Help on One Foot

A man who wasn’t born with this language asked me if I could help him with his reading and writing. I immediately stood on one foot.

According to the Talmud, Rabbi Hillel was once asked if he could explain all of Judaism while standing on one foot.  His reply: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation of this—go and study it!”

While some might say that there’s a bit more to the religious tradition than that, none would accuse Hillel of being wrong. Flip Hillel’s explanation and you get the golden rule: do to others as you would have them do to you. Is life that simple? No, but it should be.

I stood on one foot because I have taught writing at the high school, undergraduate and graduate levels and I did not want to go on and on about what to do, or not to do. I didn’t want to dwell on my grudges, my quarrels with editors, my objection to what is and isn’t published and how the level of acceptable public discourse, thanks mostly to what people “write” on social media, is identical to what was once reserved for lavatory walls.

When you stand on one foot–even if you practice Tree Pose and other yoga balancing techniques–your attention is split between what you want to do, and the shame of falling over. Who wants to fall over?

So I gave three quick recommendations:

1. Read and write what you enjoy. Yes, you are forced to read stuff for work, or for the approval of others. That can be a chore. But on your own time, read what is delightful to you, and, when you write, bring forth that delight.

2. Go to the library, find an anthology of modern poetry, and discover what speaks to you. Poetry is language at its most beautiful, concentrated and, despite challenging forms, hidden rhythms and pesky rhyme schemes, is also language free to be what it must. If you are certain that a car can’t move if it doesn’t have wheels, you may find a poem in which a wheel-less vehicle merrily rolls along.  If you can’t find that poem, then you must write it.

3. Find a writers group whose members freely share their stuff, , and who will look at your stuff and let you know if what you’re doing is working for them.  Writing can be a thing to do for yourself, but it is also a form of communication that does wonders when it finds the right audience.

And then I put my foot down.

 

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The Reading on the Wall

Right at the top, I want to thank those who have read and appreciated what I’ve written so far. This contribution is dedicated to you.

I have always been a reader more than a writer. Both parents valued reading over television–the major cultural cornucopia of my generation. My father liked magazines and newspapers–especially the vast New York Times Sunday edition. My favorite section was the book review (to which I would one day contribute, and see my own work commented upon). I read it while eating dinner and only later found it curious that my family rarely spoke at meals.

My mother encouraged me to read books that had more print than illustration. Both she and my father believed that now disproven canards that exposing kids to comic books, Three Stooges comedies and refined sugar foster a generation of hyperactive sociopaths. Considering how many among my generation have been prosecuted (as well as some who SHOULD be sanctioned but have, somehow, escaped judgement), they should have let me wallow in the Dr. Strange, the Fantastic Four, Green Lantern series that I devoured at summer camp.

Reading was definitely NOT fashionable in my town of mostly working class people whose jobs came from Fort Dix/McGuire AFB, Campbells Soup, RCA Camden and the Philadelphia Navy Yard. The school system did its best to encourage the passion. Weekly Reader, a newpaper for kids, was distributed in my elementary school classrooms, with a catalog of what would now be called Young Adult paperbacks from the Scholastic Book Service. My mother agreed to pay for any book I wanted, so, where most kids bought none and a few got one, I walked home with a stack that I spent hours reading in front of a rattling air conditioner–when I wasn’t watching television, sneaking glimpses of the Stooges on the New York television stations that our rotating rooftop antenna pulled in. It’s possible that my interest in martial arts began with the Stooges, because of the rhythmic and–in some circumstances–graceful movements in their slapstick routines. Though I never met any of the Stooges, I lectured about them as part of a course in the history of American comedy, and discovered that, when they started out as Ted Healey’s Stooges, they were hurt during every performance because of Healey’s carelessness. When they became the stars of Columbia’s two-reelers, they escaped injury by rehearsing with as much precision as a Fred Astaire dance.

My passion for science fiction began with the old Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers movie serials that the New York kids’ shows offered. I found it quite believable that some day a that a guy wearing pajamas would buzz about outer space fighting Satanic nasties, saving damsels, protecting bearded mentors and get along perfectly with societies that melted into cavern walls or flew through the air with ludicrous wings,  My love for jokes and comedy came from Milton Supman, who started his Soupy Sales TV show by a guy with a shaving cream pie thrown in his face.  (I would interview and meet Soup later, when he performed in Atlantic City. After telling him how much I loved his show, I got the feeling from him that being a king of kids shows was no longer enjoyable to man whose popularity increased only after he was banned from television for telling kids to send “pictures of Washington” from “your Daddy’s pocket” to him, and again for the punchline “I see F. You see K.” ).

