No, I don’t think so. What you’re describing are two different skill sets. A person who shuts themselves in a room every day to wrestle with a blank page is very often not a person who feels comfortable making loud noises in front of crowds. The people who can spin an anecdote to a room have a performance skill that is not inherently native to writers.
I know a few writers who are excellent raconteurs, but I also know a few writers who are excellent bakers. I even know an excellent writer who is an excellent raconteur who is married to an excellent writer who is an excellent baker. There are certain fields where you’re more likely to succeed if you’re both a raconteur and a writer, such as comedy, television, marketing, but there should be no expectation of overlap.
The distinction I was hoping to clarify in my post yesterday is not about performance, nor is it about professional pedigree. It’s about application.
I’m going to take this opportunity to expand on my thoughts, because I noted a few questions and objections that deserve to be addressed. “You” from here on in does not mean “you who asked this question”, but a generic “you”.
My “trouser theory”, as it was dubbed, does not suggest that there are only two positions, but that there are two prevailing positions; left leggers and right leggers. All manner of things might lurk in the gusset.
Left leggers are the “I can’t write every day” people, the “I like to cook” people. They write for fun, which means they can write or they can not write. We might call aspiring writers, hobby writers, amateur writers. We might even just call them “writers”. I think we should probably call them casual writers. “Casual” has the right sense here. “I can do it, or I can not do it”.
We should not demean those people. We should never demean people who do something because it’s fun. “Hobby” should not be a bad word. A hobby can be a lifeline. It can be the only thing keeping a person sane. The passion of the casual writer is not diminished by the term “casual”, as the term denotes their degree of application, not the depth of their feeling. This is the group, remember, that can’t write every day. That is the defining quality.
Right leggers are the “I must write every day” people, the “chefs”. They write because they feel a compulsion to write, which means they can’t not write. It’s tempting to call them professional writers, established writers, prolific writers, but all of those terms are wrong. It’s not about getting paid. It’s not about getting published. It’s not about the volume of your output. It’s about writing being such a fundamental core of your identity that it would break you not to write. So we call these people “writers”, and that complicates calling the other people “writers”.
For the sake of clarity, I’ll call this group “routine writers”, because for these people writing is as much a part of their daily routine as washing or feeding. Actually, these are the people who sometimes forget to wash or feed themselves because they’re writing. I don’t say that to romanticise it. There’s nothing romantic about being hungry and smelly.
In fact, romance is lost entirely with these terms. There’s no poetry in “casual writer” or “routine writer”, which is why everyone calls themselves “a writer”.
But if you ever ask a routine writer what it takes to be a writer, they’re going to assume you mean a writer like them, and they’re going to give you a “routine writer” answer; “Write every day”. And if you say “I can’t”, they’ll say, “you’re not a writer” and what they mean is, “you’re not the same kind of writer as me”. That’s not tough love. No consideration of toughness or love comes into it. They’re simply telling you that if you want to play the piano at Carnegie Hall, you need to practise the piano every day.
Is that elitist? Yes! Shouldn’t a person who practices at something every day be considered elite? Shouldn’t we give some credit to the person who is compelled to put the hours into being a chef, a concert pianist, a ballet dancer, a free-runner, a programmer, a photographer, a jazz saxophonist? Remember, this is the group that does write every day, because they must. That is their defining quality. We should recognise that distinction.
You don’t get to be in the group that writes every day if you don’t write every day. Nor are you excluded from it by the people in that group. You’re excluded from it if you don’t do it, even if you have a good reason why you don’t do it.
If an obstacle or a condition exists that stops you playing the piano every day, or practising ballet every day, and there is no way for you to overcome that obstacle, then you cannot be a concert pianist or a prima ballerina, and it’s not because all the concert pianists and prima ballerinas got together to exclude you, it’s because you were dealt a shitty hand in life. I’m sorry if that’s you.
