I comment on different topics: “The Writing Life”, “Inspired by Fear”, “Why I Love Science Fiction”.
Hope you find something worthwhile in these monologues, insights into the way I approach my craft, the psychology behind some of my best known stories.
I’ve put together a short roster of the best of the best of these queries and my responses (though, in some cases I’ve pared the original question down and added more detail to my replies).
Here are the top ten:
What’s the difference between calling yourself a “self-publisher” and an “independent author”?
In a word, talent. Oh, and professional credentials. Oh, and the seriousness with which you approach your craft.
Before I started my own imprint back in 1990, I’d already received a Canada Council grant and published a good number of tales in various venues around the world. I toiled every day on my writing and though the money was almost nonexistent, I didn’t care, it was all about becoming the best writer I could possibly be. I was focused, obsessed with my work. I created Black Dog Press because I detected a dearth of vision and intelligence among the editors I was dealing with and since I’m the kind of guy who doesn’t take rejection lying down, I decided to empower myself, rather than accept the verdict of dingbats.
Most self-publishers, however, are hobbyists, part-timers, dolts with little knowledge of what entails good writing, they merely want to see their name on a book, regardless if it’s any good. They don’t labor over their work, endlessly polishing and editing, growing and developing as artists. Such notions are beneath them. Some have the decency to confine themselves to giving copies of their amateurish efforts to friends and family and I have no bone to pick with them. It’s the morons who’ve written a memoir about their so-called interesting life or a spin-off novel lifted from some popular franchise and are deluded enough to believe they are “real” writers that raise my ire.
Why are you such an asshole?
Yes, I’ve received a number of communications along these lines, usually from the aforementioned amateurs and wannabes. They demand that I take their vampire porn or zombie splatter or “poor me” memoirs seriously and resent the notion of applying professional standards (y’know, like spelling, syntax, grammar) to their abominable tripe.
To them, there’s no difference between great writing and garbage, since such standards are arbitrary and unfair (usually they have trouble with big words like “arbitrary”, but I digress). As I’ve written previously, I have nothing against aspiring writers, beginners, folks who genuinely care about the printed word and want to create the best work they can. It’s the ones who foolishly believe their 10-book vampire series (released as super cheap/free e-books to inflate their “sales”) is imbued with true genius that I take exception to…and vilify accordingly. They read shit, they watch shit, they write shit. I dismiss (and diss) them out of hand. They are part-time turd-peddlers and pretenders and they deserve nothing but contempt. And I give it to them…in spades.
How much money do you make?
Seriously? Dude, you think I’m gonna open my bank records to you? Let’s just say that if you got into writing (or any art) for the money, you’re a fucking prostitute, and I mean the kind of gutter trash that solicits around public toilets and drops to their knees at the slightest indication of praise or approval.
I doubt I’ll ever become rich from my writing but a number of my favorite writers lived and died in poverty and anonymity, yet their body of work out-lives them and most of their popular contemporaries. I’m in this for the long haul and will trust posterity to determine my stature as an artist. I’ve stated on numerous occasions that I’d rather have a million readers than a million dollars and anyone who knows me is well aware that I’m not joking or resorting to hyperbole. I’m an author’s author…and it’s unlikely that the fuckwits who read Fifty Shades of Grey will have much affinity for my work.
No regrets there.
You’ve been called an “elitist”–do you agree?
Yup. No question. I place high standards on my work, set the bar higher and higher with each new effort. I don’t confine myself to formula and refuse to cater to anyone’s expectations. Sales figures (see above) are irrelevant, the most important thing is releasing a work that is a celebration of the best in literature, a novel, poem or short story that pushes me to the limits of my abilities and sometimes beyond.
I write with intelligence and insight and I demand that from every film, book or artwork I see. I don’t waste my time on “popcorn movies”, mind candy or escapist entertainment. I feed my spirit and get inspired by innovative, original work.
Are you a horror writer? A fantasy or science fiction writer? How do you categorize yourself?
Well, I don’t. Not really. I utilize some of the devices and tropes from all three of the genres you mentioned but only to further the aims of my storylines. I suppose you could also call me a fabulist or surrealist…but I think any niches or slots are distinctly unhelpful when it comes to work as singular and unusual as mine.
I’m a literary writer, that’s the way I perceive myself. As for the rest…
I really think you’d like my writing. Can I send some of my stuff your way to critique?
