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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.
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.
I’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!
Livingstone 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).
“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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Why do I write what I do?
I wish it was over.
- 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/.
My 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… 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.”
I’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.
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.
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.
“How many writers does it take to change a light bulb?”
Funny how quickly a “light bulb” joke gets you chuckling. You don’t even need a punch line.
Which proved to my advantage recently when I began a presentation leaving the question hanging. Some wise guy in the audience supplied an answer. Perfect. It left me free to get serious.
“A writer won’t change the bulb,” I said. “Writers like the dark.”
That’s almost funny, in a dark sort of way. In truth it falls short of funny because it’s… well… it’s true.
The most cursory examination of literary themes reveals a litany of loss, failure, suffering, despair, disillusionment, shame, disgrace, imprisonment, war, alcoholism, depression, alienation, suicide, unrequited love, murder, mayhem, insanity, and the black market trade in body parts. And those are just the themes within the works-in-progress of the Mazatlan Writers’ Group, a cadre of apparently normal people whom I was there to introduce.
But not before I dealt with this “dark” business.
The American writer Joy Williams boldly took “dark” a step further when she said:
“A writer loves the dark, loves it, but is always fumbling around in the light.”
Here again, the truth unsettles us enough to make us laugh. Fumble in the light? That’s absurd. Or is it? Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to go into it. Nor was Sunday afternoon the occasion for a metaphysical discussion.
The dark, on the other hand, sure, we instinctively feel that the meaning of our lives lurks somewhere in the dark, not least because if we’re honest we’ll admit that humankind hasn’t discovered much meaning in the light.
And, so, for the record, here (in my opinion) is what it means to “fumble around in the light”:
Light illuminates the surface of things.
Things!—so many things out there. Ever more things. Glittering things, 3-D, digital, and now virtual things. Of course, we identify with these things, these surfaces reflecting light from all those bulbs that people keep changing as if their lives depended on it.
Surfaces easily usurp our attention. I know! I’m in danger of wasting my life negotiating a trajectory across a universe of seductive surfaces. The problem with that is…
Surfaces are a lie.
Surfaces are a lie and hence our addiction to stories. Fiction reminds us of the consequences of living superficial lives. Fictional protagonists (bless them) are self-serving creatures.
Protagonists almost invariably reach a point (Act II crisis) where they awaken to the failure of so much inconsequential fumbling around in the light. The crisis pushes them into a dark space. If the story is not a tragedy, the protagonist begins to “see” in the dark.
A precious few novels almost ruin themselves with a cosmically conscious narrative. In Heart of Darkness, for instance, Joseph Conrad spells it out. Here’s his protagonist, Marlow, heading up the Congo River—the snags, false channels, sandbars and sudden fogs usurp his attention:
“When you have to attend to things of that sort, to the mere incidents of the surface, the reality—the reality, I tell you—fades. The inner truth is hidden—luckily, luckily.”
“Lucky” because the truth is terrifying.
“Destiny places a blindfold over our eyes to keep us from seeing where we are headed,” says the modern mystic, Nikos Kazantzakis. Which explains why nobody but a saint proceeds willingly into the dark.
(NOTE: saints make lousy protagonists.)
For regular folk, for you and me and especially for protagonists, the truth remains in the dark. Let there be darkness!
Stories depend upon it. A writer’s success depends on it.
So, please, if you know a writer, don’t ruin everything by changing her light bulb. Her stories emerge from the dark.
Not from any further fumbling around in the light.
When a drama rings true I want to cry.
I do, it’s true, I confess, I’m hopeless, when the story rings true I just can’t help it.
But in my defense let me put a finer point on this “ringing” business—I’m starting to say that the story has come true. The protagonist has come true. He or she has had a radical change of heart.
There’s a word for that—METANOIA—look it up. It really means a profound “change of mind.” A no-going-back-to-the-way-things-were-before shift in worldview. A new way of seeing things.
Take The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. (What, you haven’t seen it?)
An extreme narcissist is dragged (literally) through the Siera Madre mountains of Mexico to his agonizing undoing in the film’s penultimate scene. It is so truly acted that there is no doubt in my mind that I am in the presence of the human organizm experiencing a universal repentance—a metanoia.
Here is a character so utterly disillusioned, so emptied of his personal bullshit that he finds himself escaping the gravity field of his small self. I’m sorry, but when I am present to anyone (virtual or not) breaking free, I weep with joy.
Now, you might want to argue about how growth occurs. It’s the old geological issue—evolution by infinitesimal increment over millennia, or through cataclysm. Well, both as it turns out. But the notion of sudden, terrifying, and radical metanoia is relatively new, and it still challenges many writers.
Of course, explosive change is nothing new to Eastern traditions. Zen monks, by their austere practices, cultivate the essential condition of “emptiness” that invites a new way of seeing things. Even Christian mystics claim that true poverty of spirit “requires that man shall be emptied of god and all his works.” ~ Meister Eckhart
My new best friend, the famous American Trappist monk Thomas Merton, went spelunking into this emptiness and returned with an appreciation of the mysterious Tao.
According to Merton, we can’t begin to understand the nature of this charitable void “without a complete transformation, a change of heart, which Christianity would call metanoia. Zen of course envisaged this problem, and studied how to arrive at satori, or the explosive rediscovery of the hidden and lost reality within us.”
Discovering their hidden selves, always painfully, this is what the best fictional protagonists do. And by doing so—by freeing themselves—they make the human story come true.
The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada came true for me in a scene I can’t forget.
The narcissist (and who isn’t one, really?), on his knees, emptied of his outmoded self, opens his arms to accept whatever punishment or grace existence may have in store for him. This kind of surrender—whether explosive or discreet—is where we’re all headed.
When I am witness to anyone breaking free, I am in profound sympathy with them. It’s happening to me, there’s nothing vicarious about it!
So let me ask you this—what if this was fiction’s function—to give us a taste of our own story coming true.
“There will be nothing left.”
(Spoken like a wolf about to strip the meat from the bones of a sheep.)
I’m always looking for a more visceral tease into the ideas I’ve laid down in “Story Structure to Die for,” and this one perfectly describes the tragic trajectory of every good protagonist.
“There will be nothing left.”
I tried it out this week. I began my presentation with it and kept returning to it. It’s from the Oscar-winning screenplay, Moonstruck.
Loretta Castorini (Cher) is newly engaged to a momma’s boy. Then she meets her fiancé’s estranged younger brother. Ronnie (Nicholas Cage) is an animal, a “wolf” she calls him. Ronnie is what Loretta needs. But she is playing it safe in love. She’s been hurt before. Loretta is all about playing it safe. But now, in Ronnie’s apartment, after a disagreement, he picks up his brother’s bride-to-be and drops her on the bed.
