Those Who Teach

With the ending of the statewide teachers’ strike in West Virginia (for a five percent raise on a salary that is still among the lowest in the nation), I see again how many people in this country hate teachers.

I admit to some prejudice against the haters. I have had about five (or six) great teachers in my life. All were charismatic, electrifying lecturers and, most important of all, did not compel me to ingest the required curriculum as much as they showed me how what was being taught was valuable, necessary and important to me personally. The message I got from all is that having the time and places to let yourself be educated is a great gift that begins when that lightbulb of understanding goes off in your head, and does not end, especially when you find yourself as old (or older) than your teachers, and you think back on what they did and who they appeared to be, and you marvel at how the wisdom they were passing on.

This said, I can understand why teachers are a target of so much characteristically American animosity. Though the United States may be among the most educated societies in the world, and have colleges so prestigious that foreign students struggle for admission, most Americans believe that life’s greatest lessons are not taught in a classroom, but in the “real world.” We tend to have more respect for “self-made” individuals who began their social climb somewhere behind the starting line, than those who went to school, hit the books, collected credentials and became successful doing as they were taught–even if the majority of self made individuals in this country did precisely that.

We also revere those who exceptions who quit, do badly in school, or are misjudged by their teachers. Among the most famous are Albert Einstein, whose childhood teachers complained that he lacked focus and would most likely fail in later life, Henry Ford, who left school at 15 and became only fascinated with engineering when his father gave him a pocket watch that Ford took apart and reassembled, and Steve Jobs, the consumer products visionary whose dropped out of Stanford but was permitted to sit in on a calligraphy class, which, he later claimed, helped him realize the theory of design that had made some (though far from all) of his Apple technology products so successful.

Add to this a quasi-religious ideal, expressed in fusty mysticism by Transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, that anything you really need to know you can learn by living in, and observing “Nature,” a homegrown American turn on the Protestant ideal that God speaks to us all, if we would only draw ourselves away from distraction and temptation and listen.

I confess I shared some of the haters’ skepticism about the efficacy of teaching the arts in a classroom. I became a writer by writing, because my heroes were writers and I wanted to be like them. As an adolescent, I had the chutzpah to call up some writers on the telephone. Others I met at science fiction conventions. I visited one who lived a few bus rides away and, as I have written elsewhere in this blog, apprenticed myself to another.

Every writer I met told me the same thing: you learn by reading and writing and sending your stuff out to editors who will reject it repeatedly until they accept it. This remains true, though nobody tells you how awful rejection can be; that publications will try to cheat you out of what little money they pay you; the days, weeks and months when you don’t know how you’re going to pay the bills; how much your stuff is change when it finally sees print; and the peculiar envy and condescension that management–editors, publishers, the people who make money from what you do–has for those who make the stuff they need to sell.

I took only one writing course in college and, based on a single short story, I passed it in the first week. Though I always considered writing to be my calling, I began teaching because I liked to share the experiences I acquired as a self-taught writer who wallowed in the real world. I believed (erroneously) that the tender shoots that bloomed in sheltered academic writing courses were not as hearty as what sprouted from “real world” soil.

Alas, it’s all writing, and what matters, in the long run and the short, is if what is on the page speaks to you, and to what degree you are guided by your ability to listen. But I was a young kid starting out on a journey as a teacher, and, like most who begin an adventure, I had every reason to believe my expectations would be met.

That’s when I ran into a quote from the witty Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw: “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.”

Though most in current English literature classes, and a few more who have graduated, don’t know who Shaw was, I most certainly did. I read many of Shaw’s plays in high school because they were funny and, more important, because they took accepted notions of what was morally right and proper and turned them upside down. In the relentlessly chatty world of Shaw’s plays, you could be delighted and annoyed at the same time.

And everyone knew, when I was a child, that Lerner & Lowe’s My Fair Lady, a staple of musical theater whose Broadway cast recording I had listened to on my parent’s record player, was based on Shaw’s Pygmalion, which, everyone also knew, was based on an earlier Greek legend.

