Writers Tend To Be Weird About Writing

black-and-white-man-person-cigarette-largeWhen I first started writing (way back before most of you were born), I worked at a manual typewriter. My fingers would tap the keys and every 10-12 words I’d slap the carriage return to slide over, advance the paper, and drop down to the next line. Mistakes required White-Out applied with a tiny brush or retyping the entire page.

When I was in my early twenties, I upgraded to a Smith-Corona electric model. At the time, it was a significant investment of money and affirmed to me that I was serious about writing. Except that I couldn’t write on it. It was a typing machine not a writing machine. There was something about the whirring of the tiny motor that sounded impatient. Like it was disappointed in me, nagging me to write faster. It was probably how a Lamborghini would feel if driven by a little old lady who never exceeded 20 MPH. The upshot was that I had to write by hand on paper and then type. It was decidedly inefficient – but it was how I wrote my first published book.

In 1982, I went to work at Wang Labs and discovered the magic of word processing. No more White-Out, no more having to retype entire manuscripts, and no more annoying whir. There was no looking back. My first computer was an all-in-one Kaypro that used the CP/M operating system, featured a 9-inch green monitor, and used 5-inch floppy disks. I used the WordStar word processing system that required embedding clumsy commands into the text for formatting – but it was a huge step forward.

After flirting with a few Windows machines, I became an Apple fan boy and would never willingly return to the Microsoft evil empire. So I now do all my writing on either my MacBook Air or iMac. My requisites are music and libations. The music varies from classic rock to the mellowness of singer-songwriters to the occasional hip-hop/rap tune. The libations begin with coffee in the morning, diet Coke and iced tea through the day, and a whiskey in the evening.

Few things in life are more satisfying to me than creating a clever/insightful/engaging turn of phrase. That probably sounds weird to some people, but I’m okay with that. I’ve longed come to accept my weirdness. Which, in itself, sounds weird.

The Unequivocal Why in the Horror of Nice, Orlando, and Istanbul

indoctrination canstockphoto5952193The American philosopher William James often argued that human beings were blind “to the feelings of creatures and people different from ourselves.” It is this blindness that, if left unchecked, can progress from a simple preference for similar-looking/same-thinking people to ideological fanaticism.

Everyone is prejudiced to some degree. We may suppress those feelings from being outwardly expressed, or we may deny them even to ourselves. The key to keeping biases to a minimum is to turn off the personal filters that cloud judgment and focus instead on accepting other people’s realities. Acknowledge the differences and then accept, embrace and appreciate them.

The importance of personal reflection and self-knowledge to creating a blinders-free perspective cannot be overstated. People who truly know themselves and feel comfortable in their own skin tend to be the most open-minded – i.e., the most impartial and the least judgmental. They are confident about their own values and beliefs and, as a direct result, do not feel compelled to force those values and beliefs on others. On the other hand, people who have never delved deep inside to test and question their beliefs and values are far more likely to fear and denigrate the mass of others who do not look, sound, or act exactly like they do. These less reflective individuals are driven to persuade and/or punish the “others” to accept and validate their particular worldview. It’s “my way or the highway” for those whose self-knowledge is constrained by ideology and indoctrination – as well as a lack of general curiosity about and appreciation for the larger world around them. Their life’s journey consists of a single track in the shape of a circle. They go round and round seeing the same things over and over again. And the more they see those same things, the more partial they become towards them.

This circular journey drives the why in every terror attack and hate crime, and it’s the why that becomes the focus of law enforcement and the media in the immediate aftermath. Why would this or that seemingly normal person turn into a senseless killer? Why attack so randomly knowing that many innocent people (including children) will be among the dead and injured? The focus is on the search for a specific cause – a specific rationale – ranging from Islamic jihad to ethno-centric separatism to religious fundamentalism, homophobia, and pure racism.

Whatever the “specific” cause, the root cause is unequivocally indoctrination followed by blind faith to a person, organization or orthodoxy. Blind faith refers to beliefs that are held without true understanding, reasoned discrimination, or experiential proof. While an argument can be made that all “faith” is “blind” by definition, let’s focus on the articles of faith that serve to dehumanize and engender hate.

