Apr 12

Hey! You! Don’t write by yourself!

To succeed in telling compelling, rich stories, we need two things—talent and skill. Whether or not talent can be taught is something I’ve heard debated over and over, but I think that’s a useless debate. The real question is whether or not skill can be taught. And the unequivocal answer is yes.

Skill, in the writerly sense, is what we call craft. The craft of writing is the raw wood, the material that underlies the beautiful home we build with our words. It includes the knowledge of how to structure a plot, whether we figure that out beforehand or pants our way through it; the awareness of how to build three-dimensional characters with strengths and weaknesses that will create empathy in our readers and a strong enough interest to carry them through the pages; and so on.

I am aware of the argument about whether or not even that much knowledge is needed to write compelling stories and I think that dispute, while interesting, is not helpful. It’s true that you can teach yourself to be a builder by the trial-and-error method. But it’s also true (and I speak from experience—insofar as this is a metaphor for writing) that you are going to do a lot of reinventing the wheel while you’re at it. And no one enjoys watching the home we built crash to the ground if there are a few aspects of building we haven’t perfected yet.

I thought anyone could build with Legos!?

I am by no means trying to make anyone wrong who’s out there doing what we do without having taken tons of classes or read dozens of books on craft. I wrote that way for a long time, and I created projects that I’m proud of and had published, so I’d be a fool to say it can’t be done. But I also wrote stories and even books that had problems I tried again and again to fix, that required me to completely rewrite them, because I didn’t have a good enough grasp of craft to understand that the structure holding up the home of my story wasn’t sound. (I rewrote one 450-page book six times, from beginning to end, as I worked on various aspects of my craft. I was learning as I went along, which has a lot of merit, until you want to write a book that doesn’t take years to edit.)

Once I opened the door to craft, once I took my place in the shop of some of the master writers in whose company I’ve been, I began to see how much more I could focus on the talent (or art, or whatever you’d like to call it) side of my writing. When I began to understand how and why a scene didn’t work, or a plot bogged down at a certain point, I didn’t have to use all my energy figuring out what, exactly, was wrong; I knew what was wrong, and why, and so could jump immediately into the number of ways I could fix it, not how on earth I was going to fix it.

You, your notebook, and other writers. It will make that notebook sing.

Critique groups and writing clubs and groups are invaluable sources for learning all aspects of our craft. We write in isolation, that will always be true, but, if we’re part of a regular gathering of writers, every month we have an opportunity to invest in our builder’s repertoire, whether it be straight-up craft or knowledge of the business side of our writing lives (to me, craft equally involves knowing how to negotiate the world of agents and editors as well as, for instance, understanding what to look for in a contract and how to negotiate when something is lacking). And no matter the speaker or the topic, my experience has always been that there is some tool we can come away with.

Can talent be taught? I’ll leave that to those who like to debate. Craft, all aspects of it, can, and that’s the commitment we make to each other when we come together as writers. Together we can create a writerly sanctuary worth its weight in gold. Our engagement with this sanctuary can only strengthen our own stories.

 

Mar 04

Do you have what it takes?

“Even if you’re writing crap, at least get something on the page. You can go back and rework it later. You can’t rework a blank page.”

This from a successful author friend today. It’s a good reminder. Many are the times I’ve sat down and known that every word I was writing was not up to my standards. Many times those words have given way, through persistence, to gold. And many times they have not.

You have to have persistence if you’re going to do this work. You have to have more persistence than in most other endeavors, because there are absolutely no guarantees. You can’t guarantee the words are going to flow today. If they do, you can’t guarantee they’re going to make the final cut. If you finish a story, there are no guarantees it’s ever going to see the light of day. If it does, the whole process begins again with the next story.

http://chieftone.blogspot.com/2009/04/frustration.html

Yes, it can feel exactly like this.

At a conference I went to, a well-known New York agent, on a panel attended by 250 hopeful fiction writers, said, “I’m going to be honest. Most of you in this room don’t have what it takes to make it.”

People were angry. Some derided the agent, saying he had no right to be so harsh, that he had no idea what we were made of, etc. Others slumped in their seats, staring blankly at the walls, their hands slack in their laps. But I thought what he’d said was brilliant. What kind of a reaction was I going to have to his words? Discouragement? Rage? Hopelessness? Was what he’d said enough to get me to give up?

He’d given us a gift—a chance to see, first-hand, what our level of persistence really was. Did we have enough to hear what he’d said, look deeply into ourselves, catch where his words were accurate and resolve to work on those places, and let them go, cleanly, where they didn’t apply? Or did we diffuse the energy created by his observation by lashing out, either inwardly (“What he said applies to everything in me”) or outwardly (“What he said applies to nothing in me”)?

