The End of Tyranny

A few years ago I played the classic puzzle-solving video game Myst with my youngest son, Sawyer. I played Myst to its conclusion almost 20 years ago, so I could remember little of the game and its many ingenious puzzles except this: all the puzzles are indeed solvable. I had to remind myself of this on the several occasions Sawyer and I appeared to have reached a dead-end. Sawyer had not played the game through, however, and so when we reached these impasses he did what most people normally do when confronted with what looks like an insurmountable obstacle—he complained.

“This game is flawed!” he concluded. “It’s poorly designed.”

To be clear, I would have complained as well had I not known, empirically, that the problem was not the game’s design but the players’ perception. It was a kind of foggy hindsight, which, while obscuring the solutions, revealed complaint in all its uselessness. The complainer says, “There are no solutions!” and so none are perceived. His complaints actually prevent him from seeing the very thing he complains does not exist.

It was a rare treat in my life as a father. I was able to say, “Trust me, we’ll figure it out,” with a time-traveler’s authority. But I do not need to replay my trials every decade or so to know the roles of trust and complaint in my life. What can feel like a declaration of independence from the tyranny of an unjust world is actually a sentence to a prison of my own design. Fortunately, I can leave as soon as I remember that the key to that cell is not the solution to some problem but only the belief that one exists.

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Fearless Writing: How to Create Boldly and Write With Confidence.
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The Opposite Of Nothing

My youngest son has recently discovered the illusory satisfaction of complaint. Actually, the illusory part is still awaiting his acknowledgment, and in the meantime he is happy to explore the limitations of this free and legal drug. “Why so much complaining,” I asked him. “Because it releases the anger,” he explained. Yes, for a moment, and then the anger returns and, like any drug, you must do more to maintain its effect.

I too complain, of course. My most frequent complaint is, “What the hell!” There is no appropriate punctuation mark in the English language with which to end this short burst. It is a question that is not a question, for it expects no answer. Rather, I am registering my dissatisfaction – but with whom? At best, the children scatter and my wife disappears behind a book, leaving me alone to seek a solution to a problem that does not exist.

Sometimes I will take my complaints to the page. This is a wholly unsatisfying experience. Because the questions have no answers, I put them on the page for some unfortunate reader, of whom I am asking, “Can you believe this crap?” Hopefully they do not, and they put aside what I have scratched out in my impatience and disbelief.

Writing needs to be the opposite of complaint, if something that is actually nothing can even have an opposite. Only questions that can be answered are of any use to a writer. Here, my mind holds the questions and the page receives the answers. I ask, What is right that I have called wrong? What is whole that I have called broken? It is a humbling process sometimes, as yesterday’s complaints still echo in my mind. Fortunately, to forgive the past is no different than forgiving a dream, and in that forgiveness I awaken to a world needing no correction.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.inddWrite Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.
A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

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My Tragic Pose

As I wait for things to proceed with my recently finished memoir, I have begun to feel a second one bubbling around in me. This story, I see, is going to be about my wife and me, in particular the year I met her, which was 1983. I mentioned this to her and added, “It’s hard to remember exactly what I was like back then. I do seem to remember complaining a lot.”

“Yes,” she said. “You complained a lot.”

It would have been nice if she had couched this even a little, but I suppose I needed to hear the unpolished truth. Though now that I think about it, I believe it is entirely possible that I complained more to her than to anyone else. It was my soul, you see. It needed unburdening. Music and literature, the twin cathedrals of my youth, seemed full of lovely and poignant complaint. How heroic, how honest, how necessary was this aesthetic bemoaning of life as it was. Let us reject all that is false and flat and hollow and live in the beautiful remains of this destruction.

That was the plan, anyway. Yet one of my most vivid memories of that time was of Jen and me sitting at her kitchen table, and Jen, a budding thespian, offering her imitation of Bill as she had come to know him:

“Oh, track!” she moaned. “Oh, writing!”

It was quite comical. She was the funniest girl I had ever met, and so I forgave her this clowning around with my suffering. Perhaps I hadn’t complained loudly enough. “No,” I thought as I walked home. “That can’t be it either. Oh, what is it? There is something that needs to be said, and I am certain it needs to be said to her.”

