Look Up

It is New Years Eve, and soon the publishing world will return from its two-week hiatus and get back to the business of publishing books. But first there are party hats to wear and champagne to uncork.

Myself, I have never been a New Years Eve sort of guy. It’s not unusual for me to be awakened at midnight by the sound of fireworks, and think, “What the hell is going on?” only to remember, and then return to the pillow. But if you are a reveler by nature, I say revel on. Champagne was meant to be drunk, fireworks to be exploded.

Noise is great sometimes, the great hurrah of life, but every cheer and ka-boom is defined by the silence that surrounds it. Just as every painter knows that a picture is as much the search for empty space as shapes and figures, so too every writer must search for what not to say. It is a great relief, all those words we needn’t write, and our gift to the reader. When we see that so little can do so much, we remind ourselves that the whole of life exists within it’s smallest parts, and that what is felt always exceeds what is expressed.

Tonight the fireworks will be lit across a canvas of empty sky. The stars will have to relinquish their stage for a time while we fill the night with noise and light. Look up, if you’re there, and if you’re reveling, revel too when the fireworks have ended. There is the gift of the night: a canvas that can never be torn from its easel. The lights draw your attention where it always belongs, toward that which can be made in this or any new year.

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The Nothing We Know

If I could bring only one piece of music with me to a desert island it would be Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, which I suppose is a cliché—but who cares? The heart loves what it loves. I did not know when I first heard the Ninth Symphony that Beethoven was deaf while he composed it; I loved it only because it was a beautiful piece of music. When I learned about the deafness, I loved the Ode all the more.

By all measures, Beethoven should not have been writing an ode to joy. His life was music and he could not hear. He should have been writing an ode to tragic irony, right? Could have, but he didn’t. By the same token, no one would criticize Somaly Mam—who was sold into sexual slavery at the age of 12 and who endured there the kind of nightmare torture most novelists wouldn’t allow themselves to dream—no one would criticize her if she had no love left for humanity. She had seen humanity at its worst, and had had that worst done to her. And yet, what she wishes for the girls she now rescues from this same sexual slavery is love—not vengeance, not even justice, but love. Somehow through her own nightmare, Somaly was able to arrive at the understanding that all her justified hatred would heal nothing and grow nothing. Love alone would do that.

It is easy to look at what we had and what we’ve lost and mourn ourselves. Losses great and small accumulate day after day, and what was the use of any of it if we don’t mourn it? Why did we ever want the job, the house, the child if we are not made lesser when they are gone? This is why I would bring the Ode with me to a desert island. On the island I would have nothing, my truest state, and the Ode would remind me in its ecstasy of the nothing I never had, and the nothing I could never lose.

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

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Critic On The Beach

There’s a great scene in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished opus The Last Tycoon where Stahr, a powerful Hollywood producer, is walking on the beach at night in a post-coital glow with his new lover, Kathleen. They come upon an old black man (remember, this is the 1940s), who is gathering fish in a pail. The three get to talking. Eventually, the subject of motion pictures comes up. The man confesses he does not go to them. Stahr is a bit offended and asks why. The old man replies, “There’s no profit in it. I never let my children go.” The scene ends shortly thereafter when the old man leaves, which Fitzgerald describes thusly: “ . . . he went off the beach toward the road, unaware that he had just rocked an industry.”

Fitzgerald perhaps knew all too well that whatever one’s supposed station in life, all opinions carry the same potential weight. Stahr should not have cared what this poor old man thought of the work he did, but if a bubble of doubt exists in us, the smallest pinprick will do to release its poison.

Humanity’s fundamental democracy can be challenging in this way. No matter who you are or what you write there will always be somebody who believes your work is too slow, or too commercial, or too wordy, or too simple, or too something, and all somebodies in the end are equal. If the world rushes around and cheers you universally, you know in your heart that your detractors have only been silenced temporarily by the force of current opinion and are meanwhile hardening their resolve, ready to be the voice of Those Who Didn’t Drink The Cool Aid once the adulation subsides.

The great gift of writing what you most want to write is that the voices of critics and fans alike are the buzzing of summer insects against the cello strum of the voice within you that says Yes when you know a work is done. Once you write what you most want to write, you understand that the only choice to make is whether to be happy or to be unhappy. Write what you most want to write and you will be happy. Try to reach happiness through the inevitable unhappiness of writing what do not want to write but what you think you must write, and you will find happiness is always one more story away. There are critics on every beach. You will only truly listen to them when their unhappiness with your work matches your own.

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

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Given Form

If you write even a little, at some point you will have one of those sentences or paragraphs or scenes where you “nail it.” The thing comes out and what you had heard or seen or felt in your imagination is there before you on the page, both exactly what you wanted to share and yet new at the same time. For a brief moment, the satisfaction is so complete, so restful, that you think, “I could die happy,” until you remember that that would mean you wouldn’t be able to do this again.

