Beagle Sailing Lessons for Writing
I’ve been writing books for over thirty years. The other evening I explained several of my ideas about the writing process to two writers, one from the world of journalism and the other from the world of academia. This essay is for Gwen and Pavida who asked me the question: How do you go about writing a book? And encouraged me to put my thoughts down for other writers.
I believe every writer develops their own secret formula to describe the writing process that works for them. Mine is not that original or profound but I set out some of the guideposts that have served me well along the journey to writing a book.
I am also asked ‘How do you go about writing a book?’ Another question I am asked is closely related—‘What book would you recommend that I read?’
We genuinely seek satisfactory answers to these questions, we need to address how a writer thinks about books and the writing process. Not have the usual discussion about when you write, how many words in a day, where your inspiration comes from, what does your office look like, what time of day do you write and so forth. These are the questions we are curious about and wish to ask an author.
I will start instead with a question that I believe a writer should put to himself or herself: What kind of book should I write?
For me, I start answering this question by glancing up at two boxes on my Borges’ library shelf. Each box contains an infinite number of pieces to an infinite puzzle. My first decision is which of the two boxes to take from the mental shelf and start to work.
The Fiction Box
The first box the puzzle pieces require the author to assemble a number of complex relationships, that grow, fall apart, set up in conflict, ignite emotional reaction, detail involvements, track maturity and damage of characters who face conflict, hard decisions, and life-changing choice.
This is what I look for when I open the Fiction Box.
When I write a novel this is the box I choose to take off the shelf and start taking out the pieces and figuring out how the pattern connects. Yes, there are novels of ideas where the characters’ emotions are far in the background. This proves the Fiction box has a range of possibility. Because an intellectual novel can succeed doesn’t undermine the basic premise that most novels succeed on an emotional plane, explaining the source of our feelings, the depths of our fears and anxiety, and the tensions arising from relationships, family, schools, political systems, and religion. The author goes inside people’s lives to examine the personality, attitude, and character, their limitations and failures as well as their successes.
The Non-Fiction Box
The second box is also filled with infinite pieces of infinite puzzles.
This is the Non-fiction Box. It is the box I open to write essays for this blog.
When I open the Non-fiction Box, my approach is to build logical arguments based on evidence, facts, statistics that support the arguments. The idea is to persuade the reader that your interpretation of the evidence supports your argument, solution, or policy proposal. In this box there are few if any pieces that represent a character whose emotional reaction is central to the book. Yes, there are highly polemical books charged with emotional calls urging others: join a cult, a political party, or a life-style.
These are confirmation bias-based books that promise to confirm what you already believe to be ‘factually’ true or consistent with your ‘faith’, or the stories manufactured about history, culture and language. The best of non-fiction challenges your preconception by assembly of facts and evidence and argues for a change of your views. The non-fiction book is deliberate, rational and analytical and emotions are seen, like a cognitive bias, as weakening a clear assessment of the evidence.
The Beagle Expedition
My personal role model, whether I choose The Fiction Box or The Non-Fiction Box may come as a surprise. It is Charles Darwin. His Origin of the Species published on 24th November 1859 changed not only science, but also his book immediately raised a serious debate about religion and the existing social order. Darwin’s creative process is instructive
Darwin’s journey resulted in a book that, over time, changed the way we perceive our world. A significant minority remains to this date unconvinced by the evidence to support the theory of natural selection. Darwin in the 1830s signed on to an expedition of discovery. The Beagle, the name of the ship, which allowed him to explore was also his lab. Darwin went into the field. He observed first hand the evidence of the diversity of life. His theory of natural selection arose from the evidence that he gathered.
Every time I start a new book, I tell myself I am signing on as a crew member to a new launching of the Beagle. And my job while on the expedition is to observe, note, research beyond the shoreline, go deep into the interior, look under rocks, down valleys, up the side of mountains and look for patterns.
Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century is another of those Beagle explorations. This time computers and historical records combined to yield patterns of wealth and income that create a picture of the real world.
What a writer is doing, whether conscious of the process or not, is finding patterns in objects, things, ideas, people, animals, language, history, and culture that are knotted up, entangled in seemingly random, chaotic ways. A writer’s goal is to find patterns, correlations, and causation that gives a sense of order to the mess of what is life.
Quantum physics is a good place for a writer to explore the hidden reality of entanglements.
A writer needs to sign on to his own private Beagle and set sail.
A writer needs to take time to observe, record, and search for connections.
A writer needs passion. A book is a long voyage. Without a burning passion fired by curiosity, a sense of wonder, a withholding of judgment, a love of research, the journey can become intolerable. You really must be honest how passionate you are to reveal in the entanglements a plausible story.
Ultimately what readers look for in a book is a voice that they can trust that can untangle the complications, incoherence and randomness of life. A charlatan earns trust through empty promises and sleight of hand; they never take a personal journey on the Beagle, though they may try to convince you that they have.
Readers hunger for meaning and purpose, and a writer’s task is to fulfill that desire.
Buddhist’s Lessons for Writers
Buddhism offers several lessons that help me as a writer, and they may help you once you’ve decided to write a book. I am grateful to Professor John Paulos for drawing my attention to an interview with Jay Garfield who discusses the key premises of Buddhism. All three lessons are stories about fear and how we deal with fear.
A central theme of Buddhism is non-attachment. Whether that attachment is to a theme, facts, emotions, a character, a plot point, a sentence, or at every writer’s personal base camp: the self. Many people become frustrated and angry at a dialogue tag, a setting or scene, or a phrase, and they can’t move on until they have resolved their internal conflict. My advice when you hit that impasse? Let it go. Don’t become attached to your idea that this passage, sentence or word must be perfect before you give yourself the green light to move through the intersection and continue your journey. The desire for perfection is a destroyer of creativity. When you are trying to be perfect as you write, ask yourself whom you are trying to please?
You think that it is you. But it is most likely you’ve learned the perfection habit from someone in your past. Your mother, the person who had her share of disappointment and frustrations (as many mothers have) and she wants you to be perfect and have a perfect life like the one she idealized that she could have had? Or it might have been your demanding father, an uncle, a teacher, a neighbor who passed along the idea, the one you’ve never allowed yourself to seriously challenge, that you must be careful, organized, perfect in every detail before you are allowed to take the next step.
When you write you sometimes reach a dead end. Don’t panic. Find a new trail around the avalanche that has blocked the path ahead. Don’t stop, in other words. Creativity is finding another path when the one you’re on is closed. Fear is the roadblock that keeps you clutching onto something you can let fall away. Non-attachment is a way to defeat fear of disappointment, regret, failure or being less than perfect.
Another important tenet of Buddhism is that reality is unpredictable and chaotic. We spend our entire lives trying to make sense of a reality that science increasingly shows makes no intrinsic sense. Most people hate and fear uncertainty and doubt and will seek refuge in illusions of certainty. We find our way by making correlations knowing that the patterns we create aren’t fixed or permanent; they are that temporary pontoon bridge that allows us to get from one side of a river to the next.
If your characters are too predictable you will likely bore your readers. If they are too chaotic, readers will also abandon your book. The challenge is to build characters and stories that have real life unpredictability and your story navigates a passage, a bridge, a boat, and a life raft that gives confidence to a reader that he or she is in good hands.
Specifically this means you don’t need to have a full solution to every problem, not everything turns out the way you thought, and the things that turned out right didn’t last. The closer your fiction travels these rails of reality, the closer you will come to writing in an authentic voice that others will trust and learn from.
Predictability like control is an illusion. Let it go. Don’t become attached to a world of certainty. Doubt is your friend, your ally, and keeps you researching, thinking, and feeling. When you feel yourself trying to be a hundred percent accurate in your choice of a word, a plot point, or a character development, you are guaranteed to get lost in one of those mental fun house filled with mirrors.
Learn to accept ambiguity and uncertainty as the natural state of all things. This will free you up to see reality in a different way, knowing that sometimes not all the pieces of the puzzle fit. That is the paradox of the Fiction and Non-Fiction Puzzle Boxes, there are an infinite number of pieces and you will never fit them altogether.
The last of the Buddhist lessons for a writer is the idea of identity or self. The fear of losing self is a hard one to overcome for any writer or any person. It goes to the core of how we perceive self. Buddhists believe that our psychological construct of ‘self’ is an illusion.
For a writer, the concept of identity is the substitute for self. A writer’s identity, like everyone else, is shaped by many social forces from tribe, ethnicity, religion, place of origin to language. Our myths and memories all rolled up into the default image we see in the mirror.
There are a couple of problems for writers. To write about others is to enter their network of memories and slowly reveal the factors that give them identity. If we can’t get past our own identity, a writer can’t ever truly describe an identity that is alien without becoming judgmental. We are also misled by our desire for a ‘permanent’ self or soul. Our fear of death is a mighty motivator for perpetuating our sense of identity.
The act of writing requires an act of forgetting one’s personal set of memories, and substituting the memories of characters. Once you are free from yourself, it is much easier to enter the ‘self’ of your characters. Once you cast aside your ‘self’ your characters stop being clones of you—your thoughts, dreams, plans, fears, hopes, jealousy, and desires.
Once that happens it is possible to create a rich, authentic character whose identity lets the reader feel she’s in the story of lives that have come alive. The author fades away. He’s a storyteller. He’s not the story. And there lies a big gap. Especially for fiction, to find that sweet spot called empathy where you enter another’s persons mental processes means you need to shed your ‘self’.
Our overwhelmingly powerful sense of ‘self’ can contaminate our search to understand the interior life of others—and without such access to the workings of a character’s interior life, the characters in a novel will not be fully realized. Overcome your fear and let the ‘self’ go. Detach from it. As you are in the writing process, it is another attachment that prevents you from exploring all you can on your Beagle ship journey into the unknown.
Darwin didn’t set out on the Beagle to become a celebrity, write a book that would change the world, or a book about himself. He set out to explore, discover, record, and examine the world around him. That is his technique and process, in my view, what makes Darwin a good role model for all writers, fiction and non-fiction. Overcoming our sense of ‘self’ is one of the most difficult projects we confront. Without the ‘self’ ‘Who am I?’ rings as one of those existential questions we seek to avoid. You can read others much better qualified than me for a range of opinion.
The point of this essay, is that your sense of ‘self’ is a prison you need to break out of in order to fully appreciate that the book doesn’t have to be about you. That your sense of ‘self’ may be the major obstacle to your book. If you are writing a book to find your sense of ‘self’ or confirm your ‘self’ in the world, then you will have a lot of company. There are many such books written every year. You can write one if you wish and it might become a commercial success. With an infinite number of puzzle pieces and infinite time all kinds of books are possible. For certain kinds of books, another approach is useful. You sign on to the Beagle and go exploring.
This is a look into my writing process. Other writers will have their recommendations as to how the process works. I love the sense of the unknown and the adventure of exploration. I find an idea, a character, a theme for which I have a passion. Without passion to sustain you, it will be a long, lonely and isolating voyage. Find a subject that you feel passionate about and then go sailing on your own personal Beagle.