Natural Law

Recently I’ve been reading too much of something called The Stone in The New York Times, where, as I mentioned on Tuesday, various contributors have been arguing whether Naturalism can essentially provide all the answers to life. As a writer, I must say the answer is, “No!” as no sonnet or sonata that you’d want to read or listen to has ever been written by observation and deduction.

But the debate on The Stone is really a debate humans have had with themselves ever since an apple dropped on Isaac Newton’s head. Since there are all these physical laws that govern nature, is there a physical law for why we are here? Why are doing this life thing anyway? From a logical standpoint, the answer would seem to be, “To live as long as possible and make more babies.”

But ask yourself: “Would I rather live, A) 80 years unhappily, or B) 60 years happily?” You probably answered B. It’s really not even a choice. Though perhaps it is. Many, many people spend great swaths of their life in various degrees of unhappiness. Some people can hardly remember what it even feels like to be happy. And as Hamlet asked, “Who would these fardals bear to grunt and sweat under a weary life, but for the threat of something after death?”

Here I take exceptions with The Bard also. The fardals are born not out of fear, I believe, but because unhappiness is believed, not endured. This truth is known somewhere in everyone. We might tell ourselves we remain living only because we are afraid of dying, but in truth we are not willing to abandon a search for something that we cannot help but glimpse even within the wildest storm of discontent.

When I was living in Los Angeles, I was very unhappy. I didn’t really know how unhappy I was until I had a long phone conversation with the woman to whom I am now married. After we hung up I sat alone in my darkened apartment and felt something I had not felt in a very long time. Nothing had been promised between us; no plans had been made. All we had done was talked. But a pleasant residue remained from that conversation and I recognized it immediately. “That’s me,” I remembered. “I must find more of it.”

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

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Nothing For Me

For many years I lived in a familiar pattern. I would look at my life and see reasons for my happiness. Sometimes the reasons would be as significant as an acceptance letter or a new relationship; sometimes as small and distant as my favorite football team winning one Sunday or the discovery of an inexpensive but delicious table wine. Because I am human and I always want to feel good, I would spend my days mentally counting my happiness cards – as long as I had a full deck, as it were, life had meaning, and I was happy.

Inevitably, no matter how many cards I accumulated, a day would come when I would look at my hand and see nothing. Some days I would see no cards at all. Other days, I would see the same cards I’d held the day before, and the cards I had felt happy looking at the day before now meant nothing to me. And so I would despair. Life was a great empty string of meaningless events I had fooled myself into caring about to alleviate the repetitive misery that was life.

The odd thing about this kind of misery is you have to be disciplined about it. It’s very easy as you go about your day to stumble and become interested in something and forget to be unhappy. You have to be stern with yourself in such instances: Don’t let yourself be fooled again. You know how this always ends up.

I eventually began training myself out of the deck of happiness cards habit. And it was training. My attention was always on, always searching for something to light upon that would bring me pleasure. By and by I taught my attention to direct itself toward that which always brought me pleasure, regardless of what I drank, with whom I related, and who won on Sunday.

Still, habits stay with you long after you think you’ve broken yourself of them. From time to time I still feel a familiar hollowness and realize it’s because I spent the last day or two coveting my precious cards. I turn toward my old friend despair. But as my attention swings toward the emptiness where for so many years this friend waited, I find it is pointed exactly where I trained it to go since putting down the cards. The nothing I ran from once is now calling me back to myself.

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

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Leaving Prison

For many years I worked at a job that I viewed as a kind of prison. I was imprisoned in this job by my family’s bellies and because my writing was not earning me enough money to keep those bellies full. And then I decided to leave that job, and when I did I realized no one had imprisoned me there but myself. I had chosen that job when I could have done other things. And the truth was, I stayed at that job I supposedly hated because I wanted to be there, because in working there I answered the question, “Can I support my family somehow?” I stayed and stayed and stayed until I was done answering that question, and then I left.

