What We Want Most

A little something different today.  What follows is the complete text of a short speech I gave at a recent writing conference.  As the entire speech was based in spirit on my blogs, I thought I would share it with you.

Author ‘s motto is, “You are the author of your own life.” We mean this exactly. What it takes to write the book you most want to write is what it takes to lead the life you most want to lead. And so for me, when we gather here to celebrate reading and writing and the book, I see us gathering to celebrate life itself.

And one way people celebrate books and writing is to talk about the “great books.” Hemmingway said he knew he had read a great book if he felt changed after reading it. I think everyone here has probably experienced this, which is in part why you are here. Whether the great books you talk about this weekend are your own personal list, or the cannon with which we’re all familiar, I would encourage you not to discuss them as if they were somehow a triumph of craft. I have nothing against craft, I edit a magazine full of articles on craft, but a book that stays with us for years after we’ve read it is much more that mere craft. In almost every case, a great books is the result of three things: A person who loves to write, writing what they most want to write, in the way they most want to write it.

A great book is a work of love—not craft, not intelligence, not discipline, but love. And that love expresses itself in this question asked and answered over and over again: What do I most want to say? A sentence can be grammatically correct, it can be intellectually correct, but if it is not what the author most wanted to say, then it is incorrect. Every day when a writer sits down to write, they must ask themselves this question of, “What do I most want to say?” over and over again.

You can try to ask yourself, “What should I write that will sell a lot of books?” or, “What should I write that will win me a lot of awards?” but these questions, tempting and even practical as they seem, are unanswerable. The answers to these questions lie in the hearts of other people, in a writer’s potential readers or critics or agents and editors – and I can no more know what it is anyone else desires most in a book, than anyone else can tell me what it is I most want to write. Whether we like it or not, we are all choosing our own way, and the sovereignty of the soul, of the heart, is absolute, because there is no one in the world who can tell us, even if we wanted them to, what we most want. We always have to go find that answer ourselves. And sometimes we find it in the books we write, and in the books we read.

For instance, Deb Caletti told me that when she decided at the age of 32 that it was finally time to pursue what was literally a life-long dream of being a writer, she posted a quote by Nietzsche on the wall she faced while writing. The quote read, “Become the person you are.” Not, “You will sell half million copies of your first book.” Not, “You are a great writer.” It was, “Become the person you are,” because she felt that by choosing not to write, as she had for many years, she was avoiding who she truly was. She was avoiding herself. And by going into herself, and locating what it is she most wanted to do – write – she had also located the source for the answer to the question, “What do I most want to write?” And as she answered this question, book-by-book, page-by-page, word-by-word, she was guiding herself toward who she was. She was taking the only route available, by asking the question, what do I most want, what do I most want, what do I most?

Life and well being are really as simple as that, and everyone in the world would be nothing but happy if all they did was ask and answer this simple question – would, that is, if not for this one small detail: That question remains the most courageous, the most meaningful, and also the most frightening question you will ever answer. If you answer it authentically, there is a good chance you will be pointed in a direction that no one you know has ever traveled before. If you answer it authentically, you may be steered away from family and friends. And as a writer, if you answer it authentically you may see a combination of words on the page that you have never read before, which is both exhilarating and frightening. What if nobody likes it? What if no one will publish it? What if the reviews stink? You don’t get to know. Because if you answer this question authentically, you are inevitably guided toward the unknown.

When I had arrived a point in my life where I knew it was time to reach out to the writing community here in Puget Sound, I went to the poet and novelist David Wagoner who teaches at Richard Hugo House in Seattle and showed him something of mine. He read it, and then asked me what I wanted to do, and I told him I wanted to be a novelist, and he said, “I wish well. It’s a lonely road.”

And it is sometimes, but it would be far lonelier if I were the only one on it. There is a reason the Hero’s Journey is an enduring story archetype. And there is a reason we share these stories of a hero going on a journey of discovery into the unknown. We don’t share these stories to learn the way. No story, no teacher, no friend, can show us the way because they cannot answer the question of what we want most. I believe everyone wants nothing more than to answer this question authentically, but we are all frightened at one point or another to do so, or we believe that pursuing what we love most is somehow meaningless or trivial, or even selfish, as if what we want most wouldn’t always point us toward other people.  But I also believe that a really good story reminds us that this journey is meaningful and worth it, and often that’s all we need to once again answer the question, “What do I want most?”

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The Never Ending Story

Yann Martel makes the point in his interview that without what he calls “stories or gods” people become lost. As he says, neither religion nor stories serve any rational purpose, yet there they are, everywhere, and without them, he believes, we are untethered.

