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1. I Didn’t See it Coming

I didn't see it coming

I didn’t hear it coming.

For an opening line I think it works. What do you think?

See what coming? Exactly!

The reader is going keep reading to find out, and isn’t that the overarching purpose of the first sentence—to compel the reader to read the second sentence. Etc.

I was going to write a blog piece on “openings.” By examining the first paragraphs of my upcoming book, The Writer in Love, I would assess the effectiveness of my beginning, see if it…

  • Established a Central Question
  • Made a promise
  • Set a trajectory

But that opening line got hold of me and wouldn’t let go. It wanted this blog post all to itself.

I sure didn’t see that coming.

Then it hit me—that line echoed far beyond Page One. So innocently tossed onto the page many months ago, it infected the entire manuscript, becoming a major motif throughout the book.

The cheetah is the first and most obvious thing I didn’t see coming. It approached me from behind and grabbed my hand in its mouth and wouldn’t let to. True story. I didn’t see it coming was the perfect way to establish an essential fact of fiction:

Protagonists never see it coming.

Drama depends on it.

Protagonists don’t see what coming? That which will destroy them. For their own good! It’s amazing how many times we can hear the poets and the mystics say something like this…

“Our body is a ship that sails on deep blue waters. What is our goal? To be shipwrecked!”

And still we complain, “I didn’t see it coming.”

Neither do writers see it coming.

We get in over our heads, trust me. We get excited about creating the kinds of payoffs that give readers their money’s worth. We find ourselves writing about characters whose only way out of Act II is to surrender to the storm, and by that I mean forsake who they’ve always thought they were.

I didn’t see that I was laying a trap for myself by trying to write in depth about such sacred story mechanics. I was in way over my head. I was drowning, myself. I almost quit. I didn’t see that coming, either.

I wrote a scene in which I drown. (That was fun.) I didn’t see that coming, either.

I never expected to take almost two years to write The Writer in Love.

To be honest, I never anticipated becoming a writer. I was going to be a mapmaker.

I never thought I’d have children until I tended my grandfather on his deathbed.

Nor did I imagine my children having children!

I didn’t foresee my website vanishing a few weeks ago. I thought I’d lost everything. I was resigned to starting over, but most of it is resurrected, and with a new design. Look, I’m blogging again!

The cool thing about blogging is you can start with a line like, I didn’t see it coming, and see where it goes. Because we don’t write to explain, we write to find out.

We might equally say that we live to find out.

I’ve found out a lot while writing The Writer in Love. And it all started with this opening scene:

I didn’t hear it coming.

It hadn’t finished devouring the bait when my Bolex ran out of film, so I retreated but slowly, walking away through the elephant grass when it surprised me from behind by clamping down on my hand hard enough to hold me but not break the skin. The growl in its guts, I could feel the vibration in my arm if you can imagine that. And then in my own belly. It’s a funny thing when your life stops suddenly dead in its tracks, it’s not funny at all because there you are for the first time without a future. As for the past, well, it’s your fault—my fault!—I had been carrying the bloody bait in that hand. Of course, the cat could smell it. I could see that now.

I should have seen it coming.

 

 

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2. Case of the Missing Website

The VoidBeloved Subscribers…

You probably haven’t noticed but my website vanished into the e-ether for ten days. On the fifth anniversary of my blog!

My brother has been working hard to track it down, talk it down, and convince it to come home.

It appears to be back, but you can never tell for how long. It may escape again before I’ve appeased its wanderlust with promises I might not be able to keep.

Should that happen, it might take off with my subscription email list. In which case I’ve lost track of you. My worst nightmare! If you don’t hear from me for a while, manually log in to http://www.pjreece.ca and re-subscribe.

I hope it doesn’t come to that.

I’m sure I can come to some understanding with my blog. I suspect it’s feeling under-employed of late, what with my once-a-month postings. Perhaps that’s the lesson it wanted to teach me.

I’m going to make amends, starting soon with posts of the first few chapters of my new book. It’s almost finished. It’s called The Writer in Love, a hot and sweaty read.

I should add that the heat and stink issues mainly from the jungle river up which my literary expedition travels in search of the story heart. But there’s a little sex as well. You should hear crocodiles mating! Seriously.

Okay, that’s my quickie for today… hope this publishes before the digital house of cards collapses again.

Buenas noches.

PJ

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3. Case of the Missing Website

The VoidBeloved Subscribers…

You probably haven’t noticed but my website vanished into the e-ether for ten days. On the fifth anniversary of my blog!

My brother has been working hard to track it down, talk it down, and convince it to come home.

It appears to be back, but you can never tell for how long. It may escape again before I’ve appeased its wanderlust with promises I might not be able to keep.

Should that happen, it might take off with my subscription email list. In which case I’ve lost track of you. My worst nightmare! If you don’t hear from me for a while, manually log in to http://www.pjreece.ca and re-subscribe.

I hope it doesn’t come to that.

I’m sure I can come to some understanding with my blog. I suspect it’s feeling under-employed of late, what with my once-a-month postings. Perhaps that’s the lesson it wanted to teach me.

I’m going to make amends, starting soon with posts of the first few chapters of my new book. It’s almost finished. It’s called The Writer in Love, a hot and sweaty read.

I should add that the heat and stink issues mainly from the jungle river up which my literary expedition travels in search of the story heart. But there’s a little sex as well. You should hear crocodiles mating! Seriously.

Okay, that’s my quickie for today… hope this publishes before the digital house of cards collapses again.

Buenas noches.

PJ

Add a Comment
4. The Case of the Missing Website

The voidBeloved Subscribers…

You probably haven’t noticed but my website vanished into the e-ether for ten days. On the fifth anniversary of my blog!

My brother has been working hard to track it down, talk it down, and convince it to come home.

It appears to be back, but you can never tell for how long. It may escape again before I’ve appeased its wanderlust with promises I might not be able to keep.

Should that happen, it might take off with my subscription email list. In which case I’ve lost track of you. My worst nightmare! If you don’t hear from me for a while, manually log in to http://www.pjreece.ca and re-subscribe.

I hope it doesn’t come to that.

I’m sure I can come to some understanding with my blog. I suspect it’s feeling under-employed of late, what with my once-a-month postings. Perhaps that’s the lesson it wanted to teach me.

I’m going to make amends, starting soon with posts of the first few chapters of my new book. It’s almost finished. It’s called The Writer in Love, a hot and sweaty read.

I should add that the heat and stink issues mainly from the jungle river up which my literary expedition travels in search of the story heart. But there’s a little sex as well. You should hear crocodiles mating! Seriously.

Okay, that’s my quickie for today… hope this publishes before the digital house of cards collapses again.

Buenas noches.

PJ

Add a Comment
5. Hello world!

Welcome to WordPress. This is your first post. Edit or delete it, then start blogging!

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6. Who in their Right Mind Would Be a Writer?

a-m-boyle Struggling WriterA writer buddy of mine phones up and tells me to meet him on the first tee in 45 minutes.

Say no more.

I love hanging out with writers. I love their lack of common sense, their desperation, their vulnerability, their implausibility. Their impossibility!

Who in their right mind would be a writer?

I especially love watching movies about struggling writers.

Joe in Sunset Boulevard, and Roy in You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, and Henry in Factotum, and Charlie in Adaptation, and The Ghost Writer, and of course Miles (Paul Giamatti) in the film Sideways.

Miles (introvert, pessimistic, depressed) spends most of the story waiting to hear from his literary agent. The news won’t be good. Writers don’t show up in stories as symbols of success. They are setups for failure.

Someone should make a movie of my life.

Forget the first 40 years, they were altogether too glamorous. No, my life more truly started when my 13-year-old son called a meeting to say, “I’m in Grade Seven, Dad, and I’ve attended fifteen different schools.”

I said, “Wash your mouth out with soap,” but it turns out he wasn’t exaggerating.

“Pops, I want you to settle down,” he said.

So I quit shooting films, traded camera for keyboard, and decided that henceforth I was a writer. It was great. I soon became so broke that my son’s mother sent support payments from Hawaii.

Once, I forced my son to accompany me to the Welfare Office. They gave me so much money it was humiliating—rent, medical and dental care, bus passes, food vouchers, extra cash. I had to cut them off.

Though I soon acquired a stable of clients, every November it seemed I was scrambling to pay the rent. I sucked up my pride and hit the streets to sell door to door. Water filters, home insulation, sports videos, memberships, you name it, even vacuum cleaners.

I spent eight hours performing a demo for an Italian household. The extended family showed up to watch and applaud as my machine hoovered that mansion top to bottom. I thought they were going to adopt me. Alas, no sale.

I remember one cold, dark and stormy night somewhere out in Vacuumland huddling in a phone booth, demo machine in one hand and phone in the other as I listened to my agent promise me my script was all but sold. Alas, optioned three times, it’s yours, cheap.

One day the Revenue Department came snooping around to deny me my business expenses. It didn’t take her long to realize she couldn’t squeeze blood from a stone. Lost for words, she said, “Well, Mr. Reece…keep writing.”

Thank you, Ms. Klenck. And I did exactly that.

type-inI entered writing competitions—the 3-Day Novel Competition, Short Story Challenges, Screenplay Competitions, and Pitch-a-Plot workshops. But it is with special fondness that I remember the “24-Hour One-Act Play Competition”—all of us wannabe playwrights sequestered into one room.

Twelve hours into my scenario about a kid who is abducted off a golf course (well, they tell you to write what you know), I thought it would be wise to review what I’d written. I pushed back from my typewriter (that’s right, a typewriter!) and unenscrolled the paper from the rollers.

Typing on dot-matrix computer paperI was typing onto dot-matrix computer paper, you know, a continuous feed. I separated the sheets along the perforations and made a nice little stack which then fell to the floor. Thirty-five UN-NUMBERED sheets all helter-skelter.

I couldn’t organize the pages, couldn’t find the continuity, couldn’t put Humpty back together again. If I didn’t bolt from the room I was going to cry. It was 4:00 a.m.

Walking the streets, I was Miles and Roy and Henry and every fictional writer who ever agreed to let their creator thwart them to the point of despair and even self-loathing. Why weren’t the cameras rolling?

At a convenience store I suffocated my existential crisis with anchovy & garlic pizza. That I was a writer caused the proprietor to reflect on his own life, roads not taken, etc. Lamenting his lack of courage to lead an art-committed life, he said something along the lines of:

If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”

I knew there was a reason, besides my son’s ultimatum, why I was a writer.

At the same time I realized why I love movies about writers. As symbols of failure, writers depict Everyman at the brink of surrender. The struggling writer shows us what deep down we fear most—that the meaning of a life is to leave our old selves behind.

