Timothy C. Treanor
Author Chat

This is the real promise of the Internet, only partly fulfilled -- the ability to click "roast beef and gravy" and it's on your desk, fresh and delicious, reduced (as we all are, eventually) to information. Click the White House icon and you're gliding from Blue Room to Red Room to the cavernous East Room. Or click -- and this is what you did -- "Chat with Author" and I am here, insinuating myself through your computer screen, on to the desk, plop down on the floor and -- which way's the kitchen?

Mind if I have a beer?

Don't get up. I can get it. Um -- got anything other than Light? No, that's o.k. Light's fine.

Got anything to eat? These look good.

Wanna watch TV? Got cable? Oh, yeah, me too.

How's the job?

Yeah, well, I guess that's why they call it work.

To my way of thinking, acting's the best job there is, because it's the easiest. When you're acting, your job is to tell unusual truths, or plain truths in an unusual manner. Is that hard? Tell me what's more difficult: to act out Hamlet's dilemma when he contemplates suicide, or to read a WorldCom press release with a straight face?

To be or not to be, that is the question
Whether it is nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them?

You need not have contemplated suicide to know the truth of those lines. Is there any among us who has not felt life as a wearying task, whose alternative -- to rest, to sleep, to not to be -- carries the same seductive promise that a hot bath does on a day when the kids are screaming and the phone is ringing and you're trying to put together a business plan or an appellate brief? To sleep, perchance to dream…remember the "Induction" to The Taming of the Shrew, where a hunting party decides to play a trick on the town drunk, by convincing him that the last fifteen years have been a bad dream and that he is really a lord, with an estate and a beautiful wife? At that moment -- insatiable children, endless job demands, unreasonable customers, psychotic bosses -- don't you ever think that by closing your eyes you might be transported to some other, truer land, where you have a place of honor in an empire of serenity? Perhaps to heaven itself, the place awaiting you upon your death, where "everyone knows your name", your true identity and your worth. Hamlet goes on with those beautiful lines that describe the vista that unfurls the moment after death:

The undiscovered country, from whose bourn
No traveler returns…

When I read those lines I think of awakening in a canoe afloat on a flat silver lake, a bright blue sky overhead, floating past a green meadow with a mountain off in the distance. I remember that I can never go back to the familiar places and I imagine feeling sadness, but also a sense of promise and adventure and -- need I say it -- discovery.

Read through that whole speech in Act III, scene 1, and feel its truth. Though its subject is the most alien and frightening of all, it is impossible not to understand the lines, and, having understood them, impossible not to say them with conviction.

Now try this:

"On the advice of our accountants, we have restated third quarter profits of $1.2 billion as a $300 million loss. This is a one-time market correction which will have no significant overall effect on the health of the company. We are still a good buy."

Notice the twisty way it comes off the tongue? Imagine the actor who could read this with conviction! How much greater than Barrymore or Derek Jacobi must he be! And how much more desperate the stakes! If Hamlet is acted badly an audience goes away disappointed, but if the PR flack who reads the corporate lie is not believed, billions of investor dollars will be lost and thousands of people will lose their jobs.

Except for actors, most people's jobs involve shading the truth nowadays. I grew up in a steel-producing town and some of the kids I went to school with ended up working in the mills. Those were hard jobs but they paid well. Some of my old classmates had to walk the catwalks above huge vats of molten iron. One day one of them slipped and in the blink of an eye was into a vat. They fished him out in three minutes but it was too late. "That was stupid," he said when they got him on the concrete, and it was, too. He died two days later. His car keys had melted through his flesh. They found them in the middle of his thigh.

He was an honest man, doing an honest job. Today his job is done by computer, as are many jobs which require only honest input. Everything else requires shading, distinguishing among truths, spin. I am a lawyer now, and I spin mightily. We are not permitted to say things we know are not true, so our principal occupation is to cast doubt on other people's truths. I look at that story I just told you and my training tells me to say that he allegedly fell into the vat -- he purportedly said "that was stupid" -- it is reported that his keys burned through to his thigh muscle. I wasn't there. I don't personally know these things happened. And thus by shrinking the pool of truth to the impossible limit of things that each of us knows personally, I make it necessary for each of you to believe half-truths. And I will have done my job.

For five years I worked for politicians, and learned another way to treat truth. Never treat a question as a question. Treat it as an opportunity to say whatever it is you intended to say:

Q. Congressman, is it true that you evaded six thousand dollars in sales tax with this transaction?
A. Have you ever bothered to notice that the sales tax in this part of the country is the highest in the nation? Studies have shown that the sales tax is the number one barrier to bringing new business into the area.

