Yesterday I had breakfast with a writer friend. She’s already building a following with her self-published books. Now, she’s breaking into traditional publishing. She mentioned a particular anxiety she’s been dealing with, and it gave me an epiphany.Read More
...once you realize the truth about genre.
I discovered the truth about genre by trying desperately to kill genre. This seems like an increasingly common sentiment among creators and audiences alike.Read More
First, one universal truth and one national truth.
The universal truth is that every human being is an unwavering, perfect band of light. That light is truth.
More specifically, that light is an encoded message. Each band of it, each individual human being, contains the sum of everything the universe knows about itself: every experience, every chemical structure, every physical law, everything.
The universe sends out these bands of light (which exist also in animals and stones and everything else) so that it can learn of itself. What we often call “God” or “the Divine” or “the Mystery” is simply everything, the total sum, finding ever more sophisticated ways to share itself with itself.
This leads us into the national truth.
The national truth is that the United States of America is a country put together by human beings which has the potential to carry out something perfectly aligned with the universe’s mission.
Specifically, it has the potential to become a project where the black human beings, the brown human beings, the pale human beings, the many nations of human beings who were here before the pale human beings came, the albino human beings, the deaf human beings, the blind human beings, the human beings with disabilities, the human beings who are not neurotypical, the human beings who are chronically ill, the human beings who are lesbian, the human beings who are gay, the human beings who are asexual, the human beings who are queer, the human beings who are trans, the human beings who are secular, and the human beings who practice any religious faith whatsoever, and every other kind of human being all participate in the same crucial task.
That task: for each of them to share their unwavering band of light with the world. To look into each other, through the eyes, ears, touch, or any other means, and say this:
“Yes, I am the infinite too. It’s good to see you again.”
America, through its splendid variety, has the chance to say so in a thunderously loud voice. Yet, there are some who hope it won’t.
The “hope it won’t” camp includes Nazis, White Supremacists, Fundamentalists, Fascists, the Alt Right, and all their supporters, loud or quiet.
They do not want the universe to share itself with itself. They want to shutter out those bands of light because it is too painful to look into them. When the infinite looks into them, they fear the honesty it asks for in return, so they cower and turn away.
Instead they obsess over the body, which is a vessel for that perfect band of light (and part of what it means to teach) but not the light itself.
They claim that the shape of the body’s skull leaves it more or less predisposed to violence, as does the color of its skin, the dialect with which it speaks, the sexual partners it chooses, and so many other disconnected details.
They point to the mistakes of America’s past and say, “Those weren’t mistakes. We should keep those brutalities going.”
All the while they deny that they themselves are perfect bands of light too, and that they commit an act of real suicide by shuttering out the other bands of light.
In the most secret depths of their hearts, they recognize their own actions as suicide. That is what they want. They want to die in such a profound way that everything dies.
They think the universe is a hateful, stupid child that must be disciplined into better behavior or, failing that, beaten until it dies.
Still, that America that can and should be, the America of Light, is growing. It will cover the whole land mass one day. It is the America I believe in.
It is not necessarily the America the Founding Fathers planned for, because it’s something even better: it is an America that generations and generations of Americans decided upon, that generations of Americans will continue to build.
And for the America of Light to keep growing, it might become necessary for the human beings who believe in it to destroy the human beings that don’t. A civil war, in the worst case scenario, and at the very least, violent resistance on the streets.
Do not look at the universe’s infinite love for itself and mistake it for pacifism. It is not. The universe has fought ferociously to stop itself from destroying itself, and it will do so again.
Nonetheless, the warriors of the America of Light should calm their hearts with the knowledge that they can destroy certain vessels of the perfect light without harming the light itself.
They need not burden themselves with hatred or even anger for those human beings that oppose them. They need only do what is right and necessary to keep the light shining, to keep open the possibility of an America that loves itself and shares with itself the same way the universe does.
In the America of Light, there won’t be much left of the old kind of patriotism, the kind that says, “America has an image, and you will reflect that image or die. This image, this country, is the only one that matters.”
