The Fallen

It was 1983 and a friend and I had just left a party where David Bowie’s Modern Love, which had been one of many hit songs off of his mega-best-selling album Let’s Dance, had been playing. I commented how much I liked the song, and my friend grumbled something about Bowie. This was a friend given to strong opinions, especially about music, but I had always thought he was something of a Bowie fan. I asked him what the problem was.

“That song’s all right, but the album sucks,” he explained.

“So?”

“So he could have been great!”

I can still see the hurt in his eyes as he said the word “great.” I understood my friend’s point of view, that this album signaled a change in Bowie’s music, a change not to our liking, but so what? My friend scowled on. Bowie’s crime, for the time being anyway, was unpardonable.

For the record – no pun intended – Let’s Dance was by far Bowie’s bestselling album, but also, according an interview I saw with the man himself, his least favorite album. He had written it to make lots of money, he had, and he hated it. So perhaps my friend had sniffed all the “selling out” going on, but still I say, “So what?”

It is never anyone’s business what mistakes anyone else does or doesn’t make, especially if that someone else is an artist. And anyway, I don’t think my friend cared one lick about Bowie’s greatness. What my friend cared about was the realization that artistic integrity—or any integrity for that matter—is not so simple to maintain. As it turns out, money, fame, ego, boredom—all these things can pull anyone from the horse.

The problem with looking to an artist as an example is you generally only get to see the result of the artist’s integrity, not the process of maintaining it. In the end, all our heroes are going to fall, not because it is a fallen world, but because it is difficult to learn any other way. We usually meet artists as they are experiencing the first great flight of their life, freed from whatever weight they sloughed off in their early stumbles. But one can only hold the trajectory of this flight for so long, and what was once a freedom feels like a jail as the artist seeks to expand again.

Whether this expansion happens gracefully or not isn’t the point. Those public figures we admire are merely shadows of what we think we would like to become. Their stumbles are no more ours than their successes, and as soon as you think, “Bowie couldn’t stay great, how will I?” you have built yourself a prison wall. And the great irony of this fear that what befell others must befall us is that within the work of all artists we admire, within all the words and music and stories, exists one message, echoed over and over again, always heard, but so hard to follow: Be yourself.

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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.

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The Wolf

My friend Chris calls it The Hour of the Wolf. This is roughly 2:00 AM, and you are awake in the loneliness of your insomniac’s bed. You are alone with nothing to distract you from all those thoughts of your worthlessness or impending doom. In his song “Rock and Roll Suicide,” David Bowie writes:

The night seems to lacerate your brain
I’ve had my share, I’ll help you with the pain.
You’re not alone.

Whether the bed you are sleeping in is shared by another or not, you feel alone in your fear and desperation. You feel alone with a question you believe you must absolutely answer before you can rest. How can you rest when you hear the wolf howling at your door? Will he not devour you in your sleep?

And yet the very feelings you call loneliness are an expression of that which accompanies you in every moment. You have summoned a storm of thought, wandered into it, and become lost. Every storm has an eye, and the eye of this storm is you. Not the Little You who becomes afraid, but the Greater You who is never afraid, who is instead aware that fear has come knocking.

The pain we feel in the Hour of the Wolf is only the Greater You saying, “Come back. Come back from the future where you imagine your demise, come back from the past where you are reliving that which you now call failure, come back to right now where you are always safe.” The further into the storm you wander, the louder the Greater You will speak, for this is the only way to be heard above the din of thought in which you are lost.

How like us to mistake our own voice for a hungry wolf. How like us to mistake that which we seek for that which will destroy us.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!

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A Critic Is Born

It was 1983 and my friends and I had just watched Apocalypse Now at the Avon Cinema in Providence. We were all in high school but we were bright-ish and artsy and our conversation bubbled with post-movie opinion.

One opinion stood out to me that evening. Tony, who was a year younger than I but headed to Harvard after only three years of high school, was particularly focused in his assessment. “That is a great film,” he said with an authority that seemed beyond his years. “A really great film.  And it would have been even greater without all that bullshit philosophy at the end.”

I can still see Tony marching beside me, head down, talking seriously about the film’s strengths and weaknesses. Tony and I were not close friends, but we were a part of the same crowd and saw each other frequently enough—and as well as I knew him this moment seemed uniquely Tony. That same summer I had dropped by his house to visit a mutual friend who was staying with him, and I began singing “Boys,” a David Bowie song with which I had just become familiar.

“That’s a great song,” Tony said, again with that same preternatural authority. I felt vaguely proud that I liked a song that Tony identified as great. It mattered to Tony that a song or a movie was great. It mattered to Tony that he say so. “Why does it matter to him so much?” I wondered.

