Lords Of The Manor

Imagine you are standing in the room with 100 attentive people. Each is uniquely creative in their own way, and for this day each has arrived with the sole purpose of serving you. You tell them you are interested in writing a story. You would like it to be a love story, and you would like it to end happily, more or less.

You then ask each of these 100 people for a story idea with these two requirements. In a short time, each has jotted down notes. One by one, you have them read their ideas to you. Many are good, a great many are similar, and you listen carefully, waiting for that one idea that lights up for you, that aligns most directly with your desire.

Once you have chosen your story, you could go back to these same 100 people and ask for an outline, or a first scene, or names of characters, or whatever you would like, and with each request, your requirements would become ever more specific, eventually, if you chose, down to the very words in the story.

This scenario is the closest I can come the ying-yang experience that is writing. In other words, you are in charge, insofar as you are asking for the ideas, and you are selecting from all those provided, but you are not actually responsible for each individual idea. That is, as the writer, you don’t “come up with” the idea, you merely ask specifically and then select.

This is why I have said in the past that writing is listening. I don’t know how to come up with ideas. I only know to identify a feeling or experience or concept that needs form—and then wait. Wait. Wait.  And then choose. That is writing. We are both receptive and assertive simultaneously.

It is useful, I think, to remember this, particularly when you feel you are blocked. Often we forget that we are not in charge coming up with the ideas, and we think we must, and send our attention out to get one. Yet we are like lords of a manor the location of whose kitchen is a mystery to us. The servant will gladly bring a sandwich, but we must ask for it, and we must say what kind we want.

So when you are blocked, even for as simple a thing as a sentence, turn your attention only to that thing you believe you wish to say and focus on it and it alone. Do not try to write, merely see it, or hear it, or feel it. And wait. That is your job. Soon the ideas will come, and soon you will have the joy of picking the one that pleases you most.

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

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No matter how many of the writers I interview tell me that a certain degree of luck is necessary to get that first book published, I remain unconvinced that luck, in the truest sense of the word, has got anything to do it.

For instance: Let’s say I am playing a game where in order to win I must roll two sixes on a pair of dice. If I were only allowed to roll once, or even twice, then yes, a certain amount of luck would be required to win. But what if I were allowed to roll ten times? Or twenty times? Or what if I were allowed to roll as many times as I wanted, for as long as I could tolerate rolling, until I got two sixes? In that case “luck” would only govern how long it took me to win, not if I won. And in fact, since I couldn’t technically lose unless I stopped rolling, it wouldn’t really be a game at all, because gone would be the question of winning and losing; the only question would be whether I was willing to continue rolling.

So it goes with publishing and most everything we do in life. If for each story I wrote I were only allowed one stamp to mail one copy to one publisher, then I would certainly need some luck. But what the writers who mention luck really mean is that there is an element to publishing, as with everything, that is out of our control: namely, other people. What we call luck is an expression of our own impatience and our periodic frustration with other people’s persistent to desire to make up their own minds.

Forget about luck, if you can. It is an insidious concept, implying somehow that life is nothing but a meaningless collision of numbered ping-pong balls in a glass case. Luck is an excuse to give up, to cede our role in the unfolding of our lives to an invisible force, a force that in the end turns out to be nothing but our own lack of faith in ourselves.

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The Crooked Course

Funny how we sometimes find the things we’re looking for. The spring I turned 18 I felt it was time for some changes. I would be leaving high school and my hometown of Providence in a few months, and many of my old habits were no longer serving me.

Like many teenagers, my life required a soundtrack. For two years, that soundtrack had been provided primarily by the band Pink Floyd (see my recent entry: The Wall). What I had once found profound I now experienced as maudlin and melodramatic. I needed something both brighter and deeper. Blaming the world for all your troubles simply wouldn’t do. I needed new music.

I don’t remember how I landed on the song “The Court of the Crimson King,” by the band King Crimson. I can’t even be sure I’d ever listened to it. Yet, all the same, I found myself ducking into Goldie Records with the sole purpose of buying an album that contained that song. I didn’t ask for help, though I could have. Goldie Records was run by the sort of goatee-wearing audiophiles that love to point you to obscure albums. No need, I would find it myself.

