Some students in my Writer and The Brain class turned me on to The Storytelling Animal by Johnathan Gottschall, which I am halfway through and am loving.
Here’s a great quote:
“From Science, I argue, can help us make sense of storytelling. But some say that science is a grand story (albeit with hypothesis testing) that emerges from our need to make sense of the world. The storylike character of science is most obvious when it deals with origins: of the universe. . .”
And this is what I am trying to say with The Poet and the Mind-Brain :
Theoretical branches of science, found mostly in the unification problem in physics and the hard problem in neuroscience seek to tell two of the most fundamental stories humans need to hear, how did it all begin, and who am I?
This is why writers are like scientists.
These are the two stories that impel us to write, albeit articulated differently according to the writer.
Instead of wondering how the universe began, the poet might wonder why does my heart feel so bad? Or why does the school bus stopping on the corner under the oak tree make me want to cry?
I would argue poetic details are microcosms of the two fundamental stories we seek to understand.
Poets matter, because we seek to know the unknowable, and we will never stop until we find that ineffable elegant equation that says it all.
He did some evil, messed up stuff, and he was incredibly misogynist and racist.
But he also had intense moments of focus, flashes of genius, wherein he was so absorbed into metaphysics that he was able to create his own religion, Thelema, whose concepts remain influential even today in esoteric communities.
His influence is rooted in many traditions of witchcraft, including Gerald Gardener’s version of Wicca.
I put a K at the end of the word magick to distinguish between the practice of magic, that is witchcraft, sorcery, esoteric practice, and magic the way we use the word colloquially.
If I say, My day was magic! –My visit to Mexico City was magic !–
My date night with my wife was magic!– I don’t mean someone cast a spell.
Magic can means many things, but when I use the word magick, it means one thing:
The practice of directing energy from one source or many into manifesting some goal in the material world, the practice of channeling energy, an action is rooted in a basic concept of reality, which has traditionally been articulated As above, so below.
Magick uses and manipulates energies (sprits, quantum fields, faith and prayer) to achieve material goals. Magick is the ability to focus.
That’s what I mean by magick.
It doesn’t necessarily mean witchcraft.
It is the act of manipulating and using energy, often without our conscious awareness that we are doing it.
That’s what writers do.
That’s what mystics do.
When Saint Teresa allowed her body to seep into ecstasy, wherein her flesh trembled and she felt as if she were corporally connected to God, that was channeling energy.
That is what I mean by magick.
Every good work of art starts with Energy, Desire, Will –with unformed energy that does not yet have image or meaning. Pure energy.
In Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari closes the book with this question.
I’m convinced this may be the most important question you can ask yourself.
If you are prone to “know thyself,” if you seek meaning in life, want to know what is beyond the physical veil of reality, if you are comfortable in a world where there are only questions, each of which have multiple legitimate answers and even more silly answers, then this is the fundamental question:
What do you want to want?
Not, Who am I?
Why did God put me here?
What’s the meaning of life?
Whereas all these questions are important and can lead to great metaphysical pleasure and insight, none of them are fundamental.
We are humans.
We are energy and organic matter.
This energy that makes us human and that causes us to grow from a sperm seeking an egg into a child wanting juice, an adult working to make more money, an old person sitting on a porch looking off onto the trees and wanting to paint them or write a poem, is desire.
But I wouldn’t call it wont, nor would I find the question is what do you want to want, although the poetry is much better, I would rather say what do you want to do with your desire?
Primary desire, that which makes us human, is unformed in its purest manifestation.
It has no image. Desire is pure energy that expands.
Humans have a brain that seeks happiness, pleasure, good feeling.
We want to be happy. Perhaps Happy is Desire’s first manifestation, the Understanding, the Binah on the Tree of Life, whereas Desire would be Keter, or crown.
Although happy is more limited than desire it nonetheless is still an unformed energy. Happiness in its purest form has no shape, no image.
And often times, when it finally reaches our consciousness, way down here on the bottom of the tree, some of us think to be happy is something material, a family, our own business, a vacation in Cancun, or even to go shopping and buy this and that.
We want more and more of what makes us happy.
But what makes us happy are simply neurotransmitters and hormones, serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin.
What we THINK makes us happy is what we want.
Want is the last and the least manifestation of primary desire.
Want is temporal, material, and it is at home in the everyday world (malkuth) within which we struggle to be happy.
We think that what makes us happy is to get what we want.
But want is the least of all desire.
But no judgement here, because if that’s all you want, that chemical experience of happiness, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with wanting more, shopping every day on Amazon, clicking here and there and buying this and that, because every time you do it, your body produces neurotransmitters that frankly make you happy.
