Why I’m a Writer (as far as I can tell)

If I could “be” anything in the world I would be a rock star. I blame it on my dad.

When I was a kid I discovered my dad’s music collection, a set of vinyl albums by The Beach Boys, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Janis Joplin, the Mamas and the Papas. Even before that I remember lots of loud stereo music played throughout the day by my mother. The same songs played on the car radio with my dad. Country songs which I had no interest in until years later. This was the era of the outlaws and I eventually came to appreciate that kind of country as much as any kind of music. In my teen years my dad brought more new music to my experience: Tom Waits, Blondie, the soundtrack to Popeye.

Today I’m a music fanatic. I’ve seen dozens of concerts and I’m always on the look out for new sounds. Here’s something I’ve just discovered courtesy of the Outlands Music Fest:

Man I wish I could play like that.

While I’m sure it’s not too late to learn an instrument there’s something more important I’ve come to realize in the last while. It’s something I consciously do in my craft. I try to write like a rock star.

Seriously, this is one of the reasons I write. I have a desire to capture the angst, anger, and sentiment of music. Music generates an immediate understanding of what it is trying to convey, even when the song is brand new to the listener. The right song does all of the tingly things music is supposed to do for us, and in doing that it accomplishes the best of what we try to do in writing. Music is aided, of course, by sound whereas a story only has the inner voice of the narrative and the inner ear of the reader. And more than any other media form the one-to-one exchange between performer and audience in writing is utterly dependent on the skill of the reader, at least as much as on that of the writer. To capture all of the nuances of music as a story writer is perhaps an unattainable goal. I try anyway, when I write.

The rock and roll persona of most writers is greatly subdued. I have no doubt that there are many many writers, of more and lesser fame, who have just as engaging and charismatic personalities as the most radical music star, but because of the nature of storytelling it’s much harder to get at the dynamics of the person behind the story. Take J.D. Salinger for example. There is a new documentary coming out in a few weeks which purports to tell us a lot about the Catcher author that we haven’t known in the nearly fifty years since he left the public eye. Yet, what we do know, or supposedly know, is that this clever creator of Holden Caulfield, this outspoken originator of Franny and Zooey, was a man willing to walk away from the center of the universe and virtually disappear from the world he was partly responsible for creating (in the literary sense) at a point when his career was still gaining. And yet he allegedly continued writing every day, just for himself, for another forty years.

That, my friends, is very punk rock.

I think I write because I want to do something that really rocks. Apparently a lot of people want to do this, too. Well, then be assured that just trying, every day, to succeed at a story or poem or play or novel is rock star. It doesn’t matter how much you publish or how many volumes you create or where they sit collecting dust. Rock stars practice and so should you, you writing rock star.

I’m encouraged by a recent quote I saw from Ira Glass:

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

Fight. That’s rock. Very punk rock. So there you have it. This is why I, and I suspect most of us, write. We hear something inside and we have to share it. Maybe it’s only a performance for one, like Salinger, but it doesn’t take away from the truth that what we do is nothing less than rock and roll. I hope you’ll take Glass’s words to heart and join me in writing one story a week. You can do it and so can I.

Rock on.

Ground Hog Day – Are we in a cookie-cutter era?

In 2014 something like 20 of Hollywood’s 25 big releases are supposedly going to be either remakes or sequels. I know for sure one of them is going to be a movie based on a video game. A plot-less video game, no less. Elsewhere, fewer than half a dozen companies own all of commercial radio. Wonder why you’re hearing the same songs over and over again (assuming you listen to music radio) wondering (if you wonder such things) when, if ever, they’re going to add something new? Not familiar with these points of reference? Perhaps you’ve noticed, then, that (unofficially) about 80% of all literary short stories are written in the same tone, from the same P.O.V. (first), about the same general subjects with the same level of raw irony, profanity, and milk-toast “shock” content to the degree that it’s really pretty difficult to tell one narrative voice from the next.

This is my experience, anyway.

I use the 80% figure as a general estimate. I could be wrong. I mean, hell, I have whole volumes of literary journals on my shelves in which I can’t get through a single story.

Call me jaded. I have a story that I’ve been shopping and of which I am quite proud. It’s nothing like other stories I’ve seen, and while it isn’t as bold and vibrant as some I have seen, it’s also unusual, more silky and ethereal than it is harsh and frenetic. Inspired by the music of Beach House and Deer Tick, it has the feel (to me) of the sweetly nightmarish videos of the former with the straight sentimentality of the latter. I even quote Deer Tick at the opening. Yet, despite being praised for containing “beautiful writing” it hasn’t caught on anywhere. Could this be because it’s a little off center from what is being published right now?

I freely acknowledge that I am teetering toward the edge of paranoia here, and I’m not about to tell publishers how to do their jobs. They have a hard job to do, and shoveling through mounds of unacceptable stories is just part of the burden these poor souls must bear. Still, in looking at the veneer of schlock that permeates our culture, the question remains: are we in a cookie-cutter era?

