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Portrait of Syrian girls sleeping on the refugee train
I snapped this shot as I traveled from Budapest to Munich last week.
I look at the photo now with some shame.
After days worrying about getting caught up in migrant mayhem—of perhaps getting trapped in Budapest and meeting with violence and missing our flight home—what finally did I discover at the dark heart of my fear?
What am I afraid of?
Last week in Vienna my wife and I found ourselves at a fork in the road.
One road led to a sidewalk café where I was inclined to hang out with schnitzel and strudel between visits to art galleries until it was time to fly home from Munich.
The other road led south to Budapest.
Budapest, Hungary, where thousands of migrants were breaching police barriers to board trains heading north to more welcoming countries in the EU.
We had to ask ourselves—should we risk it? Anything could happen. Look what was happening!
Uncertainty became a full-blown case of insomnia.
Then it occurred to me how much sleep I would lose if I let fear run my life.
O ye of little faith
We arrived in Budapest to peace and quiet at the infamous Kereti Railway Station. The migrants—hundreds of them—were cordoned off in a lower concourse while Hungarian officials wrestled with their own fears, I guess.
For five days my wife and I soaked up history-rich Budapest. We ate goulash, drank beer, bathed in the ancient Roman baths and boated on the Danube, during which we spotted more migrants — above us, on the bridge, on the move.
By now Austria was rejecting trains arriving from Hungary. At the Austrian border we would have to fight for a seat on another train heading north to Vienna.
The fear again.
This is a selfie I took for the record—minutes before the train pulls out of Budapest’s Kereti Station.
Let’s title this shot: “O Ye of Little Faith.”
What happens next…
Migrants do charge the train. About that I was right. Our scramble for seats is something I’m trying to forget.
Pressed close beside me is a plump Syrian woman who boasts of her six children. On the refugee road with six kids! Framed within her white hijab, her smile beams megawatts. Her Islamic husband, from where he stands in the aisle outside our compartment, keeps an eye on her. (Or me.)
Another mother breastfeeds her infant. How old is this baby? Days? Weeks at the most. Born on the journey? Born on the run. The mind boggles. When everyone else is passing out with fatigue, this stalwart young woman tends the restless child without complaint. How does she find a moment to tend to herself?
“We lost everything…”
I want to hear their stories but no one speaks sufficient English. A teenager wearing a Bob Marley cap opens the compartment door and shouts into the aisle: “English!”
A young man in a blue Adidas track suit stands in the doorway and describes two family homes destroyed. What’s left of his life in Syria was crammed into two backpacks, one lost in the Aegean Sea. “Seven hours swim,” he says, making breast-strokes with his arms.
What’s harder to believe is that someone can smile through the telling of such a tragic tale.
“I… university… mathematics…”
Evicted from the train, we scramble onto another carriage on an adjacent track. My wife finds a seat but I’ll be standing all the way to Vienna. The clean-cut young man beside me extends his hand in greeting.
“Veen?” he asks me.
“Wien, Vienna, yes. I hope so.”
His name is Sayid. He and his buddy are heading for Germany. I ask them what they’ll do there.
“University,” Sayid says. “I… mathematics… three years… one more year, finished. My friend, Johnny, he… economics… one year. He no English.”
Both no German. I teach them a few words—Guten tag and Danke and Bitte. They eat it up. The mind continues to boggle. I suggest they come to Canada.
“Is very far,” says Sayid.
I nod my head. “Is your friend’s name really Johnny?” I ask. Apparently, it is.
“You would like? Take, please.”
The train from Vienna to Munich presents another scramble for seats. Two hours into the journey we nibble discretely on schwartzbrot and other week-old picnic scraps. I’ve been communing with a migrant across the aisle, who offers me a bottle of water. “Take, please,” he insists.
“No, really, thank you. But thank you very much.”
These migrants have nothing and yet they’re offering me their water. They want to take care of me. This is what’s happening here in the heart of my fear.
At 250 km/hr this Austrian train is eerily silent. Limp as rag-dolls, people doze off en masse. I want to take photos but it feels inappropriate. The girls in the seats behind us however are irresistible. But who do they belong to? I make a general request of anyone within earshot. The parents of another breastfeeding infant assure me it’s fine to take their picture.
As for me, I can’t sleep for savouring the peace here at the heart of my fear.
Maybe it’s the lulling motion of the train, but these migrants seem to be in a state of surrender. Which in no way resembles any kind of defeat. They strike me as possessing a wholehearted ability to cooperate with the inevitable.
What would we do if we lost everything? Would we react with such patience, friendliness, and equanimity?
Wherein I visit an artist who marches to a different dromenon.
Dromenon, an old word that might change the way we make art.
Dromenon: art done right.
Art done so right that it not only provokes the gods but leaves them with no choice but to show up at your launch.
Meet artist Ramon Kubicek.
Ramon Kubicek believes in all this dromenon business. Or so I discover when I bust into his studio as he’s buzzing around in preparation for an upcoming exhibition.
I’m met with bees.
“Bees of the Invisible,” says Kubicek. “It’s my theme, borrowed from the poet Rainer Maria Rilke.”
Sure enough, bees are depicted in many of the images. Bees and humanoids and cityscapes and maps and collage and black holes and deep seas and all of a colour palette that’s deceptively happy.
“Bees make us think of the sweetness of life,” says Kubicek, “so I’m hoping we’ll ask ourselves what we’re doing with our own lives. What is our contribution? What do we produce?”
One honey-coloured canvas Kubicek calls “Melissae,” who in Greek mythology were bee-priestesses, nymphs that nursed the infant Zeus not on milk but honey. Melissa means Queen Bee.
Kubicek explains that Rilke saw artists as bees gathering experience from the material world and then returning with it to “the great golden hive of the Invisible.”
Feelings, imagination, and spirit—that’s the hive—the inner life of the artist.
The invisible inner life of the artist
“Working with materiality until it becomes a part of our inner lives, and then offering it up to the world as “honey” or “art,” is not about making money or a big social splash. It is about receiving, and then giving to others, to the gods, a gift.”
Since our creativity is a gift, we artists are obliged to gift our works back to the gods.
Art returned to the source—that’s art done right.
The best art is transformative
The ancient Greeks believed that dromenon compelled the gods to come down from the mountain and mingle with the hoi polloi. Think about it—wherever people gather to appreciate good art—at exhibitions, live performances, book launches—the sacred is present.
“What a wonderful basis for the making of art!” says Kubicek.
Kubicek is sincere. I have long known him as a writer and artist who believes in the transformative power of art.
“People went to the Greek drama festivals to see their favorite plays,” Kubicek says. “And in the process they might experience catharsis and healing.”
And why not? Rubbing shoulders with the gods, something might actually rub off. A little godliness, perhaps. Whatever godliness means to you.
What does godliness mean to you?
To me it means taking myself less seriously. Not taking things personally. And seeing the big picture. All in aid of transcending human pettiness. Or as I like to say, to unselve myself.
I ask a white-haired gentleman if he’s a god. “Farthest thing from it,” he says. So I hang out near my favourite canvases hoping for a god-spotting.
I like “Ship of Fools.”
I see people in boats, things floating on water—or is it air?
“It speaks of a voyage,” Kubicek explains. “We sense a journey, physical or spiritual.”
Kubicek points out people left behind. “The most beautiful moments are about loss,” he says. “The best moments are fleeting, such as a child growing up, or a sun setting.”
Meaning what?—that loss and transience are blessings?
“Bees of the Invisible” features an ominous vortex.
“It’s the dark centre of something where we might vanish and be transformed,” says Kubicek.
I see strange letters in the composition. “The Aramaic alphabet,” he says, “the language of Jesus.”
All very mysterious, leaving me scratching my head, as if life itself had a secret centre we are not meant to easily comprehend.
This is Kubicek’s “honey”—a vivid and mysterious yet playful take on our transient existence.
“I like Rilke’s articulation—art and honey. It might be easy to see each as non-essential, until one imagines [bees] gone from the world. Today, we live in a time of ecological stress and our heedless treatment and killing of bees threatens both the natural world and our own survival. This mistreatment exists in parallel with our loss of inner life and our confusion about the role of art.