No. Absolutely not. It’s not my role to be your editor or ego booster. Real writers write and that’s that. A thousand rejections and the opinions of others should have absolutely no effect on you if you’re truly devoted to the calling. Nabokov talked about “writing in defiance of all the world’s muteness” and that’s advice you should take to heart. Write and write and write. If you need feedback, there are plenty of opportunities for that through local writing groups and guilds and God knows how many on-line venues where up and coming writers gather to talk turkey and swap story samples. But leave the pros alone. We have our own schedules, deadlines and pressing projects. Don’t annoy us with your self-centered, egotistical lobbying.
You seem to genuinely hate traditional publishing and your harsh language must have drawn their attention. Don’t you worry about ruining your chances of becoming a truly famous writer?
Yes, I’ve heard through the grapevine that some of my remarks have made poobahs in publishing extremely cranky with me. How dare I question their intelligence, their professionalism, their psychopathology and their integrity? But, see, I’ve dealt with these bird-brains (editors, agents, publishers) for over twenty years and as I wrote in a recent post on RedRoom, I despise the vast majority of them. I hope I run into a few of the biggest arseholes before my arthritic hands wreck my chances of punching their fucking lights out. A substantial proportion of the people who decide what books get published are too stupid to be trusted with sharp objects and should be, if there was any justice in the world, employed as assistant managers of a fast food restaurant, a job more befitting their low intelligence quotient and lousy inter-personal skills.
As for being famous…it just isn’t a priority. Obviously.
I want to become an independent author too–how do I get started?
First of all, I wish you’d take a long, hard look at your work and decide, as objectively as possible, if you have anything to contribute to literature. Is your writing really that unique and unprecedented? Is it even literate? Have you spent years learning the craft of editing, ruthlessly paring and polishing your poetry/prose until it shines? There are quite enough bad, self-published books out there, why contribute to the dung pile?
But, really, if you’re determined, there are sites you can go to for advice (a couple are on my blog roll). A good ol’ Google search under “independent writing and publishing” will probably take you somewhere helpful. It’s a long, arduous process and the learning curve can be steep. And once your book is published, then you’re faced with marketing and distribution—and good luck getting your self-published offering into most book stores. I still find it a chore and I’ve been at it a long time.
Why are you so jealous of writers more successful than you (i.e. Amanda Hocking, Stephenie Meyer, E.L. James)?
Jealous of…? Er, no, I’m not jealous of rich writers or sub-literate authors who manage to score a book deal. Literary whores with the skill set of a Grade Eight diarist and the aesthetics of a village idiot. Personally, I’m envious of scribes whose talent leaves me gasping like a fish washed up on some sandy shore. I’m referring to giants like Thomas Pynchon, James Crumley, Don DeLillo, Annie Dillard—artists of the highest caliber, whose books will stand the test of time. I labor in the shadow of greatness. Daunting? You betcha. But it’s a challenge I accept every time I enter my home office, sit at my desk and commence another day of work. I crave to be an author of stature. And that has nothing to do with the size of my bank account.
I sense you’re a lonely, bitter, isolated man. Is that an accurate representation?
I’m still chuckling over this one. I don’t think the correspondent in question was trying to be offensive or “trolling”, merely curious and so my response was quite tolerant (for me).
I’ve been a loner all my life and require little in the way of companionship. I belong to no professional writing organizations, nor do I seek out other authors to befriend or chat up. I’ve been happily married for over 20 years and have two teenage sons. Between my work and my family, there’s little time left over for leisure or company. It’s just never been a priority to me. I have a small, intimate circle of friends who are fiercely loyal and who have been around me long enough to inspire my affection and trust. They understand my hectic schedule and introspective lifestyle and place no demands on me. But they also know I’m the kind of guy who’d walk through a wall of fire for a loved one and would defend a pal to my dying breath. It’s the Scotch/Irish in me, I suppose. The rage, the violence…and the passion I bring to every aspect of my life. Those who know and love me respect that and tolerate the long silences that are part and parcel of my calling.
As for everyone else…who cares what they think or believe? They don’t know me and I don’t spare a moment for their views and opinions.
* * * * *
Thanks for the questions and feedback. My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Always pleased to hear from you…
“This is what I find most encouraging about the writing trades: They allow mediocre people who are patient and industrious to revise their stupidity, to edit themselves into something like intelligence. They also allow lunatics to seem saner than sane.”
This is the view from my window. Notice the old, dessicated oak tree struggling for life alongside our big maple. It’s a “witch tree”, all right, look at it. Entangled in the strangling roots of its neighbor but somehow surviving, year after year.
