The Garden

I used to imagine myself as something as a carpenter when I wrote. I think this can be attributed to an overly-literal reading of a passage from Hemingway’s A Movable Feast where the author recounts coming to the understanding that he never wanted to describe but rather to make (with words). I thought this was an accurate and useful distinction, and when in a rendering jam I would try to remember Hemingway’s wise perspective.

I have since replaced make with translate and the carpenter profession for gardener. I don’t think I can make anything. I don’t know how. I don’t know how to make a story any more than I know how to make a flower. What I do know how to do is to tend an environment in which creation is possible. Just as a gardener plants and waters and shades his garden so that creation might flourish, so too I attempt to create an inviting environment within me through which creation can pass.

And when this creative energy accepts my invitation, I attempt to translate it as faithfully as possible. This translation is my real job, the most active part of this agreement. The environment to which the invitation has been made, meanwhile, must be all stillness. The only movement allowed within this space is that of the creative energy. Any movement I introduce would disrupt the creation, as I might mistake it for what is authentic and translate what is merely my own invention as opposed to what was invited.

Given this, I suppose you could say I am not creative in the literal sense. This is a pill most writers and artists are unwilling to swallow, but I will swallow it all the same in the name of sanity. Since I do not know how to make a story, since I do not know in the factual sense why a story works but rather only that it works when I see it working, it is best to be honest. If you found a gardener in his garden trying to assemble a rose from the dirt, you would shake your head and call the padded wagon. Writers can go mad far easier, mistaking what grows from the garden within them for themselves.

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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I recently taught a short memoir writing class at a retirement community. Given their age, I had assumed many of the students would have arrived with some limited writing experience – a few short stories or poems, a journal, an aborted novel. Not so. Nearly all had no creative writing experience whatsoever. I then found myself in the (for me) unusual position of teaching writing to complete beginners.

My first piece of writing advice to my students was to always bear in mind that they are to never write about what happens, but rather what it feels like when something happens. As I mulled over how best to teach this, I considered offering up an example or two by A Master. I thought I’d read a short passage from the first story of Hemingway’s memoir-ish A Moveable Feast in which Papa describes writing “Up In Michigan” in a Parisian café. Perfect: A piece of memoir writing about writing.

I quickly stumbled on a problem. In my experience, Hemingway is excellent at putting the reader in the scene, both emotionally and sensually. From a teaching standpoint, he is almost too good at it. The closer I looked at the passage, the harder it was to see how he did what he did; all I had known was that he’d done it. It was like watching a magician at arm’s length and still not being able to see where he hides the dove he pulls from his hat.

I decided this was a more advanced lesson than I had at first imagined. More of a story happens within a reader than on the page. Writing is magical in this way, in that we use words to summon life in others. The life we summon, however, belongs to neither of us – nor to the story. In truth, all we have done is point the readers toward what already existed within them. This is all any magician ever does: divert our attention so that what already exists might appear as if from nowhere.

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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To The River

Here’s a little experiment. Forget for the moment about your career, about your readership, about finding an agent, about ebooks and the ever-changing publishing world. Forget about all of that and ask yourself this: If I only had the time to write one more book, what would that book be?

But wait—before you answer it, let’s acknowledge why that question is a little odious. Life leading up to and during the writing of a magnum opus can be sweet, but a little anti-climactic afterward. Hemingway wrote The Old Man and the Sea, won the Nobel Prize, and then blew his brains out a few years later. So there is that.

I will come to that in a moment. In the meantime, ask yourself, “What is the book I would write if I had only one more book to write?” If you have an answer, you probably feel not only the story within you, but the need in the world outside of you for this story. Like a child who has, with fresh eyes, observed a gap in his parents’ accumulated perception, you sense an unexpressed desire that is greater than your mere wish to tell a cool story, just as the child, in what is called rebellion, is helping to answer a question his parents didn’t realize they were asking.

