Putting your talent to good use: on adjusting your expectations and putting your nose to the grindstone

Hello, internet! Tom here. 

It is, once again, my turn to entertain you for a week here on The Art of Writing. It’s been a while since my last post, and I have to confess that my writing hasn’t been going very well in the interim. I feel a little disingenuous dishing out writing advice when I’m not doing much writing myself, but writing a blog post can be a good of way of solving your own problems as well as helping other people with theirs. So today’s post is going to look at why we sometimes find it hard to write, and how we can get past that. 

The German novelist Thomas Mann once wrote that “A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” I entirely agree with him. I have always wanted to be a writer, I have had a talent for writing since I was ten or eleven years old, and I have honed that talent over time to the point where I consider some examples of my writing to be quite good. I still can’t think of anything else that fills me with the same passion as writing, or anything that I want to do more than creating entire worlds and using those worlds as the backdrops for entertaining stories. But none of that means that I am ‘a good writer’, because our definition of a writer must be ‘a person who writes’, and our definition of a good writer must be ‘a person who writes a lot’. I do not write a lot. For someone who would like to write for a living, I am extremely good at avoiding writing, and there’s an obvious problem there. If we went to a party and met someone who said that they wanted to be a rock star, but then we found out that they hadn’t played their guitar for weeks or written any music in the last few months, then we’d smile and nod and walk away and find someone else with whom to quietly share our scepticism about the aspiring rock star’s artistic ambitions. That person at the party is us, if we spend months without writing anything and still go around considering ourselves to be writers. 

I have a fairly uncompromising view of what constitutes a writer. I think a writer is a person who writes about 3,000 words a week (or preferably more), even if their cat just died or their significant other is hurling breakable objects at them or they’re suffering from an advanced case of gout. I do not meet this definition. I went through a period last year of reliably writing 3,000 words a week, but now I barely manage 500, and I don’t have a cat, or an angry spouse, or even a mild case of gout (that I know of). I fall well short of my own estimations of how much a writer should write, and I feel horribly guilty about it. But that is how much I think a writer should ideally write: or perhaps that’s how much I’d have to write every week to really feel like I deserved to go around calling myself a writer.

You may disagree with me. You may think that “writers” are writers because of destiny and cosmic predisposition, and that you can be a “writer” on some indelible vocational level even if you don’t write anything on a regular basis. If you think that, then keep reading. 

There are legitimate mitigating circumstances in which aspiring writers might be forgiven for not meeting my definition (although that doesn’t stop them from not meeting it). Selayna, my fellow blogger, has a crazy schedule and works much harder than I do. If she wanted to write 3,000 words a week then she’d have to do it all during the weekend. Some authors do that, but I’d rather Selayna was using the weekend to get some rest and talk to her loved ones and do whatever it is that normal people do during the weekend when they don’t have writing ambitions. 

Unlike Selayna, I have plenty of free time. My own circumstances leave me with no excuse not to write, and I am left wondering why – if I truly want to be a writer – I find it so difficult to get into a productive, reliable writing routine?

In an attempt to answer this question, I read The War of Art by Steven Pressfield.

War of Art

Pressfield wrote The Legend of Bagger Vance and moved on to write epic works of military historical fiction, several of which are on the reading list at US military colleges. He also writes self-help books, and The Art of War: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles, is a self-help book targeted specifically at struggling writers.

I have a deep-grained and inherent scepticism of self-help books, especially when other people recommend them to me, but in Pressfield’s case I can definitely advocate that you should get yourself a copy. The first read-through left me feeling energized and optimistic, and if you’re feeling discouraged or poorly motivated as a writer then you can open it to any page for an instant self-esteem boost or kick in the ass. He also writes a lot about the concept of ‘Resistance’ – that force that sometimes makes it so hard for us to get around to doing the things we want to do. He writes, “the more important a call or action is to the soul’s evolution, the more Resistance we will feel toward pursuing it”. 

The War of Art made me think a lot about how I’m viewing my writing, and how I’m viewing myself as a writer. Pressfield places a lot of stress on the differences between an amateur writer and a professional. An amateur has different habits, different ideas of what success will look like, and different levels of emotional investment. The key lesson I’ve taken away from his book is that it’s a mistake to get too personally invested in what I’m writing. That may sound surprising, but it makes a lot of sense once you think about it.

Pressfield doesn’t necessarily think that we should aspire to define ourselves as writers. He thinks that we should simply be people who write stuff, and publish it, and don’t allow our writing to get tangled up in our own personal aspirations. He writes that, as professional writers:

“we do not overidentify with our jobs. We may take pride in our work, we may stay late and come in on weekends, but we recognise that we are not our job descriptions. The amateur,on the other hand, overidentifies with his avocation, his artistic aspiration. He defines himself by it. He is a musician, a painter, a playwright…the amateur composer will never write his symphony because he is overly invested in its success and overterrified of its failure. The amateur takes it so seriously it paralyzes him.”

That paragraph really made me think about how I’ve been approaching my writing. I have absolutely been paralysed by my writing, because I have absolutely been ‘overidentifying with my avocation’. That surprised me when I realised it. I had considered myself an uncompromising pragmatist, who didn’t subscribe to any ideas that writing was ‘in my blood’ or that I was a ‘writer by nature’. Yet here I was allowing my own aspirations and dreams and fears to prevent me from putting words on the page. Succeeding as a writer has seemed so important to me for so long that it has stopped me from actually writing, because I was scared that I wouldn’t be good enough to succeed: a Catch 22 scenario that would, inevitably, lead to me not succeeding or writing anything.

