A Derivation of Love: Digital Mandala and the Resurrection of the Living Book.

When I was kid, I went through a period when I would build a variety of elaborate toothpick bridges only to the destroy them.

Much later in life, I was delighted to discover that Tibetan Buddhists create elaborate and beautiful sand mandalas only to destroy them.

There is, of course, much more to the Buddhist ritual than the childish delight of destroying that which you yourself have made, but I’m sure more than a few monks have swept away a mandala with a measure of the delight I experienced when I destroyed my toothpick bridges.

It is from the perspective of the Tibetan mandalas and my childhood bridges that I often think about the ephemeral and impermanent nature of the digital medium.

A thousand years from now, unlike clay tablets or papyrus or archival paper, it is absolutely certain that these words you are now reading will not exist for anyone else to read. Even if the data and the hard drives on which it is scattered somehow survive, it is improbable that anyone will know how to use any of it to reproduce these words. In point of fact, the data on some of my older technology may already be lost to history and the Buddhist bridge burner in me takes a certain measure of satisfaction in that certainty.

Books — both the idea of them and the tangible artifacts — once played an important role in my life and identity. Like most smart kids born into an unreliable and, at times, hostile circumstance, they were a place of refuge and hope. It was in the reflection of the books I read that I first saw the possibility of my self. I still remember the experience of revealing — from the box in which it was sent  — the very first book I picked for myself to own.

Years later, the two bags I took with me to New Zealand were full of books that I had carefully selected to put on the shelf of my office as a kind of mosaic of my intellectual pedigree. It occurs to me only now, as I write these words, that the decision to sell (almost) all my books at the end of my Ph.D. is no different than a new atheist destroying his once cherished icons. It also helps explain why there were a few books I just couldn’t part with.

With the creation of the soft cover version of my novel A Derivation of Love, I am once again reminded of the weight and value of books as independent entities over and beyond their instrumental value as a storeroom of ideas. Maybe that is the magic and mystery of a treasured book. A book is the word made flesh and it is a flesh resplendent with the possibility of immortality.

What’s your favorite book, when you think of it as an artifact rather than as the story or ideas it contains?

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A Derivation of Love : Now In The Soft Cover of An Externalized Self.

Ludwig Feuerbach, a 19th Century German philosopher and a big influence in my life, argues that our conception of God is an externalization of all that is good in us. We are knowing, loving, and powerful beings, who imagine that there’s a being very much like us but who is also perfect. The problem with our conception of God, according to Feuerbach, is that, in comparison, we pale. And the more perfect we imagine God to be, the more imperfect we imagine ourselves to be.

A Derivation of Love — especially in it’s latest iteration as a soft cover book, complete with the most perfect author photo ever — expresses a version of Feuerbach’s theory turned on its head.

When I look at this artifact and I hold it in my hands, I am delighted because it is the perfect externalization of a particular vision I had of myself, conceived in adolescence and played out for more than a few years in my twenties. From the cover art, to the internal layout, to the text on the back, this book is either the Desmond that Sterling wanted to be or the Sterling that Desmond wanted to be.

Either way, with this artifact, which can be effortlessly reproduced by Amazon’s mighty, and in all likelihood outsourced printers, I honour a promise I made to an earlier version of myself and, in so doing, I free myself from a self-imposed and self-created bond that is — and always has been — imaginary. The fact of its insubstantial nature is all too delightfully apparent now that it has been transubstantiated into this very real artifact.

What promises to an earlier version of yourself have you honored — or hope to honor?

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From Spaces to Cities: What’s The Story of Your Geography?

What role does a writer play in the transformation of a space or geography into a city or country?

Had I asked this question twenty, fifteen, or even ten years ago, I might have been tempted to answer, “the unique and special task of the writer is to imbue space and geography with story and meaning and, in so doing, create a city and/or country. Think of James Joyce and Ulysses.

Today, thanks to new technologies, it is much more obvious that all of us — as has always been the case — imbue spaces and geographies with story and meaning, transforming them into cities and countries only when our very many meanings and stories meet, mingle, and — sometimes — converge, creating paths, lanes, and meridians in, within, and across our shared spaces. A city and/or country is not created from a single master narrative delivered from on high and, fortunately, today, it is much more difficult for the prophets of the press to pretend that they speak for all of us and that they write our cities and countries into being.

Derivation of Love aspires to be a Canadian story, without trying to tell the story of Canada. It omits Quebec and Toronto, struggles with official bilingualism, never makes it as far as Vancouver and — almost accidentally — mirrors the nation’s new political order. It is a story of a Canadian, of Canada, but not of all Canadians or all of Canada.

Derivation is also an urban book. It begins in the suburbs of Ottawa, documents a public transit journey across the historical divide between the east of Ottawa and the rest of Ottawa, French and English Ottawa, working class and middle class Ottawa. It loses all sense of place in the fever pitch of sex and love, only to reemerge at the outskirts of Calgary, before once again heading way downtown. Inside the bedrooms, bathrooms, and living rooms of this tale of adolescent love, the Canadian wilderness is a trope studied in high school English classes and long forgotten in the asphalt hum and service station salvations of the Trans Canada Highway.

Derivation aspires to be a story that is both familiar and unique, that casts new light on old spaces and geographies, and that recharts the paths, lanes, and meridians of our cities and country.

What role is played by story in the spaces and geographies of your life?

P.s. I’m raising the price of the Derivation download some time this week, if you don’t want to pay the higher price, download it now — or, at least, sooner rather than later.

Download my ebook, A Derivation of Love.

Love’s Wordless Understanding: What Does It Mean?

There’s a story, from one of my all time favorite books, that goes something like this: a musician plays a beautiful and complex piece of music for an attentive listener. When the musician concludes the piece, the listener asks, “what does it mean?” The musician, as a answer, plays the piece again, note for note.

For much of my life, I have had the same attitude about my creative work. If I was asked about the meaning of one of my texts, I’d refer the person to the text and say, “that’s what it means” or “try harder.” I’d answer any question about the text, so long as it wasn’t, “what does it mean definitively according to you?”

At some point, my attitude changed, in part, because I realized that the author’s interpretation of his own text is only one of many possible interpretations and, if someone wants to give my interpretation more weight in their assessment of the text, what difference should it make to me — especially when my own interpretation of the text evolves over time.

I think living overseas also helped to change my attitude. From that experience, I realized that we all speak our own micro-languages. Even the most banal turns of phrase can mean very different things to different people, depending on how their families and peers use the expression. I’m not sure many people understand this and, as a result, I think many people think they are communicating, when they are not.

I should be clear: I’m not claiming we can’t communicate. I’m claiming only that we can’t take communication for granted simply because we often utter the same kinds of sounds around each other. We need to probe, question, and learn each other’s languages.

This experience of talking but not communicating happens again and again in my novel, A Derivation of Love. Over and over, the characters think they are communicating, when in fact they are not. There is a lot of confusion and misunderstanding because no one takes the time to probe, question, and learn — Desmond most of all.

It seems to me that this “presumption of understanding” is an important source of very many of the problems between boy and girls and boys and boys and girls and girls. It’s a problem for all the different kinds of relationships we might have with each other but it seems particularly relevant to our sexual / romantic relationships. For some reason, many people seem to think that sex, love, and romance requires a wordless understanding on the part of all those involved.

The Hintonburg Drinking Club and Debating Society came up with an idea at our last late night session that I am still thinking about: silence preserves the status quo and the preservation of the status quo always safeguards the power of whomever happens to have it.

With this idea in mind, my question is this:

Do we expect love to involve wordless understanding because each of us thinks we have the power in the relationship and we want to preserve it, or do we expect love to involve wordless understanding because we think the other — our beloved — has the power and that’s exactly where we want it to lie, or do we expect love to involve wordless understanding because it originates in a part of our brain that evolved long before we developed the capacity for language?

What do you think?

Download my ebook, A Derivation of Love.

Art Imitating Life Imitating Art Imitating Life Imitating Art.

In chapter 7 of my novel, A Derivation of Love, Desmond decides to write a semi-autobiographical novel about boys and girls and the problems between them. The chapter concludes when a friend tells him to put lots of sex in the book, otherwise, “it won’t sell.”

At this stage in the novel, which has been described recently by one friendly reader as “sex drenched, yet bleak,” it’s fairly obvious that the author of Derivation has taken to heart the idea that sex sells.

For me, this less-than-sly self-reference is also a key moment in the narrative. It’s here that the author’s story and Desmond’s merge.

In writing the book, the author learns what Desmond can’t yet know — e.g. what the book is about — but it is because of what he learns that the author can finish the book. The meta-joke, then, is a gnostic deus ex machina.

Desmond’s story continues for two more short chapters and the book concludes with a characterization of Desmond’s experience which he himself can not yet offer. So, the author intrudes once more and the “why” of Desmond’s experience is explained in the last paragraph — really, in the very last sentence.

Desmond’s bleak emotional solipsism is, for him, beautiful and, I think, many of us are similarly constrained by our own immutable aesthetic, however different it may be from Desmond’s.

What do you think?

Are the problems between boys and girls (and girls and girls and boys and boys) best explained by an unwillingness to revise the story we’ve written for ourselves when another person enters into it?


The gnostic meta-joke also references Chapter 5, one of the more sexually explicit chapters of the book.

A young Desmond, tired of struggling with George Orwell’s 1984, discards the book, masturbates, and his fantasy is described in vivid detail. Desmond, we have learned, is reading 1984 only because he mistakenly thought it would be a sexually explicit book, after stumbling across the only sexualized scene of the novel.

The “almost finished” version of Derivation has been online for a couple of years now and Chapter 5 is the second most popular post on my blog, second only to “Brazil Nuts and the Sexual Politics of Hair”. Needless to say, the tag “student-teacher fantasy” has drawn more than it’s fair share of page views.

It amuses me to think of some titillated reader — like Desmond — scouring the rest of my blog, looking for similarly salacious content, with no success.

Download my ebook, A Derivation of Love.

Exclusions, Inclusions, and the Death of the Parent.

Writing is as much about exclusions as it is about inclusions.

Parents are the biggest and, perhaps, the most important exclusion in Derivation of Love.

I excluded parents because of the growing body of research that indicates parents and parenting have very little impact on how children turn out and because — contra the traditions of the genre — I wanted to write a coming of age story that didn’t focus on a child’s relationship with his parent or parents. In my own life, my friends, teachers, and lovers have been far more important to my development than my parents.

In recent years, however, I’ve come to realize that I really can’t make sense of who I am, my life, and many of my behaviours without reference to the relationships I had with my parents growing up. I learned many habits from them. Some of them were worth keeping; many I’ve worked to break.

Ultimately, I am who I am — in part — because of the parents I had, but I was not authored by them. The Parent, like the Author, is not dead. The author’s interpretation of his own text is valuable but not authoritative. Parents and parenting affect but do not determine who we become.

What do you think? Do you think parents have more or less influence on how a child turns out? What impact did your parents and parenting have on you?

Download my ebook, A Derivation of Love.

Beyond Autobiography: What’s Your Story?

Desmond, the main character of my ebook A Derivation of Love, is not me, but I created him by writing — and thus reconceiving — specific moments in my life. I’m sure there is a family resemblance to the person I was but, ultimately, I hope he bears a family resemblance to some of his readers and/or to people known by some of his readers. If the marketers are right, it is the only way Desmond will ever find an audience for his short life.

So, why autobiography?

