My Love-Hate Relationship with Books on Writing

Last spring, I became obsessed with the writing of William Zinsser, who wrote the book On Writing Well. The music of his lean, lucid sentences dazzled me.

I loved his muscular verbs and his original figures of speech. The quality of his writing seemed to prove that his advice worked.

Not that his rules were new to me. In principle, I already agreed with most of them, particularly his belief that clarity is the cardinal goal of writing. I agreed, too, that the best prose is direct, vivid, and clutter-free, and that the short and direct word communicates more effectively than a ponderous abstract one.

I read many of the chapters of On Writing Well multiple times not so much for his content as his style, trying to absorb his brilliance.

Only deeper into the book did I discover a surprising revelation: William Zinsser did not enjoy writing. His book is peppered with cleverly worded complaints about the agonies of author-dom. He insists that there is nothing a writer hates more than writing. A writer, Zinsser insists, will go to any length to avoid doing his job.

This was true of me at one time, but not anymore. I love to write. But unlike Zinsser, who refused to progress to the second sentence without perfecting the first, I allow myself to write terrible rough drafts and revise later.

How could such a good writer view writing as drudgery? I can guess. In the past, whenever I became obsessed with following rules, my pleasure in the process would decrease exponentially.

This was particularly true if I tried to follow them while also creating new content. For that reason, I stopped reading how-to-write books for over five years. They made me too self-conscious.

Only recently did I end my “how-to” hiatus. But after I read On Writing Well, my old problem came creeping back to me. Whenever I took Zinsser’s rules too seriously, my forehead muscles would tense and my writing would feel forced. The words I was trying to wrangle into submission were bucking me and leaving me emotionally tattered.

Frustration arose as I tried to tighten every sentence until it crackled. I agonized over rhythm. I fretted about finding exactly the right word, rather than the almost-right word. I suffered from decision fatigue as I compared different versions of each sentence.

When I finally did find a word that had exactly the right meaning, I worried that it had too many syllables. Maybe my word was not pithy enough. Or maybe it was too abstract. Or maybe my verbs were too weak.

But my biggest frustration came not so much with choosing the right word but with trimming verbiage. While I was already in the habit of cutting text, I was pursuing a new level of Zinsser-style succinctness. Zinsser urged chiseling away at text until all that remained was a kind of pristine thought sculpture, a fat-free model of efficiency, a laconic conveyer of clarity.

Following the leaner-is-always-better principle, I became rabidly obsessed with cutting text —more so, even, than usual. The faintest sign of verbosity had to be swatted into oblivion. I curtailed my essays with mercenary efficiency—always careful to save my sprawling first draft in case I wanted to restore some of my deleted writing later.

After all of my cutting was done, I would return to my original draft to compare, hoping to see dramatic before-and-after improvements, a suitable reward for all of my efforts.

But usually, I liked my previous version better than I expected. In fact, I often preferred it to my torturously revised drafts.

One day when returning to look over a rough draft, I made a startling discovery: I had changed almost all of my original content, leaving me with two distinct essays about different topics that were only loosely related.

I was not only trimming verbosity; I was pushing out my own original thoughts. Instead of saying what I wanted to say, I was losing my voice. I was becoming buried by my own rules.

The “rules” had stopped serving me; instead, I was serving them. I was allowing them to jettison me from my own prose. Now I clearly remembered why, at one time, I had stopped reading writing advice.

It was not just that I tended to take it too far. It was that no blanket rule of writing—no matter how wise it sounds—will work for every situation. No rule can take into account all of the factors that might affect an essay, story, or novel.

When I came to my senses, I remembered that shorter is not always better; in fiction it takes more words to show a character throwing a tantrum that to merely tell what he did. But showing characters in action is generally more vivid and engaging than dropping a line of exposition. Even within individual sentences, my pursuit of brevity can destroy rhythm, voice, and tone. And while short clear words may be the easiest to read, so-called “big” words have flavors, textures, and nuances that simpler words can never emulate.

Somehow, I had forgotten a the most important tenet of writing: the rules must serve my purpose. If the rules are upstaging my message, I have to let them go.

While advice from other writers may be useful, I always have to take it with a grain of salt. I do still love the way William Zinsser writes. And as rules of thumb go, his make good sense. But they are only guidelines, not oracular pronouncements from a celestial mountaintop. Obedience should never be the guiding principle of any art—not if I want to master writing instead of it mastering me.

On Writing Well now rests snugly on a bookshelf behind a glass door. Maybe five years from now, I will go back and look at it again. For now, I will simply write what comes to me, preferring to revise with a lighter touch. Unlike Zinsser, I love to write. And I want to keep it that way.

Art Makes the Familiar New Again

As an art major, I drew for a grade. But as a child, I drew because I wanted to understand. I wanted to explore why houses, people, and dogs looked the way they did. My tools of discovery were colors, lines, and shapes.

My drawings mirrored my growing understanding of what it meant to live in a world teeming with oddities like bicycles, fish, and stars.

I stopped drawing when I turned 13, partly because the private school I attended in middle school offered no art classes. My skills faded from neglect.

But later on in my junior year of college, at a time when I was deeply depressed, I abruptly changed my major from liberal studies to art. I left some of my professors scratching their heads, but there was something about drawing that I missed profoundly, and I wanted it in my life again.

Majoring in art, however, was nothing like drawing as a child. Each project had strict rules, not to mention the looming threat of a grade—and a potentially humiliating critique for every project.

