The Phantom Wheel

When I was finishing my last novel, the image that kept popping into my head was of me in a car letting go of the steering wheel. Apparently I am a simple man who needs his metaphors clear and pre-interpreted. Regardless, this image became my guide, and it led me to an end that was, to the writer, satisfying and surprising.

I thought of this metaphor when I listened to Andre Dubus’s address at this past summer’s writing conference. He pointed out that you spend your whole day manipulating your time so that you have the opportunity to write. Then once you get to your desk, what do you do? You let go of the wheel. His exact words, if I recall correctly.

I mentioned this story to Radanath Swami when I spoke with him last month. I described how as a writer you have to let of go of control when you write. The Swami laughed and said, quite matter-of-factly, “I don’t think you ever have control.”

Wise Swami. I used to think pain came from holding on too tightly to the wheel of life, from resisting the ineluctable flow of which I am ineluctably a part. As if I am in a boat and trying to wrench the rudder against the current. Do this long enough and your muscles ache and your back stiffens. So I let go of the wheel, and things flow.

But that wasn’t where the pain came from at all. The pain came from believing there was even a wheel to hold onto in the first place.  It does not exist. There is nothing with which you can steer the world outside your own heart. It is the frantic grasping at nothing that sends me into a panic. It is like a nightmare where I am trapped on a bus, watching my stop fly past, and the rope to ring the bell keeps disappearing.

The bus will never stop and I don’t want it to. Peace of mind does not wait for me at an appointed place.  As I look back at that image I used to finish my last book, I see that I misunderstood it. I wasn’t letting go of the wheel at all. If I let my imagination’s eye travel down from my hands, I see that they are raised in surprise, having just discovered there is nothing to grab.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

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Sole Authority

Lisa Tracy said something very interesting in her interview in this month’s issue. Lisa has worn many hats in her writing life—from editor, to journalist, to teacher. As is often the case, Lisa taught not just aspiring writers, but a great many undergraduates taking what was an assigned class. With the latter, her job was to instruct these sometimes less than enthusiastic students the in basic craft of writing, from grammar to topic sentence and so on.

How did she do this? She found her best tool was to allow the students, as much as was possible, to select what it is they wanted to write about. Typically she encouraged them to write about their own experiences. Not surprisingly (at least to me), once the students decided to write about what was interesting and important to them, their papers improved. What was surprising was that not only was what the students wrote more engaging and dynamic, the grammar improved as well.

Think about that for a moment. Why should grammar improve? Isn’t grammar merely a function of knowing where to put a comma or whether to use “which” or “that”? In one way, yes. For instance, unless she’s dozing at her computer, I doubt Cheri Tucker is ever going to slip into the passive voice. So it is true that if you’re practiced enough, whether you’re writing your magnum opus or tech support, your grammar is probably going to be fine.

But what if your familiarity with all the rules of grammar is still evolving? Why would it improve depending on content? Because grammar is not dogma. Grammar’s only function is to make the writer better understood, to mimic thought and speech in such a way that the reader grasps the writer’s intention as quickly and completely as possible.

And when does someone want to be understood? When they have something they very much want to share. When someone has something they very much want to share they are no longer trying to get a good grade, or follow the rules—they are simply trying to communicate. Like the mother who can lift the car off her trapped child, so too the jolliest Frat Boy can summon his knowledge of grammar if he actually cares about the story he is telling. Personal desire remains the purest motivator available to man—not fear, not greed, not lust—for while those other things might drive you here or there, only personal desire empowers the individual with the sole authority over what is right and what is wrong.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

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Tyranny’s Fantasy

I wrote yesterday about the difference between imagining and fantasizing. Another way to view works of fantasy as opposed to imagination is that the imagination works with life’s potential to allow through events aligned with the desire summoning them. In other words, the imagination doesn’t care which events it allows, it only cares that those events align with the feeling or the desire.

So in fiction, say, you start with a feeling of love or danger or conspiracy or whatever interests you, and very quickly images and characters and conflicts are brought to you and you sort through these potential stories until you find the one most aligned with the feeling you wish to share. It doesn’t matter whether you work in a genre or literary fiction. If you love to write thrillers, then you will always be holding and seeking the feeling of suspense and those suspenseful ideas will keep coming and coming to you.

So while telling a story from the imagination, whether with or without an outline, the only objective is to maintain the desired feeling or feelings – as stories are usually about an evolution or shift of perspective and the feelings that accompany these shifts. What are not so important are events. That is, if a character you love must die to fit the feeling you truly desire, then that character must die.

