Deus Ex Machina

The best piece of writing I did in high school was also the last piece of writing I did in high school. Our principal had died suddenly in the middle of my senior year, and I was asked to say a few words about him at the graduation before giving his widow a copy of the yearbook, which we had dedicated to him. Both the knowledge that I would be speaking to the entire senior class and their families as well the solemn shadow of death cast over the occasion, focused me in a way the short stories I toiled over did not. I wrote that little speech in one shot, and when I read it to my yearbook advisor – who only a year before had suggested I make up stories and let other people write them – her voice choked when she said, “Yes. That’ll definitely do.”

A year later I wrote personal essay for my freshman composition class. I had never written a personal essay before. I found it easier than all the short stories I crafted and crafted and crafted. My professor told me it was the best essay he’d read in his fifteen years teaching the class. “Huh,” I thought, and then went back to my short stories.

I got better at writing fiction but it was never effortless. No matter. I had heard that writing was hard and I believed it. After twenty years of crafting and struggling I found myself writing personal essays again for this magazine, and they were exactly as easy for me to write as the one I wrote in Freshman Composition. But I was also teaching, and sometimes when I wrote my essays I’d get so excited by the ideas that I’d hop out of my chair and practice delivering the essays and lectures. I found that what I wrote taught me how speak, and whenever I spoke I was inspired to write more.

In my freshman year in college I also studied Aristotle. In his Poetics he said the ideal ending to a story should be “surprising but inevitable.” I have to agree. It’s no good if your reader sees the ending coming two-thirds of the way through your story, but the must all be in place. The surprising but inevitable ending was preferable, he believed, than those endings that depended on a deus ex machina, or the “machine of the gods.” Sometimes in Greek theater a machine would lower a character playing a god onto the stage in the final act, whereupon the god would sort out the mess the characters had created, punishing the bad and rewarding the good.

If you had told me twenty years ago that I’d be writing personal essays and giving inspirational talks, I’d have been very surprised. Then again, if I’d looked at the clues all about me, I might have seen how inevitable this conclusion was. But at that I was still waiting for my own deus ex machina in the form of a published novel to sort out the mess of my life. While I waited and struggled, life kept sorting itself for me, with or without my help. There is a machine of the gods, I believe, but it is always functioning in our lives. We just have to learn how to use it.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group coaching.


Fearless Writing: How to Create Boldly and Write With Confidence.
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The Prime Mover

I officially studied philosophy for the first time during my freshman year in college. By “study philosophy” I mean I read works by philosophers, listened to philosophy professors explain the works of these philosophers, and then took tests and wrote papers demonstrating that I understood what I had read and what the professor had explained.

Not long into my studies of the Great Western Philosophers I thought to myself, I can do that. All philosophers do is look around at the world, reflect on what they see, and write down what they believe to be the truth about what they have perceived. Why spend all this time reading the conclusions other people have drawn when you are just as capable of drawing them yourself?

One of those philosophers I studied was Aristotle. I liked Aristotle. It seemed like all his little ideas fit together into one big idea. The professor taught Aristotle by building and building these ideas one on top of the other, building toward the Big Idea, which waited for us at the end of the semester. He even primed us in the penultimate class, saying the Big Reveal was coming tomorrow. I was excited. This was Aristotle, after all. I believed I would be learning the meaning of life. That would be tuition money well spent.

The day came and my professor tied it all together. I don’t remember what he said—something about a Prime Mover. I was deeply disappointed. Listening to the professor describe Aristotle’s vision of the universe was like having the rules to an elaborate game explained. The professor didn’t even seem to care if Aristotle was right or wrong. The meaning of life wasn’t the point. The meaning of Aristotle was the point.

I left the class with a calloused heart. Why had I taken this class? Why was I in this school? Why was I on this planet? I felt vaguely betrayed and thoroughly alone. Clearly, no one was going to help me. Clearly, not only could I do that, I was going to have to do that. Clearly, I was going to have to figure it out for myself.

I marched back to my room, to my stories, to my life, with no notion of the gift my professor had just given me.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

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