Saturday, December 23, 2006

Fear of Success

I've reached the point in my life where I'm more afraid of failure than I am of success.

It feels strange to say that -- the last part, especially -- but the truth is I've always been one to hold back. Why? The more you do, and the better you do it, the more people expect from you.

And I'm not comfortable with expectations.

I suppose if I had enough confidence not to care what people think ... well, I'm getting there.

But the fear of success is more than that. I won a state-wide award once when I was in high school, and my best friend wondered if I would still hang out with him. Really. That's what he told me. Not at the time, but later.

So the thing to fear, I think, is that success changes people in unpredictable ways.

If I were successful -- wildest dreams successful -- would I turn into a pompous ass? Would I be too good for my friends. Would they think so even if I didn't?

Would new friends be real friends? Would they tell me the truth or just what I wanted to hear?

Would I lose the spark that drove me to be successful in the first place?

All of which sounds just a little ridiculous when my wildest dreams remain out of reach.

Saturday, December 16, 2006


I'm always thinking about stories and how they are told.

A great way to learn, I've discovered, is to read the same story twice. Or read the same story as told by different writers.

The four gospels, for example.

It's interesting to see what each writer chooses to leave in and leave out. How the the order of events gets changed around. How the writers differ in their descriptions of, say, crowd reactions. How they differ in their characterizations of the twelve apostles.

(Hint: Read one complete gospel each day. Otherwise they all blur together.)

Movie versions can be revealing, too.

Take The Passion of the Christ.

I wasn't surprised that it was controversial, but I always thought it was controversial for the wrong reasons. (Old news, I know, but now Gibson has directed another movie, Apocalyto, also not in English, and it got me thinking about his choices.)

To me, The Passion stands as a shining example of how a story changes in the retelling. Even in the hands of someone who believes the story is true. Even in the hands of some one who cares enough about historical accuracy use the languages of that time and place.

Like the Gospel writers, Gibson made certain choices about what to include and what to leave out and, perhaps most revealing, what to add.

Matthew chose to begin with Jesus' birth, Mark with his baptism, Mel with his arrest. I guess he assumed we were all familiar with the rest of the story, though he did throw in flashbacks to a few key events -- the Sermon on the Mount, the Woman Caught in Adultery, the Triumphal Entry, the Last Supper.

In the case of the woman caught in adultery ("Let he who is without sin cast the first stone"), he chose to place Mary Magdalene in the role, which would explain why she appears so devoted to Jesus in the rest of the film. Historically accurate? No. But, in Hollywood parlance, the flashback "works." It makes emotional sense and makes for a better, more compact story.

To borrow a phrase from novelist Ken Kesey, "It's true even if it never happened."

The same could be said of this addition: As Jesus falls under the weight of the cross he must carry, we see his mother watching and recalling Jesus falling down as a toddler. Clearly, she wishes she could scoop him up again and comfort him as she did then. It's a touching moment and could even be true. After all, what mother hasn't comforted a child who has fallen? Was that really what Mary was thinking? Doesn't matter. It works, right?

Well, not for me, but never mind.

The most surprising addition, though, was a flashback to Jesus as a young carpenter who builds a table that is unusually high for the time period -- he has to explain to his mother how people will sit at the table using chairs he hasn't built yet.

Go figure.

Maybe Jesus was a visionary carpenter as well as a visionary teacher. Maybe his accomplishments as a furniture maker were simply overshadowed by his other insights. The high table forgotten; his admonition to love our enemies remembered.

We all remember that, right?

If not, all the storytellers have failed.

Sunday, December 3, 2006


Before the beginning there was eternity and emptiness, a vast darkness stretching to infinity. Hidden in this darkness was a mysterious force we've come to know as God. The universe was his never-ending womb, and he was born at the moment he became aware of his potential. He became aware of the emptiness and realized it didn't have to be that way. The universe could be full. Indeed it already was for he was everywhere. By the same token he became aware of the darkness and realized it didn't have to be that way. (An uncanny inspiration since there was nothing else.) And God said, "Let there be light," and there was light. He began to play with this idea, taking it to extremes, and an explosion of creativity followed. He created solid and liquid, hot and cold, rough and smooth. The things he created gave him pleasure but then he also knew pain. He created life: birth and death. Comedy and drama. And God saw that it was good, but he immediately recognized the potential for evil, for everything had its opposite. That was the basic principle of creation.
- Note to myself dated Sunday, March 1, 1987, 1:09 a.m.

Weird, huh? I never stay up past midnight. Well, almost never.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

What She Said

I'll tell you what she said. She said, "If you're really drunk, how come you don't make a pass at me when I turn off the flashlight?"

I was seventeen then, and it was the first time I had tasted beer, but I wasn't drunk.

She said, "Do you remember where you left your sleeping bag?"

Those are the opening lines of a short story called "What She Said" in the Beloit Fiction Journal. The Spring 2006 edition. It just arrived.

The story is mine.

I like seeing it in print. Holding it in my hands. It's been a long time coming.

I say that not because the spring edition arrived in November, but because I wrote the first version of the story, then called "Good Thing Going," back in 1977, when I was fresh out of college.

I hit upon the new title and a new emphasis sometime around 1990. It felt like a breakthrough, and I sent the story to about a dozen magazines in quick succession.

No one wanted it. Not even the city magazine I worked for at the time. My boss wanted to run it but her boss didn't, and that was that.

I gave up. For a dozen years, I did nothing with the story.

Little did I know, all that time, that I was one more submission (and two or three changes) from success.

A small success, I suppose, but a sweet one just the same.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Getting Stronger

Hatred seems so strong sometimes. Overpowering. Unstoppable.

I'm convinced, however, that its power is often overestimated.

People learn to hate when they have been hurt. They're like wounded animals -- vulnerable and afraid. They lash out quickly because they know they are weak and may not be able to fight for long.

Love sometimes seems weak. It doesn't have the sudden destructive power that hate displays.

But love can heal. And given time, it will.

Wednesday, November 1, 2006

When Peace Explodes

I've decided I need to assemble a bomb.

Not me alone. I have to have help. Co-conspirators. You.

The parts and players we need will have to come from Detroit and D.C., London and Berlin, Beirut and Jerusalem. All around the world.

As I write this the sky is dark and quiet.

Can you feel it?

There's a charge inside of us.

We're the bomb.

We're the shock and awe.

And everything will change when peace explodes.