Remember when I told you the whole story about how you got me voted one of the Top 10 Blogs for Writers 2010-2011? All the drama and excitement and how I copied all your nominations out to post over my desk so I could read them every single day?
And when the votes came in my chin wobbled, and maybe I cried just a little?
Well, guess what?
You guys just got me into the Top 20 Blogs for Writers 2012.
Thank you. Thank you so much.
You people are my specific dream rabbit.
It’ll be the Winter Solstice in a few days, which is the holiday we celebrate at our house. We’re pretty tired of the dark by the time the sun gets to the end of its tether every year, and we’re pretty darn excited about sunlight coming back into our lives again. It takes its toll on us, this long night of the soul, and reminds us that things matter in this world, that the passing of the years is deeply significant. So we’ve been talking here for the last couple of weeks about how to find Joy & Fulfillment through Writing, how to find Gratitude through Writing.
We’ve also been remembering cause-&-effect, because that’s what everything is all about, and don’t let anybody tell you anything different.
So let’s talk today about community among writers, all of us here in this hapless little rowboat on the high seas together, sharing the benches and taking turns at the oars and scratching our heads over the constellations and occasionally pulling someone back into the boat before the sharks get them.
This is where gratitude will always lead you—to human bonding.
Be in it for what you have to give.
I honestly, sincerely believe in the power of modeling behavior, so I’ve been here on this blog for four years now teaching for free what I know about writing fiction, hoping that you will take away not only craft but a sense of compassion for your companions in this writing life.
I’m not going to deliberately lose my house to the bank, but I am aware that writing is not a get-rich-quick scheme and that even the most experienced mentors are no better than writers have ever been at making more than a sort of lower-middle-class living at this work we love best. I wake up every single day and remind myself what it was like to be young and and broke and passionately in love with words and to have nowhere to go for help.
Give as generously as you can. Don’t be bossy, and don’t assume you know more than those with greater experience, but show compassion to your fellow writers and share the camaraderie with kindness and an open heart.
Serve your turn at the oars.
Be thoughtful about what you need to take.
Nobody’s an infinite well of resource. We all give, and we all take. We pass the torch from hand to hand, from experienced to innocent, from generation to generation. Where you stand now I once stood, and when you move up the ladder of knowledge tomorrow someone else will arrive to take your place.
I have learned what I know from some of the best, and I continue to read and study every blessed day the writers and mentors who have come before me in this parade of literature holding the lantern high. Right now I’m reading The Notebooks of Henry James. He will never know the unbelievable gift he has given this unknown editor, just a stranger born long after he died, but he would not want his wisdom to stop with me. So what I get from his notebooks I will share with you.
When it comes time to ask for what you need, know where you stand on the ladder and do not underestimate what you are asking of others. Above all, treat everyone with humility and great good humor.
Never be the one making it more difficult.
Be the one making it easier.
Respect the act of communing.
And when you have made that connection between yourself and other writers, when you have arrived here at the dock and found your seat in the rowboat, when you have said hello and shaken hands and asked politely where they keep the water and rowing gloves, take a moment to bow your head for the beauty of it all.
What goes on between human beings really cannot be explained.
I give everything I can to you because in giving it I’ve found myself.
And you have given me back your hearts.
We call this week between the holiday and the New Year “time out of time” at our house. It’s our annual step outside the tide of daily struggle and strife to stop and think and search again for the peace in our lives. In the same vein, we’ve been talking here for the last few weeks about how to find Joy & Fulfillment through Writing, how to find Gratitude through Writing, how to find Community through Writing.
All of which leads to the greatest mystery of all, the purpose of fiction and the purpose of everything in general: discovering what makes life worthwhile.
How does being a writer help you find meaning?
Know that meaning exists.
It’s out there. It might not be intrinsic to this mortal coil—why are we here? where did we come from? where will we go? are there any answers? who knows?—but it is intrinsic to the self-awareness of the living. There is a spark inside you that animates the body in which you live, that makes it walk and talk and learn to play cards.
