Observer Effect

The term “Observer Effect” in physics describes the effect observation of an experiment has on the experiment itself. Sometimes this effect is a result of the tools used to conduct the experiment, and sometimes, particularly in Quantum Mechanics, it refers to the theory that life and energy changes simply because it is being observed.

This makes perfect sense to me. Consider mirrors. When we look in a mirror we say we are “looking at ourselves.” But this is not entirely accurate. When we look in a mirror we are actually looking at ourselves looking at ourselves. In other words, we are looking at what we look like when we look out ourselves, and how we feel about that experience.

It is probably more useful to be seen by other people than by yourself. For instance, looking at something you have written can become deadly close to looking in the mirror. See how the work changes from moment to moment like the expressions on your face. One moment it is beautiful, the next it is ugly.

A writer must forsake the idea she will every know what her story really is, whether it’s really funny or really boring, the same as she must forsake the idea that she will ever know what she really looks like. It’s frustrating sometimes, I know, but your stories are like your face in this way too—a window best used to see the world, not to measure yourself.

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Familiar Flowers

Often when we speak of success we are not talking about our own. That is, let’s say you hope one day to be a successful writer, however you define that. If you have just begun your first book, the only concept of writing success with which you could be familiar would be someone else’s, those writers whose work you perhaps admire or whose readership you hope to match or exceed.

But all that success belongs to someone else. All that success is an expression of someone else’s life, of someone else’s curiosity and someone else’s habits and someone else’s dreams – both literal and figurative. And in fact, we cannot know what that other person’s success even feels like. It isn’t ours and so we cannot know. It isn’t ours and so at best we can project how we would hope to feel if the advance just paid Writer X had been paid to us, or the movie contract awarded Writer Y had been awarded to us.

Jim Carrey once said he wished everyone could experience his level of success so they would understand what a big deal it wasn’t. There is no point in imagining what someone else’s success might feel like. What you want to know is what your success will feel like. This will be unlike any success that has come before it. It will be wholly new and surprisingly familiar.

It may even be a bit disappointing. Wasn’t something supposed to have changed? Why does it feel like nothing has changed? Bizarre that, but what could we expect? Where could this success, either gradual or rapid, have come but that part of ourselves we listen to closest, trust the most, and know the fullest? Where but from our very center could our greatest successes grow, and what other flower would we rather see bloom?

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Shadows and Light

I was mildly afraid of the dark when I was a boy. I blame this on the cartoon Speed Racer, of which I was a huge fan when I was six – until, that is, I saw The Episode. Speed’s stalwart girlfriend Trixie, worried that his current race might cost him his life, dreams that she sees his car cruise to a stop in a valley. Relieved, she races toward him and reaches the car as Speed, still wearing his helmet, steps out of the car with his back to her. “Oh, Speed,” Trixie cries, laying her head against his back. “I thought you were dead.”

But then Speed turns, turns slowly in this dreamscape . . . revealing a demon face of blue skin and pointed teeth. “I’m not speed!” he hisses.

And I ran from the room.

From that day forward I slept with my bedroom door ajar, keeping my eyes fixed on the narrow swath of light piercing the darkness. The shadows were simply too seductive a canvas for my young imagination. Best, I decided, to keep my attention on what is known, rather than what could be.

Someone pointed out this was the same year my parents got divorced, and I suppose it is possible I would not have needed the door left ajar if my dad were still sleeping across the hall. We will never know. What does it matter anyway? Sooner or later you will become keenly aware of the difference between light and dark. And sooner or later you must discover what is waiting for you in the shadows.

It has been my goal as a writer to illuminate those very shadows. There’s no use living your life trapped in some little triangle of safety. Let the whole world be plunged into blackness if it must. My light always shines clearest in the dark.

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Real Magic

When I was a much younger writer I wanted to be able to write impressive sentences. My young writer’s ego most certainly had something to do with this, but vanity is only fear looking for cover behind something authentic. In this case, that authentic thing was the magical transformation I had observed between the first and last words of certain sentences.

Sometimes a sentence is like a single trick within a magician’s entire routine. The magician shows you the ace of spades, and you watch that card and his hands closely because you want to be fooled but you don’t want to be fooled, and somehow within his precise flurry of gestures the ace becomes a queen.

So it is with certain sentences. A sentence is a transformation of thought through words, and if the transformation is dramatic enough and seamless enough, the reader arrives at the last word surprised by the transformation in which she has just participated. The reader, after all, read every word, watched the sentence as closely as an audience watches the magician’s hand, and yet this surprising transformation occurred, as if you had been lulled to sleep then snapped awake by a period.

Like the magician, the writer’s magic occurs within what the reader cannot see. The magician holds the queen even as he shows the ace. So it is with the writer, holding within his imagination the coming transformation. Unlike the magician, the writer himself does not know what he is holding until it appears, for he has never attempted this exact trick before.

This is where reader and writer meet; this is why reading is called magical. At its best, both participants are equally surprised and delighted to behold that which has been pulled from the top hat of our imagination. How did that happen? Neither of us really knows. We are all children at the party after the magician has gone, leaving behind the remnants of his trick and a lingering belief in what cannot be seen.

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Uncorked

If you haven’t yet, I encourage you to watch the interview I conducted with Deb Caletti last January. In many ways her story exemplifies why I started this magazine. I love the craft of writing, and I even find the business of writing interesting in the same way I find MONOPOLY interesting, but I couldn’t dedicate a publication to these two subjects.

