Purple Elephants

You know this drill already, I’m sure, but let’s review. Don’t think of a purple elephant.  Are you thinking of a purple elephant? Because I just asked you not to. Really, stop thinking about a PURPLE ELEPANT. Why are you thinking about a PURPLE ELEPHANT when I told you not to?

This is sometimes used as an example the linguistic tricks our mind plays. That is, our mind works in the positive, ignoring words like “don’t” and “not” and so on. Thus, the phrase, “Don’t think of a purple elephant,” is translated in our brain as, “Think of a purple elephant.”

I believe this example reveals something far beyond a mnemonic quirk. Life is led in the positive. We can only create; we cannot un-create. You cannot live your life not being your mother, or not being unmarried, or not being unpublished. Not matter how many of us linger on couches or dawdle in cafés, we are by the very nature of existence creatures of action. You are a stream of energy with no off switch, and your attention, usually in the form of your thoughts, directs that energy. Wherever the energy of your attention flows, things grow.

It is important to remember, I think, because all of us have those things we are perhaps afraid of becoming, or mistakes we are afraid of making again. The pain of those realities we are trying to avoid, from becoming our mother to not being published, is real, but only because those events or actions lay outside the swath of our true desire. Whenever you focus your energy on your true desire – telling great stories, communicating, sharing, riding a bike, whatever – the energy flows quickly and freely. It has found its natural course.

But when the energy is directed toward what we do not most desire, from a story we don’t actually want to tell to a job we don’t want to work, life becomes hard. We are paddling upstream. The only thing that has ever been wrong with anybody in the world is that they are living outside the stream of their true desire, and the further outside they are living, the greater their pain. The pain, however, is only information. The pain is reminding us that we have strayed from what we desire most. If you keep thinking about what causes you pain, trying to solve your purple elephant like a riddle, you will continue to be in pain. If, however, you seek what you most desire and direct your attention toward it, never questioning why, the pain of disconnection will cease in an instant, and all the purple elephants will disappear.

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Free Choice

In yesterday’s Author Minute, James Bach discussed how he did not believe in laziness, that calling someone lazy was like calling an unplugged microwave oven a broken microwave oven. I couldn’t agree more.

Still, there is a reason laziness got lumped in with the Catholic seven deadly sins (sloth, technically, but there’s no need to niggle here). Like the unplugged microwave of Bach’s example, the lazy person seems from the outside rather useless. Or, more accurately, the lazy person seems to view life as useless. Unlike the microwave, however, humans do not have a visible cord, and the source of their energy remains mysterious, even, quite frequently, to the lazy person himself.

There are two sources of energy: fear and love. Fear can run you pretty hard. Much can get built, written, or painted under the secret impetus of fear. The thought, “If I don’t write this, run this, build this, do this, whatever this . . . I will be no good,” is quite motivational to some. It is particularly effective if as a rule we require proof of our value. In fact, if we require proof of our value, it is virtually the only form of motivation we will respond to. Until, that is, it exhausts us, gives us cancer or depression, or simply kills us outright.

Which is why the person we call lazy can sometimes seem strangely proud of his laziness. Though he is unhappy in his energy-less state, he understands that at least he is not a slave to that other, ersatz form of motivation. In this way, the lazy person has taken the first awkward step toward freedom.

But it is only the first step. Doing nothing is an extremely limited freedom. Eventually, doing nothing runs its course, and he is faced with the same quandary as the man creating frantically out of fear: How do I give my life meaning? Freedom then – and the energy it provides – can only come when we accept that there is no right answer. The overseer needed a whip because he had deprived his slaves of the energy of free choice. To get up off the couch we must make peace with that freedom. Being told what to do is simpler than choosing what to do, but no ex-slave ever wrote a song about the joy of the plantation. The moment you locate the source of your true interest you will have more energy than there are hours to spend it, and the couch will reveal itself for what it always was – a prison of your own making.

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Soul Matters

I interviewed Gary Zukav this past Friday for our June issue. His latest book, Spiritual Partnership, deals – as have all his books since the publication of his evergreen bestseller Seat of the Soul – with matters of the soul.

