Direction of Contentment

Anyone who has ever written knows the contentment of finishing a story to their satisfaction—the mixture of surprise and relief that you have said what you wanted to say. All the labor leading up to it can seem like the grindstone workweek before the weekend. You sweat the sweat and pay the dues and put in the hours so that you can have that sweet quiet of satisfaction that follows.

Except writers only have weekends if they want them. There is no shop to open or clock to punch, and a writer’s contentment is shifty. How long do you get before quiet question stirs in the back of your mind, “What next?” Has this story reminded you of another? Was there something you couldn’t do in this one that you are already curious to try in the next?

In truth contentment provides you not even a moment’s rest. To see contentment as deck chair relaxation is true only if life is all misery but for the resting. In fact, contentment is a direction not a destination. Those moments of pause are merely you deciding what to do next.

It is easy perhaps to forget the contentment that comes through the work itself. For all the moments of indecision, for all the testing of your patience, for all the drafts and drafts, you can never be more content than when you are seeing what you want to see and saying what you want to say. Is it tiring in its way? Yes, but so is sex. Does it always come easily? Probably not.

But what we call the restfulness of a weekend is only us seeking relief not from the work, but from the drama we have summoned around the periods of challenge natural to all work. Sitting idle in your boat can be pretty, but all love is desire, and all desire is toward something, and because you are always making choices, whether sitting still or climbing a mountain, you will only be content when those choices resolve toward what you love.

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Failure’s Only Threat

One of the worst mistakes you can make about your work is to view it as a kind of test. Will you get it right when you sit down at your desk today? There is a certain appeal to tests. The triumph of success is perhaps worth the threat of failure, for doesn’t everything worthwhile come with risks?

Yes, everything does come with risks, but not the risk of failure. The idea of failure is a kind of romantic nihilism, that our one chance has come and gone and we were not fast enough, smart enough, or brave to grab it—a reverse sentimentality for those not sure if they would like to try again what they could not achieve at first.

I love typing The End, but nothing ever ends. Endings are a convenient necessity of fiction, but you must forget about them when facing the question of success or failure. You are in constant training for a race you will never run against anyone but yourself. You train yourself every day to listen better, to be more patient, to be more trusting. With these tools you can write whatever it is you need to write.

But when you write, you must be willing to risk something and it is this: That you have believed something that wasn’t true. And at some point, without intending to, your writing will push you up against what it is you wish to be true but isn’t. You will probably not want to go where it is the writing is pointing you because if you do then you are not sure if you will know how to be happy if you let go of this false thing which never made you happy but was forever promising, like a blind date that never shows but keeps calling to say he will, that great fun is coming if you’d only hold out a little longer.

Risk losing what you don’t need. You cannot lose what you do need, because all you need is what interests you most. This you can choose to ignore, but in the mean time it will always be there, as long as you can open your eyes and wonder what you’d like to do next.

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The Ending That Already Was

One of my hobbies when not writing fiction or blogs is to write music. This morning I decided to wrap up once and for all a piano piece that I had been putting off finishing for several months. I seemed to remember leaving the thing hanging on an unresolved chord and not sure where to go next.  So I cracked my knuckles, sat down at the computer next to my 10 year-old son, and had a listen.

The piece was going along fine, and my son was listening with me and I was explaining how I’d been so annoyed that I didn’t know how to finish it, and maybe it wasn’t meant to be, when the song reached the end of what I had written with a tidy, happy little chord.

“It’s finished!” said my son.

He was right. It was finished and I hadn’t even realized it. I had been living with the idea for several months that the piece had lots of potential but had nowhere to go, while apparently it had already arrived.

It often seems that we are simply seeing and hearing what there is to see and hear. The tree is green, the siren is loud—these are the immutable qualities of the world around us that we dutifully perceive. Yet whenever I write I become more aware of what a constant filter for the world I actually am. It is not that nothing is at it seems, it is that nothing is anything until you say it is.

