The Garden

I used to imagine myself as something as a carpenter when I wrote. I think this can be attributed to an overly-literal reading of a passage from Hemingway’s A Movable Feast where the author recounts coming to the understanding that he never wanted to describe but rather to make (with words). I thought this was an accurate and useful distinction, and when in a rendering jam I would try to remember Hemingway’s wise perspective.

I have since replaced make with translate and the carpenter profession for gardener. I don’t think I can make anything. I don’t know how. I don’t know how to make a story any more than I know how to make a flower. What I do know how to do is to tend an environment in which creation is possible. Just as a gardener plants and waters and shades his garden so that creation might flourish, so too I attempt to create an inviting environment within me through which creation can pass.

And when this creative energy accepts my invitation, I attempt to translate it as faithfully as possible. This translation is my real job, the most active part of this agreement. The environment to which the invitation has been made, meanwhile, must be all stillness. The only movement allowed within this space is that of the creative energy. Any movement I introduce would disrupt the creation, as I might mistake it for what is authentic and translate what is merely my own invention as opposed to what was invited.

Given this, I suppose you could say I am not creative in the literal sense. This is a pill most writers and artists are unwilling to swallow, but I will swallow it all the same in the name of sanity. Since I do not know how to make a story, since I do not know in the factual sense why a story works but rather only that it works when I see it working, it is best to be honest. If you found a gardener in his garden trying to assemble a rose from the dirt, you would shake your head and call the padded wagon. Writers can go mad far easier, mistaking what grows from the garden within them for themselves.

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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Nora Ephron

I was sorry to hear that Nora Ephron had passed away on Tuesday. When I interviewed her two years ago I was unaware until reading her writing credits in I Remember Nothing that she had apparently written and directed about half the romantic comedies made in the 90s and beyond.

Interviews can be surprisingly intimate conversations between strangers. It is always my goal that the author and I feel like friends by the end of our taping. I understood soon enough that this would not be the case with Ms. Ephron. After the shoot I groused about it to my wife. “She didn’t give me anything.”

And then I got the footage. It was one of the easiest interviews I have ever had to edit because all her answers were concise, interesting, and cogent. Also, unlike some authors unaccustomed to on-camera interviews, she kept her answers under two minutes, another blessing in the editing room.

At the end of the interview I asked Ephron what she would do if she couldn’t write. She answered, “Writing is what I do; it’s is like breathing.” She went on to say that first she would be relieved, and then she would cook, and then she would become very depressed because she’d have nothing to do.

After the shoot I walked with her to where she would be meeting the folks from Third Place Books. I asked her if she had another movie in the pipeline. “Oh, yeah,” she said wearily. “They always want another one.” I said good-bye, thinking what an odd answer that was. She was a guarded woman, and not about to give away anything terribly personal, but I suspected that her enthusiasm for the work no longer matched the eagerness of the studios to produce her.

And so there will not be another Nora Ephron film. We will all endure, and meanwhile she has taken her enthusiasm with her, where it rightly belongs. Her last words in our interview were, “But if I couldn’t write . . .? I’ve written a lot. And I do like cooking.”

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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Bad Idea

Sometimes I think that the worst thing you can possibly have is an idea. Sometimes, having an idea is like having the flu. The idea will drain you of energy and give you the sweats and send you to your pillow. Strange, isn’t it, that this wonderful idea seemed to give you such a shot of energy when you first got it? You lie in your bed feeling betrayed, trying to remember the enthusiasm you once had for this idea’s potential. Now the enthusiasm is gone and all there is left is an impossible burden, trying to bring back to life something which appears never to have been alive at all.

When I was a freshman in college, an earnest and scholarly young man turned to me and said, “Bill, you seem intelligent. You seem like someone who likes ideas.” I knew he meant it as a compliment, but at eighteen I already suspected that I did not want to be someone who liked ideas. I wanted to love life, not ideas, but the difference was beyond my powers of expression.

