Butt In Chair

Ask a dozen writers for the first and most important rule of writing, and ten of them will likely quote, sometimes grudgingly, that old workhorse aphorism: Butt in Chair. I never cared for this rule; it made writing seem like drudgery. Until, that is, I remembered writing my first novel.

I was in my twenties, and I had already written plenty of short stories, poems, plays, and screenplays. But I’d never attempted The Novel. So I made myself a schedule: Monday through Saturday, 7:00 AM to 9:00 AM. Non-negotiable. If I have no other talent, it is a mule-like stick-to-itiveness, and so, lo and behold, after six months of adhering to this schedule I had a 350-page draft of something resembling a novel.

I found it strangely miraculous, that all that was required to finish a draft of a novel was to work on it every day. In fact, there was a woman with whom I worked who had expressed an interest in writing romance novels. I revealed to her my secret as if I’d found the fountain of youth. “All you need to do is write every day!” I exclaimed. “That’s it!”

Of course, there was a bit more to it than that, but the point was that the size of the novel need not intimidate. And while I thought I had learned a great lesson about novel writing, I had in fact learned a great lesson about life itself. Namely, whatever we put our attention on increases.

What is Butt in Chair really saying but that? If you put your attention on the novel every day it will increase. In fact, the only way for that novel to grow to completion is to put your attention on it again and again and again. So it is with everything. Everything from our marriages to our gardens to writing. But don’t stop there. Put your attention on, say, the sour state of the economy, and it will increase, if only in your imagination. Put your attention on rejection letters and you may find they increase as well.

It is as if the universe is saying to us, even with all these supposed “bad” things we make: Look. You can make anything with your attention. Even crap. Isn’t that great news?

Yes it is. So put your butt in the chair of your life. Everything you want is waiting to be written.

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

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Summoning Trust

Last weekend I was invited to serve as a judge for my son’s high school debate tournament. I should say speech and debate tournament, because the last event I adjudicated was something called “duo dramatic interp,” a competition wherein a series of two young actors present a ten-minute scene. For this event, we—the ten competitors and I, the lone judge—were squeezed into a small classroom. So small, that the “stage” area was about three feet from where I was sitting. If the actors hadn’t been careful, they might have stepped on my toes.

It had been a while since I’d watched high school-age actors. As you might have guessed, there was a wide range of ability. What struck me the most, however, particularly from my intimate vantage, was that what distinguished the actors the most was whether they were in character continuously or only when they were speaking.

For the actors who only seemed to be in character when speaking, it was as if they had to start their acting engine again and again and again. The other actors, those who never left character, were riding the energy of the scene, an energy that sometimes asked them to speak and sometimes didn’t. When they did speak, it was with an energy already in motion, giving their words a momentum that no amount of thrashing and screaming by the re-starters could match.

The difference, it seems to me, was trust. Individual lines may have belonged to this or that actor, but the full energy of the scene belonged to both actors, was generated by both actors, and so was both a part of the actors and separate from the actors. Writing has always felt this way to me, a story like a current of energy that I may have summoned but over which I have limited control. Every time I try to “make something up” it feels like playing the piano in winter gloves; every time I ask for and then follow an energy called a story, I feel grateful, as though I have been allowed to attend the most interesting party in the world.

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Shop If You Must

My shopping is very nearly done, I’m happy to report. Unfortunately, I am much better at buying for myself than other people. For this reason I look upon the presents I buy as large and elaborately wrapped gift cards. I do the best I can, but I’ve learned not to take the returns personally.

Though I have to say, I used to be a terrible shopper, even for myself. I would often come home with clothes that did not fit, or were a bad cut, or the wrong color. It was as if I didn’t want to hurt the sales person’s feelings, or look too indecisive, or I would simply go into a kind of panic, drowning in all the choices. I’m better at it now, however, and I have writing to thank for it.

When I go shopping, assuming I don’t know exactly what I want (a white shirt; a black sweater), I decide how it is I want to feel when I try on the clothes. Do I want to feel sophisticated, urban, casual, rugged, or some nameless combination of all four? This follows one of my Rules of Writing: Feel first; write second. The clothes become like words, scenes, or narrative arcs. If I simply go in and start trying things on, I have nothing against which to judge the clothes, no definition of yes. Plenty of things fit; plenty of things are the right color—but what do I feel like when I wear them, and how do I want to feel?

This must be in part why some people become addicted to shopping. Shopping becomes a creative act, a means to match a feeling within to a reality with-out, and for some people, shopping is the only tangible experience of this fundamental human drive. I used to sneer at the young women with their armloads of shopping bags. So vapid, I thought. No more. If shopping was the only way I could think to create, I’d bust the bank. Plus, anytime you stop and ask yourself what you like most—whether in a dress shoe or cup of coffee—you are seeking alignment with the creative current that moves all life forward.

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

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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.

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What’s In A Name

A friend of mine is a history/war buff, and he recently began a minor campaign to keep alive the memory of the only two-time recipient of the Medal of Honor. According to my friend, this man also singlehandedly stopped an attempt to overthrow F. D. R. and was the first to warn of the military-industrial complex. I am speaking, of course, of Major General Smedley Butler.

