The Tireless Antenna

I sometimes look upon writing as talking with time to edit. This is partly why writing is so different than, say, composing music. Everyone pretty much has to talk, but not everyone has to make up their own tunes. In this way, we are all practicing to write every day, whether we ever sit down at the keyboard or not.

Then again, that time to edit might be exactly what makes writing so challenging for some. When I played football, I sometimes preferred having a defender climbing up my back when a pass was thrown my way rather than standing alone in the end zone. When I was “covered” (football vernacular for having a defender close by), all my attention went to trying to catch the pass, whereas when I was uncovered, all my attention went to not dropping the pass. In other words, we have to let it rip in conversation, and we are largely forgiving of one another’s dangling tangents or incomplete sentences. Not so much on the page.

I love to talk, but it’s exhausting in a way. I may be tired after writing, but never exhausted. This is the best kind of tired. It’s the end-of-restlessness tired. This is because writing really isn’t talking, truth be told. Neither is talking. Everything is listening. Exhaustion sweeps over us when we forget this – when we write to explain or talk to be heard.

But when we listen, we are allowing ourselves to be fed from that generous, universal vein, the fount of all stories and poems and songs. When we listen, we aren’t overwhelmed by the need to make everything, only pressed to translate what was heard as accurately as possible. I have talked until I lost my voice and felt as if I’ve never been heard, but I have never in my life listened too long or too closely. For this reason I have never fully seen myself as a man of words, nor of stories. I am an antenna with a voice, hoping that what I pass along is as beautiful as what I’ve heard.

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The Truth Of The World

This month’s issue includes a conversation I had with Dr. Shelley Carson, a Harvard professor who lectures on creativity. My favorite part of Carson’s book, The Creative Brain, deals with the difference between what she calls convergent thinking and divergent thinking. In short, convergent thinking is the process by which someone gathers all they know to reach one correct conclusion to a problem; divergent thinking looks at a problem and sees a multitude of solutions, each with its own unique strength and weakness. She gives a great example of a word question from the SATs. Being the SATs, there is only one right answer, but a very divergent thinker saw how several of the answers could be right depending on your point of view.

People drawn to creative fields – like fiction writing – are always divergent thinkers. I certainly am. But I also like to be right – or, I should I say, I don’t like to be wrong. At some point, however, I think one needs to make a choice: do I want to look for right answers, or the answers that are right for me?

I settled eventually on the latter, but the mathematical, puzzley world of quantifiably right answers had its appeal. Let’s take the mystery out of this and just know already. Yet as soon as you type “Chapter One,” you have entered the land of the deeply divergent. Anything at all can happen in a book. Do you want your Victorian heroine to be abducted by space pirates? Go ahead. You must check all right and wrong at the door to your workroom.

Except you don’t. You simply discover a new meaning for right and wrong. The world outside our workroom is filled with rights and wrongs, rights and wrongs we do our level best to remember and adhere to. But within the sovereign space of the workroom, the truth of the world reveals itself: all is possible. It is as we have always wished to it be, for only within that dizzying divergence are you allowed the necessary breadth to find the answers that are right for you.

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The Crowd Is Forming

Today is what we in the United States call Black Friday. It’s nice to see Americans have a sense of humor about themselves, giving the first frantic shopping day of the holiday season such a macabre name. But if you live in Seattle, and you are roaming the malls, do not look for me. I will be sequestered in my office, waiting out the storm.

I have only two phobias: heights and crowds. Phobia is maybe too strong a word for my feelings about crowds (though not heights), but some deep loner’s instinct consistently points me in the opposite direction of wherever the largest number of people is gathered. Don’t get me wrong: I like people. I honestly do. Yet I feel about crowds like I do about publishing trends: it’s too late.

