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This coming-of-age novel by Caitlin Hicks plays out in the months between two famous deathsâPope John XXIII and President Kennedy, in 1963.
I caught up with Caitlin Hicks to discuss issues important to fiction writers.
âWhatâs your book about, Caitlin? Whatâs its message?â
âMessage?â she says. âNo message. Itâs a novel.â And a hilarious one, I might add.
And yet I donât entirely believe her. Her story is definitely about something. I donât give novels much of my time if they donât appear to be about something. The storyâs 12-year-old protagonist, Annie Shea, is too outspoken for the book not to say something.
Hicks soon confesses that she âhad a question to answer with the story,â and so I ask her, âWhat question?â
âIâm not telling you!â she says. âIâm not telling anyone.â
Sheâs starting to sound like Annie, smart and sassy and skilled at digging her heels in.
âIf you read the book,â says Hicks, âmaybe youâll find the answer.â Or maybe not. âBecause itâs not directly answerable in an obvious way,â she says.
âWas your question answered for you?â I ask.
âYes, but Iâm not going to say what it was.â
Every good book has a secret centre
Caitlin Hicks is right to protect the mystery of her question. Readers love books that circle a central question, even if itâs never explained.
The best novels, like A Theory of Expanded Love, possess a secret centre.
I reflect on novels that have bored meâbooks whose point is quickly obvious. The heroâs trajectory is unambiguous, and so lacks mystery. The reading experience is mediocre, if not downright tedious. Genre fiction can get like that.
Perhaps this is why A Theory of Expanded Love is getting such rave reviews, because it is about something that is ânot answerable in an obvious way.â Something to do with love. Or the lack of it. Thatâs my guess.
One of thirteen siblings, Annie Shea had to fight for face-time with her mother. âI had been tracking her around the house so she would notice me,â says Annie. Perhaps thereâs not enough love in a large family to go around. Or does love expand infinitely? Thatâs a theme you can build a novel around.
âWhenever I have a question,â Hicks says, âand I create something from that question, it usually turns out to have some holding power.â
By holding power she means compelling. I know writers who want to take that word out and shoot it. It haunts them and for good reason. Compelling is the Holy Grail for novelists who want to write a book worth reading.
As long as Iâm exploringâŠ
âAs long as I’m exploring then it’s interesting,â says Hicks. âMy curiosity is everywhere in the book.â
Hicks may be touching the heart of the matter: As long as the writer is exploring, the story holds the reader.
Few writers speak of stories having an unspoken theme or core. One believer is Orhan Pamuk (Nobel Prize for Literature, 2006):
â[The reader] cannot help reflecting on the meaning of life as he tries to locate the centre of the novel he is reading. For in seeking this centre, he is seeking the centre of his own life and that of the world.â
I wonder if Hicks is trying probe the centre of her own life in the novel. Is her story fact or fiction?
Memoir vs. novel
Since Hicks and her protagonist were both raised in large Catholic families in Pasadena, California, I have assumed that A Theory of Expanded Love is autobiographical.
âAnnie Shea is not me,â Hicks says. âThis is not a memoir, it’s a novel. Iâm not a redhead. Annie is so much smarter and confident. I may have thought what she thought, but I didnât question things. I was a well-bred Catholic girl all the way up to graduating from college. I was going to confession every day. I was trying to be holy.â
For Caitlin Hicks, her real-life family wasnât sufficiently pregnant with story material.
âI couldnât write a memoir because I felt like I knew everything I wanted to know about my family. But then ‘the question’ came up, and I wondered why that was?â
Out of that curiosity a novel was born.
Itâs a novel that explores family life through the antics of a pre-pubescent girl, and it made me laugh out loud. Annie is a girl whose desperation derives not from abuse or neglect but from a powerful urge to know how life works. Especially love.
Thatâs definitely it. Something about love. Love expanding to nourish every newborn heart. Is that it, Caitlin?
âItâs not really a secret,â Hicks says. âBut Iâm not going to tell. Itâs unmentioned, but through the whole book you get a sense of what that might be.â
Hereâs what I think:
Love is infinite, and when you read this novel you feel it shining through the young and rebellious Annie Shea.
Count the times Iâve been run down on the road less traveled!
I was barely home from my travels in Africa and Asia when the gods pulled a U-turn and made roadkill of me yet again.
I was filming in the Canadian Rockies
I was shooting a film on the geomorphology of the high country. Think erosion. Even solid granite breaks up over time and washes to the sea. Everything disintegrates, including the human psyche.
After an exhausting day filming on scree slopes above a chain of turquoise lakes and then debriefing the tapes over dinner with the sound tech we drove to Lake Louise to be closer to our next location. It was midnight by the time we found a tent site on the perimeter of a campground.
We pitched our tent and fell asleep.
I woke at dawn with rain drubbing softly on the sagging canvas.
I heard something else.
I crawled half out to peer around the tentâ
Grizzly! Not six feet away from me.
Front paws on the picnic table, she sniffed our cooler, our food supply. Last night we had unloaded the jeep and then hastily secured one end of our pup tent to the table before passing out.
Iâm sorry! I told you, Iâm not that smart!
The bear took a second to fix me in the cross-hairs of her cold gaze.
I nudged Ken and whispered, âGrizzly.â He wanted to see. I shook my head furiously. He stuck his head out, withdrew, looked at me: âThree cubs.â
Worst case scenario. Now what?
The tent collapsed.
The weight of the cooler and everything spilling outâbacon and steaks and yogurt, and bread, coffee, apples, raisins, nuts and milk and a weekâs supply of Snickers Barsâit flattened the tent with us beneath it.
Four bears were sitting on us, eating. And not quietly, I might add.
While we lay still as death.
I thought of Fred.
Fred and I had played hockey at university. He was 6-3 and damned good-looking before he met the grizzly who left him minus one hip, a broken back, no scalp, half a face, and a chewed elbow, and those were just the physical injuries.
I was eroding inside, already.
Iâd been here before, my life stopped dead in its tracks. (The cheetah comes to mind, remember?) My granite sense of self becoming âFred,â I couldnât muster the necessary thoughts to convince myself that life had meaning.
There was nothing left to obscure the fact that life has no meaning.
There was nothing left.
Hold that thought.
If youâve read Story Structure Expedition, youâre familiar with how I recruited authors more eloquent than myself to do the heavy explaining through moments like this. Well, here we go again:
“Accepting that the world is without meaning, we are liberated from confinement in the meaning we have made. Knowing there is nothing of substance in our world may seem to rob that world of value. But this nothingness may be our most precious possession, since it opens to us the inexhaustible world that exists beyond ourselves.”
Thatâs it! What every crisis has taught me.
If Mr. Gray moves over we can squeeze physicist, Alan Lightman, into this dilemma:
âIn our constant search for meaning in this baffling and temporary existence, trapped as we are within our three pounds of neurons, it is sometimes hard to tell what is real. We often invent what isnât there. Or ignore what is. We try to impose order, both in our minds and in our conceptions of external reality. We try to connect. We try to find truth. We dream and we hope. Underneath all of these strivings, we are haunted by the suspicion that what we see and understand of the world is only a tiny piece of the whole.â
Lightman is describing the fictional protagonist waking up in the Act II Crisis.
At the heart of the story, heroes see the world as it really is.
Un-smart like me
Iâm not saying Iâm a hero, but I certainly have been serially un-smart. My talent for not being too smart for my own good has earned me the moral authority to enter the Act III of my life.
And now, writing from the perspective of the final act, I want to share with you some of my discoveries (however arguable they might be):
The meaning of a human life is to realizeâby whatever means possibleâthat nothingness is our most precious possession
The best fictional protagonists do just that
Which aids and abets our own struggle to see the world as it really is
And thatâs why we read fiction
And perhaps why we write it.
CUT BACK TO ACTION:
Behind the falling rain, low voices. The canvas was suddenly snapped back to reveal a uniformed park official standing over me with a rifle. He shook his head in dismay, or disdain.
I know, Iâm an idiot, Iâm sorry.
