Jesus Comes Home-To What?

I’m no longer a Christian in the formal sense of the word. But I love the scene in Luke when Jesus returns home to Nazareth and in the Shabbat service reads from Isaiah:

  • The spirit of the Lord has been given to me,
  • For he has anointed me.
  • He has sent me to bring the good news to the poor,
  • To proclaim liberty to captives,
  • And to the blind new sight, 
  • To set the downtrodden free,
  •  to proclaim the Lord’s year of favor.

Luke says that he “won the approval of all, and they were astonished by the gracious words that came from his lips” (Luke 4:22). And then it all blows up.

Why?

“They said, ‘This is Joseph’s son, surely?’” (How many of us have been condemned without a trial because of our families?)

“But he replied, ‘No doubt you will quote me the saying, “Physician, heal yourself,” and tell me, “We have heard all that happened at Capernaum, do the same here in your own countryside.” And he went on, “I tell you solemnly, no prophet is ever accepted in his own country.’” (Luke 14, 23-24).

I love how Jesus ignores his towns peoples’ astonishment and their assessment that his words are “gracious.” No ingratiating for him, when they marvel at him in what he obviously takes as rejection, he erupts immediately in a blistering condemnation of his townsfolk.

But why?

Well, we don’t know. But we can guess. His condemnation is couched obliquely: Israeli widows were suffering during a famine, but the prophet Elijah was not sent to them, but to an Arab widow. Likewise, the prophet Elisha was not sent to cure Israeli lepers, but Syrians (Luke 4:23-24). “You Nazarenes,” he might have shouted, “don’t deserve my teaching, nor the Torah that I read to you this morning.” Is he saying that the natives don’t get how important the foreigners are?

He might have been shouting at us.

Ouch.

How do we treat Syrian “lepers”—or Hispanic immigrants? We return them to the desert.

How do we accept asylum seekers or displaced persons at our border? We reject them, sending them back to the horrors they hoped to escape. Or (some say this is us being compassionate), we cage their children.

Do we try to cure the sick? If they are immigrants without full documentation, we have until now deferred their deportation, a small moment of compassion. But no longer. Boil down the confusion around the medical deferred action program, and what do you see? Abandonment, not compassion. To the sick children and adults with life-ending illnesses, we offer thirty-three days to leave the county—for what?

To die.

To let a cowardly president with no soul, a man who plays golf and feigns strength while enormous hurricanes attack our neighbors and our coasts, boast of his compassion, while families with dying children try to encompass the enormity of the devastation his government has wreaked upon them.

A strongman-bully leads us.

Spirit help us. 

A Hell of a Story

It’s Been a While

Followers of this blog know that it’s been a while since my last post. What they don’t know is why. In one way, it’s simple: I have been heartbroken at the daily assaults on our American values by the Trump people, including himself, but I made a promise to myself when I began writing the blog that I’d avoid politics. So I have. The mission here is summed up in the subtitle: Psyche, Spirit, Story.

But finally (I’m slow), I realize that the behavior and rhetoric of the Trump people are nothing if not spiritual (in the darkest sense of that word)—and they deeply impact our individual and collective psyches and to top it off, are one hell of a story. Literally.

Cruelty at the Border

How is the separation of families, the imprisonment of children for no crime they are responsible for, something “spiritual”? It’s not. But what it compels, at least for me and for many whom I know, is compassion. Not to mention just anger. In others, it elicits either complacency or approval—and when the subject is injustice and oppression of the weak, complacency or approval are spiritual responses. All three reactions express a psychological impact, and each betrays a profound story of one’s relations with one’s fellow human beings: 

  • I care. I suffer with or for you.
  • I don’t care. You do not matter to me.
  • I’m glad you’re suffering. 

Now, I’m focused less on the “psyche” or the “story” dimension, than on “spirit.” I was raised in the Judeo-Christian tradition, and I rely on the Biblical tradition when confronting puzzling and outrageous social conditions. In Leviticus, we read, “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:33-34).

This is bedrock. Rabbi Sheila Weinberg, writing in 2017 on HuffingtonPost.com, said that this statement in Leviticus “is a central preoccupation of the Torah as a whole. Why? Repeatedly we are told that because the Israelites were persecuted as the hated and dreaded foreign element in Egyptian society,one of their primary responsibilities as a free people is to not oppress the stranger.” The family of Jacob, grandson of Abraham, were immigrants in Egypt. Immigrants who were enslaved. 

Liberated by Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, these former slaves wandered forty years in the desert, so that the slave generation could die out and the young and free generation could develop self-reliance and could internalize the teaching at Sinai: To care for the immigrant, because their ancestors had once been immigrants, and enslaved. 

A Hell of a Story

It’s one hell of a psychological story, and you don’t even need a psychology degree to read it. Imagine: Your daughter or your granddaughter is torn from you, placed in a cage with nowhere to sleep, garbage to eat, no cups to collect water for drinking, no bath or shower for days, even weeks. Not even a toothbrush or toothpaste. You don’t need a PhD to recognize torture and trauma. You don’t need to practice psychotherapy to witness the sowing of the seeds of lifetimes of emotional pain. 

