May I Have Your Attention Please

For years I felt a twinge of embarrassment when I told someone, “I’m a writer.” It wasn’t really true, was it? Anyone can write, but Writers get published and make money from what they have written. I am older and wiser now, and I edit a writing magazine, and yet I still feel a twinge of guilt when I say, “I am a writer,” but for very different reasons.

As I have mentioned before, my son was diagnosed on the autism spectrum when he was about five. This is because he had a habit of pretending so deeply that it could seem impossible to get his attention. If you said his name, you might not get his attention. If you stood directly in front of him and said his name, you might not get his attention. If you grabbed him by both arms and looked him in the eyes and said his name, his attention still might be directed inwards upon the story he was telling himself, instead of on you.

That was when I understood that my son, like me, like everyone, is his attention, not his body. Unless I am engaged with that attention, I am not really with my son. When we meet someone, we say we shake his hand, or look him in the eye, or hear his voice, as if those things are him, but they aren’t. When we meet someone, we are only meeting his or her attention that expresses itself in a body or a voice.

Which is why I am not really a writer. Writing is only what I choose to lay my attention upon. It’s a quibble, perhaps, but it’s the same reason so many discussions of race and gender can get stuck in quicksand. My attention isn’t white, my attention isn’t male, and so when I call myself those things, I’m being just a little bit dishonest. I am that which looks out from a white, male body, and to call myself that color and shape would be to say that there is no real difference between a corpse and a living being.

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Immortal Diamond

The first sentence of Chapter 3 in James Joyce’s Ulysses begins with this half of a compound sentence: “The ineluctable modality of the visible.” When I first read this, I thought, “What?” So I reached for my dictionary and came to learn that Joyce was referring to the inescapable and continuous (ineluctable) compartmentalization (modality) of the visual world: my hand, my fingers, my fingernails, my right pinky fingernail, and so on. All the world is broken into more and more and more smaller and smaller and smaller parts, right down to our neutrons, protons, and electrons.

Which is a long way to say what Joyce expressed in six words—so bravo that lesson in economy. Still, Ulysses is a book filled with a lot of interesting and economical sentences, but that one, perhaps above all others, has stayed with me for the twenty years since I first read it. I thought of it again this morning when I was listening to Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem,” whose last verse contains the line, “You can add up the parts, you won’t find the sum.”

I have to admit that for some time I was enamored with how fancy Joyce’s sentence was, and as I grew older and wiser I became a bit ashamed of my continued fascination with it. Until I listened to Cohen. Stephen Dedalus makes his modality observation when he is sitting on a beach, and you could no more understand that beach pebble-by-pebble than you could understand a story word-by-word.

It is hard sometimes to be a person blessed with a brain capable of breaking the world down into its microscopic components. It is hard to see reality as the physicist sees light—as both a particle and a wave. And yet it is so. All separation is a necessary illusion so we can get about and tell stories in the world. But it is good from time to time to remember it is in fact only an illusion, to remember that what actually separates each of us – and the animals, and the plants, and the pebbles on the beach – is a desire to see life new, and that the whole cannot be shattered, only faceted like a diamond.

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Never Ending

I have always loved to tell stories, particularly stories from my own life. When I was a boy and a young man, however, I frequently ran into a recurring problem. I would begin my tale with great enthusiasm, launching into whatever incredible event I felt demanded both my and my listener’s attention. Everything would usually go swimmingly as I mimicked my character’s voices, paused for dramatic effect, and allowed myself to feel again the joy, shame, or frustration of that moment.

Then I came to the end. Then I arrived at that moment I had somehow never anticipated, that moment that, like it or not, asked, “And why are you telling this?” My answer usually amounted to: “Can you believe the kind of crazy shit that happens to me?” This was not a horrible ending, but it made my life feel like the tale told by Shakespeare’s idiot, just a bunch of sound and fury.

And so perhaps it was. I sulked about the world for a time, disappointed with stories and with life. It all ends with a whimper, doesn’t it? Why, it hardly even seems worth writing about. I would not be the one to disappoint others; let them figure out Santa isn’t real themselves.