Fantasy, on the other hand, is all about events. It is saying, “How can I get this man with that woman?” It is saying, “How can I get this woman to defeat that villain, while her parents look on in new found pride?” Instead of the events arising from a desired feeling, the writer presumes given events will arouse certain feelings, even though he or she did not feel those feelings themselves when concocting the events.

I have had a lot of fantasies in my life, but not one of them has ever come true. Dreams, yes; fantasies, no. The fantasy is not interested in working with life, it just wants what it wants, and so life, not surprisingly, works only begrudgingly with it. A tyrant lives in a fantasy world, demanding his subjects suppress their will in order to act out some rigid vision of life the tyrant believes he requires to feel safe.

The mistake of the tyrant as with the writer or the parent or the child, is to confuse events for feelings. All feelings exist within all events, within the mundane and the heroic, and our job as storytellers is to reveal this truth to our readers—reveal love in war, loss in lovemaking. In so doing, we help dispel the myth that anyone is ever required to feel anything at any given moment. That would be slavery, the key to whose chains is held only by the imagination.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

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Imagined World

Like a lot of writers, I spend a good part of my waking hours daydreaming. These daydreams tend to fall into two categories: fantasies and imaginings. I much prefer the imaginings to the fantasies, though it is not often clear where I’m headed at first, though some obvious signs quickly emerge.

In my fantasies people I disagree with always come around to my point of view. Usually, this takes a few tries—a number rewrites, as it were—but eventually I get it just right and they have no choice but to change their misguided ways. This is always strangely unsatisfying. By the time I am finished with whoever it is that opposes me they no longer seem like themselves, so I do not have the sense of having revealed anything to anyone. In fact, there is usually a dream-like moment at the end of these fantasies where I look up and discover I am actually alone.

In my imaginings I usually don’t bother with other people. I am aware that my pretend audience is just a prop to allow me to work out how best to say something I have never tried to say before. When I am done I feel satisfied because I understand something I did not when I began the imagining.

In my fantasies, I arrange events in my future like dominoes of convenience. The roulette wheel of life always lands so that I am immediately and generously rewarded. In my fantasies, I am far more interested in where I end up than I how I will get there. The excitement I feel is the false excitement of believing life will be better when . . .

In my imaginings, I see potential connections between where I am and what is possible. Often, I have missed these connections simply because I have never looked for them, or because I believed someone when they told me the connections did not exist. The excitement I feel is like that of the engineer, eager to see if his new design will fly.

When I am writing, I am careful to imagine and not to fantasize. It is tricky, as I said, for one can slip into the other. But the clues are always there. Fantasy characters never surprise me. They aren’t allowed to. They are pawns in a preconceived narrative conspiracy. Imagined characters are the lights that guide me through the darkness of a world I have asked to see.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

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It was one of those days. What kind of day? The kind of day where you concede that the novel on which you have already written some 900 pages needs to be scrapped. That was the sort of day it was.

Did I panic? I am happy to report I did not. The first reason I did not panic was that I know there is no such thing as wasted work. The last novel I finished, which clocked it at a slim 234 pages, was distilled from well over 1,000 pages. I may understand economy of language, but not of drafts. Yet none of those unused pages were wasted. Some taught me which way not to go, some gave me a sentence, some a paragraph or even a scene, and some showed me clues about the characters that I used later in some other fashion.

Second, I saw that I was writing more of an idea than a feeling. Within that idea bubbled feeling here and there, but the story as a whole was not driven by a single, felt, compulsion. In the end it was an idea that appeared appealing from a distance but it could not stay together because it lacked emotional glue.

So out it went. I was absolutely determined not to despair.  To despair would be to succumb to the melodramatic fear that I would never write again. I could not have convinced a jury of twelve Me’s that I would never write again – there was simply too much overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

And so, in this way, it was a strangely happy day for me. How much worse could it really get than that? For a writer, not much I would say. Yet the decision came and went, and I remained psychically intact, and I still wanted to write.

I reject the view of life as a series of brutal challenges lined up from birth to death like a Darwinian obstacle course thinning the herd of man. But I have drawn great comfort from my fiercest challenges. I am not proud that I have emerged unbroken, I am not stronger for what hasn’t killed me—rather, I learn anew that that which I have tried to protect is as immune to damage as the river is unharmed to the arrow.