By going straight to the B’s. Remember the song was “The Court of the Crimson King” by the band King Crimson. You will not find one B anywhere in the song or band name. Yet some part of me was thinking, “It’s here somewhere.” Soon I came upon the album, “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars,” by David Bowie. I liked the cover of the album very much. It was a kind of doctored color photograph of Bowie on a street corner in full glam-rock regalia. I didn’t check the song list; I didn’t look for the words “Crimson” or “King” or “Court”; instead I thought, “Yes, this must be it.” I couldn’t wait to get home and listen at last to “The Court of the Crimson King.”

Unfortunately, when I got home I discovered that “Ziggy Stardust” did not in fact include the song I had been looking for. I felt strangely duped. I felt like I was always making these sorts of bizarre and easily avoidable mistakes. But I still liked the cover, so I decided to give it a listen.

You must understand the importance music played in my life at that time. I would clamp headphones over my ears and project myself into the emotional world of the songs. It was as if I was teaching myself how I wanted to live through the music’s reality. If I listened and listened and listened to it, maybe I could carry that feeling with me into the real world and live as if I were still in the songs.

So when the song “Five Years,” the album’s first track, began, and when I heard it’s lovely piano, and Bowie’s distinct voice, and the particular poetry of the lyrics, I leaned close to the speakers, and for the first and only time in my life, said aloud to whatever was listening, “Thank you.  Thank you.  Thank you.”

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Know It

We are all familiar, I’m sure, with old adage, “Write what you know.” This concept is loosely attributed to Hemingway, and for two reasons. One he had a habit of writing about things he did. Watch bull fighting, writing a couple of books about bull fighting. Go to war and like fishing, write stories about war and fishing.

The other reason, however, is that in A Moveable Feast he discusses making a decision to write a story about one thing he knows for sure. It is easy to think that he meant something he had experienced personally, but I believe in this instance he was referring to what he knew to be true.

And this is all any writer could and should do. After all, many writers will be called to write about things they have never done. There are entire genres—science fiction, fantasy, perhaps romance—where this is the case. But the doing isn’t the point.  What matters is what you know.

I think it was Carl Jung who said, and I paraphrase, “I don’t believe anything.  I either know it or I don’t.” I like this, and it’s a good motto for a writer. Believing is hedging your bets.  Know what you know.  Claim it.  And then write about it. It doesn’t matter whether that story is set in 21st century Seattle or on Gallagon Nine, your story will always be better if it is built on the bones of what you know in your heart to be true.

And if some day you decide something different is true, so be it.  You can only know what you know at the moment.  If you wait until you know absolutely everything before you write a book, you will be one very old writer indeed.  So stake your flag.  Choose one thing that you know for sure and write about it.  And people will either agree with you or not—that’s none of your concern. Your only concern is finding the next thing you know for sure.

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What We Know

I had the great pleasure of speaking to a chapter of the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) this weekend. The event was extremely well organized, and its sponsors did much-appreciated legwork to drum up what was a surprisingly large crowd for a Saturday afternoon. So let me extend and official Author thank you to Mary and her dedicated team.

This was a new presentation, and it was fairly long (two hours), and while I had a power point presentation to serve as a guide for the lecture, I did not and really could not memorize the entire thing. Still, I did what I thought you ought to do in this instance and wrote up some notes on 3 X 5 cards for each slide. That way, you see, if I didn’t know what to say I could just look at the card there would be some ideas.

Funny I even bothered.  Once I was actually speaking to the audience, it was as if I had contracted a severe case of dyslexia. I couldn’t read the cards. I tried looking down at them once and they might as well have been written in Latin. In fact, the exact same thing has happened every time I have written notes for any kind of public speaking, and it wasn’t until this weekend that I understood why.

For me, everything I need or want to say resides within me – all the stories, examples, and ideas are already there. The notes, however, are outside of me, and simply by looking them I am taken away from where I need to go to find what I want to say. At the end of the presentation, a young woman came up to me and thanked me and mentioned how something I had said had resonated with her.

“It’s like I had known it,” she explained, “but I didn’t understand it until you said it.”

She was absolutely right. She did already know it. We always know everything, but we need constant reminding. The cards were intended to remind me, but it is always the experience of the audience that reminds me instead, for it is from them that I am guided into myself to find what I feel most needs to be said at that moment. So in this way, the audience reminds me of that which they themselves wish to be reminded.

All to the good. When it goes well, everyone is happy, for everyone is glad to learn again what they have always known, just as our closest friends remind us of who we are.

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Butt In Chair

Ask a dozen writers for the first and most important rule of writing, and ten of them will likely quote, sometimes grudgingly, that old workhorse aphorism: Butt in Chair. I never cared for this rule; it made writing seem like drudgery. Until, that is, I remembered writing my first novel.

