My kingdom for a couple more hours!

Time is a flexible entity. If you’re bored, time drags. If you’re excited, time flies. Sixty seconds can seem like an eternity—for instance, if you inadvertently lock yourself out of your house. Naked. In winter.

There’s never a moment in your life when your moods and your needs and wants stop affecting your sense of time. Time is always, always, always flexible! In other words, you can always stretch time, steal time, and otherwise make and take the time to accomplish anything you really want to accomplish.

I’m saying this as a sort of confession. For the past few weeks I’ve been busy with deadlines, projects, travel plans, paperwork, and every last professional excuse ever invented. I’m in New York as I write, battling a big book deadline on a project I started roughly ten years ago. “I’ve been too busy to blog,” I telepathically told my subscribers. And you know what? I was lying! To myself first and foremost! How many things have I chosen to do recently that were less important and less fun then blogging? Dozens, hundreds, thousands of time-consuming things, many of which I wouldn’t even describe to you for fear of ridicule.

I wouldn’t say that I’m a complete slacker. I’ve done a lot of good things lately. I even found the time to read a couple of books, including a Sherlock Holmes novel I had never read before. It contains a quote attributed to William Gladstone, who was England’s prime minister for many years: “A change of work is the best rest.”

Moral of the story?

Writing this blog post has allowed me to procrastinate facing my big deadline. I feel so rested, I think I’ll pull an all-nighter on that ten-year project.



Write a story every day, part 12: Words of Wisdom

I’ve been writing a short story every day for two years, one month, and three days now. I thought now it'd be a good time to wrap up this blog series with a few shouts into the wind.

You feel totally sure that you couldn’t ever do something such as writing a story every single day, but… have you even tried to do it? Have you tried once for three minutes and failed and given up forever? Have you tried it a second time after you first failed? Right. Call me again AFTER YOU’VE TRIED IT TO BEGIN WITH!

You can develop the most unlikely habits. People are adaptable—different people in different ways. It’s amazing that people “learn” how to smoke cigarettes. You might as well learn how to swallow burning sandpaper. Learning how to write a story every day is easier than a lot of things you’ve learned willingly in your life.

First create, then edit. Before your wicked, amoral, shameless, free, wide-ranging creativity creates something—any one little thing—your inner editor has absolutely no role to play. It’s a universal principle: First the shapeless blob of mud, then the sculpture. First the dead chicken, then the fricassée de poulet à l’estragon. If you’re going to write a short story every day, you need to let those dead chickens come out of the freezer.

You don’t necessarily get better at something by simply repeating it again and again. I know musicians who’ve played in the same orchestra for 30 years and who have completely lost their ability to make music in any meaningful way. (Orchestras have a way of killing people slowly.) But if you practice something attentively and skillfully for any length of time, you definitely improve your craft. Writing a story every day for two years can kinda make you a good writer, know what I mean?

Time to take a break from writing about writing. My next blog series will be purely visual. See it for yourselves!

Write a story every day, part 11: The Set-Up

To help you write a short story every day, decide on a physical set-up and use it to your advantage. I keep a dedicated notebook for my short stories, and I write all of them by hand, in sequence. From the onset I gave myself a rule: to finish my short stories at the bottom of a page. I might write one, two, three, or four pages—the number of pages isn’t important—but the story can’t finish in the middle of a page. Any one page I start writing on, I must finish. I’m on my sixth notebook right now. Each notebook has had different dimensions, so my short stories have varied in length from about 300 to about 900 words.

To some degree, to restrain your creativity can actually make you more creative. It was T.S. Eliot who said that writing free verse (that is, without a metric structure and without rhyme) is like playing tennis with the net down. It’s not much of a game; in fact, it’s pointless and boring. Put up the net, follow the rules of the game—then you have a challenge, obstacles to overcome, the potential for success and failure, the flow of adrenaline… My modest finish-the-page rule makes for a slightly harder game, more challenging. And my creativity responds! “I’m up to it. Restrain me, and I’ll expand against your restrictions.”

Could you write your daily short story at the computer? Sure. Could you vary the length at will? Sure. Could you skip a day? Sure. The only thing is, there are risks and dangers in every situation without exception. Your creativity might interpret “the right to skip a day” to mean “the right to skip, period!” One day becomes three becomes ten becomes eternity. But, hey! You’re boss! To live is to make choices and to own the consequences of the choices you make. Choose to write every day, or choose to write only when you feel like it; and live with the consequences. There are very successful writers who don’t write every day, and writers who write nonstop without achieving a thing. The task really isn’t to write every day, but to find your creative flow and fulfill your potential in whatever way best suits you… and this may or may not be writing every day.

Lesson #4: Do as you will. There are no recipes.

In my next post, I’ll bring this series to a close with a list of some of the secondary benefits of writing a short story every day.

Write a story every day, part 10: Exercises in Style

I’ve been writing a short story every day for two years. For a while I ran out of creative juice and began resenting the daily short-story obligation. My wife suggested that I do exercises in style, much like those made famous in Raymond Queneau’s marvelous little book, Exercises in Style.

Queneau describes a banal incident in Paris: A guy witnesses a petty conflict between two people aboard a bus; the day after, he happens to see one of those people in front of a train station. Then Queneau tells the same story in 99 different ways: in film-noir style, in pig Latin, monosyllabic, and so on. In an overt homage to Queneau, Matt Madden did the same thing in the graphic-novel/comic-book format, in 99 Ways to Tell a Story.