To be a writer is to have the courage to become unselved.

Spirits bolstered, I returned to the drama den—and damned if my abduction story didn’t win First Prize.

My words since then have earned me a million bucks, which, admittedly, spread over twenty years is a modest living. But I’m proud to count myself as someone struggling to bring forth what’s in him.

Who in their right mind would be a writer? I think that being a writer indicates nothing but right-mindedness.

But getting back to my son—I’d ring him for a golf game except the kid is doing so well that he’s off playing Pebble Beach. Last year it was The Old Course in St. Andrews. Next month Augusta National, it wouldn’t surprise me.

I might have to tell him to settle down.

PJ & son back then

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7. Who in their Right Mind Would Be a Writer?

a-m-boyle Struggling WriterA writer buddy of mine phones up and tells me to meet him on the first tee in 45 minutes.

Say no more.

I love hanging out with writers. I love their lack of common sense, their desperation, their vulnerability, their implausibility. Their impossibility!

Who in their right mind would be a writer?

I especially love watching movies about struggling writers.

Joe in Sunset Boulevard, and Roy in You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, and Henry in Factotum, and Charlie in Adaptation, and The Ghost Writer, and of course Miles (Paul Giamatti) in the film Sideways.

Miles (introvert, pessimistic, depressed) spends most of the story waiting to hear from his literary agent. The news won’t be good. Writers don’t show up in stories as symbols of success. They are setups for failure.

Someone should make a movie of my life.

Forget the first 40 years, they were altogether too glamorous. No, my life more truly started when my 13-year-old son called a meeting to say, “I’m in Grade Seven, Dad, and I’ve attended fifteen different schools.”

I said, “Wash your mouth out with soap,” but it turns out he wasn’t exaggerating.

“Pops, I want you to settle down,” he said.

So I quit shooting films, traded camera for keyboard, and decided that henceforth I was a writer. It was great. I soon became so broke that my son’s mother sent support payments from Hawaii.

Once, I forced my son to accompany me to the Welfare Office. They gave me so much money it was humiliating—rent, medical and dental care, bus passes, food vouchers, extra cash. I had to cut them off.

Though I soon acquired a stable of clients, every November it seemed I was scrambling to pay the rent. I sucked up my pride and hit the streets to sell door to door. Water filters, home insulation, sports videos, memberships, you name it, even vacuum cleaners.

I spent eight hours performing a demo for an Italian household. The extended family showed up to watch and applaud as my machine hoovered that mansion top to bottom. I thought they were going to adopt me. Alas, no sale.

I remember one cold, dark and stormy night somewhere out in Vacuumland huddling in a phone booth, demo machine in one hand and phone in the other as I listened to my agent promise me my script was all but sold. Alas, optioned three times, it’s yours, cheap.

One day the Revenue Department came snooping around to deny me my business expenses. It didn’t take her long to realize she couldn’t squeeze blood from a stone. Lost for words, she said, “Well, Mr. Reece…keep writing.”

Thank you, Ms. Klenck. And I did exactly that.

type-inI entered writing competitions—the 3-Day Novel Competition, Short Story Challenges, Screenplay Competitions, and Pitch-a-Plot workshops. But it is with special fondness that I remember the “24-Hour One-Act Play Competition”—all of us wannabe playwrights sequestered into one room.

Twelve hours into my scenario about a kid who is abducted off a golf course (well, they tell you to write what you know), I thought it would be wise to review what I’d written. I pushed back from my typewriter (that’s right, a typewriter!) and unenscrolled the paper from the rollers.

Typing on dot-matrix computer paperI was typing onto dot-matrix computer paper, you know, a continuous feed. I separated the sheets along the perforations and made a nice little stack which then fell to the floor. Thirty-five UN-NUMBERED sheets all helter-skelter.

I couldn’t organize the pages, couldn’t find the continuity, couldn’t put Humpty back together again. If I didn’t bolt from the room I was going to cry. It was 4:00 a.m.

Walking the streets, I was Miles and Roy and Henry and every fictional writer who ever agreed to let their creator thwart them to the point of despair and even self-loathing. Why weren’t the cameras rolling?

At a convenience store I suffocated my existential crisis with anchovy & garlic pizza. That I was a writer caused the proprietor to reflect on his own life, roads not taken, etc. Lamenting his lack of courage to lead an art-committed life, he said something along the lines of:

If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”

I knew there was a reason, besides my son’s ultimatum, why I was a writer.

At the same time I realized why I love movies about writers. As symbols of failure, writers depict Everyman at the brink of surrender. The struggling writer shows us what deep down we fear most—that the meaning of a life is to leave our old selves behind.

To be a writer is to have the courage to become unselved.

Spirits bolstered, I returned to the drama den—and damned if my abduction story didn’t win First Prize.

My words since then have earned me a million bucks, which, admittedly, spread over twenty years is a modest living. But I’m proud to count myself as someone struggling to bring forth what’s in him.

Who in their right mind would be a writer? I think that being a writer indicates nothing but right-mindedness.

But getting back to my son—I’d ring him for a golf game except the kid is doing so well that he’s off playing Pebble Beach. Last year it was The Old Course in St. Andrews. Next month Augusta National, it wouldn’t surprise me.

I might have to tell him to settle down.

PJ & son back then

Add a Comment
8. Who in their Right Mind Would Be a Writer?

a-m-boyle Struggling WriterA writer buddy of mine phones up and tells me to meet him on the first tee in 45 minutes.

Say no more.

I love hanging out with writers. I love their lack of common sense, their desperation, their vulnerability, their implausibility. Their impossibility!

Who in their right mind would be a writer?

I especially love watching movies about struggling writers.

Joe in Sunset Boulevard, and Roy in You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, and Henry in Factotum, and Charlie in Adaptation, and The Ghost Writer, and of course Miles (Paul Giamatti) in the film Sideways.

Miles (introvert, pessimistic, depressed) spends most of the story waiting to hear from his literary agent. The news won’t be good. Writers don’t show up in stories as symbols of success. They are setups for failure.

Someone should make a movie of my life.

Forget the first 40 years, they were altogether too glamorous. No, my life more truly started when my 13-year-old son called a meeting to say, “I’m in Grade Seven, Dad, and I’ve attended fifteen different schools.”

I said, “Wash your mouth out with soap,” but it turns out he wasn’t exaggerating.

“Pops, I want you to settle down,” he said.

So I quit shooting films, traded camera for keyboard, and decided that henceforth I was a writer. It was great. I soon became so broke that my son’s mother sent support payments from Hawaii.

Once, I forced my son to accompany me to the Welfare Office. They gave me so much money it was humiliating—rent, medical and dental care, bus passes, food vouchers, extra cash. I had to cut them off.

Though I soon acquired a stable of clients, every November it seemed I was scrambling to pay the rent. I sucked up my pride and hit the streets to sell door to door. Water filters, home insulation, sports videos, memberships, you name it, even vacuum cleaners.

I spent eight hours performing a demo for an Italian household. The extended family showed up to watch and applaud as my machine hoovered that mansion top to bottom. I thought they were going to adopt me. Alas, no sale.

I remember one cold, dark and stormy night somewhere out in Vacuumland huddling in a phone booth, demo machine in one hand and phone in the other as I listened to my agent promise me my script was all but sold. Alas, optioned three times, it’s yours, cheap.

One day the Revenue Department came snooping around to deny me my business expenses. It didn’t take her long to realize she couldn’t squeeze blood from a stone. Lost for words, she said, “Well, Mr. Reece…keep writing.”

Thank you, Ms. Klenck. And I did exactly that.

type-inI entered writing competitions—the 3-Day Novel Competition, Short Story Challenges, Screenplay Competitions, and Pitch-a-Plot workshops. But it is with special fondness that I remember the “24-Hour One-Act Play Competition”—all of us wannabe playwrights sequestered into one room.

Twelve hours into my scenario about a kid who is abducted off a golf course (well, they tell you to write what you know), I thought it would be wise to review what I’d written. I pushed back from my typewriter (that’s right, a typewriter!) and unenscrolled the paper from the rollers.

Typing on dot-matrix computer paperI was typing onto dot-matrix computer paper, you know, a continuous feed. I separated the sheets along the perforations and made a nice little stack which then fell to the floor. Thirty-five UN-NUMBERED sheets all helter-skelter.

I couldn’t organize the pages, couldn’t find the continuity, couldn’t put Humpty back together again. If I didn’t bolt from the room I was going to cry. It was 4:00 a.m.

Walking the streets, I was Miles and Roy and Henry and every fictional writer who ever agreed to let their creator thwart them to the point of despair and even self-loathing. Why weren’t the cameras rolling?

At a convenience store I suffocated my existential crisis with anchovy & garlic pizza. That I was a writer caused the proprietor to reflect on his own life, roads not taken, etc. Lamenting his lack of courage to lead an art-committed life, he said something along the lines of:

If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”

I knew there was a reason, besides my son’s ultimatum, why I was a writer.

At the same time I realized why I love movies about writers. As symbols of failure, writers depict Everyman at the brink of surrender. The struggling writer shows us what deep down we fear most—that the meaning of a life is to leave our old selves behind.

To be a writer is to have the courage to become unselved.

Spirits bolstered, I returned to the drama den—and damned if my abduction story didn’t win First Prize.

My words since then have earned me a million bucks, which, admittedly, spread over twenty years is a modest living. But I’m proud to count myself as someone struggling to bring forth what’s in him.

Who in their right mind would be a writer? I think that being a writer indicates nothing but right-mindedness.

But getting back to my son—I’d ring him for a golf game except the kid is doing so well that he’s off playing Pebble Beach. Last year it was The Old Course in St. Andrews. Next month Augusta National, it wouldn’t surprise me.

I might have to tell him to settle down.

PJ & son back then

Add a Comment
9. Email from the Black Hole

While mucking around Africa in my last post, I ran into Dr. David Livingstone. He was dying as he lived, by the motto:

“I’ll go anywhere as long as it is forward.”

The mail poured in. Readers often tell me what they think of me—by email as much as through the Comments function on this blog.

Mu McGregor Mu McGregor

One such e-essay came from Douglas Mu McGregor, whom I know as an artist, songwriter, and above all an incorrigible truth-seeker. With McGregor’s permission, here’s what David Livingstone’s deathbed scene stirred up for him:

Back in 1982 I arrived in Vancouver by Greyhound bus after a harrowing adventure in Mexico. I had just ended a relationship, I was sick, broke, and miserable. As I got off the bus I saw a large sign on a brick wall on the other side of the road:

“You Can Never Go Back!”

