Believable Fiction

If you decided to write a novel about a world-class sprinter—say the world record holder in the 100 and 200 meter dashes—and decided to give this fictional sprinter the last name of Bolt, your editor would likely send you back to your laptop to come up with something a little less obvious. So too if you were creating the world’s greatest golfer and named him Woods, as opposed to Driver or Irons.

Life, it turns out, can be more literal than most fiction will allow. My son’s kindergarten music teacher was named Ms. Clapper, his principal, Ms. Smart. Life it is said, can imitate art, but sometimes art cannot imitate life. This is why, no matter whether you’re writing science fiction or historical romance, you are told to make your stories believable.

Strange, of course, for how often have you watched the news and thought, “Unbelievable”? Anything that you can imagine can happen and probably already has. But that is not what we mean by believable fiction. Stories are the trace of emotional truth, not physical truth. As readers we are willing to accept incredible coincidence, physics-defying teleportation, even magic, but not emotional dishonesty.

Our lives are not led in the physical—that is, we are not pinballs bouncing from event to event. We are not a collection of limbs and organs generating a series of thoughts, but rather a series of thoughts compelling a collection of limbs and organs. What readers always seek in fiction is what it feels like to be alive, not what it looks like to be alive, because the feeling is in the end the only reality we ever know, because the feeling reality, which exists within the invisible self, is all we have that is ours and ours alone.

Just as it should be. Emotionally honest stories are written because we understand we are compelled forward through life not by what is or what has happened, but only by what we desire. That is the arrow-shot of your life, your vision for what you most want to see in the world, and the next time you wish yourself forward and then think, “Impossible,” remember that there is a sprinter named Bolt, a golfer named Woods, and a music teacher named Clapper.

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Changing Weather

The weather is on the move here in Seattle this morning. A moody wind and a sudden skyful of clouds and it feels like autumn. I can’t say I have a favorite time of year except perhaps those cusps where I sense the new season taking hold. It is then when I am most reminded of world’s constant pull toward change, and I much comforted.

There is a particular challenge writers face when they choose to render such details as weather for their readers. Nearly every writer who has ever sat down to tell a story has described snow and rain and wind and sun. Yet as with all things, it remains the job of the writer to tell it new—and not so you might hold or attain the mantle of “good writer” but so that you might allow your reader a chance to see a windstorm or a spring morning as if for the first time.

And this is good news. Your readers are pulling for you. Consciously or unconsciously, your readers crave and believe in the new. Perhaps in the shadows of some worldly despair we might be lured to mutter how nothing has ever changed, how history repeats itself, how if you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all. This is not a belief; this is a complaint. This is someone crying, “Show me the world is evolving and interesting because I think I am losing interest in it.”

I feel sometimes as if it is this lonely soul to whom I am writing. Every day can feel like its own awakening as I re-believe that life is potential and not repetition, and yet it takes nothing more than a thought to slip, and in a moment we are alone with our doubt. It’s a kind of trance this pessimism, and the gift of art is to jolt the audience out of such dreams. Your readers are asking nothing less than to be reminded that no two sunsets or snowfalls have ever been the same, and that change, while frightening, is the fertile soil for all of life’s potential.

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The Safest Translation

Yesterday I interviewed Sue Monk Kidd and her daughter Ann Kidd Taylor, coauthors of the recently released memoir Traveling With Pomegranates. We spent a lot of time talking about the memoir as an art form and the tricky job the writer has distilling the vast details of their lives into a coherent narrative. The memoirist is in effect translating her own experience for her reader.

It occurred to me that translation is a good skill to learn whether or not we ever write a memoir. Everyone I meet is something of a traveler from a foreign country for whom I must find the best words and gestures so he or she might understand what it is I want to share with them. That we both know English is useful but by no means a guarantee I will be understood. No matter how intimate, we all remain strangers to some degree, isolated within the domain that is our unique perception.

It is a divide, however, that asks the best of us. While one can find commonality in outrage and despair, the truest bond, in fact the only bond that can sustain, is that of love. Eventually, one party will fatigue of outrage before the other, and the fraternity of fear will be lost. No one has ever grown tired of love. It is entirely impossible to do so; it would be like growing tired of breathing.

Love is the only bridge that truly connects us, inviting us as it does to set aside our fear of that which we do not know. Sometimes what we do not know is a new job, or a new city, or a new school, and sometimes it is a new story or a new neighbor, but the question to us in each instance remains the same: do you trust this world or not? If the answer is, Yes, we find that the reach of love extends far beyond the husband and wife or the mother and child—it is the enduring promise of every moment that you are safe forever within the perception of love.

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Clearly Beautiful

I have a good friend who is a veterinarian and a father of four school-aged children. All his children are bright and get good grades and generally make their parents proud, but my friend was for some reason dissatisfied with their writing skills. The writing, he complained to me, wasn’t beautiful enough. How could he get them to write beautifully, not merely functionally?