What a surprise it was to find comedy, science fiction adventures and safe, bloodless, heroic violence in books from Scholastic, my hometown library, the local Woolworths (which sold the Tom Swift Jr. adventure series, and its lesser known Rick Brant series, set on a mysterious island off the Jersey shore called Spindrift) and then–miracle of miracles–a bookstore that opened in my hometown shopping mall. I was in that place once a week, squandering my allowance on books featuring cool spaceships, most of them drawn by the great science fiction illustrator Frank Kelly Freas.

Yes, it’s true: I bought books by their covers. Short story collections tended to have the most peculiar covers, ranging from Dali-esque surrealism to the knock-offs of the whimsical abstractions of Paul Klee. When I found an author whose short story I liked, I bought everything I could find by that author.

When I later met Keith Laumer, who would explode in rage when the subject of cover illustrations came up, I discovered that most writers have absolutely no say on what adorns work, and that many science fiction illustrators cranked out generic, planet-‘n’-spaceship covers and sold them to publishers by the truckload. About a decade after that, when my own books were published, I vowed to be reserved and agreeable about cover illustrations–until I saw my own. My first novel flashed a photograph of a (then) bankrupt Atlantic City casino (I thought I would be sued by the owners of that casino, until I noticed that casino people don’t read). My second had a pulp-magazine-style painting of a man with a gun apparently defending a damsel in distress.  The third had an enigmatic man in a trenchcoat. I threw tantrums, to no avail.

How could so much “disposable” pop-culture art be so important to me, and others? English classes were definitely not helpful. Poetry was presented as a dandified code, a soggy puzzle from which had to be wrung theme and meaning. My love of direct, plot driven, action-oriented fantasy did not prepare me for the slower-paced, prose-heavy, character-driven classics of English and American literature. The single exception was the Lord of the Rings, which was promoted by a rather daring elementary school teacher who also took his class to a performance  The Tempest, my first Shakespeare play.

Even in college, I preferred stories that thrilled me, to those that made me “think,” had fancy prose style or clobbered me with “meaning.” When “magical realism” became fashionable, I argued that these mostly Latin and South American writers were using techniques that had developed in “New Wave” American science fiction and fantasy. My argument was dismissed by my professors as not worthy of comment.

I had already determined, way back when I was eleven years old, to become a writer, because writers pleased me the most. I dedicated all my education to that goal. I began to send short stories to magazines. Each rejection hurt more than any physical pain.

I had given up on television (I thought Star Trek, for all its pretenses and pajama-clad guys, was inferior to contemporary literary science fiction). I ignored most movies, dismissing them as to be more about Hollywood than anything pertinent in my life. I did not notice at the time that “high culture” of literature and “art house” movies was merging with the “low culture” of television, comic books and genre fiction, especially science fiction and fantasy. When I was on an archaeological dig in Israel, one of the people on the dig told me about a movie I had to see called Star Wars. Upon returning to the United States, I stood on line to see the film. Coming out of the theater, I was convinced that I had just experienced an up-to-date, fancier spaceship version of what science fiction people called “space opera,” the pulp magazine adventure stories of the 1930s and ’40s. The Jedi knights were similar to E.E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensmen (and, it turns out, were based on them).  Star Wars was more about old movies (including Kurosowa’s Hidden Fortress) and old science fiction serials than it was about where science fiction was in the 1970’s.

But, like just about everybody who saw it, I really wished that “the Force” was real. Martial arts teachers I met likened it to the “ki” in aikido and the “chi” in tai-chi: a living energy that could be felt, but not measured or critically examined. Finding and harmonizing with your ki was a source of power and strength (which are not the same thing–one may be very powerful and have no strength, and vice versa).

Now the stuff I loved when I was a child is big business. Comic books, space opera and what was once called “high fantasy” (wizards, dragons, castles with kings and princesses) have, over time, made more money for Hollywood than all other kinds of films.

And…I’m bored with them. Superheroes were fun when film makers like Tim Burton gave them Shakespearian dilemmas. A few of the Marvel stories were charming, but they’ve grown stale. The Lord of the Rings was delightful, even if I got tired of all those CGI crowd pans and crowd scenes. Game of Thrones did not interest me from the first episode: it’s more about what adults think adolescents want to see. George Lucas had no Force with him when he did the Star Wars prequels, but Disney has resurrected it as a comic book again, with many talented people struggling to give us the same thing, again and again and again.