This made me highly exhilarated and incredibly sad at the same time. Going back was my comfort food, my Kraft dinner, my go-to for relief from the pressure of the now. My exhilaration came from knowing I had a blank canvas in front of me—I could do anything!

But why would the Now have pressure? Is it because the Now requires my unwavering presence, and is therefore a lot of work?

Most of us have the same idea about past-present-future. But if you are a forward-moving entity, you have to throw the conventional model in the garbage. If you are in the Now, you aren’t in the past. You are certainly not in the future. But being in the Now is moving forward.

When a contemporary artist faces a large blank canvas, it is intimidating. He makes his first stroke—he adds to that stroke—and soon he has a painting that has never existed before. Einstein said that if he wanted to create something new, he would start from a place he had never been before. This is exciting stuff because it is all newness.

I know a woman who is about 65 years old, who, 40 years previously had belonged to a cutting edge community involved in advanced psychology and meditation. She says the years spent there were the most exciting time of her life. With a far off misty look in her eyes (an indication that one is not present) she would show me photographs and explain how much she loved this time and how happy and alive she was. This was infers that she no longer is.

This is not forward-moving-ness.

My mom died last year. I celebrated her life and I loved her dearly, but if I were to continue poring sentimentally over old photographs and reminiscing about my poor old mom, I can hear her whispering loudly in my ear, “Get a life!”

Enter David Livingstone, who was quoted as saying, “Sympathy is no substitute for action”.

Forward movers are too busy to hang out in the twilight zone of what could have been, would have been, or should have been.

In the end, Livingstone was too busy meeting his maker to contemplate what could have been. Deeply religious, he was on his knees in direct communication with his God. He was in the action of the Now… or was he?

There is little sentiment in a forward mover. I like to say that forward moving is “progressive insurance for the now,” by which I mean that “forward!” is insurance against the morbidity of returning to sentiment and self-sympathy.

People in wartime often express forward-thinking. It’s hard to live in the past with bombs dropping on your head. You are too busy surviving the now to think about anything else. Interestingly, these same people will be forever reminiscing about their wartime experiences as the most alive time of their lives.

The key to being a forward-mover is to be busy as hell, to follow my passion and take no prisoners. And when I die and I meet my maker, with a straight face I can say: “God, I presume?”

That may sound like a good conclusion, but I’m not finished!

The question remains for me—was David Livingstone moving forward on his death bed? Alas, I suspect he was firmly tethered to his God. As for me, I confess to sitting out here in space tethered (umbilical-like) to the mother ship of my thoughts, feelings and emotions.

For me, an appropriate forward movement would be action arising in the black hole within me, from which no thought could escape. From the black hole, only the unthinkable is born…

A pair of scissors! Floating towards me through space!


I invite all readers of this blog to weigh in on my explorations and (often apocryphal) assertions. By email, or preferably in the COMMENTS section below.

 

Add a Comment
10. Email from the Black Hole

While mucking around Africa in my last post, I ran into Dr. David Livingstone. He was dying as he lived, by the motto:

“I’ll go anywhere as long as it is forward.”

The mail poured in. Readers often tell me what they think of me—by email as much as through the Comments function on this blog.

Mu McGregor Mu McGregor

One such e-essay came from Douglas Mu McGregor, whom I know as an artist, songwriter, and above all an incorrigible truth-seeker. With McGregor’s permission, here’s what David Livingstone’s deathbed scene stirred up for him:

Back in 1982 I arrived in Vancouver by Greyhound bus after a harrowing adventure in Mexico. I had just ended a relationship, I was sick, broke, and miserable. As I got off the bus I saw a large sign on a brick wall on the other side of the road:

“You Can Never Go Back!”

This made me highly exhilarated and incredibly sad at the same time. Going back was my comfort food, my Kraft dinner, my go-to for relief from the pressure of the now. My exhilaration came from knowing I had a blank canvas in front of me—I could do anything!

But why would the Now have pressure? Is it because the Now requires my unwavering presence, and is therefore a lot of work?

Most of us have the same idea about past-present-future. But if you are a forward-moving entity, you have to throw the conventional model in the garbage. If you are in the Now, you aren’t in the past. You are certainly not in the future. But being in the Now is moving forward.

When a contemporary artist faces a large blank canvas, it is intimidating. He makes his first stroke—he adds to that stroke—and soon he has a painting that has never existed before. Einstein said that if he wanted to create something new, he would start from a place he had never been before. This is exciting stuff because it is all newness.

I know a woman who is about 65 years old, who, 40 years previously had belonged to a cutting edge community involved in advanced psychology and meditation. She says the years spent there were the most exciting time of her life. With a far off misty look in her eyes (an indication that one is not present) she would show me photographs and explain how much she loved this time and how happy and alive she was. This was infers that she no longer is.

This is not forward-moving-ness.

My mom died last year. I celebrated her life and I loved her dearly, but if I were to continue poring sentimentally over old photographs and reminiscing about my poor old mom, I can hear her whispering loudly in my ear, “Get a life!”

Enter David Livingstone, who was quoted as saying, “Sympathy is no substitute for action”.

Forward movers are too busy to hang out in the twilight zone of what could have been, would have been, or should have been.

In the end, Livingstone was too busy meeting his maker to contemplate what could have been. Deeply religious, he was on his knees in direct communication with his God. He was in the action of the Now… or was he?

There is little sentiment in a forward mover. I like to say that forward moving is “progressive insurance for the now,” by which I mean that “forward!” is insurance against the morbidity of returning to sentiment and self-sympathy.

People in wartime often express forward-thinking. It’s hard to live in the past with bombs dropping on your head. You are too busy surviving the now to think about anything else. Interestingly, these same people will be forever reminiscing about their wartime experiences as the most alive time of their lives.

The key to being a forward-mover is to be busy as hell, to follow my passion and take no prisoners. And when I die and I meet my maker, with a straight face I can say: “God, I presume?”

That may sound like a good conclusion, but I’m not finished!

The question remains for me—was David Livingstone moving forward on his death bed? Alas, I suspect he was firmly tethered to his God. As for me, I confess to sitting out here in space tethered (umbilical-like) to the mother ship of my thoughts, feelings and emotions.

For me, an appropriate forward movement would be action arising in the black hole within me, from which no thought could escape. From the black hole, only the unthinkable is born…

A pair of scissors! Floating towards me through space!


I invite all readers of this blog to weigh in on my explorations and (often apocryphal) assertions. By email, or preferably in the COMMENTS section below.

 

Add a Comment
11. Email from the Black Hole

While mucking around Africa in my last post, I ran into Dr. David Livingstone. He was dying as he lived, by the motto:

“I’ll go anywhere as long as it is forward.”

The mail poured in. Readers often tell me what they think of me—by email as much as through the Comments function on this blog.

Mu McGregor

Mu McGregor

One such e-essay came from Douglas Mu McGregor, whom I know as an artist, songwriter, and above all an incorrigible truth-seeker. With McGregor’s permission, here’s what David Livingstone’s deathbed scene stirred up for him:

Back in 1982 I arrived in Vancouver by Greyhound bus after a harrowing adventure in Mexico. I had just ended a relationship, I was sick, broke, and miserable. As I got off the bus I saw a large sign on a brick wall on the other side of the road:

“You Can Never Go Back!”

This made me highly exhilarated and incredibly sad at the same time. Going back was my comfort food, my Kraft dinner, my go-to for relief from the pressure of the now. My exhilaration came from knowing I had a blank canvas in front of me—I could do anything!

But why would the Now have pressure? Is it because the Now requires my unwavering presence, and is therefore a lot of work?

Most of us have the same idea about past-present-future. But if you are a forward-moving entity, you have to throw the conventional model in the garbage. If you are in the Now, you aren’t in the past. You are certainly not in the future. But being in the Now is moving forward.

When a contemporary artist faces a large blank canvas, it is intimidating. He makes his first stroke—he adds to that stroke—and soon he has a painting that has never existed before. Einstein said that if he wanted to create something new, he would start from a place he had never been before. This is exciting stuff because it is all newness.

I know a woman who is about 65 years old, who, 40 years previously had belonged to a cutting edge community involved in advanced psychology and meditation. She says the years spent there were the most exciting time of her life. With a far off misty look in her eyes (an indication that one is not present) she would show me photographs and explain how much she loved this time and how happy and alive she was. This was infers that she no longer is.

This is not forward-moving-ness.

My mom died last year. I celebrated her life and I loved her dearly, but if I were to continue poring sentimentally over old photographs and reminiscing about my poor old mom, I can hear her whispering loudly in my ear, “Get a life!”

Enter David Livingstone, who was quoted as saying, “Sympathy is no substitute for action”.

Forward movers are too busy to hang out in the twilight zone of what could have been, would have been, or should have been.

In the end, Livingstone was too busy meeting his maker to contemplate what could have been. Deeply religious, he was on his knees in direct communication with his God. He was in the action of the Now… or was he?

There is little sentiment in a forward mover. I like to say that forward moving is “progressive insurance for the now,” by which I mean that “forward!” is insurance against the morbidity of returning to sentiment and self-sympathy.

People in wartime often express forward-thinking. It’s hard to live in the past with bombs dropping on your head. You are too busy surviving the now to think about anything else. Interestingly, these same people will be forever reminiscing about their wartime experiences as the most alive time of their lives.

The key to being a forward-mover is to be busy as hell, to follow my passion and take no prisoners. And when I die and I meet my maker, with a straight face I can say: “God, I presume?”

That may sound like a good conclusion, but I’m not finished!

The question remains for me—was David Livingstone moving forward on his death bed? Alas, I suspect he was firmly tethered to his God. As for me, I confess to sitting out here in space tethered (umbilical-like) to the mother ship of my thoughts, feelings and emotions.

For me, an appropriate forward movement would be action arising in the black hole within me, from which no thought could escape. From the black hole, only the unthinkable is born…

A pair of scissors! Floating towards me through space!


I invite all readers of this blog to weigh in on my explorations and (often apocryphal) assertions. By email, or preferably in the COMMENTS section below.

 

Add a Comment
12. I’ll Go Anywhere as Long as It Is Forward

Congo River circa 1880I’m mucking around south-central Africa in the year 1873.

I’m navigating my way through the heart of a story that started out as a faux-memoir about a journey into the “heart of darkness.”

Just when I felt sure I had morphed into pure fiction, I meet Dr. David Livingstone. On his deathbed.

David Livingstone, explorer and not-so-evangelical missionary, desperately needs help penning a letter—a response to a dispatch from his patrons in Europe. They have long been worried about his health and now they’re begging him to pack it in.