In Stephen Sondheim’s The Frogs, an attempt to transform Aristophanes’ Fifth Century B.C.E. Greek comedy into a late-20th Century musical (it was originally presented in a swimming pool at Yale), the god Dionysus (played by Nathan Lane in the 2004 Broadway revival) is disgusted with the quality of contemporary dramatic material and travels to the underworld with the intention of bringing back a playwright who write better.  Dionysus has a tough choice: Shaw or Shakespeare? Shakespeare wins.

Shaw hated going to school in Dublin. He eventually left to work as a journalist–which he learned by doing–in London, becoming one of the city’s most popular theater critics. Even before his plays became successful, he was notorious as a socialist, contrarian and wit. He was extraordinarily prolific and lived on to be a charming, if peculiar and contradictory elder statesman among the Irish.

Shaw’s quip about teachers troubled me not just because the playwright did not teach. When you’re doing anything in the arts, you have moments when you feel you’re not producing enough, not working hard enough, not doing all that you wish you could do in order to achieve the fantasies you had when you started your journey.

And, as anyone who has tried to show anyone how to do something knows, there are times when teaching seems like a complete waste of time: you’ve repeated yourself so many times, and still, the student doesn’t understand.

Finally, Shaw speaks to the rarefied snobbery that professionals use to put themselves above the dilettantes.  True creativity–the kind that produces great art that changes the world or makes people spend money–cannot be taught. You either have it, or you don’t, and those that don’t should admit it and do something else.

You see this snobbery in editors and publishers who, when you put them in a place where they feel they can’t be overheard, talk about the awful stuff they rejected. How could anyone imagine that such dreck was worth writing?

In the science fiction field, the snobbery has been immortalized by late writer Theodore Sturgeon lives on as the founder of Sturgeon’s Law, who, in responding to critics who said “Ninety percent of science fiction is crud,” agreed, but added “ninety percent of everything is crud.”

Was I among the cruds because I hadn’t sold a science fiction short story? Was I a crud because a literary novel on which I had worked diligently for two years was rejected by a publisher of thrillers? When you’re self-taught, you know that learning anything worth doing can be difficult. You also know that talent may open the door a crack, but what keeps you in the game is persistence and dedication.

And just about anybody can be persistent and dedicated. In truth, most published writing is filled with those who produced and produced and produced until they became successful enough to produce less frequently.

So I came up with a line that appealed to those who asked me to do more teaching. I refuted Shaw.

Those who can, should. Those who can teach, must.

Because teaching is also an art, and we all have experienced teachers who were not good at the art. A teaching administrator proclaimed to me that the reason so many people hate teachers is that these people have had bad experiences in classrooms. The haters also believe that teaching is something that anyone can do. “So,” this administrator paused, having no doubt said this same thing to far too many people, “if anyone can build a house, do you want just anyone to build yours?”

Do we hear some of the same snobbery in this remark?

I later tangled with this administrator, who wanted me to teach his way, or not at all. He is one of the reasons I don’t teach any other way but my own.

The people I have taught have published. They have written stuff that they and other people enjoy. Some of them have gone on to teach.

We go where we’re needed, whether or not we understand that when we arrive.







Democracy in Action

When I began to hang out in newsrooms, I quickly learned that every journalist hated covering the town meetings, in which school boards, zoning commissions, city councils and county boards of ‘dis-‘n’-dat sat stone-faced on an elevated platform as the rough-and-tumble-dried stood and spoke, one at a time, about the issues that concerned them.

Because I mostly wrote features instead of hard news, I was never assigned a town meeting. But I knew those who did. They left the newsroom bright and cheery as the sun set. They came back at 10 p.m. dull-eyed and slack-faced, clutching a cup of take-out coffee, knowing that even if they captured accurately everything that was said, spelled every the name correctly, and got it all in before the 11 p.m. deadline, their work would be chopped down until it was barely two paragraphs, and then, most likely, get cut further, or not even appear in the the next day’s local news section because a last-minute advertisement took up the space.

What would happen to their reporting? Was it cached somewhere, just in case someone who spoke at the meeting went berserk and shot up a neighbor’s above-ground swimming pool? Would the unpublished article be referenced if one of the officials on the board ran for a position in state politics and won?