My favorite line in all of literature (yes, I may have mentioned this before, and I’m sure I will again) happens in Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being when Sabina says to Tomas, “in the kingdom of kitsch you would be a monster.” I think of myself, too, as being a monster in the kingdom of kitsch. Give me something off-center, give me unique, dreamy, nightmarish if you have to. Just don’t bore me by offering the expected.

But that’s me. There are practical reasons for a cookie-cutter approach to entertainment. Within a given society there is, at a minimum, about 60% of a population that is unwilling to embrace change and anything new. This section is satisfied most with the simpler, more convenient offerings of its culture, preferring that the bulk of thinking be foisted upon others. This “spoon-feeding” of ideas is replete throughout our culture foremost in our media. Marketing, news, politics, entertainment. Sex and violence and a little more distraction from the presence of the mortal coil. So from the perspective of those making a living off the dollar of the rest of us, 60% of an entire culture is not bad.

Just imagine, however, if 60% of us demanded thought-provoking, critically valid new ideas. Our collective intelligence would no doubt sky-rocket and we as a society, and furthermore as a species, would reach levels of enlightenment in the span of one generation never before seen.

Ah, well, it’s a beautiful thought anyway.

I guess the point is that, regardless of the culture we live in we must do what we do. If kitsch is your thing, and if it makes you happy and successful, then who’s to say it’s wrong? For those of us who resist, who even fight to undermine it, our lot is something different, perhaps success of a different kind. And I suppose it’s what we deserve. Our ideals are, after all, centered on things considered to be anti-success by societal standards. We say, in our words and actions, that wealth and fame and praise and prizes are not important. And are they, in the end? Not in the end they are not. But in the present, well, there is a bit to be said about the lost moments.

What is one to do, finally, except to say that we creative types must make our art the way we do. Some of us can bend and mold our work to suit the expectations of the time. Some of us cannot, or will not, and neither way is right or wrong. When all is said and done, and when we are at the end at last, all we can say is we tried, and in trying we only failed if we gave up.

Do not let this be the legacy – if nothing else – do not give up.

Why no one is going to write your story (unless they literally steal your idea)

Here’s a fear that will keep a writer up at night: what if someone writes the same story you’re writing and finishes before you do?

Ever experience that one? What’s worse is when, on occasion, we see it sort of happen (I’m thinking of the simultaneous Capote movies that came out a few years ago). Confirmation that if we don’t hurry up and write our story then someone else is going to beat us to the punch, and we’ll have done all that work for nothing.

This is one of those unfounded fears, one of the many, that we talk about over and over when discussing all of the things that stop us from actually writing. As a youth I stopped, more than once, from getting on with my work just because in my imagined defeat someone else was already ahead of me in telling the same story.

Oh those wasted years.

The truth is, the chance that anyone is going to tell the same story you are is nearly impossible. The percentages go up if this is a retelling of another well-known story, or if the tale is about a famous person as in our Capote example, but even so there is virtually no chance anyone is going to tell your story. There are simply too many variables.

We all know that there’s nothing new under the sun, and it turns out there’s not much new under the moon either, yet the world churns out thousands upon thousands of stories a day. Intriguing, detailed stories of human interest, filling literary journals, magazines, newspapers, television, movies, etc. Where do these stories come from?

It’s hard to remember as a novice writer that, in time, with lots of practice and hard work, something will happen, a transition will occur in the individual life, to give breath to your unique voice. And like snowflakes and killer whales, human beings are as different from one another, in thoughts, feelings, experiences and memories, as can be. Different but the same. For while our moment by moment sense of the world around us differs from that of our neighbor, all people understand just the same what it’s like to experience things in that human way. With writing, as with any art, these experiences come through for others to share, so that even without living a particular experience or emotion, we the audience can still understand what that feeling is like, because we share the human vehicle and all of its potential.

This is why we fear that others are going to tell our tale. But outside of stealing the very specific details of the story we are trying to write, no one can anticipate the unique voice and nature of others, a critical component in the great story-telling milieu. In time our voice might be imitated, a great honor, but no one else can really “be” who we are, nor can they say what we have to say.

One of two things is bound to happen when you sit down to write. 1) You may write a story that never quite develops, or never quite finds traction, and therefore doesn’t really go into the world to be seen by anyone (and therefore cannot be stolen except by a “friend”), or 2) you will write an outstanding story and it will be accepted and it will go into the world and people will see it and recognize the great work you’ve done (and some will even deign to criticize you and try to make you feel horrible, which is also great!).

There is one caveat to all of this attitude of “be free and worry not” – we should still be careful about revealing too much of an idea to the wrong people. Our ideas can spark others who may indeed manage to come out ahead of us with something very close to what we are writing. While rare it is possible that someone might steal our idea. A cheap ripoff of a great idea will become the idea if indeed it gets out ahead of us. This, however, is nothing to fear but rather to manage in our day-to-day explanation to others who ask that old question “what do you write?” Give em all the generic detail you can muster. Keep the spoilers to yourself.

