On Parenting and Religion

“The little human animal will not at first have the right responses,” writes C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man. “It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likeable, disgusting, and hateful.”

As a parent, or for anyone who has spent time around children can tell you, they are full of both wonderful and regrettable impulses. The two girls in my house, some days, play for hours together without interruption. On others, they come to me every ten minutes complaining of one being mean, which is the complaint du jour in our house.

Much of parenting isn’t telling these children how to behave; it’s talking them through those behaviors. Parents create an inherent community meant to shape the desires — and the behaviors — of their children.

“The head rules the belly through the chest,” continues Lewis. Our sentiments — what we like and prefer — make us the people we are. Otherwise, we are all mind or all appetite. Our hearts modulate and control.

A few weeks ago, our youngest daughter stormed in from outside and ran up to her room. Our oldest daughter also appeared, complaining that the younger had offended her. Both girls were hurt, and I had no clue as to why. And, as any parent or judge knows, the stories behind the incident were likely to be wildly disparate.

For once, I waited. I let the younger stew in her room, while the other went back outside to play. I didn’t know how to solve the problem, and did not think it merited a moment-by-moment rehearsal to determine who was more at fault.

In a quarter of an hour, our youngest daughter came downstairs and opened the front door to return to her game. I asked what she intended to do, and she said, “Say I’m sorry.”

This may have been one of my proudest moments as a parent, not because I parsed out the minutiae of the disagreement, but because I saw built into my daughter’s habits the recognition that apologizing would lead to reconciliation, and the awareness that she had overstepped her bounds.

Much of parenting is imagining a better way to live and practicing it, and the successes are when we see our children take up these practices. Of course, I could replace “parenting” with “life” in the previous sentence. This is what we’re asked to do as adults: to imagine a different way to live than our impulses sometimes drive us and practice it.

As adults, however, we no longer have these indwelling communities of (ideally) parents and teachers to guide us. We need good religion, not to create rules, but to focus us on the practices of habits and sentiments. We need to learn to desire the right things. This is part of any religion, whether Christian or Muslim or American, in that the American religion preaches an accumulation of experiences and goods. Every religion is about desire.

But our desires are not formed alone, whether we are children or adults still becoming the people we want to be. Imagining and practicing who we want to be happens best not alone — for we’re little better than large children, if we’re willing to admit it, when we’re utterly alone — but in community. Each community will have some rules, but the best will have a center, a heart, that each member is aiming for — that each member desires.

And we gather regularly, in whatever religion we practice, to tell the story of our desires. We tell the story of inhabiting these desires. For some, this story happens around a shared table. For others, it’s worship at a football field or shopping mall. I suppose, if we’re honest, that we all feed our desires and worship in many places. But it’s important that we recognize the center of what we’re worshiping. If, that is, we’d like to become as wise as my youngest daughter. I know I hope to.

Advertisements

On Stories and Early Mornings

“The story world,” writes John Truby, “doesn’t boil down to, ‘I think, therefore I am,’ but rather ‘I want, therefore I am.’”

Stories aren’t driven by a character’s epistemology or theology, but by the simple proclamation that someone wants something and can’t have it. They are the domain of unmet and unfulfilled desires. A man loves a woman. A woman must save the town from attack, whether by plague or an invading army. Stories view a character’s thoughts – her fears and hesitations, her beliefs and prejudices – as secondary to her desires. For the latter that drives her actions.

But the truly audacious claim stories make isn’t that a character is ruled by his desires, and his prejudices about the Capulets can be overcome by his love for a woman, but rather the deeper claim of life is like this… Sure, stories are a distillation – this is why you never see or read of someone brushing their teeth – because the author chooses and discards unnecessary events. Yet the author, whether aware or unaware, makes the claim that one event leads to another, that our actions have significance, and that life itself has meaning (unless, of course, there are explicitly claiming life doesn’t have meaning, which is a meaningful statement to make).

If we believe the audacious claim that life is like this…, then we must be open to the idea not only that our lives have meaning, but also that the foundation of our own stories isn’t what we believe but what we want. As we live our stories in the 21st century, driving to work and sitting before computer screens, hurrying through dinners and airports, pleading with our children to calm down or with ourselves to speak up, perhaps our beliefs aren’t guiding our actions all this time, but what we most desire.

