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While explaining a quandary I was having as I waded into one of the more difficult portions of my novel, a friend asked, “You’re the writer. Can’t you just make them (your characters) do what you want?” And that, dear reader, is always the rub. Of course, I could, but, even when writing about magical characters (djinn and such), there is no magic wand. Everything must seem real, and if not real, plausible, and if not plausible—if wild and genuinely surprising—then I have to prove it.

The writer doesn’t have to avoid those deus ex machina moments, so much as show them in their complete and total glory. You place a grain of sand on the battle field, and then the whole balance is shifted—but you do not, never, ever, forget the grain of sand. You carry it in from some desert or beach (preferably one from which the ocean has retreated and left barren), and you drop it under a horse’s hoof, or into the eye of the hero (or worse, the eye of his lieutenant), and let it have its way.

So much of writing is about discovering the grains of sand. The larger narrative components are there: beginnings, middles, and ends. What holds them together are small moments. Images, lines of dialogue, secondary characters who stumble into a scene. You don’t know that they will be there when you begin, but you find them—or they find you.

And yes, they come from you—unintentionally, more often than not. They sneak in from your childhood, or something you just saw on the news, from a museum display, or from a clutch of conversation overheard while in line at Shake Shack. Your brain files all these away, and then, at the right moment (or the wrong one—but only if you’re lucky) drops them back in on you. “Thought you were done with that, eh?” your writing brain asks, while you have sent a character through a hole in time to receive a secret from his future self, and suddenly you are reliving a kiss, a gesture, from 25 years ago—or last year. Can you even keep track anymore?

No, but once you start writing it, everything floods back, and you are reliving and living and inventing and discovering something you never knew before. But there you are, and everything you write surprises you, and the ending for which you thought you were aiming changes. Because of a grain of sand that you have been carrying with you for 55 years. Here comes the sandstorm.

It is difficult to explain the existential risk that the writer—at least this writer—undertakes when working. It is tantamount to this:

One time we (my father, two crew mates, and I) sailed out of the Chesapeake Bay onto the ocean in a gale. Already in the bay itself there was 6-8 foot chop, and on this trip, one of the four sailors (a first timer sailor) had slipped into his bunk clutching his life jacket, stricken with an indomitable case of seasickness. We were sailing short handed into stupid weather.

For the next four days we sailed in 30-50 knot winds, in a sea that was more like a protracted set of sand dunes, the water whipped by the wind into twelve foot peaks that barely seemed to move. They were moving though, faster than we were in our 36 foot sailboat. The ship sailed up and down these wet rolling hills, making ragged progress toward our goal: Bermuda.

Sensible men would have waited, but for all my father’s strengths (long range planning, and in the moment decisiveness among them), he had a stubbornness that did not waver. Once he had a plan, he stuck to it. Later in life, this supported him as he battled with Parkinson’s Disease. He suffered with the adaptations the illness forced on him, but refused to be stopped. In the end this led to his death. On this trip, his drive took us into an ocean that would challenge us.

I should also note that when I point to a crew mate who became seasick, I do not cast aspersions. I get seasick, and had each time I had sailed on the ocean before this. It always strikes me when I take my first late watch, when the horizon is shrouded in black, and my eyes and inner ear cannot properly make sense of the several directions that my body is moving. It is an ugly sickness, driving the guts empty in rebellion, until there is nothing left but bile. I never missed my turns at watcher helm because of it. The nausea would strike, and I would turn my head, and do what I needed. I did not eat or drink while it was on me, and it passed, for me it did, and after 36 hours.

On this trip, in this ocean, I was entirely spared. All my other crew mates, even my father, were struck. In retrospect perhaps the swell of the sea was so distinct and regular, that the three way (pitch, yaw, and roll) motion did not take grip of me. Or perhaps the danger created a necessary clarity. As with all retrospect, I cannot be sure.

After four days, we finally passed into the fringe of whatever had driven the gale. In a matter of hours, the wind created new swell patterns. Around midnight, the sea that had been a reasonable set of rolling hills, turned, and became more like waves breaking over an invisible reef or sand bar. 18-20 foot waves rose and broke, all headed in one direction. They are called following seas, which means the breakers were rising behind us, and rolling toward us. They were moving faster than we were, and lifted our boat to each peak, at which point our boat would slide down the front of the breaker like a sailboard.

