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!

A Prayer on Bastille Day

He must be very tired.

About two hundred yards from where I sit on the deck, a lone osprey sits quietly on his nest atop a Douglas fir, immobile, illuminated by sunset, looking down at the lake. All day, a very busy day, he’s been shuttling to and from his nest, hunting and bringing food back for his offspring—who are just about ready to learn to hunt for themselves.

Lake Pend Oreille Sunset
Lake Pend Oreille Sunset

Perhaps he’s enjoying the view of the lake. I’m curious, though. I’ve never seen the big bird so quiet for so long. It’s been almost 45 minutes, and neither of us has moved. The poor guy must be very tired. Or, perhaps, it’s something else?

These guys never rest, do they?

If you draw a straight line between my chair and the osprey’s nest, our hummingbird feeder hangs directly in that line. By shifting my depth of field close and far, I can focus on the osprey, then on the hummingbirds that visit, then back to the amazingly quiet osprey. A ruby-throated hummingbird hovers, drinks, hovers, drinks again, then perches on the feeder bracket. He too is still. Very still, and I hardly breathe—these little guys never perch here, and I don’t want to scare him away. So, why is he waiting?

For a minute, two, even three, he sits entirely still, facing me. Then, he flits his wings once, twice, defecates a tiny drop, a jewel that falls and sparkles in the evening sunlight. He hovers again, above the feeder, moves in, takes a last drink, vanishes.

Peace and tragedy are siblings

Shortly before I sat down here on my deck in peaceful north Idaho, a maniac waited in a truck until the Bastille Day fireworks in Nice, France, were done, and when the crowd was milling down the Promenade des Anglais, he drove the 19-ton lorry into them and murdered 84 people, injuring  scores of others.

The Beach at Nice
The Beach at Nice

I’ve been to big-city fireworks on the Fourth of July, and I imagine you have, too. I know the crush of the crowd when the display and the oohs and ahs are done, the nowhere-to-go-just-accept-it feeling. I can imagine the screams behind me and my family, the sudden panic around us. I can imagine turning to see what’s happening and beholding the looming lorry, the white death, bearing down.

Here on my deck, soothed by the evening breeze, sharing with the birds the quietest evening of this summer, I am perhaps an infinite distance from Nice and the Promenade Des Anglais. But in one small way, I am there.

How? How?

For the first time in many years, after a career spent in the service of the science of psychology (which requires no gods), I join thousands in Nice: I am praying.

To whom are we praying?

No doubt, you and I answer this in our own ways. I’m not praying to anyone in particular. I just speak words into the soft and darkening air, to the One in whom we live and breathe and have our being. I feel mourning, and imagine that I see mourning—my projection, no doubt—in the osprey’s stillness and the hummingbird’s wait on the feeder bracket.

I pray into the empty sky of the evening for an idea, a thought, any glimmer of a road from all this tragedy to peace. I pray for something I’m afraid I could lose: A word of hope.

No word comes back.

Until I see a boat . . .

. . . crossing Lake Pend Oreille. As I watch, the wake, opening always out in the cut water, fades, diminishes, passes. The boat’s knife has slashed, but it has not wounded, the water. No, water absorbs the violent energy, swells with its effect for a moment, then passes it along. Each molecule of water accepts the blast of energy and passes it to the next. We see the wave, and then it is gone. No molecule is lost or injured, because each accepts what comes, then moves it on.

Can we?

Can you share with me—in this blog post—my sorrow at the human violence in our world? Sorrow for Paris, San Bernardino, Syria, Israel, Istanbul, Ukraine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine and Gaza, Burkina Faso, Mali, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Baltimore, Orlando, Baton Rouge, Dallas, Minnesota, now Nice. Sorrow for the thousand other places and million other deaths. Can you pass this sorrow along after tasting it for your moment, and ask your fellow human beings, friends, family, Facebook folk, to stop a moment, share the sorrow, then pass it on?

Will you?

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.

A Politics of Hate, or a Politics of Service?

