Posts Tagged ‘William Blake’


February 9, 2009

I recall the first line of Ovid’s Metamorphoses as being “Now I will tell of things that change.” But I just looked it up, and in the first translation that Google offers, it’s “Of bodies chang’d to various forms, I sing.” Either way, the Roman poet Ovid saw all of classical mythology as being about change . . . the changing of one form into another.

Heh, heh — maybe it’s appropriate that I’m writing this posting on the night of the full moon. A friend back in my hometown also informs me that the almanac calls this one in particular the “Full Wolf Moon.” So go ahead, change into a wolf or whatever if you’re so inclined. I’ll just go on talking.

I’m thinking about how that element: change — underlies such a huge number of the stories we love. In Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, Max wears his wolf suit, and it’s his room that changes, with a forest growing up around his bed, and so begins his journey to the place of the Wild Things.

In my novel version of The Star Shard, I titled one chapter “Metamorphoses,” because I noticed how some lesser transformations in the tale reflect the big transformation that’s the core of the story: namely, Cymbril getting older; Cymbril coming to a deeper understanding of who she is, to a state of greater strength and confidence, to an increased awareness of how she fits into the world — and of the beauty of the larger picture.

From that first moment in the theater here in Niigata, when I was watching the Peter Jackson version of The Fellowship of the Ring, I was absolutely captivated by the opening narration, the very first words we hear in the film:

“The world is changed. I feel it in the water. I feel it in the earth. I smell it in the air. Much that once was is lost; for none now live who remember it.”

[That’s an accurate quote: I just checked it.] From that first decision made by the filmmakers, I was hooked. I knew this was going to be something great. Peter Jackson and company understood that The Lord of the Rings, too, is a story of change. The Third Age of Middle-earth is passing; the Fourth Age is dawning. The time of the Elves is drawing to a close. The day of Men is at hand. And in such hours of transition, when all hangs in the balance, the deeds of the smallest persons can shape the fate of all.

One of the things that gives Tolkien’s story so much richness is the fact that Middle-earth doesn’t have the smell of new plastic about it, as if it were just unpacked from the box carried home from Best Buy. Middle-earth is an ancient place, a land of memories and scars, of wars and old wounds, ruins and marshes filled with the dead. “Much that once was is lost.” Alas, my memories of the book are foggy (it’s been about thirty years since I read it), but in the films, we’re constantly reminded of the declining of the world, of the loss of much that used to be better.

Elrond doubts that any hope can come from Men. “The blood of Numenor is almost spent” . . . and Elrond was there to witness personally the failure of Isildur to destroy the ring. Elrond doubts (at first) that Aragorn can rise to the challenge of being King, since “He turned from that path long ago.” Aragorn himself (in the movies) wonders if he’s up to the task.

And how about Theoden? The filmmakers take pains to show us his insecurities, that he feels himself to be a sorry latter-day scion of much greater forebears.

Tolkien’s Elves think of their whole history in Middle-earth as “The Long Defeat” — sometimes gaining little victories over evil, but steadily sliding downhill, the Shadow steadily growing. And isn’t that reflective of our real lives in this world, when everyone speaks of how bad it’s all getting?

Probably the saddest story I’ve ever written is “A Tale of Silences,” published in the January/February 2006 issue of Cicada. Set in a rural mountain village in Japan in 1970, it tells of an old man named Jii. Early on, we learn that the building of a new dam is going to flood the area, and the village where Jii has lived his entire life will cease to exist. The story chronicles his last year in the village, as he moves into the winter of his life. Jii is a widower, and somewhat alienated from his son, who has left the village and embraced more modern values. Here’s a passage from the story describing Jii’s observation of his son, Masashi, who has come to visit:

“Masashi was one of only three in his high-school class who had survived the war. Now, at forty-two, Masashi had sunglasses hanging from his collar, one earpiece tucked into the front of his shirt. He looked out of place sitting in his city clothes on the worn tatami floor beside the dim wall panels, like a bright tennis ball that had bounced into an old garden. He was no longer the color of the village.”

