“Writing for yourself” doesn’t mean ignoring all criticism…just most of it

Am borrowing a friend’s house in Nevada City so I can get away this week and do some writing. It’s pretty incredible. I generally have few enough responsibilities, but it’s nice to have absolutely zero. Trying to make some progress in my writing. Did a fair bit today, so I’m feeling good. But there’s always more out there to be done.

Sometimes I get depressed, when I write, at the thought, “Oh, here’s another character that people are going to hate.”

When I wrote my debut, Enter Title Here, I never imagined people would have such a negative reaction to my protagonist. I always sympathized with her wholeheartedly, and I still do. I’ve never fully understood why people abhor cheating in school SO much. Because the fact is, most people have cheated at least a few times. Whenever I’m standing around with parents or teachers, and they’re like, oh, plagiarism in school is such a problem, I’ll ask, “Didn’t you guys ever cheat?” And inevitably around half of them admit to having done it at least a time or two (and those are just the ones who admit to it!)

And I think most people understand the difference between cheating in things that really matter (like your profession or your creative work) and cheating in school, which is nothing more than a bunch of meaningless assessments designed to sort you out into strata that ultimately are correleted less with intelligence and skill and more with parental education and income.

I think these opinions of mine came through pretty clearly in the book, and I don’t have much in the characterization that I’d change. All you can when you write is be honest. In fact, one thing I’ve learned over time is to make characters exactly as bad as they truly are. It’s very tempting, if you’ve got a character with anger issues, for instance, to make them go around hitting people. But there’s really no need. You can show them speaking sharply to people instead. Or just getting visibly defensive and flustered. I find that the lightest possible touch is the best, because that’s the truest.

If anything, authors have a tendency to weight the scales against their characters, because they can’t tolerate ambiguity. But, ironically, this often works out for them, because it’s harder, usually, to sympathize with the character who speaks sharply to their friends or their spouse, because their lack of force betrays a certain hesitancy and insecurity in their character, and this hesitancy feels too real to us. It makes us confront our own powerlessness and the ways in which we ourselves can be villainous.

That’s why audiences can sympathize with characters who engage in vigilante killing or who steal millions of dollars, but not with a character who cheats in school.

 

I’m speaking too generally, of course. Many people sympathized with my main character in Enter Title Here, and I’m sure many will sympathize with my character in the new book. But I also know that lots of people won’t like him. And not for anything he does, either, because he really doesn’t do anything even as bad as cheating in school. If anything, he’s much better than most guys. But they won’t like him because he’s selfish sometimes (just like we’re all selfish, when it comes to love). There’ll be a feel to him that we won’t enjoy. Something in the texture of the narration. Most fiction is full of elisions and little lies, particularly when it comes to teenage boys. Young adult fiction pretends we are so much better than we are. That’s one of the reasons I loved Emma Cline’s The Girls. The book was, at least in small part, about how difficult it is to love a teenage boy and about how many concessions girls need to make to keep that fantasy alive. But because of these elisions in typical YA fiction, any book that breaks the illusion comes across as disturbing.

 

What I don’t want to do is seem entitled. People are allowed to like whatever books they want. Certainly I have books that others love which I don’t like. What’s interesting, from the writer’s standpoint, is how you deal with these issues. It is hard to write when you know that most of the audience is not going to approve. That if you went against your deepest instincts and your sense of what’s true, the book would probably be more critically and commercially successful.

I’m also well aware that this is exactly what really shitty novice writers say when you try to tell them that nothing is happening in their book. They’re like, well, it’s not like all that other crap out there. My book is doing something innovative and new.

Sometimes they’re right, of course. I read so many books that are not written the way I’d have written them, but which are still very successful. I’m thinking of Proust, for instance, which strikes me as so overwritten, with so many relationships that parallel each other and situations that recur over and over. But his book is a masterpiece, and it was the product of a singular vision, and, most importantly, it’s given me about as much pleasure as anything I’ve ever read.

That’s the problem. Your instincts usually lead you down wrong pathways in addition to the right ones, and both good and bad end up so inextricably mixed that it’s hard for you to figure out which is which. Usually the result is interesting, at the very least to yourself, but there’s no guarantee that what is interesting to you will be interesting to anybody else in the world. Peoples’ comments can give you information about how the book is being read, but they can only go so far.

When it comes to revision, I am incredible. I mean it, I’m a great reviser. This wasn’t always true. I used to never revise. But nowadays I’ve gained this ability to re-envision my work and figure out ways of setting aside what I’ve actually written and thinking of ways to simplify and streamline it. In some ways I’m a very cerebral writer. I do actually think, explicitly, about themes and character arcs and how the different strands of a story play out against each other. And my books change radically through the revision process.

And yet I’m also not a huge believer in this idea that revision can turn a hater of your book into a lover. When people love or hate a book, they’re usually responding, in my opinion, to its core. For instance, I just read an early work of Asian-American literature, John Okada’s No No Boy. This is a book about a Japanese-American boy who refused to fight on America’s side in World War II and was sent to prison as a result. After he gets out, he wanders around Seattle frothing with wordless rage and getting into fights with Japanese-American men who’ve recently been demobilized from the army.

It is…not well written. Everything is repeated so many times. The themes and thoughts are stated so baldly. The writing is purple, but not lyrical, and the character development is very slow and fitful. And yet I really liked the book, because its core was the protagonist’s deep ambivalence about his own actions. He took this highly principled stand, but he feels like a coward. He wishes, on some level, that he’d been able to go abroad and fight, and yet he’s angry with those who did. His relationships are so complex.

And people who hated the book are also, usually, responding to this core. They thought it portrayed the Japanese-Americans in a bad light and gave support to the white people who had called for internment.

The book would’ve been improved immeasurably by greater revision, but I don’t think any number of rounds would’ve turned those haters into lovers. Both they and I ‘got’ the point of the book, we just responded, because of our own history and propensities, in very different ways.

So when I revise, it’s not really with an eye to the critics. Instead I revise with an eye to the people who are going to love the book. When I revise, I think, “How can I trust my audience more? How can I surprise them and delight them more? How can I give them more to remember? How can I quicken their pulse and heighten their sense of longing?”

And, most importantly, I think about the integrity of the book itself. “How can I make this book more perfect? How can I better express the essence of what it is?”

Because that’s ultimately what it’s about. I think it’s very possible for your own ego to come between you and the book you’ve written, and criticism, when it’s useful, is only useful for me in that it reminds me that the book has a soul of its own that’s totally separate from any thoughts and desires that I or my agent or my publisher or my fans or all the reviewers on Goodreads might have for it.

 

It is a strange thing: this phenomenon of characters getting away from you

I just wrote a scene where the characters did exactly the opposite of what I’d planned for them to do. And this is a very normal occurrence when you’re a writer, but I still think it’s such an odd thing.

