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.
The following “musings” have been arranged from the oldest to the most recent pieces at the end so you can read through the evolution of James’ thoughts.
It Begins with Your First Breath
March 28, 2016
At the moment of your birth you began to receive impressions of the world you were born into. The impressions were environmental—the emotional feeling, tone that surrounded you—and physical—touch, sound, sight.
At the time of your birth your brain hadn’t yet developed sufficiently to record your experiences in any other way. But you were recording your responses nonetheless. Those impressions were arising from both the external world around you as well as what was going on inside of you. Your experiences were pre-verbal, that is to say pre-cognitive, and they were already beginning to form what will become the unconscious “ghosts of childhood” aspect of your life experience.
So your life, as is everyone’s, is a composite of your more mature conscious awareness and your unconscious content—the impressions that were recorded beneath the level of your awareness throughout your whole life.
During your infancy up to about two years old your child’s brain cannot distinguish between inside and outside. It’s all one and the same. But as you grow that distinction becomes more apparent and is often very frustrating leading to what some parents call “the terrible twos.”
But what’s actually happening is that the child’s brain is growing in its ability to distinguish between “me” and “not me” and a rudimentary self is emerging.
What’s important here is that the early and ongoing unconscious impressions can grip and hold you, resulting in feelings, impressions, and behaviors that, although they are yours, are not wholly within your conscious control.
Just think of a time when you did something or said something that surprised you. It’s quite common for people to say things like—”Where did that come from?”, or “I can’t believe I said that”, or “I didn’t realize I was doing that”.
For another example—have you ever been driving and when you reached your destination you couldn’t remember how you got there?
Or have you ever walked into a room and couldn’t remember what you were doing there?
These experiences are evidence that there is more to your behavior than meets your conscious awareness.
Many people feel the need to change their lives but discover that it isn’t as easy as it sounds. Lose weight. Begin a project. Change how they feel about something. But they feel gripped by internal “forces”—the Ghosts of Childhood—that have more control than your conscious intentions. These unconscious forces, what’s called unconscious content, can be far stronger than whatever they have set out to do. It’s a common experience—when have you experienced this stuckness?
Does What You Believe Belong to You?
March 28, 2016
What a silly question. How can it be otherwise?
Are you religious? A believer in one faith or another? Were your parents believers in that faith as well? Your extended family? Your grandparents? Your neighborhood? Your nation?
From your birth, were you given a chance to choose from a variety of religious faiths or perhaps no faith at all?
Were you even taught, as I was, that when you walk past a church other than Catholic (fill in your own denomination) you were to spit? Or should you as much as step foot into another church, which constituted a mortal sin, and did not rush to immediately confess yourself, you were liable to be plunged into hell for all eternity without recourse or remedy (again fill in your own sin)?
Have you tried to deconstruct what you believe and arrive at your own conclusions as to the verity and validity of what you believe? Did you succeed? Some do. But most give up the effort because it takes painstaking and meticulous commitment to trace what one believes to its core and thus be able to question it, dissect it, and eventually get it to evaporate (sort of).
This is all true, in one form or another, of all religious dogma and doctrine. And these pronouncements have been in place and preached for millennia so they did not originate when you came into this world. I ask again—were you given a choice?
The point here, using the example of religion, is that the task of uprooting and dissolving unconscious beliefs brings with it an inordinate demand because much of what must be identified and unraveled is buried out of sight in the unconscious. Only and until life visits you with a belief-breaking event does it (in most cases) even arise to mind that you might be embedded in an illusion—or at least some precept that no longer works for you.
These are the thought-provoking insights that I explore in my Leaving Home Trilogy.
Writing About the Process of Writing
July 5, 2016
I’ve never seen a writer write a blog about what it’s like during the process of writing.
What’s the day-to-day like—really like?
What’s it like when everything is flowing?
What’s it like when you have to pull teeth to get a sentence on paper?