As Jii interacts with various people in the community (including Mizusawa, who has come home emotionally crippled from the war in Manchuria; and Shimo, a strange, silent youth who is feared and disliked by most of the villagers for his habit of peering into their windows at night), he comes to a slow acceptance of time’s inevitable march and the beauty of life’s tapestry.

In the end, living with his son’s family in Tokyo, Jii finds a simple joy in his woodcarving and time spent with his grandson:

“Jii did not care for the noise and the hurry in the streets. He missed Iwano’s smoking and Mizusawa’s stories of privations in Manchuria, stories that seemed to keep back as much as they revealed. He would have preferred a stand of bamboo to the overgroomed park that he could see now outside his window, a place where trees were imprisoned like zoo animals and people crowded on weekends, gulping at the air,  faces turned optimistically toward the sun.

“Yet even here, amid the gentle kindness of Masashi and his wife — here, with Makoto tugging at Jii’s sleeve, so eager for his stories and his attention, Jii found the tale still unfolding, heard most plainly in silences. At times, he was sure he could smell something like mountain air wafting in, unexpected and welcome — the clean, moist exhalation of ferns, cedars, and the rich carpet of all things once alive — though perhaps it was a trick of the breeze in the park, brushing past some brave, fragrant, leafy thing.”

This story was written at a time when I was facing the mortality of my parents. They’d gotten old and sick, and I was realizing that before long, no matter how you did the math, I wouldn’t be the kid anymore, with parents to come home to on holidays. I remember one night when it especially came home to me; I was back from Japan for a summer visit, sleeping in my old bed. My room there was adjacent to the bathroom, and I remember that night being deeply affected by the difference in the sound of my dad’s urination when he got up to relieve himself in the dark hours. Dad had always peed like a pirate, his stream a resonant booming in the bowl, on and on, endless and reassuring. That night it was a paltry, halting trickle. It was as if dark years slid onto me from every corner of that aging house, years on years, stacked and compressed, and now weighing me down. I remember my parents coughing in the dark, coughing with chronic smokers’ hacks. I remember listening to the sounds of mice chewing and scrabbling in the closets. And I lay there in the dark, in my old familiar bed, at the bottom of a well of years. Hadn’t it just been days or weeks before that I’d been a teenager, worried about high-school classes and my girlfriend and whether or not I’d ever get published? Now my parents were old and frail, and the walls were full of mice.

“Change and decay in all around I see,” says the hymn “Abide With Me”: “Oh, Thou Who changest not, abide with me.”

Therein lies the comfort: if the underpinning is solid, the surface changes aren’t so bad. In fact, they can be beautiful. A common fault of beginning writers’ fiction manuscripts is that they don’t want their characters to have to experience change — not too much, anyway. Certainly nothing painful. But it’s change that makes a story.

A good friend of mine recently observed that we have to seize happiness and drag it out of the dark that surrounds us. Or, as Blake wrote, we have to “build a Heaven in Hell’s despite.” It’s doable, since we have an ultimate home beyond all change, won for us by Christ.

Ours is not to fear the changes, but to celebrate the hour. “The world is changed”: but to change is to be human. Observe the changes, and let them become stories.

Sail out in this full moon’s light through a year and day, wearing a wolf suit, to where the Wild Things are. Consider this final quote, particularly in the light of who said it:

“Think of all the beauty still left around you and be happy.”

                                                                           — Anne Frank

Jan Retro

February 4, 2009

No, that’s not a fictional character. It’s short for “January Retrospective.” What a month January was! Part 8 of “The Star Shard” is on stands now (the February issue of Cricket), and Emily Fiegenschuh’s illustrations just get better and better. Before Part 8, my favorite portrait of Cymbril was the one where she’s kneeling at the door to her bunk, listening. Now I think it’s the one from Part 8, the picture of Cymbril, Bobbin, and Argent in the wagon. Emily pays such attention to detail! See the leaves embroidered on Cymbril’s cloak? Those are there in the text description! Bobbin reminds me a lot of the world of manga — maybe it’s the super-long ponytail. Oh, and I love the opening portrait — Part 8 — of Cymbril, too, at the rail with the two cats. Is it my imagination, or is Cymbril getting steadily prettier? Maybe she’s growing up. . . . I’ll bet there are more than a few teenage boys in love with her. I know I would be if I were the age of most Cricket readers.