No, the America of Light will have a new kind of patriotism, one that says, “We are proud of this place because there are many human beings here who care enough to make it better, who share their perfect bands of light with each other and with the world beyond. There are other countries who do this too. We admit to the mistakes we made before and work to do better.”
I know that this America will come, because in shimmering little corners, in the clear eyes and open palms of awakened human beings, it’s already here.
This the America I believe in. This is the America I serve.
One nation, out of many, playing its part in the dance.
Club Classic was the tentative title, after the main character, and the story could’ve worked. It was a story of self-discovery set in a near-future “dystopia lite” where mega corporations have officially replaced the United States government and split the country into newer, smaller states.
The titular Club Classic was a professional dancer trying to find a sense of self in a world where everything from the walls of people’s homes to the surface of the ocean was covered in advertisements, and where the aforementioned mega corporations seemed to know everything about everybody.
I stuffed a lot of strange, risky ideas into the story, but the core of it could’ve worked. The only problem was, I had no idea what the core was. The story had too many darlings, and I had no framework at all for what I should cut and what I should keep when it came time to revise.
Indeed, I spent quite a lot of my own money hiring a respectable New York editor to look over the manuscript. He did exactly what he was meant to do: he gave me an honest assessment. He never said, but rather, implied that the manuscript was a complete mess.
With hindsight, I can tell he was being enormously patient and generous with me, but at the time it stung. He even wrote me a detailed synopsis of how he envisioned the final version of the story. It had a lot of the same elements of my story but it didn’t feel like mine.
I thanked him and payed him. I told him I would keep him in mind for any next steps, and he said he would be happy to work with me again whenever I was ready.
Then I went through, to date, my most painful and embarrassing writing experience.
I was sitting in a Starbucks with my laptop open, switching between my manuscript and the editor’s notes. I can’t tell you how long I sat there, although it felt like days.
I’ve had writing moments before when my hands felt paralyzed, because I was so confused about what to write next. This time, my entire body felt paralyzed.
No, not even paralyzed: chained. I remember squirming on that couch, trying to escape. I wanted to escape writing. I wanted to escape my first and truest love. I wanted to escape the very thing that makes me who I am.
The only thing that pulled me back to myself was remembering the time I had quit writing, which had lead to darker and scarier moments than even this.
So I did the only thing I could to keep myself together and keep writing: I killed my first novel. I closed the manuscript, closed the notes, and I haven’t looked at either of them since.
To prevent a similar disaster with my next book, I spent the next few weeks absorbing books on story structure (funny how they never taught me that while I was getting my Creative Writing degree—a story for another time).
I found two different story structure systems that I liked, so I smashed them together to create my own multi-layered, purposefully redundant story outlining system.
The result: a complete first draft of a full-length manuscript in about six months, while still working a full-time day job. I’ve made plenty of tweaks to the manuscript since then, but the magical thing is that every time I go back to tweak it I know exactly what I need to change and where.
Often, I find I can make the fix I need just by replacing a single conversation, or by moving a plot detail forwards or backwards in the story. No matter what tweaks I make, the structure still holds.
I used to fear structure because I thought it would make my stories feel formulaic. Not true. If anything, my novel manuscript by now feels a lot more natural than some of my short stories, which I mostly pants my way through.
This is the same manuscript, by the way, which got at least one agent interested in seeing more, and which has gotten rave reviews from my brilliant and merciless test reader, Gabby.
I’m extremely happy with where my writing is now, but the one thing that pains me is when I think back to Club Classic and realize how it could’ve survived if I’d only planned ahead, and how much pain and anguish I could’ve skipped on a personal level if I’d only embraced story structure.
This is all to say that, if you are a writer, you should make a point to study story structure and outline in advance at least one of your projects. Yes, even if you, like the old me, think you are a pantser.
Structure: it won’t kill you, but the lack of it might.
Credit to Kool With A K on YouTube for inspiring this post!