A trip down the Danube

Blue Danube Budpest

Earlier this month, I traveled with my wife and friends through central Europe–Prague, Vienna, Bratislava, and Budapest, among other cities–cruising the not-so-blue Danube river. In each of those cities, we encountered people young and old who passionately remember and condemn the occupations and oppressions of the Hapsburgs, the Nazis, and the Communists. Equally passionately, they love their countries and cherish the new political freedom they have enjoyed since 1989.

Many of the people we talked with, and especially the younger folks, lamented the growing anti-immigrant sentiments currently polluting political talk and writing in Europe—and the U.S. One twenty-eight year old woman said, “They want us to oppress other people just because they are not our people. But we remember how the Communists oppressed our parents.” One of her friends, a young man in his thirties, shook his head. “Not just that. They want to make us into Nazis. That’s not what our Velvet Revolution stands for.”

Here in the United States, separated from our own revolution by 330 years, I wonder if we exhibit that kind of maturity, that yearning to hang on to fragile freedoms that, if they are denied to others, are denied to us all.

 

Vaclav Havel’s politics of internal peace

V. Havel

Vaclav Havel, beloved last president of Czechoslovakia and first president of the Czech Republic, said this:

Without free, self-respecting, and autonomous citizens there can be no free and independent nations. Without internal peace, that is, peace among citizens and between the citizens and the state, there can be no guarantee of external peace (emphasis added).

What are we, citizens, to make of Havel’s idea? We’re encouraged by one presidential nominee and many lower-office holders to fear our neighbors and to distrust and despise the state. It has been so long since Americans were at peace with their fellow citizens and with their state, I can hardly conceive of it. Perhaps we can probe Havel’s words, test them for their sense and value. Take that second sentence: What does it mean?

Without internal peace, that is, peace among citizens and between the citizens and the state, there can be no guarantee of external peace.

Is Havel saying that as long as we feud among ourselves, we can’t assure that the outside world will be peaceful? Or perhaps more boldly: Our inner division, our rancor toward one another, our fear of the state—are they perhaps contributing causes to the external threats and hatreds that face us abroad? Could he be saying that?

At the very moment when he was being arrested, soon to be executed by the state, it is said that Jesus told the young disciple who tried to defend him, “Put away your sword. Those who live by the sword will die by the sword” (Matt. 26:52). To choose violence as our first response to external threats is to invite violence in return, as we have seen in the Middle East every day since 2003. If Americans choose to hate one another, to metaphorically draw swords against our neighbors, can we rationally complain when external swords of hatred are aimed at us?

 

Resisting evil

There is a saying of which American “patriots” are quite fond:

The tree of liberty is watered by the blood of patriots.

The quotation is loose, and almost inaccurate because it is out of context. The actual quote appears in a letter from Thomas Jefferson:

The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is it’s natural manure.

But here’s the context: Jefferson was writing to Madison about citizens who are (Jefferson thought, inevitably) misinformed about their government. He thinks that, misperceiving the truth and misunderstanding the real, such ignorant citizens will become angry and desire to rebel. And if they do not take up arms—even though they are wrong—Jefferson thinks it is a symptom of “lethargy,” which in his mind threatens the vitality of a nation. Thus, rebellions—in which the blood of patriots and tyrants refreshes the tree of liberty—should occur from time to time, despite being misguided! Needless to say, this was not one of Jefferson’s most inspired opinions, nor was it enshrined in the new Constitution of 1789.

Protester w: Sign

In any case, this truncated and out-of-context quote is trotted out at right-wing rallies to exhort the faithful to keep their guns ready, their eyes vigilant, and their anger—with their government—hot. Now, there’s no doubt that evil must be resisted, and sometimes, at last resort, with force. But who, may I ask, is resisting the evil words being spouted in his campaign rallies by the would-be tyrant who hates Muslims and immigrants and pretends to love gays and Hispanics? Who is resisting him before it is too late?

I hear real resistance coming from those who speak up, pitting honest words against Trump’s cynicism, people—and nominees—who yearn for a politics of service, not of hate. Havel says:

Genuine politics—even politics worthy of the name—the only politics I am willing to devote myself to—is simply a matter of serving those around us: serving the community and serving those who will come after us. Its deepest roots are moral because it is a responsibility expressed through action, to and for the whole.

“Genuine politics . . . is simply a matter of serving those around us.” I can believe in that. Or rather, hope for it someday.

