Writing Shadows

When I was writing fiction, all my novels involved threats of death. I was never entirely comfortable with those sections where my characters were avoiding death or where characters actually died. I chalked this discomfort up to unfamiliarity: my life so far had been relatively death-free. No matter, my writer’s imagination could take me anywhere I needed to go, including death.

Yet it never quite did. Although I did not understand it at the time, the very fact of death increasingly became an obstacle to the entire story I was trying to tell, even those parts that did not seem to involve death at all. My perception of death felt inauthentic to me. To fear death felt inauthentic the way all fear feels inauthentic, but to not fear death felt inauthentic as well because a part of me absolutely wanted to live and live and live and wouldn’t death end all that wonderful living? Isn’t that the math of life? Life = Life; Death = not Life.

And so this perception – or, this absence of perception – began to spread like a cancer through my stories. You cannot write what you cannot see, and since I could not see death, and since all things living must die, death’s darkness crept and crept across my view of life. Now all of the life I was writing began to feel as inauthentic as the death I was avoiding. I was writing shadows when I claimed to be writing sunlight.

I interviewed two memoirists recently, Cheryl Strayed and (the forthcoming) Megan O’Rourke, both of whose books were written in response to their mothers’ early death. In many ways, both these memoirs asked the same question. Strayed and O’Rourke had looked upon their mothers as a source of love, support, and guidance. Was that love, support, and guidance gone, or had it merely changed its form?

This is a question I cannot seem to answer once. As my view of what we call death has cleared, I find I must answer it more and more. I must answer it with every shocking headline I read, with every conversation I share, with every breath I draw. It is as if the mirage of death forever surrounds me, tempting me to move my attention from the life I was summoned to grow.

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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Magicians

I recently taught a short memoir writing class at a retirement community. Given their age, I had assumed many of the students would have arrived with some limited writing experience – a few short stories or poems, a journal, an aborted novel. Not so. Nearly all had no creative writing experience whatsoever. I then found myself in the (for me) unusual position of teaching writing to complete beginners.

My first piece of writing advice to my students was to always bear in mind that they are to never write about what happens, but rather what it feels like when something happens. As I mulled over how best to teach this, I considered offering up an example or two by A Master. I thought I’d read a short passage from the first story of Hemingway’s memoir-ish A Moveable Feast in which Papa describes writing “Up In Michigan” in a Parisian café. Perfect: A piece of memoir writing about writing.

I quickly stumbled on a problem. In my experience, Hemingway is excellent at putting the reader in the scene, both emotionally and sensually. From a teaching standpoint, he is almost too good at it. The closer I looked at the passage, the harder it was to see how he did what he did; all I had known was that he’d done it. It was like watching a magician at arm’s length and still not being able to see where he hides the dove he pulls from his hat.

I decided this was a more advanced lesson than I had at first imagined. More of a story happens within a reader than on the page. Writing is magical in this way, in that we use words to summon life in others. The life we summon, however, belongs to neither of us – nor to the story. In truth, all we have done is point the readers toward what already existed within them. This is all any magician ever does: divert our attention so that what already exists might appear as if from nowhere.

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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The Whole Song

I imagine life like a song with 100 verses. Unfortunately, none of us can remember more than 80 or 90 of the verses. It is a beautiful song, but forever incomplete in our minds. What’s more, the verses we remember are never entirely sequential, and so some make more sense than others. Some verses, in fact, in being disconnected from their conjoining verses, seem to make no sense at all – just a lot of lovely sound and fury.

Like all songs, we cannot quite make new what we have forgotten. Songs have an integrity all their own, an integrity born through the imagination of its author that can never be wholly replicated any more than the author himself could be replicated. And so the verses we write ourselves for the song we have forgotten are both inadequate and yet the source of great pride, for these lines are ours and ours alone.

Better to sing the verses you know as honestly and completely as possible. In this way, those who have forgotten what you can remember will have the opportunity to hear again what they require. Of course, the song will be in your voice, not theirs, and so it will take some faith on their part that it is our song and not merely your song. No matter. It is not your job to prove what you already know; the song is proof in itself.

And just as you sing so must you listen. The song, after all, is known completely, but through a multitude of minds and sung in a multitude of voices. If you should decide you wish to know it all, listen. Some verses you will have to hear again and again and again before you recognize what you are hearing. Other verses you will declare inauthentic, for you may have tried to finish the song in your own mind, and you are protective of your solutions and creations and you believe the authentic verse somehow renders the song incomprehensible.

