When I was ten, my parents gave me a telescope, and I formed an astronomy club.
Suburban Minneapolis had the benefit of many stars. As my four friends and I met one evening at sunset, ready for the blanket of stars, the full moon slipped up over the horizon and surprised us. The huge dish radiated bigness—bigger than the moon was normally—and one of us said, “Hey, it’s Mars, and it’s off its course. What if it crashes into us?”
We were convinced Mars had slipped out of line, and no one but us knew about it. We hopped on our bikes and rode toward this orb quickly as if we could get closer and examine it better. We pointed skyward. “Mars! It’s definitely Mars!”
This moment hangs as a symbol to me of what it is to be a writer today. One is that there are many misguided things to do that suck up your time, money, and attention. The second is that marketing definitely has its own gravity and is a giant moon in your life.
One of the joys of taking a creative writing class in college or elsewhere is that you’re focused on the creative process, not on marketing. You are building your skills. At that point, commerce may as well be Santa Claus—it doesn’t seem real and, if anything, will bring you the gift of a career. Don’t count on it. Readers search for great stories told well. They have to find your work, though, and that takes marketing. You need it.
Today’s writers, if they aim for sales, have to become practical and put aside the “fun, creative part” to promote what they have. What follows are some truths I’ve learned about the planet of creativity in harmony with the moon of marketing.
1) Don’t rush into marketing less-than-polished work. Everyone and her taxi driver are writing books. If you truly think your book has a place in the marketplace, engage your talented friends or hire a professional editor to get your book to be the best.
2) Book publishing is intimidating. That’s why agents and big publishers still exist—because if you’re talented, and you want to stay focused more on the writing than on the marketing, this traditional route still works. To get an agent requires writing a query letter—which has to be some of the best writing of your life. After all, you’re proving your worth in a page.
3) If you go the self-published route, know in advance that you have to become a master of marketing. You can hire services or people to help you with the self-publishing process, but beware of services that promise you the moon. You can spend thousands of dollars to little effect. If you didn’t seriously take my first point, polishing your work, no one is going to buy your book. An amateurish book design or less-than-stellar book description will hobble your book more.
4) Self-publishing can work. It takes dedication, starting with polishing your book. You learn that self-promotion isn’t singing “Buy my book” in a loud voice on social media, but rather, you do a lot of indirect things, such as joining the community of writers by writing a blog, writing book reviews, advertising, hiring a blog tour operator, and more. It’s all ever-changing, so keep reading about this stuff. The fact you’re reading this is a good sign.
5) The challenge of marketing can be addicting. It’s fun to watch something that you did sell a thousand books in a day. Don’t let it override your main goal, which is to write books with merit.
6) One less-obvious step to get you thinking and immersed in marketing is to attend a writing conference. To get a taste of one, see my previous post or click here.
May your planet and moon circle with success.
Writers often tend to keep to themselves, but the biggest convention of writers is the annual AWP Conference--the Association of Writers and Writing Programs--which will take place April 8-11 this year in Minneapolis. I thought I'd offer this from last year's conference to give you a taste.
Imagine a three-day film festival in a giant complex where you had a selection of 33 movies every 90 minutes, and each of the 500 movies would be shown only once. Add to that more than 12,000 attendees vying for the choices over the three days. That gives you an inkling of what it felt like to attend the 2014 Conference for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP), held in 2014 in Seattle.
Attendees received a thick catalog detailing the more than five hundred panels, and panels changed every 90 minutes. The panels could be divided into categories. There were those that addressed publishing and getting published, either through traditional methods or other ways such as do-it-yourself. There were panels that addressed ways of teaching creative writing, such as using the stories of Flannery O’Connor in the classroom.
Then there were voyages of how to write creatively, such as research strategies for creative nonfiction or using an unusual point of view such as from a dog. Academic explorations examined such things as passive characters in contemporary fiction and poetry as a philosophical foray. Last, there were readings of poetry and fiction.