Editors are forever advising writers not to chase publishing trends. For instance, I notice angels are currently on the rise (see Danielle Trousoni and Lauren Kate), and zombies seem to have reached some kind of saturation point. Unfortunately, by the time you finish your angel novel and get it into shape to be submitted, the publishing world will have moved on to ghosts or psychics or love triangles. Unless you have built a publishing-response mechanism like James Patterson, best to write what interests you most.

Anthropologically, crowds have usually meant survival to humans. To be cast out of the tribe was to wander the wilderness alone, easy pray to lions and hard weather. One of the great gifts of modernity is the expansion of the concept of tribe. Tribes sprout like mushrooms worldwide, gathered now around the campfire of a common interest. There is no true wilderness now but the lie of isolation. Find what interests you most, ring that bell as loud as you can, and all the other like souls, their ears tuned to a sound they cannot name, will move toward you just as you most toward them.

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Snow Days

If you live in or around Seattle, you were probably snowed-in yesterday. I will not shock those readers living in Colorado, Minnesota, Buffalo, or Norway with how little snow was required to cancel school and close coffee shops, but suffice it to say Seattleites are cautious.

The children are home and staring out the windows at the frozen world, contemplating the gift of free time the winter has given them. How I craved these days when I was a boy. Little pleased me so much as seeing the order of the working world shut down, to have a day unexpectedly emptied of obligation, suspended and unnatural. What I would do with my time was irrelevant. It was enough that the yoke of routine was temporarily lifted.

Unfortunately, it was never long before boredom set in. After the snowball fights, and the forts, and the hot chocolate, and the games of Monopoly, there we would be watching game shows while a frozen and unplayable crust formed on the powder outside our doors. I was an existential lad, and in the dull and dying hours of the day a malaise would creep into my mind. Somehow the promise of the day had gone unfulfilled. In the end, we did more or less what we would always do, only minus the sense of completion that even a day of elementary school can provide.

If the snow was deep enough, it was conceivable school would be canceled for a second day. By nightfall, I might send up empty prayers for just such a miracle, knowing that if it came true I would be hounded by a sense of guilt, as if my sloth had brought this to me. The next morning, the wonderland was on its way to a wasteland, and the house felt stuffy, and I found my brother and sister grating.

There was never talk of a third day. By that second night we might turn off the lights in the living room and light a fire. Having finally given up on snow days, I would fall under the fire’s spell, and within that trance feel something that had been pecking at me for two days but had gone unheard amid the frenzy of snow angels, and the squabbles with my brother, and the hours of television. I would listen until the fire dwindled, and then excuse myself and climb the stairs to my bedroom and begin writing a story.

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What’s In A Name

A friend of mine is a history/war buff, and he recently began a minor campaign to keep alive the memory of the only two-time recipient of the Medal of Honor. According to my friend, this man also singlehandedly stopped an attempt to overthrow F. D. R. and was the first to warn of the military-industrial complex. I am speaking, of course, of Major General Smedley Butler.

I’m not saying it was the name Smedley alone that has kept Mr. Butler locked in historical obscurity, but I am saying it doesn’t help. As a writer, whom would I choose to name Smedley? A comic villain? Maybe a comic hero, á la the Cohen brothers? But the man who saved the presidency? Unlikely

Now that I think of it, I was once listening to an NPR interview with a spokesman for the energy industry. This was during the Bush administration, and the spokesman was explaining why it was a good idea to have oil companies advising the vice president on the country’s energy policy. Nothing nefarious here, he said. All this talk by liberals about an oil/Bush conspiracy was ludicrous. The spokesman’s name? Daniel Evil. I actually got to hear the interviewer sign off, “Thank you, Mr. Evil.”

You can’t, as they say, make this up. Literally. No matter how cartoonish you like your villains, unless you are penning a Mike Meyers parody you have probably stricken Evil from the list of possible surnames. The problem is our readers have imaginations and they like to use them. Though they may not know it, this is part of why they read. Your narrative choices fire the reader’s imagination to fill in what you cannot. Name a hero Smedley and you are likely stuck with whatever bucktoothed, cowlicked rube your reader first pictures before you describe his firm brow and handsome jaw.

