Why Do I Write?

A number of people have asked me why I write fiction, after a long career writing academic and training materials in psychology. Superficially, my answer is that I love to tell stories.


Once upon a time


Forty years of practicing psychotherapy and teaching grad students provided a rich storehouse of stories, from all kinds of people. In some ways, telling these stories is a way of honoring my former clients and students, who taught me so much about the suffering and exhilaration of being human. Of course, such stories are never exact retellings—all are disguised, altered, a detail plucked from here, an outcome from there. None of my former clients could see themselves in any character or in what happens to the characters. But I was telling stories I had heard from people who deserved to have their stories honored.

However, the more I work in fiction, the more I realize that something else is at work as well. At first, when I wrote, I thought like a psychologist. There is a necessary separation between therapist and client, and looking back, I see that unconsciously I kept that distance from my characters. That early writing was not so hot, obviously. Now, as the years—and the books—multiply, I find that I am thinking increasingly as a human being, not as a shrink. To some of my characters, I have grown attached; others I am angry with; but I’m no longer detached.

In my writing now, I see a hunger to enter into the lived experience of my characters, not as an analyst or a therapist, but as a compatriot in this beautiful and troubled world. TroubledWorld BeautifulWorld It seems to me that I am finding my way, paragraph by paragraph, into old age and the final chapters of my own life. I’m learning what it means to change, to accept but never to give in, to let go without letting up. Although my characters include teens, middle-agers, and the elderly, each of them offers me insights into what it means to be alive in a world stocked with challenges at every age. And as these insights accumulate within me, again without my conscious intent, I find myself occasionally content being just who I am, which is a novel experience for me.

There is also a deeper level to why I write, of which I’m only dimly becoming aware. To write fiction is to create a world and to people it. Other writers have spoken of this. Writing fiction is, in that sense, being God. I don’t intend blasphemy, but rather to convey the amazing dignity inherent in creating. According to the Genesis story, you and I are made in God’s image; in creating, we stumble into what must be, except perhaps for compassion and love, our highest nature. What humbles me as I write is the glimpse I’m given of a genuine sense of responsibility for those characters I create. I’ve discovered an obligation to do well by them, to be honest about them—and with them—and to create situations that not only test their mettle, but contain, no matter how deeply hidden, a chance for the best in them to come forth. As in real life, of course, some do not find the best in themselves, but as their creator, I find myself compelled to give them their chance, to allow them their crossroads.


This is an odd sensation, and as I say, I’m only becoming aware of it and what it might mean. To be responsible for and to one’s creatures—what an enormous delight.

The Average Person Isn’t

Alongside highway 200 entering Sandpoint, Idaho, sits the Hoot Owl Café, a venerable diner beloved for its abundant breakfasts and tasty lunches. Outside the Hoot Owl is a sign on which they post witty sayings. These days, the sign reads “The Average Person Thinks She Isn’t.” Avg Person Isn't When I saw it the first time, I laughed, and thought how accurate that sounded.

Since that first sighting, I’ve driven by the sign dozens of times, and each time, I’ve thought about the message. Though it still makes me smile, I now think it’s wrong.

First, a little background.

Several sources credit the quip to Father Larry Lorenzoni, LLorenzonia priest of the Salesian Order in San Francisco. Father Lorenzoni, however, does not appear to be the originator of the saying. In fact, its earliest use appears to be in the New York humor magazine, The Judge, in 1927. Since that time, one website lists at least four additional published appearances of the saying between 1934 and 1987, none of which are attributed to Father Lorenzoni.

There is something ironic about Father Lorenzoni’s use of the quote. Average people (if there are any such) don’t pretend to be the author of something they did not originate. In her book, How to Work a Room, Susan RoAne writes, “I met a significant person in my life on a plane from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Father Larry Lorenzoni and I spent an hour chatting, laughing, comparing publications . . .” SRoAneUnfortunately, a fairly deep Google search revealed that Father Lorenzoni has no publications to his credit—except a few letters to the editor—despite “comparing” them with Ms. RoAne’s publications. But there’s more: A further Google search reveals that the good Father also stands accused of sexually molesting young boys in his charge.

Father Lorenzoni is not your average person, obviously, and it appears he doesn’t think he is, either. Not only does he permit his name to be associated, on multiple websites and in books of quotations, with a quote he did not author, not only does he talk of his nonexistent publications with a young woman who is an author, he is accused of sexually abusing children. The average person does none of those things.

Father Lorenzoni’s apparent duplicity is one example of why I think the saying is wrong. My argument is with the notion of an “average person.” An average is a pure mathematical abstraction that cannot be said to describe accurately any real human being. Forty years practicing psychotherapy and teaching psychology to graduate students has taught me that no matter how ordinary a person might seem, that person’s story—or stories—make her unique. And while many people experience similar incidents, and respond in similar ways, always the nuances of their experience and their response are distinctly their own.

Unique? One of a kind? Yes.

When I write fiction, my aim is to tell stories of ordinary people confronting extraordinary challenges—challenges that mystify them (and sometimes me!) and demand solutions that reflect the uniqueness of their character. Novelists, like psychologists, look for the patterns in a person’s behavior that define him or her. Some characters could be considered ordinary, average people. But as their challenges mount and their sufferings mount with it, and as their desire and action to change or remove the challenge grows, the complexities of their characters reveal themselves. It isn’t that these average people think they aren’t: These average people aren’t average.

Father Larry Lorenzoni is not your average priest, or even your ordinary priest. If he were a character in a novel, we would learn why, in his uniqueness, he takes credit for things he did not do and conceals the evil that he is said to have done. But we do not know the story. In my lifetime, I have known personally nearly one hundred priests of the Roman church. I am confident that all but two of those have never molested a child. Even those two, living public lives that concealed their private crimes, manifested a powerful commitment to, even love for, the people whom they served. No one is average. Everyone has a story. And nobody’s story is simple. Not even Father Larry Lorenzoni’s.