For myself and other writers like me, I think the key to avoiding that paralysis is just to sidestep it, face the facts, and redefine success. In my pursuit of success as a writer, I’ve acquired enough experience and skills to become decent at writing, but I have also allowed the pursuit of success – and fear of failure – to hold me back. I think the trick is to forget about success or failure, exit that mindset, and find a good use for the skills I’ve gained: almost as if I’m giving up on ‘being a writer’ and just writing something instead. I can try to write the next great fantasy series, allowing my personal aspirations and delusions of grandeur and sense of self-worth to get wrapped up in what I’m writing, and allowing them to paralyse me. Or I can roll up my sleeves and put my talent to good use, writing readable B-list fantasy books that will bring home the bacon. That seems a lot more achievable, and a lot less stressful. 

Life Interrupted

Grandma and Grandpa’s 60th wedding anniversary was next weekend. There were people coming in to celebrate 60 years of love. A menu was created, the food was purchased and stored in the freezer. My aunt was asking for advice on a van, since she liked their van and wanted to know the pros and cons. There was wiring being done on their house by Grandpa. There were plans to go out and eat with people for the next two weeks. That’s simply how they rolled. Last Wednesday, they were preparing to go to Ash Wednesday service. Grandpa had to drive as Grandma’s been deteriorating from Parkinson’s. It’s a horrible disease, and those who have seen it know how debilitating it can be. Her mind is still good, but her mobility is hampered more and more.

Grandpa went upstairs to get changed. It would be quick, they would make it to church on time, and he had a nice outfit picked. After twenty minutes upstairs, Grandma called for him and received no response. She, very likely, struggled up the stairs. Grandpa was unresponsive. She proceeded to struggle back down the stairs, as her cell phone was downstairs, where she called my aunt.

We received text messages and phone calls halfway through our own Ash Wednesday service. By the time we were out and I saw the text that Grandpa had collapsed, then called my aunt, she stunned us with the news Grandpa was dead. She said passed, but as a writer words have a certain levity to them. Passed doesn’t do justice what happens at the end of life. Dead does.

I was to go to Utah the next morning for a writer’s convention. The plan was after church to do laundry, hang out with mom and dad, and be to bed by nine, since I had to be up around four. I nearly did not go. I definitely did not bring the clothes I was thinking I would. Due to the grace of Mom, I ended up with clean clothes at all.

Grandpa wasn’t supposed to die. His shoulder gave him problems, he was slowing down, but he still was filled with vigor at 83. There were countless plans surrounding him and his life, and no one expected the phone call. There were no health issues.

Suddenly my brothers were flying or driving in with their families. One of them expected to drive in next week for the celebration of marriage. Neither of them expected to come back home for the mourning of a death.

Life ends abruptly. Not always. My other Grandpa suffered for years from numerous diseases, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, to the point he was basically incoherent for the final stretch. There were no plans made into the future, and every day we showed up to the nursing home and he was still breathing was a bonus. But how many people in our novels die that death?

When I was sitting in Grandma and Grandpa’s living room with Grandma going through all the reasons he couldn’t be dead, when plans were made and cancelled because of death, when I heard of the project which were happening and would not be neglected, I realized something about death, something I never realized because I’ve never before been in a house with a dead body that so immensely affected me.

Death leaves threads which are unfinished.

How often do characters going into battle have no tomorrow? A Victorian novel where two characters duel in the morning, but they have no plans for lunch later on. A teen about to be on the receiving end of a slasher flick doesn’t do their homework, unless we want them to be doing their homework when the horror starts. Even those who walk onto the battlefield. Our soldiers have families at home. They plan on seeing those families. Leave is planned out in order to visit them, sometimes during important events. Maybe it’s as simple as a planned poker game that evening, even though they are aware they are going into an encounter shortly.

People don’t plan to die. Make plans as if they will survive.

Bran, in A Game of Thrones, has an entire chapter on how he has planned out his life. Then he is pushed out a window and falls to become a cripple. His plans are interrupted.

Ned plans on exposing the incest of Jaime and Cersei, until they catch him. Then he simply plans on making it home to his family, hiding in Winterfell, and taking care of his kids. Both of these plans are decapitated when Ned loses his head in a rash decision by Joffrey. Not only that, but it was for naught. By Clash of Kings everyone knows of the incest anyway.

In H.P. Lovecraft, often his characters do not plan out anything beyond the terror inducing events of the present. The men go into a cave with no thought of tomorrow, a guaranty to their own mortality. While I still love his writing, why wouldn’t the man researching a hidden horror in a crypt make plans to return to the surface, writing fanciful notes from the psych-ward he would so justly deserve?

When a healthy character is about to die, especially in an epic where tomorrow matters, have them make plans. It makes it more real. It makes us understand. We recall that death strikes at any time, and the reaper does not care what we wanted to do tomorrow. It takes us all the same.

The rest of the week will consist of information from the writer’s conference, which was a blast. Today, however, having been the funeral, this is what slapped me in the face.

grandpa

In memory of Grandpa, who gave countless virtues and blessings to his daughters, grandchildren, and even great grandchildren. Who taught us faith, an even temper, and a determined approach to this world. You were taken by a thief in the night, but you’ve left behind so many great reminders as to the amazing man you were. I miss and love you, Grandpa. Until we meet again.

Taking notes from history

Hello internet!

