How to Succeed in Writing IX: The Influential Writers, and Other Influences


Like any other person who has attempted to create something artistic, an artist’s appreciation of another’s work is limited and unique. An artist’s appreciation of another’s work is similar to an athlete studying game film on a future opponent. After repeated viewings, you understand their modus operandi. You are able to pinpoint what they do well, and their failings, and you’re able to learn from all of them. One author’s ability to characterize may impress another artist in one reading, and another may impress them with their particular brand of engaging dialogue. After another artist gets it, they’re usually bored with it, and they move onto another author. To use the sports analogy once again, the artist can usually spot the stitches on another’s fastball long before the casual observer can. This isn’t what artists are trying to do, it’s who they are. They would love to simply read another’s work and appreciate it in the same manner a casual reader would, but they can’t turn that portion of their brain off. An artist reading another’s work can get so hypercritical and appreciative of the little things another author does to move a story along, or characterize, that they can’t enjoy that simple, little story in total until they have thoroughly explored, and drained, whatever value they believe another’s work has for them.

Most writers will claim that their writing is now entirely free of influence once they’ve found their voice. Some might judge this self-promotion, and others would say it’s just impossible to believe. As any writer who has written a great deal knows, it’s almost impossible to escape influence. Whenever a writer turns a phrase, completes a block or dialogue, or characterizes, there was some influence there. If it wasn’t Chaucer, or Hemingway, that influenced the writer in this manner, it may have been their freshman Composition 101 teacher. If it wasn’t Stephen King, or Faulkner, who taught them how characterize, it may have been a movie or a television show that embedded that particular brand of characterizing deep in their brain. Something, somewhere influenced them in some way they may not know now that they’ve reached their twentieth year of writing, where their writing material that is so fresh, and unique, that they can’t even spot the influence anymore. They may have worked so hard, for so long to achieve a unique voice that they feel they’ve achieved it, and they may have to some degree, but there was a starting point that formed a foundation that is now so embedded in the manner in which they write that they can’t see the influence anymore.

Those who belong to the latter group believe they have reached the pinnacle of individualistic style, that contains no influence. They might dismiss this article as nothing but a point of curiosity, but the new writer wants to learn how we arrived at point D in the process, the following is a list of those influences who lubricated the slide:

10) Brevity. If “Brevity is the soul of wit” no one was funnier than Ernest Hemingway. An economist of words, Hemingway avoided complicated syntax, and it has been determined that seventy percent of his sentences were short, simple sentences.{1} Hemingway was the anti-Joyce (James Joyce) in this regard. Whereas Hemingway “KISSed” us (keeping it simple for we stupid people) with his prose, Joyce dangled complicated, multi-syllabic, and invented words before us, and he often teased us with a carrot on the stick of his words’ meaning. Whereas this may have made Joyce’s fiction wonderful, historic, and transcendent, most of us didn’t know what the hell he was talking about. Whereas most readers need translation, and transports in time via a well-written guide, and a degree in Joyceisms to understand Finnegan’s Wake, Old Man and the Sea can be enjoyed in an otherwise carefree afternoon. This isn’t to say that Hemingway’s prose is not complicated and carefully structured for meaning, but with Hemingway’s fiction, meaning is derived upon reflection and through personal interpretation. The meaning of Hemingway’s prose is established through dialogue, action, and silences —a fiction in which nothing crucial or at least very little— is stated explicitly. He purposely avoided outright symbolism in what he called “the theory of the iceberg”. This theory stated that facts float above water, but the larger, supporting structure and symbolism that build the foundation do so out of sight.

Hemingway“No good book has ever been written that has in it symbols arrived at beforehand and stuck in,” says Hemingway. “That kind of symbol sticks out like raisins in raisin bread. Raisin bread is all right, but plain bread is better.” He opens two bottles of beer and continues: “I tried to make a real old man, a real boy, a real sea and a real fish and real sharks. But if I made them good and true enough they would mean many things. The hardest thing is to make something really true and sometimes truer than true.”

Hemingway was more of a storyteller than he was a writer. The interested reader, who doesn’t have a whole lot of time on their hands, may want to consider reading either the short book Old Man and the Sea or The Short and Happy life of Francis Macomber. The latter is a short story that captures the essence of Ernest Hemingway, and it teaches every writer the greatest principle every writer should employ in their daily activities: Story is sacred and flowery prose is largely self-indulgence.

