Alone With Mr. King

I have been told that solitary confinement is the closest humans have devised to hell-on-earth. This does not surprise me. My wife recently read of a man who had been thus confined while a POW, and that he and a neighboring prisoner had worked out a means of communication by tapping on the wall that separated their cells. This meager exchange became the prisoner’s lifeline, what helped him endure the eight years alone in a tiny chamber.

Humans need to communicate with one another as badly as we need to dream. We are creatures that live by our imagination, and the world, and all the other creatures in it feed that imagination and is in turn fed by ours.

The insomniac’s bed is a kind of solitary confinement. If you choose not to wake your husband or wife or lover or call a friend, and if you are determined to stay in that bed until sleep comes, you are left only with the circling emptiness of the very thoughts which are keeping you from falling back asleep. I had just such a bout the other night. It was a particularly vicious round, following a particularly vicious day. I was not going to wake my wife, nor did I feel like pacing my darkened living room. Yet every time I tried to turn my attention toward any thought other than those that haunted me, I found myself, as if lost in a hedge maze, back in the center of the nightmare again.

And so I asked for help. The first person I thought to ask for help from was Martin Luther King. King began telling me that I had nothing whatsoever to worry about. He asked me what I wanted and I told him I wanted to help people and he said he felt certain I’d be able to do that but that being afraid was not going to help anyone and that there was nothing I needed to do other than what I already could do. He told me this over and over until I fell asleep.

I suppose I could have told myself these things, and I have in the past, but on this night I needed to hear it from someone else. I was tapping on the wall of my soul, and what I heard back reminded me that my loneliness was a misperception. Somewhere my imagination had come untethered and had begun to convince me I could neither hear nor be heard, and yet alone in my bed I was both.

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Forward

All suffering, it seems to me, stems from one of two thoughts, both of which I have toiled under at one point or another in my work.

The first thought is, “I don’t know what I want.” Staring at the blank page of your day or your story or your life, you feel not the satisfying hum of a desire seeking its form, but the carcass of an idea. We follow many ideas that for one reason or another are stillborn within the womb of our imagination. This is a part of the experiment of life. Our pain comes when we mistake this single dead idea for our complete creative potential. Simply thinking the thought, “I don’t know what I want,” – not with a story or a moment, but at all – cuts you off immediately from everything that will ever bring you pleasure. Just like your characters, you must always want something; it is as natural to you as breathing. That you are not hearing that desire is a measure of the noise of your mind, not the curiosity of your soul.

Which brings us to the second thought, “I know what I want, but I am incapable of having it.” This is the song of the Broken You. I want love, but I am unlovable; I want to publish, but my work is unpublishable. By some cosmic toss of the die, you came up short. There’s nothing to be done. You needed to be just a little bit better.

Your desires are always simpatico with your abilities. Always. In fact, your abilities arise specifically and only to meet those desires. That you may need to acquire a few skills is irrelevant; humans are skill-acquiring machines. The delay between the desire and its fruition has everything to do with the quality of one’s attention. It is as if we have a kind of psychic bank account. Every time we think, “I can,” we put money in; and every time we think, “I can’t,” we take money out.

It is important to remember that just as it hurts to bend your finger backwards, so too will it hurt to think you cannot have what you want, or that there is nothing that you want. These thoughts run in complete contradiction to your nature. You were born wanting that next thing; your birth was your first expression of it here on earth. Go only toward; that is the direction of life.

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Unanswerable

It was a slow Tuesday night, and I was scheduled to get the first table.  The restaurant, an upscale steakhouse, was empty, all 100-plus seats of it.  Finally the doors opened and our first guests arrived: a tall older gentleman, the first of a party of two. Katherine, our host, asked if he would like to be seated while he waited. He would.

She led him down the stairs from the front desk and straight to table 33. This was always where we seated the first table. It was the most popular table in the restaurant—a booth, of course, centrally located. Better to seat it first, so the next and the next and the next won’t ask for it. Yet it was also situated by the corner that led to both the bar and the restrooms, a fact I had never considered in my ten years at the restaurant until that night.