Why Do I Write Fiction? Really.

Last weekend, I gave a brief talk to the North Idaho Writers League at the library in Sandpoint, Idaho. It was informal, a part of their regular meeting. I’d been asked to speak about my “journey” as a writer, but we focused almost exclusively on my experiences self-publishing and marketing my book. When it became clear that I do not make a living by my writing, one of the members asked, “So why do you write? Really.”

My marketing slogan, if you will, is “telling the stories of ordinary people facing extraordinary challenges.” But I knew he wanted something more than a stock answer. And, I realized as I thought about it, I did too. So why do I write, really?

Because I’m tired of the news

EveningNews

 

Like fiction, the news thrives on conflict. I’ve got nothing against stories that are chock-full of conflict; I love reading them and I love writing them. The news, though, stops with the conflict, seldom showing the resolution to the conflict. Sure, now and then a “feel-good” story gets coverage: heart-warming bits, a cancer cured, a family reunited after a tornado, a lost puppy found.

My years as a psychotherapist woke me up to something: The world of real human suffering is also a world of resolutions. The endings might not always be happy, but they can nevertheless be fulfilling. Through their pain, people do find new dimensions of themselves and new pathways in life, and often they find each other as well. Those endings, though they’re at the heart of everyday lived experience, seldom make the news. I’m tired of being told about tragedies and corruption and human folly and being left there, with nothing but a sour taste in my soul.

That’s one reason I write the fiction I write—to show that real suffering, real conflict, does not always and only end in defeat. Because, in real life, it often doesn’t.

Because John Donne was right

JohnDonne

 

It’s easy–and wrong–to imagine that people enduring serious conflict or suffering are alone in it, and imagining that they are not like the rest of us is an easy dodge. It’s not just schadenfreude. Trouble, pain, and suffering are abhorrent; it’s only human to use cognitive tricks to convince ourselves that we’re safe from them. And when trouble does strike, isn’t it common to think it’s an aberration, that it’s not natural? That’s why when illness or trouble happens, people often ask, “Why me?” As if conflict and woe were somehow not normal, not inevitable in everyone’s life.

It’s not so. Michele, receiving news of cancer, didn’t ask that. She asked, “Why not me?” In asking that, she captured the spirit of John Donne’s famous lines from his Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, number 17 (please remember that he wrote these words in the year 1624, so pardon the odd punctuation and the sexism):

No Man is an Island, entire of it self; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main; if a Clod be washed away by the Sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a Promontory were, as well as if a Manor of thy friends, or of thine own were; Any Man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.

Because community matters

I write stories to set myself against that myth that sufferers and suffering are abnormal, isolated from other people. I want my fiction to suggest that we are all part of a community. We may be “clods,” but we remain a “piece of the Continent, a part of the main,” and if one of us suffers, to some perhaps mysterious extent, we all suffer. This is a consoling part of the Buddha’s First Noble Truth–all life is suffering.

A first corollary of this is that some sort of community, gathering itself around the sufferer, brings the energies of resolution. If it’s true that we don’t experience conflict alone (although it may feel like we do), we don’t recover alone, either. A second corollary is that if a sufferer’s relevant community withholds its energies, the sufferer cannot recover.

My neighbor, Larry Keith, alerted me to this dimension of community in my fiction. He’d just read Climbing the Coliseum and we were talking about it over coffee. ClimbCover-252pxIt’s fitting, I suppose, that he and I live in a town named Hope, which is (with East Hope, just across the road) a community of around 300 people. People in Hope (and East Hope) help each other all the time. One day after Michele had surgery and couldn’t get around on her own, I had to leave for the afternoon. Three women came over and stayed with her while I was away. Community. I hadn’t noticed it myself, but the minute Larry pointed it out, I knew he was right: my book is not just about “ordinary people facing extraordinary challenges,” it’s also a story of a community of people whose involvement with those “ordinary people” is what helps them through their “extraordinary challenges.”

Though I wasn’t conscious of it until Larry remarked on it, I write to capture that fact of our embeddedness in community, that we are not islands, entire of ourselves.