What everybody knew, but really didn’t care about, was that these meetings were a crucial part of small town American life, even if what happened at them was as far from the sentimental scenes on Norman Rockwell magazine illustrations as the front page news they aspired to report.

Here you saw the newly elected struggle to keep their composure as they were reviled by those who did not vote for them. Here you heard the rage and frustration of citizens who really did have something better to do than wait their turn to complain about the way a law was enforced, grumble about the neighbor’s above-ground swimming pool–erected in obvious violation of zoning regulations– leaking chlorinated water into their vegetable garden or assail the hypocrisy inherent in the proposed budget. Here you watched a person look back nervously over his shoulder to see if any those who had promised to show up and lend moral support, actually showed up to watch him speak for them. Here you heard a self-proclaimed payer of taxes “taxpayer” talk about truth, justice and the American way, relate it to an issue that had absolutely nothing to do truth, justice and the American way, and then walk out because he was not in the least interested in hearing from anyone else.

When what I believed would be a temporary flirtation with journalism became a series of difficult marriages, I came to know some outstanding political reporters. From them I learned of a different side of the profession, where these meetings were a way to learn how American democracy actually worked.

Go to enough meetings, I was told, and you begin to recognize who really has the power. Go to a few more and you can connect the dots that link the powerful with the influential, the people with money to the people who protect or tax that money. Finally, you understand what is called constituent services, how those in power further the survival and good fortune of themselves by taking care of those who support them.

Forget about what you learned in high school civics about the “checks and balances” created by the authors of the US Constitution. In local politics, the checks are what staffers cash to get “street money” to pay for votes, suppress dissent and make things happen whose cost can’t appear in public records. The balances are fictions–claims made in speeches and proclamations–that, no matter how often reporters prove them false, are intended to help us believe that ours remains the best of all worlds.

And the greatest fiction of all is the belief that democracy is about “the people” being in charge. This wasn’t true in Athens, where the custom of permitting male property-owners sitting on a hillside the privilege to say Yea or Nay over how money from silver mines may be spent (the Athenians chose to build warships with which they created a small empire that lasted for a few generations until they lost a war against the Spartans, who were ruled by a pair of kings, who made sure that Athens would be a tyranny until it was conquered by the Romans) created the idea of rule by the people.

But we want to believe it was. And the great thing about attending a public meeting, as I did recently, is that as long as this belief can be indulged, people who really don’t have any power can feel that they have some control over their destiny.

It can be a beautiful, and ugly, thing to see. It’s beautiful when people stand up and say things that tug at your heart. Let’s do more to help the unfortunate! Let’s give a raise to the people who do the most good! Let’s have a parade or a proclamation to show how much we want to honor those who work so hard for us!

It’s ugly when someone vents anger at the powerful, no matter how much the powerful may deserve it, or spews a dark cloud of discontent about taxes, zoning or the neighbor’s barking dog. Because the anger reminds everyone that politics has limits, the most important being that it isn’t a source of permanent personal happiness. Local government does not exist to please us. Rather, it makes things possible that would not be possible any other way.

We may not like the result. We may grumble at the placement of a traffic light where we previously zoomed on by. We may wonder why the people we elected to not raise taxes have raised them again this year. We may discover that the commonest of common sense cannot explain how any of our tax money has been spent. We may notice, if any of us stand up and make a little speech, that some of the powerful are looking at their watches, or their cell phones, or their tablets, or they’re passing notes to teach other, because they just can’t endure another person telling them what they should be doing.

We may tell ourselves that if things were just a little bit different, we would run for public office, win and make everything right!

What these politic reporters told me was that few people in politics ever agree on what is right. We hope that people of good moral character are elected, and that these people surround themselves with vestments cut from the same cloth. But the purpose of an election is not to deliver the best person for the job. It’s to create a path to power that is clear enough and seemingly fair enough so that we don’t have civil wars every six months.

At best we who are not powerful may be able to empower those who seem to share our values. At worst we can count the days until we cast our vote for the next person.

But we get a chance to stand up and say something. I urge you to try it. I did, a long time ago.

And it really made all the difference.






