Holes

There is a temptation among certain writers to become enamored with the holes they dig. These holes are absolutely necessary to tell good stories. All the best characters need something to climb out of. In fact, in the very best stories, we will likely spend the first half or so of a tale watching our beloved hero or heroine dig and dig and dig the story’s darkest and most terrifying hole. Not only are we our own worst enemy; we are our only enemy.

The writers who dig the deepest holes understand that a story’s success is in direct proportion to the depth of the well from which it springs. Thus there’s a temptation to keep digging, believing that the darker and deeper the hole, the better, the deeper the story. And thus also the temptation to leave the character at the bottom of the hole as a kind of warning, and, we must admit, so the readers will never forget the depths to which the writer supposedly led them.

It is an ironic linguistic trick that these holes represent shallowness and not depth. Every narrative hole is the pit we find ourselves in when we dig for what cannot be found on the surface. On the surface is what we look like, and the money we make, and the houses we own, and the praise we receive, and the awards we win, and the victories we name, and the enemies we hate, and the drugs we take. The surface is vast, endless, and you can dig through it all your life and never find anything. The surface is where despair thrives.

And so the character left weeping and confused at the bottom of his hole – no matter how dark, no matter how terrifying – knows nothing of depth. This character still knows only shallowness, and the writer, despite his best intentions, has shared only shallowness. The despair of shallowness is useful to remind us what life is not, but the depth of life will only be known once we have climbed out of our holes.

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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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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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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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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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Time Again

Happy belated New Year one and all. What did the editor do to ring in 2012? He slept. Why did he sleep? Because he forgot it was New Years Eve. True story. I had recently returned from a vacation – a rare enough occurrence for me – and time had not yet acquired its reliable Seattle pace, and so I was out of sorts.

No matter. That holiday has never had much resonance with me. When I was 20 I read The Sound and the Fury and commenced to memorize the first three paragraphs of Part 2 – the Quentin portion, if you’re keeping track. In the first paragraph, Quentin, whom we will follow around Cambridge on the last day of his life, finds his father’s watch. “I give it to you,” his father told him, “not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now, and for a moment, and not spend the rest of your life trying to conquer it.”

Conquer it. I thought Falkner had written those words just for me. It was about this age, you see, that I first noticed time was progressing ever forward and that my allotment of it on earth was finite. Yet time was so unreal. I would attend a New Year’s Eve party that year and when the clock struck midnight and everyone whooped, all I could think was, “What is the difference between this second, the first second of 1986, and the one that preceded it? What am I cheering for?”

I was not the life of the party in those days. On my recent vacation I had the pleasure of attending several parties. Whether I was the life of those parties or not I cannot say, but I did enjoy them, and largely because I took Quentin Compson III’s father’s advice. One must surrender to do so. As someone who grew up wanting to win all he could, surrender can feel like loss until I remember Time was never the opponent but the field built to let me run as far as I desire.

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Alone With Mr. King

I have been told that solitary confinement is the closest humans have devised to hell-on-earth. This does not surprise me. My wife recently read of a man who had been thus confined while a POW, and that he and a neighboring prisoner had worked out a means of communication by tapping on the wall that separated their cells. This meager exchange became the prisoner’s lifeline, what helped him endure the eight years alone in a tiny chamber.

Humans need to communicate with one another as badly as we need to dream. We are creatures that live by our imagination, and the world, and all the other creatures in it feed that imagination and is in turn fed by ours.

The insomniac’s bed is a kind of solitary confinement. If you choose not to wake your husband or wife or lover or call a friend, and if you are determined to stay in that bed until sleep comes, you are left only with the circling emptiness of the very thoughts which are keeping you from falling back asleep. I had just such a bout the other night. It was a particularly vicious round, following a particularly vicious day. I was not going to wake my wife, nor did I feel like pacing my darkened living room. Yet every time I tried to turn my attention toward any thought other than those that haunted me, I found myself, as if lost in a hedge maze, back in the center of the nightmare again.

And so I asked for help. The first person I thought to ask for help from was Martin Luther King. King began telling me that I had nothing whatsoever to worry about. He asked me what I wanted and I told him I wanted to help people and he said he felt certain I’d be able to do that but that being afraid was not going to help anyone and that there was nothing I needed to do other than what I already could do. He told me this over and over until I fell asleep.

