Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Notes from the Judge: The Dangers of Autobiography

Michael J. Vaughn is a long-time judge for Writer's Digest novel competitions. He's using this series to pass on the issues brought up by the entries he reads.

The danger of writing a purely autobiographical novel is that real life wanders ceaselessly, whereas good novels tend to have tightly focused narratives. This is exacerbated by the questionable edict of "write what you know," which has led to millions of dull novels. Why not use your life as raw material, and bend and create where the demands of the story call for it? After all, if you were being completely accurate about these events, why aren't you writing it as a memoir? It's called imagination. Use it.

Notes from the Judge: The Showoff

I am a judge in a novel contest, and I hope this series will provide some insight on the common flaws that appear in the entries.

Today's entry featured an author who had a high vocabulary and was intent on showing it off. In a single sentence, he used "flexion," "incurvate," "turgidity," and "torsioned." A good twenty-dollar word works well in the service of a more precise description. But it's like a good spice, best when used in moderation. Thesaurus overload makes your prose too thick, ruins the rhythm of sentences and distracts the reader from the story. The emphasis should be on communicating, not showing off.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

The Hits Keep Coming: a Punster's Delight

Carlos Santana, lead guitarist for the
Cleveland Indigenous Peoples.
Or

I Started a Joke That Sent the Ball Flying

By Michael J. Vaughn

Chris Isaak and I went to Fenway and saw a Wicked Game. I’m sittin’ there trying to Guess Who the visitors are; They Might Be Giants. But no, in Only the Beginning, I realize it’s Boston versus Chicago.
Chicago’s got quite a lineup. Their last game was high-scoring, 25 or 6 to 4, I Don’t Recall. Who’s on First? Why, it’s Carlos Santana (actual ballplayer, look it up), a Smooth fielder if ever there was one. Springsteen’s in center ‘cause he was Born to Run, and the rest of the outfield is played by The Outfield. Of course, the real Iron Man is Ozzie at short.

Unfortunately, the starting pitcher, Steppenwolf, was Born to Be Wild. He walks the first three batters, so they bring in The Mick, who can really paint the black. Jagger says Start Me Up!, gets his Signs from the Five Man Electrical Band and finds The Way to a Fastball. The first two calls give him some Satisfaction, but then Ann and Nancy Wilson come up in the Heart of the order, and hit two balls to The Wall, then George Michael gets up and Wham! Bases cleared. Then Chris Martin Clocks one to the Pesky Pole. Why, Boston’s got more Styx than the Babe himself! Jagger’s feeling Shattered, but he finally gets a Superfly to end the inning and trudges to the dugout, where his manager takes some Sympathy for the Devil and says, “Well, You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”

There’s more trouble in the bottom of the inning. James paints first base Brown, and David Ortiz complains until the field crew came out and Papi Got a Brand New Bag. Will Smith took the mound (actual ballplayer, look it up) and was Getting Jiggy With It when Ray Charles, formerly of the Tampa Bay Rays, Busted a seeing-eye single to John Fogerty in Centerfield. When Ray was thrown out at second it was Cryin’ Time Again, and the ump said, “Hit the Road Jack!” “What’d I Say?” complained Ray, as he was dragged away by the Police.

Blue Moon Odom, one of the Ohio Players who was recently Fired, faces Idina Menzel, a real Survivor who’s getting the Eye of the Tiger now that she’s back from Detroit. Menzel Let It Go and smacked a Frozen rope over third. After hit singles by Simon and Garfunkel, she was Homeward Bound.
Mitch Williams, The Wild Thing, enters in a double switch with the Troggs and Surrenders a walk to Cheap Trick, followed by a long Drive to Incubus.

But you know what? I can’t finish this story. I’m headed to Ebbets Field for a Dodgers reunion, and the way things are going I’m gonna get No Sleep Till Brooklyn.


Michael J. Vaughn is the author of twenty books, including The Popcorn Girl and Atheist Evolution, and a licensed punologist for the San Francisco Giants. Don't try this at home. No musicians were harmed in the making of this story. That we know of.

The Separation of Sex and Church

 

From Atheist Evolution, a book by Michael J. Vaughn
 
The Vise Grip

In my personal life, I operate by what I call the John Lennon Rule. That is, when it comes to other people’s belief systems, my attitude is, Whatever Gets You Through the Night. Far be it for me to completely comprehend what someone else is going through in their life and what they might need for basic survival.

         That said, I do think the human species needs to eventually rid itself of religion in order to get on with its evolution. The reason being, once a religion is created, it operates very much like a corporation: soulless, concerned only with its own survival, and willing to run over anyone who gets in its way.