We still don’t know exactly what happens when we write. People like to be all blase about it and say, “It’s a craft, just like any other.” There are so many books on deconstructing plot and so many classes and college programs in how to write. In some ways, teaching people to write is almost as big a business as writing itself (certainly it seems to keep many more people employed).

But this thing that happens when your fingers hit the keyboard…it’s insane. There’s no real way to get a handle on it or manage it. Writers have gone crazy or taken to drink or killed themselves when faced with the simple truth that there does exist such a thing as inspiration, and it can’t be turned on at will.

During the first five or six years of my writing career, ideas came pretty easily to me, but for the last, well, almost the last ten years, I’ve had an increasingly difficult idea coming up with ideas. I’ve written so many words that were totally worthless–millions upon millions of words that literally have zero worth, because they didn’t contain even the ghost of inspiration.

I am extremely aware of what it feels like to be forcing it.

And I’m not even talking about the novels that I finished but which never got published. Most of those at least had a modicum of inspiration behind them. I’m talking about the rest of it. Sometimes I look back on my writing career, and I feel that almost the entirety of my time at the keyboard has been spent producing false starts and half-drafts and little scenes or fragments that never showed any threat of cohering into a real story.

And I still don’t entirely know how a person gets away from producing stuff like that and moves towards producing work that is inspired. But I have developed a few rules of thumb over the years.

  1. Don’t write the boring parts – Write only the parts of the story that hold your attention. This is why I stopped writing action scenes of any sort. By and large I’m only interested in extremely fine social movements–I’m talking about the little undercurrents that pass between two people who want something from each other.
  2. If something feels like it’s wrong, then it probably is — This is probably bad advice for you, but it’s great advice for me. Time and again, I’ve heeded the instinct to slow down, stop, or throw away something, and each time I’ve been right. I think that the essence of writing is the fine-tuning of your ability to tell the right words from the wrong words.
  3. Be wary of repeating yourself — This is the hardest one to follow. Many times when I’ve had a good idea and brought it to completion, my next few dozen ideas will be variations on the first. I mean they’ll have similar characters, conflicts, and plots. Sometimes as I pursue these ideas, they diverge from the original and become something new. But I have noticed that the best sign of an idea worth pursuing is if it’s substantially different from anything I’ve written (and completed to my satisfaction) before. Of course, many of my ideas are rehashes of old failures, but that doesn’t count. If I’ve failed before to write something, then maybe now is the time I’ll succeed.
  4. Be wary of too much complexity — Oftentimes I’ve tried to solve problems in my writing by generating a lot of froth. I’ll fracture the timeline or tell the story from an outside narrator or I’ll have a lot of running back and forth and very complicated plotting. Always I’ll have some reasonable explanation for why the story needs these things, but I find that too much complexity (for me) means that intellect has taken the place of instinct. Whereas when an idea is really working, the resulting story is generally very simple (my first book, Enter Title Here, is a notable exception here. The plot is wayyy too complex.) Similarly, I find that new writers’ response to critique is often to add new elements to a book, whereas they should really be thinking more about taking things out. When I revise, I know a revision is really working if it smooths out or eliminates some knot that previously existed in the draft. Oftentimes you’ll find that your unconscious mind has created these shortcuts or easy solutions within the story, and all you need to do is to see them.
  5. If I opened this book, what would I want to see — This one is sort of corny, but sometimes when I’m stuck, I imagine I’m a reader who’s opening this book to the first page (or to whatever page I’m on), and I think about what I’d want to see. It doesn’t begin with words, it begins with the shape of the paragraphs. Does it begin with a long paragraph or a short one? Is there lots of dialogue? Then I trace through these lines a little bit, and I try to follow this line of reasoning–what is compelling here? What do I want to read? I’m not saying that this leads to any dramatic breakthroughs, but it is helpful sometimes for me to connect to the book as a reader.
  6. Am I willing to reread this book a dozen times? – As a practical matter, if you want to sell a book, you need to be willing to re-read it A LOT. I mean more times than you can imagine: at least a dozen times, but most likely two or three times that many. If I’m souring on a book, sometimes I’ll go back and reread the beginning. If I can’t bear to reread it, then I’ll think “Do I really have the stamina to reread this book a dozen more times?” And usually the answer is no, so I’ll shelve it.
  7. Is this the book that I’d write if I was dying – As I remarked recently on Facebook, I once upon a time spent all day writing a bucket list, only to realize, the following day, that I had ZERO intention of actually doing any of the things on the list. I didn’t want to learn a new language or travel the globe or go skydiving. All I wanted was to read and write books. And sometimes I think, if I found that I was dying, would I spend my remaining time trying to finish this book? Or would I abandon it? This means: Is this the book that only I can write?; and Does this book get at the things I’ve spent my life trying to communicate? Usually the answer is “No,” and to me that too is very clarifying.

I’m not sure any of these techniques will work for you. They’re my own answers to the problem of “Is this the real thing? Or am I just faking it?” But I do think the essential lesson here is useful for anyone. And that lesson is, “How do I get at the heart of my own experience of life?”

Note, I’m not saying, “How do I get at the heart of why I want to write?” Because for most people that heart doesn’t exist. People usually don’t want to write because they’ve anything particular to say. They usually want to write simply because they love books, admire writers, and want to live a meaningful life. In fact, new writers often search for many years for their subject matter.

What I’m saying is something different. It’s more like, “Given that I want to write, what do I have to write about?” It’s similar to “Write what you know?” (which, I have to say, is not a terrible adage), but it’s more like, “What compels me?”

The weird thing about writing is that your writing is fueled by everything you’ve thought and felt outside of writing. It’s fueled by every story you’ve read or heard. It’s fueled by all of your desires and longings. It’s fueled, most of all, by your sadness and your thwarted dreams. I don’t mean to say that all writers have to go to war or tame wild horses or do any of that crap, all I mean is that in your writing, you have to get somehow at the essence of things, and those ‘things’ are inevitably going to come from your own experience of the world.

Now at this point my huge audience of speculative fiction writers are going to go, “But how can I write my secondary world fantasies? Obviously I have no experience of using a swords to fight a bunch of monsters.”

To this my response would be that all novels are fantasies. No novel portrays the real world. I mean, think about it, have you ever read a book that felt anything like the experience of being alive? No. All books are dreams. When you write secondary-world fantasy (or science fiction) you’re still in that dream-space, and I think the question of “What about this is compelling to me?” still applies.

What function does fantasy serve in your life? Where does it take you? Why do you need to go there? Your stories exist somewhere in the interaction between fantasy and your own deepest desires. And, again, this isn’t something you’ll be able to come up with through reason alone. Like take Dune. Obviously this book came from some very deep place inside of Frank Herbert. I mean look at the images he uses: the spice worms, the Fremen in their still-suits, the Spacer’s Guild, with its big fishy navigators inside cannisters of spice.

