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.

Write What You Fear!

In last week’s article, I wrote about a cliché that writers hear all the time: “Write what you know.” This week, I’d like to think about another cliché for writers—and for people seeking to live well—namely, “Write [or face] what you fear.”

I first came across this idea in Natalie Goldberg’s masterpiece, Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within. She wrote, “Write what disturbs you, what you fear, what you have not been willing to speak about. Be willing to be split open.”NatalieG She has followed her own advice through many books on writing and spirituality (primarily Zen), including her recent heart-breaking memoir centered around her sorrow that the two men she loved the most in her life—her father and her Zen master Katagiri Roshi—had both betrayed her trust. In this book, she lets us see her journey from grief and anger through sorrow to forgiveness and compassion. But on every page, I heard the echo of her words: “Be willing to be split open.”

Natalie’s version of “write what you fear” keeps the focus on the issue that disturbs the writer. To learn about and then write about her discovery of her master’s secret life was a blow to everything she held dear, and she wrote about it after many years of suffering silently with it. But there are other meanings to the phrase.

On the blog “Men with Pens,” “Agent X” wrote about the “7 Deadly Fears of Writing.” (Actually, there are seven separate articles, one for each deadly fear; the link I’ve included takes you to a summary page from which you can link to the individual articles.) Agent X’s list included:

  • fear of rejection,
  • fear of being inadequate,
  • fear of success,
  • fear of exposing oneself,
  • fear that one only has one book inside and that sequels will flop,
  • fear of being too old to write, and
  • fear of research.

Agent X’s advice about overcoming those seven deadly fears might be summed up as, “Just do the work.” Although it’s a bit simplistic, its kernel has merit. The characters in most successful novels must face fear in one form or another, and they “do the work” that they’re afraid of in one way or another—and if they don’t overcome the fear, they are changed by it.

In my forthcoming novel, Nobody’s Savior, for instance, one of the minor characters, a fellow in his sixties, is dying of cancer. Since his early 20s, Art has lived with a secret guilt he has been afraid to face. As he nears the end, he enlists Ed Northrup’s (the main character, a psychologist) help in sorting out that fear, acknowledging it, and telling the story behind it. He dies at peace. I’m sure you know many stories in which characters hide from their fears and suffer for it, or look their fear in the face and somehow bungle their way through.

There is another kind of fear—and facing fear—that is a powerful source of personal and spiritual growth, and an equally powerful driver of narrative story. Think of Nelson Mandela, imprisoned 27 years by the apartheid regime in South Africa. Think of his moral stature when he was released and later became president of the country and a world leader. He wrote, in his memoir Long Walk to Freedom

I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. I felt fear myself more Nelson Mandelatimes than I can remember, but I hid it behind a mask of boldness. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.

Mandela says he hid his fear “behind a mask of boldness.” The source of his fear was not internal, like Goldberg’s. Mandela was afraid of his world, his environment, his captors, his government. He donned a “mask of boldness” to proclaim to his enemy that he would not be broken.

Does “donning a mask of boldness” against an external threat resemble Agent X’s suggestion that one “just write”? After all, some of the seven deadly fears of writing, like fear of rejection, are fears of what the outer world can do to us. Perhaps just writing is a small version of “donning the mask of boldness.”

Recovering addicts like the saying, “Fake it till you make it.” Write till it’s all right. Don the mask of boldness. I’m not proposing that the writer’s fear compares in moral stature to the fear felt by Natalie Goldberg to expose the great tragedy in her life, nor that the lonely writer at her desk faces the same degree of fear that Mandela felt in a country organized to destroy him and his people.

I do mean to suggest, though, that human beings, including writers, have fears that are real and oppressive, fears that stunt our growth when we don’t address them. The advice to “write what you fear” points directly at that. But it goes far beyond writing. All of us, whatever we do, die a little when we hide from our fear, and all of us grow a little when we face it, when we don the mask of boldness, when we write.

Should I Write What I Know?

The world of writing is littered with clichés about writing for young writers (and to old guys who are young writers, like me). One of the most famous is that I should “write what I know.” I’ve been wondering what that really means?

