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Hi. My name’s Philip and, apparently, I’m an addict.
Turns out, try as I might to neutralize it, I’m addicted to words. And sentences. And paragraphs. To grammar. And stories. And books. Glorious books! And thus I’m back with you today — as Tom and Pam and Charles may have already known I would be. Eventually.
George Orwell reminisces that he knew from the age of five or six that he was going to be a writer, though he qualifies this certainty with the recognition that “[b]etween the ages of about seventeen and twenty-four I tried to abandon this idea, but I did so with the consciousness that I was outraging my true nature and that sooner or later I should have to settle down and write books.”
I, likewise, seem to find myself “outraging my true nature” on an almost daily basis as I — consciously or otherwise — scheme to try to keep the siren call of the keyboard at bay. ‘Cuz I’m already busy enough with work. And with family. With trying to keep the house clean, and pay the bills, and plan for this summer’s vacation. Yet the more I try to quash these impulses to compose, the more they coalesce — fester, really — below the surface, gaining ground on me even as I struggle to keep them in check.
It hurts to write — at least to try to write well. It’s a difficult, solitary, alienating process, and not for the faint of heart. But it hurts me more, though in a very different way, not to write. As with the protagonist of the very first short story I wrote for Writers’ Group who simply can’t keep the supple iconography of a once-glimpsed adolescent bathing beauty out of his mid-life noggin, eventually such suppressed agony will always find its way to the light:
“It is this crescendo of images [of the young, scantily-clad teenager] that he fears most. They would come upon him without warning, overpower him and leave him nearly spent, exhausted from trying to keep them at bay, but, as on the very day itself, unable to look away, unable to disentangle himself from the misery that the images would eventually leave draped around him. In the midst of the memory, which he now suffers with alarming regularity, he feels fragile, barely capable of controlling himself. He feels encumbered by some sort of toxic, sexual Tourette’s, anticipating the twitching and sputtering and pornographic language of his obsession that he imagines at any minute must surely come pouring from him like rancid, projectile vomit, leaving him shaking and used up and alone, with nothing left to him but his own strangely muddled desires and humiliation.”
How’s that for a creative call to arms?
It is with a similar, nearly debilitating anxiety, that I continually find myself stringing words together. Not because I want to, you understand, but because — as much as it hurts and as much effort as it requires — it ultimately does me less psychic damage to write than not to write. And yet as true as this may be, even this is only true up to a point. Because that’s what writing is as well — a shifting quicksand of ideas and perspectives where we cling to certainty at our peril.
“Art is a lie that let’s us realize truth,” posits Picasso. And this is certainly as valid for writing as it is for painting. Perhaps even more so where “stories” are concerned. Still, the fact that fiction isn’t “real” has always been something of a sticking point with me as well. What kind of a person freely chooses to spend huge swaths of his limited lifetime in the netherworld of make believe at the expense of his actual human existence? With his literal head — or, more explicitly, perhaps, the imaginative capacity of his mind — stuck up his proverbial arse?
I guess there’s “truth” and then there’s “Truth.” The former is rather more straight-forward than the latter. It’s the brick wall that you walk into when you’re not paying attention to where you’re going. Or the 9-to-5 work you do on a daily basis without really thinking about it. It’s the place where you simply “act” and “re-act” to whatever your life throws at you. A place where “being” is only as valid as the natural laws — physical, chemical, biological — that constrain such a reality.
Creatively, however, as writers we’re after something far more elusive than the simple interplay of physics and chemistry and biology. What we’re after, I would argue, is no less than “Truth” itself. That’s the value the writer brings to the table. What is it to live? To love? To dream? To suffer? To exist as a human being? A real-word response to these questions only gets us so far. On the other hand, what the artist seeks to expose, I believe, is the Platonic ideal that animates the very essence of an issue, the existence-ness of existence that unites us in ways that our mere bodies simply cannot. The once and always, perpetually elusive, physically transcendent, “heart of the matter.”
Why do I write? To lance some some sort of intellectual, creative boil that continues to arise within me unbidden. Ultimately, I suppose, it’s all a mind trick. Everything’s a mind trick. These are not the droids you’re looking for.
Or are they?
(Written on the occasion of my return to my local Writers’ Group earlier this year after an eight month absence.)
