I’ve been writing books
for over thirty years. The other evening I explained several of my ideas about
the writing process to two writers, one from the world of journalism and the
other from the world of academia. This essay is for Gwen and Pavida who
asked me the question: How do you go about writing a book? And encouraged me to
put my thoughts down for other writers.
I believe every writer
develops their own secret formula to describe the writing process that works for
them. Mine is not that original or profound but I set out some of the guideposts
that have served me well along the journey to writing a book.
I am also asked ‘How do
you go about writing a book?’ Another question I am asked is closely
related—‘What book would you recommend that I read?’
We genuinely seek
satisfactory answers to these questions, we need to address how a writer thinks
about books and the writing process. Not have the usual discussion about
when you write, how many words in a day, where your inspiration comes from, what
does your office look like, what time of day do you write and so forth. These
are the questions we are curious about and wish to ask an author.
I will start instead with
a question that I believe a writer should put to himself or herself: What kind
of book should I write?
For me, I start answering
this question by glancing up at two boxes on my Borges’ library shelf. Each box
contains an infinite number of pieces to an infinite puzzle. My first
decision is which of the two boxes to take from the mental shelf and start to
The first box the puzzle
pieces require the author to assemble a number of complex relationships, that
grow, fall apart, set up in conflict, ignite emotional reaction, detail
involvements, track maturity and damage of characters who face conflict, hard
decisions, and life-changing choice.
This is what I look for
when I open the Fiction Box.
When I write a novel this
is the box I choose to take off the shelf and start taking out the pieces and
figuring out how the pattern connects. Yes, there are novels of ideas where the
characters’ emotions are far in the background. This proves the Fiction box has
a range of possibility. Because an intellectual novel can succeed doesn’t
undermine the basic premise that most novels succeed on an emotional plane,
explaining the source of our feelings, the depths of our fears and anxiety, and
the tensions arising from relationships, family, schools, political systems, and
religion. The author goes inside people’s lives to examine the personality,
attitude, and character, their limitations and failures as well as their
The second box is also
filled with infinite pieces of infinite puzzles.
This is the Non-fiction
Box. It is the box I open to write essays for this blog.
When I open the
Non-fiction Box, my approach is to build logical arguments based on evidence,
facts, statistics that support the arguments. The idea is to persuade the reader
that your interpretation of the evidence supports your argument, solution, or
policy proposal. In this box there are few if any pieces that represent a
character whose emotional reaction is central to the book. Yes, there are highly
polemical books charged with emotional calls urging others: join a cult, a
political party, or a life-style.
These are confirmation
bias-based books that promise to confirm what you already believe to be
‘factually’ true or consistent with your ‘faith’, or the stories manufactured
about history, culture and language. The best of non-fiction challenges your
preconception by assembly of facts and evidence and argues for a change of your
views. The non-fiction book is deliberate, rational and analytical and emotions
are seen, like a cognitive bias, as weakening a clear assessment of the
My personal role model,
whether I choose The Fiction Box or The Non-Fiction Box may come as a surprise.
It is Charles Darwin. His Origin of the Species published on
24th November 1859 changed not only science, but also his book
immediately raised a serious debate about religion and the existing social
order. Darwin’s creative process is instructive for any writer.
The Origin of
Darwin’s journey resulted
in a book that, over time, changed the way we perceive our world. A significant
minority remains to this date unconvinced by the evidence to support the theory
of natural selection. Darwin in the 1830s signed on to an expedition of
discovery. The Beagle, the name of the ship, which allowed him to explore was
also his lab. Darwin went into the field. He observed first hand the
evidence of the diversity of life. His theory of natural selection arose from
the evidence that he gathered.
Every time I start a new
book, I tell myself I am signing on as a crew member to a new launching of the
Beagle. And my job while on the expedition is to observe, note, research beyond
the shoreline, go deep into the interior, look under rocks, down valleys, up the
side of mountains and look for patterns.
Capital in the 21st Century is another of those Beagle
explorations. This time computers and historical records combined to yield
patterns of wealth and income that create a picture of the real
What a writer is doing,
whether conscious of the process or not, is finding patterns in objects, things,
ideas, people, animals, language, history, and culture that are knotted up,
entangled in seemingly random, chaotic ways. A writer’s goal is to find
patterns, correlations, and causation that gives a sense of order to the mess of
what is life.
Quantum physics is a good
place for a writer to explore the hidden reality of entanglements.
A writer needs to sign on
to his own private Beagle and set sail.
A writer needs to take
time to observe, record, and search for connections.
A writer needs passion. A
book is a long voyage. Without a burning passion fired by curiosity, a sense of
wonder, a withholding of judgment, a love of research, the journey can become
intolerable. You really must be honest how passionate you are to reveal in the
entanglements a plausible story.
Ultimately what readers
look for in a book is a voice that they can trust that can untangle the
complications, incoherence and randomness of life. A charlatan earns trust
through empty promises and sleight of hand; they never take a personal journey
on the Beagle, though they may try to convince you that they have.
Readers hunger for meaning
and purpose, and a writer’s task is to fulfill that desire.
Buddhism offers several
lessons that help me as a writer, and they may help you once you’ve decided to
write a book. I am grateful to Professor John Paulos for drawing my attention to
an interview with Jay Garfield who discusses the key premises of
Buddhism. All three lessons are stories about fear and how we deal with
A central theme of
Buddhism is non-attachment. Whether that attachment is to a theme, facts,
emotions, a character, a plot point, a sentence, or at every writer’s personal
base camp: the self. Many people become frustrated and angry at a dialogue tag,
a setting or scene, or a phrase, and they can’t move on until they have resolved
their internal conflict. My advice when you hit that impasse? Let it go.
