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.

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.

What I Learned about Writing from Craig Johnson and Marilynne Robinson

It’s a hard day when a writer encounters two others whose books are so good that he is forced to decide never to write another word. And that day gets harder when one of those wonderful writers creates stories that, in characters, setting, and overall tenor, remind the poor writer of his own. And the second excellent writer? She writes an entirely different kind of novel so well and so intimately that the poor guy has no choice but to give up writing altogether and take ukulele lessons.

Uke Lesson

That poor writer is me, and the two great ones are Craig Johnson, author of the Walt Longmire series (both the books and the Netflix series), and Marilynne Robinson, author of the Gilead trilogy, and most recently, Lila. It was Lila that nudged me over the edge toward the ukulele, and it was Johnson’s Walt Longmire books that first made me mutter, “I’m not writing another word.”

What is it about their writing that so affects me? To put it better, if I’m going to stay in the game and not learn the uke, what can I learn from these two very different masters? Let me start with Death Without CompanyCraig Johnson.

Johnson never departs from the story he is telling: no detours or digressions, no long soliloquies, just story. But in telling the story, he will add a phrase, or sometimes only a word, that captures a character’s enormous but almost hidden emotion, or the breathtaking beauty of a setting he barely takes time to describe. Here’s an example from Death without Company, the second Longmire book.

It’s on page three. It’s winter. Sheriff Walt Longmire has paced a path in the snow along the cemetery fence, impatiently listening to the gravedigger’s chatter. The ground being frozen, the gravedigger launches into a long riff on burial customs around the world. It’s funny, because Jules, the gravedigger, is driving Walt crazy. Underneath, though, there’s a tightening of some unspoken tension: Who died? Why is the sheriff out here pacing in the cold? What happened?

Then we read this, written in Walt’s first person point of view:

You can tell the new graves by the pristine markers and the mounds of earth. From my numerous and one-sided conversations [with Jules], I had learned that there were water lines running a patchwork under the graveyard with faucets that would be used in the spring to help soak the dirt and tamp the new ones flat, but, for now, it was as if the ground had refused to accept Vonnie Hayes. It had been almost a week since her death, and I found myself up here once a week.

When somebody like Vonnie dies you expect the world to stop, and maybe for one brief second the world does take notice. Maybe it’s not the world outside, but the world inside that’s still (pp. 2-3).

After two-and-a-half pages of near comedy tinged with premonition of something not fun, we get that paragraph describing frozen grave mounds waiting to be tamped down when the earth thaws, and then it’s “as if the ground had refused to accept Vonnie Hayes.” And before the almost Homeric power of that can sink in—the earth refusing to accept a dead woman!—Johnson brings us inside Walt Longmire, where his “world inside is still.”

Throughout his books, Johnson does that: After a long focusing on the external action (in the excerpt, the comedic chatter of Jules—remember the two joking gravediggers in Hamlet?—and the setting (the frozen mounds awaiting spring), Johnson in a short sentence or two will give us a glimpse (and often only a glimpse) into Walt Longmire’s emotional response. But not too deeply or long. “Maybe it’s not the world outside, but the world inside that’s still.” By setting things up this way, when the moment comes for Sheriff Longmire to have a profound emotional experience (and in Johnson’s novels, that moment always comes), we’ve had so many fleeting glimpses that we are as deeply moved as Walt Longmire is.

Now let’s turn to Marilynne Robinson’s Lila. Unlike the sheriff of Absaroka County, Lila is a nobody. Abandoned as a toddler and rescued by a woman drifter who taught her the life of itinerant workers, Lila eventually became a prostitute, then a homeless wanderer. Lila CoverDuring her travels, she meets and marries an old preacher in the small Iowa town of Gilead (the title of the first book in this series). They love each other in their own way, but each fears the other will find him or her unsatisfactory. The preacher, John Ames, can tell her, haltingly, of his love and need for her, but she cannot believe it will last, nor can she voice her own fear that he will learn about her past and banish her. She tells him almost nothing about herself. And the context of this agonized reticence for both is the knowledge that the old man will die long before Lila gets old. Then Lila becomes pregnant, delivers a son, and . . . that’s it. In Lilathat’s all the action there is.