The story world – and maybe even the real world – doesn’t boil down to ‘I think, therefore I am,’ but rather ‘I want, therefore I am.’

A number of years ago I decided to wake earlier each morning in order to exercise and journal. As we all know, our hearts are at their most fickle in the moment following the alarm. If I set my alarm an hour earlier, I simply rolled over, unfazed by my designs the night before. If I tried to move my alarm five minutes earlier, I simply disregarded it for five minutes.

The trick, I found, wasn’t to somehow impose rigid discipline on myself, or even to get to bed earlier, though that happened over time. Rather, I sat on the edge of my bed one evening and imagined what waking early would mean: the still morning, a cup of coffee, the clarity that journaling without distraction would bring.

I spent time wanting to wake early because I couldn’t trick my heart, but I could position it to want the right thing.

Life is like this, says the storyteller. A character begins with what he wants. I could say we build beliefs around those desires, but that would be another topic. Instead, I am reminded to pay attention to what I want, and what I most want. This world has a ready answer to this question, urging me to consume, watch, engage. Stories, however, remind me of my deepest desires: love, survival, family, making a mark on this world.

Letting the world curate my desires leads to chaos. But when I answer the question of what I most want; when I take time to ask again and again what I am after rather than taking the answer handed to me; here is where my story begins.

Why I Dislike Blog Posts

First, I have no weapons if I don’t have irony.

Second, the topic at hand: the blogs that proliferate the internet today, of which this site also purports to be.

We have moved from the days of the personal memoir to the days of how-to, and blogs, or the ones I follow, are increasingly filled with 3 ways to sell your art or the morning routine that billionaires have.

The problem under the surface of each of these posts is that they promise a technical manipulation in order to achieve your ends. Take a cold shower in the morning to have more energy. (Full disclosure: I do this. I also have a blog.) And this is good to a point, as there’s a great deal of free advice, and a good deal of wisdom that people are happy to give away.

But as I follow these blogs, I’m increasingly reminded that each one is pointing toward its own version of success and happiness; there’s a deeper story inherent. Here’s how to get published, says one, which, as every aspiring writer knows, will bring immense happiness and success. Except when it doesn’t.

The bouncy optimism of these blogs is only true in part. That is, as a reader of technical advice, and a taker of cold showers, we must remember the full story. Any armchair psychologist will remind you that if you aim for happiness, there’s no better way to remain dissatisfied. And if we aim for success, we may achieve it, but my friend Ryan always claims, “Bags fly free.” You remain stuck with the same neuroses; you just now have more to worry about.

I dislike blog posts because they rarely, in the end, bring us closer to ourselves, or to God, unless that god is money or fame.

We draw closer to ourselves through silence and prayer. I do it by journaling about my days, to see what stories are there that I have missed. Sometimes I shut my eyes and ask what I can sense, what I can hear. Right now, the wind blows against the house. My youngest daughter is singing downstairs, and it echoes upward. There is beauty in such things, but we must learn to look for them.

I digress (or do I?). The journey to God, of course, is both within and without. Outside of ourselves, it happens over good meals and deep conversations. I recommend food: the shared table holds a greater power than we realize in the 21st century. And caffeine or alcohol are helpful. We form connections with others, who, if we believe the astonishing words of Genesis, are made in the image of a transcendent God.

This is hard to believe, and impossible to believe when you’re hurried from one goal to the next. It becomes easier when you stop to hear your daughter sing, even a floor away.

I dislike blog posts not because I don’t want success. I do. And blogs are helpful toward the end, oftentimes. But I dislike blog posts because I think the best thing we can do is urge each other to look and pay attention to what’s going on.

We can urge each other to live.

The Reason for Your Problems

I received a call yesterday: my wife took our youngest daughter swimming, and our five-year old wandered from the three foot deep section of the pool to the four foot deep section.

The water was over her head.