Translation is all. That a flower is alive in your hand one moment as you inhale its smell and then dead the next because it cannot speak. That your husband is rude one moment for ignoring your hello kiss and then distracted the next as you remember his impending deadline. That a song you call finished today was called incomplete yesterday because you wanted more from it than it could reasonably give.

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Thelonious Monk was quoted as saying, “It’s always night. Why else would we need light?” I like the quote, but I think he got it entirely backwards. I thought about this quote recently because someone had pointed out that as writing blogs go, mine was not that practical.

I had to agree. I am not always a practical man. Years ago I decided it was time to learn to protect myself and so I chose to study Aikido, the least practical martial art I could find—practical in this case meaning useful if I were going to be in a bar fight. What drew me to Aikido was its philosophy not its technique, which is what draws me to everything, including writing this blog.

I am horrible at taking advice. I reject almost all of it out of hand. For this reason I have never read an entire book on writing. All the thoughtful books filled with practical, useful advice are lost on me.  However, paint for me a friendly but honest portrait of the world, a world always worth waking up to every morning, and I am yours. I always trusted I could figure out how to write on my own, I just needed someone to remind me why it was worth doing.

That we turn to darkness for rest and light for living is most of what I need to remember of the world when I write. It is easy to become tangled in strong characters and weak characters, in grabber beginnings and memorable endings, but all of that takes care of itself when you hold to the light. You don’t need to worry about pleasing your readers if you let the light through, because everyone is drawn to the light.

I understand letting the light through is not practical; I understand it is not the best piece of advice if you want to create more believable male leads—but all the writing rules in the world were only written to help you clear away the dust from your windows. You can get so busy cleaning and cleaning that you wind up staring at the pane for spots instead of drinking in the light it reveals.

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A Question For You

I interview many different types of writers, and for every type of writer there is a different type of interview, but with every writer one thing remains consistent: the person matches the book. This is not to say that the writer and his or her work are one in the same. Instead, it’s as if the writer is in a life-long discussion with the world, and a book is one part of that discussion. When I meet the writer, I feel that discussion still in process, as though the writer has asked a question of the world, and the answer is coming and coming and coming.

This is particularly helpful when I read books about which I am not excited. It is easy to feel that somehow the writer has set out to waste my time. But this is only because when I read a book I am hearing it in my own voice. If the writer is posing a question which I have already answered to my own satisfaction or am simply not interested in asking myself, then what I hear in my head sounds like a song played in the wrong key.

On the other hand, once I meet the writer, and hear their voice, the question the book posed makes perfect sense—for the writer. It’s then I realize that what bothered me most was the dissonance between my voice and that of the author’s, not whether the book was any good or not.

It is impossible for me, once I meet someone, not to feel the integrity of that person’s life question. Not the integrity of their answers, for none of them are ever meant to be final, only guideposts—but the question. That is the tension of life, just as it is the tension of fiction. But it is a dynamic tension, a creative tension, and it does not matter how far from my own question the dramatic arc of another person’s life is drawn—it bends as necessarily and unstoppably forward as mine. I see this, and I am relieved. I am relieved as I am once again reminded that nothing in life can be gotten wrong, that the question is pure, and the answers are nothing more than cobblestones in the road you are paving in its pursuit.

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Leaving Fantasy Land

I have never been a fan of American Idol, and in particular I have never enjoyed the cutting assessments of would-be contestants who do not make it past that first audition. Not being a regular viewer, I would catch an ad for the up-coming season now and then, and there would be Simon Cowell saying the sorts of things to these young hopefuls that sound funny in theory but indulgent and cruel in person. What a mean man, I thought. What a mean show.