I suppose I could have told myself these things, and I have in the past, but on this night I needed to hear it from someone else. I was tapping on the wall of my soul, and what I heard back reminded me that my loneliness was a misperception. Somewhere my imagination had come untethered and had begun to convince me I could neither hear nor be heard, and yet alone in my bed I was both.

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Forward

All suffering, it seems to me, stems from one of two thoughts, both of which I have toiled under at one point or another in my work.

The first thought is, “I don’t know what I want.” Staring at the blank page of your day or your story or your life, you feel not the satisfying hum of a desire seeking its form, but the carcass of an idea. We follow many ideas that for one reason or another are stillborn within the womb of our imagination. This is a part of the experiment of life. Our pain comes when we mistake this single dead idea for our complete creative potential. Simply thinking the thought, “I don’t know what I want,” – not with a story or a moment, but at all – cuts you off immediately from everything that will ever bring you pleasure. Just like your characters, you must always want something; it is as natural to you as breathing. That you are not hearing that desire is a measure of the noise of your mind, not the curiosity of your soul.

Which brings us to the second thought, “I know what I want, but I am incapable of having it.” This is the song of the Broken You. I want love, but I am unlovable; I want to publish, but my work is unpublishable. By some cosmic toss of the die, you came up short. There’s nothing to be done. You needed to be just a little bit better.

Your desires are always simpatico with your abilities. Always. In fact, your abilities arise specifically and only to meet those desires. That you may need to acquire a few skills is irrelevant; humans are skill-acquiring machines. The delay between the desire and its fruition has everything to do with the quality of one’s attention. It is as if we have a kind of psychic bank account. Every time we think, “I can,” we put money in; and every time we think, “I can’t,” we take money out.

It is important to remember that just as it hurts to bend your finger backwards, so too will it hurt to think you cannot have what you want, or that there is nothing that you want. These thoughts run in complete contradiction to your nature. You were born wanting that next thing; your birth was your first expression of it here on earth. Go only toward; that is the direction of life.

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Empty Despair

I used to fear despair. I feared it in others and I feared it in myself. Mostly, however, I feared it in myself. While in its throes I felt like a carpenter cosigned to build a house from sawdust. Despair was a story of endless hopelessness, a story whose end was as predetermined our own mortal story, life nothing but a lot of thrashing and hurrahing until the grave. Within this story, not one single step I took – not north nor south nor up nor down – not one of these steps would ever have any consequence for all of them led to precisely the same place – nowhere.

So I feared it. I feared it because despair seemed like something that could happen to me like a change in weather, not something I could or not choose. For this reason, I also feared it in others. Here I would be, whistling along, the ghouls of despair safely in their barrows, only to be ambushed by some other poor slob’s tale of misery and loss: tales of the corrupt government, the rejection letters, the cheating husband, the pedophile priest, the ruined economy. I felt as if I were being shown the empty bowl not just of his or her life, but of all life. Once you’ve seen the evidence, looking away cannot save you from the story of nothingness your imagination now dutifully finishes.

So it was for many, many years. And then one day an old man told me writing was a lonely road. It sounded to me as if he had once idealized this view of writing, that he had seen a kind of nobility in it, but by the time he shared this idea with me all the heroism had been worn out and all that was left was the loneliness. But on that day, I did not see his empty bowl as a threat, as a sad story I must now finish. Instead, I saw it as an invitation. His bowl was empty, and he was inviting me to fill it.

“I suppose,” I said. “But we’re going to walk it anyway, aren’t we?”

Whether that filled it for him or not, I cannot say, but I could never look at despair the same after that. The only way to fill the emptiness I perceived was to first summon within myself that with which I wished to fill it. In this way, his despair was a gift to me, and in the months and years to come, when I would succeed now and again in filling someone else bowl, and they would thank me, I would thank them silently to myself.

I do not mean to make myself sound holy. I still despair when I look too hard for evidence instead of faith; I still grow weary when some friend or stranger begins a tale of loss or injustice. But I also grow weary some mornings before I write, having simply forgotten that every story ever written began with an empty page.

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