Another test—Harry Potter was rejected thirty seven times. What if J.K. Rowling had lost her persistence at rejection twenty? Or thirty? We all hold that series up as the wunderkind, the series singlehandedly responsible for bringing kids back to the page. She is lauded for that, and rightly so. Imagine the pressure as her readership grew–it’s one thing to write a story and know it’s your own baby until such time as you decide to bring it forth. It’s another entirely to be pregnant in front of the whole world, with millions of people screaming at you to induce. Many a writer has found their persistence fails them under such pressure. J.K. Rowling has what it takes.

But there is another side to persistence. If you read that first Harry Potter book…it’s really not very well written. (Please put away your pitchforks. She gets better as the series goes on, and I love Harry Potter.) My point is, I can see why it was passed over thirty-seven times. That first book really is a risk.

J.K. Rowling didn’t give up, and she shouldn’t have. But that doesn’t mean you never should. Blind persistence can quickly become irrational obstinance. Some stories must die. It’s the nature of the beast. It means it’s time to start another story, if you really do have what it takes.

http://cheezburger.com/5378891008

Irrational obstinance

And that’s a difficult balancing act: how do you know when to call it with a story, and when to stick in there, stick your neck out again, and keep going? There’s never going be a definitive equation for figuring that out. It’s as individual as each story. But we have a tool: feedback. Which introduces another dilemma: do we take others’ critiques or do we pass on them? How do we know which feedback is good and which is so much sturm und drang?

There is no such thing as an objectively good story. But that doesn’t mean four people telling you your story isn’t good are to be believed. Nor is the opposite, necessarily, to be believed.

So here we are, back at the no guarantees thing. What can we count on? Is there really a still, small voice that endures at our cores and that, after the tornadoes and earthquakes and fires of contradictory feedback and rejections sweep through, we can rely on? If there is, how do we cultivate it? How do we learn to hear its whisper against the incessant howling of our own and others’ thoughts about our writing?

I don’t have any answers. But I persevere.

Mar 15

“What do you write about?”…..aw, crap. That question.

The question all writers dread: What do you write?

We can usually fob this off by genre-listing: I write literary fiction and erotica, non-fiction, and dabble a bit in sci-fi and fantasy.

The problem is that this isn’t really what they’re asking and if they’re not the easily-assuaged type, they follow up with an even worse question: What do you write about?

For the love of God, just read the book!

I think the reason this question is so hard is because, to answer it, you have to reveal a rather large part of your soul, and that’s just not something people like to do at all, much less at cocktail parties or when meeting someone new.

Consider my answer: I write about that moment it dawns on someone that their whole world is not only not what they thought it was, but is actually only tenuously balanced on a teetering structure of lies they’ve told themselves to keep from seeing reality. And I agree with Flannery O’Connor, we only get to that moment through violence.

This is always a good look to get when explaining something that lives at the center of your soul.

That’s pretty much a conversation-stopper.

Thank God, because the next question, asked with any of a variety of “I’m uncomfortable now” faces, is: Why do you write about that?

Sometimes I say this: I’m drawing a road map so if people want to give themselves an authenticity check-up, they know where to go.

Which I realize is waaaay too cryptic.

So I wrote a little story to illustrate what I’m talking about. (That’s an annoying thing we writers do. If we can’t get you to understand with “telling,” we’ll get all metaphorical on you. It probably makes you want to  slap us, but what can we do?)

Anyway, it goes like this:

Change

It wasn’t until I was shoved up against the wall, your fist an inch from my face, that I started to think, “I’d like not to be here again, if I can help it.”

Does your fist have to land first? Or can it stop there, your breath hot on my face, your other hand twisted in the front of my shirt? Is that enough?

Probably.

But maybe not.

I know the path out is more than this scene; this is just physicality, the flesh between you and me. But maybe I need the fist on flesh, the splitting of skin, the warmth of my own blood, to convince me I am, indeed, walking down a path that no longer suits me.

How did I get here? Ah. That is a question that will keep you up at night if you really try to answer it.

It wasn’t by thinking. Or not thinking. There is a third thing, as Hegel said, as I say, as we know from experience. There is always a third thing. And sometimes a fourth, fifth, and sixth thing. But there are never, ever just two things.

In this instance, there is the wall. There is the fist. One, two. But there is also the space between them. And in that space exists something I spent a lot of time not naming—not because I can’t, but because I won’t. It is responsibility.

I have to look in that space and see my own path, my own choices, and how they led to this, “this” being whatever it is that serves to scare the shit out of us, in this case being shoved up against a wall and threatened with physical violence.

