The Friendly World For Sailors

Tomorrow and Friday this page will be visited by two guest bloggers, Erica Bauermeister and Diane Hammond respectively. I will be out of town, and being the creature of habit that I am, I don’t feel ready to blog from anywhere but where I am sitting right now.

I understand that this is all superstition and that I could write anywhere, but it doesn’t feel that way. My desk feels like a well-cured frying pan, having received the steady seasoning of my doubt and excitement over the years. It is a sturdy and reliable friend, indifferent to my angst, and ready to receive me whenever I am ready to be received.

Good to have such friends. I would like to be unflappable, I would like to sail smoothly from port to port, but I seem to steer toward rough water now and again. I can’t help it, it looks so interesting, and then I’m in it and I want to know how in the hell I’ve gotten here, and what happens if I drown, and shouldn’t there be buoys to warn poor sailors like me?

I’ve managed to find my way out of all the water so far since here I am writing to you. And once I’m warm and dry it’s good to have friends like my desk to hear my story. You can’t be judged if you’re going to tell such a story. I know I chose where I pointed my boat, I know how ugly my gnashing and wailing could get, but I’m done with the gnashing and wailing for the moment and I need a place to settle my thoughts so I can let other sailors know about the waters I’ve seen.

We’ve all got such a friend. Mine waits for me at my desk, but I will have to leave this desk some day anyhow, and there are plenty of flat surfaces in the world to set my laptop.  I think maybe I will find that just about any will do, and that the world is a friendly place in the end for poor but willing sailors like you and me.

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Practically Done

Life can appear to be divided in two: that which you must do, and that which you want to do. The musts are certain, the wants optional. There is bread to be buttered, roofs to be kept overhead. The march of survival tramps on unceasingly, and somehow, somewhere in the dirty, daily business of not dying we hope to squeeze in time for that which we most want to do.

Yet as someone who has spent many decades attempting to appease the beast of what must be done, I will tell you that his hunger is limitless. There is always something else you must conceivably do. And all for what?  Some meager corner of your life you call your own?

Someone once said to me, “Bill, why don’t you write a book like John Grisham, make lots of money, and then write the books you like to write.  Wouldn’t that be more practical?” In fact it would be impractical. I have tried and tried to do things I didn’t really want to do, and I usually can for a time, until the tension between where I want to go and where I am telling myself I must go becomes so great that something snaps and I must start again with something else I don’t want to do—saying to myself, “This time I will work harder, and be more diligent, and this time I will finish this thing.”

Everything in your life is working tirelessly to get you to do the thing you most want to do as often as possible. You will be forever sabotaged and distracted and disrupted whenever you do what you don’t want to do. No matter how simple it appears, no matter how logical, it won’t work.

If you want to be practical, if you want to butter your bread, if you want to survive, then do what you most want to do the way you want to do it. It is the only way to ensure you will keep wanting to do whatever it is you are doing. You are the only one doing everything in your life, after all, and so if you don’t want to do what you are doing what you are doing won’t get done, and I don’t see what is so practical about that.

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The Future is Now

The first professional writing friend I ever made told me over lunch not long ago that the world of publishing was bound to change dramatically very soon. He explained to me that instead taking books off the shelf, you would merely tell the bookseller what you wished to purchase and they would print a copy for you while you waited.

My friend is a number of years older than I, and has admitted to not always keeping absolutely current with technology, and he wrote science fiction, and I had never heard of such a thing—and so I nodded politely and chalked it up so much barstool theory.

Then today I saw that Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park has purchased an Espresso Book Machine that does pretty much what my friend described. Not exactly, it seems to be mostly for out of print books and maybe self-published books—but this is only the beginning. Perhaps this will spell the eventual end of returns, a publisher’s worst enemy.

You don’t have to spend much time in the company of writers before the talk turns to the end of publishing. The failing economy, diminishing advances, editors being fired . . . on and on. Yet everyone who predicts the end of the world forgets that everything is always changing. Humans love to change things. Many of us claim we hate change, and yet we keep changing and changing. We are biologically addicted to it.

I won’t listen to talk about the end of publishing, or 2012, or newspapers or anything else. It’s nothing but hand wringing. Who really knew two years ago these machines would begin appearing in bookstores? Who knew ten years ago you would hold a computer in the palm of your hand with which you could look up the weather in Afghanistan?  Nothing ever ends, it only becomes something else, and I could no more believe in the end of the world than I could the end of creativity.

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Direction of Contentment

Anyone who has ever written knows the contentment of finishing a story to their satisfaction—the mixture of surprise and relief that you have said what you wanted to say. All the labor leading up to it can seem like the grindstone workweek before the weekend. You sweat the sweat and pay the dues and put in the hours so that you can have that sweet quiet of satisfaction that follows.

Except writers only have weekends if they want them. There is no shop to open or clock to punch, and a writer’s contentment is shifty. How long do you get before quiet question stirs in the back of your mind, “What next?” Has this story reminded you of another? Was there something you couldn’t do in this one that you are already curious to try in the next?

