The Search For Knowledge

John Lennon wrote: There’s nothing you can know that can’t be known. I have to agree. I don’t think anyone teaches anyone else anything. Everyone already knows everything. For whatever reason, upon entering the dream of life, we forget what we already know. And so, in this way, those people we call teachers are merely helping those that they teach to remember what they have forgotten.

Sarah Orne Jewett said, “Write what you know.” E. L. Doctorow countered, “But how do you know what you know?” Thus the writer goes in search of his or her book.  And what do we find when we find this book? John Lennon knew the answer. We find what we love, which is all we can ever know.

Think of that moment when you find the sentence that brings a moment into clarity. Think of that moment when you read something that cuts right to your heart. These moments are part discovery and part recognition. In fact, this is precisely what I felt when I first saw my wife: discovery and recognition. When we see what we love we discover what we have forgotten. When we see what we love, we feel both happiness and relief.

We are all teaching and we are all searching. We search our stories for the core of love; as readers we search bookstores for stories that sound like love. We search the world for the people we love, the foods we love, the games we love, the clothes we love. We search and we search, and when we find we remember again what it is to love, we remember again what it is to be us.

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Honestly Polite

When I was a teenager and a very young man I was a bit of a Holden Caufield type. I hated all fakery and dishonesty. I particularly disliked what I perceived as the ritualistic dance that was polite behavior. Not that I wanted to be impolite, but what if I didn’t feel like saying “Hello” every time someone walked into a room? So what? Whose life was I leading? Why must I do anything so that someone else won’t feel slighted? If someone was troubled by honesty, that was their problem, not mine.

But then I got a job as a waiter in a fine dining restaurant. Early on, I concluded that if I wanted to keep this job and make any money at it I would have to master what I considered formal manners, the most restrictive of all behavioral expectations. I looked upon practitioners of formal manners as trained monkeys, actors in a play that they had, for reasons of upward mobility or familial requirements, chosen to perform until pulled from the stage by death or drunkenness. So what to do? Every customer is different. How can one know what is polite with each person? It can’t be mere form. It must be something else.

I asked myself what every writer is advised to ask when starting a book. Writers should write the book they would want to read. I decided I would be the kind of waiter I would want to serve me. What I discovered was I wanted someone kind. I used to think that manners were a series of social maneuvers one memorizes so as not to embarrass or offend. But true politeness, I found, was just another word for kindness. All I had to do was to be kind. My kindness told me what to do. My kindness told me what to say. This was not so hard. I already wanted to live in a kind world where people loved one another.  And when I acted from love, this is exactly the world I lived in.  This wasn’t fakery.  This was honesty.  My impoliteness had actually been dishonest.  Love, I saw, was my only honest expression.

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Believing Is Seeing

On the one hand, I have always appreciated the maxim, “Seeing is believing.” It is all very well and good to read about the Grand Canyon, to watch IMAX films of the Grand Canyon, but to actually understand the reality of the Grand Canyon, one must behold the thing itself. Reality is too vast to be communicated in something so narrow as words or images.

Then why are words and images so important to us? Why do we live in stories all the time—in movies, books, newspapers, online, with friends, at the dinner table? Because, in fact, seeing is not really believing. In fact, it is just the opposite. In other words, we do not believe what we see; we see what we believe.

My wife and I recently got into—I’ll call it a discussion. It was a long discussion that neither of us wanted to have but both knew we must. As this discussion wore on, I began to view my wife as an adversary. She didn’t care about me; she only cared about being right. That was what I began to believe. And as I came to believe this, it was as if she mutated. Like a wax figure, her face went from beautiful to ugly, and the edge in her voice became like the blade of a knife wielded against me.

Until I believed something different. Until I thought, “What if she actually loves you and doesn’t want to blame everything on you? What if she’s just upset because she doesn’t understand what you’re discussing anymore than you do? What if that’s why her voice has an edge? And what if you love her? Now what do you see?” What I saw was my wife, whom I still loved, who was as upset and confused as I.