If a person could absorb two or three panels a day, catch a reading, meet a friend for lunch, and attend the Book Fair on the fourth floor of the Seattle Convention Center, that was a big day. The Book Fair featured more than 600 exhibitors competing for your attention, offering handouts, chocolates, raffles, and glimmers of publication. One could meet editors of journals for future submissions or examine some of the more than 200 MFA writing programs across the country.
Then there were the hundreds of off-site meetings and parties. To zoom from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. each day took much stamina. To find a moment of rest and pleasure was difficult—until I found that short story writer Rick Bass, who lives in Montana, would be reading his stories, accompanied by live music. The band Stellarondo, named for the character in Eudora Welty’s “Why I Live at the P.O.”, had composed original scores to go with Bass’s stories.
The AWP Convention, by the way, is the only convention I’ve liked. Years ago, I’d been to a few Comdex computer conventions in Las Vegas—miles of walking indoors to see the latest programs, computers, and gadgets. I’d been a delegate to the Modern Language Association, but would be lucky to find three panels among its hundreds of offerings, most of them professors dryly reading papers to other professors.
I arrived for Rick Bass at 10:30 a.m. to a giant ballroom filled with chairs and a stage up front, to find only twenty people, and the band was just setting up. I went up to one person and said, “This is all there is? I thought this would be the coolest thing at the whole convention.”
“Me, too,” she said. “I don’t get why it hasn’t started yet or why more people aren’t here.”
I went up to a band member to learn the show was at noon. We’d misread the catalog. Thus, I grabbed a cab to the waterfront to visit the Seattle Mystery Bookshop on Cherry Street, then zipped back in time to see the performance.
Rick Bass sat in a comfortable chair on stage that had a microphone. The band spread out to the right of the stage, and the four members prepared their instruments: pedal steel guitar, acoustic and electric guitars, banjo, cello, glockenspiel, musical saw, upright bass, and vibraphone. The lights dimmed, and the magic began, first with the band playing what might be called mood music, and then Rick Bass starting in on his story “The Canoeists.”
While I instantly loved the idea of music and words, one thing worried me: that the music might overwhelm the stories. Instead, the music offered a gentle flow, allowing Bass to pause at certain sections, and he didn’t have to start up right away. The music filled the space and let you think about the words you just heard. At times, the band members would take turns playing, so that there would only be one soothing sonic sense at a time. Together, they mingled in harmony.
After the first story, Bass told the audience that he had had doubts when the band first suggested a collaboration. He pictured beat poets with bongos, and he said that had rarely been effective. “However, working with these musicians,” said Bass, “I learned what Barry Lopez meant about ‘stories need to have space.’” Now when Bass writes, he pictures the aural space his words might have.
I sat in the front row and let the music and words drift over me, and everything was about the story. I was in the moment as when I ski. I was present. It was now. Each story unfolded at its own pace. Bass read two more stories, “Fish Story” and “The Bear.” When it was over and the lights came up, the woman next to me and I looked at each other and said “Wow” in tandem.
To get a taste of Bass with music, the band has clips on its website, which you can hear by clicking here. After the show, they were selling CDs of Bass’s stories with music, but the line became quickly long, and I had to get to the airport. Still, the show was the perfect way to end AWP. I’ve since learned one can get the album here.
“Literary” is a type of book many people admire, but it’s not a genre that people necessarily seek. It’s even hard to call it a genre the way “mystery,” “romance,” and “paranormal” might be. Books that appear on Amazon’s literary best seller list, for example, reveal how widely defined “literary” really is.
For instance, this week, number one is Paula Hawkin’s novel, The Girl on the Train, a psychological thriller along the lines of Gone Girl. Yet it’s also under “literary” in three spots in the Top Ten, for Hardcover, Kindle, and Audio versions.
Also on the list is Elizabeth Hall’s Miramont’s Ghost, a ghost story partly set in France in 1884 and in present day Colorado. Tan Twan Eng’s A Gift of Rain is sixth on the list and it takes place at the end of World War II, on the lush Malayan island of Penang, focusing on a young man caught in a web of wartime loyalties and deceits. It neatly fits into historical fiction. It’s also “literary.”
