Attention without feeling is only a report.

Attention without feeling?

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

Chekov.Rifle on Mantle

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

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and when Cook died (after forty years together), Mary wrote a book, Our World, MaryOliversurrounding many of Cook’s unpublished photos with her own poetic reflections on the life and love they shared.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

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

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

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

Attention and feeling for what?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Attention

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

Does this matter in our busy world?

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

Then answer whether it matters.

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

Political Rhetoric is a Literary Form

MLK.Speaking

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

 

Trump                                           Lincoln

The Contexts Facing Donald Trump and Abraham Lincoln

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

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

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

Mr. Trump’s Political Rhetoric

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mr. Lincoln’s Political Rhetoric

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

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

Then Lincoln ended his address thus:

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

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

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

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

Writers as Heroes in Dark Times

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

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

picasso1

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

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

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

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

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

Doublespeak

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

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

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

Common-sense Gun Control?

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

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

Our 2nd Amendment Rights?

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

2ndAmendment

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

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

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

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

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

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

EditedPage.1

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s do our part.

 

How Fiction Can Repair the World

Okay, fiction can’t repair the world. Still, I’ve been wondering lately whether the time and energy I invest in writing fiction might be better spent working socially to change the world. The question has been long with me, ever since a criticism I received in 1974 from a good friend, a Catholic priest. I had decided on a career in psychotherapy, and he challenged me: “Let’s say as a therapist you can help fifty people a year for forty years. What’s that? 2000 people in your career. Be a social activist, a community organizer – you’ll help 2000 people every year.” I didn’t take him up on that. It seemed to me that by seeking the quantity, I’d lose the quality of the relationship with those I served. Perhaps that was selfish.

Tikkun Olam - repairing the world
Tikkun Olam – repairing the world

In the first sermon I heard by Michele’s rabbi, he spoke about tikkun olam, which is Hebrew for “to repair the world.” Every Jew, Rabbi Cohen said, should repair the world. I wasn’t Jewish, but in good Catholic style, I felt guilty anyway, since I hadn’t yet repaired the world. Such a requirement, repairing the world! Isn’t that the Messiah’s job?

When I told Michele this, she was quiet for a moment. “I think you’re missing the point.”

“He said we have to repair the world. That’s huge.”

“He meant one person at a time.”

Some years later, I came across this quote from the Talmud: “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” Ah. So maybe one relationship at a time was all right.

 

Seventh Telling

A wonderful novel, The Seventh Telling by Mitchell Chefitz, tells the story of a rabbi whose wife is dying of cancer. The rabbi is asked if her suffering is destroying his hope for a Messiah. He surprises his friend by saying that the Messiah has already come! In fact, he says, there have already been many Messiahs. For instance, he says, “Jonas Salk was the Messiah for polio.”

In the Buddhist tradition, there’s a saying that when one person becomes enlightened, the whole world is freed from suffering. Instant tikkun olam! The best thing a person can do to save the world is to save himself or herself. This obviously is aspirational, judging from the amount of suffering left in the world. But it makes a point.

Let’s say these ancient claims are true: That we repair the world one person at a time; that by cultivating our own spiritual health, we benefit the world. Let me make a case, then, that writing fiction participates in that effort.

Writing

Seriously? We should maybe send Bookmobiles to prowl the streets of refugee camps? How can writing stop ISIS? (Buy a bearded boy a book?) What about the plague of American gun violence? I suppose a paperback doesn’t fire many bullets. But really? How can writing reverse the injustices of runaway capitalism? If you read Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-first Century, will the resulting brain-freeze snuff out the greed-is-good meme?

Plainly, writing alone can’t change the world. But solid, honest writing can make a difference by informing people about the pressing issues of the time – look at the articles, journalism, and reflection in the great (and even the not so great) newspapers, in Mother Jones, Harpers, The Atlantic, The New York Review of Books, and the dozens of similar publications. And informed people ultimately will change things – they will help refugees, stop ISIS, reduce gun violence, redistribute wealth more justly. People who are well informed will eventually find one another, band together, and make the changes the world needs.

Tikkun olam.

You will say, “But that kind of writing is non-fiction. You write fiction. Of what use is your novel to hungry people, to the oppressed, to victims of war and guns? How does it make for economic justice or slow down global climate change?”

