Love Relationship

Although I am always alone when I work, I look upon everything I write as I would a relationship. A novel, in particular, is like a marriage. All marriages have their challenges, chief among them duration. A passionate weekend can come and go with little turbulence, the sheer velocity of new attraction propelling one straight over the bumps. But marriage quickly becomes about your whole life and its long bumpy trajectory, during which one must forgive and be forgiven, admit to weaknesses, release vices, change habits. A marriage can no more sustain its participants’ stagnation than can a life itself.

So too with a novel. You might get lucky and dash off a poem over a weekend, or find a short story that “writes itself”, but a novel requires the same loving endurance of a marriage. You will lose your way. You will wonder where it’s going. You will wake up some mornings with no idea if the thing will ever be finished. Just as in a marriage, where we stray from our better selves and let the cutting remark slip, forget to listen, grow impatient, so we stray from our story, try to force scenes it doesn’t want, criticize it before it’s finished.

Though showing kindness always feels better than criticizing, and being truly inside your story always feels better than standing outside and judging it, the challenge to release the hurt that brought the criticism, or the fear that spurned the judgment, remains great enough that it cannot be achieved consistently without love. We simply cannot pay attention to something for that long that we do not love. We will lose interest. This is how bad marriages are born and how bad books are written: conceived without love, drawn by some idea of what we hope will bring us happiness, as opposed to operating within what we know already can.

This is why we write what we know, which is another way of saying write what you love. When we feel strongly attracted to a partner, we feel compelled as if by something beyond ourselves, a force of forward energy we need only follow, not generate. When we are strongly attracted to a story, we are following much the same energy, and we will remark how characters talk to us, how scenes appear to us, and of how we lost track of time as we wrote. True love and true creative energy are one in the same, because to love is to create and to create is to love.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

More Author Articles

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Falling

Sometimes, particularly before I begin my day’s work, I am afraid of my stories. It is an odd thing to be afraid of—this something I am dreaming up that when I enter fully feels very much like falling into love—and yet I am afraid of it all the same. Of course, love itself has this effect on people. To love someone else always requires a part of you to surrender, just as one must when falling backward into a pool of water. You are surrendering not to you loving her or her loving you, say, but rather to that which you both love that exists between you.

It may seem like a niggling differentiation, but it is why one must surrender, because what you seek both exists and doesn’t. I can touch my wife but I cannot touch that which I love. And while I may love my story, it doesn’t exist outside of me until it is done, and it never will be done—not honestly, anyway—unless I can return to it, and return to it, and return to it.

The only condition under which the story will not have me back is if I am afraid. In this way, my pre-writing fear is always a self-fulfilling prophecy: You see? I knew it wouldn’t be here for me today. I would write up colorful story maps or character diagrams, something solid I could look at and touch, if I thought it would help, but—for me at least—I know it won’t, no more than a diamond ring will buy a marriage.

Eventually, I always surrender, and when I do it seems as if it isn’t the story itself I love at all, nor my wife, nor my children or friends or any one thing at all. Once I surrender there is simply love—that which from any vantage is called everything. And you know as you surrender that you will vanish within it, because it is everything including you, and it is the disappearing you fear because it feels like death, which it is, until you see exactly how alive you are at that moment.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

More Author Articles

Follow wdbk on Twitter

What I Failed To Make

My oldest son lived most of his childhood like a CEO without a corporation to run. This made him tricky to parent for the first seven or eights years of his life. That began to change in first grade. A natural Good Boy, he was finding himself at the principal’s office frequently. This puzzled my wife and I, and so we pressed him on it. He explained that he did not like the principal.

“I mean—she walks around the school like she runs the place.”

We explained that running the school was in fact the principal’s job.  My son was stunned to learn this.

“Who did you think ran the school?” we asked.

“Me!”

It turns out he also believed he ran the classroom and our home. To his credit he accepted his reduced leadership role immediately, was relieved even. And why shouldn’t he be? I understood why he had been having such a terrible time at school. He was trying to do something of which he was wholly incapable.

My son’s relationship to his elementary school was very much like my relationships to the first books I wrote. I had quietly concluded that I was completely responsible for them. It was an obvious enough mistake to make. After all, who was there at the desk but me? And yet writing, at its best, always felt like tuning in, listening, and following, not making. And every time I’d be tuning and listening and following a story happily, and then would come to a point in the story where I could not feel what should come next, some part of me would say, “Well, come up with something, Bill!” And I would think, “I can’t.” And feel like a failure.

