From The Writing Life

What Will You Do with the Joys of Spring?

I know I’m counting my chickens before they’re hatched, readers, but this weekend felt like spring was in the air in Chicago. The air had that special mild feel; the wind that blustered about me was warm, and the sun was bright enough to make me squint. More than these little rises in the thermostat, though, I just felt that extra burst of energy that spring brings with it. I walked all over town, glad to make up errands and excuses to get outside. Before the week was out, I had filled the coming months with excited plans. I’ll be fitter! I’ll eat better! I’ll write outdoors and go to cafes and and and…

I know I won’t be able to accomplish all the excited plans on my calendar, but just having the excitement of planning is enough right now. Spring always gives me a boost of hopeful energy. And before you tell me not to get my hopes up, I know; as a dyed-in-the-wool New Englander, I know April has a way of having late snowstorms. My heart is hard and ready for this little taste of spring to fade. But once nature gets a foothold, it never seems quite as bad to dip back into winter for a while.

This also means that I’ve almost officially survived my first Chicago winter. I thought it would take extra strength of character, but it honestly wasn’t too unbearable, except for a few extreme days. And of course, this has me thinking about what the change of season means for our creative lives. Will there be more time, somehow, for writing? Will we be able to sit out in the sun and jot things down in our notebooks, or just think and plan and work on dreamier things? It’s hard to say. But we can certainly set ourselves up for success by seizing the joy of spring.

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Without This One Crucial Skill, You’ll Never Write Well.

It’s just that important: without this ability sunk deep into your daily habits and perceptions, without this skill coming as second nature in every aspect of your life, you’ll never be a writer. You’ll never write truthfully or specifically or well. You’re dying to know what it is, aren’t you?

It’s the power of observation.

Sounds simple, right? But without this power, you’re sunk. Every writer I’ve ever known began as an observer. It starts with looking at the world around you, and simply noticing things. The way the light shines through the leaves. The taste of mashed potatoes with too much garlic. The way your mother’s eyebrows knit together when she’s worried and relax apart when she’s happy. The way that this happens and that happens. The detail, the detail, the detail, of being alive.

It sounds easy. But most people who think they are doing a pretty good job of observing are really just noticing the surface of things, the clichés. It’s not our fault; it’s a natural feature of our human brains to try to absorb as much as we can by making assumptions, and filling in data from our past experiences. So if we’ve seen a clown in the circus before, then we assume every clown looks the same. Red lips, red nose, flower in hat? That’s how they all look. The cliché is a function of our brains; it’s a kind of cognitive shorthand. But if we want our writing to feel vivid and unique, to feel fresh and new, we can’t take any shortcuts. We need to go deeper with our observations.

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Expressing Your Point of View Is a Lifestyle. Are You Living It?

WRITERS ARE LUCKY. We have a built-in desire to communicate; it’s a need within us. That’s true of all human beings, but we’re lucky because we, unlike many others, have the tools to do it. But all too often, we smother that impulse and those means, preferring the safety of silence.

I was a shy kid.

 Shy with a capital S. So afraid of meeting with someone’s disapproval that I would keep silent in the most extreme of situations. My first day in preschool, I recall with a sting of shame, I wet my pants because I was too shy to ask where the bathroom was. Yes, it was that bad. Sometimes I look back and breathe a sigh of relief that nothing too terrible happened to me, because if it did, I’m sure I wouldn’t have spoken up about it.

Looking back on that terrified little kid, I wonder what was going on in her head. 

Nothing had traumatized me into this silence; it was just part of my personality. It was extremely difficult for me to speak my point of view. When I went over to another kid’s house and the parent asked me what snack I wanted, I wouldn’t say for fear of insulting them or seeming greedy. And when friends angered me or hurt my feelings, I bore those feelings in silence, afraid of losing that precious relationship. 

I suspect more kids than you think were like this.

There are the loud talkers, the needy kids, the showoffs, and way in the back are the shy ones, desperate to speak up, but scared to. As an adult, I can shake my head and see how much better life is in every way when you risk criticism, and when you speak your mind. Through experience, through growing just a bit older, I can see how speaking your mind becomes a powerful need. 

Once I got through the agonies of middle school, I was surprised to discover that speaking up felt good. It still does! There’s nothing worse than quietly seething when someone has offended you, or a job isn’t being done right; and there’s nothing more satisfying than expressing your point of view. This applies to relationships, friendships, coworkers, teachers — you name it. There is always a respectful way to tell the truth; and you are always entitled to feeling a certain way. Once I realized this, I became hard to shut up. I was always the big talker in class. I went on and on. I shared. I overshared. It can be intoxicating, to find yourself listened to and understood. I probably overdid it a little, but I was making up for lost time.

