Constant Meaning

I have written from time to time in this space about the three narrative arcs present in nearly every story. There is the physical arc, which is every single thing that is said and done in a story; there are the emotional arcs, which trace the changes within your characters as they move, or don’t move, from suffering to relief, from despair to contentment; and then there is the intentional arc, which is the reason is the story is being written.

Of all the arcs, the last, which is by far the most important, is also the hardest to define. All your story’s value grows from it, and yet unlike the physical arc, with its isolated events and discrete lines of dialogue, and the emotional arc with its milestones of change, the intentional arc is present continuously and equally throughout the entirety of the story.

Moreover, if your story is about the value of romantic love, say, you would not have written the story if you could have simply said, “Romantic love is valuable.” No, you needed the story to say that, which, if it is successful, it does, and yet does so in the way only that story could. The story needs the story to express what the story has to express, and so the story means what the story is.

Which is why writers talking about writing sometimes sound like holy men talking about God. It is unintentional, I assure you, but such is the plight of those wishing to express the source of meaning. And yet meaning is to a story, is to a life, as gravity is to physics: a force everywhere always, yet never seen or held, never known except by our constant and inescapable proximity to 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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Personal History

As I am writing this memoir I have decided that my memories are divided into three categories. First, there are the Unequivocals. These are memories burned so brightly and so clearly into my imagination that they need neither corroboration nor a definitive paper trail. I know my son told me that “crackers aren’t treats” and that David Wagoner told me writing is a lonely road.

Next there are the Triangulated Memories. I’m pretty sure these things happened, but I’m not sure exactly when or precisely what was said and done. For these I call family members, ask my wife and children, and check emails, calendars, and datebooks. I have found that every time I believe when something happened doesn’t actually make any narrative difference, I am wrong. So I do my diligence and get it as close as I can.

And then there are those other memories, memories too personal to confirm, too dreamlike to have recorded, but as real within me as yesterday’s breakfast. These memories are often more important than either of the other variety, for they have stayed with me without the stiff bones of proof. To retell such memories I admit I am as much fiction writer as memoirist. That is, I take what I know or believe to be true and fill in the rest. The truth, in these cases, has more to do with the feeling than the physical evidence.

Having said all this, if someone had stationed a camera in my backyard and secretly recorded the moment I am certain my son told me crackers aren’t treats, or in the Richard Hugo House the day David Wagoner told me about writing’s lonely road, and if I watched these tapes and found I’d gotten it all wrong, that David had only said, “Writing stinks,” and Sawyer had only said, “I want a damn cracker,” I’d be surprised but not astonished.

Memory is a defiantly unreliable friend, being so fiercely untroubled by historical accuracy. I do not believe it is a faulty engine. I believe our memory functions precisely as it should, retaining only an elegant dream of what has passed. Who can argue with your dreams, after all? They belong only to you, as do your memories, as does your entire 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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Funeral Blues

I heard an interesting story the other day about Apple. My wife was watching an old interview with Steve Jobs when the question of market research came up. Guess how much market research Apple does? Go ahead. Take a stab. According to this interview, Apple does exactly none. They don’t believe in it. Jobs said he doesn’t believe people actually know what they want until they see it.

I was overjoyed to hear this. I have long disliked the idea of market research for precisely the reason Jobs articulated. Market research, it seems to me, would tell someone not what people want, but what they wanted. Everything that exists in the world right now is already a part of the past. Human desire, however, is pointed inexorably toward the future. We will use what already exists, what we have already wanted, but we will use it to create what does not yet exist, what we can feel but cannot yet see.

How can a writer not know this? How often have sat down at your desk with some idea in mind of what you want, some idea based on what you have written in the past, and then entered the fertile dream of the imagination and discovered that the cab driver in the second act is actually your heroine’s brother? You did not know you wanted this scene until you wrote it.

This is why market research can become an unintended funeral for human creativity. Your desires will change with you, and you will always change. We may sometimes wish it otherwise, we may sometimes recall when something seemed to go from bad to worse and inferred then that stasis is preferable to degeneration, but stasis is preferable to nothing because it does not exist. There is only change. Even a corpse returns to the earth. The past buries itself. Do not exhume its bones, but plant what you wish to grow upon its grave.

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The Last Question

If you are reading this, then you woke up this morning; and if you woke up this morning, then you had a day’s worth of hours to spend. Spend them you will and indeed spend them you must, whether you believe in a deity or not, whatever your race, politics, gender or religion. But as any parent knows, humans are born to ask, “Why?”, and so “Why is snow white?” evolves over the years into, “Why am I doing all this stuff?”

This can turn into a rabbit hole of a question, and plenty of mental wards are filled with those still asking. But the question will hang there whether we answer it or not, and however we choose to answer it becomes, often unintentionally, the dominant perspective from which our life is led. The answer, in this way, becomes our reality.

