Writing in Troubled Times

The truth is that I haven’t felt much like blogging lately. I haven’t felt much like going on Facebook, or Twitter, or anything electronic. I’m forcing myself to write this post now . . . Why? I suppose because I’ve been feeling a bit invisible, as though if I don’t keep touch with the larger world out there, I might disappear. Not really, of course. I’m still a corporeal, very real person. I still wake up in the morning, eat, work. Sleep, sometimes. But I feel as though I do lose something, not being in touch.

It hasn’t been much fun to be in touch, lately. It hasn’t been much fun to look online, see the news, worry worry worry about where the world is going.

I realized this was a serious problem when I did not write any poems, not one, in January. I had promised myself that I would try to write poetry regularly, several times a month. That was why I started a poetry blog. It was incentive: I could write a poem, post it, and right away people could see it. I could get some sort of reaction. But January, nothing.

And now, just now, I realized I hadn’t written a blog post in February, not one. Even though I’ve been promising myself that I will start blogging more, particularly now that Facebook and Twitter are so much less fun. Facebook reaches the same twenty people over and over. Twitter is all depressing political news.

I’ve never found it this hard to write before. Oh, I’m writing . . . I have a book due, and I work on that! I’m working on it as fast and hard as I can. But I’ve always found it easy to write, and to write all sorts of things. Now, all I want to do is work on the book, which allows me to go in deep, to disappear into another time and place, to spend time being my characters rather than myself. All I want to do is escape into my own writing. Not communicate.

Perhaps the problem is, I don’t feel as though I have any particular wisdom to offer.

The sorts of problems I see in the news, I can’t fix, and have no fix for. I’m not the right person to tell you, call your congressman. Yes, call your congressman, but what I write about, what I think about, are deeper systems of values. I write about trees, and rocks, and birds. I write about fairy tales. I write about schools for witches. My writing is about what we should value, about the deeper magic of life. Not political positions, or not immediate ones, although I think politics infuses my writing. How could it not, when I was born behind the Berlin Wall, when my parents lived through 1956 in Hungary, when my grandparents lived through World War II? It’s always there . . . but I have little of value to say on current legislation.

So what do I add to the discourse? I’m not sure.

It’s incredibly facile to say, as some have said, that troubled times result in great art. Troubled times are as difficult for artists as for everyone else. They may result in some great works: great poems, great novels, great paintings. They also result in artists jailed, or prevented from traveling, or simply too poor to pursue the visions they’ve been given. I’m not any of those things — I have an incredible amount of freedom. Still, I find myself disheartened.

I suppose what I’ll have to do is simply force myself. I’ve always found that we cannot control how we feel, but we can control how we act. We can force ourselves to sit down, to stay at the page, to type the words, as I am typing them now. It seems to me that we are living in a cruel time, a time of wilful blindness, a time when so many of our leaders hold values that will result in illness, ignorance, death. In the destruction of the precious environment we live in. And not just our leaders — people all over the world who are greedy, unbelievably greedy. Who simply do not care that their wealth is built on the suffering of others.

I don’t get it.

I don’t know, maybe getting it is not my job. Maybe my job is simply to do the work I’ve been given, which is to teach, to write, to do the best I can, create the best I can, under the circumstances. And, when I don’t want to do it, force myself to, as I am forcing myself to write this now.

Here’s what I can say: Underneath it all, there is a ground to stand on, and that ground is a real system of values. Those values are caring for our world, compassion for our fellow inhabitants of it, love of beauty. Rejection of cruelty. Rejection of treating others as less than they are. Rejection of the idea that you must own and control in order to be happy. Celebration of creativity, which is the path to joy. Yes, that is more complicated in practice than in theory — isn’t everything?

In the end, all you can do is walk your own path, do your own work. My work, I’m pretty sure, is writing. So, onward . . .

(The image is Woman and Vase with Flowers by A.C.W. Duncan.)