The fact that you are aware of this spark is profoundly meaningful. What are you? You are alive.
And the fact that you have the written word through which to explore that awareness will lead you to another question: “Who am I?” What does it mean to you, deep down inside, that you are alive?
Know you have to search to find it.
The meaning of life is not going to be served to you passively, like television commercials and monetized blogs. The only thing of value that you will ever get without trying is life itself (and even that goes away if you lie down and refuse to feed or clothe or nurture yourself).
As it happens, writing is excellent work for philosophers and spiritual seekers and questioners because writing isn’t easy. Writing is, in fact, quite a merciless angel, and it’s going to kick your butt. It is—for those of us who love it more than anything else—the ultimate metaphor for quest, the quest for meaning.
It is the powerful struggle with that metaphor—in all its convoluted, inexplicable, word-heavy impossibility—that makes the answers to our questions about life matter.
So when we have accepted that there is meaning to our lives, and sought that meaning through this extraordinary craft that is our chosen tool for revelation, and faced that meaning in those ephemeral moments of brilliance in our writing, and accepted our inevitable thwarting at its hands (which thwarting, I’m afraid, really is inevitable), we come to understand something.
We come to understand that a thing is true only because its opposite is also true.
We understand that for everything we’ve learned to express through the written word there is an equal and opposite thing yet to be expressed, and that no matter how long and hard we work at this craft, or how talented we were to start with, or how skilled we become in time, we will never write everything we could.
When we grapple with the potential buried deep inside that paradox, we come to grips with our unlimited freedom to write anything, although it will never be everything. That epiphany allows us to choose.
And those choices illuminate the meanings of our individual lives.
Our choices: they’re who we are.
Happy New Year, everyone.
Last week we found Joy & Fulfillment through Writing. And it was good.
So this week let’s respond to that joy & fulfillment. Because everything about being writers is about cause-&-effect, even living the life.
Let’s be grateful.
Recognize the source.
Sometimes it’s the littlest things.
I know I’ve mentioned once or twice before a ceremony we do at our house, in which we light a candle and everyone around the dinner table says what they’re thankful for. We wanted our son to have a sense of what’s meaningful in life—in this Age of Meaningless Consumerism, when we don’t really know what we truly need or or want, but we sure know how to buy—and over the years this ceremony has served its purpose well. We’ve all become pretty adept at naming things we appreciate.
Sometimes it’s huge and touching and profound, like having each other, having our health, being safe together every night in a largely dangerous world. Sometimes it’s topical and specific, like the excitement of finishing an important project or the relief of not having to mow the lawn or the peacefulness of the cats not fighting under the table. And sometimes it’s utterly trivial, even silly, like gratitude for spoons and forks, for a particular joke, for curtains, for hair.
When my son was very young, he was often simply thankful for the candle.
Write in great, glorious, intensely specific detail about the touching and profound, the topical and specific, the utterly trivial, even the silly. Write everything you know, everything you imagine, everything that happens to you and everyone you meet or hear about or suspect exists. Write your life.
That’s your source.
Realize what it’s worth.
Train yourself to live in service to this source, and when you have written be aware of how little you bring to this work, how much of it is simply channeling your life into clean, clear words.
Ask yourself what you would do without your source. Hang in suspended animation, forever and infinitely barely surviving, without the extraordinary gift of your five senses or your ability to perceive through them? The ancient Greeks understood stasis and subjected the dead to a period of limbo before resolution to remind us of the value of living.
Your life is the most precious commodity you will ever own.
So give it its due. Stop right this instant and breathe. Look around you.
Where are you? What does it look like? What does it sound like? What does it feel like? How does it smell? Stick out your tongue—how does it taste? Writing puts all of that into specific words so that it fixes in your memory forever. Working with those words, struggling to find just the right ones in just the right order, learning the many brilliant techniques of written language to re-create the experience of this moment out of all other moments in life, yours or anyone else’s: that is an act of thanks.