I wrote up an incident that had happened to me in New York City last summer. While I was walking along Broadway on the Upper West Side, I bumped into a woman of my acquaintance. The day after, while leaving the Metropolitan Museum on 5th Avenue, I bumped into someone else I knew, this time a man. In my short story I described these two acquaintances, what we said to each other, how I felt about these meetings. I added visual details and invented some psychological quirks (“lies”) for myself and for my acquaintances, just to spice up the exercises in style. Then I re-wrote the story 45 times (“a short story every day, for forty-five days running”). I wrote it in the voices of Rene Descartes, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, James Joyce, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jorge Luis Borges, Anne Rice, Quentin Tarantino, and many others. I wrote it from the point of view of a paranoid psychotic, a military man, a law-and-order fanatic. I wrote it as a study in smells, then as a study in numbers. I wrote it as science fiction, like an episode of “The Twilight Zone.” I wrote it in the style of the King James Bible. I wrote it in baby talk. I wrote a version in phony German, a language in which my actual vocabulary is about five hundred words; in phony Spanglish; in not-so-phony Portuguese (which is my mother tongue).

Truth be told, the possibilities of the exercises in style are limitless. You could do thousands of them. The plus is that you have a lot fun and develop your craft. The minus is that the exercise might turn out to be emotionally sterile—there’s little depth to it, little universality; in the end, it amounts to a narcissistic head trip for the writer. But suppose you just don’t know how else to start, sustain, or renew your story-a-day habit: resort to the endlessly amusing exercises in style.

Lesson #3: When art fails you, work on your craft. There are plenty of low-cost, low-risk, low-brain writing exercises to keep you going over dry patches.

In my next post I’ll tell you about the nuts and bolts of writing a story every day.

Write a story every day, part 9: The Benefits

When it comes to the task of writing a short story every day, you can simply become the benevolent tyrant of your own life and make up your own definition of a short story. “A short story is whatever I say it is!” Then you can write pretty much anything you want. Short stories with a beginning, a middle, and end; vignettes, anecdotes, sketches; jokes, good and bad; rants; scenes from an imaginary movie; self-contained scenes from a novel you are working on.


This is partly how I’ve succeeded in writing a short story every day for two years—by giving myself some leeway. Do the math: two years, one of 365 days, the other 366: 731 days, 731 short stories. Suppose only ten percent of my stories have a beginning, middle, and end, a textbook protagonist, and a textbook epiphany. That’s 73 bona-fide short stories. Suppose only ten percent of my bona-fide short stories are any good. That’s seven good stories. It’s the start of a publishable book.

Besides writing a number of bona-fide short stories I wrote sequences of interlinked stories, scenes, or fragments. My wife and I like asking idle questions. “How many times do you think we’ve kissed since we started dating?” “I don’t know. There must be some sort of Divine Computer that keeps track of everything. Don’t you wish you could access it?” I started writing a few improvisations on the Divine Computer, and wrote a sequence of fifteen self-contained pages (“a short story every day, for fifteen days running”). In time these improvisations coalesced into a book project, a novel about a 17-year-old boy who knows how to access the Divine Computer. My fiction editor liked the idea and gave me a contract for the novel.

I wrote a thirty-scene sequence (“a short story every day, for thirty days running”) about a kid who explores a haunted house before being swallowed by it. I don’t want to give away too many details, but the boy’s mother is illiterate; the town’s sheriff may or may not be the—no, I can’t tell you more. I have the makings of a good ghost story here, and I one day I might develop it into a novel or movie.

I wrote a fourteen-scene sequence (“a short story every day, for fourteen days running”) of set pieces for a Hong-Kong-style action movie. Except that the movie has no dialogue—everything is in the visuals and sound effects. Every night I recounted the day’s scene to my wife, complete with sound effects (which for the most part were revolting, since some bad stuff happens to some good people in Hong-Kong action movies). At the end of the scene she’d ask, “And then, what happened?” And I’d answer, “I’ll tell you tomorrow.” Two weeks! Day after day, a short story every day!

Lesson #2: Discipline pays off. You start off with a fixed, narrow goal (“a story every day”), and before long you start reaping a broad array of unexpected benefits (“a fancy book contract for a novel”).

In my next post I’ll tell you how I navigated a stretch of a few weeks in which I felt like I couldn’t write new stories every day anymore.

Write a story every day, part 8: What IS a story?

On January 1st, 2007, I decided to write a short story every day. So far I’ve managed a perfect record over two years and six days! Quite apart from writing more than 700 short stories, I learned a whole bunch of things in the process. I thought this would be a good time to go over the ground I covered.

What is a short story? There’s no consensus among writers. Some say a story of any length MUST have a beginning, middle, and end. No beginning, middle, and end: no story. I’ve always been bothered by these three terms. They don’t tell you much about what stories really are like, how they “behave” in practice. I think good stories of any sort—short stories, novels, plays, movies—have a premise, the build-up of tension and conflict, and a denouement or resolution of some sort. You might call the premise the “beginning,” the build-up the “middle,” and the resolution the “end.” But without these meaty characteristics, a beginning, a middle, and end are incomplete and misleading concepts.

Some writers claim that a short story MUST have a protagonist, main character, or “hero,” and the protagonist MUST undergo some inner change as the story unfolds. The character starts the story in some state of mind and comes out of it having had an insight about himself or the world around him or the meaning of life in general. James Joyce called this insight an “epiphany.” The term originally referred to how the baby Jesus’ divine nature was made manifest to the Gentiles, via the Magi. In this sense, an epiphany is the manifestation of a divine being; an epiphany is a revelation.

The term as used by James Joyce has now entered the common discourse.

“Honey, I had an epiphany while at the supermarket today.”

“Oh, yeah?”

“I don’t like cleaning your cat’s damn litter box. Never did. From now on it’s your job.”

“Epiphany, shemiphany. I gave you the damn cat for your damn birthday, remember?”

