Swept Away

At age three my oldest son told my wife and I, “When I was still blue dust I got you guys together so you could have me.” I didn’t see this so much as self-centered as stating what was probably the obvious. As with most things, the moment of choosing is often acknowledging what has already been decided.

The decision to marry my wife was not a matter of weighing pros and cons, or was I ready, or was she the right one; the decision to marry her was a choice between sailing downstream or paddling upstream. So too my wife’s and my decision to have children. Not having children would have been like going to watch my favorite sports team and choosing not to cheer for them.

Obviously, this is also true with writing. There was one very dark moment, many years ago, when I wondered if I should chuck it. Nothing was happening, everything was coming back, and I asked myself one night, “Should I just drop it?” I had never actually asked that question. The answer came back an unequivocal “No,” so I didn’t – but the truth remains I could have chucked it. Despite of chorus of yes in my heart, my brain could have pointed to the evidence and said no. We are all free to cause ourselves as much pain as we can muster.

I think about this sometimes when I see people mired in conspicuous suffering. If I had chosen to live my life swimming upstream, if I had not married my wife, not had children, not kept writing, how ugly would it have gotten? The effort needed to live a life against the current of your strongest desire is many, many times greater than the effort required to follow the current of your strongest desire. The sadness, the strain, the sickness, the complaint, the anger, the despair – all of it is an expression of someone using their energy to do the opposite of what they most want to do.

The current of your desire is very strong, however. Swim against it long enough and it will kill you, and released in death you will be swept away to where you would not go in life. Or you can turn your boat. No matter how swift the current, now matter how joyous and easy the ride, you will always be free to wrench your boat upstream again. Once you are pointed downstream, however, once your oar becomes a rudder to keep you steady, you will have trouble remembering why you ever wanted to paddle so hard in the first place.

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Life Can Be A Dream

For most people who write and publish books, the ambition to be a professional author, or even a semi-professional author, begins as a dream. In fact, many of the authors I interview will tell me, “It was my dream to one day see my book on the bookshelf of an actual bookstore.” Yet the dream is not merely to have your work published. This is too shallow a thing to yearn for, so shallow that it will never come to pass by itself. It’s the thing you want published that is the dream, and that has all the depth of your life itself.

But there couldn’t be a more accurate word than “dream” to describe what it is you are doing when you imagine your future as a writer. Just as with the dreams that come to us when we sleep, the dreams that are our ambitions are so personal that that they exist only in our imaginations until they are shared. From day to day, from year to year, many trajectories of thought visit you, just as your story dreams visit you in your sleep. Many of these trajectories you ignore, but one or two light up for a reason you will never fully describe to another person. This trajectory becomes a dream of life, and if that dream is writing, the thought is the core, the source, of all you will try to share.

But this thing you are dreaming, this thing you wish to share in writing, it seeks the blood of like souls to find its full form. Remember, everything around you now, the computer on which you read this, the light by which your room is illuminated, even the socks on your feet, began only as a dream in some imagination somewhere. All of our lives as humans, all of it, are dreams made real; it is all we know.

You are dreaming every moment of ever day, whether you are asleep or awake. So it is not a question of whether your dreams will come true, they cannot do otherwise. It is only the question of which dream will come true. The coffee you made this morning was a dream come true – you dreamed the thought, “I want coffee,” and in about five minutes, you had it! Some dreams take more time and practice, but they always come true because that is what they are for.

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The Rejection Myth

If you like to make things, whether those things are books, poems, movies, or quilts, you will eventually run up against someone who doesn’t like what you make. That person might decide to tell you they don’t like what you’ve made; they might even decide to tell you why they don’t like what you’ve made. The best response to someone who doesn’t like what you’ve made is to calmly and without any defensiveness whatsoever explain, “You don’t like it because it wasn’t made for you.”

This answer is the absolute truth, but it is easy to see why someone might take it personally. Writers have to contend with rejection all the time, but readers must contend with a kind of rejection as well. Whereas a writer’s rejection comes in the literal form of a letter, a reader’s rejection can occur silently as they come to understand that the book they began reading is like a poorly chosen blind date. The writer, in writing this uninteresting book, has rejected the reader’s aesthetic.