“Take everything!” she cries, “leave nothing for him to marry,” to which Ronnie replies, “There will be nothing left.”
End of Act I.
This is the writer telling us where the story is going. I love it when that happens!
This is the writer preparing us for the heart of the story. This is the writer telling us about the fate of every good fictional protagonist—she will be left with nothing. She will be stripped of everything she believes in. Why? Because belief systems are prisons. Prisons we chose to live inside.
Every good story ushers the protagonist to her moment of truth where she is set free.
Nothingness may be our most precious possession
I’m always making a pitch for failure, but it’s a hard, hard sell. Damned if people aren’t always clamouring for success. Sure, all conventionally good stories depict a protagonist on a journey to accomplish something. Something that will grace her life with more truth, independence, or freedom.
But it turns out that freedom isn’t a function of acquiring anything. It’s about losing, escaping, surrendering. All good protagonists, after much suffering, come to understand this.
The worthy protagonist discovers that freedom is about shedding what is false about him/herself. Which is everything.
“There will be nothing left.”
At the moment of disillusionment, the hero realizes that his whole life has been a bad habit, “the heavy curtain of habit,” says Marcel Proust, “which conceals from us almost the whole universe.”
Or “the luminosity of what is always there,” according to American poet Jim Harrison.
Or “the inexhaustible world that exists beyond our selves,” as novelist John Gray puts it.
“This nothingness may be our most precious possession,” says Gray, “since it opens to us the inexhaustible world that exists beyond ourselves.”
Story structure exists to deliver protagonists to this precious moment. But they can’t see it coming, never do, never will. Not even if the writer throws the hero on a bed and stands over her and growls:
“There will be nothing left.”
Readers pay to live vicariously through this nothingness. It’s terrifying. It is (arguably) the supreme human accomplishment.
Dare I say it…? It’s…it’s…
This dispatch comes to you from the hour of the wolf.
Not that I can’t sleep, no, the last thing I want to do is fall back to sleep. My brilliant idea would vanish. It came to me as I emerged from dreamland. You know, “when the mind is too weak to tell itself lies.”
When the mind is too weak to tell itself lies.*
The Holy Grail of altered states.
Here it is, pre-dawn, black bear still foraging for garbage in the alley below my office window, while my fingers prance around the keyboard as if they’ve broken out of jail.
The mind is too weak to tell itself lies! Write quick, PJ!
Conventional wisdom would appear to have no traction in the crepuscular hours. My principles aren’t up and running yet, they can’t obscure the truth. You might say that, having not yet showered or checked my email, I’m not quite me.
Trust me, I’m writing as fast as I can.
If this is an ode to early-morning drowsiness, we should hear from more writers. Novelist Nicholson Baker likes to arise with the birds because he finds “the mind is newly cleansed, but it’s also befuddled.” He discovered that he “wrote differently then.”
Joy Williams—I’ve quoted her before—she says,“A writer loves the dark, loves it, but is always fumbling around in the light.” She reminds me of artists who say they see better in the dark.
Marcel Proust took opium to induce the desired effect. Charles Bukowski drank. Some writers practice “morning pages,” streams of bafflegab becoming ever more truthful. At least that’s the idea. You shovel hard with great faith—and doubt!—endless shovelfuls of gravel, superficial overburden, tons of it. Somewhere down there lies the bedrock of meaning. Maybe.
What about monks? Every night at three a.m. the search begins anew for…what? Meaning? God? Freedom? A monk’s life is a Zen koan, a cosmic question. Never mind an answer—beware the answer!—just show up. Faithfully. Doubt keeps us coming back for more.
Thomas Merton was a Trappist monk-poet-existentialist. Here’s what he says about faith and doubt:
“Faith means doubt. Faith is not the suppression of doubt. It is the overcoming of doubt, and you overcome doubt by going through it.”
That’s it, that’s the truth. We have to push through. At dawn, my mind is too weak to warn me away.
Ah! The eastern sky is lightening. I gotta go.
An hour from now my best interests will be hijacked by appearances and the everyday mind, and I will be buried under gravel, again.
* “When the mind is too weak to tell itself lies,” is a line from The Solitude of Prime Numbers by Paulo Giordano.]
It’s a full moon rising over western Tanzania.
The ragged ribbon of moonlight you see down there—that’s a rough and tumble highway known affectionately in south-central Africa as the Hell Run.
And that 5-ton truck—look closer—it’s a load of car tires in a metal cage. At the wheel is a hungry looking Tanzanian and riding shotgun is a large Sikh. Up ahead, three boys stand on the road, forming a roadblock. What are children doing up at midnight?
And who’s that mzungu with them?
The mzungu is me. I’m the white boy making my way back to Zambia after steaming my way up Lake Victoria and then hitchhiking through Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania to resume my duties as a hydrological field officer in the Zambezi River basin. My last lift dropped me at the edge of this sleeping village, and I decided, what with a full moon and all, to keep going.
I was confidently vanishing into a valley when these kids called after me. I yelled back, “What?” and they said, “Simba!” and I said to myself, “Simba-schmimba.” So much talk about simba, but how many people have actually seen a lion with their own two eyes?
“Simba eat man yesterday!” the oldest kid shouted.
So, there we are as the tire truck approaches. The boys, bless them, are going to commandeer this vehicle. The truckers have no choice but to let me climb aboard, not in the cab but in the cage, which the big man locks, and off we go.
Oh, what a magical moonlight ride! I’m not sure I’ll live to see the dawn. Seriously, what’s wrong with me?
When the truck stops unexpectedly in the middle of nowhere, I’m sure they’re going to kill me, but, no, they’ve stopped to strip an abandoned car of its tires. The cage door opens long enough for the highwaymen to toss in the tires and lock the gate and here we go again.
What a moon! The earth seems unearthly. I have never felt so far from home.
I’m in God’s hands, now, although I can’t say I believe in what passes so conveniently as God. And yet…and yet I would appear to have faith in something. This brilliant night seems to hold something of value for me, but what? Truly, is there something wrong with me?
Years later, I discover the words of a writer who speaks about “faith in the joyous tragedy,” and I think, yes, that’s it! At the edge of the abyss—an inexplicable trust.
“Whoever was born with faith in the joyous tragedy, with enthusiasm for the ironic mystery; whoever sings YES; whoever risks disharmony because he desires beauty…”
According to Nikos Kazantzakis, a Christian mystic, this counter-intuition is “the supreme human achievement.” If he’s correct, then our everyday minds have things utterly ass-backwards.
“The Muse most worthy of the real man is Difficulty. She chases the easy victory away from life and art: the kind of victories that humiliate the victor.”
Does that explain why I was hitchhiking the Hell Run? A test of some kind.
“Life should not be comfortable; it isn’t to a person’s advantage to have it so. Nor should art. Never have the masterpieces of life or art been pleasant or easy. They are always rugged peaks to be ascended by the few.”
