The Original Silence

I read an interview with the actor Anthony Hopkins this weekend in which he described teaching a class to UCLA acting students. Hopkins advised the actors and actresses to do as little as possible. He believed an actor needed to let the emotion happen as opposed to forcing it to happen by tearing up all the furniture. Try to be still, he said, and trust that the feelings are there.

How quickly advice within the arts dovetails together. I more and more feel that writing is the art of what is not said. The most delicious silence in the world is one filled with your audience’s own feelings. But how, one might ask, does a writer know when enough is enough? It’s fine not to overwrite, but who wants a dry, emotionally inscrutable story filled with chopped phrases and bare stage directions? Where is the line and how do you know when you’ve crossed it?

It is precisely because there is no line that writing is so valuable to the writer. Were I or any other writer able to define the exact perimeter of Enough, there would be no point to writing at all. That you must discover on your own where that line is drawn is the deeper reason you were led to write. Through writing you can learn the endlessly practical discipline of trust. You learn to trust because you are forever the judge and jury of all decisions in your life, and writing draws this fact into stark relief. You must trust yourself finally, or nothing will ever get written.

Strange with something so fundamental to our own well being that trust has sometimes received such a harsh review. Do not mistake trust for naiveté. One assumes an outcome before it arrives, the other assumes safety regardless of outcomes. Within that stillness Hopkins describes lays an abiding trust that all you need is present in this very moment if you listen carefully for it. And when a writer pulls back her pen she and says, “Enough,” she has granted her reader a chance to listen also, having found a silence original to her, but available to all.

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The Good Doctor

My parents divorced when I was seven, leaving me, technically, as the man of the house. By which I mean John, my younger brother, instinctively turned to me for guidance that would have otherwise been provided by our father. I think that for many years I resented this role and so was not a particularly gracious big brother. I was also fiercely competitive, and I was not going to allow John to be better than me at anything, which for a time he dutifully wasn’t. We eventually became quite close, and when I look back I believe this closeness started with the arrival of Dr. VonVickenvoctor.

Doctor, as we usually called him, was a purple muppet to which we had adhered two button eyes and a mustache made of yarn. I may have been moody and competitive, but I loved to be entertained, and one day John, age 10, sat down on the couch across from me and introduced me to Doctor.

What followed was the first of many shows. Doctor – a greedy, libidinous, self-absorbed billionaire – would tell me about the time he . . . and then the story. Doctor could travel at will through time and space, and wherever he went things always went askew. No matter, Doctor always came back for more, never changing, never learning, a purple ego muttering, “Me . . . me . . . me . . .” as he considered his next bizarre plan.

I loved him. My brother had a genius for improvisation and puppetry, and for the duration of those shows I became an eager audience, in the process handing the wheel of our friendship to my little brother. Doctor told me stories for years, and things between John and me grew steadily better.

John would go on to be an actor/writer/director, and at my wedding he gave a moving speech, during which he spoke about how I had been a kind of creative mentor to him. I have always had lots to say about writing and stories and the arts in general, and no doubt John was made to listen to much of it, but I believe in retrospect my gift to his artistic development was not my lectures and diatribes, but those puppet shows.

He must have glimpsed in entertaining me, the ferocious big brother, the power of laughter and of joy and his own capacity to harness that power. Talking is fine, but listening is always the greatest gift. Within the attentive audience’s perched silence the artist often hears his voice clearly for the first time. Your mind, after all, was given so you could talk to yourself; but your voice you were given to talk to others.

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Doesn’t Add Up

I just learned that as of this day, Seattle, where I live, has experienced only 78 hours of summer—summer being defined as temperatures over 80° F. That sounds accurate. I’ve run my car’s air conditioner twice and my bedroom fan three times.

Though I don’t know what this means to my boys. Whether it’s 80 or 60, their schools remain just as closed. I understand the Mariners continue to play baseball beneath their retractable roof. My apple tree is bearing fruit, though grudgingly.