All the action on the outside, that is. But inside Lila’s and John’s minds, the characters’ rich, evocative, and poignant musing and rejoicing and fearing and longing are complex—and complete—worlds in themselves. We view scenes of intense external action nearly always through Lila’s remembering and pondering them. Page after page of inner monolog carry us back to Lila’s earliest days, or show us the formative, dreadful experiences she endured, or project us out into the futures she imagines so entirely plausibly that we feel with her the same shiver of fear or despair (or occasionally, hope) that she feels about the life she imagines she will end up living.

Listen: Lila is pregnant, has spent the morning rocking and thinking and trying to understand the Book of Job, since her husband is a preacher and she wishes to understand him. It is 11 o’clock, and she’s waiting for the Reverend, as she calls him, to come home for lunch. We join her thoughts, which she will never share with John Ames, for fear he’d find her shallow:

She felt good, and the baby was moving around more than ever, elbows and knees. The old man would look into her face for sadness or weariness, and she would turn her face away, since there was no telling what he might see in it, her thoughts being what they were. She’d been thinking that folks are their bodies. And bodies can’t be trusted at all. Her own body was so strong with working, for what that was worth. She’d known from her childhood there was no use being scared of pain. She was always telling the old man, women have babies, no reason I can’t do it. But they both knew things can go wrong. That’s how it is pp. 171-172).

It’s in this stream of her consciousness (not stream of consciousness in the technique sense, but in the real-life sense, thoughts weaving together one by one into a skein of meaning) that we come to know Lila. Through her thinking about her husband, we know him too. Remember that sentence about his searching her face for a sign of sadness: Lila’s thoughts show us, more poignantly and fleetingly than any words John might say, his fragile fearful love.

After that, she thinks about dying when the baby comes, and how “here’s my body, dying on me, when I almost promised him I wouldn’t let it happen.” This makes her wonder if perhaps her concern for her husband meant that . . .

. . . she was something besides her body, but what was the good of that when she’d be gone anyway and there’d be nothing in the world that could comfort him. She guessed she really was married to him, the way she hated the thought of him grieving for her (p. 172).

We stay inside Lila’s mind (and heart) like this for long stretches throughout the novel, and I never found a moment of it dry or slow or boring. All the scenes in which action takes place are filtered and formed by her inner perceptions of them. Thought by thought, desire by desire, Lila grew on me, grew into me. All of us have been abandoned, have grown hard and scarred over, have secret escape plans and doubts about the ones who love us most. And like Lila, most of us rise up and through those to a higher place, or at least a glimpse of one. To live with Lila over the span of her life and 260 pages of Marilynne Robinson’s beautiful, measured, thoughtful, and simple prose was, for me, to become alive again to all the contradictions that fill my loves and eventually are healed by them.

Read with me the closing lines, remembering that these are the musings of a woman on whom life had scraped the thickest scars and hardened the most tender heart of any deeply wounded character in literature I know.

Lila had borne a child into a world where a wind could rise that would take him from her arms as if there were no strength in them at all. Pity us, yes, but we are brave, she thought, and wild, more life in us than we can bear, the fire infolding itself in us. That peace could only be amazement, too.

Well for now there were geraniums in the windows, and an old man at the kitchen table telling his baby some rhyme he’d know forever, probably still wondering if he had managed to bring her along into that next life, if he could ever be certain of it. Almost letting himself imagine grieving for her in heaven, because not to grieve for her would mean that he was dead, after all.

Someday she would tell him what she knew (p. 260-261).

Geraniums

I imagine you can see, now, why after reading Craig Johnson and Marilynne Robinson, I wondered if I should write another word. They tell me, yes.

