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.

Writers as Heroes in Dark Times

On Maria Popova’s blog, you can find an interesting story about Pablo Picasso. It describes how he stayed in Paris during the Nazi occupation, despite being urged worldwide to leave and protect himself. Ms. Popova’ writes,

Despite frequent harassment by the Gestapo, Picasso refused to leave Nazi-occupied Paris. He was forbidden from exhibiting or publishing, all of his books were banned, and even the reproduction of his work was prohibited — but he continued to make art. When the Germans outlawed bronze casting, he went on making sculptures with bronze smuggled by the French Resistance — a symbolic act which the deflated creative community saw as an emboldening beam of hope.

picasso1

During World War II, it wasn’t just Picasso who acted heroically, though apparently he was an inspiration to artists in France. There were also Albert Camus and Ernest Hemingway, although Hemingway’s exploits (assembling his own private army to “liberate” the Hotel Ritz in 1944) are perhaps more comical – or pathological – than heroic. Not to forget Irène Némirovsky, who died in Auschwitz, but left us an extraordinary novel of life under the Nazi regime. And there were artists and writers and musicians throughout Europe who, if we knew their stories, would inspire us with their heroism

Nor were there heroes only during the world war. Consider also Vaclav Havel during the Communist dictatorship in Czechoslovakia, Alexander Solzhenitsyn in the middle years of the Soviet empire, and Yegeny Semyatin under Stalin. The list of artistic heroes is just as long as the list of oppressive societies or dictators. Whether during war or during periods of ongoing oppression, artists emerge as heroes, using their art to expose the horrors and corruption of the times. Sometimes, they themselves suffer retribution. Picasso was suppressed and in constant fear of arrest. Likewise, Camus, Havel, Solzhenitsyn, and Semyatin were imprisoned by the regimes they resisted. Irène Némirovsky, and no doubt many other artists, died in Auschwitz.

What, then, about artists in our time and in our country, where such blatant oppressions and imprisonments are said not to occur? (But ask African Americans or, increasingly, Hispanics and Latinos, or even women seeking low-cost health care, about that.) Do these times call for heroism from those us who are writers? And if so, against what is that heroism to stand?

I don’t know if my own answer works for everyone, but I think we do need heroism, and that we should stand against the perversions of truth.

We in the developed countries don’t face an obvious enemy such as Nazi or Soviet occupation. But we face something for which George Orwell coined the perfect name and against which he warned us in 1984: doublespeak. For Orwell, doublespeak signified the use of language to obscure and euphemize political evil.

Doublespeak

When the military uses the phrase “collateral damage,” they distort language to obscure an evil fact: the deaths of non-combatant civilians during an operation. Although in our everyday discourse, doublespeak rescues us from crudity or unpleasantness (we say “passed on” instead of “died,” “workforce reduction” instead of “firing workers,” or “new and improved” instead of “higher-priced”), doublespeak can be and is put to more sinister uses.

I would argue that doublespeak, when used to conceal evil intentions or actions, is itself evil. And I believe that writers who take a stand against such doublespeak are heroes, even in the absence of war and occupation. By “taking a stand,” I mean two things. Writers can directly and openly unmask the doublespeak, or they can write the truth about a thing without using the doublespeak.

Political sloganeering is an insidious and invisible kind of doublespeak that writers can (and I’d say, should) stand against. The standard American political reactions to an episode of gun violence provide good examples. From the left, we always hear, “We need common-sense gun control.” From the right: “We must protect Americans’ 2nd Amendment rights.” What’s insidious about both slogans is that they cover up two ugly realities.

Common-sense Gun Control?

First, there is nothing “common-sensical” about doing background checks to prohibit the mentally ill from owning guns. The evidence is that the mentally ill as a group are no more prone to be violent than anyone else. In fact, drug and alcohol abusers are much more likely to commit gun violence than depressed or anxious people, even more than paranoid schizophrenics during actively psychotic periods. The MacArthur Violence Risk Assessment Study reported that non-substance abusing mentally ill people – no matter their diagnosis – were no more likely to commit violence than their non-substance abusing neighbors. In earlier (1970s) studies, psychologists thought that one category of psychotic thinking, called threat/override-control symptoms, characterized one group that is prone to violent acts. (Threat/control-override symptoms are false beliefs that someone threatens one or that someone is actively controlling one’s thoughts. These symptoms are found almost solely in paranoid schizophrenics.) But later research suggests that this may not be true, except in the presence of active substance abuse. In other words, paranoid individuals who are not abusing drugs or alcohol are no more likely to become violent than their “normal” neighbors who don’t abuse drugs or alcohol. (Remember, this is about statistical groups, not about individuals like Vester Lee Flanagan in Roanoke.)