Cold this morning, with a nut-cutting wind chill. A good day to stay inside, build a fire and read. Yesterday, I finished the new Lee Child novel, Worth Dying For, in about five hours. Just tore through it. Give Child credit, he’s got a sweet franchise going. Sometimes his “Jack Reacher” novels are suspenseful, sometimes they slip into formula. Reacher the unstoppable superman (yawn). This one is better. The story hums along and there are good supporting players.
January 1st, if you recall, I start my “100 Book Challenge”. I’ve already set aside 18 first-rate tomes, fiction and non-fiction, that I’m hoping will get me going, build up some momentum that will carry me through the year. These include some of the smashing great books Sherron, er, Mrs. Santa left under the tree for me. Stuff I’ve wanted to read for ages. Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, Jim Shepard’s Love and Hydrogen, Ken Kalfus’s first short story collection, Thirst, and Huston Smith’s autobiography, Tales of Wonder.
I’ll be spending most of the next two days finishing my year-end cleanup. A ritual that goes back many years. Remove all material related to last year’s projects and prepare for new work. New Year’s Eve, sometimes pretty close to midnight, I clean and vacuum the crappy old carpet in my office and that’s it: I’m ready for whatever comes.
I know, my family thinks it’s weird too.
And there are my resolutions to prepare, a roster of promises I try very hard to keep (and usually end up batting around .500). Then I write out a list of “pending projects”, big and small jobs I’d like to focus on in the coming year. Need to straighten up in the basement too; the workbench overflowing with crap that has to be put away (or shit-canned).
I find I’m feeling pretty good as 2010 draws to an end. Two books released this year, a number of solid shorter efforts…plus there’s the music I’ve created with Garageband, two disks of weird ambient tunes that still make me smile. I’ve discovered I love noodling around and experimenting with different media—Sherron has infected me with her belief that making art shouldn’t always be work, there can also be an element of play involved. In 2011, I want to do some photography, stills and short videos. Sometimes I get tired of working exclusively with words and need a break. A chance to explore non-verbal, non-narrative concepts. I’ve even tried my hand at painting. I hope to do more visual experiments in 2011 (and beyond).
But the main focus, of course, continues to be improving as a writer, growing and developing, moving the bar ever higher with each book or story I take on. I’m certain the “100 Book Challenge” will introduce me to different influences/perspectives and it will be interesting to see how that affects my work. God, wouldn’t it be wonderful if I started writing more like Italo Calvino or with the ferocity and power of a Celine?
Er, I forgot. Louis Ferdinand Celine’s not exactly a popular figure these days. Very difficult to find his work. Awful man…but even Beckett admired his writing and those two were miles apart, ideologically speaking. Celine’s malign nature is as undeniable as his genius. They probably went hand in hand. But anyone who denies themselves the opportunity to read Death on the Installment Plan or Journey to the End of the Night because of his personal failings (however despicable) is missing out on some of the finest writing of the 20th century.
All that said, the first book I’ll likely tackle in the New Year is Michael Palin’s Halfway to Hollywood: Diaries 1980-88. A volume I can zip through in less than a day. Something fast and breezy and fun to get me started.
And then only 99 more to go…
A tip of the hat to John Miedema, for selecting this blog as one of his “Ten Favorites of 2010“.
Bless you, John.
I’ve been working, what else?
Plowing my way through Of the Night, polishing a bit here, snipping a word or two there, prepping the manuscript to send off to the printer by the first week of October. Which means I’ll have achieved my goal and published two books this year. I thought it was important to do something, well, special to mark my 25th anniversary as a pro writer and getting my two “Ilium” novels out to readers and fans in the same calendar year seemed like just the thing to do. It’s been crazy hectic, frustrating and maddening…but it looks like we’re going to manage it.
Of the Night is a far shorter novel than So Dark the Night—I like to call So Dark my “A” movie and Of the Night my “B” picture. One is a bigger, bolder project, the other smaller and more modest. But I love ’em both and you will too. We’ll be using Adrian Donoghue’s cover art for Of the Night and Chris Kent (as far as I know) will be designing the look of the book once again. We’ll have it out in time for Christmas and the novel will likely retail in the $10-11 region. There will be further progress reports so keep checking in periodically for more details.
Wild summer here in Saskatchewan, the weather verging on freaky. Rain, rain, rain. We have an old house and a basement with a stone foundation so I’ve had a fan running constantly downstairs because of the damp seeping in from outside, the surrounding soil saturated. I have several hundred books down there, my boys have a TV and their XBox set up so they can have their own little space. Must work to keep the area habitable, no killer mould growing in the walls, etc. The lousy weather has made it abundantly clear the roof tiles and eaves need replacing, the trees trimming back (again); yikes, when I think about the pending expense, it makes me wanna cry.
