Another Boat

I notice the Daily Minutes this week dealt in one way or another with money. I have a number of artist friends for whom money is a constant worry, a perceived barrier, in fact, between themselves and a worry-free life.

Artists, of course, are not alone. I read once that money is often the number one cause of conflict in a marriage. And yet, when couples argue about money, just as when artists worry about money, it is not money we are arguing or worrying about, it is security. In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, security is only one step less important than sleep, food, sex, and other bodily functions.

I am not going to pretend that it’s any fun to be wondering how you’re going to make rent this month, but I do know this: if you do not believe you can make money as a writer, you will probably not make money as a writer. Steven King sold stories to his classmates when he was in school. Yes, Steven King is a good writer and I’m sure he would have sold books eventually and so on, but at a very early age he established in his mind that people would pay money for what he wrote.

If it is your sincere desire to make money from what you have written, disavow yourself of the notion that it is difficult to make money from what you have written. It will not help. Plenty of people make money off their writing; that someone could be you.

This may seem like so much affirmative, pop-psyche pabulum to some, but there are extremely practical ramifications to shifting how you think about something like money. Opportunities present themselves to you constantly. You are standing at this moment in a never-ending stream of possibilities. One boat sails by, another is soon to follow. You cannot miss the boat, because there is not one boat, there are endless boats. However, do you recognize a boat when you see one?

If you do not believe you can make money from writing, then when an opportunity to do so presents itself, it is entirely possible you will ignore it. And then ignore the next opportunity, and the next, and the next, and then turn to your friend over coffee and say, “You see? It’s impossible to make any money at this!” You do indeed get what you ask for. Make sure you ask for what you actually want.

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Reaping and Sewing

Jean Reynolds Page said the greatest pleasure in writing is not the publishing but the process, that in the end getting her three good pages in a day is more satisfying than seeing her book on a shelf. I understand that for writers still waiting to see that first book in print this may seem like so much publishing political correctness, but I think it is perhaps the most important concept to hold in mind, no matter where you are in your writing career.

T. S. Eliot said, “Think not of the reaping but of the sewing.” This is what Jean Page was referring to, and what nearly every author I have spoken to reiterates in one way or another. It is about the process. First of all, the process is all you have control over. Agents, editors, readers, and critics will say and think what they will say and think, and you will suffer more sleepless nights dreaming impossible ways to control what other people think of what you have done.

But more than this, if you do not love the process for itself, in all likelihood, writing is probably not for you. It reminds me of something I heard the NFL coach Bill Belichick say about what he was looking for when drafting new team members. “I want football players,” he would say. Meaning, he wanted grown men who loved to play football. Seems obvious enough, but there is a difference between wanting to be an NFL quarter back, say, and loving playing quarterback.

I had a friend once who after seeing snapshots of coalminers standing outside their mines arm-in-arm, smiling sooty-faced at the camera, declared, “Wouldn’t it be cool to be a coalminer?” “Sure,” I said. “Except for the part where you go into the coal mine every day.” Likewise, it might seem cool to be a writer. We’ve all written something, in our lives, wouldn’t it be cool to have other people read that and love it?

Indeed it might, but that is only a fraction of being a writer. Mostly what you do when you are a writer is write, everyday, by yourself, without applause, precisely as you are probably doing now. So rejoice. You already know what it is to be a writer. And if it’s enough, you needn’t worry about it anymore.

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You Are Who You Are

When I waited tables, I learned that the most important request a guest could make was the first. If I met this request quickly and accurately I had established trust and the guest could begin to relax: They were in good hands, and their meal would go smoothly. If I failed in that first request, they began to view me with suspicion, and I was now in the uncomfortable position of winning that trust back.

I realize I am a bit like a finicky diner when I open a new book. Can I trust this author or not? Take descriptive writing. If in the first five pages the descriptive passages seem unnecessary or overwritten, I have a tendency, further in the book, to despair when I see a thick block of prose upcoming. On the other hand, if the descriptions are pithy and revealing, I look forward to how the author will handle their settings and characters’ ticks.

