Imagination Confines Us in Mystery

“By means of the imagination we confine our mind within the mystery on which we meditate, that it may not ramble to and fro, just as we shut up a bird in a cage or tie a hawk by his leash so that he may rest on the hand.”

— Francis de Sales

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Doing Your Best Brings Happiness

“Often we imagine that we will work hard until we arrive at some distant goal, and then we will be happy. This is a delusion. Happiness is the result of a life lived with purpose. Happiness is not an objective. It is the movement of life itself, a process, and an activity. It arises from curiosity and discovery. Seek pleasure and you will quickly discover the shortest path to suffering. Other people, friends, brothers, sisters, neighbors, spouses, even your mother and I are not responsible for your happiness. Your life is your responsibility, and you always have the choice to do your best. Doing your best will bring happiness. Do not be over concerned with avoiding pain or seeking pleasure. If you are concentrating on the results of your actions, you are not dedicated to your task.”

— Sir Thomas Lemuel Hawke in Rules for a Knight

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Whoever got you here won’t get you there. Or will they?

Last year, I was having a nice conversation with a communications executive about my frustration working for a second time with a former collaborator.

Her response was:

Well you know what they say: whoever got you here won’t be the one to get you there. It’s brutal, but true.

For months after her advice, I operated that way, but I’ve since been meditating on this cliché and I’ve concluded that it’s false. Or at least it’s misleading. I think, in the right spirit, the aphorism literally means well, but I doubt its truth is something we can bring to bear upon our world.

Here’s why:

Whoever gets you to the next stage of your journey will be assuming the momentum of your prior relationships. Whoever got you here  assumed they could get you here from where you’d been before — they assumed they had something to build upon. And it’s the same for the next people who help you grow. They have met You 2.0 and therefore need not mess with pesky beta testing of You 1.0 — the hard work is over for them. This is the whole point of the “master of two worlds” bit of the hero’s journey: there is an implied return, an assumed “back again” to every voyage destined for “there.”

Or did you think Joseph Campbell was only talking about the way narratives work?

Because of the implied “back again” for every quest aimed at “there,” networks that lead you to the next stage of your journey don’t work like stages of rocket boosters. You don’t just drop former friends and let them fall off the deep end. This is why average people get hurt when someone hits their stride, gets famous, and drops their friends.

“Now don’t forget us when you’re famous. I can say I knew you when…”

Of course it’s unfair to assume that any give person will stay the same as they were back when “we knew them.” People change. We’re all a part of that change, hopefully for the better.

However, the heart of these “don’t forget us” and “don’t act like a diva — we know how human you really are” lines is found in the desire to participate in something big, something meaningful, even if that implies riding the coattails of someone we have sent along their merry way.

Another cliché directly opposed to the first goes, “it takes a village to raise a nut.” Small towns operate like this but so do micro locales in cities—the Sunset Park community board here in Brooklyn is beyond proud of J.W. Cortez (actor from the show Gotham) and the guy stops back in for festivals and the like:


So which is it? Those who got you here won’t be the ones to get you there? Or it takes a village?

Luckily, I don’t have to answer the question. I did the most reasonable thing imaginable: I asked my Facebook friends to debate it.

One author asked:

If you’re growing, wouldn’t you expect that the people around you are growing too?

And another followed with:

I think you need to nurture all of your connections, because you never know who’s going to end up leading you to something important.

Which evolved as a third said:

“The ones who got you here” will evolve as “here” changes. If you’re evolving, you won’t always be on the same rung of the ladder. Those who can lend a hand to help you to the next rung won’t always be the same people. Some might be, but not all will be. And new faces–and helping hands–can come on the scene at any time as you progress.

So whoever got you here might be the ones who can help get you there.


I do think artists should remember their roots, in terms of remaining grateful for all who’ve helped along the way.

I’m thinking particularly now of the Bad Myth of the Lone Wolf Artist, of those who pretend to live life outside of community — of how we need the consistent physical presence of real people in our lives in order for our art to thrive. Which is where the second author chimes in:

The person who helped me the most with my novel is someone I never would have expected.

The third author thought:

I think that speaks to humility, that we can be open to ideas — such a great way to evolve, imo.

She’s right — the only way to become a knight is by kneeling. The knight kneels, receives a revoked death sentence from the King’s blade on either side of his neck, and rises to do the same for his squires. Says the first author:

I think paying it forward is important. There are a lot of ways to do that, and no one can do them all, but I think everyone should do something. It’s important for the people you help, and the larger community, but it’s also important for your own heart and soul.

