Why hurry? (On umbrellas, trains, and the rest of it)

Note: There are many quotations in this article. If you seek the sources, scroll to the bottom, under the photograph of the spider in the cactus.

What is wrong with hurrying?

It’s counterproductive to the task at hand

Hurrying doesn’t always make things happen faster. Sometimes it has the opposite result.

When I was in college, reading a book on meditation by Daniel Condron, I wrote down this observation by the author: “Have you ever noticed that hurrying slows you down. Hurried people are terribly inefficient.” Twenty years later, this clever illustration by John Dickerson fell into my hands: We all know what this desire to execute looks like in our own lives. The president is the jumpy man who presses the elevator button a second time, then a third time—with his umbrella. It feels good. It looks like action. But the elevator does not move faster.”

It’s counterproductive to other tasks

Pressing the elevator button repeatedly means that we are unavailable to do other things. We cannot, for example, look up and speak to the person who is next to us in the elevator.

“When we say we’re busy, we’re really saying that we’re caught in an emotional complex where our will is trapped and we’re not free to do things we might wish for ourselves,” Thomas Moore wrote. “If busyness is an emotional complex, then it’s likely that when we are busiest, we are doing least.”

Making ourselves unavailable to do other things that might be more important is a way of constraining our own freedom.

You can’t ever finish

When Alfie Kohn addressed the student body of a prep school, he realized that many of these high school students had already begun “to put aside books that appealed to them so they could prepare for the college boards.” He mused:

What some of them failed to realize was that none of this ends when they finally get to college. It starts all over again: they will scan the catalogue for courses that promise easy A’s, sign up for new extracurriculars to round out their résumés, and react with gratitude rather than outrage when professors tell them exactly what they need to know for exams so they can ignore everything else. They will define themselves as premed, prelaw, prebusiness—the prefix pre- indicating that everything they are doing now is irrelevant except insofar as it contributes to what they will be doing later.

Nor does this mode of existence end at college graduation. The horizon never comes any closer….well into middle age, they will wake up suddenly in the middle of the night and wonder what happened to their lives.

When we calmly inhabit the present moment and give attention to what we are doing, we have a sense of sufficiency. What we are doing now is enough. It will have to be enough. If it is not enough now, it will never be enough.

You will end up valuing busyness itself

When we ignore whether our habits lead to any valuable goal, we end up in the odd place of valuing busyness itself. This was explored in the 2017 research paper “Conspicuous Consumption of Time: When Busyness and Lack of Leisure Time Become a Status Symbol.” An Internet video conveys a similar idea.

Or, as Carl Honoré put it: “In our hyped-up, faster-is-better culture, a turbocharged life is still the ultimate trophy on the mantelpiece. When people moan, ‘Oh, I’m so busy, I’m run off my feet, my life is a blur, I haven’t got time for anything,’ what they often mean is, ‘Look at me:  I am hugely important, exciting and energetic.'”

Thus, when Americans ask each other “How are you?,” a common answer is, “I’m so busy.” Omid Safi critiques this small talk and offers a different possibility:

In many Muslim cultures, when you want to ask them how they’re doing, you ask: in Arabic, Kayf haal-ik? or, in Persian, Haal-e shomaa chetoreh? How is your haal?

What is this haal that you inquire about? It is the transient state of one’s heart. In reality, we ask, “How is your heart doing at this very moment, at this breath?” When I ask, “How are you?” that is really what I want to know.

Friendships may suffer

Tim Kreider observed that

it isn’t generally people pulling back-to-back shifts in the I.C.U. or commuting by bus to three minimum-wage jobs who tell you how busy they are; what those people are is not busy but tired. Exhausted. Dead on their feet. It’s almost always people whose lamented busyness is purely self-imposed: work and obligations they’ve taken on voluntarily, classes and activities they’ve “encouraged” their kids to participate in. They’re busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence.

* * *

Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.