Write What You Fear!

In last week’s article, I wrote about a cliché that writers hear all the time: “Write what you know.” This week, I’d like to think about another cliché for writers—and for people seeking to live well—namely, “Write [or face] what you fear.”

I first came across this idea in Natalie Goldberg’s masterpiece, Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within. She wrote, “Write what disturbs you, what you fear, what you have not been willing to speak about. Be willing to be split open.”NatalieG She has followed her own advice through many books on writing and spirituality (primarily Zen), including her recent heart-breaking memoir centered around her sorrow that the two men she loved the most in her life—her father and her Zen master Katagiri Roshi—had both betrayed her trust. In this book, she lets us see her journey from grief and anger through sorrow to forgiveness and compassion. But on every page, I heard the echo of her words: “Be willing to be split open.”

Natalie’s version of “write what you fear” keeps the focus on the issue that disturbs the writer. To learn about and then write about her discovery of her master’s secret life was a blow to everything she held dear, and she wrote about it after many years of suffering silently with it. But there are other meanings to the phrase.

On the blog “Men with Pens,” “Agent X” wrote about the “7 Deadly Fears of Writing.” (Actually, there are seven separate articles, one for each deadly fear; the link I’ve included takes you to a summary page from which you can link to the individual articles.) Agent X’s list included:

  • fear of rejection,
  • fear of being inadequate,
  • fear of success,
  • fear of exposing oneself,
  • fear that one only has one book inside and that sequels will flop,
  • fear of being too old to write, and
  • fear of research.

Agent X’s advice about overcoming those seven deadly fears might be summed up as, “Just do the work.” Although it’s a bit simplistic, its kernel has merit. The characters in most successful novels must face fear in one form or another, and they “do the work” that they’re afraid of in one way or another—and if they don’t overcome the fear, they are changed by it.

In my forthcoming novel, Nobody’s Savior, for instance, one of the minor characters, a fellow in his sixties, is dying of cancer. Since his early 20s, Art has lived with a secret guilt he has been afraid to face. As he nears the end, he enlists Ed Northrup’s (the main character, a psychologist) help in sorting out that fear, acknowledging it, and telling the story behind it. He dies at peace. I’m sure you know many stories in which characters hide from their fears and suffer for it, or look their fear in the face and somehow bungle their way through.

There is another kind of fear—and facing fear—that is a powerful source of personal and spiritual growth, and an equally powerful driver of narrative story. Think of Nelson Mandela, imprisoned 27 years by the apartheid regime in South Africa. Think of his moral stature when he was released and later became president of the country and a world leader. He wrote, in his memoir Long Walk to Freedom

I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. I felt fear myself more Nelson Mandelatimes than I can remember, but I hid it behind a mask of boldness. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.

Mandela says he hid his fear “behind a mask of boldness.” The source of his fear was not internal, like Goldberg’s. Mandela was afraid of his world, his environment, his captors, his government. He donned a “mask of boldness” to proclaim to his enemy that he would not be broken.

Does “donning a mask of boldness” against an external threat resemble Agent X’s suggestion that one “just write”? After all, some of the seven deadly fears of writing, like fear of rejection, are fears of what the outer world can do to us. Perhaps just writing is a small version of “donning the mask of boldness.”

Recovering addicts like the saying, “Fake it till you make it.” Write till it’s all right. Don the mask of boldness. I’m not proposing that the writer’s fear compares in moral stature to the fear felt by Natalie Goldberg to expose the great tragedy in her life, nor that the lonely writer at her desk faces the same degree of fear that Mandela felt in a country organized to destroy him and his people.

I do mean to suggest, though, that human beings, including writers, have fears that are real and oppressive, fears that stunt our growth when we don’t address them. The advice to “write what you fear” points directly at that. But it goes far beyond writing. All of us, whatever we do, die a little when we hide from our fear, and all of us grow a little when we face it, when we don the mask of boldness, when we write.

Should I Write What I Know?

The world of writing is littered with clichés about writing for young writers (and to old guys who are young writers, like me). One of the most famous is that I should “write what I know.” I’ve been wondering what that really means?

I read something by Wallace Stegner, who ought to know a thing or two about writing. He said, “If you have to urge a writing student to ‘gain experience with life,’ he is probably never going to be a writer. Any life will provide the material for writing, if it is attended to.” Any life—that is, my life, your life—is enough. Don’t wait, in other words, to gain experience of life; just live and pay attention and write from there.

Carl Jung seems to say something similar. C.G.JungIn his book Psychology of the Unconscious, he spoke about how young psychologists should go about learning their craft. What he says—making allowance for his old fashioned male-centered language—applies to writers as well:

Anyone who wants to know the human psyche will learn next to nothing from experimental psychology. He would be better advised to abandon exact science, put away his scholar’s gown, bid farewell to his study, and wander with human heart through the world. There, in the horrors of prisons, lunatic asylums and hospitals, in drab suburban pubs, in brothels and gambling-hells, in the salons of the elegant, the Stock Exchanges, socialist meetings, churches, revivalist gatherings and ecstatic sects, through love and hate, through the experience of passion in every form in his own body, he would reap richer stores of knowledge than text-books a foot thick could give him, and he will know how to doctor the sick with a real knowledge of the human soul.

Ernest Hemingway seems at times to agree, then at others, to disagree. Hemingway WritingFor instance, in a Paris Review interview, the incomparable George Plimpton asked Hemingway, “What would you consider the best intellectual training for the would-be writer?”

