Look Up

It is New Years Eve, and soon the publishing world will return from its two-week hiatus and get back to the business of publishing books. But first there are party hats to wear and champagne to uncork.

Myself, I have never been a New Years Eve sort of guy. It’s not unusual for me to be awakened at midnight by the sound of fireworks, and think, “What the hell is going on?” only to remember, and then return to the pillow. But if you are a reveler by nature, I say revel on. Champagne was meant to be drunk, fireworks to be exploded.

Noise is great sometimes, the great hurrah of life, but every cheer and ka-boom is defined by the silence that surrounds it. Just as every painter knows that a picture is as much the search for empty space as shapes and figures, so too every writer must search for what not to say. It is a great relief, all those words we needn’t write, and our gift to the reader. When we see that so little can do so much, we remind ourselves that the whole of life exists within it’s smallest parts, and that what is felt always exceeds what is expressed.

Tonight the fireworks will be lit across a canvas of empty sky. The stars will have to relinquish their stage for a time while we fill the night with noise and light. Look up, if you’re there, and if you’re reveling, revel when the fireworks have ended. There is the gift of the night: a canvas that can never be torn from its easel. The lights draw your attention where it always belongs, toward that which can be made in this or any new year.

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The Winners

Everyone has their skeletons, and mine involve games. I was raised, in part, by a gaming aficionado, and so if your father wants to play games whenever you’re together, as a child you are unlikely to say no. Games are wonderfully clear. There are rules not only for what you are allowed to do and not do, but also an obvious reasons why you are doing what you are doing – to win. If you have the sort of brain that likes to solve puzzles, which mine sometimes does, the addiction is immediate.

Also, gamers—as people like my father and I are known—take games seriously. You have to. If the outcome doesn’t matter then why are you pouring all this effort into the mastering of the game? For the fun of it? No, sir. Something greater must be at stake.

Except that nothing ever is at stake. That is, you will never be changed by the winning or the losing, you will only be changed by your efforts exerted in the winning or the losing. But the opposite seems temptingly possible, and as I looked up from the game board, it seemed to me that life itself was governed by the same principles as the games my father I played.

One of the hardest addictions to set down is that life is a game of winners and losers. It seemed so to me once upon a time, and if it was, then by God I would be one of those winners. Which I was until I couldn’t bear the emptiness of it all, and so began losing without, unfortunately, understanding why I was losing, and so only felt like a loser.

Although we are constantly measuring ourselves in every way possible, no one is actually any better at anything than anyone else. If what you are doing pleases you, then no one else could possibly do it any better. Nothing in the world can be measured against anything but that—our own contentment. The lie of so much suffering is the idea that we have come up short in some universal game. Every game is our own invention, even life itself, and what we call failure is not losing but believing anything is more important than ourselves.

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Reader’s Writer

A short while ago, a writer friend described me as a “writer’s writer.” I accepted this as the compliment it was intended, but given the choice I would rather be a reader’s writer.

Every writer reads with essentially two parts of their brain: their writer brain and their reader brain. I think I speak for many writers when I report that my writer’s brain always comes forward first whenever I pick up something new, especially fiction. The writer brain observes the writing, first on a sentence-to-sentence level and then on a narrative level. This can be a fairly unpleasant way to read something. It is detached, critical, comparative, and intellectual. I am a lifelong student of writing, so I suppose I will always read from my writer’s brain, but the less I do so the happier I am.

That is because my reader’s brain wants to forget about the writer and the choices he or she made and just become lost in what was written. I can admire or respect a book as a writer, but I can only love it as a reader.  Only as a reader can I go willingly on a journey with the writer, and only as a reader can I be changed by that journey.

If you’ve spent time in critique groups, or writing classes, or read too much of the NYT Book Review, it is easy as a writer to slip into the habit of writing for other writers. That is, becoming overly concerned about craft, and making unique choices that other writers haven’t made, or being clever or referential in a way other writers or “very good readers” will appreciate, as if books are a test of your ability to write.

Books are not a test; they are an opportunity to communicate. Forget about other writers when you write. They are readers too after all, and while a “writer’s writer” is a compliment of skill, the greatest compliment any writer could pay me is that in reading my work they forgot for a moment they were writers at all and remembered instead that they were human beings.

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Light of Interest

Jennie Shortridge made an interesting departure for her most recent novel, When She Flew: she based it on actual events, events that did not involve her. What she discovered, of course, is that the process of writing a novel that begins with only the smallest kernel of an idea or one drawn from a story with its own inherent arc is largely the same.

This is because no matter what you are writing, you must make that story your own. It does not matter whether that story was invented or retold. Life is a translation. I was reading recently that in one day we are exposed to billions pieces of information—words, sounds, smells, sights—of which we remember or absorb approximately 2,000. The rest? Not of interest.

