In art, and maybe just in general, the idea is to be able to be really comfortable with contradictory ideas. In other words, wisdom might be, seem to be, two contradictory ideas both expressed at their highest level and just let to sit in the same cage sort of, vibrating. So, I think as a writer, I'm really never sure of what I really believe.
On a more technical level, a story takes a lot of words. And to generate words and phrases and images and so on, that will compel the reader to continue reading - that stand a chance of really grabbing a reader - the writer has to work out of a place of, let's say, familiarity and affection. The matrix of the story has to be made out of stuff the writer really knows about and likes. The writer can't be stretching and (purely) inventing all the time. Well, I can't, anyway.
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Still, accomplishment is unreliable. "Succeeding," whatever that might mean to you, is hard, and the need to do so constantly renews itself (success is like a mountain that keeps growing ahead of you as you hike it), and there's the very real danger that "succeeding" will take up your whole life, while the big questions go untended.
I haven't written a novel or something that long, because I really am improvising all along and the story is growing new limbs to do what it needs to do. So there's very little planning. There's a little planning where I say, "Well, it looks like I'm going in this direction, ok, good." But there's very little forethought or intellectual justification: "Oh, look, I'm putting in a theme park because that represents dystopian America!"
Intelligent, heartfelt stories that tell a whole new set of truths about growing up American. Julie Orringer writes with virtuosity and depth about the fears, cruelties, and humiliations of childhood, but then does that rarest, and more difficult, thing: writes equally beautifully about the moments of victory and transcendence.
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Vonnegut's war was necessary. And yet it was massacre and screaming and confusion and blood and death. It was the mammoth projection outward of the confused inner life of men. In war, the sad tidy constructs we make to help us believe life is orderly and controllable are roughly thrown aside like the delusions they are. In war, love is outed as an insane, insupportable emotion, a kind of luxury emotion, because everywhere you look, someone beloved to someone is being slaughtered, by someone whose own beloved has been slaughtered, or will be, or could be.
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From the perspective of someone with two grown and wonderful kids, that your instincts as parents are correct: a minute spent reading to your kids now will repay itself a million-fold later, not only because they love you for reading to them, but also because, years later, when they're gone and miles away, those quiet evenings, when you were tucked in with them, everything quiet but the sound of the page-turns, will, seem to you, I promise...... sacred.
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What good the prophet in the wilderness may do is incremental and personal. It's good for us to hear someone speak the irrational truth. It's good for us when, in spite of all of the sober, pragmatic, and even correct arguments that war is sometimes necessary someone says: war is large-scale murder, us at our worst, the stupidest guy doing the cruelest thing to the weakest being.
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Since, according to me, your life is going to be a gradual process of becoming kinder and more loving: Hurry up. Speed it along. Start right now. There's a confusion in each of us, a sickness, really:selfishness. But there's also a cure. So be a good and proactive and even somewhat desperate patient on your own behalf - seek out the most efficacious anti-selfishness medicines, energetically, for the rest of your life.
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That luminous part of you that exists beyond personality - your soul, if you will - is as bright and shining as any that has ever been. Bright as Shakespeare's, bright as Gandhi's, bright as Mother Theresa's. Clear away everything that keeps you separate from this secret luminous place. Believe it exists, come to know it better, nurture it, share its fruits tirelessly.
I hold the biscuits in front of his face and he stands up. "What do I have to do?" he says. "Nothing, " I say. "They're for you." "Are they poisoned?" he says. "No, " I say. "Eat one, " he says. So I do. "Probably the others are poisoned, " he says. "Eat a fraction of each." I eat a corner off each biscuit. He looks at the reminders suspiciously, then sniffs them. "I'm not sure it's worth it, " he says. "How I wish you'd never come. Perhaps you've left the poison off of just those corners." I begin to realize I'll doubt whatever information he gives me. "Lick the entire biscuit, " he says. "Then give them to me." So I lick each biscuit. "Both sides, " he says. I lick both sides of each biscuit. I give him the wet biscuits and he cracks them open and sniffs them. Then he puts them in his pocket. "What do you want?" he says. "Now that you've failed to poison me to death.