What Travel Taught Me about Writing

Michele and I recently took a three-week trip, and during it, I realized some things about writing that I hadn’t really paid attention to before. They had to do with the nature of space and time, the importance of attention, and the ability of the brainmind to invest imagination with reality. Let me describe what I learned.

“Real” Space & Time vs. “Fictional” Space & Time

Disorientation

At the start of a stay in a new place, I often feel disoriented, even in places I once was familiar with. For a while, the relation of one area to another is hard to grasp. Distances aren’t easy to calculate, and things are either closer together or farther apart than I think (even after using MapQuest). With no familiar mountains to orient me, my directional sense struggles until I create some familiar landmarks. Nothing is “homely.”Heidegger Martin Heidegger used that word, in German, to characterize the nature of being-human—to be human is to be “at home, in place.” (If you’d like to read more, go here.)

I noticed that, without the routines of home, time in a strange place also seems distorted, and for a couple of days, I find it harder to gauge how long events, such as a meal with friends, last without the familiar time-cues I have at home. Where the sun “should be,” as a cue to what time it is, doesn’t work as well until I get my bearings in space. Space and time flow into and out of one another—which of course is the notion behind the word, spacetime.

However, when I opened my laptop to work on my novel, Nobody’s Safe Here, I was immediately immersed in familiar spacetime. Nothing in that fictional world of Monastery Valley had changed, the landmarks are familiar, distances are known and stable, time is clear. What’s happening?

 

Attention and Virtual Worlds in the Brainmind

The disorientation we feel in strange places highlights the importance of paying attention to space and time. Not knowing where a destination is in relation to one’s current place forces one to attend to cues (maps, signs, etc.). Not knowing how long a trip will take forces one to pay closer attention to discovering both distances and traveling conditions. To ride ten miles in a car takes a different time than to ride the ten miles in a bus, or to walk them.

When I was working on the novel, though, the fictional spacetime took on all the “reality” of the outer world of my journey. Why is this?

Cognitive scientists have demonstrated that the brain treats imagined events the same as it treats “real” events. For example, on a hike, if I misperceive a large black dog to be a black bear, the brain signals a “fear” response that triggers all the same neurotransmitter and hormonal responses that would happen if it were actually a bear.

Many religious traditions take good advantage of this fact. DaidoLooriWhen a devout practitioner visualizes the deity or a venerable person (saints, bodhisattvas, arhats, etc.), the more deeply he or she attends to the visualization (that is, to the imaginary presence), the more “real” the imagined beings become and the more potent the image becomes for altering consciousness and experience.

 

What This Means for Writers

JohnGardnerJohn Gardner talked often about a writer of fiction must maintain a fictional “dream,” not allowing flaws in the writing, plot, or structure of the book to “awaken” the reader from the fictional dream. That dream can be thought of as the reader’s attention to the fictional world’s space, time, action, character, and so on. Becoming immersed in the fictional dream is possible because of the brain’s ability to treat the imagined as real.

For fiction writers (and this may be true of successful non-fiction as well), this inherent brain-capacity in our readers is an invitation to create absorbing, gripping, and emotionally salient worlds in our books and stories, and to ensure by diligent editing and proofreading that no mistakes wake our readers up from that dream-world.

5 Things I Didn’t Know about Self-Publishing

Ignorance.Knowledge

All right, you’ve written that great manuscript and it’s time to self-publish. When I reached that milestone back in 2014, there were five important things I didn’t know. Well, okay, there are dozens and dozens of things I didn’t know, like the difference between the ISBN-10 and the ISBN-13, but those dozens weren’t quite as significant as the Big Five.Here they are.

  1. No Matter Our Reverence for Words, “Free” Never Means “Free.”

You will either do the tasks that need doing, or you’ll pay somebody to do them. Period. There are almost no “free” publishing services. CreateSpace advertises free set up, and IngramSpark waives its set-up fee ($49.00) if you order 50 books. The set up, though, is like making a dinner reservation at a big-name restaurant—sure, the reservation is free, but it’s the meal that counts, so get out your credit card.

