Purple Elephants

You know this drill already, I’m sure, but let’s review. Don’t think of a purple elephant.  Are you thinking of a purple elephant? Because I just asked you not to. Really, stop thinking about a PURPLE ELEPANT. Why are you thinking about a PURPLE ELEPHANT when I told you not to?

This is sometimes used as an example the linguistic tricks our mind plays. That is, our mind works in the positive, ignoring words like “don’t” and “not” and so on. Thus, the phrase, “Don’t think of a purple elephant,” is translated in our brain as, “Think of a purple elephant.”

I believe this example reveals something far beyond a mnemonic quirk. Life is led in the positive. We can only create; we cannot un-create. You cannot live your life not being your mother, or not being unmarried, or not being unpublished. Not matter how many of us linger on couches or dawdle in cafés, we are by the very nature of existence creatures of action. You are a stream of energy with no off switch, and your attention, usually in the form of your thoughts, directs that energy. Wherever the energy of your attention flows, things grow.

It is important to remember, I think, because all of us have those things we are perhaps afraid of becoming, or mistakes we are afraid of making again. The pain of those realities we are trying to avoid, from becoming our mother to not being published, is real, but only because those events or actions lay outside the swath of our true desire. Whenever you focus your energy on your true desire – telling great stories, communicating, sharing, riding a bike, whatever – the energy flows quickly and freely. It has found its natural course.

But when the energy is directed toward what we do not most desire, from a story we don’t actually want to tell to a job we don’t want to work, life becomes hard. We are paddling upstream. The only thing that has ever been wrong with anybody in the world is that they are living outside the stream of their true desire, and the further outside they are living, the greater their pain. The pain, however, is only information. The pain is reminding us that we have strayed from what we desire most. If you keep thinking about what causes you pain, trying to solve your purple elephant like a riddle, you will continue to be in pain. If, however, you seek what you most desire and direct your attention toward it, never questioning why, the pain of disconnection will cease in an instant, and all the purple elephants will disappear.

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Where would the world of stories be without evil characters? With half-empty bookshelves and half-empty screens is where. Aside from characters looking for love, the struggle of Good vs. Evil is the foundation for easily half the stories ever told, if not more. And for good reason. If, like our dreams, every character in a story is actually ourselves, and the quest to free ourselves from the veil of fear is often life-long, then Good vs. Evil becomes the story of our lives.

There is a certain misconception around evil, however, and while stories didn’t create this misconception, they can sometimes promote it. The misconception is that evil exists, that it is like a strain of bacteria infecting certain individuals or societies. And sometimes, if you have a particularly bad case of the evils, like the villains of our stories you must be destroyed – or at least quarantined permanently.

If evil was a bacteria, then at least we could test someone for it. Sorry, Mr. Hitler, you have contracted a virulent and highly contagious strain of evil. What color shall we paint your cell? Unfortunately, all we have to go on is behavior. Of course certain behavior definitely looks evil, doesn’t it? In China at the moment there is a bizarre rash of middle-aged men attacking schools with knives and axes. Then there is Hitler, and Stalin, and the Ku Klux Klan, and Saddam Hussein. Evil, evil, evil, evil.

Except all behavior is driven by thoughts, by thoughts of fear or thoughts of love, and thoughts change, as we have all experienced countless times in our lives. The evil characters our heroes overcome in our stories represent the journey we take in our own day-to-day, grocery-store-and-post-office existence to change the fearful thought, “I can’t,” to the compassionate thought, “I can.” So too can villains of the real world change their thoughts.

Could Hitler, Stalin, or Saddam Hussein have been redeemed?  Perhaps not. Perhaps for these men they could only awaken from their nightmare through the portal of death. But I listened once to the story of how a black Southern minister’s stubborn insistence not to hate or fear the Klan moved at least one man to hang up his white robe. Evil is just the name we give to fear in action. Evil cannot be destroyed or inoculated, it can only be disbelieved.

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Free Choice

In yesterday’s Author Minute, James Bach discussed how he did not believe in laziness, that calling someone lazy was like calling an unplugged microwave oven a broken microwave oven. I couldn’t agree more.

Still, there is a reason laziness got lumped in with the Catholic seven deadly sins (sloth, technically, but there’s no need to niggle here). Like the unplugged microwave of Bach’s example, the lazy person seems from the outside rather useless. Or, more accurately, the lazy person seems to view life as useless. Unlike the microwave, however, humans do not have a visible cord, and the source of their energy remains mysterious, even, quite frequently, to the lazy person himself.

There are two sources of energy: fear and love. Fear can run you pretty hard. Much can get built, written, or painted under the secret impetus of fear. The thought, “If I don’t write this, run this, build this, do this, whatever this . . . I will be no good,” is quite motivational to some. It is particularly effective if as a rule we require proof of our value. In fact, if we require proof of our value, it is virtually the only form of motivation we will respond to. Until, that is, it exhausts us, gives us cancer or depression, or simply kills us outright.