At this point, a medieval philosopher and theologian jumped into the conversation:

The philosopher who finds a new level of understanding (or any type of craftsperson) who doesn’t share that insight with the community that fostered his opportunities simply fails to understand what it means to be human.

Did they think it was their responsibility to bring others along? The second author spoke up first:

Responsibility? I don’t know. But I do know it’s mutually beneficial. If you help people out whenever you can, you’re going to end up with a lot of people who have positive feelings about you, and that makes it much more likely that people will be willing to help you when you need it.

And the medievalist responded:

If you have a good that will improve yourself and others and you squander it, I don’t know any word for that other than irresponsible. Granted it’s a hard question to know which good to cultivate, but that is a different issue I think.

A painter spoke up:

I think it’s different for every person. For example, there comes a time when the student surpasses a teacher and needs a new one. Good art takes community to make it happen. Anyone who doesn’t see that is blind.

I responded, “Well I guess that would make Katherine Anne Porter blind ::…/the-art-of-fiction-no…” In her Art of Fiction interview, she flat-out makes fun of what was going on in Paris in the 30’s. Meanwhile, she was revolting in Mexico. The painter responded:

She states in several places that community helped her. The letter writers in her family for instance, an then there is Skakespeare etc. that she is reading. It’s all connected to others. Family, the backdrop of people who taught her to read and write. She had community just not as much as others. If she doesn’t see that , then yes, she’s blind.

After the conversation, here’s where I’m at in the midst of all of this:

I believe relationships have a half-life or a life cycle. If you assume Dunbar’s number to be true, and I do, then there is a finite number of people with whom you can maintain contact over time. I believe it works much like the bell graph used for the adoption of technology or ideas:

the ones who got you here won't be the ones who get you there


  • Innovators work like bridges between stages. As laggards from your previous stage of life, they come in as new acquaintances and help shape your identity for the next season.
  • Early adopters receive the baton from them and enter into a build-up phase, laying a relational foundation for what is to come. They hand you off to an
  • Early majority in whatever company or district or city you find yourself within. At this point, people are excited to join with you in your work and will set the trend for the rest of the
  • Late majority who have hesitated to jump into any relationship hastily. Having earned the trust of the other three groups, you now have the vast majority of people in your corner before
  • Laggards show up. In our experience, we’ve always had transitional friends on either side of our big moves. In Joplin right before we moved to New York, we met some people who are great friends but really just stood in the gap and helped us bridge our leap from the midwest to the east coast. They seamless handed off the baton to or transformed into the innovators of the next stage.

Let me mix metaphors for a second. This isn’t a flat bell curve I’m talking about. It’s an Elliot Wave. Elliot wave theory essentially analyzes broad trends within crowd psychology. For positive moves forward, it looks like this:

eliot wave theory ones who got you here won't be the ones who get you there

A move forward, a slight retreat. Move forward, retreat. Move forward, peak, and correction. For our purposes, innovators are 1, early adopters are 3, early majority is 5, late majority is a, and laggards are c. Once they hand off to the next group, it looks like this:

elliot wave theory the ones who got you here won't be the ones to get you there

Imagine it’s a fractal and this process can repeat an infinite number of times with every laggard becoming or partnering with a group of innovators to bring you to the next level — whether career, relational, devotion, whatever.

But the whole thing?

It’s one seamless chart. One seamless picture. You can keep zooming out, but eventually it’s a “rise and fall” of a career or a personality and at the bottom of the full correction, you’ll either humble yourself to start a new upward trajectory or you’ll settle for having peaked.

But my friends are right — you need the people who came before you and you need the ones ahead of you. It’s a giant wave pool of relationships, so I would suggest being aware of the boundaries you need to set up because some people are coming into that circle of 150 relationships you can reasonably manage and others are fading away either through death or time and distance.

Whoever got you here won’t get you there, but they did get you here, so don’t forget them: we are all of us contingent upon that which came before us and are therefore wholly derivative in our work.
And at the end, you’ll be where you’ve wanted to be all along and have taken tons of people with you in a legacy that lasts for many, many years to come.

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The 2016 Worbemusties — Worst, Bests, and Musts of the year behind and before

A few years back, I did these Worbemustie awards on my site. It was a way to look backwards and forwards — backwards to the bests and worsts of the previous year (did I accomplish my goals?) and forwards to the next year. The bests, worsts, and musts.

