The Battle of the Bench

When you find the right partner in life, marriage can be a joyful union of best friends. It helps when you don’t take things too seriously and you can find the humor in the mundane and absurd. Sometimes, the most inane things can take on comical proportions when two people play off each other perfectly. Such is the case in the battle of the bench.

It all started over two years ago when my family moved to a new house. We had purposefully downsized to a smaller home because we had grown tired of the large yard and unused rooms in our old house and the infinite upkeep that it required. We found a delightfully right-sized townhouse that had no yard but sizable common areas that were maintained by the homeowners’ association. This change allowed us to spend our free time in more enjoyable ways (Yay! No more weekends of yard work!), but it also presented space challenges since the new house had less space.

Shoehorning our lives into the new house was less of an issue for us since we’re the opposite of pack rats, except for our son – he has inherited my mom’s penchant for keeping everything he lays his hands on. Nevertheless, we efficiently pruned our furniture and other belongings until we had the perfect balance in each room. The only room that looked even a little over-stuffed was the master bedroom because neither my wife nor I were willing to part with our suite of furniture, much less the glorious bed we called home for eight or so hours every night. We’d more likely give up one of the kids before we cast aside the siren call of that sweetly-plump, king-sized mattress.

We made the furniture fit in a room half the size of our former bedroom with enough space to move freely around the room without clipping our toes on the sharp, wooden edges our our bed posts. In fact, there was enough space to put a bench at the foot of bed so that I could sit down while putting on my shoes each morning. I suggested as much to my wife, but she deftly rebuffed my suggestion stating that there wasn’t enough room. I ignored her logic and pleaded my case, going as far to break out my measuring tape and miming how said bench would fit in said space. She couldn’t be convinced.

Failing at using the precision of measurement to persuade my wife to add a bench to our collection of bedroom furniture, I made a big deal of putting on my shoes each morning – from the floor. My histrionics reached epic proportions miming back pain or pretending that I was part of one of those Medi-Alert commercials where the protagonist had fallen and couldn’t get up. None of my bad acting swayed my wife. A bench was not in my future. As long as we stayed in that house, I’d be benchless in Seattle. I’d be lacing my shoes for eternity from our bedroom floor. Such conditions affronted my sense of self and condemned my manhood on some level I’m sure.

These antics went on for two years, and my wife would just smile each time I brought it up or politely ignore my inciting comments much like she’d ignore the kids when they were toddlers and had one of their implacable moments that thrived on attention. I felt defeated, deflated, but then we had to move again.

The circumstances of our cross-country move left me searching for our next home alone with only photographic or video reports back to my wife in Seattle. She had to rely on me to choose where we’d live, which meant I could chose a home with a master bedroom plenty big enough for a bench. I was unnaturally excited about the power I had. I’d get my bench. This much I knew. Each home I walked through required a long stop in the master bedroom to picture my new bench at the foot of our bed. I felt like the Grinch plotting my descent into Whoville except instead of taking things away, I was adding something.

I finally decided on a house, and after seeing the pictures and video, my wife agreed. I could feel the soft cushion of my bench already and we hadn’t moved in yet. As we moved our stuff into the house and settled each piece of furniture in its rightful place, I couldn’t help but smile when one of our sofas landed in the master bedroom. I finally had my bench – not only that, it was a significant upgrade to the original bench I had envisioned two years ago. As I settled into the sofa on that first morning in our new house to put on my shoes, I soaked in the victory. I felt like doing a lap around the bedroom with my arms raised in boastful pride. I had won the battle of the bench. I tried not to gloat, but I can’t help myself. It’s been a few months since we moved in, and I still bring it up. I’m lucky my wife has a great sense of humor (but I still won).

The Editing Struggle

There are many phases to writing a novel. There’s the moment when an idea strikes, often at inopportune times, where a surge of inspiration can stop you in your tracks and make you wish you could spend the day fleshing out your story. Then, there’s the joy of putting those first few words on the page when the momentum really starts to pick up like a heavy boulder rolling down a hill and the words just fly from your fingertips as if the story is writing itself. The first draft is particularly enjoyable since it’s about discovering the characters for the first time and really getting to know them. Yes, there are the occasional stops and starts as the story trundles through the middle, but overall, the first draft is exciting and thrilling like a close ballgame that isn’t decided until the last few seconds of play.