In this way, in telling the stories you absolutely must tell, you are finding your place in the world, a place that you somehow created even as it was waiting for you. There is no better place to be. Most remarkably, what can, in all its urgency, feel like the last story you will ever need to tell, what can feel like a salmon’s journey to spawn and die, is actually the first pearl on a very long strand. Unlike that salmon, once you find your river’s source you do not need to drop your eggs and perish, because yours was a journey to your beginning. All that will end is an old story that kept you swimming in a circle.

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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Life and Death

It was one of those runs where because of the interviews I had scheduled I was reading a lot of thrillers. I enjoy the rollercoaster ride that is a suspense novel, but I wouldn’t want to live on a rollercoaster, and by thriller number three I found I was growing tired of every page being a matter of life and death. I had a collection of Hemingway short stories, and to give myself a break I thought I’d find one I hadn’t read yet.

The story I chose was called “An Alpine Idyll,” which, as is often the case with Hemingway, was also about life and death, beginning as it does with our narrator and his friend coming down out of the mountains and happening upon the end of a funeral. The paragraph that got my attention, however, had nothing to do with death per se—or much of anything, really, except what it is like to ski in the mountains in May when it is hot in the day and cool in the morning and evening.

It is a fairly long paragraph for something so mundane. What’s more, I have never skied, not in May or in any other month. But Hemingway does a great job of describing how tired the narrator and his friend were of the constant sun, and how generally dissatisfying he found spring skiing to be. Again, I have never skied, but by the end of the paragraph I was relieved that the narrator was no longer skiing and was down in the valley out of the sun. What’s more, and most importantly, it mattered. It mattered somehow that they had stayed too long on the mountain and that the taste of melted snow reminded him of the unsatisfying experience of spring skiing.

In fact, it mattered – at least to me – just as much as all the life and death moments in all those thrillers. I do not want to suggest that this sort of subtlety is the pinnacle of good writing. It isn’t. But I know why I have sought it out in my reading life. I have never had a gun put to my head nor held a gun to someone else’s; I haven’t gone to war or been chased by a serial killer. But I have awakened from an ordinary night’s sleep, dropped my feet onto the floor, and felt as if my next choice mattered. I have also awakened and felt as if my next choice didn’t matter. The difference between those two days is as stark to me as the difference between life and death.

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

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Rats And Bones

Over the last decade I have had to make peace with the unavoidable reality that I am an optimist. This was more challenging than you might think. Growing up, my two literary heroes were T. S. Elliot and Ernest Hemingway. When Prufrock asked, “Do I dare disturb the universe? In a minute there are times for decisions and revisions that a minute will reverse,” I felt he was speaking for me; and when Fredric Henry walks back to his hotel “in the rain,” after his beloved Catherine dies delivering their stillborn child, I thought I had read one of the greatest endings in literature.

But I was a young man then, and I was deeply moved by anyone capable of peeling back the layer of everyday life to unearth the roots of our collective despair. Despair, after all, seemed to me to be everywhere; despair was the hobgoblin beneath every bed, the villain lurking in every shadowy street corner. If we reveal the beast, perhaps then we might slay him. This, I believed, was the writer’s job, his (my) highest calling. Anything else was avoiding the truth, capitulating to the silent denial that was otherwise all around me.

Yet the silent truth turned out to be more generous than I had at first understood. When I was a freshman in college, we studied The Waste Land. Of all the poems in Western Literature’s cannon, none cries out for teaching more than The Waste Land. In a way, it is a literature professor’s dream, so packed as it is with references and clues as to make it virtually opaque to the unschooled reader.

I was captivated. As the professor walked us through Dante and the quest for the grail, I felt as if life itself were being shown to me. That life was a wasteland did not bother me at all. In fact, weeks later the subject of the poem came up during a history class. I felt compelled to say of The Waste Land, “It’s strangely uplifting.”

The professor looked at me blankly and asked, “Why?”

I couldn’t answer. The full reply was too large for my eighteen year-old heart, yet it was this: If we are despairing, there must be something worth despairing over. What all the rats and bones literature was really pointing me toward – whether the writers intended it or not – was that which they seemed to have lost. I was strangely uplifted because I understood I had a job to do.  It was an important job, and that’s all I wanted from life.

I became an optimist the day I found what I was looking for, exactly where I had left it, years before.

