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I know some. Not all. Not yet.
I know the sound of your voice.
And the shape of your body as you stand.
I know why you smile. I know when.
I know you, fingertips and feet, and the gray in your unshaven face.
I know you in the morning, your eyes across the pillow.
I know your silences and your guilt and your mistakes;
your secrets and the mask you hold against the world.
I know what you do in this world—I know what you intend there,
although I don’t yet know why.
I know the passion you will not confess.
And your resistance and refusal and the generous you.
I know what will shatter your world,
and the assassin role that authors play.
To write, we must first love.
And hope that our plot obeys that love.
We must know the character down to the faintest breath,
and still hope, always, to be surprised.
To imagine completely, love helplessly, ruin willingly,
is a control, a luxury, that real life does not permit us.
Did we see these moments clearly and remember them well,
in the hyper focus alive behind the writer’s eye…
or did we merely imagine them?
The adoration of characters in a created world
elevates our private silences, and yet spoils us for so much else.
It sours us for the mundane, even as it exalts the fleeting and the ordinary.
And, in our most closely held honesty,
we know we have surrendered the truths of the beating-heart life
for something that will never keep us warm or hold our hands;
the friend that a solitary grownup can cherish,
perfect, outlandish, imaginary, and undeniably real.
Fascinating. Special. And lovely in its way. The observer’s perch in a too-real world.
I don’t mind eating alone. I rather like it. My very sensual relationship with taste is often best served by a one-on-one experience rather than a ménage a trois. And there are added benefits…ones that remind me of the grace that is being a writer.
A couple sat at the table beside me in this close-in little French bistro. Clearly first-date country: the questions, the laughs, the lean-ins, the what-do-I-say-next…the art of “I’m interested.” Fascinating to observe the progress of this fledgling relationship—especially given my inexplicably less-than-stellar reception in Dating World, recently. The couple and I had some dear exchanges. They didn’t seem to mind my being so close; wasn’t a choice. As I got up to leave, the woman rose and embraced me…affection is glorious, even from a stranger, even if you’re not sure what prompted it.
The evening reminded me. Of the great gift of writerdom. Of deliberate separateness.
As we gather fruits of the human tree, we are immune to the things that sting. We share, in ways we could never express to a fellow human, the loveliness of a first encounter, of the dance of seduction, of pain and promise and joy. We celebrate awkwardness. We feel the twinge of not-quite. We watch love at its beginning and, sometimes, at its end. We do this innocently and without judgment. Apartness is a virtuous place.
Observerdom is the protection against loneliness. It takes us from isolation into the realm of Us. We do not shock. We are not disappointed. We do not fear silence. We know that there are only so many colors in life’s paintbox…but, oh, how magnificently they combine.
For the observer, life is ever full. The conversations are unpredictable. The possibilities are endless. The view is high and wide, the emotions are perfumed, the outcomes are unpredictable. We may not, except by happy accident, feel the human touch that we might long for, but the rest is glorious. This is the human universe. Welcome to the skyshow.
Is it fair? Is it right? Is it the refuge of a hack writer? Is it lazy? Or is it a legitimate crayon in the toolbox of a skilled fictionarian?
Giving the plot away.
You know what I’m talking about. You’ve seen it. The device of starting a book with an intriguing snippet of the ending.
This is a device perhaps more evident in “popular” fiction than in its more literary cousin…to suggest the fire of the finish without burning the reader in the process. To raise an image, an emotion, a plot point on the novelistic flagpole to try to get folks to salute.
We’ve seen it done well. We’ve seen it clunk clumsily on the page. But should it be there at all?
Plots can—should—develop over the course of the 300-plus pages. By the first few of those pages, we need to have the reader hooked. In doing this, the seeds of the story should be evident early, to, as Salieri said so memorably in Amadeus, “let them know when to clap.”
But how much? And how soon?
I think of Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, and a line that caught me…after a fairly straightforward description of the mission of the characters we are about to know better, these four words stopped me magnificently: They meant no harm.
