Swimming In A Parka

I read an article in the New York Times recently about a college English professor who was very disappointed in the quality of his students’ term papers. They were inarticulate, uninspired, and often riddled with grammatical mistakes. Oh, what has become of our cyber-addicted youth, the professor moaned?  What has become of our education system? The end of America must be close at hand.

But then this professor did a little snooping. It turns out these very same students often kept blogs. Of course, no one was telling the students to write the blogs; no one was paying them to write these blogs; nor was anyone grading them on these blogs. The students were simply writing them because they wanted to write them.

What he found surprised him. The blogs were uniformly better than all the term papers. The blogs were funnier, smarter, snappier, and, for those who care about such things, better punctuated. Interesting, thought the college professor. When I tell them all to write a paper about Emma Bovary as she relates to post-fifties feminism, I get 800 words of drivel. When they write about the latest episode of the Real Housewives of New Jersey, they produce insight and humor.

Teaching someone to write by telling them what they must write about is like trying to teach someone to swim in a down parka. Anyone who crashed into the ocean wearing a parka would immediately shed the coat if they didn’t want to drown. Likewise, when we pick up a pen the first question we ask ourselves is, “What do I want to write about?” It is the most natural thing to do; it is the direction of the current that is you.

Sometimes I look upon this blog’s purpose as taking a small role in undoing all the well-intentioned damage done by years of teaching good little boys and girls how to write Proper Term Papers. All writing should begin and end with the question, “What do I most want to write?” just as all living should begin with the question, “What do I want to do?” Shed your parka, if you’ve still got one—otherwise, you might very well drown trying to keep up with yourself.

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

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No Longer a Writer, Now an Eraser

I would like to welcome Allen Klein to Author’s blog. Take it away, Allen!

While writing my first book, The Healing Power of Humor, I purchased a new computer program.  One morning, after typing for two hours, I accidentally pressed the wrong combination of keys.  Instantly everything I had written was erased.

Just then the phone rang.  It was a friend inquiring about how my writing was going.

“Not so great,” I said.

“What’s wrong?” she inquired.

“I’m no longer a writer.”

“No longer a writer?” she questioned.

“No,” I replied.  “I’m now an eraser!”

In spite of my trying to make light of the situation it was painful losing some good writing but perhaps not as painful as being rejected by eleven publishers when I was trying to get my book published.

And certainly not as painful as having to rewrite most of the book after my first editor left the company and I was assigned another editor who had a different “vision” of the book.

Or the mental anguish I went through when I was told that the title had to be changed in spite of my first editor admonishing me to “never change” what she called a best-selling title— Learning to Laugh When You Feel Like Crying.

So how did I have the motivation to continue writing when being bombarded with so many setbacks from so many directions?

I was able to do it because I knew that my words would make a difference in the lives of those who read my book. I knew that the story of my how my wife used humor to deal with her terminal illness would help others deal with their loss. I also knew that if I could write just one page a day, no matter how many setbacks or rewrites I encountered, eventually the book would be done.

And it was.

And it is making a difference. The Healing Power of Humor is now in nine languages and a thirty-sixth printing in this country. The feedback I get from those who have read it is heartwarming. One of my favorite pieces of fan mail, for example, came from a woman who wrote:

Dear Mr. Klein,

I want to tell you about an incident that happened to me after reading your book.

I had to take a trip I did not want to take.  I was grumpy about it and became more upset, as the days got closer to my leaving. So, as you suggest in your book, I decided that I would turn my negativity around.

I went to my local thrift shop and got the baggiest brightest pair of pants I could find, some red suspenders and a big polka-dotted shirt. Then I bought an inexpensive multi-colored wig and a red clown nose.

The day of the trip that I was regretting turned into one of the best days of my life.  When I got to the airport in my clown outfit, some kids came over and asked for my autograph.  One man was convinced that he had seen me recently in the Ringling Brothers circus.  But best of all, when they announced the boarding of my flight, they said, “We are going to begin pre-boarding only.  Those needing a little extra time, families with children and clowns may go first.”

Postscript:  Did the challenges I faced writing my first book keep me from writing others? No way. My 17th book, with the original title of my first book, Learning to Laugh When You Feel Like Crying, was published earlier this year.

Allen Klein, a Certified Speaking Professional, is an award-winning speaker and author. www.allenklein.com, humor@allenklein.com.

