What It Means to Be a Writer (2)

Throughout the process of writing, I deliberately shift between the right-brain intuitive mode and the left-brain rational mode. Broadly speaking, the intuitive side creates, the rational side revises and corrects. Sometimes the shift from one mode to the other happens by itself, sparked by the needs of the moment or an inspiration. I welcome those moments and passively allow my inner writer to do his thing.

I know a book or story is finished when I can’t find anything more to correct or improve and when, most important, it moves me deeply after a long spell when I haven’t looked at or thought about the text.

My books, on average, have taken me fourteen years to complete. But I always work on multiple books at once. And it’s clear to me that I have to speed up—I have at least two more books to write, and I’m not a young man. Acceleration probably will happen by itself. I spent fewer years on my most recent book, Secretocracy, than on any before it. Necessity is a great teacher.

When I read what I’ve written here about the writing process, it doesn’t feel accurate. What I experience is living in a dream-like state where some force outside myself commands me to put words on paper. The mechanics are trivial. The inspiration is urgent.

So I will continue to let that commanding voice tell me what to write. And I’ll devote my waking hours to getting words on paper. It’s what I was born for.

What It Means to Be a Writer

A reader asks: what’s it like to be a writer? I’d never asked that question. I never even thought about it. It’s like being asked: what’s it like to be a man?

As reported earlier in this blog, I knew by age six that I was born to write. In my youth, I tried various other vocations, but I ended up going back to writing. I couldn’t earn a living at writing, so I became a spy. Spydom was a natural occupation because I was a linguist, eventually in seven different languages. I studied languages other than English because they intrigued me and I enjoyed them. Speaking other languages over time greatly enhanced my ability to write. Through learning how foreign speakers expressed themselves, I discovered the fine gradations of meaning possible through careful word choice, insinuation, and context.

I’m reasonably certain that being a writer has different meaning for different people. I know that my method is unlike that of others, and that other writers differ from one another. So what I tell you about myself may not apply to anyone else.

I write every day. Some days it may not look like writing to an objective observer. It doesn’t always involve typing at a keyboard or working with pen and paper. Sometimes I sit in the easy chair I use for reading and think. I let my mind wander as I listen to my inner voice. Sometimes I review a printed manuscript of my work. Other times I correct text on the computer screen. Still other times I sit on my deck and daydream.

All of that leads to the hard work of putting pen to paper, or, in my case, fingers to the keyboard. Most of my writing time is spent before the computer screen typing. When I’m on a tear, I can spend as much as fourteen hours in one day pounding away. More commonly, I’m at the keyboard in the morning or the afternoon but not both. I rarely write in the evening when I’m tired and need to escape from work.

Unlike most other writers I know, I don’t work from an outline. I let my muse (really my subconscious) dictate the story to me. Once I have a draft, I put it away to cool, then start the revision process. I go through as many as ten drafts of a short story or a novel before I’m content that I can’t improve it further.

More tomorrow.

Memories of Vietnam

This extended period of time alone during the pandemic has aroused my memories of Vietnam. As regular readers of this blog know, between 1962 and 1975, I spent more time in Vietnam than in the U.S. I had two multiyear tours there and so many shorter trips, usually four to six months, that I lost count. During those thirteen years, I lived, breathed, smelled, and ingested Vietnam.

Of the seven languages I have worked in, I am most competent in Vietnamese. I spoke it constantly for many years. Early on, I learned to think in Vietnamese. In the process, I became inculcated with the Asian way of thinking inherent in the language. I saw the world from a new perspective.

I learned to feel at home in a tropical climate. Like the people around me, I wore minimal clothing. My skin became deeply tanned. Eventually, I developed skin cancer from too much exposure to the sun, a disorder the native Vietnamese were immune to. I ate the food of Vietnam and even learned to savor nước mm, the fish sauce famous for its acrid smell.

My dreams came to me in Vietnamese. The language narrated scenes of barbarous combat, of men killing each other, of grisly wounds and bodies torn apart. Bloody war became part of the language.

My time in combat and my escape under fire as Saigon still stay with me. They always will. I suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI). The nightmares that malady brings with it have a sound track in Vietnamese.

So these lonely days, with time on my hands and no contacts with other human beings, memories of Vietnam come roaring home. I hear the language, feel the languid heat, smell nước mm and jungle rot. The magnificent beauty of the country and the bestiality of war are with me still. They always will be.


Since March, when I was visiting my soul mate, Su, in the hospice, I have stayed alone at home, devoid of human contact except by computer. Su died at the end of March. I am more isolated than I have ever been, grieving by myself.

I’ve had no trouble filling my time. I read as much as I can—that’s a necessity for a writer. I’ve done depth housecleaning and prepared my deck for cleaning. I’ve been working on my presentation of a video of Verdi’s opera, Aida, by watching the video and playing themes on the piano.

And I’ve cooked. I don’t think of myself as a chef, but because I was worried that I might not be able to buy the foods I normally depend on, especially eggs, I’ve cooked pots of soup and beans to go with rice. I was surprised at how delicious those dishes are and have thoroughly enjoyed them.

