Day Twenty-three

The Miracle that was Saul Kagan

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You’d want to see what it was like in that room. All the leaders of every major Jewish organization from around the world, everyone with their own agenda, coats and hats off separating the religious from the secular, a few forearms with prison camp tattoos, each face holding various tells of politicking to come. Saul Kagan knew them all and disarmed them at will. He no longer held voting power—in fact, he and his secretary, Fran, who nobody will mention, were relegated to the back of the main office already—but that room was his domain. He was the only one amongst us who had been in Luxembourg when Konrad Adenauer signed the agreements. Mr. Kagan had been one of the architects of this strategy to obtain “justice not charity,” and fifty years earlier he watched the signatures go on paper. At every turn of Adenauer’s pen he repressed the faces that came to him—his mother and siblings who were killed by the Nazis, his destroyed community, all the suffering of Europe. He saw the ink take to the page as plain as desert sun: it was a big compromise for a little justice.

In 2003 I was on the Luxembourg trip acting as the special assistant to the heads of the Claims Conference, the New York City-based umbrella organization that evolved from that famous meeting that legally established the Jewish claim to material compensation from the German government. I had already witnessed the harrowing business of distributing funds and I anticipated the hostile relationships that would play out in that room, but we were there to commemorate a crucial moment in history and most of the weekend was devoted to ceremony. It didn’t mean there weren’t informal meetings held throughout Luxembourg City that week. From sizing up the bicker in our hotel lobby I imagined the names of powerful men paraded and trampled in conversation in all its districts. The hundred or so of us crossing paths like characters in a “Shakespaherian rag”: Mr. Kagan’s holdouts and some of the others still committed to work done on actual paper, my bosses arguing their methods of administering programs more expeditiously to ageing stakeholders, the old guard complaining about the costs, the new guard interested in paying for what they got. They all relied on Mr. Kagan as an adviser.

Back in Manhattan, Mr. Kagan still came to the office every day, and every day he met important men and women whose actions had an enormous impact on thousands of lives, and at the end of the day most days he took his briefcase, walked east to the subway, and rode the Lexington line back to the heart of the Bronx where he had lived out his adult life and never left, even when he was one of the few remaining European faces. He had an accent you couldn’t figure, and you didn’t mind where it was from, it was just surprising that he wasn’t born in the States. Everything he said was eloquent. He cared deeply to communicate meaningfully with people. He told me that he taught himself German so he could negotiate with the Germans. You can research what he accomplished in his lifetime and try to believe it. He was somebody who would blend in the crowd but also be thinking in ways nobody else could. He was an engaging man. He used to call me into his office to help him with research and I found myself wanting to ask him my own questions. I often took his responses and then engaged him further with a lump in my throat. He told stories that made him incredibly real. He put history into context with passion and plot so that you were made aware your love for him came from the irrational sense that one day he would no longer exist.

At that point in my life I wasn’t disciplined with my notebooks so I never wrote down what Mr. Kagan said. In fact, it hadn’t been so much the content that gripped me as the character. I had grown up around survivors in Los Angeles and within my family, and I knew few Jews unaffected by the Holocaust. There was not much I didn’t get; it was harsh, it was cruel, it left brutal marks on the way everybody felt and treated one another. To a first generation American boy growing up in a bedroom community, though, the weight of someone’s grandmother’s journey was too tremendous to bear. I wanted something that was festive. I wanted to make fun of accents. To eat fruit and be told old tales that I should not to eat too much or too close to the white of the rinds or I’d get sick. I wanted to look on the sunny side of life. It’s impossible to understand fully the experience of another person, unless their version relies completely on logic. That’s what I took from the stories my mom and dad told me and from the faces I saw in Israel when I went for the first time in 1980. I admitted to myself then that I had a different way of thinking. Why my petit mind knew that, I imagine, has something to do with survival itself. Protection. I felt something very deeply at the simple sight of the faces, but there was nothing to do at all about them.