When I decided to write a short story everyday, I also decided to free myself from any preconceived ideas about what a story is or should be. Anything I write, I call a short story if I feel like it! Yes, it’s a form of cheating. But it allowed me to write very freely every single day—so freely and so prolifically that I even ended up writing dozens of stories with a beginning, middle, and end, with a protagonist that undergoes some sort of epiphany or revelation.

Lesson #1: You’re the boss of your own life. Make your choices and live with the consequences of the choices you make. I stand by my supremely permissive definition of “short story,” and I accept that, as a consequence of my own permissiveness, the authorities might refuse to call my daily efforts “short stories.”

In my next post I’ll tell you what kinds of stories I wrote over these past two years.

The Mask, Part 4: Wear Your Characters' Skins

In my recent posts I stated my belief that we all have multiple personalities inside us, and each personality has its own set of skills and talents. By wearing a Mask we can tap into our inner stockbroker, our inner rock star, our inner healer. And then we can USE their skills.

The principle applies universally, but for creative people, and more narrowly writers, it’s a boon to be able to tap into these different voices and people. If you’re a writer you can BECOME each different character in your novels, short stories, and scripts; and the character that you become then write the stories for you, by reacting, thinking, talking, and feeling each in his or her individual ways.

You need to draft a short story, screenplay scene, or novel chapter, and you can’t overcome the tyranny of the blank page? Put on the Mask of one of the characters involved in the action. This may be a T-shirt, a bonnet, an unlit cigarette dangling from your lips, a pair of oversized sunglasses. Or a posture: slouched, stiff, defensive, preening, slutty. Or a speech pattern or language tic: a few threatening words spoken slowly through clenched teeth, a fake-Serbian accent, or, like, a burst of Valley-Girl Speak.

By wearing their Masks you become Hannibal Lecter, Hamlet, Harry Potter, or Hermione. The characters have their own paradigm, their own agendas; they’ll act and react within the scene or chapter, doing and saying whatever is logical and organic to them. Then you won’t write the scene as much as you’ll take dictation from your characters.

After you finish writing, wear the Mask of the Literary Agent and sell your masterpiece for a million bucks. Just don’t forget to mention me when you give your Nobel Prize speech, all right?

The Mask, Part 3: Put on those glasses!

In my recent posts I stated that you have multiple personalities inside you, and all it takes is a Mask for you to tap into each personality. It may be better for you to rein in most of these personalities most of the time, but having them dormant inside you is better than not having them altogether. The multiple personalities really mean multiple energies and skills, and you have at least two good ways to put them to good use: You can sublimate (that is, gather, condense, and transform) these energies into a unified whole that is your individuality; or you can actually let them loose as needed.

We’ll leave sublimation out of the discussion and let loose instead.

A petty bureaucrat is refusing to stamp a form? Tap into your slick-lawyer persona. A peculiar smirk and a few words, well chosen and delivered with just the right mixture of charm and threat, will get the bureaucrat to stamp the form almost despite himself.

You need to learn the basics of a foreign language before being posted abroad? Trigger your inner chameleon. Wear a metaphorical kimono to learn Japanese, or metaphorical lederhosen to learn German. Go to the language classes as if in the skin of a German. It doesn’t matter if you don’t speak a word of German to begin with. You’ll learn faster if you wear a German Mask.

You need to walk past a group of pumped-up street toughs? Inside yourself there’s a powerful martial artist. You don’t need to physically fight the toughs; just give them a little hint of that energy of yours, and they’ll let you through. At a glance they know the difference between an easy mark and someone they’d rather not mess with. A truly skilful martial artist actually never gets into fights: he or she moves with a steady posture that isn’t necessarily bellicose, and potential adversaries give up the fight before it starts.

Remember, the Mask may be a bodily tic, a single word, a tone of voice, a piece of clothing… or just the THOUGHT of that word or hat or tic or what you will. Ultimately you don’t even need to put on that infamous shirt to become a pimp or fanatic; any one trigger will do, including a single thought.












Before I conclude this series, I’d like to tell my writer friends how they can use the Mask in their work.


The Mask, Part 2: Do NOT put on that shirt!

In my recent post I stated that Multiple Personality Syndrome is the natural condition of every human being, and I promised to tell you how to trigger each of your inner personalities.

Have you ever had the creeps just touching a shirt in a clothing store, or simply looking at it in a window? The creeps is a strong negative reaction you can’t quite fully understand or articulate. You might say the shirt is very ugly, but that doesn’t explain the strength of your reaction. What harm is there in an inert shirt, hanging at a safe distance? In the shirt itself, none. In the energies that the shirt evokes in your psyche, however, there’s tremendous POTENTIAL harm. That shirt is a Mask, and you’re afraid of it, afraid of the behaviors it’d trigger if you wore it. Deep down you know that, were you to put that shirt on, you’d become a pimp, a murderer, a pedophile, a religious fanatic, a retard. You know you have these personalities inside you, and most of the time you really don’t want them to come out at all.

The Mask, symbolized by that shirt, is an extremely powerful trigger.

The Mask is many things. It can be a literal mask, like those used in sacred ceremonies in aboriginal cultures, or those we wear at costume parties and at Carnival time. Face paint is a version of this mask; and make-up is a version of face paint. Ergo, when you put make-up on you’re engaging in the same ritual as the aboriginal in the Amazon jungle who covers his face in red pigment: You’re summoning a different part of yourself to come to the fore.

The Mask can be a piece of clothing as simple as a tie, or as elaborate as a theatrical getup that takes an hour to assemble before each performance. Go through your wardrobe and imagine how you really feel when you wear jeans and a T-shirt, as opposed to a slinky black dress, as opposed to a pantsuit, as opposed to a cashmere sweater, as opposed to a halter top. Or take two T-shirts, one red, one black. Aren’t you two different people when you wear one or the other? Perhaps very slightly different in this case, but different nevertheless.

