A visit to a place I once knew

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She was sitting at the receptionist’s desk of my parents’ workplace, at the same desk I had walked past hundreds of times before. The reception area had barely changed since fifteen years ago. I think that the fishtank which used to occupy the corner was gone, replaced by some inoffensive and lower-maintenance indoor plants, and the chairs had probably been replaced. She herself bore the same mixture of familiarity and subtle change. When I last saw her she was eighteen, the same as me, we were freshly graduated from high school, uncertain and young. Now we were both in our thirties, on the other side of marriage, with children in our homes and the first lines of age on our faces.

We had never been close friends, much less romantically entangled, so the reunion was less fraught than it might have been. Nonetheless, we had attended the same school and the same extracurriculars since middle school, so the sheer length of acquaintance had fixed the memory of her in my mind. I recognized her immediately, but she was just different enough that I hesitated a moment. She had aged, not badly, but not quite in the way that I would have expected. Perhaps I had misidentified her, and perhaps she was somebody unknown whose identity I had mistaken by sheer coincidence. But she said my name, and I said her name, and then we laughed and I explained why I had hesitated so long before greeting her.

“It’s worse,” I said, “if I said the wrong name rather than taking too long to say the right name.” She agreed. We took a few minutes to trade the names of spouses and children, and later, when I had finished my business and picked up my kids, she came by to see them and show me one of hers. Aside from the momentary disorientation, it was a pleasant reunion and a reminder of someone that I had known kindly for many years, but hadn’t thought of much in the meantime.

This proved to be emblematic of my entire trip home. I was visiting my parents in my hometown, the city where I grew up. I hadn’t been back for six years, and my previous trip was a brief jaunt in the middle of winter. This felt like the first time that I was truly back in town since I had left after graduating high school, nearly 15 years ago. Everywhere I went, things were recognizable, but just different enough that I hesitated before identifying them. Farmland and prairie at the edges of town had given way to housing development and strip malls, and at the eastern edge of town an enormous shopping complex still smelling of crisp new money had devoured… what? I can’t even remember what had been there before. Yet the parts of town which hadn’t been redeveloped had grown ugly and shabby, with boarded windows and weedy lots crowding together around liquor stores.

It didn’t feel like a homecoming, I told my mother. My parents live in a different house in a new neighborhood, and the hometown I remembered no longer exists. There are bits and pieces of it still, little island of precambrian rock jutting up between the volcanic channels of reconstruction, but the whole is gone. I don’t miss it. My hometown was a pleasant place but never a picturesque one, not the sort of place whose character deserved to be preserved.

On my last day there, however, my dad took me on a drive up the canyon to see the damage that last fall’s floods had wrought. The parks and the green bottom land that had filled the floor of the canyon had been scoured away and replaced by sandy silt. A few of the canyon’s old landmarks were still visible, but others had been wrecked beyend recognition. But despite the obvious and overwhelming evidence of destruction, the canyon felt like the least changed place that I visited. The same brown stone rose up in knobby terraces above the road, and the same brown scrub and bristly pines guarded the walls. Even the river which had ruined the valley was unchanged, its fury not something new but a repetition of the climactic note it had sounded now and again since its birth. And the canyon opens into the mountains, which were old before men knew their names.

A Writer’s Lent: Love

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(Part of a series applying the Prayer of St. Ephraim to the writer’s life, and considering where I can improve.)

Grant not unto me a spirit of idleness,
of discouragement,
of lust for power,
and of vain speaking.

But bestow upon me, Thy servant,
the spirit of chastity,
of humility,
of patience,
and of love.

Love is the last of the virtues that this prayer seeks, which means that it is presented as the opposite of vain speaking. This makes sense. Writing which comes from love cannot be empty and self-serving as vain speaking is. This is the highest virtue, and perhaps for that very reason, I believe it’s the easiest.

Love your characters. Don’t be afraid to hurt them (remember that they aren’t actually real people), but realize that if your characters are not gripping and fascinating to you, they’ll be even less interesting to your writers.

Love your stories. If your story isn’t keeping you up at night with ideas, then maybe you should write something else.

Love the fact that you get to be a writer. Be grateful that you live in a time and place where “writer” is an actual job that people get to have, even if it isn’t actually your job yet. Even if you don’t actually want it to be your job—I don’t actually aspire to be a full-time writer, but I’m still thankful and a little awe-struck every time I see a story with my byline.

I don’t think that most of us would be doing this if it weren’t for love. Let’s not forget that.

Next time: Seeing your own flaws

A Writer’s Lent: Patience

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(Part of a series applying the Prayer of St. Ephraim to the writer’s life, and considering where I can improve.)

Grant not unto me a spirit of idleness,
of discouragement,
of lust for power,
and of vain speaking.

But bestow upon me, Thy servant,
the spirit of chastity,
of humility,
of patience,
and of love.

