Dream Wedding

I understand there’s going to be an English wedding today. I am not a royal watcher by any stretch, but the upcoming nuptials have stirred the Western world’s imagination and ire and it is hard not to notice. On the one hand, there are those individuals and media outlets entranced by the making of a princess; on the other hand, you have those individuals and media outlets exhausted and frustrated by what they see as the superficial ubiquity of it all – who, ironically enough, merely expand the ubiquity as they vent their frustration.

I can sympathize with the anti-royalists’ lack of interest, but not so much their ire. I am not troubled, for instance, that Americans as a whole are more interested in a wedding being held 3,500 miles away than the fact that Leon Panetta will be our new Secretary of Defense. In many ways, the royal wedding is more relevant to people’s lives than a Presidential appointment.

I understand that, practically speaking, the Secretary of Defense might impact Americans’ lives in some tangible way and that there is very little chance the royal wedding will have a tangible effect on anyone’s life save the immediate participants. But people’s interest in the wedding has nothing to do with practical reality and everything to do with imagination, and the imagination has never required practical justification for the target of its attention.

There is something in the marriage of a prince and a princess that to some people – apparently many people – has all the fairytale trappings of romantic perfection. The reality is absolutely irrelevant. As with all fantasies, all imaginings, we are seeking to stir within ourselves those feelings we would like to see expressed in our lives everyday but for which we have not yet found the emotional channels to do so. None of these feelings are new to us, but any and all can become lost within the fog of thought, and so it often falls to the imagination to guide us back.

This is the imagination’s highest calling, to return us our pleasure, and it will use any means at its disposal to do so – any song, any dream, any marriage – all are equal, all are merely reminders that happiness can never be found, only forgotten.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

More Author Articles

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Tested

When I was in school I had a very mixed relationship with tests. On the one hand, I disliked them, as did most of my classmates: I saw them as joyless measures of our probable inadequacy. On the other hand, I had every intention of doing well on every test, because to not do well would mean that I was a failure, and I could not bear the idea that there was any metric, no matter how meaningless to me, by which I could be measured a failure.

Numerically speaking, this position usually netted me an 85 out of 100, which, in retrospect, is an accurate representation of my commitment to the test. Occasionally, by the pure accident of personal interest, I would score a perfect 100. When these tests were returned to me I would feel first the rush of pride followed almost immediately by a total collapse of meaning. I had managed to answer someone else’s questions accurately; the only pleasure this brought, thin as the paper my 100 was written on, was the knowledge that at no point did this other person get to think: “Wrong. You are wrong. That is the wrong answer.” This is what we were all angling for? This is why we were supposed to study and not watch Charlie’s Angels?

My academic friends, who almost always scored 100 on their tests, were quick to point out that doing well on tests was merely a part of the necessary game to get where you wanted to go. Unfortunately, though I loved games, I refused to play this one, and I remained a stubbornly B-plus student until the end.

I dropped out of school to end the tests, but I could not drop out of life. No matter how far I fell, I found someone who seemed to be holding a hoop for me to jump through. The promise always was that if I jumped through enough of these hoops, I would be allowed to leave the circus, a good lion returned to his rightful kingdom.

The circus can be a confusing place – all that cheering, all the lights and music. It is hard sometimes to know if you are in the ring or in the bleachers, if you are cheering or bowing, if you are dancing or playing drum. It is even hard sometimes to see that the one holding the hoop is you.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

More Author Articles

Follow wdbk on Twitter

In The Beginning

I doubt any of the readers of this blog remember (and I often forget myself), but at its inception I promised – absolutely promised – to write practical essays. By which I meant I would discuss the craft and the business of writing. I even dedicated three straight entries to the fearsome query letter.

My reasons for doing so were twofold: First, writers, especially beginning writers, seem to crave this sort of pragmatic, How To advice. If I was going to be writing every day, I reasoned, I ought to give the people what I believed they wanted. Second, once I made the decision to go from writing once-a-month to five days a week, I believed I would have no choice but to write about the dry, nuts and bolts of writing and publishing. It seemed inconceivable that I could fill up the space otherwise.