More perversely, it’s a hell of a spiritual story, because it’s main characters aren’t the Hispanic and Latino families who are torn apart—the main characters are us. It’s the story of who we are—who we side with, who we help, or who we let suffer. 

This is why I’m blogging again: I won’t stand by any longer.

From Drafting to Editing to Polishing to Publishing

Over the next few weeks, as I approach the release date for my next novel, The Bishop Burned the Lady (now available for pre-order here at 10% off) I’m going to share some of my experiences in bringing a book from the idea stage to publication. I’ll focus these posts on the process I went through in writing The Bishop—but it is very similar to how the first two books grew.

I am always fascinated to hear from other writers how they midwife a wispy idea into a meaty draft that hangs together as a novel. My own process is not unlike many other writers. I start with an issue that intrigues me, outrages me, somehow ruffles my feathers enough to make me want to dig into it. For instance, Book I of the series, Climbing the Coliseum, arose out of my frustration about tax evasion and anti-government conspiracies, which rear their ugly heads every few years and invariably get someone killed. In Nobody’s Safe Here, the second book in the series, I toggled between wanting to explore school shootings and their underlying drivers on one hand and investigating the long-term consequences of clergy sexual abuse on the other. So I wove them together.

The Bishop Burned the Lady grew out of a story I’d heard about rural sex trafficking, specifically about how many trafficking gangs operate as businesses, but often hide behind a religious cover, pretending to be a usually secret fringe church or cult.

Once I decided this might be a big enough subject with plenty of dramatic and human emotional power, I started the asking myself “what if?” What if sheriff’s deputy Andi Pelton (a main character in the series, set in a small Montana county) was assigned to investigate a suspicious fire in the forest above the town? What if she discovers charred bones in the ashes? What if, between her visits to the fire scene—which perhaps is a murder scene—someone completely removes every clue, down to the bare earth? What if she discovers an old man living in a forest compound—with a dormitory-like building on his property—near the scene of the fire? What if she invests a lot of energy in the old hermit whom she suspects of being the leader of the sex traffickers, but it turns out she’s wrong? What if, after she’s forced to start over, she is suddenly betrayed by her co-investigator? What if she is captured by the real leader of the gang and finds herself with his knife at her throat? What if . . .?

No doubt you recognize that each “what-if” is a turning point that makes things worse for Andi. Each increases the stakes—tightens the tension—for her and for the investigation. Those turning points, once I had fine-tuned them, formed the skeleton of a plot-structure, and once I was satisfied that that skeleton could support real flesh-and-blood and blows to the human spirit and conflict galore, I was ready to start writing the first draft. That’s when it gets fun, for me.

Next, Michele, my wife and a former teacher, read it and wielded her trusty red pencil. Her critique is always invaluable at this stage, because she shows me errors and gaps I failed to see (because I was too close to the story). She points out passages that don’t work so I can either rewrite them–or send them packing. The next draft incorporates her advice–and allows me to tighten and trim the story itself. The third draft then focuses on the writing itself–making it stronger, finding more robust verbs and sharper images, sentences that sing, nouns that pop. Each draft forces me to feel the book as a whole, to satisfy myself that the pace and sequencing, the conflicts and their resolutions, the dialogs and the inner monologs are true to the story and true to the characters. And when I decide they are, it’s time for my editor to take the stage.

Next week, I’ll write about that next step: beta readers and my editor.

Basho, Wisdom, and War

This morning, after the U.S. sent bombers and fighter jets perilously close to the airspace of North Korea over the weekend, the foreign minister of that country countered with a chilling statement:

Foreign Minister Ri Yong-Ho – CBC News

“Donald Trump [in a Tweet in which he said that Kim Jong-Un ‘won’t be around much longer’] has declared war on us,” and added that N. Korea has a right, as any country at war has, to shoot down American planes even outside their air space.

Friends, this is horrifying.

After I read the foreign minister’s words, I glanced down at my desk where a yellowed index card has rested, hidden under scraps of other notes and desk clutter, for years. It contains a translation of a haiko by Matsuo Basho (1644-1694). I picked it up and re-read it, and it brought tears to my eyes:

How fortunate the man

who sees a flash of lightning and

does not think “how brief life is.”

When I see the flashes of lightning striking out between Trump’s tweets and the madman of North Korea, I cannot help but think how brief life is. We are still bearing the burdens of the longest war of our country’s history, yet our president wishes us into another that will dwarf the agonies of Afghanistan and Iraq. And those countries have no nuclear arms (although our last Republican war-mongerer lied to us that Iraq indeed posed such a threat). We stand on the brink, once again. And again, we’re asking, Why?

How brief life is. I was a little boy during the Korean War, a teen and young adult during the Vietnam War. As a young man, I watched the invasions of Panama and Grenada and then the first Gulf war. In my middle age, it was the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. How brief life is when you can count your years by their wars. And how full of rage–or cowardice– my country’s leaders seem, as they stand silent while Trump strains to unleash war—by words, and, he seems to desire, by weapons of mass destruction.

Basho was so right—how fortunate the person is who, hearing yet again the drums of war brought out and pounded, does not think how brief life is.