My story The Lion and the Thorn Tree was under submission at Heroic Fantasy Quarterly for six months before they finally got back to me to let me know that the story had been accepted. I say this not to complain about their response times (there are plenty of other markets that are worse), but to illustrate the kind of patience that any writer must have. Publishing moves glacially. Short store markets are on the fast side of the tracks relative to book publishers, many of which have response times exceeding a year. You can avoid some of this slow-down by self-publishing, but even that doesn’t remove the real need for writerly patience, which is waiting for the money to come in.

This is the place where I find myself now. I’ve accustomed myself to the response times of most short story markets, and I’m quite happy with the notion that a story may need to be shopped around for years before it actually finds a publisher. My patience now is tried with knowing how long I have to wait before I’ve “arrived”. At the moment I’ve sold a number of short stories, but never a novel. Am I a professional yet? When do I start winning awards? When do people start recognizing me at cons? When do I get to become geek-famous?

(This is the point where I stop and check myself for humility and the lust for power, as discussed in previous installments.)

Of course, becoming famous, even geek-famous, is not actually my goal. It sure would be nice though. And here, I have to recognize the fact that these things take time. Lots and lots of time. Most of the “overnight” successes in the writing world are from people who have been writing for a decade or more. If I really want success, I have to (1) continually improve my craft, and (2) wait.

Perhaps you can tell that this topic is a bit of a sore point for me. I do not want to be patient. I want to exercise my lust for power (the vice which is paired opposite patience), and seize recognition and fame now. But I can’t—because that power isn’t actually mine, and because it would be bad more me even if I had it. Instead I’ll wait. I’ll keep working, and I’ll wait.

Next time: Love.

A Writer’s Lent: Humility

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(Part of a series applying the Prayer of St. Ephraim to the writer’s life, and considering where I can improve.)

Grant not unto me a spirit of idleness,
of discouragement,
of lust for power,
and of vain speaking.

But bestow upon me, Thy servant,
the spirit of chastity,
of humility,
of patience,
and of love.

Aside from idleness, this is probably the line of St. Ephraim’s prayer which is the easiest to apply to writing. The ways in which a writer must be humble are both numerous and obvious.

A writer must accept criticism, and he has to accept it with a smile. He must accept it from a multitude of sources: from beta readers, from fellow writers, from agents, from editors, from reviewers. He must accept it gladly, because all of this criticism will almost always make his work better. If you don’t have humility before you begin this process, you’ll certainly have it afterwards.

The tricky part is realizing that humility doesn’t require you to unconditionally agree with your critics. The writer has to disentangle his ego from his work—this is what humility means, after all—and he has to be able to recognize when his critics are telling him something true, and when they’re wrong. He also has to recognized when they have correctly identified a problem, but are mistaken about the solution. And he has to do all of this without falling into the trap of discouragement and despair, which is one of the vices mentioned earlier in the prayer.

In fact, if we take the four virtues of this prayer as corresponding to the vices, we see that humility is the counterpoint to discouragement. That’s an interesting correlation, because it reminds us that humility doesn’t just protect us from the over-large ego, but from the overly fragile one as well. C.S. Lewis wrote somewhere that a truly humble artist simply doesn’t care where he ranks, because he is simply trying to create the best art that he is capable of. I can’t think of any better way to apply humility to the writer’s life. If we tie our sense of self-worth and validity as an artist to our commercial or critical success, we will always ricochet between the extremes of hubris and despair. The only way to write and maintain your sanity is to approach your craft with humility and honesty.

I honestly feel like I do well in this department. I have the confidence to send my work out without fear, but I don’t hesitate to listen to my critiquers and beta readers when they tell me about flaws. (Look at how humble I am! Whee!)

Next time: Patience.

A Writer’s Lent: Wholeness

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(Part of a series applying the Prayer of St. Ephraim to the writer’s life, and considering where I can improve.)

Grant not unto me a spirit of idleness,
of discouragement,
of lust for power,
and of vain speaking.

But bestow upon me, Thy servant,
the spirit of chastity,
of meekness,
of patience,
and of love.

With this post, we have finished up with the first stanza and its four vices, and move to the second stanza with its description of the virtues. The line which is bolded above calls the first virtue “chastity, and if I were actually going to write about chastity here, I would be in for a rough time. The nearest relation to writing that I could think of was the notion of finishing what you start (aka “Stick with your wife”). However, Fr. Alexander Schmemmann has an illuminating discussion of this word in his book Great Lent: Journey to Pascha:

If one does not reduce this term, as is so often and erroneously done, only to its sexual connotations, it is understood as the positive counterpart of sloth. The exact and full translation of the Greek sofrosini and the Russian tselomudryie ought to be whole-mindedness. Sloth is, first of all, dissipation, the brokenness of our vision and energy, the inability to see the whole. Its opposite then is precisely wholeness.

