Choosing projects, or The heart knows

Writers wishing to be read have never had such choice. Writers wishing to be read have never had it so good. We are spoiled for chances, awash in potential, the globe at our fingertips and hundreds of thousands – millions, billions – of readers only a click away. Such times would be unimaginable if they were not a part of daily life. Never before has human society been positioned with both an accessible lingua franca and the means for worldwide, instant distribution in that lingua franca. What’s more, a good deal of you reading this probably speak and write that lingua franca as your native language, and those of you who don’t are no doubt so skilled in it that it may as well be your native language. The creative communicative forces waiting to be unleashed by such circumstances are hard to even begin to fathom.

The down side to all this is of course the deafening din – the drowning roar – that it tosses up. We not only stand in and with the whole Earth, singing in a single voice, we also stand in the eye of a hurricane, a storm of our own generating, and are attempting to yell through its swirling chaos at our readers on the other side. If writers are now spoiled for choice then readers are doubly, triply so. How to make oneself heard? How to even start to get noticed, attract some attention, let others know that you are here, amongst them, amongst us, writing with your own clear and unique voice that has been honed over tens of thousands of hours and is ready and waiting to be read, heard, regarded, remarked on, considered. What do you offer today’s reader? What are you holding out that cannot be gotten elsewhere? And if it can be gotten elsewhere then why get it from you and not someone – something – else?

These, I think, are the wrong questions to be asking. We write and so we want to be read, nothing could be more natural. Chefs do not of course throw away their own cooking, even if they never eat it themselves. Painters do not cover their completed canvases with sheets or hide them in trunks (usually anyway, they can be a strange lot). Musicians do not cut a track only to erase the recording. But all this is secondary, really, because as wonderful as our interconnected and interwoven world is it is filled to bursting with the cacophony of us, all of us bleary-eyed hacks hunched over our keyboards with our sallow skin sagging and craned heads filled with the dreams of our characters, arguments, points, plots, stories, critiques, commentaries. We can hope to be read, and we can make efforts to be read, but we can hardly set out to write thinking that we will be read. At least, we can hardly realistically set out to write thinking that we will be read by a great many. Some, no doubt, but hundreds of thousands? Millions? Billions? Come on!

And so we write for other reasons, we write for our own reasons. What are they? Well, ask yourself, you must know. Then – and this I think is the right question to be asking – figure out what. Not why, because we already know why, but what. What am I, in the midst of all this wondrous potential and endless choice, going to put into the world? What am I going to pursue? Chasing after readers or (goodness no) money are reasons to write, and they are bad reasons at that. We do not seek and do not need any reasons to write. We are writers, it comes to us like breathing. Rather we do – or should – seek and need projects, outlets for our energies, yet there too the possibilities are without limit and ideas tumble down one after another like drops from a waterfall. How to find one worth grabbing onto, and then how to commit to that?

I would like to suggest an annoyingly simple answer: Intuition. If we are not seeking some kind of external compensation through our writing then the task becomes valuable in and of itself. And only in and of itself. It becomes worth doing and worth sticking with, worth the inevitable – and inevitably grueling – struggle not because of what it wins from others but because of what it garners for us from us. To write is to go within, often quite deeply within regardless of what is being written, for the very act of writing is to heave a new creation out of nothing but one’s own depths. We listen to those depths, trusting them, trusting us, to tell us what it is that we seek. The subconscious mind communicating to the conscious mind. The automatic brain humming along beneath the surface to the rattling and sloppy brain incessantly chattering away in our internal monologues. We might need some practice at this listening, and we might find ourselves starting and abandoning any number of projects that at first seemed so promising, but over time and with age and experience we will learn. And then, having learned, we will carry out our projects with all the blessings and benefits that we are capable of giving ourselves. That will have been worth it, that will be its own sweet reward.

