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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Inevitable Craft

Regular readers of this blog may have noticed that I spend very little time discussing the actual craft of writing. This may be in part because I am one of those people who have never done well learning from books or classrooms – I am very much get-my-hands-on-it learner. I am, however, a devotee of craft, but in everything I do, from writing to editing videos to grocery shopping.

Craft is the how-to of living. I was reminded of the organic nature of craft recently when I began writing music. I had at best a rudimentary knowledge of music theory, but as usual I refused to pick up a book on the subject. No matter, note-by-note I began to learn the craft of musical composition. How? By presenting myself with musical problems I couldn’t solve with the knowledge I already had. As I solved these problems, haphazardly sometimes, I learned another and another and another tidbit of craft.

No matter how we learn it, craft is the by-product of our yearning to explore and expand. Teachers of an art form can sometimes become curmudgeons of craft, separating those who know much of it from those who know little of it like the wheat from the chaff. But this is not fair. The only difference between the writer finishing her tenth book and the writer beginning his first is time, not artistic integrity.

If a beginning writer is sincere about pursuing his work, he will face the exact same challenge as the more experienced writer when he sits down to his desk: namely, how do I say something I have never said before? The tenth book should challenge the experienced writer just as much as the first book challenges the new writer.

Yes, work produced after ten books is usually more ready to share than work produced after one book, but this is besides the point. Our attention naturally focuses on the end result, but life is never an end result. Life is always the next thing and the next thing and the next thing. Discovery always begets discovery as surely as one foot follows the next. You will learn how to say whatever it is you need to say. It is inevitable. Your job is not to worry about the craft, but to seek what you most want to say, and let your craft evolve in service to it.

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Practice Now

In preparation for an interview next month, I am reading a novel by yet another lawyer (David Ellis, in this case). I have met more lawyers and doctors because of Author than I had in my previous forty-two years. I believe this is in part because lawyers and doctors tend to be ambitious, hard-working types, which is an excellent place to start if you want to be a writer.

But it’s only a start. Unlike doctors and lawyers, who have problems brought to them, the problems writers solve are entirely our own making. This is part of why Hemmingway described writing as the loneliest profession. He may have been referring to the writer alone at his or her desk with these problems, but I believe now that the writer is loneliest during those anxious hours away from the work.

You can drive yourself mad while not writing worrying about what you will write or have written. Thus we have the alcoholic writer, numbing himself between writing sessions until he can get his hands back on the story and remember that it isn’t so complicated after all once you’re in it.

Everything will seem a little mysterious and illusory when you aren’t doing it. We always live in the moment whether we’re interested in the moment or not, and we can think all we want about some other moments that are to come or have already come, but thinking in this way becomes worrying as quick as you can ask, “What if?” All the worrying I have done about my writing while not writing has never improved it one inch.

And so the next time you’re away from your desk and worrying about writing, stop—but do it for this reason: The best way to improve your writing is to not think about it when you aren’t doing it. Pay attention to what you are doing at the moment. That way, when do at last return to your desk, you will have spent all those other hours being as present as you can be, which is the best practice for anything you will ever do.

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Time For Us All

A friend wrote me yesterday to tell me that after many years he had at last picked up the first chapter of a novel I had sent him and wanted to know when I would send him the rest. This had been an unusual novel for me in that it was very autobiographical, which had made it very difficult to write and, in the end, impossible to publish.  I loved the story, but was simply too devoted to it in way that is not healthy if you are trying to share something with the rest of the world.

But my friend mentioning it sent me back to have another look at the manuscript. Writers often set a manuscript aside for a few weeks or a few months between drafts so that they might have a fresher perspective during the rewriting. If only we could set manuscripts aside for a few years. Rereading my old novel, I remembered why I had felt so protective of it, but it seemed so silly now. It was just a story.

Time is such a fantastic teacher in this way. It levels all experience like sand. I used to fear Time for this reason. Its indifferent march forward seemed to render all my ambitions meaningless. Time would always win in the end. But Time’s indifferent march forward is in fact its greatest gift to us all.

Life is never about what has happened but what is happening, a fact about which Time reminds us with every single passing moment. Some of our greatest misery comes from believing something that once happened has power over us still. Indeed it cannot unless we allow it to. It’s like standing with our hands in the air because someone on another continent claims to have a pistol pointed our way.

So perhaps I will revisit this old book. It was a story about an event I was certain at the time of the writing had defined me. I still like the story, but I decline the idea that I could ever be defined by anything that has happened. For this to be possible I would have to be frozen in time, and Time will never permit that.

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The Right Time

Eric Barnes felt the most challenging aspect of writing and publishing was how long everything took. Agents and editors take a long time to read manuscripts, books take a long time to be published. If you’re impatient, he felt, writing might not be for you.

As a young man, I thought patience was overrated. It felt like an excuse to do less than you could. I had a lot do in my life, and the sooner I could get it done, the better. The wheel of life, it seemed to me, could turn a little a quicker if only people would find the urgency in their step.

But this is no way to make friends, and no way to write books. You can write a book in three months or in three years, but either way, writing and publishing a book requires patience. And ironically, impatience cuts you off from the very energy source required to propel events most rapidly.

