Authority

All my life, or at least all my life that I can remember, I wanted to be an author. When I was much younger, I wrote allegories and parables, stories that mimicked children’s books but with messages for adults. I also wrote snippets of poetry, such as this one:

In a strange sort of way
It’s comforting to know
That no matter what we do to this earth
It well accept and accept
Until it comes to the end of its resources
And then, as though we were no more
Than an unwanted cloak
It will shrug us off
And begin again

Not that there is any particular significance to this poem, it’s just the only one I found on my computer.

When I was in my mid-twenties, I decided to become serious about writing. I quit a job, sat down at the kitchen table, put a pen to paper and waited for the story to come. I knew what I wanted to write — a novel about a love that transcended time and physical bonds, told with sensitivity and great wisdom — but no words came. I had always assumed that writing a book was sort of like automatic writing, and for many authors it is. When that approach to writing failed, I tried to pull the words out of my head one by one, in an attempt at telling the story. Unfortunately, I discovered I had no talent for writing and no wisdom, either, so I gave up writing.

Many years later, I decided the heck with it — talent or no, wisdom or no, I wanted to write. And so I did. That first book is so spectacularly bad that it is packed away where even I can’t see it. But I am not one to do things haphazardly, so I kept on writing, kept studying books on how to write (most of which made no sense to me). And gradually I learned.

I thought writing would help solve my financial woes (I can hear you writers out there laughing at such naiveté), and even though I did find a publisher (after 200 rejections), I never did find the pot of gold at the end of the publishing rainbow.

Besides financial gain, I’m not sure what I wanted by being an author. Acclaim? I don’t know if I ever did want much acclaim (being of a rather self-effacing nature), but I wanted something. Maybe the knowledge that huge numbers of people loved my books. Maybe respect. Maybe to make a difference. I don’t know. Still don’t, actually. (I guess I figured that if I made a living by writing, whatever else I wanted would come along with it.

And then Jeff died. When I discovered that few writers (including writers who write about grief) understood the devastating nature of losing a life mate/soul mate, I decided to blog about my grief, how it felt, how it changed my world, how I learned to live again.

As it turned out, for a small group of people — those who had also lost their mates — I made a difference. Even today, years after they were written, those grief posts are still making a difference, helping the bereft understand what they are going through, offering the words to describe what they themselves can’t describe, showing them that no matter what other people tell them, their long period of grief is not only understandable and normal, but is a necessity. Would you really want the person you loved more than anything in the world to disappear without tears and sorrow? No, off course not. Our pain is a way of honoring them. And, despite what people say, grief is not emotional, or at least not just emotional. It’s physical, spiritual, intellectual, hormonal, chemical — it affects every single part of ourselves and our life.

It awes me at times to think that my words matter to people. It awes me at times to reread those old posts when someone leaves a comment and realize how . . . inspired . . . they were. Maybe there is a bit of that automatic writing going on after all. How else would I be able to be a conduit for such wisdom and understanding and even author-ity?.

And so, after all, it turns out I really am an author — a person with the ability to influence others and to make their lives easier.

***
Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels UnfinishedMadame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Everything Happens for the Best?

A couple of days ago I wrote about an item I lost. Although the item lost was relatively unimportant in the grand scheme of life and death, it reminded me of a loss that was important — the loss of Jeff, my life mate/soul mate — and I was swept by a huge upsurge of grief. This was just a few days before the fourth anniversary of his death, so everything that happened that day took on a greater meaning than it might otherwise have done.

ripplesAlthough I can never replace him, I was able to make a replacement for the lost item. The replacement wasn’t as ornate or as perfect as the first one, but as it turns out, it actually worked better for my purpose. So perhaps it was best that I lost the item.

My father is fond of saying, “Everything happens for the best,” which has always made my teeth grate because I don’t believe that things really do happen for the best. In books, everything does happen for the best, whether good or bad. That is the point of writing — to make sense of senseless happenings. There has to be a lesson to be gleaned from the story events — perhaps character growth or a fitting resolution. If the story events happened without reason, the way things happen in life, readers would throw the book across the room and never pick up another one.

