I Don’t Know Why

I knew a man once who refused to answer “why questions.” The way he said it always irritated my inner snark, and I was sorely tempted to ask, “And why is that?”

But the truth is, he had a point. Why questions are ultimately unanswerable. I am not talking about certain factual why questions, like, “Why is the sky blue?” or, “Why do helium balloons float?” Rather, I am speaking now of the personal why questions, like, “Why do you like blue cheese?” or, “Why do you write?” The only reason we do anything is because we like to do it or we think we might like to do it, and the only reason we like anything is because we like it.

My friend’s problem – or, I should say my problem with my friend – was that his refusal to answer the why questions was phrased with almost political defiance, as if he were on the witness stand pleading the fifth. But again, this is understandable. Whenever I ask myself, “Why did you do that?” I really mean, more or less, “How could you have made such a mistake?” I never ask myself why I did something when the results turn out sparkling.

Much of the job of fiction writers is to probe why their characters do what they do. Most of our characters get into trouble, but they do so with the belief that their actions will bring them happiness or at least relief from misery. We often understand our characters not as an engineer understands the physics of a skyscraper, but as a friend understands another friend – sympathetically – recognizing in ourselves the same doubt and anguish that led us to entanglements from which we had to eventually free ourselves – the stuff of good fiction.

I believe despair waits for us at the very end of every why question because the question assumes an architectural order to the universe that does not exist. Everything architectural is by necessity static, while life remains perpetually in motion. When we ask why, we are really begging to see this false order revealed so that we might stand at last on firm ground and feel safe. When the order does not emerge, we are left believing that either we are incapable of finding it, and so we have failed, or that the universe is built on sand, and safety is impossible.

The question we really want to ask of ourselves is never “Why?” but “What?” What do I most want at this moment? This we can know, and every time we answer it we learn again that it was never safety we were seeking but happiness.

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A Good Puzzle

My older sister Felicie has a particularly strong puzzle-mind. Though I am the writer in the family and thus the supposed word guru, she would routinely whip me at Boggle. She loves anagrams and crosswords and logic games of any kind, and she was a sturdy and confident mathematician. When handed a problem for which there is a clear and definitive solution, her mind becomes a ferociously happy dog digging for a bone.

This made school very appealing. In school, teachers generally make it clear to their students what must be done to be graded successful. My sister has never misunderstood an instruction in her life, which, coupled with her puzzle-mind, resulted in a string of very good report cards. I recall, however, one report card in particular. She was in sixth grade and had decided she wanted to get straights A’s—well, O’s, actually (for Outstanding!), because this was the 70s. I believe sixth grade was the first year students were actually graded, and so the first time my sister would be so publicly rewarded for solving the problems her teachers asked her to solve.

As my mother tells it, the day the grades were given, the doors to the school opened and my sister came running down the steps of Nathan Bishop Middle School waving her report card over her head. At the time, I thought to myself, “Oh, who cares, Felicie? What’s an extra O or two really going to do for you?” You see, my view on grades was this: I will do just well enough so as not to be judged a failure or average—but you’ll get nothing more out of me.

Except a part of me understood why my sister was really running down those steps with her straight O’s. I’m sure her little 11 year-old ego was doing back-flips, but so what? The flesh is weak. The O’s weren’t the point at all. My sister was celebrating the same discovery humans have been making and celebrating for tens of thousands of years: that anything we apply our direct attention to comes into being. Lay your attention on a novel for a year, you get a novel. Lay your attention on straight O’s, you get straight O’s. Perhaps, she must have been thinking as she sprinted toward my mother’s car, it’s not all luck after all. Perhaps the question is not how do I solve a problem, but which problem do I want to solve?

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Nothing

I have found that when I am writing if I am only thinking about the story I am trying to tell and not about whether my agent will like it, or editors will like it, or my mother will like it, or boys between the ages of sixteen and twenty-one will like it, or whether it is too sophisticated for the market, or not sophisticated enough for the market—if all I am actually thinking about is the story I am trying to tell, then the writing, as we say, goes well. And by well I don’t mean I write many, many words, necessarily, but I enjoy experience. It may go slowly or it may go quickly, either way, my whole attention is on the story and the story only, which is pleasant the way having a long and uninterrupted conversation with a new friend is pleasant.

