Epiphanies and Profanities

Ten thousand hours. I did the arithmetic once, when words were coming hard, and that’s about how long I’ve spent at a keyboard, trying to pound some sense into the lives of imaginary characters. It’s a respectable number. Others have done far more, of course, but ten thousand hours represents an investment in the craft that I look on with satisfaction until I ask myself why.

No one has ever asked me why I write. How I write, sure. Where I find plots is a popular question. Where the characters come from, even what time of day I’m most productive, but no one, reader or writer, has ever asked why. Maybe they think they know.

I don’t.

Around the world, billions of people live full and satisfying lives without writing books. A case could even be made that the average non-writer lives happier and dies easier than the average writer. Writing has nothing to do with love, children, or any of the truly important things in life, and while, for most writers, the compulsion might pay for a Christmas turkey, the February pot roast requires a day job. So why do it?

Sam Johnson said that only a blockhead writes for any reason but money. Of course, he did non-fiction and there’s good money in non-fiction, though writing it is about as futile as sex without reproduction–there’s the pleasure of the act, but it lacks issue, extension. It doesn’t reach outside itself. In non-fiction, a line about pruning a tree, for instance, speaks only of pruning a tree. It implies no thought of pruning a life.

But who am I kidding? There’s no pleasure in writing, not the way I do it. Others may have a different experience, but for me writing is painful. The words pour out, but then they must be examined, each one, with suspicion. Does this define the character? Does that fix the setting? Why isn’t there a word for the way an unrelenting wind can sharpen anger into a howling rage? Or for that helpless guilt I feel when my best intentions have done an injury? And how in hell can I tell a story by wrapping words around a vacuum? For, make no mistake, the heart of fiction is emptiness.

The characters don’t exist, the events never happened, and even the setting has usually been changed to some degree, if only to avoid lawsuits. Only the words exist. They wrap the story’s empty heart, defining it much as the invisible man was defined by his bandages.

This grows worse and worse.

Now I begin to wonder why anyone would read fiction, much less write it, and yet billions of people around the world do. They read the wrapping words and are enrapt. They hunger for more. They refuse, for instance, to allow Conan Doyle to kill off Sherlock Holmes, and when, a hundred years later, other authors resurrect the character, readers flock to their bookstores.


It has to be the stories, the shape of the emptiness the words define. Perhaps I focus too much on the tissue of lies, the character that isn’t there, the fundamental falsehood in the events and the setting. Perhaps the story should be viewed, not as a vacuum, but as a container, an empty vessel into which the readers fit their own life experiences. There is extension in that, a stepping outside of Self that allows escape from the tyranny of the day-to-day that grinds away at our lives, and there’s also a kind of resonance that promises new perspectives, new meanings, and an opportunity for re-evaluation and redefinition.

But what does it offer the author?

What was there about Rainbow Porter, Nick Cowan, Helen Daws, or any of the other characters I’ve mid-wifed, published or unpublished, that drew me back to the keyboard for those ten thousand hours? Why did I want to know what happened to them badly enough to make that kind of investment? Because I really didn’t know, as I wrote, what was coming next. Not for sure. No matter how carefully I plotted, the characters always took over, and by page one hundred or two hundred or three hundred I was just typing. I moved my fingers while the characters told the story of their lives–each a life I never lived, but could have, in a world God never made . . . and no, I didn’t make it either. We collaborated in the creation, God and I. He provided the model, I supplied the words, and the meaning arose somewhere in the gulf between model and writer, writer and reader.

Still, why do it?

Ego enters into the answer, but a technical writer sees his books on the shelf as often as those of us who devote ourselves to fiction. Power? Try politics or business for that. Money? Programming computers pays far better than writing, and the paychecks arrive more reliably. Sex? Ambition in that arena would have led me in other directions: politics, perhaps. So eliminate pride, power, money and sex. Pride falls, power crumbles, money wastes, and the hot urgency of sex fades quickly to indifference.

What remains?

Back to the stories, those ineffable silences we somehow fill with meaning.

Meaning. That’s a nice, glib answer, and I’m tempted to leap on it. We all hunger for meaning in our lives, but there’s a problem here. Look, for a moment, at the creative process, the act of laying words down on paper and then revising them until they are lined up right, until the emptiness they wrap holds a firm and satisfying shape.

The words come from the author. They must. There’s nowhere else. How can writing them offer the author any meaning, any insight, that he does not already possess? That’s the central problem, the underlying mystery.

Stories are built of words, so let’s consider words, and let’s get particular. Lay down a few at random. Rose garden, for instance. And since this is a mystery, let’s add death and surprise. Each word has a specific meaning surrounded by a constellation of associations that belong, at this stage, exclusively to the author. A rose garden can be a bright and cheery place, full of scent and remembered labor. Death evokes loss, grief, perhaps horror. A surprise may be pleasant or unpleasant–the word is full of birthday parties, Christmas presents, chance meetings . . . but when they are juxtaposed, something happens. They feed off each other. Each shrinks and the combination grows.

