Monthly Archives: August 2013

Why are Writers Such Irredeemable Bastards?

I am not an innately good person.

But that’s okay, because I think that might be why I’m a good storyteller. Or, somewhat less arrogantly, I think that might be why I want to be a good storyteller. My intrinsic shittiness as a human being might be the reason why stories and their telling are important to me.

When I say I’m not an innately good person, I don’t mean that I’m a psychopath, or even a big fat jerk, exuding fatness and jerkiness over all that I survey. Externally at least, I’m a fairly nice person. But when, say, one of my friends gets a killer book deal while mine flounders, my first thought isn’t bluebirds and sunshine. It’s dirty and selfish and stupid.

Of course, my second thought is “what a shitty thing to think, don’t do that.” But that first impulse is still out there, and it is bad, and that makes me a less than ideal human being. I struggle against my nature, I strive to overcome it, and bit by bit, I learn to better recognize the awful parts of myself and give them a little less power over my life. That is a basic character arc. I might make for a pretty shitty roommate, but I’m a fairly compelling narrative.

Being kind of an inherent dickbag has a lot of cons, but that’s the one big pro: I understand the importance of narrative to human beings. I want to see people undergo trauma and come out of it changed somehow – if not improved, then at least substantially different. If pressed, I would say this is almost mandatory in storytellers. If you’re a genuinely good person, through and through — from first impulsive thought to your last external action – I don’t know how fully you can understand what comprises a good story.

That’s not a rule or anything, just a sneaking suspicion that I have: Maybe you’re a friggin’ saint, but you have such empathy for others that you can experience whole character arcs in your mind without ever going through them firsthand. I don’t know. But for me, the filthy, savage little goblin in my guts that lashes out before thinking? That bastard is vital to writing.

“Fuck you,” he says, in response to literally anything.

But then, after some consideration, another part of my rational mind kicks in and starts analyzing and dissecting the response. Why does the goblin shit on the success of my friends and loved ones? Is it right, that he does that? What should he do, instead? What can I do to make him behave differently?

I’m not breaking new ground. You hear this type of thing all the time: That most creative types are asshole, bastards and jerks. Kurt Vonnegut manufactured a very specific public image – a frazzled, cynical old hippie persona that colored his writing and endeared him to a generation — and then the biographies came out, stating that in reality, he was straight-laced, extremely selfish, often cruel and generally unloving person. Some readers used this as a reason to dismiss his works: “How can I take what this guy wrote seriously, if  he wasn’t actually like that? If it was all just a cynical act to market to me?”

I think, if Vonnegut truly was the friendly, sad old hippie he pretended to be, his books would have held little to no emotional impact. What made him such a compelling writer wasn’t that he was practically a saint who wrote books – it was that he was an asshole, trying as best he could to understand the saints around him. In his personal life, he failed. In his books, he succeeded. I wouldn’t want to share a tent with the guy, but then I probably wouldn’t enjoy the books of a guy that always picks up after himself, pays his bills on time and never plays his music too loud quite as much.

“Fuck you,” Vonnegut said, in response to pretty much everything. And then, after a moment’s consideration: “But…why?”

See, that’s the reason why I write: I think you should go fuck yourself, and I want to understand why.

Waiting for Inspiration

Let’s talk inspiration…

Fuck inspiration. We’re done talking about inspiration now.

Fine, fine, we’ll elaborate: If you wait for inspiration to strike before you start writing, you will count yourself lucky to average one page a month, and it will not be nearly as good as you think it was when you re-read it the next day. Then you’ll get discouraged and give up writing for a while, only to get inspired six months later and repeat the whole process. That’s a good way for a writer to avoid writing.

You can try to force inspiration by doing inspiring things – Hemingway went fishing, Hunter used drugs, Dostoyevsky had Tuberculosis – but that’s not ultimately necessary. Sure, I work out my creative problems and come up with my best ideas when I’m doing something besides staring at a blinking cursor. But those other tasks are not inspiring – they’re almost universally boring and monotonous. Mundane tasks leave your mind space to roam. Every great idea I have ever had has been conceived, refined, or tweaked while doing the dishes. Or in the shower. Maybe mowing the lawn. I think I had a good idea while cleaning the garage once – but even that was too thought intensive to allow for the right kind of brain rambling.

Further, don’t go thinking your hobbies are your inspiration. If you like sailing boats, or camping, or riding motorcycles, people will invariably ask if that inspires you.

No.