I tend to agree, although I would say that stories, a concept that encompasses the religious narrative by which so many live, are not only rational but unavoidable. Though I’m quibbling a little. His point is that rationally we must hunt the wooly mammoth to feed and clothe ourselves – those are the empirically necessary action steps of survival.  Everything else, cave paintings and grunt-filled stories around the campfire, are just a little icing to make the time between hunting, eating, making babies and dying a little more pleasant.

Except all stories, from cave paintings to Ulysses, are simply concretizing what is going on within ourselves all the time. We cannot stop telling ourselves stories – they are, as Martel points out, the engines or our lives. The stories we tell ourselves, from, “My wife loves and supports me,” to, “The government is dysfunctional and corrupt,” color every moment of our lives. We wear our stories like glasses through which we see the world.

This is why the stories we tell each other, at the dinner table and in books, are in fact rationally, if I must use the wretched word, necessary. In our stories we are in effect offering one another alternative realities. I might have a story in my head that goes, “The world is unjust and rewards the cruel and squashes the meek.” Perhaps then I read a story about a man’s world crumbling under the weight of his cruelty and a kind person thriving through generosity. If the story is compelling, perhaps I will tell myself a different story, and if so, my life has changed.

It is that profound. Our lives are nothing but stories we are telling ourselves. I implore you tell the best stories you can, to yourselves, to your friends, and to the strangers who pull your book from a shelf. Actions may speak louder than words, but every action has had a story told about it in words, and it is that story we carry with us long after the action has been subsumed irrevocably into the past.

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The Last Arc

There are three arcs to every story: The physical arc, the emotional arc, and the intentional arc. The physical arc is what happens, it describes where your characters are in space and time and what they are doing while there. The emotional arc defines the evolution of your characters’ personal growth or lack thereof, and is usually best expressed, narratively, by what they want. The intentional arc is what in high school Language Arts can get called theme. It is the underlying belief or point of view that knits the story together and usually determines where it will end.

Although the physical arc is the most visible of the three, although it is what often gets mentioned in plot summaries and query letters, it is the least important. It is the subordinate arc. Characters’ words and actions are driven by what they want emotionally, even if what they want is to find a murderer haunting the streets of Nashville. If a character were not driven on some emotional level to find said killer she would not be the heroine of a detective novel.

Yet both these arcs are subordinate still to the intentional arc. The characters and their corresponding emotional arcs that you choose to put in your stories are dependent on the intentional arc. The intentional arc is the combination of all the emotional and physical arcs, and what your reader will most like carry away when they close your book.

It is as easy to reverse this hierarchy in a story as it is in life. It is easy when a novel gets tangled to focus entirely on what all your characters are doing. In a story, I am searching for events that match the emotional trajectory of my characters, whom I hope are simpatico with the intentional trajectory of the story as a whole. I know I am in trouble when I just start throwing so much narrative spaghetti on the wall—either I don’t know what my characters want or I’ve forgotten to ask them.

I am in just as much trouble when I start trying decide what I should do to be happy. It is a backwards approach. There is a feeling of contentment within me that is available at all times. It is my intentional arc. If I am uncertain what to do next, I must stop and listen to that current. All I ever want in my own life is to follow that intentional arc, it is at once both happiness and meaning, and everything I have ever done is merely a reflection of how faithfully I have followed its path.

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A Better Story

I made a little mistake recently. I was waiting to find out whether or not something I thought would be helpful to me was going to happen, and without intending to, while I waited I began slowly believing that if this thing happened my life would be substantially better. This has always been a very seductive idea to me – the arrival of The Great Event. It’s exciting, and imbues life with a heightened sense of meaning.

Of course, this thing did not happen. I was disappointed at first, but I quickly saw that I needed to make a decision. My disappointment, I decided, was not because something did not happen, but because of how I had portrayed this event in my imagination. I had allowed some idea of happiness to become fixed upon a single point, in this case an event.

As writers, we are always waiting for news about this or that event: the event of the agent, the publisher, the advance, the review, the movie deal. If we allow ourselves to becomes fixated upon any one of these, our life and all its meaning is squeezed into some spot on the horizon, as if we were all marooned on an island, scanning the empty sea for the first sight of a ship.

On the day I learned that this thing would not happen, many other things happened to me, all of which contained potential for still more things to happen. In the end I decided I was lucky that things turned out the way they did. Had I gotten what I thought I wanted, I might have traced any future happiness back to this one event. Nothing in the world is worth that narrow view of life to me. I would never write a story about a character whose happiness depends upon one love, or one job, or one decision—why then would I want this story told about me?

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