To which I answer, “One reader at a time.” A good novel has the power of, say, a fine piece of improvisational music or an ink and rice paper painting – the power to touch some deeper place in those who read or listen or see. I don’t mean that fiction must inspire any particular virtue, but I agree with John Gardner’s notion that fiction must be moral. In an interview with Sara Mathiessen, Gardner said, “A truly moral book is one that is radically open to persuasion, but looks hard at a problem, and keeps looking for answers. . . . I think that the difference right now between good art and bad art is that the good artists are the people who are, in one way or another, creating, out of deep and honest concern, a vision of life in the twentieth century that is worth pursuing.”

In my novel, Climbing the Coliseum, I wanted to explore, by means of story (as differentiated from journalism, philosophy, or memoir) the question of whether and how people who are marginalized somehow can find their way into a community that cares about them. What does it take? Who needs to be involved? What works, what doesn’t? I didn’t want to pose that question “out loud,” as I would in an essay or a non-fiction study, but rather to tell a story about real people, and to tell it as honestly as I could. That way, my readers have the freedom to be affected by the book in whatever way and at whatever level they respond to it. If even one reader is moved to consider the plight of abandoned teenagers after reading Climbing, the world is a little better for it.

Tikkun olam.

A great experience with a novel, I’ll claim, can be as life-changing as an auto accident or a serious illness, as falling in love, as the birth of a child. In John Gardner’s words, moral fiction offers readers a vision of life “that is worth pursuing.” One life at a time. One of the many challenges of fine writing – fiction or not – is to tell stories that embody that vision of the life worth pursuing.

As the Talmudic rabbis put it, “we are not obligated to complete the work, nor are we free to abandon it.”

Tikkun olam.

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

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

ClimbCover-252px

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

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

Posse C

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writing

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

 

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

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

 

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

In other words, a person like most of us.

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

Two Fun Physics Facts from Dalai Lama and What They Tell Us about Writing

I’ve been enjoying the Dalai Lama’s book The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality (Three Rivers Press, 2005).

DalaiLama Universe

Most of us don’t think of the Dalai Lama as scientifically inclined, but his small book is fascinating – and suggests that he knows something about physics! My interest, though, has been in how his insights about physics and Tibetan Buddhism might apply to my writing fiction. Imagine the splat when I fall off that tightrope. (Oh yeah, I forgot: For Buddhists, there’s no tightrope, or more to the point, there’s no me to fall off. Therefore, no splat.) However, he notes a couple of fun physics facts that actually do relate to writing.

First Fun Physics Fact

  • In 1906, J.J.Thomson won the Nobel Prize in Physics for the discovery that electrons behave as particles. Twenty-one years later, J.J.’s son, George Paget Thomson, won the 1937 Physics Nobel (shared with C.J. Davidson of the United States) for demonstrating experimentally that electrons behave as waves. (I’d love to have listened in to the dinner table arguments in that family: “Dad, you’re a fossil: They’re waves!” “Listen, you young whippersnapper! They’re particles, darn it!”)

The quantum physicists, of course, just shook their heads, reminding everyone that whether an electron is a particle or a wave remains unresolved until the moment when someone actually tries to measure the pesky “wavicle” (or Schrodinger’s alive-or-dead cat, for that matter). At that moment, the electron (or the cat) becomes one or the other, depending on the kind of measurement. In other words, the nature of the phenomenon depends on how some physicist interacts with it. Put another way, the nature of a thing depends on the nature of the things interacting with it.

The Dalai Lama (whose monastic name is Tenzin Gyatso) reflects that the reality of a thing “is contingent upon our language, social conventions, and shared concepts” (Universe, p. 63).

“You say po-tay-toes, I say po-tah-toes.”

Or less flippantly, for people who possess specific skills and experience, things are real and visible that, to those without those skills and experience, are invisible, even unknowable. For instance, a dermatologist sees a tumor where a lay-person sees only a freckle, or a fishing guide sees fish in the water that a rookie can’t. The nature of things depends on how and by whom they are perceived.

Asanga

Asanga (300 – 370 C.E.)

Second Fun Physics Fact

  • Remember Albert Einstein’s twin paradox? One twin takes a twenty-light-year trip in a space ship at nearly the speed of light, while her twin stays on earth. When the space traveler returns, her twin is twenty years older than she is. Learning this, the Dalai Lama writes, “reminded me of the story of how Asanga [a Buddhist saint] was taken to Maitreya’s [a future Buddha] Heavenly Realm, where Maitreya dictated to him the five scriptures . . . all in the time of a tea break. But when he returned to earth, fifty years had passed.” (Universe, p. 59). Obviously, Asanga was taken in a spaceship at the speed of light.