”I’m still looking for any sign of the gods.
Am I missing something?
Let me know if you see one.
And whoever this creature is — does anyone have her phone number?
But I leave the art gallery buzzing with a certain sweet contentment.
Gods or no gods, Kubicek has done something right.
This coming-of-age novel by Caitlin Hicks plays out in the months between two famous deaths—Pope John XXIII and President Kennedy, in 1963.
I caught up with Caitlin Hicks to discuss issues important to fiction writers.
“What’s your book about, Caitlin? What’s its message?”
“Message?” she says. “No message. It’s a novel.” And a hilarious one, I might add.
And yet I don’t entirely believe her. Her story is definitely about something. I don’t give novels much of my time if they don’t appear to be about something. The story’s 12-year-old protagonist, Annie Shea, is too outspoken for the book not to say something.
Hicks soon confesses that she “had a question to answer with the story,” and so I ask her, “What question?”
“I’m not telling you!” she says. “I’m not telling anyone.”
She’s starting to sound like Annie, smart and sassy and skilled at digging her heels in.
“If you read the book,” says Hicks, “maybe you’ll find the answer.” Or maybe not. “Because it’s not directly answerable in an obvious way,” she says.
“Was your question answered for you?” I ask.
“Yes, but I’m not going to say what it was.”
Every good book has a secret centre
Caitlin Hicks is right to protect the mystery of her question. Readers love books that circle a central question, even if it’s never explained.
The best novels, like A Theory of Expanded Love, possess a secret centre.
I reflect on novels that have bored me—books whose point is quickly obvious. The hero’s trajectory is unambiguous, and so lacks mystery. The reading experience is mediocre, if not downright tedious. Genre fiction can get like that.
Perhaps this is why A Theory of Expanded Love is getting such rave reviews, because it is about something that is “not answerable in an obvious way.” Something to do with love. Or the lack of it. That’s my guess.
One of thirteen siblings, Annie Shea had to fight for face-time with her mother. “I had been tracking her around the house so she would notice me,” says Annie. Perhaps there’s not enough love in a large family to go around. Or does love expand infinitely? That’s a theme you can build a novel around.
“Whenever I have a question,” Hicks says, “and I create something from that question, it usually turns out to have some holding power.”
By holding power she means compelling. I know writers who want to take that word out and shoot it. It haunts them and for good reason. Compelling is the Holy Grail for novelists who want to write a book worth reading.
As long as I’m exploring…
“As long as I’m exploring then it’s interesting,” says Hicks. “My curiosity is everywhere in the book.”
Hicks may be touching the heart of the matter: As long as the writer is exploring, the story holds the reader.
Few writers speak of stories having an unspoken theme or core. One believer is Orhan Pamuk (Nobel Prize for Literature, 2006):
“[The reader] cannot help reflecting on the meaning of life as he tries to locate the centre of the novel he is reading. For in seeking this centre, he is seeking the centre of his own life and that of the world.”
I wonder if Hicks is trying probe the centre of her own life in the novel. Is her story fact or fiction?
Memoir vs. novel
Since Hicks and her protagonist were both raised in large Catholic families in Pasadena, California, I have assumed that A Theory of Expanded Love is autobiographical.
“Annie Shea is not me,” Hicks says. “This is not a memoir, it’s a novel. I’m not a redhead. Annie is so much smarter and confident. I may have thought what she thought, but I didn’t question things. I was a well-bred Catholic girl all the way up to graduating from college. I was going to confession every day. I was trying to be holy.”
For Caitlin Hicks, her real-life family wasn’t sufficiently pregnant with story material.
“I couldn’t write a memoir because I felt like I knew everything I wanted to know about my family. But then ‘the question’ came up, and I wondered why that was?”
Out of that curiosity a novel was born.
It’s a novel that explores family life through the antics of a pre-pubescent girl, and it made me laugh out loud. Annie is a girl whose desperation derives not from abuse or neglect but from a powerful urge to know how life works. Especially love.
That’s definitely it. Something about love. Love expanding to nourish every newborn heart. Is that it, Caitlin?
“It’s not really a secret,” Hicks says. “But I’m not going to tell. It’s unmentioned, but through the whole book you get a sense of what that might be.”
Here’s what I think:
Love is infinite, and when you read this novel you feel it shining through the young and rebellious Annie Shea.
Should I get serious and tell her she’s slipping away? That she only weighs about 80 lbs.
And when would I tell her? On our way to the golf course?
Or after we get there, when she’s filling her face with a Sunriser Special of sausages, eggs, toast, and extra fries? Maybe while she’s laughing at my jokes, I could just slip it in? Or perhaps later at her 5-star retirement villa, while she’s glued to the Golf Channel.
It has only occurred to me after all these years that she has been the source of my sense of humour. I always knew how to make her laugh.
I don’t know when she’ll stop laughing but until then I’m going to guiltlessly poke fun at old people.
Count the times I’ve been run down on the road less traveled!
I was barely home from my travels in Africa and Asia when the gods pulled a U-turn and made roadkill of me yet again.
I was filming in the Canadian Rockies
I was shooting a film on the geomorphology of the high country. Think erosion. Even solid granite breaks up over time and washes to the sea. Everything disintegrates, including the human psyche.
After an exhausting day filming on scree slopes above a chain of turquoise lakes and then debriefing the tapes over dinner with the sound tech we drove to Lake Louise to be closer to our next location. It was midnight by the time we found a tent site on the perimeter of a campground.
We pitched our tent and fell asleep.
I woke at dawn with rain drubbing softly on the sagging canvas.
I heard something else.
I crawled half out to peer around the tent—
Grizzly! Not six feet away from me.
Front paws on the picnic table, she sniffed our cooler, our food supply. Last night we had unloaded the jeep and then hastily secured one end of our pup tent to the table before passing out.
I’m sorry! I told you, I’m not that smart!
The bear took a second to fix me in the cross-hairs of her cold gaze.
I nudged Ken and whispered, “Grizzly.” He wanted to see. I shook my head furiously. He stuck his head out, withdrew, looked at me: “Three cubs.”
Worst case scenario. Now what?
The tent collapsed.
The weight of the cooler and everything spilling out—bacon and steaks and yogurt, and bread, coffee, apples, raisins, nuts and milk and a week’s supply of Snickers Bars—it flattened the tent with us beneath it.
Four bears were sitting on us, eating. And not quietly, I might add.
While we lay still as death.
I thought of Fred.
Fred and I had played hockey at university. He was 6-3 and damned good-looking before he met the grizzly who left him minus one hip, a broken back, no scalp, half a face, and a chewed elbow, and those were just the physical injuries.
I was eroding inside, already.
I’d been here before, my life stopped dead in its tracks. (The cheetah comes to mind, remember?) My granite sense of self becoming “Fred,” I couldn’t muster the necessary thoughts to convince myself that life had meaning.
There was nothing left to obscure the fact that life has no meaning.
There was nothing left.
Hold that thought.
If you’ve read Story Structure Expedition, you’re familiar with how I recruited authors more eloquent than myself to do the heavy explaining through moments like this. Well, here we go again:
“Accepting that the world is without meaning, we are liberated from confinement in the meaning we have made. Knowing there is nothing of substance in our world may seem to rob that world of value. But this nothingness may be our most precious possession, since it opens to us the inexhaustible world that exists beyond ourselves.”
That’s it! What every crisis has taught me.
If Mr. Gray moves over we can squeeze physicist, Alan Lightman, into this dilemma:
“In our constant search for meaning in this baffling and temporary existence, trapped as we are within our three pounds of neurons, it is sometimes hard to tell what is real. We often invent what isn’t there. Or ignore what is. We try to impose order, both in our minds and in our conceptions of external reality. We try to connect. We try to find truth. We dream and we hope. Underneath all of these strivings, we are haunted by the suspicion that what we see and understand of the world is only a tiny piece of the whole.”
Lightman is describing the fictional protagonist waking up in the Act II Crisis.
At the heart of the story, heroes see the world as it really is.
