I had dinner the other night with my friend Robert whom I met in fourth grade. We were very best friends for two years until we left for different schools and then it was only sporadic visits, really, just a few times through high school and then a twenty year gap and then one afternoon in Los Angeles for about an hour and then another fifteen year gap and finally dinner last week in Hollywood.
Robert lives in New York now and he’s in town to produce and edit a documentary for the Discovery Channel.
We sat down at my favorite Thai restaurant and were instantly transported back to elementary school. The best of friends, remember. We were making films again in our heads with his regular 8, spring-wound motion picture camera. Thirty-eight years had not passed. It was very Einsteinian – we folded time to reconnect our lives.
This is not a unique occurrence. I remember attending a wedding, sitting down with a friend from high school to talk for a short time. Later, his wife asked him how it was seeing me again and he replied, “It’s like the conversation never stopped.” He meant the “conversation” that was our friendship, which had been set aside for twenty years.
It works conversely, too. Sometimes you meet someone for the first time and the conversation is so open and honest that you know you’ve made a friend for life. Or, perhaps you’ve known this person through eons of previous lives and the opportunity to meet again has just occurred.
I can’t help but feel that I’ve known most everyone I haven’t met and then I meet them again. It’s comforting. Here we are again, rolling through the stages of human existence, seeing the world anew with all the fears of children entering the forest. Here we are again, hello, do you need a hug, can I hold your hand through this next step, will you hold mine? Don’t worry, we’re going to make it. And then we’ll forget everything all over again. It’s heartbreaking to lose a friend but there’s the chance that we never really die we just start fresh for another go-around. But the memories, it’s a shame to lose the memories.
I see people and I know they’re on a journey and everyone must face it alone even with friends and family at their side. And we’re all so brave until we crack and then sometimes we’re braver.
It can be really terrifying and maddening and unfair, sometimes cruelly unfair, the things we are made to endure through the adventures of our lives. It can also be terrifically unique and joyful, too, seeing the world through our own set of eyes.
I have a special walk I take to the cafe where I write most days. It gives me the chance to see the world through my joyful eyes. It’s a tree-lined slice of woods near the beach and I watch butterflies and hummingbirds and crows and sometimes wild parrots flit about. And the Jacaranda trees shed their lavender flowers. And I smell the Jasmine and Society Garlic and there’s even a touch of Rosemary which I touch and bring to my nose. There’s always the sound of kids at play and dogs barking. I pet every dog I can except the short-haired ones which my wife is allergic to and sometimes I even pet the short-haired ones, too. As I descend the hill to my cafe I see the ocean spread before me.
The walk grounds me.
I guess what I’m getting at is that I find it necessary to stop, open my eyes, and listen. The world has plenty to say. And every single person I know or have just met after having met before has a story to tell.
Writing has been wonderful in that it gives me an excuse to slip between the cracks of people’s lives. To ask the really pertinent questions. Why did you go into this line of work? What makes it special? How does it make you feel? Was it the right choice? What do you really want to do? Are you happy?
Not exactly the kinds of research questions one expects to hear from an author. There’s an art to it; you work your way up to the tough ones. You start with things like, “How many quarts of blood typically drain from a human body?”
That’s a detail question. Anyone can pull the answer from a quick Google search. “Are you happy with the decisions you made in life?” Try Googling that one.
I’m really struggling with my current work-in-progress right now and I’ve determined the reason I’m flailing is I’m trying to tell an entertaining story and not a story about LIFE.
I don’t want to be remembered as a plot-meister. Plot is important and I’m a devout plotaholic. But plot without purpose is pointless. And, while a character’s purpose is not always known, his search for purpose is everything. The most interesting stories I’ve read involve the hero’s search for purpose while he’s busy chasing the murdering sons-of-bitches who did him wrong. I’m not interested in the chase unless I’m interested in the character.
Oh, I have babbled on today. I’ve decided that my blogs will take me where they must. Their primary purpose is to keep me engaged because if I’m engaged then maybe you’ll be engaged, too.