Ah, well, we’ll get by. Somehow. We always do. Just when I think we’re going under, some respite arrives in the nick of time. But there are some periods, nerve-stretching intervals, when things look pretty bleak and occasionally I am brought face-to-face with the very real risks and terrors that accompany life as a full-time independent writer and publisher. I’m 46…is life ever going to get easier, will there be some kind of reward waiting at the end of the rainbow? Or just a tarnished piss pot?
“Theirs not to reason why…” and all that. Thanks, Alfie, but all those guys died, as I recall.
Hasn’t been much time to kick back and indulge in my other passions: films and reading. Watched a few cool flicks like Samuel Fuller’s “Shock Corridor” and “Pickup on South Street”, two Herzog efforts (“Grizzly Man” and “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans”) and Robert Bresson’s “Pickpocket” but not too many more. And I haven’t yet gotten around to reviewing those few movies I have watched for my film blog. Sigh.
As for reading, I’ve just finished Michael Palin’s Diaries (1969-79) and I’ve completed almost all of Denton Welch’s books, marveling at what a magnificent writer he was (no wonder William Burroughs revered him). Presently absorbed by Charles Simic’s The Monster Loves His Labyrinth, which is composed of entries from his writer’s notebook(s). Wonderful, wonderful stuff. If you haven’t read any Simic, rush out and find some.
Lots of music playing while I work—some ambient stations I found on ITunes, as well as albums like The Brian Jonestown Massacre’s “Who Killed Sergeant Pepper”, the definitive Joy Division compilation, “Heart & Soul”; old favorites like Interpol and Elbow and Black Rebel Motorcycle are always on hand to get me revved up. Soundtracks (“The Thin Red Line” and “The Fountain”) to give me mood music to write to.
That’s enough for now. I have to get back to, y’know, editing. Of the Night awaits my full attention.
In the meantime, why not take a few minutes to browse through this site, check out some of the stories, essays, excerpts, spoken word and music I’ve posted here over the past 3+ years? All of it FREE to read and download. Honest. No strings attached.
C’mon, whaddaya say? You wanna hang out for awhile?
Great, make yourself at home.
If you need me, I’ll be upstairs, first door on the left…
Y’see, when I’m away from this blog for extended periods of time, that means I’m writing. Deeply, intensively, happily immersed in some project that’s caught my fancy like a handful of shiny coins tossed into a monkey cage. I live to work and while I enjoy posting on this blog, it’s not the kind of creative endeavor that fires my soul and gets the creative juices bubbling and steaming.
To catch you up on things:
My novel So Dark the Night moves ever closer to publication. Yes, I mean an actual book. I did a lot of research into the various print on demand outfits and decided to go with Lightning Source. Their poor rep, Chris Thompson, put up with pages of questions and a couple of phone inquiries, often having to endure some crankiness from my end. Usually it was because I’d misread some piece of info and assumed LS were over-charging for a service. I’m naturally suspicious and sometimes equate print-on-demand with the bad old days of “vanity” publishers, who tried to bilk every last dime out of suckers. But so far Lightning Source passes in the service and honesty departments with flying colours. They offer a lower per book cost and at least the opportunity, a chance (however small) to break through into the retail marketplace.
The text is set (thank you, Sherron!) and the cover design is moving along. We’re using the same Ado Ceric piece that we employed for the e-book. The first time I saw the picture, I knew it was the one. It’s going to look gorgeous reproduced on a fat 5.25″ X 8″ trade paperback. Oh, yes…
We’re looking at a retail price of $17.95 which, I think, is reasonable and certainly in the range of other books similar in size and format. Hoping for a release date in mid-late April and will post further on this point as publication nears. Can’t tell you how thrilled I’ll be when the book arrives from Lightning Source, printed, bound and beautiful. It’s the best thing I’ve ever written…and the hardest work I’ve ever done. 3+ years writing and editing. And editing. And editing…
But it was worth it.
We’re coming up on the third anniversary of this blog—March 18th is the semi-official date of its inception. I usually have one or two little treats I dole out around that day and this year is no exception. If you’re in the neighborhood mid-month, drop in for a visit. I think you’ll find a few goodies and tidbits, a heartfelt “thank you” for your support and patronage.
I’ll say no more.
