I recently gave a reading of some of my newest stories. I love readings. They give me a chance to listen for what’s working and what’s not working. This is trickier than it sounds. When I write to be funny, I can listen for laughter. But when I’m writing to express darker or more complex emotions, what should I make of the silence? I enjoy trying to discern the different qualities of audience attention.
The reaction to one story was particularly interesting. They enjoyed it but then they wanted to know what happened next, after the story ended. I didn’t know myself. The whole story was what I just read for them.
Now I get to figure out: were they right? Was the story I read just the beginning of a larger story, or was it already complete? And if they were right, what’s the rest of the story? The feedback was up to them and the response is up to me.
The older I get, the more I think our literature teachers were playing a long game.
I remember some of the stories:
The Grapes of Wrath
The Old Man and the Sea
Seriously? How many teenagers would understand these? It’s not their fault. It takes years of living to appreciate them, years that they haven’t got yet.
But they will get their years soon enough, and when it’s time, some of those students will remember the stories they read when they were kids, and they will come back to them, now ready.
And those teachers…they’ll be long gone. Maybe they’ll still be remembered. We can hope so.
Not all the stories I read in school were meant for later. I remember one book in particular, The Little World of Don Camillo by Giovanni Guareschi, introduced to our class by Mr. Patrick Sullivan. I have no idea how a book of short stories about a fictional village in post-war Italy made it onto the reading list for American high school students, but I have always been grateful. I enjoyed the stories then, and I still enjoy them now.
Mr. Sullivan was also the one who introduced us to To Kill a Mockingbird. What a lucky guy to have a job like that.
When a story I’m working on is boring or frustrating me, one way I’ll try to fix it is by changing it around.
Change the protagonist from male to female. Change the point of view from the employee to the manager, or from the the mother to the son. Change the setting from the campus to the apartment, or to the best friend’s parents’ lake house.
It’s surprising how often I find a new insight when I do this. It’s too easy to look at things a certain way. Try it a different way.
It’s strange to see how I’ve changed as a writer. I look back at my earlier work and think, what a funny silly guy.
I can’t write like that anymore. It’s not me. I’m glad I wrote what I did when I was that person. If I had waited, that guy would be completely gone.
The best book idea I’ve ever had has been sitting in my head for almost twenty years. I tried working on it when I first thought of it. I even conducted research and started the first draft. I was so excited. I wrote fifty pages, got stuck, and gave up. You all know how it goes.
It’s still my best idea, and now that I’m older I have a deeper understanding of the main character. If I had succeeded in writing the book the first time I tried, it wouldn’t have been nearly as good as it could be now.
But I still can’t write it. I have finished only two novels to the end of the first draft and never completed one. I don’t have the technical skills to do justice to the idea. I need to learn more by writing other books. I have to wait a bit longer.
But not too long. The person I am now understands this book. There is no guarantee the person I will be in the future will understand it or want to write it.
It’s a tricky thing. I have to prepare for my idea, know when its time has come, and then act on it.
Have you ever been in one of those meetings that never ends because everyone keeps saying the same thing? How do you suppose that happens?
I have a theory.
I think most people like to talk more than they like to listen. They focus on what they need to say, not what the other people need to hear. This is natural. Talking feels good and relieves stress, even when no one else is listening.
But talking alone doesn’t help if the purpose of a meeting is to get to a consensus or a plan of action. If all the fireflies blink their way and never respond to others, then they never synchronize. Similarly, if you only repeat your points and never reflect back the points of others, you’ll never converge. You’ll just keep blinking and waiting for them to converge to you, and they’ll do the same – for as long as it takes.
What to do?
Listen more than you speak. Listen for what the other people want and show them you’ve heard it. Listen for “yes, and”, not “yes, but”. Be the first to do it. And be patient when everyone else keeps on talking. They haven’t figured out yet what you’ve figured out, that listening is powerful.
I have the bad habit of rereading my own writing. Not for any useful purpose, but just because I like to.
When I read something I’ve written I have one of two reactions.
What’s interesting is that my reaction changes from one reading to the next. Everything I have ever written was both pure genius…and shite.
I discovered this duality early on, and I have come to understand that both are true and neither is true. Or the truth is unknowable.