Un-smart like me
I’m not saying I’m a hero, but I certainly have been serially un-smart. My talent for not being too smart for my own good has earned me the moral authority to enter the Act III of my life.
And now, writing from the perspective of the final act, I want to share with you some of my discoveries (however arguable they might be):
The meaning of a human life is to realize—by whatever means possible—that nothingness is our most precious possession
The best fictional protagonists do just that
Which aids and abets our own struggle to see the world as it really is
And that’s why we read fiction
And perhaps why we write it.
CUT BACK TO ACTION:
Behind the falling rain, low voices. The canvas was suddenly snapped back to reveal a uniformed park official standing over me with a rifle. He shook his head in dismay, or disdain.
I know, I’m an idiot, I’m sorry.
Mama lay in a heap, tranquilized, while her three cubs found refuge up a tree. Campers, soggy in the early morning rain, watched in disbelief.
I know, I know, I’m sorry! It’ll happen again, I assure you.
Good writers—like good protagonists—are never too smart for their own good.
[POST SCRIPT: All this “meaning” business notwithstanding, I didn’t sleep well in a tent for a few years after that.]
Every writer should be so lucky as to have an idea virus eat their brain.
Here’s how it happens:
First you catch it.
Then you get it.
Once you’ve got it, you can kiss your old self goodbye.
This is the story of how existence conspired to throw the book at me—literally—and infect me with an ideavirus that set me free.
A book called Positive Disintegration
I caught it with two hands. Yes, there really was a book. I was living in Africa at the time. After all these years I still remember my roommate tossing it to me. He didn’t hand it to me, nor is tossing accurate, no, he chucked it at me. He’d run out of sympathy for me and my “Dear John” letter.
“She’s engaged to someone else already,” I said. “I’ve only been gone two months.”
The English was stiff and the syntax was Polish but I quickly got the gist of it—something about our mental development from infancy to full maturity (whatever that might look like) occurring through five hierarchical stages. Between each level lies an existential hellhole.
“Hey, Gary, thanks for this.” My roommate was an industrial psychologist.
Nothing is broken, we don’t need fixing
According to the book, each pothole on the road of life serves as an alchemical crucible. Our negative emotions start the process. So, please, we don’t need drugs. My suffering would propel me to the next level of integration.
The author prescribed creative expression—music, art, writing, whatever. The most imaginative thing I was doing in Zambia at that time was learning to fly, but my instructor had grounded me until further notice.
I started writing poetry. Who was I kidding? Next up, painting. Gary was not amused with my floor-to-ceiling murals in the living room. Movie making was next. I acquired film stock from the president of the local Cine Club, cheap black & white 8 mm film from Russia.
My friends dropped everything to help out. They heard I was shooting a movie called The End. The protagonist smokes himself to death. My script called for atmosphere, so we lit a fire in the living room. I could barely see the actors through the viewfinder. Now we all had tears in our eyes. It was great.
That night, sleepless, I processed the footage in the kitchen sink. To my horror, my developer kit was short the fixer. The silver halide would continue to expose. The film would turn black. I needed fixer!
It was gone midnight but I jumped on my motorcycle and raced across town through the dangerously dark and muggy streets of Lusaka, Zambia, risking potholes, speed bumps, bicycle thieves and black dogs.
I was speeding faster than I dared—for my film—for art! I was beginning to forget myself.
I dipped into a pocket of deliciously cool air and for a second I felt so alive that I even forgot my film. I had almost forgotten her! Dabrowski was right, I was growing out of myself.
I must have forgotten about gravity because I lifted off the face of the earth. From up there, here’s what I saw:
My despair wasn’t bogus, and yet it was lost in the greater scheme of things. There was this project known as Me, all about self-improvement, which is okay, I guess, except it looked so puny.
I was making myself my life’s work—my happiness—and, well, it’s just too small a work.
I never came back to earth
When I became a writer, Dabrowski’s hypothesis helped me to understand:
You won’t believe this, but upon my return to Canada I discovered that Dabrowski lived for six months of the year in my home town of Edmonton. Six blocks from where I lived! We became good friends. He would serve me strong coffee and dark chocolate while I told him the stories of my serial disintegrations. I can still see his eyes sparkle.
A little girl cries over her scoop of pistachio ice cream melting on the sidewalk.
How sad is that empty cone? And look at those tears. She hasn’t learned that gravity works against us till our dying day.
A gull with straw in its beak perches on the peak of my roof. Two hours ago I watched it mount its mate to fertilize the egg that would hatch in the nest that no longer sits on my roof because there’s no way a gull family is going to turn my roof into a guano factory this summer as it did last. No way!
Still, it’s sad.
Life never seems to work out, however well we arrange the pieces or play the game. According to most wisdom traditions, that’s good news.
My friend’s passing is sad and yet his absence leaves me with memories of his participation in our writing group over many years. In the empty space he leaves behind I find myself more determined than ever to write well and fast and publish again without delay.
That little girl, is she not the picture of sadness? But aren’t our saddest moments those that loom largest in memory? We look back at them as stepping stones toward our growing up. This ice cream failure can serve her in this way. I hope I’m right.
And a gull with no nest, how sad is that?
I don’t mind being sad. I don’t disparage sadness as a state of being.
I’ve often been told I look sad, and yet I often fall asleep at night feeling showered by gifts.
Sadness!—if I were a poet I would write an ode to sadness.
Such as the time I received the “Dear John” letter in the mail.
I don’t expect you to believe this but as I laid eyes on the envelope thunder mumbled overhead. As I opened the letter the room fell dark and as I read the deadly words the door slammed shut with a gust of wind that delivered such a deluge of tropical rain hammering on the tin roof that sadness seemed to bury me alive.
How long was I a ghost? You’ll have to ask my then-roommate because it wasn’t long before he couldn’t take it anymore and he tossed me a book, saying, “Read this.” Just tossed it and turned away without bothering to see if I caught it, as if I were a beggar in the gutter.
The scene is vivid in my mind, the trajectory of that book flying towards me, a second in time that became the hinge around which my life turned forever.
And all because sadness turned me into an empty begging bowl, I guess. And because gifts would seem to seek the empty place. Is that true?
If so, is that a paradox? Or does that make eminent sense?
I don’t quite know how to end this. I want to return to my writer friend, Rick (may he rest in peace), and to the girl and the gull and to all lovers who fly the coop. It seems I’m surrounded by events that make me sad, but what I want to say is that I’m sorrow’s willing victim.
I could even say that sorrow likes me. It pounds on my roof. It keeps trying to build a nest up there, for goodness sake.
The mystics say that’s good news.
And that little book that changed my life explains why that might be so. It’s called Positive Disintegration, by Kazimierz Dabrowski. He was no mystic, but he had all the reason in the world to be sad.
Perhaps that’s why he and I became such good friends.
We die in a taxi cab short of making it to a hotel where we die of despair.
We die of a broken heart. Betrayed. By ourselves. By our stupidity!
I lay on some deluxe deathbed in some beige hotel room somewhere in that suffocating gray limbo called New Delhi and for two or three days I drank blood red orange juice. Where did I find the money for a 3-star hotel? I thought I was broke.
As empty as I was—or perhaps because I was so empty—the image of the beggar in Bombay haunted me. No arms, no legs, not much left of him at all, he was beyond defeat.
The scene won’t quit my head even now. Not sure what I’m seeing as I remember him nudging his begging bowl with his forehead through a thicket of legs, a gauntlet of feet and fumes and cattle and cart wheels and spokes and grime and dogs and shit and broken asphalt. There is no Bombay for me above the knees of that miraculous city. I am down there with him getting trampled and I can’t escape.
At some point it occurred to me—I’m not taking a trip, this trip is taking me.
I was no less curious than the fly on the wall of that hotel room about what would happen next, and how far a person could run on empty.
I’m sweating again on a Delhi street so thick with smog you would be excused for thinking the city had exploded. I’m looking for the offices of British Overseas Airways (BOAC) because I have to escape this blessed country. Where did I get the money to buy an airline ticket? I must have held a few traveler’s cheques in reserve. I can’t remember.
