I am the Fool


Whenever I find myself stuck with some sticky plot problem, I always think of The Fool. As it was taught to me, The Fool is the character that sets off on his journey with a sack slung over his shoulder that, unbeknownst to him, contains everything he will ever need on his long trek.

Plot problems are not unlike little journeys themselves.  My character is standing at A.  I know I want my character at A.  I also know he will soon be at C. There is no doubt about A or C.  The problem is that A and C do not meet and I do not know how or where or why B can be found. This is when it’s important for me to remember that I am The Fool.

Once upon a time, when I came upon this sort of plot gap, I could be known to panic. What if I can’t fill it? What if the river is too wide to build a bridge from A to C? Then I would start pulling ideas out of the air and throwing them between A and C. I’d invent new characters, I’d write subplots, I’d kill someone, I’d bring someone back to life. Inevitably, this sort of intervention turned a simple B into B, C, D, and E,  sent my first C all the way to F, and left the whole business muddied and less clear than before.

I had forgotten that I was The Fool. I had forgotten that I already had everything I needed. If my character must start at A and then must end up at C, then B is surely to be found somewhere within those two known plot points. And what is most remarkable is that this turned out to be true exactly as soon as I decided that it was.

Now, when I come to a plot hole, I take a deep breath, I clear away all the silly subplots and new characters, and I think, “There is a simple and elegant solution.” And soon enough there is, and that solution is always contained within what I had already written. Always. Everything I need is always there before me.

It is easy to believe, when uncertainty comes rolling around, when characters won’t talk, when endings won’t end—or, for that matter, when bills can’t seem to be paid or leaks can’t seem to be fixed—that we must work harder. It can seem that these problems have arrived in our life because of something we lacked, because we weren’t quick enough, or smart enough, or prepared enough.

But just the opposite is true. When a problem arrives, when there’s something I need—from money to a murder weapon—I stop. Then, I do nothing but wait. Wait, and remind myself that I am The Fool, and that my sack is full. And then, after a time, I see it. It is always there and I always had it.

It’s a strange kind of triumph that you can’t really share with anyone: “I didn’t know what to do, but then I waited, and it came.” I’ve had the good fortune to win races and catch touchdowns in my life, but this quiet victory beats those others every time. Because touchdowns and first kisses and awards and advances are over as soon as they arrive, but the journey goes on and on,. There’s always another bridge to be built, and all that will ever carry you across rivers and highways is what you’ve got in the sack that you’re carrying over your shoulder at this very moment.

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It’s Not You

My wife’s favorite art teacher once gave this advice to her students when they were about to show their work for critique: “Remember—it’s not you hanging up there on the wall.”

At the time I heard this advice as the protection that it was: if an audience doesn’t like the work, it doesn’t mean they don’t like you. But the flip side of this, of course, is that if the audience does like the work, it doesn’t mean that they like you either. Many an artist, I think—whether writer, or painter, or chef—has decided quietly in his or her heart to go ahead and hang themselves on the wall anyway and risk the arrows of criticism if they can reap the flowers of praise. This is a mistake. It is a mistake because an artist that makes this choice subjects himself to constant and unnecessary punishment (because there is never a shortage of criticism) for a reward that will ultimately never arrive: You are always the same thing you were before the praise as after.

You are not your work. You cannot be. Though it is romantic to imagine your soul being poured into the cup of your novel and served to the world, this notion supposes your soul could ever be anywhere but one place. All your work, no matter how dear to you, is just an idea. It is not you. You are you.

If you need any convincing, merely consult whatever you have written recently. How many words did you change? How many sentences did you remove? How many characters did you silence? Each of these changes were thoughts you committed to page. Did you survive the changes unscathed? Why, yes you did. Yet every word or sentence you removed or rewrote was no more or less you than what you finally hand to a writing partner or an agent. Those “finished” pieces were just ideas you wished to share.

I grant you, certain ideas are particularly important to each of us—and as well they should be. Ideally, we are driven to write what we write. Ideally, we edit and re-edit what he have written precisely because what we have to say means so much to us. Yet even these great idea gifts, the ones that keep us up at night or locked at our desk for hours, are still only that—ideas. And tomorrow, when you have finished the idea, when you have it just as you like it, the idea will be completed, and you will have moved on, already in search of that next burning thought.

And if you think putting this distance between you—the You of you, that is, the You who thinks the thoughts—if you think allowing this distance between you and your work will somehow strip the work of its intensity, I say, think again. It is too much to ask of a work of art to carry the burden of anyone’s soul. Instead, this distance will set it free.

