The Never-ending Struggle for Balance: In Writing and in Life

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This is something I’ve been obsessed with for a long time, but I’ve struggled to even attempt to write it. It seems to encompass so much, so much that is difficult to verbalise that my thoughts are scattered and disjointed; but its now reached that point where I have to at least try, or it’ll drive me insane.

Balance seems to be something none of us get right. I remember studying Lenin and the lead up to the October Revolution at school and being quite fired up. Equality! Brotherhood! Fairness… after all why shouldn’t we strive to make life fair? Why simply settle back with a shrug and accept that it isn’t? I struggled through the actual Revolution, the slaughter of the Royal family, but by the time we reached the Red Terror, I was disillusioned and bewildered. How could such noble intent go so horribly, savagely wrong?

But it’s far from a rare example. In fact it seems in some degree or another, it’s kinda the norm. It’s surprising how some of the most terrible figures and times in history began with a few men walking the right path, or to put it another way, they didn’t all begin on a different path to you or I, nor in some ways, does it seem that they ever truly left it. We’re seeing exactly this play out on social media. I don’t want to get drawn into the political hotbed – I’m not armed enough for that 😀 – however it goes beyond what we’re saying, into considerations of how we’re choosing to express ourselves, in words, in degrees and in mediums. We’ve been presented by a useful tool, to connect, communicate and inform, yet we’re facing issues such as cyberbully driven suicide, hacking on a global scale, stalking, identity theft, internet addiction, the breakdown of the English language and as some would have it, the rise of the alternative truth. We’ve even seen the first death due to a certain online game. We might personally see these as isolated stories, to be found universally as examples of bad luck, bad judgement and bad people, yet how often have you gone out with friends only for them to spend the whole time checking their phone? How many do you know who’ve suddenly developed an obsessive interest in politics convinced they know the answer to all societies ills, despite previously asking who Margaret Thatcher is? It’s impossible to deny its presence, even if we’re still uncertain on its influence.

It might seem from the above that balance is simply another word for moderation or compromise, and as I move this into the writing sphere, this being a writing site, ya know, I want to make it clear that though it may result in such things, to view it as such is to mislead. In fact this might be the crux of the problem.

Balance mistaken for moderation or compromise has a PR issue. Passion doesn’t compromise, and again perhaps more than ever, passion is bringing it on the interwebs. Passion is exciting, full blooded, it takes courage and determination and it changes the world. Compromise is a grey suit and nine to five sentence, a dull middle road from cradle to grave. An obit that no one reads.

The fact that all that is bollocks is precisely what balance is all about, and why we really need to talk about it.

I’m far from the first to develop this obsession. Buddhism is often referred to as the Middle Way, described as

a path that transcends and reconciles the duality that characterises most thinking… the path between two extremes, close to Aristotle’s idea of the “golden mean” whereby “every virtue is a mean between two extremes, each of which is a vice. – Sokai Gakkai International

I like the choice of the word transcends as honestly I believe when it comes to true balance we must start to think beyond the notion of duality. Even those that acknowledge a spectrum or shades of grey are still looking along a line with two poles and in reality that’s like thinking there is a right side up in space. We might easily miss a vital component (Romulan) coming at us from a completely different direction.

Balance isn’t so much an an axis, as it is a fulcrum. Every moment, every person, every endeavour is subject to countless forces and we’ll probably never fully know all the forces in play at any given moment, even in hindsight. We’re just not that smart. I’m not. But the more we can fill in, the more we can understand where to put our lever in order to achieve our desired outcome. That’s balance. Don’t mistake it for the literal middle, I doubt we could measure that anyway. The very first force in play, that we must get our head around, is effect. The perfectly balanced see saw is different depending on your aim..

seesaw.jpg

This is my main issue with ‘the rules.’ Rules presume objective truths, a single desired outcome, and homogenise both vision and path. They ignore so many forces in play, they render themselves virtually useless. Taken in isolation, they can seem either idiotic or quite reasonable and yet put into play in the world of writing sites and they can shift radically from one to the other.

Lets look at adverbs. At first it might have seemed a little ridiculous.

The path to hell is paved with adverbs – Stephen King

To use an adverb in this way – any way – is a mortal sin  – Elmore Leonard

But it caught on and became a mantra. Then a backlash – a compromise. They mustn’t be avoided entirely, not wholly, but treated with caution, tested, prodded to ensure no weakness in accompanying verb, or redundancy in meaning. Like kicking tyres.

A reasonable compromise surely, a balanced approach?

Except in reality its just a shift down a line. The Romulans are attacking from above and we’ve got our heads down kicking our tyres. For many many reasons I’ve probably already bored everyone to tears with, but perhaps most importantly it ignores the entire question of whether its useful for a novice writer developing their voice and effective storytelling techniques, to put their attention on adverbs. And the answer is no. It’s a distraction. It’s easy to fix, easy to remove and easy therefore to master. Meanwhile there is a risk they aren’t growing or learning anything useful.

Where we put our focus matters. Another common writer ‘don’t’ is the mirror trope. This one is so common it frequently crops up in scathing reviews. The answer if followed with any consistency, is photos or selfies 😀 and will surely swiftly become a trope itself. The problem has never been that a character looks in the mirror and relates what they see, its how its done. The description itself too often tended towards, ‘raven tresses flowing about a perfect ivory oval.’. The issue isn’t solved by taking a natural part of life out of your characters story. Do you know we spend on average the equivalent of 2 weeks every year in front of the mirror? That’s more than most of us exercise. Or have sex.