Kazantzakis, my brother! He says that contentment—even the absolute perfection thereof—only perfects our “little selves.” Easy victories don’t begin to serve our greater needs.
“If you respect your own soul, you have to spend yourself… be willing at every moment to gamble all you have, so that you may practice your strength. So that you may never lose the assured feeling that you can do even without victory and are ready to begin again.”
To hell with victory! Does the conventional mind even know what winning means? I mean winning in the larger sense? My everyday mind, what would it know about what Kazantzakis calls “the brave and hopeless YES!”
The brave and hopeless ‘Yes’
My first novel, , fictionalizes my Hell Run adventure. It was written before I had ever wrapped my wee brain around “the brave and hopeless YES.” And yet it perfectly defines my young protagonist as he negotiates his own Act II dilemma.
The essence of my novel—that’s it!—the brave and hopeless YES.
Look again, PJ—hasn’t it become your main article of faith as a writer? Perhaps it’s every writer’s act of faith. Is it? I’d like to know.
That dim landscape down there—it’s the writer’s life—and there we are hitchhiking the Hell Run of our imaginations, making our way along that ragged ribbon of moonlight by the grace of the brave and hopeless Yes!
(Quotes are from “England: A Travel Journal” by Nikos Kazantzakis.)
Hemingway and Gellhorn are American war correspondents dodging bullets in the Spanish Civil War.
Ernest Hemingway rushes to tend a fallen soldier, to speak to him as he dies. We can’t hear what he is saying but whatever it is, it’s urgent.
The scene is shot from Martha Gellhorn’s point of view. Seeing how passionately Ernest Hemingway attends this young man who is disappearing into his final abyss, Gellhorn begins to fall in love with Hemingway. Neither does she know what Hem is saying, nor does it matter to her.
But I’m curious. What do you say to a dying man?
I turn to my wife and say, “Mark my words, whatever Hemingway is saying, that’s what the film is about.” This is the screenwriter establishing the ‘central question’ of the film. Meaning! We’re all in search of meaning in this crazy world, and here’s Hemingway helping this poor soul come to terms with annihilation.
“This nothingness may be our most precious possession, since it opens to us the inexhaustible world that exists beyond ourselves.” ~ British novelist John Gray
But the soldier is quickly losing consciousness. He may miss his one chance to experience the glorious disillusionment of the physical form melting away. He’s a heartbeat away from seeing existence as it is. If only Hemingway can keep the kid’s eyes open…
“One’s destination is never a place…but a new way of seeing things.” ~ Henry Miller
That this patriot may fail to attain this pinnacle is an injustice that Hemingway can’t seem to abide. That’s what it looks like to me. Look how desperately he encourages that poor bastard up the mountain.
The scene ends leaving us wondering what was said. Excellent. The rest of the script must serve to shed light on this tremendously powerful moment. I’m sure of it.
I mean, if Hemingway’s unheard speech is not “what the story is about,” why has he been directed to act as if this were a life-and-death situation as much for himself?
I also want to find out how Hemingway came by the spiritual self-confidence to try to save this young man’s soul. I didn’t know that about Hemingway. Is it true? Frankly, I don’t much care if it’s true or not, because the scene is true. The scene depicts the opportunity that becomes available at the brink of a personal abyss.
As audience, this is my source of nourishment—the vicarious experience of passing through loss. Through it! Not caught in its gravity field.
“In this high place, it is as simple as this—leave everything you know behind.” ~ poet David Whyte
Is this what Hemingway is telling the kid?
Leaving our old belief systems behind, we earn the moral authority to bring our life (or any story) to its completion. It’s never too late! Hemingway knows it’s never too late. In fact, he must realize what an opportunity this crisis presents…
“Desperation is the raw material of drastic change. Only those who can leave behind everything they have ever believed in can hope to escape.” ~ William S. Burroughs
Is that what Hemingway is saying?
Well, you can see how this film ignited my imagination.
Alas, the HBO film Hemingway and Gellhorn forgets entirely about Hemingway in the trenches, never makes reference to this death scene. Such is the way with big, sexy, exotic, but mediocre movies.
But the student of fiction is always a step ahead of the writer, always making more of the story than what the director may have intended. For me, consuming novels and films is a sport in which I mine the story for meaning at every turn.
It’s not that hard. Fictional characters desire, struggle, fail hopelessly, and then (hopefully) awaken from their narcissism. Aspects of their higher nature are now their new reality.
Keep a special eye out for anyone speaking to a dying man.
We were driving to our favourite deserted beach to decompress in the transcendental silence of seals intercepting salmon returning to their spawning grounds, when I asked my wife if she had ever read a novel in which the protagonist was following a scent, but unconsciously, not unlike those salmon.
In detective novels, of course, the protagonist is always sniffing after leads, heading inexorably to the truth. The truth lies unseen at the heart of the story waiting for a flash of deductive brilliance to reveal what has hitherto been a mystery.
I was asking the question in the hope of firming up an idea I couldn’t shake off—that the heart of a story leaks its essence. This truth, whatever it is, issues from the story heart like a river.
Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, for one obvious example.
It could be argued that Marlow is following a scent up the Congo River. Protagonists often behave as if they’re under the spell of something that awaits them “upriver.” Whatever it is, this “it” rules the story. For Marlow, this “it” is a rumour about a rogue ivory trader named Kurz. Reports have leaked out that something monstrous has happened to him. As Marlow penetrates the heart of darkness, it occurs to him that Kurz may have found “it.” It could be freedom. It could be hell.
“It”—the human soul unchained. But it could mean monstrous. Do we really know what it means?
I get the chills thinking about it.
With such a theory sloshing around in my mind, I scrutinized the recent film adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s Beat Generation classic, On the Road. Was Kerouac likewise following a scent?
These Beats burned themselves out in a desperate search for an antidote to a post-WWII culture of booming obedience, compliance and conformity. You were either ally or enemy, us or them, no gray zone was allowed. Kerouac smelled the possibility of escape by associating with “the mad ones, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn burn burn.”
Kerouac and his buddies hit the road in search of big sky and space. There it is—freedom—the essential “it”?
The maddest and free-est person Kerouac had ever met was Neal Cassady, who became Kerouac’s muse, his sidekick, his driver back and forth across America. One night in a jazz club, the tenor sax gave this duo a sudden glimpse of “it.”
“Do you even know what we witnessed right there,” Cassady says.
The sax player has done something so radical that, according to Cassady, “time stopped.” This is what the music is all about, it’s a set-up, an opportunity to escape the confines and logic of the notes themselves. To escape form, time, and space. Everyone in the audience “looks up and knows,” says Cassady, the idiot-savant, who explains it like this:
“Everyone knows that it’s not the tune that counts, but ‘it.’”