Sometimes, of course, I do think about these other things that have nothing to do with the story while I am trying to tell the story. And because these thoughts are not the story, I cannot see, hear, taste, think, ors feel the story and the writing, as we say, goes poorly. And by poorly I mean I leave the desk wondering if I had ever enjoyed writing. There is nothing enjoyable about trying to do one thing while you think about another thing, particularly when what you are thinking is an unanswerable question about the worthiness of the thing you are supposed to be doing.

But when I leave the desk after the writing has gone well, it is tempting to want to take credit for what has just occurred. After all, I was the only one there. Except what I did I really do? When the writing goes well, it is as if I have simply opened a spigot and allowed the water to flow. No, I must leave the writing itself alone. However, I did do something. I did focus my attention on the work and the work only, and I did this by choosing not to be afraid.

That is my only power, to choose fear or that which I love. Fear may come disguised as practicality, it may come cloaked as something to keep me safe from shame, but it is the vampire knocking on my door and nothing else. If I let him in, he will in fact drain my life for a time, sucking my attention from where it ought to be. What happens when I choose love is beyond my power to know, but I already know what will happen when I choose fear.

Nothing.

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Deliberate

Human beings only know how to do one thing, and that is create. Whether we are watching television, doing the dishes, writing a poem, or building lawn furniture, we are creating – changing the world, adding to it or altering it in some small way. Because it is all we know how to do, a lot of creation happens unintentionally or repetitively. Some repetitive creation works wonderfully for us: cleaning the house, going to a job every day that we love, cooking the same meal we enjoy. A lot of repetitive creation, however, is a kind of rut, the product of unintentional creation, which is often the result of creating out of fear.

When we create out of fear, we create only with the thought: I don’t want this. This is something that frightens us and so we take action whose trajectory takes us away from, say, becoming our father or being unmarried at 40. The problem is that when we act out of fear, when we move away from, we are also moving toward. If you stand up from you chair and think, “I will move away from the computer,” you are also moving toward something else, and what you are moving toward is what you are actually creating. This is why we sometimes look up and wonder: How the hell did I get here?

When we write, we are creating deliberately. When we write, we are sitting down and saying: What can I do with this ineluctable creative energy that cannot stop creating and creating and creating? What would happen if I turned this energy toward something deliberately? This is the thrill and the fear of writing. When we write, we understand our power. When we write, we understand that we can create anything at all, just as we can put any word on the page. There is nothing limiting us but our own choice.

This is why, when I hear writers fretting over what they have written, wondering if it is any good, if it will sell, if it will win awards, I often hear, beneath their worry, the thought: I just realized I can create anything at all, even something I don’t like.

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Cast Your Net

I fully understand the necessity of genres in publishing. If nothing else, publishers and booksellers must have some way to let perspective readers know as quickly as possible what they are more or less in for when they pick up a book. Thus, over in the science fiction/fantasy section you will find lasers and dragons, and in the suspense you will be able to read about someone being killed and someone else will learning who that killer is and bringing them to justice.

In the last twenty years there has been a proliferation of media, from a slush pile of cable channels, to the internet, to satellite radio. One result of this has been a genrefication of everything from news to music. If you’re liberal you know where to get your version of the news, if you’re conservative you have your outlets; likewise, there are radio stations for those who prefer Hip Hop and those who prefer Country.

This is when pundits will typically talk about the fracturing of America and how there are no communities anymore and we’re all cowering in our political/aesthetic corners—to which I say, bunk. This flowering of options is merely a result of that most basic of human impulses—preference. That we have gone from seeing most of humanity as the gray peon of the industrial revolution to something so diverse that women who love African America Christian Romance deserve their own sub-genre is all to the good.

And besides, too often I have learned that a man I was certain swam in only literary waters has read every Clive Cussler novel, or a woman I thought thoroughly devoted to vampires was a enthusiastic Amy Tan reader. We are forever seeking what we love most. That is all. Only we sometimes mistakenly believe we have found all there is to love, and we cross our arms and declare, “I know what I like.”