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The Politics of Narrative Patterns

There are all sorts of reasons the American election went the way it did, but I think one of them, and perhaps quite an important one, was the way in which our thinking is determined by narrative patterns. What do I mean by narrative patterns? I mean that in narratives, in stories, there are underlying patterns we are familiar with. They recur from story to story: stories are often variations on these patterns. When we encounter these patterns, we feel fulfilled, comfortable — we recognize them, we like to read about them. We like variation, but only a certain amount of variation. Too much variation makes us feel unsatisfied, as though somehow the story is written “wrong.”

Let me give you an example. One narrative pattern is of the couple that dislikes each other but is destined to be together. We can call it the Pride and Prejudice pattern. As soon as we see the bickering but attractive couple on screen, we know the man and woman (it is usually a man and woman) are going to get together. We just don’t know how, or how long it will take. We willingly wait — the length of a book, a television season — for the pattern to be fulfilled. The pleasure is in watching the slow fulfillment of the pattern. But what if the woman decides it’s taking too long, that she would really rather be dating someone else? And then does date him, and then marries him and doesn’t regret it, but settles down happily to have children, grow old with her new and non-destined partner? That breaks the pattern. And at some deep level, a breaking of the pattern is upsetting to us. We might think that the writer isn’t doing it right, the television show has “jumped the shark.” We might feel cheated — after all, destined lovers are supposed to either get married or die for love. We don’t really want them to have any other ending.

Or what if the young hero, having been chosen by the wise old man (Gandalf, Obi-Wan Kenobi), goes on his destined quest, decides he’s tired of being cold and tired and in peril all the time, and just goes home to become a farmer, or an accountant? That’s not a story at all! you might tell me. Well, no, not if we define a story in a certain way — and we do, don’t we? What if instead of oppressing Cinderella, her stepsisters act like ordinary stepsisters, have perfectly ordinary sibling rivalries but nothing that goes so far as relegating anyone to be a servant, sleep by the stove, cover herself in ashes . . . That’s not a story. No, because we define stories in terms of narrative patterns.

Really, of course, anything can be a story. I looked up the word online, to find the most commonly accepted meanings. Here are a few: “an account of imaginary or real people and events told for entertainment,” “a report of an item of news in a newspaper, magazine, or news broadcast,” “a piece of gossip; a rumor.” None of those things have to fit a particular pattern. But that’s not really how we use the term, not when we say Tell me a story. No, then we mean “a plot or story line.” We want to hear about the destined lovers who find each other through hardship or finally recognize each other despite their own pride and prejudice. We want to hear about the hero chosen for a difficult quest who finally, against all odds, fulfills it and his destiny. We want to hear that Cinderella, poor and oppressed, fits the shoe and marries the prince. That’s what we mean by stories, and good stories. These narrative patterns are not unique to fairy tales, or genre fiction — they are everywhere, and what we call realism is as driven by them as any other kind of fiction.

There are writers who have claimed there is only one narrative pattern (for example, Joseph Campbell writing about the hero’s journey). That’s wrong. There are writers who have claimed there are two, or three, or twelve . . . No, there are many narrative patterns, and some are in the process of dying while others are being born. And they are not universal but deeply inflected by culture. The young man who must renounce his earthly love to go on a holy quest disappeared some time ago in our culture, and when we read it now, it sounds funny — like, why give up romantic love for the Holy Grail? That’s because we still value romantic love. The Holy Grail, not so much. However, many of our narrative patterns are thousands of years old. Each age dresses the pattern up in its own clothes, but the pattern persists. A civilized woman can still tame the wild man of the woods, as in the Epic of Gilgamesh, although nowadays the pattern might reverse itself and the woodsy man in a plaid shirt will likely help the woman convinced all she wants is to become a partner in her New York law firm understand that really, she wants to go live in the woods and write poetry, because that’s her deepest authentic self. The pattern persists . . .

These patterns are important because they are woven deeply in us, from the moment we are born to the moment we die, through the stories told to us — by our mothers, our teachers, our media. They weave us into our culture, and they weave us, ourselves — we are made of stories. We experience these patterns as truths and expect to live our lives by them. If we feel as though we are Cinderella, we expect to marry the prince, eventually. And then, if we don’t get our prince, we are often disappointed . . . One reason these patterns are so useful is that they are cognitive shortcuts. If we can understand the world through patterns, we don’t have to think as much or as hard. In the medieval era, accepting the story that the king was ordained by God and could do whatever he wished was a useful cognitive shortcut — if you did not accept it, you had to think so much harder, and for yourself, outside the pattern. You had to become a radical.

