The Courage of Process

We make too much of genius. Geniuses are fascinating in the way that marathon winners and astronauts are fascinating. I know they exist but there is no point in pretending I will ever be one.

Geniuses aren’t the problem. The stories we tell ourselves about geniuses are a big problem. We make totems from stories of sudden insight and inspiration. We venerate anecdotes of quick leaps but ignore the long run that always came just before.

We admire the astronauts floating proud and confidant in zero g. The thousand hour simulations spent mastering crucial motions are unseen. No one wants to watch astronaut trainees puke into their helmets.

The first man and woman to cross the marathon line are celebrated as heroes. If we care a lot, we might also celebrate the oldest and youngest to cross. We only allow ourselves time for a few heroes but a marathon is made of hundreds of heroes. People who have shaped their lives around the effort of accomplishing unlikely things.

We can’t all be marathon winners, but we can all be like those other people. Marathon runners.

As a writer, I read exceptional writers. I read them to understand their craft and try to apply some of that craft in my own. After the first flash of admiration, fear and discouragement often set in. I see the bright flash of brilliance and wonder why I can’t achieve that same flash. Why won’t the same lightning strike for me? I don’t see the dozens of bad early drafts, the tedious mulch of revision built on notes and critiques of brutally honest friends.

When we talk to ourselves about our own success, we think too often of genius. Our stories convince us success is an outcome of mysterious, unknowable forces, genetics or divine intervention. We imagine ourselves standing at the peak without imagining what it will take to get there. We try to teleport ourselves to the top of Mount Everest. We can’t.

Success requires the courage of sustained effort. There are no shortcuts. There is no escape. Success comes from developing a process and building the courage to stay committed to that process. It takes courage to stay focused when things aren’t going well. It takes humility to hone incremental improvements based on constant, ego-bruising feedback.

Geniuses are geniuses because they committed themselves to their process early. Geniuses have found their focus and shaped their lives to feed and support their own development.

No one sees the work, but the work is there. We should stop disabling ourselves with praise of the quick moments of clarified insight and encourage each other instead to start sorting through the confusion and uncertainty to develop and commit to a brave process of our own. That is a useful story. The courage of process.

The Thing About Writing

Some nights the words absolutely pour out, and you are drowning with things to say.

Some nights you write calmly, evenly, almost absent. You surprise yourself days later reading a thing you didn’t realize you had written.

And then some nights you write 277 words about a man watching television with Death and wonder how you ever manage to talk to people at all since words are so fickle and finicky and tiresome.

But the thing about writing, the trick of it, is realizing that each of these nights is the same. The writing is the writing. The dreaming is dreaming. The telling is telling.

Who are you tonight to know what’s good or bad, dishonest or true?

Saturday night poem.

This is a night I wish to write poetry — loud, brash, unrhyming poems that stick sideways inside your head and make you walk around shaking like a dog, trying to jar loose that cockeyed idea that did not start with you but lodged in and got dressed up in your own life, became your own words.

A poem like home invasion — sudden, brutal, unflinching — arriving like a stranger in the dark unlocked hallway of your home. Unsmiling. Dishonest. Up to no good.

A poem could be that one saving shove back away from the subway tracks where you had stood contemplating. Your reverie interrupted by the rude press of unseen hands and then gone, leaving you there to wonder how close you might actually have come to stepping down while the night’s last train goes barreling by.

Poems like coffee taken black too late at night, a sinister brew of dreams which you will imbibe and quickly forget, except for one phrase that reaches out and scalds your gullet, scorching as you swallow, all the way down.

Poems dumped like a box of cockroaches, scurry and scatter everywhere, finding the cracks, the crannies, all the tiny, secret places of your life you pretend are not there. Places even the finest brushes cannot reach. Places inside yourself which you can never get clean.

Ah. Here comes a poem, approaching like the evening’s last shopper casually strolling the aisles in a grocery store about to close. The cashier has made her last announcement. The lights are half off. The grocers have other places to be, but the poem makes its way, perusing the shelves, making its maddening slow inventory, a list of things it does not need and will not buy. They cannot lock the doors until it pushes its empty cart through the checkout line.

Here it is. At last. A poem about poetry, which is the writer’s main retreat. When you do not know what to write, you write about writing. You post it for others, inject it into their Saturday night. They read it with a shrug, except for that one other writer who feels the same inexorable urge and pours herself another heavy draught.