You know, The 2016 Worbemusties.

We start with the bad news first and end on a hopeful note:

Worsts of 2015 ::

  • Death — my favorite cousin of 19 committed suicide. The world’s a bit dimmer without her, a bright light went out in the world.
  • Legal — a relative had a seriously heavy deposition for the felony charges of a family friend. Pretty brutal on the family.
  • Scare — There were a ton of ties with this one. My step-dad had a heart attack last week and got stints put in, two grandparents broke hips and one went in for heart surgery, another grandpa currently in the hospital for the same kind of thing, my sister-in-law almost lost her baby, and I almost died multiple times due to brain problems — more on that in a follow up post.
  • Disaster — my childhood room caught fire with my sister in it and they ended up soaking half of my mother’s house with the firehoses. They’re all okay, but they spent a good chunk of the year in a random rental house with smoke damage on most of their possessions.
  • Betrayal — had an older man who’s really close to me replase in a serious way to something he’d cut out almost twenty years ago.
  • Podcast — This one is a shame, seeing as how much I thoroughly enjoyed Gungor’s The Crowd, The Critic, and The Muse. But worst podcast was easily The Liturgists. Though I like a couple of episodes, by and large the podcast infected a great many friends of mine with some terrible theology and, what’s worse, plain old incomprehensible philosophy by articulating the kind of nonsense that no respectable thinking person would say such as “you can be an atheist and a Christian at the same time.” I know of no atheist or Christian of sound mind (read: who can reasonably articulate his or her thought in a clean line of logic) who would also make a claim as stupid as this. It’s on par with saying not just “black is white” but “black is black and also white” or “an orange tree and hemp are the same plant but also different but also exactly the same.” It’s nonsense and this kind of stuff plagues the podcast — on par with the same kind of vapidity Ben Witherington rebuked when he saw it in Rachel Held Evans’ new book (and rightly so). If I awarded Worbemusties stars, The Liturgists would be a starless void in the universe of podcasts.
  • Book — Combustion Engineering. It’s not on the worst list because it’s a bad book, even though it’s a bit of a slog. It’s on the worst list because I’ve been despairing ever since discovering that given enough pressure and energy, basically everything explodes. That’s a title for a poem: Basically Everything Explodes. A bit nihilistic… until you realize how stable the universe is in spite of this. Pretty cool, though bleak, and also evidence that I read tons of great books this year.
  • Song — “Welcome To New York” may well be the most un-New York thing I’ve ever heard. Luckily my buddy Darian made a better version that’s… well… a bit more blunt.
  • Accident — I somehow managed to touch the visor on my father-in-law’s car and break them completely off of the roof. Twice. He was visorless for a good chunk of the year.
  • Wordcount — Had a day where I wrote about ten words primarily because I was thinking so much about an internet meme. This is why “healthy it up” is on my musts for 2016.
  • New Year’s Resolution Failure — My first to-be-published novel is not finished. It’s on its seventh revision, but it’s unfinished for a very good reason: the agent I’ve wanted since I was eighteen sat down for lunch with me and talked over my work and swapped novels. He gave me a thorough, honest critique and paved a clear path to publication. That was in July and it’s taken this many months to get it close. After I finish beta notes (which are growing more and more encouraging), I’m submitting it everywhere in February, 2016.

Bests of 2015 ::

