Living Adjustment

I think the motto for all writers should be: Do the best you can, put it out there, see what happens, and adjust. I wrote about criticism yesterday, and for a while my fear of criticism was so paralyzing that I believed everything I wrote had to be perfect or else someone might criticize it and I would dissolve into dust. This despite having spent most of my life putting things out there, seeing what happens, and then adjusting.

Because whether you’re getting published or rejected, being well reviewed or panned, selling or not selling, this is all you’re going to do. You’re going to see what happens and adjust. No matter how well a book does you’re going to learn from what you’ve written and try to write a better one. It’s what we do. This is why Laura Munson has written so eloquently about success. Once she had “success”, that which she had spent her life craving, she finally saw it was a myth. It’s a myth because it presupposes an end. Nothing ends. We keep putting it out there and adjusting no matter what happens. It will only end when and if we retire.

For this reason, goals can be debilitating. It’s good to use goals as targets for the trajectory of your attention. But I think it’s very easy for goals to become proof that what we’re doing is worth doing, that once we reach these places or plateaus we’ll really know. You already know. It’s worth it. Put it out there, see what happens, and adjust.

After all, the fun of this game is doing the next thing. Everything else has already been done. We don’t want to finish. We want to keep going and going and going. That’s the only pleasure. So we put out, see what happens, and adjust to do the next thing, which is our next pleasure, which is the continuation of life. You no more want to get it perfect than you want to die.

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Unbreakable

I was told once, “The problem with you, Bill, is you just aren’t a good writer.” I was also told once that maybe I should make up the stories and let other people write them. My own father once told me I would never be a success as a writer. In each other these moments it felt as if all the air had been sucked out of the room, but afterwards I found I was still standing and I was still able to write another story if I wanted to, which I did.

It’s strange to think now, but I realize I had spent years afraid of criticism not so much because the criticism itself could hurt me, but because I feared one more slight, one more bad review would stop me, as if my bones had been made so brittle from years of abuse that just one more blow and they would all crumble, leaving me a inert sack of criticized flesh.

Yet I am not just unbroken but unbreakable. That which is the source of all that I love, from writing, to music, to my friends and my family, is beyond criticism. That which is the source of all that I love knows only that it loves to love and can only seek more of it. Criticizing love for loving would be like criticizing a cat for being furry.

When I stand outside of love I am like a cat ashamed of my own fur. When I stand outside of love I have only my ego to protect me, but there are too many right answers in the world in direct contradiction with one another to feel safe here. There is no reason to love anything other than you love it, yet the critic in all of us asks us each to justify what we love, like some marketing guru from Hell who demands we know exactly how many copies a novel will sell before we begin writing it. Love begins for love itself, and you can leave love but you cannot break it, you can doubt love but you cannot stop it. It is the whole world top to bottom, and in case you haven’t noticed, you’re already in it.

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The Efficacy Of Kindness

Writers who outline often site time management as a driving force behind their decision to abandon Doctorow’s “headlights on the road at night” technique. To extend this metaphor, outliners don’t have time to travel down some dead end, back up, and find the right road again. Once they start writing, they want every word pointing them exactly where they need to go.

This is particularly true, of course, if you are expected to produce one book a year, as many commercial and/or series writers are. But not everyone can outline, myself, as I have often mentioned on this page, included. And in my experience, the greatest time saving technique a non-outliner can develop is the willingness to rip up the pages that aren’t working and start again.

By which I mean, pay attention. There are a lot of stories floating in the ether. As you write, you are tuning your antennae to the story you are currently telling. It is easy, however, when you are deciding where to go next, to tune into the wrong story. If you are feeling a bit stuck, you might leap on just such a story if for no other reason than to feel the satisfaction of writing again. Very soon, however, problems will arise: characters will become wooden, the conflicts two-dimensional. You are trying to force the square peg or your current story into the round hole of the new story, and the results are predictably awkward.

The sooner you admit what you have done, the sooner you can begin tuning your antennae again. In the end, time will be wasted not because you have made some wrong decision—everyone does this all the time—but because you were afraid to admit what has happened. You might look at the wrong turn part of your story and wonder, “What is wrong with me?” or, “Why have I forgotten how to tell a story,” or, “This novel is doomed.”

Now, not only must you get yourself back to the actual story you want to tell, but you must also recover from the terrible idea you have just sewn into your psyche. I have wasted a lot of time recovering in my life. Writing without an outline requires great discipline. You must be particularly disciplined in your kindness. If you train yourself to be as kind as possible whenever a wrong turn is taken, you develop more and more courage to race ahead, knowing as you now do, that there has never been a good time to punish yourself.