My ten-minute timer just notified me that my time is up. I pray that our leaders find the sanity to hear their alarms before all our time is up.

Context is Everything

Context is Everything

(Recently, I’ve been experimenting with allowing myself only ten minutes to write my blog posts. So far, it’s been fun. Today’s experiment should be fun too.)

In writing fiction (well, in anything that people do together), context is all-important. I’ll stick to fiction, but consider: If you didn’t know the context of President Trump’s infamous blaming of the victims of the Charlottesville fascist rally, you would not realize how wrong his “there’s blame on both sides, on many sides” was. So, to fiction: If the context of a dialog or a series of actions and interactions is clear enough to the reader, much can be left out. Result: The writing can be leaner, faster, cleaner.

For example, consider this piece of dialog in light of its context: A young woman is being seduced by an older man who, despite his age, holds an unaccountable allure for her. And he knows it, knows that she is almost ready to succumb:

She says, “No, this is wrong.”

“Ah, but no one is watching.”

Without knowing the context, a lot of additional dialog would be needed, because the reader would not know how close the girl is to agreeing, nor how well the man understands her. Context allows a great deal to be left out, which in turn permits the reader to exercise much more imagination.

Let me illustrate the importance of context another way, with a marvelous joke that makes exquisite use of missing context:

Farmer Joe was suing a trucking company for injuries sustained in an accident. In court, the company’s fancy lawyer was questioning Farmer Joe.

“Didn’t you say, at the scene of the accident, ‘I’m fine’?” asked the lawyer.

“Well, I’ll tell you what happened. I had just loaded my favorite mule, Bessie, into the trailer and . . .”

“I didn’t ask for any details,” the lawyer interrupted. “Just answer the question. Did you not say, at the scene of the accident, ‘I’m fine’?”

Farmer Joe continued, “Well, I had just got Bessie into the trailer and I was driving down the road . . .”

The lawyer objected. “Judge, I am trying to establish the fact that, at the scene of the accident, this man told the Highway Patrolman that he was just fine. Now, several months later, he’s suing my client. I believe he is a fraud. Please tell him to simply answer the question.”

But the judge was interested in Farmer Joe’s story and said to the lawyer, “I’d like to hear what he has to say about his mule, Bessie.”

Joe thanked the judge and proceeded. “Well, I’d just loaded Bessie into the trailer and was driving her down the highway when this huge semi-truck and trailer ran the stop sign and smacked my truck right in the side. I was thrown into one ditch and Bessie was thrown into the other. I was hurting real bad and couldn’t move. However, I could hear ole Bessie moaning and groaning, so I knew she was in terrible shape.

“A highway patrolman came on the scene. He could hear Bessie moaning so he went over to her. After he looked at her, he took out his gun and shot her between the eyes. Then he crossed the road with his gun in his hand and looked at me.

“He said, ‘Your mule was in such bad shape I had to shoot her. How are you feeling?’ ”

Context is everything!

Okay, my ten minutes is up. Hope you enjoyed this one. See you next time.

Ripples that Reveal

Three groups of people specialize in studying ripples: Detectives, psychologists, and people who fish. That’s right, fisher-people. Why?

Ripples point to something hidden, something lurking just below the surface. When I fished, there were two kinds of things I looked for. First was the kind of under-water structure (submerged trees, weed beds, gravel beds, and so on) where fish hunt for food. Dropping the bait in where they were, and making sure it was the kind of bait the fish liked, usually led to a catch.

Well, sometimes. Okay, now and then.

The second thing I looked for was ripples that didn’t match the pattern of waves, ripples suggesting something moving below the surface–like a fish traveling nearby. The underwater structure created a context that promised fish, and the presence of an occasional ripple above that structure suggested the movement of a fish. “Something’s there! Cast!”

Detectives and psychologists look for a different kind of ripples, although they really are similar to those in the water: They look for unexplained disturbances in the field. (I borrowed the phrase “disturbances in the field” from the excellent novel of the same name by Lynn Sharon Schwartz.) Like the ripples in the water when a stone is thrown into it, these disturbances in the field—the “field” being the client’s usual emotional equilibrium or everyday behavior or the suspect’s story, alibis, and emotional demeanor—suggest something disturbing below. The client seeking help in building self-confidence who, unexpectedly, suffers a panic attack at the mention of her father. The unassuming neighbor who starts receiving strange visitors late at night and suddenly buys a flashy new car.

Such disturbances in the person’s normal presentation of self are suggestive—nothing more—of some anomaly. If the disturbance in the field recurs—for example, if the mention of the client’s father again generates an unexpected anxiety, or the quiet stay-at-home neighbor buys a Porsche and then suddenly flies off to Monaco—the psychologist or the detective may now have a pattern to start analyzing. And that pattern may—or may not—lead to a discovery of something important. Like a fish hidden in the lake.

My ten minutes are up, so next week, I’ll write about how, in my current work-in-progress, “A Patriot’s Campaign,” such ripples make the main character, Deputy Andi Pelton, suspect something is going on with her antagonist, Deputy Brad Ordrew. See you then!

An Immoral Budget

A shift in focus . . .

