Pass It On

Years ago I was talking to an actor friend who had recently begun to conceive of a new kind of theater that he hoped would do away with traditional theater once and for all. He considered traditional theater, where the audience sits quietly and watches and listens to actors, offensive and outdated. “The problem with it,” he explained, leaning over the table toward me, “is the performers are always f***ing the audience.” He then mimed this experience for me with his enormous hands. “You see?” he said. “We’re always f***ing the audience.”

I said I understood because he was much older and much drunker than I, and because I wanted him to stop doing that thing with his hands immediately, but I did not really understand. I was perfectly happy with traditional theater, and in fact made a point to avoid any performance that might ask me to speak or get up out of my chair. And anyhow, my friend was having trouble that night explaining exactly what this new kind of theater would be, so he kept drinking and getting grumpier and more prophetic about the death of art and theater and so on.

It was one of those discussions where I knew my friend was both right and wrong, and I have spent the years after it ruminating off and on about what I should have said that night. My friend assumed that audiences were passive victims of the artist’s will, and I suppose to a fly on the wall it would perhaps appear so.

But then I remembered that old, old writer’s adage: Show Don’t Tell. Why is it better to show and not tell? Why can’t I just tell the audience what the character feels? Why can’t I just tell you Henry is angry instead of having him slam the door and kick a chair? Because, it turns out, no one is really passive. Everyone, whether they understand it or not, makes up his or her own mind about everything. In fact, even if, sheep-like, you follow your husband or wife’s every command, you still must decide to follow your husband or wife’s every command. And so not only are we the authors of our own life, we are also, to some degree, the authors of the very books we read.

The job of the writer, or of any artist, is always to create fertile open space in which an audience’s imagination can flourish. No matter what the author tells us, we the readers will decide, ultimately, what a character looks and sounds like, what is meant by happiness and despair, what it feels like to be alone or in love. The words and images and scenes are merely sparks for our unique feeling memory, and in this way we tell the story to ourselves, and why in the end no two readers ever read exactly the same novel.

It can be a bit infuriating as a writer to think of this—we know what we meant, after all, and we spent a lot of time figuring out how to say it so there would be no ambiguity for the reader. But the fight to be both the first and last word on your work is a battle you lost the moment you decided you wanted to be read. When your story sails off to friends, to teachers, to editors, or to the great vast sea of the reading public—suddenly it isn’t your story anymore. Now, as the saying goes, you have shared your story, and now, despite what the copyright date might read, it belongs to everyone.

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No Surprises

Somewhere in his Poetics, the Greek philosopher Aristotle points out that the best stories are always unpredictable but inevitable.  It’s a tricky balance for a writer to achieve.  It means no cheap plot twists just to keep the readers off their balance; it means no deus ex machina to cleave a story’s tangled strings; it means there must be enough clues for the readers  to draw their own conclusions by the end, but not so many that this conclusion is drawn somewhere in the middle of Act III.  When it is done well, there is not a more satisfying story you can write.

I have thought about this off and on since I read Poetics my freshman year in college. It is such a tidy and obvious truism that it seems almost impervious to explanation—it is so just because it is so.  But then one day recently I stubbed my toe, and it all made sense to me.

The toe-stubbing was typical of all my toe-stubbings: I was too busy thinking what I was thinking to notice where I was going and then—and then I wasn’t thinking anymore.  I am not a stoic toe-stubber.  First there is the hopping, and then there is the pounding of the fist on the nearest stable surface, and then the children clear the room, and then the cursing begins.  It was during the cursing phase of the drama that I had my epiphany.  If I stub my toe with enough force, my curses become epic and existential.  I am angry in the way one becomes angry at restaurant management or the government or God.  Someone must pay for my suffering, and yet no one ever does.  But on this day, as I was gearing up for my tirade, I understood who was to blame, and that someone, of course, was me.