CreateSpace, for instance, has free set up, but a book needs a cover (so people can judge it, right?). Of course, unless you’re a graphic designer, you likely will end up with an ugly cover and a failure of an interior. So, you hire somebody, probably for something in the neighborhood of $500.00. Oh, you’ll also need to design the book’s interior, which is a complex business. You can hire a book designer, or you can buy book interior templates from a variety of sources. For example, you can get very nice templates for the interior of your book for as little as $57.00 at Joel Friedlander’s website. Of course, you probably will need to study Joel’s tutorials in order not to botch the job, unless you’re already good at it.

Cover and interior design are only the start of things you’ll need to buy. You’ll purchase an ISBN (International Standard Book Number) for each type of book you’re publishing (one for a print version, another for the e-book) and a barcode for each ISBN. Bowker, the only source for ISBNs in the United States, sells ten ISBNs for $295—if you want only one, the ISBN is $125.00. Buying just one means either you put out a print version, or an e-book, but you can’t do both. Buy ten.

There are numerous other up front costs to get the book produced and distributed (on Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com, and a few other places). That just gets the book out into the world, where, unless you do more—or buy more—no one will even know it’s there.

  1. Hooray, Your Book is Published! But Who Noticed?

Congratulations, your masterpiece is ensconced on Amazon.com. Your family and friends visit the page and buy a copy. Every day, you visit your page on Amazon.com and admire it. After friends and family are done buying, your sales stop. Cold. Desperate, you search the web, and discover that there’s a whole sub-industry providing services and products to help self-publishers get their book(s) noticed in the marketplace. The operative word in that sentence is “noticed,” not “sold.” Unnoticed means unsold, so noticed is the first step. About that sub-industry, did I mention that “providing services and products” translates as “selling” them? So once again, you can decide to do it all yourself and spend nothing—which means you need substantial savvy in Internet discoverability (that is, SEO—search engine optimization) and social media connectivity. Otherwise, it’s back to the marketplace for help. Naturally, such help, like any kind of professional help, can be dear. Without it, though, your book won’t be noticed, and there’ll be very little chance of getting any return on the investment you made in producing the book. (I thought word-of-mouth would generate sales. Well, it did. Enough to recoup exactly 0.07% of my expenses.)

  1. Getting from “Noticed” to “Sold.”

Between “being noticed” and “selling books” cost me more than getting the book produced and distributed. I knew I’d have to do some marketing, but I had no idea how. So I bought “services and products” from another sub-industry devoted to marketing (not just to “getting noticed”). Some of those services were worse than worthless—the ones I bought from the company that published the book, for instance. Many, if not most, of the larger self-publishing companies sell relatively cheap publishing packages (“Enormous deal! Publish your book for only . . .!”), and then bundle marketing packages for high prices that you can find far less expensively on the Internet. For instance, my company (who shall remain nameless) sold me three professional reviews (Kirkus, Clarion, and BlueInk) for $2400.00. I bought. Then later, online, I found that if I’d purchased them directly from the reviewers, individually, my cost for all three reviews would have been $1300.00.

Another example: For a “mere” $500.00, I purchased from my publisher an email press release that the company promised to send to 1200 media outlets. It was opened eleven times. Although I did sell about twenty books in the ten days after the press release went out, those buyers were book club members who were friends of mine. There were no sales in any of the markets to which the press release was sent. Hmmm. $500.00 wasted.

Then I went to Keokee Creative in Sandpoint, ID (near where I live), a small, four-person marketing shop. For $85.00, they wrote a punchier press release (when I read it, I thought, “I want to buy this book!”), and I sent it to 50 media outlets in Montana, Idaho, and Washington state. It was opened 36 times and from it, I got a radio interview and two newspaper mentions. In the week after the radio interview, I sold 37 books, the biggest week I’ve had. $85.00.

  1. Okay, I’ll Do the Work Myself. I Just Need a Little Coaching.

Even if you do the actual marketing tasks yourself, unless you have solid experience in book marketing, you’ll very likely need tutoring. And tutoring costs can be as high as all the other costs. Some of these costs for tutorials, webinars, manuals, and books on marketing are well worth it; others, not so much. More to the point, in this sub-industry live multitudes of marketing consultants and coaches. How can you tell if a coach’s or consultant’s fee is money well spent? Here is my four-step method, which I learned the hard way, because when I first published, I didn’t even know that all these consultants and coaches and helpers even existed.

