Don't tie a bow at the end of your story

I’m a fan of ending books and stories a little bit sooner than my readers and listeners would like. I like to leave some dangling threads. A few unanswered questions. Something still left to wonder about.

I think by doing so, my story lingers in the hearts and minds of my reader and listeners a little bit longer. Rather than being one of those books or stories that can quickly be forgotten, I like to think that my stories continue to tickle the brains of my readers and listeners long after my storytelling has ended.

I’ve received many messages over the years from many, many readers and listeners, dying to know what happened next, both in the lives of my fictional characters as well as my own life. Last year, I started receiving emails from teenage girls in Mexico who had somehow started reading my first novel, Something Missing, and wanted to know if Martin and Laura, the protagonists, ended up together.

Imagine that:

Teenage girls in a foreign country took the time to find the email address of an American author so they could write an email in Spanish (an arcane form of communication for most teenagers) and then use Google to translate it to English so they could ask me if two fictional characters - people who don’t actually exist - end up together.

THAT is a story that’s still tickling their brains long after they’ve finished reading the book.

I received this message recently via Instagram which offers similar proof to the power of the incomplete story.

I love it so much. I love how much this reader loves this book and yet is tortured by it at the same time.

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My advice is simple:

Stories shouldn’t end in neatly tied bows. Questions should be left unanswered. Your audience - readers or listeners - should be left wondering. Guessing. Wanting more.

This is how stories become some memorable that years later, they are still wondering what happened next.

We don't know how our stuff is made.

I’ve become convinced that the people who don’t make stuff will never understand how stuff is made.

I listen to podcasts where hosts ask writers and artists about how jokes are written, screenplays are developed, and stories are crafted, and the questions they ask rarely make sense to the creators of these things.

  • When you’re writing a song, do you start with the rhyme at the end of the couplet or at the beginning?

  • Did you have that punchline first, or did you work your way to the punchline?

  • Did you intend the death of that character to signal the death of hope itself?

I get ridiculous questions like this, too, from readers, high school and college students, and even the occasional teacher and professor.

Just recently, a college student writing about one of my books sent me these questions:

  1. What is the principal role of the narrative voice in your book?

  2. In what way does the narrative voice make your work more difficult in the novel?

  3. To what extent does the narrative voice help readers understand Max's inner world?

  4. What was your main purpose of introducing Budo in Max's life?

  5. What struggles did you have when framing this story?

  6. Did you settle on metaphors and symbols before you began writing?

My answer to questions 1, 2, 3, and 5 were “I don’t understand the question.”

My answer to question 3 was, “I didn’t introduce Budo to Max’s life. He was just there.”

My answer to question 6 was, “What symbols and metaphors are in the book. I didn’t see any.”

People who don’t make stuff seem to think there is a formula for making stuff. Whether it’s fiction or comedy or art or music, folks seem to believe that we sit down with a plan. They actually think we have a formal process of some kind, complete with logic, forethought, craftsmanship, and nuance.

They don’t realize that we don’t know how our stuff is made. It’s a mystery to most of us. I’ve written fiction nonfiction, musicals, comic books, magazine essays, and poetry, and it’s always the same":

Stuff just tumbles out, probably because I’m not thinking about all the ridiculous things that these questions imply. The stuff just lands on the page or the canvas or the stage. It’s not pretty at first. It needs a lot of work. But we’re certainly not thinking in the way that teachers and professors and even the consumers of our work want to believe.

I think they want to believe that there is a formula in hopes of someday understanding the formula and then replicating it for themselves.

If only it was that easy.

In 1963, 16-year-old Bruce McAllister was sick and tired of hunting for symbols in English class, so rather than engaging in a debate with his teacher over the validity of this work, he sent a survey to 150 novelists asking if they intentionally planted symbolism in their work. 

Some of my favorite responses:

Ray Bradbury: “No, I never consciously place symbolism in my writing. That would be a self-conscious exercise and self-consciousness is defeating to any creative act. Better to let the subconscious do the work for you, and get out of the way. The best symbolism is always unsuspected and natural."

John Updike: “I have no method; there is no method in writing fiction; you don’t seem to understand.”

Norman Mailer: “I’m not sure it’s a good idea for a working novelist to concern himself too much with the technical aspects of the matter. Generally, the best symbols in a novel are those you become aware of only after you finish the work.”

Jack Kerouac: “No.”