Except I was right.  I couldn’t.  Not like that anyway.  I couldn’t make anything up that would please me.  All I could do was listen more closely, think less, try less, and wait, and listen and trust and eventually it would come. It always did.

As soon as I try to make a story, it dies. I might as well be trying to construct a flower from dirt and grass. I don’t know how to make a story any more than my son knew how to run his school. But I do know how to listen, and I do know what I like, and I do know how to translate what I hear and see and feel into words. That I do know. And I do not fully understand the pleasure this process brings to me, but I have felt it all the same, and it is more real to me than praise or criticism, money or poverty, all of which can change while the pleasure remains precisely the same.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

More Author Articles

Follow wdbk on Twitter

A Moment’s Safety

Everyone who has lived even a short time on this planet has suffered something. It’s the rare person who makes it to high school without the divorce, the alcoholic parent, the distant parent, the needy parent, the bully, the breakup, the poverty, the sterile wealth. Anything at all in our life has the potential to form a kind of question whose answer, ungiven, becomes the hole around which our life quietly circles.

Many is the writer then who returns to this question in his or her work. Perhaps the writer does so consciously, wishing to explore or exorcise, or just as likely unconsciously—the woman abused as a child finds herself heroines again and again drawn into violent relationships. As writers, you must always go where there is heat, but as I finished Townie, Andre Dubus’s recent memoir about growing up poor and surrounded in violence, I was reminded how important it is not to become too attached or too enamored of your own story of suffering.

Always remember this: all your supposed suffering already happened. At this moment, all that hurt you, all that mistreated you—none of it is actually happening to you. You are safe. When you write, you are a sitting at a desk alone, and there is no one by your side to hit you, or leave you, or insult you. At the desk you are perfectly safe, and it is from this vantage that you are able to see your old suffering anew.

It is tempting in the writing to wish to return fully to that moment of suffering, to become the victim again, and in so doing show the world what was done to you so that the world will finally wake up and take notice and put an end to such things once and for all. It will seem like the truth, and yet it will be a kind of lie, for in truth you are safe. In truth, you went on living, and only the memory can hurt you now. Should you reach a point, as Dubus did in Townie, where you can at last look back on what happened and forgive, look back on your own suffering and see your own quiet role in it, then you will have something to offer the world besides an opportunity to say, “We’re sorry;” then you might have the opportunity to show someone else who is suffering that they are safe, that they are alone with a book, with this new friend, and no one can actually hurt them there.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

More Author Articles

Follow wdbk on Twitter

The Narrative

I was talking to a friend of mine the other day about the difference between “plot” and “narrative.” This friend – Chris Kelley, to give full credit – toils in the television industry, and was the one to use the word narrative to name what I am about to describe. For Chris, it is a particularly important distinction, as television can seem, almost more than any other story-driven art form, particularly fixated on plot.

Or is it? What we are calling narrative is very much like what I have called the “intentional arc,” that unifying feeling or idea to which all action and characters are beholden. The narrative, however, is more about the flow of the story. What is the difference? The plot in a story is what happens, or the “physical arc,” as I have called it. Boy meets girl; boy loses girl; boy gets girl back. That, on the very surface, is what happened.

But the narrative is what it felt like within the story from moment to moment. That is, what did it feel like when the boy got the girl, and then what did it feel like when the boy lost the girl, and so on? What does it feel like to be scared and then safe, in love and then alone? The narrative is the flow feeling, from high to low, from quiet to noise, chaos to peace, that forms the actual movement of any story.

In other words, what happens does mean as much as the feelings these portrayed events stimulate in our readers. It does not matter that our heroine is being chased by a knife-wielding killer, it only matter what it feels like before she was chased, while she was chased, and after she was chased. Without the feeling of safety, danger, safety – the event is meaningless; in fact, it doesn’t even exist.

