The Authentic Engine

A friend of mine once asked me where I came up with ideas for my stories. My explanation was that I might take my childhood house in Providence, put it in Los Angeles, and populate it with people I met in college in New York. “Oh,” he said. “So it’s like a dream.”

“Exactly,” I replied. A dream is perhaps the best and quickest description of the writing process. After all, aren’t many stories begun in that fertile, idle state we call a “day dream?” However, I am as likely as not to ignore my sleeping dreams, which, like most people’s, are abstract, surreal, and periodically repetitive and unsatisfying. I hope they’ve done their work, because once I’m out of bed, I’m on to other things.

But I have never doubted the dreams are important.  And of course they are.  Without dreams human beings go mad. Think about that for a moment: you literally must dream. These fragmented, Frankenstein narratives we call dreams are in a way more important than the sleep in which they are born. The deep rest of sleep is nothing more than a vehicle for spontaneous imagining.

Or, as any writer knows, re-imagining. For everything we write, everything we dream, is culled from all that we have done and known. Culled, and then rearranged into a new reality. The imagination is not interested in what is. What we call reality is merely the building material of the imagination, which knows only the vast and ever-shifting landscape of its own reality.

That our visions of our futures are called dreams is no linguistic coincidence. As you imagine yourself forward through time, you are rearranging in your imagination what has been to shape what will be.  For this reason, the imagination loves the future, it is its playground, and the imagination is fearless when facing the future because it cannot be wrong. And this great tool with which everyone was gifted is not just a muscle for writing stories or painting pictures, it is the authentic engine that drives the human animal forward.

More Author Articles

No Formula

This month’s issue of Author features an interview with Richard Bach, whose Jonathan Livingston Seagull sold approximately 40 million copies worldwide. I love the story of this book precisely because it is such an unusual candidate for mega-bestsellerdom. A book about a seagull that is less than 10,000 words long and is illustrated with black and white photos is far from what one thinks of when imagining what would be seen atop the New York Times list—yet there it was.

I decline the idea that there is a formula for success of any kind. Where in current (or past, for that matter) publishing wisdom would you find the recipe—Seagull, Short Story, Pictures = blockbuster? It defies all publishing logic except for this: people will want to buy what makes them happy.

The formula does not exist because no one knows for sure what will make them happy until they see it. That certain types of books routinely find their way to bestseller lists only means that human beings are habitual and will return to what has habitually moved and entertained them until something better or at least different comes along. But habit or no—no one knows what they want until they see it.

I know I don’t. I really don’t know anything until I see it. All I have is a feeling, which often arrives in the form of the question, “What do I want now?” It’s the most important and virtually the only question I ever ask. And no matter whether I’m choosing my next meal or my next scene, the process remains the same. I begin with the feeling I want and then wait for an idea that matches that feeling.  Then I make a decision and take an action and then ask what I want next. Repeat billions of time and you have a life.

But I never know what I want until I see it.  I can’t and I don’t want to. All of our lives exist out in the endless, dark, malleable potential we call The Future. The Future awaits our decisions with absolute obedience, without judgment or celebration, whether we want to read books about lost symbols in Washington D.C., or a seagull seeking to perfect his flight.

More Author Articles

Water, Water Everywhere

Summer appears to be officially over here in Seattle, as we are now soaked to our shudders with the first unremitting rain shower of the new season. No matter. Erica Bauermeister felt it was easier to write during Seattle’s long, damp winters, and I rather agree. Not everyone does, of course, but there is something about water in general that seems to lend itself to creativity.

The ocean is always nice—I find myself composing in my head as soon as I get my toes into the surf. But the problem with the ocean is that the only thing I think to write about when I’m near the ocean is the ocean. I feel compelled to capture it completely once and for all. I haven’t yet, but I will be sure to let you know if I do.

Rivers are more generous partners. Wally Lamb visits a river near his home whenever he’s stuck. He says after a certain amount of time on the riverbank the story begins to flow again. This makes perfect sense to me. There is something about the repetitive and endless sound of a current that hypnotizes you back into your story.