Take a moment to consider your most deeply held beliefs, and then focus on those that originated from an external source. The beliefs you hold because you were taught to hold them. Examples might include the belief that women are subservient (and belong in the kitchen and out of the boardroom), homosexuality is an abomination (and gay marriage will destroy traditional marriage), Muslims are terrorists (and shouldn’t be allowed to build mosques in “our” neighborhood), Jews are stingy and greedy (and plotting to take over the world), and Mexicans are lazy (and so we have to build an electrified fence on our southern border to keep them out and stop them from taking our jobs). No one – and I truly mean no one – ever derived these beliefs on his or her own. They are the result of indoctrination by one or more of the groups we belong to (family, school, church, friends, etc.), and the lack of a questioning mindset of our own.

Our educational, corporate and community institutions have trained us to repeat and regurgitate. Introspection and personal reflection are unvalued, ignored, discouraged or – in extreme cases – punished. We’ve become a world of blind followers with little insight into our personal character, and our society suffers as a result.

Most people believe what they’ve been taught to believe. They do what other people tell them to do, and say what others expect them to say. That’s why the “lives of quiet desperation” that Thoreau described are so prevalent today and why civil discourse has been replaced with the coarse language of divisiveness and disdain.

Few people take this blind faith to the extreme of the Orlando and Charleston shooters, the Istanbul bombers, or the maniacal truck driver in Nice; but we all suffer from it. The only way to truly overcome and eliminate blind faith – and the indoctrination that nurtures it – is to focus on personal reflection and self-knowledge. If you can’t explain what you believe, then you don’t truly “believe” it. You’ve simply been taught to believe it.

Adapted from content in 20/20 Mind Sight by Phil Fragasso and Jillian Vorce.

One of Them Is Lying

lyingAs the Republican and Democratic conventions approach, some things are certain. We’ll hear a lot of soaring rhetoric and teeth-gnashing. We’ll see more pomp than a Kardashian Instagram feed. And we’ll be fed a steady stream of hyperbole, cherry-picked factoids, and outright lies. Mark Twain famously observed that politicians would never lie “unless it was absolutely convenient;” and the Irish novelist Elizabeth Bowen told us, “Nobody speaks the truth when there is something they must have.” (Every politician, of course, must win his/her election for the sake of the country.)

Twain and Bowen are both implying that people apply a situational definition to honesty and integrity. True character, however, allows for no compromise on honesty. Trustworthiness is not something you can compartmentalize and turn on or off at will. You can’t be trustworthy in some aspects of your life but not in others. We are either trustworthy or we’re not. We’re either a rock or a pile of shifting sand. People either know they can count on us or we are doomed to disappoint them. It’s an all-or-nothing proposition.

A basic tenet of Hinduism says, “If you speak the truth long enough, your word becomes universal law.” Every time you demonstrate trust, you strengthen and enhance the public recognition of your integrity. That in turn leads to the ultimate goal of transforming the concept of trust into a practical reality. In a very real sense, trust becomes you and you become trust.

Think long and hard and try to remember the last politician who exuded trust as a core attribute. They may say, “trust me,” but provide no basis for doing so. And it’s not just politicians. Trust and honesty are characteristics that elude most of us.

Several years ago a former colleague – let’s call her Kristen – was engaged in a compensation dispute with her boss, the CEO of the company. It was a classic he-said/she-said situation. Here’s the scenario in brief. The company was rolling out a new compensation program and when the CEO explained the specifics of her target amount, Kristen said it was insufficient and substantially lower than her peers. She suggested that she and the company part amicably rather than engage in a pissing contest. The CEO quickly agreed that Kristen’s package was lower than her colleagues and assured her that the discrepancy would be adjusted by a certain date. Just as they had done on previous occasions, they shook hands on the deal.

When the agreed-upon date arrived, the extra compensation did not arrive along with it. The CEO acknowledged his earlier assurances but stated it was now out of his hands. Kristen was justifiably upset. The additional compensation was being paid out to her colleagues and she was low girl on the totem pole. She offered to resign and not make a fuss as long as she was paid the amount she was due. The CEO warned that she was going down a slippery slope and said the discussion was over.

Kristen subsequently sued the company and endured a bitter legal battle. The company’s other employees were forced to take a position – either side with the company and ostracize their colleague, or side with Kristen and potentially face retribution from management. All of this position-taking, however, was done with no one knowing the facts of the matter. And because it was a legal matter, Kristen was unable to share any non-public information. Instead, she would simply make the same statement to anyone who inquired: “Only two people know the truth. One of us is lying. You decide who.” That statement usually engendered a smirk and a knowing nod. Kristen had spent her entire career building a reputation for integrity, frankness, and honest dealing. She felt confident that the vast majority of people would look at the two parties and be hard-pressed to identify any instance where Kristen had ever said or done anything that could remotely be construed as untoward or deceitful.

I share this story to ask if you would be confident in declaring that “One of us is lying” and leaving the determination to others. Even more importantly, as election season is about to go into high gear, can you identify a candidate who could confidently, and without a trace of irony, make that same declaration? Can you imagine a debate stage in September or October when the presidential and vice-presidential candidates might point at their opponent and state, “One of us is lying. You decide.” It won’t happen and it can’t happen, because lying has become the hallmark of American politics.

The best we could hope for would be a candidate to look straight into the camera and say this: “We’re both lying. It’s your job to decide which of us is lying less.” That’s how far our political debate has declined but, in the parlance of the day, it is what it is. So, in the absence of true integrity, the best we can do is weigh one candidate’s mendacity against the other’s perfidiousness – and may the least deceitful win.

I Fear Your Death Not My Own

gravestoneA dear friend passed away on Tuesday. She’d been battling cancer for several years and leaves her husband and two teenage children. One of my college buddies died in March. He’d been with a bunch of us at the Breeders Cup in Kentucky last October telling jokes, drinking bourbon, and celebrating life. His wife found him dead on the couch from a heart attack. Another close friend, who I’ve known for over 40 years, almost died last year and still faces serious medical issues.

I could on but I can’t. I won’t. One of my favorite quotes is from the Ceylonese philosopher, Ananda Coomaraswamy: “I’d rather die ten years too early than ten minutes too late.” The more cynical interpretation of that statement might point to the lives of Joe Paterno and Bill Cosby – men who were idolized until their terrible secrets were revealed.

But that’s not how I interpret the quote. I’d rather be the first to go than the last. Saying goodbye to loved ones, watching their bodies wither away and suffer with pain, and seeing their mental abilities diminish with each passing day – those are the agonizing moments that are much harder to bear than any we experience for ourselves.

The flipside argument, of course, is that I’m being selfish. My passing would create pain for those left behind – so am I saying I’d rather have them suffer than me?

I actually don’t know the answer. All I know is that I miss my deceased friends and I worry about the living. So, please, everyone stay healthy and strong – and live everyday as though it might be the last.

This Is Dedicated…

Dedication - Aunt Gloria & Uncle JulieMuch the process of writing and publishing a book is intense and exhausting. But there’s one aspect that brings nothing but joy – crafting the dedication.

My first book was the young adult novel Good News/Bad News published way back in 1980. It was the realization of a lifelong dream and I dedicated it to the person I loved most in the world: Lillie, my maternal grandmother. My father had died when I was eighteen months old, and Lillie came to live with us in the Bronx. My mother was working and so I spent my days with my grandmother, running errands, watching her cook, learning numbers and letters, playing games, and talking. She was always smiling and laughing. She had a uniformly positive view of the world despite becoming a widow in her thirties and having to raise six kids on her own. Grandma Lillie was a treasure over my entire life. She was always someone I could talk to. She was surprisingly open-minded – even about my high-school-dropout girlfriend whose hair was a different color pretty much every other day or that crazy rock-and-roll music I listened to.