I had no reason at that point to believe that harm was going to be done by anybody. Despite the dire state of the main character, I had no idea that a world was going to go horribly wrong. But those four words picked me up and threw me into the book. An eye-opener for a writer.
Would I have read the work without it? Sure: It’s a wonderful thing. Did it add to the writer’s ability to turn the pages for me? Without question.
Given the fidgety attention span of today’s readers, it may not be too outlandish to hint at what’s coming, to let them know that this is a tale worth following. The things we must ask ourselves are: When? What? How much?
Executed well enough, even a cheap trick has its place.
Our writer-minds—as I expect is true for artists and musicians—are catch-alls. Lumber rooms. Pack rats. Magpies. We gather shiny little ideas, riffs, compositions. We collect the things of life that appeal to us.
Sometimes those things aren’t ours.
We acquire. We steal. We don’t mean it. I daresay that we don’t even know we’re doing it. But we do. And that’s a scary thing.
There is a moment when interest becomes acquisition. A thing that some movie character said. A groove. An arc. These things don’t belong to us—we truly don’t even know they’re there—but we carry the treasures in our mental pockets, to bring them out when needed, to gild our own nests.
Deliberate thievery is a different thing. The plot “borrowed” from an existing work and reconfigured just enough that the borrower can throw hands in the air in feigned innocence…the tune that sounds waaaaaaaay too much like another…the visual work too uncomfortably like another… these are stolen recipes that stick in the throat.
But the other…the unintended, unconscious pickpocketing by our sticky-fingered heads: That’s the scary one. The possibility is enough to make a writer isolate herself from the cultural influences that feed her. It’s enough to make her live in a sort of terror that somebody is going to get to the finish line with the goods, even inferior goods, before she does. She doesn’t want to steal the pie off a stranger’s windowsill, as hungry as she might be.
We do not create in isolation. We receive the arts in all their forms with the hope of being blown away. A book whose chapters are mounted on the web, the blog post, the poem, the song, the work of conceptual art, the whatever…all of would like to believe that we have created something worth stealing. But to find that the deed has been done—and done by us without ever meaning to?
Not guilty, officer. Really.
Writers: Are we finders? Or manipulators?
I’d wager my latest Unemployment check that every dedicated writer has, at one time or another, had a friend who pushed away from a conversation saying, “I’ve got to be careful what I say around you, because I don’t want you to write it.” And I’ll bet that most of us have felt somewhat stung by those words.
Question is: Are they true?
We tell ourselves that we do not—would not—write about our friends’ quirks; that we are too principled turn their foibles into page-fodder. And yet, do we?
Writers are the hoarders of life. The magpies. The packrats of the emotions. We walk wide-eyed into the world daily, collecting everything we see, afraid to let a moment of it go. If a truth or a sight or a sound or an emotion shines for us, we pick it up. Ours, someone else’s…doesn’t matter. The attic-nests in our heads are crammed with stuff…so much of it tucked into so many deep corners that we’re unlikely ever to see some of it again.
We do that because we find the found-stuff fascinating. We find the finding fascinating. We find instants of truth in it.
When we write, we take the stuff out of storage, sometimes without intending to; we polish it up, gaze at it with our original fascination, and cobble it into something else. Moments of personal truth, nailed together by a story; a hopeful thing made up of the found bits. A non-truth made from other truths that, if we’re good enough at what we do, reflects a truth of its own.
The picture frame in which we’ve memorialized those thoughts, things, moments will still be there, but the picture itself will be faded to invisibility. The cobbled sculpture of assembled bits won’t be recognizable as anything but what it is. If I’ve displayed my own guts out to create a deeply flawed character, chances are you’ll never know it, not even if you know me very, very well. All you’ll see is an interesting shade of red; you won’t know that it’s my blood on the page.
Thus, the answer to the concerned friend is, “Yep, I am going to write about you. It’s inevitable, it’s a compliment—you’ve meant something to me. But don’t worry, and don’t be insulted…by the time I’m finished with you, you won’t even know yourself. Because I won’t either, by the time I’m done with you.”
