An Unlikely Glimpse

Last week my father-in-law told me, “Mark my words: The Artist is going to win at the Oscars and win big.”

“Isn’t that a silent film?” I asked. My father-in-law is a lover of small, quirky films. It would be like him to champion such a cause.

“A French silent film.”

“Yeah, I don’t think so.”

Twelve years ago I found my wife sick in bed watching a new TV series. “Is this that Survivor show?”

She admitted it was. I watched with her for a few minutes before I had seen enough. “Well, this is doomed to fail.”

I was in a literary agent’s office in January of 2009. He produced a small, book-sized device from his jacket pocket. “Amazon just sent me this,” he explained.

“What’s it called again? Never mind, let me have a look.”

I scrolled through Of Mice and Men. “Well, that’s pretty nice, but no way people use this instead of a book. It’s just not the same.”

It’s fun to be right, but I’m happy to be wrong about all my predictions. The last thing I want to know is the future. What a terrible curse that would be: the end of discovery. As it is, the future always arrives like the perfect ending to a story: surprising but inevitable. Why, the clues were all there, but somehow I didn’t see it coming. Maybe next time.

Though probably not. My crystal ball is cracked, reflecting back only what I believe in that moment. I stare into it all the same from time to time, thinking I might catch a glimpse, but seeing only a distortion of myself. Not so pretty viewed this way – a splintered thing, frozen in time. Better the look I catch in the darkened window as I pass, a shadow on the move, a sentence in search of its next word.

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

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Don’t Think About It

Like a lot of people, the first philosophical aphorism I learned was Decartes’s classic: I think therefore I am. Whenever I encounter this nugget I am reminded of the Buddha’s answer to the question: “Where do thoughts come from?” He was supposed to have said, (and I paraphrase): “If you are shot in the leg with an arrow, you don’t ask how the shaft was made, or where the feathers came from, or what its velocity was when leaving the string; when you are shot in the leg with an arrow, you pull the arrow out of your leg.”

A bit of a dodge, but more useful to be sure. And maybe more accurate. I read Eckhart Tolle recently who pointed out that Descartes had it wrong anyhow. We do not know we exist because we think; we know we exist because we are aware that we are thinking. There is a big difference. The former insinuates that we are our thoughts. The latter reminds us we are not.

All of this was running through me last night while watching The Amateurs. In this film, Jeff Bridges plays a down on his luck middle-aged man who decides to make an amateur porn movie. He wants success, you see. He’s lost his wife, he feels he’s losing his son, and all because he’s never had success.

When the movie opens we find Jeff Bridges sitting in a bar trying to think of an idea that will bring him success. Nothing is coming. He’s desperate. He’s broke. He’s out of work. His desperation grows and grows until he finally shouts, “THINK!”

It is appropriate that the idea he then thought of was a porn movie, because it is impossible to come up with a good idea merely by thinking. Thinking is how we arrange ideas, how we implement ideas – not how we come up with them. It made me sick to watch this scene. I felt as if I were in the throes of a hallucinogenic flashback. I was Jeff Bridges – or at least I had been too many times to count. How often had I tried to think my way out of despair, when it was thinking that got me there in first place? If there is a greater pain than this, than trying to solve the mystery of happiness with my brain, I have never felt it.

Fortunately the scene passed. Fortunately, I was soon back on my own couch with my wife and son. I took a deep breath, pulled the arrow out of my leg, and got back to the business of being alive.

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The Kids are All Right

I moved in with my wife-to-be when I was twenty-five. She was an aspiring children’s book author and I was an aspiring grownup’s book author. At that time, I had come to the conclusion reached by many young men: that the world was a place of hard edges and steep drops, of uncertainty, and where success was just an urban term for survival—I wasn’t happy about this, but if a boy is to become a man, he must first be willing to see things as they are.

Which is to say, I wasn’t reading many children’s books. To do so would have been to remind myself of a time before I understood the world as it really was, a luxury I couldn’t afford. But I loved and trusted this woman I would soon have to marry if I wanted to keep being me. She had no hard edges or steep drops, and my love for her was quite certain, and my success was already achieved—and so it was one night I found myself reading A. A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh with her before bed.

