Thanksgiving. Every year, Americans sit down with friends and family and, as a friend of mine recently said, stuff their turkeys. Always the dutiful daughter-in-law and son, my wife and I make an annual trip to see my family during one of the fall holidays, and this year we’ll spend our Thanksgiving weekend in Oklahoma. My parents will give me hugs. My children will run around, squeal and probably break something, for which I’ll have to apologize and my dad will say, “Don’t worry about it. I’m glad somebody finally broke that stupid thing.” My brother will give me grief over the beating the Texas Tech Red Raiders took from Oklahoma this last weekend. And I, of course, will point out that the University of Texas still outranks OU in the BCS, and most likely the Long Horns will go to the Conference instead of the Sooners (cheesy, I know, but you get your digs where you can).
So, the holiday season is now upon us, and this morning I wonder how many people actually stop to think about being thankful. For my part, before moving on to all things writing, I want to take a few lines and express my thankfulness. Today, I am thankful for:
1. My God and my Savior, who looked beyond my faults and saw my needs.
2. My wife, who loves me in spite of the idiot I can be at times.
3. My children, who bring me great joy
4. My parents and in-laws, who have given more to me than I could possibly return.
5. The rest of my family and friends, including my writing and singing buddies, who have laughed, rejoiced and cried with me.
6. America. I live in the greatest nation in the world.
7. The United States Military. Without our courageous men and women, America wouldn’t be what it is today.
8. Work. In this economy, I’m lucky to still have a job.
9. My reasonably good health. As I stand on the threshold of forty, my health can’t be overestimated.
10. Finding a true passion, though late in life. A life without passion/purpose is not a life worth living.
Now on to all things writing. Every once in a while, I grow a wild hair. This happened when I decided to pick up an Evanovich romance novel (written before she became a literary rock star with the Stephanie Plum series). I read the romance novel because I wanted some rounding to my knowledge and experience. To build upon Evanovich, then, I also read Nicholas Sparks and Susan Isaacs.
About a month ago, while visiting Austin on business, I walked into a Barnes and Noble bookstore and ventured over to the books for children. I had recently went to a Scholastic book fair at my son’s school, and I wanted to see who and what made the shelves of commercial retail. In the process, I discovered something interesting. Contrary to a preconceived notion, one based upon books my son brought home from school, I saw that writers used fairly sophisticated language considering their readership. I picked up Kate DiCamillo’s The Tale of Despereaux and found the use of French: "Mon Dieu!" I thumbed through other books and found engaging plots. Suffice it to say, I was pleasantly surprised.
So, in an effort to broaden my scope some more, I have picked up The Tale of Despereaux from the public library. While in Austin, I also purchased Holes by Louis Sachar. Now that I have finished Steinbeck’s East of Eden, I plan to read these two Newbery Award winning authors and see what I can learn from them.
Finally, this last weekend was a good weekend. I finished a piece of flash fiction (about 850 words), which I will let sit for a few days and then go back and polish it up. I also pushed further into a second story for my commitment to the Holiday Story Exchange, an annual event now on the WD Forum, and I am on target for meeting the December 12th deadline. Even with everything else—the holidays and the commitments to family, work and church—I feel good that my writing life hasn’t languished. Sure, it could be better. It could be a whole lot worse, too.
I hope all of you have a Happy Thanksgiving.
Friday, November 14, 2008
We all live by rules. Granted, we don’t like all of them. Some we curse. Some we defy. For my sake, I certainly hope there is no holy counter at the Pearly Gates that will point out how many times my speedometer exceeded the posted speed limit. Whatever the case, whether we like them or love them, rules are a part of life. For the purpose of this post, I submit to you the following Ten Commandments on writing from John Dufresne (from The Lie That Tells A Truth):
1. Sit Your [Butt] in the Chair
2. Thou Shalt Not Bore the Reader
3. Remember to Keep Holy Your Writing Time
4. Honor the Lives of Your Characters
5. Thou Shalt Not Be Obscure
6. Thou Shalt Show and Not Tell
7. Thou Shalt Steal
8. Thou Shalt Rewrite and Rewrite Again. And Again.
9. Thou Shalt Confront the Human Condition
10. Be Sure That Every Death in a Story Means Something
It is Commandment No. 9 that I want to focus on today.
In Steinbeck’s East of Eden, there is a philosophical discussion regarding the Genesis story of Cain and Abel. It is during this discussion that Lee, a Chinese servant with keen insight into the human condition, makes the following statement:
“No story has power, nor will it last, unless we feel in ourselves that it is true and true of us.”
There are times while reading a book when I wonder if the author is revealing more of himself than his character. Years ago, I remember this feeling distinctly while reading Tommyknockers by Stephen King. In that book, there was a brief history of one of the characters who went to college and was involved in writing. The character was put off by all of the debates raging through academia about what an author meant by such and such. It was at that point in the novel, where the character reveals his take on it: Can’t a story be just a story? I remember wondering if that was King’s position. He just wanted to tell a story without people trying to interpret too much out of it.
When I read the above quote from East of Eden, I felt that same sense the author was sharing more of himself to the reader. It was like Steinbeck reached up from the page and said, “Listen to this. It's what I believe. It’s important.”
Many of my stories are written for the sake of entertainment. And yet, my readers always demand the same thing: they want to understand the characters. It’s not enough to put a bad guy into the scene. The reader wants to know why he’s bad. And why? Because no story has power unless we see the truth in it. No character has substance unless the reader can believe in him.
And this thought—this challenge to paint true life—is something I find hard to deal with. There are certain stories in my head that I shy away from simply because the subject matter seems too dark. While I want to be a writer who can touch the truth, I am still a husband, a father, a friend, a member of a church body. And those parts of my life can not be separated from the writer. I still have to answer the questioning eyes, and the questions, of those around me who may not approve of the stories I write.
So, how do I give my stories the power they crave and still maintain my relationships? That is the question that troubles me today. One which I do not have a solid answer for. Maybe one which I will never have an answer for. While there are rules for writing, there are still Commandments to live by, and the two sets do not always live at peace with each other.
How about you? Are there issues you have refused to touch? Have you been forced to account to your relationships for the things you write? How did you handle it?
Posted by Stephen at 12:28 PM