A handful of books by Barbara Hambly — the first three books of The Darwath Series and the first two Sun Wolf/Starhawk books — are on my shelf of old friends, full of people I’ve traveled with often in my head and still find good company. One reason I go back to any book repeatedly is that if I’ve changed in some way, my experience of the book changes too. I see new things; I feel old things differently; in an utterly familiar landscape, I suddenly find myself in a place I’ve never been.
I love those moments. I love that stories can be elastic, can stretch or reach or go deeper with us. I suppose this is why I shake my head at the academic approach to fiction, the focus on nailing down what a story means. Well, who are you when you read/see/hear it? Meaning is participatory.
And so, several weeks ago, a passage I’ve read at least 20 times in the last 25 years suddenly seemed printed in neon, as if a hand reached up from deep inside me, flicked my brain hard, and said Pay attention, this one’s for you:
“Success in war,” he went on, “is measured by whether or not you do what you aim to — not by whether you yourself live or die. The success of a war is not measured in the same terms as the success of a fight. Succeeding in a war is getting what you want, whether you yourself live or die. Now, it’s sometimes nicer to be alive afterward and enjoy what you’ve fought for — provided what you’ve fought for is enjoyable. But if you want it badly enough — want others to have it — even that isn’t necessary. And it sure as hell doesn’t matter how nobly or how crudely you pursue your goal, or who makes allowances or who condescends to you in the process. If you know what you want, and you want it badly enough to do whatever you have to, then do it. If you don’t — forget it.”
The silence in that single corner of the half-ruined tower was palpable, the shrill grunts and barked commands in the hall beyond them seeming to grow as faint and distant as the keening of the wind across the moors beyond the walls. It was the first time that he had spoken of war to them, and he felt all the eyes of this small group of tiny women on him.
“It’s the halfway that eats you,” he said softly. “The trying to do what you’re not certain that you want to do; the wanting to do what you haven’t the go-to-hell courage — or selfishness — to carry through. If what you think you want can only be got with injustice and getting your hands dirty and trampling over friends and strangers — then understand what it will do to others, what it will do to you, and either fish or cut bait. If what you think you want can only be got with your own death or your own lifelong utter misery — understand that, too.
“I fight for money. If I don’t win, I don’t get paid. That makes everything real clear for me. You — you’re fighting for other things. Maybe for an idea. Maybe for what you think you ought to believe in, because people you consider better than you believe in it, or say they do. Maybe to save someone who fed and clothed and loved you, the father of your children — maybe out of love and maybe out of gratitude. Maybe you’re fighting because somebody else’s will has drawn you into this, and you’d rather die yourself than tell her you have other goals than hers. I don’t know that. But I think you’d better know it — and know it real clearly, before any of you faces an armed enemy.”
— from The Ladies of Mandrigyn by Barbara Hambly.
When the student is ready, the teacher appears. Sometimes sideways — because suddenly for me this passage is not about war, it’s about essential clarity. It’s about the fact that all the guts, risk and insane persistence I can muster is not enough if I am not clear why I’m spending them: why I’m spending myself — my time, my fierce but not boundless energy, my attention, imagination, love, fear, capacity for joy, my hunger for growth. All my life I have seen something I want and literally thrown myself at it. And I am only understanding now (and the smack smack smack you hear is my hand against my head) that the times it works best — St. Paul’s, Clarion, Nicola, Solitaire, Dangerous Space, screenwriting — are the times when I am crystal clear about not just what I want, but why.
I value clarity: specificity in writing, goals that are definite and delineated, an understanding of my options. I work especially hard to be clear about my values; it’s important to me to know why I do things. That been part of my puzzlement these last weeks, trying to understand why this small part of a story is suddenly making me scratch my head (which often comes before the smacking, it turns out). I’ve been telling myself, I get the importance of clarity, so what’s the deal here?
And here’s the deal. I know I’m a writer — real clear about that — but I’m at a crossroads. I have to decide on my next project, and I find it is no longer simply a question of what, but why?
Three years ago, I threw myself into revising the screenplay that is based on my novel. If it’s true that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become expert, then I’ve easily got 4,000 already, and I got it in six- or eight- or ten-week-long marathons of 12 to 14 hours a day, with all the fatigue, fear, frustration, hope, hopelessness, exultation, and sheer bloody suck-it-up-and-start-again that important struggles bring with them. It wasn’t a war, at all, but it was just like one: it required that I test Nicola’s patience, sacrifice things I wanted, make myself utterly vulnerable, fail in public, and learn some things that please me and others I really would rather not have known. And it required me to endure. I got so fucking tired; but I am crystal clear on why I did it, and regardless of whether it ever gets on screen, it’s one of the best choices I’ve ever made.
And now we have a script that genuinely rocks, and although I will continue to work on it — there are always more changes, more improvements, more sandpapering to do — it’s also time for me to move on. I have to find the next thing to fall in love with, to begin spending myself on. And what I’m understanding now (hah, and you thought I’d left my point in the dust) is that I have to find a different why.
I have at least two novels and three screenplays coming to life in me right now. It’s no longer a question of which of these stories am I burning to tell — these days, if they don’t burn, they don’t stay with me long. Life is too short not to be on fire for my work. But I must choose. So if a novel, why? If a screenplay, why?
Part of the reason that why is so important is that I am finally understanding I can no longer cling to the strategies that have worked so well for me. In the words of the passage above, a war isn’t the same as a fight. I can’t just throw myself at something and hope it’ll all work out. If the project is fiction, well, I’ve got way beyond my 10,000 hours there: I’m an expert, and I don’t have to run into a wall at 100 mph over and over and over to make it happen. If the project is screenplay, then I’m no longer the beginner who needs to do twice as much work as someone else in order to simply keep up: and, as necessary as that constant 100 mph crash was to my beginning, it won’t help my learning in this intermediate stage.
I’m comfortable with the crash. I did it with the screenplay, I did it with “Dangerous Space,” and it worked. And therein lies the trap: because I’ve been trying to decide what to write next as if I would automatically write it the same way, but you know, that won’t work anymore. It’s a beginner’s approach. If I keep using it, it will simply ensure that I don’t learn how to be an expert — how to be conscious, efficient, aware, intentional — no matter how many hours I practice or how fast I run at the wall.
I have been stuck halfway between what and why.
This isn’t a war, but it’s just like one. Swinging around a sword with my eyes closed will get me exactly nowhere. I’m going to have to be just as clear about what I want next, and just as bloody-minded about getting it. But I have to find a new path. It’s no longer enough to just do, do, do, because although I’m good at that, I also see that it will not get me where I want to go.
When I was younger, I found my essential self through doing. Now I have to find it through the why.