(You Have Been Granted) Permission to Tell

sincere3Last night I read yet another list of things writers should consider about the writing process. This particular list comes via Walter Benjamin, a Twentieth Century philosopher of German and Jewish descent. Benjamin’s advice is excellent and, of the 13 things he lists, one in particular stands out to me because I had the very same thought two days ago. List item 11 states: “Do not write the conclusion of a work in your familiar study. You would not find the necessary courage there.” I identify the following two words as key in this valuable recommendation.

Familiar – Familiarity is an invisible lining over every aspect of our lives. We cannot see it most times, rarely think about it, and usually only reflect on it when it’s absent. For the writer striving to achieve raw and unedited authenticity, familiarity is a barrier to risk. Psychologically, the four walls of our sacred space are counterintuitive to the terrifying necessity of truth. This is one reason why it’s important to travel. As we experience unusual things over the course of our trip we break the barrier of familiarity, and our senses come alive in that child-like way so important to artistic awareness.

Courage – Permission to tell is the mantra of every writer. When we talk about “telling” in writing, we are talking about the unedited, unapologetic, painful truth about people and events in our stories. This honesty is the hardest concept to grasp, because it goes against the nature of everything we’ve been told about manners. We don’t often tell the truth in the day-to-day because it’s uncomfortable. People can be offended. The truth hurts. More than one writer has acknowledged the dichotomy between mannered living in the real world and the brutal conduct they impose in the writing world. There is no room for manners in writing. The job of the writer is to get the real story onto the page without reservation, and that takes courage.

In my quest for an authentic voice I realized that if I want to reach my goal I need to write in an environment where I feel like I’m getting away with something. After all it’s guilt that keeps me from telling in the first place, so it makes sense to me that if I am going to cross that line I need to do it in a place that doesn’t remind me a whole lot of my comfortable, happy life. Mr. Benjamin seems to agree. “You will not find the necessary courage there.” The personal and the creative are never entirely separate. There’s no way they can be. This is why it’s so terrifying to write truthfully. In public spaces, where strangers surround me, I can honestly reflect on my characters, and hone in on what is real about them and authentic about the story.

In the larger world I feel bold, and I am courageous and alive in ways that the sedation of home denies me.

 

blog sign3

The Third Guarantee – Death, Taxes, and . . .

Change.

Whoever said there were only two guarantees in life forgot the critical third. Transition is the fundamental state of our existence.

It has been one month since my last blog entry and the delay has been directly related to the reality of transition. I’ve moved yet again, and have thrown open the doors on my life to the whimsy of the unknown.

At the end of summer I will leave my post at the lighthouse and head in the direction of new things, some defined, others obscured by indetermination. I am on the path of freedom, continuing my hero’s journey, the fantastical tale of my own life.

Writing will remain part of this journey and some of the details will be tracked here, through this blog. My projects are delayed for the moment, but they are not forgotten. My goals remain the same in the writing process.

Transition is everything in a creative life. I leave with you this, a post I wrote as a guest blogger in 2013 for Writer’s Relief wherein the aspect of transition is discussed at the microcosmic level. If you have not read this I hope you enjoy it. If you’ve read it before may you be reminded again of the value of transition. Either way, thank you for continuing with me.

http://writersrelief.com/blog/2013/05/psyched-to-write-overcoming-the-transition-barrier/

I’ll be back soon!

T.J.

Lucky Versus Good and the Simple Secret to Success

shadow fixLefty Gomez is credited with saying “I’d rather be lucky than good.” When it comes to success as an artist that sentiment may be even more true than it is in baseball. The secret to success as an artist lies within this idea, a secret that isn’t as mysterious and elusive as it first seems.

Every new project an artist undertakes is approached with the same general drive, inspiration and intent as the one before. When the idea comes to us we go for it with the goal of making the best product we know how. When the work is finished and we are happy enough with it, we send it out into the world and there it is judged, loved, hated, and then eventually becomes replaced by the next thing in a cycle that goes on and on forever. Except that sometimes a thing we do sticks, and the resultant stick makes us stand out, perhaps for the rest of our lives.

Naturally we would like everything we do to have this lasting effect, but it doesn’t and we can’t force it to happen no matter how hard we try. What we must do instead is create the best content we can while also creating as much of it as we can. The secret to success is more often quantity combined with quality. With quantity comes a sort of luck. The odds are that with enough effort something will stand out and get you noticed. Often it takes example after example of a certain style before people “get it,” but once that happens years of toil can come to fruition almost over night.

Not that we rely solely on luck. While it may be better to be lucky than good, the artist must still be good at what they do. A whole library of garbage will always be garbage. But a substantial collection of quality work, and a little luck that some of it gets noticed and celebrated, is the most likely scenario for success for today’s creative person.

So often it seems that a young prodigy comes out of nowhere with a single piece of fiction that suddenly takes off and makes them the new hot thing. To believe that some people wake up one day and pen a single story, as though having an innate store of perfect stories in their minds, one to write following another, is a great illusion in the world. No creative person that I am aware of ever created quality work without practice. For every first fiction there are dozens of stories that never made the cut, usually never made the light of day.