Carver9) Images. Raymond Carver was also a minimalist. Most of my favorite writers were. Carver employed evocative and provocative images to tell a story. Short stories were his forte. The short story Feathers captures the essence of Raymond Carver, better than any of his other stories in my humble opinion.

Carver’s stories, and poems, focused on misery and dirty realism. His characters were low class, beer drinking, hardworking, slobs that readers can’t help but picture in stained tank-tops. Carver claimed that he was inclined toward brevity and intensity. His writing focused on sadness, loss, and alcohol in the everyday lives of ordinary people — often lower-middle class or isolated and marginalized people.

8) Characterization. John Irving engages in the flowery prose of his mentor Charles Dickens, but he does so (for the most part) effortlessly. Irving is not a minimalist in other words. Irving’s John_Irvingworks teach us, more than any of the authors listed here, to work your tail off to hide your effort. One read through his magnum opus The World According to Garp teaches us that it shouldn’t be a chore to read through one’s work. No other authors listed here, save for maybe Hemingway, hides his brilliance better than Irving. The reader gets to know Irving’s characters in what I call a “Holy Crap!” manner. Irving doesn’t use physical characteristics to describe characters, and he doesn’t use the inner voice techniques that most of us do, yet the reader learns their characteristics in a story after story and a passage after passage manner, until we know them so completely that we say, “Holy crap, this author’s brilliant.” I realize this methodology is borne of the “show don’t tell” basic of storytelling, but in my humble opinion, no one does it better than Irving.

Irving has chapters of setting, primarily in the Northeast, and his settings can appear a bit laborious at times. Unlike all of the authors on this list, there can be large chunks of Irving’s narrative where nothing happens, as he frames you up for what’s about to happen. Irving does “a story within the story” as well as anyone in the business. As I said, though, Irving achieves his stature in the world of literature through effortless characterization.

It appears, unfortunately, that the drive to tell a story no longer drives Mr. Irving. His more recent books have become more and more political. Some could say that Mr. Irving has always been political, and if you read A Prayer for Owen Meany and Garp again, you’ll see that. If that’s true, he used to be a lot more subtle. Story used to be sacred to him, and politics used to be a secondary concern to him.

It’s almost become a cliché that writers of my generation claim Irving as a primary influence. Like most clichés though, there’s a reason claiming Irving as an influence has become so prevalent among those in my generation. It’s because he has achieved the bestseller list through almost effortless, beautiful writing, and by not conforming to current norms. Irving just does what he does, and we have all accepted this to a degree that he can do whatever he wants, and we’ll all greet him with open arms. Claim King or Koontz as an influence, and artistic writers will dismiss you with a yawn; claim John Grisham, and they’ll dismiss you with a laugh; but Irving has managed to keep a foot in both the literary and best-selling world, and he does it with rich, rewarding, and effortless characterization.

7) Asides.  Some may dismiss Chuck Palahniuk as a splatterpunk writer that engages in shocking prose that grosses out and titillates the reader. It is true that Palahniuk goes for the jugular in much of his writing, and some may say too often, but anyone that has read, or seen, Fight Club (they’re strikingly similar) knows that Palahniuk (almost) always has a story to tell amid the chaos in his works.

PalahniukPalahniuk may have some of the best, most interesting vignettes and asides in the business today. He is heavily influenced by Stephen King, as evidenced by his heavy use of refrain style use of repetition, but one should not mistake this influence as outright mimicry. Palahniuk has carved himself quite a niche in the literary world, with works like Fight Club, Choke, and Rant. Rant proved to be especially valuable to those writers on the lookout for a new way of telling a story. While the style is not unprecedented, Palahniuk used it in such a unique manner that those that have read the story considered it revolutionary.

Chuck describes his style of writing as “transgressive” fiction. Transgressive fiction, as defined by Wikipedia, “is a writing style that focuses on characters who feel confined by the norms and expectations of society and who break free of those confines in unusual and/or illicit ways.”

