(You Have Been Granted) Permission to Tell

sincere3Last night I read yet another list of things writers should consider about the writing process. This particular list comes via Walter Benjamin, a Twentieth Century philosopher of German and Jewish descent. Benjamin’s advice is excellent and, of the 13 things he lists, one in particular stands out to me because I had the very same thought two days ago. List item 11 states: “Do not write the conclusion of a work in your familiar study. You would not find the necessary courage there.” I identify the following two words as key in this valuable recommendation.

Familiar – Familiarity is an invisible lining over every aspect of our lives. We cannot see it most times, rarely think about it, and usually only reflect on it when it’s absent. For the writer striving to achieve raw and unedited authenticity, familiarity is a barrier to risk. Psychologically, the four walls of our sacred space are counterintuitive to the terrifying necessity of truth. This is one reason why it’s important to travel. As we experience unusual things over the course of our trip we break the barrier of familiarity, and our senses come alive in that child-like way so important to artistic awareness.

Courage – Permission to tell is the mantra of every writer. When we talk about “telling” in writing, we are talking about the unedited, unapologetic, painful truth about people and events in our stories. This honesty is the hardest concept to grasp, because it goes against the nature of everything we’ve been told about manners. We don’t often tell the truth in the day-to-day because it’s uncomfortable. People can be offended. The truth hurts. More than one writer has acknowledged the dichotomy between mannered living in the real world and the brutal conduct they impose in the writing world. There is no room for manners in writing. The job of the writer is to get the real story onto the page without reservation, and that takes courage.

In my quest for an authentic voice I realized that if I want to reach my goal I need to write in an environment where I feel like I’m getting away with something. After all it’s guilt that keeps me from telling in the first place, so it makes sense to me that if I am going to cross that line I need to do it in a place that doesn’t remind me a whole lot of my comfortable, happy life. Mr. Benjamin seems to agree. “You will not find the necessary courage there.” The personal and the creative are never entirely separate. There’s no way they can be. This is why it’s so terrifying to write truthfully. In public spaces, where strangers surround me, I can honestly reflect on my characters, and hone in on what is real about them and authentic about the story.

In the larger world I feel bold, and I am courageous and alive in ways that the sedation of home denies me.

 

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The Third Guarantee – Death, Taxes, and . . .

Change.

Whoever said there were only two guarantees in life forgot the critical third. Transition is the fundamental state of our existence.

It has been one month since my last blog entry and the delay has been directly related to the reality of transition. I’ve moved yet again, and have thrown open the doors on my life to the whimsy of the unknown.

At the end of summer I will leave my post at the lighthouse and head in the direction of new things, some defined, others obscured by indetermination. I am on the path of freedom, continuing my hero’s journey, the fantastical tale of my own life.

Writing will remain part of this journey and some of the details will be tracked here, through this blog. My projects are delayed for the moment, but they are not forgotten. My goals remain the same in the writing process.

Transition is everything in a creative life. I leave with you this, a post I wrote as a guest blogger in 2013 for Writer’s Relief wherein the aspect of transition is discussed at the microcosmic level. If you have not read this I hope you enjoy it. If you’ve read it before may you be reminded again of the value of transition. Either way, thank you for continuing with me.

http://writersrelief.com/blog/2013/05/psyched-to-write-overcoming-the-transition-barrier/

I’ll be back soon!

T.J.

Fish Tales and Other Stories

fish 4I once knew a boy who was swallowed by a fish.

I was in the wasteland of my tween years, every day like every other day, blended into semi-eternal summer months where the terror of school was a distant nightmare waiting at the entrance of a long, dark tunnel called winter. I was an experienced outdoorsman, having learned to fish and shoot and camp as a toddler. I needed no help baiting a hook or landing my own catch on the banks of any river or stream. So confidant a fisherman was I that I usually only baited my hook once at camp before spending up to half an hour teasing the pools and currents with only that first worm until snagging and landing one of the silvery mountain trout I so often fished for in my youth.

