We want a sense that an important character, like a narrator, is reliable. We want to believe that a character is not playing ages or being coy or being manipulative, but is telling the truth to the best of his or her ability...We do not wish to be crudely manipulated...We want to be massaged by a masseur, not whapped by a carpet beater.
We cheated, you and me, and someone noticed. I noticed you; someone else noticed me. It hurts us. That's not so bad. So many people cheat. Everywhere on every level. Everyone's cheated. I'm just saying that you don't need to see yourself as a cheater. Because that's not who you are. You're someone who cheated. There's a difference, and you should try to get that difference, or that's who you'll grow up to be.
You can either set brick as a laborer or as an artist. You can make the work a chore, or you can have a good time. You can do it the way you used to clear the dinner dishes when you were thirteen, or you can do it as a Japanese person would perform a tea ceremony, with a level of concentration and care in which you can lose yourself, and so in which you can find yourself.
They believe that if they do get published, a wonderful new life is in store. It will turn out that deep down they are really valuable people and will have lots of money from now on and really cool people like Ethan Hawke will be dropping by all the time. But it's a lie. Being a published writer will make them long to be ONLY as mentally ill as they are now. Their current level of obsession and doubt and self-loathing will look like the good old days. Honest.
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For some of us, books are as important as almost anything else on earth. What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die.
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The worst time in any writer's life is the two months before publication. ALL writers become mental and pathetic, even those of devout faith, who have some psychological healing to lean up against, and gorgeous lives. All writers think that this time, the jig is up, and they will be exposed as frauds.
If something inside of you is real, we will probably find it interesting, and it will probably be universal. So you must risk placing real emotion at the center of your work. Write straight into the emotional center of things. Write toward vulnerability. Risk being unliked. Tell the truth as you understand it. If you're a writer you have a moral obligation to do this. And it is a revolutionary act""truth is always subversive.
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So what are we supposed to do again, when we hate everything? You stop pretending life is such fun or makes sense. It's often messy and cruel and dull, and we do the best we can. It's unfair, and jerks seem to win. But you fall in love with a few people. Like I love you, Elizabeth. You're the angel God sent me.
Jealousy is such a direct attack on whatever measure of confidence you've been able to muster. But if you continue to write, you are probably going to have to deal with it, because some wonderful, dazzling successes are going to happen for some of the most awful, angry, undeserving writers you know-people who are, in other words, not you.
A man dies and goes to heaven. He is being shown around by an angel. Everything is just so sweet and gentle, the total golden tender presence of God everywhere, a pond over there, a beautiful field there, and some hills for people who like to hike, and this expansiveness in every direction of sky and light and physical beauty. And there is this section separated from the rest; it has beautiful high walls. The man who's just come to heaven says, "What's over there?" The angel says, "That's for the fundamentalists. They don't consider it heaven if anyone else got in.
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I've heard it said that every day you need half an hour of quiet time for yourself, or your Self, unless you're incredibly busy and stressed, in which case you need an hour. I promise you, it is there. Fight tooth and nail to find time, to make it. It is our true wealth, this moment, this hour, this day.
Bananas are great, as I believe them to be the only known cure for existential dread. Also, Mother Teresa said that in India, a woman dying in the street will share her banana with anyone who needs it, whereas in America, people amass and hoard as many bananas as they can to sell for an exorbitant profit. So half of them go bad, anyway.
If you don't believe in God, it may help to remember this great line of Geneen Roth's: that awareness is learning to keep yourself company. And then learn to be more compassionate company, as if you were somebody you are fond of and wish to encourage. I doubt that you would read a close friend's early efforts and, in his or her presence, roll your eyes and snicker. I doubt that you would pantomime sticking your finger down your throat. I think you might say something along the lines of, 'Good for you. We can work out some of the problems later, but for now, full steam ahead!
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Toni Morrison said, "The function of freedom is to free someone else," and if you are no longer wracked or in bondage to a person or a way of life, tell your story. Risk freeing someone else. Not everyone will be glad that you did. Members of your family and other critics may wish you had kept your secrets. Oh, well, what are you going to do?
Most people's intuitions are drowned out by folk sayings. We have a moment of real feeling or insight, and then we come up with a folk saying that captures the insight in a kind of wash. The intuition may be real and ripe, fresh with possibilities, but the folk saying is guaranteed to be a cliche, stale and self-contained.
