Shut The Door

Tomorrow I’ll be interviewing Henry Winkler, co-author of 14 children’s books and, for those born after 1985, the actor who portrayed Arthur Fonzarelli in the 1970’s sit-com Happy Days. Sometimes when I tell someone what I do they will get a blank look on their face as they try to think of something to ask me about my job. Invariably, they come up with this: “Who’s the most famous person you’ve ever interviewed?”

I suppose come Saturday I’ll have my answer to that. Truth is, the words “famous” and “writer” don’t usually belong in the same sentence, at least not as the idea of fame has evolved over the last half century. Yan Martel made this point during our recent interview. His book, Life of Pi, was a kind of famous book – sold millions worldwide, beloved, and so on – but Yan Martel retained his anonymity.

Yet beyond that, writers can sell millions and millions of books and even their name would still be completely unknown to the vast majority reading-age Americans. For instance, I think you would be hard pressed to find five people under 60 who aren’t aware that Twilight is about vampires. You would be hard pressed to find five people under 60 (at least non-writers) who know who Stephanie Meyer is.

All for the better I think. I don’t believe there is anything inherently wrong with fame, especially if you have chosen a career that puts you in front of a camera or on stage. In fact, if you can pass through the crucible of fame and come out the other side with your humanity and humility intact, you will only be better off for it.

But writing is a solitary business. You cannot love writing unless you also love to be alone. There are certainly those writers who also love to be in front of audiences, and they will hopefully find a means to do so, but most writers require long periods of isolation. I certainly do. As I’ve gotten older, I find I need more of it. I cannot write unless I can hear what it is I wish to say, and the noise of the public square can distract. Nothing, after all, is more distracting than wondering what someone else will think of what you have written, even if that someone has loved your work before. Shut your door to the outside world. You can open it when you’re done, but in the meantime allow the world through you in fertile silence—only there can everything you might want to say possibility exist.

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Ride The Wave

I got another good reminder of my first rule of writing when I interviewed Carrie Ryan. The first rule of writing is, of course, write what you love most. Carrie is a perfect example of this because she writes about zombies.

Let me explain. I have to admit that when her book arrived on my desk, a little voice said, “Another zombie book?” While I try not to prejudge, that same voice has a small, cynical streak that knows how publishers love to latch onto trends and milk them until they are shriveled and unrecognizable as something that was at one time new and interesting.

What I forgot, however, is just how recent the zombie craze is. By which I mean, when Carrie began writing her first zombie apocalypse book, way back in 2006, there was nothing resembling a craze, let alone a trend, in the publishing world. Carrie was merely following her fiancé’s advice, which was, literally, “Write what you love.” Carrie Ryan loved the zombie apocalypse.

That she is now riding a wave of interest is merely her good fortune, and she deserves to ride that wave as far as she can. It is very tempting to look at the bestseller list and wish, “Why can’t what I love be like one of those books?” But if Carrie Ryan had wondered this then perhaps she wouldn’t have written first zombie book.

Because beyond the issue of timing – that is, by the time you finish a book meant to catch a wave that wave is dead and gone – there remains the possibility that you are the start of the Next Big Thing. Or the Next Small Thing. It doesn’t matter. All waves are just a coalescing of thought, a recognition within what Richard Bach described as an “intellectual family.” You are looking for your intellectual family, nothing more, nothing less. They are out there, but you will never find them unless you present what you love most as accurately and authentically as possible. Then you will ride a wave, a wave that is entirely familiar, from the great sea of the unknown, all the way home.

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The Best Teacher

I started reading The Phantom Tollbooth with my son last night. After closing the book he asked, “What’s it about?” I said, “Well, you just read it. What do you think?” To which he answered, “But what’s the problem in it?”

And I wondered, will he be a book editor some day? Tollbooth is the story of a boy, Milo, who isn’t interested in anything and always wants to be somewhere he isn’t. Milo travels through the magic tollbooth on an allegorical journey through The Doldrums, and Dictionopolis, and the Mountains of Ignorance, and then returns to the world interested in life again.

The problem is not quite as clear as the stories Sawyer, my son, is used to reading. That is, Milo does not see himself as having a problem, and he is not taking this journey with the idea that he will solve anything. Usually heroes in stories have clear objectives and obvious adversaries, thus Sawyer couldn’t yet figure out what the story was “about.”