In truth contentment provides you not even a moment’s rest. To see contentment as deck chair relaxation is true only if life is all misery but for the resting. In fact, contentment is a direction not a destination. Those moments of pause are merely you deciding what to do next.

It is easy perhaps to forget the contentment that comes through the work itself. For all the moments of indecision, for all the testing of your patience, for all the drafts and drafts, you can never be more content than when you are seeing what you want to see and saying what you want to say. Is it tiring in its way? Yes, but so is sex. Does it always come easily? Probably not.

But what we call the restfulness of a weekend is only us seeking relief not from the work, but from the drama we have summoned around the periods of challenge natural to all work. Sitting idle in your boat can be pretty, but all love is desire, and all desire is toward something, and because you are always making choices, whether sitting still or climbing a mountain, you will only be content when those choices resolve toward what you love.

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Failure’s Only Threat

One of the worst mistakes you can make about your work is to view it as a kind of test. Will you get it right when you sit down at your desk today? There is a certain appeal to tests. The triumph of success is perhaps worth the threat of failure, for doesn’t everything worthwhile come with risks?

Yes, everything does come with risks, but not the risk of failure. The idea of failure is a kind of romantic nihilism, that our one chance has come and gone and we were not fast enough, smart enough, or brave to grab it—a reverse sentimentality for those not sure if they would like to try again what they could not achieve at first.

I love typing The End, but nothing ever ends. Endings are a convenient necessity of fiction, but you must forget about them when facing the question of success or failure. You are in constant training for a race you will never run against anyone but yourself. You train yourself every day to listen better, to be more patient, to be more trusting. With these tools you can write whatever it is you need to write.

But when you write, you must be willing to risk something and it is this: That you have believed something that wasn’t true. And at some point, without intending to, your writing will push you up against what it is you wish to be true but isn’t. You will probably not want to go where it is the writing is pointing you because if you do then you are not sure if you will know how to be happy if you let go of this false thing which never made you happy but was forever promising, like a blind date that never shows but keeps calling to say he will, that great fun is coming if you’d only hold out a little longer.

Risk losing what you don’t need. You cannot lose what you do need, because all you need is what interests you most. This you can choose to ignore, but in the mean time it will always be there, as long as you can open your eyes and wonder what you’d like to do next.

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The Ending That Already Was

One of my hobbies when not writing fiction or blogs is to write music. This morning I decided to wrap up once and for all a piano piece that I had been putting off finishing for several months. I seemed to remember leaving the thing hanging on an unresolved chord and not sure where to go next.  So I cracked my knuckles, sat down at the computer next to my 10 year-old son, and had a listen.

The piece was going along fine, and my son was listening with me and I was explaining how I’d been so annoyed that I didn’t know how to finish it, and maybe it wasn’t meant to be, when the song reached the end of what I had written with a tidy, happy little chord.

“It’s finished!” said my son.

He was right. It was finished and I hadn’t even realized it. I had been living with the idea for several months that the piece had lots of potential but had nowhere to go, while apparently it had already arrived.

It often seems that we are simply seeing and hearing what there is to see and hear. The tree is green, the siren is loud—these are the immutable qualities of the world around us that we dutifully perceive. Yet whenever I write I become more aware of what a constant filter for the world I actually am. It is not that nothing is at it seems, it is that nothing is anything until you say it is.

Translation is all. That a flower is alive in your hand one moment as you inhale its smell and then dead the next because it cannot speak. That your husband is rude one moment for ignoring your hello kiss and then distracted the next as you remember his impending deadline. That a song you call finished today was called incomplete yesterday because you wanted more from it than it could reasonably give.

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Thelonious Monk was quoted as saying, “It’s always night. Why else would we need light?” I like the quote, but I think he got it entirely backwards. I thought about this quote recently because someone had pointed out that as writing blogs go, mine was not that practical.

I had to agree. I am not always a practical man. Years ago I decided it was time to learn to protect myself and so I chose to study Aikido, the least practical martial art I could find—practical in this case meaning useful if I were going to be in a bar fight. What drew me to Aikido was its philosophy not its technique, which is what draws me to everything, including writing this blog.

I am horrible at taking advice. I reject almost all of it out of hand. For this reason I have never read an entire book on writing. All the thoughtful books filled with practical, useful advice are lost on me.  However, paint for me a friendly but honest portrait of the world, a world always worth waking up to every morning, and I am yours. I always trusted I could figure out how to write on my own, I just needed someone to remind me why it was worth doing.

That we turn to darkness for rest and light for living is most of what I need to remember of the world when I write. It is easy to become tangled in strong characters and weak characters, in grabber beginnings and memorable endings, but all of that takes care of itself when you hold to the light. You don’t need to worry about pleasing your readers if you let the light through, because everyone is drawn to the light.

I understand letting the light through is not practical; I understand it is not the best piece of advice if you want to create more believable male leads—but all the writing rules in the world were only written to help you clear away the dust from your windows. You can get so busy cleaning and cleaning that you wind up staring at the pane for spots instead of drinking in the light it reveals.