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

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Know It

We are all familiar, I’m sure, with old adage, “Write what you know.” This concept is loosely attributed to Hemingway, and for two reasons. One he had a habit of writing about things he did. Watch bull fighting, writing a couple of books about bull fighting. Go to war and like fishing, write stories about war and fishing.

The other reason, however, is that in A Moveable Feast he discusses making a decision to write a story about one thing he knows for sure. It is easy to think that he meant something he had experienced personally, but I believe in this instance he was referring to what he knew to be true.

And this is all any writer could and should do. After all, many writers will be called to write about things they have never done. There are entire genres—science fiction, fantasy, perhaps romance—where this is the case. But the doing isn’t the point.  What matters is what you know.

I think it was Carl Jung who said, and I paraphrase, “I don’t believe anything.  I either know it or I don’t.” I like this, and it’s a good motto for a writer. Believing is hedging your bets.  Know what you know.  Claim it.  And then write about it. It doesn’t matter whether that story is set in 21st century Seattle or on Gallagon Nine, your story will always be better if it is built on the bones of what you know in your heart to be true.

And if some day you decide something different is true, so be it.  You can only know what you know at the moment.  If you wait until you know absolutely everything before you write a book, you will be one very old writer indeed.  So stake your flag.  Choose one thing that you know for sure and write about it.  And people will either agree with you or not—that’s none of your concern. Your only concern is finding the next thing you know for sure.

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The Only Question

In this month’s issue we feature an interview with and an article by Nancy Rappaport, a child psychiatrist and author of the debut memoir In Her Wake. When Nancy was four, her mother committed suicide, an event that shaped much of her adult life, moving her toward psychiatry and eventually to write this memoir.

There seems to be a long connection between writing and suicide, both in portraying it (Quentin in The Sound and the Fury) and doing the very deed (Hemingway, Virginia Wolf, and that patron saint of the underappreciated, John Kennedy Toole). In fact, Rappaport’s mother, a prominent Boston socialite and political activist in the 50’s and 60’s, was secretly writing an autobiographical novel that in some ways presaged her suicide. Finally, my father once told me that he believed my mother’s number one fear for me was that she would come home one day to find me hanging by a rope. He was wrong about my mother’s fear, though it’s true I could have been peppier when I was a teenager.

I have to admit, however, that the idea of suicide always had a certain romance to me when I was younger. Viewed from a certain position, life seemed undeserving of the effort required to negotiate its endless challenges. For what? That’s the fiendishly unanswerable question the quiet voice of suicide will smugly ask. For what?

It’s the question that is the problem, not the answer you cannot provide. As if all of life is cause and effect; as if life itself were a contractual agreement. As soon as I look to add up my winnings, I find my hands are empty. I heard Richard Dawkins – he of The God Delusion – snap back at an interviewer once, “Why do you think life should have meaning?” If meaning is a solution, if meaning is a victory, if meaning is a completed puzzle, then indeed life has none.

The questions we ask either move us forward or freeze us in our boots. Ask the wrong question, ask, “For what?” and it is like asking a calculator to find the square root of a tangerine. The question presupposes that life can be tallied, which it cannot be. There is nothing to tally. There is just you and your very next choice, the next word your write, the next thought you think. The only question worth answering, then, the only question you ever can answer, the only question that invites life into your veins through curiosity and desire is, “What’s next?”

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World Without End

I wrote yesterday about the trouble with middles. Equally troubling, I believe, are endings. In fact, as I have written many times in this space, I believe ends are the difference between a good story and a great story. To me, the ending is why the story was written, a promise fulfilled that the reader will be left in a better place than where he or she started, whether that ending is comic, romantic, or tragic.

There is no such thing as a formula for a good ending, but the one piece of advice I have read on the matter came from one of the best story-enders I’ve read: Ernest Hemingway. To me, what separated Hemingway was as much his endings as his “style,” from stories like “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” to the novels, The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, and The Old Man and the Sea. In A Movable Feast, Hemingway wrote that in Paris he “discovered” the technique of “ending a story before the ending.”