  • Funeral — over two-thousand people showed up for my cousin’s funeral to comfort the family. The outpouring of love in my hometown was humbling and moving. Getting choked up thinking about it…
  • New Life — two-way tie. I’m a double Uncle now. Tara’s sister brought us a girl and my brother Heath sired a son. I AM A DOUBLE UNCLE. FEAR ME. The latter, my nephew, farted on my finger the first time I changed his diaper. He will pay for this. The former, my niece, I’ve yet to meet and will in a couple of days. I’ve told the family that I call dibs on her for the week since they’ve all been down to Florida like a billion times.
  • Reunion — my 10-year took place in August and it was great to see all of my high school friends again. Unlike most classes, ours seemed to have less cliques and borderlines, so it was great to see everyone getting along and enjoying each other’s company.
  • Party —This NYE party from which I’m typing this piece was pretty killer. Got to reunite with all of my old friends from Southern, Illinois.
  • Podcast Writing Excuses. Unlike most chatty rambling on writing out there on the internet (much of mine included), Writing Excuses has episodes for every writer at every stage of the journey — EVERY stage of the journey — and it’s always, “Fifteen minutes long: because you’re in a hurry and we’re not that smart.”
  • Time Off — writer’s retreat in Salem, MA with tons of writers I respect. Finished my novel, finished three articles, a short story, and started a screenplay that I finished four days later.
  • Adventure — Tie: Tara and I went up to Beacon, NY for our anniversary and down to Eureka Springs for a retreat. The former was the first time we’d spent an entire day at a coffeeshop reading since dating one another (no phones allowed) and to travel that far carless without a guide. The latter was the first time we rented a car and man oh man… we took that sucker everywhere including straight to the best corned beef and mash I’ve ever tasted.
  • Meal — Tie between the Stroganoff at Ocean View Café and Korean BBQ at Don’s Bogam.
  • Book — Elon Musk: SpaceX, Tesla, and The Quest for a Fantastic Future by Ashlee Vance. Look, I know everyone’s cheesing out over Elon and whatever. Set that aside and let me talk about what this book meant to me.
  • Song — I normally don’t like the music that I write, but through the help of the Songwriter’s Guild here in Brooklyn, I wrote a song named “Inkwell” that I’m marginally proud of. Proud enough that a full-length album will come out later in 2016 under the name Mearcstapa. I try things. You know this.
  • Kiss — best kiss I earned this year came after I bought Tara these hand-crocheted white gold earrings. They’re crocheted from gold wire.
  • Wordcount — Wrote a full-length screenplay in the seven days that followed the aforementioned writing retreat. First time I’ve felt like my old self since my early Joplin days.
  • Accomplishment — I started a long serious of projects and again sold more professional works than I sold in 2014. If I keep up this pace, the prolificacy will be great in twenty years!
  • Phenomenological/Numinous Experience — Just last week, on a walk, the rain falling on my face while walking in a dark neighborhood in Long Island. Cried like a child. Felt known. Prayed some honest prayers. Had a similar experience in the cave in Joplin for the photonovel shoot /
  • New Year’s Resolution Fulfillment — completed pre-production, production, and post-production on The Joplin Undercurrent, the second in this medium of photonovels that Mark and I created (the first being Cold Brewed). This thing was pretty emotionally taxing on me, so I’m happy we’ve slayed the beast. Even without the novel done, I guess one major work is better than no major works.

Musts for 2016 ::

  • Write — every morning. Got out of the habit and it shows in my wordcount and exhaustion in trying to fit it in everywhere.
  • Healthy it up — by working out at least four mornings a week, taking my full Sabbath, using Freedom to stay off the internet for useless things, and actually writing in “quality time with Tara” as an actual task on my action step list — in general, my action step list has gone by the wayside, so I might need to reread Making Ideas Happen myself soon.
  • Blog — 100 posts before 2017. They don’t have to be big, profound, or even great. The simply need to be steady. I’ve been away from regularity for far too long on here. That changes now.

Love you all. Take great care of one another. Become you-i-er this year — truer, kinder, more gracious, peaceful, and joyous versions of yourselves.

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Novels Like Babies Don’t Need Perfect Parents

When Tara and I still lived in Joplin, I witnessed one father’s transformation from a mediocre parent into a good parent. He’d been the kind of tiger dad, the ruthless victor, who pushed his kids towards success and integrity at the expense of their joy (his words, not mine). He and I were walking through the library of our alma mater when the head of the psychotherapy department — Dr. Zustiak — pulled him aside to ask him about his family.

You probably already know that any great counselor will wield this magical ability to attract our emotional dumps, vomiting and venting. We see them and all our guts fall out our mouths. We see them and, like Usher, tell them part two of our confessions.

My professor friend did that then at Dr. Zustiak’s prodding. He began to vent about how worried he was at the prospect of becoming a bad parent. The irony? He was becoming a mediocre parent in his quest to become a perfect parent.

And then the good doctor grabbed my friend by the shoulders in front of me and said, “Bro: kids don’t need perfect parents. They just need parents. Decent parents who are there consistently. That’s all.”

That doctor was the same one who taught me the number one contributor to healthy families is a consistent, shared, home cooked meal. It’s a sort of home base for kids and for communication and for unifying the tribe. Consistency — not perfect parents, just parents. Parents who are there. Studies with broad sample sizes and diverse demographics have shown that a consistent, shared meal — dinner or lunch or breakfast — once a day will drastically decrease the rates of divorce, teen suicide, and a number of other metrics that can arguably gauge family health.