Not just talking about the craft of writing, but the work of it. That’s what I now intend to do. Report on my work as I am doing it. I’m going to do this not just because I’ve never seen it. I’m going to do it because I fully expect it will make me a better writer for the effort.
As I’m here at the edge of this final book in my trilogy project, I have no real idea what will happen. Sure I have ideas and I, no doubt, will put many of them on these pages. But the depth of what will happen, that’s another story.
I’ll write about the good times and the bad times; when words fall into place and I sit back and read beautiful sentences; when I just don’t hit a wall but merge with the wall so I feel like I’m inside of it and can’t get out, forward or back.
Is that “writer’s block”? I don’t think so. I can always write my way out of jams. It’s more than that. It happens when I feel lost, when I don’t have a feel for the story so I don’t know what to do next. Am I procrastinating? Waiting for inspiration? What the hell is happening?
Anyway, that’s what this pieces will be about for now.
I invite you to join me. I hope you will.
How Do You Envision Your Imagination?
January 12, 2017
I see my imagination as a field impenetrable to light, a black opacity up from which ideas, feelings, characters, stories emerge from my investigation and choice. They are immaterial, invisible, and they become as concrete and palpable as this chair I’m in, as the computer I’m using, as the figures that people my paragraphs and pages.
January 16, 2017
The world is a mirror reflecting other mirrors.
Mirrors upon Mirrors.
I’m at Starbucks. I see a man with a pot belly. I think of Buddha. Not as a representation but as a justification for a redemption of the man’s pot belly.
Have you ever seen Buddha’s belly? It’s huge.
The man at Starbucks sits down with a medium cup of coffee and milk (I don’t know Starbuck’s jargon that describes sizes) and a pastry—perhaps the cause of his belly, perhaps not.
As I look around, all the men, including me, have potbellies except one, a football player type. We all mirror one another and are mirrors for one another whether we’re aware of it, or whether we like it or not. We are mirrors for all pot bellies around the world. Mirror upon mirrors.
Getting Over a Wall
January 18, 2017
I think every writer who writes fiction—i.e. not a journalist, reporter, or documentary writer—writes autobiographically. Where else does the content and imagery come from?
I’m working to finish an autobiographical trilogy—Leaving Home—and I can get trapped in thinking that story details have to parallel the events of my life.
Well today I was released.
I had no problem in the first two books but hit a wall with the third—having to recount actual events. NO! I’m writing a story. Yes it’s about my life. But it’s first and foremost a story. I can build it how I want to make the story work.
What a relief!
Editor, Maxwell Perkins, circa 1943
Fitzgerald, Wolfe, and Hemingway
January 20, 2017
I’m reading a wonderful book—Max Perkins: Editor of Genius by A. Scott Berg. Perkins was the editor for F. Scott, Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe, among others. It’s a very intimate portrait of Perkins as he related to his writers and as he himself grew as a man.
It’s very revealing of who these men were in their day-to-day lives, their brilliances, struggles, rages, and elations and how Perkins, whom they respectfully and affectionately called Max, managed them. He was editor, mentor, psychiatrist, financial advisor, and a deep, deep friend. His belief in them kept them going. He inspired them to produce at their best.
It opened my mind to the realities they endured and I felt support by Max.
I’ve found it more than just worth the read.
Behind the Obvious
January 23, 2017
There is always something behind the obvious. Always.
It’s what creates mystery and curiosity. If life were utterly transparent, many people would just check out. As Hamlet considers—do we repudiate the hurts and insults of life and take ourselves out? But what follows? That’s the stopper. There are times when ending it is not so bad an option. The meaninglessness. The madness. The who knows what? So why do we stay?
Because of what’s behind the obvious, which is either compelling and we want to discover, or terrifying and we’re not up to the risk. The Behind-the-Obvious is the dark and the light magic of life, the obsession for those who can’t resist and the bludgeon for those who are bled of courage and can’t act.
Subtext or no Subtext
January 25, 2017
I’ve been re-reading Hemingway lately. And I still don’t get why he is highly praised.
