Why It Doesn’t Matter That All Stories Have Been Told

a windowI used to host a movie group called S.N.I.F.F. Snotty Independent Film Fans. Our once-a-month meetings were for the purpose, among other things, of gathering together to view what my SNIFF friends eventually referred to as a W.A.M – Weird-Ass-Movie. The films I chose were deliberately fringe. I sought story lines that were outside the standard plot, usually featuring unknown or foreign actors, and shot in a way that was fresh and unexpected cinematographically, and/or portrayed the human experience in substantially diverse ways.

Similar to my taste in movies, I also gravitated toward unusual music, particularly singer-songwriters who have a rich talent for lyric writing and an unusual style of singing and composing. I’m thinking of artists like Elliott Smith, Jason Molina, Bill Callahan, Vic Chesnutt and, especially, Will Oldham.

I don’t know exactly where my penchant for fringe came from, though it was enforced in later years by some of my peers. We all knew that person in school who was fashionably different from everyone else. Not only was their style of dress unusual but they had broad knowledge of certain things the rest of us did not. They cited Henry and June and Rumble Fish among their favorite movies. They listened to bands you didn’t hear on the radio and smoked clove cigarettes instead of regular cigarettes, or were vegetarian before the virtues of vegetarianism became widely known.

I won’t deny that some of my initial draw to WAMs (movies as well as music) was influenced by a youthful desire to be fashionable. I liked those odd kids and I wanted to know what they were discovering in their weird-ass pastimes. I didn’t realize that I had always been drawn to this sort of aesthetic. Even as a young child I had somehow crossed paths with movies like The Deer Hunter, Midnight Express, and Taxi Driver – movies that shocked and moved me in ways that standard fare never had. What I learned by delving deeper into the interests of my peers is that the richness I had discovered on my own was a bona fide thing. People actually made art like this all the time.

The other day a fellow writer complained that “it’s too bad all of the stories have been told” but he was going to “write on anyway, whether anyone liked it or not” (I paraphrase). When I heard his lament I knew immediately what he thought he meant. Yes, all stories have been told, this is true. Furthermore each story runs on one of three themes: man vs. man, man vs. nature, man vs. himself. These facts have been true since very early in mankind’s storytelling efforts.

The thing that this writer doesn’t yet see, and that all writers must remember, is that while there are no new stories to tell, there are always new ways of telling old stories. In fact, the axiom that “no story is so good it can’t be ruined in the telling” exemplifies the critical importance in telling. Telling a story is all that matters, and it has to be told well. That is all.

The point of my interest in fringe movies and music, the WAMs of those genres, is that this is where I find the most original forms of storytelling. I am inspired by these ways of telling things that are otherwise familiar. This phenomenon exists in writing, too. Examples in recent stories I’ve read include “The Drowned Life” by Jeffrey Ford and “Proper Library” by Carolyn Ferrell. Stories that are unusual, unsettling, fresh.

When we paint with words there are standard things we have a very hard time moving away from, and the page is among these most substantial, permanent elements whether it’s made of paper or a digital display. Until we can pipe our stories straight into our brains via microchips we will have the page. What we put on the page is by necessity some aspect of the human experience. We are limited creatures in what we can experience, and thus we are limited in topic. But beyond that there are infinite variations to what we tell. So the goal is not to write a story that has never been told, but to write a story that has never been told in quite that way, individually our own, better because it is ours. It is the fresh in our eyes, the original in our minds that allows us to tell stories that are interesting to others. Interesting because they are told in just such a way.

That, you know, weird-ass way.

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Why Writing Banned Books Should Be Our Goal

pic1It is my sincere desire to write a “banned book.”

This isn’t about sex and drugs, violence, and other taboos of our social conscience. I don’t wish to write a book that’s going to be controversial just because it’s stocked with profanity and behavioral license – everyone does that, and frankly it’s cliché. My idea is to tell stories that contain ideas that are shocking, original, unnerving and uncomfortable, regardless of any depictions of sex and violence and the romantic notion that self-destruction is a desirable outcome. We all seek original ideas, but centering our stories on self-abuse and perversion isn’t very original. There’s got to be something more, something that is controversial, maybe inflammatory, but is at the same time uncommon – and maybe just the thing that needs to be said.

