Confession

I have found myself talking more and more in my interviews about the writer’s relationship to the imagination. The imagination can see but cannot be seen; it can be felt but it cannot be touched. It is, in all ways, the most constant and understandable connection human beings have to the non-physical, what is also called the soul or sometimes God.

Writers, however, are notoriously practical people. Despite low-burning fantasies of wealth that often doesn’t come and fame that will almost certainly elude even the most successful authors, the writer’s primary concern is the next book, the next scene, the next sentence, the next word. The writer’s prayer is often, “Please let me just find a way to tell this damn story.”

Moreover, of all the art forms, writing is frequently mistaken for the most intellectual, the most academic. Writers appear to be sitting and thinking. Writers are often compelled in their work to explain stuff. Writers, if only accidentally, sometimes have big vocabularies. Writers, given the opportunity, can sound smart, and smart people, we have generally come to believe, are rational.

Which brings us back to the imagination. There is nothing rational about a story or a poem, and every writer must somehow or other make peace with this. It is my hope that my interviews provide a sympathetic and comfortable platform for writers to confess, as it were, that much of what they do, as the poet Coleen McElroy recently explained to me, is “smoke and mirrors.”

We mustn’t be shy about our smoke and mirrors. Every human on earth has a relationship with their imagination, whether they acknowledge it or not. Life itself is a continuous act of realized imagination. But humans frequently forget this. Humans frequently succumb to the misperception that life is a great mechanized clock unwinding with us trying to stay alive in it.

To turn to the imagination, to acknowledge it, to ask for its assistance, is to begin to awaken from the nightmare of a mechanical world, where everything is already dead but somehow still moving. The rational mind may fear the irrational impulses of the imagination, but only the imagination fully understands life, and only the imagination can create it.

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I Knows What I Like

The last sentence has always been the most important sentence in an essay – it’s where you leave your reader. A good last sentence should feel like a perfect fit. I feel the same about shoes and outfits; the shoe is an outfit’s last sentence.

I bought a pair of brown dress shoes four years ago, and I love them as much today as I did the day I bought them. They fit seamlessly and are the perfect ending to any dressy or nearly dressy ensemble. I had a nice pair of black shoes, but after two years I had to face the truth that they simply didn’t fit. I kept thinking they only needed some breaking in, but the rubbing and the pinching never improved.

So two birthdays ago I dragged my wife two Macy’s – where I’d bought the brown pair – to replace the black. I wore my trusty browns as a reminder of what good shoes feel like. It didn’t take long before I found the shoe that looked just right. “Size twelve,” I told the salesman.

Out he came, and I could tell as soon as he opened the box I was going to love these new shoes and they were going to fit like moccasins. And they did! What an eye I have.

“Perfect,” I told him. “I love them. They fit just as well as these shoes.” I pointed to my brown shoes.

He looked at me oddly. “Of course they do.”

“Pardon?”

“Well,” he said, “they’re the same pair. Only in black.”

“Oh,” I said. “So they are.”

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Forgotten Reality

The shooting at Sandyhook, while stunning, is of course not new to America or the world. From the Aurora shooting, to Columbine, to Pol Pot, to Hitler and Stalin, humans have been doing this to one another off and on throughout history. In many ways, writing, and art in general, is a response to life’s worst drama – either as an attempt to make sense of it, or to escape it.

I’m all in favor of wanting to escape it. All murder, from the singular to the genocidal, is a form of madness, either temporary or sustained. The murderer perceives a threat where one does not exist and acts upon this illusion. What we see makes no sense to us, for we are not living within his fantasy. Events like Sandyhook can become an endless rabbit hole for our psyche, as we try to solve that which is unsolvable, try to fix what does not even exist.

And when I say fix, I do mean gun control or arming teachers, I mean fix the human capacity for madness. This cannot be fixed, for it is a product of our freewill. But I also do not believe in fearing it. I write often about the relationship between writing and freewill in this space because it is writing that has taught me to appreciate the power and the responsibility of my freewill. We are free to think absolutely anything, no matter how horrendous, and we are free to act upon those thoughts. This is what we are.

Which is why I find writing one the best antidotes to events like Sandyhook. I cannot bring the dead back to life, I cannot reverse time and talk the young man out of doing what he did, but I can go within myself, in the safety and solitude of my desk, to that place where fear and reality both exist beside one another. I can go within myself and know once again what it feels like to choose one over the other. It is a choice I must make every waking moment of my life.

