Anything Else?

The first line of Lorrie Moore’s essay, How to Become a Writer, reads:

First, try to be something else, anything, else.

The essay goes on smoothly and brilliantly from here, and traces a writer’s progress from an early age to maturity, but the first line hangs with me. I spend all week looking at other people. The cupcake shop owner. The college counselor. The lawyer, the doctor, the captain of industry. I see artists. And bookshop sellers. The merchant. The secretary. The postal clerk.   And all these occupations look great, and I imagine what it would be like to be in the shoes of the participants.

And then I sit down and write about it.

Photo Credit: Chris Greene, sxc

The Writer as Thief

Once, I had a painter boyfriend who used me as a model—a second-story paint studio flooded with light, one stool in the middle, and endless hours in a warm sun. He must have painted some four or five canvases, flowing long dresses, my hair twisted up on some. I don’t know where any of those portraits are today, or even if they exist, and the whole idea of them rests uneasily.

Decades later, I hired a painter to render images of my boys. She came, took lots of photos, went to her studio, and painted. The pictures turned out well and hang still in the house. But a year or so after that, I came across my own image done by her, big as life, in a show she was doing downtown, throngs people looking.

From her photo archive, she had constructed a portrait of me, and there it was on her very yellow wall. Shocked? Yes. But how irritated could I be with her? Didn’t I, too, draw freely at the well?

The writer is always on the take. He needs information, impressions, answers to his questions. He needs to observe, understand. And when his cup is full, he retreats to his hidey-hole and works to create something fresh and new. But in the process, has he taken something that belongs to someone else? Even if subtle: an image, say, a character trait, a bit of someone’s personal history spun for his own good?

How to stay a writer and minimize the effects of being a thief?  For me, two rules help.

First, I ask.

Sure, I’d rather just sit here and sip my coffee and press PUBLISH whenever I feel like it, but if it involves you, say, even if only sort of, kind of, I’d have to check first, make sure you won’t feel ambushed, or robbed, or betrayed. I might even want to verify some facts. And I might too, depending upon the circumstances, seek a definitive blessing to proceed.

Next—and the harder of the two—I strive for clarity.

This is an intricate subject, involving everything from the quotidian mechanics of a decent sentence to the larger questions of science and law. But certainly, and at a minimum, we are well served with an arm’s length perspective and a super sharp pair of ruthlessly wielded pruning shears.

Photo credits: thief –

A Small Shift Forward

There’s this diner I’ve been frequenting for years, a brisk, tidy little place on the west side of Manhattan, run by a Polish family. Not long ago, I stopped in for breakfast and found it as always: the same man who greeted, saw us to a table, the same waitresses, the bus boys. The menu was unvaried. The food was just the same.

But this time, something had changed, something new added: the lady who came around now and checked on every table.

I saw her from afar: a vision in yellow, smiling, asking, Everything okay? She had her system—musical voice, eye contact, first with the woman, then the man, keep it short, move on.

When she got to us, she sparkled—the gold sequins on her sweater doubling her sunshine. When she made eye contact, I saw that hers were impossible to miss, dark and flashing and outlined in a brightly painted aqua like coral from the sea. Red lipstick: she beamed. You enjoying? she asked.

Yes, indeed, we answered as she must have heard over and over, and by the time she finished her route, a new set of patrons had arrived.

From our end, the restaurant-goers, we appreciated her attention: not too much, not too little. And from the restaurant’s end of things, there she was, a sunny ambassador spreading cheer while double checking patron satisfaction.

It was a great improvement and such a little thing. I sipped my juice and pondered the mechanics of this transformation: just a small shift forward, and look now how the restaurant shines.

Photo credits: eggs – Ilco, sxc; juice – Ivan Freaner, sxc

The Plentitude of Soul

I have a friend I hear from intermittently: a Spaniard, seventy-something, a former Jesuit priest living now in Chile. His priestly version of the world is far more orderly and peaceful than my own and comes across in broken-English. His emails generally cheer and entertain, but a recent message confused me: If I were to write a blog, he said, it’d be on the plentitude of the soul.

The plentitude of the soul?

A few weeks later, I left for New York to celebrate an anniversary, which included a reunion with some old lawyer friends from a time when I practiced in the city. We had gone separate ways but remained in touch, especially around the death of one of their sons—just 19, just beginning, and from unexplained medical difficulties. It had been decades since some of us had seen each other, and I was eager for the evening to arrive.

Our rendezvous was at a rooftop bar at the fashionable Peninsula Hotel in Manhattan, appealing for its urban, upscale feel, completely unlike the old standby hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant we’d find ourselves in later; bring your own beer.

We met our friends in the lobby, hugged hard, rode the elevator together, and stepped out into the summer heat. The place, less beautiful than I imagined, didn’t matter anymore. The bar fell away, the noise, the silly stuff, the stink of cigar. The inattentive waitresses, the lightly-poured, vastly-overpriced drinks, the humidity curling my hair—none of it mattered.

I looked long into their faces and imagine that they scrutinized mine. What mattered were the stories. When you lose a son, you laugh again, but not really, he said. And she: You go out, you do things, but it never leaves you. But here they were five years later, seemingly of sound mind and body, at least from the look of them, and with some constructed purpose to their days. I was impressed at this fortitude, this courage. All things considered, it was a relief to find them so well.

In that moment, humbled by the uncertainties of life, grateful to have this time of true connection with people I value, I realized that this was the plentitude of soul of which my Spaniard spoke.

Write it, he said, and I wondered how a person could ever tell it right.

Photo credit: Yarik Mishin, sxc

Blind Man, No Bluff

At a recent party hosted by one of my sons, a guest  told me about his college’s writing program. One teacher stood out, he said. 