Years went by, and Tony went to Harvard and I did not. I lost track of him. I moved to Seattle and started writing books. One of those books got published and one day I found myself at Northwest Bookfest at a table for local authors when who should stop by but Beth C. Beth was also a part of that old high school crowd and I hadn’t seen her in forever.

“Have you heard about Tony?” she asked.

“What happened to him?” I had always liked Tony and I hoped he was all right.

“He’s A. O. Scott.”

“Who’s A. O. Scott?”

“The movie critic for the New York Times.”

“Oh.”

I can’t say I wasn’t impressed, and I think I would have been more envious of his fancy job if life at that moment did not seem so utterly on purpose.

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

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We Can Be Heroes

When I was 18 my favorite song in the whole wide world was David Bowie’s 1977 hit “Heroes.” According to Bowie, he saw two teenagers in West Berlin kissing by the Berlin wall and was drawn to the juxtaposition of desperate love against this dark symbol of the cold war. It included the lines: “I can remember/standing by the wall/and the guns shot above our heads/and we kissed as though nothing could fall.”

He portrayed the lovers as heroes, which I found profoundly moving. I still do, 28 jaded years later. I thought of this when I interviewed the wise and compassionate Karl Marlantes, and this decorated Vietnam War Veteran said of killing another man, “The adrenaline’s going like mad – I never had a second thought about it. This guy’s gotta go.”

I would never ask the soldiers and firefighters and police officers, men and women who chose jobs that by definition put one in death’s path, to relinquish their heroic title and hand it to the two closest teenagers stealing a kiss. We will always be moved when people choose to act against their own self-preservation to help another, even if that other is thousands of miles away with no meaningful tie to the one risking his life other than a shared nationality.

But Marlantes would go on to say, “Whoever you just killed probably had a sister and a mother, and that starts to hit you. It might hit you a week after you do the killing or it might hit you 20 years after you do the killing—but when it hits you it’s devastating.”

Death always challenges us, whether we face it daily in our lives or not. Gifted as we are with our powerful imaginations, we all understand, theoretically at least, that one day this body we call ours will no longer walk, talk, or eat pancakes. And so this thing we call Death seems to be forever asking of us: Do I, Death, really matter as much as I seem to?

The soldiers, firefighters, and police officers would seem to say, “No,” in their own way, for if it did matter so, why risk it? Why risk the worst thing possible unless there was something greater at stake? Which is perhaps why Karl Marlantes thought of the sisters and the mothers of the men he’d killed.

It is hard to answer death with either more death or your own mere survival. It is hard to answer a thing with itself. Every day of one’s life, soldier or student, cop or criminal, we have but two choices before us—which why all heroes must choose love, as it is the only thing worth living for.

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

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The Crooked Course

Funny how we sometimes find the things we’re looking for. The spring I turned 18 I felt it was time for some changes. I would be leaving high school and my hometown of Providence in a few months, and many of my old habits were no longer serving me.

Like many teenagers, my life required a soundtrack. For two years, that soundtrack had been provided primarily by the band Pink Floyd (see my recent entry: The Wall). What I had once found profound I now experienced as maudlin and melodramatic. I needed something both brighter and deeper. Blaming the world for all your troubles simply wouldn’t do. I needed new music.

I don’t remember how I landed on the song “The Court of the Crimson King,” by the band King Crimson. I can’t even be sure I’d ever listened to it. Yet, all the same, I found myself ducking into Goldie Records with the sole purpose of buying an album that contained that song. I didn’t ask for help, though I could have. Goldie Records was run by the sort of goatee-wearing audiophiles that love to point you to obscure albums. No need, I would find it myself.

By going straight to the B’s. Remember the song was “The Court of the Crimson King” by the band King Crimson. You will not find one B anywhere in the song or band name. Yet some part of me was thinking, “It’s here somewhere.” Soon I came upon the album, “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars,” by David Bowie. I liked the cover of the album very much. It was a kind of doctored color photograph of Bowie on a street corner in full glam-rock regalia. I didn’t check the song list; I didn’t look for the words “Crimson” or “King” or “Court”; instead I thought, “Yes, this must be it.” I couldn’t wait to get home and listen at last to “The Court of the Crimson King.”

Unfortunately, when I got home I discovered that “Ziggy Stardust” did not in fact include the song I had been looking for. I felt strangely duped. I felt like I was always making these sorts of bizarre and easily avoidable mistakes. But I still liked the cover, so I decided to give it a listen.