My grandmother was in her eighties when the book was published. She smiled and got teary-eyed when she saw the dedication, but she was clearly a little confused. She seemed to think that the dedication was only on her copy. I told her it was printed on every single copy, and that’s when I got teary-eyed. In that moment I think I was more proud about having given my grandmother joy than I was about having written a book.

The dedication to my grandmother was a public affirmation of how much she meant to me, and I am eternally grateful that I was able to share it with her before she passed away. In the books and years since, I’ve written dedications to my wife, my children, and most recently to my dear Aunt Gloria and late Uncle Julie. That’s all good news, but the bad news is I’ll never write enough books to publicly recognize and thank all the people who have impacted my life.

So here’s the plan: I’m going to strive every day to express my love and appreciation for the people in my life. And here’s the rest of the plan: I want you to join me in expressing thanks – at least once every day – to someone who has made your life better in some way. Make sure they know how much they mean to you. Odds are they will pay it forward and, over time, the world will become a better place because you took the time to say, “I love you,” “I couldn’t have done it without you,” or simply “Thanks.”

Would Jesus Define “Different” As Better or Worse?

Jesus testThere’s a Yiddish proverb that suggests, “If God lived on earth, people would break His windows.” The point is that even the ideals that live in our minds would not survive the harsh light of reality. This point is even more important today where far too many politicians and pundits wax poetic about the good old days and traditional values.

Consider the likely response if Jesus suddenly appeared in the twenty-first century in the exact human form he embodied in Jerusalem. How many people do you honestly think would accept his divinity, sing his praises, and offer adulation? As you’re thinking about your own response to a modern-day Jesus, remember that he’d probably be around five feet tall, the average height for that time. He’d probably look more like Saddam Hussein than the blue-eyed, sandy-tressed Adonis pictured in prayer books, paintings and religious magazines. And, if he remained true to his teachings, would look with love upon all men and women regardless of race, sexual orientation and political beliefs. He’d also shower love upon the adherents to any and all non-Christian religions. He would fully understand that very few people choose a specific religion on their own – they simply adopt the religion of their family. He would understand that even the most fervent Catholics and most devoted Muslims would likely be impassioned Jews if they’d been born into a Jewish family.

This modern-day Jesus would ask how could anyone hate or scorn or commit violence against someone whose only “crime” is following in their parents’ footsteps? Those footsteps will likely be different than the path your own parents took, but different is not a judgmental term. Different just means different – not better or worse. That understanding – simple yet profound – provides the bedrock to a lifetime journey on the path to human compassion, love, and understanding.

You’re Nobody’s Bitch

crossed handsI’ve written several pieces exploring why the male characters in my novels tend to be misogynist A-holes. But I recently had an experience that made me realize I’m looking at the issue from the wrong perspective.

I was minding my own business, when three twenty-somethings sat beside me – two female and one male. It was clear they had just met and the “dude” (‘cause that’s what he was) was in full-flirt mode seeing which of the two he could most engage. He asked what they did and Female A said she was “an executive assistant.” Then she paused and said, “Basically, I’m somebody’s bitch.” Female B chimed in and said she was “also someone’s bitch.” Female A, either in humorous or competitive mode, augmented her status by saying, “I’m an executive bitch,” and Female B concurred saying, “I’m just a regular bitch.”

In the parlance they seemed to prefer, I wanted to bitch-slap both of them right on the spot. The conversation saddened and disgusted me. The idea that my daughter, nieces, or female students would ever describe themselves as “somebody’s bitch” made my skin scrawl. It was terrible on so many levels. The two women were recent graduates of a prominent New England university and just starting their careers. I teach at Boston College and I’ve seen firsthand how difficult it is for young people to land their first job. Those first jobs are usually nothing near what they had envisioned, but that’s okay. Every job is a springboard for the next job with more responsibility and higher pay. Every job is honorable and every job provides an opportunity to learn and observe. The world is full of stories of C-level female executives who began their career as assistants, including Christiane Amanpour, Donna Karan, and Debbie Wasserman Schultz. I doubt any of them ever described themselves as “somebody’s bitch.”