This is sad, of course. I would prefer to think my work is brilliant all the time. (Maybe it is.) But it is also liberating. If I can’t know whether my work is good or bad, then I can’t worry about it. (Although I do worry about it.) All I can do is keep writing. Which I do.
I recently re-read The Help by Kathryn Stockett. For any of you who haven’t read it – or seen the movie or listened to the audiobook – get it now. Fantastic, fantastic story. One of my favorites. Ever.
This time I noticed something new: how skillfully Stockett uses tension and pacing to hold the reader’s interest. The book is laced with mysteries from the largest scale down to the smallest.
At the book scale, there is Skeeter, Aibileen, Minny and their book about the maids. Will it get written? How will it be received? What trouble will it bring? How will they live afterward?
At the chapter scale there are the stories of the individual characters. How will it turn out for Aibileen and Mae Mobley? For Minny and Celia? For Skeeter and Stuart? What is the Terrible Awful? What’s Celia’s real problem? What happened to Constantine? What will Hilly Holbrook do next? Stockett keeps us guessing, in part by switching from one narrator to another every few dozen pages, in part by introducing and resolving questions over long spans of time.
At the page and sentence scale, Stockett takes her time in every scene. No question in dialogue is answered immediately after it’s asked. No thought is allowed to run to completion without interruption. No action succeeds without first overcoming an obstacle. Part of the author’s expertise is in being able to do this smoothly, withholding, delaying, and surprising without it feeling mechanical and formulaic.
The book is four hundred pages long and is a page turner almost the whole way. Any writer trying to learn how to hook reader interest can learn something from The Help.
My best ideas show up when I don’t try. They just magically appear. I really shouldn’t take credit for them because I have no idea where they come from.
I have found that I get my best ideas in the shower. I can’t tell you how often I’ve gone to bed with a problem and discovered the solution while rinsing shampoo off my head.
This is not to say I don’t try. I do try. I think, I struggle, I work, I worry. I do all that. But none of it seems to help, not until I get in the shower the next morning and the answer arrives from nowhere.
I’ve learned to accept this as part of my process, and now I encourage it by leaving spaces where ideas are welcome. I go for walks. I set aside time during my commute. No radio, no music, no audiobooks. Just thinking about whatever.
The answers come…if I prepare for them…if I let them.
I recently wrote a story about a character who meditates, and that led me to resume meditating myself after a lapse of several years.
I now remember why I stopped: because while I was meditating…trying to quiet my mind…trying to let distractions go…my thoughts were FILLED with noise. Not just I have to remember to pick up my dry cleaning noise, but Why aren’t you a vice president yet? and Why didn’t you get a date to the senior prom? Oh you know why, Charlie. Shut up! Thoughts drifted through the air and stuck to my mind like dog fur clings to a velvet suit.
I quit meditation because I felt like I was failing at it and making myself sad at the same time. Who needs inner peace that badly?
And then, while meditating, I had an insight. The purpose of meditation is not just to let go of distractions and have them be gone. It is to practice letting them go. It is to develop an awareness of when you are distracting yourself and strengthen your mind to set the distractions aside. Without distractions there is no practice, and without practice there is no improvement.
This idea struck me so profoundly that it screwed up the rest of my meditation…which was okay since I knew I would be coming back to my quiet place at the same time the next morning, in order not to think about my new realization.
It’s official: the story idea I’ve been working on for the last three weeks is book-sized, not a short story. My wife confirmed my suspicions when I told her the plot over breakfast. It’s a bit of a relief that I don’t have to write it, like hearing that I don’t have to drink twelve gallons of water today after all.
But it’s also a disappointment. I’ve been trying for almost three months to finish enough short stories for my book, and I am still working on that last 15,000 words. I am already behind schedule and some days I feel like I will never finish.
But it’s also good news in disguise. The story I finished earlier this month – even though it was ambitious by my standards, it needs to go still deeper before it’s good enough. The idea I let go of today – it’s a book, not a story, and it will be difficult to write if I ever pick it up again.
I’m getting less satisfied with my own work. This is a good sign. It means if I keep working I might jump off my current plateau. The frustration is a necessary precursor to progress.
But, Lord, before making me even more awesome as a writer please let me finish this damn book. Thank-you, Amen.
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