If you read my last post you’ll know that I’m on a quest to move away from the books that I’m familiar with and branch out to other writers, to see if it has a positive effect on my own writing.

So far, I’m sort of cheating. The first book that I’ve delved into since Tuesday isn’t actually another fantasy novel. I want to write fantasy  but for whatever reason I’m bad at actually getting myself to read fantasy novels by other authors, and so I have a wide variety of award-winning fantasy books lying around my bedroom in unread heaps. It would have been easy to pick up one of these and get stuck into it, allowing the author to transport me into the world that they’d created. But instead, I prized open the covers of a book so heavy that it could be used for construction purposes.

Honourable Company

The Honourable Company is a 475-page narrative history of the East India Company, written by the journalist and historian John Keay. It’s a comprehensive, entertaining history of the early expeditions that led to the establishment of the trading company which eventually bought control over most of India and Southeast Asia.

I’m ‘cheating’ by reading it because I’ve already read the first few chapters, and because I love reading books like this. I studied history at the University of Manchester, and when I was in a productive frame of mind – rather than procrastinating or panicking under the weight of imminent deadlines – there was nothing I loved more than selecting a weighty academic tome off my course reading list, checking it out of the library, and plunging head-first into history. (I enjoy learning new things, but only when I’m not expected to write an essay on the subject.) There’s something wonderful about reading the culmination of somebody else’s painstaking research, knowing how much effort they put into scouring through history and recording it, with the honest intentions of simply producing a book that would improve other people’s understanding of the past. I also find history very entertaining. Perhaps this makes me a huge dork, but history isn’t necessarily dry and boring, particularly when it’s written by an author who has a sense for the ridiculous, which John Keay certainly does.

I’m of the opinion that everyone ought to read as many history books as they can. Defeating your own ignorance about the complex history of the human race is always a good thing, and studying the efforts of the generations that came before ours can lead to a renewed appreciation of the world we live in. History also has a habit of repeating itself, and forewarned is forearmed. But history is especially valuable to aspiring authors, no matter what genre you’re writing in.

Firstly, history provides us with exquisite morsels which can be shamelessly plundered and inserted directly into books. John Keay’s book has provided me with several of these which I’m almost reluctant to share with you, lest you steal them. For example, in the early days of the East India Company, when poorly-coordinated expeditions often led to ships sinking, sailing to the wrong parts of the world, losing most of their crew to scurvy, or bringing back merchandise which had gone down in price on the London markets, the company decided to improve their internal communications by leaving a single man on an island off the coast of South Africa, for several years, with only penguins for company.

Penguin
A 17th-century sketch of a very sassy penguin

Keay writes that ‘Whenever a ship anchored in the Bay he quickly donned jacket and hose and pushed past the penguins with whatever messages had been left in his care’ by ships passing in either direction. If you’re in the business of writing humorous fantasy novels, or historical fiction, or even contemporary fiction – perhaps you want a quirky back-story for one of your character’s ancestors – you could have a character marooned for years on an island full of penguins. Or if you’re writing grimmer, more hard-hitting stories, you could create an impactful story about the loneliness or depression of someone struggling to stay alive in a similar situation. And that’s just one story from one history book.

Isolated incidents aren’t the only realm from which we can draw historical inspiration, however. If you’re struggling to add a sense of background realism to your fantasy, you can go and read up on real-world history and see if you find anything that fits your setting. Towns and settlements often spring up for odd reasons. The first British trading post in India was built in a harbour exposed to typhoons and blocked by a huge sandbar, which made it a terrible location for trade ships to land. It was built there because the leader of that particular expedition had managed to acquire a mistress in a nearby Dutch settlement, and he wanted to make his visits easier. Despite it’s poor qualifications for a trading port, this little settlement eventually grew to become the city of Madras, now known as Chennai, with a population of 6,000,000. Perhaps a city in your world could have similarly unlikely origins. Or if you want a story that’s slightly less absurd, history books are filled with geopolitical intrigues and details of the birth of nations, many of which might fit the story that you’re trying to write.

Finally, I also find history to be a source of insights into the kind of complex characters who I want to create in my fiction. Studying the history of real nations, real organisations or sub-cultures, is a good way of ensuring that we don’t fall foul to the crimes of stereotyping or creating unrealistic, monolithic portrayals of large groups of people. Even in a group of people like the merchants who worked for the East India Company – men who wanted to make money at other people’s expense and weren’t afraid to sail halfway around the world to do so – there is a surprising range of motivations and a surprising amount of moral integrity. It might be tempting to paint all historical figures with the same brush, and assume that even the most highly-celebrated figures from history held ideas that we would deem to be morally reprehensible in the modern age. This is the kind of assumption that fuels the current trend of ‘grimdark’ fantasy, where fantasy worlds are depicted as brutally indifferent to the fate of their protagonists, and most characters encountered by the protagonist are shown to be intolerant and unprincipled. Grimdark is, of course, a backlash against earlier tropes in fantasy, where fantasy authors brushed over historically-accurate unpleasantness such as plague, slavery, skin tumours, and open sewers. But it’s equally disingenuous to present history – or fantasy worlds based on real-world history – as wholly dark and unpleasant. Reading history shows us that even insides the most insidious organisations and maritime empires in history, most people were complex characters, and there were still isolated individuals who were acting commendably by our own moral standards as well as their own.

