I interviewed Mary Guterson last week, having been warned ahead of time that she was quite funny. The warnings were accurate. After the camera stopped rolling Mary confessed to me that it had taken her about ten years to find her voice. How odd, I thought, because as soon as I met her I found that she sounded exactly like her books, which is to say, yes, she was funny and then some, but also capable of saying anything at anytime. Her internal editor, it seemed, had been downsized long ago.
This habit, she admitted to me, had gotten her fired more than once, but what made her somewhat of a liability as an employee helped her eventually with her writing—better for a novelist to have too much to say than not enough. Yet if I had had to guess, I would not have thought someone like Mary would need ten years to find her voice. She was such an irrepressible talker, surely her voice merely spilled onto the page when she summoned it.
No. And it was precisely her humor that had gotten in her way. That is, she’s a smart woman, she’s a reflective woman, and so she naturally wanted to be taken seriously by other smart, reflective people. As luck would have it, who she is eventually won out over who she thought she should be, and the world is only a better place for it.
Mary’s story is hardly an unusual one, and not just because she wanted to be taken seriously. Rather, it was that she wandered for ten years in some literary jungle only to wind up more or less where she started. This is so often the journey of the writer. You look down at what you have and think, “This will never do,” and so off you go to find something better. If you are lucky, all the classes and books and seminars and writing groups and rough drafts will teach you that what you’ve always needed, you’ve always had. What we call skill and craft are merely tools and tricks to point you toward yourself, and all that we call bad writing is just some debris that’s accumulated between where you’ve drifted and where your self stands waiting for your return.
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In this magazine I spend a lot of time talking to writers of all genres. While the bookstore divides fiction writers into romance, suspense, science fiction/fantasy, and fiction, there is really only one divide about which writers will ever talk meaningfully: literary and commercial.
There is plenty of suspicion and contempt from both sides of this split. As with all biases, our dislike of the other stems from that which we dislike most in ourselves but which expresses itself significantly differently in that other so that we can justify our contempt by pointing out that we aren’t making precisely the same mistake someone else has made.
Meaning, there is more than enough fear to go around. Commercial writers fear they will die without having bought that house on the hill; literary writers fear they will die without ever being told they are brilliant. Everyone’s fear, of course, has it’s own unique flavor, but in the end sour is sour as our egos try to answer that singular question: Why exactly am I doing this?
The ego does not know why you are doing this because the ego does not and cannot understand that original impulse that has no seen cause but which spurs all effect – I am doing this because I like to. Answer this question from your heart and that is all you will hear. Answer from your ego and you get houses and praise.
But spend a little time with other writers, no matter what they write, and you will discover that the tie that binds is not the product but the work. The finished product is for the readers – let them haggle over which is better. But the work itself is for us, because every page begins exactly as blank as the next, no matter what fills it in the end. Everyone is trying to fill their page with something that pleases them, and no matter what the writer across from you fills his or hers with, you know what it feels like when your work pleases you – how could you not want that for everyone else?
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The Editor’s Blog will return tomorrow.
For some reason I have recently come across a number of lists of mistakes writers must never make if they ever hope to be published. All my life I have avoided such lists. Not that most of what can be found within them isn’t true, but my inevitable response seems to be, “Do I do that? No, I don’t do that—do I?”
It is a strangely unanswerable question for the writer himself, and reminds me of something Mother Theresa said when she was invited to an anti-war march, “I’ll never do that, but if you have a pro-peace march, I’ll be there.”
It is impossible to live your life in the negative. You cannot simply move away from one thing, you must also move toward another. I have found that if I am trying to break myself of a bad habit, whether in writing or just in life, the habit is broken much quicker if I replace it was something else. In other words, I remind myself to show in my writing, I never remind myself not to tell.
It is a subtle difference, but it’s worth observing. You always have to do something, even if that something is doing nothing. All of the habits I’ve broken were born out of a desire for something better. I used to swear too much because it felt more honest; I used to smoke because it gave me something to do besides think poorly of myself.