I’m glad she reintroduced me to this book before we had children of our own and I would be required by the melting heart of fatherhood to embrace Little Bear, and Max and his Wild Things, and Grover, and even Barney. I’m glad I got to find some of these books again when I was still an angry young man. There is a uniquely tender kind of genius required to write what amounts to literature for children. Everything in the best adult fiction is in the best children’s fiction also, all the loss, and learning, and love. The child asks to be touched as deeply as the adult, as the soul has no height requirements. Yet what we don’t know often scares us, and there is so much nitty-gritty of the world children don’t yet know.

As I read about Pooh and Piglet and Rabbit and Eeyore I did not think about all the things I had learned recently that had been frightening me and which I was bearing as stoically as I could. I could not forget them, and they would frighten me again the next morning. But as with all art, Milne asked this question of me: If you feel better now here with me, why not tomorrow also? It would take me many, many years to answer, “No reason at all,” just about the time I was old enough I too could write for children if I wanted.

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Back To School

This column is devoted more or less to the writer’s life, but any regular reader will notice certain reoccurring themes that have little direct relevance to the craft or business of writing. One of those is education. Though my sister has been a teacher in the public schools all her adult life, and my father-in-law founded an experimental high school in the early 70’s, I have no real personal investment in education, aside from hoping my two sons will get something resembling one by the time they have graduated high school.

The other day, I was reflecting on all I have learned since ending my formal education. I learned how to raise sons, one with what we call “special needs” and one without; I learned about marriage and politics (which are not necessarily related); I learned how to act and how to write sketch comedy; I learned how to tell the difference between a pinot noir and syrah by the wine’s color and fragrance; I learned how to write music; I learned how interview people and how to edit videos. Oh, and I also learned how to write fiction, poetry, and essays.

Not once in all this learning did it ever cross my mind that I should find a classroom where I would sit in a chair while an instructor guided me and a group of other students through the basics of whatever it was I was trying to learn. Not that this is such a horrible way to learn something, but apparently it is not the way I learn something. Apparently, I like to just do the thing, make my mistakes, learn from those mistakes, and then do the thing some more.

In short, I had to leave school in order to learn in a way that was natural to me. Which brings me back to writing: Learning is the very natural act of pursuing what is of interest to us. Is this not writing? And what brings more joy to a writer than discovery, that moment where you learn where it is you actually wanted to go when you began your story, poem, play, or memoir? All writers have gone back to school, but it is in a classroom of one. Here we are the student again, the teacher is the story, and fortunately no diplomas are ever given.

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

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Author2Author

In case you’ve missed it – and if my Blogtalk Radio Listener Counts are correct you probably have – we have recently begun a new live internet radio program called Author2Author. Our first guest was the irreplaceable Frank Delaney, and our second show featured the delightful Diane Hammond.  Next I will be chatting with doctor author Carol Casella, and the week after that Andre Dubus. Though Author2Author airs live every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 PM EST, you can always listen to the shows in the archives. Starting in March, we will be archiving the shows on Author itself.

Why a radio show? Because, as much as I love interviewing writers, I thought a real dialogue between two writers could be just as interesting. So far, this has proven to be the case. But this is not surprising. Writers don’t always get to talk to other writers about writing. In fact, when they do get together, it is not unusual for conversation to quickly descend into gossip and griping about agents, advances and, of course, the Decline of Publishing. When Hemingway describes meeting F. Scott Fitzgerald for the first time in A Movable Feast, he complained that the celebrated novelist talked mostly about about, you guessed it, agents and advances. So this is a time-honored tradition.

But I love writers, and no matter how often they complain or gossip I know what moves them. Sometimes all this business talk feels like so much posturing, a kind of nervous effort to disguise the fact that what writers really know and care about is just writing. One reasonably informed question is all it takes to learn this.

It reminds me of the time I was having coffee with Frank, a friend I hadn’t seen in thirty years. He was now a professor of Southern American History, and so I mentioned I had written a novel set in the pre-Civil War South, and how I had some theories about that time and place, and I was curious what he thought of these theories. Frank leaned forward, everything about him came into focus, and he said, “Well, as a matter of fact, Bill, to really understand the South you have to know that—”

And here he paused a moment, and warned. “Now be careful. We’re about to cross the bridge to Boredom Town.”

Oh, I could sympathize. How often I’ve been at some party and wished I could really talk about what I loved, which is writing. Really talk about the blank page, and listening, and what it is when the sentence arrives fully formed and what it feels like when it doesn’t. Well, now we have a show for that. It’s a call in show, by the way: (661-449-9357), and if you catch us wandering into the dreary world of agents and advances you have my permission to call right up and tell us to knock it off.

