Saturday, May 21, 2011

Some Thoughts on the Rapture That Wasn't

Why is it that we seem so enthralled by the idea of total destruction? After all, aren't all the jokes and media coverage and Facebook comments about the so-called rapture today really hiding a half-wish that maybe it will really happen, that maybe after today life will be non-stop exciting, even if that excitement is also terrifying?

I can't even count all the movies and television shows that get off on the imagined destruction of major American cities: there's the History Channel's Life Without People, movies like The Day After Tomorrow and Independence Day and Battle L.A. and so on. Even the Weather Channel gets into the genre with It Could Happen Tomorrow.

I had thought after September 11 that we would have had enough of seeing landmarks leveled and the dead, burned bodies and grief that necessarily accompany such events. But apparently not -- the real carnage caused barely a temporary let-up in the imagined carnage.

Some pundits say it's because we can't find much meaning in our time or even in ourselves: we don't seem capable of being the Greatest Generation; maybe all we can be good at is being the last. If that's the case, then this popular desire to witness our own destruction is linked to the modern epidemic of depression -- co-incidence becomes correlation.

Is it Thanatos, the Freudian death drive? In that explanation, the death drive is the necessary opposite of Eros, the sex/survival instinct. Sex is so hyped and over-ripe in our culture that I suppose it makes sense that there would emerge an equally hyped, equally overblown desire for oblivion. Then all those glossy magazine ads of perfect boobs, using sex to sell everything, have found their fitting partner.

Is it a desire to return to a pre-modern Eden, a world less choked by cheap plastic crap, and a sense that the only way to do that will have to be a catastrophic break with modernity? Say hello to the environmental movement.

Hell, is it just boredom? Are we so jaded and bored with this entire amazing, beautiful world that we love to see it destroyed?

I think it's all of these and more. Ideas become successful because they tap something deep within us, and this temporary obsession with the rapture draws on links with all of these ideas. I think it also draws on fear. We rehearse mentally the things that most scare us, so that if they ever happen, we'll know exactly how to react (at least that's what we tell ourselves). We're rehearsing this rapture mentally for the same reason we see horror movies and watch the TV shows and movies about destruction -- we're rehearsing our own deaths. We have so removed real, intimate, grief-filled death from our culture that we're terrified of one thing that will happen to all of us. What is Christianity about, ultimately, but finding a back door way to avoid death? We'll all live forever, raptured so as to avoid that whole messy dying business, and spend eternity -- it doesn't really matter how we spend eternity. The worship and communion with God part isn't the point, psychologically speaking. The point is that we'll exist, forever, without having to die.

But, as a scholar studying the religions of India noted, death isn't the opposite of life. It's merely the opposite of birth. I don't literally believe in the Hindu/Buddhist idea of reincarnation, but the idea of it pleases me aesthetically. We die over and over and over -- no big deal. Death is merely the opening to another incarnation, another chance to get it right, another chance to get smarter and kinder.

Our interest in today's bogus rapture, and in our conflicted but seemingly unquenchable thirst for annihilation, is linked to everything in our modern culture: sex, plastic crap, depression and a kind of generational low self-esteem, movies that feed and shape our obsessions even as they reflect them back to us, boredom, and ultimately death.

Susan Sontag said, "The fear of becoming old" [and I would say that the fear of death is even truer here] "is born of the recognition that one is not living now the life that one wishes. It is equivalent to a sense of abusing the present." So stop worrying about (or hoping for) the rapture. Start living the life you wish, and maybe if we all do that then destruction will start to look a lot less attractive.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Thinking About Suicide

I have been thinking about suicide lately -- about despair, oblivion, self-blame, and about all the alternatives for those feelings.

Without violating anyone's privacy but my own, I am one of the loved ones left behind after a suicide. In fact, that has been one of the two or three most pivotal events of my life, and one of the most important forces in shaping my destiny. And somehow, I seem to have known or known of several other suicides -- more, it seems to me, than the average person. I have known personally three other suicides, and known of at least three others. Is it common to know over half a dozen suicides before one is forty? I don't think so, but there it is.

My husband has described the idea of heaven as "we're so important we couldn't possibly just disappear when we die!" My response to that was that the idea of my consciousness going on forever, eternally self-aware, has begun to sound to me somewhat horrifying. I can't imagine the sheer exhaustion of always having to exist in some form. That exhaustion is why people want out of the world, he said, particularly the illusory world.

Buddhism, I should say, argues that this world is essentially an illusion. It is real, but also empty of ultimate reality. Ultimate reality, they teach, is beyond meaning, beyond words, beyond concepts. It is the limitless resting in the now, all awarenesses merged in contemplation of the limitless eternal moment. As I explained in my book, Buddhists call this world samsara, and I've already sort of addressed it in earlier posts. But the key element of samsara is that it is indeed an illusion. Fundamentally, it is the illusion that we are all separate beings, that what hurts you does not hurt me, and vice versa. As Thich Nhat Hanh says, "We are here to awaken from the illusion of our separateness."

Tragically, this illusion of separateness is exactly what the suicide cannot overcome. They do not know that their pain is as wide as humanity, or that others, even strangers, would reach out compassionately to them in a heartbeat if only they knew of the suffering in the suicide's heart.

