“What if . . .?” How I Built the Plot of “Climbing the Coliseum”

At readings and book signings, folks often ask how I came up with the idea for my novel, Climbing the Coliseum. I don’t have any secret method. In fact, I’ve heard the process I use at many writers’ conferences and read about it in a number of places. ClimbCover-252pxFor example, Darcy Pattison, an author of children’s fiction, has written a blog article discussing the two questions thousands of fiction writers use to develop their plots: “What if . . .?” and “Why?” I’m going to show the process I go through, using the plotting of my first novel, Climbing the Coliseum, as an example.

I usually start with the evening news. I did that with Climbing, with my second novel Nobody’s Savior (coming later this year), and with my third (I’m unsure of the title, but it’ll be out next year). For Climbing, the news item that started me thinking was a 2009 story about the violent anti-government group, the Posse Comitatus.  (The Bundy family, who led armed standoffs in Nevada in 2014 and Oregon in 2016, have been linked to the Posse Comitatus.) In 2009, an armed member of the group had died in a shootout with the FBI. That grabbed my attention, and since I care a lot about issues of violence in our communities, I sensed it could be an interesting premise for a story. At the same time, I had encountered a psychotherapy case (I was not the therapist, but was consulted about the case) of a fourteen-year-old teenage girl. One afternoon, her mother had dropped her off for her session—and failed to pick her up. Ultimately, we learned that the mother had a serious drug problem, and for her protection, the girl entered foster care.

These two items, unrelated and hardly alike, intrigued me. My main character was a psychologist (of course—write what you know, right?), so I wondered, what if those two stories happened to his patients? It made sense, but at this point, neither story was strong enough to carry a whole novel, and aside from linking them through the psychologist, why would they work together?

Novels require conflict and tension. The characters must experience the frustration of their goals, obstacles to their desires. Novelists search for ways to generate those obstacles and to ramp up the tension. I needed to make the basic situations more difficult, more tense, more conflicted. Here’s where “What if . . .?” and “Why?” questions come in. A requirement is that each answer had to make things worse for one or more of the characters. Let’s begin with the extremist group story.

What if an otherwise innocent guy, whom I named Victor, got caught up in a group like the Posse? Well, why would he do that? What if he was in tax trouble and mistakenly thought the meetings were about solving tax problems, not about evading taxes and revolting against the government? What if Vic isn’t the psychologist’s patient, but his wife Maggie is? Okay, but why is Maggie in therapy? What if she believes her husband’s having an affaire—when in fact he’s sneaking off to his meetings, which he refuses to talk about? What if her fear of Vic’s affaire causes depression and brings her into therapy?

Fine, but I needed more tension, more conflict!

What if, to earn the group’s help with his tax problem, Vic is coerced into performing illegal acts? Why would he go along with that? Well, what if Vic is the sort of man whose pride forbids him from admitting weakness or failure (such as losing his ranch because of the back taxes), so he “goes along to get along”—and thus does the illegal acts? What if, when he finally faces his basic values and tries to leave the group, the ensuing violence affects his wife, Maggie, which brings Vic’s activities to the attention both of the psychologist, Ed Northrup, and of the sheriff’s department—which creates a whole new level of trouble for Vic and Maggie–and therefore, for Ed.

I “what-iffed” the girl’s story as well. What if her mother turns out to be Ed Northrup’s ex-wife, whom he hasn’t seen in almost thirty years? That raised a big “why,” which drove the plot! What if the mother literally cannot be found? Again, why would she disappear like that? The answer to those two “whys”—her motivations—created a powerful plot twist, which I won’t give away here (in case you want to read the book). Suffice it to say that the mother’s motivation creates a profound challenge for Ed Northrup. What if, while the search for the mother is going on, he’s started to care about Grace? What if this forces him to realize that he must find a way to prevent the Montana Child Protection Department from taking her into its custody. Why would they do that? Ed is required to report child neglect–which is the case here. What if he fails in his legal duty? As his attachment to Grace grows, what if Ed realizes that this situation re-enacts a tragedy that drove him from Minnesota so long ago, and thus forces him to deal with the suppressed guilt and depression that stem from it?

After those simple questions, the two story lines came together through their link to the main character, Ed Northrup, the psychologist.

Initially, I had thought of the book as being about Ed Northrup, sort of an Alex Delaware in Montana. But why Montana? Time for more “What if . . .?” questions. Why did Ed move to Montana twenty-some years ago? Well, what if he had moved to Montana to start over after a tragedy back in Minnesota? What if that tragedy had actually cost the life of another patient, another fourteen-year-old girl, whom Ed was treating? What if his ex-wife—Grace’s vanished mother—had divorced him because of that tragedy and its aftermath? What if her appearance in Montana and his sudden responsibility for Grace gave him a “second chance” to save a kid—would he take that chance? Why would he? Why would he not?

But a psychologist cannot carry on a search for a missing mother. That’s the job of the police. Voilá, I needed cops, both to search for the mother and to investigate the violence Vic and Maggie got caught up in. So two new important characters entered the story—Ben Stewart, the county sheriff, and his deputy, Andrea Pelton. What if Ben and Andi were already investigating Vic’s illegal activity? What if, after Ed reports the missing mother, he and deputy Andi Pelton collaborate on both cases. And what if they develop an attraction for one another?

At this point, I hadn’t actually figured out what happened to the mother, Mara. This goes back to the unanswered questions earlier: Why did Mara come to Montana, and why did she abandon Grace? But when those answers fell into place, a new tension emerged: What if there was no one to take care of Grace? Why not Ed? Mountain townWhat if that is impossible—in small-town Montana, a single man bringing an underage girl would be unacceptable. This led to another what if: What if a recently widowed older woman took her in? What if, after doing so, the older woman falls seriously ill and Grace has nowhere to stay?

These questions did not exhaust the plot building, but they gave me the bones of a story big enough to sustain a novel (a book that was named a Finalist in the Foreword Review’s 2014 Book of the Year competition, IndieFab). All I needed was a few days’ work and a relentless commitment to keep cranking up the conflict and tension. Every answer to the “what if” and “why” questions had to lead to a worsened situation, something that backs the character(s) against a harder wall.

