Reasons for Not Writing

I’m not ready yet! I should

  1. Play solitaire until I win.
  2. Check the news (Have you ever noticed how, unlike what happens in that great Kurosawa film Rashomon , the more points of view you get on a topical subject, the more you feel you really don’t know anything?)
  3. Have more coffee, maybe with something sweet, so I can get that sugar rush and blurt out any old thing. (Even if the blurt fades and leaves you in a low mood)
  4. Go to the gym or go for a run so I can get more ideas and inspirations. (So I can be  too tired to write).
  5. Check e-mail (and see who has rejected my submissions, ignored my e-mails or used one of those cheeky automatic replies that is not a reply as much as it is another way to tell someone that they are not worth your time).
  6. Consult the I-Ching (Book of Changes). This ancient Chinese fortune telling system that I encountered in college involves a random series of actions that generate a pattern. You then read commentary on the pattern. The psychoanalyst Carl Jung especially enjoyed the I-Ching because it confirmed for him the interaction of theoretical archetypes that can act as metaphors for human conditions and possibly reveal hidden truths about situations and personalities. Like astrology, Tarot cards, palmistry and tasseography (tea leaf reading), the efficacy depends on the superstitious belief that all events are connected, that faraway incidents can influence local outcomes and—specific to the I-Ching—natural forces, visual images, family structures and royal hierarchies are equivalent and direct metaphors of human interactions. (This is fun until you notice that belief systems that encourage these ideals are very popular in tyrannical regimes because they reinforce rigid social order and repress dissent).

Counter reason: No one is ever “ready,” and one can argue that those who believe they are could be less flexible and adaptable than those who just jump in or “get out of the way” and let the creative impulse come through.

I still don’t know if any of this is good. I should show it to someone who is in the business–

Counter reason: The only thing they can tell you with any reliability and accuracy is what they think you’re trying to do and how they might do it if they were you. They’re not you. If they were, they would be doing EXACTLY what you’re doing.

But what if nobody likes this? Or, even if they do, they reject it becaise the publishing business has changed. The things considered necessary for publication have changed. Publishers no longer want a good story (one can argue that they never did). They want a story that can be sold as a souvenir of an encounter by someone who is already popular on the Internet. I am not popular on the Internet.

Counter Reason: There is another kind of success that has little to do with popularity. It’s based on kindness, generosity and a willingness to do “good.” Yes, good intentions may lead you astray, but it’s rather obvious that the writing that is meaningful, enjoyable and worth reading, is worth bringing into the world.

As a journalist, I’ve written about many popular people and I’ve seen what these people must do (or feel they must do, or resist doing what they feel they must do) to maintain that popularity. About the best that can be said about celebrity maintenance is that it is its own skill with highly situational values (what works for one audience does not always work for another). The worst is that you can get lost in it   and spend so much time and money on it that you forget who you are (this is a common theme of Hollywood success biopics), become a parody of what made you successful, or so ignore your gifts and talents that your performance (or whatever art you provide) loses its value.

As a critic I’ve learned that popularity is not easy for anyone to control. Even if the work is uniformly excellent, the artist’s image can change, sometimes without the artist doing anything different. Fashion also changes: different eras pick different artists to mirror their values, and the media just as eagerly tears down those who, not long ago, were so righteously built up. Celebrity may seem as a judgement of value, but it’s really about consumption. Fame eats people, places and things. At best, it changes them. At worst, it destroys them.

As an artist, I understand that nothing is guaranteed. You really have no way of knowing, much less being certain, how your work will be received. There is a joyous part of making art when you stop worrying about this and just let it happen. Reaching that joyous moment is not only possible, but likely, with practice. Practice isn’t about repetition. It’s about finding a different way, every time, to what matters about your art.

Finally, when popularity becomes the hierarchy of success, those at the top benefit at the expense of just about everyone else.


  1. It’s a beautiful day. I could walk the dog, run an errand, start cooking something that requires me to watch a pot.
  2. I like listening to music but my favorite tunes are tangled in a mess of music files. What if I clean up my music files, extract my favorite tunes, and listen to them for a while, hoping that inspiration takes hold?
  3. I want to find out something on the Internet but I need to research to make sure I’m doing it properly. Of course, researching anything on the Internet can take an hour or more and…now it’s time for lunch!

