The Time We Waste

February 20, 2010

Imagine you’re sitting in a small room, staring at a pattern of tiny, multicolored squares on the carpet tile beneath your feet. It forms a constellation of pixel-shapes curiously reminiscent of a Tetris screenshot. You are holding the hand of a person you love deeply. Occasionally you give it a reassuring squeeze.

There’s nothing outwardly scary about the room – it’s quiet, air-conditioned, and it has a soothing beige and gray color scheme. But you know that any moment a doctor is going to walk through the door holding a test result, and he’s going to tell you whether or not the person you love – the person whose hand you are holding tightly – has cancer.

The possibility thickens the air around you, making it hot and hard to breathe. The quietness of the room seems to have a weight all of its own; it feels cruelly designed to let you hear the maelstrom of your own thoughts as clearly as possible. Even the neutrality of the decor seems threatening – a reminder of how truly mundane and inevitable something like death is, no matter how much we pretend it’s a special circumstance.

This very room is where I found myself sitting earlier this week. The person whose hand I was holding was my wife. Her test was for Leukemia.

The doctor – a very pleasant and soft spoken man – entered the room after ten of the longest minutes of our lives. He went over the numbers on the blood panel and took his sweet time before getting to the point. We held our breath. Eventually he announced that the results were negative – there was no cancer.

The relief was not as sudden and bright as you might suspect. For the previous three weeks the weight of the possibility of Leukemia had been pressing down hard on us both. I guess you don’t just spring back up from something like that quickly. Instead, you stay hunkered down for a while, like a blade of grass that’s been living under the weight of a rock. You’re eternally grateful for the second chance of course, but at the same time you’re still on the defensive, expecting the worst to come at any moment from some hidden angle.

Such an experience inevitably leads you to question the manner in which you’ve been living your life. Every aspect of your previous daily routine comes under close scrutiny. The veil is lifted – albeit briefly – and for just a moment you understand the fragility of life. You begin to look at everything you’re doing and ask things like: Is this worthwhile? Is this necessary? Is this a valid mode of thinking? Is this a skillful action? Is this a waste of my time?

If there’s one lesson my wife and I have decided to take away from all this, it’s that the biggest waste of time of all is worry.

One might build a case for certain negative emotions having positive results: the emotion of fear, for example, can be a life preserver under certain circumstances; anger can be a strong motivator and a catalyst to action. But worry, it seems to me now, is a fruitless exercise in attempting to predict an unknowable future. It is perhaps the most useless of all emotions.

Tenzin Gyatso – the fourteenth Dalai Lama – is said to have once been asked about the best way to confront anxiety. His response was that if you have a worry you should examine whether there is anything you can do about it. If there is something you can do about it, there is no need to worry, but if there is nothing you can do about it, there is also no need to worry.

With the events of the past two months fresh in my mind, I believe this to be one of the truest and most useful statements I’ve ever heard.

When it comes to writing a story, there’s often some worry involved, even if you don’t quite consciously recognize it. You might worry about whether or not it’s a good story (whatever “good” may mean); you might worry if it’s publishable, or if your editor will find it agreeable; you might be concerned over your grammar or spelling, or anxious about how your friends and family will receive it, or how viciously the members of your local writing critique group will tear it apart. After all, a tremendous amount of blood, sweat and tears goes into a story. You pour months of your life into an artistic creation, and then you set it free, hoping that out there, in the big wide world, it will find some measure of success.

In my personal experience, such background worries have been expressed as a curious form of perfectionism. Perfectionism, I’ve come to realize, is not a virtue of a writer but rather an affliction. It leads to doubt in the story being told or in one’s ability to tell it. It leads to boxes full of half-written stories – perfect beginnings without endings. It leads to procrastination and to wonderful tales that exist only in the mind and never on the page. Perhaps worst of all, it leads to time spent in re-writes that should have been spent pushing doggedly ahead to the finish line. All these dire circumstances are based only on the subtle worry that the story somehow won’t be good enough.

But here’s the rub: I don’t believe believe that any story can be perfect, at least not qualitatively. Certainly perfection can be attributed by individual readers, but I don’t think there’s an inherent quality, or an essence of adequacy, contained within the story itself. What is perfection for one reader may be the very definition of failure for another. What offends one reader will amuse another. What entertains one reader will bore another. You can’t write a story that the world will inevitably embrace. All you can do is write something that’s good enough for you, and hope that the world catches on to your vision.

In that doctor’s room – waiting for the results of my wife’s test – perfection fell away. It no longer existed. All that was left was a deep and powerful sense of the unknowable quality of time. I did not know how much longer I would have to spend by her side. In spite of the happy outcome, I still do not know how much longer I will have by her side. No one ever can. I might step outside tomorrow and get hit by bus. All we can do is spend our time wisely, not living in the past or trying to predict the future… and especially not worrying about things.