Of course we do.  Except what we love isn’t a thing or a person or a genre, it is a feeling only, a vibration of thought capable of many forms. Indeed, it requires many forms to complete itself. And so we cast our nets every day for all the music and books and leaders and friends and lovers and ideas that we assemble into what we call pleasure, and in the end the lines between genres and political parties are no more real than borders we have drawn between nations.

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Real Hope

I have developed a growing distaste for reality. A friend told me recently he believes in hope, but he also believes in reality. I do not like this reality he believes in if it stands somehow in opposition to hope. Though I suppose it’s an understandable misperception. Reality is what is here now or what has was here before. Hope is entirely about what has not yet happened. That is, you cannot hope your turkey sandwich is a ham sandwich if it is a turkey sandwich, though you might hope your turkey could become a ham sandwich through the miracle of an opened fridge.

In this way, reality bores me. I can’t do much with it for it has already been done. Hope has always been more interesting, for it lights the inherent optimism of creation. Creativity is always a hopeful thing. It must be. What have we but hope for what does not exist, since we don’t have the thing itself?

And anyway, good luck getting ten people to agree on reality. We may all be willing to call a tree a tree (if we all speak English), but we will likely not be willing to agree it is the most beautiful tree in the park. Reality is forever torn apart by perception, life’s final arbiter.

All of which is a good thing. Who would want to be bound to a reality not their own? Even the most hardened realist, whatever he or she is, will admit that something new will come tomorrow, something born out of the unreadable fruit of the mind, something likely based on this supposed reality and yet ever so slightly beyond it. Hurrah for tomorrow. We cannot live for it, but it keeps us honest, keeps us from believing too firmly in today.

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Evolving Choice

I’ve always had mixed feelings about the theory of evolution. Not the humans evolving from monkeys part. Everything clearly evolves. I evolve; you evolve; the birds, bees, bears, and baboons evolve. Once we huddled in caves thrilled to light a fire, now we watch revolutions in Egypt from our iPhones. Every thought, every gesture, every printed book or hole in the ground changes the world irrevocably for we cannot go back to the universe that existed before that hole was dug, the gesture made, the thought thought.

It was the natural selection about which I had misgivings because it suggested all of life evolved through a combination of random mutations and the irresistible compulsion of all living things—from amoebas to elephants—to make more of itself while avoiding death. Nowhere in any of this was that with which I have lived every day of my life: free choice.

To me this has always been the burden and the gift of consciousness. I can do anything, which is dizzying at times. I am always having to choose every single thing I do, say, and think. It is relentless. No one or thing has ever been able to choose anything for me. They have tried, but in the end I must still give my Yay or Nay before I take a single step. I don’t know about squirrels and llamas, but for humans, life is one endless and contiguous stream of choices. Was evolution chosen or imposed? I don’t know, but for my money, any theory that does not take into account free choice needs to be revisited.

And if I were to revisit the theory of evolution, I would begin with this question: why does all life desire to live? What is the mathematical or alchemical formula that requires everything from dandelions to Barak Obama to live, live, live, live and make more life that can go on living? And if everything in my life is a choice, is not that very living a choice as well?

Art has long sought to tackle this very question. The question, after all, is like a joke that ceases to be funny once it is explained, just as our stories defy the tidy containment of a thesis paper or the ravings of a deconstructionist screed. No matter what you are writing, the answer that has eluded scientists forever lies within that urge to create what was not there before. We already know the answer for we are living it, the meaning always the act of choice itself.

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Butt In Chair

Ask a dozen writers for the first and most important rule of writing, and ten of them will likely quote, sometimes grudgingly, that old workhorse aphorism: Butt in Chair. I never cared for this rule; it made writing seem like drudgery. Until, that is, I remembered writing my first novel.

I was in my twenties, and I had already written plenty of short stories, poems, plays, and screenplays. But I’d never attempted The Novel. So I made myself a schedule: Monday through Saturday, 7:00 AM to 9:00 AM. Non-negotiable. If I have no other talent, it is a mule-like stick-to-itiveness, and so, lo and behold, after six months of adhering to this schedule I had a 350-page draft of something resembling a novel.

