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 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.

Thoughts: On Creativity

Everywhere I stumble this week, I see articles about the need for boredom in order to be creative. People are railing against checking your cellphones and advocating (I think) reading the phonebook aloud. Apparently, if you stop the former and begin the latter, your creativity will spike.

One might hope there are easier–less boring?–methods to creativity. Any artist worth her salt already grasps this: creativity is borne from margin and ritual.

The margins are, to some extent, physical margins we need. We need time to rest and recuperate. But busy people can also be extremely creative. The real margins we need are softer ones: margins of emotional and mental space. If we are obsessed with problems, cut by anxiety, we’ll never find those creative moments–those aha! moments. To find those, we must allow our minds to wander, whether in the shower or the morning commute. If you cannot do this, you cannot be creative.

If you are trapped by anxiety, you cannot be creative.

It’s ritual that often helps us build these margins. Just like old-time religion, we enter into rituals to engage our creativity. I get coffee in the morning and come to sit at the blank screen, the same way each morning, the same steps. The two minutes of ritual prepares me, initiates a creative sequence.

The same thing happens, of course, in the shower or on our commutes. That’s why these are creative spaces, spaces where you’ll often solve problems or develop ideas (assuming you sometimes turn the radio off, of course). You can see why these spaces also inhibit creativity if they’re filled with worry or anxiety: our unconscious has no room to pop up, speak a word, then disappear until the next shower.

The real problem, of course, is that we do not see ourselves as creators, but consumers. Some of our most intractable problems are what to buy; we define ourselves by the buying choices we’ve made in clothes, house, car, how we spend our Friday evenings, the shows we consume, the sites we visit.

Part of the problem lies in our very language itself. We invest in things. We spend time wisely. These are consumer mentalities. Three hundred years ago, no one spent time. They passed time. Experienced it.

The role of an artist, but also a pastor or an entrepreneur (and there’s often not much difference), is to look at the world and describe what you see. The artist does this with words or images or music. The entrepreneur sees holes in the market and imagines ways to fill them. The spiritual leader steps back and asks where we are really going.

Look at the world and describe what you see.

This is the mind shift of the creator. It may mean we check our phones less often or limit our time on the internet. It probably should. It may mean we engage in rituals, showering thrice a day, or engaging in less waste by building in time to think, to look, to engage in a different way. It probably should mean that, too. It may mean we speak about time differently. It will definitely mean that we speak about ourselves differently.

On Lunch and Ritual

I had lunch with a friend this afternoon, and after the usual pleasantries, after the how-are-yous and relating significant events since we last met, our conversation turned to ideas and things we like to think about when we have the time and space: philosophy, language, culture.

I found myself, this morning, before I had lunch, thinking about rituals. As someone who strives to be creative, I have rituals that I perform to set myself in such a creative mindset. My rituals have to do with making coffee, opening up my draft, then walking around a bit–moving–so my mind engages on whatever my problem was yesterday when I stopped. And, I always stop at a problem.

I have the same ritual as I drive to work: I leave the radio off until I get to the highway, winding the few side streets, frozen at a stoplight. Since I consider myself part of the Christian tradition I recite the Lord’s prayer, silently, at the stoplight. Before that I showered and ate breakfast, reading while my girls watched television or played, another ritual. And even at lunch we entered into an old ritual, asking about each other’s lives in the span since we’d last talked, preparing the conversation for wherever it would go.

Later, at lunch, we talked about religion and ritual. People in our circle talk about how religion is relationship, and I know this has been helpful for many people. Religion, of course, has been a terribly destructive force at times, and continues to be in some people’s lives today. But, religion, at its best, is an embrace of rituals: corporate rituals that center and focus the participants, that remind us of our broken humanity and our need for something beyond ourselves. We all need this, whether we’re atheist or fundamentalist: we need rituals to prepare ourselves for connection. The individualism and assumed free-form of relationships does not focus us in the same way. It does not connect us so tightly with the suffering, wandering, hopeful people around us, and it negates the rituals inherent in any relationship. This is why thousands of conversations across our culture had the same arc as mine today. We performed the ritual of relating events as a springboard for connection.

The ritual was connection, and it provided for more.