I had seen the difference. I had seen someone close to me tell me about his great ideas. The ideas always seemed perfectly plausible. The ideas were always well thought out. The ideas could have worked. And the ideas never did. After the ideas didn’t work, there was the search for answers. The answer, from my view, was always the same: the enthusiasm that had launched the idea dissolved long before the idea could bear fruit. Was this the fault of the person or the idea?

Neither, I would say. This same person had a habit of getting married and divorced and married and divorced. Each marriage was yet another idea for which his enthusiasm dissolved. Until one day the enthusiasm did not, and twenty plus years later he is still married.

There are as many ideas in the world as there are potential lovers. Ideas come to us as ceaselessly as strangers pass us on a busy street. To see the potential in an idea the same as we might see the potential in a stranger is perhaps generous but ultimately unworthy of our pursuit. Just because an idea could work, doesn’t mean it will work for us. No idea can spark your enthusiasm. It is impossible. You are enthusiasm. An idea either matches your enthusiasm and allows its unique expression, or requires your enthusiasm to twist around it, bending your enthusiasm beyond recognition until all you’ve got is an idea—and no you.

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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A Popular Friend

My best friend in seventh grade had been Palmer, but Palmer’s mother decided she couldn’t handle Palmer and his older brother, and so both were shipped off to live with their father in Pennsylvania, and then Palmer wasn’t my best friend anymore. I needed a new best friend in eighth grade, and that friend was Frank.

Seventh and eighth grades were the only two years in my childhood where the question of being popular or unpopular weighed heavily on my mind. I could not really understand the benefits of being popular other than to avoid the shame of being unpopular. Frank, I observed, would have nothing to do with the equation. He amazed me. He was universally well liked even while lacking any of the qualities popular boys normally possessed: cute, in a band and/or good at sports, and cool.

Instead, Frank was very funny and very honest. He seemed more adult than the rest of us. He had a grownup vocabulary and he could poke fun at teachers as if they were his peers. I learned that his mother had died the year before. I attributed Frank’s honesty and pointed adult humor to a lesson his mother’s death had taught him. I do not know if this is so, but I knew I wanted to be his friend and join him in this world where popularity is something silly and deserves to be made fun of when viewed against the death of one’s mother.

Our friendship ended when we attended different high schools, but I would never again wonder so much about my popularity. Occasionally that word will pop up in my work when I read about popular fiction, or what is most popular on Amazon. For a moment I am twelve again, wondering what it will take to be a part of the In Crowd. For a moment, life and writing feels like a dance whose steps I am required to master or be relegated to lesser lunch table obscurity.

But the feeling passes as quickly as my eyes travel across the words on the page. I used to have a morbid envy of Frank and his bereaved wisdom. If only some terrible loss would elevate me to the height from which my troubles look like ants scrambling on the sidewalk. As if I couldn’t see the whole world from where I stood; as if love weren’t ready at a word to teach me I could never be unpopular with anyone but myself.

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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Handstands

At the last Father’s Days barbecue, my young niece taught me to do a proper cartwheel. A proper cartwheel, she explained, begins as a handstand. Did I know how to do a handstand? I most certainly did.

Or, I knew how to begin a handstand. For as long as I have been attempting handstands, which occurs at the rate of about once-a-summer, I have only ever been able to maintain this inverted balance for a few upside-down seconds. There so much to pay attention to – keeping your feet straight in the air, keeping your hands under your shoulders, your hips even with your head – that if your attention wanders for even a breath your balance escapes you and you must return to your feet, a position which requires no effort to support you.

Sometimes I lie in bed and attempt a similar handstand. I picture the world as a place without error, a perfect sphere of existence impossible to correct. Like my handstand, I can hold this perception for only a few, breathless seconds before my mind, ever active and in search of something to fix, pulls me from this balance.

For those few moments of mental inversion, the world appears as if from a handstand, the same trees and houses and children, only their perceptual opposite. The view from this perspective is as clear as from a mountaintop, but also just as dizzying, especially for the mind, which prefers something to grab onto and manipulate so that it can feel useful.

When my mind flips the world back, it feels as if I am returning to the natural balance of my feet, so accustomed am I to seeing the world as in need of correction. And indeed, before long, this old perspective feels as natural as walking. But first there comes a moment where I feel the effort that I exerted in search of errors that needed correction. For that moment, I see that I am not returning to my feet, but launching myself once again onto my hands to join all the other little gymnasts as we practice being the opposite of what 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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The Whole Truth

Writing teaches me every day, but if it teaches me nothing else it teaches me to trust. Specifically, trust that the truth will always be enough. The truth will always be funny enough, interesting enough, exciting enough, or compelling enough for the story I want to tell. The truth needs no exaggeration; it needs no help.

I cannot, however, manufacture the truth, anymore than I can manufacture the sky or an elm tree. The best I can do is to report it, translate it. I have tried to manufacture a more interesting truth when I worried that the truth itself would not suffice, but this ersatz reality, no matter how dramatic, always felt a little thin against what I rejected.

What’s more, the truth resists evidence. It will never be proven, only perceived. And to perceive it, I must keep my attention upon it. The moment I move my attention in search of some proof of what I have perceived, I lose sight of the truth and doubt moves in to take its place. If I feel betrayed by the truth for not following my attention, I call myself a skeptic. Mostly, however, writing has taught me to return my attention to what I had known to be the truth when I had perceived it.

The beautiful thing about the truth is that I can see it in everything if I look at the world correctly. You cannot perceive it if you don’t believe it’s there, but the moment you do, the truth reveals itself. It reveals itself in the sky and in elm trees, in friends and strangers, and from time to time, if I am very still, even in the mirror.

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 Invitation

I had begun to get that restless feeling from being done with work so early in the day, and when my cat was hit by a car on Friday, I knew it was time to start a new book. I suppose it was a coincidence that I had known for months that the book was going to be about meeting, and then losing, and then finding my wife again, and that Lou, my cat, died exactly 29 years to the day after Jen’s parents moved her across the country.

When I had been only thinking about writing it but not sure when I would start, I had also known the book would have to do with death, even though no one dies in it. “How am I going to work that?” I would wonder. I did not have to wonder that anymore, though Lou dying only seemed to remind me of something I had lost track of in the commotion of getting things done.

I do not mean to suggest that Lou sacrificed himself so that I could start a book. But I do know this: death is always an invitation to the living. Between cats and humans it is only a matter of degrees. The body I carried back to my yard in a plastic bag was not going to climb a tree again, and the poor thinking mind can only do the math of life and conclude that something now was missing.

My mind had done the very same math 30 years before, because Jen may have lived, but she didn’t live with me, and so something was missing and my world was incomplete. The mind thus rejects the invitation that what we call death offers. But the invitation was not intended for the mind. The heart, meanwhile, has never been so interested in the form love takes. A card may burn but the invitation remains, and all that can ever be missing is the decision to accept it.

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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500 Love Letters

What would you do if you had to prove that you loved someone? What would you do if in order to be with the man or the woman you loved you had to first prove to a skeptical third party that your love was genuine and not a convenient ruse?

This was precisely the situation in which chef/author Tiberio Simone found himself when he sought to marry his wife-to-be and gain citizenship in the United States. As Tiberio explained to me in our interview, he had led a rough and dangerous life to this point. He had been homeless, a male prostitute, and falsely accused of murder. Not exactly an attractive candidate for citizenship, and precisely the sort of person who might fake a marriage to get out of trouble. So what do you do? How do you prove that you love someone?

Tiberio’s proof was love letters. Though he had little formal education, during their courtship he had composed 500 love letters to his fiancé, which he presented during his hearing. The immigration officials were convinced, and he was granted his citizenship.

Many years later, Tiberio would sit down to write his first book. He was much intimidated by the process. “I am smart,” he told me. “I know I am smart. Smart people like other smart people and I like smart people.” But was he writer smart? He did not have a high school degree, he reminded me, and he had never written.

“But you had,” I said. “You wrote 500 love letters.” His face brightened with understanding. They may not have been ready for publication, but those letters directed him toward the source of all the best writing the world has ever read. All writing at its best is a love letter. Though often disguised as a poem or a story or even a blog, they are love letters all the same, proof enough of what we believe our lives are made.

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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What You Cannot Give

The other night my son spotted an interesting choice on the Netflix menu: The People VS George Lucas. We hunkered down for what was an enlightening look into the world of the uberfan, and, I must say, it got ugly fast. If you are not up on such things, adult fans of the original Star Wars trilogy were – well, are, I’m sure – highly displeased with both the three prequels as well as a few small changes Lucas made to episodes 4, 5, and 6 in the 1990’s (Google “Han fired first” if you’d like a taste).

Having dwelled professionally for a time in the world of Dungeons & Dragons, I am somewhat familiar with the kind of nerd outrage expressed by the fans in this documentary. They loved what Lucas had made, and then Lucas betrayed them. There was a juvenile quality to these men’s (and, alas, they were nearly all men) vitriol, to their sense of entitlement, and to their child-like view of what it is to create something original and put it out there for all the world to see.

It would be easy for me to simply sit in judgment – and, as you can probably tell, I spent a fair amount of time doing just that – if I did not recognize a small part of myself in every one of their geeky tirades. And no, not because I was a Star Wars fan. I wasn’t. What I saw in them was the exact same fear I used to feel sitting down to write a query letter. Will anybody really read this? I would wonder. Does anybody really care about me and my stories?

I did not understand then that you cannot be heard if you don’t hear yourself, and you cannot be seen if you don’t see yourself. It’s like a magic trick, letting yourself disappear in a crowd, even when you are shouting. These men shouted plenty. “He doesn’t give a damn about the fans!” There is no reason to shout unless you think you can’t be heard.

Meanwhile, I am sure Lucas gave as much as a damn as he could about the millions of fans who flocked to see his movies. But no matter how much of a damn he gave he could not give them what they wanted most and already had: a voice.

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 Rest Of Life

My videographer recently explained to me the advantages of shooting in a location like Elliott Bay Book Company, which is the site for this month’s interview with memoirist Meghan O’Rourke. Because of the size of the room, we were better able to achieve a compelling “depth of field,” which is when objects behind the subject are far enough away to be out of focus, thereby sharpening the delineation between the subject and the background.

The best way to achieve this depth of field, he told me, is with a high-quality lens, which enables the cameraman to position himself further from the subject. At such distances he must tighten his focus on the subject; in so doing, all objects not on that subject’s plane naturally fade into blur.

We do not have this luxury at Third Place Books, the site for most of our interviews. The author and I are sitting in a tight corner of the bookstore surrounded in books. For most of the interview, the author and the books behind him or her are equally in focus – it is only because the author is talking and is in the center of the frame that we know he or she is the subject and not the books. However, when we zoom in for the final question close-up, the books begin to blur. The author has begun to emerge from the background.

The job of the artist is to create depth of field. All the world begins equally in focus. When we write, we stand with the lens of our imagination at a great distance from our subject. As we focus this lens, that which has drawn our attention begins to emerge from the details of the world around it. The artist, the writer, must embrace a necessary dishonesty – that this detail is more important than that detail. Without this trick of focusing, there could be no stories, there would only be the ocean of equal details that would drown the human mind.

We require such limitations to get about in the world. We ourselves are a limitation, a focusing of energy into that which we call “I”. I have bristled against this limitation in my life, railing against its dull confines one moment, preening over my uniquely fortunate form the next. I forget in such moments that, like my stories, I am intended to be transparent, a narrow aperture through which can be glimpsed the rest of 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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