Those choices are what lurk in the dark after the kiss has been administered, the drink of water has been consumed, the song has been sung. They are the monster under the bed that no flashlight or candle can eradicate. Why are they so scary? Because we have met them, and they are us.

Those choices are the basis for the shadow agreement I’ve made with you—we promise to recreate our bad times for each other. “I’ll stay with you even though you threaten to hit me,” my agreement goes, “because this recreates the intense fear I felt living in my house growing up.”

Me cringing against the wall did not start with me storming into the apartment and saying the stupid shit I said. No, I watched my father and mother scream at each other for years first, felt the way that made something sharp and hot crawl into my stomach and settle. I watched how she pestered him constantly about what he was doing and how it wasn’t good enough, smart enough, right, well done, or even wanted. I watched them both do their damndest to prove the other was worthless.

I watched and learned that the sharp-hot belly, and the screaming, and the shaming, was what I was supposed to feel, and do. And I picked you, in the shadow world of unexamined neuroses, because you were the perfect match for making sure I could recreate those things forever.

I paved my adult path with the shattered concrete I had been handed through the years, constantly trying to match it up, make it whole, not looking closely enough to realize it was never going to fit together again, that the right choice was to look for an unbroken piece and work with that.

So now I stand, your fist an inch from my face, between the moment you grabbed me and this moment, the mobius strip of time slipping through my nostrils and out of my mouth, my eyes wide open. . .

My feet do not move but something in me slides out, around you, down the hall. It pads into the bedroom and gathers together my clothes and lights a match and throws it on, watches as the flames lick around the edges of the pile, dance upwards, throw smoke up to form a black shadow on the ceiling. A shadow I need to leave behind.

Your hand uncurls and drops. My shirt falls into wrinkles filled and pressed with your sweat. You back away and run into the couch. I watch your body in motion and then at rest. You turn over and press your face into the pillow.

I do not move. I do not have to. I already have.

“Fault” is a word to further distract me from “choices.” It is not a word I want to know any more. I want to know how to rip up the concrete burying me in my choices and watch the darkness wriggle and come to life. I want to dig my hands in until they are black and crawling with filth, until I can taste dirt in the back of my throat, until I can look those choices in the eyes and not look away.

Until I know what they are and why I made them.

And then I want to leave the earth torn up and turn. And walk a different way.

I turn to the door. For a moment I am still there.

Then I am gone.

 

It’s not comfortable, what I put my characters through in my stories. But comfort does not lead to change. Comfort feeds the shadow agreement.

Comfort is death.

Don’t you want to come up and talk to me at the next cocktail party?

Mar 04

Beating a Dead Horse

Cliches! Oh how we writers hate them and are horrified when we find ourselves using them. We do everything we can to banish them from our heads. But this may be the very reason they have such power over us–the forbidden is always that which arises first, I’ve noticed. So I say write them down. I’m not saying use them, but you have to get them out before you can find the fresh take.

When the words are flowing for me, I put down the dreaded cliche (or equally dreaded almost-right word) and make it red. Then, the next day, I just riff on those words or cliches. I write down everything I think of in the riffage session because what starts to happen is the words go deeper. They start to line up and suggest other words and ideas. And when I have a whole string–I’ve had as many as thirty words in a row–I start to look at the chain I’ve made.

Red words!

Is there some deeper idea I’m actually getting at? Is there some other feeling I’ve masked up to now by the “wrong” cliche or word choice? Is my character screaming and holding a huge sign that says “I AM ACTUALLY SAYING THIS!” What is the story trying to tell me?

This is why those long word/idea strings are so important. If you just run through them in your head, you’ve lost your whole train of thought. And that train is leading you somewhere. You need to be able to see all the cars because the thing you’re looking for is the engine.

The engine is what’s really at the heart of your story. It’s the emotion that’s fueling the story in the first place. You might think it’s ridiculous not to know what that is–if you’re writing the story, you must know what it’s about, right?–but, just like in real life, there is what’s happening on the surface, and there’s what’s really going on underneath, and it’s not always easy to find, or face, what that is.

Sometimes you realize the engine is actually parts of two or three of the ideas you’ve recorded. Sometimes in the list of wrong words, looking up more synonyms for that one that showed up three times reveals the engine. And sometimes the engine can only show up because you’ve gotten those thirty other words out of the way.

The more you struggle with finding the right word, the more familiar you get with that itchy feeling that arises when it’s not the right word. That itchy feeling is a signal–you’re on the wrong track. You’re not yet clear about what’s really going on in your story.

Because ultimately, you’re not really struggling to find the right word. You’re struggling to find out which deep, quite voice inside you is fighting to get itself on the page. And all those red words are the barriers we put between us and what shows up when we turn over the rocks in our souls. No wonder I’ve got strings of thirty words! Give me words, dear god, so I don’t have to look at the creepy crawly things that live in the dark of my mind.

