The Journey

Two months ago my son, Sawyer, purchased a copy of “Fifty Science Fiction Classics.” As I described in an earlier column, this collection included such treasures as “Egah!” and “Santa Clause Conquers the Martians.” Once Sawyer understood he had come home with a kind of rogue’s gallery of bad cinema, he devised a plan: We would watch them all, he and I, one a night, and when we were done we would celebrate. He called this plan The Journey.

I am happy to report we finished our journey last week. As a kind of test of our endurance, I learned two things. First, I learned that you must try to enjoy yourself. Early on, we made a game of criticizing and complaining about each movie. There was a lot to complain about. Why is the narrator describing exactly what we’re seeing? Why don’t any of the characters have personalities? Why isn’t anything happening?

These were perfectly reasonable questions, but asking them and asking them became fatiguing because no one could answer them. The movies had been made and there was nothing we could do about it. Better, it turns out, to find something redeeming in each film. Better to find some shred of a plot, some thread of a question you want answering. How will Santa Claus conquer the Martians? Let’s find out.

Second, it’s critical to remember you chose to be on the journey. How tempting in the middle of a particularly story-less effort to cry out to the universe for clemency. Boredom, after all, is torturous in its way. Yet there was no torturer in the room. There was only us. We chose to watch every movie, and could have stopped at anytime.

We had to remind ourselves of this lesson almost every night. If we were suffering, we were doing so by choice. Oddly, once we remembered we had chosen The Journey, the suffering faded. Now we could settle back, father and son goofing around for a couple hours, waiting to see what Santa Claus would do next.


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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Being You

I have said that when I interview writers I am less interested in the book they have written than the journey he or she took to write it. I was reminded of this again as I was doing a little pre-interview research on a memoirist I will be speaking to (as of this writing) very shortly. The writer, Alexandra Fuller, had written a memoir in 2001 (Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight) about her childhood in Africa during a time when then Rhodesia and now Zimbabwe was going through a convulsive, racial, post-colonial civil war. I found an archived radio interview and had a listen.

Of course, the interviewer wanted to talk to Ms. Fuller about Africa. And understandably—the topic is juicy with race, war, justice, and historical implications. Fuller had a front row seat for it all and wrote compellingly about what she had seen. Her latest memoir, Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, also takes place largely in Africa, and in Fuller’s hands it remains a very interesting place.

But not, at least to me, as interesting as she. Politics and justice and art and all the rest are curious enough—but tell me again what it feels like to be alive. Tell me again what you remember about being alive once upon a time and tell me again why you thought something was important and then you discovered that something was not as important as simply being alive and interested and moving onto the next thing.

I can feel so lonely when I read newspapers and listen to stories about Places and about What Happened and about Who’s To Blame. I never feel lonely when someone tells me again what it feels like to be alive. And a writer telling me why she wrote a book and why it was easy here and hard there sounds like life as I have lived it, both at and away from the desk. I can forget from time to time what it feels like to be me. Hearing what it feels like to be someone else often reminds me.

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Sad Story

If I had to ask one question of all my characters in my stories, it would be this one: What do you think you need to be happy, and why can’t you have it? That is pretty much the entirety of the human experience. Plus it’s the stuff of fiction.

As Carrie Fisher said, “No one wants to watch a movie about a mother and daughter who start out liking one another at the beginning of a film and wind up liking each other more at the end.” Still, one of my consistent challenges is that I would like everyone to be happy, including my characters. Unfortunately, they don’t get be happy while I know them. They may have been happy before I met them, and they may yet be happy when we say good-bye, but on my watch they will hopefully know only suffering and uncertainty.

Which requires, of course, that I both feel their pain and not. I must step into their shoes like an actor so that I can speak their lines and know their thoughts as my own. But the minute I feel for them, the minute I begin to believe their sob story about how the world has done them wrong or how the world is against them—I’m lost and the story dies. I must remain ruthlessly pitiless.