Hemingway answered,

Let’s say that he should go out and hang himself because he finds that writing well is impossibly difficult. Then he should be cut down without mercy and forced by his own self to write as well as he can for the rest of his life. At least he will have the story of the hanging to commence with.

Now that’s a stringent version of “write what you know”! On the other hand, at the end of the same interview, Hemingway said,

From things that have happened and from things as they exist and from all things that you know and all those you cannot know, you make something through your invention that is not a representation but a whole new thing truer than anything true and alive . . .

The invention of “a whole new thing truer than anything true and alive”—that’s what matters, not what I already know. Like many of Hemingway’s pithy statements, though, there is a time bomb hidden in those little words, “. . . and all those [things] you cannot know . . .” How do you take things you cannot know and “make something through your invention”? Hemingway won’t say. Plimpton asked him how he had developed this style. He said, “That is a long-term tiring question and if you spent a couple of days answering it you would be so self-conscious that you could not write.”


Bret Anthony Johnson wrote a provocative piece for The Atlantic’s 2011 Fiction Issue titled “Don’t Write What You Know.”BretAnthonyJohnston It’s well worth taking the time to read—if you’re interested in the topic, which if you’ve gotten this far in my post, you probably are! His point, though, to sum it up, is contained in this fairly long quote:

Stories aren’t about things. Stories are things.

Stories aren’t about actions. Stories are, unto themselves, actions.

To be perfectly clear: I don’t tell students not to ferret through their lives for potential stories. I don’t want, say, a soldier who served in Iraq to shy away from writing war stories. Quite the opposite. I want him to freight his fiction with rich details of combat. I want the story to evoke the texture of the sand and the noise of a Baghdad bazaar, the terrible and beautiful shade of blue smoke ribboning from the barrel of his M-4. His experience should liberate his imagination, not restrict it. Of course I want him to take inspiration where he can find it. What I don’t want—and what’s prone to happen when writers set out to write what they know—is for him to think an imagined story is less urgent, less harrowing or authentic, than a true story.

What do I think? I think the same thing that all these writers think: The real-world facts don’t count as much as how closely I have observed and attended to them. It’s out of that close attention that my imagination can bring fire to the fuel of the factual. Mary Oliver used to write about this (you can read my blog article about this if you’d like).

This may well be a principle about spiritual living: To attend to one’s life, to one’s experience, to one’s internal and behavioral movements, is the heart of the spiritual life. Thomas Merton wrote,

We must begin by frankly admitting that the first place in which to go looking for the world is not outside us but in ourselves. We are the world. In the deepest ground of our being we remain in metaphysical contact with the whole of that creation in which we are only small parts. Through our senses and our minds, our loves, needs, and desires, we are implicated, without possibility of evasion, in this world of matter and of men, of things and of persons, which not only affect us and change our lives but are also affected and changed by us.

And Thomas Merton should know.

“What if . . .?” How I Built the Plot of “Climbing the Coliseum”

At readings and book signings, folks often ask how I came up with the idea for my novel, Climbing the Coliseum. I don’t have any secret method. In fact, I’ve heard the process I use at many writers’ conferences and read about it in a number of places. ClimbCover-252pxFor example, Darcy Pattison, an author of children’s fiction, has written a blog article discussing the two questions thousands of fiction writers use to develop their plots: “What if . . .?” and “Why?” I’m going to show the process I go through, using the plotting of my first novel, Climbing the Coliseum, as an example.

I usually start with the evening news. I did that with Climbing, with my second novel Nobody’s Savior (coming later this year), and with my third (I’m unsure of the title, but it’ll be out next year). For Climbing, the news item that started me thinking was a 2009 story about the violent anti-government group, the Posse Comitatus.  (The Bundy family, who led armed standoffs in Nevada in 2014 and Oregon in 2016, have been linked to the Posse Comitatus.) In 2009, an armed member of the group had died in a shootout with the FBI. That grabbed my attention, and since I care a lot about issues of violence in our communities, I sensed it could be an interesting premise for a story. At the same time, I had encountered a psychotherapy case (I was not the therapist, but was consulted about the case) of a fourteen-year-old teenage girl. One afternoon, her mother had dropped her off for her session—and failed to pick her up. Ultimately, we learned that the mother had a serious drug problem, and for her protection, the girl entered foster care.

These two items, unrelated and hardly alike, intrigued me. My main character was a psychologist (of course—write what you know, right?), so I wondered, what if those two stories happened to his patients? It made sense, but at this point, neither story was strong enough to carry a whole novel, and aside from linking them through the psychologist, why would they work together?

Novels require conflict and tension. The characters must experience the frustration of their goals, obstacles to their desires. Novelists search for ways to generate those obstacles and to ramp up the tension. I needed to make the basic situations more difficult, more tense, more conflicted. Here’s where “What if . . .?” and “Why?” questions come in. A requirement is that each answer had to make things worse for one or more of the characters. Let’s begin with the extremist group story.

What if an otherwise innocent guy, whom I named Victor, got caught up in a group like the Posse? Well, why would he do that? What if he was in tax trouble and mistakenly thought the meetings were about solving tax problems, not about evading taxes and revolting against the government? What if Vic isn’t the psychologist’s patient, but his wife Maggie is? Okay, but why is Maggie in therapy? What if she believes her husband’s having an affaire—when in fact he’s sneaking off to his meetings, which he refuses to talk about? What if her fear of Vic’s affaire causes depression and brings her into therapy?

Fine, but I needed more tension, more conflict!

