Bloodletting

I recently interviewed Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, whose debut YA Fantasy Beautiful Creatures has already been published in 30 countries. Not bad for two women who wrote the book on a dare and never intended to submit it for publication—but more on that next month when their interview airs.

Kami and Margaret, as you have probably guessed, are a writing team. Every chapter is passed back and forth between them and edited with such ruthless disregard for the other’s attachment to a scene or a phrase (they call it a “very bloody process”) that by the end they often don’t know who wrote what.

I can’t imagine writing a novel with anyone else, but I have to say I admire these two women. Currently, my wife is the only one to whom I show my work before it goes off to my agent, and I think she has come to dread the delivery of my latest draft. This is entirely my fault. I was not always that gracious when it came to receiving criticism, constructive or otherwise. By the time she was done telling me what she thought of what she had read I was often wondering why she had bothered marrying me.

But I have mellowed over the years, and the protectiveness I once felt for every sentence has fallen away. The beauty of Kami and Margaret’s process is that if a line or scene doesn’t serve the story, it’s gone, no questions asked. After all, that’s the only reason a line or scene was written in the first place. The trouble comes when a line isn’t written to serve the story but the writer. Not surprising in this case that a writer might snarl or crumble when someone criticizes what he or she has written.

As I have said before, our work is not us, and the editing process is where we must be most clear about that. And if you have suffered the confusion of mistaking your work for you—trust me when I tell you it is a great relief to end that perception.  Not only does the work flourish, free as it is now to shed its precious but unwanted trappings, but you may rest a little easier as well knowing there isn’t some second you bouncing around New York, vulnerable to all the knives of other people’s taste.

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A Worthwhile Trade

In her article this month (Oh, Let Go) Jennifer Paros discusses the importance of letting go of fear while writing. Faulkner talked about shutting fear out of your workspace, and Norman Mailer felt he spent most of his life trying to conquer his fears.

Conquering is all very well and good, and shutting out could certainly work in the short run, but to me letting go remains the only viable plan. Things released are always less likely to return than things beaten down or locked out. Fear can be vengeful, particularly when it has been punched or excluded. Attention is attention, good or bad, and all things grow the more light and sun you throw their way.

Better always to let go. For one, it’s honest. Whatever you’re afraid of didn’t sneak up on you in the night and crawl in through your ear. You chose it. It was a decision you made about your life or life in general. Most likely you thought it would keep you safe, or make you popular, which is just another form of safety, or even happy, which is more safety still. Whatever the reason, you chose it, because you choose everything.

Second, in order to let go, you must observe yourself as holding on. Before we let go, we always perceive our relationship to fear in reverse—that it is holding onto us. We say it is “stronger than us,” that is has a “powerful grip on us.” Yet we are really like people crossing a wide and sturdy bridge, clutching white-knuckled to a railing for fear we might decide to hurl ourselves over the edge.

You chose to write because you didn’t want to be afraid. On some level, you understood that you could not write through fear. Perhaps at first you hoped that merely by writing the fear would go away, that the magic of creation would heal you. And, in fact, in this way it can: In order to write, you must love to write, and in order to have what you love the most, you must let go of what you fear the most. It seems like a worthwhile trade.

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Follow The Mystery

I don’t know if I would be able to teach writing. Even though I write about it, more or less, every day in this blog, and even though I could talk about writing at anytime and anywhere, in the end, I am only a following a mystery.

I have pretenses of a plan, which I call an outline, but there is no plan. The only plan is to follow the mystery as faithfully as possible.  I talk about craft and technique, and I have rules for myself for what I should do or shouldn’t do—but the only rule is to follow the mystery.  All my techniques are just tools to guide me through the dark and I am not particular about what these techniques look like as long as they serve me in this journey.

I am happiest when I am letting myself follow the mystery. I am unhappiest when I think about getting anything right. I don’t know how to get anything right. I only know if I am close on the trail of the mystery or not. When I am close on the trail everything is clear and the characters surprise me and I am filled with details and I don’t want to waste any time with even a single detail that does not serve the mystery.