And then one day I found myself watching a kind of American Idol retrospective made up almost entirely of these first auditions, and my opinion was changed completely. What I saw was this: a parade of young men and women completely out of touch with reality. It wasn’t just that these people weren’t particularly strong singers yet, it was that they were still singing to themselves in front of the mirror. Randy Jackson and Simon Cowell’s remarks were usually, it seemed to me, the result of the exhausting job of having to tell person after person that they were essentially living in a fantasy world and that fantasy was now over.

There is a difference between imagination and fantasy. Imagination is the engine of change and all progress. But the imagination is interested in the connection of all things, as it pulls from what has been to create what will be. While the imagination pulls you ever forward, it is firmly routed in the moment, for that is the source of all its creativity.

In fantasy, we wish to skip ahead. We are uninterested in the journey from Here to the Fantasy Land, we just want to get there, without all the bother of learning how.  What those delusional American Idol contestants learned in one machete remark was that they did not in fact ever want to be singers. Being a singer was an idea they decided to finally test for the first time on national television.

I feel for these people, however, because I have spent more than my share of time in Fantasy Land. It’s an unsatisfying place. But I only traveled there when I told myself the road to some city I desired to reach might prove too difficult. What if, by luck or a fatal lack of ability, I never arrived? Safer, it seemed, to invent the city myself. Eventually, however, I left Fantasy Land forever when I realized that it wasn’t that I was worried that I couldn’t get to where I wanted to go, it was that I might I never have wanted to go in the first place. That was a chance I was willing to take.

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A Simple Guy

When I was in high school, I acquired the nickname Dudley Do-Right, after the enormous-chinned, damsel-saving, cartoon Canadian Mountie. I detested this nickname, as it suggested I was something less than complicated—a nice guy, a trustworthy guy, but not a very complicated guy. It was true that I had an affinity for saving the day and/or damsels, but I also wanted to be a writer, and I did not think my odds good if I wasn’t complicated.

I shed the nickname after high school, but the threat of my simplicity endured. It is not so easy to be complicated on purpose. It is a very short trip from nuance to pretense if you’re trying too hard, and I was raised by parents gifted with a Midwesterner’s nose for fakery for whom it was better to be an honest failure than a pretentious success.

It was my wife who finally got me to admit I preferred things simple. I fought her on it, but in the end I relented. In fact, I had to admit that I was forever striving to hone all things down to their simplest parts, a habit which is actually in perfect keeping with writing.

Stories are the extracted details from the infinite wealth of possible details. You can’t describe every piece of furniture in the room, only those pieces that bring that room to life. You can’t portray every action your protagonist takes, from their first yawn to their good-night kiss, you portray only those actions that move the story forward or reveal character. Fiction, on the page at least, is life reduced to its simplest form.

The complication occurs in the translation. Now your protagonist’s one gesture opens a window through which your audience views the world, their own past, their own fears and loves, and even their own imagined future. It happens immediately and spontaneously, over and over again, from reader to reader, and the exponential possibilities are beyond complicated. In this way I embrace my simplicity. It remains, for me at least, the quickest and most direct route to everything, which is always where I’m headed.

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The Authentic Engine

A friend of mine once asked me where I came up with ideas for my stories. My explanation was that I might take my childhood house in Providence, put it in Los Angeles, and populate it with people I met in college in New York. “Oh,” he said. “So it’s like a dream.”

“Exactly,” I replied. A dream is perhaps the best and quickest description of the writing process. After all, aren’t many stories begun in that fertile, idle state we call a “day dream?” However, I am as likely as not to ignore my sleeping dreams, which, like most people’s, are abstract, surreal, and periodically repetitive and unsatisfying. I hope they’ve done their work, because once I’m out of bed, I’m on to other things.

But I have never doubted the dreams are important.  And of course they are.  Without dreams human beings go mad. Think about that for a moment: you literally must dream. These fragmented, Frankenstein narratives we call dreams are in a way more important than the sleep in which they are born. The deep rest of sleep is nothing more than a vehicle for spontaneous imagining.