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When Are You Ready to Revisit the Past?

It’s been a couple of years now since I sat down and wrote the very first lines of the novel I’ve been working on. Turning back to page one can feel like a bizarre form of time travel; in one flash I’m the younger person who was nervously typing out that early, early paragraph, not yet sure of what this writing project would be or where it might go. If you can believe it, I wrote those first lines on my antique typewriter. Talk about a trip to the past!

Now that I’m re-visiting even the oldest parts of my novel to do a major edit, I feel invigorated to discover that in the time that has passed, my writing ability really has improved. I’m sharper and leaner in my prose style; I’m more readily able to recognize clichés; I’m fast and mean and vivid. Instead of returning to these early pages and feeling hopeless or confused about how to improve them, I know exactly what to do. But that process has taken time; I’ve had to go away and get better before I could come back.

When is it the right time to return to your old work?

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Why Your Emotions Are (Rarely) What They’re Supposed to Be

When all the mysteries of the universe have been figured out, I think we’ll still be probing the mysteries of the human heart like cave-divers with a wet match. It’s human emotion that is more endlessly surprising, more deeply satisfying and deeply frustrating, than just about anything else in life. The great novels of the past dealt with issues of society, history, religion, and gender in ways that have dated themselves; introduce the possibility of divorce, for example, to the great novels of the nineteenth century, and half of them wouldn’t have any problems anymore. Anna Karenina could have joint custody over her child and Madame Bovary would drop her husband like a bad habit. But these novels endure because they capture emotional landscapes and emotional troubles that are still the same troubles we face today. When science and law have solved even more of our problems in the future, good old fashioned emotions will still be tearing us up inside.

So how does this apply to our own lives?

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How does this apply to our own lives? I think so many of us, the control freaks especially, think at some point that we’ve got a handle on our emotions, thank you very much. In times of plenty and goodness, we kick back and think smugly that we’ve got a handle on it all. We know what makes us happy and we know how to get happy again when we’re sad. We know how to grieve appropriately, how to vent our anger. We’ve smoothed out the bumps on the roller coaster.

And then something unexpected comes along — a fight with a friend, a bad breakup, a disappointment, a misunderstanding — and it feels like we’re back to square one. We’re children again, overcome with anger or grief or self-loathing. Why am I feeling this way? We wonder. Why do I have to feel this bad? If it’s all happening in my head, if it’s my perception, then why can’t I control it? Why can’t I just stop being sad?

No matter how in control we feel, a bad day can still dump us back on the emotional roller coaster. Sometimes feelings are like a bad cold; we just have to wait them out. And they will not be hurried. The only cure for an emotional spell, I’ve found, is time. If we fix the problem, there’s still a recovery period to wade through. Emotions move slowly and cling to everything like maple syrup. They ooze through our bodies and leave residue behind.

So where does that leave us? How do we ride the roller coaster? Here are a few things I’ve learned about weathering emotional storms and understanding others’ emotions as well. This stuff is crucial to understand when capturing emotion in fiction; and it’s pretty important for developing your own emotional intelligence, too.

1. Time is the only cure. As I mentioned earlier, emotions move slowly and have a high degree of inertia. Even after you’ve resolved an issue with a friend, for example, you may find those hurt feelings lingering. Even after the person has said “sorry”, sorry doesn’t work right away. So give it some time, and give the other person time as well. All people take varying amounts of time either to cool off or to cheer up. Even if you’re worried that a friendship is about to end, give it a little time, and you may be surprised what a new day brings.

2. Respect others’ emotions. There is nothing more subjective than someone’s emotional state. I’m angry because you said that, but he’s just sad that you did. I’m ready to bounce back but he isn’t. That offended him but not me. We are all tremendously complex and tremendously idiosyncratic. There’s nothing more disrespectful than trivializing someone else’s emotional response. If we say, “Don’t be so sensitive”, or “you shouldn’t have been offended by that”, or “Why can’t you just get over it?” we’re telling the person that their emotions lack value.

3. Listen to your own emotions. You’re mad that your friend said something. But you’re not going to tell him. You’re not even going to admit it to yourself. You’ll just go about your day pretending to everyone that you’re not upset. It’s the perfect plan! Except that it’s a horrible plan. If you deny your emotion to yourself, it will find a way to creep out in insidious ways. You’ll become passive aggressive or cranky; you’ll pick on people for no reason. Remember to listen to yourself and be honest with yourself. Your emotional response has merit and validity. Try to figure out why you’re feeling a certain way. 

