Feb 15

Bullshit stories

It’s rare that someone looks you in the eye and tells you the truth.

I don’t mean about the little things, like “Does this soup need salt?” or “Do you, um, know what happened to my shoes?”–I mean the big things.

I was talking with a friend recently about a dynamic that frustrates me in my relationship with my husband and I got to that most common of phrases, “I mean, what’s up with that?”

He paused for a moment, a look of wry amusement on his face, and said, “You’re a bitch, Theresa. That’s what’s up with that.”

It was so unexpected, so honest about that dynamic, and so undeniably true I burst out laughing. How could I not? He’d hit the nail on the head, squarely, and I could either waste a ton of energy denying it and taking it personally and shooting the messenger or I could use that shock to crack open a possibility in my relationship I hadn’t seen before.

I had the same response when I saw this picture:

Slap!

Oh yeah baby! It was another one of those moments where I encountered something and within seconds its tentacles had slithered through my entire head, connecting everything together in a new and undeniable way.

We all have a bullshit story. It’s that tiny, poisonous whisper that most of the time we don’t even hear anymore, but that still has the power to bring us to a complete standstill in life:

“I’m not lovable.” “I deserve to be treated badly.” “I’m not allowed to exist.” “Whatever anyone does to me is fine because I’m a bad person.” “If I stick up for myself, I’ll get killed.” “It’s too scary to try. Just don’t.” “Being open with people hurts too much.”

There are thousands of others but they all boil down to the same thing–stay safe. Curl into a ball and don’t risk sticking your neck out.

And if you’re a writer and you’re not aware that that voice is there and how it affects you, the things you write may be technically good–great–even brilliant, but they won’t touch anyone (talk about bullshit stories). Readers will move through your story, laugh, feel the tension, maybe even cry a bit if something sad happens, but your words won’t snake into them, curl around their hearts, and wake them up at night because there’s something there that affects them, too, a niggling little feeling that what’s happening on the page isn’t isolated to the page, that it’s actually happening to them, right here, right now, and they’d better pay attention.

Great literature does this. J.D. Salinger, Margaret Atwood, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry Miller, Jennifer Egan, John Steinbeck, Kate Chopin, George Orwell, Orson Scott Card, Barbara Kingsolver, Zora Neale Hurston, Flannery O’Connor, Shirley Jackson, Joyce Carol Oates, I could go on and on (and I’m not even listing the non-fiction writers who do this, like Nietzsche and Heidegger and Kierkegaard, to name a few), but the thing that makes them great, besides an obvious level of mastery of their craft, is that they aren’t speaking from their bullshit stories.

When I read these writers, I’m not just reading a story. I’m seeing the machinery inside all of us. I’m getting an in-depth picture of what it looks like to live out a bullshit story and what it takes to break free of it.

My contention has always been that literature is a conversation, not a lecture. As a reader it’s my responsibility to join in by bringing to bear all my experiences in life and seeing what that author has to say about them. When I engage this conversation, I have a chance to engage amazing minds who have thought deeply about what it takes to be human and what we need to do to reach that goal.

Hamlet: everyone talks about his hesitation, and how relieved they are when he finally acts at the end. But when I join in that conversation, with the benefit of my own bullshit stories squarely in my sights, I see the true tragedy of a man lost in his head, completely unable to connect to his heart, to the extent that he sacrifices everyone he loves, including himself. To me, Shakespeare is screaming a warning of one of the great dangers of his, and our, age: beware the death of the heart under the tyranny of the intellect.

As someone who spent most of her adult life living from her head, completely shut down emotionally, I feel the seriousness of this warning and see the impact of losing sight of one’s heart all over my life. Here be tragedy, indeed.

When I read The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood, I threw the book across the room when I finished because I thought she’d completely cheated me as a reader by how it ended. Who couldn’t see that the Painballers deserved to be killed in a long, drawn-out manner? But I was haunted by that ending. Atwood is a master at this kind of conversation and I knew something deeper was happening there.

Throughout the book, I was rooting for the good people, gnashing my teeth until I got the pleasure of seeing the bad people die. And the Painballers–they’re so bad–they kill people, rape women, turn women into sexual slaves; they’re vicious beasts with no redeeming human qualities–you just feel yourself go rabid with wanting their death. And in the end, Ren and Toby have the perfect opportunity to kill two of them….and they DON’T.