Stories are where our species discovers truths that are both individual and universal, and because of story we’re able to identify things about ourselves that raise our self-awareness and help us evolve as a species. Many great scientific and technological discoveries have been made through story, and it is therefore a guarded and oppressive psychology that seeks to ban these discoveries, denying that our minds go to the places they do, ask the questions they ask. We pretend to protect ourselves from ourselves by rejecting controversy and fringe ideas, failing to see that we should only fear the misuse of our ideas, and not the ideas themselves.

A banned book, by my definition, should be a book of fresh ideas, and it would be the great honor of every writer to write at least one work considered too shocking to print, too fringe to expose to the delicate sensibilities of our better nature. There’s no denying some responsibility in creating such a work – the writer is not encouraged to be crass or unsophisticated. A book of dangerous ideas should be created and treated with reverence, the ideas evaluated ultimately for their edifying characteristics and not their diminishing ones. As with great technologies of healing and social welfare, all things can be used for war – but war for the sake of war is a sin against us all.

We should seek to write books worthy of being banned because these are the only books deserving of a place within any literary canon. A book worthy of being banned is one worthy of being immortalized. The taboos we adorn our works with, sexual, violent, blasphemous, and shocking, should be vehicles of greater ideas only, and not the ideas themselves. At the heart of controversy should be the question, “is this where we are headed?” and if so “is it where we want to go?”

And so we must write to find the idea that is beyond the pale of the initial inspiration. From titillation we seek connection; from anger we seek to eliminate pain. Our taboos mask our need for love; they are substitutions for the healthy thing we need most. If by expressing taboo we manage to achieve understanding and meaning and perhaps unveil an insight that is ahead of our current time, then, like it or not, we are advancing as a species. This is so often what great literature strives to do. When the watchdogs of our parental society are rattled we must look to see what has flustered them so, and therein find the fire that continues to yield the greater virtue of our proud and unusual species.


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Afraid to Tell the Truth

There is a concept in writing that ranks for me among the most difficult.  You may not think so in reading my blog – I tend to be “confessional,” as one reader put it, and I’m glad to hear that said about my writing because the truth of the matter, if truth be told, is that Truth is among the most difficult aspects of writing to master.

Most of us have heard somewhere that Art consists, at least  in part, of Truth and Beauty, and that these concepts suggest universal characteristics of the human condition which largely cannot be argued.  In considering the values of these concepts, however, I continue to find myself challenged to achieve an expression of truth which satisfies not only me as the writer, but satisfies more importantly (or at least as importantly) the reader.

So, what is this truth we speak of?

I don’t mean to open the worm-can of relevance, I am not seeking to answer the question of “whose truth?”  I only desire to better understand the goal of truth inasmuch as achieving it leads to better writing – especially in fiction.  There is a reason the concept of truth must be mastered, and that is because in truth is believability, and without believability there is no trust between writer and reader.

Truth in creative writing means getting the details right, portraying the events of the story honestly.  When we infuse our writing with euphemisms and cliches we are avoiding the truth: the truth of detail, the truth of an original experience, and the truth of our unique perspectives.  Why do we avoid capturing the truth of our story if it means so much?  Two reasons: Fear and Laziness.


Perhaps the most insidious of our challenges, fear is the thing that stops us cold from putting down that phrase which will expose us as something other than what our friends and family thought we were.  Fear stops us from facing the things that make us uncomfortable.  Violence, sex, desire, ecstasy, pain, the more fearful we are of controversial things in our personal lives perhaps the more fearful we are in our writing. No one wants to be judged negatively, and artists are especially subject, and sensitive, to judgement.  If fear rules our writing then we automatically fail to reach our potential.  We believe it better to say nice things, avoid the nasty, gritty details, live and let live, etc.

Here’s something to think about, though: nice is boring.

Yes writing the truth is hard, and yes, one must go deep to get at the ore of truth to put it on the page.  Sometimes the experience is upsetting, or arousing, as we get in touch with what is real about being human.  But these emotions are the energy of good writing, and the fact that we feel them means we have found something to say.