Give it up! Enough is enough!

Dr. David LivingstoneLivingstone has been years on the move in search of the source of the Nile. He’s so close he can smell it. And they want him to Come home!

“Tell them,” Livingstone says, “Tell them I’ll go anywhere…as long as it is forward.”

I’ll go anywhere, as long as it is forward.

There’s a mantra for a fictional protagonist.

My journey to Livingstone’s bedside begins with my literary slog up a tributary of the Congo River toward the heart of darkness. This is my work-in-progress, The Writer in Love. At the farthest reaches of this personal essay, the would-be protagonist (me), bogged down in a swamp-forest and despairing of not reaching the heart of his story, realizes he has “run out of geography.”

The protagonist runs out of geography.

I like the sound of that. It suggests the end of the plot within the realms of space and time. The story comes to a stop. Every good story grinds to a halt. Every worthy protagonist travels so far from home that he “runs out of geography.”

And yet the story is far from over. The major issues remain unresolved. So what happens? What happens to the most determined protagonists after their writer has (out of loving compassion) eroded the ground beneath their feet?

The hero moves forward in another realm.

Oh, really? Is that even possible? Does a study of fiction bear that out? More importantly, does it happen for real, in real life?

While the idea of transcending the plot may raise eyebrows, my essay-memoir-whatever-it-is serves up potent examples from Casablanca, The African Queen, and Out of Africa. Not to mention Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

But it is a real-life story that presents the most compelling evidence of an adventurer running out of geography. Conveniently, the event took place not far beyond the headwaters of the Congo River basin. Only three pages of narrative away—that’s all it takes!—and here I am at Livingstone’s deathbed helping him write that letter.

I’ll go anywhere as long as it is forward.

“Forward” served Livingstone as an article of faith in a vocation rife with disappointments, disillusionments, and dead-ends. It pushed him past the point of no return. It pushed him until he was running on empty, and it kept pushing him until malarial dysentery dissolved his intestines and he could no longer walk. Even then he didn’t want sympathy, didn’t allow his expedition to stop. They carried him until that became unendurable.

Now he lies dying in a daub and wattle hut. There being nothing more he wants from me, it is time to leave him alone.

At the door of the hut I turn to wish him Godspeed or whatever one says to someone about whom it is written* that they will die before dawn. Incredulous, I see that he has mobilized himself off his deathbed to a kneeling position beside his cot. I suppose he’s praying but look again—his palms are open upward. He’s not begging for anything, no, he’s offering. Offering what? What’s he got left?

Livingstone’s credo, like an inner flywheel still spinning, animates him even at death’s door. Forward! But to where? Can you imagine the nature of such a movement?

The Writer in Love is my attempt to explore that movement in fiction.

It is a protagonist’s forward motion in the aftermath of running out of geography that marks him or her as heroic. And if heroic strikes you as grandiose, then I invite you to consider that this everyday miracle (more so than the story’s climax) is what ultimately nourishes a reader.

Rick Blaine nourishes us in Casablanca. Likewise, Charlie Allnut in The African Queen. And the baroness Karen Blixen in Out of Africa. Their plots deliver each of them to the bitter end of who they thought they were. And if the protagonist isn’t exactly dying, he/she wishes they were.

Only now does our investment in their story pay off. The heroic disposition kicks in. Here at the deathbed of David Livingstone I’m seeing it with my own two eyes.

Dr. Livingstone has been beating his way around this African bundu for thirty years in the name of God and the Royal Geographic Society. His mapmaking days are over, he has run out of rivers and waterfalls and mountains. He has run out of time.

And yet as I watch Livingstone on his knees I feel no sadness at all. He may have run out geography but that’s so yesterday. The body is dying, sure, okay, I may even shed a tear for him, but corporeal does death not a tragic story make. Especially not when the protagonist on his deathbed says:

I’ll go anywhere as long as it is forward.

Instinctively a reader understands that the protagonist who empties himself has escaped the prison of his small self.

Look at Livingstone—he is still emptying himself. At the heart of the story, the protagonist discovers it’s the only way to move forward.

We don’t entirely understand how it works or where he’s going. It certainly doesn’t serve a protagonist to know such things. It’s only after the fact that we learn our trajectory was never other than toward this blessed emptiness.

As a wrap up to this piece, I’ll leave you with an account of David Livingstone’s death, as reported by his African lieutenants when his body—minus his heart—was delivered up for transport back to England:

Dr. Livingstone was kneeling by the side of his bed, his body stretched forward, his head buried in his hands upon the pillow. For a minute they watched him: he did not stir, there was no sign of breathing; then one of them, Matthew, advanced softly to him and placed his hands to his cheeks. It was sufficient; life had been extinct some time, and the body was almost cold: Livingstone was dead.*

*  from The Last Journals of David Livingstone (1869-1873).

 

Add a Comment
13. I’ll Go Anywhere as Long as It Is Forward

Congo River circa 1880I’m mucking around south-central Africa in the year 1873.

I’m navigating my way through the heart of a story that started out as a faux-memoir about a journey into the “heart of darkness.”

Just when I felt sure I had morphed into pure fiction, I meet Dr. David Livingstone. On his deathbed.

David Livingstone, explorer and not-so-evangelical missionary, desperately needs help penning a letter—a response to a dispatch from his patrons in Europe. They have long been worried about his health and now they’re begging him to pack it in.

Give it up! Enough is enough!

Dr. David LivingstoneLivingstone has been years on the move in search of the source of the Nile. He’s so close he can smell it. And they want him to Come home!

“Tell them,” Livingstone says, “Tell them I’ll go anywhere…as long as it is forward.”

I’ll go anywhere, as long as it is forward.

There’s a mantra for a fictional protagonist.

My journey to Livingstone’s bedside begins with my literary slog up a tributary of the Congo River toward the heart of darkness. This is my work-in-progress, The Writer in Love. At the farthest reaches of this personal essay, the would-be protagonist (me), bogged down in a swamp-forest and despairing of not reaching the heart of his story, realizes he has “run out of geography.”

The protagonist runs out of geography.

I like the sound of that. It suggests the end of the plot within the realms of space and time. The story comes to a stop. Every good story grinds to a halt. Every worthy protagonist travels so far from home that he “runs out of geography.”

And yet the story is far from over. The major issues remain unresolved. So what happens? What happens to the most determined protagonists after their writer has (out of loving compassion) eroded the ground beneath their feet?

The hero moves forward in another realm.

Oh, really? Is that even possible? Does a study of fiction bear that out? More importantly, does it happen for real, in real life?

While the idea of transcending the plot may raise eyebrows, my essay-memoir-whatever-it-is serves up potent examples from Casablanca, The African Queen, and Out of Africa. Not to mention Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

But it is a real-life story that presents the most compelling evidence of an adventurer running out of geography. Conveniently, the event took place not far beyond the headwaters of the Congo River basin. Only three pages of narrative away—that’s all it takes!—and here I am at Livingstone’s deathbed helping him write that letter.

I’ll go anywhere as long as it is forward.

“Forward” served Livingstone as an article of faith in a vocation rife with disappointments, disillusionments, and dead-ends. It pushed him past the point of no return. It pushed him until he was running on empty, and it kept pushing him until malarial dysentery dissolved his intestines and he could no longer walk. Even then he didn’t want sympathy, didn’t allow his expedition to stop. They carried him until that became unendurable.

Now he lies dying in a daub and wattle hut. There being nothing more he wants from me, it is time to leave him alone.

At the door of the hut I turn to wish him Godspeed or whatever one says to someone about whom it is written* that they will die before dawn. Incredulous, I see that he has mobilized himself off his deathbed to a kneeling position beside his cot. I suppose he’s praying but look again—his palms are open upward. He’s not begging for anything, no, he’s offering. Offering what? What’s he got left?

Livingstone’s credo, like an inner flywheel still spinning, animates him even at death’s door. Forward! But to where? Can you imagine the nature of such a movement?

The Writer in Love is my attempt to explore that movement in fiction.

It is a protagonist’s forward motion in the aftermath of running out of geography that marks him or her as heroic. And if heroic strikes you as grandiose, then I invite you to consider that this everyday miracle (more so than the story’s climax) is what ultimately nourishes a reader.

Rick Blaine nourishes us in Casablanca. Likewise, Charlie Allnut in The African Queen. And the baroness Karen Blixen in Out of Africa. Their plots deliver each of them to the bitter end of who they thought they were. And if the protagonist isn’t exactly dying, he/she wishes they were.

Only now does our investment in their story pay off. The heroic disposition kicks in. Here at the deathbed of David Livingstone I’m seeing it with my own two eyes.

Dr. Livingstone has been beating his way around this African bundu for thirty years in the name of God and the Royal Geographic Society. His mapmaking days are over, he has run out of rivers and waterfalls and mountains. He has run out of time.

And yet as I watch Livingstone on his knees I feel no sadness at all. He may have run out geography but that’s so yesterday. The body is dying, sure, okay, I may even shed a tear for him, but corporeal does death not a tragic story make. Especially not when the protagonist on his deathbed says:

I’ll go anywhere as long as it is forward.

Instinctively a reader understands that the protagonist who empties himself has escaped the prison of his small self.

Look at Livingstone—he is still emptying himself. At the heart of the story, the protagonist discovers it’s the only way to move forward.

We don’t entirely understand how it works or where he’s going. It certainly doesn’t serve a protagonist to know such things. It’s only after the fact that we learn our trajectory was never other than toward this blessed emptiness.

As a wrap up to this piece, I’ll leave you with an account of David Livingstone’s death, as reported by his African lieutenants when his body—minus his heart—was delivered up for transport back to England:

Dr. Livingstone was kneeling by the side of his bed, his body stretched forward, his head buried in his hands upon the pillow. For a minute they watched him: he did not stir, there was no sign of breathing; then one of them, Matthew, advanced softly to him and placed his hands to his cheeks. It was sufficient; life had been extinct some time, and the body was almost cold: Livingstone was dead.*

*  from The Last Journals of David Livingstone (1869-1873).

 

Add a Comment
14. I’ll Go Anywhere as Long as It Is Forward

Congo River circa 1880I’m mucking around south-central Africa in the year 1873.

I’m navigating my way through the heart of a story that started out as a faux-memoir about a journey into the “heart of darkness.”

Just when I felt sure I had morphed into pure fiction, I meet Dr. David Livingstone. On his deathbed.

David Livingstone, explorer and not-so-evangelical missionary, desperately needs help penning a letter—a response to a dispatch from his patrons in Europe. They have long been worried about his health and now they’re begging him to pack it in.

