Nothing Is Broken

My brother married his first wife when he was much too young. It was one of those situations where the rest of the family sensed the marriage was a bad idea from the get go but decided silently amongst ourselves to let John figure that out for himself. Predictably, it didn’t take long for things to start going sideways. A year or two in he shared some of the troubles with me in a long phone conversation. A week later it was his birthday and during my annual well-wishing call I asked how things were with his wife.

“We had a couple drinks and hashed things out and everything is better now,” he explained.

Oh, how smug I felt knowing that everything was not in fact all better. But I should know. I have often felt the lure of that drug that is, “Now everything is all better.” I do not mean to insinuate that nothing ever gets better. Quite the opposite, as I wrote a few days ago.  But the idea that I can fix my book, or my marriage, or myself assumes that things are broken to begin with.

No one is broken. Not one person on the planet. Ideas are broken – that is, they lead you away from where you naturally want to travel, which is always towards love – but people themselves are not broken.  The only thing wrong with my brother’s relationship to his wife was that he shouldn’t have been married to her. Once they divorced, their relationship found its true form – polite, cordial, and in different cities.

And so on it goes. Stories aren’t broken, they just haven’t found their full form, or their true author. Sometimes stories come to us but we aren’t the ones meant to tell them, and so back they go into the communal story stew. I understand this is a trick of perception, but it’s a trick worth learning. Everything you do is an idea, a possibility, and all ideas are expendable. No matter how many ideas you try out and dispose, no matter how many roads lead to dry valleys, you remain intact as ever before, a perfect light seeking its fullest form.

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Life And Death

I once watched a documentary about the death penalty, a large portion of which was spent following a lawyer whose sole focus was defending death row inmates. During the course of the show, the lawyer was desperately trying to salvage an appeal for a man sentenced to die within days, and then hours, and then minutes.

To be up front, I don’t remember whether or not he saved the man’s life. All I can remember is the lawyer. He ran everywhere he went, his brow beaded with sweat, his tie coming undone, his shirttail hanging out of his pants. He cursed a lot. He chain-smoked. He yelled at people. At one point, a coworker suggested he take a breath, to which the lawyer responded, “I’m trying to save a man’s life, damn it!”

There’s no doubt he was trying to save a man’s life, but to me the lawyer declared his intentions with the false conviction of a soap opera actor. It seemed to me he had allowed the drama of the story he was telling himself about himself to overtake the reality of his life. The story was that he was saving people’s lives and that this required his complete focus. This story meant he could treat everyone around him however he wanted because his mission was more important than the fragile sensibilities of a few paralegals.

I doubt I would have remembered the lawyer so clearly if I hadn’t seen a bit of myself in him. Like a lot of artists, I sometimes fancy myself a kind of hero, a knight on a holy quest for artistic purity. All the ticky-tacky business of everyday life be damned – I’m onto something bigger than grocery lists and library fines.

Yet all my swagger and self-absorption, like the lawyer’s frenzy, is born from a fear that maybe nothing matters. Maybe a novel is no more important than a grocery list. All paper burns. You try to nail meaning to the wall, and the wall disappears, and there you are swinging your hammer at nothing. Life begs you to release your hammer; the inmate will die or live, the book will be written or forgotten. The things of life can only drown you if you hold them, and meaning always waits for you downstream.

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Your Only Choice

When I was a boy I believed that writing for a living was the only way I could ever be free.  At that time I did not know what it meant to be both an adult and free, but I believed I knew what freedom felt like, and as far as I could tell it was the only way to live and therefore the only thing worth pursuing.

As I grew up, I continued to connect writing and freedom, though my reasons for doing so evolved. First, I believed it had to do with time. You could only be free if your time was entirely your own, and how could you call your time your own if you had to begin working when someone else told you to? Only with the complete, pristine autonomy that was the professional novelist’s life would I ever know freedom.

Then I had autonomy, and it didn’t feel anything like freedom. My autonomous time felt like all the time I’d ever had in my life, both in and out of work, time I was forever having to decide what to do with. So it must have had to do with money. Modern humans needed money to survive, so if you made this money doing something you loved, you were free.