Oddly enough, our brains do that same work for us. When a tragedy has passed and we have come to terms with it, when we have found a way to live despite the pain life dishes out, we often look back and think, “Everything did happen for the best,” though the truth is that we made the best of what happened. But what if my father is right? What if things do happen for the best? What if it was best that Jeff died, best for both of us? (Well, it was best — he couldn’t have continued to live with such pain and debility, but was it best he got sick?) I don’t know the answer, of course, since I am not privy to the inner workings of the universe, but the whole lost item/replaced item lesson seemed a bit pointed considering the nearness to the anniversary.

Maybe the universe really is unfolding as it should (assuming the universe is made up of shoulds rather than coulds). Once a very long time ago, I believed Jeff was a being of light — a cosmic teacher — come to accompany me on my journey to truth. (He really was radiant when I first met him, long before ill health became a way of life, which made the conceit seem reasonable.) At the end of his life, he used to give me all sorts of unwanted advice, and when I would bristle, he’d say, “I won’t always be here to teach you.” Obviously, I don’t know the truth of why he was here or why he left, but maybe he had taken me as far as he could and went back whence he came. (This idea seems a bit far fetched when I remember the pain he went through. What makes the idea even more bizarre is that I’m not sure how much of our consciousness survives. Maybe we simply become subsumed back into the whole.)

In the end, it doesn’t matter if everything happens for the best or not. Things happen, and we deal with them the best we can. There’s not much else we can do.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Everything Happens For the Best — Oh, Yeah?

Twice today I was told, “Everything happens for the best.” Everything? Is it best when a child dies? When an earthquake hits? When people lose their home and end up on the street? In books, everything does happen for the best, whether good or bad. That is the point of writing — to make sense of senseless happenings. There has to be a lesson to be gleaned from the story events — perhaps character growth or a fitting resolution. If the story events happened without reason, the way things happen in life, readers would throw the book across the room and never pick up another one.

Venice Beach PierOddly enough, our brains do that same work for us. When a tragedy has passed and we have come to terms with it, when we have found a way to live despite the pain life dishes out, we often look back and think, “Everything did happen for the best.”

Sometimes now I feel that the death of my life mate/sould mate and my ensuing grief all happened for the best. If he hadn’t died, our lives would have remained on the same treadmill of pain (him) and despair (me). His death set me free — free from his illness, free from the financial constraints that his illness caused, and even free from the chains of such a deep love.

He almost died twenty years ago, and so every day I made a point of recognizing and appreciating his continued existence in my life. Because I knew our time together would be cut short (and it was, just not as short as that earlier brush with death would have indicated), whenever there was a choice of doing something with him or by myself or even with another person, I always chose him. And so, gradually the chains of love were forged. Now if there is an opportunity to do something, being with him is not an option, which has opened my life to many new possibilities.

But was his death really for the best or is my brain simply doing what it can to make sense of everything that happened in the past two decades, and especially the past few years? His death ended our pain and set us both free, but what would have happened if he could have gone into intermission? Would I have ended up in the same place even if the tragedy hadn’t occurred? It’s impossible to tell, but I do know not everything happens for the best. We make the best of what happens. It’s called life.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Writing: Art vs. Commerce

Ever since the death of my life mate/soul mate, I’ve been struggling to find reasons to write. It didn’t seem important to write another book that would languish in the dark alleys of non-bestsellerdom, and it especially didn’t seem important to write if he, my most avid fan, were no longer here to read what I wrote.

Today, though, I had an epiphany. Writing is separate from selling books. Writing is art, a thing of the spirit, eternal. Selling books is merely commerce, and so is everything that goes along with the business — writing to be read, finding readers, trying to make a niche in the publishing world.