Mama lay in a heap, tranquilized, while her three cubs found refuge up a tree. Campers, soggy in the early morning rain, watched in disbelief.
I know, I know,Â Iâm sorry! Itâll happen again, I assure you.
Good writersâlike good protagonistsâare never too smart for their own good.
[POST SCRIPT: All this “meaning” business notwithstanding, I didn’t sleep well in a tent for a few years after that.]
Itâs a mega-watt moon shining down on western Tanzania.
That ragged ribbon of moonlight you see is a rough-and-tumble highway known in south-central Africa as the Hell Run. From Dar es Salaam on the Indian Ocean, this 1500-mile lifeline serves the heart of the continent.
A 5-ton truck speeds westward with its load of car tires in a metal cage. At the wheel, a hungry-looking Tanzanian, and beside him an over-stuffed Sikh bending a tire iron just for the hell of it.
Ten miles ahead, beyond a sleeping village, three youths are running along the road. What are children doing up at midnight? The boys stop where the road descends into a wooded valley and shout to someone on the verge of the gloom. That someone is a mzungu, a white boy. Me.
âHabari gani?â I say. I have no idea what they want.
Iâm returning to Zambia after traveling north to Uganda, then hitchhiking south-eastward through Kenya and into Tanzania. Now itâs westward as quickly as possible to resume my duties as a hydrologist in Zambezi country. Iâve been gone too long, six weeks, so I choose to keep moving by the light of this impossible moon. I donât get far. Those boys are waving excitedly.
âWhatâs up?â I shout. âUnitaka nini?â
Everybody talks about simba but how many have seen a lion with their own two eyes? Exactly. But I appreciate their concern.
âYou saw the simba?â I ask.
âSimba eat man!â the oldest kid shouts.
âYeah? Where?â I ask, skeptically.
âJust here!â He jogs down the hill to join me and points loosely, vaguely, into the near distance.
âWhen?â I ask.
While still not convinced, neither am I a fool.
The boys are brothers, children of the farmer who dropped me roughly in the middle of nowhere. As we approach the village I hear someone calling âTobias!â The boys bound toward the village like jackrabbits. A vehicle is approaching. Theyâre waving it down, bless their hearts. The truck is stopping.
The older kid leaps onto the running board to negotiate the terms of this hijacking. The truckers step down to examine Tobiasâ bribe, a tire, which the Sikh inspects in the light of the headlamps. He kicks it and growls and spits on it and tells me to climb aboard, not in the cab but in the cage, which he locks once Iâm in, and I wonder if my odds of survival werenât better with Simba.
Tobias and I shake hands through the bars as the truck moves ahead. Itâs a mental snapshot that hasnât faded all these years laterâthose boys as my guardian angels. Itâs a romantic notion, isnât itâangels. I donât honestly do angels, and itâs just as well, or my life story would soon become tedious for its endless interventions of a divine nature.
By the time we rise out of the valley Iâve made peace with the tires. They cradle me now. Peace is open savannah country by night, moonlit mile after magical mile. The earth is unearthly. I doubt heaven compares with this. Giant leafless baobab trees resemble elephants, mute herds standing guard on the grasslands, benign and protective. I have never felt so far from home.
The truck slows then stops for no apparent reason. The Sikh unlocks the cage and I reckon this for the scene where Iâm murdered and robbed. Instead, he crosses the road to exercise his tire iron on a Mercedes abandoned in the ditch, stripping it of its tires in minutes. Welcome to the Hell Run. The African heaves each Michelin into the cage and off they go unaware that Iâve slipped away without a word of thanks.
The back seat of the Mercedes makes a perfect bed for the night.
Iâm woken by the sound of a motorcycle, not the guttural rumble of a Harley but the unforgivable racket of a two-stroke Kawasaki. The sun is up and so is the hood of the Mercedes behind which someone is having a go at the engine. Someone dressed from head to toe in black. Father Manon, he calls himself.
âGod helps those who help themselves,â he says, as he stashes a handful of electrical leads his saddle bags. He sets his goggles in place and says, âAllons-y! Letâs go, my son!â Saved again! This time by a priest from Chicoutimi, Quebec.
Father Manon drives as if he were immortal. He drives that Kawasaki with one hand so he can bless passers-by without slowing down. He blesses the chickens and the cows and the baobab trees. He blesses the ant hills! We speed along roads cluttered with people who lack the road-wise flow of urban traffic. Cyclists packing enormous sacks of charcoal waver and wobble within a spoke of death, and women balancing colourful bundles half again as large as themselves lead children-in-tow aside to allow us through.
Iâm not sure if Iâm being saved or not. Or if I want to be saved. I mean, why do I leave home in the first place if not to become lost? Think about itâdoesnât the human condition seem to demand our own undoing? The sages have been telling us since forever to risk everything, to leave everything behind.
I know, I know, easier said than done.
Youâre reading this, you tell meâisnât there something compelling about this picture of a young mzungu hanging onto the robes of a fake priest as he vanishes over the horizon deeper into the heart of Africa? To what end we can only imagine.
Maybe the real angels save us by leading us deeper and deeper into the heart of our own story. I donât know, I donât do angels.
But I seem to run into a hell of a lot of them.
(An earlier version of this story appeared here almost two years ago. In response to readers who have asked for more of these road stories, this will be an ongoing series. It’s time I got them all written down. But I don’t want to waste your time, so, please let me know if they speak to you.)
A friend just died and so of course Iâm very sad.
A little girl cries over her scoop of pistachio ice cream melting on the sidewalk.
How sad is that empty cone? And look at those tears. She hasnât learned that gravity works against us till our dying day.
A gull with straw in its beak perches on the peak of my roof. Two hours ago I watched it mount its mate to fertilize the egg that would hatch in the nest that no longer sits on my roof because thereâs no way a gull family is going to turn my roof into a guano factory this summer as it did last. No way!
Still, itâs sad.
Life never seems to work out, however well we arrange the pieces or play the game. According to most wisdom traditions, thatâs good news.
My friendâs passing is sad and yet his absence leaves me with memories of his participation in our writing group over many years. In the empty space he leaves behind I find myself more determined than ever to write well and fast and publish again without delay.
That little girl, is she not the picture of sadness? But arenât our saddest moments those that loom largest in memory? We look back at them as stepping stones toward our growing up. This ice cream failure can serve her in this way. I hope Iâm right.
And a gull with no nest, how sad is that?
I donât mind being sad. I donât disparage sadness as a state of being.
Iâve often been told I look sad, and yet I often fall asleep at night feeling showered by gifts.
Sadness!âif I were a poet I would write an ode to sadness.
Such as the time I received the âDear Johnâ letter in the mail.
I donât expect you to believe this but as I laid eyes on the envelope thunder mumbled overhead. As I opened the letter the room fell dark and as I read the deadly words the door slammed shut with a gust of wind that delivered such a deluge of tropical rain hammering on the tin roof that sadness seemed to bury me alive.
How long was I a ghost? Youâll have to ask my then-roommate because it wasnât long before he couldnât take it anymore and he tossed me a book, saying, âRead this.â Just tossed it and turned away without bothering to see if I caught it, as if I were a beggar in the gutter.
The scene is vivid in my mind, the trajectory of that book flying towards me, a second in time that became the hinge around which my life turned forever.
And all because sadness turned me into an empty begging bowl, I guess. And because gifts would seem to seek the empty place. Is that true?
If so, is that a paradox? Or does that make eminent sense?
I don’t quite know how to end this. I want to return to my writer friend, Rick (may he rest in peace), and to the girl and the gull and to all lovers who fly the coop. It seems I’m surrounded by events that make me sad, but what I want to say is that I’m sorrow’s willing victim.
I could even say that sorrow likes me. It pounds on my roof. It keeps trying to build a nest up there, for goodness sake.
The mystics say thatâs good news.
And that little book that changed my life explains why that might be so. It’s called Positive Disintegration, by Kazimierz Dabrowski. He was no mystic, but he had all the reason in the world to be sad.
Perhaps that’s why he and I became such good friends.
Every writer should be so lucky as to have an idea virus eat their brain.