Give it up! Enough is enough!

Dr. David LivingstoneLivingstone has been years on the move in search of the source of the Nile. He’s so close he can smell it. And they want him to Come home!

“Tell them,” Livingstone says, “Tell them I’ll go anywhere…as long as it is forward.”

I’ll go anywhere, as long as it is forward.

There’s a mantra for a fictional protagonist.

My journey to Livingstone’s bedside begins with my literary slog up a tributary of the Congo River toward the heart of darkness. This is my work-in-progress, The Writer in Love. At the farthest reaches of this personal essay, the would-be protagonist (me), bogged down in a swamp-forest and despairing of not reaching the heart of his story, realizes he has “run out of geography.”

The protagonist runs out of geography.

I like the sound of that. It suggests the end of the plot within the realms of space and time. The story comes to a stop. Every good story grinds to a halt. Every worthy protagonist travels so far from home that he “runs out of geography.”

And yet the story is far from over. The major issues remain unresolved. So what happens? What happens to the most determined protagonists after their writer has (out of loving compassion) eroded the ground beneath their feet?

The hero moves forward in another realm.

Oh, really? Is that even possible? Does a study of fiction bear that out? More importantly, does it happen for real, in real life?

While the idea of transcending the plot may raise eyebrows, my essay-memoir-whatever-it-is serves up potent examples from Casablanca, The African Queen, and Out of Africa. Not to mention Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

But it is a real-life story that presents the most compelling evidence of an adventurer running out of geography. Conveniently, the event took place not far beyond the headwaters of the Congo River basin. Only three pages of narrative away—that’s all it takes!—and here I am at Livingstone’s deathbed helping him write that letter.

I’ll go anywhere as long as it is forward.

“Forward” served Livingstone as an article of faith in a vocation rife with disappointments, disillusionments, and dead-ends. It pushed him past the point of no return. It pushed him until he was running on empty, and it kept pushing him until malarial dysentery dissolved his intestines and he could no longer walk. Even then he didn’t want sympathy, didn’t allow his expedition to stop. They carried him until that became unendurable.

Now he lies dying in a daub and wattle hut. There being nothing more he wants from me, it is time to leave him alone.

At the door of the hut I turn to wish him Godspeed or whatever one says to someone about whom it is written* that they will die before dawn. Incredulous, I see that he has mobilized himself off his deathbed to a kneeling position beside his cot. I suppose he’s praying but look again—his palms are open upward. He’s not begging for anything, no, he’s offering. Offering what? What’s he got left?

Livingstone’s credo, like an inner flywheel still spinning, animates him even at death’s door. Forward! But to where? Can you imagine the nature of such a movement?

The Writer in Love is my attempt to explore that movement in fiction.

It is a protagonist’s forward motion in the aftermath of running out of geography that marks him or her as heroic. And if heroic strikes you as grandiose, then I invite you to consider that this everyday miracle (more so than the story’s climax) is what ultimately nourishes a reader.

Rick Blaine nourishes us in Casablanca. Likewise, Charlie Allnut in The African Queen. And the baroness Karen Blixen in Out of Africa. Their plots deliver each of them to the bitter end of who they thought they were. And if the protagonist isn’t exactly dying, he/she wishes they were.

Only now does our investment in their story pay off. The heroic disposition kicks in. Here at the deathbed of David Livingstone I’m seeing it with my own two eyes.

Dr. Livingstone has been beating his way around this African bundu for thirty years in the name of God and the Royal Geographic Society. His mapmaking days are over, he has run out of rivers and waterfalls and mountains. He has run out of time.

And yet as I watch Livingstone on his knees I feel no sadness at all. He may have run out geography but that’s so yesterday. The body is dying, sure, okay, I may even shed a tear for him, but corporeal does death not a tragic story make. Especially not when the protagonist on his deathbed says:

I’ll go anywhere as long as it is forward.

Instinctively a reader understands that the protagonist who empties himself has escaped the prison of his small self.

Look at Livingstone—he is still emptying himself. At the heart of the story, the protagonist discovers it’s the only way to move forward.

We don’t entirely understand how it works or where he’s going. It certainly doesn’t serve a protagonist to know such things. It’s only after the fact that we learn our trajectory was never other than toward this blessed emptiness.

As a wrap up to this piece, I’ll leave you with an account of David Livingstone’s death, as reported by his African lieutenants when his body—minus his heart—was delivered up for transport back to England:

Dr. Livingstone was kneeling by the side of his bed, his body stretched forward, his head buried in his hands upon the pillow. For a minute they watched him: he did not stir, there was no sign of breathing; then one of them, Matthew, advanced softly to him and placed his hands to his cheeks. It was sufficient; life had been extinct some time, and the body was almost cold: Livingstone was dead.*

*  from The Last Journals of David Livingstone (1869-1873).

 

Add a Comment
15. My Writing Process Blog Tour

Blog tour icon“How fiction really works”—that’s pretty much the focus of my blog.

Last week I risked wandering off topic with a post about my mother’s 100th birthday. And this week I’m buying into a game of “blog tag.” My mission—should I wish to accept it—is to answer four questions about…

My writing process.

I’ll do my best to make this relevant not only to writers but anyone who wants to see how I arrive at a final statement that goes like this:

Utter failure is the portal through which everyone (fictional or real) finds freedom.

Let’s go:

  1. What am I working on?

Something called THE WRITER IN LOVE. It was meant to bolster ideas I introduced in Story Structure to Die For, namely that a writer must “love her protagonist to death.”  The book begins as an imagined journey up the Congo River to the heart of darkness. There, deep in the jungle, unable to advance any further, and having abandoned all hope, I would jump ashore and plant my flag in the little understood “story heart.” Here, then, is an expedition into THE HEART OF A STORY.

Poets and mystics would support my claim that this heart lies beyond the story’s plot. The protagonist runs out of geography! Imagine that. The heart has nothing to do with time and space. It is a transcendental experience. To prove my point, I find it necessary orchestrate my own failure. I begin to question why a writer needs more story theory. I have to escape my own project. I abandon ship! And so what started out as a “how-to” book is looking more like a novel, and one with no boundary between past and present. I have no idea how to finish it.

  1. How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Metafiction—is that a genre? Is there a genre where the protagonist discovers that his writer is also on board? And he becomes concerned that perhaps this writer doesn’t love him sufficiently or appropriately, and by that we mean she isn’t prepared to love him to death. But what kind of protagonist is it who wants to die? It makes no sense. It will make sense by the time it’s over. I wish it was over.

  1. Why do I write what I do?

I wish it was over.

  1. How does my writing process work?

Up at 6-ish o’clock. Two hours of writing before connecting to the wired world. Minutes removed from sleep and I’m back on that steamer heading up a jungle river. I love it. This discipline of jumping immediately into my work-in-progress is the best part of my writing life.

I often make the mistake of going over yesterday’s work to put a finer point on things. I probably shouldn’t. But I find it difficult to proceed if things don’t add up. Of course, I love rewriting. Endless drafts, that’s the name of my writing game. Without them what chance do I have of my writing becoming art? Rewriting, the weave becomes tighter. Subplots and motifs resound more deeply. Magic happens—I find out what it is I’m actually writing about.

As for my story-making process—yes I do practice what I preach. But what I preach is so simple—The protagonist will come undone. That’s it! That’s what readers anticipate. Beliefs systems will crash and burn. That’s what readers demand.

Utter failure is the portal through which every character finds freedom.

There, you see? I’ve just discovered why I write.  #3 — Why do I write what I do? To spend my life vicariously escaping to freedom.


Now, it is my great pleasure to introduce you to S.K. CARNES, a writer living in Friday Harbour on San Juan Island off the coast of Washington State. Sue is the author and illustrator of an award-winning children’s book, My Champion, and of a masterfully written novel, The Way Back, newly available on Kindle. If you want to know what a natural wordsmith sounds like, read Sue Carnes. Soon, perhaps next week, Sue will offer her own unique insights into her writing process. Sue’s blog can be found at http://susancarnes.wordpress.com/.

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16. My Writing Process Blog Tour

Blog tour icon“How fiction really works”—that’s pretty much the focus of my blog.

Last week I risked wandering off topic with a post about my mother’s 100th birthday. And this week I’m buying into a game of “blog tag.” My mission—should I wish to accept it—is to answer four questions about…

My writing process.

I’ll do my best to make this relevant not only to writers but anyone who wants to see how I arrive at a final statement that goes like this:

Utter failure is the portal through which everyone (fictional or real) finds freedom.

Let’s go:

  1. What am I working on?

Something called THE WRITER IN LOVE. It was meant to bolster ideas I introduced in Story Structure to Die For, namely that a writer must “love her protagonist to death.”  The book begins as an imagined journey up the Congo River to the heart of darkness. There, deep in the jungle, unable to advance any further, and having abandoned all hope, I would jump ashore and plant my flag in the little understood “story heart.” Here, then, is an expedition into THE HEART OF A STORY.

Poets and mystics would support my claim that this heart lies beyond the story’s plot. The protagonist runs out of geography! Imagine that. The heart has nothing to do with time and space. It is a transcendental experience. To prove my point, I find it necessary orchestrate my own failure. I begin to question why a writer needs more story theory. I have to escape my own project. I abandon ship! And so what started out as a “how-to” book is looking more like a novel, and one with no boundary between past and present. I have no idea how to finish it.

  1. How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Metafiction—is that a genre? Is there a genre where the protagonist discovers that his writer is also on board? And he becomes concerned that perhaps this writer doesn’t love him sufficiently or appropriately, and by that we mean she isn’t prepared to love him to death. But what kind of protagonist is it who wants to die? It makes no sense. It will make sense by the time it’s over. I wish it was over.

  1. Why do I write what I do?

I wish it was over.

  1. How does my writing process work?

Up at 6-ish o’clock. Two hours of writing before connecting to the wired world. Minutes removed from sleep and I’m back on that steamer heading up a jungle river. I love it. This discipline of jumping immediately into my work-in-progress is the best part of my writing life.

I often make the mistake of going over yesterday’s work to put a finer point on things. I probably shouldn’t. But I find it difficult to proceed if things don’t add up. Of course, I love rewriting. Endless drafts, that’s the name of my writing game. Without them what chance do I have of my writing becoming art? Rewriting, the weave becomes tighter. Subplots and motifs resound more deeply. Magic happens—I find out what it is I’m actually writing about.

As for my story-making process—yes I do practice what I preach. But what I preach is so simple—The protagonist will come undone. That’s it! That’s what readers anticipate. Beliefs systems will crash and burn. That’s what readers demand.

