By Paul M. Lewis

Nicholas Dames’ article entitled “The New Fiction” in the April 2016 edition of The Atlantic magazine explores the modern novel by contrasting it with an older version of fiction, one exemplified first by Cervantes in Don Quixote. That earlier view, amplified all the more by the great nineteenth and twentieth century masters, saw fiction as essentially a way of identifying with the other. Its goal was to provide a space whereby we could step into the lives of someone so different, so removed that the reader would otherwise never have encountered such a person in life. Who could imagine, for example, that they could have come to know anyone as strange as Quasimodo, or even Jean Valjean (to conflate two of Victor Hugo’s most famous works), or Don Quixote, to bring us back once again to Cervantes? Or how could most of us have traveled with the deviant Humbert Humbert other than in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita? Yet meet them we do, and in so doing, we come to understand at some deeper level what it is like to be them.

In the postmodern novel, however, this empathic “expansion of the moral imagination,” as Dames puts it, is not the goal. Instead, contemporary novelists, who eschew older forms of writing, concentrate not so much on our ability to pass outside the boundaries of our own skin, as on the need to understand and anchor the concept of the self. In a world where we are incessantly interconnected electronically, they seem to be asking, how are we to know who we really are? There isn’t so much a need to understand and feel with another, as there is to delve into and inhabit our own ego identity, which we are in danger of losing, or have already lost. A term that has come into use for this type of writing is “autofiction.” Dames defines it as “denoting a genre that refuses to distinguish between fiction and truth, imagination and reality, by merging the forms of autobiography and the novel.” The goal—if that is not too atavistic a term to use in this context—seems to be to reveal, even to revel in, one’s isolation, one’s aloneness, in our inability to know, or be known by, another. Each of us exists in our own solitude, and that solitary state is essentially unbridgeable, except—and here is the irony—by the very revelation of the singularity of our individuality. Otherwise, if that were not possible, then why write at all? The writer’s separateness can, in some way, teach the rest of us how “to soothe our isolation,” though we incongruously still need the hermitic distinctiveness of our solitary selves in order to understand, and even to appreciate, the individuality of our own humanity.

All this may come across as overly highbrow, as some sort of precious or recherché affectation, almost a kind of faux exploration of life in the twenty-first century. For the most part, those of us who still read at all tend to do so for the traditional reason, that is, in the hope of getting to know the other. Even Pres. Obama noted this, as was reported in the same Atlantic magazine article. Harkening back to that older view of the meaning of fiction, he said that what he had learned from novels was “the notion that it’s possible to connect with some [one] else even though they’re very different from you.” He went on to say he lamented the demise of fiction reading in our culture and said he believed that this pointed to a concomitant loss of empathy in the country and the world.

Still, can it be said unequivocally that all this business about the meaning of literature might just be highfaluting claptrap, a thing dreamed up by critics so as to show off a fancy vocabulary or, more nefariously, by publishers in order to sell books? I think not. The basic notions of identity, of isolation, and of empathy really are important to each of us, whether we think about them in conscious ways, or not. Of course, no one necessarily has to read a novel, of whatever genre or era, in order to feel for another, or to realize their own essential aloneness. These existential states of being come of their own accord in the process of living, in the misery of a bereft childhood, or the toxic stew of an inherited chemical imbalance; or they invite themselves into our psyches by the blunt-force trauma that everyday life can sometimes bring with it. In other words, living can be its own kind of suffering. As Gerard Manley Hopkins, the great nineteenth century poet, put it, “This in drudgery, day-labouring-out life’s age.”

A question that each of us ultimately faces in life, whether it be head-on or more obliquely, is how do we overcome what is our essential aloneness? How do we reach out beyond our “bone house,” to quote Hopkins again, that is, beyond the awful—and awe-filled—barrier that is the end of our own skin, and in some way connect with another? Love, of course, is the simple answer. But how successful are any of us at that? How many times do we stumble, fall and go crashing to the ground in our hasty, or confining, or clinging attempts to reach out lovingly? And if love demands a certain kind of selflessness, an overcoming of the all too self-centered ego, how often are we able to achieve that?