Then I had some money, and all it freed up was the tiny part of my brain that would periodically worry about money. So perhaps it was attention. We all need a little recognition; perhaps the combination of time, money and recognition would bring me the freedom I wanted.

When I had a bit of all three, freedom still felt like a promise from an absent father. It would be here soon; the next car slowing outside the window would be his. And then one day I wrote something, and as I reread it I thought, “Yes. That’s precisely what I meant to say.” And there it was, as familiar as my own reflection. It was as if all I had been waiting for my whole life was a mirror.

Writing was my freedom because writing made me happy. There was nothing more complicated about it than that. I wanted it to be more, but it wasn’t. And in that moment of understanding, freedom became merely a choice, not a pardon, not a deliverance – just a choice. The simplicity of it is humbling and confounding, and yet all the knots my mind would twist life into to find the straight rope of freedom come undone in a choice. I look in the mirror and see judge, jury, and accused and call the trial to a halt. I was never on trial, and I was always so free I could choose prison or the road.

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It Gets Better

Following a rash of suicides by gay teenagers, Dan Savage has instigated the “It Gets Better” project, whereby adult gay and lesbians record short videos reassuring teenage GLTB that life does indeed get better. I love this campaign, but I think ultimately – though I understand not now – it ought not be contained to the GLTB community.

At some point, everyone can go where those teenagers who ended their life went. As I understand it, these teenagers were the targets of bullying. I think everyone can agree the world would be a better place without bullying. But bullying alone cannot drive anyone to suicide; were it so, then our schoolyards would be littered with dead children. What is required is for the individual being bullied to believe they deserve it, to turn the knives of the taunt on themselves, thereby inflicting the deepest wound possible: self-loathing.

Once you have rejected your own support, you have no support; once you have rejected your love of yourself, you have no love; once you have rejected your right to a place on this earth, you have no place. And worse, because everyone in the world fears this terrible place whether they understand it or not, and because we believe we can catch ideas as easily as the flu – we may reject that person bound in self-loathing to preserve ourselves, and so the cycle continues.

I can imagine that from within the emerging world-view of the gay or lesbian teenager life can seem a fundamentally lonely and cruel place. “It Gets Better” takes an elegant and compassionate step to remedy that misconception. But life does not merely get better for anyone plummeting down the endless abyss of self-rejection – life actually is better. Even for gay or lesbian teenagers stranded in the most conservative enclaves in America, the struggle for acceptance remains with themselves. Once this acceptance has been achieved, we come to see the taunt not as an attack, but as an offer to loath oneself, as indeed the one doing the taunting already must. Bound in love, it is the offer that will be rejected, and in so doing, the would-be victim becomes a teacher.

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Worry Freely

I think it is almost impossible for a writer not to worry. When I interviewed Louis Sachar he told a great story of sitting with Judy Blume at a dinner and asking her if she ever worried after she finished a book if it was any good at all. Blume, author of so many books her website doesn’t bother listing the number, responded, “Every single book.” Alice Hoffman – who has written over twenty novels, been a bestseller, been selected for Oprah – told me she begins every book feeling as though she doesn’t know how to write a novel.

Which is not to say that all is bleak, that a writer’s life is nothing but ulcers and midnight sweats. Not at all. The point is not whether a worried thought crosses your mind. The point is how will you respond when one does.

The reason I bring up Louis Sachar and Judy Blume and Alice Hoffman is this: it happens. The worst thing you can do is believe that there is something wrong with you because you are worrying; that if you were a better writer, or a more disciplined writer, or a more successful writer you wouldn’t be having these thoughts. This, of course, is worrying about worrying. Every single one of the hundreds of writers I have interviewed worries at least a little. But every one of those writers goes on to finish his or her book.

This distance between your fear and your true self, and the means by which you traverse this distance, is often the business of life. It is possible not to be afraid, or not to worry, but you should not expect this. Rather, master the art of releasing worry as quickly as possible. Your work, your marriage, your life is a balance, not a fixed point on a graph. Were it a fixed point, you would arrive and be done. You do not want to be done. There is always the next day, the next sentence, the next book, and with each new step the balance must be maintained. You crave that balance, and just as with the tightrope walker, the pleasure lies not in arriving safely on solid ground, but in finding your center on a journey through the open space of free choice.