Patience assumes that what you need most will come to you in time. Not in a long time, and not in a short time, but merely in time. The right story will come to you, the right word, the right agent, the right publisher. Impatience assumes that nothing worthwhile will come to you unless you demand it does, that there are limited resources, and that life’s spoils go only to the luckiest or the quickest amongst us.

And yet, if you are racing impatiently ahead of where you are to something that could be or ought to be, you are in fact ignoring all the opportunities—all the words, stories, agents, lovers, homes, dinners—that are the only actual source for what you need. Everything you need is always right here; it is the only place anything can be. Patience is not about waiting, but about seeing fully what is before you.

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Toward Life

I was a watching a thriller the other night in which our hero and his family were being threatened by a group of irredeemably evil bank robbers. Things were looking more and more desperate for the good guys until a climatic final scene during which, not surprisingly, the hero killed the lead villain in hand-to-hand combat. What was surprising, to me at least, was that the credits began rolling not one minute after that killing blow was struck.

This immediately brought to mind the challenges that writers of different genres face. In the case of the suspense story, the writer begins, usually, with the compelling question: Will our hero survive? This question will keep many readers turning pages and many viewers in their seats. The challenge then for the suspense writer is to not allow whether the hero lives or dies to become the only question his or her story answers.

Even the most cynical Hollywood producer, if pressed, would probably concede that he does not rise from his silk sheets every morning merely to not die. Life’s meaning does not derive from avoiding death. This is not to say that stories should not be written in which the protagonist’s life is threatened – but the question I would suggest suspense writers ask themselves is from where does the value of that life that is being threatened come?

The answer is almost always learning. In the case of the movie I watched, nothing had really changed for the protagonist—he was alive at the beginning of the movie and he was alive at the end. A sigh of relief and we’re done. It is always more compelling if the hero must learn something in order to survive, then this survival becomes symbolic of his or her release of a long held fear.

Most of us will never have our lives threatened by murderers, but all of us will live with fear that we may or may not overcome. If you want to connect with your readers on the deepest level possible, remember that the visceral need to simply survive is movement away from death, while the desire to live without fear is what inspires us toward life.

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The Real Tragedy

I am a father of two, and though I know better, I still fall for the typical parent trap of wishing my children will lead very boring lives. If they suffer no heartbreak or failure my wife and I will have succeeded in our parental duties. I would not, for instance, wish upon my children or friends any of the miseries I visit on the characters in my stories.

It’s a strange thing to wish.  When I was schoolboy, my friends and I had an unspoken competition to see who could tell the best story.  Any misfortune I endured was quickly spun into a tale, and the greater the misfortune, the greater the tale. My favorite involved my first girlfriend leaving me for a middle-aged man. It was disorienting and keenly tragic at the moment, but oh what a story.

We all know that stories begin when the conflict starts, and end when the conflict resolves. Every day when we sit down to write stories we are sitting down to heartbreak, misfortune, misunderstanding, loss, disease, and death. Misery is the heartbeat of fiction. Yet most of us, writers fully included, dream of a life free of it, believing even that our own tides of unhappiness are somehow an indication of our failings as a human being.

Like most writers, I have wanted to tell stories since I was a boy of nine; I was an excitable boy who wanted to tell exciting stories.  But it was not until middle age that my stories became truly exciting, as that was the point at which I accepted that the suffering necessary for good fiction was just as necessary for life—even mine, even my children’s.

Everything in life teaches us, and in my own life I have suffered most when I have resisted what events were trying to teach me. We call certain events tragic, yet what makes a tragic story tragic is not the death—because everyone must die—but that the hero did not learn what the story was trying to teach him until his death.

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Promote Trust

More often than not writers—particularly writers at the beginning of their career—are largely responsible for their own promotion. Because Author is in part another platform for the great book promotion engine, I have spent a lot of time lately looking at how authors, both emerging and established, deal with this part of the business of being a writer, and have arrived at the conclusion that the rules for good relationships apply to good promotion—namely, be generous.

The number one platform for writers is the writer website. Here readers are likely to learn a bit about the author’s biography, where they will be appearing, perhaps watch or listen to a short interview, and, of course, be given an opportunity to purchase the author’s books. Nothing wrong with any of this, but in the end there is nothing on these sites for the visitor other than to learn about the writer. The best author websites are those that give something for free, with nothing expected in return. Most likely this comes in the form of advice about writing or the subject about which the author is most knowledgeable. By offering something for free, you let your prospective readers know you are as interested in their well being as you are in your own, and trust that all you give will come back to you in time.

Another common vehicle, especially lately, is the promotional video. These are short ads for the new book, often filmed similarly to movie promos. Many of these videos have very high production values, with original scores and tightly edited sequences. Still, in the end a commercial is a commercial. How do you give something to the audience when the point of your video is to induce them to buy your book?

This is the question my wife and I asked ourselves when we produced such a video for her first children’s book, Violet Bing and the Grand House. Our answer was to create a piece that would be interesting whether anyone had read the book or would ever read the book. In short, make it entertaining in and of itself.

Obviously, we wanted people to buy the book, but when making the video we tried to forget the fact that it was an ad and treat it as a short film, thus giving something to the viewer. Whether you’re writing a book or promoting it, you’ve got to trust. You’ve got to trust that what you have to say is worth reading to someone beside yourself, and you’ve got to trust that by showing the world you are first willing to give, you will in the end receive.

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