Fun Physics Facts Applied to Writing

What do these fun physics facts mean for writers? Both facts speak to the interdependence of beings, whether they are big beings (the twin humans or Schrodinger’s alive-or-dead cat) or little beings (the electrons). Every thing that is depends on other things. You can’t be a wave-like electron unless some physicist is measuring you. You can’t age at a particular rate unless you live in a world that requires that rate of change.

And the opposite works too: Change one thing, and you change the rest of things. The change may be subtle, but it’s real. Remember the famous butterfly whose wing-flutter in Shanghai eventually affects the weather in New York? If you’ve ever lived with someone in chronic pain, you know how your own life is affected even though you’re not the one in pain.

“Get to the point,” you’re thinking. “What about writing?”

Dylan Thomas

Dylan Thomas (1914-1953 C.E.)

Dylan Thomas said, “A good poem is a contribution to reality. The world is never the same once a good poem has been added to it. A good poem helps to change the shape of the universe, helps to extend everyone’s knowledge of himself and the world around him.” Nothing stands alone, not even a poem, a novel, a memoir, a science text, or an essay. And equally, every poem, novel, memoir, or text of any kind depends on the writer and the world that shaped and continues to shape that writer.

In a novel, every character has – or should have – what I call a transactional (that is, an interdependent) relation to other characters: They need to contribute something to or receive something from each other – and they must also contribute to the story itself as well as being shaped by that story. Every thief must have a victim, every lover a beloved, every action a reaction.

Scenes, too: Successful scenes live in an organic relationship with their surrounding scenes. They proceed logically, clearly, and appropriately in an unfolding order that makes sense to the reader and carries the story forward. Seems elementary.

It is elementary, my dear Watson.

The twins’ aging processes depend on the environments (Earth, or a speeding spaceship) they inhabit. The environment in which an electron is measured determines whether it manifests as a wave or a particle. It’s the same in fiction. In another post, I’ll write about how this applies to non-fiction, but here I’m homed in on fiction. (By the way, my wife, Michele, asked, “Why did you write ‘homed in’ instead of ‘honed in’? I told her that the Grammarist web site says that “homed-in” is preferred about two to one in North America. She said, “I guess that depends on how it was measured, eh?”)

Anyway, characters are shaped by their life-worlds (which include both the other characters and the world they all share), and in turn, they shape the life-worlds of other characters. My lead character in Climbing the Coliseum, Ed Northrup, is a depressed psychologist in a small ranching town. He’d never fit in a Dickens novel or in The Scarlet Letter, nor would he work in Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. Ed has adapted to life in the small town and the mountain valley — he’s been shaped by them — and in turn, he influences all the characters he meets there.

Of course, a great way to generate tension and conflict – which are the drivers of story – is to place Character A in a world for which she is entirely unsuited. Robinson Crusoe, anyone? Our two Fun Physics Facts show us why: It’s because the out-of-place character and the environment that stresses her are interdependent that their interaction creates the tension that in turn drives the story.

Every piece of good writing embodies this interdependence of beings and their worlds. How do I know?

J.J. and his boy George told us so.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pogo1.Met enemy

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

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

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

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

Francis, the Dalai Lama, Climate Change, and Civic Love

On May 24 of this year, Pope Francis issued his encyclical, a teaching letter, on climate change. Its title is Laudato Si’, the opening words of a song by St. Francis of Assisi praising God for the beauty of nature. Its subtitle is “On care for our common home.” At times, the writing is lyrical, almost beautiful; at others, hard-boiled and fierce. In English translation, though, it is clear and readable.

Pope Francis

In his writing, Francis paints a powerful picture: The environmental crisis we are all facing is tightly woven into the economic and social arrangements of modern capitalist societies – and into the psychology that such societies and arrangements engender. Here are two paragraphs (203 and 204) from Laudato Si’ that highlight this tight interconnection:

Since the market tends to promote extreme consumerism in an effort to sell its products, people can easily get caught up in a whirlwind of needless buying and spending. Compulsive consumerism is one example of how the techno-economic paradigm affects individuals. . . . This paradigm leads people to believe that they are free as long as they have the supposed freedom to consume. But those really free are the minority who wield economic and financial power. . . .

The current global situation engenders a feeling of instability and uncertainty, which in turn becomes “a seedbed for collective selfishness” [quoted from John Paul II]. When people become self-centred and self-enclosed, their greed increases. The emptier a person’s heart is, the more he or she needs things to buy, own and consume. It becomes almost impossible to accept the limits imposed by reality. In this horizon, a genuine sense of the common good also disappears. As these attitudes become more widespread, social norms are respected only to the extent that they do not clash with personal needs. So our concern cannot be limited merely to the threat of extreme weather events, but must also extend to the catastrophic consequences of social unrest. Obsession with a consumerist lifestyle, above all when few people are capable of maintaining it, can only lead to violence and mutual destruction (emphasis added).