“Kill your darlings” is bad writing advice because it’s sloppy. Since nobody ever specifies which darlings to kill, the heuristic becomes, “If I care about something in my writing, I have to delete it.”
No wonder so many of the writers who take this advice to heart end up burning out before they can create their best work. That, or they end up bitter and resentful later in their careers.
Writers usually start as readers, and readers seek out things they can fall in love with and keep and cherish. Why should we expect the mature writer to have the exact opposite instincts as the reader?
“Kill your darlings” is a bad rule but, nonetheless, it tries to correct a real problem. Namely, a story needs to earn the agreement of many different people to survive out in the wild. This includes editors, agents, publishers, other creators, and most importantly, readers. In most cases, this means compromising.
Our “darlings” make for the most difficult compromises, since they are the parts of the story that feel precious to us but are too weird, too specific, too flowery, or too anything else for most people’s taste.
When faced with these compromises, the amateur folds their arms and says, “No.” There are a million potential excuses they can offer, everything from, “I’m not good enough to fix this,” to “You’re an idiot, I’m a genius, and one day the world will see I was right.”
Whatever their excuse is, the underlying logic is the same each time: “This is too precious for me to change.”
The professional does make these compromises, one way or another. “Kill your darlings” is one way, but there are many other, healthier ways (and, for that matter, some even more destructive ways).
“Kill your darlings” is a way of trying to avoid the difficult compromises altogether by cutting out the controversial bits ahead of time. Come to think of it, it’s a rather paranoid and selfish rule in addition to being sloppy.
Let me offer you a more mature and useful rule, one that will allow you to sharpen your craft while still chasing the things you love:
“You only get one darling.”
That darling could be a plotline, a character, an image, a metaphor, a theme, or any other element of your story. Whatever it is, it’s the one thing you’re going to guard with unwavering devotion.
And then you’re going to compromise on everything else.
This a many-splendored rule. First, it gives you a sense of deep confidence, because no matter what changes may come, you always know that this is your story. Second, it doesn’t turn you into a bitter old jackass like Norman Mailer. Third, it forces you to dig deep and really understand what your story is ABOUT.
Because your story is not ABOUT its premise, or the things that happen in the plot, or your cool hero. It’s ABOUT something deeper. Any project that’s worth sweating through to the end is ABOUT something, and figuring that something out is the most important thing you can do to grow as a writer.
Now, let’s look at two recent movie examples, starting with one that fails to follow this principle: The Mummy, 2017.
The Mummy is a stunningly bad movie for far too many reasons for me to list here (for one, Set is the Egyptian god of storms and chaos, not death). Still, there are many elements of its story that could have worked wonders in the context of a different story.
***Spoiler Warning for The Mummy, 2017***
For example, having Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as the head of the secret monster hunting society Prodigium is a great idea, but since none of the other characters are as developed (or as campy) as those two it feels like a waste.
And for that matter, “Prodigium” probably could work as the name for that monster hunting society, but it feels like it belongs in a more serious, academic universe than the (intentionally or no) campy, B-horror fun of the Dark Universe.
Even the concept of a forgotten Egyptian princess making a Faustian pact with Set could’ve worked if the writers had actually understood Egyptian mythology and found a smoother way to integrate their invented character.
***End of The Mummy, 2017 Spoilers***
Seeing the pattern yet? These good ideas don’t get a chance to thrive because none of them are the central focus, and the writers somehow missed the fact that none of them harmonize with each other.
The funny thing here is that many critics are chalking this up to laziness. That’s entirely possible, but it’s equally likely that the filmmakers were passionate about the project but just couldn’t bring themselves to find the one darling of the story and kill the other, unnecessary ones.
Now let’s look another recent movie that does follow this principle: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.
First off, if you haven’t seen this movie, go watch it immediately. It’s wonderful.
Now, this is a perfect example to use here because Guardians 2 sounds like, on the surface, a chaotic kitchen sink of a movie. The main cast includes an Earthling dude raised by space pirates, a talking racoon, a sentient tree baby, along with a host of other aliens, and the genre is somewhere between a space opera and a crime caper.
