Lucky Fumble

Larry Craighead was my high school’s nose guard and offensive left tackle. He was a fierce competitor and the largest boy in the school, clocking in somewhere close to 250 pounds. As is often the case with young men his size, he had a preternatural gentleness to match his girth, having learned, I would guess, that he had little to fear (physically anyway) from other boys. Given this, his options were bully or gentle protector, and he chose the latter.

It was the middle of the season my senior year and we had just lost a close one. Steven Santos, our starting running back, had had a bad game. He’d fumbled and generally underperformed. We filed into our locker room and Steven sat on the bench in front of his locker with his helmet in his hands, penitent and miserable before us.

Larry arrived last and saw his friend there, still not moving to unlace his cleats or remove his shoulder pads. Putting a hand on each of Steven’s shoulders, Larry said, “Don’t worry, Steven. You’ll go and get yourself some pussy tonight. You go get yourself some pussy.”

I did not care for that word when I was 17, and I care for it even less now. But in that moment I did not mind it, because Larry wasn’t talking about pussy. I felt in Larry the father I am quite sure he would become, a man who would have a view of life beyond touchdowns and fumbles and loss. I turned back to my locker wondering if maybe Larry and Steven were lucky just then for Steven’s fumble.

At graduation, there was a mass of robes and hats and Sunday dresses and neckties milling around the street outside the auditorium. It was a great, big, extended so long. I looked up from my latest handshake to see Larry coming my way. “Billy,” he called. “Come here.” The next I knew Larry Craighead had me in his bearish embrace. That was my last memory of high school.

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The Value of Success

It was not until I had lived with my wife for a few years that I fully understood that beauty was to women what success was to men. This is not to say that we men do not worry about our bald spots and our abs and our back hair, or that women cannot catch a full-blown case of the success disease (just ask Laura Munson). But the similarity between women’s impossible relationship to physical beauty, and men’s suicidal relationship to success is the Ying and Yang of human suffering.

At least for women a dialogue about beauty has begun. It started with the outrage of early feminism, but has since moved on to subtler questions of power and femininity and mothers and safety and on and on. Women’s attempt to untangle their value from their cup size or waistline may take generations, but I have hope, given the current trajectory, that such a time may come.

It is quite a different story for men. The subject of success is virtually taboo. It is discussed only in terms of its absolute necessity. We are in this way very much like lifelong athletes, with success being victory in our chosen game. The athlete cannot question the value of winning; it is why the game is played. It is also only natural to compare one’s victories (if you have any) to the other athletes to know your relative value in this endless sport.

Success is our physical safety and our emotional safety. Success will determine where we live, if and what we eat, how high we believe we can hold our head at a party, and even whom we marry. It can become the whole measurement of our lives, and it is virtually meaningless. There is no finish line. The Pulitzer Prize winner can feel a failure for never having won a Nobel.

In the end, however, men and women’s agony remains exactly the same. Measuring your value by success or beauty is like measuring your feet to find your hat size. You will only come away wondering why you cannot find the answer. You could have sworn you had been told you would find it there. Strange also that as soon as you cease your measuring something akin to value speaks to you, in a tone you have long recognized, saying, “Stop looking and you will find me.”

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Accepted Value

Andre Dubus defined a writer’s job as one of truth telling. I have to agree with this, and I believe that definition applies to all forms of writing, from romance to poetry to suspense and, yes, to fantasy. Fantasy is a tricky name for a genre, however, as it suggests perhaps the very opposite of truth telling.

A Course In Miracles defines a fantasy as an attempt to correct a problem that does not exist. I have come to understand that I wrote many novels that were fantasies, although they were all set on this planet, and not one contained a single elf or magic sword. These novels were written precisely to correct the problem of my unperceivable value. I believed that if I could write and publish a very specific sort of book then my value would be established and unquestionable.

For this reason, the books never felt real to me. They were largely shadows I hoped one day would take full form within the light of acceptance. I might as well have hoped to meet Santa Claus. Writing is an expression of value, not a pursuit of its acquisition. The writer looks within himself at what he perceives as valuable and translates it into a form that can be shared. It is never, ever the other way around.

Eventually I began to share what I knew to be of value. Immediately, the work changed. What I was writing now had the feeling of something that already existed, something I could not have created alone but which was happy to remain still long enough for me translate into words and stories. In those moments I gained what I had long believed I lacked: acceptance. It was quite surprising to learn that what I had thought was the end of a writer’s journey was actually its beginning.

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Miraculous Perception

When my son Sawyer was in first grade, his habit of incessant pretending, and of exploding when anyone asked him to stop pretending, had become so problematic that he was receiving six to seven timeouts a day in school. As the situation at school worsened, my wife and I began a practice at home called “joining.” The idea is simple: Instead of telling Sawyer to stop pretending and join us, we started pretending and joined him.

Within two days we received an email from his special education teacher declaring, “Whatever you’re doing, keep doing it!” After seven days he was down to one time out a week. This is a very dramatic story, but what is most dramatic is what we didn’t do. We didn’t give him drugs, or change his diet, or give him vitamins. All we did was join him in whatever he was doing, no matter how unusual.