I’m not an apologist for the misdeeds of colonial empires, and it’s important to record the dark side of history – but it’s also important to make sure that we don’t make our fantasy settings into wholly bleak worlds, bereft of the kind of characters who act with good intentions. By reading history, we can learn about how real people acted in difficult situations, and we can use their struggles to enrich our own stories.

“Make ‘Em Laugh!”: Basic Tips for Funny Creative Nonfiction

For my past couple of posts, I talked a little bit about creative nonfiction. I gave a brief example and then tried to give a working definition and explain how creative nonfiction relates to writing fiction. My basic definition of the genre is this: stories that are true (more or less) but which, just like fictional stories, are told with creativity, with artistic style and authorial voice and good narrative techniques.

Today I’d like to talk about one of my favorite kinds of creative nonfiction: the funny kind. Because who doesn’t like to laugh at a good, funny story? If you have any interest at all in writing humorous stories—short fiction, satire, stage or screen plays, or even a comic relief character within a more serious plot—then it may help you to get some good practice by looking into funny creative nonfiction. And even though we don’t always use the exact term “creative nonfiction,” I think this genre has already pervaded our culture more than we realize. Allow me to explain.

Some of us already watch funny creative non-fiction without even knowing it. What’s one type of entertainment that revolves

Chris Hardwick performing stand-up comedy
Celebrity Chris Hardwick performing stand-up comedy

entirely around people telling funny stories in creative ways? Stand-up comedy, of course. Depending on the particular comedian and their typical subject matter, stand-up comedy is little more than telling true stories or talking about real topics, but with a certain method of delivery and timing that will make people laugh. Recently, I’ve been doing some freelance writing for a little extra cash, and several of the jobs I’ve taken have been descriptions of various stand-up comedians based on their clips on Vimeo. I have to find different wordings to describe what they’re doing, and I’ve noticed that a lot of times I just say that the comedian “tells the story of” something or “describes his experiences with” a particular event . They’re basically just telling true life stories in funny ways. That’s all it is.

If you need some funny inspiration from stand-up comedy, then there are probably a lot of names I could recommend, and you may very well have a few favorites of your own too. But, based on some of the jobs I’ve taken recently, I’d suggest you look up some of the following: Daren Streblow, David Dean, Jeff Allen, Bob Stromberg, and Taylor Mason.

Also, in my last post, I mentioned David Sedaris as one of the big names in contemporary creative non-fiction. If you get a chance, you should look up a video of him reading some of his works to an audience, because his essays are (often) funny, and so reading them live becomes a lot like a stand-up comedy routine. When I took my class on creative non-fiction, our professor showed us a clip of Sedaris reciting one called “Six to Eight Black Men.” My prof also remarked on how great it is that someone in the field of creative writing can gain fame and a living just by reading his works to an audience. You should check it out.

Do you know where else a lot of us read and do funny creative nonfiction? Social media. Think about it. Let’s say you had aSocial Media Explained funny or awkward moment in your day and you want to share it with your friends. But, instead of just reporting what happened verbatim, you decide to give it a little sarcastic or witty twist. That counts as creative nonfiction, even if it’s just a few sentences for a quick status update . You’re telling a story, or a snippet of your life, in a creative and funny way.

I’ll give you a few examples of my own from my recent Facebook usage:

  • “Last night I had a dream that I still had papers to grade. This whole Master’s degree thing is gonna take a little while to recover from.”
  • “Don’t you hate it when your alarm goes off in the morning and you just know you forgot to do something really important? For example, my alarm just went off this morning, and I realized that I forgot to go to sleep last night.”
  • “Friends, I need some professional advice. If I responded to an online pet-sitting ad, and the owner described her house as a bachelorette pad with lots of books and sci-fi stuff, then at what point is it acceptable to ask her to marry me?”

Of course, the sort of creative non-fiction that’s done on social media also translates easily into blog-writing, which I touched on in my last post. A lot of bloggers (myself included) like to try to spin unique, awkward life situations into funny,  relatable written stories. The main difference is that, if I just have one quick moment to share, then it usually turns into a Facebook status, but if I have a fuller story then I can make it into a blog post.

However, this sort of writing can still present a problem. As the writing professor I used to work for has sometimes said, “You’re not always as funny as you think you are.” For example, I’ve written blog posts about bad things happening to me, or disappointments in the area of romance, and I’ve thought to myself, “This is funny, because I’m looking back on it and laughing now.” As they say, tragedy plus time equals comedy. But I’ve had some readers interpret those posts as still being sad, serious, or sympathetic rather than funny. In order to be funny, I need to not just describe events objectively as they happened, but make sure I emphasize the sarcastic/facetious tone, focus on portraying myself as a comical character, etc. It may take practice, but it can be done, especially with helpful inspiration from some of the other funny sources I’ve listed above.

If you’re interested in writing funny, lighthearted, or tongue-in-cheek fiction of any sort, then try out some funny creative non-fiction first. Chances are, if you have a Facebook or Twitter, that you’ve already done some without realizing it. But find some funny, awkward, or noteworthy moments in your life, and figure out how to tell those stories in the best and funniest way you can.

