The Dictator

“I figured it out, Bill,” my brother told me recently. “In the absence of a dictatorship, we create one.”

His epiphany reminded me of Daniel Pink’s book Drive, which looks at the real reason people are motivated to do what they do. Pink argues, quite convincingly, that it is not the old “carrot and stick.” According to Pink’s research, humans are far more motivated by an inner desire to learn, expand, and do work they find meaningful. It turns out that avoiding the pain of punishment or seeking the trophy of approval and money is not why we do things. We do things because we like to do them.

Which is great, but, as my brother pointed out, we are all perfectly capable of creating our own dictatorships. I certainly have. For where could I possibly have more freedom than at my own desk before the blank page? There are no rules here or masters to obey. It is fully a democratic country, where the votes of preference and desire and curiosity guide the ship of state that is my story.

Freedom always feels good. The moment I release myself from the grinding rules of The World, I feel good. The moment I enter that kingdom where imagination and curiosity meet, where I am free to seek any answer to any question without injury or argument, I am released from the strange contortion that I assumed to appear acceptable. It is a natural contortion for writers to seek, since their livelihood appears to be based on the acceptance of editors and publishers and readers. And yet in meeting the blank page, to feel the difference between what is natural and what is unnatural, to feel the difference between contortion and relaxation, is to find and know all that I want.

It is a little disorienting to enter the dream of the story I am telling and feel that is it is enough. What about money? What about recognition? What about all those things that I was certain mattered and must be attended to if I am to be happy? A dictator always arrives in answer to these questions. He does not believe that freedom is its own reward. He punishes me for every false word. How else will I know not to use them again? And he holds out the carrot of success to keep me working. What else would bring me back to the desk?

It is hard to remember that even a dictator wants his subjects to be happy. After all, he was only summoned when I believed in my own unhappiness. He is the lord of unhappiness who nonetheless promises happiness if I can be obedient enough and work hard enough, so that one day, some day, I will have earned my way to freedom. How quickly I come to hate him. Soon a rebellion stirs, and I find myself in search of a palace to burn and a king to behead.

I have cut off his head a thousand times. It gives me something to do while I’m not writing. It is profoundly unsatisfying, however, particularly when I find the freedom of the page again. There I forget a dictator ever lived in my mind. Strange that someone who seemed so real can simply vanish like a shadow when the sun moves. So it goes when I turn myself toward life, where there has always been enough light to grow freely.

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Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

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What Survives

Daniel Pink’s book Drive brought out the missionary in me. I hadn’t gotten through the introduction and I was already quoting it to my wife. Drive is about what motivates people to do what they do, and the introduction begins with a story of an experiment conducted on monkeys years ago. The monkeys had to solve a simple puzzle, and what the test discovered, to the scientists’ confusion and amazement, was the monkeys solved the puzzle without any reward whatsoever being offered. No food, no affection—nothing. What’s more, when food was offered as a reward, the monkeys did worse.

I knew I wanted to interview Daniel as soon as I read this. Why did the monkeys solve the puzzle if doing so didn’t bring them food, shelter, or affection? Apparently because solving the puzzle pleased them. And apparently this need—this intrinsic need, as Pink describes it—is as strong if not stronger than all those survival-based needs. Pink goes on to show how humans, to the contrary of all the motivational thought of the last few centuries, are far more motivated by an intrinsic need for progress and pleasure than the rewards of money and fame or the threat of punishment.

How revolutionary. And yet it is. There is a comfort in the simplistic carrot and stick approach to motivation. If people are at base animals trying to survive, then in the end the best way to get them to do what we want them to do is to appeal to their need for safety or their fear of harm.

But if you’ve ever tried to write a book, you know the carrot and stick not only don’t apply, they don’t even exist. No one will punish you for not writing a book they haven’t asked to read, and if it’s money you’re after, writing is probably not the quickest means to that end. Yet you have to love writing to write a book, and once you have discovered something you love to do, you would just about rather crawl into a ditch and die than have that thing taken from you.

Survival is a fear-based, ersatz motivation. In fact, it is not even motivation; it is merely racing away from death. True motivation moves us toward something. Not moving toward what you love is a death all its own, though fortunately a death from which you can be resurrected with something as simple as a choice.

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Teach Them Well

I have featured a number of authors lately – Sir Ken Robinson, Daniel Pink, James Bach – and might be interviewing another (an eleven year-old writing/teaching prodigy, but we shall see) who deal in one way or another with education. Until I had children, my own thoughts about education could be boiled down to: get through it and then get on with real life because you’re going to have to teach yourself everything you really want to learn anyway.

I continue to feel that way, more or less, but the fact remains school dominates our early life, returns again once we have children, and maybe a third time with grandchildren. In my own life, my sister is a devoted public school teacher, and my father-in-law started two experimental schools in the 70s (School One and A.L.P., for you Rhode Islanders).

But why is Author interested in education? Because in the end every writer, just as every person, is a teacher and a student. What we call education or a school system is us wrangling—officially—over what it means to be human. At some point, students—and particularly child students—will ask, “Why do I have to do this?” This is an entirely legitimate question, and our answers, from, “Because I said so,” to, “Because it’s what we do,” to, “I don’t know,” reveal to us our current view of life, sometimes buried beneath useless habitual thinking.

I sometimes think of my characters as students in this way. They ask me, “Why do I have to go talk to the king?” Because I said so isn’t going to work. Those characters, just like our children, want to be themselves, and so I have to find the real reason my hero would go to the king. This search for the character’s self is the joy and challenge of writing.

The same is true of teaching. All we are ever teaching is how to be ourselves. Strange to think because every route toward the self is different, but the route is never the point. That the route exists is the point. I’ve known good teachers and I’ve known bad teachers and all the good teachers share one thing in common: a knowledge that life is interesting and meaningful. Without that understanding, you can never teach anything, you can only share your misery and hope your students reject you emphatically enough to wake you from your nightmare.

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