Securely Original

Occasionally someone will ask me how I find something to say about writing five times a week. I ask myself this sometimes as well, but the truth is even in conversation I am prone to take any topic and begin my contribution, “You know, it’s a lot like writing . . .”

To me, everything is. I’m a bit myopic that way, and I suppose my constant writing metaphors might sound like retold war stories to my friends and family, but writing is the leans through which I have chosen to view the world this go-around and so thank heavens for this space where I am required to do what I seem to want to do all the time anyway.

But imitation is always a close enemy of the writer. First, as young writers, we might find ourselves imitating the writers we admire, and then, once we become established and we have contracts and obligations, we might imitate ourselves. If it worked once, it will work again. If you imitate yourself, you know you have allowed the work to become a job. This is not a crime; a writer should be allowed to want a good job like so many others.  But the writer who takes up the job of writing should understand what they have traded and decide for sure this is what they want.

Whether we are imitating someone else or ourselves, imitation hopes to gain security from the past, where everything is known and has happened already. It is perfectly legitimate to seek security, but true security is balance, not stasis. We are all propelled perpetually forward into the shadows on the conveyer belt of time, and perhaps our foremost task here on earth is to become accustomed to the endless movement.

As writers, as with everyone, this means making peace with the unknown. If you make peace with the unknown, you are making peace with the true source of the stories you tell. Each story begins unknown to us, but only in its form. A story’s essence, that shapeless trajectory of thought that attracted us, is known to us—if it weren’t, we wouldn’t be able to write it. Resist imitation, then, not so reviewers will praise your originality, not so you might sell more books, but for security. Your originality is your acceptance of the moment, which like it or not is where you are.

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True Allegiance

In yesterday’s blog I eluded to my “switch” from writing literary fiction to writing within a certain genre. This was not a switch I made with much grace. That is, I knew I wanted to write the story that would place me in this genre, but I had a long history with literary fiction, and the idea of writing outside of it, at least within the mind of the publishing world, left me in the impossible position of having to justify (in this case to myself) my desire to write what I most wanted to write.

When I discovered what we call literature it was like a life preserver. Here were men and women writing about what I was thinking about; here were men and women saying what seemed to me to be the truth that everyone thought but no one spoke. I was not alone after all.

But even literature, the great democracy of publishing, has it’s entry rules, and one of those rules—at the moment at least—is that you cannot write about kings and queens and trolls. I have always loved kings and queens and trolls, and because I am currently telling stories about them, I am out. So be it.

Of course, I have not switched anything. That the publishing world believes differently is irrelevant. My only allegiance is to the source of the stories I wish to tell. Woe betide the writer who reaches as deeply as he can into this well and rejects what he finds because of what it looks like. This is rejecting life itself.

True literature, by which I mean any story or poem that invites you more deeply into the best part of yourself, is not a country club. There is no guardian at the gate of love. All are welcome. Here we see the absurdity of all prejudice. Prejudice is the belief that love has a prescribed shape or color, that somehow we will be relieved from the burden of merely feeling it, that we must only recognize it by its form.

Love is forever known and forever surprising, dwelling as it does equally within the soprano and the slug. What each of us loves most is limited, a limitation that allows us to function within a world of infinite variety, but love – like life – defies this containment. The genres and the categories and the bookshelves are for our convenience alone. Love, meanwhile, resides above these borders, like the earth upon which we draw our nations’ boundaries, and will be there still to guide us when we are alone, a country of one in search of like souls.

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A Practical Fiction

I have decided recently that as a writer I dislike genres. That is not to say I dislike the stories written in genres, I just dislike the idea of genres. I say this, by the way, as someone whose stories, because of certain narrative details, are placed unequivocally within a genre.

This was not always so. When I began writing novels I wrote what we call literary fiction. I wrote literary fiction because since I was about sixteen that was all I read. I had no knowledge of the world outside of literature. The first time someone asked me what I wrote I was puzzled. I wrote literature, of course. Isn’t that what one wrote? I had a lot to learn.

Now that I am so much older and a little bit wiser I believe that literary fiction still has a distinct and profound psychological advantage over genre fiction: no requirements. Your only requirement if you write literary fiction is that you write a good book. This book can have mystery, love, suspense, cowboys, CEOs, soldiers—whatever. The writer is free from that odious list of marketing requirements with which mystery and suspense and fantasy and romance writers saddle themselves so that they still “fit” into this genre to which they are supposedly devoted. The literary writer is free to simply write the story they most want to write.

