4 Questions for the End of Life

Last week, I read Atul Gawande’s recent book, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. “The end” in the subtitle means the book is about, to borrow Jessica Mitford’s classic title, “the American way of death.” Gawande points out, however, that the problems he sees with how medicine approaches how we die are not limited to the United States, or even to the industrialized world, but are beginning to affect even the developing nations. They’re another corollary to globalism.

Gawande bookAtul Gawande is a neurosurgeon who writes beautifully (he brought me to tears more than once in this short book), and is involved in a handful of meaningful projects related to modern medicine. He believes that medicine, for all the good it does, may not have all the answers to life’s pressing questions—indeed, he sincerely doubts that it does. Further, he is convinced that medicine’s answer for the end of life—which is to try to fix the unfixable, prevent the inevitable—are disastrous. This is his central argument, an argument which I will discuss in a moment.

While I was reading Being Mortal, I began noticing something: The topic of death seems to be everywhere. Not only the violent and senseless deaths that shame our headlines on an almost daily basis, not only the far-away wars and tragic deaths of so many in so many parts of the world, but everyday, ordinary, inevitable death—the kind the vast majority of people will one day face. For example, I was reading a Writers’ Digest interview with the famous editor Terry McDonell, who was the editor or managing editor of many magazines—think Rolling Stone, Esquire, Outside, and Sports Illustrated, among others. He was elected, four years ago, to the Magazine Editors’ Hall of Fame. Some of the luminaries he edited include Hunter S. Thompson, Jim Harrison, Richard Ford, Richard Price, George Plimpton, Peter Matthiessen, Jimmy Buffett, and many others. So when I began the interview, I expected talk abaout writing and writers (there was some, eventually). But it unnerved me to read this about his new book, The Accidental Life: An Editor’s Notes on Writing and Writers:

The book is about death. Aging is difficult for everyone. It’s especially difficult for writers because they’re so sensitive to it: to their talents, and to anything that diminishes them.

McDonell book

Wow. Another book about death. But it makes sense: We Boomers are marching into our 70s already, and Boomers are nothing if not interested in our own experiences: having them, talking about them, writing about them, sharing our angst about them, and, if at all possible, making some money off them. So Death, be not proud. We’re not talking about You a lot these days because You are so hot, but because You’re our next Big Thing.

Being Mortal

Dr. Gawande’s book grabbed me by the lapels and shook me (well, okay, I don’t wear suits anymore, so no lapels). One of the points he asserts repeatedly is that the way we die is changing. A hundred years ago, and still today in some corners of the world, death came early and often suddenly. Now, particularly in developed countries and countries where industrialization is underway, scientific medicine and medical care have enabled much longer life spans and made the recovery from accidents and major sudden illnesses much more likely. As a species, we are living longer. Now, death is less often a matter of a sudden catastrophe, but rather of a slow accumulation of small breakdowns, which add up like the frailties of an old car, until there is no reversing them.

He discusses how people adjust and adjust and adjust to these small (and sometimes not so small, but treatable) breakdowns. Aging, in this description, is a process that, over many years, gradually narrows the range of experiences and activities one considers necessary for “the good life.” For instance, thirty years ago, going out for a evening of dinner, drinks, and dancing or a concert or a ball game, was a key part of how I defined living well. Now, it’s lunch with my wife at a quiet restaurant.

A man gets an inner ear infection, which leaves him prone to dizzy spells. He puts up with them, gets used to them, learns to accommodate to them, and eventually gives up doing some of the things he used to value, like dancing or running or climbing a ladder to paint his own house.

And as the range of activities slowly narrows, sometimes imperceptibly, the things that are important also begin to change. I now enjoy these lunches with my wife every bit as much as I once enjoyed my evenings out with friends. Where I used to value action and excitement in trendy venues, now I value easy conversation in comfortable settings. Gawande, in a number of poignant vignettes, shows how, as death nears, people tend to focus in more closely on the people they love and the few activities they value and can do comfortably. Meaning becomes more and more important.

The doctor writes about his father’s dying. A vibrant, robust man whose early goal was not to let the tumor in his spine stop him from the many social, charitable, and athletic activities he cherished. But by the end, he was as satisfied studying photos of his grandchildren as he’d once been practicing medicine or playing tennis or building a university campus in his home town in India. At each stage of the progression of the disease, Gawande’s father fought to keep his previous level of activity until he realized he could not, and was forced to contemplate the new reality. Once he accepted what he’d lost–which did not come easily, but did come–and identified what he still valued that he could still do, once he set his sights on what mattered most to him in the changed circumstances of his illness, he relaxed and his usual buoyant spirit returned, until the crisis began the process all over again.