This is my only answer. The only answer to madness is reality, which is actually love. We can never have too much of it. As we choose it, and choose it, and choose it, in our work, in our relationships, in our very thoughts, we offer a beacon to those, including ourselves, who have temporarily forgotten what they are.

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The Bottomless Well

Some days the writing comes quickly and some days it does not. It is easy to know what to do when it is coming quickly: just keep up with what is coming. But on other days the job is a little different. What does one do when it is not coming so quickly?

Some writers like to write their way through the uncertainty. The idea here to start putting words on the page with the understanding that most of it will be thrown away but with the hope that some germ of a genuine idea or character or anything might appear also. Others simply get away from the desk. Wally Lamb described going to a nearby stream when he felt stuck; sometimes the ceaseless current loosened something in him.

For years I used both of these methods with very limited success. When I tried to write my way out of feeling stuck I only dug myself into a deeper and unhappier hole, and when I left the desk I always did so out of anger and despair. Now when nothing is coming, I sit there. And wait. And wait. A few weeks ago I waited two hours, and it wasn’t until the last five minutes of a work session that I saw what I had been looking for.

I considered that day a triumph of sorts. How easy it would have been to panic. On that day, at least, I did not, and I came away feeling as though I had learned something valuable indeed. Every time I believe I have reached the end of what I need to learn about the patience required to write I am wrong. This is a bottomless well, and I have never once regretted diving more deeply into it, though I have feared nearly every descent. No matter. It waits for me too; waits while I believe I am unworthy, or unable; waits until I can once again accept the friendship of my own imagination.

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New Life

For several years in a row we grew sunflowers in our backyard. The sunflower is an impressive plant in full bloom, and from time to time I would wonder how I would render into words what I felt when I beheld them. We eventually bought a print of “Sunflowers” by Vincent Van Gogh and hung it in our living room. It seemed to me that Van Gogh had rendered with paint what I would have liked to render with words.

As I understand it, there are painters who replicate the works of The Masters, sometimes to be sold as expensive forgeries. Their technique is so refined that it generally takes an expert in the imitated artist’s work to tell whether a painting is a forgery or the real thing.

Whenever I hear artists, whether painters or writers or composers, discussing craft or technique I think of Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” and these highly skilled replicators. If a work of art were only a work of craft, of technique, why would anyone with such skill bother imitating what someone has already painted? Since you have the same skill as the masters, why bother with forgery?

The answer, of course, is that Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” was not a product of technique. Van Gogh perceived the beauty of the sunflowers within himself and translated this perception to the canvas. The technique aided greatly in this translation, but first and foremost came the perception. Moreover, after the perception and before the translation came the willingness to share what was neither Van Gogh nor the flowers but a marriage of the two.

This is not such a simple choice. The forger already knows how the world will receive what he is replicating. Van Gogh did not have this luxury before he dipped his brush. Such is the price you pay when creating something new. Technique without original perception is as dead as a hammer. Technique in service to perception can bring anything to life.

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Life On The Street

When I was in sixth grade I sat next to Alex Fernandez in Mrs. Sears’s class. Alex was Portuguese and lived in Fox Point where many of the immigrant Portuguese families in Providence had settled. Most of the Portuguese boys at Nathan Bishop Junior High looked unhappy. They always seemed on the lookout for something, their attention coiled as if ready to strike should it appear. In sixth grade, Alex was not on the lookout. He liked hamsters, and I liked hamsters, and so we had something to talk about.

Ten years later I was living in an apartment in Fox Point. One summer afternoon I was walking home when I passed a young man reclining in a lawn chair on the sidewalk in front of a chain-link fence.

“Billy Kenower,” he called.

I blinked at him. I wouldn’t have recognized Alex if he hadn’t said my name. At twenty-one he had the bearing of a middle-aged man. His hair was thinning, he had a pot belly, and a double chin. He reminded me of a mafia don. His eyes shifted left and right continuously as he talked. He wanted to know what I was doing in this neighborhood. I told him where I lived, and he warned me about the sort of men who hung out in the park across the street from my apartment.

“They’ll cut you as soon as look at you.”

It was clear he was dealing drugs. It was his business. He asked me what I was up to and I told him I was going to be a writer.

“I write,” he said. “I met this lesbian chick from Brown. She really loved what I was doing and would work with me on it. It was a story about being on the street.”

Alex then recited verbatim the first paragraph of his novel about life on the street, about what it feels like when the sun rises and the smells seem to rise with it. It seemed to me he carried that paragraph around in his mind, where it remained insulated against the very street it depicted. It was good and I told him so.

“Yeah, that’s what the lesbian chick said too.”