Hereâs how it happens:
First you catch it.
Then you get it.
Once youâve got it, you can kiss your old self goodbye.
This is the story of how existence conspired to throw the book at meâliterallyâand infect me with an ideavirus that set me free.
A book called Positive Disintegration
I caught it with two hands. Yes, there really was a book. I was living in Africa at the time. After all these years I still remember my roommate tossing it to me. He didnât hand it to me, nor is tossing accurate, no, he chucked it at me. Heâd run out of sympathy for me and my âDear Johnâ letter.
âSheâs engaged to someone else already,â I said. âIâve only been gone two months.â
The English was stiff and the syntax was Polish but I quickly got the gist of itâsomething about our mental development from infancy to full maturity (whatever that might look like) occurring through five hierarchical stages. Between each level lies an existential hellhole.
âHey, Gary, thanks for this.â My roommate was an industrial psychologist.
Nothing is broken, we donât need fixing
According to the book, each pothole on the road of life serves as an alchemical crucible. Our negative emotions start the process. So, please, we donât need drugs. My suffering would propel me to the next level of integration.
The author prescribed creative expressionâmusic, art, writing, whatever. The most imaginative thing I was doing in Zambia at that time was learning to fly, but my instructor had grounded me until further notice.
I started writing poetry. Who was I kidding? Next up, painting. Gary was not amused with my floor-to-ceiling murals in the living room. Movie making was next. I acquired film stock from the president of the local Cine Club, cheap black & white 8 mm film from Russia.
My friends dropped everything to help out. They heard I was shooting a movie called The End. The protagonist smokes himself to death. My script called for atmosphere, so we lit a fire in the living room. I could barely see the actors through the viewfinder. Now we all had tears in our eyes. It was great.
That night, sleepless, I processed the footage in the kitchen sink. To my horror, my developer kit was short the fixer. The silver halide would continue to expose. The film would turn black. I needed fixer!
It was gone midnight but I jumped on my motorcycle and raced across town through the dangerously dark and muggy streets of Lusaka, Zambia, risking potholes, speed bumps, bicycle thieves and black dogs.
I was speeding faster than I daredâfor my filmâfor art! I was beginning to forget myself.
I dipped into a pocket of deliciously cool air and for a second I felt so alive that I even forgot my film. I had almost forgotten her! Dabrowski was right, I was growing out of myself.
I must have forgotten about gravity because I lifted off the face of the earth. From up there, hereâs what I saw:
My despair wasnât bogus, and yet it was lost in the greater scheme of things. There was this project known as Me, all about self-improvement, which is okay, I guess, except it looked so puny.
I was making myself my lifeâs workâmy happinessâand, well, itâs just too small a work.
I never came back to earth
When I became a writer, Dabrowskiâs hypothesis helped me to understand:
You wonât believe this, but upon my return to Canada I discovered that Dabrowski lived for six months of the year in my home town of Edmonton. Six blocks from where I lived! We became good friends. He would serve me strong coffee and dark chocolate while I told him the stories of my serial disintegrations. I can still see his eyes sparkle.
Â âPJ, that was a fantastic story you shared there about the piano player. I hope youâve written that somewhere before, as an essay or a chapter in a craft book? Itâs worthy of wider distribution.â
Thank you, Patrick, but, no, Iâve never shared the story. Which is strange, because that event changed my life (or so goes my personal myth).
âI was ten and playing tag around a friendâs house, and stopping in my tracks as I passed the open bedroom door of my friendâs older brother. There was this teenager working at a piano, composing like a maniac, tinkling the keys, then making notations, oblivious of distraction, of football, of the sun shining outside. I saw in that moment what an artist was.â
Now, Iâm curiousâwhat exactly did I see through that doorway?
I should add that my friendâs brother was always at that piano, so thatâs where âperseveranceâ comes in. He spent his youth in his bedroom with that piano and working so hard and with such focus it was frightening. Even still, what was it about a teenager at a piano that could so impress a ten-year-old that fifty years later the memory still serves to inspire me?
The music?ânoâthe jazzy phrases likely irritated my young ears. I remember the way he leaned forward to jab his pencil at sheets of paper propped on the piano. I recall an urgency. To get somewhere? No, he was already there! You see, he was somewhere else. He lived beyond the everyday world in which the rest of us ran in circles.
I wanted what he had.
His name was Tommy Banks. He went on to own the music scene in Edmonton, Alberta. His TV talk show went nation-wide.Â Eventually they honoured him with an appointment to the federal Senate in Ottawa. I owe Mr. Banks a huge debt of gratitude, as you can imagine.
Or perhaps I havenât made that clear.
You see, that mental image of Tommy working at his piano has served as a beacon for me throughout my life. Guiding me toward what, exactly? Art of some kind? Yes, but certainly not music, no, Iâm remarkably unmusical. So, what then? I donât know. A way of being?
Standing at that open bedroom doorway, the ten-year-old is arrested by a possibility.
Imagine thatâa pre-pubescent kid understands he has a choice of how to be.Â Among lifeâs possibilities, here is one that soars above the rest.
If I had ever wondered about the meaning of life, and I had, well, here is an answer. The teenager at the piano is the answer to my earliest existential quandaries. Here is someone who lives in this world but who ignores much of it. And look how alive he is!
The answer infects my entire life.
From then on Iâm alert to artists and poets and mystics who make it their business to frame up that same answer. Leonard Cohen for example, musing on his own escape from the person the world expects him to be:
Â âEven though he was built to see the world this way, he was also built to disregard, to be free of the way he was built to see the world.âÂ
Â That ten-year-old playing tag was stopped in his tracks by a glimpse through a doorwayâa glimpse of a way to move beyond.
To be free of the way he was built to see the world.
âHow fiction really worksââthatâs pretty much the focus of my blog.
Last week I risked wandering off topic with a post about my motherâs 100th birthday. And this week Iâm buying into a game of âblog tag.â My missionâshould I wish to accept itâis to answer four questions aboutâŠ
My writing process.
Iâll do my best to make this relevant not only to writers but anyone who wants to see how I arrive at a final statement that goes like this:
Utter failure is the portal through which everyone (fictional or real) finds freedom.
What am I working on?
Something called THE WRITER IN LOVE. It was meant to bolster ideas I introduced inStory Structure to Die For, namely that a writer must âlove her protagonist to death.âÂ The book begins as an imagined journey up the Congo River to the heart of darkness. There, deep in the jungle, unable to advance any further, and having abandoned all hope, I would jump ashore and plant my flag in the little understood âstory heart.â Here, then, is an expedition into THE HEART OF A STORY.
Poets and mystics would support my claim that this heart lies beyond the storyâs plot. The protagonist runs out of geography! Imagine that. The heart has nothing to do with time and space. It is a transcendental experience. To prove my point, I find it necessary orchestrate my own failure. I begin to question why a writer needs more story theory. I have to escape my own project. I abandon ship! And so what started out as a âhow-toâ book is looking more like a novel, and one with no boundary between past and present. I have no idea how to finish it.
How does my work differ from others of its genre?
Metafictionâis that a genre? Is there a genre where the protagonist discovers that his writer is also on board? And he becomes concerned that perhaps this writer doesnât love him sufficiently or appropriately, and by that we mean she isnât prepared to love him to death. But what kind of protagonist is it who wants to die? It makes no sense. It will make sense by the time itâs over. I wish it was over.
Why do I write what I do?
I wish it was over.
How does my writing process work?
Up at 6-ish oâclock. Two hours of writing before connecting to the wired world. Minutes removed from sleep and Iâm back on that steamer heading up a jungle river. I love it. This discipline of jumping immediately into my work-in-progress is the best part of my writing life.
I often make the mistake of going over yesterdayâs work to put a finer point on things. I probably shouldnât. But I find it difficult to proceed if things donât add up. Of course, I love rewriting. Endless drafts, thatâs the name of my writing game. Without them what chance do I have of my writing becoming art? Rewriting, the weave becomes tighter. Subplots and motifs resound more deeply. Magic happensâI find out what it is Iâm actually writing about.