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First Lessons

I got to teach my son the craft of fiction writing the other day. He had to write the opening scene for a story for Language Arts. My son, Sawyer, is never at a loss for stories. He spends most of his days lost in stories of his own invention. However, as I discovered when I read his first attempt, he tells the stories as a list of events: the dog dies, the girl gets teased, the man and woman get married and so on. In this case, the story he told was quite dramatic and tragic, filled with suicide and murder and ruin. I told him I liked it. “But why aren’t crying?” he asked. “Because I couldn’t feel what was happening to the characters,” I explained.

So we took another swing at it, me at the computer, him pacing and dictating. “Where does it begin?” I asked him.

“In a graveyard.”

“What does it feel like in the graveyard?  Happy or sad?”

“Sad.”

“What do you see?  What does it look like?”

“There’s mist in the graveyard.”

“Perfect.  That’s your first sentence.  What else do you see?”

“There are tombstones.”

“What do they look like?  How many?”

“A lot.  There were a lot of white crosses, all made of stone.”

“Beautiful.  That’s your next sentence.”

On and on.  He saw the coffin, the father comforting the mother (“The mother’s sad.  She’s crying.” “If she’s crying, we know she’s sad.  Leave out the sad.”) The second paragraph ended with dirt being shoveled onto the boy’s grave.  I reread it to him, and he said, “That’s really sad,” as if someone else had written it.

I have not gotten to teach my sons how to run a square out and catch the post, as my father taught me.  Nor how to shoot a hook or make a whiffle ball sink, skills I spent my boyhood perfecting. They don’t care about sports, and I don’t care about building things or fixing cars, so that’s out too. But as I revealed the fundamentals of showing and not telling to Sawyer, I felt useful to him in a way I rarely do. I know he loves me and I know he knows I love him, and mostly that’s my job, to make sure that love remains a constant and constantly known. Yet I am a teacher at heart, and my sons so rarely want to be taught, and for about twenty minutes I felt just about the way I had imagined fatherhood would feel before I actually became a father.

And don’t you know there was a part of me—a part who, if you’ve read this column before, you probably know doesn’t like to talk about the nuts and the bolts—don’t you know a small part of me watched my son’s story come to life as he started showing and stopped telling, and thought, “Jeez.  This stuff really works.”

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A Little Faith

I was not born into a religious family, but I have certainly come to see writing as an act of faith. We have all had that experience where scenes seem to write themselves, where characters are talking to one another so quickly it is as if we are stenographers at a board meeting. These moments, happy as they are, require nothing of us. We have found the stream of the story and we need only let go and follow it as quickly as we can.

But we cannot always be in the flow of our story, and the problem with stories, as with anything we love, is they make no sense. There is nothing at all logical about a story; there is no mathematical formula for why a story should work or shouldn’t work, just as there is no mathematical formula for why you love you husband, or Bon Jovi, or salmon. My wife once told a friend she didn’t like salmon. My friend, a pretty scientific guy, looked at her, absolutely dumfounded, and said, “But everybody likes salmon.” It was as if she had told him that two plus two equals six.

There is never a reason to like anything other than that you like it and the only real formula, the only real logic for your stories, is that you want to tell them and you believe once this story is told someone will want to read it. So when you are outside of your story, when you are not feeling the current of creative energy that you turn into a story, that story makes no sense; there is no logical reason you should tell it over any other story. And because all stories are only felt knowledge, not intellectual knowledge, you have nothing but faith that once you return to that current of story you will remember once again why it is you know you must tell it. Once you’re in the story, of course, once you are following it along, it is perfectly clear why you are telling it, because you are feeling it, and there is no explanation needed beyond that.

In this way, then, writing is an act faith, believing in something you do not know. You only truly know your stories when you are feeling them. Sometimes you carry that happiness of the story around with you, like the memory of making love or having been to a great movie, but it is only part of the happiness, only a memory. You will know it fully once you are in the story, and the only way back to it is to have faith that it is there.

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Love Relationship

Although I am always alone when I work, I look upon everything I write as I would a relationship. A novel, in particular, is like a marriage. All marriages have their challenges, chief among them duration. A passionate weekend can come and go with little turbulence, the sheer velocity of new attraction propelling one straight over the bumps. But marriage quickly becomes about your whole life and its long bumpy trajectory, during which one must forgive and be forgiven, admit to weaknesses, release vices, change habits. A marriage can no more sustain its participants’ stagnation than can a life itself.