I’ve tried to exploit this golden opportunity of time on my hands to write, but I can’t get myself going. The novel I’ve been working on is based on my years with Su. The grief over her loss is too much. I won’t give up. I’ll keep trying until I get the flow going.

Luckily, as I’ve noted here before, I’m a loner by nature, so spending time by myself feels right. Up to a point. We humans are social animals; we need the company of others. As the weeks pass in complete isolation, I yearn for time with my friends.

And I long for my public readings and presentations, all cancelled due to the pandemic. So I’ve ordered a webcam. That will allow me to do virtual presentations on Zoom and WebEx. Unfortunately, the shipping of the webcam has been delayed by the pandemic. It was supposed to have arrived yesterday. I don’t know when it will show up.

So I’m faring better than most. We loners know how to take care of ourselves. But I’ll be glad when my isolation ends.

What Makes a Novel Good?

A friend and fellow author asked me to beta-read his most recent novel before he submits it for publication. That task made me rethink what factors go into the creation of a successful novel. Here are my thoughts:

First, good fictional prose writing style. Writing techniques for fiction differ from those for nonfiction. Writing fiction is an art; writing nonfiction is reporting. The emotional reaction of the reader is a key element in fiction. That means that language used must evoke a range of feelings through the use of vocabulary, sentence structure and length, paragraph shaping, images, and allusions.

Second, aesthetic shaping. A novel’s structure is akin to musical form, especially the symphony. It needs to have a clear beginning, middle and end. Somewhere—usually in the last third of the text—needs to come the climax. It is preceded by narrative building tension, and it is followed by the conclusion. How long each of these sections is depends on the nature of the story being told.

Third, poetic writing. Because a novel is a work of art, the beauty of the text is critical. The novelist uses words and structures to create an imaginary world that must please, even delight, the reader. The writer must hone the distinction among similar words and exploit the emotional implications. “Odor,” “aroma,” “scent,” “fragrance,” and “bouquet,” for example, are synonyms, but each has its own emotional content. The fictionalist must choose the one that conveys the right feel at the right moment.

Under the rubric of poetic writing comes rhythm. The start and stop, flow and halt, float and sink of the text in a novel reflects, even dictates, the feelings the reader will experience. In principle, short terse sentences work best in action scenes; longer, fluid text guides the reader through lengthy narration. Sometimes a paragraph of a single sentence or even a single word can provide a needed jolt.

Fourth, the novel needs to be organized. The text is usually divided into chapters, and chapters sometimes need to be placed in larger sections. And sometimes subsections appear within chapters. Each of these textual divisions needs to feel complete within itself. Each should feel like a stepping stone in the narrative.

I could go on. The point is that a novel is a creative undertaking far more demanding and difficult than its nonfiction counterpart. Many nonfiction writers borrow novel techniques to spark up their writing. But no nonfiction writing I have ever done has posed a challenge equal to that of writing a novel. Except for writing poetry, it is the most demanding work I’ve ever attempted.

Secretocracy and the Pandemic

My most recent novel, Secretocracy, was released on the last day of March 2020 in the midst of the covid-19 pandemic. It’s now available at bookstores everywhere and on every online bookseller I’ve checked. As I noted here earlier, in normal times I’d be up to my ears in readings and presentations with a new book out, but due to the pandemic, I’m staying at home, away from all human contact.

The irony is that Secretocracy is fiction about the Trump administration’s harassment of government budgeteer who refuses to fund an illegal program being pushed by the president. It couldn’t be more timely. Daily, a new scandal erupts about Trump’s firing of a government watchdog who won’t faun before him. American democracy is at risk.

So I’ve ordered a webcam to be able to do virtual readings and presentations. Once it arrives and I’ve learned how to use it, I’ll do as many public appearances as I can to get the word out about Secretocracy. Unfortunately, shipment of the webcam has also been delayed by the lockdown. I might not get it before the pandemic is over.

If it doesn’t arrive, I can still do voice-only presentations. In fact, I’m already scheduled to so one in early June.

Turns out even a lockdown can’t silence me or others. Ingenuity and willingness to try new technologies (new to me, anyway) can win the day.

Josh at the Door (2)

By dint of sheer will power, I’ve begun writing Josh at the Door. I started at the end of the story with Josh in May 2020 grieving over the loss of his beloved, Mimi. As I wrote, I discovered that Mimi died of covid-19. So Josh, in a very real sense, is a victim of the pandemic.

In the process, I also learned that Josh is a Vietnam veteran with Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI) and plays the piano. I don’t know very much about Mimi yet except that she, like Josh, is retired and volunteers at a local senior center.

Readers often express surprise at the way I describe my writing process. I experience it as if some voice outside myself were feeding me the story and telling me to write it down. I just do what I’m told.

I’m sure that voice is really my own subconscious pouring the story into my conscious mind, sometimes faster than I can write. I don’t plan ahead of time. I don’t think through the story. I simply write what the voice tells me. Later I’ll go back and revise and improve and reshape and clean up. But for now what’s essential is getting the story on paper before the voice loses patience with me.

And the voice is overloading me. I have lost the person dearest to me. As a lung cancer survivor and older man, I’m a prime target for covis-19. I’m living with my grief alone and without human contact because of the pandemic. I am living the story my unconscious commands me to write. But I live to write.

I’ll do it.