Most of all, however, trust is required that the song is already complete. Without this trust, the world will seem forever inadequate. I doubt I will ever be able to sing the song in its entirety, but I am certain I have heard it. I could not hear it, however, until I understood it was already being sung. Until that time, life was governed by capricious tides of harmony and dissonance. After, what had appeared ugly became beautiful, the transformation as instantaneous and miraculous as thought.

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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Serious Kittens

I recently received a humorless notification from the City of Seattle informing me that I am long past due on my pet license renewal. Apparently you must pay $27 per year for the right to own a kitty in Seattle. I paid this fee happily when I adopted Lou, our family cat, from the Seattle Animal Shelter because it was the only way to get the animal-lovers there to hand Lou over to my wife and me. After I paid them, in addition to Lou I also received a short lecture on the seriousness of the life choice that is kitty ownership. Were we prepared to dump food in a dish twice a day and tell him what a good, good boy he was for up to fifteen years? We were.

But I mustn’t mock the seriousness of the kitty. I worked long hours to produce my two-minute promotional video Inspiring Authors. As of this writing, Inspiring Authors is my most popular YouTube video, clocking in at 31,306 views. Last night my son showed me a short piece in which four kittens mew noisily for their dinner. It has so far received 3,889,479 views. As well it should – those kitten were cute. And there were four of them. We soon found another kitten video, but this selection had only one mewing kitten and it lacked the narrative umph of Noisy Kittens Waiting for Dinner. We grew bored and turned it off after a minute. That video received only 464,000 views.

Inspiring Authors was created to A) Inspire Authors, and B) drive viewers to Author. I believe it has succeeded in varying degrees to do both. I don’t know why Noise Kittens Waiting for Dinner was created, but after watching it my son cried, “I want a kitten! We need a kitten!”

I doubt videos of authors talking about the writing life will ever be able to compete with kittens, and this is probably for the best. My fellow humans sometimes baffle and frustrate me, like when they threaten to send an officer to my door to collect a license fee and penalty, but then I see that 3,889,479 of us will pause in our busy and serious days to watch kittens mewing for 2:18, and I believe our intentions are ultimately good.

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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The End

I recently posted a short compilation video called “What Writing Has Taught Me.” I ask this question of every author at the end of our interview and I find that it often gets to the heart of the big writing question, namely: Why do we do this?

Andre Dubus said that his writing improved when he approached a story with “something to learn instead of something to say.” Professionally, Andre is a teacher as well as a writer, and you don’t have to sit with him long to learn that he has a great many things to say. I too write and teach, and you need only glance at the hundreds of entries in this column to know that I have plenty to say as well. Yet Andre could not be more right. No matter how convinced we are of our convictions, our work will always improve when we approach the blank page with the humility of a student rather than the certainty of an instructor.

It is strange, then, that as authors we are, technically speaking, authorities. And yes, when we write we must do so with authority – we must seek the truth and share what we have found with confidence. The seeking, however, is for us; the sharing is for our readers. But the seeking remains the important ingredient, and why, I believe, my question so often intrigues the authors I interview.

I have come to understand that “the truth” that we seek as writers is just that – a singular, though all-encompassing, it. Everyone knows this same truth. Yet it is so vast, so infinitely faceted, that each of us for our own reasons develops a kind of blindness toward one or many of the facets. The world, then, appears incomplete, perhaps ruined even, a broken place where broken people lead their broken lives, and all the doctors and journalists and politicians and judges and parents and, yes, teachers and writers, must fix it, fix it fix it so that something called happiness might be known.

You cannot fix what isn’t broken. Instead you can learn to see what is already there. In that instant of seeing, the world becomes whole; in that instant of expanded perception the writer discovers what he has forgotten, and feels – if only for a second – that holy awareness that he then calls “The End.”

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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Exploring Music

I wrote recently about what I (rather accidentally) did right when I taught myself to compose music in my early 40s. This was a particularly instructive time in my life. Unlike writing, which I had been immersed in since I was a teenager, I had merely dabbled with music writing in my 20s. Thus I was coming to it relatively fresh, and as an adult. As a result, I observed things about the experience of composing music that I often overlooked in writing.

First, there is a technical aspect to music that doesn’t apply to writing. That is, every child in America (hopefully) is taught to read and write English, but not every child is taught to read and write music. I knew how to read music from my years of playing the flute, and I had a rudimentary knowledge of music theory, but knowing what an eighth note and an F major chord are is not the same as knowing how to write music.

