I have an obsession with hand-built houses. To feed my obsession I look at pictures in books with a magnifying glass, and in doing so I become curious about the people who live in these houses. I look closely at their knickknacks, the pictures hanging on the walls, the shampoo they use, and especially the books on their shelves. I am a voyeur. All writers are voyeurs.
I don’t believe that writers are born with special spy genes, or eavesdropping genes, but that early on in our lives, for some reason, we learned to observe. For me honing the skill of observation came from being terribly shy and lacking confidence. Later it was honed further through writing.
One day, looking through my magnifying glass at a picture of a woodworking shop, I read a sign on the wall that said, “The Easy Way is Hard Enough.”
That’s writing, I thought. That’s my writing philosophy. Why fill a room with six characters who stand around invisibly witnessing an important interaction between two characters? Why have a character go to bed, and then get up, and go back to bed, and then get up, and then finally do the thing that needs to be done to advance to story? Keep it simple. The easy way is hard enough.
My first novel, LIFE WITHOUT WATER, grew from my first short story, written for the first writing class I’d taken since high school. The assignment was simple: Write a short story. I had no idea what to write about and I only had a week to do it in. Time ticked by as I stabbed and stabbed at that story. Three days in I was at my kitchen table stabbing some more. I decided to take a walk to clear my mind, and ended up in a used bookstore where I found a small paperback about communes in the sixties. I flipped through the center section of black and white pictures: bearded men chopping wood, naked gardeners, dirty children, a kitchen filled with pans of rising bread dough, a woman outside a shack sawing a board for some repair. I came of age in the sixties. This was my era. These were my people. I knew about these wild reclaimed places with the slippery driveways and the crummy insulation and the snakes in the walls. I’d reclaimed a few myself, and suffered through a few winters, and thrown a lot of wood into a woodstove. While I no longer lived this lifestyle, I still loved these places. I still drove out into the country some times, just to find and visit an old abandoned house.
I purchased the book and decided to write about the reunion of a commune, which quickly became far more than I could handle. All those people who’d once shared an old house had dispersed, abandoned the lifestyle, become what they’d become and had their own stories to tell. Too many stories. The noise of that many characters became too loud and unfocused. And so I decided to write from the point of view of one child who’d grown up on a commune.
This was my first lesson in “The Easy Way is Hard Enough.”
I don’t always know my journey as a writer. I don’t always know my journey as a teacher. I don’t always know my journey as a human being. But I do know journeys, and I have found that “The Easy Way is Hard Enough” is good philosophy for nearly every undertaking – from writing to teaching to cooking a meal to life itself.