That sounds easy enough, but as the boat fell down the surface of each wave, it carved a path driven by gravity and the force of the wave it was riding. Its path down the wave became, temporarily and repeatedly, unmanageable. Pushed by wind, pushed by water, pulled by gravity, the rudder merely suggested a direction. And yet, when at the helm, every suggestion made a difference. Caught at the top of a breaker, the boat could easily go sideways, and roll over. Sliding down the side of the breakers, it could turn too sharply and roll over.

A sailboat is not a surfboard.

My father and I took the helm when the sea turned. We held it in half hour turns, and it was exhausting work that required dense and specific attention. And, we were exhausted after the previous days of sail. Usually, in harsh conditions, one man took the wheel, and the other took refuge propped against the cabin in the leeward side of the cockpit, using the cabin as a wall against the constant water that broke over the windward gunwale. In this case, as we planed down the sides of the swells, the leeward gunwale cut into the water, and the water rushed into the cockpit. This added a new threat. The boat could be capsized, swamped with water if the helmsmen was not attentive. And, because no attention was enough, at the very least, we were soaked, the water pooling in our yellow foul weather gear, which was not designed for repeated submersion.

At 4 in the morning my father looked at me and said, “I can’t do it anymore. I’m going to send another crew member up, but you cannot let him take the helm until the sea settles down. You have to sail until then. The boat is yours.”

I brought a waterproof Walkman on these trips. And can admit that for the times I took the helm that night, I listened to an array of the loudest songs I had: Dinosaur Jr’s “I Know You’re Out There,” Medicine’s “One More,” and Sonic Youth’s “Sugar Kane.” Nothing was loud enough. Nothing matched the ocean or my attention. Nothing matched my awareness of what might happen, or when my father relented, what had happened.

I sailed. Every time I turned the wheel, I felt like I was making a decision that could imperil the lives of all of us. We would go down fast, without time to throw the life raft overboard. It would happen in an instant. We were at sea—tempest tossed as Shakespeare wrote. The end would come quickly. Each time I turned the wheel, each millimeter I moved it to port or starboard, I felt as if I was making a decision for speed and forward motion. It felt, again, as the bard wrote, giddy. Not happy, and not drunk—although I felt as drunk as I could be—drunk with sailing, with water and with wind—but transported out of my mind, beyond all thought, and into every thought possible. I sailed as I never had before, as I would always want to sail afterwards.

Friends ask me if I have been sailing in the years since my father’s death. I have not. But even before he died, I knew that I would not—not because of fear or seasickness (an anti-vertigo drug helped allay that)—because I had done something then that I would never replicate. Not on the ocean. I have sought it ever since.

I do not know what has ever led me back to safety. I know that what calls me is not simply mastery (I have a PhD in English, I have some level of mastery there), but the exhilaration of being over the edge of control and into the realm of the impossible. To be the captain, which I became that night. Sometimes, too often, I have exercised the caution I faulted my father for lacking. I have stayed controlled, almost too calm. In some measure, this is because I feel a lack of control and a lack of mastery around me. Even the experts profess a quietness or steadfastness, when sometimes what is needed is to go out of ones mind. To forgo safety. To risk. But also to carry the responsibility for the lives on board. We are, truly, in this together, an must all go out of our minds, together.

I have over-prepared, or tried to know, to tame the ideas in my head, worried that they were unintelligible, or that they were somehow too strange. I feel myself now, at the top of the breaking wave again. And look down into the night sea. This way. Now. Down. For life.

The thing about writing that some people will never understand is that for the writer, it is not cerebral. Writing is physical. I feel exhausted, physically spent, after writing. Not exactly the same as after a work out, or after a night of intimacy, but I will push myself until my body shakes. I stop when I am done, when I have hit a physical limit. I do not believe that people who do not write, seriously write, understand this.

I’m not speaking out of my hat on this. I know about physical limits and I have tested mine. When I was younger, I swam seven hours a day (over three separate workouts). When I was older, I took the helm and held it until for days until storms had passed, even when I was seasick and retching over the stern, even when I had a broken rib. I am aware of myself as a physical being. I know where my limits are, and how to push up to and extend them.