These join the list with Harper Lee’s soon-to-be-released Go Set a Watchman, a sequel to To Kill at Mockingbird, definitely literary. Still, in my mind, what all the novels here share is good writing, and they’re stories about interesting, even ordinary people.
I wrote my two collections of short stories and my first two novels without any thought of genre or being “literary.” All my stories simply revolve around some huge problem that comes to an otherwise ordinary person. I put pressure on my characters and then look to see what they do. As one of my mentors, playwright Robert E. Lee, co-writer of Inherit the Wind, said “plot is nothing more than following what interesting people do.” When it came time to market my first books, they were marketed as “literary.”
However, my last two novels are crime books. I fully understood I was writing in a genre. I didn’t study the genre to be a copycat and fit some steely paradigm. I do read the genre, though. A mystery novel, at its core, has to have a murder and a mystery about who did it. There have to be dead ends. Still, that didn’t stop me from making my protagonist, Patton Burch, in A Death in Vegas, an interesting man.
Patton runs a beneficial bug business for organic gardeners, and when the gorgeous and smart model he hired to be a lady bug for his booth at a Las Vegas convention turns up dead in his hotel room, and the police focus on him, he breaks off to solve the mystery and clear his name. I knew going in, I had to have surprises, but there’s something about the way I see the world—it’s absurdity—that still slips in. If writing rich characters and coming up with certain truths about life is literary, then that’s what I’m still doing, but within the mystery genre.
I have to say, when I was in the MFA writing program at USC—and then later I taught there—we never focused on “literary” or any genre, for that matter. We just focused on writing stories. Of course, in hindsight, I think it could be helpful to aspiring writers to understand genre and what they’re writing so if they’re aiming for certain readers, you can meet their expectations while meeting your own.
If you’re as an eclectic reader as I am, then you’ll have similar tastes in what you think of as a good novel. Off the top of my head, I’ve loved Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, the non-linear Pulitzer Prize winning story of a group of intersecting characters, including a record producer. I thoroughly enjoyed and recently taught in my English class The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers, which takes place in Iraq and is a different story than the one I’m writing. I also love rereading The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler, a detective novel, which my wife is reading now. All can be considered literary.
Shelly Lowenkopf in his fabulous The Fiction Writer’s Handbook, which offers an understanding of hundreds of terms that writers use, defines “literary story” as “a prose narrative written to discover a feeling, intent, or meaning; an exercise of the writer’s curiosity to see where the problem will lead and whence the solution—if any—will come; a prose narrative in which the writer knows the conclusion or believes the provisional conclusion is, in fact, the conclusion, then retraces in order to clarify the obstacle.”
I can guarantee few if any writers start out writing a novel saying, “Let me figure out an ending and then I’ll retrace it to clarify the obstacle.” Such a definition is more of what an agent, publisher, or critic might think in trying to analyze a story. In fact, Lowenkopf dives into what a writer often does, which is begin the literary story “with a dramatic construct located beyond his ability to see an easy way out.” A literary story, he says, “is a contract made by the writer not to write anything safe.”
I love that point because with anything I ever write, even if I create a detailed outline (and I do so for novels), I’m never sure if my story will work. Will it meet my initial hopes for it? I write many drafts until it works. Surprises happen as I write, so that I have to dive back into my outline and change things. My outlines have their own lives. They are not etched with a chisel in granite.
I know some book reviewers in the future might try to figure out the path I’ve taken to what I write and publish. For instance, the novel I’m now writing is a first-person war novel that takes place in Iraq in 2007, and how does that fit in with my other novels? I’ll let readers figure it out.
My novels include a protagonist who is a film producer, another who’s a top quantum physicist, one who is a graduate student writing a dissertation on playwright David Mamet, and now in A Death in Vegas, my beneficial bug guy.
All I can say is to jump in and hold on for an experience. If that’s literary, that’s what I do. I love doing it--a perfect declaration today for Valentine's Day. Happy Valentine's Day.
For the last ten years in my college class in children’s literature—where the students have to write their own stories for children—I’ve had my students read J.K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone. It grounds them in many ways. I originally wrote this three years ago, but it’s worth bringing back.