When a reader picks up your story, they are entrusting you as a guide on a journey. There is not a happier reader in the world than one who has given over completely and willingly to the author. It is like meeting a new friend with whom you can most honestly be yourself.

I think grabber openings are fine, and it’s certainly a good idea to get on with telling your story instead of proving you’re really a writer in the first few pages, but I believe trust wins the day over flash or titillation. And just as in life, trust will always be gained through honesty. Sometimes honesty isn’t flashy, and sometimes it isn’t thrilling, but it is always trustworthy. You can’t win any readers who are not interested in what you honestly believe about something, so take the risk and say what you actually mean as clearly as possible.

Don’t try and fool anyone. You are who you are, and just as in any relationship, you will eventually be revealed. So let down the defense and be clear from the start, and perhaps your new readers will be grabbed not by the fire of your high concept, but by the honesty with which you share it.

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I have been described from time to time as “driven.” As an artist, this is generally a positive thing. A driven artist is focused, is not easily distracted, is committed – all things necessary to do what you want to do.

But a driven person is always driving, and if you are driving you are not resting. It seems axiomatic that if you want to “get somewhere” then you must go, and all the better this constant driving if you want to get wherever you are going quickly.

Except that you can never be anywhere but where you are. I would rather be patient than driven, and I say this as someone who has in fact been quite driven all his life, often at the expense of patience. I will be patient when I get where I need to go, I believed, in the meantime, the accelerator is the one on the right.

What a misleading idea, that one is driven to get somewhere. We can call where we’re driving whatever we want, but it is always the same destination: certainty. Here in this moment, we know absolutely nothing but what is in this moment, while ahead of us lies some uncertain future. If I could only reach some penthouse of goals, where all the larders are full, all the pension plans stable, the children in college and careers, health care paid for, where I know what everyone will ever think of me . . .

Neither I nor anyone else has ever been racing to get anywhere, rather we are speeding to catch up with time, hoping that with enough hard work, by sacrificing enough vacation days, by getting up an hour earlier, we might snatch a glimpse of the always receding future and finally know enough of what’s to come to pull our foot from the gas and rest.

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The Evidence is Not In

I’d make a lousy attorney because I have come to distrust all evidence. Don’t get me wrong—I’ve been as addicted to it as the next aspiring whatever. I read the tea leaves of the moment for a sign, some proof I should, or I could, or I was meant to . . .

What is evidence?  When I was fifteen an English teacher who considered herself a mentor of mine told me that I should maybe come up with the stories but let other people tell them. There’s evidence. Three years later a college professor told me mine was the best descriptive essay he’d ever read. More evidence, only strangely contradictory. What to believe?

But those who do not understand history are doomed to repeat it, yes? No. History cannot be repeated because it has already happened and every single thing that will happen has never happened before. There is no proof in the world that you should or should not do something, that you should or should not write something. Jonathan Evison wrote six novels before publishing All About Lulu to much acclaim. Weren’t those six unpublished novels evidence?

We all want to stand upon the firm ground of certainty. But there is nothing in the world of which you can be certain until you decide you are certain of it. Your lover can say he loves you, but you are not certain he loves you until you decide he loves you. The evidence of him saying he loves you means nothing. Are you a good father? One child has straight A’s, the other just started smoking pot. Of what can you be certain but that you love them both equally and you will try to do better tomorrow than you did today?

The only thing of which you ever need to be certain is that you are here for a reason, and that you are meant to do those things you love most. This is good news indeed. You will never be able to prove that you love someone or something – that is your truth alone. If you look for a trail in the crumbs of what has happened you will become lost. Rejoice. No jury can ever convict you of heading in the wrong direction, because no one knows where you are going except you.

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The World is You

Michael Connelley must have told us three times during his interview that while writing he “keeps his head down.” It was his way of reminding himself that he must keep his eyes on his own page, as it were. If he worried about trends and what other writers were writing, it would only serve to distract him.  So he kept his head down.