Saul Kagan did the work. I just came I after and managed some of the logic. The story was buried along with the bodies. Very often it was so far behind the scene, or so produced, that even putting a face to it in a photo was difficult. History can only speak in reverse, engineering a version of what it was. I wanted to live in what was right then. Not to hear about how these people would soon depart from the world and leave us to carry the culture. You often love someone much more dearly when they leave you, but I couldn’t do that. Nor could I love them when they were right there, either. The powerful feelings had no outlet. Empathy was useless.

Mr. Kagan was vibrant. He had conceded to the new administration and they to him, and there are examples to prove it, but he was bigger than that. I’ve tried to understand why I felt such a kinship with him. It takes considering the other relationships I’ve had like that. There are times when I looked up to older men because I liked how I felt around them. They were grown and yet they hadn’t given up on the life inside of them. Whether it was their vision to help as many people as they could, or opening the window in their office to have a celebratory cigarette, or being such an institutional memory that the wrecking ball of progress couldn’t crush them, my reaction to these men always had something to do with my own desire to want to know what it was like to be a man.

I never asked my dad why I felt so much for him I could never express. He would have answered with logic. I might have asked him how to take real action when you love somebody. The war within myself was between revealing and restraint. I knew how to parrot what I had seen. I didn’t know how to translate my feelings into action. There was all the unessential verbiage that occupied my moving lips and nothing to show for it.

The toughest thing in the world is not to be able to love who you love. So how do you show someone you love them? Someone who is also caught up in their own battles, who you see as having a life inside them? Maybe they don’t mind when they are flat-lined by external factors, when things don’t come out right; maybe they have controlled all of the other elements in their lives to discount their failures. Some must have the courage to never look back. We become our own meaning maker, take our own chances at building our own loves, improve on the mistakes that came before us, repent for some, rejoice in the progress others made, and afterwards what we have left is what we build with our imagination.

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Recently I wrote the Claims Conference to ask if they had the photograph from the fiftieth anniversary in Luxembourg. I still know the people there and it seemed promising. While I waited to hear back from my contact, I thought about the job I had there once. It was a job that I liked very much, with people who I really enjoyed. I was hired for a specific function and I was given a good office on the eighth floor looking out past Madison Square Park to lower Manhattan. But once much of the work was done there wasn’t enough for me to do or invent. One day it was so slow I wrote a short story. A little while after I left and moved to San Francisco to write.

When the email came back quickly saying that the Communications Director could not find the photo, it was clear to me that she didn’t look for it. I remember her and she remembers me, and that’s all there is to that. I wish I had it, though. You would see mostly older men in it, four rows of fifteen people or so, a few in their late thirties, and me. I was trying to get the neck badge off of me when the photographer snapped the shot, so I’m the one with my arms up who messes up the photo for everyone. If memory serves, Mr. Kagan is standing not too far from me. Or I am not too far from him.

The great Saul Kagan died last week. His work lives on in our love. When I finish crafting Inspiration Drive, he and many more of our dear hearts will be included in the story of that love.

If you’re one of the 250 backers of this project, thank you for continuing to show me your support in many important ways, large and small, quiet and vociferous, and for having faith in my vision. At the time of writing this there was nearly $3,300 left to fully fund this Kickstarter campaign: http://kck.st/1gntNMQ. That means 100 more books and we’re there. When you get the book, you become its audience and the project grows out of you, too.

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Day Fourteen

Five Ways to Finish Your Writing

It begins as an idea or a hotbed of ideas. A hotbed is hot because it never goes cold. Your ideas are on your mind day and night, minute-to-minute, hour-to-hour to the point where you can’t take it anymore. You have to put them down on paper. The writing you want to do is complicated. It’s not a conversation between you and the page. It’s a conversation between you and a third party, the reader. So you’ve got to consider that you first have to translate your ideas into words and make it so that the reader translates those words back into ideas and images that concretely capture the universe you are trying to share. This is going to take more work that you can imagine. When finally you have all your raw material, you’ll need to revise. Over and over again, you’ll need to revise. Revision is the writing.