After outlining the skeleton, as I wrote and as the book grew flesh around those bones, new opportunities to make things worse for the characters emerged, calling for more rounds of “what if . . .?” and “why?” It’s a fun way to get started on the project, because it stimulates that most valuable asset a writer has, one’s imagination.

What I Learned about Writing from Craig Johnson and Marilynne Robinson

It’s a hard day when a writer encounters two others whose books are so good that he is forced to decide never to write another word. And that day gets harder when one of those wonderful writers creates stories that, in characters, setting, and overall tenor, remind the poor writer of his own. And the second excellent writer? She writes an entirely different kind of novel so well and so intimately that the poor guy has no choice but to give up writing altogether and take ukulele lessons.

Uke Lesson

That poor writer is me, and the two great ones are Craig Johnson, author of the Walt Longmire series (both the books and the Netflix series), and Marilynne Robinson, author of the Gilead trilogy, and most recently, Lila. It was Lila that nudged me over the edge toward the ukulele, and it was Johnson’s Walt Longmire books that first made me mutter, “I’m not writing another word.”

What is it about their writing that so affects me? To put it better, if I’m going to stay in the game and not learn the uke, what can I learn from these two very different masters? Let me start with Death Without CompanyCraig Johnson.

Johnson never departs from the story he is telling: no detours or digressions, no long soliloquies, just story. But in telling the story, he will add a phrase, or sometimes only a word, that captures a character’s enormous but almost hidden emotion, or the breathtaking beauty of a setting he barely takes time to describe. Here’s an example from Death without Company, the second Longmire book.

It’s on page three. It’s winter. Sheriff Walt Longmire has paced a path in the snow along the cemetery fence, impatiently listening to the gravedigger’s chatter. The ground being frozen, the gravedigger launches into a long riff on burial customs around the world. It’s funny, because Jules, the gravedigger, is driving Walt crazy. Underneath, though, there’s a tightening of some unspoken tension: Who died? Why is the sheriff out here pacing in the cold? What happened?

Then we read this, written in Walt’s first person point of view:

You can tell the new graves by the pristine markers and the mounds of earth. From my numerous and one-sided conversations [with Jules], I had learned that there were water lines running a patchwork under the graveyard with faucets that would be used in the spring to help soak the dirt and tamp the new ones flat, but, for now, it was as if the ground had refused to accept Vonnie Hayes. It had been almost a week since her death, and I found myself up here once a week.

When somebody like Vonnie dies you expect the world to stop, and maybe for one brief second the world does take notice. Maybe it’s not the world outside, but the world inside that’s still (pp. 2-3).

After two-and-a-half pages of near comedy tinged with premonition of something not fun, we get that paragraph describing frozen grave mounds waiting to be tamped down when the earth thaws, and then it’s “as if the ground had refused to accept Vonnie Hayes.” And before the almost Homeric power of that can sink in—the earth refusing to accept a dead woman!—Johnson brings us inside Walt Longmire, where his “world inside is still.”

Throughout his books, Johnson does that: After a long focusing on the external action (in the excerpt, the comedic chatter of Jules—remember the two joking gravediggers in Hamlet?—and the setting (the frozen mounds awaiting spring), Johnson in a short sentence or two will give us a glimpse (and often only a glimpse) into Walt Longmire’s emotional response. But not too deeply or long. “Maybe it’s not the world outside, but the world inside that’s still.” By setting things up this way, when the moment comes for Sheriff Longmire to have a profound emotional experience (and in Johnson’s novels, that moment always comes), we’ve had so many fleeting glimpses that we are as deeply moved as Walt Longmire is.

Now let’s turn to Marilynne Robinson’s Lila. Unlike the sheriff of Absaroka County, Lila is a nobody. Abandoned as a toddler and rescued by a woman drifter who taught her the life of itinerant workers, Lila eventually became a prostitute, then a homeless wanderer. Lila CoverDuring her travels, she meets and marries an old preacher in the small Iowa town of Gilead (the title of the first book in this series). They love each other in their own way, but each fears the other will find him or her unsatisfactory. The preacher, John Ames, can tell her, haltingly, of his love and need for her, but she cannot believe it will last, nor can she voice her own fear that he will learn about her past and banish her. She tells him almost nothing about herself. And the context of this agonized reticence for both is the knowledge that the old man will die long before Lila gets old. Then Lila becomes pregnant, delivers a son, and . . . that’s it. In Lilathat’s all the action there is.

All the action on the outside, that is. But inside Lila’s and John’s minds, the characters’ rich, evocative, and poignant musing and rejoicing and fearing and longing are complex—and complete—worlds in themselves. We view scenes of intense external action nearly always through Lila’s remembering and pondering them. Page after page of inner monolog carry us back to Lila’s earliest days, or show us the formative, dreadful experiences she endured, or project us out into the futures she imagines so entirely plausibly that we feel with her the same shiver of fear or despair (or occasionally, hope) that she feels about the life she imagines she will end up living.

Listen: Lila is pregnant, has spent the morning rocking and thinking and trying to understand the Book of Job, since her husband is a preacher and she wishes to understand him. It is 11 o’clock, and she’s waiting for the Reverend, as she calls him, to come home for lunch. We join her thoughts, which she will never share with John Ames, for fear he’d find her shallow:

She felt good, and the baby was moving around more than ever, elbows and knees. The old man would look into her face for sadness or weariness, and she would turn her face away, since there was no telling what he might see in it, her thoughts being what they were. She’d been thinking that folks are their bodies. And bodies can’t be trusted at all. Her own body was so strong with working, for what that was worth. She’d known from her childhood there was no use being scared of pain. She was always telling the old man, women have babies, no reason I can’t do it. But they both knew things can go wrong. That’s how it is pp. 171-172).

It’s in this stream of her consciousness (not stream of consciousness in the technique sense, but in the real-life sense, thoughts weaving together one by one into a skein of meaning) that we come to know Lila. Through her thinking about her husband, we know him too. Remember that sentence about his searching her face for a sign of sadness: Lila’s thoughts show us, more poignantly and fleetingly than any words John might say, his fragile fearful love.

After that, she thinks about dying when the baby comes, and how “here’s my body, dying on me, when I almost promised him I wouldn’t let it happen.” This makes her wonder if perhaps her concern for her husband meant that . . .