So it would be far more meaningful to screen for active substance abuse, which is correlated with episodes of violence, than to screen for mental illness. But can you imagine having the alcohol industry team up with the NRA and the gun industry against that solution? So we hear calls for “common-sense gun control,” which is neither common-sensical nor likely to control guns. The ugly fact that the slogan conceals is that the problem is guns themselves in the hands of angry substance-abusing people, not those who are mentally ill. Another ugly fact is that the one group of mentally ill persons who commit significant gun violence are those who commit suicide. But no one issues a call for “common-sense gun control” when a person commits suicide-by-gun. We never hear about him (it’s usually him).

Our 2nd Amendment Rights?

In the second example of doublespeak, appeals to the 2nd Amendment are used to obscure the corporate interests of gun manufacturers. Worse, the phrase in the Amendment about the militias’ being “well-regulated” is invariably ignored, often by slyly referring to the clause in which it appears as a mere “preface.”

2ndAmendment

The Second Amendment was adopted in December 1791, fifteen years later than our founders’ Declaration, in July 1776, that all persons have “an inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Clearly, in the founders’ politics, the lives of the citizenry, their liberty from tyranny, and their ability to pursue happiness are prior to the right to bear arms. Now, I have no doubt that many gun hobbyists derive real pleasure from the liberty to enjoy their collections. But if someone derives happiness – as distinct from feelings of safety or control – from owning an arsenal of assault rifles on the grounds that it will protect themselves and their families from a government takeover of their back yards, I would argue that such delusions of “happiness” may signal mental illness. When guns deprive citizens of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, it is sophistry to invoke the 2nd Amendment to trump that ugly fact.

More importantly, only five conservative Justices of the Supreme Court believed, in District of Washington vs Heller, that the 2nd Amendment intended that private individuals had the right to keep and bear arms. (And when it comes to cries that the 2nd Amendment is sacred, let’s note that, for some radical conservatives, the Constitutional amendments stop being so sacred when they accomplish political goals that the radical right-wing disdain, such as ensuring the right of birthright citizenship in the 14th Amendment).

And note this too: That 2008 decision, Heller, was far more limited than NRA and the 2nd Amendment zealots admit. Here is a summary of the actual decision:

[T]he Court ultimately concluded that the second amendment “guarantee[s] the individual right to possess and carry weapons in case of confrontation” (id. at 592); that “central to” this right is “the inherent right of self-defense”(id. at 628); that “the home” is “where the need for defense of self, family, and property is most acute” (id. at 628); and that, “above all other interests,” the second amendment elevates “the right of law abiding, responsible citizens to use arms in defense of hearth and home” (id. at 635). Based on this understanding, the Court held that a District of Columbia law banning handgun possession in the home violated the second amendment. Id. at 635.

Note that small phrase, “hearth and home.” What was decided in 2008, then, was that possession of handguns in the home for self-defense is allowed. Nothing in the decision applies to or implies the onslaught of state laws allowing for public and concealed carry, ownership and brandishing of semi-automatic weapons, and the like.

So what has this example got to do with the heroism required of writers?

EditedPage.1

Writers don’t hesitate to do hours of research to make sure we get even a single fact right. (I’ve spent at least four hours just researching this blog post.) I’d argue that writers, including writers of fiction, know how to search out an issue’s niggling finer points, as I’ve tried to do by way of example with two common political slogans. In this charged and volatile political environment, where politicians demonize entire groups of people, I think writers have a responsibility to search deeply into the truths or facts being obscured or concealed by political doublespeak.

Finally, let me nominate a writer who has shown heroism recently in fighting lies coming from politicians. In March of this year, Governor Paul LePage of Maine used Steven King as a whipping boy to flog his plan for eliminating the state income tax in order to lure rich retirees to Maine. He claimed that the Steven King had moved to Florida to escape the Maine income tax, implying that King did not pay income taxes in Maine. Both statements were lies, covering up an ugly agenda: Taxing the poor (through hiking the sales tax) to reward the rich (by ending the income tax).