So, here’s a few good questions to throw off your day. For those of you who chose a career separate from writing, why did you go into this line of work? What makes it special? How does it make you feel? Was it the right choice? What do you really want to do? Are you happy? And, if any of this makes you feel uncomfortable, how many quarts of blood typically drain from a human body?
Sorry this posted late, guys…the system locked me out when I tried to post last night. Thanks for being patient!
Oh, Stephen, I love the fact that you continue to connect with old friends.
And that daily walk would be like going to church.
I'll wait for Jonathan to answer the 'quarts of blood' question. I will say that I love your commute to work, Stephen. Sounds awesome. I wrote something in a comments section earlier this week about what led me to teaching (Louise's post, maybe?), and yeah, most days it makes me happy. Wish I could better provide for my family though. We're so exhausted at the end of each day that I barely have the energy to be creative and try to write, let alone work a second job to help with bills. But it can be very rewarding sometimes.
Still, I love the days of the internet. I was always more of a dreamer than a doer, and so I'd dream up all these stories and write them out in my head to keep me company when I got bored (which was/is often). But I'd never write them down, because I didn't see the point. I didn't think any of my friends would want to read them (writer's self esteem, I guess), and I had no idea how to make a go of it as a professional writer. As a teen, I didn't even know where to start. Then there was that high school writing teacher, Dr. Humble, who wanted everything to be purely literary drama (no horror, nothing like that). I tried to tell her Stephen King wrote stuff like that and she said, "When you have published as much as him, come talk to me, until then it isn't going to work in this class." So I never had the first clue A) that I could be a writer, or B) how to go about getting there. But now, with so much info available on the web, I know what to do, and haven't lost so much of my writing life to doubt (thanks, Dr. Humble) or to time that I can't still give it a go. So now I am.
Oh, and btw, Alex is 1,000,000 times a better writing teacher than that turd I had in HS. All of you 'rati are, because you all show us so much of the life and craft that we would never know otherwise. You guys all rock.
Louise – yep, it's a spiritual journey. I love the walk, but sometimes it distracts me from the primary purpose of my day, which is to sit my butt down and write!
Jake – you are so definitely a writer and it's such a shame that one teacher led you down the wrong path. I had teachers like that, too. In some ways they freed me to write, because I felt I was never going to learn the "rules" so I might as well just write what I want for myself. I never thought I'd be a writer because I didn't know how to diagram a sentence. Thank God I never learned. But I also had wonderful, lightening-rod teachers who inspired me to become a better writer. One in particular who kicked the cliches out of my work – I fought him like a dog on every point, and he was right on every point. I finally got it, thanks only to him. I have a feeling you're the kind of teacher who inspires. I think you're the kind of teacher I wish I had growing up. It's a very noble profession and one of the few that can turn lives around.
Beautiful post, and perfectly timed. I've been worrying that my WIP is sacrificing plot for people . . . but maybe it's not a sacrifice at all?
I'm also going to call one of my best friends, whom I haven't seen in six years — every few months, we exchange a flurry of e-mails, instantly connecting and catching up, but it would be nice to hear her voice again.
To answer your questions: I'm a librarian — which is perfect for a nosy, know-it-all, show-off who can't be more than three feet away from a book or information source (any format) at any given time without experiencing withdrawal symptoms. I flatter myself that I'm good at it . . . and you can't beat the health insurance.
Seriously — it's my calling.
Plus, the library is a great place to observe humanity in all its variations. I've also met experts in all fields (and nabbed 'em for my own research purposes), helped local writers research the kind of details they use in their own work (this giving me ideas about method and madness), and I'm currently moderating a short story group that has taught me so much about the different ways readers read — priceless!
But for all the above, I still wouldn't mind cutting just a few library hours for more writing time . . .
(I think the blood volume question depends on the circumstances — under non-traumatic conditions, the human body likes to keep its insides in, so drainage is probably 'a negligent percent of a quart.' But whack it with something sharp and hang it high, and the answer is probably closer to 'all of them.'' Told you I was a show-off.)
