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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Re-thinking ‘Generation Wuss’: Why Millennials aren’t so bad

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In my first job after grad school I had a desk in a pod of cubicles I shared with three white-haired newspaper reporters, all of them approaching retirement age.

I was in my early 30s at the time, smug and ambitious and thoroughly disappointed to find myself at a small daily newspaper in a small manufacturing town that had fallen on hard times.

It’s not that I felt entitled to success; I was simply frustrated not to have found it after an expensive education and years of paying my dues at smaller publications in even smaller towns.

My colleagues had been in this business forever — one apprenticed out of high school, another went to community college, and another landed there after working at a country-and-western radio station.

They were all capable reporters and — with one exception — insufferable editors.

They ridiculed my copy over the smallest details, most of which were not germane to the topic at hand.

They enjoyed dressing me down, not with unassailable logic and facts, but with the only instrument they knew how to use: The power their seniority afforded them.

I don’t blame them for that.

They were part of a generation being phased out of journalism through layoffs and buyouts, in favour of younger people with multimedia skills who knew how to use an iPhone.

“Millennials!” my most ornery colleague lamented over his landline more than once.

They’re the worst! he thought but didn’t say.

I knew he wasn’t really angry with Millennials. He was angry because nearly every skill he acquired over the previous few decades was becoming obsolete.

My presence in that newsroom was a threat, not only to his job security but to his sense of himself.

Anyone would grow hostile under that kind of pressure. I genuinely sympathized with him. If he wasn’t such a jerk about it, I’d have been on his side.

He seized on any perceived weakness and stifled my attempts to level with him. Being agreeable hurt my fortunes, so I hardened myself and left him alone.

Within a couple of years, he and another of my colleagues were laid off. I haven’t stayed in touch with the third, but he appears to be back in radio at least part-time.

That pod of cubicles was a toxic place, and when it became obvious it would not get better any time soon, I left.

Millennials! Scourge of the Earth! Worst Generation Ever!

 Never mind it was their generation that raised us or, in some cases, raised our parents.

It’s our fault they treated us as they did. We’re to blame for way we’ve turned out.

Coddled, indulged, sheltered and spoiled. Yes, we were children at the time, clueless and beholden to the people who watched over us, but still.

We really should have known better. We shouldn’t have let them let this happen.

***

The most telling difference between my generation and that of my colleagues was how we settled debates.

When a fact was in dispute I googled it immediately, found a credible source and thought that would settle the matter.

My colleagues preferred to discuss it at length and then acquiesce to the wisest in the bunch. My antagonist appeared to have assumed the role of Wise Man No. 1.

He kept a massive, ancient, tattered dictionary next to his desk and referred to it when we quibbled over the definition of a word.

One day, someone asked if biannual meant every other year, or twice a year. It was technically the latter, but sometimes the former.

I discovered this by plugging it into word.com, the website (and most recent version) of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary.

Also through word.com, I discovered the wor I thought my colleague should use to describe something that happened every other year. It was biennial.

He didn’t like that I discovered this on the Internet before he could find it in his book.

This was another sign his methods were going the way of the dodo. It implied he was not as wise as he was perceived to be.

It was another reason to resent me, and to try and get me fired. He did everything he could to get under my skin, hoping I would eventually break.

And I eventually did, but our company laid him off long before I quit.

***

Bret Easton Ellis, the author of American Psycho, was born in Los Angles on March 7, 1964. There was no Internet then, no Instagram and no Twitter.

It was 20 years before the birth of Mark Zuckerberg and 40 years before the birth of Facebook. It was, if you happened to be a privileged white male, not a terrible time to be alive.

According to a short piece in the current issue of Esquire, Ellis had his first meaningful exposure to Millenials through a live-in boyfriend born in the mid-1980s.

“I noticed this general wussiness in him and his friends that shocked me and that my male friends, at a comparative age decades ago, simply did not have,” Ellis told the magazine.

“I was shocked at what they were frightened of, and what they were offended by. To a hard-bitten whatever, Generation X, it seemed ludicrous.”

His disdain was such that Ellis coined the term “Generation Wuss,” apparently pushing it out on Twitter and his podcast.

The purpose of his interview with Esquire was to promote his first non-fiction book, White — the working title was reportedly White Privileged Male — which laments the fragility of the millennial generation in all the usual ways.