My wife recounted how, completely clothed and with preternatural calmness, she walked into the pool and retrieved our daughter while she dipped underwater. The call was a cinematic comedy, save for the tragedy at the end when my wife recalled that she had her phone in her pocket.

The phone which I had taken the insurance off two weeks prior in an effort to save money.

I want to live my life in a continual state of equilibrium and peace, to find places to be thankful (my daughter didn’t die!) amidst the innumerable small setbacks that I encounter each day. Instead, however, I grew quiet and distant, running the numbers of how much we owed on the phone.

Earlier this week, I had the chance to review story structure. One of the fundamental elements of story structure is the interplay between the external problem — the bad guy kidnapped the girl — which is meant to surface the internal problem — the hero’s mother died when he was young, and he blames himself.

The external problem forces the hero to face his internal problem, mainly (as in almost all movies): does he have what it takes to save the day?

My wager, however, is one of two options. Either story structure, and the interplay between external and internal problems, is a cultural construct that is an ingrained method to understanding our lives, or it is a metaphysical reality that humans have discovered.

Either way, whether it is a method or reality itself, my wager is that applying story structure to my life brings clarity. Or, the external problems in my life are meant to manifest the internal. Or, most relevant, the sudden financial setback manifests what’s going on internally in me.

Here, I see that it’s not the setback that upsets me — it’s my unique bundle of neuroses around money, my miser-like ways, my inability to trust (either myself, the Universe, God — depending on your theology) that we have enough. We are some of the wealthiest people in the history of the world merely by the fact that we have two cars, and an iPhone that even needs replacing.

The external problem manifests the internal.

Please don’t misunderstand me to be saying that our external problems are good, or even there for a “reason,” as if they are a series of lessons for us to learn. But insofar as it is up to me, or to us, our external problems are chances to show us what’s going on inside of our own heads and hearts.

And, just as it does to the summer blockbuster, this awareness — what is going on inside — brings new depth and color to my story.

Criterion Collection, Part II

Part II

The challenge? Your top ten books, leather bound, on the mantle. I limited it to fiction. The first part is below.
akAnna Karenina
Anna. Vronsky. Levin. Kitty. The novel is a beautiful story, first and foremost—hopeful and tragic at the same time. Tolstoy cannot help be compared to Dostoevsky, and while the latter pounds philosophy into your head, the former focuses on the art. From the famous opening line, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” the lengthy novel moves with surprising pace: each chapter is only a few pages, as Tolstoy shows his mastery over rising action, letting each scene contribute to the whole. We start by seeing an affair; we end by seeing a man come to belief and commitment (of course, there’s that suicide in there, too). When I think of characters, though, I think of no one who does them better than Tolstoy. He captures the essences, the paradoxes within people. Yet, he watches with a moral eye, as told from the foreboding epigraph: “Vengeance is mine, I will repay.”

pgThe Power and the Glory
The whisky priest rushes from town to town, ahead of the authorities. He’s a broken man, an alcoholic, with a child, yet he will not relinquish his duty as a purveyor of grace. What I like about Greene is that he delves the existential questions: what it means to be moral, to have faith in something. For the whisky priest, faith means walking into a likely trap. Morality doesn’t mean always doing the right thing, but stumbling blindly toward what we think is best, despite the mess we’ve made. Greene plots surprisingly tightly, and his novels acutely point out moral failings: and how we live on in spite of them. For the lieutenant chasing the priest, everyone must conform to his philosophy in order for his beliefs to succeed. For the priest, people can be as bad as he is, and his faith still succeeds.

bmBlood Meridian
Cormac McCarthy might be insane. That was one critic’s opinion after reading his most well-received work (until, that is, The Road). Blood Meridian is one of the most violent books I’ve read: it is jarring, intense, and unrelenting as the kid joins the Glanton gang and they run amok through the desert country. We see the destructive and expanding nature of violence, and the novel takes on an apocalyptic note (again, as The Road would more ostensibly later) in its scope and allowance for evil. The form McCarthy uses—unsentimental, spare prose—has influenced writers; he is the natural continuation of Hemingway in some sense (with bigger words). Like Hemingway, if fiction is meant to be a lucid dream, McCarthy has penned a nightmare, an indictment of America—a book that is both hard to pick up and put down.