Likewise, naming someone Evil deprives your reader of the chance to use his imagination. No matter how villainous our villains, we aren’t allowed to tell the audience the character is a villain in their name—all readers want that moment when they realize, “Oh. Darth Vadar is a bad guy.” It is the rule of Show Don’t Tell. Writers discover and so do readers. We suggest evil or virtue through imagery and action because good stories is always a joint effort between the writer and the reader.

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This History Of You

Mary Daheim has written a whopping 50 plus books in her thirty-year career. The majority of these were mysteries, but she broke into publishing writing what she describes as “bodice rippers.” She hadn’t intended to write bodice rippers (luscious historical romances) but her agent explained that her books would have a much better chance of selling if there was more sex and less history and Mary said, “Okey-dokey,” and so it began.

Here is the point where the screenplay of Mary’s life might portray her as a writer selling out. She abandons her love of the true historical novel for the crass profit of sex and fantasy. But her story is hardly so pat. Mary is a practical woman, but more importantly she is a woman who knows herself. She knew, for instance, that she was no fan of romances, and after four novels she also knew that it was time to write something else.

When Mary’s patience with romances had run out she could have tried to write straight historicals again. After all, someone was selling them, and she was now a published author. But she decided to try her hand at mysteries instead, and the rest—no pun intended—is history.

If Mary Daheim had absolutely been meant to write historical novels I don’t think she would have spent the last three decades happily writing mysteries. Is it not possible that the best thing that could have happened to Mary was to have her agent convince her to write a romance, not just to get her published, but to move her attention off of what in the end it turned out was only the first idea of the kind of book she would like to write was?

It is so easy to judge someone’s choices, even when that someone is ourselves. Intuition seems to have a prescience all its own, as if sensing where the thread of a single choice stretches far into the darkness of the future. The more taught that thread, the more drawn we are to follow it, and yet from our myopic vantage in the present some threads can seem headed in entirely the wrong direction. Here is the moment we must judge not. There is the idea of who we are, and there is truth of who we are, and our job has never been to prove an idea but only to follow the truth.

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The Treat

When my son was young he was diagnosed with what was called a “pervasive language disorder of unknown origins.” It’s hard to remember now, but at an age when other children were having conversations, he would rarely use more than one or two words in a sentence, and questions asked of him, now matter how simple, would go unanswered. He spent a lot of time in therapy, and predictions about his future were often tempered with a gloomy medical skepticism.

I always believed he would be all right, however, particularly after what happened one night after a swimming lesson. Like a lot of kids his age (four or so at the time), he liked sweets. Treats, we called them. All sweets were treats, and they were rationed out as stingily as we could. But Sawyer loved them; was passionate about them. An entire day could revolve around the eventual delivery of a promised treat.

One day after a swimming lesson he passed a vending machine and pointed to a bag of iced animal crackers (it was the icing that made them treats, in my estimation). He wanted them. I said no, but he persisted. Dinner’s already cooking, I told him. No treats before dinner. He still wanted them. I’d seen this before. An explosion was coming, an explosion I was not prepared to cope with in public—so I played a little trick. I bought the iced animal crackers, but said I would hold onto them until we were in the car. Once we were in the car, once he was safely and completely secured in his car seat and the windows were rolled up, I sprung my trap. No animal crackers.  They’re treats.

He went mad.  He screamed an unholy scream all the way home. No matter. I told him he had left me no choice. I told him he knew the rule about treats and why did he think he could break it this night? I kept telling him he knew the rule about treats and he kept screaming. He was still screaming when we got out of the car but I didn’t care. I was right and I was the parent and he was learning a lesson.  That was when Sawyer found his voice.

“Crackers aren’t treats!”

I was marching toward my back door when I heard it.  I turned around.  He was standing by the gate to the house pointing an accusatory finger.