I started writing what would become Derivation with a specific agenda — built around a very specific idea of what a novel ought to be: a narrative text that captures or represents a life. I suppose I could have researched and then wrote another person’s life but writing is hard and time consuming, a person only learns to write by writing, and if I failed — either to write the novel or to write a good novel — I let only myself down.

Nevertheless, despite its autobiographical origins, Derivation emerged only because I realized that it couldn’t and shouldn’t be autobiography. To succeed as a novel, the demands of the narrative had to trump the demands of my memories. Once I realized that I was writing a story about boys and girls and the problems between them, Desmond, his friends, his lovers, and his story could emerge.

In the books I like to read, G. W. F Hegel is most often credited with the idea that a person only comes to know himself through his work because he finds in the products of his work a clear and present representation of his identity. He sees himself in what he’s made because only a person could have made it but he also realizes that he is much more than a product of work because he is much more than what he’s produced. This idea strikes a chord with me because, like so many other Canadians, I so often define myself by what I am not.

We are all autobiographers. In the medium of memory, we write and rewrite the story of our lives. We all face the choice I faced in writing Derivation: do I tell a story that is true to my memories or do I reconceive myself in a way that is true to an independent story. And once that decision is made, in what way am I remade?

Whether you write your story on the page, in your memory, in front of a microphone, or on Facebook, what is the function of autobiography in your life, what kind of story are you writing, and is your story true to your memories or to an independent narrative?

I’d love to read some of your thoughts!

Buy Derivation of Love.

A Derivation of Love: An Experiment in Failure.

In November of 2001, I set out to fail.

I had decided, once and for all, to write a novel.

Unfortunately, I had also recently decided that the novel is impossible (to borrow a fashionable phrase of the time.) A novel is impossible, I thought, because it is impossible to capture or represent a life in a single narrative text.

I had, in other words, created a lose-lose situation for myself.

On the one hand, if I didn’t produce a complete text that might suitably be called a novel, I failed. On the other hand, if I did produce a complete text that might suitably be called a novel, I also failed — because I would have created a text that couldn’t possibly be what it purported to be.

What can I say? I had some pretty negative Jedi mindtricks in 2001.

At the time, I was living out of a closet and sleeping on an air mattress in the living room of a one bedroom apartment in Toronto, near Young and Carleton. I had spent the summer successfully touring The Root of All Squares and I was departing for Auckland, New Zealand in February of 2002 to start my Ph.D.. After a brief and economically unrewarding stint as a Metropass courier, I now had plenty of time on my hands.

I had two ideas for my first novel: i) the vague notion of a semi-autobiographical story; ii) a post apocalyptic science fiction story grounded in political philosophy. It was my host and friend, Jason Fleming, who convinced me to pursue the vague notion. It was only years later that I finally realized the story was actually about boys and girls and the problems between them.

So, did I succeed in failing?

As is so often the case with quasi-metaphysical claims like, “the novel is impossible,” so much depends on how one defines his or her terms.

I like the text that I called A Derivation of Love but I don’t think it captures or represents a life — even a fictional life. We learn a lot about the protagonist, Desmond, but there is much in the end that we don’t know — and that is by design. The rather thin narrative of the text is built around a rather narrow vein of human experience and I’m not at all convinced we can reasonably infer a life — even a fictional life — from what is there. Our lives are not reducible to the story of our interactions with those people we desire.

So, by the terms I set for myself in 2001, I fail.

I fail, however, only because in 2001 I was still suffering from a lingering nihilism. The nihilist trick is simple. Define an idea, practice, or belief, like the novel, in terms that are necessarily unachievable and then claim the idea, practice, or belief is impossible. Then, lament the self-fulfilling prophecy.

Ten years later, after writing a text that may or may not be called a novel, depending on how one defines the terms, I’ve learned to set my victory conditions differently. Sufficient time in the sun and by the ocean can cure most people of their nihilism. Writing a semi-autobiographical novel can also help.