Summer is a hard thing to measure, I suppose. Many things are, though this hasn’t stopped humans from measuring all we can, day and night. Growing up, my family would be watching football, and the fullback would dive into a pile, and from this scrum of bodies, after some wrestling, the referee would extract the ball. The chains would be called for and the ref would have to lie on the ground to see that the nose of the ball was one inch short. Fourth down. And my sister would cry, “How do they know? How do they know it wasn’t one inch closer?”

I heard a famous writer say once that if you write in a dictatorship you’ll know if you’re any good because you will be jailed or killed. Such is our desire to put ourselves on some universal scale that he would invent this macabre metric. And if such a scale existed, if you could be weighed for literary or artistic value, would you put yourself on it?

You might be tempted. You might be tempted to finally know your value, for perhaps you’ve been uncertain. Perhaps there are days when you’ve looked at all you’ve done or will do and wondered, “What does it add up to?” Have you asked this question wanting an actual answer? Or have you asked it hoping secretly for the nothing that always comes in response? That nothing belongs to you, after all. It is your empty space where creation begins before it can be counted.

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What The Thunder Said

A rare treat as I was writing this morning: from my desk I heard the sound like a truck rumbling in the sky and I dashed outside in time for the next one to come. It was the sort of morning that would have been better spent listening to thunder than writing, but the sky went silent again and I returned to work.

Growing up in Rhode Island, the summers would get so humid the air seemed to come to a complete and exhausted stop. Such was the price we’d pay for the guarantee of three to four cinematic thunderstorms every season. Finally the air would stir at midday, the clouds would lower to the treetops, and we’d stand on the front steps and wait for it. You prayed you’d get one right over your head, though the sound was like a crack opening to swallow the world. Still, there you’d be, intact, and then the rain would come and you could breath again.

All that stillness before the rain could feel like death, even though it was summer and you had nothing to do, just as you’d dreamed all school year. A tireless nothing that strengthened with time and oppressed like the air, but to disturb it, to complain about it, would mean that you wanted more than this finally, your own time—not your teachers’, not your parents’, not your coaches’, just yours—so now what to do?

What to do at your desk in temperate Seattle where thunder is like a tourist lost in your town? You feel like its come to visit you from far away, because you knew it like the accent of a stranger asking directions. Here you aimed the arrow of your life at this, this time at your desk, and when the thunder rattles with memory and breaks the stillness, you run to it, hopeful for answers, and greeted only by the silence you requested long ago.

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

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All That’s Left

I was at a writer’s conference once when I overheard a woman mutter, “If I hear one more presenter say to write your book from your heart I’ll just puke.”

I could sympathize. This particular piece of advice has been so often repeated its meaning has been worn as smooth as any cliché. Plus there is something naïve and toothless about it. Publishing is a business, after all, a business all we writers want to succeed at. Is this the advice you would give to an aspiring CEO or ambitious middle manager?

The trouble is there is no avoiding the fact that to participate in this business writers must write books. And if writers must write books, from where besides the heart would these books come?

Could you write a book from your head? The brain is a deep warehouse of ideas and memories. The brain can memorize and follow rules and formulas. The brain can tell an apple from an orange. Unfortunately, the brain cannot tell us whether we should eat an apple or an orange. So many words and ideas are apples and oranges, and so much of writing is deciding between the two. To write a novel from your head is to be paralyzed with indecision.

So perhaps we should write from our loins. Is this not, quite literally, our creative center? Have not the loins spoken to us, loudly, of preference? What book would not benefit from that carnal drive, that itch, that delicious yielding to temptation? Sex sells, and this is a business, and we want to sell. All well and good, but for all the energy the loins provide, they can still betray us, not because the loins are wicked, but because they are disconnected from life before and after The Event. The regret of a loveless, post-coital bed bears the same emptiness as a book written only from this place.

And so we are left with the heart. The heart alone knows what you prefer, from lovers to fruit, and the heart alone seems to bear no grudge if you ignore it. Strange that such a mighty and all-knowing instrument should be so forgiving. The pain we inevitably suffer from ignoring our heart, from writing from our head or our loins, is not the floods and pestilence of an angry god, but the cramps and contortions of a soul twisting itself into something it isn’t.

