Nothing is Broken

My brother married his first wife when he was much too young. It was one of those situations where the rest of the family sensed the marriage was a bad idea from the get go but decided silently amongst ourselves to let John figure that out for himself. Predictably, it didn’t take long for things to start going sideways. A year or two in, he shared some of the troubles with me in a long phone conversation. A week later it was his birthday and during my annual well-wishing call I asked how things were with his wife.

“We had a couple drinks and hashed things out and everything is better now,” he explained.

Oh, how smug I felt knowing that everything was not in fact all better. But I should know. I have often felt the lure of that drug that is, “Now everything is all better.” I do not mean to insinuate that nothing ever gets better. Quite the opposite.  But the idea that I can fix my book, or my marriage, or myself assumes that things are broken to begin with.

No one is broken. Not one person on the planet. Ideas are broken – that is, they lead you away from where you naturally want to travel, which is always towards love – but people themselves are not broken.  The only thing wrong with my brother’s relationship to his wife was that he shouldn’t have been married to her. Once they divorced, their relationship found its true form – polite, cordial, and in different cities.

And so it goes. Stories aren’t broken; they just haven’t found their full form, or their true author. Sometimes stories come to us but we aren’t the ones meant to tell them, and so back they go into the communal story stew. I understand this is a trick of perception, but it’s a trick worth learning. Everything you do is an idea, a possibility, and all ideas are expendable. No matter how many ideas you try out and dispose, no matter how many roads lead to dry valleys, you remain intact as ever before, a perfect light seeking its fullest form.

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

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A Crack in the Mirror

On Saturday, my youngest son, Sawyer, and I had the afternoon to ourselves. It was raining so I suggested we watch a “guy” movie. A guy movie, in Sawyer and my parlance, is something from the Science Fiction/Fantasy queue on Netflix. I did not notice that the movie we selected was rated R. I found out soon enough once the credits were over.

It was a movie intended to feel like a video game, and it was orgiastically violent. I didn’t want to be too much of a prude, so I stuck with it as long as I could, but when a scene began with a character ripping the back of his own neck open to get at the device planted there – I turned it off. I apologized to Sawyer, but told him I couldn’t stomach it any longer.

“I could!” he said. “It was awesome.”

It was true he’d been able stomach it. He’d sat beside me on the couch, riveted to every explosion and decapitation. When I asked him what he liked so much about the movie he’d said it was “dark.” That it was. The movie felt like a nightmare, a gun-filled dream world in which the only three emotions are lust, paranoia, and self-loathing.

Then last night my wife, Sawyer, and I were watching the Gene Hackman basketball classic Hoosiers. In this film a washed-up high school basketball star played by Dennis Hopper is given a chance to redeem himself by helping to coach Hackman’s team. Unfortunately, at an important game, Hopper arrives late and thoroughly drunk and staggers onto the court raving about a bad call.

As soon as Hopper appeared on camera, obviously drunk, Sawyer jumped up from the couch and left the room. “He’s going to screw up,” said Sawyer. “I can’t watch it.” I was going to mention our science fiction movie and what he had been able to watch in it, but before I could, Sawyer answered this comparison.

“It’s too much like real life!” he cried.

I was glad, at least, that “real life” for Sawyer apparently wasn’t a nightmare. Funny, though – if we could have traveled into the mind of Hopper’s character as he stormed the court we might have seen a world eerily reminiscent of the science fiction movie Sawyer and I had watched. Both, in this way, are real. The mirror can cut you both shattered and whole.

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Life and Death

I once watched a documentary about the death penalty, a large portion of which was spent following a lawyer whose sole focus was defending death row inmates. During the course of the show, the lawyer was desperately trying to salvage an appeal for a man sentenced to die within days, and then hours, and then minutes.

To be honest, I don’t remember whether or not he saved the man’s life. All I can remember is the lawyer. He ran everywhere he went, his brow beaded with sweat, his tie coming undone, his shirttail hanging out of his pants. He cursed a lot. He chain-smoked. He yelled at people. At one point, a coworker suggested he take a breath, to which the lawyer responded, “I’m trying to save a man’s life, damn it!”