The Mask can be a gesture, a little tic of body language: shrug your shoulders, and suddenly you’re a Jewish mother harping about her wayward son. Thrust your chest outward, and suddenly you’re a preening bodybuilder. Let your head hang down and sideways, and suddenly you’re a sad-sack loser with a victim mentality. The gesture invites a certain voice, an attitude, a way of behaving. All you need is ONE LITTLE TRIGGER, and an entire personality emerges.

The Mask can be something you do with your voice: a few words spoken high up in your voice, a growl, a four-letter word shouted with a nasal twang. And off you go, a new person altogether: a Brooklyn hoodlum, a priest with a secret past, a madam in a bordello in Berlin, circa 1923. A single word said with the right accent or tone of voice: that’s all it takes!

Charlie Chaplin was pottering around the movie set when he put on a small bowler hat and oversized shoes, picked up a cane… and, bingo! The Tramp was born whole, the gait, the personality, all gestures, attitudes, and reactions flowing naturally from the peculiar outfit that Chaplin had put on.

Javier Bardem played an evil psychopath in “No Country for Old Men,” the film made by the Coen brothers based on the novel of the same name by Cormac McCarthy. I read an interview with him in which he said the set hairdresser gave him a haircut… whereupon he became the psychopath he was meant to play. Bangs, that’s all it took! He couldn’t have played Prince Charming with those bangs. Or an action hero. Or a university professor. (Actually, I know a professor or three who have bangs, but this only proves the point.)

Look at a group photo of college students from about 1975. Those long fuzzy beards, those thick glasses with heavy frames, those broad-collared polyester shirts? They were “personalities,” not simple accoutrements. The personalities were triggered, intimately, directly, inevitably, by the accoutrements. Take one of those guys from that photo. Give him a shave, get him to wear contact lenses and a black linen shirt: He won’t be the same guy. He won’t talk the same way, pursue the same interests, or hang around with the same old gang.

You have the Brooklyn hoodlum and the madam and all the other crazies inside you. Most of the time you keep them quiet, deep within yourself. But part of the time you want them to come out; or you NEED them to come out; or you know they’ll do great harm but you’ll let them come out anyway; or you’ll yield to them and claim to be an unwilling victim. “I couldn’t help it!” In short, need, want, obligation, oversight, or compulsion might all cause one of those crazies to pop out of you and do his song-and-dance.

Since the crazies will come out anyway, how can you use their energies and skills constructively? Stay tuned!

The Mask, Part 1: You Are Many

It’s an undeniable biographical fact that you’ve had the experience of becoming a different person just because you put on a striped shirt, or a knit tie with a ketchup splotch, or a fancy new pair of eyeglasses. Or because you got a new haircut, or because you shaved that beard you had worn for twenty years. Or because you talked to a Norwegian tourist at a street corner and, almost unwillingly, you started imitating her accent. Then you weren’t “you” anymore, but a completely different person with a whole other inner life.

Inside you there are dozens of different personalities raring to come out. And all it takes for any of them to take over your life is a simple trigger that I'll call the Mask: a shirt, a tie, a word said with a funny accent. In this series of blog entries we’ll look at how Multiple Personality Syndrome is the natural condition of every human being, and how the Mask is an effective way for you to tap into all your personalities and their respective talents and strengths.

We don’t talk to our bankers in the exact same way we talk to our infant daughters. We behave one way in the shower, another in public; one way at mass on Sunday morning, another watching Monday Night Football; one way with our wives, another with our mothers-in-law. We change our minds over time, according to context and to specific needs and wants. We change our body language, our tone of voice, our discourse—all those things that are visible and audible to the world. But we also "wear" different priorities, beliefs, convictions, and many characteristics that aren’t so immediately obvious.

Let’s take as axiomatic (and that means, “so obvious we don’t need to argue about it!”) that we all have many sides to our personalities… which is just another way of saying we have many personalities. Out of our inner multitute, a certain unity arises, highly complex, complicated even, full of contradictions and paradoxes, messy—but unified all the same. You may be a rock star singing in the shower and a sniveling beggar asking your banker for a line of credit. And yet the star and the beggar both are YOU, absolutely and totally the same “you” and not two different people.

This paradoxical version of the Multiple-Personality Syndrome is the natural condition of a human being. There are risks and dangers to it, of course. But it’s truly innate, inevitable, and desirable. You don’t want to talk to your banker the way you sing in the shower—trust me on this. You’re much better off if you’re able to change your posture, your tone of voice, your "everything."

In the next post I’ll tell you how.

Ten challenges, one reaction: Do Nothing!

The other day I went to my favorite café for a work session. I took the following materials with me:

  • my computer;
  • a large notebook, which I use for free associating, creating mind maps, and exploring ideas for new books;
  • a three-page letter from my editor, asking for a last round of revisions to my forthcoming novel Backtracked and requesting that I cut four or five chapters out of my manuscript—with a two-week deadline;
  • printed comments from the members of my critiquing group, with feedback about a new novel project;
  • a print-out of three rejections yet another novel of mine, W.W. Werewolf, received through my literary agent;
  • and a letter from a publisher in England asking for an very short story to be submitted to an anthology, again with an urgent deadline.

I laid out my notebook and pencils, opened my computer, and ordered an espresso. Then I nursed my coffee for a long time, watched people at the café, and refused to do anything else whatsoever. I didn’t write, didn’t read any of my materials, didn’t even think much at all.

It’s one of the best exercises a writer can ever do: Put yourself face to face with all your challenges, and learn to do nothing for a while. No reactions, no ambitions, no feelings, no love, no hate, no resentment, no hurry. Niente. Nada.