Sometimes the engine takes its time showing up. I’ve had stories with several word/idea strings in them up to the final edit. For those tough ones, I know there’s something not clear in my exploration of what that story is really about. (Dialogue in your final scene is another indicator of trouble–if you can’t decide what a character should say, something’s not clear!) If everything was clear and flowing the way it should be, I would know what word was needed.

That’s when I start again at the beginning of the story. We are building themes, symbols, and meaning from the first word on the page–we are expressing a deep emotional truth–and in a well-strung-together story each word and idea leads to the next and follows from what came before. If I can find those breaks in the links, understand what they’re really calling for, and fix them, often by the time I get to that red train, it’s obvious what word or idea needs to be there. But I can’t be afraid of diving into my own swirling inner world.

“Wrong word/idea,” then, is not just a stylistic choice. It’s also a red flag for something you haven’t yet understood about what you’re really trying to do. And cliches, then, are even worse–they’re the short-cuts writers use to avoid a truly examined life.

But what of the power of cliches? There’s no denying their power to evoke. And a brilliant writer can tap that power and use it to make a ho-hum image indelibly imprinted on the reader’s mind; but only if he or she can bring that inner world to bear upon it.

Cliches are the only way to tap into your reader’s mind and know what you’re going to get. And that’s where we can slam the engine they think they’re driving into the rock wall of their own expectations. Take this one from Margaret Atwood:

“You fit into me

like a hook into an eye

a fish hook

an open eye.”

Aw, that’s so sweet! says her reader after the first two lines. As writers, we know exactly what that reader is thinking: they’re lovers, they’re meant for one another, the reader can safely assume a hundred thousand things about how they function together as a couple.

And then the mental image formed by the last two lines.

Smash!

From “warm fuzzy relationship” to horror story in six words and the reader’s imagination. The second image is as powerful as it is because of two things: the power of the feelings evoked by the initial cliche, and the power of Atwood’s ability to nail those feelings most of us shy away from.

Try and get that image out of your head. It’s been in mine for twenty years.

Feb 24

Twisted

Twisted, yeah, I knew you’d call me that. Because I spit in your drink last night at the bar. But you don’t know from twisted. Ever watch a knife fight? Circle, circle, then in for the kill, you never even saw the knife if they’re good. I’m not that good.

All I did was spit. You’re still alive.

I kick the concrete while you talk because I can’t kick you.

You want me to apologize. Say I’m so, so sorry. Or what? You’ll turn on those tough boot heels and leave? Me? That’s your threat?

You’ve got a lot of leaving behind you. I can see that. Tracks lead all the way back to seven years old when your dad left his own trail behind him. So I get it.

I just don’t give a shit.

Now you tell me to stop kicking. Your words grow weeds in my ears.

You shove me. Well, go ahead. No one’s stopping you. I could tell you I won’t do it again but it’s just a bell clanging.

We hate each other during the day but at night…well, at night. You once made a sound when you finally blundered your way inside me like what we were doing punched through your chest and wrapped a hand around your soul. Deep, river-wide, clear all the way down to the bottom, that sound.

It whispers in my heart.

“I’m sorry I spit in your drink.”

You put your arm around me, elbow akimbo around my neck. Pull me close. Lick my throat. Breath cools my skin. I shiver.

We stumble down this road, pitch and roll.

****

Some people will call this the worst example of a co-dependant, abusive relationship. Maybe they’re right. But I believe that somewhere in us we’re all suffering and it takes everything we have to deal with it. For most of us, like the two above, this means we cover it up–head down, arms in, disappear. Get by. Survive. Don’t give too much away and no one will take it, ride us, and leave us broken.

So what drives us together, two bodies colliding, what collision are we hoping, praying, to get in? Drawn on, drawn in, something in us longs for that crash, values it wildly beyond any logical measure.

It’s not the physicality of it. Come closer. Look. Better yet, see. Remember that time when someone—could be anyone, a stranger even—threw wide their door and for that moment there was nothing between you, no you or them at all, just a joining that leaves you wrecked. From then on we’re junkies, searching the rest of our lives for the handle to that door.

Not lust. Love. Know me. Crawl inside me. Live there. If I hand you my heart, will you know how to hold it? This is what we are longing for—to be stripped by someone and recognized.

Our problem is the face we put on in the morning is not the face we were born with. Even if we’re so far gone we’ve forgotten that.

And that means, in that split-second when we have a chance to open up and reach out to someone, chances are we can’t switch faces. That’s a true cause of suffering–the illusion of separation pierced, and us helpless to make anything of it.