As for my story-making processâyes I do practice what I preach. But what I preach is so simpleâThe protagonist will come undone. Thatâs it! Thatâs what readers anticipate. Beliefs systems will crash and burn.Â That’s what readers demand.
Utter failure is the portal through which every character finds freedom.
There, you see? I’ve just discovered why I write. Â #3 — Why do I write what I do?Â To spend my life vicariously escapingÂ to freedom.
Now, it is my great pleasure to introduce you to S.K. CARNES, a writer living in Friday Harbour on San Juan Island off the coast of Washington State. Sue is the author and illustrator of an award-winning childrenâs book, My Champion, and of a masterfully written novel, The Way Back, newly available on Kindle.If you want to know what a natural wordsmith sounds like, read Sue Carnes. Soon, perhaps next week, Sue will offer her own unique insights into her writing process. Sueâs blog can be found at http://susancarnes.wordpress.com/.
Miles (introvert, pessimistic, depressed) spends most of the story waiting to hear from his literary agent. The news wonât be good. Writers donât show up in stories as symbols of success. They are setups for failure.
Someone should make a movie of my life.
Forget the first 40 years, they were altogether too glamorous. No, my life more truly started when my 13-year-old son called a meeting to say, âIâm in Grade Seven, Dad, and Iâve attended fifteen different schools.â
I said, âWash your mouth out with soap,â but it turns out he wasnât exaggerating.
âPops, I want you to settle down,â he said.
So I quit shooting films, traded camera for keyboard, and decided that henceforth I was a writer. It was great. I soon became so broke that my sonâs mother sent support payments from Hawaii.
Once, I forced my son to accompany me to the Welfare Office. They gave me so much money it was humiliatingârent, medical and dental care, bus passes, food vouchers, extra cash. I had to cut them off.
Though I soon acquired a stable of clients, every November it seemed I was scrambling to pay the rent. I sucked up my pride and hit the streets to sell door to door. Water filters, home insulation, sports videos, memberships, you name it, even vacuum cleaners.
I spent eight hours performing a demo for an Italian household. The extended family showed up to watch and applaud as my machine hoovered that mansion top to bottom. I thought they were going to adopt me. Alas, no sale.
I remember one cold, dark and stormy night somewhere out in Vacuumland huddling in a phone booth, demo machine in one hand and phone in the other as I listened to my agent promise me my script was all but sold. Alas, optioned three times, itâs yours, cheap.
One day the Revenue Department came snooping around to deny me my business expenses. It didnât take her long to realize she couldnât squeeze blood from a stone. Lost for words, she said, âWell, Mr. ReeceâŠkeep writing.â
Thank you, Ms. Klenck. And I did exactly that.
I entered writing competitionsâthe 3-Day Novel Competition, Short Story Challenges, Screenplay Competitions, and Pitch-a-Plot workshops. But it is with special fondness that I remember the â24-Hour One-Act Play Competitionââall of us wannabe playwrights sequestered into one room.
Twelve hours into my scenario about a kid who is abducted off a golf course (well, they tell you to write what you know), I thought it would be wise to review what Iâd written. I pushed back from my typewriter (thatâs right, a typewriter!) and unenscrolled the paper from the rollers.
I was typing onto dot-matrix computer paper, you know, a continuous feed. I separated the sheets along the perforations and made a nice little stack which then fell to the floor. Thirty-five UN-NUMBERED sheets all helter-skelter.
I couldnât organize the pages, couldnât find the continuity, couldnât put Humpty back together again. If I didnât bolt from the room I was going to cry. It was 4:00 a.m.
Walking the streets, I was Miles and Roy and Henry and every fictional writer who ever agreed to let their creator thwart them to the point of despair and even self-loathing. Why werenât the cameras rolling?
At a convenience store I suffocated my existential crisis with anchovy & garlic pizza. That I was a writer caused the proprietor to reflect on his own life, roads not taken, etc. Lamenting his lack of courage to lead an art-committed life, he said something along the lines of:
âIf you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.â
I knew there was a reason, besides my sonâs ultimatum, why I was a writer.
At the same time I realized why I love movies about writers. As symbols of failure, writers depict Everyman at the brink of surrender. The struggling writer shows us what deep down we fear mostâthat the meaning of a life is to leave our old selves behind.
To be a writer is to have the courage to become unselved.
Spirits bolstered, I returned to the drama denâand damned if my abduction story didnât win First Prize.
My words since then have earned me a million bucks, which, admittedly, spread over twenty years is a modest living. But Iâm proud to count myself as someone struggling to bring forth whatâs in him.
Who in their right mind would be a writer? I think that being a writer indicates nothing but right-mindedness.
But getting back to my sonâIâd ring him for a golf game except the kid is doing so well that heâs off playing Pebble Beach. Last year it was The Old Course in St. Andrews. Next month Augusta National, it wouldnât surprise me.
For an opening line I think it works. What do you think?
See what coming? Exactly!
The reader is going keep reading to find out, and isnât that the overarching purpose of the first sentenceâto compel the reader to read the second sentence. Etc.
I was going to write a blog piece on âopenings.â By examining the first paragraphs of my upcoming book, The Writer in Love, I would assess the effectiveness of my beginning, see if itâŠ
Established a Central Question
Made a promise
Set a trajectory
But that opening line got hold of me and wouldnât let go. It wanted this blog post all to itself.
I sure didnât see that coming.
Then it hit meâthat line echoed far beyond Page One. So innocently tossed onto the page many months ago, it infected the entire manuscript, becoming a major motif throughout the book.
The cheetah is the first and most obvious thing I didnât see coming. It approached me from behind and grabbed my hand in its mouth and wouldnât let to. True story. I didnât see it coming was the perfect way to establish an essential fact of fiction:
Protagonists never see it coming.
Drama depends on it.
Protagonists donât see what coming? That which will destroy them. For their own good! Itâs amazing how many times we can hear the poets and the mystics say something like thisâŠ
âOur body is a ship that sails on deep blue waters. What is our goal? To be shipwrecked!â
And still we complain, âI didnât see it coming.â
Neither do writers see it coming.
We get in over ourÂ heads, trust me. We get excited about creating the kinds of payoffs that give readers their moneyâs worth. We find ourselves writing about characters whose only way out of Act II is to surrender to the storm, and by that I mean forsake who theyâve always thought they were.
I didnât see that I was laying a trap for myself by trying to write in depth about such sacred story mechanics. I was in way over my head. I was drowning, myself. I almost quit. I didnât see that coming, either.
I wrote a scene in which I drown. (That was fun.) I didnât see that coming, either.
I never expected to take almost two years to write The Writer in Love.
To be honest, I never anticipated becoming a writer. I was going to be a mapmaker.
I never thought Iâd have children until I tended my grandfather on his deathbed.
Nor did I imagine my children having children!
I didnât foresee my website vanishing a few weeks ago. I thought Iâd lost everything. I was resigned to starting over, but most of it is resurrected, and with a new design. Look, Iâm blogging again!
The cool thing about blogging is you can start with a line like, I didnât see it coming, and see where it goes. Because we donât write to explain, we write to find out.
We might equally say that we live to find out.
Iâve found out a lot while writing The Writer in Love. And it all started with this opening scene:
I didnât hear it coming.
It hadnât finished devouring the bait when my Bolex ran out of film, so I retreated but slowly, walking away through the elephant grass when it surprised me from behind by clamping down on my hand hard enough to hold me but not break the skin. The growl in its guts, I could feel the vibration in my arm if you can imagine that. And then in my own belly. Itâs a funny thing when your life stops suddenly dead in its tracks, itâs not funny at all because there you are for the first time without a future. As for the past, well, itâs your faultâmyfault!âI had been carrying the bloody bait in that hand. Of course, the cat could smell it. I could see that now.
All this death business relates to my work-in-progress, The Writer in Love. In this personal essay I suggest that âpaying the priceâ is precisely what proves the fictional heroâs heroics.
The Writer in Love concerns itself exclusively with this âdeathâ that takes place at the heart of a story. This is the scene where die-hard protagonists undergo a radical change of heart. They find themselves in such a deep dead-end that they have no choice but to surrender. Everything. Especially who they think they are.
