Writing problems are personal problems.
I can no longer remember where I first heard that, but I’ve come to realize it’s one of the truest insights into writing and the writing life I’ve encountered.
An example: I have a tendency to see the trees not the forest, to get lost in the rough, to marvel at the minutiae and miss the big picture. This isn’t just true of my writing. It defines my life.
I’m so obsessed with getting things right, with not making a mistake, that I dwell on details far longer than I need to. I over-complicate, listening to my nag of a brain instead of my gut. Over and over, I have to remind myself: What’s the goddamn story? Keep it simple, stupid.
It’s one reason I write so slowly. It’s also the chief reason why it took me so long to silence my inner critic and let go of the cancerous perfectionism that kept me from accomplishing anything. I’m not a late bloomer. It just took me too long to escape the prison of my own self-doubt.
Two weekends ago I taught a class I blithely call The Outer Limits of Inner Life, and it’s intended to get students in touch with the real life people and experiences that, knowingly or not, form the raw material for their fiction.
As Jim Harrison remarks in his novella, “The Man Who Gave Up His Name” (I’m paraphrasing here, having just spent half an hour trying and failing to track down the actual quote in my copy of the book): The sad truth remains we don’t get to be anyone else. The inability to accept this fact accounts for the questionable psychological states of many Hollywood actors. Look at them. See the folly whirling in their eyes.
I normally conduct this class by leading the students in a series of exercises: first, to acquaint them with a number of people in their own lives who have had some kind of emotional impact, from chain-smoking grandma to the kid who threw up on the teacher in second grade; two, to explore moments in their own pasts that were particularly charged—moments of profound fear, or shame, or love, or pride. In this way, I hope to root them in their own emotional truths, keep the folly from whirling in their eyes.
But due to the economy (I like to think), my enrollment was down: I had just two students. I threw out the lesson plan and said, Let’s focus on what you’re working on, and I had them tell me in detail about the novels they were writing.
Turns out, this was the best way to get at what I’d originally planned to teach. Go figure.
One student (his name is Richard) was a criminal lawyer with a long history of major trials, and he was writing, not surprisingly, a legal thriller. He’d had three agents almost bite, but had been told his protagonist wasn’t engaging enough. (I actually address this in another class I teach called The Protagonist Problem.)
As Richard got into the various scenes, he admitted he had his own doubts about a decision he’d made—the protagonist, being new to criminal law, makes a fundamental error early in the book by being too trusting of his client, and believing too wholeheartedly in his innocence. This mistake sets up much of the later action.
For whatever reason, I had this gut-instinct impulse. I asked Richard why he himself had gotten into criminal law—he was clearly a well-educated, middle class guy, not a former cop or street tough who’d gone legit with a bar card. Richard admitted that, as he was clerking after law school, he’d done a few criminal cases pro bono and had found he was good at them. He even got a second-degree murder verdict for a man who’d killed three kids in a drug deal gone wrong—when everyone was sure the defendant would get the death penalty. But Richard also remembered shaking the client’s hand after the verdict was announced, and feeling repelled.
I said, “You have to use that. It’s too vivid not to.” And we worked on making that contradiction—realizing you’re good at something that nonetheless creates a profound moral qualm—a core element of his protagonist, down to the skin-crawling handshake.
Instead of being naïve, the hero now puts too much faith in his talent. He’s a gambler, not a Pollyanna. This instantly makes him more interesting. But he also has this revulsion of genuine lowlifes, which ironically causes him to trust the wrong people. His arc pivots around the revelation that sometimes the person who seems morally repulsive is exactly the man you must rely upon—and the people you thought you could trust are the actual snakes—which sure enough was right there in the story all along.
Bingo, as Aristotle used to say.
The other student—we’ll call him Jim—was working on a police procedural with a lone wolf detective who’s nearing retirement but can’t quite let go. I asked the obvious question: Why is this guy a cop? Jim said it was because the job permitted him the means to live the life he wanted: a solitary existence, with a marriage long settled into routine, neither warm nor loveless, and a surfing sideline.
I told him that didn’t ring true for me, and it diffused his hero’s sense of moral purpose. Cops become cops because they have a sense of justice (at least the ones in books do, and a lot of the ones I know personally as well). They’re almost afflicted with a sense of responsibility, even if their own lives are a shambles due to irresponsible choices.
I let Jim talk some more about his hero, and it became clear that the cop was haunted. His loneliness was a choice, and something was bugging the bejeebers out of him. I said there just seemed to be something in his past, something he did or failed to do, or something he witnessed, that has eaten away at his soul ever since. It was clear from everything I was hearing, but Jim hadn’t yet honed in on it.
We talked it through a little more, proposing this, conjecturing that, and suddenly, the light went on in Jim’s eyes. “I know what it is.” It turned out to be something the hero didn’t do that has gnawed at his conscience. He was walking on the beach in Marin, he saw two kids struggling in the surf about thirty to fifty yards from the beach. He wanted to go in to save them, and knew he could with a rope lashed around his waist, but the two people on the beach with him talked him out of it, and the two kids drowned.
“Who were the two other people,” I asked.
“A cop,” Jim said, “and the woman who would become his wife.”
And yes, this wasn’t imagination. This had happened to Jim. And I said, as I had with Richard: You have to use this. By finding this personal link with his hero, Jim felt a newfound interest in him, a depth of insight he hadn’t had before.
