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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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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Where do you even start?

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You can start at the beginning, or you can start at the end.

You can start in the middle.

You can throw stuff against the wall to see what sticks.

You can blab to your computer screen like you would to a friend.

Or a confidante, or perhaps your younger self. Or perhaps your children.

Or perhaps your future children. Or perhaps the president of the United States of America.

It doesn’t matter.

All that matters is that you get started.

Because if you don’t get started, you can’t finish.

And if you don’t finish, you’ll never end up where you want to be.

You want to be a writer, right?

So write, alright?

Your stuff doesn’t have to be perfect.

In fact, it never will be.

Perfect is impossible, and trying to be perfect makes you boring.

So just get started, and see how it goes.

You don’t have to match Shakespeare … but why not give it a try?

Can you compose a sonnet?

Yes, you can.

You have my permission.

Shakespeare died 402 years ago, and he does not have a monopoly on sonnets.

Write what is in your heart, what’s on your mind.

Write out of love, and to quash hate.

Just do your best, and don’t hurt anyone (including yourself) in the process.

Be smart. Be wise. Be cautious.

But do this thing, because it’s the thing that gives you life.

It’s the thing that feeds your soul.

As the rapper, filmmaker and all-around genius Shad says:

“Honestly, the haters can hate. Just let the creators create.”

You’re a creator.

We all are.

So get started.

Write.

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Why you should write every day

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Henri Nouwen, the priest and academic, wrote candidly about one of the most emotionally painful periods in his life.

It began in the winter of 1987, shortly after he joined L’Arche Daybreak, a community of men and women with mental disabilities.

Nouwen had taught at some of the most prestigious universities in the world, and became one of the most respected spiritual writers of his day.

But as an academic he never felt as if he were “fully at home,” according to the foreword of his book The Inner Voice of Love.

Nouwen came to think of L’Arche as his “true home,” a place where he was accepted and given all the attention and affection he could hope for.

He let his guard down and opened his heart more fully.

Nouwen became especially close to one friend, and he allowed himself be loved and cared for with a level of trust and confidence he had never experienced before.

“It brought immense joy and peace,” he wrote.

“It seemed as if a door of my interior life had been opened, a door that had remained locked during my youth and most of my adult life.”

Then the friendship was interrupted, and Nouwen fell apart.

He felt abandoned, rejected and betrayed. His anguish matched the level of joy he had previously enjoyed.

“Indeed,” he wrote, “the extremes touched each other.”

It took six months of counselling and spiritual care to arrive at a point where he could return to L’Arche, and eventually the friendship was restored.

During that time of healing, Nouwen was surprised to find that he never lost the ability to write.

“In fact, writing became part of my struggle for survival,” he wrote.

“It gave me the little distance from myself that I needed to keep from drowning in my despair.”

On most days, after meeting with two “guides” who helped him through this difficult time, he wrote a command to himself that had emerged from their session.

“These imperatives were directed to my own heart. They were not meant for anyone but myself.”

A friend and publisher at Doubleday felt these writings could help others, but Nouwen said he was too close to it.

He started working on another book, a remarkable and moving volume called The Return of the Prodigal Son.

Eight years later, Nouwen re-read the journal he kept during that time of anguish and, at the urging of several other friends, decided to publish it.

That book, The Inner Voice of Love, is a key part of Nouwen’s prodigious body of work.

His journey through intense emotional pain has been a consolation to others with broken hearts and broken lives, including me.

In hindsight, Nouwen could see that this period was a time of “intense purification that had led … gradually to a new inner freedom, a new hope, and a new creativity.”

His friends believed his journal revealed that light and darkness, hope and despair, love and fear, are never far from one another.

They also believed, according to Nouwen, “that spiritual freedom often requires a fierce spiritual battle.”

All of this to say, you never know what value others will find in the words you put down, even when you feel like trash and can barely pull yourself out of bed.

You don’t know how your words will help them, or hurt them, or pull them forward.

Keep writing, anyway.

Write out of love, of course. Don’t write to settle scores.

Be careful with your words, and do everything you can to avoid hurting people.

But keep writing.

Do it for yourself, and decide later (even several years later) if you want to share your thoughts with anyone else.

It’s not overly dramatic to say that writing may save your life.

It’s not arrogant or smug to think it may save someone else’s.

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