There is some deeply evocative shit going on in there. And it takes a lot of courage and insight to harvest those visions from inside yourself. Which, ultimately, is what we’re all doing. Just harvesting our own visions.

Taking a rebuilding day

Everything I know about sports comes from reading the sports page and watching sports movies. I don’t think I’ve ever sat through a sports game that I wasn’t for some reason being forced to watch. But I still use sports metaphors because this is America, and I can do what I want.

For the last few days I’ve lost a little steam on my writing. Today I woke up and realized that the rest of what I needed to write just hadn’t quite come together in my mind. Normally when writing is going well, the next few scenes sort of knit themselves together as I go, and I can hear the dialogue and feel the action. This time that wasn’t happening. Oftentimes this means I need to go into what I’ve already written and re-work things. But today I wasn’t quite sure how to do it.

In sports franchises, there’s this concept of a ‘rebuilding year.’ I think this is an effort by coaches, owners, and GMs to lower expectations: “We’re not going to win many games this year, they’ll say, but we’re developing the players that’ll help us win in future years.” This is the same thing I say to myself on certain days, just to lower expectations. “I won’t write anything today, but I’ll do the thinking that’ll let me write a lot in the future.”

The thing is, when you write the focus always has to be not just on what works, and not just on what the audience will love, and not just on the needs of the market, but, most importantly, on your own heart: Where is my interest; What is compelling to me. There are lots of potential answers to any problem in a novel, but the book doesn’t need an answer–it needs your answer.

This is something I’ve been guilty of forgetting in the past. It’s very easy to think and write and think and write and write and think and think and think and think until you finally come up with a plausible solution, but in all the thinking, you’ve gotten too deeply involved in the craft of it and forgotten the art. For me, I often get bogged down in the plot and forget about what the characters really want–the stuff that’s truly motivating them. So I need a rebuilding day to remove some of the pressure and let me see things more clearly.

 

 

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In Enemies of Promise, Cyril Connolly quotes Samuel Butler: “Any man who wishes his work to stand will sacrifice a great deal of his present audience for the sake of being attractive to a much larger number of people later on.”

For my part, I wouldn’t put this quite so categorically. I think there are many books, popular in their own time, which have lasted. And I think a few books that are popular today will still be popular in the years to come (the one coming most prominently to mind is The Corrections, which I continue to maintain is a work of genius). But we do often forget that many things we read were not at all popular when they came out. Or if they did achieve some acclaim, the amount was mild in comparison to the honors and applause heaped on books that are now forgotten.

In general, I’m not really worried about my literary reputation after I die (although given the perpetual copyright regime and low returns to labor that seem likely to predominate in neo-feudal Pikettyian, it’ll undoubtedly be quite a god-send for my heirs if my books continue to sell).  But mostly I’m like, ehh, well, I’ll be dead. In the quote above, Butler goes on to say: “The world resolves itself into two great classes: “those who hold that honor after death is better worth having than any honor that man can get and know about, and those who doubt this; to my mind those who hold this, and hold it firmly, are the only people worth thinking.”

Translated away from these somewhat-foreign Homeric terms, the modern version of Butler’s ideas would be about integrity. There are people who hold strongly to ideals and those who don’t. In my case, I’d have to say I’m one who doesn’t. My ideas tend to change in tandem with those of my social set, and the only idea of which I’ve ever been absolutely certain is that there is no afterlife. (Which kind of takes a lot of the pressure off.)

I have noticed, though, that I find it very difficult to compromise in my fiction. This is going to sound absolutely awful and self-important, but I can’t put it another way: I find it difficult to write things that I don’t believe are true. And the more and more that I read, and the more sophisticated my thinking becomes, the deeper is my skepticism about many of the truths that commercial fiction tries to give us.

In some ways, it’s a godsend that I write fiction, because skepticism is at the core of storytelling. You don’t need to come down on any side when you write a story. In fact, when you write, the author often vanishes entirely. This is true even when there are omniscient, intrusive narrators. I’ve read more Trollope than I’ve read of many other authors, and he’s a very political writer, with decided opinions on a number of topics. These obviously come through in his writing, but in his best books, it’s very difficult to tell which is the right side. I’m thinking of The Warden, where he aptly portrays the kind and humane Mr. Harding…and he describes how Mr. Harding lives a wonderful, comfortable life on a bequest originally meant for the benefit of the poor.

You see this skepticism in many of the great works of literature. I was talking with a professor at Hopkins recently about the part of the Iliad where Achilles sits by the river and reflects that if he stays home, he’ll live a long life and be a great king, and his grandchildren will remember him, and maybe their grandchildren will as well, but then they’ll be forgotten. Whereas if he goes to Troy he’ll die young, but be remembered for a thousand years.

And what gives that scene such power is that the argument is so finely balanced. This is Homer, and the lesson people have taken for centuries is that glory matters above all, but there exists in the text a deep skepticism about whether or not to seek that glory.

But that’s the kind of thing that unsophisticated readers often don’t want. I visited a classroom recently and when speaking to the class, the teacher asked if I liked Star Wars (she loves it). I told her honestly: “I loved it when I was a kid, but nowadays all I can think is…this is a lie. Han and Leia and Luke aren’t special. They’re just lucky. There were a hundred thousand other people who set out to topple the Emperor, but they got killed by laser beams during the first scene. The only thing that sets our heroes apart is that the beams happened not to miss.”

I don’t think Star Wars will last for a hundred years, because it doesn’t contain any skepticism. (Note: I don’t feel this about all popular fiction. I think of the Hulk, for instance, whose anger both blinds and empowers him. Or Sherlock Holmes, who contains less humanity and passion than any of the criminals he pursues.)

What I find fascinating is that people who write not-very-complex stories don’t feel their stories less intensely than people who write more complex ones. Most of these stories are not potboilers: they are somebody’s passion. And maybe someday somebody will say the same thing about my books! They’ll say, wow, he really thought a lot of these books, and he wrote so intensely about the process of creation, but…they’re not very complex, and there’s not a lot there.

That’s why I don’t believe in posterity. I don’t know. I don’t know what survives. I don’t know what’s good and what’s bad. I’m pretty sure if I’d never heard Virginia Woolf’s name and someone handed me Mrs. Dalloway I’d be like, “This is all over the place.” Hell, I’m probably wrong about Star Wars. I don’t know. I just don’t know.

Nothing in my life has been more rewarding than reading books from the canon

Last week I was in Baltimore, giving a reading at Johns Hopkins, where I got my MFA. Although I was sort of dreading it–I don’t know, I wasn’t really sure what I had to talk about with my old professors–I actually had a great time! In fact, one of the things that I found most charming, as I interacted with people from the Writing Seminars, was the mustiness and austerity of the program.

