Historically Meaningful

As a part of our homeschooling, my son and I have been watching a lot of history videos lately. I don’t know about Sawyer, but I’ve learned more about Constantinople/Istanbul, and the rise of Christianity, and the fall of Rome, and just how predictably ruthless and bloody every king, queen, emperor, or tsar was for two or three thousand years after we all gathered together in large groups and decided there’s us and there’s them than I had in previous 48 years of my life.

It’s pretty interesting stuff. Who knew how influential the Vikings were in the development of Europe? I didn’t. Now I do. I also didn’t know just how huge the Ottoman Empire had been, nor about how the Mongols conquered and basically created what is now China, nor that the “hot gates” T. S. Eliot referred to in – I think it was The Wasteland – was from the same battle on which that movie 300 was based.

At the end of a 14-part documentary on the rise and fall of Rome, one poor historian was given the unenviable job of summarizing why it is we bother studying the 2,000 year-old shenanigans of a bunch of sandal-wearing pagans. I believe he said something about learning from their mistakes. That’s nice in theory, but I think humans tend to learn more from their own personal mistakes, than, say, the mistakes Augustus Caesar made.

Yet I can hardly blame him for this answer. He must have wanted it to match in some way the passion he felt for this subject. It cannot be that it simply means nothing. It cannot be that it was just a bunch of stuff that happened and has no relevance to our actual lives. It cannot be because it’s interesting. Yes indeed. That’s all we ever really get in our search for meaning – that something is interesting to us right now. The moment I lay my restless attention on something of interest to me I make sense to myself for exactly as long as I can resist asking why.

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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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Real History

I was born in 1965 and so my memory of the Vietnam War was of something terrible that hopefully would end soon. Once it did end I accepted the wisdom that it had been a bad idea from the start and that our leaders ought to have known that. Vietnam was what taught us that war was awful, that it was rarely necessary, and that it brought out the worst in all its participants.

Then my son and I recently began watching an excellent six-part documentary on the Vietnam War. Prior to this we also watched documentaries on the Russian Revolution, on Stalin, and on the Cuban Missile Crisis. By the time we were halfway through Part One of the Vietnam documentary my opinion of that war had changed. No, I am not a Hawk, nor do I think America could have won the war. What changed, rather, is my understanding of why a person, particularly a person leading this country in 1964, might think the war was necessary and winnable.

This may seem like a small admission to anyone with Hawkish memories of that time, but it is not. To me, what has revealed itself is the greatest gift possible within the study of what we call history. What happened in the past is beyond knowing, for what really happened is what every single person did, said, or thought during that period. But what is perceivable through this historical lens is a glimpse of the wholeness of human thought.

From my vantage, which is the safety of the future, the concept of political right and wrong are not applicable, for it is too late for such notions to mean anything—if they ever did. From my vantage I see only thoughts of war and thoughts of peace, thoughts everyone has held with varying strength at various times. When someone’s thoughts of peace will eclipse his thoughts of war is everyone’s journey.

I try within this column never to be right but only to see clearly. This is not always so simple. My mind is agile enough that it can rearrange reality in my favor, describing a winning move on the chessboard of life. And yet that victory never comes. By the time I am done with such fantasies all the pieces have shifted again on their own, reality moving too quickly for any solution beyond acceptance.

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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An Interesting Subject

Yesterday began a new chapter in my wife’s and my parenting lives: homeschooling. This was a choice our son made for us, a choice we should have perhaps made eight years ago, but, as the saying goes, if we could have we would have. So here we are.

The subjects to be taught have been divided, and I got math and social studies. When I broached the subject of social studies with Sawyer on Monday, he declared, “I don’t care about history. It’s boring. I don’t want to study it. It’s not important in my life. Let’s just skip it.”

Tempting as his suggestion was, I felt there were other options. But what to do? I know Sawyer, and humans in general, well enough to know that when the lights in his learning house are off, you can knock all you want on his door, but no one will answer. He just told me his lights are off. Given this, and given that he is supposed to learn about Washington State History, I decided there was only one logical place to begin our lessons: Nazis.

Like a lot of people, Sawyer is fascinated by Nazis. Why did they do what they did? How could they have done what they did? Were they evil, or sick, or something else? Sometimes I wish he were a little less interested in Nazis, but this isn’t one of those times. When Nazis, or Germans, or WWII are mentioned, the lights on his learning house blink on, and there he is at the door with all his questions.