I found it strangely miraculous, that all that was required to finish a draft of a novel was to work on it every day. In fact, there was a woman with whom I worked who had expressed an interest in writing romance novels. I revealed to her my secret as if I’d found the fountain of youth. “All you need to do is write every day!” I exclaimed. “That’s it!”

Of course, there was a bit more to it than that, but the point was that the size of the novel need not intimidate. And while I thought I had learned a great lesson about novel writing, I had in fact learned a great lesson about life itself. Namely, whatever we put our attention on increases.

What is Butt in Chair really saying but that? If you put your attention on the novel every day it will increase. In fact, the only way for that novel to grow to completion is to put your attention on it again and again and again. So it is with everything. Everything from our marriages to our gardens to writing. But don’t stop there. Put your attention on, say, the sour state of the economy, and it will increase, if only in your imagination. Put your attention on rejection letters and you may find they increase as well.

It is as if the universe is saying to us, even with all these supposed “bad” things we make: Look. You can make anything with your attention. Even crap. Isn’t that great news?

Yes it is. So put your butt in the chair of your life. Everything you want is waiting to be written.

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Summoning Trust

Last weekend I was invited to serve as a judge for my son’s high school debate tournament. I should say speech and debate tournament, because the last event I adjudicated was something called “duo dramatic interp,” a competition wherein a series of two young actors present a ten-minute scene. For this event, we—the ten competitors and I, the lone judge—were squeezed into a small classroom. So small, that the “stage” area was about three feet from where I was sitting. If the actors hadn’t been careful, they might have stepped on my toes.

It had been a while since I’d watched high school-age actors. As you might have guessed, there was a wide range of ability. What struck me the most, however, particularly from my intimate vantage, was that what distinguished the actors the most was whether they were in character continuously or only when they were speaking.

For the actors who only seemed to be in character when speaking, it was as if they had to start their acting engine again and again and again. The other actors, those who never left character, were riding the energy of the scene, an energy that sometimes asked them to speak and sometimes didn’t. When they did speak, it was with an energy already in motion, giving their words a momentum that no amount of thrashing and screaming by the re-starters could match.

The difference, it seems to me, was trust. Individual lines may have belonged to this or that actor, but the full energy of the scene belonged to both actors, was generated by both actors, and so was both a part of the actors and separate from the actors. Writing has always felt this way to me, a story like a current of energy that I may have summoned but over which I have limited control. Every time I try to “make something up” it feels like playing the piano in winter gloves; every time I ask for and then follow an energy called a story, I feel grateful, as though I have been allowed to attend the most interesting party in the world.

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Shop If You Must

My shopping is very nearly done, I’m happy to report. Unfortunately, I am much better at buying for myself than other people. For this reason I look upon the presents I buy as large and elaborately wrapped gift cards. I do the best I can, but I’ve learned not to take the returns personally.

Though I have to say, I used to be a terrible shopper, even for myself. I would often come home with clothes that did not fit, or were a bad cut, or the wrong color. It was as if I didn’t want to hurt the sales person’s feelings, or look too indecisive, or I would simply go into a kind of panic, drowning in all the choices. I’m better at it now, however, and I have writing to thank for it.

When I go shopping, assuming I don’t know exactly what I want (a white shirt; a black sweater), I decide how it is I want to feel when I try on the clothes. Do I want to feel sophisticated, urban, casual, rugged, or some nameless combination of all four? This follows one of my Rules of Writing: Feel first; write second. The clothes become like words, scenes, or narrative arcs. If I simply go in and start trying things on, I have nothing against which to judge the clothes, no definition of yes. Plenty of things fit; plenty of things are the right color—but what do I feel like when I wear them, and how do I want to feel?

This must be in part why some people become addicted to shopping. Shopping becomes a creative act, a means to match a feeling within to a reality with-out, and for some people, shopping is the only tangible experience of this fundamental human drive. I used to sneer at the young women with their armloads of shopping bags. So vapid, I thought. No more. If shopping was the only way I could think to create, I’d bust the bank. Plus, anytime you stop and ask yourself what you like most—whether in a dress shoe or cup of coffee—you are seeking alignment with the creative current that moves all life forward.

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