As a writer, you have to trust that your work will get better each time you come back to it. Very few writing projects are started and finished in one sitting. Even a short story requires planning, writing, re-writing, editing. Novels can take months and years to go from flash of inspiration to final manuscript. Every time you sit down to write, you take time to bring together all the threads of your work in progress. When you stop to rest, they slip from your grasp again. It can be hard not to fear that the work has unravelled without your attention. Even if it does you will soon weave it again in to something just as good, maybe even better.
If you are fortunate you will be able to return to your work in a few hours, or the next day. But for many of us writing happens around the commitments of life and work. You might return to your writing a day, a week, a month or sometimes even years later. So you have to trust that every time you come back to your work, it is better than when you left it. The ideas it is made of may have changed a little, or a lot, but the new ideas will be stronger, and closer to the spirit of what you are trying to express.
Chuck Wendig’s notoriety extends it’s reach through the viral network of the interwebs with this little post about Turning Writers Into Motherfucking Rockstars. Apparently this would make writers better respected, or at the very least, better paid. I disagree. Vehemently. To show you why, let’s examine some of the unexamined assumptions Wendig builds his case on.
Hemmingway? Wilde? Rockstars?!
You see that picture of Hemmingway holding a shotgun? Take away the shotgun, what have you got? A flabby old guy working hard to suck his gut in. Hemmingway was a mommy’s boy who felt the need to act macho and write macho because there wasn’t much else going on behind those clipped sentences. Wilde was gay and liked tea. That describes many British writers of literary fiction and much as I love them they are about as Rock’n’Roll as that sounds. I’ll give you Hunter S. Thompson as a rockstar…but as a writer? While he literally committed the act of writing I thought mostly his readers just looked at the pictures?
Rock’n’Roll = Fame’n’Fortune
Most of the rock’n’roll people I know work as day labourers or, on a good day, call centre assisstants. No disrespect to those noble trades, but they rarely lead to ownership of an MTV crib. The problem with wasted youth is that once you run out of it you still have decades of minimum wage employment ahead of you. Rock stars in mansions? That’s just the star prize the capitalist system offers to one in a million so all the others will persist in the self-destructive behaviour that leaves you unempowered and disenfranchised…IE a perfect member of consumer society.
What are you rebelling against? My own future as an empowered individual.
Why is it that teenage rebels all dress the same? It shouldn’t take more than one rock festival and the sight of fifty thousand identically garbed rebels to make an intelligent person question what’s really going on here. Rock’n’Roll is about as rebelious as slapping a collar and chain around your neck, giving one end to The Man and begging him to make you dance like a puppet on a string. If you want to engage in some real rebellion, try reading a book. But aren’t books for speccy four eyed geeks and old maid spinster crazy cat women? THAT IS WHAT THE MAN WANTS YOU TO THINK. If you were an evil capitalist conspiracy bent on keeping your fellow man as a servile, submissive work force, which would you encourage? Books or Rock’n’Roll? I rest my case.
All the hot chicks are rock chicks.
I rest my case. Again.
Sex, drugs and rock’n’roll give you something to write about
The case for the defence ask you to look at exhibit A, an interview with rock god Slash of Guns’n’Roses. We particularly like very time he answers a question with a monosylable. If this man ever publishes a book I hope the ghostwriter is good. Very good. I rest my case. For the last time. Except.
Neil Gaiman is a nice person
Not when you’re alone in a room with him and he’s telling you exactly what he thinks of your writing he ain’t.
So as we can see, Wendig’s logic is built on the shabbiest and most crumbly possible foundations. Why would we want writers to be more like rockstars, when rockstars are such uncool minions of The Man? No, what we need to do isn’t crush writers down in to the degraded mold of mass media rockstardom. Instead, we have to raise the masses up until they realise that if you really want the freedom the Rock’n’Roll dream is built on, it’s to be found in the books they are burning, not the CDs they are selling.
We are living through miraculous times. Knowledge, once a scarce resource, is being made freely and universally available to all. To understand how miraculous this is, consider the Dark Ages. For somewhere in the region of a thousand years, Europe was held in the iron grip of the church by a complete embargo on knowledge. An educated priestly elite dictated that the only true knowledge was the bible, which was written in latin which, low and behold, only they could read. that scarcity of information aloud the complete suppression of the entire European population for millennia. It’s no coincidence that as knowledge began to flow again, and then blossomed with the waves of information technology that took us from the printing press to the internet, society became progressively more free.
It’s very likely, in fact I would argue almost certain, that the freedoms unleashed by the internet will bring almost unimaginable benefits to every person alive today and every person that comes after us. The society that emerges from today’s information revolution will be as far advanced from our society today, as our society is from the Dark Ages.
In that future society, it won’t be possible to make a living from writing. Even the idea of making a living from writing will seem strange. In much the same way we might think making a living from talking a little odd…although it seemed perfectly natural to the priest who read from the bible only he could translate to his Dark Ages congregation. But then, if we make it down the rocky road of change that leads there, the idea of making a living itself will seem a little odd…
Neil Gaiman arrived yesterday to take the reins as our instructor for week four of the Clarion workshop. The whole group went to see The Dark Knight and Neil came along as well. Pretty exciting. The general consensus seemed to be that without Heath Ledger it would have been a bad film. With him it was a work of genius. Personally I think its the only Batman movie we (as in the human race) need. No sequel required, and all previous Batman movies should be deleted from the hard-disk of history.