But life itself does not end merely because you have become disillusioned with it. It goes on and so did I, and from time to time in my sulking I would remember those stories I used to begin with such enthusiasm. I could still feel within me that same pull to tell them. At my gloomiest, this pull felt like a relentless siren song, a stubborn betrayal, and I would see myself as a kind of tragic hero doomed with unfortunate insight.

Self-pity is a drug with a very short high, and even I grew sick of it. Meanwhile, these stories still asked me to tell them. Perhaps, I thought, the true ending was in the beginning. Perhaps I’d had it right from the start. So I began telling the stories again. This time, however, I didn’t try to end them. Instead, I merely looked for a point on the horizon that confirmed my enthusiasm, an excellent vista from whose perch the rest of life was still visible.

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All Choices Are Final

Ideas can be deceivingly appealing in utero. Here, all is possible. Here, just as in a human life, we can imagine only an idea’s most pleasing parts. The writer can be like a parent dreaming of an unborn child’s future – imagining if it is a girl that she might be a dancer, if it is a boy that he might be an architect – and then seeing in rapid succession the snapshots of this unlived life: the walking, the graduating, the marrying, the achieving, and of the course the adoring of the parent.

So too is it with an unwritten book. Now our protagonist is a man; now it is a woman. Now he is a pirate captain; now she is piloting a boat solo around the world. We can see the snapshots of that which is unwritten, the scenes and characters that came to us first, and the great wide swaths of unwritten scenes and unmet characters are easily relegated to that which will be figured out later.

But, just like with that child, eventually life and its unflinching demand for specificity insinuates itself on these unbridled ideas. Eventually the child will be born a boy or a girl and, barring surgery, remains so forever more, living with all the benefits of the one and without the benefits of the other. Eventually, we will have to choose if our protagonist is a hero or a heroine, what they do, how they talk, what they love and what they don’t. And eventually all those great wide open swaths of unwritten scenes will have to be written, filling in those emptinesses with choices that are always one thing and therefore not another.

For many years, I disliked this narrowness life required of me. In many ways, I preferred life in my imagination where anything was still possible, where I might still be an orchestral composer or a film director or an Olympic athlete. It’s not that those things were better than where I felt pulled, but to rule them out for good seemed, mathematically, to only make life lesser, not more.

Eventually, I began to face those swaths of unwritten scenes, and discovered that their emptiness and commensurate potential no longer satisfied me. A handful of seeds is no meal. There was the smallest twinge of sadness when I said goodbye to the composer, to the Olympic hurdler, but just as quickly it was replaced with curiosity as I leaned forward to meet what had been born.

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Desirable Genie

I have just finished watching Ken Burns’s WWII documentary The War. In it, an ex-pilot reads a letter he had written to his wife a year into his tour of duty. For months he had sanitized his letters home out of a kind of chivalry, hoping to protect his wife from the horrors of war, but he could at last no longer bear the divide between the reality he was living and the fiction he was writing. He told her the truth.

He had written the letter when he was 21. His writing training had been the same as any liberal arts college grad. When the war ended he would go on to become an engineer. And yet, if you had told me this letter had been extracted from a novel about WWII, a novel written by an experienced novelist, a professional novelist, a novelist with 10,000 hours of writing practice and craft under his belt, I would have believed you. It was as vivid and original and compelling as anything I have read in my job preparing to interview professional, award-winning, bestselling novelists.

And yet he was not a novelist. If he ever tried to write a memoir, he never shared it with anyone. In fact, he never even shared that letter until the documentary. He stuffed it in a drawer after writing it. How is it, then, that this man was able to write so eloquently and yet was not A Writer? Because the extreme and unnatural experience of war, of facing death every single day, had summoned in him an uncluttered desire to express in words – his only means in that moment – precisely what it was he knew and was living. The force and velocity of that desire had focused his attention so completely that what we call craft arrived to serve it.

As a writer, I love these stories. I love to read beautiful writing by people who are not writers because it reminds me – yet again – that my real job is not to master my craft but to train my attention upon the source of my strongest creative impulse. When I do so, safe and alone at my desk, I can become like that pilot, having unbottled a genie whose first and only command is, “Express me, express me, express me!”

