Warren Lane – Almost There

So I wrote this book called Warren Lane, and it should be available for sale in the next week or two. I made the final revisions to the paperback proof copy, and the electronic versions are ready to go. I’m just waiting to review the updated paperback.

The other day, I came across a blog post that said all writers should answer these three questions:

  1. Why did you write the book?
  2. What do you want readers to get out of it?
  3. Why should anyone buy it?

The second and third questions are easy. What do I want readers to get out of it? A good read. I want it to be one of those books you’re excited to get back to at the end of the day because you like being with those characters, and you care about them, and you want to know what happens next.

Why would anyone buy it? Because to an eager reader, a book is an immersive experience. They like to inhabit a different world for a while, to be with different people, on a deep and rich level, and to experience something outside the routine of their day-to-day life.

Why did I write it? The short answer is because the compulsion to write it was so strong, I didn’t have the strength to not do it. I don’t know where the story or any of the characters came from, but it came all at once. I wrote the first draft, about 40,000 words, over four or five days in May, 2014. And that was while I was working full-time. I’d get up between 3 and 5 a.m., and write until 10 or so.

I understand some of the forces that drove the book, but not all of them.

After visiting my friend Anne in Chicago in 1992, I promised myself I would dedicate my first book to her. She was an extraordinarily devoted and supportive friend, and she helped me through some tough times. I didn’t write any books over the next 22 years, but I always had it in my head that I would get around to it.

In the spring of 2014, Anne’s cancer returned, and her prognosis was not good. I had never told her about the promise I had made to myself, but I wanted to keep that promise.

A few years earlier, around 2010 or so, we had both read Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair at the same time. She wasn’t as impressed by the book as I was. Regarding Sarah Miles, and her turning away from her lover toward God, Anne said, “Something happened. It was a coincidence. But Sarah Miles thought it was more than that.” (I won’t spoil the book for those who haven’t read it.)

And that was it! That was all she thought of the book! (That and “The writing was very good.”)

Now, Anne was an astute reader. She was a librarian and she read more than anyone I’ve ever met. I could read for hours every day for the rest of my life, and I won’t catch up to her. But I couldn’t understand how she could completely miss the point of that book and utterly fail to grasp what had happened to Sarah Miles.

I was concerned as well, in the spring of 2014, because I had just returned from visiting her in Philadelphia, and even after an already long and arduous battle with cancer, she still did not seem to be a spiritual person, or to have any faith to support her. She had plenty of hope. She was optimistic and incredibly strong-willed. In fact, most of her friends said she made it to her 47th birthday on will alone.

During the 2014 visit in Philadelphia, we talked about a pair of similar experiences we each had had when we were young. When she was 11, as she was looking out of her bedroom window, she realized, out of the blue, that she was going to die someday, and she understood all at once what that meant. It terrified her, and she couldn’t stop screaming. Her parents couldn’t calm her down and didn’t know what was wrong with her.

When I was 18, I was lying in a hospital bed, when I had this vision, out of nowhere, of what looked like the entire universe—an endless sea of stars stretching to the furthest depths of black infinity. And I saw no trace of myself in that universe. Every bit of what I understood to be me was gone. Annihilated. And I accepted that.

But this wasn’t a two-step process. It wasn’t “first I had the vision” and then “I accepted.” Seeing it and accepting it were the same thing. There was no possible response to that vision other than assent. And I don’t mean just intellectual assent. I mean the complete assent, of mind, body, and soul. Yes, I fully understood. And yes, it was not only OK, it was right.

That vision itself was startling enough, but what I understood, and my acceptance of it really shook me. I was literally shaking for an hour afterward.

Neither Anne nor I understood why these experiences occurred, or why we reacted to them the way we did. But that conversation was weighing on my mind when her cancer returned. Also on my mind was this passage from Paradise Lost, which I have read again and again—maybe 1000 times—over the past 22 years.

This passage is from Book 3, lines 184-202. The scene takes place in heaven, right around the time of the creation. Jesus tells God he has created a race of beings who have many weaknesses. Jesus fears that the whole race is doomed, and he asks God what provision he has made for these creatures who are so easily tempted, so prone to suffering, and so apt to lose their way. God responds that he understands their weaknesses, and he is full of mercy. He also says that he has put inside of every one of them the light they will need to find their way.

Some I have chosen of peculiar grace
Elect above the rest; so is my will:
The rest shall hear me call, and oft be warned
Their sinful state, and to appease betimes
Th’ incensed Deity, while offered grace
Invites; for I will clear their senses dark,
What may suffice, and soften stony hearts
To pray, repent, and bring obedience due.
To prayer, repentance and obedience due,
Though but endeavored with sincere intent,
Mine ear shall not be slow, mine eye not shut.
And I will place within them as a guide
My umpire conscience, whom if they will hear,
Light after light well used they shall attain,
And to the end persisting, safe arrive.
This my long sufferance and my day of grace
They who neglect and scorn shall never taste;
But hard be hardened, blind be blinded more,
That they may stumble on, and deeper fall;
And none but such from mercy I exclude.

Suffering, desire, and faith are deeply intertwined. Suffering creates the desire for relief. Deep suffering can focus every element of your being on the desire for relief (“for I will clear their senses dark… and soften stony hearts”). You imagine a better world, and you want desperately to be in that world. That desire leads to faith. You see the world. You feel it. And faith soothes suffering. When you have faith, you have everything you have been looking for. “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen,” says the book.

