Sunday, December 14, 2014

Art or success?

There's a line in a Waylon Jennings song "I don't think Hank done it this way." The song is all about the commercialization ("rhinestone suits and big fancy cars") of country and western music, and the notion is Hank Williams was at the other end of the spectrum. He was real.

I'm reading this book. It's all about how to be successful as a writer. The authors share their experiences and some of the books they written to "make it." Books like Teenage Vampire Sluts From Hell. Go on Amazon. That sort of stuff is just about guaranteed to sell.

'But I don't think Hank done it this way.'

I was also writing my Christmas cards today and listening to Richard Wagner's opera "Parsifal." The deep unspeakable beauty of the music penetrated my very soul. I was quivering. Would Wagner have been able to write such music for the ages if he'd been trying to write what was hot at the moment? I don't think Richard done it that way.

There's a place for goofy stuff. I write some myself. But for the most part I'm interested in something deeper. Something that will impact people deeper than a quick—and quickly forgotten—laugh.

A hundred and thirty four years ago lived a French writer named Gustave Flaubert. He was a relative unknown at the time, only wrote a handful of books that sold poorly.

A contemporary French writer, George Sand, was a runaway best seller churning out forty-three novels and fourteen stage plays.

Today Flaubert's Madame Bovary is still widely read and a mainstay on university curriculums. George Sand is a literary footnote.

The same will be the case with all the Teenage Vampire Sluts From Hell on the market today. But more than that, I want to use writing to discover the depths of who I am. And I will not do that writing such books.

Of course I'm not saying there aren't any successful truly artistic books out there. There are. I'm just saying it's easier to be successful writing the trash that the masses are swilling up.

They say so few people are able to appreciate Beethoven's music because in order to appreciate something you must have a mind commensurate with that of the creator's. It makes sense. If an astro physicist were to explain his latest discoveries to me, I would not be able to appreciate them. Same thing with Beethoven. The beauty of his music will only be heard by those with a like mind.

So the masses are singing (and clapping) along with Pharrell Williams' "Happy" song. That's cool but I'll be listening to Beethoven's ninth symphony.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Big god, small problems. Small god, big problems.

All faith is not the same.

There are a million variables that influence it and the effects it has on our lives.

Big god, small problems.

If your god is the omnipotent omnipresent eternal creator of the universe. Well, then it can handle anything you're going through. In fact, anything you're going through is chump change.

Small god, big problems.

Who's your god? Is your god an afterthought? Somebody you pray to when you get around to it? A god who is undependable and only comes through some of the time? I wouldn't pray to a god like that personally. That sounds like a very small god. With that god my problems would seem gigantic.

Of course your problems are the same whether you have a big or small god. It's a question of  what kind of power does your god have to clear them up. And there's a lot of peace knowing you have a big god.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Books as change agents

I read books to change.

Sure, it's great if they also happen to be entertaining and written stylishly, but I read to change. Why? Because I like to change. For the longest time I needed to change. Now I'd like to think I just like to.

Movies too. What is going to deepen me? What is going to make me richer as a person? A friend and I used to go to a church service every Saturday night. It was a low key service with skits and really good music etc. It was always edifying. Afterward, we would get a movie and make dinner. Well, my friend (this was back in the days when I needed to change) would always want to get some light romantic comedy, but I would always insist on something (perhaps rather obnoxiously now that I look at it in hindsight) that was "life changing." It could be a light romantic comedy (although odds were against it), but yeah, it had to be life changing.

I've got nothing against the fluff books, movies and music everywhere on the market today. But it's not for me. I look at books (sometimes non-fiction anthologies or biographies of painters, what have you) and I think, When I get done with that book I'll be a different person. And you can't get that from reading Janet Evanovich.

I've got a book waiting to be read called The Discoverers by Daniel J. Boorstin (I'd already read his The Creators), and I thrill to think of who I'll be when I get done reading it.

A case came up to the Supreme Court some years ago. It had to do with former Playboy "playmate" Anna Nicole Smith. She'd sued to claim an inheritance (she was left out of the will entirely) from her multi-millionaire deceased husband (who was sixty years her senior). Well, when the case got to the Supreme Court, most of the Supreme Court justices had never even heard of Anna Nicole Smith (who of course was everywhere in the media).

That's what I want to be like—focused on things that are important (to me at least) with blinders on to the fluff that the rest of the world is clamoring for.

An old proverb has someone question a holy man living the ascetic life in the desert wilderness who is surrounded by whirling dervishes. "But, master, how do you maintain your peace with so many others whirling around you night and day?"

The old monk smiled and said, "I let them whirl."

Thursday, December 4, 2014

The beauty of depth


Finally the younger one opened his eyes. 'Ibn Khafif, life is short. Use the portion that's left to deepen yourself.' —Rumi

Ever be the only one to miss the punchline of a joke? Everybody around you is guffawing and you're smiling politely, but thinking, 'What was funny about that?'

That's how I feel sometimes in this 'go-go' 'have-it-all' digital world of ours. Like, 'Am I missing something here?'

