Archive for June 2010

Oil and other toxic things

June 5, 2010

The man who can smile in the face of adversity has found someone else to blame it on.

As most of you know by now, I am generally disinclined to get into politics in any public venue. I find politics, like any area into which people inject feelings of religious fervor, worth avoiding under nearly all circumstances. Part of the reason why I stay away from these things is that I seem unable to truly agree with anyone, having a brain either blessed or cursed with a fairly unique set of operational habits; and I don’t like to argue, probably because I would rather discuss and work together to root out truth.

Once again, I’m coming at things from an odd perspective, and I don’t have definitive answers. But it seems to me that most of the current interpretations of the disaster spilling into the Gulf of Mexico miss the mark.

Here’s the bottom line, as far as I can tell: Oil is toxic and dangerous, and we allow it into our lives at our peril. This week we’re blaming BP for the Gulf; before that it was Chevron, for Chernobyl; some of us are old enough to remember cutting up our Exxon credit cards in disgust after the Valdiz. But the truth is that collecting, transporting, and refining oil is a dangerous and toxic business no matter who does it, and all the companies operating in that sphere are more or less the same. There is no question that Oil companies, just like companies in any other business, don’t CARE; it’s not their charter to care, and we forget that at our peril, too. In this regard BP is no worse than any of them. Their investors don’t ask them to care; they expect them to make money. As consumers we don’t ask them to care, either; not really. We wouldn’t tolerate what oil would cost if they did.

The bottom line is that if we want things like this to stop happening, no amount of regulation or accountability accepted by the outfit that was standing watch when the latest disaster occurred will matter. Our relationship with oil is toxic, as toxic as the stuff itself, and–as with any toxic relationship–if we want to put this disaster-ridden phase of our lives behind us, we have to find some way to move on. The gas we put in our cars is only the most obvious starting point. Take a look at this list of things that come from oil. How can we solve the problems addressed by these products with things that come from other sources? What can we buy instead?

The most profound action any of us can make in this regard is reducing demand for this toxic substance we’ve grown dependent on; voting with our dollars. Because dollars are the only thing either companies or governments understand.

There’s a lot of talk going around regarding how to get back at BP. But even putting them out of business won’t solve the problem; they are no more to blame than any other company in the field. If we want to end this toxic situation, we need–individually and collectively–to use our dollars to vote it out. Maybe that means switching the products we buy to a different brand; maybe that means simply consuming less. Does insisting on *recycled* plastic help in this regard, or are we just changing the part of the process in which the new oil enters? I don’t know. And I should. I should understand much more about the ways oil sneaks into my daily life and what I might do instead.

I think I’d better make it my business to find out. I hope you will, too.

The power of smart

June 4, 2010

One of the most common mistakes I see in the work of developing writers is over-explaining. They do it in their own work; in critique groups they exhort one another to do it. Every mystery or odd character behavior not instantly explained is treated as a flaw.

This is wrong.

Yes, I said it, and as most of you know I make few black-and-white pronouncements. But this is a thing of which I’m absolutely certain.

Readers want to understand, but they don’t want you to *explain*. They want to figure things out for themselves: pursue the mysteries, unravel them thread by thread. Getting the right answer makes them feel smart; mysteries they understand but haven’t yet solved gives them things to talk about with friends who are reading the same book. There’s a reason why, despite its legion of flaws, Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series is so very popular: people are captivated by the mysteries within. They want to unravel them.

Letting your readers work for their answers is not the same thing as being incomprehensible. Oddly enough, one of the great litmus tests in this regard, one of the most persuasive signs you’re doing it right, is nagging from critique partners who don’t know better: complaints that run something like “I really think you should take some time to explain [insert truth here].”

[insert truth here]. That’s your clue: your critique partner just figured it out for herself. She actually didn’t need you to explain. If with a little bit of mental effort, readers can figure things out for themselves, they don’t need you to explain more. They just need clues and time. Trust me; they’ll love you for making them feel smart.