For anyone out there who either doesn’t have a military background, or isn’t over 40, the above-noted string of dots and dashes is Morse Code for “SOS”. For the purposes of this blog, however, this is not a reference to the traditional “Save Our Souls” distress call — at least not directly. Today, at The Gooseyard, it refers, instead, to “Shiny Object Syndrome,” a recent variation of the acronym I stumbled upon the other day that finally assigns a pithy mnemonic to my super hero-like ability to start about 87 new projects in the run of day, but seldom to finish a single one of them.
Last night’s foray into SOS territory was in pursuit of the new on-line writing game, Storium. The game’s in beta testing so I figured I’d drop by their site for few minutes, check out what was being written and how it worked, and maybe quickly submit a character of my own to one of the emerging stories. Four hours later I pulled my sorry, end-of-the-week carcass away from the computer and off to bed, having spent the entire evening not only creating and submitting a richly-developed, emotionally-conflicted Ranger-like character, christened Alswulff Glenn, for a “fantasy-type” story that was just getting underway, but also having set myself up as the narrator for my own “Occult Pulp Horror” themed tale which I’ve entitled Arcanus Rising. (Hey, don’t give me that look — the genres are pretty much pre-set and at least I had enough self control to not start developing my own unique story-line(s) from scratch! Give me some credit.)
Yep, just what I need (NOT!) — two more writing projects to work on! And, since those of us with chronic (terminal?) SOS like to spread our contagion like wildfire throughout the community, I figured I’d better invite one of my pals along to Storium to give me a hand. I mean, sure, he’s trying to get that YA book of his tweaked and edited for release this fall, but he’s still probably in need of a little shiny, writerly distraction as well, right? (Sorry Tom.)
And thus expired my Friday night, which should have been spent working on the weekly laundry, prepping for my writing group meeting today (sorry Jim), and fleshing out a couple of outlines for this week’s blogs. Yeah, blogs — plural. ‘Cause, hell, two blogs are shinier than one, right? And I really wanted to try out that new “Coco” theme from WordPress…. And why not hitch that second blog to yet another new project — Project One for the Win, where I slowly turn my modest country bungalow from a cluttered family home into a clean-lined, minimalist Nirvana. ‘Cause, hey, a guy needs projects, right? Right? Are we beginning to see a pattern emerge here?
My life— AKA my addiction to the “new”, to anything other than what I happen to be stuck doing at the moment — often reminds me of one of those old Family Circus cartoons. You know, where Billy or PJ, or whoever the hell the young son was, is sent to the kitchen to fetch the scissors for his mother and then we watch that thick dashed line trace his progress on this quest over the course of the cartoon. Starting from the hallway, just before making it to the kitchen, where he gets distracted by a butterfly and climbs out an open window to follow it into the yard. Then, while he’s chasing the butterfly around outside, he sees a low-slung sports car drive by that he decides is exactly the car he wants to own when he grows up, so back inside he goes, down to the family computer station in the basement, to research his coveted future vehicle.
While on-line reviewing car payment schedules he finds himself suddenly re-directed to a mortgage amortization web site and decides he can probably now negotiate a better rate on his own mortgage given the recent dip in rates. And, considering just how low the rates actually are, maybe he’d be better off doing those kitchen renovations he’s been promising his wife this year, rather than delaying it any longer. But if he’s going to do the renovations, he should probably download some nice shiny new 3D kitchen design software to get him started. Which means he should probably back-up his computer first, but his old external hard drive is full so he probably needs a new one, and Future Shop is having a sale, and I should pick up Thief for Xbox while I’m there, and where did I put my car keys?
“Where’re the goddamned scissors I asked for,” screams
your wife PJ’s mother from the top of the basement stairs….
Ahoy! The SS Gooseyard is going down! dot-dot-dot dash-dash-dash dot-dot-dot….
‘Art is a lie that makes us realize truth’ (Pablo Picasso, 1923)
For me, when I break it down, I think writing is a meta thing.
I write, I am slowly beginning to realize, to figure out why I write. Not to re-present a life, but to seek to expose Life. The search for some kind of Platonic essence that transcends existence by its very existence-ness. A sort of philosophizing from first principals without the requisite guise of academic convention.