I don’t usually write about politics per se in this blog. I prefer to focus on stories, on the psychological dimensions of current issues, or on the spiritual side of events. I’ve been away from the blog for almost two months now, and during that time I’ve watched—and mourned—as the Trump administration has begun to dismantle the institutions of the United States. During that time, while the blog was down, I decided I must act on my conscience. Still, I was troubled by the idea that I might be writing about politics.

 

But yesterday, the release of Trump’s budget persuaded me that I must. Specifically, what spoke to me was the explanation Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s budget director, offered for why the enormous increase in the military and defense budget will be paid for by equally enormous cuts in programs to protect all the humanitarian, cultural, environmental, and anti-poverty programs. His explanation was and remains a repugnant repudiation of the values reflect the most moral side of the United States. If this budget passes (which I cannot imagine it will), we will have entered not merely a constitutional and institutional crisis, but a moral crisis.

 

This moral dimension to the budget (any budget reflects the moral values of the administration, but Trump’s most blatantly expresses the immorality of this administration) led me to decide to locate one act of my resistance here on my blog. I realize that will alienate some of my readers, for which I am sorry. I won’t be writing about politics in itself, but about the moral and spiritual dimensions of the current political scene. I will be writing to express my outrage—and I pray, my hope.

Politics is not a-moral, but it can be immoral 

I’m a novelist, but I’m also a psychologist. I recognize that psychological issues often mask spiritual issues. The corrosive shame felt by some folks who seek therapy sometimes hides a profound spiritual emptiness, and begins to dissipate when they find a spiritual path that brings light into their lives. On the social and political level, an actor—Donald Trump, Mick Mulvaney, Sean Spicer, for example—who routinely behaves in flagrantly abusive or dishonest or self-aggrandizing ways may be suffering some kind of psychological trouble. But more importantly, the behavior reflects a lack of spiritual center. This is all the more important to remember about people who pander to honest folks who profess Christianity.

 

More to my point, we citizens who are routinely forced to endure ugly words and abusive behaviors—via press conferences or TV interviews or executive orders or midnight Tweets—can find our own moral compass wavering. “Can that be true?” “Should I really believe that?” “Am I crazy?” Worse, we can be tempted to express contempt, to resort to vitriol, the last refuge of the powerless. We citizens, facing this, face a moral dilemma ourselves: How can I resist the moral darkness without becoming dark myself? These questions I want to explore in my blog in coming weeks.

A horrific example . . .

Let me give one example: Yesterday, Mick Mulvaney said that the drastic cuts to the humanitarian side of the budget were “probably one of the most compassionate things we can do.” He went on to say that the government had a moral duty to make sure that a “single mom with two kids in Detroit” doesn’t have to pay for programs—like Meals-on-wheels, like free and reduced lunch for poor kids—that don’t have “a proper function.” A proper function?

Because feeding the poor is not a “proper function” of government? Because feeding hungry kids is not a “proper function” of government?

 

This is beyond repugnant, it is evil.

 

His argument turns compassion on its head. That single mom in Detroit will suffer greatly under Trump’s budget, and the budget director has the gall to claim that the cuts are being made on her behalf! To pose as the protector of the vulnerable while proposing to attack the institutions that actually protect and serve them, is cancerous. Even more morally appalling, the administration will take the savings from all programs that protect the vulnerable—whether vulnerable folks or vulnerable ecosystems or vulnerable peace agreements and treaties—and redistribute them into the pockets of the wealthiest and the engines of war.

 

No one asks what the poor mom in Detroit thinks about her taxes going to wage war or to further enrich the wealthiest, who need no more money. These are evil priorities. If the budget—and the ideology behind it—hurt everyone equally, proportionately, that would be debatable but fair. If Meals-on-Wheels and kids’ lunches and the defense department were cut by the same percentage, then okay, we can argue that without diving into the mud. But this budget, launched before St. Paddy’s day, is green with the slime of immorality, not the radiance of hope.

4 Questions for the End of Life

Last week, I read Atul Gawande’s recent book, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. “The end” in the subtitle means the book is about, to borrow Jessica Mitford’s classic title, “the American way of death.” Gawande points out, however, that the problems he sees with how medicine approaches how we die are not limited to the United States, or even to the industrialized world, but are beginning to affect even the developing nations. They’re another corollary to globalism.

Gawande bookAtul Gawande is a neurosurgeon who writes beautifully (he brought me to tears more than once in this short book), and is involved in a handful of meaningful projects related to modern medicine. He believes that medicine, for all the good it does, may not have all the answers to life’s pressing questions—indeed, he sincerely doubts that it does. Further, he is convinced that medicine’s answer for the end of life—which is to try to fix the unfixable, prevent the inevitable—are disastrous. This is his central argument, an argument which I will discuss in a moment.

