To tread a decaying Paris under his sandalled feet

I work at Google, as a Site Reliability Engineer, and I love it. We’re doing something new, difficult, fascinating — creating a positive, human-oriented future in a world that could easily have turned into a technocratic dystopia.

But that’s not what I wanted to do when I was a kid. I wanted to write stories with monsters and spaceships.

Around 2002, I first heard about National Novel Writing Month — a yearly event in which you try to write a novel during the calendar month of November. The rules are intentionally loose: write 50000 words during the thirty days of the calendar month of November. Midnight, November 1st, the contest begins; Midnight, December 1st, it is closed. You compete against yourself. You can write anything; it doesn’t need to make any sense. It’s better if you assume it’s not going to make sense. National Novel Writing Month’s philosophy connects very directly to a lot of the writing advice I’ve read, from a Berkeley adult education class with a textbook called Let the Crazy Child Write, to John Gardner’s How to Grow a Novel, to Stephen King’s On Writing: don’t edit, don’t judge, just relax and let your creative unconscious loose on the page. Focus on writing, rather than focusing on getting it right. Open a vein and pour it out on the page. Worry about grammar and plot and structure later. Just open a channel to your creative unconscious.

November is also the month containing my birthday, so it seemed even more appropriate to turn the month into a celebration of creativity.

Every November since 2002, I have, with varying amounts of success, been using National Novel Writing Month to focus on creativity. The first year, I made it about halfway to my word count target, but I started a complicated novel whose ideas still hunt me in my dreams. In 2003, I threw out the work of 2002 and rewrote the same story, with better-realized characters and a long-range plot arc which I’ve been working on continuously since then — every year, accreting additional chapters to this single novel.

The rules of National Novel Writing Month explicitly forbid this. You’re supposed to start from scratch every year. I completely understand and agree with the reasons behind that rule (staying consistent with your prior installments can make you less spontaneous). But because I think of it as just a framework to help you express your creativity, I feel like I can choose to ignore that rule in the name of the higher purpose of learning how to write a very long story.

I went through a few years where it was difficult to actually carve out time to work on my novel in November. I was working full-time (aside from a few days off for Thanksgiving, which were full of emotionally weighted family interactions) and trying to write in the evening after I got home from a mentally exhausting day of work. At some point, a family tradition started to arise in which my parents would come into town for the weeks surrounding my birthday, and I would have to juggle work, entertaining family, and then trying to keep a dim flame of creativity alive in the short remaining evening hours.

My solution was to arrange my yearly vacation allowance so that the bulk of it fell in the calendar month of November, and then to fly to somewhere remote for most of November. I’ve been doing this for three years. The first year, I went to New Zealand and did my writing from the cafes of Wellington; the second year, I went to Japan and bounced around between quiet, calming hotels in Tokyo, Kyoto, and Nagano.

This year, I went to Buenos Aires.

I had heard it described as Paris, if they spoke Spanish in Paris; and, by someone else, as a decaying Paris. Both sounded appealing, and potentially much more appealing than Paris itself. I speak Spanish, I don’t speak French, and Buenos Aires was the home of my favorite author, Jorge Luis Borges; though I love Paris, the idea of a decaying Paris seemed even more creatively inspiring.

I reserved my plane and hotel quite a while ago, but didn’t do a lot more preparation until right before the trip.

A day or two before, I read up on the place, and discovered to my irritation that not only it is very warm there, but they also insist on dressing formally. Apparently it is not done to go to a restaurant in a t-shirt. I love eating out and have a lot of respect for restauranteurs so I feel like I have to respect dining dress norms, but I am a redheaded Alaskan and not built for warm weather. I pulled a bunch of t-shirts out of my bag and packed some nice-looking shoes which, like all nice-looking shoes, are uncomfortable and cause lasting damage to my ill-made feet if worn for too long. I considered packing a second pair of pants, but couldn’t find the room.

This turned out to be a mistake.

(I should mention that I try to pack only a carry-on bag when traveling, so the size limitations on what I can pack are tight, but self-imposed. Limit your sympathy accordingly.)