Dad Shirt

I’ve written previously about how clothing can be more than just fashion, a bargain, or something that disguises how much weight you didn’t lose. Today I want to tell you about meeting up with an old friend.

I like to wear my clothes until they fall apart. This means I have a wardrobe with stuff that’s way past due on the fashion scene: bulky jackets with padded shoulders, pants so relaxed the fabric feels like a second skin, and shirts in patterns and cuts that are about as far as you can get from today’s mean silhouettes.

Alas, I wear Dad clothes: things that look better behind the wheel of a slow-moving sedan. I don’t own a sedan but I am a Dad, so I try to wear what I have with pride.

Today was unseasonably hot. Last October I packed packed my shorts and polo shirts away. The weather was perfect for the straw hat my wife got me back when such things were a cool hipster affectation. My vaguely pre-washed Dad blue jeans would at least blend in. Should I risk a T-shirt?

I went down to that place in my closet where forgotten things hang, and found the oldest shirt I own: a long-sleeved, cotton poly blended green, blue, white and off-white button down plaid that, who knows how many years ago, would look perfect in an office cubicle on casual Friday.

I bought it where I acquire many garments I’ve learned to love, in a used clothing store, because I didn’t have the money to buy shirts for full price. I never wore it in an office cubicle, but found that, with a tie and dark sport coat, I could wear it when I taught college. A slightly more interesting tie made the shirt appropriate for speaking engagements. With the color open, I could be a down-to-earth, writer-type at book signings. It washed easily, dried fast and didn’t wrinkle, so I could bring it along on overnights trips.

After so much loving use, the cotton fibers washed away, leaving only the polyester threads which were now so broken down that they were as soft as silk. Hold the shirt up to the light and what was solid cloth is now translucent. The air blows through it, cooling you as you wear it.

On a day so bright and cheery that people I met outdoors smiled for no reason. It felt good to be alive, to be outside with the dog, or just outside, feeling the sun on my face, a breeze moving around and through my shirt, my old friend, happy to be with me again.


Toes on the Board

The wonderful science fiction and fantasy writer R.A. Lafferty once said, “The best time to write a story is yesterday. The second best is today.”

As person who is now hesitating–the metaphorical equivalent of standing at the edge of a diving board, looking down past my toes at the rippling swimming pool water below–I find wisdom in Lafferty’s remark.

A few days ago I saw a respectful documentary about fantasy fiction, from Tolkein and C.S. Lewis through Game of Thrones. I took issue at a few things–why wasn’t the epic fantasy Beowulf mentioned as an influence on the author of Lord of the Rings and why was the myth-blending science fiction “New Wave” not discussed–but I just boiled when I heard interviews with current writers, some famous, some not, who were answering the questions I used to be asked when one of my books was published. Our answers were more or less the same.

From there it was a typical woe-is-me session, though, at my age, I was more like Lear complaining of how less he was a sinner than sinned against. What, I asked myself, had I done wrong so that my fantasy novel was not published?

Oh, there’s a long list of what I could have, should have and would have done, but the fact remains that the my heart was in the right place in writing it, the book has some very good scenes and a few that could be improved, and an important character could use a bit more development. I can say something similar about every book I’ve written, whether or not it was published.

I know from writing books, hanging around with people who write books, and interviewing people who are famous for writing books, that such an attitude is common among the profession. We can all talk, in retrospect, about what it all means, how we’re trying to change the world, that we never thought that anybody would ever read it or that we were hoping the book would correct a misleading cultural attitude or trend that has gone on too long, but, when you’ve finished a book, about the best thing you can feel is relief. This doesn’t last long before you think everything you’ve done is terrible, or that even if you’ve published a zillion times, you’re still a fraud counting the days before someone exposes you.

The only cure for this is to start another book.

My difficulty of late is that other emotion that stops many people from writing a single word: that utter certainty that nobody is going to read this, nobody is going to care about it, nobody is going to publish it or spend money on it or come up with a decent cover illustration.

It’s similar to how you feel when you’re on the edge of that diving board, asking yourself why you should hurl yourself off, when you could hurt yourself, kill yourself, make a fool out of yourself with everybody around the pool watching, or get water up your nose.