So I say, whatever you write, forget genre. Genres are a marketing idea, and a good one. The advantage of genres, theoretically, is that the reader knows more or less what she is getting into before she reads the book. She knows what to expect narratively from romance or suspense or urban fantasy. Not so much with literary fiction, which may be why it tends to sell a little less. No matter.

When we write, we are all literary writers, whether or not there are dragons or spaceships or dashing pirates in our stories. Our only allegiance should be to the story, that current of desire that caught our interest and brought us to the desk. Once we’re done, then we can find our genre. Remember, however, that every genre evolved when someone wrote just what they wanted to write and were being imitated by so many others that eventually we took all those books and put them into a corner of the bookstore. Genres are a practical fiction, nothing more. The impractical truth is that you are only required to write what you most want to write.

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The New Old World

Jason Pinter recently wrote an interesting essay on the Huffington Post about ebooks. The upshot of it all is that things are changing very quickly. I had a meeting with agent Laurie McLean on Saturday, and again and again we returned to this idea: the publishing world is in for a big shake-up.

I was caught off guard by the speed with which publishing is going digital. I was flatly unmoved by the Kindle and remained convinced for many years that the book is a technology that needs no improvement. Whether this is so or not, publishing has been going about things without significant change for about 100 years. It seems to me it is impossible for this enormous industry to resist the inexorable pull that has reshaped pretty much every other industry on earth.

This change is frightening to a lot of people, as all big changes are. Will authors simply begin e-self-publishing all their work? Will bookstores disappear? Will the world end in 2012? I wish I could tell you. Remember, however, that changes occur to meet the needs of the moment, and the needs of the moment are always driven by humanity’s insatiable desire to grow. I know sometimes this growth is ugly; I know sometimes we cut down forests or perch oil rigs in the open ocean. We are not perfect. We cannot always get it right. But we must grow and we must expand. Asking ourselves not to would be like asking ourselves not to breathe.

After all, are you going to write the same novel over and over again? Will not your next story be an expression of your desire to expand as a writer? And how often have your experiments and writing adventures gone sideways? How often in your desire for the new have you produced draft after draft of dull and formless dreck? But this dreck is always the caterpillar of your coming butterfly. You just can’t see the butterfly yet.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with this moment in time that needs fixing. Or that is, nothing would need fixing if human beings never changed. And so this perfect, un-broken moment must change because human beings are change. We are a walking, talking, writing, singing, snoring manifestation of change. We don’t know how to do anything else, and the pain of resisting growth will always far outweigh the fear of the new world we ourselves desire to create.

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Find A Friend

Having just wrapped up the conference, I was reminded again of something I have written about from time to time in this space. One of my many assignments this year was to help run the speed pitching sessions. If you’re unfamiliar, in this format writers are given two minutes apiece with four agents, timed by yours truly. It seemed kind of exhausting for everyone involved—except me. I was having fun.

It is no coincidence that writers conferences borrowed a tool developed by dating services. The link between dating and agent seeking is profoundly direct. Because I am not looking for an agent, I was able to observe this experience from a comfortable distance, and what I determined was that most writers are putting themselves into an impossibly uncomfortable position.

I remember when I was a young man and I would go to a party or, heaven help me, a club. If I was single, I always felt a kind of disorienting insecurity. I never fully understood this feeling until this weekend. In those situations, I had decided that it was my job to make every woman at the party or club desire me. I wanted to be desirable, you see, and a desirable person, I thought, was desired by everyone.

I always hated my insecurity in these moments. If I just weren’t so insecure I would achieve a desirability that always seemed to elude me. But I had it all backwards. My insecurity was information. My insecurity was telling me I had asked myself to do something impossible. I might as well have required myself to walk on water. What I should have thought was, “Let me see if there is someone here who interests and excites me. Let me see if I can make a friend.”

And so the same is true of writers. There are times at writers conferences where I feel as if I am at a club again. Everyone is in flirt mode; everyone is trying to be desirable. It’s exhausting. Yes, to publish a book you probably need an agent; yes, there are agents at the conference. But as I have said before, you are not looking for any agent, you are looking for the right agent. Often, when you find the right agent, you have found a friend, because you are bound by a shared love—the love of a story you discovered and decided to tell. Your job is not to be desired by everyone. Your job is to remember what you love, and find those people who love it too.

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I am writing from my room in the SeaTac Hilton, having ducked away from the writers conference. Andre Dubus has arrived looking dashingly unshaven, and in a hushed conference hall, Bob Mayer is explaining the perils of first person to 400 note-taking writers.