I love my job, but it’s been going through an exhausting chapter lately. I was looking forward to my trip a lot.

I packed my single bag full of long-sleeved button-up t-shirts, dress shoes, a blazer, a couple Spanish language reference books, and a laptop for writing. In the quart-sized Ziploc bag containing my toiletries, I put in two little 3 centiliter bottles of Scotch (an 18-year-old Smokehead and a 21-year-old Caol Ila). Well under the TSA size limits for fluids, but it’s not clear flight attendants want flyers serving themselves unmetered intoxicants, so on the flight, I followed this protocol: order a glass of water and a glass of the best whisky available on the menu (usually a pretty grim selection; on both airlines, the best Scotch available started with “Glen,” but they did have acceptable bourbons — American Airlines had Woodford Reserve, and United had Buffalo Trace), drink the airline-provided liquor, rinse with the water, and empty one of the bottles I’d brought into the now-clean whisky glass. Since my Scotches were strongly odored, I rinsed the glass again after drinking, and I carried the empty bottles back with me to throw away in the airport.

It was a two-leg flight, San Francisco to Dallas, and then Dallas to Buenos Aires. Something like 20 hours door to door.

On the plane, I alternated between writing on my laptop and reading Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories on a Kindle (I’d purchased some huge collection of 129 Howard stories: not just Conan, but pretty much everything he’d published).

Howard is considered one of the best of the pulp writers. That may not sound like high praise, but reading his stories brings back the kind of excitement I had about reading when I was thirteen. (Not from nostalgia — I only started reading him in the last year or so, and I was old before your sun burned hot in space.)

I can’t recommend him without a disclaimer: these are the writings of a messed-up, lonely Texan in the 1930s who rarely left his small town. The stories have a strong and obvious component of wish fulfillment — Howard wanted to be someone like Conan. Some of the stories have racist element in them that will make you want to claw your eyes out, and there’s a lot of sexism and damsel-in-distress archetypes (though the [almost always naked] women do display a pretty wide range in terms of autonomy and character). Not everybody will be able to read and enjoy it. But, you know. I did.

Howard loved history and had clearly read a ton; this comes through in the extremely precise language he uses detailing battle tactics and war machinery, the components of medieval armor, every nook and crest in the architecture of a castle, obscure ancient items of clothing, and so forth. But he was also paid by the word, and he knew that if he wrote historical fiction he’d slow himself down trying to get all the details right. So he invented an ahistorical era that, fictionally, existed before the history we knew: the Hyborian Age.

His map of the Hyborian countries is drawn on a continent that looks like Europe, Africa, and Asia, except that there’s land in many places that in the real world are ocean — an imaginary cataclysm would later sink them. The names of his countries were drawn from history and mythology: Vanaheim, Shem, Stygia, Aquilonia — intentionally bringing to mind real places (Scandinavia, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Medieval France), but with all the details up to him. The premise was that after the cataclysm, the remnants of these countries evolved into the hunters and gatherers who founded the countries that show up in our history books.

Know, O prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the Sons of Aryas, there was an Age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars — Nemedia, Ophir, Brythunia, Hyperborea, Zamora with its dark-haired women and towers of spider-haunted mystery, Zingara with its chivalry, Koth that bordered on the pastoral lands of Shem, Stygia with its shadow-guarded tombs, Hyrkania whose riders wore steel and silk and gold. But the proudest kingdom of the world was Aquilonia, reigning supreme in the dreaming west. Hither came Conan the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet.

(From a 1932 short story called “The Phoenix on the Sword.”) The phrase “Sons of Aryas” refers, presumably, to the imaginary tribal father of Arthur de Gobineau’s pseudoscientific Aryan race; the name does not appear elsewhere in the Conan stories.