One of the best ways to approach first draft writing is head long and mindless.  Get it out there, as fast as you can, and worry about corrections, spelling, maybe even punctuation later (I am not this free-wheeling, but I still write first drafts pretty fast).  At some point, however, if you want your writing to sizzle and pop, you’re going to have to go back and make things better.  When you come to a passage in the revision that reads “she stood by the water and watched the orange sunset as it sank over the horizon” don’t leave it like that!  Make the disc of the sun extinguish in the glittering locks of a black stream or something reasonably original before moving on.  Better yet, dig deeper and find a way to connect the setting sun with something meaningful to the story.  Tie the black stream to the protagonist’s sister’s hair, the setting sun to the end of her life due to illness, murder, suicide, disappearance, or the end of the sibling relationship.  I don’t know, it’s your story, just write it so I can appreciate it.  Whatever you do don’t let the hard work of writing go by the wayside because of laziness.  Find the truth of the moment.  Get the details, the emotion, the sentiments right.

Avoiding the truth happens at the moment of conception.  As soon as the writer begins filling the page there are choices to make: stop before saying something too real, edit it right away, or let all of the scary, ugly stuff out and deal with how you feel about it in revision.

I believe it is far easier to edit down than to edit up.  If I write an overly descriptive scene of a powerful and perhaps disturbing moment in the story, without censoring it, without worrying about it, I am more likely to get the right feel and the right detail to make it work appropriate to the story via later revisions.  This may not be true for you, but I still recommend writing much more than you’ll keep.  You’ll likely end up with plenty of material and room to revise without having to do the extra lifting of adding filler.

Lastly, recognize that your writer persona is at least a little separate from who you are in-person.  A friend of mine mentioned to me this weekend that my writing “doesn’t even sound like you” by which she meant that I don’t exactly talk like I write.  Certainly this is true of most of us.  When we communicate in-person there’s not much editing and revision going on.  Our body language, our tone of voice, the casual way we talk about subjects forgotten ten minutes later all create a dynamic much different from what is on the page.

Writing is where we get a chance to revise our thoughts before we share them with company.  Of course, once we’ve written things down and then released them into the wild we can’t take them back.  But this is not a reason to fear the truth in our writing, it is the precise reason we must write the truth.  Writing has a permanence that speaking does not.  We don’t have much opportunity to make our truth as beautiful when speaking as we do when writing.

So write freely, before anyone else sees it, and don’t fear what you have to say.  The truth, after all, is ours, and we have a right – as writers perhaps an obligation – to speak it.

We can always change the names later to protect the guilty.

What a Million Words Will Get You

I have heard it said, or more likely I have read, that we writers don’t find our voice until we’ve written one million words.

The first five times I read this it didn’t sink in.  I read “million words” and thought ‘it will take me forever to write a million words – I’m just not going to worry about it.’  But you know what I did worry about?  For the last twenty years I have lamented the fact that I did not have a real, independent and bona fide style.  I had no idea where this ‘style’ thing came from, how my favorite writers got it, why I couldn’t find it.  I was like David Banner trying to discover the answer to the tragedy of why I couldn’t make an important difference when things depended on it.  But even then I was no closer to becoming the Hulk.

For writers style is everything.  Style determines our use of language, the originality of our expression, the nature of our themes.  Style is about the choices we make and how we tell our own individual truth.  Without style we are still amateurs at best, and perhaps we are still imitating other writers.  Imitation is fine.  It has its place and time.  Eventually, however, we must arrive at our own style.

I have to admit that style is a concept I have largely ignored outside of fretting over not having it.  I never directly addressed style in teaching writing students about writing.  Perhaps this is a good thing, or at least justifiable in the sense that most writing students (freshmen and sophomores) haven’t written enough to know their style.  This is not to say that young writers can’t or don’t have a unique voice.  Some people are just well attuned to their own nature from an early age and can express themselves with fair originality.  But style, I mean style.  That comes from somewhere else.

For Christmas I was given two books by writer Natalie Goldberg: Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind.  I just finished reading Wild Mind and among the gems of writerly wisdom that she imparted in that book was a return to this notion of a million words.  A writer does not find his or her style until they have written a million words.  She wasn’t even saying it as a fact, but was passingly observing the adage, yet the realization finally bloomed for me that I had not yet accomplished style because I simply had not written enough!