Well, I may be kind of an idiot, too, and I say that…
It’s not the story that counts, but “it.”
The story, the plot, it’s just a ploy to lead the protagonist—and readers no less—to that same freedom beyond the form of the story. It is a freedom from everything that seemed logical about the story. But look at the protagonists who reach this crisis—they’re suffering mightily. Readers, too, we live by that same logic and we’re sick of it, and if freedom means “monstrous,” well, we encourage the hero to take the risk.
In the open road and the big sky of the American West the Beats found the “big view” they were after. They drank and smoked and popped bennies hell-bent-for-leather to acquire the Big Mind in which heaven and hell are one, and the distinction between self and other is blown to smithereens.
To the Beats, every road in America was their Congo River.
McWife and I establish our blissful little camp on the shores of the Salish Sea with nothing but a thermos of tea. Oh, bless her, she’s packed a sandwich. Almond butter. My favourite.
I knew I smelled something.
“If you’re going to try, go all the way, otherwise don’t even start.”
This was my seemingly off-hand comment as I approached the dais at a meeting of the Rose Point Poets’ Society and if it sounded abrupt, almost a rude admonishment, well, it was intended. I wanted my audience’s attention.
“If you’re going to try / go all the way / otherwise don’t even start. this could mean losing girlfriends / wives, relatives, and… / maybe your mind.”
The crowd were listening, all right. In fact, they’d stopped breathing, which surprised me. I hadn’t expected the poem to hit home so hard and so fast.
“go all the way / it could mean not eating for 3 or 4 days / it could mean freezing on a park bench / it could mean jail / it could mean derision / it could mean mockery / isolation…”
I chose this poem by Charles Bukowski for good reason—my own work-in-progress is similarly freaking me out. It’s taking so long that I’m embarrassed to speak of it. During the reading I began to fear my project even more. I felt a slight panic. Perhaps I shouldn’t have started the book. I once knew where it was headed, but no longer. I feel like an anchorite who has forgotten why he entered the cave in the first place. And now Bukowski is beseeching me, “all the way” but how far is that, anyway? It could lie on the other side of wasting a helluva lot of time, of losing my confidence, of failure. I might not want to come out and play for a very long time. Work, work, work—PJ is becoming a very dull boy.
“isolation is the gift / all the others are a test of your endurance / of how much you really want to do it / and you will do it / despite rejection and the worst odds…”
That’s what frightens me, that I will continue to do it. The thought of quitting has never crossed my mind. At 6 a.m. every morning I show up at the keyboard as if I were the willing slave of something that wants to be born. I hesitate to call it “my” project. It owns me now.
“and it will be better than anything else you can imagine…”
That’s hard to believe, and at the same time I know it’s true, just as my audience seemed to know it. Bukowski had just startled them out of a bad dream.
“If you’re going to try / go all the way / there’s no other feeling like that / you will be alone with the gods / and the nights will flame with fire…”
It’s anyone’s guess what Bukowski is talking about here, but clearly he is reaping the reward of going all the way. My audience is breathing again.
“Do it, do it, do it / do it / all the way / all the way…”
All right! All right! All right! I’m doing it.
“You will ride life straight to / perfect laughter, it’s / the only good fight / there is.”
I don’t know about you, but as I get older I find it easier to determine which fights are worth it and which are distractions. As for “winning,” that’s a concept I may have to redefine.
My writing project, for instance, it’s bigger than me, and I say “bigger” because it would, if I could finish it, possess more awareness than I’ve got or am able to convey. For that reason, I can no longer anticipate the final product. All I can do is show up every morning at 6 a.m..
Serving a story that’s wiser than myself—serving a higher cause—and just going with it without asking a lot of questions–maybe that’s winning.
I hope so.
[Note: Bukowski's poem is called "Roll the Dice"]
Your work of fiction has been made into a movie.
The protagonist (Lester), played by Kevin Spacey, is shot dead in the film’s climax. The director praises you for the way you paid off Lester’s character arc:
“It’s by far the most satisfying end to his journey there could possibly have been.” ~ Sam Mendes.
Wow—that’s got to be the Holy Grail of story structure—congratulations. You created a protagonist, Lester, whose trajectory and reckoning ring true.
But wait—Mendes isn’t gushing about your climax. The “satisfying end” he’s talking about occurs earlier, during the sex scene, the best sex scene ever.
Wait again—the best sex scene involves no sex.
So we have a climax that’s upstaged by a sexless sex scene, which pretty much guarantees the film wins a heap of Oscars. That’s right, American Beauty, best picture, 1999.
Reviewing the film recently, I felt compelled to deconstruct what I’d just seen. How did you do that? It’s a rhetorical question because I know how you did it, and I love you for it. Your “most satisfying end” comes where it often belongs in fiction—not in the climax but in the heart of the story
We are nourished by the heart of the story.
Audiences are nourished more by the crisis at the heart of the story than by the kind of melodrama that characterizes most climaxes.
The story heart, of course, is always the scene where the protagonist breaks free. In a hundred different ways throughout the script you portrayed Lester’s prison. He’s a man imprisoned by a belief system which, from the opening scene (jerking off in the shower), defines Lester’s life as ugly. That’s why the film is called “American Beauty”—because ugly finds beauty.
Lester sees, in the young beauty he is about to deflower, that his proper role—his purpose—is protector and father figure. This realization is freedom.
So well did you succeed, O venerable screenwriter, that we aren’t miffed when the story’s climax dispenses our beloved protagonist to kingdom come. Neither does Lester seem to mind. He’s on the floor, brains blown out, but with a beatific smile on his face.
Lester may have lost his life, but in the cosmic scheme of things, he has gained something immortal. This ineffable something more than compensates for the missing sex in the sex scene. Lester is a grub that has become a butterfly. He has evolved as a human being.
About that climax…
Killing the protagonist, was it necessary? Was a climax even necessary?
Audiences have debated the meaninglessness of the murder, but I say that its relative meaninglessness is exactly the point. In American Beauty, the story has reached its “most satisfying end” when the protagonist triumphs over his small and narcissistic self. The climax is meaningless by comparison. And so kudos to you, Alan Ball, for scripting the climax—Bang! Splat!—almost as a throw-away scene.
And thank you for that sexless sex scene.
Sex, of course, is a merciless narcotic. To awaken from its spell on the verge of a climax…well, I reckon that’s a prison break of the highest order.
After 25 years you’d expect a writer to know what he’s doing.
How fiction works—got it.
Structure—wrote a book about it.
And yet I cannot swear that I know what I’m doing. A story’s purpose, for instance—I suspect that a story’s meaning lies beyond mechanics. There’s something more sophisticated going on, I can smell it, something that might explain why readers read.
Better yet, why writers write.
That sophisticated something, I caught a whiff of it this week in the Buddhist review, “Tricycle”.