What is Needed for This to Happen?

Movingly, Gawande discusses how miserably the medical approach to dying—or rather, he notes, to preventing dying—fails to help people to this kind of end, one in which they can realize what remains valuable and can focus on that rather than trying to stop the inevitable train wreck. What is needed, he suggests, is for doctors—and equally, for patients and their families–to discuss four very simple but achingly important questions:

  • How do people understand this thing they are facing (the disease or condition that threatens their life)? What does the condition mean to them—not what is to be done or even what they want done about it, but what its meaning injects into their life?
  • What are their fears at this point in time? What are they afraid of losing now, in the coming days, weeks, months?
  • What are the dying person’s goals? Of the things they fear losing, what can be let go and what are the most important to hang on to as long as possible?
  • What will you need now, today and in the next few days and weeks, to make holding on to those precious things possible for this period of time?

You can well imagine how difficult this conversation will be. Gawande says that he found it sometimes too intimidating even for him, the surgeon. And you can also imagine that these questions will need to be asked and this discussion held many times as a person moves through the aging and dying process.

Caring hands

Consider a young mother, newly diagnosed with metastatic cancer, who wanted to fight the disease “every way I can.” Her husband and her doctor helped her do that, through surgeries and radiation and round after round of trail-and-error chemotherapies. As long as she could keep working and participating in her life, she continued fighting, hanging on to her goal of defeating the cancer and fighting to hang on to what she valued, her work, her lifestyle, her activities.

After many months, she was exhausted, barely able to participate in her family’s life. The therapies were failing, her cancer advancing. Her oncologist, understanding her goal, offered an experimental treatment.

She and her husband held their usual discussion, centered around the four questions. Painstakingly, gingerly, they’d done this each time a new treatment had been offered. She realized this time that she no longer wanted to fight, that fighting now meant long stay in bed, the sickness of chemotherapy, confusion and mental loss. Instead of fighting, she wanted to be free enough of pain and of the drugged-up grogginess caused by the pain that she could sit with her family at dinner even when she couldn’t eat, could help her kids do their homework, could watch TV with them in the evening.

What she now feared losing most was no longer her lifestyle, or even her life—it was losing what time she had left with her husband and children. And so, arrangements were made to help her—now, today, not in the future—get to that goal. That very afternoon, her husband rented a hospital bed for the living room and placed the TV where she and the kids could cuddle and watch their shows. He called an at-home hospice service, and a nurse came and set up routines to maximize her comfort and rest when she was home alone, and ensure her ability to be with the children and her husband when they were home. The hospice nurses not only helped find the right mix of medications to help her stay awake when the kids were home, they taught her things she could do to help herself safely, such as getting to the bathroom without falling. Her life had shrunk down to a very narrow set of activities, but they were activities that meant the world to her now, the activities spending “alive time” with her family rather than enduring treatments with little chance of saving her and sleeping away her remaining time in a hospital bed far from home.

Gawande argues that such an ending to life, focused on achieving still-meaningful personal goals, regardless how small they may be and regardless what else is lost as the end approaches, means the dying person retains a measure of autonomy, choosing what matters, and with those choices, dignity. And he asks us to consider that, as death approaches, we should shift our efforts away from sacrificing the present for the hope of living longer into the future, and instead should sacrifice the future and actually live in the present. He thinks this change in orientation is the key to holding on to and experiencing what is most precious as far as possible at the end. To die well, in other words, we should leave the future and come home to now.

I think we’ve heard that message before . . .

5 Questions Writers Must Know How to Answer and My Mistakes Answering Them

The Five Questions

Ever find a gem on the Internet that exactly met your pressing need of the day? I just did. Amy Collins, a long-time expert on book marketing and sales, runs a wonderful website, www.NewShelves.com, that will intrigue not only authors trying to sell their books, but anyone who loves books and reading. One of her posts caught my attention: “The Five Questions Authors HAVE to Know How to Answer.

As I approach the publication of my second novel, Nobody’s Safe Here, I’m thinking deeply about how I want to market it. And that means I have to figure out how to talk about it, and Amy’s five questions have helped me organize my thinking about that. Here are the five Big Questions:

  1. What’s your book about?
  2. Who needs your book?
  3. What makes your book different?
  4. Where can I get your book?
  5. How are you promoting your book?

In a minute, I’ll pass along my answers to these five Big Questions. First, though, let me tell you about some mistakes I have made when talking about my books.