One symptom of this for Kreider was that, when he asked a friend if he wanted to make plans to meet up,

he answered that he didn’t have a lot of time but if something was going on to let him know and maybe he could ditch work for a few hours. I wanted to clarify that my question had not been a preliminary heads-up to some future invitation; this was the invitation. But his busyness was like some vast churning noise through which he was shouting out at me, and I gave up trying to shout back over it.

There’s nothing to get out of it

Kierkegaard famously wrote in Either/Or in 1843:

The most ludicrous of all ludicrous things, it seems to me, is to be busy in the world, to be a man who is brisk at his meals and brisk at his work….What, after all, do these busy bustlers achieve? Are they not just like that woman who, in a flurry because the house was on fire, rescued the fire tongs? What more, after all, do they salvage from life’s huge conflagration?’

This is the simple observation that life is something we live, not something we can extract something else from. Moving faster, even to the point of panic, does not facilitate our getting more of a thing that isn’t there to be gotten at all.

It’s a game that isn’t authentically yours

Nassim Nicholas Taleb recalls receiving “life-changing advice” from Jean-Olivier Tedesco that was “applicable, wise, and empirically valid.” While they were students in Paris, Tedesco stopped him from running for the subway and said, “I don’t run for trains.” Taleb says, “I have taught myself to resist running to keep on schedule. This may seem a very small piece of advice, but it registered. In refusing to run to catch trains, I have felt the true value of elegance and aesthetics in behavior, a sense of being in control of my time, my schedule, and my life. Missing a train is only painful if you run after it!”

Taleb extends this observation to make a larger point: As we fulfill steps toward a goal, we feel more in control in each moment when that goal is one that we chose for ourselves and not one that was preset for us. “You have far more control over your life if you decide on your criterion by yourself,” he writes. “It is more difficult to be a loser in a game you set up yourself.” Life is full of unpredictable events, but “you always control what you do; so make this your end.”

If you set up your own goal and your own game to reach it, it’s likely that you’ll choose a game that involves less hurrying.

It interferes with moral judgments

Susan Sontag explained:

When we make moral judgments, we are not just saying that this is better than that. Even more fundamentally, we are saying that this is more important than that. It is to order the overwhelming spread and simultaneity of everything, at the price of ignoring or turning our backs on most of what is happening in the world.

The nature of moral judgments depends on our capacity for paying attention — a capacity that, inevitably, has its limits but whose limits can be stretched.

Hurrying may make you more aggressive

When we are playing a game that demands rapid responses, we do not allocate extra time for unexpected occurrences, and we may perceive them as interruptions or threats. We may respond in haste, rather than seeking to understand them and responding with thought, compassion, and grace.

Hurrying may be a form of panic, which Kent Russell describes as “an emotional state in which what was once background noise suddenly overwhelms everything else in one’s head.”

An introduction to The Book of Five Rings explains:

He [the Zen-trained martial artist] truly acts only in response to aggression. He does not seek it out. When made, his responses are non-resistant and non-violent. He is a man of peace, content to paint his paintings, arrange his flowers, and practice his swordsmanship, in all ways constantly refining his technique.

When called upon to act, he simply acts. When he paints, he paints. When he uses his sword, he simply uses his sword. When he is pushed, he does not push back. He lets whatever it is go right past him. His response is purely defensive. It is also decisive.

It causes exhaustion and doesn’t give you a way to recharge

Brené Brown imagines a “dig-deep button” that enables “pushing through when we’re exhausted and overwhelmed, and when there’s too much to do and too little time for self-care.” Her acronym “DIG” refers to people who get

Deliberate in their thoughts and behaviors through prayer, meditation or simply setting their intentions;

Inspired to make new and different choices;

Going. They take action.

You can’t contemplate if you’re hurrying

Patricia Hampl tells this story:

“Can you say,” I once inquired of a sixty-year-old cloistered nun who had lived (vibrantly, it seemed) from the age of nineteen in her monastery cell, “what the core of contemplative life is?”

