Please Finish Your Story

painting of a girl writing with a quill pen

Detail of George Goodwin Kilburne’s 1875 painting Writing a Letter Home. [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons

Remember that story you started last week? (Or maybe it was last month, or a few years ago.) We want to hear the rest of it. In fact, we would like to purchase a publication that contains it and read it in print. But you haven’t finished it, have you?

That’s okay, I understand. I haven’t finished a whole bunch of my stories either. And it’s not that I want to force you to finish a story you don’t want, a story that’s not for you. Or even a story that was for you at one time but is now so far in the past that you couldn’t write it anymore even if you wanted to. But the ones that are still “on” for you, please finish those. Because this is what it’s like for us, your readers:

The Readers’ Experience:

We hear the first part of a story, the part you wrote in 20 minutes while sitting around a table with us. We get excited about it. We get interested in the characters. We want to see what will happen to them. We want to know why certain details of the story are the way they are, because they seem mysterious. We want to keep reading. If the text you just read out loud were printed in a book, we would keep reading past our bedtime in order to find out these things.

Then at the next writing session, or the next week, or the next time we see you, or even just randomly as we go about our days, we are hoping to hear the next part of the story. I know that stories don’t always come out linearly; I know you can’t promise the next installment as though this were a serial on TV. But we want it. The brain science people would say our biology expects it. This is the point of view of the external reader: we want to see what happens next. But as a writer, you also have to take into account the internal reader: yourself and your own interest in a story.

Don’t Finish a Story You Don’t Care About

Remember my story “The Death of the Station Wagon”? People asked me to write more; they wondered what happened next. But I’m not going to try to find out what happens next, because I think that story is either complete or failed. If I ever work on that story again, I might add a second thread to try to make the events more meaningful, but the sequence of events is already complete: after the station wagon dies, the story is over. So if you wanted to hear what happens next, I’m sorry. Nothing happens next. The universe ceases to exist, and all the white mice get their necks broken.

I’m not asking you to keep going on a story you know has no future, one you’re not interested in, one you think is done. Don’t let anyone else tell you to do that either, no matter how interested they are in the story. They can write their own story.

Say no to narratives you don’t care about.

Finish the Ones You Care About

So I’m done with “The Death of the Station Wagon.” But there are others, like “Dazzlewelts,” that I still feel the pull of sometimes. I know there are people who wish I would finish that one, and I am one of them, because I want to see how it turns out. You have stories like that too. Please finish them. I want to read them. I bet you do, too.

No Enterprise

photo of laptop and books, including Uhura's Song

Warning: This essay contains a very minor spoiler (not plot significant) for the third book in the Bloody Jack series.

I’m in the movie theater watching Star Trek: Beyond. I haven’t gone in blind, and I’m finding much to complain about. But although my mind is churning on dialogue problems and weird plot choices, my main experience is this: My heart wants to come out of my chest and go to the screen. I don’t know these new characters; I keep comparing them to the originals; I don’t understand them at all. But they are on the Enterprise, and I feel a gravitational pull to be there too.

Later I’m crying, and it’s not because of the events of the movie. It’s not even because Leonard Nimoy is dead. I’ve known that fact for over a year, and my mind can finally almost touch it, but not quite, certainly not enough to cry. No, this is something more fundamental: I’m crying because Star Trek isn’t real. I can’t live there. There is no Enterprise.

Where can I find consolation? Where can I learn what I should do in the face of this problem? Of course I look to literature for the answer. Here’s what I find: In Under the Jolly Roger, L.A. Meyer puts Jacky Faber on the Pequod, even though his novel is historical fiction and the Pequod is a fictional ship. Why does he do that? It’s so he can live in Moby Dick, through his character. By putting her on the Pequod, he refuses to be left out of fiction; he declares that we’re all the same, and that we’re all in the same world, whether we be fictional or whatever the other thing is.