But I have to say no source of water has ever been more helpful to my writing than a shower. I’m sure I am not alone when I say that I have gotten more work done after rinsing the shampoo out of my hair than in all my trips to any other body of water combined. It must be the banal nature of the shower that helps me so. There is a momentousness when one approaches a river or an ocean, a sense that Now Is The Time.  A shower is a humble servant.

And there is always that moment, after all the business is done, and I am standing and listening to the water hit the back of my neck that I will find the missing piece to some puzzle in my story. I’m never expecting it; I’m not even aware that I’m asking for it. I seem, in fact, to be doing nothing at all. But doing nothing at all is my most creative activity. In the cocoon of nothingness much can grow without all the noise of judgment and the bright lights of public opinion. Here you reach your natural state – you with you listening to you. That is the true wellspring; the true river from which all creation flows.

More Author Articles

No Accident

My brother sent me something rather alarming this morning: PDFs of two pages from his best friend’s journal in which I had been asked to write one bleary evening in 1986. That this journal still exists is amazing to me, that my brother’s friend had thought to photocopy the pages and digitize them for me is just as amazing—but what is perhaps most amazing of all was that, as I re-read this 23 year-old piece of writing, I could remember what it felt like when I wrote it.

I remembered because that was a time in my life when I had begun to discover the power of fast writing—just putting the words down as quickly as possible while thinking as little possible. It was a kind of trick, really, designed to take my very watchful and wicked brain out of the equation.

And it worked for a time. I wrote very quickly and very intuitively, but I had no idea about trying to publish any of it—I just liked how it felt to write that way. My brain, however, wasn’t about to be sidelined so easily, and by the time I sat down to write my first actual novel I called upon the brain because now I needed to sell something and make money and the brain seemed like just the thing to see such a project through.

That first effort was many years and many books ago. I don’t like to think about that first book—it’s like forcing myself to remember what it felt like to perform a play for which I had not memorized my lines. But I don’t much believe in chance, not in what we remember, nor in what comes across our desk.

For hadn’t I just begun rewriting a novel?  And hadn’t I just told myself that I am not to think of the publishers waiting to read it, that no matter whether it finds a publisher or not I am to enjoy the writing of it first, last, and only; and that I should write quickly; and that I should write intuitively; and don’t I sometimes forget that; and isn’t it sometimes good to get a 23 year-old journal entry to remind me?

More Author Articles

The Sellout

A young man who works with me on the magazine is contemplating returning to college and finishing his degree. In the meantime, he is an avid and varied reader, picking up everything from A Tale of Two Cities to Noam Chomsky. Last night I said to him, “You know what you are?  You’re a buccaneer scholar.” “Buccaneer scholar” is a term James Bach coined in his book by the same title to describe people who learn independently outside of a traditional school setting.

My friend seemed to like this description. “Yeah, I’ve always learned that way,” he said. “That’s why I worry about selling out if I go back to school.”

I told him he should do whatever he wanted and never worry about selling out. I have never liked the term sellout. It’s a mean spirited assessment of someone else’s business. But it’s obvious enough why have the phrase. All artists—all people, really—are wrestling to some degree with the question of whether what they love most can keep bread on the table. The sellout, it would seem, has sacrificed all honor and love for mammon. His reward is a large house and an empty heart.

The inference, of course, is that the sellout should have been willing to accept whatever meager living his passion could afford him. Yet why would we care what someone else chooses to do with their time? Why waste a single breath complaining about what roles an actor takes or what books and author writes?

Because we don’t really care what anyone else is doing. We care about what we will do, and every time some artist we admire makes a choice that seems to have been made with an eye on the marketplace instead of the heart, we might let our own resolve crumble just a little bit. Never mind that we have no idea nor any business knowing why someone does or doesn’t do something—we invent their reasons to answer our own fears, either for or against.