Final Counter Thought:

Everyone feels anxious before beginning. See it. Feel it. See past it and let go.


Wrestling With Angels

I never liked doubt. When I learned about medieval Japanese culture, I imagined myself becoming a super samurai, who could solve problems, write novels and, possibly, impress females, with a single, direct and unhesitatingly lethal sword cut.

Alas, when a problem arises, I’m like that clueless klutz wandering about Home Depot searching for the part, the piece, the tube of goo, the great grand and all-powerful tool. And I never seem to find it. Or, if I do, I fumble around so much, banging this, scraping that and making a mess that it’s only when I’m just about finished that I finally remember what direction to turn the screwdriver. I have the greatest admiration for those who can fix things, but also I disagree with those who preach goal-oriented behavior, or who equate intellect with problem-solving, because the only thing worse than finding yourself incapable of solving a problem (world peace, anyone?) is dealing with the cosmic let-down that descends just have your turn on the water and discovery that, yes, you’ve replaced the stopper in the toilet and it works okay but…the sink is still clogged up.

Or, as I like to put it, you pray to heaven for a sandwich with hot corned beef, Russian dressing, sauerkraut and a slice of Swiss cheese, and it’s delivered on white bread.

As for impressing females, I confess that I will never figure that out. I blame this on  myself. I remember that scary time in middle school when girls transformed themselves from pesky annoyances to the most important beings on the planet whose approval of me was a matter of even greater importance than life and death. Between my heart-thumping, face-burning, swoons and pratfalls, I noticed that I really couldn’t expect myself to appeal to every female because not every female appealed to me. Whenever I tried to drag myself up from despair and systematize and catalog exactly what would be the ideal object of affection, I was surprised by how this person (to whom I am now married) was, to put it honestly, beyond category. Love really is the most important thing that happens to us, and, even if we try to explain it away as an evolutionary evolved practice by which we further the species, nurture the weak and keep florists in business, we’re not supposed to understand it as much as be grateful for what love helps us become.

Writing novels has never been a single sword cut. Not once. I start with an idea of a scene or situation, or a character with a challenge, and then I go backward and discover how this scene arose. Then I go forward to find out what happens next, only to skid to a halt and spin my wheels for a while because I have absolutely no idea what will happen next.

Then I become frustrated and depressed because, even though I once gave some simple, easy plot-boiling strategies when I taught novel writing, I am incapable of following my own advice. So a rapidly sink into despair because I can’t just sit down and POUND IT OUT. I need a flickering beam to light the way ahead and, when I’m in the dark, I become dark.

I don’t turn to drink, or coffee, because I tried those during my misspent youth and they don’t work and they make you feel even worse. I’ll turn the computer on and play entirely too much solitaire. Just when I’m certain that my mood will never change, I get some kind of great idea. The way ahead is as bright as an airport runway! Pull back on the throttle and up we go!

This emotional power glide fades as soon as I admit that what I really want to happen next in my story is impossible, or, at best, highly unlikely. Now, this, in itself, is not a bad thing: readers turn to fiction because they don’t want it to be like real life. They want to experience vicariously situations that would normally send them running for Mama. They want to meet people who might typically scare them, intimidate them, or send them into a tailspin of envy. They want to fix the toilet and unclog the sink!

So I have to go back and figure out how I can either endow my character with the ability to pull off this unlikely thing, or play a card that I call “H.G. Wells’ Rule.” Wells, one of the grandfathers of science fiction, held that a reader will accept one miracle in a story, but not two or three. In practice, a reader will accept just about anything that is impossible if the reader wants to believe that the impossible can happen, should happen, must happen, will happen in the world you’ve created.

A technique that can be employed is similar to a that of a live magic show: you set up the illusion (the magician explains what will happen with “patter” or build up to it with a series of more intricate, interesting and beautiful illusions) ” employ misdirection (that is, involve the reader in an exciting, emotional moment with your hero, or an important character, so the reader doesn’t have the chance to question what you’re up to) and then unveil the illusion with a bit of dazzle. The impossible happens, dreams come true, your hero beats the bad guy at his own game, not because these are the conventions of story-telling, but because these things make “sense” in the world you’ve created.