I wish I could say the same about editing. Unfortunately, editing is by far the longest and most important part of writing. It’s also the most tedious and least exciting part of writing a novel. Many a novel has died on the vine in the editing phase. The first draft is about getting your story on the page and telling it in the way you think makes it most enjoyable for readers. Editing is about taking that lump of half-formed clay and turning it into a beautiful piece of pottery worthy of display. Sometimes, after much spinning and forming, you just want to pound the clay into some malformed lump and toss it as far away as possible. Editing can make you hate your own story because you’re so sick of working on it.

There are not shortcuts in editing. It’s basically a grind-it-out task that, if done correctly, is worth the Herculean effort, but the payoff doesn’t make it any less exasperating. I’m on my third re-write of Into the Caldera. The first draft came easy; it only took three months to get the basic story down from foreboding beginning to the harrowing ending. The problem is the story didn’t really work in that first draft form. The characters were sharp-edged or too flimsy to be likable. The dramatic backdrop was the most memorable part of that first draft. While I wanted the scenes around Mt. St. Helens to capture the stark nature of that almost alien landscape, I also wanted the characters to be memorable as well. After all, the story was about jealousy and revenge, something the magnificent mountain could neither feel nor embody beyond the Indian legend that is shared in the book.

My first round of major edits sought to soften the sharp edges and fill in the gaps for the characters, but instead of turning my half-formed lump of clay into a pretty vase, I turned it into a bowl made by a third-grader in his first go-round on the pottery wheel. It was a little lop-sided, but if I turned my head sideways, it looked upright. Maybe. Sort of. Okay, maybe not.

Now, I’m on my second round of major edits, and it has been a struggle to keep my faith in the story. What had once been a surefire story of revenge and redemption has morphed into a story mostly about perils of jealousy. I don’t know if it still has the oomph that once ran through the story like a bright red line cuts through a page of black letters. The original story had that stark craziness to it that kept the reader thinking “WTF?,” but it required readers to ignore some important questions that I hadn’t really worked out in that first draft. As I worked out those questions, it changed the very nature of the story.

Into the Caldera is not in my wheelhouse in terms of genre. I had stepped away from the literary genre to try a psychological thriller thinking that it would expand my writing capabilities. To some extent it has, but the irony is that as I rewrite each part, it becomes more and more literary and much less thriller. This is not what I had in mind when I first conceived the story. I guess I’ll have to wait and see what the editing struggle begets.

Then There Were Five

We added a new dog, a four-month-old Boston Terrier, to our family this past weekend. Her name is Luna, and she’s tiny and cute and all of the things you’d expect from a sweet little puppy. She gets along with our nine-year-old Boston, Pearl, who has only had to put her in her place a few times since she arrived. I think it’s clear who’s boss in that hierarchy of two.

I’ve always had dogs in my life except for two brief stints – when I was in college and when I lived in China. They’re as much a part of my life as any human relationship. From Sam, who occupies the furthest reaches of my memories from my childhood, to Pearl and Luna today, I could chronicle my life based on the dog or dogs I had at the time. Growing up, my dogs were mostly mutts my Dad acquired from a guy with whom he worked. They were outside dogs, all of them, and they came and went with the perils of being outdoor dogs living along a rural, two-lane road. If the speeding cars didn’t get them, something else did, but I never lost my love for dogs in spite of the heart-wrenching losses.

My kids have only ever known Pearl as their dog because she’s been with our family for seven years, and they were young when we she arrived. Since our dogs are indoor dogs, they are less prone to the inexplicable disappearances or tragic endings that often beset my dogs when I was a kid. Pearl has taught my kids kindness and responsibility, something that I also learned from my dogs as a child. Most importantly, she’s given them a sense of joy that only dogs can deliver. When they had a rough day, Pearl was there to lick them and snuggle with them and make it all better. When they needed someone to talk to or to dress up for an impromptu tea party, Pearl was there. It’s hard not to smile when you look into that face with the big ears and bulging eyes atop the short nose and drooping jowls. Her solemn and serious look belies an innate sweetness that defines her.