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

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Following Love

Gay marriage has been much in the news lately, what with my own Washington State getting ready, it would appear, to legalize same sex marriage, and a California court ruling Proposition 8 to be unconstitutional. I suspect gay marriage will continue to be in the news for the next decade or so, at which point, I would be willing to bet, it will be legal in all fifty states, give or take. I say this not as a legal authority but as an optimist who believes that in matters of love, despite all circumstantial evidence to the contrary, humanity ultimately travels in only one direction.

But I can understand some people’s opposition to these unions. After all, it is largely impossible to know why one person loves another. It is perhaps easier for me, married now for almost twenty years, to understand what my brother means when he says he loves his girlfriend – but this knowing is only a matter of degrees. In this way, when one person says to another person, “I love her,” or, “I love him,” no matter the her or him in question, that declaration’s truthfulness can be known only through trust, never facts.

Though it sounds odd, whenever I read about this debate I am reminded of writers. Sometimes within the writing community I hear a kind of bias for or against one type of story, as if a writer were choosing to write literary fiction only to satisfy his ego’s need for praise, or another writer were choosing to write thrillers to assure her place atop the bestseller list. No such writer is experiencing any success. These marriages of writers to genres stand the same chance of success as would Ellen Degeneres’ marriage to me.

This is because although we can choose to write anything we want, the same as we can choose to sleep with anyone who’ll have us, what we love and whom we love chooses us, not the other way around. There are plenty of days, I’m sure, when we wish this weren’t so. There are plenty of days we might wish that We, the We that chooses whether to follow or not to follow where Love points us, could steer not just the ship but the river. But it is not to be. Every captain is a passenger as well, born by the current he chose to follow behind his wheel.

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The Reality of Snakes

In his address upon receiving the Nobel Prize, William Falkner remarked that, “the worst thing for a writer is to be afraid.” I could not agree more. In fact, if you truly love to write – by which I mean you would do it if all you had was a pencil nub, a piece of scratch paper, and absolutely no guarantee of publication whatsoever – if you actually love to write then only fear can possibly stand in the way of you having whatever exactly it is you call success. Not talent, not luck, only fear.

But I think fear is the most misunderstood emotion human beings experience. Imagine you are sitting in a doctor’s waiting room. Across from you is a man fidgeting with the cuff of his shirt. He seems nervous, but so are you – you’re in a doctor’s office, after all, and all those needles and tests make you uneasy. Like him, you only want to get this business over with so you can return to your life and write your book and know that you are okay.

In the next moment, however, the man’s eyes grow wide and he points at carpet. “They’re back!” he cries. “The snakes are back.”

He pulls his feet up into the seat of the chair.  You look down at the carpet.  There is only carpet on the floor.  You turn to the man, and now he is climbing up the back of the chair.

“What’s wrong with you?” he demands. “Why are you just sitting there?  They’re all around your feet.”

You lower your eyes toward the floor, and for a moment, for just a heartbeat, his fear is so real to you that you think you feel something slithering about your ankle—but no. No, there is nothing there at all.

You are about to reassure the man when he grabs some magazines and begins hurling them at the imaginary snakes just as security arrives to sedate him.

Once he has left, once order is restored, it is time for your appointment. Your pulse is taken and blood is drawn and the doctor tells you the test results will take a day or two to come back. He’ll call you as soon as they’re in.

You leave the office with a familiar uneasy feeling, wondering if you are safe from those mysterious test results, but thinking also of the man and his snakes. How odd, you think. Those snakes weren’t real, but his screams were real. Those magazines were really hurled onto the floor, and security really did come and sedate him. But the snakes weren’t real at all.

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

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A Good Puzzle

My older sister Felicie has a particularly strong puzzle-mind. Though I am the writer in the family and thus the supposed word guru, she would routinely whip me at Boggle. She loves anagrams and crosswords and logic games of any kind, and she was a sturdy and confident mathematician. When handed a problem for which there is a clear and definitive solution, her mind becomes a ferociously happy dog digging for a bone.

This made school very appealing. In school, teachers generally make it clear to their students what must be done to be graded successful. My sister has never misunderstood an instruction in her life, which, coupled with her puzzle-mind, resulted in a string of very good report cards. I recall, however, one report card in particular. She was in sixth grade and had decided she wanted to get straights A’s—well, O’s, actually (for Outstanding!), because this was the 70s. I believe sixth grade was the first year students were actually graded, and so the first time my sister would be so publicly rewarded for solving the problems her teachers asked her to solve.