Often, we writers are told that we need to write what people want to read. It’s good advice, especially if we want to make a living as an author, but in my case, I can only write the books I can write. Even if I knew what readers wanted, I couldn’t 531da618f5363c22_mwrite those books. Someone else is already writing them.

Although it would be nice to make a living off writing, money is not the only reason to write. In fact, contrary to popular belief, money is not the reason behind most of what is worth living for.

Take a smile for example. That curvature of the lips and sparkle in the eye is fleeting and ephemeral, not to be stored or purchased anywhere here on this earth, and yet, a smile from a loved one is precious. I would give anything to see my life mate/soul mate smile at me once more, but now his smiles exist only in my memory.

Smiles aren’t the only valuable thing that has no meaning beyond the moment. We go walking on a cool sunshiny day without ever stopping to think what we will get out of it other than a pleasant interlude. We watch a movie or read a book simply to pass the time, without ever worrying about its importance. We talk with friends, and those words become lost in the eternal spectrum of sound waves. Sometimes we talk to a person who is no longer here, such as I do with my lost mate, and as seemingly meaningless as those conversations might be, they are important.

Is writing any different?

Some writers, of course, are so full of their importance they believe their words are immortal, no matter how trite or uninspiring their writing is, but many of us need the possibility of readers to give our writing importance, or at least purpose.

And yet, there is the side of writing that is often ignored in the business of writing — writing is art, or it can be. Art is the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination. Nowhere in that definition does it say art needs readers or viewers or buyers to be art. Art is merely expression. And that is what writing should be.

In a perfect world, writers would never consider their readers, would never put commerce above inspiration, would never count words or the hours spent creating. They would simply write.

For myself, I can create that perfect world

The past few weeks, I have been working a bit on a novel I started three years ago about a grieving woman. Maybe when the book is finished, I will turn the manuscript over to my publisher, but for now, I’m not even considering the commerce of writing. The book is for me — an expression of my grief, inspired by all I’ve gone through the past few years.

My writing.

My art.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Why the Struggle to Write?

While checking my Facebook feed yesterday, which is mostly comprised of updates by other authors, it struck me how many of them are struggling with writing. They are struggling to find the time to write. They are struggling to reach word-count goals. They are struggling to overcome writer’s block. So much struggling!

One writer posted an article about how to find the time to write, and the post had such a drill sergeant approach that it appalled me. The point of the article was that we must find time to write every day, and to do so we might have to sacrifice an outing with a friend, a trip to the movies, and other such “treats.”

Why? What is so important about writing that we need to forego time with family and friends in order to string a few words together? Truly, it is an unimportant skill. It can’t comfort a crying baby, can’t smile at a friend, can’t add another minute to a dying man’s life. It’s an inherently selfish activity since it’s about communing with ourselves. It’s also an unhealthy activity because we sit with limited motion for hours at a stretch. The hope is that ultimately others will read and understand what we write (and so understand us), and perhaps even allow us to make a living from our efforts, but still, writing is communication at one reserve. We are not sitting conversing with a loved one, and to supplant such a real conversation in the now with one in our heads seems a paltry trade.

Of course, if you have a contract that must be fulfilled, that is one thing, but if you are merely writing to satisfy yourself (and if you’re not, what’s the point of writing?) that is something completely different.

I can hear you now. “But I have to write!” If writing fulfills a need, then you don’t need to be urged to write — you are already doing it. If you have to write but don’t, then obviously, you don’t have to write. The world is not coming to an end because you are not writing. It hums along just fine without your words.

Many people do feel more in tune with themselves when writing, and why not? It’s therapeutic to let all the built-up words and pent-up emotions flow out of your head, just as blowing out a deep breath lets pent-up stress flow out of your body. And yet, for some people, such as mothers with small children and a demanding outside job, there simply is no time. To make such writers feel as if they are doing something wrong by not writing every day is unconscionable. For other people, such as those caring for a dying spouse or an aged parent, they might have the physical time but not the mental time — they might not be able to let themselves get immersed in their writing since their inattention could have disastrous results.