frwlFrom Russia With Love
I figured any good criterion collection ought to have a guilty-pleasure novel. For me, it’s James Bond. While I grew up with the movies, I discovered the novels later in life: the vigorous prose, the tight set pieces. From Russia With Love is probably my favorite (followed by On Her Majesty’s Secret Service), though the movies bleed into my readings, as I saw them first. We can claim much wrong with James Bond: the misogyny, the plots that are incredulous, the way it has spawned a whole industry making fun of it. But it’s been able to do this for a reason: Ian Fleming writes surprisingly well, and it’s a fun story. From Russia With Love details Bond’s trip to Istanbul, after the first third of the novel sets up the backstory: what the Russians are doing. The creative storytelling strengthens Fleming’s oeuvre (he also wrote Chitty Chitty Bang Bang), as he seeks to keep the series fresh. The set piece on the train, as Bond discovers the Russian agent, is taut and pulls you along. Plus, the surprise ending differs from the movie: Bond falls to the floor after being stabbed with poison. A tight page-turner from another era.

toThe Odyssey
The final spot in the criterion challenge was the toughest, and I debated a variety of 20th century novels that I love before “settling” for one of the greatest stories ever written. Why The Odyssey? I like the non-linear storytelling, the long effect it has had on Western culture, the central issue of a man trying to journey home that resonates throughout the ages (Chesterton would write about finding home and seeing it with new eyes centuries later in Orthodoxy—which would fall on my non-fiction criterion list). But this motif is one of, if not the most, central motif in storytelling. For that reason, too, I enjoy myth: the stories that are True for a culture, whether or not they really happened. They help us see what we value, who we are, and where we’re going. While The Iliad might have larger resonance for an entire culture, The Odyssey’s theme of man suffering (versus man being angry), translates better—certainly to the 20th century, and perhaps to the 21st. Thus, The Odyssey gets the final spot (especially the readable Robert Fitzgerald version). I find hope in it. I’m still on the hunt for a first edition, though.

Criterion Collection (Part I)

Criterion Collection

The challenge? To choose your top ten books that you would want, leather bound, and placed on your mantle. I decided to limit it to fiction. Here are the first five in no particular order:

don quixoteDon Quixote
The titular character and his squire, Sancho Panza, travel throughout Spain on hilarious adventures. It’s worth reading because you’ll laugh out loud (especially if you choose the John Rutherford translation, which focuses on making things accessible to the 21st century reader, rather than a literal interpretation). But it isn’t just the first modern novel—a hundred years before anyone writing in English would gain acclaim by following suit. It’s the first postmodern novel, with its direct references to the writer, to the reader, to other texts. Part Two of the book refers liberally to Part One, and Cervantes references another author who tried to write Part Two (this was real) and throws him under the 17th century bus. When I read it, I was astounded that it was written 500 years ago.

wolf hallWolf Hall/Bring Up the Bodies
From the oldest book on my list to the most recent (and I’m awaiting the final book to the trilogy, The Mirror and the Light). Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies follow the story of Thomas Cromwell during the reign of Henry VIII. More than bring a sympathetic look at Cromwell, they are a master class in writing fiction. Mantel gets in and out of scenes with incredible pace, each scene buzzes with conflict, and yet themes such as power, fear, and faith. If you just read one, I’d actually recommend the second: Mantel has less propensity to use “he” without proper referent as she writes of Cromwell (in the first novel, “he” almost universally refers to Cromwell, despite who has been referenced last). Also, in tracing the fall of Anne Boleyn, it has a stronger plot structure. But both are rewarding—especially to the writer trying to pick up some tips along the way.

