Our Building Blocks

We humans are such complicated creatures. There are so many pieces to who we are.

We begin with our foundation—the presumptions, tastes, gifts and limitations upon which we assemble our lives—and then we build.

Piece by piece, everything important is brought to the structure, a keystone dropped into place to hold it all together. Sometimes we are defined by that keystone. He’s so nice. She’s just so wicked funny.

And the last piece added is what we show of ourselves to the world. This changes day by day, even moment to moment, and is very often the least of who we are.

The same is true of our characters.

A great character, fiction or not, is not just his face to the world, but is built from all the various facets of who he is and how he came to be. Rarely need we mention every piece that goes into his making, but each element is there just the same, supporting who our character is and why he does what he does. One piece missing and the truth of him collapses. But if we can build with the full knowledge of who he is at our fingertips, every piece in place, we will have birthed someone enduring.

Photo credit: Anatoli Styf, sxc

Probabilities and the Written Word

I had occasion, one parents’ weekend, to attend a college math class.

The room was filled with rows of computer banks where bright-eyed students sat, in varying states of posture, but all paying attention. White boards were on opposite walls of the classroom, front to back. The professor—a lively young man—moved the discussion along at a serious clip. It was a statistics problem, a thorny thing, and he coaxed and challenged his students to come up with the answer.  Bouncing between white boards, his marker raised as if a sword, he dashed off formulas in a hasty, furious hand.

Soon, the white was slashed through with lots of black and touches of red, for emphasis, some things starred and boxed and underlined. It was so logical, so sequential. Beautiful, he insisted. His jubilance was infectious. Indeed, even I saw the beauty. As if modern art, the two white boards hung, lovely to behold and weighty with unspecific meaning.

At that moment, I envied the mathematician.

A writer doesn’t dwell a lot in percentages and probabilities. Standard deviation, sample size, mean, medium, mu . . .  ?

There just aren’t any reliable proofs that a writer can call upon in his search to arrive at a specific, beautiful truth. There is no crisp bouncing between white boards. Victory is far from assured. Ours is a chaotic, messy, insane, and reverential thing. There’s no mighty sword. Just a hand-clipper by which the writer must make his way through the South American jungle that stands between himself and his treasure.

Photo credits: math – codranknmath4, sxc; jungle – Andres Ojeda, sxc.

The Hallmarks of an Engaging Letter

Yes, I know. No one writes letters anymore. We write e-mails. Or blogs, commentary, essays, stories, books . . .

Right there, it goes to show: a letter will be noticed.

The lure begins with its very physicality: a nice weight to the paper, a promising feel in the hand. It separates easily from the rest of the mail: what’s this? for me?

You inspect the handwriting, always so surprising: black ink on ivory or buff, a slant, a loop, a curlicue or spidery hand.  You might look at the stamp and wonder if it was as deliberately chosen as, say, a man and his necktie.

You slit it open, start to read.

A good letter says something. It can be an apology or a proposition. It can put something to rest or start something new. It can entertain, or inform, or enclose a photo, or a clipping. Maybe, even, it’s scented, as was the habit of a writer I once knew (Shalimar, the toilette water, just a spritz.).

Some letters can change an entire life. You don’t send information like this via Twitter’s 140 cold characters thrown up against ever-changing wallpaper.

A letter done well is a treasured thing, a hatbox set on a closet shelf reserved for this purpose. Everything else—your books, your newspapers, your essays, e-mails, your notes, lists, drafts—will get trashed or deleted, sooner or later. My money says that the last to go, and maybe not even for generations, are your letters.

Photo credits: perfume bottle – Sarah Barth, sxc; hatbox – Franci Stumpfer,sxc.

The Little Man

All day long, people talk.

Sometimes we hear helpful things, and we are grateful. But sometimes—stage left: enter the little man, a not so helpful guy.

That shifty little bugger, never invited, sits on one’s shoulder, burrows in, makes himself at home, and doles out unsolicited advice. Smoking a cigar, pontificating, he suggests maybe that we can quit our workout early, that five—okay, seven—minutes won’t matter. Don’t bother, it’s not worth it, is his answer, whatever the question. In a taunting mood, he might even say that work is overrated, that we ought to throw that computer in the lake and go have a life.

When the little man comes around, we are presented with a choice. We can listen to his prattle, even adopt his views, or we can tell the little man to go away.

Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to see him off.

I’ve tried lots of them—they all work, if you want them to—and lately, I’ve taken up boxing at the gym. I have baby blue gloves that I love like a pair of shoes, and my jab is coming along. If the little man dares to come around, I’m thinking he won’t be staying long.

Special thanks to Dana Apgar.

Photo Credits: troll – Tracey Scott-Murray, sxc; red ghoul – Julia Freeman-Woolpert; boxer – morguefile

Trash and the Written Word

It’s probably good to have a moment when everything turns inside out on a project, when you have to start over.

I didn’t say fun—I said good.

Before I went nearly paperless, I trashed forests-full of material. One project in particular comes to mind: a novel. I had written lots of successful things before this—books, essays, short stories—but a full length fiction project was a different animal. Also, this story, so close to the bone, was hard to pin down. I was also working with an editor then, pages flying back and forth, and whose red slashing relegated even more volume to the trash bin.

Draft after draft, characters were eliminated, plot points erased, back story dumped, everything pared to its essence . . . So much paper hit my wastebasket that I undertook in a moment of conscience to plant a grove of trees in compensation for my consumption. As an extra amends, I had them planted them in Anatolia, where the story is set, and in my father’s name, which pleased him.