We writers should be clear about our responsibilities to the protagonists we createâthe hero must die. While most writing manuals mention this âAct II crisis,â I seem to be alone in suggesting that here is the reason readers read and writers write.
Itâs worth a book!
But how do you write about something as amorphous as death? Iâm trying to write about death as a station on the heroâs journey, but how to sound convincing? Death is without dimension or language. It has no shape.
A book needs shape. It needs limits and dimension. Otherwise, what are we spending $4.99 on?
Anyway, I badly needed to step away from the keyboard and spend the day processing new insights about how death makes life worthwhile.
I must have been in a trance when I took this picâwhy else would anyone snap a shot of their foot? I was probably musing over another quote from Death, theLast God:
“Ideas of finding happiness and serenity away from the inevitable suffering of death are the superficial desires of spiritual materialism. We have to find happiness and serenity in the inevitable suffering of death. And that is a very different journey from seeking happiness by getting what we want.”Â ~ Anne Geraghty
I love it. Happiness in death. Talk about a tough sell. Itâs killing me!
Here I am having a heart attack. Just kidding. The shutter caught me bending down to examine what appeared to be my doppelgĂ€nger lying in the surfâa dead jellyfish.
I know what youâre thinking, that PJ is all spoof and superficial happiness on this Mexican beach, but the truth is Iâm in agony. Iâm stuck. And itâs not writerâs block, itâs worse. Iâve written myself into an existential crisis.
I didnât plan it, but my essay morphed into fiction and I became the protagonist trying to write a book. (Yes, very meta, I know.) Itâs a book that takes the shape of a journey to the story heart. I only wanted to be the narrator, but I have become a fully-fledged protagonist.
You see, if Iâm a protagonist, I canât permit myself to escape the facts of fiction. Starting with, the price of freedom is death. As in, Iâm going to fail so miserably at this book project that I lose all faith in myself. As in, this book is going to be the death of me.
Well, folks, itâs happening!
Iâm proving the existence of the story heart by my despair at failing to finish this book. Fantastic! Of course, now there might not be a book. Which might have explained why Iâm on the beach, had I not been refreshed by these latest musings on death.
Hereâs a friend I met farther along the beach. He was plucking out that Nat King Cole classicâŠ Smile though your heart is aching / Smile even though itâs breakingâŠ
Whatâs Nat saying here?âeven though youâre dying, be happy, donât worry, smile.
Ms. ChĂ¶drĂ¶n has calculated how long a person is required to âdieâ in order to disable the matrix of habits we mistakenly identify as âme.â Astonishingly, ChĂ¶drĂ¶n has calculated it to the tenth of a secondâŠ
One point six seconds!
Is she being facetious? Who cares? This is something I can run with. One point six seconds, thatâs how long the hero is required to keep his eyes open in the blinding light of utter annihilation. (Sounds like no time at all, but consider that the mystic Nikos Kazantzakis called this the âsupreme human achievement.â)
One point six secondsâsuddenly I have the framework for my book.
My whole book concerns 1.6 seconds of time.
Now, thatâs shape!
The price of freedom is death, and in 1.6 seconds youâre paid in full. And the price of my book will be only $4.99. That might be the best five bucks a writer willÂ ever spend.
Anyone feel they havenât read enough âhow-toâ books on writing?
Claudia in Mendoza, Argentina, says she hasnât finished reading John Gardnerâs The Art of Fiction.
Go for it, ClaudiaâGardner isÂ one of my favourites. But before you go, take two minutes to consider my argument for becoming a writer from the inside out.
First, a confession:
Back in the 90s, I devoured the ‘how-to” gurus — Gardner and Hague and Vogler and Egri and Goldberg and Field and McKee and Campbell and Walter and Ueland and Dillard. Those books still adorn my office, their authors looking over my shoulder as I type. How do I get anything done?
That’s the answer, Claudia of Argentina–the answer to the âhow-toâ dilemma.
Write your own manual.
Thereby will you finally be able to unhook from “how-to.”
7 Suggestions for Unhooking from âHow-toâ
#1. Consume fiction
Read your brains out. Good fiction and bad. Savour, chew, and digest buckets of it. Reflect on how the best writers did it. How she moved you. How the hell did she make me cry? And laugh! I fall to sleep at night replaying the scenes that blew me away, the scenes that turned the story around. What happened there? How did she do it?
I fall to sleep soothed by the art of fiction
#2. Fall in love with the art of fiction.
Write like a lover. I remember watching sports on television as a kid, and how the instant the game ended weâd bolt out the door, bounding like jackrabbits, to the playing field where we would emulate the champions. We played past sundown, playing our brains out, in the darkâWho has the ball!
Iâm equally hopeless whenever I read Virginia Woolf. I rush to my manuscript and emulate the hell out of her. I wrote the 15th draft of my novel ROXY in an adrenaline rush after reading Mrs. Dalloway.
What a joy to write like a lover. Weâre not mechanics. Mechanics think. Lovers love their characters ecstatically and to death.
#3. Love your characters to death
Thereâs nothing âhow-toâ about this dictum, because no one else can tell you how to love your protagonist to death. You invented him and only you know how to thwart him. But you have to do it, the hero must die. Just do it. It is (arguably) all that counts in fiction. Thereâs no âhow-toâ book out there that teaches you how to love your fictional characters to death.
To heck with âhow-toââwhat about âwhere toâ?
#4. Forget âhow-toâ in favour of âwhere-toâ
Whatâs the point of âhow toâ if we donât understand âwhere toâ? We wouldnât buy an appliance without knowing what itâs for. So, whatâs fiction for? Whatâs at the heart of fiction? Is that where it’s going? Whatâs it all about?
Reading the best fiction we learn (repeatedly) that the best protagonists are on a trajectory toward freedom from their lesser selves. Thatâs âwhere to.â Thatâs (arguably) all we need to know. We keep writing draft after draft until our protagonist has arrived. We know heâs there when he stops kicking and screaming. Heâs got that far away look in his eye. Heâs gone so far and is so disillusioned with his game plan that he has no alternative but to forsake himself. A higher cause descends. Thereâs no âhow-toâ about it. This may look like âhow-to,â but itâs not. Itâs about understanding the human condition.
#5. Donât try to BE a writer
âHow-toâ tomes often coax us to be a writer rather than encourage us to do the hard work that would turn us into writers. That is to say, write your brains out. Iâll bet there are young writers out there reading less literature than âhow-toâ books. Weâre being seduced into posing as writers ârather than spending the time to absorb what is there in the vast riches of the worldâs literature, and then crafting oneâs own voice out of the myriad of voices.â (author, Richard Bausch)
#6. Donât get it right, get it written
I sometimes run a course with such a title. Students write at home, then come to class to watch scenes from powerful moviesâscenes that give the audience their moneyâs worth. And by that I mean scenes that depict the hero challenging his own human condition. Challenging the right of his own beliefs to prevent his true happiness.
Immersing ourselves in fiction, we get a feel for a storyâs essential payoff. We are astonished each time we recognize it. And then we constructively and lovingly critique each otherâs work before bolting for home like jackrabbits.
#7. Write your own âhow-toâ book
Make notes on your own astonishment at how the best writers serve the art of fiction. Each of our understandings is bound to be unique. Your perspective is going to underpin your own advice about âhow-to.â Write that book and put it on the shelf and let it breathe down your neck.
Go for it, Claudia of Argentina. Write your own manual out of love for writing.
Our own âhow-toâ will be born of the love of the art of fiction.
Metafiction: a literary device that poses questions about the relationship between fiction and reality.
Not the kind of thing you would ever find in a book for 3-year-olds.
Until now, that is. I didnât intend to, honest.
It happened like this:
While writing Story Structure Expedition (which launches in two weeks) I found myself the unwitting protagonist in a Congo River nightmare.
Narrator — thatâs the role I signed on for. From Brazzaville we would head upriver in search of the heart of a story. My thesis would prove first of all that the story heart exists, then explore its deadly nature.