You must understand the importance music played in my life at that time. I would clamp headphones over my ears and project myself into the emotional world of the songs. It was as if I was teaching myself how I wanted to live through the music’s reality. If I listened and listened and listened to it, maybe I could carry that feeling with me into the real world and live as if I were still in the songs.

So when the song “Five Years,” the album’s first track, began, and when I heard it’s lovely piano, and Bowie’s distinct voice, and the particular poetry of the lyrics, I leaned close to the speakers, and for the first and only time in my life, said aloud to whatever was listening, “Thank you.  Thank you.  Thank you.”

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

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The Fallen

It was 1983 and a friend and I had just left a party where David Bowie’s Modern Love, which had been one of many hit songs off of his mega-bestselling album Let’s Dance, had been playing. I commented how much I liked the song, and my friend grumbled something about Bowie. This was a friend given to strong opinions, especially about music, but I had always thought he was something of a Bowie fan.  I asked him what the problem was.

“That song’s all right, but the album sucks,” he explained.

“So?”

“So he could have been great!”

I can still see the hurt in his eyes as he said the word “great.” I understood my friend’s point of view, that this album signaled a change in Bowie’s music, a change not to our liking, but so what? My friend scowled on. Bowie’s crime, for the time being anyway, was unpardonable.

For the record – no pun intended – Let’s Dance was by far Bowie’s bestselling album, but also, according an interview I saw with the man himself, his least favorite album. He had written it to make lots of money, he had, and he hated it. So perhaps my friend had sniffed all the “selling out” going on, but still I say, “So what?”

It is never anyone’s business what mistakes anyone else does or doesn’t make, especially if that someone else is an artist. And anyway, I don’t think my friend cared one lick about Bowie’s greatness. What my friend cared about was the realization that artistic integrity—or any integrity for that matter—is not so simple to maintain. As it turns out, money, fame, ego, boredom—all these things can pull anyone from the horse.

The problem with looking to an artist as an example is you generally only get to see the result of the artist’s integrity, not the process of maintaining it. In the end, all our heroes are going to fall, not because it is a fallen world, but because it is difficult to learn any other way. We usually meet artists as they are experiencing the first great flight of their life, freed from whatever weight they sloughed off in their early stumbles. But one can only hold the trajectory of this flight for so long, and what was once a freedom feels like a jail as the artist seeks to expand again.

Whether this expansion happens gracefully or not isn’t the point. Those public figures we admire are merely shadows of what we think we would like to become. Their stumbles are no more ours than their successes, and as soon as you think, “Bowie couldn’t stay great, how will I?” you have built yourself a prison wall. And the great irony of this fear that what befell others must befall us is that within the work of all artists we admire, within all the words and music and stories, exists one message, echoed over and over again, always heard, but so hard to follow: Be yourself.

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Imagine It

I am reading Gary Zukav’s Spiritual Partnership in anticipation of our upcoming interview. In it, he briefly describes the emotional turmoil that plagued the sculptor Michelangelo. Apparently, the older Michelangelo got, the angrier he got, until, in his eighties, he rarely finished a work, preferring instead to smash the sculptures with hammers.

Now that I think of it, Mark Twain apparently grew hard and bitter in his waning years. This is due in part, it is said, to the death of his daughter—but a lot of people have lost daughters and not drawn the curtain on hope.

It is sometimes important for artists to hear stories like these, grim as they sound. In his song “Star”, David Bowie sings, “I could fall asleep at night as a rock ‘n roll star/I could fall in love all right as a rock ‘n roll star.” Quite honest, that. Everyone, artists and non-artists alike, are frequently warned that success solves nothing, but everyone rarely listens.

So I don’t want to wag my finger. The warnings about fame and success and the rest are so often filled with the sour scowl of disappointment that it is hard to hear them clearly. What is so bad about millions of people reading your books or listening to your music? Why, nothing at all, of course.

But Bowie had it right, especially the falling asleep part. As with anything we long for to solve all our problems, we are seeking that universal stamp of approval that will free us once and for all from want. That is, wouldn’t it be great if I didn’t need anything to be happy? Yes, it would, except in the fantasy of fame, those who are not famous often forget that once this fame is attained they can never lose the fame or they would also lose their happiness.

The important thing to remember is the not-needing-anything-to-be-happy part. The desire is correct, but not the means of achieving that desire. The beauty of not needing anything to be happy is anyone can achieve it at any time. So when you look at another person and they seem free because they are beautiful or successful or famous or wealthy, you are actually a step closer to what you seek. If you had no idea of freedom, you would never be able to identify it incorrectly in another person. Forget the trappings you dressed it in, and seek the feeling for itself, because as every artist knows, if you can imagine something, it is only a matter of time before you find it.

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