Utter failure is the portal through which every character finds freedom.

There, you see? I’ve just discovered why I write.  #3 — Why do I write what I do? To spend my life vicariously escaping to freedom.


Now, it is my great pleasure to introduce you to S.K. CARNES, a writer living in Friday Harbour on San Juan Island off the coast of Washington State. Sue is the author and illustrator of an award-winning children’s book, My Champion, and of a masterfully written novel, The Way Back, newly available on Kindle. If you want to know what a natural wordsmith sounds like, read Sue Carnes. Soon, perhaps next week, Sue will offer her own unique insights into her writing process. Sue’s blog can be found at http://susancarnes.wordpress.com/.

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17. My Writing Process Blog Tour

Blog tour icon“How fiction really works”—that’s pretty much the focus of my blog.

Last week I risked wandering off topic with a post about my mother’s 100th birthday. And this week I’m buying into a game of “blog tag.” My mission—should I wish to accept it—is to answer four questions about…

My writing process.

I’ll do my best to make this relevant not only to writers but anyone who wants to see how I arrive at a final statement that goes like this:

Utter failure is the portal through which everyone (fictional or real) finds freedom.

Let’s go:

  1. What am I working on?

Something called THE WRITER IN LOVE. It was meant to bolster ideas I introduced in Story Structure to Die For, namely that a writer must “love her protagonist to death.”  The book begins as an imagined journey up the Congo River to the heart of darkness. There, deep in the jungle, unable to advance any further, and having abandoned all hope, I would jump ashore and plant my flag in the little understood “story heart.” Here, then, is an expedition into THE HEART OF A STORY.

Poets and mystics would support my claim that this heart lies beyond the story’s plot. The protagonist runs out of geography! Imagine that. The heart has nothing to do with time and space. It is a transcendental experience. To prove my point, I find it necessary orchestrate my own failure. I begin to question why a writer needs more story theory. I have to escape my own project. I abandon ship! And so what started out as a “how-to” book is looking more like a novel, and one with no boundary between past and present. I have no idea how to finish it.

  1. How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Metafiction—is that a genre? Is there a genre where the protagonist discovers that his writer is also on board? And he becomes concerned that perhaps this writer doesn’t love him sufficiently or appropriately, and by that we mean she isn’t prepared to love him to death. But what kind of protagonist is it who wants to die? It makes no sense. It will make sense by the time it’s over. I wish it was over.

  1. Why do I write what I do?

I wish it was over.

  1. How does my writing process work?

Up at 6-ish o’clock. Two hours of writing before connecting to the wired world. Minutes removed from sleep and I’m back on that steamer heading up a jungle river. I love it. This discipline of jumping immediately into my work-in-progress is the best part of my writing life.

I often make the mistake of going over yesterday’s work to put a finer point on things. I probably shouldn’t. But I find it difficult to proceed if things don’t add up. Of course, I love rewriting. Endless drafts, that’s the name of my writing game. Without them what chance do I have of my writing becoming art? Rewriting, the weave becomes tighter. Subplots and motifs resound more deeply. Magic happens—I find out what it is I’m actually writing about.

As for my story-making process—yes I do practice what I preach. But what I preach is so simple—The protagonist will come undone. That’s it! That’s what readers anticipate. Beliefs systems will crash and burn. That’s what readers demand.

Utter failure is the portal through which every character finds freedom.

There, you see? I’ve just discovered why I write.  #3 — Why do I write what I do? To spend my life vicariously escaping to freedom.


Now, it is my great pleasure to introduce you to S.K. CARNES, a writer living in Friday Harbour on San Juan Island off the coast of Washington State. Sue is the author and illustrator of an award-winning children’s book, My Champion, and of a masterfully written novel, The Way Back, newly available on Kindle. If you want to know what a natural wordsmith sounds like, read Sue Carnes. Soon, perhaps next week, Sue will offer her own unique insights into her writing process. Sue’s blog can be found at http://susancarnes.wordpress.com/.

Add a Comment
18. My Mother’s Secret Life

My mother turns 99My mother is turning 100.

We’ll have a big party, of course, although not as big as she might think, since all her friends are dead. Doesn’t she know that?

In any event, she wants me to make a speech. “Make it funny, dear,” she said.

I don’t suppose there’s much fun in being 100. Well, she’s to blame for this longevity thing—it’s her fault for being so damned optimistic. I think that’s my opener:

Last year my mother bought a fan and insisted on purchasing the extended warranty. Now, that’s optimism!

Turns out I don’t know very much about my mother. Neither should a child know too much about their parents, if you ask me. This much I do know:

Kathleen was born the very day that Woodrow Wilson proclaimed Mother’s Day into existence. Was the universe trying to tell us something? Unto us a child is born who would become the perfect mother. It’s a sign, it’s a sign!

So, mother is born and—BOOM—WWI erupts, followed by the Spanish Flu epidemic and then of course the Great Depression and the rise of Hitler and… oh, well.

I hope she’s laughing by this time.

As I was saying, my mother is something of a mystery. Or else I was sleep-walking through my formative years. Or that woman was leading a secret life.

A secret life.

There’s something a writer can build a speech around.

They say it’s impossible to lead a secret life these days, what with paper trails, video surveillance, smart phones, smart meters, the NSA, the whole nosy and narcissistic culture we live in, Facebook, Twitter, we blab too much, we know too much. It’s deadly.

So that’s it—a secret life as the key to longevity.

Now that I think of it, my mother…

We were a golfing family, but only recently did we discover that Mother had a secret golf life. She would usher us out the door to school, jump in her little cream-coloured Vauxhall, pick up her friend Marianne and drive hell bent for leather out of town along gravel roads to Windermere Golf Course, play nine holes and race back in time to throw some lunch on the table. We had no idea.

My sister recalls our mother having what Virginia Woolf calls “a room of one’s own.” I said, “Mother had a secret room? What room was that?” My sister said, “The living room—you don’t remember?”

I do remember. Mother used to rearrange all that Louis IV furniture once a week, at least. We weren’t allowed in there. I don’t think our father was allowed in there. But I tell you who was allowed in there—her secret club.

The P.E.O. They had secret rites. Even the name was a secret. They met in that sacred room we weren’t allowed into. Eventually we figured out what P.E.O. stood for—Philanthropic Educational Organization. They provided educational scholarships for girls. You can imagine what a disappointment it was to learn that.

At this point it will behoove me to list off her good works—Kathleen the public health nurse, Meals on Wheels volunteer, you know, doing good all over the place.

But it was at home where she did the most good, and where she proved herself the perfect mother. She allowed me to be who I was. How rare is that! I have no recollection of my mother saying, “Don’t do that.”

When I was a young man on the verge of life, I left for Africa, for two years. My mother said, “Be careful, dear.”

Upon graduating from high school, I said No to university and Yes to a boat that would take me to Europe. She said, “Be careful, dear.”

When I was six—true story—she put me on a train to Calgary. By myself. To see a friend. I don’t think I even had a friend in Calgary. I think she was trying to get rid of me!  …so she could resume her secret life.

Just kidding, Mother, just kidding.

My mother’s Sunday roasts were no secret. My friends knew all about it and lobbied to get invited. One such buddy has just sent her a birthday card telling her that he’s been missing those roast beefs for 40 years now.

Well, I miss my mother’s roasts, too. Of course, she has nobody to roast a beef for. Unless she still has a secret life. Come to think of it, I did see a suspicious photograph in her apartment the other day…

Mother and Santa

Mother… are you and Santa having an aff….

Never mind! I don’t want to know about. I don’t think a child is meant to know too much about their parents. It might interfere with their longevity.

At this point I’ll ask everyone to stand and raise a glass to Mother/Kathleen and all her many secrets.

“Happy 100! Mother dearest.”

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19. The Sense of an Ending

house-of-cards-final-poster[1]House of Cards, for example—the title says it all. 

The collapse of the protagonist’s empire is not a matter of if but when

Ambition is tragedy’s ally.  Desire is a set-up.  The world is a trap laid by (Satan, God, the fiction writer, you name it/her/him).

Fiction can’t help but reveal secrets of the human condition.  Authors sometimes spell it out.  Julian Barnes, for instance, in his novel, The Sense of an Ending

“Sometimes I think the purpose of life is to reconcile us to its eventual loss by wearing us down, by proving, however long it takes that life it isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.” (pg. 105)

The upside to this deceptively gloomy outlook is this—the sooner we become disillusioned with our chronic self-interest, the sooner we risk opening to a more altruistic worldview.   

This is precisely what happens to the protagonist at the heart of any good story.  

The story heart is a transcendental event in which the protagonist escapes the gravity field of his narcissistic self.  Freedom—the chance of real freedom—feeds every reader’s deepest yearnings.  It’s what makes fiction really work, yada, yada, yada

As a writer who’s been beating this fiction drum for years, you’d think I would challenge my own aspirations to publish, publish, publish.  After all, Julian Barnes isn’t talking about fictional lives.  I might very well ask myself what good are all these manuscripts, anyway?  Blogs, reviews, story theories—enough already!

But are we meant to encourage our own disillusionment? 

Knowing that life is meant to “wear me down,” am I therefore supposed to cooperate with my own demise?  No, it doesn’t work like that.  I can’t voluntarily give up on my dreams.  No one rains on their own parade. 

Fiction teaches us that, too.

And so we are doomed, like any fictional character, to live with blinkers on, ignorant of the trajectory our lives are on.  It would seem that we must struggle and fail, so that we might reap the benefits of the blessed aftermath of failure. 

I’m dramatizing this phenomenon in my current work-in-progress, which I call, The Writer in Love

Up the Congo]No, it’s not a memoir of my romantic exploits. It concerns “how to love your protagonist.” 

To that end we’re steaming up the Congo River toward the heart of darkness.  Jungle river as metaphor for “story,” it’s tough love all the way. 

The problem is that I’ve cast myself as a kind of tour guide, a narrator, an omniscient know-it-all.  And at the same time I feel obliged to behave like a fictional character, blundering along in the present tense.  I’m sweating and worrying, dodging hippos, swatting and swearing at tsetse flies, cursing navigation charts, struggling to keep the ship’s boiler fueled, and now a downpour of Biblical proportions during which we grudge to a halt on a mud bank. 

This is how a writer wears down her protagonist.  Julian Barnes is right—I’m being worn down.  Worst of all, doubt is beginning to erode my convictions.  I’m being worn down just as if I had a writer.  Do I have a writer?  What a concept. 