Literature, in all of its varieties, can teach us something about these fundamental questions and help the reader, or the watcher/listener if we are talking about drama, attempt the frightening leap across that impassible barrier, out into the abyss, in the hope of grabbing hold of some other frightened leaper. In this sense, the conflict between traditional and post-modern writing may only be an apparent one. In the case of the former, the traditional role of literature, the identity of the leaper is assumed (that is, it’s ourselves), and the reader then can empathize with the character “out there.” In terms of the latter, the post-modern vision, the assumption that we don’t know who we are may simply be the next logical step in the evolution of that outreach. Literary self-exposure is another way of looking into the mirror and saying to ourselves: yes, that’s me and not another; this is my hyper-personal expression of the utter uniqueness that is my individuality. It’s what makes each of us human, or at least what contributes to our understanding, our belief, that we are all different in ways that cannot ever fully be explained or communicated. If love is to be the answer as to how to span the unbridgeable gap, it must assume two (at least two) individuals; otherwise, there is no abyss to be bridged at all. Both love and literature demand separateness. Postmodern writing merely emphasizes the “I,” while traditional literature highlights the “he, she, or they” in the equation.

The answer to the question of whether or not we can honor both solitude and community is that one needs the other. The relentless modern attempt to reach out electronically, to text and to tweet, or to have FaceTime, may be emblematic of overwrought and overworked lives. Even so, it is after all a kind of reaching out. It’s true that we don’t have to read postmodern novels to understand we are alone; nor do we have to plow through Cervantes, or Hugo, or Tolstoy, or Faulkner to put ourselves in someone else’s skin. But it can’t hurt. That’s another way of saying that literature benefits us, that it reflects and explains the parts of ourselves that all too often escape us, as we go about the quotidian business of living. It reveals a deeper level of our being that slips and slides among the shadows and hides from the harsh, revelatory light of day. It grabs at the core of who we are, even when we don’t know—at least consciously—who that is, and flings the pieces of that identity, fragmentary as they may be, across the unbreachable chasm that stands between us.

We may be utterly alone in that no one will ever be fully capable of plumbing the profundity of our inner most being. Maybe we can’t do that even for ourselves. But we live with the hope, even the promise, of connecting with another and, in the end, that may be enough. This is what excellent writing can do, and why storytelling, in whatever form, which is what fiction is about after all, will always be with us.


By Paul M. Lewis

As I talked about in a blog posting done in early November of last year, I began the process of writing the novel soon after retiring at the end of 2006. During that time, it has gone through numerous phases, forms, iterations, and edits, and, although it’s been a long slog, I am happy to announce that it has now finally been published.

Here is a short description of what it’s about:

It’s the year 2024 and the world is teetering on the brink of global environmental disaster and nuclear war. Nora Del Bosque tells her husband, Aden Delaterre, she’s leaving to report for the Los Angeles Times on a crucial meeting at the new Chicago headquarters of the United Nations. With the world about to fall apart, this is the last thing he wants to hear. A professor and environmental specialist, Aden understands all too well the risks and dangers involved. But the worst does happen, and the two become lost to each other. In the ensuing years, they lead lives apart in isolated communities without modern technology or the conveniences once taken for granted. Separated and still longing for each other, they both rise to positions of power and leadership in fragments of civilization torn by their own brand of conflict based on religion, political affiliation, sexual orientation and race. They meet traditionalists, doctrinal zealots, outrageous individualists, as well as shamans and those wise in the ways of the world. Each discovers their own intuitive awakening and comes to know and rely on their personal Spirit Guides.

After the Devastation is a romance, as well as a story of political intrigue and magical mysticism. It is a tale of global crisis and of a post-apocalyptic future for humanity, riven by our ever-present flaws, but bolstered by our greatest attributes. The novel poses the questions we ultimately all need to ask ourselves: can we learn from our past mistakes, and in the end are people capable of building a new and better world for themselves, even after the devastation?

Writing the novel was, in a sense, the easier part. I’m comfortable sitting quietly, spinning stories in my study. Someone once told me that the job of the writer is to fabricate interesting characters, chase them up a tree, and then start throwing stones at them. I like that. People in stories are at their most interesting when they have to face difficulties. And, as readers, we can relate to others who are facing stuff, either of their own making or imposed on them by forces beyond their control. One way or another, if characters are well drawn, we should be able to see ourselves in them. And in so identifying with them and their struggles, maybe this even helps us somehow gain insight into our own difficulties.