157 pages into the rewrite…and how did it get to be Thursday again? How did it get to be March? Where did those tiny tree leaves come from; where did the daffodils go?
The sameness of days isn’t a sameness at all, although it seems to be when I find myself asked “How are things going?” The routines are there: the made bed, the cats fed, the exercise, the coffee, the day’s post. New birds are at the feeder; more of them. Eagles are nest-building nearby. The wind is fierce. The sky changes.
My life. Except.
Morning to late afternoon, my world is in the pages. In the subtle smoke of words. Of emotions created, intimate and real. Of another world altogether. Come evening, I enter a kind of stasis…a life suspended, waiting for the night that will bring the morning that will bring the writing back.
And that’s okay.
Heaven, as the David Byrne lyric goes, is the place where nothing ever happens. When the day disappears, I am where the work is. When I’m writing, I’m doing, not doubting. The mosquito-buzz annoyance of the real life is not humming in my ear. When the true day is gone is when I am most present and alive.
Any wonder, then, why the finishing of a book is such an emotional loss? Like a departed soul, it is a thing the writer gets to keep forever…but its daily there-ness is gone from one’s life. Mourning the last book and needing the next takes on a druggish proportion. It is a fretful place, consuming and uncomfortable. It is the party to which one has regretfully gone, at which one knows no one.
No surprise that students feel such separation anxiety at school that they turn four years into ten…that writers rewrite until the metaphorical pen has scratched clear through the virtual page. Like David Emory in The Spiritkeeper, we simply refuse to say good-bye.
I may know what day it is. But don’t ask me the date. We don’t have those on this planet. We know where we are by words alone.
There are few things that this writer loves better than waking with a defined task ahead for the day. A satisfying practice, that. Knowing what the day’s work will be—especially at the end-place of the book’s demands—sets the mind squarely on its path. Knowing makes the writer focused and purposeful.
The best of these intentional days begins in the knowing that there is a specific scene to write…one in which the beginning, the end, the purpose are known; one that requires walking in the mood of the characters from the moment one opens one’s eyes. That is pure joy.
The next best are days like today: Two pages of notes appended to the beginning of the manuscript that want me to find homes for them in the story. Placing each in its just-right place can be a challenge in a tightly-constructed manuscript. Sometimes it asks for other things to be rearranged or discarded. Most of the time, the story is better for the change, richer, often in ways that only a very attentive eye would notice.
Other next-best days are the days in which the task is open-ended. The daydreaming days. The scene is there but vague. The brain wanders after it. Sit-and-Think days are hard permissions to win from the self who wants to see words on a page when the day is done. Slacker days, they seem to be–even though they’re not.
And then there are the writing-writing days. A chapter to finish, a direction to find, a progression to smooth. As good as those other days, but tougher to master. A knowing-not-knowing.
Best of the best days are the ones like these. The grey-sky days of intermittent rain. Days with a November chill and the pale light of coming Spring.
The fresh-made cup of coffee, the day, the words, and me. In the task, I am among friends.
I am sitting in the quietly comfortable passenger meeting room of Springfield’s airport, waiting for a plane to land, waiting for my friend Belinda who is flying in to celebrate my birthday weekend. The writer is writing, even here.
It’s a tricky thing. Laptop open, bookfile within reach, tape recorded notes in hand, I must be very very careful here. The physical space goes away. The world in my head becomes more real than the one I see. The very time that I spend writing a post would be time that would consume me, should I apply myself to the book. It makes me jittery, knowing that. I could miss the arrival. I could let my friend pass me by without seeing her.
A strange residual effect, this. The world goes away anyway. Real isn’t entirely real. I understand why I never write when I travel—not unless I’ve ensconced myself in a hotel room. I am likely to miss dinners. I am likely to forget appointments. I may not remember to eat. The book is that alive to me.
I will be four days separated from the page; four days in company. I’m not entirely sure how I’m going to do that. I am out of practice in the ways of constant conversation. An evening I can manage, especially if it is one as rich and extraordinary as last night’s conversation with Kristina. The me of longer-term shared space is an iffy and uncertain me. Much like the me of airports. Here and not here.