And still I wrote and rewrote—my children growing up, my parents growing older, and this story tried over and over again, each time a little closer, but still not there.

Once, in answer to the simple question “How was your day?” I fanned whole chapters-turned-red across the kitchen table, which shocked my school-aged sons. I wasn’t sentimental about it—it wasn’t blood spilled; just red ink; just business. I wanted to lend sympathy to their own writing struggles, but more to the point, I wanted to show them that there are no short cuts to a well crafted work, much as we might wish otherwise.

I finished that book, that story captured at last with every detail in place, and I no longer waste paper.

But I keep a postcard of those trees planted an ocean away as a reminder, as if I could forget, that good writing is a lot of work. And some things—whether as a metaphor or actual chain saw whining—might even take a forest.

Photo Credits: ashcan – Joel Dietle, sxc; logging – Paivi Tittanen, sxc

Three Writing Principles a Long Way Downstream

There is a certain amount of wisdom in this life that filters in from the strangest, least anticipated directions, and even more surprising, ends up informing one’s work. I have come by three writing principles this way, through tributaries that emanated from a single wellspring, a man I met in pre-Tiananmen Beijing: Mr. C. C. Ng.

I had tagged along on my husband’s business trip and C. C. was assigned to be my escort. Fortunately, we got on well, and with nothing but time on our hands, we explored the city together. He hailed taxis, barked addresses, picked the hole-in-the-wall dumpling shops, bargained in the alley, shooed chickens from my ankles, steered an elbow, kept beggars at bay, and all the while doled out cautionary advice, which he apparently thought I was in need of.

It’s a shifty world. Thieves abound. You can be taken. Look there, that basket you want to buy. No good. Bad lid.  And those almonds you eat. Too bitter. Poison inside.

And when at last, wearied and hot, we took refuge on the porch of the hotel, he snapped his fingers at a sleepy waiter, and ordered drinks. No ice, bad for the health!

Avoid the broken.  Avoid the bitter.  Avoid the cold. That’s what it came down to, and his serious, sweet delivery was touching.

Now, some twenty-odd years later, his words still bob like irrepressible corks in the stream, floated a long way now from the source. And what he once spouted as instruction for daily life has evolved now into guiding principles for a writing life—for at this point, there’s very little separation.

He was right—about all of it. Sure enough, that lid never did sit properly. Chew too long on a mighty bitter seed and you certainly will weaken. And, as a New Englander, I can assure you that a person can take only so much cold.

These are words to live by but they are also words to write by. If it’s broken, if it’s bitter, or if it’s cold, it’s not going to make good writing. These things just mess up a life and get in the way of the art.

Photo credits: Chinese dragon – Eva Heinsbroek, sxc; Chinese basket – Andrew Beierle, sxc

What a Reader Really Wants

There you are, perusing the new fiction in the bookstore, the noise from the café filtering into your consciousness, heard as if from within the womb. What causes you to pluck a volume off the shelf for a closer look?

Maybe it has an engaging title or a great cover. You flip it over, feel its companionableness in your hand. You peruse the photo, skim the back copy.

Should you buy it? You don’t come into a bookstore when you’re hurried. You take your time. You’re looking for something—but what?

Entertainment? Knowledge? Illusion?  Enchantment is a really intriguing idea, first brought to my attention by a certain brilliant guy who has a knack for getting to the heart of things. Recently, I had lunch with a writer friend who offered yet another idea about what a reader might want:  comfort, and as a reader, the simple truth of it registered hard.

If indeed we are moving to the cash register with that book in hand, it might just be because on some level, we think it will provide just the tonic for us. Call it mother’s milk or something stronger, the writer who can provide comfort will find his or her readers lapping up every word.

Photo credits: couch, blanket and book – Zsuzsanna Kilian, sxc; baby’s grip – Adrian Yee, sxc

It’s All in the Delivery

Words are shifty things. One minute they mean this. The next, they mean that. Perhaps this is what makes them so hard to pin down. Here are two versions of exactly the same words, with two entirely different meanings. Watch:


Pretty clever, and I didn’t see it coming. Made me stop to realize yet again how words can be made to say anything.

Photo credit: Karl-Erik Bennion, sxc

Not Exactly Solitary

So much of a writer’s day is spent with his thoughts, the place from which he is charged to be fruitful.

That’s a tall order, and so he sits down and works. And there he is a week or a month or decades later—still at it.

Yet, with all this solitary behavior, the writer who treats his work professionally is anything but alone. He has assembled a team—maybe quite a number of people or maybe just a few.

There is the one who supports. The one who edits. The resolver of technical issues. The web master. The photographer, if you need one. Ditto the agent, or publicist, or guest blogger. There are the advisers you consult. And there is what you learn when others consult you.

And of course, OF COURSE, there is the reader.

All these, among others, who shift in and out of a writer’s week, add to the operation of completing a thought.

Writing is a force of many. There is a humility and gratitude that comes with this realization and also a call to duty: it’s a lot to manage. Deal with all these pieces and get something written?

This is a time management issue and a human resource question. If your team isn’t working efficiently, take a cold hard look and change it. And if it is clicking and humming as you might hope, go back to your desk, sit alone in your hot blooded moments, and write.

Photo credits: single banana, Jonte Remus, sxc; grove – unidentified artist, sxc.