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Darkness, and the delete button

You thought it was a great idea. Everything seemed to flow so well and make so much sense when you wrote it. But then you finished writing and re-read it. What happened in the meantime? How did those beautiful words become this? Where did all the warts and blemishes come from? Flaws, mistakes, holes, detritus, flotsam, waste. This is not an aesthetic wabisabi, there is no grace in imperfection here – it’s just plain ugly. Disgust sets in and a certain button glistening there on the top right of your keyboard calls. But then you wonder: Is the text actually fixable? Is the core idea salvageable? Are the characters still with us or have they been put on life support, the pinging of their breathing apparatuses growing ever more faint and far between? Your index finger moves, then pauses, you take a breath, you close the file, and you walk away. To be continued.

Storm clouds. They strike all of us. In last week’s post we considered writing’s seasons and there is no doubt that winter is a long and bleak one. The bigger the project they harder it falls, as Jimmy Cliff might have sung had he been slightly differently artistically inclined. This seems especially true when we are nearing the end of yet another round of editing and can no longer even see straight, let alone think straight. Is there anything of real quality there? Perfection is what we desire yet perfection can never be had. Never. Nor will our shining diamond ever appear as much more than a lump of carbon to us. Inadequacy itself. But to the reader? That, there, is the rub.

When depression has really set in and the twelve bottles of wine that were meant to shine a spotlight on the hidden brilliance of the project have instead made us want to retch all over it, the time has come to show the work in progress to someone else. Preferably someone trustworthy but not kind enough to just tell us what we want to hear. Such people can be very hard to find, but often the mere act of thinking along those lines will somehow conjure up a name. How much to share with them? Just the structure? Only the overall plot idea? Sections that we’ve found particularly troublesome? A whole chapter? Whole book? There can be no guidelines here other than intuition and situational considerations. The feedback we receive might kill our project, or it might give it a new life. It might even demonstrate how there had been life there all along, but we were simply in too deep to see it.

And that, really, is after all where we live: in too deep. Our works consume us to the point that nothing else makes sense, or seems even worth thinking about. We are creators and so we are obsessed by our creations, and cutting a line between time on and time off hardly seems possible. How will it feel to actually be done with a project? To be satisfied with it? Can a writer ever really be satisfied? The history of our field seems to suggest not; yet here we are, trudging on with our glum faces to the wind and tired eyes squinting at the horizon. Dawn will come, they tell us, a new day will arrive and with it a fresh perspective, an illuminating glow. Let’s hope so. In the meantime, when the muses have gone silent and the words that have been piled up so high appear more like the city dump than anything else, all we can do is stop and wait. The work might indeed be destined for the trash, but not yet, not yet. Give it a chance, give it another set of eyes willing to scan it over, consider it, weigh it. That tiny button on the top right of your keyboard will still be there later if you do actually need it. Let’s pray not though. The writing life is a life only half-lived as it is, at least let’s leave something to show for it – no matter who is looking.

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Writing’s seasons

The rains come in spring (and summer and fall if you live in East Asia), the wheat, corn, rice, grows tall and proud, ripens, and is harvested. The soil rests, recovers, and the late winter or early spring sees another round of preparing, planting, tending, waiting. The moon waxes and wanes, the temperatures rise and fall, the world turns and the cycles with it.

A project is conceived, ideas sketched, outlines given shape, structures given form, plots planned and characters given lives, interactions conceived, events unfolded. Writing commences, continues, flows, stops, pauses and unpauses, re-starts, re-forms. The clock swings round and the process begins anew. A flourish, a finish, a sigh of relief. No gratification. The next stage begins in earnest, the pain redoubles, trebles, the edits, the edits, the edits. The end no longer in sight, bogged down, stuck, interest wanes. Isn’t this good enough? No, it is not. If it’s worth doing then it’s worth doing. Really doing. Fully. Painfully. Heart rendingly so. You start again, and again, and again. The Winter of our Discontent. The long slog, the realization that this is not what we signed up for – but also that this is the most crucial part of any season. The harvest.

We yearn to create yet here we are, stuck in seemingly endless months of rewrites. What once seemed fine – good even – turns out to be crap on a second reading, a third. Nuances tweaked, scenes rewritten, character traits extenuated, minimized, maximized, expanded, interactions cut and added, events tossed out and others introduced. Such is the stuff of our lives, and what tedium it can seem.

