So You Want to Be a Writer? Become a Sadist.

pink-bondage-whip
DHgate.com

For as long as you can remember, you’ve been telling your parents, your girlfriend, and your old high school friends that you want to be a writer. On your best days, you take that “want to be” part out and just say that you ARE a writer. Yet, every day it seems, you find yourself wasting time, caught as you are by bad habits, trapped by modern life and its attention grabbers, tripped up by your own excuses and laziness. Sorry if I’m making you feel bad, but not really, because I know how you think. You’re lazy. You have bad habits. You get sidetracked. You make excuses. I know how you think because I think that way, too. Because I’m a self-proclaimed writer who hardly ever brings himself to write.

Or at least I used to. Now I do it all the time. I’m not saying that as smugly as you’re hearing it in your head, honest. I’m not being a jerk here; I really do have something important to tell you. I write every day now, and I do it because I’ve become something that I never thought I’d be. I’ve become a sadist.

I’m sure a pervert like you has read the dictionary definition of sadism. But if for some reason I’ve pegged you wrong, it’s “…the tendency to derive pleasure, especially sexual gratification, from inflicting pain, suffering, or humiliation on others; (in general use) deliberate cruelty.” Take out the sexual bits—those belong to an article for a later time. (Though if that’s the kind of stuff you write, or you want to write, more power to you.) Just keep in mind that sadism is all about deriving pleasure from the infliction of pain, suffering, and humiliation. Now apply that to yourself. You’re the person on whom you’re inflicting deliberate cruelty. Day in and day out, that is what it means to be a writer.

Sounds great! But how do you do it?

I’m glad you asked. I have a handy three-point plan for you.

First, jump on your task at a specific time every day, even though that might mean deleting other things from your schedule. Make your writing time your priority. I’ve found that mornings work best for me, after my brain has had the time to process all of its garbage thoughts from the day before, and before I have to start pumping in more useless thoughts about when I get a lunch break or if someone packed another box wrong (box packing unions just aren’t as good as they used to be). I get up, make myself some coffee, read one chapter of an improving book, and then get to work. I start writing at 8:30 every morning, and I write for at least a solid half hour. On the weekends I write for longer. The point is, at 8:30, I am there waiting for my muse to show up with whip and bondage gear.

This isn’t to say that the words always come easily. Your well of thought has to be replenished from time to time. For me, the best way to do that is to constantly refill it by reading.  Every day I try to read something that improves my mind (as opposed to Buzzfeed articles). If you write too much for too long, and it’s all output, no input, you’re in serious danger of burning out. But when you read daily, you balance out the mental energy. It’s like eating and exercising.  If you don’t eat, you won’t have the strength to exercise, and if you don’t exercise but you do keep eating, you’ll want to exercise soon enough.

Second, write whether you think it’s fun or not. The hard truth is, sometimes writing is not fun. And your landlord for sure does not care if writing is fun. I’ve said before on this site that there are big differences between amateurs and professionals, and this is one of them. You’re not getting paid to have fun; you’re lucky that sometimes you get to have fun as you work this job. And make no mistake, writing is a job. Or at least it is if you are serious about it and want to make something happen from it.

Third, tear your heart out. I’m not talking about melodrama here (unless you’re into writing melodramas, which, again, more power to you). I’m talking about writing the things that make you uncomfortable, that rip into your chest and make you feel the squishy bits that gross you out. If you’re not writing things that stretch you, that push you, that challenge you, you’re not growing. This growth can be in subject matter (that time when you were eight that you still won’t tell anyone about) or it can be in form (how many times do you think people will tolerate the same sentence structure before they fall asleep?). Think of it this way: how do muscles grow? When you exercise, the effort and exertion actually damage the muscle fibers. But then your body gets to work fusing new muscle fibers together, and these form bigger strands, causing growth. I’m not a muscle scientist, and parts of that might be wrong, but the general idea isn’t. There is no growth without there first being damage.

So—sadism. Do it. Discipline yourself every day. Get into that same chair, get into that same mindset. Make yourself get up. Forego that extra half hour of sleep. Then write, even if it isn’t fun, because your long-term goals are bigger than your temporary desires. And finally, write the stuff that’s hard to write—the stuff that breaks you—because that’s the only kind of stuff that will make you grow. Derive pleasure from the pain. You’ll find that pleasure is a much deeper experience than fun, anyway.

Creative Theft

“Imitation is the sincerest of flattery.”

-Colton

 Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.”

-Eliot

“I get a lot of big ideas, and occasionally I even come up with one myself.”

