Back To Work

The old science fiction fan in me wonders sometimes if it would be possible to create a device that could project our thoughts just as a computer monitor projects the hard drive’s digital information for us to read, see, and hear. After all, so far our thoughts have remained absolutely unknowable by anyone else’s five senses, and yet these thoughts, science tells us, travel along ever-evolving neural pathways in the brain. Perhaps something could read these pathways and know that I am thinking about a purple zebra speaking Russian.

I am not a scientist, but I have a theory about why this device will not be created anytime soon, possibly ever: we don’t want it. And not for privacy reasons, though we have all had thoughts that are best left stranded on the island of dreams. Rather, to invent such a device would be akin to a singer inventing a machine to sing for her, or a writer inventing a computer to write novels for him.

Human beings are translators. This is our job. We translate thoughts, which exist beyond the five senses, into actions that can be perceived by the five senses. Or in other words, we translate the non-physical into the physical. That is all we do, day and night. Every time you lift a fork, scratch your head, speak a word, blow a kiss, you have translated some thought, however small, however banal, into something perceivable in the physical world. And once this thought has been made physical, it exists for all the other translators to read, listen to, or observe, because we are curious and imitative translators, and we never stop teaching each other how to do our job.

It is amazing how often we complain about our job. We complain about other people’s translations, we complain about what other people think about our translations, and we complain about how hard it is to translate accurately what we perceive in the sovereign vortex of our imagination. Sometimes one of us gets so tired of this job he quits, and we throw a very solemn going away party. But then it’s back to work, writing and rewriting this endless novel that is as old as time.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!

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The Scientist And The Artist

Though I am afraid there are probably more than this pair, I am most often aware of two distinct halves of my consciousness.

The first is The Scientist. The Scientist’s sole domain is the physical world, the world experienced through his five senses. His job is to learn how it works. He is a very logical man and he loves how logical and ordered the physical world is. He loves how everything is caused by something else in a great, interconnected chain of ifs and thens, and that 2+2 always equals 4, and that there are clocks to measure something called time so that you know exactly when dinner is so that you can eat and not die.

And then there is The Artist. The Artist is aware of the physical world, but his primary interest is the non-physical world, which is comprised of thoughts, feelings and, most importantly, freewill. The many, many laws of the physical world do not apply to the non-physical world because the non-physical world is governed by freewill, and freewill is just that – free. It is not caused by anything else. It is what it is, does what it does, with absolute and impenetrable sovereignty.

The Scientist hates the non-physical world. In fact, he doubts that it exists. Because The Scientist only understands the laws of the physical world, the non-physical world – if it exists, which he still doubts that it does – sounds like absolute chaos.

Occasionally The Scientist tries to help the Artist with his work because The Scientist is just that helpful a guy. The Artist has had to learn to talk very gently to The Scientist at such times. He does not talk to The Scientist about The Soul, or Life After Death, or Ghosts, The Artist merely asks The Scientist if he has had the experience of freewill? The Scientist usually admits that he has had that experience. The Scientist, you see, believes in experience because that is how he gathers data, and The Scientist believes in data.

That is all you need to know, says The Artist. You know that you have experienced it and so you know that it exists. Don’t think about it because it won’t make sense to you. Leave it to me. This is my domain, a land apart from time, where the only laws are love and possibility.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!

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Know Your Pedestal

Many beginning writers go to writer’s conferences or take writing classes under the practical guise of answering the question how do I write a book or how do I get a book published. These are perfectly reasonable questions, but not, I believe, the real question these writers are trying to answer, which is, “Can I actually write and publish a book?”

After all, nearly every writer begins as a devoted reader, and reading is a uniquely intimate and strangely holy experience. The writer enters into creative collusion with the reader, offering the first and most compelling details of a story the reader must then complete with his or her own imagination. A reader may say she is reading to “escape from life,” but in fact she is only reading to escape from the fear of life. All books, all writing, all works of art, whether they are poems or mysteries or romance novels, serve the exact same purpose: to remind us, writer and reader alike, why life is good and interesting and valuable and unquestionably worth living.

