Monday, February 16, 2009
In last month’s column, I wrote about how the world of the artist is split squarely in two: the necessarily private creative part, and—should you wish to share your work—the unavoidably public part. And while the two parts require the same act of trust to navigate, each also has its own distinct lie that comes packaged in the benign wrapping of a question so insidious in its simplicity that some of us stop hearing it the way we cease to noticing the hum of the refrigerator. So as to give these lies their full due, I will attend to them separately—the first this month, the second next month.
As I said, the lie presents itself as a question, and what seems like a perfectly reasonable one at that: Am I any good? And what’s wrong with that question? Aren’t there Good Writers and Bad Writers? Don’t Good Writers get published and Bad Writers remain unpublished? Everyone, after all, has read writing they call “Good” and writing that they call “Bad”, and everyone wants their writing to be that which is called “Good.” Yes?
No. Because the answer to the question, “Am I any good?” is not, “No” and is not, “Yes”. In fact, there is no answer at all because the question does not actually exist. Not in reality. It exists only in our imaginations, where it is no more real than the Boogie Man.
You are exactly as Good as you must be. You lack nothing. You have everything required to write exactly what it is you want to write. Not what I want to write, or what J. K. Rowling or Toni Morrison wants to write—what you want to write. You have it all. The notion that somehow you were born tragically deficient to do the very thing you most want to do is to me as possible as an oak tree sprouting from a sunflower seed.
If, however, you want to ask a question, let it be this: Does what I have written say what I want it to say? Now that is a useful question. That is a question that will ask you to push your language to help translate what you know to be true as a feeling into what another can understand as an idea. That is a question that might send you to writing classes, writing books, or writing magazines to find clues from those who have gone before you as to how you might make a character sound as mad as you know she is. That, in short, is a question that will help you grow. Am I any good? is a question that kills, because the very question suggests the existence of a “No” you can never disprove.
The real question, Does what I have written say what I want to say, is not always so easy to answer, however. Others might help you find a way to say what you want to say, but in the end only you can decide if you have actually said what you wanted to say. This requires trust in that most insubstantial thing—your own creative impulse. To really answer this question, you must learn to walk without the net of public opinion. This is where courage comes in. But you have that too, if you ask it of yourself.
And once you have concluded that you have said what you wanted to say to the very best of your ability—your work is done. Put down the pencil. Others will say what they want to say about it, they will like it or not, but none of that is your business. And someday you might look back at what you once wrote and feel indifferent toward it, but that is only because you have changed, and because you no longer want to write what you once wrote.
And isn’t that excellent? Isn’t life always The Next Thing? You are not a statue in the market square fixed eternally as this or that, you are a trajectory of desire bound only to that which draws you constantly forward.
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Sunday, January 25, 2009
Did you know that at the height of his creative powers, at a time when he was writing the music that would most-influence a generation of songwriters, Bob Dylan was booed regularly? True story. The audience was generally unhappy that he had stopped writing acoustic protest songs in favor of more poetic, and now electric, rock & roll. In “Don’t Look Back,” Martin Scorsese’s documentary about that time in Dylan’s career, we see Dylan turn to a friend in a limo ride home from a concert, and, wondering aloud about all the booing, ask, “So why do they keep buying all the tickets?”
And did you know that Johnny Carson loved to sing? You probably didn’t. Yet I heard once—once, mind you—that he had taken lessons for years. I watched a lot of Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show” when I was young, but I can’t remember a single instance of hearing him sing so much as a jingle.
Artists’ lives are divided distinctly in two. The first half is about the artist and their work. This is a solitary pursuit, and is meant, for the most part, to be so. At some point, the artist must ask themselves what it is they and they alone wish to see, hear, read, feel, and then endeavor to render it. The solitary nature of work is a part of the gift not only to the artist—to hear themselves more clearly—but also, should they choose to share, to the rest of the world as well, for only then does the audience receive the gift of that unique voice.
The operative word here, however, is choose, for no one is actually required to share what they make. Dylan chose to sing his songs live—he could have followed The Beatles and retreated to the studio—and so accepted the terms as they came: to be booed and cheered in equal parts. Johnny Carson, no stranger to the vagaries of an audience’s taste (as perhaps only a stand up comic must become), opted not to share his singing voice with the public, unlike, say, another ‘70s talk show icon, Merv Griffin.
For the writer, of course, the second half of your creative life is publication, or the pursuit of it. There is no shortage of articles to be found, many in this very magazine, about how best to go about this, and there is always advice aplenty about ignoring rejection, and toughening your skin, and believing in yourself—all of which is worthy and true.