My youngest son has never had an easy time at school. For years, he saw it as a kind of prison to which he had been condemned by his parents, his teachers, and for that matter all of Western society. In certain ways, last year was his best and worst year. While he made great progress in many areas, school still seemed to leave him so stressed that he could hardly enjoy his free time at home. By the end of last school year, my wife and I made a decision. We would only send him to school for half a day. We would teach him history and Language Arts ourselves. Neither of us was eager to be middle school teachers, but we felt the extra time at home would serve him well.

When we shared this plan with him we were surprised by his response: Under no circumstances was he going to leave school early. He wanted to go to school like everyone else. He did not want any schooling to happen at home. That was at the beginning of the summer. Surely he would change his mind as fall drew near. Not so. He was more adamant in August than June. He would not be homeschooled for even one hour.

At first it seemed our plans to help him had been scuttled. But then I saw an opportunity. “That’s fine,” I said. “But remember: this is your choice. You’ve called school a prison for years. We’re offering you the key out. So you’re going there on purpose. No one is making you go but you.”

It is too early to tell, but I believe it could not have worked out any better. I can see that he wants to complain about school like he used to, but it is not so easy now. Prisoners love to yell at wardens. They are never that eager to yell at themselves.

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

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Known Reality

Interesting that I published a blog yesterday on the importance of what is called entertainment, and then this morning came across this article in The New York Times in which its author posits that art is “fun” but that the only true way to understand reality is through the scientific method. The scientific method – observation and the rational conclusions that follow – is the only means by which we can acquire reliable knowledge. And nothing, the author goes on to insist, is more important than knowledge.

I love knowledge. I love that I know all these words, for instance. Because I have learned the meanings of so many words and the rules for how to string them together into sentences I am able to write blogs far quicker than if I had to keep one finger in a dictionary and the other in a grammar manual. I love that I know how to drive and edit videos. I love that there are people who know how to build airplanes and write computer code and make crème brulee.

But what is the use of all this knowledge? Why do we have it? Isn’t the only reason we have all this knowledge so that we can make the stuff we want to make? What is anything’s value unless it is in service to creating what we love? No amount of scientific research, no amount of clinical observation and rational concluding, can, has, or ever will be able to tell you or me or anyone that has ever lived what they love. Love is unknowable but to the one doing the loving.

As it should be. You are not a machine, organic or otherwise. You are not a glorious accident. You know, as you read this, that you chose to read this. You know that when you are done reading this that you will have to choose what you will do and say and think and write next. And you know that the reality of your life is that you can do and say and think virtually anything.

Perhaps there would be a benefit to being an organic machine, one that could be known, like a formula is known. Perhaps there would be some benefit to our lives being a great Darwinian, mechanical tick-tocking cause and effect. We will never get to know those benefits, because we are free. That is our reality.

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

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Something Remembered

I have heard it said, often by entertainers themselves, that the job of the artist, of the entertainer, is to help people forget their troubles. It’s a tough and uncertain world out there, goes this thinking, and it is always good to get away from all the conflict and woe and for an hour or two hand your life over to someone who in a song or a story can take you someplace happier where good triumphs over evil and the guy gets the girl. The entertainer helps us forget.

I have never felt the entertainer’s job was to help his audience forget, but to help his audience remember. In this way, entertainers are like teachers. Everyone already knows everything there is to know, but most of us forget, and so teachers are people who have remembered something important and wish to help other people remember it too. This is what entertainers do. They help people remember what happiness feels like.

Because we already know that our job in this life is not to get it right; we already know that our job is not to be a success; we already know that our job is not to marry the right man or get the right publishing contract; we already know our job is not to be a good Republican or Democrat or Christian or Jew or son or daughter or husband or wife. We already know that our only job in this life is to be happy. We know this, but we frequently forget it.