McAllister eventually became an English professor. Presumably he never asked a student to hunt for a symbol.

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How to write for 14 years without missing a day and never run out of ideas.

I’ve been blogging since 2005. I have not missed a day, even when scumbag cowards attempted to derail my career by blatantly mischaracterizing what I write and portraying me as some crazed lunatic.

I hope they are still reading today.

I’ve shifted my blog to three different platforms and changed the name each time, but I also migrated the best content from each site onto this one, where I have blogging since November 18, 2008, and preserved the content from all three.

I’ve got it all.

I’m often asked:

How could you possibly have something to say every day for 14 years? More than 5,000 days of thoughts?

Part of the answer is there are many days when my post is a photo with three sentences essentially saying, “Hey! Look at this!”

But the truth is that I collect ideas, thoughts, and experiences and write about them when it’s most appropriate.

But this past week is a good example of the secret sauce.

In my blogging platform on SquareSpace, I have more than 70 half written, partially written, or unwritten drafts. Some are single sentences representing a thought I had to write about. Others are links to news reports and stories that I know will trigger a post from me. Still others are photos, graphs, or other images that will ultimately lead to a post.

The oldest of these drafts dates back to 2013 . A thought from six years ago, just waiting for me to finally expand into a post.

Yesterday, Friday, I wrote about memorizing poems. That idea was sitting in my blog folder since 2015 when I read Daliah Lithwick’s Slate piece on memorizing poetry and thought, “I memorized a lot of poetry, too. Maybe I can write about that.”

Four years later, a storyteller recites a poem during sound check at a Moth GrandSLAM, and I have an angle on this idea. It worked out well. About 6,000 people read the post on my blog, and hundreds of others saw it via social media and places like Goodreads, where my blog auto-sends.

This is an average audience size for a blog post.

It took four years for that idea to be realized. It’s been sitting there, waiting for me to find a way to unlock it.

On Wednesday, I wrote about people who say they don’t have enough time to same time. I wrote this idea down two years ago after the umpteenth person said something like this to me. I didn’t write about it then because I didn’t want to hurt the feelings of the person who said it, so I wrote it down for a later date.

It took me almost two years to return to it. I’m working on a proposal for a book on productivity, and the idea caught me eye because it aligns well to my current project.

On Tuesday, I wrote about a book idea I have about the last time we do something important or special and how we rarely take note of it. I’ve had the idea for the book for more than a decade, and I’ve actually written about this idea before, but someone sent me the pole vaulting video attached to this post two weeks ago, and it triggered the idea for the post.

On Monday, I posted about the latest episode of our podcast. Though it’s sort of a day off for me in the blogging world, I also release a newsletter on Monday, so I need to produce fresh content there as well.

On Sunday I wrote about the decline of religion in America. I saw the data that morning while reading the news and wrote a post immediately thereafter.

On Sunday, I wrote about three strange photos I took in Vermont and described my recent trip there for work.

On Saturday, I encouraged readers to aggressively try new things by pointing out the remarkable variety of experiences I had during the course of the previous week thanks to my willingness to try storytelling in 2011.

It was my most popular post of the week.

In summary:

  • One idea had been percolating for five years.

  • Another had been percolating for two years.

  • One idea was triggered by a video that someone shared with me.

  • One idea was triggered after seeing recent data in the news.

  • Two posts were written based upon recent experiences.

  • One post announced the lasted episode of our podcast.

I also added three ideas to my list of drafts. One describes an encounter with another person that I need to wait before writing to avoid upsetting someone. One is a response to a comment made on my blog worth responding to. The third is a statistic about Internet use in America that I might have something to say about someday.

Not only am I a person who has a lot to say, but I’m a collector of ideas. Even if I’m not sure what I will write, I look for statistics, images, news reports, blog posts, and quotes from others that tickle my brain. Pique my curiosity. Stir an emotion inside me.

When I find one, I add it to my list of draft ideas. Those percolating ideas, plus autobiographical moments I experience daily, responses I have to current events, amusing observations about the world, and half-baked ideas form the basis of the blog.

I read a lot. I listen even more. I keep my eyes open. I keep my heart and mind open.

That is how I find my ideas. That is how I write a new post for more than 14 years without missing a day.

Of course, it also helps to be an opinionated blowhard with a lot to say.

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Ignoring your reviews is dumb

As an author, I have often been told that it is a bad idea to read my reviews.

Advice like this is quite common:

Simply Google the words "Never read your reviews" and you’ll find an endless list of posts from writers and the like explaining why they never read their reviews:

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I think this advice is ridiculous. 

Unless you truly don't care if your books are ever sold or read, how could avoiding your reviews possibly help your effort to sell books? 

As crass as this may sound to some, the responsibility of a author goes far beyond the application of words to a page. Writers are also business people. Salespeople. Advertisers. Marketers. Brand builders.

It is our job to help our books find a way into the hands of readers.  

It's our job to write and sell books.

One of the tools that we have to assist in this process is customer feedback. Whether this comes in the form of a review published in a magazine or newspaper or a customer rating on Amazon, all of this data is valuable to the author if he or she can stand a little criticism.  

In what other business would the creator of a product ignore the feedback from the customers?

When my first novel, Something Missing, published back in 2009, I read the reviews. Admittedly, they were good. The book was reviewed well in newspapers and trade publications, and it averages 4.3 out of 5 stars on Amazon.

Still, there was information to be gleaned from both the positive and negative reviews.

Primarily, I learned that the books starts out slowly. Even positive reviews comments on the importance of sticking with the story. Allowing it to develop. Waiting for the ball to get rolling. Thanks to my agent, I already knew this might be a problem, but reading reviews from readers helped to cement this notion in my mind.

I needed to get my story moving quicker in my next book.

My next book, Unexpectedly, Milo, was also reviewed well. Again, it averages 4.3 out of five stars on Amazon, and the newspapers and trades liked the book, too. 

But once again, negative comments centers on how the plot takes a while to get moving. Again, even positive reviewers advised would-be readers to "give this book a chance" and "just wait because as soon as the plot gets rolling, it never stops." 

I hadn't learned my lesson. I vowed to do better on the next book.

And I did. Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend has been my best reviewed book to date, both in the press as well as by readers. Critiques often centered on the simplicity and repetitive nature of the text, but these elements were intentional. The story is being told by a five year-old imaginary friend. 

Gone were critiques on slow moving plots.

I learned to launch my stories closer to the inciting incident. I learned that shorter chapters make the reader feel like the book is moving along quickly. I learned that the methodical process of meeting the character and discovering his or her world before allowing the plot to take off is not how people enjoy reading stories.

It’s not how I enjoy reading stories.

I learned all of this by reading my reviews.

Writers cannot afford to be so fragile as to avoid reviews. They must learn not to take individual reviews personally, but they must also be on the hunt for patterns in the thoughts and critiques of their readers.

We don’t write books in a vacuum. You don’t write books for ourselves. We write books with the hopes that readers will find, read, and love our stories, which means we must be willing to listen to our readers. Find out what they think. Apply those lessons to future stories.

Feline interference

I have the same exact struggle with my cat with one exception:

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I’m not just doing surgery when Plto sits across my forearms.

I’m writing.

A far more serious piece of business.

The importance of an editor

Remember Brandi Chastain from the 1999 World Cup?

She's the soccer player who kicked the winning goal against China to win the gold medal for the Americans. After scoring the goal, she pulled off her jersey, exposing her sports bra and sending a sizable number of conservatives into amusing, ridiculous hysterics.  

Chastain was recently inducted into the San Francisco Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame. Her induction included a plaque that featured her image.

Here is a side by side comparison of the statue and Chastain. No joke. 

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This makes no sense to me. 

How does anyone in charge of this award or Hall of Fame allow this ridiculous, hideous plaque to see the light of day?

This is why I love my editors. I'm blessed to work with at least half a dozen of them at the moment. I have an editor for my fiction, an editor for my nonfiction, and an editor my upcoming middle grade novel, as well as four different magazine editors at three different publications who I work with regularly.

On top of that, Elysha serves as an editor for my storytelling performances, and when I'm working with The Moth, I am blessed to work with producers who essentially work as editors while you are crafting your story.

On top of all of that, I have about a dozen friends who read my material before it even makes it to an editor, and these people are invaluable to me. Discerning, honest, and skilled, these friends make everything I write better. 

Creative people need editors. We need someone to say:

"That is not good."
"Those words stink."
"That story is boring."
"That ain't funny." 
"That idea is interesting but not right for this moment."
"This part makes you sound like a creep."
"No one cares that much about hermit crabs, so stop it." 

Someone needed to tell the artist who made that image of Brandi Chastain that he or she was clearly looking at a photograph of the wrong person. Or was drunk at the time of creation. Or needs to see an optometrist immediately. Or must secretly hate Brandi Chastain.

To Chastain's credit, her response to this atrocity was, "It's not the most flattering, but it’s nice.”

I would not have been so kind. 

Writing is already hard enough without this.

I'm trying to complete the revisions of my next adult novel, and it seems like at every turn, someone is hell bent on slowing my progress.

Last night it was the cats, Tobi and Pluto, choosing the space on the table directly in front of me to commence their battle.

How is a guy expected to get anything done with this to distract him?

My wife and kids slow me down. Gloriously so.

I loved this dedication by Joseph J. Rotman.  

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While it may seem like he's throwing some shade at his family, I suspect not. 

2017 was an exceptionally busy time for me. I completed three books (an adult novel, a middle grade novel, and a book of nonfiction), all within a single calendar year, which means I was sitting at the end of my dining room table a lot, pecking away at the keyboard. 

And yes, it's true. I could've finished the books much sooner if not for Elysha, Clara, and Charlie, but I wouldn't have it any other way. Thank goodness I didn't finish them sooner, because that would've meant missing out on so much that I love and cherish.

I suspect Rotman felt the same way.

Then again, Rotman is a Professor of Mathematics at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and has written 10 textbooks. This dedication can be found in An Introduction to Algebraic Topology.

He might not be the world's greatest romantic. 

You're a writer? A real writer?

The oddity of being a writer is this

You often find yourself constantly explaining that yes, it's true. You are in fact a published writer. A paid writer. A professional writer. A person whose career is to assemble words in an entertaining and informative order.

While eating large amounts of protein at a tailgate recently, my friend, Shep, joked about how you never know when something you say or do might end up in one of my books. 

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"Wait," the guy standing next to me said. "You really write books?"

"Yes," I said. 

"Real books?" he asked. "Like on Amazon?"

Happily, Shep came to my rescue. "Yes, he publishes books. He gets paid to write them. He writes for magazines and other stuff, too." 

I was happy for the assist. It's always awkward to justify your existence. Always a little embarrassing to be forced to validate your career. Sometimes I wish I had a business card that read: 

"Yes, I'm a writer. I've published four novels and have three more, plus a nonfiction book on storytelling, coming out in the next two years. My books have been translated into more than 25 languages, and one of them is an international bestseller. Three are optioned for film. I also write the humor column for a regional magazine and occasional for publications like Parents magazine. And I've been writing a daily blog for more than a decade. Also, I'm not rich. I'm not close to being rich."

Hand the card over and end the interrogation. 

"Interrogation" is not an exaggeration. I can't tell you how many times I tell someone that I'm a writer (or Elysha tells someone that I'm a writer) and we are immediately bombarded with questions about the validity of my claim. Questions that include:

  1. Do you sell books at fairs and farmer's markets and stuff?
  2. Are they just e-books that you make on your own? 
  3. Do you publish with an actual book company?
  4. Where can I get your books?
  5. Can I find your books in actual stores? Libraries? Amazon?
  6. Do you actually make money on your books?
  7. How come I've never heard of you?

And the shockingly common:

Do you sell your books out of the back of your car? 

I suppose there are other professions that get similar questions. If I was a professional baseball player, actor, sculpture, or musician, I might be asked to justify my career, too. 

But why?

If asked what you do for a living, and your answer is, "I'm in a band," you should not be required to provide a tax return in order to prove that you make money playing your guitar and singing backup vocals in your folk-metal fusion quartet.

Or that yes, people buy my naked lady sculptures for their gardens. Or yes, I am paid to perform Shakespeare onstage. Or yes, I'm the backup catcher for the Rochester Redwings of the International League.  

I suppose that because their are no amateur attorneys or accountants or astronauts, it is presumed that these people earn a living from these pursuits, and thus proof of income is not required. 

After all, I've performed in local theater and never been paid. And my son came home yesterday with a sculpture of a mouse that has yet to receive any offers from collectors. And yes, there was a time when I was writing and not earning any money for my efforts. 

Still, when someone asks what I do for a living, and I say writer, it would be nice if people would assume that "earning a living" means "Yes, I get paid to write stuff."

It's a wonder I get anything done

I was writing this morning. It was quite early. The sun had yet to rise. Words were flowing. Paragraphs were forming. Things were good. 

Then my daughter, Clara, age 8, appeared at the table. Early. The sun still wasn't up. 

Her very first words of the day to me were these:

Clara: "I know Hawaii became a state in 1959. Right?"

Me: "I guess so?"

I had no idea. Maybe? Why are we talking about this at 5:42 AM?

Clara: "And before that, Hawaii was a United States territory. Right?"

Me: "Yes. Definitely."

I knew that one. 

Clara: "But my American Girl book says that Hawaii was the only state in America to enforce laws about people staying in the state, on the island, during World War II. And they were the only state had blackouts from 6:00 PM until 6:00 AM, too. So the Japanese couldn't see them." 

Me: "Okay..."

Clara (rolling her eyes): "But World War II happened in the 1940's, Dad. If Hawaii wasn't a state until 1959, why does the book say that Hawaii was the only state doing those things during World War II? It wasn't a state during World War II."

My response was perhaps a little less than what she hoped,  

Me: "It's not even six o'clock yet, Clara."

Not great. I know. Her response was better. 

Clara: "That's not an answer, Daddy."

And there you have it. The end to the writing that morning. 

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Writing a novel is hard enough already. I don't need these additional challenges.

All this before 7:00 AM.

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I love them dearly, but I've got TWO deadlines for TWO different books creeping up on me, and quiet time in my home is impossible to find. Instead, I'm listening to the kids spell "Nebraska" backwards and puzzle out the four states that begin with the word "New."

It's cute, but less so at 6:45 AM.  

Also, thanks to the cat, the E key on my keyboard is partially detached from constantly coming loose as I type.

If I leave my laptop open overnight, he pops the keys out of my keyboard. I'm usually able to snap them back into place, but not the E. The plastic hook that keeps the key down in place snapped in half.   

Of course.   

Not the Z. Not the 9. Not the semicolon.

No, the one key that is permanently broken is the key I strike the most. 

The damn E.

I sometimes think the universe wants this writing thing to be as absolutely difficult as possible.

Feline barrier to creativity

I'm desperately trying to wrap up the first draft of a new novel and a round of edits on a nonfiction book on storytelling.

Both are due in my editors' hands shortly. 

This makes it a lot less cute and a lot more annoying when Pluto sits beside my computer and starts swatting and grabbing my fingers for reasons I will never understand. 

I've got enough standing in my way of the completion of these books already. The last thing I need is my cat bringing progress to a halt.

Still, he's cute. Huh?

Teachers: Writers never write one thing at a time. Stop ruining children.

When asked how to combat writer's block, my answer is always the same:

If you have writer's block, you don't have enough writing projects. 

My list of writing projects currently includes:

  1. A novel under contract

  2. A nonfiction book under contract

  3. A middle grade novel under contract

  4. A piece for Parents magazine

  5. A piece for Seasons magazine

  6. A picture book

  7. A letter to my father

  8. A daily blog post

  9. A screenplay

How could I possibly suffer from writer's block with this many projects underway. Stuck on one? Move to another.

While teaching a group of about 30 middle and high school students this summer, one of the students asked if it would be okay if she started something new.

"Of course," I said. "But why are you asking me for permission?"

The young lady explained that her teachers insist that she and her classmates finish one writing project before moving onto the next. 

"That's crazy," I said. 

"My teacher does the same thing," another student said.

"Me, too," said another.

My head hit the desk. More than three-quarters of the students reported suffering from similar restrictions, which is, of course, stupid.

I know many writers, but I have yet to meet a single one who is only working on one project. While my list of projects is admittedly longer than most, every writer has at least one project on the side, oftentimes in another genre. 

I can't imagine telling a writer who is suddenly excited about a new idea to finish their current project before trying something new. That is truly one of the stupidest teaching decisions I can imagine. 

There's nothing wrong with deadlines.

"I need that essay done by the end of the month."
"You must hand in three poems by Wednesday."
"Your research paper is due at the end of March."

But to expect that students will work on that one project until the due date is an outstanding way to kill any love that students will develop for writing. It places classroom management ahead of creativity, choice, executive functioning, and an authentic writing process.

I've said it before:

Not enough teachers write. Teachers require students to write persuasive essays, even though most teachers haven't written a persuasive essay in a decade or more. Teachers require students to write fiction, even though most teachers haven't written fiction since they were children. Teachers expect students to write research papers, when those teachers last wrote their own research paper in college.

When it comes to writing, we have an army of educators who are teaching something they never do. Even worse, in many cases, it's something they don't like to do. 

If you never do it in real life, can you expect to teach it to novices?

If teachers were writing, they would understand the need to have multiple projects in a writer's life. They would understand the insatiable excitement of a new idea. The need to turn away from a project when enthusiasm wanes. The ability for writers to manage more than one writing project at a time.  

I felt so much sympathy for the two dozen or so students who said that they would returning to classrooms in the fall where they could only write one thing at a time. I told them to rise up. Declare their writing independence. Insist that their needs be met. Demand to be treated like writers. 

I also gave them my phone number. "If your rebellion fails, tell your teacher to call me. I'll see what I can do." 

I'm expecting a lot of phone calls.

Commitment, persistence, and practice can look a lot like talent. Don't be fooled.

I love this video so much.

I love this guy so much. If I owned a company - any company - and was hiring, this is the person who I would hire. 

So much of life comes down to grit. Persistence. Commitment. Tenaciousness. Practice. Yet so few often seem to be willing to put in the time.

I write novels. Though some may argue this requires a certain degree of talent, I would argue that the most important attribute I possess is the willingness to commit my ass to a chair for a long period of time.

Truthfully, I believe that it's been my willingness to sit in a relentless, non-precious, non-idealized way for an incredibly long period of time that has led me to my writing career. 

I started writing in late November of 1988 when I was 17 years-old, and it is not an exaggeration to say that I have written every single day of my life since then.

I have not missed a day.

Wedding day. Birth of my children. Death of my mother. Pneumonias. Honeymoon. Vacation. Concussions. Homelessness.

I have not missed a day. 

When I was younger, I wrote in journals. I wrote letters. Short stories, Newsletters. Poems. Zines. Dungeons & Dragons adventures. Comics. My classmate's term papers (my first paid writing gig). 

In 1990 I began blogging on an early version of the Internet known as a Bulletin Board System.

In 2004 I took a graduate level class on blogging and began blogging regularly, first at a blog entitled Perpetual Perpetuity, and then Conform Me Not, and now here. Since 2004, I have not missed a day.  

I started writing at the age of 17. I published my first novel at the age of 39.

Talent? It took me 22 years of constant, consistent, relentless daily practice before any publisher was interested in my work. Maybe I'm a talented writer, or maybe I simply forged myself through hard work into someone who looks like a talented writer.  

I wrote on an island. Under a tree. In the middle of a parking lot.

I arrived at the dentist office at 1:40 PM for a 2:00 PM appointment. With a book due in less than a week, I was anxious to return to the manuscript. 

The dentist has a television in the waiting room, so rather than trying to write with a talking head yammering in the background, I took a seat beneath a small tree on an island in the center of the parking lot and worked for 15 minutes.

I finished a chapter and revised the end of another. 

I mention this for two reasons:

1. I meet a lot of people who claim that they can only write under certain conditions:

  • Only in Starbucks 
  • Only in two hour increments
  • Only with a cappuccino
  • Only in the morning
  • Only with ink and paper
  • Only while listening to jazz

I have yet to meet a published writer who suffers from any of these limitations. I also like to remind these tragically limited writers that soldiers wrote poetry, letters, and novels in the trenches of World War I while wearing gas masks. 

John McCrae wrote "In Flanders Field" after presiding over the funeral of friend and fellow soldier Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, who died in the Second Battle of Ypres.

Thank goodness he didn't need a cappuccino to write one of the great poems of the twentieth century.  

2. I mention this because the question I am asked most often is "How do you manage to get so much done?" While I have many, many answers to this question, yesterday's writing session on the island of a parking lot is a good example of one of those answers:

I don't waste a minute. Rather than being precious about my time, I believe my time to be precious. Instead of waiting for ideal conditions to complete tasks and accomplish goals, I take what I can get, when I can get it. Time is our greatest commodity, so I don't wait a minute of it.  

Thinking is a part of the writing process, damn it

I was teaching storytelling last week at Miss Porter's School.

I sent the girls off for an hour to write and craft their stories, and when they returned, I asked them how they did. 

"Not good at all," one of the girls said. 

When I asked why, she explained that she spent the first 30 minutes just sitting there, trying to find the best way to start the story. 

"Did you finally figure it out?" I asked.

"Yeah."

"And how did that go?" I asked.

"Great," she replied. "The second half hour was great. I think I've got a good first draft. I kind of like it a lot."

"So then why did you say your hour didn't go well?" I asked.

"Well," she said. "I wasted that first 30 minutes."

"No, you didn't," I said. "Writers think. Storytellers think. Thinkers think. It's part of the process. It sounds to me like you did fantastic. You used that hour perfectly. Why would you think otherwise?"

The girl and her fellow classmates explained that just sitting and thinking without any doing is not tolerated by most of their teachers back home.

"You can't ever just sit and do nothing," one girl said.

Another told me that she is expected to "Think at the end of her pen," which apparently means that you must be writing even when all you'd like to do is take some time and organize your thoughts. Or brainstorm. Or just let your mind wanter a bit. It's an insane insistence that words be applied to a page at all times, absent of any mental preparation or inspiration. 

"What idiot told you that thinking isn't a part of the writing process?" I demanded, instantly hoping she wouldn't say, "My mother."

She didn't. Instead, she said, "A lot of teachers." 

This makes me crazy.

Please note: none of these students were actual Miss Porter's students. They were potentially future Miss Porter's students, but all had yet to enroll. They came from all over the country and the world, so this is not the unfortunate philosophy of any one school. Girls from Africa and Europe were nodding in agreement at the notion that "just thinking" is not allowed.

Can you imagine: Thinking is not allowed. Thinking is not a part of the writing process. Thinking is a waste of time.

Here is the real problem: 

Not enough teachers write. Teachers require students to write persuasive essays, even though most teachers haven't written a persuasive essay in a decade or more. Teachers require students to write fiction, even though most teachers haven't written fiction since they were children. Teachers expect students to write research papers, when those teachers last wrote their own research paper in college.

When it comes to writing, we have an army of educators who are teaching something they never do. Even worse, in many cases, it's something they don't like to do. This would be akin to me trying to teach someone to play croquet or cook jambalaya or practice discretion.

If I never do it in real life, how am I expected to teach it to novices?

Sure, I could read a book about these topics, but would that really qualify me to teach any of those things?

Even worse, teachers learn how to teach writing from people who don't actually write, and if their instructors do  write, they often only write books on how to teach writing.

See the insanity?

When I am asked by teachers, parents, and administrators how to improve their writing instruction, my answer is always simple, obvious, and annoying:

Write.
When you assign a writing assignment to your students, write it yourself as well.
Let your students see you writing.
Share your writing with your students.
Become the writer you expect your students to be.

When teachers (and parents) actively engage in the writing process, they begin to understand the writing process. They better predict where and when writers will stumble. They more accurately distinguish between effective and ineffective lessons and assignments. They understand the importance of choice and audience to a writer. 

They know that thinking is a critical process of the writing process. They understand that sitting in front of the blank page, staring for long periods of time, is something that writers do.    

Only a person who doesn't write would think that thinking is not a part of the writing process.
Only a teacher who doesn't write would make a student believe that thinking is a waste of time. 

Increased degree of difficulty is not appreciated

Writing a novel is hard enough. I really don't need this added nonsense. 

My less-than-private, not-so-well-appointed office

That same year, The Hartford Courant did a feature on me that included my writing space, which was and still is the end of the dining room table. 

Not much has changed since then.

I'm still on the end of the dining room table. Charlie is much larger now and more mobile, making him even more capable of distracting me with pleas to build railroad tracks, wrestle, or play "Star Whores." I've migrated from Windows to Mac. The bottom shelf of my bookcase is now filled with games and puzzles. 

But that's about it. Unless I leave the house to write in the library or McDonald's, I sit in the center of my home, head down, oftentimes with headphones blaring rock 'n roll to drown out the noise.

Those lovely, well lit, perfectly appointed writers' spaces featured in the New York Times?

I wish I could say I don't need a space of my own to work, but in truth, I want one so badly.

I dream of the day when I can have a door to close off the rest of the world. A simple door that would allow me to focus and concentrate on the work and not on the 10,000 other things going on around me.   

Until then, I get by.

I wake up at 4:30 so I can have a couple hours of silence. 

I hunker with headphones and mental blinders and write.  

I sit in quiet libraries and white-noise filled McDonald's and any other place I can find and work like hell so I can get home. 

But someday, maybe, I will simply shut a door in my home and work like those writers featured in the New York Times. 

Won't that be a blessed day indeed.