There are exciting times in the days and weeks ahead. I’ll be sharing the highs (and lows) with you, continuing to depict, as authentically and truthfully as possible, the life of an indie writer in the 21st century. It’s a hard row to hoe and the rewards are few and far between. But it’s a life that allows me to work and exist in absolute freedom, beholden to no one but my Creator.
So what, exactly, do I have to bitch about?
Now, let me be clear—when I say that, I’m talking about a certain segment of people, who meet a very specific criteria. I’m not referring to “young writers”, “aspiring writers” or “beginning writers”; those are entirely different categories (to my mind). Aspiring authors are humble and don’t take on airs. They possess few, if any, professional credentials; they might have a couple of poems or short stories published or filled dozens of notebooks with their secret writings over the years, but they certainly make no claim to any kind of status.
The wannabe is far less circumspect. These folks make all sorts of exalted statements and assign themselves great prominence in the literary community. They’re very quick to proffer advice, usually in the form of smug, self-assured pronouncements that speak of enormous (alas, unrecognized) talent and a vast breadth of wisdom and worldly experience (ersatz). That they have virtually no standing among accomplished, professional, full-time writers is entirely beside the point. Why, they’ve written dozens of books (no one has read) and have been putting words on paper all their lives (no one has noticed). They offer their services as experienced editors and are quick to thrust their work on you, in order to prove they should be taken seriously. God help anyone who questions their undisputed brilliance.
The on-line universe has been a bonanza for wannabes. If they have written anything—some of them, like the proverbial hundred monkeys at keyboards, are amazingly industrious, despite their utter lack of talent—they can post every word of it on their blog and to hell with the editors who never responded to their submissions or the people in that stupid writing group who said their suite of poems about losing their virginity was “childish and cliched”, “needs a lot of work” or just “ARE YOU KIDDING?!!!”.
Sometimes I’ll skim through some of the literary sites in the blogosphere and far more often than not I’m appalled by the really sub-literate tripe that people post on a public forum. Puerile verse and poorly rendered soft porn/romance and slightly fictionalized episodes from real life. Juvenilia. Artlessly composed and stupefyingly dull. Painful and embarrassing stuff, the sort of thing you might find in the locked diary of an emotionally disturbed adolescent. Some are clearly cries for help: look at me…aren’t I special…I feel things more deeply than most people…love me…I’m lonely…no one understands me…I need affirmation…
There might be a few sympathetic comments left by either kind-hearted readers…or fellow wannabes offering cautious praise before inviting them over to their site (presumably to see what real writing is all about).
I have heard it said that the explosion of on-line writing has led to an explosion of bad writing and I have to admit that this is demonstrably true. The vast majority of what people post on the web is dreadful, godawful stuff, unfit for human consumption. The lousy rep e-books have is well-deserved (most of the time).
One of my roles as an indie writer who publishes exclusively on the net is to work hard to demonstrate that cyberspace is not solely the domain of amateur hacks and weekend scribblers. There are some truly gifted writers out there, producing original and ground-breaking work. Some, like myself, have chosen to put their writing on-line because of the desperate state traditional publishing is in these days. These are experienced authors with real world credentials and undeniable literary chops. By maintaining the highest standards, tirelessly subjecting our work to the most intense scrutiny, editing ruthlessly, eschewing conventions and formula, we wish to reward intelligent, discerning readers who are tired of the status quo and are exploring other venues, seeking alternative visions and fresh perspectives.
But it can be disheartening for readers, sifting through the thousands upon thousands of blogs and literary sites, trying to find something of value. And that’s why a credible on-line critical community is required. With the newspapers cutting or drastically paring down their book sections, I’m hoping more good critics will start web sites and help single out particular writers who shine amidst the dross…and dismiss those who don’t make the grade.
And it would be most helpful if amateur writers used the new technologies to better develop their skills before they foist their cringe-worthy efforts on the rest of us. I’m talking about searching out like-minded souls, joining on-line writing groups and vetting their work with a diverse assortment of fellow writers (from around the world), getting feedback. Sharing their work privately, rather than punishing the general public, exposing not their beautiful, unblemished souls (as they hope) but their ineptitude. If you truly wish to be seen as someone with designs on being a serious writer, worthy of respect, give some thought to what you’re making public—believe me, you’re doing no one any favors if it’s garbage. You’re hurting yourself…and you’re making it more difficult for your talented, hard-working colleagues to reach potential readers.
