Measurable Value

In a writing class I took once, the instructor began the course with what I have always thought was a wise perspective: If just one person in the class gets what you have done, your work was a success.

With twenty or so students in the class this may seem like a paltry ratio, but true success is not a numbers game. After all, success is such a shifty, intellectual concept to begin with. Until we say, “I will be successful if I get an agent;” or, “I will be successful if I publish a book;” or, “I will be successful if I sell 200,000 copies of my book,” success simply doesn’t exist. It is a line we imagine in the sand that we decide, sometimes arbitrarily, that we must cross. The sand is real, we are real, but the line exists entirely in our imaginations. Despite that, whether we can cross this imaginary line becomes the metric against which we measure our current value.

So if we fail to do what we imagine we should, we are no good; if we succeed in doing what we imagine we should, we are good.  You can spend your whole life measuring what you are worth. You can measure yourself by your bank account, by the years you’ve been married, by how many Facebook friends you have. But you would never measure your worth unless you suspected on some level that who you were and what you were doing was perhaps not worth much at all.

You can never know and understand the value of anything you do. No work of art, no marriage, no symphony sprang fully formed from nothing. Everything grows from what was planted before it. The sentence you delete from your story today still lives in the recesses of your imagination and may return in ten years to end a novel you have not even begun to imagine. Judge what you are doing or have done as having no value and you deplete the well of fuel required to propel what you will some day attempt.

Here it is: Your value is, without exaggeration and quite literally, beyond measure. Trying to measure the value of anything you will do is like trying to predict the total of a hundred dice cast simultaneously. So forget it, and measure instead what is known to you. All that you can ever know is what you like and do not like, and everything you do not like pushes you back toward what you do like, and everything you do like points you to yet another thing you may love. That is the true value in everywhere you are and everything you do.

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Writing Life

As you may know, in this space I like to explore how what it takes to write the book you most want to write is also what it takes to lead the life you most want to lead. I had yet another example of this recently. I had reached a crossroads of sorts in my life where I needed to decide What To Do. Specifically, about money. I don’t tend to think about money very often, but to my own surprise I looked up one day and thought, “Bill, you need more of it.”

So there I was.  I had a goal – money – but no road toward it.  First, I did what I have done so often and what has always proved useless: I came up with ideas.  These were things that I could logically do and for which I knew I would be paid. This depressed me and I stopped. I felt as though I was trying to come up with a story whose sole purpose was to make me money.

Next I did what I should have done at the outset, which was stop thinking. Instead, I searched for the feeling that would lead to an idea. Because every idea, every thought, every memory I have or have ever had carries with it – sometimes forcefully, something subtly – a feeling. The idea of meeting a friend is accompanied by a feeling of anticipation and familiarity; the idea of going to the grocery store carries the feeling of productivity with a dash of tedium. So to make more money I sought the feeling I wanted to experience while making the money, and that feeling was what it felt like to help people. Once I had that feeling in me, new ideas started coming.

And what did this process remind me of? Writing, of course. I was starting a new chapter knowing where my characters had to go but not knowing how they’d get there. Whenever I reach such a place in my writing I decide first what I want that chapter to feel like, then let the ideas rise to meet that feeling. So my search for money was precisely the same process but without characters and stories. The characters and stories have never been the point. The point has been aligning action to feeling. My whole life is nothing but what I feel, never what is happening, just as a story is a flow of emotion, not a string of events.

Writing teaches me how to live, and living teaches me how to write. You don’t stop living when you write, and you don’t stop writing when you leave the desk. Rather, you change the expression of your continuous creative desire, from words to recipes, or from stories to money.

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What Dreams May Come

The Editor is on vacation. What follows is an older post. Enjoy, and I’ll see you next week.

I am tired today because I watched a television show last night that involved too many people being stabbed and tortured. And so, as always happens to me, I spent the night dreaming of stabbings and torture and then awoke in the middle of the night, my brain darting from one faceless anxiety to the next, until I reminded myself no one that I knew was planning to stab and torture me, and I fell back asleep.