But of course the writer hasn’t. The writer has merely directed the arrow of their story toward a target that lies outside the circumference of certain readers’ interest. We all shoot for the broadest target we can, but no target is so broad as to incorporate the entirety of the reading public. It may seem quite obvious that you, a writer, are not rejecting any reader, but it is worth considering. Some readers get very angry when they read books they don’t like. Some writers become very angry when they receive letters telling them an agent or editor did not like what they have written. Are the angry reader and the angry writer really so different?

In the end they are not. Rejection as we know it does not exist. It is a mirage of language we have come to believe. No one really ever rejects anyone, but sometimes people go where they don’t belong. It’s an honest mistake, and the honest answer is, “You don’t belong here.” Sometimes we learn this ourselves and sometimes people tell us, but in the end, the result is the same. We most go and find where we do belong. That is what you are looking for. You are not looking for any agent, for any publisher, you are looking for those agencies and publishing houses where your work belongs. When you find these places, it will not be a question of acceptance and rejection because you will soon see that in many ways you have always been where people are now inviting you to stay.

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Lost and Found

I become lost in my stories from time to time. It is never immediately apparent at the moment I stray from the path, but before long I sense something is wrong. I am the visitor to a foreign city who has misread his map, and the neighborhood is looking dodgy. Now, my characters have nothing interesting to say, and I can’t see any details of the world they occupy.

It can happen very quickly, losing one’s narrative way. Your hero meets a stranger and you have the thought, “Maybe they should buy some pears.” It isn’t a very interesting thought to you, but at that moment it’s the only thought you have, and so you follow the dull thought hoping somehow you were wrong. Now your character is buying pears and you couldn’t care less, and if its one of those days, you wonder what is wrong with you, and why can’t you make this scene work, and maybe you should abandon the whole story.

The beauty of fiction, of course, is that every word is just an idea until it goes to print. Before then, everything can be changed. When I become lost in a story I usually retreat to the last point where I was on the path and toss everything else. Next, I get very, very quiet. The wrong path was a reminder that I had been impatient, a common problem of mine. The quieter I become, the more patient I become, and eventually the next step presents itself.

I wander from paths all the time. One thought is all it ever takes, and I find myself chasing an idea down dark alleys. Sometimes these thoughts compel me to move not just in mind but in body, and I find I have literally traveled somewhere I don’t want to be, where I am in the company of people with whom I share little, or working at a job I dislike.

The moment I recognize that something is wrong is often a grim one. If I am feeling small and bitter, I blame fate or the rude demands of others. If, on the other hand, I get very, very quiet, no matter how far I’ve wandered, I sense the path I had been following and where I must turn next to find it. In this way, becoming lost is often the greatest gift, reminding me as it does that every path eventually leads home.

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Everyday Heroes

I am preparing to interview author Frank Delaney about his new podcast, Re: Joyce, a weekly look at Joyce’s magnum opus, Ulysses. I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with this book. What I love, I find inspiring. Joyce was an immensely elegant writer, and the exacting, painterly way he rendered the world remains a kind of standard for me. He took a poet’s precision and applied it to prose and the results remain unique nearly ninety years after Ulysses’s publication.  However, I also find some of it impenetrable. With one chapter in particular I had to throw up my hands and move on. Plus, I don’t speak Gaelic or Latin or Greek or much French, so there is that too.

Still, it is more like a poem than a novel, so I am willing to forgive. What’s more, it wasn’t the language alone that inspired me. This book is a modernist work in every way: that is, not much happens and everything is shown, and never, ever told. While the story follows vaguely the storyline of The Odyssey, mostly what we see is Stephen and Bloom walking around thinking about stuff.

Which is why I love it. When I discovered this book, I was a young man, and most of what I was doing was walking around thinking about stuff. In fact, I would say that is what the majority of the human race does. So when Joyce decided to make the mundane heroic, he was saying that everything mattered—snot rags, and bowel movements, and pear soap. Everything deserved equal attention.

I love this idea still. I write books where lots of big things happen all the time, but my life remains decidedly Joycean: I get up, I write, I talk to people, I walk around, I think about stuff. And all of it matters. All of it matters because you do not need to walk through Hades to face death, and you do not need to battle a Cyclops to be brave. A missed phone call, a good-bye kiss, or a dinner conversation are often enough to summon all the meaning in our lives, all the regret, all the love, all the yearning. The whole of your life, after all, exists within a single moment, for the here and now is all we ever have, and the stream that is your consciousness is the continuous narrative of your life, sometimes fearful, sometimes courageous, sometimes profane, but always meaningful.