Mistakes I Always Make when I Talk about My Books.

Any mistake writers can make when talking about their books, I have gleefully made. I’ve made them more than once, even after being told it was a mistake. My favorite mistake is telling too much about the story and the characters. I know I’m making that baby when I get one of two signals: Either my listener’s eyes stray, peering over my shoulder for a rescuer; or my wife, if she’s within earshot, begins to drag her finger across her throat. Yep, I tell way too much of the plot or I describe every main character or I babble on about the book’s themes. This one’s a real doozy.

Amy CollinsAmy Collins, the sales guru, has a quick solution to this mistake. Regarding the first question, “What’s your book about?” she writes, “Answer this question in ONE sentence.” Whoa! She points out that if the listener is at all interested after that one sentence, he or she will ask for more. Obvious, isn’t it? And it’s good psychology—as she says, short answers generate the desire to know more. When you ask for a taste in an ice cream parlor, there’s a reason you only get a tiny little spoon. But man, ONE sentence? I wonder if I’ve answered any question, ever, in one sentence. But you’ll see how I do it now, in a moment.

Another favorite mistake: Assuming no one is really interested, assuming they’re just being polite and so I shouldn’t bore them with talk about me, that is, my book. You can imagine where this one comes from, even without a PhD in psychology! But it has the effect of clamming me up, unless the listener shows more than a passing interest, and leads, when I do start talking, to Mistake #1, telling too much. The dam bursts. It’s either too little or too much.

Mistake #3 is another result of Mistake #2: Not making a pitch. Instead of getting my pitch down so that, succinctly but clearly, I ask listeners to consider buying the book, I stick with themes and content, hoping they’ll be inspired, but not telling them I’d like them to purchase. You’re right, I’m no salesman. Still, one of the purposes of publishing a book is to sell it, right? Moreover, Mistake #3 ignores my grandmother’s oft-given advice: “Blessed is he who tooteth his own horn, for if he tooteth it not, it shall not be tooted.” So, let me warm up my horn.

Tooting Horn

As promised, here are my answers to the big five questions.

My Answers to the Five Questions about My Next Novel

My first novel, Climbing the Coliseum, has been out for two years (check it out!). It’s the first in the Monastery Valley series of psychological suspense novels. Climbing’s sales are not yet in Stephen King’s neighborhood. My next book, the second in the series, is Nobody’s Safe Here. (I’ll have exciting news about its publication in n upcoming blog.) So let me show you how I am going to answer the Five Questions about Nobody’s Safe Here.

Question 1: What’s your book about?

(Remember, I have to answer this in ONE sentence. Watch this!)

Nobody’s Safe Here tells the story of a sixty-year-old rancher suffering the effects of being raped by a priest at age eighteen, of a seventeen-year-old boy who is threatening to shoot his classmates, and of the psychologist and the deputy sheriff who team up to save them both.

Question 2: Who needs your book?

Nobody really needs my book. But readers who like psychological mysteries, strong characters, rich relationships, and dramatic Montana settings will love Nobody’s Safe Here, as will those who enjoy the writing of Louse Penny, Craig Johnson (the Longmire book and TV series), William Kent Krueger, and Tana French.

Question 3: What makes your book different?

Think “Hemingway meets Newsweek.” As in Jonathan Kellerman’s Alex Delaware series, the protagonists are a psychologist, Ed Northrup, and a cop, Deputy Sheriff Andi Pelton. But unlike Kellerman’s Alex and Milo, Ed and Andi not only solve mysteries but also are lovers who face the complications of life in a small mountain town, rather than the gritty urban scene. Like Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache novels, which are also set (usually) in a small town, Nobody’s supporting characters are vivid and the intricate relationships among them are rich and deep. But the mountain West is not rural Ontario, and the veins of conflict there are both social and political. Nobody’s Safe Here mines similar ore to Craig Johnson’s Sheriff Walt Longmire’s, but where Walt solves mysteries as a sheriff, Ed Northrup solves them as a shrink—with the sheriff-style help of his off-and-on lover, Andi Pelton. And woven throughout the book is Ed’s and Andi’s relationship with Grace, Ed’s newly adopted daughter—the three must find a path to be a family while Grace adjusts not just to being sixteen, but also to living in a new community.

Question 4: Where can I get your book?

(Remember, Nobody’s Safe Here hasn’t launched yet, so this is how I will answer when it comes out.) You can find it online, in bookstores, by request at libraries, on my website (www.BillPercyBooks.com), or directly from me (Bill@BillPercyBooks.com). It’s available in both paperback and e-book formats.