When I mentioned my hesitation to my wife (who really likes to read my stuff, so thinking that nobody will read my stuff is not just wrong but not fair to her), she reminded me what an agent had said after reading an earlier draft. Yes, things can be changed and why not change a few?

I fired up the word processor and wrote about a page of a new beginning. My wife read it and said that this, finally, was the opening of a book I just may have been born to write.

In terms of encouragement, it doesn’t get any better.

But I am still hesitating. My new feeling is much closer to the truth: do I want to feel so good, and so bad, as I write the book?

While every writer enjoys the rare work that “writes itself,” the more typical situation is an emotional hay ride, with bumps, twists, moments when the tractor stalls, too many other moments when you ask yourself why you ever thought you would want to sit on all this dried straw when you could be doing anything else, or nothing at all?

I’ve had periods of my life when I’ve been blocked, others when I just had some time without a deadline. Doing nothing can be a good thing.

But after a while, you ask yourself if maybe, just maybe, you could be doing something…else. I’ve noticed that part of the reason I enjoy solitaire games is a safe feeling of accomplish when I win. But what precisely is accomplished?

So I’m still hesitating. But not for long. I sincerely want to put this book into some shape so that even if all those other things that I fear happen, one person in this world will have a story that I’ve always wanted to tell.




Hiccups aren’t supposed to be scary.

When you’re a child, they’re almost funny. You find yourself making a sound like a small bird. Something inside you ticks like a clock, or a toy that’s been wound up to perform at intervals that are so slightly out of sync as to cause a little suspense. When will it happen again?

After a while you grow weary of the novelty. You hear about all the cures for hiccups that don’t work. You may even try a few. You hold your breath. You jump up and down. You experience what appears to be a hiccupless moment.

And then you hiccup.

Though there are accounts of hiccuping continuing for several days, most of us find that the spasm of the vagas nerve goes away after a while. We soon forget about the discomfort.

A few nights ago I woke up with hiccups and it wasn’t funny. Ever since my heart attacks, I’ve been aware that illness isn’t merely the body misbehaving, or an invasive infection that must be fought. Your body can fail you in ways you cannot predict, no matter how much medical advice you followed.

It’s almost a metaphor for life itself: things fail that you cannot foresee, cannot control, did not plan, are not your fault. They can be as innocuous as hiccups, or as terrifying as a heart attack, when the part of your body you never think about (unless you exercise hard, or fall in love, and even then, sooner or later, you think about something else) stumbles just enough to let you know that you can’t take anything for granted anymore.

If you’re lucky, as I was, you’re close enough to doctors who can fix it. But the fix, like a patch on a tire, won’t change the fact that the tire has worn down to the point that it is vulnerable to what used to be harmless things that it had once rolled over with ease.

When I woke up with the hiccups I was recovering from surgery on my right knee. About half a lifetime ago, when I joined my son in a kids’ karate class, my right knee began to swell and hurt intermittently. The karate teacher suggested I go to a sports medicine clinic, where, after an MRI scan, I learned that a piece of my meniscus–a wafer of cartilage in my knee that insulated and supported the bones that comprised the joint–was floating about. It was unlikely that the pain would go away.

I had the surgery and, a few years later, suffered a similar tear on my left knee. At the time, I was told that this was due to the heavy exercise I did: running, karate, weights in a gym. I’ve since had different explanations as to why the piece was torn away from the cartilage and I’m correcting my behavior so that it doesn’t happen again.

But, about eight months ago, it happened again. As in the previous times, I waited for the pain and swelling to go away by itself. It didn’t.

So now I’m recovering from the surgery and, hiccups aside, it hurts. I know that the swelling and pain will eventually subside, but, until it does, the cure feels as bad as the original sickness. I’m trying not to take too many over-the-counter painkillers.

I no longer look at illness as something that eventually goes away. What involuntarily distresses us, what causes us undeserved pain, what fails without apparent cause or explanation changes how we understand ourselves.