for whom the bell tollsFor Whom the Bell Tolls
Hemingway burst onto the scene in 1926 with The Sun Also Rises and followed it three years later with A Farewell to Arms. After his career hit a lull in the 1930s, For Whom the Bell Tolls revived it, as both a critical and commercial success. It follows Robert Jordan as he fights in the Spanish Civil War and is assigned to blow up a bridge. Hemingway uses archaic language to translate the Spanish “vos” and “vosotros,” which lends an air of credence to the novel—it sounds, at times, like a translation. This is the most gripping of his novels, with a pitched battle scene at the end, and it deals unsentimentally with the atrocities of war. A beautifully written book with memorable characters. For me, it is Hemingway’s novel that most provides what good fiction is meant to be: a lucid dream.

bros kThe Brothers Karamazov
Dostoevsky’s masterpiece, with some of the most extraordinary characters in literature. It had me laughing at points, from the first pages when Fyodor decides to confront his wife, congratulates himself with a bout of drinking, and promptly is too drunk to go through with his original design. But that’s simply the underestimated side of the novel. From Alyosha leaving the monastery, to Ivan meeting with the devil, it’s a powerful novel of ideas (in fact, it embodies what it means to be a novel of ideas). While Tolstoy admired him, he thought Dostoevsky wasn’t artistic enough. True, the novel pounds ideas into your head (like a good Russian?) rather than exploring them simply through story, but the ideas are some of the most profound in all literature, and the story itself ends with a fascinating trial.

love in choleraLove in the Time of Cholera
When I first thought about which Marquez book I’d include, One Hundred Years of Solitude seemed the natural answer. But upon a second thought, I moved toward Love in the Time of Cholera: the story is stronger, I think. In keeping it more dense and focused on a love triangle (though, over a very long period of time), it holds conflict better. The theme of love, and the various types of love and how it affects us, is intriguing, and Marquez deals with a deft touch. Of course, his prose is wonderful. What does it say about the writer that I also thought about Chronicle of a Death Foretold? On another day, I could probably be persuaded to any of the three, but today I’m going with Love in the Time of Cholera.

What I’m Reading 2.12.16

A writer reads in order to learn. The novelist reads novels to see what’s working and what isn’t, to learn his or her own likes and dislikes. One eye is on the story and one eye is on the craft: pulling apart the story to see how it works, like a mechanic would with an engine.

The fuel of Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist is the backdrop: seven people who are in Seattle during the World Trade Organization riots in 1999. We see how their lives intersect, and Sunil Yapa gives their backstories—how Victor, a nineteen-year-old, thinks about his travels throughout Latin America and around the world while tear gas descends. The prose is vigorous. It reminded me, a bit, of Junot Diaz: conversational and robust.

The prose is both a strength and a weakness. From the first pages, there is an energy to it:

“Victor—curled into himself like a question mark, a joint hanging from his mouth; Victor, with his hair natural in two thick braids, a red bandanna folded and knotted to hold them back; Victor—with his dark eyes and this thin shoulders and his cafecito con leche skin, wearing a pair of classic Air Jordans, the leather so white it glowed—imagine him how you will because he hardly knew how to see himself.”

The energy sparkles when it’s in the action, in the present. It pulls you in as Yapa details the atrocities of the five-day riots:

“Victor’s eyes exploded. His whole face attacked by a wall of head. He was on his hands and knees, blinded, hands reaching out for something, anything, and there seemed to be a pile of bodies. Everything was arms and clothes and legs. He eyes like hot coals in the cave of his sockets. He wanted to tear them out.”

But, in telling the backstory, too often the author falls into purple prose—overwriting the scene. This comes in tandem with a tendency to advance the story only at the end of each chapter. As we move, chapter by chapter, into different character’s points of view, we are removed from the present action. As Victor thinks about joining the protest, he goes back in a reverie to his deceased mother, and the books she let him read. At the very end of the chapter, he decides to join, despite coming to the protests simply to sell his weed.

The problem this reader feels with relying on so much backstory is that it seems an artifice. For one, during moments of great emotion—tear gas falling at you, for example—you’re not taken away to what you were doing three years ago and ruminating on how all the intervening time has led you to this point. You’re focused on the gas, man. Second, a character’s past is always known to her or him. There’s nothing ostensible that triggers Victor’s memory of his mother and his subsequent change. Memories must be triggered by something if they are to produce change. But even better than memory is something someone says—a challenge for the character we’ve come to know that stretches him.