But I continue to read: histories, biographies, newspapers, magazines, poetry, and stories, piles and piles of stories. I’m not sure why I need them. I’m less sure why our culture likes them so much. I’m even less sure why so many people read mine.

For those who do, I am grateful beyond words.

When I have taught writing, I first say that writing is 90 percent reading: what you read, be it easy or “hard,” thick or thin, junk or jewelry, shapes how you live in the written world. So keep reading and, if you can, stop to ask yourself why you like what you read, why you don’t, and why you put a book down and don’t want to pick it up.

Then there’s the tough part: writing. We have more than enough reasons not to. Then there are the frequently burdensome reasons we should write: fame, fortune, the attention of those you adore (I showed so many of my early short stories to my high school sweetheart–I still do, now that she’s my wife), the possibility of seeing your work on The Big Screen, the possibility of seeing your work in a bookstore (with a decent cover illustration!), to please a reader you’ve never met who is “out there” waiting to find your work,  a validation of what you believe about yourself and your life, the possibility of “giving back” to those who were important to you, a desire to enter a world in which the best things happen even if the science has determined that they can’t, the opportunity to “make a statement” that may influence others and, finally, a good feeling you get occasionally when you’re finished working.

I’ve also taught that you should write from inner necessity. This I got from from martial arts and “ki”, as well as Keith Laumer: write about what’s really important to you. The problem with that is, sometimes you want to get away from important stuff. You just want to make readers, and maybe yourself, feel differently.

And I’ve occasionally thrown up my hands and said that it doesn’t matter why you write: it’s enough that you do.

After so many unreasonable reasons, if readers find you, it can warm your heart.

So, thanks for reading!

 

 

 

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Do We Really Need Them?

I had what Robert Fripp calls a point of seeing a few days ago when, after a long period of non-writing (which is different from not writing because non-writing always leads you to writing, though the path may be awkward and marred with potholes), I returned to the novel that I am hoping to finish.

The point of seeing, like all important life-defining moments, wasn’t inspired by a single event. Several incidents aided and abetted.

A person who “researched” me up on the Internet asked if my previous books were violent. I admitted that they were, and that, at the time that I wrote them, I found some descriptions of violent acts to be exciting and inspiring. Further, how a hero copes with violent situations in action stories can offer insight into character.

But I’ve lost interest in violence over the years, as my studies in history, psychology, economics and the martial arts have leaded to the inevitable truth: that living peacefully is far more skillful and necessary than a talent for target shooting, spinning back kicks or the vulgarly cruel bullying exhibited by a celebrity politician who will not be named. The art in the martial arts–as I have come to understand it after more than 30 years of practice–is how you restore harmony with the least effort. Ultimate mastery is in improving a situation without appearing to do anything at all.

The stories that interest me now are in how we build important things, how we hold together as a society and to what extent the moral action of an individual can redeem a lawless tribe and its corrupt leader. These stories build on a character type that I discovered with my first published novel: the person who asks naively, innocently and honestly, why can’t we obey the laws and behave decently? In the years between the publication of this novel and the one I’m finishing now, I’ve found numerous explanations for what anti-social behavior, but none of them answer my hero’s simple question, or excuse the consequences that anti-social behavior can bring.

So I assured the person who asked about my earlier books that I was no longer thrilled by perilous acts of derring-do, but added that my publishers were only interested in stories of that nature. The few among my handful of agents who expressed enthusiasm for non-violent, pro-social novels were not successful in placing them.

I’ve dwelled on such career calamities previously, and, long after this conversation ended, I began to see my writing life as confusion of desperate lunges, momentary triumphs that were NOT the result of hard work, brief epiphanies, mistakes, reaction to mistakes, a persistent failure to be a “team player,” vigorous attempts at team playing gone awry, betrayals from those I trusted and–most important of all–an unfulfilled need for approval from the imagined horde of readers and few people in the publishing industry who I imagined had the power to further my career and make it possible for me to write and publish the stuff I thought I was born to do.

As I’ve observed too many times, once you dwell in this place, you do very little. You find yourself in a victim’s cage, in which you eagerly tell anyone who would listen that you have been more “sinn’d against than sinning.”

Where do you go from there? As long as you’re a victim, you stay in place.

How to leave the cage. The most direct way is to ignore the past and just DO what you were born to do: jump in the swimming pool with the faith that, after the shock of cold water on your skin, you’ll get used to the temperature and continue.

The more difficult way is to go back and examine this past which–we know but don’t always intuit–is a fiction intended to support the present. Look for the spaces between the failures, mistakes, betrayals, reversals, embarrassments, things-you-would-have-done-differently-if-only, people-you-never-should-have-trusted. What do you see?