I know lots of people hate this about English and/or Creative Writing departments, and I’d probably hate it too if I had to make my career within one, but I like how committed Johns Hopkins, in particular, is to the classics. Because, okay, I just don’t know if there’s a politic way to say this, but…if you’re in the business of studying how to be a great writer, you should probably start by studying great writing.

There is this myth that the stuff being written today is basically as good as the stuff that was written in the past, and you can pretty much level your gaze on any genre or any time period and find more than enough good writing to last you a lifetime.

This myth is both true and untrue. What’s true is that people were not better writers in the past. There are novels coming out this year that are the equal of House of Mirth or Mrs. Dalloway or The Sorrows of Young Werther or whatever other book you might care to name.

The thing that’s untrue, though, is that you’ll be able to find those novels. Because, regrettably, we seem to be completely unable to look at contemporary art with any sort of sense of perspective. I mean, the Pulitzer committee doesn’t set out every year to pick the year’s biggest flash-in-the-pan, forgotten-by-tomorrow book, and yet somehow, nine out of ten years, that’s exactly what they do. And it’s not their fault! You or I would probably do the same thing. I mean when The Goldfinch came out, I too was like…this book is legit. I enjoy reading it. Now, five years later, I’m like…nobody’s life is going to be changed by TheGoldfinch. It’s just sort of an okay novel.

The thing about great literature is that it often changes our definition of what’s good. Which means that when it comes out, lots of people read it, and are like, “This book is not very good.”

The thing about good literature, on the other hand, is that it often conforms very well to our definitions of what’s good. Which means people read it and they instantly think, “This is a great novel.”

Your taste isn’t special. You’re probably not going to be able to recognize all the books coming out in a given year that are truly world-changing, which means if you only read contemporary books, you’re going to read a lot of good novels that are masquerading as great.

It seems absurd to me that in 2018 a writer should need to defend the classics. Possibly it seems absurd to you as well. After all, the classics have basically all of the power of the State behind them. In some metaphysical way, the classics are books that are backed up by authority. If you cannot graduate high school without studying Pride and Prejudice (as is true in a public school I just visited), then Pride and Prejudice, no matter how wonderful a book it might be, has become a tool of social control, and it’s very difficult to love a tool of social control.

So I very much understand if high school or even college students don’t love the classics. Were I they, I’d hate them too. In fact, when I was in high school, I did hate and resent the classics. What I didn’t like was how they made me feel stupid. I was a person who loved books, but because I didn’t love Pride and Prejudice I somehow had terrible taste? I was somehow not a very thoughtful person? What bullshit!

I don’t think people are bad if they don’t love the classics. Nor do I think you need to read the classics to lead a moral or well-rounded life. In some sense, I think rebelling against the classics is healthy. It certainly is aggravating to be forced to read Pride and Prejudice in high school, and I think only a very tenuous case can be made for the book’s educational value (ironically, it’s assigned largely because teachers think it’s one of the few 19th century novels that the average teenager might be able to connect to).

But I do think it’s sad when I meet young writers who dismiss the classics. In my mind, I’m like…what the fuck are you doing? Why even bother to read if you’re not going to read the best that literature has to offer?

If you hate the classics because they’re all men, then fine, read Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf, Willa Cather, Lady Murasaki, the Bronte sisters (even Ann, I think she had a lot to say), Jane Austen, Shirley Jackson, Elizabeth Gaskell, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Flannery O’Connor, Patricia Highsmith, Nathalie Sarraute, George Eliot, Aphra Behn, or any of a bunch of other amazing female writers. In fact, this is a particularly unfair criticism for a reader of English to make, because we’re unusually blessed (compared to, say, French, German, or Russian) with a number of incredible 18th and 19th century female British authors.

Similar lists could be made of canonical queer authors (Oscar Wilde, Marcel Proust, Henry James [yes I’m including him!], Djuna Barnes, Gertrude Stein, John Cheever, William Burroughs, Evelyn Waugh) or canonical non-Western authors (Natsume Soeseki, Junichiro Tanizaki, Yasunari Kawabata, R.K. Narayan, Chinua Achebe, Luo Guangzho).

But I also have to say that I don’t think reading the dead white men is a terrible idea either. It would sadden me if somebody eschewed the ancient Greek and Latin writers just because they were white men (if ‘white’ can even have any meaning at a remove of two thousand years). Antiquity is such a different place from the modern world that it seems absurd to say, “Because I want diversity in my reading, I’m not going to read these works that are incredibly different from anything that people write today.”

I was going in this article to make a case that reading books from the past opens you up to structures and forms that nobody adopts today. You get something from older books (and from translated novels) that you literally cannot find in modern English literature. And that’s true, but only to a point. For instance, Knausgaard is basically the same, formally, as Proust’s novel. And The Goldfinch is basically a Dickens novel, both in terms of style and structure. All of these influences have been so deeply internalized that they’re still around in today’s literature.

More and more, I think the case for the classics is the simplest one. They’re just some of the best books. I’m not saying that there aren’t greater novels than Anna Karenina, but…what are they? If you have any ideas, please let me know, so I can write them down in a list, discuss them with other people, and maybe get them added to college syllabi

(Although actually I don’t think Anna Karenina is taught very often in college, because it’s too long. It’s actually astonishing how few of the ‘classics’ ever get assigned in class, precisely because they’re too long. Most American English majors will graduate without ever having to read Middlemarch or David Copperfield. And if you want statistical proof of these assertions you can find it here.).

I know that the canon isn’t just a list of amazing books; it’d be absurd to pretend that the classics are not a tool of institutional power. There’s a reason that nobody recommends that young Americans go out and read the Quran, even though it’s an incredible literary achievement that kind of does make you believe, at least for a little bit, in the possibility of divine revelation. It’s because reading the Quran doesn’t really do any good for any powerful people in America. It doesn’t sell books. It doesn’t create jobs. It doesn’t make the reputation of any literary critics. The Quran is something fundamentally not under the control of any white people, not even in a local sense (the way that, say, Edward Seidensticker could be an American expert on Genji), and thus there’s really very little constituency, within letters, for the Quran.

So I admit that. But still, I mean, can’t we also stipulate that IN ADDITION to being a tool of social control, the canon IS ALSO a collection of amazing books?

I know I love novels, but I’m not sure why

Recently I’ve had friends ask me why I don’t try to write for games or television or the movies. Ignoring the most obvious answer, which is that getting into those things is really, really hard and I don’t feel like making the effort, I think the real answer is that none of those things really do it for me. I don’t know. I mean…I love TV and movies and even electronic games, but at an early age the novel captured me, and that’s simply where my heart lies.

Having said that, I have to say I don’t have a very heroic vision of the novel. Nobody has ever satisfactorily proven to me that it’s in any way superior to other forms of narrative media. Nor do I think that consuming narrative media (in any form, but let’s restrict this discussion right now to the novel) is a particularly meaningful or revelatory act.