Yet it was the very everyday-ness that pushed this blog to what it is now. You do something again and again and eventually, out of sheer boredom, you will take a chance, and the chance I took was to write what I wanted to say instead of what I believed my readers wanted to hear. Once you have written what you most want to say, it is very difficult to go back to writing anything else. It is like drinking cheap wine long after you developed a taste for the good stuff.

And lo! Once I stopped trying to be practical, people started actually reading the blog. And what was the prevailing message of the blog? Why, write what you most want to write. In this way, I continued to learn what I was writing as I wrote it, and as I write it now.

My mistake at the beginning was not so much trying to be someone I was not, but believing I knew what anyone else wanted to read. We are doomed as soon as we believe we know this, for it is only a matter of time before that nervous mind reader whispers that what everyone wants is not what we are writing. But the generosity of life is such that even as you set out chasing what you believe others love, you are led by one route or another to what you were always seeking: yourself.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

More Author Articles

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Stay Low

All writers need something to guide them through the story they are telling. For some it is an outline. For me, it is a mantra of sorts: Stay low, and follow the trail.

This may not seem like much, but it has served me very well. Especially the staying low part. There is a scene in the filmed version of Lord of Rings where Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas come upon the scene of a large battle. They have been looking for Merry and Pippin, who had been captured by orcs, and Gimili and Legolas begin to despair, presuming their friends dead. But Aragorn crouches low and discovers a footprint here, a cut rope there, and soon, amid the maelstrom of orc and horse prints in the grass, he is able to sort out Merry and Pippin’s tracks and discern that the two hobbits escaped into the forest.

This is how writing often feels to me. When I view my story from an intellectual distance, I see only the chaos of footprints, any of which could be the thread I am to follow. All those footprints can feel like a problem, and so there is a great temptation to begin thinking, for thinking is how we are taught to solve problems. Only stories aren’t problems, and thinking will only create a problem that thinking can’t solve. I need to get low and follow that trail.

I have lived much of my life at a dizzying intellectual height from which everything looks puny and meaningless, though all the easier to judge. It is an endless Ferris wheel ride of a life.  The crowded, sticky-sweet carnival may have pretty lights and noises, but one can too easily become lost and overlooked while in it. Yet that is where all the stories are being told, where all promises are made and broken, and all love is lost and found.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

More Author Articles

Follow wdbk on Twitter

What The Silence Tells Us

I have an apple tree in my backyard, and it being April, the apple blossoms are in full bloom. I look forward to this time of year for this very reason. The lawn beneath the tree, watered for weeks with spring rain, is never greener, and the view from my back steps of that carpet of jewel green dappled with the white petals looks like a scene out of a fairy tale or the creation of a Hollywood set designer.

Yet it is quite real. As a writer, of course, two things usually come to mind when I look at my backyard: First, Beautiful; and second, How would I write it? Or perhaps it is the other way around. My rendering above, for instance, while perfectly serviceable, just won’t do. Perhaps you can see it, but I doubt you can feel it, which is all the point. Also, I’m wary of the word “dappled,” though it beats “sprinkled” in this case, and “littered” wouldn’t work, and after that we’re into “painted,” or “spotted,” and so on, which sends me back to dappled.

Kind of drains all the magic out of it, doesn’t it? It’s hard to believe sometimes that something so fussy as writing can result in anything beautiful. I have decided that if I’m going to enjoy my life away from the keyboard, I must learn from time to time to shut my writer’s eye. It’s really a kind of addiction, this reducing the whole of something into a few choice words. You can become like the ten year-old boy who won’t put down his Rubics Cube. The world is always offering you new scenes, after all, both beautiful and ugly and everything in between, that call out for your concise reduction.

At least I don’t dream of writing. Paul McCartney was supposed to have heard the melody for “Yesterday” in a dream, and while it’s nice to be struck by creative lightening, it’s best, for me at least, to have a time away from words. The world isn’t words. The world is the world. After all, language is merely my vehicle of choice to share what the world has given me. Before then, before I speak or write or think a word, there is the necessary silence. It is that silence I wish to share, and if I never listen to it, what will I ever have to say?

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

More Author Articles

Follow wdbk on Twitter

King For A Night

The legend of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony goes as follows: The composer, already stone deaf, was commissioned by The Philharmonic Society of London, and, after six years of composing, produced the symphony, which premiered in 1824 at the Kärntnertortheater in Vienna. According to witnesses, at the symphony’s conclusion, Beethoven received five standing ovations. The king only got three, and so the police were forced to break up the proceedings.