But it is important to remember that, in the end, what is required to publish a book is exactly what is required to write it. You do not get to know, at the moment you decide to write a book, what it will actually look like when it is done. This you must discover, chapter by chapter, scene by scene, word by word. In fact, particularly if you have never written one before, you probably aren’t even sure if the book will ever be finished. All you can do is trust that you will follow what most interests you, to the best of your ability, and that what results is your very best effort possible at that time.
This is also true of sharing your work with the public. You do not get to control who will like or dislike that book anymore than Bob Dylan could control who booed and who cheered. All you can do is trust—but trust everyone, every last person, to do what is absolutely best for them. For if you do, then you will allow the book, in its own course, to find its way to the people for whom it had been written, the people who had been asking for it in their own quiet fashion. In this way, through seeking publication you can make a friend of the world, rather than merely a series of connections to be made or walls to be climbed or doors to be squeezed past. The world is always delighted when you allow it be itself, and, in my experience, is always happy to return the favor.
Monday, December 15, 2008
The joke between my wife and I has long been that I like to talk big, and she likes to keep things small. “Don’t start with the Big Talk,” she implores. The phrase Big Talk was invented to describe my certainty that she and I would one day be married. At that time she hadn’t even admitted that she loved me, so it seemed premature to her. Since I turned out to be right on that score, I remained convinced for years that my Big Talk was visionary, and her Small Talk was nearsighted. I have since changed my mind.
My conversion began when my wife was getting her first book published. My publishing experience to that point had been fraught with disappointment and angst. Her publishing experience, from my vantage at least, seemed effortless. She received two rejections, both warmly worded, before not one but two major publishers expressed an interest in her children’s book. Finally, as the excitement and anticipation around the book’s release began to swell, my wife sat across from me at our kitchen table and said, “I just want to keep it small.” She meant that she didn’t want to get too excited and see being published as too big a feat. She wanted to keep it manageable in her mind. And then, a light, as they say, went on.
Except it was not until much later that I understood why she was right to keep it small. That was the day I remembered a little story I had been telling myself. I had never shared this story with anyone, but I had been telling it and telling it for many years, and it was this: “Getting your novel published is a big deal. It doesn’t happen to everyone. When it happens it will be like landing on the moon, bigger than anything you have ever experience before in your life.”
That was the terrible story I had been listening to for years, and as I remembered it, I thought, “What if publishing isn’t a big deal at all?” It was so completely contrary to everything I had ever thought that I understood at once that it had to be true. And it is. Getting a book published is not a big deal. Or that is, it is no bigger or smaller than anything else in life.
What made being published big to me, the reason I wrote that little story for myself, was that I did not trust that me simply wanting to do something was enough of a reason to do it. So I constructed a mountain for me to climb. Only then would I get to stake my flag and bestride that peak a conquering hero. Such is the insidious and tireless work of the ego. I kept making that mountain bigger and bigger until I had built it to the moon.
And then, in one thought, I leveled it. I leveled it because I saw that nothing is any bigger than anything else. Everything is absolutely, ineluctably equal. From cashier to king, every experience and every life is equal, the only difference being desire. Desire is the lens through which your entire life is viewed. Desire is what makes the fishing trip sublime to him but tedious to her, the aria beautiful to this one but all noise to that one. The only thing big for me about being published was my desire to communicate, which was so strong it confused me. Surely, I thought, my entire life can’t simply be about doing what I love?
Yet it seems it is. I could land on the moon, but if it didn’t bring me any happiness, what would be the use to me or anyone else in the world? I’ll leave moon-landing to the moon-landers, and the moon-landers can leave book-writing to me and my ilk. And anyway, somewhere in the universe, our moon is just another rock circling a more colorful rock, as from our shores we can see her hanging there, lovely to look at, but nothing to which anyone of us must climb.
Unless we want to.
Saturday, November 15, 2008
Writers can develop proprietary feelings around words, up to and including wanting the last one. No one wants to be the bore at the party, hogging the airwaves until the room is pummeled into exhaustion because we just have one . . . more . . . thing . . . to say—but this is merely an example of the best intentions leading to the worst results. The “best intentions” in this case being to leave your audience better than where you found them. That’s our job as writers, after all: To take readers on a journey, however small, that leads them someplace better.
As I wrote in an earlier column, we are, however, necessarily powerless in determining where exactly it is our readers decide to travel through our work—but this all to the good. Actually, not only is it good, it’s the best arrangement possible. Why? Because it’s proof that—in all that really matters in the world to you—you will always, always, always have the last word.
I’ve been thinking about this lately because I am coming to the end of a book. I love writing books, but I don’t always love finishing them. Finishing a book means other people reading it, which inevitably means other people telling me what they think of it. It’s not that I don’t want to know what people think about my stuff, it’s just that I can get so confused over it. The book is slow, the book is fast, the book is funny, the book is dull…if I go to the wrong place I can end up suffering from a kind of egoic whiplash, congratulating myself one minute and berating myself the next, and all because of some harmless, usually off-hand remark.