At the same time, I suspect that exhaustion and wanting out of the illusory world are exactly what many suffering people see as a reason for suicide. In the West, certainly, if you go to a doctor and say that you want out of the illusory world, you will leave his office with a prescription for some strong anti-depressants. Would you be surprised that in the East, such a comment would be handled rather differently?

In the East, Buddhist practitioners see this frustration, exhaustion, impatience, etc., as the very beginning of spiritual practice. As long as you are comfortable in the world, they say, you will have no strong impetus to practice. It is when you have struggled with the world's pain and its illusions and you have found no answer and simply want to rip down the curtain that keeps you from understanding, that is the moment you have begun the spiritual journey. That is when you should reach out to any spiritual tradition that speaks to your heart (absolutely any, no limitations) and begin to work your hardest with those texts and those messages. Because that is the moment that you are ready to see the truth in the great wisdom traditions.

I wonder, sadly, if any of the suicides I know were aware that they might have been not in despair, but at the door of a great breakthrough. They would have had to marshal all their inner resources to hang on through the study, but they were there. The exhaustion with life, they were there. The desire to violently cut through all the illusions and bullshit, they were there. I write this because if anyone ever, in the evanescence of the web, stumbles across these words at the moment they need them, I want that person to know they have but to reach out to any compassionate person and to open the door to the breakthrough they have earned right down to their bones. They are not low, they are at the threshold of becoming a higher being, one who has struggled and earned the wisdom of survived pain.

I especially suffer at the thought of suicides who were sexually abused. Again, not to violate anyone's privacy but my own, I have personal experience here too. Even when it doesn't rise to the level of self-murder, those who were sexually abused can practice a living suicide of the personality, drinking to addiction, being promiscuous but unfulfilled, cutting, and otherwise destroying themselves. I suffer with their pain because they continue abusing themselves after the abuser leaves off. They can go on for years abusing themselves, because it is the only familiar feeling they know. Somewhere inside them I want to believe is the same bit of righteous anger that was inside me, the same voice that says to their abuser -- and NOT to themselves, "This is wrong. YOU are wrong. Not me, you."

To those women -- my sisters -- I want to say, the baggage that you carry is not yours. It is crushing you, but it is not yours. You are being made to carry it because the person who deserves it refuses to. Don't do his suffering for him. And don't adopt his cruelty toward yourself. If you can't find the righteous anger to defend yourself from your own behaviors (really just residue of his), find the righteous anger you would feel if you saw an animal being hurt, or some other wrong you can't abide. Never, ever take on someone else's pain for them. If they try to put their evil onto your body, know that once you're grown you can give it back. It never took root in you, it only rested on your skin. You have an inviolate, unviolated core. When one of these women dies, I suffer. She never had to take over the abuse. Her abuser's hands should never have hurt her, but above all, her own hands should no longer do so either.

I know that for some people the despair is simply so great that all they seek is oblivion. I don't know if they can be helped, but if someone is still looking on the web, or still reading an extremely obscure blog, they are not yet ready for oblivion.

So when I say that I too find the idea of existing forever exhausting, I take this not as depression or despair but as the doorway to practice. I take it as a sign that I am ready to stop the surface way of living and begin to look deeper (I'm ready to leave the Matrix). I'm tired of the shallows and ready for the depths, which are paradoxically also the heights of understanding.

I often sign off with "namaste." I think this time I should write out the full meaning of that word. It means:

The part of me that is divine sees the part of you that is divine, and I bow in honor and recognition of your divinity.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Another Mad Orgy of Reading

Y'know, I should just admit that reading frenzies aren't something that happen to me; they're something I do to myself. I mean, once is an anomaly, twice is a coincidence, but three times is frankly a self-driven habit, right?

I'm selling off a good bit of my personal library on Amazon -- books I've read, books I haven't gotten around to reading although I've owned them for fifteen years, etc. Those I've read and loved are not up for sale. They're moved into a permanent library of "keepers." But the rest can go, to make room -- and money -- for newer books and more recent interests.

But, when a book I haven't read sells, I decide on the spot whether or not I want to read it after all. If I do, then I drop everything and read it, because Amazon requires books to be shipped out within a couple of days of selling. And it somehow seems that when I put a few boxes' worth of books up at a time, then there is always a sudden run on just those books, out of all my inventory. I imagine that's some hidden intricacy of Amazon software, but who knows?

That confluence of circumstances -- the tendency to have a run of sales and my tendency to decide to read the book after it sells -- led to me engaging in another mad feat of reading, knocking off thirteen books (two of them upward of 500 pages!) in seven days. With just three weeks left before I move to Florida to start grad school, that brings me to forty books read this year.

A couple of posts ago, I listed the dozen or so I'd read as of that date, and singled out a few. I really should also have singled out Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood. Not only was it the only one of the group that I pushed on my husband to read, but it has stuck with both of us for a while now, always a mark of a good book. I slighted her because I hadn't really enjoyed The Handmaid's Tale as much. I found that too strident, even for me as a feminist. But in the twenty years between the two books, Atwood got much smoother and more subtle in working her themes into the story. I slighted Oryx and Crake because I had a bad taste in my mouth from The Handmaid's Tale, then, but Oryx and Crake is actually really engaging.