Still, even with all my experience writing in English, I believed my primary obstacle was technical. The music was in my head, I only needed to learn how to get it onto the (digital) page. This was true, and it was not. What was fascinating at the time, and what remains mysterious to me still, is that in learning how to write music, I simultaneously learned what music could be.

I have known this about writing also, but because the music was happening so quickly I saw it more clearly. It is as if the potential for music, or for stories, sits like an untapped well within me. Every new technique I learned – and by technique I mean how certain combinations of sounds could create unique emotional experiences – revealed still new musical potential.

It was as if music was gradually revealing itself to me. All my life I had listened closely and devotedly to music, but listening and writing are not the same. The act of creation requires that we remove art’s first mysterious veil so that we can observe some of the gears and wheels driving the engine. In this way art can appear mechanical. Yet nothing could be less true. The more of the mechanics I learned, the more technical facility I acquired, the more deliciously mysterious music became. I wasn’t an architect, I was an explorer, and all my technique merely allowed me to travel further into a vast cave where I might unlock some door and release what already existed.

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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Awareness

I have written from time to time here about the three narrative arcs in every story: the physical arc (everything that happens in the story); the emotional arc (the characters’ desires and motivations); and the intentional arc (the driving purpose behind the story). As I have said, the physical is the least important arc and the intentional is the most important, even though we are far more aware of the physical than the intentional.

These arcs in many ways mirror the levels of human experience. First there is the physical level: in order to tell a story our fingers must type or hold a pen, or our voice must speak. It is impossible, therefore, to share our stories with other human beings without employing our physical selves in some way.

And yet our fingers or our voice do not tell a story. They are merely tools to translate what we see and feel within us. This is the second level of the human experience: the attentive level. In order to tell a story you must turn the light beam of your attention to the story you want to tell. The longer you leave your attention on the story, the clearer it becomes, and the easier it is to translate into something that exists outside of you. And so we see that our attention is far more of who we are than our bodies.

And yet our attention is not really who we are. Because every writer knows he can sit at his laptop and instead of focusing the light beam of his attention on the story he wishes to tell, he might focus his attention on the stories he has not sold, or on what he believes an editor would buy. Our attention loves thoughts, and within its powerful light those thoughts grow. But we are not those thoughts or that attention. We are the awareness of our thoughts and our attention. We are that which decides the thoughts we will focus our powerful attention upon.

Of our three selves the most vulnerable is the physical, exposed as it is to all the thorns and hard edges of the world. So too our attention, which can light upon some cancerous idea, growing it steadily and unconsciously in its effort to eliminate it. But our awareness remains beyond the reach of pain. Our awareness, in fact, is what heals our pain – sometimes with a salve, sometimes by redirecting our attention, and sometimes simply by reminding us of who we are.

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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Perfect Shame

At 43 I discovered that I could fulfill what was literally a lifelong dream – to compose music. My computer, I discovered one evening, came equipped with software that would allow me to write music as complex as my imagination desired without the commensurate skill on the piano or guitar. What came at first was very simple and very short: one melody line and one bass line. Within less than two years, however, I was able to compose a short “symphonette” with twelve instruments and five melodies playing simultaneously.

I am still surprised at how quickly my music writing skills evolved without classes or books or much knowledge of music theory. I would be happy to attribute this to musical genius, but I believe it has far more to do with how I went about teaching myself.

1. I gave myself small assignments. My only goal for that first piece I wrote was that it sounded like music. It did, and so I was successful. With each new piece I expanded gradually what I asked of myself – adding an instrument here and there, and experimenting periodically with new time signatures and new chords. If I had tried to write a symphony immediately I would have been overwhelmed and would have given up.

2. I wrote every day. I stole 20 minutes in the mornings and evenings to compose my little melodies. This was the easiest part. I felt lucky, you see. Writing the music was my gift to myself.

3. I listened to music as a composer. My only teachers were Beethoven and Paul McCartney and Mozart. I’d always loved music, but now I paid attention to how these composers achieved their effects.

4. I never criticized or compared my music. This was perhaps the most miraculous choice of all. Like many writers I am prone to some harsh self-criticism, but never once did I turn my cruel critic’s eye on my music. The only question I ever asked of what I had composed was: Does this please me? If the answer was yes, it stayed; if the answer was no, it went.

