[Actually writing on my novel right now]
After writing yesterday’s post I find myself moving more rapidly along a scale of anxiety which writers know well, that scale which increases the desire for alcoholic beverages (implied in the post I wrote day before yesterday) as you move up its ranks. As I’ve written elsewhere, I suffer from generalized anxiety disorder, like writers are sometimes known to do. I’m not sure why. Maybe we’ve looked beneath the surface a little too much. I can say the submerged engine behind this entire blog is bio-fueled by anxiety.
All that enthusiasm about my characters and my sadistic plans for them has begun to move somewhere between uneasiness and apprehension. If it moves into the final state, mortification, it will probably lead to catalepsy and that’s when you need someone satanic like Richard Bandler to come and stomp on your mortified face to bring you out of it. I hope I don’t reach that level.
I keep changing the circumstances and chewing on the possibility that the whole concept of my novel is too safe, too already-been-done-before. You know all the claptrap that eats away at your head and eventually paralyzes you. But. This is actually a good thing. If anxiety doesn’t kill you, it will force you to stop pretending. It will force you to write about things that seem impossible to write about. (I don’t know about you, but I’ve always run as fast and far away from cheerful optimists as I could. There’s something there that feels counterfeit.)
One thing about writing a novel is it gets me thinking even more about death and Keats’ poem, the one that goes, “When I have fears that I may cease to be/before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain.”
But luckily we have a Stephen King to remind us
Stopping a piece of work just because it’s hard either emotionally or imaginatively is a bad idea. Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it and sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing to do is shovel shit from a sitting position.
Gee, thanks, Steve.
Now that I’ve released that uncomfortable bit of flatulence and settled onto my rear cheeks again, it’s time to get back to shoveling shit…
To me, the mass marketing and money end of writing is the over-ripe cheesy-smelling end. But its time I came to terms with it, pop my head out of my butt where I still exist in some kind of quaint yesteryear of typewriters, fountain pens, Hemingway and Woolf when you could count on five hands those who were publishing novels out there at primordial houses like Harcourt, Farrar, Straus, Giroux, and Scribner. A writer still spends six months, six years, six decades writing a novel. Then the real work begins: Finding an agent, understanding “the market,” current publishing options (because Unbound, for instance), marketing oneself in an industry that’s undergoing convulsive changes, all those publishing house mega mergers. Good god.
I’m terrified of other writers who don’t share my terror. You know the ones I’m talking about, those upbeat, cheerful writers, those “agile book people” who lick their finger to see where the wind is blowing and jump in. Well, I know a woman from Malibu whose entire wardrobe consists of outfits each made of a tenth-ounce of string. She’s upbeat and cheerful, too. Not me. I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, so at least I can say I’m normal. But just thinking about getting published makes my eyes foam.
Well, I ask you. Is there a reason to feel flattened by the sheer magnitude of the competition? The UN predicts that the earth will sag under the weight of nine billion humans by 2050. With something like six billion people already writing and jockeying for limited shelf space/place in the “supply chain” out there, should “less talented” writers than J.K. Rowling, writers like you and me, just become drunks and write for a hobby? I’m suddenly thinking it’s time to go back to bed and stay there. Sleep is my new hobby.
The BBC podcast below is one of those wake-up calls you get from the front desk Hotel Bookocalypse.
I can’t stand the taste of most alcoholic beverages and I hate to throw up, so I shun parties and refuse to go to bars unless there’s no way to get out of it. As a student I learned to be a professional party evader. I’ve also been a nomad most of my life. The results have been that my only long-term friendships have been books.
As a writer I could use the goose of the benevolent muse, sometimes. You know how it is, when nothing comes on those writing days? When just the thought of facing the page is worse than eating glass? But you drag yourself there and write hours’ worth of pure, unmitigated crap? At least if you’re baked with benevolence, your mean muse, the one holding a gun to your head saying “Just write the fucking story,” has to back off, at least for a little while.
When I was growing up my parents were lushes and kept a well-stocked liquor cabinet and a steady supply of beer in the fridge. I was more of a Coca-Cola aficionado myself, so I found the sweeter liqueurs more appealing, since the parents gave me 24/7 access to their fermented beverage supply. No doubt if I’d have actually shown an affinity toward booze, they’d have locked it up in a safe faster than you can say Jack Daniels.
When we lived in Southwest Asia, Western liqueurs were relatively cheap and easy to find in markets that catered to Westerners. As a result I developed a keen appreciation for Drambuie and Cherry Heering. And when I went to Moscow my friend and I made the major error of drinking too much cherry juice and vodka at the Bolshoi Ballet during intermission. Sufficiently inebriated we found our way back downstairs and when the curtains went up again we shouted at the dancers until everyone in the audience turned to stare at us. I don’t know why the authorities never kicked us out, but, then, I don’t remember much about the ballet either.
Fast-forward to a wedding I attended some years ago. I didn’t know the bride or the groom, but that didn’t stop me from drinking glass-loads of something that tasted divine from an enormous champagne fountain in the center of a table at the reception. It was absolutely the best alcoholic beverage I’d ever tasted. I was so drunk from it I forgot to ask the hosts what it was, and I gave up a long time ago, thinking I’d never find out.
