"Writing Wednesdays": An Experiment
I’m going to try something new on Wednesdays from now on, which is to post pieces that are not about tribalism or Afghanistan, but about writing. This is #1.
The subject is professionalism. If you’ve read my book The War of Art, you know that I view professionalism not only as an asset and obligation commercially and artistically (or even as a sign of respect for yourself and your readers), but almost as a spiritual practice. It’s my mantra and my touchstone. It has saved my life, personally as well as professionally.
That said, I must confess to having been less than professional as a blogger. When I started these Tribalism videos, the intent was simply to do ’em and get ’em out there. We–myself and producer Amanda Tunnell and publicist Callie Oettinger–didn’t even think of having our own platform, i.e. this blog/site. We thought we could post the videos on an online magazine or a foreign policy site and that would be that. And we never even dreamed of blogging. But once the videos were up, it became clear that they were nothing without an ongoing dialogue.
So that’s how I blundered into the universe of blogging–as an amateur. My non-pro thought process went something like this: “Well, blogs are opinion pieces, so all I need is an opinion.” Not so fast, Mister P. You gotta back this stuff up. You have to cite sources, take notes, fact-check.
An example: At Camp Lejeune two summers ago, I was having lunch with a couple of colonels who were telling me about working with the tribes in Ramadi. One story was about a brand-new electric generator that the Marines had moved heaven and earth to acquire and that would bring power to a significant portion of the city–a huge success at a time when such U.S.-Iraqi cooperation was very much needed.
But when the Marines went to put the generator in place at Location X, one of the powerful tribal sheiks objected. Why? Because the proposed site was on the turf of a rival tribe. If the sheik allowed the generator to be sited on that location–even though it served his own people–it would be a mortal disgrace to him among his own tribesmen. The colonels tried reason, logic, accommodation. No go. The sheik warned the Marines that if they insisted on placing the generator on the rival tribe’s land, the result would be war. Final outcome six months later? Two generators, one for each tribe.
That’s how you would tell the story if you were an amateur. If I had known at the time that I would one day be blogging, I would have gotten the colonels’ names and units, dates, places, times; the sheik’s name, his tribe’s name, the rival tribe’s name; the brand of generator, its capacity, the number of city blocks served. I would have kept in touch with the colonels and reconnected with them, gotten comments from them. I would have fact-checked and updated, searched for other articles or posts on that subject and linked to them, cross-referenced with them. In other words, I would have been a professional. I would have acted like a journalist.
I want to offer an observation about bloggers, a peeve in fact. But first here’s something I learned about myself and about professionalism as a writer of fiction. In the first three novels I attempted to write (none of which got published–and they didn’t deserve to get published), I followed a demented version of what I conceived to be the Hemingway ethic. If it didn’t happen in real life, you couldn’t write about it. The characters had to be people you’d known and the events had to be real. Otherwise what you were writing was fake. That was my theory and it got me absolutely nowhere. Finally in desperation I attempted something radical: making stuff up. Fiction.
The specific piece was a screenplay about a prison break. In real life I had never been in prison, didn’t know the first thing about life behind bars. But when the script was done and I showed it to colleagues, more than one leaned in close to whisper, “Hey, man, where’d you do time?”
This was a revelation. I realized that, for me at least, the more “fictional” a scene or story, the more realistic it played. I vowed never again to write a character that was based on me or a story that arose from fact.
I learned something else from this experience–and here is where professionalism comes in. I learned that a writer can be too close to his characters or his story. This is a fatal error. The writer needs distance. He must be at one remove. My prior novels were not real novels. They were self-therapy. That was what made them so excruciating to read. What I was really doing was trying to make myself seem real to myself. I was writing narratives with me as a character to try to convince myself (and the world) that I existed. In other words, I was writing journals. I was writing diaries. I was an amateur.
Passing through the membrane into pure fiction saved my life, because it put me at a safe aesthetic remove from my characters and my stories. With that step, I became a pro–even though I didn’t realize it till many years later.
Which brings me back to blogging. (I’m not speaking as a blogger here, but just as an observer–someone who has dropped in from another dimension and peeked around.)
There are many excellent and extremely professional bloggers and their stuff is a pleasure to read. They are making contributions. They’re part of the solution. But I also see no few writers of blogs who are stuck in their own egos. You can tell it from the first sentence, even the first phrase. It’s in their tone of voice. The text reeks of jealousy, pettiness, competitiveness and bile. It’s like the tone academics take when they’re sticking knives in each other’s backs. It has nothing to do with solutions and everything to do with fear, ego and narcissism. They are writing as amateurs. Their aim, though they will deny it even after being waterboarded 283 times, is to advance (or simply preserve) their own egos. I know,because I’ve been in that place. When the happy breakthrough comes for those writers, their work will rise an entire level overnight, then keep rising for levels and levels beyond that.
Henry Miller used to use himself as a character in his books. You’d read Tropic of Capricorn and think, “Wow, that is so real, so immediate, it’s really him.” But it wasn’t. It was an effect, an act of artifice. That wasn’t Henry Miller; it was “Henry Miller.” The artist knew the difference. He was in command of his material and in command of his own conception of himself. He stood at one remove and that allowed him to put “himself” forward but not himself. That act excised the ego from the work and made it a joy to read. It made Henry Miller a professional and it made his fiction seem realer than real life.