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True Wealth

I watched a video recently in which a very famous writer was spitting mad that someone would ask him to do something for free. His argument made perfect sense: the people asking him to do this thing for free were getting paid, why shouldn’t he be paid? He detested the idea of giving anything away, and amateurs, he went on, who did do things for free were only ruining it for professionals like him.

Contrast this with James Bach, a lecturer and software tester whose business model is to do things for free all the time. Eventually, he explained to me, people offer to pay him for his services, and when they do, they pay him well. I like this approach more than the famous writer’s, as Bach’s key principle is the power of generosity. Both men, it seems to me, will make plenty of money, but only one of them is likely to enjoy it.

Desiring wealth is perfectly natural—healthy even. Everyone on earth deserves to be wealthy. However, I do not think you will ever experience wealth unless you live generously. That is, no matter how much money you have in the bank, if you do not perceive life’s inherent abundance, you will only become more and more conscious of how you might lose whatever it is you have. No amount of money can insulate you against the belief that there isn’t enough to go around.

Generosity does not mean donating to every charity that crosses your prow. What the act of donating to charities can do for some people is to remind the giver that there is enough in the world for everyone, and that more is always coming. That is the source of true wealth. And generosity extends far beyond the checkbook. Listening, for instance, is free and remains one of the most generous acts possible.

Somaly Mam, whose charity rescues girls who have been sold into Cambodian brothels, told me that while she constantly needs money, she would prefer never to be given anything out of guilt. Love, she said, is more valuable. When you give out of obligation, whether your time or money, the guilt you feel is not that you are lucky to have more than those to whom you are giving, but despair that you have succumbed to a meager of view of life, a place where the best you can hope for is to grab as much as you can, and then see what’s left to toss down to the slow or unlucky.

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A Changing World

A friend of mine told me recently that after many years of trying, he has concluded that he cannot change the world. He will do his best wherever he can, but he has resigned himself to the reality that the world seems stubbornly resistant to changing at the rate and in the direction he desires.

I think this was a wise choice. The world, of course, with its births and deaths, its rising suns and flowing rivers, is changing every single moment of every single day. It can’t help but to do so. But no matter how many fraternities and sororities we join, no matter how many fashion trends we follow, no matter how many doctrines we live by, humans remain bound by the laws of their impregnable autonomy. Like it or not, we have no choice but to make up our own minds, even if we make up our minds to do what someone else tells us to.

Frustrating, I know, but it’s true. No one in the history of the world has ever changed anyone else’s mind—not Jesus, not Gandhi, not M. L. King, not Shakespeare or Toni Morrison or John Lennon. What these people did do was offer attractive alternate realities. That’s all anyone can do, be they writer or diplomat or grandmother. As we offer these realities we must grant our readers, our friends, and our parents the full right of refusal. To do otherwise would not be to offer but to demand, and the quickest way to be rejected is to demand someone accept you.

As writers we often find ourselves believing we must be accepted. It isn’t true. No one in the world must accept anything we offer. What we must accept, however, are those gifts that come to us as we listen for our stories. Once received, we should return them as faithfully and attractively as possible in what we write. There is nothing more to be done but trust that the gift we received could not have been for us alone, and that the world changes not just by tides and seasons, but the simple and continued act of like souls seeking companionship.

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The Wasteland

Once, when I was about eight years into a seventeen-year stint at a job I disliked, I turned to a coworker and asked, “Does any of this mean anything at all?”

“No,” he said. “But the sparkling lights and pretty pictures keep you distracted.”

Life had become a wasteland. I had followed a path that had led me to a place where nothing grew, where nothing I made came to anything. Even my wife and children, whom I adored, had become burdens of sorts, their basic needs binding me to a life I realized was the very nightmare about which I had long dreamed.

The mind plays tricks in the desert. Desperate for water and relief, it sees shaded pools where there are only rocks and more dust. Such a guide cannot be trusted to lead you out of the wasteland. The mind makes enemies of other artists, turning them into greedy farmers who possess all the fertile land. In the mind’s desperation for answers, it narrows the world to a place of empty survival, where the fittest are allowed to stand a few more meaningless moments before being snuffed out just the same as the weak.