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We Can Be Heroes

When I was 18 my favorite song in the whole wide world was David Bowie’s 1977 hit “Heroes.” According to Bowie, he saw two teenagers in West Berlin kissing by the Berlin wall and was drawn to the juxtaposition of desperate love against this dark symbol of the cold war. It included the lines: “I can remember/standing by the wall/and the guns shot above our heads/and we kissed as though nothing could fall.”

He portrayed the lovers as heroes, which I found profoundly moving. I still do, 28 jaded years later. I thought of this when I interviewed the wise and compassionate Karl Marlantes, and this decorated Vietnam War Veteran said of killing another man, “The adrenaline’s going like mad – I never had a second thought about it. This guy’s gotta go.”

I would never ask the soldiers and firefighters and police officers, men and women who chose jobs that by definition put one in death’s path, to relinquish their heroic title and hand it to the two closest teenagers stealing a kiss. We will always be moved when people choose to act against their own self-preservation to help another, even if that other is thousands of miles away with no meaningful tie to the one risking his life other than a shared nationality.

But Marlantes would go on to say, “Whoever you just killed probably had a sister and a mother, and that starts to hit you. It might hit you a week after you do the killing or it might hit you 20 years after you do the killing—but when it hits you it’s devastating.”

Death always challenges us, whether we face it daily in our lives or not. Gifted as we are with our powerful imaginations, we all understand, theoretically at least, that one day this body we call ours will no longer walk, talk, or eat pancakes. And so this thing we call Death seems to be forever asking of us: Do I, Death, really matter as much as I seem to?

The soldiers, firefighters, and police officers would seem to say, “No,” in their own way, for if it did matter so, why risk it? Why risk the worst thing possible unless there was something greater at stake? Which is perhaps why Karl Marlantes thought of the sisters and the mothers of the men he’d killed.

It is hard to answer death with either more death or your own mere survival. It is hard to answer a thing with itself. Every day of one’s life, soldier or student, cop or criminal, we have but two choices before us—which why all heroes must choose love, as it is the only thing worth living for.

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Left Unlived

As a journalism student, I learned to answer four important questions in my story’s opening paragraph: Who, What, Where, and When. Thus:

Police reported that at 2:00 AM last night (When) residents in the Royal Heights neighborhood (Where) complained of shouts and gunfire coming from the home of James and Melissa Cameron (Who). Upon arriving on the scene, officer Peter Fauntleroy (more Who, sort of) found the body of Ms. Cameron sprawled on the living room floor with a bullet wound in her chest (What: Murder!). Officer Fauntleroy then discovered Mr. Cameron in the basement of the house, cleaning his revolver and running a load of very bloody laundry.

Then comes the fifth W: Why? Why did James shoot Melissa? There is also a sixth W—Will, as in: Will James be convicted? But isn’t Why the most interesting question? Isn’t that the novelist’s question? All your characters are running around doing things—marrying each other, shooting each other, arguing with each other, buying each other presents—but why?

I wrote yesterday about life’s inherent mystery. In this way, aren’t we all mystery writers? Aren’t we all puzzling out the why of our characters? After all, motivation always precedes action, if only by a split second. The action is like the crack at the end of an unfurling whip of motivation, and the louder that crack, the stronger the motivation. We may appear to be writing action, but we’re actually only chasing motivation.

This knowledge has taught me well in my life away from the desk. When I find myself asking, “What should I do next? What should I do next?” I am often like a writer who is treating his character like a chess piece, moving this dead thing around the board of his story. There are thousands of moves I could make, and all of them seem right and all of them seem wrong. And so I ask myself, “What do I want?  What do I want?”

And as I do with my own characters, I must ask this question with an open heart, prepared to hear whatever comes. It’s so easy to think I know before I ask; so easy to think the mystery is already solved; so easy to leave unsaid what could be written, to leave undone what could be lived.

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Reassuring Mystery

Years ago, my wife and I took our son to a neurologist to find out if he was autistic. Within five minutes of meeting our son, this very calm and experienced doctor looked up and said, “Well, I don’t know why you’re here.  He’s clearly not autistic.”