But the question Deb faced when her already physically abusive first husband told her that her writing would amount to nothing more than a hobby and that he wanted her to quit, is enough for me to fill a lifetime of magazines. As she explains in the interview, when someone hits they take something, but when they want to silence your voice they are taking much more.

I thought of Deb when I came across a video the other day in which a classically autistic girl, a girl who lacked speech and was presumed mentally retarded, began communicating through typing. What she had to say about autism was remarkable, but when she wrote: “I found my voice; you can find yours too,” I thought, We are all autistic in one way or another.

The world cannot know what truth you perceive unless you express it. I can become a kind of tyrant to my own children simply because I am too tired, too worried, or too grumpy to understand why an extra ten minutes of video games won’t mean the end of civilization. I do not mean this as a joke. It is at those moments when I, the father and supposed voice of reason, have lost my way that my sons must find their voice, not just to get their video games, but to understand that balance is always possible if you are willing to speak what you know but what others have temporarily forgotten.

The world is a friendly place, but everyone loses their way. Husbands lose their way, children lose their way, governments lose their way. We are all susceptible. But every time you perceive a lapse in another, you are presented with a choice: complain and blame, or speak and try to heal. It can seem a bit lonely when you speak for the first time, when you understand that in fact no one can speak for you, that you are as much the governing as the governed—but this feeling is only temporary. In fact, it vanishes the moment the words leave your heart, where you have kept them bottled, protected for years from nothing.

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That Intelligent

When my son was three he sat down at his plastic Winnie the Pooh drum and sang the following song:

You have to get along,
But you gotta have free.

This would become the central challenge of his – and perhaps everyone’s – life. Namely, to live the life you want to live, you have to get along with all the other people trying to live the lives they want to live. But to live the life you want to live, you also have to be free to live that life however you want. Does it not seem that these two needs are often in conflict? I must write whatever I most want to write, but what if no one wants to read it or publish it?

He had forgotten ever having written the song, and he was incredulous when I reminded him of it today. No three year-old could possibly write something that intelligent, he said. A three year-old had, I assured him. He adjusted to this reality rather quickly.

As do most parents. There is an intelligence within life that will seek expression by whatever means its current vessel provides. In fact, it is the very same intelligence that allows that life to get along while also having free. From a certain distance, such a marriage can seem impossible, as impossible as a three year-old composing existential ballads. Impossible, that is, until it happens.

It’s always wondrous when it happens, as wondrous as sentences and stories falling together as if on their own. How often have you jumped back from the page and thought, “Did I write that? I’m not that intelligent.” Wondrous, too, how quickly you adjust to the idea that maybe you are.

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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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Good Condition

I was sick this weekend. I don’t get sick often, but when I do I’m usually pretty miserable. Mostly it’s television and hot tea and a pile of spent tissues. I didn’t exercise, I didn’t run errands, I didn’t meditate. I did, however, write.

Am I masochist? Am I under some cruel deadline? Am I workaholic? The answers are, not at all, nope, and I doubt it. The odd thing was that when I wrote, I felt just fine. Honestly. For two hours my nose dried up, I stopped coughing, and my head cleared. As always, I found myself hopping up from my chair and pacing around my workspace when the idea was particularly interesting. I had the energy of a man blessed with a full night’s rest he had not, in fact, enjoyed.

Very misleading, all this. I’d push myself from my desk, return to my house, to my life, and, it appears, to my cold. Once inside, back came the coughing and sneezing, and I found my station on the couch beside the box of tissues and in front of the television. On this occasion, however, I took note of this transformation. The cold was real, I suppose, at least as far as my raw upper lip was concerned, but so had been my non-cold while I wrote.

Do you know I was nearly glad for the cold for this reason? To be aware of wellness even while I felt unwell. It does not usually go this way. When I’m sick, I simply lose all sight of wellness and wallow in the snotty misery of it all. On such days, I am the sickness. For this weekend, at least, I understood the truth of it. You are either yourself, or on your way back to yourself—there are no other conditions.

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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.

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That Gift

Lingering in the back of everyone’s mind is the sometimes quiet, sometimes very loud question, “Am I good enough?” We spend so much time grading, comparing, judging and ranking ourselves that I don’t know how a person could avoid asking this question at least once, if only to test how it feels. It feels lousy, if you haven’t notice, even just to ask it. Unfortunately, it also smells like the sort of question one must be able to answer “Yes!” to, because if we’re not good enough . . . well, that would be a problem, wouldn’t it?

Writers decide to write for many reasons. Usually, they love to write. Also, they would like to make money doing what they love. But these are not always the only reasons. Sometimes writers write and submit the stories and poems they’ve written so that these stories and poems will be rejected.

Yes, to be rejected. The more often you ask if you are good enough—and it matters not what you are pretending to wonder you are good enough at, that question only ever refers to us as a whole—the more likely the answer will be no. But we can answer no so quietly, so habitually, that we will soon grow accustomed to the sustained discomfort it provides.

You will not have that luxury as the rejection letters come in. Likely as not that quiet voice that whispered no sabotaged your story for this very purpose. Now, you will have to feel self-rejection acutely, and you will feel it again and again and again until you decide you are worthy of a life free from this suffering.

Such a gift, writing. Oh, I know, this is a gift you’d like to give back. Except that you crave, beyond any agent, publishing contract or Amazon ranking, the unequivocal yes you already are. Our lives are led to hold this permanently in our hearts, though it has never been anywhere else.

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