Which is why the person we call lazy can sometimes seem strangely proud of his laziness. Though he is unhappy in his energy-less state, he understands that at least he is not a slave to that other, ersatz form of motivation. In this way, the lazy person has taken the first awkward step toward freedom.

But it is only the first step. Doing nothing is an extremely limited freedom. Eventually, doing nothing runs its course, and he is faced with the same quandary as the man creating frantically out of fear: How do I give my life meaning? Freedom then – and the energy it provides – can only come when we accept that there is no right answer. The overseer needed a whip because he had deprived his slaves of the energy of free choice. To get up off the couch we must make peace with that freedom. Being told what to do is simpler than choosing what to do, but no ex-slave ever wrote a song about the joy of the plantation. The moment you locate the source of your true interest you will have more energy than there are hours to spend it, and the couch will reveal itself for what it always was – a prison of your own making.

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A Darkened World

I love the joke, “The beatings will continue until morale improves.” I love it for its simplicity and elegance, that in seven words it is able to convey a catastrophic contradiction. And, as in all good writing, we the audience fill in most of what it is this (I’ll call it a humorous proverb, I think) is saying, which is as follows:

The character, the one doing the beating, has two contradictory beliefs: one quite good, one terribly wrong. The first is that the morale of subordinates matters, that the work done by happy workers is always superior to those of unhappy workers. The second is that people are inherently lazy and the only way to get anyone to do anything is through the threat of physical punishment. And so belief number two creates its own reality, a reality in which belief number one will never be realized.

I have a friend who believes passionately that war is bad. He will always march against war if there’s marching to be done. However, he also believes that the oppressed, whoever they might be, must reserve the right to pick up arms against their oppressors. Which means violence is bad, unless he or someone with whom he identifies is feeling frightened and powerless, in which case he reserves the right to use it. When he marches against wars – which are always fought because one group, no matter how large and well armed, feels frightened and powerless – he is actually marching against himself.

If what we want is based on love, whether it is happy co-workers, peace, or publication, that desire will always come to be unless we hold a contradictory belief, one based on fear. Thus: I love to write, I want to share what I have written, but the publishing world is cold, uncaring, and unfair; only the lucky get to make a living at it. In this way, fear always trumps love. Except it doesn’t. Rather, fear is the only impediment to love – not fate, not luck, not “reality”, only fear – and like all impediments, it is temporary. The desire of love is everlasting, it is the light toward which we travel whenever we open our eyes. Everyone in the world is either marching toward that light, or has turned and is marching away from it, mourning all the while for a world turned dark.

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Soul Matters

I interviewed Gary Zukav this past Friday for our June issue. His latest book, Spiritual Partnership, deals – as have all his books since the publication of his evergreen bestseller Seat of the Soul – with matters of the soul.

The world “soul” means different things to different people. For some, it is a staple of their daily conversation, a reminder of life’s inarguable value; for others, it is yet another in a list of superstitious hokum floating meaninglessly above hard, observable reality. Although I was raised without any organized religion, I took to the word quite early, largely because it was used so freely by the artistic types I looked up to and whose lives I wished to someday emulate. Poetry or music or books were said to either have soul or not, and always the more soul a work of art had the better.

I came to see that artistic soul usually meant art that expressed itself without intellectual self-consciousness, which is always a grand thing. But as a concept, this idea of soul was too laden with accomplishment, as if soul is yet another by-product of craft. There seemed to me a deeper value to the word, and one that spoke more directly to the creative life.

My soul is that to which my interest attunes itself. My interest has no logic, it can never be proven, and yet it is the guiding force of my life, responsible for the woman I married, the food I choose to eat, the city in which I live, and the magazine through which I write to you now. The intellect sorts through the data of the physical world, interprets it, and arrives at logical conclusions, like how to make a boat buoyant. That which I call the soul has its own logic, whose only desired conclusion is my own contentment.

I cannot create without this concept of the soul. If I remain bound to the physical world, that which I can see and taste and hear and so on, then nothing I create makes any sense. There is nothing within the physical world that will tell me what to write next. Only the inherent logic of my own desire shows me a path through the infinite choices before me. Without my soul, I am little more than a rubber ball, buffeted meaningless by events; with it, I am a creature of action, an engine in the service of love.

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The Special

Tish Cohen is the author of three adult novels, Town House, Inside Out Girl, and (just released) The Truth About Delilah Blue. The first two are being made into movies, all have received good reviews, and Inside Out Girl was a bestseller. Yet I wouldn’t be telling you any of this if Tish had listened to a voice that began speaking to her at age seven and followed her into her late thirties until she finally wrote the first page of her first novel. That voice said, “I could never do that.”