Naturally, these words of caution will not sit well with wannabes. They’ll sniff that I’m being “elitist” and that the internet belongs to everyone. Unfortunately, the democratization of the web means that an entrenched cult of amateurism has developed and these people guard their domains like pitbulls. They brandish their imaginary credentials and howl in outrage should anyone refuse to defer to their alleged expertise. Why, their writing has been read by thousands of people (who knows how many?) and they’ve published everything from young adult novels to a ten part vampire series, not to mention their “erotic” fiction and two volumes of poetry about a beloved Pekinese that recently went to doggie heaven (all of it available in e-book format, listed on a site with a thousand other books no one in their right senses would attempt to read).
I plead with new and aspiring and upcoming writers to avoid such a ridiculous mindset: recognize your limitations, don’t publish precipitously, before your work is ready for public perusal and consumption. Have respect for the legacy of fine writers and great literature that preceded you; after all, you initially dreamed of becoming a writer because of the joy and succor and inspiration the printed word gives you. Your favorite authors wrote hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of words before they had mastered their craft to the extent that they were, at last, worthy of publication.
Why, in God’s name, should it be any different for you?
I’m relieved to discover that this habit isn’t necessarily a manifestation of mental illness, nor is it unique in the world of the arts. I’ve read enough biographies and articles on authors to know that a good number of them have well-developed fantasy lives and often immerse themselves in their self-created environments, sometimes to the detriment of real world relationships and obligations. I think of writers like Ray Bradbury, P.G Wodehouse and and H.P. Lovecraft. For prolonged periods of time they take up residence in fictional universes, describing their journeys with such detail and depth that they seem almost like parallel existences, places we could visit if we took one wrong turn on a dark street or wandered off the path, into the endless forest.
I’ve devoted nearly four years of my life to conceiving, researching, writing and editing my novel So Dark the Night. Working on it every day, day in and day out, month after month after month. Frequently I’m in my office from 8:00 in the morning ’til 9:00 at night, coming out only to use the bathroom or gobble down a few quick bites of food. So fully inhabiting the city and environs where my two main characters ply their trade that at times it’s hard for me to fully re-emerge and engage with family and friends. Some days it’s absolutely spooky. I open up the door of my office and expect to see…what? The city of Ilium, home of my detective duo, a dilapidated former industrial center, hugging the shores of Lake Erie, long past its prime, presently in the midst of an accelerated decline. The dockland the repository for rusting hulks, bristling with abandoned gantries and infrastructure. The factories that once employed thousands now empty husks, ringed by concertina wire, patrolled by private security goons. The ground laced with heavy metals and toxins, poisoned for ten thousand years.
I see it so clearly in my mind’s eye.
Dunno about the other fellows but I confess to a preference for my imagined worlds, personal playgrounds where my my mind can roam, unfettered by the demands of mundane reality. When I shut the door to my office, everything on the other side ceases to exist. The phone is unplugged, the doorbell is ignored, nothing is allowed to break the spell. Music is the first step–sometimes an hour of howling metal or spacey, ambient stuff or track after track of Dylan. Depends on how I’m feeling.
–and then all at once I find myself sitting at my desk, pen in hand. I don’t remember how I got there or when I started writing. That’s the truth. So when I say “spell”, I’m not just blowing smoke up your ass. I can’t tell you how many thousands of words I’ve put to paper that have no clear origin; I looked down and there they were. And the process is as mysterious now as it was a quarter century ago. That’s the fucked up part. I’m no closer to understanding what it takes to create a successful work of prose or verse, even a single, melodic sentence, than I was when I first dared imagine myself a writer.
That’s why I take such offense at workshops and creative writing classes. You can teach someone basic grammar but you can’t help them create music with a few strokes of a pen. Sorry. Nor can you impart to your students the ability to absorb the pain and prolonged physical, mental and spiritual exertion the writing life demands from its (usually) unhappy acolytes. Basic compositional skills are empirical; a good ear for dialogue isn’t.
Writing is hard work, as hard as digging ditches or mining coal. That is, if you’re doing it right. Putting words down on paper, that’s nothing. Arranging them so that the exact right one is in the exact right place…that is a feat of engineering on par with any building, bridge or monument from the present day to ancient epochs.
When I’m working, my focus is absolute, like a laser beam. Nothing else matters except that page in front of me. I am there and nowhere else. I see my characters’ faces, breathe the same air. A camera swooping and dipping, discreetly recording the scene that’s unfolding. At such moments, it is temporal reality that seems entirely unconvincing and implausible.