I love Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone not only for how it surprised me when I first read it, but also for how it’s been inspiring my students. Is Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone the richest, most meaningful book to use? Not necessarily. My 13-year-old daughter is reading To Kill a Mockingbird, and that’s closer to my heart. The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold, The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje, and Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen are a few of the adult books I adore. Yet there’s much to admire and learn from J.K. Rowling if you’re a writer. Here are a few things:
1) It’s important to get the overall sense and feel of the series to learn why people would stand in a long line for a day to buy one of the books. Wouldn’t you want people to stand in a line for your book?
2) More specifically, you can learn how concise Rowling’s descriptions of people can be with a well-placed simile or two. She describes Hagrid’s hands as “big as trashcan lids and his feet in their boots were like baby dolphins.” Fabulous.
3) Humor is throughout the first book. You’d never know it by the first movie, but the book is hilarious at times—and very dark toward the end. Humor can be mixed with drama. How humor can grab kids is important to know, too. I put a check mark in the book by things I thought were funny, and the pace of her humor is interesting. You sense that Rowling had fun writing the book.
4) As the series goes on, Harry is a year older in each book, and the reading level and darkness grows. Understanding who your primary readers are is important.
5) It’s nearly impossible to stop reading at the end of a chapter because you have to know what happens next. That’s an important element for writers to learn.
6) Rowling is a master of structure in the first book because when we first meet Harry, he’s passive, and the main antagonist, Voldemort, doesn’t come into action until much later in the book. That’s a prescription for a dull book, yet each chapter has tension if not outright conflict. Thus you, the reader, may not notice Harry isn’t the most interesting character. He grows into that role.
7) Notice, too, there are plenty of other antagonists before and after Voldemort appears. There are Harry’s aunt and uncle, who treat him poorly. Their son Dudley and his pals bully him. When Harry gets to Hogwarts, there’s Draco Malfoy and his cronies Crabbe and Goyle to rain on his parade, and many of the professors, especially Snape and those who teach the Defense Against the Dark Arts classes, stand in his way. There’s also internal conflict with Harry. He’s not always sure he can do things.
8) Notice that Harry isn’t the lone warrior like Superman or as in most male-oriented stories. Harry has help from his friends Hermione and Ron Weasley. In fact, sometimes the stories objective narrator slides off with them for short stretches. The fact that Harry has friends and the fact that Hermione is so strong as a young woman opens the door to girls liking the story, too.
9) None of the characters are perfect, which rounds them out. Many people hate Hermione at first because she seems to be such a know-it-all, yet she grows on you. Harry, as mentioned earlier, is at first passive, and throughout the series, he has doubts. He’s also remains true to his instincts and into doing the right thing, even if the rules are against him. In psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development, Harry is an evolved being.
10) I rarely read fantasy, yet I never thought of the books as fantasy when I first read them. They seemed so real that I accepted the magic stuff. How does Rowling do it? The details are right. A flying broomstick isn’t merely a broomstick, but a Cleansweep Seven or a Nimbus Two Thousand. Hogwarts feels exactly like sixth grade felt to me way back when, with bullies on the playground and teachers who were either helpful or scary. Populate your book with truths. People will then buy the imaginary.
These observations are things that spoke to me. Even though my own new novel, Love At Absolute Zero is an adult book about a scientist looking for love, I’ve used the above. My protagonist, Gunnar Gunderson, is far from perfect. He has friends to help him in his quest. There are strong female characters including his mother and his friend Ursula. There are plenty of antagonists, too. The details of science are real, but so are the human interactions. The pacing is strong. In short, I had fun writing the book, and it’s a funny story.
If you’re a writer, there’s much you can admire from Rowling. May people stand in line for your books.
A few years ago, Kirkus Reviews, commissioned me to write an article on how I found success in publishing doing it “my way.” It’s worth reprinting here for the larger font. (You can see it at their website by clicking here, even if it now mistakenly says I’m “Malcom Gladwell, interviewed by Christopher Meeks.)
To paraphrase President Bill Clinton, how I did it depends on the definition of “it.” I’m a writer first, and an accidental publisher second. What drove me to do either is that I wanted meaning in my life.
