Why Liars Can Can Grow Up To Be Writers

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ScentOne of my notorious family members was a prolific liar. You might say pathological, but that’s so full of judgment. Barry was an experienced man who could tell a great story. His storytelling was mostly of the oral kind, but once in awhile he’d write something down.

We could never be sure where the truth stopped and the story took over when we’d talk with him. We were lucky enough to be able to disregard the facts, most of the time. “I like that story,” I’d say afterward. “It’s as true as it needs to be.” In the movie No Country for Old Men, the sheriff is asked, “Is that a true story?” He grins and looks down and says, “Well, it’s true that it’s a story, anyway.”

Aren’t liars the best storytellers? I had a period in my life where instead of saying right away “I’m a writer” I could say “I’m a professional liar.” Anybody who creates fiction for profit is a professional liar. Good liars make great stories by embellishing the facts in an entertaining way. Be entertaining is the first rule of creating stories.

Liars do have the seed of being great storytellers. You have a story to tell, something to say, and you like telling it. But there’s also the stem of structure to produce. The flower of finishing a story or a piece of writing. Finally, the fragrance: a story that makes hearts move and minds lean forward to notice.

Growing writing from that seed of fabrication to an entertaining aroma takes revision. Pruning, feeding, revising — it’s the essence of something that’s being pushed to life.

Live Forever. Be a Writer, Then Publish.

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In an article at the website Brainpickings.org, a life plan to live more fully in the present moment also includes advice on how to live forever. Writing, and sharing your work through publication, seems to extend our lifespan.

alanwattsAlan Watts, a 20th-Century philosopher, points out in his 1951 book The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety, that “the experience of presence is the only experience that is a reminder that our “I” doesn’t exist beyond this present moment — there is no permanent, static, and immutable “self” which can grant us any degree of security and certainty for the future.” Watts was notable and continues to be so. His own presence was a plot point in the science fiction movie Her, where a collective of personal operating systems gathered to study with his long-dead presence via the Web. (You never can tell with Watts’ writings and lectures what’s genuinely possible. His reality seems to have few limits.)

Writing appears to be a bridge beyond our physical lifespans — or as Watts says, “an assurance of the future.” We won’t experience the future beyond us. But our writing, if it’s shared in some way, gives our essence the possibility of living in the future.

Strong writing always flows from a clear, personal voice and visions. Our “I” can be out there in the tomorrows that our bodies will never see. Maybe in that future of Her, we can be present in the mind of a single person, acting as their operating system. Writing a book today that leads a reader to adopt a life plan might make that happen, in the present, and in the future.

Yes, it’s hard. The hard is what makes it great.

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Earlier today I sketched out some basics to get fiction onto the page. Just storytelling, but there are a lot of things to think about. Creating character. Plotting. Sensory experiences. Making entertainment out of trouble, pumping up the drama so we care how things are going to work out, if they ever do, in a story.

“Wow, this is a lot. It sounds hard.” But notes went down onto the page about everything. My writer had it, that desire to tell a story.

On the bottom of my computer monitor there’s a little pink Post-It Note. A quote from creative coaching.

Once we acknowledge the truth, and stop fearing hard work, we grow enormously.

I would add, our storytelling ability and experience grows enormously, too. We aim ourselves at great. We fall short, but we aim again. In a part of my house next to the home studio where the classes and groups meet, there’s a beloved old poster. Under a sketch of a circus clown, it says “Why dream of being good, when you can dare to be great?”

Tom HanksAnd so I come to one of the moments that can keep me in the chair whenever it gets hard. It gets hard for all of us, no matter how long we do this storytelling thing, practiced through writing. Tom Hanks said it in A League of Their Own to Dottie, Gina Davis’s star catcher who’s leaving the all-girls team to go back to marriage. “It just got too hard,” she said.

“Of course it got hard,” said Hanks, her team manager. “It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great.” More

Serve the drama first

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The right set of facts are those that serve the drama of the story. We read and watch documentaries to educate ourselves. If we’re lucky, they entertain us. This surfaced during a chat about the physicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson — the Carl Sagan of the new generation’s Cosmos — and how much he dislikes the movie Gravity.

But any dramatic feature that fails to entertain, because it gets busy teaching us physics — that’s a misguided effort. Listening to him on Fresh Air (especially at the 30:00 mark calculating his response time to Jon Stewart’s Daily Show questions), will give you an insight into how and why Tyson became the man he is today.

It’s hard to imagine the original Carl Sagan, who wrote the orginal Cosmos series, being so persnickety about such details as presented in a drama. Along with his wife, he wrote the novel Contact, which was adapted into a stellar movie. I doubt Tyson will be authoring novels, but everybody can learn something new. Even if it’s just storytelling basics.