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Tempting Opression

Last night I attended my son’s high school’s Harlem Renaissance Night. Every one of his school’s Juniors was asked to create a work of art – be it musical, visual, or written – reflecting that time and place in American history. Wandering through this impromptu art gallery, I was reminded of that great Picasso quote: Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.

How indeed? It can be especially challenging when you stand on the brink of adulthood and are reacquainted with the artist you already are via someone else’s idea of what you should make your art about. Doubly challenging when that subject matter is steeped in oppression, humanity’s long and futile experiment in the suppression of free will. Free will is like a balloon that cannot burst: squeeze the shape flat here, it will only inflate over there.

There was much earnestness from the children. They had been handed a very serious subject and they wanted to reflect that seriousness in their work. But it is very easy when writing or painting or singing about oppression to leave your audience feeling oppressed. We begin, of course, by reminding our audience that oppression exists. That is the necessarily unpleasant Step One. But then that all-important Step Two—the release from oppression.

Not so easy apparently. There is a great temptation in this step to divide the world into Good Guys (the oppressed) and Bad Guys (the oppressors). This, unfortunately, is no release at all, because it was only the mistaken idea that some people are fundamentally different from other people that caused the oppression in the first place.

Almost as tempting as it is to gripe about high school teachers and their well-intentioned artistic dictatorships. I returned home and unloaded on my wife, who had been spared the event. After a half-hour of this, she implored me to change the subject. “I’ll never get to sleep tonight if we keep talking about it.”

A wise woman, my wife. I needed a good night’s sleep myself. I had been kept awake recently by a reoccurring nightmare: a vision of myself trapped in the world by an unseen force. The more I sought this force to destroy it, the stronger it grew. How exhausting, this battle. What a welcome relief when I surrendered to the peace of sleep and the nightmare ends.

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Believing What We Know

I wrote in yesterday’s column about the day I first spotted my wife in a high school play. I was an enthusiastically romantic boy and so I knew I loved her from the first time I met her and I was not afraid to say as much. Jen, however, was more careful with her words. By the time she was 24 she had still not told a single man that she loved him.

While I was living in Los Angeles and she was living Seattle we wrote each other often. In these letters I would often write things like, “I love you and I know you haven’t told me you love me but I don’t care because I already know you love me because I love you.” This was how I wrote letters back then. And I was right, you know. I told Jen I loved her not as an expression of how beautiful or funny or charming she was, but to name that feeling we shared, a feeling I could not have experienced unless we shared it. I knew she loved me and I could not be convinced otherwise.

I thought of this when Garth Stein told me the story of publishing The Art of Racing in the Rain. When Garth, whose first two books had seen underwhelming sales, sent his third novel to his agent, his agent told him she couldn’t sell it. “It’s narrated by a dog,” she told him. “No one will buy it. Write another one.”

Garth was not a wealthy man. He had a wife and two children to support. It was Thanksgiving. His first two books hadn’t sold. His response? “You’re wrong,” he said. And he fired her.

“I knew,” he told me. “I knew like a baseball player knows when he catches a ball on the sweet part of the bat. I just knew I had hit it.” You know how this ends. Garth eventually did find an agent who quickly found a publisher. As of this writing, Racing in the Rain has spent 144 weeks on the paperback bestsellers list.

Jen eventually did tell me she loved me. I know it was hard for her to say, and I know something cracked open in her when she finally said it, but a part of me almost laughed at that moment because I like to be right. Instead, I told her I loved her too—but she already knew that.

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Proves Nothing

When I was in high school I would look at certain girls and think, “I would like to be the sort of boy who dates a girl like that. I am not entirely certain that I am loveable, but if I asked that girl out, and she said yes, then I would be the type of boy who dated a girl like that and that would mean that I was lovable.”

I would get very nervous before I asked out these types of girls. There was just so much at stake. Sometimes these girls would say, “No,” and I would hang up the phone thinking, “Of course. So that proves it.” Except it didn’t really prove anything because I would then find myself asking out another such girl and sometimes she would say, “Yes,” and I would rejoice, thinking, “That proves it!”