Although there were parts of my art major adventure I loved, I was always tense. I never really felt like the art was a way to express myself. It was about pleasing teachers for a grade. That is why, when I left college, I stashed my oil paints, brushes, and drawing pencils in a closet. I would only return to them many years later in 2020 during a pandemic.

The pandemic reminded me that life is strange—and that my most basic assumptions could be inverted overnight. Suddenly I was home-bound, and at night there was a sense of loneliness as I got ready for bed. For company, I got into the habit of listening to YouTube. I stumbled onto a speech by Alan Watts, a self-described entertainer and “mystic” who in the sixties popularized eastern religions to the western world. Although I am a religious skeptic, I was intrigued by a video called, “Life is Not a Journey.” I thought that he had an interesting point of view.

I would listen to his lectures as I put dishes in the cabinets. His voice—which sounded like Gandalf—consoled me. And a topic he kept returning to was the unity between opposites such as objects and the space around them. Although they contrast, they depend upon each other to exist.

The speech reminded me of the importance of negative space in drawing. In the book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, Betty Edwards emphasizes the need to be aware of negative space when you draw. It matters just as much as the “positive” forms because without each other, neither could exist.

This principle goes without saying, yet it is not how most people conventionally think about forms and the space they inhabit. The “unity of opposites” seems strange. But the most basic rules of drawing direct attention to it.

Art makes the familiar seem new again. While drawing I feel like I have gone back in time, like I am a child trying to grasp what makes something look like a house or a dog or a car. Art restores me to a more innocent–and interesting–way of seeing.

I think I know what runner looks like until I try to draw one. Then I realize that I have no idea what a runner looks like. Running has become a musty symbol in my head.

Besides, a running person looks completely different according to the point of view you adopt. Are you drawing them from the side or from behind? Which of the hundreds of fleeting positions that occur in mid-run are you going to capture? Which position should you choose?

Conventional ways of thinking—which usually involve symbols—can lead to boredom; drawing is a way to unlearn them. According to Picasso, “The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.”

While I am no Picasso, I get it. When I draw, I become aware that the rules of what makes a thing look real are incredibly odd.

What can be stranger than foreshortening—a distortion of size that occurs with variations in distance? A foot of a recumbent figure, because of its proximity to me as a viewer, can look mountainous while dwarfing his more distant moon of a head.

If I crave new sights, it is not always necessary to travel. Sometimes it is enough to peel the stale skin off the familiar and make it novel again.

Drawing is a way to do that. It rewards you for looking at objects as if you had never seen them before. This mindset yields better drawings and a more interesting life.

But if you persist in drawing what you know rather than what you see, your drawings will look amateurish. To see honestly, you have to unlearn—for the moment—that a head is bigger than a foot or that the lines of a road run parallel as they recede from the viewer.

Another Picasso quote beautifully expresses the relief of “unlearning” old ways of seeing: “It took four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.”

But studying the rules of perspective can only take me so far. Art also enables me to see beauty in things that people normally think of as unattractive: dilapidated houses, a cracked car window, or the wrinkles of an elderly person. A photography teacher once took my class to a lot full of broken, discarded automobiles. It was a visual feast.

But what about other arts? If drawing can make me relish objects ordinarily overlooked or reviled, can writing? In a different way, yes. Just as drawing from life means honoring whatever you see, in fiction I have to honor my observations of real people.

That usually means I have to let my characters have flaws. Those flaws, even the most egregious ones, are an essential part of who they are.

Instead of rushing to edify my characters by making them more mature or reasonable or pious, I relish those flaws in the same way I could be dazzled by a yard full of battered cars.

As a writer who thrives on drama, I have no interest in reforming my characters or forcing them to conform to some arbitrary definition of perfection. If my characters are jerks, as a writer I am duty-bound to preserve their naughty integrity. That makes them seem more real than if I make them all goodness and light.

Besides, conflict is the engine of fiction. “Flaws” in characters are—for story-telling purposes—pure gold.

We are a culture obsessed with what we can change, improve, reform, rehabilitate, or control. Art is a way to step out of this mindset, to suspend judgement, to observe, and—at least for that moment—to accept what we see. Art is about celebrating whatever is.

Baruch de Spinoza said, “I have striven not to laugh at human actions, not to weep at them, nor to hate them, but to understand them.”

The best literature is about understanding. If I populate the pages of my story with pious, unselfish people who always get along, my story will stall.,

But it is not just that characters must clash for drama. In fiction, and maybe also in life, we love characters not just in spite of their flaws but because of them.

This should be obvious. But—like negative space in a drawing—it seems so strange.

Short Story: “With a Sigh, the Villains Saved the World”

There would be no more saving. The heroes were done. They stripped off their eye masks. They trashed their ray guns and discarded their capes.

And if the world disapproved, it should have thought about that before it commenced yet a new round of self-annihilating shenanigans.

After its most recent caper involving a cult that worshiped tree ants, the time had finally come. Humanity needed to start solving its own problems.

Heroes after all had meek, shockingly vulnerable alter egos to look after. They were getting behind on their rent and were in danger of losing their poorly paid jobs at newspapers and research labs.

When the heroes retreated the villains rejoiced. They had always known that the heroes were just pious poseurs who cared more about flexing their deltoids than saving humankind.

A new age of evil honesty had arisen. The power vacuum would soon become a portal into paradise for the villains and a glorious nightmare for everyone else.