. . . she was something besides her body, but what was the good of that when she’d be gone anyway and there’d be nothing in the world that could comfort him. She guessed she really was married to him, the way she hated the thought of him grieving for her (p. 172).

We stay inside Lila’s mind (and heart) like this for long stretches throughout the novel, and I never found a moment of it dry or slow or boring. All the scenes in which action takes place are filtered and formed by her inner perceptions of them. Thought by thought, desire by desire, Lila grew on me, grew into me. All of us have been abandoned, have grown hard and scarred over, have secret escape plans and doubts about the ones who love us most. And like Lila, most of us rise up and through those to a higher place, or at least a glimpse of one. To live with Lila over the span of her life and 260 pages of Marilynne Robinson’s beautiful, measured, thoughtful, and simple prose was, for me, to become alive again to all the contradictions that fill my loves and eventually are healed by them.

Read with me the closing lines, remembering that these are the musings of a woman on whom life had scraped the thickest scars and hardened the most tender heart of any deeply wounded character in literature I know.

Lila had borne a child into a world where a wind could rise that would take him from her arms as if there were no strength in them at all. Pity us, yes, but we are brave, she thought, and wild, more life in us than we can bear, the fire infolding itself in us. That peace could only be amazement, too.

Well for now there were geraniums in the windows, and an old man at the kitchen table telling his baby some rhyme he’d know forever, probably still wondering if he had managed to bring her along into that next life, if he could ever be certain of it. Almost letting himself imagine grieving for her in heaven, because not to grieve for her would mean that he was dead, after all.

Someday she would tell him what she knew (p. 260-261).

Geraniums

I imagine you can see, now, why after reading Craig Johnson and Marilynne Robinson, I wondered if I should write another word. They tell me, yes.

How I’ve Learned to Value Marketing my Books.

My second novel, Nobody’s Savior, is getting it’s final edit and proofreading, after which I’ll make the necessary last corrections and improvements, and then it will be ready to publish. Those of you who write know what comes next: getting out to sell it! In the past, marketing has been an unpleasant chore for me. Green MonarchsI much prefer sitting at my desk, gazing at the lake and the mountains outside my window and immersing myself in my fictional creations. Solo, quiet, perfect job for a part-time introvert, right? (I’m a “part-time introvert” in the sense that I score right at the mid-point of the scale of introversion-extroversion.)

Yes, but being an introvert-who-doesn’t-sell-his-books isn’t so cool. (Disclaimer: I’m retired, and have a good income, so I don’t really need to live on book sales—but recouping the costs of editing and publishing would be swell!) So over the years since my first novel, Climbing the Coliseum, came out, I’ve been learning about marketing books.

Now, learning is something I’m good at, and I learn best in one of two ways: reading and talking to people. Being a part-time introvert, I usually pick reading first. So, I’ve pored over maybe twenty-five fine volumes of book-marketing advice and theory. Those books taught me a lot, and I’m still lerning, and not just about marketing—I have come to know better the discomforts I feel about self-promotion; more on that in a moment.

Another smart step was to hire a creative marketing team in Sandpoint, ID, Keokee Creative,Keokee Creative [INSERT logo] who helped me overcome my reluctance to get involved with social media. I had a web site, and they improved it. Thanks to Chris and his team, my author platform took it up a couple of notches.

I made a huge mistake when Climbing the Coliseum first came out: failing to set up any expectations for it—no one but my wife knew the book was coming! Release day on Amazon, B&N, and other places, was like the proverbial tree falling in the empty forest—not a sound! Not a soul knew it was out! Well, I won’t make that mistake again. If you’ve liked my Facebook author page (or if you haven’t, please visit and Like it!), or my LinkedIn page (and if you haven’t been there, perhaps you’d be kind enough to go and connect with me), you’ll get notices now and then about the progress of Nobody’s Savior.

Why did I fail to build “book buzz” when I was starting out? Sheer, outright discomfort with talking about myself. When I would go into a bookstore or get in a conversation with someone, before making my pitch I’d invariably make an uncomfortable joke about “shameless self-promotion.” Though I framed it as humor, I actually did feel embarrassed to ask people to buy my book; sometimes I even hemmed and hawed rather than simply telling them it was available. AuntiesBooks logoThen, at a reading in Spokane at Auntie’s Bookstore, I had a revelation: I really liked sharing my book, my words, and my writing experience with those people. Standing in front of the little audience (five people came, including my wife Michele, two friends, and the book store events manager. In other words, I had one new fan!), I realized I was having a good time. Talking about myself! From that point on, I’ve been learning to think differently about “marketing.” Let me share how that is.

Actually, that’s the word: “Share.” I love my novels, I enjoy writing them, revising them, editing them, packaging them, and reading from them. Heck, I like looking at them on bookstore shelves and in their tidy piles beside my dresser. The truth is, I think they offer people something valuable. Less and less do I think of the transaction as a commercial one, and more and more as sharing with people something of value.

And what is that value? My novels—like those of so many authors—tell stories of psychological and investigative work among empathetic and engaging people, who grow and change through their experiences doing their work and solving their problems. From forty years as a psychologist and family therapist, I have lots of stories to build on, and I’ve learned that the work of good psychotherapy can sometimes be a lot like detective work. When I write, I keep two values in the foreground: creating sound psychological stories that are also intriguing and entertaining; and complicating them with investigation into hard-to-understand, but ultimately human, mysteries, often crimes. To support that dual structure, one main character, Ed Northrup, is a psychologist; to support the second part, sheriff’s deputy Andi Pelton (also Ed’s love) is the other main character. And I write secondary characters designed to engage readers’ empathy and emotion (both positive and negative), and sometimes to make them laugh.

So what’s the value I offer in my books? You like to see how other human beings deal with their problems, right? I think we all enjoy learning what baggage others bring to their challenges, what baser motives and what nobler instincts, what courage and what fear, what intelligence and what blindness. We like to read about what others are up against and how they deal with it, because such stories enrich us, gives us at least the pleasure of a good read and, at most, a deepened sense of our common humanity.

Reading novels like mine opens another corner of the human world to our gaze and our understanding, and I think that’s valuable in a day and age when demonizing others rather than struggling to understand them—and yes, to have sympathy with them—is too common in the public arena. So I have come to think that “marketing” activities are the activities I can engage in to share what I offer to my readers.