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You’ll have to be able to finish a draft first. With everything happening at the same time you are no doubt full of excuses as to why you can’t finish. All of us, even the most prolific authors amongst us, have those excuses, but the worst is losing the idea itself in the process of being busy with the rest of life. Once you lose the idea, you lose momentum, and the work has to be saved or cut and pasted, and that won’t do. Here are my five ways of getting my projects done.

1. Write in public

Everybody has their own writing process; this is about generating the next sequence in your work, continuing to the finish. The idea and the words could come to you at any time so you have to be prepared. The strongest memory is worse than the weakest ink. I started grabbing for my pen when I wanted to remember was happening around me or the exact words that were being said. It was a long time before I realized that my notebooks were full of code I often couldn’t re-engineer. The thing that pushed me to write out the full idea—all the way to the clear feeling beyond the logic—was being in public. Take your notebooks out and do this: force yourself not to think about how other people are viewing you. Between the distractions around you and your own effort to center yourself around the material, the stuff you want to write will hit the page unconsciously, directly, and with surprising clarity.

2. Apply timed conditions

Sure a work of art needs to be crafted with great care and without the imposition of time limits. It must become inevitable. But you aren’t doing that. You are overthinking. I am not telling you to speed it up, I am suggesting that you use time as an instrument of pressure on your writing process. Time often provides the ultimate stakes in a story. The bomb that’s going to go off, the winning lottery ticket that can’t be found, the money needed to pay a ransom. These are all plot details that play with time. Why not relate the fact that you can’t finish your work to the idea that you have too much time to finish it? I use the clock to generate content and to innovate form. My experiments have clearly defined time limits and conditions. That way I can focus on my task to produce material, not yield the best results. It’s okay to fail. You should plan on it. Setting a time limit makes me less worried about failing and more interested in completing my session. It helps me sharpen my voice and my powers of observation. For a sustained period of time you can do anything and then you can be prepared to work with the results as a part of a process and not the final outcome.

3. Be spontaneous

Overly-formal and predictable material is straightjacketing your designs. Whether you want to write the next bestseller or a work that is more clever than your latest read, your writing doesn’t come to life when you force it to live up to your expectations. It has to come out of life and life is inconsistent. Get this through to your mind as you write: inconsistency enables you to finish the story you are writing. When you allow for spontaneity in the writing you follow the line and not the intelligence that you want to bring to the work. You have to allow yourself to lose your way so that you can find what that way is. In the end you’ll see that the difference between writing as a craft and writing as a mindless expression is that when you craft a work maybe you don’t know where you are going, but you don’t confuse yourself by abandoning the formal elements of the work (like voice, perspective, and narrative distance), you keep them under control and make the substance of the work surprise you. If every time you read your own work there’s a fresh excitement to it, you will keep yourself and your reader invested to the end.

4. Ignore the critics

Your material cannot be judged by publisher or critic alone. We are in a new era of natural selection. More and more ideas are being advanced by people developing their own tastes. The market is epidemically cluttered and real competition is coming from the clutter. Those people who judge you are those who have earned the right to invest in ideas by using their earnings. Don’t focus on zigging when everybody else zags. You can exaggerate your differences to gain attention or you can see for yourself that if your work manages to be intuitively good and different it’s not because of your desire to be a tastemaker, it’s because you stuck with what you had for the first draft, finished it, and revised. New emerging programs are already reversing the social norm of the individual not having to form her own opinions. By the time people begin to understand the merits of your work, you’ll have a reliable process that comes naturally.

5. Develop a larger body of work

When I’m writing something, I like to put it into perspective with a more ambitious project so that I won’t try to make whatever it is an impossible task to finish. You will never get everything you want to say into one work. It’s ridiculous to think that possible. You have to finish writing what it is you are working on so that you can make progress as a creator. If you think of those pieces as part of a larger body of work then they will seem sufficient on their own, and you can focus on getting them done.

There are 15 more days in my Kickstarter. If fully funded an innovative creative residency subscribing to these ideas will become a reality. To become part of my work at this early stage, both as potential architects of the program and as future residents, please visit http://kck.st/1gntNMQ and consider backing me. And if you are inspired by this article or my project, help me spread the news by re-posting, tweeting, and blogging.