You can hear the details of this journey in her interview, which will air in our June issue. What I will share with you now is that the lesson Tish took away from that journey was that there is no such thing a “special person.” Writing, she believed, was for special people, and she did not feel particularly special. As well she shouldn’t. Everyone, after all, is only themselves, and everyone struggles, and everyone feels inadequate at some point about something, and everyone is afraid, and everyone falls, and everyone wonders if it’s worth it to get up.

Tish is absolutely correct. Writers are not special. I myself suffered with the fear that writers were special. It was part of the reason I began interviewing them, to confirm firsthand the truth of it. I love them all, these writers I’ve had the good fortune to meet and talk to, but they are not special, they are simply people who love to write and who have chosen to pursue this love.

It would be a dark and grim world indeed if love were reserved for the special few. Fortunately, love is as much a birthright as breathing. Love runs through us as continually as blood. Yet, as with everything, the trick is to choose it. For years Tish chose fear over love. As a result, she explained to me, she became depressed, clinically so. Then she chose love, the best medicine available, and here she is.

Life is at its core disarmingly simple: you can do anything you want, as long as you love it. You can also do what you don’t love, and so the suffering begins. It is no more a shame if you were not meant – that is love – to write than if you were not meant to be a podiatrist. So you will do something else you love; the activity itself is irrelevant. It is a shame, however, if you love to write and choose not to. But don’t worry. What you love never leaves you. It remains with you as long as there is blood in your veins, and perhaps even after.

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Become Who Your Are

Today’s guest blogger is Deb Caletti, author of The Six Rules of Maybe. Enjoy!

Like most authors, I knew I was a writer early on, from about the age of seven. I knew it because I would rush to my room to write down these stories I had to tell. I knew it because on long car rides I would look at the dry yellow hills of the Bay Area and the sagging barn roofs and I would feel something that needed words, words I wanted – no, again, had – to reach for. I knew it because of the way books moved me, and even the way the library did. I knew I was an observer, who sat at the edges of things and described them in order to understand.

When I was about eight or nine, my father brought home a typewriter from his office. I claimed it for my own. I didn’t do much with it, really, but I loved it. It was heavy and important. Maybe I felt some inborn affinity to it even though it was foreign to me, some connection from the past or future or who knew, like a person who visits the land of their ancestors and finds the place already there in their bones. Around that time, too, I began to win writing contests at my school. It was heady stuff – blue ribbons and readings in front of the whole assembly, the elementary school equivalent of a book deal and NPR. A peek into the possible grandeur this thing I did (no, this thing I was) held in store.

I continued to write, always wrote, stories, plays, lyrics, more stories. But what grew alongside my writing was fear, fear and the good reasons for it, too – knowledge of the impossible terrain toward publication, peaks that would be too high for me, the big cumulous doubts about my talent overhead. I studied journalism when a journalist was the last thing I was. I kept only my toe in the writing waters because it was too cold and maybe I couldn’t even swim.

And then one day, actually one day, I got sick of myself, of all of the head-talk and no action. I was thirty-two. I made a serious deal with me. Do this thing. No matter what it took, starting now. I taped a quote above my desk, by Nietzsche: “Become who you are.” You’d think becoming who we are (no matter what that is) would be the simplest, most natural event, wouldn’t you? But more often than not, it’s the most difficult. Facing what you are and owning up, choosing to live forevermore in that kind of authenticity… It means no more excuses and no more hiding and no more diversions and dishonesty. It means jumping in the water, or setting off over that terrain, choose your metaphor of choice. Too bad about the fear, is the point. Just, too bad.

Fast forward through the years of work and the unpublished books and the agony of not yet, and pause now on a life of being who I am once again. Sagging barn roofs that make me feel things, which today I find the words for as a regular part of my work. Observing on a daily basis, the keys of the typewriter (now laptop) my accepted, ordinary homeland. And I am convinced, convinced that this all happens when the motives are pure, when it’s not about blue ribbons or delusions of grandeur but instead is the cell-deep, meant- to-be truth finding its way to the page. When it’s not about who you wish you were or who you’re too afraid to be, but who you are and always have been. When that seven or nine or ten year old self takes out that old typewriter and finally, at long last, begins to do the honest work.

Deb Caletti is the award-winning author of The Queen of Everything, Honey, Baby, Sweetheart, The Nature of Jade, and The Secret Life of Prince Charming, among others. In addition to being a National Book Award finalist, Deb’s work has gained other distinguished recognition, including the PNBA Best Book Award, the Washington State Book Award, and School Library Journal’s Best Book award, and finalist citations for the California Young Reader Medal and the PEN USA Literary Award.  Her seventh book with Simon & Schuster, The Six Rules of Maybe, was released in 2010.  Paul G. Allen’s Vulcan Productions and Foundation Features (Formerly Infinity Features, makers of “Capote”) have also recently partnered to bring five of Deb’s novels to film.  Deb grew up in the San Francisco Bay area and now lives with her family in Seattle.

