Rats and Bones

Over the last decade I have had to make peace with the unavoidable reality that I am an optimist. This was more challenging than you might think. Growing up, my two literary heroes were T. S. Elliot and Ernest Hemingway. When Prufrock asked, “Do I dare disturb the universe? In a minute there are times for decisions and revisions that a minute will reverse,” I felt he was speaking for me; and when Fredric Henry walks back to his hotel “in the rain,” after his beloved Catherine dies delivering their stillborn child, I thought I had read one of the greatest endings in literature.

But I was a young man then, and I was deeply moved by anyone capable of peeling back the layer of everyday life to unearth the roots of our collective despair. Despair, after all, seemed to me to be everywhere; despair was the hobgoblin beneath every bed, the villain lurking in every shadowy street corner. If we reveal the beast, perhaps then we might slay him. This, I believed, was the writer’s job, his (my) highest calling. Anything else was avoiding the truth, capitulating to the silent denial that was otherwise all around me.

Yet the silent truth turned out to be more generous than I had at first understood. When I was a freshman in college, we studied The Waste Land. Of all the poems in Western Literature’s cannon, none cries out for teaching more than The Waste Land. In a way, it is a literature professor’s dream, so packed as it is with references and clues as to make it virtually opaque to the unschooled reader.

I was captivated. As the professor walked us through Dante and the quest for the grail, I felt as if life itself were being shown to me. That life was a wasteland did not bother me at all. In fact, weeks later the subject of the poem came up during a history class. I felt compelled to say of The Waste Land, “It’s strangely uplifting.”

The professor looked at me blankly and asked, “Why?”

I couldn’t answer. The full reply was too large for my eighteen year-old heart, yet it was this: If we are despairing, there must be something worth despairing over. What all the rats and bones literature was really pointing me toward – whether the writers intended it or not – was that which they seemed to have lost. I was strangely uplifted because I understood I had a job to do.  It was an important job, and that’s all I wanted from life.

I became an optimist the day I found what I was looking for, exactly where I had left it, years before.

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When I was in school I had a very mixed relationship with tests. On the one hand, I disliked them, as did most of my classmates: I saw them as joyless measures of our probable inadequacy. On the other hand, I had every intention of doing well on every test, because to not do well would mean that I was a failure, and I could not bear the idea that there was any metric, no matter how meaningless to me, by which I could be measured a failure.

Numerically speaking, this position usually netted me an 85 out of 100, which, in retrospect, is an accurate representation of my commitment to the test. Occasionally, by the pure accident of personal interest, I would score a perfect 100. When these tests were returned to me I would feel first the rush of pride followed almost immediately by a total collapse of meaning. I had managed to answer someone else’s questions accurately; the only pleasure this brought, thin as the paper my 100 was written on, was the knowledge that at no point did this other person get to think: “Wrong. You are wrong. That is the wrong answer.” This is what we were all angling for? This is why we were supposed to study and not watch Charlie’s Angels?

My academic friends, who almost always scored 100 on their tests, were quick to point out that doing well on tests was merely a part of the necessary game to get where you wanted to go. Unfortunately, though I loved games, I refused to play this one, and I remained a stubbornly B-plus student until the end.

I dropped out of school to end the tests, but I could not drop out of life. No matter how far I fell, I found someone who seemed to be holding a hoop for me to jump through. The promise always was that if I jumped through enough of these hoops, I would be allowed to leave the circus, a good lion returned to his rightful kingdom.

The circus can be a confusing place – all that cheering, all the lights and music. It is hard sometimes to know if you are in the ring or in the bleachers, if you are cheering or bowing, if you are dancing or playing drum. It is even hard sometimes to see that the one holding the hoop is you.

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The Gift of the Ordinary

I consider myself a lucky memoirist in that my life, on the surface, has not been particularly interesting. I have never climbed a mountain; I have never been captured by Somali pirates; I was never a head of state or a spy or a professional boxer. It might have been easier to sell my story if I had done or been any of these things, but this does not mean it would have made my job as a writer any easier. In fact, it might have made it harder.

During my conversation with Cheryl Strayed (author of the wonderful memoir Wild) in this month’s issue, we discussed how tempting it is, when writing about one’s own life – especially when that life has been marked by extraordinary events – to simply described what happened. After all if what happened was interesting, then the story would be interesting, wouldn’t it? I was captured by pirates, for God’s sake. What more do you need?