While the heroes were donating their colorful tights to thrift shops, the villains dusted off their old, previously thwarted plans for world domination: the seismo-plungers, the asteroid magnets, and the arboreal de-oxygenators—devious devices with which they could hold the world hostage for vast sums.

Sanguine about their nefarious prospects, the villains rubbed their pale, oily hands together, their eyes gleaming beneath secretive lids.

But when the villains finally promulgated their threats on their new website called “The Very Villainous Venue,” they met a baffling surprise: no one believed them.

Even after they had diligently demonstrated their seismo-plunger by obliterating a remote island in the South Pacific, they could not convince anyone that the earthquakes actually came from them—even after they televised everything. “Deepfake,” shouted the skeptics.

The humans who did believe the threat blamed each other. A subset of humanity argued that the earthquakes represented the impending wrath of God. Some even averred that there should be more of them. What better way to vanquish the heathens? The earthquakes were a warning—a precursor to divinely decreed eternal torture.

The villains were furious that God was getting all the credit for their diabolical schemes. They had put a lot of careful thought into them.

To compound their chagrin, the villains had to shutter their asteroid magnet. Their plan to escape to the moon right before the crash had gone amok.

All of the lunar real estate had already been claimed by a gaggle of multi-billionaires, who had moved there to escape the Earth, which was overheating—due in large part to their own actions.

The villains realized with growing alarm that they had work to do if they wanted their machinations to have any meaning. Threatening the scientifically illiterate masses was not going to work.

Before enacting their plots, they needed to combat disinformation so that they could seize full credit for their misdeeds.

Before the villains unleashed havoc upon the earth or demanded a hefty ransom, school children—and their parents—needed a solid grasp of science. What was the point in introducing an asteroid magnet if no one knew what an asteroid was?

With a collective sigh, the villains sank deplorable sums of their ill-gotten cash into science education. To circumvent cognitive dissonance, they reminded themselves that a true virtuoso of villainy had to play the long game.

But their plight went beyond asteroids. Even when the villains threatened to de-oxygenate the trees, they faced another grave impediment. The trees had, due to many human-induced fires, began to spew more carbon dioxide than they emitted oxygen.

However, no one with any power to act believed that either. They blamed everyone but the true villains. The political parties blamed each other. Ardent members of various religious denominations accused different faiths. They blustered and dissembled and pontificated until no one knew what was true anymore.

The villains had a grave epiphany. Why had it never occurred to them? It was they—and not just the rest of humanity—who faced an existential threat.

Even if they managed to eject the billionaires from the moon and seek refuge there after obliterating the world via asteroid magnet, there would thereafter be no recipients for their cruel schemes.

One thought in particular kept them up at night pacing the floors. What if the villains had to do good things to make destroying Earth worth their while? What if—to properly destroy the world—they first had to behave? What if they temporarily had to save the world?

After all, if the world was self-destructing anyway, who needed villains? Their diabolical clout was evaporating.

With a woeful collective sigh, the villains resolved to teach science to the masses so that they would understand subjects such as asteroids, oxygen deprivation, and seismology.

That way, when the villains threatened mass earthquakes, the world would gasp in horror.

Although the villains hated the idea of doing anything good, they tried to be philosophical about their plight. A true villain was not some hack but an artist of chaos.

To take anything away from humanity, the villains had to first give them something to lose. Like soup kitchens, a living wage, a science education, and equal health care access.

In short, to pull the rug out from under humanity, there had to be a  rug.  “Long game,” the villains reminded themselves when someone treated then to a syrupy thank you for some dubious do-gooding. Life was suffering after all.

So much effort! If only the heroes had never retired! The villains began to wonder if maybe the heroes had been playing them all along. How had confirmed villains ended up running soup kitchens, teaching geology to kids, and erecting shelters for the homeless?

“Long game, long game,” they reminded themselves. And the villains formed a support group to help them recover from the self-inflicted trauma of altruism.

After a decade of grudging labor, everyone in the world finally understood science. Most everyone was well-fed and could go to the doctor if they needed to. There was no more poverty and the most pernicious diseases were in retreat.

The plants were producing oxygen again, and not noxious vapors that smelled like burning hair. Art flourished. Smiles replaced sadness. And everyone finally knew what an asteroid was.

“At last,” the head villain said, “we have given the ordinary humans much to lose. We have fed the indigent. We have vanquished disease. We have saved the reckless world from self-annihilation. We have even become vegans to show our future victims how peaceful we are.

“Now: Our reward will be to watch them writhe and suffer as we snatch their prosperity away. Heh, heh, heh, at last the time has come to destroy the world.”

Of course, the villains had to warm up first. They prepared to unleash long-awaited explosions of diabolical laughter that would ring around the world.

The trouble was that the villains felt kind of unmotivated. After so many years of working to save the world that they were going to destroy, they were too exhausted to laugh very hard, and a giggle was just not going to cut it.

The more appropriate bellowing laughter would have to wait at least until morning came. So would the asteroid-magnets and the seismo-plungers and the oxygen-devouring arboreal vegetation.

For now, all the villains could do was curl into a ball on the cots they had set up for the homeless and rest for the night. In the morning they would awaken to a new dawn of villainy. Really, they would!

“Long game, long game,” they whispered to themselves. Then, with their bellies filled with warm vegan-approved soy milk, they drifted into a dreamless sleep.

Change Your Process and Enjoy Writing More

I recently had to retire a step in my writing process I loved. I loved it because it spared me from the anxiety of discipline. To me, discipline meant making myself write.

For most of my adult life, the concept of making myself write tortured me. It made no sense. Was I two separate people standing on different rungs of a dominance hierarchy? Which part of me was the boss, and which part the employee?

All I knew was that when Overlord Me tried to force Other Me to write, I encountered titanic resistance in the form of anxiety.

I finally concluded that if I was going to write, all of me had to want to write, not just some imaginary internal boss who knew better than the rest of me.

Luckily, I already did want to write, but a wall of anxiety was standing in my way. What I really needed was to let myself write. I needed to lift the pressure that was turning writing into a chore.

I stumbled onto a process that seemed to do the trick: pre-writing in longhand. As long as I was holding a pen, I gave myself full permission to write anything. I learned to suspend all judgment until later. I allowed myself to revise only later when I was typing my draft.

Scribbling my first drafts in a notebook without stopping to censor felt more like play than work, and it was a great way to relieve the pressure to “be good.” It eased, too, the anxiety of trying to create new content while also figuring out how to express it.

To relax my mind further, I added another trick: I promised myself that I could write one sentence and stop. I kept my promise. But most of the time, I wanted to keep writing.

I wrote quickly, messily, and brazenly. In the open prairie of my cheap spiral notebook, my mind could run wild and free if it wanted to; it could even jump the fence and plunge into forbidden territory.

In my notebook I could whine and cuss. I could attack cherished institutions. I could blather and rant and digress and dissemble. I could revel in absurdity. It was bliss.

Then, once my raw content was ready to type, I could tell myself, “No worries. All you have to do now is flex a few fingers. Just copy your rough draft into the computer. You can copy, right?”

Of course, I could. And I had solved a murky motivational problem. I had reduced writing to a simple physical task, relieving the mental pressure to perform.

But as soon as my brain noticed the jumbled words on a page, it snapped to full attention. Being a brain, it was an avid fan of order. It preferred squares to squiggles and logic to intellectual bedlam. Having strong opinions about how writing ought to be, my brain became intensely engaged, and before I knew it, it was concentrating effortlessly. No coercion required.

Even when I was tired or depressed or had a headache, writing a first draft was doable. (Revision of course was a whole other matter.)

I thought I would use my cherished technique forever. Little did I know it had a shelf life.

A couple of years ago, I became increasingly frustrated. Despite all of the problems my process solved, I became impatient with all of the copying. I was writing everything twice—once in my spiral notebook and then again on my computer.

Transcribing my longhand drafts was becoming dull and soporific. While typing, I would catch my eyelids falling; sometimes I would even fall asleep.

As my interest lagged, I was revising my work less as I typed. And especially with long novels, writing everything twice was maddening. So even though I hesitated to abandon a process that had served me well, I finally had to let it go.

I worried, however, that the quality of my writing would suffer. I thought that revising as I typed led to better writing. But maybe there were better ways to write well.

So, instead of adjusting my text while copying, I increased the time I spent planning. I had always rushed through my mind maps, eager to get to the writing itself. Now I spent more time with them, which led to rough drafts that were more polished.

But I still needed a way to avoid premature revision. When creating new content, I encountered the old problem: I was once again changing words around as if the fate of the world depended upon my finding the perfect combination of characters.

I was tempted to re-adopt my old process, as time-consuming as it was. It had enabled me to write quickly and ignore errors. That was because my messy handwriting had discouraged me from stopping to reread, freeing me to focus fully on creating raw content.

But instead of reverting to old habits, I tried something new. Using my mind map for reference, I began typing quickly without looking at the screen. Instead of fussing over words, I focused on the images in my head, knowing that if I made mistakes, I could easily correct them later.

That did it. Writing fast, I lost myself in the rhythm of my typing. I felt engaged and awake, but also relaxed. By typing “blind,” I was able to skip my hand-written drafts while remaining unselfconscious. The best part is that I no longer need to write everything twice.

Since my discovery, I have been experimenting more with my process. Although some of my experiments might fail, even one good change can save time, make writing more fun, and carry my work to a new level of proficiency.

Of course, now that I have refined my process for first drafts, I need a better way to revise.

My current method is to endlessly wrangle words into submission until they either “feel right” or I faint from lassitude. There has to be a better way. A more exciting, fun, and relaxing way. If there is, I am going to find it. And when I do, I will let you know.

Pain as Emotional Fuel for Fiction

Aspiring writers are often advised to “go out and get new experiences”—join a circus, become a reporter, or go hang-gliding off a lofty mountain ledge.

But none of that is necessary. The experiences writers need most are common emotions, which happen to us no matter what we do.

Moreover, the feelings I most need in my writing, the ones that inspire me the most, are usually the ones I dread and try my hardest to avoid: grief, envy, anger, and despair.

I learned this a few years ago when my cat Tu-bear died. Although some people view the loss of a pet as trivial, her death felt seismic to me. An unbearable silence pervaded my apartment. Tu-bear had been with me for twenty years. She was like my family, and knowing that I would never again feel her warm weight on my lap made my entire future seem cold.

Months after she died, I wrote a story called The Dragon-Proof House and dedicated it to her. My main character retreats into a futuristic virtual world — sort of like an online video game — to escape the trauma of losing a child to illness.

The simulation allows her to forget why she came, but even in her virtual world she is haunted by the ghost of her lost toddler. My story, the emotions in it, were entirely powered by my grief over losing my cat.

Given a choice between getting my cat back and writing a moving story, I would definitely have picked my cat. But lacking the power to resurrect felines, I am glad that I at least have my story.

Hate, grief, envy — along with more desirable emotions like love and joy — are the engines of fiction. Without ever feeling the best and the worst of them in myself, I would be unable to convey them authentically to readers.

Knowing this gives the worst feelings life has to offer meaning.

This is an advantage that writers have over non-artists when dealing with emotions like grief, jealousy, sorrow or rage: we can convert them into creative energy.

The emotional turmoil may be as intense for a writer as it would be for anyone, but art gives us a way of catching feelings for later use, a way of looking at them with curiosity—and even a measure of detachment—instead of running from them.

The idea of writing as a coping device is hardly new. Ray Bradbury said, “You must stay drunk on writing so that reality cannot destroy you.” According to Neil Gaiman, no matter what happens, whether death or sickness or divorce, the response should always be the same: create great art.

There is no feeling too dark to write about. In the throes of grief, fear, anger, sadness, and dread, there is always, somewhere inside me, an observer viewing it as curiously as a child seeing rain for the first time.

If I remember not to push a painful feeling away too quickly, it briefly stops being harrowing and becomes merely interesting as the writer in me says, “Pay attention. What does this feel like? Take notes. You can use this.”

A Smart Phone Unleashes the Scourge of Pandora (short story)

The smart phone was not that smart.

It was a fatuous noise box of gloom. It blinked. It booped. It buzzed.  It flashed and it dimmed. It told her the news. And the news was never good.

The stories were always the same: The government was broken, and mayhem was rife. Villains stalked the earth and no one opposed them anymore.

Wars never ended. They mowed down generations of kids and no one—of those who cared—knew why. When she closed her eyes, she could see them behind her lids, fields of dying multitudes ushering in an eternal night.

The more she looked at her coffin of a phone, the worse she felt. Her head buzzed. Her vision blurred. Walls leaned toward her like twin edifices verging on collapse. The air thickened. She would surely suffocate if she did not get fresh air—soon.

With rising panic, she dashed to the front door for air but hesitated to openit, lest a hoard of malevolent phantoms pour into the house.

When she finally did open the door, she was stunned. There were no bodies in the street. No armies declaring marshal law. No villains blasting guns. No corrupt lobbyists buying elections. No maelstroms portending the end of human history.

No. It was a clear day—a sleepy summer late afternoon. A tender breeze grazed her bare arms. The sun slid its tongue across her cheeks. The perfume of lilacs tickled her nose. Birds sang. They chirped and whistled and crooned.

Shadows shivered calmly on the road following the windy movements of the pine branches above. The wind made the sound a pillow would make if a pillow could speak.

Conditioned for horror by her phone, she had expected streets shrouded in an eerie fog, an early night that would never end, hordes of gun-men, or malign armies pouring into her front yard from a tainted dimension.

Yet here she was. Which world was real? Sun-warmed and wind-kissed, she was loath to go back inside where her phone was lurking. But when she finally re-entered, she was again surprised.

Her house looked different than it had only seconds ago. It was cleaner and better lit than she remembered. There were no bodies there either. No villains. No bombs.

A cursory stroll through the kitchen revealed that, even if the apocalypse had come, there was enough food in the refrigerator to last her for months.

Turning her head, she caught her phone blinking ominously on the living room sofa. Strange how such a tiny device could be the entryway into such a mental hellscape. She looked away and felt instantly calmer.

She marveled at the way she could create or destroy reality merely by shifting her gaze from her phone, by choosing what would fill her vision and what would not.

She strolled through the house, taking in only what she wanted to see. A picture of a sailboat on the wall. A recliner. A sofa. Furniture that looked so stable it would surely be there for eternity.

She wanted to stay in that place of calm forever. But to avoid her phone was to live in denial. The imperiled world needed her. What exactly did it need? It needed her attention. Even if the world destroyed itself, she had a moral obligation to lend her eyes to the debacle until the bitter end.

Or did she? What if the information overload of horrors was only hurting her and helping no one?

How soothing it would feel to simply turn away. “Reality is whatever I focus on,” she told herself. “If I read a novel, that—for a time—becomes my world. If I gaze at the night sky, then my reality is the stars. If I focus on a drawing of a sailboat, I fall into its hull. And if I open the window, my world is swaying tree shadows and songbirds.”

Strange how, all her life, the world had been screaming for her attention. Advertisers paid vast amounts of money for it. Celebrities invaded her vision from every screen. Politicians bombed her ears with promises.

The whole of society, it seemed, was trying to direct her gaze: to sell to her, to outrage her, to solve problems she had never known she had.  Her attention had meant so much to others. Why had it always meant so little to her?

She shoved her phone beneath one of the couch cushions and opened her curtains wide so the receding light of day could fall inside.

Her phone buzzed and blipped, announcing a notification. She shut her eyes.

One day maybe she would look. But today she wanted to see the world she had lost. The one with the lilacs and clear skies and tree shadows that moved, so subtly, when the trees did.

Such calm could not last. Her furniture, by looking so still and immovable, was lying to her. One day none of it would be there anymore.

But when she sat down, her couch supported her weight. She glanced out her window at the fading sun.  Right then, nothing in the world seemed more moving to her, nothing more poignant that the late summer leaves shivering in the last lingering light of day.

She shut her eyes. Opened them. Shut her eyes again. On. Off. Night. Day. What contrast. What beauty.

What power.

Navigating the Pitfalls of Praise

Almost everyone loves praise, and nobody, including me, likes to hear anything bad about it.

