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 One

You Should Know This

I started a Kickstarter campaign less than 24 hours ago to give a house to directed idealism. If I succeed to get the backing then you will slowly begin to see and hear what ideas can really do. Not only the shaped and guided ones, the rawest of them all.

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This story begins back in May 2001.  I made one of the most difficult decisions anybody ever has to make. I broke my own heart because I couldn’t finish what I started. For the next eight months I traveled around the world and searched for the words to talk about what I did. I learned to say that I discovered I wasn’t the person who I thought I was. I had lost my sense of youthful idealism. To make meaning of things, I borrowed an image from Joseph Conrad’s novel, Lord Jim: Jim dreamed of being a brave sailor, but when the ship was sinking he abandoned it. I drew one conclusion in that: we never really know who we are going to be until confronted with a given situation.

And it’s true—reality is a bit of a mediated concept. All the messages in our society are reinforced to the point where who we are and who we want to be gets played out in our heads before becoming concrete. I went traveling to experience my baselines, to conduct myself through unsure and undecided moments, so that I had a set of behavioral data upon which to measure my true self against the self that I wanted to be.

One thing resulted from my travels was that I confirmed that I shy away from confronting myself publicly because I am afraid of my contradictions. While I was gone I found a way to maintain my identity, and when I came back I proved to myself that it wouldn’t do to be so rigid.

November 3, 2003, I left New York City and the adult life I’d made for myself there. I wrote down the costs and benefits of my decision to move. I still have the list. The way I weighed it was just, but I favored this notion of measurable data and the data set was skewed by my intense desire to be something more than I was. It wasn’t that I didn’t get anything out of my career or my relationships—I was living my dream alright; there was just the constant fear that I was wasting time, that I could be doing more to maximize the little bit of potential which made me different from the rest of the happily employed. That bit of indefinable something that often resists naming. I didn’t want to sacrifice it to a job that would make a good living. The living was something I would do. I could live with the unease of work that didn’t require any of my qualifications. It was the boundary between needing the esteem of others and self-esteem that drove the hardest wedge in my daily life. But it’s always something—job, relationship, status, friends, house, children, schools—and there are too many ways to worry.

You have to have eyes in the back of your head in this life. Or you just need to slow down enough to understand what it is that you are supposed to do with your days. I believed that I would write. On the morning of November 4, 2003, I woke up in San Francisco in my sister’s apartment and the first thing I did was pick up a book. There was something in my still-broken heart that I wanted to write about, but I didn’t decide how I would go about it. It’s hard to explain, but you know it’s worth waiting to figure out. So then you tell people that you are writing and they ask what you are writing. “Write what?” they say, skeptical. And often, even if you have any answer, you want to tell them things in generic terms. It takes all your energy to describe your dreams.

Some people do have answers. They say exactly what they are writing the way that the average person can get a sense of the story. Do we really want simple ways of understanding the subject and the trajectory of a narrative, or don’t we just want to be engaged in whatever we are being told? Think about it. We are creatures of passion. Every form of communication is grabbing our attention. We need to be bitten, stroked, moved. The quiet things work on us because we are more complex than we can understand. So why do we want things to be simple? Why do you ask me what I write about if you also appreciate that I am dedicated to using the energy to figure that out? You see a break in my sentence and seek to undermine my strength. I want to stop my performance and tell you that there are more than two of me inside of me. And the two of me aren’t going to the same place. Or at least we aren’t looking in the same direction.

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I remember when I got on the plane to San Francisco and the feeling that I was leaving. You abandon some of your selves along the way to gain other selves. It takes strength and courage. It only stings until you get used to it. I was doing a lot of leaving. Leaving was like breaking the rules and getting away with it. It was my way. You keep on going as long as you want to go. How long you went depended on if you knew where you were going.

I wanted to give myself a chance to write full-time, and by that I meant, write without having to expend the creative and mental energy on work tasks that would take me away from the sustained focus. I figured the work that needed to be written would emerge as an outcome of life and living. Some of it would penetrate the seams of what I wanted to write and what I knew. And it could turn out fine, even if I borrowed it, but I needed time to learn not to stitch and glue. I needed to give way to the flow, to follow it, and to let it take over until it was time to do the real work required from writing. It’s not about putting more books out there. It’s about translating the impossibly communicated dualities and multiplicities of personality and heart. We could write a straightforward invention with bullets and vixens, but where would we be in the middle of that? How could we still maintain our park bench view into a life that existed on the margins? Would we sacrifice all that just to be engaging?

I gave myself a decade to write whatever it was that I needed to write, but it didn’t turn out to be anything I needed to write. It was a way of reaching the highest heights—a variation on the life of public service that interested me. Words are the common denominator between you and me now. Most of the time they are combined with images to suggest something to you. If you consider that the way we talk about a thing shapes the way we think about it, then you can begin to get on board with me. My deal was that I wanted to be reasonable and not delude myself about the prospects of making it as a writer. I would contradict myself if I really had to list all the reasons why I think that I’m right there. It’s hard to resist saying everything at once.

There are those who like to refine processes, and those who like the refined process. The difference is as subtle as seeking perfection and perfection itself. Sometimes you have to let go of a word to gain a universe. This universe, our words, the powers within us that some may see honed in their lifetimes, this isn’t the job of institutions or families or neighborhoods, it’s the job of the choices we make when we trust ourselves. It about getting out what we put in.

Yesterday marked the beginning of a new decade for me. I’m starting it with an emphasis on lasting work. I’m focused on outdoing mediated tastes and giving up on the kind of perfectionism that straightjackets innovation. I’m coming out to readers to produce visionary work. It’s been said before, in other words, if you put your heart into something that breaks you then it is the broken parts that become sources of strength and conviction. That’s right there in my idealism. It will also be in my book about the final year of life with my dad. Inspiration Drive is going to be crafted with the intuition and skill that I have learned to trust over these years. I can tell you that it will be surprising because I don’t know what it will ultimately look like. And that’s its greatest strength.