I’m not sure I like having my strings pulled.  Or my thoughts thunk for me, although a little self-doubt is certainly not inappropriate.  If, for example, we fail to reach the heart of darkness, how do I conclude this essay (or memoir, or whatever it is)?  There’s something to worry about.

The deluge has uprooted trees—you can see them floating dangerously down the river on rising waters.  Look, the flood is lifting the steamer off the shoal, we’re floating again.  We can push onward.  Or not. 

Or not?  This is my writer again.  What’s she doing to me?

The spirit of David Livingstone appears to me—Livingstone, the 19th century explorer—he’s in a swamp not so very far from here, worn down to the quick.  He’s on his deathbed, in fact, as he reads a dispatch from his patrons in Europe beseeching him to abandon his mission and come home.  To which Livingstone replies:

“I’ll go anywhere…as long as it is forward.”

What does that say about the human condition?  That a life isn’t to be considered over until it has worn us down?  That’s the purpose of a life?  Come hell or high water.

That heroism is, in the end, a conscious trajectory toward the collapse of our house of cards? 

Freedom (in fact or fiction) is not a matter of if but when.

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20. My Fantastic Story of Freedom

Tommy Banks at pianoI’m going to tell you a story about a piano player.

I told it recently on The Artist’s Road in support of a discussion about “perseverance.” The blog’s author, Patrick Ross, replied to my comment:

 “PJ, that was a fantastic story you shared there about the piano player. I hope you’ve written that somewhere before, as an essay or a chapter in a craft book? It’s worthy of wider distribution.”

Thank you, Patrick, but, no, I’ve never shared the story. Which is strange, because that event changed my life (or so goes my personal myth).

Here’s part of what I posted on The Artist’s Road:

“I was ten and playing tag around a friend’s house, and stopping in my tracks as I passed the open bedroom door of my friend’s older brother. There was this teenager working at a piano, composing like a maniac, tinkling the keys, then making notations, oblivious of distraction, of football, of the sun shining outside. I saw in that moment what an artist was.”

Now, I’m curious—what exactly did I see through that doorway?

I should add that my friend’s brother was always at that piano, so that’s where “perseverance” comes in. He spent his youth in his bedroom with that piano and working so hard and with such focus it was frightening. Even still, what was it about a teenager at a piano that could so impress a ten-year-old that fifty years later the memory still serves to inspire me?

The music?—no—the jazzy phrases likely irritated my young ears. I remember the way he leaned forward to jab his pencil at sheets of paper propped on the piano. I recall an urgency. To get somewhere? No, he was already there! You see, he was somewhere else. He lived beyond the everyday world in which the rest of us ran in circles.

I wanted what he had.

His name was Tommy Banks. He went on to own the music scene in Edmonton, Alberta. His TV talk show went nation-wide.  Eventually they honoured him with an appointment to the federal Senate in Ottawa. I owe Mr. Banks a huge debt of gratitude, as you can imagine.

Or perhaps I haven’t made that clear.

You see, that mental image of Tommy working at his piano has served as a beacon for me throughout my life. Guiding me toward what, exactly? Art of some kind? Yes, but certainly not music, no, I’m remarkably unmusical. So, what then? I don’t know. A way of being?

Standing at that open bedroom doorway, the ten-year-old is arrested by a possibility.

Imagine that—a pre-pubescent kid understands he has a choice of how to be.  Among life’s possibilities, here is one that soars above the rest.

If I had ever wondered about the meaning of life, and I had, well, here is an answer. The teenager at the piano is the answer to my earliest existential quandaries. Here is someone who lives in this world but who ignores much of it. And look how alive he is!

The answer infects my entire life.

From then on I’m alert to artists and poets and mystics who make it their business to frame up that same answer. Leonard Cohen for example, musing on his own escape from the person the world expects him to be:

 “Even though he was built to see the world this way, he was also built to disregard, to be free of the way he was built to see the world.” 

 That ten-year-old playing tag was stopped in his tracks by a glimpse through a doorway—a glimpse of a way to move beyond.

To be free of the way he was built to see the world.

 

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21. My Mother’s Secret Life

My mother turns 99My mother is turning 100.

We’ll have a big party, of course, although not as big as she might think, since all her friends are dead. Doesn’t she know that?

In any event, she wants me to make a speech. “Make it funny, dear,” she said.

I don’t suppose there’s much fun in being 100. Well, she’s to blame for this longevity thing—it’s her fault for being so damned optimistic. I think that’s my opener:

Last year my mother bought a fan and insisted on purchasing the extended warranty. Now, that’s optimism!

Turns out I don’t know very much about my mother. Neither should a child know too much about their parents, if you ask me. This much I do know:

Kathleen was born the very day that Woodrow Wilson proclaimed Mother’s Day into existence. Was the universe trying to tell us something? Unto us a child is born who would become the perfect mother. It’s a sign, it’s a sign!

So, mother is born and—BOOM—WWI erupts, followed by the Spanish Flu epidemic and then of course the Great Depression and the rise of Hitler and… oh, well.

I hope she’s laughing by this time.

As I was saying, my mother is something of a mystery. Or else I was sleep-walking through my formative years. Or that woman was leading a secret life.

A secret life.

There’s something a writer can build a speech around.

They say it’s impossible to lead a secret life these days, what with paper trails, video surveillance, smart phones, smart meters, the NSA, the whole nosy and narcissistic culture we live in, Facebook, Twitter, we blab too much, we know too much. It’s deadly.

So that’s it—a secret life as the key to longevity.

Now that I think of it, my mother…

We were a golfing family, but only recently did we discover that Mother had a secret golf life. She would usher us out the door to school, jump in her little cream-coloured Vauxhall, pick up her friend Marianne and drive hell bent for leather out of town along gravel roads to Windermere Golf Course, play nine holes and race back in time to throw some lunch on the table. We had no idea.

My sister recalls our mother having what Virginia Woolf calls “a room of one’s own.” I said, “Mother had a secret room? What room was that?” My sister said, “The living room—you don’t remember?”

I do remember. Mother used to rearrange all that Louis IV furniture once a week, at least. We weren’t allowed in there. I don’t think our father was allowed in there. But I tell you who was allowed in there—her secret club.

The P.E.O. They had secret rites. Even the name was a secret. They met in that sacred room we weren’t allowed into. Eventually we figured out what P.E.O. stood for—Philanthropic Educational Organization. They provided educational scholarships for girls. You can imagine what a disappointment it was to learn that.

At this point it will behoove me to list off her good works—Kathleen the public health nurse, Meals on Wheels volunteer, you know, doing good all over the place.

But it was at home where she did the most good, and where she proved herself the perfect mother. She allowed me to be who I was. How rare is that! I have no recollection of my mother saying, “Don’t do that.”

When I was a young man on the verge of life, I left for Africa, for two years. My mother said, “Be careful, dear.”

Upon graduating from high school, I said No to university and Yes to a boat that would take me to Europe. She said, “Be careful, dear.”

When I was six—true story—she put me on a train to Calgary. By myself. To see a friend. I don’t think I even had a friend in Calgary. I think she was trying to get rid of me!  …so she could resume her secret life.

Just kidding, Mother, just kidding.

My mother’s Sunday roasts were no secret. My friends knew all about it and lobbied to get invited. One such buddy has just sent her a birthday card telling her that he’s been missing those roast beefs for 40 years now.

Well, I miss my mother’s roasts, too. Of course, she has nobody to roast a beef for. Unless she still has a secret life. Come to think of it, I did see a suspicious photograph in her apartment the other day…

Mother and Santa

Mother… are you and Santa having an aff….

Never mind! I don’t want to know about. I don’t think a child is meant to know too much about their parents. It might interfere with their longevity.

At this point I’ll ask everyone to stand and raise a glass to Mother/Kathleen and all her many secrets.

“Happy 100! Mother dearest.”

Add a Comment
22. My Fantastic Story of Freedom

Tommy Banks at pianoI’m going to tell you a story about a piano player.

I told it recently on The Artist’s Road in support of a discussion about “perseverance.” The blog’s author, Patrick Ross, replied to my comment:

 “PJ, that was a fantastic story you shared there about the piano player. I hope you’ve written that somewhere before, as an essay or a chapter in a craft book? It’s worthy of wider distribution.”

Thank you, Patrick, but, no, I’ve never shared the story. Which is strange, because that event changed my life (or so goes my personal myth).

Here’s part of what I posted on The Artist’s Road:

“I was ten and playing tag around a friend’s house, and stopping in my tracks as I passed the open bedroom door of my friend’s older brother. There was this teenager working at a piano, composing like a maniac, tinkling the keys, then making notations, oblivious of distraction, of football, of the sun shining outside. I saw in that moment what an artist was.”

Now, I’m curious—what exactly did I see through that doorway?

I should add that my friend’s brother was always at that piano, so that’s where “perseverance” comes in. He spent his youth in his bedroom with that piano and working so hard and with such focus it was frightening. Even still, what was it about a teenager at a piano that could so impress a ten-year-old that fifty years later the memory still serves to inspire me?

The music?—no—the jazzy phrases likely irritated my young ears. I remember the way he leaned forward to jab his pencil at sheets of paper propped on the piano. I recall an urgency. To get somewhere? No, he was already there! You see, he was somewhere else. He lived beyond the everyday world in which the rest of us ran in circles.

I wanted what he had.

His name was Tommy Banks. He went on to own the music scene in Edmonton, Alberta. His TV talk show went nation-wide.  Eventually they honoured him with an appointment to the federal Senate in Ottawa. I owe Mr. Banks a huge debt of gratitude, as you can imagine.

Or perhaps I haven’t made that clear.

You see, that mental image of Tommy working at his piano has served as a beacon for me throughout my life. Guiding me toward what, exactly? Art of some kind? Yes, but certainly not music, no, I’m remarkably unmusical. So, what then? I don’t know. A way of being?

Standing at that open bedroom doorway, the ten-year-old is arrested by a possibility.

Imagine that—a pre-pubescent kid understands he has a choice of how to be.  Among life’s possibilities, here is one that soars above the rest.

If I had ever wondered about the meaning of life, and I had, well, here is an answer. The teenager at the piano is the answer to my earliest existential quandaries. Here is someone who lives in this world but who ignores much of it. And look how alive he is!

The answer infects my entire life.

From then on I’m alert to artists and poets and mystics who make it their business to frame up that same answer. Leonard Cohen for example, musing on his own escape from the person the world expects him to be:

 “Even though he was built to see the world this way, he was also built to disregard, to be free of the way he was built to see the world.” 

 That ten-year-old playing tag was stopped in his tracks by a glimpse through a doorway—a glimpse of a way to move beyond.

To be free of the way he was built to see the world.