Question 5: How are you promoting your book?

My blog, which has attracted nearly 1000 registered users, and my Facebook page (www.Facebook.com/BillPercyBooks), promote my books. I will lead into the book launch with radio interviews in a number of markets in our region: Spokane and eastern Washington state, north Idaho, and western and southwestern Montana, and with numerous book events—signings and readings—in a dozen regional cities as well as in the Midwest. I have scheduled dates to meet with book clubs both in the Northwest and the Midwest during the months following the launch of Nobody’s Safe Here. I have a mailing list of thousands of public libraries in every state in the nation, which I am mining–thanks to Amy Collins’ training course–to get my book in libraries. I also have a mailing list that is growing daily (as is my blog user-list), and will use that to promote the books.


So. There’s a taste of my answers to the five Big Questions every writer must know how to answer. I’d love to hear your thoughts about how I can improve them in the Comments, below!

Where Do a Writer’s Ideas Come From?

The Sounds of Birds and the Advent of Ideas


Somewhere in the woods surrounding our home, a robin is warbling his mating song, as serene and beautiful a melody as Bach’s Air in G. Ospreys, mom and dad, cruising the thermals high above their nest in a Ponderosa at the edge of the big lake, go “cheep-cheep-cheep” as they bring fish and mice back to their little ones. Two flickers do their mating dance, swooping up into the middle of a tall tree, then bouncing up branch after branch till they burst off the top branches into thin air (she’s testing his stamina!). Suddenly, all that buoyancy and all that singing in the forest give me an idea!

How? Like the birds, we writers are always busy with our ideas, courting them, falling in love with them, feeding them, growing them up, and coaxing them out to fly on their own. Sometimes, like the robin’s song, our ideas are sweet and lyrical; or like the osprey’s cheep-cheep-cheep, they can be high-toned, frantic, imperious, or parental, patient, informative. Sometimes, our ideas dance like the flickers, bouncing limb-to-limb, perhaps joyous or perhaps urgent (it’s hard to tell the difference, sometimes).

But Where Do These Ideas Come From?

Plato told us that Ideas, which he sometimes called Forms, pre-exist us, insisting that these eternal, abstract Ideas are more real than the appearances we perceive. PlatoFor instance, when I pet Seamus, my sister’s dog, that’s just Seamus. But the Idea of dog, or maybe Dog-ness, is universal and, according to Plato (who puts the teaching in Socrates’ mouth), is more real, because it’s universal, than Seamus is. (But when Seamus goes on a barking binge, he sounds pretty real to me!)

Plato said real Ideas exist beyond the material and phenomenal world available to our senses—and so when a thought that can be worked with, developed, grown, and nurtured into a story pops into someone’s material brain, it is (claims Plato) only a pale reflection of one of those eternal and universal Ideas.

I’m no Platonist. I think that ideas come into my brain-mind from . . . from somewhere else in my brain-mind! Oh, they’re helped along by things happening outside me, to be sure. Let me take the various singings of the birds as an example. I was sitting on my deck reading early in the morning when I first heard the robin’s song and the osprey’s cheeping, and saw the flickers’ chasing one another up the trees. As I watched and listened to the avian activity all around me, I remembered that I had to write a new blog post for this week.

Two separate, unrelated mind-events—perceiving and enjoying the birds’ activities (I’ll call that mind-event A) and recalling a task I needed to perform (call that mind-event B). Something, though, linked them—something at first hidden inside the two mind-events. Unbeknownst to me, by brain had been searching rapidly for something—anything—similar between A and B. Brains are similarity engines, searching for points of resemblance between segments of incoming information. We’re pattern-searchers by instinct, and much of our search for pattern occurs unconsciously. So when I heard birdsong, my brain must have found some sort of similarity between it and my need to write the blog (which must’ve been lurking in the back of my mind already), and served it up to my conscious mind in the form: “Hey! Those birds remind me I have to write the blog!”

The Green-Eye-Shade Guy

Michele has a fun image that is helpful here: She imagines, when she is searching for a word, that there’s a little guy in her brain, sitting on a swivel chair on castors, a green eye-shade on his forehead, Green eye-shade guymadly digging in one file of words to another, searching for that elusive word. Keep the image, but change “words” to “patterns,” and you’ve got the idea. When my little green-eye-shade guy found the similarity between bird activity (A) and blog-writing (B), it was like a package arriving in my consciousness.