I hope you’ll join with me on Facebook or LinkedIn, or follow this blog and visit my web site at www.billpercybooks.com—I believe you’ll be glad you did.

See? Shameless self-promotion!

How to Write a Novel

Edited page.1

No doubt, the title is a bit grand, isn’t it? I’m not really going to tell you how to write a novel. Instead, I’m going to share with you a “progress note” about my second book, Nobody’s Savior. Those of you who’ve read the first novel, Climbing the Coliseum, will recognize the characters–Ed Northrup (the psychologist), Andi Pelton (the deputy sheriff and now Ed’s lover), Grace (Ed’s sixteen-year-old adopted daughter), Sheriff Ben Stewart, gay bartender Ted Coldry, rancher Magnus Anderssen, and assorted others. And you’ll recognize the setting, the (fictional) town of Jefferson, set in the (equally fictional) Monastery Valley in southwest Montana.

Nobody’s Savior started life, actually, as part of Climbing the Coliseum. It was a subplot about Magnus Anderssen’s mysterious psychological breakdown and Ed’s efforts to help him figure out the cause. But my editor, Lorna Lynch, pointed out what should have been obvious to me, even as a rookie: That book was too long. Way too long. Most editors and agents say a first novel should be around 80- to 90-thousand words; that first version of Climbing clocked in at 180,000! So Magnus’s story had to go: Now, it’s the backbone of Nobody’s Savior.

Unfortunately, the Magnus material, taken out of Climbing, was only 48,000 words, not really enough for a full novel. Besides, I’d fallen in love with Grace and there was nothing for Grace to do in Magnus’s story! Nor was there anything for Andi Pelton, who at the end of Climbing had taken up a more intimate relationship with Ed. As a psychologist, Ed couldn’t violate Magnus’s privacy by discussing the case with Andi, so what was she going to do?

waseca3n-3-web

Back in 2014, I read about a 17-year-old high school junior who’d been arrested in Waseca, Minnesota for amassing an arsenal of guns and bombs, with which he planned to kill as many of his fellow students as he could. Bingo! I had a job for Andi Pelton and the Sheriff’s Department! That story–of Jared Hansen (not the real plotter’s name), the good boy who turned terrorist without explanation–became the backbone of Andi’s role in the novel, and naturally, since Jared appeared to have become paranoid (again, without any obvious explanation), Ed could work with her and the other deputies to solve the case. And given Jared’s popularity at school, Grace too could weigh in, because she knew and liked Jared. Whew! The old gang rides again.

Of course, having a story to tell doesn’t amount to having a novel to sell! So since mixing the Jared story into the Magnus story, I’ve written five drafts, gotten a developmental edit, revised yet another draft, and sent the manuscript off for the final copy edit and proofreading. One more revision when it comes back, and Nobody’s Savior should be ready for me to launch and for you to read. Stay tuned, and watch this space!

 

 

Fiction Is a Lie That Tells the Truth

Once upon a time

I write fiction. What Albert Camus said about fiction—that it is “a lie through which we tell the truth”—has become almost a cliché. A quick search of Google images for that quote reveals that, either word-for-word or in slight variants, it has been said also by Dorothy Allison, Tim O’Brien, Laura Groff, Khalid Hosseini, Neil Gaimon, and Stephen King. And many others not so well known.

Maria Popova, in her blog “Brain Pickings,” has a delicious compilation of iconic writers riffing on this theme. Such luminaries as Tennessee Williams, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Mark Twain weigh in. Others quoted by Popova include Tom Wolfe, Ray Bradbury, Joyce Carol Oates, Wallace Stevens, and Eudora Welty.

Mark Twain’s variation on the theme is interesting: “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.”

Mark Twain

This is an absolutely vital point for writers and readers of fiction. In my novels, because they are set in my version of the real American intermountain west and not in an alternate universe, if what I write is impossible, I have failed. The things that happen, my characters actions and reactions, must be possible in the setting I have created. Otherwise, readers will put the book down, probably forever.

At first reading, I found the second part of Twain’s idea—that truth is not obliged to stick to possibilities—hard to swallow. Can an impossible thing be, at the same time, true? I immediately thought of what the Queen says in Lewis Carroll’s marvelous novel, Through the Looking-glass:

“I can’t believe that?” said Alice.

“Can’t you?” the Queen said, in a pitying tone. “Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.”

“There’s no use trying,” she said; “one can’t believe impossible things.”

“I dare say you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

Are Mark Twain and the Queen right? Is the truth unhedged by possibilities? Dare we take as true impossible things?

In at least one sense, the answer is definitely yes. At one time, human flight was factually impossible. Yet, with time and the development of a sufficient science, human flight came true. What is impossible today may still be true at another time. Plato, you’ll recall, taught that a real thing is less real and less true that the “Idea” of that thing. To know the truth would be to know the Idea, not the real thing. An impossible thing in reality may indeed be possible in the world of Ideas.

Turning the issue on its head, what about lies? Are they, like fiction, constrained by possibilities? I would answer no. For an example, let me take a famous lie reported by Bill Moyers. On May 29, 2003, two months after invading Iraq “to destroy Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction” (another lie), President George W. Bush, in an interview with Polish Television (TVP), said, “We found the weapons of mass destruction. We found biological laboratories.”

At first blush, this lie would seem to be possible—although no weapons or labs had actually been found as of May 29, 2003, perhaps in the future they would be discovered. However, in fact, there were none, anywhere in Iraq. The CIA closed its investigation into WMD in Iraq in April, 2005, finding nothing. So at the time the President spoke his lie, it was literally impossible: WMDs did not exist in Iraq.

Thus, it would seem that the lie, like the truth, is not constrained by possibility.

Lying is claiming the truth for something untrue. Strangely, that fact might lead us to condemn fiction as “lying.” Indeed, the cliché says exactly that, without censure: Fiction is a lie that tells the truth. The facts of fiction, untrue in themselves, nevertheless must be possible, and consequently, the lie that is fiction reveals a deeper truth. Ralph Waldo Emerson put it this way: “Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures.” Or as Bruno Bettleheim wrote, discussing the psychological importance of fairy tales, “The child intuitively comprehends that although these stories are unreal, they are not untrue.