So what happened? Why would Sawyer’s behavior at school change so dramatically when school remained exactly the same? He was still being asked to stop pretending and do class work. Why would his parents pretending with him at home change his behavior in the classroom?

What changed in Sawyer was the only thing that ever changes in anyone: his perception. When we pretended with him, for the first time in his life this thing that he did nearly all day long wasn’t wrong. For the first time in his life, he was a leader. Somehow, this changed his perception of what it meant to be asked to stop pretending, even at school.

If it was at all life changing for Sawyer, I believe it was doubly so for me. It would not be possible from that point forward to perceive another human being as wrong. I would try, of course, but always there was the memory Sawyer, whose behavior could hardly have looked more wrong. I began then to understand the words, “A miracle is a shift in perception.” Life seems miraculous when things appear from nowhere. So it is with perception. One moment your child and you and all the wretched world are broken, and the very next moment, as if a puff of smoke has cleared, the world is whole again.

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The Betrayer

Every writer is bound to experience at least a little fear, and many will experience a lot. There is so much that cannot be known, from whether you will finish a book, to whether it will be bought, to how many copies it will sell, that a writer need only turn his attention prematurely toward those things beyond his knowing and be sucked into the tidal vortex of fear.

For a time I accepted these bouts as an experienced captain accepts the waves of the sea. Such is the life of a writer. And isn’t there even a little romance to it, this inevitable suffering? Doesn’t it make the journey strangely worth it? Aren’t the scars of battle proof you braved the field in the first place?

So went the story until recently. Fear arrives like a wave on the beach, the water sucking out between your legs as the ocean draws itself up for a heaving crash. I’d feel the ocean gathering its weight and think, “Courage, Bill. Courage.” Until, that is, I heard a different word as I turned toward the oncoming wave: Betrayal.

It made no sense to me, this cruel word, and still it came again and again. It came with every wave. I did not hear it as I was tossed in the wave’s surge, nor as I was delivered to shore with my tales of woe. I heard it only once with each wave, in the brief deciding moment before I chose to join its fury.

That is the betrayer’s crime – not the action, but the choice preceding the action. That is the moment separating the true from the false. I summoned every wave, summoned all its strength and madness, yet still retained the freedom to let it pass if I so chose. The wave itself held no despair, it held only me, who had left his truest self behind, waiting with immovable patience for my return.

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Incalculable

This month’s issue features an interview with New York Times bestselling author Emily Giffin. If it were accurate, I would of course refer to her as the #1 New York Times bestselling author Emily Giffin, but as of this writing Giffin has never climbed higher than #2 on that weekly ranking. I would not mention these numbers except for a recent Internet kerfuffle involving Emily, Facebook, Amazon reviewers, and Emily’s husband, all of which began with her rather benign observation that just once she would like to crack that #1 spot.

For those of you whose books have never made it onto The List, or for that matter have yet to publish a book at all, withhold your judgment. Authors quickly find themselves swimming in all kinds of numbers: advances, Amazon rankings, sales, reading attendance, words-per-day, royalties, and yes, highest spot on The List and weeks spent there. The math of life says that all these numbers absolutely must add up to something. Why else have them? Why else write them all down?

But what can they mean? You get to number one this week, and next week James Patterson has published fourteenth book this month and he’s number one. Who’s the real number one? Or the real number two, three, four, or twenty-five? These are the sorts of questions that can devour a life.

Yet how tempting to try and answer them, offering as they do the siren song of proof—proof of our value. If a writer is very honest she will admit that within her is something of unquestionable value, something desiring expression the same as a tree desires to grow. Translate this value accurately and you feel your first success. This is a success that has no number. It is the only success you will ever truly know, the only success you will understand, and the only success whose value remains as incalculable as you.

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Free Reign

I was reading in the New York Times yesterday about the various passions driving the current anti-western violence in the Middle East. What caught my attention was that those sympathizing with the rock-throwers and embassy-burners saw the conflict as a struggle for freedom. These men wished to be free from the pain that insults against their beliefs caused them. That America had not jailed the man responsible for this pain was commensurate with not jailing a murderer. The pain of an insult, in their perception, was equal to if not greater than the pain of physical suffering.

As a writer, this story piqued my interest. It was framed as a question of freedom of speech versus freedom from pain And in one way I have to agree with the men and women who see the pain of insult as perhaps the greatest pain humans can suffer. As Goethe said, “The worst thing a man can do is think ill of himself.”

How true. Think ill of yourself and your suffering follows you throughout your day. Think yourself worthless, cowardly, stupid, ugly, dull, or broken and with the speed of thought your value plummets, and all your actions are irretrievably diminished by your brokenness. This is the pain of a life hardly worth living, of lifelong impotence, of meaningless choices. Such thoughts condemn us for a time to a cell of our own miserable perception, within which no one has ever felt free.