How are the Nazis connected to Washington State History? I don’t know, nor do I need to. I don’t need to know because I already know that everything in human history is connected. Somewhere there is a path from Nazis to Washington State and we will find it by and by. Sawyer said that history is not important in his life, and in a way he is correct. I don’t think the dates and outcomes of certain battles and so on are really important in anyone’s life unless that sort of thing interests you the way model trains or football interests you.

But history is also just everything that happened before, everything people did and said and thought and wished for and dreamt and forgot and remembered, the great tide of love and fear called humanity that broke one day on the shore and coughed up Sawyer. Sawyer is a subject in which Sawyer remains consistently interested, and with luck he will understand he is every bit as interesting as Nazis.

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History In The Flesh

I interviewed the historical novelist Margaret George shortly after she had released Elizabeth I, a book that includes an intimate portrait of not just the queen and her many courtiers and ladies, but also William Shakespeare—whose appearance, I have to admit, had me sitting up a little straighter in my reading chair. Silly, I know, because it was only George’s imagining of The Bard, but still – my disbelief was fully suspended. I wanted to meet the man.

Sometimes you go in search of history, and sometimes it sits down and talks to you. Three days before I met Margaret George, I spoke with Caroline Kennedy about She Walks in Beauty, a collection of poems that had inspired her over her lifetime. I did not intend to talk about her family, but for Kennedy, poetry and her family are inextricable. So there we were talking about her mother and father, and I had to remind myself exactly whom she meant.

It was history in the flesh – only it wasn’t, because John and Jacqueline were just her parents, and John-John was just her brother, just like Shakespeare was just a writer. I thought of Kennedy when I was chatting with Margaret George after our interview, and she mentioned something she’d heard Sylvester Stallone say: “We all invent our own mythology.”

I couldn’t agree more. Kennedy said she authored her first anthology, The Best-Loved Poems of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, after her mother’s death, when the public seemed fixated almost entirely upon Onassis’s fashion sense. She was trying, however vainly, to rewrite the evolving Jackie O mythology.

Shortly after talking to Kennedy, a man in the bookstore asked what I had been doing. I told him. He shook his head in wonder. “What a woman,” he said. “So grounded. What a national treasure.” As he said this, his eyes seemed to be focused somewhere far off, on some mountaintop where the national treasures reside. There they must stay, if we aim to be inspired by their perfection. Or, if we choose, we could join them by standing perfectly still, surrounded entirely by history forever in the making.

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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Author2Author

In case you’ve missed it – and if my Blogtalk Radio Listener Counts are correct you probably have – we have recently begun a new live internet radio program called Author2Author. Our first guest was the irreplaceable Frank Delaney, and our second show featured the delightful Diane Hammond.  Next I will be chatting with doctor author Carol Casella, and the week after that Andre Dubus. Though Author2Author airs live every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 PM EST, you can always listen to the shows in the archives. Starting in March, we will be archiving the shows on Author itself.

Why a radio show? Because, as much as I love interviewing writers, I thought a real dialogue between two writers could be just as interesting. So far, this has proven to be the case. But this is not surprising. Writers don’t always get to talk to other writers about writing. In fact, when they do get together, it is not unusual for conversation to quickly descend into gossip and griping about agents, advances and, of course, the Decline of Publishing. When Hemingway describes meeting F. Scott Fitzgerald for the first time in A Movable Feast, he complained that the celebrated novelist talked mostly about about, you guessed it, agents and advances. So this is a time-honored tradition.

But I love writers, and no matter how often they complain or gossip I know what moves them. Sometimes all this business talk feels like so much posturing, a kind of nervous effort to disguise the fact that what writers really know and care about is just writing. One reasonably informed question is all it takes to learn this.

It reminds me of the time I was having coffee with Frank, a friend I hadn’t seen in thirty years. He was now a professor of Southern American History, and so I mentioned I had written a novel set in the pre-Civil War South, and how I had some theories about that time and place, and I was curious what he thought of these theories. Frank leaned forward, everything about him came into focus, and he said, “Well, as a matter of fact, Bill, to really understand the South you have to know that—”

And here he paused a moment, and warned. “Now be careful. We’re about to cross the bridge to Boredom Town.”