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Advantages

In preparation for our upcoming interview, I am reading The Dyslexic Advantage by Brock and Fernette Eide. The Eides point out that while boys and girls described as Dyslexic experience the well documented challenges with spelling, reading, and rote math, these same boys and girls often go on to show fantastic strengths in other areas, particularly art, engineering, and design. Their point is that Dyslexia is not something you merely suffer with, but an orientation that, like most orientations, has certain strengths and weaknesses and that we should be focusing on the strengths, not the weaknesses.

I was heartened to read this. When my youngest son, who was diagnosed on the Autism spectrum, first began receiving professional attention, I noticed that all discussions of him centered on what he could not do. I understood this inclination. The professionals were trying to help him, and if you want to help someone the temptation is to find what they can’t do and help them do it.

But when he was quite young he showed an almost savant like ability to play the drums. When you have a child on the spectrum, you will spend a lot of time in meetings with specialists where these specialists will show you test results and tell you how your child is not normal. These specialists are well intentioned. They want you to understand how much work is to be done. But it’s depressing. Who would want their life laid out in test results?

At one such meeting I brought up the drumming. He’s a fantastic drummer, I said. He drums better than a boy twice his age—three times his age. What about that? The specialists looked at me with strained patience. Drumming had nothing to do with his language delay, with his outbursts, with his social skills. The drumming sounded nice, but it was not relevant.

It reminds me a bit of stories certain commercial writers have told me about their experiences in MFA programs. The MFA programs tend to be literature-centric, and these poor future romance, suspense, or science fiction writers struggle to fit their peg into the hole of literature.

It’s pointless.  It’s pointless for us to strengthen ourselves by wringing our hands over what we call our weaknesses.  Our strengths, which is another word for our interests, our love, our reason that we’re on this planet, are there to guide us toward some fully expanded version of ourselves, and what we call our weaknesses are no different than the millions of roads we cannot follow as we chase that path we love.

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

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Creative Truth

Much gets said in the name of The Truth.  Andre Dubus said that most writers are truth-seekers. This sounds about right to me. From comic books to romance novels to post-modern cyberpunk, every writer must strive to root their story in what they understand to be the truth or risk losing the reader, who will sniff a lie sure as a bloodhound.

I have a friend who likes to tell me stories. He always tells me stories about people neither of us have met and places neither of us have been. These are “true” stories, he assures me. He is the dutiful messenger of doom. In these stories, the powerful conspire in silver towers, plotting the further exploitation of the world, devising more and more devilish ways to destroy the meek.

It is hard for me to believe these stories because I never recognize any of the characters in them. I have never met anyone as evil as the men responsible for the conspiracies and ruin, and I have never met someone both so helpless and so good as those being taken advantage of. But my friend believes these stories completely, is devoted to them, and to tell a contrary story is tantamount to burying your head in the sand.

It is impossible, I believe, to seize the physical truth of any given moment. That is, to portray what “actually happened.” What actually happened is a diamond, and every participant in that moment a facet refracting the totality. I do believe, however, that there is a larger truth within which all moments must exist, and it is that life is ineluctably creative. I see creation in the rich and the poor and the black and the white. Life is incapable of ceasing this creation; it occurs continuously, every single waking, breathing, farting, writing, loving, weeping moment.

For this reason, I reject any facet of the truth that would ask me to give up. It is impossible to give up unless you die, and even then creation may well continue in some other form. If I cannot give up, I would seek only that truth which compels forward with the most speed, the most joy, the most light. To seek the truth of despair, meanwhile, is to seek the darkness so that you might see.

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

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A Life’s Worth

My wife and I had a friend over for brunch the other day, and as the plates were being cleared, the friend asked casually why it is we feel a need to help other people harness their energies. It was a simple enough question, the sort of conversation-starter you toss out at the end of a meal, but as we chased this question around the table something unpleasant began to evolve.

All our attempts to answer the question only agitated our friend. Even after my wife said, “Let’s stop talking about this, it’s only making us upset,” the conversation somehow continued. I felt as if I had stumbled into an Edward Albee play. It soon became apparent that we were talking about this man’s long life and whether it had been meaningful or meaningless: Somehow the value of his life’s work hinged on the answer to this question. It was no wonder we couldn’t answer it.

The scene ended quite dramatically, with my wife explaining that she did not know how to talk about this subject without upsetting him. An immense silence followed. Our friend closed his eyes, gathered himself, and changed the subject. I was admittedly angry that he had dumped this drama into our laps, and I am certain I made things worse—but I still felt for him. What could he do? What do you do with a terrible question like “Was my long life meaningful or meaningless?”