I tried gently pointing out that not one of his children had ever expressed an interest in writing beyond what was practically necessary to do well in school. But he wouldn’t hear it. Beautiful writing, he was certain, could be taught. What, he wanted to know, was the writerly secret to beautiful writing?

Unfortunately, the secret is never what men like my friend want to hear. What we call beautiful writing only occurs when the writer cares about what he or she is writing. It is not really the product of training or practice or careful reading, although all of that helps in the long run, or helps certainly when the writer is not particularly compelled by what they are writing, like in, say, a school writing assignment.

But the beauty comes from specificity not stylishness, and the specificity comes from the writer’s commitment to express precisely what they mean, not something else which is perhaps only a shade lighter but completely different nonetheless. There is far more beauty in clarity than raw originality, although sometimes in seeking clarity we are forced beyond the boundaries of the conventional to find exactly what we mean.

I realized this when I looked back at all the writing I used to call beautiful when I was a young man. It wasn’t the writer’s gymnast-like ability to pick an original word that drew my attention, but their underlying commitment to honesty and clarity that expressed itself in a way that was, to me at least, memorable.

So do not think about writing beautifully, think only about writing clearly and about what you care most. Let the words take the shape of whatever your clarity demands and then let it go. If you manage to say precisely what you mean, you will have provided another person the opportunity to share in what you love, and there is little in the world more beautiful than that.

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Enter The House

During her interview, Carol Cassella talked about the difference between the external discipline of medicine and the internal discipline of writing. In medicine, as in most professions, the doctor uses her training to solve problems presented to her by others, namely, patients. The writer, on the other hand, uses her skill to solve problems she created.

I believe it is this internal discipline that has left so many people at the doorstep of writing, unwilling to enter that house alone. I don’t think it occurs to the beginning writer until they have sat down to write their first book just how alone he or she will be in this pursuit. And so, with this idea still fertile in their imagination, a new writer turns away, claiming lack of time, or lack of talent, while all that ever stood between them and writing this story was some idea they had about themselves they were afraid they might discover was true if they sat down alone to write.

No one has to be a writer, but I believe everyone has to enter that house, even if it is only on your deathbed. We are all freer than we are normally willing to admit, and the embodiment of that freedom is our unyielding autonomy, a gift from which we habitually protect each other. Why, left to your own devices, you could do anything, and anything could be wrong. It is why it is sometimes easier to be slave than master, why new democracies erupt in violence, why teenagers, freed from their parents will for a weekend, binge and carouse.

Yet as free as we are, we are all imbued with natural limitations in the form of our own preferences—the stories, and words, and friends, and food we choose every day. These are the natural boundaries of our lives, the walls and windows of the house. Upon entering the house, you discover that the divine freedom that is life is not the freedom to do anything, but the freedom to do anything that makes you happy.

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Writing Without a Net

Yesterday, I was helping my wife put the finishing touches on her latest children’s book. The story is in great shape, but the critical revelation scene at the end of the book wasn’t flowing. Everything that needed to happen happened and quite quickly, but the scene dragged.

So we focused our efforts. The problem, we determined, wasn’t the entire scene, but one paragraph, the paragraph where the protagonist’s critical change actually occurs.  We read it aloud several times but still couldn’t pinpoint the problem. Then my wife zeroed in further, not just on the troublesome paragraph but on a troublesome sentence—and then, not even on a sentence but on a single clause.

“Wait,” she said. “I’m telling them she feels relief.  I’m not showing it.”

It was true. In the critical, pivotal moment of the book, at that turning point toward which the entire story was driving, she slipped and told the reader the protagonist had changed instead of showing it. And what was most poignant was that all the showing she needed was already in that very paragraph, only in the wrong place. All she needed to do was pull out that one telling dependent clause, flip a couple sentences, and the paragraph, the scene, and, in the end, the entire book, worked.

One of the hardest disciplines to master as a writer is to trust that what we wanted to say has been said. Books are filled with paragraphs and pages telling the reader what the writer has already shown them. To trust we must give up the net of telling and cross the wire without fear. We tell because if we say, “The hero felt relief,” we know for sure his relief is on the page because we just put it there.  Now there can be no doubt.

No matter what we are doing, all our efforts to replace trust with certainty in this way invariably backfires. You cannot escape the inevitable truth that a reader always makes up his or her own mind about whatever you have written. To embrace this truth is to embrace the true nature of the relationship between audience and artist. Allow them their natural role, which is to finish in their imagination the story you began.

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The Retirement Myth

Yesterday I heard from a 91 year-old woman who needed advice on finding an agent. While there is something timelessly compelling about a 25 year-old’s search for love and meaning, stories of men and women past what we call “their prime” carrying on with the business of life remains equally, if not some ways even more, inspiring.

Retirement is a myth. You may stop doing this or that, you may not be a lawyer anymore, your children may have all left home, but this does not exempt any of us from getting up every day and deciding what to do next, which is all life is or has ever been. Here yet another lovely truism about writing overlaps with a truism about life. There’s no need to ever retire from writing – as long as you are willing to write, you can write, and as long as you are willing to pursue publication, you can pursue publication.