Anyone who’s not getting the magazine (and even if you are) — you can see Emily’s astonishing illustrations for this story on her Web site. Go to Click on “Gallery” and scroll down: she has an entire discrete section dedicated to “The Star Shard.”

But back to the point. Here are some January goings-on:

I have to quote this fantastic letter from a reader named Celia: “My favorite story is ‘The Star Shard.’ I think you should make the episodes longer! . . . . I love the illustrations. . . . They make Cymbril look so pretty. I love that name. If I ever have a daughter, I am going to name her Cymbril.”

Isn’t that far out? I remember reading — and feel free to correct me on this, if you know differently — that the name “Wendy” entered our culture through Peter Pan. That is, there were no girls named Wendy before that character came along. After the book, there were lots! There was a Wendy in my class in school. So just maybe a generation of Cymbrils is coming!

In the latest issue’s The Letterbox, Henrietta C. writes: “‘The Star Shard’ is one of the best stories I’ve read. I think that we should have more stories from Frederic S. Durbin in this magazine.” And A.J.H. writes: “Right now, my favorite story is ‘The Star Shard.’ I love fantasy books!”

I think I already quoted the poem written by Amanda based on the September cover — “A cat by her side, eyes bright and green, / Sees what the girl thinks cannot be seen. / A stone to her forehead, magic inside; / An elf on the other end, linked to her mind.” There were three poetry contest winners who wrote poems inspired by that September cover picture of Cymbril in the windy night, standing on that high ledge on the Rake’s prow. You can read them all on Cricket‘s site! (

Also, the latest poetry contest invites readers to write “a song the Urrmsh might sing”!

And there’s new fan art up! The number of pictures doubled this month, and every single one is just amazing! On the “Corner” page, click the icon that says “Fan Art.”

But here’s perhaps the most jaw-dropping story of the month: in a U.S. state which I shan’t disclose, a wonderful mom began reading “The Star Shard” aloud to a group of kids–her two, plus six more from another family. The kids range in age from well below the typical Cricket demographic to well up into the Cicada range, and everything in between. This group sent me a photo of themselves (which was also sent to Cricket). Each of the kids is holding up a copy of the magazine, open to the story, all 8 parts represented. The group calls themselves “The Die-Hard Star-Shard Fan Club,” and they even managed to superimpose that name across the top of the picture digitally. And it gets still better! The club members are all dressed up as their favorite characters from the story and/or Sidhe in general! Right smack in the center of the photo are a boy and girl just the ages of Loric and Cymbril, dressed as Loric and Cymbril! The girl (who looks like Cymbril) is holding up that September issue, and her dress and cloak are the same color and style as those Cymbril is wearing on her high ledge! And it gets still better! I’m told that the kids play “The Star Shard” in their costumes, acting out parts and making the continuing story their own, much as we played The Planet of the Apes, Star Trek, and Star Wars as kids. In other words, the story has gone on to a life of its own, quite apart from me, just like a real story, not just something I wrote. Now, how is that for something to make a writer’s entire year, although it’s only January? Talk about a humbling experience! “Who am I, Lord?” Soli Deo gloria!

In other January news: I heard from Stefan Dziemianowicz that the anthology which includes my Hallowe’en tale “The Bone Man” is finally moving into the pipeline for publication. They had quite a time getting all the authors to sign the contracts. But the book is on track again now and should be out sometime this year! Woo-hooo!

Oh!–the most recent word from my agent is that he’d gotten about 2/3 of the way through the novel version of The Star Shard and is still really liking it. Whew! Haven’t heard from him in over a week. I hope he didn’t hate the last third! [Writer angst attack.]

Okay, those are the big things. Let’s see. . . . When I visited my friend “Marquee Movies” last summer, he took me for the second time to an extraordinary comic book shop, where I bought a Buffy the Vampire Slayer calendar. (Best TV series I’ve ever encountered, I kid you not.) This month’s page is all about Willow, my favorite character on the show. The picture on my William Blake calendar this month is his painting God Judging Adam; and moving down the row, the Tolkien calendar’s February picture is By Moonlight in Neldoreth Forest, by Ted Nasmith — a painting of that famous daughter of Thingol and Melian dancing in the lunar glow.

