together. Olaf’s personality combines that of young Anna (innocent and playful) and young Elsa (has a responsible, protective streak). He accompanies Anna on her journey because she’s the one looking to make things right between them again. Both sisters knew what love was when they were children, but their isolation has made both lose sight of it, so of course it’s the snowman from their childhood who reminds Anna what love really is. He’s the essence of the story personified. He just happens to also fulfill the buffoon’s role, because he’s funny.

More like him, please!