Not perfect parents, just present parents.

Novels like babies ?

They say writing a novel is like having a baby. If that’s true, if we accept the “novels like babies” metaphor, it makes you a parent. And some of you are so neurotic with your process, so worrisome over your wordcount, so meticulous with your language at this stage in the game that you’ve perfecting your path to mediocrity. You’re pushing your novel towards success and integrity at the expense of joy.  Maybe you’re two or six novels deep and you’re slowing down from your former pace. Why can’t you write as fast as when you first began? Maybe you’re in the middle of your first one and have hit your first professional hurdle. Why have you slowed down?

Let me be as frank as Dr. Zustiak:

Novels don’t need perfect authors. They just need authors. Authors who are there consistently. That’s all. I would bet that if we did a similar statistical study, the “healthiest” authorial careers we know — the ones we respect the most — have a consistent output. That might be a 90,000-word book every year like Jim Butcher or a 400,000-word behemoth every four years like Dostoevsky, but the consistency shows up. Neil Gaiman got stuck once while writing Coraline in the midst of his very busy publishing schedule and he asked Stephen King what to do.

You know what King said?

Three hundred words a day every day for a year, minus one day off every week and thirteen days of vacation time, is still a 90,000-word novel by the end of the year.

Gaiman took the advice, devoted just 300 words a day to Coraline in the midst of all of his other work and the rest is history, film deal and all.

Some of you will fret over the 1,667 word pace of Nanowrimo. Others of you will obsess over your language so much that you’ll end up like James Joyce who allegedly told his servant:

“Thomas, it’s awful. I’ve only written six words today!”

“But Sir, that’s great for you,” Thomas said.

“No it’s not,” Joyce said, “I don’t know their order.”


Apocryphal? Perhaps, but it illustrates the point: are you perfecting your way into mediocrity? Because I can tell you consistent output is far better one way or another — either more words and therefore more manuscripts or more revision and therefore a more distilled vision of that one great work you hope to leave the world. A page or two, in other words.

My favorite Latin aphorism goes like this:

The water makes a hole in the stone not by force, but by often falling.

So here’s my challenge to you. Try it for a year. Try to treat your novels like babies. Try to write three-hundred words or revise six-hundred words every day from now until next year. Mark today’s date on next years calendar. Go ahead, we’ll be here when you get back.

Did you do it?

Okay, good. Now give yourself one day off every week and thirteen days of vacation time. Every other day, just show up and give the universe at least a page or two.

Sure, it might not be the next American Gods, but it may well result in the next Coraline.

Looking at the careers of the authors we all respect, we can assume you will not build a career as a novelist through the blunt force of a writing retreat, marathon Saturday sessions, or rolling dice waiting to write until the muse strikes you with inspiration while you’re mowing the lawn. If you only write when it’s convenient for a marathon or only write from inspiration, you’re missing out on the true potential fruit of your labor. Me? I only write when I’m inspired every morning at 9am sharp.

The author pens a shelf of novels not by force, but by often writing.

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cover image by Jesse van Kalmthout

Dead Guest Post: The Fantastic Imagination

Today’s Dead Guest Post comes from George MacDonald and focuses on the principles that guide fairytales and fantasy — what he calls The Fantastic Imagination:


THAT we have in English no word corresponding to the German Mährchen, drives us to use the word Fairytale, regardless of the fact that the tale may have nothing to do with any sort of fairy. The old use of the word Fairy, by Spenser at least, might, however, well be adduced, were justification or excuse necessary where need must.


  Were I asked, what is a fairytale? I should reply, Read Undine: that is a fairytale; then read this and that as well, and you will see what is a fairytale. Were I further begged to describe thefairytale, or define what it is, I would make answer, that I should as soon think of describing the abstract human face, or stating what must go to constitute a human being. A fairytale is just a fairytale, as a face is just a face; and of all fairytales I know, I think Undine the most beautiful.

Many a man, however, who would not attempt to define a man, might venture to say something as to what a man ought to be: even so much I will not in this place venture with regard to the fairytale, for my long past work in that kind might but poorly instance or illustrate my now more matured judgment. I will but say some things helpful to the reading, in right-minded fashion, of such fairytales as I would wish to write, or care to read.

Some thinkers would feel sorely hampered if at liberty to use no forms but such as existed in nature, or to invent nothing save in accordance with the laws of the world of the senses; but it must not therefore be imagined that they desire escape from the region of law. Nothing lawless can show the least reason why it should exist, or could at best have more than an appearance of life.

