As those of you who follow my work know, I’m dead keen on process. I think it’s important for writers not just to write, but to watch themselves writing and observe their evolving approach to their craft. That, I believe, is how a writer goes about growing. So with every new novel I write, I ask myself, “What am I learning from this one?”
Here’s something that’s not news: I have to keep writing. I have to keep working, for I self-define as a person of doing, not being. Persons of being, those lucky Buddhists, get to relax and chill and feel okay. Not me. I’m relentless – driven – and not necessarily in a good way. I would say that my compulsion to write is almost unhealthy, at least as it manifests itself in the worried lament, “I’m falling behind in my existence!” Well, healthy or not, I will write more words, even these words here – in fact exactly these words here – because my active practice of writing demands it. So I write for compulsion, and that’s me, but whatever: I write for utility, too. I write to get immersed in the worlds of my stories. I pile on the words because they take me to the places I want to go most. The math of this has been irreducible since my writing career began: The more words I write, the better I get at writing more words.
In this new novel (The Seattle Straddle, sequel to The Texas Twist, which is due out in June from Prospect Park Books) I’ve taken on the challenge of telling five or six stories at once. I’ve never done this before, yet I feel completely in control. I don’t know where all the stories are going, but I do know that they’re guided by my professional understanding of such things as conflict, passion, and legitimate storytelling choices. My stories will be tight, rigorous, because that’s what my craft demands of me, and that’s what I’m now prepared to deliver: the serious-minded work of a practiced craftsman. This is new for me, this sense of looking at the page and thinking, “Well, I have this all under control.” Trust me, campers, I have not spent my writing life thinking I had things under control. So, yeah, this is new, but I feel like it won’t go away. With this novel I’ve completely stopped fearing the blank page or doubting my storytelling choices. After a lifetime as a working writer, I’ve finally arrived at my job.
Here’s what else is new: I finally love research. Now I’m the guy who’s always said he hates research like a cat hates baths, but I realize that I’ve been going about it all wrong. I always thought you had to dive into a subject and study it like a scholar until you got bored and antsy and had to get back to writing because, you know, that’s what a person of doing has to do. Research never felt like doing to me. I was just burdened by it. So I decided to lighten it up. I just started exploring stuff I was interested in – history’s dark corners mostly – and let my studies inform my stories in a general way. Without effort and without expectation, I started to let my stories, as it were, marinate in data. That makes a mess, I can tell you, but it’s a hot mess, so yay me. Anyway, I’m learning more about research, and treating a former enemy as a practical tool.
When I put these two revelations together and cast them in simple terms, though, they seem not to be revelations at all. What, after all, am I really saying? 1) Write more words. 2) Use better tools. Well, who didn’t already know that?
1) Write more words. 2) Use better tools.
Maybe knowing it and feeling it are two different things. Every writer knows to write more and every dedicated writer wants to use better tools. But when you experience yourself doing it, that’s the real revelation. That’s the money spot for writers. Or let’s call it the face of the wave, and define face of the wave as the place where the words end and the blank page begins. That’s where we want to spend our lives, you and I writer. Right on the face of the wave. For all of my writing life, the face of the wave has always been exciting but also scary. It’s not scary anymore. Writing has stopped being scary. I don’t know when it happened – probably longer ago than I realize – but the Elvis of my fear has left the building of my brain. For good. Again, if I may, yay me.
Well, yay you, too, because I don’t know you but I know that one of two things must be true of you. You’re either there already, on the far side of the fear – yay, you – or you’re going to get there if you just keep writing. And when I speak of “there,” you need to know that I’m not just talking about the mechanics of a writing project but also – very much – its heart. To be a writer is to be emotionally authentic on the page, say I, and that is a matter of craft, but also of courage. To be a writer is to be brave on the page.
So sally forth in your writing life. Keep working on your craft and keep tracking your practice. There’s an old saying, “Practice makes perfect.” I think that nostrum does a disservice to writers, or to anyone following it, since “perfect” is an unreachable goal. How about instead we say, “Practice makes progress.” Progress, really, is all this writer asks.