Greta’s Largely Unsolicited Advice on Blogging

Computer keyboard
Every now and then, I get an email from someone who’s starting a blog, or is considering starting a blog, and wants advice from me on how to go about it. I’m not quite sure why — my blog is moderately successful, but there are many others that are much more so. But asking advice is the sincerest form of flattery, and I’m always happy to be flattered.

So I thought I’d write up my advice on blogging here, so the next time I get one of these inquiries I can just send them the link. This advice isn’t meant to be definitive, btw; it’s just what’s worked for me, and since some people have asked I figured I might as well answer. Other readers — especially other bloggers — please feel free to add your two cents in the comments.
UnderwoodKeyboard
1. Be a good writer.

You’d be amazed at how many bloggers skip this step. But it’s essential. You can hustle and plug your blog all you want, but if you’re not a good writer, people won’t come back. (Quick and dirty advice on how to be a good writer: Write as often as you can; don’t worry too much about the wording on the first draft, just spew it out and come back later to polish it; do as many revisions and rewrites as you can stand; trust your instincts but also get feedback from people whose opinions you respect.)

Calendar
2. Blog regularly.

You don’t have to blog every day, or even almost every day. Many of my favorite bloggers only blog once or twice a week. But you do need a semi-regular schedule, and you need to stick to it unless you’re sick or traveling or dealing with an emergency or just need to take a break. (And if you are taking a break, say so on your blog.) Personally, if a blogger isn’t posting something new every week, I don’t visit very often; if a blogger hasn’t posted something in over a month, I assume that the blog is dead.

2a. On the other hand, don’t just blog for the sake of blogging.

I’d much rather visit a blog with something thoughtful and funny and insightful once or twice a week, than a blog with something thoughtful and funny and insightful once or twice a week and a bunch of pointless filler three times a day. If you don’t have anything to say, don’t say it.

Computer_monitor
3. Keep it brief.

It’s a shame, but people simply do not have the same patience to stick with a long piece online that they’d have with a book or a magazine article. There are different theories about why this is: some people say it’s the light from the computer screen; others say it’s the lower resolution of a screen as compared to the printed page; others say it’s just a different set of expectations that people have about the speed of the electronic world.

But whatever the reason is, it’s still true. Even I give up and move on if I see that a blog post or online article is going on for pages and pages. And I should know better. I’m a writer who often likes to write long-format pieces, and recognizes the value of them. And I still groan and hit the Back button if I see that an online piece is very long. So keep it brief. If you want to write a longer piece, consider breaking it up into a multi-part series. (Also, make your paragraphs shorter than you would if you were writing for paper. Long stretches of unbroken text on a computer screen are very daunting.)

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4. Use images.

I’m a bit reluctant to share this piece of advice. The extensive use of images has become one of my blog’s distinctive signatures, and if everyone started doing it I’d lose my edge. But honestly, I don’t know why more bloggers don’t do this. Especially the bloggers who are writing longer pieces (see #3 above). You don’t have to go as crazy with the pictures as I do… but the use of images can liven up a text-heavy medium and keep people reading. And this is especially true in a longer piece. With a long piece of online writing, images make it much easier on the eyes, and much easier to stick with it to the end. (You can get copyright- free images from Wikimedia Commons and Stock Exchange.)

Clock
5. Be prepared for it to take time.

I guess this is just another way of saying what I said in #2. But what I’m really trying to say here is: Make a plan for how you’re going to find the time to blog. Think about what you’re doing in your life that you can drop. Do you really need to read the whole Sports section every day? Watch “Law and Order” reruns? Go shoe-shopping? Get eight hours of sleep every night? See your friends and family?

Blogging take time. Blogging well takes more time. If you don’t figure out a way to set aside time for it, you’re going to find yourself either fucking up your life or writing a half-assed blog. Or both. (I personally was going the sleep- deprivation route for a while, and am convinced that it contributed to my getting pneumonia.) If you’re going to blog well, you have to make blogging something of a priority… and that means giving up something else. Think now about what that’s going to be.

Internet_cafe
6. Participate in the blogosphere.

Your best source of readers, other than your immediate circle of friends and family, is (a) other bloggers, and (b) people who are already reading blogs. So visit other blogs and comment on them. Mention other blogs in your own blog posts, and link to them. Keep a blogroll, and keep it up to date. The number one way that I drew traffic to my blog in the early days was simply to go into other blogs and write comments. (I wasn’t doing it on purpose to draw traffic, btw; it just turned out that way.) Most blogs give you the option of including your URL with your comment, and if people like your comments, they’ll come check you out.

And take part in blog carnivals. Some of them are weak, but the good ones are widely read and are a good way to get your blog on the map.
6a. Do NOT, however, write comments in other blogs that are transparent efforts to draw traffic to yours.

This is a big breach of blog etiquette, and will turn people off very quickly. Your comments in other blogs should really be about, you know, whatever’s being discussed in that blog. Obvious self-linkage is like spending an entire party handing out business cards: you won’t have much fun at the party, and everyone’s going to think you’re a jerk.