So, Mr. Meyer, I thank you for this comforting hypothesis. And I see that, in a way, I live in Star Trek when I experience Star Trek stories. I see that if I were an officer on the Enterprise, I wouldn’t be living in Star Trek the story, I’d be living a life on the Enterprise. But still, in the theater the feeling is visceral: My whole body is straining toward the screen: I belong there, not here.

Writing this, I realize: The feeling isn’t that I belong in space, or even on the Enterprise. It’s that I belong in a story. It comes down to that. I’ve never seen it so clearly before.

What makes your heart swell? What makes your soul want to come out of your body and go there, more than anywhere else? I love Rembrandt, I love van Gogh, and my heart moves toward The Starry Night. But it moves toward Star Trek more, toward stories more. I love linguistics and math, and my heart moves toward them, but they are mainly loves of the mind. I love making books and origami, but that is mainly a love of the body, of fingers and eyes. The place that pulls my soul out of my chest is fiction, is words, is story. Literature is my first and truest love. I can’t deny that anymore. I must make it my first priority. What must you make yours?

There’s a fashion for saying to do only your top thing and ignore everything else. But if you need to be creative, doing only your top thing doesn’t work. You have to live in order to get ideas. You have to go deep in other areas if you want to make breakthroughs in your area of specialty.

If you love writing, but it’s not your top thing, keep writing. Maybe write a little less and do your top thing a little more, but keep writing. Keep coming to Write to the End. What you do with us will help you do your top thing.

I won’t stop making non-written art, doing other things I love, living in the moments I’m not writing. What a gift this world is, what varied and wonderful opportunities it contains: Not only to read and to write, not only to study the things I love, but also the meaningfulness of pure experience: to touch the texture of a 20-year-old construction paper cover I made for Uhura’s Song, to hear slow crickets at 2 a.m., to feel the lemony squeeze of tears beginning to form, to look into the night sky and find Antares and recognize the Scorpio that’s not Jessica’s Scorpio, but to think of it, and her, and the times we spent together. Life, if I let myself open to it, is like being in a story.

I promise to write, but I also promise to live, and I ask you to do the same. Do your top thing, and put it first, but let the rest of your life flower, too. The other things you love, the care and depth with which you do them, the appreciation you give to the passing and irretrievable moments of this one life—all will return to you and help you as you work on your top thing, and your life will become a story.

Promise me you’ll do it.

There is no Enterprise but the one we make ourselves.

We Welcome All Writing

image of the Lagoon Nebula

New stars are being created in the Lagoon Nebula. Detail from a photo by ESO/IDA/Danish 1.5 m/ R. Gendler, U.G. Jørgensen, K. Harpsøe. Used under Creative Commons license via Wikimedia Commons.

At Write to the End, we do two main activities: We write, and we welcome all writing. These two activities are the foundation of our group.

Welcome. I welcome you, and I welcome your writing. All of your writing, not just the parts you think are worth welcoming.

I use Natalie Goldberg’s method of writing practice, which is a practice of noticing and writing down first thoughts, “the way the mind first flashes on something.” This is a form of welcome. Writing practice is not choose what you receive but rather receive what you have already flashed on, even if it doesn’t make sense. All first thoughts are a gift. When we welcome them, we notice more first thoughts. When you welcome the tip of a thread of a story, it lets you pull it, and more story comes through. It’s scary to do, but don’t close off. I’m scared, too. I close off sometimes, too. But I’m always trying to improve my skill of staying open, of welcoming first thoughts, of allowing the thoughts to come through. (I am calling them thoughts. I don’t know what else to call them: visions, images, words—they come in many forms. You know what I mean, though: the things that arrive that aren’t you, that aren’t something you choose or make up or figure out. The things that come from the Place.) You don’t have to do anything with these thoughts later. You can choose what you turn into a piece; you can choose how you edit and what you publish. But if you welcome first thoughts and write them down, you’ll have something to choose from.