Because every idea is and deserves to be subject to debate or correction. Beethoven’s 9th is too long; sometimes Shakespeare is too hard to understand; Good Fellas can be too violent. On it will go. That is the nature of all ideas. They are like some of the things ideas become. The record player gives way to the CD, the letter to the email. On it will go. But don’t worry about it. Don’t worry that every idea will be debated and corrected. Don’t worry that even Beethoven’s symphonies might be too long and Scorcese’s movies too violent. The ninth symphony and Hamlet were just ideas in the end—just like your ideas—and in the end no mere idea, no book, no poem, no recipe, no invention, no movie, no kiss will ever be what you have been since the day you were born and will be until the day you will die—perfect.

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Everyone is an Artist

Pablo Picasso is known to have said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” If I were going to pick nits with Picasso, I would ask, “But what exactly do you mean by ‘artist?’” All right, we all know what he meant by artist, more or less, but I’m a writer, not a painter or sculptor or mask maker, so I’m perhaps more finicky when it comes to words, and as far as I can tell, we all remain artists until the day we die.

I’m thinking specifically of a certain split within the writing and publishing world. It is not always as clear a split as we might think, but it is one that periodically warrants a cantankerous article in, say, the NY Times Sunday Review of Books from either one side or the other. I am talking, of course, about the commercial/literary divide.

A friend of mine, who had made a living writing war novels and science fiction and thrillers, explained to me, “Basically, I write entertainment.” Fine. So he was commercial. But this was also the same man who said, “In the end, you’ve got to dance to your own tune.” This is where it starts getting murky for me.

When we say artist—or in the case of writers, literary—we imagine someone who listens obediently to his or her muse and renders this song as faithfully as possible. Perhaps it will be popular, perhaps it will not; all that matters is the writer’s fealty to the song. Commercial writers, on the other hand, are technicians who slavishly craft their work for maximum popularity. The commercial writer gives The People what they want, and is financially rewarded for it.

There is a tendency then to admire those we call artists more than those we call entertainers, but for good reasons—namely, we all want to be free to make our own choices unburdened by the opinions of others or the demands of money and safety. For who has not dated the handsome but shallow man, stayed at a miserable job for the insurance, or hidden an unpopular opinion behind silence at a dinner? Everyone I have ever known struggles daily to bring themselves forward as fully as possible amid all the elbows and hurly-burly of life, and everyone I know feels some regret that they’ve shaved edges here and there, held their tongue, compromised their ideals, all in the name of safety—either emotional or physical.

Thus, as Joyce would have it, there is the artist as hero. The hero is always the one willing to risk his or her own safety for what is right. But I maintain that everyone is an artist. All an artist does, be he Sidney Sheldon or Vladimir Nabokov, is ask, “What do you I want?” and then answer that question as honestly as possible. And there is only one source for all those answers, and only one person gets to judge whether he or she has answered honestly, and that someone happens to be the one doing the asking.

It is not for me to judge whether anyone else has listened to their muse. I could just easily mimic what I believe literary readers want as what commercial readers want and be wildly successful in not answering what it is I want. Everyone, whether or not they ever write a poem or book, whether or not they ever paint a picture or compose a ballad, everyone is doing their absolute level best to answer as faithfully as possible that one continuous question, only with varying degrees of success. Everyone wants to answer honestly, but very, very few can all the time. That is why, for me, compassion is far more useful than criticism, and, in the end, probably more honest.

Because everyone is painting their life, everyone is writing their days, and everyone goes to bed wondering, “Was that what I wanted today?” And everyone wakes up asking, “What is it I want for this day?” It’s a great question, one that we artists must answer over and over again.

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Le Mot Juste

I love that the phrase some English speakers use to refer to the perfectly chosen English word turns out to be French. As writers, le mot juste, the exactly right word, might seem like the peak towards which every writer is climbing, but I have come to believe that this concept of a perfect word or phrase is actually a kind of will-o-the-wisp that will always leave you disappointed with either your command of the language or your fellow human beings.

I think now of my older sister, who received straight A’s at the University of Rhode Island. No, strike that—straight A’s and one B. She got A’s in Advanced French and Calculus and Psychology, but she got a B in Creative Writing. “There are no right answers!” she complained to me years after the fact.

True enough, which is why I always preferred it to all other disciplines. Yet le mot juste remains. And why shouldn’t it? Have we not all found ourselves reading (or, yes, writing) along and come across that exactly—right—phrase? How satisfying! To have some gangly octopus of an idea or image reduced into one manageable bite. Such is the craft of writing, after all: to simplify and reveal.

But le mot juste isn’t about what you like, is it? It isn’t what you find perfect. Le mot juste IS perfect. Period. It’s like some great math problem that has been solved. Only you know even as you read this that somewhere there is some apostate who will find what you call perfect imperfect, who will shrug and say those damning indifferent words, “It just doesn’t work for me.”