A pony-tailed guy (first description),

who accepted everything I wrote (second description),

and who gave me all the time I wanted and taught me how to do it. It’s not empirical, you know. You can’t really measure it like that. He gave me tips and stuff.  I got to write a lot and I loved it, though my piece didn’t get accepted by the journal. It was a mood piece, and the panel didn’t get the mood. But that’s okay because my teacher liked it.  I joined that panel. They need to expand their point of view (big finish).

Now, that’s a teacher.

Later on, the black night settling, the crowd assembled at a bonfire on the beach. Bearing food, I made my way down the slope. It was a little steep, and with tree roots that can easily trip a person up, especially in the dark.  I considered the blindness with which I moved and realized that it’s similar to how I approach my craft.

No fabulous writing teachers at my back, I just write, in the dark, moving as does a blind man with a mixture of wariness and trust. No bluster, no bluff—just a sincere desire to arrive without injury or loss. And trusting instinct, no certain path followed, I show up at the bonfire after all.

Photo credits: Linda DuBose, sxc

How Much Does it Weigh?

I know an artist who works in metal, using tools like anvils and a blow torch in an unheated warehouse studio. Hard-tipped shoes are a good idea if you’re going to hang around and watch.

Sparks fly, and the racket of her creation can be heard halfway across the field. In that field, by the way, are giant metal cloves of garlic—so soft looking, you touch, and she doesn’t mind. She likes the feel of metal herself. Paper, she says, just crumbles in her hands. But metal can stand up to her process. This artist likes to wail and command. And yet, remarkably, she can turn out delicate things like her series of pin-up girls—Whoopsie girls, she calls them—ruffles flounced and hemlines lifted a la Marilyn.

Hers is a genuine vision: no deceit—just a woman, all female, all attitude, who loves her tools.

Watching her, I am reminded: we writers are in the same business as these visual artists.

We, too, have a vision, strain against obstacles, and want to push our medium to do things that seem impossible. We, too, in our flailing and banging, seek to produce something strong that matters.

How we pull it off—our skill, our wit—is irrelevant to the reader. And what we might mean by it—our message, our purpose—is the booby prize. All that matters for us, as is true for the visual artist, is how a finished work sits with a person. Does it have weight? Does it have resonance?

As writers, we can achieve this just as we see this metal artist go about it: by pursuing something that makes sense to us, by following process, by having a really good time with it, at least on a good day, and never mind the noise, or the dangers, or least of all the outcome.

Photo credits: welding torch – Alejandro Macias, sxc; anvil – Andrea Brancaccio, Italy, sxc.

What’s Important?

At the café the other day, a writer-friend of mine named Bill noted the approach of his 65th birthday and announced that it was time to let go of everything except what was valuable. If it didn’t have value, he didn’t want to do it anymore.

This made very good sense to me and I considered what I knew of him: marriages, businesses, causes, children, travels, awards, degrees, commentary, writing, truth telling—I wondered: what would be next? What has value to a guy who has done it all and finds himself at a juncture where he could do whatever he wanted?

Short stories, he said, looking up from his coffee.

Later that day, in my Chinese lesson, I was shocked to learn that the Chinese word for a novel, is xiao shuo, or small talk—something not serious, my teacher explains.

Not serious?  What do you mean, not serious?  Just try writing one.

Not serious, like a Chairman Mao speech, she answers.

And a short story is called duan pian xiao shuo, or short page novel, she went on. Something even less serious. 短篇小

I have to think about this a minute and decide that though there might be something liberating in this terminology—this purported lack of seriousness investing perhaps a devil-may-care power in the writer; if it doesn’t matter, if it’s all small talk, write it the way you want—no writer would endorse these definitions.

Not me, anyway. And not Bill, I gather. And not, I’d wager, you. For us, writers one and all, it’s a serious undertaking, and with serious and potentially powerful consequences. Further, it’s what we choose to take on when we look to make valuable use of our time.

Small talk? We try very hard to leave that to someone else.

Photo credit: Gabriella Fabbri, sxc

What’s in a Name?

The novelist, film director, and screen writer John Sayles once told me that if he had his way, he’d name all his characters Ed. It’s so short, he said. He had things to say. Why type out a Sebastian or a Giancarlo when you just want to get to it?

Compare this to the experience of a Chinese friend of mine who went back to the mainland to visit family and returned with, of all things, a new name.

The change came through a consultation with Buddhist monks in the temple near her home, and where she has a relative who is a disciple well immersed in these studies.

Many things go into the naming of a Chinese baby—birth date, time, place, family, the fortunes ahead . . . But this was no baby at the feet of the monks but a young woman, married, working, and with babies of her own. The monks, all scholars, considered how she stood in relation to the five elements—water, earth, gold, wood, and fire.


When she left town, her name was Miao written with three signs for water strung together to signify a vast watery expanse.



Too much water, the monks decided. Wood and fire needed.

Dutiful daughter, she deferred to her mother. Attentive mother, she did what was best for her daughter and took the guidance of the monks. Zhenyan, her new name, has the element for wood and a double fire sign.

Some months have passed and I asked her: has her life changed? Yes, she conjectured, but less as a result of a new name than due to the wisdom of the monks who spoke about tolerance and balance and other Buddhist teachings in the course of their conversation. Still, she loves her new name and feels like it ushered in new times, new destiny.

We are writers. We get to choose. We can go the John Sayles route, and just get to the point, or we can deliberate and decide a character’s entire trajectory through a carefully meditated pick. My preference is in the middle: a name that fits like interlaced fingers but which won’t slow me down.

Photo credit: water – Timo Balk, sxc; wood and fire – Alessandro Paiva, sxc