I am a bigamist. A polygamist. A seductee. A ravening sensualist. A devotee of the serial relationship. A practitioner of the art of love-’em-and-leave-’em. For words.
I am crazy for words. I am, perhaps, crazy period. And I’m okay with that.
The sound of them. The way they linger in the air. The way they twine together, whispering, like two people in the act of love. The way they taste. The textures of them. The way they change the air or a paragraph. Words.
A dear friend in Chicago, back in the day, loved words as I did. He kept clippings on his wall of odd phrases and bizarre headlines; kept a folder of words he liked. I haven’t gone that far. But the love is there and constant.
I am easily suggestible. The wonderful bloggist Alexander Zoltai used the word “exquisite” recently; it has been with me ever since. Other words have stalked me in this way. For the book-in-progress, I have been obliged to keep a laptop folder of words with which I have been too much in love. Some of them are well-loved, oft-used and familiar. Some are coined. I find it difficult to trade in any of them.
A word used well can call the attention; can seduce the reader’s eye into pausing and reading again. The right word can be punctuation, drama, the crash of a cymbal. It can startle. It can change the direction and understanding of everything that came before it. A word can be an entire sentence. It can be an entire world.
Sometimes, they are the words spoken to me.
My latest beta-reader/friends have checked in about the first five chapters of Everything, the most recent of them this morning. Edgy, interesting, beautifully written, bestseller, crackles, deep, sharp…these are some of my favorite words, now. Especially when they refer to me. Thank you. Humbly, thank you.
What are YOUR favorite words? And why?
What are mine? I won’t name them here. My choices may well have changed in the moments between this one and the clicking of “Publish” for today’s post. For now, I am delighted to have a three-hour drive on my afternoon schedule: The road offers a long white line. And my head writes words there.
*My little tribute to Vladimir Nabokov’s amazing ability to pun in several languages at once. L’amour fou…get it? Get it?
What I find delicious about life as a writer are the revelations that most surprise me. And they start before I open my eyes.
The feeling of the pillows, the sheets; of my own warmth caught beneath the covers and returned to me. The weight of a cat against my legs. The fact that, without an externally-imposed schedule or the alarm clock that enforces it, I am free to doze and imagine. I am at my own pleasure to discover the sensations that greet my waking; to write them in my head.
The road, walked or run. The chemistries of air and light. The testing of muscle. On those mornings (that disguise themselves as burdens, sometimes), I gather the day to myself. And the hot shower after a time outside that draws the chill from deep in the bones…now the day is mine.
Silence where, in city life, sound used to be. The sound of the fridge in the kitchen, the clock in the hall, the roar of my ancient heating system, the small thunder of cat feet chasing through the house. The click of the laptop keys as I write the morning’s post. Mine.
Now, the charted course of the day. A setting before me of character and plot, like courses in a feast. Some days, the prospect is like scraping my head with a microplane. Most days, it is appetite and purpose and love.
The chance to be someone else from the inside. To map a path through a created landscape. To lose the day in myself and myself in the day. To take a doctor’s nap vacation that gives my mental focus back to me. To see the changes of cloud and light through the window at my left hand—and sometimes, not to see those changes at all. To discover that it is four o’clock before I knew that it was noon. To have before me the prospect of dinner to cook, a meditation all its own.
These are my days.
There are downsides, too. Plot problems that lay sticky and stubborn in my path. Memories of a past injustice that still rankle me. The job I don’t have. The doubts that nap in the corners of my head, waiting for the right time to come poke me with sticks. And pretty much everything about the “real” world, an entity I mostly prefer to deny and ignore. But no downsides. Not today.
There is a house to be cleaned for the visit of a beloved friend. An errand to run (and the change of view that it brings with it.) Words to be written in a book that, for the past week, has been a playground and a joy.
Solitary, yes. One breathes solo, as we all do. But there is wonder in air. When we trust ourselves enough to look for it.