I am happiest when I am following the mystery because it is unknown to me, and when I follow it I am making peace with the unknown. I must drop the pretense of knowing beyond knowing that I am interested in following what interests me and that that is all I will ever have to know. Trying to know what I cannot know exhausts me and leaves me feeling talentless and dull.

If I could teach someone how to follow their mystery I would, but I wouldn’t know how to begin. I think maybe stories are the best teacher. The best stories are always filled with the generosity of life’s enduring mystery, open to everyone, answerable by no one, visible everywhere, but elusive enough to draw us continuously forward.

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What Every Author Wants

Whenever I interview children’s or young adult authors, we often end up talking about the enthusiasm of their readers. People who love books love them equally, it seems to me, young or old, but the young express it differently. The comments, for instance, posted on the Youtube version of our interview with Richelle Mead—who writes the very popular Vampire Academy series—are full of anguish and excitement. Reading these comments is like being asked to judge a competition for the world’s biggest Richelle Mead Fan.

By comparison, I was having dinner recently after my interview with Jasper Fforde near where a sizable crowd was gathering to hear him read. It was crowded enough that I had to share a table, and my tablemate, it turned out, was there to hear Jasper read. “Should be good,” I said. “He’s an entertaining guy.”

My dinner partner nodded solemnly. “And a very good writer.”

And this is what I hear from a lot of writers of adult fiction, or from writers of YA fiction who have adult readers: adults generally want to let the writer know that they know what really good writing is. Yes, writers have egos, sometimes very big ones, and yes they like to hear what fabulous writers they are—but by and large novels are not written as a four hundred-page test of our writing skills but as a means of sharing something we love.

This obsession with how well something is done is an affliction of sorts of adulthood. It’s to be expected, however. We spend so much time, particularly in school but often on up into the professional world, having what we do graded and ranked and judged, that life can come to be seen as a kind of test that we will either pass or fail. The adult fans obsessed with good writing are letting the author know he or she has passed, and with high marks.

Better, however, to let the writer know how much the book meant to you. It is a lovely human-to-human exchange. More importantly, by not bothering with how well the book was written, the reader gives a great gift to the writer by reminding him or her to always turn their focus back toward what they love. All that good writing has merely allowed someone of a like mind to experience a joy similar to that of the writer when he or she first discovered the story they wanted to tell.

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A Simple Recipe

One of the many perks of this job is the people I get to meet. When I saw a Youtube video of Ken Robinson speaking at the TED Conference, I thought, “I’d love to meet him some day.” That day came on a rainy afternoon in January, and I was not disappointed.

There is nothing quite so reassuring as being around someone who is doing what he loves to do. In Ken’s case, what he loves to do is to talk about people doing what they love to do, which is what I love to talk about as well. Needless to say, there wasn’t a lot of disagreement in the room. If you haven’t had a chance to watch his interview, I encourage you to do so.

If I had a recipe for peace on earth, it would be this: everyone do what they love to do. Sounds simple, I know, but the best solutions usually are. Whenever I am around people like Ken I understand that you are always safest near the people who are the happiest, and the people who are the happiest are the ones who are doing what they love. It is an endless cycle of contentment.

The trouble always comes when we think we can’t do what we love to do. Sometimes we think other people are keeping us from doing what we love to do. Sometimes we think we could be happy if only the government would spend less money or more money. Sometimes we think we could be happy if only our husband or wife would finally show us they love us as much as they say they love us. The list goes on.

I have narrowed my list of people standing between me and what I love to do, and he frequently occupies the chair in which I now write this blog. Yet I love to write this blog, and so, for the moment anyway, He—the insidious He, the vampire He—has left the room. Oh, how simple it is. Peace is never the result of winning a battle with your fears or your enemies or your government, peace is the result of seeing there was never a battle to be fought in the first place.