Bob gives a great presentation, and the crowd, from where I stood, was clearly loving it, but I always get the heebie-jeebies listening to anyone talk about what is hard and what is easy, no matter how statistically accurate. The hardest thing for a writer to write is what they don’t want to write, by which I mean what they believe they should write. As Emerson said, “Envy is ignorance; imitation is suicide.” You are who you are and you came here to be who you are completely and without apologies. Be it, write it, shout it, sing it, kiss it, walk it, hop it, live it, but in the name of God do not judge it.

Everything works; nothing is wrong. Start there. I have heard that newborns need to be swaddled tightly because, new to their skin, the squeakers feel as if they will fly apart. How this poll was conducted, I do not know, but I’m sure writers feel this way also when they hear that everything works and there are no rules. Fret not. You will make rules. They are your rules. And your rules are do what works and don’t do what doesn’t.

May sound axiomatic, but what is easy for Bob Mayer, I am sure will be hard for me and visa-versa. In fact, it is so hard to be someone else, it is ultimately impossible. No matter how good an actor you might be, plastic surgery won’t do it, imitating someone’s writing style won’t do it, affecting a different walk, a new accent, a new hairstyle—no matter how you dress yourself up, you are still you. That is the deal you agreed to when you came down here.

There is a mirror facing me where I now write this. For this reason, looking up from my work is a somewhat disappointing experience. Not that I am so horrible to look at, but when I am writing I am trying to forget this shell. It’s never been me anyway, just a draft I offer to the world. The true me, the me I feel is me, is an arrow shot of intention I am following as quickly and as honestly as I can.

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Forge Ahead

I was reminded again of how impressed I am by carpenters as I watched two young men install my new kitchen cabinets.  What agonizing precision. I listened to them going back and forth about 1/16 of an inch and thought, “How?  How can you possibly get it right?  Sneeze and the whole thing is wonky.”

The lead carpenter was a very meticulous fellow. I could tell it as soon as he shook my hand. He was the kind of man who would never rest until everything was lined up exactly and without a centimeter’s discrepancy. He said to me at one point about my refrigerator, “Everything will be fine. You’ve got easily 1/8 of an inch to spare.” To him, 1/8 of an inch was a gap wide enough to fall through.

But I worried for this young man. Watching him, I wondered if he believed nothing would work out if it were 1/8 of an inch off. I’ve certainly been through that in my writing, especially toward the end of a project. Here, I’m getting down to the tiny details; here, I’m toiling over a ten-word sentence in the middle of a 100,000-word novel. As I work and work that sentence, I begin believing that if it doesn’t come out right, the whole book is shot.

In carpentry, this is somewhat the case. If one cabinet is 1/16 of an inch off, all the cabinets are 1/16 of an inch off, and eventually you may have more cabinet than kitchen. Obviously, this is not so in a novel. But let us not demonize this eagle-eyed carpenter/writer for his narrow demand on one sentence. Within that absurd focus is a desire for accuracy. The belief that the entire novel hangs in the balance is a mirage, the product of fear and fatigue at the end of a long journey. But often the stuff we can’t seem to get right is a sign of where we’re headed.

Often, what is so confounding is not that our skill and desire has abandoned us, but that somewhere in our artist’s psyche a new desire has hatched, the route to which we have yet to discover. And so, what would have sufficed yesterday seems cheap and dull today. Rejoice! You have lifted your head to view the horizon and determined that where you are will no longer do. What other pleasure is there for an explorer like you than to know there are more paths to forge?

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Know Success

It’s conference week here in the Seattle area. Tomorrow begins the 2010 Pacific Northwest Writers Conference, and there is much envelope and folder stuffing going on in anticipation of the big event. If you are attending, I will of course be there, in many roles, helping and pointing and explaining and probably apologizing too.

One of the problems we have run into in planning the conference is knowing in which rooms to put which speakers. Some rooms are bigger than others, and there is no way to tell for sure who will draw the largest crowds. So you guess, and you are wrong. There is always some grumbling because who wants to stand and listen to an hour presentation, but really writers of all people should understand. Brando Skyhorse, who gave an excellent interview for this month’s issue, spent ten years in publishing before selling his first novel. He spoke about how often publishers and writers are surprised by the success of a given book. How do you plan for such things? I don’t think you can.