Let us say, for instance, that some of how you spend your hours is writing. Typically, writers are told – accurately – that one writes not because one wants to but because one must. All right, but why? Where is this overseer driving us back to our desk? Well, The Writer says, I like to write, and a man must eat, and so this how I choose to feed myself, doing the thing I like.

True enough, but even within that answer resides the joyless fear of death, that all our energy and hours are spent in a ceaseless race against Time, the Reaper’s slow-moving but unerring scythe. No, we are not racing against Time, but employing it to bring into the world what did not exist before our time was employed.

Writing is one such employment, a translation of what we love – which is only a feeling, and so only within us – into words. We wish this translation to be as accurate as possible, to ensure that it is specifically what it is. To do so we must summon it from the soup of possibility and there, there in our imagination behold it in stillness. In that moment of thoughtless beholding we are brought into our most intimate proximity with what we love. This is why we write, and this is where all “Whys?” end, for you have reached yourself, and there is nowhere else to go.

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The Third Ingredient

Sometimes the two most crucial ingredients for a successful writing career are also what can most distract a writer from actually having that career. First, every writer must love to write; second, every writer must want to get paid for that writing. In other words, you want to get paid for what you love to do.

Fabulous. It should be no other way. And yet it is very easy to forget that we are talking here about a tool and an outcome. Writing, the discipline of turning thoughts into words, is merely a tool of expression – like dance or song or cooking. Getting paid is the desirable result of employing that tool. But neither of these ingredients contains within them something worth sharing. That is, you cannot sit down to write simply because you love to write and want and need to get paid for it. We must sit down to write because we have something valuable we would like to share.

It is easy to forget this third ingredient because in truth it has nothing to do with the other two. When my work is moved by the desire to share something valuable, I enter a place removed from my love of writing and my desire to see that work published. For that time, there is only that valuable idea and my continuous attention upon it, and the valuable idea becomes a beacon by which I am guided through the darkness of discovery.

But when I forget this third ingredient, when I write simply because I love to write and want and indeed need to get paid for that writing, I am instantly lost. Now the night’s horizon is either lit by a thousand lights, or shut in stony blackness. I am disoriented not just by my surroundings, but by the memory of how friendly this very ocean had once seemed. I have mistaken myself for a writer and an author, for the tool and the outcome, when all along I was only that third ingredient – and without it, without me, I am 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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A World Between

I have recently interviewed two Irish suspense writers – John Connolly on last week’s Author2Author, and Stuart Neville for our upcoming February issue – both of whose fiction writing grew out of an interest in the supernatural, and both of whom expressed the opinion that suspense/mystery readers and perhaps a great many suspense/mystery writers harbor an abiding suspicion of That Which Cannot Be Rationally Explained.

Supernatural fiction, after all, is often inhabited by what amounts to an Evil Intelligence, a kind of anti-God force that does not abide by the laws of the physical world as we have come to know them. Perhaps these villains’ greatest threat is their power to deprive of us of our precious reason, what we had come to believe was the bedrock of our daily safety. The heroes of such stories must overcome their enemies with courage alone, which is a discipline of pure balance, compared to the brute strength of applied logic.

Traditional mysteries, however, actually seek to strip away mystery, to reveal through rational insight the threads holding our wild world together. What seems at first meaningless and random turns out to be a part of a larger whole, and the detective, an engine of scientific good, uncovers the trail of cause and effect that led inevitably to the event that now fits logically into the world as we know it.

It is so like humans to reside in one of these two camps and spend our days grousing about the other. One camp would deny order exists when clearly it is everywhere always, and the other camp would turn life into a great dull clock, ticking away unimaginatively until its final hour. Our true lives, of course, are lived forever between these two worlds. Such is the creative tension alive in the human mind. To perceive the delicious order of things – the predictable sunrise, the constancy of gravity, the steady flow of rivers to the ocean – and be simultaneously free to think anything at all, unbound by any law other than our own desire.

Welcome to life, young humans. This is what we’ve got. You needn’t pick sides in anything. Between desire and reason blooms a perfect rose, and that little flower is you.

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True Competitors

A true competitor’s worst opponent is one who doesn’t believe in loss. Without loss there can be no victory, just as without failure there can be so success. A true competitor seeks the most from life, but through the misperception that life can ever be less than it already is. Thus the myth of loss, the belief that something can be taken from us, can be taken from life itself, that the loser has less than the winner.

This is the agreement about life true competitors shake on before engaging in battle. It is an agreement sustained regularly throughout society but agreed upon again just to be sure, for the competitor comes to the field in hopes of vanquishing the loser within himself whom he now calls his opponent. But even in victory the loser lives on within the competitor, for without him the victory just won means nothing.