I’m not saying it was the name Smedley alone that has kept Mr. Butler locked in historical obscurity, but I am saying it doesn’t help. As a writer, whom would I choose to name Smedley? A comic villain? Maybe a comic hero, á la the Cohen brothers? But the man who saved the presidency? Unlikely

Now that I think of it, I was once listening to an NPR interview with a spokesman for the energy industry. This was during the Bush administration, and the spokesman was explaining why it was a good idea to have oil companies advising the vice president on the country’s energy policy. Nothing nefarious here, he said. All this talk by liberals about an oil/Bush conspiracy was ludicrous. The spokesman’s name? Daniel Evil. I actually got to hear the interviewer sign off, “Thank you, Mr. Evil.”

You can’t, as they say, make this up. Literally. No matter how cartoonish you like your villains, unless you are penning a Mike Meyers parody you have probably stricken Evil from the list of possible surnames. The problem is our readers have imaginations and they like to use them. Though they may not know it, this is part of why they read. Your narrative choices fire the reader’s imagination to fill in what you cannot. Name a hero Smedley and you are likely stuck with whatever bucktoothed, cowlicked rube your reader first pictures before you describe his firm brow and handsome jaw.

Likewise, naming someone Evil deprives your reader of the chance to use his imagination. No matter how villainous our villains, we aren’t allowed to tell the audience the character is a villain in their name—all readers want that moment when they realize, “Oh. Darth Vadar is a bad guy.” It is the rule of Show Don’t Tell. Writers discover and so do readers. We suggest evil or virtue through imagery and action because good stories is always a joint effort between the writer and the reader.

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This History Of You

Mary Daheim has written a whopping 50 plus books in her thirty-year career. The majority of these were mysteries, but she broke into publishing writing what she describes as “bodice rippers.” She hadn’t intended to write bodice rippers (luscious historical romances) but her agent explained that her books would have a much better chance of selling if there was more sex and less history and Mary said, “Okey-dokey,” and so it began.

Here is the point where the screenplay of Mary’s life might portray her as a writer selling out. She abandons her love of the true historical novel for the crass profit of sex and fantasy. But her story is hardly so pat. Mary is a practical woman, but more importantly she is a woman who knows herself. She knew, for instance, that she was no fan of romances, and after four novels she also knew that it was time to write something else.

When Mary’s patience with romances had run out she could have tried to write straight historicals again. After all, someone was selling them, and she was now a published author. But she decided to try her hand at mysteries instead, and the rest—no pun intended—is history.

If Mary Daheim had absolutely been meant to write historical novels I don’t think she would have spent the last three decades happily writing mysteries. Is it not possible that the best thing that could have happened to Mary was to have her agent convince her to write a romance, not just to get her published, but to move her attention off of what in the end it turned out was only the first idea of the kind of book she would like to write was?

It is so easy to judge someone’s choices, even when that someone is ourselves. Intuition seems to have a prescience all its own, as if sensing where the thread of a single choice stretches far into the darkness of the future. The more taught that thread, the more drawn we are to follow it, and yet from our myopic vantage in the present some threads can seem headed in entirely the wrong direction. Here is the moment we must judge not. There is the idea of who we are, and there is truth of who we are, and our job has never been to prove an idea but only to follow the truth.

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Responsible Choice

As you read this, you may or may not have already voted. Perhaps you do not plan to vote at all. I spoke to two people last night that unplugged their phones over the weekend having been so inundated with pleas to vote this way or that. Such is the price of living in a democracy. I admit that as the first Tuesday in any even-year November draws close I start understanding the appeal of dictatorships, with their on-time trains and mono-candidate elections. Making up your mind is such a bother, particularly with everyone shouting contradictions in your ear.

But democracies provide great cyclical life lessons. After all, what is all your life but a choice? Toast or cereal for breakfast? Regular or decaf? Private schools or public schools? Counseling or divorce? And as writers, what do we do every day when we face the blank page but choose? Is not every single word a choice? Must we not stand alone in the voting booth of the English language and choose our favorite candidate over and over and over?

The difference between these choices and those on the ballot is most are made entirely in the quiet of your own head. With the exception of the odd spouse, friend, parent, or advisor, your choices are made without the cacophony of begging and warning that is the election campaign. As much as I wince when the ads come on, I have sympathy for the folks behind them. Every candidate knows, deep down in their all-too human heart, that every voter is completely and unreachably free. You can scare them, cajole them, bribe them, even threaten them, and yet in the end everyone makes up their mind about absolutely everything. It is the deal we accepted when we were born.

We don’t always want this deal. Free choice remains the most dizzying responsibility bequeathed to humans. Adulthood is about accepting the freedom you claimed to lack as a child. Yet the choices are so many, and the outcomes so unknown, that the temptation is great to choose nothing. Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a non-choice. Choosing not to choose is a choice. Governments are elected whether you vote or not just as your life unfolds whether you guide it or not. Make your choices consciously; there is no right or wrong, only consequences that in turn beget more choices that in turn beget more consequences. The stream of life forever pulls you forward, whether you choose to take the rudder or not.