If you really have no better choice but to link to your own blog in other people’s — if, for instance, something you’ve written really is the best illustration of a point you’re making — have the decency to be a little sheepish about it. (When I self-link, I usually write something like, “Sorry about the self-linkage, but it really is relevant.” And I make damn sure that it really is relevant. And I still hardly ever do it.)

And don’t be a comment hog. Other people’s blogs are not all about you.

Duty_calls
7. Be willing to engage in conversations with commenters… but also be willing to drop pointless arguments with trolls.

I have a very hard time with this one. Engaging in discussions and debates with readers is one of the great joys of blogging. It gives you a direct relationship with your readers that few other formats offer you as a writer. And more than once I’ve found myself clarifying my thinking or changing my mind based on conversations and arguments with commenters.

But I’ve also more than once let myself get sucked into stupid, pointless arguments with people who weren’t worth arguing with; bigots, sloppy thinkers, people who were just trolling for a fight. It’s hard to let stupidity and injustice go by without responding to it, and it’s easy to fall prey to the “someone is wrong on the Internet” phenomenon. But sometimes you have to bite the bullet.

Here’s the thing. Comment threads are part of the time commitment you make to your blog. But part of your time management involves deciding which threads are worth pursuing and which ones need to be dropped. I’m not a very good role model in this department, so this is sort of a case of “do as I say, not as I do”… but I’m working on it.
Glue
8. Have a theme — but don’t stick to it like glue.

This is probably less important than my other pieces of advice. But personally, I’m not a big fan of the “What Pat thinks about everything in the world” mish-mash sort of blog. Unless Pat is an astonishingly good writer, that is (or a friend or family member I just personally want to keep up with). I can come up with my own thoughts and feelings about everything in the world, thank you very much. I don’t have much motivation to read someone else’s random musings.

On the other hand, if a blog is too focused on just one topic — just atheism, just sex, just politics — that can get a little repetitive. So mix it up a little. Even largely single-topic blogs like Daylight Atheism and Friendly Atheist get into side topics: politics, pop culture, philosophy, life in general. Some blogs get away with a very single-minded focus — Cute Overload, for instance, does great with “just photos and videos of cute animals” — but in general, a little variety is very helpful.

The blogs I like best tend to focus on one or two main themes — science and atheism, for instance, or sex and politics — and explore them in depth. But they also stray into other topics near and dear to the blogger’s heart, like sewing or cephalopods. (I think of my own blog as being primarily about atheism and sex, with a fair smattering of politics and occasional forays into whatever’s on my mind that day.) A primary theme or two offers readers a hook; variations away from those themes keep both you and your readers from getting bored.

Patience
9. Be patient.

When I first started blogging, I was getting, I don’t know, maybe 100 hits a day. Maybe less. I’m not sure, since I didn’t figure out how to check my stats until embarrassingly late in my blogging career… but it was very slim, and for several months I felt like I was whistling into the wind. I got almost no comments, and the ones I got mostly came from my ICFF (Immediate Circle of Family and Friends).

So be patient. Keep plugging away, and give it time. If your blog is good, and you do a decent job of getting it into the blogosphere, people will come. Stick with it, and have fun.

I’m sure there’s more I should be saying. Stuff about Technorati and Digg; stuff about using feeds; advice on giving your blog a snappy name (which I’m clearly not competent to give); pieces of netiquette that should be obvious but often aren’t. But I’m going to take my own “Be brief” advice and leave it at that. If anyone else has anything to add, I’d be very interested to see it.

The Last Taboo: The Blowfish Blog

Taboo
I have a new piece up on the Blowfish Blog. It’s on a phrase that’s commonly used when talking about unconventional or marginalized sex: “the last taboo.” The piece is titled, oddly enough, The Last Taboo, and here’s the teaser:

You might have heard that homosexuality is the last taboo. Sadomasochism. Incest. Bestiality. Necrophilia. A very quick Google search on the phrase “the last taboo” adds scatology, pedophilia, sex among the elderly, and even virginity to the list (along with a wide assortment of non-sexual topics, including atheism, abortion, cannibalism, menstruation, death, consciousness, anti-Palestinianism, money, mental illness, and the discounting of business-class seats on airplanes).

Okay. Reality check number one: Not all of these things can be the last taboo, can they? At the very least, doesn’t one of them have to be the next- to- last taboo, and another one the next- to- the- next- to last, and so on? Unless every one of these taboos is miraculously falling at exactly the same time… in which case I suppose they
could all be the last taboo. But that doesn’t seem very likely, does it?

Reality check number two: Does anyone actually believe that any of these sexual preferences and practices is the last taboo? Does anyone really think that the taboo against, say, sadomasochism is truly the last sexual taboo in our culture? That if the taboo against it fell and we completely and casually accepted SM, our society would then, for better or worse, be a sexual free- for- all, entirely devoid of any
sexual taboos whatsoever?

Have any of the people using this phrase taken a look around them? At, you know, the world?

To read more about why the phrase “the last taboo” shows a gross misunderstanding of human sexuality, read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

Happy Blogday To Me… and an Exhortation to Writers About Blogging

3_Anos
Happy blogday to me!