Why am I linking the idea of narrative pattern to politics? Because, while there are many reasons the election went the way it did, one reason, I believe, has to do with narrative patterns. People did not get so excited by Barack Obama, when he first ran, because of his policies. No, he was the young hero who had overcome adversity and triumphed. This was his quest, and when he won, it was his Cinderella moment. He fit the patterns, and voters invested energy and belief in him because of that. Of course they were disappointed — how could they not be, to realize he was a human being after all, one who had to do the complicated work of actually governing, of compromising to get anything done? When Donald Trump came along, he fit another narrative pattern: the stranger who rides into town and imposes order, bringing justice to the frontier. That’s a pattern embedded deep in American culture — you can see it in Clint Eastwood movies. It did not hurt him that he was not morally pure, because we do not expect the gunslinger to be morally pure — no, that’s reserved for heroes. And for women. So what pattern did Hillary Clinton fit? That’s the problem right there. We only have two patterns for older women who want political power. One is the Virgin Queen, like Elizabeth I: a woman is fit to wield power if she is willing to give up other aspects of being a woman, such as marital relationships or children. Her sacrifice makes her worthy. Notice how often Clinton was criticized for not having gotten a divorce, usually by women voters. While that criticism may have reflected a number of things, in part it reflected our underlying expectations about women and power — Clinton’s marriage and motherhood took her out of this particular pattern. What was left? The Wicked Queen. We know what she does — she seizes power (illegitimately) for her own gain, to satisfy her own ambition. She kills people or has them killed (this too was a criticism lodged against Clinton). And the Wicked Queen cannot be allowed to gain power — she must be defeated. All of our stories have told us that, from childhood on.

Did these patterns result in election victories or defeats? Who knows. But I think we can see them in the discourse around the election, in the ways candidates were talked about and thought of. There is a sense in which we live out the patterns, we live by the patterns — sometimes we die by the patterns. The patterns give us meaning. But . . . the patterns can change.

Once, I wondered if there was any use in my being a writer. I mean, I didn’t think it would be useless to me — I like being a writer. But I wondered if I, as a writer, would be of any use. To other people, to humanity as a whole. I wondered if I should have become a human rights lawyer, or something like that. But now I think that one of our most important tasks is telling stories, and I am a storyteller. I am a perpetuator and creator of narrative patterns. That means I have an obligation to be aware of the patterns, to wield them in ways that are good, and true, and useful. And I can create new patterns.

Whatever you think of these candidates individually (and I’m not talking about them here as individuals — that’s not my aim), I think it’s clear that we have a problem with the narrative patterns for women.  If we want women in positions of power, if indeed that is something we would like to see (and I would), then we need to create new patterns. If we want to see other possibilities for women in general, so they are not stuck in binaries of various sorts, we need to create new patterns. Which is what, in my writing, I am trying to do . . .


(Portrait of Elizabeth I (Armada Portrait), by an unknown painter.)


(Illustration of the Wicked Queen from “Snow White” by Bess Livings.)

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Miss Fisher and the Female Gaze

I’ve been re-watching Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, which I like very much — it’s the perfect show to curl up with when you’re thoroughly tired of the modern world we’re living in. You get to go back to another world, equally complicated but in a different way. The show is clever, with twists and turns in every mystery, and has wonderful characters that are deftly developed over time. They have strong, solid, sometimes conflicted relationships. Overall, there’s a lot to like, and I put Miss Fisher in my pantheon of really fun, interesting detectives, up there with Miss Marple, Lord Peter Wimsey, and their ilk. But something particularly struck me, watching the series again. It’s that Miss Fisher is filmed for a female gaze.