“Crackers aren’t treats!” he repeated. “They’re crackers.  They aren’t treats.  I can have crackers before dinner.”

It was the longest string of words I’d ever heard out of him. He got the crackers. His desire to express what he believed to be the truth finally overrode whatever limitation had strangled his language for the first four years of his life. He would return to his version of silence after he got the crackers, but it was too late. He’d given himself away. Within him dwelled the same desire that dwells in all of us: to share what matters. I knew then it was only a matter of time. Eventually he would understand that everything in life is valuable, is a potential treat, and the worst punishment anyone could impose on themselves is to stay silent on this fact.

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A Sweet Risk

After William Faulkner won the Noble Prize, he began publishing more essays, partly as a kind of obligation to the attention he was then receiving. I read a bunch of these, and one remark in particular caught my attention, which was something to the effect that “these days,” (which were the 1950s) “being sentimental is the worst crime a writer could commit.”

I use this observation as a place marker for when this attitude more or less took hold, because reading it in the beginning of the 21st Century it seemed to me that the position had if anything gotten stronger. Admittedly, I’m talking now about literary fiction. Not to disparage commercial fiction, but sentimentality is certainly not going to keep a book (or a movie, or a song) from selling—which is to say, if you know your book will be placed on the commercial fiction shelf, you probably aren’t overly concerned about it being perceived as sentimental.

And as well you shouldn’t. Then again, neither should literary writers. Sentimentality is exaggerated feeling, and as such is not going to be as effective as the real thing. But there is no crime in wanting your reader to feel something, and if in your efforts to do so, in a moment of insecurity you push the feeling past the truth—so be it. The goal was laudable. Perhaps you’ll do better next time.

I say this because I feel sometimes that many writers are so afraid of being “caught” that they hold themselves back, as if you can never be too cool but even an inch too hot is too much. The truest and the deepest feelings live right up against sentimentality. It is a line you must absolutely risk crossing.

I know sentimentality is disappointing: an artist tries so hard to show love that he winds up making it appear that love doesn’t actually exist. Yet it is a disappointment born of a yearning for the real thing. The answer is not to dump trying; this is simply admitting defeat. Instead, the artist should try again, trusting a little more, listening a little a closer, seeking those sweet notes audible to every ear, the notes to which we all must surrender to remain human.

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Won Or Lost

I interviewed Nicole Krauss on Monday. Her latest novel, Great House, was nominated for the National Book Award, and tonight she will find out if she won. Since she’s the only one of the five finalists I’ve interviewed, I’m pulling for her.

I think writing awards can serve a very practical purpose. If Nicole wins, her publisher will be able to slap a gold seal on her book’s cover, which might garner her another 10,000 readers, give or take—though I suspect Great House will do just fine however tonight turns out. Likewise, contests like those sponsored by the PNWA at its yearly conference give new writers a chance to catch the attention of agents and editors. So bravo for contests. Every little bit helps.

Awards are tricky, however, as they suggest that there was ever a competition in the first place.  No one is ever in competition when they sit down to write; to compete requires comparison and there is no one for you to compare to when you write. You are alone and meant to be so. Thus, for those nominated, the challenge of the winner and loser alike remains the same: forget it.

The moment you move your attention from what you want to say to what other people think about what you have said or might say—you are lost. And I mean, completely, and thoroughly lost. You will either not know what to write, or you will write something and dislike it and perhaps even eventually yourself. I say this with complete confidence because unless you know what it is you want to write, you don’t have anything to write.

Not to worry, what you want to say will never leave you, no matter how long you stare at what you think other people think. What you want to say doesn’t care if you won and it doesn’t care if you lost, it only wishes for your undivided attention, for as long as you can give it. And when you can’t give it any more, when you absolutely have to look at the trophy case, be it empty or full, what you want to say will wait still more, wait for you to return and feel the difference between an idea of what you were, and the knowledge of who you are.

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