True Creation

I have written in the past that compassion might be a writer’s most important personal quality. Your characters will always be more believable, more alive, if you have compassion for their struggles rather than have judgment on their struggles. A story is no place to even a score; save that for the court. What’s more, this compassion will find its way to your readers. As they follow the characters you present without judgment, they may attune themselves to this vibration of compassion and grant it to themselves and others. All in all, a good thing.

Yet right behind compassion is humility. For instance, anything I have ever written that had any real crackle to it always arrived through discovery. That is, I didn’t make it, I merely perceived it and then translated what I had perceived. What I wrote wasn’t mine in the purest sense, it was simply my attempt to share what I had seen or heard and which existed long before I ever saw or heard it.

Except the only way to perceive what is worth sharing is to forget my ego, that part of myself that believes it is responsible for making everything but actually creates nothing. The ego blocks true creation because it is so busy occupying all my energy as it tries and fails to do it all itself. Then I forget the ego, perceive true creation, and I am writing again.

And when this happens, when I forget my ego and perceive true creation, when I write it down and share it, inevitably someone will want to tell me—or you, or anyone who has done this—what a wonderful thing it is to have shared this perception. And it is wonderful to share what we have perceived. And now is when you must be humble, because the only way to ever see what you wish to see is to forget the part of yourself buoyed by praise or crushed by criticism. The moment you take full credit you deny the existence of the very thing you were so happy to share.

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

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Five Rules

A regular reader of this space may have observed that I eschew writing rules. While I am a full proponent of showing instead of telling and decent grammar and so on, I think it best to let folks find their own way. Chances are we will all arrive at more or less the same place. That said, I have accrued my own vague lists of rules that I try to follow each time I sit down to work. Here they are:

1. Feel first; Write Second. When I find myself hating what I am writing it is always because I am not feeling anything. If I feel nothing, then there is actually nothing to write, and so what I am writing is just an imitation of what I sounded like when I did feel something. Sometimes I need to feel the energetic flow of the story, and sometimes I need to feel what the characters in a scene are feeling – either way, until I feel something interesting, it’s best to avoid writing anything. Of course this wouldn’t be a problem if I followed rule number 2 . . .

2. Be Patient. Stories take time, characters take time, even sentences can take time. Like most writers, I enjoy writing, only so much so that I get myself into trouble by diving in before I actually have something I want to say; or I beat myself up for not finishing a book in six drafts; or for only writing two pages in a day. There is a profound difference between procrastination and patience: one is avoiding, the other is waiting.

3. Be Humble. When I’m on the beam and the good stuff comes, I say, “Thank you,” and back away. Writing is a hands-off operation. When I start congratulating myself I get my hands all over what I’m trying to do, and this only gets in the way of more good stuff coming.

4. Be Compassionate. Every time I criticize someone else’s work, I am criticizing my own work. Every time I allow someone else to make their own mistakes, I allow myself to make my own mistakes.

5. Stick the Landing. Good stories are about good endings. The ending is the gift and the reason the story is being told. I am never finished telling a story until I know why I am telling it.

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

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Love Thy Enemy

In my estimation, “Love the enemy” is the New Testament aphorism that will lose you the most friends. Yet it is one of my favorites. The entire quote could be paraphrased this way: It’s all well and good to love your brother, but loving your enemy is where the spiritual rubber meets the road.

Which is to say, it’s easy to have compassion for an oil-soaked pelican, not so easy a BP executive who would like this whole mess cleaned up so he, “could have his life back.” But it is the executive where you discover the true depth of compassion. Not that I want to be the guy about which it is said, “If you can have compassion for him, you can have compassion for anyone,” but in this way, he is a gift to us all.

The same holds true for your writing. In his Part 2 of his interview, Gary Zukav describes quite beautifully how growth occurs in that moment when you are feeling the “magnetic pull” of a fearful choice. Thus, writing is great when you’re in the flow, when the story is coming so quickly you feel as if you’re taking dictation, but those days when nothing comes, or where everything you do bother to put down is only going to be thrown away the next day, that’s where you not only learn about writing, but where you truly learn how to live as a writer.

When you spend a workday out of the flow of the story, you must choose kindness and compassion—that is the only way back into the flow of the story. You have written before, you will write again. But if you are cruel to yourself, if you tell yourself a better writer would have found the story that day, or that you will never finish the story, or that everything you have written is no good, then you will come to fear writing itself. You will feel relief when it goes well and despair when it doesn’t. Love and compassion are your only tools when the day’s work brings you nothing. Writers, in this way, must learn above all others to love their enemy, because a writer’s only enemy is himself.

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Compassionate Stillness

I have noticed that if you complain about the right thing, your complaints might be taken as a sign of depth. The right thing, often, is suffering on a grand scale. Therefore, if you say: Isn’t it horrible what happened in Haiti, or Aushwitz, or Darfur—your pity for the dead or tortured is sometimes mistaken for holy compassion.

Don’t get me wrong—anyone presented with the startling facts of those three examples has every right to express horror. It’s as natural as turning your eyes from the sun. But I would not call this an expression of depth. To me, depth is that which lies far below the surface, and horror, however justified and with all respect to Steven King, is entirely a surface reaction.  It is the first reaction, a hiccup of the alarmed psyche.

Because always below the surface of death, and always below the surface of torture and loss and disease, there runs something else beyond shock and despair. The stillness that is true compassion can seem unsympathetic at times – although it is just the opposite. To label someone a victim is merely to label them as powerless, and I don’t see how this is compassionate or how it can ever help anyone.

I think about this as I am writing stories. My position, as author, must always be stillness. This is not always so easy to maintain. Dramatic things happen in my stories, and I want my reader to experience the full push and pull of that drama. Yet it is not my job to make things better or worse than they actually are; my job is to merely render my stories accurately. If I have concocted something dramatic and exciting, my accuracy will reveal it is as such. If I have not, all the gnashing and adjective-izing in the world won’t make it more than it is.

In my life I have lent a helping hand, and I have provided a shoulder to cry on, and I have agreed that such-and-such was terrible, and I will do so all again. But just as I cannot become caught in the whirlpool of my characters’ drama if I want to render them honestly, so too I am of most use to someone suffering when I stand back and observe the suffering for what it always is—temporary. Nothing is of greater comfort to someone buffeted by events than the compassionate stillness of another. Within that stillness lays the true depth of life, the position to which we are always seeking our return.

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No One Is Broken

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

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

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

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

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

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