Steve DeWinter of Fiction Silicon Valley recently asked me what fiction I like to read. (I fished around in my brain and came up with Philip K. Dick and Julio Cortázar.) I welcome what I read because I choose it. But sometimes it’s necessary to welcome something you didn’t choose. You can turn off your biases and judgements, your desire to find fault with something in order to seem cool. For example, it’s easy to go into a new Star Wars movie in a defensive state, ready to complain about every tiny thing that doesn’t live up to our expectations. I might not seem cool for saying this, but I will tell you that I loved the Star Wars movie The Force Awakens. I was able to love it because I went into it blind on purpose. I turned off everything and just watched the movie as though I were a blank sheet of paper. I saw it for what it was, and even though there were a few moments of cheesy dialogue, and maybe some other things I could have complained about, I forgave it all and let myself love the movie. This is a beautiful and vulnerable thing to do. You should try it sometime. You don’t have to try it with Star Wars.

And here’s what else you should do: You should try it with your own work. Try turning everything off, all your judgement and smartness, all your desire for something to be a certain way, all your expectations of greatness or awfulness or anythingness, and just go in blind and see what you wrote for what it actually is. Let it affect you the way it wants to. Let yourself be defenseless against it. This is hard and scary. But you do it for others’ work. If you come to Write to the End, you practice every Tuesday doing it for others’ work, at least I hope you do. People write anything here, from disconnected notes to scenes of novels, from sonnets to To Do lists. And then they read these things out loud: what they just wrote, during the previous twenty minutes. And everyone turns off everything and listens; they take it in without context; they don’t expect anything from it.

When you sit in this circle, you listen to someone read something that you didn’t choose, and you appreciate it for what it is. You don’t try for it to be something else. If you aren’t doing that the first day, you learn from the example of people who have been here a while. If you start out faking it, pretty soon you’re really doing it. Write anything. Welcome everything. It’s hardest to do it for yourself, for your own writing, but try.

This time, when you read what you’ve written, turn off everything. Be blank. Be blind. Be nothing, and become what you read. Let what you read be all there is in that moment. We will support you. If you start to crack or even break, the structure of the group will hold you. And most likely, what you’ve written will become the glue that sticks the pieces back together stronger than before, and you will be a better writer for it. This is why we welcome all writing. This is why we welcome you.

Colorless Green Ideas Crashed My Car
or
Your Right to Say Things that Don’t Make Sense

green car

This image was created from a photo by Tony Hisgett from Birmingham, UK (Fast and Furious 6 Premier 5 Uploaded by tm) Used under Creative Commons license via Wikimedia Commons.

Syntax gives us the power to say things that don’t make sense: Ideas can’t have color (or crash a car), and something colorless can’t also be green, but I can say “colorless green ideas crashed my car,” and you can understand me, even if you’re quite not sure what I mean.

The structure of a story or other piece of writing gives us a similar power. You can write about something that no one has ever experienced, and people will experience it through your story. This is not what I mean, and it makes my introduction about syntax sound like an analogy, when I’m trying to say something profound about the magic of language.

Let me try again. If I break the syntax—“green a the car colorless my”—you might not be able to follow what I’m saying anymore. You might say this string of words makes even less sense than “colorless green ideas.” However, with enough structure of other sorts, even such unconventional syntax can create deep meaning. For example, e.e. cummings: “anyone lived in a pretty how town / (with up so floating many bells down).”

What I’m trying to say is, write anything. You can change things later if it turns out you need to. Natalie Goldberg uses the example, “I cut the daisy from my throat.” This doesn’t make sense, but people’s minds will make sense out of it, and it will come to have meaning based on the context. If I say that colorless green ideas crashed my car, you’re going to start forming hypotheses about how this can happen: Maybe the “ideas” are aliens, and they are transparent but also green. That’s not what I mean either! The mind makes meaning. If you use syntax, you can say anything, and our minds will create it, even if it doesn’t “make sense.” If you use story structure, you can say anything, too. Story structure has underlying “bones” the way language does.