Yet, the movie is ABOUT one very clear, specific thing. It has only one darling.
Of course, I do want to take a moment to credit all the crew members, CG artists, actors, editors, managers, and so on who worked hard to make the film look and sound so delightful…
…but still, none of that would’ve added up to a memorable film if the script didn’t provide the one darling.
So what’s the one darling?
I can illustrate it with a single, pivotal scene.
***Spoiler Warning for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2***
Over the course of the film, our hero Peter Quill discovers that the evil quasi-god-figure Ego is his father, and that he himself could attain god-like power by joining his side. Instead, Peter decides to destroy Ego to stop his plan of killing all life in the universe by replacing it with himself.
During their final battle, Ego restrains Peter and warns him that if he dies, Peter will never again have access to his god-like power.
Ego’s exact words are “You’ll be just like everybody else.”
Peter then has a flashback to all the people he’s felt close to throughout his life, including some of the very people who have sometimes harmed or disappointed him. Yondu, for example, has alternated between hunting down Peter and acting as his father figure. In this sequence, Peter remembers the latter—the very moments when he and Yondu felt most connected.
Then Peter says the most important line in the film (and I start openly weeping with joy):
“What’s so bad about that?”
THAT is the one darling of the film. It’s the core theme: no matter how imperfect people are, the connections they form between each other are the real meaning of life. With that question, Peter shows that he’s rejecting godhood because it would mean abandoning the flawed, real people who matter to him.
With that one darling in place, all the other subplots of the film make sense. Gamora’s arc involves learning that her conflict with her sister Nebula was never really about jealousy; it was about a lack of genuine sisterhood. Yondu was willing to risk banishment from the Ravagers because of his fatherly connection to young Peter, and the Ravagers posthumously accept him back into the fold once they recognize the heroism of his sacrifice.
By the end of the film, even Rocket is starting to learn that he doesn’t need to wander through life nurturing his feelings of isolation. As weird as his story is, there are still others who relate to it.
***End of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 Spoilers***
I can almost guarantee you the filmmakers had to make a lot of compromises along the way to get Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 finished and out to the public. At each of those moments, I’m sure they thought back to their one darling and asked themselves which decision would best serve it.
So remember: You Only Get One Darling.
At my freshman orientation at UCSB, they told us the best way to approach sexual consent is to seek “the enthusiastic yes.”
The most important word there is “enthusiastic” because it’s possible to get a yes from coercion or persistence, but that can harm the other person and cause trouble for you later.
And sex, like lawn games, is only as fun as the energy each person brings to it.
The enthusiastic yes is an idea is so good we should start applying it to our art as well.
You can beg and scrape and plead to get people to look at your work. You can maybe even get them to pay for it. However, you’ll almost never create any true fans this way.
The common comparison here is the used car salesman, but you have to realize that he’s playing a very different game than you are. The used car salesman doesn’t have to worry about building relationships, because people only come to him to bargain hunt, and he doesn’t have to worry about integrity, because nobody expects much from a used car.
In the arts, relationships are everything, and integrity matters.
By the time potential fans come to you, they already have dozens of entertainment options that feel like home to them. They can already name movies, books, TV, games, or music that have changed their lives. If you want them to take a gamble on you, you need to show them that you can make them feel as good or better than those things make them feel.
Plus, the artist is always part of the art. The more someone absorbs your work, the more curious they become about the person behind it. Theorists be damned—art comes from people and people know it!
To be clear: the integrity I’m talking about here comes in many different forms. Hunter S. Thompson had this kind of integrity. Carrie Fisher had this kind of integrity. Prince had this kind of integrity.
I’m talking about the integrity of showing up as who you actually are—of letting your audience see the where the art really comes from. This is also the integrity of telling the truth (which is not necessarily the same as telling what happened, because we are storytellers after all).
All this leads back to that most important goal: the enthusiastic yes.
The enthusiastic yes starts out as something like this:
“Wow, that sounds fascinating! I’ll give it a try.”