That teeny-weeny insult to Margaret Atwood corrected (I'm sure her life was on hold waiting to see that), what I knocked off in one week and shipped out to hopefully happy new owners follows:

  • The Happiness Trap, Russ Harris: a self-help book about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy
  • Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames, Thich Nhat Hanh: always a wise, wonderful writer
  • Sally Hemings & Thomas Jefferson, Jan Ellen Lewis and Peter Onuf, Editors: this book was outstanding. It is the only one I regretted letting go, and I immediately put another copy in my Amazon cart because I'm buying it again and this time it's going into my keeper library. This is a collection of essays by major historians on the event of the DNA tests that proved that Jefferson fathered at least the youngest, and probably all, of Sally Hemings' children.
  • Acedia & Me, Kathleen Norris: a memoir of spiritual malaise, suffering, and seeking
  • Citizens, Simon Schama: his 875-page history of the French Revolution. Da noiv of that buyer! Making me read my own book! An outrage, I tells ya. But three days for this was a push and then some. Sorry, Simon, it was good in the beginning and good in the end, but I admit to skimming in the middle 300 pages or so.
  • Mr. Jefferson's Women, Jon Kukla: yes, there's a pattern here. I live forty miles from Monticello, and was once offered a job there.
  • Spook Country, William Gibson: since I don't read much fiction, this was one of my husband's books he wanted to sell. Okay, but I liked Snowcrash better
  • Certain Trumpets, Garry Wills: his book about the qualities of leaders and their anti-types. I'm not a fan of Wills, I think. I read every word of this book and of all the books on this list, I remember and care the least about this one.
  • The Burgermeister's Daughter, Stephen Ozment: an incident from a dysfunctional family in medieval Germany. A bestseller when I bought it in the 1990s.
  • Coming to Our Senses, Jon Kabat-Zinn: about his Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program. Could have been shorter than its 600-page length.
  • A Distant Mirror, Barbara Tuchman: another big one, a history of the 14th Century
  • Japanese Death Poems, Yoel Hoffmann: about the practice of composing a short (by necessity!) poem in the waning moments of one's life. Monks practiced this the most, but samurai, poets, and many other members of the literate nobility did as well. There are some several wonderful poems in the book, but I copied those down and then sent the book off happily, glad to have them but also glad that someone else will have them.
  • The World without Us, Alan Weisman: this book inspired the History Channel's Life Without People series. It's a great book that wears its astounding research and scholarship lightly. It makes you look at the world differently.

I had shipped the previous load of orders out the previous Monday, and I shipped all of these books out on Monday, so I read them all in exactly seven days. After that, I took a week off from so much as looking at a book. But I've since read ten more, albeit at a much more leisurely pace. The best of that batch was Hamlet without Hamlet, by Margreta de Grazia. I checked that one out from the Mary Baldwin College library, and I absolutely must own it someday soon. It looks at how Hamlet criticism approached the play before the post-modern emo brooder view took over. Since that viewpoint has had a stranglehold on Hamlet criticism for a century, a book that's all about other ways to see the play is refreshing. Moreover, de Grazia seems incredibly brilliant -- there were so many sentences in the book that bore such astonishingly new insights that each one could have been unpacked into a chapter, and moreover each of these sentences scattered like diamonds on the ground sparked off new thoughts in my own mind.

So that was my mad orgy of reading. I also wanted to mention an observation casually made by a friend about language.

Like de Grazia, my friend Andrew is also brilliant. Every time we have dinner with him, he tosses off something wise and insightful that amazes me, and I'm always left with the sneaking suspicion that I've made a fool of myself in his presence. [Luckily, he likes me anyway, I think!]

Andrew, like his brother, tutors teens for the SAT and such tests. Last time he observed that the tendency of "these kids today" to live their whole lives online, tweeting and Facebooking every thought (even such thoughts as "I'm about to throw up" and "I really like anal," as proven by the hilarious Failbook) has created a generation that may not value privacy much, but has got to be the most honest and least prejudiced generation he has ever seen. As he noted, when every thought is public and can be checked and pulled up from archives, there is no upside in lying. And when you are raised knowing that certain thoughts are racist or bigoted and are viewed with disgust by most people, and you are of the generation that has zero sense of privacy, you simply don't have those thoughts. Since they would open you to ridicule, and since you don't even know how to keep them to yourself, you simply can't create the kind of compartmentalization necessary to have them and not reveal them. So you just reject those thoughts.

The most recent dinner we had with Andrew, we were discussing how the web is changing English. I don't like to be a grammar cop, so I overlook the tendency of people to confuse "there," "their," and "they're," or "its" and "it's." But then one day I realized, I can't even make those mistakes by accident. Even when I find myself starting to type the wrong word, my pinky is tapping the backspace key before my brain has even consciously registered the mistake. What I said to Andrew was this: the meaning of each word is so different that they are not the same word at all to me. They're three totally unrelated words. I could no more confuse them than I could type "ham sandwich" when what I meant was "hacksaw."

Ah, said the wise Andrew G., that's because for you they are visual words. Your experience of language and grammar comes largely via the printed page. [Certainly true.] And printed, they are totally unrelated words, as well as by meaning. But most people now relate to language only as it's spoken, not as it's written. And aurally, they are the same word. And since rules of grammar are invisible aurally, the words, their meanings, and the rules for using them correctly get mashed together into one undifferentiated blob.