The world “soul” means different things to different people. For some, it is a staple of their daily conversation, a reminder of life’s inarguable value; for others, it is yet another in a list of superstitious hokum floating meaninglessly above hard, observable reality. Although I was raised without any organized religion, I took to the word quite early, largely because it was used so freely by the artistic types I looked up to and whose lives I wished to someday emulate. Poetry or music or books were said to either have soul or not, and always the more soul a work of art had the better.

I came to see that artistic soul usually meant art that expressed itself without intellectual self-consciousness, which is always a grand thing. But as a concept, this idea of soul was too laden with accomplishment, as if soul is yet another by-product of craft. There seemed to me a deeper value to the word, and one that spoke more directly to the creative life.

My soul is that to which my interest attunes itself. My interest has no logic, it can never be proven, and yet it is the guiding force of my life, responsible for the woman I married, the food I choose to eat, the city in which I live, and the magazine through which I write to you now. The intellect sorts through the data of the physical world, interprets it, and arrives at logical conclusions, like how to make a boat buoyant. That which I call the soul has its own logic, whose only desired conclusion is my own contentment.

I cannot create without this concept of the soul. If I remain bound to the physical world, that which I can see and taste and hear and so on, then nothing I create makes any sense. There is nothing within the physical world that will tell me what to write next. Only the inherent logic of my own desire shows me a path through the infinite choices before me. Without my soul, I am little more than a rubber ball, buffeted meaningless by events; with it, I am a creature of action, an engine in the service of love.

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Become Who Your Are

Today’s guest blogger is Deb Caletti, author of The Six Rules of Maybe. Enjoy!

Like most authors, I knew I was a writer early on, from about the age of seven. I knew it because I would rush to my room to write down these stories I had to tell. I knew it because on long car rides I would look at the dry yellow hills of the Bay Area and the sagging barn roofs and I would feel something that needed words, words I wanted – no, again, had – to reach for. I knew it because of the way books moved me, and even the way the library did. I knew I was an observer, who sat at the edges of things and described them in order to understand.

When I was about eight or nine, my father brought home a typewriter from his office. I claimed it for my own. I didn’t do much with it, really, but I loved it. It was heavy and important. Maybe I felt some inborn affinity to it even though it was foreign to me, some connection from the past or future or who knew, like a person who visits the land of their ancestors and finds the place already there in their bones. Around that time, too, I began to win writing contests at my school. It was heady stuff – blue ribbons and readings in front of the whole assembly, the elementary school equivalent of a book deal and NPR. A peek into the possible grandeur this thing I did (no, this thing I was) held in store.

I continued to write, always wrote, stories, plays, lyrics, more stories. But what grew alongside my writing was fear, fear and the good reasons for it, too – knowledge of the impossible terrain toward publication, peaks that would be too high for me, the big cumulous doubts about my talent overhead. I studied journalism when a journalist was the last thing I was. I kept only my toe in the writing waters because it was too cold and maybe I couldn’t even swim.

And then one day, actually one day, I got sick of myself, of all of the head-talk and no action. I was thirty-two. I made a serious deal with me. Do this thing. No matter what it took, starting now. I taped a quote above my desk, by Nietzsche: “Become who you are.” You’d think becoming who we are (no matter what that is) would be the simplest, most natural event, wouldn’t you? But more often than not, it’s the most difficult. Facing what you are and owning up, choosing to live forevermore in that kind of authenticity… It means no more excuses and no more hiding and no more diversions and dishonesty. It means jumping in the water, or setting off over that terrain, choose your metaphor of choice. Too bad about the fear, is the point. Just, too bad.

Fast forward through the years of work and the unpublished books and the agony of not yet, and pause now on a life of being who I am once again. Sagging barn roofs that make me feel things, which today I find the words for as a regular part of my work. Observing on a daily basis, the keys of the typewriter (now laptop) my accepted, ordinary homeland. And I am convinced, convinced that this all happens when the motives are pure, when it’s not about blue ribbons or delusions of grandeur but instead is the cell-deep, meant- to-be truth finding its way to the page. When it’s not about who you wish you were or who you’re too afraid to be, but who you are and always have been. When that seven or nine or ten year old self takes out that old typewriter and finally, at long last, begins to do the honest work.