Perhaps that’s why writers sometimes behave like such buffoons in the real world. We’ve forgotten social conventions and have no idea what constitutes appropriate behavior and language back on Earth Prime. I think of someone like Wodehouse, who cheerfully admitted to preferring the worlds he created to the real thing. Maybe that’s why he was gulled into those wartime radio broadcasts from occupied Paris for which he was so vilified. To his mind, they were harmless trifles…but to his countrymen across the channel, teetering on the brink of apocalypse, each syllable was treason.
Fantasy can beguile too.
Lovecraft was reclusive, a man who evinced little interest in worldly affairs, steeping himself in history and lore. More comfortable conversing in lengthy correspondences than face to face. His “mythos” an attempt to impose order on a civilization he felt far removed from. His attitudes, frankly, reactionary, which explained his fascination with the past and his fear of the things that might lurk just beyond his safe threshold, the darkness that yawned…
His writing is fevered, a cascade of obscure or archaic words, all in a vain (and overblown) attempt to describe the indescribable, put features and traits to things beyond human ken. The Lovecraftian universe is, even this non-fan must confess, a thrillingly imagined one, seemingly consistent and lavishly illustrated. For a considerable portion of his short life he resided in strange climes and, within the limits of his talent, did his best to describe the bleak and blasted vistas he saw there.
And then we have Bradbury…Raymond, the child-man. For Ray, the view from his window is pristine and richly coloured: small town Illinois, circa 1924. Memories of the cataclysm of war fading, a renewed sense of optimism surging through America, the first forebodings that an isolationist republic might have bigger, more ambitious aspirations on the world scene. An era of silent movies and loud jalopies; traveling circuses and lonely leviathans. White picket fences, dandelion wine and well-attended churches. In a second story bedroom, a child lies beneath clean, flannel blankets, blinking in the early Saturday morning light, listening to birdsong. In thirty years, this same child, grown tall and ramrod straight, will mount a silver rocket and blast off for the red sands of Mars…
Ray is all about nostalgia, a sense of what could/should have been. His ability to re-imagine a past that never was rivals that of Walt Disney–and I think it fair to say both are obsessed with bygone eras and far-flung futures and care not a whit for the present day. You gotta believe Ray has a rich fantasy life and I’d kill to be able to walk into one of his dreams.
Ray Bradbury’s stories are reflections of the man…just as Lovecraft’s tales reveal a twisted, inner psyche and Wodehouse’s lengthy canon a yearning for a well-ordered paradigm where the worst thing that can happen to a person is an accidental betrothal.
And as for me…hmmm. I think there’s a similar desire to impose some kind of cohesion or logic to a world I regard with more than a little cynicism and disapprobation. In the early part of my career, I wrote almost exclusively about characters who were somehow disenfranchised, powerless, marginalized. I approached those tales from the point of view of victims and that says something about my childhood and formative years. The fears that besieged and threatened to overwhelm me.
But in the past five years or so I’ve noticed that my characters have gotten tougher, taking control over their lives, no longer cowering in the face of their oppressors. And I think that change was accompanied by a great deal of healing as well as a better balance in my brain chemistry. At 46, except for the inevitable bad days (no one can avoid them), I’m feeling pretty good. Well enough that I can talk candidly about my secret places in a radio play like “The First Room“. No longer having to avert my eyes, try to think of anything but. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still as neurotic and nutty as ever, it’s just that I’ve come to terms with my inner loon.
I think my continuing survival is actually a very positive life lesson. If someone with my childhood, my psychological problems, my genetic history, can manage to make it this far, there’s hope for anyone. My writing saved and redeemed me and if you’re out there, dangling by a thread, there’s something for you too, something to pull you up from the precipice. Trust me.
And not only have I survived, I’ve thrived. Over the years I’ve taken on the roles of husband and father and that has equipped me with better coping skills and patience to deal with the frictions that are inevitable in any close personal relationship, no matter how loving and supportive. Those childhood fears and insecurities crop up in funny places and so does the anger, the rage of a kid who is powerless; a witness, an accomplice, a victim, a pawn of larger, darker forces.
I mentioned the bad days, those intervals where reason and balance seem to flee from me. It doesn’t happen nearly as often as it used to (thank God) and the bouts of fury and despair are no where near as intense. I find myself raging against the small chores and obligations that are part and parcel of daily life, chafe at an off-the-cuff comment, smolder because some small, petty desire has been denied me. Until the feelings pass, I retreat to my office, read, meditate, listen to extremely loud music, waiting for the worst of it to be over.