We see what we believe and we take actions based upon what we see. If you believe the world is against you, you will see enemies in every shadow. If you believe men love you, you will see men’s interest beneath their every smile, within every polite greeting. Which is why stories matter so much to us. We tell stories not to describe reality to one another but to offer a lens, a belief, through which others may see a reality that pleases them most.

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Share Alike

Any avid reader, which most writers are, has had this experience: You finish a book and think, “I can’t wait to tell my friend/wife/husband/mother/boss about it.” In fact, the literary agent Donald Maass pointed out that this was how breakout bestsellers are made, by one friend dragging another friend across a bookstore and saying, “You’ve got to read this.”

This is how we should sell books: as if we have just discovered it and can’t wait to share it with the rest of the world. There is no purer motivation than love, no better stance from which to offer anything. “I love it; I thought you might too.” It never feels like enough to love something by yourself. It is only the fear of rejection that restrains love’s natural, gravitational movement toward others.

The ego preens in false modesty. Who am I to draw undue attention to myself? All stinginess and withholding is fear. As if our love of something could be contested by another’s opinion. You will never know anything as clearly as you know what you love. It is your first and last knowledge, your guide, and your happiness. To withhold what you love from others is to judge them as unworthy of it. It is never for any of us to judge who is worthy of love and who is not. Give them the same chance you would ask.

And anyhow, what you love was never yours to begin with. What you love came to you, and you recognized it, and you asked it to wait a moment, and now you’ve helped it find a way to other people. That’s all our writing is. We are just the conduits of love from that which gives to those who wish to receive.

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The Brass Ring

The Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence, RI used to have a Merry-Go-Round equipped with a ring-grabbing game. Affixed to a post near the edge of the Merry-Go-Round was a slender rectangular box loaded with metal rings. The box fed one ring at a time from a kind of lip, so that children riding the outer-most horses could lean out and, if they timed it right, snatch the ring with a crooked finger. Most of the rings were black, but sometimes the box fed a brass-colored ring. If you were lucky enough to snatch this ring, you got a free ride. I always believed this was where the term “grab the brass ring” was derived.

I enjoyed this game. I found Merry-Go-Rounds interesting for about two rotations, at which point I was done waving to my mother as she whirled past, and then there were the lions again, and there was the ice cream vendor again. But this little game brought purpose to going around in circles. I liked the feeling of leaning out from my horse, one hand tethering me to the pole, the other stretched and waiting, timing the rise and fall of my mount as the ring approached. Even if I got a black ring I felt a sense of accomplishment, for if nothing else I was practicing for the big one.

And when it happened that I came around and the kid four horses in front of me snatched a black ring and out popped a brass, I thought, “Now’s my time.” I felt as if all eyes were on me, as if the whole park were pulling for me. Now I gathered myself, gathered all my attention to that ring and my waiting finger—and I had it! I’d done it! Which meant . . . which meant getting back on the Merry-Go-Round, and there was my mother waving, and there were the lions, and there was the ice cream vendor.

I have always been susceptible to reaching for brass rings. Oh, the thrill of winning, of being singled out, of acquiring specialness through achievement. It was a deceiving game, because I cared nothing for the ring or the ride but everything for the grabbing—and not even the grabbing, but the trying to grab, the fundamental pleasure of harnessing my energy and attention. I would go looking for brass rings my whole life until I understood I was never supposed to grab it but to share it.

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Listen Carefully

This morning, as I do almost every day after my morning writing, I went for a run. I run because I have been athletic my whole life and it would seem unnatural now to be otherwise, because I would like to stay trim without resorting to an all wheat germ diet, and because I always feel better on the days that I have run than on the days that I have not. And to be alone. I chose my route in part because it follows a course rarely traveled by other people at this time of day. I sweat and grow fatigued alone. No need to make a spectacle of it.

I had much to think about during this morning’s run. I had lunch with (among other people) Laura Munson yesterday, and we had talked about memoirs, and inspiring readers and how much that meant to us. But my mind had been very busy since our lunch, and a busy mind is not always a useful mind. A busy mind can question whether you will ever be able to touch even one more person ever again – for where is the proof of what is to come?  A busy mind likes proof.