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Be bigger presence at work. Race up ladder (joyfully, w/smile on face), get raise. Get in best shape of life, start dressing nicer. Learn guitar? Make point of noticing beauty of world? Why not educate self re. birds, flowers, trees, constellations, become true citizen of natural world, walk around neighborhood w/kids, patiently teaching kids names of birds, flowers, etc. etc.? Why not take kids to Europe? Kids have never been. Have never, in Alps, had hot chocolate in mountain cafe, served by kindly white- haired innkeeper, who finds them so sophisticated/friendly relative to usual snotty/rich American kids (who always ignore his pretty but crippled daughter w/braids) that he shows them secret hiking path to incredible glade, kids frolic in glade, sit with crippled pretty girl on grass, later say it was most beautiful day of their lives, keep in touch with crippled girl via email, we arrange surgery here for her, surgeon so touched he agrees to do surgery for free, she is on front page of our paper, we are on front page of their paper in Alps? Ha ha.
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And next time we hear someone saying something like, 'We are pursuing this strategy because other strategies, when we had considered them, we concluded that, in terms of overall effectiveness, they were not sound strategies, which is why we enacted the one we are now embarked upon, which our enemies would like to see us fail, due to they hate freedom, ' we will wait to see if the anchorperson cracks up, or chokes back a sob of disgust, and if he or she does not, we'll feel a bit insane, and therefore less confident, and therefore more passive.
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I have a sense that God is unfair and preferentially punishes his weak, his dumb, his fat, his lazy. I believe he takes more pleasure in his perfect creatures, and cheers them on like a brainless dad as they run roughshod over the rest of us. He gives us a need for love, and no way to get any. He gives us a desire to be liked, and personal attributes that make us utterly unlikable. Having placed his flawed and needy children in a world of exacting specifications, he deducts the difference between what we have and what we need from our hearts and our self-esteem and our mental health.
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So let me just say this. There are ways. You already know that because, in your life, there have been High Kindness periods and Low Kindness periods, and you know what inclined you toward the former and away from the latter. Education is good; immersing ourselves in a work of art: good; prayer is good; meditation's good; a frank talk with a dear friend; establishing ourselves in some kind of spiritual tradition - recognizing that there have been countless really smart people before us who have asked these same questions and left behind answers for us. It would be strange and self-defeating to fail to seek out these wise voices from the past-as self-defeating as it would be to attempt to rediscover the principles of physics from scratch or invent a new method of brain surgery without having learned the ones that already exist.
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O.K., then, all right, they would adopt a white-trash dog. Ha ha. They could name it Zeke, buy it a little corncob pipe and a straw hat. She imagined the puppy, having crapped on the rug, looking up at her, going, Cain't hep it. But no. Had she come from a perfect place? Everything was transmutable. She imagined the puppy grown up, entertaining some friends, speaking to them in a British accent: My family of origin was, um, rather not, shall we say, of the most respectable... Ha ha, wow, the mind was amazing, always cranking out these-
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One day, walking neer one of your Yuman houses, smelling all the interest with snout, I herd, from inside, the most amazing sound. Turns out, what that sound is, was: the Yuman voice, making werds. They sounded grate! They sounded like prety music! I listened to those music werds until the sun went down...
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Night was falling. Birds were singing. Birds were, it occurred to me to say, enacting a frantic celebration of day's end. They were manifesting as the earth's bright-colored nerve endings, the sun's descent urging them into activity, filling them individually with life nectar, the life nectar then being passed into the world, out of each beak, in the form of that bird's distinctive song, which was, in turn, an accident of beak shape, throat shape, breast configuration, brain chemistry: some birds blessed in voice, others cursed; some squeaking, others rapturous.
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Sweet Evelyn, I think, I should have loved you better. Possessing perfect knowledge I hover above him as he hacks me to bits. I see his rough childhood. I see his mother doing something horrid to him with a broomstick. I see the hate in his heart and the people he had yet to kill before pneumonia gets him at eighty-three. I see the dead kid's mom unable to sleep, pounding her fists against her face in grief at the moment I was burying her son's hand. I see the pain I've caused. I see the man I could have been, and the man I was, and then everything is bright and new and keen with love and I sweep through Sam's body, trying to change him, trying so hard, and feeling only hate and hate, solid as stone.
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[P]eople think of compassion as, like, kindness. The image comes to mind of some nice New Age guy bending to something with a look on his face like he's about to cry. And I don't think that's it. I think of it more as a quality of openness that comes with being in a state of unusual attentiveness.
No, war will not be stopped. But it is a comfort, in the midst of a war, to read an antiwar book this good, and be reminded that just because something keeps happening, doesn't mean we get to stop regretting it. Massacres are bad, the death of innocents is bad, hate is bad, and there's something cleansing about hearing it said so purely.
So I suppose one danger is that we might get the idea that, you know, 'to blurt, is to be.' The idea that whatever comes out is good and is us. Whereas someone who has really worked with text realizes - well, that neither one is 'really' you, but that the considered version might represent a 'higher' you - brighter, less willing to coast or condescend, funnier, and (mysteriously) also, I think, kinder.