Christopher Sebela cited the example of Jean-Dominique Bauby, a writer who continued to write after a stroke left him completely paralysed. Cervantes wrote Don Quixote in prison. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote in prison, in a labour camp, and from his hospital bed. The list of writers who lived with severe mental illness is too lengthy to enumerate, but it includes Tolstoy, Swift, Plath, Hemingway, Lovecraft, Wallace, Kerouac.
Maybe your circumstances are less forgiving than all those people, and you believe you’d be a routine writer if your life allowed it, but if you don’t write routinely, you can’t be that kind of writer.
I think it’s useful in this context to explain a little more about what writers are saying when they say “write every day”. It doesn’t mean that you have to be prolific. It doesn’t mean that you aren’t allowed to fall into a coma or take Christmas off.
I saw several names thrown out as examples of people who supposedly don’t write every day. Harper Lee has only published one novel in her lifetime, and is now too ill to write again. It’s been popularly supposed that she’s had writer’s block ever since, but that’s never been confirmed. We don’t know what she’s produced since To Kill A Mockingbird, we only know she hasn’t published again.
Jeffrey Eugenides and Jonathan Franzen were cited as writers who produce about one book every decade; Junot Diaz was mentioned as someone who said he only wanted to write four books in his lifetime. But all three of them say that they sit down to write first thing every day. Writing is not the process of producing words by volume. Junot Diaz is not a ticker-tape machine. Writing is a craft without raw materials. You don’t see the wood or the marble being delivered to the studio and a chair or a statue come out the other side. A writer who spends eight hours on a single sentence is still writing. (Slowly.)
We talk about “trying to write”, as if the act of trying, the effort of practice, is not itself writing, but it is. Sometimes the product of a day of writing is a blank page. Trying to write is writing.
But you can’t write for years with only a blank page to show for it. You can’t cycle through different projects and never put anything down. If you have not written, are not writing, and will not write, you cannot call yourself a writer on the grounds that you want to be one.
Is research part of writing? I think so, yes. Is plotting part of writing? Again, yes, if that’s part of your process. For a lot of writers, taking a shower is part of the writing process, if you come out of the bathroom with an idea that you didn’t go in with. But researching and plotting and brainstorming can also be forms of procrastination. If you’re doing those things and the page is still blank, you’re not getting any writing done, so you’re not writing. Yes, even if you shower every day.
"Write every day" doesn’t mean "write for eight hours every day", or "write seven days every week". A lot of routine writers keep weekends free, or say they do. A lot of routine writers write early in the morning and have the rest of the day free, or keep the day free and write late at night. I seem to recall Michael Chabon writes early and keeps his weekends free, the lucky sot. A lot of routine writers have other jobs, and can only write for half an hour on the commute to and from work, but they write every day anyway, because they can’t not.
And a lot of routine writers are diarists, journalists, bloggers, critics, historians, essayists, columnists, poets, songwriters. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking “writer” means “narrative fiction writer”.
"Write every day" means "don’t make excuses". It means you should want to write every day and you should manage to do it most days. It means write, if you call yourself a writer.
But if you want to write casually, for fun, when you feel like it, and you want to call yourself a writer for that, that’s actually fine. Just understand that you are using the word differently to the people who do write every day, and you are going to find a disconnect when you talk to those people about writing.
And you can be a routine writer even if you’ve never been one before, if it’s in you to do it. All you have to do is embrace the compulsion, overcome the anxiety, and stop making excuses. No-one is keeping you out of that club except you.
Approximate translation: “Write every day”.
Our local Blockbuster Video is being shut down, and in its death-throes is currently running an unspectacular 10-to-30 percent off sale on all the crap left over after they sent the stuff they still think they can sell to other, heartier (i.e., “not dead yet”) Blockbuster locations. They still have some premium Blu-rays on the shelves, like the most recent Spider-Man movie. I’d pay three or five bucks for that, but they have it priced at $24.99. I guess they don’t understand how a going out of business sale works, but good luck anyway, Blockbuster.