And how do I get to this wrong place? By forgetting that I have the last word. And I don’t just mean about my work, though, yes, of course, you always cast the deciding vote on whether this goes or that stays. No, I mean on everything. I have the last word on everything. Nothing that anyone says to me ever has any effect until I say it does. If someone says I am handsome, and I think, “She is right. I am handsome,” then I am handsome. But if I think, “What does she mean? What about the bald spot? What about the crooked nose?”, then I am not handsome.
It is absolutely as simple as that. You are the last word on every single thing that has ever been or ever will be said to you. Nothing can reach you until it has passed through this filter. Every word is like a gift that you can choose to receive or return. My goal in writing is to offer the most inviting gift possible. But I know it will not and cannot be received by all. And as well it shouldn’t be. I reserve the right to decline someone else’s gift, and if that right is mine, then that right is everyone’s.
This sovereignty, however, is most useful when practiced consciously. Left to the unconscious we can accept a lot of lousy gifts and turn away just as many lovely ones. What do you want to feel? And what is your life, every single moment, but what you are feeling? The only one who can make you feel anything is you. Not the President, not your husband or wife, not your mother or father—no one but no one can make you feel anything. Isn’t that wonderful news? Feel what you want and only what you want. You owe nothing to anyone but that—your own well-being.
And that, my friends, is my last word.
Friday, October 17, 2008
A regular reader of this page will notice that I have spent little, if any, virtual ink on the dry and gritty, nuts and bolts of publishing. I have to admit that if I’m in a room full of writers and the subject turns to editors and agents and contracts and demographics a certain part of me wants to go scurrying for the door.
That is because such talk always carries with it the faint reek of survival. The writer, like every other Joe on the planet, is just trying to get by, albeit in somewhat more rarified air. And so writing is just a job, and the real point of any job, after all, is to put food on the table.
I have nothing against jobs or food on the table, but I was reminded of survival recently when I had the opportunity to interview Somaly Mam. Ms. Mam was born in a remote village in the forests of Cambodia and sold into a brothel when she was twelve. Over the next decade she would be raped repeatedly, tortured, starved, and beaten. That she is still alive today is nothing short of miraculous. And yet alive she is, and since escaping the brothels her humanitarian organization AFESIP has rescued over 4,000 girls from sexual slavery. Her book, The Road of Lost Innocence chronicles this journey.
It is easy when hearing a story like Ms. Mam’s to focus on the suffering and loss, to stare at all that resulting pain as if it were a fresh wreck on the highway. And yet if Ms. Mam herself had done so, I do not believe she would be alive today to tell this story or help thousands of girls. But the point, as Ms. Mam herself was at pains to relate, was not the suffering, or the story, or even the girls being saved—the point was love.
Whether through good intentions or sheer shock, if we focus on the suffering of the moment, on the sudden or violent or depressing impediments to survival, we come to view life as merely that: something that must be survived. Yet ironically it is this very belief—the clenched-jaw, last-one-standing view of life—that leads us quickly into the darkest holes where survival is our least appealing option.
What the girls Somaly rescued need most, she told me, is love. What her always-struggling organization needs most is love. Yes, money and medicine and helping hands are good and always appreciated, but love above all is what sustains AFESIP. She does not want money given out of guilt, she said; she only wants money given out of love. Love is the fuel that turns the engine. It has to be. Love is life itself, not blood or breath—those are just the byproducts of love.
Whether you are rescuing girls from brothels or writing your first mystery, the point is always love. The publishing and the agents and the food on the table will all come as a result of love. Somaly did not begin rescuing girls out of pity or hatred, she rescued them out of love. Love is what moved her, and what moves you, and what moves everyone else, and always to the degree that anyone will let it.
The cover of The Road of Lost Innocence shows a photo of Somaly being mobbed by a cluster of laughing children. The picture is pure joy. It is hard to believe looking at their faces, Somaly’s included, that each was at one time so alone and so close to death. Yet it is the perfect cover for this book. What you choose to focus on is what you get. Somaly Mam, despite everything she has seen and been through, told me she is focused every day on love. On what else should she be?
If you would like to donate to the Somaly Mam Foundation you may do so online at: www.somaly.org. A portion of proceeds from The Road of Lost Innocence go to the Somaly Mam Foudantion.
Saturday, September 13, 2008
Whenever I find myself stuck with some sticky plot problem, I always think of The Fool. As it was taught to me, The Fool is the character that sets off on his journey with a sack slung over his shoulder that, unbeknownst to him, contains everything he will ever need on his long trek.
Plot problems are not unlike little journeys themselves. My character is standing at A. I know I want my character at A. I also know he will soon be at C. There is no doubt about A or C. The problem is that A and C do not meet and I do not know how or where or why B can be found. This is when it’s important for me to remember that I am The Fool.