But if that’s not enough. Some people need meaning.
Meaning could be the other unformed manifestation of primary desire.
Desire is at the top, the emanation, and it comes down and is beginning to take form as “happy” and “meaningful.”
This is your power. This is your energy. To filter it though want weakens it. So we get back to Harari’s question, what do you want to want?
What I want is not to want, but to return to desire, and to be able channel that energy into my life.
Ok, maybe I’m being a bit woo woo.
Desire creates the idea of happy and the idea of meaning.
Humans are meaning-seeking machines, who want to be happy. There is no happy without meaning. They are the first manifestations of desire, and you cannot live a balanced life without them working together.
Thoughtful people look for, find, or spontaneously discover meaning in absolutely everything.
You could behold the most beautiful sunset ever, and you will not only have a sense of pleasure and well-being, but a deep belief that you are connected to something beyond yourself, something meaningful.
Want is at the very bottom, but we often fail to see a difference between what we want and what makes us happy, because we think what we want will make us happy.
What we want can sever us from primary desire. When we obtain material wants, we usually –after a brief experience of pleasure –want more. We go back to being dissatisfied.
But what we what want is not a material item, we can begin to understand who we are.
Does this make sense?
What you want reveals who you are.
If you want a child, family, riches and fame, that tells you what is fundamentally important to you.
For most of us, even the most religious, what we want has a little to do with religion or ideology.
Our belief systems are simply scaffolding over reality, not foundations.
We find the belief (or it is given to us and we never question it) that we share with our community, and we know it as vague metaphorical narratives, but they have little to do with our everyday experience. We can take religious narrative and scaffold it over our own lives, but it is not fundamental to how and why we live.
YET the core belief in any spiritual system is some sort of unification with God, an eternal relationship with the source.
Love is unity.
Love is community.
Love is kind.
Maybe love is the creation of desire, happy, and meaningful.
This morning, sitting in traffic on the freeway, I thought of a great metaphor for being a writer.
You know how when you’re sitting on a plane and it’s about to take off, perhaps it’s moving slowly, and the flight attendant is standing in the middle of the aisle demonstrating the safety procedures?
They tell you how to snap the seatbelt, how to use an oxygen mask.
They always tell you that in the event of losing cabin pressure, an oxygen mask will fall from the top.
And then they say this every single time:
If you have a small child with you, put your mask on first before you put it on the child.
And I’m almost certain that everybody or almost everybody, like me, is thinking, Hell no!
I understand the logic of it. If I don’t put on my mask first, I may faint trying to help my baby, but nonetheless my instinct tells me no.
If I have my baby next to me on that seat, I am going to put on her mask first, so if somebody faints it’s not her.
I don’t care if I lose air and pass out. She comes first.
It would be interesting to know how many parents would actually put their mask on first. There’s something fundamental wrong about that idea, even though I know it’s logical and that it’s the “right” idea, in the world of malkuth.
But your love for that baby rises so much higher than established actions.
Your love for your child, your love for the one who is dependent on you is so great that you would give up your life.
Her life is first.
Well, That’s a perfect metaphor for writing.
Because no matter what is happening in the life of a writer, they will put writing first.
If they found they suddenly had a terminal disease and only two months to live, like my friend the poet Andres Montoya, who found out he was going to die when he was 30 years old, they are going to do what he did.
He spent days and nights on his deathbed with a pen and a notepad writing poetry to God, writing letters to family, writing. He had a little time left.
You could read some of the poems he wrote while he was in his deathbed, knowing he was going to die, in his posthumous book a jury of treesby Andres Montoya.
I don’t care how much time a writers has, whether it’s 30 seconds, a minute, or even an hour, a writer is going to put the oxygen mask on their child (their work) before they’re going to worry about whether or not they will faint.
That is to say, that a writer (not all of them) puts writing first.
But THIS ISN’T TO SAY that a writer cannot love their family above all else, their children above all else, their social responsibility above all else; it rather means that all those things they love are encompassed and inseparable from the act of writing.
I have a daughter.
If I was on my death bed, with a month left to live, I’d would probably be writing her letters and stories and poems.
I don’t know his name, and I only saw him once in a London café that I’ll probably never be able to find again, but I’ll never forget him.
I don’t remember what he looks like, but I remember what he said to me.
All week before I had encountered him, I was reading about special relativity for for dummies and it became clear to me that Intuition can be great, that it can often lead you to optimal paths in life, but what is intuitive about nature is not always true.
Intuition cannot describe reality.
A significant example is what Galileo discovered when he dropped two balls of differing weights off the Tower of Pisa. Everyone thought that the heavier ball would reach the ground first.
It makes sense.