Creative Nonfiction: A Brief Overview

In my last post a few weeks ago, I mentioned that I wanted to write about creative nonfiction next (and also provided a brief example in the form of a pseudo-epic narrative poem about recent events of my life). So, without further ado, here’s a bit more on the topic of creative nonfiction:

I started getting seriously into creative nonfiction about three years ago. My school was offering a class on it as a summer elective, and, having already taken classes on creative fiction and poetry, I figured I’d give this genre a shot. In that class, we learned about how creative nonfiction has been gaining a lot more recognition and popularity in recent years, in the forms of biographies and memoirs and blogs about one’s own life. We sampled some prominent authors who have

"Me Talk Pretty One Day" by David Sedaris
“Me Talk Pretty One Day” by David Sedaris

dealt in the genre, ranging from the essays of David Sedaris and David Foster Wallace to

the autobiographical works of Tim O’Brien and even Tina Fey. Also, as part of the requirements for the class, we began our own blogs and had to post in them on a regular basis. That was when I began my personal WordPress blog about the many adventures of my own life, and I’ve kept up with it ever since. In fact, for these past few years, even when I’ve been too busy to devote much time to the larger fiction stories that I’ve wanted to work on, I’ve still kept up with a good amount of creative nonfiction through blogging and other outlets.

Of course, if you’re new to this genre or you haven’t dealt much in creative nonfiction before, then you may have a few questions. The main questions I anticipate at this point are, “What exactly is creative nonfiction?” and “Why are you writing about nonfiction on a blog about writing fiction?” Those are great questions, and I’m glad you asked. I think I can answer both of them at once. I’ve touched on this already, but creative nonfiction (at least in the context that I’ll be speaking of it) is the art of writing about real-life topics, often one’s own life experiences, in a creative and entertaining way. It can range from celebrities writing their autobiographies to amateur bloggers writing about their last vacation. It’s writing and telling stories that just happen to be true. That’s why I think creative nonfiction can still be relevant and helpful to writing fiction, because they’re both forms of storytelling. They both involve characters, plot, narrative style, and other aspects and techniques that each writer has to hone and figure out as they go along. The main difference between the two genres is simply that the content of one of them happens to be true.

Or, at least, stories in creative nonfiction are as true as the writer’s memory can get them. There is an ongoing discussion in the genre (that we had to consider when I took the class as well) about how much embellishment is allowed in creative nonfiction, about whether details have to be exactly true in order to be truly called “nonfiction” or if a little leeway is allowed in the name of artistic license. That’s a big discussion, and I won’t get into all of it in this post, but for now let’s suffice it to say that stories told through creative nonfiction are more or less true—and, as the name suggests, they are told with creativity, with artistic style and authorial voice and good narrative techniques.

And that’s the sort of thing I try to do on my blog too. I write about things I’ve experienced or lessons24720422_b811249d00_o I’ve learned in life, but it’s not just a bland, factual, objective report. I write funny anecdotes about friends or relationships or dating, and I use humor to highlight the funniest parts, or I try to play up the portrayal of myself as the awkward-but-endearing everyman underdog hero of the tale. Or I’ll write about a great achievement in my life and make myself out to be some grand epic hero—but usually still with a good dose of tongue-in-cheek humor and self-awareness about how melodramatically I’m portraying my otherwise mundane circumstances. There’s a lot you can do with a nonfiction story—with the story of your own life—if you’re creative with it and you figure out how exactly you want to present the story to your readers. Maybe I’ll elaborate on my own techniques and style in a future post if there seems to be enough interest or material for it, but for now I’ll just say that the possibilities are endless for writers who are willing to explore them.

So now that you have the basics down, you should at least be able to start on writing creative nonfiction of your own (and, as with any genre, you can learn and improve more with practice over time). Next time you have writers’ block when it comes to fiction and you can’t think of anything original to write, stay in practice by trying some creative nonfiction. Write about your own life, whatever is on your mind or whatever interesting thing has happened to you that week. But do it creatively. Write about your own life just as if you were writing about characters in a story and crafting their adventures in the most skillful and artistic way you know how. Try it and see what you come up with!

A Brief Introduction to Creative Nonfiction

Greetings! I recently had a good idea of what to do next on this blog. I’d like to do at least one post (maybe more) about creative nonfiction. Creative nonfiction is a topic that’s been rapidly rising in popularity for the past few years, and my own writing focuses have somewhat shifted in that direction as well. But also, even though it’s nonfiction, it has a lot of common principles that can be applied to writing fiction. It’s basically storytelling–telling your own story in a fun and interesting and exciting way–and so it can have a lot in common with other forms of storytelling too.CNF

So I wanted to do a post about that. And I will. But, like my good friend Selayna recently mentioned, I am also rather busy right now, with finishing up my master’s degree and final papers and thesis revisions and getting ready to graduate in a week and a half. (It’s so close! I’m super excited.) So, unfortunately, I don’t have time right now to go super in-depth into what I know about creative nonfiction. I probably will for (at least one) later week. But if you’ve never delved into the topic before, then hopefully I’ve piqued your interest enough to stick around.

For the time being, then, I’ll just leave you with my most recent work-in-progress: a creative nonfiction narrative poem about this final leg of my grad school journey. Enjoy!

Like Odysseus returning home from his journey,

Or Hercules performing his glorious labors,

I’ve come far enough to know that I’m unstoppable.

The pressure surrounds me on all sides, but I press forward,

Ignoring the crushing, crippling weight on my shoulders.

Through each excruciating essay,

Through massive mountains of grading,

Through every terrible thesis revision,

I beat on toward the green light at the end of the dock,

Knowing my quest is nearly complete

And I can hardly fail to grasp it.

When obstacles try to thwart me

with clouds of stress looming overhead,

Then I defy the stars,

Raise my fist up to the heavens

and shout with all my might,

“I am Samuel, Grad Student of Grad Students!

Look on my words, ye mighty, and despair!