“Leisure,” she said, without hesitation, her china blue eyes cheerfully steady on me. I suppose I expected her to say, “Prayer.” Or maybe “The search for God.” Or “Inner peace.” Inner peace would have been good. One of the big-ticket items of spirituality.

She saw I didn’t see.

“It takes time to do this,” she said finally.

Contemplation allows you to experience and interpret the world in different ways. If you always hurry, you miss those observations, activities and insights.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi writes:

Each person allocates his or her limited attention either by focusing it intentionally like a beam of energy…or by diffusing it in desultory, random movements. The shape and content of life depend on how attention has been used. Entirely different realities will emerge depending on how it is invested.

* * *

The ‘battle’ is not really against the self, but against the entropy that brings disorder to consciousness. It is really a battle for the self; it is a struggle for establishing control over attention.

* * *

People who suffer from attentional disorders, who cannot keep their minds from wandering, always feel left out of the flow of life. They are at the mercy of whatever stray stimulus happens to flash by. To be distracted against one’s will is the surest sign that one is not in control. Yet it is amazing how little effort most people make to improve control of their attention. If reading a book seems too difficult, instead of sharpening concentration we tend to set it aside and instead turn on the television…

It prevents you from telling your stories

Sam Keen writes:

Ultimately, our addiction to speed cannot be solved by Prozac. Yet there is good news: we are bio-mythic animals, and when myths change we change with them. But what is required of us is nothing less than conversion to a worldview that runs counter to that of homo economicus.

Speed is the essence of profane time. Sacred time is polymorphous, a many-splendored thing. It produces a calmer nervous system, a more harmonious balance between waking and dreaming life. It weaves past, present, and future (memory, awareness, and hope) into a coherent narrative.

Emptiness and silence, too, plays a role. There is such a thing as “blank art.” Craig Dworkin, author of No Medium, explains different meanings of blankness to an interviewer.

There are silences in churches that are fraught with emotional meaning, like a moment of silence. There is silent prayer, there is silence when people are bored, or simply when nobody’s there. Context makes us imagine a moment of silence in different, affective ways.

It reduces your happiness

“Of all the emotions,” Alan Downs writes, “joy is the one that requires that you be fully present in the moment. When you aren’t fully present, you can’t feel joy.”

“I am so made that worry and anxiety are sand in the machinery of life,” E. Stanley Jones said. He added that worry made him feel distanced from his authentic being: “To live by worry is to live against Reality.”

It prevents you from helping others

Psychological researchers Darley and Batson asked seminarians to prepare and present a brief talk on the parable of the Good Samaritan. Malcolm Gladwell described the research:

“Along the way to the presentation, each student ran into a man slumped in an alley, head down, eyes closed, coughing and groaning. * * * ‘It is hard to think of a context in which norms concerning helping those in distress are more salient than for a person thinking about the Good Samaritan, and yet it did not significantly increase helping behavior,’ Darley and Batson concluded.  ‘Indeed, on several occasions, a seminary student going to give his talk on the parable of the Good Samaritan literally stepped over the victim as he hurried on his way.’  The only thing that really mattered was whether the student was in a rush.  Of the group that was, 10 percent stopped to help.  Of the group who knew they had a few minutes to spare, 63 percent stopped.”

Wayne Teasdale told a similar anecdote about an everyday life experience.

Two of these three monks were Benedictine, and one was a Trappist. I know all three very well; one told me the story because it had so disturbed him. They were walking to their car from the hotel where the sessions of the Parliament were held. As they walked, the Trappist was presenting an idea about service to the homeless, expanding on the talk they had just participated in, while the other two listened. As they got deeply into their discussion, a street person lying prostrate on the pavement began to call to them. Two of them continued the conversation, taking no notice of the man, even though it was impossible to miss his presence.