Henry Shukman talks about something he calls “Misdirection”.
Misdirection is a literary device that distracts the reader with foreground action while the real crisis comes to a boil in the background. We have our eye on the central character while a subplot steals the show. For example, the film I reviewed last night, the Oscar-winning The Lives of Others (Best Foreign Film, 2007).
An East German writer is under surveillance, his apartment bugged. The Secret Police question his loyalty to the State. As the plot moves inexorably toward the writer’s undoing, we become increasingly aware of the dutiful agent listening to the intimate details of the writer’s life. The story turns out to be not so much about the charismatic author. It’s about the lowly official, his bureaucratic heart awakening.
“Misdirection works in stories because it fits with something in the workings of life.” ~ Henry Shukman.
Shukman means that our oh-so-human obsession with superficial events is not a design flaw. No, we are meant to be distracted by superficialities. If we should notice our higher nature sneaking in through the side door, we’d beat it into a coma. A new self means death to the old, familiar, comfortable, narcissistic self.
“One can’t go directly at transcendence, but only askance.” ~ Shukman
Likewise a protagonist—he aims at the front door of his desire, but it’s the wrong door. The best protagonists pursue goals that are unattainable, and they beat on that door to the point of despair. In utter failure a new door opens, a door not heretofore known to exist. Over that threshold the hero attains that “something”, a second and higher goal he has not had the courage to desire.
The protagonist’s goal, it’s a misdirection!
Thank you, Henry Shukman. I know a little more now, and it’s probably grist enough for one blog post. But please indulge me as I take this one step further:
As a writer, I often imagine myself to be a fictional protagonist. I’m always struggling to make art, or at the very least to make sense. Sometimes, to make a buck. But is my writing life a great misdirection?
I appear to be writing stories, scripts, and articles, but is that just the A-plot? Another part of me has the earphones on, listening in, growing wiser to the futility of all this effort.
“Our lives will never ‘work out,’ no matter how well we arrange the pieces or play the game.”
Shukman’s aphorism is enough to send me to a monastery, except that here again misdirection is key to the spiritual search.
“Any spiritual path is largely a matter of misdirection, something meant to conceal an appalling and marvelous fact…”
It’s like a koan, the puzzle with no answer. We contemplate the impossible in hopes of discovering an “appalling and marvelous fact”. Spiritual practice, however, “just won’t “do” what we want,” says Shukman, “at least not for long, because what we want is the problem.”
So, that makes me a slave of desires that lead me the wrong way, but which, when I fail, proves to be the right way. Hmmm.
I’m not sure I’m meant to know this. No protagonist pushes on “up the Congo” of his storyline if he knows it’s a dead-end. He has to be duped. He has to be misdirected.
After 25 years I think I know too much.
Frustrated Author Syndrome.
Waiting for publication–it can really leave you hanging. Read all about this modern-day scourge on The Write Practice.
Fortunately, I’m not infected—not with a deadly dose, anyway—and that’s because I’ve been a writer for so long that I’ve developed immunity. My successes and failures at screenwriting and novels have taught me to:
- Get my work out there.
- Write a better story.
- Read lots.
- Embrace a community of writers.
- Use the right tools. (I wish.)
If only I were more savvy about item #6: Online Publishing Tools. Help!
Oh, well, five out of six isn’t bad. Nor am I content to sit on 83.33% efficiency in the fight against Frustrated Author Syndrome. I’ve just signed up to bolster my immune system by receiving a free guide to e-tools. It’s called…
“5 Tools to Share Your Story Further”.
It’s part of The Story Cartel Course designed to help you “publish your book and sell your first 1,000 copies.”
Those 6 syndrome-fighting commandments listed above, they’re part of The Story Cartel Course as well. Even as I compose this blog post, I see that the free guide awaits me in my inbox.
Am I on Story Cartel’s payroll? No. I know them only for their generosity in the online writer-world. They helped me launch my Y.A. novel, ROXY.
You may by now know that I’m writing a book called “The Writer in Love”, and that this project is killing me, or trying to. Once again my immunity to despair ensures that I will suffer like Saint Francis all the way to a final manuscript sometime before the year is out. At which time I will be ready to deploy my newfound expertise with online publishing tools.
Frustrated Author Syndrome be gone!
You’re a fictional character.
Your writer—let’s call her a “she”—is doing all she can to hurt you. Trust me, I know it hurts, because I’m a writer just like she is. We make sure it hurts.
Your writer is only doing what all good writers do, which is to write you into a dead-end, all your efforts come to zilch, so that you give up and open up and grow up. But, dammit, it hurts!
Worse yet, what if you the protagonist are a writer.
Everyone loves a story about a struggling writer. We’re so naïve, so ambitious, so broke. So pathetic. At the sound of our name even our best friends roll their eyes. Worse yet, fictional writers think they have something to say, whereas they’ve never actually thought the thought they don’t quite have in mind, and so their saintly aspirations drive them crazy. You’re going crazy!
Actually, it’s me—I’m the one who has grudged to a halt on the mudbank of my writer’s block. And it hurts!
“Why does (the Lord) behave so inhumanly toward us?” “Because he loves us,” Francis answered.
(from the novel, “Saint Francis”, by Nikos Kazantzakis)
If only my organizm possessed a single molecule of Francis of Assisi-ness.
Francis knew what love lurked behind his writer’s tactics. And so he welcomed struggle, he searched it out. He resisted every urge to become more comfortable, battling his gut reaction at every turn. He sought a “godly” reaction, which he cultivated through his relationship with Sister Poverty. Nobody understands the saint’s self-denial because God’s logic is topsy-turvy.
“God asks us what we don’t want and then says, ‘That’s what I want!’” “He asks us what we hate and then says, ‘That’s what pleases me!’”
The irony is too much for the everyday mind. My everyday brain (after it pays the rent and waters the tomatoes) agonizes over the puzzle that is my work-in-progress, and it’s killing me!
Even as I’m cursing God for my own suffering, my writer-mind is dreaming up punishments for my own fictional protagonists. Talk about irony! Yes, I play God, hounding my heroes mercilessly all the way to their own undoing, because that’s the beginning of what I call…
The heart of the story.
Here’s Nikos Kazantzakis putting a finer point on the paradox of being a sentient being:
“I can’t go further!” whines man. “You can!” the Lord replies. “I shall break in two!” man whines again. “Break!” the Lord replies.”
Francis actually wanted to break. His upbringing and belief systems proved useless where his deepest needs were concerned. He needed to meet God. But thoughts and desires and whining acted as blinkers against God, whom Francis knew was everywhere around him.
Francis reckoned that breaking himself of the habits of the flesh would admit him to the dark heart of his own salvation.
Don’t we all.