It’s crucial that we note these rituals. As someone who longs to speak and write meaning into the world, I enter into ritual in order to enhance my creativity, not to stifle it. I make coffee and pay attention to its smell and earthiness to awake my senses; I move, oddly enough, to awake my mind and let it wander. This is why walking or showering or pulling weeds have always been a creator’s friend: we need mindless movement to see what’s really in our minds. These are rituals that, rightly viewed, connect us with what is around us, within us.

I call these rituals because it wraps these mundane events with meaning, because to the creator no event is meaningless. Perhaps–perhaps–to the human no event is meaningless, even if it is an event that signifies the absurdity of life. “The writer should never be ashamed of staring,” writes Flannery O’Connor. “There is nothing that does not require his attention.”

We could say the same about the well-lived life: all requires our attention. And our rituals, if performed rightly, increase and stir that all-important attention.


On Rubber Ducks and The Iliad

This morning, I figured I’d just wash my hair rather than take a full shower. I’ve realized, over the years, that my hair will stick up in all sorts of odd ways unless I wash it in the morning—water alone won’t cut it. But I didn’t really need the full shower treatment.

My daughter came into the bathroom while I was washing it, with the exclamation, “Daddy, what are you doing?” Apparently me half-dressed and kneeling before the tub isn’t a common sight. I told her. She responded, “I bet Mrs. Duck thinks that’s pretty funny.”

I crouched there, hair dripping, for a moment. I had no idea what she meant. Then, I remembered the yellow rubber ducky two feet away from me. Mrs. Duck. Ellis plays with her every night she takes a bath. She makes up scenarios and stories and, sometimes, my wife or I get to join.


I never had to read The Iliad while growing up. I’m somewhat familiar with the fall of Troy, but this month I figured I ought to read it. Supposedly, the book is a classic. I have two chapters left (I’m assuming one will involve a wooden horse) and it’s been immensely enjoyable. Beyond the blood and guts (and there are lots of both), I’ve been reminded of how a myth works. How people told stories to explain ideas like fate and purpose and meaning. That the stories were factually true was not the point. The point was the meaning implicit in the story. The point was everything from entertainment to enlightenment, defining purpose to offering pleasure.

And, as my daughter reminded me, stories are still the best way we get meaning.

She knows Mrs. Duck can’t really talk or think. (Although, who would blame her if she thought otherwise? After all, we’re the ones who constantly read her stories and show her movies with talking, thinking animals.) But, the stories she’s told and played with Mrs. Duck have made the rubber toy real, in a sense. Mrs. Duck is real enough to respond to something I have done, and to make a judgment about it. As part of a story, she’s a vehicle for meaning.

It’s the same in The Iliad, as the people of Athens or other ancient city-states adopted the myth, re-told it, found their identity within it.

The same happens to us today. We tell stories about what why we’re in love or not in love; we tell stories about how we were hurt in the past and what it means for us in the present; we try to live good stories that make a difference.

We make up stories—and this is a problem of the declining fiction market—because made-up stories brush against our lives in surprising and unexpected ways, in ways that non-fiction cannot. Mrs. Duck is a fiction. She’s only rubber. Yet, she gives meaning to my daughter’s experience. The Iliad is a fiction. It gave meaning to thousands of Greeks.

I’m not convinced that we can reduce our storytelling impulse to ancient campfires and the storyteller getting laid after a particularly good tale. But I think we can conclude that stories, even made-up stories—especially made-up stories—impart meaning to our lives.

And possibility is only real if meaning is present. If our lives have no meaning, there is no possibility for them. There are only atoms and hormones. And death, one day.

May we read great stories. And may we find meaning in the fiction to embrace new possibilities for our lives and the lives around us.

On Wedding Rings and Captain Ahab

During my lunch breaks, I run. I change clothes at the office and drive side streets to Green Mountain, five minutes away. This past Wednesday it was probably 80 after a week of rain. I went through my usual routine, driving over to the trailhead.

I passed a woman on my way. She wore a pink lycra shirt, and her pony tail bobbed as she walked. I only saw her back, but I’d place her at around 30. Actually, I have no idea.

More significantly, as I stopped at the next cross-street, I waited for a runner to jog past. He ran across the street, toward me and toward the woman. And as he crossed, he reached his right hand over his left, pulling off his wedding ring and cupping it in his hand. Shocked, I watched his hands. One stayed in a fist, the other hung loose and half-open.