While I was reading Being Mortal, I began noticing something: The topic of death seems to be everywhere. Not only the violent and senseless deaths that shame our headlines on an almost daily basis, not only the far-away wars and tragic deaths of so many in so many parts of the world, but everyday, ordinary, inevitable death—the kind the vast majority of people will one day face. For example, I was reading a Writers’ Digest interview with the famous editor Terry McDonell, who was the editor or managing editor of many magazines—think Rolling Stone, Esquire, Outside, and Sports Illustrated, among others. He was elected, four years ago, to the Magazine Editors’ Hall of Fame. Some of the luminaries he edited include Hunter S. Thompson, Jim Harrison, Richard Ford, Richard Price, George Plimpton, Peter Matthiessen, Jimmy Buffett, and many others. So when I began the interview, I expected talk abaout writing and writers (there was some, eventually). But it unnerved me to read this about his new book, The Accidental Life: An Editor’s Notes on Writing and Writers:

The book is about death. Aging is difficult for everyone. It’s especially difficult for writers because they’re so sensitive to it: to their talents, and to anything that diminishes them.

McDonell book

Wow. Another book about death. But it makes sense: We Boomers are marching into our 70s already, and Boomers are nothing if not interested in our own experiences: having them, talking about them, writing about them, sharing our angst about them, and, if at all possible, making some money off them. So Death, be not proud. We’re not talking about You a lot these days because You are so hot, but because You’re our next Big Thing.

Being Mortal

Dr. Gawande’s book grabbed me by the lapels and shook me (well, okay, I don’t wear suits anymore, so no lapels). One of the points he asserts repeatedly is that the way we die is changing. A hundred years ago, and still today in some corners of the world, death came early and often suddenly. Now, particularly in developed countries and countries where industrialization is underway, scientific medicine and medical care have enabled much longer life spans and made the recovery from accidents and major sudden illnesses much more likely. As a species, we are living longer. Now, death is less often a matter of a sudden catastrophe, but rather of a slow accumulation of small breakdowns, which add up like the frailties of an old car, until there is no reversing them.

He discusses how people adjust and adjust and adjust to these small (and sometimes not so small, but treatable) breakdowns. Aging, in this description, is a process that, over many years, gradually narrows the range of experiences and activities one considers necessary for “the good life.” For instance, thirty years ago, going out for a evening of dinner, drinks, and dancing or a concert or a ball game, was a key part of how I defined living well. Now, it’s lunch with my wife at a quiet restaurant.

A man gets an inner ear infection, which leaves him prone to dizzy spells. He puts up with them, gets used to them, learns to accommodate to them, and eventually gives up doing some of the things he used to value, like dancing or running or climbing a ladder to paint his own house.

And as the range of activities slowly narrows, sometimes imperceptibly, the things that are important also begin to change. I now enjoy these lunches with my wife every bit as much as I once enjoyed my evenings out with friends. Where I used to value action and excitement in trendy venues, now I value easy conversation in comfortable settings. Gawande, in a number of poignant vignettes, shows how, as death nears, people tend to focus in more closely on the people they love and the few activities they value and can do comfortably. Meaning becomes more and more important.

The doctor writes about his father’s dying. A vibrant, robust man whose early goal was not to let the tumor in his spine stop him from the many social, charitable, and athletic activities he cherished. But by the end, he was as satisfied studying photos of his grandchildren as he’d once been practicing medicine or playing tennis or building a university campus in his home town in India. At each stage of the progression of the disease, Gawande’s father fought to keep his previous level of activity until he realized he could not, and was forced to contemplate the new reality. Once he accepted what he’d lost–which did not come easily, but did come–and identified what he still valued that he could still do, once he set his sights on what mattered most to him in the changed circumstances of his illness, he relaxed and his usual buoyant spirit returned, until the crisis began the process all over again.

What is Needed for This to Happen?

Movingly, Gawande discusses how miserably the medical approach to dying—or rather, he notes, to preventing dying—fails to help people to this kind of end, one in which they can realize what remains valuable and can focus on that rather than trying to stop the inevitable train wreck. What is needed, he suggests, is for doctors—and equally, for patients and their families–to discuss four very simple but achingly important questions:

  • How do people understand this thing they are facing (the disease or condition that threatens their life)? What does the condition mean to them—not what is to be done or even what they want done about it, but what its meaning injects into their life?
  • What are their fears at this point in time? What are they afraid of losing now, in the coming days, weeks, months?
  • What are the dying person’s goals? Of the things they fear losing, what can be let go and what are the most important to hang on to as long as possible?
  • What will you need now, today and in the next few days and weeks, to make holding on to those precious things possible for this period of time?

You can well imagine how difficult this conversation will be. Gawande says that he found it sometimes too intimidating even for him, the surgeon. And you can also imagine that these questions will need to be asked and this discussion held many times as a person moves through the aging and dying process.

Caring hands

Consider a young mother, newly diagnosed with metastatic cancer, who wanted to fight the disease “every way I can.” Her husband and her doctor helped her do that, through surgeries and radiation and round after round of trail-and-error chemotherapies. As long as she could keep working and participating in her life, she continued fighting, hanging on to her goal of defeating the cancer and fighting to hang on to what she valued, her work, her lifestyle, her activities.

After many months, she was exhausted, barely able to participate in her family’s life. The therapies were failing, her cancer advancing. Her oncologist, understanding her goal, offered an experimental treatment.