Katherine dropped the menus and began scooping up the extra settings. The man, however, did not sit. He looked once around the empty restaurant, and then back at his table with an expression of disappointment and defeat.

“Do you have to seat me at the worst table in the restaurant?” he asked.

Katherine, a recently divorced suburban housewife who always spoke to each guest as if she were offering them cookies, began to stammer. “I—I’m sorry.” She snatched the menus from the table.

“I mean really,” moaned the man. “It’s right by the bathrooms.”

Katherine was already on her way to table 23. “How about this?”

“Well, yes,” said the man. “Yes, that’s better.  I mean why would you sit me at that table?”

Katherine began to formulate her response, but the man was not done.

“Why me?” he implored. “Why me?”

Katherine was not at that moment equipped for such an existential request. She seated him, apologized, and wished him a nice dinner. Fortunately, in moving from 33 to 23 he had also moved from my station to my friend Blake’s station. Blake emerged from the kitchen, surprised to see himself seated first. I was supposed to have been seated first. Seating order mattered to waiters.

“What happened?”

“Didn’t like 33,” I said.

Table 33?”

I nodded.

“You want to take him?” Blake offered.

“No, thanks.”

Blake eyed me suspiciously. “What’s wrong with him?”

“We’re all against him.”

Blake sighed and rolled his eyes. “Why do I always get the crazies? Huh? Why is it always me?”

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Information

There is a lesson all writers could learn from scientists when it comes to results. For the scientist engaged in an experiment, all results are one thing and one thing only: information. In this way, the scientist’s emotional detachment serves him or her well. The scientist is trained, theoretically, to be a disengaged observer, interested only in what the result of a given experiment can teach him or her, instead of a cheerleader for this or that outcome.

Writers, particularly once we move our work from our desk to the marketplace of other people’s opinion, tend to lean toward the cheerleader. And for obvious reasons. The goal for all writers is the same: find those people with whom our work most resonates. These are the people who will represent it, publish it, and buy it. With all our attention trained on this one particular outcome, it is easy to reject the information contained within results we judge as unwanted.

It was Edison who said, of his first 100 attempts at creating a light bulb, that he had not failed 100 times, but had instead succeeded in finding 100 ways not to make a light bulb. Sometimes this is true of rejection letters. Before the rejection letter we did not know if this agent was the right agent; now we do. Information. Sometimes, however, rejection letters may tell us, in one way or another, that we need to rewrite our query letters; or that we need to submit to different types of agents; or that we need to rewrite our book. And of course sometimes letters tell us that we have found the right agent or publisher.

The world does not want you to fail. The world is forever supplying you with the information needed to do exactly what you want. Whether you accept this information or not is up to you. But do not fear the information. It is always friendly. The only thing to fear is your judgment of that information. When those letters come back, don your lab coat and pocket protector and look with friendly eyes upon what the world wishes you to know, and be grateful that you are one letter wiser.

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Shop If You Must

My shopping is very nearly done, I’m happy to report. Unfortunately, I am much better at buying for myself than other people. For this reason I look upon the presents I buy as large and elaborately wrapped gift cards. I do the best I can, but I’ve learned not to take the returns personally.

Though I have to say, I used to be a terrible shopper, even for myself. I would often come home with clothes that did not fit, or were a bad cut, or the wrong color. It was as if I didn’t want to hurt the sales person’s feelings, or look too indecisive, or I would simply go into a kind of panic, drowning in all the choices. I’m better at it now, however, and I have writing to thank for it.

When I go shopping, assuming I don’t know exactly what I want (a white shirt; a black sweater), I decide how it is I want to feel when I try on the clothes. Do I want to feel sophisticated, urban, casual, rugged, or some nameless combination of all four? This follows one of my Rules of Writing: Feel first; write second. The clothes become like words, scenes, or narrative arcs. If I simply go in and start trying things on, I have nothing against which to judge the clothes, no definition of “yes.” Plenty of things fit; plenty of things are the right color—but what do I feel like when I wear them, and how do I want to feel?