These fits usually coincide with some “down time” in my writing, any period when I don’t have a big project in front of me. I simply have to be doing something every single day…or my mind begins to turn on me. Most people around me view me as a terrible workaholic, too driven and consumed by my calling; they don’t understand that it’s the writing that keeps my demons at bay. All those long hours I spend in that other place, the worlds I construct from memories, epiphanies and passing impressions. They sustain me, are a crucial article of my faith. Without that outlet…I shudder to think.
I’m not saying mine is necessarily a healthy lifestyle. I’ve read the reports that warn of the health risks of a sedentary existence; I definitely should get outside more, stretch and exercise. Often, when I’m really locked into a project, I forget to eat, barely aware of the passage of time. That can’t be good.
But I also know that because of the way I live my life–on my terms, with few accommodations to outside influences–I’ve managed to spend the last decade or so (for the most part) in a state approaching happiness. Is it a trade-off? I think so.
Without the ability to shut off the world and use my office as a portal to possibility, amazement, redemption and hope I would never have lasted this long. I truly believe my fantasy life is key to my continuing survival. When the stories run out, I’m finished.
I think the other fellows know what I’m talking about. I ponder the life of Ray Bradbury–I know he’s had some health setbacks and that has affected his legendary productivity. But at 90+ years, he’s still telling tall tales, even if someone else has to take dictation and type them up for him. Each day he commutes to that place where his visions dwell. His fortress of solitude. Sitting in a comfortable chair, barely able to see but hardly sightless. His gaze far, far away. In Green River or navigating the Valles Marineris; lost in a funhouse or at the helm of a gleaming rocketship, bound for the stars.
After all, nothing is impossible if we allow ourselves to think with the mind of a child. Experience has not yet affected one so young and no one can convince them that dreams can’t ever come true.
He is, after all, the narrator and (ostensibly) author of So Dark the Night. And he doesn’t take kindly to picky, petty-minded editors who go over his writing with the scrutiny of an electron microscope.
“Fer Chrissakes, pal,” he has snarled at me on numerous occasions, “every bloody word doesn’t have to be right. This ain’t fuckin’ Shakespeare.”
I’ve been assigned to tighten the manuscript and while the job hasn’t been too demanding, the central figure in So Dark the Night has turned out to be prickly, opinionated and not afraid to use physical intimidation and force to get his way. It has made for some uncomfortable moments.
I have tried to explain that a little tightening and paring is good for any work but he isn’t having any of it. He insists I’m trying to put my own “stamp” on So Dark the Night and will clean up his hard-boiled prose to the extent where it’s no longer recognizably his.
It’s a ticklish point. As editor, it is part of my duty to retain Nightstalk’s unique syntax and word choice and I must even do my best to tolerate his (in my view) overuse of similes (I detest similes, they’re usually employed in such a lazy and facile manner). But there are certain rules of grammar that must apply. For instance, I have tried to clean up his propensity for infinitives (split or otherwise)–
“What the hell are they?” Nightstalk snarls.
–the prepositions he’s prone to leave dangling everywhere, the strange subordinate clauses, the exposition–
“Aw, bullshit,” is his only rejoinder.
Honestly, the fellow wouldn’t know a gerund from a–
“Careful,” he warns, his fists clenching.
You see what I have to deal with.
For a good idea of his temperament and the aura of violence Evgeny projects, I suggest you check out Bob Hoskins’ performance in the greatest Brit gangster movie ever, “The Long Good Friday”. All through the movie, Hoskins behaves like a bombshell about to go off. Evgeny gives that same impression.
We’ve been working on final revisions for just over a month now and I must say our relationship shows little signs of improving. I’m very much into precision: the exact right word in the exact right place at the exact right time. Evegeny is looking more for an overall effect: he recreates a scene to the best of his recollection, with all of the literary ability he possesses…and for him that’s good enough. He has read a great many (too many!) pulp writers and is aware of how fast and prolific those individuals were, churning out material at a remarkable rate. I recoil when he draws such parallels, since I have high hopes that So Dark the Night has more literary merit than the vast majority of tales hacked out by mercenary-minded wordsmiths and Grub Street types.
Still, we shall have to find a happy medium, for the sake of Nightstalk’s peace of mind and my physical safety. Likely about another ten days work left so it’s simply a case of trying to get along and come up with a completed effort that is exciting, literate, funny, engrossing; a book that is a pleasure and joy to read. I’m confident we’re close to reaching that point and that if we keep cool heads and open minds, we can finish this book with the minimum of bad feelings (and bloodshed).
That said, I’ve recently upgraded my Blue Cross medical coverage.
Just in case.