I am he who has read the unabridged entirety of Moby-Dick!mobydick

I am he who won the second place arts and humanities award at the Graduate Research    Symposium!

I am he whose thesis draft is a full hundred pages long,

And I shall not be denied!”

With Faustian monomania I stay set on my course,

An inflexible severity of purpose,

Hunting that elusive white whale of success and satisfaction.

Leaving no stone of my victory unturned,

I murder sleep just like Macbeth to complete every last little part,

Pushing deadlines and transcending limitations.

I toil tirelessly through the night

On the strength of caffeine

And the tragic flaw of my own hubris.

But even the great Gilgamesh was tainted by mortality,

And even King Arthur had a final fall—

And, well, for all of their dauntless determination,

it’s not like things worked out so great

for Faust, Ahab, or Gatsby, either.

So even I come to the end of myself

With only so many hours in a night

And so much energy I can exert,

My sudden halt plunges me all the way down

To the feet of a merciful father

And the broken concession that I still need help.

Oh, I’d much rather plow through on the strength of my own pride

Than accept one more deadline extension,

One more admission that I couldn’t do it all in time on my own.

I resist grace because change is painful

Just like O’Connor always said,

But as I lose my wooden leg

And rest my weary eyes

And put it all away to come back to tomorrow,

I know once again that I’m not invincible

But maybe it’ll still be okay.

Literary Catharsis

Nevermore.
Nevermore.

The idea of using writing as a means of relieving pain or releasing negative emotions isn’t exactly a new one. Edgar Allan Poe and H. P. Lovecraft both used their creative processes to assuage their inner demons during dark times of their lives, and there’re countless other poets and writers who have done the same. In other words, what I’m discussing today isn’t exactly a light bulb moment that will change lives or anything. Instead, I want to talk about situations in which I use this particular method of pain relief, and some ways I’ve found to be effective in doing so.

First off, I want to talk about anger. I don’t mean the grumpy, wake up on the wrong side of the bed, someone is sitting in my spot kind of irritated bad mood. By angry, I mean the all-encompassing, blood boiling, evil genius ranting, rarely ever happens kind of angry. This tends to fall into two categories, for me: anger directed at a specific person or persons, and anger directed at an event, and my writing takes a different tack depending on which category of anger I’m trying to vent. The first one has only happened twice…once directed against an ex-boyfriend, and once against a good friend’s ex. My ex was abusive, and he continued to be so even after we broke up. I was inspired to Taylor Swift levels of anger, and since I couldn’t go break his face, I did what I do whenever I’m mad at someone: wrote him into my novel and did horrible things to him. Seriously, you would not believe how much better you feel after doing that to someone. In the case of my ex, he got his nose broken, and then later screamed like a little girl while being munched on very slowly by a very hungry vampire. After that, I wasn’t really angry anymore – whenever he tried to pull something, I just imagined him being eaten by the vampire and screaming, and I could laugh at him and pretty much ignore him. As for my friend’s ex, I had him polished off by a serial killer. What really helps get rid of the anger is to write the character down, do horrible things to them, and then shred the paper/burn it/stomp on it. It feels like you’re deleting them and their issues from your life. In my experience, this method provides a lot more relief than any physical action, and it means you’re also less likely to get in trouble with the police. Just saying.

Never forget.
Never forget.

In regards to the other kind of anger, that directed at an event, the method is slightly different, and will probably vary for most people. For me, I tend to write stories from the POV of someone who could have been involved. Sometimes I write very grumpy blog posts, but usually it’s a story. I was only a kid when 9/11 happened, but I was definitely old enough to understand what was going on. I remember watching it on TV and seeing the aftermath, and being really, really angry about it. It wasn’t even anger at the people who caused it – I was just angry that it happened. I didn’t know how to cope with that anger, so I just sat down and wrote a story. I was very young, so of course it wasn’t very good, but I wrote a “could have been” story about a young married couple in New York. The wife worked in one of the towers; the husband worked downtown. I wrote about the death of the wife and her husband’s grieving process. For me, it helped relieve the anger I didn’t know how to deal with and calmed it down into a grief and pain that was easier to manage. I’ve done that for several situations in my relatively short life, and it’s always worked for me.

Finally, I want to briefly talk about using writing to relieve extreme grief/depression. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I’m prone to severe depression from time to time. Sometimes there’s a cause, sometimes there isn’t. Recently, I lost someone who is very dear to me (not through bereavement, but a loss just the same). So for the past couple weeks, I’ve been dealing with both grief and depression, and that’s where my writing comes in. The only physical thing I’ve found that can really ease the pain is putting it down in words…it’s the only thing that can give voice to what I feel. In these cases, I mostly write poetry. Can’t write it at any other time, but I can when the pain is too much for me to handle alone. All that emotion and grief just pours itself into imagery that is best expressed through poetry. Sometimes I write creative non-fiction – a short story that uses imagery and metaphors to describe what I’m going through. It never completely relieves the pain, but at least it helps me understand what’s going on, and lets me reach out to someone else when I normally wouldn’t. It gives me hope, and that’s really the best kind of catharsis I can ask for.

I hope this post was insightful today, and I also hope that maybe it inspires someone. Writing is one of the best forms of catharsis in this world, and I strongly encourage you all to take advantage of it.

Water Song

Aldeyjarfoss in Iceland.
Aldeyjarfoss in Iceland.