But as I reached the halfway point in my run and started home, I remembered something I had said during that lunch about brass rings. I had been thinking about a merry-go-round I used to ride at the Roger Williams Park Zoo when I was as child, and I saw how this ride would make a perfect metaphor for a blog. Then, as sometimes happens, I began to write the blog in my head as I ran home, the whole thing coming as if already written by someone else, and I began to feel hopeful and connected and happy because I would go home and type up what I had already written.

And as I was near the end of my run, I heard my blog’s last paragraph, its last sentence, and I thought, “Yes.  That’s the gift!” And as I thought this, at the very moment the final words came to me, a woman stepped out of a parked car and said,

“You inspire me!”

I looked at her, puzzled, and she mimed running. “Running,” she said. “I should be running.”

“You can!” I said.

Then, in case I had missed the point, as I jogged past a bus stop one block from my house, a teenage boy waiting there called out, “Whoah.  Determination!”

Sometimes you speak to the world, and sometimes it speaks to you.

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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 own 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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Born This Way

This month’s issue features my conversation with first-time novelist Kristina McMorris. Kristina is unusual in several ways. First, most writers know they want to be writers from very early on. Not all, mind you—Wally Lamb did not begin writing until his early thirties—but usually writers start dabbling around age nine. Many of you probably did as well. Not Kristina. She did not have any inkling she wanted to write fiction until she was well into her twenties.

What is most strange, however, was that not only wasn’t Kristina writing creatively – though she was doing plenty of, let’s say, quasi-creative writing for her job in marketing – but she wasn’t even reading.  Now this, I have to say, after all the interviews I’ve conducted, is a first.  Her learning curve, as she describes in the interview, was great.

Yet not so great as to keep her from writing her novel – Letters From Home – and eventually seeing it published. Even though I fit the typical writer mold – always interested in stories, read a lot as a kid, wanted to be a writer since I was nine – I love stories like Kristina’s. While it’s wonderful to think we’re born to do something, that we are shot from the womb like arrows headed inexorably toward one bright light of a goal, it is easy to romanticize this perspective because it seems to unburden us from the endless obligation of choice.

The fact is, no matter how strongly pulled toward one activity you are, you could still choose not to do it. You will suffer because of this choice, you will have bad marriages, you will get cancer, you will complain constantly to your friends how meaningless life is, and yet you will do so by choice. Which is why I find Kristina so inspiring. She reminds me again that life decides nothing for us; that we are neither born to fail nor to succeed – we are only born to choose.

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Where You Are

Though it can seem strangely counterintuitive, the quickest way to change something is to first accept it. Or to put it another way, no matter where you may think you want to be, you are where you are.

For instance, there was a low time in my life when nothing interesting or satisfying seemed to be happening. This puzzled me.  I felt capable; I felt curious; I felt creative; I felt ambitious—and yet, nothing seemed to happen.  All was rejection and disappointment.  During this period, I spent a lot of time living in my imagination. In my imagination, things were happening. In my imagination, I was having all kinds of marvelous success, meeting all kinds of interesting people, going to all kinds of interesting places.

I suppose I can’t be blamed for retreating into my imagination. I was a writer, after all, and by necessity I spent a lot of time there. I learned to create interesting worlds in my imagination, so why not visit one such world if my world seemed less that interesting? It was a pleasant way to pass the time until things in my real world got interesting.

And then one day I was taking a walk, swimming as always in my imaginary waters, when something—literally—stopped me. Here I was making, and making, and making this happy imaginary world for myself which was really not making me any happier at all. It only made me happy as long as I hid there. I stood where I was, and I asked this question, “What could you make with this world?”

And as I asked this question, the world around me changed. I saw it all—the bushes, the pond, the birds—as clay. All of it was material. What could I make with where I actually was? Why not start there and see where it goes?

This is why every spiritual doctrine in history teaches acceptance. Acceptance is not passive. Acceptance is not capitulation. Acceptance is an understanding that to create, no matter what you want, you must begin by working with what you have, with where you are. If you resist where you are, you only create an imaginary world where you are not where you are. Everyone is an artist, and our materials are all about us. To use them, you must see them, and to see them, you must accept that they exist.

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