In this way, our job as writers is much more to find events that match feelings, than to figure out what it feels like to experience certain events. At the end of the day, every living person wants to feel good. Some of us feel good after we’ve been scared; some of us feel good after falling in love; some of us feel good learning to cope with loss – regardless, we are always seeking that which allows us to feel as good as we can feel, both in life and our stories.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

More Author Articles

Follow wdbk on Twitter

A Simple Guy

When I was a boy, I was accused once or twice of having too simplistic a view of life. This stung. It seemed my simplicity would deprive me of whole layers of life available to complex thinkers. And so, being fiercely competitive and pathologically goal oriented, I set out to complicate myself and the stories I was going to tell.

Nothing could be easier, really. Fear, for instance, complicates things immediately. Try to argue with your fears and you find yourself wrestling with an octopus that grows a new tentacle for every rational escape route you discover. Eventually, your octopus has hundreds of arms and is very complicated indeed as life becomes a great ball of yarn you were commanded at birth to untangle.

In this same way, I often resisted letting my stories be about one thing. If I did this, they would be simple and predictable and boring. What I have found, however, is that by allowing the stories to be about one thing—one theme, one conflict, one resolution—my stories are actually less predictable.  Why?  Because I have more command over the material. When I have tried to do too much, the stories simply haven’t made emotional sense. They weren’t complicated, they were just jumbled.

I still have to remind myself to keep my stories simple, and as always it is a matter of trust. When I’m searching for the story, and I’m in that murky place where the pieces haven’t lined up, the temptation is to keep throwing more ingredients into the pot hoping that by having enough it will add up to a story. But every good conflict has within it a satisfying resolution if you allow yourself to find it. In the end, I must return to the simple but interesting idea that drew me to a story, and trust that within it is all that this story needs.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Feel First

I was once sitting in a hotel bar with some co-workers having a post shift cool-down. I noticed a woman sitting across the bar by herself. She was dressed strangely alluringly, and she kept looking up from her drink as if she was looking for someone. Not expecting someone, but looking for someone. Eventually her eyes landed on me and I understood that she was a prostitute and that I was being sized up as a potential client. This is a look not unlike you would receive from a vendor in a mall kiosk to determine if you might want a hair de-curler or foot salt, only more predatory.

Once she had concluded I was not a possible customer and her attention wandered elsewhere, I nudged one of my coworkers and told her about the prostitute because I guess I was just that unworldly that I had to tell somebody.

“So?” said my friend. “Maybe you should take her up on it?”

“One, I’m married; and two—no.  It would be awful.”

“Why?  It’s just sex?  Why would it be so awful?”

I can’t remember what I said at the time, but it was unconvincing; I ended up sounding vaguely like a televangelist. I’m sure my friend pitied my wife for having married such an uptight rube. It was not until recently that I understood why it would have been such a bad idea for me, whether I was married or not.

If I had hired the woman, I would have done so for one of two reasons: either because I believed I was not worthy enough for a woman to be with me unless I paid her; or because I wanted to pay her, because I felt women had too much control over the mating dance and this was my only way of gaining control back. Or some other reason, but these will do. The point is, in order to go through with the act I would have to believe one of these unhappy stories. In fact, I would have to maintain the story and the feelings it engendered from proposition to payment or else I would lose the desire because the desire was based upon the feeling of the story.

In other words, I would have to consciously make myself feel bad in order to do it. Sometimes it seems as though we already feel bad and so we act from this bad feeling and there we are with a table full of coke or a hotel prostitute. But in truth, we maintain the story all along the way. If we did not keep telling the story, we would lose the energy for whatever we were doing.

Which is why one of my rules of writing is: feel first, write second. But feel what you want first, and then find the story to fit it. You can tell yourself any story you want, just as you can choose any book in a bookstore. You might as well pick the one that makes you happiest.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

More Author Articles

Follow wdbk on Twitter

The Mirage

Here is a familiar scenario. Your friend breaks up with her boyfriend. She calls you, despondent—this was supposed to be The One. You meet her at a coffee shop. She is wondering what is wrong with her. She is wondering why her relationships never work. They had a lot in common. He was good looking and had an interesting career. They liked the same movies and music. She wants you to tell her if she is in fact as big a loser as she suspects she is so that she can take the steps necessary to correct and not spend the rest of her life bitter and alone.

You tell her that the relationship was problematic from the start. You remind her of late night phone calls, her ranting about his latest insensitive maneuver. You remind her how distant he could be; that he flirted with other women in front of her. You tell her that the relationship was never meant to work and that is it is best that it is over so that she can find someone with whom she can be happy.