I went through a period in my late teens where I would dream often of my own impending execution. It so happened that these dreams coincided with the realization that I was not in fact immortal. This was sobering at the time, and seemed worthy of many stories and poems, but I have since decided that as a writer you are better served, at least during your writing, if you can hold a dispassionate view of death.

I thought of this again the other day as I was trying to come up with an appropriate curse to lay on one my characters. As I considered my choices, I realized that death, as a narrative threat, was not nearly as compelling as a character living their life knowing, say, that they would never love another.

We are often taught to believe that death is the worst thing that could happen to us, and so logically, to our characters as well.  But all stories are told because the characters in them are seeking to change and to learn. Death, opaque as it may be, is a change. With it, the character is released from whatever evils they had committed, whatever lies they had believed.

Far worse is a life without growth. This is the jail we all fear. When I tossed about in my bed, I wasn’t actually afraid of being tortured and killed. Instead, I was staring down that timeless fear that all I am is a sack of meat that must be kept fed and clothed until the clock runs out. That is the promise of the slave driver’s whip—that you can be driven from here to there by the needs of your body, not the yearning of your soul.

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Practically Done

The Editor is on vacation. What follows is an older post. Enjoy, and I’ll see you next week.

Life can appear to be divided in two: that which you must do, and that which you want to do. The musts are certain, the wants optional. There is bread to be buttered, roofs to be kept overhead. The march of survival tramps on unceasingly, and somehow, somewhere in the dirty, daily business of not dying we hope to squeeze in time for that which we most want to do.

Yet as someone who has spent many decades attempting to appease the beast of what must be done, I will tell you that his hunger is limitless. There is always something else you must conceivably do. And all for what?  Some meager corner of your life you call your own?

Someone once said to me, “Bill, why don’t you write a book like John Grisham, make lots of money, and then write the books you like to write.  Wouldn’t that be more practical?” In fact it would be impractical. I have tried and tried to do things I didn’t really want to do, and I usually can for a time, until the tension between where I want to go and where I am telling myself I must go becomes so great that something snaps and I must start again with something else I don’t want to do—saying to myself, “This time I will work harder, and be more diligent, and this time I will finish this thing.”

Everything in your life is working tirelessly to get you to do the thing you most want to do as often as possible. You will be forever sabotaged and distracted and disrupted whenever you do what you don’t want to do. No matter how simple it appears, no matter how logical, it won’t work.

If you want to be practical, if you want to butter your bread, if you want to survive, then do what you most want to do the way you want to do it. It is the only way to ensure you will keep wanting to do whatever it is you are doing. You are the only one doing everything in your life, after all, and so if you don’t want to do what you are doing what you are doing won’t get done, and I don’t see what is so practical about that.

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The Window Of You

The Editor is on vacation. What follows is an older post. Enjoy, and I’ll see you next week.

In his interview, Andre Dubus discussed the idea that when you write you must let go of your Self. But aren’t we writing to reveal and express the Self? Isn’t the Self that which distinguishes us from all the other Selves on the planet?

Indeed it is, but imagine for a moment the difference between the windowpane and the window frame. The frame is the bracket that defines the space that is the window and holds the pane that allows light into the room. Without the frame, there can be no window, and without a window, there can be no light.

But wait: of course there is light without the window, it just hasn’t found its way into the room. The light was always there—it existed before the window was cut and will shine on long after the window has been boarded up tight. When we cut a hole in a wall we are grateful for the frame that shapes the light, but it is the light we are seeking first and always.

You are both the frame and the pane and your objective is to be that open space through which light might shine. When we begin to become enamored of our shape, our defined selves, the light begins to dim. It is as if we have taken that light that was meant to shine through us and refracted it back on our forms.

It is the same light that shines through all of us, we are merely positioned at different points in the universe, and so the light comes through shaped and shaded slightly differently. This is why we can best celebrate that which is us by forgetting that which defines us. That frame, that shape, can do nothing, can warm nothing, can illuminate nothing—but the light it permits is what life actually looks like.

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LIfe Itself

The Editor is on vacation. What follows is an older post. Enjoy, and I’ll see you next week.

I changed my writing schedule today. Instead of writing in the afternoon I am now writing in the morning. Not that I never got work done in the afternoon, but my children get home from school just as I’d be getting warmed up and so the interruptions began and the flow would be interrupted.