Gumption is what is called for, and an alternation of expectations. The snows will melt, the ice will break, and sooner or later we will achieve the point at which we – finally – know that enough is enough, that we have reached our limits, that the book is now ours and is, at least marginally and with the humility that comes from baring one’s soul, completed.

How long does all this take? I have no idea. I’ve been working on my latest for two years now and hands down the edit has been the hardest part. The worthiest, no doubt, but also the hardest. Editing is what makes or breaks a project – or makes or breaks its writer. Is there a way to get better at it? Surely going through the cycle multiple times will help. Lessons can be learned and techniques grasped and applied. The danger? Re-working your style from book to book. I think that I’ve finally learned that first person is what works best for me and there is no way at this point that I want to mess with that. The task is hard enough as it is! Any kind of genre-hopping on top of that just strikes me as beyond the pale, at least for now.

Writing is an unforgiving lover, one that demands constant attention and is confident enough in itself and in its entrapment of you that it feels no need to give anything back. Slaving away we go through the cycles, but there, at the end of the rainbow, the carrot on the stick, lies the next bright idea. Hope tries to fly out of Pandora’s box but she closes the lid just in time, though not fast enough to rob us of a glimpse of it. Is hope a blessing or a curse? Either way, if you’re a writer then you write. You write until it finally and fully defeats you. You write because it is not only in your soul, it is your soul. So salud to you, salud to us, basket cases that we are, carrying the world on our shoulders, standing outside it that we might observe and comment on it. An idea strikes, another season of planting, the world turns again. Where will it take us this time? The journey is the answer, the path the only destination. Alive in our heads and dead to all else, we cast our lots and pray for a good harvest. All the while life moves outside our windows. Yet somehow, despite it all, contentment sinks in. Our fates seem fulfilling and not cruel, our identities satisfying, our heads held high. We write, we watch, we guard and record the human condition. We keep the gates: may they open for us.

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Using symbolism

A snake, a crow.

Let me set the scene: I was walking to work on a gushingly rainy day and noticed a piece of litter under some bushes running along the sidewalk. I crossed the sidewalk to pick it up for a more proper disposal and heard a loud thud behind me. Turning I saw a very large snake right in the middle of the section I had just passed. I am no expert in snakes and have no idea what kind it was but the effect was of course startling; there, suddenly, was a good over one-meter long and possibly venomous slitherer with its tongue out and one beady eye set on me. Where had it come from? I glanced up into the branches of a moss-covered tree on the opposite side of the sidewalk and saw a large black crow sitting there majestically, calm and in perfect control of his world. Had the crow evicted the snake from an upper branch? Had there been an altercation? I paused, fascinated. I watched the snake as she moved towards the bushes, then seemed to change her mind and head back towards the tree, then the bushes again, then the tree. I looked up and the crow had silently disappeared. The snake made her way to the bare earth beneath the tree. I carried on to work.

There are many ways such an event could be interpreted. It might be nothing at all, a chance encounter with the natural world we often ignore (to our detriment, I’d say). It might be something though, perhaps even something very significant. It might be a sign of spiritual or psychological import, a gift from the unseen, a message from the only-felt the way that dreams sometimes strike us as being. On that note, it might be an inner voice manifesting itself externally. Me getting my attention. If you are still with me on this then I applaud you for your patience, for surely those last few sentences will ring the warning bells of dirty hippiedom quite loudly.

Yet why should that be? Here is the point, and the reason I wanted to bring such up. Whatever the snake and the crow meant or might mean (and I wish to make no hermeneutic claims here, whether of an augury sort or otherwise), the occurrence presented me with a rich experience rife with possible responses. What I make of it or don’t make of it will depend entirely on me, on my perceptual and conceptual approach, on the underlying framework through which I mentally engage the world. In other words, it is far less a matter of an empirically measurable event and far more a matter of my personal character.