Here’s what I mean: Meaning is not dependent on making sense. Meaning exists even in things that “don’t make sense” in a conventional way. Look at the e.e. cummings poem I quoted above. Read the whole thing. It “doesn’t make sense” (the syntax is crazy, the words are used in ways you’ve never seen before), but its meaning is there nonetheless. In fact, we could argue that its true meaning and effect are only possible because cummings breaks the syntax and does things in this unconventional way. I’m sure it took him a long time and many revisions to get that poem into its final state.

I’m giving two pieces of advice here, for two different parts of the writing process:

  1. When you’re writing your first draft, write anything. Don’t care if it doesn’t make sense. Keep going. Write until you get to the end, and save the editing for later. (If you need a process to help you do this, I recommend Natalie Goldberg’s writing practice, detailed in her book Writing Down the Bones.)
  2. If you’re editing a piece, and the effect you want to create requires breaking syntax or creating an unconventional story structure, or doing something else that “doesn’t make sense,” DO IT! Your loyalty is not to some idea of social or literary convention, but to the entity you are trying to bring to life. You can trust your reader as the co-creator of this entity. Work hard. Make your language and structure ever more precise until what “doesn’t make sense” means exactly what it needs to mean.

“I want these but don’t know how.”

Screenshot of my special folder for stories I don't know how to finish yet.

Screenshot of my special folder for stories I don’t know how to finish yet.

What do you do with the pieces you don’t yet have the skill to finish?

I used to leave them around in notebooks and never finish them. Half-abandoned, half-forgotten, they were a source of nebulous anxiety, though I vaguely planned to get back to them someday. Sometimes I’d remember one and think, “Hey, I know what to do with that now!” but usually I wouldn’t be able to find it.

Since I started believing in myself enough to organize my writing, I have found a way to give those pieces a better chance at life. (I use Scrivener on my computer, but you can use this method with any computer’s file system or with paper folders and manuscripts.)

I keep my short stories organized in folders that correspond roughly to stages of completion, with later stages closer to the top (see image). For example, near the top is a folder for stories that are being submitted to markets, and below that is a folder for stories that are in beta. Below that come the folders of my finishing pipeline. But what I’m talking about today only requires a single folder, which I keep right below the finishing pipeline. It’s called “I want these but don’t know how.”

In it, I keep the stories I don’t yet know how to finish. The folder is right there, in the middle of my workspace, so every now and then I look into it and read through some of the stories, and every now and then I discover that I do know how to finish one of them. Or sometimes I’ve recently read something that gives me a new structure or technique I can try on one of the stories, and I try it. Maybe I still don’t know how to finish the story, but I learn a lot. Maybe what I learn helps me finish another story.

This folder is also important for its symbolic meaning. By using this folder, I declare, “These stories I’ve started are important to me, and I give them space in my life.” By using this folder I accept that I want something, even though I don’t know how to get it yet. By using this folder I take my work seriously, I act as though I believe in myself, and I thereby increase my confidence as a writer. I intend to write for my whole life, so I need systems that support that goal.

If you don’t have a place to keep the pieces you don’t yet know how to finish, you might try making a special folder where they can live. And if you have another method that works for you, I’d love to know about it! Please put a note in the comments (below).

P.S. I got the idea for this post because I just finished a story that used to be in “I want these but don’t know how.”

Character Names from Movie Credits

illustration of a woman watching a movie

Detail from a sheet music cover for “Since Mother Goes To Movie Shows” by Broadway Music Corp. (1916)

When I write a first draft, I grab character names off the nearest shelf in my brain. I’ll bet at least 50% of my characters started off named “Carla” or “Carlos.” I try to find a more fitting name in the second or third draft, but usually I don’t get much more adventurous than “Edna” or “Lawrence.”