Whatever the violences of our lives, inside and out, whatever the wreckage we leave in our wake, every one of us is capable of being transfixed by those moments of complete knowing. It explains a lot. Maybe everything.

These roots go deep.

Feb 15

Bullshit stories

It’s rare that someone looks you in the eye and tells you the truth.

I don’t mean about the little things, like “Does this soup need salt?” or “Do you, um, know what happened to my shoes?”–I mean the big things.

I was talking with a friend recently about a dynamic that frustrates me in my relationship with my husband and I got to that most common of phrases, “I mean, what’s up with that?”

He paused for a moment, a look of wry amusement on his face, and said, “You’re a bitch, Theresa. That’s what’s up with that.”

It was so unexpected, so honest about that dynamic, and so undeniably true I burst out laughing. How could I not? He’d hit the nail on the head, squarely, and I could either waste a ton of energy denying it and taking it personally and shooting the messenger or I could use that shock to crack open a possibility in my relationship I hadn’t seen before.

I had the same response when I saw this picture:

Slap!

Oh yeah baby! It was another one of those moments where I encountered something and within seconds its tentacles had slithered through my entire head, connecting everything together in a new and undeniable way.

We all have a bullshit story. It’s that tiny, poisonous whisper that most of the time we don’t even hear anymore, but that still has the power to bring us to a complete standstill in life:

“I’m not lovable.” “I deserve to be treated badly.” “I’m not allowed to exist.” “Whatever anyone does to me is fine because I’m a bad person.” “If I stick up for myself, I’ll get killed.” “It’s too scary to try. Just don’t.” “Being open with people hurts too much.”

There are thousands of others but they all boil down to the same thing–stay safe. Curl into a ball and don’t risk sticking your neck out.

And if you’re a writer and you’re not aware that that voice is there and how it affects you, the things you write may be technically good–great–even brilliant, but they won’t touch anyone (talk about bullshit stories). Readers will move through your story, laugh, feel the tension, maybe even cry a bit if something sad happens, but your words won’t snake into them, curl around their hearts, and wake them up at night because there’s something there that affects them, too, a niggling little feeling that what’s happening on the page isn’t isolated to the page, that it’s actually happening to them, right here, right now, and they’d better pay attention.

Great literature does this. J.D. Salinger, Margaret Atwood, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry Miller, Jennifer Egan, John Steinbeck, Kate Chopin, George Orwell, Orson Scott Card, Barbara Kingsolver, Zora Neale Hurston, Flannery O’Connor, Shirley Jackson, Joyce Carol Oates, I could go on and on (and I’m not even listing the non-fiction writers who do this, like Nietzsche and Heidegger and Kierkegaard, to name a few), but the thing that makes them great, besides an obvious level of mastery of their craft, is that they aren’t speaking from their bullshit stories.

When I read these writers, I’m not just reading a story. I’m seeing the machinery inside all of us. I’m getting an in-depth picture of what it looks like to live out a bullshit story and what it takes to break free of it.

My contention has always been that literature is a conversation, not a lecture. As a reader it’s my responsibility to join in by bringing to bear all my experiences in life and seeing what that author has to say about them. When I engage this conversation, I have a chance to engage amazing minds who have thought deeply about what it takes to be human and what we need to do to reach that goal.

Hamlet: everyone talks about his hesitation, and how relieved they are when he finally acts at the end. But when I join in that conversation, with the benefit of my own bullshit stories squarely in my sights, I see the true tragedy of a man lost in his head, completely unable to connect to his heart, to the extent that he sacrifices everyone he loves, including himself. To me, Shakespeare is screaming a warning of one of the great dangers of his, and our, age: beware the death of the heart under the tyranny of the intellect.

As someone who spent most of her adult life living from her head, completely shut down emotionally, I feel the seriousness of this warning and see the impact of losing sight of one’s heart all over my life. Here be tragedy, indeed.

When I read The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood, I threw the book across the room when I finished because I thought she’d completely cheated me as a reader by how it ended. Who couldn’t see that the Painballers deserved to be killed in a long, drawn-out manner? But I was haunted by that ending. Atwood is a master at this kind of conversation and I knew something deeper was happening there.

Throughout the book, I was rooting for the good people, gnashing my teeth until I got the pleasure of seeing the bad people die. And the Painballers–they’re so bad–they kill people, rape women, turn women into sexual slaves; they’re vicious beasts with no redeeming human qualities–you just feel yourself go rabid with wanting their death. And in the end, Ren and Toby have the perfect opportunity to kill two of them….and they DON’T.

This isn't me. It's my soul screaming at the injustice of them living.