Who can remember everything that happened so long ago? And yet I sometimes remember things I’m not sure I ever saw. The beggar, for instance, whom I saw for only a minute, what I remember about him changed my life.
As the 707 lifted off and banked on a trajectory for Hong Kong I would have been thinking of that beggar. Even as I swore to never ever ever ever set foot in India again, I was carrying him with me. Oaths notwithstanding, I would return to India four more times over the next 20 years.
Why? Because I was looking for answers?
How far can you run on empty? And what happens when you get there?
Hong Kong. What a relief. Clean, efficient, sensible, and above all polite. They were very, very sorry. The Immigration official, he was sorry to tell me that I could not enter Hong Kong. No onward ticket, it hadn’t occurred to me. “Very sorry you come to Hong Kong with no money, so sorry.”
He sent me to the BOAC agent who looked at me as if I might have had a begging bowl protruding from my forehead. He was manufacturing a ticket before I’d finished my sob story. A ticket entirely bogus. Immigration stamped my passport, they were perfectly happy.
I applied to the Canadian High Commission for a loan to see me home. After all, two-years of volunteer work on Zambia’s rivers had left me with schistosomes cavorting in my blood stream, and what’s more my funds had been “stolen” in Bombay, so that here I was running so precariously on empty that by this time tomorrow I would be begging for my supper.
You have to admit, that’s not a bad pitch.
But the High Commissioner wasn’t buying scripts for TV movies. “You have parents,” she explained. “They’ll wire you money.”
I didn’t know much about Buddhism or Zen except that the philosophy was Stoic and the life was Spartan. You enter a monastery, you leave everything behind. Fine by me, there wasn’t much left of me. A bamboo mat on a slab in a stone alcove, fine by me. Small log for a pillow, why not?
Oh, yeah, and next to the pillow—a wooden bowl.
The universe was working overtime trying to tell me something.
It’s pretty obvious what the purpose of a monastery is. The silence and simplicity presents a challenge to the monkey-mind. Thinking soon proves pointless, in the aftermath of which things just are. Three bowls of rice a day were a miracle. If they were trying to empty me out, well, I was already losing my urgency to get anywhere.
My final destination might not be a place, after all. Maybe it’s a new way of seeing things.
After a week I returned to Hong Kong to discover that my telegram had not been delivered. “Recipient not home.” I returned to the High Commission and was told to “get a job.”
One Hong Kong dollar—I remember this detail—it was all I had to underwrite my next move. I entered a bar. Was I seeking darkness? Or to speak with someone. I can’t remember.
I found myself gabbing with a friendly face, another Canadian, a round-faced farmer from a small community not far from my home town, as it turned out. I told him of my African sojourn and of my blunder in Bombay and the gift of the beggar and the monastery and being told to get a job, and as we were laughing he ordered us another round, and he slapped some dollars on the table and kept on slapping to the tune of 600 US dollars. I didn’t know him from Adam.
“Pay me back when you can,” he said.
I never saw him again.
I’ve heard it said that the gift seeks the empty place. I suppose emptiness ensures that the gift will be used, consumed, not hoarded but spent. The giver by giving becomes empty and is now in a position to receive. And around it goes like that.
Arriving in Vancouver, I needed $35 dollars to fly over the Rockies to Alberta. A friend from university came to the rescue.
What do you make of all that?
Have you ever survived on empty? WRITE A STORY ABOUT IT! We love stories about people getting run over on the road less traveled. It seems you have to almost die to hear the heart of the world beating.
I would return home through Asia, circumnavigate the globe, prove the world was round, see it with my own two eyes.
Bombay. Wow! The smells. The crush of humanity! A beggar with no arms or legs.
My god, he had no face, either.
His begging bowl—if you can picture this—he nudged it along the street with his forehead. I couldn’t look, I couldn’t not look.
For a second I couldn’t breathe.
Have you ever been so far from home that your brain wouldn’t compute?
I don’t know how many rupees I dropped in his bowl, probably a lot, because suddenly and inexplicably I felt more alive. I swore to never again bitch about anything, and isn’t that what travel is about?
Travel puts distance between us and our tired old way of seeing things.
What if you could travel twice as far from home?
What if someone approached you in the lobby of your Bombay hotel with a promise to take you twice as far from home? Would you listen to his pitch?
He is tall and impeccable and impossibly smooth-talking as he invites you to sit down so he can make his case. You’re all ears. Where is this place?How do I get there?
“Very easy, my friend,” he says. “Firstly, you allow me to con you out of all your money.” He is joking, of course, this Mr. Patel. “You have traveler’s cheques, yes? Very good. May I see them? No? All right, later perhaps.”
He hails a waiter and orders wine. “In any case, once you have been fleeced, my goodness, you look in the mirror—are you sick?”
“Depressed, I would think, for sure.”
“No, no, I mean sick, sick. You most certainly need a doctor. Here, I can give you his phone number. He confirms that a parasite infects your blood stream. Perhaps you have been exposed to stagnant water. In Africa? That explains everything. I’m afraid it can be fatal. You must be treated soon. But without money you are going nowhere.”
The wine arrives, a Bordeaux, for goodness sake. Who is this Mr. Patel?
“You cannot escape the heatwave we are having here in Bombay. The humidity in advance of the monsoon is unspeakable. But a cheap hostel is all you can afford, a bare mattress upon which you are lying spread-eagle. You are clinging to it for dear life. Otherwise you would run to the window and hurl yourself onto the street below. Such is your despair. Such is your remorse. You have been such a fool! You no longer trust the thoughts that arise to resolve this calamity. I’m afraid to say, sir, that you thoroughly hate yourself.”
Patel raises a glass in a toast. “You cannot travel farther from home than that, my friend.”
I take what must look like an unsophisticated glub of wine.
“But I can see you are not sold on this expedition. And I understand perfectly. It is not part and parcel of the human condition to collude with one’s own demise. We must go unwittingly. Kicking and screaming as it were. Ha, ha! So be it.”
I have no memory of Patel saying any such things, although I do recall the Bordeaux and that he was a businessman in need of foreign currency for an overseas trip, more than bank regulations allow. He offered me a handsome premium on the face value of my traveler’s cheques, leaving me with cash to convert to currencies for my onward journey.
“We will transact this business over a meal at the Taj Mahal Hotel, yes?”
How to travel too far—be gullible, be greedy, be an idiot!
The Bombay Taj, like most 5-star hotels, smells of money. Money having been spent and money being squandered everywhere you look.
Patel threw a heap of rupees at martinis there in the posh mezzanine lounge—and at various kebabs and little lamb chops and chicken tikka—so it didn’t seem inappropriate for me to hand over my traveler’s cheques for his inspection. It seemed appropriate that his uncle, the hotel’s comptroller, should want to verify the cheques. That Patel should confer with his uncle alone sounded suspicious, so I tagged along as far as the elevator where I lost him!
He slipped into an elevator behind doors that closed in my face.
I bolted down the grand marble staircase of the Taj Mahal Hotel to Reception where I learned that no such money manager existed. Three Patels were registered at the Taj and I hammered on each of their doors in vain.
Deep travel—are we there yet?
I applied for a refund at the American Express Office and was told to check back in a week, by which time I would have examined the mug shots of every criminal known to the Bombay Police. By then I could no longer ignore strange fluids leaking from my body. A doctor prescribed antibiotics and a flight home.
Broke but for the cash in my pocket, I downgraded to a hotel without air-conditioning. I remember lying on my bed naked and sweating under a feeble fan and gripping the mattress in mortal fear of having traveled far too far.
I decided to escape Bombay—to Delhi by train.
If Bombay was a sauna, the Rajasthan desert was a furnace. You opened a window at the very real risk of burning yourself. Every whistle stop along the way provided an opportunity to rehydrate, but instead I gorged on ice cream thinking it would cool me down, and I was right. I began to shiver feverishly. And vomit and retch until my muscles seized and I lay on the wooden floor of the 3rd-class carriage as hopeless as a leper.
A leper without arms or legs!
How far from home was I? I had passed self-loathing hours ago. I was going to die and the sooner the better. I was Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca. “Go ahead and shoot me,” he tells Ingrid Bergman. “You’ll be doing me a favor.”
