Hard Labor

Many a writer looks upon his or her book as a newborn baby. I thought of this comparison when Deborah, the midwife who helped deliver both our boys, talked to us about childbirth. My wife wanted to do it naturally, but was concerned about the pain. Deborah shrugged. “Most of the pain comes during the contractions, but the contractions don’t cause the pain. The pain comes from the mother resisting the contractions. If the mother didn’t resist the contractions, there would be no pain.”

I might not have believed this if I had not watched Jen deliver our second son. The first one had been a long and trying labor, and she had not been able to relax during the contractions. Jen being Jen, she was determined to do better the second time around. Once labor began she stood in the middle of our living room waiting for the next contraction. “Here it comes,” she’d say, and then close her eyes, begin swaying . . . and then open her eyes again.

“Did it hurt?” I asked the first time.

“No,” she said. “You just have to relax and let it happen.” She looked down at me. “But you have to get really relaxed.” She described how most of what she was doing was being absolutely present so that she did not accidentally resist this thing that was happening in her body without her conscious consent.

The most intense part of the delivery for Jen was what is known as the “rim of fire,” when the widest part of the baby’s head is passing through the birth canal.

“So that hurt?” I asked.

She was getting ready to say yes, when she stopped herself. “Not hurt. It was unbelievably intense. It feels like you’re going to split in half. It’s more fear than pain. You just can’t believe your body will actually do this.”

I was hard at work on another novel when my second son was born. I worked hard every morning on that book, would drive to work thinking how I would work hard again the next day. I was good at working hard. I had heard that this was how you got ahead. And yet I often felt as if I was falling behind – behind what I could not say. No matter, more hard work would solve this, and the pain that would awaken me some nights would surely all go away upon the book’s delivery.

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The Terrible Silence

It’s easy to forget that writing is a conversation, not a monologue. This is a simple enough mistake to make. After all, you’re the only one there. Haven’t you spent your days away from the desk swarmed by all these Other People and their incessant need to speak, their relentless will to influence the stream of thought that is a conversation? Haven’t you earned this literary spotlight, this chance to complete these thoughts as you and you alone would complete them?

Of course you have. And so there you are, alone at last at your desk, the room silent, the page blank and waiting for your words. How could this be anything but a monologue? The honest writer will admit that just because he is the only one writing does not mean he is the only one speaking. The difference is that only one of the participants in this conversation has a voice. That’s you. The other participant . . .?

You may call her your imagination if you wish. Or your muse. Or Source Energy. Or God. Or nothing at all. It doesn’t matter what you call her as long as you acknowledge that you have cleared this time and space in your life as much to hear her speak as you. She is the one who surprises you when you write. She is the one speaking when you say you are “listening to your characters.” And she is the one who whispers that new story idea while you stand idle in the shower.

So tempting when I type The End to want to take full credit for what I have written, and yet so important to remain humble at that moment. To take full credit is to mentally close the door on this muse. She is not vengeful. If I thump my chest and say, “Look what I have made!” she will not be hurt, her desire to join me in conversation will not have dimmed.

But she is obedient. If I take full credit she will understand that I wish to go it alone. And so she will become silent so that I can hear only myself. This is a terrible silence. This is the silence of madness. It is not long before in desperation I am listening for her again. How strange that when I hear her at last I feel like myself once again.

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The Hat That Was

When my brother John was seven he got an engineer’s hat. It was the first non-winter hat he had ever owned and he wore it constantly. He wore it in the house and he wore it out of the house. He wore it so much its bill frayed.

I hated the hat. I did not trust it. I felt it was artificial, that the hat was a manufactured attempt to distinguish himself. I became so upset about the hat that I would snatch it off his head and throw it across the yard. “Just be yourself,” I’d command. “The hat’s not you!”

“I don’t care,” he’d shout back, and then dig the hat out of the leaves. I think my mother eventually told me to stop stealing his hat.

When John was a sophomore in high school he discovered he was an actor. The stage was just the place for him. Here he could be as big and loud as he wished. What’s more, he got to play all these different characters. Look, put on a red jacket and black slacks and you’re Val du Val from Little Me; put on a ragged overcoat and carry a crooked cane and you’re Wackford Squeers from Nicholas Nickleby. He told me once he sometimes needed a costume to be able feel the character.

It was about this time that I noticed his costume-like approach to dressing himself off the stage. One day he wore his green trench coat and army pants, the next his pleated trousers, V-neck sweater, and knit tie. He was like a living dress-up doll for his own amusement. Oh, I get it, I thought. He isn’t the hat, or the trench coat, or tie. He already knew that.

I visited him recently and stayed in his Los Angeles apartment. He’s a sharp dressed guy, but he works in an office (albeit an office in a television studio, but an office all the same) and his wardrobe seems to only travel between uptown hipster and downtown business casual. It was a nice apartment, and I marveled at the closet space. I was admiring the width of his coat closet when my eye traveled the shelf above the coats.

There atop boxes of DVDs was a pile of hats.

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An Original Idea

Editors and agents – and yes, even writers – frequently encourage the beginning writer to be original. You’ve got to distinguish yourself from the crowd of other writers who are also writing paranormal vampire suspense. Why should we read your book and not someone else’s? What makes yours so special?