Mainstream movie character names are similarly non-diverse. But movie credits! The names of the real people who worked on the films! In movie credits, there are many, many, MANY names that I’ve never heard of. There are whole sets of names that have a familial sound to them, as though they all come from the same language (which they probably do), and I’ve never even suspected that sound to exist, let alone any of the names.

You could name a whole story’s worth of characters out of a single “unit” in a movie’s credits and be guaranteed that the names have some sort of coherence. (Whether the characters match their names culturally is up to research. But if you happen to be writing a Spanish village, and you find a movie that has credits for a “Spain Unit,” I’d say you’ve at least got a head start.

Next time you watch a movie, stay for the credits and see for yourself. For now, I’ll give a few examples.

Names from The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman
(Disclaimer: I haven’t actually seen this movie.)
Alexandru Miron, Giani Roberto Ivan, Liviu Pojoni, Constantin Moldoveanu, Dragos Ionut Badea, Mihai Marius Apopei, Mats Holmgren, Bogdan Talpeanu, Vera Belu, Anneli Oscarsson

Last names from Blade Runner
Barberio, Ripple, Wash, Cranham, Spurlock, Bakauskas, Van Auken, Polkinghorse, Mirano, Wetmore

First names from The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
Sukhita, Robynne, Darin, Pietro, Gareth, Pranee, Nardeen, Fenella, Wineke, Gudrun, Sourisak, Huia

The Serving Dinner Model of Publishing

hand serving a plate with a manuscript on itDo you have a pile of unfinished pieces? Would you like to find a way to finish more projects? Here’s a method I’m using that helps me. (Note: It’s normal for creative people to start many more projects than they finish, so please never feel bad about that pile again. But you can improve your rate of finishing.)

How Can I Finish More Projects?

When I decided to improve my rate of finishing creative projects, I thought I was bad at finishing. After all, I had only published four articles on our Write to the End blog in three years! But I began looking for “bright spots” – places in my life where I actually did finish things – so that I could try to duplicate any success that I found. I thought that I wouldn’t find much. I was wrong.

Bright Spot 1: Serving Dinner

The first bright spot I discovered was dinner. I produced and served dinner, every day, pretty much at 6 p.m. Here was an example of successful and consistent daily finishing! So I wasn’t bad at finishing after all; I was only bad at finishing creative projects. I continued to analyze the bright spot: Why did I succeed at “getting dinner published” every night at 6 p.m.?

Because people in my house needed to eat, and they couldn’t eat much later than 6 p.m. Aha! I’d discovered two project characteristics that help me finish:

  1. Other people counting on me to produce.
  2. An external deadline.

How could I use this discovery to help myself finish more creative projects? In particular, how could I help myself publish more articles on our blog? I didn’t know, so I went back to looking for bright spots.

Bright Spot 2: Our Newsletter

The next bright spot I discovered was even more valuable because it was related to writing. I’d been sending our Write to the End newsletter (in one form or another) for over 10 years. Here was another example of successful and consistent finishing, and it was actually an example of successful and consistent publishing! The newsletter had the same two helpful characteristics as serving dinner: an external deadline and an audience. I had discovered the Serving Dinner Model of publishing, and I was already using it successfully!

Applying the Model: Our Blog

I suddenly knew how I could help myself publish consistently on our blog. It was terrifying to commit to this, but I did it. I added a section for new blog posts to our newsletter, and I promised there would always be at least one new article in that section.

It worked! Ever since then, I have succeeded at writing and publishing a new article every month. (Yes, I do it at the last minute. But I do it. And now that I’m committed to it, I’m starting to find ways to move the last minute farther away from the deadline.)

Applying the Model: Instant Books

The Serving Dinner Model can also be applied to one-time projects. You just have to figure out how to cause other people to rely on you to produce the project by a certain date. Here’s an example of how this has worked for me.