This is where the fictional hero bottoms out. If only! If I were a fictional character, my writer would save me here at the heart of my story. But this is a true story and I have no one to blame but myself. What do they call this in India—karma? How much more was I supposed to suffer? How much more could I take?
What was I supposed to do—push my begging bowl with my forehead?
If that’s what it takes, okay!
I heard someone mention the Taj. We were passing through Agra, home of the real fucking Taj Mahal, one of the so-called Wonders of the World. I didn’t have the wherewithal to throw up. There was nothing left. There wasn’t much left of me. I didn’t think I would survive till Delhi.
I had never felt—and I have never felt since—so far gone.
To be continued…
Have you ever gone too far? WRITE A STORY ABOUT IT!
We are all starving for stories about people who are greedy for life.
[NOTE: If you don’t want to miss any posts in this travel series, please SUBSCRIBE at the top of the page.]
It’s a mega-watt moon shining down on western Tanzania.
That ragged ribbon of moonlight you see is a rough-and-tumble highway known in south-central Africa as the Hell Run. From Dar es Salaam on the Indian Ocean, this 1500-mile lifeline serves the heart of the continent.
A 5-ton truck speeds westward with its load of car tires in a metal cage. At the wheel, a hungry-looking Tanzanian, and beside him an over-stuffed Sikh bending a tire iron just for the hell of it.
Ten miles ahead, beyond a sleeping village, three youths are running along the road. What are children doing up at midnight? The boys stop where the road descends into a wooded valley and shout to someone on the verge of the gloom. That someone is a mzungu, a white boy. Me.
“Habari gani?” I say. I have no idea what they want.
I’m returning to Zambia after traveling north to Uganda, then hitchhiking south-eastward through Kenya and into Tanzania. Now it’s westward as quickly as possible to resume my duties as a hydrologist in Zambezi country. I’ve been gone too long, six weeks, so I choose to keep moving by the light of this impossible moon. I don’t get far. Those boys are waving excitedly.
“What’s up?” I shout. “Unitaka nini?”
Everybody talks about simba but how many have seen a lion with their own two eyes? Exactly. But I appreciate their concern.
“You saw the simba?” I ask.
“Simba eat man!” the oldest kid shouts.
“Yeah? Where?” I ask, skeptically.
“Just here!” He jogs down the hill to join me and points loosely, vaguely, into the near distance.
“When?” I ask.
While still not convinced, neither am I a fool.
The boys are brothers, children of the farmer who dropped me roughly in the middle of nowhere. As we approach the village I hear someone calling “Tobias!” The boys bound toward the village like jackrabbits. A vehicle is approaching. They’re waving it down, bless their hearts. The truck is stopping.
The older kid leaps onto the running board to negotiate the terms of this hijacking. The truckers step down to examine Tobias’ bribe, a tire, which the Sikh inspects in the light of the headlamps. He kicks it and growls and spits on it and tells me to climb aboard, not in the cab but in the cage, which he locks once I’m in, and I wonder if my odds of survival weren’t better with Simba.
Tobias and I shake hands through the bars as the truck moves ahead. It’s a mental snapshot that hasn’t faded all these years later—those boys as my guardian angels. It’s a romantic notion, isn’t it—angels. I don’t honestly do angels, and it’s just as well, or my life story would soon become tedious for its endless interventions of a divine nature.
Down into the valley we go. That laughing hyena at the wheel is targeting every pothole in the road. I’m safer the higher I clamber within that jungle of tires where I hang on like a monkey in a cage. Why do I get myself into these situations? Seriously, what is wrong with me? Let it never be said that I’m too smart for my own good. I’m just that little bit stupid, blessed with the essential naiveté that marks a fictional protagonist. Otherwise those angels I don’t quite believe in would have no cause to show up in my life. Not that I’m looking for trouble—who looks for trouble?—but if you were to accuse me of harbouring an urge to escape the gravity field of the known world, I would plead guilty without hesitation.
By the time we rise out of the valley I’ve made peace with the tires. They cradle me now. Peace is open savannah country by night, moonlit mile after magical mile. The earth is unearthly. I doubt heaven compares with this. Giant leafless baobab trees resemble elephants, mute herds standing guard on the grasslands, benign and protective. I have never felt so far from home.
The truck slows then stops for no apparent reason. The Sikh unlocks the cage and I reckon this for the scene where I’m murdered and robbed. Instead, he crosses the road to exercise his tire iron on a Mercedes abandoned in the ditch, stripping it of its tires in minutes. Welcome to the Hell Run. The African heaves each Michelin into the cage and off they go unaware that I’ve slipped away without a word of thanks.
The back seat of the Mercedes makes a perfect bed for the night.
I’m woken by the sound of a motorcycle, not the guttural rumble of a Harley but the unforgivable racket of a two-stroke Kawasaki. The sun is up and so is the hood of the Mercedes behind which someone is having a go at the engine. Someone dressed from head to toe in black. Father Manon, he calls himself.
“God helps those who help themselves,” he says, as he stashes a handful of electrical leads his saddle bags. He sets his goggles in place and says, “Allons-y! Let’s go, my son!” Saved again! This time by a priest from Chicoutimi, Quebec.
Father Manon drives as if he were immortal. He drives that Kawasaki with one hand so he can bless passers-by without slowing down. He blesses the chickens and the cows and the baobab trees. He blesses the ant hills! We speed along roads cluttered with people who lack the road-wise flow of urban traffic. Cyclists packing enormous sacks of charcoal waver and wobble within a spoke of death, and women balancing colourful bundles half again as large as themselves lead children-in-tow aside to allow us through.
I’m not sure if I’m being saved or not. Or if I want to be saved. I mean, why do I leave home in the first place if not to become lost? Think about it—doesn’t the human condition seem to demand our own undoing? The sages have been telling us since forever to risk everything, to leave everything behind.
I know, I know, easier said than done.
You’re reading this, you tell me—isn’t there something compelling about this picture of a young mzungu hanging onto the robes of a fake priest as he vanishes over the horizon deeper into the heart of Africa? To what end we can only imagine.
Maybe the real angels save us by leading us deeper and deeper into the heart of our own story. I don’t know, I don’t do angels.
But I seem to run into a hell of a lot of them.
(An earlier version of this story appeared here almost two years ago. In response to readers who have asked for more of these road stories, this will be an ongoing series. It’s time I got them all written down. But I don’t want to waste your time, so, please let me know if they speak to you.)
I was tearing up a Zambian highway on my white Honda “Dream” when it hit me.
I thought it was mud.
A convoy of trucks thundering past in the opposite direction was kicking up debris. Even after the last tanker had passed, the flak was stinging my hands and face.
What the hell—that mud?—bees! I was plastered in bees.
I’m telling you this story because I love the road and the dire straits into which a journey often leads. If you’re like me you love to hop aboard a good road story and be taken for a ride.
Bees! I was riding headlong into a swarm. They were inside my shirt. They were up my nose and in my ears and stinging my skull. How could they be biting my skill? I was wearing a helmet. I yanked the clasp and jettisoned the thing before I came to a stop.
Where they came from, I have no idea, but I was immediately surrounded by children.
They didn’t ask permission to debug me, just began pulling them out of my hair, out of my ears. They pulled one off my eye, which was swelling. These kids swatted bees off my back and off my thighs. They were inside my khaki shorts, for god’s sake. They were inside my mouth. My lips were swelling. I had to do something, and quickly.
Africans have a saying: If the snake bites you within sight of your village rooftops, you will die. The victim dashes home, I guess, pumping the venom to the heart. You get bitten far from home, however, and you have nowhere to run. You will stay put and do the right thing.
Though my heart was racing, I could feasibly ride the motorcycle without making things worse. I thanked the kids and sped back toward the city. At home I slathered calamine lotion over the worst swelling before lying on my bed. Calm down, I told myself, just breathe. I felt no panic, no sense of tragedy at the prospect of dying. No regrets.
Here I was in Africa living a dream. I worked the rivers, measured their flow when hippos would allow it. For two years I crisscrossed that high dry plateau by Land Rover, camping out most nights lulled to sleep by the sounds of deep nature on the prowl. I earned my pilot’s licence flying a Cessna 172, shot my 8 mm movies, and rode that Honda almost to death. I was 22 years old.
