In the best stories, the conflict is clear. I think of a writing teacher’s admonition: “Clarify the conflict, but complicate the motivations.”

Many of the self-help books and podcasts, and the ideas you see in early January about setting resolutions (and limiting goals) leading to short-lived goals, are about this one idea. Clarify the conflict.

#writing #conflict


The idea of someone

I find it much easier to love the idea of someone than the disciplined work of loving and listening, of caring for someone when they have the audacity to contradict, or disappoint, or bore me.

The writers who attend to this foible of human nature, whose characters are a bundle of paradoxes comprising a whole, are the writers I want to emulate.

#writing, #human nature

A line will take us hours…

We sat together at one summer’s end,
That beautiful mild woman, your close friend,
And you and I, and talked of poetry.
I said, ‘A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.
Better go down upon your marrow-bones
And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones
Like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather;
For to articulate sweet sounds together
Is to work harder than all these, and yet
Be thought an idler by the noisy set
Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen
The martyrs call the world.’
“Adam’s Curse,” 1st Stanza, W.B. Yeats
#writing #readings

What he cared about were the ends…

“Of all the Sandinista leaders I met, Humberto Ortega was the first who really troubled me. Without blinking an eye, he manipulated reality to suit his needs. And he did it with such conviction that sometimes I wondered if he actually believed what he was saying, or if he just underestimated my intelligence. He could justify anything. As time went on I realized that what he cared about were the ends. As far as the means to achieve those ends, he was utterly without scruples…

“That experience taught me, in no uncertain terms, that a war can be won with any class of people, but a fair, ethical system of government cannot be put in place if the people who take it upon themselves to do it lack those qualities, or sacrifice those values along the way.”

The Country Under My Skin, Gioconda Belli

#readings #politics

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.

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.