There’s no doubt he was trying to save a man’s life, but to me the lawyer declared his intentions with the false conviction of a soap opera actor. It seemed to me he had allowed the drama of the story he was telling himself about himself to overtake the reality of his life. The story was that he was saving people’s lives and that this required his complete focus. This story meant he could treat everyone around him however he wanted because his mission was more important than the fragile sensibilities of a few paralegals.

I doubt I would have remembered the lawyer so clearly if I hadn’t seen a bit of myself in him. Like a lot of artists, I sometimes fancy myself a kind of hero, a knight on a holy quest for artistic purity. The ticky-tacky business of everyday life be damned! I’m onto something bigger than grocery lists and library fines.

Yet all my swagger and self-absorption, like the lawyer’s frenzy, is born from a fear that maybe nothing matters. Maybe a novel is no more important than a grocery list. All paper burns. You try to nail meaning to the wall, and the wall disappears, and there you are swinging your hammer at nothing. Life begs you to release your hammer; the inmate will die or live, the book will be written or forgotten. The things of life can only drown you if you hold them, and meaning always waits for you downstream.

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

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Reading Lessons

When I was seventeen I bought a slim collection of T. S. Eliot’s poems. Up to that point I had read a lot of fantasy and science fiction, a bit of poetry, and had begun to dabble in what is now called literary fiction. I remember distinctly the moment I read this passage from his poem “Preludes”:

I am moved by fancies that are curled
Around these images and cling:
The notion of an infinitely gentle
Infinitely suffering thing.

I thought, “Oh, you can do that. You can be both conversational and musical; both simple and profound.” I felt as if I were a middle distance runner who had just learned that the mile had in fact been run in under four minutes.

Of course I imitated him. What he was doing looked like fun and I wanted to try it. This was not a particularly satisfying experience. I thought that by imitating him I would begin to follow the path I believed his poetry had just illuminated. Yet my imitation sounded like someone describing a tourist attraction with which his parents had become enamored before he was born. No matter how faithful my imitation, I would never match the actual love that so attracted me to that which I was imitating. Eventually I would have to visit this place myself.

It’s always a bit daunting to visit someplace yourself, having glimpsed it through others. You know even before you arrive it will be different for you. The door Eliot had opened for me was not leading anywhere he had been. Even as I went looking for where he had been I could not find it. What I did find was quite interesting, at least to me, though I sometimes cheapen it because I am the one who discovered it.

It is not always easy to live with the mystery of what other people love. It is not always easy to trust what you cannot see but what nonetheless animates everything around you. Life will never be answered from outside. We might wish sometimes that love would limit itself to what we understand, but it will not. It seeks all forms. In imitation you reach for the heart of another, craving the warmth already pulsing in your own hand.

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My First Interview

I was fifteen and had decided to take my first creative writing class. The class was aimed at adults, having been one of many classes (French Cooking, Ballet, Repair Your Own Car) offered in a booklet that arrived in the mail one day, and was held in a room adjoining several others above an Italian Restaurant.

As is my wont, I arrived early to the first class. Another class (Discovering Calligraphy, I believe) was still in session where Creative Writing For Beginners was to be held. I took a seat in the small waiting area and found a magazine.

There was only one other person waiting there that evening. I remember nothing about her except that she was a woman about my mother’s age and that she was wearing a dress.  I was dissatisfied with my magazine and drifted to her side of the room in search of another. Before I could make my selection, she asked me what class I was waiting to take. I told her creative writing. She asked me if it had been my idea to take this class. I told her it was. She asked me why I wanted to take creative writing. I said because I had always loved to write and that I wanted to be writer when I grew up.

And then she asked me what I liked best about writing. And after I answered that she asked me what sorts of books I read and were these the sorts of books I would like to write. She never ran out of questions. While I answered her questions, she sat perfectly still, listening to my every word.

After about the fourth or fifth question, I began to feel a little guilty. I wasn’t used to anyone taking such a complete and unselfish interest in me. But every time I would try to diminish myself, would try offer a polite out for this kind woman who was perhaps just passing the time by chatting with this talkative young man, she would ask me yet another question, just personal enough to be about me and no one else, and yet not so personal as to be intrusive.

Soon it was time for the class. She thanked me for sharing what I had. I hope I thanked her. I know I never found out what class she waiting for. Sometimes when I interview writers I remember that woman. I had done nothing at all to earn her attention, and yet she listened to me as if I were the most interesting person she had ever met. I am sure I was not. You cannot listen like that unless you are interested in everyone you meet.