I like this. For one thing, you avoid the horrible, tedious trap of the story that won’t end, a symptom of the writer not being certain the reader yet understands what he was trying to say or worrying that he has not yet left his reader in the best place possible. So it’s economical. But more than that, it actually puts the ending in the imagination of the reader, which is where I think it belongs.

Life doesn’t actually end, after all. Someone may die, but someone else is always born; after the wedding, there is a marriage and maybe children and then maybe a divorce. Endings don’t actually exist. But our stories must end, and the question for the author is how quickly can I get out and leave the reader with the feeling of what has been learned, and what is to come.

That feeling is the gift. Because as your reader finishes the story in her imagination, feeling the message you haven’t spoken but have inferred, the character’s change becomes hers. Now you have done more than merely tell a story; you have ignited the spark of potential within a stranger by appealing to the power of her own imagination.

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The Bones

Someone suggested to me recently that the best way to handle particularly challenging events is, “to let the world tell you its story.” By which he meant, don’t impose a story upon it. Great advice, I thought, for writers or anyone else.

Reminds me of what Hemingway said about adjectives. He didn’t trust them. I understand this. Words like beauty, good, strange, greedy—these are judgments in the end. So a man just offered a generous raise asks for more money. We might call him greedy. Yet all we really know for sure are the nouns and the verbs of the situation: man, raise, asks for more money. Greed is a judgment we impose upon it. Has he not gotten a raise in years? Does he want to get fired? Or maybe nothing is ever enough for him.

This is why all writing books, when discussing style, focus on the nouns and verbs, because life at its core is nouns and verbs. Someone did something, that we know for sure, the rest is opinion. Of course, the Op Ed page is the most read section in most newspapers, so we like opinions—but the opinion we usually like the most is our own. As it should be.

And as any good opinion writer knows, the bones of the case of your opinion must be built from what we call facts, nouns and verbs. Here is what happened, and here is the conclusion I draw from these events. The bad opinion writer simply piles on praise or insults: so-and-so is a liar, a cheat, and a bum. We must take his word for it. No bones.

The beauty of the world—that is, everything happening outside of you—is it’s pristine neutrality. Were it not so, we would not all be able to draw our own unique conclusions. This conclusion-drawing leads to a lot of war and broken marriages, but I actually think this is a small price to pay. The alternative is a form of slavery, chaining ourselves to a perspective outside our own heart. Freedom requires great responsibility, and the first freedom, perhaps the only freedom, is not just the right but in fact the requirement that we decide something for ourselves. Only a neutral world would allow this. So rejoice in the blank canvas of life. Nothing is ever anything until you say it is so.

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Right Of Refusal

In A Moveable Feast, Hemingway described his decision early in his writing career to end stories before the end. Which is to say (I believe), the story would stop before the point where a story traditionally—at least before the full advent of Modernism—was expected to end.

Anyone who has ever sat through the last ten minutes of a movie that has been subjected to too much market research can certainly sympathize with Papa. Some stories keep ending and ending and ending: the guy get’s the girl—end.  No.  Cut to them marrying!  End. No. Cut to them having children, children growing, grandchildren—and death. End.

This is only a mild exaggeration. Storytellers are faced with the existential truth that nothing ever actually ends, it always flows ineluctably into the next thing. What’s more, one person’s end is another person’s beginning or middle. The end of the story of a pitcher who finally throws a perfect game could be the beginning of the story of a boy who spends his childhood wondering if there is really such a thing as perfection.

As in all parts of writing, what is not said is often as important as what is said, and this is certainly true of endings. Hemmingway was right, I think, not just because one would avoid serial endings, but because it allows your audience to fill in the meaning of the story. The conclusions your readers reach on their own are always going to be far more powerful than those you reach for them.

I know it is easy to lose faith in your readers at the end of your story. What if they don’t get it? Wouldn’t one more example drive it home? Usually not. An ending is actually an invitation to you readers to open a door. Hopefully, the story led to that door, but whether they choose to open it or not is up to them. You can beg them to open it by offering more and more evidence for why opening it would be a good idea, but the harder you try, the more likely they will not. Everyone is stubborn in this way. We are always more likely to take what we have been allowed to refuse.

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