…which is only possible when you yourself are fascinated, and when you leave enough room in your pitch for the other person to insert themselves.
Later, the enthusiastic yes sounds like this:
“Thank you so much for everything you’ve made. The second you publish something, I always make sure to get a copy. When will your next thing be out?”
You can build a career out of the enthusiastic yes, if you want to.
If you do, you should apply the principle at every level. Seek the enthusiastic yes not just from your audience, but also from editors, agents, wholesalers, librarians, influencers, publishers, and anyone else in the business of spreading art.
This takes discipline. When there’s money involved, it’s tempting and easy to settle for “sure, okay” or “yes, but…” You might even find the half-interested party is offering you a larger sum than the enthusiastic party. The first option might give you cash. The second option might give you a career.
So seek the enthusiastic yes—in sex, art, and everything else.
“How do you write like that?”
I get this question a lot. It’s flattering, but more than anything it makes me feel awkward and a little disappointed—disappointed in myself, of course, for offering such rambling, useless answers.
Over the years, I’ve honed my answer down to one word. It’s the most honest, straightforward answer I can offer: “time.”
Though I’ve come to accept it, I still don’t like this answer. It demands so much from us writers. It robs me of the chance to say that I’m some unique, special creature, or that I discovered some secret of the craft through arcane means.
The truth is, I don’t know anything more about writing than you do. At least, I don’t know the things I know the way a quantum physicist knows Planck’s constant. I look at words, then I feel things about them, then I look at their context, then I make guesses, then my readers decide if I’m right.
The source of my powers is certainly not my word choice, or my imagery, or my command of grammar, or my ideas, or any other component part of my craft. I used to think those things were the answer, or at least close to the answer, but they’re not. I know they’re not because I see other, less experienced writers do things which, technically speaking, are the same things I do—except they don’t work.
This is as frustrating for me as it is for them.
At this point, I could offer any number of mystical explanations for this phenomenon. The problem with the muses and all their millions of equivalents, however, is that they answer “why” and then try to reverse engineer “how” from there.
Every writer gets to invent their own answer to “why” so you don’t need my help or anyone else’s to figure that out. For the writer who has already answered “why” for themselves, “how” is far more relevant.
And “how” has to be “time,” because all the other possible answers have too many exceptions.
Today, I consider myself an “above average” writer, in the strictest sense of the phrase. I’m somewhere within the 51th percentile. I’m working on becoming a master writer, but that’s going to take another five years at least.
That’s why, about a year ago now, I decided to write every day. I figured I could cover the spacetime more easily if I treated it like a marathon rather than a series of sprints.
My goal with my daily writing is not to become a legitimate writer, because I already am a legitimate writer and so are you. My goal isn’t to impress everyone, either, because it’s mostly unseen work.
My goal is to get where I’m trying to go sooner and with my spirit still intact.
Do you need to write every day? I don’t know.
I don’t know where you’re going or when you plan on getting there. All I know is that you’ll probably need to cover a lot of spacetime. How you do it (the “how of how,” if you will) is up to you.
God created Adam and Even in a state of perfect innocence and eternal life (Eden). Then Adam, tempted by Eve, ate from the Tree of Knowledge, and God expelled them from the garden (the Fall). But then God sent Christ, his only son, down to Earth to die for the sins of mankind (Incarnation) and thereby prepare them for their rightful place at God’s side in his final dominion over the Earth (the Second Coming).
In ancient times, artists created perfect, self-contained symbols and myths (Eden). Then the world became crowded by industrial technology, full of noisy cities with their crass, low culture (the Fall). But then the Modernists came along to uphold the great traditions (Incarnation) and set out to return all art to its rightful place as self-contained symbol and myth (the Second Coming).
Early human tribes lived in peaceful unity, sharing an oral language that gave them a sense of deep community (Eden). Then humanity invented the written word, and as the written word become more widespread, human beings became more isolated and more obsessed the idea of the “individual” (the Fall). But with the discovery of electricity, and the ensuing development of mass media technology (Incarnation) humanity is finally returning to a tribal state (the Second Coming).