But now, I’m faced with a task that I find much more daunting, that is, marketing the novel. This isn’t something that comes easily or naturally to me. As it turns out, advertising a book once it’s written is a whole different world. The word “promotion” keeps coming up. But being center stage is not necessarily my preferred location. Generally, I’d rather stand to the side and let others bask in the limelight (to follow, perhaps too far, the theatrical metaphor). But being in that limelight, I am told, is the very job definition of an author these days. He or she has to get out there and “sell the book.”

So, I’ll do my best, and here’s what I’ve done so far. I’ve worked with someone who has done an excellent job at creating a website for me. You can go to and take a look for yourself and, if you’ve a mind to, you can even order a copy of the book there. I would also love to hear what you think about it, and you’ll see a place there on the website where you can go to leave comments. There’s a picture of me there, too, more or less center stage (well, center screen at least), and a photo of the cover of the book, generously and beautifully designed by my blog-partner, Kevin L. Miller. And finally, there’s a link that will lead you right back here to the Two Old Liberals site, so you can come full circle.

Another part of the process has been to send out an email blast to friends in order to alert them to the publication. Most of them have even been kind enough to write back, congratulating me, which has been enormously gratifying. Human kindness is always something I am profoundly appreciative of. And some of them have gone ahead and ordered the book.

I’ll be creating a Facebook page for the book, too, and will reach out to the local press, once I have a press release—a thing which is in process—and see if anyone might be willing to review the book. And I’m ready to make myself available to speak to anyone, or any group, at any time, about the book or about the process of writing the book. This part I really don’t mind doing at all, if it happens, as I enjoy talking to groups and grew used to it in my previous professional life. And hopefully there will be other opportunities that may present themselves for me to promote the book.

It’s true that all this comes at the expense of writing essays for this blog, or even of creating another novel (and I do have some thoughts about doing exactly that). But first things first is no doubt the best advice I can give myself. The essential question still remains: how best to gear myself up for standing in the spotlight and promoting the book? After much soul-searching, here is what I have finally come up with: I will not think of it as promoting myself. Instead, I’ll think of it as promoting the characters in the book. After all, I like them; I could say I love them, I suppose, even the evil ones. And it’s my job to try to give them a life in the wider world by letting people know about the book. Remember that part about chasing characters up a tree and throwing rocks at them, because people are at their most interesting when they’re challenged? Well, here’s my chance to chase myself up the tree. Now I’ll get to see how I handle those rocks, if any are thrown at me.

It will give me a chance to show my metal, just as I’ve given my characters an opportunity to prove theirs. And that’s only fair. So, promote away I will. I’ll stand on whatever stage comes my way, happily speak to any group, and write about my characters or my process of creating them. Because, in the end, aside from sitting quietly and spinning stories in my study, this is the job of a writer in today’s world. And—or so I’m beginning to discover—that’s the fun of it!


By Paul M. Lewis

It has been some time since I have written on this blog, and to those who read it on anything like a regular basis, I offer my apologies. What has been keeping me otherwise occupied is working on a novel that I originally wrote several years ago

The history of writing the novel goes something like this. Just before I retired at the end of the year 2006, I had a strikingly vivid dream. It was so powerful, and imposed itself so on me, that it woke me from sleep at 3 o’clock in the morning. I sat up and thought about it, but not wanting to awaken my partner, I went into another room and wrote it down. Basically, the dream gave me the broad outline of the book that I came to write. There are three parts to it, and each part was vividly laid out for me. This is what came directly from my subconscious mind. The characters described come, I suppose, from a combination of my conscious mind and the parts of my subconscious that leak out in ways that are both known and unknown to me. The “I” that speaks its name, that is, this amalgam of the aware and the unaware, the mindful and the slumberous, the cognizant and the incognizant that I normally think of and refer to as “me” is responsible for the detail of the story.