Every writer seems to have their own metaphor for this mindset. Dennis Lehane kept a 3 by 5 card with the words “nobody cares” written on it pinned above his desk. To him “nobody cares” meant it wasn’t anyone else’s business whether he succeeded or failed, nor, for that matter, was it his business whether anyone else succeeded or failed. Keep your head down and your eyes on your paper.

In the story of the grail, the knights are said to become lost if they follow in another knight’s footsteps. This seems in direct conflict with perhaps the most common piece of advice the writers I’ve interviewed have shared, which is to read as much and as often as possible. But this reading is not for imitation, but for inspiration, and to teach you the rhythm of story telling.

You are inspired both by what you love and don’t. The goal is not to recreate the exact experience, word for word, of reading, say, The Great Gatsby—rather, reading The Great Gatsby inspires a feeling in us we would like to recreate in our way, with our own words and stories. Likewise, when we read something we don’t like, we think, It should have been this way, and off we go again.

Keep your head down. All the world, the books, the movies, your marriage, your divorce, your job, your parents—all of it is fuel for what you might write.  So you walk about, eyes and ears open for what is interesting, but when you arrive at your desk, put your head down. Now the world is you. Forget everything you’ve seen and heard and read, it’s already inside you.  Put your head down, and let it through.

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Let Them Learn

I wrote about the need for compassion the other day, especially when creating believable characters. I was quite interested in acting for a time, and one of my favorite roles was that of a Nazi. I found him very easy to play. I simply indulged every narcissistic tendency I’d ever known, and there he was.

Villains have always been easier for me in this way. I have been so far from perfect in my life that I have a wealth of experience upon which to base my antagonists. Harder for me—in fact, hardest of all—are the love interests of my protagonists.

I am not alone in this. In novel after novel I read, one of the most two-dimensional characters in the story is the hero or heroine’s love interest. This is an understandable problem. When you fall in love with someone, you have probably fallen in love with their strengths. And so for a time that is perhaps all you want to see in that person. Thus, when you create a love interest character, you might slip into drawing someone as they are seen in that surreal moment of love-recognition, or the way only a parent can see their child.

Here are a couple tricks, then, to avoid this. First, try creating the love interest as if he or she were just another character in the story, someone the hero does not love. A sidekick, maybe. Now, hopefully, all the quirks you grant minor characters to make them interesting you can now grant to this love interest.

Another good trick is to imagine this person years after the wedding day. What is she like to wake up to five years into a marriage?  What is he like after a difficult day at work?  If you can imagine this, you will begin to get a more blooded image of this person.

It is important to remember that all your characters are on a journey, and that journey is driven both by what the characters love most and by what they must learn. What we call a weakness is nothing more than that which must be learned. Take away this need to learn, and the character has nowhere to go.

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All You’ve Ever Had

I recently heard a famous (living) writer say that writing is “a war against clichés.” I understand the point, which is this: clichés are not actual emotions or thoughts but recycled ones. Fair enough. But in the end, while you can and often are inspired to create what you perceive as the opposite of what you dislike, you cannot create in the negative, by which I mean you cannot create away from something, you can only create toward something.

Imagine, for instance, that you dislike the city of Buffalo. Oh, how you hate Buffalo. You have never spent a happy minute of your life in Buffalo. You are resolved, then, to devote your life to not being in Buffalo. Trouble is, there are a lot of places that are not Buffalo—the whole world, in fact, minus Buffalo. How then do you choose where to go? You have no guide except Not Buffalo.

Plus the mind does a funny thing. If I sit down to write thinking, “No clichés! No clichés! No clichés!” what my mind actually hears is, “Clichés! Clichés! Clichés!” If I were in a war, I’d have lost.

I mention all this not to pick fights with famous writers, but because I believe this writer’s perception is a fairly common one, although more often heard as: Oh, God, don’t let me be ordinary. But this is all fear, and all fear is a lack of trust. There is no formula for original; there is only trust.

