Judge Not

Because of my work on this magazine, I read a lot of books I might not have picked up otherwise. Sometimes this is a good thing, as when I discover a writer I love which to me is always a bit like making a new friend – but sometimes the reading can be tough sledding. I am not one of those readers who can read just anything and be content, and if a book does not fall within my pretty narrow taste, I have been known to get grumpy.

I have to admit that I used to blame my grumpiness on the writers. If they had bothered to write something that amused me things might have gone smoothly. But I began noticing a pattern that led me to wonder if the writers weren’t the problem at all.

I believed at first that If a book didn’t interest me, then there had a to be an empirical reason this was so. And I, as a writer and an Informed Reader, could sniff it out. The problem was the dialogue, or the problem was the pacing, or the characters. Or something.  It didn’t matter, because whatever problem I had, the result was always the same: The next time I sat down to write, when I reread the previous day’s work, whatever flaws I perceived with that other writer, I now perceived in my own writing.

It happened without fail, and reminded me of that old biblical maxim about judging. There is nothing crueler than perceiving yourself as the object of your own derision. And of course the first time it happens you chalk it up to coincidence, and the second time you tell yourself to get a grip, but by the third go around you understand it’s time to reevaluate.

My tastes are my tastes and I have no particular interest in changing them, and I will always have my ideas about what does and does not constitute effective writing, but none of that is the point. Robert Henri said that all art is the trace of a magnificent struggle, and it is, for all life is a magnificent struggle. When you judge another writer’s misstep you are judging life itself, which means you are actually judging yourself. When I find the generosity to let another writer write however they must write, I return to my desk more generous toward myself, which is good, because generosity is the only stance possible if I wish to give anything back to the world.

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Think Nothing

Sometimes when I’m having trouble rewriting, I think of the movie “Searching for Bobbie Fisher.” In one scene, the mentor, played by Ben Kingsly, is trying to help his prodigy student understand a particular chess puzzle he has set up for him. The student can’t see it. In a fit, Kingsly sweeps the pieces off the board and commands, “Now see the board.”

Don’t over complicate things. It can be very tempting while rewriting to start tearing your story up at the roots, to add new characters, kill old ones, or introduce fresh subplots. Not that any of these ideas should be off limits, but it is important to remember that a story is not a perfectly balanced series of scenes, but a stream of energy upon which your characters ride from event to event.

For instance, I cannot, no matter how often I have tried, think my way through a story that does not yet satisfy me. I have tried, and it is like trying to build a log cabin out of wet spaghetti. The intellect does not know what should come next in a story any more than it knows whether you want to wear the red shirt or blue shirt today. Your intuition, however, your heart, you desire—these know when a story is working and when a story isn’t.

And what I have noticed, particularly in rewriting, is that the parts of my story that work the least are those parts I tried to solve intellectually. I stepped out of the stream and tried to figure out what came next and so constructed a perfectly logical next scene, which, for no logical reason, simply didn’t work.

In rewriting, I go back to that which is true energetically to the story, knowing all that I need to find is always contained within it. After all, everything in your stories, just as in life, is connected. When writing or rewriting, clear your mind, sweep the pieces off the board, and find the story’s flow. A true beginning always leads to a true ending as long as you stay in the stream and follow where it’s headed.

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An Old Companion

I have just received editorial notes on the novel currently being shopped by my agent. I always have to take a moment when I think I am done with something and then learn that perhaps I am not. My pride rears up and starts looking for a head to remove, and if none are available it might very well turn on me.

These can be dark days. I believe the editor in question had valid points, and so back I will go to see what changes I would like to make. Yet nowhere is there a solid antidote to the quiet whisper of doubt that arrives as a companion on any new journey. He is so convincing when he pleads his case.

“Look,” I say, “I think I’ve got this.  I’ll just have another look and see what has to be done.”

“But what if you don’t get it this time either?” he asks. “The problem was you weren’t meticulous enough last time. Let me just tag along and I’ll take a good long look at each and every choice you make so you won’t be in this position ever again.”

