These musings, written between March 2016 and December 2017, began as brief blog posts. They were put together around the time that James was developing some of his thoughts, feelings, and intuitions behind his Leaving Home Trilogy. Not only do they provide an insight into the sort of family life we’ve all led, in one form or another. But they also offer an insight into the writing process itself, with the occasional thought-provoking question for any writer.
When I began to think about this topic I thought the title would be Your Family: For Better or Worse. But it became clear that the conjunction “or” connects alternatives, better or worse in this case. But in my experience as a psychologist, families do not offer a choice between these two. Every family has its own specific intellectual and emotional atmosphere, or family culture, within which it exists and teaches the children who enter into it what is expected of them in order to feel like members of that family.
The culture of a family is inevitable. Every family has one unique unto itself. This is not to fault the family, it is part of the human condition. Every family has particular beliefs that generate particular worldviews that in turn generate a specific emotional and behaviorally driven condition.
This is why I had to change the title of this piece. The title had to become “Your family: For Better and Worse.” There is no alternative to the family’s atmosphere. And there is no family atmosphere that is not restrictive and in some ways punitive. It doesn’t have to be so consciously. Usually it’s not. That’s why I chose the word atmosphere. Because it best reflects the invisibility of a family condition. It’s all about how people live together and the implications of what they believe together.
This is true—unavoidably. What is taken for granted by the family, it’s cultural do’s and don’ts, become unwittingly relegated to the unconscious aspect of the psyche and therefore fall out of the possibility of what should be considered for examination. Once unconscious, these do’s and don’ts are experienced as the nature of reality. “That’s just the way things are … that’s just the way we are.”
This is not to say that families do not provide deep and enduring values that can support the children as they live their lives. But it doesn’t take much reflection to see how families can injure and even crush a child’s sense of self through this invisible, impenetrable sense that things should be done only in a particular way to avoid being an outsider, even an outcast. This is especially true in intensely religious households.
All we need to do is think of a family where physical and emotional violence occurred on a daily basis, all in the name of love and obedience that teaches a child either that they are to be afraid of the world because the world is dangerous. Or they should take on the world and fight back and themselves become dangerous.
So why is this important? Because once a child internalizes the details of what is taken for granted, those details operate much like a governing algorithm. In moments of decision, even trivial decisions, the algorithm guides, accepts, or prohibits certain choices. This is not a rationally based process but more directed by feeling—whether something feels right or not. It is often called a gut feel, even an intuitive sense. These are incorrect descriptions.
The do’s and don’ts are deeply ingrained rules that applied when they were set in place in the family of origin. Even though they may no longer work well outside that originating and unique set of circumstances. They must be bought to light and left behind before an individual is free to live, hid of her own unique, authentic life.
These are the issues that are brought to life in my Leaving Home Trilogy.
A logic teacher I once had told us that an intuition is like a container, it comes packed with the information you will need in order to realize what you sensed in that intuitive moment, but it must be unpacked.
That statement describes how I go about writing.
I begin with an intuition or what I call “an intuitive hit.” Another way to say this is that I begin with an idea that is emotionally meaningful to me and is pregnant and filled with possibilities. But the details of the story unfold only as I unpack the hit.
How do I know that this will work?
Because of my emotional response, the resonance I feel, the conviction that I am on to something. I have been touched deeply and it’s worth pursuing.
I don’t know what those possibilities are when I begin. In fact there’s no way I can know. Because an intuition is an invitation into mystery, the mystery of the story.
I don’t mean a mystery story, intuitions can result in love stories, sports stories, political stories. I don’t believe you can have an intuition sufficient to motivate you to write outside of what you are usually are interested in.
So when an intuitive hit occurs, I have to pay attention. It’s the entranceway into a gold mine of feelings, images, ideas that become the marrow of the project, a book, a short story, a screenplay.
For example, one of my favorite themes is Leaving Home. I don’t mean the obvious understanding of leaving home—moving to a different house in a different city, or state, or country for that matter. That’s a superficial meaning of the phrase Leaving Home.
The home I am referring to is the psychological home we all carry with us, in the unconscious mostly, as a result of the experiences in our early family life. To leave home deeply, fully, and effectively, requires effort and self-awareness, which are qualities that do not come with birth but must be developed.
In the first book of my Leaving Home trilogy I began with a one-line hit: “Shot and a beer,” Uncle Bo shouted as he walked through the back door, his wife, Irene, in tow. This moment is the first line of my first book, Worship of Hollow Gods. The page opens on a kitchen scene in the home of my parents in Detroit in 1950. Relatives are gathering for a poker and pinochle party— a family ritual. From that intuitive hit a 203-page novel emerged.
I say emerged.
I have learned to trust such intuitive hits and know that they contain all that I need to complete whatever the project is.
Because of my trust, I don’t then lay out a plot. Why not? Because I don’t know the plot. The plot will emerge as the story is being told. Or to say it another way, as the story tells itself as the characters interact and I follow along.