My family and I were deep in the middle of a summer camping trip somewhere in the Sawtooth Mountains of southern Idaho, parked beside an ambiguous river whose banks varied in width by narrow inches and broad feet, the same for its depths, and it was shocking for us all earlier in the weekend to chance upon an occasional spawning salmon or two in the narrow lanes of the waterway, their great scarlet bodies slithering up stream – yards of fish so gigantic in the narrow river they seemed to be mythological. The sight of the creatures created in me a fisherman’s lust so strong that I planned to spend the next day casting my line at any wild thing that would take the bait.

It was late morning as I prepared to set off alone, down river from camp, to try a new hole I had found the evening before. I stood under a shady pine and baited my hook with one half of an earthworm before heading for the water.

The pathway to the fishing spot tailed along the water’s edge over smooth stones that made the footing uneven. To add to the challenge there were branches everywhere, cloying mountain brush that I had to navigate through and around while trying to avoid catching my line. When I finally arrived at my destination I squatted low at the edge of a wide and shallow spot on the river where a small, black waterfall dropped into a deeper pool. I steadied my baited hook over the water, then swung it like pendulum several times, releasing the bail so the line fell at the top of the fall, and watched as the patch of fleshy worm disappeared into the current, my line swirling into the deep.

It didn’t take long before I felt the strong tug of success, and in victory I yanked my pole skyward in an attempt to set the hook. Instead of the familiar resistance of the fierce weight and struggle of a fish on the other end, my hook came flying up out of the water, and immediately sailed weightlessly through the air until momentum spun it repeatedly around the tip of my pole, tangling it into an almost hopeless mess. That clever fish had stolen the worm and left the hook.

I had been bested before and though somewhat frustrated I made the delicate journey back to camp, retrieved another dying worm half from the bait box, and returned many minutes later to try again. I swung the line, dropped the bait, and watched it fall satisfactorily into place. In moments I felt another strong tug, which I answered with a setting motion, and again my hook flew gleaming and bare up out of the water to wrap itself without further ceremony around the tip of my fishing pole.

I felt a granite cloud of anger in my gut, and I scowled. Once again I returned to camp, baited the hook with a fresh worm, and made the treacherous journey back to the magical spot. I was determined to catch that fish, more determined than I had ever been before about catching any fish. Deftly I sent the line flying into the fall, and expertly I set the bail. The line jumped, the hook flew out of the water, and once again it danced around the tip of my pole.

I raged under my breath. I could feel the hot seizure of fury creep over me like a rapidly rising sun, a heat so consuming it was sinful. And as the heat rose my mind turned inward, to the dark center found in every man. I was so mad at the fish, the river, the worm, at everything in all of creation that I turned my anger explosively toward heaven – I got angry at God Almighty Himself. Back up river I turned, every step and stumble a curse. I mumbled under my breath, uttering swears I had only heard on television. I began to chastise God. “Stupid fish . . .” I said. “Might as well have stayed home . . .” I muttered. “All Your fault . . .” and then, as I broke from the brush, my fury at its crazed peak, seeing red everywhere, I glanced skyward and said loudly, “You might as well throw me in the river!” Instantly I pivoted, my arms flying into the air, my fishing pole sailing to the left, back toward the cursed fish as I stumbled forward and fell, spread eagle, only a moment to cry out in terrible desperation for my mother before landing with a great wet splash in the unrelenting river.

I had the bizarre sensation of floating, arms and legs still spread, like a big, pale water bug on the surface of the water. My voice went hoarse, and I kept calling out, “mom, mom, mom” but it was a gruff, chest deep croak, not even loud enough to carry over the gentle trickling sound of the river, and I imagined floating there for the rest of my life, unable to drown, unable to get out, my suggestion taken wholly to heart by Great God Almighty and His accomplice, the Devilfish of that smooth dark pool at the base of a glistening waterfall.

But my cry in the air had made its way up river. Through the forest my mother came wending, the look of fear on her young face, and there she found me, drifting in a foot of water like a paralyzed floaty thing. She scurried to the river’s edge and helped me stand. She held my arm as, sobbing, I retrieved my fishing pole from the below the water’s surface.