As I thought about it, it occurred to me that many ideas arrive like that. (“Arrive” is the wrong word, since it implies the ideas come from someplace outside me. Still, it captures the sense of their visiting unexpectedly, like the FedEx truck.) I think that ideas “come” to me in a process like this: A thing stimulates my awareness. The birds’ business, an article or a paragraph in a book, a physical sensation, a news story. Call it Event A. Without warning (and often without any apparent relevance), Event A reminds me of something else, Event B. The birds’ singing and flying and working and mating reminds me that I need to write this post. But that’s not the actual idea, not yet. It’s just the FedEx package containing the idea. Still, it’s already amazing–what has the birds’ activity to do with writing a blog post?

When I heard the birds and thought of writing this post, I found myself wondering, “What if the birds’ activities were the subject of the blog? What would be the connection?” Until that “what-if” question arose in my mind, no conscious idea connected A with B, or rather, I wasn’t conscious yet of what connected them. As soon as I wondered about it, though, I “woke up”: the ideas with which writers busy themselves have many qualities resembling the busyness of the birds: Serenity, urgency, excitement, joy.

George Lakoff

Of course, that resemblance is merely metaphorical—but wait, maybe not “merely” so. George Lakoff, a cognitive linguist and political scientist, contends that human language is built on metaphor, and the discovery of the chunking process of learning done by the brain seems to bear him out. (If you’re interested in learning more, read Maria Popova’s review of Daniel Bor’s The Ravenous Brain; How the New Science of Consciousness Explains our Insatiable Search for Meaning.)

It all happens unconsciously. One experience resembles a second in a fashion that, to conscious inspection, appears utterly random. What does birds being birds have to do with writing my blog? My brain supplied the similarity: the birds were like ideas. And that likeness arose, no doubt, because somewhere in my life and experience I’d seen or heard or felt that likeness before. Birds soar; so do some ideas. Birds are born and die, as do many ideas. Birds can inspire or annoy, as can ideas. In short, a metaphor: Birds are like ideas.

Metaphor as Learning and Thinking

As Lakoff and Bor insist, all human learning, thinking, and language is metaphorical, mediated by “chunking,” the brain’s action of linking pieces of information and creating chains or hierarchies of information based on similarities. Ideas–to write about, to practice in politics, to teach our children, to structure our lives, all sorts of ideas–don’t “arrive” or “come to us” (metaphors) except through metaphors. They “arise” (a metaphor) from the “soil” (another metaphor) of our previous learning. If an idea is powerful, it “imposes itself” on us, if inspiring, it “lifts us up.” Ideas can “move” us, they can “break our hearts,” they can “build us up” or “tear us down.” All metaphors, all true.

And notice: All these metaphors are built on our own physical (material) experience, our bodily experience. George Lakoff co-wrote two books on this with Mark Johnson. The first, published in 1980, was Metaphors we Live By. Their next book, Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought  followed in 1999. (You can probably tell I’m a fan.)

Where do ideas come from? From ourselves, out of our bodies—that is, from our brain-minds’ “insatiable search for meaning,” their relentless search for patterns and chunking of bits of information into increasingly complex thoughts. Birds are ideas, in every sense of that word. Metaphors.

And stories emerge from those seed-metaphors. What if Franz Kafka felt that life in Hapsburg Prague was turning him into a bug? Kafka BugMy next post will reflect on all this as it relates more directly to writing fiction, but here’s today’s takeaway (itself a metaphor): Plato was wrong. Ideas aren’t eternal and self-existent. They’re the product of the incessant and fertile work of our brain-minds, generating patterns, linking them together on the basis of resemblance, finding similarities. Often, all this is to our pleasure, frequently to our dismay, and sometimes, sadly, to our downfall.

More to come.

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.

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!



On Political Words

In her November 5, 2015 review of two stage adaptations of Aeschylus’s Oresteia, Ingrid Rowland remarks on a fascinating bit of history. She writes, “On the day of Martin Luther King’s assassination, Robert Kennedy found the right words to break the news of his death to a poor, largely black audience in Indianapolis by harking back to ‘my favorite poet…Aeschylus.’”


She then quotes the words of the Greek poet that Kennedy used to console his audience:

Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart,
until, in our own despair,
against our will,
comes wisdom
through the awful grace of God.

Rowland notes that “Kennedy’s words diverge slightly but tellingly from Edith Hamilton’s translation, his evident source (her third line reads ‘and in our own despite’).”

Reflecting on that, she thinks that the word-change suggests that Kennedy had long lived with those words, using them as he grappled with the sufferings and tragedies striking the Kennedy family.RFK We all know how a beloved poem or song, memorized long ago, and lovingly repeated to ourselves over the intervening years, can undergo small changes as we internalize them, making the lines our own.