If you’re not sure what to use to fill the void your bad habit used occupy, try this: stop doing what you had been doing, become quiet, and observe the silence that follows. Within it you will find the authentic desire you were in-authentically meeting. Then, just as in writing when you listen to the current of your story and match scenes and characters and words to it, match a new authentic action to your desire. But listen carefully. Silence may require patience, but in my experience, it always tells the truth.
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Today I will be interviewing Mary Guterson, who, among other things, happens to be the sister of the novelist David Guterson. Creative siblings have always been an interest of mine since my younger brother and I teamed up twenty-something years ago to create a traveling theater show.
Though, of course, that show began long before we wrote even the first joke. It began on our childhood couch with my brother improvising puppet shows and the stories we would tell each other to fill those empty summer hours. It was for this reason that writing for me began more as a public performance than a private exploration. The audience, even if that audience consisted only of my brother, became the inspiration, and making someone else laugh felt like a triumph, as you crossed the bridge from one soul to another.
Like every writer, however, I inevitably discovered the pleasure and the need for privacy. Reading, which I loved, is such a private experience, after all, and like so many clowns, professional and amateur, I was inclined toward mimicry, and only on the printed page could I mimic the solitary pleasure of reading. Plus, I liked to talk to myself, and writing was a place to do so without embarrassment.
But as a natural ham, I sometimes miss the immediate spark of another live human being sharing what I have discovered. Such is the plight of the writer. You are required to make peace with your first and only audience – yourself. Eventually you will hear from others, but by then the work will long be done. I have come to understand that writing the work teaches me much about myself, whereas experiencing others’ response to the work teaches me about the world. It is important, I think, not to confuse the two.
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This month, editor Erin Browne has a look at self-publishing. In Erin’s opinion, the prospects are not good, though I should point out there are always those few success stories (notable amongst them, Richard Paul Evans’s The Christmas Box, whose interview will air next month). Still, I fully appreciate Erin’s reticence to have anything but suspicion for self-publishing. For right or wrong, self-publishing has become synonymous with failure.
Yet one of the most influential pieces of advice I ever received regarding my writing was this: everyone must self-publish. The teacher from whom I heard this was not a writing teacher, and so I understood this advice was not meant literally—but it didn’t matter. It got my attention, and it was just contrary enough to anything I had ever thought about publishing that I knew it had to be true.
It took me years of speaking with dozens and dozens of writers, however, to understand that this teacher was correct. All writers are self-published. Which is to say, with few exceptions, the writer fully understands the value of his or her work before a magazine or a publishing house ever buys it. The writer is not looking for proof from the publishing world, only a means of distribution.
This may not sound like much of a difference, but it is in fact essential. I do not think you can publish your work until you have published it in your heart, until you have accepted its and your value as unquestionable. It is not a question of whether the work was worth doing, but only how will you find the people for whom it is most meaningful. When that is your only question, then you have self-published, and then you are truly ready to share your work with the world.
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Jane Smiley believes that the history of the novel is essentially a history of man turning his attention inward. It’s pretty hard to argue with that. Despite all our exploration, to mountains and across oceans and eventually out toward the stars themselves, all journeys begin and end in the same place.
This is something we hear so often and in so many different ways that it becomes difficult to hear it fresh, the same way a cliché, once powerful, withers from overuse. Yet just because something has been often repeated doesn’t make it any less true. This is one of the great challenges of writing. I believe it was Kurt Vonnegut who thought there were only seven types of stories. True or close enough, but certainly there’s a lot of recycling that goes on.
No matter. Everything you’re going to share with your readers has to pass through you first and no one has ever been you before. This may not seem like enough when you walk into a bookstore and consider the volume printed every year and try to hear your original voice within that din—but thinking this way is like trying to plan your marriage before you’ve met your spouse.
Almost everything I have written in this blog I have read or heard somewhere else—not word for word, but at core. I am endlessly influenced. But nothing anyone else says truly makes sense to me until I have found my own way of saying it. And so I say it in my way and look up and realize what I have said is actually slightly different from what that other person said—and voila, I’m original.
And that is all originality has ever been—someone translating what they have heard before into their own language. Another good reason for journeys to begin and end in the same place. We are all searching within ourselves to understand what is outside ourselves, and what we discover may send another explorer searching to understand for themselves.