Fiction Is a Lie That Tells the Truth

Once upon a time

I write fiction. What Albert Camus said about fiction—that it is “a lie through which we tell the truth”—has become almost a cliché. A quick search of Google images for that quote reveals that, either word-for-word or in slight variants, it has been said also by Dorothy Allison, Tim O’Brien, Laura Groff, Khalid Hosseini, Neil Gaimon, and Stephen King. And many others not so well known.

Maria Popova, in her blog “Brain Pickings,” has a delicious compilation of iconic writers riffing on this theme. Such luminaries as Tennessee Williams, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Mark Twain weigh in. Others quoted by Popova include Tom Wolfe, Ray Bradbury, Joyce Carol Oates, Wallace Stevens, and Eudora Welty.

Mark Twain’s variation on the theme is interesting: “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.”

Mark Twain

This is an absolutely vital point for writers and readers of fiction. In my novels, because they are set in my version of the real American intermountain west and not in an alternate universe, if what I write is impossible, I have failed. The things that happen, my characters actions and reactions, must be possible in the setting I have created. Otherwise, readers will put the book down, probably forever.

At first reading, I found the second part of Twain’s idea—that truth is not obliged to stick to possibilities—hard to swallow. Can an impossible thing be, at the same time, true? I immediately thought of what the Queen says in Lewis Carroll’s marvelous novel, Through the Looking-glass:

“I can’t believe that?” said Alice.

“Can’t you?” the Queen said, in a pitying tone. “Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.”

“There’s no use trying,” she said; “one can’t believe impossible things.”

“I dare say you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

Are Mark Twain and the Queen right? Is the truth unhedged by possibilities? Dare we take as true impossible things?

In at least one sense, the answer is definitely yes. At one time, human flight was factually impossible. Yet, with time and the development of a sufficient science, human flight came true. What is impossible today may still be true at another time. Plato, you’ll recall, taught that a real thing is less real and less true that the “Idea” of that thing. To know the truth would be to know the Idea, not the real thing. An impossible thing in reality may indeed be possible in the world of Ideas.

Turning the issue on its head, what about lies? Are they, like fiction, constrained by possibilities? I would answer no. For an example, let me take a famous lie reported by Bill Moyers. On May 29, 2003, two months after invading Iraq “to destroy Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction” (another lie), President George W. Bush, in an interview with Polish Television (TVP), said, “We found the weapons of mass destruction. We found biological laboratories.”

At first blush, this lie would seem to be possible—although no weapons or labs had actually been found as of May 29, 2003, perhaps in the future they would be discovered. However, in fact, there were none, anywhere in Iraq. The CIA closed its investigation into WMD in Iraq in April, 2005, finding nothing. So at the time the President spoke his lie, it was literally impossible: WMDs did not exist in Iraq.

Thus, it would seem that the lie, like the truth, is not constrained by possibility.

Lying is claiming the truth for something untrue. Strangely, that fact might lead us to condemn fiction as “lying.” Indeed, the cliché says exactly that, without censure: Fiction is a lie that tells the truth. The facts of fiction, untrue in themselves, nevertheless must be possible, and consequently, the lie that is fiction reveals a deeper truth. Ralph Waldo Emerson put it this way: “Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures.” Or as Bruno Bettleheim wrote, discussing the psychological importance of fairy tales, “The child intuitively comprehends that although these stories are unreal, they are not untrue.

If a thing is impossible, it may be true in some way or at some time, or it may be a lie. If it is possible, then it may be true, false, or fiction. And if it is fiction, the words of Tim O’Brien (interviewed by the BookReporter in 1998) apply:

A good piece of fiction, in my view, does not offer solutions. Good stories deal with our moral struggles, our uncertainties, our dreams, our blunders, our contradictions, our endless quest for understanding. Good stories do not resolve the mysteries of the human spirit but rather describe and expand upon those mysteries.