-Bauvard

 

I’m not recommending plagiarism.  Before we go any farther, know that.  So how can we reconcile the above sentiments by really cool writers with our modern fear and loathing of plagiarism?  (By the way, if you think that the above quotes are the only ones relating to a glorification of creative theft, you’re wrong; there are thousands—I just picked some of the more famous ones.)  I think that we can reconcile the two concepts by saying that there are acceptable ways of copying the work of others.

Did I just say that?  Yes.

Imitation is one of the best ways to learn craft that I know of, and I heartily recommend it (forgetting for a moment that Eliot disapproves of it).  As another famous (if older) writer, Oliver Goldsmith, has said, “People seldom improve when they have no model but themselves to copy after.”  We want to succeed.  We succeed by learning.  We learn by imitation.

Now, when I say let’s copy the work of others, I’m not talking about their exact words, passing off theirs as our own.  I’m talking about a tried-and-true method of learning craft that many famous writers have done for years.  Literally copying stories you love.  Yes.  Type them up.  Absorb them into your skulls.  Separate the paragraphs and sentences and take notes on what the hell your favorite writers are doing and where they are doing it.  Basically, dissect the story.  (Does that mean kill it?  It depends.)

Words are nothing.  Words are cheap.  Words are to writers as paint is to painters—the work is not about the tool itself, it’s about the technique behind it.  So when we copy other writers that we admire, we’re not looking to copy their words—any lazy college freshman can do that—we’re looking to copy their structure and voice.

When we look at a story’s structure, we’re pulling back the curtain, so to speak, and finding what’s causing the metaphorical Wizard to appear.  (But doesn’t that mean we’re killing it?  It depends!  I’ll tell you later!)  When we look at structure, we’re also examining a story’s parts closely to see when certain elements need to appear, how they have to operate, and, maybe more tellingly, what elements don’t need to be in the story.  What better way to learn about crafting a well-told tale than to learn from your favorite writer?

Another benefit to copying a story and breaking it down is that we get an insight into voice.  Let’s be honest, a lot of the charm of stories lies in the narrative voice, and voice is one of the hardest things to get right.  (Here’s a quick for-instance: does your methhead trailer park dweller of a character know the word “salubrious”?  If not, why the hell are you using the word “salubrious” in your story?  And will someone please tell me what “salubrious” means?)

Now, voice is not something that can be simply copied.  If you’re writing a satirical piece, I can see the point, but if you’re trying to write a piece that’s truly your own, you’re going to have to change it.  I love Ernest Hemingway’s writing style.  I love the cut-the-crap mentality and the sparseness and the way he uses ands instead of commas and the way that that speeds up the sentences and makes you all breathless and makes you keep reading in spite of yourself… but I don’t want to write like him.  I use far too many commas, first of all, and I enjoy the added rhythm that a well-placed comma can give to a sentence.  I also feel that I can’t out-Hemingway Hemingway, so why try?

You have to make the voice your own by adding your own ideas to it—but you don’t truly know what goes into a voice until you have learned the voice deeply and thought about what you would change and keep about a certain style.  If we truly find our own writing voices, I believe we find them by synthesis.

Now, to get to whether or not we are killing a story by dissecting it and pulling the curtain away to expose the Wizard… I don’t think we are.

A young writer friend of mine (who’s entering an MFA program in the fall at a very good school) told me that he hates theory because it takes away from the “magic” of reading a work and being “carried away” by it.  To him, and you, I would respond—do you want to be a writer or do you want to be a reader?  Of course, to be writers we have to be readers, but what I’m talking about is a mentality.  Are we there to be entertained or are we there to entertain?

Let’s stick with the metaphor of magic, or, more properly, illusion.  Say you’re a Vegas magician and this other Vegas magician has an amazing trick that’s pulling in the crowds every night.  So you go to see him.  And let’s say that this other Vegas magician has a great presence on the stage—he really captivates the audience and keeps them enthralled, you included.  But does that mean that you, as a fellow magician—errm, illusionist—are not also watching to see how he pulls off his trick?  Are you not analyzing the crap out of his performance and seeing what could work for you and what couldn’t work?  Just because we love being entertained does not also mean that we aren’t trying to learn everything possible from what is entertaining us.  It’s part of being a professional, or a would-be professional.

Let me tell you something sad now.  If we are going to be writers, there are certain things we can never experience again.  We will never again be able to look at a book we loved as fourth graders and love it in the same way we did back then.  This is a blessing and a curse, because, though we might never be enraptured by books in that simple-minded way again (though it might not be impossible if the book is good enough), we gain the ability to actually see what’s going on behind the curtain.  We learn how to replicate it, synthesize it, make it our own.  We learn how to enthrall others, rather than simply be enthralled.

