The writing life
I am writing every day for 41 days for the Clarion West Write-a-thon, the writing workshop of which I am Board Chair. And I’m posting my writing here to give anyone who wishes a chance to edit the editor.
These are not necessarily full stories: they may be scenes, conversations, bits and pieces. All the work is absolutely new, and will often be quite raw. I’ll comment on my own process and ideas, and I hope you’ll comment too: what do you see that’s working, or not working? How would you fix this piece? What can you apply to your own writing? Is there anything you’d like me to comment on? Let’s talk about whatever you like.
You can read all the pieces and comments here. I hope you’ll find them interesting and useful.
Sound and Silence
Anyone who wishes can read more about Mars, Duncan, and the band in Dangerous Space.
Duncan and I weren’t speaking to each other, which meant we only talked in the studio, and even that was becoming harder. Lacerated hearts are what they are, but if we let them interfere with a new album, we would really be in trouble. And so everyone was worried.
Johnny said diffidently one night, as he was unplugging his guitar, “So you and Duncan…” He had a strategy of leaving questions unspoken, and most people can’t stand silence; they will rush to answer whatever they think they hear, which often means whatever question is loudest within them. And those moments can be so revealing. So astonishing. Sometimes so cruel.
But I’m an engineer, and I know better than anyone that music is silence as well as sound. I just raised a polite eyebrow.
He gave me the look that meant Fine, make me say it. “Are you two okay?”
I put up a hand. Keep out. Johnny said, “Mars–”
Duncan stepped into the open doorway. He was too thin, and the circles under his eyes were darker even than music makes them: some of it was from me. I knew I didn’t look much better.
He ignored me, and said to Johnny, “Can I get a ride home?”
“Don’t forget your notebook,” I said. He had taken to leaving his lyrics on the floor by the wastebasket every night, as if it were a test to see if I would toss them out.
Now he looked at me. He would have seemed relaxed enough to anyone who didn’t know him. But I could see the set of his jaw, and the anger and hunger and hurt in his eyes. He stepped into the room long enough to retrieve the notebook, and then returned to the door.
“We should go,” he told Johnny. “There are fans three deep across the street, it’s going to take a while.”
Johnny looked unhappily back and forth at us. I felt for him. It’s hard to be between two people whose distance is so crowded with things unsaid that it’s like sirens going off.
“Have a nice night,” I said. And looked at Duncan. Say something. Show me you forgive me. But he turned and left. He’s the best singer I know. He can do things with his voice that make people hear their own deepest questions, whether they like it or not. And he is good with silence, too.
I waited until I was sure they were gone. I imagined them in the car, not talking about it. Then I locked up the studio and went upstairs to have a glass of wine or three, and go to bed alone.
When my doorbell rang an hour later, I was so startled that I spilled my wine. And then my heart began to drum inside my chest, Duncan, Duncan, and I was so scared that I nearly didn’t answer, because he had finally come to say something and I didn’t think I could bear to hear it.
But when I did open, Lucky marched past me with two bags of Thai food and another bottle of wine, and the determined look she gets when there is a problem to be solved. She headed for the kitchen.
“Come right on in,” I said, with the bite that dodging a bullet sometimes brings to the moment.
She stopped and wheeled, bags swinging from her hands, bottle precarious under her arm. “Enough bullshit,” she said. “I am tired of getting fretty midnight emails from the band, so you are by jesus going to tell me what’s going on. What did he do? Did he say something rotten? Did he fuck somebody you really can’t stand?”
And I was never, never going to talk about it to anyone, but my heart was still on the disco beat and the wine was wailing within me, and I said, “He wants to move in.”
“What?” It was her turn to nearly drop the wine, and her face was as shocked as if she had just seen the world turned inside out, the shape of everything changed. It was one of the Truths of Our Musical Generation that Duncan Black would never, never commit.
“Holy shit,” she said, and now she was beginning to smile, and I couldn’t let that happen.
“I said no,” I said. But actually, I hadn’t. Actually, when he asked, when his question was there between us singing of love and hope and never before, when the joy of it was shimmering in his eyes and trembling on his mouth, all I could find in answer was silence. Silence. Until he finally said, “You don’t want to?” with so much surprise and despair that I felt his heart break as if it were in my own body, I felt it break.
“But you love each other,” Lucky said. And I held up my hand: Keep out.
The next day in the studio went so badly that we stopped early. The entire band was frantic with frustration and something deeper; the great unspoken question, Are we all breaking up? Angel jerked his bass case from the floor and snarled, “I thought we used to have drama, jesus fucking christ,” and stalked out. Con, the steadiest of them all, was shaking when he left. And Duncan forgot his notebook.
I looked at it for a while, there by the trash can. I couldn’t leave it. So I locked the studio and took it upstairs, and dropped it on the living room table. It sounded heavy in the silence of my house.
When the doorbell rang, I wasn’t surprised at all; Lucky would never give up until she understood why, and when I opened the door I was so busy trying to find the words to explain that I had no answer, that I was completely unprepared to find Duncan instead.
His face was in neutral, and he had shut himself up behind careful blank eyes. “I left my book,” he said. “Can I have it back?” And in the silence that followed, I understood he was saying I left my heart, can I have it back? and that the answer was already drumming within me. Duncan. Duncan.
“I do want to,” I said. “I do. I want it so bad that I’m scared we’ll break it.”
Duncan closed his eyes. Then he opened them, and opened his arms, and I stepped in and we leaned against each other. The sound of our breathing, the sound of our hearts, the silence in which everything sang.