Though blame may not be the right word because the “lesson” here was not that I should watch where I was going.  Rather, in its own way, the stubbing of my toe matched exactly what I was feeling in the moment prior to the stub.  I was wound up and agitated, and the collision was merely an extension of the agitation. It was as if I was asking for something, though I didn’t know what, until, unfortunately, I stubbed my toe and I got it.

My life has always felt that way.  Unpredictable, yes, but never surprising.  Every success, every failure, every conflict, every reconciliation—every single event mirrors exactly my own thoughts and feelings of the moment, as if, as they say, I asked and I was given.  Thus the tragic Greek hero’s cry may be directed at the Gods, but in truth, the cry is always for his ears only, wondering not why he was given, but why did he ask.

And that moment of epiphany, that moment of tears and blood when the hero at last meets the true architect of his life—this is always where we leave him, and then us with our “catharsis of pity and fear” as we shuffle home. Yet this is where the story actually begins.  This is where, perhaps, you begin to understand that your life unfolds through you, never at you, and where you might begin to choose more deliberately the path of your life, seeing as you have been choosing it all along already.

So the old Greek was right, and so over the centuries we can never get enough of a really good story that is unpredictable but inevitable, because I don’t believe we can ever hear often enough that, come mutiny or marriage, our lives remain sovereignly our own.

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Welcome to Author

This marks the beginning of what we hope will be a long and interesting run of interviews, book reviews, point-of-views, and how-to’s. For a thorough tour of the magazine, please visit our About Us page.

While Author is devoted to the written word, and book publishing in particular, we do not consider this exclusively a “writer’s magazine.” That is, while we are here to support and inform writers of all disciplines with industry news and advice from veteran writers, we aim ultimately to focus on the writer’s journey, which is a kind of microcosm of every person’s journey. I realized this one day while giving advice to a young writer, when it occurred to me that, except for the stuff about agents and semicolons, the advice I was giving could apply to anyone.

Whether you are published or unpublished, whether you’re are a devoted journaler or an avid e-mailer, whether you would rather read a book than ever jot down a note, everyone, from the first kindergartener to the last Nobel Prize winner, is an author. Everyone is the author of his or her own life. Everyone must decide, moment to moment, day to day, what to do next. Build a house or drive an RV, marry or divorce, start a business or take the promotion, regular or decaf—every moment is a choice. Every choice has a consequence, every choice is its own road, and so the story of your own life unfolds.

The choices you make are, with a few rare exceptions, made in the privacy of your own heart. All the “How To Be Happy Books” ever written, all the religious texts, all the sermons and graduation speeches and lectures on our mother’s knee, all the lessons and advice in the world always boil down to this: Be not afraid. Anyone who has ever done anything knows that fear is the first and only obstacle in the road. Oh, but what an obstacle! What makes fear such a formidable foe is that only you can see it. Only you know what you fear, and only you will know when you are not afraid anymore. We are all here for each other with loving company, but in the end, at that critical, defining, life-affirming moment of choice, it is a journey of one.

What makes authors such good candidates for our sympathy in the journey is that they are, by the nature of their work, more upfront about the choices and the solitude. Every author begins with the blank page, and there is no instruction manual on how to fill it. The “How To” books lining the shelves of Barnes & Noble cannot answer this one fundamental question: What interests me? That is the real puzzle every author must solve, and it is surprising how much courage it takes sometimes to answer such a lovely, noble question.

One last note about this page and Author in general. Nowhere on this site, if my editor’s pen is properly sharpened, will you read some variation of the phrase, “It’s hard to become a published writer.” If you wish to hear it, there are plenty of people in the world who will be not just happy to lecture you on the difficulties of climbing Mount Published, but may even feel it their duty to talk you out of approaching its base. You won’t, however, hear it from me. If you are here to write then write you must, and how hard it is or isn’t to be published does not need to enter into the discussion. It might take a little while, or it might take a long while—it doesn’t matter. Your choice has already been made. What would be hard, what would be painfully hard, would be if you wanted write but were afraid to choose to do so.

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