Be The World

There has been a recent kerfuffle in the publishing world. Jodi Picoult accused the Literary Establishment of a bias toward white males after the New York Times gave Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel a glowing review not once but twice, while Picoult’s latest received no review.

I understand the impulse behind these complaints. Everyone in the world wants to be treated fairly; everyone in the world wants to be taken as seriously as the person to their left and right. I am not going to comment on whether the Literary Establishment, whoever they may be, hold any bias, nor whether Picoult was right or wrong in crying foul.

But the dust up did get me thinking about my own house. Oh, how tempted I have been throughout my life to believe that I would be happy if only other people would behave differently. My problem is that I still do not know how to make someone think something other than what they want to think. I can suggest, I can cry, I can scream, I can even write a weekly column, and indeed someone’s thinking might shift one direction or another as a result, but I still do not know how to consistently and definitively change someone’s mind. Infuriatingly, everyone, including me, remains free to think what they want.

Thus, I am left, as always, with myself. And what do I do? Clean house, remembering that most annoying truism of the human psyche: that which you dislike in others is that which you wish to change in yourself. If it is stubbornness I see in others, then I know I being stubborn. If it is impatience, then I am being impatient. Amazingly, after I have thoroughly cleaned house, I am no longer bothered by or even aware of the stubbornness or impatience.

Keep silent? No, no. Speak up and out and often. But remember Ghandi’s words: Be the change you want to see. He didn’t say speak the change you want to see, he said be it, and to do this, you must clean house. I do not believe that is possible to bring more peace to the world unless you are at peace, nor bring fairness if you cling to your unfairness. Once you are that which you wish to see in the world – once you are unbiased, once you are at peace – you have found the world you are seeking, and with a little luck, a little compassion, and a little voice, others might choose to follow you there.

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The Formula

There’s no formula for writing a bestseller, I’ve heard it said. If there were, everyone would follow it. On its face, this seems like sound advice turned a bit inside out for effect. In other words, write what you want to write, since there’s no way to ever know for sure what will work.

Yet I have always found this particular piece of advice, well intentioned as it is, cynical and depressing in its assumption—that everyone would be happier following a formula for success. Yes, it’s true, humans may look for that formula, but that does not mean they would be happier following it.

But perhaps I am too hasty. Perhaps, in fact, everyone should be looking for a formula for success. Because as I look at the bestseller list, it is not that I see one formula repeated over and over, what I see are a plethora of formulas. Michael Chabon seems to have arrived at a formula of sorts for his work, as has James Patterson and Jodi Picoult and Nora Roberts. This is not to say that all their work is formulaic, following a predictable pattern book after book (though that certainly happens), but that these writers have learned how to write the books they are best at writing.

I made that decision myself many years ago. I decided that my task was not to learn how to write novels but to learn how to write the novels that I want to write. In this way, no one person could ever teach me what I need to know. I now have my own set rules for what is a good Bill Kenower sentence, or a good Bill Kenower character, or a good Bill Kenower ending. I suppose I could teach these rules to someone else, but what would be the point? Plus the rules keep changing. What an infuriating teacher I would be.

So find your formula. And like all curious scientists, may your research never end.

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