Once you clear your mind of preconceptions and fears, you’ll be in a much better position to actually meet the challenge. An editor has rejected one of your submissions? Rejections are part of the job, and indeed part of everyone’s lives. Read your rejection letters dispassionately, separate yourself a little from your work, realize the editors in question are turning down your book, for now; they’re not turning YOU down FOREVER.

Your editor wants you to amputate some of the best parts of your book? Calm down. Put her letter aside. Take a few days to think about it. It doesn’t matter how strongly you feel about your book; given enough time and space and intelligent feedback from seasoned professionals, you might quite possibly change your mind and agree with the cuts.

Your crit group floods you with suggestions of all types, complaints, musings, contradictory remarks? That’s exactly what they’re supposed to do. Your job is to use a mixture of intuition and intellect to find some order in chaos, discern those ideas you can and must discard and those you can and must explore—in due course.

Urgent deadlines? As long as you’re freaking out, you won’t be able to work constructively. Take your sweet time to pull yourself together, then you might be able to write that short story in an hour. It was Abraham Lincoln who said, “If I had eight hours to chop down a tree, I'd spend six hours sharpening my ax.”

My espresso was delicious, the people in the café were friendly and entertaining. After twenty-five minutes of doing nothing, I started working on my editor’s suggestions. She’s absolutely right about those five chapters. They must go.

Write a story every day, part 7: Triggers revisited

Writing a story every day can seem like a tremendous challenge before you get the hang of it—just like dancing the tango, speaking a foreign language, or changing a diaper. I mean, I’ve never, ever changed anybody’s diaper in my life. If I had to do it without instruction or supervision or the right tools, I’d probably try to convince the freaking baby just to do it herself. It’d be easier for everyone involved.

Let’s say you’ve decided you want to dance the tango, speak German, and change diapers. And you want to write a new short story every day. Problem is, you have no ideas for a story. None. Zilch. You want the freaking story just to write itself. It’d be easier for everyone involved.

Here are a few suggestions. They don’t involve Q-tips or safety pins or anything smelly. Take my word for it: writing a story is easier than doing the other thing.

  1. Give yourself just a few words to start the story with, and open the spigot. Or ask someone else to say something. My wife proposed the following: “Nobody could control him.” I wrote a story about a Hollywood producer who has gone berserk.
  2. Write something involving a historical figure or situation. Judas selling Jesus for thirty pieces of silver—as told from the point of view of a Roman soldier who acts as a broker. Winnie Mandela pondering her divorce from Nelson. You meet Jack Nicholson at a party in Los Angeles, and to your surprise he has somehow heard perverse rumors about you. It’s 1957, and you’re riding an elevator by yourself in New York City. It stops on the way to the lobby, and Marilyn Monroe enters it, her hair disheveled, her mascara running. You smell alcohol in her breath. “Could you please help me?” she asks.
  3. Find inspiration in something that happened to you earlier today, or that you witnessed. You watched an old woman slip on the icy sidewalk and fall. You received a phone call from a stranger who had dialed the wrong number. You started brushing your teeth, only to realize you had put shaving foam on your toothbrush. Any one thing that has ever happened lends itself to a dramatic invention. It all depends on the connections you create between the event and the psychology of people involved. Conflict is the name of the game.
  4. Use a traditional trigger. “X, Y, and Z walk into a bar.” Give yourself a strange set of participants: A peacock, a chicken, and an eagle. A carrot, an eggplant, and a zucchini. A lesbian, a transsexual, and a priest. You get the idea: use a square formula and un-square variables, and your creativity is likely to be tickled. Formulas abound, and it’d be a fine exercise by itself for you to make a list of them. “Once upon a time…”
  5. Use stereotypes, archetypes, age-old characters: the wizard, the fool, the rebel, the maverick, Santa Claus, Captain Hook, Donald Duck, Prince Charming, Superman. Put one of them in a difficult situation: Santa Claus gets stuck in a chimney, and, well, it’s cold in the house, and the family starts a fire. Superman hates his name, hates the Nietzschean connotations, hates the sound of it. He decides to call himself… actually, you’ll know what exactly once you enter his mind and heart.

In short, all you need is conflict and a character’s voice. “Goo goo ga ga ouch ouch OUCH!” (Guess what this conflict is about, and who's in conflcit with whom.)

Write a story every day, part 6: Motivation

It's been a year since I decided to write a short story every day. I’ve succeeded in doing so—including days in which I was traveling from Paris to New York and vice-versa, sick days, busy teaching days, all sorts of days. My wife, a screenwriter, recently asked me how I motivated myself to do it. I thought about it, and here are a few of the reasons I keep doing it every day without exception.