Kinship with Losers

I love the Olympics, even if they are an economic, social and political nightmare.

When I was younger, I used to marvel at the sheer and shining brilliance of the three athletes on the medal stand. Whichever three athletes; whichever three medals. The sport didn’t matter. Mastery mattered. Those three athletes who triumphed above all others through preposterous trials of competence to be crowned the best. All hail the winners. Cue anthem.

Only now, I begin the recognize the actual beauty on display. The opening Olympic ceremony is a parade of people who have dedicated themselves to improbable, ridiculous dreams. Most of these people will not be winners. Most won’t get medals. Most won’t be interviewed by Jimmy Kimmel or Katie Couric. Most won’t appear anywhere in the four hours of nightly prime time coverage. They will go home battered and bruised, some of them broken. Some will get a hero’s welcome but then are quickly forgotten. They’ll take jobs they may or may not enjoy. They’ll have kids and grandkids. Maybe their kids and grandkids will care. Maybe they won’t.

It doesn’t matter. These people burn with weird, impossible, potentially useless urges. They want to push a stone across the ice, 126 feet from hack to tee. Or they want to hurl themselves together in crowded circles at breakneck speeds on millimeter thin blades in races where victories and defeats are defined in hundredths of a second. Or they need to send themselves head first down perilous tubes at interstate traffic speeds with only a helmet and a St. Christopher’s medal. Who sells these kinds of people life insurance?

And then there’s me – this 44 year old person who has spent the last 34 years trying to write a beautiful sentence in hopes that a beautiful sentence might somehow lead to a beautiful paragraph and then a beautiful page and, perhaps, most ridiculous of all, a beautiful story.

There’s no parade for this weird desire. No procession to show the world. No anthem. No medal. No primetime coverage.

I feel tremendous kinship with these Olympic losers, these ridiculous dreamers. We are always working, seldom winning, dreaming our ridiculous, improbable, wonderful dreams.

This Tree. Specific.

I became friends with a tree this weekend.

Campbell Folk School is a very community-centered place, so I arrived fully expecting to make new friends. I met many fine people from all walks of life and from all over the country. I did not expect the closest of those friends to be the tree outside our Orchard House writing room. I spent a fair amount of my weekend admiring that tree and writing underneath its branches.

Throughout the three day workshop, our instructor admonished us to be specific. Don’t say tree. Say white pine or birch or cedar. The work of revision is always moving toward greater specificity. Not just any tree. This tree. Specific.

The problem was we had no idea what kind of tree my friend was. We didn’t know how to name it. One of the workshop participants teaches biology. She used a tree taxonomy guide to move through the criteria toward a name. Deciduous. Broad. Flat. Asymmetrical. Ragged edges. My biology teacher friend suggested our new friend might be an elm. This made sense. My tree friend was both incredibly familiar (an exemplar of treeness) and otherwordly. It is possible that I had never before seen a fully grown elm. Most elms in my part of the country were killed off by Dutch Elm disease before I was born.

“This Tree. Specific.” is the poem I wrote about my new friend. I was able to read this piece at Sunday Morning Song. Reading this poem on that last morning felt like an appropriate offering to show gratitude to my classmates, to our instructor, to the Folk School and, most of all, to my friend the tree.

“This Tree. Specific.”

We are friends now, you and I. I sit

beneath your branches, waiting to know your name.

Don’t bother me with binomial nomenclature. It is your stature I most admire,

and the welcoming way you spread your branches to embrace new friends.

And your tremendous, unwavering patience as you press careful roots into dirt.

Ever mindful of the bustling, burrowing communities teeming below.

So many questions you might answer.

Did you know John Campbell? Did he sit here where I do listening for your secrets?

Can you teach me to make a meal of sunlight and rain?

Never mind. I’m pestering you now. I do that to my friends.

It is enough for now to sit beneath your branches, to appreciate the way you exert yourself in the world. Patient. Dignified.

I do not need to know your name. You are this tree. Specific. Friendly. My friend.


Crafting Community: Impressions of Campbell Folk School

We come to Campbell Folk School to craft some thing – a bowl, a scarf, a decorative rod of forged steel, a poem. We come to study and practice our crafts and, in the learning, we create for ourselves an entire community.