But what I got was that throughout the whole book I’d been identifying with the good characters because that’s how I see myself. I’d been horrified by the bad men, disgusted and afraid of them…..and at the end of the book, my blood lust at wanting them to die? I WAS THEM. I was not like Toby at all. Given the chance to forgive and uplift or crush and destroy, I’d chosen to crush and destroy.

It was a watershed moment for me, as a writer and a person. As a writer, what an amazing amount of trust Atwood placed in her readers. How many got no further than their reactions to the end and swore never to read another Atwood novel? How skilled do you have to be to write a story that is so physically embodied by your readers they may not even notice which character they’re actually emulating?

And as a person, I had the devastation of seeing one of my bullshit stories so strongly there was no way I could turn away from it. I wanted to kill the Painballers in exactly the ways they’d killed people throughout the book. As horrified as I was by them, they are in me, and if I don’t pay attention to that, that poisonous whisper could wreak havoc in all sorts of situations.

I’m not saying I’m going to go out and kill anyone, but that “killer instinct,” that desire to destroy someone, that’s a feeling I’m all too familiar with. It comes up, for instance, when I get hurt emotionally or when I think someone’s done something to make me look stupid. My mind goes into overdrive figuring out ways to make sure that person goes DOWN–I am cutting, rude, snide….a bitch. And here we are full circle, a poisonous whisper traced both through honest friendship and amazing literature.

So in terms of writing and life (some claim there is no distinction there ;) ), you can’t put a better poster on your wall than the one above. We can write things that do nothing but scream our bullshit stories–or we can write things that expose those stories, rip them open, and chart them so others can lay that map over themselves and see something, too.

Being a writer is a service to the greater good of humanity. That’s a grandiose statement, but look at the list of names that back it up.

Feb 14

Pay attention when your writing sucks

We’ve all had those days, where we have to pry every word out of us and they only come kicking and screaming and when we look over what we’ve written, we just put our heads in our hands and contemplate a career in math.

Oo! This is sexy despair. I want mine to look like this.

Unfortunately, mine's more like this. Only with long red hair.

And we've all been here on those REALLY bad days.

Sometimes in those moments it helps to read other people’s writing. (Sometimes that only pushes us from the second picture to the third, but that’s another story.) So the other day I clicked over to Crescent Dragonwagon’s blog (highly recommended) and read this:

“Every piece of writing is essential to the writer, regardless of whether it works as a piece or not. Seeming unsuccess is as important as seeming success in our lives, as artists and as human beings.”

This is something I tend to forget. Mostly because if I invest time/energy/emotion in a piece, by damn I want it to work! And maybe, no matter what I do, it doesn’t.

And she’s saying (THANK GOD) that’s OK. You get something out, something that had to get out, and now there is space to write the next piece.

This is such a release of pressure, that not all our darlings need to be birthed into the world. Some of them need to live beneath the rocks, whispering to us, filling the void between the last good piece and the next one.

And then there’s that kicker, which she is so good at: “and as human beings.”

Why is unsuccess important to us as human beings? Personally, I’d like to succeed at everything, all the time. That would be fantastic.

But think of yourself as a stone bowl. The depth of your bowl is the depth of your soul; it indicates how deeply you can feel, relate to, and understand yourself and others. Now think of how that bowl was made. It was carved out. And that carving isn’t gentle and thoughtful–no, that carving involves metal tools and hammers and grinding and pounding. If you’re going to make a stone bowl with a piece of 00 sandpaper, you’re going to die before the first shallow depression is complete.

“Unsuccess” is the hammer–the chisel–the grinding force that breaks us open so we can feel. We need the failures, the difficult times, the brokenness that comes from daring to try something we’re not entirely sure will work, whether it’s writing or telling someone our deepest hopes and fears.

What we owe to our readers as writers, and our friends and loved ones as human beings, is a map of deep emotions, and if we keep ourselves so safe we never feel them, we sure as hell can’t write about or share them.

We all know people who do everything they can to stay comfortable, to keep their worlds safe, and they are not the people we go to when we are hurting. It is a truth that there is no one on the planet who is not suffering, but if we don’t turn ourselves inside out and share that suffering, let others know they are not alone, then no matter how hard the hammers come down, we will remain stones.

“When I find myself in hell, I stay there as long as I can.” Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche said this and it points to the exact thing we can do to make our bowls deep. He’s not saying “Go out and find hell and/or create it every second.” He’s saying when we find ourselves there (and it’s inevitable), recognize where you are. Let it work you, soften you, shatter you.

How do you do that? You feel. You don’t numb out or get lost in distraction. And you don’t go the other way and make the feeling so huge and dramatic it becomes nothing but a caricature of itself. You stay with it–you feel where it is in your body–you let it take you but you don’t lose yourself in it. You hold on to your perspective–“this, too, shall pass.” And you realize that everyone, every person on the planet, suffers as you do. This is the birth of compassion.