Haiku Deck love most

I assembled my first Haiku slide deck today, using this subject as a starting point. (Click on the image above to see the deck, a summary of what makes writing effective.) Yes, it’s what I’ve preached since I started the Workshop: attend to Meaning, Sense, and Clarity. As artists, we make meaning. We’re driven to this mission, cannot stand a life without meaning-making.

And as readers we care the most about drama. Miss a point of technology or history and it might spoil that moment of a story. Stumble while creating the drama — because you’re too busy attending to the laws of physics — and you might as well be producing a documentary, or writing a nonfiction book.

The same rules apply to writing stories about time travel. Rian Johnson wrote Looper, one of the best time-travel movies I’ve ever seen. When I heard Johnson talk at the Austin Film Festival about writing time travel, he agreed with fellow screenwriter Robert Orci, co-writer of the Star Trek reboot. Nobody knows how the physics of time travel work. But as humans, we recognize and connect through drama.

Respect the science, sure. But revere the storytelling.

Same Time, Every Day

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Anne Lamott, from her book Bird by Bird, explains how your writing can get started.

“‘But how?’ my students ask. ‘How do you actually do it?’

How to Write

How to Write

“You sit down, I say. You try to sit down at approximately the same time every day. This is how you train your unconscious to kick in for you creatively. So you sit down at, say, nine every morning, or ten every night. You put a piece of paper in the typewriter, or you turn on the computer and bring up the right file, and then you stare at it for an hour or so. You begin rocking, just a little at first, and then like a huge autistic child. You look at the ceiling, and over at the clock, yawn, and stare at the paper again.

‘Then, with your fingers poised on the keyboard, you squint at an image that is forming in your mind — a scene, a locale, a character, whatever — and you try to quiet your mind so you can hear what that landscape or character has to say above the other voices in your mind.”

Find your time of day. Get Lamott’s book.

Don’t call writing hard. Write it now.

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OBrienWhen I watched the wonderful movie The Sessions, I saw the story of Mark O’Brien, a poet who contracted polio as a boy but kept on writing. Kept writing even though he’d lost the control of all of his muscles, except those in his face. He lived in an iron lung. He held a pencil with a fat eraser in his mouth, then tapped the keys on his typewriter, or later on, a keyboard on a computer, once those became popular in the 1980s.

Let My Words Touch You

No matter what’s happening in your writing, you and I don’t have that hurdle to overcome. O’Brien published many articles and essays – he worked as a journalist as well as a poet – and released three books of poetry. Watching this man write in The Sessions, I realized I would never be able to complain again about how hard it is to write.

Revision is another matter. I can’t even start to wonder how he managed that. But you won’t have your writing published without revising it. On the other hand, there’ll be no revising without the writing, simple first drafts.

So write now. Because you need to do it before something else might stop you.


March 5 is the birthday of Karen Stolz. Or it would be, if she were still alive. She was a writing teacher of mine in the years when I just started to study fiction. Karen passed away in 2011 at age 54, felled by heart failure. She had a big heart, enough to embrace people new to writing or new to fiction. She taught a class at St. Edwards attended by my brother-in-law Billy, a bank robber, gambler and storyteller extraordinaire. Billy’s stories arrived at my house inside letters from prison to my wife. Karen called him a good writer.

Billy was writing because he had nothing but time. Karen wrote her bestselling novel in stories, The World of Pies, because it was her time to move up from her short stories. Those stories got her into the Iowa Writer’s Workshop.

She moved back to her hometown in Kansas after her son graduated high school, where she taught writing at Pittsburg State. Karen had published a second novel by then, Fanny and Sue, and was working on a third, looking for a publisher.

Like anybody taken early from life, she figured she had more time to write. But unlike many writers, she wrote sooner – while her son was still in school – rather than later, when she’d have more time.

It was a smart choice, and one we can make for ourselves, too. Even if your writing is only blog entries right now, or 20 minutes at a time in a workshop meeting, choose to do it now. Let your voice be heard and enjoyed by the world.

Prescription for writers

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From a morning seminar I took with Lee Smith, a writer of short stories and novels:

Most people who come in here don’t have the possibility of entering into any story other than their own. You do. To do this, write fiction every day. Just sit in the chair and put one word in front of the the other. This putting one word in front of another is to put the world in order. It’s theraputic.

Good interview with Smith at the Writers Write site, written about the time that I heard her give the above prescription. I’m going off to sit in my chair and put the world in order.

First off, find out what to write about

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Journals can act as a good tool for writers, keeping your pen moving like lifting weights in the gym. The best kind of journaling, according to Pulitzer winning novelist Robert Ohlen Butler, is a description of the sensations during an emotional moment of your day before you sit down to write. First thing in the morning, if you can. This kind of prep writing is vital to knowing what makes your writing’s heart beat.