But Rowland goes on to make another point. She says that it’s “unexpected, too, that a political figure would feel free to address an audience of ordinary people in the lofty language of Greek poetry rather than talking down to them with mock folksiness.” And Kennedy was in a heated presidential campaign contest with Eugene McCarthy at that moment, the campaign in which he too would soon be assassinated.

I’m fully aware that Winston Churchill reminded us that “comparisons are odious” (or as Dogberry in Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing says, “comparisons are odorous”), but let me take the chance and give a couple of examples of another kind of political speech.

Shakespeare's "Dogberry"
Shakespeare’s “Dogberry”

I’ll start with the woes of the health care system in the United States, which are many and serious, not least of which is the dire plight of the uninsured. There is much to be fixed in the Affordable Care Act, and honest people can disagree with its provisions. A fruitful and welcome dialog could take place between the candidates and the parties about the important issues with reforming health care. Instead, Dr. Ben Carson, speaking on the stump, offers us this:

And [Obamacare] is in a way, it is slavery in a way, because it is making all of us subservient to the government, and it was never about health care. It was about control.

Obamacare is “slavery in a way.” Slavery. A law that attempts to help some of the poorest and sickest members of our society is likened to slavery. What an offensive comparison, both to the Affordable Care Act and to the millions of slaves and their descendants (which include Dr. Carson) who endured that national ignominy. Does Dr. Carson realize whom he is insulting?

Unlike the depth and compassion in Kennedy’s speech—remember, he was quoting Aeschylus to a largely Black audience on the night Martin Luther King was assassinated—other candidates use attacks on minority people to advance their campaigns, especially people whose lives are perhaps the most precarious in our nation: the undocumented immigrants. Take this from Donald Trump on July 5, 2015:

What can be simpler or more accurately stated? The Mexican Government is forcing their most unwanted people into the United States. They are, in many cases, criminals, drug dealers, rapists, etc.

Instead of speaking to immigrants from his heart (which is where Trump says his speeches come straight from), he vilifies 11 million people for a round of right-wing applause. It is as if Kennedy had, instead of quoting Aeschylus, told his Black audience not that their suffering and grief may transform to wisdom, but that Dr. King’s death proved the futility of their struggle for political, civil, and economic rights.

Perhaps I am being unfair to contrast today’s political speech with that of Robert Kennedy. But really, the level of rhetorical nonsense coming from the right has overflowed the bounds of comedy and is becoming a national tragedy, an embarrassment. Perhaps we need an Aeschylus to give voice to that.

Here’s a line that the Greek might use to do so:

It is an easy thing for one

whose foot is on the outside of calamity

to give advice and to rebuke the sufferer.

– Aeschylus, Prometheus Unbound

How Fiction Can Repair the World

Okay, fiction can’t repair the world. Still, I’ve been wondering lately whether the time and energy I invest in writing fiction might be better spent working socially to change the world. The question has been long with me, ever since a criticism I received in 1974 from a good friend, a Catholic priest. I had decided on a career in psychotherapy, and he challenged me: “Let’s say as a therapist you can help fifty people a year for forty years. What’s that? 2000 people in your career. Be a social activist, a community organizer – you’ll help 2000 people every year.” I didn’t take him up on that. It seemed to me that by seeking the quantity, I’d lose the quality of the relationship with those I served. Perhaps that was selfish.

Tikkun Olam - repairing the world
Tikkun Olam – repairing the world

In the first sermon I heard by Michele’s rabbi, he spoke about tikkun olam, which is Hebrew for “to repair the world.” Every Jew, Rabbi Cohen said, should repair the world. I wasn’t Jewish, but in good Catholic style, I felt guilty anyway, since I hadn’t yet repaired the world. Such a requirement, repairing the world! Isn’t that the Messiah’s job?

When I told Michele this, she was quiet for a moment. “I think you’re missing the point.”

“He said we have to repair the world. That’s huge.”

“He meant one person at a time.”

Some years later, I came across this quote from the Talmud: “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” Ah. So maybe one relationship at a time was all right.


Seventh Telling

A wonderful novel, The Seventh Telling by Mitchell Chefitz, tells the story of a rabbi whose wife is dying of cancer. The rabbi is asked if her suffering is destroying his hope for a Messiah. He surprises his friend by saying that the Messiah has already come! In fact, he says, there have already been many Messiahs. For instance, he says, “Jonas Salk was the Messiah for polio.”