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Desire For Knowledge

Once upon a time I was a wine guy. That’s what we called the sommelier in the restaurant where I worked: the wine guy. As a wine guy, I would walk around the restaurant in a tuxedo and recommend wines and answer questions about wine and open wine and pour wine. It was really all about wine.

My mentor was a senior wine guy named Jim Donovan, who as of this writing is still opening wine and answering questions about wine in a very popular Seattle steak house. His first and most astute piece of advice to me was this: “Your worst nightmare is the lawyer who’s just gotten his first issue of Wine Spectator. He thinks he knows everything, even though he actually knows nothing.”

How right he was. It is said that knowledge is power, which is why the lawyer reading Wine Spectator was so eager to share what knowledge he might or might not have. Everyone wants power. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this. Everyone has power. Our power, however, hardly resides in what we know – what grape is used in a Chablis; who holds the world record in the long jump; what does parsimonious mean? This is just information. It’s nothing. Anyone with Google can answer these and millions of other questions in ten seconds. What a meaningless life if our power was based on how good we are at Trivial Pursuits.

Our power, of course, resides in our ability to create. Sometimes, in order to create something, we need a little knowledge (a sand castle), or a lot of knowledge (a space station). But it’s simply a matter of degrees. What’s more, everyone is equally capable of creating anything they want. Not anything, mind you, but anything they want. In this way your desire is your power. Your desire is the fuel that drives the engine of your curiosity, the clicking in your brain seeking the means of making real that which you have only imagined. Before the knowledge that built towers, that launched rockets, that wrote books, there was always desire, the flame of life, that which made you yourself, and which makes all things.

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Why?

I knew a man once who wouldn’t answer “why questions.” Why are you going to the store? Why don’t you want a piece of cake? Why didn’t you call? If you asked him such a question, he’d respond, “I don’t answer why questions.” So you’d grit your teeth and rephrase, doing your best to drain any snark out of your voice.

But in retrospect, he may have been onto something. When I was fifteen I was nominated to attend The Future Leaders of America. Turns out, it was really Future Business Leaders of America. Nothing wrong with business leaders, but this was not really my crowd, shall we say. For instance, a group of us high achieving sophomores were sitting together waiting for the orientation to start, and to pass the time we told each other what we planned to study in college. Business, business, law, business law . . . and then me. Writing, I said. To which one of the Future Business Majors of America asked, “Why?” When I told him, “Because I like to write,” he felt I still hadn’t answered his question.

But how could I, and how could anyone? It is almost impossible to say why you do anything, because eventually the answer will circle down to, “Because I want to.” Why have you chosen to tell a particular story? You can roll out all the marketing research you want, but in the end the only reason you write anything is because you want to.

As it should be, but merely wanting to do something is not much to hold onto, at least not for that lizard part of your brain bent on keeping you alive. All the Future Leaders talked about money and prestige that day, and I understood, and I wouldn’t have talked them out of it because I’m sure their lizard brains rested satisfied in the warm sun of all that money coming their way. But I hope they liked business, or law, or business law. I hope they looked forward to the actual work of it. If they didn’t, they may have looked up from their wide mahogany desk one day and asked, “Why am I here?” And that is a why question nobody wants to answer.

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Bellybutton And All

I had the great pleasure of sitting down with Laura Munson this weekend, and the author of This is Not the Story You Think it Is gave me some astute advice, most notably: Everyone has a bellybutton. This is apropos to Laura because she had spent twenty years writing – and not selling – fourteen novels before authoring her breakout bestselling memoir. Like a lot of writers, those twenty years in the publishing wilderness were spent squinting at that distant spec of light called “success.”

Or so she thought. Because now, by a writer’s definition, she is a success. That is, she got a good advance, she found herself on Good Morning America, and she is being asked to speak all over the country. Success, right? But soon after we’d met she stopped me as if we could not take another step or speak another word until she had shared the following: “Bill, I got it,” she declared. ”There is no such thing as success!”

To some people this is defeat. To Laura, and to me, this is pure victory. First, because of the sudden attention she and her book have attracted, Laura now finds herself in some fairly distinguished company – at least by literary standards. And all these Great Writers she is getting to meet do indeed have bellybuttons, just as you do. Secondly, she is still Laura. She is who she always has been and hopefully always will be.