  1. I’m very competitive, in two different ways. A side of me is disciplined, structured, ambitious, dedicated, even rigid about following a schedule and delivering a commitment. Another side of me is the slacker ready to go take long naps in the afternoon, the reader of comic books slouching in the sofa, the brainless guy who does nothing all day and calls his inactivity “life.” (You guessed it: I'm a Gemini.) These two sides of me are in permanent competition, but in recent years I’ve tended to side with the disciplined me. And once I take sides, I’m brutal. I want my side to win and the opposition to lose, and I’ll do anything to ensure the right outcome.
  2. But I’m also competitive with others, not just within myself. This will sound ugly to you, dear reader, but writing every day allows me to feel superior to other people. I like to wear my discipline as a badge: I’m a pro. I know how to do it, and I can do it. I’m such a pro, I’d write the daily short story sitting on the back pew of a church during a memorial service. Even if I'm the one who's dead!
  3. Out of the year’s 365 stories, some were astoundingly bad, so much so I’ll never show them to anyone, not even my adoring wife. (Hey, I have a lot invested in that adoration of hers. Why spoil a good thing?) But some of them were touching, funny, surprising—just plain good. Every day I don’t know if I’m going to write a stinker or a gem, and the possibility of a gem coming out justifies the daily effort.
  4. Ritual is a necessary part of everyone’s life. The morning coffee, for instance, is a ritual that gets you out of bed and into the swing of things. It’s not just caffeine; there’s the anticipation, the preparation, the appeal to all the senses, your whole relationship to coffee, your memories of having drunk a particularly satisfying cup at Caribou Coffee on a visit to Minneapolis. For me the daily short story adds another ritual, makes the daily life a little more “sacred.” It requires me to stop everything else, clear my mind, and look for the portal to creativity and insight.
  5. The skill I developed in writing daily stories has permeated into my other writing activities. I can write first drafts of scenes and chapters quickly and easily; the mind opens up willingly because it does so regularly. And the storyteller’s voice seems to be always ready to speak and sing. I “improvise”  without censure or shame, and often enough the first draft comes out relatively good already. The daily short story, then, pays enormous dividents for a working writer.
  6. I’ve found ways of speeding up the process for those days when I really don’t feel like doing it. I write rants, a page of nonsense, a page about my own handwriting… Anything goes! You’re the boss! It takes three minutes, literally, to fill up a page with words and call it a “short story.”
  7. I’ve used the short story to work through personal issues. To give a banal example, my older brother’s birthday is June 1st, mine is May 31st (that means we were born almost exactly a year apart). Every year we speak on the phone for our birthdays, briefly and awkwardly as befits the state of our relationship. On June 1st I wrote a story about a man who dreads the yearly phone call from his younger brother. The story wasn’t exactly about my brother and me; it was inspired by us but not “written” by us. In an indirect, minor way the story became an expression of my love for my brother, a mini-love letter he’ll never get. I was sad-happy writing it, and the psychological benefits of writing the story added justification to the daily effort.
  8. I use short stories to test ideas for novels. For instance, I wrote 30 self-contained scenes of a ghost story over 30 consecutive days. Will I write a novel about this ghost? Do I want to? Is it worth my professional attention? Writing the stories is a good way of finding out.
  9. Some short stories of mine appeal to that lazy slacker who slouches all day reading comic books. It’s a win-win situation: I enjoy writing an absolutely stupid story, I can say I fulfilled my contract and proved myself to be a disciplined professional, and the slacker gets his drug and claims the day.
  10. Believe it or not, I really, really, really love doing it.
I wish all my readers a highly motivated New Year. Let's tell 366 stories, one per day including February, 29!

Oh reader, your talents require TLC!

In my last blog entry I riffed on the notion of talent, the gist of my convictions being that everyone is born multitalented. A brave voice rose in the wilderness, pointedly letting me know I’m crazy. Just kidding! The brave voice, who answers to the name of Lisa Marie, makes some very good points. Here they are.

I think there is a problem with the word “talent.” Isn't it used to mean the exceptional thing, the thing that most people don't have? I think one tends to use the word unthinkingly in order to designate that happy (and indeed, rare) combination of qualities and circumstances (energy, enthusiasm, time, a little salutary egoism to enable one to be a bit annoyingly obsessive, good teachers, etc.) and one ends up being mislead by the existence of the word into thinking one is referring to something else, some further magic entity, apart from these ingredients.

And so my more somber version of your “we are all multi-talented'” would be to say “we quite probably all aren't, but that this is a lot less of a problem than we have been led to believe... particularly if it is possible to muster energy, enthusiasm, time, egoism, etc.”

Genius, now that would be something else again, I suppose.

This is my abbreviation of what the brave voice is saying in the wilderness:

“Talent” as people normally see it is a kind of illusion; people do things well because of down-to-earth qualities such as energy, enthusiasm, time, and so on—not because of a magic, mysterious quality, which we might want to call “genius” instead. It’s not a problem to be “untalented” as long as you find the necessary time, energy, and enthusiasm to accomplish your goals.

I see talent as an innate capacity to do something, a biological inheritance that is independent of these down-to-earth qualities but that needs some of them to blossom. So, I do think everyone is multitalented indeed, having many built-in capacities from birth. Ultimately, however, the brave voice is quite right: things happen not by magic but through dedicated effort. Here's the film maker Ridley Scott in a recent interview in the magazine Film Comment: "[My mother] was a real force of nature. [My brother] Tony and I inherited perseverance from her. It's really the thing you need to succeed. I always say it's stamina, stamina, stamina, then perseverance, and last is talent."

As for "genius," I’d like to offer a very specific definition. I see a genius not as someone with brilliant inborn capacities, but someone with an original insight who creates a new paradigm within his or her field. In that sense Claude Debussy was a genius, since he created a new musical paradigm contributing to the development of, among other things, atonality; but Maurice Ravel wasn’t a genius, since his work—however brilliant—hewed to the paradigms, tonal and rhythmic, that came before him. Ludwig van Beethoven: genius. Felix Mendelssohn: not (even though he was an astounding child prodigy). Miguel de Cervantes: genius (he "invented" the modern novel). Jane Austen: not. Mahatma Gandhi: genius (he created a new paradigm, non-violent resistance). The Dalai Lama: not (he embraces a paradigm that was fully formed before his birth). But note that I admire the Dalai Lama unconditionally, and I think he represents humanity's highest ideals. Here I'm using the word "genius" as a technical term, narrowly (and perhaps idiosyncratically) defined.

Given a choice between talent, genius, and stamina, I know which one I would pick for myself and my career. Phew! Writing this blog entry has exhausted the resident genius here, so please excuse me while I take a nap.


Oh reader, you're so talented!

In my recent installments of The Naked Beginner I recounted how I used to suffer from the misconception I had no talent for drawing, and how I cured myself from that handicap with help from a fictional character, an imaginary friend, and a dead white male. Here I offer you a little meditation on the notion of talent. Since the meditation applies to all people, I’m posting this blog entry on multiple categories.