That is until today when someone set a bottle of Barefoot moscoto on the kitchen table and I poured a swallow into a mug and tasted it. Bingo. I recognized the taste from the wedding. I’m in love.
Reviews are mixed on the Barefoot brand, but there are many others out there. This is a new day. Oh, joy. Oh, inspiration. Okay, I’m a lightweight, and no connoisseur, but I think I found my Fée Blanche, my white fairy.
Could this be the beginning of a beautiful relationship?
Cursive writing is no longer being taught. Who needs it? The only vocabulary necessary are words that fit neatly in text messages. Who has time to read more than 140 characters? No time, interest, or attention span to read books. No time to struggle with dense, complex sentences and the struggle of the human heart. God no.
Okay, the text novel craze seems to have faded a couple of years ago. When thumbs raced so much that nails cut into the flesh and became bloodied, even the switch to an old-school computer made for a richer vocabulary and longer sentences.
But everything is so available, so non-stop, why should anyone take the time to read, let alone write, fiction when real life and human interaction are just formalities anyway. It’s too much trouble to fit the inchoate and intractable plasma of sensation or experience into the ephemeral containers of words and grammar and such, to actually open our hearts on the page to communicate. Hell no. We don’t need to peel our faces off that screen, not for one second…
Thought I’d have a little fun with trivia today. There are, of course, a great number of films about writers. I love films that include some form of diary, notebook, or journal by a major character. Think “Bridget Jones’ Diary,” for example. [Here I wrote about my endless notebook obsession, which might explain my connection between fiction writing and notebooks in film. Just saying.]
Here are a few more that came to mind as I wrote this post.
For the psycho character’s journal in his film “Se7en,” David Fincher hired designer John Sable to “crazy that bitch up.” And crazy a bitch up he did: Sable spent $15,000 on old journals, ripped them up and sewed them back together by hand, then baked them to release that delicious tattered journal flavor. Sable found as many pictures of “mutilated limbs, decapitated people, [and] people whose fingers had been sawn off” as he could, and then he started writing like a maniac. [Source]
In “How to Lose Friends and Alienate People,” with Simon Pegg and Kirsten Dunst, throughout the film Dunst’s character carries around her novel-in-progress which she writes in a red notebook. Here Danny Huston, who plays her daddy figure love interest, drinks a white Russian and puts a smarmy arm around her.
One of my all-time favorite films (besides Withnail & I) is “Henry Fool,” a Faustian tale about a would-be poet. Henry (Thomas J. Ryan) encourages his friend Simon (James Urbaniak) to express himself through poetry and in doing so unwittingly unleashes a new literary force in the world. Here Simon carries his trusty Mead-style notebook.
And Daniel Radcliffe as Allen Ginsberg in “Kill Your Darlings” gets together with Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs to create The Beat Generation.
Anyone know of other films where notebooks figure prominently?
Richard Wright once wrote that for him the process of writing fiction was hurling words into the darkness and listening for an echo, and if he heard one, no matter how faintly, he sent more words in after it. The thing about being a fiction writer is you notice things. So many things that sometimes the filter between “out there” and “in here” effaces to the point where you almost think you’re going mad. In other words, writing fiction requires that you get yourself into that state that others pay huge sums of money to get rid of. Writing is, as E. L. Doctorow says, a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.
Does anyone you know have both OCD and ADHD? I do, and I’ve come to the conclusion that each may serve some useful purpose – as long as you let the right one in at the right time. The former censors everything before you can set pen to paper (“Mustn’t make a mess”) while the latter lets in a firehose of ideas (“Here’s terabyte of images for your pleasure”). It seems to be a matter of taking each into a room by itself and training it to do its business in a friendly, relaxed manner, if you know what I mean.
And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt. ~Sylvia Plath
I’m sure Ms. Plath knew her stuff. I myself have a long relationship with paralyzing self-doubt. I often find myself scrambling for this or that book or website to read what others have said about this or that subject rather than to blaze my own path. But at least now I catch myself doing it and make a mental note that 1) everyone on the planet is winging it, only some are better bullshitters than others and 2) I have my own brand of integrity and I don’t need to look outside my own crazed mind. Some of us have extra distances to travel, that’s all.
The roots of art and intoxication are deep and entangled, as are, so often, the roots of words themselves. – Lapham’s Quarterly
As a fiction writer I find Arthur Rimbaud’s premise fascinating, that if you want to be a visionary you must work hard at a systematic derangement of the senses. His remarkable observation about the eternal slavery of women, for example, cuts at the root of the world’s suffering. Which begs the question: In such a sane world, are visionaries still necessary and relevant? It’s possible that we need them more than ever in an uncertain world that makes no sense.
My life so far has brought me to this conclusion: Mass culture prides itself on being ironic, symbolic, efficient and sanitary, hermetically sealed in tech cocoons, immersed in deadly sanity. I suspect this approach is a defense mechanism to shield mass culture fans from the abyss. But life will have its way. Ineluctable chaos (including the fade toward death) certainly will derange the senses, whether we allow it in or not.
The ever-fresh Rimbaud in a letter to Paul Demeny, May 15, 1871:
The first task of the man who wants to be a poet is to study his own awareness of himself, in its entirety; he seeks out his soul, he inspects it, he tests it, he learns it. As soon as he knows it, he must cultivate it! . . . –But the problem is to make the soul into a monster, like the comprachicos, you know? Think of a man grafting warts onto his face and growing them there.
I say you have to be a visionary, make yourself a visionary.
A Poet makes himself a visionary through a long, boundless, and systematized disorganization of all the senses. All forms of love, of suffering, of madness; he searches himself, he exhausts within himself all poisons and preserves their quintessences. Unspeakable torment, where he will need the greatest faith, a superhuman strength, where he becomes among all men the great invalid, the great criminal, the great accursed–and the Supreme Scientist!
When the eternal slavery of Women is destroyed, when she lives for herself and through herself, when man–up till now abominable–will have set her free, she will be a poet as well! Woman will discover the unknown! Will her world of ideas differ from ours? She will discover strange things, unfathomable, repulsive, delightful; we will accept and understand them.
I don’t usually do this, but I couldn’t help myself. This post is not about fiction writing per se, but I came across one of those unforgettable photos today that I wanted to share. It’s by an Iraqi artist taken in an orphanage. This little girl has never seen her mother, so she drew a mom on the ground and fell asleep with her. It’s possible that it could inspire a poem or story for someone. Found on Flickr. Cheers.
Literature is news that stays news. – Ezra Pound
(I’m taking a break — i.e., letting myself get distracted — from working on my novel. At this point, “working” means scribbling a lot of stuff in my notebook and asking questions and more questions about characters and their motives and connections. This post is a random collection from my notebook pages. It’s a total DIY Production.)
The deal is, if you write fiction it means you start out by making a big fat mess that just keeps accumulating, like a huge dung ball. But hey, this awareness represents a leap forward for someone with ADHD and OCD (flooring the pedal in neutral). I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I’m a panster, that is, one who doesn’t plan before sitting down to write. But that’s not entirely true. After much self-castigation and suffering, I’ve actually begun to sculpt a first draft (cue electronic applause machine). By sculpt, I mean plonking the monolithic raw stone in the center of my workspace and taking a hammer and chisel and hacking away to find substance, finding the negative space that defines the positive, figuring out what stays and what goes. That is, characters who want things and suffer for those desires.
I’ve learned to finally let go of those high school and undergrad years that were all about outlines and neatly finished product, rarely about process. I’ve finally accepted that process = mess. This is a confession. For a long time I couldn’t bring myself to make any kind of mess in a notebook. I could scribble notes on the fly, but I couldn’t begin a novel draft because I thought it was a waste of good notebook pages. Novel drafts were meant to be written either on a computer or in cheap spiral notebooks. Neither of these appealed to me. I eyed my huge stash of empty notebooks that were collecting dust, unused. Then I got so frustrated I just said fuck it and opened one of the precious things and started scribbling all over the virgin paper. I haven’t stopped scribbling since.
Moving right along.
Thumbing through some notes I’d written awhile back I found that counter-intuitive directive: Be a Dumb Writer. Being “dumb” means entering a novel or story without an answers, preconceptions, or expectations. It means finding a way to put into words what can’t be put into words. The catch is, if you write what you already know, you’re in safe mode. Safe = dull. The cold reality is that only when you’re at a loss for words will you find them. Writing fiction is about risk-taking. Whenever you sense yourself getting fluent with words, it’s a signal to stop. In other words, being in the dark from sentence to sentence is what matters most if you want to write what matters. Every sentence has to be a good one, a field of energy in itself. It’s hell. You hit the wall over and over again, but that’s what brings a novel or story alive, fighting through those early drafts, because a lot gets generated in revisions. That means producing tons of shit on virgin paper.
Writing begets writing. You can’t possibly appreciate the power of that statement until you’ve actually done it. For hours, days, weeks, months on end. I’m here to tell you that it’s true. That’s why I’ve stepped out of the suit with the zipper in back, the writer’s block suit. That’s all it is, a fake costume we wear to keep ourselves from the mess that we have to do to actually sit down and wrestle with language, point of view, rhythm, and conflict.
But the real conflict goes on inside the writer. One voice says “be clean, be neat, be polite, be safe, don’t talk to strangers, etc.” (what the status quo has drummed into us all our lives); the other says “be sadistic, irreverent, unsafe, get blood all over your face.” I just finished watching the whole “Breaking Bad” series on Netflix. It’s a model for the notion that safe is exactly what crazy-good fiction isn’t. It’s crunchy with panic-driven action. That’s a huge draw for mainstream audiences. But I’m going for panic-driven and chronically deep all at once: the full range of human experience, nothing wasted, nothing held back. Mix it up, insane energy and subtext.
This is why Ezra Pound’s quotation at the top has no expiry date. This is why I’ve finally begun to work hard at writing literary fiction.
Oh, and this guy
(Current influences: Charles Baxter’s The Art of Subtext, endless tracks of progressive trance, and the gorgeous cascading synth-pop of Trust.)