It’s intuitive. If you drop a big, heavy rock and you drop a pencil, intuition tells you that the rock would hit the ground first.
But, of course, intuition is wrong.
They will hit the ground at the same time. The bigger they are the harder they may fall, but they don’t fall first.
When the first people landed on the moon, they tested this theory with a metal hammer and a feather, because on the moon there would be no wind resistance for the feather, just the gravitational and inertial masses of the object. Sure enough, the hammer and the feather hit the ground at the exact same time.
Here’s a short video of that experiment:
Intuition tells you that if you threw a ball as hard as you could across a field, it would take longer to reach the ground than if you simply opened your hand and dropped it. But they will hit the ground at the same time.
That week in London I was re-reading some of physics texts, and I saw that Newton punked our intuition by equating gravitational mass and inertial mass.
Easy enough, yes?
But I never understood this idea. I barely graduated with my BA, because of the general math requirement.
I basically know (I think) what gravitational mass is, the mass of an object that will cause it to fall from the Tower of Pisa, yes?
If you drop a rock to the ground, it will be attracted to the larger object, the earth. Small bodies are attracted to larger bodies. The earth is attracted to the sun and orbits the sun, not the other way around.
Here’s some disappointing news to poets:
The sun never sets.
There is only the earth making another revolution around the sun.
Many of the metaphors of physics are accessible to lay people, but inertial mass I couldn’t quite grasp.
Until I met the barista I love.
I went in to order a coffee, which as you know in Europe generally means an espresso, and the barista was a young man in his 20s.
I imagine he was hip-looking, maybe an earring, a beard, but I remember watching him pack the coffee powder into the metal cup. He smashed it down and down. Packed it good.
Wow, I said, you’re really making sure that the grounds are packed in there.
Yeah, he said, water is lazy.
Water is lazy. If you don’t pack it in there it’ll just find the easiest way to make it through the grounds, and the cup won’t be as pure.
That’s it! That’s inertia!
In Euclidean geometry a geodesic is the shortest and straightest line between two points. Apparently it gets more complex when you’re talking about non-Euclidean geometry of space-time, but for our purposes, it is basically how a body under the influence of a force will find the easiest way to travel.
Bertrand Russell called this “the law of cosmic laziness.”
The apple falls from the tree, straight down to the ground, because it’s too lazy to take any other route. With the earth spinning and the universe expanding faster than the speed of light, why doesn’t the apple go sideways around the earth or up unto the stars? It would be logical to expect the apple to fall away from the tree, since the earth is moving, but it falls straight down, the easiest path to recover its inertia.
Why doesn’t the apple fall far from the tree?
Because it’s easier and shorter to give in to the earth’s gravitational pull and fall straight down on the head of some poor sap sitting underneath the tree than it is to fly off to a destiny of its own choosing.
All objects, including our bodies, are moving through space-time.
Einstein showed us that there is no such thing as space.
There is no such thing as time.
There is only space-time.
One without the other is impossible.
Space is meaningless without time.
If I said, OK, let’s meet at the big rock in the middle of the field, you would understand me.
But you would probably never find me.
I might go there at midnight, under the light of the moon, whereas you might go at 3 PM, under the blazing sun.
Space without time is meaningless.
And time without space is meaningless.
I’ll be some place in five minutes! I say. Hope to see you.
Great, you say. Where will you be?
There is only space-time, and we are moving through it at more or less a constant velocity.
We have an initial framework, which frames our sense of reality depending on how fast we move through space-time.
If we aren’t moving much through space, like we’re sitting in an armchair with a beer, we are still moving through time at a constant velocity.
That inertia will remain constant unless a force is acted upon us.
Before the apple even falls from the tree, it is moving through space-time at a constant velocity, and now that it is detached from the tree, it doesn’t want to work. It wants to remain at the same velocity.
So it takes the shortest possible path it can.
The easiest path.
The Apple is lazy. And lazy means not wanting to work.
The reason why a heavy object falls at the same time as a lighter object is its resistance to a force acting upon it, that is, the big guy doesn’t want to work anymore than the little guy.
Not to get all Philip Levine on your ass, but let me say What Work Is:
Work happens when a force acts upon mass in such a way that it accelerates it through space-time.
Moving a massive object like a dead body across a floor with force is work.
When I became a college professor, my dad used to tease me. He’d say, “Boy, what you do ain’t real work!”
It wasn’t real work to him, because I wasn’t lifting heavy objects and moving them from one place to another.
But as a writer, I transfer creative energy from my mind to my fingers, which causes them to accelerate and type the words onto my laptop screen, and thus, writing is working.