  1. Everyone is born multitalented; this you can see by watching a few kindergarten kids at play, inventing every sort of game and improvising brilliantly at arts, sport, music, relationships, and anything else. The tragedy is that many of those kindergartners (and I’m talking about you and me and your brother and your sister) will grow to “forget” how talented they were from the first.
  2. You have hidden talents you don’t know about. Every day as you go about your normal existence, amazing things lie inside you waiting to be discovered.
  3. Talents are eternal: they are always there, inside you, from birth to death. When the expression of a talent is squashed, the talent itself remains. At any time in your life, if the conditions are right the talent will come right back out.
  4. You can be absolutely sure about something and yet be absolutely wrong about it. Wanna bet? The principle is universal. It applies to your feeling certain you don’t have talent for something—drawing, music, computers, managing people, you name it.
  5. If you’ve tried to do something and failed miserably, you might still have a talent for it; perhaps you just need a good teacher, a good partner, a good environment. Think how many mean and incompetent teachers are out there, and how discouraging they can be.
  6. “I’ve never danced in my life! I don’t have a talent for it!” Can you see what’s wrong with these words?
  7. Timing is everything. Talent is always there, but sometimes you need to wait until you are good and ready to explore it. And you may not be ready until you’re 13, or 26, or 39, or 52. (Here’s testing your talent for multiplication tables!)
  8. Talent is immutable; it’s already there inside you, and it’ll always be there as a latent force. But your manner of tapping into it is highly variable. It’s easy to confuse the two. If you go about blindly trying to develop a talent, your failure doesn’t mean you don’t have the talent.
  9. You can develop a new skill in intermittent bursts of time and effort, as long as the effort is intelligent and the time well-spent.
  10. If someone has a great deal of innate facility for something but no patience to develop the skill over the long term, does he or she really have “talent”?
  11. Okay, it’s possible for you not to have talent for something and feel sure that you do. Still, that’d be a lesser problem than having talent and feeling sure you don’t.
  12. Talent isn’t contagious, but enthusiasm is.

Hey, you talented readers out there: How about submitting your stories about hidden talents, talents snuffed out by mean teachers, talents that have surprised and delighted you as you went about discovering them?

Write a story every day, part 5: Helpful Books

A book becomes good or bad, pertinent or boring, constructive or not depending on how you read it. In fact, no two readers will ever read the same book in the same way. For that reason, recommending books we love for others to read may be tricky. What if you hate the books I live by? What if you resent me for making you read a lousy book? Well, you can always post a comment on my blog offering counter-recommendations. And don't forget nobody made you do anything in the first place!


ideas.jpgI suggested that finding a concept for a story is the easiest part of writing one. That doesn't mean it's easy, exactly; it's just easier than some other steps in the writing process. But if you're having a hard time finding an idea, a hook, a portal, a trigger, or what you will, help is at hand in Jack Heffron's The Writer's Idea Book. In a friendly and encouraging manner, Heffron comes up with several hundred prompts to get you going. They are numerous enough for you to find one or more that will trigger your imagination or, more precisely, your unstoppable urge to pour words out.


courage.jpgI wrote about the threatening blank page or computer screen that trips up many writers. In The Courage to Write: How Writers Transcend Fear, Ralph Keyes looks at the question of writerly anxiety and comes up with many astute and sympathetic observations. Keyes says, quite rightly, that courage isn't the absence of fear, but the willingness to act despite fear. Ultimately you're better off not getting rid of your fear, but learning how to harness it creatively.

1303411-1020792-thumbnail.jpgI suggested that one way of finding one's inner courage to write was by entering a trance. Trance is a big subject: there exist dozens of types of trances, each with its merits, risks, and dangers. Milton H. Erickson, M.D. was perhaps the 20th-century's greatest expert on trance states. A psychiatrist by training and a trailblazer in hypnotic techniques and their application to individual problem-solving, Erickson was also a master storyteller and a highly sensitive therapist with shamanic capabilities. Milton H. Erickson, M.D.: An American Healer, edited by Bradford Keeney and Betty Alice Erickson, is by no means a how-to on trance. Instead, it's a collection of essays, anecdotes, photo albums, and interviews that paints a delightful and compelling portrait of a free mind. Reading it might inspire you to free your mind in your own ways.



Rhythm & Flow in a Writer's Career is my own book for writers. It contains many dozens of suggestions and exercises to make you a more fluid, confident, and productive writer. My book has a singular defect, however: it hasn't been published yet! Until it comes out you'll have to resort to the other wonderful books on this page. But if you ask me nicely, I just might post my book's table of contents and a sample chapter on my website.




Write a story every day, part 4: The Trance

There you are, trying to write a story every day. You found a good concept—that was the easy part. Now all you need to do is to enter the frame of mind in which telling the story too becomes easy.

A web of oppositions exists inside every one of us: masculine and feminine qualities, yin and yang, right brain and left brain, adult and child, doer and observer. For writers, one opposition is particularly important: between the creator and the editor. The creator is free-flowing, playful, risk-loving. The editor is careful, judgmental, risk-averse. The creator says, “I want to. Let me. Yes.” The editor says, “Not so fast. Not quite. No.”

The real difficulty in writing the first draft of anything—a daily short story or an 800-page novel—is to let the creator prevail over the editor. Just as the masculine and the feminine can become integrated inside us, so can the creator and the editor. Sometimes they work so well together that a story is born perfect, freely conceived yet tightly structured. But if you haven’t achieved such an integrated state, your creator won’t say a word as long as the editor is breathing down her neck. The editor plays a fundamental role in all good writing, but the creator must be left alone for a little while in order to find her voice.

How can you make the editor shut up?