Both these stories were pulled from the same event—the friend’s relationship. Both narrators, if you will, focus on the details needed to make their “case.” What does life mean? We pick our details and we decide.

We spend our lives surrounded in stories: newspapers, sports, television, movies, books. We tell each other stories; we tell ourselves stories. The stories keep coming and coming and coming, and each of them a reduction, each of them a selected series of details connected to bring an audience to a desired emotional destination.

When I see the world as a static thing upon which I must merely report, it feels dead, and I never want to write another word. But when I see it as a banquet of infinite detail, all of it equal, all of it there to be used or not in accordance with the perspective I wish most to share, the story I wish most to tell, the world becomes friendly and alive. You will always see what you believe is before you. When I accept this mirage quality of life, I let myself see what I most want to see, and then tell stories about it.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

More Author Articles

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Plenty

Suspense author Steve Berry (The Emperor’s Tomb) made an interesting aside during our interview last week (which will appear in the January issue). He mentioned how his breakout novel, The Templar Legacy, was released the same year as Raymond Khoury’s The Last Templar. According to Steve, the two novels were, “the exact same story,” only told with different perspectives, which he felt made them completely different stories. He went on to say that the two books were not in competition; that in fact the success of one fed off the other.

I love this story for two reasons. First the story, “the plot,” is not as important as how a writer tells it, what perspective the writer brings to it. We know this is true. We know that if we handed four writers the same story outline, each would write a “different” story, even though each would follow the same order of events. I would go so far as to say that two people are incapable of telling the “same” story.

Which brings me to the second thing I love about this story: We aren’t in competition. I know there are writing contests and awards, and I know that there are only so many publishing contracts being handed our every year, but what is to be done about it? There is no finish line you can see that you must get across first. All a writer can do is tell the story he or she wishes to tell as well as he or she can tell it. No matter how derivative that story might be, for good or bad, it will still be that writer’s alone.

No one can compete with you as a writer because no one can write your story but you. And even if someone is publishing stories like yours, then that writer will only serve to attract readers to the corner of the bookstore you and he both occupy. The very idea of competition is born from the lie that there is not enough—not enough readers, money for advances, paper, ink . . ..

It is a lie. Somehow, once you tell the story you most want to tell in the way you most want to tell it, there is always enough. Somehow, there is always a publisher, readers, money. Perhaps the best question is not, “Is there enough?” but, “How much will I give?” If you can dip as far into the well of your imagination as your thought can reach, and if you offer up every ounce of what you find, the world, forever a mirror to your every gesture, will reciprocate immediately in kind.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

More Author Articles

Follow wdbk on Twitter

The Lens

The writer’s inner eye is a kind of telescopic lens.  With it, we can see as far across the landscape as we wish. It is an unusual lens, however, in that unlike a typical telescope, it is not capable of focusing on just anything. Rather, the lens sweeps across the horizon of ideas, searching for something of interest. Of course, as we search, we do not know how far what we are searching for is from us, and so our lens has rarely been focused to the precise distance we need. In this way, what we are searching for always begins as a vague and undefined thing that for reasons we ourselves cannot explain to anyone else is of great interest to us, despite having little form and only the impression of color.

And so we begin to focus. As writers, we focus using our characters and the choices they make. Those choices become dials of our lens, pulling this thing we’ve seen into clearer and clearer focus. As I said, this lens is immensely powerful. It can see across time itself. As such, we must keep the lens very steady; the smallest shift and we can lose what we were focusing on. The quirk of this lens is that it is incapable of ever fully focusing on what does not interest us. This can make it seem like a broken instrument, when in fact it was only our unsteady hand or the belief that everything is equally interesting to us that prevented us from ever clearly seeing.

But if we are steady, and if we are patient, eventually that thing we had found will come into focus. Eventually, the lines will take form, and there will be shadow and light, and the colors will separate, and we will not just see but recognize that thing for which we had been searching. And once it is clear, once it has been pulled fully into focus and sent out to the world, all the other like souls sweeping the horizon for things of interest will find it too.

And even though you did so much work focusing your lens, when these like souls discover what you found, they will recognize it as if it were their own, as if they had focused their lens to extract your story from the horizon—which, of course, they have.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

More Author Articles

Follow wdbk on Twitter