A Perfect Agreement

I’ve been interviewing a lot of Young Adult authors lately, and have again and again found myself discussing the author’s relationship to the age group for which they write. It was Gary Schmidt who first brought this relationship to my attention. He was of the opinion that if one is going to write for people who are not adults, one ought to be uniquely interested in that age group, be they preschoolers, early readers, middle schoolers, or teenagers.

Gary Schmidt, for instance, believes eleven and twelve year-olds are the most interesting people in the world. As he puts it, it is in their “turning toward adulthood” that he finds so much narrative potential. The same is true of Annie Barrows, who will be featured in our next issue. Annie loves seven year-olds. Her exact words, actually, were, “I love them. I love them, so I want to write books for them.”

What a perfect place from which to begin a story, in fact, what a perfect place from which to begin anything. I happen to love writers. Part of what I love about writers is that Gary Schmidt and Annie Barrows so adore these two very discretely aged persons. To hear each talk about their respective readerships is to know why there will never be such a thing as a perfect story, for what is perfect for the seven year-old could not be perfect for the twelve year-old.

Plus, I love when people tell me what they love. Why do I find this almost as moving as if these writers, these near-strangers, have just told me that they love me? There are times when there is hardly a difference at all. It is as if upon uttering that word you invite her into the room, and once she is there, she is there for everyone, for that is her cause and her calling. I feel just then as if life is constant agreement with itself, and we, these two strangers, can do nothing but nod at one another and say, “Yes. I know precisely what you mean.”

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

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Life and Death

It was one of those runs where because of the interviews I had scheduled I was reading a lot of thrillers. I enjoy the rollercoaster ride that is a suspense novel, but I wouldn’t want to live on a rollercoaster, and by thriller number three I found I was growing tired of every page being a matter of life and death. I had a collection of Hemingway short stories, and to give myself a break I thought I’d find one I hadn’t read yet.

The story I chose was called “An Alpine Idyll,” which, as is often the case with Hemingway, was also about life and death, beginning as it does with our narrator and his friend coming down out of the mountains and happening upon the end of a funeral. The paragraph that got my attention, however, had nothing to do with death per se—or much of anything, really, except what it is like to ski in the mountains in May when it is hot in the day and cool in the morning and evening.

It is a fairly long paragraph for something so mundane. What’s more, I have never skied, not in May or in any other month. But Hemingway does a great job of describing how tired the narrator and his friend were of the constant sun, and how generally dissatisfying he found spring skiing to be. Again, I have never skied, but by the end of the paragraph I was relieved that the narrator was no longer skiing and was down in the valley out of the sun. What’s more, and most importantly, it mattered. It mattered somehow that they had stayed too long on the mountain and that the taste of melted snow reminded him of the unsatisfying experience of spring skiing.

In fact, it mattered – at least to me – just as much as all the life and death moments in all those thrillers. I do not want to suggest that this sort of subtlety is the pinnacle of good writing. It isn’t. But I know why I have sought it out in my reading life. I have never had a gun put to my head nor held a gun to someone else’s; I haven’t gone to war or been chased by a serial killer. But I have awakened from an ordinary night’s sleep, dropped my feet onto the floor, and felt as if my next choice mattered. I have also awakened and felt as if my next choice didn’t matter. The difference between those two days is as stark to me as the difference between life and death.

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

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Rule One

I had reached the point where, as my friend at the time said, “We need to get you some publishing credits.” I had been writing for years and following the rules of Good Writing. These rules were not actually written down anywhere, but I was certain they existed, and I was going to follow them, and when I followed them strictly enough all this writing I was doing would get published.

But in the meantime, as my friend said, perhaps it would be a good idea to get any kind of publishing credit. We both needed the work, and work looked like it might be coming our way. A game company with which I was working wanted to publish novels based on their games. These would be mystery-type novels written for women. I never read mysteries, and I didn’t write for women—I just wrote (following the rules, of course), for women, men, boys, girls, cats, I didn’t care, I just wrote. The plan was that my friend and I would try to write one of these novels together.

My friend, who was more experienced than I but who had also never written mysteries or for women, suggested we start with a little research. We should read the types of books we were about to write. He gave me a list of writers I had never heard of. “These ladies are pros,” he told me. “Let’s see how they do it.”

The pro I would read first had written numerous #1 New York Times Bestsellers. She had written them under different names, and at the pace of about two books a year. This book, a romantic suspense, was different than the sorts of novels I normally read. I opened to the first page reminding myself to put aside my normal biases, to enjoy the fast-paced suspenseful romance and learn how to write these different sorts of stories.