By entering a trance. A trance is a state where the editor takes a siesta while the creator runs the show. When you’re in a trance, you suspend judgment, criticism, the urge to question and to censor. Then the stories come out of their own accord, directly from your heart to the page. You don’t even need to type them. They type themselves! Honest Injun!

Locomotion sometimes creates the trance: walking, pacing, jogging, dancing, and otherwise moving at a regular rhythm all help the editor get tired and want a nap. Music can do the trick. Some sounds calm the editor, others excite it; when I play Miles Davis’s “Kind of Blue,” my editor relaxes as soon as he hears the first beat of the first track. If you sit somewhere—at home or in public—and you concentrate your stare on a fixed point, your editor gets bored and falls asleep. Strangely, the opposite strategy also works: sit where you will and keep sweeping your eyes across the landscape, and the editor will get dizzy and call it quits.

The editor is a wimp. But the creator who lets the editor beat her up is a wimp too. Go sit down with a notebook right now. Pump the editor full of sleeping pills. Then just watch as the pencil dances on the page.

Write a story every day, part 3: The Threat

After I encouraged you to write a short story every day, I said that finding a story concept is the easy part. What’s the hard part?

Most writers would agree that the blank page or computer screen can be terrifying. What exactly are you going to write? Will it be any good? Do you actually have something to say? And if you do say something, will people listen to you? It’s terrifying to think that nobody wants to hear what you have to say, and terrifying to think that people will indeed hear you—and disagree passionately with your precious words.

Even if you don't mean to show your writing to anybody but yourself, it’s terrifying to write. You can't fathom what is going to come out, what you’re going to say and how you’re going to say it. The unknown, the uncontrolled, the uncontrollable all lurk within.

Whether real or imaginary, these threats will always be there. The hardest thing when you write is to write despite the threats.

For me, most writing sessions start with a meditation of sorts, lasting from a few minutes up to an hour. I may be sitting at the computer or walking to a café or doing the dishes while I meditate. And the unspoken subject of the meditation is: “Do I agree to act despite all the threats? Or do I refuse to act?” The actual writing session starts when I finally agree to act.

I agree to try and write a short story about the Devil’s pedicurist in Chinatown.

I agree to try and write a scene involving the protagonist of my new novel.

I agree to try and write a blog entry.

I don’t know what’s going to come out, but I agree to it. If some awfully inept piece of writing emerges, I agree to it. If I reveal my handicaps as a writer and human being, I agree to it. If I make a fool of myself, I agree to it. If I face the unknown and it takes a bite out of my soul, I agree to it.

Day by day, page by page, I agree to face the threats. And to gain my own agreement, I must enter a particular frame of mind. I’ll tell you about it in my next blog entry (if I can get myself to agree to it).

Write a story every day, part 2: The Trick

A few weeks ago I described how I go about writing a new short story every day: I choose a premise and improvise upon it. Coming up with premises is the easy part of the process—I’ll tell you about the hard part later. But suppose you’re stuck for a theme on which to improvise. Here are a few suggestions. Sit down with a notebook and a pencil, clear your mind, and write a story!

1. “The Devil needed a pedicure, so one Saturday morning he decided to go to Chinatown.”

2. “Snow White came home from a stroll in the forest and found a strange dwarf asleep on her bed.”

3. “One day not long ago, I received a phone call from my mother. She had been dead for twelve years.”

4. “Saint Peter got fired from his job as the gatekeeper of Heaven. It was my fault. Let me tell you exactly how it happened.”

5. “Genghis Khan had a soft spot for his pet guinea pig, until the day Fuzzy went one hair too far.”

6. “God and the serpent made a bet, the outcome of which nobody could have foreseen.”

7. “Sam Thorne woke up one day, only to discover that his entire right arm had disappeared.”

8. “The battle of the sexes started with a simple misunderstanding.”

9. “One day deep in the forest, the bear and the wolf decided to sit down and try to settle their longstanding feud. They retained me as their stenographer.”

10. “The lawyer had a throbbing toothache, so he went to see his dentist. The two of them soon regretted their fateful encounter.”

Write a story every day, part 1: The Task

Around Christmas last year, I felt compelled to write a couple of short stories. One fictionalized my father-in-law's house in Huntington, Long Island (and I mean the house and the people in it). Another was a psychological horror story about a woman losing her mind while trying on clothes at the post-Christmas sales. Okay, maybe I don’t cope very well with the holidays. But something good came out of my distress. I enjoyed writing the stories so much that I decided to write a short story every single day, starting January 1st.

And I’ve done so, except for a couple of weeks in April when I wrote character and archetype studies instead of short stories. This is how I do it: I sit somewhere with a notebook and a pen. It could be at home, at a café, riding the subway, or—in the case of the horror story I mentioned—at Ann Taylor’s on the corner of 3rd Avenue and 52nd Street in New York, while my wife tried on clothes. I think for a moment, lasting from a few minutes up to about twenty minutes. I run a few ideas in my head, discarding the overly ambitious, the clichés, the dead ends. Then I settle on a premise, and off I go.

“Sarah Whitcombe had three fears, and three fears only.”

“The Queen of England accidentally locked herself in the bathroom.”

“The vulture and the hyena liked going out to dinner together.”

Armed with nothing but the premise, the notebook, and my imagination, I write away, essentially improvising upon the chosen theme and aiming, if possible, to create a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Some of my stories are good enough to belong in a book one day; others are unspeakably bad. But if you want to improvise freely, you need to suspend judgment and let things be. What counts isn’t the result but the process: the willingness to face the blank page every day without exception, the steady development of craft, and the insights deep into one’s own psyche. (Some of my improvisations made me afraid of myself!)

Go on. Sit down with a notebook and a pen. And let the demons come out and have their say.