This must be in part why some people become addicted to shopping. Shopping becomes a creative act, a means to match a feeling within to a reality with-out, and for some people, shopping is the only tangible experience of this fundamental human drive. I used to sneer at the young women with their armloads of shopping bags. So vapid, I thought. No more. If shopping was the only way I could think to create, I’d bust the bank. Plus, anytime you stop and ask yourself what you like most—whether in a dress shoe or cup of coffee—you are seeking alignment with the creative current that moves all life forward.

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Known

It would be simplest to say that my wife and I, both writers, met each other through words. During high school, when I first courted her – if you can even call it that – I would stop by Jen’s house on my way home from track practice and sit in her living room and talk to her. That is all I did for about four months. Just talk to her. We were both talkers, you see, so it was the easiest way to begin.

Years later, when we reunited, I was living in Los Angeles and she was living in Seattle. For nine months we would talk for hours on the phone and write long letters to one another until I quit pretending I wanted to write screenplays and moved to Seattle where I have been ever since.

So that is one story, and it is true enough. By the time I moved in with her, at the wise old age of 25, we had talked and written and talked and written so much it was as if I had moved in with a relative.

But there is another story, and really it has nothing to do with words, at least not ours. The words in this case belonged to Shakespeare. The first time I saw Jen she was playing the role of Tranio is a high school production of Taming of the Shrew. Though I had never met her, though I had never heard of her, sitting in that darkened theater I recognized Jen immediately.

Words are my tool of choice and I have learned to love them, but they are by their very nature narrow in their individual aim. It is my and probably every writer’s life work to find within them the breadth of life itself. But I will always fall short. My words are at best a suggestion, a note of sorts to myself, left on my own desk, to remind me of what I already know.

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The Mirage

Here is a familiar scenario. Your friend breaks up with her boyfriend. She calls you, despondent—this was supposed to be The One. You meet her at a coffee shop. She is wondering what is wrong with her. She is wondering why her relationships never work. They had a lot in common. He was good looking and had an interesting career. They liked the same movies and music. She wants you to tell her if she is in fact as big a loser as she suspects she is so that she can take the steps necessary to correct and not spend the rest of her life bitter and alone.

You tell her that the relationship was problematic from the start. You remind her of late night phone calls, her ranting about his latest insensitive maneuver. You remind her how distant he could be; that he flirted with other women in front of her. You tell her that the relationship was never meant to work and that is it is best that it is over so that she can find someone with whom she can be happy.

Both these stories were pulled from the same event—the friend’s relationship. Both narrators, if you will, focus on the details needed to make their “case.” What does life mean? We pick our details and we decide.

We spend our lives surrounded in stories: newspapers, sports, television, movies, books. We tell each other stories; we tell ourselves stories. The stories keep coming and coming and coming, and each of them a reduction, each of them a selected series of details connected to bring an audience to a desired emotional destination.

When I see the world as a static thing upon which I must merely report, it feels dead, and I never want to write another word. But when I see it as a banquet of infinite detail, all of it equal, all of it there to be used or not in accordance with the perspective I wish most to share, the story I wish most to tell, the world becomes friendly and alive. You will always see what you believe is before you. When I accept this mirage quality of life, I let myself see what I most want to see, and then tell stories about it.

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Empty Despair

I used to fear despair. I feared it in others and I feared it in myself. Mostly, however, I feared it in myself. While in its throes I felt like a carpenter cosigned to build a house from sawdust. Despair was a story of endless hopelessness, a story whose end was as predetermined our own mortal story, life nothing but a lot of thrashing and hurrahing until the grave. Within this story, not one single step I took – not north nor south nor up nor down – not one of these steps would ever have any consequence for all of them led to precisely the same place – nowhere.

So I feared it. I feared it because despair seemed like something that could happen to me like a change in weather, not something I could or not choose. For this reason, I also feared it in others. Here I would be, whistling along, the ghouls of despair safely in their barrows, only to be ambushed by some other poor slob’s tale of misery and loss: tales of the corrupt government, the rejection letters, the cheating husband, the pedophile priest, the ruined economy. I felt as if I were being shown the empty bowl not just of his or her life, but of all life. Once you’ve seen the evidence, looking away cannot save you from the story of nothingness your imagination now dutifully finishes.