As part of Thinking Ink Press, I’ve been making Instant Books (small books folded from a single sheet of paper). My first two ideas for Instant Books are still unfinished, but in the meantime I have produced two others plus a Flashcard (a postcard with a complete short story on it). Why did I not finish the first two projects, but I did finish the other three? It’s because I applied the Serving Dinner Model to the ones I finished. I caused the two helpful conditions to exist by saying to my partners, “I’ll make Jagged Fragments for Anthony to sell at the Clockwork Alchemy convention,” or “I’ll make Bees for Betsy to sell at Play on Words.” Boom! Instant deadline and audience.

My first two Instant Book ideas have never had an upcoming author event associated with them, so I have had trouble setting aside other things to work on them. But I want to finish them, so I will be looking for opportunities to apply the Serving Dinner Model.

Take Action

What about you? Would you like to try the Serving Dinner Model?

What’s one thing you’ve been wanting to produce? For that particular project, how can you get an external deadline and people counting on you?

If you like, go ahead and leave a comment to let us know your plan.

Do It More

mostly blue painting with too much purple in upper right corner

“The Lion and the Lamb Drink Sake #6: Clean Laundry” by Keiko O’Leary

When somebody tells you to take something out, sometimes the solution is to do it more. This often works in visual art: That area of purple in the upper right corner of your painting, the one that’s “ruining” the composition? Instead of removing it, put more purple in other parts of the painting. Suddenly it all comes together.

I think this applies to many writing situations as well. For example, I’m editing a story right now where the first-person narrator uses a few puns and plays on words. I’ve worked with this author before, and I know she loves this sort of thing, but for some reason I wanted to tell her to take out one of the puns. Then I noticed that the ending of the story hinges on a pun as well. Okay, I admit that I had originally wanted to change the ending, too. But I’m oversensitive to puns because I usually remove them from my own writing. This narrator probably should keep these two puns, but in order for them to work, she probably needs to have more. At least one more, toward the beginning, to establish this habit in her voice and character, and set us up to accept the ending.

Of course, this sort of free-floating advice must be applied carefully, because nothing works in every situation. I’ll see how I feel after the story is done. But I think it’s worth trying out.

What about you? Do you have a piece where some element seems out of place? Maybe a character, a certain way of talking, a scene? Why not try adding more and see what happens.

The Magical Unread Session

We used to meet at Barnes and Noble when Barnes and Noble used to close at 11 p.m. Now we meet at places that close at 10, because nothing closes at 11. Most places close at 9. This means that if there are a lot of people, like tonight, or if we are all writing long and amazing things because the group is in a state of communal flow, like tonight, sometimes the last writing session ends just about the time IHOP closes. Usually when this happens, we each choose one sentence to read aloud as a token of our writing, and it is not enough, but it has to be enough anyway, and everyone hopes that this situation will not be frequently repeated.

The unread session also has the unexpected effect of letting you write something that maybe you wouldn’t have written if you were hearing the voice in your head that is the voice of yourself reading out loud to the group, which is the voice I usually hear, and the voice I am hearing right now. I don’t know if we will read this session out loud, but we might, because that’s what we did last time: stand around outside and open our laptops and read.

Is this the right thing to do? It is terrible for everyone not to read and not to hear what people wrote. It is also terrible to write something embarrassing because you found you wouldn’t have to read it, and then to read it anyway. However, it is worse to skip a few of the most embarrassing sentences and then wonder forever if someone might have read them over your shoulder and now knows not only that about you but also that you weren’t willing to read them out loud. But the thing is, I am over this. I share nearly everything, and I am not embarrassed that there are things I choose not to share. It is not necessary for me to share the depths and range of every obsession explicitly, because what matters will always come out anyway, eventually. Fiction reveals everything, whether you want it to or not. I am okay with that now. I am willing to be revealed.