Sarah – I have a huge amount of respect for librarians. I remember my first big research assignment in college, how I threw myself at the mercy of the local librarians, how they helped me through the jungle, taught me how to LOVE the search. What a cool thing to do every day – step into that magical place and know that someone out there is looking for you, needing your advice and expertise. And to be challenged every day. It's so much better than almost all the jobs I've ever had in my life – which were "circular" jobs. Like being a waiter or working at a grocery store. The kind of job where the purpose is to keep the cycle going – keep it moving – it's the same before you walk in the door, it's the same after you leave. Nothing changes. Most all my jobs have been circular jobs.
Oh, another superficial, la-di-da posting from Señor Schwartz. Christ, when are you gonna get serious, dude?
I loved this line: Plot without purpose is pointless. I see T-shirts, bumper stickers. Pimp those suckers.
Okay, seriously: I share your affliction. I've just plowed through a handful of writing tomes as research for my own (McKee's STORY, Vogler's THE WRITER'S JOURNEY, Lajos Egri's THE ART OF DRAMATIC WRITING), and they preach from the same pulpit on the primacy of premise. (Wouldn't you love to hear Daffy Duck say this stuff?) It's all about the stakes, and as much as plot-driven stories can crow about being all about life-and-death, you can't feel that without engagement with all-too-human characters who speak to your heart.
Your account of your walk to work, juxtaposed with your reflections on loss and disconnection, did exactly that. It conjured both the small details that comprise a life meaningfully lived, with the stakes: death, loss, the absence of meaning. Trust that. Whatever squalls of doubt are afflicting you with this book, trust your sense of the stakes, the big-ticket issues, but also your ability to render the small, significant moments that connect us with your characters, with life itself.
Also, a word for Jake: I wonder if you've reflected on the fact that you not only responded to Dr. Humble (how Dickensian, that name) by pursuing your writing, but by becoming a teacher.
As for the quarts of blood issue, I'll get back to you when my research assistant stops draining.
David – you a funny guy, mista. You a funnny guy.
I remember Egris' THE ART OF DRAMATIC WRITING…what a great book. I borrowed it from another writer once and it was too good to return. It's okay, he hasn't returned my THE THINGS THEY CARRIED, either. We should do a blog about all the books we've taken from others, and all the books we've lost to friends. My 40th anniversary issue of the annotated HOWL by Ginsberg went to a friend and all I got was a book on the history of DaDaism in return. Not a fair trade.
And I'm a big proponent of Vogler's work, as I think you know.
Thanks for the kind words. I'll just keep plugging away, trying to get that humanity down on paper.
I think a lot about the nature of friendships and the people who come and go throughout our lives. Because our family moved so often when I was a child, I have repeatedly been ripped from people and pets who meant the world to me, never to see or hear from them again. For example, when we were evacuated from Nigeria during the civil war, we left behind not only friends, but people we had been dependent upon for our safety, people who begged us to take them with us. I have no idea if they survived that conflict. With the internet, I've been able to reconnect with people I never thought I'd hear from again, and that's been mostly rewarding.
I fell into a career as a paralegal by accident. I didn't plan it that way, and I never had any interest in law until I started working in it. It's not what I really want to do, and I'm burnt out on it. What I like about it is the variety of issues and the people I work with. Each case is different, each client has good and bad qualities that come into play. It's interesting, and it's given me a good foundation in research and writing (although legalese is kind of mind-numbing). I would much rather write novels, but I have to make a living. It's given me good fodder for writing – after a couple of decades working in various areas of law in several states and England, I don't think there is much that can surprise me anymore.
Great post. Just like in a photograph of some enormous natural feature, human beings give a story depth and scale. The more human the story, the greater the scale.
A very thoughtful post, Stephen. And I can visualise that beautiful walk you take.