 

The Pope’s equation is straightforward: Excessive consumerism drives social instability through the psychological mechanisms of insecurity, self-centeredness, even greed.

Elsewhere, Francis makes the obvious connection between consumerism and environmental crisis: Everything in the postmodern capitalist economy depends on the consumption of energy, and the selfishness of large fossil fuel companies obstructs the development of alternative sources of energy. The excesses of capitalism lead to consumerism, which in its turn reinforces the excesses of capitalism, to the detriment of our social and economic health and the destruction of the natural world.

As ecologists and systems thinkers have known since the pre-WWII era, everything is interconnected. And there’s another writer on this topic who knows it too, as do all Buddhists.

Dalai Lama

Compare Pope Francis’s writing to that of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, in his 1990 teaching, “Ecology and the Human Heart”:

So when the environment changes, climatic conditions also change. When it changes dramatically, economic structures and many other things also change, even our physical body. So you can see the great effect from that change. So from that viewpoint this is not only a question of our own survival.

Therefore, in order to achieve more effective results and in order to succeed in the protection, conservation and preservation of the natural environment, first of all, I think, it is also important to bring about internal balance within human beings themselves. Since negligence of the environment – which has resulted in lots of harm to the human community – came about by ignorance of the very special importance of the environment, I think it is very important first of all to instill this knowledge within human beings. So, it is very important to teach or tell people about its importance bring own benefit (emphasis added). 

In both these writers, you read the same ideas about interconnectedness among individuals’ psychological makeup (fear, greed, and ignorance leading to consumerism), social and economic relations (competitiveness and unfettered capitalism), and ecology and nature (climate change). Both insist that the problem exists at all levels, and that a solution at only one level will ultimately fail.

I don’t mean to suggest, nor do Francis or the Dalai Lama suggest, that everyone must be active at all levels for effective positive change to occur. Rather, the message seems to be: We each can contribute, at whatever level we prefer, to solutions for the planet, our people, and our civilization.

Here’s how Francis writes this in Laudato Si’:

Not everyone is called to engage directly in political life. Society is also enriched by a countless array of organizations which work to promote the common good and to defend the environment, whether natural or urban. Some, for example, show concern for a public place (a building, a fountain, an abandoned monument, a landscape, a square), and strive to protect, restore, improve or beautify it as something belonging to everyone. Around these community actions, relationships develop or are recovered and a new social fabric emerges. Thus, a community can break out of the indifference induced by consumerism. These actions cultivate a shared identity, with a story which can be remembered and handed on. In this way, the world, and the quality of life of the poorest, are cared for, with a sense of solidarity which is at the same time aware that we live in a common home which God has entrusted to us. These community actions, when they express self-giving love, can also become intense spiritual experiences.

My books are not environmental treatises. They are fiction, set in ecologically distinct and robust places, similar to where I live in north Idaho, but they aren’t based on environmental themes. Still, I write this blog, in which I focus on psychological, literary, or spiritual aspects of both writing and being. The pressing issues of environmental and ecological degradation and climate change concern me, as they concern millions. I was struck by Francis’s use of writing to address the issue as not merely an economic and social issue, not only a psychological issue, but also a moral issue.

In our small communities, Sandpoint and Hope, Idaho, many people and groups who are deeply engaged in these matters, such as Wild Idaho Rising Tide. One manifestation is a growing concern and movement to counter the growing threat of coal, oil, and gas trains funneling through our communities.

Sunset over Lake Pend Oreille
Sunset over Lake Pend Oreille, Idaho

These trains are coming from the North Dakota Bakken oil field and the Powder River Wyoming coal mines and going to the Pacific ports for export to Asia. Sightline Daily estimates that coal and oil train traffic through Sandpoint and across Lake Pend Oreille will more than double from its current levels, leading to hours of road crossing closures and, of course, the risk of derailment and explosion or waterway pollution.

Efforts to stop the coal trains and the so-called “bomb trains” carrying crude oil are not NIMBY selfishness.

Lac Magantec

They are serious, thoughtful, and concerned social actions to raise attention all along the routes taken by these trains, from the Midwest to the Pacific coast. They embody what Francis calls “civic love.” As a writer, I can do a small part to bring these things to readers’ attention; it is not the most I can do, but it is certainly the least I can do for the world, the country, and the land that I love.