Or, as any writer knows, re-imagining. For everything we write, everything we dream, is culled from all that we have done and known. Culled, and then rearranged into a new reality. The imagination is not interested in what is. What we call reality is merely the building material of the imagination, which knows only the vast and ever-shifting landscape of its own reality.

That our visions of our futures are called dreams is no linguistic coincidence. As you imagine yourself forward through time, you are rearranging in your imagination what has been to shape what will be.  For this reason, the imagination loves the future, it is its playground, and the imagination is fearless when facing the future because it cannot be wrong. And this great tool with which everyone was gifted is not just a muscle for writing stories or painting pictures, it is the authentic engine that drives the human animal forward.

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No Formula

This month’s issue of Author features an interview with Richard Bach, whose Jonathan Livingston Seagull sold approximately 40 million copies worldwide. I love the story of this book precisely because it is such an unusual candidate for mega-bestsellerdom. A book about a seagull that is less than 10,000 words long and is illustrated with black and white photos is far from what one thinks of when imagining what would be seen atop the New York Times list—yet there it was.

I decline the idea that there is a formula for success of any kind. Where in current (or past, for that matter) publishing wisdom would you find the recipe—Seagull, Short Story, Pictures = blockbuster? It defies all publishing logic except for this: people will want to buy what makes them happy.

The formula does not exist because no one knows for sure what will make them happy until they see it. That certain types of books routinely find their way to bestseller lists only means that human beings are habitual and will return to what has habitually moved and entertained them until something better or at least different comes along. But habit or no—no one knows what they want until they see it.

I know I don’t. I really don’t know anything until I see it. All I have is a feeling, which often arrives in the form of the question, “What do I want now?” It’s the most important and virtually the only question I ever ask. And no matter whether I’m choosing my next meal or my next scene, the process remains the same. I begin with the feeling I want and then wait for an idea that matches that feeling.  Then I make a decision and take an action and then ask what I want next. Repeat billions of time and you have a life.

But I never know what I want until I see it.  I can’t and I don’t want to. All of our lives exist out in the endless, dark, malleable potential we call The Future. The Future awaits our decisions with absolute obedience, without judgment or celebration, whether we want to read books about lost symbols in Washington D.C., or a seagull seeking to perfect his flight.

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Water, Water Everywhere

Summer appears to be officially over here in Seattle, as we are now soaked to our shudders with the first unremitting rain shower of the new season. No matter. Erica Bauermeister felt it was easier to write during Seattle’s long, damp winters, and I rather agree. Not everyone does, of course, but there is something about water in general that seems to lend itself to creativity.

The ocean is always nice—I find myself composing in my head as soon as I get my toes into the surf. But the problem with the ocean is that the only thing I think to write about when I’m near the ocean is the ocean. I feel compelled to capture it completely once and for all. I haven’t yet, but I will be sure to let you know if I do.

Rivers are more generous partners. Wally Lamb visits a river near his home whenever he’s stuck. He says after a certain amount of time on the riverbank the story begins to flow again. This makes perfect sense to me. There is something about the repetitive and endless sound of a current that hypnotizes you back into your story.

But I have to say no source of water has ever been more helpful to my writing than a shower. I’m sure I am not alone when I say that I have gotten more work done after rinsing the shampoo out of my hair than in all my trips to any other body of water combined. It must be the banal nature of the shower that helps me so. There is a momentousness when one approaches a river or an ocean, a sense that Now Is The Time.  A shower is a humble servant.

And there is always that moment, after all the business is done, and I am standing and listening to the water hit the back of my neck that I will find the missing piece to some puzzle in my story. I’m never expecting it; I’m not even aware that I’m asking for it. I seem, in fact, to be doing nothing at all. But doing nothing at all is my most creative activity. In the cocoon of nothingness much can grow without all the noise of judgment and the bright lights of public opinion. Here you reach your natural state – you with you listening to you. That is the true wellspring; the true river from which all creation flows.

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