As it turns out, much more. The story is never about what happened. Even if you were captured by Somali pirates, your job as a writer is not to report on the fact of your capture, internment, and escape, but to reveal what it felt like to be captured by Somali pirates. Your job as a writer is to trace the emotional journey from shock, to fear, to boredom, to acceptance, to fear again, and then finally to relief. What happens is relevant only insofar as it puts what you are feeling into some kind of physical, spatial, and temporal context.

Which is why I am glad my life has not been very interesting. I don’t really have the option of simply telling you what happened. I have no choice but to dig beneath my rather mundane surface. And why am I confident this digging will yield any narrative gold? Because I know what it felt like to be me. I know that I loved and was afraid and was relieved and learned and yearned. As a writer, that’s all I’ll ever need.

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Clever Monsters

When I was a young parent and would get the 2:00 a.m. Monster Under The Bed call, I would do the obvious and ultimately useless thing of bravely checking under the bed to reassure my son that he had nothing to worry about: nothing lived there but dust bunnies and forgotten toys.

But monsters are clever, and so the second time I am called into the bedroom at 2:00 a.m. and bravely look beneath the bed, I am told that the monster snuck out and into the closet when I had my back turned. And so I pull the closet doors open, and Lo! No monsters.

Except monsters are cleverer still. By the third 2:00 a.m. trip I am told that the monsters have a special power: they are invisible to grownups. It is about this time that my young parenting patience runs out and I growl, “There are no monsters anywhere in your bedroom, all right? I’m very tired. Go to sleep.”

I am older now, but the monsters are still around. Clever as always, they have changed their shape to suit the child. Last night my thirteen year-old son’s cry pulled me from a very pleasant dream. I staggered into his room and found him sitting up in bed.

“Dad, I heard a burglar in the house.”

The troubles of the world are not yet relevant to the half-dreaming mind, and so I had the wisdom on this night not to even listen for the burglar I knew did not exist. “Sawyer,” said the part of me that knew what it could not see, “answer me honestly now. Ready? Are you ready?”

“I’m ready.”

“Okay. Quickly now: are you safe?”

He blinked at me in the darkness. “Yes.”

“Good.” I eased him back onto his pillow. “That’s the only answer you’ll ever really get, you know.”

Out in the hall my mind was waking up. How unfortunate. Now, it might resist returning to sleep. Now, it might even find itself listening for burglars.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!

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Secret Wishes

Today is my birthday, and my wife has promised me there will be a cake in my near future, candles included. I have never been a formal wish-maker, and so, once a year, when presented with the requirement to do so, I usually panic. The first wish I remember making was on my sixth birthday. This was in 1971, and my knowledge of the world beyond my house and school was that there was a war being fought in a place called Vietnam and that this war was bad and grownups around the country were arguing about it. When I saw those candles burning, and all eyes at the party turned to me for the moment of truth, I thought, “I wish for the end of war.”

I wanted to be a good person, you see, and that seemed like what a good person would wish for. In this way, it never felt like an authentic wish, and so I could not take much credit when the war finally did end a few years later. I don’t remember a single other birthday wish I have ever made, so I can’t say whether any of them have come true or not.

I do remember standing by a wishing well about ten years ago when my writing career seemed to be all rejection. I tossed a penny in, and thought, “I wish for . . . success. I guess.” I felt as hopeless tossing that penny in the well as I did sending out query letters. Strangely, I felt about that wish for success exactly as I had about my wish for the end of war. It was as if I was making someone else’s wish. Didn’t I want success? What was wrong with me?

But now that I think of it, my brother moved to Los Angeles last fall, and a couple months ago I told my wife, “I want to visit John, but I wish there was a place I could speak while I was down there. Combine business and pleasure, you know?” Two weeks later I received an invitation to speak in Ventura County, about an hour north of my brother’s new digs.

They say that birthday wishes must be kept private. I believe this is accurate. In fact, the more private the wish is kept the better. You see, despite what I had told my wife about speaking near Los Angeles, even I didn’t understand that I had made a wish until it came true.

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There are writers who enjoy selling their work, and there are writers who do not. I do not mean there are writers who do not enjoy having their work bought; I mean there are writers who dislike the act of selling their work. Emily Dickinson is perhaps the patron saint of such writers. She described selling poetry as “auctioning the soul.”

I can sympathize with Dickinson, but lately, when I think of selling work, a certain word comes to mind again and again: value. It’s a word that gets used a lot in commerce. “How much is something worth?” we ask. “Well,” we answer, “what’s its value?” When a writer decides it is time to sell her work, I believe she should focus on its value, though not in monetary terms. She needn’t, as Dickinson bemoaned, auction her soul.

To understand the value of your work you must love that work as both a writer and a reader. For instance, in my reading life I have been inspired by other writers’ work. I have also been entertained, amused, excited, scared, thrilled, informed, and outraged. Yet what I value most is the experience of being inspired by something I have read. I have measured in my heart the distance between where I was before I was inspired and where I was after. To deny the value of the distance I traveled would be like denying I love my wife and children.

And so I write essays and stories that seek to inspire the reader. I also wish to entertain the reader, and amuse the reader, and inform the reader—but mostly I want to inspire the reader. If I feel I have been successful in this, then I know why someone would buy it. Someone would buy it for the same reason I would buy it. When I offer my work for sale, I am not asking anyone to assign a value to me. I am really not a part of the equation. Instead, I am looking for readers and editors who value this experience as much as I do. In this way, if I am honest, selling my work is not an auction but an invitation to party I would be delighted to attend.

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The Herd

Writers sometimes make reluctant capitalists, but whether we wish to discuss it or not, we are responsible for creating a product that we must in turn sell to the general public. The knock on capitalism, generally speaking, is its cold heartedness, a necessarily unfeeling engine of commerce whose deity, The Market, rights all wrongs through a Darwinian winnowing of the entrepreneurial herd. We writers, meanwhile, usually like to view ourselves as caring, empathetic people. Empathy is more or less in the fiction writer’s job description; how else to render believably all those people who aren’t us?

But there is something beautifully democratic about capitalism that every business owner, including writers, at some point understands. We all have our own crowd. We all have the people we eat and drink with, the people we seek out at parties. Society, in some ways, remains an extension of the high school cafeteria, with everyone gravitating to their respective tables. It’s not always inspiring, but it’s practical; easier to talk to people you like than to those you don’t.

But then you become a writer, and someone from another lunch table does something unexpected: they buy your book. In fact, you might look up to realize that only people from other lunch tables are buying your book. Now these people aren’t so bad after all. And not merely because they’re putting quarters in your pocket. When you meet your readers you discover for whom, beside yourself, you were actually writing.

Though I was the sort who bounced between different lunch tables, I have my preferences. While it is gratifying in a way to learn that someone I know and perhaps admire likes my work, there is something singularly uplifting about a stranger finding comfort in it. On the savannah, herd animals seek safety in numbers. Writers must go it alone to do our work, and our safety, in the end, depends on our willingness to accept all comers, to welcome round us anyone whose questions match our own. You see life then for what it is: a collection of curiosity, whose form must yield by and by to the answers received.

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Two days ago I wrote about the difference between being a writer and an author. Here is a great story to illustrate that point.

When Andre Dubus III was a small child, his father attended the Iowa Writers Program. Some evenings a man with curly hair and a mustache would come by the house and smoke cigarettes and watch Batman cartoons with Andre. That man’s name was Kurt Vonnegut.

Andre would grow up the son of a respected short story writer and essayist. His father, Andre Dubus, was what we would call a writer’s writer. When Andre was in his 20s he showed a short story he had written to his father. His father said, “Congratulations. You’re a writer.”

Andre eventually decided to submit a short story for publication. He sent to six magazines, five of which declined. The sixth, Playboy, accepted the story and paid him 2,000 1980 dollars for it. Andre would go on to publish a collection of short stories, and then a novel, and then another novel called The House Of Sand and Fog. When his always-supportive father read his second novel, he said, “Get yourself a tuxedo. You’ll be going to the National Book Award Banquet.”

The House of Sand and Fog was indeed a finalist for The National Book Award. It was also an Oprah Book Club selectee and was made into a major motion picture. All of this is described in Andre’s excellent memoir Townie (excepted here in Author). I interviewed Andre after Townie’s release. I thought it was a great book, and wanted to tell him so.

When I met him in the hotel lobby before our interview we shook hands and I asked him how the book was doing. “Great,” he said. “Really great, actually. The reviews have been fantastic, better than for any book I’ve ever written.”

“Well, that doesn’t surprise me, Andre.” I wasn’t sure how to tell him how much I liked the book. Sometimes praise can be as awkward as criticism. “Look – I really liked this book, but I don’t just want to lavish you with praise.”

“Go ahead and lavish,” he said. “I’m an insecure writer.”

