On the DVD of the 2000 film, “Requiem for a Dream,” the great actress Ellen Burstyn has a conversation with the book’s author (and co-screenwriter) Hubert Selby Jr. He wrote the novel in the 1970s. It’s an unflinching dive into the hell of addiction, rendered with timeless pathos by filmmaker Darren Aronofsky. Selby tells Ms. Burstyn that he works consciously to get out of the way:
“The ego has to go. I don’t have the right to put me, the ego, between the people in the story and the reader. They should have an interrelationship and experience each other. Because, if you really want to teach, you have to do it emotionally. The intellect can get a whole bunch of information, but it doesn’t turn it into wisdom. And it’s wisdom that we need if we’re going to save our souls and this bloody thing! We need wisdom.”
He also tells her that it took him a year to write one twenty-page story, and after he was done, he went to bed for about two weeks. For him, this is what it took to go beyond telling a story, to put the reader through an emotional experience. Continue reading
I recently participated in a conversation about Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow. It was civil, although heated at times. Many of us expressed our dismay at being duped for all those decades of the “righteous” war on drugs. We were sold a bill of goods by one politician after another. Journalist Dan Baum’s shocking opening passage in the recent Harper’s article about legalizing drugs provides a fine coda to Alexander’s book. He relates an encounter with John Ehrlichman, one of Nixon’s co-conspirators and inner-circle advisors, who confirmed the cynical intentions behind Nixon’s war on drugs. It’s a sad legacy that haunts us still.
My teenage son asks some challenging questions lately. As I was telling him about the wrangling during the book discussion, he popped this one out: “Why not build a wall between us and Mexico?” He said Mexico built a wall between itself and the country on its southern border. He said he’d looked it up, although he could not in that moment remember the name of the other country. (It’s Guatemala, and a small bit of Belize.) Continue reading
There will be times in your life when you feel like an outsider. When it looks like everyone around you, the people you admire and the ones you dislike, belong somewhere. They have this life thing all figured out. They are needed, respected. They matter. Their opinions and insights matter. And they have their ranking systems, their awards programs, their contests and grants and fellowships. They all seem to know how to work that system and be recognized—whether it’s for years of toil on some obscure invention or a brilliant essay dashed off after a flash of insight.
Don’t fall for it. It’s a trick of the light, a smoke-and-mirrors deception. All of us are outsiders and wanderers. The only real lasting sense of belonging has come from cultivating a strong relationship with my inner world. The degree to which you feel exiled, out of place, shunned, is the degree to which you are estranged from your own core of being, your own heart. Continue reading
“Man, sometimes it takes you a long time to sound like yourself.” ~ Miles Davis
I know I’m a rank novice when it comes to stillness and listening to the small voice within. I’ve been experimenting long enough that I am familiar with what works for me, whether it’s journaling or yoga or piano or walking in the woods or even mundane activities done with mindfulness. Yet it’s all too easy to be pulled away, to sink back into the muck of the modern world around me, with its incessant noise and technology and blather, its crises and escapism.
This is all an easy excuse, of course. I’ve been away from this blog too much lately, and I’m out of sorts. One of my ways of cultivating the timeless and nourishing energies of creation is to write, to polish a bit and release the results into the world. With regular practice, this becomes second nature. I can count on something pouring forth or trickling in, depending on the quality of my attention. When I allow myself to go completely off the rails, I lose that flow and close up. It becomes a chore to receive gifts that were once freely offered. This toggling back and forth can be exhausting. Continue reading
We always have the choice to choose joy and love over resentment and misery. I’ve had two great reminders of this recently. Michel Martin’s editorial on NPR makes the case for rejoicing rather than lamenting opportunities for activism. And Liz Gilbert, in Big Magic, echoes with her challenge to the cult of anguish that hangs over creativity. Martin asks why so many people who offer themselves up for leadership these days do it with an air of “Why me?” Then she holds up the example of inventors:
“When do you ever hear people say, ‘Why didn’t somebody else invent the airplane, the smart phone, solar panels, the tea infuser, for heaven’s sake, so I didn’t have to?’ We even have commercials featuring the tiny garages and attics where supposedly this inventing took place. We understand that discovery is a joy that can feel like a physical sensation.”
Under the tyranny of the Old Story of Separation, “No pain, no gain” is infused into everything we value most. War metaphors may be the currency of our culture, but I wonder if our allegiance to struggle and competitiveness is thinning what could be a much-needed flood of creativity into more of a trickle. Martin again: Continue reading
I am one of those cautious people who resist speed. I harden up in fear and can’t relax into it, let alone feel the thrill and joy of being on the edge or out of control. I had a flash of insight this morning after a heart-opening yoga class that my problem with speed extends to a wish to stop time from passing so quickly. The correlation drew me in and showed me something surprising.