In the Buddhist tradition, there’s a saying that when one person becomes enlightened, the whole world is freed from suffering. Instant tikkun olam! The best thing a person can do to save the world is to save himself or herself. This obviously is aspirational, judging from the amount of suffering left in the world. But it makes a point.

Let’s say these ancient claims are true: That we repair the world one person at a time; that by cultivating our own spiritual health, we benefit the world. Let me make a case, then, that writing fiction participates in that effort.


Seriously? We should maybe send Bookmobiles to prowl the streets of refugee camps? How can writing stop ISIS? (Buy a bearded boy a book?) What about the plague of American gun violence? I suppose a paperback doesn’t fire many bullets. But really? How can writing reverse the injustices of runaway capitalism? If you read Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-first Century, will the resulting brain-freeze snuff out the greed-is-good meme?

Plainly, writing alone can’t change the world. But solid, honest writing can make a difference by informing people about the pressing issues of the time – look at the articles, journalism, and reflection in the great (and even the not so great) newspapers, in Mother Jones, Harpers, The Atlantic, The New York Review of Books, and the dozens of similar publications. And informed people ultimately will change things – they will help refugees, stop ISIS, reduce gun violence, redistribute wealth more justly. People who are well informed will eventually find one another, band together, and make the changes the world needs.

Tikkun olam.

You will say, “But that kind of writing is non-fiction. You write fiction. Of what use is your novel to hungry people, to the oppressed, to victims of war and guns? How does it make for economic justice or slow down global climate change?”

To which I answer, “One reader at a time.” A good novel has the power of, say, a fine piece of improvisational music or an ink and rice paper painting – the power to touch some deeper place in those who read or listen or see. I don’t mean that fiction must inspire any particular virtue, but I agree with John Gardner’s notion that fiction must be moral. In an interview with Sara Mathiessen, Gardner said, “A truly moral book is one that is radically open to persuasion, but looks hard at a problem, and keeps looking for answers. . . . I think that the difference right now between good art and bad art is that the good artists are the people who are, in one way or another, creating, out of deep and honest concern, a vision of life in the twentieth century that is worth pursuing.”

In my novel, Climbing the Coliseum, I wanted to explore, by means of story (as differentiated from journalism, philosophy, or memoir) the question of whether and how people who are marginalized somehow can find their way into a community that cares about them. What does it take? Who needs to be involved? What works, what doesn’t? I didn’t want to pose that question “out loud,” as I would in an essay or a non-fiction study, but rather to tell a story about real people, and to tell it as honestly as I could. That way, my readers have the freedom to be affected by the book in whatever way and at whatever level they respond to it. If even one reader is moved to consider the plight of abandoned teenagers after reading Climbing, the world is a little better for it.

Tikkun olam.

A great experience with a novel, I’ll claim, can be as life-changing as an auto accident or a serious illness, as falling in love, as the birth of a child. In John Gardner’s words, moral fiction offers readers a vision of life “that is worth pursuing.” One life at a time. One of the many challenges of fine writing – fiction or not – is to tell stories that embody that vision of the life worth pursuing.

As the Talmudic rabbis put it, “we are not obligated to complete the work, nor are we free to abandon it.”

Tikkun olam.

Two Fun Physics Facts from Dalai Lama and What They Tell Us about Writing

I’ve been enjoying the Dalai Lama’s book The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality (Three Rivers Press, 2005).

DalaiLama Universe

Most of us don’t think of the Dalai Lama as scientifically inclined, but his small book is fascinating – and suggests that he knows something about physics! My interest, though, has been in how his insights about physics and Tibetan Buddhism might apply to my writing fiction. Imagine the splat when I fall off that tightrope. (Oh yeah, I forgot: For Buddhists, there’s no tightrope, or more to the point, there’s no me to fall off. Therefore, no splat.) However, he notes a couple of fun physics facts that actually do relate to writing.

First Fun Physics Fact

  • In 1906, J.J.Thomson won the Nobel Prize in Physics for the discovery that electrons behave as particles. Twenty-one years later, J.J.’s son, George Paget Thomson, won the 1937 Physics Nobel (shared with C.J. Davidson of the United States) for demonstrating experimentally that electrons behave as waves. (I’d love to have listened in to the dinner table arguments in that family: “Dad, you’re a fossil: They’re waves!” “Listen, you young whippersnapper! They’re particles, darn it!”)

