I have been writing for a long time. I would not call it work. Other writers say "my work" but I don't know what they are talking about. Writing has given me solace and diversion in troubled times and in good times recreation and delight. Writing is thinking in a relatively systematic way via words and the way they hang together in sentences. The ends in this kind of thinking, if done honestly, may not be obvious but rather therapeutic in the way that football or psychoanalysis are said to be therapeutic. In the process of my avocation I have learned a few general understandings. Perhaps you will ﬁnd them interesting.
I really don’t like autobiographic writing, or whatever it is presently called. My dream has always been to write imaginative stories. I have tried for a long time to learn how to use the imagination. I am embarrassed to tell you exactly how long because then you'll certainly wonder about just how with it I am, I mean that I did not give up a long time ago. I didn’t want to let the imagination get extreme. Usually that’s what happens. Wildly imaginative "creative" writing can be very popular. I still don’t know what it all means. I avoid thinking about it because I dislike it. For some people it is "entertaining" to spend time on subjects that will never nor have ever had any possibility of being real either in the details or the general thrust. But even if you are a person who has art burning inside you, you shouldn’t have to suspend disbelief to the point that you wonder if you are cracking up! Take "Romeo and Juliet". While the professor was waxing effusive, I was wondering, "Humpf, do ya think?" The English tradition is all tangled in similar confusions. To keep myself safe from the subsequent stoning I'll avoid the long list. But I personally am waiting on the truth, and frankly I don't give a damned about anything else, and it is in my nature to be skeptical. Anyway I have resolved some of my personal qualms about the imagination and I have been able to move on.
I don’t think anymore that truth has much to do with the real world; truth has more to do with the unreal world. When you are driving in trafﬁc and you are irritated by an extra long stop light, you are engaged in a great untruth. Stoplights like untruths come and go; untruths are here now and then vanish. Truths are more stubborn and persistent. They ﬁnd a niche in the world and they persist, and damned if you are not stubbing your toe on them your whole life! You may stub your toe on an untruth, too, like that stop light above, but that has more to do with accident. So what I mean by realism is not what comes and goes but rather the patterns that are incessantly THERE; and it seems like at times they’re gonna drive you crazy. When I was a young philosophy student, I was impressed by Plato's Theory of Forms. Now I am an old philosophy student, though I hardly ever read Plato any more, still the thought that a story is how characters are conducted through the forms always gets my attention.
So I try to stick to realism, even though sometimes it is not autobiographic. I try to stick to the stuff of ordinary life that you are constantly stubbing your toe on. So I try to be realistic. I haven’t gone off into fantasy very much. The upshot is that if you go by this notion the writing must be believable and not in the sense of "verisimilitude" but in terms of factual matter relating to data that is the everyday case. The data does not have to be autobiographic but it must be the case.
Now, I’m thinking of the word “fair”. It disturbs me that a fair-minded person in this world tends to sound like a radical, or like a person who has let his imagination get the better of him. You take a fair-minded person trying to explain why it is better to compromise with another person than kill him. Fair-minded people tend to clear the air, but how has it come to be that they sound so weird? I used to be a nihilist and an anarchist. I still love the theory that the least and simplest of everything is best. If you want to improve something make it simpler; if you want to mirror the real world use common sense. My youthful nihilism, which simplified everything it couldn’t destroy, eventually made it a little easier to believe because in reducing the number of blockhead pre-conceptions, it made my ideas about the real world a little truer. (I hope!) So I try to convey that perception because it has been a struggle to learn to believe in it myself. The result is that I want to be fair to my characters (and my feelings) and not kill them off just because they have slipped up and some notion has suddenly occurred to me that they deserve that end. I don’t mean to suggest that everything I write about really happened. Something very similar to it did happen to me personally. But I’m only a soldier, a lover of the written word who is incapable of shutting up, but not one of the brass. I’m not interested in the doings of the brass, what I’m interested in is the greater world that exposes the darkness that surrounds and limits the self. I am convinced that the fact that we can actually turn back darkness into light is what makes us human, and a little less than angels.
What I have tried to write about are the mysteries that surround every one of us, to turn back that darkness a little. Well, a man can always dream. In my life I have been a terrible dreamer. Any kind of light can be a very long time coming.
Another word, balance, has bothered me for a long time. Everybody thinks about Ulysses’ avoidance of extremes. Now suppose. You want to write a best seller. But you want to be loyal to your upbringing and your mother’s admonition about not lying your ass off, and true to the experience of the world you have gathered over a lifetime. So invoke balance. Stand there, let them take their shots. Fantasy defenders, go ahead! Maybe you’ll even get taken as a serious person. In other words: show up!
When I was a young fellow, I used to search all over for stores that sold used paperback books for a nickel. I loved glossy new books, too, but I was a rag tag kid. There was always some crazy guy in there who’d give you a cardboard box, and pretty soon you were walking out with ﬁfty or a hundred books, a big pile of them anyway. My dream was that one day I’d ﬁnd a book that had everything you could imagine in it. Not The Holy Bible, which, of course, is okay for starters—I spent many hours loitering over it—, but a for real scuzzy paperback that had everything in it, and no bullshit. Then I’d have it to screw around with and keep in my back pocket. Leaves of Grass, plenty of good reading there, I used to tell myself, better get started, time is wasting; and there were others. Now I’m dreaming that one day I’ll write that big book with everything in it and no bullshit. But that’s just energy and enthusiasm. The simple object is to write a best seller, the complicated object is to get read. How do you do that now? A little sex, a little violence (guns and war always help), a little love, family. If you can write about kids, that’s a good thing. Not very many writers have been lucky that way that they can really write about kids. Something for the head, something for the heart. If anybody can explain to me how you get read, I’m open to all suggestions. Well, I guess that’s about all I am pretty sure about.
My shoes are more like hiking boots than shoes. I've hiked around in them quite some, and maybe they'll fit you too.