No wonder then that we have a habit of putting these men and women called writers on pedestals – on daises even. What could be more generous, more profound, more holy than reminding us why the life we lead is worth living? And who of us was ever born on a dais? Are we not, every one of us, scrambling around in the pews, bumping into one another, coughing and yawning and needing to use the bathroom? How ordinary; how un-special.

Writers are, in fact, special people. Except the only thing special about writers is that they love to write. That is a writer’s gift. Meanwhile, you already know life is worth living because you are living it. You may have forgotten, but that is very different than not knowing. If you are a writer, write to remember what you know, and the moment what you have asked for returns you will discover that Shakespeare’s pedestal was on loan from you.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!

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A Different Day

It was my eighteenth birthday and I told the girl whose house I’d been hanging around at twice-a-week after track practice and whom I couldn’t say I was dating because I would leave her house everyday asking myself, “Why haven’t you kissed her yet?” – I told this girl that for my birthday we would go on an actual, out-of-the-house date. She agreed.

But before this date there was a special track meet being held in Connecticut instead of Rhode Island, and featuring runners from Massachusetts and New York. With me in the van driving to the meet was the great Billy McCoy, a runner from a rival Providence high school who had been the best sprinter in the state for the last three years. I cared more on that day about my date with the girl I wanted to kiss than I did about my race, and my performance reflected it. Billy did well, however, and in the Van ride home he talked about the fast track, and the strong wind, and also about being intimidated by a sprinter from NY who seemed like a man, not an 18 year-old boy.

It was nice, this different day. It was nice being in the van with the great Billy McCoy who felt more like a friend now than a competitor and headed home to a date with the girl I didn’t know how to kiss. As the van grew quiet I looked out the window at the passing world and entered a kind of dream watching a forest zip past. My dream mind began to compose a description of what I was seeing, and bit by bit this became the words, “We drove by thick forests, as dark as dawn at midday.”

This pleased me, and I found myself thinking again of this description as I dressed for my date. That description pleased me even though there was no way I could profit from it. It was not the words I loved, but where I had to go to find them. I ought to go there more often, I thought as I knocked on her door. It seemed to me that only good could come from a place that was both as quiet and creative as a kiss.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!

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Lay Down Your Swords

I have written a number of times in this space about certain teachers and mentor-types who, during my formative high school days, told me in one way or another, “You are not a good writer and you do not understand what good writing is.” The message seemed clear: do something else. These remarks came often enough, by which I mean about once a year, that I felt as if there was a spot on my ego like a toe that had been banged so often it was never allowed to heal.

Despite the criticism, I left high school as determined as ever to be a writer. My first semester in college I was required to take Composition 101. I liked the professor very much. He was funny, cheery, articulate, learned, and had none of the crushing disenchantment to which small town inner city high school teachers are susceptible.

One of our first assignments was to write a “descriptive essay.” By way of explanation the professor produced some yellowed pages and proceeded to read aloud from what he described as the best descriptive essay he had ever received. I have to admit I was editing this piece in my head as I was listening to it, thinking, “That’s a bit overdone.”

On the day the professor was to hand the papers back I came to class dressed all in white. This was how I was back then. He stood in front of the class and said how he had been teaching composition for fifteen years, and in fifteen years he had never received a descriptive piece as good as what he was about to share. He then read my essay aloud, every word of it, pointing out all the many examples “good writing.”

My writer’s ego went into diabetic shock. He was saying everything I had ever wanted a teacher or mentor to say about my work. And this wasn’t some rinky-dink, depressed, high school English teacher; this was a university professor with a pleasant southern accent and a mildly dirty sense of humor. Case closed, yes? Just as in the movies, all the past hurt is wiped clean in one triumphant victory.