So yes, I advocate theft.  I advocate that you do it immediately.

Should I Have Read These Books by Now?

the stacks

So, after reading this column for a few weeks, you might be asking yourself, “Why is this Drew fellow doing this? Why would a full-grown man be taking up his valuable time reading and reviewing books that have already been published? He’s not trying to convince me to buy them, is he?” True, the books I’m reading are (mostly) not new, and it’s not like publishers have me on their book-sending contacts list (though a full-grown man can dream!). So why am I doing this?

The answer is complicated. One reason is that I’ve just graduated with my Master of Fine Arts degree, and I’m fighting the urge to veg out on the couch for the next few months (most of the time doing it unsuccessfully, thank you), which means I need to keep sharp through reading and writing. Reading a book a week is very doable, and writing a few hundred words a week is still writing something, so this column is a way of me getting my mental exercise. I’m trying to prevent my brain from atrophying. (I learned that last word from a book.)

Another reason is that I need to get out of my literary bubble. I’m not bragging when I say that my novel collection is extensive (and growing, if you ever want to get me a gift; I hear Nick Hornby has a new book out), but I always seem to gravitate toward the same set of writers. I have hundreds of writers on my shelves that I’ve never read, and maybe I’ve become a bit stunted in my habits. Who wants to be stunted? There’s nothing worse than people who limit themselves, whether that’s in the genres of books they read, or the foods they eat, or the places they go on vacation. Okay, I’m sure there are worse things, but not any that I can think of at the moment.

Do you want another reason? Okay, I’ll give you one. Reading these books, and jotting down notes about them, is making me more careful and observant. Not all of you know me, but those of you who do know that writing is a huge part of my life. What’s more important to a writer than being observant? I don’t know. Okay, maybe grammar is more important, but that’s what editors are for, and you can pay people to do that job. If you can find someone who is paid good money to observe things for other people, give me that person’s number and I’ll call him or her and make them feel really strange with how much I beg them to give me a job.

One more reason? Fine. What about the sheer joy of introducing other people to books they haven’t read yet? What if I find a book that has gone unnoticed for a long time, and I just have to tell you about it, and it ends up changing your life?

Of course, there’s always the possibility that I’ve been avoiding these books for a reason: mainly that they’re either boring or awful. But at least I will be able to say that I’ve read them, which should count for something in conversations at cocktail parties. Not that I ever actually get invited to cocktail parties.

So here are the rules. I’ll start in the A section of my shelves and work my way alphabetically through my books, reading a representative book by each author I’ve never read. Along the way I’ll pass books that I’ve already read, and I’ll mention them to you, either for good or bad. If I have other information about any of the authors I pass—what the heck, I’ll throw that in, too. I’ll view this as a quest, the object of which will be to find whether I actually should have read these books by now or not.

And there have to be worse quests than the one to become well read. Right?

Lucky Jim

Each week Drew Wade will attempt to read and review a book by an author who’s new to him, and then he’ll tell you if it’s worth your time or not.

I’m making rapid progress through my bookstacks, but I’m still in the A section. This reminds me of a man with a reputation as a fast walker deciding to make his way through Texas. (“What did you think this was, son? Rhode Island?”) This week I’m hitting Kingsley Amis, who, besides having the coolest first name I’ve ever heard, has a son with an even more stellar reputation as a novelist. But more on Martin (who doesn’t have nearly as cool of a name as his dad) next week. I’ve wanted to read one of Kingsley’s books for a while now, mostly because he comes up as part of the crowd who started changing British literature after World War II. I figure he’s worth the read.

To get to Mr. Amis, I had to pass through Julia Alvarez and Jorge Amado. Can we talk a little about Alvarez for a second, please? She is amazing. What’s that cliché that critics sometimes use for books by people like P.D. James and J.D. Robb—“un-put-downable”? Alvarez’s books, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents and In the Time of the Butterflies, were like that for me. Here’s the problem: I can only remember the vaguest details of what’s in them. Something about the Dominican Republic and four sisters—are there four sisters in both of the books? Is one a sequel to the other? Help! I don’t know. In cases like this, my suspicion is that the books were so good because of the writing style itself, not because of the plot details. Which is fine with me, because I love beautiful writing. My favorite memory of reading them is when I was late for a class on the other side of campus because I’d been reading one, and I decided that I just had to walk to class and read at the same time, because I didn’t want to stop reading.

Jorge Amado is a mystery to me. A couple of years ago I read The Double Death of Quincas Waterbray. I couldn’t tell if it was magical realism or not, and that might have been the point. The closest work of fiction to it that I can think of is Weekend at Bernie’s. If you like very short romps set in Brazil starring friends who can’t believe their other friend is dead, you’ll like this book. I don’t know what I was expecting with Amado. I’m going to have to re-read him one of these days and give him another chance. (Can you tell that I don’t care too much for Weekend at Bernie’s?)