Don’t become attached to your idea that this passage, sentence or word must be
perfect before you give yourself the green light to move through the
intersection and continue your journey. The desire for perfection is a destroyer
of creativity. When you are trying to be perfect as you write, ask yourself whom
you are trying to please?
You think that it is you.
But it is most likely you’ve learned the perfection habit from someone in your
past. Your mother, the person who had her share of disappointment and
frustrations (as many mothers have) and she wants you to be perfect and
have a perfect life like the one she idealized that she could have had? Or it
might have been your demanding father, an uncle, a teacher, a neighbor who
passed along the idea, the one you’ve never allowed yourself to seriously
challenge, that you must be careful, organized, perfect in every detail before
you are allowed to take the next step.
When you write you
sometimes reach a dead end. Don’t panic. Find a new trail around the
avalanche that has blocked the path ahead. Don’t stop, in other words.
Creativity is finding another path when the one you’re on is closed. Fear is the
roadblock that keeps you clutching onto something you can let fall away.
Non-attachment is a way to defeat fear of disappointment, regret, failure or
being less than perfect.
Another important tenet of
Buddhism is that reality is unpredictable and chaotic. We spend our entire lives
trying to make sense of a reality that science increasingly shows makes no
intrinsic sense. Most people hate and fear uncertainty and doubt and will
seek refuge in illusions of certainty. We find our way by making correlations
knowing that the patterns we create aren’t fixed or permanent; they are that
temporary pontoon bridge that allows us to get from one side of a river to the
If your characters are too
predictable you will likely bore your readers. If they are too chaotic, readers
will also abandon your book. The challenge is to build characters and stories
that have real life unpredictability and your story navigates a passage, a
bridge, a boat, and a life raft that gives confidence to a reader that he or she
is in good hands.
Specifically this means
you don’t need to have a full solution to every problem, not everything turns
out the way you thought, and the things that turned out right didn’t last. The
closer your fiction travels these rails of reality, the closer you will come to
writing in an authentic voice that others will trust and learn from.
control is an illusion. Let it go. Don’t become attached to a world of
certainty. Doubt is your friend, your ally, and keeps you researching, thinking,
and feeling. When you feel yourself trying to be a hundred percent accurate in
your choice of a word, a plot point, or a character development, you are
guaranteed to get lost in one of those mental fun house filled with
Learn to accept ambiguity
and uncertainty as the natural state of all things. This will free you up to see
reality in a different way, knowing that sometimes not all the pieces of the
puzzle fit. That is the paradox of the Fiction and Non-Fiction Puzzle Boxes,
there are an infinite number of pieces and you will never fit them
The last of the Buddhist
lessons for a writer is the idea of identity or self. The fear of losing self is
a hard one to overcome for any writer or any person. It goes to the core of how
we perceive self. Buddhists believe that our psychological construct of ‘self’
is an illusion.
For a writer, the concept
of identity is the substitute for self. A writer’s identity, like everyone else,
is shaped by many social forces from tribe, ethnicity, religion, place of origin
to language. Our myths and memories all rolled up into the default image we see
in the mirror.
There are a couple of
problems for writers. To write about others is to enter their network of
memories and slowly reveal the factors that give them identity. If we can’t get
past our own identity, a writer can’t ever truly describe an identity that is
alien without becoming judgmental. We are also misled by our desire for a
‘permanent’ self or soul. Our fear of death is a mighty motivator for
perpetuating our sense of identity.
The act of writing
requires an act of forgetting one’s personal set of memories, and substituting
the memories of characters. Once you are free from yourself, it is much easier
to enter the ‘self’ of your characters. Once you cast aside your ‘self’ your
characters stop being clones of you—your thoughts, dreams, plans, fears, hopes,
jealousy, and desires.
Once that happens it is
possible to create a rich, authentic character whose identity lets the reader
feel she’s in the story of lives that have come alive. The author fades away.
He’s a storyteller. He’s not the story. And there lies a big gap. Especially for
fiction, to find that sweet spot called empathy where you enter another’s
persons mental processes means you need to shed your ‘self’.
powerful sense of ‘self’ can contaminate our search to understand the interior
life of others—and without such access to the workings of a character’s interior
life, the characters in a novel will not be fully realized. Overcome your fear
and let the ‘self’ go. Detach from it. As you are in the writing process, it is
another attachment that prevents you from exploring all you can on your Beagle
ship journey into the unknown.
Darwin didn’t set out on
the Beagle to become a celebrity, write a book that would change the world, or a
book about himself. He set out to explore, discover, record, and examine the
world around him. That is his technique and process, in my view, what makes
Darwin a good role model for all writers, fiction and non-fiction. Overcoming
our sense of ‘self’ is one of the most difficult projects we confront. Without
the ‘self’ ‘Who am I?’ rings as one of those existential questions we seek to
avoid. You can read others much better qualified than me for a range of
The point of this essay,
is that your sense of ‘self’ is a prison you need to break out of in order to
fully appreciate that the book doesn’t have to be about you. That your sense of
‘self’ may be the major obstacle to your book. If you are writing a book to find
your sense of ‘self’ or confirm your ‘self’ in the world, then you will have a
lot of company. There are many such books written every year. You can write one
if you wish and it might become a commercial success. With an infinite number of
puzzle pieces and infinite time all kinds of books are possible. For certain
kinds of books, another approach is useful. You sign on to the Beagle and go
This is a look into my
writing process. Other writers will have their recommendations as to how the
process works. I love the sense of the unknown and the adventure of
exploration. I find an idea, a character, a theme for which I have a passion.
Without passion to sustain you, it will be a long, lonely and isolating voyage.
Find a subject that you feel passionate about and then go sailing on your own