After the novel Lullaby, Palahniuk began writing satirical, horror stories. His work is big on unusually dark and absurd philosophical asides that are so farcical that the reader can help but think of them as true. These asides are non-fiction factoids within his fictional works that, according to the author, “Are included in order to further immerse the reader in my work”.” {2} This author hates metaphors and similes. This author loves to mess around with the traditional styles of storytelling to presumably keep it interesting for him and us. Some of the times this methodology works, as it did in Rant, and some of the times it doesn’t, as it didn’t in Pygmy and Tell All. His forays into illogical, but fun, splatterpunk writing, works in most of his books, but anytime a writer puts their stock in shock they are going to try outdo themselves every time out, until they produce a book like Snuff in which the novelty of the over-the-top shock wears thin quickly.

6) Pace and Formula. No writer, in modern fiction, displays the virtues of pace better than Dean Koontz. I challenge anyone to read the first half of his book Intensity and say that this man is not in the upper echelon of thriller writers today. Koontz knows all he needs to know about architecture, gardening, and all the other minutiae of his Southern Californian locale to make his setting interesting, but Mr. Koontz can cause a reader to flip pages on pace with any of the great suspense/thriller writers of our day. He may also be the safest writer on this list.

Dean-KoontzWhy is Koontz safe? He strives for the mainstream. His books have mass appeal to most age groups and both genders. He is a publisher’s dream in that he knows how to knock out a best-seller on an annual basis without offending anyone. If you’re a writer who seeks the formula to mass appeal, and the bestseller list, I can think of no better author to read … this side of James Patterson. That having been said, there is a formula to Koontz’s writing. How can there not be in a catalog that lists 112 titles, with twenty-eight bestsellers among them, without an inoffensive formula? A formula is good to some degree. To some degree, a formula will provide a reader a solid foundation of comfort that the author can shatter in the pages that follow. There is a formula, and a relative level of comfort that Koontz readers have come to expect, and while we should try hard not to dismiss Koontz on this basis alone, it’s difficult not to do so. All of his characters are much too safe. His female characters are incredibly and consistently intelligent, and his male characters are “safely” reliant on the female’s intelligence and ingenuity … Even his bad guys are safely bad. Then, Koontz exasperates whatever problems his works have in this regard by trying to be funny. His humor is so safe, conformist, and pedantic that it almost seems to be self-effacing, nerdy humor, until one reads enough Koontz to realize that this is this man’s sense of humor.

If you’re looking for edgy, offensive, different material that most people are uncomfortable reading, Koontz probably isn’t your guy. He does write some edgy material, but he doesn’t do so on a consistent enough basis. If one were to gauge mental health by a writer’s fiction, Koontz would likely score higher than any of the authors listed here, but that has resulted in less dangerous, less angst-ridden material. He’s mainstream, and there’s nothing wrong with that if you’re looking to write mainstream fiction. One of the other exceptions to this rule, aside from Intensity, was the novel Life Expectancy. These two books are the must reads in Koontz’s catalog for any writer seeking the edgy and different.

5) Writing fiction. What can be written about Stephen King that hasn’t already been written? If you are a writer that hasn’t read King yet, you’ll probably want to get on the train. He’ll teach you the good, the bad, and the ugly of writing. While it’s almost impossible to read everything he’s done, most writers have an extensive King library. If they don’t, they should probably have at least ten of his books.

KingKing has it all, and most honest, seasoned writers will begrudgingly admit that he has had an influence on them at one point in their process. If The Stand is too long for you, then the writing community will require you to read Misery, Gerald’s Game, It, or any of his classic, early works like The Shining. Some artistic writers may scrunch their nose at King, because he is so ubiquitous, but his influence on modern fiction cannot be denied in just about every novel written after 1990.

Some say that King invented the common man horror, but many say that almost every piece of fictional horror involves the common man. King did work the working joe into his fiction more than most however. As stated earlier, King builds horror through repetition. He usually has a nickname for his monster that gets repeated often enough that the reader feels a horrified endearment to the monster. He also may have not been the first to work music into his horror, most notably nursery rhymes, but he did it more often and with more mastery than most, and it influenced a generation of horror writers.

4) Hodge Podge. As written in the introduction of this piece, writers read other writers in a unique manner. There are so many varied ways that a writer can reach point D in the process that attempting to catalog all of the influential writers, and their influential moments in fiction, would be book length, and very few readers would be interested in all of the ways in which this writer achieved that point. So in the interest of interest, we will try to whittle these moments down to a few of the most prominent. In the area of the influentially absurd humor, there have been few that captured it as well as Robert McCammon did in Gone South, or Gary Shteyngart in his work Absurdistan a book that was heavily influenced by the monumentally influential book A Confederacy of Dunces John Kennedy O’Toole.

As for horror, there have been few, this side of King, that have been able to capture common man, suspenseful horror as adeptly as Scott Smith did in A Simple Plan and Ruins. Smith’s ability to build to horror in a casually sequential manner is almost unprecedented. The only problem with Smith is that he has only written two books in twenty years, and while there is nothing wrong with the man’s quality, his fans would love a little more quantity. Although Thomas M. Disch’s M.D. was not the greatest horror book ever written, and it ebbed and flowed more than the other books on this list, the work provided moments that have influenced this writer as much as any of the pieces described previously. Some of the imagery Thomas Harris created in the Red Dragon book, and in Phillip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint (not a horror but just as laden with images), have led many writers to pound the table in frustration with their attempts to duplicate their provocative imagery. For various reasons, and in various ways, all of these authors had a huge influence on this writer’s attempt to get to point D.

3) Mood. Nothing influences mood better than music. Listening to music gives the writer a certain setting from which “different” fiction can be achieved. If a writer wants to write a period piece, for example, they can select the music from that era, and attempt to achieve that mindset. This is similar to the attempts that the main character in Richard Matheson’s Somewhere in Time to achieve time travel. In this story, the main character wanted to go back to the year 1912 so badly that he attempted to hypnotize himself into the belief that he was. He surrounded himself with 1912 in his hotel room, and he wore 1912 clothes, listened to 1912 songs, and ended up believing he was in 1912. Music affects me in the same manner. I prefer non-traditional, non-linear music to shake my brain out of the patterns it might fall into in long settings, until I can convince myself that I am non-traditional and non-linear. I, of course, do not make the conscious efforts to do this in the manner Matheson’s character did, but through repetitive listening of certain music, I have been able to achieve something “different” on a number of occasions.

I listen to a wide variety of music when I write, always switching to keep it fresh, but some of my favorites are Mike Patton, John Zorn, and Trey Spruance’s Secret Chiefs. These musicians (not rock stars) create an aura I find conducive to writing edgy, “different” material. These artists, like so many of the authors described above, created something that that seemed impossible before they did it. They are truly skilled in making the listener feel different, and that anything can be accomplished in a certain setting. Miles Davis creates an aura that allows you to focus at times, but his music can be a little too aural at times, and David Bowie’s music can be a little too focused, and this causes me to be distracted when I listen to what his music is doing. The band Pavement can create some chaos in your mind and shake you out of your doldrums, but they, too, can be a little too focused at times for that atmosphere writers need to create.

Everyone’s mom told them that distraction-free silence was conducive to concentration. Yet, every mind works differently, and I have found —much too late for success in school— that I need distraction to achieve focus. It may not make sense to those blessed with normal brains, but I need a Goldilocks amount of distraction —not too hard and not to soft, and not too aural and not too structured— for me to concentrate and focus.

2) Movies.  Most of the best storytelling being done today, we have to face it, is being done in the movies. If a Quentin Tarantino were born in the late nineteenth century, he probably would’ve been a novel writer. He, like all great movie makers of this era, has the storyteller’s bug, but he doesn’t have the patience to sit behind a typewriter/keyboard and compose prose that can take months and years to produce. These storytellers of our era are taking advantage of the technology offered them and telling their stories on screen. One thing movie makers can teach aspiring writers, that reading the Russian authors won’t, is to get to the point. Their audience, our audience, and the audience doesn’t have as much patience for brilliant prose as previous generations. We have a short attention span, and with a few exceptions (David Lynch, Wes Anderson, and Tarantino of late) most movie makers whittle their scripts down to the germane.

1) My writing.  Most readers would consider it egotistical to list “my writing” as the greatest influence on my writing, but that is not the intent. It is only added, because I hold my best writing out as beacons in my career that I want to smash the next time I write something new. It is important that every writer examine what they’ve written on a consistent enough basis that they always try to write better, and different, stories every time they sit behind their keyboard.