And so the artist helps us remember. The artist shows and doesn’t tell so that the happiness he, the artist, has found can be discovered and remembered in the audience. And when it is, that happiness, which had belonged to the artist, now belongs to the audience, it is theirs, for it always was—and now that they have remembered they might go forward from the library, from the theater, from the concert hall, they might go out with that happiness still in them and it will feel at once new and familiar, something they have remembered, and if they are paying very close attention, they might even think, “This feels exactly like me.”

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

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Look Around

I had the great fortune of being interviewed yesterday on Susan Wingate and Joshua Graham’s excellent podcast “Between The Lines.” If you did not have a chance to listen to it, you may do so at any time here: http://www.blogtalkradio.com/dialogue

Susan and Joshua were quite generous and allowed me to roam freely through many of the subjects that most interested me. This included my work editing the video interviews we post every month. I have never thought much about this part of my job. Video editing was something I simply had to learn to do in order to have an online magazine.

As Susan pointed out, her interview, as seen on Author, was but a fraction of the conversation we taped. In this way, editing is like rewriting a very wordy novel, diving into voluminous raw material to extract a coherent and focused narrative. If I have had any success as an editor it is due in large part to the instincts I honed writing fiction.

But isn’t this so with everything? Before I waited tables fulltime I acted, and the voice I trained on the stage I brought to the tables where I trained it further to be heard clearly in a more intimate surrounding, a voice I would then bring to this magazine to be used in interviews. What I write in this column I bring to the dinner table, and what I learn at the dinner table I bring to this column. I write better the more that I talk, and I talk better the more that I write.

And so on. Writing classes and conventions and magazines are great and helpful, but nothing can replace your constantly expanding web of interest. Look around at all the activities and friends and things you gathered to you, all these things you call your life. You think one is not connected to the other? Their separation is an optical illusion, a trick that allows getting about in the world easier. They are all connected to you, and you they, and the closer you look at all you do and think about and say, the harder it will be to tell one from the other.

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

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Remembering The Fool

I have to confess that of all the stories I might tell my favorites are those in which I am the lead actor. If I must, I will chalk a certain degree of this preference up to vanity, but only as I point out that the better you know your protagonist, the better your story.

Moreover, of all the biographical stories I might tell, none are more pleasing than those in which I suffer the most. And I don’t mean stories in which some villain has wronged me, or stories in which it appears fate has taken me out at the knees. I used to like to tell such stories. I liked these stories because the cruelty of Life or Other People was always surprising and my audience would sometimes feel sorry for me. But I grew tired of these stories. You can dress complaint up in a compelling narrative—and when in the right mood I can be quite the tailor—but in the end everyone feels just a little bit worse unless they band together in mutual loathing for Mean People or Mean Life.

No, the stories I like are those in which I unravel my own happiness thread by thread. So delicious, from the safe vantage of the present, to travel back to the day when all seemed lost, when I believed a story of ruin and defeat. Bill the Fool makes a very compelling protagonist because he is always so certain of his own doom, he is always so passionate in defense of misery. So satisfying when he learns the joke was on him and he was safe all along.

Andre Dubus, when discussing his memoir Townie, pointed out that in telling our own stories we must first remember them—as in, we must put them back together. Such is the power of story. I can pull myself apart from head to toe, I can dismember my life with the unique violence of self-loathing—but I must use my own two hands to do so. Everything I tear remains with me, and when I tell the story true, all the pieces fit together perfectly.

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

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Ten Percent

Most of you are probably familiar with the adage, “Writing is 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration.” Fair enough. You’ve got to put your butt in the seat, as the other saying goes, and many a book sits half-finished on laptops and in bottom drawers because the writer was unwilling to return to the desk on a day he or she didn’t feel like it.

Of course, how often—if you aren’t working in, say, Tijuana or Biloxi—do you actually perspire while writing? Oddly enough, it happens to me fairly regularly, but only when I am inspired. Or, to put it in my own vernacular, when I have found my way to the center of the story’s current. When I am in the center of the current, everything moves quickly, including my blood apparently, and if I can get out of the way and not fear the speed of the current, I might be lucky enough to require a shirt change when the workday is through.