The other night, my wife Ann and I zipped over to the Hollywood Bowl, invited at the last minute by a friend with extra tickets. It felt like destiny. I witnessed for my first time cellist Yo-Yo Ma play and Gustavo Dudamel conduct—both brilliant, both passionate, both having me ponder what it took for them and any one of the orchestra members to get there.
A sell-out crowd of 17,000 was focused on classical music. Yo-Yo Ma played often with his eyes closed, his face incredibly expressive as if the music were telling a story and he was finding surprise and amazement in every twist and turn. He seemed near tears in delicate parts, his lone cello a voice in the woods.
Conductor Gustavo Dudamel looked like a young man surprised at a treasure he stumbled upon. He was ecstatic to unleash the kettle drums, the trumpets, and the full orchestra as a signal call to a final offensive stand, his baton and hair leaping in the air.
There are times when I write that I feel the same way. I‘m emotionally wrought at sad parts, laughing at funny parts, on the edge when danger flings itself at my protagonist. What it took me to get there were the hundreds of stories that I wrote when I was younger that just didn’t work, but each story brought me closer to writing a better one. I took writing classes in college and beyond, and I was pushed.
Reading great works such as Tim O’Brien’s book The Things They Carried showed me what could be. I never thought of what I did as “work.” As Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers reveals, you have to put in the hours.
I value what I do. That’s the first place that counts. Sometimes people who discover one of my short story collections or novels write me out of the blue to say how much they loved it. These I treasure as much as the brightest critics finding joy in my work.
To get where I am took more than reading, practice, and classes. I also looked for ways to immerse myself in story. I became a book reviewer in grad school for two Los Angeles newspapers before reviewing live theatre for Daily Variety for eight years.
At the time, I was also writing plays. Theatre demonstrated how to reveal character through action and dialogue, and the constant critiquing led me to question why certain scenes or plays worked or not. I’d ask the same questions of my own stories. I wrote on tight deadlines, which whipped away any idea of writer’s block. Later when I started teaching creative writing and English, I could critique student work too, remaining sensitive to not blow out any flames of creativity.
For my first job out of grad school, I was the senior editor for a small publisher in Los Angeles, and I experienced first-hand the obsessive nature it takes to create a finely crafted book, starting with the text but also following through in book design, publicity, and marketing. Thus when my first agent in 2005 did not want to represent my collection of previously published short fiction, I started my own imprint, White Whisker Books. I knew what to do.
When my very first review for my first book, The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea, appeared in the Los Angeles Times in January 2006, I spit the cereal I was eating out all over the table. My heart began racing. I assumed I’d be excoriated in front of millions of people as had happened with my first produced play, Suburban Anger. But no, the reviewer gave clear specific insights, and she celebrated the book.
I don’t write for the reviewers, but good reviews help in being discovered in a crowded marketplace. Sending your books out for review is critical. This I learned when I worked for a publisher.
I call myself the accidental publisher because White Whisker Books was conceived simply for my short fiction. Later, I published my novels when my enthusiastic new agent, Jim McCarthy at Dystel and Goderich, found roadblocks. For Love At Absolute Zero, he landed three interested editors whose marketing departments then vetoed the book. Apparently love and quantum physics was a leap. Undeterred, I published it through White Whisker, and it landed on a critic’s Top Ten Best Novels list of 2011, and it earned three awards including being a ForeWord Reviews Best Book Finalist. Small victories like these help.
White Whisker Books has grown as I can fit in time for it. I’m publishing three other authors now whom I know and respect. I hire editors, proofreaders, and book designers. I make advance reader’s copies for reviewers as I did recently for The Fiction Writer’s Handbook by Shelly Lowenkopf. I create flawless eBook versions of the books in multiple formats. I use social media, write emails and blogs, speak at conferences and colleges, and, if I’m lucky, I write articles such as this for Kirkus.
Those people who want to know, “How do I do it so I can get rich?” all I know is you don’t get any success if your heart isn’t in the work. In the arts, you compete with people who have passion for what they do, the Dudamels and Mas.
