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


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.

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.



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.


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.

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.


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.