Wednesday, February 18, 2015

What is "successful"? What is "willing"?

I've been seeing this quote bouncing around on Twitter over the past few days:

Successful people do what unsuccessful people are not willing to do. Don't wish it were easier, wish you were better. - Jim Rohn

All well and fine, I suppose. It seems true to me, to the extent that I've attained certain goals I've actually set for myself--as opposed to sort of stumbling into situations that feel comfortable for the time being, which has always been my default setting. This is especially true with writing and publishing novels. I've been surprised at what I've been willing to do in order to make this happen--lots of large and small actions that I wouldn't have been willing to take earlier in my life.

But. Does that mean I'm now more "successful"? That I'm "better"? I don't think so. Perhaps what I see as worthwhile struggles look to other people like untenable compromises. As the level of visible (superficial?) "success" rises, does one become more and more "willing" to abandon previously rock-solid principles? Plus, "success" for me might not mean "success" for you. Maybe you've succeeded by not doing some of the things I have done.

I get that the quote is loosely stated enough to encompass all these ambiguities. Whether you want a healthier family life or a best-selling novel or a corner office, these words can apply to you. Yet they irritate me. People who are "successful" are not necessarily "better," at least by the conventional definition of these terms. We can admire the fortitude of people who take on difficult tasks, but it's also worth noting what they give up--even what harm they may be doing on their way to "success."

I do not mean to dissuade anyone from pushing toward their goals. I still think that trying is better than not trying and that regrets are worse than mistakes. But it's cheesy and harmful to imply that people who aren't "willing" to do certain things are "worse." It would be interesting, instead, to find out why they aren't willing.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Tuesday, February 17, 7 p.m.: Time to Get Shattered!

Shake off those post-President's-Day blues at InsideStoryTime!

I'll be reading with Chun Yu, Hollie Hardy, Sean Taylor, and Cliff Winnig at La Movida Wine Bar in San Francisco this coming Tuesday at 7 p.m.

Our theme is The Shattering. Which you don't want to miss.

Please join us!

Monday, February 02, 2015

Steal this plot: the case for the ready-made story line

I think of myself as a literary fiction writer. What does that mean? I'm becoming less and less sure over time, but it suggests my work is not so much interested in plot as in other elements--character, ideas, emotional dilemmas, history. On the other hand, I tend to gravitate toward stories in which a certain amount of external stuff happens. While I deeply admire, and in some cases love, novels like Marilynne Robinson's that create a kind of majestic stillness, a deeply rich experience of contemplation, I find I can't write them myself, and have little patience for less successful efforts in this vein.

As a reader, this simply represents a personal preference. My own life is pretty static and contemplative; when I read, I want to be taken out of myself, ergo I want a bit more action. And as a writer, even a literary one, I've found plot can be a great friend rather than a nemesis.

Fellow writers of literary fiction tell me plot grows out of character--meaning, I gather, that you start with a (ready-made?) person or group of people, and, like molecules in a chemistry experiment, they will begin to interact and create something new. I've always found this to be a rather dubious proposition. Without a more rigid context (a beaker? a test tube?) for the people to interact in, I often seem to come out with a bunch of random collisions that don't really add up to much. Or I end up forcing something to happen--so the molecules aren't just milling around pointlessly--and that makes things even worse.

Which is why I've found that starting with a plot borrowed from elsewhere--a real unsolved murder case, say, or the plot of a two-hundred-year-old novel--surprisingly freeing. Placing characters I've created within this framework allows both the people and the framework to grow and evolve together. The borrowed plot soon becomes quite different from the original--because I'm using my own characters, not borrowing them, so they naturally change the way things shake out. At the same time, I don't have to wrack my brain endlessly, wondering what the hell can and should happen next--I have at least a basic map to consider following.

Friday, January 23, 2015

News for the new year

Exciting news! I have signed with agent Cynthia Zigmund and am revising my second novel, a literary mystery set in 1970s Cleveland. It's a bit of a departure stylistically from Bigfoot and the Baby, but the subject, as Led Zeppelin sort of said, remains the same: mystery and how we deal with it. It's just that this time, the theme and the plot are both mystery. We'll be looking for a home for the newbie later this year.

Monday, January 05, 2015

On taking risks

I have always been a relatively timid soul. I am conflict-averse, skeptical, and even rather lazy. But as I get older, I'm taking more and more risks--not free-climbing El Capitan, mind you, but undertaking tasks that expose me to criticism, sometimes of the very harsh and/or completely baffling variety. I would like to say that it gets a little easier to deal with this feeling of vulnerability over time, but I don't think I can say that. More like: I realize it's coming and that I will have to deal with it and go on. And: there's no reason to think the negative reactions are more correct than the positive ones--although I do tend to think that.

I say all this on the brink of a new year that brings with it a milestone birthday--because at a certain point (perhaps around the time when the years ahead of you are likely fewer than those behind), *not* taking risks becomes the real risk. I think Dolly Parton said something like this once. And I've started to feel that way myself. I'm not really any braver than I used to be, just more afraid of having regrets than of making mistakes.

Have a happy (and sensibly risky) new year!

Monday, December 15, 2014

"Castlewood" in Mill Valley Literary Review

My story, "Castlewood," a corporate fairy tale, is up at the Mill Valley Literary Review.
Note: pancakes are involved.

Monday, December 01, 2014

Feeling ideas

In their salute to Russian literature yesterday, the NYT Book Review asked their Bookends writers the fascinating but awkwardly worded question, "What Makes the Russian Literature of the 19th Century So Distinctive?" About Dostoevsky, my personal fave, Francine Prose writes, "Dostoyevsky’s people seem real to us, vivid and fully present, even as we suspect that no one ever really behaved as they do, flinging themselves at each other’s feet, telling their life stories at extraordinary length and in excruciating detail to a stranger in a bar."

I still like the explanation that apparently comes from one of Dostoevsky's own characters in A Raw Youth, a book I have never read. This character says that he "feels ideas," a condition that applies to many of Dostoevsky's people--at least to the men (the women seem to just plain feel). It's true that in real life, we rarely see people driving themselves to actual madness over what God really wants from us, or why there is evil, or how we can contribute the most to humanity during our short time on earth. But maybe they should.

Such characters also inhabit Iris Murdoch's novels, which is probably why I've gone a bit nuts for her, too. What I love about these characters is that they deeply care about ideas, about morality, about thinking and meaning. Ideas and morality aren't abstract concepts that one contemplates instead of living. For these people, thinking is living. That probably seems rather foreign, in an American context particularly; but in these novels, ideas are life blood. Thinking makes us more human, and more alive--not less so.