Etcetera. This story turns up everywhere once you learn the pattern. Everything was better, then it became terrible, then a force larger you showed up to fix everything.
With all due respect for Marshall McLuhan, the Modernists, and Catholicism, this story doesn’t work. It doesn’t serve us the way a good story should.
Take the idea of Eden seriously, and you’re going to walk around your whole life with this awful feeling of missing out. Take the Fall seriously, and you’ll never be able to trust the people around you, because all you'll see is their brokenness. Wait around for the Incarnation and the Second Coming, and you deny your own agency and miss out on life’s many opportunities.
Still, this story survives because it lets people off the hook. It reassures you that you have no control over any of this and are, therefore, excused. Plus, there’s an operatic grandeur to its emotional turmoil. This story will make you suffer, but at least you get to suffer in style.
Besides, it’s linear, which the universe is not.
I’m not interested in a story that increases my suffering. I want a story that helps me stay sane and gives me a clue about what’s going on. I want a story that supports me as I help other people. I want to take my power and do something worthwhile with it, and I want a story that gives me the context to do that.
Here’s what I have so far:
In the beginning, there was just one end of a shape, because time and space are the same thing. We are no more separate from the past and future than the roots of a tree are separate from the leaves. There are always human beings who understand this. Any of us can understand this: we just need to take the spacetime to remember. Right now, you are expressing either the whole evil or the whole good of the universe. Evil is waste and shrinkage. Good is attention and generosity. You are already choosing which to express every moment, and there’s always room to change your mind.
Yes, I’m outside of your genre, I don’t see the genius of your premise, I’m nitpicking, my work isn’t as good as yours, and you have a brilliant reason for every choice you’ve made.
But you gain absolutely nothing by debating with me here in the workshop.
Back in my college creative writing courses, we had a rule: you read your piece, then you remain silent while the rest of the table offers their critiques. You can ask quick questions for clarification, but that’s it.
There were times I chafed against this rule, but I grew to love it. In fact, I love this rule so much I apply it to myself whenever I’m in a writer’s workshop, regardless of their own policy. It’s a constant reminder of the most important lesson you need to learn in this craft.
Whatever you write—whatever medium, genre, or style—your piece will at some point land in someone else’s hands. This will be someone in a different room who doesn’t have you there at their side to explain.
What happens then?
If you’ve made a habit of debating in the workshop, you’ll have to settle for a loss. The thing that made me frustrated, bored, or confused will have the same effect on that other person, and they’ll just toss your work aside and keep working through the pile.
Just so we’re clear: that person could be an agent or a publisher. They could be a fellow artist deciding whether they want to collaborate with you. Most importantly, they could be a first-time reader deciding if they are a fan.
I’m not saying I’m right about your story. I already told you just a few of the reasons why I could be wrong.
I’m saying prove it on the page.
If you’re just writing for yourself, you can safely ignore this. If you’ve read this far, though, odds are you want to hone your craft and share work you’re proud of. The best way to do that is to make a habit of proving it on the page.
Still, what if you really are the most perfect writer on the planet, doing something completely original, and you just need to find a reader who understands you?
Fine. Stop wasting your time talking to me and go find them. If your story is someone else’s favorite, then you’ve already won. Keep doing more of that.
What you’ll probably find, though, is that your work is “interesting” to a lot of people. Frankly, that’s never been enough for me, and I hope it’s not enough for you either.
The rules of the craft are slippery, fickle little otters, but they are out there. They’re eating clams off their bellies and deciding which stories people love and which ones they forget, across all genres, all forms, all media.
When you’re ready, we’ll be here working on the craft, because it’s about the stories and not about us.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail did not become a legendary comedy classic because it’s perfect.
We don’t remember things that work perfectly. In fact, we don’t even care about things that work perfectly. When something works perfectly, we smile at it, nod, and say, “Good job!”
Then, almost immediately, we forget the perfect thing ever existed.
