In the first quarter of 2020, the most important thing that happened was not the COVID-19 pandemic. That was just another stupid pathogen senselessly murdering innocents. Temporarily bigger than the flu, but going to be much more short-lived, and still way smaller than tuberculosis or malaria.
No, the most important thing that happened in the first quarter of 2020 was our response to it. With unprecedented swiftness, our entire species coordinated to counter this new threat. There have been previous global campaigns against infectious diseases, such as the eradication of smallpox and the imminent eradication of polio. In number of life-years saved, these are among the greatest successes humans have achieved. But those lasted for decades, to end enemies older than civilisation. Against COVID-19, we are demonstrating a swiftness of species-wide teamwork that is entirely new – a level of coordination capability never before seen in the observable universe. Nobody can seriously doubt we are now more capable of fighting a pandemic than we ever were – and since there is a lot of obvious room for improvement, we’re already looking for ways to do even better next time.
Why talk about this in a progress report for a poetry project? Because this is the exact thing that the fourth Secular Sermon, the one I’m currently writing, is about: humanity’s unique ability to cooperate that allows, and forces, progress. Our growing ability to stop a mindless virus from killing millions of thinking, feeling humans is just about the most unambiguous example of progress that I can think of.
In the fourth quarter of 2019, the fourth Sermon has again progressed very little. A few more stanzas are written, some stunted bits are removed, but there’s a strong sense I’m falling behind my own expectations.
The title of the fourth Sermon is now final. It will be called “The Labor of Humanity”. Some incremental improvements have made their way in, but overall there has been little progress. I continue to be stuck on what is probably the last particularly difficult bit. After that, the work should proceed into the polishing stage for another couple of months. If I find a solution soon, I might be done by the end of the year. Or maybe not.
I show you my great masterpiece
of which I am so proud
and all it is is fantasies
of being cared about.
I have had various serious difficulties. This weekend, I was hoping to go on a creative writing retreat, live in a hotel for two relatively distraction-free days and get much of the remaining work on the fourth Sermon done. It was a gift from my lovely wife. Unfortunately it turned out to be impossible to square with my other duties. Before that, a special meeting of creative designers of meditations and rituals turned out to be impossible for me to attend as well. I will miss out on a lot of input, feedback and motivation I was hoping to get there, and I’m losing the urgency of wanting to have something new to present there. And before that, as I have previously mentioned, a significant part of what I have written for the fourth Sermon turned out to be not good enough.
Last Saturday, a film crew filmed me reading a bit of the Seven Secular Sermons in a formal meditation setting. This is for ARD, Germany’s federal public service broadcaster. They’ll be running the movie at 17:30 on the 10th of November, apparently. Six of my friends kindly came together on short notice to play meditating extras. For the text, I chose the first half of the work-in-progress fourth Sermon.
The movie isn’t actually about the Sermons of course. They only get the publicity because I write them, and I in turn only get the publicity because my dad is famous as a hero of the overthrow of the East German dictatorship. The movie is about what it is like to have that kind of parents. I snuck in the bit about the Sermons and hope it makes the cut.
This air we breathe was breathed before,
by parts of life now dead.
It flows from lung to lung, to more
and future lives ahead.
We breathe what must someday have been
some creature’s dying breath.
To feel this breath right now can mean
to feel the touch of death.
I have begun reading the first part of the fourth Sermon to people, and found it doesn’t quite work. I always knew this is a possibility with every Sermon – I’m so close to them I have an inside view that makes me a poor judge of what is effective for others. So I take care to seek feedback from readers and listeners, and incorporate it as diligently as I can. But that doesn’t feel right when I’m in the very beginning of a Sermon, where the pieces don’t even hold together yet. So I’ve gone without feedback for a long time, and now that I get some, I find I’ve deviated from the hypothetical optimum more than usual. So over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been reworking and improving things that I thought I had pretty much finished.
A bit more is written. There is a decent first draft of the first 40% of the fourth Sermon, and a great number of bits of and pieces that I need to string together into the remaining 60%. I will rework the beginning part first and then keep adding to it in a more or less sequential fashion. So I’m basically in the synthesis stage again. Right now my attempt to finish the fourth Sermon this summer looks a bit precarious, but it might still work out.
This having children thing? It’s good.
And yet I’m also sad.
I wish I’d truly understood
how much free time I had.
I have written a few more bits of the fourth Sermon, and finished the blog post on Kipling. The latter kind of morphed into a manifesto against most other poetry, and led to some interesting discussions. The rest of my work continues to be fairly minimal. I clearly underestimated how much harder having a second child makes finding time for anything that is not super urgent.
It has been half a year since my last post, and it was a very hectic half of a year. My son was born and is growing up beautifully. Life with two small kids leaves me with too little time for many things, especially poetry.
I’m weirdly ambivalent about that. It sure feels right to focus on my kids in basically all of the time that I’m not at work or sleeping. I also feel guilty about my very slow progress on what is, after all, supposed to be my Magnum Opus. But on the other hand it’s just poetry so who will ever care. But what will I amount to if I don’t do this right. I’d amount to a pretty good dad it seems. And that’s both obviously enough, and obviously not enough, at the same time.
Over the last two days, my wife and daughter went on an Easter holiday. So I was away from both of them for more than a day for the first time since the third Sermon premiered in November 2016.
This has allowed be to put a big chunk of work into the fourth Sermon. I’m getting near the end of the synthesis stage now and I’m mostly done with the complicated parts that need a couple of highly focused uninterrupted hours at a time. So I think I can finish the fourth Sermon with mostly just little bits and pieces of work that I can squeeze in between other things.
And there will be lots of other things! We’re expecting our second child in July 🙂 while our first is keeping us fairly busy already and work is quite hectic at the moment as well. I’d love to be done with the fourth Sermon before July, but that seems unlikely right now. I’ll certainly try, though.
I have also added an extra page about the poetic format of the Sermons, the common metre. I might update it occasionally, as I improve my understanding of what I seem to be doing.
I’ve been noticing for a while that I find it increasingly hard to write poetry in any format that is not the common metre. Every time I try, it feels wrong and difficult and I always tend to be attracted back to the common metre. My unconscious processes have clearly been trained to better help my conscious processes write in this format. This is great because it relieves some of the cognitive burden and reduces the time and effort needed. Last night, I produced 15 stanzas in 5 hours – that’s three times as fast as I was writing the second Sermon and about six times as fast as I started out. Clearly I have sacrificed some mental flexibility to gain this speedup. I’m fine with this. In fact, it seems quite delightful to be able to observe my own mind crystallizing in this fashion.
I live a life of duty now,
but I’ve been fierce and free.
The proof is stored behind my brow
as neon memory.
It has been a while since I posted a progress report, and much has happened in the meantime.
It isn’t that I have a lot of time or focus to do writing, really. I’d like to do one or several of these high intensity writing days where I work myself into a writing frenzy and do nothing but compose stanzas for like ten hours straight. (Usually about ten to twenty stanzas come out of that and about half of those survive editing.) I haven’t been able to do one of those for over a year now. But fortunately there is another process that produces stanzas, which I call receiving uploads.
You’ve clearly grown tonight, my child.
You watch more knowingly.
Your movements are a touch more mild
as you examine me.
Whenever I’m not working, I continue to be mostly busy being a dad. It is amazing! My writing has slowed down considerably for now and I’m fine with that.
Still, there is a little progress to report. The fourth Sermon has a rough outline, a couple of finished stanzas that mark important waypoints in the storyline, and a working title: The Heartbeat of Humanity. At the current leisurely pace, I expect to finish it next summer, two years after the last one. Continue reading
Just like my daughter finds her hand,
I find my fatherhood –
a new thing, hard to understand
and part of me for good.
My daughter is three months old now and I’m beginning to have a little time for other things again, such as this progress report. I’m still in the early stage of Sermon 4. Continue reading
The first two Sermons in this tale
have just been to prepare
this third one here, where we unveil
the gift of life we share…
The third Sermon is finished, giving me a complex mix of feelings of elation, relief and yearning for more. I am indebted to the friends who gave me critical feedback for it, especially Laila, Kami, Nikki, Viva and Raymond. Thank you a lot! Overall, this Sermon was much easier to write than the second one, as expected, because it tells a more relatable part of the story… but the extra challenge of finishing it in a single year compensated nicely for the reduced difficulty.
Now everything is changing: In a few weeks, my daughter will be born! How amazing is that! Looking forward to it, in this calm before the storm, my anticipation and excitement naturally inspire the process of starting on the fourth Sermon. Of course during the next few months, I will find very little (if any) time to write poetry. But the topic of the fourth Sermon lends itself quite nicely to description by someone very busy with loving care. Continue reading
Work on the third Sermon is progressing well. A week ago I first presented a preliminary (“beta”) version to a select group of friends and they confirmed, as I hoped they would, that the series of the first three Sermons is considerably more intense than the series of just the first two. But there is still work to be done, and I have just one month until the premiere of the final text at the Less Wrong Community Weekend 2016.
I’m in the polishing stage now, where the narrative doesn’t change much anymore and I can focus on nice turns of phrase, fluency, aesthetics and figurativeness. I solicit feedback from friends and siblings to help me write the best text I can.
Work on the third Sermon – now almost certainly titled One of Us – is progressing, approximately on schedule for completion this summer. I have a lot of stanzas, some of them strung together into sequences, a pretty good idea of what goes where, and am now working on synthesizing them into a prototype Secular Sermon that I can read to volunteers and ask for their impressions. This is a familiar part of the process. It involves puzzling pieces together, streamlining them into a narrative, and getting frequently distracted with the finer details of particular lines.
The premiere of the second Sermon went very well and I’m very grateful to have found such an attentive and appreciative audience in the astonishing Less Wrong community. This group is truly a collection of remarkable minds, and I’m sure much will become of it. There were about 30 of us, and we went through both existing Sermons non-stop. I was pleased to learn nobody could tell where the first one ended and the second began – after all, the whole thing is a single poem, though in seven parts, and I hope to one day present it as a single, huge, roughly 100 minutes experience.
The Games of Entropy are nearing completion, which feels great. I’m now filling small gaps, sandpapering over rough bits and worrying about how to cut it all down to size. For reasons that will be explained eventually, every sermon has exactly 80 stanzas. I completed about 120 anyway, as for the previous one, because I really liked how when finishing up the first one, trimming and compressing it improved it quite a bit. Trimming is painful, but it is a good kind of pain. (Of course I’m throwing out a much larger number of uncompleted stanzas when I realize I can’t get them to fulfill all the criteria, but I’m much less attached to those.)
Work on the second Sermon – now named The Games of Entropy – is progressing, slow but steady. Its subject is more challenging than that of the first one, where I was really just paraphrasing Carl Sagan. But I’ve become more proficient at the craft of assembling the lines into rhymes and the rhymes into stanzas, leaving me with more capacity for the task of abstracting science into poetic language. So I’m confident I’ll finish the second Sermon in spring 2015.