Put Your Ass in a Chair and Write: Dennis Lehane breaks the mystique of storytelling

by Tony DeLateur

Writers can be bitter people. Many of them claim to care about crafting precise language and telling an honest, compelling story, but they don’t. They simply want to feel smarter than everyone else. They hide in creative writing programs discussing arcane craft ideas and reading obscure journals full of self-important poetry and boring prose. They enjoy talking about writing more than actually doing it. The world is populated by idiots, according to these bitter writers. As such, they regard any commercially successful artist with disdain, since only dumb art can connect with so many dumb people. There is no bigger sellout than the successful writer.

I mention these attitudes because they were the elephants in the room during my interview with author Dennis Lehane. In an earlier correspondence, I made the mistake of calling him a “literary mystery” writer, and used phrases such as “the social conventions of America’s criminal class.” Before we even met, I’d managed to come off as a bitter would-be writer hiding my lack of skill and confidence behind long words and silly concepts. Lehane proved himself a good sport, but aimed the subtext of our second interview at dismantling the idea of writing as a mystical artistic process or an exclusive academic club.

A graduate of Miami International’s MFA program in creative writing, Lehane is no anti-intellectual, but one can sense his exasperation with critics who judge his work based on its “literary” ambitions. The New York Times said his novel, The Given Day, moved him “far beyond the confines of the crime genre.” Poking fun at such reviews, Lehane later told The Wall Street Journal, “I didn’t have a white-boy-goes-to-college book I wanted to write.” He considers “literary fiction” a genre like any other, one no less prone to shoddy storytelling and flat characters. He enjoys discussing his craft and has plenty of advice for aspiring writers who want to someday have a measure of his success. For the hipsters who judge the quality of a book on its impenetrability, Lehane’s ideas are probably of little use. To him, writing is a job, not an identity. Like any job, improvement comes with experience and there exists no gimmick or inspiration that can substitute for trial and error. The worker must understand the most important aspects of the job, which, for Lehane, are:

1) Story
2) Story, and
3) Story

When discussing his life as a writer, Lehane was quick to frame the conversation in occupational rather than artistic terms. “At the end of the day,” he said, “it’s a job. It’s a hard job.” Responding to the aspiring writer’s first great hurdle, the blank page, Lehane simply said, “Gut it out…the only answer is the answer that nobody wants to hear: you just have to put your ass in a chair and write.” He never mentioned martini parties with the Boston literati as a source of inspiration. In fact, he barely mentioned inspiration at all, falling back time and again on the discipline necessary to tell a story: “If you wrote just when you enjoyed it, nothing would ever be published.”

Without including specifics about his own process, which he said he wouldn’t recommend to anyone, Lehane advocated setting benchmarks and goals, like writing a certain number of words per day. He cautioned, “One of the final steps to becoming a writer is…fear management,” referring to a situation where “You went in there that day and said, ‘I’m gonna get my 900 words’ or whatever, and those words sucked, and that’s tough in terms of effort versus reward. But that’s the job.” Soft-handed novelists writing at their leisure about pet obsessions will probably not lead readers “down the path to see something [they] wouldn’t otherwise assume.” Good writing rises from tension, even if that tension is a writer pulling at a story, and the story pulling back.

Storytelling is the all-important craft concept to Dennis Lehane, the author of nine novels of varying complexity and scope. If one has the discipline to become a writer and the interest in telling stories rather than just talking about them with smart friends, Lehane’s advice is, perhaps, predictable: keep it simple, especially with a first novel. He cited his own first novel, A Drink Before the War, as an example of simple storytelling: a woman disappears with incriminating documents, and a private detective must find her. The simpler the story, he said, the easier to write. And with first novels, Lehane said, the “single most important thing is to puke it out onto the page.” He recalled a conversation with a woman who was concocting a novel with “various postmodern tropes” and a cast of characters “that would fill two football teams,” and he was thinking, “this thing’s never getting written.” Symbols, tropes, and other embedded subtext devices must arise as a side effect of a well-crafted story, not the other way around. Lehane mentioned scholarly articles about Mystic River that postulated certain image schemes or settings as symbolic, and his typical response: “if you say so.” He doesn’t dwell on such interpretations – his chief concern is telling a good, honest story that doesn’t cut corners.

But what is that? Lehane says the stories he enjoys the most “take me expertly in hand and take me on a journey that’s worthwhile.” This journey, he is quick to point out, “has to be about people and it has to be about emotional truth.” Young writers, he says, often forget that “character is action” – if a character goes on a journey, has her own through line, and exits the book from a different place than she entered, the writer has the makings of a story. But she must act, he asserts. The “telltale sign of all student fiction is starting stories with people sitting around thinking.” This type of writing sees itself too much as obscure journal-bait, and not enough as entertainment. A story must contain characters who not only move, but act. A character running at full speed and thinking about his life is still not acting, he’s just moving. No journey begins until that character stops thinking and does something to satisfy his desire or reach his goal.

A writer serious about telling a “worthwhile” story must be able to understand the distinction between it and plot, the basic architecture of the journey. On the subject, Lehane said, “I don’t really give a shit about plot – I live and die by story.” In a well-told, unified story, the nuts-and-bolts plot elements will fade into the background. Lehane used his famous novel Mystic River as an example of this phenomenon. After they put the book down, readers often can’t remember who the killer is or why he did it, because it doesn’t matter. Lehane’s story about three former friends overwhelms the cause-and-effect plot machinations. Likewise, a story that is poorly told will appear to be all plot, a series of twists and turns with no connection to the characters. He used Michael Bay’s film, Transformers, as an example of such a story: there are “no real characters,” and “events have no relationship to any sort of journey of the characters outside of them just riding a bunch of theme park rides. So, in the end, there is no story.” Relentless plotting and nonstop movement can overburden a story and sink it into meaninglessness.

The larger problem for writers, however, lies at the opposite end of the spectrum. Rather than crafting a journey for a character that, as Lehane puts it, “taps into something universal about the human condition,” writers settle for “literary masturbation.” They can become enthralled with the process of writing to the point that it either never finds completion or doesn’t mean anything to most readers. “I recognize literature,” Lehane said, and “just because you are part of a genre called literary fiction does not make you literature…I’m not gonna be impressed if you just jerk me off with a bunch of postmodern bullshit.” He cited a love for the work of Jonathan Franzen, Don Delillo, and other writers often classified as postmodern who take the time to unfold meaningful journeys. Many writers think that unearthing a tight, conventional story is somehow unworthy of pursuit because the concept is relatively simple. But understanding story is not the same as executing it.

Dennis Lehane’s ability to execute intricate, believable stories that rise naturally from characters’ actions has garnered him both success and recognition. In addition to his print work, Lehane was tapped for HBO’s The Wire, a sprawling drama hailed by many critics as one of the greatest television series ever made. Three of his novels have been adapted into feature films. All this is proof enough to certain bitter writers that his work is too universal, too simple. But after hearing this author expertly dispatch preconceived notions about what a “crime author” should value, I left believing that only two types of fiction exist: stories that work – that have journeys which contain drama and emotional depth and action – and those that don’t. And despite making a bad first impression with my indelicate use of genre labels, I now had a trove of tips and advice from a man whose job is writing fiction. By treating the written word more as a job that connects us to people and less as an art that separates us from them, we somehow become, simultaneously, better laborers and artists.

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Tony DeLateur is in his final year at ODU’s creative writing program. He chose the fiction track, but likes that the program gave him opportunities to write creative nonfiction and journalism. This article grew out of an in-person interview with author Dennis Lehane, who read at ODU’s annual Literary Festival in promotion of his latest mystery, Moonlight Mile.