Where I get my stories from

I think everyone who meets me can sense that I have a very high opinion of myself. I’ve found that high self-regard is hypnotizing. People don’t spend much time pondering the attributes of other people. They’ll usually accept people on basically the terms in which they present themselves. If you’re self-deprecating, people will definitely think, “Oh, you’re humble and honest,” but they’ll also think, “Wow, I guess you’re not as intelligent and talented as you seem.”  I rarely fall into this trap. My motto is, “If you keep telling people how smart you are, they might think you’re a jerk…but they’ll also believe you.” Since I was raised in a milieu where seeming intelligent was very important, I’m willing to settle for this.

But sometimes I also think, “What the hell am I doing?” I mean, I might be smart, but how in the world am I qualified to say anything worthwhile about the world? I aspire to write stories that are truthful and beautiful, but I don’t really see that there is anything in my life or my background that entitles me to some special insight into the world.

My writing process does not alleviate this worry. The way I write is extremely mechanical. There’s very little thought–or even imagination–involved. I just sit down and write sentence after sentence and then reject them. I write story beginnings and then reject them. I write first drafts, and then I reject them. I write a second draft and then reject it. I write ten versions of the ending and reject each one. Finally, I come to a version that I’m unwilling to reject. Even the rejection isn’t particularly intelligent: it’s just an instinctive sense of the difference between good and bad.

Sometimes I do allow analysis to enter the writing process. I look at a draft in progress and think, “Oh, the narrative balance requires a parallel event right here” or “Oh, this story starts too slowly” or “Oh, my character needs someone to talk to.” But these insights are not as common as I would like them to be.

When I see the rate at which literary writers work, the very intense Flaubertian spend-all-morning-deciding-to-add-a-comma-and-then-spend-all-evening-deciding-to-remove-it method that means you take five years to write a novel, I think, “Yeah, that seems like it’s about the right amount of work.”

There’s something really protestant in me that things that I don’t expend enough mental and physical energy in the process of writing for me to produce anything that’s worthwhile. This is not a request for puffery. I know that I work harder than most aspiring writers, but at the same time, I don’t work that hard. If the goodness of a novel has to be directly proportional to the time, energy, and mental effort that was put into writing it, then I don’t see how my novels are ever going to be as good as I want them to be.

But my philosophy is that the above model is, basically, false. Effort is important. It’s the baseline requirement. But it’s not everything. Writing requires something more than effort. It requires something beyond intelligence and talent and personal virtue.

When I think about my life, it becomes immediately obvious that nothing I achieve can primarily be the result of my own personal virtue. There are many worlds (some of them just down the street from where I live) that are not conducive to the hobby of writing down stories. And the majority of human beings have lived in these worlds. The fact that I don’t is not through any virtue of my own. It’s because of the conscious and unconscious struggle of millions of people.

The fact that I even have a language to play around with is the result of a hundred thousand years of struggle. I didn’t invent these words, but someone did. Every word that I use…every rhetorical device…every structural and story element…was a result of someone’s inspiration.

And the same is true of ideas or plots or pleasant turns of phrase. Every idea that I’ve had which is even mildly original is just a slight improvisation on something I’ve read or heard or seen. And the person who gave the idea to me was also engaged in that same process of making slight refinements to someone else’s idea.

And if I eventually tell a story that’s worthwhile, it won’t be because I worked hard…it will be because the story was out there, lurking almost pre-assembled. It’s because a million other storytellers had picked it up and worked on pieces of it. It’s because a billion other people had rolled the words around in their mouths. When I write it, I might perfect it (or perhaps just produce a frustrating failure that will be refined by some future writer), but I won’t have created it.

My job as a writer is to just be open to sensing those stories and writing them down. Of course, it’s possible that I won’t find any, but if that’s the case, then the only way I am at fault is if I somehow blocked myself off or perverted the stories that came to me. But if those stories do find me, then most of the credit doesn’t belong to me; it belongs to the billions of people who originally dreamed them.

This quasi-mystical theory on writing is basically a mash-up of two lectures. The first is Elizabeth Gilbert giving an amazing TED talk on inspiration (originally sent to me by my friend Bradley).

And the second is Barry Lopez being interviewed by Bill Moyers (which I originally saw via Mumpsimus, several years ago).

In this last interview, Lopez says

Kazumasa San said to me, “Your work is to take care of the spiritual interior of the language.” And he said in Japanese this word we use, kotodama, means that each word has within it a spiritual interior. The word is like a vessel that carries something ineffable. And you must be the caretaker for that. You must be careful when you use language to look at every part of the word and make sure that you’re showing respect for it in the place that you’ve given it to live in the sentence.

But I see all of us engaged in the same thing. And that is the invention of the story. And the story to me is the brilliance of storytelling is that it’s the only and the best protection we have against forgetting.

I think, what is at the core of every story. I mean, how many novels have you put down and said to yourself, “Oh, I never knew that.” Mostly you know it all, but you forget it. And you close a book and you say, “I knew that, but I’d forgotten it. And I am so glad to be reminded of what I intend to do and who I am. And what– and how I want to conduct myself in the world.”

Where I start from is ethical responsibility to an audience. The creation of something that is as beautiful as you can make it. And that in some way ensures that what we dream, what we really desire, not for ourselves, because that’s what you do when you’re a kid, but for children- how will you ensure some possibility here by making sure we don’t forget where we’re going or what we’re up to.

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