Saturday, March 14, 2015

Guest Blog : Dennis Palumbo

Donis here. I am inordinately pleased to welcome today's guest blogger and one of my favorite mystery authors, Dennis Palumbo. Formerly a Hollywood screenwriter (My Favorite Year; Welcome Back, Kotter, etc.), Dennis is now a licensed psychotherapist and author. His mystery fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, The Strand and elsewhere, and is collected in From Crime to Crime (Tallfellow Press). His acclaimed series of crime novels (Mirror Image, Fever Dream, Night Terrors and the latest, Phantom Limb) feature psychologist Daniel Rinaldi, a trauma expert who consults with the Pittsburgh Police. All are from Poisoned Pen Press.

The Unknown
Dennis Palumbo

After 27 years as a licensed psychotherapist, and almost 40 as a working writer, the one thing I know for sure is that I don’t know anything for sure.

Maybe it’s the result of seeing hundreds of patients over the course of my practice, encountering such a wide variety of people, issues and experiences. Maybe it’s the hard-won acceptance of the idea that few things can be reduced to black or white, true or not true, but rather some mixture of the two. Maybe it’s just that I’m getting older.

I was thinking of this a few months back, while serving as a panelist at a local writing conference. I was seated between a talented, successful mystery novelist and an equally talented, successful screenwriter. The audience was made up of sincere, passionately attentive people who seemed to be yearning for something from the panelists: Some answer. Some blueprint for success. Something we three veteran writers Knew For Sure.

What struggling writer doesn’t yearn for this? I’ve taught countless writing workshops over the years, and was always moved by questions like “What are editors looking for nowadays?” “Is it better to write in the morning or evening?” “Should a writer always outline first?”

In other words, What Did I Know and When Did I Know It? The funny thing is, I used to try to answer those questions, as ultimately unanswerable as they are. I could understand from personal experience the yearning behind them, the struggle to find a path through the dense forest of a writing career, or at least to identify some markers.

Not that there aren’t things to teach, and for writers to learn. Things having to do with craft, consistency, perseverance. Things that we all need to learn and re-learn, one unceasing lesson that lasts as many days as we do.

But the most important lesson, the one truth that experienced writers know, is that there’s a limit to knowing. Which means there’s a limit to safety, sureness, technique. Regardless of the pragmatic tools you forge, the creative gifts you were given at birth, the teachers you meet along the way, sooner or later you bump up against the Mystery: the Thing That Can’t Be Known.

Because the truth is, good writing is a combination of the above-mentioned factors, yet it transcends them all. It’s bigger than the sum of its parts. You can do everything “right,” approach the work with talent, diligence and craft---and yet while on Monday the writing sings, on Tuesday it sucks.

Why? I don’t know. More importantly, you don’t have to know. You just have to keep writing.

St. John of the Cross, describing a mystical union with the Almighty, said, “I came into the Unknown, beyond all science.” That may be well and good when it comes to mystical unions, but what does it have to do with making your characters richer or solving some tricky plot problem? More than you might think. Regardless of experience, level of talent or career success, every writer “comes into the Unknown” the moment he or she begins to write.

It’s part of the compact made between the writer and that which is being written. It’s an agreement that reads something like this: “I (the writer) bring to this work my talent, craft and professionalism. I also bring a fair amount of life experience, emotional baggage, grandiose fantasies and inchoate dreads. I’m also throwing in some pragmatic understanding of the marketplace, a few story turns my agent suggested, character nuances from my writing group, and a couple jokes I’m recycling from that last novel (or screenplay, short story, whatever) nobody bought. Finally, I offer my blood, sweat and tears, enough good will to float a hospital ship, and a vague sense of wanting my authentic voice, whatever it may be, to shine through the material.”

And what can the writer expect from the other party to this compact? The Muse, the Unknown, whatever you want to call it?

Not much.

In fact, expect nothing at all. Except the occasional miracle. The great, pitch-perfect line of dialogue. The surprising story turn. Those infrequent moments when you look at something you’ve just written, something wonderful, and say to yourself, “Where the hell did that come from?” And your heart soars.

Talk about a risky business! You pour all your talent, energy and commitment into writing, and there’s still no guarantee that anything good will come of it. And when it does, most of the time you won’t know why it does.

Good writing is damned mysterious, as much to the writer as anyone else, which is probably the source of its power to move, enthrall and inspire.

I say “probably,” of course, because when it comes to writing, you never know.
Visit Dennis’s website at


Donis Casey said...

I knew there was magic involved. I knew it!

Triss said...

Excellent essay, Dennis. Thank you

Dana McNeely said...

I'm glad to know that "unknowing" is key - because I've got "unknowing", in full measure, packed down, and spilling out. Thanks for an encouraging post!

Eileen Goudge said...

Pearls of wisdom are really just beads of sweat. Thank you for sharing, Dennis. My sentiments exactly.