I started blogging three years ago today. Loki H. Thor on a raft. I had no idea. What started as an attempt to publicize my writing career has turned into the centerpiece of it. It has totally taken over my life. Who knew? (You can look up that first post if you want to, but it's not very interesting — it basically says, "Hi! I'm blogging!" My second one is a bit more interesting — it's a review of Richard Dawkins' "Unweaving the Rainbow." Funny how certain themes of the blog have been there from the beginning…)

A few quick self- aggrandizing stats before I get on to the meat of this piece, since self- aggrandizing stats seem to be traditional with a blogday post. As of this writing: 553 total posts, including this one. 4,832 total comments. 613,626 total hits. Average traffic: right now, between 1000 and 1500 hits a day. Whoopie for me! And I have to give a huge, grateful shoutout to Susie Bright, who convinced me to blog in the first place. Susie, you were so right. I never should have doubted you.

Which brings me to the actual, substantive, non- self- aggrandizing point of this piece.

I want to talk to any writers out there who are reading this but who don't blog.

You have to blog.

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Don't look at me that way. I get it. Really, I do. Yes, it's an enormous time-suck. Yes, you're giving away for free what you're trying to make a living at. Yes, it's not worth doing unless you're going to do it right — and yes, doing it right is hard work. I felt exactly the same way, and made all the same arguments, when Susie first tried to convince me to blog. And I'm not going to lie to you. All of that is true.

But here's the thing. If you're a writer in the early 21st century, and you don't blog? It's like being a pop musician in the mid 20th century, and refusing to let your songs be played on the radio. You're denying yourself what is probably the single most powerful outlet currently available for publicizing your work.

Blogging gives you something that no other publishing medium gives you: a direct line to your readers, in which you can reach them directly and without any intermediary — and in which they can reach you back. You don't have to deal with lousy editors who muck with your text without understanding your nuance (a mixed blessing, but a blessing); you don't have to deal with publishers with an insultingly narrow vision of what The People want to read.

You can say what you want, when you want to say it.

Opinions, memoirs, political commentary, fiction, movie reviews, philosophy, recipes, conspiracy rants — anything. If you have archives of old work that you want to get more widely read, you can put it in your blog. If you have work that you like but never managed to get published, you can put it in your blog. If you want to say it, you can say it (assuming it's legal, of course). And if people are reading your blog, they'll read it.

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Blogging does something else, too, something very important. Blogging gets you writing. You know how the single most important thing you can do to improve your writing is to just write, a lot? Blogging gets you writing. Every day, every week, three times a week, however often you do it: if you keep to any sort of semi-regular blogging schedule, you'll be writing regularly. And you'll be writing better.

Blogging did something for me that I absolutely didn't expect it to. Blogging turned me into a real writer. Blogging turned me from the kind of half-assed, semi-pro writer who does good work infrequently and erratically…into the kind of writer who writes almost every day, who actually wants to write, who makes writing a priority and makes sure she has time for it in her schedule, who resents the fact that she has to eat and sleep and shower because they're an annoying time-suck away from her beloved computer, who would rather write than do almost anything else. And all it took was doing it several times a week, for an appreciative audience that was able to to give me direct feedback.

It's a nice non- high- pressure format, too, one in which a certain degree of casualness, lack of perfect polish, and thinking out loud is expected and accepted. You don't need to limit your publishing to the works of genius you've spent months rewriting to a perfect gleam. A few hundred words on whatever you're thinking about that day is just ducky. It's like a journal, but with an audience. For someone like me, who's never seen the point of keeping a journal (what's the point of writing if nobody's going to read it?), blogging is a perfect balance between an exquisitely wrought essay or story, and a scratched- in- a- noteboook- to- keep- your- hand- in journal entry.

Money
And it can, in fact, lead to actual paying work. Example: I'm currently getting paid to write for the Blowfish Blog — a gig I probably never would have gotten if I hadn't been blogging on my own. Blogging gets your name and your work recognized in circles that they wouldn't have otherwise. If your blog gets enough traffic, you can even start to take ads if you like, and that brings in a little money. If you have books, you can advertise them on your blog, and hopefully you'll sell some. And, of course, bloggers sometimes get book deals. If you blog with that sole intention, you'll probably be disappointed, but it does happen.

But that's really not the point. Even if I didn't get paid a dime for blogging, I'd still do it.

The point is this: Blogging gets you writing. And blogging gets your writing read.

And that's why you're writing, isn't it?

Tomorrow: unsolicited advice on how to do it.
P.S. If you're worried because you're not a techie, don't be. Blogging software is specifically designed to make it easy for the layperson to do. You don't have to be a web designer or an IT genius to do it. You just have to not be afraid of a computer.

P.P.S. This applies to musicians and visual artists, too. If you're recording, or taking photos of your work, you should be blogging. You don't have to write if you don't like to — music and art blogs are cool, too.

The Sameness of Imagination, The Astonishingness of Reality: Thoughts on Science and Religion

Man_using_microscopeThere’s a really interesting new piece up on Pharyngula: it’s gotten me thinking about science and religion in an interesting new way, and I wanted to link to it and talk about it a bit.