I have practiced a journaling exercise from Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft. She says that the essential thing to writing is to write about something you really care about. How to know? Make some lists. Pick big emotions, according to playwright Claudia Johnson, who Burroway quotes in the chapter “Whatever Works” (Permit me to share my own answers, to illustrate.)

What makes you angry? Bullying, elitism, being shut out, cruel criticism, injustice.
What are you afraid of?
Being abandoned, becoming irrelevant, loss of my mental and physical faculties, heights.
What do you want? Love and acceptance of who I am, supportive relationships with friends, peace and beauty from nature, the reward of service, unexpected joy, to lead, teach and nurture
What hurts?
Being excluded, dashed expectations, disrespect for my aspirations, watching someone I love endure pain, being distrusted
What really changed you?
My Army service, Dad’s suicide, drugs and then arrest, becoming a father, divorce from Lisa, then leaving my son’s home when he was 6, finding a partner for the rest of my life.
Who really changed you?
Jim Lindsey, my first real community newspaper editor. Shawn Hare, an actor in the Melodrama Theatre. My son Nick. John Wilson, magazine owner. Jim Hoadley, my counselor and “provisional governor.” My wife Abby.

If all this sounds theraputic, confessional, intimate, it should. “Those will be areas to look to for stories, whether or not the stories are autobiographical,” Burroway says. Some time back I wrote a short story called Two Guys, about partners in a New York City hot dog cart business. They were breaking up. Underneath the drama and the characters was the reality of seeing my collaboration with my wife in our business start to end. I wanted a literary journal. She wanted yoga. I never ran a hot dog cart, but the emotions of a dissolving partnership felt the same. Burroway reminds us that novelist Ron Carlson says, “I always write from my own experiences, whether I’ve had them or not.”

Harder to return than arrive

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The journey is the destination, but making a living as a writer requires you to arrive at a moment when someone else invests in your talent. You might be a fiction writer selling a novel, or a non-fiction writer getting a proposal picked up, or a screenwriter seeing a treatment accepted with the follow-on screenplay assignment.

Of if you’re looking at self-publishing, the PayPal purchase notices and checks from readings go into your bank account. But you have arrived. Enjoy the moment. This might not be the hardest route to complete on your journey as a writer, says the screenwriter of W.

The movie that opened this weekend was written by Stanley Weiser. He wrote the screenplay for Wall Street, another Oliver Stone film. Weiser has this to say, in an interview with the Web site StoryLink, about what a writer faces after first success:

It was hard miles in the beginning. The problem is that once you start out and you have a movie, you think you’ve arrived. But once you have the break, it’s harder to come back than it is to arrive. It’s a long road. You have to keep reinventing yourself.

I’ve heard this second-book effect described another way, from the perspective of being in your first book, completing it and getting though publication. This first arrival is the only time in your career that you’re writing with no expectations from the public, a publisher, editors and reviewers. You get to invent yourself as a writer and your story as you know it. The next time out, you will be measured not only by that internal conscience of a creator, but the readers, viewers and your business partners, all of whom will look to your prior work.

Read wide to set your bar high

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During our Writer’s Workshop meetings I sometimes wear a t-shirt from The Gettysburg Review. On the shirt’s reverse is this Washington Post quote about the lit mag:

Carrying literary elitism to new, and annoying, heights

I picked up the shirt at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference in March, a bonus for subscribing to the mag. It’s kind of a talisman, a way to hope some of my striving toward quality will rub off onto my notebook. But elitism, as I mentioned yesterday in my entry here, is something that makes me angry. Elitism can also deliver beauty and power, even if the walls of access are well up around elite creators.

This morning I enjoyed the lead short story in the Summer issue of the Review. Actually, enjoyed is a weak description of my response. Catherine Ryan Hyde wrote a masterful two-character short story, Chasing Elinor. It was direct and sensory and shifted points of view with elegance. Its language was not elite. Its emotions were accessible.

That Hyde should write such a gem was only a surprise to me. She’s the author of the novel Pay It Forward, which not only became a movie but launched a foundation, headed up by Hyde. Its grants “encourage and empower our youth to believe in themselves and their individual and collective abilities to shape the future.” (20 years ago Hyde was saved from a car fire by strangers. She never found out who they were, but determined to pay the service forward.)

How does this relate to the life of a writer? I used to think of lit mags like The Gettysburg Review as snobby, self-satisfied, full up. That’s not my view any more. They serve a purpose: to inspire with their elitism, so somebody who will muster and maintain the passion to keep working, improving, learning their craft might earn a place on those pages.

So read widely, in the little, less-elite lit mags, as well as places like the Review. (On its inside front cover they reprint the Post quote, headlined with “Still Committed to Our Mission.”) You can learn from the elite, even if you’re not ready to become one of them just yet.

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