The quantum physicists, of course, just shook their heads, reminding everyone that whether an electron is a particle or a wave remains unresolved until the moment when someone actually tries to measure the pesky “wavicle” (or Schrodinger’s alive-or-dead cat, for that matter). At that moment, the electron (or the cat) becomes one or the other, depending on the kind of measurement. In other words, the nature of the phenomenon depends on how some physicist interacts with it. Put another way, the nature of a thing depends on the nature of the things interacting with it.

The Dalai Lama (whose monastic name is Tenzin Gyatso) reflects that the reality of a thing “is contingent upon our language, social conventions, and shared concepts” (Universe, p. 63).

“You say po-tay-toes, I say po-tah-toes.”

Or less flippantly, for people who possess specific skills and experience, things are real and visible that, to those without those skills and experience, are invisible, even unknowable. For instance, a dermatologist sees a tumor where a lay-person sees only a freckle, or a fishing guide sees fish in the water that a rookie can’t. The nature of things depends on how and by whom they are perceived.


Asanga (300 – 370 C.E.)

Second Fun Physics Fact

  • Remember Albert Einstein’s twin paradox? One twin takes a twenty-light-year trip in a space ship at nearly the speed of light, while her twin stays on earth. When the space traveler returns, her twin is twenty years older than she is. Learning this, the Dalai Lama writes, “reminded me of the story of how Asanga [a Buddhist saint] was taken to Maitreya’s [a future Buddha] Heavenly Realm, where Maitreya dictated to him the five scriptures . . . all in the time of a tea break. But when he returned to earth, fifty years had passed.” (Universe, p. 59). Obviously, Asanga was taken in a spaceship at the speed of light.

Fun Physics Facts Applied to Writing

What do these fun physics facts mean for writers? Both facts speak to the interdependence of beings, whether they are big beings (the twin humans or Schrodinger’s alive-or-dead cat) or little beings (the electrons). Every thing that is depends on other things. You can’t be a wave-like electron unless some physicist is measuring you. You can’t age at a particular rate unless you live in a world that requires that rate of change.

And the opposite works too: Change one thing, and you change the rest of things. The change may be subtle, but it’s real. Remember the famous butterfly whose wing-flutter in Shanghai eventually affects the weather in New York? If you’ve ever lived with someone in chronic pain, you know how your own life is affected even though you’re not the one in pain.

“Get to the point,” you’re thinking. “What about writing?”

Dylan Thomas

Dylan Thomas (1914-1953 C.E.)

Dylan Thomas said, “A good poem is a contribution to reality. The world is never the same once a good poem has been added to it. A good poem helps to change the shape of the universe, helps to extend everyone’s knowledge of himself and the world around him.” Nothing stands alone, not even a poem, a novel, a memoir, a science text, or an essay. And equally, every poem, novel, memoir, or text of any kind depends on the writer and the world that shaped and continues to shape that writer.

In a novel, every character has – or should have – what I call a transactional (that is, an interdependent) relation to other characters: They need to contribute something to or receive something from each other – and they must also contribute to the story itself as well as being shaped by that story. Every thief must have a victim, every lover a beloved, every action a reaction.

Scenes, too: Successful scenes live in an organic relationship with their surrounding scenes. They proceed logically, clearly, and appropriately in an unfolding order that makes sense to the reader and carries the story forward. Seems elementary.

It is elementary, my dear Watson.

The twins’ aging processes depend on the environments (Earth, or a speeding spaceship) they inhabit. The environment in which an electron is measured determines whether it manifests as a wave or a particle. It’s the same in fiction. In another post, I’ll write about how this applies to non-fiction, but here I’m homed in on fiction. (By the way, my wife, Michele, asked, “Why did you write ‘homed in’ instead of ‘honed in’? I told her that the Grammarist web site says that “homed-in” is preferred about two to one in North America. She said, “I guess that depends on how it was measured, eh?”)

Anyway, characters are shaped by their life-worlds (which include both the other characters and the world they all share), and in turn, they shape the life-worlds of other characters. My lead character in Climbing the Coliseum, Ed Northrup, is a depressed psychologist in a small ranching town. He’d never fit in a Dickens novel or in The Scarlet Letter, nor would he work in Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. Ed has adapted to life in the small town and the mountain valley — he’s been shaped by them — and in turn, he influences all the characters he meets there.

Of course, a great way to generate tension and conflict – which are the drivers of story – is to place Character A in a world for which she is entirely unsuited. Robinson Crusoe, anyone? Our two Fun Physics Facts show us why: It’s because the out-of-place character and the environment that stresses her are interdependent that their interaction creates the tension that in turn drives the story.

Every piece of good writing embodies this interdependence of beings and their worlds. How do I know?

J.J. and his boy George told us so.