The heavy sphere would rather say to Galileo, “Please don’t drop me! I don’t want to work. I’m going to resist as much as possible, because I just want to kick up here on the tower with my homies.”
(I should tell of the day I spent in Pisa, at an outdoor café with a view of the Tower, how I ordered a long lunch, three hours, and went through two bottles of wine and then had an espresso. But it would take a lot of work to write about that, so I’m not going to do it just yet.)
The heavier sphere puts up resistance to gravity, the force that wants it to work, and because it’s heavier than the lighter object, it puts up more resistance than then lighter one.
Newtonian physics argues that the more gravitational mass there is to an object, the stronger the inertia, that is, the objects desire to stay at a constant velocity.
Here’s the elegant formula:
(I think. Like I said, I don’t understand the equations, but I get that they are elegant, that they say a lot in pithy language, mathematical haikus.)
When a heavy object falls , it doesn’t want to change velocity, so its inertial mass will resist the fall, and because it’s heavy, its inertial mass is stronger than the light object’s inertial mass.
A lighter object does not have as much resistance, because it’s not as heavy, and the pull of gravity acts on it more effectively. The inertia and the force equal out, and they hit the ground at the same time.
I’m not a scientist, so I write none of this with authority. I’m just trying to understand the basic concept of inertia and gravity. Just for fun.
So when this London barista told me that water is lazy, a light went on in my head.
Of course, you have to pack the coffee in the espresso maker!
Of course you do!
If you didn’t pack it tight, the water would take the easiest path through the grounds.
It would swirl in between the loose coffee grounds, wherever is the least resistance to change.
But if the barista packs it in hard, the water has no choice but to force its way through the ground into my cup, thus making a more pure coffee.
Water is lazy.
But how does this apply to us? How does this apply to the reason why we always end up with jerks?
If a system like physics attempts to describe reality, we should be able to extract the metaphors and apply them to any system’s attempt to describe reality.
Like Blake says, All religions are the same.
A system that describes Reality, Truth, and the Theory of Everything needs metaphor in order to be understood. If those metaphors are close to describing something True, they should describe concepts outside of that metaphorical system.
The Bible teaches, You reap what you sow. The Buddhists might use metaphors around karma. Physicists might say how for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Different metaphors describe the same Truth.
Assume we all have an inertial framework, that is, we move through time and space more or less at a constant velocity, only speeding up when there is a force acting upon us.
We wake up in the morning, have coffee, go to work, feed the kids, whatever it is we do, and we get to the point of inertia where we just repeat what we do over and over again at the same speed. We become comfortable with this.
And this could be the case even psychologically, or mentally, the way we think. Many of us do not think outside of our framework, we do not think outside of the reality that we have accepted.
As you age, one of the ways to lose the agility of your brain is to quit reading, or not to read it all, or not to challenge yourself with new, mental work. We want to stay where we are.
And, here’s the kicker:
If you always end up with jerks, that’s why you always end up with jerks.
If we are used to what we have experienced, whether conscious it or not, whether the apple is aware of it or not, we want to take the easiest path, we want to stay within our inertial framework.
One’s inertial frame work seems to determine one’s sense of reality, including the field in which we live, time and space.
If I am on a train moving through the landscape close to the speed of light, and there are no windows indicating that I am moving and there is no acceleration, my inertial framework tells me I am at rest.
If you were standing on the train station platform watching my train pass, your framework tells you that I am moving very quickly and you are at rest.
Our inertial frameworks provide us with our sense of reality and stability.
If we are at a party, and there are many people in the room, when the door opens and a jerk walks in, our initial framework will attract us to that jerk, because it’s the easiest path. We don’t need to work, we just need to repeat or to stay at a constant velocity where we are emotionally and spiritually.
I’m not talking about the brain, the thought, which will tells us we DON’T want to meet another jerk. The brain is an organ, and although we put a lot of value upon it as humans, it’s still part of our physiology, still under the laws of physics, and sometimes the brain is lazy and helps us to remain inert and tells us, This one will be different.
We keep ending up with jerks because it is the easiest path, it is the psychological geodesic.
We keep repeating the same mistakes, even when we complain about them, even when we feel guilty, or feel worthless, and those feelings of guilt and worthlessness become part of our inertial framework, our reality, and that’s where we will stay, unless there is a force that acts upon us.
We resist anything else. We are like a falling object, the heavier our thoughts and emotions and those things that enslave us, the more we resist the change, the force.
But we are fortunate to be humans, because we have the ability to invite forces into our lives!
We can allow forces us to move away from our inertial framework and to make decisions that are more optimal, to stay away from the jerks.
And many amazing people that I know live their lives like this, writers, teachers, construction workers, all across the world people are using forces to get them to accelerate and deaccelerate.