Conan is a barbarian from the country of Cimmeria, which Howard imagined to be the origin of the Celtic people, and the descendants of the barbarians of Atlantis, which had been destroyed in a previous cataclysm. (Cimmeria lies over Great Britain and Ireland, which in the Hyborian era were part of the mainland.) The stories jump around in time, chronicling different parts of his long adventuring career; in the first (“The Phoenix on the Sword”), he is in his forties and the King of Aquilonia; in the second (“The Tower of the Elephant”) he’s a teenaged second-story man. Howard said the stories came to him in no particular order, as if a drunken Conan were telling him rambling stories at the fireside.

The 1982 Conan the Barbarian film was screen-written by John Milius, who also wrote Red Dawn. He was famous as a right-wing writer in a left-wing town; John Goodman’s character Walter from The Big Lebowski is supposedly based on him.

The film captures the feeling of the stories but drifts from the details; in the film, Conan’s village is massacred when he is a child and he is raised a slave, eventually escaping and avenging himself on the band that attacked his village (and symbolically shattering the sword stolen from his father, calling into question the one lesson we see his father imparting to him — “No one in this world can you trust, not men, not women, not beasts… this [indicating the steel of his sword] you can trust!”).

Howard’s Conan was never enslaved; he drifted out of Cimmeria into more civilized territories as an adventurer. Howard was proud of Conan’s barbarism, and considered it more honorable than the sophistication of compromises of civilized people. It’s a recurring theme throughout the stories, often stated explicitly, that the thief in a loin-cloth (or “breeks,” whatever that means) who solves problems by hitting them with a giant sword, is more admirable specifically because he’s more direct.

There were 18 Conan short stories published during Howard’s lifetime, and three rejected (or unsubmitted) stories published after. He rewrote one of the rejected stories (“The Black Stranger”) into a different time period, with a different protagonist, and got it published in that form (as “Swords of the Red Brotherhood”). He wrote a single Conan novel called The Hour of the Dragon (referring to the banner of the Hyborian country of Nemesis, not an actual dragon). I read most of the Howard Conan corpus this month; I’m still finishing The Hour of the Dragon, and I still have to read “The Black Stranger,” because the collection I have on my Kindle skipped the unpublished stories.

After Howard’s death, a bunch of other writers decided to write Conan stories, and for years Conan collections would include an undifferentiated mix of original Howard stories and this so-called “pastiche.” (L. Sprague de Camp, in addition to a lot of normal Conan pastiche, also took a bunch of fragments and outlines by Howard and expanded them into full stories.) There’s an interesting (and frothy) article about this, entitled “Conan vs. Conantics”, pointing out that the character Howard created was much more subtle and interesting than the later writers realized: Howard’s Conan is smart (for example, he speaks many languages) but his actions under stress are instinctive, not intellectual; and though the stories were not written in internal chronological order, the character grows as he ages, becoming less superstitious and more able to serve as a leader. The subtleties are generally lost in the pastiche, along with the strengths of Howard’s writing: cinematic, over-heated poetry; well-choreographed battle scenes; economical, terse, creative action; and a driving pace.

I suggest reading all of it, and then reading these reviews.

I should note that as good as Howard’s writing is, there are stylistic things that annoy me.

95% of the monsters he encounters are snakes. Oh my god, what is it. Oh, it’s a snake. That’s a snake too. Something is killing people and not leaving footprints? What could it be?

Conan’s motion and appearance is constantly, repetitively compared to panthers, lions, other big cats. And most of the metaphors used to describe his enemies are also animal-based; many of them get a chance to smile “wolfishly.”

15 cat words in a 20000-word novella, 14 of them similes for Conan’s behavior. Though who knows what humiliating patterns you might find grepping my stories.

There’s a movie about Howard’s life called The Whole Wide World, based on the autobiography of Novalyne Price Ellis, who may have been his only romantic interest. He’s pictured sitting at his typewriter, typing Conan stories, shouting the words at his typewriter as he bashes them out, while a sound of war-drums that only he can hear keeps the rhythm in his head.

Pop psychology is cheap, but it’s easy to make up a little narrative: Howard was an outcast, barely able to function in society. He wrote lots of stories, but the character that he seemed to love the most was the hero whose strength came from the fact that he was a loner who didn’t care to understand civilization.

