“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.
"A book to keep nearby whenever your writer's spirit needs feeding." Deb Caletti.
You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com