Steven King struck back the next day. He released this Tweet:

Governor LePage is full of the stuff that makes the grass grow green. Tabby (King’s wife, Tabitha) and I pay every cent of our Maine state income taxes, and are glad to do it. We feel, as Governor LePage apparently does not, that much is owed from those to whom much has been given. We see our taxes as a way of paying back the state that has given us so much. State taxes pay for state services. There’s just no way around it. Governor LePage needs to remember there ain’t no free lunch.

         In his response, King revealed how much he’d paid in taxes in 2013 – 1.4 million dollars. He stood for truth against political doublespeak by exposing himself. I salute him.

Let’s do our part.

 

How to Create Sympathetic Fictional Characters Who Are Right-wing Extremists

A sub-theme of my novel, Climbing the Coliseum, explores the recent resurgence of the extremist  anti-government and racist right wing in our society.

ClimbCover-252px

When I was writing the book, I wanted the action to show, from inside the movement, the kind of hate-filled thinking that drives this it. At the same time, I wanted to avoid demonizing anyone and to portray the characters involved with some sympathy. In this sub-plot, Climbing the Coliseum portrays an anti-tax, anti-government conspiracy modeled on the real-life Posse Comitatus, more on whom later.

If I couldn’t write the characters with genuinely mixed good-and-bad traits, I knew that my readers would be unable to feel a human connection with them, and that would sink the story. This problem absorbed a lot of my energy in the early going. In a moment, I’ll share with you the solution that evolved. First, let me give you some back-story on the Posse Comitatus, which is the model for my conspiracy.

Posse C

In the novel, as in real life, the Posse Comitatus is an ugly, hate-filled, and (if they weren’t so violent) ludicrous group of human beings. If you want an in-depth look at what the Posse is about, you can check out Rachel Maddow’s deep-historical overview here. It’s long – twenty-one minutes – but she’s very thorough. She traces the roots of the Posse to the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, which effectively ended Reconstruction and opened the door to Jim Crow. (If you’d prefer a shorter explanation, check Dana Milbank’s article here.)

At root, the Posse is an outgrowth of two earlier (but still active) extremist movements: Christian Identity and the Sovereign Citizen movement. From the Christian Identity movement, the Posse Comitatus inherits its virulent strain of white supremacy, racial hatred, and anti-Semitism. From the sovereign citizens, it borrows a set of potent but bizarre ideological beliefs:

  • The individual citizen is sovereign; that is, a citizen is a nation unto him- or herself, and citizens are free to decide for themselves which laws, if any, they will obey. This, of course, is utterly confused thinking, since by definition, the citizen is a member of the sovereign state. This idea leads to a basketful of bizarre behaviors, such as people deciding to simply eliminate their debts — without paying anything (except $1500.00 to the sovereign citizen site that promotes the idea).
  • The federal, state, and local governments, with one exception, do not exist and have no authority over individual citizens.
  • The county sheriff is the highest – and only – valid governmental official; however, see the next point.
  • If a sheriff, or anyone, attempts to impose “illegal” taxes or other laws on citizens, the Posse is empowered to try him or her by a “citizens’ grand jury” and, if warranted, “We the People” (you’ll find Posse speakers referring to themselves this way all the time) shall penalize him, and even, if necessary, hang him. Yes, that’s right. Hang him. Don’t believe me? Check it out here. The original statement of this is that the offending sheriff “shall be removed by the Posse to the most populated intersection of streets in the township and at high noon hung by the neck, the body remaining until sundown as an example to those who would subvert the law.” The quote is from 1968. Yes, Nineteen-sixty-eight.

As I said, if they weren’t so violent, the Posse would be ludicrous. But they are violent. Remember Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, the Oklahoma City bombers? Posse members. Remember Randy Weaver of Ruby Ridge, Idaho? Posse-influenced, if not a member.

Rancher Cliven Bundy, middle, addresses his supporters along side Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie, right, on April 12, 2014. Bundy informed the public that the BLM has agreed to cease the roundup of his family's cattle.(AP Photo/Las Vegas Review-Journal, Jason Bean)
Rancher Cliven Bundy, middle, addresses his supporters.

Remember Cliven Bundy? He’s the Nevada rancher who for many years has grazed his cattle on federal lands but refused to pay more than a million dollars in grazing fees – because he does not believe the federal government exists! Remember how he and his supporters stood with rifles aimed at federal marshals who came to remove his cattle from public lands? Remember how he told Fox News that he thinks “the Negro” would be better off as a slave? Why? Because they (“the Negro”) are “basically on government subsidy, so . . . they abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton.” (This video clip appears starting at 19:19 into the Rachel Maddow segment mentioned above.) That Cliven Bundy.