Before he died, David Foster Wallace (1962-2008) said this about fiction:

D.F.WallaceFiction is one of the few experiences where loneliness can be both confronted and relieved. Drugs, movies where stuff blows up, loud parties — all these chase away loneliness by making me forget my name’s Dave and I live in a one-by-one box of bone no other party can penetrate or know. Fiction, poetry, music, really deep serious sex, and, in various ways, religion — these are the places (for me) where loneliness is countenanced, stared down, transfigured, treated.

For “loneliness,” substitute in Wallace’s saying any of the human emotions and core experiences, and you can see the deeper truth that is fiction.

October Light in Idaho

Photo by Marianne Love
Photo by Marianne Love

 

Here in north Idaho, the October light has been stunning, golden, filtered as if through the dusts of heaven. At times pale and soft, the light spreads a patina over the gardens and the forest. This October, the light almost appears to emerge from within the trees and the rocks and the mountains themselves rather than from the sun; it’s as if the hot, dry, fiery summer heat soaked into the material of this land and now glows softly.

 

October light

 

This morning, watching the October light, I remembered that John Gardner published a novel with that title in 1976. It tells the story of James Page, a septuagenarian living in a small town in Vermont, and his widowed sister, Sally Page Abbott, who has come to live with him. The book opens with James Page enraged at Sally’s television, so angry he fires his shotgun into the machine, nearly killing his sister of fright.

James Page, we learn, is very conservative, so conservative that he considers TV and technology demonic. He hates it. And he browbeats and torments his sister with his demands to the point that . . . well, I’ll let you read the book. I remember it as a dark book in many ways, but I also recall finding the title strangely apt. This October’s radiant light in the northern part of Idaho (and who knows, everywhere else perhaps) reminds me of Gardner’s story.

Photo by Marianne Love
Photo by Marianne Love

Gardner’s October Light is deeper than a story about a curmudgeon and his tormented sister who finally rebels. Published in 1976, it was Gardner’s bicentennial take on the American revolution—an oppressive “king”—James—and his “subject” (Sally), who first struggles to remain loyal, but in the end rebels. However, if Gardner had stopped with that, the book would merely be a modern allegory. He’s up to something more profound, and the title captures that depth just as our north Idaho October light captures something of “the dusts of heaven.” But what?

The web site “enotes.com” says this about October Light:

[T]he novel focuses on . . . the power of nature to act as a moral force and become the positive center for human life, strengthening that which is best and serving as a guide. Nature cannot accomplish this alone but needs to be mediated by art, and that art, as October Light makes explicit, must be moral art—moral fiction.

This morning, when I was absorbing the light radiating from the trees, the grasses, the rocks, from the lake stretching out in front of our house, LakePendOreille1 I could feel that power of nature in the light that welled up from within the natural world like water from a deep spring. It occurred to me that the task of moral fiction, among other things, is not to let such beauty as this morning’s light go unsung. (By the way, for a different take on “moral fiction,” read Mary Gordon’s piece in the Atlantic.) This light is as true and, brought into fiction, can be as much a source of energy as the cruelties and hidden motives and conflicts that are so important in my fiction, in any fiction. There is darkness. But there is also light.

In all the spiritual traditions I am aware of, light is everything. Think of all the hymns you’ve sung or prayers you’ve recited, sutras you’ve chanted—Jewish, Muslim, Christian, whatever—hasn’t the word “light” infused many of them? Zen master Foyan said, “[The mind’s] light penetrates everywhere and engulfs everything, so why does it not know itself?”

So what should be my song about this October light? I can’t sing as well as Rainer Maria Rilke, who wrote in his Letters to a Young Poet,

But there is much beauty here,

Because there is much beauty everywhere.

That’s what the traditions are telling us: There is much beauty here in north Idaho’s October light–or wherever you are–because there is much beauty everywhere.

Remember this next time the politicians cast their dark spell over the land. Remember the October light.

 

 

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?

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s do our part.

 

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

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

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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!

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.