Hell is a gift we have to consciously accept–we are trained in our addicted-to-comfort world to turn away, shut down, and lock it out. But the edge it provides is the only one that can cut to our cores. And as writers, sure, but how much more so as human beings, we need to feel to our cores, reach in and pull out our humanity, look others in the eye and say “Yes, I see that suffering, I see that joy, I see that anger and fear, and I am right here with you.”

Success is nice. Enjoy it. But it is not a hammer.

Unsuccess is the key to deepening the bowl.

Jan 21

Is there ever a break from writing?

Short answer: no.

Ha ha! End of post!

OK, longer answer:

I’m sitting here knitting (yup–it’s a great thing to do when your brain is too tired to keep track of all the different threads in what you’re writing) and out of the thousands of images and feelings floating through my consciousness comes–“black.”

As in:

Sexy!

This is a Lotus Exige, which is the racing version of the Elise, which is one of my favorite cars in the category of “it’s not outside the realm of possibility that one day I will own one.” (The other category is “Perhaps in another lifetime.”)

So there is this word “black” and I drop my knitting (literally–I almost lost a stitch) and run to my computer to find the one place in a story of over eight thousand words where I say my main character’s Lotus Elise is red. (Don’t let anyone ever tell you the hopes and fears of a writer don’t leak out all over the page.) And I sit there, fingers poised, and think of what it would mean to make the car black instead of red.

Black: death, darkness, despair, secrecy, bereavement

Red: blood, overwhelming emotion, danger, shame

The fingers come down! Definitely the car needs to be black.

And for those of you who don’t think the color of a car matters, I submit this Elise:

Not sexy.

I know. It is a travesty. Avert your eyes.

However, if I ever need to indicate that my character is a complete moron, I will perhaps choose this color for his Elise.

Fortunately, my character is not a moron. Just haunted and broken. So much better!

Anyway, this is why writers always have a little notebook. When you’re hot and heavy in a story little things like the perfect word choice or plot direction or line of dialogue will pop out of nowhere and you’re fooling yourself if you think you’re going to remember it later. YOU HAVE TO WRITE IT DOWN AS SOON AS IT COMES INTO YOUR HEAD.

Einstein said he never memorized his home phone number because it was in the phone book and he didn’t want to waste brain space on something that was recorded somewhere else. I completely agree with this–and it’s another reason why I write those ideas down right away. Then I can “forget” them and there’s room for the next thought/connection to come up. Who knows where the twisting path of a story will take you? If you’re wasting space trying to remember where you were, you’ll never have the open space to see where it’s possible to go.

(This is also why I write everything down on my calendar. I don’t want to re-remember my appointments because that takes up my idea space. Plus it’s just stressful wondering if you’re forgetting something important!)

That twilight space between awake and asleep is another reason to have a notebook. Thomas Edison knew the power of the unconscious in this space. When he was working on a problem, he napped sitting up, holding a handful of ball bearings, which would drop to the floor and wake him up when he drifted off. When he woke up he wrote down everything in his head.

When I’m into a story, I have paper, a pencil, and a little flashlight right next to my head at night. When my characters start talking to each other at three in the morning all I have to do is roll over and record their voices. Again, those thoughts will be long gone by morning no matter how “unforgettable” you think they are. Grab them and pin them to earth as soon as you can.

It comes down to how committed you are to your story and your writing. If it’s burning inside you, you won’t want to miss a single lead. And when the perfect color for the car your character drives pops into your head you won’t sit there and say, “Yeah, that’s good. I’ll get to that later.” You’ll drop your knitting, even if it means you lose a stitch, and call up the exact place that color belongs.

Because that’s what it takes to keep your writing burning down your veins onto the page.

 

Nov 24

Henry Miller on the responsibility of the artist

Yeah, this about sums it up.

Chandrika, a very dear friend of mine, sent me this quote from Henry Miller, and along with this picture, at first I thought it pretty much summed up the artist’s responsibility, process, and drive.

“Side by side with the human race there runs another race of beings, the inhuman ones. The race of artists that, goaded by unknown impulses, take the lifeless mass of humanity and by the fever and ferment with which they imbue it turn this soggy dough into bread, and the bread into wine, and the wine into song. Out of the dead compost and the inert slag they breed a song that contaminates.

I see this other race of individuals ransacking the universe, turning everything upside-down, their feet always moving in blood and tears, their hands always empty, always clutching and grasping for the beyond. For the God out of reach. Slaying everything within reach in order to quiet the monster that gnaws at their vitals.