What has just happened? First, something existed within you that was known but which had no form. Even if you had “seen” it, seen the bridge or the face or the six-limbed alien, you had only seen it in that nether region of your imagination. But it was real enough that you knew it, knew it well enough that when you saw it rendered in words on the page you could recognize it. And that moment of recognition—which is what falling in love feels like, what meeting a new friend or a tasting a great food feels like—is an intersection of that which exists within us with that which we have brought to us. It is the recognition that what exists in our imagination, without form, is as real as the sun if enough steady attention is aimed toward it.

That is why deliberate creation is so satisfying and why we keep coming back to the page. Yes, our egos can get hold of these moments and hold them up like trophies, but there is no peace there, because they are not proof of anything, they measure nothing. These moments are instead an affirmation of what it is to be a human being. It is a reminder that we are not here to make money or win races or get elected or even to make babies, we are here to seek the intersection of that which we know but which has no form within us, with that which exists outside and so can be shared with others. The satisfaction of creation is the satisfaction of life. A thing that both puts us at ease and beckons us for more, the meaning always the doing itself.

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

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An Excitable Boy

As a writer, you can spend a lot of time waiting for things to happen. You wait to hear from agents and from editors; you wait for the book to be published; you wait to find out how much the next advance will be. And always in this time of waiting there is the temptation to become excited about those possibilities that lie beyond the event for which you are waiting.

I have decided recently that this is a mistake, though perhaps not for the reasons you might think. There is that pragmatic bit about putting the cart before the horse and yes, keep the horse and cart where they belong. One should not buy the new car until the royalties are in the bank. But I believe this anticipatory excitement, which can appear to be enthusiasm for all that might be, is actually nothing more than that old bear fear, now in the Trojan horse of joy.

There is no need to become excited about what could be unless you secretly believe it might not be. If you believe in something, then you believe in it, and so there is nothing to be excited about. Excitement is just relief that what we feared might come true did not. So fear not, and believe instead.

I don’t understand the physics of it, but for some reason when I believe something will happen, when I cease to become excited about it happening, it happens all the more quickly. Every time. Perhaps I get out of my own way then; perhaps I’m more alert for opportunities I might otherwise have missed; perhaps other people sense my belief and are willing to take a chance one me. Whatever it is, I know it will happen, in some form or another, when I believe it will happen.

The final benefit to giving up on this idea of excitement is that I am happier. The excitement was trying to make me happy, but it couldn’t because, of course, fear never can. We talk about a rush as if we have finally tapped into that delicious current of happiness available only in extremes. Yet this is a very limited view of life. The current is always available, it never ceases, it never hides, it never disguises itself. It is there in stillness and in speed; it is there in isolation and in crowds. If you must be excited about something, be excited every morning for the new day.

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A Generous Eve

Memories of Christmas Eve have always burned especially brightly for me. People who celebrate Christmas usually break into two camps: those who open presents on Christmas Eve, and those who open presents on Christmas Day. My family was of the latter, and so Christmas morning was a torrent of wrapping paper and boxes and then the marathon of play that followed.

Yet Christmas Eve was perhaps even better. The wait, in the longest sense of the word, was over. Now all the potential of what could be stood center stage in my own candle-lit imagination. I placed all this potential on the morning to come and the presents and the fun, but the potential had nothing to do at all with Christmas morning. Rather, it was the promise that all that you wanted could come to you. That what you wanted wasn’t actually presents was the inevitable disappointment of the day itself, but the gift Christmas gave, to me at least, was a glimpse of the inherent generosity of life. I found that truth within myself, and then called it Christmas.

Finding that abiding generosity is a search worthy of a lifetime, and so I seek it still. Now I have children myself and I watch from my perch of middle age their mounting excitement and hold my tongue. They will not get what they want Christmas morning. No matter. They are too young to know what they actually want, that vision blooming still in their own young candle-lit souls. Who wouldn’t be excited catching even a glimpse of that? So I will leave them to their excitement and to the discovery of its actual source.

Merry Christmas to those of you celebrating, and to those not, enjoy the quiet of the day. Silence is the finest place to find what you might be looking for.

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Shop If You Must

My shopping is very nearly done, I’m happy to report. Unfortunately, I am much better at buying for myself than other people. For this reason I look upon the presents I buy as large and elaborately wrapped gift cards. I do the best I can, but I’ve learned not to take the returns personally.

Though I have to say, I used to be a terrible shopper, even for myself. I would often come home with clothes that did not fit, or were a bad cut, or the wrong color. It was as if I didn’t want to hurt the sales person’s feelings, or look too indecisive, or I would simply go into a kind of panic, drowning in all the choices. I’m better at it now, however, and I have writing to thank for it.

When I go shopping, assuming I don’t know exactly what I want (a white shirt; a black sweater), I decide how it is I want to feel when I try on the clothes. Do I want to feel sophisticated, urban, casual, rugged, or some nameless combination of all four? This follows one of my Rules of Writing: Feel first; write second. The clothes become like words, scenes, or narrative arcs. If I simply go in and start trying things on, I have nothing against which to judge the clothes, no definition of yes. Plenty of things fit; plenty of things are the right color—but what do I feel like when I wear them, and how do I want to feel?