You are here. You are you. You are alive.
Writing is your lens through which to refract your gratitude, so it will never leave you.
I’m not here this month—December is my month to go offline every year and watch my son grow up. He’s already within a few inches of me in height now, meaning I really don’t have any time to lose. So I’ll be blogging in absentia a series of posts on how to find everything you need through the craft of writing, this amazing work that you and I and all of us here have chosen as the craft of our souls.
Let’s start with the good stuff: joy & fulfillment.
Ignore the hype!
It is deafening.
But it is not writing.
It is hype.
Right now we happen to be living through a time of enormous change in publishing, which has brought with it an absolute avalanche of emphasis upon the industry of marketing. Congratulations on the Era of Marketing! Enjoy it while you can, marketers. It hasn’t always been this way for writers, and it won’t always be this way for writers, because it isn’t, in fact, intrinsic to writing itself.
This too shall pass.
And when it does, we will find lying in its wake—just as fully and magnificently as before the avalanche hit—our writing. It does not change just because someone out there changes the process through which we expose it to the public view.
It’s still writing.
Recognize the craft.
Writing is not the same thing as selling our work. It’s not even the same thing as being read.
Writing is using the written word to reach into the fog of invisibility that shrouds our every waking moment and retrieve the primal experience of being alive. All of the arts are tools for this. Painters do it through painting, sculptors do it through sculpture, dancers do it through movement, playwrights, actors, and directors do it through theater, musicians do it through music. But storytellers do it through story, and writers do it through the nearly-infinite variety and flexibility of literacy.
This craft is our chosen tool for retrieval. We writers spend our lives learning to wield this particular tool as perfectly as we are able.
Reach for the joy!
The truth is we arrive here on this planet mostly just because our parents have sex, and while we’re here we do a whole lot of crying, raging, suffering, wondering, and sometimes noodling around simply being bored.
But we’re in it for the joy.
So focus upon this craft you have chosen—these words and sentences and paragraphs, these pens and pencils and notebooks, typewriters and keyboards and computer screens, these facets of dialog and flashes of action and glimpses of intricate settings. Forget your themes and ideas and feelings, and simply burrow through your written words into the vivid experiences of living. Record those experiences in all their beautiful and dreadful, enormous and tiny, complementary and contradictory detail. Detail.
Wake up from the dream and go outside. Come in again and sink back into the dream. Over and over and over. Reflect your world in words as if you were a mirror, and eventually you will begin to glimpse in the distance behind the figures in the mirror that poignant, often-bittersweet joy we suspect but can’t always feel. You’ll stumble unexpectedly upon a transitory moment of insight into what it all means, especially when you don’t understand what it is you’re trying to say. That moment is what makes life worthwhile and what we writers are after all along.
It’s the unsayable.
That depth of vivid experience is where fulfillment lies.
Guess what I spent the Thanksgiving holiday doing? That’s right—giving myself repetitive stress injury writing my annual 45,000-word children’s book for my son. I didn’t start until halfway through November this year, so it got pretty darn busy toward the end there. Now I have a completed book (hurrah!), but I also have a gimpy elbow, which means today’s post is going to be more a checklist than a regular tirade. (Sorry about that.) We’ve been on the subject of first drafts all month: Running into the Jaws of NaNoWriMo , 3 Essential Guidelines for starting a novel, 3 Vital Steps to creating an excellent, story-worthy protagonist, and 3 Crucial Aspects of Writing Scenes.
So let’s sit down together now and ask all those hard, necessary questions a writer must ask themself when they finish a first draft of a novel:
Is your protagonist the same character at the end as the beginning?
Is the catastrophe your characters are heading toward at the Hook the same one they wind up with at the Climax?
Does your protagonist matter more than anyone else in the story?
Does your Climax matter more than anything else that happens?
Can you clearly state your protagonist’s two mutually-exclusive needs, which drive them relentlessly forward throughout their story?
Can you account for every single scene in relation to one or both of those needs?