Day Two

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5 p.m., the first backer transaction of the day. My eyes welling red, passing out in my chair, I am jolted. This is the casino culture that I come from. The thrill in the hit, the loose slot ringing, the royal flush. Much of the support that I’m getting is coming from the across the Atlantic where I learned the mentality that sometimes we gain more from a moment of glory than a lifetime of small victories. In the USA we love indulging in our own legendry. The story leads the way. The reputation precedes the person. Moments of glory initiate a certain myth-building sequence, which is all we really need to see ourselves the way we want to see ourselves. We are all works in progress. Either we accept what we have become or assume the role of becoming. At this point, for me the myth is gone and the small victories are actually the moments of glory, but the thrills remain thrills.

I’m thrilled that people are coming to contribute to my Kickstarter and I hope that they come with a sense that Inspiration Drive is going to grab, gut, tickle, and embarrass them. And if it’s not that then what is it?

Is it the race to the finish?

Listen to the radiolab podcast, “On the Winning Side.” It’s about rooting for the underdogs and top dogs.

I can probably relate to the underdog as much as I can the top dog, but it’s something else that drives these thrills for me, some other paradigm. Allow me to make some other association with competition that toys with casino culture—gambling on real skill. How much fun is it to exalt when a pitcher goes nine innings with a no-hitter? How thrilling is it to watch an amateur singing competition in which the talent you spotted goes all the way? These are unlikely events that confirm to us that the biggest desire we have is for the chance to lose ourselves in the joy of the feat. We want to be there when it happens. We want to be a part of it. That’s entertainment.

For most of us our thrills are different than what appears in the spotlights. We work on a daily basis to get somewhere, to feel the pleasure of being part of something that has nothing to do with the spectacle where all that appears looks better because whatever looks better will appear. We live for the difference.

There’s a hatchback full of cliché going on around in my head and the hour is slowly encroaching on evening in Paris. I’m watching numbers with a sick obsession, trying to having an impact on the outcome. There’s a high that comes from thinking people buy the book because they know it’s going to make a difference in their lives. Inspiration Drive is not like anything that’s ever been written about a father and son relationship or coping with death. You won’t need Oprah to tell you to read it, either. It’ll be your find and it will find you. And there will be passages, like this one from December 2011, just after my dad told me he had six months to live:

“Up until now everything has been alright. Everyone in good health, the heart beating strong, the lungs pumping air, the electric storms conducting their way in the brain. Now we’re at a standstill: the four-way crossing whose lights have just gone out. There’s a bit of a sway in the hanging lamps, the wires, the wet wires. Across the street a big white truck doesn’t see well; the red car neither. All three of us know we’ve got to make a move and if we don’t stop and think we’ll get into an accident. We’re looking out into the desert night sending signals in our thoughts to the other cars. One out of three imagines the people in those cars, the way they rest their elbow on the door, their hands on the steering column, their slumped position. Genetics and gravity running its course, cells dividing, time moving forward—the only way it moves. The red car sounds his horn and mutters to himself calling other people names, easily becoming frustrated. A passenger shaking a rolled newspaper, putting all of her excess energy and deadbolt thought into the curve of the paper, looks through the tube along the floor to the thin torn carpet mats. Her thighs are big, getting bigger, her feet are tiny, hands clean. She wants to be thin because maybe that will get him to love her better. I’m 43 years old and having trouble finding a job and a place to stay for the night, goes the story of the blind boxer on the side of the road. Not this road. The one she takes to work where she opens her change purse every day. One focus is not another’s, one lens shifts as the subject changes. The last of the three cars punches the gas pedal thinking aggressive/aggressive when he should rather be aggressive/cautious, but who knows his place on earth, his time here, the fight he has to fight each and every day as the road grows darker and the weather more grim? None of them saw the fourth car who mistook the color orange for green. But the horn caused the gas pedal to ease up and the white truck felt the life blood flow in his own body.

We heard about the kids taking on characters, given names, acting the roles. Maybe cells do that, too.”

Inspiration Drive is written in the midst of life in a world of real skill, where when one thing happens, everything else is still happening. Buy it here today.