If inspiration struck me while riding my motorcycle, the next thing to strike me would be a tree and I would die. If what you’re doing is inspiring, be present in the experience. Maybe you can draw on it later – but probably not. Because if you’re out doing inspiring things, you’re not going to have time to think about writing; to designate parts of the experience as muse-worthy while discarding the chaff. If you are thinking about writing while making love with exotic women or fighting bulls, then I assure you that you’re doing one or both of those things wrong, and you’ll either end up in the wrong hole or with a very wrong hole of your own.

Your own brain is your only inspiration. The only way to stir creativity is to practice getting your brain to work on the regular.

Externalizing inspiration is a sucker’s game. This is such generic advice, handily repeated a million times on every blog by every writer on Earth. And yet, I still get this one question more than any other: “How do you just sit down and write?”

The form of the question varies. Last year it was: “What is your inspiration?” Last month it was: “Where do you get your ideas?” Yesterday it was: “Do you find maintaining a routine is best, or just write when it strikes you?”

Here’s the answer to that last question: My own schedule is too hectic to allow for setting up a specific time to write, but I do budget an amount of time. I will write for an hour and a half today – whether that’s before work, on my lunch break, or later in the night may vary, but the amount of work I get done does not.

Here’s the answer to the unspoken question behind the question: No, there is no trick, or hack, or easy way to fool words into existing. Writing at exactly 8:55 in the morning, or only after surfing, or twenty minutes after taking two point four tabs of acid — it won’t help. Writing is a skill. Talent helps, as it does with anything — there are talented mechanics and talented pinata sculptors – but practice helps more. If you sit down and write right this second — even if you’re not feeling it — and you turn out garbage, throw it away and do it again tomorrow. It will be slightly better.

Repeat.

Forever.

Until you die.

Entertainment Vs. Meaning: On Blaster Rifles and Divorce

I write juvenile books.

No, not “young adult” or any such respectable label – I mean that I write books with a a kind of immature, callow sensibility.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.

Sticking to the genre of my only published fiction novel, cyberpunk, you can see that even the canonical works are pretty juvenile books. I don’t think it’s endemic to the genre or anything – plenty of cyberpunk books have very restrained, adult sensibilities – but even Gibson thinks Neuromancer was a “young man’s” book. Not exactly surprising, since he also calls himself “immature” when he wrote it. He didn’t necessarily mean that as a bad thing, but that’s the way you hear the quote repeated when it’s bandied about by ‘sophisticated’ cyberpunk fans.

That attitude is not particular to cybernetic punks, incidentally.

There’s this strange idea among many readers that only sober and carefully constructed novels can teach us things, or be meaningful to our lives. If a book (or movie, game, album — pretty much anything) is entertaining, then it’s not important. If it’s important, then it’s not entertaining. I’m not sure where this concept of mutual exclusivity came from, but it’s out there. Iain Banks had to write under two different names (even if they were just a single letter apart) to neatly delineate his sci-fi books from his “real” books, lest his somber literary fans accidentally read about space shape-shifting alien spies and have their monocles popped painfully out of their eye sockets.

Comedy, tragedy, life lessons and action scenes aren’t compartmentalized in our daily lives, so why should they be in fiction? Why isn’t every book hilarious, heartbreaking, terrifying and entertaining at the same time? (Well, apart from that it’s really, really hard for one person to do all those things well.) Why do we sort all of our equally viable mental states into separate literary sections? That’s genre segregation. That’s emotional racism.

For example: I know I have a novel in me about a man undergoing a painful, if somewhat amicable divorce. He becomes increasingly convinced that the way to save his relationship is hidden somewhere in his subconscious, so he retreats into dreams, leaving his real relationship to atrophy.

God, isn’t that a fucking bummer?

Nicholas Sparks could write that shit. And this is coming from the guy whose first book had a character named King Big Dick?

Yes, well, hopefully I have a way to pull it off that’s interesting and worthwhile, but I’m not emotionally mature or technically skilled enough as a writer to tackle it yet. And that’s okay, because the book I’m writing right now about punk rockers fighting math monsters is just as important… to the right person. They could read every word of Subconscious Divorce up there and get nothing, but tackle one chapter of Punks Vs. Math and have a line resonate so completely that it changes their life.

Genre fiction isn’t good for just entertainment. I know that sounds obvious, spelled out like that – but so many of even the staunchest genre fans seem unwilling to make that argument. “I just like books that are entertaining,” they’ll say defensively, when the literary fiction bullies corner them in the library with their metaphorical brass knuckles and post-modernist billy clubs. The implication being that entertainment and meaning are oil and water. I don’t believe that. The ends do justify the means, and a horror book could teach somebody all the same valuable lessons that a serious literary drama teaches one of those so-called adults.

In short: You can learn about loss just as effectively from a laser gun as you can from an unsuccessful affair in Paris.

Don’t let anybody tell you different.