Once upon a time, when I came upon this sort of plot gap, I could be known to panic. What if I can’t fill it? What if the river is too wide to build a bridge from A to C? Then I would start pulling ideas out of the air and throwing them between A and C. I’d invent new characters, I’d write subplots, I’d kill someone, I’d bring someone back to life. Inevitably, this sort of intervention turned a simple B into B, C, D, and E, sent my first C all the way to F, and left the whole business muddied and less clear than before.
I had forgotten that I was The Fool. I had forgotten that I already had everything I needed. If my character must start at A and then must end up at C, then B is surely to be found somewhere within those two known plot points. And what is most remarkable is that this turned out to be true exactly as soon as I decided that it was.
Now, when I come to a plot hole, I take a deep breath, I clear away all the silly subplots and new characters, and I think, “There is a simple and elegant solution.” And soon enough there is, and that solution is always contained within what I had already written. Always. Everything I need is always there before me.
It is easy to believe, when uncertainty comes rolling around, when characters won’t talk, when endings won’t end—or, for that matter, when bills can’t seem to be paid or leaks can’t seem to be fixed—that we must work harder. It can seem that these problems have arrived in our life because of something we lacked, because we weren’t quick enough, or smart enough, or prepared enough.
But just the opposite is true. When a problem arrives, when there’s something I need—from money to a murder weapon—I stop. Then, I do nothing but wait. Wait, and remind myself that I am The Fool, and that my sack is full. And then, after a time, I see it. It is always there and I always had it.
It’s a strange kind of triumph that you can’t really share with anyone: “I didn’t know what to do, but then I waited, and it came.” I’ve had the good fortune to win races and catch touchdowns in my life, but this quiet victory beats those others every time. Because touchdowns and first kisses and awards and advances are over as soon as they arrive, but the journey goes on and on,. There’s always another bridge to be built, and all that will ever carry you across rivers and highways is what you’ve got in the sack that you’re carrying over your shoulder at this very moment.
Saturday, August 16, 2008
My wife’s favorite art teacher once gave this advice to her students when they were about to show their work for critique: “Remember—it’s not you hanging up there on the wall.”
At the time I heard this advice as the protection that it was: if an audience doesn’t like the work, it doesn’t mean they don’t like you. But the flip side of this, of course, is that if the audience does like the work, it doesn’t mean that they like you either. Many an artist, I think—whether writer, or painter, or chef—has decided quietly in his or her heart to go ahead and hang themselves on the wall anyway and risk the arrows of criticism if they can reap the flowers of praise. This is a mistake. It is a mistake because an artist that makes this choice subjects himself to constant and unnecessary punishment (because there is never a shortage of criticism) for a reward that will ultimately never arrive: You are always the same thing you were before the praise as after.
You are not your work. You cannot be. Though it is romantic to imagine your soul being poured into the cup of your novel and served to the world, this notion supposes your soul could ever be anywhere but one place. All your work, no matter how dear to you, is just an idea. It is not you. You are you.
If you need any convincing, merely consult whatever you have written recently. How many words did you change? How many sentences did you remove? How many characters did you silence? Each of these changes were thoughts you committed to page. Did you survive the changes unscathed? Why, yes you did. Yet every word or sentence you removed or rewrote was no more or less you than what you finally hand to a writing partner or an agent. Those “finished” pieces were just ideas you wished to share.
I grant you, certain ideas are particularly important to each of us—and as well they should be. Ideally, we are driven to write what we write. Ideally, we edit and re-edit what he have written precisely because what we have to say means so much to us. Yet even these great idea gifts, the ones that keep us up at night or locked at our desk for hours, are still only that—ideas. And tomorrow, when you have finished the idea, when you have it just as you like it, the idea will be completed, and you will have moved on, already in search of that next burning thought.
And if you think putting this distance between you—the You of you, that is, the You who thinks the thoughts—if you think allowing this distance between you and your work will somehow strip the work of its intensity, I say, think again. It is too much to ask of a work of art to carry the burden of anyone’s soul. Instead, this distance will set it free.
Because every idea is and deserves to be subject to debate or correction. Beethoven’s 9th is too long; sometimes Shakespeare is too hard to understand; Good Fellas can be too violent. On it will go. That is the nature of all ideas. They are like some of the things ideas become. The record player gives way to the CD, the letter to the email. On it will go. But don’t worry about it. Don’t worry that every idea will be debated and corrected. Don’t worry that even Beethoven’s symphonies might be too long and Scorcese’s movies too violent. The ninth symphony and Hamlet were just ideas in the end—just like your ideas—and in the end no mere idea, no book, no poem, no recipe, no invention, no movie, no kiss will ever be what you have been since the day you were born and will be until the day you will die—perfect