And that ties to my third point: tell the story. The backstory is relevant—we see how characters are acting out of their fear and pain—but it can be hinted at, or told to raise the stakes in breaks in the action. But it distracts from the action, pulling me into backstory when riots are happening all around. Tell me the story.

Then, once the story is told, the energetic prose doesn’t distract from the story—it adds to it. I found a scene toward the end of the book, when violence explodes, to lose its significance because the prose wasn’t able to take a step up, encompass more energy: it was at a fever pitch throughout.

In the end, Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist tells about a forgotten event in America’s recent history. It’s ambitious. It’s interesting. The prose and the vision of redemptive suffering, of offering sympathy to almost every character, is enough to keep me reading the author (this is his debut novel). But, I hope he focuses more on telling the story itself, not the myriad backstories that lead to the story. Fiction writers are constantly told to be careful of backstory, because it doesn’t advance anything. This was my main frustration in Yapa’s writing (and, often, my feeling when rereading my own writing), and a good reminder: tell the story, tell the story, tell the story.

On Hiding and Anger (Part II)

A few years ago, I realized that I was generally angry on Saturday mornings. I stomped around the house, hiding away in my office, fuming at whatever perceived slight had set me off. Brooke would take the girls outside, trying to be quiet and give me space, and it wouldn’t be until that evening, once the girls were in bed, when she would wonder aloud what was wrong. By that time, I’d made enough peace with the anger to shrug and say I didn’t know, and that we should watch a movie.

Kick the anger down the road.

Over time, I began to do two things. If I felt angry on Saturday morning (I don’t know why it always came then: perhaps, after performing all week, I could finally let down and let people know how fed up I felt—it was just that Brooke and the girls were the wrong people), I would tell Brooke how I felt, and that she did nothing to cause it. And, just as I had, I would hole up in my office. Instead of surfing the internet or distracting myself, however, I sat with my anger. I wrote in my journal.

It was fun, as you can imagine.

I don’t know that I necessarily solved anything. I had the same job, the same life. I didn’t make a career change, though I felt what most middle-class Americans feel: the possibility of career change on the horizon. We have the possibility, this perceived freedom, in the 21st century. We don’t choose a career as much as we continually choose one, debating the merits of a job after a long vacation or turn of the calendar.

But I had to make peace with this reality. There are other options, and I have chosen this one. It’s important, for our anger, to realize that this is the life we have chosen, and if it gets too uncomfortable, we have the ability to choose another. Until we’ve done the latter, however, complaining about the former is a rather fruitless endeavor.

That’s not to say we can’t complain. In writing about my anger, I had to name it. Acknowledge it. I’m mad because I feel disregarded at work. Because I feel frustrated with our finances. Because, too often, I don’t get to do exactly what I want to do.

This last is the reason for most of my anger. Life does not unfold as I will and imagine it. If I am honest, I feel hurt by life, or by God if he is in charge, or whatever deity you would like for me to blame. But the problem with a God who is seemingly in control is that he also seems absent at the wheel. At least when it comes to all of my wants and wishes.

I’m not, however, incredibly interested in solving the unsolvable riddle of the good God who lets bad things happen. I’m less concerned with how to explain God’s absence with some proofs that I don’t fully believe, or with the step of denying God altogether, and more interested in the existential reality. How do I move forward?

For the present, it naming what I see. Removing myself not to escape, but to engage. And, of course, playing hide and go seek with a four year old and seven year old. Ellis has really come into her own. The other day, I was at a meeting, but Brooke told me how she perched herself on a window ledge behind the curtains and remained absolutely still.

The innocence of her hiding.

On Faucets and Anger (Part I)

My mom told me recently about how she was changing lanes on the highway, but a car was in her blindspot. The car beeped, and she swerved back into her lane. As the car came past her, she went to wave to the man. But he was yelling (fruitlessly, one supposes, through two panes of glass at 65 miles per hour) and gesticulating at her. He zoomed past, veered in front of her, and pressed on the gas (fortunately—I imagined him pressing on the brakes at the telling of the story).