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A Question For You

I interview many different types of writers, and for every type of writer there is a different type of interview, but with every writer one thing remains consistent: the person matches the book. This is not to say that the writer and his or her work are one in the same. Instead, it’s as if the writer is in a life-long discussion with the world, and a book is one part of that discussion. When I meet the writer, I feel that discussion still in process, as though the writer has asked a question of the world, and the answer is coming and coming and coming.

This is particularly helpful when I read books about which I am not excited. It is easy to feel that somehow the writer has set out to waste my time. But this is only because when I read a book I am hearing it in my own voice. If the writer is posing a question which I have already answered to my own satisfaction or am simply not interested in asking myself, then what I hear in my head sounds like a song played in the wrong key.

On the other hand, once I meet the writer, and hear their voice, the question the book posed makes perfect sense—for the writer. It’s then I realize that what bothered me most was the dissonance between my voice and that of the author’s, not whether the book was any good or not.

It is impossible for me, once I meet someone, not to feel the integrity of that person’s life question. Not the integrity of their answers, for none of them are ever meant to be final, only guideposts—but the question. That is the tension of life, just as it is the tension of fiction. But it is a dynamic tension, a creative tension, and it does not matter how far from my own question the dramatic arc of another person’s life is drawn—it bends as necessarily and unstoppably forward as mine. I see this, and I am relieved. I am relieved as I am once again reminded that nothing in life can be gotten wrong, that the question is pure, and the answers are nothing more than cobblestones in the road you are paving in its pursuit.

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Leaving Fantasy Land

I have never been a fan of American Idol, and in particular I have never enjoyed the cutting assessments of would-be contestants who do not make it past that first audition. Not being a regular viewer, I would catch an ad for the up-coming season now and then, and there would be Simon Cowell saying the sorts of things to these young hopefuls that sound funny in theory but indulgent and cruel in person. What a mean man, I thought. What a mean show.

And then one day I found myself watching a kind of American Idol retrospective made up almost entirely of these first auditions, and my opinion was changed completely. What I saw was this: a parade of young men and women completely out of touch with reality. It wasn’t just that these people weren’t particularly strong singers yet, it was that they were still singing to themselves in front of the mirror. Randy Jackson and Simon Cowell’s remarks were usually, it seemed to me, the result of the exhausting job of having to tell person after person that they were essentially living in a fantasy world and that fantasy was now over.

There is a difference between imagination and fantasy. Imagination is the engine of change and all progress. But the imagination is interested in the connection of all things, as it pulls from what has been to create what will be. While the imagination pulls you ever forward, it is firmly routed in the moment, for that is the source of all its creativity.

In fantasy, we wish to skip ahead. We are uninterested in the journey from Here to the Fantasy Land, we just want to get there, without all the bother of learning how.  What those delusional American Idol contestants learned in one machete remark was that they did not in fact ever want to be singers. Being a singer was an idea they decided to finally test for the first time on national television.

I feel for these people, however, because I have spent more than my share of time in Fantasy Land. It’s an unsatisfying place. But I only traveled there when I told myself the road to some city I desired to reach might prove too difficult. What if, by luck or a fatal lack of ability, I never arrived? Safer, it seemed, to invent the city myself. Eventually, however, I left Fantasy Land forever when I realized that it wasn’t that I was worried that I couldn’t get to where I wanted to go, it was that I might I never have wanted to go in the first place. That was a chance I was willing to take.

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A Simple Guy

When I was in high school, I acquired the nickname Dudley Do-Right, after the enormous-chinned, damsel-saving, cartoon Canadian Mountie. I detested this nickname, as it suggested I was something less than complicated—a nice guy, a trustworthy guy, but not a very complicated guy. It was true that I had an affinity for saving the day and/or damsels, but I also wanted to be a writer, and I did not think my odds good if I wasn’t complicated.

I shed the nickname after high school, but the threat of my simplicity endured. It is not so easy to be complicated on purpose. It is a very short trip from nuance to pretense if you’re trying too hard, and I was raised by parents gifted with a Midwesterner’s nose for fakery for whom it was better to be an honest failure than a pretentious success.

It was my wife who finally got me to admit I preferred things simple. I fought her on it, but in the end I relented. In fact, I had to admit that I was forever striving to hone all things down to their simplest parts, a habit which is actually in perfect keeping with writing.

Stories are the extracted details from the infinite wealth of possible details. You can’t describe every piece of furniture in the room, only those pieces that bring that room to life. You can’t portray every action your protagonist takes, from their first yawn to their good-night kiss, you portray only those actions that move the story forward or reveal character. Fiction, on the page at least, is life reduced to its simplest form.

The complication occurs in the translation. Now your protagonist’s one gesture opens a window through which your audience views the world, their own past, their own fears and loves, and even their own imagined future. It happens immediately and spontaneously, over and over again, from reader to reader, and the exponential possibilities are beyond complicated. In this way I embrace my simplicity. It remains, for me at least, the quickest and most direct route to everything, which is always where I’m headed.

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