I realized this while watching an episode called “Dead Man’s Chest,” in Season 2. The murder weapon, a knife, has been thrown from a pier, so of course someone must search in the water around that pier. We see Miss Fisher and her companion Dot standing on the beach. They are beautifully attired, with flowing dresses and summer hats, and both hold what look like delicious cones of vanilla ice cream in their hands. They are looking at the water, where Detective Inspector Jack Robinson and Constable Hugh Collins are bobbing up and down, rather like dolphins, looking for the murder weapon. Miss Fisher smiles and lowers her sunglasses, presumably to see better. Collins finds the knife, then both men walk out of the water, like in that famous James Bond bathing suit scene with Ursula Andress but in reverse. They are attired in the fetching two-piece men’s bathing suits of the 1920s, which are clinging to their bodies because they are, of course, wet. The camera focuses in a particularly appreciative way on Collins’ chest and arms, and because the top of his bathing suit is white, it becomes translucent when wet. (Don’t even tell me the costume designer didn’t do that on purpose.) Dot towels him off — she is the innocent young woman, not yet aware of what has happened, but Miss Fisher knows. You can tell by her smile, which is, well, knowing. She is perfectly aware of the sexual subtext of the scene, which she has in a sense set up — in the last scene, she asked, with a pointedly innocent look on her face, whether Collins brought his bathing suit. Jack Robinson is also sexualized, but not to the same extent: his bathing suit is dark, his body leaner, more spare. Collins is rather like the ice cream of the scene, in addition to the actual ice cream — he is a delicious dessert, and you realized that Dot has lucked out in a way she doesn’t yet appreciate. But Miss Fisher knows . . . Once out of the water, Collins hands the knife not to Robinson, but to Miss Fisher, who immediately starts analyzing it in the context of the case. End scene.

The perspective of this scene is that of Miss Fisher herself, the heterosexual woman appreciating male bodies. And I find that so interesting, because as I think is clear from years of aesthetic criticism, the heterosexual male gaze has been primary in our culture for a very long time. I’m not interested in abolishing gazes — there is no such thing as no gaze, or a neutral gaze. In art, in film, even in literature where what is seen is entirely imaginary, there is always someone gazing. What I am interested in, though, is the multiplication of gazes. That allows us to see things in different ways, and one reason for Miss Fisher‘s allure, especially among women, is that it allows them to participate in a female gaze (not the only female gaze, but one type).

This is a pattern in the series. In an earlier episode in Season 2, “Death Comes Knocking,” Miss Fisher is in bed with the handsome male assistant of a famous psychic. He is bare-chested — on his chest is a pattern of shrapnel wounds. Miss Fisher is dressed in a beautiful silk gown. The texture of her gown is as sensual, as attractive, as his bare chest. Again we are looking at the scene as though we were Miss Fisher herself — the show turns us all into Miss Fishers, figuring out mysteries, presented with attractive male romantic possibilities. Critics who have written about the show usually focus on its feminist implications, with its liberated female detective who is mature, smart, sexual. The show fairly consistently focuses on issues of women’s equality in the 1920s: driving, work, contraception. But its feminism is deeper than the issues it explores or Miss Fisher herself. It’s woven into every camera shot.

I have to admit, I find it refreshing to watch from the perspective of a female gaze. In the broad tradition of Western art and film, I’m usually watching from a heterosexual male gaze, and I’m used to that — but it does always involve a slight dislocation, as though before truly seeing a painting (of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, for example), I have to hop to the left. That dislocation can be good — Robert Mappelthorpe’s photographs of male nudes are controversial in part, I think, because they ask us to see from the perspective of a homosexual male gaze, in which the male body is desired in the way female bodies are desired in most of Western art. Western culture is not used to seeing from that perspective. It’s not used to seeing from Miss Fisher’s perspective either. Multiple gazes, as many gazes are we have identifies, which are multitudinous. Let us all learn to see in different ways.

But right now, I’m appreciating Miss Fisher’s gaze. And thinking about what a very clever show this is, to allow me to see in that way.

Essie Davis plays Phryne Fisher, a beautifully attired detective in 1920s Melbourne.

(The image comes from this interview on NPR, and is credited to Ben King/Acorn.TV.)

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Learning to Hide

Yesterday, I wrote a poem. I called it “Thumbelina.” It starts like this:

Sometimes I would like to be very small
so I could curl into a snail’s shell,
or a seashell: abalone, nautilus,
even an oyster shell. I would let the oyster
cover me with layer on layer of nacre,
come out shining.