I became a lawyer. First few years I enjoyed it. (I'd hated law school and was always on the point of dropping out.) Then I lost enthusiasm – and walked away from the job.
Like Jake, I was a dreamer. And the law had given me one thing. A bit of experience. I'd met interesting people. Worked in the family law courts, the criminal courts. Been to visit clients in prison and police stations, regularly. Became friendly with certain cops. Drank with them and listened to their war stories.
The week I quit the law, on a whim I signed up for a screenwriting seminar. Result? No screenplays written – but 12 radio plays broadcast. (Here in Europe radio plays are broadcast each week.) I just took the 3-act structure I'd learned, and began writing tales mostly about the law. When I grew tired of writing radio drama, I got round to writing a screenplay. And found an agent in London who liked it, and who worked with an agency in L.A. It didn't sell. But my agent persuaded me to write a novel. And this comes round to what you're saying in your post…
For me, character is everything. I've a hard time plotting. My agent told me the book wasn't commercial enough, and he passed. I stopped writing. But there are times when ideas for screenplays come to me, and I think, "Hey, isn't everybody writing screenplays?" And who wants the character-driven stuff these days?
A final point, Stephen, about old friends. I live in Germany. Last Christmas I heard from the wife of a friend I hadn't seen in years, saying he was dead. I could so easily have hopped on a plane when he was alive and caught up with him. I knew he'd been ill. But there was always an excuse to put off the trip back home.
Hey, don't forget about the rest of us – who didn't chose work we loved. We chose what seemed responsible and proper ("smart children become lawyers and doctors"), possibly because our faith in our creative abilities and dreams was too dented to saddle up and ride away, or we'd fought hard but eventually come to agree with the voices telling us that being dreamy and inventive would cause us to starve and die under a highway overpass.
I'm a lawyer. It was responsible and made my family look good. Didn't think I could be a writer or a creative because I didn't have the degrees and credentials, and I wasn't (frankly) flaky and uncontrollable like my visual artist relations. But I'm at the end of the road, or the end of a road, with law. Finally at 41 have uncovered the parts of myself I kept trying to kill for 20 years so I could fit in, and those parts don't really like anything about business law (and never did). And I can't try to fit in any longer. Being who I really am makes the gray flannel suit too constricting, you know? So we shall see.
Friends. I'm having more of a painful schism now. The friend in middle and high school I kept in touch with longest and I have grown almost entirely apart. I'm married, working, trying to create in my off hours, and she's still single, spends time with her mom, and seems very worried about listening to the "right" bands and doing the "right" thing. There just isn't anything to talk about any more. On the other hand, I made a new friend a few years ago, both of us adults, and its like we're two sides of the same coin.
Nice kick in the ass post for me, and I do that walk in the morning but it goes in a circle back to my house. Now if I can just escape the 70 hour weeks I've been putting in at work, I might have some brain waves left for the manuscript. What was I thinking when I went to law school? I chose control and money (frankly) over the struggling poor writer thing (the suffering writer is a hard thing for me to strap on as a vocation) and while it has delayed my debut as a novelist it has enabled me to do certain things that I'm pretty proud of, and not just my work, but also has allowed me to make others' journeys easier. That's worth the publishing delay. And if I ever finish this damn manuscript, it's gonna rock. (Thanks to you for your help in the SFPD research.)
MJ, you need to change up. Take one of Corbett's writing courses (he does some on line) and release that inner child that's unhappy in the gray suit.
Love the post – it is perfect for today. I woke up in a state of slight overwhelm, that escalated until the equine massage therapist arrived at the barn and handed me a tissue with clary sage, vetiver, and geranium essential oils dropped onto it. That did a nice job clearing things for me and now I'm in and reading your post was like part two in the clearing. Thank you!