The answer is you don’t ask it. I believe our friend was asking this question because he was changing. I believe he was asking it because those values he had lived by so passionately as a young man were not serving him anymore and he was wondering if he let them go now in his old man-hood if he would have invalidated his entire life.

The idea that a life is measured in the number of consecutive enlightened years is nihilistic. I may not be an old man just yet, but I hope that if some final, culminating epiphany arrives on my deathbed that I will savor that moment of clarity, just as I have tried to savor all the moments leading up to it. This is not a pass or fail assignment. Everyone passes in the end, and everyone is forgiven for the simple human journey of finding the truth in their own time.

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

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Admirably Absent

I was listening to the writer Robert Holden the other day as he counseled a woman on the nature of love. He pointed out that the ego cannot love. Because the ego is concerned only with what separates each of us and not what connects us, the best the ego can manage is to be impressed. Admiration can sometimes masquerade as love, but it is in many ways the exact opposite of love because it is so utterly conditional.

This reminded me of an aspect of the writer/reader relationship. As a writer myself, I cannot help but to admire from time to time another writer’s deft stroke. It is as if I have played tennis all my life and am watching a match between two skilled opponents; there is nothing like attempting and missing a shot oneself to appreciate the focus required in returning certain volleys. So it is with writing. When another writer condenses a particularly complicated idea into one graceful sentence, a part of me stands up and cheers. I know this is not always easy to do. I know how much patience and practice is required to make the abstract appear concrete.

But I can only admire sentences for so long. If as a reader I am not moved, entertained, amused, or inspired I quickly lose interest. I want to love the story I am reading, not admire it, just as I want to love the people I know, not admire them. In fact, if there is one thing I admire most about another person, it is his or her capacity to show and receive love—which, oddly enough, is almost always measured in how little that person requires my admiration.

To move your reader, to amuse your reader, to excite or inspire your reader, is to share what you love. There is no other way to do it. The fact that I might be good at something cannot be shared any more than my voice can be shared. My voice is mine and mine alone. Fortunately, everything I love can be shared. Humor belongs to everyone, excitement and wonder belongs to everyone—and if I am patient, if I am precise with my words, I might just get far enough out of the way to reveal one of those bands of light that connect us all.

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

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Something From Nothing

I’m glad I’m not a writer. That is, I’m glad that I write. In fact, I love writing. I do it six days a week. I’m doing it at this very moment. But you see, I can only do it for about three or four hours a day. If I were a writer, if that’s what I was, then the moment I closed my computer I would disappear, for I would no longer be writing. This is why I’m glad I’m not a writer.

It’s picayune, I know, but the possibility exists that one day I will wake up and no longer want to write anything. The possibility exists that this path which looks from here to be all about writing will wend its way to a field that cannot be sown with words on a page. Since it was the path I so loved, must I not follow it, writing or no?

I say this having spent years muttering, “Writer,” when people asked what I did. I felt obliged to answer the question because it had been asked, knowing full the inevitable follow-up question, the answer to which was, “Nothing yet.” Which meant I wasn’t. No matter what I did every day, I hadn’t, so I wasn’t.

Who wants to be nothing? Don’t we all feel like something? Don’t we wake up and think, “I am something, God damn it. I look in the mirror and there something is. You can’t deny something is there. Only what?” Writer was such a lovely answer to that question. Such a friendly answer: Someone who inspires and entertains; someone who moves and amuses.

All of which can be done without ever writing a word. But write I did—happily most times, miserably some others—until I realized no one actually cared about the answer to that question. I was, and always had been, the man standing before the one doing the asking, the man standing there talking and not writing. I was something, all right, but I was finally wise enough not to bother giving it a name.

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

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Blank Canvases

One of my favorite novels about the creative process is Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth. Narrated by its protagonist, the novel follows the vagabond artist Gully Jimson as he scams his way through London seeking enough money to buy paint and canvas. Jimson is a very chatty narrator, and has a lot to say about why he likes to paint and why sometimes doesn’t like to paint.

As I recall, he spends a good chunk of the novel trying to finish one painting that, in the end, simply won’t come together. When he finally chucks it and starts a new one, Jimson waxes euphoric about the beauty and allure of the fresh canvas, its unique perfection, its pristine field of possibility.