The Volume of Clarity

Stanley Fish writes a weekly online column for the New York Times that focuses on education, academia, literature, and politics. I’ll give it a peek sometimes and Fish always seems to have a balanced view of things. It being an online column – a blog technically, I think – each essay is also followed by readers’ comments.

Not so balanced usually. At least half the readers that take the time to opine back are upset about something or other. Either Fish missed something obvious, or he’s too liberal, or he’s not liberal enough – which ever it is, the country is headed in the wrong direction and Fish is just too blind to see that.

We are all of us brothers and sisters under the skin, but reading these I know why I try to avoid the really big family reunions. Yet aren’t these people writing? Rants to newspapers are baby steps toward finding one’s voice. We want something different! This is good. It is always good to recognize what we don’t want as by elimination we seek what we do.

Except yelling louder does not actually let one’s voice through. People who scream at town hall meetings feel they have no voice, and so they must yell if they are ever to be heard. Fear always tries too hard. However, when love speaks, the world quiets itself to listen. It is what everyone is listening for.

Thus the criticism we call “over writing.” A singer must relax her throat to hit the highest notes, and a writer must seek the simplest routes to reach the deepest levels of his work. Trust is the deal you make with the world that all you need will be provided. Trust is what lets the notes through, is what shows you the straight line through all the noise of thought. Your voice, your original tool, requires no amplification. Its volume is its clarity, and your trust that you will be heard is what beckons those around you to listen.

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The Never Ending Story

Yann Martel makes the point in his interview that without what he calls “stories or gods” people become lost. As he says, neither religion nor stories serve any rational purpose, yet there they are, everywhere, and without them, he believes, we are untethered.

I tend to agree, although I would say that stories, a concept that encompasses the religious narrative by which so many live, are not only rational but unavoidable. Though I’m quibbling a little. His point is that rationally we must hunt the wooly mammoth to feed and clothe ourselves – those are the empirically necessary action steps of survival.  Everything else, cave paintings and grunt-filled stories around the campfire, are just a little icing to make the time between hunting, eating, making babies and dying a little more pleasant.

Except all stories, from cave paintings to Ulysses, are simply concretizing what is going on within ourselves all the time. We cannot stop telling ourselves stories – they are, as Martel points out, the engines or our lives. The stories we tell ourselves, from, “My wife loves and supports me,” to, “The government is dysfunctional and corrupt,” color every moment of our lives. We wear our stories like glasses through which we see the world.

This is why the stories we tell each other, at the dinner table and in books, are in fact rationally, if I must use the wretched word, necessary. In our stories we are in effect offering one another alternative realities. I might have a story in my head that goes, “The world is unjust and rewards the cruel and squashes the meek.” Perhaps then I read a story about a man’s world crumbling under the weight of his cruelty and a kind person thriving through generosity. If the story is compelling, perhaps I will tell myself a different story, and if so, my life has changed.

It is that profound. Our lives are nothing but stories we are telling ourselves. I implore you tell the best stories you can, to yourselves, to your friends, and to the strangers who pull your book from a shelf. Actions may speak louder than words, but every action has had a story told about it in words, and it is that story we carry with us long after the action has been subsumed irrevocably into the past.

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Who You Are

When Deb Caletti decided it was time to finally pursue her dream of becoming a writer, she gave herself the best piece of advice by which anyone could not only write but live.  She posted a quote by Nietzsche on the wall she faced while she wrote. The quote read: “Become who you are.”

Not, “You are a great writer” or, “You can have anything you want” or, “You will sell a million books,” but, “Become who you are.” I love this directive for its simplicity. How does one sell a million books or even become a great writer, for that matter? Not only isn’t there a formula or a technique, but there is no emotional pull toward these bare objectives. Millions of books or great writerdom are placeholders, they are like paintings of the future we look at when we want to feel a certain way.

The clue, as always, is never what the painting looks like but the feeling it inspires. And this is why I love the Nietzsche quote so much. When I think of it, my mind’s eye is pulled from the future where all the phantoms reside, all those unformed possibilities I try in the occasional insomniac bed to arrange as I believe my happiness requires. As if any person, any circumstance, any book or letter has access to my soul without my first granting it.

Only good can ever come of directing my attention inward. The person I am resides there, quite fully formed. Now I am the artist again. Now I see and hear that model self, and like an actor taking a role, like a writer finding his characters, I render as faithfully as I can what reveals itself to me there in my words and actions. We are all artists in this way. The physical world is just a billion-fold reflection of the inner life, a life without shape or sound, a thing of pure intention, as complete within itself as an oak tree. It is the role you were born to play, the book you were meant to write.

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