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This will sound odd coming from a novelist, I know, but one of the easiest mistakes to make is to tell yourself a story about what is happening to you. By which I mean, telling yourself this thing is good or this thing is bad, and then all the reasons for your decision. Nothing is ever just one thing, and you are better off leaving everything that way.
The actual stories we write are different from the stories we tell ourselves. Fictional stories or narrative non-fiction are crafted to follow the narrative arc of a character or characters with the purpose of revealing some emotional truth. At the very least these stories are entertaining, and their best, they teach us something.
Not so with the stories we tell ourselves. If you meet someone for the first time and she gives you an odd look, and you tell this story: “She doesn’t like me,” you have told yourself a lie to simplify an experience. Perhaps she doesn’t like you, or perhaps you remind her of someone she doesn’t like, or perhaps she is insecure, or quirky, or anything.
The stories, whether good or bad, are useless because in truth, everything simply is. Nothing is anything until we call it something, and then everyone will disagree eventually, about everything from birth to death, and so what was the point? Everything is, and that is all.
So just as some artists resist explaining what their work means, resist deciding what any moment means. Instead, be in that moment as quietly and as free of judgment as possible. Your job was never to know what anything means. Your only job is to decide what to do next. Thankfully, that choice is where all the meaning in your life actually lies.
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Think about the famous first movement of Beethoven’s 5th sym-phony. That entire movement is based on four notes, three of which are identical. And yet from those four notes, Beethoven composed seven minutes of some of the most memorable classical music ever written.
To me, those four notes are like the first idea of a novel. For instance, the book I’m completing now began with this seed of an image: a boy meets a man on the road and they take a journey together. That’s it. Not exactly something you could pitch to an agent, but within that simple image I felt the potential for an entire novel.
This is one of the mysteries of stories. I remember when I came up with the basic idea for the only screenplay I ever wrote. The story was still in its infancy but I told my mother about it anyway. When I was done describing what I knew of the story, she said, “Well, that doesn’t sound like much.” Then I wrote it, discovered all that I had felt but had not yet seen, and she loved it.
No one can ever know what you know about the story you are trying to tell because you don’t know all there is to know about the story you are trying to tell until you have told all of it. And this is all to the better in my mind. If as writers we are discovering up until the very last word, the story will remain alive up until the very last word.
This is why I am unmoved by predictions of success or failure of a given idea. Would anyone else have seen the potential in those four notes that Beethoven did? We’ll never know, and we’ll never need to. There are seeds of ideas everywhere, each as pregnant as the next. The height and beauty to which they grow depends only upon the imagination in which they are planted.
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My oldest son took longer than usual to learn how to speak. He was, however, desperate to communicate from very early on, and so he developed a kind of sign language that my wife and I learned to translate. While he told stories with gestures and grunts I would repeat back to him what he was saying so he could hear it in words.
Because he was my son I was happy to do this and would do so again were he to lose his power of speech—a skill he has now mastered sometimes to the weariness of his parents. I am not however, as inclined to be as generous with writers. I am all for experimentation—it is the only real way to discover how best to say exactly what it is you want to say. But at some point a writer goes from experimenting to being considered experimental, and often times with the most experimental writing, the onus of translation shifts from the writer to the reader, and this where I almost always lose interest.
One of the great dynamic tensions faced by any artist is the challenge of translating something he or she knows internally into an external expression that can be understood by another. This is not always easy. You know what you mean, but how can you ever know what someone else will understand? In truth, you cannot, at least not individually, but if you have ever been moved by another artist’s work, then surely you believe it is possible. As artists seek to create something both original to themselves and understandable by another, they reach for a universal human experience, the ties of love and loss and desire and surrender that bind us all, and in so doing may even discover something beyond his or her own isolated truth. This translation, then, benefits not just the audience, but the artist as well.
That said, I want every writer to write in the way that makes him or her happiest. But if you hear a voice saying, “No one can understand me,” don’t believe it. You would not be writing if you did not think anyone could understand you. You know that at heart what you have to say is perfectly knowable to another. If you must experiment, experiment; and if you must be experimental, then by all mean, be experimental. But never hide behind your experiments. If you do, the only ones willing to read your work may be those people who already know you.
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