And my fear of failure has been lifelong and deep. If you are what you do- and I think my parents may have accidentally given me this idea- and you do poorly, what then? It's over; you're wiped out. All those prophecies you heard in the dark have come true, and people can see the real you, see what a schmendrick you are, what a fraud.
Remember that you own what happened to you. If your childhood was less than ideal, you may have been raised thinking that if you told the truth about what really went on in your family, a long bony white finger would emerge from a cloud and point to you, while a chilling voice thundered, "We *told* you not to tell." But that was then. Just put down on paper everything you can remember now about your parents and siblings and relatives and neighbors, and we will deal with libel later on.
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Clutter and mess show us that life is being lived...Tidiness makes me think of held breath, of suspended animation... Perfectionism is a mean, frozen form of idealism, while messes are the artist's true friend. What people somehow forgot to mention when we were children was that we need to make messes in order to find out who we are and why we are here.
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Life is like a recycling center, where all the concerns and dramas of humankind get recycled back and forth across the universe. But what you have to offer is your own sensibility, maybe your own sense of humor or insider pathos or meaning. All of us can sing the same song, and there will still be four billion different renditions.
Perfectionism means that you try desperately not to leave so much mess to clean up. But clutter and mess show us that life is being lived. Clutter is wonderfully fertile ground - you can still discover new treasures under all those piles, clean things up, edit things out, fix things, get a grip. Tidiness suggests that something is as good as it's going to get. Tidiness makes me think of held breath, of suspended animation, while writing needs to breathe and move.
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There's a lovely Hasidic story of a rabbi who always told his people that if they studied the Torah, it would put Scripture on their hearts. One of them asked, "Why on our hearts, and not in them?" The rabbi answered, "Only God can put Scripture inside. But reading sacred text can put it on your heart, and then when your hearts break, the holy words will fall inside.
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I realized I was going to get through this disappointing service, and anyway, you have to be somewhere: better here, where I have heard truth spoken so often, than, say, at the DMV, or home alone, orbiting my own mind. And it's good to be out where others can see you, so you can't be your ghastly spoiled self. It forces you to act slightly more elegantly, and this improves your thoughts, and thereby the world.
What you're looking for is already inside you. You've heard this before, but the holy thing inside you really is that which causes you to seek it. You can't buy it, lease it, rent it, date it, or apply for it. The best job in the world can't give it to you. Neither can succes, or fame, or financial security - besides which, there ain't no such thing.
I have a lot of faith. But I am also afraid a lot, and have no real certainty about anything. I remembered something Father Tom had told me-that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns.
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Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won't have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren't even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they're doing it.
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E.L. Doctorow said once said that 'Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.' You don't have to see where you're going, you don't have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice on writing, or life, I have ever heard.
It's funny: I always imagined when I was a kid that adults had some kind of inner toolbox full of shiny tools: the saw of discernment, the hammer of wisdom, the sandpaper of patience. But then when I grew up I found that life handed you these rusty bent old tools - friendships, prayer, conscience, honesty - and said 'do the best you can with these, they will have to do'. And mostly, against all odds, they do.
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I'm all over the place, up and down, scattered, withdrawing, trying to find some elusive sense of serenity." The world can't give that serenity. The world can't give us peace. We can only find it in our hearts." I hate that." I know. But the good news is that by the same token, the world can't take it away.
I honestly think in order to be a writer, you have to learn to be reverent. If not, why are you writing? Why are you here? Let's think of reverence as awe, as presence in and openness to the world. The alternative is that we stultify, we shut down. Think of those times when you've read prose or poetry that is presented in such a way that you have a fleeting sense of being startled by beauty or insight, by a glimpse into someone's soul. All of a sudden everything seems to fit together or at least to have some meaning for a moment. This is our goal as writers, I think; to help others have this sense of - please forgive me - wonder, of seeing things anew, things that can catch us off guard, that break in on our small, bordered worlds.
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You've got to learn to let go and let your children fall, and fail. If you try to protect them from hurt, and always rush to their side with Band-Aids, they won't learn about life, and what is true, what works, what helps, and what are real consequences of certain kinds of behavior. When they do get hurt, which they will, they won't know how to take care of their grown selves. They won't even know where the aspirin is kept.