There is a good reason for that. Praise builds confidence. It keeps aspiring artists from giving up on days that they feel like quitting. It steers children toward their areas of aptitude. It energizes. It uplifts.

But like many good things, praise comes with a caveat: the addictive urge to keep the praise going.

If someone tells me my novel is “brilliant,” I want my next to be brilliant too. And I immediately begin to worry that it might not be.

Who knows what “brilliant” even means?

“I know,” my ego says  “Forget about writing anything new. Just rehash the old stuff that everybody seemed to like, but with minor variations.”

“Great idea, Ego,” says my praise-addicted self. I begin to probe my memory for anything that readers seemed to enjoy in previous stories.

If everyone loved my cat stories best, I might decide to stuff a cat into every piece I write, even if it I am writing about a supernova: “Supernovas are strikingly similar to cats. Like a cat leaping onto her prey from the shadows, a supernova can pounce into the night sky without warning.”

Maybe I secretly believe a supernova is more like a ferret, a giraffe, or a platypus. But nope. Readers like cats. Must. Write. About. Cats.

Actually, I too prefer cats to platypuses, but I might change my mind someday, and what then?

I strive to always write the story I want to read, but whether I like it or not, I am influenced by past responses to my old stories. If I want my writing to be fresh and original, if I want to be honest, I have to shun my rodent urge to press levers for praise pellets.

Otherwise, I may spend my life telling stories I have told before–the popular ones—with slight variations, while all around me meteors are flying, eggs are hatching, and revolutions are brewing.

Writing is worth doing for its own sake. Even if no one ever reads my stories, there is an intrinsic high that comes from finding an apt metaphor, constructing a graceful sentence, or bringing a character to life.

Praise for writing creates a different kind of high, but it is louder and brighter.

If the intrinsic joy of writing is like an apple, praise is more like cotton candy. The sugar rush of a glowing review can wash out the more complex sweetness the apple—the slow-burning reward of simply writing.

So, if getting good book reviews ever becomes the main reason why I write, I am in trouble.

Albert Einstein dealt with a similar problem. He said, “The only way to avoid the personal corruption of praise is to go on working. One is tempted to stop and listen to it. The only thing is to turn away and go on working. Work. There is nothing else.”

Although I already write every day, I think Einstein was onto something. Immersing myself in “the work” of writing alleviates self-conscious worries, especially on my best days as I dive deep and lose myself in the flow of a story.

But there is another aspect of praise that interests me, perhaps because I have bipolar disorder: praise as an emotional elevator.

When I was a college freshman, I had an English teacher who showered my essays with compliments, telling me that I was the best writer she knew. I was not sure how many writers she knew, but her encouragement sent my mood into orbit. Yet I also became anxious. At some point I was bound to write something awful. What if I disappointed her?

I was already a careful writer. I became even more careful. Because I was uncomfortable writing in class, I would go home on the day the topic was assigned, write my essay with painstaking care, and turn it in. I made a good grade in the class and left the semester charged with creative aspirations.

Two years later I took a course under the same teacher, but the rules had changed. I now had to write every essay in class under a strict time limit without knowing beforehand what the topic would be. Thus, I was unable to give my writing the painstaking attention that I had before.

After my teacher handed back one of my test booklets, she said, “Your writing isn’t as good as I remembered it. You must be out of practice.”

The criticism left me too stunned to even explain. And it stung all the more  because of all the praise that had preceded it. Not only did I feel like a bad writer; I felt like I had let my teacher down.

Only later did I reflect that the deeper “mistake” had happened much earlier. When my teacher had raved over my work, I had stepped onto an emotional elevator. Its doors had slid closed when I agreed to allow her compliments to affect the way I felt about myself.

That had been perfectly fine as long as the elevator was going up. I had forgotten a crucial fact: elevators also go down.

They all do. If they never went down they could never go up. But because we as a society prefer up to down, we call the machine an “elevator” and not a “descender.”

To stay off the “machine,” I could have simply smiled and thanked my teacher for the compliment, and then went about my day; instead, I integrated her praise too deeply. If I had stayed off the descender that I had thought was only an elevator, the jab of criticism would have landed softer, and my memory of my 101 English composition class would have remained a good one.

Artists are always boarding these kinds of elevators. Someone encourages them and they plug their self-esteem into an emotional vehicle that appears to be rocketing toward the moon. Then the machinery lurches beyond their control in a mad plunge into the seething bowels of hell. The change in venue is jarring.

If a mere compliment can propel a mood toward the stars, it is easy to imagine what fame might do. The higher you go, the farther you have to fall. The more you believe you have to lose, the greater the anxiety must be.  

Many famous artists self-medicate with drugs and alcohol, which become anchors of stability amid the lurching contraption of public opinion.

But public opinion is the wrong place to look for good feelings. Fulfillment lies in the “work” of writing, which in art often feels more like play.

There is nothing wrong with enjoying praise. But if I cling to it, or seek it as an external reward for something I already love doing, I risk becoming lost and confused as my love for writing takes second place to an imaginary need for approval.

One way of nurturing my love for writing is by doing writing exercises that only I am likely to ever see such as: “Describe a mountain from the point of view of a man who has just escaped from prison” or “Write an action scene in which the sentence rhythm matches the pace of the action.”

Such exercises allow me to make mistakes unselfconsciously. They let me forget everything I know and become a beginner again, which is how I learn best.

Even knowing that what goes up must also come down, I suspect that someday I will be tempted to dash, once again, into an emotional elevator for a fun, effortless ride toward the moon.

But I hope I will do the sensible thing, and instead of diving headlong through the sliding, doors, I will smile and wave and thank it for the offer—then turn, run like mad, and take the stairs.

The Adventure of Paw Continues in my Just-published Sequel.

I have news that— after so many long delays— barely seems real to me: I have finally released my sequel to Paw for the Kindle.

Prowl continues the journey of Mitalla, an intelligent feline and former slave who is trying to navigate  a world dominated by humans. In her newest adventure she claws her way toward a new level of freedom. My Amazon description of Prowl reads as follows:

Born underweight, Mitalla has always relied on her cunning to survive, becoming the only member of her family to escape a brutal slave camp with her life.

Now she dreams of building a free life in a new city. But soon she learns the truth: There is no safe place for her in an empire where her feline species is viewed as inferior. Even her wit appears to be no match for a society determined to enslave her kind.

While hiding from humans, she must also grapple with her own tortured mind. She is especially haunted by an innocent creature she killed in a blind moment of passion, leaving her to wonder whether she is, at heart, as evil as her human captors.

During her darkest hour, she finally glimpses a path to freedom: rumors of a journal said to hold secrets capable of toppling a king.

Soon she finds herself on a tumultuous quest for power which she hopes will liberate her species from slavery. But to find the journal, she must risk losing everything—her friends, her identity, and possibly even her life.

The series will be a trilogy. Book 3 is already taking shape in my mind. I will begin writing it soon because after Prowl, I want to know what happens next, and how her tortured history will resolve itself.

Speaking of history, Mitalla has come a long way since her conception almost a decade ago. Like my first novel, the series was inspired by a video game—in this case, Skyrim.

The first time I played Skyrim, I had no idea what I was getting into. I chose a cat character as my avatar and, enchanted by the realistic natural scenery in the game, I began to describe of mountains, rivers, and snow on my notepad.

To make my exercise more fun, I wrote about them scenery from the viewpoint of a cat. The cat had strong feelings about what she was seeing and hearing.

Mitalla was born. And she had a lot to say. After crawling and pouncing her way through my first novel, she has just skulked and prowled through another.

If you have read and enjoyed Paw, check out Prowl on Amazon, and allow her adventure to continue.

How I Made Peace with my Unfinished Stories

When I was in college, I used to view my unfinished stories as failures, despairing proof that anything I began would fizzle. I was afraid to write anything new. Why expend energy just to add a creative casualty to the story morgue?

Besides, too many of my stories had ended in embarrassment. Like my environment-themed fable that I stopped writing because it was too preachy; or the hilarious yarn that turned lachrymose somehow.

But many years later, I started to view writing as a lifestyle—not a slavish production job. I discovered that when I allowed myself to slow down and enjoy the process, not only did my writing improve; I stopped hating my unfinished writing and I even enjoyed rereading it.

My unfinished stories were—at the very least—good practice.  Even the silly ones. Why not congratulate myself for spending my time creating art rather than watching stale sit-coms?

Having befriended my unfinished stories, I began turning to them on days I had trouble knowing what to write. Rereading them, I would sink into a kind of nostalgia, as if rediscovering old belongings in an attic.

I even finished some of my old stories. One of my favorites was about extraterrestrials who, after first contact, decided that humans bored them. They stopped communicating with Earth because they simply had better things to do; the cosmic shrug left humanity heartbroken.

The story languished on my computer for almost a decade before I decided that I had to finish it.

I remembered painfully why I had abandoned the piece in the first place. It was because I had viewed the first three paragraphs as inspired. I had been attached to their musical rhythms. But after my first effort I had lost my “inspired” poetic flow, and was unable to recapture it. I gave up in frustration.

But the trick to reviving an old piece is the same as finishing any story: letting go. Clinging to favorite passages will stall any story.  I had to discard my original writing so that the story could become fresh again in my mind. I left the old paragraphs, and their moving rhythms, in the past where they belonged.

Luckily, I had acquired some other writing tricks beginning my “alien” story. I had learned for example that if I wrote a tentative ending to a story, even an absurd one, I was more likely to finish. Creating any point of arrival motivated me. I could always improve the ending later.

My other “trick” was mind-mapping. I used the “clustering,” technique described in Writing the Natural Way by Gabriele Rico. I used my original title, “The Aliens Do Laundry” as the nucleus of my mind map, drew lines from it, and free-associated until a pattern I liked emerged.

After clustering, the new version of my story seemed to fall into place.

It was exciting to finish my story after so many years of its lying dormant on my iPad. But not all of my stories should be finished. Some are failed experiments that taught me what not to do.

Whether I ever complete an old story, there is never any reason to regret writing it. Not only was it good practice; rereading it reawakens a part of me that has been buried by time. Like forgotten toys in an attic, old stories contain a blend of familiarity and strangeness that I enjoy, and that allow me to reunite, if only for a moment, with my former self.

The Vicious Cycles of Self Help

As a kid I absorbed a popular notion: that life was about growing. Not the kind that made you tall, but the kind that helped you overcome your “issues.” My dad—as a psychology professor— knew all about issues. Most people had a vast array of them. Whenever you spotted one, you had to triumph over it—fast—before it ruined your life.

Beyond triumphing, the ultimate goal of growing was never clear. But it seemed to mean becoming someone else—someone nicer, smarter, and better.

If my dad never exactly told me that, his bookshelves did. He had many books, one—apparently— for every insecurity, weakness, or shortcoming. Like a fairy godmother a self-help book seemed magical. With the wave of its papery wand you could shatter your worries, snare happiness, make friends, stop procrastinating, heal relationships, or vault to the top of something called a “corporate ladder.”

By the age of seven my head was stuffed with self-help maxims: “Think positively,” “win friends and influence people,” “be motivated.” I remember bouncing around the living room singing a positive thinking mantra, “Think enthusiastic and you’ll be enthusiastic.”

My giddy chant had come down to me from one of the self-help courses on positive thinking that my dad taught to his college students. But the fun ended when a terrible discovery was made. I had an issue: I was shy. Or at least quiet, which was considered the same thing. When my dad learned that I was getting bullied at school for my issue, he was ready: he weighed down my arms with books about how to triumph over my shyness.

The books inducted me into the confusing paradoxes of self-help. By defining shyness—and not the bullying—as a problem that needed solving, I became ashamed of my shyness, which only made me shier.

The books treated shyness a disease or a character flaw and an opportunity for personal growth. The prescribed cure was to believe in yourself and be confident and talk more.

It had never occurred to me not to be confident until others had told me that shyness was bad. I tried talking more, but since I had nothing I really wanted to say, the other students could tell my efforts were forced, and the bullying increased.

When an adult frames “overcoming shyness” as a personal growth issue, it adds moral pressure. It forces conformity by making extraversion into a test of courage. Yet the belief that shyness was a moral weakness was far more damaging than the shyness itself.

I finally decided that I was going to be shy whether anyone liked it or not. What was wrong with being quiet? People who blurted out every thought were annoying. My dad could keep his self-help books; I was done.

Or so I thought. I had a change of heart years later when my dad bought See You at the Top by Zig Ziglar, a bestselling motivational book about achieving goals.

The book looked fun; it brimmed with amusing quips, cartoons, and anecdotes. It was a hit in my house and my dad was always quoting from it. It focused on how to get rich while also becoming a better person, using the corporate ladder as a metaphor for life.

At age 15 I knew nothing about corporate ladders, but goals I understood. In fact, I already had one. I had decided that I wanted to be a straight A student.

I read the book and followed the advice: I wrote down my goals, a list of potential obstacles, and all the ways I planned to overcome them. Three months later when my first quarter report card came out, I exulted over my perfect record.

But chasing goals, as a lifestyle, came with discomfort. You could never stay still or look out windows. Life was an unending climb toward some hazy pinnacle. The future was where all the prizes were. My todays dimmed because it lacked the sheen of my tomorrows, which were haloed by the flattering light of fantasy.

See You at the Top framed personal growth as climbing to a higher social class and making money. The book assumes that reaching the top is what life is, or should be, all about.

I am not against setting goals; I have many. But there is no top. And while the book inspired me, it also made me anxious about wasting time—or doing anything that was not moving toward a goal.

Gone were the days of pecking on the piano keys, or drawing cats,  daydreaming, or looking off at the far distance in a thoughtful daze. From my new perspective, life was a chore, and to be unproductive, even for a day, was to fail at life.

My brother Steve, seven years older than me, felt the same pressure. But he dealt with his in an odd way. As an adult he began hoarding self-help books.

At one time, they littered the floor of his apartment, so that there was barely room to walk. He had rarely read more than few pages of any of them—including the one that promised a clutter-free life. But just having self-improvement books around made him feel more in control.

I understood. We had grown up in a household where a self-help book was the remedy for every problem. So why not brick yourself inside your apartment with them?

I had to tease him about that.

When I was in college, Steve and I used to walk around bookstores together. As I wandered the store, Steve would always gravitate toward the self-help aisle. I wondered what he ultimately hoped to find there: the meaning of life? A great epiphany? The secret to saving the world?

“Have you found The Book yet?” I asked him one day.

“Huh?”

The Book.” I had to explain that, obviously, he must be looking for the Ultimate Book which contained the Answer to Everything. Otherwise, why was he so obsessed with that one aisle?

He knew I was kidding and laughed, but he really did want that imaginary book. For that matter so did I.

The Book” became a running joke—the rare volume that would magically solve every problem imaginable. It would give you more time and riches and eternal youth and a diet that let you eat all you wanted. Upon request it would even offer a personalized schedule for maximizing productivity.

Many years later, I have never found The Book. But my wish to be “better” remains. I stay away from self-help books though.

Not because they are all bad, but because I remember how much they once confused me.

I remember how fighting my shyness only made me shier, and how setting goals projected happiness beyond my reach. I remember how a book on reducing clutter only became part of the clutter.

Even when I tried to improve myself without books, I found myself mired in vicious cycles. Whenever I tried to concentrate better on my reading, I ended up concentrating on concentrating, and I forgot about the book altogether.

Such frustrating ironies make me envy my cat.  I recently found her lying carefree in the sun and stretching in a posture of total bliss.

I thought how lucky she was to never have to worry about being a better cat. No one had ever given her a self-help book on how to be a better jumper. She never fretted about needing a fluffier tail. I never looked at her and thought, “If only my cat would be more productive.”

I accepted her as she was, even when she shredded the furniture. I thought that if I could accept my cat unconditionally, I could do the same for myself.

Finally, I could set aside the struggle for perfection and just enjoy my life.

But, alas, even unconditional self-acceptance looks suspiciously like “growth.” Another maddening cycle looms: the inability to accept my inability to accept myself.

Does irony never cease?