When Will You Make an End of It…?

Sisyphus, 1920
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…When I am finished, of course. 

When you start delving into the process of writing you’ll very quickly find some famous writer who talks about not being in control of his story.  The story tells them what to do.  Maybe they just start writing with no idea what’s going to happen or how it will end.  Maybe the characters start doing and saying things that surprise the author.  Someone who doesn’t write or even a beginning writer could be forgiven for thinking that’s a lot of crap.  I mean after all, how could you not know?  You’re the only one in there, hunched and muttering over your keyboard.  You made up the characters and the world they inhabit.  How could you not know? 

Well on some level, a little below consciousness perhaps, I’m sure you do know.  But when you have that first experience of the Muse (or whatever) taking over it’s pretty fun.  Weird, a little creepy even, but fun.  It feels like you’re really tapping into that Storytelling juice and it makes you feel like a real writer.  It’s not all in the plus column though.  If the story controls you and tells you what to do, you have to listen to it.  Even if you don’t agree with it. 

I’ve been working on what I though was a simple little short adventure story for…like…ever man.  I write every day (pretty much) and it feels like I’m getting somewhere but it keeps not being done.  Every two weeks I meet with my writers group and I say, “I’m almost done.  Should have it next time.”  Eventually they just give you Looks.  You can’t quantify it either.  First it’s 80% done.  Then 90%.  95%.  97.5%.   98.789%.  I could even live with 99%.  That would be close enough that I would just lie and say I’m done.  Ah, well.  As problems go I guess it’s better than writer’s block. 

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“Try to See It My Way” (Writers and Negative Capability)

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“The wise man questions the wisdom of others because he questions his own, the foolish man, because it is different from his own.” —Leo Stein, American art collector and critic

In an 1817 letter to a friend, the poet John Keats describes one of the qualities that makes writers like Shakespeare so great: negative capability. Keats defines this trait as “…when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” In other words, this is the ability to sublimate one’s own individual assumptions about the world and write about uncertain (or potentially polarizing) topics in such a way that the author’s own views remain unknown. It is also the recognition that there are often grey areas in life which cannot be resolved through rational means. This requires an extraordinary degree of objectivity, and it’s much harder than it seems.

To enter into the mind of other people (or things) and speak from their point of view is an essential goal for writers, and certainly Keats demonstrates this skill in “Ode to a Nightingale,” “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” and “Ode On a Grecian Urn.” Often some of the most engaging literary works are those where there is no clear side taken on contentious issues (such as the free will versus predestination dichotomy in Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex). But the question is, how can writers break free from their own personal perceptions and approach subjects from a more objective point of view? Consider these strategies:

1. Read writers who are good at negative capability. I’ve mentioned Keats, Shakespeare, and Sophocles. But there are plenty of other notable authors, such as Emily Dickenson, William Wordsworth, Anne Rice, Walt Whitman, and John Updike.

2. Learn to view situations from other people’s perspectives. Imagine not what you would do if you were facing their circumstances, but rather think about what they would do and why.

3. Step into the unknown. Force yourself to write about subjects or situations you are uncomfortable with (or know little about).

4. Write in a new genre. Tell a familiar tale in a different format. For example, if you normally write short stories, turn your narrative into a poem (or vice versa). Or you could try turning a poem into a screenplay (or vice versa). Different literary conventions require different sensibilities, and this can lead to breakthroughs in our perceptions of subjects.

One of the joys of reading is having the opportunity to experience situations from someone else’s perspective. To do this convincingly, writers must learn to put aside their own ideas about the world and imagine alternative possibilities. This is terra incognita for many people, but by embracing this approach, you may discover new avenues of creative potential.

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Who Is My Audience?

