Friend of the World

Did you know that at the height of his creative powers, at a time when he was writing the music that would most-influence a generation of songwriters, Bob Dylan was booed regularly? True story. The audience was generally unhappy that he had stopped writing acoustic protest songs in favor of more poetic, and now electric, rock & roll. In “Don’t Look Back,” Martin Scorsese’s documentary about that time in Dylan’s career, we see Dylan turn to a friend in a limo ride home from a concert, and, wondering aloud about all the booing, ask, “So why do they keep buying all the tickets?”

And did you know that Johnny Carson loved to sing?  You probably didn’t. Yet I heard once—once, mind you—that he had taken lessons for years. I watched a lot of Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show” when I was young, but I can’t remember a single instance of hearing him sing so much as a jingle.

Artists’ lives are divided distinctly in two. The first half is about the artist and their work. This is a solitary pursuit, and is meant, for the most part, to be so. At some point, the artist must ask themselves what it is they and they alone wish to see, hear, read, feel, and then endeavor to render it. The solitary nature of work is a part of the gift not only to the artist—to hear themselves more clearly—but also, should they choose to share, to the rest of the world as well, for only then does the audience receive the gift of that unique voice.

The operative word here, however, is choose, for no one is actually required to share what they make. Dylan chose to sing his songs live—he could have followed The Beatles and retreated to the studio—and so accepted the terms as they came: to be booed and cheered in equal parts. Johnny Carson, no stranger to the vagaries of an audience’s taste (as perhaps only a stand up comic must become), opted not to share his singing voice with the public, unlike, say, another ‘70s talk show icon, Merv Griffin.

For the writer, of course, the second half of your creative life is publication, or the pursuit of it. There is no shortage of articles to be found, many in this very magazine, about how best to go about this, and there is always advice aplenty about ignoring rejection, and toughening your skin, and believing in yourself—all of which is worthy and true.

But it is important to remember that, in the end, what is required to publish a book is exactly what is required to write it. You do not get to know, at the moment you decide to write a book, what it will actually look like when it is done. This you must discover, chapter by chapter, scene by scene, word by word. In fact, particularly if you have never written one before, you probably aren’t even sure if the book will ever be finished. All you can do is trust that you will follow what most interests you, to the best of your ability, and that what results is your very best effort possible at that time.

This is also true of sharing your work with the public. You do not get to control who will like or dislike that book anymore than Bob Dylan could control who booed and who cheered.  All you can do is trust—but trust everyone, every last person, to do what is absolutely best for them. For if you do, then you will allow the book, in its own course, to find its way to the people for whom it had been written, the people who had been asking for it in their own quiet fashion. In this way, through seeking publication you can make a friend of the world, rather than merely a series of connections to be made or walls to be climbed or doors to be squeezed past. The world is always delighted when you allow it be itself, and, in my experience, is always happy to return the favor.

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Keep It Small

The joke between my wife and I has long been that I like to talk big, and she likes to keep things small. “Don’t start with the Big Talk,” she implores. The phrase Big Talk was invented to describe my certainty that she and I would one day be married. At that time she hadn’t even admitted that she loved me, so it seemed premature to her. Since I turned out to be right on that score, I remained convinced for years that my Big Talk was visionary, and her Small Talk was nearsighted. I have since changed my mind.

My conversion began when my wife was getting her first book published. My publishing experience to that point had been fraught with disappointment and angst. Her publishing experience, from my vantage at least, seemed effortless. She received two rejections, both warmly worded, before not one but two major publishers expressed an interest in her children’s book. Finally, as the excitement and anticipation around the book’s release began to swell, my wife sat across from me at our kitchen table and said, “I just want to keep it small.” She meant that she didn’t want to get too excited and see being published as too big a feat. She wanted to keep it manageable in her mind. And then, a light, as they say, went on.

Except it was not until much later that I understood why she was right to keep it small. That was the day I remembered a little story I had been telling myself. I had never shared this story with anyone, but I had been telling it and telling it for many years, and it was this: “Getting your novel published is a big deal. It doesn’t happen to everyone. When it happens it will be like landing on the moon, bigger than anything you have ever experience before in your life.”

That was the terrible story I had been listening to for years, and as I remembered it, I thought, “What if publishing isn’t a big deal at all?” It was so completely contrary to everything I had ever thought that I understood at once that it had to be true. And it is. Getting a book published is not a big deal. Or that is, it is no bigger or smaller than anything else in life.

What made being published big to me, the reason I wrote that little story for myself, was that I did not trust that me simply wanting to do something was enough of a reason to do it. So I constructed a mountain for me to climb. Only then would I get to stake my flag and bestride that peak a conquering hero. Such is the insidious and tireless work of the ego. I kept making that mountain bigger and bigger until I had built it to the moon.

And then, in one thought, I leveled it. I leveled it because I saw that nothing is any bigger than anything else. Everything is absolutely, ineluctably equal. From cashier to king, every experience and every life is equal, the only difference being desire. Desire is the lens through which your entire life is viewed. Desire is what makes the fishing trip sublime to him but tedious to her, the aria beautiful to this one but all noise to that one. The only thing big for me about being published was my desire to communicate, which was so strong it confused me. Surely, I thought, my entire life can’t simply be about doing what I love?

Yet it seems it is. I could land on the moon, but if it didn’t bring me any happiness, what would be the use to me or anyone else in the world? I’ll leave moon-landing to the moon-landers, and the moon-landers can leave book-writing to me and my ilk. And anyway, somewhere in the universe, our moon is just another rock circling a more colorful rock, as from our shores we can see her hanging there, lovely to look at, but nothing to which anyone of us must climb.