He ran toward this woman in the lycra top and slipped off his wedding ring as he crossed the street.

It’s easy to sit in my car and scoff at him, or judge him, but I wonder: Did he actually have some witty line to say that might attract her? Does he do that whenever he passes a woman? Does he actually have hope something will happen?

Or, did he fight with his wife that morning? Have they stopped fighting altogether? Has he done this before?

This is where the creative life starts. Note, I did not say the creative act. A creative act is only and ever a spilling over of a certain life, a certain way of moving in and seeing this world. No, the creative life is one that sees, that notices the man and his wedding ring. It’s one that questions. It seeks context. It’s an open orientation to the world rather than a closed orientation.

A creative life tells a story about the man, or makes a painting, or develops a philosophy, or writes a song.

These creative acts can only stem from a creative life—a way of living that notices what’s happening and looks for the deeper meaning behind it. In Moby Dick, Melville, through Captain Ahab, writes: “All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event—in the living act, the undoubted deed—there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask!”

The creative life is the one that seeks to strike beyond the mask. Our creativity isn’t stifled by outside people or events; it’s not stifled by fear. Our creativity is only and ever stifled when we refuse to live this life, when we refuse to see and to strike through the mask, when we distract ourselves from what’s happening behind, or what might be happening.

Creation 101

As Beethoven moved toward deafness in the early 19th century, his doctor recommended he leave city life in order to come to terms with his illness. Not to be cured. To grasp that he was going deaf. A successful musician and talented composer, Beethoven moved out of Vienna and contemplated suicide.

We have been here. Despondent, distraught, alone, afraid.

Beethoven sank into his work. And, a few years later, as high frequencies began to disappear from Beethoven’s hearing altogether, he composed his Fifth Symphony. The one that begins da-da-da-dum. The one so famous you know what I’m referring to. The one with the first four notes that have been as influential as any other in Western music.

It’s the one about which a critic of the day said it was so raw and exciting that people shouldn’t be allowed to listen to it.

And so it is with us.

When we’re children, we create because it’s fun; we’re all artists exploring the world. But as we grow–and many of us stop creating completely–we create for different reasons. We create because of pain.

It’s like when you stub your toe and you skip and hop and run around the room. Pain makes us do something. Pain drives us to action. We can try to dull it or distract ourselves–which are actions–we can lash out. Or, we can create something new.

What if our creative acts are places where we acknowledge our pain, and then begin to redeem and reform it? What if they are places where we take the sting of life and try to turn it into something beautiful? And, after we finish howling at the sky and cursing the wind, we ask: What now?

The first answer–and maybe the only answer ever really worth it–is to move. To dig a garden. Take a run. Toss stones into a lake. Pick up a brush or pen or guitar. Open a computer or teach a class. Start a boycott or a symphony or a novel. For when we create, we express how we burn, how we bleed, and we express it first to ourselves, and then to the world, and beyond it to the unseen ghost behind it all.

On Seeing

Across the table, my brother asked about a study he had read on creativity. The study asserted that people aren’t necessarily more or less “creative” in terms of their output; they are “creative” in terms of what they see. “Creative people,” he said, “see the world differently.”

At the time, we were taking turns hitting golf balls with my dad and another friend, and it was my turn. I nodded and said Sure before swinging robot-like at some golf balls. It was not a new thought: one of my professors always insisted that writing is about seeing, that while we walk about in our daily lives we must train our eyes to see. This is part of the reason cliché is so hated by writers. It is unoriginal. It is seeing as someone else tells you to see.

Flannery O’Connor said: “The writer should never be ashamed of staring. There is nothing that does not require his attention.” This gaze of the writer—it is not a utilitarian gaze to tell more stories or poems, it is a gaze that seeks to find meaning for the object. I forgot my lunch this morning and waited in line during the lunch rush later on, and merely watched. A woman, her phone on the table, touched it delicately with one finger while a five-year old girl sat across from her. Two men in business clothes sat at another table, one leaning in and the other with his chair turned parallel with the wall, his legs crossed, like he was lounging on a Saturday afternoon. Two girls in front of me ordered enough food for half the restaurant, like they had been kicked out of the house but had a parent’s credit card. I played on my phone, surreptitiously watching it with the guise of doing something else. No one wants someone staring at them.