Something happened. The essay morphed, it went rogue. Characters showed up uninvited and soon I foundÂ myself inÂ Â a novella. I didnât ask to become fictional. I suppose itâs my fault for not blowing the whistle, which left me to face the consequences that befall any worthy protagonist.
I didnât quite get it — me,Â aÂ fictional protagonist in my own story.
Would I have to suffer the story heart myself? The facts of fiction demand that the hero suffer a massive failure. Meaning what exactlyâthat my book wouldnât get written? I would rather die.
I wanted to escape from my own story.
How meta is that?
Anyway, for comic relief I distracted myself by writing a childrenâs picture book.
A series of photographs would depict a woolly little character named Columbus who reluctantly abandons his storybook heroes to see the world with his own two eyes.
(Oh, yeah — Una Kitt — that’s my pen name.)
“Be a storybook hero yourself, Columbus!”
Do you see whatâs happening here? My cute little alter ego is being made to suffer my surreal ordeal.
“If I was in a storybook,” Columbus asks himself, “what would I do?Â Storybook heroes do something.”
Columbus confronts the very same metafictional existential dilemma. Itâs a book for three-year-olds, for goodness sake!
“If this was a storybook, I couldnât lie here all day, could I?” says Columbus. “If this book was about me, Iâd get off my woolly whatsit.”
Columbus doesnât have to wonder very long. The tide comes in!
Now he’s in trouble. Now up the Congo River!
Iâm bettingâin both these booksâthat readers young and old have a soft spot for the unwilling anti-hero.
Iâm already finding out. Columbus launched this week and itâs already heading for #1 in its category. One reviewer liked the âingenious concept that connected straight to the heart of my childâs imagination and to the way he already plays.â
Metafiction for kids. Whoâd have thought?
If you have kids, or are a kid, or just want to see Columbus hit #1, here’s the Amazon link to save Columbus:
It launches today as an eBook on Amazon.com. Ninety-nine cents!
Two years of finding out the hard way, I might add.
I discovered what itâs like to be a writer trapped as a protagonist in his own fiction. It sounds crazy, I know. The more impossible my fantasy became, the more I knew something original might be happening on the page.
âA mind-bending whiplash journey,â says one beta reader, âinto the heart of how and why a writer can writeâŠmemorable stories.â
Truth is, I headed up that jungle river with no such hifalutin hopes. My trip was fueled by a single question:
Does the story heart exist?
Does the story heart exist?
As if the heartâs existence needed proving, which Iâm afraid it does, though perhaps not to anyone with the instinct to open a book that promises an expedition to that very heart.
Does the story heart exist?âI let this central question fire me up, can you tell? Listen to this, from the bookâs Introduction:
[The heart] exists, all right. Ask the riverboat captain in Joseph Conradâs Heart of Darkness. Though the heart is hidden upriver, Captain Marlow can smell it leaking. The dread essence lures him to the far side of sanity. He sure found out the hard way.
Ask Rick, the American expat in the movie, Casablanca. Mention the heart and heâll break into a sweat as surely as if you were marching him at gunpoint to the brink of the abyss. âGo ahead, shoot me,â he says. âYouâll be doing me a favour.â Those are the words of a protagonist on the threshold of the story heart.
Ask that pair of mismatched mavericks in Out of Africaâthe baroness Karen Blixen and the hunter Denys Finch Hatton. The heart of their storyâas in so many of the best storiesâlies in the surrender of the protagonistâs hardened principles. But to relinquish oneâs precious beliefs is to die. So, die!
If I was to fulfill my role as protagonist in my own book, I might be required to go that far. How does a protagonist manage that? He canât, of course. Thatâs the job of his writer. Which explains why I had to bring her on my jungle journey, dammit. It was all I could do not to throw her overboard.
(I mean, what kind of book is this, anyway?)
What kind of book is this?
Hereâs what another pre-reader said about it:
A âmetaphorical, philosophical, crossover between prayer, meditation, marching orders, poetry and fiction, that will tantalize your imagination and your soul.â
Would fiction have become our lifelong obsession if it had no heart?
Would stories ring true?
Wherever else should their meaning lie?
If not for the story heart, how would readers get their moneyâs worth?
Why would we even read fiction?
Why would we bother to write it?
Does the story heart exist?
You be the judge.
In the spirit of a book launch you can help bump this baby into visibility on Amazonâs best-seller page by grabbing an e-copy of it this week for 99 cents. And if you feel your mind bending a wee bit, go ahead and leave a short review on Amazon.
All of you, thank you. Whether or not you have the time to support this launch, thank you for being an important part of my life.
Iâd created a Word document, which, after closing, I couldnât reopen.Â The file extension was beyond the ability of my Word program to open.Â How the heck does that happen? Â
Two hourâs work down the e-drain.
With a debilitating feeling of being hard-done-by, I donned my trenchcoat and went for a walk in the fog.Â
A speech about âThe Advantages of Adversityâ, thatâs what Iâd lost. Â How ironic!Â All my first thoughts, my raw material, memories, facts, connections, a web of meaningâall vanished in the e-ether. Â
Fresh air usually revives me, but on this especially funky day, every step marched me deeper into despair.Â Iâm going on a retreat, I thought.Â Deep country, unplugged, thatâs what I need. Since Iâm a digital idiot, this kind of funk overtakes me not infrequently.Â Uphill I trudged under a canopy of spruce into the foothills of Mordor, trudge, trudge, trudgeâŠÂ
I enjoy climbing.Â Peaked cap pulled down so that I canât see the slope, I perceive the road as level.Â Itâs a little mental trick that never fails to thrill me.Â
Unable to reference the incline, there is no hill, no hill working against me.Â My organizm is working harder to walk, yes, but there is no hill trying to defeat me, no antagonism, no psychology of struggle, just the indisputable facts of physics.Â It never fails, I feel quite unlike myself, as if I were on Jupiter under the influence of a more powerful gravity field.Â
Moving about on strange planets takes me out of myself.
Suddenly, a thought out of nowhere: âThe rewrite will be better.âÂ
Rewrites are always better.Â
What just happened?Â I knew immediately what had happened because Iâve been exploring it on this blog for yearsâour belief systems. Â Good things happen when our âB.S.â outlives its usefulness.Â My belief system (victim mentality) had been left behind at the bottom of the hill.Â
I didnât need it on Jupiter.
Wowâself-pity was weighing on me like an evil spell, which is what belief systems are.Â They are strategies, structures, rules, biases, attitudes, fears, all the necessary limits by which we negotiate this gloriously superficial life on planet Earth.Â When I shed the B.S., I became available to the truth:
My rewrite will be better.
Fictional protagonists, same thing.Â
The best fictional characters are cursed with belief systems that are not so easily jettisoned.Â The degree to which they hold fast determines the intensity of the drama.Â Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca.Â Listen to him: âI stick my neck out for nobody.âÂ
Thatâs the screenwriter telling us what every reader needs to know at the outset of a storyâwhatâs the heroâs belief system?Â
With that pitiful attitude, Bogeyâs trajectory is set.Â Events will conspire to undo his belief system.Â Bogey will eat his words or weâll demand our money back.Â
Sure enough, the love of his life (Ingrid Bergman) shows up and ushers Bogey to the depths of self-loathing.Â Remember the scene where she pulls a gun on him to get the letters of transit to America.Â He says, âGo ahead, shoot. Youâll be doing me a favour.âÂ
He doesnât care if he lives or dies.Â Now he can jettison his belief system.Â What good is a belief system if youâre on deathâs doormat? Â Ilsa notices him waking up, lightening up.Â Now sheâs in his arms.Â Look at Bogey, he looks a little lost, but now itâs all flooding back, the noble guy he was at the start of the war.Â You can see it in his eyes.Â Heâs catching a glimpse of the truth, who he really is.Â
Heâs rewriting his script.
The rewrite will be better!Â
As we know, Bogey sticks his neck out as far as a neck can go.Â He shoots Major Strasser, sacrifices his one true love, orders her to escape Casablanca with her husband so together they might bolster the Resistance against Hitler.Â
And, lookâŠ there goes Bogart in his trenchcoat, walking into the fog, a living martyr.