This isn't me. It's my soul screaming at the injustice of them living.

But what I got was that throughout the whole book I’d been identifying with the good characters because that’s how I see myself. I’d been horrified by the bad men, disgusted and afraid of them…..and at the end of the book, my blood lust at wanting them to die? I WAS THEM. I was not like Toby at all. Given the chance to forgive and uplift or crush and destroy, I’d chosen to crush and destroy.

It was a watershed moment for me, as a writer and a person. As a writer, what an amazing amount of trust Atwood placed in her readers. How many got no further than their reactions to the end and swore never to read another Atwood novel? How skilled do you have to be to write a story that is so physically embodied by your readers they may not even notice which character they’re actually emulating?

And as a person, I had the devastation of seeing one of my bullshit stories so strongly there was no way I could turn away from it. I wanted to kill the Painballers in exactly the ways they’d killed people throughout the book. As horrified as I was by them, they are in me, and if I don’t pay attention to that, that poisonous whisper could wreak havoc in all sorts of situations.

I’m not saying I’m going to go out and kill anyone, but that “killer instinct,” that desire to destroy someone, that’s a feeling I’m all too familiar with. It comes up, for instance, when I get hurt emotionally or when I think someone’s done something to make me look stupid. My mind goes into overdrive figuring out ways to make sure that person goes DOWN–I am cutting, rude, snide….a bitch. And here we are full circle, a poisonous whisper traced both through honest friendship and amazing literature.

So in terms of writing and life (some claim there is no distinction there ;) ), you can’t put a better poster on your wall than the one above. We can write things that do nothing but scream our bullshit stories–or we can write things that expose those stories, rip them open, and chart them so others can lay that map over themselves and see something, too.

Being a writer is a service to the greater good of humanity. That’s a grandiose statement, but look at the list of names that back it up.

Feb 14

Pay attention when your writing sucks

We’ve all had those days, where we have to pry every word out of us and they only come kicking and screaming and when we look over what we’ve written, we just put our heads in our hands and contemplate a career in math.

Oo! This is sexy despair. I want mine to look like this.

Unfortunately, mine's more like this. Only with long red hair.

And we've all been here on those REALLY bad days.

Sometimes in those moments it helps to read other people’s writing. (Sometimes that only pushes us from the second picture to the third, but that’s another story.) So the other day I clicked over to Crescent Dragonwagon’s blog (highly recommended) and read this:

“Every piece of writing is essential to the writer, regardless of whether it works as a piece or not. Seeming unsuccess is as important as seeming success in our lives, as artists and as human beings.”

This is something I tend to forget. Mostly because if I invest time/energy/emotion in a piece, by damn I want it to work! And maybe, no matter what I do, it doesn’t.

And she’s saying (THANK GOD) that’s OK. You get something out, something that had to get out, and now there is space to write the next piece.

This is such a release of pressure, that not all our darlings need to be birthed into the world. Some of them need to live beneath the rocks, whispering to us, filling the void between the last good piece and the next one.

And then there’s that kicker, which she is so good at: “and as human beings.”

Why is unsuccess important to us as human beings? Personally, I’d like to succeed at everything, all the time. That would be fantastic.

But think of yourself as a stone bowl. The depth of your bowl is the depth of your soul; it indicates how deeply you can feel, relate to, and understand yourself and others. Now think of how that bowl was made. It was carved out. And that carving isn’t gentle and thoughtful–no, that carving involves metal tools and hammers and grinding and pounding. If you’re going to make a stone bowl with a piece of 00 sandpaper, you’re going to die before the first shallow depression is complete.

“Unsuccess” is the hammer–the chisel–the grinding force that breaks us open so we can feel. We need the failures, the difficult times, the brokenness that comes from daring to try something we’re not entirely sure will work, whether it’s writing or telling someone our deepest hopes and fears.

What we owe to our readers as writers, and our friends and loved ones as human beings, is a map of deep emotions, and if we keep ourselves so safe we never feel them, we sure as hell can’t write about or share them.

We all know people who do everything they can to stay comfortable, to keep their worlds safe, and they are not the people we go to when we are hurting. It is a truth that there is no one on the planet who is not suffering, but if we don’t turn ourselves inside out and share that suffering, let others know they are not alone, then no matter how hard the hammers come down, we will remain stones.