          For a robust, worldwide view of religious toxicity, I recommend God is not Great by Christopher Hitchens (2007, Hachette Book Group). When I first read this book ten years ago, it was like someone had set fire to my brain. Here, backed up by a lifetime of religion-focused journalism, were all my darkest suspicions on the subject, explicated in fierce, brilliant arguments. Although I will try to describe these manipulations in my own terms, it would be a mistake not to acknowledge the paths that Hitchens burned through my synapses.

 
The Original Sin Shell Game

The primary con of the church, writes Hitchens, is to maintain strict control over its followers by ensnaring them in a game they cannot possibly win, a vise grip of ill logic. The ace up their sleeve is original sin, the idea that a baby pops from the womb with demerits already ascribed to its permanent record. This is because you, Mr. Newborn, are culpable for the actions of your ancestor 6,000 years ago, a young lady who listened to a talking snake and wrongfully took a fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. (And why was this bad? Because religion wants you to be as stupid as possible.)

          Just to make sure that no one ever clears this imaginary slate, the church concocted sins that are blatantly unavoidable. A perfect example is the Tenth Commandment: Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbor’s.

          A pretty interesting list! Note how the wife and servants are listed as property, on the same level as the ox and the ass. But anyone who understands the free-firing nature of the human brain knows that the negative action of not coveting is impossible. The mind simply goes there, and Voila! The Unavoidable Sin. I can still hear George Carlin’s voice saying (and I paraphrase), “If you’ve lusted after your neighbor’s wife, well save your car fare, man, you’ve already sinned!” (I might add that this is a sin near and dear to my heart. As a fiction writer, one of my greatest assets is a brain that always goes there. It’s called imagination.) Put another way, what we have here is a religion that doesn’t ask for much, they simply want to control your every thought.

          It’s not really the church’s aim, with the coveting rule, to catch you in a misdemeanor. The goal is to make you feel bad about yourself, and to guarantee that you will not spend five seconds of your life as a non-sinner (in fact, if you did manage to grab those five seconds, you’d be guilty of the sin of pride). The only possible way out, say the gatekeepers, is to cart your sorry uncleansible soul to church for regular maintenance, and while you’re there it wouldn’t hurt to put some more money in the offertory. Sucker.

          Perhaps the most obnoxious Christian idea is that Jesus died for our sins. To which I posit a few questions. 1) Who asked him to? 2) Why do you continue to refer to everyone as sinners when his death wiped out all of our sins? 3) Why is Jesus’ death any greater or more painful than the death of any human ever born? 4) So God declared us sinners for being exactly who he created us to be, then tried to make up for it by killing his own son? What kind of a sick fuck is this guy? (See Old Testament. Oh, right.)

 
Fifty Shades of Circumcision

What could be a richer arena for manipulation than sex? Our higher mind is already plenty conflicted about these guttural, noisy, messy things we do when nobody’s looking. How easy would it be to throw a little gasoline on the fire and send one’s followers into that same no-win vise grip?

          As with original sin, the sociopaths of religion can’t bear to leave the babies alone. Welcome to circumcision, a barbaric ritual (descendant of the blood sacrifices of paganism) in which the intelligent design propagandists of the world turn to their god with knives unsheathed and say, You got this one little part wrong. And slice off the foreskins of their defenseless newborns.

          In recent years, medical science has finally overcome the frightening lobbying power of the church and declared this procedure to be completely unnecessary. This clarifies the actual aim of this vandalism, which is sexual repression. Without the protective foreskin, the head of the penis becomes less and less sensitive. What happens next has a sort of elegant irony. The sexual urges remain the same, while the outlet for those urges has been damaged, creating a kind of bottleneck. Recent studies show that circumcised males compensate for their lowered sensitivity by pursuing ever more dangerous sex acts, increasing their chances of contracting and spreading sexually transmitted diseases. This completely blows up the already weak argument that circumcised penises are more hygienic. (Here, try this. We call it “soap and water.”)

          Armed with information from the radio doctor Dean Edell (a personal hero of mine in the realm of logic-driven thinking), I once wrote a letter to the editor on this subject. A Jewish friend read it and accused me of being antisemitic.

          “But I’m not Jewish!” I responded. “I was born in a secular American hospital to Christian parents. Why was I circumcised?”

          I lost that friendship over this discussion. Which is just as well. Having one’s dick sliced up is a bit far to go to prove you’re not antisemitic.

 
The Unspeakable, Obvious Act

One of the supreme ah-ha! moments in Hitchens’ book is his discussion of masturbation. Given the super-redundancy engineered by evolution, the average male reproductive system will produce 525 billion spermatozoa over a lifetime. This kind of overabundance creates a great amount of pressure. Fortunately, evolution has provided a convenient means for release: appendages that result in our hands dangling directly next to our genitalia.