As the writer father, I would like to take some credit for Sawyer’s precocious understanding of narrative structure, but I’m afraid he came to this entirely on his own. I remember when I was a freshman in college and was annoyed that I was required to take a basic composition class (had my SAT scores been 10 points higher I could have skipped it). I brought something I had written to the head of the English Department, she read it, and asked, “Where did you learn to write?”

I was confused by the question, and without meaning to be snotty, I answered, “My typewriter.”

I’m all for writing classes and, as is obvious from the articles in this magazine, writing advice, but let us be clear: You do not need to be formally taught anything. Sometimes classes and books and magazines can hasten the process or nudge you in the right direction, but do not believe that all valuable information comes to you from the top down, so to speak. Human beings are by their very nature curious, flexible, and good learners. So if you are human, trust that it is within you to learn what you must to do the things you most want to do. In fact, learning to trust your own gifted instincts will take you farther than any teacher could ever guide you. The teacher, after all, does not know where you want to go. Only you know that, so only you can find your way there.

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Tombstone Blues

My youngest son was eager to visit a cemetery, and so we spent Sunday reading tombstones. This is usually a relaxing experience for me. Cemeteries are quiet places to begin with, and the dead provide no stories to clutter my brain. I don’t go to a cemetery to imagine strangers’ deaths, after all, but to remember the serenity of life. The story of memory is for friends and family only; for the rest of us, the dry facts are gratefully neutral. There are no politics recorded on the tombstone, no grievances – all I know is a name, some dates, and usually that the deceased was “beloved.”

There were two exceptions, however. I came upon several family tombstones. Here were listed one generation, and then the next, and then, surprisingly, the living—in the form of a name, a birth date, and an ominous blank space. I was unfamiliar with this practice, and it seemed bizarre and just a little macabre. I would find it disconcerting to read my name on a tombstone. There are certain things you must never rush, and death is certainly one of them.

Finally a tombstone listing a father and his three young children, all of whom died on the same day, the anniversary of which was only a few days prior. Now I was compelled to imagine the accident that took these four people together. When life’s narrative is dominated by death in this way, it always leaves me a bit hollow. It’s like a story that the writer didn’t know how to end.

In fact, my wife and I had watched a movie the day before that we had both found completely unsatisfying. In it, no one changed and nothing much of value was learned. Writers will sometimes resist this dictum that their characters grow and change, sometimes for existential reasons, for aren’t we all just dust in the end?

No, we are not. Dust would not be drawn over and over to the beauty that art promises, what Robert Henri described as the “trace of a magnificent struggle.” The mind can easily be petrified by the immutable fact of death, but death is a red herring. Change and growth are not merely some by-product of life, they are the very engine of it. Death, even of a father and his three children, is just one more change, the results of which are beyond immediate knowing. No matter. That change was none of my business. My name is not yet chiseled on some tombstone, and I am changed even as I write this.

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What The Silence Tells Us

I have an apple tree in my backyard, and it being April, the apple blossoms are in full bloom. I look forward to this time of year for this very reason. The lawn beneath the tree, watered for weeks with spring rain, is never greener, and the view from my back steps of that carpet of jewel green dappled with the white petals looks like a scene out of a fairy tale or the creation of a Hollywood set designer.

Yet it is quite real. As a writer, of course, two things usually come to mind when I look at my backyard: First, Beautiful; and second, How would I write it? Or perhaps it is the other way around. My rendering above, for instance, while perfectly serviceable, just won’t do. Perhaps you can see it, but I doubt you can feel it, which is all the point. Also, I’m wary of the word “dappled,” though it beats “sprinkled” in this case, and “littered” wouldn’t work, and after that we’re into “painted,” or “spotted,” and so on, which sends me back to dappled.

Kind of drains all the magic out of it, doesn’t it? It’s hard to believe sometimes that something so fussy as writing can result in anything beautiful. I have decided that if I’m going to enjoy my life away from the keyboard, I must learn from time to time to shut my writer’s eye. It’s really a kind of addiction, this reducing the whole of something into a few choice words. You can become like the ten year-old boy who won’t put down his Rubics Cube. The world is always offering you new scenes, after all, both beautiful and ugly and everything in between, that call out for your concise reduction.