I should orchestrate my own undoing. Oh, I wish. Alas, I’m no saint. I’m an everyday protagonist, another pulp fiction writer beating off the Hounds of Heaven.
But if some writer is directing my fate, and if her affection for me is divinely inspired, she’ll persist beyond my ability to defend myself, because what fictional protagonists don’t know is that…
“What God wants—that and only that is also what we want—but we don’t know it. This is the secret—to do the will of God means to do my own most deeply hidden will.”
As a writer god, I understand that. My poor defeated heroes are about to experience a dream come true—opening to their higher nature. But as a protagonist I have no f—- idea what my writer is doing to me, driving me to the edge of the abyss.
And what about readers? What do they know? How are they reacting?
I’m going out on a limb here to suggest that readers shudder with a deep and private ecstasy as protagonists approach and enter the dark heart of the story. And furthermore, that this delicate, mystical, and little-discussed story element is…
Why we read.
Why we write fiction.
Phew! and Amen.
If you’ve read my eBook, Story Structure to Die for, you’ll remember how my near-miss in Hollywood launched me on a quest to discover…
How fiction REALLY works.
I was privileged to hear from Jack Lemmon and Eva Marie Saint (yes, this was a few years ago) that a screenplay of mine they had applauded nevertheless, unfortunately, devolved into melodrama.
[Melodrama: n. a drama characterized by extravagant action and emotion.]
It took me a while to understand that my “big finish” had distracted me. My protagonist lost track of his own story. Instead, he ran around trying to save everyone else. I thought it was a great Hollywood ending, extravagant, excessive, tearful, and indeed it bamboozled many judges on its way to emerging as one of eight finalists in a competition with over 4000 entries from 14 different countries.
But it didn’t fool judges Jack Lemmon and Eva Marie Saint.
Why? I failed to keep the focus on the protagonist when it was needed most. I rushed into Act III without nailing my hero to the cross. Sure, he was on his knees, but I let him get back on his feet because I was anxious to shove him headlong into a melodramatic conclusion.
I didn’t hold my protagonist back; I didn’t ride him all the way down to the kind of self-doubt where a change of worldview becomes the hero’s only option.
Where good becomes great.
Think of George Clooney in Up in the Air. Or better yet, Paul Giamatti in Sideways. The writer took that wine connoisseur to such depths of self-loathing that he chugalugs the contents of a winery’s wine-tasting spit-bucket.
There’s a man on the verge of freedom.
As for my protagonist, I released him into Act III too soon. He wasn’t yet a free man. He hadn’t yet turned his back on “who he was”. Act III is all about the new man.
Jack Lemmon and Eva Marie Saint must have been unconvinced that my protagonist had struggled sufficiently with the heroics of transformation.
As a result, they could agree that my story was “good”, but in the final analysis, it was a few essential beats short of “great”.
We’ve all watched films which, while “good”, were not memorable. When I’m deeply moved by a story, I’m often not immediately aware of how the writer did it. It takes some reflection. Almost always, I find the answer in the degree to which the hero takes care of business.
The business of his own salvation.
I was deep in a digital funk yesterday.
I’d created a Word document, which, after closing, I couldn’t reopen. The file extension was beyond the ability of my Word program to open. How the heck does that happen?
Two hour’s work down the e-drain.
With a debilitating feeling of being hard-done-by, I donned my trenchcoat and went for a walk in the fog.
A speech about “The Advantages of Adversity”, that’s what I’d lost. How ironic! All my first thoughts, my raw material, memories, facts, connections, a web of meaning—all vanished in the e-ether.
Fresh air usually revives me, but on this especially funky day, every step marched me deeper into despair. I’m going on a retreat, I thought. Deep country, unplugged, that’s what I need. Since I’m a digital idiot, this kind of funk overtakes me not infrequently. Uphill I trudged under a canopy of spruce into the foothills of Mordor, trudge, trudge, trudge…
I enjoy climbing. Peaked cap pulled down so that I can’t see the slope, I perceive the road as level. It’s a little mental trick that never fails to thrill me.
Unable to reference the incline, there is no hill, no hill working against me. My organizm is working harder to walk, yes, but there is no hill trying to defeat me, no antagonism, no psychology of struggle, just the indisputable facts of physics. It never fails, I feel quite unlike myself, as if I were on Jupiter under the influence of a more powerful gravity field.
Moving about on strange planets takes me out of myself.
Suddenly, a thought out of nowhere: “The rewrite will be better.”
Rewrites are always better.
What just happened? I knew immediately what had happened because I’ve been exploring it on this blog for years—our belief systems. Good things happen when our “B.S.” outlives its usefulness. My belief system (victim mentality) had been left behind at the bottom of the hill.
I didn’t need it on Jupiter.
Wow—self-pity was weighing on me like an evil spell, which is what belief systems are. They are strategies, structures, rules, biases, attitudes, fears, all the necessary limits by which we negotiate this gloriously superficial life on planet Earth. When I shed the B.S., I became available to the truth:
My rewrite will be better.
Fictional protagonists, same thing.
The best fictional characters are cursed with belief systems that are not so easily jettisoned. The degree to which they hold fast determines the intensity of the drama. Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca. Listen to him: “I stick my neck out for nobody.”
That’s the screenwriter telling us what every reader needs to know at the outset of a story—what’s the hero’s belief system?
With that pitiful attitude, Bogey’s trajectory is set. Events will conspire to undo his belief system. Bogey will eat his words or we’ll demand our money back.
Sure enough, the love of his life (Ingrid Bergman) shows up and ushers Bogey to the depths of self-loathing. Remember the scene where she pulls a gun on him to get the letters of transit to America. He says, “Go ahead, shoot. You’ll be doing me a favour.”
He doesn’t care if he lives or dies. Now he can jettison his belief system. What good is a belief system if you’re on death’s doormat? Ilsa notices him waking up, lightening up. Now she’s in his arms. Look at Bogey, he looks a little lost, but now it’s all flooding back, the noble guy he was at the start of the war. You can see it in his eyes. He’s catching a glimpse of the truth, who he really is.
He’s rewriting his script.
The rewrite will be better!
As we know, Bogey sticks his neck out as far as a neck can go. He shoots Major Strasser, sacrifices his one true love, orders her to escape Casablanca with her husband so together they might bolster the Resistance against Hitler.
And, look… there goes Bogart in his trenchcoat, walking into the fog, a living martyr.
Time for me now to man-up and rewrite this speech.
(Btw… what the heck is a “docx” file? Is it, like, some kind of curse?)
“By believing passionately in something which still does not exist, we create it.”
You know, I just can’t quite get my head around that kind of mumbo-jumbo.
“The nonexistent is whatever we have not sufficiently desired.”
Who am I to refute such optimism? Neither am I able to promote it.
