Moment Of Truth

I had one of those work sessions yesterday where I began with no idea what would happen to my poor characters. Although I rarely have things mapped out in much detail, usually, by the time I get to a new scene or a new chapter, I’ve begun to at least get some glimmers of where I am going and need only direct my narrative eye that way to see the next step.

Not so on this occasion. I had a vague idea where the characters would be in a chapter or two, but had absolutely no vision for how they would get there, which meant, given how I work, that it was not even certain the characters would be where I thought they would be in a chapter or two, which meant I really had no idea where the whole story was going.

This lent the session a Moment of Truth quality, which is an unfortunate place to begin. So after doing some laundry that suddenly needed doing, and cleaning the litter box, and washing some dishes, and checking my email once more, I faced The Moment.

Which, oddly, was no different than any other moment. Just me at my computer—where, after a bit of nothingness, it occurred to me that my characters were headed someplace cold. I tested this idea, as one does, and found that it was so. I had a sentence, and two hours later a chapter, and the sun shone a little brighter.

I was reminded of Hemmingway’s mantra: Just write one true sentence. It was the word “true” that always hung me up. I had always taken it to mean true in the philosophical sense, which is not so useful for a storyteller. However, seeking one sentence that is true to the story you are telling is useful. Once you have found that sentence you have reentered the stream of your story and you are sailing again.

Telling a story is never about a Moment of Truth. There is no moment in a river, unless you stand on a rock, in which case you are no longer in the river anymore. Telling a story, whether you are seeking your first sentence or your last, is always about remaining true to its current, which as any captain will tell you, is a continuous job, each moment as important as the next.

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Know It

We are all familiar with the old adage, “Write what you know.” This concept is loosely attributed to Hemmingway, 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 first-time novelist 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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True Originality

I read an article in the NY Times yesterday about Ernest Hemmingway, and as is often the case with Hemmingway, it wasn’t long before the dreaded S Word came up. I am talking of course about style. Don’t get me wrong. I know that by style we often mean the precision and originality of a writer’s language. Precision and originality are all to the good.

But there is a very slippery slope one approaches when talking about style. What begins as simply a different or more practical way to tell a story soon becomes a platform for the writers themselves. Stories become compartmentalized into sentences, each one an example of how well the writer did or did not handle a particular moment. In the end, the stories are not a vehicle for the readers’ transformation, but are instead a test of the writer’s originality and then a test of the reader’s ability to appreciate “good writing.”

Style gets a lot of play because the well-turned phrase is the moment when we as readers most often think, “Wow. That’s some very good writing.” The ego always wants all the attention it can get, and so the temptation remains, especially if you have a particular facility, to perform as many back flips as possible so that in the end you the writer will be remembered more than the story you told.

But if this style is not in absolute service to the story it is nothing. It is a cry for attention. When critics mention the style Hemmingway “discovered,” it is as if he struck out on his own and found a new route through a wintry mountain. And maybe he did, but his tracks were covered as he went. Hemmingway forged this path only because he was searching for what he most wanted to share with the world—a path in which we would all soon get lost if we attempted to follow because we would never really know when we had arrived where he was headed.

You have got to find your own path, and maybe that path will catch people’s attention as Hemmingway’s did and maybe it won’t. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter whether or not you are known for your style. Transformation and revelation and understanding are all. What use is all the clever language in the world if it takes you nowhere? What use is originality if it serves no purpose other than to remind people that you are original? You are always original. Life is original. The sooner you accept this as so the sooner you can forget it and get on with the business of being truly original—which is to say, just you.

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We Are Not Alone

Ernest Hemmingway described writing as the loneliest profession. Ivan Doig told me the first thing a new writer must ask him or herself is if they are willing to be alone for long stretches of time. True enough, I suppose. As I write this blog I am alone at my desk, and must remain so if I hope to finish it. And it is easy to look out at the other arts, at the filmmakers, the musicians, the dancers, to say nothing of carpenters, businessmen, waiters, bankers, teachers, and lawyers who practice their living every day in the company of other people and feel a tinge of longing for a friendly face to toil beside.

Given their propensity for shyness, plenty or writers, I’m sure, can only grouse—good riddance. Give me my solitude, my quite desk, and my imagination. All else is distraction. Except that nothing you do you really do alone. Even this blog required my webmaster to construct this wonderful environment, to say nothing of those men and women I’ll never meet who created HTML, and java, and all else stretching back technologically to Gutenberg and his Bible, the Greeks and their alphabet, and the first cave man to understand that by scraping one rock against another he could leave a mark for future cave people to live by.

And more to the point, this blog did not spring out of a literary void. I’ve learned, I’ve borrowed, and I’ve stolen from all the writers I’ve read, from Tolkien to E. E. Cummings. My mother told me stories, my father told me stories, my sister and brother and friends and teachers and co-workers, everyone told me stories, and when I sit down to write, conscious or not, I am reaching back through all those stories I have heard to cobble together one of my own.

Small comfort perhaps, when the quiet is closing in on you and your blank page. Where are all those stories now? Well, they can’t have gone far. They can’t be any further away than they ever were. Must be that in those dark hours that some name writer’s block we are keeping those other helpful voices away, because we have convinced ourselves we are alone and must remain so to do this supposedly solitary work.

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