Again, it’s hard for me to follow my own advice. I muddle through. I try all kinds of things. I wrestle and…if you believe there is a muse with sacred powers, or a God that watches over the tormented souls of struggling writers, you cast your imagination forward to that wonderful moment when you hold your finished book (printed and bound is FAR better than some digital blur on a reader) and…nobody can see the parts where you were paused, faltered, doubted yourself because you had absolutely no idea what to do.

Your book is almost like life itself: one thing happens after another.

But it is better than life because the right things happen, for the right reasons.



Do We Really Need Them?

I had what Robert Fripp calls a point of seeing a few days ago when, after a long period of non-writing (which is different from not writing because non-writing always leads you to writing, though the path may be awkward and marred with potholes), I returned to the novel that I am hoping to finish.

The point of seeing, like all important life-defining moments, wasn’t inspired by a single event. Several incidents aided and abetted.

A person who “researched” me up on the Internet asked if my previous books were violent. I admitted that they were, and that, at the time that I wrote them, I found some descriptions of violent acts to be exciting and inspiring. Further, how a hero copes with violent situations in action stories can offer insight into character.

But I’ve lost interest in violence over the years, as my studies in history, psychology, economics and the martial arts have leaded to the inevitable truth: that living peacefully is far more skillful and necessary than a talent for target shooting, spinning back kicks or the vulgarly cruel bullying exhibited by a celebrity politician who will not be named. The art in the martial arts–as I have come to understand it after more than 30 years of practice–is how you restore harmony with the least effort. Ultimate mastery is in improving a situation without appearing to do anything at all.

The stories that interest me now are in how we build important things, how we hold together as a society and to what extent the moral action of an individual can redeem a lawless tribe and its corrupt leader. These stories build on a character type that I discovered with my first published novel: the person who asks naively, innocently and honestly, why can’t we obey the laws and behave decently? In the years between the publication of this novel and the one I’m finishing now, I’ve found numerous explanations for what anti-social behavior, but none of them answer my hero’s simple question, or excuse the consequences that anti-social behavior can bring.

So I assured the person who asked about my earlier books that I was no longer thrilled by perilous acts of derring-do, but added that my publishers were only interested in stories of that nature. The few among my handful of agents who expressed enthusiasm for non-violent, pro-social novels were not successful in placing them.

I’ve dwelled on such career calamities previously, and, long after this conversation ended, I began to see my writing life as confusion of desperate lunges, momentary triumphs that were NOT the result of hard work, brief epiphanies, mistakes, reaction to mistakes, a persistent failure to be a “team player,” vigorous attempts at team playing gone awry, betrayals from those I trusted and–most important of all–an unfulfilled need for approval from the imagined horde of readers and few people in the publishing industry who I imagined had the power to further my career and make it possible for me to write and publish the stuff I thought I was born to do.

As I’ve observed too many times, once you dwell in this place, you do very little. You find yourself in a victim’s cage, in which you eagerly tell anyone who would listen that you have been more “sinn’d against than sinning.”

Where do you go from there? As long as you’re a victim, you stay in place.

How to leave the cage. The most direct way is to ignore the past and just DO what you were born to do: jump in the swimming pool with the faith that, after the shock of cold water on your skin, you’ll get used to the temperature and continue.

The more difficult way is to go back and examine this past which–we know but don’t always intuit–is a fiction intended to support the present. Look for the spaces between the failures, mistakes, betrayals, reversals, embarrassments, things-you-would-have-done-differently-if-only, people-you-never-should-have-trusted. What do you see?

Survival–which, in the martial arts, is the preeminent goal. Anyone with any experience in the martial arts will tell you that you never start a fight, and resist powerfully any temptation to join one, because you can never be sure how the fight will end. Better to use your skill to make sure that you, and those important to you, suffer little harm. The means if you and your loved ones can run away from conflicts, do so, even if it doesn’t make you look good. Then, if you can, END the fight. Stop it in such a way that those fighting cease their hostilities and, if possible, move toward resolving their differences so that things don’t get worse.