I thought Cary caught this moment perfectly, because even as I read Jimson’s ode to the blank canvas I could feel the coming trouble. One brush stroke and the field is broken. One brush stroke, and you have committed to a direction that ineluctably eliminates more possibilities than it reveals. Such is the unique tension of creation—this seeking of the finite within the infinite.

I used to live my life thinking, “I could do that.” I could be a journalist; I could be an actor; I could be a screenwriter; I could be a game designer. I could, I could, I could. It was a sneaky kind of thought, one that felt like the spark of action but was designed to keep me forever beginning. I was a promiscuous careerist, though romantic, certain this next love would be the one.

Yet just as in a marriage, we may think we choose that someone for the candle-lit dinners, for the laughter and kisses and happy conversation, but soon enough will come the arguments and accusations. Always these moments feel like the middle of an intractable novel. This thing had such promise—now look at it. By and by we find our way through, and when we emerge on the other side I quietly acknowledge it was perhaps the disagreement I was seeking. Within me lived the thought not that I could, but that I could not, and so I seek the crisis, and so the light comes, and so the page is open once again.

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

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Stormy Weather

A few weeks ago I returned to the East Coast and gathered with a group of old friends in a rented home in the New Hampshire ski country. This is a bi-annual event where for a long weekend my high school buddies and I can get away from whatever might need getting away from.

One of those friends has spent the last twenty some years in Hollywood, first as an actor and now as a writer. Because of a particularly spectacular pilot he wrote a few years back, for some time now Chris has been this close to the kind of immediate and jarring success only possible in Hollywood. Though work is forbidden at these getaways, Chris explained that at an appointed time he would have to excuse himself to make a phone pitch to a powerful producer.

The hour arrived and Chris took the call outside on the wide lawn that stretched from the ground floor to the surrounding forest. I watched from the picture windows as he paced the lawn in the blazing summer sun, pacing and gesturing and talking, and I thought that this producer was not going to be particularly interested in this idea of his.  So it turned out to be.  She was still interested in his original pilot, however, and would be seeing what she could do with it – as others had before, though none quite as powerful as she. I knew my friend was disappointed. The original pilot felt a bit used up, good as it was, and it’s never fun to have someone say no.

The last night of our getaway a thunderstorm rolled in over the mountains. We stood on the deck and watched as it descended on us. There was barely time to get inside from the moment the first drops struck to when the deluge began. It was a magnificent display, and we grown men stood at the windows as if we’d never seen rain before.

Soon a figure appeared on the lawn. It was Chris, hopping about in the downpour. It was a thunderstorm, and I found myself worrying that he might get struck by lightning. I’m certainly glad he didn’t, though I wondered if perhaps that wasn’t what he’d been hoping for all along.

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

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History Of Love

I enjoyed studying history in college as long as the professor doing the lecturing was a reasonably good storyteller. For instance, I had two excellent professors my first semester-and-a-half of Western Civilization. These two men made everything from the Greeks to the Enlightenment sound pretty interesting and I generally looked forward to their class. But when we came to the 20th century a specialist in modern history was recruited to do the lecturing. This man always wore the same rumpled brown sweater and made World War II sound like a dinner squabble. I daydreamed my way through Stalin’s purges.

But I think my falling out with history, and college in general, occurred in the middle of my freshman year. On this day I received a letter from a then-girlfriend informing me that our long-distance relationship was not going to work. The letter flattened me. I should point out that I would marry this very girl ten years later, but I did not know that at the time I received the letter. Carrying this news in my heart, I trudged off to history during which I had to take an essay quiz where I was asked to offer my thoughts on the impact of liberal democracies on the French Revolution. Unfortunately, my only thoughts were, “None of this means anything whatsoever.”

History is a story we are constantly telling ourselves about all that has ever happened to everyone. We cannot repeat it because there will never be another Hitler or Julius Caesar or Joan of Arc. What repeats itself over and over again is the desire within every human being to express their unique and inimitable life at the same time every other human being is trying to express their unique and inimitable life. This confluence creates infinite challenges and potential, from wars and famines to cathedrals and symphonies, all of it in the name of humanity’s desire for authentic expression.

At eighteen I had begun to understand that love in some form or another was the only thing that mattered to me. There is, after all, no more authentic expression than love, whether love of stories, food, politics, or another person. I’m sure my professors loved history, but there we parted ways. If you love the story we call history, then love on, but know that we retell the story of our past for the same reason we tell all stories, whether real or wholly imagined: not to understand what has happened, but to acquire a lens of metaphor through which to see the present moment and reveal in its new refraction what we love most.

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

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