But the question that may legitimately pose itself is this: if I wrote the novel several years ago, why am I only now publishing it? That requires some small bit of explanation. The original writing of it took eighteen months. I wrote every day, and was utterly engrossed in it. The story followed the main outline of the original dream, but I had to create individuals to populate this superstructure, as well as plot, and of course conflict. The conflict was both easy and difficult for me. On the one hand, I have always been hyper-aware of conflict, both in my immediate surroundings and in the wider world. There is never, it seems, surcease of conflict. On the other hand, I have also never liked conflict, and my natural tendency is to shy away from it. Yet, you cannot write a novel without embedding discord, dissension and strife of various kinds within it. So, there is that aplenty in the novel. As an aside, all this reminds me of a story I once read about the great Bengali writer and Nobel laureate, Rabindranath Tagore. He was spinning a story for his granddaughter, who loved to listen to the various tales he would create just for her. But in this one instance, his story was going on and on, and he was elderly and getting tired. So he began bringing it to an end. However, the granddaughter had other ideas, and each time he would make a move toward an ending, she would say to her grandfather that this or that then happened to the heroine, and so it couldn’t be the end yet. As Tagore later noted, there is no ending a story until the conflict is resolved. Or, I suppose, another way of thinking of it is, the story goes on and on, and it never fully ends. Whatever end we come up with is always a temporary one.

Once the novel was finished, with lots of help from friends, I attempted to find an agent and get it published. However, as an unknown author with an untested novel, no one was willing to take me on. I cannot say that I blame them. The publishing world has changed drastically in the last several years, and continues to change. As a result, I put the novel away for the next few years. It literally sat in a drawer, or in a file on the computer (some of both, actually), until just recently. What happened then was that I was about to turn 70 years old. As that birthday approached, I said to myself that if I am ever going to publish this, to give it a chance to be seen by a wider world than my own eyes, or only by my partner and a few willing friends, I had no choice but to self-publish. And this has been what I have been in the process of doing

Fortuitously, all of this coincided with my partner’s retirement from work. As such, I coopted him (he was more than willing) to make use of his excellent editorial services. We both read through the novel three or four times, depending on how you count, and in the process he made many extremely useful suggestions. I will not say that I took every one, but I did incorporate many of them. And I think, or at least it is my hope, that the novel is the better as a result.

So, I have now submitted the work to the publisher (, and they have just begun to work their own magic. I want to add here too that my old friend and blog-partner, Kevin, who is one of the finest artists I know, was kind enough to agree to create cover art for the novel. I cannot yet say exactly when the novel will be ready, but I am hopeful that sometime in the next couple of months, six at the outside, it will be available.

The novel itself is called After the Devastation, and a brief description of it goes something like this: The year is 2024, and the world is teetering on the brink of global environmental disaster and nuclear war. Nora tells her husband, Aden, she’s leaving to report on a crucial meeting at the new Chicago headquarters of the UN. With the world about to fall apart, this is the last thing he wants to hear. A professor and environmental specialist, Aden understands all too well the risks and dangers involved. But the worst does happen, and the two become lost to each other. In the ensuing years, they lead lives apart in isolated communities without modern technology or the conveniences once taken for granted. Separated and still longing for each other, they both rise to positions of power and leadership in fragments of civilization torn by their own brand of conflict based on religion, political affiliation, sexual orientation and race. They meet traditionalists, doctrinal zealots, outrageous individualists, as well as shamans and those wise in the ways of the world. In the process, each discovers their own intuitive awakening and comes to know and rely on their personal spirit guides. It is a story of political intrigue and magical mysticism, as well as a tale of post-apocalyptic crisis and uncertain future for humanity, riven by its ever-present flaws, but bolstered by its greatest attributes. It poses the questions we ultimately all need to ask ourselves: can we learn from our past mistakes, and are we capable of building a new and better world, even after the devastation?

I have learned a great deal throughout this entire process, and again am enormously grateful for all of the help I have gotten along the way. I can only hope that the novel will live up to my own expectations, as a work that dramatizes and gives life to the enormous environmental issues of our day, to say nothing of the ageless human questions that challenge us all, and that it may serve to remind everyone who reads it of one essential truth – that the earth is not some senseless, inert thing, but has its own kind of consciousness, one that is both other, and greater than, our own.


By Paul

I used to do a lot of writing, but that was a long time ago now. What I’m talking about is not merely putting words together to form ideas, but the actual taking of pen or pencil in hand and moving these implements in certain predictable and orthographically acceptable ways on paper, so as to make written forms into words, paragraphs, and eventually stories or letters, or other such material meant to be read.

Nowadays, however, the only time I actually write something down, at least in this quaintly old-fashioned and revisionist sense, is when I make a grocery list, or when I occasionally write a card to someone. And, yes, I do still write and send cards, that is, actual paper or cardboard forms placed into envelopes and put into the mail to be received, please God and the Postal Service, in the recipient’s mailbox in what was once considered a reasonable timeframe. Two or three days was considered quite good, and no doubt still is.