One of the greatest lessons we can all learn is that love, if you let it, can beget wealth. The two are not mutually exclusive. Yet we have often divided them, rendering to Caesar what is Caesar’s. But they are not divided at all, they are one in the same, and when you can wed them, the world turns from a harsh landscape to be endured through whatever means necessary, to a garden exactly as beautiful as the amount of love with which it was sewn.

More Author Articles

Your Best Work

As I write this, I am about to interview Jane Smiley, which makes it two Pulitzer Prize-winning writers in two days, having interviewed Tracy Kidder yesterday afternoon. I’ll be interested to hear what Jane Smiley has to say about winning the Pulitzer as Tracy Kidder reported that while the award was a great boost to his writing career, he felt quite exposed afterward and took a long time to start his next project.

His response did not surprise me at all. It’s always nice to hear when people like what you’ve done, but praise is energy after all, and the louder and more public the praise the more energy there is behind it, and all energy can knock you off balance.

I notice this even from myself. If I’ve had a good day of work, if it came easily and I feel like I’ve discovered something about the story and I entered that lovely zone where I forget I’m there writing and feel more like an observer than a participant, I have to be careful not to dwell on it afterward. When I do, I make that day into something special, which means it can’t happen often.

Best to have a short memory. If you want to forget about the bad days, then you have to forget about the good ones too. Build on the good days, but don’t dwell them. Besides, there aren’t really good days and bad days anyway. If we’re wise, we remember those days we call bad were only us trying to work impatiently or critically. The day had nothing to do with it.

It’s worth remembering.  I used to have what I think of as a Christmas Fetish. I was devoted to the idea of good days and bad days and great days and terrible days. Tracy Kidder did not think his book that won the Pulitzer Prize was his best, and as well he shouldn’t. The book he’s writing is always his best book, just as today is always your best day. It has to be anyway. It’s the only day you’re ever allowed to have.

More Author Articles

Ask And It Is Given

I have come to see writing as a series of questions and answers.  My stories all begin with the same question: What shall I write about?  Perhaps the answer is, A boy on a bike.  I have my answer.  But this answer only asks more questions. How old is the boy? Where is he going? Where is he coming from? Is it his bike, or did he borrow or steal it?

The questions are asked and answered and asked answered until I have no more questions remaining. Then the book is called done. This is why writing to me is like listening. My only active role, in a way, is asking the questions. As I have written more, I have learned to ask better questions. The better the questions, the more precise the answer.

Take the first question. Once I might have just asked for some story, any story, but now I am likely to be more specific. I want a story that feels like what it felt like when I first met my wife—but I don’t want my wife in it or me in it or anyone like us.

So I’ve asked.  And now I wait.  It doesn’t matter where I am in the process, whether the first idea or the last sentence, that is the procedure: I ask, I wait, and an answer comes. If I don’t like the answer, I have learned that the problem is that I have asked the wrong question. Instead of asking, “I want an exciting end to this chapter,” which is very vague and likely to produce a half-a-dozen perfectly exciting answers, I will ask, “I want an exciting end to the chapter that is also funny and leaves my hero in a basement with only a rat for company.”

The part we call hard is the waiting. We call it hard because we do not trust that the answer will come, or we demand that the answer comes quicker than it has. Also, sometimes we don’t like the answer and we forget that it was us who did the asking. Either way, doubt the process and you have thrown water on your creative fire. Trust it, and you can burn on all day and night if you like.

More Author Articles

Life in Translation

I am not one of those people who find a medium’s lack of specificity unconvincing. On the contrary, I think I would be more skeptical if a medium could take one look at a subject and describe every dead relative in one go.

The times I have heard mediums attempting to communicate with the dead I am always reminded of my own efforts to write a story. When I write, I feel as though I am listening, not making, and this listening begins with vague images that interest me and upon which I then focus until the images become clearer and lead to other images.

I think the listening distinction is important because it takes the pressure off the writer. You must enter a relaxed state to listen. You must shut your mind down and wait for whatever it is you are listening for to speak. This makes writing a less formidable task. You don’t have to make everything up from nothing, you only have to hone your skills as a translator.