As my mother tells it, the day the grades were given, the doors to the school opened and my sister came running down the steps of Nathan Bishop Middle School waving her report card over her head. At the time, I thought to myself, “Oh, who cares, Felicie? What’s an extra O or two really going to do for you?” You see, my view on grades was this: I will do just well enough so as not to be judged a failure or average—but you’ll get nothing more out of me.

Except a part of me understood why my sister was really running down those steps with her straight O’s. I’m sure her little 11 year-old ego was doing back-flips, but so what? The flesh is weak. The O’s weren’t the point at all. My sister was celebrating the same discovery humans have been making and celebrating for tens of thousands of years: that anything we apply our direct attention to comes into being. Lay your attention on a novel for a year, you get a novel. Lay your attention on straight O’s, you get straight O’s. Perhaps, she must have been thinking as she sprinted toward my mother’s car, it’s not all luck after all. Perhaps the question is not how do I solve a problem, but which problem do I want to solve?

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In The Details

Wine aficionados are notorious for their creative specificity when trying to detail precisely what a given wine smells or tastes like. There are all the usual suspects: bright, dry, sweet, black current, cherry, grapefruit, peach; and the less usual – leather around the edges, road tar, petroleum. While taking my sommelier class the fellow in front of me, after snorting a glassful of something white, felt he detected a hint of “decomposing limestone.” Decomposing, mind you.

But I once read an article by a wine writer who defended this kind of unavoidable pretension thusly: “Try to describe a cheeseburger with onions without using the words onions, cheese, or burger. Now you know the plight of the wine writer.”

How true. What would be the use of telling your readers that every wine you tried this month tasted like fermented grapes? Such is also the plight of any creative writer. Nabokov believed a writer must “caress the divine detail,” by which I have always felt he meant that good writing, whatever precisely you think that is, exists in the details. It is in the details that a writer distinguishes between, say, jealousy and envy, between love and fascination.

And by the way, you are giving life itself the attention it deserves when you draw these distinctions. In Antony and Cleopatra Mark Antony says a crocodile is “shaped like itself.” Aren’t we all? The moment you enter your work fully, seeking those details that separate one moment, one look, or one smell from all others, you are faced with the relentless individuality of creation. How can you not then count yourself amongst that?

And yet sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you find yourself in the crowded subway, sometimes you hear of the hundred daily submissions to your favorite literary magazine, sometimes you wander a bookstore packed with tens of thousands of books that aren’t yours, and you despair, feeling for a moment like a thing without detail. What a lie you’re living. And how perversely vain the ego grows in its voracious need, believing that you alone, from the seven billion souls around you, are the first to be born with no distinction whatsoever.

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

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The Friendly World

If you’ve ever watched a world-class sprinter sprint, you may have noticed how relaxed his face muscles are. In fact, although a sprinter must use every muscle in his body to propel himself as fast he can, he must do so in a state of focused relaxation. In this way a sprinter allows himself to run as fast as they can run. The same is true of singers. The temptation when trying to hit the highest notes would be tighten throat, but in fact just the opposite is true: the more challenging the note, the more you must relax.

And so it goes with writing. So many times I have come to passages where I either don’t know what I want to say or am not sure how to say what I want to say and have clamped down, as if I could put my brain in a juicer and wring the right word or scene from it. Yet when I don’t know what I want next it is because I am not relaxed enough, because I am trying too hard—or simply trying period, as if writing were somehow a mountain I have been forced to climb.

In this way, writing does sometimes feel like a test of faith. Jesus said it is all very well and good to love your brother, but go and love your enemy—now you’ve really learned something. Just so it is all very well and good to be loose while it’s flowing, but can I let go when it’s not coming? Can I let go when I don’t know how the story will end, when it’s been several days since it’s flowed, when my agent wants to see the latest draft and it’s not done? Can I let go then?

When all these things are conspiring it feels as if I am on a ship being rocked by waves, and I must absolutely grab hold of the gunnel or be tossed into the ocean. If at this moment I let go without giving up, if at this moment I surrender to not knowing, writing becomes more than a means to share what I wish to share, but instead a portal through which to view life. At this moment it is exactly as if an enemy has been made a friend, that the hounds chasing me were only my loyal companions calling me home.

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