Deb Caletti is the award-winning author of The Queen of Everything, Honey, Baby, Sweetheart, The Nature of Jade, and The Secret Life of Prince Charming, among others. In addition to being a National Book Award finalist, Deb’s work has gained other distinguished recognition, including the PNBA Best Book Award, the Washington State Book Award, and School Library Journal’s Best Book award, and finalist citations for the California Young Reader Medal and the PEN USA Literary Award.  Her seventh book with Simon & Schuster, The Six Rules of Maybe, was released in 2010.  Paul G. Allen’s Vulcan Productions and Foundation Features (Formerly Infinity Features, makers of “Capote”) have also recently partnered to bring five of Deb’s novels to film.  Deb grew up in the San Francisco Bay area and now lives with her family in Seattle.


Consider this: what if all choices in the world are equal? That is, what if there is no difference between choosing to be a pantry cook or the President of the United States? What if, in fact, one is no more difficult to attain than the other?

Sounds preposterous, I know, but ask yourself: would you want to be the president? Would you want to do all the things required to be the president, the glad-handing and baby-kissing, the fundraisers, the speech-making, the televised debates, only to be certain that approximately half the country is going think you are ruining their children’s future?

Many of you, I am sure, have wondered what you might do if you were president, but very, very few of you, perhaps none of you, would tolerate what is required to become and then be president. It’s not so much that you can’t, but that, when you get down to the actual experience of being president, you wouldn’t want it. There is a difference between saying you can’t do something and saying you don’t want to do something, and I would suggest that the only reason you can’t do anything is because you don’t want to.

This is true of everything including writing. I do not think it is quantifiably harder to be a writer than a bartender. The only difference is that the process of becoming a bartender is usually quicker—but that does not actually mean easier. The length of time something takes is only hard if we call it hard. You never get to live anytime but Right Now, after all, so adding up all the Right Nows that have come or might come before something happens is just a game an impatient mind likes to play.

It is an important distinction to make with yourself from time to time. Nowhere is it written in the sky what you can or cannot be, what you can or cannot do. Life is an absolute parity of choices. When we look out at the world, we see all these choices at once and instantly reduce our options to the few that actually interest us. In our minds, the parity is over, for we have assigned value to those possible choices. But this was our choice and no one else’s. The good and the bad, the hard and the easy, are just other ways of saying, “I like this and I don’t like that.”

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The Retirement Myth

Yesterday I heard from a 91 year-old woman who needed advice on finding an agent. While there is something timelessly compelling about a 25 year-old’s search for love and meaning, stories of men and women past what we call “their prime” carrying on with the business of life remains equally, if not some ways even more, inspiring.

Retirement is a myth. You may stop doing this or that, you may not be a lawyer anymore, your children may have all left home, but this does not exempt any of us from getting up every day and deciding what to do next, which is all life is or has ever been. Here yet another lovely truism about writing overlaps with a truism about life. There’s no need to ever retire from writing – as long as you are willing to write, you can write, and as long as you are willing to pursue publication, you can pursue publication.

But I understand the lure of retirement. Life can seem such a struggle, and that job, that daily set of problems we must solve, appears at times the very source of this struggle. Of course it is not. You are the source of that struggle, in that you chose that job. Some day you may choose another job, perhaps even the job of fishing or babysitting your grandchildren, in which case you will have merely exchanged one set of challenges for another.

Abandon the idea of retirement. It is a siren song. If you’re done with a job, by all means, be done with it, but understand clearly the choice you are making. You are not done with life, nor have you finally started living. Your life is never anything but a series of choices, one after the other after the other. You made your first choice when you arrived here, and you won’t make your last until your eulogy is read.