Howard’s relationship with Price (as she was named at the time) never progressed and eventually she moved on. When he was 31, Howard’s mother slipped into a coma; Howard and his father stayed at her side in vigil. When a nurse told Howard she was unlikely to ever wake, he left the house, walked out to his car, and shot his head with a pistol. He died about a day before his mother.


What I wrote this year for National Novel Writing Month was Conan pastiche. I tried to do a better job than the historical Conantics, but mostly I wanted the vacation of getting outside my own story and my own writing style a little bit, and it felt good.

I got to Buenos Aires on a Sunday morning. I left my bag at the hotel and wandered into town, tired, crabby, hungry, grubby, unable to nap or shower, with six hours to kill. The street next to the hotel had been turned into a market — it would later become clear this happened every Sunday — which might have been fun if I had been awake and were the sort of person who enjoyed looking at objects and thinking about how it might be fun to buy them, but in my state of exhaustion what I mostly noticed was that the booths made it impossible to walk on the sidewalk, and the street was uneven cobblestones that hurt my feet, even more so because I had to get around the crowds standing in my way. I found some sunblock and sprayed it over myself, making me less worried that I’d get burned but increasing the feeling of being oily and dirty. Google Maps gave me long lists of closed restaurants; I eventually found an outdoor cafe and ordered something unsatisfying with a liter of beer.

I learned Spanish in an American high school, where the standard is Mexican Spanish, and later on I did a couple of months of immersion classes in Mexico. There was a time when I could hold a decent conversation in Spanish, but I haven’t had the discipline to practice. Over the time I was there, I learned some perhaps obvious facts about speaking a language in which you’re weak, but they weren’t obvious to me at the time so I will write them down anyway. Probably the foremost thing was: don’t just communicate through sentence fragments. In a restaurant at home, I might just sit down, smile, say the thing I want to eat, pay, and say thank you. None of that requires a full sentence. But in Buenos Aires, I kept trying to do that and saying something not quite in the right way — or worse, sounding like I understood and then getting a long chain of incomprehensible words in response and having nothing to say except ¿Cómo?

Which is not very useful, because the correction is not incremental; you can’t establish partial understanding and move forward from there; the native speaker has very little to work with, and has to just keep simplifying their sentence until you can respond to something, which tends to frustrate both of us. The habit I eventually got into was to repeat the part I thought I understood, and then try to ask a coherent question about the part I didn’t — and when I ran into a vocabulary problem (for example I had never learned the word for earbud headphones [it was something like “auriculares”]), figuring out how to ask a carefully scoped question, e.g. what is the word for this thing here that I’m pointing at, instead of just sitting there getting frustrated because all my words were stuck behind the one I didn’t remember.

Complicating the situation was that the local dialect of Spanish (which is spoken in Argentina and Uruguay, and is called Rioplatense, after the Rio de la Plata) has some significant differences from Mexican Spanish that are very visible in basic conversation.

Mexican Spanish differs from Castilian, the dialect spoken in Spain, in that one of the verb forms has disappeared from normal usage: the informal plural second person, “vosotros,” has disappeared, and all the verb forms that go with it. The formal plural second person, “Ustedes,” is used instead, which takes third person plural verb forms. I apparently graduated from high school thinking there were just those two dialects of Spanish — the weirdos in Spain who still used “vosotros,” and Latin American Spanish, who had conveniently reduced the number of forms we had to memorize. But Rioplatense Spanish has a feature called the “voseo:” an entirely different informal second person singular pronoun, “vos,” takes the place of the “tú” which is used both in Spain and in Mexico, and the verb forms that go with “vos” seem to be related to, though different from, those “vosotros” forms that I had never practiced.

“Pagás” and “tenés” are alien verb forms to someone raised on Mexican Spanish.

Another Rioplatense language feature is called “sheísmo.” I was aware that the “ll,” which in Mexico and Spain is typically a “y” sound, was a “zh” sound in Ecuadorian and Venezuelan Spanish, from immigrant friends in high school. But in Rioplatense, the “ll” is pronounced “sh,” which somehow sounds much stranger to me and threw me every time. “¿Cómo se shaman eshos?”