I don’t believe he is an insecure writer. I believe Andre is an extremely secure writer, or else he would not have been able to write ­Townie or the House of Sand and Fog. But despite having grown up with a writer father who loved and supported him, despite selling his first short story to Playboy, being on Oprah, getting great reviews and selling lots of books and all the rest, Andre Dubus III is still an insecure author.

He is insecure for the exact same reasons you or I are insecure. No matter how much success we may or may not have had, when a story leaves our hands, it belongs to the world and not just to us. Hopefully, we loved that story; hopefully that is why we wrote it. Whether the world will love it as much is we do is not what causes our insecurity. Rather, it is the belief that if the world loves it less, we will love it less. It is the belief that something outside of us can pull us from what we love, from the only source of our security.

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Although I enjoy speaking to crowds, I think I would make a lousy politician. The popularity contest that is an election would bring out my most craven qualities, and I would end up like a writer changing his story’s ending for every reader. Still, this hasn’t prevented me from developing my own bipartisan platform, which, lacking a convention, I will share with you now:

First, conservatives always preach the importance of self-reliance, and so would I. The finest people in the world to hang around with are those who best understand that they alone are responsible for their own wellbeing. If I think you can do or say something that will make me unhappy, then I must control you, mustn’t I? After all, I only want to be happy, to be at peace, and if you can gum that up somehow, then you’ve got to be dealt with. Plus, have you ever tried to make someone happy? It’s exhausting and frustrating. No matter how beautifully you sing, no matter how funny your jokes are, that other person can still choose to be unhappy. Completely ungrateful, but there it is.

Meanwhile, liberals preach the power of community and shared responsibility, and so would I. The only true form of self-reliance is love. In fact, all we ever rely on for our happiness is love, which arrives as soon as it is asked for. Love defies the laws of physics; it has no cause and effect—it simply is.

Moreover, as James Joyce noted, “Love loved loves to love.” This is an economical expression of the unique physics of love. In the material world, if I give you a dollar, I have one less dollar; if I give you my coat, I have one less coat. In the world of love, the moment I give love I have more love. We can only ever want more love, it is impossible for us to want less of it, and so if you understand that you have love, you will be in a constant search for a means to share love.

I don’t know how this would translate into policy – either foreign or tax – but it would be the only platform upon which I could honestly stand. I have heard, however, that writers are now encouraged to seek platforms from which to share their work. I’m not sure if the aforementioned is what publishers are referring to. They probably mean something more like an online magazine, to which I say: Same thing.

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By the time a writer publishes her first book, or short story, or poem, she has learned how to write. By which I mean she can translate the ideas, scenes, or feelings playing on the movie screen of her imagination into words that can be understood by someone else to enough of a degree that those same ideas, scenes, or feelings play in some form or another on the movie screen of her reader’s imagination.

The closing of the gap between what we see in our imagination and what exists on the page is called craft, and frankly there’s a lot less to it than all the books on writing published every year would suggest. If you write every day, you will learn, quicker than you can imagine, how to close this gap.

What is not so easy to learn, and what is the topic, in one way or another, of every conversation I have ever had with any writer, is being an author. The author is the one who takes this thing created in private and shares it with the world. You become an author the moment you show anything you have written to anyone, whether that someone is your mother, your lover, your teacher, or a literary agent.

In that moment, your relationship to your work changes. Ultimately, being an author will make you a better writer. Ultimately, being an author, allowing your stories to enter someone else’s imagination, will tighten the accuracy of your language and will deepen your relationship to the work. You wrote your story so it could be shared. If you didn’t want to share it, you wouldn’t have bothered translating it into a form others could understand.

Nothing, however, will ruin the experience of writing as completely as being an author. Nothing will corrupt the writing itself or fill a person with self-doubt. Most of the time when we talk about the challenges of writing we aren’t talking about writing at all; we are talking about the challenges of being an author, of going public with this thing created in private. At our desk, we have some control; out there, anything can happen.

I have never interviewed a writer who is totally secure with the job of author. Everyone is learning this. It is the reason for this magazine’s title. But if you are meant to write, then you are meant to be an author. The two are inseparable. But remember this: you have been talking all your life, which means you have lots of practice putting ideas into words before you pick up a pen. I don’t know how you prepare for being an author other than doing it. If it feels uncomfortable, unnatural, unpleasant, that is because it is new, not because you are no good at it. Give yourself enough time to learn; you will discover the rest of your life should be just about right.

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