If a thing is impossible, it may be true in some way or at some time, or it may be a lie. If it is possible, then it may be true, false, or fiction. And if it is fiction, the words of Tim O’Brien (interviewed by the BookReporter in 1998) apply:

A good piece of fiction, in my view, does not offer solutions. Good stories deal with our moral struggles, our uncertainties, our dreams, our blunders, our contradictions, our endless quest for understanding. Good stories do not resolve the mysteries of the human spirit but rather describe and expand upon those mysteries.

Before he died, David Foster Wallace (1962-2008) said this about fiction:

D.F.WallaceFiction is one of the few experiences where loneliness can be both confronted and relieved. Drugs, movies where stuff blows up, loud parties — all these chase away loneliness by making me forget my name’s Dave and I live in a one-by-one box of bone no other party can penetrate or know. Fiction, poetry, music, really deep serious sex, and, in various ways, religion — these are the places (for me) where loneliness is countenanced, stared down, transfigured, treated.

For “loneliness,” substitute in Wallace’s saying any of the human emotions and core experiences, and you can see the deeper truth that is fiction.

Winter Holiday Lessons for a Troubled World

Scrooge

The holiday season is tormented this year. Terrorism here and abroad piles anxiety upon anxiety for many people. Racist and fear-mongering politicians capitalize on those anxieties to promote themselves. The Christmas decorations in stores and restaurants, the drone of holiday carols and songs over MUZAK systems—all seem strained, as if we were trying to deal with an ugly stain on the wall by splashing it with new paint.

Despite the fact that you and I are roughly sixteen times more likely to die in a car accident than in a terrorist attack (check it out at “Ask the Odds.com”), some people are falling all over themselves to rush us to war in the (false) name of “national security.” The politicians’ rhetoric of fear, war, bigotry, and retaliation ramps up the anxiety in the air. So much for “peace on earth, good will toward men.”

Do the legends surrounding this season, the Hanukkah story of the eight days of light and the Christmas story of the stable and the angels and shepherds, offer us any real comfort in these times? I think they might, though not the sort of comfort we usually associate with the season. It’s not a year for sentimentality. But perhaps it’s a year for some understanding, even compassion.

Forget Hanukkah’s miraculous, never-ending lamp oil. Ask instead, what were the circumstances during which that miracle took place? It was an insurrection, a revolt against the Seleucid rulers of Judea, triggered by the Seleucid decree that the Jews worship the Greek gods in their Temple in Jerusalem. MaccabeesThe rebellion was led by a farm family, Mattathias and his five sons, later called the Maccabees (after the oldest son, Judah, whose nickname was “the hammer,” which in Greek was “Maccabeus”). The rebels formed a guerilla militia of about 22,000 men. They took on a larger army and after many years of struggle, eventually won independence for Judea (which lasted around one-hundred years, until the Romans came to town).

Hanukkah celebrates that victory and the purification of the Temple in Jerusalem. But it is a story curiously similar to what is going on in our world: One group imposing their religious beliefs on another, and the other resisting violently. Looking back, we call the Maccabees “freedom fighters.” The Seleucids called them terrorists.

One lesson of Hanukkah, then, may be that naming a group or a person “terrorist” depends entirely on one’s point of view. If you are fighting the dominant power because you believe it has polluted your religion and is destroying your culture, you call yourself a freedom fighter, a maccabbee, a hammer of your enemy. On the other hand, if you belong to the dominant power and feel threatened or afraid of these maccabees, you call them terrorists.

Either name arouses enormous passion, and it’s that passion that leads to the ruthless commitment of the rebels to tear down the dominant power and the dominant power’s obsession with destroying the terrorists. The last thing either side intends is dialog. The last emotion either side feels is compassion. Is there any hope in this scenario?

Perhaps. Think about the Christmas story’s circumstances, as they are portrayed in Luke’s Gospel, the gospel most people consider somewhat historical. I’ll ignore the fact that the property tax census that forced Joseph and Mary to travel three days to Bethlehem did not happen in the years when Jesus was likely born. I’ll ignore too the fact that the Romans conducted their censuses and collected taxes at people’s homes, not at their ancestors’ birthplaces JesusMangerShepherds(the property on which the tax was assessed existed at their homes, not at their ancestors’ birthplaces). Finally, I’ll ignore the fact that to require everyone to travel to their ancestors’ birthplaces would have created chaos across the Empire. The Romans were ruthless, but they weren’t stupid. (If you want to read more about these facts, go here.)

In any case, whether in Bethlehem or Nazareth, Joseph was an artisan, probably a carpenter. At that time, as John Dominic Crossan has shown, using the work of Gerhard Lenski, artisans were probably the second-poorest groups in Judean agrarian society, one step away from homelessness. Ironically, by the time of his public preaching, Jesus had indeed become effectively homeless, an itinerant teacher.

Dean Snyder makes the point that, whereas the Magi are the stars of Matthew’s nativity story, it’s shepherds who come to see the baby. He notes (also following Lenski) that shepherds belong to the lowest class in the Roman world, the “expendable class,” too poor to even afford a home of their own. These shepherds were hired hands, living in the fields with their flocks (which belonged to wealthier farm owners).

Shepherd

In short, Jesus was born into poverty, beautifully symbolized by the story of the stable and the manger, surrounded by shepherds. But poverty and oppression by an occupying empire are two of the conditions that frequently “radicalize” young men. Keep in mind that throughout his life, Jesus was quite familiar—everyone in Judea was—with terrorist groups such as the Zealots and the Sicarii (“dagger-men”), who kept up a guerilla war against Rome for more than 70 years, using violence and assassination. There had been a revolt against Rome in Joseph and Mary’s province, Galilee, in 4 B.C.E., when Jesus most likely was a little boy. Terrorism (if you were Roman) or freedom fighters (if you were Jewish) would have been a fact of life for Jesus. However, he chose, and later preached, neither. He did not fall into the trap of name-calling (“I’m a freedom fighter,” “No, you’re a terrorist”). Instead, do you remember what he said?

You have heard it said, Love your neighbor and hate your enemy. I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you (Matt. 5:43-44).

Perhaps there’s a message there for this tormented time, torn apart by fear and grief and their inevitable followers, rage and hatred. Of course, some will remind me, that’s naïve. After all, Jesus was crucified.