Unfortunately, if you live by the sword of opinion, then you die by the sword of opinion. If I am a good writer one day because my professor says I am, then I am a bad writer the next because the college literary editor says I am not. I wish I could remember the exact day I stopped tethering my work’s value to someone else’s opinion as well as I can remember all that praise and criticism, but I cannot. I cannot, because there never was such a moment. I started out not caring, as do we all. That tethering had to be learned, a useless attempt to stave off the perceived loneliness born of asking yourself a question that only you can answer.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!

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Red Monday

When I was a boy my brother and I played a game where we compared what color each day of the week ought to be painted. Sunday was easy; that had been decided for us by its name. As I recall Monday was gray (sorry, Monday), Tuesday was forest green, Wednesday was orange, Thursday was silver, Friday was white, and Saturday was red.

I did not know at the time what a useful writing exercise this game was. After all, even Sunday doesn’t actually have a color. The truth of human experience is that everything feels like something. So if I tell you Sunday feels like yellow, you probably know what I mean. Such is the job of the writer: to find the quickest means by which to convey to his readers what a given moment, sound, or thought feels like, usually by comparison to something wholly different than what is being described.

When I was a waiter, guests would occasionally sit in my section and trigger in me the ghost of a memory. I could not recall the guest’s name, where the guest might have sat, what the guest had ordered, nor what had been said; all I could remember is what it felt like to wait on him or her. I would remember gentle, or tight, or careful. Soon enough, once I’d greeted the guest and heard their voice and so on, the memory of our last exchange would emerge. But that first memory, that felt memory, was always exactly correct. The rest were just details.

Sometimes I’ll read a novel where a writer takes great pains to illustrate exactly how to groom a horse, say, or amputate a leg without anesthesia. I appreciate the meticulous research that goes into this kind of clinical, encyclopedic writing, and I understand the writer’s desire to represent the world accurately and completely, but a part of me always thinks, “Who cares?” I don’t want to know how to amputate a leg, I want to know how it feels to amputate a leg. After all, a robot could cut a man’s leg off if we programmed him to do so, but only a human would know that amputation without anesthesia feels exactly like a red Monday.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!

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Swimming In A Parka

I read an article in the New York Times recently about a college English professor who was very disappointed in the quality of his students’ term papers. They were inarticulate, uninspired, and often riddled with grammatical mistakes. Oh, what has become of our cyber-addicted youth, the professor moaned?  What has become of our education system? The end of America must be close at hand.

But then this professor did a little snooping. It turns out these very same students often kept blogs. Of course, no one was telling the students to write the blogs; no one was paying them to write these blogs; nor was anyone grading them on these blogs. The students were simply writing them because they wanted to write them.

What he found surprised him. The blogs were uniformly better than all the term papers. The blogs were funnier, smarter, snappier, and, for those who care about such things, better punctuated. Interesting, thought the college professor. When I tell them all to write a paper about Emma Bovary as she relates to post-fifties feminism, I get 800 words of drivel. When they write about the latest episode of the Real Housewives of New Jersey, they produce insight and humor.

Teaching someone to write by telling them what they must write about is like trying to teach someone to swim in a down parka. Anyone who crashed into the ocean wearing a parka would immediately shed the coat if they didn’t want to drown. Likewise, when we pick up a pen the first question we ask ourselves is, “What do I want to write about?” It is the most natural thing to do; it is the direction of the current that is you.

Sometimes I look upon this blog’s purpose as taking a small role in undoing all the well-intentioned damage done by years of teaching good little boys and girls how to write Proper Term Papers. All writing should begin and end with the question, “What do I most want to write?” just as all living should begin with the question, “What do I want to do?” Shed your parka, if you’ve still got one—otherwise, you might very well drown trying to keep up with yourself.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!

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No Exaggeration

My younger brother John is a natural storyteller, which is to say he is not afraid to exaggerate. When we were boys, it seemed sometimes as if he lived in an elementary school soap opera peopled with Shakespearean-sized villains and heroes. One day after school he kept me rapt with a tale of his narrow escape from a mysterious group of predatory teenagers. Sensing the totality of my hypnosis, he went so far to stop mid-yarn and declare, “Wait! I hear them. No—it was just a dog.”