Today, I am pretty adept at adopting a perspective that creates win-win rather than lose-lose situations. That switch in perspective was aided by writing Derivation; so, in that sense, I succeeded. Perhaps, by sharing it as an ebook, it may be useful for someone else as well — and that’s another chance for success. If I also make a couple of bucks, all the better.

If you’d like to buy the ebook, buy it here for US$ 0.99. That’s a special introductory price for friends, family, and early adopters. It will go up in the future.

If you’d like to read it for free, it’s available here in a much less convenient but far more free package.

If you read Derivation and want to respond to it, please add your comments to the Facebook page. In the mean time, why not give the page a “Like”.

If you prefer to respond on Twitter, use the hashtag #DofL. Don’t forget, on Twitter, I’m @SterlingLynch.

There’s even a Google+ page, for you wacky early adopters!

You can also email me: sterling.lynch@gmail.com.

Many thanks to Von Allan who planted the idea-seed of an ebook in my head (he’s released a new graphic novel), to Jay Lutes for the fine cover art an design (he also does great murals), and to Evan Thornton for designing the eBook itself (he’s also the Editor of Spacing Ottawa).

For the record, it only occurred to me when I started writing this post that we accidentally released the ebook — almost to the day — around the time of the tenth anniversary of my once and for all commitment to finish it. If that seems like a ridiculous amount of time to write a fairly short book, you should also know the second chapter is based on a text I wrote for my OAC writing class in 1992. Arguably, Derivation of Love was almost twenty years in the making.

I will have something to say about the length of time it took to finish the text in future posts but suffice it to say I was busy becoming the person who could finish the text and writing the text was only one important part of that process.

BTW: if you see any copyedits we overlooked, please let me know. We can easily update the text.

And: if you want to take a crack at writing a short summary blurb or review, it will not only be greatly appreciated, I will work to find some eyeballs for it.

A Derivation of Love (9 of 8)

Friday, September 14th, 2001.

Desmond’s cock was limp and wet with spermicidal fluid. He lay on his back, one hand behind his head, and the other across his stomach holding a cigarette. The smoke curled in front of him, up and around. Carmen was asleep, facing the wall.

He was leaving Calgary, tomorrow. Probably forever. At least for years and years and he probably would never see her again. If nothing else, the two people who might again meet would no longer be the two who said good-bye. He wanted to say something to mark the occasion, write something, maybe make a speech of some kind, or a scene, but he didn’t know what to do. He knew only he wanted to do something and that Carmen wanted him to do it too.

He had considered telling her he loved her but decided it would only cause more trouble in the long run. It wasn’t really true either. Sure, there were times when he thought he loved her but there was also times when he probably didn’t. His overall attitude could be called love but it didn’t really carry any of the connotations men and women normally associate with it. He didn’t want to live with her, or raise children, or never sleep with anyone else, or spend all his time with her but inside him he had a good feeling for her and her alone. It was love, as far as Desmond understood it, but she probably understood it much differently.

Besides, there always had been a line between them. When they met, Carmen was getting over her ex boyfriend, Desmond was getting over his ex girlfriend, and they both knew from the very start, he would leave Calgary as soon as he finished his degree. Sure, sometimes they slipped into old patterns out of habit but the unexpected tension which inevitably emerged always reminded them of the reality of the situation. Each knew where the other stood and, as a result, both were more or less happy. Plus, the sex was really good.

Desmond took a long draw off his cigarette and exhaled.

The last time Desmond had seen Cassandra, she was stoned on mushrooms, hanging out by the War Memorial in Ottawa, watching the New Year’s fireworks display with some of her friends. She was dropping out of school to head to Mexico with her drug dealing boyfriend. Her eyes were glassy and her face seemed to reflect all the colours exploding in the sky. She talked to him but, for her, he was barely there. Non-existent. He said nothing of consequence that night and, as usual, went home alone wedged in between the different groups of people celebrating on the bus. Beneath his heartache and loneliness, it all seemed so perfect and beautiful.

And, to be honest — for him — it was.

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