Part of the physicality of writing comes from the sound. When I write, each word resonates. It is like being inside a drum, or suspended in the bell of a trombone. My mind is noisy when I write—not scattered, but genuinely full of noise. And like a conductor, my arms are keeping all the sounds organized, on time, in concert.

Writing calls a world into being. There are no phantoms, no shadows. Each image, every idea, is made real, is pulled from some grey other world into this one. Some ideas and images do not come easily, but must be coaxed, yanked, or held gently—each needs to be evoked and tended in its own particular way—the same way each child needs just this much attention, just this much encouragement. But when they come, what joy.

Sometimes, I have to stop, slow my heart, and wait. I can feel the words begin to come along the inside of my arms, deep in my thighs, in my chest. They shorten my breath and turn my feet unusually cold, almost the only time I feel an actual chill—I am a warm man.

And, well do I know how I become a better writer when I move—when I take long walks, or spend a few thousand yards in the pool, or push my heart rate above 180 beats per minute. Because the writing is physical, and the words have a weight, beyond the blinking cursor on the screen.

So much of wit is based on shared experiences.  I know I can toss in a “Brian Clements, we love you, get up!” to my friend Brian, and he will smile that wry smile that accompanies a reference to O’Hara. Or proclaim, “Hell, I love everybody!” and he will know what I mean. If I draw my finger across my eye, we have traveled into Bunuel’s fractured mindscape. We share those images and words. I can tell my brother to “Blanket the fucking jib,” and he will know the context. My mother can call me a “Son of a Bitch,” and know the ground upon which she treads. My father would offer a “You have all done very well,” recognizing the provenance of ignorance that surrounded Mr. Grace’s signature line.

My fantasy baseball friends call themselves “lobsters” because 25 years ago, I dubbed us the “League of Blood Sucking Intellectuals,” and one of us couldn’t get “sucking” through the email filter at his job (hard to believe—hehe). So, “Lobsters” we became. One day on the golf course, while following a slow moving group of much older players, I declared that my goal in life was to grow up to become a codger, which elicited chuckles. Maybe because I was already on that road. Or maybe because the bridge to that destination had washed out long ago in my life.

I sit in plays and howl out loud at all the jokes, my laughter more obvious at the jokes no one else gets. I make jokes daily that fall on deaf ears, and that’s because my reference points are in literature and art, and no one knows my plan. If I go for slapstick, there are laughs, or pity (Dr. Brennan, we love you, get up). “Bastard,” or “Rat Bastard” will get broad smiles. Because I am a teacher, I rarely turn my barbs on anyone below me on the food chain—I rather turn myself into shark bait, and perhaps, by example, show the way from chummy ignorance to razor-toothed wisdom. That bridge too stands on uncertain pilings.

I can understand why comics aim for the gut and crotch—there is shared knowledge (fat and thin as it may be) in the bodily functions. And I get it, and laugh at it, up to a point. There is no denying that absurdity of the fleshy slap of desire, or the rumbling gurgle of gluttony. We fuck lustily. We eat heartily. We can dress both up in fantasy, but the actuality is less glorious. And more. The secret is that the middle way is stupid and tiresome. Angels or demons are the way. Humans don’t know enough.

Once upon a time, I read Joyce’s Ulysses, and realized quite quickly, that he was having a ball. My serious classmates scoured the book for meaning, and yet, a big part of the meaning was swaddled in laughter. The great play. Not for them. And so, out went the baby. I do not deny that there is something serious in that book, or that there are books and art and times that are deathly serious—all of them, in fact. But there is play, truly unconscionable and irreverent all the time.

“Dying is easy,” goes the old saw, “Comedy is hard.” Now, we hide the dying, or reverence it out of the sphere of our daily experience. Failure—even for those who practice the dictum, “Fail Harder” (they do so only to achieve a higher form of success)—is fatal, and therefore dirtier than anything else we can imagine—even dirtier than the raunchiest comic’s imagination. And, like death, inevitable. But we do fail, do fall, and do, with mud on our clothes, rise back up, not like zombies—there are plenty of those already manning the parapets—but like humans who have learned that laughter is the key to resilience. It is the joy of the second, third, fourth, and fifth acts.