Maybe creating all art is like this. I dunno. All I know is writing and architecture. What you might consider the “slow-burn” arts. Where the practice of the visual arts (drawing, painting, sculpture) or music (singing or playing a instrument) is concerned, on the other hand,— those forms of artistic expression with substantially more inherent immediacy — I draw a blank. Nada. I’ve a huge appreciation, certainly. But insight or ability? Not so much.
And that gets me into trouble sometimes — ‘cause I get jealous. Jealous because the painter or singer can make an instant, visceral connection with an audience in a way a writer — at least a writer of anything longer than a haiku or short poem — simply cannot. Plus, once they reach a minimal level of competence in their field (not always an easy thing, I grant you that at least), they can generate and be out there flogging their latest still life or love song in little or not time at all. As competent as I become, however, it takes me a long time to write and publish that novel. And if it doesn’t quite take off, well, that’s years of my life I can’t get back.
In just under two weeks from now my writing group is undertaking a public reading of some of our work at a local library. I was instrumental in backing the group into this particular corner because early in the new year I kept on at them about how frustrated I was that yet another local artist was having a lovely showing of their watercolours or oils in the library foyer. Or I had been to a benefit concert where the singers and musicians had those in attendance tapping their feet, clapping their hands, and hooting with appreciation. Meanwhile, all we did was meet sheepishly once a month and read passages of our latest work to one another. But damn it, I challenged (pleaded?), we were artists as well! Weren’t we? (The answer, of course, was “yes,” but, as our intrepid facilitator Tom pointed out, apparently some of us “artists” needed a little more external validation than others!)
God only knows how the evening is going to turn out. We’ve put posters up, and are trying to get the word out with PSA’s and news releases, but, in my mind’s eye, I can already see the assembly in front of me as I stand at the lectern about to get underway. The first row comprised of a handful of spouses and / or significant others (who, by now, have probably heard the material enough times to be thoroughly bored with it already) and a few really close friends who feel obliged to attend though, if truth be told, they’d probably be having more fun at home watching the Stanley Cup playoffs with a cold beer in hand. Then, behind them, a veritable sea of empty seats. Empty until you come to the last row that is. The last row is packed — populated entirely by a gaggle of hobos and rubbies, whose “Free Admission” has gained them unimpeded access to the “Light Refreshments” advertised in our promotional material.
I wish I had some clever McLuhan-esque interpretation of how this should go down. Or, at least, some explanation of why we’re not going to pull in the same droves of people we would if we were, say, an amateur jazz quartet instead of just four writers. Something about how the medium relates to the message. Because as engaging as the various snippets of our stories might turn out be, ultimately we’ll be nothing more than talking heads. Nobody’s going to be stomping their feet or singing along with abandon.
Maybe these reading things only work when the author is already well known and the event is more about simply being in the same room with such an accomplished wordsmith than it is about listening to what he or she has to read. Maybe, until you’ve already made a mark of some sort, you should simply be satisfied if every now and then someone curls up alone in a corner somewhere and dives into something you’ve written. Maybe, in the final analysis, that remains the best way for writers to communicate with their “audience” — not with them sitting in front of you, but, instead, with them in that place where they truly have the time and freedom to embrace the work, to sit and think with the author’s mind.
The disconnect I suppose I’m stumbling over here is that writers aren’t typically performers in the same way as, well, performers, are. (Traditional storytellers might be, but that’s a different blog altogether). If you’ve got a half-way decent voice and can play your own guitar accompaniment, hell, you can busk on the street — singing somebody else’s songs — and people will typically throw at least some coinage in your direction. I wonder how much money I’d make standing there reading somebody else’s book out loud? Ironically, it’d probably be about the same amount I’d make standing there reading my own work — zilch!
Okay, the pity party’s almost over. As convoluted as my ravings have become at this point, I think what I’m trying to say — with a tip of the hat to Tolstoy — is that though the creative process seems strangely similar from individual to individual, different types of artistic endeavours are difficult in different ways. I think one of the reasons writing is so hard is because people think it’s so easy. Most folks would admit freely that they can’t paint, or sculpt, or play the oboe or piano, but I imagine many of them think they could write something, in one form or another, if called upon to do so. They can speak after all, and writing’s just an extension of that, right? This has the tendency, as you might imagine, of de-valuing the writer’s currency. Of placing our work in the realm of the potentially “do-able” for most folks, rather than the realm of truly inspired creativity like, say, writing a pop song!