          The church, of course, saw this irresistible, natural act as another chance to place its followers in the vise grip. Do that, they said, and you’re going straight to hell. But even the threat of eternal torment wasn’t enough, so they added all manner of folk myths about hairy palms and gradual blindness. (This is a basic truth about religion: it consistently treats the realities of nature as the enemy.) If a female is caught masturbating (an act pursued more blatantly for pleasure), the slut-shaming goes on forever.

          In one area – birth control – the church is wildly pro-nature, seemingly doing every stupid thing they can to encourage breeding. The realities that they purposely ignore bring disastrous results.

          The first reality is a growing gap between the age when a female can reproduce and when they should. Given the increasing income equality of the U.S. economy, it’s not possible for a couple to support themselves and a child till their mid-twenties.

          The church, self-serving, patriarchal sociopaths that they are, see just one more vise grip. Thou shalt not use birth control, thou shalt not use abortion – yes you, our follower, are expected to defeat billions of years of reproductive evolution (and raging hormones) through sheer power of will. But here, here’s a 2,000-year-old made-up story about a nice Jewish carpenter to help you.

          If pro-life fundamentalists actually wanted to prevent abortions, they would do their damnedest to encourage birth control, but here’s where Christianity’s unnatural view of sex deals another blow. The mere thought of their children fornicating is enough to send them to their rosary beads, accompanied by a complete amnesia about how horny they were at that age. Birth control, it seems, is seen as an admission of defeat. As for the church, they just seem to want to breed as many followers as possible, even if all of them are miserable and impoverished.

          Given religion’s misogynistic tendencies, the issue of abortion is a dandy opportunity to control half their followers by using their own bodies against them. And it enrages them that the U.S. has granted women sovereignty over their own reproductive systems.

          You will meet many pleasant, admirable people who work for religious institutions. Indeed, it’s a wise atheist who judges people as individuals, not for their affiliations. That does not change the fact that religions are soulless entities, ones that are perfectly willing to wreck lives in the service of their own survival.
 
 
Michael J. Vaughn is the author of twenty novels, including the popular atheist novel The Popcorn Girl.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson

From Atheist Evolution, a book by Michael J. Vaughn




One of the more annoying assertions of the fundamentalist right is that America is a country founded on “Judeo-Christian values” and that it ought to return to such values. Translation: we need more religion in our government, we need to refer to the Bible when it comes to issues like abortion and gay rights, and we need, generally, to remove the wall separating church and state.

          I could make several arguments just from a practical, political point of view. 1. The Founding Fathers were looking to avoid the theocratic traps of the European countries they fled, like state-sponsored religious oppression and divinely ordained monarchy. 2. Religious institutions are never more pernicious and violent than when they hold the reins of both church and state - see Medieval Christianity and Modern Islam for examples. 3. Faced with a country packed with different sects and religious experiments, the last thing the Fathers wanted was to try and regulate them or anoint one of them as a national denomination. 4. The wall between church and state was designed not just to eliminate religious influence over the government, but to prevent government interference in churches. Be careful what you ask for.

          That said, let’s go back to that original argument: “America was founded on Judeo-Christian values.” In The Faiths of the Founding Fathers (2006, Oxford University Press), religious studies professor David L. Holmes takes a look at the six principal players – Franklin, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe – and comes away with an alarmingly consistent pattern. To a one, these men performed their public religious duties at orthodox churches. To a one, their hearts belonged to Deism.

          The Enlightenment flame of Deism took hold at colonial colleges during the middle of the 18th century, just when the future Fathers were matriculating. Of particular import was Virginia’s William and Mary, where Monroe and Jefferson studied and Washington served as chancellor. The college was described by an orthodox Episcopalian as “…the hotbed of infidelity and of the wild politics of France.”

          “Deism influenced, in one way or another, most of the political leaders who designed the new American government,” wrote Holmes. “If census takers trained in Christian theology had set up broad categories in 1790 labeled ‘Atheism,’ ‘Deism and Unitarianism,’ ‘Orthodox Protestantism,’ ‘Orthodox Roman Catholicism’ and ‘Other,’ and if they had interviewed Franklin, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe, they would undoubtedly have placed every one of these six founding fathers in some way under the category of ‘Deism and Unitarianism.’”

 
So What is Deism?

Actually defining Deism is like landing a Space Shuttle on an aircraft carrier. The Deist worldview begins with an all-powerful God, but one who remains a little distant. He is portrayed as setting the universe into motion and then leaving the rest to us, like a pool player who sends the balls scattering over the table and then leaves the room. The New Testament plays a part – largely in the teachings of Jesus – but is subject to the judgements of Reason, against which it does not fare well.