Teasdale’s point is that the youngest monk “wanted to do something, at least to talk to the poor soul, but he didn’t know how to approach him,” and “realized that he’d never received any teaching in his monastery about the demands of compassion, how to move from theory to action.” But another possible takeaway from this story is that the older monks, who presumably could have thought of a concrete action, made themselves unavailable to help because they were too busy talking.

Some studies have found that “you are much more likely to be generous when you are near a bakery sending out the delicious smell of freshly baked bread rather than ‘a neutral-smelling dry goods store,'” Raymond Tallis said. Being in touch with our senses is part of being unhurried.

spider_closeup
Spider in cactus. Superior, Colorado. Oct. 22, 2018.

 

Sources

Daniel Condron. Superconscious Meditation:  Kundalini and the Understanding of the Whole Mind. Windyville, Missouri:  SOM Publishing, 1998. p. 58.

“The Hardest Job in the World.” John Dickerson. The Atlantic. May 2018.

Thomas Moore. The Re-Enchantment of Everyday Life. New York: HarperCollins, 1996. p. 6.

Alfie Kohn. Punished by Rewards:  The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993. pp. 204-205.

Carl Honoré. In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed. New York: HarperCollins, 2004. p. 49.

“The ‘Busy’ Trap.” Tim Kreider. New York Times Opinionator. June 30, 2012.

“The Disease of Being Busy.” Omid Safi. On Being. Nov. 6, 2014.

“Kierkegaard on escaping the cult of busyness.” Karl Aho and C. Stephen Evans. IAI News. Oct. 4, 2018.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb. The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. New York: Random House, 2007. p. 297.

Susan Sontag. At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches. Quoted by Maria Popova. “Susan Sontag on Storytelling, what it means to be a moral human being, and her advice to writers.” Brain Pickings. March 30, 2015.

“The Disaster Tourist.” Kent Russell. Highline. Jan. 25, 2018.

Introduction by Nihon Services Corporation to Miyamoto Musashi’s The Book of Five Rings. (1645) Translation and commentary by Nihon Services Corporation (Bradford J. Brown, Yuko Kashiwagi, William H. Barrett, and Eisuke Sasagawa). New York: Bantam, 1982. p. xxx.

Brené Brown. The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are. Center City, Minn.: Hazelden Publishing, 2010.

Patricia Hampl. Blue Arabesque: A Search for the Sublime. Orlando, Fl.: Harcourt, 2006.  p. 9.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Harper Perennial Modern Classics. pp. 33, 40, 211.

Sam Keen. In the Absence of God: Dwelling in the Presence of the Sacred. New York: Harmony Books, 2010. pp. 39-40.

“The joy (and irritation) of blank art.” Eugenia Williamson, interviewing Craig Dworkin. Boston Globe. Feb. 10, 2013.

Alan Downs. The Velvet Rage: Overcoming the Pain of Growing up Gay in a Straight Man’s World. (Second Edition) Da Capo Lifelong Books, 2012.

E. Stanley Jones, quoted in Treasury of Courage and Confidence, ed. Norman Vincent Peale. Indiana: Warner Press, 1970, 1974. p 110.

Malcolm Gladwell. The Tipping Point:  How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 2000. pp. 164-165.

Wayne Teasdale.  A Monk in the World:  Cultivating a Spiritual Life.  Novato, Calif.:  New World Library, 2002.  p. 124.

Raymond Tallis. Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity. Durham, UK: Acumen, 2011. p. 53. His footnote: “This is one of many examples discussed in Appiah, Experiments in Ethics. For an excellent critical account, see Turner, “Ethics Made Easy”.

‘Painting Dragons’ is now in paperback!

Painting Dragons was released last month for Kindle. Now, you can also get it in paperback. This groundbreaking new work is about gender stereotypes in fiction. I hope you’ll take a look and recommend it to someone who might be interested.

Painting Dragons

Reflections: Skull Photo

I am pleased with today’s photo of an empty tattoo studio in Bogotá, Colombia. A painter has left an easel with a canvas showing severed heart valves growing from the top of a pink skull. The skull appears to be held up by a living hand, and there is an urban background. My own reflection is caught in the mirror. A passing taxi, and the elevated platform of the bus station behind it, are reflected in the mirror and in the window glass.

