What I'm Learning About Life From Writing Novels

I have to reinvent the wheel. I'm just one of those ornery people who has to learn, discover, inculcate for herself, directly. I've got to percolate lessons in my own innards, especially when it comes to writing. For me, writing novels is an arachnid process: novels are spun into intricate webs out of the silk in my gut. It's work. It's hard. But, to mix metaphors, it's not all pushing a rock uphill. On the journey of learning how to weave, I've not only studied the craft of writing fiction, I've also, despite myself, gleaned a few insights into the bittersweet comedy we call life.

Not everyone needs to take the more arduous road to a destination, as I do. To those worthy folks, to prospective writers, and to anyone interested, here's an offering.

Three evolving guidelines shape my novel-writing: 1. What is story? Story is how the protagonist does NOT get what he or she wants. 2. All story is an argument for a specific value. For example, take Macbeth: overweening ambition contains the seeds of its own destruction. In my first novel, Immortal (BantamDell, 2008), I had two theses: Art is redemptive, and love is the only immortality we can know. 3. What are the stakes?

So, what is story? I ask myself this question every time I sit down at my computer and stare with a peculiar mixture of dread and anticipation at an empty white document page. I've attended workshops, read books, interrogated famous authors, and even matriculated in a creative writing graduate program to figure out the answer. The pared-down statement above was taken from screenwriters, who often tackle the issue best. Some novelists seem to look down on screenwriters, but those people deal with story every day, in its palpable, unvarnished essence. They get it right, they make a movie and they eat. Otherwise, not so much. So they're not kidding around. They have something to teach us novelists.

Indeed, all sorts of people have something useful to teach me. Condescension doesn't behoove me -- respect does. I never know who will toss me the next meaty nugget about writing, or about living.

Also, I don't want my life to be story-like. I don't want my life filled with conflict and obstacle, which is how a good writer toys with her characters, prevents them from fulfilling their desires, and sucks in readers. I want my life to be smooth, like the most elegantly milled vanilla ice cream. Peace nourishes my creativity; when my life calms, my mind fills with intriguing possibilities.

Arguments for specific values: The question is, what are my values, in every situation? I look with deep skepticism on two groups of people: Republicans and Democrats. Also liberals and conservatives. It seems to me that the world is full of complex, cascading problems that can't be reduced to a simplistic party line. Many of these problems are urgent, yet must be carefully examined. What do I value in each scenario? Sometimes it's a question of competing values, so which is more important?

And what are the stakes? As a writer crafting a scene, I have to know what my characters stand to gain or lose, so the scene is compelling. In my dystopian romance Fallen (Telemachus Press, 2011), I set myself up rather nicely: the stakes are the end of the world. Survival itself, for the characters and for humanity. Pretty juicy premise, gives me a lot to work with. Helping myself is one of the fulcrums of the trial and error process.

In life, blessedly, we are mostly not at the point of extinction, either individually or as a species. At least I pray not. But if I focus on the stakes, and keep them at the forefront, my life is influenced. For example, my former husband is hostile and difficult. My initial response is often reactive, in kind. What I am learning is that I have to be the change I want to see. I have to be thoughtful and conciliatory if that's the relationship I'd like to have with him.

My reason for wanting this improved relationship is what's at stake: our children. The ability to discuss them adult-to-adult, which is only possible in a thoughtful, respectful, conciliatory interaction. Of course, I have no say over how my ex behaves; he may or not meet me on this higher ground. That's up to him. I can only do the best I can, which I do because the stakes are precious to me.

I've written nonfiction, too. My last nonfiction book was The Art of Life (Parvati Press, 2011), which I wrote with my current husband, classical figurative sculptor Sabin Howard. Writing this book taught me a lot about working with my husband ... But that's a topic for another essay, one that really does emphasize pushing a rock uphill. Lovingly, because there's nothing elegantly milled about marriage.

Writing fiction is also about love, and specifically, writing a novel is like a marriage in that it is long and requires endurance. It's a marathon. It takes hard work, stamina, perseverance and frequent, generous dollops of humor. Like life, I suppose.