This must be in part why some people become addicted to shopping. Shopping becomes a creative act, a means to match a feeling within to a reality with-out, and for some people, shopping is the only tangible experience of this fundamental human drive. I used to sneer at the young women with their armloads of shopping bags. So vapid, I thought. No more. If shopping was the only way I could think to create, I’d bust the bank. Plus, anytime you stop and ask yourself what you like most—whether in a dress shoe or cup of coffee—you are seeking alignment with the creative current that moves all life forward.

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

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The Mirage

Here is a familiar scenario. Your friend breaks up with her boyfriend. She calls you, despondent—this was supposed to be The One. You meet her at a coffee shop. She is wondering what is wrong with her. She is wondering why her relationships never work. They had a lot in common. He was good looking and had an interesting career. They liked the same movies and music. She wants you to tell her if she is in fact as big a loser as she suspects she is so that she can take the steps necessary to correct and not spend the rest of her life bitter and alone.

You tell her that the relationship was problematic from the start. You remind her of late night phone calls, her ranting about his latest insensitive maneuver. You remind her how distant he could be; that he flirted with other women in front of her. You tell her that the relationship was never meant to work and that is it is best that it is over so that she can find someone with whom she can be happy.

Both these stories were pulled from the same event—the friend’s relationship. Both narrators, if you will, focus on the details needed to make their “case.” What does life mean? We pick our details and we decide.

We spend our lives surrounded in stories: newspapers, sports, television, movies, books. We tell each other stories; we tell ourselves stories. The stories keep coming and coming and coming, and each of them a reduction, each of them a selected series of details connected to bring an audience to a desired emotional destination.

When I see the world as a static thing upon which I must merely report, it feels dead, and I never want to write another word. But when I see it as a banquet of infinite detail, all of it equal, all of it there to be used or not in accordance with the perspective I wish most to share, the story I wish most to tell, the world becomes friendly and alive. You will always see what you believe is before you. When I accept this mirage quality of life, I let myself see what I most want to see, and then tell stories about it.

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

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Plenty

Suspense author Steve Berry (The Emperor’s Tomb) made an interesting aside during our interview last week (which will appear in the January issue). He mentioned how his breakout novel, The Templar Legacy, was released the same year as Raymond Khoury’s The Last Templar. According to Steve, the two novels were, “the exact same story,” only told with different perspectives, which he felt made them completely different stories. He went on to say that the two books were not in competition; that in fact the success of one fed off the other.

I love this story for two reasons. First the story, “the plot,” is not as important as how a writer tells it, what perspective the writer brings to it. We know this is true. We know that if we handed four writers the same story outline, each would write a “different” story, even though each would follow the same order of events. I would go so far as to say that two people are incapable of telling the “same” story.

Which brings me to the second thing I love about this story: We aren’t in competition. I know there are writing contests and awards, and I know that there are only so many publishing contracts being handed our every year, but what is to be done about it? There is no finish line you can see that you must get across first. All a writer can do is tell the story he or she wishes to tell as well as he or she can tell it. No matter how derivative that story might be, for good or bad, it will still be that writer’s alone.

No one can compete with you as a writer because no one can write your story but you. And even if someone is publishing stories like yours, then that writer will only serve to attract readers to the corner of the bookstore you and he both occupy. The very idea of competition is born from the lie that there is not enough—not enough readers, money for advances, paper, ink . . ..

It is a lie. Somehow, once you tell the story you most want to tell in the way you most want to tell it, there is always enough. Somehow, there is always a publisher, readers, money. Perhaps the best question is not, “Is there enough?” but, “How much will I give?” If you can dip as far into the well of your imagination as your thought can reach, and if you offer up every ounce of what you find, the world, forever a mirror to your every gesture, will reciprocate immediately in kind.

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

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The Clique Of One

Kevin O’Brian (author most recently of Vicious and the subject of a January interview) shared a story with me the other day about the romance writer Debbie Macomber. It was Debbie’s first writing class, and the professor spent one entire period dissecting her first assignment, using it as an example of how not to write. This stung, but Debbie is pretty durable, and after class she approached the teacher and asked if he had anything constructive he might be able to tell her about her work. “Yes,” he said. “Quit writing.”

I would tell you how many books Debbie has published since then, but there were too many listed on her website for me to count. She has been a #1 New York Times Bestseller, there are 130 million copies of her books in print, she has won numerous awards . . . you get the point. But she writes romance. I’m sure the writing teacher wanted her to write literary fiction.

I don’t want to bash this teacher I’ve never met. Obviously, he was wrong. Obviously, she should not have quit writing. So it would be easy to bash this teacher, except that snobbery is a kind of despair. Often, it is an expression of loneliness, a fear that the world is made up of nothing but romance writers and their readers (50% of fiction sold is romance!) and there you are alone at the back table of the café with your Raymond Carver collection.

No, it is never easy to spend your life discovering who you are, only to find that who you are is a part of a small and maybe even shrinking minority. Every heart yearns to be a part of the entire world, it is it’s natural place. The closer you look at that heart, the more you understand that the kindred spirits that have joined you at your table are perhaps not your people at all. In the end, you are a clique of one, as is everybody, and the more fully we understand this, the closer we feel to all the other searching souls—alone in our thoughts, but bound continuously by the thought of love.

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

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