The photo plays on the theme of reflection. The absent artist is reflected in their work. I am reflected in the mirror designed for that purpose. The taxi, also reflected but more accidentally and transiently, connects my body and the artist’s work.

2018-11-09 pink skull.jpg

‘Painting Dragons’ is born

Painting Dragons book cover image

After decades of research, the book was ready. I put myself into the book, and I accepted the help of editors, an artist, and a coach, without whose assistance I could not have finished this project.

Painting Dragons: What Storytellers Need to Know About Writing Eunuch Villains

This book is free for Kindle today and tomorrow (Oct. 21 and 22).

Painting Dragons book cover image

This book is about how castrated men are often portrayed as monsters in fiction. I ask: What’s the “evil eunuch” stereotype, and why do novelists reproduce it? In this book, I explore the stereotypes that fashion these cruel, warped characters and encourage fiction writers to change the game.

I would like you to see the book and work your way around and through it. I would like to hear your opinions. Please download the book and post a review. (Remember, it’s free today and tomorrow.) Please share the link to this book with someone who needs to know about it. The book is no longer mine. It is for all of you.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

A flower with legs

Photos of a small yellow spider in an alcaparro tree. Bogotá, Colombia.

The bud has legs?

A yellow spider on a tree with yellow flowers.

Yes.

Another view of the yellow spider.

The tree is alive in multiple ways.

A closeup of the yellow spider.

I Want to Reply, But I Don’t Want to Squabble: On Avoiding Online Fights

I see what you said, and it is unacceptable.
It threatens my worldview.
It breaks apart the extended community as if we are rope unspun into threads, twisted between careless fingers, returned to bits of dry grass.
I might have to make a comment.
But I see I will not change you.
I need not make the same comment eight times.
The more I say it, the more you will think you have won when I stop saying it.
You are not “entitled to your opinion” if it is wrong, but I cannot explain why it is wrong, because the given box in which I must challenge your metaphysics is the size of my thumbnail.
I am not entitled to have you endorse my opinion, either.
I believe I am entitled to my opinion because I believe my argument is sound.
I believe I am entitled to enjoy today without listening to how you invalidate my experience.
I may have to make a comment to feel that I pushed back against the darkness.
Hear me out.
(Unless you are a bot who has no ears to hear.)
Hear how I make my home on a rocky cliff of ideas where you leave me pointed sticks to build my nest and claim all the soft grass as yours.
You claim that it is yours and has always been yours.
If I were to invite you to my nest, you’d see it is also lined with grass. I’m not as primitive as you may think.
But you’re not invited over.
I have left one comment. This is just to say: I hear you. You are wrong.
I wish there were a symbol that meant: Now I let go of you. You cannot bait me further.
I am not a fish. You are not a sailor.
Neither of us is a shark.
With equanimity and an open heart, I reveal my sacred face to you, I do not let you touch me, and I set you free.
There is a palace where we are reconciled and at peace. There is a day on which we help each other decorate the ballroom with the same silver-green grass.
This box is not that palace, and today is not that day.

Launch team opens! Learn how you can get a free copy of ‘Painting Dragons’

Why does the “evil eunuch” stereotype exist? How does it play out in novels?

Writers: How might you change the game in your novel?

Painting Dragons: What Storytellers Need to Know About Writing Eunuch Villains is coming in Fall 2018! This book examines how castrated men have been stereotyped in fiction. If this subject is as fascinating for you as it has been for me, I’d love for you to join my book launch team. Launch team members get a free, advance copy of the eBook and are asked to post a review on Amazon on the launch day.

Ready to sign up? Fill out this survey to let me know what interests you and how you’d like to help! I look forward to connecting with you.

Your Audience: ‘Market’ or ‘Gremlin’?

Writers are often advised to identify their audience. What does that mean, though?