 

Add a Comment
23. The Sense of an Ending

house-of-cards-final-poster[1]House of Cards, for example—the title says it all. 

The collapse of the protagonist’s empire is not a matter of if but when

Ambition is tragedy’s ally.  Desire is a set-up.  The world is a trap laid by (Satan, God, the fiction writer, you name it/her/him).

Fiction can’t help but reveal secrets of the human condition.  Authors sometimes spell it out.  Julian Barnes, for instance, in his novel, The Sense of an Ending

“Sometimes I think the purpose of life is to reconcile us to its eventual loss by wearing us down, by proving, however long it takes that life it isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.” (pg. 105)

The upside to this deceptively gloomy outlook is this—the sooner we become disillusioned with our chronic self-interest, the sooner we risk opening to a more altruistic worldview.   

This is precisely what happens to the protagonist at the heart of any good story.  

The story heart is a transcendental event in which the protagonist escapes the gravity field of his narcissistic self.  Freedom—the chance of real freedom—feeds every reader’s deepest yearnings.  It’s what makes fiction really work, yada, yada, yada

As a writer who’s been beating this fiction drum for years, you’d think I would challenge my own aspirations to publish, publish, publish.  After all, Julian Barnes isn’t talking about fictional lives.  I might very well ask myself what good are all these manuscripts, anyway?  Blogs, reviews, story theories—enough already!

But are we meant to encourage our own disillusionment? 

Knowing that life is meant to “wear me down,” am I therefore supposed to cooperate with my own demise?  No, it doesn’t work like that.  I can’t voluntarily give up on my dreams.  No one rains on their own parade. 

Fiction teaches us that, too.

And so we are doomed, like any fictional character, to live with blinkers on, ignorant of the trajectory our lives are on.  It would seem that we must struggle and fail, so that we might reap the benefits of the blessed aftermath of failure. 

I’m dramatizing this phenomenon in my current work-in-progress, which I call, The Writer in Love

Up the Congo]No, it’s not a memoir of my romantic exploits. It concerns “how to love your protagonist.” 

To that end we’re steaming up the Congo River toward the heart of darkness.  Jungle river as metaphor for “story,” it’s tough love all the way. 

The problem is that I’ve cast myself as a kind of tour guide, a narrator, an omniscient know-it-all.  And at the same time I feel obliged to behave like a fictional character, blundering along in the present tense.  I’m sweating and worrying, dodging hippos, swatting and swearing at tsetse flies, cursing navigation charts, struggling to keep the ship’s boiler fueled, and now a downpour of Biblical proportions during which we grudge to a halt on a mud bank. 

This is how a writer wears down her protagonist.  Julian Barnes is right—I’m being worn down.  Worst of all, doubt is beginning to erode my convictions.  I’m being worn down just as if I had a writer.  Do I have a writer?  What a concept. 

I’m not sure I like having my strings pulled.  Or my thoughts thunk for me, although a little self-doubt is certainly not inappropriate.  If, for example, we fail to reach the heart of darkness, how do I conclude this essay (or memoir, or whatever it is)?  There’s something to worry about.

The deluge has uprooted trees—you can see them floating dangerously down the river on rising waters.  Look, the flood is lifting the steamer off the shoal, we’re floating again.  We can push onward.  Or not. 

Or not?  This is my writer again.  What’s she doing to me?

The spirit of David Livingstone appears to me—Livingstone, the 19th century explorer—he’s in a swamp not so very far from here, worn down to the quick.  He’s on his deathbed, in fact, as he reads a dispatch from his patrons in Europe beseeching him to abandon his mission and come home.  To which Livingstone replies:

“I’ll go anywhere…as long as it is forward.”

What does that say about the human condition?  That a life isn’t to be considered over until it has worn us down?  That’s the purpose of a life?  Come hell or high water.

That heroism is, in the end, a conscious trajectory toward the collapse of our house of cards? 

Freedom (in fact or fiction) is not a matter of if but when.

Add a Comment
24. My Mother’s Secret Life

My mother turns 99My mother is turning 100.

We’ll have a big party, of course, although not as big as she might think, since all her friends are dead. Doesn’t she know that?

In any event, she wants me to make a speech. “Make it funny, dear,” she said.

I don’t suppose there’s much fun in being 100. Well, she’s to blame for this longevity thing—it’s her fault for being so damned optimistic. I think that’s my opener:

Last year my mother bought a fan and insisted on purchasing the extended warranty. Now, that’s optimism!

Turns out I don’t know very much about my mother. Neither should a child know too much about their parents, if you ask me. This much I do know:

Kathleen was born the very day that Woodrow Wilson proclaimed Mother’s Day into existence. Was the universe trying to tell us something? Unto us a child is born who would become the perfect mother. It’s a sign, it’s a sign!

So, mother is born and—BOOM—WWI erupts, followed by the Spanish Flu epidemic and then of course the Great Depression and the rise of Hitler and… oh, well.

I hope she’s laughing by this time.

As I was saying, my mother is something of a mystery. Or else I was sleep-walking through my formative years. Or that woman was leading a secret life.

A secret life.

There’s something a writer can build a speech around.

They say it’s impossible to lead a secret life these days, what with paper trails, video surveillance, smart phones, smart meters, the NSA, the whole nosy and narcissistic culture we live in, Facebook, Twitter, we blab too much, we know too much. It’s deadly.

So that’s it—a secret life as the key to longevity.

Now that I think of it, my mother…

We were a golfing family, but only recently did we discover that Mother had a secret golf life. She would usher us out the door to school, jump in her little cream-coloured Vauxhall, pick up her friend Marianne and drive hell bent for leather out of town along gravel roads to Windermere Golf Course, play nine holes and race back in time to throw some lunch on the table. We had no idea.

My sister recalls our mother having what Virginia Woolf calls “a room of one’s own.” I said, “Mother had a secret room? What room was that?” My sister said, “The living room—you don’t remember?”

I do remember. Mother used to rearrange all that Louis IV furniture once a week, at least. We weren’t allowed in there. I don’t think our father was allowed in there. But I tell you who was allowed in there—her secret club.

The P.E.O. They had secret rites. Even the name was a secret. They met in that sacred room we weren’t allowed into. Eventually we figured out what P.E.O. stood for—Philanthropic Educational Organization. They provided educational scholarships for girls. You can imagine what a disappointment it was to learn that.

At this point it will behoove me to list off her good works—Kathleen the public health nurse, Meals on Wheels volunteer, you know, doing good all over the place.

But it was at home where she did the most good, and where she proved herself the perfect mother. She allowed me to be who I was. How rare is that! I have no recollection of my mother saying, “Don’t do that.”

When I was a young man on the verge of life, I left for Africa, for two years. My mother said, “Be careful, dear.”

Upon graduating from high school, I said No to university and Yes to a boat that would take me to Europe. She said, “Be careful, dear.”

When I was six—true story—she put me on a train to Calgary. By myself. To see a friend. I don’t think I even had a friend in Calgary. I think she was trying to get rid of me!  …so she could resume her secret life.

Just kidding, Mother, just kidding.

My mother’s Sunday roasts were no secret. My friends knew all about it and lobbied to get invited. One such buddy has just sent her a birthday card telling her that he’s been missing those roast beefs for 40 years now.

Well, I miss my mother’s roasts, too. Of course, she has nobody to roast a beef for. Unless she still has a secret life. Come to think of it, I did see a suspicious photograph in her apartment the other day…

Mother and Santa

Mother… are you and Santa having an aff….

Never mind! I don’t want to know about. I don’t think a child is meant to know too much about their parents. It might interfere with their longevity.

At this point I’ll ask everyone to stand and raise a glass to Mother/Kathleen and all her many secrets.

“Happy 100! Mother dearest.”

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25. My Fantastic Story of Freedom

Tommy Banks at pianoI’m going to tell you a story about a piano player.

I told it recently on The Artist’s Road in support of a discussion about “perseverance.” The blog’s author, Patrick Ross, replied to my comment:

 “PJ, that was a fantastic story you shared there about the piano player. I hope you’ve written that somewhere before, as an essay or a chapter in a craft book? It’s worthy of wider distribution.”

Thank you, Patrick, but, no, I’ve never shared the story. Which is strange, because that event changed my life (or so goes my personal myth).

Here’s part of what I posted on The Artist’s Road:

“I was ten and playing tag around a friend’s house, and stopping in my tracks as I passed the open bedroom door of my friend’s older brother. There was this teenager working at a piano, composing like a maniac, tinkling the keys, then making notations, oblivious of distraction, of football, of the sun shining outside. I saw in that moment what an artist was.”

Now, I’m curious—what exactly did I see through that doorway?

I should add that my friend’s brother was always at that piano, so that’s where “perseverance” comes in. He spent his youth in his bedroom with that piano and working so hard and with such focus it was frightening. Even still, what was it about a teenager at a piano that could so impress a ten-year-old that fifty years later the memory still serves to inspire me?

The music?—no—the jazzy phrases likely irritated my young ears. I remember the way he leaned forward to jab his pencil at sheets of paper propped on the piano. I recall an urgency. To get somewhere? No, he was already there! You see, he was somewhere else. He lived beyond the everyday world in which the rest of us ran in circles.

I wanted what he had.

His name was Tommy Banks. He went on to own the music scene in Edmonton, Alberta. His TV talk show went nation-wide.  Eventually they honoured him with an appointment to the federal Senate in Ottawa. I owe Mr. Banks a huge debt of gratitude, as you can imagine.

Or perhaps I haven’t made that clear.

You see, that mental image of Tommy working at his piano has served as a beacon for me throughout my life. Guiding me toward what, exactly? Art of some kind? Yes, but certainly not music, no, I’m remarkably unmusical. So, what then? I don’t know. A way of being?

Standing at that open bedroom doorway, the ten-year-old is arrested by a possibility.

Imagine that—a pre-pubescent kid understands he has a choice of how to be.  Among life’s possibilities, here is one that soars above the rest.

If I had ever wondered about the meaning of life, and I had, well, here is an answer. The teenager at the piano is the answer to my earliest existential quandaries. Here is someone who lives in this world but who ignores much of it. And look how alive he is!

The answer infects my entire life.

From then on I’m alert to artists and poets and mystics who make it their business to frame up that same answer. Leonard Cohen for example, musing on his own escape from the person the world expects him to be:

 “Even though he was built to see the world this way, he was also built to disregard, to be free of the way he was built to see the world.” 

 That ten-year-old playing tag was stopped in his tracks by a glimpse through a doorway—a glimpse of a way to move beyond.

To be free of the way he was built to see the world.

 

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