I do not see myself as a victim of what I can’t control. Rather, I have a better understanding of the meaning of sustainability. I am, more than ever, considering what is it that keeps me going reasonably well, holds me together emotionally and spiritually when so much around me seems to be is falling apart, how can I accommodate the inevitable limitations that the years bring and, most important of all, how may I acknowledge that I am not alone, that sustaining life is an interdependence that can be recognized only in hindsight. Like so much of what is truly valuable in life, it begins, and ends, in mystery.

And I am looking forward to the one thing that makes discomforting illnesses, from hiccups  to heart attacks, almost worth while: that wonderful, miraculous feeling you get when realize you’re getting better, you’re coming back, you’re returning to the person you were.




Galactic Pot Washer

I was washing pots in a college dining hall kitchen when another pot washing student mentioned to me that he had published a short story in a science fiction magazine.

I almost dropped my scrubber. Having dreamed, prayed, aspired and–too often–despaired of seeing my stories in print, I assumed that published writers were unique life forms who possessed something I lacked. Of course, when I summoned what little bit of self confidence I had, I told myself that someday I would join their ranks, merely because my stuff was the best I could do, and the way you “make it” in the arts is to do the best you can every time you’re at bat, with the hope that sooner or later you’ll make it to first base and when you peak you’ll hit a few home runs.

Back in it that kitchen, I felt my life was an unending string of strike-outs.

As I scoured through what had once been mushroom gravy, I asked him how he wrote it. He said he came up with an idea, wrote the story in less than an hour. Somebody told him to send it to the magazine and, a few weeks later, he got a check. It was so easy he thought so little of it that after cashing the check, he didn’t hold on to the copy of the magazine that the editor sent him.

Was he lying to me? The skeptical voice inside me that would help in my journalism career said it was a little too convenient that he didn’t have the magazine. And, in this pre-Internet era, I couldn’t take off my gloves, pull out a cell phone and google his name.

Having washed a mountain of pots in my college and post graduate career in restaurants, I know that some pot washers humiliate each other because pot they occupy the lowest rank in the food-service employment hierarchy, and when you’re the lowest of the low, you can do things to each other to push another closer to the bottom. Had he done that just to put me on the bottom?


I went back to an extremely crusted sheet pan.

Way back before food service became a degreed profession, if you wanted to learn how to cook (or, like me, you wanted a free meal), you washed pots because you couldn’t break them and your job was a simple matter of scraping off the burnt goo so the pots could be used to make more goo. After that, you moved to dish washing, which was more complicated because, not only did you have to remove the goo, you had to use the right mix of detergent, water heat and water pressure to blast lipstick off the glassware and keep those nasty spots off the cutlery. That, and you weren’t supposed to break anything thing. If, after several weeks, months or years, nobody heard a dish shatter, someone may show you how to chop onions.

After I graduated, I worked in restaurants to support my writing habit. Before the habit became regular enough to devote myself to it completely, I rose as far as fill-in chef, somebody they’d call when whoever was supposed to do the cooking didn’t show up. When I filled in, I couldn’t be expected to know the menu as well as the regular chef. I burnt some things. I dropped some things. I sent some plates out that probably shouldn’t have gone out.

But I learned to do what had to be done, not just because that was the job. When you can reach that state of non-judgemental action, you can do more things correctly, or, at least, adequately, and maybe even accomplish a few miracles.

I never quite achieved that non-judgemental state as a writer. Yes, I had times I was “in the flow,” gulping coffee and pushing out the words to meet a deadline. I had moments when I was surprised at how passages seemed to write themselves.

But, even when I met the deadline, I always experienced a let-down when I saw my work in print. I’d find a misprint, or a passage I could have stated better, or a chunk of the article that had been removed to make room for an advertisement that had come in at the last minute.

Once I saw that the name of an interview subject who had asked me repeatedly to make sure I spelled his name right, had been spelled wrong. I felt bad for several days, long after I called the guy and apologized.

It was worse with books. Unless an author has hundreds of thousands fans who will buy multiple copies of everything he writes, most writers feel an enormous pressure that each book sell more, get better reviews, and–most important of all–generate more subsidiary rights sales (“Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber wants to make a musical out of my novel? Bring it on!”). The slightest sign that this may not happen (which, in fact, NEVER happens, for the overwhelming majority of published writers), sends the author into a panicky, downward mood spiral. The only cure for post-publishing blues is investing even more expectation in the next book you commit to finishing.