She has grown with our family, and as the years have slipped by, she has been aging gracefully. Despite being in her tenth year, she still gets excited when we go on a car ride. The gray on her muzzle and the occasional missed jump are the only indications of the passing of time. She’s gone from being the patient puppy (yes, there is such a thing and Pearl exudes it) to the grand dame of our family, a dog so spoiled and well-loved that her life has to be the envy of dogs everywhere.

It is in those few moments that I recognize her age that I lament the fact that dogs don’t live longer. Even removed from the dangers of living outdoors, dogs have such limited time. While it could be a tragedy, it’s also a gift. Making the most of that limited time is the essence of any life, dogs or otherwise, and we’ll certainly make the most of it. Luna, the fifth member of our family, reminds us of Pearl’s younger years, and she promises to bring many more happy moments to our family. We’ll enjoy every moment.

Perspective

At some point when we reach our late 20s, our perspectives harden like freshly-poured concrete forming a sidewalk or a driveway. From there it’s unlikely that our perspective will change much despite evidence that suggests it should. As we get older, confirmation bias stretches its dark tentacles deeper into our brains and squeezes harder making it even more difficult to shift our perspectives. Everything that supports our view of life is acknowledged; everything else is ignored. I imagine there’s an evolutionary reason for this. We keep doing what has kept us alive thus far, and if we’ve made it this far, then we must be doing something right. Right?

As a writer I spend a lot of time observing what’s happening around me, how people are reacting or not reacting to the world around them. I play a game of “What if?” quite often as I’m always thinking about story ideas. I’m inherently a skeptical person, so when I’m presented with rigid dogma or thoughtless conventional “wisdom,” I habitually ask myself “What if the opposite were true?” The most interesting stories often lie at the intersection of two different perspectives, or as I like to muse, two different realities.

When I reached my 40s, I realized something had subtly happened to me over the prior decade, something that had not really dawned on me until it was too late. I had lost touch with the rest of the world in a way I couldn’t explain much like flotsam on the beach gets buffeted by the waves until it is dragged out into the middle of the vast ocean far from any land. Age does that to you. The world belongs to the young, a collective consciousness that surges into the mainstream and spits you out the other side like a remnant of a bygone era. What was once a fresh and engaging perspective becomes tired and worn.

Writing allows me to assume different perspectives, to step into another’s skin and try it on for size. It also forces me to consider what it’s like for someone else in a very real way, not in some superficial attempt at empathy. To make the story authentic, I have to be deeply thoughtful of perspective. How would it feel to be this character? How would this character react to this situation. The opportunity to do this is rewarding in its own right, liberating even. I feel subtle shifts in my own perspective because assuming another’s is so taxing that I cannot help but be affected. Is it possible to break free of our own constraints?

Years ago I moved my family to China for my job. Before I interviewed for the job, I had never been to mainland China. My vision of the nation was exactly what you’d expect from an American, exactly what is displayed on the myopic television news. I imagined staunch Communists parading in the streets in abysmal outfits drooling the party line, but the reality was anything but that. Instead, I found an engaging culture with a rich history bursting at the seams. Sure, there’s the creepy big brother government lurking in the background, but that wasn’t the only thing that defined the nation. My perspective shifted. Being there and putting myself in the shoes of Chinese citizens changed my perspective. The same thing happens when I write.

It is possible to change my perspective in spite of the gravity of confirmation bias. I’ve come to the conclusion that only a fool would go through life and not change his perspective based on new evidence, even if it were anathema to him at another point in time. The world belongs to the young, but even a middle-aged writer can test the waters of something new. It’s all a matter of perspective.