I had a lot of ideas about careers – veterinarian, marine biologist studying dolphins, writer, ESP researcher, psychotherapist. I started out with an English degree and then veered to psychology. One of my early college year creative writing professors told me she thought that being a writer is actually very close to being a psychotherapist. I think she was right – in some ways writing novels uses the exact same energy as does seeing clients. I walk through the dark places with clients and characters. And although I really did for many years think I was going to be the vet for the US Equestrian Olympic team, I did not – but all week I have been doctoring my senior mare's one eye that she scraped up terribly while I was away last week. Maybe we find ways to do all the things we thought we wanted to do in life. That her eye is nearly healed now is all the career gratification I need for that long-lost vet career!
I'm rambling too – hope everyone at Murderati has a wonderful July 4th weekend. It's writing group weekend here on November Hill so I will be writing away. 🙂
Boy, there's some spectacular comments here…
Jenni – your story tore my heart out. I would be hurting pretty deep if I went through what you did. It would definitely give me something to write about. Although sometimes the things that are too close to the raw nerve are the hardest to write. I also thank the Internet and Facebook for bringing my friendships back – I've connected with almost all the people I went to elementary school with. I don't know how this would have happened if not for the Internet.
Zoe – I love how you translate concepts into images. You're a very visual writer.
Richard – your comments hit me on many levels. First of all, screenwriting is a bitch. It's taken me twenty-five years to get a foothold as a screenwriter, and I had to publish two commercial novels first to get a break. I wouldn't advise writing screenplays unless you live in L.A. because so much of the job is the schmooze. You've got to be around for the meetings, meetings, meetings. And ultimately it isn't satisfying work – film is a director's medium. Put your time into writing another novel, and then another, and then another. You will find satisfaction in that eventually, I can assure you. It's great that you have the radio plays in London, that there's actually a market for that. The options in the U.S. are minimal. As far as your note about your friend who died…I hear ya. I'm in the same boat with an old high school friend who has MS…I call him, but I'm just not visiting. I know I'm going to wake up someday and find him gone, and I will have lost my chance. I'm not exactly sure what I'm so afraid of.
MJ – I did not forget the folks who took jobs they hate. You're looking at one. Almost all the thirty jobs I've had in my life are jobs I hated. Hated, hated, hated. My last “real” job I was the Vice President of Sales and Marketing for a national lighting company for TEN years. It was a “career” job, there were hundreds of people in line for it. It paid well and I got to travel. I hated it. It was killing me. It felt so good to finally quit it, just six months ago. I hope to God I can keep getting the writing gigs so I don't have to go back to a sales job again. I hated wearing the suits, the ties, yuck. Now I wear combat boots, jeans and t-shirts all day long. That's my dress-up clothes. Listen to Allison Davis, she's right where you are, working her way to her dreams. It's a painful process, slowly working your way out of a hated career. It took me three and a half years to write my first novel while doing the sales job – every evening and weekend and holiday and vacation. It nearly killed me, but it paid off.
Allison – boy, I didn't think I was going to choose the suffering writer route. I thought I was choosing the famous, rich film director route. Then, too late, I tried to find a “respectable” job, which had to be sales – I'd spent way too much time trying to write screenplays and make films to go back to square one and apply for law school or medical school. I know now that to become a lawyer or doctor is the last thing I want. But I'm incredibly impressed with people who go that route and then gradually move into writing – they amaze me – people like you, Tess, Jonathan, JD, Alafair…and I know more than most how you've given to folks who need help – you actually use what you've made of yourself to help others realize their dreams. I cannot wait to see your books, your dreams, on the book shelves. I'm not going to join the lawyer club, so you better join the author club!
billie – geez, I wanted to be everything you wanted to be. I started off wanting to be a veterinarian – I was sure I was going to follow through with that. I wanted to be a zoo vet. My first job at age 13 was working at an Arabian horse stable. I watched the vet work on the horses and pretty soon I realized that I couldn't stick a tube up a horse's nose, or worse…I decided to just love animals and not try to fix them. I also had (and still have) an interest in psychotherapy, working with dolphins (and gorillas) and ESP. I guess the great thing about being a writer is I can be all of that and more – at least my characters can, and I can get pretty close to it all by interviewing the people who have chosen to make those jobs their careers.