I was surprised by what I read. This book broke all the rules I had been diligently following. It broke them page after page after page. I knew it wouldn’t be the sort of book I normally read, but I didn’t think it would be this different. How could it be? I wondered. How can you write like this and get published. Are there no standards at all?

If I had been much younger I might have chalked the answer up to the stupidity of the reading public, or the death of literature or whatever, but I didn’t. What I did was close the book and turn it over. On the back I found the full cover photo of the author, dressed in her power blouse, standing powerfully before her library, staring back into the camera with a look that said, “I make the rules in this house!”

I looked at the picture, turned the book over and looked at the cover, read the first page again, looked at her picture again, and thought, “Oh, I get it. This book sounds like her.”

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

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Into The Wave

Certain kind of art gets labeled “escapist.” The theory behind such work is that life is hard enough, and so here is a pleasant distraction before you get back to the endless business of staying alive. And no, we won’t spend our lives with our heads in the sand, but reality is usually messy and unsatisfying, and do I really need to be reminded of that in the books I read and the movies I watch? Don’t I already know that opening my eyes every day?

I have deep sympathy for the reader who wishes to escape. I have spent considerable energy over the years trying to escape my own life. It’s not easy. My life is going on constantly, all around me, and no matter which way I run, there it is again, still waiting for me. Certain activities, some more legal than others, have served as distractions, but there is something highly unsatisfying about being distracted from my own life. It’s like going to a feast with a clothespin on my nose so I in case eat something I dislike.

Yet everyone in the world wants to feel safe. If the seeming disorder of the world—the terrorism, and the bankruptcies, and the failed marriages, and the lying politicians, and the sullen children—if all these inescapables fill us with anxiety, what are we to do? For an answer I am reminded of tidal waves. Apparently, if you are to find yourself confronted with one, you should point your boat directly toward it, sail through the wave to where the calmer waters lie. There is no outrunning the tidal wave, and when it catches you, you’re done.

So too is it with all these things we believe we must escape. Safety always exists through them. The best art is that which guides us in and through, not away from. Beneath the storm of all conflict there runs the peaceful water. What else is there possibly to seek but that? Where are we running but to find that water? Turn your boat. Safety lives in every moment the deeper into life we are willing to go.

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The Tireless Antennae

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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Fighting For Peace

I was in a meeting recently whose members included a mother and her grown daughter. The matter up for debate was whether a certain promotional email could or should be sent, and the ones who ended up doing the debating were the mother and daughter. What had begun as a question was quickly headed toward a disagreement. There was something confusing about this disagreement, however. I could not understand what they were getting ready to argue over. As I listened closer, I realized that the mother was saying X but the daughter was hearing Y, and the daughter was saying A but the mother was hearing B. I stepped in and translated and the impending confrontation dissolved.

I thought immediately of when I was sixteen and did the same thing with my girlfriend and her mother. I do not mean to suggest this is a mother/daughter phenomenon. Rather, it is a human/human phenomenon. As I left the meeting, I wondered how many battles the world over were precisely this, the divide between what is said and what is heard.

As a writer, I have long seen myself as a translator. I hear something that comes to me as a feeling or an idea, and I translate it as accurately as possible into words so other people can hear or feel it too. But as I drove home that night I kept thinking about that mother and daughter, about what was said and what was heard.

How many years had I spent thinking that if I could just say clearly what I had always known everything I desired would come to me? How many years had I spent toiling to master this language, whose nuances were my only obstacle to complete understanding? If only I could show them, all of them, then I would know peace.  All the conflict I have known in my life is surely the result of inaccurate translation.

I arrived home to the familiar sounds of my family. There were days I felt as though I had already heard everything my wife and children would ever have to say. There were days I felt as though I had already heard everything the entire world had to say. And there were days I felt I was fighting and fighting to be heard above the din of all that had already been said, fighting earnestly for the peace I so craved that it was hard to hear that I was the one making all the noise.

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

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Disbelief

Strange coming from a writer, but I have, like many before me, learned never to believe what I read. Though maybe this is because I am a writer. A writer knows better than anyone how much must be left out. A writer knows better than anyone how the details you do choose to share slant the story you tell. A writer knows that what remains on the page after all the editing and rewriting is, at its very best, nothing more than a vivid and imaginatively fertile glimpse of the whole.

So I don’t believe what I read. No matter how well written, no matter how well researched, no matter how relentlessly detailed, I don’t believe I am getting the whole picture. But I don’t want the whole picture. It’s too much. What a bore that would be. Plus I enjoy filling in all those details the writer must by necessity leave out. I know what Gatsby’s Daisy really looks like and I don’t need Fitzgerald cluttering things up with his opinion on the matter.