I wished him good luck and he told me be careful. I never saw Alex ever again – though, come to think of it, I never saw the men who would cut me as soon as look at me either.

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Life Story

If you wanted to learn how to lead a successful middle class American life, it would be tempting to observe from a scientific distance the form most of these lives take. With a little research, you would find that the majority of people go to school, where they do as well as they can so that they can get into the best college that they can where they study something more or less of interest to them. After college people usually get married and get a job doing this thing that interests them, and probably have children who in turn have children of their own and so the older middle class Americans now have grandchildren whom they dote upon between vacations until they– the grandparents, that is – die. The end.

Likewise, if you were to observe a typical story from a scientific distance you would also discover that most follow a familiar pattern: a hero wants something; the hero cannot have this something because of a weakness/fear/villain; the hero goes on a journey, either emotionally or physically, to learn what he or she must learn to get this thing. There will be a moment when the hero somehow faces death. Then the hero either gets the thing or doesn’t. The end.

If your life has followed the standard pattern – maybe exactly, maybe only vaguely – then you know that these connected events are not your life. No matter how closely your life resembles your neighbors’, you know that your life and your neighbors’ lives are wholly separate. You know, either consciously or unconsciously, that you must rise every day and ask the question, “Why am I leading this life?” And you know, either consciously or unconsciously, that the answer is entirely your own, and that the answer is your life.

I feel precisely the same about stories. I do not care that stories resemble one another in form. This pattern of a hero’s journey is not the story. The writer must ask himself, “Why am I telling this story?” The answer is the story – not the plot, not even the characters. Every day you sit down to write you must remember why you are writing your story, why it matters to you to tell it, and why it would matter to someone else to read it. The answer comes mysteriously every day, and we need not know why or from where, only that the story we are telling would have no life without it.

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Between Words

I fell in love with stories before I had learned to speak. My grandmother told me the story of being a little girl coming home from school and being chased by a gaggle of particularly aggressive geese. As she neared her front gate her mother emerged from the kitchen, spied the geese, grabbed the hem of her apron, and drove the beasts back to their pond with two fierce flaps and the direct admonition: “Shoo!  Shoo!”

I loved this story. I knew how small my grandmother felt against her waddling attackers. I loved that there was a race for the safety of home. And I loved that my great-grandmother dispersed the monsters with something so common and benign as an authoritatively wielded apron. Because I could not yet speak, I would retell the story using only mime, sound effects, and enthusiasm.

That was more or less my model for storytelling until I was fifteen and discovered The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. When I read the verse—

Day after day, day after day,

We stuck, nor breath nor motion;

As idle as a painted ship

Upon a painted ocean.

—I felt that unique synthesis of sound, rhythm, and meaning of which only language is uniquely capable. I had always wanted to sing, but I struggled to hold a tune. Now I understood that words alone could do the singing for me.

Five years later still I would read about Jacques Derrida deconstructing texts word by word. The French Philosopher seemed to suggest that when you pulled a story or essay apart, there was nothing there. How surprising! All that’s left between those words is the enthusiasm the writer had to put them on the page in the first place. Trying to hold that enthusiasm with something so puny as your brain is like trying to understand an orange with a calculator. To know it, you have to eat it up, and then it’s gone. If it was good you are left wanting more.

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Spelling Loneliness

It is strange to think of now, but at the very time that as a young man I was waking up to the understanding that what I most wanted to do was write, I became aware – like a spy who has just recognized he is being tailed – of a feeling of persistent loneliness. I cannot say that one was necessarily in response to the other, though I have always felt them to be connected the way a brother and sister might respond to a parent’s drinking, with one diving for the bottle, the other The Bible.

I say strange because if one is feeling lonely, why pursue such a solitary craft? Yet to me writing remained the one pure antidote to loneliness. Not, however, in the way, say, watching television relieved those feelings of loneliness. Such distractions were little more than Novocain, the feelings waiting patiently and returning just as strong once the TV was off.

Writing answered loneliness, and perhaps precisely because I had to do it alone. Not only did I require physical isolation, but mental as well. One thought of another person and the spell of writing was ruined. But within that spell I felt the very opposite of loneliness. Within that spell, life seemed as interesting and available as the perfect lover, and loneliness seemed like nothing but a restless lie in search of an empty night to ruin.

But then I would rise from the desk and the spell would quickly fade, and in its place would be that feeling of being watched. You spot the enemy in the shadows for the first time, and there is no friend in sight. Now you tell yourself you need someone else, and so you are alone.

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