The secret is to work fast and work often. Let the stories inside you come together and slip out of you like tears and gasps and great big laughs. There is nothing gained by trying to create one perfect piece. The goal of perfection is deceptive – to assume that perfection can be achieved and should be the goal is to restrict the pathway to success with the briars of a lie. Simply create, prolifically, and let the results of your work lead the way to whatever success may come. None of us are only as good as one thing we do – we are the sum of all of our parts.

Keep working.

blog sign3

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.

 

blog sign3

Another Reason Why We Write

abstract

I am in a wistful mood lately.

I am feeling at once intensely grateful and at the same time full of longing for things that only my heart understands.

Well, maybe.

There are threads and strands of emotion in all of us that seem so intensely personal, so uniquely ours that we are certain we are alone in the experience, that no one else could possibly understand the tumult going on inside, the visions of our core which are so abstract and original that the feelings don’t even have a name.

Perhaps this sentiment is immature. Something best reserved for the diary of a teen, something we surely have worked out in the process of maturing so that we no longer pine, no longer emote, silly to dare feel more than pain, pleasure or anger. Certainly we are not happy though we say “happy.”

So why write if all of this emotion is whimsy? And is this not the message of the cold and practical world? We are distracted by entertainments and technology so that we hardly know how to connect face-to-face with each other. We find it hard to say what we think, what we feel, and we shy from the risk of expressing things boldly, if not honestly, unless masked by the anonymity of cyberspace.

If my experience is anything close to the truth, however, then the writing life  – any creative endeavor really – is an antidote, even if temporarily, for staving off the loneliness of an oversensitive soul.

I cannot begin to defend my position to those who would disagree. In fairness the experience may be entirely different for them. If not for creative endeavors, someone might say, life would have been normal, long, full of ignorant bliss and a fine career in reports and files, meetings, weekends off, and television. Art, they might argue, has destroyed their sense of comfort and stability; failed them in their pursuit of joy and the easy life.

As if life were so easy.

But surely there are a few who would agree with me on this: art saves me from loneliness. I write because I seek to understand life. Through writing I explore the things that do not make sense, give a voice to the things inside that need to speak or else be condemned to haunts in the dark hallways of my claustrophobic mind. Through the process I have a chance to connect with others at the highest level – the emotional level. Through art we all have the opportunity to name the things we feel which cannot otherwise be defined by our known vocabulary.

We write to save ourselves from lies, misunderstanding, and the general malaise of the human condition – which is loneliness. Whether inspired by god or stoned by the existential void, we write to keep away the night, to summon the daylight, to expose deceit and come face-to-face with our collective humanness.

I do anyway. I write to find my way, to be introduced anew to the beauty of living, the surprise of discovery. I write to preserve my health. I write to remain engaged with the living, to partake in their danse macabre – perhaps even to provide the music which backs us, players all, who are otherwise separated by an invisible distance across the milieu of our temporal existence.

blog sign3

Stubborn To a Fault – How to know it’s time to let go

I have this idea that every new thing I write is going to be better than the last. It makes sense. Practice makes perfect and if you do something long enough you’re going to get better at it. I also have the idea that anything can be made interesting if one is a good enough writer. If you are like me in these beliefs it’s time for both of us to do ourselves a favor.

Realize that not every idea is worth the effort of trying to save it.

Consider the plight of our friend and mentor Natalie Goldberg. On page 83 of Wild Mind Goldberg shares a story about seeing an accident involving a cow and a semi lying in the road, both on their sides, facing each other as though they had run head on and knocked each other over. The image was a moment of inspiration for her. After a few weeks of working over the image she hadn’t gotten anywhere. The inspiration was gone and she couldn’t make it work. She wisely gave it up.

Sometimes we find ourselves really trying to communicate something, stopping all progress in the effort of getting it right, and still it never manifests the way we want it. The importance of understanding this concept applies especially to revision. We all know that when we write something for the first time we are free to let it fly onto the page. We understand that we are not to worry (as much) about grammar, diction and syntax, not the way we will worry about it later in revision. So when we are cruising along and our hand writes out something like, “The night that Jason found his grandmother’s diary would have been a watershed moment in his life if he had had the courage to take the key from his mother’s hand and unlock the book to reveal the secrets inside about how he had the inherited the curse of the wolf” we know we have to fix that bit later (and how).

So later comes, and it’s time to revise that hideously long sentence for the sake of informing the reader that Jason had a chance to learn the secret of his past early on if he had only had the courage. We begin by moving words around like so:

“The night Jason found his grandmother’s diary was important . . .” No.

“If only Jason had taken the key to his grandmother’s diary he would have learned the dark secret . . .” Not what we want.

Meanwhile, all of the narrative leading up to this stupid sentence, and a good chunk of what follows, is spot on! In fact, it might be so good that we don’t need the long complex sentence in the middle at all. There is a very simple trick to figuring out that it’s time to cut an idea and move on – read the passage as if the sentence was gone already and see if the story lives on.

This tip applies to any part of the writing process and is key to revision. Simply put, if something isn’t working it isn’t worth the time to make it fit. I couldn’t tell you how much time I have wasted playing with snippets of a story that were more “snip” and less “pet.” Very much like pruning a plant, however, once we identify the dead branches of our writing and cut them out, the story and we ourselves feel suddenly healthier and more vibrant for it.