We may need to banish Jack, but we also need to learn from him. And the Queen will have him back. And even if you don’t know who Jack is, or why he was banished, or which Queen requested the fat man’s return, we know. It may be hard to walk into the room, caked in mud, but given the alternative, here I go, ready to kill it. Again. “Brian Brennan, we love you, get up.”

It’s a common enough occurrence, or at least I hope it is for you. Someone tells you, “I love you.” This seems like a simple enough thing. But I (and I am guessing this is true for some of you as well) did not grow up in a house in which that phrase was bandied about loosely. I do not recall my parents telling each other, “I love you.” Perhaps they did, but they did not in front of us kids.

My father only once told me that he loved my mother, and that was when he chastised me for arguing with her, “She’s my wife, and I love her. She’s always going to be right.” How’s that for a single explicit lesson on love and marriage?

Everything else I figured out on my own—with generous glimpses into the lives of families of my friends and the families of the women I dated over the years. Or movies. We have to learn somewhere.

So, when someone—that someone—tells me “I love you,” I know that there is an appropriate response, something distinctly other than, “That’s nice.” And here, I am distinctly not writing about the first time someone tells me that—I’m writing about months or years of love. Besides, if “That’s nice” is your response, it’s time to move on. You are doing that someone no favors.

First, and this is easy, reply with: “I love you,” or “I love you too.” If possible, touch that person’s hand or arm when you make this response. A simple physical gesture can help punctuate your words.

Maybe this seems too easy. “I want to say more,” you think. How about responding, “Every time you say that, I feel happy”? Imagine telling someone that after ten months or ten years, or, for that matter, ten hundred years. “Every time?” Every time.

Or, you could answer, “I remember the first time you told me that. It thrilled me. It still does.” Perhaps share the particulars of that first time. You remember, don’t you?

If words are not your thing, just stop, and stop them too. No matter where you are, or what you are doing. Take their hand, touch their cheek, kiss them—lightly or deeply as you wish. And then ask them, “Tell me again.”

“What do I have to say?”

How I wish that more people asked this simple question before adding to the public discourse. Instead of wondering about their particular expertise, or wondering about how their experiences have shaped them, most people weigh in, almost automatically, on nearly any occasion. We have become a nation of opiners, flexing our incredible verbal muscles in a display that rivals any body-building competition.

And for what? What are the effect of our words? What spaces do they carve out in the public square? How do our voices land in the ears of those around us? How does what we say actually represent our thoughts and feelings, and how much is made to simply compete with what we hear—a kind of verbal pyrotechnics meant to outblast, if not outshine, the sound and fury of our neighbors?

It is enough to make one meek. Since everyone expresses opinions at a level of intensity that rivals Jonathan Edwards—dangling our audience over pits of damnation—a quiet measured voice is like a spring zephyr in February—lost in the midst of winter rain and sleet, unless one can open oneself for that fleeting moment that the season will change, and that the one breath of gentler warmth can ease its way into our winter layers. But who has enough patience to be that harbinger? To breathe softer words? To hint?

And who would listen?

I begin with no grand proclamation to shout. My students would laugh to hear me say that. I have shouted, exhorted, acted—overacted—and entertained in classes for years. Inevitably, I will announce “Dr. Brennan’s Rule for Life #7,362: Buy flowers,” and acknowledge that there are as many rules to the north and south of that number. However, my students are a captive audience—they have to at least pretend to listen to me. The same goes for my daughters, or even the members of the congregation I served for nearly a dozen years. Yet, I never take any listening for granted.

Maybe this is true of others as well, and maybe this is part of the reason that there is so much shouting in the square—as if volume could take the place of wisdom. Say something loud enough and someone will pay attention. Get enough people to pay attention, and some number will believe what you are saying. Get enough people to believe and rule the world—or some slice of it.

What if all you want to do is quietly share. I saw this… I heard this… I thought this… I felt this… What if you wanted to just add to the world and not bend it to your will? To inspire some stranger to go and see, or hear, or think, or feel? To suggest, perhaps to persuade, but not to cajole or chastise?