Oh, I could sympathize. How often I’ve been at some party and wished I could really talk about what I loved, which is writing. Really talk about the blank page, and listening, and what it is when the sentence arrives fully formed and what it feels like when it doesn’t. Well, now we have a show for that. It’s a call in show, by the way: (661-449-9357), and if you catch us wandering into the dreary world of agents and advances you have my permission to call right up and tell us to knock it off.

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

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The History of You

Mary Daheim has written a whopping 50 plus books in her thirty-year career. The majority of these were mysteries, but she broke into publishing writing what she describes as “bodice rippers.” She hadn’t intended to write bodice rippers (luscious historical romances) but her agent explained that her books would have a much better chance of selling if there was more sex and less history, Mary said, “Okey-dokey,” and so it began.

Here is the point where the screenplay of Mary’s life might portray her as a writer selling out. She abandons her love of the true historical novel for the crass profit of sex and fantasy. But her story is hardly so pat. Mary is a practical woman, but more importantly she is a woman who knows herself. She knew, for instance, that she was no fan of romances, and after four novels she also knew that it was time to write something else.

When Mary’s patience with romances had run out she could have tried to write straight historicals again. After all, someone was selling them, and she was now a published author. But she decided to try her hand at mysteries instead, and the rest—no pun intended—is history.

If Mary Daheim had absolutely been meant to write historical novels I don’t think she would have spent the last three decades happily writing mysteries. Is it not possible that the best thing that could have happened to Mary was to have her agent convince her to write a romance, not just to get her published, but to move her attention off of what in the end it turned out was only the first idea of the kind of book she would like to write was?

It is so easy to judge someone’s choices, even when that someone is ourselves. Intuition seems to have a prescience all its own, as if sensing where the thread of a single choice stretches far into the darkness of the future. The more taut that thread, the more drawn we are to follow it, and yet from our myopic vantage in the present some threads can seem headed in entirely the wrong direction. Here is the moment we must judge not. There is the idea of who we are, and there is truth of who we are, and our job has never been to prove an idea but only to follow the truth.

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

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History Of Love

I enjoyed studying history in college as long as the professor doing the lecturing was a reasonably good storyteller. For instance, I had two excellent professors my first semester-and-a-half of Western Civilization. These two men made everything from the Greeks to the Enlightenment sound pretty interesting and I generally looked forward to their class. But when we came to the 20th century a specialist in modern history was recruited to do the lecturing. This man always wore the same rumpled brown sweater and made World War II sound like a dinner squabble. I daydreamed my way through Stalin’s purges.

But I think my falling out with history, and college in general, occurred in the middle of my freshman year. On this day I received a letter from a then-girlfriend informing me that our long-distance relationship was not going to work. The letter flattened me. I should point out that I would marry this very girl ten years later, but I did not know that at the time I received the letter. Carrying this news in my heart, I trudged off to history during which I had to take an essay quiz where I was asked to offer my thoughts on the impact of liberal democracies on the French Revolution. Unfortunately, my only thoughts were, “None of this means anything whatsoever.”

History is a story we are constantly telling ourselves about all that has ever happened to everyone. We cannot repeat it because there will never be another Hitler or Julius Caesar or Joan of Arc. What repeats itself over and over again is the desire within every human being to express their unique and inimitable life at the same time every other human being is trying to express their unique and inimitable life. This confluence creates infinite challenges and potential, from wars and famines to cathedrals and symphonies, all of it in the name of humanity’s desire for authentic expression.

At eighteen I had begun to understand that love in some form or another was the only thing that mattered to me. There is, after all, no more authentic expression than love, whether love of stories, food, politics, or another person. I’m sure my professors loved history, but there we parted ways. If you love the story we call history, then love on, but know that we retell the story of our past for the same reason we tell all stories, whether real or wholly imagined: not to understand what has happened, but to acquire a lens of metaphor through which to see the present moment and reveal in its new refraction what we love most.

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

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Thoughts Of Love

This month’s issue features two authors discussing the challenges of forgetting history while writing about history. That is, the author knows what’s coming, but the characters don’t. In Caleb’s Crossing, Geraldine Brooks’s narrator cannot tell the story of a seventeenth century Native American attending Harvard University as a kind of sad prelude of the violence and conflict to come.

Similarly, the tension driving Erik Larson’s recounting of life in 1933 Berlin (In the Garden of the Beasts) derives entirely from the story’s two central characters, the U. S. ambassador and his daughter, not knowing that the men beside them in the opera and telling jokes at dinner parties, even the giant swastikas hanging outside public buildings, would soon be synonymous with evil.