Authors sometimes talk about how deeply some book makes them feel, and when that happens, I’m like…really?

I mean I know why books make us feel deeply when we’re young: it’s because everything makes us feel deeply then. It’s not any inherent virtue in the artist or in the media. If that was true, One Direction would be the greatest band of all time, because they clearly have inspired the greatest amount of feeling amongst all the bands in the world.

But now, as an adult, I can’t say that books make me feel particularly deeply. In fact what I’m struck by is how insubstantial they are in comparison to real life. If there was any message I could go back and give to my younger message, it’d be Saul Bellow’s “People can lose their lives in libraries.”

There used to exist, amongst authors, a strong vein of suspicion about the real worth of the written word. Unfortunately, that feeling kind of ended up feeding into the mysticism and anti-intellectualism of fascism, and many authors who strongly questioned the written word ended up becoming fascists. But I don’t think this means the idea was wrong. If anything, fascism is itself a response to the sense that intellectual life doesn’t really have much to offer for a person who wants to feel deeply.

For me, writing books–the act of creation–sometimes provokes deep feelings. I live more vividly within my own imagined worlds than I do within anybody else’s. But I don’t expect my books to do that for other people. I primarily see them as, I guess, very sophisticated entertainments for people, like me, who are too jaded (or we could call it discerning) to enjoy most books. Those people can pick up my books, read them, and be like, huh, I haven’t seen that before. That’s interesting.

That, to me, is all books, pretty much. When I think of the books I’ve read in the last five years that’ve really stuck with me: House of Mirth, The Magic Mountain, Revolutionary Road, Middlemarch…the feeling I got from them was no more than that…”Huh, this is interesting. My attention is engaged.”

And that’s it, then it’s over. There’s nothing more to it than that. Some people spend their lives streamlining inventory flow management for Toyota, and I spend mine writing these books. They’re of limited value, but their value isn’t nothing, and there’s a non-zero chance that one of your books will blow up and become really popular and then you’ll make lots of money.

I read in Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy that times of societal decline lead to the popularity of quietist, inward-looking philosophies (hence the popular of Stoicism during the Roman Empire). Similarly, I think it’s sometimes worthwhile to notice the smallness of human endeavor. When I write a book, I do think of myself as adding some sort of DNA to the world of literature. But I don’t know how that DNA is going to be snatched up, recombined, or discarded by the forces of chance and necessity. But whatever ultimately happens to it, the result is going to be pretty minor. But still…it’s pretty cool to have left something behind.

 

How watching movies has helped my writing

So a friend turned me on to Moviepass, which allows you to watch one movie a day for a flat fee of $9.99 a month. Yeah, it’s an unsustainable business model, and it’s probably not going to last. But it’s proven TERRIBLE for me, because I’ve gotten absolutely addicted to watching movies, and when the company goes bankrupt I’ll probably end up spending way more on movies than I do now.

Anyways, I’ve watched six movies in the last ten days. At this point I’ve seen most of the Oscar contenders aside from The Darkest Hour and The Post. I have to say, I think this is a good year for movies. None of the Oscar nominees is an embarrassment (the way Hacksaw Ridge was last year) and none are nearly as dull as last year’s Arrival or Manchester by the Sea. The one that comes closest to not being worth your time is, in my opinion, Dunkirk, simply because there’s not a lot in the movie to hold onto. But even in that film there’s a very good strand of the story (about two soldiers doing their best to escape from the beach and get onto the rescue ships) that serves to undercut and fill out the traditional war story.

Of this year’s Best Picture movies, I’d say The Shape of WaterCall Me By Your Name, and Phantom Thread are superlative, and Lady Bird, Get Out, and Three Billboards are extremely good. If any of those films won Best Picture I’d say, “That makes sense to me” (well, maybe not Three Billboards…)

I just saw Call Me By Your Name about five hours ago, which might shape this opinion, but I loved it. I’ve definitely seen friends call it beautiful, but empty, which is a fair criticism. But to me the movie seemed to have one purpose, which was to capture the heart of longing, and it did that better than almost any film I’ve ever seen. In fact, if there’s any movie that comes close to what I want to do with my own work, it’s Call Me By Your Name. I just loved how the camera lingered on the actor’s bodies. Love how it accentuated their long eyebrows. Loved the contrast between Timothee Chalamet’s underdeveloped pale body and Armie Hammer’s very developed golden physique. Loved the hints of intellect that were never taken too far. I don’t think the movie was empty. I think it examined the nature and shape of desire: the ways that you’re attracted not just to a person’s personality or to their character, but also to their body, and that the physical often comes before the personal.

Admittedly it was a very microscopic story. Yes, it was set in 1983, and yes there was no homophobia and no awareness of AIDS or HIV. But whatevs! You know, somewhere in America there are two undocumented people falling in love, and they’re not worrying about getting deported right now, because they’re FALLING IN LOVE. In some ways these character’s self-absorption feels, to me, very real.

But I recognize that this movie is hitting me right in the place where I, right now, am sitting. I do think it’s about thirty minutes too long, and it didn’t seem nearly as in command of its material as The Shape of Water did (say what you want about it, but TSoW is structurally perfect. I mean basically every element of it is perfect.)

Watching all of these movies has been good for my writing. I’ve started to ‘see’ a little bit more with my mind’s eye as I write. Now when I’m writing I’m able to zoom out and think, “Okay, what would this look like? What would the audience actually see?” I think there’s a tendency, when writing prose, to write from a place that’s too deep inside the character and not well enough connected to the events they’re actually experiencing. Ever since I’ve watching all these films I’ve been able to focus on the action itself, and I think that’s resulted in stronger scenes and better set-pieces.

Oh, and also in more variety of scenes! Because in a movie every scene can’t just be people sitting around and talking. You need movement. Variety. Changes in pacing.

Another thing I’ve been thinking about lately (this isn’t entirely related to the movie stuff) is that when I’m writing a book, I try to understand, “What is sustaining the audience’s interest” and “What is sustaining my own interest.”

The interesting thing, to me, is that the thing which sustains the audience’s interest is usually really simple. It’s just suspense. Will they or won’t they? Who did it? Will they defeat the bad guy?

It’s easy, I think, for the writer to forget about suspense, because to the writer, that stuff really doesn’t matter. After all, we mostly know everything that’s going to happen. And for us the thing that’s holding our attention is usually, well, it can be anything, actually. I try to write characters that are larger-than-life–ones which do or say things that the ordinary person wouldn’t–and there’s a certain amusement in letting those people play. I also like to create friends: people I’d like to know; people composed of the best and most interesting parts of people I know in real life. And I like to create startling juxtapositions–putting together people who in real life maybe would never know each other.