Though I do remember working with someone years ago who’s motto was, “Prepare for success.” I always liked this. It certainly beats preparing for failure, as I explained yesterday. But how do you really do that? James Joyce, as he was awaiting word on Dubliners, his first collection of short stories, told his brother to join in him Trieste, as they were soon going to be living luxuriously off his royalties. Didn’t work out that way.

So Joyce was counting his chickens, which always seems to invite disappointment. I am always happiest and most grounded when I prepare for the best possible thing to happen without deciding ahead of time what that will be. More wiggle room that way. Also, if you are so certain ahead of time that success means Agent A representing you, you might not take the time to talk to Agent B, who would actually be a better fit.

We know what success is when we feel it. Success is the lining up of events with desire, that sweet connection of thought and action. Your job is the desire; it is really all you have control over anyway. And you will never know success, as it were, unless you are listening to the constant current of your desire. Not that you won’t have success, you simply won’t know you are having it.

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Line Up Your Horses

Imagine you are driving a cart pulled by a pair of powerful horses. This is an unusual cart, as the horses are not bound by a single constraint; rather, each can go in whatever direction he chooses. You are a kind driver and do not employ a whip because these are very smart horses. You need only say where you want to go, and these horses will take you there.

You are on a very long journey, so you must bring in fresh horses from time to time. Sometimes this creates a problem. Sometimes one of the new horses does not want to go where you tell him to go. Sometimes he thinks the city is too far or the road there too treacherous, or the city itself does not even exist – it’s a myth fools like you drive horses to for no good reason. As I said, these horses are smart, sometimes too smart.

And so what happens when one horse wants to go one way and another horse wants to go the other? One of the three things. One of the horses “wins,” dragging the other horse – and you – where it is headed, either toward where you want to go or away from it. Or neither horse wins, it is a stalemate, and you remain stuck in the road between laboring but unmoving beasts.

Most people have horses going in different directions. Usually, the stronger horse is the one headed where you, the driver, wish to go because your greatest desire will always be stronger than your greatest fear. But even a weak horse slows your progress. If all horses are pointed in the same direction, the ride is smooth and swift.

If the going is rough or very slow, it is usually because you have competing horses. Every time you think, “We will never sell this book in a foreign market,” or, “Agents always reject me,” you are pulling against the horse of your truest desire. The roads, of course, don’t actually exist – the path the horses must follow is within your imagination alone. If you don’t show them the road, they will never see it.

I know it seems sometimes as if you must think of all the possible roads, that you must create contingency plans in case you somehow end up on the road to failure. Except no one ends up on any road. Every road is chosen. You have the right to only think about where you want to go. It is, in fact, the most responsible choice possible. To call thinking about failure responsible is like calling a sailor who drills holes in the bottom of his boat to calculate how long it will take him to sink thorough.

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Give It Form

A little writing lesson today from Emily Dickinson and the instructors at Kaplan’s SAT Prep. My oldest son is taking the Kaplan class and was told that the reason he received a low mark on his first essay was that he did not give enough concrete examples.

Dickinson would have agreed. Take poem #258. It begins with her saying, basically, “Sometimes you’re just depressed for no good reason—you know?” We do know, probably, but merely saying so does not allow us to see this formless despair nor feel it. So she offers, with all her odd punctuation:

There’s a certain Slant of light
Winter Afternoons—
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes

Dickinson takes the abstract idea, and shows it to us by contrasting something so mundane as a slant of slight with the grandiosity of a cathedral tune. She assumes we’ve seen slants of light and heard cathedral tunes and lets us fill in the rest. She concludes the poem by saying of despair:

When it comes, the Landscape listens—
Shadows—hold their breath—
When it goes, ‘tis like the Distance
On the look of Death—

Here she presents what is entirely her opinion as an observed action. She anthropomorphizes the landscape and shadows, making them actors in her play, and then—her flick of genius—the word “distance.” In choosing that word she makes the abstract idea of a death stare measurable, but in one word, and does it surprisingly so we can see it anew. But again, she is relating this as if she is merely observing a scene, when in fact there is nothing to observe at all but a feeling.

This to me is what the craft of writing is all about. I don’t care what you write, whether it’s poetry or courtroom dramas or SAT essays, you’re doing the same thing—you’re seeking the measureable within the unmeasured. Remember, life itself is an idea made real—every action, ever word, every building, story, or child begins first as an idea that is eventually given form. So too is it with your writing. Give it a form. As I told my son after he got his disappointing first grade: every shapeless idea has its physical brother—go find it.

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