Oh, the despair. Every word is in the end just another damn word, and life is just one endless disagreement. Mathematicians agree on 12 X 12, physicists agree on gravity—why can’t we agree on something? Why can’t we agree there is at least one perfect phrase or word? Maybe Shakespeare, or Dickenson, or Eliot . . .?

Tempting as it is to wish it so, I say thank God my sister was right. Thank God there are no right answers, no mot justes, only the roiling, uncertain, imperfect, argumentative sea of preference. Writing has never been and can never be a search for that word, that phrase, that story even that everyone will love, for that would mean the end of personal preference, the end of choice. You and you alone choose each word, by yourself, alone, one by one—and even if you think you’re choosing these words because women ages 32 to 55 will like them, you don’t know, you never will know until women ages 32 to 55 tell if they do, and by then it will be too late. In the end, no matter what genre you choose, no matter to whom that genre is supposed to appeal, you are writing for one person and one person only: yourself. It isn’t physically possible to do otherwise, unless you find a way to poll all of humanity on every word ahead of time, and then good luck getting agreement.

And this is all to the good. Because you weren’t put onto the planet to please anyone but yourself. No one has lived what you have lived or seen what you have seen or loved what you have loved. You are absolutely unique in the history of the universe. And if you don’t do what pleases you, if you don’t choose what words you find perfect, then the world will be one voice poorer. You are here to add to the chorus of humanity, and the only way to do so is to offer what you and you alone know to be true.

So sing it out. And forget le most juste. All anyone ever meant when they found that right word, when they shared that right word, is the same thing anyone ever means when they share anything: I. Love. This.

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If it Pleases the King

When I was a freshman in high school, a Great Poet visited my creative writing class. I knew he was a Great Poet because a friend of mine who was two years older than I and who could already grow a beard and who had taken third place in a national poetry contest told me he was, and because this Great Poet had published a poem in Rolling Stone—or had published a poem that had been mentioned in Rolling Stone. Either way, the man, as far as I was concerned, had cred.

At fourteen, I had already made up my mind that I wanted to be a writer. My plan was to write big swords-and-sorcery epics like all the big swords-and-sorcery epics I had read since my grandmother handed me a copy of The Hobbit the summer after I turned twelve. The Great Poet did not like swords-and-sorcery epics. It was not his fault, he just didn’t, but I sensed right away that my taste in literature was a strike against me. I wanted the Great Poet to like my writing. He had a kind of nasally, intellectual delivery that was unfamiliar to me and that intimidated me, and I hoped that if I could write something really great I would win him over and I wouldn’t feel intimidated anymore. When he told us we would be doing a descriptive writing exercise, I saw my chance.

The exercise consisted of the Great Poet asking the class to finish sentences like: “When the shovel hit my ribs, it felt like . . .” I had been reading a fantasy writer who was immensely popular at the time and who liked to dip into his OED as much as possible. Now that must be good writing, I reasoned, and so I set about doing my best imitation of him, never settling for one adjective when I could think of two or three others.

The next day, when the Great Poet discussed our assignments, he took particular relish with mine. Normally this would be a good thing; on this occasion, not so much so. He read my work aloud, description by description, intoning my phrases with mock Shakespearean flourish. This got a good laugh from the other students whose writing he did not read aloud with mock Shakespearean flourish. “I hope you understand,” he said as he handed it back to me, “that I’m only having fun with you.” At the top of the page he had written, Bill becomes a man!

That night I tacked the assignment to the wall above my typewriter. Never again, I told myself, would I ever make the mistake of overwriting. I had learned my lesson. It was good he had done that, because now I would never make that mistake again and I would be a better writer because of it.

Yet my mistake had not been overwriting. My mistake had been my belief that the Great Poet’s taste mattered more than mine. It’s possible, I think, that the Great Poet wanted it that way—but it doesn’t matter. Even at fourteen I had both the right and the capacity to decline his or any aesthetic hierarchy. Maybe I actually liked all those adjectives. But because I had ceded the right to say what I did and did not like, I was left trying to figure out how to please The King. It was confusing and unsettling. Whoever knew for sure what The King would like? And more importantly, when would I get to be king?

The answer, of course, is that I, like everyone, was born a king. We are all lords and ladies of our own desire, and you take that crown as soon as you choose to follow yourself alone, despite fashion, prejudice, advice, and dissent. The pain I felt that evening when I went home to my desk, determined to grow up and never make silly mistakes again, was not from being exposed as a bad writer, but from the choice I was making at that moment to abandon myself, the one who would have otherwise chosen from that moment forward what I did and did not like. It was like floating off in a raft, waving good-bye to the self, who stood watching silently from the shore. That seemed like growing up to me. And yet the beautiful thing I have discovered about the self since that night is that no matter where or how often I leave it, the self is always waiting for me, patiently and eternally, with my crown.

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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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