My mother, slightly less gullible than I, eventually caught him in a more conspicuous exaggeration and observed, “Making life a little more interesting?” John always appreciated the delicacy with which she handled this moment. As he explained to me years later, he lived his early life feeling as if I, two years his senior, had already done everything interesting someone his age might do, a perception I am certain I did nothing to discourage.

But as I said, he’s a natural storyteller, and he wasn’t about to let something so disposable as the facts get in the way of Job One, which was entertaining his listeners – or, more to the point, telling a story that accurately reflected life as he had lived it. I don’t have to live in his or anyone’s skin to know that his life meant as much to him as mine did to me – or Hamlet’s did to him, for that matter. Sometimes the storyteller is confronted with the conundrum of a day’s routine events not seeming to match the depth at which he lived them.

So I have no problem with exaggerators. But I also know that I do not have to climb Mount Everest to find a worthy view. In fact, I do not even have to leave my desk. From time to time we storytellers luck out, and an event comes along so startling on its surface that it seems to do all our work for us. More often, however, we are left with days so similar to the last they could be laid one on top of the other like pancakes. I decline to call such hours meaningless. Let the historians mark the days as big or small; I reserve the right to live them all.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!

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Not My Last Blog

My friend Sonora, in addition to the recently acquired title of novelist, is also the dean of her university’s journalism department. The last time I saw her, she talked about preparing for her “last lecture” lecture, the idea behind which being: If you had only one more lecture to give, what would it be? Which got me wondering. If I had only one more blog to write, what would it be? I though it might go something like this:

The only thing real in the world is love. Everything we see that is not love – the violence, the genocide, the poverty, and starvation – all of it is an expression of fear, which is merely an inaccurate perception of reality. Just because someone walks into a crowded theater and begins shooting does not make the perception that inspired this action accurate. The action may be physically real, but the perception is not. The only thing real is love. Our job is not to change the world. Our only job is to perceive the world as it actually is.

And that would be it. I know that this is an odd last blog for what is billed as a blog for writers, but all my work has pointed me to this single truth. What is writing, after all, but the translation of a perception? A story is not what happened, but a version of what happened, a perception of what happened. And so the question: What version of the story should I tell? What feels like the most valuable perception I could possibly share?

Which is why my last blog would not be about writing but about love. But it’s not my last blog. I still love to write them, and so I do. I don’t know when I will write my last blog, except to know that it will be the day I wake up and realize I don’t love writing them anymore. It is quite possible that will be the day I don’t wake up at all.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!

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Fantasma

When I was fifteen someone at an advertising agency told me she thought I could model. When I was nineteen and looking for ways to make money that involved as little actual work as possible I decided to put this compliment to the test. My tenure at the local modeling school lasted exactly as long as it took me to understand these model folks were really only interested in my looks. They didn’t seem to care at all about the Real Me.

It was an odd career choice anyway, especially given the relationship I would come to develop with the camera. One morning in my late twenties I arrived at my restaurant job and was asked to be a part of a promotional photo. The result had me posed in profile at the bar looking hauntingly pale. When the Guatemalan pantry cook saw the photo he laughed and pointed at me. “Fantasma,” he chuckled. Ghost.

And so began fifteen years of frightening pictures. Someone would aim a camera my way, tell me to smile, and the trouble would begin. It seemed to me that cameras must have been made exponentially more complicated since my childhood when the duration between point and shoot felt as brief as a snap. Now there was an interminable pause, a pause plenty long enough for something within me that had once felt valuable but now did not wish to be seen to flee.

Pictures of me became a joke at work. One taken at a garden party had me with my arm around a good friend, smiling uncertainly. My face was the color of clay, and my eyes had the hollowed out look of a junky between fixes. Someone posted the picture in the waiter’s station and everyone had a good laugh about it. Look at you, Bill! What is wrong with you?

I had the creepy sensation of glimpsing my own corpse. I hated the picture. That’s not me, I thought.

And I was right.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!

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