How to let your readers down without even trying

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In a climactic scene in John Green’s novel The Fault in Our Stars, the protagonist — whose name is Hazel — visits her favourite author at his house in Amsterdam.

Hazel is a teenager living with cancer, and the author in Amsterdam writes a wonderful book after his daughter’s own cancer diagnosis.

The book is something close to a holy text for Hazel; she re-reads it over and over again. But it ends abruptly and she wants to know what happens next.

A series of events lead to this meeting in Amsterdam, where Hazel is finally able to ask the author point-blank.

He can’t answer her questions.

He doesn’t know what happens next to the characters in his book, and he doesn’t seem to care.

It’s morning when they meet, but the author drinks boatloads of liquor and becomes increasingly drunk. He is a monster — caustic, apathetic and cruel.

This experience does not crush Hazel, but she can’t help but be disappointed.

Later, she understands. The author lost someone, and it ruined him.

His book is frozen in time, and he is a much different person than he was when he wrote it.

I’ve never produced anything as influential as Hazel’s author, but I do worry about letting my readers down.

As many have discovered — including women who’ve gone out with me on dates — my writing persona and my speaking persona are very different.

I am honest when I write and I try to be honest when I’m out in the real world, but I’m a human being, and I often fall short of my own expectations.

Also, the way I see myself is much different from how others see me; my insecurities are profound, and I’m more melancholic than I seem.

I can be a mean, miserable cuss — mainly to myself, but also to others. And yet most people seem to think I’m a really nice guy.

When I published my first book three years ago, a memoir-style collection of stories about the intrinsic value of writing, I was open and honest.

Those stories reflected the truth as I saw it at the time, but I’ve changed a lot since then. I’m better in some ways and worse in others.

Life has been difficult, and it has beaten me down. In order to survive, I’ve had to change.

If you read my book and met me today, you might be disappointed. You might be pleasantly surprised. Truthfully, you probably wouldn’t care either way, but who knows?

My approach to writing has always to do the best I can in the time allowed. I’ve tried to avoid hurting people, but occasionally I fail.

As I write, I try to anticipate the effect I may have on readers, but ultimately it’s a bit of a crapshoot. I put my thoughts on paper and hope for the best.

In The Fault in Our Stars, Hazel has a companion who loves her deeply and understands her in a way few others do.

Her companion is a good-looking kid, a cancer survivor himself, and he is intent on making his mark on the world.

More pointedly, he wants to leave a scar.

Hazel is the complete opposite.

She treads lightly. She is careful with other people’s emotions. Hazel is more worried about the effect her illness has on others than the effect it has on her.

And this, as far as I can tell, is the best approach to creativity a writer can have.

Like Hazel, we must try to do no harm. Like the author in Amsterdam, we will let people down.

The main thing is to stay honest and soft-hearted, to forgive ourselves for not being perfect, and to keep moving forward as best we can.

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5 Books That Changed My Life (and Could Change Yours, Too)

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If you’re compelled to write, it’s likely because you love to read.

Most of us have been poring over books since we were kids, escaping into novels and delving into stories from history or philosophy or science.

There are exceptions to this rule, of course, but the novelist Stephen King’s bluntness on the importance of reading holds true.

“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write,” King famously said.

“Simple as that.”

Most writers have a list of books that changed their lives—works that rescued them from loneliness or changed the way they perceive the world and themselves.

Here’s mine. Let me know what you think in the comments.

  1. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

Catcher in the Rye

This novel resonated deeply with me as a teenager, as it has with millions of other readers since it first hit the market in 1951.

It simply rings true.

Holden Caulfield, the protagonist and narrator, thought the way I thought when I was 15. He spoke the way I spoke.

He went on tangents and didn’t conform and hated anything phony. He had the courage to say things I couldn’t

As I struggled to figure out who I was and where I fit in the world, Caulfield spoke to me.

He articulated my adolescent experience perfectly, and while it was a relatively privileged experience, it wasn’t easy. This book was a lifeline.

  1. A Prayer for Owen Meaney by John Irving

A Prayer for Owen Meaney

One of the first novels I read for fun during high school.

I’d given up on English class, mainly because of a miserable teacher in my university-prep year, but part of me still wanted to be a writer.

Irving writes in an accessible but literary style, in contrast to the boring, cumbersome texts we often read in school.

Meaney changed my perception of what literature was, and what it could be. Its exploration of the Christian faith offered a perspective I never heard in church.