As weird as it might sound I had toe-giggles when I realized that I wasn’t a no-talent loser, I was still just finding myself.  Why hadn’t I gotten the message before?  All of the angst I carried prior to this epiphany was like the lost despair of the ugly duckling.  I wasn’t good at what I was supposed to be – and yet, all I had to do was be what I was supposed to be more.

Oddly enough, though not so oddly considering that this is how I do things in life, as the realization that I needed to write my million words to gain my style finally settled on me, I also realized that I have finally identified my style – and just recently.  This fall I wrote a story that not only manages the characteristics of magical realism which I thoroughly embrace, but also the lyricism of poetry.  This story I wrote, which is in revision right now, was unlike anything I had ever written.  It was relaxed, fluid, ephemeral, mystical.  Many of the things I deeply enjoy in the books, movies and music I experience.  I like the unusual, the weird.  Chuck Palahniuk, David Lynch, Daniel Johnston.  But because I was out of practice (being inexperienced due to a lack of writing enough) my writing had been stiff, distant, cautious.  At last, however, the event met with the training, and I am happy to say that my style is now on the horizon.

I admonish all writers, from this moment on free yourself from worry that you don’t have the talent or that you don’t have an original voice.  Write your million words – and I do mean a million.  Write out some terrible, bland stories, even a whole novel as I did.  Remember last year I finished a 560 page manuscript?  Remember how I edited it down to 330?  It turns out that the exercise was largely to fulfill my million words, and next year I will be rewriting the entire thing with . . . wait for it . . . style!

Have I actually written a million words?  Honestly I don’t know.  A million words is around 3,000 pages.  Yeah, I’d say I’ve written that much in my time.  Probably almost three times that.  But I don’t think all of those words count.  Our million words need to be intentional, focused, unflinching writing in our most creative moments.  A million words of fiction, a million words of memoir, a million words of poetry.  A serious writer can do it in a few short years.  This is how many famous writers established their careers as twenty-somethings.  But regardless of how and when you do it, what you will get for a million words is yourself, and your readers will get you, too, and your stories, and all of the enrichment that literature brings.

Enjoy the process, my friends.  There is nothing like the call to create – take the steps necessary to honor your craft.  Read a million words.  Write a million words.

And then write a million more.


Sell Out – How I’d Love to Be Accused of Taking the Easy Route

Dear reader,

I haven’t written in several days.  I’ve been pursuing my “other” life – helping my researcher girlfriend track down her beloved killer whales along the Northern California Coast.  It has been a very good week for killer whale science.  It has been a bit slower for this fiction writer.

My hiatus has been good, though.  The last thing I read before I got busy with science was an article on selling out.  Selling out – it’s a concept worth discussing, because when I think of sell outs I think of my favorite rock band selling my favorite rock song for use in a commercial.  I think of sell outs as those who didn’t have talent enough to get past their first success, and decided the money they could get for giving up their dream was enough to buy the happiness they once hoped to get being successful over a life long career.

This article I read by Charlie Jane Anders got me thinking – not about selling out so much as about getting published.  Charlie picked a good topic, I think, and I enjoyed reading it and the accompanying comments at the bottom.  What got my attention more than anything, however, were the graphics in the article (you can see it here http://io9.com/5973921/how-to-write-fiction-for-money-without-selling-out-too-much) which depicted classic pulp sci fi and crime novel images from a bygone era.  The suggestion, if not the explicit argument, was that those who write popular fiction are sell outs on a dream they once had to write something more sophisticated.

Most of you know that I am currently working on a science fiction novel with the intent to perhaps establish a short series.  Some of you also know that I think of myself as a literary fiction writer who is struggling to put together the literary story I am trying to tell.  In fact, I completed a literary novel last year and have made no small effort to sell it.  More recently, though, I set it aside and began writing this sci fi stuff.

Now, I am not a fan of pop culture.  My closer friends know how much I shy away from anything “pop” and that I am a religious proponent of kitsch.  So here I am, formerly committed to “high-brow” art, cruising through a pop-fiction genre far removed from my literary root.  But how far my root am I actually getting?