So between all those ups and downs is that mostly (though never uniformly) sweet spot in which you wake up, live, experience things that may not be so easily typed as successes and failures, mistakes and achievements. You deal with other people. You let them deal with you and, if you’re a writer, you string words together. The mere opportunity to do that is vital: most people don’t write, except under duress. Others may dream of writing but never start because dreams come and go and, before they go, they always appear best while they’re in your mind. Begin to write them down, and OTHER things happen.

If those words do something to you, great. Sometimes I get a feeling when I finish writing that I’ve done something good and that, maybe, this mere, solitary act of creation has made the world a better place.  I’m sure there’s a medical, chemical, neurological or psychiatric explanation for this. As I’ve written previously, explanations–especially those that devalue what is important to you–aren’t to be trusted completely, especially if they cause you to stop asking questions. The history of science has shown us that what was a good explanation for one period became inadequate later. This doesn’t mean we should disregard science and its great gifts. It does suggest that we should become more comfortable with questions we cannot competently answer, than glib, authoritarian answers that stifle curiosity.

If the words do something to other people, that’s a mixed bag. I always like it when my wife “gets” what I do. It’s rare when she doesn’t, and when that happens, I’ll usually change things so that she does.

But I’ve tried, and failed spectacularly, to change my work so that EVERYONE gets it. When I was younger, I aspired to write stuff that EVERYONE would like. I thought those writers who became tetchy under editorial supervision were just spoiled brats that the world could do without.

Now I feel that there are times when you just have to say no. Yes, you should meet editors half way, give them the benefit of the doubt and do whatever possible to maintain a favorable relationship. They used to be the only the conduit through which publication and money flowed. But I’ve had enough editors to know that some of them change things for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of the work, the space requirements of the publication or how much more they know about English grammar and usage than your humble narrator.

If the work is actually published, the money and the reaction (if any) is never what you expect. You may agree to terms in advance and wait as much as a year before you get a check. You may agree to terms and have the work “killed” for no fault of the work, and get a fraction of what you agreed upon as a kill fee. The publication may be sold, or go out of business, before you stuff appears.

Or (and this happens most often), the money you get has no realistic correspondence to the work you did. Some things are too easy. Most are too difficult. The money is, at best, ironic.

Many writers have problems with professional critics. I don’t, because I used to be one AND (I’m lucky here) the majority of my reviews were positive. As for the greater reading public, my work tends not to get the angry responses.

Alas, for the book business, my work hasn’t “sold” enough copies for me to be courted by the publishing courtiers. Now that websites exist that list the “official” (that is, the publisher’s) sales of every commercially published author in the last fifty or so years, an agent need only check my “numbers” to ask, would this guy do any better with a new book than an unknown author without a track record?

Thinking about sales figures returns you to the cage. In our time, if ten MILLION people buy a ticket, or a copy, or hit on a web page, stream and otherwise experience a work of art, the work and the artist can still be considered a failure because the economical system that rewards fees or royalties is in favor of the gatekeepers rather than the content providers. Over history content providers have received almost no compensation for their labors. A few, from Shakespeare to Dickens to J.K. Rowling and Sondra Rimes have, and thus, their success is an inspiration to subsequent generations who enter the field believing, quite correctly, that their best efforts should earn similar favor. We all work hard. We all expect hard work to “pay off.”

Sometimes it does. Most often, it doesn’t, and continuing to work–hard or otherwise–is the only alternative.

Now I have different alternatives. As much as I would like my work to have easy access to a publishing pipeline, that access is not obvious. I am surviving easily when health matters don’t intrude. I know a handful of people, my wife included, who respect what I’m writing and enjoy reading it.

So the point seeing was…who do I really need anyone else to finish this book? No. Why do I imagine that I do?

Because that cage, as awful as it is, is familiar. Whenever anyone brings something new into the world, everything changes.

Or has the potential to do so. That can bring the shock of cold water that can keep some of us standing on the edge of the pool, uncertain about what to do next.

I jumped in.