{1}http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ernest_Hemingway

{2}http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chuck_Palahniuk

How to Succeed in Writing Part II: The Search for the Great Story


Being Entertaining is More Important Than Being Honest

Do you have a great story to tell? Is it good? Is it great? Do your friends find your stories mildly amusing, somewhat clever, a little sad, and really good in parts, or do they find them great? Most aspiring writers don’t write great stories right out of the gate, and aspiring writers are a dime a dozen. Great stories litter our libraries and bookstores. Do you have a great story to tell? Most people do. There’s nothing special about you, or your “great American” story, not yet.

“I hear you want to be a writer,” a friend of mine said. “One thing about young writers (which I was at the time) is that they have not accumulated interesting stories. I don’t mean to be insulting, but at your age you just haven’t lived enough life to have interesting stories.” After a back and forth in which he asked me to tell him one of my stories, he offered me his own. His story was “part John Grisham and part Ludlum”. The story was not as great as he thought, but the two points he made about material stuck with me.  

The first was his point that the continental divide between great writers and great storytellers is entertaining material. A writer can craft a fine tale, but if it’s not entertaining, it may not make it past the sites that adore a great story. The second point he made, perhaps incidentally, was that there’s nothing wrong with embellishing, if it makes the story better.

But you are a great writer with excellent material. Your Aunt Clara told you so. You have a gift for storytelling that crushes those around you. You get reactions and laughter that others don’t and amazement is directed at your storytelling aptitude. The only problem is you may have enough material to entertain your Aunt Clara, because she knows you and she knows the characters in your life, but you don’t have the type of material that will entertain a wider audience. That’s a problem, but it’s a problem that has haunted storytellers all across the spectrum from the aspiring storyteller to the legend.

It is a fact of life though that some of us are just better at telling stories than others. It’s a fact of life similar to the fact that some people have natural gifts that lead them to be better at basketball and football than others. Some would say that the ability to tell a story is a gift, but I’m more inclined to believe that some people just enjoy it more, and when one enjoys something more, they work harder at it. The fascinated storyteller studies it, finesses it, and learns from those around them who do it better. Even in its most primitive form, such as the sharing of memories with friends and relatives, some of us learn how to tell a story better than others, because we want to tell a story better. We mimic those that tell stories better than us, and we correct the mistakes we see in others’ attempts.

One thing I learned, through the course of my life, was to trim the fat. I used to believe that my audience needed all of the details to appreciate a story. I then learned that all of those details harmed the most crucial element of storytelling, pace. Pace is crucial for we must treat our audience as if they have a five-year-old’s attention span. Storytellers then learn, through trial and error, that if we focus on pace too much, we leave crucial nuggets out. Achieving the hybrid involved a never-ending learning process.

Before entering into these stories we tell our relatives and friends, however, we must make time for the obligatory kid and pet stories. It never ceases to amaze me that when a room full of highly-evolved, well-educated adults gather they spend so much time obsessing over pets and children. When we’re done obsessing over our kids and pets, we share memories. It’s in these moments that a true storyteller is separated from those who struggle with  details, timing, the proper emphasis, and the number of syllables to use to  punctuate a punch line. It’s in these moments that we learn the art of presentation.

Lan 1283On the art of presentation, comedian Steve Martin once compared comedy to  music: “There is a harmony to comedy,” he said, “in that three beats are always funnier than two and four beats is a bit too much.” Only someone that gets off on telling stories, and trying to make people laugh, would focus on the minutiae of presentation so much that he focuses on beats. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve changed a word, a phrase, or a paragraph to get the rhythm right, or the beat down. I can’t tell you how often I’ve changed an infinitive in a sentence because the alternative just didn’t feel right to the harmony of a paragraph. It’s that attention to detail, that Martin alluded to, that makes storytelling an art form we all enjoy so much.

Once we gain a feel for presentation, and all of the related and inter-related minutiae, the next question is how do we come up with that material that reaches that wider audience and eventually lands you on the best-seller list? Having never achieved the best-seller list, I must admit I have only one super secret, decoder ring answer to all that: hard work. Unless you find a genie in a bottle, or steal an idea from someone else, I can think of no better way to give birth to an idea than through writing a ton of material.

Creative Writing teachers say, “write what you know”, and that is an essential activity in getting us to point A. How many of us have written those “What I did on my summer vacation” stories for our English Composition teachers? How many of those of us who wanted to write the next Crime and Punishment considered these exercises pointless? “Get me to the meat!” we mentally scream. I want it all, and I want it now! Those exercises weren’t entirely pointless, however, they got us thinking, writing, and spring boarding to that something something we considered magic.

That springboard launched those of us that wanted it to take that pointless exercise to the idea that we could write something fantastic … if we honed that artistic muscle in our brain. If we wanted that something fantastic, we learned that the best way to springboard to it was to read some of the masters that sprang from their own springboards. If we wanted it bad enough, we learned that the best way to achieve it was to launch ourselves into more writing and reading, and even more writing and more reading, until we eventually and accidentally landed upon an idea. Some of us took that little springboard to greater heights and more material, and others considered it a pointless exercise required by a teacher who knew as much about achieving the best-seller list that we did.

This leads us to one of the most vital questions all fiction writers must ask themselves: “Will anyone care what I write?” The immediate answer to this question is no. Unless you’re already famous, people won’t care what you think, what happened in your daily life, or if you have a propensity for catching colds that your mom says is epic in proportions.

BullFrom  Ron Shelton’s script for Bull Durham:

“Your  shower shoes have fungus on them. You’ll never make it to the bigs (major  leagues in baseball) with fungus on your shower shoes. Think classy, you’ll be classy. Win 20 in the show, you can let the fungus grow back and the press’ll think you’re colorful. Until you win 20 in the show, however, it only means you are a slob.”

Until you get famous, and those who care about celebrities care about you, you’ll be a slob, until then you’ll need to write something that someone cares about. Nobody cares that your friend has a propensity for lying, for example, unless that characteristic can be added to one of your characters to make them more colorful. Nobody cares that your aunt is ultra-sensitive, even though everything she has in life has been given to her on a silver platter, unless you can infuse that characteristic into a character in a manner that is entertaining to a greater audience. Nobody cares, unless you can translate these characteristics in such a manner that reminds us of our lying friend, or our hyper-sensitive  aunt. Or, if you can’t make this crossover, then you must make that character so damned entertaining that we won’t care when we can’t relate.

SOLZHENITSYN“The key to convincing another person of your point of view,” Philosopher Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once said. “Is to make them believe that they arrived at that answer themselves.”

Convincing someone that they’ve reached your point before you do, is called manipulation in the writer’s lexicon. When most people see the word manipulation, they think evil. They think of a totalitarian leader manipulating their citizens to think a certain way, but a writer can use their powers of manipulation for good, if they do it right.

How many of us have laughed at a funny book, cried during a dramatic one, or were scared by a horrific story? When a reader experiences emotions, after reading a series of words on a page, they were manipulated by the author. If a reader prefers to think of it in other terms, that is their option, but the vein remains the same. The reader was made to care about the central character in ways they considered endemic to the reader, when in all actuality it was the author’s skill to be universal that led them to that point. The author carefully crafted a visual portrait picture that trapped the reader into caring.

It’s the job of the writer to manipulate the reader into believing that they care. It’s the writer’s job to create an environment through which a reader is willing to suspend disbelief.

“If a writer can infuse a human interest and a semblance of truth into a fantastic tale,” Samuel Taylor Coleridge suggested. “The reader would suspend judgment concerning the implausibility of the narrative.”

In other words, an author could be the oddest, smartest, most sensitive storyteller that their friends have ever seen, but the reader don’t know them, and the reader won’t care about the author, or their wacky takes on life, until the reader can relate to the wacky world the author is in charge of creating.

This leads us to the next question: What kind of liar are you? When you were younger did your relatives and friends constantly accuse you of fudging the truth? If that’s the case, you may be a writer. Did they question everything you said, based upon your history of exaggeration and fabrication? If they did, you may be a writer. Were you so good at lying that they were willing to suspend disbelief for a moment, because some part of them wanted to believe your story? If that happened to you, you may be a writer. If you’re a born liar that needs some venue for channeling that inclination to exaggerate your truth to entertain those around you, welcome to the world of words. You can let your freak flag fly here, and we’ll welcome you with open arms. You can be crafty in our world. You can lie, embellish, and exaggerate to entertain. In the world of storytelling, story is sacred, as is the art of being true, even if the writer is being truer than true.

“The hardest thing is to make something really true and sometimes truer than true.” –Ernest Hemingway on symbolism.

“All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you; the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was.” 

When writing nonfiction, we hover over a fault line of true versus truer than true, and we should always side with true. For in most cases, nonfiction is far more entertaining than fiction. It’s a feel that the author shares with the reader, a seam that will tear with wild exaggeration. We need to be careful, in other words, to avoid some exaggerations we find entertaining, because the definition is entertainment is subjective. This is where the manipulative skill of the writer comes into play, for if the author can help the reader define subjectivity, they can both enjoy some exaggerations that prove truer than true for the purpose of entertainment.      

It takes a very steady hand, but those who have written as many stories as I have know what I’m talking about. The art of being true, without necessarily telling the truth, can be found in the art of creating creative non-fiction. If the author is true to the character, the pace, the layout, etc., a fudging of the details will be forgiven if, and I want that word italicized and emboldened, if the story is entertaining.

Being entertaining is far more important than being honest in our world. An author might have interesting stories that have occurred in their life, and they may be worth telling, but they may not be great without some lies, exaggeration, and embellishment. And we won’t care about any of that as long as the author doesn’t swear all the details are 100% true, because we want a great story, and we want to be entertained.

This search for the great and entertaining story has even plagued the masters. The young Ernest Hemingway couldn’t come up with a decent story for his first novel, so he decided to document his life in Paris, in his first novel The Sun Also Rises. How much of that book was actually based on fact is difficult to know. Was he merely documenting what took place, or was he engaged in creative non-fiction. Whatever the case was, he used it as a springboard for a career that many would say contained some of our finest novels. Hemingway would eventually reach a point where he could no longer come up with great stories, and some have suggested that this search was one of the contributing factors in his decision to take his own life. Before this tragic event occurred though, Hemingway said: “Everyone has one great story in them.  The trick is to have two.” An aspiring author can find that one great story that they have in them, but it’s going to take a lot of writing, and a lot of reading to eventually and accidentally make it happen.

Simple Quotes from the famous


These are a few of my favorite quotes, and when I repeat them I don’t feel…so sad.

“I feel sorry for people who do not drink,” Frank Sinatra once said. “When they wake up in the morning it is as good as they are going to feel all day.” It’s a great quote, because I did feel great drinking to excess, and I’ve felt bad, and I’ve felt nothing. It feels great feeling nothing for a while, until you realize life is passing you by.

“You can only pour so much milk into a glass before some of it starts to leak out over the top,” was a line of dialogue written for the character Bud Bundy for the show Married with Children. This quote was dropped in reference to the idea that the Kelly Bundy character was learning new things. She was trying to impress her dad, and her brother, with her new found intellectual abilities, until she heard a doorbell, and she couldn’t figure out what it was. The quote from Bud Bundy was his explanation for what he thought was happening to Kelly’s brain.

There are times when I think aging has affected my memory. It very well could be that age has lessened my intellectual capacity, but I’m more inclined to think it has more to do with this bit of dialogue written for the Bud Bundy character. We’re so inundated with information in this information age, that we forget certain, core fundamentals. A friend of mine informed me that we only have room for three million memories in our brain, and when we start to attain more of them in the natural course of our lives, others start to fall out.

Winston Churchill: “Youth is wasted on the young.” I can’t tell you how much of my youth I wasted. I was naturally athletic, and I had an inquisitive mind. I don’t think I adequately pursued either. I thought I’d live forever, so I didn’t want to do anything today. I thought I would eventually figure something out when I became an adult. I preferred to play Nintendo and Sega. I don’t regret much of what I did, but I now wish I had that youthful enthusiasm and youthful energy back, so I could combine it with my current mind.

Marcel Proust: “We don’t receive wisdom; we must discover it for ourselves after a journey that no one can take for us or spare us.” I think this follows the Churchill quote well, for it is only through the path we have taken in life that we can become wise, but we also lose our youth on these paths. That youthful enthusiasm and idealistic, fantastical mind is lost as we become wiser.

I’m all about teaching my nephews.  I sit and daydream about scenarios that I can lay out for them.  I tell them the things I did. My lessons are funny and sad depending on the situation. At the end of the day, I’m quite sure that all of my lessons will go in one ear and out the other in the manner all the lessons I was taught did. We cannot, as Proust says, prepare those setting out on their journey any more than those that preceded us could. We can try, and most of us will, if we don’t want our experiences to wither within, but they have to take this journey themselves if they are ever going to learn anything. Once that valuable lesson is learned independent of advice, they can combine it with the advice we’ve passed on, and actually learn something in life.

Norman Mailer: “Experience, when it cannot be communicated to another, must wither within and be worse than lost.”  I have used this quote a lot. I have often replaced the word “experience” with stories. We all have stories to tell. If we allow these stories to die off they are worse than lost. My uncles proudly proclaimed that my grandpa wasn’t much of a talker. “He was a humble man who didn’t talk about himself much,” they would say with a wistful smile. This was seen as a valiant attribute of the WWII generation. There is an element of narcissism to talking about oneself of course, and we can all take a nugget about overdoing it, but there are also lessons a young person can learn from our stories. There is a level of familiarity a young one can attain from an elder who talks about their life. There is also that cliche about passing on a legacy that can be totally lost when we “don’t talk about ourselves much”.

I appreciated the idea that my grandpa wanted to allow me to carve my own path in life, and I don’t know if he actually said these words, or if I imagined it, but I seem to remember a “You don’t want to hear advice from an old man do you?” I probably didn’t, but the point is that you’re supposed to force me to listen to you. You’re supposed say, “You’re my grandson, and you’ll listen to this whether you like it or not. It’s for your own good.” In the aftermath of that, I will feel an unusual warmth that allows me to feel like your grandson and your legacy. So, go ahead and be the strong, silent type with your women and your friends, but when you’re standing beneath a basket sending balls back to a shooter that happens to be your kid, or your grand kid, open and tell them a few tales from your life. Even if they pretend they’re not listening, or they cut you off to talk about their kid stories, it might provide long-term benefits for the both of you. The alternative is a strong, silent, and relatively distant family thinking all the entertaining vignettes and life lessons you could’ve taught us while they lower you into the ground.

When John Madden decided that he would retire (the first time) he told a story about his boy asking if John would buy him a car. “That’s ridiculous,” Madden said to his wife. “Shouldn’t we at least wait until he’s sixteen before we even start in on this conversation?” His wife informed him that his son turned sixteen two years ago. John Madden subsequently retired from his duties as a football analyst.

That retirement lasted for about one year. A reporter asked Madden about ending his one-year retirement to ‘Spend time with the family’. “Anyone that tells you that they’re retiring to spend more time with the family is lying. No one wants to spend more time with their family, and your family doesn’t want to spend more time with you,” he said.

Friedrich Nietzsche: “It is not enough to prove something. One also has to seduce or elevate people to it. That is why a man of knowledge should learn how to speak his wisdoms and often in such a way that sounds like folly.” Does this not describe politics and the entire entertainment industry in a nutshell? Most civilized societies have deemed murder in the first degree the most awful crime a person can commit, and they impose penalties that attempt to define the crime and hopefully prevent people from being seduced by its power. It is tantalizing and tempting to violate taboos. With that in mind, how does a politician convince their voter base that they’re not responsible for a high murder rate in their locale. How does a movie producer convince a movie going public that their movie about murder is enjoyable? They develop a narrative, and a plot line that involve seemingly harmless actions, say a cartoon, and they drop in little lines here and there, over and over, until it becomes an accepted norm.

Bertrand Russell: “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.” Every person believes they are a member of “the wiser” faction, and that the other people are all fools and fanatics.

Abraham Lincoln: “Most of us are just about as happy as we make up our minds to be.” Some of us are absolutely miserable in the present, and we can’t wait for something to happen, so that we can finally be happy. Some of us will kind of sort of somewhat admit that we are happy, but we know that the other shoe is sure to drop on our happiness and expose it as the myth it was. We know too much to be happy, we’ve lived too long to know that happiness just doesn’t happen to us, until that certain something happens somewhere and we wish we could go back to the time and place when we were happy.

Ernest Hemingway: “I like to sleep. My life has a tendency to fall apart when I’m awake.” This might help explain all the alcohol, and the suicide.