You may have guessed that I have lived as a true competitor. My wife has not. Playing backgammon with her was like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall. For her loss lay elsewhere, and when I would listen to her tales of what she feared she no longer had, I would despair. She was supposed to save me from my wretchedness. Fortunately, she was unable to do so, for she could not recognize the wretch, just as I could not see what she had lost.

I was a romantic boy, and I’d heard that it was my job was to win a girl’s heart. This concept appealed to the competitor within me, but was anathema to another part of me, the part that knocked upon her door. I wished instead for her to simply give to me by choice what I believed she had, as I to her, for in love what is given is only increased. Such is the most we actually seek, the gifts from others that in receiving are returned.

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Comparative Acceptance

I had a very lively and surprising conversation with the suspense writer John Connolly on last Tuesday’s Author2Author (Oh, and be sure to catch tomorrow’s chat with screenwriter/novelist Delia Ephron). Perhaps because John’s work spans two genres (horror and suspense) we spent a great deal of time talking about genre and the various attitudes writers of one genre have about writers of another genre.

John is a friend of Lee Child, whose Jack Reacher novels land unambiguously in suspense. I was not familiar with Lee’s work when I interviewed him, but I very much enjoyed the opportunity to do so. He was charming and smart and had a very Author-ish attitude about writing. He advised writers to allow their work to evolve organically rather than strategically, thereby ensuring the quality of authenticity and originality book buyers and sellers are always looking for.

So I was surprised to hear John say that Child felt that at heart all literary writers secretly wished they could write entertaining commercial fiction, that the only reason literary writers do write literary fiction is they can’t write genre. This simply isn’t true, of course. If my hundreds of interviews have taught me nothing else, they have taught me that any writer who has had any success at all writes precisely the same thing: what he or she most likes to read.

But Child’s misperception is not a punishable offense. A literary writer might, and probably has said precisely the same thing about Lee Child regarding literary fiction. Both would be correct in a small way, because everyone seems to envy what the other one has: literary writers crave the genre writers’ sales, and genre writers crave the literary writers’ critical approval.

Fortunately, in most cases envy does not keep us from writing what we ought to write. I believe this is because some part of us understands that those people we envy don’t actually have what we believe we need. Genre writers and literary writers all have precisely the same thing, and it isn’t sales and it isn’t rave reviews in the New York Times. We have only what has been given us, and to compare it is to reject it, and to love it is to accept it – and I don’t know any writer who doesn’t love a good acceptance letter.

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The Next Big Thing

Whenever I dream of a Big Accomplishment, I recall Robin Williams’s description of winning an Oscar. First, on the night of the blessed event, the world says, “Hey! You won an Oscar!” But by the next day, a friend passing him on the street might only remark, “Hey, there. You won that Oscar.” A week later, the accomplishment is downgraded to a question: “Did you win the Oscar?” A month later, no one remembers who won what.

Any writer, no matter his experience level, no matter how many books he’s published, will tell you that, “You are only as good as your next book.” This can seem like a cruel, treadmill metric by which to live. What’s more, it is easy to lay the blame for this on publishers or the reading public, all those thankless souls who seem to forget so quickly what profit and pleasure we brought them from our toil.

The publishers and readers have nothing to do with this truism whatsoever. We, the writers, invented it, demanded it even. No matter how hard you worked on a book, no matter how honest you were in the telling, no matter how much you loved the final product, as soon as the book is done, you are done with it. You are done creating it, which means you are done learning from it, which means you are a different than the person who started writing it, which means you are meant to write something different now.

Of course you are only as good as your next book. Whether that next book sells as well or is applauded as loudly as the last book is not the point. You and your next book exist in the present moment, where all your accumulated goodness resides. To perceive your work any other way is an inadvertent suicidal dream – to believe that your life, which is only expansion, which is only the next thing, somehow ended before your did.

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Making Whole

I just finished rereading a draft of my book this morning, and was overall pleased with it. Of course, there were those chapters with which I was not so pleased. Not pleased at all, truthfully. It was sort of painful to read them, all those words so thoughtfully chosen doing absolutely nothing to help the book.

You might think reading those chapters that I had somehow forgotten how to write. In fact, I had not. In fact, if you were to look closely at these chapters you would see that all the skill deployed in the chapters that did work was deployed here as well. Why then, would it be so unpleasant to read?

It reminded me of watching, say, Hamlet, staged by a skilled troupe of actors. What would happen if another skilled actor stepped onto the stage in an old T-shirt portraying Stanley Kowalski from A Streetcar Named Desire? What if it was Marlon Brando himself come back from the dead to insert Stanley into this Shakespearean tragedy? Would all Brando’s skill make his appearance any less irritating and bizarre?

Indeed it would not. Skill is only useful when in service to what belongs. Hard to remember sometimes as we fret over words and scenes and rising tension. In another book those un-working chapters might be quite lovely, but not in the one I had written. This, then, becomes what we call rewriting, finding the parts to make whole what it is not incorrect, but merely incomplete.

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