What if, to earn the group’s help with his tax problem, Vic is coerced into performing illegal acts? Why would he go along with that? Well, what if Vic is the sort of man whose pride forbids him from admitting weakness or failure (such as losing his ranch because of the back taxes), so he “goes along to get along”—and thus does the illegal acts? What if, when he finally faces his basic values and tries to leave the group, the ensuing violence affects his wife, Maggie, which brings Vic’s activities to the attention both of the psychologist, Ed Northrup, and of the sheriff’s department—which creates a whole new level of trouble for Vic and Maggie–and therefore, for Ed.

I “what-iffed” the girl’s story as well. What if her mother turns out to be Ed Northrup’s ex-wife, whom he hasn’t seen in almost thirty years? That raised a big “why,” which drove the plot! What if the mother literally cannot be found? Again, why would she disappear like that? The answer to those two “whys”—her motivations—created a powerful plot twist, which I won’t give away here (in case you want to read the book). Suffice it to say that the mother’s motivation creates a profound challenge for Ed Northrup. What if, while the search for the mother is going on, he’s started to care about Grace? What if this forces him to realize that he must find a way to prevent the Montana Child Protection Department from taking her into its custody. Why would they do that? Ed is required to report child neglect–which is the case here. What if he fails in his legal duty? As his attachment to Grace grows, what if Ed realizes that this situation re-enacts a tragedy that drove him from Minnesota so long ago, and thus forces him to deal with the suppressed guilt and depression that stem from it?

After those simple questions, the two story lines came together through their link to the main character, Ed Northrup, the psychologist.

Initially, I had thought of the book as being about Ed Northrup, sort of an Alex Delaware in Montana. But why Montana? Time for more “What if . . .?” questions. Why did Ed move to Montana twenty-some years ago? Well, what if he had moved to Montana to start over after a tragedy back in Minnesota? What if that tragedy had actually cost the life of another patient, another fourteen-year-old girl, whom Ed was treating? What if his ex-wife—Grace’s vanished mother—had divorced him because of that tragedy and its aftermath? What if her appearance in Montana and his sudden responsibility for Grace gave him a “second chance” to save a kid—would he take that chance? Why would he? Why would he not?

But a psychologist cannot carry on a search for a missing mother. That’s the job of the police. Voilá, I needed cops, both to search for the mother and to investigate the violence Vic and Maggie got caught up in. So two new important characters entered the story—Ben Stewart, the county sheriff, and his deputy, Andrea Pelton. What if Ben and Andi were already investigating Vic’s illegal activity? What if, after Ed reports the missing mother, he and deputy Andi Pelton collaborate on both cases. And what if they develop an attraction for one another?

At this point, I hadn’t actually figured out what happened to the mother, Mara. This goes back to the unanswered questions earlier: Why did Mara come to Montana, and why did she abandon Grace? But when those answers fell into place, a new tension emerged: What if there was no one to take care of Grace? Why not Ed? Mountain townWhat if that is impossible—in small-town Montana, a single man bringing an underage girl would be unacceptable. This led to another what if: What if a recently widowed older woman took her in? What if, after doing so, the older woman falls seriously ill and Grace has nowhere to stay?

These questions did not exhaust the plot building, but they gave me the bones of a story big enough to sustain a novel (a book that was named a Finalist in the Foreword Review’s 2014 Book of the Year competition, IndieFab). All I needed was a few days’ work and a relentless commitment to keep cranking up the conflict and tension. Every answer to the “what if” and “why” questions had to lead to a worsened situation, something that backs the character(s) against a harder wall.

After outlining the skeleton, as I wrote and as the book grew flesh around those bones, new opportunities to make things worse for the characters emerged, calling for more rounds of “what if . . .?” and “why?” It’s a fun way to get started on the project, because it stimulates that most valuable asset a writer has, one’s imagination.

What I Learned about Writing from Craig Johnson and Marilynne Robinson

It’s a hard day when a writer encounters two others whose books are so good that he is forced to decide never to write another word. And that day gets harder when one of those wonderful writers creates stories that, in characters, setting, and overall tenor, remind the poor writer of his own. And the second excellent writer? She writes an entirely different kind of novel so well and so intimately that the poor guy has no choice but to give up writing altogether and take ukulele lessons.

Uke Lesson

That poor writer is me, and the two great ones are Craig Johnson, author of the Walt Longmire series (both the books and the Netflix series), and Marilynne Robinson, author of the Gilead trilogy, and most recently, Lila. It was Lila that nudged me over the edge toward the ukulele, and it was Johnson’s Walt Longmire books that first made me mutter, “I’m not writing another word.”

What is it about their writing that so affects me? To put it better, if I’m going to stay in the game and not learn the uke, what can I learn from these two very different masters? Let me start with Death Without CompanyCraig Johnson.

Johnson never departs from the story he is telling: no detours or digressions, no long soliloquies, just story. But in telling the story, he will add a phrase, or sometimes only a word, that captures a character’s enormous but almost hidden emotion, or the breathtaking beauty of a setting he barely takes time to describe. Here’s an example from Death without Company, the second Longmire book.

It’s on page three. It’s winter. Sheriff Walt Longmire has paced a path in the snow along the cemetery fence, impatiently listening to the gravedigger’s chatter. The ground being frozen, the gravedigger launches into a long riff on burial customs around the world. It’s funny, because Jules, the gravedigger, is driving Walt crazy. Underneath, though, there’s a tightening of some unspoken tension: Who died? Why is the sheriff out here pacing in the cold? What happened?

Then we read this, written in Walt’s first person point of view:

You can tell the new graves by the pristine markers and the mounds of earth. From my numerous and one-sided conversations [with Jules], I had learned that there were water lines running a patchwork under the graveyard with faucets that would be used in the spring to help soak the dirt and tamp the new ones flat, but, for now, it was as if the ground had refused to accept Vonnie Hayes. It had been almost a week since her death, and I found myself up here once a week.