There is a theory gathering momentum that each of our instructors is bringing a new totem animal into the symbolic landscape of the UCSD campus. Kelly is represented by the many rabbits leaping around campus. Jim remains in the hoardes of jet black Crows and Mary Anne was accompanied by an influx of humingbirds. On Neils first night, a pair of owls (not common in SoCal) took up residence on campus. It remains to be seen what Geoff and Nalo bring with them.
OK, so I’m learning things here. Lots of things. I’m internalising a store of knowledge on fiction writing that I can’t imagine any more effective way of gathering. In the last week I’ve been challenged to think particularly about developing character and deep theme in my writing. There is an ongoing debate about political content in stories – how to tackle it, or when to avoid it. The genre / literary divide is being consistently challenged on every level. Its a fake divide, we all know it. And yet there it is none the less. Storytelling vs. wordsmithing. Balancing character, plot, ideas and concepts. And all thses issues seem to swirl around the basic question – what makes story work? Every story has a unique answer. Leaning how to find that answer afresh for every story written is what Clarion is all about.
I’m starting to find the answer to the big question I lugged over from England in my hand luggage – what do I want to write? I had a file full of ideas on my computer when I arrived. Now I can look through those ideas and strike at least a third off as stories I’m not passionate about to do justice to, and another third that just don’t engage with the themes that I’m really interested. I’m starting to see very fundametal commonalities in the stories I do want to tell, something I’ve always struggled with before.
None of this has been easily gained. Clarion life happens at very high velocity. Workshoping, critiquing, reading, writing, talking, debating, arguing, eating and sleeping. Its a little like being in a war, all experience is immidiate with no time for consideration or refelection. We even have the god awful food at Canyon Vista to reinforce the feeling of army life.
Today I finished two weeks at Clarion. It feels like much longer. There is a consensus that one week of Clarion world time is about three weeks of real world time (or should that be the other way around?). One of my fellow clarionites has observed that we are living in strange environment. The weather is the same every day. There are lizards and rabbits and crows leaping all over the UCSD campus, and eucalyptus trees everywhere with flaky bark that looks like skin. Its possible that the crows have been sent to watch over us, and conceivable that we are all living in a Kelly Link story (in which case dear reader, please don’t stop!)
Clarion is very hard work. You critique all morning. You write all day. You read all night. Sleep is scarce, but deep. Like intense, structured exercise, this kind of exertion has the effect of stretching the muscles being exercised. I can feel myself arriving at new revelations about story writing everyday. The combination of hours of writing, reading and deconstructing up to 20k words of story every day, discussing those stories, talking almost non-stop about story and being around one very skilled professional writer after another is filtering so many concepts into my head that I will still be processing all the details years after Clarion has finished.
Last weeks story, ‘Ocean Beach’ got all the experiences I’ve been absorbing from California and San Diego out of my system. Its very far from finished, but I’m really happy about the ideas I developed in the story, and its likely to be first on my list to complete when I get back. I hope I don’t lose the thread of it when Kalifornia is no longer looming all around me, being weird in ways that I think only this strange environment can be. I did a flash piece last week as well called ‘String Music’ which I will polish and submit when I have a spare few hours. This week I’m working on a high fantasy story, complete with Elves and magic rings. Its going v.well and is a good change of pace and style as the other pieces were very dense, this is much more exciting. I’m not expecting to walk away from my six weeks here with any finished drafts, but do want to generate as much material and absorb as many insights into the craft as possible.
A week since Egypt and I have failed to post my magnum opus covering our travels there. It is sitting half written in my drafts folder. Maybe I will finish it one day soon when I have a spare number of moments.
First, a brief update. I am full steam ahead on the Writing Industries Conference 2008. If you are debating buying a ticket then stop. Just buy one. It will be worth the expenditure I promise. I completed my review of Cabinet des Fees this week. It should be up on The Fix next week. ‘Rings’ has returned some positive comment and an expression of interest from two markets. I need to think about a re-write for the last two scenes. Hopefuly I can find one or two free evenings this week to make that happen. And next year is National Year of Reading, which I am now revving up for on behalf of Leicester Libraries. Watch this space for more.
Muses. They have been much on my mind in recent weeks. There is a short essay by Ray Bradbury called ‘How to Keep and Feed a Muse.’ I am yet to read it (if anybody happens to have a copy please shout) but the title alone has generated quite a bit of thought. I don’t imagine a muse as a person, female or otherwise. (There is a wonderful issue of Sandman where a writer captures one of the greek muses and keeps her prisoner in his house, which gives him great artistic success although he later pays the price.) I understand the muse as that first moment of imagination and excitement that spurs you to write a story. Writing is amazing when the muse is strong. When the muse is gone it is a terrible slog. I’ve been playing around with ways to keep a muse well fed. There have been some positive results but I’m still looking for good muse care tips. Any thoughts from you literary folks about how to keep a muse happy and contented?
Writer. Story geek. Travelling the world while writing a book.