What a paralyzing question this can be. Sometimes we are lucky and an idea arrives wearing its originality like a new coat. Even though this conspicuously original idea begins as skeletal as all new ideas, the first details about it we recognize are its most original features. How thrilling! Filled with the vim of our own genius, we set to the page ready to make history.

More often, however, ideas do not arrive looking so brilliantly new. Instead, these ideas appear in the distance looking incredibly familiar. There is the alcoholic detective, the rakish pirate, the pure innocent ready to take up a magic sword and defeat evil. Haven’t we seen this before? Why then are we drawn to these creaky clichés? Why are we so unoriginal?

We aren’t, of course, it’s just this other kind of idea hasn’t yet bathed in that single, critical ingredient that can transform any trope into something brand new: us. Let the rakish pirate stew in your unique waters for a bit and he will change. He has to. Just as a conversation must change when you join it, so will your characters when you begin listening to them.

The tricky part, as always, is trust. You won’t know how the pirate will change until he changes. Nor will you get to choose how he changes so much as observe that he has changed. Many a book will not get written because it does not look original from the distance that is inception. Every member of a crowd looks more or less identical from the top of an office tower. So easy to forget that every head you’re looking down upon is filled with as much originality as yours.

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Recognition

Writers of all genres are always encouraged to find their own voice. This is the best way to stand out from the pack, the best way to get recognized.

It is odd to look for something that is never further from us than our own lips, and yet search for it we must. We search for it through all the cobwebs of old voices clouding our view; we search for it among all the paths we’ve been advised to follow, and the paths we’ve watched others follow to such success. We search and search, pulling within ourselves for a necessary solitude, away from advice, away from custom, away from the tribe – away from even family if necessary. As soon as we begin this search we recognize it as the most important we will ever take.

But it can feel so lonely sometimes. You don’t embark on this search only to keep what you find to yourself. All this pulling away can feel like rejection; all this solitude can feel like hiding. It is very tempting to stop the search. It is very tempting in the confusion of looking for something you know you’ve always had to hurl yourself into the current of opinion, of trends, of rules, to give yourself over to the great Family of Man and let it take you where you it will. Let the mirror of others tell you who you are.

Strange, then, that as soon as you stop your search you feel lonelier than before you began it. You won’t recognize this loneliness at first because it will be so noisy where you are. The noisier the company the shorter you will want to keep it. And so you seek quieter company, and then quieter still, until you find yourself in silence once again.

And once returned to this silence you may be surprised to find you never felt less alone in your life. Now you find that the world from which you had to withdraw so that you might hear what you most wanted to say is listening closely. So closely, that you can see their eyes clearly for the first time. They are looking too, and in your own search for recognition you have found them.

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An Old Companion

The suspense writer Chelsea Cain says that all her life she has felt safe. This safety had nothing to do with the company she kept, the economy, or locks on her door. It was simply something she understood about herself the same as she understood she is a writer. This, I have noticed, is an unusual quality amongst suspense writers, whom, in the course of our conversations, often talk about the threats lurking in the shadows of the world: terrorists, tornados, bad luck, bad people.

When I was a waiter I used to walk at night from the restaurant to my car through a small park in downtown Seattle. It was a lovely park by day, but it was rather shadowy at night. One evening, as I left the office tower in which the restaurant was housed, a young woman appeared from behind a wall. It was summer, and it was still warm, and she was dressed in a sleeveless shirt. She was quite young. She was out of high school, I suspected, but not by much.

She asked me if I knew how to get to a certain street and I said I did. “Good,” she said, “I’ll walk with you.” She wasn’t a prostitute. I mention this because these women would occasionally approach me, and always their invitations were both predatory and distant, and this girl had neither of these qualities.

My new companion began talking about what a cool city Seattle was as if we were old friends. She named a band she had seen. I found I was worried for this girl. She shouldn’t be walking through the park with me, I thought. She didn’t know me at all. Plus she had a woman’s body but a girl’s vulnerability. Even that she was wearing a sleeveless shirt concerned me. There was too much of her exposed.

Soon we reached the end of the park and she thanked me and told me to have a nice night and wandered off toward her destination. I couldn’t stop thinking about her as I found my car and drove home. One part of my mind wanted to continue worrying about her, but another part couldn’t. The girl couldn’t have chosen a more trustworthy companion for a walk through a shadowy park. Worried Bill wanted to call this luck. Unworried Bill knew the truth of it, and as always he would spend the drive home comforting his old companion.

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The Same Direction

As of this writing Author’s YouTube page is slightly less than 9,000 views away from cracking half-a-million total views. While I understand that a video of a sneezing aardvark could pass this number in 24 hours if the social media stars aligned themselves correctly, I think this is a respectable number for a page dedicated to fully-dressed, mostly middle-aged writers talking about the writing life.

I will stop short, however, of saying this number in anyway strengthens my hope for reading, or writing, or books in general. This would suggest that my hope ever needed strengthening in the first place. I do not know what the future holds for the written word. I do not know if bookstores will disappear like the dinosaurs, or if novels will be transmitted straight to my brain where they can be thought instead of read. What I do know is that human beings always bend their artistic, intellectual, and inventive energies in precisely the same direction.

And that direction is toward other people. I watched a documentary last night called Indie Game, which portrayed the anxious months leading up to the release of small, independent video games. One of the film’s most sympathetic game designers was a shy, tattooed young man named Edmund who explained early the film that he was drawn to games, first as a player and then as a designer, because he, “basically hates people.” Yes, people can betray you and people can say and do strange dishonest things. Video games are more predictable.

That, anyhow, was his story at the beginning of the film. By the end something had changed. By the end, his game (Super Meat Boy, if you’re interested) had become a bestseller. He explained that while he was glad for the great reviews, and that he was certainly glad for the money, what moved him most – and here, he who “hated” people began to cry – what moved him most was that somewhere a little boy he’d never met was staying up all night to play the game he, Edmund, had designed.

I know the world is changing quickly, but we’re the ones changing it. No one asked us to change it; we did it by our own freewill. We changed it the same as a writer changes a sentence in a story –  because something slightly more interesting has just occurred to us.

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Inviting Perspective

Though we have lovely brains capable of calculating the distance from Mars to Pluto or memorizing the lyrics to six dozen show tunes, human beings are first, last, and always emotional creatures. It is our feeling of fear and love, and the myriad shades between, that guide us through all our life choices, from which shirt to buy to which man to marry. Without them, we would be computers without software.

A writer cannot write his emotions exactly as he lives them. The emotions that come to us throughout our day are information, guiding us toward what will serve us and away from what will not. But these emotions are as immediate as impulse, and often extraordinarily strong, and it is impossible to render them accurately when experienced in this way. It would be like trying to paint a flower while holding it one centimeter from your face.

And yet a writer must feel what his characters are feeling, must, to the best of his ability, feel the same fear and love and jealousy and delight. As writers, we summon those same feelings at our desk, but because these feelings are not meant to guide us, we can instead behold them. This is the artist’s proper relationship to aesthetic emotion. While beholding the emotions from an artistic distance, we can paint them accurately without the bias inherent in heeding, or not heeding, their guidance.

This may seem academic, but in the end, whether we are writing or not, we are always the ones observing the feelings. We are the ones to whom the fear speaks, we are not the fear itself. Likewise, we are the ones who follow love or ignore it. Writing, whether it is poetry, memoir, suspense, or romance, becomes a discipline of elevated perspective. It is a perspective I have learned to seek away from my desk. Life, after all, is always friendliest when viewed as a whole, is always most inviting when you can see where you belong.

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The Wolf

My friend Chris calls it The Hour of the Wolf. This is roughly 2:00 AM, and you are awake in the loneliness of your insomniac’s bed. You are alone with nothing to distract you from all those thoughts of your worthlessness or impending doom. In his song “Rock and Roll Suicide,” David Bowie writes:

The night seems to lacerate your brain
I’ve had my share, I’ll help you with the pain.
You’re not alone.

Whether the bed you are sleeping in is shared by another or not, you feel alone in your fear and desperation. You feel alone with a question you believe you must absolutely answer before you can rest. How can you rest when you hear the wolf howling at your door? Will he not devour you in your sleep?

And yet the very feelings you call loneliness are an expression of that which accompanies you in every moment. You have summoned a storm of thought, wandered into it, and become lost. Every storm has an eye, and the eye of this storm is you. Not the Little You who becomes afraid, but the Greater You who is never afraid, who is instead aware that fear has come knocking.

The pain we feel in the Hour of the Wolf is only the Greater You saying, “Come back. Come back from the future where you imagine your demise, come back from the past where you are reliving that which you now call failure, come back to right now where you are always safe.” The further into the storm you wander, the louder the Greater You will speak, for this is the only way to be heard above the din of thought in which you are lost.

How like us to mistake our own voice for a hungry wolf. How like us to mistake that which we seek for that which will destroy us.

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Perfectly Incomplete

First you are a gardener. You create within yourself an environment friendly to creation. Into this garden will come something akin to a flower. It will be different, just as every sunflower in a garden of a thousand sunflowers is different, and it will be perfect. It will be perfect exactly as a flower is perfect, which blooms within a realm where the concept of comparison simply does not exist. This is the root of its perfection.

Yet only you can perceive it. Moreover, you are used to knowing life as something you can see and touch and smell. This is where you have been taught to measure something’s value. And so you become a painter. Since no one can see this perfect flower, you will render it, translate it.

You set to work. Maybe you paint it realistically, rendering the color and petals and height precisely. Or maybe you render it impressionistically, forgoing all this detail in favor of the pursuit of the feel of the flower. No matter your approach, all your efforts seem incomplete compared to the flower itself.

And yet you love this painting all the same. You love it for how it reminds you of the flower you perceived. And sometimes another person loves it too. It is hard to know precisely why they love it, as they have not seen the original. It is then you come to understand that what you could not capture, what you felt was missing, is in fact the space that allows another person to enter your painting. In this way, what you could not render is perfect too. In this way, the perfection you sought exists not in the painting itself, but in the sharing, the moment where every creation is finished.

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

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