Nowadays, books aren’t even a physical thing — they are merely stray electrons temporarily held together by creative energy. So why the struggle to write? I truly don’t know. It seems simple to me: write, or don’t write.

For me, writing is a tool I use to help me make sense of life. It’s a means of being creative, a way of being playful, even, but writing is not life. Living is what’s important. If I don’t live, sense, experience, there’s nothing to write about. When I don’t feel like writing, I don’t struggle to overcome that feeling, and I certainly don’t let drill sergeant tactics make me feel bad about not writing every day. I know the truth: it’s not how much you write that makes you a writer, but what you say.

So I go with the flow, being me, living each day as it comes, and eventually, when the time is right, when I have something to say, I simply start writing.

Is it Better to Write for Yourself or to Write for Readers?

For many writers, maybe even most, finding a readership is crucial. They write to entertain, which they cannot do without readers. Or they write to communicate, which they also cannot do without readers. Or they write to sell so they can continue to write, and for that, they need not only readers but customers — readers who are willing to buy books.

The lucky writers are those who write the books they love and the books they love just happen to be the books readers want to read and buy. The rest of us have a conundrum to deal with — do we write the books we need to write, regardless of what readers want, or do we try to write the books we think readers will read?

In discussion after discussion, writers put forth the idea that to get readers, one must write what readers want. And perhaps that is the smart and lucrative way to write, but it’s not the only way.  Besides, if I look at the situation from my point of view as a reader, it seems a cheat. I want a story filtered through the writer’s life/voice, not something the author thinks I would like.

In my case, I have no choice — I can only write the stories that speak to me. Even if I wanted to write solely in the hopes of getting a large readership, I’m not sure I could do it. Readers can tell when they are being pandered to, though there are exceptions to this, most notably a couple of now very wealthy men who write romances for women. For some reason, most women don’t feel the manipulation of those books and so fall in love with the stories, while others, perhaps less interested in the romance genre, hate the feeling of someone trying to tug on their emotions by writing books they think women would like. To a certain extent, all books are manipulation — authors write in such a way to elicit emotional reactions from readers — but sometimes, like with these men, the tugs are quite apparent.

Writers who also read the genre they love know the nuances of the genre (assuming, for example, there are nuances in category romance) and so can more easily write to their readers tastes. But what if you can’t write genre fiction (or, more probably, can’t force yourself to write it)? You end up writing for yourself.

There might not be money to be made by writing for oneself, but there are other advantages. For one thing, you can make your writing as intelligent as you wish without having to worry about losing your audience. For another, there will always be one person who loves your work — you. And there is a third reason, perhaps the most important: We are so much more than we know, and writing is a way of communicating not just with readers, but with the unknown us. If we just write what we know we know, we are the poorer for it. And maybe, just maybe, by writing the book only we can write, we will end up writing something spectacular.

Do you think writing this book changed your life?

Speaking of Daughter Am I, I wish I could say writing this book changed my life since would make a good story, but the fact is, it made little difference. It was the third novel I wrote. I’d already experienced the joy and sense of accomplishment completing a novel gives one, and I’d already experienced the disappointment that comes from having a novel rejected. I’d already experience the joys of being published and the disappointment that comes from not having the book take off immediately. Now, if Daughter Am I would go viral, that would change my life!

Here are some challenges other authors faced as they wrote their books. The comments are taken from interviews posted at Pat Bertram Introduces . . .

From an Interview with Harold Michael Harvey, Author of “Paper Puzzle”

Yes I do think writing this book has changed my life. After leaving the practice of law I had to redefine myself, reinvent me if you will. And writing has gotten me back to the original childhood dream of what I wanted to do in life. The joy of writing legal thrillers is a lot less stressful than fighting to keep the State of Georgia from killing my client with a lethal injection as deadly as those given to Michael Jackson by Dr. Conrad Murray.

From an Interview with J J Dare, Author of False Positive and False World

Writing my first book a few years ago gave me confidence. I believe it was an exercise to prepare me for the challenges I would shortly face in my personal life.