4. Emotions aren’t “supposed to” be anything. They are what they are. This might be the most frustrating thing about emotional states. We want to feel a certain way, or we think we’re supposed to feel a certain way. But our emotions refuse to comply. We want to be proud of our friend’s accomplishment, but a little bit of jealousy has wormed its way in. We want to stop grieving for a lost relative, but grieving just isn’t done. In this situation, remember that you’re not entitled to feel anything. Emotions are what they are; nothing more, nothing less. It’s our job as human beings to be astute observers, to probe and wonder and figure out why.

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How to Make a Character Readers Actually Char About

You see what I did there, right?

Kurt Vonnegut said that every character in your story must have a desire, “Even if it is only for a glass of water.” When I read stories submitted to the literary magazine I edit, or when I read student work for the creative writing classes I teach, the most common character mistake is that there is a total lack of desire. People go to a lot of trouble to create a person on the page. They think hard about their character’s taste in music, his favorite food, her darkest fear. They answer questionnaires and fill out all the little boxes of a character’s resume and life. They search baby name books for just the right name.

But then they don’t DO anything with all that information.

It just sits there, like a turgid pile of information, a giant paragraph on the second page or a long, long flashback that loses track of the main action. Or even worse, they do all this research and creation, and then they don’t use any of it. They know what a character’s darkest fear is, but they just show the character eating and sandwich and going shopping. Where’s the part where the fear comes to life?

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The way to make your character not only feel multi-dimensional but also worth caring about is to give your character a desire. It can be very simple. This character wants to make it to the wedding on time. This character is hungry. That character wants that character over there. Or the desire can be complex, contradictory, multi-layered; that character wants the approval of her parents. That character wants to be loved but also wants to be left alone. We need to feel that desire from page one of your manuscript, because it is that desire that moves the engine of the story forward. We’re not able to care about the events of the plot unless we understand what the character wants, and we begin to feel that want to.

That’s part of what makes great stories so seductive; even if the character’s desire is something we would never want for ourselves, we can cheer that character on and feel oddly invested in his quest. Think of Satan’s fervent desire to foul up things in Eden in Paradise Lost. Think of gangsters and criminals who just want to get away — and we are rooting them on. It’s desire that moves scenes and stories forward, and that gives scenes tension. Without that desire, no matter how eventful your scenes are, it will just feel like one thing happened after the other, a series of things happened to your character. But we need to see your character make choices and take action, and that can only begin with desire.

So here’s an exercise: look up some random photographs of faces on the internet. Try assigning a desire to each of those faces. Start simple; start with Vonnegut’s suggestion. This character wants a glass of water. Why does he want a glass of water? Why is he so thirsty? What’s going wrong in his life right now? And what’s between him and that glass of water? You’re halfway to a story already.

The 80-20 Rule Explains Why Your Story Isn’t Getting Published

I’m currently in the middle of moving in to a new apartment. One of the rooms is still Boxland; the others are starting to come together. I worked feverishly for the first week to get things organized. But as I neared the finish line, approaching Okay but not Great levels of tidiness, I lost motivation. The boxes sat around in Boxland for another week. 

“It’s because of the 80-20 rule,” my friend explained. 

“What’s that?” I asked.

He explained: the 80-20 rule was one of the rules of thumb about life, like Murphy’s law. The 80-20 rule stated that the last 20% of any task was as difficult as the first 80%. It was relatively easy to get many projects 80% done — you know, mostly done by most people’s standards — but it took tremendous effort to get that last 20% done.

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Does Fiction Need a Moral Imperative? Or Does Morality Just Get in the Way?

The previous article I wrote, about guilt, the homeless, and The Brothers Karamazov, got me thinking about what role morality has to play in the world of fiction. The Brothers Karamazov is one of my favorite novels of all time. No matter how many years go by, when I re-visit the work, I feel delighted, challenged, and inspired all over again. I remember hidden layers of depth that I had forgotten. I feel deeply for the characters. I can’t recommend this book highly enough, readers. It’s one of those books that really has the power to change a life.
And yet…it’s not without its problems as a novel.

The Brothers Karamazov is a big, gloriously messy book. A tremendously messy book, in fact. It goes one direction and then another; it swings wildly from joy to despair and back again. And it wears its heart — and its religion — on its sleeve. A devout Christian, Fyodor Dostoevsky had an awakening experience midway through his life that marks a sharp division between his fiction before and his fiction after this event. Sentenced to death by the Czar for his revolution-sympathizing works, he was marched through the streets of St. Petersburg on the morning of his scheduled death. Later he wrote of this day. He remembered walking with the other political prisoners through the streets of a square, and seeing the morning light touch a golden dome. The image was so beautiful, he wrote, that he would never forget it.