Suppose I’m writing a grocery shopping list because my roommate is going to the store for me. My “audience” ought to be my roommate. He shares much of my background knowledge and many of my assumptions (for example, our dietary preferences, whether we are likely to share a meal and who’s going to cook it, what the food should cost, whether our refrigerator is working, etc.). I might simply write “tomatoes for lasagna” and expect that he will decide on the appropriate number of tomatoes to buy, along with remembering to check if we already have onion before he leaves for the store.

But suppose I write that he should buy “lots of small tomatoes so we can make a lasagna that is actually good”. My roommate scratches his head. Was there a lasagna I once didn’t like? Am I criticizing his cooking? Is bad lasagna the result of not buying the right kind of tomatoes, or not enough of them? What will happen if I’m not satisfied with the tomatoes or the lasagna? In this case, I still “know my audience” insofar as I give the shopping list to my roommate, but somehow I haven’t quite written it for him.

gremlinIn this situation, my roommate is the “market,” the one I’m selling or distributing my writing to. But in the second example, I didn’t write to my market. I wrote to my “gremlin.” The gremlin is some other entity in my imagination.

If I suffered a tomato fiasco years ago, I may still have strong tomato gremlins in my imagination, and my roommate may be unaware of them. Writing a shopping list may dredge up those memories. If I start talking directly to my personal “gremlin,” however, I must notice that I’m doing so and stop myself because my “market” won’t make sense of what I’m saying. It would be as if I were talking to someone in my mind who is no longer present, and the person who is present may think I’m a little crazy. My opinions and arguments will seem mysterious or random to him. They are not shared assumptions, so I either need to explain them more fully or hold my tongue entirely.

There’s a real-life audience to whom you ultimately plan to show your work, and there’s a shadow audience in your imagination while you’re writing each word. The shadows are full of gremlins. Make sure they don’t lead you too far astray. Your shadow audience should resemble your intended real-life audience as closely as possible. Let this be a cautionary tale.

Writing the negative space

Holocaust Memorial. Artist: Andy DeComyn.

When we set out to draw an object, we usually imagine the object in the foreground of the picture, draw its outline, and fill it in. This is a representation of “positive space.” It is also possible to represent an object in “negative space” by drawing everything that is not it. This is less frequently done, so it often surprises us.

This can happen in verbal descriptions, too. Psychotherapy clients often talk about everything except what’s most important to them. The absence of the important theme may become noticeable to the listener, who is then able to fill in the gaps.

Fiction can be written in negative space, perhaps. But whether you write in positive or negative space, you still need to know what you are trying to communicate. If you don’t know what your image, idea, or message is, you can’t identify “everything that isn’t it.”

Photo: Holocaust Memorial at Church Green, near Redditch, Worcestershire, Great Britain. Artist: Andy DeComyn. Photographer: P L Chadwick. Creative Commons license.

My favorite books

From my reading list over the past fifteen years, here’s some the books I’ve most enjoyed.

A touch of magic: Sabine Baring-Gould’s The Book of Were-Wolves; Carol K. Mack’s A Field Guide to Demons, Fairies, Fallen Angels and Other Subversive Spirits; Kate DiCamillo’s The Magician’s Elephant; Ransom Rigg’s Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children; G. Willow Wilson’s Alif the Unseen; Moacyr Scliar’s The Centaur in the Garden; Matt Haig’s The Humans; Jeremy P. Bushnell’s The Weirdness; and Charlie Jane Anders’ All the Birds in the Sky.

On getting in touch with ourselves: Kathleen Dean Moore’s Riverwalking; Stephen Batchelor’s Living with the Devil; Thomas Dumm’s Loneliness as a Way of Life; Adam Phillips’ Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life; Mary-Louise Parker’s Dear Mr. You; and Dag Hammarskjöld’s personal reflections, Markings, adapted for English by W. H. Auden, after which I found a desire to have my own journals adapted by a poet.