“When I find myself in hell, I stay there as long as I can.” Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche said this and it points to the exact thing we can do to make our bowls deep. He’s not saying “Go out and find hell and/or create it every second.” He’s saying when we find ourselves there (and it’s inevitable), recognize where you are. Let it work you, soften you, shatter you.

How do you do that? You feel. You don’t numb out or get lost in distraction. And you don’t go the other way and make the feeling so huge and dramatic it becomes nothing but a caricature of itself. You stay with it–you feel where it is in your body–you let it take you but you don’t lose yourself in it. You hold on to your perspective–“this, too, shall pass.” And you realize that everyone, every person on the planet, suffers as you do. This is the birth of compassion.

Hell is a gift we have to consciously accept–we are trained in our addicted-to-comfort world to turn away, shut down, and lock it out. But the edge it provides is the only one that can cut to our cores. And as writers, sure, but how much more so as human beings, we need to feel to our cores, reach in and pull out our humanity, look others in the eye and say “Yes, I see that suffering, I see that joy, I see that anger and fear, and I am right here with you.”

Success is nice. Enjoy it. But it is not a hammer.

Unsuccess is the key to deepening the bowl.

Jan 21

Is there ever a break from writing?

Short answer: no.

Ha ha! End of post!

OK, longer answer:

I’m sitting here knitting (yup–it’s a great thing to do when your brain is too tired to keep track of all the different threads in what you’re writing) and out of the thousands of images and feelings floating through my consciousness comes–“black.”

As in:

Sexy!

This is a Lotus Exige, which is the racing version of the Elise, which is one of my favorite cars in the category of “it’s not outside the realm of possibility that one day I will own one.” (The other category is “Perhaps in another lifetime.”)

So there is this word “black” and I drop my knitting (literally–I almost lost a stitch) and run to my computer to find the one place in a story of over eight thousand words where I say my main character’s Lotus Elise is red. (Don’t let anyone ever tell you the hopes and fears of a writer don’t leak out all over the page.) And I sit there, fingers poised, and think of what it would mean to make the car black instead of red.

Black: death, darkness, despair, secrecy, bereavement

Red: blood, overwhelming emotion, danger, shame

The fingers come down! Definitely the car needs to be black.

And for those of you who don’t think the color of a car matters, I submit this Elise:

Not sexy.

I know. It is a travesty. Avert your eyes.

However, if I ever need to indicate that my character is a complete moron, I will perhaps choose this color for his Elise.

Fortunately, my character is not a moron. Just haunted and broken. So much better!

Anyway, this is why writers always have a little notebook. When you’re hot and heavy in a story little things like the perfect word choice or plot direction or line of dialogue will pop out of nowhere and you’re fooling yourself if you think you’re going to remember it later. YOU HAVE TO WRITE IT DOWN AS SOON AS IT COMES INTO YOUR HEAD.

Einstein said he never memorized his home phone number because it was in the phone book and he didn’t want to waste brain space on something that was recorded somewhere else. I completely agree with this–and it’s another reason why I write those ideas down right away. Then I can “forget” them and there’s room for the next thought/connection to come up. Who knows where the twisting path of a story will take you? If you’re wasting space trying to remember where you were, you’ll never have the open space to see where it’s possible to go.

(This is also why I write everything down on my calendar. I don’t want to re-remember my appointments because that takes up my idea space. Plus it’s just stressful wondering if you’re forgetting something important!)

That twilight space between awake and asleep is another reason to have a notebook. Thomas Edison knew the power of the unconscious in this space. When he was working on a problem, he napped sitting up, holding a handful of ball bearings, which would drop to the floor and wake him up when he drifted off. When he woke up he wrote down everything in his head.

When I’m into a story, I have paper, a pencil, and a little flashlight right next to my head at night. When my characters start talking to each other at three in the morning all I have to do is roll over and record their voices. Again, those thoughts will be long gone by morning no matter how “unforgettable” you think they are. Grab them and pin them to earth as soon as you can.

It comes down to how committed you are to your story and your writing. If it’s burning inside you, you won’t want to miss a single lead. And when the perfect color for the car your character drives pops into your head you won’t sit there and say, “Yeah, that’s good. I’ll get to that later.” You’ll drop your knitting, even if it means you lose a stitch, and call up the exact place that color belongs.

Because that’s what it takes to keep your writing burning down your veins onto the page.

 

Nov 24

Henry Miller on the responsibility of the artist

Yeah, this about sums it up.

Chandrika, a very dear friend of mine, sent me this quote from Henry Miller, and along with this picture, at first I thought it pretty much summed up the artist’s responsibility, process, and drive.

“Side by side with the human race there runs another race of beings, the inhuman ones. The race of artists that, goaded by unknown impulses, take the lifeless mass of humanity and by the fever and ferment with which they imbue it turn this soggy dough into bread, and the bread into wine, and the wine into song. Out of the dead compost and the inert slag they breed a song that contaminates.

I see this other race of individuals ransacking the universe, turning everything upside-down, their feet always moving in blood and tears, their hands always empty, always clutching and grasping for the beyond. For the God out of reach. Slaying everything within reach in order to quiet the monster that gnaws at their vitals.

I see that when they tear their hair with the effort to comprehend, to seize this forever unattainable, I see that when they bellow like the crazed beasts and rip and gore, I see that THIS IS RIGHT.

That there is no other path to pursue.

A man who belongs to this race must stand up on the high place, with gibberish in his mouth, and rip out his entrails. It is right and just because he must…

and anything that falls short of this frightening spectacle, anything less shuddering, less terrifying, less mad, less intoxicated, less contaminating, is not ART.

The rest is counterfeit. The rest is human.
The rest belongs to life
and lifelessness.”

Henry Miller

But then I got to that last line. “The rest belongs to life and lifelessness.” It’s easy to read that and nod my head the way we used to in high school when we were reading Nietzsche: “Yeah. I totally get that. Deep, man.”

But it made me stop—what is there besides life and lifelessness? Doesn’t that pretty much cover it?

So I started letting that mush around in my head. And slowly, as I wrestled with what that third thing could be, something began to take form.

What if “lifelessness” is what we are expected to want, that dream we are all sold, the one we’re waiting around to inhabit? What if it’s that lie of the bigger, better thing (whatever it is) just around the corner that we’ll get if we’re good enough, work hard enough, and eat all our vegetables? Dream=waiting for the future=lifeless. Known.

And what if “life” is the body of habits we’ve formed, and we all have them, while we are waiting for that dream to manifest, the habitual way we react to everything we encounter instead of responding to what is happening, as it is, in this moment? These are the mindless strategies we learned as children to keep pain/fear at bay, and that we still enact as adults. Habit=dead inside to the present=life. Known.

If that’s the case, what is this third, unknown thing Miller is pointing to?

Now this quote starts to take on shape, texture, layers.

If we see life and lifelessness for what they are, how can either ever satisfy? They can’t. So we are driven to escape the traps of these knowns. Here be monsters, indeed. To tread here we must become this third thing: ALIVE.

Can you begin to picture the screaming void that is “alive,” that we’re all inches from the edge of, which is kept out of our consciousness only by the sweet smoke of the opiate of life and lifelessness? To inhabit that world, we must be willing to feel, see, touch, taste, hear what is happening right now, right in front of us, everywhere at once. We must experience life/lifelessness without being of it. And we must allow ourselves to feel what it is like to be trapped in those cages, to crush ourselves into them and feel our bones break from the effort to fit in.

To get beyond these cages we must rip our heads open. Miller gives us the map to do this, if we dare follow it: ransack the universe, turn everything upside-down; be goaded by unknown impulses; clutch and grasp for the beyond. For the God out of reach; slay everything within reach; tear your hair with the effort to comprehend, to seize this forever unattainable.

We must move in blood and tears, our hands always empty, for if we fill them we are once again prisoners of the known. Every thing we unearth can turn to habit. Every thing we unearth can be subjugated by life and lifelessness. This is why we must burn to ash all that we understand, record what we do not, and then burn that to ash, as well, for it is now contaminated by the known—it is “within reach” and it must be slayed.

This is the call of the artist, and the philosopher, when Philosophy takes its proper place on the stage—we must allow ourselves to be possessed, to be driven to tears, to ecstasy, to the blackest of nights of the soul; let ourselves shudder and feel terrified, mad, intoxicated, contaminating; for that is the only glimpse we can have of what it means to be alive. We report back from that edge, and then we must find it again. And again. And again.