She and her husband held their usual discussion, centered around the four questions. Painstakingly, gingerly, they’d done this each time a new treatment had been offered. She realized this time that she no longer wanted to fight, that fighting now meant long stay in bed, the sickness of chemotherapy, confusion and mental loss. Instead of fighting, she wanted to be free enough of pain and of the drugged-up grogginess caused by the pain that she could sit with her family at dinner even when she couldn’t eat, could help her kids do their homework, could watch TV with them in the evening.

What she now feared losing most was no longer her lifestyle, or even her life—it was losing what time she had left with her husband and children. And so, arrangements were made to help her—now, today, not in the future—get to that goal. That very afternoon, her husband rented a hospital bed for the living room and placed the TV where she and the kids could cuddle and watch their shows. He called an at-home hospice service, and a nurse came and set up routines to maximize her comfort and rest when she was home alone, and ensure her ability to be with the children and her husband when they were home. The hospice nurses not only helped find the right mix of medications to help her stay awake when the kids were home, they taught her things she could do to help herself safely, such as getting to the bathroom without falling. Her life had shrunk down to a very narrow set of activities, but they were activities that meant the world to her now, the activities spending “alive time” with her family rather than enduring treatments with little chance of saving her and sleeping away her remaining time in a hospital bed far from home.

Gawande argues that such an ending to life, focused on achieving still-meaningful personal goals, regardless how small they may be and regardless what else is lost as the end approaches, means the dying person retains a measure of autonomy, choosing what matters, and with those choices, dignity. And he asks us to consider that, as death approaches, we should shift our efforts away from sacrificing the present for the hope of living longer into the future, and instead should sacrifice the future and actually live in the present. He thinks this change in orientation is the key to holding on to and experiencing what is most precious as far as possible at the end. To die well, in other words, we should leave the future and come home to now.

I think we’ve heard that message before . . .

5 Questions Writers Must Know How to Answer and My Mistakes Answering Them

The Five Questions

Ever find a gem on the Internet that exactly met your pressing need of the day? I just did. Amy Collins, a long-time expert on book marketing and sales, runs a wonderful website, www.NewShelves.com, that will intrigue not only authors trying to sell their books, but anyone who loves books and reading. One of her posts caught my attention: “The Five Questions Authors HAVE to Know How to Answer.

As I approach the publication of my second novel, Nobody’s Safe Here, I’m thinking deeply about how I want to market it. And that means I have to figure out how to talk about it, and Amy’s five questions have helped me organize my thinking about that. Here are the five Big Questions:

  1. What’s your book about?
  2. Who needs your book?
  3. What makes your book different?
  4. Where can I get your book?
  5. How are you promoting your book?

In a minute, I’ll pass along my answers to these five Big Questions. First, though, let me tell you about some mistakes I have made when talking about my books.

Mistakes I Always Make when I Talk about My Books.

Any mistake writers can make when talking about their books, I have gleefully made. I’ve made them more than once, even after being told it was a mistake. My favorite mistake is telling too much about the story and the characters. I know I’m making that baby when I get one of two signals: Either my listener’s eyes stray, peering over my shoulder for a rescuer; or my wife, if she’s within earshot, begins to drag her finger across her throat. Yep, I tell way too much of the plot or I describe every main character or I babble on about the book’s themes. This one’s a real doozy.

Amy CollinsAmy Collins, the sales guru, has a quick solution to this mistake. Regarding the first question, “What’s your book about?” she writes, “Answer this question in ONE sentence.” Whoa! She points out that if the listener is at all interested after that one sentence, he or she will ask for more. Obvious, isn’t it? And it’s good psychology—as she says, short answers generate the desire to know more. When you ask for a taste in an ice cream parlor, there’s a reason you only get a tiny little spoon. But man, ONE sentence? I wonder if I’ve answered any question, ever, in one sentence. But you’ll see how I do it now, in a moment.

Another favorite mistake: Assuming no one is really interested, assuming they’re just being polite and so I shouldn’t bore them with talk about me, that is, my book. You can imagine where this one comes from, even without a PhD in psychology! But it has the effect of clamming me up, unless the listener shows more than a passing interest, and leads, when I do start talking, to Mistake #1, telling too much. The dam bursts. It’s either too little or too much.

Mistake #3 is another result of Mistake #2: Not making a pitch. Instead of getting my pitch down so that, succinctly but clearly, I ask listeners to consider buying the book, I stick with themes and content, hoping they’ll be inspired, but not telling them I’d like them to purchase. You’re right, I’m no salesman. Still, one of the purposes of publishing a book is to sell it, right? Moreover, Mistake #3 ignores my grandmother’s oft-given advice: “Blessed is he who tooteth his own horn, for if he tooteth it not, it shall not be tooted.” So, let me warm up my horn.

Tooting Horn

As promised, here are my answers to the big five questions.

My Answers to the Five Questions about My Next Novel

My first novel, Climbing the Coliseum, has been out for two years (check it out!). It’s the first in the Monastery Valley series of psychological suspense novels. Climbing’s sales are not yet in Stephen King’s neighborhood. My next book, the second in the series, is Nobody’s Safe Here. (I’ll have exciting news about its publication in n upcoming blog.) So let me show you how I am going to answer the Five Questions about Nobody’s Safe Here.