As an artist I take a certain glee in this story, whether it is true or not. How delightful that the composer, who was unable to marry the woman he loved because she was of noble birth and he was not, in the end produced something so beautiful it broke the laws of class divide. How delicious that the audience was compelled to reward accomplishment over blood.

But how much more beautiful this other anecdote, that the conductor left his podium to turn Beethoven, who sat in a chair to the side of musicians, so that he could see the applause he could not hear. Beethoven had said of the Ninth Symphony and its climactic Ode to Joy that he wished to give something great to humanity. Yet he was forced to do so while condemned to silence, kept not only from the applause it inspired but music itself.

And so there was the Ninth Symphony heard by the audience that day in Vienna, and the Ninth Symphony heard by Beethoven alone, the one played in the concert hall of his imagination. Looking out into that sea of silent applause, it must have seemed an odd and fitting end to a musical career. Let the same silence needed to compose the Ode reply to its debut. He gave love in silence and received it so.

We put kings in castles, clothe them and feed, arm their guards, and put a pointed crown on their heads so that they might be closer to God, from whom they are now expected to receive instruction for the greater good, unburdened as they are by earthly concerns. But the needs of the flesh can be sated or, in Beethoven’s case, abandoned by necessity – no matter, you return to the soul by either route, and a little wooden chair on the edge of a stage could stand as high as a throne.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

More Author Articles

Follow wdbk on Twitter

The Herd

Writers sometimes make reluctant capitalists, but whether we wish to discuss it or not, we are responsible for creating a product that we must in turn sell to the general public. The knock on capitalism, generally speaking, is its cold heartedness, a necessarily unfeeling engine of commerce whose deity, The Market, rights all wrongs through a Darwinian winnowing of the entrepreneurial herd. We writers, meanwhile, usually like to view ourselves as caring, empathetic people. Empathy is more or less in the fiction writer’s job description; how else to render believably all those people who aren’t us?

But there is something beautifully democratic about capitalism that every business owner, including writers, at some point understands. We all have our own crowd. We all have the people we eat and drink with, the people we seek out at parties. Society, in some ways, remains an extension of the high school cafeteria, with everyone gravitating to their respective tables. It’s not always inspiring, but it’s practical; easier to talk to people you like than to those you don’t.

But then you become a writer, and someone from another lunch table does something unexpected: they buy your book. In fact, you might look up to realize that only people from other lunch tables are buying your book. Now these people aren’t so bad after all. And not merely because they’re putting quarters in your pocket. When you meet your readers you discover for whom, beside yourself, you were actually writing.

Though I was the sort who bounced between different lunch tables, I have my preferences. While it is gratifying in a way to learn that someone I know and perhaps admire likes my work, there is something singularly uplifting about a stranger finding comfort in it. On the savannah, herd animals seek safety in numbers. Writers must go it alone to do our work, and our safety, in the end, depends on our willingness to accept all comers, to welcome round us anyone whose questions match our own. You see life then for what it is: a collection of curiosity, whose form must yield by and by to the answers received.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

More Author Articles

Follow wdbk on Twitter

The Bottom Of The Well

I write fiction for two hours every morning, a duration that yields me between 1,200 and 1,500 words. I have noticed that 1000 of these words usually come in the last 45 minutes. It took me many, many years to grow comfortable with this way of working. It was one thing to write a poem or a short story, but novels are long, and if you’re every going to finish one you will need to get a lot of words on the page. Best to get typing before the clock runs down and a day is wasted.

Then I watched Gary Kasparov play chess against a computer. It was televised on ESPN one afternoon, complete with play-by-play and color commentators. As with all standard tournaments, each player was given two hours to make 40 moves. I tuned in as Kasparov and the computer were locked in the Middle Game, often the most deliberative portion of the competition. Kasparov made a move and sat back in this chair.  Then we heard from the color guy:

“Oh, no,” he whispered. “He’s going to lose a pawn!”

A minute later, Kasparov, known as an emotional chess player, saw his mistake. He moaned and put his head in his hands. The computer made its move. Now Kasparov’s clock was running. What did he do? Got up from his chair and took a little walk around the studio, the clock still running. Then, having calmed himself, he sat back in his chair, leaned over the board, and began to think.