And on top of unfamiliar pronouns, unfamiliar verb forms, and an unfamiliar rendering of a common phoneme, it turns out to be common not to pronounce an “s” if it is followed by another consonant, so that for example the very common word “está” (“is”) sounds like “ehtá.” Anyway, not to make excuses, but this stack of factors blew a lot of my ability to recognize words out of the water.

Stained glass window visible through the elevator cage; the elevator had manual doors, and when you closed them it took off like a rocket.

I intentionally formed a daily habit centered around writing: wake up at the crack of noon, call the lobby to get housekeeping to come back, put on some irritatingly warm clothes, find a restaurant and eat lunch while housekeeping cleans my room, come back, sit upstairs typing away until there’s enough shade to sit out on the terrace, and then sit out on the terrace typing till it’s cold enough I go down to my room and type a little bit longer till it’s time to change into more uncomfortable shoes and go out in search of dinner, walking on cobblestones with tired feet and ill-fitting shoes.

Every week or so, I’d do laundry, and I’d want to wash my pants. Unfortunately, I had only one pair of pants, and my meanderings around town had made it clear the guidebooks were right: nobody wears shorts. So on laundry days, I would get up early, call housekeeping to pick up my laundry and put a rush on it, put on my shorts, eat an extra big terrible hotel breakfast (oh my god, the rotting strawberries) and then lounge around the hotel slowly burning off breakfast calories till my clean clothes came back at dinner time and I was able to put on pants like a grown up and repeat the standard evening routine of changing into uncomfortable shoes and limping on cobblestones.

View from the terrace.

The steak was good, and the lamb, and the ribs. Chimichuri, green and red. All good, but honestly, I’ve had good meat before, and I’ve even had good chimichuri before. The style of restaurant is called a “parrilla,” which means something like “grill.” But whenever I tried a different cuisine (Italian, Japanese, French), it was awful; I would compare most of the non-parrilla food unfavorably to what you might find if you tried to order something exotic from a small-town America strip mall.

So a couple days into this trip, not having the best time with the language or the food, I was having an actually pretty good meal at a place called Aldo on election night, watching the 538 live blog as the state-by-state results came in. After it became clear things were not going the way I had hoped, I finished up, went back to the hotel, drank a little too much from the minibar and spent the next few days in a pretty deep funk, thinking about the eerie similarities to demagogues melting republics into dictatorships in Rome, the Weimar Republic, and the Old Republic of a galaxy far, far away.

Something about the experience of a moment where all my hopes in the political system were reversed and crushed reminded me of a scene in The Mule, the second half of Asimov’s Foundation and Empire (which I therefore bought on Kindle and re-read in the days after the election). The Foundation has been losing a war with a mysterious adversary named The Mule. But they’re not worried; in every previous case where the Foundation looked like it was going to be defeated, they’ve been saved by a carefully orchestrated manipulation of the forces of history by the Foundation’s founder, Hari Seldon.

They’re all sitting in a room, waiting for the pre-recorded speech by the long-dead Seldon to explain how this latest threat is going to be defeated — and he appears, and starts speaking — and he is completely wrong. The crisis he had predicted was something totally different, which the invasion of the Mule had preempted. As the room devolves into chaos, an electro-magnetic pulse goes off, all electronics stop working, and the forces of the Mule descend from space and conquer the Foundation.

By Source, Fair use,

After a lot of moping, I decided to focus more of my energy going forward and funding the causes the new administration threatened: protecting minorities and multiculturalism, and preventing apocalypse from climate change. And that the only bright side was that a lot of people on the losing side were going to get a lot more involved in politics.

What lessons for next time?

  • Research cuisine more thoroughly before multi-week trips.
  • Err towards wasting words when speaking a foreign language; the gist comes across better and less weight hangs on each individual word.
  • Bring a shoulder bag for day trips, and so I can lug the laptop around and write in different places around town.
  • Bring a second pair of pants.
  • Ensure election will not be won by worst human in history.