There are richly powerful symbols in our cultural heritages, and while some vary greatly depending on place and time, some appear to be almost universal in the human consideration of them. Chords struck in psyches, leftovers of our common evolutionary legacy and the ingrained reactions and judgments (which have become automatic and intuitive) that our ancestors made to them. A direct connection between our environments and our preconsciousnesses (or subconsciousnesses, if you prefer, though to me the nuance between “pre” and “sub” is important). Whenever we encounter the symbolic or the potentially symbolic an emotion is stirred in us which we do not often notice rationally, consciously, and if we do take stock of it such will not happen until after the emotion’s expression. Here the reasoning mind may step in and offer an explanation (“The front door’s midnight banging scared me so badly that I wet the bed”), but the simple cause and effect relations that we draw are at best mere sketches of more deeply complex biological and psychological processes. This is an important hint to the fundamental way in which we are far more than the goings-on of our thinking brains, and it is that “far more” that symbols have direct access to and hence what makes them the promising storytelling tools that they are. Although care, I think, is called for, as our above thoughts on interpretation indicate. In our use of symbolism, or in the symbolic use or meaning that we impart to the events we depict, we need to recall both the cultural backgrounds of our likely readers and the mental baggage that our characters carry from their own pasts and inheritances. Every reader will have many filters through which they process our words, and every character will have similar ones that they apply to the worlds we set them in. All this creates a somewhat heavy burden on the writer, but just an awareness of the issues involved itself is a large step-up on the way to better planning and execution. Fiction writing has never been simple, but then neither has the world outside our doorsteps. Best to keep one’s eyes – and mind – open.

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Turning points

You have your main character and she is busy at work in your book, battling evil robotic androids in chapters one and two that evidently plan on enslaving humanity to work in their giant banana plantations. Then in chapter three she discovers that the androids are not robotic at all, nor are they even androids – they’re aliens! Aliens that thrive on potassium; suddenly the banana plantations make much more sense. In chapter four she falls in love but the beloved turns out in chapter five to actually be an alien in clever disguise. Torn between her love and her desire not to see her species reduced to a mute and enfeebled breed of the sort wonderfully depicted in the classic Planet of the Apes movie (Heston, not Wahlberg (although Wahlberg did a fine job too, really)), she… What? What does she do at this crucial juncture?

These are the points at which a plot is made or broken, a story arc enlivened, energized, or run off a cliff. These are the clearings in the philosophical sense, where what had been the character’s entire world flips itself inside out and in a sparkling moment of realization the character is transported not from here to there but from Planet Heretofore to Planet Unforeseen. These are the moments of rebirth, and each of our lives is filled (one hopes) with countless examples of them – and so too, naturally, for our characters.

Character development does not just entail acquiring knowledge and skill. Even a largely one-dimensional character such as the type used in action/thriller stories grows psychologically through the effects and nuances of the experiences they undergo. It would after all be impossible for them not to, for each of us moves through life in this way as we partake in what our fates dish out and how we respond to what we are served. This is most evident in the evolution of a character’s perspective; and as writers it is in the description and explication of character viewpoint where we are most able to bring this out. We have access to all of the inner workings of at least our main character’s mind (for first person works), and quite possibly for every character’s mind (third person, deep third, head-jumping, etc.). Through this privilege of place we can bring the reader in to observe – or even to be involved with, to participate in – the unfolding of this new world for the character in question. Think back to a time when your own mind clicked over and your eyes blinked once, twice, and the cosmos was transformed: nothing was for you the way it had been only a moment before. Call it an enlightenment, call it a moment of grace, call it a bolt of intuition, a touch of the unexpected, or even a simple transformative random encounter; whatever label you attach the profundity of such is unquestionable. Far more than any external occurrence it is times like these that define the course of our characters and our books.

