Why I Like Fiction

Writing in the narrative form is a brand new endeavor for me.

As a philosophy/political science/law student, newspaper columnist, trial and appellate lawyer and blogger, I am well versed in expository and persuasive writing. I enjoy this type of writing and firmly believe in the power of explanation and argument. I have witnessed it personally with the articles I’ve written and motions and briefs I’ve argued.

My words have affected the fate of human liberty. My words have ignited inspiration and debate.

Good things can be achieved with appeals to reason. Appeals to reason can change the world.

But reason can only take us so far. There are elements of the human experience that are beyond the scope of reason. The human experience itself, our very existence in the company of so much nothingness, is beyond the scope of reason. I cannot ignore this fact if I am to achieve my aim as a writer to speak truth.

Underlying every rational construction is suchness. Underlying every idea or concept about the world and our place in it is an experience rooted in place and time. This individualized experience as a human being contains more truth in its suchness than any argument or idea.

That we are here is more worthy of our attention than why we are here.

Fiction provides a complete and accurate picture of the human experience. In exposing the unfiltered ruminations of an individual consciousness, it gives the reader an emotional basis for empathy. Readers develop intimacy with that consciousness and are left with the feeling that they are not alone in this world, that everybody suffers, everybody has shortcomings, everybody has thoughts that they shouldn’t have, everybody berates themselves to some degree and to some extent everybody acknowledges their brilliance.

By anchoring the reader in an authentic human story with detail and description, abstract ideas and concepts about the meaning and purpose of life become less abstract, more in your face, more real, relevant, pressing and urgent.

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This confluence of idea and story/philosophy and experience is where magic happens and what makes fiction so powerful.

Art is definitely the most powerful force we have at our disposal. It is a collaborative, dialectical process.

I write with my voice, but my reader reads with the voice in their head.  When my voice meets the reader’s voice, a whole new voice is created and that’s pretty fucking cool.


 

Ernest Hemingway, Russell Brand and the Unfortunate Relationship Between Art and Addiction

I recently read The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway as part of my commitment to study notable authors and decipher how they do what they do. I was particularly attracted to Hemingway because I knew his writing style was understated and sparse, stripped of sentimentality, yet somehow enabling such indulgences to play out in the mind of the reader.

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I want my writing to be like this, minimalist and understated but infused with emotion and urgency. I want to present simple words and sentences, stripped of flowery or obscure language, and simply describe characters and scenes that are relatable to readers, stories that invoke empathy and intrigue.

Good writing is telling the truth and once you actually find the truth in a story then it’s pretty simple to tell.

I enjoyed experiencing the Paris cafe/bar scene in the 20s, the baking, unspoilt world of the Spanish mountains and, most of all, the harrowing and brutal world of bull fighting. I enjoyed the character portraits and what they revealed about our best and worst qualities as humans.

And yes, I definitely appreciated his writing style. I aim to emulate it. Not in any kind of conscious way but I think if I commit to my method of using meditation to settle my mind, be completely present with whatever I’m writing and just tell the truth, I’ll be doing all I can.

What really struck me though was how much they drank in that book. I paid special attention to this because I knew Hemingway was an alcoholic who ultimately stuck a loaded shotgun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. He’s definitely not alone among writers and artists.

Jack Kerouac drank himself to death, dying at 47 from cirrhosis. Hunter S. Thompson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Faulkner, the list goes on an on. Alan Watts reportedly drank a fifth of vodka a day. Stephen King did so much cocaine he had to stuff cotton balls up his nose so blood wouldn’t drip on his typewriter.

And that’s just writers. As Bill Hicks famously reminded us, all “the musicians that made all that great music that’s enhanced your lives throughout the years were real fucking high on drugs.”

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Stephen King’s family staged an intervention and, with their love and support, he eventually sobered up.

“There were nine months [after quitting] when I was out of gas, depressed,” King said in an interview with the Guardian. “And despite what some people say depression is not conducive to good writing or to bad writing. But then it came back. When I gave up dope and alcohol, my immediate feeling was ‘I’ve saved my life, but there’ll be a price because I’ll have nothing that buzzes me any more. But I enjoyed my kids. My wife loved me and I loved her. And eventually the writing came back and I discovered that the writing was enough. Stupid thing is that probably it always had been.”

Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, a book that inspired countless artists (including myself), peaked creatively after beating her alcohol and drug addiction and diving into spiritual practice instead.

Russell Brand used yoga and transcendental meditation to help kick his heroin habit and now listen to him speak.

Dude is connected and awakened and speaks the piece with astounding clarity and depth.  He uses words that sound beautiful when strung together and delivered in his irresistibly charming accent.

As a side note, I often read my writing to myself in an English accent. In fact, now that I think about it, it’s actually Russell Brand’s voice that I imagine. It really does make everything I write sound cooler. Try it. Start reading this post again with Russell Brand’s voice in your head and I guarantee it will sound more profound.