It’s a generous offer, and he is looking out for my safety, but in truth this fellow would be happiest if I never took the journey at all, for that’s the safest place possible—nowhere. I can’t hate him, though; I’ve invited him often enough before that it must be odd not being asked to come along this time.

I want to be safe too, but there aren’t enough locks on the door, or police on the street, or eyes on my page to keep me safe in the way this companion would like me to be safe. All you need to do is think, “I am unsafe,” and as quick as a blink you are. It is almost impossible to think, “I am safe,” if someone is always asking, “But what if you are unsafe?” and so this fellow cannot come with me.

He will understand. His is not an enviable job, and I believe it was I who assigned it to him once long ago. I might say he will be missed, but I have found that once he’s gone, it is as if he had never been here in the first place.

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Love Where You’re Headed

I fell in love with my wife when I saw her in a production of The Taming of the Shrew.  It did not matter that I was only seventeen at the time—I knew I had found the real thing.  When her parents moved her from our hometown of Providence to Seattle, I moaned to my mother that I did not think I would ever meet anyone like her ever again. I suppose my mother rolled her eyes at this, but as it happened I was right. Ten years later, we were married.

Now, my characters tend to fall in love at first sight. As such, I have been tempted to waste some ink trying to paint the most desirable portrait of whomever my hero has fallen in love with. But in all my writings about characters falling in love, and in my experience of reading other writers writing about people falling in love, I have come to this conclusion: no matter how hard you try, no matter how full her lips or dashing his eyes, you cannot convince a reader someone is handsome or beautiful simply by listing their physical assets.

There is not one single person on the planet that every single other person on the planet finds attractive. Beauty in the end remains a great fish story except to he who has beheld it. This is because love, beauty, and attraction have very little to do with what someone looks like and all to do with where they are headed.

We are always drawn to someone’s energy. That energy may take the form of a svelte waist or disheveled hair—it doesn’t matter. It is energy, which is intention, which is a direction. Life is not a static thing after all but a trajectory, and we know, when we link with someone else, we are now headed somewhere together, whether that is in conversation or in bed or in the mall.

When I was a young man I always wanted to write love stories. I took this to mean I was a romantic of sorts, but I understand now I was not. What I loved was the moment of someone recognizing love, for in that moment you feel the spark of interest, a curiosity racing you toward the life you want to live.

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Consider this: what if all choices in the world are equal? That is, what if there is no difference between choosing to be a pantry cook or the President of the United States? What if, in fact, one is no more difficult to attain than the other?

Sounds preposterous, I know, but ask yourself: would you want to be the president? Would you want to do all the things required to be the president, the glad-handing and baby-kissing, the fundraisers, the speech-making, the televised debates, only to be certain that approximately half the country is going think you are ruining their children’s future?

Many of you, I am sure, have wondered what you might do if you were president, but very, very few of you, perhaps none of you, would tolerate what is required to become and then be president. It’s not so much that you can’t, but that, when you get down to the actual experience of being president, you wouldn’t want it. There is a difference between saying you can’t do something and saying you don’t want to do something, and I would suggest that the only reason you can’t do anything is because you don’t want to.

This is true of everything including writing. I do not think it is quantifiably harder to be a writer than a bartender. The only difference is that the process of becoming a bartender is usually quicker—but that does not actually mean easier. The length of time something takes is only hard if we call it hard. You never get to live anytime but Right Now, after all, so adding up all the Right Nows that have come or might come before something happens is just a game an impatient mind likes to play.

It is an important distinction to make with yourself from time to time. Nowhere is it written in the sky what you can or cannot be, what you can or cannot do. Life is an absolute parity of choices. When we look out at the world, we see all these choices at once and instantly reduce our options to the few that actually interest us. In our minds, the parity is over, for we have assigned value to those possible choices. But this was our choice and no one else’s. The good and the bad, the hard and the easy, are just other ways of saying, “I like this and I don’t like that.”