At least I don’t dream of writing. Paul McCartney was supposed to have heard the melody for “Yesterday” in a dream, and while it’s nice to be struck by creative lightening, it’s best, for me at least, to have a time away from words. The world isn’t words. The world is the world. After all, language is merely my vehicle of choice to share what the world has given me. Before then, before I speak or write or think a word, there is the necessary silence. It is that silence I wish to share, and if I never listen to it, what will I ever have to say?

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Embrace Simplicity

I heard an interview with a writer once, and in the process of describing his novel, the writer said, “Well, you know. Life is complicated.” To which I thought, “No, it’s not. But we can make it plenty complicated.”

Life is really just this: Everything is as it should be; everything changes; you can do anything you want. Or to put it another way, reality is comprised of millions of jigsaw puzzle pieces that can fit together anyway you please. Left to its own devices the mind sees this enormous puzzle and wonders, “What is the correct arrangement?” After all, puzzles always have one solution. Yet there are as many correct arrangements as there are pieces in the puzzle.

Consider your dictionary. Here are all the pieces to the puzzle of whatever you are writing. Except for a few niggling rules of grammar, you are allowed to arrange the words however your want. What we call complexity is really just fantastic variety to allow for the unimaginable breath of possibility.

The writer’s job, like all artists, is to see through the complexity to the simplicity, never the other way around. It is very valuable to show the way in which life appears complex. In fact, this is often where stories begin, with characters trapped in a kind of mystery through which they must find their way to a resolution. But to leave your characters in a state of complexity, to leave them stunned by the web of life, is to leave the job undone.

Maturity is sometimes seen as a willingness to make peace with complexity. And yes, there is that moment in most people’s lives when they awaken to the incomprehensible vastness of all that could be. The simplicity comes in understanding that your life is elegantly limited by the boundaries of your unique desires. You don’t need to do everything, say everything, answer everything, write everything, and your answer is never the answer. In this way, it is actually our job to make the peace with the simplicity, while we enjoy the variety.

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I recently finished a rewrite on a novel, sent it off to my agent, slapped the dust off my hands, and thought, “Well done.” So nice to read something of mine that felt legitimately done. It was a long process getting there, with many dead ends followed, many nights wasted worrying about this character or that chapter, but in the end I felt the story found its way.

Strange and unsettling, then, to return to a novel I began writing while the one I had just finished made its first rounds of submissions. It had been a while, so I needed to read what I had to get reacquainted. Here I was confronted with the stark difference between first draft and last draft. I thought often of what Alice Hoffman said about starting a new novel, that she begins each thinking, “I don’t know how to do this.” This from a woman who has “done this” over twenty times.

Trouble is, I forget just how vague and unformed my stories are at their inception. It’s like the very first stages of a friendship. Initially, I see only the strengths and potential. Yet for every strength there is a limitation. No one person can be everything, and no one story can encompass all I want to say. In the early drafts, I spend a lot of time wandering around seeking those limitations. Some of my friends love good wine but hate football. Best not to waste time talking about football with these friends.

A story’s boundaries define its focus, and the pleasure of a story lies in this focus. A lump of clay can be anything, yet eventually the artist must choose what it is not to know what it will be. Aging can sometimes be seen in much the same way. You make choice after choice after choice, eschewing this road and that road, and so you are led away from all the other things you might have done. But your life is never what you have done, just as a story, really, is never really about what happens in it. Most stories tell the same tale—the realization that is in fact good to be alive. I think most friendships, and most lives, amount to much the same.

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In the 1967 Bob Dylan documentary Don’t Look Back, we see a very young Dylan in a limo having a review read to him. The reviewer calls Dylan an anarchist because he “doesn’t offer any solutions.” To which I thought at the time, “Yes, that’s exactly the point.”

Art’s strength is always the fertile open space afforded the audience. When I interviewed Yan Martel the other night, he described meeting a woman who was certain that his mega-bestseller Life of Pi was about the difficulties of marriage. Marriage hadn’t, in fact, been what he had in mind when he put a boy alone on a raft with a tiger, but if your metaphors are rich enough, readers easily supply their own meaning. Apparently, for this one reader, marriage was the tiger she had long been trying to tame.

This is why I have always found political art problematic. Despite the easy joke here, politics are about solutions—we may not always like the solutions, we may grow tired of the histrionics and talking-point-rhetoric that accompany those solutions, but the fact remains politics is the business of deciding exactly what to do next as a society. Bravo, I say, and thank God someone else wants to do it.