All the world is narrowed to what is of interest to you. The beam of light that is your attention shines across the landscape searching for the shapes and sounds and ideas that sparkle for you. One of the greatest pains I know is for that light to land on something bright and fascinating and for me to think, “But I can never have that.” And so I move the light away.

Now every time my light returns to that thing I want but believe I cannot have I feel a pain that seems almost like loss. Or we call it regret, or we make up reasons and use logic and site statistics and facts all of which are an elaborate dance around fear. You leave the light where it shines, and as you get closer you see it wasn’t such a complicated and impossible thing at all.

Everything far away can seem unreachable; it is a trick of vision.  But all that ever separates you from anything is time. Make a friend of time and the world gathers around you. The great lie of time is that there is too much of it or not enough of it—there is only ever one amount of time, and it is all here at this very instant. Time is in fact a boat that carries you, not the ocean to be crossed.

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A Generous Eve

Memories of Christmas Eve have always burned especially brightly for me. People who celebrate Christmas usually break into two camps: those who open presents on Christmas Eve, and those who open presents on Christmas Day. My family was of the latter, and so Christmas morning was a torrent of wrapping paper and boxes and then the marathon of play that followed.

Yet Christmas Eve was perhaps even better. The wait, in the longest sense of the word, was over. Now all the potential of what could be stood center stage in my own candle-lit imagination. I placed all this potential on the morning to come and the presents and the fun, but the potential had nothing to do at all with Christmas morning. Rather, it was the promise that all that you wanted could come to you. That what you wanted wasn’t actually presents was the inevitable disappointment of the day itself, but the gift Christmas gave, to me at least, was a glimpse of the inherent generosity of life. I found that truth within myself, and then called it Christmas.

Finding that abiding generosity is a search worthy of a lifetime, and so I seek it still. Now I have children myself and I watch from my perch of middle age their mounting excitement and hold my tongue. They will not get what they want Christmas morning. No matter. They are too young to know what they actually want, that vision blooming still in their own young candle-lit souls. Who wouldn’t be excited catching even a glimpse of that? So I will leave them to their excitement and to the discovery of its actual source.

Merry Christmas to those of you celebrating, and to those not, enjoy the quiet of the day. Silence is the finest place to find what you might be looking for.

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I was at a gathering recently and a friend and I got into a discussion about—education, I think it was. And I had a point to make. It was an important point and I had every intention of making it even though I believed—well, knew, really—this friend disagreed with the point. In fact, I wanted to make this point to this friend precisely because he disagreed with it.

So I made my point, and loudly, so as not to misunderstood. But about midway through this point-making I began actually hearing myself, and observing this friend’s reaction, and I thought, “Drop it. He isn’t your audience.”

I am all for the “exchange of ideas,” but I cannot say that in all my career of idea exchanging that I have ever flipped someone’s opinion. After all, I am not about to flip mine. Over time, what I believe evolves, and it has sometimes happened that this evolution eventually results in something very different, but this sort of change is almost always gradual.

It’s a useful thing for writers to remember. We are all looking for our readers. That is, those people Richard Bach described as our “intellectual family.” Not that we should preach to the choir, but rather we our putting our work and our ideas out there for those people who are looking for them. You can lose a lot of hair, and sleep, and weight fretting over all the people in the world who don’t agree with you, or who don’t read what you read, or read what you write. Let them be.

Everyone who argues is arguing with themselves. The foil we choose for our debate is some shadow version of ourselves, against whom we are testing what it is we have come to believe. If we could just get this other person to admit we are right then we would believe it ourselves. And so too we might summon editors or agents in our imagination to point out what our work is not. And these shadow agents and editors are right. Your work is always not something. But those shadows are not your readers. Your readers are those people interested in what your work is.

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As I write this, I look at the calendar and see that winter has officially begun. No great surprise to anyone living in the snowbound Northeast, I’m sure. Here in Seattle, the dome of clouds closed a few weeks ago, and the sun is in hibernation.

Nature itself doesn’t care one wit for calendars, of course. I’ve shoveled snow in April and had a picnic with my wife on Valentine’s Day. We do our best to predict, but in the end we must work with what we’ve got. Jules Asner says her husband director Steven Soderbergh believes there is the movie you envision, and then the movie you end up with, and the two are never the same. Your happiness as an artist depends on your acceptance of this fact.

But who is to say the book or movie we envision is really the book or movie we want? The book we envisioned was merely an idea before the reality of work began. In the reality of work, The girl does not fall in love with your protagonist and the murderer is a pacifist. Such is the stuff of a writer’s headache, but all these troubles never amount to more than trying to write against what you actually want.