For example, go watch A Fish Called Wanda. It’s a 1988 crime comedy that, for a while, had a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It stars 1/3 of Monty Python. It’s a pleasant, funny movie, and most importantly here, it’s a work of expert craftsmanship.
In fact, when I saw John Cleese speak at UC Santa Barbara, he complimented director Charles Crichton for getting the movie finished in half the time it would normally take for a comedy. Crichton, he pointed out, barely had to re-shoot anything because he had tapped into his experience as an editor and planned the movie shot for shot ahead of time.
A Fish Called Wanda is the closest thing to a “perfect” comedy, technically speaking. For that exact reason, nobody will be talking about it 50 years from now, and I have yet to hear anyone call it their favorite comedy.
For an example of an imperfect comedy, look at Monty Python and the Holy Grail. How many times have people told you that this is their favorite comedy? It’s astounding that it still holds any relevance at all, since comedies are supposed to age faster than other genres.
Still, look at the damn thing: it swings wildly between subversive, blink-and-you-miss-it deconstructions of British history and absurd slapstick. The tone is all over the place, and there are long stretches where the jokes don’t land or they stretch out too long.
And, of course, it was apparently a nightmare to film.
Or, go back and watch Monty Python’s Flying Circus. That series really is an appropriate microcosm for everything the Monty Python members ever created. It alternates between timeless, hilarious sketches and sketches that are so boring and confusing you have to wonder if they were ever funny at all. And, of course, the Monty Python members often say in interviews that they had no idea which ideas were the hits and which ones were the duds until after the fact.
We do not pay attention to perfect. We do not remember perfect. We do not fall in love with perfect.
We respond to tension—the things that don’t quite work, the things that make us feel sensations we can’t easily explain, and the things that stick in our heads because we want to fix them, or at least imagine different versions of them.
If the thing with tension also comes with love—if we intuit that the creator cared—then we might fall in love with it too, and remember it, and keep talking about it for many years afterward.
So, put in your last round of tweaks, because you do care, and then share it us.
We want to start talking about your art.
You’re an artist. It’s not your job to be happy all the time. It’s not your job to feel safe and comfortable.
It’s your job to feel full of joy, when joy comes through, and to let joy empty out of you when it decides it’s time to leave. Then it’s your job to be full of sadness, or to be full of rage, or to be full of whatever else comes next, and to be empty again when that thing leaves too.
It’s not your job to sell things. It’s your job to write down the truth and make sure other people see it. It’s your job to keep yourself alive long enough for the word to get out. Even if someone hires you to lie, it’s your job to infect their work with the truth.
It’s not your job to live in poverty. It’s your job to live honestly—to show off how lonely and doomed and wretched you are without faking any of it. Playing it up is just another form of hiding it. We’re all lonely star trash already; there’s no need to embellish.
Your job is not to create beauty. Your job is to find beauty and pull it out of the wreckage so the rest of us can see it.
Your job is not to point into the darkness just to prove you can see in the dark. Everyone else can too. You aren’t that special.
Speaking of: your job is not to be special. Your job is to be weird. Your job is to be gentle and kind, and in so doing, violate the world we live in.
This is not the best of all possible worlds. This is all worlds, colliding all together, like countless human skulls cracking against each other and mixing a cosmos out of their liquified brain matter.
Your job is not to be loud. Your job is to be subtle. Anyone who tells you that subtlety can’t survive is a crook and a hypocrite. They use subtlety themselves to pull off their cons. Don’t listen to them.
Your job is sweetness, but not sugar sweetness. Your job is Mother Nature’s sweetness, the hot taste of life and the paw that can just as easily thrash as it can caress.
Your job is not to help butterflies out of their cocoons. Your job is to be the butterfly, and to be the cocoon it sheds, and to be the person watching, and to be the butterfly’s death, and to be the person’s arrogance, and to be the person’s marginally longer life, and to then be the person’s death too.
You can’t tell the truth if you don’t embody each of those things. It’s up to you which ones you mention in the work.