I was in my twenties, and I had already written plenty of short stories, poems, plays, and screenplays. But I’d never attempted The Novel. So I made myself a schedule: Monday through Saturday, 7:00 AM to 9:00 AM. Non-negotiable. If I have no other talent, it is a mule-like stick-to-itiveness, and so, lo and behold, after six months of adhering to this schedule I had a 350-page draft of something resembling a novel.

I found it strangely miraculous, that all that was required to finish a draft of a novel was to work on it every day. In fact, there was a woman with whom I worked who had expressed an interest in writing romance novels. I revealed to her my secret as if I’d found the fountain of youth. “All you need to do is write every day!” I exclaimed. “That’s it!”

Of course, there was a bit more to it than that, but the point was that the size of the novel need not intimidate. And while I thought I had learned a great lesson about novel writing, I had in fact learned a great lesson about life itself. Namely, whatever we put our attention on increases.

What is Butt in Chair really saying but that? If you put your attention on the novel every day it will increase. In fact, the only way for that novel to grow to completion is to put your attention on it again and again and again. So it is with everything. Everything from our marriages to our gardens to writing. But don’t stop there. Put your attention on, say, the sour state of the economy, and it will increase, if only in your imagination. Put your attention on rejection letters and you may find they increase as well.

It is as if the universe is saying to us, even with all these supposed “bad” things we make: Look. You can make anything with your attention. Even crap. Isn’t that great news?

Yes it is. So put your butt in the chair of your life. Everything you want is waiting to be written.

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The Bearer Of Bad News

When I was a freshman in college I took a class in the History of Communication, for which I read The End of Childhood by media ecologist (that’s what the studiers of media call themselves, or did in 1983) Neil Postman. The thesis of the book was that ever since Guttenberg’s infernal machine, “childhood” has been gradually eroding because more and more often kids know as much about the world as adults. For some reason this was bad, but I can’t remember why. According to Postman, the invention of computers and VCRs only hastened this erosion.

As it happened, our own media ecologist knew Mr. Postman and asked him to speak to us about the book. This would be the very first time that I ever read a book and subsequently met the author. It was kind of exciting. My neighbor in class that day was very excited. He loved the book. He was an aspiring singer/songwriter but The Disappearance of Childhood spoke to him.

In came Postman. He sat at a table in the front of the class and seemed to enjoy being the center of attention—a feeling I was in no position to judge. He elaborated on what he had written in the book. This was sort of interesting. I remember thinking, “Sure enough. He sounds just like the book.”

Then Postman began to expand on his thesis. Things, he told us, were bad and getting worse. No one had manners anymore, which I guess was the VCR’s fault. I couldn’t bear this kind of grouchy-old-man State Of The Union and told him, in so many words, that he was full of it, that there were surely people in the 1940’s who cursed at baseball games and called the players names. I was reminded that I was not alive in 1940 so my opinion on the matter was void. He officially lost me at this point.

It only got worse after this. Maybe I started it. Postman seemed emboldened by our exchange and went on—gratuitously, I thought—to explain that popular music was not helping the situation at all. The class, made up entirely of under-30’s who had grown up listening to almost nothing but popular music, whose childhoods’ and adolescences’ were scored by the likes of The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and Michael Jackson, began to squirm. None of them were squirming more than my neighbor. Postman, smiling the smile of a man happy to deliver shocking news, went on to say that he did not allow his children to listen to Rock & Roll in the house, that if they wanted music they could listen to Brahms, Bach, or Beethoven.

My neighbor began to sputter. “How can you say that?” he shouted. Our professor tried to calm the situation by informing Postman that my neighbor was a musician himself, but Postman didn’t care. He kept on about the depravity and pointless of popular music, as if he had been waiting years to tell a classroom full of young people that their music stank. My neighbor looked like he was going to cry. “I loved your book!” he said. “I thought it was great.”

And then the class was over.  We couldn’t wait to get out. But my neighbor wasn’t done. I can still see him in my imagination, imploring Postman over the din of exiting students to consider listening to The Police, that their latest album was based on a theory of Carl Jung’s, and if he would just—

I sprinted from the room, out into the quadrangle where everyone’s opinion was equal.

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Success Story

When my youngest son was about three he got a terrible earache in the middle of the night. Unfortunately, at that age my son wasn’t doing a lot of talking, so we didn’t know that it was an ear infection that was making him cry until we got him to the emergency room at the hospital at 2:00 AM. The nurses there tried to ask him questions about how long he had had the pain, and was he dizzy, and so on, but my son simply couldn’t follow the questions.