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Those stories tended to be located around the places where things went wrong, and people were cruel to one another, and so on. They reflected what was probably the most urgent truth operating in me at that time: oh, shit, things can go wrong, and if they do, people get hurt, and I might be one of them, in spite of the fact that I am, you know, me.
A culture capable of imagining complexly is a humble culture. It acts, when it has to act, as late in the game as possibl, and as cautiously, because it knows its girth and the tight confines of the china shop it's blundering into. And it knows that no matter how well prepared it is - no matter how ruthlessly it has held its projections up to intelligent scrutiny - the place it is headed for is going to very different from the place it imagined. The shortfall between the imagined and the real, multiplied by the violence of one's intent, equals the evil one will do.
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In a culture that is becoming ever more story-stupid, in which a representative of the Coca-Cola company can, with a straight face, pronounce, as he donates a collection of archival Coca-Cola commercials to the Library of Congress, that 'Coca-Cola has become an integral part of people's lives by helping to tell these stories, ' it is perhaps not surprising that people have trouble teaching and receiving a novel as complex and flawed as Huck Finn, but it is even more urgent that we learn to look passionately and technically at stories, if only to protect ourselves from the false and manipulative ones being circulated among us.
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From across the woods, as if by common accord, birds left their trees and darted upward. I joined them, flew amount them, they did not recognize me as something apart from them, and I was happy, so happy, because for the first time in years, and forevermore, I had not killed, and never would.
If at the moment when someone cuts us off in traffic or breaks our heart or begins bombing our ancestral village, we could withdraw from judging mode, and enter this other, more accepting mode, we could paradoxically, make ourselves more powerful. By resisting the urge to reduce, in order to subsequently destroy, we keep alive - if only for a few seconds more - the possibility of transformation. -The Thought Experiment
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What a beautiful country this must have been once, when you could hop in a coupe and buy a bag of burgers and drive, drive, drive, stopping to swim in a river or sleep in a grove of trees without worrying about intaking mutagens or having the militia arrest you and send you to the Everglades for eternity.
What America is, to me, is a guy doesn't want to buy, you let him not buy, you respect his not buying. A guy has a crazy notion different from your crazy notion, you pat him on the back and say, Hey pal, nice crazy notion, let's go have a beer. America, to me, should be shouting all the time, a bunch of shouting voices, most of them wrong, some of them nuts, but please, not just one droning glamorous reasonable voice.
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I don't think much new ever happens. Most of us spend our days the same way people spent their days in the year 1000: walking around smiling, trying to earn enough to eat, while neurotically doing these little self-proofs in our head about how much better we are than these other slobs, while simultaneously, in another part of our brain, secretly feeling woefully inadequate to these smarter, more beautiful people.
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I turned 54 this year and I find myself feeling like I'm in a bit of a race to get down on paper the way I really feel about life - or the way it has presented to me. And because it has presented to me very beautifully, this is hard. It is technically very hard to show positive manifestations.
I live up in the hills, and I don't have any cable, and I have really slow satellite, so that does it - because being on the Internet is okay, but it takes a long time. I have a prediction that at some point, there will be a backlash. Like at the end of the '60s, there was that back-to-the-land movement, and I'm guessing that people will start consciously saying, "I'm not taking the phone with me," or "I'm only checking email x number of times a day," or "I'm not ever gonna self-Google," for example.
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And so, a prediction, and my heartfelt wish for you: as you get older, your self will diminish and you will grow in love. YOU will gradually be replaced by LOVE. If you have kids, that will be a huge moment in your process of self-diminishment. You really won't care what happens to YOU, as long as they benefit. That's one reason your parents are so proud and happy today. One of their fondest dreams has come true: you have accomplished something difficult and tangible that has enlarged you as a person and will make your life better, from here on in, forever.
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I've noticed that nowadays I'm doing a lot of stuff on the phone and on the computer, which I usually wouldn't do earlier. And I can feel my brain being rewired: I'm getting anxious, I'm getting more manic. Now, I'm an extreme case because I'm old and I'm overdoing it. But still, it's really interesting that I can actually feel a change in my neurochemistry from this interaction with the technology.
Now I began to understand art as a kind of black box the reader enters. He enters in one state of mind and exits in another. The writer gets no points just because what's inside the box bears some linear resemblance to "real life" -- he can put whatever he wants in there. What's important is that something undeniable and nontrivial happens to the reader between entry and exit.
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