From an Interview with Noah Baird, Author of Donations to Clarity

I think people thought I was pretty weird before the book. They still think I’m weird, but I think I get a pass now because I’m a writer.

From an Interview with Calvin Davis, Author of The Phantom Lady of Paris

After penning the Phantom Lady, I was not the same person. The actual writing of the novel took about five and a half years. During that period, I wrote and rewrote again and again, etc. That said, the truth is, it took me all my life to write the Phantom Lady. The penning of my two other novels was preparing me to write TPLOP. The production of my countless short stories was also tutoring me on how to create the Phantom Lady. And during all this time of schooling, “the lady” was inside me clamoring to be liberated, as I was clamoring to liberate her. “Free me…free me,” she screamed. When I completed the last sentence of the novel, the lady was finally liberated. “Thank you, Calvin,” she said. “Thank you.” Finally, she was free…and so was I.

From an Interview with Sherrie Hansen, Author of Merry Go Round

I think each book that I’ve written has changed my life. I remember an episode of Star Trek, Next Generation, when Jean Luc Picard was swept away to live out his life on another planet. He eventually fell in love, married, had children, and learned to play a musical instrument. When his new world came to an end, he learned that he had never left the Enterprise, and that the whole alternate life experience had occurred only in his mind, in a few days time. I feel like that every time I finish a book. It’s like I’ve visited some alternate reality and lived the life of my character from start to finish, feeling what they feel and experiencing what they experience, when in reality, I’ve just been sitting at my desk, typing away. In a very real way, I think each book makes me a richer, more multi-faceted, more understanding person because when I’ve walked a mile (or a hundred) in my character’s shoes.

Why Write?

A fellow Second Wind author posted a bloggery today about Keeping the Faith as a writer despite lackluster sales. It’s a concern so many of us published writers have. The percentage of novelists who actually make a living at writing is ridiculously small, and to make matters worse, the top one percent of writers make more than all the rest of us combined.

When you consider how few writers ever make enough to quit their day job, (and this includes some writers who hit the bestselling list), the word “success” when it comes to writing needs to be redefined. Seems to me if writing brings you pleasure that makes you success. So does having your book chosen from thousands of submissions to be published. So does your willingness to write another book despite dismal sales figures. This puts you in a rarified group. Sure it would be nice to make money, but if we were really in it for the money, we wouldn’t be writers. We’d be lawyers or accountants or even sales clerks.

There are good things about writing not being a paying job: we don’t need to write to deadlines, don’t need to worry about wordcount, don’t need to fulfill anyone’s expectations except our own. And that is reason enough to write.

Someone once said that the best thing a writer can do when they’ve finished writing a book is to write another. I thought that was silly advice because if you can’t sell one book (or three), what’s the point of writing more? I now know the point is writing. A writer does not attain maturity as a writer until he or she has written 1,000,000 words. (I’m only halfway there.) So write. Your next book might be the one that captures people’s imaginations and catapults you into fame and fortune. Not writing another book guarantees you will never will reach that goal. It also keeps you from doing what you were meant to do.

One thing I know for a fact: sales do not make a writer a writer.  Of course, sales are nice, but in the end, writing is what makes a writer a writer.

So, let’s all keep the faith. And write.

Finding a Reason to Write

Okay, here I am. The fourth day of My Novel Writing Month. I take a deep breath, trying to remember why I wanted to write, why I needed to.

Several years ago, when I couldn’t find the books I liked anymore — story and character driven novels that can’t be slotted easily into a genre — I decided to write my own. The one obvious flaw to this reasoning is that if publishers weren’t publishing non-genre novels written in a genre style (as opposed to a “literary” style), then how did I expect them to publish my books? But I did. And they didn’t. When I’d written (and rewritten) four novels, adding another didn’t seem compelling. Four unpublished novels were bad enough, but five seemed . . . pathetic.

