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.