Evil, however, is almost always a label for what has happened, not what is happening. We can’t undo what we have done, and if what has been done hurts another, the temptation is to condemn the perpetrator to monstrousness, to strip him of free choice, to see his violence and crimes not as the expression of a choice, but of simply what he is, as if he had no power to choose otherwise, the same as a cat cannot choose to bark.

Yet in every single moment of my life I feel the burden and liberty of choice. There is nothing in the world that can be done to me that could deprive me of the power of choice. You could put me in a prison cell, chop off my arms and legs, gouge out my eyes, and still I could choose, if only what I am thinking. It is quite literally who I am. I am not my body. My body is a tool to express my choices, not that which makes those choices.

We call Nazis evil in part to make ourselves feel safer. Those men did those things because they were evil, as if they had been born deprived of the power to choose otherwise. They are different than us. They are monsters. And yet the moment I condemn another to monstrousness, even Adolf Hitler himself, I allow that it is somehow possible to lose the power of choice. If it is true of Adolf Hitler, then it could be true for me. The moment I believe in monsters is the moment I believe it is somehow possible to be prevented from thinking a thought of love.

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Living Between The Facts

In case you missed it, Sarah Palin was in Boston recently and was asked for her impressions of Paul Revere and his historic ride. Her answer was less than historically accurate, much to the delight of her political opponents. True, her answer was a particularly jumbled bit of Palinese, but we all get tangled up in what we’re saying sometimes. The coda to this story, however, was that her followers apparently went on Wikipedia and changed the entry for Paul Revere to match Palin’s quote. Wikipedia changed it back. History is accurate again.

Or maybe it’s not. Before Andre Dubus spoke at last year’s Pacific Northwest Writers Conference, he informed me that his biography in our conference catalogue was inaccurate. “Don’t worry about it,” he assured me. “You guys probably got it off Wikipedia.”

I have to admit I was more disappointed in Wikipedia’s inaccuracy than in the PNWA’S. My family and I used Wikipedia all the time—now what would we do? Keep using Wikipedia, turns out. History’s ineluctable fuzziness may be all for the better. In fact, in her upcoming interview, Pulitzer Prize winner Geraldine Brooks explained that when searching for a story, she specifically seeks a swath of history with noticeable gaps. What verifiably happened is the historian’s domain; what lies in between belongs to the fiction writer.

I am certainly someone more comfortable living in between the facts. From this open space I can better imagine what might be. The only time I worry about repeating history is when I spend too long staring at it. The longer I stare at it, the more I can imagine nothing else. The longer I stare at it, the more I forget the direction in which life is actually led.

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

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History In The Flesh

I interviewed the historical novelist Margaret George today, whose latest, Elizabeth I, includes an intimate portrait of not just the queen and her many courtiers and ladies, but also William Shakespeare, whose appearance, I have to admit, had me sitting up a little straighter in my reading chair. Silly, I know, because it was only George’s imagining of The Bard, but still – my disbelief was fully suspended. I wanted to meet the man.

Sometimes you go in search of history and sometimes it sits down and talks to you. Three days ago I spoke with Caroline Kennedy about She Walks in Beauty, a collection of poems that inspired her over her lifetime. I did not intend to talk about her family, but for Kennedy, poetry and her family are inextricable. So there we were talking about her mother and father and I had to remind myself exactly whom she meant.

It was history in the flesh – only it wasn’t, because John and Jacqueline were just her parents, and John John was just her brother, just like Shakespeare was just a writer. I thought of Kennedy today when I was chatting with Margaret George after our interview and she mentioned something she’d heard Sylvester Stalone say: “We all invent our own mythology.”

I couldn’t agree more. Two days ago in this space I wrote about my mythology of mashed potatoes, a legend so repeated in my memory I’m not entirely certain whether the potato in question had actually been baked instead of mashed. Kennedy said she authored her first anthology, The Best-Loved Poems of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, after her mother’s death, when the public seemed fixated almost entirely upon Onassis’s fashion sense.

Shortly after talking to Kennedy, a man in the bookstore asked what I had been doing. I told him. He shook his head in wonder. “What a woman,” he said. “So grounded. What a national treasure.” As he said this, his eyes seemed to be focused somewhere far off, on some mountaintop where the national treasures reside. There they must stay, if we aim to be inspired by their perfection. Or, if we choose, we could join them by standing perfectly still, surrounded entirely by history forever in the making.

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

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