Since the proliferation of cheap oil just over 100 years ago, we have lived in a society ever more distorted by the availability of cheap energy. Everything from motor vehicles to personal computers and corn syrup to iPhones can probably be explained by the fact that dead dinosaurs plus pressure combined over a timeline humans literally cannot comprehend resulted in the wildly distorted and inhuman modern life we all not only accept as the way things are, but which most people cannot help but think of as “the way things have always been.” It’s not. Not at all.
I remember when VCRs first became commonplace in American homes, in the early 1980s. It wasn’t that long after microwave ovens had gained a toehold. In a world where, just a decade earlier, going out to dinner and a movie was something special, now you could microwave your meal and watch a major motion picture in your living room, in your pajamas, for just pennies on the dollar of what that experience would have cost you a few short years earlier. Do you think the experience was a special? Or was it somehow devalued by its ease and commonality?
My very first prerecorded VHS purchase was Raiders of the Lost Ark. It cost me $40.00 at Don Hill’s video store in Greenwich, New York, around 1984. What do you think you’d pay for Raiders on VHS at a yard sale now? $.25 seems like it would be asking a lot. Personally I am amazed that anyone still has a working VCR, but I guess someone must. Every once in a while you even see blank VHS tapes for sale. That dying Blockbuster 10 minutes from my house had one lonely 5-pack of them laying unwanted and unloved on one of the sale tables. I doubt it would be worth the shipping cost to send it to another Blockbuster store, so it will probably end up in a dumpster, like our entire culture seems destined to, eventually.
Blockbuster isn’t the only one. In fact, of its kind, it’s the last to go. Ironic, given that Blockbuster had a corporate policy of buying up independent and competing video stores and either shuttering them or converting them to more Blockbusters. And now, just a few short years after that glorious era in which we all were invited to “Make it a Blockbuster night,” (remember?), it’s over. The existence of broadband internet, and the accompanying sites and technologies that have grown in its wake like Hulu, Netflix, Roku boxes and so forth, have pretty much brought an end to the era of the video rental store. Sure, you can still get a physical DVD or Blu-ray from your nearby Redbox, but that seems so…redneck? Hillbilly? Certainly it’s a bit unseemly and déclassé to wait behind the hoboes and methheads in line at the Redbox outside Cumberland Farms for your turn at the kiosk. Maybe it’s different where you live, but I’d just as soon do it all online or read a frigging book. It seems less dangerous, and certainly less soul-destroying.
But I do remember well the glory days of video rental. At one time, the community I live in had a thriving independent video scene, with stores like Empire Video and Big Dog Video. Then Blockbuster came along and put them out of business, then the internet grew up and put Blockbuster out of business. And it all seemed to happen so fast. The days when I could find a rare old cult classic or a noted foreign film at one of the great indy video shops (an hour south, Albany had even more to choose from) seem like they were just a couple years back, but Blockbuster pretty much wiped those independent shops off the map a decade or more ago. And somewhere in the past decade or so, people stopped making it a Blockbuster night, and about three years back I started predicting to my son that the Blockbuster shop near our house (then literally around the corner) would soon curl up and die, because it was obvious as Hulu and Netflix and even Redbox became ascendant that Blockbuster was literally doing nothing to compete with the faster, easier and better alternatives that were growing up around them like weeds.
Now Blockbuster is going. I think I remember reading that they’re keeping a few hundred shops open for now, but of course those will eventually be shuttered as even the seediest methhead movie fan comes to realize there are better, cheaper and less aggravating options. I hope all the employees of our local, dying Blockbuster find other jobs and I wish them all well, but as a corporation Blockbuster never impressed me as anything other than an opportunistic behemoth, and I can’t say I regret that they won’t be here in my town much longer.
