Inspiration: For When You Need It Most

A Moveable FeastI don’t even own this book, but for some reason it is always there on my mind or in the back of my mind or otherwise someplace near to it. When I check it out of the library, I usually keep it through the maximum amount of renewals (9 I think) and thumb through it almost daily, reading bits and pieces of it here and there, discovering something new every time, and not just about Paris, or Hem, or that era, but amount myself and how I choose to view the world. Having written that just now, it sounds heavy, I know, but trust me it’s not. It’s actually quite simple and down-to-earth.

I can’t remember what drew me to A Moveable Feast the first time I read it—it was probably at my wife’s suggestion, but I do know it was on my writing desk the day my daughter was diagnosed with the autoimmune disorder, type 1 diabetes. Obviously there was no connection to Hemingway’s Paris and this affair—we live in the American south and there was no drinking, no horse racing, no boxing or famous people involved—but I found nonetheless something buoyant about the writing itself that helped me come to grips with this, our own life-changing event.

Shortly after the diagnosis, I began writing a blog—feel free to follow this link to visit it, it’s called Without Envy—and what Hemingway’s writing of Paris, and his other, fictional work, too, of course, but Paris was real, what it taught me was to identify the emotion, find it in whatever action or person that gave it to you and write it down in such a way that it’s honest and clear so that if any one else reads it they will see and experience the same emotion too. It set a perfect example for a father who was facing what is and will probably be one of the saddest, most painful situations in his life, if only because of how unprepared and little I knew about it. For as Hemingway once wrote himself: The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places —A Farewell to Arms, so too had the world, it seemed, broken me and those I loved, but through writing about it I felt stronger. You can’t ask much more from a book or its author.

A Guide for Readers

I have been fortunate in the three months since launching the book to participate in a number of writing discussions, interviews, readings, forums, etc. A pleasant surprise from those experiences is the degree of thought and introspection it required of me to answer certain questions about the novel. That sounds strange since I wrote it—and perhaps it may just be a matter of me needing to offer up something better than, Just because to answer why I omitted quotation marks or chose not to translate the Italian—but these questions encouraged me to dig deeper into the how I told the story and not just what the story was about. And honestly, it was just great fun, like being a student again in a way.

Back when I was a student, however, time spent pondering over the many symbolic interpretations of style, device, or storytelling seemed wasted to me and was often a discussion I always felt inadequately prepared for in class—as if I had read some entirely different passage than everyone else. I could not get past the perceived futility in trying to guess, for instance, whether or not in writing about a great white whale, the author (Melville) was actually writing about elusive goals, or was it to him just a fishing story of the one that got away (not likely).

But now having written a couple of novels of my own, I can appreciate these discussions with greater understanding and appreciation for the idea that it’s not only possible but probable that the author them self could not have grasped all of the supposed symbolism in their work. And that actually makes perfect sense to me. How often are we met in our daily lives with moments that mean something more to us simply because we can relate it to a greater whole. Often, right. I believe it’s that way with writing a novel, too. Writers are working hard to present this perfect vision they have in their minds, sentence by sentence, scene by scene, and it is only after they are finished that they can step back and put some distance between those various parts and look at the whole to visualize how they connect to one another, even something as un-relatable as choosing to not translate a foreign language, or the omission of quotation marks.

One of the most difficult things of growing old is the regret for not doing or being something different than who we were. I enjoy talking about literature and books and contemplating how they make you think and relate the story in someway to your own life, your own tiny piece of humanity. Those days sitting in a classroom would not be wasted, for sure.

This rambling on does have a point and it’s this: As in most literature, after reading this book there will be questions that arise. What happened after? Before? Why this and not that? And so on and so forth. I could give my perspective as the author, and have before, but some of the pleasure and purpose to reading is to relate this world to your own, to discover and share in some common ground. To force the deeper question. With that in mind I’ve spent the last few days putting together a Reader’s Guide for the novel. You can find it to the right of here, just click to download. It, too, may be a work in process as ideas come to me about the book, but if you’re interested in connecting with the story in a more meaningful way, I hope it will serve as a good start.

On Becoming A Writer

The story of how I came to want to be a writer is not unlike any others. I was drawn to it, almost as if by accident, through some other passionate interest. I was in the eighth grade and at that time—and still now—I was very much into the responsible use and protection our natural resources. I liked camping, hiking, and just generally being outdoors and if asked would have named some mountain, desert, river or coast as the place I most wanted to visit. One day, my English teacher, a lady of which I remember very little about but who apparently believed it her job (rightly so) to help children discover their potential, suggested I enter a youth essay contest on why it was so important that society protect these natural resources. I entered the contest and won.

We all know that sometimes it takes someone else pointing out a talent to make us aware of it ourself and this is what happened to me with writing. I discovered not only that I liked it, but if I was passionate and wrote truthfully about a thing I could make the words mean something to someone else. From that moment on I felt encouraged, excited and even entitled, in some respect, to write.

But as it goes, talent take time to develop. And it also takes work. One of the most important aspects to the process though is that you write about something you care about or the talent to make others see what you see and feel what you feel will be lost. Recognition can work against you, too, giving the false impression that anything you write will be received well, which is just not so. In choosing to write about child custody, I was choosing a topic I was very close to personally, at least in terms of my witness of a hotly contested case. I, too, have loved and lost and been unjustly misunderstood.

Even then, the novel took several years to write, time partly and intermittently spent discovering the way in which how to tell the story and then on the story itself. There were many stop and goes, dead ends, and detours, but with each of these I felt I was steadily getting closer to the heart of the novel, even when not working on it, even in my darkest days of which I won’t go into here, but evolved into months and years when writing fiction felt like a violation of parental responsibility. The hard part is pushing through these and remaining committed to telling the truth, which is what Hemingway once said, was the writer’s job anyway.

It was no accident that Anna Miller lost child custody, nor was her son’s kidnapping accidental. Strong intention can and often does level the playing field. But without action intention serves little or no purpose. For an early lesson in that, I have an eighth grade English teacher to thank.

To follow the discussion on my Goodreads Question and Answer, click here.

Appearances Matter (From my Goodreads Q&A)

One of the most important aspects of the novel is the notion (reality) that people have a public image that is different from the private self. In the book I don’t elaborate on the circumstances surrounding how Evan Meade got custody of Oliver because those circumstances don’t really matter. He did. And he shouldn’t have. The first is in the past, the onus of the showing why it was wrong falls to the book through character development.

The reason I chose not to explain the custody in greater detail was to illustrate what I believe to be the ludicrous notion that judges make decisions everyday about kids and custody knowing full well that the testimony they hear is tainted with these two sides of a person’s identity. This book, as in real life, attempts to dole out bits of their personality slowly and relies upon the intuition of the reader to fill in some of the blanks themselves just in how the characters behave. That is precisely, I feel, how real life works. Nothing is given to us on a platter. We intuit people, we watch and listen and read between the lines to learn who they really are. To do or expect something different in this story would be to not reflect real life.

The question of how much an author must fill in for the reader so as not to make character development a hardship on them is one of the most difficult aspects of writing a novel. You worry that what you omit will leave the characters not fully developed and the reader then not fully satisfied. But the flip side of omission is inclusion and adding more to the story than is needed means there is nothing then for the reader to contemplate on their own, to think through and work out, to discover, which, I believe, is the true pleasure and purpose of reading.