Survival–which, in the martial arts, is the preeminent goal. Anyone with any experience in the martial arts will tell you that you never start a fight, and resist powerfully any temptation to join one, because you can never be sure how the fight will end. Better to use your skill to make sure that you, and those important to you, suffer little harm. The means if you and your loved ones can run away from conflicts, do so, even if it doesn’t make you look good. Then, if you can, END the fight. Stop it in such a way that those fighting cease their hostilities and, if possible, move toward resolving their differences so that things don’t get worse.

So between all those ups and downs is that mostly (though never uniformly) sweet spot in which you wake up, live, experience things that may not be so easily typed as successes and failures, mistakes and achievements. You deal with other people. You let them deal with you and, if you’re a writer, you string words together. The mere opportunity to do that is vital: most people don’t write, except under duress. Others may dream of writing but never start because dreams come and go and, before they go, they always appear best while they’re in your mind. Begin to write them down, and OTHER things happen.

If those words do something to you, great. Sometimes I get a feeling when I finish writing that I’ve done something good and that, maybe, this mere, solitary act of creation has made the world a better place.  I’m sure there’s a medical, chemical, neurological or psychiatric explanation for this. As I’ve written previously, explanations–especially those that devalue what is important to you–aren’t to be trusted completely, especially if they cause you to stop asking questions. The history of science has shown us that what was a good explanation for one period became inadequate later. This doesn’t mean we should disregard science and its great gifts. It does suggest that we should become more comfortable with questions we cannot competently answer, than glib, authoritarian answers that stifle curiosity.

If the words do something to other people, that’s a mixed bag. I always like it when my wife “gets” what I do. It’s rare when she doesn’t, and when that happens, I’ll usually change things so that she does.

But I’ve tried, and failed spectacularly, to change my work so that EVERYONE gets it. When I was younger, I aspired to write stuff that EVERYONE would like. I thought those writers who became tetchy under editorial supervision were just spoiled brats that the world could do without.

Now I feel that there are times when you just have to say no. Yes, you should meet editors half way, give them the benefit of the doubt and do whatever possible to maintain a favorable relationship. They used to be the only the conduit through which publication and money flowed. But I’ve had enough editors to know that some of them change things for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of the work, the space requirements of the publication or how much more they know about English grammar and usage than your humble narrator.

If the work is actually published, the money and the reaction (if any) is never what you expect. You may agree to terms in advance and wait as much as a year before you get a check. You may agree to terms and have the work “killed” for no fault of the work, and get a fraction of what you agreed upon as a kill fee. The publication may be sold, or go out of business, before you stuff appears.

Or (and this happens most often), the money you get has no realistic correspondence to the work you did. Some things are too easy. Most are too difficult. The money is, at best, ironic.

Many writers have problems with professional critics. I don’t, because I used to be one AND (I’m lucky here) the majority of my reviews were positive. As for the greater reading public, my work tends not to get the angry responses.

Alas, for the book business, my work hasn’t “sold” enough copies for me to be courted by the publishing courtiers. Now that websites exist that list the “official” (that is, the publisher’s) sales of every commercially published author in the last fifty or so years, an agent need only check my “numbers” to ask, would this guy do any better with a new book than an unknown author without a track record?

Thinking about sales figures returns you to the cage. In our time, if ten MILLION people buy a ticket, or a copy, or hit on a web page, stream and otherwise experience a work of art, the work and the artist can still be considered a failure because the economical system that rewards fees or royalties is in favor of the gatekeepers rather than the content providers. Over history content providers have received almost no compensation for their labors. A few, from Shakespeare to Dickens to J.K. Rowling and Sondra Rimes have, and thus, their success is an inspiration to subsequent generations who enter the field believing, quite correctly, that their best efforts should earn similar favor. We all work hard. We all expect hard work to “pay off.”

Sometimes it does. Most often, it doesn’t, and continuing to work–hard or otherwise–is the only alternative.

Now I have different alternatives. As much as I would like my work to have easy access to a publishing pipeline, that access is not obvious. I am surviving easily when health matters don’t intrude. I know a handful of people, my wife included, who respect what I’m writing and enjoy reading it.

So the point seeing was…who do I really need anyone else to finish this book? No. Why do I imagine that I do?

Because that cage, as awful as it is, is familiar. Whenever anyone brings something new into the world, everything changes.

Or has the potential to do so. That can bring the shock of cold water that can keep some of us standing on the edge of the pool, uncertain about what to do next.

I jumped in.

 

 

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