This is something I’ve fantasized about since . . . probably since reading The Borrowers as a child. I’ve wondered what it would be like to be very small, to see the world on a completely different scale. I’ve never wondered about what it would be like to be larger than I am, to see things as tiny — no, I wanted to see them as gigantic. I think part of the impulse came from the realization that there’s nowhere to hide anymore, nowhere one can go to disappear. That’s not entirely true — I could probably buy a small cabin in a remote location and more or less disappear if I wanted to, live simply, disengage from modern life. It could be done. But there would still be satellites overhead. The world is a different place than it used to be.

When I first thought about writing this blog post, it wasn’t about becoming small, but about learning to hide. I was inspired by a sentence from a novel I read as a child. My mother read thrillers, and I think the sentence was in one of her books: Shibumi by Rodney William Whitaker, writing under the pseudonym Trevanian. To be honest, I barely remember the book. The internet tells me that it’s about an assassin, and I do remember that — the main character could kill people with a comb. I don’t remember whether he actually did. I do remember that it details his long training, and that a teacher told him to keep his skills, his very existence, a secret. “Hide, Niko,” was the sentence I remembered. Somehow, in my head, it got mixed up with The Borrowers, the way things do get mixed up. It seemed to me that one could not hide in this world unless one was, perhaps, the size of a mouse.

Later I realized that there was a way to hide: inside oneself. Imagine, your own body is a sort of shell, like a snail’s shell, a seashell: inside it is your mind, and inside your mind could be anything, anything at all, entire worlds of anything, and no one would ever know. This realization was intensely reassuring to me as a teenager. My outside could be monitored, controlled, but inside I could be thinking anything — I could write entire novels that no one would ever know about. We are all worlds, inside ourselves. A death is the death of a world, a universe.

We do not value this sort of interiority very much, nowadays. We are all supposed to be open, vulnerable. We are all supposed to share. But I think there is something valuable and reassuring about it. There is a freedom inside oneself, the freedom to be oneself in at least one place. And there is a freedom to choose: do I share this aspect of myself or not? I think that’s particularly important for artists. The art one sees is in a sense the detritus, the flotsam, of the art that happens inside. That is perhaps why we are fascinated by artist’s biographies — we want to know, what in the world was happening inside to create those paintings, those books? What world was happening inside that left those particular marks on our shared reality?

I think learning to hide is a sort of skill, and one we probably need in our modern world, where so much is open and shared, where we photograph our breakfasts and say look, here is my dog, here is my vacation, here is my life. I know it’s a skill I need, because for me at least, creativity happens in the small spaces, safe spaces, in the dark. It is when I am most alone, most myself, that I can write. (And how ironic, and modern, that I am sharing that information with you! Yet here I am, alone at my work desk, in the morning before anything has happened, before I have had to see anyone. Writing.) Artists in particular often need to lead a sort of double life: there is the public self, which goes to work, pays the bills. And there is the private self, which goes down deep into the recesses of the self, the soul, and creates something — like an oyster layering nacre over an irritant. (Isn’t that what we do when we write? Find something that itches, that we cannot seem to get rid of, and layer it over, make it aesthetically pleasing or at least not so annoying to us? Hope it turns out a pearl?)

Robert Louis Stevenson wrote about this double life when describing how he conceived of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde. He described himself as a house, with a brownie in the attic (you know, those one of small Scottish fairies). He said that he paid the bills, and all the while the brownie was working, working. All his best ideas came from that supernatural helper. But sometimes I don’t want to have a brownie–I want to be the brownie, the borrower, living in the attic or behind the walls or under the floorboards, just doing my own work (and maybe stealing buttons).

I guess my advice for any artist would be, learn to hide. And then you can decide what to reveal. I know the more I do, the more I am out there in the world, the more my work is public, the more of an impulse I have to carve out a private space for myself. Who knows, perhaps someday I’ll find that cabin in the wilderness, although to be honest I think one can hide just as well in a busy city, where no one much cares who you are or what you’re doing, and the faces you pass are almost always anonymous. But I need my snail’s shell or seashell, a small nest, a room from which the rest of the world is shut out. (When I was a teenager, I had a small room, a sort of closet under the stairs, where usually brooms would be kept). Or even the inside of my brain, which so far despite our technologies is relatively inviolate. Make a space for yourself, or at least your brownie, where the creativity, the magic, can happen . . .