If we stay where we are, where we're stuck, where we're comfortable and safe, we die there. We become like mushrooms, living in the dark, with poop up to our chins. If you want to know only what you already know, you're dying. You're saying: Leave me alone; I don't mind this little rathole. It's warm and dry. Really, it's fine. When nothing new can get in, that's death. When oxygen can't find a way in, you die. But new is scary, and new can be disappointing, and confusing - we had this all figured out, and now we don't. New is life.
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Age has given me what I was looking for my entire life - it has given me me. It has provided time and experience and failures and triumphs and time-tested friends who have helped me step into the shape that was waiting for me. I fit into me now. I have an organic life, finally, not necessarily the one people imagined for me, or tried to get me to have. I have the life I longed for. I have become the woman I hardly dared imagine I would be.
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Intelligence, goodness, humanity, excitement, serenity. Over time, these are the things that change the musculature of your face, as do laughter, and animation, and especially whatever peace you can broker with the person inside. It's furrow, pinch, and judgement that make us look older - our mothers were right. They said that if you made certain faces, they would stick, and they do. But our mothers forgot that faces of kindness and integrity stick as well.
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Holiness has most often been revealed to me in the exquisite pun of the first syllable, in holes- in not enough help, in brokenness, mess. High holy places, with ethereal sounds and stained glass, can massage my illusion of holiness, but in holes and lostness I can pick up the light of small ordinary progress, newly made moments flecked like pepper into the slog and the disruptions.
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Our shadow is on the outside. And we can see in the dark: we can see you, we see you turn away, but one day we finally understand that you turn away not from our faces but from your own fears. From those things inside you that you think mark you as someone unlovable to your family, and society, and even to God.
No matter how people mess with you or let you down, or how you let yourself down, a good book means that when you get in bed that night, you have a good hour. I feel like you pay all day for that hour. That's what books mean to me. I can open this two-dimensional, flat white page with squiggly little black marks on them, and someone has created this world that you're going to enter into...
My belief is that when you're telling the truth, you're close to God. If you say to God, "I am exhausted and depressed beyond words, and I don't like You at all right now, and I recoil from most people who believe in You, " that might be the most honest thing you've ever said. If you told me you had said to God, "It is all hopeless, and I don't have a clue if You exist, but I could use a hand, " it would almost bring tears to my eyes, tears of pride in you, for the courage it takes to get real-really real. It would make me want to sit next to you at the dinner table. So prayer is our sometimes real selves trying to communicate with the Real, with Truth, with the Light. It is us reaching out to be heard, hoping to be found by a light and warmth in the world, instead of darkness and cold. Even mushrooms respond to light - I suppose they blink their mushroomy eyes, like the rest of us. Light reveals us to ourselves, which is not always so great if you find yourself in a big disgusting mess, possibly of your own creation. But like sunflowers we turn toward light. Light warms, and in most cases it draws us to itself. And in this light, we can see beyond our modest receptors, to what is way beyond us, and deep inside.
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Your problem is how you are going to spend this one and precious life you have been issued. Whether you're going to spend it trying to look good and creating the illusion that you have power over circumstances, or whether you are going to taste it, enjoy it and find out the truth about who you are.
I think joy and sweetness and affection are a spiritual path. We're here to know God, to love and serve God, and to be blown away by the beauty and miracle of nature. You just have to get rid of so much baggage to be light enough to dance, to sing, to play. You don't have time to carry grudges; you don't have time to cling to the need to be right.
Help" is a prayer that is always answered. It doesn't matter how you pray-with your head bowed in silence, or crying out in grief, or dancing. Churches are good for prayer, but so are garages and cars and mountains and showers and dance floors. Years ago I wrote an essay that began, "Some people think that God is in the details, but I have come to believe that God is in the bathroom.
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And we've read scary books and watched scary movies and TV shows together. He's met monsters, ghouls, and demons on the page and on the screen. There's nothing like watching Anaconda with your best friend or lying in bed next to your mother reading Roald Dahl, because that way you get to explore dark stuff safely. You get to laugh with it, to step out on the vampire's dance floor and take him for a spin, and then step back into your life. When you make friends with fear, it can't rule you.
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When you don't have enough or you run out, you feel in your core that the leak has begun and there will be no end to the leakage. And this makes you feel like a chump. Whereas having some money gives you the conviction that you're not naked in the howling wind, even though you basically are, existentially.