My son, here may indeed be torment, but not death.
I finished the final 70 or so pages of George Saunders’ masterpiece this morning. It has been around for awhile, and I realize I’m late to the party, but I’m compelled to try to explain the effect this book had on…my soul.
Saunders addresses issues that have plagued American life and thought since the beginning of our democracy. He also addresses existential issues that all of humanity has wrestled with since we first looked up from a campfire and wondered why the hell we were here on this world. The book seems to spring from a sort-of Catholic point of view, as the entire novel is set in an interpretation of Purgatory–the Bardo. (Bardo– in Tibetan Buddhism, a state of existence between death and rebirth, varying in length according to the length of, and conduct in a person’s life, and the manner of death.).
I could go on for days, so let me toss out a few ideas from this novel that intrigue and terrify me. None of these ideas are new to me, yet, strangely, I find myself newly concerned with them in a more urgent manner than before. This, friends, is the first clue that one has encountered great literature. I’ll keep it to three, though the book brims with fascinating concepts:
Judgement–that once we have committed sins in this life, they are irrevocable and cannot be atoned for. A price must be paid. Judgement is a horrifying prospect, especially as it unfolds in this novel as an implacable and clearly defined process for which there can be no remedy or exception. Saunders’ depiction of a particular sinner’s entry into hell is especially sobering. Make some room on the doom sofa, Dante Alighieri.
The Afterlife—that it may dwarf our carnal existence in terms of what we call “time,” but its nature may be wholly dependent upon the acts we commit during our flash-in-the-pan sojourn on Earth. Lincoln in the Bardo thrusts a filth-encrusted mirror before my eyes in which I see my whole life, my choices, my mistakes…my crimes. Perhaps the greatest/most terrifying thing about this book, for me, is the lightning-strike imperative it conveys to Be Better; I must do what I can to atone for my sins here. Now. Otherwise, I am doomed. This feeling springs not only from my innate sense of self-preservation, but from the compassion I feel for those I have wronged and the love I have forgotten how to express for certain people who may not realize they’re dear to me.
Racism—As fictional Lincoln admits is the case within himself, once we, as children, have been tainted by racist ideals and institutions handed down to us from previous generations, we carry it inside us, often invisibly, throughout our lives in the same way we carry any other childhood-learned sense of what the world is and how it works.
The difference in some is that, once knowledge enlightens us; when the light of day shines on the festering places in our souls and illuminates the ugliness harbored there, we can begin to resist. Once we learn to recognize injustice, we can live as good people who choose not to act on our worst impulses. Nevertheless, the racism the world feeds us as children survives like a dormant disease that must be managed by constant attention and learning and above all, true compassion.
So many human beings, whether wittingly or not, nurse their infants on mother’s milk tainted with an insidious moral poison that those fortunate enough to become aware of it must spend their lives working to overcome in themselves. Saunders’ Lincoln shows us that the humility of recognizing this must come before we can make a meaningful effort to address racism in the world around us.
And yes, my fellow white Americans, I’m mainly talking about us.
The “best” literature urges us to be better than we are, to push the edge of civilization ever further into the wilderness of ignorance and hatred that surrounds us; to simply love as hard as we can, for as long as we have, and stop doing harm.
I’m not a person who shows a lot of outward emotion, but…yes, this book makes me weep with remorse, with existential terror, with gratitude, and with jaw-dropping awe at the absolute artistic mastery of George Saunders.
I know things that I cannot remember. If I can’t recall a piece of information, do I still know it? At times, usually long after the recollection would have been useful, forgotten bits of memory resurface, and I again have access to the information. Sometimes it’s a scent or a sound or a color that whacks the chassis of my memory in just the right way to coax the mechanism back into operation. Sometimes it’s inexplicable.
I never forget faces, but I sometimes forget names. I forget the names of people I meet at social gatherings, sometimes within seconds. Sometimes within minutes, despite inwardly repeating the name to myself in an effort to retain it. I forget the names of people I choose not to know. I forget the names of people I have known in the past—coworkers, classmates, people with whom I shared drinks, conversation, and hard work. These are often people whose acquaintance was a matter of necessity alone. No amount of self-interrogation will produce their names. They are lost to me. Yet weeks later, perhaps while running or cooking or in the moments before I open my eyes in the morning, a name will come to me. I’ll hear the person’s voice and experience the same emotions I felt the last time I saw that person. Though their names were lost to me for a time, I knew them. I never forget the names of people I love. I never forget the names of people I despise.