Archbishop Nienstedt, Writers, and Where Bullies Belong

Originally, today’s posting was going to be about bullies and writers; in a way it still is, but with an added personal slant. In my forthcoming novel, tentatively titled The Third Noble Truth, one of the characters, who had been abused by a monk in his youth, achieves a radical and nearly lethal resolution to his suffering – one that is entirely a surprise, even to him. I found myself, writing those scenes, liberating some of the anger I’d accumulated over more than thirty years working with adult survivors of clergy abuse in Minnesota. Beyond working on committees to advance mandatory reporting laws in the state and providing consultant services to attorneys attempting to sue the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis on behalf of victims, I had to contain my rage at the cover-up by the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minnesota so as not to betray my clients’ privacy. Now that I am retired from practice, I can write about what, then, I could not say: The Archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis, John Nienstedt, is a bully.

Nienstedt

Nienstedt resigned on June 14, after his Archdiocese was charged by the Ramsey County (St. Paul) prosecutor with failing to protect minors from sexual abuse by a priest. I rejoiced. Although it’s my opinion, it isn’t only mine that Nienstedt, like too many powerful men at the head of too-big-to-fail corporations, is a bully.

Now, I’m not taking on faithful Catholics or other spiritually minded people whose churches happen also to be big corporations. Nor am I cynical about Pope Francis, who seems to be a fresh wind blowing through the Vatican: He accepted Nienstedt’s resignation in fewer than twenty-four hours. No, I’m talking about the corporate bullies who use their power to hurt real people. And archbishops aren’t the only examples of this.

For a fair sampling of what others think of him, you can click here.

To save you the time, here are a few examples:

  • On September 17, 2013, the Huffington Post reported that “In October of 2012, . . . a letter he [Nienstedt] wrote surfaced in which he tells the mother a young gay man that she must reject her son or go to hell herself.”
  • Earlier that year, Jesse Marx of the City Pages blog wrote that Nienstedt “used his position to bully proponents and demonize fellow Catholics who disagreed with him.”
  • In 2012, Nienstedt ordered priests in the Archdiocese to refuse Holy Eucharist to any openly gay persons – and even to anyone wearing a gay pride button – who came to the altar for the sacrament.
  • In that same year, as part of his virulent campaign against gay marriage (on the ballot that fall), he sent teams – a priest and a married heterosexual couple – into Catholic high schools to deliver mandatory lectures against gay marriage to seniors, who presumably would be eligible to vote in the next fall’s election.
  • He ordered his priests to form political action committees in their parishes – and parishioners’ expense – to support the gay marriage ban in the upcoming election.
  • He ordered his priests either to speak out against gay marriage (before the election) or to remain silent if they could not condemn it.

Naturally, then, it surfaced in 2014 that Nienstedt had been accused, it’s reported, of having had sexual encounters with priests, seminarians, and other adult men, and that he may have had a sexual relationship with the very priest who sexual abuse of children he failed to report to authorities. (Clearly, since any results of those investigations have not been made public, he remains innocent until proven guilty.)

I’ll reflect on some of the deeper psychological and literary issues those allegations raise in next week’s post.

Allegations are not facts, of course, so my calling Nienstedt a bully will have to stand on his overt behaviors, some of which are mentioned above, and others of which can be found easily online.

Writers need bullies, of course. Called, more primly, “antagonists,” bullies (for fiction writers) usually are people – and not all antagonists are bullies (think Fred Clumly and the Sunlight Man in John Gardner’s The Sunshine Dialogues). For writers of non-fiction, ideas can be the antagonist (as in Eli Levin’s Disturbing Art Lessons: A Memoir of Questionable Ideas and Equivocal Lessons); or, a hiker’s incompetence and the trail itself may serve (as in Cheryl Strayed’s Wild); or a German submarine aided and abetted by the British secret code-breaking agency will do (as in Erik Larson’s Dead Wake, about the sinking of the Lusitania one hundred years ago).

Whatever form they take, we writers need our bullies or antagonists for the conflict and tension they generate, and all writer’s hope that their bullies have dimensions and heft, even perhaps some redeeming qualities. The more complex the bully’s character is, the greater is his or her potential to capture readers and hold them to the page. Bullies are great in books.

But real life is too full of bullies like John Nienstedt. I am very glad he is going away.

Writing to Our Audience

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

Kids playing soccer

 

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

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

DalaiLama Universe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JohnGardner

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

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

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

“New wine, new skins!”

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