Now that two of those novels are about to be published by a small press with looser definitions of genre than the multi-national publishers, I am down to two unpublished books. And all of a sudden, that seems too few. So now I have the need to write, and I have the itch, but I am out of the habit.

That’s what MyNoWriMo is supposed to give me — not the 50,000 words necessary to complete NaNoWriMo, but the habit of writing.

So here I sit, waiting for the words to come, and they do. But not the right ones.

I’m supposed to be getting my hero back to his neighborhood (after finally letting him stop running from the volcano), yet here I am, writing about writing rather than writing. Though I suppose it depends on one’s definition of writing, because technically, I am writing. Or am I blogging? Either way, I am not working on my novel.

So, I got the poor guy away from the volcano, let him drink his fill at an hour-old river, let him indulge in a bit of light-headed musing (after all, it’s been months since I fed the poor guy), and now he’s on his way home.

The shadows are lengthening, and in this strange new apocalyptic world, anything can happen . . .

How Do You Choose? Or Why I Wrote This Novel

DeLauné Michel, author of Aftermath of Dreaming and The Safety of Secrets, has graciously agreed to guest host my blog today. Michel says:

I was at a dinner party once when someone threw a question out to the group, “If you were stranded on a deserted island, would you rather be stuck with a man or a woman?”

My first response was, “A man, of course.” But then I started to think about it. And as much as I love my husband, I can talk to my best friend in a way that I never can with a man because I know she has felt exactly the way I have. But I still need my husband, so whom would I chose?

After I got married, a significant friendship in my life underwent a shift. It was as if just by signing that paper and walking down that aisle, things with my friend had changed, even though I really hadn’t, other than the option of Mrs. that I didn’t even use! As my friend and I struggled to get our friendship back, and to redefine what it meant, it forced me to think about that question, about being torn between a husband and a best friend. I wondered what sort of situation would make a woman be more loyal to her best friend than to her husband. Maybe a childhood trauma locked away with a life-long pact to never tell? And what if a woman lied to her husband to protect that secret? Could that ever be okay?

I realized that I didn’t know the answers to those questions, and that’s when I knew that they were the basis for my second novel. I wanted to explore deep-rooted loyalty between women, and how sometimes it can be a sword that cuts both ways, opening up whole worlds of safety within the friendship while exacting a price, as well.

When I started looking at loyalty, I also had to look at betrayal. And it occurred to me that one currency of intimacy in a best friendship is shared secrets, so I wanted to see what would happen to that relationship when its most powerful secret is given away, and given away thoughtlessly, like so many pennies dropped on the floor. There is such stark and deep knowledge of one another in an ages old friendship that I wondered about how some secrets are used to protect ourselves, while others are used to try to continue to be the person we think our best friend needs.

Then I realized that if there is any world in which secrets are at a premium, it is Hollywood. All of that shielding and hiding are essential tools in that town. I think one trait that distinguishes stars from other actors is their ability to appear completely exposed while in fact they presenting only and exactly what they want us to see. I felt that making my main characters, Fiona and Patricia, actresses in LA (though part of the novel occurs in flashbacks in south Louisiana where they grew up; I can’t let go of my roots!) would deepen their connection to secrets and revealing truths. Besides, my first novel, Aftermath of Dreaming, was mostly set in Los Angeles, and after living there for so long, I wasn’t ready to leave such a rich and provocative backdrop yet.

By working through Fiona and Patricia’s friendship in The Safety of Secrets, I learned a lot about loyalty and secrets between women. But I still have more to go. If you get a chance to read it, I’d love to hear what you think about how those issues play out in the book and in your own life.  And if I’m in your area on my book tour, come by and tell me in person. I’m traveling to Portland, LA, Albuquerque, Santa Fe, pretty much all of Louisiana, Jackson MS, Natchez, Memphis, Boston, Newburyport, and the New York area. The tour schedule is on my gather page.

Oh, and who would you chose for that desert isle, a woman or a man? Or is it a secret you’ll never tell?