Much of success is persistence. That’s not everything, though. It’s not like the Hollywood movies where if you’re dogged and passionate, you’ll win. There are plenty of conductors, cellists, and writers who are extraordinarily talented, but they are not recognized.
Look at this another way. Art schools and creative writing programs pour out hundreds of extremely talented graduates each year to a society that doesn’t value the arts, per se. Only a few of these graduates will make a name. Are you still willing to push ahead if fame or fortune is not guaranteed? If so, the arts may be for you. “How to make it?” That’s something you might learn along the way.
Update: The front page article in today’s Los Angeles Times covers what it takes to be a musician in the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which underscores much of what I wrote here. Click here and scroll down for the story. I’ve since published two well-reviewed crime novels, Blood Drama and A Death in Vegas. I’m now at work on a novel based in the Iraq War. As you see, I go where my interests take me.
Not so many years ago, one of my former students, April Davila, wrote and asked if I’d write a blog on a particular subject, “writing and parenthood,” and I thought I’d bring this one back. This one resonates for me as my son, now 27, yesterday was asking about my novel-in-progress, which happens to take place in Iraq.
April wrote me that she’s due to give birth soon and asked if I’d be a guest blogger. I happened to be one of her professors at USC in the Master of Professional Writing Program. Her request brings up the one subject that is rarely whispered about yet alone spoken of in graduate writing programs: how do you write once you become a parent?
Parenting, too, is on my mind because I’m seeing the whole life cycle right now with my mother dying just a few weeks ago. I suppose that puts me in the batter’s circle for the next up to the plate, though I feel young and healthy and my daughter’s twelve and I just came back from a parent-teacher conference and I’m not ready to bat. I don’t want to even be in the ballpark.
If you’re in a writing program, it’s all you can do to write that novel, biography, memoir, play, screenplay, television show, collection of poetry, or creative nonfiction book. You don’t want to hear about more demands on your time and attention. You don’t want to learn the big secret no one told us when my wife and I brought our newborn son home twenty-three years ago: babies don’t sleep through the night. We became zombies for almost a year.
In short, your life is forever changed. Yet you soon feel the luckiest person in the world. You’ll be amazed at how personality shows up within weeks. After a year, you’ll have witnessed your baby becoming a person, and you won’t be able to put your finger on when it happened. This little creature, brimming with curiosity, is learning all the time and so are you. Your nonparent friends will get quickly bored by each new thing you’ve seen, and in another few years, you’ll be making new friends: the parents of your child’s best friends. You’ll be buying birthday cakes and booking clowns.
I can also say your writing will grow and become richer and more important. I happened to recently interview my own former professor, David Scott Milton, and I asked him how his children has affected his life as a writer, and he said, “It may be obvious, but it’s nevertheless true, that you are not fully human until you have kids. There are aspects of being a human that don’t resonate or flourish until you have kids of your own. I remember as a young man finding Shakespeare’s King Lear the least satisfying of his great tragedies. Years later, when I had kids, the play moved me more than anything Shakespeare had written."
Milton went onto say, "I realized that only a father could have written it as Shakespeare had. The love, the confusion, the pain, the connection we have to those we have helped bring into this world is profound, even shattering. When Lear cries over his daughter Cordelia’s body, it is monumental and can only be fully felt I think by someone who is a parent.”
I will also tell you do not forget two things: your spouse and your goals in writing. You and your partner need to give exclusive time to each other, and going out a minimum of once a month sans baby if not every few weeks is mandatory. If you’re not maintaining your relationship, it’ll suffer easily. As much as you will at first hate to find a babysitter, find one.
Your writing needs to remain important, too. It’s easy to feel guilty when you’re writing that you’re not being a good mother or father. It’s also easy to say, “I’ll do it when he sleeps through the night … when he goes to preschool … when he graduates high school … when I become a grandparent.” Writing needs to be as important as spouse and baby.
Before I had children, I’d made a specialty of interviewing authors for newspapers and magazines, and one of my first interviews was with Chaim Potok, who’d written The Promise and The Chosen. I’d asked him, “How do you manage to write with children in the house?” and he said something like, “Writing is something I’ve always done, and so my children have grown up knowing that’s what I do. They’ve learned not to disturb me while I’m writing unless it’s an emergency.”