The first thing I want to acknowledge is that I am having fun with my science fiction story.  My characters are coming along, my plot is solid, and the intrigue is sufficient that I have been able to follow my own story line without ever having the feeling that I was getting lost in the middle, that I had made a mistake or created a disjointed effort of any kind.  I am more confident at this stage of the book than I ever was with my literary novel.

The next thing I realize is that I am learning more about how to write my literary stuff by writing science fiction – that is, plot-driven fiction – than I did doing pure literature.

I also (third) realize that my science fiction story is still a character-driven novel regardless of the themes of science, fantasy or whatever other popular motifs might be present.

But to the question of selling out.  Am I selling out because I am at risk of having more success writing speculative fiction over realism?

really don’t think so and here is why: I am of the mind at this point in my writing efforts that any writer who can publish in any professional capacity (not vanity press) is successful.  The publishing world is so competitive, so inundated with volumes of written words and overworked agents, that anyone who can break through is worthy of being called a success.  While it is true that there are gradations of quality among writers, among all artists, there can be no arguing the success of formal publication.  From Chekov and Updike to Rowling and King, these writers have penned something that has inspired masses of readers regardless of what I think of them as writers myself.  Props must be given where props are due.

I would accept being labeled a sell out at this point if that’s what it means to successfully publish my fiction.  Good writing only looks easy anyway, and the “easy route” is nothing more than being successful in a genre that reads like fun.  Sign me up, o’ Muse!

I intend to get back to literature soon.  How soon, I don’t know for sure.  It depends on how well I do at selling out.  Meanwhile I am still a writer, and I’ll take any progress I can get because, dammit, writing is hard work no matter what you write.  I no longer accept that writing in one genre over another is selling out.  We write what we write, and we succeed at what we’re good at.  Some famous actors wanted to be rock stars, and some rock stars wanted to be country stars.  We continue to try what we love, but it doesn’t mean we’re good at it.  But I believe we’re all good at something – so go do both.

I’ll be sure to let you know how it goes on my end.  Let me know how it goes on yours.



How Big Should the Great American Novel Be?

Greetings and Happy Holidays,

At the risk of PSS (Public Soul Searching) I wanted to share some recent discoveries I’ve made about what aspiring novelists might want to know when it comes to successfully writing that first book.

Before we get into the meat of the topic, however, realize two things: 1) There are an enormous number of books already out there, and more being published every day.  The field is saturated, and with a lot of stuff that is arguably not very good.  2) Once you’ve processed the preceding information and have had a sixty-second moment of despair, let it go; forget it.  Good writing, like love, finds a way in the end.  Just do your best.

That being said I want to reflect a little more on what I touched on last time pertaining to book lengths.  How long should your first book (or two) be?

When I wrote Mary my first draft was 560 pages long.  Think about that for a moment.  How many books have you read that were over 500 pages in length?  How many of your favorite books are that long?  I can name one: House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski.  BUT, about half of the pages in that tome only contain one sentence . . . or one word.  No, I don’t have many books in my entire history of reading that I finished at over 400 pages, let alone 5-600.

I knew this, of course, after writing my first draft, and I knocked that massive pile of pages down to half in the “final” version: 319 pages.

I felt really good about that.  319 pages was a real book.  A proper, healthy novel.  I think I overestimated nearly every reader’s interest on the planet in tackling those pages, however, and I have since come to accept that I overshot my page limit by about 100 pages.  How do I know?

To begin with I had someone read the first twenty pages, someone with a good, critical eye, and in twenty pages he had a volume’s worth of issues for me to address.  What I realized after hearing his critique is that I wrote a whole bunch of pages which didn’t get around to the main story – the story of who my character is (rather than what he was not as seen through the side stories of the other characters in the book).  Because I carried a naive notion of how long a book, any book, should be I ended up doing one of the very things I despise in writing.  I wrote volumes to explain what should have been detailed in a few dense pages.  I didn’t get to the point (of character) that would make whatever else happen have the meaning it should.