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The Critic’s Critic

I read a book review by a well-known critic yesterday in which he systematically dissected a new novel by a celebrated author. I haven’t read the book in question, but the critic certainly made a compelling argument not to pick it up. I have to admit that I was drawn to the review because I had read this author’s previous novel and had had a number of gripes with it and I had heard that this review was not positive.

So there I was, sharing a moment of mutual dislike, only to find I was getting more and more unhappy the further I read. By the time I’d finished the review I felt like quitting writing altogether. It was as if I had started as the matador and ended up the bull. This is always how it goes when I forget just how thoroughly we are all in this together.

As soon as I declare that someone should not have written this or that, that it was dull or trite or obtuse and the writer should have known better, I have condemned myself to a world where to err is a crime, for if I have said it’s true for another, then it must be true for me. Now the page becomes a minefield. Now I have stopped trying to say what I most want to say and am merely trying to stay alive, to avoid death by public shame.

Saying what you most want to say does not always come quickly or directly. A paragraph you love might be all that’s left of 100 pages your discard. Entire books might be written with the sole purpose of teaching you that you are more comfortable with domestic drama than thrillers. One of those books might even get published. We might all dream of existing as a finished product, tinkered to perfection in some secret workshop before taking the stage of life, but to be finished is to be dead.

No matter how much I dislike a story, no matter how much I disagree with its premise or conclusion, I would not wish its author a moment’s torment for having written it. I assume every writer is more than capable of his or her own torment. In the meantime, I will not bother trying to avoid criticism. Rather, I will listen closely to the judgments I am tempted to lay against another; likely as not, they are what I am most tired of in myself.

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Love’s Mirror

I have on a few occasions discussed with the authors I’ve interviewed the trouble with trying to convince your reader that a character in question is unequivocally attractive. It is not so easy. In fact, I think it is impossible. Yes, you can offer the “tussled hair” or “cleft chin,” or “gymnast’s physique” or whatever else you’ve got, but what does it add up to? A list of qualities your reader may or may not personally find attractive.

Plus there is this. There is a kind of trick of vision I believe we all possesses, a conscious near-sightedness. If you are a man looking at a woman, say, you can focus your attention only on her surface where all the greatest differences between you and all women lie. This is the quickest and easiest way to be attracted to someone, and you are likely to find the most number of people attractive seeing them in this way.

And who wouldn’t want to be attracted to someone? Attraction is a form of desire and desire feels good. It is desire that brings you to the page to write, to the table to eat, and to your lover’s bed. The deeper the well of desire, the stronger pull toward, the better the feeling. For this reason many of us unconsciously go about wearing goggles that limit our vision to the surface where the highest chance of attraction lies.

But if you shift your focus beyond the foreground, as it were, the illusion of attraction often dissolves. Now you are seeing the person, not the man or the woman, and the person comes replete with qualms and quirks and preferences and phobias and all the myriad choices, big and small, that make us exactly who we are. It is this, the person, that can make someone attractive one moment unattractive the next if paired with the wrong person. It is the person that spoils the lie of pornography, or intercedes in girlhood fantasies of love.

We are all so strangely similar under the coat of personality and gender and class and race that it can threaten to bore us right out of love. Differences are exciting, because they offer a false possibility, and we race toward that which seems both different and attractive in the hopes that embracing him or her will commence the change we have longed to feel. Then reality arrives and we are looking at ourselves, and the ones we are most deeply attracted to remind us of what we have always loved most about being alive.

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Ten Percent

Most of you are probably familiar with the adage, “Writing is 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration.” Fair enough. You’ve got to put your butt in the seat, as the other saying goes, and many a book sits half-finished on laptops and in bottom drawers because the writer was unwilling to return to the desk on a day he or she didn’t feel like it.

Of course, how often—if you aren’t working in, say, Tijuana or Biloxi—do you actually perspire while writing? Oddly enough, it happens to me fairly regularly, but only when I am inspired. Or, to put it in my own vernacular, when I have found my way to the center of the story’s current. When I am in the center of the current, everything moves quickly, including my blood apparently, and if I can get out of the way and not fear the speed of the current, I might be lucky enough to require a shirt change when the workday is through.

On the other hand, when I am trying to work even though I am nowhere near the current, I am cold.  If I make the mistake of trying to grind out words, to write my way back to the current, an exercise that can easily consume my entire workday, I come away from the desk feeling disinterested in life, a slave to a house that needs heating and mouths that need feeding. On these days, writing feels like any other job, only without security.

