All That’s Left

I was at a writer’s conference once when I overheard a woman mutter, “If I hear one more presenter say to write your book from your heart I’ll just puke.”

I could sympathize. This particular piece of advice has been so often repeated its meaning has been worn as smooth as any cliché. Plus there is something naïve and toothless about it. Publishing is a business, after all, a business all we writers want to succeed at. Is this the advice you would give to an aspiring CEO or ambitious middle manager?

The trouble is there is no avoiding the fact that to participate in this business writers must write books. And if writers must write books, from where besides the heart would these books come?

Could you write a book from your head? The brain is a deep warehouse of ideas and memories. The brain can memorize and follow rules and formulas. The brain can tell an apple from an orange. Unfortunately, the brain cannot tell us whether we should eat an apple or an orange. So many words and ideas are apples and oranges, and so much of writing is deciding between the two. To write a novel from your head is to be paralyzed with indecision.

So perhaps we should write from our loins. Is this not, quite literally, our creative center? Have not the loins spoken to us, loudly, of preference? What book would not benefit from that carnal drive, that itch, that delicious yielding to temptation? Sex sells, and this is a business, and we want to sell. All well and good, but for all the energy the loins provide, they can still betray us, not because the loins are wicked, but because they are disconnected from life before and after The Event. The regret of a loveless, post-coital bed bears the same emptiness as a book written only from this place.

And so we are left with the heart. The heart alone knows what you prefer, from lovers to fruit, and the heart alone seems to bear no grudge if you ignore it. Strange that such a mighty and all-knowing instrument should be so forgiving. The pain we inevitably suffer from ignoring our heart, from writing from our head or our loins, is not the floods and pestilence of an angry god, but the cramps and contortions of a soul twisting itself into something it isn’t.

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I am writing from my room in the SeaTac Hilton, having ducked away from the writers conference. Andre Dubus has arrived looking dashingly unshaven, and in a hushed conference hall, Bob Mayer is explaining the perils of first person to 400 note-taking writers.

Bob gives a great presentation, and the crowd, from where I stood, was clearly loving it, but I always get the heebie-jeebies listening to anyone talk about what is hard and what is easy, no matter how statistically accurate. The hardest thing for a writer to write is what they don’t want to write, by which I mean what they believe they should write. As Emerson said, “Envy is ignorance; imitation is suicide.” You are who you are and you came here to be who you are completely and without apologies. Be it, write it, shout it, sing it, kiss it, walk it, hop it, live it, but in the name of God do not judge it.

Everything works; nothing is wrong. Start there. I have heard that newborns need to be swaddled tightly because, new to their skin, the squeakers feel as if they will fly apart. How this poll was conducted, I do not know, but I’m sure writers feel this way also when they hear that everything works and there are no rules. Fret not. You will make rules. They are your rules. And your rules are do what works and don’t do what doesn’t.

May sound axiomatic, but what is easy for Bob Mayer, I am sure will be hard for me and visa-versa. In fact, it is so hard to be someone else, it is ultimately impossible. No matter how good an actor you might be, plastic surgery won’t do it, imitating someone’s writing style won’t do it, affecting a different walk, a new accent, a new hairstyle—no matter how you dress yourself up, you are still you. That is the deal you agreed to when you came down here.

There is a mirror facing me where I now write this. For this reason, looking up from my work is a somewhat disappointing experience. Not that I am so horrible to look at, but when I am writing I am trying to forget this shell. It’s never been me anyway, just a draft I offer to the world. The true me, the me I feel is me, is an arrow shot of intention I am following as quickly and as honestly as I can.

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