Being such a reader by nature, I had never thought about it that way before, but of course he's right. So when you want to be a grammar cop, just remind yourself that the person who made the mistake knows the words aurally rather than visually. It doesn't make them any less wrong, but it does make the error slightly less annoying.

I've already said that precision in language and thought are deeply important to me. I can bring this all around in a big circle by adding that this is not only a philosophy of language that I share with George Orwell, but one that I also share with the Buddha. Two of the greatest qualities in a practicing Buddhist are extreme honesty with oneself and others, and incisive precision in viewing oneself and the world. These are elements of Right View, Right Mindfulness, and Right Speech, three elements of the Eightfold Path that is the foundation of Buddhist practice. For me, good writing is inseparable from Buddhism. To lie, to make mistakes, and to be logically fuzzy are all obviously off that path. In making such mistakes, I betray not only my intellect, but my spirit as well. Maybe that's why I've found nearly all Buddhist writing to be above the average, because whether they articulate it or not, other Buddhist writers feel the same way.

In that vein, and with credit given to Yoel Hoffmann's fine book Japanese Death Poems, I will leave you with several poems from that volume. Namaste!

Those who are dead
increase from day to day --
in such a world
how could I think
that when it came to me ...


I thought to live
two centuries or even three --
Yet here comes death
to me, a child
just eighty-five years old!


Empty-handed I entered the world
barefoot I leave it.
My coming, my going --
two simple happenings
that got entangled.


No sign
in the cicada's song
that it will soon be gone.


Spitting blood
clears up reality
and dream alike.


Raizan has died
to pay for the mistake
of being born:
for this he blames no one
and bears no grudge.


Moon in a barrel:
You never know just when
the bottom will fall out.


I cast the brush aside --
from here on I'll speak to the moon
face to face.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Eek! I'm a "Professor!"

No sooner did I post the last blog about writing than I discovered that I'm going to Florida State University for grad school. That's great, because I'll be working with Gary Taylor, who has a worldwide reputation in Shakespeare studies. Plus, I got a full scholarship and a stipend. Also great, right?

Then they tell me that the financial deal is in exchange for me teaching two Freshman Comp writing courses and that I have to be in Tallahassee June 28 to learn how to teach.

Yipes! I've guest-lectured before, but I thought I'd have years before actually having to teach a class of my own. After my initial panic, though, I'm excited about the idea. And I realized that I've got a lot to say on the subject of good writing, because for me good writing is inseparable from good thinking and good living.

As I said last time, I am an ardent supporter of George Orwell's claim that precision in language is vital because precision in language is the outward sign of precision in thought, and precision in thought gives us our political freedoms, our morals, and all our higher thoughts. Vagueness, sloppiness, imprecision, or fuzziness in thought spills over into language, but worse, it spills over into life. Language is the primary means by which we negotiate our presence in the world. It matters, a lot.

Besides precision, what I hope to teach the unfortunate souls who will be my first students are breadth and depth in language.

Breadth in language, because the right nuance makes all the difference. Happiness is not the same as joy; joy is not the same as contentment; contentment is not the same as ecstasy. Striking the right nuance allows for insight, allows the writer to create finely shaded portraits of characters whose words and actions stay true to their fictitious selves. Miss three or four nuances in a row and instead the writing is just galumphing around without direction, or with three or four directions at once.

I could offer a thousand examples here: "Let not the bloat king tempt you to bed" from Hamlet. What a word choice -- "bloat"! It's magnificent, a single syllable packed with a dozen notions of disgust, sleaze, sensuality, weakness, decay, hatred, even putrefaction. "Fat," though nominally a synonym, does virtually nothing here. Switch words and you go from an unforgettable line to an unmemorable one.

The wall calendar a few feet away from me right now features Edward Gorey's poem The Doubtful Guest, and the couplet for May is "It betrayed a great liking for peering up flues, / And for peeling the soles of its white canvas shoes." Even in a comic poem about an imaginary creature, look at the difference in character between "betrayed" (revealed in spite of itself) and possible alternatives "revealed," "displayed" or simply "showed" (if one ignores meter). Gorey's word choice supports all the rest of the poem about this enigmatic, moody, vaguely disturbing -- but still child-like and innocent -- creature, as opposed to one that is ostentatious or transparent. I hope to encourage my students to develop as broad and rich a vocabulary as they can so that they can command the full breadth of language.

But my favorite thing about language has to be its depth. I am transported with delight when I see an author use a word in such a way that it is the only possible word in all of English that could have been used in that spot. Here are three of my favorite examples:

A Sappho fragment translated by Anne Carson (a poet in her own right) runs like this:

You gather back
All that dazzling dawn put asunder:
You gather
a lamb
Gather a kid
Gather a child to its mother

A beautiful, peaceful image, but Carson's choice of the word "kid" could not have been any other word. By meaning both juvenile goat and human child, she links the agricultural image of lamb to the familial image of mother in the two surrounding lines. "Kid" is the fulcrum on which the line pivots. "Piglet," "duckling," "chick" "toddler," "teenager," -- none of those would have worked with such symmetry. Only "kid" could have worked there to smoothly transition from daytime farm work to evenings around the hearth, from generic generational to personally loving and familial. "Kid" is a what I would call a depth word, one that has two meanings equally important to the poem.