When somebody like Vonnie dies you expect the world to stop, and maybe for one brief second the world does take notice. Maybe it’s not the world outside, but the world inside that’s still (pp. 2-3).

After two-and-a-half pages of near comedy tinged with premonition of something not fun, we get that paragraph describing frozen grave mounds waiting to be tamped down when the earth thaws, and then it’s “as if the ground had refused to accept Vonnie Hayes.” And before the almost Homeric power of that can sink in—the earth refusing to accept a dead woman!—Johnson brings us inside Walt Longmire, where his “world inside is still.”

Throughout his books, Johnson does that: After a long focusing on the external action (in the excerpt, the comedic chatter of Jules—remember the two joking gravediggers in Hamlet?—and the setting (the frozen mounds awaiting spring), Johnson in a short sentence or two will give us a glimpse (and often only a glimpse) into Walt Longmire’s emotional response. But not too deeply or long. “Maybe it’s not the world outside, but the world inside that’s still.” By setting things up this way, when the moment comes for Sheriff Longmire to have a profound emotional experience (and in Johnson’s novels, that moment always comes), we’ve had so many fleeting glimpses that we are as deeply moved as Walt Longmire is.

Now let’s turn to Marilynne Robinson’s Lila. Unlike the sheriff of Absaroka County, Lila is a nobody. Abandoned as a toddler and rescued by a woman drifter who taught her the life of itinerant workers, Lila eventually became a prostitute, then a homeless wanderer. Lila CoverDuring her travels, she meets and marries an old preacher in the small Iowa town of Gilead (the title of the first book in this series). They love each other in their own way, but each fears the other will find him or her unsatisfactory. The preacher, John Ames, can tell her, haltingly, of his love and need for her, but she cannot believe it will last, nor can she voice her own fear that he will learn about her past and banish her. She tells him almost nothing about herself. And the context of this agonized reticence for both is the knowledge that the old man will die long before Lila gets old. Then Lila becomes pregnant, delivers a son, and . . . that’s it. In Lilathat’s all the action there is.

All the action on the outside, that is. But inside Lila’s and John’s minds, the characters’ rich, evocative, and poignant musing and rejoicing and fearing and longing are complex—and complete—worlds in themselves. We view scenes of intense external action nearly always through Lila’s remembering and pondering them. Page after page of inner monolog carry us back to Lila’s earliest days, or show us the formative, dreadful experiences she endured, or project us out into the futures she imagines so entirely plausibly that we feel with her the same shiver of fear or despair (or occasionally, hope) that she feels about the life she imagines she will end up living.

Listen: Lila is pregnant, has spent the morning rocking and thinking and trying to understand the Book of Job, since her husband is a preacher and she wishes to understand him. It is 11 o’clock, and she’s waiting for the Reverend, as she calls him, to come home for lunch. We join her thoughts, which she will never share with John Ames, for fear he’d find her shallow:

She felt good, and the baby was moving around more than ever, elbows and knees. The old man would look into her face for sadness or weariness, and she would turn her face away, since there was no telling what he might see in it, her thoughts being what they were. She’d been thinking that folks are their bodies. And bodies can’t be trusted at all. Her own body was so strong with working, for what that was worth. She’d known from her childhood there was no use being scared of pain. She was always telling the old man, women have babies, no reason I can’t do it. But they both knew things can go wrong. That’s how it is pp. 171-172).

It’s in this stream of her consciousness (not stream of consciousness in the technique sense, but in the real-life sense, thoughts weaving together one by one into a skein of meaning) that we come to know Lila. Through her thinking about her husband, we know him too. Remember that sentence about his searching her face for a sign of sadness: Lila’s thoughts show us, more poignantly and fleetingly than any words John might say, his fragile fearful love.

After that, she thinks about dying when the baby comes, and how “here’s my body, dying on me, when I almost promised him I wouldn’t let it happen.” This makes her wonder if perhaps her concern for her husband meant that . . .

. . . she was something besides her body, but what was the good of that when she’d be gone anyway and there’d be nothing in the world that could comfort him. She guessed she really was married to him, the way she hated the thought of him grieving for her (p. 172).

We stay inside Lila’s mind (and heart) like this for long stretches throughout the novel, and I never found a moment of it dry or slow or boring. All the scenes in which action takes place are filtered and formed by her inner perceptions of them. Thought by thought, desire by desire, Lila grew on me, grew into me. All of us have been abandoned, have grown hard and scarred over, have secret escape plans and doubts about the ones who love us most. And like Lila, most of us rise up and through those to a higher place, or at least a glimpse of one. To live with Lila over the span of her life and 260 pages of Marilynne Robinson’s beautiful, measured, thoughtful, and simple prose was, for me, to become alive again to all the contradictions that fill my loves and eventually are healed by them.

Read with me the closing lines, remembering that these are the musings of a woman on whom life had scraped the thickest scars and hardened the most tender heart of any deeply wounded character in literature I know.

Lila had borne a child into a world where a wind could rise that would take him from her arms as if there were no strength in them at all. Pity us, yes, but we are brave, she thought, and wild, more life in us than we can bear, the fire infolding itself in us. That peace could only be amazement, too.

Well for now there were geraniums in the windows, and an old man at the kitchen table telling his baby some rhyme he’d know forever, probably still wondering if he had managed to bring her along into that next life, if he could ever be certain of it. Almost letting himself imagine grieving for her in heaven, because not to grieve for her would mean that he was dead, after all.

Someday she would tell him what she knew (p. 260-261).


I imagine you can see, now, why after reading Craig Johnson and Marilynne Robinson, I wondered if I should write another word. They tell me, yes.