It’s the piece titled A pleasant, smiling apologist is still lying to you. Now, I don’t agree with everything he says here. For one thing, as is often the case with PZ, I think his tone is a bit more harsh than is really called for in the situation. And I don’t think “lying” is the correct word to use when someone genuinely believes the mistaken idea they’re passing on.
But a lot of the piece is good. Excellent, even. And one bit in particular made me think in a completely new and different way about religion and reality.
This was the bit that jumped out at me:

One other word I must criticize in all these defenses of religion: imagination. I often hear that religion is all about using the imagination to see something beyond the literal and mundane, and imagination becomes a virtue in itself that is presented as something special to religion. It is not. It is also overrated. Imagination is essential, don’t get me wrong; we need this kind of cognitive randomizer that pushes our thoughts beyond what we already know. However, one thing science has taught us is that our imagination is pathetic. The universe is more vast, more complex, and more surprising than anything our minds can conjure up. Imagination is not enough.

I hadn’t thought about it this way before. But PZ is absolutely right. The things we’ve discovered about the world through science… they’re mind-blowing. They completely eclipse anything our puny human imagination could have come up with on its own.

Rutherford_atom.svg
For just one example: Take atomic physics. Take the fact that everything around us, all the material world, is mostly empty space, a huge yawning gap between the nucleus of the atoms and the electrons whizzing around it. Everything — not just air, but iron, wood, flesh, bone, the very Earth under our feet — it’s overwhelmingly empty space. This is an idea that we would never in our wildest imaginings have come up with just with our brains. We needed to take a close look at reality to even consider the possibility.

Right now I’m reading “The Canon,” Natalie Angier’s excellent book explaining the most important basic concepts of science to the layperson. And I’m in the bit about physics and atomic structure, so right now that’s what’s blowing my mind. But there are plenty of other examples.

Biological_exuberance
Take biology. Take the fact that every living thing is directly related to every other living thing. We’re all cousins: you, me, pandas, tangerines, slime molds, squid, cactus, algae, the bacteria that laid Ingrid up with a head cold a couple of weeks ago — all of it. Every living thing shares a common ancestor. Every living thing has the same great- great- great- to- the- 10,000th grandmother. What a weird idea. Who would have thought of it if we hadn’t found a mountain of evidence telling us that that’s how it is?

Galaxy
Or take astronomy. Take the fact that we, living our boring little lives and paying our bills and watching The Simpsons, are doing all this while we’re sitting on a round rock that’s whizzing around a gigantic ball of nuclear fire at 90 miles a second — a ball of fire that is itself whizzing around at 40,000 miles an hour in a spiral mass of billions of other nuclear fireballs. (In a universe, I might add, comprised of billions and billions of other masses of fireballs.) And we act as if this is normal. It is, of course. But it’s also profoundly weird. There is no way we would have imagined it if we hadn’t discovered that it was true.

I could go on and on. And on. Virtually every field of science has shown us things about the nature of the world we live in that completely surprised us, that took us aback, that made us completely rethink and re-imagine everything we thought we understood.

Now.

The visions of the world that the religious imagination has come up with?

Compared to the realities we’ve discovered about the world around us, they’re kind of pathetic. In every religion I’m familiar with, God is (or the gods are) pretty much just like people, only more so. Stronger, wiser, nicer (in theory, anyway), more powerful, but still basically just this guy, you know? A character, with personality quirks, things that he wants, decisions that he makes, stuff that he does.

Mary poppins
Even in the more modern, abstract conceptions of God, God is still an invisible collection of essentially human qualities: goodness, knowledge, the ability to make stuff happen. Sort of like Mary Poppins. Practically perfect in every way.

Francesco_Botticini_-_The_Assumption_of_the_VirginDitto the afterlives. Heaven, Hell, the Celestial Kingdom, whatever: it all reads like a version of this life, with certain bits amplified or diminished for dramatic effect. It’s like life, except you get to be invisible and have no body and never argue with anyone and walk around singing all day. (Singing with no body? It’s just now occurring to me how nonsensical that is.) Or it’s like life, except there are folks whose job it is to make you miserable forever — and no, not just the annoying guy in the next cubicle over. It’s not all that imaginative. It’s just like life, only more so. It’s not really anything new.

I’m not sure where I’m going with this. I’m not sure if I have a point. I think I just want to say this, something I’ve said before: Reality is more interesting than anything we could make up. And when religious believers critique scientists for being mundane, close-minded, unable to imagine anything beyond the puny reality of the physical world, then they need to shut the hell up. The reality of the physical world is wilder and weirder than anything in their religion, and science has come up with many more things, in the skies and on the earth, than they ever dreamt of in their philosophy.

What Do You Want, Anyway? An Atheist’s Mission Statement

Scarlet_a
So what do I want, anyway?

What do I expect to get out of all this atheist blogging? (Apart from stress reduction, I mean.) What's my ultimate goal? When it comes to religion and/or the lack thereof, what kind of world do I want to see?

I think it's important for atheists to think about this. Atheist writers and activists especially. Otherwise, we're just arguing for the sake of arguing, a form of mental exercise done at the expense of annoying people. And the kind of world we decide we're trying to make is going to affect the kind of action we take about it.