But: this is no revelation. These techniques, once the secret preserve of politicians, are now the everyday device of office workers. At work, I no longer engage in conversations. I engage in serial infomercials.

If no one's truth can be believed, then everyone's lies gain a conditional acceptance, for we must believe something. It is the way of the world, the way of commerce. "I do not believe you, but I will act as though I did because I need to in order to get on to the next moment." If we believed only what we saw we could make only trivial judgments, and we could not communicate.

It's true (I submit): communication requires faith, and faith, at bottom, is an act of love. My wife, Lorraine, is an honest woman in the same sense that my poor dead classmate was an honest man: even in a moment of extreme consequence, she does not shirk at accepting responsibility. When she tells me something I know it's true -- or, at least, she believes it to be true -- and not because it somehow advances her agenda to say it's true. Her language does not advertise or manipulate but informs. She is to me what Walter Cronkite was to a generation of news-watchers: the honest voice to which serious people listen in order to be informed.

I wrote The Secret Notebooks of Braulio Jules because I was interested in the degradation of language as a vehicle in service of the truth. The central plot device -- the catastrophic effect that the aging of the Baby Boom generation will have on our economy -- is real and serious enough. Baby Boomers have passed through time like a goat swallowed by a python -- causing, in succession, swollen elementary schools, swollen high schools, swollen colleges, swollen labor market, and on down the line -- swollen demand for Rogaine and Viagara, and soon, ominously, swollen demand for Medicare and Social Security. It is enough to note that Social Security payments come from the earnings of present workers; when the Boomers hit retirement there will be three workers for each retiree, which means that each worker will be paying upwards of fifteen thousand a year in social security. Medicare will be even more expensive. We all know it's true; the interesting question is why no one's done anything about it. And the answer to that is -- I think -- that it would be uncomfortable to do anything about it; that it would require discipline, and no one wants to do that.

So I wrote The Secret Notebooks to talk about the lengths that we go through to avoid making decisions, particularly decisions which would cause us (or someone) discomfort. It is as true on the personal level as it is on the geopolitical level, and on all levels in between. Braulio, who is honest only when he writes in his secret notebooks, scuba dives in an ocean of babble so polluted with lies and self-importance that he cannot see the horrible teeth of the sharks advancing on him. (We will add more information about The Secret Notebooks to the website later.)

I am a Washington lawyer. I work for the U. S. government. When I was a young man in law school I thought that the great problems of the day could be easily solved if we simply rethought them in new ways. ("Reconceptualization" was a buzzword in those days.) What I didn't know then -- but do now -- is that what appeared as a problem to me was actually somebody else's solution. Problems in human society are not like math problems; when they are unsolved it's usually because somebody wants them unsolved. For example, is there any real question as to why we get budget deficits every year? It's because the American people want more benefits than they are willing to pay for…which is to say, because we overvalue ourselves. Could you imagine a politician who would think it was in his interest to say this truth? "Vote for me. I'll raise your taxes and cut your services so that your children are not faced with national catastrophe." No way, dude. Let your children's Senators and Representatives find their way out of catastrophe. I'll be on a beach in Jamaica, enjoying a Red Stripe paid for from my 401K.

Ranting on this subject is a lot easier than writing a story. Writing a story is difficult -- the most difficult thing I've ever attempted to do. The writer becomes self-consciously responsible for the world of his characters -- for the gravity of that world, and its oxygen content, and the diseases in the blood running through everyone's veins. The author is responsible for their childhoods, and for their first loves, and for the choleric temperament of the engineering professor whose approval they needed to win in order to graduate, and for a million other things which will never become an explicit part of the story. And then, having assumed that responsibility, the author must keep his silences; know what information to dole out, and at what a pace; never to tell all, but to leave some hidden, so that the reader is driven to read on.

Whew! All that listening must make hard work. Have some of these chips? They're the lime-flavored kind, which, because they make your mouth water, must make silent listening a particularly rewarding experience. Well, I appreciate your companionable silence, as well as your hospitality. The beer's not bad either.

Writing is iconography. The most successful writers are those whose words evoke more than they say. A word, a phrase, an image can be -- like Proust's croissant -- a portal into an alternate universe. "A dream is a private myth," Joseph Campbell wrote. "A myth is a public dream." The iconography of little children, like the iconography of schizophrenics, is relentlessly pervasive and private; the childhood universe is full of talking shoes, leaping cows, and terrifying crows and wheelbarrows. The best parents gravely credit this universe, regardless of how preposterous it is. My own childhood iconography, for no discernable reason, was peopled by classic comedians -- Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, the Three Stooges. I imagined them around me constantly, as real as the milkman. My parents are serious people -- my father a scientist -- they treated these companionable dreams with mild politeness, as long as they did not need to set extra plates for them at dinnertime.