The point of all this meandering is simply to say:

1. Hemingway was a literary genius.

2. He died way too young like so many other artistic geniuses.

3. It’s impossible to create great art when you’re dead.

4. Love is the greatest and most sustainable source of inspiration and connection.

5. Russell Brand is a wise dude and his accent is awesome.



Let it go

Non attachment is a concept that rises to the top of my consciousness every time I sit down to write one of these posts. I suppose that is appropriate because attachment is the root of all suffering and I am interested in the prospects of ending suffering. I have found in my experience that the reason for my suffering very rarely has anything to do with what is actually happening at any given moment in life.

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When I was a trial attorney, I suffered a great deal imagining situations that never transpired, projecting my fears of being unprepared or  public speaking or failure onto myriad moments that, objectively speaking, were actually quite peaceful.

Moments of potential stillness, where awareness of details like my breath or the awesome radiance of the human eyes around me, the sound of laughter, the feeling of vulnerability and humility, the simple awareness that I am alive, that I am here, conscious that I am having this experience rooted in mystery and wonder, with this capacity to create beauty with love, always has the potential to bring me peace and completion.

Instead I too often allow the loud and persistent story-teller in my head to scream so loudly and stomp so heavily that I’m literally hypnotized by it, rendered inert, unable to snap out of its suffocating grasp, forgetting to breathe and listen and see and feel.

I do the same thing as a writer. Every moment is alive and buzzing with infinite potential, the world is literally a ball of clay that molds according to my intention. But nothing happens if I’m rendered inert by my captive attention to the screen of the mind, the inner hater and doubter.

That ball of clay will just sit there always buzzing with infinite potential and I will sit by its side looking off into nothingness and not breathing and then I will die.

I think it was Picasso who said “The meaning of life is to find your gift, the purpose of life is to give it away.”

Creation without attachment

Like the Japanese monks who write haiku, place them in a bottle then toss them to the sea, the Tibetan monks who labor meticulously creating complex images and patterns out of multicolored sand then just sweep it all up and pour it into the river.

I create because when I create that loud and obnoxious voice with the megaphone is locked out of the room and I am here now operating according to my design in the same way water flows across rock and trees reach for the sun.

Being attuned to the truth of the moment and attempting to capture it with words, I am tuned into the only thing that is real. The only thing that is permanent and infinite is now.

The only a-hole that benefits from praise, accolades or riches is the a-hole I locked out of the room because he’s holding me back.

Well he can’t hold me back anymore.

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The Writer in the Woods

“I’ll tell you what hermits realize. If you go off into a far, far forest and get very quiet, you’ll come to understand that you’re connected with everything.” – Alan Watts

I watched a documentary last week about J.D. Salinger, the reclusive genius behind The Catcher in the Rye. Salinger might be the most famous author in American history yet this was the only novel he ever published. It is is a book that has inspired millions around the world, one that gave voice to a sentiment felt by many but spoken by few, a cathartic experience for young people trying to find their way in the world and a sobering look in the mirror for those already entrenched in the grind of phoniness.

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sign posted in front of Salinger's NH house | photo by Edmund Fountain/Valley News

 

I first read The Catcher in the Rye while I was an unemployed law school graduate looking for work anywhere I could find it because I had student loans and bar loans and there were way more lawyers than there were law jobs. I read it and I enjoyed it but then I poured everything I had into finding this elusive, magical job, securing my chain to the conveyer belt that was moving forward, progressing aggressively toward advancement and elevation so that maybe one day, if  I worked hard enough, I could actually enjoy my life for a few years before I died.

Having unclipped myself from this conveyer belt a couple years ago to raise my kids and write a book, I was inspired by Salinger’s ambition and persistence, two qualities essential to succeeding as a writer and really at anything. I was astounded by the number of rejections he received from The New Yorker before one of his short stories was finally accepted. I was impressed by his dedication to the craft of writing itself, the pursuit and creation of truthful characters and settings and stories that people can identify with and have empathy and compassion for.

I was intrigued by his rejection of fame.

As a new and unknown writer, I often daydream about fame and recognition and look forward to that day that I can enjoy that private fist bump, that “yes! I fucking did it!” feeling that accompanies some external recognition that what I am doing is in fact significant and worthwhile and valued. I imagine delivering the “I told you sos” to all the haters and doubters in spirited and colorful ways. I visualize accepting an award and looking in the camera with tears streaming down my face and saying “dreams really do come true.” I daydream about it and know I will find some ego-level satisfaction from success in the form of fame and fortune, but this is not why I write.

I write to speak truth.

Salinger holed himself up in his writing studio for decades meditating and churning out stories and novels and ruminations on Buddhism and Vedanta. When he finished a manuscript he just put it in his safe. He did not publish anything. He could have typed the word apple 90,000 times and it would have been a bestseller the next day. He wrote diligently and profusely and published nothing for forty-five years and then he died.

These works will be published according to his trust in a staggered fashion beginning in 2015 and for the next several decades. He was reportedly moved by the notion advanced in the Bhagavad-GitaThis is something I believe. In fact, I tweeted it over a year ago.