I lay as still as death. Is this what the Sufis advocate—to die before you die?
I’ve been lucky for the “still as death” moments that life has forced upon me. I’ve learned how to cultivate such moments but back then I was dependent upon bad luck to trip me up and pin me down. I hope you know what I’m talking about.
We normally operate from a sense of being a physical-emotional-thinking entity. That’s us, the subject of our everyday lives. Then we’re brought suddenly and against our will to a full stop and an amazing thing happens. I’m lying there fully aware of “myself” in all its physical-emotional-thinking-ness. But if I can see it, then what is this subjectivity that’s aware of it?
Who am “I,” really?
The question creates a vast space in which time seems not to exist, but the clock on the wall showed that an hour had passed while my condition had not worsened, so I checked my physical self in the mirror. I would be okay. I remember starting to laugh.
I’m telling you this story because I have a vault full of road stories that might add up to a travel book one day. I was mentioning this publishing possibility to an old friend and without hesitation he instructed me to begin with the bees. It’s a short story which not only doesn’t get very far but then I hurry home. What kind of travel story is that?
Long or short, the key to a good road story is that it distances the protagonist from who he or she mistakenly thinks they are. That would be the point of a story, wouldn’t it? We leave home in the hope that we might reach closer to who we really are.
It launches today as an eBook on Amazon.com. Ninety-nine cents!
Two years of finding out the hard way, I might add.
I discovered what it’s like to be a writer trapped as a protagonist in his own fiction. It sounds crazy, I know. The more impossible my fantasy became, the more I knew something original might be happening on the page.
“A mind-bending whiplash journey,” says one beta reader, “into the heart of how and why a writer can write…memorable stories.”
Truth is, I headed up that jungle river with no such hifalutin hopes. My trip was fueled by a single question:
Does the story heart exist?
Does the story heart exist?
As if the heart’s existence needed proving, which I’m afraid it does, though perhaps not to anyone with the instinct to open a book that promises an expedition to that very heart.
Does the story heart exist?—I let this central question fire me up, can you tell? Listen to this, from the book’s Introduction:
[The heart] exists, all right. Ask the riverboat captain in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Though the heart is hidden upriver, Captain Marlow can smell it leaking. The dread essence lures him to the far side of sanity. He sure found out the hard way.
Ask Rick, the American expat in the movie, Casablanca. Mention the heart and he’ll break into a sweat as surely as if you were marching him at gunpoint to the brink of the abyss. “Go ahead, shoot me,” he says. “You’ll be doing me a favour.” Those are the words of a protagonist on the threshold of the story heart.
Ask that pair of mismatched mavericks in Out of Africa—the baroness Karen Blixen and the hunter Denys Finch Hatton. The heart of their story—as in so many of the best stories—lies in the surrender of the protagonist’s hardened principles. But to relinquish one’s precious beliefs is to die. So, die!
If I was to fulfill my role as protagonist in my own book, I might be required to go that far. How does a protagonist manage that? He can’t, of course. That’s the job of his writer. Which explains why I had to bring her on my jungle journey, dammit. It was all I could do not to throw her overboard.
(I mean, what kind of book is this, anyway?)
What kind of book is this?
Here’s what another pre-reader said about it:
A “metaphorical, philosophical, crossover between prayer, meditation, marching orders, poetry and fiction, that will tantalize your imagination and your soul.”
Would fiction have become our lifelong obsession if it had no heart?
Would stories ring true?
Wherever else should their meaning lie?
If not for the story heart, how would readers get their money’s worth?
Why would we even read fiction?
Why would we bother to write it?
Does the story heart exist?
You be the judge.
In the spirit of a book launch you can help bump this baby into visibility on Amazon’s best-seller page by grabbing an e-copy of it this week for 99 cents. And if you feel your mind bending a wee bit, go ahead and leave a short review on Amazon.
All of you, thank you. Whether or not you have the time to support this launch, thank you for being an important part of my life.
Metafiction: a literary device that poses questions about the relationship between fiction and reality.
Not the kind of thing you would ever find in a book for 3-year-olds.
Until now, that is. I didn’t intend to, honest.
It happened like this:
While writing Story Structure Expedition (which launches in two weeks) I found myself the unwitting protagonist in a Congo River nightmare.
Narrator — that’s the role I signed on for. From Brazzaville we would head upriver in search of the heart of a story. My thesis would prove first of all that the story heart exists, then explore its deadly nature.
Something happened. The essay morphed, it went rogue. Characters showed up uninvited and soon I found myself in a novella. I didn’t ask to become fictional. I suppose it’s my fault for not blowing the whistle, which left me to face the consequences that befall any worthy protagonist.
I didn’t quite get it — me, a fictional protagonist in my own story.
Would I have to suffer the story heart myself? The facts of fiction demand that the hero suffer a massive failure. Meaning what exactly—that my book wouldn’t get written? I would rather die.
I wanted to escape from my own story.
How meta is that?
Anyway, for comic relief I distracted myself by writing a children’s picture book.
A series of photographs would depict a woolly little character named Columbus who reluctantly abandons his storybook heroes to see the world with his own two eyes.
(Oh, yeah — Una Kitt — that’s my pen name.)
“Be a storybook hero yourself, Columbus!”
Do you see what’s happening here? My cute little alter ego is being made to suffer my surreal ordeal.
“If I was in a storybook,” Columbus asks himself, “what would I do? Storybook heroes do something.”
Columbus confronts the very same metafictional existential dilemma. It’s a book for three-year-olds, for goodness sake!
“If this was a storybook, I couldn’t lie here all day, could I?” says Columbus. “If this book was about me, I’d get off my woolly whatsit.”
Columbus doesn’t have to wonder very long. The tide comes in!
Now he’s in trouble. Now up the Congo River!
I’m betting—in both these books—that readers young and old have a soft spot for the unwilling anti-hero.
I’m already finding out. Columbus launched this week and it’s already heading for #1 in its category. One reviewer liked the “ingenious concept that connected straight to the heart of my child’s imagination and to the way he already plays.”
Metafiction for kids. Who’d have thought?
If you have kids, or are a kid, or just want to see Columbus hit #1, here’s the Amazon link to save Columbus:
Go for it, Claudia—Gardner is one of my favourites. But before you go, take two minutes to consider my argument for becoming a writer from the inside out.
First, a confession:
Back in the 90s, I devoured the ‘how-to” gurus — Gardner and Hague and Vogler and Egri and Goldberg and Field and McKee and Campbell and Walter and Ueland and Dillard. Those books still adorn my office, their authors looking over my shoulder as I type. How do I get anything done?
That’s the answer, Claudia of Argentina–the answer to the “how-to” dilemma.
Write your own manual.
Thereby will you finally be able to unhook from “how-to.”
7 Suggestions for Unhooking from “How-to”
#1. Consume fiction
Read your brains out. Good fiction and bad. Savour, chew, and digest buckets of it. Reflect on how the best writers did it. How she moved you. How the hell did she make me cry? And laugh! I fall to sleep at night replaying the scenes that blew me away, the scenes that turned the story around. What happened there? How did she do it?
I fall to sleep soothed by the art of fiction
#2. Fall in love with the art of fiction.
Write like a lover. I remember watching sports on television as a kid, and how the instant the game ended we’d bolt out the door, bounding like jackrabbits, to the playing field where we would emulate the champions. We played past sundown, playing our brains out, in the dark—Who has the ball!
I’m equally hopeless whenever I read Virginia Woolf. I rush to my manuscript and emulate the hell out of her. I wrote the 15th draft of my novel ROXY in an adrenaline rush after reading Mrs. Dalloway.
What a joy to write like a lover. We’re not mechanics. Mechanics think. Lovers love their characters ecstatically and to death.
#3. Love your characters to death
There’s nothing “how-to” about this dictum, because no one else can tell you how to love your protagonist to death. You invented him and only you know how to thwart him. But you have to do it, the hero must die. Just do it. It is (arguably) all that counts in fiction. There’s no “how-to” book out there that teaches you how to love your fictional characters to death.