Now on to Kingsley Amis’s first novel, Lucky Jim, which is about Jim Dixon, a young professor who isn’t tenured, who is shat upon by his overseers, and who has to put up with academic hypocrisy and pretentiousness all the time. What’s that you say? You think this book was written last year? Aha! You’re wrong! It was written in 1953. Some things don’t change—varying levels of academic-related stupidity among them.

This novel has many charms, though it starts a little slowly. Amis has a keen ear for dialogue and for bringing out the humor in the ordinary things that people say. I guess this helps the mild brand of satire that Amis uses, and I think it would have been really funny back in the Fifties. And it did push boundaries, if ever so slightly. Although none of the characters swear or have sex on the page, these things are mentioned. I wonder if thirty years before its publication authors just pretended that swearing and sex didn’t exist.

The smaller-issue problem I have with this book is Jim’s casual sexism and how that makes me unsympathetic towards him as a character. (I know, that sounds like a big deal, but wait until you hear the larger-issue problem I have.) Jim Dixon is clearly meant to be a sympathetic figure, and sure, we pull for him when his boss is equivocating about Jim’s future, but Jim is utterly, unapologetically focused on women for their appearance. “It was a pity she wasn’t better looking,” he thinks on page 37, going over his reasons why he isn’t going out with a female professor. That is just the first instance I can think of, but it happens quite a bit. This wouldn’t even be so bad if the double standard weren’t so apparent—on page 2 we get a picture of Jim as a short, rounder, weak-shouldered man who doesn’t have much going on in the looks department. Not only that, but Jim is an alcoholic, and he’s borderline sociopathic (calling up his romantic rival and pretending to be a newspaper reporter, lighting his host’s bedsheets on fire, and finding his waiter after the bill has been paid and taking the tip back). Even all that wouldn’t be so bad if the point of the book wasn’t that the older generations have really mucked things up for the newer ones, and society has to change in order to improve. It makes Jim look like a hypocrite, since he’s clearly taking his social cues from that same older generation—taking them right into the second half of the twentieth century.

In spite of its sometimes-cringe-worthy attitude, the book is good fun—which brings me to my larger problem with the book. This book was written in a different time, when books, even serious books, were meant to be consumed as entertainment. Lucky Jim has some genuinely funny parts, but it’s not as funny as, say, a Wodehouse book, and it doesn’t rely on any gimmicks to keep the reader interested. In other words, it might not flashy enough for today’s readers. It’s just a book about a professor trying to make his way in the world—not that in addition to also trying to stop Lucifer from rising from Hell, to give one example of a book that might go over well these days. It’s low-key, and would make a fine rom-com with Katherine Heigl (Is she still a thing?), and it would be completely unpublishable were Kingsley Amis writing it today. Books like this can’t be written anymore, because people don’t read for entertainment nearly as much as they used to, and that makes me sad.

I’m not going to whine anymore. If you don’t read it, it’s your loss—as long as you can get over the outdated attitudes and general unpleasantness of the main character. It’s enjoyable, and laugh-out-loudable, and I especially recommend it if you have a bit of Anglophilia in your veins.

The Disappearance of Seth

This week in my literary quest to become a better person, or at least a better-read person, I’m visiting an author by the name of Kazim Ali.

On my bookshelves, Mr. Ali comes after one of the better modern authors, Sherman Alexie. I have a few of Alexie’s books, and I particularly recommend his short story collection Ten Little Indians. One of Alexie’s biggest strengths is his wide range of interests—he doesn’t just stick with short stories or adult novels; he has written screenplays and young adult fiction as well. Also, his technique is brilliant. He’s a writer who will make you laugh and care and think about the world—how unfair and how beautiful it can be. Yes, I recommend Sherman Alexie.https://www.flickr.com/photos/cuppini/522966079/in/photolist-NdkAx-py3r7n-go63Mg-4invaw-nVM9y5-ioVvTi-7oB47Y-3kGuk8-rb6u2t-i5uQt2-4G2RCt-5WDAmR-9L6oEF-9ZGBTo-dyPy9e-5UNJAW-gt4kTn-yLHgN-jyvi7p-wQuSJ-q3fBgd-fSGnXm-eJDgek-9XJxiL-ew5YuR-3Td2yS-rPy3MY-ezmJBR-r9Qr3L-4bLr7L-fSTii8-aqVmdS-pUG1nn-e989VL-2gALk-6PXp85-nEVaB8-48uECw-dR7hg-2c8JE-4r9DNc-ouFQBd-8CXt3q-JgGGQ-kyC9t1-d3Tj9E-6vZ7kR-4siW5H-ecah1D-s782T6