There are synthetic forces such as drugs, but if we use them too often, they become part of our inertial framework, and we stay there for an even longer time. It takes tremendous force to move someone from an addictive framework.
What forces can we invite into our lives to accelerate us outside of our inertial framework?
To believe in something higher, to seek the ultimate source of energy, the great force, the Crown on the Tree of Life.
Meditation is good.
Exercise is good.
Exercise is using a kinetic force to make us work. It is work in addition to what we need to go about our daily lives. It challenges our inertial framework.
Whether we are conscious of it or not, we invite forces into our lives every day.
There are always things in life that cause us to accelerate or deaccelerate, the death of a family member, the flu, a car accident, a department meeting.
These act on us and cause us to move differently, but the variations can be minimal.
And the more we are stuck within an inertial framework, the more these variations will just become a part of it, the predictable unpredictables of life.
Allow a force to act upon you that takes you out of your comfort zone.
Talk to people you would have never thought of talking to before.
There was a church in Fresno that believed Freewriting was Satanic.
Obviously, I had to find another church, because I was a writer, and sometimes we can sit down and write without thinking and then suddenly, Snap! We come to, like we’ve been in a trance. We look down on what used to be a white page and we see that we have written a story or a poem in a voice not our own.
It’s an awesome experience, and I’m not giving that up, nor am I willing to attribute such a beautiful part of the creative process exclusively to Satan!
(in the voice of the church lady: Satan!)
Don’t free write! said the preacher at that church. It’s communication with demons and the dead, and that’s an abomination to the Lord.
I believed it immediately.
Freewriting is communication with the dead.
Yes, Satan is in your pen, but are there also many other types of angels dancing on the head of your pen.
The idea may sound ridiculous, but sometimes ridiculous-sounding things can be true, like, for example, Trump is president.
But just because something sounds ridiculous doesn’t mean it can’t be true, perhaps it’s only that the logic of it is so far removed from our everyday limitations of observation that it seems crazy.
Maybe during freewriting, as you follow the rhythm of your hand moving across the page and you feel the way the pen or pencil slides, scatters, rubs the white (which is perhaps why I write with a gel pen G-2 07, because I like the way it feels so smooth) maybe that kinetic movement influences the rhythm of your language. You go into strange arm and hand convulsions, as if your body was overtaken by a spirit.
And maybe when you free write, even if you don’t feel the pen in your hand, you hear a voice, and the voice might not be yours, but you follow it and what it writes surprises you.
It could be the voice of a spirit or a ghost, and if you follow it, by any other name, you channel that spirit.
I think most writers have felt this before, and in fact, when Lorca writes about duende fighting against form, I think this is what he means, that demon (spirit, ghost) we channel, that manifestation of duende in our sound tries to pull us away from the form, that is, the content, the meaning, the sum of the elements.
The voice is not made of matter and does not need to be grounded in (imaginary) space.
Every writer knows that the best writing is rewriting, and while we are revising what may have come to us while freewriting, we often need to restrain the voice that brought us into the first draft. Let the energy of that voice push against the language and fill the work with tension, but be careful about letting it out completely.
“Ghosts in our language” is not only a spiritual concept.
Free writing is communicating with the dead, because voices of other writers swim in and out of your language as you write. Just like known musical riffs can come out during the impromptu jazz sax session, the language of writers we read, most of them dead, come out during freewriting.
On the most logical level, this happens because the languages we’re re using have been around before us, and our own voices are amalgamations of the ones we’ve heard all our lives. And if you’re a writer, you have great writers who have inspired and influenced you to write.
I might be freewriting and a rhythm or voice I’ve heard from another writer comes into my language, for example like this line from Lorca about a boy looking at the moon:
El niño la mira, mira.
El niño la está mirando.
I have often found this rhythm seep into my hand as it moves across the page, and I write its rhythm but not its matter, not its content. It may have nothing to do with matter, so instead of a boy looking at the moon I’m writing about a girl looking at a statue in a garden or I’m writing about how one tree bends into another tree as if wildly in love.
The voices of writers I’ve read come out when I write, and, the fact is, many of them are dead, and even if they are not dead, like one of my favorites, Toni Morrison, their first drafts were influenced by writers who are dead, and those writers were influenced by other dead writes from the past and so on and so on all the way back until the first time language was carved into stone.
On a logical level, writing the first draft puts you in touch with the dead through language, and if you extend that to believing there are realms of reality which we cannot understand with logic, you can say that writing gives us access to parallel worlds, the spirit world, the world of the dead, the world of the imagination, worlds not created with matter but with the pure energy of desire, worlds often more real than the world we think we see and understand.