A Writer Must Read

I often tell my kids that they have to read to learn. There’s simply no way around it. This is especially true when they’re no longer in school and they don’t have teachers and assignments forcing them to read. While they may dream of a day when they don’t have a long list of reading assignments, the truth is that they will (or should) spend the rest of their lives reading. Hopefully, they’ll enjoy it. My wife and I began reading to them almost from the moment we brought them home from the hospital, and over the years that’s turned into family reading time each night before bedtime. As a result it’s not unusual to see my kids lumbering around the house with a book in hand without any assignment hanging over their head.

While most of my reading is done for pure pleasure, as a writer I must read. One of the most salient nuggets of advice Stephen King delivers in his memoir On Writing is just that: A writer must read. It’s necessary to get better. You have to observe the craft in its finest form (or not so finest) to really understand how to improve your own work. There’s no way around it, nor are there any shortcuts. If you’re writing and not reading, you’re limiting your potential as a writer.

Reading is what brought me to writing in the first place. Way back in fourth grade when I pulled Richard Adam’s Watership Down from the top shelf of the musty, old school library and checked it out, I started down the path to being a writer. That book subsumed my imagination and took me to a different world. I loved it so much that I read it twice (it remains the only book I’ve read more than once). After I read that book, I decided I wanted to create wonderful stories like that. I wanted to become a writer. Three decades later I took that first step toward being a writer, but by then, I had read many more books and learned much more about writing.

Every time I pick up a book, I learn something. I learn new words, new ways of describing something, or a new approach to creating a scene or imagery. I’m currently reading Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. The way she creates a scene is remarkable – a prime example of “show, don’t tell.” Her use of imagery and words puts the reader right in the middle of her stark, apocalyptic world, which is equal parts horrifying and mesmerizing. The novel spans several decades, but she manages the time shifts expertly so that the reader doesn’t get whipsawed by the jumps along the timeline. I’ve learned a lot from reading her book, and it will make me a better writer.

I could go on and on with examples of how I’ve learned about the craft of writing from reading. Wally Lamb taught me the true art of character development with his books that often delve deep into the psyche of his protagonists (see She’s Come Undone). Khalid Hosseini taught me how to bring the setting alive and make it just as much a part of the book as the main characters (see A Thousand Splendid Suns). Jonathan Franzen, a true literary genius, taught me how to weave a beautiful story from the seemingly mundane interactions of the characters (see The Corrections). His stories aren’t for thrill seekers, but they are beautiful in that they capture the emotional reality of life vs. some fantastic version of it.

There are so many books to read, and so little time, especially as I’m trying to squeeze in time to write myself. Nevertheless, I will always make time for reading, whether it’s just before bedtime or on the train to work, because reading is necessary for writing. A writer must read.

No Place for Ego

The ego gets a bad wrap. Most people associate it with arrogance, self-centeredness, and myriad other bad personality traits, but the reality is much different. Everyone has an ego – an innate sense of self-esteem or importance. I could argue that the ego is the foundation upon which self-preservation rests, the backbone of our primordial “fight or flight” instincts. In other words the ego keeps us going in the face of threats to our existence. On a less dramatic scale, the ego gives us the stamina to move forward despite feedback that suggests we’re wasting our time. That could be good or bad depending on the circumstances, but for a writer it is a necessary condition of employment.

Like many matters of art, writing is judged based on personal tastes, which are formed through a complex mix of experience and emotion throughout life. If I put two people in front of a classical painting in the middle of the Louvre and ask their opinion of the piece, I’ll likely get two starkly different opinions. Some paintings, like DaVinci’s Mona Lisa, are universally loved and admired (However, I bet I could find many people who hate it), but many others are subjected to the partial perspectives of the viewer or reader as it may be. While some opinions may carry the weight of an “expert,” no opinion on the matter of taste in art is necessarily more valid than another, but opinions are as varied as the people who provide them.

To take this example a bit further, I present my wife and me, both of whom are avid readers but have very different tastes in what is considered good in terms of books. We have enjoyed some books together, but my wife didn’t enjoy one of my most favorite books, Shantaram. Despite the fact that we share many similar likes and dislikes, we’re often on opposite sides of the reader spectrum. I prefer books in the literary genre with expansive, flowing prose, but many readers would find these stories dull and slow-moving. This doesn’t mean one genre is better than another; it’s a matter of taste, which is as varied as those who read the stories.