So too with a novel. You might get lucky and dash off a poem over a weekend, or find a short story that “writes itself”, but a novel requires the same loving endurance of a marriage. You will lose your way. You will wonder where it’s going. You will wake up some mornings with no idea if the thing will ever be finished. Just as in a marriage, where we stray from our better selves and let the cutting remark slip, forget to listen, grow impatient, so we stray from our story, try to force scenes it doesn’t want, criticize it before it’s finished.

Though showing kindness always feels better than criticizing, and being truly inside your story always feels better than standing outside and judging it, the challenge to release the hurt that brought the criticism, or the fear that spurned the judgment, remains great enough that it cannot be achieved consistently without love. We simply cannot pay attention to something for that long that we do not love. We will lose interest. This is how bad marriages are born and how bad books are written: conceived without love, drawn by some idea of what we hope will bring us happiness, as opposed to operating within what we know already can.

This is why we write what we know, which is another way of saying write what you love. When we feel strongly attracted to a partner, we feel compelled as if by something beyond ourselves, a force of forward energy we need only follow, not generate. When we are strongly attracted to a story, we are following much the same energy, and we will remark how characters talk to us, how scenes appear to us, and of how we lost track of time as we wrote. True love and true creative energy are one in the same, because to love is to create and to create is to love.

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The Kids Are All Right

I moved in with my wife-to-be when I was twenty-five. She was an aspiring children’s book author and I was an aspiring grownup’s book author. At that time, I had come to the conclusion reached by many young men: that the world was a place of hard edges and steep drops, of uncertainty, and where success was just an urban term for survival—I wasn’t happy about this, but if a boy is to become a man, he must first be willing to see things as they are.

Which is to say, I wasn’t reading many children’s books. To do so would have been to remind myself of a time before I understood the world as it really was, a luxury I couldn’t afford. But I loved and trusted this woman I would soon have to marry if I wanted to keep being me. She had no hard edges or steep drops, and my love for her was quite certain, and my success was already achieved—and so it was one night I found myself reading A. A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh with her before bed.

I’m glad she reintroduced me to this book before we had children of our own and I would be required by the melting heart of fatherhood to embrace Little Bear, and Max and his Wild Things, and Grover, and even Barney. I’m glad I got to find some of these books again when I was still an angry young man. There is a uniquely tender kind of genius required to write what amounts to literature for children. Everything in the best adult fiction is in the best children’s fiction also, all the loss, and learning, and love. The child asks to be touched as deeply as the adult, as the soul has no height requirements. Yet what we don’t know often scares us, and there is so much nitty-gritty of the world children don’t yet know.

As I read about Pooh and Piglet and Rabbit and Eeyore I did not think about all the things I had learned recently that had been frightening me and which I was bearing as stoically as I could. I could not forget them, and they would frighten me again the next morning. But as with all art, Milne asked this question of me: If you feel better now here with me, why not tomorrow also? It would take me many, many years to answer, “No reason at all,” just about the time I was old enough I too could write for children if I wanted.

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A Good Puzzle

My older sister Felicie has a particularly strong puzzle-mind. Though I am the writer in the family and thus the supposed word guru, she would routinely whip me at Boggle. She loves anagrams and crosswords and logic games of any kind, and she was a sturdy and confident mathematician. When handed a problem for which there is a clear and definitive solution, her mind becomes a ferociously happy dog digging for a bone.

This made school very appealing. In school, teachers generally make it clear to their students what must be done to be graded successful. My sister has never misunderstood an instruction in her life, which, coupled with her puzzle-mind, resulted in a string of very good report cards. I recall, however, one report card in particular. She was in sixth grade and had decided she wanted to get straights A’s—well, O’s, actually (for Outstanding!), because this was the 70s. I believe sixth grade was the first year students were actually graded, and so the first time my sister would be so publicly rewarded for solving the problems her teachers asked her to solve.

As my mother tells it, the day the grades were given, the doors to the school opened and my sister came running down the steps of Nathan Bishop Middle School waving her report card over her head. At the time, I thought to myself, “Oh, who cares, Felicie? What’s an extra O or two really going to do for you?” You see, my view on grades was this: I will do just well enough so as not to be judged a failure or average—but you’ll get nothing more out of me.