To quote the Crazy Gypsy, our ancestors are chewing on our fingernails.
This morning I woke dull-headed and didn’t feel like writing, because I had drank wine the night before.
Naturally I wondered about Edgar Allan Poe.
How was he so productive?
I mean, he was an addict and incredibly excessive, what religious people would call a sinner.
He was erratic in his behavior, could dive into the weird, the dangerous, the lecherous.
But Poe was not only a drunk, he was also one of the most influential creative writers in the world.
Blake writes, “Excess leads to the palace of wisdom.”
If you were to enter into Poe’s body of work, you can find the genius. You can see “beyond the veil.”
Poe gets glimpses that few artists ever do and Great artists always do.
He had moments of mystic clarity.
He created stories so astounding that more than a hundred years later we still enter into those nightmares. Many of his fantastic images have become part of our shared consciousness, have become archetypes.
Who can forget the first time they read “The Telltale Heart,” someone murdering an old man stuffing his body in the floorboards, and imagining he hears his heart beating louder and louder.
Oh, how our inner lives are stubborn to reflect our outer landscape!
This is Swedenborg. This is Schopenhauer. This is confirmed by so many systems.
What led Poe “beyond the veil” was writing his imagination.
No matter what he was doing in life, no matter how many people he was causing pain to, he took time to imagine. And Write.
He looked at the stars and he imagined. And then he wrote it down.
He thought about the cosmos.
For fun, he read books on religion (for reading is writing), science, and he played with the ideas he encountered, and they became part of the way he saw a reality.
But seeing beyond the veil is NOT limited to the mystic.
Physicists strive to see beyond the veil as well.
Here’s where physics and Poe come together.
Consider the universe:
There are stars out there so much stronger than our sun, and there are billions and billions of them shining into space.
So why is the nighttime sky dark on earth?
In my non-scientific way to explain it (please look it up so cosmologists can explain it more accurately) our solar system is tiny, the sun only eight light minutes away, and there are stars out there so much stronger than our sun. There are billions and billions of them shining into space, so we should be able to see that light from earth.
Why is the nighttime sky dark on earth?
It didn’t make sense to the cosmologists.
Why was night not intense light?
They debated this paradox for many years, but the one who figured it out was Poe, in a poem called “Eureka.”
He argued that light from those stars didn’t reach us yet, because they’re so far away. The light hasn’t traveled here yet; it’s still on its way.
The universe is young, he suggests.
And he was right.
The scientist and the poet strive to see.
Poe took time to observe and think.
He spent a lot of time staring into the sky. And in spite of what he did all night long, he wrote the next day.
Just to be clear: my point isn’t that you, writer, are exempt from codes of behavior, so get drunk, be excessive.
My point is: Imagine. Write. Cast your bread across the waters.
At least I managed to write something this morning.
I spend my money until it runs low, and then I drink cheaper wine.
But this year I started a three-year term as chair of the Creative Writing department at the University of Texas in El Paso. Suddenly I have to not only understand budgets but schedules and reports and I must sit in endless meetings, often leaving with no more information that with what I arrived.
It’s a real job, and for someone who spent the last 17 years as a writer and faculty member, basically going to campus for classes and office hours, I’m suddenly developing and using skills I never had before, or had but were hidden.
It’s a demanding job.
When my colleagues at the University heard I was going to serve as chair, they respond with, “Oh, I’m really sorry!”
Especially if they’ve done the job before.
This past summer I posted a picture on Facebook of a book I was reading called The Department Chair Primer, and I wrote about how I wanted to be prepared for the job.
My Facebook friend, the writer Maxine Chernoff, chair of Creative Writing at San Francisco State, wrote the comment: “Nothing prepares you.”
When I tell my family that I’m department chair, they say, Congratulations!
Like it’s a good thing.
I’m only in my second week, but so far, I think the congratulation is more accurate.
Believe it or not, I love the job.
This doesn’t mean I want to do it for more than three years or that I have administrative ambitions, but during the three years I serve, I’m going to enjoy every moment.
The most amazing aspect of the job is the additional human interaction required on a daily basis, much more than when I was writing at home all day.
I’m talking to people everyday, in English and Spanish, and I am usually the first person someone goes to if they have a problem. This human interaction requires using a part of my brain that I wasn’t using so much before I became chair, so I know it’s mentally healthy.
And also, no significant amount of success can happen without human interaction.
It’s how we get what we want out of life.
Even if my goal is to spend the rest of my life in a house by a river writing and reading and eating good food in the evenings, human interaction is required to negotiate the use of the land, the use of clean water, electricity, food.
