I had been planning to keep this private. But given this post, and everything I’d written about him here over time, I felt I should share it here. The “story” needed an “ending”:
A pat on the back is wonderful, but that’s not why I posted that. It’s because I can’t believe that brief message marked the conclusion to the roughly two decades’ long correspondence between my novelist uncle and myself – first by email (when he was on something called “CompuServe” and I was on something called “America Online”) and then mostly by Facebook. That October 3rd Messenger note was the last one he fired off to me just before he went into the hospital for what we had all thought would be a “routine” procedure.
A little more than a week later, on October 11, I spoke with him by phone from my mother’s hospital bedside – the day before he died. That last chat with him ended with him fretting over my mother’s terminal condition. He was not in the slightest concerned about himself.
His referring in that message to my “politics” as different from his? Well, his often seemed wildly inconsistent, and weren’t blindly ideological; but I was generally more “to the right.” But that wouldn’t have been tough to manage: sometimes Bernie Sanders would have been to his right, too.
We used to joke about occasionally straightforwardly disagreeing. Now that he’s gone, any such differences no longer matter. (Indeed should any of us ever let such “differences” matter when we are alive?) To be fortunate enough to have that as a final note from a relative you’d loved, well, you treasure it forever.
And when someone like that leaves you with that sort of an unintended farewell, it leads you also to resolve to work all the harder to live up to such words. I know I have my limitations, but as a novelist myself now I’ve striven to pen stories that reach for that level – especially so given I modeled an important character on him:
Unsurprisingly, I have been thinking lots about his death and what he meant to me not only as an uncle. Important also is what he meant to me as a novelist himself. I’ve found myself reflecting a great deal on what I recall him telling me over the years about his own writing struggles as well as, in recent months, his advice on my own efforts.
All that led me to ask myself a couple of things. What have I learned writing three novels since 2013? Moreover, given his advice to me, what would I say to anyone else who wants to write?
Five major things immediately come to mind:
1) Write about what interests you and what you know about.
That may sound trite, but it’s an excellent starting point. Even if you think no one else out there cares about your interest and subject, you’re wrong. Likely there are 1000s of potential readers who do. (Obviously, for the second part, if you are a writing a book about the likes of vampires or trolls, chances are your personal experience is, uh, limited; but what’s central is always the overraching theme and the “humanity” that underpins the tale even while it is couched among the “undead” and the “non-human”; and your sources are whatever they are, based on whatever you know and you are.)
2) Hemingway’s advice is among the most important I’ve ever seen: less is more. Your greatest ally is readers’ imaginations. Not everything needs to be on the page.
3) It’s now become a cliché as well to say “find your own voice,” but it’s true. Say what you want to say, the way you want to say it. Others might disagree with your approach, yes, but no one will fault you for being yourself. Don’t be afraid to take chances and seek to be inventive. Mimicking what others have done before you means only that…. you’ve copied what those others have done.
4) We can too easily fall into an “excessive preparation” trap. Eventually, you have to have actual readers. Of course being human, inherently nervous and even fearful that what we’ve written just isn’t “good enough,” we can ask all around us for reassurance and then some. I feel strongly that we can spend too much time “warming up.” Stop “prepping” the novel and tear into writing it and…. finish it.
5) The world is full of unwritten and unfinished “great novels.” Don’t let yours be another one. Don’t demand of yourself what is unattainable: that in order to write it, it has to be one of the best books in the history of literature.
I remember my uncle once telling me that sometimes he reread sections of his books and cringed; that he would’ve loved to have re-written much of them. Looking back on the three of mine, I understand what he meant; I see things I would write differently now myself. But you have to commit yourself at some point.
No matter what you write, it won’t be perfect. Yet that doesn’t mean that if you apply yourself it won’t be good, entertaining, and thought-provoking for readers. Whatever it is you want to write about, simply work hard to write the best book you can. 🙂