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The Boss

I love writing music because it requires such constant cooperation between my left and right brain. The right brain, to be clear, is our receptive, intuitive, emotional half; the left brain is our linear and logical half.

So my right brain receives a melody, or an idea for a melody, or a rhythm, or simply a musical feeling that requires a melody and a rhythm. The right brain would very much like to hear this music. But how? That is when, like an overeager student in a class of one, my left brain begins hopping up and down in his seat, saying, “I can do that!  I can do that!”

So he is set to the task. Complicated orchestral music? No problem. The left brain likes complicated. More to do that way. The beauty of the left brain is that ultimately he is not judgmental. He does not care if the music is good or bad; in fact, he does not even know if the music is good or bad. The left brain does not understand good or bad. All the left brain knows is right and wrong.

For this, he turns to the right brain, and asks, “Is that it?  Is that what you wanted to hear?” And the right brain says yes or no. Then it’s either back to the keyboard or onto the next stanza. Again, the left brain doesn’t care. He is a tireless puppy, happy to chase sticks all day.

What makes the left brain upset, however, is if he is asked to come up with the melody. The left brain turns for his next assignment, and the right brain, who must be patient, says, “I’ve got nothing right now.” But the left brain wants to keep working. This is when the process gets ugly. The puppy can only fetch the stick, he cannot throw it, and so he runs off in search of a stick that has never been thrown, only to become exhausted and confused and lost.

It’s important for everyone to know their job. Creative misery is often the result of someone leaving his or her department and doing a job for which they were unqualified. You, the owner of both halves of your brain, have the power, like a great and benign boss, to gently step in, direct everyone to their respective corners, and allow the process to begin again.

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Know Nothings

I try to avoid gender-specific observations, but it seems to me that many of my brothers are cursed with the belief that we are required to know everything—or, if we don’t know something, be clever in disguising this humiliating fact. About the time we leave college, the words, “I don’t know,” can be as hard to cough up as, “I love you.”

Where this began I don’t know, but it is as useless a habit as you will find. That it forces us to learn clandestinely is only a fraction of the problem. The position of having to know eventually extends beyond the reach of mere facts, as our omnipotence must insidiously come to include the future itself.

The great irony is that the position of not knowing is far more powerful than that of knowing. By which I mean, all creation is the act of allowing in the new, or the unknown. What it is you are creating is known, but only an abstract, felt knowledge—if you knew exactly what its created form would be, what it was going to look and sound like, you wouldn’t really need to make it.

This is why the first step in all creation is settling into that place of not knowing. And since all of life is creation, from your first cup of coffee in the morning to your good night kiss, this is a position we must maintain on a constant basis. Horrible. But, I should say, once accepted, a great burden is lifted. Trying to know what is existentially impossible to know is exhausting and time consuming. Your energies are so much better spent focused on bringing forth that which you do not yet know.

But as I said, we always know something, and we know this something always. We know it from the first moment we crack our eyes to the world, before we even know there is a word for it. We know not so much that we are loved, but that we are love itself, and when we make things, it is our own attempt to share that love that we have always known. So perhaps this is why we men think we must know everything. We already know all we really need to know, and in some ways, “I don’t know,” and “I love you,” mean much the same thing.

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A Simple Guy

When I was a boy, I was accused once or twice of having too simplistic a view of life. This stung. It seemed my simplicity would deprive me of whole layers of life available to complex thinkers. And so, being fiercely competitive and pathologically goal oriented, I set out to complicate myself and the stories I told.

Nothing could be easier, really. Fear, for instance, complicates things immediately. Try to argue with your fears and you find yourself wrestling with an octopus that grows a new tentacle for every rational escape route you discover. Eventually, your octopus has hundreds of arms and is very complicated indeed as life becomes a great ball of yarn you were commanded at birth to untangle.

