The Eye

During my conversation with Dori Ostermiller on Tuesday’s Author2Author, we fell to talking about the challenges of writing one’s second (published) novel. Gone now are the yearnings and questions of the unpublished writer; gone is the mystery of the publishing world; gone, hopefully, is the illusion that publishing a book will solve all of life’s doubts.

Instead there is the question, “Can I do it again?”; instead there is the pressure of a contract; instead there are emails from editors and agents asking how it’s going; and instead there is the peculiar self-consciousness that comes with the understanding that actual strangers really do read these things you write in absolute privacy and about which they draw their own sovereign conclusions. Publication, it seems, means only swapping of one set of anxieties for another.

I can hear the still-unpublished-writer grousing, “Nice problems to have.” Remember, however, that the sophomore author’s problems are the same as your problems: nonexistent. I dislike the word problem. Problems can be solved. I solve math problems and fix the problem of the leaking sink. You cannot, for instance, solve the question, “Can I do it again?” because the answer to that question resides in the future and you are condemned to live forever in the present.

And wasn’t this just what Dori and I talked about in the end? The mind – the restless, anxious, problem-solving mind, which, in its own delusion and mania, believes the future can somehow be answered like a puzzle. To write is to seek the eye of the storm. Within the eye is the calm needed to tell a story that has no real reason for existence other than it wants to exist. Outside that eye is the tempest of fear, all that does not exist but which siren-like beckons your attention.

There is no answer for the tempest. You cannot dispel it. It exists as soon as you look upon it, gains strength as soon as you venture into it, consumes all your energy as soon as you try to fight it. As writers the tempest is uniquely alluring, full as it is of drama. Isn’t drama what our stories require? But the journey of any story is always out of the tempest and to the heart of peace, where, if you only lift your eyes, you will notice you already dwell.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!

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Safety First

Like many writers, Dori Ostermiller taught writing while publishing short stories and finishing her first novel (Outside the Ordinary World). Unlike a lot of writers, she decided that instead of taking a position as an associate professor somewhere she would start her own writing school, Writers in Progress, located in Western Massachusetts.

We talked about how one taught writing during our interview, and she stressed the importance of giving students the permission to write what was most important to them. I pressed her on this, because this sounded nice in theory but tricky in practice. Dori said the key was providing a safe working environment.

Of course. I read somewhere that a bizarrely high percentage of women believed that if they ever spoke what was really on their minds they would be killed. I’m sure the percentage is a bit lower for men, but probably not as low as you would think. Somewhere in all of us is a wary tribesman/tribeswoman keenly aware just how full of lions the savannah/mountain/jungle is. To avoid death by banishment we have all held our tongue at the dinner party, the water cooler, even in the bedroom. I am as guilty as anyone. At times, I have become a kind of chameleon, shaping all sorts of half-truths so I would be liked by whatever company I found myself keeping.

Isn’t it possible that somewhere in us there is also someone or something that wishes to die, that even must die? The face we turn to the world that isn’t ours. To ever know freedom we must first kill that which we built to keep us safe. Where better than on the page? Alone at your desk you can feel the lightness that comes from allowing through what you most want to say. Feel it for yourself and no one else; seek it every time you write. Wear the face again if you must when you leave the desk, but put it aside when you return to your work. Eventually, page-by-page, word-by-word, you will know that lightness better and better, and one day you will discover you have no choice but to let through in public what you have allowed through in private, that the pain of withholding finally seems worse than the fear of shame.

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

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