I have to say that while my children have grown up seeing that I write, I take the Starbucks approach. I can work amid a lot of hubbub and coffee.
I also learned from screenwriter David Franzoni (Amistad, Gladiator), who told me he awoke at five a.m. to write for a couple of hours before the household awoke. The first few days of trying that, I thought I was insane. I wanted to be in bed. Yet my son and wife would sleep until seven, and I found those two hours before I had to help with breakfast and go off to my full-time job were the most productive of the day. I wrote more than professional writers I knew who had no children.
In fact, you learn how to write efficiently when you have the time. April happened to ask me about this less than an hour ago, and so I’ve written it on the spot, wedging it in before my dentist appointment and picking up the cat from surgery.
My mother happened to encourage me to write and had been proud of my books. She’d just finished rereading my novel The Brightest Moon of the Century days before she fell and broke three ribs, and falling again led to her demise. When I went into her bedroom after she passed, I found the diary I’d given her last year in hopes she’d write about her life. She had written only one page in it during the whole year, and it was dated “Father’s Day 2009.” She wrote of her sons that, “They all turned out to be good fathers. Chris is realizing it’s good to be strict.”
Well, I’m stricter than I started out. Your children will feel more firmly grounded when they know the clear rules that you abide by.
And a rule for yourself: keep writing. Find the time when he or she naps or goes to bed for the night or before anyone wakes up in the morning. You will flourish.
Two years ago, Time magazine’s cover story examined “The Pursuit of Happiness.” Little has changed since then, beyond Russia grabbing Crimea, ISIS burning and beheading people, and most of us wanting a friendlier world with happiness. The article had some stunning facts, such as studies have found that children have little overall effect on parents’ happiness, but that parents with children ages 3-12 are happier than those with infants or teenagers.
I pondered this as I thought of our teenage daughter slamming her bedroom door when she doesn’t get something or how her iPhone fell into a shark tank. The sign on the tank promised spitting sharks. She couldn’t believe it, so she decided to create a video of it with her iPhone. She was so stunned when a small shark leaped up and spit at her that she screamed and dropped the phone in the tank.
My happiness quotient plummeted when I thought of the cost of replacing the phone. The quotient returned after she put the phone in a bag of rice for a day to absorb any moisture, and the phone came back on.
Our happiness, it seems to me, is as fickle as that. If we pursue happiness, we’re always a bit short. The planned vacation didn’t go as well as planned, or wedding vows that suggested “happily ever after” don’t work out. Many couples want to be the prince and princess in their castle. However, the castle needs tile repair right now, and the front stoop has some nails sticking up.
On the positive side, Time’s study said that people with pets are happier than petless people, and that one in every two households has at least one pet. People with five cats and two dogs as we have must smash the bell on happiness.
I made up a statistic for my wife still in bed with me. “People with three black cats out of five consider themselves super lucky.” She swatted me with her own magazine, People. “People who read People are the happiest people in the world,” I said.
She drank the coffee that I brought her, coffee that I bring her every morning. Maybe that’s why Time says “married couples remain more blissful than singles.” Single people with pets miss out on the coffee delivery thing. Time said that homosexual people, however, who have come out are happier than heterosexuals. Maybe they don’t have to figure out the thinking of the opposite sex.
Here’s one example of that. I like fixing things in the house. I should say, I like “having them fixed.” I hire people. I’d easily add on Time’s list that married men having James the handyman fix the tile on their porch are happier than married women who hate James adding tile on their porch when the women would prefer to sleep in. In fact, I learned that married women slamming doors can sound much like their adolescent daughter’s door slamming.
Clearly none of us get each other. It’s probably equal to the pleasure our cats have in spitting up hairballs—right on our bedspread. These are the animals that give us so much happiness.
One thing I don’t get about the Time article. It keeps referring to “happiness researchers.” How do you get that job? In the old days, before the Internet, I looked for jobs in the newspapers. There always seemed to be plenty of jobs for salespeople, but almost never for “writer” unless it was for “copywriter,” which, of course, helped the salespeople. I also never saw any openings for "happiness researcher."