Well, Cliven Bundy was repeating Posse Comitatus propaganda, chapter and verse.

Writing

So, when I was writing Climbing the Coliseum, I faced this difficult task: How could I keep the Posse Comitatus-based group in the novel from so resembling the real Posse that readers couldn’t engage with them, maybe couldn’t even believe they were real? How could I depict the group sympathetically, without descending into either condescension or farce, and without condoning their destructive ideas?

 

As is so often the case, my characters saved me. Originally, Vic Sobstak, the rancher I envisioned belonging to the anti-tax conspiracy, was like most Posse Members. He was opinionated, racist, against the government, and brimming with anger. But I was also writing about his wife, Maggie, a much more sympathetic character, indeed, a good and strong person. The trouble was, Maggie truly loved Vic. This forced me to ask myself, “Would Maggie have stayed married to this guy for so long if he was as big a jerk as I’m portraying him?” The only answer I could find was, “No way on earth.” So Vic had to change.

Vic and Maggie were small-time ranchers facing bankruptcy as a result of a big tax problem. I realized that Vic didn’t have to be an anti-Semitic racist to join an anti-tax conspiracy: Lots of folks are searching for a way to solve their tax problems, and the leaders of the conspiracy could pitch it (during its initial recruiting phase) as a benign help-with-taxes organization. The fact that it turns out so much more deadly than that didn’t need to discount Vic’s motivation for getting involved: He wanted to save his ranch and win back Maggie’s respect.

 

So my solution, thanks to Maggie’s love for her husband, was to write Vic’s character as a decent, hard-working, but stubbornly prideful rancher who, rather innocently (at first), attends some anti-tax meetings put on by the Reverend Crane, from Idaho, who preaches the Posse Comitatus Bible. In his naiveté, Vic has no idea the wasps’ nest he’s being seduced into, and when he finally wakes up to the craziness – and the hatred – it’s almost to late to get out. I wanted Victor to emerge as a vivid and sympathetic guy, trapped by his own pride and fear of failure.

In other words, a person like most of us.

If you’re wondering whether Vic stumbles his way out of trouble, here’s where you can find Climbing the Coliseum!

6 Hints about David Mitchell’s “The Bone Clocks”

Forty years of practicing psychotherapy have left me somewhat immune to the bittersweet tragicomedies of life. At least, I find myself these days just a bit short on tears. But the last ten pages of David Mitchell’s new book, The Bone Clocks, turned me back into a weeper.
Bone Clocks.Cover.

The book is too big and too complex a story for easy summary. Also, it’s too damn good. Like great music or a superb dinner, The Bone Clocks needs to be encountered, wrestled with, and savored. Not munched like Cliff Notes.

Let me, however, offer a few hints about what you’re in for when you read Mitchell’s masterpiece:

Hint 1: The book tackles enormous themes, with nary a didactic word or explanatory passage. Despite the themes’ depth, Mitchell shows everything though the actions and interactions of compelling flesh-and-blood characters, drawn with realism, emotion, and precision. What are the themes? Here are a few (there are more): Try life and death (and life after death). Try climate change and its impact on civilization. How about the birth, death, and rebirth of human society? Or the possibility of mental evolution to levels far beyond ours?

Hint 2: There are at least four, count ‘em, four, protagonists – Holly Sykes, Hugo Lamb, Marinus, and Crispin Hershey – and each is simultaneously an antagonist to at least one of the others. (And that doesn’t even count the actual bad-guy and bad-gal antagonists in the plot.) Even the most dreadful characters seduced my reluctant sympathy – and I fell in love with Holly Sykes by page 10.

Hint 3: The four protagonists’ stories are vivid and compelling near-novellas in their own right, but each is entirely, grippingly, and integrally woven into the fabric of the whole novel. Everything — and I mean everything! — coheres and contributes to an inexorable march to the final climax. You can see it all at the climax. Although the enemies seem alien at first, we realize by the book’s end that, in Pogo’s immortal words, “we have met the enemy, and he is us.”