But I understand the lure of retirement. Life can seem such a struggle, and that job, that daily set of problems we must solve, appears at times the very source of this struggle. Of course it is not. You are the source of that struggle, in that you chose that job. Some day you may choose another job, perhaps even the job of fishing or babysitting your grandchildren, in which case you will have merely exchanged one set of challenges for another.

Abandon the idea of retirement. It is a siren song. If you’re done with a job, by all means, be done with it, but understand clearly the choice you are making. You are not done with life, nor have you finally started living. Your life is never anything but a series of choices, one after the other after the other. You made your first choice when you arrived here, and you won’t make your last until your eulogy is read.

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The Foreigner

My oldest son is starting high school today. Occasionally, a movie crops up about a character transported back to high school where he or she lives as a teenager but with the life experience of an adult. I understand the temptation of this fantasy, but it is actually a very strange thing to wish for. You would be unbelievably bored if this every actually happened to you because you have already learned everything high school had to teach you.

Life is never so interesting as when we are learning something. Writers above all should understand this. What is the blank page after all? It doesn’t matter how many stories you’ve already written, it doesn’t matter how much you outline, or how many classes you’ve taken, or books on writing you’ve read, the blank page is the start of a new journey into a foreign country.

It is tempting as a traveler to view the unknown country as unfriendly. To hear writers talk about their works in progress sometimes is like listening to a soldier radio from behind enemy lines. Whose idea was it to send them here, and how will they ever get out? The way out, of course, is always the same as the way in, namely your own curiosity.

You will stay in that foreign country until you have discovered all you wish to discover. You are never lost; you are only trying to understand the way out before you have found it, and this is confusing. All roads do in fact lead to Rome. You may not be able to see Rome, but it is always there. If you are feeling lost, return to where you are at this very moment. This is where all the clues exist.  You need only pick the path that interests you most and it will inevitably lead where you need to go.

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Labor of Love

I’ve never been good at celebrating Labor Day. You’re supposed to not work on Labor Day, and l like to work, so I worked. Yet I got to thinking how it is no coincidence that the word we use to describe our daily, bread-making work is the same word used to describe the process of delivering a child into the world.

All work is creation. A friend of mine who is a writer is visiting this weekend. My friend’s father is a very successful businessman who built his very successful business from nothing to feed and house his wife and seven children. My friend, who loves his father very much, has suffered some over the years accepting the difference between his father’s idea of work and the work that is writing.

This is not an unusual position for an artist to find him or herself in. The parent wants the child to be happy, but the parent wants the child to be safe, and the practical route always seems the safest, and art can sometimes seem impractical. But in the end, there is no place safer than our own happiness, whether that happiness is found building a business from nothing or starting a story from nothing.

It is never comfortable to justify what you do as work to another person, particularly if that other person is your parent. Yet I think the quickest route to understanding is to turn this problem around and remember that the businessman is an artist too. The businessman starts from nothing and makes decisions every day, decisions that lead to more decisions until one day where there was an empty storefront there is now hardware store, or a drycleaners, or an insurance company.

To the businessman, business is practical because the act of creating a business makes him happy. There is nothing practical about doing work that brings you no happiness. Just like the mother giving birth, all labor should ideally be a labor of love. Love is the most practical thing in the world because everything it makes is worthwhile and wanted and needed and nothing you make out of love can ever be wasted.

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The Coworker

Many the artist, particularly the beginning artist, complains about their propensity to procrastinate. If only I weren’t such a procrastinator, they moan, I would get so much more work accomplished. You can’t argue with that, but the procrastinator seems to feel that this procrastination is a kind of disease he or she caught some time back and has been unable to shake ever since.

Of course, procrastination is not a disease at all, but a choice, only in my opinion a very wise choice—the wisest possible, usually, given the circumstances. And what are those circumstances? Waiting for the procrastinator in her workspace is a kind of irritating coworker. Sometimes they are quiet, but usually and eventually they begin to talk while you work, often posing rhetorical questions, such as, “Why do you think you’ll ever finish this book?” or, “Why do you think that’s any good?”

Who could work under such conditions? If you know that coworker is going to be there, it seems to me you are absolutely justified in avoiding the work. On the other hand, you could ask this annoying coworker to leave. Perhaps you don’t remember, but you invited him into your workspace once upon a time because you felt he would be helpful. You were younger then, and the work seemed more intimidating and you wanted some help, that’s all, because you must have thought it was important that you never make a mistake of any kind.

I think it’s best that you ask him to leave. You will miss him in a way at first, because you have grown accustomed to his voice, and you will feel a bit alone, but that feeling quickly passes. You will love the new silence. Within it, you can hear yourself more clearly, which is why you were drawn to the work the first place. You have always wanted to be alone with your work, and once you are, you will fully understand that the voice had never been you.

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