To heck with “how-to”—what about “where to”?
#4. Forget “how-to” in favour of “where-to”
What’s the point of “how to” if we don’t understand “where to”? We wouldn’t buy an appliance without knowing what it’s for. So, what’s fiction for? What’s at the heart of fiction? Is that where it’s going? What’s it all about?
Reading the best fiction we learn (repeatedly) that the best protagonists are on a trajectory toward freedom from their lesser selves. That’s “where to.” That’s (arguably) all we need to know. We keep writing draft after draft until our protagonist has arrived. We know he’s there when he stops kicking and screaming. He’s got that far away look in his eye. He’s gone so far and is so disillusioned with his game plan that he has no alternative but to forsake himself. A higher cause descends. There’s no “how-to” about it. This may look like “how-to,” but it’s not. It’s about understanding the human condition.
#5. Don’t try to BE a writer
“How-to” tomes often coax us to be a writer rather than encourage us to do the hard work that would turn us into writers. That is to say, write your brains out. I’ll bet there are young writers out there reading less literature than “how-to” books. We’re being seduced into posing as writers “rather than spending the time to absorb what is there in the vast riches of the world’s literature, and then crafting one’s own voice out of the myriad of voices.” (author, Richard Bausch)
#6. Don’t get it right, get it written
I sometimes run a course with such a title. Students write at home, then come to class to watch scenes from powerful movies—scenes that give the audience their money’s worth. And by that I mean scenes that depict the hero challenging his own human condition. Challenging the right of his own beliefs to prevent his true happiness.
Immersing ourselves in fiction, we get a feel for a story’s essential payoff. We are astonished each time we recognize it. And then we constructively and lovingly critique each other’s work before bolting for home like jackrabbits.
#7. Write your own “how-to” book
Make notes on your own astonishment at how the best writers serve the art of fiction. Each of our understandings is bound to be unique. Your perspective is going to underpin your own advice about “how-to.” Write that book and put it on the shelf and let it breathe down your neck.
Go for it, Claudia of Argentina. Write your own manual out of love for writing.
Our own “how-to” will be born of the love of the art of fiction.
I was browsing Amazon’s Kindle Store this morning.
In the Story Structure Department I noticed a drama unfolding:
“Writing by the rules” vs. “Organic writing.”
On one side it’s all structure and story engineering while the other camp is chanting, Don’t get it right, get it written!
But hold on a minute. The traditionalists insist that structure doesn’t mean formulaic.
The debate rages on writing blogs where the “rule rebels” get to express their disenchantment with the confusion of so many story theories. And who can blame them?
To hell with story theories
To hell with graphs and grids and plot points and page counts and blogs and eBooks and audiobooks and podcasts and webinars and all those online courses with all their marketing savvy—that’s the growing mood out there.
Well, it turns out to be a pretty standard writing text. Can’t say that I’m surprised. The book’s author is an accomplished novelist, he knows very well what a story is. I’ll bet he knows the rules so well that he knows how to break them. He’s probably a master story engineer.
“Prose is architecture,” said Ernest Hemingway.
And if that’s too didactic, try this:
“Structure is only the box that holds the gift.” ~ K.M. Weiland.
If the rebels reckon they’re beyond story structure, then they should explore “the gift” that lies at the heart of fiction. Yes, there exists a scene in every good story that lies beyond story structure.
The most ruthlessly simple overview of story suggests that a good story is actually two stories separated by a gap.
A chasm so deep that the plot comes to a halt at the brink.
The plot seems to serve this purpose—to hound the protagonist into this existential nothingness. This scene—often called the “Act II crisis”—is structure’s gift.
Story structure exists fore and aft of this hell hole, which becomes for the hero a chrysalis of moral adjustment. This is the gift.
Here, in the heart of the story, the hero disavows himself of himself. All strategies, structures and belief systems fall away and the human organism finds itself in a position to transcend its own self-serving delusions. This is the gift.
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.caand 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.
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—myfault!—I had been carrying the bloody bait in that hand. Of course, the cat could smell it. I could see that now.
I mean it when I say, “Check it out.” The next film you see or novel or read, examine it for the escape story it most probably is.
And if you’re writing a story, see if your protagonist isn’t escaping from some kind of prison. Of the different kind of escapes possible, one of them is the key to writing fiction that gives readers their money’s worth.
I’d love to hear your thoughts once you’ve read the post. You can comment here below, or on the Write to Done site.
“The superior virtue is not to be free but to fight for freedom.” ~ Nikos Kazantzakis
I know writers who would argue, “That’s just a man talking.”
Seriously, you’d spend $12 to watch a movie called The Valley of the Happy Free People?
No one has made such a movie and for good reason. Audiences don’t pay to vicariously experience being free, but rather to suffer the personal crises that open us to freedom.
Which explains why screenwriters write movies like Zorba the Greek, Casablanca, Thelma & Louise, and Good Will Hunting.
And American Beauty, Moonstruck, A Late Quartet, A River Runs Through It, Up in the Air, Out of Africa, The Artist, A Room with a View, and A Passage to India.
And Rocky, Sideways, Nebraska, The Matrix, Disgrace, Ordinary People, Of Gods and Men, On the Waterfront, The African Queen, Silver Lining Playbook, American Graffiti, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, and Labor Day.
If you’re like me you don’t just watch movies, you examine them for how the writer does it. Does what? Frees the protagonist.
It happens in all the best fiction.
Every protagonist is on a trajectory toward freedom.
Let’s look at Labor Day.
Josh Brolin plays Frank, an escaped convict. Ask him about freedom. His bid for freedom will intercept the lives of a mother and son living in small town USA.
Kate Winslet is Adele, who has lost all faith in herself in the aftermath of a divorce. She’s a prisoner of the belief that she’s an utter failure. She can hardly get out of bed. Don’t ask her anything.
Henry is Adele’s adolescent son. Since Henry is not the protagonist, he is not required to behave as though he were fighting to be free. However…
Henry has to bring his poor depressed mother breakfast in bed, for goodness sake. Ask Henry if he’d like to be free of the responsibility that weighs so heavily upon him?
Labor Day is unique for depicting a trio of characters who each find freedom early in Act I.
Most stories depend upon a merciless plot to beat the hard-headed protagonist into an awareness of how to solve their problems, but in Labor Day the miracle takes ten minutes.
Five minutes into the film, Frank shows up to kick-start the story. Injured from his leap out a prison hospital window, Frank politely but firmly inserts himself into the lives of Adele and Henry. The violence and trauma you’d expect to characterize an abduction are quite unnecessary in this case.
Adele blows convention out another window by acquiescing almost immediately to this stranger’s demands. She wants nothing more than to escape her sorry life. Perhaps to end it.
(To die and be reborn—there’s a freedom trajectory!)
Frank, Adele, and Henry foresee their salvation in this strange and sudden togetherness. But wait! They haven’t arrived in Freedom Valley yet. Not only would that be utterly boring, but it ignores Kazantzakis’ aphorism:
The superior virtue is not to be free but to fight for freedom.
Kazantzakis will be happy to know that the police are closing in on Frank. The story becomes a fight to escape the forces that would annul these newfound freedoms.
Suffice to say that Adele, Henry, and Frank must remain freedom fighters into the foreseeable future. And I think that’s an accurate portrayal of the human condition.
However many jail breaks we execute, the walls of our human condition keep us under house arrest. The fight for freedom is an ongoing battle.
Which explains why The Valley of the Happy Free People strikes us as a bogus premise.
Freedom isn’t a place, it’s an attitude. Good fictional protagonists earn this perspective only after the plot has beaten the apathy right out of them. Now we realize that there are two ways to live, just as there are two ways to die.
“Free or not free—this is our choice in every moment.”
All this death business relates to my work-in-progress, The Writer in Love. In this personal essay I suggest that “paying the price” is precisely what proves the fictional hero’s heroics.
The Writer in Love concerns itself exclusively with this “death” that takes place at the heart of a story. This is the scene where die-hard protagonists undergo a radical change of heart. They find themselves in such a deep dead-end that they have no choice but to surrender. Everything. Especially who they think they are.