Time for me now to man-up and rewrite this speech.Â
(BtwâŠ what the heck is a âdocxâ file?Â Is it, like, some kind of curse?)
ââLove Yourself: this can become the foundation of a radical transformationâŠâ
âUnder the circumstances, I was willing to consider the thesis.Â Love yourself.Â HmmâŠ I read on:
ââDonât be afraid of loving yourself.Â Love totally and you will be surprised: the day you can get rid of all self-condemnation, self-disrespectâŠwill be a day of great blessing.â
âThe more I read, the more I liked it.Â It seemed so do-able.Â Just, âlove yourselfâ.Â I read it again and again.Â The day went by quickly with this dictum reverberating in my cranium like a mantra.Â âLove yourself, love yourself, loveâŠâÂ My spirits lifted.Â Â Â
âBy evening this sutra is circulating in my blood stream.Â Love yourself, of course!Â When I love myself to overflowing, thereâs some for others.Â I am finally able to love others.Â
âWho can love others, who hates himself?Â
âLove yourself, love yourself, love yourself, loveâŠ
âIâm walking home in the dark feeling fine, as you can imagine.Â On any other night I would have detoured into the disco for an hour, but on this night I just looked in the window, careful not to disturb these insights about âloving yourselfâ.Â A woman appeared at my side and took my hand.Â I didnât know her from Eve.
ââWhatâs your name?â she asked.Â I told her.Â âWhatâs yours?â I said.Â She replied with one of those Sanskrit names everybody seemed to have back then.Â
ââWhatâs it mean?â I asked.
âShe said, âIt means Love Yourself.ââ
End of story.
I wonât speculate upon how I conjured Ms. LoveYourself out of thin air.Â Perhaps Nikos Kazantzakis is right when he says itâs a function of desire.Â Hereâs the rest of what the author of Zorba the Greek had to say about manifesting what you want:
Â âThe nonexistent is whatever we have not sufficiently desiredâwhatever we have not irrigated with our blood to such a degree that it becomes strong enough to stride across the somber threshold of nonexistence.â
Desire âirrigated with our bloodâ, I hadnât thought of that. Â Desire figures strongly in my story theory. Â Only the strongest desire takes the protagonist all the way.Â All the way to her own undoing.Â Which is her awakening.
By building a protagonist with such a fatal desire, thatâs how a writer loves his hero.Â Thatâs the writerâs obligation.
Thatâs what I wanted to talk to the audience about.
If you missed my publishing news from my December post, it goes something like this:
Squeeeee! I have a book deal!!*
In the interim between the initial excitement and the editorial letter, there's a kind of a "did that really just happen" limbo. Luckily, I spent some of that time with family and friends but the following is a smattering of the (sometimes) bizarre reactions to my book news. 1. OMG! That's incredible! You've worked so hard for this!
The best reaction! Usually from the people who know how long I've been at this writing thing. My response: Thanks! I know, pretty wild? Still wrapping my head around it.
2. How much is your nice, fat advance check?
Yes, people really do ask this question! My response:
I get it, I do. Humans are curious creatures but um, really?!
3. You sneaky little devil! I didn't know you liked to write!
This was at a family dinner with a cousin I rarely see so I'll cut her some slack but for some reason this made me feel odd. As if I sit at my computer, twirling my moustache and laughing maniacally while I write. My response: Giggle. Blush. Mwahahahahaha... 4. What's the book about? Okay, totally legit question. My response:
5. Will it be a movie?
This question is asked with more frequency than I ever imagined, sometimes with genuine enthusiasm. My response: Um, well, no. It's a book. And I'm pretty stoked about that!
The funny thing is, all these reactions brought up a few unexpected feelings of my own. The most heinous and surprising one being: sheer terror. What had I done? Why not just perform naked karaoke to "Call Me Maybe" instead? My characters are my babies, and they will be "out there"...under scrutiny...possibly on Goodreads. Yikes.
And this got me thinking about #4. I think the real reason I don't have an elevator pitch is because I don't want a face-to-face snap judgement. What if the person replies, "oh, um, sounds good, please pass the blue sangria", or worse...no reaction at all.
Writing is such a fragile endeavor and mostly it's just you and the page with some idea of a phantom audience. It took a long time for me to share with others that I was even a writer in the first place (hence #3), I'm not sure why I thought I'd feel differently when I could finally say "My book comes out next year." Each new step brings its own set of fears.
So how about you Paper Waiters? How do you deal with bizarre reactions to your writing endeavors?
Editorial rejection has infected me like a demotivating virus. I have let it drive me from my office, until I rummaged in cupboards for Tylenol, tea bags and re-organization projects.
My âgiraffeâ manuscript has languished for a few months. I know I should send out the manuscript to several new and different editors. Yet, I have had trouble pulling it out of the file drawer. Itâs like my giraffe has entwined itself among the hanging files and is holding the drawer shut. I know if I coax him out, we may be able to find him a home. If he stays in the drawer, well...
thatâs a sad way for a giraffe to go.
Optimism Search and Recovery?? (Photo by EPO: Wikimedia)
This is a notoriously subjective business. I have not tried hard enough and I will keep at it. Options include: smaller, independent publishers, agents, conference opportunities. I'm simply looking for ways to recover my optimism. I take heart in the success of other writers, especially my fellow Paper Waiters -- well done Robin and Brianna!
Anybody have âresurrection after rejectionâ stories they want to share? How do you manage rejection? How quickly do you come back at it?
Most writers yearn to publish a book. No surprise! Writing conferences, blogs and professional journals are mostly aimed at book publication. Five years ago, I wrote about magazine publication as an option. Since then, the traditional book market (especially for picture books) is even tighter. And the digital/app market for picture books? Unless you are an author/illustrator, or your work is already illustrated, you're pretty much out of luck. Apps are expensive to make and developers usually look for established authors or a branded series.
So why not write for magazines? You'll get some rejection letters, but aren't they're always a part of the writing life? For non-fiction articles, you may have to write the dreaded query letter, but don't we all need practice with them? The only other disadvantages are smaller checks than a book advance and your moment of glory only lasts a month.
But consider the advantages:
1. You don't need an agent to submit. 2. Most magazine pieces are short - not as time consuming as producing a novel or picture book. 3. Using a different slant, you can often reuse your research for another piece. 4. You might see your name in print without waiting for years. 5. Often a wide audience sees your writing and you needn't spend hours on promotion. 6. You don't get wacky book reviews in professional journals. 7. Your magazine piece could earn additional money through reprint rights. 8. There are a bundle of contests and prizes to be won in the magazine world.
Next month I'll interview a senior editor at Highlights. Stay tuned.
We dined at one of the most respected French restaurants in New York City last week. After the main course, a woman pushing a two-tiered cart laden with cheeses arrived. âI am the commis de trancheur. Which cheeses would you care for?â
The âcommis de what?â We decided not to ask.
âA Brie, a Cheddar and a Blue, thank you.â My mother-in-law pointed as she spoke.
âWe do not have a Brie. That is a Boursault, produced by Grathdale Valley Farm in Vermont. It is made from cows milk. The Guernsey cows are milked only once per day, and fed organic Bahiagrass laced with millet, sorghum, and clover. They add a touch of oat grain and rye. It is produced in small batches and procured only by the finest establishments. The farm is renowned for...â And on it went, for each new cheese we tried to select.
She lost me at Bahiagrass. And she never described the taste.
This pronouncement of facts by a waitress with a fancy French label supplanted our status as âwelcome guestsâ or even âdiners who want cheese.â We became âignorant peasants in need of education.â
Is this what research-happy authors do to readers sometimes? Condescend, prove ourselves, or slip in one more fact, while ignoring the central plot point?
Just because youâre enjoying a meal, does not mean you want a lecture on the entire recipe. Research details, like herbs, should be carefully plucked, washed and chopped to support the plot.
Our cheese waitress left a bad taste in my mouth, like a spoiled sauce. With a similar feel from other servers, my emotional connection was fractured. I wouldnât return, or recommend it. It was a reminder to me not to treat readers this way. Like restaurants, authors can depend on âword of mouthâ marketing as a key to success.