Find your community, the instructor tells us. This is imperative. Make a commitment and build your audience. And we set to work.

The writing is easier and better here, more forceful and clear, in the company of others. You meet gifted artists who don’t recognize their own gifts, people, who, like you, are plagued by self-doubt. You begin to notice that the joys and challenges and struggles are universal. You aren’t doing this thing alone. People notice your work. Your specific work. A specific line. A specific tone or phrase. And when they praise, you trust them because of the specificity of their praise. And you take second and third hard looks at your own work to help it be ready to share.

And the generosity of the instructor, laying down sheaf after sheaf of poems, a riot of prompts and exercises. You meet the older fellow, a librarian like you, but struggling today with his nerves, not sure he has found the right words to say what needs saying. You work it through together. Celebrate discovery of the right words. You laugh. You share. You allow yourself to be ridiculous, to say possibly stupid things. You are excited by everyone else’s success. Their success is your success.

The meals are a community of first name neighbors. You eat with black smiths, weavers, musicians, wood turners. In their other lives they are engineers, teachers, research economists. They gather here from Tennessee, Ohio, Florida, Russia, Bulgaria. You pass the bread. You offer each other second and third helpings. You clear the table together. You bring each other coffee. The meal is locally sourced and unbelievably fresh. Michelle jokes that the salad is so fresh someone found a snail in theirs.

And you befriend the elm outside your workshop door. It stands majestically tall, like a magical giant from another age. And only as you are driving home do you realize that the archaic majesty of this mighty tree is a true thing. This tree is thing you have never seen. There are no more elms where you live. They all died of Dutch Elm disease before you were born.

We offer our poetry aloud at 7:30 morning song. People listen. They comment. They applaud.

And in this spirit of wide generosity, poetry is moving. You are writing more today than you wrote the entire month of May. And it is good, strong writing. It is connected, specific. It has something to say.

This place draws art out of you. It helps you believe you are capable of creating beauty. It helps you remember that the effort of art is worthwhile.

And the sunlight is a smiling force. And there is harmony and all is well and all is right and you are finally ready to claim the gifts you have picked up so many times before only to set them right back down again. This time, you know, you can hold on to them. You can shape those gifts into a craft and let those gifts shape you.

This is why you are here. It is why any of us are here.




A Planet Called Rizak

I wrote my first short story when I was 10. It was about a planet called Rizak that was facing ecological collapse. Rizakian scientists had discovered a path away from inevitable destruction, but it required everyone on the planet working closely together and no small measure of personal sacrifice. Rizakian politicians and religious leaders hated the plan because, if everyone worked directly to fix the problem, politicians and religious leaders would no longer be needed. Rizakian business leaders hated the plan because it was expensive and meant no one would have time or money left to buy the things they were selling. So, everybody died.

I grew up in Oak Ridge, Tennessee (site of the WWII Manhattan Project) during the Reagan administration. At the time, I felt pretty certain I would die by sudden nuclear annihilation. Funny how, despite the preoccupations of the conscious mind, the unconscious mind finds the more plausible story.

Note to Self: Keep Writing

Once you step off the path, it is difficult to step back on. There are ten thousand satisfyingly specific reasons not to write. You are tired. You are busy. You are distracted by the events of the earlier day. Or maybe you are worried. Or you don’t have the right ideas. Or you are confused a little bit and waiting to figure things out.

This is what I have come to know about writing. Don’t stop. Not for earthquakes. Not for hurricanes. Not for the fiery wrath of God. Your life will always be busy. You are always going to be tired. People are going to continue disappointing you. Keep writing.

You are going to have to let yourself become weird. It cannot be helped. You are already weird. This urge you have to write things is not a normal condition. You are going to have to let yourself get even weirder. You are going to have to allow yourself to believe in things you know are not true. You will need to converse with people who are not there. You are going to cry about things that did not happen and fall out of touch with the things that are happening all around.

One day soon, you will listen to the news or read it or watch it on TV and you will wonder what strange creatures inhabit this planet. And then you will realize it is no real matter to you because you have work to do. Your home is not your home. You are unfit for the life people think you lead. You have made yourself strange and you are swallowed up entirely by the beauty and the wonder and the sheer, brilliant futility of it all.