Momentous events like these are by their nature rare, but they are no less important for that. They can be overused, and there is most definitely a sense in which we are all the products of our early formative years and try as we might – or the universe trying as it might – there are aspects of every person that simply cannot or do not change. For a character to go from a thoughtful and kind person to a malicious and cruel villain in the space of a few sentences would obviously be an outrage (well, short of a botched lobotomy or the like); but for a character to go from operating under one point of view to a freshly shifted one is entirely within the realm of possibility. Whether that is, or becomes, a welcome or unwelcome possibility is for the rest of the narrative to decide – and the potentials there are endless.

The judicious use of psychological turning points in our plots and subplots can add depth and beauty to our works. In my own reading of others it is these moments that really stand out for me in my memory of the stories, it is these moments that really separate out the good from the bad, quality from mediocrity, the heartfelt and lasting from the bland and forgettable. The effective employment of this technique is something that I think every writer needs to have in their toolkit, and it all starts from a consideration of just how very much is involved. In realizing that we can then start to consider, from our own pasts and from what we’ve read or seen, how such can be expressed. And then we plan. We experiment and we fail. We get it right; and the world (and our book) turns over a new page.

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Dylan’s speech, or Black and white lovers

Bob Dylan has once again been accused of plagiarism. This time though it’s not about his lyrics but rather about the acceptance speech he recently delivered to the Nobel Prize Committee just before the deadline that, if he had missed it, would have disqualified him from receiving the prize money. The manner in which it was done – procrastinated and procrastinated, content possibly copied from the summary/study website SparkNotes – “rais[es] the delicious prospect that, like any teenager in a band, he cribbed his homework off the internet in a last-minute panic.” (That lovely quote from Mark Savage’s BBC article linked to above – no plagiarizing here!)

Dylan, as we all know, has been accused of plagiarism before (see Nick’s posts here and here for some interesting takes), and he has defended himself (of sorts) by pointing to the fact that he has simply been working within the confines of folk music; and this is very true. I’m a longtime fan of the genre and my collection speaks to how artists, often in personal contact with one another, flowed and moved in and out of each others’ work, blurring lines and behaving now generously, now underhandedly, but always there in the heart of the music, the ethos, the movement or cause. Folk reached its peak in another time and generation and the thinking and the approaches taken were quite different then.

My own feel on all this is to question how much it really matters. I’m not sure if Dylan’s work actually deserves any literary prizes (let alone the Nobel), but he is a musician, and what is most important there is surely delivery, rhythm, melody. I saw Dylan in concert once a few years back and his delivery was terrible. It was automatic, emotionless, an exercise in paint by the numbers with Dylan behaving like a wind-up monkey toy mindlessly banging his cymbals together. The back-up band was fantastic but we were all there to see Dylan and he did disappoint. Yet in looking at the big picture that was just one concert in Osaka; what he has left on record have been and will remain treasures in my life, and for that I am extremely grateful to him.

And what has remained in Dylan’s own life? Evidently foremost amongst his individual treasures are Moby Dick, All Quiet on the Western Front, and The Odyssey. Why those three books? Well, why not? For whatever reason or reasons they spoke to him in a manner that goes beyond however they are or are not later described, leaving indelible marks on the spirit that he has carried through life. Surely that is what is of consequence, what carries significance for him as a reader, and indeed, for you and I too as readers in our own ways and on our own journeys.

Plagiarism is of course a very serious offense and I don’t mean to downplay that. But in his Nobel acceptance speech Dylan paid honor to three great books that acted as both catalysts for his development and as shapers of that development. In this case, at least, that is what strikes me as being most pertinent. His lyrics are another matter, and if it is or could be definitively found that he directly took them, or parts of them, from other uncredited sources then perhaps a more damning judgment could be made (ought to be made?). But even there again there are other considerations involved, and a part of those is the necessity of rolling one’s perspective back to an earlier era and different way of doing things. That does not mean that we justify all that happened in the past just by saying “that’s how it was then”, but it does mean that we admit that the situation is more complicated than a (purer) modern take might allow. Dylan loved and loves those three books – as writers we can only hope to leave a tiny portion of such marks on those who pay us heed by reading our works. Will anyone love the black and white we’ve put on paper and/or screen? Will anyone talk about it later in life? And if they do how will we react to what is said? For my part I hope it’s with grace and pleasure.