(The illustration is by Ida Rentoul Outhwaite.)

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The Three of Me

I read Oprah Magazine, because I’m a sucker for self-improvement, even when it’s the self-improvement lite I often find there. But among the women’s magazines on the bookstore shelf, what else is there for someone like me? Nothing, really . . . Anyway, the author Elizabeth Gilbert has a column in Oprah now, and I think she’s a smart cookie. Even when I disagree with her, I like reading what she has to say. Several months ago, she wrote a column about the three selves she has inside her, and I thought, I could do that too: break myself up into three fairly distinct selves. I’ll call them Thea, Dora, and Theodora.

Theodora is my public self. It’s the one that teaches at a university, that answers interview questions or sits on convention panels, that gets dressed in the morning in something appropriate for work and puts on lipstick. Theodora is the me that most people encounter, even when I tell them to call me Dora. She’s polite, knowledgeable, hard-working.

Dora is my private self, my ordinary daily self when I’m alone or with family and close friends. Dora cleans the bathroom, does dishes, mends clothes. She is the one who binge-watches Poldark. She’s the one who eats half a pint of mint chip frozen yogurt and worries about calories. She’s the one who wears sweatpants and tries to get a tangle out of her hair in the morning. She is as ordinary and necessary as bread.

Thea is my very private self, that even family doesn’t see. She’s a sort of paradox, because on the one hand I am Thea mostly when I’m alone, so no one sees her. On the other, she’s probably the most visible to the extent that she’s all over my writing, because she’s the one who does it, or most of it. She’s there in the stories, in the poems. Thea is the one who is in touch with something completely different, something that isn’t ordinary life at all. She’s the one who knows the way to the Other Country. (That’s from a story of mine published recently called “The Other Thea.” And yes, it’s about having different parts of oneself, as well as other things like magic.) Thea is the one who, asked what she would do with her one wild and precious life, would tell you she’s doing it.

But Thea can’t exist by herself. She needs Dora, because otherwise who would clean the bathroom? Who would sew the buttons back on her sweaters? Who would cook? And who would read Oprah Magazine? Because I can tell you that Thea doesn’t. She reads poetry — she just bought a book by Carol Ann Duffy. And Theodora wouldn’t. She’s reading the books she will need to teach next semester. Dora is the one who reads books on decorating. So if my taste in books seems eclectic sometimes, it’s because there are three of me, and we have different tastes in reading material, as we probably have different (although overlapping) tastes in a lot of things. I mean, I’m pretty sure we all like flowers. But we probably all like them for different reasons, and Dora is the one who buys them, cuts their stems, makes sure they have enough water. Thea just writes poetry about them.

I think we can, potentially, understand ourselves better if we see our selves — the multiple selves we have inside us. It even helps to name them. The thing is, they sometimes want different things, and that leads to conflict. For example, when I’m at a convention, Theodora wants to socialize, because after all that’s what she’s there for. Dora wants to get to sleep not too late, because she knows otherwise they’re both going to be tired in the morning. Thea — well, when I’m at a convention, when I’m teaching, when I’m doing what I think of as work, she’s not there. She’s been left at home. She doesn’t like to go to such things. She just wants to walk in gardens and nature preserves. She just wants to read Willa Cather or write novels, stories, poems. She has very little interest in practical life.

I don’t think there’s any need to unify them. They’re like three sisters, living happily together in one house. This morning, Dora made breakfast, and now Thea is writing this. She’s the one who writes these sorts of things. Theodora is getting a much-deserved rest. She taught all semester, and she really, really needs some time off.

Who are the selves that live inside you? I bet there are at least three of them. The key to a successful life, I think, is getting them to live in harmony, like siblings who love each other even though they quarrel sometimes. And knowing which one to be at any particular time, because Dora can’t do what Theodora does, and Theodora can’t write the way Thea can, and so on. The key is being able to move smoothly among your selves, and to accept them each and all as part of who you are — they are all you, even though they are different.