Except it didn’t prove anything, because I would never feel quite as worthy of love as I had hoped that their company would make me feel, and soon they would drop me or I would drop them, and I would think, “There, that proves it.”

And then one day I saw a play and there was a girl in it, and I thought, “Who is that, who is that, who is that?” It was not so much a question as a command: meet her. And so I asked my brother, who had been in the play with her, “What is her name?” And he said, “Her name is Jennifer.” And I said, “What is her phone number?” And he said, “I will find out.”

So I found myself at the phone again, preparing to call a girl I had never met or spoken to. As I began dialing I felt a familiar fear rising in me—except it wasn’t fear at all. It was the memory of fear. Once her phone began to ring I understood that there was nothing to be afraid of because I was merely obeying a command, which removed all the uncertainty upon which fear must feed to survive.

It was odd to meet such a girl, to talk for the first time and yet feel as though you are merely continuing a conversation you had started long ago. There was no drama. Instead, I had only something I knew but could never prove, something that felt exactly as old as me.

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Disney’s Jungle

When I was 24 and living in Los Angeles, my friend Chris and I had a day off and decided to visit Disneyland. I was not generally a fan of amusement parks, but this was the King of Amusement Parks. How bad could it be?

It turns out it couldn’t be bad. With the exception of having to wait in lines, the overseers of Disneyland were not about to permit one moment of unpleasantness or danger into our experience. I was miserable.

I do not mean to suggest that life is inherently unpleasant or dangerous, but without contrast it is very hard to know the difference between what we want and what we don’t want. To write a good love story, you must first place your heroine out of love, remind the reader what it is not to love so that when she finally does love, the reader is granted the delicious relief of dropping the weight of lovelessness. The greater that weight, the greater the relief, and the greater the understanding of love’s value.

I try to remember this when I find myself sitting in judgment of someone else’s suffering. If only they would get off the drugs, quit smoking and drinking, drop the useless boyfriend, quit the miserable job—why it’s just so obvious, what in the world is wrong with them that they don’t see it? Some day, in all likelihood, they will, and when they do, oh, the stories they’ll tell.

In a Disneyland Utopia, the only impediment to happiness would be the boredom of long lines. But in the reality of human lives, the only true route to happiness seems to be through the swamps and jungles of unhappiness. We love our stories of swamps and jungles for a very good reason. Not as a warning to others never to venture into darkness, but as a reminder to those already deep in it that they went in because they very much wanted to find their own way out.

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Looking For Where I’ve Been

Writing always involves a certain amount of waiting. Sometimes there is very little. Sometimes you need only wait until you are at your desk and then away you go. But just as often, you must wait.

I am an impatient soul, and so this has always been the most challenging part of writing for me. When things are going poorly I watch the clock, and I can’t remember what it feels like to write something I am actually interested in, and I start writing too soon just so I can have the feeling of writing, a choice that usually leads me to write something I am not actually interested in. This makes writing feel like homework with no right answer but for which a teacher who can mark you wrong all the same.

The problem is always where I have chosen to wait. There is a friendly place within me where all my stories and blogs reside. I know I am there because it so pleasant I almost don’t care whether I write or not. Inevitably, however, I do write, because one need only stay there so long before you wish to share this friendly place with other people. It could be mistaken for a hiding place, but it is not. We hide to avoid discovery; here, we have sought just the opposite.

You would think I would never want to leave such a place, but I have, and for long periods of time. When I leave, it can seem impossible to find again. I begin to believe it is the Luxembourg of my interior life—tiny and of little significance. Yet once I am there, it feels as expansive as the sea. And still, I leave again. It is as if the house is so beautiful I must find the one who built and learn how to build one myself.

It is impossible to build such a place, and my search always leads to confusion and despair and a kind of resentment.  What is the use of it if I can’t make it myself? Such thoughts can keep me away for days and months and even years. Then I grow weary of the search and return home, mildly surprised to find the door open and inviting as ever, as if all my wandering hurt nothing, as if all my fear were instantly forgiven.

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