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Narrative direction

I have somehow become increasingly interested in time. It could just be that I never seem to have enough of it, or that the demands that pile up one after another force me to recognize and carefully distribute it, but more and more I’m noticing how the manner in which I choose to spend the limited time that I do have directly affects the type of person I am and am becoming. Surely that goes for all of us. The things we undertake, and the methods and means by which we go about them, speak to what we value, honor, desire, dream. We really are our time, even when just farting around.

In connection with the post linked to above then, I want to take another look at time but from a completely different angle. There I considered time from a character’s point of view and how much we stand to learn about a character given what the author tells us regarding how they go about using their own time. I suggested that in our fiction we include details that might not be related to the overall plot, subplot, or even current trajectory – just flavor that informs and enriches the environments of the text and those who inhabit them. In other words, we drop in all that boring crap about nothing that makes the world go round. Here I want instead to think about the big picture, about those plots, subplots, and trajectories. This is time writ large, time as a fundamental force of the cosmos (if such it be), time as that sweet swinging scythe.

The universe is a big place and I cannot begin to imagine all that it holds, all the life that is infused in it and all the ways and means by which each life might possibly unfold. But here on Earth, for us tiny humans, we have no choice but to experience our time in one direction. It flows in an ever-now abutted by a hazy past and an obsessed-over future. Although our minds are often (or always) on the next, next, next, we experience only the present and can go neither back nor forwards except in the fantasies of our heads. We are forced into a single-seat car on a one-way track going thatta way. Accordingly I suggest that we trust to convention and craft our stories with the same narrative process in mind.

This does not mean, of course, that we jettison any other time-related techniques, just that we be judicious and cautious in our use or experimentation with them. Flashbacks can be terribly confusing for the reader if not done well, and if we add to them flashforwards then we have a real formula for potential headaches on our hands. A good way to stave off any negative possibilities is simply to delineate the section within the text itself via an obvious visual cue such as carriage returns and/or inserted asterisks. More subtle signs can also be given by, for example, having a character refer to a famous event that the reader will know occurred around year X, or perhaps an earlier event from within the story itself. Subtler still would be to slip in a character’s age which the reader will know to be false, at least from the perspective of the narration told so far, and will therefore work out that the scene must be taking place in the past (or future). Getting too subtle, though, is where caution is called for. If your writing requires the reader to drop everything and start scouring the internet for information then your book that was dropped is unlikely to get picked back up. My own personal feeling though is that unless such are really called for there seems little reason to include flashbacks, loops, jumps, breaks, what have you. Beyond occasionally entertaining our own memories we don’t live that way and neither would our characters. That is not to say that there aren’t very good reasons for including such – giving the reader important backstory to fill out a character being an excellent example of one – just to stress again that for most stories less can be more in this regard. A book does take us through time in our own world as we start at its beginning and page by page finish at its end; all nice and clean and linear, just like our lives. Why not have our works reflect that, even if it is tried and true? True is, after all, how time’s arrow flies.

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Rewriting humanity

What is a book supposed to do in the world? What is your book supposed to do in the world? I know, I know, writers have enough to think about, and more than enough to juggle, as it is without raising such bothersome questions. And after all, isn’t a well told story justifiable by itself? By its mere existence? Does it have to do anything? And if so, what? Who says anyway? Ahh, leave me alone, I’ve got comma splices to fix.

We’ve all been there. The harrowing doubts that our story doesn’t work, that the characters don’t make sense, that they aren’t sufficiently motivated, that they aren’t sufficiently expressed. The writing is off, it doesn’t flow well, it lacks heart, it lacks beauty, it lacks depth. These are the issues we fret over; and rightly so, they are important and very worth every second we put into them. But still that first question this post raised lies there like a predator in the tall grass, eyeing us, ready to pounce. Few can look themselves in the mirror and say with a (non-ironic) grin that they are proud writers of pulp. Fewer still actually set out to write pulp in the first place. Yet what have I created? What does it do? That too is worth every second we put into answering it.