The natural world has its laws, and no man must interfere with them in the way of presentment any more than in the way of use; but they themselves may suggest laws of other kinds, and man may, if he pleases, invent a little world of his own, with its own laws; for there is that in him which delights in calling up new forms–which is the nearest, perhaps, he can come to creation. When such forms are new embodiments of old truths, we call them products of the Imagination; when they are mere inventions, however lovely, I should call them the work of the Fancy: in either case, Law has been diligently at work.

His world once invented, the highest law that comes next into play is, that there shall be harmony between the laws by which the new world has begun to exist; and in the process of his creation, the inventor must hold by those laws. The moment he forgets one of them, he makes the story, by its own postulates, incredible. To be able to live a moment in an imagined world, we must see the laws of its existence obeyed. Those broken, we fall out of it. The imagination in us, whose exercise is essential to the most temporary submission to the imagination of another, immediately, with the disappearance of Law, ceases to act. Suppose the gracious creatures of some childlike region of Fairyland talking either cockney or Gascon! Would not the tale, however lovelily begun, sink at once to the level of the Burlesque–of all forms of literature the least worthy? A man’s inventions may be stupid or clever, but if he do not hold by the laws of them, or if he make one law jar with another, he contradicts himself as an inventor, he is no artist. He does not rightly consort his instruments, or he tunes them in different keys. The mind of man is the product of live Law; it thinks by law, it dwells in the midst of law, it gathers from law its growth; with law, therefore, can it alone work to any result. Inharmonious, unconsorting ideas will come to a man, but if he try to use one of such, his work will grow dull, and he will drop it from mere lack of interest. Law is the soil in which alone beauty will grow; beauty is the only stuff in which Truth can be clothed; and you may, if you will, call Imagination the tailor that cuts her garments to fit her, and Fancy his journeyman that puts the pieces of them together, or perhaps at most embroiders their button-holes. Obeying law, the maker works like his creator; not obeying law, he is such a fool as heaps a pile of stones and calls it a church.

In the moral world it is different: there a man may clothe in new forms, and for this employ his imagination freely, but he must invent nothing. He may not, for any purpose, turn its laws upside down. He must not meddle with the relations of live souls. The laws of the spirit of man must hold, alike in this world and in any world he may invent. It were no offence to suppose a world in which everything repelled instead of attracted the things around it; it would be wicked to write a tale representing a man it called good as always doing bad things, or a man it called bad as always doing good things: the notion itself is absolutely lawless. In physical things a man may invent; in moral things he must obey–and take their laws with him into his invented world as well.

“You write as if a fairytale were a thing of importance: must it have a meaning?”

It cannot help having some meaning; if it have proportion and harmony it has vitality, and vitality is truth. The beauty may be plainer in it than the truth, but without the truth the beauty could not be, and the fairytale would give no delight. Everyone, however, who feels the story, will read its meaning after his own nature and development: one man will read one meaning in it, another will read another.

“If so, how am I to assure myself that I am not reading my own meaning into it, but yours out of it?”

Why should you be so assured? It may be better that you should read your meaning into it. That may be a higher operation of your intellect than the mere reading of mine out of it: your meaning may be superior to mine.

“Suppose my child ask me what the fairytale means, what am I to say?”

If you do not know what it means, what is easier than to say so? If you do see a meaning in it, there it is for you to give him. A genuine work of art must mean many things; the truer its art, the more things it will mean. If my drawing, on the other hand, is so far from being a work of art that it needs THIS IS A HORSE written under it, what can it matter that neither you nor your child should know what it means? It is there not so much to convey a meaning as to wake a meaning. If it do not even wake an interest, throw it aside. A meaning may be there, but it is not for you. If, again, you do not know a horse when you see it, the name written under it will not serve you much. At all events, the business of the painter is not to teach zoology.

But indeed your children are not likely to trouble you about the meaning. They find what they are capable of finding, and more would be too much. For my part, I do not write for children, but for the childlike, whether of five, or fifty, or seventy-five.

A fairytale is not an allegory. There may be allegory in it, but it is not an allegory. He must be an artist indeed who can, in any mode, produce a strict allegory that is not a weariness to the spirit. An allegory must be Mastery or Moorditch.