Which you would think would be reassuring. Which, it was—but then again it wasn’t, though it took me some time to understand why. Despite not fitting this doctor’s definition of autistic, our son clearly had some challenges for which there was no predictable response. As we were leaving, we talked about the various strategies open to us – the books we could read and the therapists we could visit. When we reached the door to his office, the doctor paused, shook his head, and said of our son, “I have to confess. He’s kind of a mystery to me.”

That I found reassuring. I found my son’s mysteriousness more reassuring than all the diagnoses and therapies and books and medications combined. How often have I been tempted to tack life to the wall and label it and know it as some museum exhibit or some ex-ray? How often have I wanted to put myself into a genre, or wear the hat of writer as if that’s all I need to be? And how often has life itself resisted all labels but living?

Lisa Gardner said a writer’s job is to become comfortable with being uncomfortable. I have never succeeded in understanding life through labels. All my efforts to do so have left me more insecure, more uncomfortable than when I started. That my son was mysterious meant I would have to understand him the way I have only ever been able to understand my own life: by trusting the direction of the mystery.

What other choice did I have? I have never known how a story will end, or who will buy it, or who will read it. I have only known that I wished to tell it. And even the story I am telling is mysterious, whose unveiling, like a life, deserves the full respect of remaining unknown to me until it is through.

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You Deserve It

Have you noticed when you are talking to someone how aware you are that what you choose to say to that person is a product of who that person is? In other words, if you criticize someone, you are criticizing her, and if you praise someone you are praising her. And so if you criticize someone you might say she deserved the criticism, and if you praise someone you might say she deserved to be praised.

In this way, when you are talking, you are in some way aware that the person to whom you are speaking is responsible not just for what he says but also for what you say, for you have chosen words specifically for him. Each conversation is a unique result of the intersection of two people, a conversation that could not and would not be duplicated precisely by any other two people.

And yet, how often when we are criticized do we say, “I don’t deserve that!” How often when we are criticized do we feel attacked, as if we are victims of some verbal stone hurled our way at random, as if we somehow played no part in what was said to us.

Isn’t it possible that we deserve everything we hear, even the worst and cruelest insults? Isn’t it possible we even deserve to hear someone say, “You are fat, you are stupid, and you are boring?” Why would we deserve to hear this? Because it is the truth, and it is just the jolt we need to finally get to the gym, read the New York Times, and start telling more interesting stories?

Doubtful. But perhaps, in hearing these words spoken aloud and not just in the quiet and claustrophobic confines of our own mind, perhaps actually hearing them we will finally be compelled to say aloud, to say in our own voice what we have been longing to hear: “I am not fat, I am not stupid, and I am not boring.” You would certainly deserve that.

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Staring

Albert Einstein was supposed to have said that if he had an hour to solve a problem he would spend forty-five minutes understanding the nature of the problem and fifteen minutes trying to solve it. I thought of this when Andre Dubus mentioned one of his favorite Flannery O’Conner quotes: “There is a certain grain of stupidity the writer can hardly do without, and that is the quality of having to stare.”

Which leads me to yet another great O’Conner quote: “I find that most people know what a story is until they sit down to write one.” I believe this goes for writers themselves, for as Alice Hoffman said in our first interview, it is not unusual to begin a story of any length feeling as though you have never done this before, that you don’t actually know how to tell a story.

And so the staring begins. And what precisely is that writer staring at? Words? Not if he or she wants to finish that story. I realized recently that if I spend an hour writing one of these essays, like Einstein and his problem solving I spend only about fifteen minutes actually choosing which words will go on the page. The rest is spent staring at the thing I wish to say—or, more precisely, staring at what looks like, but is not, the thing I wish to say until it dissolves and reveals what I do wish to say.

In this way, staring is a great timesaver, because once I have seen clearly what it is I have been seeking, the words come very quickly. For this reason, when I think of writing, when I think of what it is I do at the desk, I never think of words. If it were only words, it would be so much simpler, for I would be like a carpenter building a story or an essay.

But I am such a craftsman only by necessity. Mostly, I am someone who stares. I am always staring at the same thing: that which I know but have hidden from myself. I have hidden it for a reason, and what both draws me to my desk and keeps me from it is what I will find, the truth I had hoped once upon a time was a lie.

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