Finally, here’s another good night story (remember my one about encountering the maybe-a-chupacabras?):

I was walking home tonight from a nearby convenience store, where I’d paid a utility bill (can you do that in the States? It’s a really handy thing here in Japan). The street and sidewalk were very dark. It was a stretch of almost no car traffic. Light from an intersection far away behind me was projected at a low angle across a white metal fence in front of me. And suddenly, there on the fence, captured in that light from far off, was my shadow — only it wasn’t my shadow. It was in the right place for my shadow; it was the size my shadow should have been. But it was very clearly not my shadow. The shape, the clothing, and the movements were all wrong. Talk about unsettling! It was clearly the shadow of another person, although I seemed to be casting it. Eerily, there was no one else around me — I looked in every direction.

Finally, I figured out that it was the shadow of a lone teenage guy way, way behind me, back by the intersection. The light was just low-angled enough, and he was just far enough away, that his shadow was thrown onto the wall at a size and in a position that made it look like it should have been my shadow. Fascinating illusion!

So yes, I go on living in my twilit world of dreams and phantasms. . . .

Also just tonight I sent off the signed contract for Part 10 of “The Star Shard.” That’s the final part. I know, I’m starting to be sad already. When this story’s run is over, it will be for me like the end of that three-year golden age of The Lord of the Rings in theaters — very sad. But it has been, and that’s a significant comfort and encouragement. It was; it is a part of Cricket‘s venerable history. And, Lord willing, maybe it will yet be a book . . . a series? May it be like King Arthur: a “once and future” story!

Golden String

January 7, 2009

The title (above) comes from the William Blake lines I quoted in the previous posting. Here they are once more:

“I give you the end of a golden string

Only wind it into a ball:

It will lead you in at Heaven’s gate,

Built in Jerusalem’s wall.”

He’s talking about the imagination.

I saw some fairly good films over the holidays:

Charlie Wilson’s War was better than I’d expected, as was The Spiderwick Chronicles. I really enjoyed Hairspray — anything involving Christopher Walken is worth watching. I didn’t care for The Prestige. But the movie I want to talk about that really impressed me is one that I’m guessing a lot of people missed — which is partly why I want to talk about it:

Tideland (2005) was directed by Terry Gilliam, and it was written by Gilliam and Tony Grisoni. It’s based on a novel by Mitch Cullin.

I have no intention of giving away the plot here, but one reviewer referred to it as a gothic Alice in Wonderland (and in fact, in the opening moments, we hear the lilting voice of a young girl reading from Alice in Wonderland in a Texas accent — there are all sorts of deliberate, conscious references to Alice in this story).

Another reviewer described Tideland as “a poetic horror film,” and I think that’s accurate. Warning: although it has a child protagonist, the film deals with extremely dark subject matter and adult themes, so don’t go gathering your kids and popping Tideland into the DVD player to watch with them. Unless you have some pretty sophisticated kids.

What I like so much about the movie (aside from the haunting musical score, the skillful use of the stark, rural Texas landscape, and the brilliant writing, direction, and acting) is that it’s essentially a story about the imagination — particularly childhood’s imagination. It’s a fascinating study of how a child’s imagining transforms the grim circumstances she’s in, and how it makes them — at least for a short while — not only bearable, but eerily beautiful.

As we watch the film, we worry about the main character, Jeliza-Rose (who, I understand, is 11 in the novel, and the actress playing her was born in 1994, so was about 10 or 11 when the film was made — though I had the impression while I was watching it that she was several years younger than that). We are terrified for her — we hold our breath as she innocently makes her way through the unthinkable situation life has thrust upon her, as she interprets reality in her own way.

But at the same time, we can’t help but be drawn into Jeliza-Rose’s world; we can’t help but recognize its haunting, aching, restless, nostalgic, wistful beauty. Though most of us had childhoods a lot tamer and safer than hers, the filmmakers manage to capture something intrinsic to all childhoods, something universal about being eleven.