The next thing I did was listen to the voices of friends who, during the writing process, advised me to keep the book at just a few hundred pages.  I did not want to accept that a book should be what I considered “short.”  It couldn’t be effective if it was short (I told myself).  So I let rip with sub-plots, detailed secondary characters, parallel plot lines, and intimate portraits of  . . . er . . . EVERYONE. When I went back later and reviewed the books in my list of favorites, guess what I found?  Yep, most of them are thin, powerful novels full of interesting prose and original characters.  Even Danielewski’s massive text is really two shorter works written in parallel narrative.  And that book is a master work of inventiveness anyway.  Here is a list of my top five favorite books:

A Catcher in the Rye (214)

The Great Gatsby (182)

A Clockwork Orange (216 – including the “lost” last chapter)

The Unbearable Lightness of Being (311)

Of Mice and Men (92)

What was I thinking?  To tell the truth, I was trying to write my version of Kundera (Unbearable Lightness), but it isn’t there yet, and besides, Kundera played with story order in ways that I am really not yet prepared to do.  As you can see by the rest of the examples on my list, even the longer books barely go over 200 pages.  Of Mice and Men is arguably Steinbeck’s greatest novel, and it’s only half the size of the next smallest entry in Fitzgerald’s Gatsby.

If the majority of my favorite reads were barely 200 pages at best, what did I hope to achieve by adding another 30,000 words?  The truth is, I wasn’t thinking like that at all.

Still, statistics say that the average adult novel is around 100,000 words or about 300 pages.  So even at 319 pages I was, statistically, on target.  But something else occurred to me in considering the length of my manuscript and its potential non-marketability.  The length is not as important as the story, and in considering length I had to consider the editing process.

I have a habit of worrying about doing too much cutting of the prose.  For some reason I think it’s just far too easy to trim so much from the page that important details and information will be lost.  But while it certainly is possible to cut too much, it’s not as easy as it sounds.  Mindful, deliberate revision takes the bulk off of the frame of the story and leaves the best parts in.  As with sculpting the figure emerges in the trimming of the outer material.  In cooking, rendering out the fat leaves the lean succulent meat.  This is what revision is.

In  my rough drafts my characters tend to do too much with their eyes and not enough expressing their mental state in other non-verbal ways.  Being aware of this, when I revise, I am required to shave off the stares, glares, glances and looks, and replace them with more organic reactions.  In the book I am writing now I think I have a much tighter story line with a more compelling plot and better defined characters.  When I revise, I know, more or less, what to go after.  I know where the tension needs to be increased, the action made more riveting, and the emotion more sincere.  Later, when I rewriteMary, the experience I am gaining with this new book will have me prepared to take chances with my character that I did not the first time, and I will also be ready to write a leaner, more impacting story.  I think this will result in a smaller book, something that can be read and enjoyed for the tight prose and the engaging character portrayals.  Get in and get out.  That’s my new motto.

One day I hope to write a blog from the perspective of an accomplished novelist discussing how to write a bigger novel and still keep it interesting.  For now, for many of us, it seems best to keep it short.  Write for intensity rather than breadth.  Render the fat, chip away the garbage, or whatever metaphor you want to use.  And remember to write like a reader.  Give people a taste of what you can do in short works, and eventually they’ll come back for more.

That’s my theory and I’m going with it.


Writer’s Block is Just Over-Thinking


I was reading recently that Anthony Burgess called his wonder-work A Clockwork Orange a “mere jeu d’esprit” written in three weeks for money, “too didactic to be artistic” and otherwise wishing he had never written it because of the misunderstanding of others.

Oh come now, Mr. Burgess, you must know how beloved your book is!

I take A Clockwork Orange as a model for my discussion today on something I am regularly a victim of: over thinking.  In considering Burgess’s work and the things he said about it, I think we are firstly informed of the level of this man’s talent for writing fiction.  To pen such an intense and original book, a true “novel,” in such a short period of time and to such great notoriety, makes obvious the ability some writers have for commanding language with virtually no effort (compared to the rest of us, no doubt).  And whether Burgess truly intended this book to be a “game of the spirit” when he sat down to write it, or whether he intended it to be a serious novel and was only later shocked by the power of the story and wanted to diminish some of the furor, it is arguable for the rest of us that this book is rare and unique among literary works and deserves all of the attention is has received.  For me it is one of my top five favorite novels.

For the sake of my argument today let’s consider that Burgess, a la Coleridge, wrote his novel under the haze of inspiration and without the intense, metal-on-metal grind that the rest of us tend to go through when composing our  manifestos.  Let us consider the process as if there had been little-to-no thinking involved.