How I’ve Learned to Value Marketing my Books.

My second novel, Nobody’s Savior, is getting it’s final edit and proofreading, after which I’ll make the necessary last corrections and improvements, and then it will be ready to publish. Those of you who write know what comes next: getting out to sell it! In the past, marketing has been an unpleasant chore for me. Green MonarchsI much prefer sitting at my desk, gazing at the lake and the mountains outside my window and immersing myself in my fictional creations. Solo, quiet, perfect job for a part-time introvert, right? (I’m a “part-time introvert” in the sense that I score right at the mid-point of the scale of introversion-extroversion.)

Yes, but being an introvert-who-doesn’t-sell-his-books isn’t so cool. (Disclaimer: I’m retired, and have a good income, so I don’t really need to live on book sales—but recouping the costs of editing and publishing would be swell!) So over the years since my first novel, Climbing the Coliseum, came out, I’ve been learning about marketing books.

Now, learning is something I’m good at, and I learn best in one of two ways: reading and talking to people. Being a part-time introvert, I usually pick reading first. So, I’ve pored over maybe twenty-five fine volumes of book-marketing advice and theory. Those books taught me a lot, and I’m still lerning, and not just about marketing—I have come to know better the discomforts I feel about self-promotion; more on that in a moment.

Another smart step was to hire a creative marketing team in Sandpoint, ID, Keokee Creative,Keokee Creative [INSERT logo] who helped me overcome my reluctance to get involved with social media. I had a web site, and they improved it. Thanks to Chris and his team, my author platform took it up a couple of notches.

I made a huge mistake when Climbing the Coliseum first came out: failing to set up any expectations for it—no one but my wife knew the book was coming! Release day on Amazon, B&N, and other places, was like the proverbial tree falling in the empty forest—not a sound! Not a soul knew it was out! Well, I won’t make that mistake again. If you’ve liked my Facebook author page (or if you haven’t, please visit and Like it!), or my LinkedIn page (and if you haven’t been there, perhaps you’d be kind enough to go and connect with me), you’ll get notices now and then about the progress of Nobody’s Savior.

Why did I fail to build “book buzz” when I was starting out? Sheer, outright discomfort with talking about myself. When I would go into a bookstore or get in a conversation with someone, before making my pitch I’d invariably make an uncomfortable joke about “shameless self-promotion.” Though I framed it as humor, I actually did feel embarrassed to ask people to buy my book; sometimes I even hemmed and hawed rather than simply telling them it was available. AuntiesBooks logoThen, at a reading in Spokane at Auntie’s Bookstore, I had a revelation: I really liked sharing my book, my words, and my writing experience with those people. Standing in front of the little audience (five people came, including my wife Michele, two friends, and the book store events manager. In other words, I had one new fan!), I realized I was having a good time. Talking about myself! From that point on, I’ve been learning to think differently about “marketing.” Let me share how that is.

Actually, that’s the word: “Share.” I love my novels, I enjoy writing them, revising them, editing them, packaging them, and reading from them. Heck, I like looking at them on bookstore shelves and in their tidy piles beside my dresser. The truth is, I think they offer people something valuable. Less and less do I think of the transaction as a commercial one, and more and more as sharing with people something of value.

And what is that value? My novels—like those of so many authors—tell stories of psychological and investigative work among empathetic and engaging people, who grow and change through their experiences doing their work and solving their problems. From forty years as a psychologist and family therapist, I have lots of stories to build on, and I’ve learned that the work of good psychotherapy can sometimes be a lot like detective work. When I write, I keep two values in the foreground: creating sound psychological stories that are also intriguing and entertaining; and complicating them with investigation into hard-to-understand, but ultimately human, mysteries, often crimes. To support that dual structure, one main character, Ed Northrup, is a psychologist; to support the second part, sheriff’s deputy Andi Pelton (also Ed’s love) is the other main character. And I write secondary characters designed to engage readers’ empathy and emotion (both positive and negative), and sometimes to make them laugh.

So what’s the value I offer in my books? You like to see how other human beings deal with their problems, right? I think we all enjoy learning what baggage others bring to their challenges, what baser motives and what nobler instincts, what courage and what fear, what intelligence and what blindness. We like to read about what others are up against and how they deal with it, because such stories enrich us, gives us at least the pleasure of a good read and, at most, a deepened sense of our common humanity.

Reading novels like mine opens another corner of the human world to our gaze and our understanding, and I think that’s valuable in a day and age when demonizing others rather than struggling to understand them—and yes, to have sympathy with them—is too common in the public arena. So I have come to think that “marketing” activities are the activities I can engage in to share what I offer to my readers.

I hope you’ll join with me on Facebook or LinkedIn, or follow this blog and visit my web site at www.billpercybooks.com—I believe you’ll be glad you did.

See? Shameless self-promotion!

How to Write a Novel

Edited page.1

No doubt, the title is a bit grand, isn’t it? I’m not really going to tell you how to write a novel. Instead, I’m going to share with you a “progress note” about my second book, Nobody’s Savior. Those of you who’ve read the first novel, Climbing the Coliseum, will recognize the characters–Ed Northrup (the psychologist), Andi Pelton (the deputy sheriff and now Ed’s lover), Grace (Ed’s sixteen-year-old adopted daughter), Sheriff Ben Stewart, gay bartender Ted Coldry, rancher Magnus Anderssen, and assorted others. And you’ll recognize the setting, the (fictional) town of Jefferson, set in the (equally fictional) Monastery Valley in southwest Montana.