And I certainly don’t believe it when a writer tells me someone is sad or happy or lonely or angry. That’s for me to decide. I’ll decide if your hero is noble or brash, if your villain is wicked or vain. In fact, I love to decide such things. I am like a little emperor – a little god even, looking down from my perch above the page and casting final judgments. What a joy to know the writer’s characters in this way. I see myself in all of them, and aren’t I interesting?

Though maybe I am being too severe. There are some things I’ve read that I believe. Strange, I just can’t remember what right now. I have the clearest memory of sitting with a book, and I must have been reading it, for I thought, “Yes! That is absolutely true.” That memory is like a dream now, how in a dream a book becomes All Books. No matter – the book itself is unimportant. The feeling is all I care about. The writer had reminded me of something that I had in my distraction forgotten, something I spotted between all his or her precious words. But I’ve got it back now, and I am forever grateful, and I believe I must read another book before I forget it again.

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

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A Useful Trick

I used to get very bored in high school. The teachers seemed to repeat themselves, and once I’d understood whatever they were trying to share I didn’t know what to do with myself while they went over it a second or third time. So I brought a book. This seemed like a very reasonable solution to the problem. I read; they lectured. No harm done.

Then I accompanied my mother to a parent/teacher conference one November. My math teacher that year was a very pleasant man who had the desirable quality of not taking anything too seriously. When my mother asked how I was doing, he replied, “Oh, fine. I see him reading someone else’s book while I’m talking, but he does well on the tests so I leave it alone.”

I was mortified. He could see me. I had the idea, you see, that once I picked my book up and disappeared into the story, I quite literally disappeared. As long as I wasn’t paying attention to him he couldn’t see me. It was like a magic power.

Perhaps the writers I was reading would have been happy to have learned that they had tricked this boy into believing he had such a power. Years later, when I became very serious about my writing, it was my regular ambition to disappear once I sat at my desk. For this reason, no one was allowed in my workspace. If they could see me, I remembered I existed, and my writing suffered.

I still get bored from time to time, though much less so. The disappearing that writing has taught is such a useful discipline. When I look about at the world and it seems a dull and repetitive place, when I feel restless and disappointed, I will occasionally remember to disappear. Except I have no book, and there is no story to write, and so I must disappear right where I stand, and now what I thought I was no longer blocks my view of what I wish to be.

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

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Silent Trust

When I was ten I wrote a song for my younger bother that went thus: “Wrong, John, wrong.” That was it. I was two years older than he, and so I knew. Either my brother was a masochist or I wasn’t as horrible as this song suggests, because we remain close to this day, though we have lived in different cities for the last twenty years.

It was during that first year in different cities that I got a call from him. “Bill, I met this girl. She’s totally hot. We’re getting married and you’re going to be my best man.”

“Wrong!” I thought. “Do not marry her.” But that isn’t what I said. In fact, I can still remember what it felt like to hold that receiver in my hand and not tell him it was wrong. I can still remember how it felt when I decided to say, “Great!  I’ll be there.” Which I was.

They were divorced a few years later. A few years after that I got another call from him. “Bill, I’m marrying Theresa. You don’t have to come to this one, though. We’re only getting married for the wedding gifts so we can move to Albuquerque.”

“Wrong!” I thought. “Do not get married just for the wedding gifts.” And even though I had been right about the first marriage, I said, “Great. I love Theresa.” Which I did.

They got married, moved to Albuquerque, and then to Portland, and then got divorced. John remained in Portland, however, where he seemed to be making a life for himself. And then one day I got another phone call: “Bill, I’m moving back to Providence. I figure I’ll live there on the cheap and then commute up to New York as often as I can to try to get work with my friend at TV Land.”

“Oh, wrong, wrong, wrong!” I wanted to say. “You will not commute up to New York. This is a lame excuse to paint houses and smoke dope with the same old friends in that same old city. DO NOT DO IT!”

And I almost said it. I had been right about the two marriages, and I would be right about this. But what would be the point? Even when the stakes appeared so high, being right still meant less than keeping his trust. “Great,” I said. “Sounds like a plan.”

Which it was. He moved to Providence, but in about a year he had an apartment in Brooklyn and a job at TV Land where he was making more money than anyone in my family had ever made.

It was a great relief when I learned about John getting the job. I was glad to be wrong – not merely because I wanted John to thrive, but if in the end he alone seemed to know what was best for him, perhaps the same was true for me.

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

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The 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, 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 taut 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.

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

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