Emergency room nurses don’t like to have their questions go unanswered, and I, a tired father, did not like to have my son’s mental capacity brought into question. To lighten the mood and defend my son, I explained that many of the men in my family came to talking late. “In fact,” I continued, “I couldn’t put a coherent sentence together until I was about two and-a-half.”

“Oh,” she said, clearly relieved. “Well, there you go.  And you turned out to be a success.”

I stole a glance in the mirror to learn what about my windbreaker and jeans said Success. At that point in my life I was a waiter with three unpublished novels in my drawer.  My own opinion of myself stood somewhere perilously close to failure. And yet.

I have written a lot about success on this page, and for good reason. Success is that destination everyone craves but whose location remains an enigma. I spoke to a writer friend recently who had met someone whom she viewed as very successful. This other writer had published a half-dozen books to good reviews, sold stories to all the major magazines . . .. Success.  But no.  He hadn’t won the National Book Award. By this man’s own measure, he wasn’t a success.

The emergency room nurse who called me a success knew nothing about my resume. If she was responding to anything, it was likely my state of mind at that moment: I was going to clearly and hopefully with good humor show up for my son. If success is anything at all, it is surely nothing more than an accumulation of showing-ups. What else can we do? Wrestle some award from the hearts of the award-givers? Showing up may seem like such a small thing compared to glittering hardware on the mantle, but it’s not, especially when the one you must show up for is yourself.

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Slice Of Life

As a reader, I have long loved what I perceived as a story’s complexity. Not complexity of plot necessarily, though that can be satisfying, but the complexity of emotional layers moving the story forward and the resulting emotional breadth I experience in following that story. Stories are like wine this way. It’s perfectly nice to drink a wine with one, pleasant flavor note, but so much more interesting when the wine has many flavors that combine to deliver a singular taste experience.

The more I write, however, the more I find it necessary to view stories as simple. At their heart, most stories are quite simple: A man journeys home from a war to his wife; a middle class woman is undone by her dreams of a grander life; two young lovers are kept apart by their families’ hatred. The layers come from asking one question over and over: why? Why is the man journeying home? Why does the woman want a grander life? As we ask and answer and ask and answer these questions, the stories acquire layer upon layer of motivation.

When a writer is able to find a rich layer of motivation, the result, for me at least, is quite delicious. So delicious, it can feel as if the writer has somehow opened an aperture to the whole of life. I was so accustomed to that experience of viewing all of life through the keyhole of some wonderful story, that, as a young writer, I began with the objective of revealing the entirety of life in one story. Unfortunately, “the entirety of life” is not a story.

Now, I frequently remind myself to see my stories as simply as I can. I am seeking only a slice of action from life. However, if I look deeply into that narrow slice of action, if I let myself tell that story completely, it can be as if I’ve cut a paper-thin swath from the tree of life. Within that single swath is every ring, the very same rings running up and down the entire tree.

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Real Magic

I’m reading Alice Hoffman’s latest book, The Red Garden, in anticipation of our interview next month. Hoffman’s work often gets labeled as “magical realism.” That is, the stories take place unequivocally here on planet earth, but contain ghosts, eels that turn into women, and other mysterious oddities.

You would think magical realism was an oxymoron, but it’s really not. Particularly in Hoffman’s hands, the scientifically unexplainable (like those ghosts or trees that bear fruit in winter) seem explained. Why? Because this magic feels like “real” life. Ghosts feel like the past insinuating itself into the present; the magical trees feel like belief in the midst of ruin.

Reality is as slippery as an eel. One moment you’ve wasted your life, the next the horizon of possibilities opens to you. What has changed but your own perception? I resisted any sort of magic in my own books for years. That was kids stuff. But as I’ve gotten older, life seems increasingly magical to me. The hardness and inflexibility of reality that I tried for so many years to manipulate and navigate seems less rock and more clay.

Wizards in fairytales create something out of nothing – fire or ice from their fingertips, dragons from the air, teleportation with the blink of an eye. This is closer to the truth than I ever would have guessed when I was a boy imagining such things. The eye of life changes the world as it turns upon it; a villain becomes a hero and a sinner a saint as the light of your ideas darken or brighten. In this way, the entire reality of our life resides within us. The only thing real is you, and you alone make the world challenging or impossible, beautiful or gaudy, tragic or ever changing.

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