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Line Up Your Horses

Imagine you are driving a cart pulled by a pair of powerful horses. This is an unusual cart, as the horses are not bound by a single constraint; rather, each can go in whatever direction he chooses. You are a kind driver and do not employ a whip because these are very smart horses. You need only say where you want to go, and these horses will take you there.

You are on a very long journey, so you must bring in fresh horses from time to time. Sometimes this creates a problem. Sometimes one of the new horses does not want to go where you tell him to go. Sometimes he thinks the city is too far or the road there too treacherous, or the city itself does not even exist – it’s a myth fools like you drive horses to for no good reason. As I said, these horses are smart, sometimes too smart.

And so what happens when one horse wants to go one way and another horse wants to go the other? One of the three things. One of the horses “wins,” dragging the other horse – and you – where it is headed, either toward where you want to go or away from it. Or neither horse wins, it is a stalemate, and you remain stuck in the road between laboring but unmoving beasts.

Most people have horses going in different directions. Usually, the stronger horse is the one headed where you, the driver, wish to go because your greatest desire will always be stronger than your greatest fear. But even a weak horse slows your progress. If all horses are pointed in the same direction, the ride is smooth and swift.

If the going is rough or very slow, it is usually because you have competing horses. Every time you think, “We will never sell this book in a foreign market,” or, “Agents always reject me,” you are pulling against the horse of your truest desire. The roads, of course, don’t actually exist – the path the horses must follow is within your imagination alone. If you don’t show them the road, they will never see it.

I know it seems sometimes as if you must think of all the possible roads, that you must create contingency plans in case you somehow end up on the road to failure. Except no one ends up on any road. Every road is chosen. You have the right to only think about where you want to go. It is, in fact, the most responsible choice possible. To call thinking about failure responsible is like calling a sailor who drills holes in the bottom of his boat to calculate how long it will take him to sink thorough.

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Swept Away

At age three my oldest son told my wife and I, “When I was still blue dust I got you guys together so you could have me.” I didn’t see this so much as self-centered as stating what was probably the obvious. As with most things, the moment of choosing is often acknowledging what has already been decided.

The decision to marry my wife was not a matter of weighing pros and cons, or was I ready, or was she the right one; the decision to marry her was a choice between sailing downstream or paddling upstream. So too my wife’s and my decision to have children. Not having children would have been like going to watch my favorite sports team and choosing not to cheer for them.

Obviously, this is also true with writing. There was one very dark moment, many years ago, when I wondered if I should chuck it. Nothing was happening, everything was coming back, and I asked myself one night, “Should I just drop it?” I had never actually asked that question. The answer came back an unequivocal “No,” so I didn’t – but the truth remains I could have chucked it. Despite of chorus of yes in my heart, my brain could have pointed to the evidence and said no. We are all free to cause ourselves as much pain as we can muster.

I think about this sometimes when I see people mired in conspicuous suffering. If I had chosen to live my life swimming upstream, if I had not married my wife, not had children, not kept writing, how ugly would it have gotten? The effort needed to live a life against the current of your strongest desire is many, many times greater than the effort required to follow the current of your strongest desire. The sadness, the strain, the sickness, the complaint, the anger, the despair – all of it is an expression of someone using their energy to do the opposite of what they most want to do.

The current of your desire is very strong, however. Swim against it long enough and it will kill you, and released in death you will be swept away to where you would not go in life. Or you can turn your boat. No matter how swift the current, now matter how joyous and easy the ride, you will always be free to wrench your boat upstream again. Once you are pointed downstream, however, once your oar becomes a rudder to keep you steady, you will have trouble remembering why you ever wanted to paddle so hard in the first place.

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A Changing World

A friend of mine told me recently that after many years of trying, he has concluded that he cannot change the world. He will do his best wherever he can, but he has resigned himself to the reality that the world seems stubbornly resistant to changing at the rate and in the direction he desires.

I think this was a wise choice. The world, of course, with its births and deaths, its rising suns and flowing rivers, is changing every single moment of every single day. It can’t help but to do so. But no matter how many fraternities and sororities we join, no matter how many fashion trends we follow, no matter how many doctrines we live by, humans remain bound by the laws of their impregnable autonomy. Like it or not, we have no choice but to make up our own minds, even if we make up our minds to do what someone else tells us to.

Frustrating, I know, but it’s true. No one in the history of the world has ever changed anyone else’s mind—not Jesus, not Gandhi, not M. L. King, not Shakespeare or Toni Morrison or John Lennon. What these people did do was offer attractive alternate realities. That’s all anyone can do, be they writer or diplomat or grandmother. As we offer these realities we must grant our readers, our friends, and our parents the full right of refusal. To do otherwise would not be to offer but to demand, and the quickest way to be rejected is to demand someone accept you.

As writers we often find ourselves believing we must be accepted. It isn’t true. No one in the world must accept anything we offer. What we must accept, however, are those gifts that come to us as we listen for our stories. Once received, we should return them as faithfully and attractively as possible in what we write. There is nothing more to be done but trust that the gift we received could not have been for us alone, and that the world changes not just by tides and seasons, but the simple and continued act of like souls seeking companionship.

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