If you’re not too squeamish, and if you have a stout spirit, I recommend Tideland. It’s one of those films that leaves you not quite the same as you were (in a good way). It makes your canopy of experience a little richer — and may deepen your understanding of the role of imagination in helping us along on life’s journey.

Nor does imagination necessarily involve a complete break with reality. Although Jeliza-Rose is the most imaginative character in the story, she is also the most clear-headed and sensible: in an early scene, she prevents her father from burning down their apartment building.

Anyway, I think we can expect great things of Canadian-born Jodelle Ferland, who plays Jeliza-Rose.

Follow the golden string! Keep winding it into a ball! And thank Heaven for the capacity to build worlds of our own choosing — and for the child that is still, on good days, within us all.

Poetry and the Imagination

January 3, 2009

“Poetry has this power of getting straight through to the deeper level. . .  every time it happens, you become aware of the same splendid truth: that headache and the worry and the ‘thousand natural shocks the flesh is heir to’ are not an inescapable part of human existence.”

                                                   — Colin Wilson in Poetry and Mysticism


I’m using “poetry” here in the larger sense: not just poems, but created art in whatever form you do it, whether you’re a poet, a fiction writer, a teacher, a violinist, a weaver of baskets, a good parent, or whatever you do that requires art. I contend that the practice of our art is the one way of dealing with the world — of getting through this life.

William Blake wrote:

“Prayer is the Study of Art

Praise is the Practice of Art.”


He also wrote:

“I know of no other Christianity and of no other Gospel than

the liberty of both body & mind to exercise the Divine Arts

of Imagination.

I give you the end of a golden string

Only wind it into a ball:

It will lead you in at Heaven’s gate,

Built in Jerusalem’s wall.”


I don’t know what you’ve found. I find that my only way of making any sense of life is in putting words together. Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire said, “God made me fast, and when I run I feel His pleasure.” I think that certainly applies to us writers — or to you in whatever your Art or Poetry is, be it nursing or homemaking or volunteering.

Blake once more:

“As in your own Bosom you bear your Heaven

And Earth, & all you behold, tho it appears Without it is Within,

In your Imagination of which this World of Mortality is but a Shadow.”

See? The mortal world is the shadow. Without our capacity to imagine, where would we be? God made us in His image, and His image is the Creator, Who called worlds into being with “Let there be.” Tolkien wrote of sub-creation: our rearranging of the building blocks God gives us to create our little otherworlds. I don’t know about you, but for me, that’s when I’m happy: when I’m using my gifts to build something . . . when I’m living in the world of the imagination.

Anyway: Daylily (regular participant in this blog) readily answered the sonnet question last time, so let’s focus on her suggestion of the theme of gifts. You have a choice here, anyone who’d like to join in — you can:

1. Tell us about a wonderful/memorable gift you received.

2. Tell us about a gift you longed for, but never received.

3. Write your own version of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” with a unifying theme (and please tell us what the theme is). (What would the song’s “true love” send to . . . a fantasy fiction writer? A teacher? A cyclist? A student? A musician?)

I’ll start us off with a trivial little example that will be easy for you to top:

One of my fondest memories of a childhood Christmas present is receiving a boxed set of Ray Bradbury books. For me at about age 10 or 11, that was the perfect Christmas present — all those stories packed in one little box, lavishly and intriguingly illustrated.

To this day, whether it’s Christmas or my birthday, no present makes me happier than a book. (Or booksssss!)

Quick childhood memory: at our family bookstore one year, we arranged letters on the electric sign in the window to read, “It isn’t Christmas without a book.” I was somewhere between 8 and 10 years old, and during that holiday season, my parents actually encouraged me to sit in the store window, on the triangular wooden stage, doing nothing but reading a book. (I was advertising, see? — “It isn’t Christmas without a book,” and here’s this life-sized kid sitting there avidly reading . . . see?) Well, more than once, I shifted positions slightly, and window-shoppers shrieked and jumped back. I guess they’d been thinking I was a mannequin. . . .

Happy New Year!