On the other hand, when I am trying to work even though I am nowhere near the current, I am cold.  If I make the mistake of trying to grind out words, to write my way back to the current, an exercise that can easily consume my entire workday, I come away from the desk feeling disinterested in life, a slave to a house that needs heating and mouths that need feeding. On these days, writing feels like any other job, only without security.

The perspiration in this truism reflects the absolute necessity to return to the desk regardless of your state of mind at the time you have set aside to work. What it should not reflect is your attitude toward the work. I believe you must seek inspiration every single workday. View yourself as a mule dragging your plow through some field, and the work will reflect it. Expect inspiration, and many days you will get it.

Obviously, no two workdays are ever the same, but I have come to understand that the balance and patience required to let through the most inspired work is, in the loosest definition of the word, a muscle. That is, with practice, what had once seemed a gift of fate becomes a feat of discipline. And not surprisingly, I have also found that in both quality and quantity ten minutes of inspired writing are usually more productive than ninety minutes of uninspired laboring.

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Real Villains

This month’s issue of Author features an interesting interview with medical suspense writer C. J. Lyons. Lyons spent over fifteen years in pediatric medicine before becoming a fulltime novelist. Her work as a doctor included time in emergency rooms where she came into contact with not just victims of abuse but abusers themselves, men and women who were, by her description, sociopaths.

“Sociopaths,” she told Jeff Ayers, “aren’t very interesting people.”

She mentioned this because as a writer of suspense fiction she could not really use her direct experience with sociopaths when creating villains. We have to love to hate our villains; we have to want to watch the villains. Hannibal Lecter, for all his flaws, is a pretty interesting guy. Cruella Deville, Captain Hook, Gollum – all deliciously, fascinatingly evil.

But according to Lyons the real sociopath, the real villain, is rather blank. And why would that be? Probably because interesting people are people who are interested in life. After all, a sociopath must withdraw from life in order to retain his connection to the meager and nihilistic satisfaction of murder—an act, I would imagine, that connects him to life only in the flicker of a moment he watches it end. Were he to become interested in life itself, he would not wish to end it.

I am fine with writers creating interesting villains. We don’t want to watch our heroes and heroines triumph over deadened ciphers; we want to watch them triumph over themselves, over their darkened halves bent on building happiness by controlling everyone and everything. These villains are interesting because we are interested, and the satisfaction we gain watching them die is the familiar relief of finding safety in our own skin.

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

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Give It Away

One question I ask every memoirist I interview is, “What did you know about your story before you wrote it, and what did you learn about this story while you wrote it?” In certain ways, I believe the truest answer is that the writer knew everything before the writing, though what form that knowledge was in determines how this question is answered.

As I write my own story I frequently find myself imbuing the character Bill Kenower with an understanding the writer Bill Kenower only recently—as in as he actually wrote it—was able to articulate. For instance, there is a moment in my story when my son says something that on the surface is quite shocking. At the time I was not at all shocked, though I could not express why until this morning when I wrote the scene.

The difference between the articulated and the unarticulated understanding is that the articulated understanding can be shared. Yet it is such an odd kind of sharing, for I must first learn to share it with myself. I must first turn the understanding into something I can see, not merely feel. That act of making visible is creation, but in order to see it, in order reveal it and share it with others, I must give up my exclusive ownership of it. The moment I can see it, it belongs to anyone else with eyes.

And being a memoir, I must in a small way give up my own life, or at least what I have called my life. When my wife’s grandmother was dying, every time we visited her little apartment she would try to give us something. “Take this vacuum,” she would say. “Here, Jennifer, have this fur coat.” She seemed happy to be rid of it all. On the day before she did pass, my wife and her sister sat by their grandmother’s bed in the hospice and sang with her the old Jewish songs she had taught them when they were girls. She was as happy on that day as my wife had ever seen her. I think it would feel very nice to have your life reduced to a song.

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

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