So it was for many, many years. And then one day an old man told me writing was a lonely road. It sounded to me as if he had once idealized this view of writing, that he had seen a kind of nobility in it, but by the time he shared this idea with me all the heroism had been worn out and all that was left was the loneliness. But on that day, I did not see his empty bowl as a threat, as a sad story I must now finish. Instead, I saw it as an invitation. His bowl was empty, and he was inviting me to fill it.

“I suppose,” I said. “But we’re going to walk it anyway, aren’t we?”

Whether that filled it for him or not, I cannot say, but I could never look at despair the same after that. The only way to fill the emptiness I perceived was to first summon within myself that with which I wished to fill it. In this way, his despair was a gift to me, and in the months and years to come, when I would succeed now and again in filling someone else bowl, and they would thank me, I would thank them silently to myself.

I do not mean to make myself sound holy. I still despair when I look too hard for evidence instead of faith; I still grow weary when some friend or stranger begins a tale of loss or injustice. But I also grow weary some mornings before I write, having simply forgotten that every story ever written began with an empty page.

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Plenty

Suspense author Steve Berry (The Emperor’s Tomb) made an interesting aside during our interview. He mentioned how his breakout novel, The Templar Legacy, was released the same year as Raymond Khoury’s The Last Templar. According to Steve, the two novels were, “the exact same story,” only told with different perspectives, which he felt made them completely different stories. He went on to say that the two books were not in competition; that in fact the success of one fed off the other.

I love this story for two reasons. First a novel’s story, “the plot,” is not as important as how a writer tells it, what perspective the writer brings to it. We know this is true. We know that if we handed four writers the same story outline and had each write it, each would write a “different” story, even though each would follow the same order of events. I would go so far as two people are incapable of telling the “same” story.

Which brings me to the second thing I love about this story: We aren’t in competition. I know there are writing contests and awards, and I know that there are only so many publishing contracts being handed our every year, but what is to be done about it? There is no finish line you can see that you must get across first. All a writer can do is tell the story he or she wishes to tell as well as he or she can tell it. No matter how derivative that story might be, for good or bad, it will still be that writer’s alone.

No one can compete with you as a writer because no one can write your story but you. And even if someone is publishing stories like yours, then that writer will only serve to attract readers to the corner of the bookstore you and he both occupy. The very idea of competition is born from the lie that there is not enough—not enough readers, money for advances, paper, ink . . ..

It is a lie. Somehow, once you tell the story you most want to tell in the way you most want to tell it, there is always enough. Somehow, there is always a publisher, readers, money. Perhaps the best question is not, “Is there enough?” but, “How much will I give?” If you can dip as far into the well of your imagination as your thought can reach, and if you offer up every ounce of what you find, the world, forever a mirror to your every gesture, will reciprocate immediately in kind.

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Questioning

Not long ago I watched an interview John Updike conducted with the New York Times a year or two before he died. The subject of Updike’s age came up relative to his writing ability. “This is why I’m still writing short stories and submitting them to The New Yorker,” said the old literary giant. “It’s good to know I can still do it.”

I fully understand the appeal of passing a test. I may not be in my seventies, but I understand wanting to feel vital and relevant. As a writer, I fully understand the short thrill of the concrete, external validation that is an acceptance letter. But at what point do we get to stop asking this stupid question? After all, wasn’t Updike’s question merely a variation on the very same question any writer could ask the first time he sits down to write his first short story: “Can I do it?”

How worthless that question and how worthless the answer.  Hadn’t Updike heard the answer hundreds of times before? Hadn’t he heard the answer when he won his first and then his second Pulitzer? Hadn’t he heard it with each of the twenty or so novels he published, to say nothing of the hundreds of short stories? How many times must a question be answered before we understand it never should have been asked in the first place?

I would like to tell you that I have never asked that stupid question, but I have, and too many times to count. I have asked it and heard every answer from no to yes to every shade in between. And still I ask it again under the veil of some new story, some new challenge. The answer never means anything. Yes or no, I am always left where I began: asking myself what I would like to try next.

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