Latina author Sandra Cisneros often referred to her short stories as “lazy poems” – brief works that were very imagery heavy and had a real flow to them but didn’t quite rhyme. I often write such lazy poems to express feelings I can’t describe any other way. So today, I’m going to share one of those creative nonfiction “lazy poems” with you. Enjoy!

…………………………………………………………..

I can’t get it out of my head. That song – it’s always there. Babbling beauty, crashing cacophony, thundering torment. The harmony changes but the melody always stays the same. It’s a melody of emotion. Longing, happiness, pain, anger, despair, peace, joy, and emotions no one can ever quite give a name to. All bound up in one song. Different parts of the melody become stronger, depending on where I am. But I always know that it’s the same song. It’s my song – a song inside my head that forms me, shapes, destroys me and reshapes me, awakens feelings and desires I’ve never known inside myself before. I used to resist, but it never works. The music wears away all barriers, erodes resistance, floods my mind. My song is the song of water, and I am consumed.

My first memory of the song is from when I was very small. It’s my first ever memory. I was playing outside in the yard when I heard it. That melody that I can never quite explain – content and happy this time. The harmonies were gentle and sweet, a medley of harps and violins that reverberated through my head and made me get up and dance. Some days later, when my father took me into the woods a short distance away, we crossed a small stream, and I knew it. I knew the stream. It was as if the water itself had taken up residence inside my head, playing that song from days ago. Every little nuance of the music played itself out in my mind as I watched the stream skip past me, sweetly laughing and begging me to play. It was a moment of pure terror and unadulterated wonder that has somehow never quite dissipated.

 

Irish river. Picture credit to flickr.
Irish river. Picture credit to flickr.

The song never left, just got stronger. Deeper, not louder, as if it just wanted to be the background music to my life and not the main attraction. I’ve followed it my whole life. It’s never exactly the same from place to place. It’s fluid, always changing. But some things never change. The melody never does. And each body has a basic harmony that I can always recognize. Land-locked lakes are placid, soft flutes lulling me to rest and contemplation on a warm afternoon. Stream-fed lakes have more life, with sweet pianos joining in the harmony in a contented song that brightens the world. Rivers are fiddles and bagpipes and bass, lively and exotic, always rushing along, soaring on a medley that almost screams adventure. I have never been as happy as when standing on the banks of the Krossá as it danced in my soul and consumed my every thought. Oceans crash and roar in deep brass and powerful drum beats that threaten to overwhelm even the melody itself. Rain is cleansing, soft piano notes that draws out pain and washes it away, healing the soul.

The Krossá river, flowing from the waterfall of the same name.
The Krossá river, flowing from the waterfall of the same name.

Dead water hurts. The Mississippi River cries out in anguish, doleful cellos singing a dirge as the life of the river is slowly muddied and ebbed away. Stagnant pools are harsh, with clashing saxophone and electric guitar, screeching in anger. What hurts the most is pipe water, tap water, water that is not alive. It’s empty. No harmonies, just a melody of solemnity. It tears the heart to listen to it.

The melody is always in my head, the harmony shifts depending on the kind of water I am closest to. The song is strongest at the epicenter, emotions are at their height there. When I was young and foolish, I tried to escape it, sealing myself off where no water could be heard. The song died inside my head and I felt my soul begin to shrivel away with it. I could feel nothing, no emotion, no pain. Just emptiness and longing. It became too much for me to bear and I had to return. I’ve accepted it now. It’s part of me. I seek it out, thriving where it flows, where I can hear it most clearly. It makes me alive. I can’t bear to be without it. I have the greatest love for the oceans and the rivers. The ocean’s power intoxicates, envelops, motivates. It reawakens my imagination and drives me to stronger feelings that I can’t ever explain. The river tugs at my heart and carries me along in its own curious way. I could be happy living next to either of them.

Right now I hear the river song. It’s killing me, right now. Reawakened desires for adventures, longings for a place I have been, calling to the gypsy girl to come dance into a new world that I’ve never seen. It hurts, enough to make me weep, but I can’t pull myself away from it. I am overcome by the song and I must go, I have to, I cannot resist. The river is calling. I need to follow. I am not my own.

I’ve heard tales of olden times where nymphs bore the children of men. Perhaps, somewhere, that lineage is part of me. Maybe that’s where the song comes from. But it doesn’t really matter. All that matters is the music, the melody and harmonies of endless sweet water that is the spring of my own life. I cannot be parted from it, and I never wish to be so. My song is the song of water, and I am consumed.

Philosophy in Writing: Explicit vs. Implicit?

John-Ronald-Reuel-Tolkien-10-500x337There are two underlying approaches to writing anything with a philosophical basis or concept behind it. Regardless of everything else you do, you must choose to be either explicit or implicit in your writing. However, regardless of which you choose to adopt in your own writing, it is important to recognize and understand the importance of both styles and their respective advantages and disadvantages. I am not going to tell you which one is better for your personal writing; they can both be effective or ineffective equally, but personally, I find myself drawn more towards those writers whose philosophy takes on an implicit form, but that is just me.