It is difficult to write about my own work in this way and not sound as if I am bragging, and I accept that I may not have succeeded in this. But my relationship to the music I wrote remains unique in my creative life. I still do not wonder if it is “any good.” The question is weirdly irrelevant. I wrote what I wanted to hear and now it exists and that is the end of it. In this way, composing music taught me more about writing than much of the writing I was doing at that time because it showed me definitively that most of what we call constructive criticism is nothing more than the false belief that perfection exists and that anything short of it is shameful.

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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All That Is Right

We’ve been homeschooling my youngest son, Sawyer, lately, and I have taken the role of Language Arts instructor. In my class, we write stories. Because Sawyer can turn any task asked of him from tying his shoes to taking a shower into work – and therefore a requirement, and therefore not his idea, and therefore something joyless he must finish as quickly as possible so he can get back to those things that are his idea – I wanted to make the experience of writing as much like the pretending he has been doing all his life.

To that end, I typed the story while he dictated. I would handle grammar and punctuation and such, which, while necessary to produce a polished piece of work, are entirely secondary to what writing actually is. Moreover, I asked questions. Sawyer would dictate: “My house was horrible.” I would ask, “What do you mean? Why is it horrible? Prove to me it’s horrible. Look around the apartment and write the horrible things you see.”

Sawyer would get still, his eyes acquiring the inward focus of true imagining, and then say, “The walls have grease on them with flies swarming around. And there’s an old painting on the wall, a cheap replica of the Mona Lisa. It has . . .” And I could see him counting. “It has five tears in it.”

And so on. Sawyer could always see the story he was telling, and with me handling the dry business of making it correct there was no threat of being wrong, something he worried about often. We wrote our first story over several days and each session went effortlessly. Except for one. As I said, we were homeschooling him. The pressure of being wrong so often at school had finally caught up with him and he was acting out in ways we could no longer ignore. So we pulled him out.

But his teacher and vice principal wanted him to return to school once more so they could tell him they cared for him and that they understood he needed a break and that they did not think he was wrong at all. Nice as their intentions were, Sawyer was very nervous about the idea of walking into that building again. And so, when we sat down to write his story, and I read aloud what we had written so far and asked, “So what happens next?” Sawyer shrugged and said, “I don’t know.”

I might as well have asked him what the capital of Kentucky was. We squeezed a couple paragraphs out that day, but our writing was in competition with The Future, and in that game The Future will usually win. I saw again what an insidious siren The Future really is, pulling all our creative attention out into the black hole of what is not. Try as we may, the future will always feel unknowably wrong, lacking as it must the one critical ingredient in all that is right: Life.

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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Missing Pieces

No sooner had I decided on a name for this magazine than I also knew its tag line: You are the author of your own life. The tagline was more of a realization than a decision, and like so many such choices I would gradually come to understand how true it was in the years after its arrival.

I can’t remember when my creative attention drifted from where it belonged. Such things happen so gradually, little uncomfortable choice by little uncomfortable choice, convincing myself moment by moment that I am doing the mature thing and that a man needs to survive in the world. By the time I looked up and saw that I was stranded in some desert, I wondered if maybe I hadn’t been kidnapped and dropped there. I wouldn’t have chosen this, after all.

And yet there I was, staring at the pieces of a puzzle that didn’t actually exist. How, I wondered, can I make it so that this book I’m writing will make those letters from agents say “Yes,” instead of “No,” so that I can turn the manuscript into a book that will be on one of those shelves and checks will arrive in that mailbox? All the pieces of this puzzle were outside of me, and if I could only arrange them my life would be whole. But the pieces never fit together. It was as if the pieces would change shape in my hand. It was a nightmare.

Teachers, prophets, parents and friends advice us to “look inside ourselves.” We hear this so often it becomes the easiest advice in the world to ignore. And yet consider my puzzle, whose linchpin piece is a book I must write. Where does that book come from? Is not that book merely a translated projection of what I see inside me? And every other piece of that supposed puzzle responds to that book. Without the book there is nothing, and without me looking inside me, there is no book.

In this way the world of writing and of publishing is merely a reflection of my own thinking, of the direction of my creative attention. As soon as I stopped looking at the pieces they began to fit together on their own. This would seem an act of faith, I suppose, if it were possible to fit those pieces together with my earthly hands, but it is not. Just like the stories I tell, the world I perceive around me becomes exactly as whole as the world I perceive within me.

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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