The perspiration in this truism reflects the absolute necessity to return to the desk regardless of your state of mind at the time you have set aside to work. What it should not reflect is your attitude toward the work. I believe you must seek inspiration every single workday. View yourself as a mule dragging your plow through some field, and the work will reflect it. Expect inspiration, and many days you will get it.

Obviously, no two workdays are ever the same, but I have come to understand that the balance and patience required to let through the most inspired work is, in the loosest definition of the word, a muscle. That is, with practice, what had once seemed a gift of fate becomes a feat of discipline. And not surprisingly, I have also found that in both quality and quantity ten minutes of inspired writing are usually more productive than ninety minutes of uninspired laboring.

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The Only Question

In this month’s issue we feature an interview with and an article by Nancy Rappaport, a child psychiatrist and author of the debut memoir In Her Wake. When Nancy was four, her mother committed suicide, an event that shaped much of her adult life, moving her toward psychiatry and eventually to write this memoir.

There seems to be a long connection between writing and suicide, both in portraying it (Quentin in The Sound and the Fury) and doing the very deed (Hemingway, Virginia Wolf, and that patron saint of the underappreciated, John Kennedy Toole). In fact, Rappaport’s mother, a prominent Boston socialite and political activist in the 50’s and 60’s, was secretly writing an autobiographical novel that in some ways presaged her suicide. Finally, my father once told me that he believed my mother’s number one fear for me was that she would come home one day to find me hanging by a rope. He was wrong about my mother’s fear, though it’s true I could have been peppier when I was a teenager.

I have to admit, however, that the idea of suicide always had a certain romance to me when I was younger. Viewed from a certain position, life seemed undeserving of the effort required to negotiate its endless challenges. For what? That’s the fiendishly unanswerable question the quiet voice of suicide will smugly ask. For what?

It’s the question that is the problem, not the answer you cannot provide. As if all of life is cause and effect; as if life itself were a contractual agreement. As soon as I look to add up my winnings, I find my hands are empty. I heard Richard Dawkins – he of The God Delusion – snap back at an interviewer once, “Why do you think life should have meaning?” If meaning is a solution, if meaning is a victory, if meaning is a completed puzzle, then indeed life has none.

The questions we ask either move us forward or freeze us in our boots. Ask the wrong question, ask, “For what?” and it is like asking a calculator to find the square root of a tangerine. The question presupposes that life can be tallied, which it cannot be. There is nothing to tally. There is just you and your very next choice, the next word your write, the next thought you think. The only question worth answering, then, the only question you ever can answer, the only question that invites life into your veins through curiosity and desire is, “What’s next?”

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Sweep The Board

There’s a great scene in the movie Searching For Bobby Fischer in which Josh, a chess prodigy, is studying a problem created by his mentor, played by Ben Kingsley. As Josh stares and stares at the pieces, struggling to unravel the puzzle, Kingsley’s character becomes increasingly impatient until he finally sweeps all the pieces off the board. He instructs Josh to solve the problem without seeing the pieces, a technique Josh later uses to win the film’s climactic match.

I often think of Ben Kingsley sweeping the pieces off the board when I find myself tangled in a part of a story that isn’t working, particularly if I have revisited the troublesome scene over and over again. In my experience, the more I have tried and failed to write a scene to my satisfaction, the harder it becomes to do so. Just like Josh, I find myself staring the pieces, at the characters and all their possible moves. I begin to believe if I just stare hard enough the correct order of events, the perfect string of dialogue, will emerge.

This is when it is time to sweep the pieces off the board. That is forget who is in the scene and what they must supposedly do. Instead I focus on where the story is before the troublesome scene, and where I believe it will be after, and I imagine what it should feel like to get from one place to the other. The point, after all, is not really the characters or what they are doing, but what it feels like when they do what they are doing. The feeling is always the true reality; the events are just metaphors to allow that feeling through.

Inevitably, after I have swept the pieces aside, they begin to come back one by one, as what works is often not all that different than what was not working. But I can never find a scene if I begin treating it like a jigsaw puzzle. After all, a jigsaw puzzle begins as a complete picture and then is cut apart so that we can have the pleasure of reassembling it. That picture revealed in the completed jigsaw puzzle is a portal to feeling. Your unwritten scene, however, is only a feeling looking for a picture. Feeling exists before all the metaphors we use to share them; to write disconnected from the feeling of a scene is like playing chess without knowing which piece you must capture to win, the pieces moving constantly but without purpose.

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