Peter Paul Block's Opinions

Prayer Is a Waste of Time

No matter what your philosophical or religious outlook, you start with certain assumptions. For most proselytizing Christians, the assumptions are these:

  1. The God of the Bible is the only god. The gods of all the other religions are superstitious lies.
  2. As the Bible tells us, God is omnipotent and omniscient.
  3. That means all-powerful and all-knowing.
  4. Nothing happens without His leave.
  5. Because He is infinitely wise and infinitely powerful, the wrong thing never happens, and the right thing always happens.
  6. Our God is an awesome god. Not absent-minded, confused, or negligent in any way.

That's what Christians tell me they believe.

And yet they ask God for things. They call it prayer. They ask to be protected from danger. They ask to be cured of disease. They ask for more wisdom. They ask for strength to endure tribulations. They ask for every thing, every situation, every blessing a person could ever want. Little children even ask God to persuade Santa Claus to bring them the gifts they want. Maybe they think that all fairytale figures know each other.

But here's the logical disconnect. Look at the assumptions again. Assumption #5 is supported by #1, #2, #3, and #4. If you accept the first four, as any Bible-thumping Christian must in order not to be a poser and a fraud, then #5 is the unavoidable conclusion. God doesn't screw things up. He makes no miscalculations. He needs no counsel.

So why pray? If you're asking for the wrong thing, it ain't gonna happen. If you're asking for the right thing, it's going to happen anyway, even if you pray against it. So either you're just pissing in the wind, or you're wasting God's time playing backseat driver with unnecessary suggestions.

But most Christians do pray. Many pray several times a day. Does that mean that they don't believe Assumption #5? No, I don't think it does. Because if God were not all-powerful (able to fulfill the request) and all-knowing (able to hear the request), then His capabilities would not warrant prayerful petition. So I think that Christians have a faith that transcends any kind of proficiency in thinking. I think that they put a higher value on sheep-like adherence to dogma than on mental competence.

That is why I can't join the flock and believe in the Christian vision of God. I think that developing the amount of unsupported faith necessary to overcome my thinking faculties would be an amazing feat of voluntary insanity. Or at least of self-induced drunkenness without the staggers. I can't get stoned on the Lord.

Clear thinking is not a crime against nature or against anything in tune with nature. I don't believe that using my brains will get me damned to Hell. Any God so narcissistic and so cruel that he demands (unintelligibly) my worship as a condition for not torturing me eternally is no god I can admire and love.

Or believe in.

I was not created in that shallow, petty, self-absorbed image. A god I could respect would have more interesting things on his mind than religion.

I consider Christianity a mental affliction.

--Peter Paul Block

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Writers Write. Others Don't.

Joseph Heller, who gave us Catch-22, once offered the observation, "Every writer I know has trouble writing."

He wasn't talking about difficulty getting the narrative voice just right. He wasn't referring to premise or theme or plot. He was talking about applying butt to chair and pen to paper. Or fingers to home row.

This difficulty is something shared by real writers and by wanna-be's. They both have trouble writing.

The difference is whether or not they write anyway.

My definition of a real writer is someone who writes every day no matter what. Because that's pretty much what it takes. Writing is hard enough in the best of circumstances, and the best way you can make it easier is to do a lot of it.

If you're saying something like, "I want to write, but I just can't seem to sit down and do it," you're kidding yourself. What you really want is to be an author without all the paperwork.

That's wanting to be a different person. That's wanting to be a person who really wants to write. Which you're not.

Oh, the pain and dismay of wanting to want what we don't want!

That's a demeaning place to be. It's not showing the person you really are much respect.

So my question to someone in that condition is, "Why do you want to write?" (No sense contradicting someone so self-deluded.)

"Because I have so much to say!"

"Because I'm good at it!"

"Because I enjoy it!"

These and other answers are typical. And they're all bogus. These are reasons that the person who really wants to write would have for really writing. And they're all reasons that the non-writing wanna-be wishes he had for writing but really doesn't.

What I always discover is that the person saying he wants to write has some external reason outside of craft for wanting to be a writer.

But not for wanting to write.

And typically, the reason the person thinks he wants to be a writer is based on a fallacy he has about what it's like to be a writer. It has nothing to do with writing.

The first step toward a new dimension of mental health is for the wanna-be to accept himself as not being a real writer. That may be disappointing, but there's no way around it. You have to be good enough as a non-writer before you can be good enough to be a writer. It's not that writers are so special. It's that people who can't accept who they are are miserable.

I'm talking about myself. I wasted years talking about writing instead of doing it. And I had a lot of self-loathing I had to get past. I had to give up on writing and just learn to appreciate who I was before I could get busy facing the trouble I had writing.

Like Heller and his friends.

It started with dedicating the time. Until you can do that, you can't be a writer. It has to be an appointment you keep with yourself, and it has to be more important than a lot of other things in your life, or it will be sacrificed for some momentary urgency.

Some people just don't have it in them--they will never be writers. If you're one of these people, discovering this and learning to accept it cannot fail to improve your life. Because then you can get on with whatever you were meant to do. Life can be pretty good when you know who you are, and pretty lousy when you don't.