For me writing’s hard. Like pulling a full-grown elephant out of my butt hard. Then again, maybe I’m just a poor writer.
Every time I lock myself in this room and try to put something to paper, my mind reels.
Why? Why do I do this to myself?
Why the hell, after an exhausting day in the salt mines of [insert your day job here], do I come home and seek to force myself on the page?
When it’s sunny outside. Or when I should be playing video games and bonding with my teenaged son. Or finishing the floor tile in back hall that I started last year.
If you’re a writer, you already know why. You’ll also have your own very personal reasons, of course, but, ultimately, it’s a compulsion thing. You can’t help yourself. It’s kind of like masturb . . . uhmm . . . I mean, like when you open that big bag of potato chips promising to only eat one. Maybe two or three, tops. And then proceed to eat the who bag. You simply can’t stop. The only thing harder than writing — and this only goes to prove the universe’s twisted sense of irony — is not writing.
What makes it all worthwhile though, and I suppose this is probably true for any endeavour, are those little bursts of joy we get when stuff actually works out to our satisfaction. Like Hannibal from the A-Team: “I love it when a plan comes together!” And for writers there’s that extra little jolt of accomplishment that comes when, every now and then, we learn that we have actually made some sort of connection with our readers. That we’ve gained another “Follower” on our blog or won a story competition or had something published — all things contingent upon there being actual human beings on the other end of our words with whom we’ve somehow made a connection.
It’s surprising how minuscule such tidbits of positive feedback can be and still provide huge spurts of motivation. Even over relatively long periods of time, and especially for those of us writers who don’t yet, and very well may never have, an honest-to-goodness “fan base.”
I remember my first job out of university. I worked for a PR and advertising firm and spent the better part of a year organizing a national conference for a large professional association. During the conference itself I barely slept for about 72 hours. The day after it was over I returned to my desk to find a cream-coloured envelope there with my name on it. Inside the envelope was a crisp $100 bill and a handwritten note from the company president thanking me for my diligence in putting together such a successful event. Before then I barely had the sense that the president even knew who I was, but everything about that card was just right. It was immediate enough after the event that there was no way it could be construed as an afterthought. It contained cash, rather than a company cheque, which further personalized the monetary token — and it was a nice crisp $100 at that, obviously not something he had simply reached into his pocket and pulled out. And the amount, while not staggering, wasn’t a pittance (at least to me) — it was just enough to show gratitude without being vulgar. He had made — to my mind — an authentic connection with me. After that, I would have done almost anything for the guy.
But when writers get positive feedback from a reader, — when someone’s actually crawled into your psyche and experienced your words along with you, and is able to communicate to you that they have gained something by the experience — now there’s a rush! And you hoard these experiences as a bulwark against the bleakness of the daily writing grind. Squirreling them away to be re-ingested at 2am sittings when you’re on the fifth edit of a particularly troublesome piece of crap that has you considering ditching writing altogether in favour of doing something a little less painful like, maybe, gouging your eyeballs out with a butter knife.
Yet this unique behavioural feedback loop only really works if those folks from whom you’re receiving praise don’t have some previous vested interest in your success. Thumbs up from Mom does’t count — she’s a ringer. And spouses are doubly problematic. Part of them wants to be your champion no matter what you undertake. The other part, however, may very well want to scream at you to stop wasting your time playing make believe and actually finish the tiling in the back hall. Both, I would argue, are equally valid responses. And, with this insight, it may often be better to simply leave this particular keg untapped when you’re looking for reassurance of your emerging, literary genius.
Of course there are always exceptions to the spousal rule. A friend from my writing group, for example, earned some high praise from his wife indeed, after the performance of a play he had written a few years ago, when she informed him, “I thought it was great. By the end I had completely forgotten you had written it.” Okay, maybe a little bit backhanded, but still on the positive side of the ledger nonetheless. (Another friend of mine offered a similar “compliment” on my short story, “Anhalter,” that I posted last month: “Oh, that was yours? I thought it was just a story you stumbled upon by someone else and posted it to your blog ‘cause you thought it was interesting. I liked it. It’s didn’t sound anything like your usual stuff.” Uhmm, thanks. I think.)