Here’s one fact the researchers discovered: “According to happiness experts, commuting ranks among people’s least enjoyed activities.” Really? I always brighten up when I see Los Angeles traffic thickening. I think to myself, “I hope it can get thicker so I’ll be late for this important appointment.” Actually, now that I’ve discovered audiobooks, thick traffic lets me hear my book longer, which, indeed makes me happy. I finished the whole Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series in a day.
“People who say they are in good health are happier than those who say they're not." Really? I wonder if happiness researchers are happier than people who are having their teeth drilled or people who hit their thumbs with a hammer?
Here’s one true happiness fact. Our new puppy, a tri-color spaniel, brings much happiness, even if I had to run to the emergency vet recently after one of our cats shoved a ceramic bowl of cat food on the floor. The cat had looked at me as if trying to transmit, “So you think that puppy is cuter than us, do you?” Then it shoved the bowl, which hit the floor and burst into fragments, sending kibble cat food everywhere. The puppy ran in and rather than eating the cat food, I watched it tongue up a long, sharp ceramic shard and swallow. The vet saw the shard on the X-ray and made the puppy throw up.
We now have the shard in our display case. It’s a reminder: this happiness thing is hard sometimes.
This starts my new blog. Welcome.
At times, writing is an Olympic event requiring the mental and physical stamina of someone hurtling down the ice chutes of the bobsled. To stay in writing shape, I’ve learned I have to leave my desk a few times a day and actually be physical and exercise. This is tough for someone who loves the out-of-body experience of disappearing into a story, whether writing a story or reading one. Never mind shaving, eating, or dressing. I love to leap from a night's rest (one dream state) to writing (another dream state). Too much of that, though, and one becomes a fried Twinkie on a stick.
I was reminded of the mind/body division last year when I was hobbled with a headache that didn’t go away. After four days of it nonstop, I went to my doctor who told me, no, I didn’t have a brain tumor. I had TMJ. I must be grinding my teeth or clenching my jaw, he said. Use a hot compress every three hours for fifteen minutes.
This seemed odd to me. After all, I’d been rewriting a novel that, while I painted myself into a corner occasionally, I then flew through the air triumphantly. I haven’t been tensing my jaw. However, when the doctor pressed a certain spot on my jaw, yeow!
While I was coming to accept that I had TMJ, my wife, Ann, the next day noticed my forehead breaking out in a rash. Having been through a TV binge of House watching, she declared I had shingles. “You should look it up,” she said. Right. Shingles. Nixon had that, and I had no compulsion to say “I’m not a crook.”
After a few hours, my rash became pink bubblegum on a hot sidewalk, so she looked up “shingles” on her laptop and showed me pictures. They looked like stills from driver training movies. She also read that if the rash was near an eye as mine was, eyesight could be compromised or lost. Faster than you can say “Bobsled,” we belted ourselves in the car and bolted to Urgent Care.
The doctor there said Ann was right. I had shingles, and it played with my nerves, which is why I had the headache and the TMJ. I took Tramadol and an antiviral throughout the days for over a month. The blisters deflated, but the headache remained like a drunken yodeler, louder when the medicine wore off. In fact, when I stopped it once, it felt like my head was on fire. It took six weeks until I didn't need medicine, and maybe three months for most of the tenderness to disappear.
This all reminded me to not take health or the ability to write for granted. I felt too lethargic for weeks to do any exercise, but I finally started up again.
I celebrate this past event by starting this blog. I previously had a blog on Red Room, but Red Room went away. Before it did, my website and my blog were in two different places. Now they're together. I always enjoyed writing blogs, so I'll work my way back into the habit again. I'll probably include some of my previous blogs that I thought might be useful, so stay tuned.
In all, I learned for our minds to whirl at their usual pace, we have to stay in shape. A smaller lesson from this: if you’re over fifty and you had chicken pox as a kid, consider getting the shingles vaccine.
Before I wrote novels and plays, I was a journalist and reviewer (plays and books). I blogged on Red Room for five years before moving here.