What has brought all this to mind is that I wrote a card to a couple of friends just this morning, and it reminded me how odd, but at the same time how good, it felt “to write” something. It’s not that what I’m doing now, that is typing at a word processor, isn’t a form of writing, I suppose. As with all things language-related, it depends a lot on exactly what your definition is. My only point is that at one time in many of our lives, at least those of us older than somewhere in the 30 to 40 year old range, writing meant mainly one thing: the physical action of moving pen or pencil over paper.

Naturally, in order to write well, you had to have some training. But we all got that in what used to be called grammar school. It was called that because you actually learned grammar – and its corollary, writing – in such places. I still remember my second grade teacher, Sister Mary Jacinta, rapping my knuckles with a ruler because I couldn’t seem to quite get how to form my letters properly according to the old Palmer Method. I’m not sure what she might have done if I’d written something like “OMG, u 2!” instead of “Oh my God, you, too!” She probably would have gone apoplectic and considered such misguided verbiage as the work of the devil himself.

But I’m wandering a bit away from my original point about the actual act of writing things down on paper. The truth is that I both miss it and I do not miss it. Sorry for the ambiguity here, but I really do feel a kind of pull of opposites about all this. I loved the feel of a nice pen, or even of a good sharp pencil, number two preferably, and the blank smoothness of the white page in front of me. There was something so tactile about the process, which is utterly missing now when I sit down in front of a computer screen. On the other hand, I’ve always been a reviser. I remember, in fact, once being told in college – and I’ve never forgotten (or disagreed with it for that matter) – that “writing is re-writing.” I constantly change and move and rearrange and add and delete, until in the end I feel at least relatively secure with the notion that I’ve gotten down some approximate facsimile of what I was attempting to say. And, let’s face it, a word processor helps an awful lot with that procedure. Do you not remember doing draft after draft on paper, with circled bubbles containing new and different words, and arrows pointing hither and yon, and words scratched out, with new ones squeezed into spaces too small for them to fit? And yet, sometimes I miss even that.

There’s something so deeply personal about handwriting. I always thought of it as a kind of self-revelation. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not talking about the art of handwriting analysis. I never studied it (OK, I’ve read a few articles about it here and there over the years, but always took it with a grain or two of salt). And I’m at least somewhat skeptical that you really can tell if someone is lying simply by how that person forms letters. Still, Sister Jacinta would, no doubt, be appalled today at my handwriting. I left the Palmer Method behind years ago for my own brand of a combination of cursive writing and printing that is peculiarly mine. And I still find other people’s handwriting of great interest, whenever I do happen upon it anymore. I believe that it says something about who they are. How can it not, after all? It’s the expression, honed and developed and personalized over a lifetime, of our very thoughts, and what can be more personal and revealing than our thoughts, even if, or perhaps especially when, when we think we are hiding something?

All that is lost these days. Today we write emails and send cryptic encrypted notes via telephone, something dubiously referred to as texting. I don’t want to be texted by anyone, but I’m always amazed and somehow very pleased when I get something “in writing” from someone. And I do mean writing, in the sense of handwritten, which I cherish in a way that I may not with something that’s been printed out by a machine.

I recently came across, tucked away in a drawer, a letter my partner had sent me over thirty years ago. He was traveling in Japan at the time with the Bella Lewitzky Dance Company, and he took the time to sit down in a hotel room one day before heading out to the local theater, and he wrote to me. He actually wrote. And what I have today is an artifact of his care and affection, in a way that I would probably never have kept an email communication.

Of course, time marches on, whether we like it or not, and I don’t hand write letters myself anymore either. I’ve given up, and I have resorted to some forms of electronic communication, although I still resist FaceBook and the abbreviated barbarity of Tweeting. But I do miss those wonderful, cursive, deeply personal and personalized forms of communication that we used to look so forward to seeing in our mailboxes.

Those times will, I suppose, never come round again, and all I can say is I’m sorry for the younger generation. Enjoy your handheld devices, and Tweet away, but know that you’ve missed out on something very special. Something that revealed a part of the personality of your interlocutor, which printed symbol can only hide. For now, I’ll remember this each time I write down bread and milk on our grocery list, or when I send a get-well card to a friend, or when I stumble across a letter from a loved one from long ago and far away. Now, that was really something to get! That’s what writing was all about.