A Kind Mistress

Writing is such a relationship. Roald Dahl described how he would “sniff around an idea” before committing to it. By returning again and again on walks and the shower, or by taking notes, or perhaps scratching out a line or two of dialogue, a writer can see if his interest remains as strong as the day the idea first arrived.

I have started many a story the day it first popped into my head. I would never suggest that one cannot finish a book begun this way. But you can also spend two months on something you discover wasn’t as enduringly interesting to you once you are slogging your way through the torturous middle. If the story, like a partner, is not something you love, it will end, just as many relationships end once the dishes aren’t done and the car breaks down.

But in a good marriage, not only are you willing to work together to see that the dishes get done and the car gets fixed, not only are you willing to find your way through the arguments these petty problems seem to stir, but, in time, you will likely find that the petty problems are as valuable to a marriage as sex and long conversation and romantic vacations. Within the slog of everyday life lived with someone you love you can uncover the divine, the lovely, and the meaning in absolutely everything.

So too is it with a story you love. Every story will become as tangled as a late night argument; every story will appear as hopeless and small as a flat tire. But if you love that story you will discover you have the patience to find your way through a tired middle, will have the discipline to discard an unnecessary character. Love is simply not a mistress you can quit. What you call quitting is only a search that will lead you back exactly where you started, where she will be waiting for you to start another story.

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The Beginning and The End

Writers cannot write for praise from readers, friends, family, or critics. The quickest way to kill anything you are writing is to stare at your page or screen and wonder, “What will THEY think of it?” They – whoever They are – aren’t there, and so you can’t know what They will think, and so you cannot answer this insidious question. As long as you are asking it, you are probably not writing.

That said, hearing from appreciative readers can be very helpful. It is easy as a writer to become preoccupied with how successful a piece of work is, to become preoccupied with whether or not a story sold, and if so for how much; to become preoccupied with how many copies of it have been bought, or with its ranking on Amazon. It is easy, being a human being who depends on such things, to become preoccupied with the numbers in your bank account and how these numbers are affected by the stories you have written.

It is tempting because all these things are measurable, and humans have developed a relentless love of measuring things – including, unfortunately, themselves. Yes, it’s no fun to be measured last and worst, but this is the price we all seem to be willing to pay so that we might be measured first or best.

Which is why it’s good from time to time to hear from an appreciative reader. To hear someone say, “I loved your book,” or, “It was just what I needed,” or, “It kept me up all night turning the pages,” can remind us why we picked up the pen in the first place: because we had something valuable we wanted to share with other people. Yes, there would be money and praise and maybe fame – but first there was that, the immeasurable impulse to increase the quantity of good in the world.

I know this sounds a bit altruistic, I know publishing is a business, I know everyone needs to make ends meet, but that cannot alter where this work begins, and where, in the end, we must return to every day at our desk.

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Forgetting How To Swim

I have had a guest staying with me for the holiday, which means that except for one column I managed to squeeze in over the weekend, I have not written in a week. This always stirs a certain amount of insecurity in me. After a few days, I begin to feel as if I have forgotten how to write. After a few days, the man who sits down at his desk every morning and afternoon feels like a friendly stray cat who may or may not return to my door.

If I am honest, of course, this forgetting begins as soon as I step away from my desk. As soon as I leave the stream of whatever story I am telling, whether it is this column or the book I am writing, my attention moves from the terrarium of my imagination to the busy and verdant garden of The World. If that story were in fact a stream, already I must turn to the unreliable resource of memory to know the feeling of its current, and no matter how clear or recent that memory, it will always be less tangible than the current of life in which I am at that moment surrounded – the current that is my family and telephone calls and shopping trips.

Such is the ground from which insecurity most easily grows: the belief that you cannot be safe unless you are in two places at once. In this way, writing is an act of trust when you are at the desk and when you are away from the desk. You must trust while you are writing that your imagination will bring you what you need, and you must trust when you are not writing that you still have an imagination.

That I am here writing this column after a week’s hiatus will serve as no proof during my next break. The imagination is immune to proof. In fact, any thought of proof is an interruption to that constant stream. Proof is an empirical understanding of what has happened. The imagination is the source of what has not yet happened, the dinners that have not been cooked, the books that have not been written. All of life’s potential swims within it, and mostly – when I can – so do I.

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Real History

I was born in 1965 and so my memory of the Vietnam War was of something terrible that hopefully would end soon. Once it did end I accepted the wisdom that it had been a bad idea from the start and that our leaders ought to have known that. Vietnam was what taught us that war was awful, that it was rarely necessary, and that it brought out the worst in all its participants.