On processing difficult experiences: Haruki Murakami’s Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage; Kenzaburō Ōe’s novel A Personal Matter about the birth of a disabled child; Zora Neale Hurston’s Barracoon (an interview in 1927 with the last survivor of a slaveship from West Africa to antebellum America); and Primo Levi’s memoir Survival in Auschwitz (also known as If This is a Man) and his sequel The Reawakening.

On ethics: Susan Neiman’s Moral Clarity, Joshua D. Greene’s Moral Tribes, Nikki Stern’s Because I Say So, Mary Midgley’s Wickedness, and Eric Felten’s Loyalty.

On literature: Anatole Broyard’s New York literary scene memoir Kafka Was the Rage, Edward Hirsch’s How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry, Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia, Lee Siegel’s Falling Upwards, F. González-Crussi’s On the Nature of Things Erotic, and Robert Bly and Marion Woodman’s Maiden King.

On understanding the mind: Lisa Zunshine’s Why We Read Fiction, Robert A. Burton’s On Being Certain, George Marshall’s Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, and Abby Covert’s How to Make Sense of Any Mess: Information Architecture for Everybody.

And a few that are hard to classify here but that thrilled me nonetheless: Anita Amirrezvani’s historical novel about Iran, Equal of the Sun; Jacqueline Woodson’s poems Brown Girl Dreaming; Douglas J. Penick’s The Brilliance of Naked Mind; and Patrick Harpur’s The Philosopher’s Secret Fire: A History of the ImaginationSurprises can impact us most.

Interview with Billie Kelpin: “All any of us wants is to be understood and to understand”

Billie Kelpin generously shares with me her thoughts on creativity and the writing process. Her website is billiekelpin.com. – Tucker Lieberman

T.L.: How has being left-handed affected who you are?

billie_kelpinB.K.: I love this question because I truly think being left-handed in a right-handed world has given me a few insights and also a few challenges.

I always felt left-handed, much like any member of any minority feels his or her difference. It wasn’t until I started identifying more often as left-handed, talking more about being left-handed and noticing other left-handers that I felt part of a group that has a secret. I started to feel pride in how I adapt to the world once I realized I was adapting! I think one of the most significant comments to me was when my husband explained exactly why I always fumbled around opening a bottle of wine with a right-handed corkscrew in terms of physics. He explained that less torque is exerted on a corkscrew by a left-handed user. I bought a left-handed corkscrew from Lefty’s in San Francisco and have a lot of fun giving it to right-handed friends.

Realizing how much I adapt to the world, as do all left-handers, makes me feel proud in a way. It’s like the pride any of us has knowing secretly that we are meeting a challenge that others might not realize.

The biggest challenge in being left-handed, I feel, is to not feel awkward alongside right-handers. My favorite job ever was in an office where three of the five of us were left-handed! I was with my peeps!

How has your work in Deaf Education changed your understanding of language, art, and people?

I have almost a spiritual reverence for language because of my work in Deaf Education. The fact that we are connected culturally because of the language we speak and that our thinking is affected by language amazes me. I have the greatest admiration for people who are bi-lingual, tri-lingual, and beyond!

I find the teaching of English idioms fascinating and the ability to try to translate phrases like “take it for granted,” “off the record,” and a myriad of other phrases challenging and exciting.

In reference to art, I think that understanding the world visually and expressing that through the visual medium of sign language is a unique skill. An American Sign Language instructor I once had asked the hearing people in his class to describe sitting on a train and looking out the window. After watching all of us fumble awkwardly trying to relate the words of the scene into sign, he did one movement of his index finger representing telephone poles moving. A total visual representation of a complex sentence with one visual movement! Fascinating.

As for understanding of people, Deaf Education has taught me that all any of us wants is to be understood and to understand, no matter what form that takes.