I don't get the fascination with celebrity. I don't get the popularity of some of the best-selling novels and movies. I don't get stuff going viral. (I think of the gangnam style thing. So what, the kid's dancing.)

This novel, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, has over 30,000 reviews on Amazon. People are falling all over each other praising it. So I started reading it—and I just don't get it. I had to stop at the half way point. I couldn't take it any more. The characters were bratty, whiny, selfish and often heartless. (The male protagonist hates his senile father who's in a nursing home and wishes he would die.) And people love this?

So now the book sits half finished. 

Not long ago I was at a used book sale and I came across a book (The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations) for 50 cents! It's huge and filled with quotations of the likes of Shakespeare, Dickens, Emerson and Blake. 

It would take me say another three hours to finish the Flynn book. Three hours of my life I'll never get back. Three hours lost, wasted. For what?

I put the book of quotations on top of Gone Girl. It's a symbolic thing. So much wisdom is offered me by the book (and in so many other areas of life) and I'm going to read trashy novels instead? 

Not me.

Rumi said it: Life is short. Use the portion that's left to deepen yourself.

That's what I'm going to do. Like the person who doesn't get the joke, I'll gladly be the only guy missing out on the whirlwind of shallowness that the masses are fawning over. 

I'll spend my time taking Rumi's advice.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Does thinking about dying help you live?

Nobody really likes to think about death? But what if thinking about it can help you. Then it's worth thinking about.

I'm finishing up listening to Walter Isaacson's biography Steve Jobs. At the point I'm at, Steve has pretty much gone through his storied life and now he has cancer and it's metastasized. He's still living full-tilt (as much he can, as his physical stamina is greatly diminished) but he's also thinking about his legacy, of what he'll leave behind, of his wife and kids.

I can imagine we'll all go through something similar.

But is there a way to use that knowledge of death now? Now, before we get the bad news from the doctor?

They say one of the benefits of owning a dog is that (with the dog's vastly shorter lifespan) it reminds us of our mortality. See, for me, thinking about dying changes my thinking entirely.

I remember this quote from a Buddhist text. It was:

All must one day die. He who knows this fact in him all strife is stilled. 

Isn't it the truth? Even listening to the Jobs bio when I got to the point where he was diagnosed with the terminal cancer I softened toward him. He was vulnerable and sad. Life's fleetingness was once again re-established in my mind.

Thinking about death helps me to focus on what's really important. It makes me kinder. It makes me less self-centered. It's like when there's a natural disaster. (And being from Illinois that usually means a gigantic blizzard.) The neighbors all come out and survey the scene. We might not hardly talk all year but now we're helping shovel each others cars out. We're making sure old Mrs. Hanson has enough groceries and is okay. Because we all suddenly realize our shared vulnerability, life becomes beautiful.

And that's the kind of life I want to live, that's the kind of world I want to live in. If thinking about death is going to help me do that, I'm all for it.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Does success always mean more pain?

I'm still trying to find my way with being a writer. Thing is it seems like every new breakthrough I make entails more challenges.

At first I thought all I needed to be successful was to be a great writer.

Then I found I had to learn about formatting ebooks and making ebook covers. A lot of technical stuff that had my stomach churning when I looked at it. But I did it.

Next up it was brought to my attention that I needed a "platform" and social media, and I was like, Hey, I'm an introvert! I don't know about any of this stuff.

But now I have a nice social platform and a good presence on Twitter (not to mention a website and this blog) and it's like, Now you have to learn about advertising!

I'm like, I thought all I needed was the platform and social media.

So now I plod through learning about advertising. This is really pretty scary emotionally because now I have to pay for this (the advertising). But I've plowed through every other challenge, I'll plow through this one as well.

And when I'm done with this challenge, I'm sure there'll be a new one waiting for me. (Life is so fun. Isn't it?)

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Is failing part of winning?

I hope so.

My sister gave me a book the other day. It's an old-time book that had me at the title: How to Stop Worrying and Start Living by Dale Carnegie.

It's a good book but this is no book review. It's just that one of the lines in the book really jumped out at me. It is by the American author, the man who made "Lawrence of Arabia" famous, Lowell Thomas. Mr. Thomas was deeply in debt, utterly down on his luck, dogged by a stretch of prolonged failure and yet:

He knew that if he let his reverses get him down, he would be worthless to everyone, including his creditors. So each morning before he started out, he bought a flower, put it in his buttonhole, and went swinging down Oxford Street with his head high and his step spirited. He thought positive, courageous thoughts and refused to let defeat defeat him. To him, being licked was all a part of the game—the useful training you had to expect if you wanted to get to the top.

Being licked was "all a part of the game" and "useful training." Hmmm.

I'm a golfer. Watching Tiger Woods and the other pros on TV the announcers always talk about how 'you have to learn how to win out here.' And it seems like they mostly say that when a golfer has suffered, perhaps yet another, crushing defeat.

That's what if feels like trying to make it as a writer. Ten disappointments for every encouragement. Sometimes it just feels like facing an endless void of negativity and failure.

But then again, if it's all part of the game and useful training. No one starts out in this business as a best seller. So I will continue to plug along, believing that the failing is building something necessary into me, that it's preparing me for winning.