What I do next, after the hit; I begin writing because, in truth, there is nothing else to do. I build my stories around the interaction of the characters organically evolving in situations. And as long as I am honest with the storytelling, the characters who exist inside the intuition will come forth. It’s my job to listen and follow.
I do not impose on a story. That’s to say, I don’t manipulate them to make sure a plot works. I let them lead and the plot comes to life. In that way my writing is very intimate, of the moment, producing a fluidity that makes the reading easy, carrying the reader along. My process makes writing joyful for me—a process of discovery for me and the reader.
The moments in the story are authentic to the story because they belong to the story and not to me. They emerge out of situations and are not known beforehand. This approach protects against predictability. I’m sure you’ve read books or seen movies that from the first moments you know how they will end. You can almost predict the development. That takes the pleasure out of reading, out of being the author’s imaginative partner.
Intuitive “hits” don’t just happen at the beginning of writing, and, of course, when I feel them they must be followed throughout the storytelling. They can change the course of the story and can take it in directions you have to explore to be able to express. Trust your intuitive hits, they are loaded.
You, as the writer you are, the first imaginer, or the first-tier imaginer. You put together the story, the characters, the moments from your own imagination and that makes you the first-tier imaginer. But there comes a point in a really good story when the story itself takes over and begins to lead the process. The story is then the second-tier imaginer by telling you what it needs to keep itself going along.
For me that’s when discovery really occurs. It’s not coming out of my imagination strictly, but in collaboration with what the story is telling me, based on what it needs. And for me this is not merely a technical process. In other words I’m not looking for a transition or turnabout or to create surprise. What happens next arises out of the character in the moment interacting with him or herself and with others. When I’m surprised the surprise is real and not fabricated and the reader will feel that authenticity in the same way I do. Granted the readers are not expected to invent surprising turns, but the reader has to be able to imagine the turn and go along with it emotionally. It is in that way that the reader is an inventor because the reader will imagine far more detail than I ever could. And detail that will be moving to the reader, because the reader is bringing his or her life to the text, and his or her point of view to the text, and will see facets and colors that I couldn’t because my life is limited to my life. As a writer my success is putting something together that will allow the reader to imagine. We become collaborators in the process. Without which no piece of writing can succeed. I am thrilled when my reader tells me something about the story I didn’t see. In my opinion that’s what gives the story universality and emotional connection. I never see myself as more than the first-tier imaginer looking for my collaborators to complete the process.
And so I wonder, how do you relate to your readers? What is see your relationship with them?
By a world beyond, I do not mean a science fiction world, nor do I mean a supernatural world, nor do I mean a paranormal world. What I refer to is the everyday world we experience as we as we go about our lives. It’s the world that is present in its detail and depth that often goes unseen, unperceived. It’s the world of subtlety and nuance that lies hidden in habit, in what we call normality. And in what we take for granted.
As a writer, the task is to bring that beyond world to perception either directly or by implication. But first the writer must experience that subtle world. What you don’t know you can’t write about. What you don’t see you can’t describe. Most important, what you don’t experience you cannot convey in depth in any way that’s compelling.
For example, in my experience, and what I’ve just written about in my most recent novel, When Angels Die, seeing the color of a red rose I asked a number of people where does the color reside on the rose? Almost all of them said on the surface, or words to that effect. When you see the rose the color that you are seeing is on the surface, when in fact the color emerges out from the core of the rose. When you see a red rose the redness of the rose has not been applied to it like color would be applied to a wall. The redness and the rose are equivalent. They are inseparable. Redness is part of the identity of the rose itself.
What about character? When I was 13, I was in a street gang called the Royal Lancers. It was normal. almost demanded. that the guys kept toothpicks in their mouths. Without one you were considered weak. Did the toothpick emerge out of the core of who I was then? Absolutely! It emerged from the world beyond, from my deep almost desperate need to belong somewhere.
At that time I would have done almost anything to feel accepted, to feel valued. And as silly as it may sound now, my identity was wrapped up in that toothpick. That was the world beyond, implied by my keeping that toothpick in my mouth.
On the surface it was just a piece of wood, or a piece of behavior, but it suggested depth to anyone who was looking beyond the surface. And that’s an example of what I mean by a world beyond.
What examples do you have in your writings, with regard to your characters or even you yourself as the narrator, that point to a world beyond?
I believe that implying a world beyond is what makes the story compelling, thereby keeping the reader’s attention. The reader will sense that world, but it’s not obvious. And when the reader connects with that subtle world the story becomes fulfilling, not just interesting, but fulfilling and meaningful.
Being an atheist doesn’t rule out a search for God. My writing, both fiction and non-fiction, is driven by the idea of God. Even though I’ve long abandoned the God(s) of Western Civilization—in my heart my search goes on. Sometimes it’s explicit, but mostly implied.
In my Leaving Home Trilogy the Catholic Church is a central character. But that’s about religion. Religions rise up out of someone’s notion of the supernatural and that’s where God comes in. At least in history. But for me God means the largest, grandest, the most extensive perfection imaginable. So every time I write, I reach for the best I can realize so I am always in the hunt.