The key is being able, and willing, to accept your own multiplicity and contradictions. Which I, I think, good training for life itself.


The image is Summer Clouds by Charles Courtney Curran. I thought it fit the theme of this post very well . . .

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How We Live Now

I’ve been anxious and stressed for several weeks now. One reason, of course, is the election. Another is that I simply have so much work to do this semester — it’s been overwhelming. The world seems darker than it did, and life in it seems more difficult, less certain. It feels as though life is one never-ending cycle of work and worry — as though this is all there is, and all there ever will be until, well, death I suppose. Last night I could not get to sleep for hours. When I finally did get to sleep, I dreamed that I was on an island, looking for a house, and first I could not find it, second I did not have the key, and then I went for a swim in the ocean and worried about drowning. I don’t think we need Freud to interpret that one! In terms of the political situation, I have not felt this particular sensation since before the Berlin Wall fell — I still remember what that was like, when I was a teenager. Suddenly, the world felt more free. Now, suddenly, I’m worried that it will become less so.

When I’m not sure what to do, how to live, I give myself principles to live by. I find they help because, no matter what happens in the world outside me, at least I know what I should do in response. At least I can control the world inside myself, to some extent. I thought about how we live now, how we should live now. Really, this is no different than what I would have written a month ago, a year ago. But now, I think, it may be particularly helpful. Here, then, are some principles for living in our difficult, complicated world:

1. Don’t be evil. Don’t condone or collaborate with evil.

This isn’t really that complicated. Don’t hurt people. Don’t exploit them. Don’t treat them as though they were less important, less worthy of respect. Don’t lie to them. This may seem overly simplistic, but if people refrained from being evil, from participating in or condoning evil — from abusing each other, exploiting each other for profit — I mean, that would be a very different world, wouldn’t it?

We may disagree in some cases about what constitutes evil, but I think in most instances, most people will agree: Allowing children to drink water tainted with lead is evil. Stealing employees’ wages is evil. Making a racist joke is evil. (Yes, words can be evil, and they can create the conditions for evil acts.)

All this requires is negative action — don’t do it.

2. Do the most good you can, to the best of your ability.

This requires positive action — figure out what you can do, and do that. Help to the best of your ability, whatever that is. Is it donating money to an organization that fights for social justice or helps the needy? Is it doing something directly yourself to help another person? Is it doing your job well and honestly? Is it taking care of one child, one animal? Well, do that.

Figure out what you can do, make a plan, and do it. And then keep doing it.

3. Take care of yourself, because you matter.

You’re not going to do anyone any good if you don’t take care of yourself. You know this, right? Do the best you can to make sure that you’re staying healthy, and that your bills are paid. By extension, take care of your family and your home. You’re not going to be effective in the world if you’re stressed, tired, overwhelmed. (These are words I try to remember, when I myself am stressed, tired, overwhelmed — as I am now.)

Taking care of yourself is not selfish or a cop-out. It’s a necessary precondition for (1) doing good and (2) not being evil. It’s much easier to do, and not do, those things when you yourself are well.

And by the way, accept that you will sometimes fail at the things I’ve listed above, as you will fail at anything you do. Pick yourself up and try again.

4. Live as though the world you wanted to live in already existed.

Imagine the world you want to live in. For me, it’s a world where we are all more environmentally conscious, where we support the arts and cultural institutions, where everyone is valued. So, you know, I try. I take public transportation, I buy organic produce, I try to recycle. I buy yearly memberships to the art museum. I splurge on the ballet, because I want to live in a city with a ballet. I subscribe to newspapers I want to make sure survive. I try to be a good, effective teacher — fair to my students, kind but also challenging them to write better, think more deeply.

I want to live in a world with less consumerism, where repairing items is valued over buying new ones, so I mend my clothes. I take my boots to the cobbler to be re-soled. I want to live in a world where literature matters, so I buy books. I support small businesses and environmental causes.

These things also make me feel better: they make me feel as though at least I’m doing something, not simply accepting things as they are. Because, and this is the last thing I’ll say, no one person will save the world. Trust me on this: no one is coming out of the sky to make this world better. We all have to do it ourselves, one small gesture at a time. But those small gestures add up to something much larger, which is the whole point.