This was a tentative step toward ideas I’d never considered before, in an environment where I often felt as though I had to believe things I couldn’t.

Meaney also made me a willing reader again. I’m extremely grateful for that.

  1. Obasan by Joy Kogawa

Obasan

Not long after the bombing of Pearl Harbour in 1941, most Japanese Canadians living in British Columbia were uprooted and sent to internment camps.

They stayed until the war ended 1945, and in the meantime the Canadian government sold off their homes and businesses.

Somehow, this didn’t come up in history class.

I learned about it through Kogawa’s novel, which is based on her own experiences. It was the first novel to tell this story, and Kogawa tells it beautifully.

Obasan was my first meaningful hint of the ugliness that lurks in Canadian history, and our misguided attempts to sanitize it.

  1. A Million Miles in a Thousand Years by Donald Miller

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I read this on vacation in my late twenties and didn’t like it much.

Miller argues we should act as if our lives are stories, aiming for the best possible outcomes.

This can be a recipe for disaster—good stories often have horrible endings—and I’ve found Miller’s advice in other books to be either perfunctory or misguided, or both.

Still, his prose drew me in.

Miller writes candid, memoir-style non-fiction, and he’s a gifted storyteller. You don’t read him for guidance; you read him because of his pretty words.

The main insight I gleaned from this kind of writing was that I could do it, though not nearly as well.

I adapted Miller’s approach to a column I wrote for my local paper, and this led me to the work of other skilled essayists like David Sedaris and Anne Lamott.

There are many shortcomings in Miller’s work, but his diction and sense of story are strong.

  1. Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto by Chuck Klosterman

Sex Drugs and Cocoa Puffs

This book of essays is the only book of Klosterman’s I would recommend, but it’s a beauty.

He writes in an engaging, conversational style about everything from breakfast cereal to Guns N’ Roses to Saved By the Bell.

Klosterman is funny, insightful and smart. Like Miller, he makes a writer think: I can do that.

I’ve read most of Klosterman’s non-fiction books, and they’re often abstruse or exasperating or both.

But I’m a fan. I know I can count on him to entertain me, and to anticipate the reader’s next question in virtually every argument he makes.

Miller’s logic is like Swiss cheese; Klosterman ties himself in knots trying to ensure each thesis is air-tight.

Over to you

What are five books that changed your life, and why?

 

 

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Here’s the best writing advice I’ve ever received

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My car died in the winter of 2012, when I was in my second semester of grad school, so I called a tow truck and had it hauled to a dealership on the other side of town.

The truck driver was friendly and chatty and so was his wife, who had come along for the ride.

The three of us sat together on a bench seat in the cab of the truck, and they asked about school and my ambitions in life.

I was reluctant to reveal too much, and they could tell I was being honest, but not open.

Finally, I revealed the thing I really wanted to do, the thing I’d wanted to do since I was eight years old.

“I want to write books,” I said.

The truck driver’s wife, who sat immediately to my left, didn’t miss a beat.

“So do it,” she said. “You should do that.”

I grinned stupidly and said something non-committal like: “Yeah, I’d like to. We’ll see.”

But I knew she was right. I knew she had just given me some of the best advice I’d ever received as a writer.

If you want to do this, then do it.

Don’t hem and ha over what, exactly, you’ll write.

Don’t worry if you’ll make any money at it.

Don’t quit your day job. Please don’t.

That may never be in the cards.

Most writers have day jobs.

But get out of your own way.

If this is something you want to do, you should do it.

Be careful. Be cautious. But don’t be shy.

About three years later, I took an online course about how to write a book.

It was expensive, but it taught me the basics: How to come up with an idea, how to sketch an outline, how to stick to a writing schedule.

After two more years of fits and starts, while I juggled new jobs and the workload and stresses that came with them, I finally published.

“Self-published,” I told my cousin Chris when he asked about it.

“Ah,” he said. “Still counts.”

He’s right. It counts. I am, technically, a published author.

It wouldn’t have happened if I’d never taken a chance.

It wouldn’t have happened if I’d worried too much about what people would say, or what they would think of me, or whether or not my book would sell a million copies.

It wouldn’t have happened if I’d hadn’t followed my friendly companion’s advice that day.

Her thoughts, echoing the marketing gods at Nike, is the best I have to offer if writing is something you want to do.

So do it. You should do that.

You really should.

 

 

 

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