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.