Let’s add a character and start a sentence: Death surprised Henry in the rose garden. . . .
What do we have now?

More than a string of words. I wrote them. Each has meaning for me. But once I put them down, maybe just because I liked their individual sounds and flavors, the combination implied a direction. It shouted questions. What brought Henry to the garden? What manner of death did he find there? His own? Another’s? Have the roses some meaning or connection to what will come?

Each following word must flow from the answers to the questions I perceive consciously, and probably from my unconscious reaction to the emotions they provoke. From the first word, my choices for the next are limited. Beyond that, they have begun probing me, pulling memories that have never touch each other together. I can plan the next sentence, plot the rest of the story carefully, but with each word I lay down I limit myself and I must wrestle with each word I’ve written as I search for the next. I’m still in control, of course. I can change a word or throw away the whole string and cast another, but the new words will interact with each other just as the old ones did. They will ask new questions, lead me in another direction, and in the end it still comes to a wrestling match, me against the words.

We shape each other.

That’s the point. I tell myself that I control the words as I might a spirited horse: I have a destination in mind — the plot points, resolution, anticlimax, and so forth — and that while the words might, like a team of spirited horses, pick their own path, the destination is of my choosing. I tell myself that, but then the words take me somewhere surprising, or they lead me nowhere at all, and it is hard to continue the fiction that I’m in control, that whatever the story contains is there because I put it there. As often as not, I’m learning from the words even as I write them. The differing strengths of the verbs, the grace of adverbs, the adjectives’ furtive collusion and, best of all, the bump-patter-BAM-patter beat as the sentences drive the plot, whip the tale this way and that, alternately hinder and develop the meaning of–

Well, there it is again. Meaning.

It pops out of nowhere. The words conspire to limit what the author may say. The author fights their tyranny to say what he originally intended, or at least come close to his first mark, and both change. Each layer of words is limited by the last and transformed by the next. It’s a shifting architecture, right up to publication date. You’d think that would fix it in place, but we haven’t considered the readers yet. Each of them will read a subtly different story into the same string of words. Worse, if the story’s any good, the same reader gets something different from it with each re-reading.

Don’t believe me? Try Moby Dick at twenty and again at forty. Don’t like the classics? Read the Travis McGee series at fifty and try to remember what you saw in it at fifteen.

The author has it worse.

The first time through the manuscript, nothing lies ahead of the last word but white space. It isn’t a space of infinite possibilities, however. It is full of invisible lines, walls erected by the work already done, and these constraints narrow as we move through the book. The second pass is even harder. That’s where the gulf between the vision and the accomplishment appears, and where the real job begins. Actually, I should say jobs, because there are two of them. The easier is identifying the shortfalls in the work and kneading it into the desired shape. That done, I’ve generally got a decent story. It isn’t enough though. There’s still that second job, the hard one.

Each of those words I’ve written so far speaks to the others. In most cases, the dialog is slight, but sometimes, sometimes . . . take that rose garden, for instance. It may call up something in me or, more important, in the character of Henry, that opens a window I’ve never looked through before, or have only glanced through with dull eyes, and suddenly Henry, and death, and roses, are all transformed. A resonance appears. The story begins working on a level I never intended when I first plotted it. Dizzy, caught by the revelation, I catch my breath. The story changes and, believe it or not, I change too. The words have taught me something I didn’t know, revealed something about the characters or the setting or even life that I didn’t put in the story, and now I have, have, to develop, no matter how many rewrites it takes. Where once my job was making the words live up to my vision, now my vision must live up to what the words have taught me it could be.

There’s an alchemy operating here.

The grand goal of the alchemist was transmutation–lead into gold, base element into pure. The great secret, however, was that the work transmutes the worker. The alchemist is transformed by his hours, his devotion, and by the recalcitrance of the medium, dull matter or dull words. Never mind that the goal is ultimately unreachable. Never mind that the perfect story cannot be written. The work is the thing, and all else, ego and money and all the rest, is puffery, insubstantial and inconsequential.

Monkey on a Chain, is far from perfect, though it is the best story I could write at the time. The goal Barbara Peters set when she asked me to write this for the Poisoned Pen Press edition was to tell you something about the work or something about myself. I hope I’ve done a little of both in the last few pages, but in case the words foiled me or, more likely, I failed them, let me summarize by saying that, because I wrote it, I could never write it again. It changed me, and that made the time I spent on it worthwhile. That made the rest of those ten thousand hours worthwhile.

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