Yes, I know, the vagaries of Wildcard Tuesday have put me up two days running. Forgive me.
I’m giving the keynote address for the Redwood Writers Conference on April 28th, and the theme of the conference is “Taking the Next Step.”
In the spirit of all the changes rocking the marketplace, I originally titled my talk, “Beyond the Book: Writing Opportunities in a Multi-Platform Era.” I thought I’d discuss the need to be narratively nimble these days, with skills that can encompass not just novels and stories but scripts as well—not just for TV and film but computer games—basically revisiting themes I addressed here on Murderati back in December.
But then I looked at some of the seminars on tap for the conference. One is titled “Indie Publishing,” another “Tomorrow’s Publishing,” one addresses “Blogging as a PR Tool,” another “Googling for Promotion,” one deals solely with Facebook and the conference concludes with a panel on ebooks.
What, I asked myself, could I possibly add to this excellent offering of information without being conspicuously redundant? (Quick answer: not much.)
As I was pondering this conundrum—and what else, realistically, does one do with a conundrum?—I glanced at an article in the New York Times Magazine titled “Why Talk Therapy is On the Wane and Writing Workshops Are on the Rise.” It’s by the prolific, brilliant and mercurial Steve Almond, with whom, ironically, I’ll be sharing faculty duties at but another writing conference, this one on the Mendocino Coast, which will be held July 26-28 this summer.
What I particularly loved about Steve’s piece were these two observations:
I recently began leading a workshop composed of students in their 50s and 60s. All have children and busy careers. And I sometimes wonder, as I look around the room, what at this late stage they’ve chosen to write at all. I fear that perhaps I’m giving them false hope. But it’s hard for me to remain cynical when I think about their motives. What they’re seeking is exactly what I wanted: the refuge of stories, which remain the most reliable paths to meaning ever devised by our species….They are hoping to find, by means of literary art, braver and more forgiving versions of themselves.
And as for why the Web doesn’t supply a means of gratifying our need for self-expression:
But the Internet, while it might excite the desire for creative self-expression and sudden acclaim, does little to slake our deeper yearnings. What we want in our heart of hearts is not distraction but just the opposite, the chance to experience what Saul Bellow called “the arrest of attention in the midst of distraction.” We want to be heard and acknowledged. It’s the difference between someone “liking” our Facebook update versus agreeing to listen to our story, the whole bloody thing, even and when it runs up against the bruising revelations.
I’ve just completed a manuscript titled The Art of Character that Penguin will be publishing in January 2013. In it I maintain that the only way to a deeper understanding of your characters is through an exacting and unsparing examination of yourself.
And though in my workshops I almost always focus on craft, and find my students in particular crave and benefit most from discussions of structure, there always remains an element of the personal in the stories they want to tell. Their protagonists invariably share many features with the person telling the tale.
I think there’s a common purpose in our heroes and ourselves. I think the heroic journey is one in which a braver, more loving—and I would add, wiser—life is the true underlying desire. And by writing as truthfully and as deeply as we can, we share in that journey.
I think Almond’s insight that “We want to be heard and acknowledged” is based in the simple need to be loved, which is to be seen for who we are, not who we’re expected to be.
Many of us are obliged to reach outside our families for that love, that chance to be seen more honestly, more openly, more acceptingly. There’s no guarantee that will ever happen.
But in the lonely work of writing we make an attempt to fashion ourselves into a truer version of who we are, combining who by necessity and habit we’ve been with who by effort and insight we hope to become. We learn to balance the generous with the judgmental. And hopefully, by sharing our work with others and reading theirs in turn, we earn our right to be seen by looking on others more fairly and thoughtfully.
Writing allows us to rise a little more in spirit, by combining acceptance with ambition. We cannot deny who we are, wounds and warts and wants and all, but we can’t deny the better self we strive to be either. In crafting our heroes, we implicitly recognize the need to be a little more than we’ve allowed ourselves to be, recognize that the fault lies within, as does the remedy.
When my wife, Terri, died, I was assaulted with well-meaning advice on how to deal with the loss, a lot of which was largely beside the point. But I saw in those attempts to be kind and caring a message I did indeed need to hear: I couldn’t live with a ghost strapped to my back.
That, in the end, was the message I took away from my grief: I had to find a way to live when the most important person in my life—my best friend, my lover, my bride—had been devoured by a savage, indifferent disease.