My second example is from pop culture. One of my favorite '80s bands is Pet Shop Boys. Their bouncy synthesized music formed a catchy, ironic contrast to their usually downbeat lyrics (example: the infinitely danceable, hummable ditty called "What Have I Done to Deserve This?")

Their early song "Rent" is about a poor lover kept by a rich one (genders seem unimportant to Pet Shop Boys -- I've listened to the song for years and couldn't begin to guess at which partner is supposed to be which gender). The song is endlessly ambiguous, aggressively ambiguous, and ambiguous in layers that keep folding over one another. While a background chorus coos enticingly, "It's so easy," the singer narrates all the expensive goodies the relationship provides -- dinner off Broadway, caviar, shopping, a bill-free existence -- yet the refrain goes,

Look at my hopes, look at my dreams,
The currency we've spent
I love you
You pay my rent.

Again, "currency" is the only word that can carry the meanings of both cash and more intangible things of value. Cowrie shells are a form of currency because they are valued, but they are not the coinage and paper that "cash" suggests. Because it carries both meanings, it refers both to the expensive toys and to the hopes and dreams. In the penumbra of related words, it even has a triple meaning -- current as in time. The singer's youth is yet another item that has been spent. A great depth word. "Money" there would have lost more than half the meanings in the line, even though it's the most obvious surface synonym.

My last favorite example of depth in writing, of course, has to come from Shakespeare. Sonnet 87 is not an easy sonnet for novices to read. It uses the language of finance to talk about love, and not only finance but 17th-Century Elizabethan finance. Many terms are now hard for casual readers to understand. But just let the general sense of the sonnet's meaning wash over you. Only clarification/reminder: "dear" is British for "expensive," as it still is today.

Farewell! thou are too dear for my possessing,
And like enough thou know'st thy estimate,
The charter of thy worth gives thee releasing;
My bonds in thee are all determinate.
For how do I hold thee but by thy granting?
And for that riches where is my deserving?
The cause of this fair gift in me is wanting,
And so my patent back again in swerving.
Thy self thou gavest, thy own worth then not knowing,
Or me to whom thou gav'st it else mistaking;
So thy great gift, upon misprision growing,
Comes home again, on better judgment making.
Thus have I had thee, as a dream doth flatter,
In sleep a king, but waking no such matter.

First, oh!, how much of a heart-breaker is that final couplet? It gets me every time; sometimes it brings tears to my eyes. Rue, chagrin, and ever so slight bitterness, all subsumed under such lost, utter hopelessness.

But the depth word for me is "wanting." Only "wanting" can mean both "lacking," its surface meaning here, and "desiring," the depth meaning. "The cause of this fair gift in me is wanting": I lack the qualities that would allow me to deserve the gift of your love. But also: my desire, my passion, drove this relationship, but now you've realized that you deserve better and the relationship is over. My wanting couldn't overcome my wanting.

The usual gloss on this sonnet is that it concludes a cycle in which the poet loves a Fair Youth who is stolen from him by the Dark Lady. Of all the words at his disposal and all of his facility -- and felicity -- with words, only one word here works both themes of desire and loss, and Shakespeare unerringly nails it. It's exhilarating to come across such a fine use of language, no matter the author or the context.

As usual, I'm running on long with my usual logorrhea. I meant to talk about how the Web is changing language, but I'll save that until next time. Namaste!

Monday, April 12, 2010

And Now It's Time For ... A Bit About Writing!

If you've read my book, you saw that coming, since two early chapters were "A Bit About NASCAR" and "A Bit About Buddhism." Anyway, doing book publicity seems to have revealed a nation full of aspiring writers. Even though this is my one and only book, on a weird topic, and not selling well, I still get asked for writing and publishing tips every time.

I don't have any publishing tips, I tell people, because the publishers came to me and asked me to write a book. That's certainly not going to be a common occurrence for most people. However, if your writing is (or could be) in the form of an essay, you definitely should take a tip from me.

As it happens, I knew a staffer at my local NPR station, but local radio people are not hard to meet. On the contrary, they're friendly, bright, and dying to find something new, wonderful, and compelling to put on the air. I gave my essay to my friend and asked if she thought it was good enough to record for NPR. She thought it was, and the rest is history. If your writing is good enough, your local station almost certainly has a program where local people talk for a few minutes about something that interests them. Ours is called "Civic Soapbox," but it can be about any topic you like. Make it compelling, and it will air, simple as that. My essay got uploaded to the national NPR chain and aired nationwide, but even if yours airs locally you can still go around saying that you have been a guest commentator on NPR, and that's pretty cool in itself.

I have three good pieces of advice about writing. Not a bit of it is originally mine. I blatantly stole it and now I'm fencing it to you. I have found virtually nothing in the whole industry of writing advice books that was useful, compared to these two essays and one simple quote. Follow these rules and you will probably never need any other advice at all.

The first is from George Orwell. My history professor, mentor, and friend Justus Doenecke handed this essay out the first day of class to all his students. It taught us not only how we were expected to write, but how we were expected to think -- with rigor and clarity.

Orwell lists only six succinct rules:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign word or jargon phrase where you can use an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules short of saying something outright barbarous.

This is great writing advice, but the real beauty of Orwell's essay is in his philosophy of language. I believe with him that as much as our thoughts shape our language, our language also shapes our thoughts. I agree with this unreservedly. If our language is habitually filled with "I can't," we come to think of ourselves as helpless. If it's filled with "I hate," then our thoughts turn to hate habitually even in new situations, and we think of the world as full of enemies and hateful things.

But for Orwell this extended most importantly to politics. If we use sloppy, lazy speech, our thoughts become sloppy and lazy. We become less able to cut through rhetoric to smell the bullshit underneath. And if our political thinking becomes sloppy and lazy, then our freedom is vulnerable. We risk becoming confused and seeking a way out of the confusion of jargon, rhetoric, and convoluted speech by flocking to a strongman with simple, violent slogans and simple, violent actions.

Here's the full Orwell essay, a magnificent piece of writing in itself and some of the best writing advice you will ever get: If there is nothing else you take away from the essay, at least take the idea that there is nothing so important as precision in language and thought. Language and thought are how we define the world, so precision matters.

The second piece of writing advice comes from my former employer (and another mentor and friend) Ralph Cohen, an English professor of over thirty years. Much of his advice follows Orwell, but as a guide to writing college papers especially, Ralph's advice can't be beat. He adds:

  1. Care about the paper you write. Imagine it in a book entitled The Works of [Your Name].
  2. Make the transitions between your sentences and your paragraphs clear and logical. This task is the most difficult in writing, but out of difficulty we find invention.
  3. Do not hedge. Words like "maybe," "perhaps," and "might" do not keep you from being wrong; they merely alert the reader to the fact that you are worried about it.
  4. Write about works of art in the present tense, since Hamlet will be stabbing Polonius and the asp will be nibbling on Cleopatra's breast long after your grandchildren have forgotten your name.
  5. Lose the word "very" from your written vocabulary, do not use "transition" or "impact" as verbs, and only use an exclamation mark after the happy face you scrawl on the bill you give diners.
  6. Never write more than required. Remember what Donne can say in a 14-line sonnet.

The full collection of Ralph's Rules is here. If you know him personally, the examples he gives about arrogant professors are all the funnier:

And the last, best piece of writing advice I've ever seen comes from W.H. Auden: have something to say. Perhaps this is ultimately the underlying idea of my comments on "small" fiction. The best technique in the world doesn't matter if you really don't have much to say, if you're writing just to be a writer, just to be famous or rich. The "large" fiction I like came from writers who had ideas burning their way out of the writers' pens. Keats wrote knowing that he was dying of tuberculosis. What he said had to matter, or he would have wasted his very limited time in saying it. NASCAR and Buddhism may not matter to many people, but they matter to me. So Auden's advice, which came as a comment to the students who packed his famous lectures on Shakespeare, is this:

People say, for example, "I want to write," though nothing ever gets
written. Why? First, they're mistaken about writing. They
aren't specific: they say they want to "be a writer," not that they want to
"write such and such." The eye is on the result, not on the process, and
behind that is a lack of passion and of the willingness to go through the hard
stages of training and study. You must be in love with your work, not your

Friday, April 2, 2010

A Bit About Reading

OMG, a new blog post! I know, I'm terribly inconsistent about updating this thing. I'll try to improve.

First, an update on Buddha on the Backstretch. Since my lecture in California at the end of January, I've done a couple of radio interviews about it and two public readings, one for a local writers' group and one for the Virginia Festival of the Book. The festival is a pretty big event, featuring nearly 150 public events, 200 authors, 33 publishers, and 20,000 total attendance. I read the essay at the back of the book, the one that became an NPR commentary, which the publisher heard, which led to him e-mailing me, which led to the book itself. It's called "How Dale Earnhardt Made Me a Better Buddhist," and I wrote it just after Earnhardt's 2001 death.

I was paired with two other sports writers, both far more veteran than I, including one who has authored or co-authored over sixty(!) books. After I read the essay, he said quietly, "I can see why an editor thought that needed to be a book -- that's something really special." That was deeply gratifying. I was also gratified (and surprised) that the bookstore where the event was held promptly sold all of the copies it had, and ever since, my Amazon sales have been plugging steadily along. It's still not exactly selling like hotcakes -- in fact, during the Q&A someone in the audience asked me, "Who's buying it, Buddhists or NASCAR fans?" and I said, "Honestly? Neither," which got a nice chuckle. But it looks like it does have good word of mouth -- the people who have read it are recommending it to others.

So that's where that stands. What was this blog about? Oh yeah, reading. The book's editor is a professor. When I spoke to his class, he emphasized that I had read over eighty books in six months for research -- and that while I was working full-time. Admittedly, that was kind of insane. I did nothing but work, eat, bathe, sleep, and read. I skipped weekend plans, stayed home from family events, stopped watching nearly all television (I saved three shows I knew I would actually miss, but cut everything else out), didn't go out to dinner ... nothing. I was a madwoman about reading three books a week, every week, nonstop, no exceptions.