You are meant to keep yourself writing. Do not step off the path. Don’t waste this delicious weirdness, these delightful quirks which have accumulated over some many minutes, hours and days.

Go down deeper. Get weirder. Stranger. More ferocious. More fierce.

And then, one day, look up and show the world this thing you have made. And give it to them and let them do with it whatever they will. And get back to work. Do it all again.

Stephen King at the Ryman

Stephen King spoke to a crowd of 2000 people at the Ryman Theatre in Nashville last night. I was one of those 2000 people.

It was a pretty special night for a lot of people. Advance tickets sold out in just a few hours. The line to get inside the Ryman wrapped all around the building.


The Ryman itself is a spiritual place, an historic church and meeting place converted into a performance space. Presidents Teddy Roosevelt and Taft spoke here. So did Helen Keller and Ann Sullivan, Charlie Chaplin and Will Rogers. Harry Houdini performed here. Lester Flatt, Bill Monroe, Patsy Cline, Hank Williams and later Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and many others performed when country music was just called music.

The night began with a welcome by Ann Patchett, who introduced Donna Tartt, who introduced Stephen King. It was three first-class authors for the price of one.

King spoke for a over an hour, roaming back and forth across the stage, telling anecdotes of his guitar work with the Rockbottom Remainders, the time he had dinner with Bruce Springsteen, and his recovery from the roadside collision that almost killed him.

He took a few questions from the audience, handled the gushing adoration of a few intoxicated fans, and deftly deflected all questions about his opinion of the many movies, past and future, based on his work.

Growing up, I always imagined I would be a famous author some day, and, as famous authors do, I would routinely be having dinner with Stephen King, my family and his family. We would sit and talk about the books we were reading, the movies we were watching and would hash out ideas for things we were working on.

That is never going to happen. For me, last night at the Ryman was the next best thing.

King’s earliest books — Carrie, Salem’s Lot, The Dead Zone, Firestarter and Cujo — more than any other books, made me want to be a writer. Through middle school, I penned short stories in longhand on notebook paper trying to emulate his style. My eight grade English teacher caught this and remarked that I was well on my way to being “the next Stephen King.” I never forgot the compliment, though I realize now that being “the next” anything isn’t what one should strive for. One should work hard to be one’s self.

Emulating a cherished author’s voice is an important part of learning craft but finding your own voice is far more rewarding. That is a constant work in progress. King spoke of the moment a person discovers their talent as a kind of waking up to their life. He talked about Jerry Lee Lewis seeing a piano for the first time. That is what writing is like for him. It is what writing is like for me.

King’s On Writing is one of my favorite books about writing. He offers clear, practical advise about learning to write. It all pretty much boils down to this: There are no short-cuts. You learn to write by writing. You should finish the things that you start, and you should write every single day.

This, I think, is good advice. Still, a person hopes that there might be a secret, some little snatch of code that can be gleaned from a master to make your own journey a little easier. There isn’t. “Writing a novel is like crossing the Atlantic in a rowboat. It is really, really hard.”

There you have it. Stephen King said writing is hard. The fact that I find it incredibly hard doesn’t mean I’m doing something wrong. It doesn’t mean I’m lacking some secret skill or missing some key experience that will make it much easier.

The work doesn’t get easier, but, if you can keep at it, it can be incredibly rewarding. As inspiration goes, it cuts both ways.

Writing is hard. Keep writing anyway.



The True Work of Writing

Only now, I am beginning to recognize the true work of writing. It isn’t only the words. The words are the craft. The words are the practice. The words are the instrument.

The true work of writing is learning how to dream on command. It is finding that dark, vast ocean inside of you and tapping in so you can drink or drown at a moment’s notice.

The work of writing is meeting people who do not exist and learning to listen to their stories. You will know you are hearing them when you begin to fall in love. And they will follow you into your waking life, the non-dreaming part and they will begin to whisper at the most inconvenient times. And you will have a thousand other things you are meant to be doing. Things that are more important. Things that are more practical. But these people that you now love are speaking with such urgency. Their whispers so lovely, so personal.

And you will live a kind of divided life. A waking life of here and now; a writing life of lovely whispers. And you will carry forward in both worlds, often simultaneous. But your attention is not divided. You are not living two halves of two lives. Your whole life gets richer. You are living a two-fold life. You have made yourself bigger. The characters live in you and you live in them.