Allison – I'm Googling Corbett's classes right now. Let us further unleash the elephant in the room, the girl who cannot help but see that the Emperor is naked!
Talking about my firm, of course, not Mr. Corbett (though hey, we're all online, any one of us could be naked, nothing wrong with that…).
I myself am particularly naked, MJ.
Well, thanks for putting THAT image in my head … ;-]
I wrote the mother of all novels and gave it the once over several times. I wrote a sequel because the characters demanded it. Both are done but not publishable. I began a book that is way beyond me and is character driven. Plot? There's supposed to be a plot?
I worked several years providing child care to infants and have very romantic recollections. It was damn hard work and not full of rocking chairs and babies cuddled , sleeping in my arms. No it was ministry and daycare paper work, screaming infants that were too young to figure out that I was already feeding two and rocking two others. I don't blame them they were sweet little babies that I loved but it wasn't romantic at all. In fact most of my misery came from not being able to do more, give more, be better at it.
I have begun writing childrens books. I get them. Just when I think, 'hey, this could use conflict,' it comes to me and the balance is there and the length is correct. They are only early readers, books that would not have chapters but rather, large colourful pictures that preschoolers to grade two would read. I'll try for publishing later this year but I'm writing because I enjoy it. And maybe, just maybe, I'll return to the longest English novel ever written (my own!), pull out the reams of ya-da-ya-da-ya-da and blaa-blaa-blaa and maybe, just maybe, there will be something worth submitting. Even if I don't, I had fun writing it and I'm glad that I did!
Oh god, is everyone naked here?
Stephen – brilliant. Really.
Every time I thought I'd chosen a career, or at least a path to one, something came along to set me in another direction. Every good job I've had came to me serendipitously. Everything really fun I've ever done came to me via recruitment. I don't know why. I believe that I was not an outstanding worker or student. I had some good ideas, maybe, but not like others I knew who really produced amazing pieces of work. Now I am on long-term disability leave from Harvard and, although I would love it, do not expect that I will be able to return. That was a fantastic place for me. Now I am writing, something I also love, and don't know where that will take me. I've never written fiction before, except for a bit of dabbling here and there, yet find my mind completely overtaken by it. I wonder if I might not have always been an artist at work and school? In a way that might explain my approach to them both, as I had such clear boundaries as to what I would write academically, say, and do for either condition, those boundaries and their doings within being inspired rather than forced by unreasonable constraint. Overall, I am much happier now, not because I am not working or at school, but because I have discovered this part of me.
Debbie – your work providing childcare to infants sounds like it was extremely demanding and, despite all the misery, probably pretty rewarding as well. Pretty important stuff you were doing there. I knew a guy who became a "cuddler," I think they called it, where he just picked the primies from their incubators and held them, and rocked them slowly. These were babies that were most likely not going to live, but they needed love while they were around. It makes me cry just thinking about this. Talk about a noble job. I think I would shatter if I did it too long.
I've often thought of writing children's books – I'd like to write something my own kids are allowed to read.
Reine – well, you had to suffer some pretty serious shit to discover the part of you you now love. One door closed and another one opened. It's a testament to your passion for life that you are as happy as you are and that you are eager to grow creatively, to grow out of the box you were in when you were doing academic work.
Another very thought provoking post. It's like your walk is happening right in front of me. Especially the dogs fishing for a little attention. They're offering to re-charge your life-force batteries. They have no idea you're getting as much out of the contact as they are. I've heard that Compassion is the hallmark of intelligence. And you have it in spades.
So, I went from writing and directing to working as a commercial real estate agent in Las Vegas. From the poorhouse to the penthouse in three years! What a blast! Then of course Vegas went bust, now I'm back scratching with the chickens! Whatever. I'm always happy – knowing that life is all about repeating cycles. You're up, you're down, it's Monday, it's Friday… Ya just gotta be zen about your lot in life. It can always get better and it can always get worse.