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Archive for the ‘writing’ Category

Back in my relative youth when I was learning to write screenplays I came across a fascinating tidbit. What it came down to was that on a deep thematic level, everything a writer writes is about what is currently gnawing away at them in the moment. It didn’t matter what the plot or the story was about, deep down all the character issues and concerns were the manifestation of the bubbling subconscious fears and anxieties of the moment.

If that were true, a story written five or ten or twenty years ago would have characters behaving one way, while if that story were being written today they would behave differently. And it wouldn’t be that one version of those characters was more “true” than the other, or that I had learned more about them, but that the things that concerned twenty-something me were different than fifty-something me. The characters — if this line of thinking is to be believed — were mere reflections of my state of mind.

But then, what of these stories? Do their themes not change with the desires of the characters? Aren’t those old plots with current characters like an old man trying to put on the clothes of his youth?

Earlier this week I had a little down time and no access to my current larger WIP so I doodled around with a short story idea. Three pages into the idea I found myself writing a variation of a scene from a project I started working on over 20 years ago. The characters were different, their motivation and reasons totally unlike the older piece, and the eventual outcome would be… similar?

Both stories are about a group of boys who create a club on campus, both clubs are mere shells designed to allow the boys to act outrageous with some semblance of school authority, both ending in a sort of disaster that would raw national scrutiny. The moment I realized the new story was on the same path I stopped and took stock. Who the heck were these two boys, and more importantly, what did their appearance say about where my head is currently at?

Originally, 22 years ago, I had finally come up with a story I thought was a perfect encapsulation of high school. I was planned as an epic tale, with so many subplot and character arcs, that I jokingly referred to it as The Great American Young Adult Novel. In truth, that original story contained over a dozen plots worthy of their own books, some I’ve attempted, some I realized were a bit goofy. At the heart of them all was a story about a club of mostly boys who ventured out through three years of adventures that eventually lead to a cataclysmic ending that garnered national attention.

And my main character was some kid trapped in the now yearning for the future away from the madness.

All those years ago I didn’t know what I was doing, what I wanted, what I’d hoped to achieve. Today I do, and the fact that those old feelings are manifesting themselves again in stories is an equal combination of alarming, reassuring, and frustrating. It’s not the same story, it’s a better story, this time with a character who knows where he stands and is clear about what comes next.

So I’m really writing two stories now, one on the page and one in my life. I have a good feeling about both of them.

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Things don’t always go the way you plan when you’re a creative type. I happen to be of the writerly-variety, but I’m fairly sure this happens to other stripes as well.

Last year was terrible, but this year is going to be different. I know I thought last year was when things were going to happen, but they didn’t, and after a while I realized I needed to set my sights on this year.

The year before that things seemed like they might have worked out, but then half way through the year things got tricky and I had to shift priorities. Just the nature of living in the real world, I knew there’d have to be some sort of give-and-take along the way.

Before that? Promise and potential. Not wasted, mind you, but explored. I dove in, delved deep, accomplished only some of what I set out to do knowing full well that you can’t always force things to happen on your preferred timeline. Hey, wouldn’t we all rather be instantly successful and retired already?!

And in those dark moments, echoing from the back of a cave, that dark place the inner critic-cynic likes to call home, that shaky voice of doubt saying

“I just want a sign, something to let me know its worth putting up with all this crap.”

At what point do you truly hear that voice? At what point do you turn and decide that you have been given a sign, and that sign has been there all along. They were there in the couched doubts when I declared myself a writer. The signs were lurking between every line of dialog I gave my confused and befuddled characters. The signs were there in every rejected-if-you-don’t-hear-from-us query. Days and weeks and months and years worth of signs, piling up like debris at a narrow in a river, waiting to be acknowledged and either blown to smithereens or come crashing down in a flood of soul-crushing truth.

When does that truth finally sink in and become the sign you were waiting for – not the one you were hoping for, but it’s opposite, the sign of giving up? When do you finally give in to that doubt?

Never.

This past year I felt there was a shift, but it was more a slip into neutral than a full-on slide into reverse. Things weren’t working out on a lot of fronts, not just the writing, and I was too close to get any sort of perspective on things. It wasn’t an intentional move, and there can be benefits to downsides and laying fallow, but it would have been nice to know up front that it was going to be one of those years.

You know, like if I’d had some sort of sign or something.

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Okay, this isn’t me lecturing you, it’s me convincing myself.

Because rejection is hard, and I need to suck it up if I’m going to keep doing this writer thing for real.

To be fair, some rejections hurt more than others, and I’ve discovered that the more I invest emotionally in a particular submission the bigger the hurt. Or actually, the less I thought in advance about what I was doing the more surprised I was when something good came from it.

It’s that fine line between caring deeply for something you’ve invested a lot of time and energy into, and not really giving a crap about what happens to it (while secretly caring a lot).

Everything I’ve read and been told about the process of becoming a writer points out that rejection is part of the process, perhaps more of the process than any other part of it. I know that, and I get that, intellectually, but how do you shut off the emotional stuff? That sensitivity is the font of all that creative joy after all.

Or is it?

I long ago learned that creativity could be taught and learned; heck, I used to teach art to kids who protested they didn’t have the talent they assumed you had to be born with to execute. The difference between kids and adults in these matters is that kids are more flexible in their thinking, more willing to give things a try and shrug them off, and less experienced in their failure. They can still be taught to build on failure because they’re more vested in gaining the experience than they are in preconceived expectations. Sure, if their first drawing doesn’t look like the work of a master artist they are disappointed, but over time they can and will improve and in the end are easily convinced that creativity is a question of persistence.

I hear that rejection isn’t personal, that it’s merely a question of timing, finding a champion, reaching that one person who sees the way you see. It’s not about you, it’s about the work, I’ve been told.

Bull.

Rejection is personal, just as it’s an individual’s personal tastes that rejects something. Agents, editors, anyone with the power to say no (if they bother to say anything at all, which is just rude beyond rejection) is making a personal decision. They may hide behind market forces or some other polite excuse, because this is what we’ve become as a society: Nobody wants to get hurt, nobody wants to hurt anybody.

Rejection is not only personal, it’s a challenge, a dare if you will. Rejection asks How much do you believe in this project, in yourself? Do you believe enough to try again? Do you believe enough to take another hard look at what you’ve done and critically decide if it’s your best work? Rejection is the heckler in the audience trying to throw you, the comedian, off balance, the guy in the stands shouting accusations that you, the ref, are blind, the surly kid in the back row unimpressed by anything you, the teacher, has to offer.

Ultimately, rejection stands as a sort of proof-of-effort, tangible markers on the journey that proves, in the end, you’ve earned every right to be accepted in the first place.

It still stings like hell along the way.

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I’m back, I’m tanned (okay, burned in splotchy areas), rested, shaking the sand out of my clothes, and ready to get back into things.

Or rather, I’m ready to see what new things I can get into, because the old things made me want this vacation so badly that clearly there is something wrong with what I’ve been doing.

There are no promises to make here, no resolutions, no grand agenda, but there is an enormous desire to undo what I’ve been doing which isn’t hard, because lately it’s it felt like I’ve been doing nothing.

I have not been reading. For months now. I have picked up books here and there and never got into them then let life get in the way. That’s just stupid. The “life” I let get in the way had to do with things I’d rather not be doing, i.e. a job for money, where the reading constitutes the necessary manna required for the thing I love, which is writing.

So I’m back to reading.

I have not been writing. Not seriously. I have squeezed in 20 minutes here and an hour there but I’ve also only been toying with things until I could find the time to do the “real” writing. Wrong. That’s just flawed thinking. Back-burnering larger projects because I don’t have time for them? No, I MAKE time for them and stop giving myself these little outs of being busy. Busy doing what? Things I hate, things I don’t want to do?

So I’m back to writing.