Tolkien’s writings (particularly the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit) are prime examples of the subtle and intricate nature in which Tolkien conveys his philosophy. The connections between his stories and the ‘real world’ are obvious to the reader on a conceptual level, yet difficult to pinpoint in detail. This is precisely what it means to write the implicitly true; Tolkien believed that an implied truth was far more readily accepted by the common reader than an explicit one. He wanted to create a story which was true in its meaning, even if it is untrue in regards to the actual existence of the world and characters that he created. In this way it can be accurately said that all stories are true, even though some of them never happened, for all stories carry truths, both implicitly and explicitly. As to the question of which one is better or which one ought to be chosen for a particular story I am afraid that I cannot begin to answer that for you; yet to speak out of personal preference, I find writings with implicit morals to be much more fascinating because of their heavier reliance on the active engagement of the reader. Anyone who has any inkling of knowledge about Christianity can read the Chronicles of Narnia and make the connections, but without any clear knowledge of Tolkien or the Silmarillion it is easy to conceive of (in part because it happened prior to the publishing of the Silmarillion) someone reading the stories of the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit without picking up on the subtle Christian truths woven throughout the story which I do not have the time to mention here. Tolkien’s ability to create a world so relatable to our own despite its vast differences is just one attestation to the power and importance of implicit philosophy.

jack13On the other side we have the explicit; perhaps the greatest examples of explicit truths are Aesop’s Fables. These short stories are famous for their practical applications and stated morals. Really any story with an obvious or stated moral to it can be considered explicit; it is the obvious connections to daily life that make it explicit. Similarly, C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia are also explicit in their connections to general church theology. Aslan is obviously representative of God and his actions are clearly reminiscent of God’s actions in Christian theology. He dies to save a boy who betrayed Aslan and the boy’s family and was resurrected. Tolkien’s world of Middle Earth does not have any clear correlation to Christian theology on the level that Narnia does and this is one of the reasons for which Tolkien, who as we mentioned before believed that implied truth was more powerful than its explicit counterparts, critiqued Lewis’ writings. He found the truths to be too obvious and too blatant compared to his much more subtle way of expressing similar underlying beliefs. Despite Tolkien’s harsh opinion, I do believe that the explicit is important as well, especially for younger audiences. A child is not going to pick up on the subtleties of Tolkien’s writings whereas they might find the lion Aslan to be a comforting reminder of what they learned in church, or what their parents taught them about right and wrong.

A Farewell Booklist

Well, with the New Year comes a new list of books I want to read. Also with the New Year comes the expiration of my stint on this estimable blog. I’ve enjoyed trying my hand at writing these weekly posts and I hope you, the reader, have enjoyed reading my (occasionally curmudgeonly) cogitations. Anyhow, it seemed most fitting to leave you with the list of books I hope to read in the upcoming months. My thought, you see, is that you may find one of them interesting also. I think it fitting because I started these posts of mine by writing about reading. So, some of the books on this list I received as presents for Christmas. Others I will have to procure some way or other… selling blood, menial odd jobs, who knows? As Erasmus said, whenever I have money, I buy books.

This is hands down one of the best books I've ever read.
This is hands down one of the best books I’ve ever read.

The first book on the list is one I’m actually reading now, To Change the World – The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World, by James Davison Hunter. This book was on the top of my Christmas wish list. Comprised of three interconnected essays touching on how culture is changed (with satisfyingly extensive historical examples), the relationship of Christianity to the broader culture and politics (Hunter says Christianity’s primary witness is a political witness), and the author’s alternative suggestion for Christian cultural engagement dubbed “faithful presence,” this book by Hunter, a sociologist stationed at the University of Virginia, is thus far the best book I’ve read on the immensely interesting topic of Christians and cultural involvement. It is one of those books that  has articulated vague ideas that have been circulating in my head for some time, and by articulating them it has developed, altered and more fully delineated those ideas. I would just highly recommend it to anyone whose curiosity touches on this subject – along with another favorite of mine, Republocrat – Confessions of a Liberal Conservative, by Dr. Carl Trueman of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. This book is called by one of its reviewers a “[Christian] pilgrim’s pogrom against political pabulum.” It is certainly great fun to read and intellectually worthwhile. In fact, it’s something of a lesson in logic in and of itself.

The second book I can’t wait to read is The Republic and The Laws by Cicero. I was acquainted with the former work by St. Augustine in The City of God. Augustine gives a fairly detailed summary of a certain passage in The Republic wherein the interlocutors are considering the nature of  republic – what it is, what makes it so. I’ve long since forgotten the point Augustine was driving towards by quoting Cicero; I only remember thinking to myself, “I’ve got to read The Republic!” The last great work of political thought I read was The Federalist Papers, this past summer (that is, in entirety–I started Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy in the fall and stopped, deciding I’d better go back and read Livy!). So it’ll be good to delve into this.

Washington Irving
Washington Irving, AKA Dietrich Knickerbocker.

Thirdly, A History of New York by Washington Irving. Known mainly for “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle,” Irving is considered the Father of American letters, and he’s one of my personal favorites. A History of New York is a satirical history of Dutch colonial rule of what was then New Amsterdam. Irving – ahem, Dietrich Knickerbocker – would have you know that the history is, of course, wholly factual. But it is also delightfully satirical. I have fairly ugly orange tome of Irving’s works that contains excerpts from the History and it is one of those rare, delightful books that doubles me over with laughter. I got the full work for Christmas and can’t wait to romp through it.

Well, these are but three of the books I will be reading in the upcoming weeks. Perhaps you will find one of these useful for your own reading. Of course, I know everyone says they have their own books to read and can’t find the time. However, it seems most people actually have plenty of time to watch tasteless “reality” TV shows and sitcoms mistakenly called “comedic” and “entertaining.” Read one of these books instead and be thankful I told you about them. If you don’t, “You will be most ungrateful and the angels will weep for you.” I love that line, from Pygmalion, I think. Cheers!