I had had a late night, one of those unavoidable parenting experiences that at first I resisted. Once I acquiesced, the night was quite revealing. Our 13-year-old son had taken the light rail with a friend downtown, to attend the Orioles game. The O’s (who’ve been in a long downhill slide since July) scored ten runs in the bottom of the eighth inning. That’s two grand slams and a couple more homers just for good measure. All those at-bats take a lot of time. My son’s friend had already fielded his own father’s warning that they must leave after the seventh inning or find another way home. The friend volunteered me; they stayed, and were rewarded with a spectacular homer-fest. Continue reading
I am fascinated by the power of story to sell or derail an idea. Sometimes I think of storytelling, that ancient and most connecting of arts, like The Force in “Star Wars.” Story can be used for good or for evil. Even with good intentions, it tends to be used as mindless entertainment, or for selling products or launching a mission-driven campaign. A fine example of the Dark Side of Story is found in the documentary, “Merchants of Doubt,” which jumps off from the 2010 book of the same name by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway.
These are the players who sow doubt in the public’s mind about the credibility or consensus of the scientific community around a specific topic. They do this to stall or scuttle environmental and health regulations. They started with tobacco, then moved on to toxic chemicals like flame retardants, and now are using the same proven techniques on climate change. The film employs imagery in creative ways. A sleight-of-hand magician demonstrates misdirection and murky banks of hidden files signify the “playbook” of confusion and lies. Archival footage of experts is intercut with contemporary interviews of the same people, to dramatize the passage of decades, the sweep of lives dedicated either to scientific study or to its obfuscation. Continue reading
Thirty-six years ago, President Carter made a televised speech during prime time. It was a political disaster, and has since been called derisively the “Malaise Speech.” It’s available on YouTube, but I ran across it watching Michael Moore’s 2009 film, “Capitalism: a Love Story.” The speech is fascinating, in an anthropological kind of way. Carter looks so wooden and sincere up there, shaking his fist to occasionally animate his otherwise stiff body.
After telling his fellow Americans how upset he is about the low ebb of our national self-confidence, he launches into his advice. From the perspective of over twenty years in the green movement, his words are eerily familiar. He proposes using energy as a rallying point to renew America’s confidence and spirit, along with our economy. What was it about this bald truth-telling that equated to political suicide? He clearly did not display the gift of rhetoric that several of his successors did, but I think it was a deadly mixture of message and delivery that doomed him. Continue reading
“Acknowledging that the first draft is the equivalent of a sculptor going down to the quarry to buy a big slab of marble, or a mason buying a skid of bricks and 100 pounds of mortar is a very difficult thing to do.” ~ Shawn Coyne
It takes longer to write a novel than to design and build a good-sized building. Something like a church might take three or four years, start to finish. Apartments or a university classroom building maybe two-and-a-half. A house is more like a novella in size, but can take just as long, depending on complexity and how decisive or demanding the client is. A kitchen addition is a short story. It can be done in eight or ten months, give or take.
What is the use of writing a book? A building shelters thousands of people for decades, if not generations. It touches lives. It affects people. Even a bad building—say, a Target or a WalMart—serves a useful purpose. The literary equivalent might be a Nicholas Sparks novel, which is maybe why you see racks of them at stores like that. A few great buildings rise above, delighting us with their artfulness and lasting for hundreds of years. These are lovingly restored from time to time, and contain deep cultural, social and political histories. Continue reading
I’ve seen the kingdoms blow
Like ashes in the winds of change
Yeah but the power of truth
Is the fuel for the flame
So the darker the ages get
There’s a stronger beacon yet
Let it be me . . .
If the world is night
Shine my life like a light
I love these lines by the Indigo Girls. They say something important on my behalf, something I wasn’t even aware of until I heard this song for the first time. One reason I decided to explore the shadow now is that my tendency to light candles rather than curse the darkness can become a crutch, an attempt to shortcut or avoid the unknown. In a recent conversation, a friend made the comment that focusing too much on the positive leaves out a whole rich aspect of reality: the shadow. What can this wild, mad, evil, naughty, unpredictable, untamed, uncontrollable part of us teach us about ourselves, and—more ambitiously—about our culture? The way we approach it makes a difference. I believe that way involves contrast, balance, artifice, and time-honored art forms.
The British actor, David Oyelowo, played Rev. Martin Luther King in the recent film, “Selma,” and a Black Panther member in “The Butler.” (There’s a wonderfully awkward dinner scene in the latter, in which Oyelowo’s character disses his real-life hero: Sidney Poitier. It’s the most difficult line he’s ever had to say as an actor.) In an interview with Terry Gross, Mr. Oyelowo said that he always turns down stereotypical afterthought roles like the “black best friend.” When she asked if there are other roles he declines, he said something very interesting: Continue reading