I have a couple of different answers to this question. One is my ideal, perfect-world scenario, the Religious World According To Greta. The other is the world that, while not perfect, I would be pretty much entirely happy with. The world where, if it somehow magically came into being, I would probably quit blogging about atheism almost entirely and turn my focus back to sex and politics and food.

So let's take the Greta's Perfect World scenario first.

ImagineNoReligion
In my perfect world, I would like to see religion gradually disappear from the human mindset. "Gradually" meaning over the next, say, one or two hundred years.

I do think religion is a mistaken idea, and I do think it's an idea that does more harm than good — if for no other reason than because it is a mistaken idea. I think it does harm, not just to atheists, but to believers themselves. And I think it does harm even in the absence of overt religious intolerance. I think it encourages gullibility, vulnerability to bad ideas and charlatans; I think it discourages critical thinking and the valuing of evidence; I think it supports people in prioritizing their personal beliefs and feelings over the reality of the world around them. I think it does more harm than good, and I think the world would, on the whole, be a better place without it. Not a perfect place, by any means — I'm not deluded enough to think that the disappearance of religion would somehow eradicate all social ills — but better.

But even in my most utopian fantasies, I can't imagine religion disappearing overnight, or even within my lifetime, without massive social upheaval creating tremendous suffering around the world. It's too central to too many people's lives. Hence the "one or two hundred years."

Law booksSo yes, I would like to see religion eventually disappear. I would not, however, like to see this disappearance happen in any sort of coerced or enforced way. I would not, for instance, like to see laws passed against religious beliefs or practices. I don't even want to see social pressure exerted against religion or religious believers, except insofar as "arguments against the ideas" constitutes social pressure. I would like to see religious believers be completely free to practice their beliefs however they choose, as long as that practice doesn't unreasonably impinge on my life and the lives of everyone else around them.

That should all go without saying. But there are plenty of idiots in the world who think that any atheist who wants to see an end to religion must want that end to come at the barrel of a gun. So it seems like a good idea to spell it out. I don't want to see religion ended by force. I want to see it ended by — insert barely-suppressed, self-deprecating guffaw here — persuasion.

No, really.

I told you this was idealistic.

So let's move on to the more scaled-back, more pragmatic vision.

I would be perfectly happy to live in a world in which:

Holding hands
(a) religious believers respected other believers and their beliefs — including atheists and our beliefs;

(b) religious believers understood that their beliefs were, in fact, beliefs and not facts, and didn't try to make laws and public policy based on them;

(c) people — especially kids growing up — understood that there were lots of different options when it came to religion… including the atheism option;

(d) religion didn't get the privileged, free-ride status it enjoys now, but instead was treated as simply another hypothesis about the world, one which had to defend itself in the marketplace of ideas just like any other idea.

If all that were true, I still wouldn't agree with religion. I'd still think it was mistaken. And I'd still probably debate it with people now and then. But I wouldn't be spending more than half of my precious writing time trying to argue against it. There are lots of mistaken ideas in the world. The urban legend debunking sites are full of them. I don't devote my blog to their eventual disappearance.
You wanna know the weird thing, though?

I actually think my first vision may be more plausible than the second.

I think it's actually a lot more likely that we'll someday see a world without religion, than a world in which religion is widespread but entirely tolerant and ecumenical.

Because, in my experience and observation, tolerant and ecumenical religion is the exception, not the rule.

Breaking the spell
Daniel Dennett talks about this a little bit in his book "Breaking the Spell." He argues that the essential baselessness of religion — the fact that it's unsupported by solid evidence or logic, the fact that it's essentially a shared opinion rather than a body of knowledge — actually makes people cling to it more tightly, defend it more vehemently, get more upset and angry when the ideas are questioned. And it makes people more likely to build elaborate cultural defense mechanisms around it: from the tacit understanding that questioning religion is ill-mannered, to the codification of religious beliefs and practices into harshly- enforced law.

ArmorYou don't need to build an entire mental and emotional and cultural suit of armor around an obvious fact, after all. If strange people come from over the hill and insist that the sky is orange and that it rains Jell-O, you probably won't go to war with them. But people do go to war when the strange people from over the hill insist that God is named Allah instead of Jesus, or vice versa. The idea that the sky is orange is easy to dismiss. You can clearly see that it isn't. The idea that your whole concept of God might be mistaken… it's less easy to dismiss. And it's therefore, psychologically, much more important to defend.

When I look at the history of religion in the world — and at religion in the world today — it seems clear that the groovy, accepting, "we're all looking at the same God in our own way" form of progressive ecumenicalism is very much in the minority. Hostility to other beliefs — and super- duper- hostility to no belief at all — is much more common… so common that it seems to be, not a foundation of religion exactly, but one of its defining characteristics.

So while, on a practical, day-to-day political level I'm going to fight for tolerance and ecumenicalism — creationism out of the public schools, evangelizing out of the military, public health policy not being written by fundamentalists, that sort of thing — I'm also going to keep fighting against religion in general. I'm going to keep doing what I can to keep atheism in the public eye, to make sure that more and more people every day know about it and see it as a valid option… so that in a few generations, my ultimate Utopian ideal of a world without religion might someday, long after I'm dead, be realized.