It’s not your job to make sense. It’s your job to be true. The truth doesn’t make sense, so if your work makes sense, you’re lying.
It’s your job to work. It’s your job to craft. You never create anything that isn’t there already. What matters is the attention you bring to it, and the fact that you care about the details.
It’s not your job to fall in love. It’s your job to be love. This means giving up on all the fake definitions of love. This means letting love include as much cruelty as tenderness, as much jealousy as faith, and as much loneliness as companionship.
It’s not your job to end this post with a self-deprecating nod to yourself, Sean. It’s your job to end it openly, so the reader can implicate or exonerate herself as much as she likes.
So get to work.
I’m going to talk about planners and pantsers for a bit. If you just want to discover why stories are organisms, you can skip down to the part where I say ORANGUTANS!
I’ve been thinking a lot about the pantsers vs. planners dichotomy in the writing world. It is, admittedly, a playful one, but as a dichotomy it still bothers me. Almost every dichotomy is a spectrum in disguise, and we do ourselves a disservice when we don’t take the time to explore the whole spectrum.
When it comes to pantsing (writing “by the seat of your pants”) and planning, I think all writers are somewhere in the middle.
I consider myself a planner, but then, I don’t plan my short stories or blog posts, and I can think of other writers who do far more planning than I do. I’ll do a beat sheet, a character sheet, and aa storyboard of notecards for long projects, but there are other writers who will write out a pile of outlines, diagrams, and research that almost adds up to a book in its own right.
That’s another wrinkle: research. Truth be told, I don’t do very much research up front. If anything, you could say I plot like a planner but research like a pantser. I love to lay out an intricate, interweaving plot, but once I have that I just start writing. I take it on faith that I can fill my knowledge gaps as I find them.
After all, how can you go looking for what you don’t know if you don’t know what you don’t know?
Yet, I know of pantsers who will do years of research for a single project—only they won’t realize until afterwards that they were doing research. Neil Gaiman seems to be part of this group, for example.
So does this mean that pantsers are more deliberate than planners, and planners more exploratory than pantsers? Possibly, but more importantly it shows that the dichotomy doesn’t hold up.
As a compromise, I heard one author this weekend at the LA Book Festival offer this thoughtful alternative: architects and gardeners. In her view, planners are architects and pantsers are gardeners. Certainly, those are more expansive metaphors, but they still seep back into a spectrum.
Let’s be literal for moment: how much gardening can a gardener do if they have no architecture—even something as simple as a picket fence? On the other end, how cold and alienating does architecture become when it has no gardens?
As fun as it is to play around in this spectrum, I think there’s an altogether more useful way of looking at the craft that mostly sidesteps the issue.
See, my real problem with the planners vs. pantsers dichotomy is that both options put far too much focus on the writer and not enough focus on the story. Also, neither option gives me a chance to talk about…
Stories, just like orangutans, are organisms. They are creatures with a will to survive who manage their survival by adapting to internal and external conditions. This is a running metaphor in Jeff VanderMeer’s Wonderbook, which is an illustrated guide to writing stories. True to its name, it is wonderful, and I highly recommend it.
Wonderbook is full of fantastic insights, and the observation that stories are organisms stands out as especially sound. Yes, we writers do exist and we do craft stories, but stories themselves have to do the hard work of living, and that is where our only real responsibility as writers comes in.
We must prepare our stories to survive in a dangerous world. We can be mammalian about it, as pantsers and gardeners are; we can let our stories begin as amorphous lumps and carefully nurture them into maturity before sending them off.
Or, like the planners and architects, we can be insect queens. We can develop a system, one that transcends any individual unit, that quickly and reliably produces new organisms that have everything they will need to know programmed into them right from the start.
Do not think for a moment that one approach is more loving or wiser than the other. They are both successful when the story offspring survive—that’s it.
Boy, I sure have given you a nice big pile of metaphors, haven’t I? I’m sure it will be very frustrating if you try to keep this all in your head.
So go write.