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Life Itself

I changed my writing schedule today. Instead of writing in the afternoon I am now writing in the morning. Not that I never got work done in the afternoon, but my children get home from school just as I’d be getting warmed up and so the interruptions began and the flow would be interrupted.

The flow is very important. Writing is unlike any other work I have ever done in this way. I feel sometimes when I am writing as if I have plunged into a swift current. The ride can be exhilarating and interesting, but the engine moving everything forward is somehow separate from me. This is why writers often talk about characters hijacking their stories, or beginning a sentence and realizing by the end of that sentence that the story has changed completely.

I understand now that I both love and fear the current. The current is what draws me to writing and what, on my bad days, keeps me away from my desk. On the bad days I don’t trust the current at all. What if it leads me to a quagmire? Shouldn’t I know where I’m going before I jump in? On the good days, I’m happy to be along for the ride, and when it’s time to get out, there’s always a dock at the ready.

It’s great to learn about dialogue and plot structure and crisp sentences—these tools help you stay afloat when the water gets rough. But writing is more about trusting the current than all the technical know-how put together. Eventually you must release your hold on the shore, and even the most skilled navigators can strike a rock now and again.

I have wanted to write to be famous; I have wanted to write so people would think I was smart; and I have wanted to write to make other people happy. It is obvious why none of these are reasons to write, but what was not obvious to me until recently was that I wasn’t even writing to tell stories. Eventually, I, like everyone else, was going to have to learn how to let go of the shore once and for all. The closer I got to the water the more I understood that nothing I wrote was make-believe, that the current I called a story was actually life itself.

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Hold Your Rudder

If there is one thing all unpublished writers would agree they have in common it would probably be their desire to be published. This is so obvious it would seem not worth mentioning if not for this: unpublished writers do not actually want to be published. All a writer seeking publication wishes is the feeling he or she believes will accompany the experience of having their work published.

This difference may sound like so much semantics, but do not be fooled. Nobody knows for sure what anything will be until they get there. Nothing. Not publication, not marriage, not children, not a job—nothing at all. We’ve heard rumors, we’ve made educated guesses, but the future remains its same inscrutable self until it becomes the present.

So you set your sights on some distant landmark and begin traveling. But you keep your eyes open, because you remember that you are only looking for what feels good. If you start off headed toward novelist and find poetry makes you happier, change course. Or perhaps teacher, or literary agent, or editor . . . or, perhaps in fact novelist, just as originally planned.

The physical outcome does not matter. No one has ever actually wanted to be anything but happy. Just as you must learn to listen to your characters and allow them to guide you where they wish to go, so too must you listen to yourself when you feel pulled from some plan you laid once upon a time.

The worst and easiest trap to fall for is: I must be such-and-such to be happy. No. You must be happy, period. Let your contentment be your rudder, and the details of your life will shape around the course it steers. It is not that you shouldn’t put all your eggs in one basket, it is that the basket doesn’t even exist because there is nothing to hold. Your hopes are not a pile of eggs to be treasured and coddled—your desire is a river, and the only thing you need to be happy is to stay on it.

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Portrait of the Artist, Part 1

I’d like to make something.

Excellent.  What would you like to make? Soup? Bread? A painting?  An airplane?

No, I think I’d like a story.

Bravo.  Just give me a moment . . . How about this?


This one?

Didn’t I read that once?

No, but how about this one?

Perfect! Let me just jot that down . . . Done! I love it.

Great. The very thing we’re looking for.

Don’t you think it’s good?

It’s lovely. Anything else?

I mean, but is it really good?

I couldn’t say. How about another story?

I’d like to know if this one is any good first. It is unique, isn’t it? I can’t remember ever reading anything like it before.

Of course it is. You were the first to write it, so there you go.

But don’t you think we ought to figure out if it’s any good before we go on?

Do you want to write another?

Yes, that was a lot of fun, but –

So let me go find another.

But what if someone reads it and it isn’t any good? That would be very embarrassing.

It’s true that some people have trouble containing their disappointment when they read something they don’t like.

Oh, I know. I hate that.

Sometimes you have trouble containing your disappointment.