Step 1. Scour the Internet for “how to market a book” or similar combinations. Read dozens of web sites. Check out services and prices. Learn the jargon. Alternately, ask your writer friends for references to marketing consultants who have helped them.

Step 2. When you find a site or a consultant that appeals to you, look for their email list-building offer. Nearly always, they’ll offer you something free (a download, most often) in return for your email address. Sign up and get their offering. (Yes, you’ll start getting weekly or even daily emails from them, which at first makes you feel quite important, before making you feel numb. You can always unsubscribe from the useless ones.)

Step 3. Evaluate the free stuff you get in Step 2 to see what works for you. Some of the free information is, ahem, worthless. You’ll know. Discard those, and unsubscribe to that consultant’s email list. Other downloads, though, are packed with useful advice or guidance.

Step 4. When I learn something useful or new from an author’s free stuff, I pay attention to their paid offerings. When I need to learn something they teach for a price, I pay them.

Here’s one example: I was stuck when it came to optimizing my Facebook presence. There’s a ton of free advice about that floating around, but almost all of it is basic common sense (“Don’t post ‘Please buy my book!’ on Facebook!”), not the sophisticated help I needed. One day, I came across Frances Caballo’s site, “Social Media Just for Writers”, brimming with information that I found both useful (and new to me, a rookie). So I got a free download of something in return for giving her my email address. Some time later, when Frances advertised her “social media audit” (she evaluated my blog, Facebook and LinkedIn pages, and my web site) for $99.00, I bought it—and her feedback about my “presence” proved to be enormously valuable.

  1. Writing is Half the Job. Marketing is the Second Half.

I love to write. I don’t love to market. Yet, honestly, I now spend about half my time doing the latter. And I’m okay with that. I promised myself I’d devote three years to marketing my books. I’m ten months in at this point, and I’ve gone from begrudging every minute I spend on it to actually liking some aspects of it. I can’t complain (although I do). My book (in my expert opinion) is worth reading, but people aren’t going to read it unless they notice it and are inspired to pick it up. So, writing leads naturally to marketing—because nobody’s going to step in and do it for me!

(You may have noticed that in this whole article I have not marketed my book, Climbing the Coliseum even once, or asked you to visit my web site, www.BillPercyBooks.com, either! I’m proud that I resisted the temptation. Incidentally, today the book is only $17.49 on Amazon.com.)

Why Do I Write?

A number of people have asked me why I write fiction, after a long career writing academic and training materials in psychology. Superficially, my answer is that I love to tell stories.

 

Once upon a time

 

Forty years of practicing psychotherapy and teaching grad students provided a rich storehouse of stories, from all kinds of people. In some ways, telling these stories is a way of honoring my former clients and students, who taught me so much about the suffering and exhilaration of being human. Of course, such stories are never exact retellings—all are disguised, altered, a detail plucked from here, an outcome from there. None of my former clients could see themselves in any character or in what happens to the characters. But I was telling stories I had heard from people who deserved to have their stories honored.

However, the more I work in fiction, the more I realize that something else is at work as well. At first, when I wrote, I thought like a psychologist. There is a necessary separation between therapist and client, and looking back, I see that unconsciously I kept that distance from my characters. That early writing was not so hot, obviously. Now, as the years—and the books—multiply, I find that I am thinking increasingly as a human being, not as a shrink. To some of my characters, I have grown attached; others I am angry with; but I’m no longer detached.

In my writing now, I see a hunger to enter into the lived experience of my characters, not as an analyst or a therapist, but as a compatriot in this beautiful and troubled world. TroubledWorld BeautifulWorld It seems to me that I am finding my way, paragraph by paragraph, into old age and the final chapters of my own life. I’m learning what it means to change, to accept but never to give in, to let go without letting up. Although my characters include teens, middle-agers, and the elderly, each of them offers me insights into what it means to be alive in a world stocked with challenges at every age. And as these insights accumulate within me, again without my conscious intent, I find myself occasionally content being just who I am, which is a novel experience for me.