And the book reviews, my poor sad book review blog. While I have been reading for some reason I have fallen out of the habit of writing about those titles. In the past I have tinkered with the point and purpose of those reviews – initially they were part of my personal exploration and education, then they were an offshoot of both grad school and the reviewing I did for The Horn Book – but I’ve had a sort of crisis-of-faith that reviewing on a blog was somehow pointless. But I was able to do some quality reading while on vacation – my one and only goal for vacation was to read, which I did – and that reading kicked up some spark that makes me want to rethink and revisit the notion of writing about what I read. Hang the purpose and the style, if it isn’t for me first and foremost then it won’t matter to anyone else anyway.

So I’m back to blogging.

I guess there really is a list there, a plan, a scheme. Basics, I’m back to basics. It isn’t hardcore, planned on a calendar and scheduled to the minute, but the desire is there and I think, ultimately, its important for my soul that I get these parts of my house in order. Of those thing the blogging might lag behind the others, as I have recently been reading non-children’s books which don’t fit within the scope of that blog. I see this occasional gorging on “adult” literature as a sort of palette cleansing but also as a way of refreshing my critical reading skills. How much different is reading Don Delillo from a graphic novel? How are short stories for adults different or the same as those for teens? Whole new topics seemed to materialize out of the salty beach air. Cobwebs of the brain, be gone! I have things to think about and discuss!

So now we’ll see.

How is your summer shaping up, world? Any brain-clearing vacations on your horizon, any grand plans for these next couple of months?

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Sometimes, as a writer, I feel so lost.

That feeling is a type of insecurity borne from trying to speak in one’s true voice while trying to capture the voices of one’s inspirations.

Learning to read, that was a rush like the opening of a door to another land, but once I started to create my own sentences, my own stories, that was the universe opened up. But it was between the ages of eleven and sixteen that I found the books that would, for better or worse, define what appealed to me as a reader and a writer.

Five years of books read with no discernible pattern or goal that shaped, molded, teased and taunted, stretched, delighted, confused, numbed, and ultimately built the foundation of the person in me that I call the Writer.

But what was it about those books? What did I respond so strongly to that I was inspired to imitate their styles or themes?

More importantly, how long has it been since I read them? In some cases, its in the vicinity of forty years ago.

Perhaps its time for a refresher, a reboot of the drive, a chance look back at point A from point B and see what really happened on that journey.

And so, an answer to a question I’d posed for myself over what to read this summer. While I have plenty of new things to read I want to root out some of those old books, the familiar and the obscure, and see what I learn about myself.

I know this is going to have to include the Jerome Beatty kid-from-the-moon Matthew Looney series, and a thorough re-read of Lear’s Complete Book of Nonsense. Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle and Welcome to the Monkey House along with Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles will be in order. For a variety of reasons best saved for another day, I was traumatized by Saroyan’s My Name is Aram back in seventh grade and feel I need to give it a fair chance. And if — and this is a big if — if I can find the EXACT oversized collection of Little Nemo in Slumberland and the right Whole Earth Catalog then i think I’ll have all the proper ur-texts at hand for deciphering who I am now.

No less important are a handful of books that brought me back to life after some very dark times when I forgot who I was and what I wanted. Pinkwater’s Young Adult Novel is certainly due for a reread probably sooner than the others, and I need to touch down with Block’s Weetzie Bat again. And some books I once was impressed by and have now totally forgotten might be due for resurrection: Maguane’s Panama, Auster’s City of Glass trilogy, and perhaps if I’m really finally serious, I’ve been meaning to finish Zola’s Therese Raquin since 1983.

Equally important, but less so for rereading would be the Amphigorey books and the Kliban cat cartoon collections.

I’ll check back in one month from now (or so, vacation and all might make it more like five weeks) and then a month after than, and we’ll see what’s what. I suspect even just a handful of these books will be more than enough to show me the after-image of the lightning that supercharged my writerly stirring all those years ago.

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concrete

Odd how some words just jump out at you when you least expect it. I came across the word concrete recently while reading and its context made me pause.