You are not responsible for saving the world. But we are all responsible for doing our part.


(The print is by Hokusai. I thought it captured the feel of what I was trying to say here . . .)

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Writing Is/as Work

Confession: last night I was up until 3:30 a.m. working on a novel. Was that good for me? Well no, probably not. But it was good for the novel, because I wrote a scene that I really like. Today I’m tired, but I have that scene on my typing stand. Tonight I’ll revise and add to it, although I can’t stay up that late again because tomorrow I have to teach. Why do I push myself in this way? Because writing is part of my job. I have deadlines to meet, novels to write and get out there into the world. I’m a writer . . . so I write.

Recently, there was an article published, somewhere or other, making the argument that writing is not a job. Well, I guess that depends on how you define a job. I mean, if you define it as something that provides you with steady income, health benefits, and a retirement plan, then no, writing isn’t a job. But then, a lot of other freelance work doesn’t qualify either.

I like the idea of writing as a job, because that’s what it feels like when I’m actually doing it. When I started thinking about this subject, I remembered two quotations that have always bothered me. Here’s the first one:

“There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.” –Ernest Hemingway

I don’t know if Hemingway actually said this — it’s simply one of the things attributed to him on the internet. And it sounds good, doesn’t it? It’s pithy, and truthy . . . it feels true. We often think of writing as self-expression, so it feels true to say that writing is like bleeding. Why don’t I like the quotation? Because I’ve written before, and I’ve bled before, and bleeding is a lot easier. More painful, but easier in that you’re not sitting there bleeding for hours at a time, mentally engaged in bleeding, trying to bleed well, bleed so the reader can follow along, so she doesn’t put the book down and say, “What boring blood. I think I’ll go see what’s on Netflix.”

Of course the quotation isn’t talking about actually bleeding, but what it implies is that writing involves sitting down at your typewriter/keyboard and letting your emotions pour forth, as though you were bleeding. That attitude is expressed in the second quotation I dislike:

“No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.” — Robert Frost

Maybe Frost really did say that? What I dislike about it is that it assumes the writer is a sort of emotional conduit. He or she must feel something, so the reader can later feel it. If you want your reader to cry, you must first cry . . . But that’s not true. Writing is an art, but it’s also a craft, and I can make a reader cry without, while I am writing, feeling anything in particular myself. All I have to do is describe something likely to make a reader cry, and then hopefully the reader will respond.  But the reading experience exists independently of the writing experience. The reader and writer are not in a symbiotic relationship. The reader may well decide that the scene I wrote so emotionally myself is really quite funny. If I’m a good writer, I should be able to make most readers cry, depending on my knowledge of what makes most people cry. Hemingway supposedly wrote a devastating six-word story: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” I read that, and it makes me tear up. He supposedly wrote it on a restaurant napkin in response to a bet. I don’t think he was tearing up as he wrote it.  If he did write it, I think he did so feeling rather smug that he could pull it off.

My point here is that writing takes craft and skill, and the writer is like any other artist: a painter, a composer. A Monet may well make you cry, but I don’t think Monet was crying as he painted it — he was painting. Yes, he may well have drawn on moments he had cried in the past, and writers do that — sometimes, when I’m stuck on an emotional scene, I’ll think about how I felt at an analogous moment and remember that. I’ll try to reproduce the emotion inside myself, based on memories.  But it’s in the service of description, and I know that if I don’t describe whatever it is I’m describing well, it’s not going to raise any sort of emotional response in the reader. That depends on my craft and skill.

Writing is a job, and it feels like a job — there are deadlines, there is work to be done. Sometimes I love doing it, sometimes I don’t, but I do it anyway because it’s my job to finish that particular story, that novel.  And honestly, I find the idea of writing as a job reassuring. If I woke up in the morning thinking, “I need to be an artist today,” I would probably go hide under the covers again. But if I think, “I need to get out of bed and write a chapter,” I will go do my job, using everything I have learned, all my intellect, whatever techniques I have. Because that’s how it’s done.


(I don’t know where this image is from, but I love that it’s of a girl writing.)

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