Mark Twain photo portrait.
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Mark Twain claimed that, before he ever published a book, he would “always read the manuscript to a private group of friends, composed as follows:

1. Man and a woman with no sense of humor.

2. Man and a woman with a medium sense of humor.

3. Man and a woman with prodigious sense of humor.

4. An intensely practical person.

5. A sentimental person.

6. Person who must have a moral in, and a purpose.

7. Hypercritical person—natural flaw-picker and fault-finder.

8. Enthusiast—person who enjoys anything and everything, almost.

9. Person who watches others, and applauds or condemns with the majority.

10. Half a dozen bright young girls and boys, unclassified.

11. Person who relishes slang and familiar flippancy.

12. Person who detests them.

13. Person of evenly-balanced judicial mind.

14. Man who always goes to sleep.

“These people represent the general public. Their verdict is the sure forecast of the verdict of the general public. There is not a person among them whose opinion is not valuable to me; but the man whom I most depend upon—the man whom I watch with the deepest solicitude—the man does most toward deciding me as to whether I shall publish the book or burn it, is the man who always goes to sleep. If he drops off within fifteen minutes, I burn the book; if he keeps awake three-quarters of an hour, I publish—and I publish with the greatest confidence, too. For the intent of my works is to entertain; and by making this man comfortable on a sofa and timing him, I can tell within a shade or two what degree of success I am going to achieve” (from Who Is Mark Twain?)

Who is our audience? While the notion of “art for art’s sake” certainly has its place, at some point writers must ask themselves what they really hope to accomplish by putting words on paper. If you’re writing fiction (be it a potboiler or more serious “literary fiction”), the story had better be engaging, otherwise you’ll likely lose your readers before you’ve begun.

The same is true for non-fiction. Although the purpose of your writing could be simply telling a true story or providing information, there are effective and ineffective ways of doing this. Historical writing, for example, often lands somewhere on the extremes of the audience-engagement spectrum: either it’s a compelling narrative that breathes life into figures from the past, or it’s as dead as Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones.

So remember Twain’s analogy, and no matter what we are writing, let’s all try to keep that drowsy fellow on the sofa awake.

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The New Archetypes: Part 5

Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter in The Sile...
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Until now the archetypes I’ve talked about have been heroes.  Well technically some of them like the Rogue Cop and the Assassin are antiheroes but they’re all the protagonist.  So how about a little love for the villain?  In ancient myth the hero’s opponents are often pretty simple monsters, a dragon or a cyclops.  But the need for character makes the best villains more interesting.  Grendel isn’t exactly a fully fleshed character by modern stories but he does have a backstory and a mother and even though there’s no doubt they’re the bad guys the poet gives us a sense of theiry struggle and pain.  In modern stories we have a bit of a problem though.  Most people don’t wake up to go fight monsters, or at least not fantastical ones.  The cops don’t get a whole lot of calls for minotaurs running around.  There are of course human monsters; genocidal heavies like Hitler, Pol Pot, Idi Amin.  Story wise though these are army versus army type affairs.  Most of the grunts who (heroically it’s true) took fortress Europe never set eyes on Hitler.  But in a smaller, more personal story we need a more personal villain and we’ve got one who shows up a lot.

The Suave Pshycopath.  It’s true that the Suave Pshycho is evil.  He may be the head of a criminal organization or perhaps a serial killer.  But man is this guy urbane!  He’s most likely very well spoken with impeccable manners.  It’s quite likely that he listens to a lot of classical music and can definitely quote Shakespeare as well as more obsure poets.  If circumstances permit (he’s not in prison) he’s well dressed and a gourmande.  He’s probably a handsome chap.  And yes he’s pretty much always a he.

The prototype for the Suave Pshycho is probably Professor Moriarty from the Sherlock Holmes stories.  Holmes is urbane, witty, upperclass and has a keen mind versed in a wide range of topics.  And so his archrival must be of a similar type.  A professor of mathematics with a keen mind that in this case is turned toward the building and running of an extensive crime syndicate.  Plus they’re both British so you know they’re terribly polite. 

Despite his ruinous hatred of the Great Detective though it might be argued that Moriarty is not truly psychopathic.  There are other examples, the Bond villains tend to fall into this type, Hans from Die Hard is another but we all know who the gold standard is.  Hannibal the Cannibal.  Dr. Hannibal Lecter.  He is a monster.  His own doctor says so.  He lives in a dungeon, a cave worthy of any monster out of myth.  Yet he’s soft spoken.  He’s polite.  He sketches.  He even has perfect posture.  He’s charming and in fact he’s fascinating.