Which is actually the highest form of compassion. That last thing you want to do when someone is spinning a woeful tale powerlessness is to agree with this person. But the last thing a person who is spinning a woeful tale of powerlessness usually wants to hear is that they are not powerless and they never have been.

In my life I have argued vociferously for my own despair, laid out point-by-point why I had no choice but to feel the way I did. Somehow, I reasoned, if I could just get one person to admit that I’d had it somewhat worse than everyone else, I would be—if not happy—then tragically justified. It happened once. I had argued and argued my plight until this person broke down and said, “I’m sorry.” And I immediately hated myself. I had argued for nothing, because there was absolutely nothing for me on the other side of that sorry.

Which is why I remain as pitiless as I can with my characters. To love someone is not to know their pain but their strength, and the moment I take pity on my characters for being afraid I lose all sight of their strength, begin to believe their wretched story, and wind up hating not just my novel but myself.

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Sweep The Board

There’s a great scene in the movie Searching For Bobby Fischer in which Josh, a chess prodigy, is studying a problem created by his mentor, played by Ben Kingsley. As Josh stares and stares at the pieces, struggling to unravel the puzzle, Kingsley’s character becomes increasingly impatient until he finally sweeps all the pieces off the board. He instructs Josh to solve the problem without seeing the pieces, a technique Josh later uses to win the film’s climactic match.

I often think of Ben Kingsley sweeping the pieces off the board when I find myself tangled in a part of a story that isn’t working, particularly if I have revisited the troublesome scene over and over again. In my experience, the more I have tried and failed to write a scene to my satisfaction, the harder it becomes to do so. Just like Josh, I find myself staring the pieces, at the characters and all their possible moves. I begin to believe if I just stare hard enough the correct order of events, the perfect string of dialogue, will emerge.

This is when it is time to sweep the pieces off the board. That is forget who is in the scene and what they must supposedly do. Instead I focus on where the story is before the troublesome scene, and where I believe it will be after, and I imagine what it should feel like to get from one place to the other. The point, after all, is not really the characters or what they are doing, but what it feels like when they do what they are doing. The feeling is always the true reality; the events are just metaphors to allow that feeling through.

Inevitably, after I have swept the pieces aside, they begin to come back one by one, as what works is often not all that different than what was not working. But I can never find a scene if I begin treating it like a jigsaw puzzle. After all, a jigsaw puzzle begins as a complete picture and then is cut apart so that we can have the pleasure of reassembling it. That picture revealed in the completed jigsaw puzzle is a portal to feeling. Your unwritten scene, however, is only a feeling looking for a picture. Feeling exists before all the metaphors we use to share them; to write disconnected from the feeling of a scene is like playing chess without knowing which piece you must capture to win, the pieces moving constantly but without purpose.

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Nothing Is Anything

This will sound odd coming from a novelist, I know, but one of the easiest mistakes to make is to tell yourself a story about what is happening to you. By which I mean, telling yourself this thing is good or this thing is bad, and then all the reasons for your decision. Nothing is ever just one thing, and you are better off leaving everything that way.

The actual stories we write are different from the stories we tell ourselves. Fictional stories or narrative non-fiction are crafted to follow the narrative arc of a character or characters with the purpose of revealing some emotional truth. At the very least these stories are entertaining, and their best, they teach us something.

Not so with the stories we tell ourselves. If you meet someone for the first time and she gives you an odd look, and you tell this story: “She doesn’t like me,” you have told yourself a lie to simplify an experience. Perhaps she doesn’t like you, or perhaps you remind her of someone she doesn’t like, or perhaps she is insecure, or quirky, or anything.

The stories, whether good or bad, are useless because in truth, everything simply is. Nothing is anything until we call it something, and then everyone will disagree eventually, about everything from birth to death, and so what was the point?  Everything is, and that is all.

So just as some artists resist explaining what their work means, resist deciding what any moment means. Instead, be in that moment as quietly and as free of judgment as possible. Your job was never to know what anything means. Your only job is to decide what to do next. Thankfully, that choice is where all the meaning in your life actually lies.

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