Be Kind, Rewind

On this blog I have so far hit the 'begin again' concept from various, but mostly artistic, angles. When it comes to the craft of writing, the Camus quote that serves as the site's thematic through-line means that as much as we want and need for our works to be read right now, writers should slow down enough to make their art as close to complete, as whole, as they can. Writers owe their own fiction this devotion, and they owe the reader this dedication as well.

There is another side to this 'begin again' nonsense that I haven't written as much about. The essential other side of the creative process - the spiritual practice of art. 

I understand that 'spiritual' is a weighted term, fraught with implications that could skew positive or negative (probably negative) for most everyone. I understand those of you who prefer the rational, the humanistic, the agnostic or the Godless. And I understand the discomfort of having someone proselytize. Hear me out. What I intend by using the word 'spiritual' and why I anchor my artistic process with it is better defined by forming it as a question: how do I conduct myself in this world? And how does my interaction with this world in turn feed my art? 

Let me get to the punchline: I often conduct myself poorly. I don't pay enough attention to...well, most anything. There are many times I regret not stopping myself and acknowledging my wife, my kids, my friends, because although they mean everything to me, I rarely stop and let them know that or act as if I know that (I do).

I'm preoccupied. I'm busy. You know how it is. 

More damning, though, than a lack of attentiveness, worse than not being present, is the loss of empathy that leeches from us as we narrow the frame of our own existences and lose the wide-view. When we stop understanding other humans, we stop being human ourselves. As a writer this openness, this vulnerability, to both people and experience is the only way I can create characters that are real to me and (I hope) to the reader. I have to put myself into the heads of people I don't get and find my way to some shared humanity, some empathy, some compassion, even. This isn't easy to do when your character is an unrepentant asshole, (or if I am acting like an unrepentant asshole, which does occur on occasion) but that's the uncomfortable work of the artist: to dive the deep waters as often as you skim the shallows.

Being preoccupied, not being vulnerable and empathetic, this all makes for bad art, but worse, this all makes for one rotten human being. A spiritual practice should, at its root, be about your lifestyle, your behavior, how you live and how you interact with your fellow humans. That is the point of even laying claim to a term like 'spiritual' - yeah, your faith or your practice might initially be about some holy being from this or that tradition but in the day-to-day grind where experiences are alternatively joyful, painful, boring, irritating, sultry, stupid - that high-minded abstract spiritual stuff needs to yield real-world behaviors and actions or it's useless. 

We have all done questionable and hurtful things to other people but the redemption--if there is such a thing--is that we can stop. Start over. Begin again. 

As in art, so in life. As in life, so in art. 

Below I've linked to a commencement address that the (great) fiction writer George Saunders delivered this year on the importance of kindness. It's a delight.


The Truth Isn't What It Is and That Is True

The musician Amanda Palmer has a wonderful blog post this week that details the experiences of her and her husband, writer Neil Gaiman, while he wrote his most recent novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Besides being an honest and intimate view of a marriage between artists (aspects of which are true for any marriage, really), she provides one of the better metaphors for describing to what degree an artist reveals himself/herself within a given work of art.

To paraphrase badly: Artists with a lower 'art-blender' setting reveal identifiable chunks and recognizable auto-biographical pieces, while artists who set the blender higher shred and spin those auto-biographical pieces so that discerning what is personal and what is auto-biographical from what is imagined is very, very difficult.

I've been struggling to come up with a better metaphor or a better simile, and I can't. The 'art-blender' image has stuck. Check out Amanda Palmer's blog.

One thing that occurs, while thinking about my own fiction, is that even when we know--even when I know--the autobiographical source for a scene or a description within one of my pieces, the through-line from idea to what survives on the page is circuitous at best. We are all guilty of assuming that we can pluck out auto-biography from an artist's work. (Terry Gross of NPR's Fresh Air, who is a fantastic interviewer, almost always deep dives from fictional work into writer's psyche with zero hesitation; while I like this as reader/listener--who doesn't like a narrative? who doesn't want a quick answer for why something is so--as a writer, I kind of hate it.)  

I kind of hate it because the origins and causality are so twisted. To use an easy, pop-culture-y example: we know Bruce Wayne became Batman because a street thug killed his parents right in front of him. A + B = Dark Knight. But it wasn't so simple. There are a lot of variables both within the boy/man and the situation -- not the least of which is the bat that swoops into Wayne's window right when he was searching for the proper symbol to best affect the psychology of the criminals he intends to hunt. The bat has little to do with the fact that Bruce watched his parents die when he was a boy. The bat came from somewhere else; either from within Bruce himself or from the shadows. We don't know where or why, and that's awesome.

Mystery--the bat that swoops in at the right moment--will always appear in someone's artistic work. Even when an artist sets her blender on 1, she will still keep herself from being wholly revealed. I think this is why so many of us take on our artistic endeavors; we throw our (often uninteresting) biographies at the 'art-blender,' and we never fail to yield a strange, compelling concoction that keeps us doing it again and again. In fact, I think one of the reasons many of us become artists is because for brief spurts of time, we make ourselves unrecognizable to ourselves. And sometimes, a bat crashes through the window to remind us that the world is a strange, unknowable place. 

I set my 'art-blender' on about 6, by the way. Or at least I think I do.  


Snog the Fear - In the Face

It has taken me decades to admit to myself that my go-to emotion is fear. 

I'm too old to even care much about the nature/nurture origins as to why my set point is anxiety-based; for whatever reason, my body and mind are wired to express fear before anything else. Admitting that this is so is difficult because for whatever reason (probably societal), admitting that I am afraid douses me in shame.

What does this have to do with the act of writing? 