I think I’ve gotten very good at telling when my own attention is engaged and when I’m just doing what I feel like I’m supposed to. The interesting thing about following your own attention is noting the places where you get bored. Sometimes I know, even before writing a scene, that it’s going to bore me. Which makes me wonder if it’s even necessary. For instance, right now I’m writing a character who, although still in his thirties, lives with his parents. The story seems to demand a scene where he interacts with them, but the idea sort of bores me. And it’s making me think, well, maybe they’re not necessary. He lives with them, but he’s come to a sort of detenté with them, and they’re not actually that important to the story I’m telling.

This is the thing, I think, that often causes writer’s block. There’s a story you know how to tell, but it’s not the story you need to tell. And that means that writing is, necessarily, going to be torture until you re-learn the trick of listening to yourself.

Oftentimes, a work-in-progress will contain an empty space that you’ll later need to fill

This is a difficult idea to articulate, but I’m going to give it a shot. I’m in the process of revising a novel right now, and I’m in that part of the revision process where I sit back and try to figure out what exactly I need to change. It’s a pretty holistic process: once I decide that a book needs to be revised, everything becomes up-for-grabs, and I’m willing to make the most drastic changes I can imagine.

But oftentimes I don’t need to, because the novel itself is telling me what I need to change. Over and over again, I find that works-in-progress contains weak spots: placeholder characters or scenes or objects that I need to flesh out in order to complete the book. It’s not that I purposefully left a blank in the book when I was drafting, it’s just that a book, in order to be complete, needs to have a certain shape, and my subconscious, sensing this, put in something that’d make it so the book had more or less the right shape.

For instance, in the current draft, one of the characters has a boyfriend character who’s sort of hanging out, not doing much. But meanwhile I needed to figure out something to create tension between this character and another main character, and I was like, oh wait, the boyfriend: he doesn’t like the other main character. That’s it, that’s what he’s doing.

Now the boyfriend has been in the book since the first draft (written literally years ago), and he’s never really had much shape or pulled any sort of weight, but I knew he needed to be there, in order to represent whatever it was that kept this character tied to the real world (this is a fantasy novel).

I’ve also had this other amorphous character–a villain who was defeated long before the start of the book–called the Goddess’s Daughter, and in my recent revision thoughts, I realized that I can use her to provide a backstory for another character. The point is, she always needed to be there, but I didn’t always have exactly the right use for her.

Which is not to say that you don’t take things out. It’s just that I’ve noticed that, overall, the process of revision ought to make the book less complicated and more elegant. Revision is where the book starts to feel like, oh wow, the author was planning this all along (even though he wasn’t). It’s also where I start to think, “What’s this story really about? Where does the thematic weight lay? What is each character’s arc?”

Oftentimes in early drafts, the book is propelled forward by pure longing, which is to say that what I’ve successfully created is a need in the heart of the character. But that need is itself an empty space, and in later drafts I need to flesh out the nature of the need: where did it come from and why is it still unfilled? (Of course this is all lies, since real life human beings are, in truth, rarely so uncomplicated that our needs can be clearly explicated, but still, fiction requires these lies).

This book is unique in that I didn’t really know what my ending was going to be (except in broad strokes). Part of this was because I hate all that nerdy world-building stuff, especially the part where you have to explain the magic system. In my view, the magic system is that it works by magic. But that poses problems when you need to finally wrap things up. Because of this, I finally need to go back and think a little bit about how things work. It’s just as intensely boring as I always thought it would be, and as a result I’m thinking about what ending I really want. Originally I’d intended a whiz-bang magical ending, where the hero conquers some external obstacle to defeat the bad guys, but I’m thinking that’s not where my interest lies, and now I’m pondering ways to sap some of the drama from the third act.

Paradoxically, much of my progress as a writer has been about reducing tension, reducing excitement, and slowing down the pace. I know this doesn’t sit well with some editors and some readers, but most of my favorite books take place at a more human scale (to put it bluntly, nobody gets shot in Pride and Prejudice), and I sort of can’t tolerate the adventure story, since, to me, the entire narrative hinges on chance: the hero is the hero simply because an arrow doesn’t hit them in the chest. If an arrow did hit them, they’d be dead and ergo not the hero. But we know, from real life, that no amount of confidence and skill makes you immune to arrows.

(As an aside, I’m listening to the audiobook of Ron Chernow’s biography of Ulysses S. Grant, and what I love the most about it is the role that chance plays in Grant’s life. In private life, he’s a terrible businessperson, and in his personal nature he seems to be somewhat diffident and retiring. It’s only the chance that puts him in the right place at the right time that allows him to shine as a general. This biography is rare in that it doesn’t downplay its subject’s virtues, but it also doesn’t exaggerate them. Grant is, above all, a lucky man. It makes me see my own world differently. If the clerk at the tannery in a small town in Illinois could, in the right circumstances, become a successful general and, eventually, the president of the United States, then who’s to say my plumber couldn’t have been a great novelist or that my hairdresser might not’ve made an excellent Emperor. The world is a far stranger thing than we can imagine, and whether you call it chance or you call it fate, outside factors have a much bigger influence on our lives than anything we’re able personally9780525521952.jpeg to do.)

On men’s contempt for women

1000x747.jpegFor the past two days I’ve been reading my friends’ “me too” posts on Facebook. I’m not particularly surprised by the number of stories, but the rawness and depth of emotion has been very affecting.

Like most men, I recognize myself in some of the stories, but most of them are way worse than anything I’ve done in my life. I think men tend to have two reactions to stories like this. They either feel defensive, or they seek absolution. Neither of these are particularly productive, and if that’s all I wanted to do, I wouldn’t bother to write.

As I posted a few days ago, I think a lot of men would act like Harvey Weinstein if they had the power that he did (a lot wouldn’t, however!) I’ll go further today, and I’ll say that I think most men can recognize in themselves the hatred and contempt for women that leads men to cat-call, grope, sexually harass, or rape. Now I don’t think this is universally true. I’m sure some men are free from that complicated relationship with femininity, but I do think that a contempt for women is a secret part of the character of many men.

There was a time when I thought I was uniquely monstrous because of the way I felt, and I’m sure many men still do feel like monsters. Men don’t talk about our feelings, and we especially don’t talk about the darkest of our emotions. But men often say things that, to me, only make sense if they too feel a secret anger against women.

For instance, the guilt that many men feel during times like this is completely out of proportion to anything they’ve actually done. Like, bro, most of these stories are about legit sexual harassment. The time you asked a girl out again after she said ‘no’ was sort of shitty, but it’s not remotely what people are talking about. But men don’t feel guilty about what they’ve actually done, they feel ashamed, instead, of all the things they’ve thought about, wanted to, or considered doing.