Words are powerful, and the words we speak aloud define us. Referring to oneself as a “bitch” provides tacit permission for others to view you that way. There’s an old adage that recommends you dress for the job you want. It’s even more important that you think of yourself and conduct yourself in terms of the job you want. I remember hiring a young woman about ten years ago as my “assistant.” When I offered her the position I said, “someday you’re going to be running this place.” Her intelligence, ambition, and work ethic emanated from her words, body language, poise, and self-confidence. She – and anyone who knew her – would never describe her as “somebody’s bitch.” She wasn’t and would never be. Ten years later, her career is progressing on a steady upward arc and the sky remains the limit.

I worry, however, about the career path of these two young women. I worry about their self-perception, the choices they will make in life and love, and their ability to recognize and achieve their full potential.

I’ve long considered myself a feminist. I read and absorbed Gloria Steinem and Germaine Greer back in my twenties. My two best bosses ever were both women. I always believed women could do anything men could do, but I’ve more recently come to the conclusion that women can do many – if not most – things better than men. That’s why I am so adamant and vocal with my female students to speak up for themselves and not be shy or hesitant to trumpet their skills and accomplishments.

That’s also why my novels feature strong female characters who put their male counterparts to shame. Those male characters may indeed be misogynist A-holes, but their failings are amplified in comparison to the smart and capable women they interact with. Their failings are also purposely exaggerated so male readers notice. Us males tend towards the Neanderthal and often have to be hit over the head with an insight before truly taking it in. And there’s nothing I like better than hitting Neanderthals over the head.

 

Interview with “Eccentric Bookaholic”

Screen Shot 2016-04-26 at 9.40.48 AMWhat first inspired you to write or who inspired you?

I can’t point to any specific event or moment in time. I’ve been an avid reader since early childhood. I remember being sick in bed with the flu when I was in grammar school. My father brought me a stack of books – mostly fiction and biographies – from the library and he couldn’t believe how fast I read them all and asked for another batch. I loved the way reading helped me escape the discomfort of being sick, and somewhere deep in my psyche the seed was probably planted that I would like to offer that same kind of respite and joy to future readers.

At what age did you know you wanted to be a writer?

For as long as I can remember. Like many kids I starting writing goofy stories for my own enjoyment and to share with friends. I sold my first article when I was 16. I’ve since sold three novels, two nonfiction books, three books of humor, and dozens of magazine articles (and self-published several other books). I’ve often said my tragic flaw is having too many interests – which is why I’ve written in such a wide variety of genres. Nonetheless, I do think it is curiosity that has driven my writing life.

Do you take notes when reading or watching a movie?

I trend to take notes everywhere. Ideas for plots, characters, and dialogue pop up while I’m showering, driving, falling asleep, walking the dogs, etc. When I’m reading or watching movies/TV, I’ll sometimes think about different ways a scene could have been handled. Depending on where I am, I often record my ideas as a voice memo on my iPhone or send myself an email reminder. Because I’m always taking notes I have way more storylines, situations, characters, and plot twists than I could ever use. I can’t point to how or why, but I do believe that inspiration derives from being open to new ideas and keeping my eyes and ears wide open.

Do you have a day job? What do you do?

I guess I’m in that stage of life called semi-retirement – meaning that I no longer have a 9-5 job. I do, however, mix and match four different jobs. Writing is certainly my focus and I write every single day. I’m also an adjunct professor at Boston College and I still do the occasional consulting project. And fourth, I’m a part-time chauffeur for a local car service company where I get to meet a wide variety of people and get inspiration for characters and storylines.

How often do you write?

I’m very disciplined about writing, so I write every single day. When I wrote Going Both Ways I had an objective of at least 500 words a day, 7 days a week. If you wait for inspiration, you’ll wait a long time.

What are you currently working on?

I’m currently writing two novels. I’m finishing a black comedy about the current state of American politics. While I’m certain I could place it with a publisher, I think time is of the essence so I’m going to self-publish it around May 1. As my longer term project, I’m writing a “road-tripper” novel that explores love, loss, and the full range of interpersonal relationships.