We talk about communicating in concrete terms, concrete images, concrete language. Hard, solid concrete, meant to take a pounding and retain the shape it was poured into. As opposed to vague or ethereal, when you fall upon the concrete it hits you hard. You would not confuse it for anything else.

In writing characters it becomes essential then to make them as concrete as possible, to mold them into form and make it impossible not t notice them. If they are to be remembered there can be nothing soft about them, not about their appearance, not about their manners, not about their thoughts. They can behave in fuzzy and confused ways, but all within the confines of their given shape.

When you insist on examples you are asking for the concrete to set. When you are looking for absolute proof you want it to be concrete when it arrives. No one asks for this clarification to come in the form of mushy asphalt.

But what is concrete?

By definition, concrete is a mixture of aggregate, cement, and water. Aggregate itself is just a mixture of course matter like slag and stone and sand. The cement that binds the aggregate is a powder that hardens as it dries after being mixed with water. The process is about as mysterious as making bricks from mud, but in creating characters we are creating them from this mud as well. We pull together specific traits of behavior, an aggregate of attributes if you will, and bind them within a physical concrete of appearance that, when fully-formed and hardened in the reader’s mind, become vividly certain.

These attributes (actions) and appearances (descriptions) are their skin and bones. Nouns and verbs, structured and hard-baked, these are what make characters concrete.

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As a result of watching the recent presidential debates I’ve had the opportunity to catch glances of local broadcast news. I don’t watch a lot of tv and certainly not the news because in the past I found it to be shallow, superficial in its coverage, and slanted deep into sensationalism. These recent glances have reconfirmed my views and I now believe news exists purely as an instrument of fear mongering.

To what end, what purpose is all this fear sold to us as information that we feel compelled to need?

Fear, I’ve decided, is our national drug, our soma, one that once consumed requires a steady diet. Politicians dispense with rational and honest discourse in favor of getting votes by pushing fear like drug dealers earning loyalty – and dependency – by giving it away freely. The media redistributes this fear-drug after cutting it with good old-fashioned advertising hucksterism, knowing the consumer won’t consider the harmful side effects and decay to their ability to reason because they’ve become dependent on it. Thus the constant need for greater amounts of fear just to feel sated.

Enter dystopia.

The Science Fiction genre has a long tradition of discussing our current problems by masking them in constructed worlds similar to our own but distant enough not to cause us anxiety. They feed our strange human desires to explore new worlds, engage with the possibilities of life beyond our solar system, and through various proxies shine a light on our very human condition. They are cautionary, sometimes moral, tales with the promise of salvation or a warning of ruination as a matter of choice.

With kids constantly fed a steady diet of fear – on tv, in politics, in classrooms, anywhere it can be pedaled in favor of the ability to think for oneself – it shouldn’t be a surprise that they have grown to expect a dire future as entertainment. The ultimate message may be one of the human spirit triumphant over forces of darkness-to-come but rarely does it extend beyond the narrative hero. It is the flaw of hero-worship, this notion that one person may triumph in the end with the assumption that all will be right with the world from that point out. Revolution and change are rarely the carefully orchestrated desires of one individual motivating the masses, they are the will of the masses unified to rise up against the individual for the good of all.

The dystopic vision doesn’t happen in a vacuum, it isn’t the will of one person forced down on all, it is a collective agreement and a surrendering of free will and free thought that allows for the worst to happen. Over time, and with a steady diet of dark futures without workable solutions provided as road maps, dystopia as entertainment may condition readers to readily accept these worlds as eventualities. Fear re-conditions the mind to accept being afraid as a standard state of affairs, thus requiring a constant feed of fear in order to feel normal.

It took decades before people broke free of the fear and political inevitability of a nuclear Cold War. As entertaining as dystopic fiction can be, I hope it isn’t decades before readers (and writers) snap out of the coma of fear and seek out the roots of new stories that honor rational thought and honest discourse, and that politicians and the media lead, follow, or get out of the way.

Or, to bastardize Vonnegut: Tomorrow becomes the illusion we choose to believe, so we must take care in the illusions we choose to believe.

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