Because I think that it's actually a less Utopian goal than my other one.

I Do — And Why: The Blowfish Blog

Ring_2Remember about a week ago, when the California Supreme Court same-sex ruling came out? I was all a-twitter with girlish glee and didn't know what to say, but said I'd say more later?

This is later.

I have a new piece up on the Blowfish Blog. It's about why we want to get married — not civil- unioned, not domestic- partnered, but married. It's about why we'd want that even if all the legal and financial and other practical questions were a moot point. And it's about what same-sex marriage in California will change for us… and what it won't. It's called I Do — And Why, and here's the teaser:

But I want to talk about something else today. I don't want to talk about the legal and practical benefits of marriage. I don't want to talk about hospital visitation rights, child custody rights, inheritance rights, tax benefits, all that good stuff. That's all important, but it's also well-covered ground.
I want to talk about something more intangible. I want to talk about why we're getting married… apart from all that.

To find out why, read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

The Necessity of Humor: Battlestar Galactica

Battlestar Galactica
As insanely observant readers of this blog may have noticed, I’ve recently started watching “Battlestar Galactica.” (I haven’t seen any of this season yet — I’m midway through Season 2 on the DVDs, for once I’m going to watch a TV series in order — so please don’t give anything away.) I like the show a lot so far. It’s everything the critics and fans say it is: it’s smart, imaginative, well-written, richly detailed, emotionally and morally complex.

But as much as I’m enjoying it, I can already tell that it’s never going to be one of my all-time favorite TV shows. It’s never going to be, say, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” or “The Simpsons,” or “The Office.” I’m not going to watch it again and again; I’m not going to read books on its philosophical/ sociological/ political perspective; I’m not going to watch every director’s commentary, or indeed any of them. I’m not even 100% sure that I’m going to watch the rest of the series. I like it, I respect it… but it’s lacking something that I find essential in a long- running narrative.

It’s lacking humor.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer
The problem isn’t that it’s dark. Some of my favorite TV shows have been very dark indeed. “Buffy” is dark. “Six Feet Under” is dark. And while it’s technically a comedy (and is in fact very funny), I think “The Office” is one of the darkest things that’s ever been put on television. But all of these shows brought the funny as well: sometimes in the form of comic relief, sometimes woven into the darkness so closely the two were indistinguishable, but passionately, and skillfully, and in generous doses.

And to me, that’s essential.

It’s not just that humor makes a dark story bearable, offering relief and making it easier to watch. That’s true; but other things offer this as well. (Sex, for instance… which “Battlestar Galactica” has in trumps.)

It’s that humor is a central part of life.

Democrituslaughing
Humor is one of the main pillars that supports us; one of the main nutrients that sustains us; one of the main threads running through our lives. Even in dark times. Heck, especially in dark times. The ability to laugh and make jokes in a sad, frightening, terrible time is crucial. It gives us strength. It gives us perspective. It reminds us of why the bad times are worth getting through. There are times in my life that I can’t even begin to imagine having weathered without my sick, morbid, fucked-up sense of humor.

To spend literally years telling a sprawling, wide-ranging, ensemble-cast story without exploring humor is overlooking a fundamental reality of what makes us human. It’s like overlooking love, or conflict, or fear, or friendship. It’s not just a disservice to the audience. It’s a disservice to the characters. Humor doesn’t just make a dark story easier to watch. It makes a dark story ring more true.

I’m not saying that every narrative — every novel, every film, every ballad, every graphic novel — has to have humor. They don’t. I’ve read/ seen/ heard some wonderful, completely satisfying ones that haven’t. But a long-running television show is different. If your show is an hour-long drama, you have about twenty hours a year, and you have it over the course of (hopefully) several years. It’s a unique art form, with a uniquely large scope. To spend that much time telling a story and still leave out the humor is like, I don’t know, spending all day cooking Thanksgiving dinner and leaving out dessert. It can be a delicious dinner, but it still leaves you feeling like you aren’t quite full… even if you ate for hours.

What’s Your Story?

Miss smiths incredible storybookSo what's your story?

Whenever I read about psychology or the structure of the brain and mind, this theme keeps coming up. Human beings seem to have a deeply-rooted need for narrative: a need to structure our experiences as stories. It seems to be hard-wired into the way our brains and minds work. (I remember once overhearing a very pompous filmmaker explaining to his crew, "I don't want to give my audience the bourgeois comfort of a narrative structure." As if narrative structure were a stuffy, outmoded invention of the Victorian middle class. I fell into gales of laughter and immediately told an artist friend about it, who went into an aw-shucks routine about, "Heck, naw, the missus and me don't need no narrative structure. Nope, the avant-garde was good enough for my Pappy, and it's darn well good enough fer me.")

Anyway. I've been thinking a lot about what my stories are. Because our stories are important. Our stories shape how we experience our lives. Certain narrative themes seem to come up over and over again in our lives — different ones for different people, of course — and those themes affect how we feel about the things that happen to us. It's commonly understood that the same event can be experienced by different people in radically different ways. And I don't mean that in a Rashomon way. I mean that the exact same event can be experienced as positive or negative; exciting or frightening; supportive or critical; affirming or alienating… depending on the stories we tell ourselves about them. And of course, our stories affect how we behave, the choices we make and the ways we respond to our experiences.