Understanding this reality is important for a writer. It’s no accident that many writers (or artists, in general) throughout history have been prone to neurotic or odd behavior (Think: Van Gogh, Dali, etc.). The slings and arrows of opinions can be quite difficult to absorb even if you understand this fact of life. What garners praise from one reader may prompt kvetching from another. It’s hard to know what to make of it all. Does every opinion warrant a change? Does every piece of feedback that is negative mean that the writer has failed?

To some extent, yes. The point of writing is to communicate effectively whether for pleasure or informative purposes. If the reader experiences little or no pleasure or is not informed, then the writer has failed, at least with that particular reader, but any writer who seeks to assuage every reader’s sense of satisfaction will never write because such a a feat is impossible. Even great classics of literature have their detractors. Such is the case for every other writer.

Given the flurry of opinion, it’s hard to stay focused. Writer’s have to pick and choose what feedback requires action, and that’s not always straightforward. I do know that no one becomes a writer to boost their ego. If anything, the ego is the only thing that keeps us going if only because it’s a flickering flame in a rainstorm that just happens to stay lit long enough until the next story is finished.

Where To Next?

This past weekend I ran a half marathon. My goal during the race was to keep as consistent a pace as possible without falling off in the latter stages of the race, which I’m prone to do. One of the course guides rode near me on a bike the entire time and he would periodically call out my pace to me. Almost without fail, he’d report that I was running the same pace whether I was on a straightaway or on an incline. In the few instances where he told me I was falling off, I’d shake myself out of my racing trance and kick it into another gear. Having someone monitor me like that and give me a shot in the arm when I needed it helped me perform better than I probably would have otherwise. It felt like I had an impromptu coach by my side. I thanked him (breathlessly, of course) when he peeled off near the finish line and let me cut through the crowd by myself. I came to a stop on the other side of the tape and bent over to catch my breath. After I grabbed some water, I ambled over to a bench and took a well-deserved break.

It’s no shock to anyone who knows me that I often find parallels between running and writing – after all both of these activities suck up most of the little free time I have. After attending The Fifth Semester a few weeks ago and getting some good advice and guidance from the coaches there, I feel like they’ve helped me stay on pace, at least with my current project, but much like that race this weekend, I’m hunched over sucking wind in need of a break after making my first submission to my coach. As I mentioned in my last post, the rewrite of many parts of my novel took much longer than I had expected. I’m not sure I was “on pace” the whole time, but I did cross the finish line for that particular race.

Having a coach does help. External feedback helps. It’s easy to get wrapped up in my own little world in a race or in writing, so having someone tell me when I’m drifting off pace helps me pull it back together. A few years ago, I worked with a wonderful editor, Kathy Williams, at Strategic Finance magazine when I was doing a series of articles for them. ¬†She was very good at her job, and she made my writing infinitely better, especially since the writing was technical and dry. Despite the topic, she made my articles pop off the page. She seemed to know where to add and subtract, and her suggestions were usually spot on. I loved working with her and often wished she worked with fiction writers. A good editor or coach can make or break a piece because many writers can’t see the forest for the trees, myself included.

This morning, I can still feel the residual soreness from the race this past weekend. I can also feel the doldrums between projects settling in. I’m in the process of re-reading Into the Caldera (the editing never stops!), but I’m also laying the foundation for my next project. I’ve decided to tackle one of my more recent ideas titled Pine Mountain. I posted the opening chapter here a while back. The story about a man who loses everything and returns to his hometown to put his life back together puts me back in the literary genre, and it has many interesting plot points that I cannot wait to explore. As usual, I kind of have a sense of where this story is going, but I won’t know for sure until I start writing. I’m at that stage of writing where I’m standing at the start line and I realize that I have a long distance to run and it feels a little overwhelming. Nevertheless, I’m eager to get started on what’s next after recovering for a bit.