On Political Words

In her November 5, 2015 review of two stage adaptations of Aeschylus’s Oresteia, Ingrid Rowland remarks on a fascinating bit of history. She writes, “On the day of Martin Luther King’s assassination, Robert Kennedy found the right words to break the news of his death to a poor, largely black audience in Indianapolis by harking back to ‘my favorite poet…Aeschylus.’”

Aeschylus

She then quotes the words of the Greek poet that Kennedy used to console his audience:

Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart,
until, in our own despair,
against our will,
comes wisdom
through the awful grace of God.

Rowland notes that “Kennedy’s words diverge slightly but tellingly from Edith Hamilton’s translation, his evident source (her third line reads ‘and in our own despite’).”

Reflecting on that, she thinks that the word-change suggests that Kennedy had long lived with those words, using them as he grappled with the sufferings and tragedies striking the Kennedy family.RFK We all know how a beloved poem or song, memorized long ago, and lovingly repeated to ourselves over the intervening years, can undergo small changes as we internalize them, making the lines our own.

But Rowland goes on to make another point. She says that it’s “unexpected, too, that a political figure would feel free to address an audience of ordinary people in the lofty language of Greek poetry rather than talking down to them with mock folksiness.” And Kennedy was in a heated presidential campaign contest with Eugene McCarthy at that moment, the campaign in which he too would soon be assassinated.

I’m fully aware that Winston Churchill reminded us that “comparisons are odious” (or as Dogberry in Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing says, “comparisons are odorous”), but let me take the chance and give a couple of examples of another kind of political speech.

Shakespeare's "Dogberry"
Shakespeare’s “Dogberry”

I’ll start with the woes of the health care system in the United States, which are many and serious, not least of which is the dire plight of the uninsured. There is much to be fixed in the Affordable Care Act, and honest people can disagree with its provisions. A fruitful and welcome dialog could take place between the candidates and the parties about the important issues with reforming health care. Instead, Dr. Ben Carson, speaking on the stump, offers us this:

And [Obamacare] is in a way, it is slavery in a way, because it is making all of us subservient to the government, and it was never about health care. It was about control.

Obamacare is “slavery in a way.” Slavery. A law that attempts to help some of the poorest and sickest members of our society is likened to slavery. What an offensive comparison, both to the Affordable Care Act and to the millions of slaves and their descendants (which include Dr. Carson) who endured that national ignominy. Does Dr. Carson realize whom he is insulting?

Unlike the depth and compassion in Kennedy’s speech—remember, he was quoting Aeschylus to a largely Black audience on the night Martin Luther King was assassinated—other candidates use attacks on minority people to advance their campaigns, especially people whose lives are perhaps the most precarious in our nation: the undocumented immigrants. Take this from Donald Trump on July 5, 2015:

What can be simpler or more accurately stated? The Mexican Government is forcing their most unwanted people into the United States. They are, in many cases, criminals, drug dealers, rapists, etc.

Instead of speaking to immigrants from his heart (which is where Trump says his speeches come straight from), he vilifies 11 million people for a round of right-wing applause. It is as if Kennedy had, instead of quoting Aeschylus, told his Black audience not that their suffering and grief may transform to wisdom, but that Dr. King’s death proved the futility of their struggle for political, civil, and economic rights.

Perhaps I am being unfair to contrast today’s political speech with that of Robert Kennedy. But really, the level of rhetorical nonsense coming from the right has overflowed the bounds of comedy and is becoming a national tragedy, an embarrassment. Perhaps we need an Aeschylus to give voice to that.

Here’s a line that the Greek might use to do so:

It is an easy thing for one

whose foot is on the outside of calamity

to give advice and to rebuke the sufferer.

– Aeschylus, Prometheus Unbound

October Light in Idaho

Photo by Marianne Love
Photo by Marianne Love

 

Here in north Idaho, the October light has been stunning, golden, filtered as if through the dusts of heaven. At times pale and soft, the light spreads a patina over the gardens and the forest. This October, the light almost appears to emerge from within the trees and the rocks and the mountains themselves rather than from the sun; it’s as if the hot, dry, fiery summer heat soaked into the material of this land and now glows softly.

 

October light

 

This morning, watching the October light, I remembered that John Gardner published a novel with that title in 1976. It tells the story of James Page, a septuagenarian living in a small town in Vermont, and his widowed sister, Sally Page Abbott, who has come to live with him. The book opens with James Page enraged at Sally’s television, so angry he fires his shotgun into the machine, nearly killing his sister of fright.

James Page, we learn, is very conservative, so conservative that he considers TV and technology demonic. He hates it. And he browbeats and torments his sister with his demands to the point that . . . well, I’ll let you read the book. I remember it as a dark book in many ways, but I also recall finding the title strangely apt. This October’s radiant light in the northern part of Idaho (and who knows, everywhere else perhaps) reminds me of Gardner’s story.

Photo by Marianne Love
Photo by Marianne Love

Gardner’s October Light is deeper than a story about a curmudgeon and his tormented sister who finally rebels. Published in 1976, it was Gardner’s bicentennial take on the American revolution—an oppressive “king”—James—and his “subject” (Sally), who first struggles to remain loyal, but in the end rebels. However, if Gardner had stopped with that, the book would merely be a modern allegory. He’s up to something more profound, and the title captures that depth just as our north Idaho October light captures something of “the dusts of heaven.” But what?

The web site “enotes.com” says this about October Light:

[T]he novel focuses on . . . the power of nature to act as a moral force and become the positive center for human life, strengthening that which is best and serving as a guide. Nature cannot accomplish this alone but needs to be mediated by art, and that art, as October Light makes explicit, must be moral art—moral fiction.

This morning, when I was absorbing the light radiating from the trees, the grasses, the rocks, from the lake stretching out in front of our house, LakePendOreille1 I could feel that power of nature in the light that welled up from within the natural world like water from a deep spring. It occurred to me that the task of moral fiction, among other things, is not to let such beauty as this morning’s light go unsung. (By the way, for a different take on “moral fiction,” read Mary Gordon’s piece in the Atlantic.) This light is as true and, brought into fiction, can be as much a source of energy as the cruelties and hidden motives and conflicts that are so important in my fiction, in any fiction. There is darkness. But there is also light.