You may think I'm being abrupt. You may infer malice in my words. You'd be wrong. I want to help people get out of a painful rut that had me stalled for way too long. These may be the most life-affirming words you'll ever read about this trouble people have writing. Because I'm shining a light on the way out. Admit who you are. You'll write or you won't. This is one of those immutable characteristics that we can't repress and we mustn't deny.

If you can't write "to have written"--i.e., if you can't write as a chore to get a manuscript finished, it's probably because you're thinking too much about result and not allowing yourself to flow with the process.

All the best--and certainly the happiest--writing is process-driven. If you don't feel rewarded in the actual writing, then probably no publisher, no editor, no audience, no sequence of royalty checks is going to reward you enough to fully compensate you for the bleak, joyless, godforsaken toil you would have to go through to finish a decent manuscript. "Because you enjoy it" is the only defensible reason for writing, and the only one that gets you anywhere.

Question: "Where is your writing?"

Wrong answer: "It's in that manuscript box on my desk."

Right answer: "It usually happens here at my desk."

One answer is all about getting finished, the other is all about getting into it. It's a difference in perspective that reveals one's relationship to the process. It shows where one's joy is. Doing it or being done with it.

So if you don't have enough joy in the process and commitment to your craft that wild horses couldn't drag you away from your writing desk at the appointed hour for your daily ritual of craft and musing, then you have no complaint, you have no problem, you're not a real writer. And your life just got simpler and happier. If you're not a writer in your bones, then no workshop or seminar or book or shrink is going to change that for you. You want what you want, and you don't want what you don't want.

On the other hand, if you're a real writer, you didn't need to hear any of this, did you? Love your process. That's where you live.

--Peter Paul Block

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You're in the Wrong Workshop!

I find that inexperienced writers--college students, for example--have a bad habit of describing experiences they've lived and calling it fiction.

I know that college fiction writing instructors, in their attempt to make writing assignments "relevant," tend to encourage this. Share your experiences with the world, work your writing muscles, explore your feelings, develop as a writer. Right?

Well, maybe not. Here's the trouble.

  1. Good fiction writing involves making good choices. Telling us what you've done doesn't require a lot of choices.
  2. Fiction has to make more sense than real life.
  3. Good journal writing and good fiction writing are very different.
  4. A good writing workshop critiques writing, not experience.
  5. Fiction writing is creative. Self-expression may be satisfying, but it isn't necessarily creative.

A writer must keep a journal. A journal is a landing pad for ideas. A journal is memory on paper--it frees up your mind for more demanding evanescent calculations.

But a journal is private. It's the raw material of fiction, and the creative process must maintain a clear distinction between cotton balls and finished embroidery.

In fiction we may explore personal beliefs, exhibit personal values, and explain personal feelings, but this by nature is a public venue. In fiction we take responsibility for every creative decision. We're taking credit for it by calling it fiction. Every ingredient is assumed by the reader to be created, transposed, projected, or extended by the writer from what he knows or imagines he knows. If it's just a transcription of unprocessed experience, then the writer is not writing fiction; he's sneaking his journal into a manuscript and claiming he made up something he didn't. It's almost like plagiarism. He's writing under false pretenses.

And he's not maximizing his growth as a writer.

I'm amazed at how many writers apparently walked into the wrong workshop. They're writing nonfiction and turning it in for a fiction critique.

One of the telling signs is when you have a conversation like this in a fiction workshop:

Writer 1: "...The End. That's my story. What do you think?"

Writer 2: "I didn't believe it when she threw off her shoes, waded into the raging water, and saved the kitten on the rock. That would never happen."

Writer 1: "But it did. It did happen. That was me. I did it!"

Now, I ask you. Is this response from Writer 1 appropriate in a fiction writing workshop? Is it relevant? Does it fix the credibility problem?

No to all those questions. Writer 2 was not saying, "I don't believe that you actually went in and saved that cat." He's saying, "Your writing didn't convince me that this character would do that as you describe. Your writing failed somewhere, at least for me."

We're evaluating fiction, not experience. The experience workshop is down the hall to the left.

Fiction gives us stories of imagination. Nonfiction gives us information. Everything in nonfiction is presented by the writer as true. It's a matter of trust. Everything in fiction is presented as made up. That too is a matter of trust.

Young or inexperienced writers are not yet developed enough in their discipline and in building a full palette of available creative choices that they can resist easily the temptation to be lazy when writing "fictionally" of their personal experiences. They forget to make any creative choices at all. They fall into the wheel-ruts in the road they're taking, and they write it the way it happened. They feel that this is being loyal to their experiences.

But it's disloyal to their craft. And the result is usually a story with details that don't serve the premise and a narrative not nearly as tidy and effective as a fully-fictionalized rendering of the story's most vital elements.

The process of doing that important refining is what fiction writing is all about. That's the part of the process you least want to skip.

What a good fiction writer should be striving for is not loyalty to the particulars of his or her experience. On the contrary, a good fiction writer should be striving to lose any allegiance whatsoever to the particulars of experience when writing fiction. It's important not to be limited by something specific to only one person (and that matters to only one person) when you're trying to engage the hearts and minds of so many readers.

The particulars of your story must be carefully fashioned to appeal to the imagination of the reader. You need total freedom to do this. Freedom means no loyalties or allegiances to honor, no promises or commitments to interfere. Screw what you lived through! This is fiction, baby. This is where you can do anything if you can make the reader believe.

--Peter Paul Block

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