I think most men are angry. We are angry about feeling disregarded at work, about the impingements on our free time at home. Middle-aged men are trapped mid-career: without the authority they crave, locked in a track without the ability to switch vocations unless they start over. Which seems impossible with a family. But this is not about how you can start over and be your best self. It is about what everyone faces, the trap of living.

The British psychoanalyst Adam Phillips notes that “We can’t imagine our lives without the unlived lives they contain.”

This is the tyranny of Facebook and status updates. Everyone is happy and smiling (and also why, after spending time on Facebook, most people are more depressed), although it often isn’t real. I spoke with a friend a year ago and he confided to me how his marriage was falling apart. “How can that be?” Brooke asked. “I just saw a picture of their family at the park yesterday.”

We imagine the lives others are leading, or at least what they say they’re leading. But they don’t include the fight last night, the children arguing that morning, how they had to scoop dog poop and repair the leaky faucet before the park. And the faucet is still dripping. We only see the park.

And we imagine, too, what our lives ought to be if everyone else lives this way—going to parks and restaurants, surrounded by happiness. Because our lives are not this way. We have a limited number of choices, despite what society says, and all of them have downsides. The idea that, “If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life,” is laughable. Even in the good jobs. So we imagine our life as something it isn’t, and it makes us angry.

It simmers beneath the surface on highways. It thunders out at our wives and our children, when they are not the culprits at all: but if tooth-brushing at bedtime takes too long, we are exasperated. Our children and our wives—these are the areas where we ought to have control, right?

But people, and life itself, will not bend to our will, despite what we thought when we were 20. So we get angry. We look for ways forward. Dreaming of other jobs. Pouring ourselves into our work—perhaps that can bend to our will. Or, we drink.

On Writing 2.5.2016

Every two weeks, I sit down on Wednesday nights and Skype with a friend from Bellingham, Washington. I don’t know how long I’ve been doing this—a few years. We met on Skype, actually, if that is such a thing. But our relationship formed because he is a writer, and I am a writer, and we writers need all the relationships we can get to tell us that we’re okay.

Really, his dad knows my brother, and through that relationship we came to find each other, 1,000 miles away. His dad connected him with my brother, who in turn connected R with me.

I don’t recall the first few Skype conversations. I know we met each other there, although we’ve since met in person. We began to figure out what this writing relationship would look like. He sent me stuff he was working on, and, since I was older, I gave my feedback. I realized that this routine of reading and giving feedback was life-giving to me. As I searched his writing for plot or character issues, it reminded me of what I needed to fix in my own writing. It kept me sharp.

As writers, it’s enough, sometimes, to jot down a draft. It’s plenty, in fact. Staying sharp, having what Hemingway called a built-in, bulletproof bullshit meter, is crucial to moving beyond the first draft. My bullshit meter gets stronger the more I use it—both on my own work and on others’.

Critiquing others—helping others—is a way to help ourselves as writers. The same has happened as I have taught public speaking: all this thinking and critiquing has made my own talks stronger.

Beyond this, R and I naturally began to exchange writing: he gave me his, and I gave him mine. We spoke on Wednesday, and he gave feedback on a short story I had written. I liked the story, and where it was going. He had already given me some feedback in email form (which is always tougher—what’s the tone?), but he gave more detailed thoughts. It was a moment where I wanted to slap my forehead. Why hadn’t I seen what he was saying?

Perhaps because he was saying the short story might work better as a novel, for which I both wanted to nod readily and hit him (why don’t men ever want to throw a drink in someone’s face—we go straight to fists?). He was, of course, right.

I still don’t know what I’m going to do with the story. It’s like painting a room only to see that you need to remodel the house as a result.

But I’m grateful. And encouraged. And energized in my confusion.

Creative endeavors are often necessarily solitary. I’m reminded of the second chapter of Genesis: “It is not good that the man should be alone.” These opening chapters are called a myth because the emphasis is less on what actually happened, and more on what happens. Their truths echo through the millennia. It is not good to be alone.

Especially at the center of your creative work, where you are pouring yourself onto the page, or into the business, or even into your children.

It is not good to be alone.