Romantic as a notion, the ability to write fluidly and without interruption of thought or planning is something writers rarely experience, and those moments comprise a “sweet-spot” in the composition experience similar to what other performers experience when unburdened by the distracting awareness of what they are actually doing.  I imagine this is what film actors do when behaving in embarrassing ways in front of a camera.

This freedom to express is no doubt what Hemingway intended when he purportedly instructed that one should “write drunk, edit sober.”  Drunkenness, after all, is a condition absent of inhibition.  Absence of inhibition is freedom to be creative.

I certainly am not advocating drunkenness as a regular state of being, but the awareness that we can benefit from, oh, call it a lack of awareness, is a valuable condition for writing.  All we really need do, however, is simply not think so much.

For the better part of this fall I have been discussing pursuit of publication of a novel I finished last summer.  This 320 page literary story was supposed to launch my career in letters and fulfill an intention I’ve had since I was ten years old.  It has a message, it has twists and sub-plots, and sex and violence and even humor.  It also has, perhaps more than anything, a top layer of iron and a bottom layer of stone, both rigid with thought and pedantic intention, and between these two layers the life of the story has been ground to dust.  Gold dust, maybe, but dust only.  How did this happen?

I over-thought it through-and-through.

After some very helpful criticism of the manuscript by a respected colleague with a writing and editing background of his own, it become clear that I was too timid with my protagonist, and that the story is more interesting from the perspective of a side character than from the view of my protagonist.  Further, and more importantly, despite almost ten pages of character development and background, I used little to none of the interesting traits of my character.  His true nature never came through because I blocked it.  I stayed coldly conscious of what I was saying about him, and because he was a man in a position of high respect and public profile I refused to let him be human, refused to allow for his natural deviance.

When I look at the writers I have admired over all of these years: Burgess, Lawrence, Miller, Updike, Salinger, O’Connor (Flannery), I see wild freedom and a skillful ability to be engaging and even shocking without being distasteful.  And even if there were moments of distaste it only made things more interesting.  How did they do it?

I am willing to bet that more of the books I love were written as a jeu desprit than even the author realized at the time.  When these writers sat down I can only imagine that they wrote with abandon, without inhibition, or at a minimum with what Tobias Wolff once told me for him was writing “prayerfully.”  That is, in a dream.

To return to my own book, and in re-examining the character I had intended to write from the beginning, a new opening line came to me, and with a whole different story.  The story I had intended to write the first time.  I didn’t “think” about it so much as I just asked a question: who is this character and why should his story be written?  And then the story came to me the right way.  The drunken Hemingway.  I can edit sober later.

Ok, great, don’t think when I write.  How do I do that?  I hope you’re asking this question because I am about to explain what I think works.

Do you remember that moment of inspiration when the line of dialogue came to you?  When the last line, or the first line of the poem appeared in your head when you were in the shower, or doing dishes?  Remember the scene, the idea, the personality or dialect that turned you on?  That’s the starting point.  Yeah, obvious, I know, but this is why writing things down when they come to you is a must.  We have to keep a record of our inspirations because otherwise, I promise you, they will fade, and even if we remember the general spirit of the idea the core will be gone.  And beyond writing down the core ideas that come we must also write our character histories.  This is old advice, but the more we know about our characters going in the easier it is to “write what we know” because we don’t have to think about it.  It would be irresponsible for me to ignore the fact that thought does have a role on writing.  Of course it does.  But keeping the dream state as near to the surface as possible limits inhibition and allows the story to come through.  This is why we must write quickly, without edit, until the story is down.  Page one to page two hundred.  After that we can think, plod, edit, change, align.  The hard thinking comes after the “game” is played.  Makes sense?

Ultimately we all write according to our style and what, when and how it works for us.  But I believe that writer’s block is just over thinking.  Hopefully you never experience writer’s block.  If you do, maybe you, like me, are thinking too much.  If so draft something outrageous for your character and see if it fits.  At the least maybe it will break up the block, allow you and your character to share a laugh, and then get back to drafting the dream.  I hope so.

Now get to play!

I’ll visit with you again next week.