Clichés are safe because they are familiar, and we are always comfortable with what is familiar. Your original work is going to appear both familiar and unfamiliar. It will feel like you because it came from you, and so it sounds like you, and so it is familiar to you. But it will be unfamiliar to you as well, because that which was inside is now outside where it has never been before, and you know what people think about clichés, but what about this?

The opposite of clichés is trust in The New. Everyone has been at least a little afraid of that which is new. Nothing new, by definition, can come with any guarantees. If you stumble in this journey and reach for the familiar—it’s all right. Put it down gently, for once it was original too, and look around. All the world is Not Buffalo. Where do you want to go?

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No One Is Broken

The Dalai Lama once said, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion; if you want to be happy, practice compassion.” Good advice for living, and good advice for writing. Andre Dubus believes we are better people when we are at the desk writing, and there is perhaps no finer quality to bring to your work than compassion.

Why compassion? Because it is not a writer’s job to judge, it is the writer’s job to reveal. Leave the judgment to your readers, if judge they must. Everyone in the world wants to make up their own mind, after all; in fact, everyone in the world must make up their own minds, even if they make up their minds to let someone else tell them what to do. So don’t bother trying to make your reader’s mind up for him or her – show them what you must, and let it go.

And nowhere is this truer, nowhere is compassion more critical, than in character creation. No one in the world believes what they are doing is wrong; everyone has a logic behind their actions. If you want a believable villain, have compassion for him or her. You don’t have to agree with what the villain does, but I believe you must find a way to understand why the killing makes sense for the killer, why in the killer’s mind, at least at the moment of killing, killing is right.

It does no good to say someone, anyone, is just broken, is fatally and irrevocably wrong. Because if someone in the world, even the lowest sadist, is simply a broken person, then anyone could be a broken person, even you. I don’t know you, but I know you aren’t broken. I know you have failed and lied and been afraid and given up, but I know you aren’t broken. I know you are dynamic and evolving, and nothing in your life is fixed, no failure or success.

Yes, people do terrible things, and some people die doing terrible things, die even believing that terrible thing was justified. This doesn’t matter at all. If you want to believe in your own capacity for redemption, then you must grant it to everyone else. It will make you a better writer, and as the Dalai Lama pointed out, a happier person to boot.

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An Excitable Boy

As a writer, you can spend a lot of time waiting for things to happen. You wait to hear from agents and from editors; you wait for the book to be published; you wait to find out how much the next advance will be. And always in this time of waiting there is the temptation to become excited about those possibilities that lie beyond the event for which you are waiting.

I have decided recently that this is mistake, though perhaps not for the reasons you might think. There is that pragmatic bit about putting the cart before the horse and yes, keep the horse and cart where they belong. One should not buy the new car until the royalties are in the bank. But I believe this anticipatory excitement, which can appear to be enthusiasm for all that might be, is actually nothing more than that old bear fear, now in the Trojan horse of joy.

There is no need to become excited about what could be unless you secretly believe it might not be. If you believe in something, then you believe in it, and so there is nothing to be excited about. Excitement is just relief that what we feared might come true did not. So fear not, and believe instead.

I don’t understand the physics of it, but for some reason when I believe something will happen, when I cease to become excited about it happening, it happens all the more quickly. Every time. Perhaps I get out of my own way then; perhaps I’m more alert for opportunities I might otherwise have missed; perhaps other people sense my belief and are willing to take a chance on me. Whatever it is, I know it will happen, in some form or another, when I believe it will happen.

The final benefit to giving up on this idea of excitement is that I am happier. The excitement was trying to make me happy, but it couldn’t because, of course, fear never can. We talk about a rush as if we have finally tapped into that delicious current of happiness available only in extremes. Yet this is a very limited view of life. The current is always available, it never ceases, it never hides, it never disguises itself. It is there in stillness and in speed; it is there in isolation and in crowds. If you must be excited about something, be excited every morning for the new day.

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