It’s ironic that in so much human endeavor, the sickness is the cure, and vice versa. After a while you get tired of the ups and downs. You just want to live long enough to reach the point where you just finish the job.

It took me years to learn that non-judgemental action is the big lesson in washing pots. Yes, it’s a boring, steamy, noisy job, but, sooner or later, the goo comes off and you move on to the next pot. If you ask yourself a cosmic question, such as why a college educated soon-to-be-published writer has to put up with rejection while this other guy whom you’ve never seen before and probably hasn’t taken the courses and read the books that you did, blithely lands a short story in a science fiction magazine, you start to slow down. You wonder what significance washing pots will ever be significant in your literary career. You contemplate the series of unfortunate events that brought you to the pot sink (in my case, I just wanted to make a little extra money). And then, somebody from the kitchen yells at you about running out sheet pans. You find the goo-encrusted sheet pans and find a place for one under the faucet. You pick up the scrubber, pour on a little detergent, and scrub. You go on to the next pan, and the next and, a few hours later, all the pots are washed and you go back to your dorm room, wet and exhausted, with a definite feeling of accomplishment that no amount of envy, or rejected science fiction stories, can subvert.





A Course in Kindness

I recently crossed into another world, one in which I found a better thing to do than write. I was quietly surprised to find this place. It was almost like finding a door in your house that you never noticed, and opening it to find a new room, with a window from which what you thought surrounded you now appears to be different.

What brought me to this world was an answer to a question that many have asked: what is the best thing to do with myself, right now and into the near future?

Years ago I had my head hooked into a distant, utopian future in which I had attained a state of grace that I ascribed to my favorite science fiction writers, all of whom seemed to have

  1. the ability to come up with a wonderful idea for a story. This is ability is not shared by everyone. Though I got ideas for stories any time I wanted them by letting my mind wander, I discovered that most people don’t get ideas for anything, and thus, they depend rather heavily on those ideas that are packaged in consumer items. How surprised I was when my college professors dismissed the science fiction and fantasy stories I read in my adolescence as hackwork and junk culture, even if, in our brave, new 21st century, the cheesy space opera that I found fun but trite lives on as Star Wars, the greatest money-making consumer art work of all time, and the comic books that my parents wouldn’t let me read are now earning almost as much as films.
  2. the opportunity to do whatever they must to write their stories. That meant, for me, not long hours at a typewriter as much as an open, adventuresome attitude that took in the strangeness, scariness, beauty or hidden truth in the world, so that my prose would have an authenticity that I associated with the American realists, who embraced the syllogism that nothing was worth writing about until you lived it, and that what you hadn’t lived was not only not worth writing about, but impossibly to write about honestly and thus, wouldn’t sell to the avuncular editors who inhabited seedy little offices in New York, Chicago and Boston and thus, experienced a the world through the fictionally transformed misadventures of those they published. Alas, I’ve traveled a bit, and even done some travel writing. A guidebook I wrote is years out of date and nobody has tried to update it. I’ve read work by writers who have never been to Paris, Jerusalem or Mars, but they’ve done a pretty good job of telling a story. So what makes an experience “honest” or worth writing about?
  3. a talent for not letting their artistic ambitions drive them crazy. I also hoped, when I met writers who were drunks, self-promoting frauds, vindictive egotists who were abusive to their loved ones, that I would behaving with dignity and a gentle gravitas, as if being a writer of science fiction and fantasy stories was a civic role as important as that of the old village storytellers, or the griots who preserved tribal history.
  4. relationships with editors so that the stories were published smoothly. Most writers lied about this. Though my college professors taught the importance of legendary editors like William Dean Howells and Maxwell Perkins  (as well as John Campbell, who transformed science fiction from space opera to imaginative speculations about sociological and psychological trends, and nurtured the work of Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein and many others who became my heroes), I used to believe that I should work with every editor because all editors shared a joy in good writing and had reasonable goals toward packaging and distributing that joy–until I met editors who were not only unreasonable, but petty, and pettiness can stomp on youthful idealism with a cruelty that sends deep, paralyzing shocks that lead you to conclude that this gatekeeper wouldn’t have let the door quietly shut in my face if I had been a different person.
  5. people who valued their writing enough to buy it or seek it out in libraries. Hey, I did this with my favorites. How was I supposed to know that there were so many, many people writing stuff worth reading that, even if you major in English and read two or three books a week, you’ll never read them all. So how do you become a writer with a following? Nobody really knows. Promotion doesn’t work all the time. Writing the same book every time doesn’t work. Having your book made into a movie doesn’t help if the movie is bad, or the movie changes your work so much that it isn’t yours anymore. The only thing you can hold on to is that everybody who gets that following has moments when they can’t stand the expectations these people create. See Stephen King’s Misery, the best novel ever written about a writer and his Number One Fan.
  6. a sense of confidence so that I would not be unduly injured by critical slings and arrows. Again, I met many writers who claimed they never read reviews, but they had ways of finding out what the critics said about them, and they went nuts when critics didn’t like what they did. I know this as a writer, and a book reviewer, who was occasionally the subject of an angry letter from a writer, agent or publisher when my opinion (even a positive one!) wasn’t what they enjoyed reading. It seems that to survive in a commercial society, a writer has to be produce a lot of stuff, produce it quickly and without remorse, the stuff has to be “out there” in the marketplace as much as possible until something happens that brings attention, desired or not, and, most important of all, have a cast-iron ego that can withstand so many disappointments, let-downs, twisted ironies and far too many years of silent neglect. Who are these confident writers? I never met them. I never read them. Everybody seemed to want attention, if not the love, of people in their community, or in the great world of readers, and make these people happy with their work.
  7. A person to share it with. This I got. This dream came true. Hooray!