The monster that gnaws at our vitals cannot be appeased—there is no way to remain in the unknown. And so we push forward, forever, starving for that edge of ALIVE that is the only taste of what is beyond life and lifelessness we will ever touch. And we hand it, blood-covered, to you.

What will you do with it?

Oct 19

Three Questions. Three Questions!

This weekend I was at a Romance Writers of America (RWA) meeting and trying to come up with a through-line for the wildly disparate kinds of things I write—literary fiction, fantasy, science fiction, erotica, non-fiction. Now that you’ve seen the list you can see why I was at a loss. So Beth Barany, who’s in this RWA chapter, asks me what my tagline is. “Dark. Edgy. Fiction,” I say.

“Why that?” she asks.

“Because I write about the human condition, the bits that wriggle away from the light. We all have to look at those bits if we want to live and not be driven by them.”

She says, “Tell me why you wrote your cookbook.” (Dharma Feast Cookbook, out February 2012)

“I went through hell before I figured out how to eat well and I want people to know what I know so they can take the short-cut.”

“So what you write about is the human condition because you want to help people. That’s your through-line.”

Wow. Three questions. She’s good. www.bethbarany.com

Listen, anyone who’s a writer should join RWA. The conversations about the craft of writing, the speakers, the other members, some of whom are NYT best sellers—you can’t get better motivational input. Plus the women in my chapter (SF Bay Area) kick ass.

Aug 14

What Are Photos, Really?

This here’s me. It’s windy. I’m wearing a burgundy net shirt. I’m about to see Midnight in Paris, which will crack me up with its depictions of Ernest Hemingway and other writers and artists and put my mind in overload with its brilliant take on, among other things, the nostalgia of the past coming to bear on the present. My friend Carol Elkovich and I will spend two hours after the film in a coffee house discussing art, writing, and the creative process. “Who wants to fight?” and “I see….a rhinoceros.” will enter our common vocabulary.

Shortly after this photo we will sit in the dark together in a sparsely-populated theater and we will laugh with the other audience members, trading looks in the flickering light of the film, strangers not so strange in the delight of an amazing film. We will all fall in love with Woody Allen all over again.

But at this moment, I’m standing in the wind, and my hair is tickling my cheek.

You never know what’s in store for you.

 

 

 

Jul 20

Welcome to my Worlds

When I’m lying in bed at night, trying to fall asleep, I write scenes in my head. I can see them as they’d be written out – title in bold, paragraph structure, dialogue enclosed in quotes. I understand that this is not normal.

My father is a poet, and my first attempts at writing were in that genre. I can vividly remember a poem I wrote early on about the Black Hills. Not completely understanding the timeline of my dad’s history lesson, I thought the Hills were currently swarming with illegal gold prospectors. Outraged, I penned the following:

The Black Hills! The Black Hills!

They’re trying to take the Black Hills!

With all that junk so shallow

Just beneath the surface

They’re trying to take the Black Hills

For less than they are worth.

I think I was trying to rhyme “surface” and “worth.” It went on, but, perhaps mercifully, I have lost the second page. More importantly, that was my first attempt at expressing a strong emotion through the written word.

During college I began the next phase of my writing life – learning my craft. At that point I was an unreformed academic and intellectual so my first thought was to get a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing. Ahhh! The structure of class and study, produce and critique. But, given the amount of time and money involved in such a pursuit, I had to be realistic.

I bought books on the aspects of writing that mystified me. First came books on editing. And the floodgates opened. The more I explored, the less I knew. Next came “Show, don’t tell” and I figured out why my first novel was so bad. “Why show when you can tell?” was my unconscious motto. “I want the reader to get it! Here – here’s what you’re supposed to think.” It seems that this writing style produces a bad novel.

I read every book I could get my hands on – editing, show-don’t-tell, characterization, plot, scene structure, sentence structure, syntax, anything and everything. I devoured books by other authors talking about their own writing process. I talked for hours to other writer friends.

So now I am where I am. Where is that? I’m not sure that’s the right question. A better one: What are you doing now?

Still reading. Still studying. And, most importantly, writing. Every day.