But you will never understand this until you have it. Until you have it, it’s just words, and words that don’t make sense, at that. Many people, especially well-educated people, instantly shut out anything and everything having to do with God and Jesus and traditional Christianity because all they see in it is an attempt to control and manipulate people. There’s Big Daddy in the sky trying to tell you what to do and damning you to hell if you disobey, and the evangelists on TV scaring everyone into behaving the way they want them to behave, and collecting everyone’s money along the way.

But it’s not about that. This world is difficult and full of hardship, and you have built into you an understanding of who you were born to be. Life is about finding that understanding, and listening to it, and knowing that in the order of all this, you have a place, and you matter, and whatever force put you here did not abandon you. You are part of that order, and it is part of you.

As far as I know, my friend Anne, to whom I dedicated this book, never did find that faith. Nor was she looking for it. At least, she wasn’t looking for faith as I understood it. And I don’t know if she needed it. She had some inner strength that was as mysterious to me as my faith was to her. She was hopeful and she was strong, and in the face of relentless suffering, she held on much longer than I would have. An hour with her daughter in the afternoon was worth 23 hours of pain, every day. She once said to me, “There is no me without her.” Anne’s suffering did not produce in her the same desire that my suffering has produced in me. I couldn’t understand that, but at least I’ve understood that I couldn’t understand it. We never judged one another for our differences.

A few weeks after Anne died, I saw Rebecca Newberger Goldstein speak at UVA about what she calls the psychology of philosophy. She introduced me to her concept of “core intuitions.” I’ve understood this concept for years, but I never had a name for it until I heard her say it.

A core intuition describes a person’s philosophical temperament, and how they make sense of the world on the most fundamental level. Goldstein gave the same talk at Barnard a few weeks later, and someone there did a good job of writing up what she spoke about:

…even the most persuasive philosophical arguments will “bottom out” at some juncture; and what invariably lies beneath them, Goldstein insisted, are “the individually variable intuitions that swell up out of our temperaments.” It is these “core intuitions” that supply us with our basic, and basically irreducible, cognitive orientations. And that is to say that they are not only psychologically fundamental, but also epistemically fundamental; for we can only judge the reasonability of our other cognitive commitments (say, our beliefs, or our desires) by judging how well or how poorly they accord with our mode of regarding the world in general.

In an article on the Times Higher Education website, she says:

The gap between evidence and opinion is filled by deep aspects of our own personalities and intellectual temperaments. That’s why when two people disagree on say, the hard problem of consciousness or free will, it’s almost as if they’re inhabiting two different worlds. In fact, they are in a certain sense, inhabiting different worlds. I find there’s something poignant in this situation, and it’s something that fiction is able to explore in all its poignancy.

Anne and I had fundamentally different core intuitions. If, by some trick of fate, I had been presented with her realization and she had been presented with my vision, I still would have assented, and she still would have screamed. Maybe that’s why she read The End of the Affair the way she did. In her reading, Sarah Miles invested a coincidence with some greater meaning that simply wasn’t there. In my reading, Sarah Miles was seeking a love that would never leave her. She made a promise, and she wanted to keep it. She wanted devotion on both sides of that relationship.

I suppose, as Goldstein says, there are certain temperaments that will never understand that.

But to get back to the question of why I wrote the book: I wrote it for Anne, and the story was an excuse to present to her the vision I had at 18. I naively imagined that if I could present it to her as it presented itself to me, she would be persuaded, and would come around to a view of the world she could be at peace with. All of the early readers said that passage—the vision—didn’t fit into the story. And it didn’t. So I removed it. Then I was left with something other than what I had set out to make. The story that remained was what presented itself to me, not what I tried to shape and control.

The published version is eight major revisions and a thousand minor revisions removed from the first draft. Anne read the first draft before she died, and her feedback was characteristically encouraging. (Though as she made notes in the margin of the draft, she complained to her husband, “He knows I’m on my deathbed. And he sends me a fucking manuscript to edit!”)

People who have read the later drafts say it’s a fun read, and I suppose it is. But to me it’s something a little different than what it will be to everyone else.

By the way, when I was writing the book, my conscious mind had forgotten about The End of the Affair. I was obsessed with Bjork while I was revising the work, and in particular, her interviews about the creative process and the need to surrender to instinct. I had forgotten the name Sarah Miles. It’s only as I write this that I realize Susan Moore has the same initials, and that her story follows a similar arc. She is one of William James’ “twice born.” One of those souls whose painful path requires her to endure the destruction of her initial understanding of the world and to find a new one.

To have your core intuition replaced with a new one is the most rare and powerful of all experiences. It means you become a different person; and that it can happen all at once is shocking. It is rebirth. The emotion Susan feels above all others at her conversion is gratitude. As the song goes, “How precious did that grace appear, the hour I first believed!”

Ella, in my mind, was always the one of “peculiar grace, elect above the rest.” She has an unusual awareness of herself and the world around her, and an even more unusual ability to accept it all without judgement or bitterness or the desire to control. For her, what is simply is. It doesn’t need to be anything else.

But you never know how people are going to read your work. Everyone who has read Warren Lane so far has had a different opinion about what genre it falls into. Different people identify with different characters, and everyone has their own judgment.

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