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Why Writers Are All Looking for the Loch Ness Monster — and Why We’ll Never Find It

My favorite part of writing a story might be the moment right before I begin writing a new story. I’ve been mulling over an idea, sometimes for weeks, before I ever let pen touch paper. I’ve been planning and shaping and pushing characters this way and that. And all the time I’m thinking, this is going to be my best story yet. This is going to be the special one.

In my mind, the “special story” is that Loch Ness monster I’ve been trying to capture for all my writing life. It’s the mythical story out there that is The Perfect Story. None of my flaws and failings as a writer have crept into it. It’s punchy and vivid and not a word is wasted. It’s haunting and lyrical and deep, but not too long. It’s the misty vision of a perfect story that I think so many of us writers have in our head. 

And then, full of optimism, we touch pen to paper — and what happens? All the usual failings come creeping in. First one cliché wiggles its way into a sentence like a worm into an apple. Then there’s another one. We let it go because the imperative of the story is pushing us on right now; we can tolerate those cliches, we can fix them later. So we write on. Somewhere around page three or four or five, I begin to realize that this story is not going to be the Loch Ness monster. It’s not going to be that fabled perfect story. It is already disappointing me, already quietly telling me to quit. Give up, my sad little story whispers. Even my handwriting on the page starts to look silly and childish, preoccupied with immature things. 

The problem is that just like those poor dreamers, the seekers of bigfoots and Yetis and Nessies, I’m chasing a fantasy. I imagine the process of writing to be eventually putting perfection down on the page. And while we can polish and polish and make things truly excellent, we can’t let the idea of The Perfect Story stop us from writing any story at all. Too often I become discouraged halfway through writing a story and I decide to cast it away rather than go through the hard work of finishing it and making it work. I’ve got a folder full of disappointments, and all of them began as Loch Ness Monsters, as creatures that I thought could become unique and perfect, could rear their heads up through my writing life like nothing anyone had seen before. 

Does this mean I’m settling? That I can’t write well and movingly? Not at all. I know there’s a seed of talent in me, but it always takes more work than talent to draw something out of its rough husk. To chase after the Loch Ness monster is folly — and it distracts you from all the wonderful realities out there that can be reached. I don’t want to toss back my next story the moment I realize it’s not going to be the mythical story. I’d rather hold on to that fishing line, very patiently, and slowly, painfully, reel in what’s actually there.

The Book is Dead. Tweets Are All We Should Read.

You didn’t think I was serious, did you?

Sometimes I feel like I have to get my students’ attention when I tell them how important reading is for our lives to be rich, full, and well-lived. I’ll make fun of how they tell me they haven’t read a book from cover to cover in years. If you aren’t reading, then the book is dead, I’ll say. Why do we care about all these dusty old tomes if you, the young generation, the people of the future, aren’t reading? Maybe we should just be scrolling through people’s witty tweets. Maybe that’s all we really need to read anymore.

By this point, even the most reluctant readers in my class are usually reading. Come on, they say. We know tweets aren’t really the same. And they’re right; there’s something missing in our lives if we give up on immersing ourselves in a story that’s longer than a few dozen words. We lose the sense that our own lives are narratives that it is our job to shape. We risk forgetting that there is a longer arc to our lives than simply the narrative of the past few frantic days, the twenty-four hour cycle of scandal, sensation, outrage, and loss of attention. If we lose that long perspective on things, we risk forgetting what makes a family last or a marriage succeed; we forget how justice and opportunity changes in a nation and how people learn lessons and become wiser as they get older. 

Still, there are an awful lot of people out there who aren’t doing a lot of meaningful reading. Do you read more now or less than you did before? Do you spend more time with your eyes on a phone or on a book? Do you think more about what book you’re reading or about checking your email? If we’re perfectly realistic, even the most readerly among us spend a lot of time not reading. There are just so many demands on our lives. But there’s always hope; there’s always a way to carve out time for reading. Toward the end of a busy semester I always get thinking about this. It’s at the end of the old year and the beginning of the new one that I tend to throw myself back into reading. Maybe it’s a good time for you to do it too. Because what I tell my students is true; if you’re not reading, then the book is in the process of dying. The book dies with you; it’s up to you to keep it alive. Will you keep it alive?