This is creating: seeing. It is assigning meaning to that which is around us. This can lead to the megalomania that some writers have, because the world is created as they internalize it; the world receives meaning based on what meaning they assign it. Unless, of course, the world already contains meaning and it is the writer’s job to dust it off and hold it up again, to let the sunlight color its facets.

Annie Dillard, in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, writes:

Michael Goldman wrote in a poem, “When the Muse comes She doesn’t tell you to write / She says get up for a minute, I’ve something to show you, stand here.” What made me look up at that roadside tree?

The Muse: listen to that frustrating and insistent and un-utilitarian voice that stops you, and makes you look at ants crawling on the ground with a two-year old, the way the evening sun irradiates the cottonwood across the street, the young tattooed man sitting beside you in traffic, the soles of your shoes. See. See. See.

Boredom and Creativity

Brooke likes to say that if you’re bored, it’s a reflection on you.  Of course, she’s right, but the problem isn’t when we are bored — it’s that we never are bored.  We are so surrounded by noise and activity, from games on our phones to DVD players in cars to the incessant allure of the internet.  We don’t have to be bored anymore.  Literally, at any moment — from waiting in a line to walking down the street — we can browse the web or chat with friends.  If I push Ellis in the stroller, it’s not uncommon for me to talk on the phone (assuming Brooke isn’t along).  We don’t wrestle with boredom.

Which is too bad.  Boredom is a great help, a gadfly — if you will — that moves us beyond our current state of existence.  It is uncomfortable to be bored.  Good.  Because sometimes only this discomfort pushes us enough to interact with our environment in a new way, to create, to play.  A couple weeks ago, I saw a video of college kids who were doubtlessly bored.  They created.  It wasn’t something utilitarian they created, but something brilliantly fun:

I think of this in my own life.  I think of times when I’ve been bored enough to do something similar (maybe not quite so hilarious), and how modern life does not encourage this.  Modern life encourages efficiency and utility.  So, we work and distract ourselves with supposedly meaningful diversions.  We do not allow ourselves to become bored.

I read a study about play in animals recently.  Scientists have theorized that play is utilitarian in some sense.  It has passed on through evolution, so it must have some significance.  They’ve thought that maybe animals who play more end up higher on the social hierarchy.  Or, perhaps animals who play more develop better hunting skills.  The problem, according to the article, is that no evidence suggests this.  It seems a likely theory, but when testing, there’s no correlation between play and hunting skills, or play and hierarchy.  Even more, play can become very dangerous for animals (as well as people): animals can get badly injured or die from play.

One of the only positive correlations they’ve discovered so far concerns play and rats.  Apparently, rats are very playful animals.  If a rat is denied a chance to play, either by being isolated or surrounded by drug-induced zombie rats (my term, not the article’s), it becomes stressed.  When introduced to a difficult situation, play-deprived rats either resort to rat-rage (not my term) or run off into a corner, scared.  They don’t know what to do with their stress.

And so it is with us.  Not that you have succumbed to road rage or seen it firsthand; not that you have run off after a seemingly minor situation full of anger or stress; not that any of us have so stunted our understanding of boredom and creativity and play that we don’t know how to manage in this world.  But, it has happened in rats.  In theory, it could happen with us.

So, be bored.  I hate to be as trite as telling you to turn off your phone next time you wait in line, but do it anyway.  Make up stories about the people in front of you.  Wrestle a two-year old (I do it all the time — you just can’t try your hardest).  Sit long enough and hard enough with your guitar or in front of a blank page or before a sewing machine or with a layout of your garden or while rearranging a room or while debating a problem so that you come up with an idea worth having.  Reject the first three ideas right off.  Wait long enough for something with true worth.  Creativity doesn’t happen instantly.  It’s hard work.  Sometimes, it’s boring.  As a person halfway into his second novel, I couldn’t be more serious.

Because, all of this boredom lets us play and create in new ways.  You may notice how I’m using “play” and “create” almost synonymously — that’s because they are almost synonymous, if we shed away our utilitarian viewpoints.  I’m not talking about creating just to produce something, under a tight deadline.  I’m talking about life-giving creation, the kind that happens as much on a blank page as on a basketball court.

And, if you cannot quite get bored enough, leave your phone at home and go to the airport.