A human’s life always boils down to two questions: “What do I want to do?” and, “How will I do it?” Politics, and science also, deal largely with the second. Art, and religion in the broadest sense, try to answer the first. How does art help answer the first? By guiding us to that place where all authentic choices reside. You cannot do this by supplying solutions. No two people’s solutions to the question, “Whom do I love?” or, “What kind of book shall I write?” are precisely the same. Yet how those questions are answered authentically seems quite universal.

Perhaps that reviewer was right in a way. In the end, we all resist solutions provided by another. We may try them out, but eventually another person’s choices prove inadequate. This to me is the final stage of adulthood—complete responsibility. Only in taking responsibility for everything we think, everything we feel, everything that is our life itself, do we find the freedom that eludes us when we turn our happiness over to another, whether following some list of prescribed rules to prove that we are right, or crying victim to show how we were wronged.

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Original Slavery

Slavery has found its way back into the news lately. If you missed it, Virginia’s Governor declared April Confederate History Month but neglected to mention slavery in his proclamation. There was much furor and I think he apologized. It was a myopic mistake, but I have some sympathy for the Governor. No one talks about a man’s pettiness and bad temper at his funeral, so why not the same for the antebellum South?

The Son’s and Daughters of the Confederacy will have to answer that question on their own. I have always thought that slavery was just the most extreme manifestation of a universal human vibration—namely that there is a right and a wrong way to be. Everyone wants to feel good about themselves; everyone wants to believe they are valuable and that their life has meaning. But how does one know for sure that one’s life is valuable and has meaning? Wouldn’t it be simpler if value and meaning were like a fixed point on a graph, or a suit we can wear? If it fits, if we arrive at the appointed place, we need no longer wonder.

At which point we all become the stepsisters in Cinderella, cutting off our toes and heels to fit into the glass slipper. In the time of slavery, poor whites, of which there were a great many, were said to be able to feel better about themselves because at least they weren’t black. This is how strong the desire to know unequivocally that we are at core good runs within us—we might place an entire people in the box of Less Than to avoid the shifty truth that our value lies beyond the measurable.

Freedom and equality are exactly one and the same. On the day you wake up and decide you want to write, you cannot begin by first asking what is the correct thing to write and what is the incorrect thing to write. Everything must be on the table, from romance to epic poetry. Otherwise, you are merely seeking the world’s approval. The world already approves. The world approves of all free people, because nothing lights the flame of originality within us like the sight of someone else living authentically, free of the first and original slavery, the belief that we were somehow born lacking and that life is a roulette wheel we can only pray spins our way.

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Of Whiffle Ball and Captain Crunch

This month’s interviews include something of a full circle moment for me. I could not interview Simon Tolkien without thinking of his grandfather’s famous trilogy, which I read hungrily when I was thirteen.

I remember sitting in my bedroom reading the scene where Frodo leaves The Shire. I could see perfectly clearly in my imagination the moment Frodo passed through his garden gate and set foot on the road that would take him on his great journey. I could see it so clearly, I actually sat up in bed and said aloud, “I can’t believe I’m not there.  Why don’t I get to be there?”

I didn’t mean Middle Earth. I meant on a great and important journey. My life felt poignant to me, and yet what was it? Boring public school, whiffle ball, and Captain Crunch. Yes, I had been on journeys, but what was it to know, to absolutely know, that a journey mattered? Had mine not all led me back to the same place, to the same whiffle ball and breakfast cereal?

This was a question that would follow me my entire life and lead to a lot of melodrama. If I could just make my disappointment tragic and my successes ecstatic wouldn’t that make my life meaningful? Unfortunately, no. Frodo, after all, does not bound off merrily on his journey. Rather he surrenders to his choice. I was taught that surrender was failure. I did not want to fail.

Yet all that must be surrendered, in the truest sense of the word, is the belief that whiffle ball and Captain Crunch are in anyway indicators of the meaning of any moment. For if you’re going to believe in the trophy, you must also believe in the empty trophy case. To let go of the guardrails of evidence, to cross your life without the net of approval, this can seem a risky proposition.

And there, then, there are your dragons; there are you dark tunnels. For what would you be if you were not beautiful or if you had no medals for your chest? The journey can lead only one place, and the road is beneath us from our very first breath. That you wait for yourself at the end of it should come as no surprise, and as you see yourself unencumbered by rings or reviews, you will have say, “Yes. That is what I always meant.”

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