Unless we want to.


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The Last Word

Writers can develop proprietary feelings around words, up to and including wanting the last one. No one wants to be the bore at the party, hogging the airwaves until the room is pummeled into exhaustion because we just have one . . . more . . . thing . . . to say—but this is merely an example of the best intentions leading to the worst results. The “best intentions” in this case being to leave your audience better than where you found them. That’s our job as writers, after all: To take readers on a journey, however small, that leads them someplace better.

As I wrote in an earlier column, we are, however, necessarily powerless in determining where exactly it is our readers decide to travel through our work—but this all to the good. Actually, not only is it good, it’s the best arrangement possible. Why? Because it’s proof that—in all that really matters in the world to you—you will always, always, always have the last word.

I’ve been thinking about this lately because I am coming to the end of a book. I love writing books, but I don’t always love finishing them. Finishing a book means other people reading it, which inevitably means other people telling me what they think of it. It’s not that I don’t want to know what people think about my stuff, it’s just that I can get so confused over it. The book is slow, the book is fast, the book is funny, the book is dull…if I go to the wrong place I can end up suffering from a kind of egoic whiplash, congratulating myself one minute and berating myself the next, and all because of some harmless, usually off-hand remark.

And how do I get to this wrong place? By forgetting that I have the last word. And I don’t just mean about my work, though, yes, of course, you always cast the deciding vote on whether this goes or that stays. No, I mean on everything. I have the last word on everything. Nothing that anyone says to me ever has any effect until I say it does. If someone says I am handsome, and I think, “She is right. I am handsome,” then I am handsome. But if I think, “What does she mean? What about the bald spot? What about the crooked nose?”, then I am not handsome.

It is absolutely as simple as that. You are the last word on every single thing that has ever been or ever will be said to you. Nothing can reach you until it has passed through this filter. Every word is like a gift that you can choose to receive or return. My goal in writing is to offer the most inviting gift possible. But I know it will not and cannot be received by all. And as well it shouldn’t be. I reserve the right to decline someone else’s gift, and if that right is mine, then that right is everyone’s.

This sovereignty, however, is most useful when practiced consciously. Left to the unconscious we can accept a lot of lousy gifts and turn away just as many lovely ones. What do you want to feel? And what is your life, every single moment, but what you are feeling? The only one who can make you feel anything is you. Not the President, not your husband or wife, not your mother or father—no one but no one can make you feel anything. Isn’t that wonderful news? Feel what you want and only what you want. You owe nothing to anyone but that—your own well-being.

And that, my friends, is my last word.

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Somaly Mam


A regular reader of this page will notice that I have spent little, if any, virtual ink on the dry and gritty, nuts and bolts of publishing. I have to admit that if I’m in a room full of writers and the subject turns to editors and agents and contracts and demographics a certain part of me wants to go scurrying for the door.

That is because such talk always carries with it the faint reek of survival. The writer, like every other Joe on the planet, is just trying to get by, albeit in somewhat more rarified air. And so writing is just a job, and the real point of any job, after all, is to put food on the table.

I have nothing against jobs or food on the table, but I was reminded of survival recently when I had the opportunity to interview Somaly Mam. Ms. Mam was born in a remote village in the forests of Cambodia and sold into a brothel when she was twelve. Over the next decade she would be raped repeatedly, tortured, starved, and beaten. That she is still alive today is nothing short of miraculous. And yet alive she is, and since escaping the brothels her humanitarian organization AFESIP has rescued over 4,000 girls from sexual slavery. Her book, The Road of Lost Innocence chronicles this journey.

It is easy when hearing a story like Ms. Mam’s to focus on the suffering and loss, to stare at all that resulting pain as if it were a fresh wreck on the highway. And yet if Ms. Mam herself had done so, I do not believe she would be alive today to tell this story or help thousands of girls. But the point, as Ms. Mam herself was at pains to relate, was not the suffering, or the story, or even the girls being saved—the point was love.

Whether through good intentions or sheer shock, if we focus on the suffering of the moment, on the sudden or violent or depressing impediments to survival, we come to view life as merely that: something that must be survived. Yet ironically it is this very belief—the clenched-jaw, last-one-standing view of life—that leads us quickly into the darkest holes where survival is our least appealing option.

What the girls Somaly rescued need most, she told me, is love. What her always-struggling organization needs most is love. Yes, money and medicine and helping hands are good and always appreciated, but love above all is what sustains AFESIP. She does not want money given out of guilt, she said; she only wants money given out of love. Love is the fuel that turns the engine. It has to be. Love is life itself, not blood or breath—those are just the byproducts of love.

Whether you are rescuing girls from brothels or writing your first mystery, the point is always love. The publishing and the agents and the food on the table will all come as a result of love. Somaly did not begin rescuing girls out of pity or hatred, she rescued them out of love. Love is what moved her, and what moves you, and what moves everyone else, and always to the degree that anyone will let it.

The cover of The Road of Lost Innocence shows a photo of Somaly being mobbed by a cluster of laughing children. The picture is pure joy. It is hard to believe looking at their faces, Somaly’s included, that each was at one time so alone and so close to death. Yet it is the perfect cover for this book. What you choose to focus on is what you get. Somaly Mam, despite everything she has seen and been through, told me she is focused every day on love. On what else should she be?

If you would like to donate to the Somaly Mam Foundation you may do so online at: www.somaly.org. A portion of proceeds from The Road of Lost Innocence go to the Somaly Mam Foudantion.

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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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