Similarly, men often have a need to minimize, reduce, or mischaracterize what people are saying. Like there’ll be a Harvey Weinstein type story and men will be like, “But am I not allowed to ever ask out any woman I work with???”

To which the reply is: Err, like, yeah, dude, that’s not what happened here. He wasn’t ‘asking out’ a coworker, he was luring subordinates into situations where he could sexually assault and rape them.

But the man’s reaction makes sense if you realize that we men know, in our hearts, all the times that we’ve crossed the line and put untoward pressure on women, and we feel a deep shame for those times as well.

Or when there’s statistics about campus rape, men will be like, “Women are saying every time they have sex while drunk was rape!” And it’s like, err, no, go read the questionnaires. The questions that lead to statistics like “1 in 5” aren’t about alcohol or fuzzy consent. They’re about forcible penetration. If anything they’re an underrepresentation of the truth.

But, again, men know about each time they’ve had sex with somebody who didn’t really want to have sex with them, and when they hear forcible rape being condemned, they think about all the things they’ve done or would have done.

Similarly, lots of my female friends talk about how they’ll be dating these guys who “don’t like to talk about their feelings” or “have a hard time connecting with people.” Several of my female friends have dated guys who called themselves “sociopaths” or “emotionless.” And I think women feel like guys are just blocked off. We feel the things women do, but we think it’s girly to talk about them.

But when you really put everything together, you realize what guys are saying is, “If you understood the depth of the hatred and violence inside of me, you probably wouldn’t love me anymore.”

 

What’s struck me so much about all the ‘me too’ stories is that while women are saying, “This is why I fear and distrust men,” what we see, when we look around at our society, is not an overabundance of women who fear and distrust men! Rather, we see the opposite: we see that women tend to give men too much benefit of the doubt. We see that women bend over backwards to see men in the best possible light. Women, despite all of these experiences, are anxious to find men who’re worthy of their love and respect.

If anything, in this society it seems to be men who fear and distrust women. And I don’t really know why that is. Even being a man–even feeling that emotion inside myself–I can’t describe this thing or where it came from.

What I can say is that men feel, I think, a longing for femininity. Men need it. Not just for sex–I think that’s a minority of it, actually. Rather, without femininity, we’d have nothing in our lives that was free or expressive or unguarded. I say ‘femininity,’ rather than ‘women,’ because I think sometimes we provide that femininity ourselves. What I’m struck by most often, when I see some of the most toxic guys, is the way they are drawn to the feminine: they wear pink, they hug and say ‘I love you’ and ‘bro’, they pamper themselves, they care about beauty and style and design.

I saw a photo earlier today of somebody making fun of bath bombs that were shaped like grenades, and the caption provided (this was, like, a Buzzfeed article) was something like, “When you’re a man’s man, but you still need a bath bomb.”

And I thought, that’s interesting. If men really only hated femininity, this bath bomb wouldn’t exist. Men just would never buy bath bombs and that’d be it. And if men had an uncomplicated relationship to femininity, men would just buy ordinary bath bombs, and then too the grenade-bombs wouldn’t exist. But the existence of this product is a testament to the push and the pull: the love that’s paired with contempt. In some essential way, the contempt is a byproduct of the desire for femininity, but I don’t know why.

I think it’s easy for people, men especially, to reduce it all to sex. Men want sex. Women won’t have sex with them. So they’re angry at the women.

But that doesn’t feel right. Because although there exists the incel, Elliot Rodgers-style rage, there’s also the casual contempt of the frat guy. No matter who you are, our society produces a form of toxic masculinity that comes in your size. And yet I do think the contempt is somehow a byproduct of being drawn towards women, because I know that when I was exclusively dating men, I loved how free I felt from this emotion.

Gay male culture has its problems, but sexual and romantic relationships between men are so much blessedly simpler than relationships between men and women. When I identified publicly as gay, my friendships with women were also a good deal simpler in some way that I can’t define, because it wasn’t just that they felt more comfortable with me, it’s also that I felt more comfortable with them.

(Not that gay men don’t have their own issues w/ objectification and contempt for women. Plenty of gay men think they have right to touch women whenever they want, although I’ll note that many women also feel the same way about gay men’s bodies!)

I do believe it’s our society that produces this terrible hatred that men have for women. It’s not something that’s inherent in our gender or our biology. It’s something else.

It’s easy to say, too, that it’s in the way we’re socialized as kids, but again I don’t know. I went to an all-boys school, but I acted in plays and musicals at girls’ schools in the area, and I remember my relations with them being relatively free and easy. None of my friends were dating, and I really almost never thought about sexual or romantic relationships. In fact, I remember feeling that girls were just like me.

But literally the moment I stepped foot on a college campus, the anger and contempt for women flowered within me. I mean it happened within weeks. There was something in the air. And it wasn’t necessarily in the way people spoke either. It was in the environment of college, which perhaps was just the environment of my own mind, where I felt suddenly like women were a currency that I needed to possess.

Paradoxically, it was at that same time that my longing for femininity increased. As a teen, I only cared mostly about boy-oriented things: space opera and military SF, video games about lone adventurers, etc (although I did also love musicals and Sailor Moon =). But in college, I got more into teen dramas and sit-coms and novels about, like, relationships between people.

Somehow at that time this division between the feminine and the masculine was created in me, and I’ve been, to greater and lesser degrees, trapped in that morass ever since.

I don’t know where to go in the future. I think in the short-term “trying to be better” is a good plan. Let’s try to be better and to teach our boys to be better. In the medium-term, I think the solution must be societal. There is a large subset of boys and men who’ve learned a secret: they will not be punished for crimes against women. Let’s make it so that’s not true, okay?

But…in the longest-term, I’d like to think that someday the root cause of this (and, as I keep mentioning, is in my opinion that root cause is the anger that men, for some reason, feel towards women) will be eradicated.

I don’t think that violence is an essential part of human nature. I especially don’t think that violence for the purposes of dominance or sexual coercion is something that we are unable to overcome. And, for me, women are proof of this. It’s become a dreary truism to state that 95%, or something like that, of murders are committed by men. But it’s still a little bit shocking to me. I mean, women face all the same problems that men do (more, even!) and yet they rarely resort to murder.

The easiest and most tempting thing to do is to put this down to an essential difference between the genders. But I’m wary of such explanations, because it seems that people are always trying to say “The situation right now, at this moment in history, is due to an essential part of human nature.” A hundred years ago, people would’ve said that homosexuality (they might’ve called it ‘inversion’) was essentially sick and that no homosexual relationship could be anything other than toxic. Now we know that’s untrue. Five hundred years ago, people in the Western World might’ve said that women were, by nature, unsuited to literary endeavor. Today, the pre-eminent literary form, the novel, is one that was pioneered and is dominated by women. We are always trying to say that some facet of our nature is set in stone, but I still feel, at least intellectually, the same way I did as a kid, which is that boys and girls are essentially the same, and that the differences between us are, if anything, more a proof of the elasticity of human nature than they are of the opposite.