Then my son and I recently began watching an excellent six-part documentary on the Vietnam War. Prior to this we also watched documentaries on the Russian Revolution, on Stalin, and on the Cuban Missile Crisis. By the time we were halfway through Part One of the Vietnam documentary my opinion of that war had changed. No, I am not a Hawk, nor do I think America could have won the war. What changed, rather, is my understanding of why a person, particularly a person leading this country in 1964, might think the war was necessary and winnable.

This may seem like a small admission to anyone with Hawkish memories of that time, but it is not. To me, what has revealed itself is the greatest gift possible within the study of what we call history. What happened in the past is beyond knowing, for what really happened is what every single person did, said, or thought during that period. But what is perceivable through this historical lens is a glimpse of the wholeness of human thought.

From my vantage, which is the safety of the future, the concept of political right and wrong are not applicable, for it is too late for such notions to mean anything—if they ever did. From my vantage I see only thoughts of war and thoughts of peace, thoughts everyone has held with varying strength at various times. When someone’s thoughts of peace will eclipse his thoughts of war is everyone’s journey.

I try within this column never to be right but only to see clearly. This is not always so simple. My mind is agile enough that it can rearrange reality in my favor, describing a winning move on the chessboard of life. And yet that victory never comes. By the time I am done with such fantasies all the pieces have shifted again on their own, reality moving too quickly for any solution beyond acceptance.

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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.”

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Happy Endings

I received an irate email from my good friend Pete yesterday about Monday’s essay. What, my friend needed to know, was the real ending? What happened to the fellow in the story, the one with the wife and kid who was starting his Internet business? Did he leave the restaurant? Did the business succeed? Did he relapse into drugs?

For the record, not long after I left that very same restaurant my friend’s business was going strongly enough that he was able to leave as well. And he stayed married. And I believe he remained off drugs. I can never know for sure what role our conversation played in the rest of his life, though I do know what role it played it mine, which is why I ended the story the way I did.

I feel for Pete, however. I may have started this story, but he was finishing. This is what human beings do. Our imaginations light upon what interests us. While I was turning the narrative car down one road, his imagination began shouting, “Look at that road! Look how many interesting questions lie unanswered down it!”

And in this way, Pete was glimpsing himself in this story – not in me, or in my friend, but simply in what interested him. What are we but what interests us? A meat sack with bones and a useful frontal lobe? I don’t think so. We may look static in the mirror, but this is a trick of time and space. We are a direction, not a thing, for which all endings are no more real than beginnings.

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I Can

I did not learn to drive until I was nineteen. My mother tried to teach me on our old Chevy Chevette when I was sixteen, but I couldn’t figure out the clutch. I found the experience of stalling out so humiliating that I gave up. Three years later I was sick of riding a bike everywhere, and I signed up for lessons from AAA. That was when I met Gabe.

Gabe was a 62 year-old ex-marine with a crew cut and a barrel chest. When I climbed into the AAA Student Driver Car I could smell the early 1950s on him. As we began our lesson, he explained to me that a good car was like a good woman: if you let go of the wheel you should be able to trust it to go straight. When I had to slow for two black kids on bikes crossing against a light, he explained, “It’s not they’re fault. They’re just black.”

At nineteen, I was not prepared to call a 62 year-old ex-marine on his racism or antiquated notions of women’s independence. Plus he was an immensely patient guy. He had me driving comfortably in a couple lessons. As long as we avoided certain subjects, we could spend a pleasant hour together. An hour, however, is a long time to spend avoiding subjects, and during lesson three he asked, “So what would you like to do with yourself, Bill?”

I glanced at my companion. I suspected he held the arts in much the same regard as working women and black kids on bikes. Still, he might as well know the truth.

“Actually, Gabe, I’d like to be a writer.”

“Well, that’s great.”

I was humbled by his reply. But Gabe wasn’t done.

“You see, you’re an American, Bill. And in every American there’s an A, and an M, and an E, and an R . . .”

For the record, Gabe spoke slowly, and so I had sufficient time to wonder, “Is he actually going to spell it all the way out for me?”

“. . . and an I, and a C, and an A, and an N. And do you know what that means, Bill?”

I told him I did not know what this meant.

“It means that at the end of every American, there’s an ‘I CAN.’”

I was sorry for all the mean things I’d thought about Gabe. I’m a sucker for optimism, no matter how it’s packaged. Plus, it’s good to remember that if you’re quiet long enough people will eventually tell you who they really are.

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Time To Serve

When I was still waiting tables, I worked with a friend who had been at the waiting gig as long as I had and had wanted to get out of it for as long as I had. Having finally gotten married, quit drugs, and had a few kids, his attentions settled enough that he discovered his own small internet business. It was not a get-rich-quick kind of business, however, and he would report to me daily on the sales he did or did not make that morning.

His wife worked in the restaurant also, and one evening before dinner shift she came running into the kitchen where I was cutting butter. “Bill,” she said. “He wants to quit. He says he can’t take it anymore. Talk to him. He’ll listen to you. Please talk to him.”