I read something by Wallace Stegner, who ought to know a thing or two about writing. He said, “If you have to urge a writing student to ‘gain experience with life,’ he is probably never going to be a writer. Any life will provide the material for writing, if it is attended to.” Any life—that is, my life, your life—is enough. Don’t wait, in other words, to gain experience of life; just live and pay attention and write from there.

Carl Jung seems to say something similar. C.G.JungIn his book Psychology of the Unconscious, he spoke about how young psychologists should go about learning their craft. What he says—making allowance for his old fashioned male-centered language—applies to writers as well:

Anyone who wants to know the human psyche will learn next to nothing from experimental psychology. He would be better advised to abandon exact science, put away his scholar’s gown, bid farewell to his study, and wander with human heart through the world. There, in the horrors of prisons, lunatic asylums and hospitals, in drab suburban pubs, in brothels and gambling-hells, in the salons of the elegant, the Stock Exchanges, socialist meetings, churches, revivalist gatherings and ecstatic sects, through love and hate, through the experience of passion in every form in his own body, he would reap richer stores of knowledge than text-books a foot thick could give him, and he will know how to doctor the sick with a real knowledge of the human soul.

Ernest Hemingway seems at times to agree, then at others, to disagree. Hemingway WritingFor instance, in a Paris Review interview, the incomparable George Plimpton asked Hemingway, “What would you consider the best intellectual training for the would-be writer?”

Hemingway answered,

Let’s say that he should go out and hang himself because he finds that writing well is impossibly difficult. Then he should be cut down without mercy and forced by his own self to write as well as he can for the rest of his life. At least he will have the story of the hanging to commence with.

Now that’s a stringent version of “write what you know”! On the other hand, at the end of the same interview, Hemingway said,

From things that have happened and from things as they exist and from all things that you know and all those you cannot know, you make something through your invention that is not a representation but a whole new thing truer than anything true and alive . . .

The invention of “a whole new thing truer than anything true and alive”—that’s what matters, not what I already know. Like many of Hemingway’s pithy statements, though, there is a time bomb hidden in those little words, “. . . and all those [things] you cannot know . . .” How do you take things you cannot know and “make something through your invention”? Hemingway won’t say. Plimpton asked him how he had developed this style. He said, “That is a long-term tiring question and if you spent a couple of days answering it you would be so self-conscious that you could not write.”

Harrumph.

Bret Anthony Johnson wrote a provocative piece for The Atlantic’s 2011 Fiction Issue titled “Don’t Write What You Know.”BretAnthonyJohnston It’s well worth taking the time to read—if you’re interested in the topic, which if you’ve gotten this far in my post, you probably are! His point, though, to sum it up, is contained in this fairly long quote:

Stories aren’t about things. Stories are things.

Stories aren’t about actions. Stories are, unto themselves, actions.

To be perfectly clear: I don’t tell students not to ferret through their lives for potential stories. I don’t want, say, a soldier who served in Iraq to shy away from writing war stories. Quite the opposite. I want him to freight his fiction with rich details of combat. I want the story to evoke the texture of the sand and the noise of a Baghdad bazaar, the terrible and beautiful shade of blue smoke ribboning from the barrel of his M-4. His experience should liberate his imagination, not restrict it. Of course I want him to take inspiration where he can find it. What I don’t want—and what’s prone to happen when writers set out to write what they know—is for him to think an imagined story is less urgent, less harrowing or authentic, than a true story.

What do I think? I think the same thing that all these writers think: The real-world facts don’t count as much as how closely I have observed and attended to them. It’s out of that close attention that my imagination can bring fire to the fuel of the factual. Mary Oliver used to write about this (you can read my blog article about this if you’d like).

This may well be a principle about spiritual living: To attend to one’s life, to one’s experience, to one’s internal and behavioral movements, is the heart of the spiritual life. Thomas Merton wrote,

We must begin by frankly admitting that the first place in which to go looking for the world is not outside us but in ourselves. We are the world. In the deepest ground of our being we remain in metaphysical contact with the whole of that creation in which we are only small parts. Through our senses and our minds, our loves, needs, and desires, we are implicated, without possibility of evasion, in this world of matter and of men, of things and of persons, which not only affect us and change our lives but are also affected and changed by us.

And Thomas Merton should know.

“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.