For fifteen minutes.  Over one move.  Remember, he only has two hours total for 40 moves.  But he had reached a critical point, and he needed to see deeper into the game. Finally, he made his move, and three or four moves later, the game was saved.

Patience, I thought. Einstein said if he had only one hour to solve a problem he would spend the first forty-five minutes trying to understand the problem and the last fifteen minutes solving it. In this way, my first hour spent not putting words on the page are perhaps more important than the last hour when I am. Here is where I learn the way back to my story, a journey I find more satisfying the older I get. Yet it is a journey that can only be taken in stillness, sinking below the surface of thought, where time has no power because it does not yet exist.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

More Author Articles

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Interesting Direction

It is that time of year when I am asked to judge entries in the Pacific Northwest Writers Association annual writing contest. This year, I am judging entries in the Young Adult Fiction category, and not surprisingly, there are a number of young loves chronicled in these stories, all of which shared a similar problem – a problem, I might add, hardly limited to as-of-yet-unpublished novels: The Fantasy Love Interest.

You have a novel filled with interesting, rounded people, and then along comes the Love Interest, whose only real flaw is that he or she is not yet paying full attention to our protagonist. The Love Interest reminds me of how someone eager to be in a relationship might describe a prospective mate after two dates that went reasonably well: sanitized to maintain the fantasy.

But this is how we are. We have two parts: the one desperate to be loved, and the other that simply loves. The part that wants to be loved doesn’t really love anything, it just wants attention so that it is certain it is worthy of love. The part that loves, however, loves life itself, and life is always a direction. When we love someone, we love their direction, not their attention.

I wasted many, many, many hours of my life craving this or that girl or woman’s attention. In these wasted hours, the objects of my desire were kept suspended in a cartoon world, beautiful blank slates who might one day turn my way, and in their eyes I would come alive as I finally saw myself. And then I met my wife, and there I was and always had been – not in her eyes, but looking out from within, chasing the direction that interested me most.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

More Author Articles

Follow wdbk on Twitter

The Present

I was guest lecturing at a writing class recently when a student asked a question about one of my seven rules of writing: Feel first. Write Second. What, she wanted to know, should you do if you’re trying to write a scene but can’t seem to feel it?

The first answer, of course, is we don’t actually want to write the scene, and our not feeling it is telling us so. More often, however, we do want to write a scene but are having trouble entering it. One of the best things to do in this instance is to find one detail that feels genuinely present in the scene – no matter how insignificant – and write it. The key is not to judge what you see. If you are trying to write a fight scene between your CIA agent and his nemesis but the only thing you notice is the pen in your agent’s pocket, write the pen. Perhaps the pen will be used in the fight; perhaps it won’t. Either way, it will serve as an opening, a crack through which you can enter the scene and then observe it, rather than try to make it all up from the outside in, to invent it with your thinking mind.

I thought of this the other day while having a meeting with my son’s teacher. It was a long meeting and there was a lot to talk about, not all of it the sort thing a father wants to hear. As the meeting progressed, my thinking mind, in its desperation to paint the world black or white and know with certainty whether this woman was capable of helping my son, began, as they say, to play tricks on me. One moment the teacher was a well-meaning professional with a heart of gold, the next a bumbling, taxed, depressed public servant just trying to get through a day without the children killing themselves.

Then I remembered what I had learned when writing, that I should never judge a scene through my thinking mind but behold it with my feeling mind, that it was my job to observe, not to decide. When I observed the teacher in this way, I was able understand, for reasons too many and too gray for my thinking mind to comprehend, that if she did her best, she would be fine.

It is the difference between a character and a caricature. The thinking mind must judge to draw its conclusions, but a true person is never all guilty or all innocent. You know this about yourself, and so you know it about others as well. The wholeness of life can never be known in thought. Yes, there are stories where certain characters, for narrative purposes, must wear their metaphorical white hat or black hat, but even here let the writer use these fictional poles to suggest what lies between. Whether we like it or not, we live within the wholeness of life – which is good news. A world without good or evil is the only place our heart will ever know peace.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

More Author Articles

Follow wdbk on Twitter