I have always believed in the power of language, but if writing has taught me anything, it has taught me that it is impossible to make another human being think anything. The most I can do is recommend with compelling honesty. Many times I have wished it were otherwise, but that place within us where every choice is made remains a sovereign land. Within those borders we dwell in pristine freedom, alone with our chosen love, our chosen curiosity, and our chosen pain.

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The Messenger

Last week I had the pleasure of speaking to the Ventura County Writer’s Club about the myth that writing is necessarily hard, a subject I have addressed from time to time in this space. I had been warned that the crowd, while not hostile, was nearly unanimously dubious. Good, I thought. That meant they had thought about the premise, which meant they were interested. I’ll take dubious over disinterested any day.

For the record, the speech went well, by which I mean we – both speaker and audience – seemed to be in a generally jolly mood by the end of it. Whether they were all converted to not, I cannot say, but of course that was never my intention from the outset. As with any lecture, which is only another art form, the goal was to introduce a felt perspective that the listener can use or abandon as it serves him or her.

After the speech a fellow came up to me and shook my hand. “You’re not talking about writing, are you?” he said. “You’re talking about life.”

“That is correct, sir.”

Strangely, it was this very observation of his – that I was not talking about writing – that most pleased my writer’s heart. Rule one of writing, and a good one it is, says: Show Don’t Tell. I had allowed at least this one man to decide for himself that as we learn to write we are really learning to live. If I had simply told him that, he would have been required to believe me. Since it was his own discovery, he only had to believe himself.

This is so much the job of the writer, regardless of his story. How can I tell this so that it becomes the reader’s story? How do I leave enough open space for the reader to enter the story fully and finish it for herself? After all, we writers are not the message; we are only the messengers. Whatever we are sharing, whether it is love or fear or conflict or peace, existed long before us, all of it as ancient as time and yet miraculously new with each discovery.

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Lovely Story

I spent the first part of this week in Los Angeles, visiting my brother and a few good friends, as well as giving a reading and a lecture. It’s always good to see my brother and my friends, partly because they are all such good storytellers. I love a well-told story in the live theater of the living room. In many ways my writing and all my creative endeavors, from theater to lectures to interviews, have been an extension of this intimate art form.

On Tuesday night, after all the Los Angeles tours were done, after my reading and my lecture, my friends and I gathered at my brother’s apartment, opened some wine, and told some stories. On this evening, my friend Chris told one of the best stories I have heard in a long time. It was funny, entertaining, and had a beginning, middle, and a satisfying ending. It lasted twenty minutes, and for that time Chris reminded us why life was funny, interesting, and ultimately salvageable.

I have been listening to my friend Chris tell such stories since I met him in the cafeteria of Hope High School 33 years ago. It is easy for admiration to turn into emulation, and for 33 years I have tried, now and again, to tell a story as Chris might tell it, to borrow a little of his particular narrative magic. Unfortunately, it was never his to loan, which I learned again and again in my awkward efforts.

On this night, however, I had just completed a lecture peppered with stories, and as I listened to him I was also filled with that spent and happy feeling of having shared something fully with the world. I knew the lecture had gone well not because of the applause or the handshakes, but because I felt so unapologetically like myself during and after. Such a comfortable feeling that, listening to Chris, I forgave myself for having ever thought I needed to be him. Imitation may be flattery, but it isn’t love, which flows fastest when I allow myself to be only one person at a time.

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Life As It Was

Recently my son needed a three-ring binder for school, and I said, “No need for Staples, I’ve got an office filled with binders of manuscripts ready for the recycling bin.” Out I went, and was drawn to a dusty and neglected corner of my bookshelf where my oldest writings huddled together to share their orphan misery. I should have looked elsewhere. So much easier to toss a six month-old draft of an abandoned novel than some 23 year-old journal-style ramblings.

I selected the very oldest, the very dustiest binder in the bunch. The front page read January 20, 1988. I began reading, and immediately regretted it. It is never a good idea to read your own work unless you are in the proper frame of mind. It is too easy to turn to the work, even work written before you were married and had children and started a magazine and wrote a daily column, for some kind of evidence of the straightness of your arrow’s trajectory.

Interestingly, this binder held a collection of short essays I would write to myself on a more or less daily basis. The Bill of 1988 clearly had as much he wanted to share as the Bill of 2012. The Bill of 1988 also loved to write as much as the Bill of 2012, and frankly, in many ways – technically speaking – wrote just as well.

The difference was that the Bill of 1988 did not believe that life as he knew it, as he actually lived it, was worthy of the page. The Bill of 1988 felt life needed to be a little funnier, a little grander, a little bigger to bother sharing with anyone. I needed no more than a paragraph to remember that Bill perfectly well, to feel again what he felt, especially as he rolled a piece of paper into his electric typewriter.

I closed the book and put it back on the shelf and left my office having forgotten why I had gone there in the first place. My wife was cleaning out my son’s room and still needed that binder, and I was going to tell her what I’d found but decided against it. If I told her about it now I would only make a bigger deal of it than it actually was and come away feeling as though I hadn’t been heard. Better to wait until I could tell her what truly happened so she could understand why I had found what I had actually been looking for.

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