Or, as Joan Didion so famously and succinctly put it, "We tell ourselves stories in order to live."

So I've been thinking about my stories… and I've been getting curious about everyone else's.

Pushcart WarOne of my main stories is, "Plucky in the face of adversity." And it's not a bad story, as stories go. It sure beats, "Falling apart in the face of adversity," or, "Totally negative and pessimistic in the face of adversity." Its plusses are so obvious that I won't bother to enumerate them.

But it has its downsides as well. For one thing, if a central narrative theme of your life is, "Plucky in the face of adversity," it doesn't give you a lot to work with when there's no adversity and your life is going smoothly and well. "Plucky in the face of adversity" has an unfortunate tendency to turn into "Restless and bored and looking for a fight in the face of calm good luck." It can make you feel aimless and vaguely dissatisfied during peaceful stretches of your life, and can even give you a tendency to create adversity where none exists. And I have had a problem with this in my life. I've definitely created drama where no drama was called for; and I've definitely been drawn to people who created a lot of drama in their lives, just so I could experience it vicariously. It's a tendency I've had to pay careful, conscious attention to.

In fact, even though my life for several years now has been largely happy and stable with really not that much adversity, I think I'm still very much governed by this narrative. I've just transformed my definition of "adversity," to mean "creative challenges" rather than "pointless interpersonal drama." Trying to get a book contract; battling with editors; trying to write something interesting in my blog four or five times a week… this is the adversity that I'm plucky in the face of now.

Rhyme reason phantom tollboothAnother narrative of mine is "Wise, emotionally intelligent woman with a unique and worthwhile perspective on life." Again, not a bad story: a bit cocky and full of itself, perhaps, but it's given me the self-confidence I've needed to pursue my writing. Any artistic career needs a fair amount of arrogance — the arrogance of believing that anyone outside your immediate circle of family and friends would be even remotely interested in what you have to say. And again, as stories go, "Wise and emotionally intelligent" sure beats "Lost in her own little world" or "Never does anything right."

But again, this story has a downside. And not just the obvious one of occasional self-delusion, being prone to believing that you're being wise and perceptive when you're actually being an idiot. It's also a story that can easily turn into, "Person who gives a lot of unsolicited advice and likes to tell people how to run their life when they really just wanted a sympathetic ear." I have to watch this tendency very carefully, and I fall into it a whole lot more than I'd like.

And then, you have your standard, embarrassingly self-serving narratives, the source material for your most ridiculous fantasies, the stories that make you cringe when you catch yourself at them. "Nobody understands my unique genius." "I'm the only honest one — everyone feels the way I do, if only they'd admit it." "Who is that striking, strangely compelling woman over there in the corner?" "They'll all be sorry someday, but then it'll be too late." But I think you get my point.

Blank bookSo what's your story? What are the narrative themes that shape your life? How do they work for you; how do they screw you up; how have they changed as your life has changed? One of my other stories is, "Curious and interested in the lives of others and the workings of the human mind" — it makes a great cover story for "nosy" — and I want to know how this works for people other than me.

To HTML OR Not to HTML? A Reader Poll

Computer_keyboardA number of people have mentioned this in recent comments, so I wanted to take a reader poll about it and test the waters.

As a number of you have noted, I don’t have HTML enabled for my comments. This means people can’t use italics, or boldface, or create their own live links, or do:

blockquotes.

There is, in fact, a reason for this. With a Typepad blog, you have a choice. You can let HTML be enabled, so people can do italics and live links and all… or you can have URLs that are posted in the comments automatically get converted to live links.

When I was first setting up the blog, I decided to go with the second option. It seemed more friendly to your average guy or gal who might not be up on HTML or know how to create live links. My general instinct in matter such as these is to be beginner-friendly, and I wanted people who weren’t tech-savvy to be able to include links in their comments without having to learn HTML. And at the time, a lot of my blog readers weren’t addicts of regular visitors to the blogosphere.

But I’m getting an increasing number of cranky complaints about this in my comments. The last time I did a reader poll on this, there was no clear consensus, so I decided to keep things the way they were since that’s what people were used to. But that was almost a year ago: my blog traffic has tripled since then, and I have a lot of new readers that I didn’t have back then. So I figured I should take another poll.

VoteSo what do you think? Is it more important to you to have HTML enabled in the comments here? Or is it more important to have URLs automatically converted to live, clickable links? I don’t promise to go along with the vote — this isn’t a democracy — but if there’s a clear consensus, I’ll probably go with it. So speak now, or forever hold your peace.

“A Different Way of Knowing”: The Uses of Irrationality… and its Limitations

Brain_with_symbolsThere’s a trope I’ve noticed in debates about atheism, about skepticism, about science. And the trope goes something like this:

“Logic and reason isn’t everything. Not everything in this world is rational. Not everything that we know in the world is known through logic and reason. Sometimes we have to use our intuition, and listen to our hearts. There are different ways of knowing than just reason and evidence.”

