Friday, August 24, 2012

The difference between evil and crazy

Photo of Anders Behring Breivik being sentenced in Norway courtesy
Today, a Norwegian court found Anders Behring Breivik legally sane and sentenced him to up to 21 years in jail, and possibly for the rest of his life, for his bomb and shooting spree last year that killed 77 people.

The case was unusual in many ways, not least because the prosecution was arguing that Breivik, was insane. The defendant argued he was sane and was waging a war against what he described as a Muslim invasion of Europe.

I have thought about that difference for a long time: where is that dividing line between “insanity” and “evil”? So many actions and ideas can be ascribed either description.

The epitome of evil-doer in modern pop culture is the serial killer, who is usually portrayed as mentally ill in some way — sociopathological, missing something in his or her mentality that prevents most of us from acting out those dark ideas, or damaged somehow by childhood abuse.

In reality, it seems that finding someone criminally insane suggests that we can cure the offender. If only we can give the right treatment, we can reform the offender, prevent him or her from doing those terrible deeds.

But what about evil? Is it a disease that we can cure? And what is evil?

This is a tricky question, one that greater minds than mind have struggled with for millennia. The question isn’t made easier by the shifting definition of evil over time and across the world. At one time, burning people alive was perceived as a good act, one that protected communities from contamination by evil or devilish ideas. Today in most of the Western world, the opposite reaction, tolerance, is perceived as the moral one.

In many parts of the world, the freedom of expression that the West so strongly defends is opposed by community leaders as a terrible evil, one that leads to community fracturing and moral degradation. When those proponents point to pornography, it’s easy to see their side.

However, trying to understand why someone would espouse an idea or take actions that we consider evil can lead us back to the original quandary. How can someone sane commit something so obviously evil as Breivik? What is wrong with his mind that can cause him to think that killing teenagers is defence of a culture?

The words

The questions of what evil is, and what we can or should do about it, are rich grounds for writers. I could write stories about this from so many different angles (if I had the time, of course). Can evil be cured with the right psychological treatment? If we could somehow cure all insanities, would we eliminate the serial killer, the murderer for pleasure? Or would another shift in cultural mores bring back the days of gladiatorial combat to the death for the pleasure of audiences?

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Authors and Olympic athletes

 I don’t want to get a nasty message from the IOC for infringing their copyright or trademark, so I won’t use the Olympic rings as a graphic for this post. Instead, I’ll ask you to imagine it, in full colour. Not even the IOC can do anything about that.

I respect copyright — of course I do, I’m an author — but while the IOC is going too far, wielding their power and their money like a playground bully, I’d rather focus on the Olympic athletes.

Bully image courtesy Business Spotlight

What’s the connection between writing and Olympic athletes? Both authors and athletes face a long, rough road. For most athletes, just getting to the Games is a thrill. Only a tiny minority take home a medal.

Watching events like this, hearing interviews with sprinters and divers and participants in so many other events, you begin to appreciate that there is much, much more to every event than what’s on the front pages of the newspapers or in the TV reports. For every spectacular photo of a medalist in action, there are hundreds of other athletes all giving the same effort without the glory.

None of those medal winners could climb the podium without the efforts of thousands of other people: coaches, assistants, organizers and especially all the other competitors, from the local leagues and events, through all the regional, national and international events.

The long, rough track ahead

While the Olympics are the glory events, there is so much more sweat, blood and commitment at the other levels. I have more respect for those competitors, those who give their sport everything they have, even while knowing how long their road ahead is, from the local competition to the world stage.

The writer faces a similar road. It’s a long way from that first idea, through outlines and drafts and rewrites, beta reading, critique circles, rewriting, editing, copy-editing ... you know the drill. And that’s just to get the book produced. Then there’s another, even rougher road to get the book into the hands (or in front of the eyeballs) of an audience. A very few become best-sellers, but there are many, many worthy books that, due to may constellations of luck and circumstance, just don’t get the recognition.

Speed bumps

Yesterday, I watched the Triathlon. Like probably every other Canadian, I hoped that our flag-bearer Simon Whitfield, who won the gold medal in 2000 in Sydney and the silver in 2008, would take the gold again. But after working his way to a good position after the foot race, he crashed moments after getting on his bike and injured himself badly enough to have to withdraw.