But in a greater sense, the passing of Blockbuster, of course, is just one more signpost on the road to a very different world we are all slowly lumbering toward. Whether the end of the cheap oil era and the playing out of the Long Emergency brings a total breakdown of society or just a new World Made by Hand, it’s certain that by the time my children are approaching 50, as I am now, there won’t be any Blockbusters. I wonder what kind of night everyone will be making it by then?
Meme grabbed from the sublime Roger Green. Thanks, as always, Rog.
1. Always stop at the end of a chapter. Always.
No; I will if I am getting sleepy or have something urgent to attend to, but otherwise, if it’s a good read, full steam ahead.
2. Use specific bookmarks.
I hate to admit it, but yes, preferably. At one point I had a stack of ten or so on my nightstand, but since we moved in July I have not seen them, so I’ve been using whatever is close to hand.
2a. No dog-earing, bending, or folding of pages.
I hate this practice with a passion. My late sister did it with everything she read; consequently, I never loaned her any of my books.
2b. Weirdly enough, spine-breaking is fine, just don’t get too crazy with it.
Like Batman, I prefer my spines unbroken, but I am not fanatical about it, especially with mass-market paperbacks.
3. Always read two books at once.
Well, it’s not mandatory, but unlike my wife, I will read multiple books at once. I’ve had as many as five or six going at the same time, and that always baffles her.
4. No (or minimal) writing in books.
I am not someone who underlines or writes in books, although I do find it interesting seeing what other people have underlined or highlighted in used or library books. I do have a lot of signed books, but I assume that’s not what we’re talking about here.
5. Rereads must be earned because there are too many great books out there to read an okay one twice.
Books must reward re-reading, to my way of thinking. I’ve read Lolita five or six times and find new wonders in it every time. Even some of Peter David’s Star Trek novels have lured me back for a second read, though.
6. Not finishing a book is okay.
To me, it’s mandatory, if the book is no good. Why compound the error of buying or borrowing it by wasting time reading it, if it has nothing to nourish or inform the soul?
7. It is always better to take more books on a trip than you think you’ll possibly have time to read.
Yes. Yes, it is. I did just that on my recent trip to Orlando. I just started the second of the two books I brought, and I’ve been back a month. I’ve been busy lately.
8. Having a favorite genre is fine. Getting stuck in that genre is bad.
I would agree with that, although I tend to explore genres in phases. My teenage years were spent reading science fiction like Heinlein, Asimov and Le Guin; a few years back I read pretty much every Hard Case Crime novel I could lay hands on.
9. Reading on a tablet is still reading.
That’s pretty obvious, isn’t it? In this day and age, we have separated the act from its previously-exclusive medium. The Long Emergency may cause us to revert back to more traditional modes of experiencing art and information, but until then, reading is reading.
10. Londo and G’Kar after the war.
9. Jeffrey Sinclair as the Captain Pike of the series.
7. “Fasten, then zip.”
6. John Sheridan as the president we wanted Bill Clinton to be.
5. Lennier and Vir. Vir and Londo. Vir’s farewell wave to Mr. Morden.
4. “I think I loved Talia.” Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
3. Canny use of Star Trek actors like Walter Koenig and Majel Barrett.
2. Garibaldi’s Daffy Duck poster; “The Egyptian god of frustration.”
1. Zathras. No, the other Zathras.
We don’t have internet hooked up yet at our new place, so I brought Ye Olde 80 Pound Laptop* along with me and stopped at a coffee shop (a different one from previous Blogging From The Coffee Shop posts) to get some breakfast and catch up on the various worlds in which I am interested.
Fascinating goings-on in Egypt, where the troubled administration of the nation’s first democratically-elected president has crashed and burned. I hope there’s a swift return to peace and that the will of the people is ascendant.
I think there are new issues of Star Trek and Fatale awaiting me at the comic book store. As those are the only books I subscribe to anymore, I should go down and pick those up sometime soon.