The healthy among us have a significant ability to conditionally accept a sort of public dream, and to draw back from it when we have to. We see ourselves in our television characters (we are the first generation to share a whole system of icons; almost everyone knows who Mr. Spock was and what, in a general way, he stood for) but we know better than to adopt their antics as our own behavior.

When I wrote Murder in Elsinore, I did so as an exercise in exploring (and exploiting) existing "public dreams". Huck Hound, Curley Howard and, of course, William Shakespeare are all invoked in what is essentially a frivolous little audience-participation murder-mystery play written along the lines of Shear Madness. My friend Martin Ziner suggested that it had commercial possibilities, and that he would be willing to direct it. Still, as I watch the two immensely talented casts Martin and Lorraine have put together work, I am compelled to wonder: if Huck and Curley got into a fight, who would win?

That Lorraine, who has eleven years' professional experience as a producer, would agree to take on Murder in Elsinore is a testament to the strength of our marriage, or else simply to her strength. Martin, at least in this early stage of our collaboration, is quite deferential but Lorraine is prepared to put me to the test.

But writing like marriage, requires humility -- because it is a public act, participating in a public (i.e., more than one person) dream. I accept her corrections, as I've accepted the editing assistance of Gail Prevost and other teachers, because I know that my frame of reference alone is not sufficient to reach a wide readership, or to serve my audience. Every time Lorraine and I have disagreed about Murder, she has been proved right. I, however, like the pointy-haired boss in the Dilbert cartoon, am always right initially.

Periodically, while doing something unconnected -- driving my car, say, or preparing for court, I will be struck by a writing idea or (more often) a swell turn of phrase. For fifteen minutes or so I will refine the idea or words until I am pleased, and then I dive into my favorite state of mind: self-importance. The remainder of the day becomes a festival, until Lorraine (or someone) reminds me that I already had that idea a week ago, and it didn't work out.

This, then, is what writing is to me -- ten minutes of creating, which is work; twenty minutes of editing and rewriting, which is humility; and sixty minutes of imagining I am receiving an award from the King of Sweden, which is my raison d'etre. It is the middle twenty minutes, though -- editing, and humility -- which pays the rent, in writing and in every other endeavor, human and otherwise.

Take Annie, my canine companion. She staggered into our lives battered, tick-covered and abandoned a month ago, and she remains our mystery. She is full of secrets. Her manners -- particularly in matters of hygiene -- are uncertain, and unpredictable. Her intentions are equally difficult to divine. Of late she has taken to whiling her day away in my closet, on top of my laundry. She is not sick but our vet otherwise has no clue. If she is a mystery to us, we must be equally so to her. Her barks and snuffles, her curious swaggering gate, all have a world of meaning to her, and she must be frustrated that we do not grasp it. We do not share her iconography, her public dream. And so she is constantly editing her responses, in an attempt to communicate. I know how humiliating it is, Annie.

But: not just her. We have two veiled chameleons -- magnificent creatures, one midgeted by a metabolic bone disease from which he has miraculously recovered. They both have immense tongues -- twice as long as their bodies -- with which they lasso crickets. Not infrequently, though, they miss, and I imagine they are mortified. Perhaps they blush underneath the gorgeous riot of colors in their face as they edit the motion of their mighty tongues. And we have an ornate euromastyx -- a sunset-colored handbag of a lizard whose Sisyphean task it is to climb up the cage walls only to be frustrated by our immovable lid. (If he got out the cat -- the only perfect animal in the household -- would soon make a meal of him.) Humility, it seems, is the provenance of God's smallest creatures. And so it is of us.

And so, perhaps -- is this too delicate to say? -- it is of God. It is hard for me to imagine a God who is completely unembarrassed by the world. Though it is wholly without theological basis, I must say that I find it easier to think of a deity who is not omniscient and omnipotent, for to think otherwise is to make this cold and indifferent universe into God's plan. While we are responsible for the deviltry we do ourselves (that's what makes it so hard to take) who is responsible, say, for Alzheimer's? And if we are truly made in His image and likeness, is He mocking Himself when He afflicts one of us with dementia?

Oh, say, you're out of beer! And -- completely by coincidence -- I notice that I have an appointment I need to get to.

Could I trouble you to press that icon on the right?

And next time, let's try some dark ales.

last updated September 6, 2002
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