Nobody’s Savior started life, actually, as part of Climbing the Coliseum. It was a subplot about Magnus Anderssen’s mysterious psychological breakdown and Ed’s efforts to help him figure out the cause. But my editor, Lorna Lynch, pointed out what should have been obvious to me, even as a rookie: That book was too long. Way too long. Most editors and agents say a first novel should be around 80- to 90-thousand words; that first version of Climbing clocked in at 180,000! So Magnus’s story had to go: Now, it’s the backbone of Nobody’s Savior.

Unfortunately, the Magnus material, taken out of Climbing, was only 48,000 words, not really enough for a full novel. Besides, I’d fallen in love with Grace and there was nothing for Grace to do in Magnus’s story! Nor was there anything for Andi Pelton, who at the end of Climbing had taken up a more intimate relationship with Ed. As a psychologist, Ed couldn’t violate Magnus’s privacy by discussing the case with Andi, so what was she going to do?


Back in 2014, I read about a 17-year-old high school junior who’d been arrested in Waseca, Minnesota for amassing an arsenal of guns and bombs, with which he planned to kill as many of his fellow students as he could. Bingo! I had a job for Andi Pelton and the Sheriff’s Department! That story–of Jared Hansen (not the real plotter’s name), the good boy who turned terrorist without explanation–became the backbone of Andi’s role in the novel, and naturally, since Jared appeared to have become paranoid (again, without any obvious explanation), Ed could work with her and the other deputies to solve the case. And given Jared’s popularity at school, Grace too could weigh in, because she knew and liked Jared. Whew! The old gang rides again.

Of course, having a story to tell doesn’t amount to having a novel to sell! So since mixing the Jared story into the Magnus story, I’ve written five drafts, gotten a developmental edit, revised yet another draft, and sent the manuscript off for the final copy edit and proofreading. One more revision when it comes back, and Nobody’s Savior should be ready for me to launch and for you to read. Stay tuned, and watch this space!



Fiction Is a Lie That Tells the Truth

Once upon a time

I write fiction. What Albert Camus said about fiction—that it is “a lie through which we tell the truth”—has become almost a cliché. A quick search of Google images for that quote reveals that, either word-for-word or in slight variants, it has been said also by Dorothy Allison, Tim O’Brien, Laura Groff, Khalid Hosseini, Neil Gaimon, and Stephen King. And many others not so well known.

Maria Popova, in her blog “Brain Pickings,” has a delicious compilation of iconic writers riffing on this theme. Such luminaries as Tennessee Williams, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Mark Twain weigh in. Others quoted by Popova include Tom Wolfe, Ray Bradbury, Joyce Carol Oates, Wallace Stevens, and Eudora Welty.

Mark Twain’s variation on the theme is interesting: “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.”

Mark Twain

This is an absolutely vital point for writers and readers of fiction. In my novels, because they are set in my version of the real American intermountain west and not in an alternate universe, if what I write is impossible, I have failed. The things that happen, my characters actions and reactions, must be possible in the setting I have created. Otherwise, readers will put the book down, probably forever.

At first reading, I found the second part of Twain’s idea—that truth is not obliged to stick to possibilities—hard to swallow. Can an impossible thing be, at the same time, true? I immediately thought of what the Queen says in Lewis Carroll’s marvelous novel, Through the Looking-glass:

“I can’t believe that?” said Alice.

“Can’t you?” the Queen said, in a pitying tone. “Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.”

“There’s no use trying,” she said; “one can’t believe impossible things.”

“I dare say you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

Are Mark Twain and the Queen right? Is the truth unhedged by possibilities? Dare we take as true impossible things?

In at least one sense, the answer is definitely yes. At one time, human flight was factually impossible. Yet, with time and the development of a sufficient science, human flight came true. What is impossible today may still be true at another time. Plato, you’ll recall, taught that a real thing is less real and less true that the “Idea” of that thing. To know the truth would be to know the Idea, not the real thing. An impossible thing in reality may indeed be possible in the world of Ideas.

Turning the issue on its head, what about lies? Are they, like fiction, constrained by possibilities? I would answer no. For an example, let me take a famous lie reported by Bill Moyers. On May 29, 2003, two months after invading Iraq “to destroy Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction” (another lie), President George W. Bush, in an interview with Polish Television (TVP), said, “We found the weapons of mass destruction. We found biological laboratories.”

At first blush, this lie would seem to be possible—although no weapons or labs had actually been found as of May 29, 2003, perhaps in the future they would be discovered. However, in fact, there were none, anywhere in Iraq. The CIA closed its investigation into WMD in Iraq in April, 2005, finding nothing. So at the time the President spoke his lie, it was literally impossible: WMDs did not exist in Iraq.

Thus, it would seem that the lie, like the truth, is not constrained by possibility.

Lying is claiming the truth for something untrue. Strangely, that fact might lead us to condemn fiction as “lying.” Indeed, the cliché says exactly that, without censure: Fiction is a lie that tells the truth. The facts of fiction, untrue in themselves, nevertheless must be possible, and consequently, the lie that is fiction reveals a deeper truth. Ralph Waldo Emerson put it this way: “Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures.” Or as Bruno Bettleheim wrote, discussing the psychological importance of fairy tales, “The child intuitively comprehends that although these stories are unreal, they are not untrue.

If a thing is impossible, it may be true in some way or at some time, or it may be a lie. If it is possible, then it may be true, false, or fiction. And if it is fiction, the words of Tim O’Brien (interviewed by the BookReporter in 1998) apply:

A good piece of fiction, in my view, does not offer solutions. Good stories deal with our moral struggles, our uncertainties, our dreams, our blunders, our contradictions, our endless quest for understanding. Good stories do not resolve the mysteries of the human spirit but rather describe and expand upon those mysteries.