Back at camp I lay trembling in the tent, naked and terrified and ashamed, stunned by God’s audacity. I shivered on the floor of the tent, wrapped in a bath towel, with no dignity remaining.

“He almost drowned,” my mother said.

“Probably he didn’t,” my father said, and looked in on me with a soft humor in his eyes. “You all right, tiger?” he asked. I supposed I was even though I wasn’t sure. I spent the rest of the weekend close to camp, and God and I did not talk for the rest of the trip.

I never did catch that fish. Never returned to that spot again. I wouldn’t call it “the one that got away” because I doubt that Devilfish was half as big as it was clever. It swallowed me, though, or part of me. My pride most likely. But I got a story in exchange, and one I’ll never forget. For a writer there’s no better catch than that.

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Why Writing Banned Books Should Be Our Goal

pic1It is my sincere desire to write a “banned book.”

This isn’t about sex and drugs, violence, and other taboos of our social conscience. I don’t wish to write a book that’s going to be controversial just because it’s stocked with profanity and behavioral license – everyone does that, and frankly it’s cliché. My idea is to tell stories that contain ideas that are shocking, original, unnerving and uncomfortable, regardless of any depictions of sex and violence and the romantic notion that self-destruction is a desirable outcome. We all seek original ideas, but centering our stories on self-abuse and perversion isn’t very original. There’s got to be something more, something that is controversial, maybe inflammatory, but is at the same time uncommon – and maybe just the thing that needs to be said.

Stories are where our species discovers truths that are both individual and universal, and because of story we’re able to identify things about ourselves that raise our self-awareness and help us evolve as a species. Many great scientific and technological discoveries have been made through story, and it is therefore a guarded and oppressive psychology that seeks to ban these discoveries, denying that our minds go to the places they do, ask the questions they ask. We pretend to protect ourselves from ourselves by rejecting controversy and fringe ideas, failing to see that we should only fear the misuse of our ideas, and not the ideas themselves.

A banned book, by my definition, should be a book of fresh ideas, and it would be the great honor of every writer to write at least one work considered too shocking to print, too fringe to expose to the delicate sensibilities of our better nature. There’s no denying some responsibility in creating such a work – the writer is not encouraged to be crass or unsophisticated. A book of dangerous ideas should be created and treated with reverence, the ideas evaluated ultimately for their edifying characteristics and not their diminishing ones. As with great technologies of healing and social welfare, all things can be used for war – but war for the sake of war is a sin against us all.

We should seek to write books worthy of being banned because these are the only books deserving of a place within any literary canon. A book worthy of being banned is one worthy of being immortalized. The taboos we adorn our works with, sexual, violent, blasphemous, and shocking, should be vehicles of greater ideas only, and not the ideas themselves. At the heart of controversy should be the question, “is this where we are headed?” and if so “is it where we want to go?”

And so we must write to find the idea that is beyond the pale of the initial inspiration. From titillation we seek connection; from anger we seek to eliminate pain. Our taboos mask our need for love; they are substitutions for the healthy thing we need most. If by expressing taboo we manage to achieve understanding and meaning and perhaps unveil an insight that is ahead of our current time, then, like it or not, we are advancing as a species. This is so often what great literature strives to do. When the watchdogs of our parental society are rattled we must look to see what has flustered them so, and therein find the fire that continues to yield the greater virtue of our proud and unusual species.

 

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When the Engine Stalls, Row!

no parking2A long time ago I had friend who owned an old white Subaru hatchback, a four-cylinder hunk of engineering marvel with bald tires and an engine as gutless as Punxsutawney Phil upon seeing his shadow six weeks too soon for an early spring. In the (mostly) flat lands of the Bay Area it was a splendid junker for getting to places not so far away. For longer road trips, such as the one I often made to see my parents in the California Sierras, it was less ideally suited.

A few days before we made the trip, my friend alleged that there was a misfire in the number three cylinder. When it began to act up, he said, all he had to do was unplug the cylinder wire from the offending cylinder and continue on. I thought little of it.

The day we left for the hills it was beautifully sunny. A perfect road trip day. We flew out of the Bay (on all four cylinders) and began the gradual ascent up I-80 toward the distant ridges of northeastern California. The trip was going well. We forgot about any cylinder issues and allowed the road to open before us with the promise of the journey to come.