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Salinger didn’t tweet it, he lived it. Unlike him, I have yet to write a world-changing, generation defining novel that can bankroll me for the rest of my life. Well maybe I have, but I’m working on it still. But seeing this legend, this icon, this superstar reach the pinnacle of writing success then abandon it and write only for the sake of writing, without attachment, knowing that it will only touch the souls of readers when he was removed from the situation as an ego, as an anointed and unwilling spokesperson for a generation, this was inspiring to me.

It was a powerful illustration of why we ought to create art.

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The Beginning of the Rest of the Story

Take a deep breath and tell us your deepest, darkest secret, so we can wipe our brow and know that we’re not alone.” – Alan Watts

Welcome to the first post on this blog. I formed the serious intention a couple years ago to stop practicing law and focus my efforts during the time I was not taking care of my two small children on developing myself as a writer.

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photo by Thomas Nugent

I started a blog called Place{Thought}Story with my friend and we wrote and edited several well received pieces that did exactly what I wanted them to do in the world. I received more than enough affirmation from the universe that writing was in fact my true calling and that powerful, game-changing results stem from the radical act of speaking truth.

I realized during the course of writing articles and essays for P{t}S that they were part of a larger narrative of my personal coming of age, my spiritual maturation and that the best possible format for this type of story was a book.

So for the last year and a half I have not shared my writing with the world and have done my work quietly and privately, struggling and suffering alone at my desk or in my chair in the woods with the hopes that one one day when my message is crystallized to me, I can then share it with the world and thereby make it a better place. And by that I mean a world filled with more presence, more consciousness, more gratitude, more authenticity, more love, more creation, less consumption, less pretense, less ego, less attachment, less suffering.

I want all these things for myself and I want all these things for the world and so I intend to create it, to manifest it, to write it. I made the decision to write a coming of age story before I was even close to coming of age with the hopes that in writing the story that I want for my life, I would make it so. After all, our lives are our greatest creative act and our intention is what creates our reality.

I finally reached a point a few weeks ago where I was ready to share my book with a few colleagues and friends – artists and writers – to get an idea of how it affected people whose opinions I value, people who occupy themselves with some of the same sort of ideas and practices that I am trying to advance with my book. I also knew I needed some unfiltered, candid editorial feedback because this is my first book and really my first serious foray into creative writing. I never took creative writing in college and never even wrote a short story, let alone a novel/memoir.

So I reached out to a professional editor that was referred to me by my wife’s former co-worker. He’s been described as a legend in the publishing industry and has edited Hunter S. Thompson, Toni Morrison, Tom Robbins and many other award-winning and best-selling authors. My intent was to simply get an idea as to what kind of money I would have to spend for the services of someone with this kind of track record.

I wrote him an e-mail and told him what my book was about. He wrote me back and said it sounded interesting. He told me to send him the entire manuscript that he would read free of charge then let me know if he thinks we’d be a good fit. So without thinking about it too much I sent over the same draft I had shared with my colleagues and then promptly lamented my haste when I discovered a spelling error on the second page.

He wrote me back a few days later telling me that he just finished reading my book with tears in his eyes. He said he was impressed with the ambitious intentions of the book, its struggle with profound spiritual and philosophical issues and the potential denouement for the characters I created. He said what I’ve done so far has resonated with him professionally and personally.

Reading those words was probably the greatest moment I’ve had thus far in this process and I’ve read them so many times I was able to just write them verbatim from memory.

But then of course he said that the book needs a complete rewrite. He said I need to reconsider where the reader enters the narrative arc and how said arc unfolds. He said the characters need more development, the voice needs tightening and refining and several scenes need to be added and others deleted entirely.

I met with him in Berkeley and the first thing he told me was that writing a good book is incredibly hard and that even the most seasoned best-selling authors sometimes take five or six years to write a book. My book, he said, was particularly complex and ambitious.

He said a writer needs two things to succeed.

1) conviction (in the importance of what you want to say) and

2) humility.

“Oh you’re just getting started,” he said when I told him I’ve been at it for a year and a half.

Hearing this broke my heart.

As much as I tell myself in affirmations to renounce attachment, I want to make writing my career and the thought that I may have years ahead of me before completing this book was a slap in the face from which I am still recovering.

But his feedback was golden. He left me with a structural blueprint to use moving forward in revision and I know exactly what needs to be done to maximize the potential impact and appeal of this book.

“Don’t rush it,” he said as I thanked him and shook his hand.

The last thing I want to do is rush it. I do not want to spend hours setting up a glorious fireworks show and have only half of the fireworks go off. I want to blow people’s minds. I want to fuck people up. When people finish reading my book, I want them sobbing in recognition of the raw beauty and frailty of our shared humanity, inspired to move forward in their lives in a more present, conscious, authentic and creative way. And that is just going to take some more time.

That doesn’t mean I have to wallow in solitary confinement in the meantime. I have suffered enough for my art and I know community will help me enjoy it more. Real and authentic community, online and in everyday life, anchored by humility, vulnerability and the heart-warming and empowering realization that we are not alone.

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