Pogo1.Met enemy

Hint 4: Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law is Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. The Bone Clocks can be considered magical realism. Clarke’s law holds true, though, because all the magical elements of the story turn out to be kin to the “miraculous” actions of some advanced Tibetan Buddhist lamas, doing “magical” things with their profound mental training. To me, it would be more accurate to call Mitchell’s style technological realism, if you’re willing to consider sophisticated mental abilities to be like “sufficiently advanced technologies.” It’s a semantic stretch, but when you read the book, you’ll get it. 

Hint 5: Despite having 624 pages, the novel appears to end at page 545! Then, without warning, we’re in an entirely (well, not entirely) new story, set eighteen years later! A seventy-nine page epilogue? Nope. For twenty or more of those pages, I kept asking “Where the hell is he going with this?” Finally, befuddled once again (Mitchell’s story-telling is nothing if not delightfully befuddling), I gave up and let myself sink into this last masterful tale – and that’s when the tears started.

Hint 6: The ending, specifically the last seven pages, is perhaps the most bittersweet – or perhaps I should write, sorrowful-uplifting – prose I have ever read. To my mind, the very last line is nothing short of a masterpiece.

That ending and that last line are what opened me to weep deeply, to let the sorrow and the hope Mitchell portrays so profoundly enter my consciousness fully. I could let the anguish and the aspiration of Holly Sykes – like those of so many clients over forty years – take hold of my emotions as deeply as almost any book has ever done. And so The Bone Clocks proved redemptive – at least for me. I hope it will for you as well.

Writing to Our Audience

When Michele and I visit our grandchildren in springtime, one delight is to watch them practicing with their baseball or soccer teams. Any of you who have children or grandchildren know how the five-year olds all cluster on the ball like puppies going after a chew toy.

Kids playing soccer

 

Or how, when the nine year olds catch ground balls and their throw to first is on target (once out of five or six times!), they strut for a moment, face the outfield, and spit, as confident as Derek Jeter. I smile.

One of the things I enjoy most is watching the coaches patiently and ceaselessly teaching the basics, reminding the kids to master those before trying the harder things. “Stay in your position!” “Eyes on the ball!” They don’t try to get the kids to play far above their abilities, just a slight bit better.

DalaiLama Universe

In his thoughtful book, The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality, the Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyosto, recalls a charming story of a similar “coaching” scene:

“I remember most vividly my first lesson on [what “mental” means] as a child, when I had to memorize the dictum, ‘The definition of the mental is that which is luminous and knowing.’ Drawing on earlier Indian sources, [this is how] Tibetan thinkers defined consciousness. It was years later that I realized just how complicated is the philosophical problem hidden behind this simple formulation. Today when I see nine-year-old monks confidently citing this definition of consciousness on the debating floor, which is such a central part of Tibetan monastic education, I smile.” (The Universe, p. 124).

Whether it’s Little League or the Tibetan debating floor or third grade, good coaches and teachers tailor their lessons to their students’ capabilities. Writers have a similar responsibility: I am to “know my audience, and write to them.”

My friend, Lou Kavar, who’s both a psychologist and a pastor, writes Emergingan excellent blog on spirituality (you might want to check it out). Once, referring to his audience, Lou told me, “My age group is mostly over 40 or so. Because of that, my blog uses a larger font.” He’s taken know-thine-audience to a higher level of compassion.

I write adult fiction, with “adult” defined as folks around thirty or thirty-five and up, whose experiences in the world provide them some understanding of what my characters are going through. That doesn’t mean I won’t ever write for my grandchildren, but then I’ll write differently. However, I know at least one writer who feels quite differently about this business of knowing one’s audience. He put it this way: “Audience doesn’t matter. Writing fiction is art, and it’s the artist who decides what is artistic.” To my friend, writing to a particular audience is “pandering.” It’s his word.

Do good coaches or good teachers pander when they calibrate their instruction to the capabilities of the students? They say the Buddha gave his message quite differently to different audiences, fitting the expression of his teachings to their spiritual maturity. That’s not pandering.

John Gardner, an American writer, taught that good writing creates a “dream” or dream-world in the reader, and that writers must do nothing to “wake” the reader from that dream.

JohnGardner

I suspect that the art of writing lies precisely here: Crafting words and sentences that allow your audience to enter and remain in the “dream,” without being distracted by how you write.