The thing is?

I actually think there’s a lot of truth to this.

And I still think it’s a terrible argument to make against atheism, skepticism, and/or science.

Let me explain.

Love_heartssvgThere are absolutely areas of life in which logic and reason don’t apply. Or don’t predominate, anyway. Love, of course, is a classic example. The classic example, probably. Nobody decides who to fall in love with by making a cool appraisal of the pros and cons. Nobody decides who to fall in love with, period. It’s an emotional, irrational, impulsive, intuitive, largely unconscious act.

Personally, I think a lot of people would benefit from a little more rational, evidence- based thinking in their love lives. It might stop them from making the same damn dumb mistakes over and over again, for one thing. But ultimately, decisions about love are made with the heart, not the head. And I wouldn’t want it any other way.

John_henry_fuseli__the_nightmareOr take art. The part of us that loves music, images, stories… it’s not a logical part. Not entirely, anyway. A huge amount of it is personal, emotional, visceral. And it should be. Scientists and art critics and philosophers can analyze why different people like different things in art, and they’ll come up with useful observations… but the actual experience of art isn’t mostly analytical.

Sure, there are some commonly-accepted criteria that can be applied to art. Plus, the degree to which we appreciate art emotionally or rationally can depend on the art… as well as on the appreciator. And certainly our appreciation of art can be increased by a better understanding of its history or structure. But ultimately, art either moves you or it doesn’t. And when it does, the experience of being moved is not a rational process. It’s subjective.

And most artists will tell you that an essential part of the creative process is getting the rational part of their brain to shut up for a while. While the editing or modifying process often involves a critical, rational eye, the actual creation part of art comes largely from a non-verbal, non-linear, non-rational place. The experience of art is not primarily a rational one… for artist or for audience.

RaspberriesI can think of oodles more examples. Humor. Sexual desire. Friendship. Sentiment and nostalgia. Tastes in food. I think you get my drift, though. Many of the most central, most profound experiences of human life are things we experience emotionally, intuitively, irrationally.

But have you noticed a pattern to these examples?

They’re all matters of opinion. They’re all matters of subjective experience.

None of them is concerned with trying to understand what is true. Not just what is true for us, personally, but what is true in the external world. The world we all share, as opposed to the ones in our own heads and hearts.

And these questions — the questions of what is true in the external world — are where logic and evidence leap to the forefront.

ThinkingThis is why. We know — as well as we know anything — that the human mind can be fooled. It is wired, for very good evolutionary reasons, with some interesting distortions of reality. Among other things, it’s wired to see what it expects to see; it’s wired to see patterns even when none exist; it’s wired to see intention even when none exists.

And intuition, especially, is a deeply imperfect form of perception and understanding. Yes, it can often be a powerful tool for making leaps and seeing possibilities we couldn’t even have imagined before. But it can also be a powerful tool for showing us exactly what we expect to see, and telling us exactly what we want to hear — regardless of whether what we expect or want are actually there to be seen and heard.

Radiohead_ok_computerNow, for subjective questions, these imperfections aren’t particularly important. If you think you’re in love, then you are in love. If you think you like Radiohead, then you do like Radiohead. If you think broccoli tastes like fermented essence of evil, then it does. To you, anyway. With subjective questions like these, there’s not really a difference between “what you think is true” and “what really is true.” Or if there is, it’s not a crucial one.

But when we’re trying to figure out what’s true in the real world — not in the subjective world of our own feelings and experiences, but in the external world — there is very often a difference between what we think is true and what is true. An important, measurable difference.

And if we want to understand what’s true in the real world, we need to acknowledge, recognize, and correct for that difference. When we don’t, it’s disastrous. Think of all the people in history who “intuitively” knew that black people were mentally inferior to white people; who “intuitively” knew that mental illness was caused by demonic possession; etc., etc., etc. The human race’s track record of trying to answer non- matter- of- opinion questions about what is and is not true in the external world by “listening to our hearts” is a pretty abysmal one.

So if we’re trying to understand the external world, we need to be very, very careful to screen out bias and preconception as much as humanly possible. And the best way we have to do that is with logic, reason, and the rigorously careful gathering, examination, and analysis of the evidence.

Man_using_microscopeIn other words — the scientific method.

Which — with its double-blinding, careful control groups (including placebo controls when appropriate), transparent methodology, replicability, falsifiability, peer review, etc. etc. — has specifically developed over the decades and centuries to do one thing: eliminate bias, preconception, and human error, as much as is humanly possible, in order to get the closest approximation of the truth that we can.

It’s true that the history of science is full of stories of scientists coming up with important insights and breakthroughs in irrational ways: through dreams, sudden revelations, etc. Yes, irrational inspiration can be an important part of the scientific process. But it’s an important first part. After all, the history of science is also full of scientists coming up with ideas through irrational inspiration that then turned out to be full of beans. (Nikola Tesla comes to mind.) You just don’t read about them as much.

Inspiration gives scientists ideas, points them in new directions. But they then need to test those ideas and directions. And they don’t do that intuitively. They do it using the scientific method: rationally, logically, and rigorously.

So what does all this have to do with atheism?

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