Recently I read a piece on Hemingway by critic Harold Bloom. In it he says that Hemingway’s power was found in his style: that is: short declarative sentences. That’s pretty clear, but why?
Bloom argues that Hemingway’s intention was not to write what he wanted his reader to feel and fill in. Said positively, he wanted to create a prose through which the reader could experience the background, the emotional background, for which the words were just symptomatic (my words.) Hemingway did not respect writers who “overwrote” as he called it.
For the reader to use his or her imagination to fill in the subtext—perhaps not even the subtext but the actual story for which the text is only an indication, a pointer to the reality of the narrative is for me, intellectually interesting but emotionally vacant. One such example is one of Hemingway’s short stories, “A Clean Well-Lighted Room”, which is the story about an old, deaf man in a tavern, which is actually a story about nothingness. You might argue that nothingness and emptiness are synonymous, so I got it. Maybe.
But I didn’t feel it and I didn’t read to engage in a math exercise. I find Hemingway flat.
Dot Net Just in Case
January 27, 2017
Recently I came up with a new title for the third book of my trilogy. What’s it going to be, I thought? And then I decided—“When Angels Die”.
The first thing I did was check with GoDaddy.com only to find out that Whenangelsdie.com is not available.
So next step, go online and see who has it. Maybe they’re not using it. Turns out it’s the name of a heavy metal band that describes itself as a combination of beauty and melody contrasted against unparalleled aggression and chaos. Aggression and chaos for damn sure. Beauty and melody like the scrape of a large plow on concrete. What a downer. Dot.net is available. So I bought it just in case.
A Gambler’s Anatomy
January 30, 2017
I’ve just finished reading a review by Kurt Andersen of Jonathan Lethem’s new book A Gambler’s Anatomy in the New York Times Book Review Section.
Andersen wrote that he likes Lethem’s “fundamental literary ratios—plot-to-pensées, comedy-to-tragedy—and the prose is a pleasure, lucid sentences that swerve and surprise without being show-offy”.
Andersen’s statement is a condensed and concise lesson in writing fiction.
Plot-to-Pensées (Plot-to-Reflection or Thought) — Pure plot novels, no matter the twists and turns, are mechanical. No matter the content, a heavily plot novel is predictable. The most obvious example of this predictability are Romance Novels. Read one and you’ve read them all. They are without thought or reflection because pensée would get in the way of the titillation. A moment’s reflection would strip the fantasy of its power and drain the reading of any purpose or pleasure. There is a need for plot to shape and control the narrative. But plot alone is like a skeleton without a face.
When a Work Comes to Life
February 1, 2017
Autobiographical fiction, which is what I am writing at this time, is neither purely autobiographical nor is it purely fiction.
As the story emerges it creates its own demands—dramatic, narrative, poetic—and those demands take more of a lead than anything I may have thought in advance. That’s what I love about writing—the discovery. All my stories to date are based on the phrase, Inspired by Real Life Events.
And that’s true. They all happened in real life.
But those events, as they occurred, did not have the need for clarity, unity, coherent characters, and a narrative line holding them together. They just happened. Now I am shaping them to bring a reader along. It’s this last point—bringing the reader along—that turns what happens in life into a genuine “story”, a consciously directed telling with the intent to capture, hold, and move the reader.
Very often real life doesn’t do that. It can’t. Real life is not a work. Much too much goes on, is implied, is layered to accurately and precisely write it down. The amount of detail alone, in any one moment, would be both overwhelming let alone boring. So choices have to be made. And it’s in that process of consciously choosing that the “story” comes to life. Because choices are being made to serve the story the result is neither purely autobiographical—details are added that hadn’t actually occurred—nor is it purely fictional for the same reason.
The Highest Value I Can Imagine
February 3, 2017
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.
All Experience Is an Arch through which Shines “A World Beyond”
February 6, 2017
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.
The Reader Is in part the Writer or at Least an Equal Imaginer
February 8, 2017
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?
February 14, 2017
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.
Your Family: For Better and Worse
December 27, 2017
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.