The flow is very important. Writing is unlike any other work I have ever done in this way. I feel sometimes when I am writing as if I have plunged into a swift current. The ride can be exhilarating and interesting, but the engine moving everything forward is somehow separate from me. This is why writers often talk about characters hijacking their stories, or beginning a sentence and realizing by the end of that sentence that the story has changed completely.

I understand now that I both love and fear the current. The current is what draws me to writing and what, on my bad days, keeps me away from my desk. On the bad days I don’t trust the current at all. What if it leads me to a quagmire? Shouldn’t I know where I’m going before I jump in? On the good days, I’m happy to be along for the ride, and when it’s time to get out, there’s always a dock at the ready.

It’s great to learn about dialogue and plot structure and crisp sentences—these tools help you stay afloat when the water gets rough. But writing is more about trusting the current than all the technical know-how put together. Eventually you must release your hold on the shore, and even the most skilled navigators can strike a rock now and again.

I have wanted to write to be famous; I have wanted to write so people would think I was smart; and I have wanted to write to make other people happy. It is obvious why none of these are reasons to write, but what was not obvious to me until recently was that I wasn’t even writing to tell stories. Eventually, I, like everyone else, was going to have to learn how to let go of the shore once and for all. The closer I got to the water the more I understood that nothing I wrote was make-believe, that the current I called a story was actually life itself.

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Clearly Beautiful

The Editor is on vacation. What follows is an older post. Enjoy, and I’ll see you next week.

I have a good friend who is a veterinarian and a father of four school-aged children. All his children are bright and get good grades and generally make their parents proud, but my friend was for some reason dissatisfied with their writing skills. The writing, he complained to me, wasn’t beautiful enough. How could he get them to write beautifully, not merely functionally?

I tried gently pointing out that not one of his children had ever expressed an interest in writing beyond what was practically necessary to do well in school. But he wouldn’t hear it. Beautiful writing, he was certain, could be taught. What, he wanted to know, was the writerly secret to beautiful writing?

Unfortunately, the secret is never what men like my friend want to hear. What we call beautiful writing only occurs when the writer cares about what he or she is writing. It is not really the product of training or practice or careful reading, although all of that helps in the long run, or helps certainly when the writer is not particularly compelled by what they are writing, like in, say, a school writing assignment.

But the beauty comes from specificity not stylishness, and the specificity comes from the writer’s commitment to express precisely what they mean, not something else which is perhaps only a shade lighter but completely different nonetheless. There is far more beauty in clarity than raw originality, although sometimes in seeking clarity we are forced beyond the boundaries of the conventional to find exactly what we mean.

I realized this when I looked back at all the writing I used to call beautiful when I was a young man. It wasn’t the writer’s gymnast-like ability to pick an original word that drew my attention, but their underlying commitment to honesty and clarity that expressed itself in a way that was, to me at least, memorable.

So do not think about writing beautifully, think only about writing clearly and about what you care most. Let the words take the shape of whatever your clarity demands and then let it go. If you manage to say precisely what you mean, you will have provided another person the opportunity to share in what you love, and there is little in the world more beautiful than that.

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Really The End

I watched a romantic comedy last night for which I had seen previews a year or so ago when it was released. The film had big stars and a cute premise, but when I saw the previews I thought to myself, “Well, I already know the entire story.” The movie then came and went as predictably as I imagined the story was.

But there I was last night with nothing to do and looking for a little light entertainment, and I liked the actress in particular, and it turned out to be set in the publishing industry of all places, so why not? As soon as I began to watch, I noticed something odd. It was funny. Laughing-despite-myself funny. What’s more, I believed that the male and female leads disliked each other at first and then, as the movie progressed, I believed that they were both softening to one another and falling in love. The dialogue was surprising, and the characters were real. Why hadn’t this movie made a bigger splash?

Then, as they say, we came to the end. It wasn’t one of those horrible, tedious, Hollywood endings where nothing is left to the imagination and you see the leads getting married, having children, then grandchildren, then being buried in matching plots. But it was flat, despite all its efforts to make the characters’ declaration of love dramatic. It got the job done, but nothing more, and that was when I understood why the movie had not done better.