In all the spiritual traditions I am aware of, light is everything. Think of all the hymns you’ve sung or prayers you’ve recited, sutras you’ve chanted—Jewish, Muslim, Christian, whatever—hasn’t the word “light” infused many of them? Zen master Foyan said, “[The mind’s] light penetrates everywhere and engulfs everything, so why does it not know itself?”

So what should be my song about this October light? I can’t sing as well as Rainer Maria Rilke, who wrote in his Letters to a Young Poet,

But there is much beauty here,

Because there is much beauty everywhere.

That’s what the traditions are telling us: There is much beauty here in north Idaho’s October light–or wherever you are–because there is much beauty everywhere.

Remember this next time the politicians cast their dark spell over the land. Remember the October light.

 

 

Attention without feeling is only a report.

Attention without feeling?

Paying attention to the world is the bedrock of storytelling. When Elmore Leonard was asked how he could write such pitch-perfect dialog, he said, “I listen.” Fiction is not reality, but if it isn’t real, it’s wrong. Remember what Chekov said about a rifle above the mantle in chapter 1 (that it must be fired before the book ends)?

Chekov.Rifle on Mantle

If readers can’t feel the heft or see the light glinting off the barrel’s blue steel, the gun is a mere prop. Unless the characters in a story touch off some fuse of feeling in readers, creating the intimate music of empathy or fear or attraction or repulsion, the work will fail. To do that, a writer must pay attention to the sensory and emotional details of whatever in the scene is meant to light that fuse.

The poet Mary Oliver was the life partner of Molly Malone Cook, a photographer, and when Cook died (after forty years together), Mary wrote a book, Our World, MaryOliversurrounding many of Cook’s unpublished photos with her own poetic reflections on the life and love they shared. She wrote about learning to attend to the world by observing Cook’s method of taking photos, brimming with keen attention to and care for what she saw. She wrote this: “Attention without feeling, I began to learn, is only a report.”

In his book on creativity and Zen, Abbot John Daido Loori relates an experience he had while learning photography from the great photographer Minor White. DaidoLoori On pages 16 and 17, Abbot Loori describes precisely this attention-with-feeling that Mary Oliver is talking about. He is reporting Minor White’s instructions about how to photograph with utter attention and openness:

Venture into the landscape without expectations. Let your subject find you. When you approach it, you will feel resonance, a sense of recognition. If when you move away, the resonance fades, or it gets stronger when you approach, you’ll know you have found your subject. Sit with your subject and wait for your presence to be acknowledged. Don’t try to make a photograph, but let your intuition indicate the right moment to release the shutter. If, after you’ve made an exposure, you feel a sense of completion, bow and let go of the subject and your connection to it. Otherwise, continue photographing until you feel the process is complete.

         “Until you feel a sense of completion . . . until you feel the process is complete.” This sort of feeling attends both to the subject of the photograph—bow to it, honor it—but equally to oneself—feel your connection to the subject, that is, your awareness in the present moment that you have in fact formed some kind of link with your subject.

Attention and feeling for what?

What is this attention in a writer? I experience it—although I don’t consciously conjure it—when I am as alive as I can be to the inner thoughts and feelings of a character who is engaged in his or her own scene. At the same time, I find myself–again, without consciously intending it–tuned into my own emotion about the scene, and about my life. In that engagement without self-consciousness, Mary Oliver’s attention-with-feeling makes the writing shine, a wonderful moment, fading quickly. Later, I may need to rewrite or even to abandon what I wrote (“kill your darlings”). It doesn’t matter. Those moments of attention-with-feeling are their own reward. Beyond that, occasionally, they yield writing that works, no, soars; work that can be kept.

You might like an example. In an important scene in my first novel, Climbing the Coliseum, Ed Northrup (the psychologist main character) ClimbCover-252pxhas to decide whether to let fourteen-year-old Grace, abandoned by her mother, be put into the child protection system, or to care for her himself. I’d been immersed in this scene for more than an hour, struggling to figure out how Ed, wrestling with his own depression, would respond. I wrote these lines of dialog (the first speaker is the attorney who will carry out Ed’s decision, whatever it is); I’ll interpolate my own emotional response where it illustrates the point of attention-with-feeling:

The attorney poured himself a second Scotch. “We need your decision, Ed.”

“I can’t decide something this big so damn fast.”

“We’ve been talking for an hour. Grace’s mother is dying.”

“That’s not my goddamn problem, Jerry.”

[I felt a twinge of guilt at that line.]

          The attorney sipped his Scotch; over the edge of the glass, he peered at Ed. “No?” he said, then shrugged. “No, you’re right. It’s not your problem, it’s little Grace’s. She’s the one facing life in the Children’s Home.”

Ed grimaced. “Screw you, Jerry. I’m sick of—”

[Another twinge. I had the odd sensation that I was recoiling from something—something I hadn’t planned for the novel—and doing it through Ed.]

       “You’re sick of other people’s problems landing on your doorstep.” Jerry turned and gazed out the big windows at the darkening mountains. “I get that. I’m the all-purpose lawyer that everybody thinks can solve any goddamn problem they bring in the door.” He turned back to Ed. “I can’t, and I hate it.”

Ed shook his head. “Don’t try empathy bullshit on me, Jerry.”

Wham! The twinge morphed into a punch in the gut. I knew what I recoiling from: Years before, in my work as a psychologist, I’d reached a certain point where I felt overwhelmed by the needs of my clients. I’d wanted to push it all away, find some place of quiet, of no-demand. Perhaps I’d secretly wished to be belligerently selfish. But my character Ed wouldn’t be belligerent. He was conflicted, sure, just as I had been, but he was a decent man, trying his best to figure out the right thing for Grace. In other words, Ed was not me and would not express what might have been my unconscious anger. My writing was twisting him into something he wasn’t. I erased the whole scene and began it again.

Attention with feeling for the scene, but also for oneself . . .

Attention

Attention with feeling. If I’d kept writing without attention to my own emotional reaction, not only to Ed’s and Jerry’s conversation, the scene would have betrayed Ed’s character, his truest instincts. Given the larger plot, I would have derailed the story, perhaps beyond salvage.

Does this matter in our busy world?