In an earlier post, I talked about how Jesus taught in parables. One day, the authorities challenged him for breaking the rules – he was eating dinner with tax collectors working for the Roman empire. In the simplest of language, he offered a very complex and profoundly revolutionary message. But rather than saying, “My mission is to propose a regime-threatening and radical new way of envisioning social and political relationships.” Nope. He said, “You don’t put new wine in old skins. New wine, new skins!” (Mark, 2:22). So, who was his audience? Even though he was rebutting the highly educated and sophisticated Pharisees, I don’t think they were his actual audience. The Pharisees would have been quite prepared for a philosophical argument. No, his audience had to be the ordinary Joe-Six-Packs with whom he was eating, and for whom he tailored his answer.

Madeline L’Engle once said, “You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.” This seems to be different from know your audience. Is she saying, “The book determines the audience”? Perhaps, but I don’t think so. I think she’s telling us that really serious and important themes can get muddied up when their expression is too complex – too “adult.”

“New wine, new skins!”

But what do you think about this business of writing for your audience. Let’s talk.

Writing Lessons from Jon Stewart and Jesus Christ

It may seem brash, but I’m going to share two amazing sources of lessons I’ve learned about writing: Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show, and the teachings of Jesus Christ. I’ll start with Jon Stewart.

JonStewart            As he ends his years as the guiding spirit of The Daily Show, I’ve been reflecting on his work, and I’ve realized that he’s leaving me an important lesson about writing fiction. Four nights a week, he has turned serious, complex, and often disturbing news stories into informative and insightful 20-minute laugh-riots. As a fiction writer, I’m intrigued that he can produce such quality night after night.

Granted, he has a team writing with him. An article on the New York Times City Room blog revealed that his scripts are written by his team of roughly twelve writers, producers – and himself – each working about eight hours a day: 96 writer-hours produce 20 minutes of hilarious and penetrating social criticism: Rachel-Maddow-meets-Robin Williams. So, how does that shake out? So: One minute of high-quality writing for The Daily Show requires 4.8 writer-hours!

Let’s see: I write, on good weeks, about fifteen hours, so using The Daily Show as my standard, I should produce about 2.4 pages of excellent content each week! (I can read a page in about 74 seconds.) That’s double-spaced, of course.

(Naturally, there are bad weeks, like this little guy is having.) Frustrated

Sure, it’s a cliché: Devote more time, do more revisions, and your product will improve. Jon Stewart’s success adds dimensions to the cliché: “Good” writing requires a serious story, a wildly entertaining way of telling it. and many hours of hard work. Seems like a no-brainer, eh? Maybe, but I think there’s something else at play in great writing. This is where Himself, as the Irish call him (Jesus, not Stewart), comes in.

Full disclosure: My mother’s career choice for me was the priesthood. Although I drove that train off the tracks early, I’ve stayed engaged with Jesus as a hero, a prophet, a teacher. I don’t actively practice Christianity; in fact, I prefer his friend, Gautama Buddha’s, approach better. In any case, Jesus wasn’t a writer, so what relevance does he have to the craft of writing?

Well, first, he had a team of writers working for him—you know, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and the guys. Jesus himself, of course, never wrote a word, or perhaps I should say, never published one. Nor was he a demanding editor: When his writers quote him, they often differ! With his writers, Jon Stewart runs a much tighter ship; Jesus, not so much. And loose ships confuse lips.

Still, his message endures. So, what’s that got to do with writing a novel, like my Climbing the Coliseum?

Note the word: message. Think, “Have a message, but bury it in a story.”

That is, parables. Embed  a message in your story that touches people’s desires, but don’t say the core message in so many words. People say to Jesus: “Tell us how to find God!” He replies, The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed. Huh? Say again?

The parables raise questions and generate tension by forcing those who hear them to ask questions, to think. I can imagine his listeners looking at each other: What’s he mean by that? He forces people to engage, to dig in. Just what writers want, correct?

The covert message (or theme, if you prefer) of my novel, Climbing the Coliseum, is that when folks skirt the toughest challenges life throws at them, they suffer, and when they turn around and face their challenges head on, redemption happens. It’s about how ordinary folks in small communities help one another survive terrible things. However, nowhere in the novel will you find that message. It’s hidden, like a treasure buried in a field, woven into the story and the plot, but never spoken out loud.

Jon Stewart taught me to entertain, but to entertain about subjects worth grappling with. And Jesus’s parables taught me to hide that message in the field of plot and story. Keep readers entertained, engaged, and wondering—that’s the art of fiction. But make the story worth wondering about. That’s the morality of fiction.

What are your thoughts about this? Send me a comment so we can talk . . .

Bill