There is nothing in the world wrong with wanting to sell your work, or have lots of readers, or make plenty of money. Except none of those things, as you have often heard, will make you happy – but what you may not have heard is that to think they will actually draws you away from the very source of your happiness.

To place your would-be happiness out on the horizon is to condemn yourself to wanting and wandering. So romantic to glimpse it and yearn for it, but happiness can only be postponed for so long before life reveals this yearning for what it actually is: fear. Fear that this, this life we stand in now at this moment, bellybutton and all, is actually all that life ever is or was. Fear that it should be more. And it will be more – at the exact moment you accept that life has always been more than wanting, and that success is not some destination but the grace to allow through what you have always known.

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Making What You Hate

When I was working in restaurants, I knew a young waiter who, like a lot of young waiters, was only waiting tables until he could do what he really wanted to do. As I recall, he was unclear what it was he really wanted to do, but he did know this: it wasn’t working in restaurants. “I hate it here,” he told me. “And I have to keep hating it or I might never get out.”

I sympathized completely, but I advised him that this was not the best way out of anything. Not that hating where you are doesn’t seem strangely practical. That is, who wouldn’t want to stop doing something they hate? But it doesn’t work that way. As a favorite teacher of mine said, “You can’t make anything you want, hating what you’ve got.”

So true. Hating something, anything, requires energy. It is not a passive position. And yet no one wants to create anything they hate, so all the energy poured into hating something is spent trying not to make it. By hating wherever you are, whatever you are doing, you are choosing to take all your creative energy and dump into a black hole. Except that by pouring energy into something you hate, you are actually making more of it. In order to hate the restaurant, my friend had to hold onto it, how else would he be able to direct all his hatred toward it?

The other option is to let the restaurant go and focus one’s energy on that which we wish to create. What he hate is like a nightmare monster, with limitless tentacles with which to bind us in place. What he hate about restaurants, or publishing, or marriages, or schools, is the power we believe these ideas or places or people have over us, not the people, places, or ideas themselves.

We are not really humans – we are creators in human form. Our creative power is so immense that any idea we lay our attention on grows. We are magic.  That the idea might grow quietly or out of our conscious sight does not mean it is not growing. Writing is an act of conscious, deliberate, practiced creating. But you don’t stop creating when you leave that desk. You would never write what you actively dislike—you needn’t live it either.

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The Newest Branch

In my interview with William Gibson, the iconoclastic godfather of cyberpunk talks a lot about genre – nearly to the exclusion of all else. It had never been his intention to be a science fiction writer, but when Neuromancer, his debut novel, won science fiction’s three top awards, his fate was sealed. In talking to him, it seemed to me that he has wrestled off and on with this fact ever since.

Gibson puts it well, I think, when he says in the interview that the unspoken truth about genres is that each is expected to provide the same thrill over and over again. This is not to say that genre writers must provide the same thrill, but I think it is hard to argue that readers often expect a particular experience when they pick up particular types of books. Which has a lot to do with why they sell so well. Many of us are creatures of habit, and habit requires a certain level of predictability.

I do not think there is anything artistically wrong with writing to the expectations of a genre. If you love the swoon of a traditional romance, and you would love to provide that same swoon over and over again—more power to you. You will be happy, your readers will be happy, and God knows your publisher and agent will be happy.

What I decline to accept is the notion that one must write to the expectations of a genre if one’s work falls within that genre’s narrative terrain. To me, this is just fear, and a decidedly narrow view of people in general. Genres merely represent the discovery of one idea, or a branch within the tree of fiction, an idea fertile enough that it can be more or less replicated thousands of times. But branches always beget other branches and other branches and so on, all of which might in turn become genres of their own. To believe otherwise is to believe that human beings never want to grow or change.

We mustn’t be fooled by our own stubbornness. Yes, people will eat the same thing, read the same thing, watch the same thing over and over again. That is because they have found something that has made them happy and everyone wants to be happy. But remember, people don’t actually want to repeat themselves, they only want to be happy, and it often requires one brave soul, perhaps someone just like you, to reveal a new version of an old idea, a new way to be happy.

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