Regular readers of this column may know how I feel about endings. In general, whether in novels or movies, I believe they are often the least-attended part of a story. I think writers often tighten up at the end, especially in genre stories (which a romantic comedy certainly is), where the ending is somewhat predetermined. Even if you are writing a story where you know the killer must be caught or the guy must get the girl, you should still allow yourself to be surprised.

There is no formula for an ending that is, as Aristotle put it, both surprising and inevitable. These endings are a consequence of the writer trusting her story, trusting that what she had to share is valuable and that a satisfying ending will naturally flow from it. Life is surprising and inevitable. We never know what is going to happen, but somewhere in us we always know why it did. You can never control the end of your own life, don’t control the end of the story. It will be as beautiful, touching, scary, or poignant as you like, but only if you let it.

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Quiet Enough To Be Heard

Of all the aspects writing, from sentences to dialogue to character, perhaps none is harder to teach than voice. After all, if your voice is your voice it ought to be distinctive, and if it’s distinctive no one has ever heard it before—and so how do you teach it?

Yet one of my favorite teaching stories involves voice. Granted, it’s an actor’s voice, but I believe it applies. Richard Burton, a man known for his voice, was supposed to have been trained in elocution by a teacher with whom he lived when he was a teenager. The story goes that the teacher would have young Burton stand a short distance away and recite a piece of Shakespeare as clearly as possible. He would then have Burton move back another ten yards, recite the same piece so it could be heard just as clearly, but without reciting it any louder. So on it went, with Burton moving further and further from his teacher, never raising his voice, but always being heard.

This story goes deeper than the pure technique of being heard. The greatest orators I know, those I’ve sat with and those I’ve watched, never shout. Yes, they speak clearly, yes their voices are rich, but beyond that, through presence and focus they attract the totality of their listeners’ attention. Once you have that, it’s very easy to be heard.

This is our job as writers as we seek to have our voices heard. Your readers begin at a great distance from you. They are physically distant, and, at least at the beginning of a novel or story, emotionally distant—they do not know yet whether they trust you take them somewhere they want to go. The best orators always begin by putting their audience at ease. Sometimes it’s a joke, sometimes a warm greeting, sometimes saying nothing at all. However it’s done, he is assuring his listener that he will be a calm and able captain for this short journey.

You could shout to gain your reader’s attention, and just as in the public square, heads will turn if you raise your voice loud enough. But most of us can only be shouted at for so long. The most memorable openings I have read weren’t exciting or titillating, but were a simple assurance that you were about to spend some time with someone who only wants the best for you.

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The Good Parent

Parents can find themselves saying some pretty stupid things as they go about the ceaseless job of parenting. For instance, you might have bought a new couch. Perhaps this is the most expensive piece of living room furniture you have ever owned. When you saw it in the showroom, you imagined the feelings of luxury and comfort into which you would sink every time you sat upon or beheld that beautiful new couch. The couch becomes symbol of the kind of lovely life you plan to lead henceforth.

And then you introduce your young children to this couch, and lo! They do not share your sense of wonder for the new furniture. For them, it is simply a different shaped, different colored couch, and if memory serves, they were allowed to jump and down on and even eat desert while sitting on the other couch. And so, the first time you peel a Gummy Bear off the cushion, you hear yourself asking the meaningless question, “Can’t we own anything nice in this house?”

This is what comes of trying to coerce other people into feeling the same way about something that you do. You can create laws and consequences ten yards long to try to replicate in another’s behavior your own love and respect for something, but no command will ever replace true desire.

This is why you must be the first and most fervent advocate of your work. If things go well, you will find the agent and editor who love and believe in what you have written, but no matter how large the congregation appears to grow, you remain a church of one.  You are the owner of a business, and the agent, editor, copy editor, distributor, and bookseller are but contractors.

No one’s enthusiasm for what you have made ever can or should match your own. Readers and publishers will hopefully love it in their own way, but you alone will have to hold to your belief through rejection and delays and fired editors. It is with some relief then that you hand the stewardship of this story’s journey over to the hearts of the reading world. They will love it or not, but they will never have the chance unless you hold it first with your full, unwavering, unconditional devotion.

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