Monthly Archives: July 2017

Get Courageous

When I was in graduate school at the University of Iowa, I read in the college newspaper an interview with the director of the Playwrights’ Workshop. The reporter asked for his advice to would-be playwrights. His response was so outrageous, I remember it after a bunch of years.

He advised, if you have a boyfriend or girlfriend, get rid of them. If you’ve got a husband or wife, disown them. If you’ve got kids, drown them.

I suspect he was practicing dramatic hyperbole. Yet I, like Saint Paul, agree with the basic principle: lovers and dependents can get in the way of our work.

If you dedicate yourself to writing, at some point you’ll suspect people are conspiring to stop you. They will demean your efforts overtly or by lack of appreciation. Your family will fail to hide their resentment of the time you spend dreaming over the keyboard and the fact that you don’t make as much money as you could if you applied the same effort to pulling weeds for minimum wage.

And when you’re having a creative reverie, or even if they catch you transcribing directly from the spirit, they will interrupt.

We can’t blame them. When pursuing our art, we’re lost to the world. We’re remote, boring, often cranky. We’re loners who may elicit jealousy when our loved ones begin to doubt we really need them.

But most of us do need them, at least in times when we’re not creating. So, if I were asked for advice on this issue, I might suggest we try hard to be extra good to our loved ones whenever we break away from our art. And we might try putting a lock on our office door.

In practicing art, we risk alienating family and friends. That’s a fact. Artists aren’t recognized as the best husbands, wives or parents. But neither are soldiers, policemen or preachers, other occupations that require courage.

As Olga Savitsky taught me, King David was “a man after God’s own heart” because he was both a warrior and a poet. I imagine David composing his psalms with the same focus, zeal, and courage as he used attacking Goliath or the Edomites.

Read on in Writing and the Spirit

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The Jefferson Attitude

The New York Times ran an article by historian David Williams about Thomas Jefferson’s more or less Christian attitude and how taking a similar stance might allow the Democratic Party to win over those who find Democrats essentially secular and deaf to the concerns posed by their Christian beliefs.

According to Mr. Williams, Jefferson believed in the teachings of Christ but didn’t accept the “mysticism”, by which Jefferson apparently meant the outrageous claim that Christ was God and as such performed miracles including his return from death, thereby providing evidence for his assertion that believers could achieve eternal life.

Now, I would certainly prefer that Democrats took the teachings of Christ seriously, no matter how they feel about “mysticism”. While I spent some time at a seminary in Tijuana, a very intelligent member of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity told me that part of his admiration for the Mexican poor was that even most of those who didn’t believe in Catholic doctrine, having grown up in a mostly Catholic culture, had learned to be humble and selfless, as Christ would have them be.

Would that we all were humble and selfless, no matter what we believe.

But whether or not this Jeffersonian template, based largely upon the Beatitudes and the admonition to love our neighbors, would win at least some swing votes to Democrats, it’s quite a dangerous course to chart. In fact, I would call it hogwash except, perhaps because of my ties to Christian culture, I would rather play nice.
In defense of my objection, I will call upon Feodor Dostoyevski, widely held to be among the greatest novelists ever.

In the recent work of a far lesser writer (Ken Kuhlken, alias me), we find a precocious thirteen year old discussing a criminal case with his attorney uncle:

“Tommy asked, ‘Well, do you want to hear something Dostoyevski thought about bad guys like Luz? [boss of a Tijuana cartel.]’

“’Read on.’

“Tommy’s source was The Brothers Karamazov, which he opened to a book mark.

“’This is Rakitin, who’s pretty much of a nitwit, talking about Ivan, who is mighty smart: “Did you hear his stupid theory just now: if there’s no immortality of the soul, then there’s no virtue, and everything is lawful?”’”

Dostoyevski devoted much of his art to dramatizing this very question: if we remove God from the equation, why should we act in accord with any moral standard other than the pursuit of our own benefit?

If we take a secular stance and dismiss the possibility of what Jefferson deems mysticism, why should we hold anyone’s well being above our own; why should we sacrifice; why should we try to love better?

Over a hundred years ago, that question drove Dostoyevski’s two most profound and compelling novels. Before his time and ever since, some mighty intelligent writers and thinkers have tried and failed to come up with a convincing answer.

So, regardless of the fact that a long lost girlfriend of mine argued that Christianity would be preferable if blood weren’t one of its abiding themes; and my Unitarian friends would have us consider the teachings of Christ in the same category as those of the Dalai Lama; and many folks I know believe that heaven is a swell concept but hell is simply not Christ-like … regardless of the opinions of those good people, the notion that we can legitimately pick and choose from a historically fixed set of beliefs is a fool’s paradise.

Which brings me to the role of us writers in political, social and spiritual discourse.

Sure, those of us who believe in Christ ought to let our readers know that, like Jefferson, we adhere to the values our Lord set down and hope people follow them whether or not they believe in the “mystical” stuff. But if we believe in that “mystical” stuff, we also ought to insinuate our belief that creation is more than what the Bernards would have us believe.

For a definition of “Bernards,” I once again call upon the precocious Tommy. Jodi, The novel’s narrator, is telling about a drive along Highway 395 in the Sierra Nevada:

“Once when Tommy laughed and I asked what about, he said, ‘Dmitri, one of the brothers, he calls science guys Bernards. Bernard was some knucklehead French writer.’

“’Dmitri calls scientists Bernards?’

“’Not exactly scientists, but guys who think science is the answer to everything.’

“’So, Tommy,’ Mystery [Jodi’s daughter] said, ‘if not science, what is the answer to everything?’”

To find the answer to that last and ultimate question, you’ll need to read the novel.

Thanks for reading, Ken

The Answer to Everything

Some folks are no doubt dying to know the story of my writing career, so I’m going to attempt a capsule version. Of course I once set out to write a short story and ended up with 1400 pages. I’ll try my best to make this shorter.

As high school kid and later as a college English major, my choice in novels skewed toward the “literary”, which to me meant novels of character rather than novels of plot.

So my first novel, Midheaven, got labeled “literary”. And though it earned a prestigious award and got well reviewed, it didn’t sell a whole lot.

The next couple novels I wrote were rather experimental. They didn’t find a publisher.

My friend Don Merritt was making decent money writing adventure paperback originals. I needed money, so I wrote what I thought was one of those. But when I sent it to my agent, she said, “Oh no, this isn’t a paperback original. It’s a literary novel.”

I put writing aside, and started teaching too much, at several colleges, on account of needing money. After a year of that, I was a mess. Then some friends who were mystery writers asked to see my adventure/literary manuscript. They read it and urged me to send it to a certain mystery contest. I did so and won.

So I became a mystery writer, for seven books. And though they won plenty awards and earned consistently excellent reviews, they didn’t sell a lot. One reason, I think they aren’t what most readers look for when they buy a mystery, even though I had tried to restrain myself and stay within the boundaries of the genre. I’m just not good at restraint.

At long last, I have decided to forget restraint and write what I most love to read, which is novels about crime but also about character, what people think and feel and act and often do such weird and irrational stuff.

I have completed the third draft and I’m happy about it. A couple more revisions and we’ll see what happens. It’s called, by the way, The Answer to Everything.

Thanks for reading, Ken