Can you justify basing an entire novel on those needs when you ask yourself why a reader would care?
Can you identify exactly how your Climax forces your protagonist to choose between their two needs?
Can you link every single scene in an inevitable chain of cause-&-effect toward that Climax?
Can you pin-point the tension in every single scene that’s so powerful it makes the reader turn the next page?
Have you made your protagonist interesting, entertaining, smart, human, and unique enough to hold a reader’s attention for 50,000 words?
Have you shown your protagonist’s world in significant, telling details that simply couldn’t describe anybody else’s fictional world?
Have you stuck to only essential dialog?
Have you choreographed your action scenes for tightly-paced action?
Have you skipped all urges to repeat yourself?
Have you avoided every paragraph, sentence, and word of exposition humanly possible?
Is any and all exposition left just so brilliant and essential that your story can’t exist without it?
Have you moved the Backstory from the beginning to its rightful spot after the Hook (or else cut it altogether)?
Have you resisted the urge to ramble in Resolution after the Climax?
Is this story truly, sincerely important to you, above and beyond its basic quality of containing a whole lot of words?
Will you love sinking ever-deeper into this story in the New Year as you launch into the revisions that are, in actuality, the real work of writing a novel?
Are you proud—not of yourself—but of your story?
Are you in love?
You are a high-dive artist who just dove into the deepest point of the entire ocean. Congratulations! You’ve got some kind of crazy-brave glitter shining in your eyes!
And when you return to this story later, after a well-earned respite over the holidays, you will begin swimming home.
MILLLICENT G. DILLON, the world's expert on authors Jane and Paul Bowles, has won five O. Henry Awards and been nominated for the PEN/Faulkner. I worked with Dillon on her memoir, The Absolute Elsewhere, in which she describes in luminous prose her private meeting with Albert Einstein to discuss the ethics of the atomic bomb.
BHAICHAND PATEL, retired after an illustrious career with the United Nations, is now a journalist based out of New Dehli and Bombay, an expert on Bollywood, and author of three non-fiction books published by Penguin. I edited Patel’s debut novel, Mothers, Lovers, and Other Strangers.
LUCIA ORTH is the author of the debut novel, Baby Jesus Pawn Shop, which received critical acclaim from Publisher’s Weekly, NPR, Booklist, Library Journal and Small Press Reviews. I have edited a number of essays and articles for Orth.
SCOTT WARRENDER is a professional musician and Annie Award-nominated lyricist specializing in musical theater. I work with Scott regularly on his short stories and debut novel, Putaway.
STUART WAKEFIELD is the #1 Kindle Best Selling author of Body of Water, the first novel in his Orcadian Trilogy. Body of Water was 1 of 10 books long-listed for the Polari First Book Prize. I edited his second novel, Memory of Water and look forward to editing the final novel of his Orcadian Trilogy, Spirit of Water.
ANIA VESENNY is a recipient of the Evelyn Sullivan Gilbertson Award for Emerging Artist in Literature and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. I edited Vesenny's debut novel, Swearing in Russian at the Northern Lights.
TERISA GREEN is widely considered the foremost American authority on tattooing through her tattoo books published by Simon & Schuster, which have sold over 45,000 copies. Under the name M. TERRY GREEN, she writes her techno-shaman sci-fi/fantasy series. I am working with her to develop a new speculative fiction series.
CHRIS RYAN drew acclaim from the New Yorker for the hook to his novel Heliophobia. He is the author of poetry collection The Bible of Animal Feet from Farfalla Press. I edited Ryan’s debut novel The Ishmael Blade and worked with him to develop Heliophobia and his WIP Pogue.
JUDY LEE DUNN is an award-winning marketing blogger. I am working with her to develop and edit her memoir of reconciling her liberal activism with her emotional difficulty accepting the lesbianism of her beloved daughter, Tonight Show comedienne Kellye Rowland.
In addition, I work with dozens of aspiring writers in their apprenticeship to this literary art and craft.