I know there are charlatans all about us, and I cannot say precisely what mediums see and hear when they are talking to the dead, but I know they see and hear something because we all do. Everyone who has ever written a story or painted a picture or started a business or changed careers uses much the same language: “The idea came to me.”

And indeed it does. The ideas always come to us; we don’t go get them. Everyone’s life, after all, is a story being told in the present tense. Everyone is  listening to suggestions and translating them into actions—into dinners and movies and families and stories alike. But nothing can come to you if you don’t listen, and nothing heard can be built upon if you aren’t patient. Like the mediums asking questions of their subject, we are all tuning and tuning the frequency of our interest, and as we do, we come to understand that strange paradox, that we must grow increasingly still to receive the information needed to move us forward.

More Author Articles

What Dreams May Come

I am tired today because I watched a television show last night that involved too many people being stabbed and tortured. And so, as always happens to me, I spent the night dreaming of stabbings and torture and then awoke in the middle of the night, my brain darting from one faceless anxiety to the next, until I reminded myself no one that I knew was planning to stab and torture me, and I fell back asleep.

I went through a period in my late teens where I would dream often of my own impending execution. It so happened that these dreams coincided with the realization that I was not in fact immortal. This was sobering at the time, and seemed worthy of many stories and poems, but I have since decided that as a writer you are better served, at least during your writing, if you can hold a dispassionate view of death.

I thought of this again the other day as I was trying to come up with an appropriate curse to lay on one my characters. As I considered my choices, I realized that death, as a narrative threat, was not nearly as compelling as a character living their life knowing, say, that they would never love another.

We are often taught to believe that death is the worst thing that could happen to us, and so logically, to our characters as well.  But all stories are told because the characters in them are seeking to change and to learn. Death, opaque as it may be, is a change. With it, the character is released from whatever evils they had committed, whatever lies they had believed.

Far worse is a life without growth. This is the jail we all fear. When I tossed about in my bed, I wasn’t actually afraid of being tortured and killed. Instead, I was staring down that timeless fear that all I am is a sack of meat that must be kept fed and clothed until the clock runs out. That is the promise of the slave driver’s whip—that you can be driven from here to there by the needs of your body, not the yearning of your soul.

More Author Articles

Nothing Right

About ten years ago I got shingles, a disease with which I was unfamiliar until it began appearing on my forehead above my right eye. I was diagnosed on a Saturday by an eye doctor who, by whatever logic, believed that the only reason a healthy young man like me could ever get shingles is if he had AIDS.

I was prescribed an anti-viral medicine, whose primary side effect was sustained nausea. I then spent a sleepless night in my bed, staring down my mortality and feeling vaguely sick to my stomach. At about three in the morning, I had a visitation.

I had asked myself, or anyone who was listening, why I was sick, and a voice immediately answered, “Because you think you have to be perfect!”

“No,” I replied. “That’s not true—”

“Yes it is!”

I allowed that maybe it was, and recovered surprisingly quickly.  On Monday, I learned from my internist that lots of healthy people get shingles, but fortunately, by that time, the work of the disease had already been done.

There isn’t a worse disease for a writer to suffer from than perfectionism. Once infected you sit down at your desk every day with the sole objective of “getting it right.” The pain of shingles is nothing compared to the self-torture of getting your work “right.” It is like working for a capricious dictator, pleased with your efforts one day, disgusted by them the next.

I used to think the worst part of trying to get my work right was the sheer Sisyphean impossibility of it.  There was no right, of course, and so I could spend all my life if I so chose chasing some shadow always a stride ahead of me. However, merely not being able to do something is annoying, but not painful.

The only pain I have ever known is the absence of love. In trying to get it right, I required myself to cut off from the actual source of my creative work, a source that knows no right or wrong, only the pleasure of allowing that which I desire through in the clearest form possible. When I looked at what I had written and called it bad, I was actually mourning my time spent outside the stream of love.

More Author Articles