What Travel Taught Me about Writing

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

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

Disorientation

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

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

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

 

Attention and Virtual Worlds in the Brainmind

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

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

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

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

 

What This Means for Writers

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

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

5 Things I Didn’t Know about Self-Publishing

Ignorance.Knowledge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Do I Write?

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

 

Once upon a time

 

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

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

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

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

Crossroads

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

The Average Person Isn’t

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

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

First, a little background.

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

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

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

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

Unique? One of a kind? Yes.

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

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

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.

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 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!

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.