There is also a deeper level to why I write, of which I’m only dimly becoming aware. To write fiction is to create a world and to people it. Other writers have spoken of this. Writing fiction is, in that sense, being God. I don’t intend blasphemy, but rather to convey the amazing dignity inherent in creating. According to the Genesis story, you and I are made in God’s image; in creating, we stumble into what must be, except perhaps for compassion and love, our highest nature. What humbles me as I write is the glimpse I’m given of a genuine sense of responsibility for those characters I create. I’ve discovered an obligation to do well by them, to be honest about them—and with them—and to create situations that not only test their mettle, but contain, no matter how deeply hidden, a chance for the best in them to come forth. As in real life, of course, some do not find the best in themselves, but as their creator, I find myself compelled to give them their chance, to allow them their crossroads.

Crossroads

This is an odd sensation, and as I say, I’m only becoming aware of it and what it might mean. To be responsible for and to one’s creatures—what an enormous delight.

The Average Person Isn’t

Alongside highway 200 entering Sandpoint, Idaho, sits the Hoot Owl Café, a venerable diner beloved for its abundant breakfasts and tasty lunches. Outside the Hoot Owl is a sign on which they post witty sayings. These days, the sign reads “The Average Person Thinks She Isn’t.” Avg Person Isn't When I saw it the first time, I laughed, and thought how accurate that sounded.

Since that first sighting, I’ve driven by the sign dozens of times, and each time, I’ve thought about the message. Though it still makes me smile, I now think it’s wrong.

First, a little background.

Several sources credit the quip to Father Larry Lorenzoni, LLorenzonia priest of the Salesian Order in San Francisco. Father Lorenzoni, however, does not appear to be the originator of the saying. In fact, its earliest use appears to be in the New York humor magazine, The Judge, in 1927. Since that time, one website lists at least four additional published appearances of the saying between 1934 and 1987, none of which are attributed to Father Lorenzoni.

There is something ironic about Father Lorenzoni’s use of the quote. Average people (if there are any such) don’t pretend to be the author of something they did not originate. In her book, How to Work a Room, Susan RoAne writes, “I met a significant person in my life on a plane from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Father Larry Lorenzoni and I spent an hour chatting, laughing, comparing publications . . .” SRoAneUnfortunately, a fairly deep Google search revealed that Father Lorenzoni has no publications to his credit—except a few letters to the editor—despite “comparing” them with Ms. RoAne’s publications. But there’s more: A further Google search reveals that the good Father also stands accused of sexually molesting young boys in his charge.

Father Lorenzoni is not your average person, obviously, and it appears he doesn’t think he is, either. Not only does he permit his name to be associated, on multiple websites and in books of quotations, with a quote he did not author, not only does he talk of his nonexistent publications with a young woman who is an author, he is accused of sexually abusing children. The average person does none of those things.

Father Lorenzoni’s apparent duplicity is one example of why I think the saying is wrong. My argument is with the notion of an “average person.” An average is a pure mathematical abstraction that cannot be said to describe accurately any real human being. Forty years practicing psychotherapy and teaching psychology to graduate students has taught me that no matter how ordinary a person might seem, that person’s story—or stories—make her unique. And while many people experience similar incidents, and respond in similar ways, always the nuances of their experience and their response are distinctly their own.

Unique? One of a kind? Yes.

When I write fiction, my aim is to tell stories of ordinary people confronting extraordinary challenges—challenges that mystify them (and sometimes me!) and demand solutions that reflect the uniqueness of their character. Novelists, like psychologists, look for the patterns in a person’s behavior that define him or her. Some characters could be considered ordinary, average people. But as their challenges mount and their sufferings mount with it, and as their desire and action to change or remove the challenge grows, the complexities of their characters reveal themselves. It isn’t that these average people think they aren’t: These average people aren’t average.

Father Larry Lorenzoni is not your average priest, or even your ordinary priest. If he were a character in a novel, we would learn why, in his uniqueness, he takes credit for things he did not do and conceals the evil that he is said to have done. But we do not know the story. In my lifetime, I have known personally nearly one hundred priests of the Roman church. I am confident that all but two of those have never molested a child. Even those two, living public lives that concealed their private crimes, manifested a powerful commitment to, even love for, the people whom they served. No one is average. Everyone has a story. And nobody’s story is simple. Not even Father Larry Lorenzoni’s.