Before he died, David Foster Wallace (1962-2008) said this about fiction:

D.F.WallaceFiction is one of the few experiences where loneliness can be both confronted and relieved. Drugs, movies where stuff blows up, loud parties — all these chase away loneliness by making me forget my name’s Dave and I live in a one-by-one box of bone no other party can penetrate or know. Fiction, poetry, music, really deep serious sex, and, in various ways, religion — these are the places (for me) where loneliness is countenanced, stared down, transfigured, treated.

For “loneliness,” substitute in Wallace’s saying any of the human emotions and core experiences, and you can see the deeper truth that is fiction.

Winter Holiday Lessons for a Troubled World


The holiday season is tormented this year. Terrorism here and abroad piles anxiety upon anxiety for many people. Racist and fear-mongering politicians capitalize on those anxieties to promote themselves. The Christmas decorations in stores and restaurants, the drone of holiday carols and songs over MUZAK systems—all seem strained, as if we were trying to deal with an ugly stain on the wall by splashing it with new paint.

Despite the fact that you and I are roughly sixteen times more likely to die in a car accident than in a terrorist attack (check it out at “Ask the Odds.com”), some people are falling all over themselves to rush us to war in the (false) name of “national security.” The politicians’ rhetoric of fear, war, bigotry, and retaliation ramps up the anxiety in the air. So much for “peace on earth, good will toward men.”

Do the legends surrounding this season, the Hanukkah story of the eight days of light and the Christmas story of the stable and the angels and shepherds, offer us any real comfort in these times? I think they might, though not the sort of comfort we usually associate with the season. It’s not a year for sentimentality. But perhaps it’s a year for some understanding, even compassion.

Forget Hanukkah’s miraculous, never-ending lamp oil. Ask instead, what were the circumstances during which that miracle took place? It was an insurrection, a revolt against the Seleucid rulers of Judea, triggered by the Seleucid decree that the Jews worship the Greek gods in their Temple in Jerusalem. MaccabeesThe rebellion was led by a farm family, Mattathias and his five sons, later called the Maccabees (after the oldest son, Judah, whose nickname was “the hammer,” which in Greek was “Maccabeus”). The rebels formed a guerilla militia of about 22,000 men. They took on a larger army and after many years of struggle, eventually won independence for Judea (which lasted around one-hundred years, until the Romans came to town).

Hanukkah celebrates that victory and the purification of the Temple in Jerusalem. But it is a story curiously similar to what is going on in our world: One group imposing their religious beliefs on another, and the other resisting violently. Looking back, we call the Maccabees “freedom fighters.” The Seleucids called them terrorists.

One lesson of Hanukkah, then, may be that naming a group or a person “terrorist” depends entirely on one’s point of view. If you are fighting the dominant power because you believe it has polluted your religion and is destroying your culture, you call yourself a freedom fighter, a maccabbee, a hammer of your enemy. On the other hand, if you belong to the dominant power and feel threatened or afraid of these maccabees, you call them terrorists.

Either name arouses enormous passion, and it’s that passion that leads to the ruthless commitment of the rebels to tear down the dominant power and the dominant power’s obsession with destroying the terrorists. The last thing either side intends is dialog. The last emotion either side feels is compassion. Is there any hope in this scenario?

Perhaps. Think about the Christmas story’s circumstances, as they are portrayed in Luke’s Gospel, the gospel most people consider somewhat historical. I’ll ignore the fact that the property tax census that forced Joseph and Mary to travel three days to Bethlehem did not happen in the years when Jesus was likely born. I’ll ignore too the fact that the Romans conducted their censuses and collected taxes at people’s homes, not at their ancestors’ birthplaces JesusMangerShepherds(the property on which the tax was assessed existed at their homes, not at their ancestors’ birthplaces). Finally, I’ll ignore the fact that to require everyone to travel to their ancestors’ birthplaces would have created chaos across the Empire. The Romans were ruthless, but they weren’t stupid. (If you want to read more about these facts, go here.)

In any case, whether in Bethlehem or Nazareth, Joseph was an artisan, probably a carpenter. At that time, as John Dominic Crossan has shown, using the work of Gerhard Lenski, artisans were probably the second-poorest groups in Judean agrarian society, one step away from homelessness. Ironically, by the time of his public preaching, Jesus had indeed become effectively homeless, an itinerant teacher.

Dean Snyder makes the point that, whereas the Magi are the stars of Matthew’s nativity story, it’s shepherds who come to see the baby. He notes (also following Lenski) that shepherds belong to the lowest class in the Roman world, the “expendable class,” too poor to even afford a home of their own. These shepherds were hired hands, living in the fields with their flocks (which belonged to wealthier farm owners).


In short, Jesus was born into poverty, beautifully symbolized by the story of the stable and the manger, surrounded by shepherds. But poverty and oppression by an occupying empire are two of the conditions that frequently “radicalize” young men. Keep in mind that throughout his life, Jesus was quite familiar—everyone in Judea was—with terrorist groups such as the Zealots and the Sicarii (“dagger-men”), who kept up a guerilla war against Rome for more than 70 years, using violence and assassination. There had been a revolt against Rome in Joseph and Mary’s province, Galilee, in 4 B.C.E., when Jesus most likely was a little boy. Terrorism (if you were Roman) or freedom fighters (if you were Jewish) would have been a fact of life for Jesus. However, he chose, and later preached, neither. He did not fall into the trap of name-calling (“I’m a freedom fighter,” “No, you’re a terrorist”). Instead, do you remember what he said?

You have heard it said, Love your neighbor and hate your enemy. I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you (Matt. 5:43-44).

Perhaps there’s a message there for this tormented time, torn apart by fear and grief and their inevitable followers, rage and hatred. Of course, some will remind me, that’s naïve. After all, Jesus was crucified.