Some of my journals are older than my children, and it’s clear that my memory of events is far from accurate. More often than not, when I search an old journal for a person, event, or details such as an address, I find that what I read matches my memory not at all. My own handwriting reads like a letter from an alternate past. My journals are mental time capsules from a version of myself that I have overwritten like an internal hard drive, so many times that the original information only exists in the form of dried ink on paper. In my mind, facts are fungible, malleable things. Only in these journals do memories become artifacts that can be handled years later like weathered objects pulled from a chilly bog.
What does all this tell me about the things that I know? How can I be certain I’m right about anything I’ve learned in my half-century of life? There must be an aggregate of knowledge that exists in a thinking person’s mind that doesn’t depend on any one, particular bit of information. Maybe this is what we call street smarts, horse sense, or wisdom. Yet, as I type these words, it occurs to me that claiming wisdom in oneself must be the first step toward becoming an old fool who thinks he knows everything and has nothing more to learn about the world and the creatures that inhabit it.
History and literature provide human civilization with the wisdom of facts. We can read about the triumphs and mistakes of those who lived and loved and suffered before us. Memory isn’t a prerequisite for our species’ progress, but the ability to interpret humanity’s past is.
We remember things that we cannot know. Such memories are inborn. The compassion of humanity lives in us as it has in all those who came before us. This knowledge of the soul doesn’t require a written record to comprehend. We know in the marrow of our bones, for example, that stealing children from their mothers is a monstrous act. Yet some choose to use their innate will and intelligence to circumvent their conscience. They act outside morality to seize power or wealth and convince those who understand the faulty nature of human memory and reasoning that evil is a justifiable path to good. In such cases, the ape with the biggest stick often gains the upper hand and does a great deal of damage. Intelligent people go along with the gas-lit madness, succumbing by reasonable increments to fascism. Sleepwalking into oblivion.
Others read the journals.
We’ve seen this again and again. Most of us are too young to remember, but we have the history. Fascists constantly try to reinvent themselves. This time, in America, they’re draped in stars and stripes. They tell us that compassion is weakness, and there aren’t enough resources to go around. Again, they deny history and offer an alternate reality of their own invention.
The free press is the canary in the coalmine. When journalists begin to suffer arrest or worse at the hands of authoritative figures, as they do in under several current authoritarian regimes, we’ll know we’re in an existential crisis as a nation. As always, the success of tyrants depends on our complicity, and our continued silence may only mean the monster will devour us last.
Dear Parents and Guardians,
There is no greater priority than the safety and security of our children. Recently, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, along with Hillsborough Public Schools and our local law enforcement partners, announced a unified school safety plan. I know you have received a lot of information about it already, but I wanted to make sure you heard from me personally.Next school year every traditional public school and charter school within Hillsborough County will have an armed presence on school grounds. The job of these highly trained individuals is to deter potential threats and immediately respond to active shooter incidents. I have attached a fact sheet highlighting some key information about our plan. As always, if you have any comments or suggestions, do not hesitate to reach out to our office.I know the school year is coming to a close this week. Although there have been no threats to our area or schools, we have added an increased law enforcement presence at schools to round out the year. Please enjoy your summer with your family and children. When you come back to school next year, know we will be there with you. We look forward to seeing you in the fall.Sincerely,Sheriff Chad Chronister
While working on a longer story that included my memory of a rocket attack on a U.S. Army forward operating base in Afghanistan, I got stuck on some details. To get past it, I tried to put myself in the boots of a young soldier working on the FOB, one who didn’t particularly care how the war turned out–one who simply wanted to go home and recover his abandoned life. I ended up with a piece of flash fiction, something I’ve never tried before. Thanks to Every Day Fiction for publishing the result.
The snow has mostly melted away here at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. The winter storm that made the drive from Kentucky to Virginia such an icy, salty adventure blanketed the area in a layer of ice. A couple fellows are nursing bruises after slipping and falling on the way to their studio spaces last week, and I nearly bit the ice myself early yesterday.
Today is a day to prepare for the coming week of intense work. It’s my fourth full day at the residency, and I’m only now feeling settled into a routine.
I’ve been tweaking a story I wrote a couple years ago and put away in disgust when I discovered that the movie Passengers was essentially the same story, only with movie stars and a robot barman. I pulled it out of the trunk last week and spent a couple days experimenting with different character points of view, only to reach the conclusion that it’s dead. So, onward with a new idea.
Last night after dinner, a dozen or so fellows spent time in the library talking about our work, and the breadth of knowledge and experience in the room was humbling. Visual artists, music composers, and writers, all in a room together with a bottle of bourbon, is a recipe for great conversation. After midnight, it was down to two other writers and myself. We have our craft in common, but come from different backgrounds–a Jew, a Catholic, and a Protestant. One from the Netherlands, one from Texas, and one from Florida. Each of us stretched our perception to understand the different experience of the others, and I believe we’ve become friends. I can’t wait to read their work.