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Your Only Choice

When I was a boy I believed that writing for a living was the only way I could ever be free.  At that time I did not know what it meant to be both an adult and free, but I believed I knew what freedom felt like, and as far as I could tell, it was the only way to live and therefore the only thing worth pursuing.

As I grew up, I continued to connect writing and freedom, though my reasons for doing so evolved. First, I believed it had to do with time. You could only be free if your time was entirely your own, and how could you call your time your own if you had to begin working when someone else told you to? Only with the complete, pristine autonomy that was the professional novelist’s life would I ever know freedom.

Then I had autonomy, and it didn’t feel anything like freedom. My autonomous time felt like every other time I’d ever had in my life, both in and out of work, time I was forever having to decide what to do with. So it must have had to do with money. Modern humans needed money to survive, so if you made this money doing something you loved, you were free.

Then I had some money, and all it freed up was the tiny part of my brain that would periodically worry about money. So perhaps it was attention. We all need a little recognition; perhaps the combination of time, money and recognition would bring me the freedom I wanted.

When I had a bit of all three, freedom still felt like a promise from an absent father. It would be here soon; the next car slowing outside the window would be his. And then one day I wrote something, and as I reread it I thought, “Yes. That’s precisely what I meant to say.” And there it was, as familiar as my own reflection. It was as if all I had been waiting for my whole life was a mirror.

Writing was my freedom because writing made me happy. There was nothing more complicated about it than that. I wanted it to be more, but it wasn’t. And in that moment of understanding, freedom became merely a choice, not a pardon, not deliverance – just a choice. The simplicity of it is humbling and confounding, and yet all the knots my mind would twist life into to find the straight rope of freedom come undone in a choice. I look in the mirror and see judge, jury, and accused and call the trial to a halt. I was never on trial, and I was always free  to choose prison or the road.

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Theater People

As I mentioned in a recent entry, my friend Adam’s father, Paul, was a well-known comedian and actor. While I was attending college on Long Island I would sometimes journey into Manhattan to visit Adam and, occasionally, get a taste of celebrity nightlife.

On one such visit we attended a small birthday party at an uptown restaurant. It turns out the man whose birthday we were celebrating was Nathan Lane. This was in 1984, however, and Lane was still an up-and-coming actor who had performed on Broadway and had just landed his first sit-com. I had never heard of him, but I thought he was very funny in a theatrical way. I remember him doing an imitation of the kind of dialogue he was being asked to perform on the show. I also remember that his cake was in the shape of giant erect penis. I had never seen a cake that was any shape other than square or round.

I didn’t know anyone at this party except Adam and Paul. Everyone was older than I was and everyone seemed to know each other and everyone seemed to find the jokes being told far funnier than I found them. At one point I was quietly telling Adam a story about college life, in the middle of which I happened to say the word, “Sex.” The man sitting next to me turned immediately, laid his hand on my arm, and declared breathlessly, “Now your conversation is getting interesting!”

I was only eighteen and had never had a grown man talk to me this way. I felt entirely out of my element. What do you say at a party like this? My only guide, it seemed to me, was Paul. I had played Scrabble with Paul and watched movies on his old television set. He felt like an uncle with whom I’d recently been reunited. How did Paul fit into this picture?

This is what I saw: Paul sat across from Adam and me, perfectly silent, but listening closely. I could tell from the focus of his eyes that he was both listening and waiting. He was like a hunter. The conversation progressed, he listened and waited, listened and waited – and then pounced in with a joke. Laughter. Satisfied, he returned silently to the safety of his comedy lair.

The Comedian, I thought. The only one at the table not laughing. I couldn’t blame him. I had found myself in a room of Theater People, whose company, in the years to follow, I would come to enjoy, but against whose continuous showmanship I often felt dull and blunt. If I had had a standup comedian’s training, I’m sure I would have relied on it as well.

The ride home from the party was a quiet one. We wound back through the streets, slowly returning to ourselves. We had an excellent game of Scrabble before bed.

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Look Again

There is a woman who shops at one of the grocery stores I frequent. I noticed her about three months ago. It was hard to identify precisely what it was about her that caught my attention. Her black hair, which she wears in a loose bun, is streaked with a few fine threads of gray, but her face is smooth, which makes her seem both old and young. She always wears knee length dresses and calf-high leather boots in a store where many women dress in sweat pants and sneakers. The second time I saw her, she was peddling away from the store on an upright bike, complete with wicker basket – all while wearing her leather boots and dress.