For those unfamiliar with the I-80 corridor, it’s a long black ribbon of generally hot, flat roadway through a good deal of agricultural valley before lifting into the dry, grassy foothills around places like Auburn, Colfax, and Grass Valley. But once you begin the climb, it is an unrelenting elevation gain that does not peak until cresting at seven thousand feet at Donner Pass (known for the infamous Donner Party) somewhere near the border town of Truckee. We were barely on the pouty lower lip of the Auburn climb when my travel companion decided to stop and check the Subaru’s mighty little engine. Naturally it seemed to him that the number three was acting up. He pulled the wire and off we went.

The special thing about this time of living, two boys, barely twenty, is that we knew nothing about life, about the struggle to survive, or to accomplish things that only become important later. In our naiveté everything was an adventure, a challenge we had already succumbed to but did so without expectation that we would have ever been able to succeed. We were not defeated by spite, we were defeated by blissful ignorance. Life is the greatest pastime when we are young. Things are mostly funny.

When the dogged and belabored engine showed no gusto for climbing the gradual hills outside of Auburn the moment became temporarily embarrassing. Every other car on the road was flying past us. I doubt we were going over thirty mph. Imagine what a wiser adult might think in such a position. Am I going to make it? Am I going to cause an accident? Am I going to get stuck on the pass like the Donners of yore? But with the pedal floored and the car gasping to make the climb we did the only thing we could do. We rolled down our windows and pretended to row.

Other drivers laughed as the passed by. We rowed with all of our might and laughed and waved, making friends with dozens of others for brief moments as they hurtled past, probably grateful they were not in our predicament, but perhaps appreciating that we weren’t worried, that in fact we were going to be all right in the end because we had spirit, and we had enthusiasm, and we were creative . . .

This is what the writing life can be like. Often in the beginning we are running on fewer cylinders, with an engine that seems somehow too tired or is otherwise deficient. More often than not we worry about making the climb, about reaching the destination. We worry about dying on the hill.

But if we roll down the windows and row, if we laugh and wave, come to terms with the process and enjoy that we are living through this journey, we will arrive no worse for wear. At the end of the journey we will have a story to tell.

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Another Reason Why We Write

abstract

I am in a wistful mood lately.

I am feeling at once intensely grateful and at the same time full of longing for things that only my heart understands.

Well, maybe.

There are threads and strands of emotion in all of us that seem so intensely personal, so uniquely ours that we are certain we are alone in the experience, that no one else could possibly understand the tumult going on inside, the visions of our core which are so abstract and original that the feelings don’t even have a name.

Perhaps this sentiment is immature. Something best reserved for the diary of a teen, something we surely have worked out in the process of maturing so that we no longer pine, no longer emote, silly to dare feel more than pain, pleasure or anger. Certainly we are not happy though we say “happy.”

So why write if all of this emotion is whimsy? And is this not the message of the cold and practical world? We are distracted by entertainments and technology so that we hardly know how to connect face-to-face with each other. We find it hard to say what we think, what we feel, and we shy from the risk of expressing things boldly, if not honestly, unless masked by the anonymity of cyberspace.

If my experience is anything close to the truth, however, then the writing life  – any creative endeavor really – is an antidote, even if temporarily, for staving off the loneliness of an oversensitive soul.

I cannot begin to defend my position to those who would disagree. In fairness the experience may be entirely different for them. If not for creative endeavors, someone might say, life would have been normal, long, full of ignorant bliss and a fine career in reports and files, meetings, weekends off, and television. Art, they might argue, has destroyed their sense of comfort and stability; failed them in their pursuit of joy and the easy life.

As if life were so easy.

But surely there are a few who would agree with me on this: art saves me from loneliness. I write because I seek to understand life. Through writing I explore the things that do not make sense, give a voice to the things inside that need to speak or else be condemned to haunts in the dark hallways of my claustrophobic mind. Through the process I have a chance to connect with others at the highest level – the emotional level. Through art we all have the opportunity to name the things we feel which cannot otherwise be defined by our known vocabulary.