Tanuki Encounter

December 17, 2008

So, did you hear the one about the scandal surrounding the zombie politician? –He was arrested for corruption. Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk! (That’s an original joke, by the way. It occurred to me this past week. Yes, it was inspired by certain events in the news concerning certain non-zombie governors of certain states who were arrested for similar things.) This is the first joke I’ve come up with since my one about Medusa several years ago: What does Medusa do to her hair at night, to keep it looking nice? –She puts it in coilers.

Anyway — I’m almost sure I encountered a tanuki today. A tanuki is a Japanese animal similar to a raccoon, a badger, or an opossum. The dictionary says it’s a “raccoon dog,” but that doesn’t mean anything to you in the States, does it? I’m not talking about a “dog” of any kind. [Similarly, the dictionary says the Japanese food konnyaku is “devil’s tongue.” Oh, yeah — thanks for clearing that up, huh?]

Back to the tanuki. To see one is fairly rare; I assume they’re nocturnal, like most animals of that sort. I think I’ve glimpsed maybe one or two before in my 20 years here. What made today’s encounter so odd is that it occurred smack in the middle of the university campus.

Again, it’s not too far a stretch. Niigata University’s campus is more-or-less connected to the Matsubayashi, that intriguing, leagues-long strip of pine forest that leans away from the sea winds all along the coastline in this area. The Matsubayashi is undoubtedly home to lots of tanuki. And our campus is very woody. In warmer seasons, little lizards scramble out from under your feet if you take any shortcuts off the pathways (and sometimes even if you don’t) — and we have way more spiders than Mirkwood has, albeit smaller ones.

So, I came out of the humanities building in the very early twilight, and I was drawing near the library to pass it and the main quad, heading back to where my bicycle was parked. Today was a sunny, warm day for December. Just in front of the library’s main entrance, a paved area stretches away to the right, and a grassy yard extends to the left, in which some sapling trees stand. A student was about 20 feet in front of me, walking toward the library.

The main library entrance. The tanuki encounter happened just off to the left.

The main library entrance. The tanuki encounter happened just off to the left.

Just behind him, as if scrambling to get out of his way, a furry gray animal moved through a row of parked bicycles and into the grassy yard. There was still so much daylight, and I was so close to this thing, that I’m quite sure of what I saw. Granted, stray cats live on the campus, but this thing was too big, heavy, and roly-poly to be the typical underfed stray cat — plus, it had a distinct, longish snout — very un-catlike.

What led me to question my senses just a little, though, was how the creature seemed to vanish into thin air. No, I didn’t see it disappear. But I got right over to where it had been, which took me about five or seven seconds. I expected to have a much better look at it. But it just wasn’t to be found. There wasn’t any dense bush cover, and I didn’t see any holes in the ground it might have darted into. The library’s foundation was still some fifteen or twenty feet away — if it somehow got into a space under the building, it certainly moved quickly.

I loitered around there for another long moment, listening for any sounds of furtive movement, looking for holes or suspicious shapes — nothing.

Although the tanuki is a real animal, its folkloric presence is steeped in magic and the supernatural. So maybe this one did just vanish into the air on an early evening at the end of autumn.

Why do I tell this story on a blog about the writing life? Surely you know by now that I’m going to say we’re surrounded by enchantment. William Blake wrote, “. . . to the eyes of the man of imagination, Nature is imagination itself.”

If the numinous didn’t constantly encroach, where would we be? What would we write about?

In closing: to anyone who’s not playing the latest alphabet game, please see the previous posting on this blog! The more, the merrier — jump in!

Blake on Improvement

June 5, 2008

I ran across this quote from William Blake:

“Improvement makes strait roads, but the crooked roads without Improvement, are roads of Genius.”

For a stretch of about twelve or fifteen years, I read a couple of the popular writing trade magazines almost cover-to-cover. It wasn’t just about “studying” them — it was a form of relaxation for me. Reading about the craft of producing fiction was, I suppose, what TV is for many people. The articles gave me a warm glow, a tingle of excitement. I loved reading about the techniques and tools, the markets and trends, and I liked hearing the stories of writers who were actually doing it: setting their words on paper and selling them. It still thrills me to hold a book, to browse in a bookstore, to see a ream of typing paper or a computer monitor, to hear the click of keyboard keys and feel them under my fingertips.