That's over with now, but it let me know just how much I was capable of doing if I chose to buckle down and do it. So ever since then, I've held it in my mind that I'm capable of reading no less than a book a week, preferably two, and I'm aiming to do that consistently this year.

This all started a few years ago with a quote from Arthur Schopenhauer:

"Buying books would be a good thing if one could also buy the time to read them
in; but as a rule the purchase of books is mistaken for the appropriation of
their contents."

Reading that stung me a little. I'd managed to build up a library of around 500 books, but an embarrassingly tiny number of them had actually been read. I determined the moment I read that quote to stop buying so many books and to start reading them. At the time, I had read about ten books in the previous year. At that rate, I realized, it would take fifty years to read just what I already owned, even if I purchased nothing for the next half-century!

Well, that was untenable, unsupportable, and outrageous, all the way around. Since my madwoman's peak would be 160 books a year, and even I'll admit that was a little crazy and exhausting, I decided that 50-100 books a year was quite achievable, and that starting this year, I would achieve it. [Obviously, I also achieved it two years ago, researching the book, and I knocked off quite a bit in 2009 -- more on that in a moment -- but I didn't count up last year's reading precisely.]

Last year, I decided to apply to grad school, and wound up doing another madwoman's feat. I planned to take the GRE Subject Test in English Literature. One problem: I never majored in English, or Literature, or any combination thereof. In fact, I took exactly one lit course in college. I was a history major instead.

No problem. I would simply read, in two months, four Norton Anthologies back to back. [To quote one lovely writer, I shall pause here to allow for reeling around and fainting.] If you remember your Norton from college, it was the 3,000-page brick in your backpack printed in teeny-weeny Eyestrain-o-Vision on onionskin paper. Undeterred in my apparent fit of temporary(?) insanity, I checked out the two-volume Norton Anthology of British Literature, the Anthology of World Masterpieces, and the Anthology of American Literature, Vol. 2. A grand total of over 11,000 pages of reading. Once again, I dropped all other projects, buckled down, and got it done. Two to three hundred pages a night, every night.

The upshot of this is that I think I might be pretty well qualified to make a few observations about reading. One, please do read the classics. My bout with the Nortons was quite often the first chance I'd had to read them (being a non-lit major after all). Once a book becomes a classic, we tend to think of it as "good for us," our "Vitamin L (as in literature)." We don't expect to like it.

But classics don't become classics because they're good for us. They become classics because they're a delight to read, the kind of book you finish and either start again or rush off to press it into the hands of your friends. I was swept away by so many of the classics. I never expected to love Milton's Paradise Lost, but I did. I loved Jonathan Swift's absurd but biting satire and Virginia Woolf's quietly fierce sisterhood. I loved everyone from Homer and Aeschylus to Hemingway and Margaret Atwood. I copied down whole chunks of Thomas Carlyle because I never wanted to forget it, along with Simone de Beauvoir and D.H. Lawrence.

Secondly, when you do read the classics, you realize how many allusions to them surround us. You might have vaguely known that something was a classical allusion, but it's a distinct pleasure to not only recognize it immediately but to savor the additional meaning that it gives to the work that alludes to it. The Simpsons is full of such allusions -- it's still a great show if you don't get them, but it's richer and deeper and often more poignant when you do. I'm currently reading Tristram Shandy, and it is a virtual encyclopedia of learning, so much so that it requires extensive footnotes to capture all of the references, allusions, jokes, and glances.

It's an observation only about my own reading that of my five hundred books, fewer than 20 of them (excluding Shakespeare, who is a category of his own with me) were fiction. I know I'm strange that way. I'm strange in many ways, but let's not digress...

Fiction usually makes me impatient. Somewhere in the course of the book, I'll say to myself, "These people don't exist! Why am I wasting hours on them?" It's the history training, but I find understanding more about the Titanic or the Holocaust or Reconstruction much more interesting than fiction. Histories are about how people reacted when pushed to the extremes of their lives -- what they did when war or death came to their doorstep or when they had lost everything. How they not only survived, but thrived. How they built the world I'm lucky enough to live in today. To me, that's compelling.

And I suppose that's a related issue of mine about fiction. I know I'm not alone here, because I've seen other critics say the same thing: fiction these days is so small. Mark Twain wrote to battle racism and stupidity, a David-versus-Goliath battle if there ever was one. Virginia Woolf wrote to be the "female Shakespeare." No setting small goals for herself there! Now, novels seem to all be essentially dressed-up romances -- dramas of the household, the tale of one family and its various problems. Well, I think Tolstoy is wrong when he says, "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Too often, one modern novel about an unhappy family (or person) is exactly like another -- tiresome and self-indulgent. Or rather, Tolstoy may be right, but the books about them are not unique. And what do 5,000 novels about dysfunctional families give us? Virtually nothing of worth, nothing you can't get out of a self-help book, and nothing you probably can't observe on your own street. History, by definition, is large. Classics are always large. And I guess I like my fiction to be large.

That said, since tearing my way through the Norton Anthologies, which were mostly fiction that I loved, I have been reading more of it this year, although it's usually with an eye toward something I'm thinking about writing or an eye toward reading some classics that I missed. [By the way, the result of Mad Reading Scheme 2.0 was that despite being a non-lit major, I scored in the top ten percent on the Test of Literature in English, so I outscored 90% of presumed majors. Thanks, Norton!]