I see that when they tear their hair with the effort to comprehend, to seize this forever unattainable, I see that when they bellow like the crazed beasts and rip and gore, I see that THIS IS RIGHT.

That there is no other path to pursue.

A man who belongs to this race must stand up on the high place, with gibberish in his mouth, and rip out his entrails. It is right and just because he must…

and anything that falls short of this frightening spectacle, anything less shuddering, less terrifying, less mad, less intoxicated, less contaminating, is not ART.

The rest is counterfeit. The rest is human.
The rest belongs to life
and lifelessness.”

Henry Miller

But then I got to that last line. “The rest belongs to life and lifelessness.” It’s easy to read that and nod my head the way we used to in high school when we were reading Nietzsche: “Yeah. I totally get that. Deep, man.”

But it made me stop—what is there besides life and lifelessness? Doesn’t that pretty much cover it?

So I started letting that mush around in my head. And slowly, as I wrestled with what that third thing could be, something began to take form.

What if “lifelessness” is what we are expected to want, that dream we are all sold, the one we’re waiting around to inhabit? What if it’s that lie of the bigger, better thing (whatever it is) just around the corner that we’ll get if we’re good enough, work hard enough, and eat all our vegetables? Dream=waiting for the future=lifeless. Known.

And what if “life” is the body of habits we’ve formed, and we all have them, while we are waiting for that dream to manifest, the habitual way we react to everything we encounter instead of responding to what is happening, as it is, in this moment? These are the mindless strategies we learned as children to keep pain/fear at bay, and that we still enact as adults. Habit=dead inside to the present=life. Known.

If that’s the case, what is this third, unknown thing Miller is pointing to?

Now this quote starts to take on shape, texture, layers.

If we see life and lifelessness for what they are, how can either ever satisfy? They can’t. So we are driven to escape the traps of these knowns. Here be monsters, indeed. To tread here we must become this third thing: ALIVE.

Can you begin to picture the screaming void that is “alive,” that we’re all inches from the edge of, which is kept out of our consciousness only by the sweet smoke of the opiate of life and lifelessness? To inhabit that world, we must be willing to feel, see, touch, taste, hear what is happening right now, right in front of us, everywhere at once. We must experience life/lifelessness without being of it. And we must allow ourselves to feel what it is like to be trapped in those cages, to crush ourselves into them and feel our bones break from the effort to fit in.

To get beyond these cages we must rip our heads open. Miller gives us the map to do this, if we dare follow it: ransack the universe, turn everything upside-down; be goaded by unknown impulses; clutch and grasp for the beyond. For the God out of reach; slay everything within reach; tear your hair with the effort to comprehend, to seize this forever unattainable.

We must move in blood and tears, our hands always empty, for if we fill them we are once again prisoners of the known. Every thing we unearth can turn to habit. Every thing we unearth can be subjugated by life and lifelessness. This is why we must burn to ash all that we understand, record what we do not, and then burn that to ash, as well, for it is now contaminated by the known—it is “within reach” and it must be slayed.

This is the call of the artist, and the philosopher, when Philosophy takes its proper place on the stage—we must allow ourselves to be possessed, to be driven to tears, to ecstasy, to the blackest of nights of the soul; let ourselves shudder and feel terrified, mad, intoxicated, contaminating; for that is the only glimpse we can have of what it means to be alive. We report back from that edge, and then we must find it again. And again. And again.

The monster that gnaws at our vitals cannot be appeased—there is no way to remain in the unknown. And so we push forward, forever, starving for that edge of ALIVE that is the only taste of what is beyond life and lifelessness we will ever touch. And we hand it, blood-covered, to you.

What will you do with it?

Oct 19

Three Questions. Three Questions!

This weekend I was at a Romance Writers of America (RWA) meeting and trying to come up with a through-line for the wildly disparate kinds of things I write—literary fiction, fantasy, science fiction, erotica, non-fiction. Now that you’ve seen the list you can see why I was at a loss. So Beth Barany, who’s in this RWA chapter, asks me what my tagline is. “Dark. Edgy. Fiction,” I say.

“Why that?” she asks.

“Because I write about the human condition, the bits that wriggle away from the light. We all have to look at those bits if we want to live and not be driven by them.”

She says, “Tell me why you wrote your cookbook.” (Dharma Feast Cookbook, out February 2012)

“I went through hell before I figured out how to eat well and I want people to know what I know so they can take the short-cut.”

“So what you write about is the human condition because you want to help people. That’s your through-line.”

Wow. Three questions. She’s good. www.bethbarany.com

Listen, anyone who’s a writer should join RWA. The conversations about the craft of writing, the speakers, the other members, some of whom are NYT best sellers—you can’t get better motivational input. Plus the women in my chapter (SF Bay Area) kick ass.