I would have been well advised to look more closely at those sparkling lights and pretty pictures. I would have been well advised to wonder where they had grown. The lights and pictures were not trying to distract me at all, but to awaken me from that nightmare. Within everything beautiful ever made lies a truth that belongs to the viewer alone. The artist’s job is not to guess at that truth but to allow it through the inherent generosity of beauty, through that exquisite moment where he surrenders his ego in the service of what his soul requires.

Fortunately, the soul is as patient as eternity itself. The soul does not measure time in years spent in dull jobs or lousy relationships. The soul doesn’t care where you’ve been or what you’ve done. The soul is a river forever flowing, and if you listen carefully, even in the driest and darkest of wastelands, you can always hear it. When you reach its banks, surrender to the current. You don’t get to know where you’re going, but you know you’ll like it when you get there.

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Generous Hedonism

As a writer I believe it is my job to seek my own pleasure, a perspective I carry as much as possible into my non-writing life. Technically, this would make me a hedonist. Hedonism has generally received a bad rap, due mainly to the perception that if everyone simply pursued their pleasures we would be a race of obese, drug-addicted, sexaholic couch potatoes.

This perception is entirely backwards, of course. The obese, drug-addicted, sexaholic couch potato is the person who has not pursued their pleasure. For instance, this could be the portrait of a writer who does not write. But pleasure, I suppose, is a tricky word. It suggests a vacation, a massage, fine food. Passivity.

Ah, but therein lies the clue. As with all things, the truth often waits just behind the veil of misperception. Passivity is not the operative quality of pleasure, but ease. When you have landed on the thing you love most, the struggle of forcing yourself to do something that brings you no pleasure vanishes in an instant. Life, after all, is not inherently a struggle; doing what you don’t enjoy, however, is.

You know you have found your story, that thing you most want to tell, when it comes quickly—or, if not quickly, at least clearly, and you do not mind the wait for the precise word because you know how delicious it will be when it arrives. So often, we struggle with our work because we have not found what interests us most about it. So we hunt and we hunt, seeking the pure pleasure, the gold that is our heart’s desire.

Do not think life is anything but a search for our own pleasure. And do not think that this pleasure will not invariably involve other people, that it will be selfish. Your truest pleasure is always generous at its core, for nowhere on earth is there one who soul who, having found what they sincerely love the most, would not at least wish the very same for everyone else. Some of us might even write a blog about it.

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Your Searchlight

Once I was sitting with my son’s elementary school teacher and the subject of writing came up. As you can probably guess, I had a few things to say. Number one was this: If you want to teach a kid to write better, forget about grammar and topic sentences, first make sure they are writing something of genuine interest to them. The teacher nodded politely with an expression that said she was filing my suggestion away under, “And how the hell would I do that?”

I’m not sure, but teaching someone to write something they aren’t interested in is like teaching someone to play Ping-Pong with a pencil. Odds are the student will become frustrated from the joyless futility of it. Writing and language were not invented so we could share things we don’t care about.  If you tell thirty people, “Write about airplanes,” the ones that are interested in airplanes will enjoy it, while the rest will likely see it as an exercise in reading the teacher’s mind.

I can imagine there is a line of reasoning that says a good writer should be able to harness his or her skill and craft something polished on any subject from peas to poetry. If a student can write about something they aren’t interested in, think how much better they would be when they are interested. In this way, the assigned topic becomes like training a sprinter by having him run uphill.

But in training someone to write about what doesn’t interest them, you are training that someone to ignore their single greatest strength. Learn to ignore what is of interest, we are saying, and learn instead to pass tests. Your interest is a kind of distraction; a grownup knows how to focus on the task at hand.

I am told my youngest son needs to learn to focus on the task at hand. I am told he is too distracted. Yet I have watched him sit for two hours without looking up while he assembles elaborate models. When the beam of our attention lights an object of our truest desire, that object shines so bright it is hard to see much else. It is in those moments of discovery that you learn why you were given a beam of light in the first place. You are not some candle destined only to dimly illuminate whatever room someone puts you in; you are a searchlight, scanning the horizon for those things that shine back the brightest.

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