We are over-sensitive and entitled and made worse by the medications foisted on us as children or teens.

White is not a deep or nuanced analysis but doesn’t pretend to be,” the magazine says.

“It’s simply one man laying into what annoys him in all its myriad manifestations. Along the way, he demonstrates that sometimes the bluntest instrument is the most effective, sometimes the most superficial reading is the right one.”

Which is an odd way of justifying a book that, according to this review, simply restates a series of clichés.

The kids aren’t all right.

We all know how and why.

But just for fun, let’s go over it one more time.

***

As a kid, I was taught to be respectful and kind. I was taught to stick up for others and to stand up for what was right.

Life was not only a gift, but an obligation to make something of myself. My parents, both Baby Boomers, gave me the best head start they could.

They ensured I never went hungry and always had a roof over my head. We never went to fancy places on vacation, but we’ve been to the east coast of Canada and to Vancouver Island.

Mom and Dad were thrifty, frugal and strict; yet always compassionate and often kind. I never doubted the fact they loved me, and I understood their strictness was a manifestation of love, not a contradiction.

They helped me through college and bought me my first car. When I graduated, I moved back in with them for a couple of years so I could save money.

Mom and Dad were always when I needed them. They were sympathetic to my angst and would listen to me rant about the various ways life was not fair.

If I needed a kick in the pants, they ensured I received it.

My parents also taught me it was OK to cry. In fact, it was healthy and good.

So, I cried a lot when I was a kid, sometimes for good reasons and sometimes over trivial things.

I was sensitive, probably over-sensitive. I was the quintessential wuss in Generation Wuss.

But unlike my colleagues in that small, suffering newsroom, I do not see vulnerability as a sign of weakness. I see sensitivity as an asset, not a liability.

Millennials see the world differently than generations before them and — not to be a dick about it, but that’s how it’s always been.

We’re not the worst, and we’re not the best. We know success doesn’t come easily, and we know hard work does not always overcome hard luck.

Honestly, we’re doing the best we can with the tools at our disposal.

It’s not easy. It’s never been easy.

And bashing one another has never been constructive, so let’s move the discussion to higher ground.

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What is coffee?: An important philosophical inquiry

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After the basketball game we went to Beertown for calamari, french fries and a libation.

Naturally, talk turned to coffee.

A friend sitting to my left told us about a homemade brew he likes, which includes a gob of butter.

That’s revolting, I thought. Why would you drink that?

But I’m trying to say fewer horrible things aloud these days.

“I’m up to two or three coffees per day,” I said, blandly.

“I’m one of those people.”

There was a brief silence that implied: OK, well that’s fantastic. Thanks for sharing.

“I don’t like coffee at all,” said another pal, sitting across from the first and nursing what appeared to be a pilsener or an amber lager.

(I don’t know that much about beer.)

“I don’t either,” said our third companion, who was gradually downing a tall, frosted glass of Belgian wheat beer.

“It’s OK if you put lots of stuff in it,” I said.

“Then it’s not coffee.”

“Yeah it is,” I said, like a five-year-old on the playground at recess.

But when I woke up the next morning I realized he had a point.

You can definitely argue that coffee with cream and sugar in it is not coffee, but something else entirely.

This much I know for sure: A plain drink made by filtering water through coffee grounds is, in fact, coffee.

You cannot argue this still water, or that it’s lemonade or orange juice or Sambuca.

If you did, you’d be crazy. And despite appearances to the contrary, I’m not crazy.

You can add anything to coffee, but at a certain point it becomes a new thing.

A cafe mocha, for instance, is not coffee.

It’s a mixture of coffee and hot chocolate that so drastically dilutes the coffee it’s in its own category.

Also, an “Irish coffee,” which mixes coffee with Irish whiskey, sugar and cream, is technically a cocktail.

The question is, where do you draw the line?

Most people would say lattes are coffee, but the ratio of liquid to sugar and frothed milk makes this problematic.

Also, there is the matter of plain espresso.

Is this coffee, or a kind of Super Coffee due its strength and concentration?

Thankfully, we did not discuss any of this at Beertown.

We let the matter drop and moved on to the ethics of hunting coyotes and the merits and demerits of buying food at Wal Mart.

That is to say, the other guys did. I just kind of sat there, eating my french fries and sipping my beer and drifting in and out.