In this same way, I often resisted letting my stories be about one thing. If I did this, they would be simple and predictable and boring. What I have found, however, is that by allowing the stories to be about one thing—one theme, one conflict, one resolution—my stories are actually less predictable.  Why?  Because I have more command over the material. When I have tried to do too much, the stories simply haven’t made emotional sense. They weren’t complicated, they were just jumbled.

I still have to remind myself to keep my stories simple, and as always it is a matter of trust. When I’m searching for the story, and I’m in that murky place where the pieces haven’t lined up, the temptation is to keep throwing more ingredients into the pot hoping that by having enough it will add up to a story. But every good conflict has within it a satisfying resolution if you allow yourself to find it. In the end, I must return to the simple but interesting idea that drew me to a story, and trust that within it is all that this story needs.

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Junk

A regular reader of this column might have formed the opinion that I do not now suffer from any of the torments about which I so regularly write. But that it were so. If I have any authority at all in the area of doubt and self-torture it is from extensive and continued field research. My troubles, however, stem not from writing, but from not-writing, an emptiness I sometimes choose to fill with worrying about writing.

But as Andre Dubus said, we are all better people at our desk—kinder, more compassionate, more patient. This is certainly true of me, which used to be a concern of mine. When I sat down to write a novel for the first time at the age of 21, I actually thought, “I can’t do this. I don’t know what life is all about.” A rare moment of humility for my younger self, but not actually a reason to give up a novel, which I did.

It does not matter what fears we choose to believe while bustling about our day. Fear leaves no mark on us once we cease to believe it. The lines of worry our faces carry are not in fact the tracks of a life’s worth of hardship, but the expression, quite literally, of our current concern for some imagined future.

The gift of this column and of all my work is that I must begin with this question: “What is the very best thing I could share with someone?” It requires me to set aside all the junk I may have cluttered my day with, because no matter how much energy I poured into that junk, it is quite obvious as soon as I take a look at it through the prism of writing that it is nothing worth sharing with anyone else. What is left, once the junk is dropped, is always what I wish I could have said if I hadn’t been so distracted by the junk.

Perhaps I will someday be able to live every moment as I do on the page. I continue to hold out hope that it is possible. In the meantime, my fallen self finds solace in sharing—not so the world might learn what I have seen, but that I might travel to that place where things worth sharing always wait.

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Gifted

All life is by its very nature creative—everything alive is constantly trying to make more of itself. Humans, however, are uniquely creative. It’s not enough that we make more humans; we also have to make Tupperware, The Eiffel Tower, and Hamlet. This great gift, however, came with a bit of a price. In order to create imaginatively, we must be able to cast our vision into the future and recall the past. This, I believe, is more or less what Adam and Eve got when they bit that fruit.

It’s a neat trick, this applied imagination, but a dangerous one. Quantum physics aside, neither the past nor the future exist in the Here And Now, yet these imagined moments can be as great a force in your life as the man sitting next to you on the bus. Greater actually. Regret is the act of trying and failing to rewrite the past; worry is an attempt to solve a problem that does not yet exist. These twin devils cause far more trouble than anyone or anything with which you are in contact at the moment, and precisely because they do not exist.

We are to some degree all children with super powers. Imagine if a three year-old could lift a car with one hand. This is all of us. We arrived with a tool so immensely powerful there is literally no limit to what it can do. You are capable of imagining yourself right into prison, if you like. Once, a man trapped overnight in what he believed was a 35 degree meat locker, died of hypothermia. The locker was room temperature, but he had convinced himself otherwise.

This is why in Friday’s column I wrote about our Zone of Influence. We must understand our super power for what it is. It need not be our greatest source of suffering. The imagination is a fantastic tool, but The Here And Now is where you live. You are a captain of your own ship, and the waters you must navigate are beneath you. Because of our imaginations, we know that we will someday die—yet we were not gifted with it for that bleak purpose. Imagination is the crackling of life itself, inspiring creation not for survival’s sake, but for creation’s sake alone, which, to our own continued wonderment, seems to be enough.

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