How to do it is another question. How do you keep the details in check? Have you ever found an author who put you off so much that you wouldnât read them again, or you actively recommend against them? If so, why?
After a week's vacation in the "Land of Enchantment" (New Mexico), I have come home inspired and ready to write.
My only challenge... How do I recreate the diverse and magical spirit of this environment as a setting for a story?
Literature has long been inspired by place. The Grapes of Wrath, Gone With the Wind, To Kill a Mockingbird- each of these transports us to a very specific time and environment.
Much is involved in scene setting. To give a true sense of place, one must incorporate the following: physical environment, people, culture, language, and history. It is challenging to not let your setting interfere with (or upstage) your plot. It must be seamlessly woven in between your characters' actions and dialogue.
As I sort through my photos, maps, and free brochures, I think of the people I met, the cultures I experienced, the landscapes I hiked through. I'm not ready to resign my memories to a scrapbook or picasa gallery just yet.
But I am ready to share this adventure through storytelling.
What are some of the ways you incorporate a sense of place into your writing?
This week, Buzzfeed was one of several websites to focus on lists for writers. I have to admit, I got sucked in - I clicked on each one. So, for this week's reading pleasure, I give you my favorite lists of the week:
Itâs a full moon rising over western Tanzania.Â Â
The ragged ribbon of moonlight you see down thereâthatâs a rough and tumble highway known affectionately in south-central Africa as the Hell Run.Â
And that 5-ton truckâlook closerâitâs a load of car tires in a metal cage.Â At the wheel is a hungry looking Tanzanian and riding shotgun is a large Sikh. Â Up ahead, three boys stand on the road, forming a roadblock.Â What are children doing up at midnight?
And whoâs that mzungu with them?
The mzungu is me.Â Iâm the white boy making my way back to Zambia after steaming my way up Lake Victoria and then hitchhiking through Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania to resume my duties as a hydrological field officer in the Zambezi River basin.Â My last lift dropped me at the edge of this sleeping village, and I decided, what with a full moon and all, to keep going.Â
I was confidently vanishing into a valley when these kids called after me.Â I yelled back, âWhat?â and they said, âSimba!â and I said to myself, âSimba-schmimba.âÂ So much talk about simba, but how many people have actually seen a lion with their own two eyes?
âSimba eat man yesterday!â the oldest kid shouted.
So, there we are as the tire truck approaches.Â The boys, bless them, are going to commandeer this vehicle.Â The truckers have no choice but to let me climb aboard, not in the cab but in the cage, which the big man locks, and off we go.Â
Oh, what a magical moonlight ride!Â Iâm not sure Iâll live to see the dawn. Â Seriously, whatâs wrong with me?
When the truck stops unexpectedly in the middle of nowhere, Iâm sure theyâre going to kill me, but, no, theyâve stopped to strip an abandoned car of its tires.Â The cage door opens long enough for the highwaymen to toss in the tires and lock the gate and here we go again.Â
What a moon!Â The earth seems unearthly.Â I have never felt so far from home. Â Â
Iâm in Godâs hands, now, although I canât say I believe in what passes so conveniently as God.Â And yetâŠand yet I would appear to have faith in something.Â This brilliant night seems to hold something of value for me, but what?Â Truly, is there something wrong with me?Â
Years later, I discover the words of a writer who speaks about âfaith in the joyous tragedy,â and I think, yes, thatâs it!Â At the edge of the abyssâan inexplicable trust.Â Â Â
âWhoever was born with faith in the joyous tragedy, with enthusiasm for the ironic mystery; whoever sings YES; whoever risks disharmony because he desires beautyâŠâ
According to Nikos Kazantzakis, a Christian mystic, this counter-intuition is âthe supreme human achievement.âÂ If heâs correct, then our everyday minds have things utterly ass-backwards.
âThe Muse most worthy of the real man is Difficulty.Â She chases the easy victory away from life and art: the kind of victories that humiliate the victor.âÂ
Does that explain why I was hitchhiking the Hell Run?Â A test of some kind.
âLife should not be comfortable; it isnât to a personâs advantage to have it so. Â Nor should art.Â Never have the masterpieces of life or art been pleasant or easy.Â They are always rugged peaks to be ascended by the few.â
Kazantzakis, my brother!Â He says that contentmentâeven the absolute perfection thereofâonly perfects our âlittle selves.âÂ Easy victories donât begin to serve our greater needs.
âIf you respect your own soul, you have to spend yourselfâŠ be willing at every moment to gamble all you have, so that you may practice your strength.Â So that you may never lose the assured feeling that you can do even without victory and are ready to begin again.â
To hell with victory! Â Does the conventional mind even know what winning means?Â I mean winning in the larger sense?Â My everyday mind, what would it know about what Kazantzakis calls âthe brave and hopeless YES!â
The brave and hopeless âYesâ
My first novel, , fictionalizes my Hell Run adventure.Â It was written before I had ever wrapped my wee brain around “the brave and hopeless YES.”Â And yet it perfectly defines my young protagonist as he negotiates his own Act II dilemma.
The essence of my novelâthatâs it!âthe brave and hopeless YES.
Look again, PJâhasnât it become your main article of faith as a writer?Â Perhaps itâs every writerâs act of faith.Â Is it? Â Iâd like to know.
That dim landscape down thereâitâs the writerâs lifeâand there we are hitchhiking the Hell Run of our imaginations, making our way along that ragged ribbon of moonlight by the grace of the brave and hopeless Yes!
(Quotes are from “England: A Travel Journal” by Nikos Kazantzakis.)
This dispatch comes to you from the hour of the wolf.Â
Not that I canât sleep, no, the last thing I want to do is fall back to sleep.Â My brilliant idea would vanish.Â It came to me as I emerged from dreamland.Â You know, âwhen the mind is too weak to tell itself lies.â
When the mind is too weak to tell itself lies.*
The Holy Grail of altered states.
Here it is, pre-dawn, black bear still foraging for garbage in the alley below my office window, while my fingers prance around the keyboard as if theyâve broken out of jail.Â
The mind is too weak to tell itself lies!Â Write quick, PJ!
Conventional wisdom would appear to have no traction in the crepuscular hours.Â My principles arenât up and running yet, they canât obscure the truth.Â You might say that, having not yet showered or checked my email, Iâm not quite me. Â
Trust me, Iâm writing as fast as I can.
If this is an ode to early-morning drowsiness, we should hear from more writers.Â Novelist Nicholson Baker likes to arise with the birds because he finds âthe mind is newly cleansed, but it’s also befuddled.âÂ He discovered that he âwrote differently then.â
Joy WilliamsâIâve quoted her beforeâshe says,âA writer loves the dark, loves it, but is always fumbling around in the light.âÂ She reminds me of artists who say they see better in the dark.Â
Marcel Proust took opium to induce the desired effect.Â Charles Bukowski drank.Â Some writers practice âmorning pages,â streams of bafflegab becoming ever more truthful.Â At least thatâs the idea.Â You shovel hard with great faithâand doubt!âendless shovelfuls of gravel, superficial overburden, tons of it.Â Somewhere down there lies the bedrock of meaning.Â Maybe.Â
What about monks?Â Every night at three a.m. the search begins anew forâŠwhat? Â Meaning? God? Â Freedom?Â A monkâs life is a Zen koan, a cosmic question.Â Never mind an answerâbeware the answer!âjust show up.Â Faithfully.Â Doubt keeps us coming back for more.Â
Thomas Merton was a Trappist monk-poet-existentialist.Â Hereâs what he says about faith and doubt:
âFaith means doubt. Â Faith is not the suppression of doubt.Â It is the overcoming of doubt, and you overcome doubt by going through it.â
Thatâs it, thatâs the truth.Â We have to push through.Â At dawn, my mind is too weak to warn me away.
Ah!Â The eastern sky is lightening.Â I gotta go.Â
An hour from now my best interests will be hijacked by appearances and the everyday mind, and I will be buried under gravel, again.