If you worry about your stories, if you spend all your time trying to perfect just one of them, then I say such concerns are foolish. Put the pen to the paper and write, damn it! Write your impermanent, temporary little heart out. By all means, do your best and set high standards for yourself, but don’t ever let those standards get in the way of moving forward.

Write like there is no tomorrow because, well…
There may not be…



The Great Human Constant

February 2, 2010

I owe an apology and an explanation to my regular readers. More than a month has drifted by since I last posted and oh what a month it’s been…

In early January my wife exerienced what we thought was nothing more than an inner ear infection or blockage, but when it didn’t go away we discovered it was something more serious. She was sent for a head MRI to check for the presence of tumors on the auditory nerve and the possibility of stroke – two tests which fortunately came back clear. After several audiograms and a second opinion consultation, she was diagnosed with idiopathic unilateral sudden sensorineural hearing loss. In simpler terms, she has gone mostly deaf in one ear due to nerve damage of unknown origin. SSHL is largely a mystery in the world of otological medicine. It can be caused by viral infection, by certain drugs such as antibiotics, by diabetic vascular events, and a host of other factors. Sometimes it just happens without cause.

We are now faced with adapting to a variety of new circumstances. Because her balance is off she cannot drive (or even walk that well) until she learns to compensate for the dizziness. She has persistent (and possibly permament) tinnitus in the damaged ear which is causing her a great deal of mental stress. Hearing aids are not covered by our health insurance, although we may have a case for a disability insurance claim. It’s a whole lot of big changes that came about virtually overnight. Needless to say, the blog was the furthest thing from my mind, and my writing has taken a month-long hiatus as well.

As stressful as the month has been, it has served as a wake-up call and a much needed reminder to me of the fragility of our human condition. When I was sitting in the diagnostic center watching my wife in the MRI tube, all past worries and petty arguments fell into perspective and the world suddenly seemed very simple – both in an awful and paradoxically beautiful way. I’ve looked at my wife these past few weeks with gratitude for every moment we can spend together and I don’t think I’ve felt this depth of love since our wedding day almost a decade ago.

Buddhists have a conceptual view of the universe that entails three main factors which they call the three marks of existence. The first of these is the fact of impermanence. It’s a reality we’re all aware of on a conscious level – that nothing lasts – but often it’s not until life steps up and slaps us in the face that we feel this fundamental truth in our hearts and genuinely understand it. Our circumstances are subject to continual change. The most stable of relationships will come to an end; the most powerful of people will grow old and ultimately die; empires will crumble and new ones will rise in their stead; seasons will cycle; perceptions will shift…

Paradoxical as it may be, it seems the one great constant of the human experience is change.

To bring this blog back on course, I want to get back to thinking about the art of storytelling. Surely, in light of this great constant, we can say that the most enduring stories must encompass great change in the life of a character. It’s not the stories about love that are compelling, it’s the ones about a change in the circumstances of love that touch us the most deeply – those about love lost, love gained, or love transformed. Romeo and Juliet did not start their tragic tale already in love and end it in the same state… that would have been an awfully boring story.

And what about death? It seems to me that death features powerfully in just about every literary genre out there – even in the most popular of children’s books. Pick up any literary “masterpiece” and I’ll warrant you’ll find it has a meditation on death at it’s core. And what is death if not the greatest change any of us can undergo in our experience of being human? It’s that final transition from the known to the unknown. A story that deals with death – or with the upheavals that death has wrought among those still alive – automatically bears witness to a truth of the human condition.

Action stories, thrillers, and many horror tales are really stories about a transition from a status of apparent security to a place of deep discomfort. We all spend our lives cultivating an illusion of security – we put up our fire alarms, pad our savings accounts, insure our belongings, do our exercises and eat our greens all in a vain effort to stave off the change that is inevitably coming. In thriller stories, the condition usually returns to a sense of security by the climax. In horror there is often no such return to safety, which – one could argue – makes horror the more honest genre.

In subtler ways, most stories deal with internal change that has profound consequences for the characters undergoing it – changes in opinion, changes in ideals, changes in self-image, changes in understanding etc. These “revelation” stories are often some of the most satisfying forms of story to read.

But I don’t think that change alone is the engine that drives a story. Rather, it’s the variety of ways our characters respond to the changes we thrust upon them that matters. It’s one of the most satisfying experiences for an author when a character takes on a seeming life of their own and begins to respond to changes in ways even the author themselves could not predict. In a way it’s downright spooky. When a character admirably handles the circumstances we toss their way, we have a triumphant arc; when a character caves to the change we may well have a tale of tragedy on our hands.

It’s been a month of change for my wife and I, and though my writing schedule has suffered, I’m deeply grateful for the wake-up call it’s given me. The future is always uncertain and what we do in the moment is all that counts. I think perhaps now it’s time to roll with the punches and put some new words on the page…