And after the battles with despair and rage I decided that each day I would try to be a little braver, more truthful, more forgiving. I thought if I kept it that simple—three virtues: courage, honesty and love—I might be able to manage it. And I’d live up to Terri’s example, for she was the bravest, most devoutly honest and most selflessly caring human being I’ve ever met.
But in the eleven years since she passed away, I’ve learned how tricky honesty can be. The unconscious makes liars of us all. We want what we have no business wanting, and trick ourselves into thinking our motives aren’t just pure, but noble.
Our egos are weak-kneed imposters, even when the will is strong and our insight keen. There is always a shadow trailing behind, reminding us of all we left unsaid and undone.
And all too often we face situations in which there seems to be no true or honest choice to be made, only two or more alternatives, each freighted with potential for pain as well as happiness. And so we don’t march confidently into the right decision, the true and honest choice. We wander a little further ahead, keep our eyes open, and hope for the best.
Instead of being honest I’ve tried, as pompous as this may sound, to be a little wiser each day, by which I mean accepting as well as truthful. I try to be aware of how I’m kidding myself, and rise to the challenge of being a bit more clear about why I’m doing something, while remaining aware that I can’t escape my blind spots. I try to seek a bit more balance, between solitary and social, determined and relaxed, firm and forgiving. Wisdom is the commitment to honesty combined with the humility of knowing that one day I’ll look back on any given decision and think, on one level or another: Who did I think I was fooling?
Bravery too can sound overly grand, but it has to be measured by the fear it overcomes. Sometimes it’s as simple as being disciplined instead of lazy, or staying at the keyboard even as the nasty cackling voice within tries to convince me that nothing I write matters, and in any event will never be as good as I hope. As I’ve become more aware, I’ve sometimes been amazed how often in any given day I have to push past some fear of judgment, rejection or anger to accomplish even a minor task. And if that’s the little braver I become that day, well done.
I’ve seen this same evolution in my protagonists, watched as they strive on the page to reach some place where their courage, their love, their hope for wisdom means something. And thanks to Steve Almond’s piece, I’ve begun to address this in my classes—not overtly, I don’t want to scare anyone off. But I realize my job as teacher is not just to make sure my students know where the midpoint of their story is. It’s to help them in some small way join the hero in his quest for a better, fuller, saner life.
As with therapy, there’s always the risk that by shutting ourselves away in the cocoon of self-examination we’re in fact tricking ourselves. If writing is mere self-scrutiny it can help me get my bearings, but there’s still a real world out there, full of people to engage and care for, challenges to meet, and our all-too-real mortality to face. I’m neither as unique as I pretend nor as alone as I fear.
That’s why I stress to my students that, despite what one often hears, we don’t write for ourselves. Even though so much of writing takes place in solitude, a writer who writes for himself is scribbling to a ghost. We want to be heard and acknowledged, and that requires that we make our interior lives clearer not just to ourselves but to others.
And the paradox is, the more we trust in story—the more we subsume our need for acknowledgement to the craft needed to write well—the more likely it is we’ll succeed. When we let our characters speak for us that delegation of duty humbles us, reminding us that we’re part of a long tradition and that storytelling is a fundamentally social enterprise.
Stories provide a prism through which the writer and the reader can observe each other without the glare of narcissism. The indirection provided by story allows me to reveal, and my reader to witness, what the hero is trying to show us both.
I believe that’s why stories are, as Steve Almond says, “the most reliable paths to meaning ever devised by our species.” They work at the level of image and emotion, they require discipline and skill, and no matter how fanciful or grand they oblige a sense of humility and responsibility.
Or at least that’s what I intend to say to the attendees at the Redwood Writers Conference. The next step—with each word, each page, each working day—is always to be a little braver, a little wiser, a bit more loving.
So—do you agree that writing workshops have supplanted talk therapy? If so, is this a good thing, or a god-awful thing?
Does a writer ever truly write just for herself? Doesn’t she on some level have to? If she worries too much over how her audience will respond, doesn’t she risk becoming over-cautious and dull?
Has your writing life obliged you to be braver, wiser, more loving?
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Jukebox Hero of the Week: Levon Helm is in the late stages of cancer. I can’t imagine the music of my life without his voice. This song, “When I Go Away,” seems an almost too fitting farewell: