Of Vices and Virtues

“The beauty of the soul shines out when a man bears with composure one heavy mischance after another, not because he does not feel them, but because he is a man of high and heroic temper.” ~Aristotle

Of all the quotes I’ve ever read, this one best describes my favorite central character in Fable–Michael. Sovereign, disciplined, and utterly selfless, he grieves for both his own world and the fate of those who would be his enemies. Of all the characters I’ve penned, he demands the most respect from me as an author, if for no other reason than he has shown me how little I know of the human condition and how very much I have to learn about true compassion and leadership.

It’s interesting that as authors we express at times through our characters what we cannot bring ourselves to even entertain; things we don’t rightfully understand, virtues we long to possess but never will, vices we secretly want to indulge in or chances we will never be granted. In costumes, like children at Halloween, we parade around worlds of our own making in various disguises, living lives where what might have been is, and where what can never be most certainly can. And we learn from this. If we are careful and pay full attention to what our characters are telling us we may even learn a little bit about our true selves.

I’m haunted by movies like Finding Neverland because I see in them my own mortality. Painfully so. Yet, what a life we live! To know what it feels like to soar through the skies unencumbered by the gadgets of men; to hold a sword, heavy and laden with honor, in your hands as you walk with pride and purpose onto the battlefield; to love a thousand blades of grass in a thousand different worlds, each one more intricate and complex than the last.

I will never be as honorable as Michael, but through his actions he has taught me the true meaning of the word. I will never be as brave as Ariana (or as stubborn), but she has pushed me farther than I would have ever gone without her. I will never be as emotionally wounded as either Brynn or Aubrey, but through their experiences I have come to deeply sympathize with those who are.  I think, for some authors, there is a little fraction of us in each of our characters.

Perhaps it isn’t so much that our characters are fragments of who we are now, but who we’ll be at some distant point beyond this existence. Maybe everyone else has been given only one life in which to learn eternal truths and we’re the blessed ones; we’re the ones who have been given eternity early. I suppose this means we shouldn’t squander it away or pretend that it’s something that it isn’t.  It isn’t a choice, it’s a whole wardrobe of vices and virtues, woven of tenuous and wondrous threads in colors that most couldn’t begin to imagine.

How lucky are we to have been chosen…

Heart of Stone

The lover is a monotheist who knows that other people worship different gods but cannot himself imagine that there could be other gods.  ~Theodor Reik, Of Love and Lust, 1957

No matter the genre, regardless of the machinations of my villains and heroes, despite the elemental or complex themes, I’ve learned that one thing is ever present in my work; love.  That might very well be the reason I see writing as a relationship in and of itself—I cannot conceive of it any other way.

Love. Such a simple thing—the word. Just four little letters, yet wars are fought and waged in honor of it. Lives are lost and gained in its name. It can, given the right circumstances, bring life itself into existence.

I find it no small coincidence that another seemingly slight word, write, has such power. As just a word it means nothing, does nothing, but add those necessary companions; hope, courage, persistence, faith and love, and you will do more than merely put words on paper—you will breathe into existence a world that will feel every bit as real to those who read your work, as it does to you. Because for us, for authors, this is our world. Our ordinary everyday life blends seamlessly into that which we have forged from bits and pieces of our soul.

The question, ‘What are you thinking about?’ never gets fully answered, at least not for the majority of those who ask us. We smile and mention whatever sundry thing is going on at the moment, or we scrounge to come up with the last rational, sane sounding thought we had, and spit it out like we’d been thinking about our taxes the whole time we were staring at the ottoman. But there is always another answer…

Just as one lover is perpetually connected to the other by way of being vested in their life, so are we vested in the worlds we craft. At least, any author worth their salt is. Sure, there are professionals who have a sort of, prostitutional arrangement with their muse; they get what they pay for. They sell out long before their worlds have even had a fraction of a chance to be what they could be, and they make temporal things into gods that will only come to be seen for what they really are too late for anything to be done about it. That isn’t what I’m talking about. I’m talking about making this a priority, regardless of the difficulties.

This career, this calling, isn’t easy. In my personal opinion, it’s one of the toughest—right alongside artists and musicians. Why? Because some of the world considers what we do merely a hobby. Perhaps for some it is, but it isn’t for those of us who wake up in the middle of the night, sweat glued sheets clinging to our bodies as we scramble to find pen and paper in the dark—anything to record the visions that rolled over and wrapped their arms around us, whispered lovingly, seducingly into our ears……and we cannot fathom that there could be any other way of being. Despite this, we still have choices to make. We can settle, make do with seeing those fantastic, living visions that accompany us even in the presence of others, or we can reach out in faith that they will prove tangible. We can shut out all that works against us and covet not things that will pass away, but strive instead for things that will not only bring a lover’s warmth to our hearts, but to the hearts of those who will one day tread in our steps.

Consider this:  On July 8th 1822, a month before his 30th birthday, poet Percy Bysshe Shelley drowned. His body was found ashore some short time later and there he was cremated before a small audience of family and friends (one such Lord Byron was among them). In an astounding twist, Shelley’s heart refused to burn (there were medical reasons for this, but let’s forget about that for now). Legend holds that it was given to his wife, author Mary Shelley, who kept the crumbled remains in her desk.

Love and writing must never be strangers, if they are to be of any relation to one another. If you want your work to endure, to refuse to burn, to be loved by others then you must love it first yourself. You must be willing to sacrifice everything else, to include at times your very soul, if the heart of your work is to be of any worth.

…but cannot imagine himself that there could be other gods…

Evergreen

“If in my youth I had realized that the sustaining splendour of beauty of with which I was in love would one day flood back into my heart, there to ignite a flame that would torture me without end, how gladly would I have put out the light in my eyes.”  ~Michelangelo

I hear, from time to time, other authors speak of their old work in hushed tones, often in embarrassment or disdain or both. I’ve grown considerably since I first began to try my hand at this particular art of storytelling, but I realized something tonight that I’d known, yet forgotten all the same; youth is exempt from the fear of mortality and therefore has no concept of future misgivings. For most children there is always the promise of tomorrow and with it, the possibility of everything they long for. The fear of failure, when it comes to their dreams, is as foreign as the reality of income tax and termites.

After sending out a submission and getting unrealistically (and unnecessarily) wrapped up in all the ‘grown-up’ stuff we authors have to deal with, I sat down in my oversized chair and randomly went through a few old files—stuff I hadn’t so much as glanced at in a decade. I flipped absentmindedly through the papers and before long, I found myself stunned by my own past, in awe of a love affair with worlds I’d long since forgotten. I knew I’d written five ‘books’ when I was fourteen or so, in collaboration with my best friend at the time. I’ve read over them now and again for old times’ sake, but what I’d apparently put out of mind was a staggering amount of work—prologues, story sketches, scenes, character and plot maps; pages upon pages of what probably amounts to over 500,000 words or so. This is just prose, not journal entries (which exceed that number by far).

You’re probably asking yourself why you’re still reading this post by now, but give me a second here. My point in bringing this up, is that I want to remind you what it meant to write with such abandon. I clearly, clearly couldn’t have cared less if those words ever saw daylight, let alone publication. As adults, we still write with ourselves in mind (mostly—then editors, our readers, etc), but there is such a tremendous difference. It isn’t merely the lack of experience or lack of quality that would accompany any childhood ramblings that makes these penned worlds what they are. There is something else, something evergreen that literally jumps off of the pages. This girl, who worked free of boundaries, is why I started writing again three years ago. I didn’t merely love to write: I wrote with no concept of what it meant to be an author. I walked through the divide between what is, and what can never be, with no consideration of how it affected me personally.

What I’m saying, is that I didn’t care about voice, or style, or genre; I didn’t have any notion of royalties or advances or contracts. I didn’t fear rejections because frankly, even had I known what they were, I still wouldn’t have given a damn. Put simply, the story was all that mattered. We say this all the time as adults, but do we mean it utterly?

And really, when the day ends, what differentiates good prose from great? What distinguishes one work and discards another? That single quality, that crucial element that will, without fail, lend validity to your work is its ability to be evergreen. The irony of it, is that it isn’t something that can be forced. It either is, or is not. The choice is up to you and how willing you are to let go of your boundaries. As youth, we gather our materials and ready ourselves to construct mythical kingdoms, great and lofty palaces. Yet somewhere along the way our adulthood steals our confidence, tells us that all we have collected is of no consequence, convinces us that degrees and titles and awards are the only things that will build a future.

To hell with adulthood.

It’s in my blood. Perhaps I am romanticizing this time, but you didn’t spend the last three hours reading what I read. I’m ashamed of how much fear I’ve let slip in over the last year or so. But, the good thing about writing youthfully; there is always tomorrow. And tomorrow, I start fresh…no more fear or doubt (or Dragons if you’ve been reading this blog), only evergreen.

Madness Ensues

“We, the unwilling, led by the unknowing, are doing the impossible for the ungrateful. We have done so much, for so long, with so little, we are now qualified to do anything with nothing.” ~Mother Teresa

And to think I’d been on a roll. Insomnia, while usually caused by writing sessions that have little or no respect for the human body’s (or bladder’s) ability to function without proper sleep, occasionally leaves me feeling…well…anxious. Yet, I don’t mean in a how-am-I-going-to-pay-bills kind of way, though that’s always a concern. This night has me hoping for the impossible.

I know better than to expect anything spectacular. I know to ready myself for the inevitable. But there are times when trying to tell your soul that something isn’t going to happen, is like telling your dog that you aren’t happy to see him when you’ve just walked in the door.

My soul is so excited it would pee on itself were it capable. Why? Because of a submission that I recently sent (as in a few hours ago). Their average turn around time is four weeks. I think four weeks is completely reasonable. I also think four weeks can’t pass in the five minute lapse between my bathroom break and the last time I checked my email…but that sure won’t keep me from checking it again anyway. As if by some miracle, Sam from Quantum Leap is going to pop in and arrange for my manuscript to be miraculously accepted with chronologically impossible speed.

I’ve stated over and over that I write for the love of it, and little else. Yet, every now and then something catches my eye, someone says the right bit of encouragement, and I’ll find myself seeking exposure. So here I am, wagging my tail by the front door, waiting. I suppose this marks me as an optimist *shudder*: That term has never been used with my name anywhere near it. In fact, I’m usually so pessimistic that I (swear this is true) bought a shirt at an outdoor apparel store, with the understanding that it read ‘half empty’ beneath the cartoon glass. I thought it was snarky and clever. In reality it was a Life is Good shirt and to my horror I discovered that I had been walking around with a nasty scowl on my face and  ‘half full’ emblazoned on my bosom. Nice.

So I guess this is God’s sense of humor. I know that I’m setting myself up for disappointment…but damn it…I heard the car pull up in the driveway!

It’s Always the Little Things

“That isn’t the correct spelling.”

I doubt that Jessica can hear my eyeballs roll, but I sure wish she could. “How the hell  would you know, you’re fictional?”

“So, you’re telling me it’s spelled correctly?”

“Irrelevant.”

“Hmmm denial, that’s new for you. Are you gonna eat that?”

“Again, fictional!” I move my donut a couple inches back. Just in case.

“So, that’s a yes? You are eating it?”

What is wrong with you? You don’t even have a digestive tract! How do you plan on pulling
that off?” I start typing again with a smug grin of triumph on my face.

“What’s wrong with me? You’re the one talking to yourself.”   *snicker*

This isn’t unusual. This is how I start my day; coffee, breakfast of sorts and friendly, well…usually friendly, chatter amongst my stories. We talk about who is getting work done and where. Some outwardly insist that they don’t need any work, but nod their heads with enthusiasm when the others aren’t looking. One big happy family. Why am I taking the time to tell you about it? Because it is absolutely vital to your writing.

Think about this: What if you never ate dinner with your spouse, never spoke to him while you’re putting away the dishes, never heard him listening to the game in the other room? What if you never went shopping or argued with him over what groceries to buy, which movie to go see, which pair of pants he should wear? These are all insignificant things in the whole of your relationship, but without them, the relationship itself is non-existent. Without your wife’s curling iron and hair stuff taking up space on the bathroom counter, your husband’s boots causing you to trip at the foot of the bed, his jacket thrown haphazardly over the couch, the relationship is nothing more than a giant game of make-believe. It’s nothing more than a child pretending that rocks and sticks are swords and castles.

Writing is no different. Your characters should leave footprints in your life and just like asking your wife to marry you, your boyfriend to move in, your date to stay over, you have to give permission. You have to make space for his toothbrush, his keys, his car and his chipped coffee cup.

I’ve added the extra chairs to my hypothetical table. Have you?

When All Else Fails

“I won’t tell you what to do. I’ll merely suggest what you should do and hopefully the subsequent guilt trip will steer you into making the correct choice.”

I was actually quoting myself there. Who was I talking to? One of my main characters (Icarus), who then left me completely stumped for nearly 8 months. Why? Because, damn it, he stood his ground.

I know logically that they’re driving and in full control of the vehicle (story), but there are certainly times when it feels like it’s all in our hands. And what useless hands we have at times…
We can argue with them all day long, but if the story starts to feel unfamiliar then we’ve got a problem. A wrong turn has been taken somewhere and it’s quite likely us who made it.  

 This all goes back to knowing your characters and taking care not to let your own quirks or agenda ruin a perfectly quirky, perfectly motivated character. I don’t mean not to let yourself into the story (though you do need to be careful with that too–-but that’s a whole other blog post). What I’m telling you is to spend time with your characters enough to know what they would or wouldn’t do in a given situation. Write down a list of hypothetical questions if that would help you, and literally answer each and every one of them. That way when unexpected plot twists emerge (for those of us who don’t outline to the extreme) you won’t have as high a chance of making the wrong decision for your character. Don’t think you’d ever do that? You’re lucky. By the way how is that novel,  that’s collecting dust in your closet, coming along? Oh, right, you aren’t working on it anymore because it isn’t any good. Sure. I believe you. That’s totally the reason. *ahem*  

The bottom line is this: Get intimate with your story in the most clingy, lascivious, inappropriate ways possible. Know each of your characters as though they were your own flesh and blood (or not, whichever the case) and drill them like a journalist on a deadline. Don’t accept ‘I don’t know’ as an answer. They do know. You know. Now answer!

And when all else fails, there’s always Burger King. I hear they’re hiring…you’re sure to meet some characters there.

That I may cease to be…

“Look at a stone cutter hammering away at his rock, perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it.  Yet at the hundred-and-first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not the last blow that did it, but all that had gone before.”  ~Jacob A. Riis

How many brilliant quotes there are, that have captured fully what it means to persevere in the face of adversity, to forge through the muck and mire. We know that in order to succeed we must hold our heads up high, ignore the internal and external critics, and listen only to that one small voice that whispers, as Saul Bellow so aptly put it, to hell with them…

Yet, there are a great many of us who don’t fear adversity: We even welcome it at times. What keeps us up at night, aside from that flash of inspiration that couldn’t possibly have struck at noon, is an expansive, all-encompassing, vast and eternal nothingness.

It’s the countless strikes of a chisel in stone, the incessant taps of our fingers on the keyboard—one small letter at a time. We work tirelessly, all the while knowing what’s below the surface and we wonder—pray, if death itself will feel sympathetic to our cause and allow us enough time to finish before we die. It’s a ticking clock that sounds in our souls like the saturnine toll of bells at a funeral.

As if these visions, these creations are tied to our eternity. As if our work creates more than life for us, but for those who pass on before us—into those very places we’ve always longed for, dreamed for. We’re accused of romanticism when nothing could be farther from the truth. There’s nothing romantic about it. To say that of another author, with any conviction, is to vitiate the act of written creation itself.

Sacrilege…It’s like eating your young.

There are moments, some stronger than others, when the mechanics of authorship get in the way of its purpose; when the strokes of the keys become more important than the words being formed and the story being told. Unlike most other arts, where brushes and canvases change, tools change and at any given time, something exists to justify the artist’s dedication to the work, for authors it’s mostly all in our heads.

There is a frenzy that accompanies this art form, a madness that is unique to us and the reason for it is the correlation to true creation. We are organic, finite beings—whether we choose to accept it or not. Just as trees and animals die, so will we and as we are crafting worlds, characters, we know this. We are forever in an unconcious race to beat mortality at its own game. It isn’t just that we’re chiseling stone…it’s the pervasive question of whether or not we’ll ever see what lies beneath, and even more so, will anyone else?

We aren’t fighting adversity, we’re fighting eternity. And some writers are comfortable seeing their work as merely work, however creative it may be. They don’t want to consider their attachment to it, or lack thereof. They can’t imagine penning anything without the casual formulas that create a plethora of material with a paucity of meaning. Do you feel that’s too harsh? Perhaps it is, but I’ve never been one for comity. If the observation is to be made, why make it flowery and soft? That, would be romanticizing. I’m not known for that either.

John Keats, my favorite poet, said it best:

“When I have fears that I may cease to be
before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain,
before high piled books, in charactry,
hold like rich garners the full-ripen’d grain;
When I behold, upon the night’s starr’d face,
huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
and think that I may never live to trace
their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
that I shall never look upon thee more,
never have relish in the faery power
of unreflecting love; — then on the shore
of the wide world I stand alone, and think
till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.”

And all else falls away…

“If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”  ~Mother Teresa

As authors, we forget that our stories are not our own. This is the very thing that was said to me, what feels like a lifetime ago, that caused that tumultuous longing in my soul to finally become something more than a mere hope.

I hope I’m a writer. I hope someone will love what I create. I hope I’ll be somebody.

Think of all the worlds you’ve loved, brought to you as gifts by the creative minds of others—the stories you read as a child, or teenager, or adult that felt so real you could scarcely believe they weren’t. It doesn’t matter who wrote them, what college they attended or how many credits or achievements they had to their name.

What mattered was the doorway they opened, the invitation they gave you to enter freely into a world that was destined to change your life—if only in the slightest way. A single grain of sand must exist first, before any beach can frame an ocean. Have you ever found yourself worrying that no one will ever be touched by your writing? That no one will read and love your stories like you hope in your heart of hearts? The truth is, numbers on a list won’t tell you who has passed through the doorway. Money in a bank account can’t tell you upon whose soul your world has been engraved. A beautiful, glowing review in a paper or magazine cannot share with you what daydreams, beyond the foundation you laid, are being spun long after the last page was turned. Even if it is one single life, one single grain of sand…it matters. It matters. It matters.

But it must matter to you first. Would one grain of sand be enough? Don’t misunderstand me, I long for the beach. Yet, there is a peace that accompanies the acceptance of possibility. There is a possibility that I may die before my writing ever has a chance. There is a possibility that I will live decades beyond the last rejection letter, having never given up on my work, only to realize late in life that it will not see publication in my lifetime—that I will die, never knowing if my legacy will be merely family chatter or if it will posthumously find its way into the world. It is really easy to tell yourself that you are settled with this reality, that you accept it fully—embrace it even. But, you’ll know when you do, when you utterly accept it, because your writing will change. You will change.

I believe that success isn’t fated, it is fought for. Talent doesn’t produce half as much magic as creativity and endurance can.  But in order to strive for a beach you’ve got to aim for that one, single, seemingly meaningless grain.  Once you have it in your hand, you’ll see what I mean. And all else falls away…