For those of you like me out there, you know intimately the seductive power of fear; you how that slippery-tongued anxiety can so easily talk you out of doing something you yearn to do. As I've examined my writing process--a process I largely hide away from almost everyone--I recognize that I have been holding myself back from sharing this side of myself because I fear exposure. If there's exposure, there is vulnerability, and if there is vulnerability, there is inevitably judgment, and if there is judgment, the feedback loop to my mind starts to belittle, to demean, and to ultimately stoke the fear. 

Stop. Run. Hide. 

This site, this blog, the posted fiction - these serve to break the cycle for myself. Fear is not going to go away. Anxiety is a constant companion and as reliable as my (sometimes overly accelerated) heart beat. My work of late has been to accept and even welcome my fear. It is, after all, a very old and steadfast friend. This isn't easy; my wish would be to rid myself of fear, to not feel it at all.

But that's the thing of it. We all feel fear. Some of us are much better at managing it than others. Those among us who are so outwardly brave, they have learned to accept that fearlessness is not living in the absence of fear; no, true fearlessness is feeling the fear and then doing what scares the shit out of you, anyway. 


Influences - Stephen King

I can't begin a list of writers who have influenced me without starting with Stephen King. 

When I was a creative writing student in college (way back in the early 1990s), it wasn't hip (or 'hep' as my former percussion instructor used to say) to throw Stephen King out as an influence. Creative writing classes of that era were still dominated by the structures established in the 1970s, the writing programs designed by the likes of John Gardner, who pushed publication in small, literary magazines and tried to get everyone who could do so to attend THE Writer's Workshop at the University of Iowa. (To be fair to Univ of Iowa, a couple of my favorite writers--Mark Helprin and TC Boyle--did time there.) 

If you weren't trying to be the next Raymond Carver, you were shit. This is a shame, because I don't think even Raymond Carver wanted to be Raymond Carver after awhile. 

Anyway, even in the 1990s the MFA to teaching to (maybe) publishing route was unable to support the many, many writers (like myself) who couldn't get into or couldn't fit into MFA programs. Those of us who grew up on comic books, Piers Anthony and Stephen King novels, old reruns of The Twilight Zone, and whatever other miasma of pop culture/literary influences that penetrated our brains were sort of forced to suck it. (Michael Chabon being the one clear example of a writer with similar influences to mine and who transcended painful obscurity by staying true to his influences. Hats off to you, Mr. Chabon.) 

But yeah, you didn't mention that you loved Stephen King back in my day. You just didn't. 

If I had to point to two things (because I can't narrow it down to one) that set King apart, and two things that demand respect, it's his authorial voice and his evocation of all things Americana. Even in his worst novels (let's say Tommyknockers), his voice is so alluring, so compelling, so much like our own inner dialogue, that you can't help but follow him wherever he takes you. And does anyone summon 'kitchen sink' realism better than Mr. King? He gets America. He gets us. He gives you a world just like the one we live in, and then he either scares the shit out of us, or he transports us, or he performs some wonderful combination of both.  

I find the epics--The Stand, IT--the most compelling. But the argument could be made that the greater novels are the more focused pot-boilers like Firestarter or The Dead Zone. I dig his horror works, but I find his paranormal-influenced tales just as winning, if not more so. I have barely read The Dark Tower series, and I can't wait to finally dig in.

Beyond the deep debt I have to him and his fiction, I found his On Writing to be the perfect impetus--the right book read at the right time--to get me to complete my own fiction works and get them out into the world. His process of always moving on to the next project is what I needed to emulate in order to get over my own obsessive revision cycle. (It wasn't David Milch obsessive, but it was close.) Funny that I had to end where I began in order to get my own writing career going again. Life just never ceases to mystify.

By the by, I have read that other authors--notably Karen Russell--have recently begun to publicly thank the man for his influence on their own writing. I'm happy to see the man get his due. Thanks Stephen King for showing us the way.


Kids Will Ruin Your Life - And That's a Thing

My youngest son--not quite two years old--woke my wife and me at four in the morning today. I had planned to sleep in, wake up slow, meditate and write on this, my weekend day. No such luck. Once again my plans were completely upended by the beings my wife and I have invited to share our lives. Underscoring for the millionth time that children are nothing if not constant chaos batteries designed to oscillate your life in frequencies you can only occasionally translate into a comprehensible signal.

Most of the time, those frequencies create confusing noise that you try your best to translate into music. 

When my first son was born, I resisted the constant call (personified in a shrill, infant scream) to the present moment. I fought against the reminder that I needed to be, now, with my child. I couldn't maintain that resistance, however, because it was driving me (my wife and my son) insane, and I eventually realized (because even I will eventually realize stuff) that I needed to get right with being in the present moment with my child. I needed to bring my writerly self into the world.

Left to my own, I favor living my days within the thrall of my own imagination. (I at least think it's enthralling.) That's my go-to mode. After my kids bullied me into being more present. I started my rehabilitation by reading Eckhart Tolle (I know). That concept of the ever-expanding NOW and mindfullness led me to Thich Nhat Hanh and Tibetan Buddhism. Then Pema Chodron. Then Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. And so on. 

My nature is exactly and precisely the opposite of a Buddhist, which is probably why I'm drawn to Buddhism. I couldn't have chosen a more difficult, enticing spiritual path for myself.  

Last weekend I happened to reconnect with one of my favorite artists--Jon J. Muth--whom I originally discovered through his comic book work. He's writing children's books these days, and we just bought my youngest son Muth's wonderful Zen Ties. His was another reminder that life is right here in front of me, and although my imagination is constantly calling, it is through the life shrieking in the present moment that I will be both a more human person and a more human writer. Artists shouldn't hide away in their own imaginations. Artists should be, here, in this screechy world.  Thanks kids.

Still, it would have been nice to have slept in this morning....