We write to save ourselves from lies, misunderstanding, and the general malaise of the human condition – which is loneliness. Whether inspired by god or stoned by the existential void, we write to keep away the night, to summon the daylight, to expose deceit and come face-to-face with our collective humanness.

I do anyway. I write to find my way, to be introduced anew to the beauty of living, the surprise of discovery. I write to preserve my health. I write to remain engaged with the living, to partake in their danse macabre – perhaps even to provide the music which backs us, players all, who are otherwise separated by an invisible distance across the milieu of our temporal existence.

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Winning, Losing and Novelty: Art is not a competition

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When I was eight years old I ran with a pack.

Wolves, bears, bobcats – these were the icons of pack success, and as with the other packs I was subjected to as child, this one was based on a broad scale of achievements, predetermined and established for all members regardless of individual interests, needs, or talents.

The seasonal kite-flying challenge presented itself as yet another opportunity to fall in line with the rights of passage for becoming not just a cub scout, but eventually a full boy scout. But by the time I arrived with my diamond of yellow paper, embossed with the Boy Scouts of America eagle-superimposed-over-a fleur-de-lis, the competition had already begun. I was behind from the get-go.

I watched the other kites dance up vesper ladders dozens of feet overhead and felt immediately hopeless. There was barely a breeze at ground level, and my heart was hardly into the task, but the press of expectation spurred action. I quickly secured my kite to a spool of cotton string and took off running over the sloping grasses of the hillock where everyone was gathered. The stiff, short-sleeves of my blue scout uniform chaffed my arms, and the yellow neckerchief scratched the edges of my neck as the sun’s heat pressed down on the efforts I made to launch my kite.

My effort was embarrassingly futile. While the other kites flew, some reaching half a spool of thread or more in their victorious climb skyward, my kite could barely sustain a meager hover. The contest was over by the time my kite achieved lift off. With their day finished the other scouts peeled off while I remained behind to finish the flight barely begun.

Then something remarkable happened. In the absence of the other kites it was as if a lane suddenly opened. My kite flew. As the wind carried the kite higher the spool of string spun in my hands and the kite became inspired. The sky relinquished its downward force allowing the kite to soar like Icarus rushing to meet the sun’s embrace.

The line ran to the end of the spool, the cardboard tube lurched in my hand. An erotic ting electrified my body as I nearly lost grip on the kite line. In a nearby bag I fished out another spool and, struggling through sweat in the windswept sunshine, I affixed the second line to the first. Once secure the kite twisted and climbed even higher, the friction heat of the second spool spinning in my hands.

I was at first disappointed to see my kite reach such a great distance. All of the other scouts, peers and competitors alike, had left the scene. I had no witness. Then by chance the competition judge passed by.  A middle aged woman with dark hair and a masculine air, she confirmed with a patronly nod and a word that my kite had indeed bested the day. My kite had flown higher, gone farther, than anyone else’s. Thus dawned one of my first epiphanies – I had, in my way and in my time, surpassed everyone. I’d stood out from the pack . . .

As human beings we are taught from the beginning that we should compete against others for prizes designed to elevate the few above the many, in this way to earn the right to be part of the collective whole, and to fill a niche by being a winner, a competitor .  .  .  a loser.

As creatives, however, there is something that exists beyond the pack. When we create in our unique way there are no rules. The birthright of the creative person is the freedom to do things our way and in our time. The message here is simple: when the crowds have exhausted themselves trying to best one another, and the lanes are open, the creative person is then able to work in a limitless environment, and to the extent of their full potential.

As soon as anything becomes a competition it has lost its novelty. The goal of the artist is to create novelty in pursuit of an effect, and in this process each must operate within his or her own sphere. By stepping away from the pack the creative is free to explore the means of their process, and to produce something original, something beyond the scope of a moment.

There may never be awards at the end of this process – no badges or placards or trophies. But at a minimum there will be the satisfaction that a sincere effort can bring great individual freedom from the pack, freedom from the oppressive need to win, freedom to fly to the end of the line.

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