Being department chair requires much more interaction than what I had when I was more troglodyte-like. (That’s hard to say. Troglodyte-like).
I love the interaction.
I love talking to people.
I guess what I’m learning about myself, is I love people.
Of course, there are some difficult people, but I am seeking to understand them, and in doing so I have to be aware that in their personal narratives, I’m the difficult one.
I suppose the most important question for a writer who decides to be department chair, is: Will it take me away from my writing?
Believe it or not, No.
I am a more productive writer as department chair than I was before, as if the structure of the day contributes to my productivity
Here’s some guidelines I follow, that keep me in my creative space. They may not work for everyone.
DON’T ANSWER EMAIL BEFORE 11 AM
In our house, we get up early enough to provide me with at least three hours every morning for creative writing time.
And yes, there is this voice occasionally telling me to attend to department business, but I have rejected that voice, and I don’t start my human interaction until 11 AM.
At first it was hard for me NOT to check email.
I know there are people who can not check email for days, and I admire them. Not checking email is difficult.
In the past, I would check first thing in the morning, and even if I didn’t read the emails completely, even if I said, “I’ll get to them later,” I saw who they were from, and thoughts of what the email could be about lingered and affected my creative energy.
I would be imagining what the email said, not what my characters were doing.
EXERCISE EVERY MORNING.
It’s important that I run in the morning, because I rarely honor my commitment to run after I get home or in the evening.
But if I do it first thing in the morning, right after my coffee.
It gives me more creative energy in the morning, and I write more.
And it gives me energy all day.
It gives me physical energy, and I feel good.
THINK OF EACH DAY AS A CREATIVE ACT.
Any fiction writer knows that we are often surprised by what happens in our work. It can be no other way. Flannery O’Connor says if the writer isn’t surprised by what happens in a story, the reader won’t to be.
Everything I do out there in the field of human interaction is part of a narrative, a story, and I’m the writer, even when I’m surprised by what happens.
I love the surprises of the days, the twists and turns in the plots.
When I go into any kind of meeting or as I’m walking down the hall, I am existing not only physically, but creatively, looking around a landscape and often lingering just because.
DON’T BE IN A HURRY.
A few years ago I sold my car, because I wanted to see what it was like to not have one living in El Paso, a modern city built for cars.
I took the bus everywhere or I walked, and the biggest surprise of all was how much more time I had.
You would think I would have less time, because I can’t just get in the car and drive, but it gave me more time, more creative time. More time to observe. More time to think.
There is a similar concept in being department chair.
You would think I would have less time, but if I’m not in a hurry, if I don’t think everything needs to be done exactly now and I don’t start thinking about the other things that need to be done, I see how much time there is in a moment.
There is no hurry.
Things will get done.
You move too fast!
Slowing down also means that you’ll always have time to look somebody in the eyes and try to understand them. Slowing down gives you time, makes it yours, as opposed to time being something theoretical, a number on the wall that tells you to move along.
Every single person that I encounter, students, faculty, administrators, janitors and campus police, are the protagonist of their own narrative, one they’re writing, whether they’re conscious of it or not.
And like all character-led plots, they are directed by desire.
Desire is a beautiful thing. It’s what keeps us growing and expanding, and I don’t think there’s anybody out there, even the biggest asshole in the world, who is not driven by desire.
Misdirected desire might be creepy, but focused desire is admirable.
I want to be able to understand what people want.
I want to know their stories.
And then, after three years of being a chair, I’m going to write about it.
Maybe it’ll be a novel called, When I Was a Chair.
In the morning, I tear the day off my desk calendar, fold it in half, and drop it in a large bottle. I’ve been doing this for at least two years.
Today, I emptied all the days out, and I put them into a bag and wondered what to do with them.
I should just recycle them, I figured, throw them into the bin. Why gather more things?
Part of me said, No, don’t throw them away!
I can use them for an art project!
But I knew they could just gather dust on some shelf in the garage or in some closet, and is that what I really want to do with my days?
I would trash them, and as I walked outside to the recycle bin, I couldn’t help but think of all the trite metaphorical possibilities to what I was doing: “I have to throw out the past,” or something like, “I must put the past behind,” “close the door on the past.”
It’s not just writers who cannot help but to think of metaphor in images. We all do this. Perhaps it rains on an important day for us, a wedding, a job interview, and we think it’s symbolic of how that day will turn out. Maybe writers just do it more often, and often just for fun.
I didn’t decide to toss out the days for any symbolic purposes, I just did it because I saw myself doing it, and I thought it would be beautiful to look at.
And it was beautiful.
I saw all those days that I lived in the last two years just falling away into the bin like worries.