Did he deserve to win? Sure: he put in the hours in training, he had the talent, he obviously had the ability, but luck got in the way. He hit that speed bump just wrong, and he’s out.

So much in publishing success depends on luck, too. Who would have predicted the runaway success of 50 Shades of Gray? How many publishing professionals predicted that Harry Potter would go nowhere, and rejected JK Rowling’s manuscript?

On the road

Where am I on the road, right now? I can’t say I’m thrilled about the total sales of any of my titles. But I sold a few copies in the past week. I know it’s a tiny number, but I’m happy about any sales.

It’s a long, long road, after all.

Friday, August 03, 2012

Guest blogger: JD Mader on writing

The critically-acclaimed author of Joe Café, The Biker and other works, JD Mader is swapping guest blog posts with me this week. Read about the best and the worst that JD Mader ever did as a writer, and then check out his blog, Avoiding the Stairs.


 The Best and Worst Things I’ve Ever Done (as a writer)

Let’s start with the bad. I majored in Creative Writing. My focus was short fiction. I had no aspirations at being a novelist then. One could focus on Novel, Poetry, Playwriting—and everyone had to take a few classes outside their interest. This was fine with me. I don’t dig poetry, but I spent years writing lyrics for my bands, so that was easy. I like novels and that was a fun class. Somewhere there is a plan for a novel and a good chunk of writing (terrible, I’m sure).

The playwriting class…ugh. At the time, I hated writing dialogue. It took me many hours of eavesdropping and transcribing random peoples’ conversations to get comfortable with dialogue. I knew the importance of good dialogue. Anyway, guess what there is a shit-ton of in a play?

I was pretty serious about writing when I was in college. I was also pretty serious about killing my brain cells and playing music and working and…you get the idea. I knew I could write a play that would get me an A. But I didn’t try. I copped out. The play I wrote all took place between two people trapped in an elevator.

It was a smart-ass move. I got my grade, but I didn’t get the point. I wish I could go back and try again. My teacher was a very accomplished playwright. It was an opportunity I blew.

I started writing professionally when I was 14 or 15, as a sportswriter in San Diego. When I moved to San Francisco for college, I just left. No thank you, no goodbye. I would do that over again, too. I didn’t appreciate the majesty of that opportunity until a decade had passed. (Bonus screw-up.)

What’s the best thing I’ve ever done?

The best thing is easy. For six years I worked with low-income, at-risk youth in San Francisco. I wore a lot of hats, but the best part was that I got to teach writing workshops to kids who did not read, did not write, and had little interest in doing so. I designed the workshop…or I should say we did.

The interest came quickly, and a lot of the kids were amazing writers. They weren’t emulating Kerouac like I did when I was in high school. They had original, unique voices, and I got to help them realize that.

We wrote as a group all the time. I was writing all day long with my students. We all produced an amazing amount of work, and we wrote in many forms. I didn’t shy away from any of them. And I shared my regret about my “play” with my kids.

We became very close, and they had some very intense stuff to write about. After the first couple of classes, the kids would come to class fired up and ready to write. They wrote on their own and brought me things to read. We wrote for the pure joy of seeing what could come out of our brains. They learned a lot. I probably learned more.

That was the most fun I have ever had with writing. Not only was I writing all the time, but I got to talk about writing all the time. And I can talk about writing forever. It also surprised me how much I knew. I was very, very lucky to get paid to do something as wonderful as writing with kids.
Since I threw in a bonus bad one, here’s my bonus good’un. My friend Pat and I have been writing and recording music together for twenty years. When I ask my four year old daughter what music she wants to listen to, she always says, “Dadda and Pat! Dadda and Pat!” That makes me about as happy as any writer has a right to be.

JD Mader is a writer and musician living in the Bay area. He is also a husband and a father. He has written countless short stories (many of which have been included in the collection Please, no eyes). He is the author of the critically acclaimed Joe Café and, more recently, The Biker (A Matt Stark Novel) — the first in a trilogy. In addition, Mader is a staff writer with, and co-founder of the mighty where you can find fiction, ramblings, and even a profanity-laced advice column. Mader likes to fish in his off time…he also likes to sit on “Francine and Dadda Rock” and talk about “stuff.”

Check out JD's website, where you can see him bending baseball bats with his bare arms; YouTube channel and Amazon author page. This week, I'm his guest blogger on Avoiding the stairs.