Before I do that, though, hoo-boy, do I have boxes and boxes to unpack. We moved in on Tuesday, and it was only last night (Thursday night) that I got around to beginning to arrange things in my bedroom so I could get at them as needed. Stuff like hanging my framed art on the walls and organizing the bookcases could happen this weekend, or I might lay in bed and read the new Dmitry Orlov book (The Five Stages of Collapse) and try not to think about all the work that lies ahead. Either way, we have to find a way to get some laundry done, I think I put on my last clean pair of socks this morning.
Large English Breakfast Tea steeped, Half and Halfed and Splendaed, it’s time to head off to work, where I have a couple of podcasts to edit and commercials to write and produce. Enjoy your weekend.
* Disclaimer: Ye Olde 80 Pound Laptop weight estimate includes carry-bag, power supply, cooling mat and external harddrive. Estimated weight of laptop alone is 65 pounds.
I called my second ebook Anhedonia in part because I feel like a large part of my life has been spent in this state:
In psychology and psychiatry, anhedonia is defined as the inability to experience pleasure from activities usually found enjoyable, e.g. exercise, hobbies, music, sexual activities or social interactions. (Wikipedia)
I’ve never been clinically diagnosed, and in the short period where I was actually in therapy decades ago, I don’t remember it coming up. But from as far back as I can remember, I’ve always felt like I experience things at a remove as compared to other people. I always feel like the people around me are able to fully immerse themselves in whatever event or sensation they want to, while there is almost always an invisible wall between myself and whatever it is I am experiencing. Moments of pure, unadulterated joy or despair are rare, and both are uncomfortable and disturbing to me.
The phenomena has been especially glaring for the past few years in relation to comic books. For most of the first four decades of my life comics and graphic novels gave me a great deal of pleasure. From the ages of 6 to around 14 or 15, nothing occupied my time more happily than running off somewhere quiet (usually my bedroom) with a stack of new comics, in the pages of which I would lose myself in the imaginations of writers and artists far more creative than I was, or likely ever would be.
Since the ascension of celebrity fan-fiction writers like Geoff Johns, Mark Millar and others, superhero comics have become an imagination-free zone of ever-escalating violence with no thought, theme or theory in evidence anywhere. The apotheosis of this dire state of affairs was the publication of Before Watchmen. Wretched in intent and criminal in execution, its existence, and worse, acceptance in the marketplace, definitively ended my interest in superhero comics as an ongoing enterprise. The disgrace of it prompted some badly-timed comments about one of its creators at a time when all of fandom was in grief over his passing, and I regret the incident, but do not deny the truth behind my foolish utterance. The people who worked on Before Watchmen, from the writers and artists to the editors, publishers, even the “journalists” who “covered” it — all are complicit in a betrayal of whatever ideals superhero comics might once have laid claim to. The existence and acceptance of the book is a scorched-earth moment in comics history from which there is no going back. And it killed my interest in superhero comics as if that had been its very intent. Perhaps, in broad strokes, it was. After all, the industry has little use for independent thinkers who question authority and call bullshit when appropriate. I was just one little comics blogger, but I’m sure I’m not the only one driven away by the horror implicit in the publication of Before Watchmen.
The thousands of dollars a year I once spent on comics will now be spent on other things. Rent. Groceries. Maybe the occasional movie. I still crave works that fire my imagination, even as I experience those at that same remove I spoke of earlier. Perhaps that’s why I am as fascinated by the process of creating art as I am the art itself. Moreso, really. The mysteries of imagination seem like a puzzle too complex for human minds to ever fully decode. I can’t just watch a movie or TV show and lose myself in it, I am constantly pondering the process of its creation. There aren’t any superhero comics that beg that question the way Kirby’s did, or Ditko’s, or whatever genius you think of when you think of the gods of comics creation. I do know that few walk the earth anymore. Like Saul on the road to Damascus, the scales have fallen from my eyes.
Or perhaps it’s just an inability to surrender myself to joy and pleasure. After all, you can’t say “Anhedonia” without saying “Doane.”
"I went ahead and ordered something for the table."
— Tony Soprano