It was nice, and I suppose if I had to consider the metaphorical possibility of that image, I could come up with something cool, and maybe this detail will someday appear in my fiction and the meaning will depend on the character and the story.
My first novel can be bought on Amazon for 99 cents.
That’s quite a deal, less than a buck.
One time I ordered three of them, just to give to friends.
You quickly learn that when booksellers on Amazon say 99 cents, they really mean four dollars and 98 cents, because shipping and handling is $3.99.
That’s where the booksellers are making what little money they do from my 99-cent books.
As you know, when writers run out of the free copies they get from the publisher, they can buy their own book at a 40 percent discount. Many writers earn what little wages can from publishing by ordering their books wth this discount and selling them at readings they do in the community.
Michele Serros talks about how she had the trunk of her car filled with copies of her book, and she went from town to town setting up readings, selling books.
So these 99 cent copies of my book on amazon were even cheaper than buying my book from Simon and Schuster, which is still in print and available new for $12.52.
I ordered the three copies, and they arrived in such bad shape there was no way I was going to give them to friends.
They were from public and school libraries that decided not to keep them on the shelves.
They had given up on my book, I guess, maybe because nobody ever checked it out.
One of them came from the Eola Road Branch Library in Aurora, Illinois. On the side they stamped the book in red letters, DISCARD.
I thought it might be insulting to give such a book to friends, so they just sat on my shelf at home, and last week I pulled them down, and here they are, before me as I write this.
How do I feel about this?
Great! What a gift!
About a year ago, a Facebook friend sent me a picture of my first book, Chicano Chicanery, that he had bought at a used bookstore in Seattle.
He didn’t tell me what he paid for it, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t above the original sticker price, that the copy had depreciated in value over the years.
And here’s the important, I mean, the really really crucial point to telling you all this:
When I published Chicanery, I was so unhappy, because I worried too much about book sales.
I was fortunate that Chicanery was reviewed by the Sunday New York Times Review of Books, because that helped boost books sales, and I could walk into bookstores all over the country and I often find a copy on the shelf.
But rather than being happy that my book was on the shelf, if there was only one copy, I would feel bad and say to myself, They only ordered one copy?
If there were five books on the shelf, like I once found in a downtown bookstore in Seattle, I immediately got depressed too.
Why are there still five on the shelf? I asked myself. Nobody’s buying my book!
I tortured myself with thoughts of selling books, and suddenly numbers became important to me.
When I would get the quarterly reports, the numbers could make me happy or sad, and when Amazon became so omnipresent in books sales, I started to pay attention to my Amazon.com sales rank, and it depressed me.
The day could be beautiful.
The sun could be coming into the window and warming my face.
I could be sitting on a soft couch made of Twinkies, and I would see the Amazon sales-rank number and suddenly all the beauty in the world disappeared.
All was darkness and sadness, and I was depressed.
Writers are not the only ones who are made sad by numbers.
We know for a fact that when somebody doesn’t get enough likes on social media, they can get angry, sad, depressed.
I remember one of my Facebook friends posting how disappointed he was with his “friends” because he didn’t get enough Likes for his recent post.
He said he knew what he wrote would be controversial, but he was brave enough to post it anyway, and he implied that we could not handle his courageous honesty.
I had no idea what post he was referring to, because the algorithm that makes choices about what appears on my Facebook feed didn’t include that post.
You can tell the guy that his “Likes” have little to do with popularity, but more with accessibility and algorithms, but nonetheless, that low number, maybe 12 likes, took away the joy of his day.
We give numbers have the power to change our perspective.
Example: We could be full of light, walking down the open road on a beautiful day, monkeys singing in the trees, and we pull out our smart phones, check our bank account, and see the number. And suddenly, the world disappears, and we are plunged into despair.
Resist the tyranny of numbers!
I don’t think writers should care much about numbers, because what should matter is not sales rank, but development as a writer, expanding our voice.
What matters for us is that we get new readers every day.
Being a writer is a Becoming, not an Arriving.
Being a writer is a life’s work, and I think it’s great that somebody can get my novel for 99 cents (plus $3.99 for shipping and handling)!
And the shadows took him is used in some themed-literature classrooms at colleges and universities, and I hope students order it used.
I would too.
Like all writers, my goal is to be read.
My goal is to welcome souls into the landscape, have them walk around with my characters, have them enter doors and walk down hallways.
In fact, anyone who doesn’t have a copy of my novel can write me.
The first three people who give me an address, will get one of the 99-cent novels pictured above, signed of course.
When fiction writers create stories and novels, we are creating a tiny universe, where the energy swirls within language and imagery and desire.
All a writer really wants is for you to come inside.
Come in! Come in!
I just sent out the there copies to the first three who asked.