We writers should be clear about our responsibilities to the protagonists we create—the hero must die. While most writing manuals mention this “Act II crisis,” I seem to be alone in suggesting that here is the reason readers read and writers write.
It’s worth a book!
But how do you write about something as amorphous as death? I’m trying to write about death as a station on the hero’s journey, but how to sound convincing? Death is without dimension or language. It has no shape.
A book needs shape. It needs limits and dimension. Otherwise, what are we spending $4.99 on?
Anyway, I badly needed to step away from the keyboard and spend the day processing new insights about how death makes life worthwhile.
I must have been in a trance when I took this pic—why else would anyone snap a shot of their foot? I was probably musing over another quote from Death, theLast God:
“Ideas of finding happiness and serenity away from the inevitable suffering of death are the superficial desires of spiritual materialism. We have to find happiness and serenity in the inevitable suffering of death. And that is a very different journey from seeking happiness by getting what we want.” ~ Anne Geraghty
I love it. Happiness in death. Talk about a tough sell. It’s killing me!
Here I am having a heart attack. Just kidding. The shutter caught me bending down to examine what appeared to be my doppelgänger lying in the surf—a dead jellyfish.
I know what you’re thinking, that PJ is all spoof and superficial happiness on this Mexican beach, but the truth is I’m in agony. I’m stuck. And it’s not writer’s block, it’s worse. I’ve written myself into an existential crisis.
I didn’t plan it, but my essay morphed into fiction and I became the protagonist trying to write a book. (Yes, very meta, I know.) It’s a book that takes the shape of a journey to the story heart. I only wanted to be the narrator, but I have become a fully-fledged protagonist.
You see, if I’m a protagonist, I can’t permit myself to escape the facts of fiction. Starting with, the price of freedom is death. As in, I’m going to fail so miserably at this book project that I lose all faith in myself. As in, this book is going to be the death of me.
Well, folks, it’s happening!
I’m proving the existence of the story heart by my despair at failing to finish this book. Fantastic! Of course, now there might not be a book. Which might have explained why I’m on the beach, had I not been refreshed by these latest musings on death.
Here’s a friend I met farther along the beach. He was plucking out that Nat King Cole classic… Smile though your heart is aching / Smile even though it’s breaking…
What’s Nat saying here?—even though you’re dying, be happy, don’t worry, smile.
Ms. Chödrön has calculated how long a person is required to “die” in order to disable the matrix of habits we mistakenly identify as “me.” Astonishingly, Chödrön has calculated it to the tenth of a second…
One point six seconds!
Is she being facetious? Who cares? This is something I can run with. One point six seconds, that’s how long the hero is required to keep his eyes open in the blinding light of utter annihilation. (Sounds like no time at all, but consider that the mystic Nikos Kazantzakis called this the “supreme human achievement.”)
One point six seconds—suddenly I have the framework for my book.
My whole book concerns 1.6 seconds of time.
Now, that’s shape!
The price of freedom is death, and in 1.6 seconds you’re paid in full. And the price of my book will be only $4.99. That might be the best five bucks a writer will ever spend.
But the Viggo Mortensen character serves to show how many good stories end.
It goes like this…
And love has its way with the world.
You don’t hear it, no one says it, it’s the subtext. It’s even more “sub” than that. It’s what the audience feels in themselves:
And love has its way with the world.
The protagonist has his way for most of the movie. He may be charming but he’s self-centred, misguided, and self-destructive. (I’m talking about most fictional protagonists.) His way with the world has created mayhem and misery. It’s called the plot.
Now at the end, having failed utterly, what else can the protagonist do? He disowns his game plan…
And love has its way with the world.
Contrary to popular belief…
You know that happy-ever-after feeling—well, this is it. Think about it. The feel-good feeling rarely has anything to do with heroes winning or successfully manipulating people or events. Nobody achieves love. It’s transpersonal, isn’t it? Love is a grace.
Love does us.
Audiences feel good because their virtual heroes are done to.
Check it out for yourself—your favourite protagonists are probably those who finally get out of their own way so they can be done to by a force beyond their power to manipulate.
We’re talking about escaping from our “second nature.” It’s the one that prevents us from knowing the first.
Marcel Proust identifies this second nature as the heavy curtain of habit which conceals from us almost the whole universe.
CUT BACK TO:
The Two Faces of January and Viggo Mortensen lying dying on a street in Crete…
[SPOILER ALERT! Not really. Students of story aren’t concerned about spoilers. We consume fiction to better understand it! We want to know how fiction works. But I digress…]
Viggo Mortenson has been an incorrigible swindler, con man, and liar, and here in the final scene, with a bullet in his back, he has one chance to come true. And he better be quick about it.
Viggo has one chance to prove the film’s title—The Two Faces of January.
Janus is the Roman god of transitions, the god of gates and doorways, of endings and beginnings. Janus is depicted with two faces, one looking backward, one toward the future.
Viggo is Janus at the threshold.
Viggo’s second (bogus) nature is evaporating in the blinding light of his first nature. He’s glimpsing almost the entire universe. At the very least he probably wishes he could take back a whole lot of unfortunate history.
But of course it’s too late do anything more than die in truth.
Protagonist dies and yet audiences feel good—what just happened there?
Answer: Because love is finally having its way with the world.
I’m falling in love…
I’m falling in love with this turn of phrase. It slipped out while I was writing the final chapter of The Writer in Love. My protagonist is likewise caught in a dead-end where he surrenders his game plan. He is Janus at the threshold of a new beginning.
As are most good protagonists.
As are we all in a moment of crisis.
Deep down I know that if only I would quit deluding myself, love would have its way with my world, too.
Here’s a story that almost comes true. The film is on a trajectory for greatness, but with the final shot the writer turns his back on the story. He gives us the standard romantic convention—boy gets girl back—roll credits.
The writer opts to merely sate the protagonist’s desire. And for this we have given up two hours of our precious time?
Perfect Sense makes perfect Hollywood sense
Perfect Sense is your standard romance—boy meets girl, etc.—except that the story unfolds during a global epidemic in which the afflicted become deprived of their five senses. Smell is the first to go, then touch, then hearing, etc.
I saw it coming and was excited—billions of people rendered deaf, dumb and blind. Wow! Humanity will discover that the habitual doors of perception have actually been obscuring life’s true beauty. With the senses gone, pure consciousness will prevail…
All over the world—in India, Mexico, Thailand—whole populations are moving beyond themselves, helping each other, falling into each other’s arms.
This isn’t boy-meets-girl love, this is impersonal love.
This is Big Love.
The best stories end with Big Love
We saw it in Casablanca, where the hero sacrifices the love of a woman for a higher cause. Love for the wider world—this is Big Love. And it doesn’t just satisfy an audience, it nourishes.
But look again—it’s not even the love that melts our hearts, rather it’s the pain of the sacrifice. It’s Bogart emerging out of smallness. It’s the escape from the small self.
It’s the birth of an evolved consciousness.
Okay, just call it “growing up.”
Oh, yeah… almost forgot… we were talking about Perfect Sense.
The boy, who has met girl and then lost girl, is just about to find girl again. They’re on a trajectory to fall into each other’s arms at the moment the disease renders them blind. Excellent. The screen will go black just before they find each other.
It’s a clever twist on the usual ending, which worked for Crocodile Dundee and When Harry Met Sally and scores of Hollywood romances before and since. But wait a minute! Something’s radically wrong here in Perfect Sense.
While the Big Love disease is sweeping the planet, our protagonists only crave each other. Their love is small, puny. No way I’m buying this ending.
I WANT MY MONEY BACK!
Can’t the director see what’s wrong with this picture?
Let this pair of protagonists find each other, sure, good. But by now they’re infected with Big Love, aren’t they? Petty personal preferences take a back seat to a world that so badly needs love to have its way.
These two characters have proven themselves to be great lovers in the standard, carnal, self-interested sense. Now it’s time for great love to serve the wider world.
That’s how the best stories end.
The degree to which Big Love prevails in the climax, that’s what determines our satisfaction with the story.