Question 1: What’s your book about?

(Remember, I have to answer this in ONE sentence. Watch this!)

Nobody’s Safe Here tells the story of a sixty-year-old rancher suffering the effects of being raped by a priest at age eighteen, of a seventeen-year-old boy who is threatening to shoot his classmates, and of the psychologist and the deputy sheriff who team up to save them both.

Question 2: Who needs your book?

Nobody really needs my book. But readers who like psychological mysteries, strong characters, rich relationships, and dramatic Montana settings will love Nobody’s Safe Here, as will those who enjoy the writing of Louse Penny, Craig Johnson (the Longmire book and TV series), William Kent Krueger, and Tana French.

Question 3: What makes your book different?

Think “Hemingway meets Newsweek.” As in Jonathan Kellerman’s Alex Delaware series, the protagonists are a psychologist, Ed Northrup, and a cop, Deputy Sheriff Andi Pelton. But unlike Kellerman’s Alex and Milo, Ed and Andi not only solve mysteries but also are lovers who face the complications of life in a small mountain town, rather than the gritty urban scene. Like Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache novels, which are also set (usually) in a small town, Nobody’s supporting characters are vivid and the intricate relationships among them are rich and deep. But the mountain West is not rural Ontario, and the veins of conflict there are both social and political. Nobody’s Safe Here mines similar ore to Craig Johnson’s Sheriff Walt Longmire’s, but where Walt solves mysteries as a sheriff, Ed Northrup solves them as a shrink—with the sheriff-style help of his off-and-on lover, Andi Pelton. And woven throughout the book is Ed’s and Andi’s relationship with Grace, Ed’s newly adopted daughter—the three must find a path to be a family while Grace adjusts not just to being sixteen, but also to living in a new community.

Question 4: Where can I get your book?

(Remember, Nobody’s Safe Here hasn’t launched yet, so this is how I will answer when it comes out.) You can find it online, in bookstores, by request at libraries, on my website (www.BillPercyBooks.com), or directly from me (Bill@BillPercyBooks.com). It’s available in both paperback and e-book formats.

Question 5: How are you promoting your book?

My blog, which has attracted nearly 1000 registered users, and my Facebook page (www.Facebook.com/BillPercyBooks), promote my books. I will lead into the book launch with radio interviews in a number of markets in our region: Spokane and eastern Washington state, north Idaho, and western and southwestern Montana, and with numerous book events—signings and readings—in a dozen regional cities as well as in the Midwest. I have scheduled dates to meet with book clubs both in the Northwest and the Midwest during the months following the launch of Nobody’s Safe Here. I have a mailing list of thousands of public libraries in every state in the nation, which I am mining–thanks to Amy Collins’ training course–to get my book in libraries. I also have a mailing list that is growing daily (as is my blog user-list), and will use that to promote the books.

 

So. There’s a taste of my answers to the five Big Questions every writer must know how to answer. I’d love to hear your thoughts about how I can improve them in the Comments, below!

Where Do a Writer’s Ideas Come From?

The Sounds of Birds and the Advent of Ideas

Robin

Somewhere in the woods surrounding our home, a robin is warbling his mating song, as serene and beautiful a melody as Bach’s Air in G. Ospreys, mom and dad, cruising the thermals high above their nest in a Ponderosa at the edge of the big lake, go “cheep-cheep-cheep” as they bring fish and mice back to their little ones. Two flickers do their mating dance, swooping up into the middle of a tall tree, then bouncing up branch after branch till they burst off the top branches into thin air (she’s testing his stamina!). Suddenly, all that buoyancy and all that singing in the forest give me an idea!

How? Like the birds, we writers are always busy with our ideas, courting them, falling in love with them, feeding them, growing them up, and coaxing them out to fly on their own. Sometimes, like the robin’s song, our ideas are sweet and lyrical; or like the osprey’s cheep-cheep-cheep, they can be high-toned, frantic, imperious, or parental, patient, informative. Sometimes, our ideas dance like the flickers, bouncing limb-to-limb, perhaps joyous or perhaps urgent (it’s hard to tell the difference, sometimes).

But Where Do These Ideas Come From?

Plato told us that Ideas, which he sometimes called Forms, pre-exist us, insisting that these eternal, abstract Ideas are more real than the appearances we perceive. PlatoFor instance, when I pet Seamus, my sister’s dog, that’s just Seamus. But the Idea of dog, or maybe Dog-ness, is universal and, according to Plato (who puts the teaching in Socrates’ mouth), is more real, because it’s universal, than Seamus is. (But when Seamus goes on a barking binge, he sounds pretty real to me!)

Plato said real Ideas exist beyond the material and phenomenal world available to our senses—and so when a thought that can be worked with, developed, grown, and nurtured into a story pops into someone’s material brain, it is (claims Plato) only a pale reflection of one of those eternal and universal Ideas.

I’m no Platonist. I think that ideas come into my brain-mind from . . . from somewhere else in my brain-mind! Oh, they’re helped along by things happening outside me, to be sure. Let me take the various singings of the birds as an example. I was sitting on my deck reading early in the morning when I first heard the robin’s song and the osprey’s cheeping, and saw the flickers’ chasing one another up the trees. As I watched and listened to the avian activity all around me, I remembered that I had to write a new blog post for this week.