A book, I think – and most particularly a book like a novel – ought to challenge. It must. It is a creation, a product, of a living, breathing, growing, grasping, getting, striving, feeling, failing, singularly present being. It is an object that could never exist in the whole vast cosmos were it not for its author, for the unique and altogether transient voice of the one who gave it shape and form. To reduce the miracle of existing as a human being on planet Earth down to the piddling triviality of a purveyor of masturbatory letters is such a waste that it ought to be considered a sin. It might even be a sin in some corners; and good for those corners. What a book offers the world, what a book can offer the world, is another world.

A book is an extraordinarily well-equipped vehicle for ideas, and it is ideas that we need most in these empty and soulless times of ours. We have become trapped in the empirical, unable or unwilling to see beyond the measurable and the “objective”, incapable of finding or investing value in anything that is not dollars and cents. Even the very word investing has taken on so many stock market overtones that it threatens to strike the wrong intuitive chord every time it’s used. A book, and again especially a novel, is the antidote to all this, it is the antithesis of the conceptual cage we find ourselves in where truth is diminished to observable streams of lifeless data now marked out by the micron. (And I’m guilty of this too, see Chapter 5: “On the nature of truth” in my Tomorrow, as the Crow Flies. I would write that chapter very differently today if I were to do it over again.) A book can open a mind to what is only imagined, and what is only imagined is not a never-was but rather a not-yet. A book has the power to dance with ideas that are entirely unconnected with reality as we see it – a book deals with reality as we claim it. A book rips open the human soul and points now to this, now that, and then leaves tectonic shifts in its wake. A book has the power to reveal the possible, and absolutely anything is possible for we – the builders, conjurers, playful tinkerers that we are – are limited only to the extent that we limit our dreaming. And so why not dream more? Dream greater? Dream wider? What is your book supposed to do in the world?

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A Project’s voice

“Find your voice.” A writer is always being told by other writers to find their own voice, their unique style, them in words, them in syntax, self in twenty-six letters or less. It can seem like a daunting task, an effortful and painful task, and when we think about those we read it can even seem like an impossible task. Well, keep at it, they say, sooner or later you’ll get there. The important thing is to keep writing.

Indeed. The important thing is to keep writing, and if you remain chained to the keyboard and sweat and bleed enough you will probably get there – or be crushed by the sheer cruelty of the practice. Once you’ve found your voice though, assuming that your endurance suffices, what then? Do you churn out work after work that in the end might appear quite similar? (I love Vonnegut but I’d say this about him.) Or do you begin to experiment and try to forge a new voice for yourself after you’ve determined that you have enough finished products under your belt? (I’ve read that Murakami has been in this stage for his last few books and that it hasn’t been working, that he’s lost his touch. I couldn’t comment on that as I’ve never been inclined to read him, but if the accusation has been put forward in print there might be something to it.) Although it’s possible that we’re getting ahead of ourselves and that the mere (mere!) attaining of an independent voice is more than enough to worry about, I would like to suggest that there might be an alternative path lurking here in the shadows. That path is, of course, the current writing project itself.

You have determined that your story must be told, that this, this, is worth the easily thousands of hours of labor that you will put into it, the years of your life that will be devoted to its creation and the years of your life that the creation of it will take away from you – each book surely knocking at least one annum off the end of your span as the process takes its inevitable toll. You plan, you structure, you organize, you plot, and then one fine day you find yourself at it: actually writing, finally. The breath of life enters your characters or your thesis, the words pile up, the sections and chapters take form, and along the way the unexpected becomes something of a familiar friend. We all know the twists and turns that our projects end up taking as what was planted spreads root and sprouts, blossoms, grows. “Who knew that was in there?” The characters did; one could say they had it in them, whether their author/creator recognized it or not. And if we are wise we allow them (or again, our theses) to speak for themselves and to tell us just what it is that they would actually get up to in this situation, just how they might relate or respond or react or interact. In this way we soon discover that not only has our hard-won writing voice been carrying the day but that our project’s peculiar voice has begun to make itself heard. How can we then stifle that?