Kelley’s notes: I have indulged myself in this story with a return to some of my favorite characters (hence the link at the top of the story).
I’ve learned a lot in my 41 days of writing, my 32,000 words of fiction plus these commentaries. It’s been an interesting ride, and I’m thinking a lot about it. But today I don’t want to analyze. Today I want to make a joyful noise about writing.
And so I am re-posting this piece from my personal blog, originally published in 2008. It’s still true for me, and is still the engine that drives so much of my life.
Thanks for sharing these 41 days with me. I hope you’ve enjoyed them as much as I have.
Story is real
True confession time: although I’m often billed as a science fiction writer, there’s actually very little science that engages me beyond either the practical (Does it make my life better? Or If it’s broken, how do I fix it?) or the aesthetic (Meteor showers are pretty!). I have never been fascinated by science for its own sake. It is human experience that interests me, and it’s true that much of human experience is grounded in, or informed by, science — in particular, how we respond to our own biology (gender, sex, illness, dying, fear, memory…). Each practically-identical biological human mechanism — and in spite of our individual genome patterns we are 99.9% the same — is also a particular person with our own thoughts and feelings and responses, our own unique set of experiences. We are essentially the same, and a huge part of that sameness is that we hunger to be different and are yet so often terrified by difference in others. We are souls who drive, and driven by, the most complex wetware that we know of in the universe… now that’s interesting.
And so in spite of my general disregard for scientific discoveries, I am in love with the idea of mirror neurons.
Mirror neurons fire in our brains when we perform an action or when we see someone else performing an action. Mirror neurons help us assign meaning to other people’s behavior. I see you and I know what your actions mean, because in my brain there is no neuronal difference between you doing a thing and me doing it myself. It feels the same to my brain.
I know what it means when you look at me with rage or hurt or bedroom eyes — because the same neurons fire when I look that way at you. I know that look. I see you pick up a baseball bat and shift your grip, heft it in that certain way, and I know the only thing you’re planning to knock out of the park is me. I know when a baseball bat turns into a weapon — and there, you know exactly what I’m talking about, don’t you? Because even reading a description of an action, if it is accurately and specific, fires your mirror neurons.
There are lots of theories now that mirror neurons are the basis of empathy, and that they are instrumental in acquiring language. But what they mean to me as a storyteller is that I really can show you what’s happening instead of having to always tell you.
And now I know why story works. I know why words on a page or pixels on a screen can make me feel such deep joy or sadness, can make me tremble with fear or wonder. Because when story in any medium is done right, it really does come to life inside us. For an instant, we live the story. It’s real.
And I know something else: I know why I am a writer. I know why I took an acting degree that I was so clearly at the time unsuited for. I know why I dance. I know why I sing along with U2 at the concerts.
Because story is real. When I write, when I act, when I sing in the car, when I am brave or stubborn enough to keep at it until I have been as specific and honest as I can be in the creation — when I get the story right — it fires all those fabulous mirror neurons, and those moments of story are just as real to my brain as if I were actually doing them. I am watching my life drop down an elevator shaft; I am a rock star; I am fighting for my life or struggling with love or having amazing sex or holding my breath at the immensity of some moment of everyday life in which, suddenly, everything has changed…
In his blurb for Dangerous Space, Matt Ruff refers to “emotions this raw.” I’ve always liked (and been grateful for) that, because it comes closest to my own ideas about what I love in story, and what I strive for in the stories I tell. I don’t give a fuck about Big Ideas. I am all about Big Feelings. Not necessarily big experiences — although I like those too — but the way that the large and the small of life can make us feel, and what we do because of or in spite of those feelings.
I’ve said that I write because I want to make people feel those things. To make difference accessible to readers — behavior and feelings that they might not otherwise choose in their own lives. To open a mainline into someone else’s personal truth. But that’s not it, or at least not the most important part. I do it because I want (or need) to feel those things myself, in ways that don’t necessarily involve actual experience. I won’t ever be a rock star, but I want the physical and psychic blast of 20,000 people singing my song to me. I don’t want people I love to die, but I respond so violently to grief in stories that it’s like I am practicing or preparing as best I can for the day when it will grab me by the throat and shake me. I can’t be an astronaut (that science thing…) but I want to see my world suspended in a deep dark universe of wonders.
And I can. We all can. We’re not limited by our own lives, by our own choices. We can live other lives and other choices too, and that’s not just an intellectual concept. It’s real. It’s as real to your brain as your last banana muffin on a warm Sunday morning, or how your sunglasses make you feel hip even when you’re just pumping gas, or the smile yesterday from that beautiful stranger on the train, or the heartstopping second before you say I love you to someone new.
And there. I just told you four little stories, and perhaps one of them was real to you. Perhaps for a second you were there. Really there.
Story is real. It makes me want to shout or dance or cry or go hug someone from the sheer joy of being human. Every story you love, whether it’s Frodo and Sam, or Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, or Buffy, whether it’s Shakespeare or Calvin and Hobbes, is alive and real in the amazing space inside you.
Before any issues of style, content, or form can be addressed, the fundamental questions are: How long can you stay in that room? How many hours a day? How do you behave in that room? How often can you go back to it? How much fear (and, for that matter, how much elation) can you endure by yourself? How many years — how many years — can you remain alone in a room?
This essay is essential reading for every writer, and particularly for beginning writers.
Michael Ventura has been writing terrific articles and essays for more than 30 years and maintains an extensive archive on his website.