So…imposter syndrome. I suffer from it. I mean, I’m not sure how I’m even here with these tremendously talented people. Then I remember that it’s because someone thought my work was worthwhile. I look at the badge attached to the keys fellows are issued here, and beneath my name is the word “Writer.” So, not only must I make myself worthy of this opportunity by working my ass off in the quiet, perfect writing studio provided for my use, I must learn to think of myself not as an old soldier who dabbles in fiction, but as a writer. If we don’t learn to believe in our own talent, why should anyone else? This is my chance to prove that I can do this.
My goal here is to make significant progress toward a short story collection, for which I hope to find a publisher in the near future. I’ll try to post updates for anyone who’s interested, but mostly for my own benefit and the feeling of accountability for this precious time to write without interference from the real world.
And now, it’s time to get back to work.
I’m pretty excited about this, so I’ll share it here. A couple months ago, I applied for a fellowship at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA). I suffer from chronic imposter syndrome as a writer, so it felt like a shot in the dark. My submission included the short story “The Grove,” which Jacksonville’s wonderful Bridge Eight Literary Magazine published a couple years ago, and a 500-word story about surviving a rocket attack in Afghanistan. To my amazement, I received an email from the VCCA Deputy Director on Thursday notifying me that I’ve been scheduled for a mid-January residency.
Here’s a bit from Deputy Director Sheila Gulley Pleasants’ email:
VCCA’s mission is to provide a creative space in which our best national and international artists (you!) produce their finest work. We take our mission very seriously, but we also know that some Fellows are interested in sharing their work, and we at VCCA are interested in promoting the arts in general and the work of our Fellows in particular.If this is of interest to you, there are a number of opportunities for you to share your work in the local community. These opportunities include meeting with students and faculty at Sweet Briar College, presenting work at community centers and art galleries, and opening your studio to visiting groups here at VCCA.
VCCA furnishes artists with a private studio, a private bedroom with semi-private bath, and three prepared meals each day. There are 25 writers, composers, and visual artists in residence at any given time, and I can’t imagine a better environment for focus and concentration than their beautiful campus, quite possibly blanketed in snow. (Florida Man will be digging out some long-dormant clothing layers for this trip.)
In past years, I’ve watched National Novel Writing Month pass by like Amtrak at an at a railroad crossing. I’ve always thought, even if I could crank out the word count, it would be garbage, right? I couldn’t imagine a writer worth his ink believing anything worthwhile could come of it and secretly judged the nerds who do. Well, it turns out that a few of those “nerds” are kind of a big deal.
About halfway through October, I realized I was in the perfect position to give NaNoWriMo a shot. For the past three weeks or so, I’ve solidified characters, setting, and produced a basic outline from start to finish. This is a novel I started in 2008, but dropped in the trunk when it didn’t seem to be working. It seems to me now that, with all the ingredients laid out before me, I might be able to cook this thing up into something tasty. The worst that can happen is that I’ll end up with a horrible first draft to refine into a second.
So, I’m committed and surprised to discover that I’m pretty excited about it. (I suspect that’ll wear off by about day 3.) The thing is, I don’t actually know what I’m capable of. What if I can produce 80,000 words in a month? I’m wary of the possibility that after so much sustained effort, I could be oblivious to the wrongness of the thing I have made. Luckily, my lovely wife, Susan, a finer writer than I’ll ever be, wants to read my work. Having a dedicated reader who loves you enough to provide honest feedback is priceless.
Earlier this year, having been let go as content manager from a soulless snake oil company in Tampa, I spent a lot of time and effort searching for another position. I had a bit of freelance work coming in, along with a military pension, but I felt responsible for doing more for our family. After a couple months of job hunting, I’d found nothing and started to wonder what was wrong with me. Is it my age? Are people afraid I have PTSD? Is my resume all wrong? Susan convinced me to stop looking and do what I’ve always wanted, to write full time. Yes, she’s wonderful. Yes, I’m grateful.
Even now, a nasty little internal editor sits on my shoulder as I write, criticizing each idea, every word. Perhaps running this 50,000 word marathon will wear that little bastard out enough to allow me to get something true on the page.
Terry Prachett is credited with saying “The first draft is just you telling yourself the story,” while Hemingway reportedly wrote in a letter to Arnold Samuelson, “The first draft of anything is shit.” Either way, I’m in.
Thanks to all who kept us in their prayers and sent good thoughts our way during Hurricane Irma. We’re fortunate beyond our hopes, and grateful for so many reasons. Those we love are safe, our home is undamaged, and it appears we’re the only house in the neighborhood whose lights never went out. We’re so grateful.