The bottom line, finally, is that all we have are our stories, and as writers these are what we must tell. There is no more use in worrying about someone telling our story than there is in worrying that others will think we’re hacks, talent-less and hopeless wasters of time. We hear that all the time already.

Just do what you do, and remember, like we discussed recently, that writing develops at its own pace. Sit down, do your work, and stop worrying already. There’s revision to be done!

The Sacrificial Lamb – Writing begins with what you give up

I’m looking at the title for today’s post and wondering whether it comes across as cynical. I don’t mean for it to be. When I talk about writing as a sacrifice I’m not trying to imply that one must lose something good in exchange for something of equal or lesser value. The exchange is in answer to a calling. When it comes to the craft of writing there is no avoiding the fact that some things must be let go in order to make room for a new lifestyle.

By the looks of contemporary sensibilities the arts of reading and writing are on shaky ground. I read an article just the other day about a professor who said that spelling and grammar were no longer necessary thanks to smart phones. Thanks a lot, Professor, for adding to the mythology of the technological utopia. As soon as some twelve year-old gets it in their head that adults no longer expect them to learn spelling and grammar we’ll be in free-fall to universal dumb before you can spell “kat.”

The point I want to make about sacrifice, however, has less to do with my dismay at the slowly deteriorating intellect in our culture, and more to do with the simple fact that really good and important things come through work and sacrifice, and the sacrifice is usually of things we don’t need much anyway. The sacrifice in learning and using good grammar and spelling comes in the hard work it takes to grasp concepts that are otherwise accommodated for us through technology. When it comes to writing, however, there is no device that can take the place of imagination and ingenuity.

A writer is tasked to eschew the old habits of downtime. For example, I gave up pay television, for the most part, nineteen years ago. I have had it for a few sports seasons since then, but inevitably I give it up to create the right environment to write in. Without television I am forced to find other forms of entertainment. Reading and writing fit nicely when there’s no chatter-box nearby to infringe on my otherwise perfectly functioning mind.

I am not saying that giving up television makes me better than anyone else. But I am calling it a sacrifice that allows me the time and focus to write. I suppose I could give up all forms of working for an income and just watch TV between writing sessions. But then I would also have to give up food, shelter, my health, and then, finally, the television. I guess it just isn’t worth it for me.

On a more serious note, television is really a poor example of this sacrifice I am speaking about. There are other substantial sacrifices a writer makes when maintaining diligence in the craft. The simple life is often one of the first things to go. In a simple life one lives in blissful ignorance. Work, family, God, country – or some such order – all coalesce to form the simple life. There is a willful dismissal of that which might cause one to pine for the challenge of sussing out the deeper notions of the human condition and to follow that up with the painstaking effort of composing a meaningful essay about one’s discoveries. Far better to move through the circles of the well-planned life. 9-5 work, children’s events, Saturday barbecues, Sunday services, beer and wine, holy water, spilled milk. Not to make light of the standard American life – at the very least it serves as fodder for the writer who studies her surroundings and then re-images them in prose or poetry.

Yet, the writer sacrifices here as well, an outsider in all things “normal.” We cannot look upon the disasters of our own lives without seeing them artfully. In this way the writer sacrifices a piece of their own humanity, ultimately to regurgitate it as all humanity, and if done well to the praise and admiration of other human beings who have made some connection with it. Sometimes the writer finds satisfaction in connecting with others in this way, but sometimes not. Still, it’s not as if the diligent writer has any choice. If they – if we – do not practice the craft, we will lose ourselves anyway.

Writers often sacrifice sleep, comfort, companionship, and pleasure. Perhaps this is why so many fall prey to extremes. It’s not that writers never have down time, but when it comes it follows a different schedule than most other people. Writers take their down time at two-thirty in the afternoon, on a weekday, in October, and they don’t come up for air for three days before getting back to work – on a Saturday, at three in the morning . . .

Sacrifice for a writer extends into the craft itself. Once the draft is complete and the body of written work sits before us, pristine and elegant in the blur of typeface, the greatest sacrifice of all is laid bare. The infant, the squealing puppy, the squirming grub of our imagination sits before us in need of maturation, and so, pen in hand (or in mind, at the least) we descend into the flesh of our creation and, mercilessly, carve away the gelatinous flesh, exposing bone and muscle, wailing alongside the previously sacrosanct offspring of our imagination as we eliminate the weaknesses of our own fallibility. What we present, finally, to the rest of the world is a hardened and deconstructed version of the formerly fatted inspiration. And we hold it up, feebly, and ask for approval.

This is the final sacrifice for the writer – a pound of of flesh, expertly carved from the body of our own psyche, and with it a little pride. In exchange we gamble what we’ve lost on the potential of the return. That someone might approve and in that approval restore our pride ten-fold, our confidence elevated to the stars, and our self-worth redoubled so that we are ready to do it again.

And even if none of that happens we will return, because what we sacrifice as writers is the fuel that feeds us. We give up the ways of common life to engage in something that can only be attained by leaving behind average things.

We do this, finally, because we must.