I understood her panic. They had a new house and two small children. The business was still in its infancy. But no one had ever asked me to talk to someone in this way. It was one thing to do it theoretically, but another thing to do it in a moment of crisis. On this evening, however, I did not have time to doubt myself. In another moment there was my friend, full of his impatience and frustration and fear that what he wanted would never come.

“Listen,” I told him. “You’ve just planted this thing. You’re watering it and watering it and it’s growing. You quit now, and it will be like trying to harvest grain that isn’t mature. Don’t worry. It’s all growing. It’s growing every day, but sometimes it grows so slowly you don’t even notice it. But it is growing and it will be what you want it to be.”

He did not quit that day and his wife came to me later in the evening and thanked me. But I should have thanked her. In talking to my friend I had to first go to a place within me I was frequently searching for myself. Only there could I find what needed to be said.

I told my friend’s wife not to worry, that he would be fine, and went out onto the floor to serve – a calling, I was beginning to understand, I would never actually quit.

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Murder Thy Enemy

In my conversation with Bonnie Rough on Tuesday’s Author2Author I made what is generally considered a talk show faux pas when I compared my guest to Adolf Hitler. My intentions were benign. I was merely pointing out that she, like everyone else (including Hitler), lives within the reality of the story she is telling herself. In this way the story we tell about ourselves is more important than whatever “reality” may or may not be.

Germaine or not, no one is every too happy having their name mentioned in the same sentence as Hitler. I thought about this today as my son Sawyer and I, for our homeschooling, were slogging or way through parts 2, 3, 4, and 5 of a documentary about Joseph Stalin. By the end of this marathon, after hearing testimonials from gulag survivors, interrogation survivors, after hearing about starvation and murder, after all this I found myself rooting for the Nazis to capture Moscow.

This is actually true. I was rooting for the Nazis even though they were, well, Nazis, and even though I knew perfectly well they would be done in by the Russian winter. Anything to end this strange creeping feeling within me. The more I found myself hating Stalin, the more I was fantasizing how if I had been a citizen of Moscow I would have assassinated the man, my own safety be damned; the more I steeped my mind in this insane brew, the more I felt I understood Stalin. I fear him, even from my couch in 2012 Seattle I fear him, and so I must eliminate him. Kill everything you fear, it is the only sure solution.

I glanced at my son. He was winding his fingers around a twist of hair in his bangs. As the documentary continued, as the death toll mounted, he twisted and twisted and twisted until he formed a knot above his right eyebrow.

“Let go of it!” I snapped.

“It’s none of your business, Dad,” he snapped back.

The people had spoken; the dictator was deposed. I collapsed back into the cushions of my couch as part five came to an end. There was a part six, but neither of us moved to play it. I was done murdering my enemies, and Sawyer was done twisting his hair.

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What Happened

When I was twenty years old and quite single I was always on the lookout for female companionship. I did not consider myself a smooth operator. I knew of men my age who could walk up to attractive strangers, strike up conversations, and find themselves with a date ten minutes later. Oh, to be one of those men. How easy and happy my life would be. This felt like freedom. I, meanwhile, was confined to a cell of my own awkwardness. Such was the hand I had been dealt.

At this time I worked in a café in Providence, and one afternoon I was enjoying my mandatory thirty-minute lunch break. There was a little table near the counter where employees would eat lunch or smoke, and I was sitting here with another non-working co-worker when I saw Whatshername, who used to live below my high school girlfriend. She was very distinctive looking, Whatshername, with her long curly black hair and her pronounced nose. Hers were unusual good looks, but good looks nonetheless. I was in a jovial mood that afternoon, and when she passed our table I called out, “Hey, there! How’s it hanging?

This is how I was with people I knew. I liked to say hello. I liked to like people.

Whatshername sort of blinked at me. “I’m – I’m doing fine.”

“Great! Better go drink your coffee.”

This is how I liked to talk to people I knew. It was fun to have fun with people you knew. Just as my mandatory lunch shift was coming to an end, Whatshername had finished her coffee as well and was headed for the door.

“Well, it was nice seeing you,” I called out. “See you round.”

Whatshername stopped, looked squarely at me, and said. “I’m sorry. Do I know you?”

I leaned forward in my chair. It was like watching a picture develop in a darkroom. This was not Whatshername.

“Oh, God! I’m so sorry. I thought you were my old girlfriend’s neighbor. I don’t know you at all!” I laughed a little too loudly at my own stupidity.

“That’s all right,” she said, and turned to leave, and then turned back. “I wouldn’t mind getting to know you, though.”

And thus began . . . nothing. I believe I said, “Oh,” and then she left. I was too disoriented to respond. I was too busy thinking, “What just happened? I was just being friendly. What the hell just happened?”

The light outside the prison walls always feels too bright at first.

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