A writer has only four tools: research, experience, empathy and imagination. The urge to rely too much on imagination—whether from sheer cleverness or a belief our own lives are too mundane to be of any use—steers us away from the core emotional truths and raw experiences that make us who we are. But those same emotions and experiences are what we want from our characters. We feel obliged to be inventive, when the truth is right there, in our past.
But as always, it wasn’t just my students who learned something. As the class was nearing its end, I talked about the novel I’m currently working on, and problems I was having getting into the main character.
The working title is The Wrong Girl, and the story’s based loosely on a case here in my hometown. Two girls were abducted six months apart by a child predator. The girls bore a very strong physical resemblance to each other: eight years old, slim, long dark hair, dark eyes. The first girl was still missing when the second was taken, but the second girl managed to escape after three days. (The first girl, they’d later learn, was long dead.)
Everyone admired the pluck of the girl who got free—until it leaked out that the reason she was so resourceful was because she came from a family of gang members. And sadly, ten years later, that girl was working the streets, in constant trouble with the law, despised by the cops who once considered her a hero.
I took this idea and built on it. That girl would have to live with the realization that everyone wished it was the other girl, the good girl, who survived. What was the message in that? You don’t matter. The trauma of her abduction, her abuse and imprisonment, would only be compounded by knowing that all too many people, even her family, would be perfectly happy if it had been the other girl who escaped. What would it take to save that kid’s life, to lure her back from whatever disaster she was calling her life at age eighteen?
Despite having worked for fifteen years as a private investigator, I’ve never written a PI novel—largely because I don’t see myself or the job I did within such books. PI novels are westerns, with the plains gunman transported to an urban setting. But Charlie Huston has urged me to forget all that and write what I know about the job, and this book will be the maiden effort. It features a PI named Phelan who’s been hired to find the girl, who’s name is Jacquelina Garza—Jacqi, she calls herself—get her to show up for court, and in the bargain he’s hoping to distance her from her poisonous family, find her some kind of stable life so she can turn things around.
But whenever I told this story to people, they always asked: Why does the PI care? And that’s exactly what Richard and Jim asked. And my answer was found wanting. I said he realizes that he’s the last chance she’s got—after him, the abyss. He feels responsible.
Richard said, “I get it here (pointing to his head), but not here (pointing to his heart).”
And so the teacher was obliged to suffer his own lesson. I needed to plumb my own experience. I gave Phelan my own nagging perfectionism, driven by a feeling he’ll never be good enough.
But I dug deeper than that. I realized I felt somethng for this girl because I too had a sense that I didn’t matter. I was a blue baby, Rh+ when my mother was Rh-, back in the day when this could prove fatal. I almost died at childbirth, and was quarantined from my mother for six weeks, a critical time, we now know, for bonding. And my mother would often, particularly when she had a bit too much to drink, gaze at me and with saccharine sentimentality tell me that she wasn’t supposed to have me, but she was glad I’d come along. And the guilt and misgiving in the message always came through loud and clear. What I heard was: You’re not supposed to be here. And it gave me my kinship with Jacqi, haunted as she is by: You don’t matter.
But I didn’t stop there, for I knew there was more within me that responded to this story, but I wasn’t getting there, wasn’t facing it head on. So I gave Phelan a bit more of my own biography — I married him to a stellar woman who died too young, a woman who herself fled home at fifteen, and who often said, if not for a friend’s family who took her in, she might have died on the streets.
This gives Phelan a gut instinct for how close a kid can get to being lost forever, because he was married to a woman who was just such a girl. And sadly, yes, he’s lost her forever. He knows the stakes. But he also feels that amorphous irrational guilt all survivors carry, feels it acutely, because his wife’s love was the only antidote he’s ever known to the poison of his own self-doubt.
And he knows what his wife would have him do. He has to do what someone did for her. He has to show this girl that sometimes you really do find a person you can trust, someone who truly believes you matter. He has to become that person—no sanctimonious bullshit, no noble altruistic look-at-me, no trying to reincarnate his wife through her or, on the other hand, saying glibly: It’s just my job. A kid like Jacqi Garza will see right through all that nonsense and he’ll lose her for good. It’s the hardest thing he’s ever done, like walking a tightrope between selfless compassion and Zen-like non-attachment. He has to be utterly committed and at the same time willing to walk away. He has to be brutally honest, tough as nails, and as open-hearted as a ghetto nun.
But if he gets it right, if he can lure this wild child off the street and into a safe place, maybe for once he can tell himself: At this, at least, I’m good enough. But if that becomes his motive, he’ll fail.
There. Now I’ve anchored my story in my heart and soul. It means something to me, something essential and yet something mercurial, difficult, as yet unclear, worth exploring. I’m ready to write.
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So Murderateros, which of your writing problems can be tracked back to personal problems? When have you reached into your own life and found exactly what you needed to make a character or scene come alive?
Has your own life ever betrayed you in your fiction? Have you needed to step outside it and rely on empathy or imagination instead, because your own experience seemed to be holding you back?
And last: Does my story resonate with anyone of you raising teenagers — that need to care but not show it, to be there but also step back just a little, let go?
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Jukebox Heroes of the Week: Given the tone of this post, plus the fact we’re saying goodbye this week to so many of our comrades in arms, some for good, some for just a while, suggested the following song, written by Steve Earle and sung by Emmylou Harris: