The Reluctant Fundamentalist and All the Pretty Horses


The Reluctant Fundamentalist and All the Pretty Horses

The really annoying thing about writing is that for every sacrosanct rule that we’re supposed to live by, there’s some writer who comes up with a narrative which breaks it and damn if it doesn’t work. Like Cormac McCathy’s All the Pretty Horses and Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Take the novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid. Reading the first few pages, I thought, “This can’t be a first person monolog for the entire novel. That’s ridiculous. It’s never going to work.” It was and it did!

The author breaks the monolog, in fact although not in form, by having the protagonist ‘repeat’ the words of the American he is speaking to before responding. Similarly, there are long flashbacks which take the more standard form.

But still, a full novel monolog. It shouldn’t work, it does, and is even necessary for the nature of the ending (read it—it’s worth it).

All the Pretty Horses

Similarly, Cormac McCarthy, the author of, in particular, All the Pretty Horses. It won the National Book Award in 1992 so I thought I would give it a go.

I hated it at the beginning. Hated, hated, hated it. For one thing, McCarthy had dialogue like (this is my imitation of him):

“Is Ruth coming?”

“Nah, she’s busy.”

“Won’t be no fun without her.”

Who’s Ruth? Who’s talking?

Also, he had long passages in Spanish (without translation) which moved the action forward. And his sentences were often (again my imitation): He hit him with a shovel until he intervened. Aaahh! These are all male cowboys. Give me a hint!

I was pissed but decided to read exactly half-way before giving up to figure out why he was so praised.

Around page 75, I fell in love. The descriptions of the West spoke to me as if I had been born to it. With characters who don’t talk much and whose internal life is almost never revealed. With only their actions to show, McCarthy created a compelling story with basically one authorial hand tied behind his back!

Yes, he still did unattributed dialogue, untranslated Spanish, and confusing pronouns. But it didn’t matter. I loved, loved, loved it.

So some authors can break from the traditional way and make it work. Sometimes, wonderfully.

Accordingly, can you break the rules, too? Next post.

Emotional Truth in Your Writing


Emotional Truth in Your Writing

What is emotional truth?

I know you have experienced it—otherwise, you wouldn’t want to be a writer. You know it when you’re reading a novel which is, by definition, fiction, made up, untrue. And yet, you feel its truth, its emotional truth. It touched something in you which was real. Mike Ruso, a writer and photographer, has some interesting insights if you want to explore more of its definition, but I’d like to focus on, not what it feels like to experience it, but how to create it.

What is emotional truth for writers?

It’s one thing to experience this honesty as a reader, but how does it feel when you are writing that way? The best I can do it is to describe my struggles as I journaled about them.

I feel like I am not getting down to the core—the place from which I write—the deep place. It feels very at the surface, perhaps because I was thinking of the characters as vehicles for the essays[1]. Now I want to think of them as existing on their own, without reference to anything else.

So, where is that deep spot in the middle of my chest from which all else flows? It doesn’t feel like I have accessed that for a long time and it is this that I think is lacking in David[2]. That one true thing. Which is more than one true thing but it is about true things. It is a sinking down to allow a bubbling up. Who is David?

The fantastical, illogical, and moving side of my brain has not gotten much exercise lately. To wit: none. And I fear it is atrophying due to lack of use. What I continually fear.

Although maybe because it hasn’t been used for a while, it’s like the muscles in the front of my shoulder. Because I was hunched forward for so long, they went unused. Now that I am straighter, they are called upon to function and are remarkably weak. Who knew. So now, the movements I can make with them are limited and painful. But I am making progress.

I hope the same can be said of this thing which I seek.

Not a definition, I know, but perhaps approximating how to know, as a writer, when you are writing from a place from which emotional truth can arise.

How do I get it in my writing?

Ah, the $64,000 question. It is the pinnacle of writing, which all writers strive to reach. It is what makes writing magic.

I have a simple but not easy answer: honesty.

When I think I have approached emotional truth in my writing, it is when I have been completely honest. I think it is the willingness to show up naked on the page, to bring your scared and trembling self to the writing, not hiding behind technique or elegant writing. It is writing about feeling unattractive and unloved rather than about heroines who are beautiful and worshiped. It is the willingness to go to the places in yourself which are raw and writing from there.

There is no paint-by-numbers method. Push yourself to be honest with yourself, to be honest on the page. And then, every once in a while, emotional truth breaks through. And every once in a while, so does the magic.

[1] Referring to Cross My Heart and Other Tales of Life and Art, soon to be released.

[2] Referring to hero in the Honest One, a novel on the consequences of stealing ideas

Do I Have to Tell the Truth in a Memoir?


Do I Have to Tell the Truth in a Memoir?

Depends what you mean by truth.

Yes for the major events in your life. Really, isn’t this the time to tell your eldest that he really wasn’t born three months premature? If you don’t tell the truth about the big things, why bother calling it a memoir?

No for the small stuff. You cannot possibly remember every detail of your life so you may have to include what was likely or expected to make the narrative flow.

Yes for the emotional truth. I will have another post on this as it is an ability all writers need to develop but I want to focus on how it applies to memoirs.

An example of emotional truth in memoirs

Say you want to record how you recovered and thrived after your divorce. But you need to deal with the betrayal which prompted it.

One way you could do this is:

Larry seemed anxious that evening but things had gotten to the point that I didn’t care enough to ask. He came into the living room after dinner.

He just stood there. He cleared his throat. I looked up.

“…you know that things aren’t working out between us.”

“And whose fault is that?”

He waved a hand and took a deep breath. “I don’t want to fight any more. I want a divorce.”


He didn’t look up. “I’ve found someone else.”

“What! You bastard! Who is it? I bet it’s that Rachel. She’s been all over you since she and Amir moved here.”

“No, not Rachel. Amir.”

So, this is fine as far as it goes. And although there is the emotional honesty of simply writing down the event, you also need to include the shock, tears, anger, and disbelief you felt and continued to feel for the months following. How did it affect you? Did it make you question what was real or who you were? Did you wonder whether you were a true woman if you married a gay man?

Public versus private face

I know that this is tough to do. And that it asks you to go deeper than you perhaps had originally anticipated.

But people already know your public face—the one you turn to the world. Everything is fine. Yes, my daughter is great. No, I’m okay financially. Never worry about getting old. Don’t wonder how to cope without a spouse.

Your public face, while safe and comfortable, is less compelling than letting the reader see the true you. The private face of the human being with her doubts, fears and triumphs.

Write from your private space. At least for the first draft. Once you have a complete manuscript, then decide whether or what you want to alter. The range can be from publication to nobody ever seeing it and all stops in-between.

The truth of remembrance

While I’m here, so to speak, just a word about how you handle the early days of your life. Obviously, you know what is coming in later years but beginnings larded with Little did I know, As I found out later, He was all charm then, can get tiresome and more importantly, doesn’t present those days as you truly experienced them, untainted with the knowledge of future events and without regret and revenge. Let the reader take the journey with you rather than throwing out constant bits of foreshadowing of the traumas to come.

Dealing with Writer’s Block

Dealing with Writer’s Block

First rule: Relax. Everybody goes through this. Although everybody thinks they know what writer’s block is, it might be helpful to review its pernicious forms.

Forms of writer’s block

Can’t put anything on the page. This is the classic one. You sit down at the laptop and all you’ve got, or are getting, is a blank screen.

Everything you write is junk. In this case, you can write but you are convinced not a single word is worth the bytes needed to create it. It is DELETE FILE territory (by the way, don’t do that—at least until you’ve read the rest of the post).

You know you are unfitted by talent, temperament, or inclination to write. This is the worst because, if you reach this point, it doesn’t even feel like writer’s block—it just feels like a self-evident principle of the world.

But honestly, they are all forms of writer’s block.

But what if it’s true that I can’t write?

I think most people can write creatively at some level if they put the energy into it. Will they be world-famous novelists? Don’t know.

However, writing creatively is, of course, partly about imagination, but also about observation and mastery of the craft. I don’t know whether it is possible to train up creativity, but I know that it’s not only possible to hone observation and craft skills, but necessary to create a good piece of writing.

So why don’t you give yourself the benefit of the doubt and work on your craft and observation abilities? Somewhere along the line, the ideas will come.

Ways to deal with writer’s block

Put the piece away for a while. Sometimes, you need to just walk away for a bit. Literally take a walk or do something else which occupies you in a different way. You might need to stow it for a couple of days or even weeks. But don’t let it be too long—otherwise, your writer’s block is running the show.

Write drivel. There is a school of thought which suggests that you just put your fingers on the keyboard and type anything. And it does work. It can often kickstart you back to your piece.

Of course, there is a danger. I discovered a clever way (well, I thought it was clever) to still avoid writing. This the drivel I’ve been talking about—basically writing about writing to avoid writing. Example: I love the way that the novel I just read unfolded. It was a total surprise at the end. See what I mean—you’re writing but not anything related to your project.

Start your engines, please, gentlemen. When I am stuck, I literally write this, followed by It’s 10:17. I will write for 30 minutes. No stopping, no games until 10:47. Doesn’t have to be 30 minutes, can be five. The point is that you spend the allotted time making progress on your idea. Can’t stop and can’t wander off during that time.

Last rule: Relax. Really, don’t get tied into knots about this. It is the ebb and flow of a writer’s life. Sometimes, it will come flowing through you and sometimes you are Sisyphus rolling that rock up the hill forever.

Just keep writing.

The Muse and the Piano Tuner


The Muse and the Piano Tuner

I learned a lot about the writing muse from a piano tuner.

After half an hour of plucking strings, the piano tuner called to me. “Okay, I’m done.” He rippled through some swing tune, no sheet music of course.

“Wow, you’re good! Do you play professionally?”

He shrugged. “I’m in a band.” As he stuck his tools into his satchel, “You a writer?”

I raised my eyebrows. “How did you know?”

He pointed to the book face down on the piano. “This is you, right?”

“Oh, yeah. Crummy picture.”

“So, you write full time?”

“Not full-time. As much as I can.”

He asked, almost shyly, as if it might be too personal. “Do you have to wait until you’re in the mood to write?”

I shrugged. “Well, no. If I waited, I don’t think I’d ever do it.”

Suddenly, his face cleared. “Oh, yeah, I get it. It’s like when you have a gig. Doesn’t matter whether you want to play or not. You just show up and play.”

Show up and play and the Muse might too

Show up and play. I know there’s a lot of stuff writers believe about waiting for the Muse to strike. Or I suppose ‘visit’ would be a better word for such a sought-after commodity.

With hand to head, they vow they can’t write a word unless inspired by some external force. And thus have a perfect reason not to, because that Muse, she’s not much into house calls.

However, many famous authors didn’t seem to wait. Tolstoy said, “I must write each day without fail, not so much for the success of the work, as in order not to get out of my routine.” Victor Hugo wrote from dawn to 11:00 every day. Agatha Christie saw writing as a job.

They discovered what all writers, I believe, need to understand. The Muse isn’t going to show up until you do. It’s like Moses and the parting of the Red Sea. As a friend much more learned than me pointed out, the real learning from that story is that Moses and the Israelites had to start wading into the Red Sea before God parted it. That is, they had to show their commitment and faith before God would step in.

As the piano tuner said, you need to show up and play. It is when you are actively engaged in writing that the Muse or whatever the magic consists of, can show up. So, don’t wait for It to strike. Invite It in.