Writers’ magazines definitely have their benefits. They keep you somewhat in touch with what’s happening in the publishing world. They can teach you shortcuts and the proper ways of going about things (such as submissions). They can chop a lot of time off the process of learning, which would otherwise be done by trial and error. They’re a wonderful source of resources and places to try sending your stuff. But — to finish the TV analogy — wallowing in the trade magazines has its negative aspects, too. Like TV, it can become a form of escapism. Every moment you spend reading about technique is a moment you don’t spend improving your technique, either by reading well-written literature or by striving to write your own.

Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert, points out the mistake companies make in focusing on artificialities and secondary concerns at the expense of creating products (or services) and selling them. Instead of building a good computer, for example, they schedule a meeting to discuss selecting a committee to explore the feasibility of creating a task group to formulate a strategy. . . .

Endlessly studying writing techniques can be the same. Isaac Asimov said, “It’s the writing that teaches you.” And Asimov certainly knew. You’d have to walk quite a way to find a writer more prolific.

I’ve met “writers” who are all about networking and getting an agent and learning how to protect their intellectual properties from theft . . . but they don’t seem to have any actual material. They don’t, that is, write. I’m not sure when they’re planning to do that part.

There’s a second danger of studying too much technique. There’s the danger that you might learn it. I remember a big debate about ten years ago over the proliferation of writers’ workshops and MFA programs in creative writing. The criticism leveled against them was that they produced multitudes of Serious Writers who all wrote the same. Stories began to smell of having been “workshopped” — all the edges sanded off, all the distracting idiosyncracies plucked out, all the individuality boiled away. “Trained writers” were becoming a quite competent lot who had learned not to take any risks. Nor were the book superstores helping the matter, with their shelves of “safe bets” by a few giant authors, to the exclusion of almost anything else.

During my years of ingesting the trade magazines, I worked and reworked a gigantic novel manuscript, the infamous “second novel” (after Dragonfly, I thought I had it figured out How This Works — heh, heh!). When it came back rejected from my first publisher and two agents, I scrapped almost the whole plot and rewrote and rewrote it all again, grinding and polishing and stewing over all the techniques I knew I should be using. I “finished” it again after hundreds and hundreds of pages, after countless thousands of hours. Today, the book is rife with possibility in its ideas and characters, but the writing makes me shudder — it’s extremely hard to read because it’s been “techniqued” so much. Bleah! (Thank Heavens I was selling short fiction during those years, or I would have been pretty discouraged.)

A big epiphany for me in the last year or so has been to take a deep breath, “forget” the techniques, listen to the characters, and get back to basics — to not concern myself with what’s “marketable,” but about what excites and fascinates me in a story. [By “forget,” of course, I don’t mean “forget”: I mean that techniques must assume their proper place. They become part of the writer, deep inside, like all those scales you played when you were first learning to play your musical instrument.] Tell a good story. Slosh paint around. Break the rules when you need to. Use anything and everything to get the story told.

Clifton Fadiman wrote, “Books are not rolls, to be devoured only when they are fresh.” I think we need to go back and read the great old books that have stood the test of time — books that are still with us, and that were written before writers knew the rules and went to workshops.

A final thought about Blake’s quote: I’ve heard several Japanese friends say that Japan is a country not of innovation but of skillful imitation. In the arenas of manufacturing and technology, Japanese are masters of taking the inventions of other countries, making small improvements, and then cranking out steadily better and better models every year. [For readers who don’t know: I live in Japan. This paragraph won’t make sense without that fact.] This [Japan] is a land of discipline . . . a land of regular Improvement. But in most cases, the Genius is borrowed from abroad — from lands where it’s more permissible to sit on a creek bank doing apparently nothing . . . to wander the crooked roads until the stars come out . . . to try things . . . to listen to voices in the cornfield . . . to dream.

We came in with Blake’s words. Let’s look at them again, the same words, on our way out:

“Improvement makes strait roads, but the crooked roads without Improvement, are roads of Genius.”

Give me a crooked road any day, with moss growing on the stiles and branches bending low, and surprising meadows at the turns!