Another way the writer loses their balance is with the over-correct. This can play out in various different ways, the kick-back against the ‘rules’ or prevailing style, but one of the worst is the attempt to please. The reasonable author, who values others input and is set on success, won’t kick out, they’ll attempt to adjust to fit. But whether its a kick out or an adjustment, the essential result is the same, its a push back. They went left, so now they’ll go right.

As for the kick out, this, simply put, is different for the sake of different. It’s a natural instinct, we get tired of being presented with the same thing, which in itself is a natural instinct, we mimic for success. Duality catches us in an eternal loop. Buddhists call it Samsara, the endless cycle of life and death. The enlightened middle way offers liberation from this suffering. Duality isn’t balance, its isolation from life, a question, a technique, a story, removed from context, from the world of conflicting influences.

Removing something from context is not merely about a sentence removed from a paragraph, a technique from its effect, it extends to the world beyond the fictional. Many writers bemoan the falling standards of the written word, asking whether publishers care about writing at all. They’ll cite the rise of Harry Potter forgetting it was a children’s book, aimed at nine year olds. The worst and most often cited is Fifty Shades of Grey. However what everyone seems to have forgotten is that it ignited the rise of what some refer to – derisively – as mummy porn. Basically some folk really like dirty books. Fan fiction sites are already rife with those who were aware of this, others needed to try and this book became the tester tube.. It shouldn’t impact with any force on those of us not writing erotica. Does the porn industry effect Hollywood? Will In and Out and In Again be lining up against Schindlers List in the greatest film category at the Oscars? Does Scarlet Goes Wild get compared alongside Gone with the Wind when we look at the all time best selling films?

And it’s not merely genre that effects us. Take a real life situation wherein advice was offered, good advice (well by my measure) and advice was ignored because others didn’t agree and the writer didn’t seem to understand what he was being told. It felt contradictory to other advice he had encountered. But the advice given, was given by an editor, a real life working editor, whose job is to read, and decide if something is worth publication. The advice it seemed to conflict with came from the ether. The general mutterings of writers, who’d heard, who’d been told, who talked to a friend of a friend of a friend.

The tragedy is it was potentially a great book. The story was there, the voice was there, humour, but the storytelling was weak. Not insurmountable by any means. This concerns me, it concerns me, because I suspect that book is about to be self-published. I’m as loath as ever to call this laziness. Nor will it be some POS that rightfully gets dumped to the bottom of the amazon ranks. As so many will be quick to suggest. The lazy get washed out is the assumed answer whenever we question the quality of self-published books, so why are you making it an issue? It’s become standard for anyone raising a query about self-publishing to be quickly assigned a side, and the actual concern to be glossed over.

It’s become, as so many things have, a two sided monster. How can we improve a system if we cannot even discuss it? The question of whether you are for or against it is no longer relevant. It’s here and shows no signs of falling away. The question now is how do we make it work? For some individuals it already has, that doesn’t however mean the system as a whole does. As ever it comes down to what you want from it and that includes us readers, those who should surely be benefiting most.

At the moment regardless of the opportunity, undeniably tempting to the writer, I’m not convinced literature is benefiting. And one of my fears comes from books like Fifty Shades of Grey. It shouldn’t impact on us, but that gulf between literary and commercial, between formula and invention, between pleasure and preaching, seems to be widening. We’re retreating to the poles rather than converging in the spaces we once loved to read in, because we’re perceiving it as a single variance. We’re seeing everything in isolation. A series of parallel lines, untouching, unrelated.

We think in terms of opposites. We cannot have a victim without a villain. We cannot have a hero without a dragon to be slain, a war to be fought. There is no good without evil, light without dark, angels without devils. This extreme duality is resulting in a simplicity that has no relevance, because it cannot touch the complex reality we live in. It’s an easier answer for a difficult world. There is an emotional satisfaction in this, because it is quantifiable. It’s the difference in many ways between shivering under the covers scared there might be a monster in the wardrobe and opening the door to see it there. We find it less frightening to face the beast than to live with the uncertainty. More than that we find it easier to put the monster in the cupboard than deal with the one inside us, with the truth that we can’t in fact ever see him, but he’s present, hidden, in everything.

I recently encountered a character who was morally ambiguous, or so it was claimed by countless professional reviewers. For the entirety of the book he was kind, considerate, acutely aware of the impact of his actions on his family and friends, of their feelings.. About as a nice as boy as I’ve never met. Then it’s revealed he slaughtered some folk in cold blood. For the record cold blooded murder isn’t morally ambiguous, it’s morally void.

It didn’t fit remotely with the character as presented, he was in essence hero and villain within the same body, given as one but never one, still polar opposites, at odds with one another. There was some attempt to suggest it was a difficult but necessary decision, but it was clearly written by someone who struggles to imagine a more difficult decision than firefox or chrome.

Here’s another duo: writer and reader. We need to stop separating those out. Balance is always harder, like standing on one foot, it requires awareness, effort, focus. It doesn’t let us drift into easy well worn ruts. I certainly haven’t mastered the art yet but we could start with a few simple tricks. Stop thinking villain, think human. Stop thinking literary, think story. Stop thinking light, think rainbows.

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