Fictional characters are fictional, but they must be true to themselves, no less than you and I must. So go: Spend five minutes talking and listening with your beloved, with full attention with feeling, then answer whether it matters for fictional characters—and whether the people in fiction might teach us how to attend fully. Take a favorite poem and read it aloud. Gaze at a beloved painting, or behold a landscape that delights you. Do these things with your full attention and openness to the feelings they provoke in you.

Then answer whether it matters.

Political Rhetoric in an Era of Division: Republicans Donald Trump and Abraham Lincoln.

Political Rhetoric is a Literary Form

MLK.Speaking

In this blog, I reflect on many things gathered under the rubrics of “Psyche, Story, Spirit” – the wide range of psychological, literary, and spiritual issues that concern me. To me, the rhetoric of the emerging presidential campaign, especially on the Republican side, presents quite a story, its field littered with psychological intrigue – and maybe pathological intrigue. From my conversations with people, many Americans feel disspirited when we hear or read the debate. Since my chief interest in this blog is about writing, a form of rhetoric, I’ve been reflecting on what the campaign is doing to the language of our public conversation. This in turn brings me to two exemplars of political rhetoric in eras of deep division: Donald Trump and Abraham Lincoln.

 

Trump                                           Lincoln

The Contexts Facing Donald Trump and Abraham Lincoln

First, let’s consider the fact that Mr. Trump’s and Mr. Lincoln’s approaches to political speech emerged in two politically very similar epochs. The first was the period 1846 -1865. 1846 was the year Dred Scott first sued for his freedom, and 1865 was the year of Lincoln’s second inaugural address. At that point, the bloodied nation was concluding the Civil War. Even more consequentially, the soon-to-be-reunited states needed to reconcile after three generations’ conflict over states’ rights and slavery. In March 1865, although the Confederacy was losing the war and the issue of slavery was settled, the Reconstruction loomed contentious. People both honest and cynical, on both sides of the issues, fully and loudly voiced opinions about the role of government, states’ rights, and the status of the newly freed African Americans. There was great tension in the air.

Ours, the second period, I somewhat arbitrarily date from 1980, when the “Reagan revolution” began, through the present. Now, we can observe its second generation, the Tea Party TeaPubicanParty and it’s heroes Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Scott Walker, and the rest, promoting the politically divisive and racially controversial attitudes reminiscent of the pre- and post-Civil War era. I say the dating is arbitrary because although the Reagan revolution, bent on overturning the New Deal, achieved power in 1980, it had been brewing since the 1930s. Even in 1980, however, the debate was a conversation about ideas, not persons; it was sometimes calm, occasionally contentious, but usually civil. Reagan, for all his rhetoric (“guv’ment is the problem”), grew the government, and he collaborated with his opponents, led by Tip O’Neill, Democrat Speaker of the House.

Key Rhetorical Approaches from the Two Eras: Mr. Trump’s and Mr. Lincoln’s Speeches

Mr. Trump’s Political Rhetoric

Against this background, it is instructive to look at key rhetorical approaches from these two eras. For that comparison, I offer the rhetorical styles of Donald Trump and Abraham Lincoln on the salient issues of their day. Let’s consider first a quote from Donald Trump’s website, concerning Latino immigrants to the United States:

In recent weeks, the headlines have been covered with cases of criminals who crossed our border illegally only to go on to commit horrific crimes against Americans. Most recently, an illegal immigrant from Mexico, with a long arrest record, is charged with breaking into a 64 year-old women’s home, crushing her skull and eye sockets with a hammer, raping her, and murdering her. The Police Chief in Santa Maria says the “blood trail” leads straight to Washington.

(Note: If you follow the link to the phrase “blood trail” in Mr. Trump’s statement reveals quite a different, and more complicated, story than his statement implies. I don’t have space here to go into the rhetorical sloppiness – or dishonesty – of his implication, but I will suggest that his use of the police chief’s opinions adds no rigor, but does cheapen, his arguments.)

Or consider this, from Mr. Trump’s stump speech against the Iran nuclear agreement:

“We are led by very, very stupid people.”

On his website, Mr. Trump continues, “It was amateur hour for those charged with striking this deal with Iran, demonstrating to the world, yet again, the total incompetence of our president and politicians.”

You’ll notice in all these quotes, which I think fairly represent the overall rhetorical tactics of Mr. Trump’s campaign, the approach is to attack the persons, not to discuss the issues. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the terms of the Iran nuclear agreement, the issue for discussion is the terms, not the intellectual adequacy of the diplomats from the six major Western powers. The old-fashioned word for this is the ad hominem argument – if you cannot win debate on the issues, attack the character of your opponent.

The other Republicans offer nothing else than rehashes of Mr. Trump’s talking points, Repub.Debate which raises an interesting side question about his rhetoric: Did Mr. Trump create the talking points himself, or did he borrow someone else’s? Is he as independent as he likes to claim? Moreover, aside from personal attacks, do the Republican candidates have any ideas to offer?

In short, Mr. Trump’s (or his colleagues’) rhetoric seems designed to promote anger, division, and contempt for those who disagree with him – a tactic borrowed by Tea Partiers from many strains of radical politics before them. On other issues such as immigration and women’s health, his talking points, and those of the other candidates on the right, follow the same plan.

Mr. Lincoln’s Political Rhetoric

In contrast, let’s turn to the speech of a politician who suffered personally for opposing the very sentiments espoused by the proto-Tea Partiers of the 1850s and 1860s, a politician who exactly one month after his speech would be assassinated for it, the ultimate ad hominem argument. Abraham Lincoln, who had every reason to feel profound anger with his opponents in both the Confederacy and in his own Congress, refused to speak harshly about them in his Second Inaugural Address. Instead, he sought the common ground.

Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes his aid against the other. … The prayers of both could not be answered—that of neither has been answered fully. …

Then Lincoln ended his address thus:

With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations.

“With malice toward none; with charity for all . . .”: No ad hominem appeals, no calling forth the baser emotions of anger and hatred, and indeed, a firm rejection of them as a national ideal.

Would that the Republican politicians of 2015, 150 years after their party’s first great hero, could adopt his rhetorical style. That is, would that they could accept the burden of healing our divided nation, bringing mutually wounded opponents to the table of reconciliation. Our political psyche, our national story, and our community spirit would be profoundly changed, and richly nourished.

But if they cannot manage this, can you and I?