Another thing I should explain up front is why I’m reviewing a second book by Etruscan Press within two weeks (yes, the infamous Zarathustra Must Die was put out by them, too). Trust me, Etruscan Press is not paying me to review their books (I don’t know if they have the budget for things like that). The explanation is: a few years ago, when I was still an undergraduate, I won a one-page story contest for a great journal called the Penguin Review (shout out to their former editor, Tom Pugh), and part of the prize was the near-complete collection of Etruscan Press books published up until that point. Most of what EP puts out is poetry, but they’ve done quite a few novels, too. My whole point is, this is not the last time I will be reviewing one of their books.

I’m not saying that Etruscan Press puts out poor-quality books; I like their books, for the most part (last week’s selection aside). They are small and relatively obscure, but I think we need more publishers like them. Why? They don’t compromise. I get the sense that most of EP’s authors are full-time professors who, because of the fickle nature of modern universities, have to keep publishing, or else they perish. These writers don’t care about sales, but they do care about putting out a good product, according to their exacting, sometimes quirky standards. That’s honorable. I would love to have that option someday. EP realizes that literature is about more than entertainment—sometimes it’s about trying to wrap your mind around the things in life that are hard to understand.

Speaking about things that are hard to understand, let’s get down to this week’s book. The Disappearance of Seth is everything I was just talking about—uncompromising, hard to follow, daring you to try to understand it. And it still manages to be successful, being easy to read at the same time as being hard to follow. How does that happen? I have a theory: Ali is a poet, first and foremost—he writes like a poet, in clipped, beautiful phrases that sometimes don’t even make it to the level of sentences. He uses odd punctuation and weird tense shifts, and they actually work, most of the time. My theory is that Ali’s book is easy to read because he uses small, beautiful sentences and his section breaks push the momentum—this book is designed to keep pushing you forward, even if what you’re reading doesn’t become clear all at once, or at all.

unnamedMomentum is key in this book, because the plot is not linear, and it’s also key because of the subject. Seth is about 9/11. For something so heavy and humorless as 9/11, we need the pace to be quick, otherwise we bog down in our own sorrow and personal memories. Ali does a good job of keeping us moving, even though it’s tough for anyone to read a book about something as politically loaded as 9/11 in the way it was intended. And are we too far away from that day to remember it in all its rawness? I guess what I’m asking is, can this still be an effective book? If this were just a book about something as broad as 9/11, I don’t think it could, but it is about more than that—it is personal. The “Seth” of the book’s title makes it personal.

Our main character, Seth, has died in the Twin Towers, or so the other characters think. Seth is the thread that connects all of the book’s characters together, and really the only thread that connects the book together. The other characters reflect on how he has touched their lives, and what he meant to them, and how he has changed them. The book becomes a meditation on loss and how trauma affects us, and it becomes a meditation on the things we cannot say—how we handle grief. As such, it’s a beautiful story, if unclear at times, and the way that the death is only indirectly approached echoes how we try to avoid coming to terms with loss in our own lives.

Seth is thoughtful, deep, and potent, and Ali writes his characters’ thoughts so well that their reflections become the biggest emphasis of the book. These are thoroughly developed characters, never feeling anything less than real.

That is not to say that this book does not have flaws, because it does. Ali’s use of odd punctuation and tense changes mostly work, but sometimes this technique just comes across as though he needs an editor. Need an example? “He stops by a dusty car parked at the curb and fumbled with his map, trying to unfold it” (p. 175). Most of the time I try to leave technical issues like this alone, but in Seth it happens too frequently to ignore. Trying to figure out Ali’s reasoning in these cases distracts from the rest of the book, especially when these slip-ups do not look like artistic decisions as much as they do mistakes.

Another flaw in the book is the “twist” at the end, which I won’t reveal, in case you decide to read it. Good literature, I’ve found, does not need twists to make it interesting—the writing is interesting enough. This twist is not deep enough to change the meaning of the story, and it feels a bit tacked on.

Other than those problems, however, I gladly recommend The Disappearance of Seth. It’s for you if you enjoy difficult texts that reward your effort. It’s also for you if you want beautiful, koan-like paragraphs that you can really sink your mental teeth into.


 

Ali, Kazim. The Disappearance of Seth. Etruscan Press, 2009. 197 pages.

Each week Drew Wade will attempt to read and review a book by an author who’s new to him, and then he’ll tell you if it’s worth your time or not.