If wholeness is the opposite of sloth, then it’s the virtue that I most lack as a writer. I don’t think I’m alone in this. A great many writers find it very difficult to finish anything, while others, like me, finish things but just do it veeeeery slowly. The problem that I have is not that I get distracted by other stories, but mostly that I find it difficult to focus single-mindedly on one story. I do finish everything that I write, but it takes me so long that my total output is very low. The notion of whole-mindedness implies a concentration and a focus that I often lack.

The other element of whole-mindedness which Fr. Schmemmann’s quote illuminates is the idea of seeing the whole. Being able to see the entirety of a work of fiction, including the plot, character arc, setting, etc., especially a longer work, is a skill which I am still developing. This is arguably a matter of craft more than discipline, yet I’d say that it’s still the least developed skill in my writing repertoire. And it is ultimately linked to the problem of writing discipline which I raised above, since inability to take in the whole work is related to the slowness with which I work, and my unwillingness to focus.

Next time: Meekness

A Writer’s Lent: Vain Speaking

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(Part of a series applying the Prayer of St. Ephraim to the writer’s life, and considering where I can improve.)

Grant not unto me a spirit of idleness,
of discouragement,
of lust for power,
and of vain speaking.

I said last time that we writers have one power: the power to write a good story. Now let us consider what a great and serious power that is. A good story will inspire or terrify; it will teach you truth and beauty; it will make you recognize lies; it will change your life. I dare say that those of us who want to write have embarked on this vocation because we’ve been transformed by the books that we’ve read, so we know firsthand the power of a story well-told. How should we approach our calling, if not with fear and trembling?

When I speak this way, I have to quickly disavow two common misconceptions. The first is the notion that stories must have a Message. This is a terrible mistake. Stories which are deliberately written with a Message tend to be terrible, and even when they’re good they often succeed in spite of their Message, and not because of it. The writer has a responsibility to avoid vain, empty talk, but she does not have any duty to give a sermon. On the contrary, sermonizing usually undermines the writer’s real efforts.

The other misconception is to think that writing must be Serious, and must absolutely not be Fun. After all, if writing is a serious business, then surely we have to write about serious things. But come on: I’m a genre writer, so I will take a story about dragons and spaceships and explosions over a self-serious, “literary” work any day. Let us banish all shame in writing a pulpy adventure story or a steamy romance. However, we must recognize that even the most gonzo space opera contains within it a vision of goodness. You have a hero: what are his heroic qualities, and what will your readers learn to imitate from him? Or maybe you have merely a collection of antiheroes: what does this choice say about the world?

As writers, we have to tell the truth in our fictions. When the zombies attack, when you find the Ring of Power, when Mr. Darcy comes with a proposal, what will you do? What will your characters do? And what will these choices say about the good, the true, and the beautiful? Is your story telling the truth in what it says?

Let us put aside vain speaking, which entrenches prejudice, ugliness, and despair. We have better things to do.

Next time: This is the last of the vices in the Prayer of St. Ephraim, so we move on to the second stanza of the prayer and begin with the virtues.

A Writer’s Lent: Lust for Power

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(Part of a series applying the Prayer of St. Ephraim to the writer’s life, and considering where I can improve.)

Grant not unto me a spirit of idleness,
of discouragement,
of lust for power,
and of vain speaking.

Writers are powerless. Everyone knows this. We are the playthings of editors, agents, publishers and buyers. We are buffeted by the cruel winds of the market. Vast, capricious forces determine whether our books and stories will sell. We have no control over our fate. So why should “lust for power” be a writer’s vice?

Well, for starters, writers aren’t completely powerless. We do have one power: the power to tell a great story. This is not a power that we should give up. I think that the key word in the prayer here is “lust”. The problem is not that writers have or do not have power. It’s that we want the power that is not, and never will be, in our grasp, namely the power to ensure our success.

Why do so many writers go ballistic when they get rejected? Why do writers occasionally lash out against critics? Why do the self-published writers condemn the traditional publishers for cowardice? Why do the traditionally published folks condemn the self-published for unprofessionalism? I’m not talking here about legitimate criticisms or disagreement, I’m talking about the over-the-top nutty-butter insane things that litter the inboxes of agents and editors and spill out on the internet with depressing regularity. I propose that what’s going wrong with these people is the lust for power. These are writers who believe that they deserve success for having published good books before, or having gotten an MFA, or merely having completed a story. So when anyone, whether it be a publisher or an editor or a reader, comes along and refuses to give them what they deserve, they simply lose it.

This is the lust for power. You will never, ever be able to force someone to like your writing, no matter how good it is. As writers we all want acceptance and success, but it is never in our power to simple take it. When we feel that we deserve to have success, and that those who disagree are merely obstacles to be destroyed, we are engaging in the lust of power.

We still have the power to tell a great story. That’s the only power we need.

Next time: vain speaking.