Two separate, unrelated mind-events—perceiving and enjoying the birds’ activities (I’ll call that mind-event A) and recalling a task I needed to perform (call that mind-event B). Something, though, linked them—something at first hidden inside the two mind-events. Unbeknownst to me, by brain had been searching rapidly for something—anything—similar between A and B. Brains are similarity engines, searching for points of resemblance between segments of incoming information. We’re pattern-searchers by instinct, and much of our search for pattern occurs unconsciously. So when I heard birdsong, my brain must have found some sort of similarity between it and my need to write the blog (which must’ve been lurking in the back of my mind already), and served it up to my conscious mind in the form: “Hey! Those birds remind me I have to write the blog!”

The Green-Eye-Shade Guy

Michele has a fun image that is helpful here: She imagines, when she is searching for a word, that there’s a little guy in her brain, sitting on a swivel chair on castors, a green eye-shade on his forehead, Green eye-shade guymadly digging in one file of words to another, searching for that elusive word. Keep the image, but change “words” to “patterns,” and you’ve got the idea. When my little green-eye-shade guy found the similarity between bird activity (A) and blog-writing (B), it was like a package arriving in my consciousness.

As I thought about it, it occurred to me that many ideas arrive like that. (“Arrive” is the wrong word, since it implies the ideas come from someplace outside me. Still, it captures the sense of their visiting unexpectedly, like the FedEx truck.) I think that ideas “come” to me in a process like this: A thing stimulates my awareness. The birds’ business, an article or a paragraph in a book, a physical sensation, a news story. Call it Event A. Without warning (and often without any apparent relevance), Event A reminds me of something else, Event B. The birds’ singing and flying and working and mating reminds me that I need to write this post. But that’s not the actual idea, not yet. It’s just the FedEx package containing the idea. Still, it’s already amazing–what has the birds’ activity to do with writing a blog post?

When I heard the birds and thought of writing this post, I found myself wondering, “What if the birds’ activities were the subject of the blog? What would be the connection?” Until that “what-if” question arose in my mind, no conscious idea connected A with B, or rather, I wasn’t conscious yet of what connected them. As soon as I wondered about it, though, I “woke up”: the ideas with which writers busy themselves have many qualities resembling the busyness of the birds: Serenity, urgency, excitement, joy.

G.Lakoff
George Lakoff

Of course, that resemblance is merely metaphorical—but wait, maybe not “merely” so. George Lakoff, a cognitive linguist and political scientist, contends that human language is built on metaphor, and the discovery of the chunking process of learning done by the brain seems to bear him out. (If you’re interested in learning more, read Maria Popova’s review of Daniel Bor’s The Ravenous Brain; How the New Science of Consciousness Explains our Insatiable Search for Meaning.)

It all happens unconsciously. One experience resembles a second in a fashion that, to conscious inspection, appears utterly random. What does birds being birds have to do with writing my blog? My brain supplied the similarity: the birds were like ideas. And that likeness arose, no doubt, because somewhere in my life and experience I’d seen or heard or felt that likeness before. Birds soar; so do some ideas. Birds are born and die, as do many ideas. Birds can inspire or annoy, as can ideas. In short, a metaphor: Birds are like ideas.

Metaphor as Learning and Thinking

As Lakoff and Bor insist, all human learning, thinking, and language is metaphorical, mediated by “chunking,” the brain’s action of linking pieces of information and creating chains or hierarchies of information based on similarities. Ideas–to write about, to practice in politics, to teach our children, to structure our lives, all sorts of ideas–don’t “arrive” or “come to us” (metaphors) except through metaphors. They “arise” (a metaphor) from the “soil” (another metaphor) of our previous learning. If an idea is powerful, it “imposes itself” on us, if inspiring, it “lifts us up.” Ideas can “move” us, they can “break our hearts,” they can “build us up” or “tear us down.” All metaphors, all true.

And notice: All these metaphors are built on our own physical (material) experience, our bodily experience. George Lakoff co-wrote two books on this with Mark Johnson. The first, published in 1980, was Metaphors we Live By. Their next book, Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought  followed in 1999. (You can probably tell I’m a fan.)

Where do ideas come from? From ourselves, out of our bodies—that is, from our brain-minds’ “insatiable search for meaning,” their relentless search for patterns and chunking of bits of information into increasingly complex thoughts. Birds are ideas, in every sense of that word. Metaphors.

And stories emerge from those seed-metaphors. What if Franz Kafka felt that life in Hapsburg Prague was turning him into a bug? Kafka BugMy next post will reflect on all this as it relates more directly to writing fiction, but here’s today’s takeaway (itself a metaphor): Plato was wrong. Ideas aren’t eternal and self-existent. They’re the product of the incessant and fertile work of our brain-minds, generating patterns, linking them together on the basis of resemblance, finding similarities. Often, all this is to our pleasure, frequently to our dismay, and sometimes, sadly, to our downfall.

More to come.