That said, just last week I began a talk by telling a personal story that seemed to prove the truth of that aphorism. I was speaking to an audience of writers and readers at our local library:
“Years ago, while I was living in an alternative community in Oregon, my girlfriend dumped me. Heartbroken, I begged off work, parked my sorry ass at a café and picked up a periodical that featured a commentary on a Buddhist sutra about “Loving Yourself”.
“‘Love Yourself: this can become the foundation of a radical transformation…’
“Under the circumstances, I was willing to consider the thesis. Love yourself. Hmm… I read on:
“‘Don’t be afraid of loving yourself. Love totally and you will be surprised: the day you can get rid of all self-condemnation, self-disrespect…will be a day of great blessing.’
“The more I read, the more I liked it. It seemed so do-able. Just, ‘love yourself’. I read it again and again. The day went by quickly with this dictum reverberating in my cranium like a mantra. ‘Love yourself, love yourself, love…’ My spirits lifted.
“By evening this sutra is circulating in my blood stream. Love yourself, of course! When I love myself to overflowing, there’s some for others. I am finally able to love others.
“Who can love others, who hates himself?
“Love yourself, love yourself, love yourself, love…
“I’m walking home in the dark feeling fine, as you can imagine. On any other night I would have detoured into the disco for an hour, but on this night I just looked in the window, careful not to disturb these insights about ‘loving yourself’. A woman appeared at my side and took my hand. I didn’t know her from Eve.
“‘What’s your name?’ she asked. I told her. ‘What’s yours?’ I said. She replied with one of those Sanskrit names everybody seemed to have back then.
“‘What’s it mean?” I asked.
“She said, ‘It means Love Yourself.’”
End of story.
I won’t speculate upon how I conjured Ms. LoveYourself out of thin air. Perhaps Nikos Kazantzakis is right when he says it’s a function of desire. Here’s the rest of what the author of Zorba the Greek had to say about manifesting what you want:
“The nonexistent is whatever we have not sufficiently desired—whatever we have not irrigated with our blood to such a degree that it becomes strong enough to stride across the somber threshold of nonexistence.”
Desire “irrigated with our blood”, I hadn’t thought of that. Desire figures strongly in my story theory. Only the strongest desire takes the protagonist all the way. All the way to her own undoing. Which is her awakening.
By building a protagonist with such a fatal desire, that’s how a writer loves his hero. That’s the writer’s obligation.
That’s what I wanted to talk to the audience about.
I almost forgot.
(The Buddhist commentary was by Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh.)
“We feel an unforeseen relief at the end of the tragedy.” ~ Nikos Kazantzakis
There’s a compelling scene in Silver Linings Playbook where the bi-polar protagonist (Patrick) feels anything but “relief” while reading the final pages of Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.
Patrick hurls the book through a (closed) window. At four o’clock in the morning
Then, he charges into this parents’ bedroom to debrief the tragedy:
“The whole time you’re rooting for this Hemingway guy to survive the war and to be with Catherine, the woman he loves… and he does! He survives… after getting blown up… and he escapes to Switzerland with Catherine… but now Catherine’s pregnant. Isn’t that wonderful?”
Patrick, just released from a psych ward, wants to fix his broken marriage but he’s obviously deluded. Positive thinking, he thinks, is going to win back his wife.
“And they escape up into the mountains and they’re gonna be happy, and they’re gonna be drinking wine and they dance… [but] you think he ends it there? No! He writes another ending. She dies.”
Hemingway’s tragedy has poisoned Patrick’s mind.
“Dad! I mean, the world’s hard enough as it is. Can’t somebody say, “Hey, let’s be positive? Let’s have a good ending to the story?”
Patrick’s rant predicts the climax—it could stand as the subtext of our hero’s actions as he resolves key personal issues in the closing minutes.
The tone of the film is mildly comic, so we know from the get-go that it’s going to end well enough. But if Silver Linings has one weakness, it’s exactly that—the Hollywood ending.
And it comes as the expense of A Farewell to Arms lying in tatters outside in the dark amongst shards of glass. I dislike the notion that only gushing happy endings nourish readers.
I challenge Patrick to retrieve his Hemingway and revisit that ending. Look again at the protagonist in that Swiss hospital room where his wife has just died. He’s just died, too, so to speak. He stands at the window, looking out.
That’s how it ends. It’s terribly sad, and at the same time, according to Nikos Kazantzakis, the story isn’t over.
“We know that though the hero may die, may be reduced to bloodstained mire beneath some invisible heel, there is something within him that will not die.”
Look again at the Hemingway character at the window. What’s he looking at? Keep watching as Kazantzakis explains how we might appreciate this tragic scene:
“Apparently there is a power outside and inside man which has one aim and only one—to rise. Where? Up towards what? No one knows.”
Is this the silver lining of failure?
The “unforeseen relief at the end of the tragedy”—is this the nourishment imbedded in a good tragedy?
The writer would seem to be asking us to conjure up the “relief” in our own hearts.
Kazantzakis suggests that we instinctively understand this mystical aspect of tragedy. We might even yearn to be a Macbeth or an Othello, but the demands of everyday life steer us well clear of any such possibility.
As a result, says Kazantzakis, it’s our fate to be left behind “in the tepid mud to limp through life, limp through love, limp through desire.”
And limp off to the movies. Yikes!
Let’s end this gloomy post with the final lines of Patrick’s rant. Visualize his parents cowering under their covers:
MOM: Pat, you owe us an apology.
PATRICK: Mom, for what? I’m not going to apologize for this. You know what I will do? I will apologize on behalf of Ernest Hemingway, because that’s who’s to blame here.
[Silver Linings is written by David O. Russell.]
Would you read a book called The Writer in Love?
If no, don’t tell me; I’m too busy working on it, shaping it, trying to fall in love with it.
Unlike my previous effort, Story Structure to Die for, this one isn’t instructional, not so straightforward. It’s more like a vortex. I hope.
Writer in Love is a journey to the heart of a story. It’s part memoir. It’s loaded with challenging insights from other writers. It’s a seduction. In its round-about way it reveals “how to love your protagonist.”
Here’s a taste, a personal memory, one of many that add up to a writer in love with writing about characters he cares for truly madly and deeply. I do want to know how you respond to this excerpt, so I’ll see you at the bottom of the page…
The writer in question writing The Writer in Love
I was six years old when I fell to my death.
Me and my pals were monkeying around a house under construction. No staircase yet, just a gaping hole in the floor. Were we courting disaster? Sure we were. We were just kids, ecstatic, indifferent to the pitfalls that litter the surface of Planet Earth. Perhaps I wished it upon myself.
Falling would appear to be a human imperative. We fall for jokes and we laugh when we slip on banana peels. And of course we’re always falling in love as if it were our one chance to quit fighting gravity and finally surrender. Is this the attraction? In any event, the possibility excited us kids to the point of laughing and screaming and pushing and shoving and…
There I go!