Now that’s just confusing. I’m never going to show this to anybody.

All right. Would you like another in the meantime?

Why bother if no one is ever going to read it?

. . .

Are you still there?

Always there. You ready for another story?

I asked you a question. It’s a serious question. After all, a lawyer has to pass the bar before he can practice law, a doctor has to be certified, seems to me a writer ought to know if what he wrote is any good before he goes showing it other people.

Let me know if you want another story. I’ve got millions of them.

All as bad as this?


Tell you what. There was this one part in the middle of that story that I still kind of like and I thought it might be nice to do more of it in another story.

Very well.  How about this one?

That’ll work. I’m not saying it’s going to be any good. I’m just saying I wanted to do more of that thing I did in the first one.

I understand. That seems like an excellent plan.

Sorry – what?  I didn’t hear you. I was working.

Never mind.  Carry on.

Believable Fiction

If you decided to write a novel about a world-class sprinter—say the world record holder in the 100 and 200 meter dashes—and decided to give this fictional sprinter the last name of Bolt, your editor would likely send you back to your laptop to come up with something a little less obvious. So too if you were creating the world’s greatest golfer and named him Woods, as opposed to Driver or Irons.

Life, it turns out, can be more literal than most fiction will allow. My son’s kindergarten music teacher was named Ms. Clapper, his principal, Ms. Smart. Life it is said, can imitate art, but sometimes art cannot imitate life. This is why, no matter whether you’re writing science fiction or historical romance, you are told to make your stories believable.

Strange, of course, for how often have you watched the news and thought, “Unbelievable”? Anything that you can imagine can happen and probably already has. But that is not what we mean by believable fiction. Stories are the trace of emotional truth, not physical truth. As readers we are willing to accept incredible coincidence, physics-defying teleportation, even magic, but not emotional dishonesty.

Our lives are not led in the physical—that is, we are not pinballs bouncing from event to event. We are not a collection of limbs and organs generating a series of thoughts, but rather a series of thoughts compelling a collection of limbs and organs. What readers always seek in fiction is what it feels like to be alive, not what it looks like to be alive, because the feeling is in the end the only reality we ever know, because the feeling reality, which exists within the invisible self, is all we have that is ours and ours alone.

Just as it should be. Emotionally honest stories are written because we understand we are compelled forward through life not by what is or what has happened, but only by what we desire. That is the arrow-shot of your life, your vision for what you most want to see in the world, and the next time you wish yourself forward and then think, “Impossible,” remember that there is a sprinter named Bolt, a golfer named Woods, and a music teacher named Clapper.

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Changing Weather

The weather is on the move here in Seattle this morning. A moody wind and a sudden skyful of clouds and it feels like autumn. I can’t say I have a favorite time of year except perhaps those cusps where I sense the new season taking hold. It is then when I am most reminded of world’s constant pull toward change, and I much comforted.

There is a particular challenge writers face when they choose to render such details as weather for their readers. Nearly every writer who has ever sat down to tell a story has described snow and rain and wind and sun. Yet as with all things, it remains the job of the writer to tell it new—and not so you might hold or attain the mantle of “good writer” but so that you might allow your reader a chance to see a windstorm or a spring morning as if for the first time.

And this is good news. Your readers are pulling for you. Consciously or unconsciously, your readers crave and believe in the new. Perhaps in the shadows of some worldly despair we might be lured to mutter how nothing has ever changed, how history repeats itself, how if you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all. This is not a belief; this is a complaint. This is someone crying, “Show me the world is evolving and interesting because I think I am losing interest in it.”

I feel sometimes as if it is this lonely soul to whom I am writing. Every day can feel like its own awakening as I re-believe that life is potential and not repetition, and yet it takes nothing more than a thought to slip, and in a moment we are alone with our doubt. It’s a kind of trance this pessimism, and the gift of art is to jolt the audience out of such dreams. Your readers are asking nothing less than to be reminded that no two sunsets or snowfalls have ever been the same, and that change, while frightening, is the fertile soil for all of life’s potential.

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