A fairytale, like a butterfly or a bee, helps itself on all sides, sips at every wholesome flower, and spoils not one. The true fairytale is, to my mind, very like the sonata. We all know that a sonata means something; and where there is the faculty of talking with suitable vagueness, and choosing metaphor sufficiently loose, mind may approach mind, in the interpretation of a sonata, with the result of a more or less contenting consciousness of sympathy. But if two or three men sat down to write each what the sonata meant to him, what approximation to definite idea would be the result? Little enough–and that little more than needful. We should find it had roused related, if not identical, feelings, but probably not one common thought. Has the sonata therefore failed? Had it undertaken to convey, or ought it to be expected to impart anything defined, anything notionally recognizable?

“But words are not music; words at least are meant and fitted to carry a precise meaning!”

It is very seldom indeed that they carry the exact meaning of any user of them! And if they can be so used as to convey definite meaning, it does not follow that they ought never to carry anything else. Words are like things that may be variously employed to various ends. They can convey a scientific fact, or throw a shadow of her child’s dream on the heart of a mother. They are things to put together like the pieces of a dissected map, or to arrange like the notes on a stave. Is the music in them to go for nothing? It can hardly help the definiteness of a meaning: is it therefore to be disregarded? They have length, and breadth, and outline: have they nothing to do with depth? Have they only to describe, never to impress? Has nothing any claim to their use but the definite? The cause of a child’s tears may be altogether undefinable: has the mother therefore no antidote for his vague misery? That may be strong in colour which has no evident outline. A fairytale, a sonata, a gathering storm, a limitless night, seizes you and sweeps you away: do you begin at once to wrestle with it and ask whence its power over you, whither it is carrying you? The law of each is in the mind of its composer; that law makes one man feel this way, another man feel that way. To one the sonata is a world of odour and beauty, to another of soothing only and sweetness. To one, the cloudy rendezvous is a wild dance, with a terror at its heart; to another, a majestic march of heavenly hosts, with Truth in their centre pointing their course, but as yet restraining her voice. The greatest forces lie in the region of the uncomprehended.

I will go farther.–The best thing you can do for your fellow, next to rousing his conscience, is–not to give him things to think about, but to wake things up that are in him; or say, to make him think things for himself. The best Nature does for us is to work in us such moods in which thoughts of high import arise. Does any aspect of Nature wake but one thought? Does she ever suggest only one definite thing? Does she make any two men in the same place at the same moment think the same thing? Is she therefore a failure, because she is not definite? Is it nothing that she rouses the something deeper than the understanding–the power that underlies thoughts? Does she not set feeling, and so thinking at work? Would it be better that she did this after one fashion and not after many fashions? Nature is mood-engendering, thought-provoking: such ought the sonata, such ought the fairytale to be.

“But a man may then imagine in your work what he pleases, what you never meant!”

Not what he pleases, but what he can. If he be not a true man, he will draw evil out of the best; we need not mind how he treats any work of art! If he be a true man, he will imagine true things: what matter whether I meant them or not? They are there none the less that I cannot claim putting them there! One difference between God’s work and man’s is, that, while God’s work cannot mean more than he meant, man’s must mean more than he meant. For in everything that God has made, there is layer upon layer of ascending significance; also he expresses the same thought in higher and higher kinds of that thought: it is God’s things, his embodied thoughts, which alone a man has to use, modified and adapted to his own purposes, for the expression of his thoughts; therefore he cannot help his words and figures falling into such combinations in the mind of another as he had himself not foreseen, so many are the thoughts allied to every other thought, so many are the relations involved in every figure, so many the facts hinted in every symbol. A man may well himself discover truth in what he wrote; for he was dealing all the time with things that came from thoughts beyond his own.

“But surely you would explain your idea to one who asked you?”

I say again, if I cannot draw a horse, I will not write THIS IS A HORSE under what I foolishly meant for one. Any key to a work of imagination would be nearly, if not quite, as absurd. The tale is there, not to hide, but to show: if it show nothing at your window, do not open your door to it; leave it out in the cold. To ask me to explain, is to say, “Roses! Boil them, or we won’t have them!” My tales may not be roses, but I will not boil them.

So long as I think my dog can bark, I will not sit up to bark for him.

If a writer’s aim be logical conviction, he must spare no logical pains, not merely to be understood, but to escape being misunderstood; where his object is to move by suggestion, to cause to imagine, then let him assail the soul of his reader as the wind assails an æolian harp. If there be music in my reader, I would gladly wake it. Let fairytale of mine go for a firefly that now flashes, now is dark, but may flash again. Caught in a hand which does not love its kind, it will turn to an insignificant, ugly thing, that can neither flash nor fly.

The best way with music, I imagine, is not to bring the forces of our intellect to bear upon it, but to be still and let it work on that part of us for whose it exists. We spoil countless precious things by intellectual greed. He who will be a man, and will not be a child, must–he cannot help himself–become a little man, that is, a dwarf. He will, how. ever, need no consolation, for he is sure to think himself a very large creature indeed.

If any strain of my “broken music” make a child’s eyes flash, or his mother’s grow for a moment dim, my labour will not have been in vain.

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cover image by Greg Westfall

Writers Retreat and Going Off-Grid

Last week, I took a midweek writers retreat up to Salem, Massachusetts (of witchhunt fame) by way of Boston bus and train. The retreat was organized by those who organized the Writer Unboxed Uncon (the writing conference I won the scholarship to last year). It was informal and available to everyone who went to the conference, so you didn’t miss much.

There were a dozen or so of us.

In a squeaky, three-story Air BnB.

For a week.

It was the perfect set for a murder mystery and I would have been tempted to shoot a short film had I not writing to finish. The usual suspects?

  • Therese Walsh, author and founder of WU
  • Sean Walsh, playwright and Irish folk musician
  • LJ Cohen, author and physician
  • CG Blake, author and gentleman
  • Brunonia Barry, author and Salem native
  • Heather Webb, author and shit-getter-doner
  • Linda Seed, author, sweetheart and editor
  • Gretchen Riddle, author and tarot reader
  • Soni Stokes, author and designer
  • Kate Hannison, author and blue pencil editor
  • Amy Rachiele, author and mob daughter
  • Jeannine Thibodeau, author and joy monger (she’s happy a lot)
  • B. Morrison, poet and freedom fighter
  • Paul Toth, author and entrepreneur
  • Tara Schaubert, knitter, reader, and crowd favorite

You should know a couple of things before I begin.

The first is that most of the women there are like mothers and aunts and older siblings to me. I list them not to name drop but because I never want to forget who was there and what fun we had together. I was kind of the young buck and, as always, out of my league.

I set out a series of ridiculous goals and accomplished a great many of them. I finished transferring the novel which I’ll submit in January right about the time the Joplin Photonovel comes out. The Photonovel enjoyed its first beta readers from some who were there — Momma Lisa (LJ) was particularly kind and encouraging about that project, which is good because I suffer from chronic Gaimanitis. You know, the “I just finished this huge project and it’s awful” syndrome.

Also finished three articles, a short story, and started a screenplay — Anniston.


I accomplished this by unjacking from The Matrix for five days straight. Now you’ll have people who say that we need data, we need the constant stream from your every life. They say this because they think having all of the data in the world is the same as understanding it. Look. You can have a name for every animal in the universe and still know them no more than the guy who first encounters them. So too with quasars and relationships and photos of that new burger joint’s lunch special.


The point is, some things can only grow in the dark and the quiet. Things like mold and moss and eggs. We humans? We need asceticism now and again. Writers retreats, if well-planned and prepared, can give that kind of introverted space. Depression itself is a survival instinct that forces us into introspection in order to make the right action coming out of that. This, among other reasons, is why I’m always preaching the gospel of melancholy to my choleric mother.

(Hi, mom. Nope, still not cutting my hair for Christmas pictures, sorry).

I got more done in five days of an internet-less existence among other people who were there to:

  1. Eat good food.
  2. Laugh hard laughs.
  3. Write like Twain.
  4. Get creeped out by Salem, MA enough to retreat into the house.

If you’re going to do a writers retreat…

I would recommend only doing it around people who are serious about getting work done, whose schedules roughly align, who know how to have a good time during meals and what not, and in a neutral location that can encourage people out of their routine. The least productive people were the natives from Salem. That’s no offense to them, it’s just admitting that they were in a different headspace than the rest of us.

Oh. And bring your learner’s rug. You know, the thing that’s like a prayer rug, only it puts you underneath your superiors.

Which, for me, was every other person there. The list above. Learned a ton about stories and the craft and whatnot. Even the Strandbeest exhibit taught me that a ruthless devotion to performance art can supplement a great piece of art.

Even if this post about how to do a writers retreat isn’t revolutionary, I have a “and then I found five dollars” conclusion: LJ Cohen’s book The Between is free right now on Kindle.

Enjoy gang. MUCH more to come soon.

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NYC author & producer

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