And that’s the whole point.   When we have to look for our monsters in ourselves we don’t like what we see and we shouldn’t.  So maybe we make it look a little better.  Good looking on the outside but also someone who you’d like to invite to a party.  Someone who excels at dinner conversation.  Why?  Well here’s where it gets complicated because I think it’s more than wanting to take the sting out of the monster’s actions.  Lecter is brilliant and sophisticated but that makes him more terrifying, not less.  He’s not a foul smelling schizophrenic talking to himself in an alley.  None of us would go into that alley but most of us would be thrilled to be invited to Dr. Lecter’s house (before we knew about all his hobbies). 

When the Pshyco is suave we can’t tell friend from foe.  A frightening thought by itself but there’s also the horror of knowing him afterhis true nature is revealed.  All the times you were alone with him in his office.  Maybe you helped him pick out a credenza for his well appointed study.  Maybe you went on a date with him.  And that’s the other side.  We make the Suave Pshycopath charming so we can talk to him but it also absolves us of guilt.  How could anyone have known?  He was the perfect gentleman! 

And for some reason they are gentlemen.  The closest female equivalent I can think of are the great femme fatales in noir.  They’re dangerous, smart, and fascinating but they’re not quite the same.  For one thing, their allure is usually overtly sexual and the Suave Psychopath tends to use a gentlemanly charm that lacks sexual menace (Patrick Bateman from American Psychobeing a notable exception).  And the target of the femme fatale usually has a good idea she’s trouble, he just can’t help himself (usually because of the aforementioned sexuality). 

Of course when the Suave Psychopath is a serial killer is when he’s most modern.  If the serial killer isn’t wholly a product of the modern age his proliferation certainly is.  So are many of the investigative techniques that law enforcement use to track and catch them (in fact FBI Profiler is almost an archetype).  Despite the monstrous, heinous acts of these defective humans and the workmanlike way that cops catch them; we want to glamorize.  If you don’t believe me consider Saucy Jack.  A real serial killer who in retrospect shadowed cases to come.  Modern profiling techniques suggest that the Ripper was a man poorly educated, barely literate, whose first language was probably not English, had a deep resentment/hatred for women, lived in the area where the murders took place, was a poor working class man (perhaps a butcher), and it was likely the police had interviewed him but not charged him.  Yet still movies portray a handsome man in evening dress, top hat, cape, and white gloves that will soon be red with blood. 

Whether it’s the allure of the dark side of human nature or the wish to ignore the mundane aspect of murder and death I’m not sure.  It’s poor police work but the good news for Storytellers is it makes a great character.  Actors don’t want to play mustache twirlers and audiences don’t want to watch them.  But a well done Suave Psychopath is impossible not to watch.

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Pipe Dreams

Clay Pipe
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I find it curious that my all of favorite writers were smokers. J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Stephen Crane, Mark Twain, Edward Abbey, William Faulkner—all of these wordsmiths were avid devotees of either pipes or cigars (or both). So why is it that writing and tobacco seem to be such close bedfellows?

For some, it is part of the writing ritual. Like making a fresh cup of coffee or sharpening a row of pencils, the process of filling a briar or lighting a cigar helps many writers get into their “writing space”—that delicate frame of mind where ideas are born and where (if you’re lucky) they make the awkward transition from abstract conceptualization to concrete form.

Of course, tobacco is also a stimulant, and a little stimulation never hurts when you are trying to crank out a steady number of manuscript pages. More importantly, perhaps, the rituals associated with smoking provide a type of distraction which is sometimes helpful in generating ideas. For me, some of my most creative moments have occurred when I wasn’t thinking about writing at all. Instead, I was doing something mundane, like mowing the grass or talking a walk. Maybe for these authors, smoking did something similar.

Pipe smoking, in particular, is an inherently contemplative activity. If you try to rush it or fail to tend the flame properly, it won’t work—much like the act of writing itself. Thus you’d never picture Jack Kerouac furiously typing on his roll of computer paper with an imported meerschaum between his teeth. He, like John Steinbeck and Dylan Thomas, were cigarette guys, hard drinking and hard writing—not really the philosophical types.

So I wonder how many bowls of tobacco went into creating The Lord of the Rings or Huckleberry Finn? Both were years in the making, and had their authors not indulged in a bit of nicotine distraction, would these books have ever come about at all? Maybe in the next life we can sit down with these guys for a smoke and find out.

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