Never Use a Thesaurus. However…

It’s an old bit of conventional wisdom. When writing, never use a thesaurus. Good advice, for the most part, because a writer should never use a word that is not already known to her. That she doesn’t already use naturally in conversation and print. Pumping up writing with unfamiliar words comes across as stilted and unnatural. And the writer always runs the risk of using the word incorrectly, and appearing foolish. So, never use a thesaurus to find new words. However…

I use a thesaurus on a fairly regular basis, for two reasons. First, as a memory aid. I will want to write a word that I know very well. The word will lurk there, just on the edge of my consciousness, but won’t appear to me. Very frustrating!! But what will occur to me is a word that is very similar. I look up that word in a thesaurus, and, lo and behold, there is the word that I couldn’t quite remember. Very useful.

Second, as a means to find words that sound a certain way. A significant part of writing isn’t just using words that convey a given meaning, but using words that sound a certain way.  That have a desired tone and cadence beyond the meaning. Some words simply sound better than others, either generally, or within the rhythm of a given phrase or sentence. A thesaurus provides synonyms, and thus an array of possible sounds and emphasized (or not) syllables. Again, I would never use a word with which I am not already comfortable, but a thesaurus presents a range of auditory options.

A final note. An amusing cautionary tale regarding using a word without quite understanding its meaning. In 2006 a movie called Factotum, starring Matt Dillon, appeared. At the beginning of the movie, beneath the title, is printed a definition of the word factotum. It reads something like this: “a man who holds many jobs.” (This isn’t the exact quotation, because I don’t feel like finding the movie, but it is close enough.) And what is the movie about? The main character, Dillon, can’t hold down a job, so he goes from one employer to another to another, and so on. Too funny. The writer didn’t realize that the word describes someone who fulfills many types of tasks within the same/one job, not someone who goes from job to job to job.  I’m not sure how no one, not one single person attached to the movie, realized the mistake. But the movie serves as a great reminder not to get fancy with unfamiliar wordplay.


An Instrument of War

“Painting is not done to decorate apartments. It is an instrument of war.”

So said Pablo Picasso.

The same is true of writing.

I have nothing to say about the quotation. It speaks for itself.

It seems that so many artists, of all kinds, those of us who live relatively easy lives, forget the power we possess, latent though it may be.  Art is an instrument of other things as well, beauty, ugliness, imagination, creating entire new worlds within this one we inhabit. But it always has the potential to question, challenge, defy. To wage war.

Never forget that.



Write Every Day

This is hardly original advice. Many people have said it before. But it is so crucially essential that I say it here again. Write every day. Every single day. Only by writing every day does the mind slip more naturally into writing mode when faced with a keyboard and screen. Only by writing every day does the story expand to a living, breathing essence, a thing of dimensional vibrancy that seems almost real, so very nearly real, existing all around, both within and without, until the barrier between life and story dissolves, and the writer finds herself existing in a realm of multiple realities, of endless possibilities. Only by writing every day does a person become that writer.

This advice can be difficult to follow. Time. People are so busy, with multiple commitments, work, family, and social, getting little enough sleep as it is, that yet one more daily task seems too great a burden. The best strategy is setting a realistic goal, a minimum number of words per day. Whatever that minimum may be. There is no right or wrong figure. Whatever can be reasonably accomplished, however limited.

Let’s do a little math. Take a very low word number per day, say 250 words. Seems like almost nothing. Even for slow writers like me, 250 words can be written without difficulty, in maybe half an hour. For fast writers, 250 words can take mere minutes. Multiply 250 words per day by 365 days. The result? 91,250 words. That’s a novel. In one year, writing only 250 words per day, an entire novel will appear. Think about that. A year goes by so fast. It will fly by whether or not words are written, so isn’t it far better to have a novel completed at the end? Two years, two novels. Five years, five novels. All from writing 250 words per day. Rather amazing.

Be gentle. Be forgiving of the effort. Even if the words written on a given day seem terrible, that is perfectly fine. They are written, they exist there on screen or paper, and that is the most important part of being a writer. Writing. Even when the result is discouraging, it is far better than having done nothing. And, as any writer knows, editing is much easier than the initial creation. Any writing, no matter how seemingly bad in the moment, can be tweaked and polished later. So allow the writing to be bad on off days. Give permission to have written badly, if that’s what happens. It’s all good. Forgive. No worries.

You are a writer.

Characters with Minds of Their Own

My characters are sometimes wily and unpredictable. They insist upon doing things contrary to plan. I’ve got a story in mind, a progression of events interwoven with various thematic subtleties and character nuances, all nicely outlined in my little brain. I start writing. And then.

I’m writing, the unfolding scenes progressing as expected, when suddenly one of my characters refuses to do as I tell him. Just like that, without warning. Not only does he refuse to comply, he insists upon doing something completely different. The first time this happened to me, when writing my first book, I was perplexed. I didn’t understand how a character, my character, could have a mind of his own. But he did. I tried to force him to my will. He belonged to me, after all. But still he refused. Writing stalled. New words, sentences, paragraphs refused to appear. I was stuck. No way existed to get around or through his intransigence.

Perhaps following an instinct, and very glad later that I did, I eventually submitted to his will, allowing him to do as he insisted. Writing flowed again. The story veered in an unexpected direction. And I found that this new way was actually better. Much better. From that moment on, I’ve never tried to prevent a character from doing as he chooses. Submitting to his will is creatively freeing.

The most interesting aspect? Though the character might choose a different way, he always, always acts in a way consistent with who he is. Fully formed in my imagination, complex and nuanced, he is who he is and cannot act contrarily to himself. Only to my wishes, the stubborn bugger.

Still Waiting….

It is quickly becoming an existential question. Will an established publishing house ever publish my novels? I was born to write, I have no choice, I spend hours upon hours every day envisioning and typing. But what is the point? I must write. But why write if no one will ever read my stories? Is there some greater, vaster purpose? Is the reason for my writing not to publish, but to personally learn and experience something other? Something far beyond, something deeply interior? Layer upon layer of knowledge, meaning, and feeling? Is writing a meditation, creating unexpected connections amidst focused quietude? I don’t know. I don’t know. I just don’t know.

Yes, these are the things I wonder, as I’m falling asleep after yet another day of writing.

I just returned from several weeks of vacation in Colorado, where I stayed with my writer friend Amy. She is a great source of inspiration, having spent more than a decade writing and writing before becoming published. And now she just finished reading the galleys for her seventh (published) novel, which will appear for sale later this year. She encourages me, she edits my work with a kindly deft hand, she promotes my stories however she can. And she tells me, and I so want to believe her, that since I was born to write, I will indeed be published. Keep writing and writing. I can do no other.

And yet, as I fall asleep, I wonder….

What Would You Write If No Limits Existed?

What would you write if you could write anything at all? What would you write if you perceived no restrictions? If the opinion of publishers and critics meant absolutely nothing? What would you write?

Seems like a simple question. But it isn’t. At all. Especially for anyone who began writing before services like CreateSpace existed. Because all of us writers who hoped to be published always had that filter in our thought processes. Will an agent like this story enough to represent it? Will a publisher have enough confidence in its marketability to publish it? A terrible filter, harming if not destroying creativity before its very inception. Deflecting and diverting and skirting the essential, the heart of the writer’s being, altering and transforming it into something other. Into something people might like, into something generally acceptable. Is there anything worse than that? Twisting and contorting the creative soul to suit a lower common denominator?

This filter, it becomes so entrenched that recognizing its very existence becomes nearly impossible. It influences silently, invisibly, perniciously. It guides away from the wild, dark, crazy, mysterious, and disturbing towards a brightish, whitish, bland evenness. Only now, after thinking about this for the past years, have I even begun to comprehend how I’ve unconsciously, subconsciously restricted the wanderings of my imagination to the more acceptable and recognizable and hackneyed paths. So boring.

When did you last read a book that both thrilled and disturbed you? That was so unexpected and original and unpredictable that it still haunts you? Long time, I’d guess, if ever. About 15 years ago I read A Feast of Snakes, by Harry Crews, for the first time. Excellent recommendation from my writer friend Amy. That’s probably the only book I’ve ever read that falls somewhat into that category. And maybe also Hard Rain Falling, by Don Carpenter. They are two of the only books I’ve read that risk repulsing readers in order to dig down, way deep, and express something essential. But just what, I wonder, would both of those authors have written if they hadn’t had that filter. That publishing filter. Because they would have had it, they must have had it. Without it they would have been exquisitely devastating.

A challenge to you, to all of those real writers out there. Let your imagination wander. Let it truly wander. Let it wander to places that disturb you, to places that thrill and seduce you. Follow it. Keep going and going and going, way down deep or way up beyond the heavens. Then write a little story. Write like your life, heart, and soul depend on it.

Because now you can publish anything. You can send that story out to the entire world, without a literary agent or traditional publisher having the slightest power to prevent you. Amazing!

Hard Rain Falling

I often wonder, as I’m sure other writers do, how many amazing books have been long forgotten. Or, more likely, never even published. Isn’t that every writer’s deepest fear? Her work devolving into obscurity, oblivion, or never known by anyone at all. I was so very glad, then, to discover Hard Rain Falling, by Don Carpenter. Originally published in 1966, it sold poorly and soon fell out of print. Nearly vanished, almost lost to the ages. And then it was reprinted in 2009. I recently read the story and was blown away. Read this book, I tell you. It’s a classic. It should appear on every best-of list out there.

Hard Rain Falling isn’t beautifully written. Its characterizations aren’t endlessly subtle. Carpenter doesn’t always follow the show-don’t-tell rule. But something about the story is infinitely compelling. It follows the life of a young man born around 1929, abandoned at birth by his mother to a state home, who struggles through incarceration before the age of eighteen, and then finds himself living on city streets, struggling to survive. It is stunning and immediate and seems as if it could take place right now. Meaning, as with all good literature, the story tells universal truths, explores universal experiences, apart from any particular time or place.

It’s funny that On the Road, by Jack Kerouac, is considered a classic, a truly iconic work, while Hard Rain Falling is, despite the reprint, relatively unknown. Hard Rain Falling is the better book. On the Road deals mostly with characters who, though not wealthy, have the luxury to explore life as they choose, making the decision to be itinerant wanderers. In Hard Rain Falling, however, whose characters are of a similar age during the same time period as in Kerouac’s story, life doesn’t allow many choices. Living day to day is difficult, draining, the brief sparks of light and hope quickly crushed beneath reality. Everything is immediate. The next meal, the next drink, the next place to sleep. Life isn’t a broader vision, a hope for the future. Life is struggling to witness one more sunrise. On the Road certainly is a fine book, but I suspect that Hard Rain Falling speaks more to the collective truth of those people and of that time, as well as of others. For that reason it doesn’t seem at all dated, unlike the other.

For the sheer pleasure of the book itself, and for the satisfaction of reviving a nearly lost story, read Hard Rain Falling. And send out a little prayer for all other real writers, that their stories, too, won’t face oblivion.