Writers should stop being so uptight when people tell us they’ve always wanted to write

Was reading the Kindle preview of this memoir, Breakfast At Sally’s, which is about a prosperous guy who becomes down-and-out and homeless, and it begins with this anecdote, which happens when the author, Richard, who’s attempting to write on a typewriter while sitting in a park, encounters another guy, Michael, who asks him what he’s doing. Richard says he’s trying to write a book, and Michael says, “Always wanted to write a book myself,” he said. “Maybe about cars. But it takes a lot of talent and time to write a good book, you know? Not everybody can do it.”

 

Richard chats with Michael a bit, and then Michael goes on his way.

Anyhow, I bought the book, because I was like, this is a perspective I want to see. There’s a quiet humanity there, in its description of Michael, that you often don’t witness when writers talk about other aspiring writers.

I think writers can sometimes get bitter. Not just about the publishing industry, but about the general public. You see so many older writers talking about how people don’t read, or about how stupid people are, or how they don’t have any taste. And I understand that. It’s hard to put something out into the world when, really, nobody wants it or is asking for it. There’s a metaphor, in here, about life. How people are only valued when they do what other people want, but whenever we attempt to live for ourselves, and for our own values, we’re met with indifference. And, on some level, that’s appropriate. I mean, why should anybody else care about what you’ve written? Why should they give even an ounce of their time to you? And yet…you think…I worked for this. I slaved away in my room, for hours and for years, to dream this up for you, and I know for an absolute fact that it would enrich your life.

So I understand how it’s embittering to spend your life trying to give away your riches, only for them to be like, meh, I don’t want that shit.

It’s thoughts like these, I think, that put writers into a defensive crouch, and that make us jealous of whatever little amount we’ve managed to receive. If you’ve sold a book, you’re like, 99 out of 100 people who write a book never manage to sell it. If you have an agent, you’re like, well, my agent gets 500 queries a month and they decided to sign me. If all you’ve done is completed a novel, you’re like, well, most people who want to write novels never manage to start one.

To bring up an overused term, it’s a very bourgeois way of thinking. Because, like the bourgeois, most writers are trapped between the aristocracy, who have all the power and wealth, and the proleteriat, who have nothing. And because of this, most writers are, like the bourgeois classes, very keen to assort themselves into hierarchies that prize extremely minor points of social difference.

Because the truth is, it genuinely makes no difference if your book is published or not. It doesn’t make you a better human–we all know that–but it doesn’t even make you a better writer! I’ve met aspiring writers, unagented and unpublished, whose work, when I read it, was as good or better than my own. And even if somebody is a worse writer than you, it doesn’t stand to reason that they’re going to be worse tomorrow or next year or in ten years.

I actually think one of the major stumbling blocks that people in middle age find in their careers is the moment when people younger than them start being promoted above them. In small fields, this is the moment at which you either are punished or rewarded for how you’ve treated your subordinates in the last twenty years. Some people are never going to rise again, because their former assistants and direct reports just don’t like them, while others will always find a helping hand in unexpected places.

In this case, Richard has literally just started to write his book, and he’s meeting somebody who has never tried to start, and this is exactly the situation in which people tend to get snooty and be like, well, how dare you compare your vague wish to write a book with my sitting-down-and-actually-doing-it!

But why get into such a huff about it? What purpose does it serve? I think writers forget how privileged we are. Writing is the one creative art where people can perform at the highest level without a lifetime of training. You don’t see a lot of successful painters or musicians who began after age 40. In acting, it’s a little more common, but still not very. Whereas in writing, particularly in commercial fiction, it’s almost the rule that it’s something people come to later in life.

And to a large degree, I think, this is because writing is rooted in the faculty of language, which is something that every human practices every single day. We are all constantly using our words to tell stories: to ourselves, if to nobody else. And in some of those people, these stories might be spectacular.

Now I know somebody out there is gonna be like, “But I practiced every day for ten years and wrote ten novels before I sold a single one.” Well…okay, that’s cool. But when did you start? Did you start at age 4, like a violinist? Did you have to rack up tens of thousands of dollars in fees for instruction, like a dancer? Did you need to move somewhere to LA and work a low-paying job with flexible hours, like an actor?

Writers benefit immensely from the accessibility of our art. Not just because its low barriers to entry mean that we–that you and I–could actually get into this thing, but also because those very same low barriers are the reason why writing has such a privileged position in people’s minds. I mean think, for a second, how insane it is that millions of people–literally millions–in this country want to do what we do?

And in a lot of people that dream is linked to the desire for fame and ease, but so what? It’s linked to that desire in my mind too! Writing is connected to so many dreams. It’s about working for yourself, rather than other people; producing what you want, rather than what other people tell you to. Writing is awesome, and I’m not at all surprised that lots of people want to write. They should want to!

Now I’m not suggesting that you give more of yourself than you can. I understand why people put limits on their time and energy, but at the very least, in your own mind, if nowhere else, you should be nice.

You know, I think a lot of writers can point to moments in their own history when just a few encouraging words meant a lot to them. “That’s a good idea” or “You should write that” can go far.

I honestly don’t have a lot of memories like that. I’ve been writing for almost fourteen years, and in that time what I can mostly remember is authors who were uncharitable. Writers at conventions who didn’t have the time for me. Instructors who played favorites and begrudged praise. Authors–acquaintances of mine–who dropped me after their books got big. Journal editors who rejected me in condescending ways. I’m not saying it was everybody. Like most people, I’ve had good teachers and good interactions with authors. But I’ve noticed that even when people in the literary world help those below them, they always want to help a rising star. People get help if there’s a perception that they don’t need it.

That’s not the fault of our world, it’s simply human nature. Once I went to two parties in one night. At one, I was relatively new to the scene, and when I talked to strangers, I could feel their wariness and disdain. At the other, a group of friends gave me a big greeting when I walked in, and at that party when I talked to strangers they were immediately open and welcoming. It is the rare person who can break through all this bourgeois bullshit and even attempt to see the human being that’s underneath all the social posturing.

And I know there are reasons for wariness. Women, in particular, often find themselves saddled with guys who are simply awful, and for this reason they sometimes learn to ignore and shut out strange guys. But these excuses only go so far, because most human interactions are between people of the same gender. And this is particularly true in the writing world, where most of the writers and readers are women.

I don’t know. It exhausts me, the level of inhumanity and indifference in the world. People spend so much time worrying about the victims of some natural disaster or some foreign war, and then they shit on and shut out the person who comes to them, hoping to be told, “You can do it too!” We so often ignore the differences we can make in this world, and to be honest I’m often no better than most–I can recall so many times when I’ve failed to extend an open hand. But at least I try to be better.