I do not know. I wonder if there is a wisdom or wisdoms that might be shared, if a thought precisely crafted and shared will find purchase. Is there a value in inspired rumination? My students read Walden and bristle at Thoreau’s adamantine vision. Who is he to insist on how we should live? Didn’t he die penniless? Where did he go to school? Why isn’t he as well organized as Emerson? I don’t think about my pants. The same holds true for Whitman’s kosmic voice, and for Dickinson’s route of evanescence. Writers who stake a claim turn readers away. If that selection seems too narrow, Ellison’s blindingly light filled room, Woolf’s roomier postulations, and Marquez’s endless Aurelianos also turn readers into pillars of salt.

But, declare I must, because silence is not a story, and words may find purchase, somewhere, somehow. Time to work.

I have been thinking about feelings. Which means, of course, that I have been having them, or rather, overwhelmed by them of late. I wouldn’t bother to write about them if they were good feelings. When I am in love, I tend to write less about that feeling, in part because my need to communicate to the world is being so generously satisfied by the person I love.  The feeling of being so thoroughly understood (she gets me!) is like putty in the gaps through which the words drift out (or in). The feeling of being misunderstood blows all the putty out.

I wonder what it would be like to write about love. I should try.

When there is anger, which almost always proceeds from misunderstanding, I don’t know how to speak to anyone I love. One former lover suggested that I should just “let her be” when she was angry.  I should know to do that, or something like that.  Active listening is an approach I have been trained to use by countless leadership and communications trainings. Yet, it is hard to apply my professional approaches to my personal life, because my personal life is so much more consequential than my professional life, and because my personal life is so, forgive me, personal.

When a congregant, a colleague, or a student is angry, it matters, but not in any kind of existential way. I can pull aside a student several days later, ask what was going on, and suggest what their angry display had the possibility of doing (how it might impact the relationship he has with adults or classmates). Because students are young and impulsive, most do not hold onto their impulsive anger in a lasting way, and most can offer a genuine “My bad” after the fact. They do it days later, and sometimes hours later. Adults hold their feelings longer. With adults, some formulation of “I hear you” and “I hear that you feel strongly about that” is my trained response. And is usually answered with “You’re damn right I feel strongly about that” followed by a lengthy restatement of what the person just said. In my professional capacity I have listened to many explanations. Accords follow later, if they follow at all.

I wonder why adults hold their feelings more dearly.  I think, and I could be wrong, that we live in an age in which the truth of our feelings is valorized. We pick facts that confirm our feelings and change the facts when needed. We organize the world to suit our feelings, and when the two don’t jibe, we seek to change the world and not to change our feelings. I don’t know why this is.  I hold with Rilke, who advises the young poet not to focus on his feelings, but to pay attention to things.  I think today we take our feelings to be as immutable as chairs, or oceans, or stars.

In Rhetoric Aristotle argues that “modes of persuasion are the only true constituents of the art [of rhetoric]: everything else is merely accessory.” (He also states, “things that are true and things that are just have a natural tendency to prevail over their opposites.” Oh, for that simple time.)  Aristotle divides the approach into three: the character of the speaker, the state of mind of the audience, and the proof of “a truth or an apparent truth by means of the persuasive arguments suitable to the case in question.” These days it seems that the state of minds of the audience is the has taken precedence over truth or character.  I think this is true in our political rhetoric, but it is also true in our professional and personal lives. What matters most is neither your character, nor the validity of your argument; it is how the people or person you are speaking to feels.

However, the feeling of being misunderstood, especially by a person I love most (most intimately, most personally, most romantically), completely upends me.  And so, I try to persuade or explain, which is a fool’s errand, mainly because I am angry at being misunderstood: “How can you NOT understand me, oh person I love?” All that person can hear is the anger, and all I can hear back is more misunderstanding. So, like the tourist who cannot make himself understood in a foreign land, I increase the volume, either the number of proofs (See?) or the protestations with regards to my character (I am a good person). And I fail.

Anger over being misunderstood is my Achilles heel, and should immediately disqualify me from being a teacher, a writer, or a lover because misunderstanding is the common currency of an expressive life. I could say “Yanni” and someone will hear “Laurel” or something else that no one has imagined as a possibility yet: “Bluebird,” “Sarsaparilla,” “I hate you,” or even “I love you.” And yet, here I go, plunging into another teaching job, trying to write this down, and remaining open to the possibility of being misunderstood by someone I love. A cynic would tell me that therapy can help break this cycle, but really, all a therapist will do is help me make peace with the fact that this is my cycle.  I better learn to love it.

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