There is a companion notion to this idea of knowing when it’s time to let something go and it all has to do with that key writer organ covered recently in another discussion: the gut. You will recall that the gut is where our truth and intuition reside. We must recognize as well that the gut also informs us when the writing is bad, and by learning to listen to our gut we can find many more dead branches during our pruning process. The way it works is that during the re-reading of our work-in-progress we will come across passages that don’t “feel” right. The reasons are many, and the goal of revision is to find these passages and make them better. But sometimes they never feel better and this is when it comes time to realize they never will. We cut the passage (or sentence, or clause, etc.) and instead our gut, and the story, feels better.

All hail the gut! The writer’s organ!

Stubbornness can be a writer’s great ally. By being strong we ignore the negativity of others who tell us we cannot succeed, or should not tell our story, or must go here, be that, give up this, etc. When it comes to making good stories, however, we must be prepared to exchange stubbornness for success. We must know when it’s time to let go.

Key to the Craft – Writing Character Backgrounds

I do not know, but have often wondered, whether visual artists ever do personality sketches of their subjects before creating the visual image. Does the paint or pencil artist consider the history and psychological make-up of the subject about to be painted or drawn? I would like to know.

Meanwhile most fiction writers spend some sort of time outlining backgrounds, histories, and family lineages before ever sitting down to write an actual story. But many amateurs skip this step, assuming that the words inside their head will do the work that sketches and outlines might otherwise cover. For my part I have written plenty of stories without drafting character histories. You have never read any of them, however, because none of them are any good . . .

I suspect there are a few reasons that beginning writers don’t draft character histories. For one thing it seems like a lot of work that no one is ever going to see. It’s a lot of time spent making up useless information that goes to waste. The joy, we tell ourselves, is in the discovery of writing the story.

But writing character histories is an important part of the story writing process (and it really is a lot of fun). Consider how much time you have spent sitting idly at your computer, or with pad of paper in hand, not sure of what to say because, frankly, you don’t have any idea who your character is. Knowing a character’s intimate thoughts, their passions and desires, fears, issues, mental health status, physical ailments, love life, place in the hierarchy of their family, position at work, type of job, mode of transport, favorite dessert, etc. adds up in the creative subconscious so that once you do sit to write that story, the wealth of their background is at your immediate disposal. With the work all done up front (in terms of knowing your subject) you are free to draft the story you were meant to write.

If you have never tried to write a character history consider the following exercise. Write your own history as if you were a character in a work of fiction. The details of your life, which you know better than anyone, are the exact sort of things you would imagine for a completely fictional character. Every interesting and sordid detail should be there. Not each and every day of a life lived, but rather the curious points. As you examine your life from the outside you begin to see things that excite your senses, rev the pulse, and when you come across those things you know you’re getting it right. Write about the things you don’t like about yourself as much as the things you do like. Remember that writing is about truth and honesty, and by getting down to the gritty things you are walking that razor’s edge that you hope will appear later in your fiction. My bet is that a single afternoon spent sketching out your life as a character will open the floodgates for future character sketches in all of your stories for the rest of your career. And while you will never use every detail in the sketch, you will have the confidence in knowing that the full palette is there for you, like a painter, to add and mix any color, in any shade, for just the right image.

Here, for example, are some character notes I wrote for Jillian – a character in one of my first novels:

Jillian Marie Kircher (Barnes) – 31
Pastor’s Wife – Mother (Kylie Jean – 4)
“The Faithless” “The Ghost”

She is the most difficult to write about.

You want to demonize her. Cheater, unfaithful, adulteress. Do you understand what motivates her? Jillian’s parents divorced when she was ten. The event left her stoic and emotionally unbalanced. At her worst she is suspicious, moody, depressed. But she has her bright side. She is kind to others. She dotes on Kylie. Let’s go back to her earliest years, before she was ten . . . Jillian is a complaisant child. You can tell already looking at her in her crib. She’s quiet. Of course, she is asleep, but see her awake. She looks around, but is quiet. When she cries at all it’s the hoarse rasp of a sick child. Nothing shrill, nothing red-faced and bloody murder. Her expression is wide-eyed; she looks shocked. She does not readily smile. She watches. It’s as if she knows, over and over again, there will be disasters in her life.

This is not the whole sketch. It goes on into her adulthood, into her marriage and the birth of her child. It also covers the day her mother killed her father, the realization of the disaster she had always sensed from the earliest days. In the sketch a psychological profile emerges.

The entire sketch of Jillian is fourteen pages long. Handwritten in a composition book as one of six (one for each of the primary characters) I wrote before starting the novel. The first try of the book took three years and ultimately wasn’t the book I wanted to write, but the sketches remain, and I will write a new version one day, prepared as I am with all of the characters detailed and standing by.

I encourage all fiction writers to write up character sketches. Whether an entire life or just the details of what is going on at the time of the story, the things we learn through this process are the things we need to know to create memorable stories. Character, after all, is key. Character is really all that we care about.