If you listen carefully, you will always be guided toward what you want. What you want is never one story, or one place, or one idea.  What you want is everywhere all the time. If you listen carefully you can pull from the noise of the world the strains of the melody you have been seeking and so you follow it along. But that song is always playing, every moment, every day, everywhere, in winter and summer, in snow and sun. What you want is never a destination; it is only a direction you can face from anywhere you are standing.

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Time For A Sentence

My freshman composition professor, in trying to convey the importance of word choice to a group of what was largely business majors, told the story of Gustave Flaubert emerging from his study after a full day’s work, soaked in sweat, declaring, “Today, I wrote a sentence!”

I don’t know about the business majors, but it made an impression on me. There is a romance to the labor of a well-wrought sentence, and I’m a bit of a romantic. Something grand and beautiful and worthwhile must surely lie at the end of the journey from the idea to the completed sentence, and as we all know, the longer the journey, the more meaningful the destination.

There is, however, another famous writing story my professor might have told. According to Faulkner, As I Lay Dying was written in six weeks “without changing a word.” So there you are. I can hear the explanation already, of course. “Well, that was Faulkner. He was a genius.” Whatever. He was a writer. And for every writer there is a different way to write.

I’m all for beautiful sentences. They’re delicious. But the truth is, a beautiful sentence can be written in eight hours or eight seconds. What’s more, a sentence is only a sentence. It is one, small, complete idea. Books aren’t published as a collection of 1,000 sentences. Like it or not, in the end the whole is far more than the parts. You can admire a sentence, but you will love a book.

I have written slowly and I have written quickly. The best slow writing is an expression of my patience, the worst of my criticalness. The best fast writing is an expression of my trust, the worst of my impatience. As long as fear doesn’t win out, any way will do. But remember, no matter how you come to the sentences you love, the most important sentence you write will always be your next one.

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Christmas Spirit

Christmas time is near, and so those must be chains I hear rattling in my attic. Ghosts are as fond of bright lights and happy music as they are of shadows and cobwebs. I loved Christmas as a boy for the star on top of the tree and the songs about Peace on Earth and Good Will Toward Men because who in their right mind wouldn’t want that?

Even though gifts are disappointing compared to songs, it’s easy to become confused that what you want is wrapped in a bright package. After all, you know you want something. You know that as sure as you know you must eat. You know that you are looking for something, but the search is as frightening as it is fascinating because what if you never find it?

I think a small part of me died whenever I opened a gift and felt disappointed that what I was looking for wasn’t in a box. Except what dies cannot stay buried, and so roams my attic in chains, waking me in the middle of the night or interrupting my gruel. Ghosts never want to leave you alone no matter how kindly you beg.

Yet the more I hear from them, the more I see they hold no grudge. Very generous, considering I killed them once. They just make such a racket. It’s hard to do anything else when they are around, least of all write. I finally invited a few in, and frankly they scared me straight out of my nightshirt at first sight. They tell me graveyards are for the living, not the dead. Christmas is for the dead—so here they are.

I tell them Christmas is about a baby in a manger and Figgie Pudding and a fire in the fireplace and a decent bottle of wine. They tell me I have it all wrong. Christmas is every bit about ghosts. They will haunt me as long as I want know love. Build a tree to love and light a star on top and they come all the quicker. And why shouldn’t they? Love beckons what I need most, and lights the path toward what I have been searching for.

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Step Away

I got into a spat with my wife yesterday while trying to pick out a Christmas present for my niece. Part of the problem was that as the selection of this gift moved into its advanced stages, the clock in my head counting down the minutes I was not writing began ticking louder and louder. This is a sound that can drive me toward a position that is useful for neither picking out Christmas presents nor promoting marital harmony, namely, “Can we just get this damn thing over with?”

Of course, once I did get to my writing I was so flummoxed from the post-present-picking row that nothing of value was written. This seemed just. Impatience is stingy this way. It inevitably teaches us that we can live indefinitely without that which we believe we must have immediately.

Fortunately, my wife and I mended our differences, and I gave up working before I dug myself into an ugly narrative hole. On that day, I would have to face the truth that there were more important things than my novel. I am not always willing to cop to this, but the facts point continuously toward that conclusion.

I was reminded that sometimes it is just as important for a writer not to write. I must be able to step away from my desk knowing I will return. My tie to the work cannot be so fragile that one foul day spoils my interest forever.  So step away. The same instinct that drives me toward my work can also guide me away from it. If I listen to this instinct only when it is telling me to write, then I am not really listening.

Life courses all around the cocoon of our work.  And good thing. It is our clay, our tools, and our inspiration. If it seeps in under the door sometimes and calls to us, go ahead and follow. The work cannot go anywhere we are not.

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