But I never became a science fiction writer because every story I ever sent out (including novels) was rejected and the rejection really, really hurt so bad and nothing helped me deal with that hurt. The stuff I sent out that was not rejected, was non fiction, mysteries, magazine and newspaper articles. To my surprise, a few science fiction and fantasy writers confessed they wished that their stuff appeared where mine did.

As I wished my stuff appeared with theirs.

I’m sure that if people read any of the books I have “in progress” (translation: I’ve begun them but I don’t work on them consistently and I don’t know when, or if, I’ll ever finish them) they’ll like them, maybe even love them. May these works be important somehow? Perhaps. Will critics like them? Maybe. Will they make money if published? Why not?

But is there something better to do until any of those books finds a reader?

Yes. Of course.

And that is to be kind to as many people as possible.

Not change the world. Not change their world. Not tell truth to power, expose the bad guys and draw attention to worthy folks who struggle in the darkness. I’ve done that as a journalist and we still have powerful people who don’t care about the consequences of their action (or inaction), venal folks at all levels of society and so many, many worthy people who are trying to make themselves and their world a little bit better.

Journalism is not a profession that readily embraces kindness. In fact, kindness is dismissed as a weakness, a bias, a willful neglect of flaws, foibles, mistakes and things that could be improved.

To be kind is to be…what?

I never took a course in journalism. I only took one writing course and passed it.

But I’ve been taking a course in kindness all my life and, like most of us, I’ve had a few report cards that I’d rather not remember. It’s easy to disregard civility, respect for others, a positive comment or a bit of generosity when you want to “make something of yourself.” What you miss that that the self you’re trying to make something of–doesn’t change much, and whatever you have in the bank, whatever you’ve published, whatever you’ve lost or gained, doesn’t make as much a difference as you’d wish.

I’m at the age when life has made me more than I’ve made it. I must admit I’m lucky to have come this far. What’s next?

This new world I’ve entered, in which all I really have to do is be kind as many people as possible. I may lose it every once in a while. Or my acts may have unintended consequences. My increasingly forgetful mind may prevent me from returning a library book on time. People may accuse me of being insensitive to their passionate causes. I may be taken advantage of, ripped off, exploited, thought a fool.

I’ll never really know if being kind is the best thing to do. I’m enrolled in the course, and I’ll show up for classes and hope the report card is better this time around.