Years ago, when I was in university, I visited my paternal grandmother at her apartment.

Grandma Forrest is one of my favourite people of all time — extraordinarily kind, good-natured, philosophical and non-confrontational.

She is the kind of person who makes the world better simply by being in it.

There was a sign on a wall in her apartment that said something to the effect of:

You can either be right all the time, or you can have friends. I choose friends.

A wise woman, my grandmother is.

When I see her, it’s usually sometime between my second Double-Double of the day, and my third.

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Kurt Vonnegut and the writing life

2873008032_2055098686_mWhen Kurt Vonnegut was 71 years old he wrote a short piece for the alumni magazine of Cornell University, where he spent three years trying to become a biochemist.

Vonnegut, who never graduated from Cornell and took a meandering path to become one of the most celebrated writers of the late 20th century, was asked for advice to the Class of 1994.

He said someone should have told him not to join a fraternity when he was in college, and that getting drunk is dangerous and stupid. He wished somebody had told him to work for a newspaper instead of aiming for a degree.

But apart from that, his advice was the best he believed he could have received when he arrived at Cornell for the first time.

“Keep your hat on,” he wrote. “We may end up miles from here.”

Vonnegut certainly did.

He left Cornell to join the U.S. Army during the Second World War and made pitstops at Butler University, Carnegie Tech and the University of Tennessee before landing in the infantry.

Vonnegut was captured in the Battle of the Bulge and ended up in a prisoner of war camp in Dresden, where he endured the bombing of that city in an underground meat locker that bore the name of one of his most famous novels: Slaughterhouse-Five.

After the war, Vonnegut completed the coursework for a master’s degree in anthropology and worked for a news bureau in Chicago.

His family was young and growing, so when the university rejected his master’s thesis, he took a job in public relations at General Electric.

“Particularly if you were a child of the Depression, in those days you just got a job,” he said in a separate essay.

“And you didn’t feel destined for this or that job—you just got any goddamned job.”

Vonnegut did not become famous for his writing until Slaughterhouse-Five was published in 1969, when he was 47 years old.

His career had many diversions, false-starts, failures and missteps. He continued to write as he went, publishing 14 novels and several other books, including the classics Cat’s Cradle and Breakfast of Champions.

He is remembered as one of the grandmasters of American literature in the late 20th century, the Mark Twain of his era. He also struggled with depression and survived a suicide attempt.

As a writer and as a human being, Vonnegut persevered. That’s half the battle.

The writing life is fraught with failure. It’s the only way you can succeed.

Failure hurts, of course. It’s tempting at times to give up, throw our work in the trash and sulk about it for a few years.

And the truth is, sometimes it’s good to stop and reflect on what we’re doing, how we’re doing it, and why we bother.

But if we find good answers to those questions — and “because I want to” is a good answer— we ought to keep going.

Life’s twists and turns produce the material we need. The trick is to be attentive, take notes, and keep going.

“I was a victim of a series of accidents,” Vonnegut said, “as are we all.”

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Be audacious

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Years ago I interviewed a hockey coach on the cusp of a playoff run.Most of his players were in their first or second year with the team and didn’t have any playoff experience. I asked the coach if this concerned him.

It didn’t.

He said something to the effect of: “Sometimes it’s better if you don’t know what you don’t know. And when you’re as young as they are, you don’t.”

The same principle applies to writing.

If you’re just starting out, with no clear idea of what you’re doing, it’s not a bad thing.

You’ll foul things up in a million different ways, but as you go, you’ll find yourself.

You’ll find your voice.

You’ll find out if writing is something you really want to do.

And if you keep going you’ll get better, because that’s how it works.

Being a writer takes both hubris and humility. It means being bold enough to put your words into the world, and willing to take criticism from editors and readers.

It’s still the best job/hobby/calling you can possibly have, as far as I’m concerned.

So if you’re reading this and you’re young, unsure if you should be doing this thing you long to do, let me assure you:

Yes. You should be doing it. If this is what you want to do, give it a try.

Writing empowers us in ways we can’t fathom until we start experimenting with it.

It gives us control over our own narratives. It helps us work through ideas in ways we can’t in conversation, or in a university seminar.

Writing is the thing we must do, if we’re compelled to do it at all.

And sometimes it’s best not to know any better.

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