Half a block away, my father is digging potatoes in the garden. Startled by the sudden silence in the neighbourhood he looks up, drops his shovel and runs. By the time he finds me face-down on the basement floor it’s too late. My mind has been blown. As in a lucid dream, I am staring wide-eyed at the human condition—we have a little self and a big self.
We have a little self and a MUCH BIGGER self.
So much bigger is the bigger self that we call it the “Self”. But I am far too young to entertain such mystical notions, so I never speak of it. Many years later, a writer now, a screenwriter in love with creating characters to die for, I recognize it in the movies I love most.
It—the flash of light in the dark.
I see it in would-be heroes who have hit rock bottom. They’ve lost what’s most valuable to them—lover, fortune, meaning, self-respect, all hope. These protagonists, not unlike the kid lying on cold concrete, have come to a full stop. The story has stopped breathing, it can’t move. Stripped of all momentum and hope, the hero encounters only emptiness. There is nothing left.
I could see it coming because I was wide awake—I was going to die. But never mind the dying—I was watching it! I watched, dazzled, as a wave of panic rose and then evaporated.
You’ve seen it too, protagonists suffering the crash and glorious burn. Bogart in Casablanca—“I stick my neck out for nobody”—his narcissistic attitude evaporating in the blinding light of disillusionment that illuminates his duty not to himself but to what the world demands of him.
Emptiness giving way to sainthood if ever we’ve seen it.
But I am only six years old, too young to have become identified with the kind of malapert slogans that define film heroes. Nor have I fallen as far nor landed as hard as fictional heroes must. But I am suffering the same awakening:
- I have been mistaken.
- I am a part of something greater.
- I have been suffering under the weight of who I thought I was.
I remember lying there astonished that we should have to “die” in order to see the big picture. Had I not fallen through that hole in the floor, would another opportunity have presented itself? Ever. Had I been a fictional protagonist, I would have stepped through the silver screen to shake my writer’s hand.
She had the guts to push me. She knows what love is.
Failing to “kill” the main character may explain why a story leaves us vaguely dissatisfied. I’ve come to learn that the writer who stops short of pushing the protagonist into the hole in their story is breaking a promise. It’s the promise every story makes to its readers, readers who live with ancient memories of falling. Memories lodged in the organizm as a yearning to fall again.
The story promises to push us.
The story promises that elusive glimpse of freedom from our small self.
Good writing delivers on that promise.
[End of excerpt]
So, what do you demand of your fictional characters? What makes a hero? What makes the best kind of story? These are the questions my book poses and tries to answer. Feel free to chime in with any thoughts.
Here I am on the Mexican Riviera trying hard to do the wrong thing.
As you can see (photo), it’s not easy.
For starters, I chose not to take a room in the historic Belmar Hotel. Rumours of boa constrictors in the hallways notwithstanding, they want $50 a night for short term stays, so I took a two-bedroom suite around the corner for half the price.
No, I’m not on the beach, but that’s just as well. The pounding of the surf can drive you crazy.
I’m happy to report that a renovation is underway on the other side of my living room wall. Drilling, chipping, hammering, pounding…it all adds to up to a wrong decision, which suits me fine.
Honestly, the noise doesn’t bother me, which proves beyond a doubt that attitude is everything. All I hear is men working. But they’re not working any harder than I am.
Today I wrote a chapter called “Fatal Attraction”, about my near-death-experience as a six-year-old. I fell through a house under construction. It was just about the wrong-est thing I’ve ever done. As I lay there dying, it woke me out of the dream we know as everyday reality.
All this wrong/right business, while it makes perfect sense to me, others would appear to be challenged by the concept. The wrong thing is ultimately the right thing—isn’t that obvious?
Apparently not. Apparently, not everyone has fallen on their head. Apparently, not everyone is aware that behaviours that conform to society’s expectations are the “right” things to do. And whatever challenges our belief system is the “wrong” thing to do.
We should aspire to be “wrong,” shouldn’t we?
Artists and writers have the obligation to be “wrong,” don’t they?
Mystics and radicals through the ages have devoted their lives to being “wrong,” haven’t they?
I’m glad that’s settled.
Here I am sitting in the Belmar Bar…
and there’s where John Wayne carved his cattle brand into one of the leather barstools, back in the ‘50s.
Homework assignment: was that the right thing or the wrong thing to do?
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“Are you sure you’re doing the wrong thing?”
Leonard Cohen recalls that long-ago advice from his mentor, the poet, Irving Layton.
More recently, on a website dedicated to breaking the unwritten rules we live by, I found this:
“Have fun being wrong.”
Rick Lewis posts daily practices designed to cut through our B.S. (belief systems). “Avoid Mistakes”—that’s the Rule I’m encouraged to break by “being wrong”. Oh, yeah, and have fun doing it.
This advice comes in the nick of time.
I’m on the verge of booking an all-inclusive resort on the Mexican Riviera. You see, I’m shopping for a writing retreat, somewhere to blitz a book project. So, in the spirit of “wrong”, I’m cancelling the Hilton and buying a one-way ticket to old Mazatlan.
I’ll search for a room when I’ve landed.
My mother thinks I’m very wrong, so that’s a good start. “Why can’t you write at home?” she said. I told her I can’t blitz at home on account of the wife. If she’s not preparing gourmet meals, organizing picnics and movie nights and calling me down for happy hour, then she’s bothering me with serious discussions of poets, novelists, philosophers and mystics while massaging my back with her lovely feet. I can’t take it anymore.
The tyranny of domestic bliss—Leonard Cohen couldn’t cope with it, either. He would escape to a seedy hotel where, working naked, he was free to commune with cockroaches and other muses.
How wrong is that! Exactly.
Which is why I’m considering taking a room at the once glorious Belmar Hotel in old Mazatlan.
Leonard would love it. It crumbles as we speak. No phones, no TV, and neither do all the rooms have a full compliment of furniture, which isn’t a problem if you know in which abandoned guest suites they store reparable fixtures. Rumours that pythons lurk back there are not true.
The constrictors had vanished even before the Sinaloa State governor was assassinated in the hotel’s ballroom by a masked hit-man named “the Gypsy”. That was during WWII. The only beasts haunting The Belmar these days are pigeons, rats, and cats. It seems that Mexican cats can’t control the rats, which explains the pythons. When management turned them loose in the hotel, first thing they did was eat the cats.
I’m undecided if that was the wrong thing or not.
Says Rick Lewis: “Failure and fun are twins that were separated at birth. Good humour is the result of re-uniting one with the other.”
As someone who loves a good paradox, I’m going to test out Lewis’ hypothesis.
I’m leaving on Friday. I’m pretty sure I’m doing the wrong thing. I’ll keep you posted.