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Say Yes

Jean Reynolds Page had a somewhat unusual career before becoming a fulltime novelist: she was a dance critic. It did not matter that she was critiquing dance and not fiction, her role remained the same -she had to publicly express an opinion about someone else’s work. Although she felt an obligation to her readers to be as honest as possible, she admitted to being a gentler critic than she might otherwise have been had she not been pursuing her own art as well at this time. Who can blame her? Every artist spends much of his or her career contending with The Critic.

The Critic, in psychological terms, is an archetype, which means we’ve all got one. The Critic can only ever say one of two things: I like this, or I don’t like this. It has been my observation that many critics are looser and even more gleeful when critiquing what they don’t like. That is because it is impossible to be wrong when you say you don’t like something.

Every word, every note, every brush stroke is a choice. And every time an artist makes one choice, he has chosen not to make a thousand other ones. When a critic finds an artist’s work unsatisfying, the criticism often boils down to: wouldn’t it have been better if the artist had done this? Possibly, but we will never know, because the artist didn’t. Much riskier for the critic is to praise a work, for now they are like artists themselves, having fixed their desire upon an actual choice as opposed to a theoretical one.

When listening to your own inner critic, heed what he or she dislikes – The Critic is helping you winnow down the myriad of choices you might make at any artistic turn. But understand that it takes infinitely more courage to say yes than it does to say no. Your job as an artist, as a writer, is to yes over and over and over again. Seek what you love without judgment. A critic may wish you had chosen differently, but in the end the world is made of Yeses, while Nos are consigned to the dust of what might have been.

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The Talented Among Us

You don’t have to spend long in the arts before the word “talent” starts popping up in conversation. I’m sure there are people who’ve been called talented tax auditors, middle managers, or waiters, but those in the arts seem to love the idea of talent the way a sprinter loves speed.

And what’s not to love? There is an effortlessness to the talented. We watch a pianist in firm control of a sonata, and if we are not pianists ourselves we might think, “How does she do it? She’s so relaxed and yet so exact. She must be very talented.” A writer turns a phrase both surprising and precise, an actor reveals love with the smallest gesture, a painter finds beauty in the banal, and in that moment after we are struck by the simple, effortless clarity of whatever the artist has rendered, the word “talent” comes floating to our lips, and the mystery of creation is solved. It was talent.

It always struck me as a kind of wishful thinking, this concept of talent—the Holy Grail from which some lucky few have sipped. The talented are like comic book superheroes, gifted with X-Ray vision or the power to breathe underwater. If only I were as strong as Superman, think how much easier my adolescence would have been; if I could have played the piano like Horowitz, think how much fun I would have been at parties.

It is a wish born from the dream of effortlessness. Life, we all sense, need not be such a constant struggle, and yet it so often seems to be. But I think that when we call someone else talented we are hoping, secretly, that the effortlessness of sublime execution can be achieved without that most stubborn, simple, and inescapable of all responsibilities—our own choice.

Anyone in the world can choose to be talented. But oh, what a choice. There is, unfortunately, only one way to be talented at something: you have to be willing to do it in the way you most want to do it. If I were to try to write like Cormac McCarthy, it would be very, very hard. Not because Cormac McCarthy is some superhuman writer, but because I do not want to write like Cormac McCarthy because I am not Cormac McCarthy. However, the more I let myself write like Bill Kenower, the more effortless the work becomes.

The hardest thing in the world is work against oneself. Yet we extol the virtues of sweat and suffering, as if paddling upstream shows great courage in defying the capricious will of the river. Who is the river to tell you where to go? Turn your boat, I say. You will never suffer more than when you are denying yourself. But the choice to be yourself, the choice to turn your boat, can only be made in the solitude of your own heart, before the applause, before the book deal, before the wedding day.

The talented among us are merely the ones who have chosen effortlessness. Which is to say, they chose to do it the way they wanted to, not the way they thought should. The problem is, if you do it the way you want to do it, it will never have been done before, and there will be nothing, truly, that you can compare it to. How will you know if you are doing it right? Because it feels effortless.

And that is what we admire when we behold those we call talented. Not what they are doing. What they are doing doesn’t matter at all to us. No, what we admire, what inspires and calls to us, and what we recognize whether we can ever name it or not, is the courage it takes to choose to be your authentic, sovereign self.

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