How do you see the role of illustrations in children’s books?

lucky_the_left_pawed_puppyThe role of illustrations in children’s books is critical not only in picture books, but in chapter books as well. After I saw Julie Parker’s interpretation of “Short Stuff,” one of the dogs I wrote about in Lucky, the Left Pawed Puppy, I had a whole new idea for the story of that dog’s personality based on her illustration of him.

What finished project were you most satisfied with?

I think I was most satisfied with “The Perfect Husband App” that we are attempting to republish. It had over 8000 downloads without any advertising. I was satisfied that I had come up with a title that pulled people in. That simple app was an attempt to help couples to use phrases that seem to increase communication:

I’ll fix that, TODAY, Hon

I’m sorry.

You continue to fascinate me.

You’re amazing just the way you are.

You make me want to be a better person. 

I think the response to that app was the part that was most satisfying.

In “Shoes of 9/11,” you talk about attachment to symbols as a way of making meaning from chaos. What’s a symbol that speaks to you these days?

The answer that comes to mind is a book written in 1986 by Robert Fulghum, All I Really Needed to Learn, I Learned in Kindergarten. The kindergarten rules are to be kind, respectful, and share. No bullying is allowed in kindergarten. Kindergarten is a place for exploring science and nature. It’s a place where we’re taught respect for each other no matter where we’re from. We help the new kid or the kid who’s in trouble. We are taught respect for our environment. It’s a place where making money has no meaning. So all in all, the symbol that speaks to me these days is the kindergarten classroom.

Is there crossover in your work aimed at kids and your work aimed at adults, or do you keep those separate?

polly_and_measuring_stickThere is a crossover in a story I wrote years ago, Polly and the Measuring Stick. That story started off as a children’s story, but now I think it would be considered an allegory for all ages. It speaks to the problem we all encounter when we compare ourselves with others. It has an important message for all ages. The thread running through all my work seems to be psychological — stories that explore who we are, how we got that way, and what to do with that information once we have it! This whole thing called life seems to me too important to not try to figure out.

How do you connect with other writers?

I am a member of Orange County Writers in California. I would encourage writers to keep searching until you find the group that is perfect for you. If you’re in a rural area, start your own writing group. Our OC Writers has an online calendar of events that any group could use as a helpful model.

What do you like to read?

I am one of the very few writers who is not an avid reader! Perhaps that’s why I struggle so much with writing a novel. I do a great deal of subvocalizing when I read which means I hear every word in my head and can only read as fast as I talk.

I’d like others like me to know that it is possible to be a writer if you’re not that enthusiastic of a reader. When I do read, I like to read essays on philosophy, politics or psychology. The dialog I use in short stories and novels is dialog I pick up from listening to speech more than I do from reading. I think that actually can be a very positive trait. The precise storytelling part is the hardest to pick up if you’re not an avid fiction reader.

What reaction do you hope people will have to your work? What do you hope they’ll take away?

Crying is always a good reaction! Laughing would make me happy as well! Seriously, I’d like it if my writing evokes some emotion or provides an insight that makes the reader’s own path in life more meaningful, perhaps more fun, or just plain easier in some way. Words are like gold to me. Authors who have put words together in that special way that reaches a soul have gotten me through the hardest of times and provided joy in the best of times. I’d love to be able to write one sentence that would do that for someone.

‘Pokerface’: A new short story with detectives and magic (June 2018 giveaway)

Pokerface, by Tucker Lieberman
Pokerface by Tucker Lieberman

I’m giving away 100 e-copies of my new short story, “Pokerface,” for Kindle. The giveaway began this morning, and it was a delight to wake up and see that so many people have already entered for a chance to win! [Update: Entries closed on June 27, 2018.]

If you are excited to read it and don’t want to wait a week for the outcome of what promises to be a competition for the available copies, it’s only 99 cents on Amazon (and free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers). Thanks for your support.

Story description: Jack, a private eye in New York City in 1940, searches for a missing ruby after he is hired by a Brooklyn man who dabbles in ancient Egyptian magic. It might take multiple detectives to solve this one. A short story with a touch of the supernatural.