Except a part of me understood why my sister was really running down those steps with her straight O’s. I’m sure her little 11 year-old ego was doing back-flips, but so what? The flesh is weak. The O’s weren’t the point at all. My sister was celebrating the same discovery humans have been making and celebrating for tens of thousands of years: that anything we apply our direct attention to comes into being. Lay your attention on a novel for a year, you get a novel. Lay your attention on straight O’s, you get straight O’s. Perhaps, she must have been thinking as she sprinted toward my mother’s car, it’s not all luck after all. Perhaps the question is not how do I solve a problem, but which problem do I want to solve?

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Burn On

A good friend once told me she felt like a failure. This is one of the saddest things to hear someone you care about say, but all the same, it is just as important for the sympathetic ear as it is the one in the throes of doubt to remember the truth of it.

Failure is always a nightmare from which we have chosen not to awaken. Nightmares are scary things and for good reason—they are a worse case scenario alternate reality, a living dystopia of the mind. All the science fiction you have ever read about robot overlords or societies sorting people by hair color are worlds built on fear. So too is the nightmare of failure.

If someone comes to you singing the sad song of failure, your first responsibility is to yourself. If you are to be of any use to anyone, you must not believe the nightmare. You cannot argue with it; you cannot challenge it; you cannot run from it. Only someone who believes the nightmare would run from, argue with, or challenge the nightmare. And although your friend would not intend it as such, the song he or she sings is a siren song, inviting you to believe the nightmare. If your friend believes in a nightmare, then the only option is to destroy it, and only someone who sees it as real can help destroy it.

But it cannot be destroyed because it is not real. And because merely disbelieving is not a direction, your only choice is to hold the light. And not just the light in your friend, or in yourself, but in the entire world. A tall order perhaps, but there is no other option. If one can fail, all can fail, and the nightmare is real again.

And so you hold the light. Beyond the veil of the nightmare there always shines the light, although the veil is heavier in some than in others, and the light more obscured. But it is there, as sure as your friend is there, and if you hold the light, perhaps your friend will see it too and recognize it and the spell will be broken. Or perhaps not. But there is no tragedy in someone believing a lie for another day, or another month, or another year. It would only be a tragedy if the light could be extinguished, which it cannot—it will burn on, awaiting everyone’s return.

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Waiting

For many years I waited. It was my profession, but not my chosen profession. I was waiting because I had to wait. My chosen profession was writing, but I was waiting to sell something, for the world of publishers and agents to give me what I wanted, and so in the meantime, while I waited, I waited, and I was often unhappy.

While waiting, I served people. The easiest to serve were the people who knew the world brought them what they wanted. They forgave mistakes and assumed success, for they knew that whatever they asked for would come in time. The worst were those who did not trust the world to bring them what they wanted. They were looking for errors to prove the crowded world where the best tables were taken, the crowded world where orders were lost, would forget about them once again and they would have to wait and wait to get what they wanted.

It was my job to serve them all, to bring the trusting and the untrusting alike what they wanted. I hated the fear that lay behind the untrusting’s eyes. Did they not understand what a miserable life they were creating for themselves by not trusting that what they wanted would come? We called them Customers From Hell.

I needed to reassure the Customers From Hell that what they wanted would come. At first, I did this with ruthless efficiency. I still feared the CFH, but what they wanted came so fast and so accurately that they would not have time or reason to complain and spread their hellish view of the world. But efficiency driven by fear eventually undoes itself, and a plate is dropped, a steak overcooked. The CFH would blame me for not caring about them, and I would blame them for spreading their hellishness, and everyone was unhappy.

Then one day I decided to stop waiting. What I wanted was larger than anything a publisher or agent could bring me: I wanted anything I watered to grow. I saw then that I had watered the job of waiter and it had grown. If I could grow something I didn’t love, then I could just as easily grow something I did, but I could not wait for anyone to tell me whether or not the water was being wasted.

There was a short time after I had stopped waiting where I was still a server. These were the best and easiest months of all the years I had spent as a server, and I was often happy. I made more money than I had ever made and experienced diners began telling me I was the finest server they had ever had. When I approached a new table, instead of efficiency I would bring reassurance that everything these strangers wanted would come to them.

And sometimes these strangers would look up at me for the first time and something new would dawn on their faces: recognition. It was just that, as if I was a friend come to visit. We all want to see our friends, for they are the ones we love the most, and with our attention, with time spent together, that friendship grows. Hell is an unfriendly place where nothing grows. The light by which I found my way out of hell was bright enough for others to see, bright enough to recognize as the same light everyone is asking for. If the strangers were happy to see me, it was not because I had arrived to serve them, but to serve the light.

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