          In his provocative tome The Age of Reason, Thomas Paine professed a great love for this Deist god but often sounded exactly like an atheist. He labeled Christianity “a fable, which, for absurdity and extravagance, is not exceeded by any thing that is to be found in the mythology of the ancients.”

          “Yet if a reader cannot call Deism ‘atheistic,’” added Holmes, “it is equally impossible to call the movement ‘Christian.’ Deists repeatedly called into question any teaching or belief of Christianity that they could not reconcile with human reason. For them reason was paramount in determining religious truth.”

          The harshest critic was Thomas Jefferson. An outward Anglican and Episcopalian, Jefferson attempted to keep his more radical thoughts to his closest friends. Nonetheless, in the 1800 election he was smeared by Adams ally Alexander Hamilton as an atheist. Congregationalist clergy warned their followers that, if Jefferson were elected, they would have to hide their Bibles.

          In character, Jefferson was a restorationist; he wanted to return Christianity to its original intentions. “Christian Mythologists, calling themselves the Christian Church,” wrote Paine, had “set up a system of religion very contradictory to the character of the person whose name it bears.” Jefferson agreed, and seemed to have special places in hell for the gospels’ Hellenic influences, the apostle Paul (the first “corrupter of the doctrines of Jesus”) and Protestant reformer John Calvin, whose followers “introduced into Christian religion more obscenities than its leader had purged it of old ones.”

          Propelled by these passions, Jefferson literally took up scissors and razor and removed anything from his copy of the New Testament that he believed to be unreasonable or corrupt: Paul’s letters, Revelations, all miracle stories and prophecies; virgin births, resurrections, any argument for Jesus’ divinity, and the Last Supper. The resulting work, comprising mostly the teachings and life of Jesus, was not published until a century after Jefferson’s death, under the title The Life and Morals of Jesus.

          This highly individualized view of religion was common among Deists, and the six Founders profiled in Holmes’ book all had different takes on Christianity. Washington, for instance, had a strong aversion to the Last Supper and its magical cannibalism, and refused to take communion. (This snowflake diversity is similar to modern atheists, each of whom seems to carry their own packet of idiosyncratic definitions. As well they should.)

          I suppose what I wish to demonstrate with this chapter is that our dear Fathers, so often reduced to cold marble statuary, were radical thinkers, and, by the standards of many of the day’s churches, heretics. (To repeat, Thomas Jefferson did not believe in the divinity of Jesus.) Fueled by coffee and The Enlightenment, they were letting their great minds run roughshod over every old idea of government and theology. And if there was one principle on which they agreed, it was the preservation of religious freedom. The firmest guarantor of that freedom was a solid wall between church and state.

          Historian Gordon C. Wood, in his book, The Radicalism of the American Revolution (1991, Vintage Books), gave a particularly blunt summary of the Founders’ attitudes.

         

          “Most of the founding fathers had not put much emotional stock in religion… Most of the revolutionary gentry only passively believed in organized Christianity and, at worst, privately scorned and ridiculed it. Jefferson hated orthodox clergymen… Even puritanical John Adams thought that the argument for Christ’s divinity was an ‘awful blasphemy’… When Hamilton was asked why the members of the Philadelphia convention had not recognized God in the Constitution, he allegedly replied, speaking for many of his liberal colleagues, ‘We forgot.’”
 
 
Michael J. Vaughn is the author of twenty novels, including the popular atheist novel The Popcorn Girl.

Monday, November 20, 2017

A Thanksgiving Wish


I just want to stop and THANK you baby – THANKS for the memory – THANK you for being a friend – I want to THANK you falettin be mice elf agin – THANKS for the time that you’ve given me – You didn’t have to love me like you did but you did but you did, and I THANK you – THANK you girl for teaching me brand new ways to be cruel – No THANKS Omaha THANKS a lot – THANK God I’m a country boy – THANK you India – Wham bam THANK you ma’am! – THANK heaven for little girls – I THANK the Lord for the nighttime – Just be THANKFUL for what you’ve got – THANK you for the love you brought my way – I’m bound to THANK you for it – DANKE Schoen – THANK you for the music

 

Happy Thanksgiving! Michael J. Vaughn

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

You Essay


You Essay

Freedom for the patriots,
soap for the clean
 
pokers and prodders,
wanters and yellers we
 
are not an orderly bunch.
It would be easier to
 
funnel your genomes through a
collander than to cal-
 
culate just what sort of
thing is a country
 
A fiction, a haystack of
gathered wishes, a false fish
 
The self-proclaimed spend their
days singing to a festive rag
 
worshipping a god that
no one can agree upon
 
collecting bumper stickers
proclaiming what they hate
 
I know you want to kill me;
the time will come soon enough





Michael J. Vaughn's twentieth novel, Figment, is now available in both digital and paperback forms at Amazon.com.