More than the hair and the dress and the bike, however, I notice her expression. The first time I saw her she was strolling through the store, basket over her arm, with a look of conspicuous but private contentment. It was such a peculiar expression, such an unusual expression, that at first I thought she was crazy. Honestly. Her contentment was something she had no intention of sharing with anyone else, yet it was perfectly obvious to anyone looking at her. I wondered if she was listening to little women in her head and liked what they were saying.

I soon decided she was sane. She apparently lives close to me, because I also see her walking near my house from time to time – always in dresses and leather boots, always with her look of private but conspicuous contentment. I also see her with a man (he rides a bike as well), which made me further doubt the voices-in-her head theory. She must be an eccentric, I told myself. She’s like a heroine from a French Film, who lives in a giant studio apartment painted orange with a cat named Leonardo.

And then I saw her again today. I was driving to my grocery store, and there she was waiting at a bus stop. How had I never noticed it before? I knew it sometimes happened like this with women, that one day you notice where the day before you hadn’t, but this was so obvious to me now. Maybe it was the fine streaks of gray in her hair that distracted me. Or maybe it was just the look of contentment.

My French film eccentric was about seven months pregnant.

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Thinking Of Life

Perhaps you have heard of Method Acting. The Method, which found its greatest advocate in the acting coach Lee Strasberg, encourages actors to draw upon their own experiences to recreate in themselves the emotions their characters are experiencing – as opposed to traditional acting, where performers merely simulate what the characters were experiencing. In other words, don’t pretend you’re angry or in love, actually be angry or in love.

I did some acting when I was younger, and I always felt that writing, at its best, was like Method acting on the page. No matter what my characters were doing, I was always drawing on my own experience to summon the emotions present within my story. Sometimes I did this deliberately and sometimes not. Sometimes I knew that when my hero was confronting his tormentor he was actually saying what I had never said to my father. Other times I did not know where the feelings came from, but come they did, and always with the familiarity of memory.

Writing and acting are, in this way, vivid reminders of the power of thought. Here we are at the page, alone in our workroom, safe from all the villains and their arrows, and we can summon in ourselves the same fear, the same rage, the same compassion as if we’re caught within the great hurly burly circus of life. In fact, writing requires us to create these virtual realities within us; without this power, our writing would have no life, because every moment in life is felt far more than it is known.

And since every moment in life is felt, it is natural that we should want to feel as good as we possibly can as often as we can. Why is it, then, that we so often assume that life away from our work is so very different from life during our work? Everything we feel while we work flows from what we think. Isn’t it possible, that even riding within the current of public life, even with rejection letters and reviews and spouses and children and the economy and war and suffering – isn’t it possible that the very same holds true, no matter where we are or what we are doing? And in this way, aren’t we always the authors of our own life?

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You Know

It was Frank Delaney who first pointed out to me that all writers create problems to which they already know the answers. It can often seem the exact opposite. It can seem, in those jungle-dark days deep in the middle of an unmoving story, that this problem has been handed to you by an evil master who delights in both your failure and your wasted time. Unfortunately, you are that master, and no one handed you this problem – you chose it willingly.

What we often forget when we are in that troublesome middle was how our stories began. An idea comes to us, and we think, “Now that is interesting.” We think this before we could possibly know why. But we know it all the same. We know it without an explanation or a diagram or an outline. Our knowledge is as complete and immediate as it is mysterious, and so we write so that we can learn what it is we know.

Except that we human beings are in the habit of waiting for other people to tell us when something is correct. We have created critics and teachers and editors and parents and coaches and judges all charged with that duty. It’s very tempting to ask someone else if the problem has been solved. What’s more, we writers want lots and lots of people to be as interested in our stories as we are. You, the writer, are only one person. That’s not much of a readership.

Unfortunately there is one thing all those other people will never know: Why you started writing this story in the first place. No one can ever know why something is of interest to you. No one can ever know what you know or why you know it. You can ask them all you want, but they will never be able to answer. You are alone with the knowledge of what you love – until you write it. And then all those other people can read it, and they will know too.

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