If there is anything truly and completely pleasant in writing surely it is in such little wonders. When re-reading, or endeavoring on round twenty of our editing, we might be taken aback at how unlike “me” this has started to sound. That is because it has developed to the point of now sounding like itself. Well done! To take a project to that depth, to that level of sophistication and intricacy, where it begins to sound like nothing else but itself is to have achieved a rare hallmark in the annals of our craft. You have not just excreted another middling “bestseller” bit of pulp, you have given the world a new form of life, a progenitor, an Eve. And you did it by not letting yourself interfere too much with yourself, by allowing your project to first find and then continue on with its voice. Your voice – your writing voice, your style, your special touch – will naturally still be there, but layered within and above it there will now be this something extra, this something emergent that takes writer and reader alike by surprise. The project’s voice. You plus it equals much more than you-it. You plus it equals this.

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The truth in fiction

I can’t recall exactly where I read this but I think it might have been a book by Karen Armstrong; certainly it was a book on mythology. To paraphrase: the truth in a myth is not in the events it relates but in its reflection on ourselves. A myth is “true” in the sense in which it describes a psychology or worldview or peculiar mode of thought. By form this is usually culturally applicable, and that is what gives myths their widespread power. Heidegger made a similar point about art generally and its relation to a specific culture, giving the example of a Greek temple as that which built the world of the Greeks, the world for the Greeks, defining their entire as-Greek lives in its structure, symbolism, messages, relations, associations. A myth, naturally, is one element of this, but what an element it is.

Our myths are rather less exciting than those of the Ancient Greeks, but they are no less reflective of our inner lives, and in so being they also teach us a great deal about our societies. We writers, you and I, are contributing to this with each fictitious word we pen. What is this “fiction” then? Is it really “untrue” or “made up”? We are now of course a tiny step from the all-important question of: What is reality anyway?

Two years ago, and I can hardly believe that I remembered this, I posted on perspectively-bound writing. That is a related topic but it is not what I’m trying to get at today. Nor is my concern here with any kind of empirical accuracy, any kind of direct relation between A and B that demonstrates consistency or measurability. Instead the issue at hand is closer to introspection, to what fiction reveals not of our externals but of our internals, what fiction tells us about how we feel our way through our worlds and our little lives. Epic battles have been replaced with the committing and the hiding, or the solving, of crimes, grand and glorious warriors with damaged and conflicted everypersons, heroes with unheroes. It’s hard not to be depressed by that, isn’t it?

And so we find ourselves, and our psychologies, shrunk down to the “me”; but I do not think that is an altogether bad development. In fact, I think it’s quite healthy, both for you and I and for humanity at large. The truths that we are now telling ourselves through our modern mythologies are only ever “true” (as in accurate) in so far as they teach us about how we are operating in our environments, about how we are moving in the places in which we find ourselves. We did not ask to be born and we had no choice in the where, when, and what of our births. To go back to Heidegger, we find ourselves thrown into our worlds. As writers we perhaps know this better than anyone since we do the very same thing to our characters. The truths that we reveal by our words and our works need have absolutely nothing to do with the events that are happening in our “real lives” nor our “real world”; instead they can, and should, have everything to do with our mental experiences as modern people going through the gauntlets of our modern institutions. There is nothing empirical about this. Nor is this a paen to the genre of magical realism. It is rather a suggestion, a song, to that which grows within in strange and subtle ways, that which takes shape and form not in centimeters and grams but in function and expression. Truth value here is determined by usefulness, by applicability. What does your book teach me about our ways of life? Our societies? Our globalized cultural aspects and our stubbornly localized ones? What truth is there in your fiction that I can find, if I am similarly directed, by casting a hard gaze within? “Reuben, Reuben, tell me truly true/I feel afraid and I don’t know why I do…” That “why” is where the truth in our fiction shows itself, that “why” is our area to explore and to expound, that “why” is where we shine.

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