So far this year, I've read:

The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood
Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood
Snowcrash, Neal Stephenson
Curse of the Narrows, Laura MacDonald (history)
The Other Side of the Night, Donald Butler (history)
A Fellow of Infinite Jest, Thomas Yoseloff (a biography of Laurence Sterne)
Tristram Shandy, Laurence Sterne
The Bible, Karen Armstrong
The Gnostic Gospels, Elaine Pagels
God's Problem, Bart Ehrman
Too Many to Mourn, James Mahar (history)
Hooked, Kaza (ed.) (Buddhism)
Awake, Dyia (ed.) (Buddhism)
No Time to Lose, Pema Chodron (Buddhism)

So far that's keeping me on track with my goal of reading 50-100 books this year. We'll see how grad school interferes with that plan. If I have the 50 knocked out by August, when school starts, maybe I'll just declare victory and dive into scholarly reading. Standouts on that list, by the way, are Curse of the Narrows, The Other Side of the Night, and No Time to Lose. I love reading Pema Chodron -- she's such a wise, warm, wonderful writer. The other two are both histories. The first is of the Halifax Explosion, which occurred when a munitions ship exploded in Halifax Harbor during World War I, and the other is about the night the Titanic sank and the two ships that were nearest to her and what they did -- and didn't -- do. All three are fantastic books that will stay with me for a long time. And that's really all I ask out of a good book.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

More Mentions of Buddha on the Backstretch

As of tomorrow, I'm off to Los Angeles to lecture before a college class about Buddha on the Backstretch. It's a class taught by the book's editor, so it doesn't exactly mean that I'm suddenly a hot commodity on the lecture circuit. But it will be fun, and a lovely break from the East Coast winter.

In the meantime, the book has earned a few more mentions. It's really gratifying to see them pop up now and again -- just today I found a blog entry and a tweet by another writer saying he was currently reading it and finding it "very interesting." His is a Buddhist blog, so I'll try to figure out how to link them.

One of my favorite bits of press comes from Monte Dutton. Monte's covered NASCAR for many, many years and is a great guy who has become a friend. He said,

Has there ever been a more off-beat topic for a book on NASCAR than Buddha
on the Backstretch: The Spiritual Wisdom of Driving 200 MPH
(Macon, GA:
Mercer University Press, $27)? Honest to gosh, Arlynda Lee Boyer is both
"a race fan for most of her life" and "a practicing Buddhist for more than ten
years." The book offers "personal improvement via popular culture."
Perhaps a few championship contenders should read this book; perhaps it would
give them an edge Jimmie Johnson hasn't ever even thought about."

Tricycle: The Buddhist Review is, along with Shambhala Sun, one of the two largest Buddhism-related magazines in the world. They let their readers know where enlightenment comes along with the roar of engines:

You don't normally think of Buddhists as NASCAR fans, but why not?
Arlynda Lee Boyer, a lifelong NASCAR aficionado, has been practicing Buddhism
for the past fifteen years. She tells Auto Racing Daily ("Where
you get your auto racing news") that she sees plenty of similarities between the
Buddha's teachings and the NASCAR lifestyle -- both NASCAR drivers and
Buddhists, she says, "have to live in the moment." She's even written a
book about it: Buddha on the Backstretch: The Spiritual Wisdom of Driving
200 MPH.

Finally,, the legendary and beloved NASCAR site, took quotes from the blurbs above to let still more fans know about the book.

I'm considering whether or not to write a NASCAR-related follow-up book. I'm planning to start grad school in August, so timing is a big question. From NASCAR and Buddhism, I plan to plunge into a lengthy and intense study of Shakespeare.

Ever since working at the American Shakespeare Center as a grantwriter, Shakespeare has been an interest of mine, particularly Shakespeare scholarship. Within the past 20 years, ASC's Blackfriars Playhouse has opened, Shakespeare's Globe in London has opened, and scholarship has emerged into Shakespeare's religious beliefs and how Elizabethan culture influenced his work. One could easily argue that this is the most exciting time in at least a century for Shakespeare scholarship.

I hope to add to that by working on the source materials, the books, pamphlets, plays, etc., that provided sources for Shakespeare's plays. Much of that source material survives in the form of priceless antique books housed in museums and archives. I want to work on re-publishing it, so that scholars can have on their bookshelves some of the same books that Shakespeare would have had on his.

This way, scholars can see not only what he used in his plays, but also what he read but did not use. They can compare the sources to see if there are patterns to Shakespeare's use of the material: did he consistently not use some things, or consistently change others, or consistently use some without change? Right now, this kind of research is not available. I hope to make some of these books available for the first time in 400 years, so that this research can be done.

Now I've mentioned, at least in passing, some of the great passions of my life: NASCAR, Buddhism, Shakespeare, history, and I managed to work in a quote from my all-time favorite TV show, Futurama. Someday I'll manage to work in one of my favorite quotes from the show:

"Listen, this is going to be one hell of a bowel movement. Afterward,
he'll be lucky if he has any bones left."

Hey, I did it!

Until next time, live in the moment and don't believe everything you think.