But the real breakthroughs come when disinterested (or, at least, mostly disinterested) third parties are able to “pick up what you’re putting down.” Sometimes they’re even able to discern what you’ve done better than you are yourself. I remember when I originally read “Saturday Afternoon” (which I posted here last week) to my writing group. I was a little worried because the several friends I had shown it to previously were completely confounded by it: “Uhmm, it’s . . . good? I had to read it a couple of times. I’m not quite sure I get it. There was a plane crash, right?” But one of my writing group colleagues immediately exposed something I didn’t even understand — consciously — about the piece until she mentioned it: “I like it. Engaging imagery. It’s really more like poetry, this story, isn’t it.” YES! YES! That was it! The imagery, the cadence of the climactic paragraph reeling and arching with the rhythm of the poor, pre-destined pinball. Someone “Got it!” and, in doing so, had even helped me to see my own work more clearly. This insight kept me writing for a least another six months.
Then, last year, I sat down and wrote the first chapter of a novel that had suddenly taken up residence in my mind. I had seen it as a vision: The literary love child of Ian McEwan’s Saturday and Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian. (Yes, more vampires, but not really. Trust me!) I’m enthralled with this first chapter. I think it’s evocative and atmospheric and richly character driven. Somehow I haven’t had the time and / or energy to block out the rest of the book yet, but I know it’s going to be a winner if I’m ever able to — stop blogging long enough to — get back to it.
I think they liked it at writers’ group, but I recently got some first-hand reader feedback from the sister of a friend of mine to whom I had e-mailed an e-pub copy so she could read on her i-Pad:
OH MY STARS !!! When I got to the part where he thought Gretel was skinning a baby I almost passed out. Your description made it feel like I was standing in the kitchen and I had goosebumps . . . . I need more of that story.
I’m all subscribed and am getting your blogs.
Keep that shit up. It’s good stuff and I enjoy reading it.
Manna from heaven!
And a ringing enough endorsement that I imagine I’ll be “keeping this shit up” for the foreseeable future. Or at least until someone trips over the edge of the hardwood transition in the back hall and I simply can’t put off finishing the floor tile any longer.
Photo credit: University of Warwick (http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/al/learning_english/leap/reading/)
While, obviously, this accomplishment is not all that impressive numerically, the significance of this discerning fifth follower remains indisputable. Of my first four followers, two were actually friends from my local writers’ group. With a fifth follower, however, I can now boast more followers who are not known — or related — to me than are! That’s critical mass, baby!
And then, on February 23rd, along came yet another! This means I now have twice as many followers who I don’t know (yet) than I do know. Thanks to all of you who took the leap and clicked the “Follow” button. (Even in those cases where it might have been mainly in the hopes of generating some additional traffic to your own site. A win’s still a win, right?)
Until I hit the “public” sharing button on my blog nearly a month ago, and not including the mind-numbingly copious e-mails and memos I strew into the ether everyday at work, the only folks who had ever seen (or heard me read) my “creative” writing consisted of the judges of the various writing contests I’ve entered in the past few years and the on-again, off-again members of my local writing group. The latter were encouragingly receptive, the former, not so much. (At least I’m assuming the judges weren’t all that receptive given that I never heard back from any of them.)
Still, as excited as I am that a handful of complete strangers have enjoyed my early output enough to actually become my “Followers” – that sounds strangely egomaniacal somehow, doesn’t it? – the blogosphere remains a place of some consternation for me. It’s great fun, for instance, and a nice creative outlet, but, holy crap, it’s a bit of a time sink, isn’t it? Not only writing the entries, but sitting around for hours on end staring at that damn “Stats” page and waiting for the counter to record your next visitor. I haven’t had a single hit yet today, for example, and it’s driving me nuts. Clearly I’m a bit of a “Newbie”, but seriously (OK, not really seriously), this is what doing crack must be like. Just one more hit and I can die happy! And who the hell was that visitor I had from Singapore the other morning? The mind boggles. Heady days, indeed.
What do you think intrepid Followers? Is this blog stuff really worth the effort?
Thanks to Tom for explaining this crazy WordPress stuff to me!