Life felt so different that evening. Life had felt different since I first saw Jen on stage three months before. Some door had opened, but what if it closed again? Hadn’t she already told me she would be leaving in June? Would the door close with her when she left? And if it closed, shouldn’t I pound on it and demand it open again? Wouldn’t that be the heroic and honest and necessary thing to do?

I arrived home, though I was still seeing Jen at her kitchen table moaning about track and writing. She hadn’t been mean about it, really. That’s a neat trick. But what was it I needed her to hear? I felt as if I had been waiting my whole life to say it to someone. I closed the door to my room so that I might meditate on such questions.

No answer that could satisfy would come that night. This was how I preferred it in those days. How romantic was life while I felt perched on the edge of really living it. How delicious was this tragic pose, swooning over what life might have been and then collapsing safely into the arms of what it already was.

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It was a slow Tuesday night, and I was scheduled to get the first table.  The restaurant, an upscale steakhouse, was empty, all 100-plus seats of it.  Finally the doors opened and our first guests arrived: a tall older gentleman, the first of a party of two. Katherine, our host, asked if he would like to be seated while he waited. He would.

She led him down the stairs from the front desk and straight to table 33. This was always where we seated the first table. It was the most popular table in the restaurant—a booth, of course, centrally located. Better to seat it first, so the next and the next and the next won’t ask for it. Yet it was also situated by the corner that led to both the bar and the restrooms, a fact I had never considered in my ten years at the restaurant until that night.

Katherine dropped the menus and began scooping up the extra settings. The man, however, did not sit. He looked once around the empty restaurant, and then back at his table with an expression of disappointment and defeat.

“Do you have to seat me at the worst table in the restaurant?” he asked.

Katherine, a recently divorced suburban housewife who always spoke to each guest as if she were offering them cookies, began to stammer. “I—I’m sorry.” She snatched the menus from the table.

“I mean really,” moaned the man. “It’s right by the bathrooms.”

Katherine was already on her way to table 23. “How about this?”

“Well, yes,” said the man. “Yes, that’s better.  I mean why would you sit me at that table?”

Katherine began to formulate her response, but the man was not done.

“Why me?” he implored. “Why me?”

Katherine was not at that moment equipped for such an existential request. She seated him, apologized, and wished him a nice dinner. Fortunately, in moving from 33 to 23 he had also moved from my station to my friend Blake’s station. Blake emerged from the kitchen, surprised to see himself seated first. I was supposed to have been seated first. Seating order mattered to waiters.

“What happened?”

“Didn’t like 33,” I said.

Table 33?”

I nodded.

“You want to take him?” Blake offered.

“No, thanks.”

Blake eyed me suspiciously. “What’s wrong with him?”

“We’re all against him.”

Blake sighed and rolled his eyes. “Why do I always get the crazies? Huh? Why is it always me?”

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The Invitation

I was watching a talk show last night where the guest was a comedian famous for his political humor. The host fed him a series of subjects about which the comedian could riff, and I do not need to tell you that the comedian was displeased with the general state of things.  He was funny, no doubt, but the gist of the interview boiled down to, “People are stupid and the world is a mess.” I was through laughing by the end of the interview.

I do not blame this comedian – or anyone – for being dissatisfied with politics, or public education, or the state of publishing, or their marriage. Do we think or expect the world to be perfect as it is? Has humanity ever not wanted to change nearly everything about the world, even if that change means taking the world back to some “simpler time”? Of course not, but do not mistake complaining about all that imperfection for insight. Pointing out that the world needs to change is like pointing out that the sun is likely to rise tomorrow.

All complaining boils down to this: I don’t like things; I want them to change. Bravo! What would we do with ourselves if we didn’t want anything to change? We’d sit in a chair and pray that the world would stop rotating. Unfortunately, complaint doesn’t actually change anything. At best it is a clue that we want something to change; at worst it drains us of all energy to enact that change because complaint always assumes a level of powerlessness. After all, if we had the power to change what bothered us, we’d change it, instead of merely complaining about it.

Never is this truer than when writing a book. Do not complain about the book you are writing. You love the book you are writing. That you do not know what to write next is not the book’s fault. Complaining will merely take you two steps back. Instead of complaining, tell yourself, “I love this, but I want it to be more.” In this way, you are inviting the change you desire, instead of fretting over why it hasn’t arrived yet.

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