I have read my dreams here for years, and they reveal everything, too. What small particulars of my life reveal is nothing compared to what is revealed by the metaphors of my dreams. On the other hand, why write an essay about this if I’m over it? So, again, you see how everything is revealed. Even if I don’t read this, it will be revealed. Even if I do read this. Even if I never write again or see anyone here again, even if I die or disappear. All moments are saved, irrevocably, into the past. Victor Frankl says this with joy. I see it with joy, too: all moments are published. You have to try your best in each moment, and it is done, it is published, whether you want it to be or not; that is the magic of the physical, the tyranny and the miracle. It forces you to commit; it forces you to be done; it forces you to publish, what you have, the best you can, right now. That is the magic of the writing group, too. But the magic of the unread session is different, and I think it is a dangerous magic. It allows us to think we can hide ourselves, it allows us to believe in being unseen. It allows us to return to our pre-writing-group concept of ourselves, the writer who can perfect something, the writer who doesn’t have to reveal everything, and this is a lie, because everything is revealed unless you quit, unless you chicken out, and even then it is still revealed, but it is changed – what is revealed is what you became but didn’t want to be. So have faith. Keep going. Eat pancakes or don’t eat pancakes. Type anything. Write anything. Stay here. Stay present. Don’t care about the future. The future will take care of itself, will be published in its own time. Focus now on this moment as it writes itself, as it publishes itself; make it the best and truest it can be, because it will last, it will be revealed, for all time.

You Can Never Say Thank You

picture of birds on a wire

The first book I ever bought about how to be a writer was Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. I still have it, and I just looked inside the title page: it is a first edition. So I was lucky, because really you probably don’t need any other book on writing, ever, except for that book. I am rereading it yet again, and it’s as though she’s right there, speaking only to me, telling me just what I need to know right now, just like all the other times I’ve read it.

So, if somebody writes a book like that, even if it is non-fiction, it’s natural to get this urge to say thank you. And what that looks like for me is writing hundreds of unfinished letters inside my head, and rehearsing what I’d say if I ever met the author, revising it over and over, to try to convey how much her book has meant to me. And believing that if I could just say thank you that I would feel relief from this terrible debt of gratitude and be able to accept the gift of her book and go on with my life.

But here’s the thing: I met Anne Lamott last spring, and I got to talk to her twice: once just passing by in the bookstore where she was teaching, and once after I’d waited in line for 45 minutes to get her book signed. (Not the first edition! Can you believe I couldn’t find it? More on this another day.) And both times, I tried to say thank you. I did say, “Thank you.” I said, “Your book changed my life.” I said, “I got your book when it first came out.” I said, “I’ve reread it many times, and it always makes a difference for me.” I said the right things the first time, but I still felt the need to say thank you. I said them again the second time, but I still felt the need to say thank you. She was gracious and kind both times, but Anne Lamott is wise, and I got the feeling that maybe she knew I was attempting something futile. I know I did the right thing to try, but I left feeling worse than ever, because there was no way I could convey, even to the author, my experience of her book and how much it has meant to me. There was no way I could make her experience what I experience when I read her book, no way to make her feel the love she transmitted to me through her words. She wrote it; she is herself. She can’t read it as me. She can’t feel what I felt and experience how she changed me. I hope you understand what I mean, because I can’t say it any more ways.

So, while I was sitting outside the bookstore, bombed out on having totally failed to repay the debt of gratitude I felt I still owed, I thought of the title of this piece, and I realized the reason you can never say thank you. In order to repay your debt, you need the person to experience what you experienced. That is impossible, so you are out of luck.

Except.

Except that they did experience what you experienced. They read something else, by someone else, and they experienced it. And then they wrote the thing that passed that experience on to you. And therefore, the only way that you can ever repay this debt is by writing something that passes it on to the next person.  And then maybe they will try to say thank you and fail. And you can never know if what you wrote succeeded, because even when people say thank you, they can never convey their experience, and you will never experience it back from your own work. You have to have faith that what you write could touch someone. You have to try. There is no guarantee. But you owe the debt already, so you must try. It is the only way you might ever get the chance to say thank you.