While I was going through my Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul I found myself doing a fair amount of self-reflection. Or navel-gazing. I get them confused a lot, but THE POINT IS that as I did I started remembering odd little bits about myself that I found either vaguely amusing or semi-revelatory. I don’t think they’re informative on a deep, spiritual level, but they did amuse me. Think of it as me re-introducing myself to you, the audience, after a long absence.
So without further ado… Ten Things About Me as a Writer that are Probably Irrelevant (but that you might find interesting anyway):
1. WHEN I WAS A KID I WAS A LITERARY SEXIST
You know the recent furor over some fiction books being targeted “for boys” and some fiction books being targeted “for girls?” For the record, I don’t think books should be gender-targeted, but those marketers aren’t just randomly inventing demographics — they’re thinking kids like the kid I was when I first started reading heavily, which was around 8 or so. I would only read books starring boys. I didn’t want to read about books starring girls. Girls were, in the parlance I used at the time, icky.
Look, I’m not proud of this, but when I was a kid I very much wanted to read only books that had boys or men as protagonists. I wasn’t at all interested in reading about books starring girls, and as soon as I thought maybe the book was about a girl I put it down and never picked it up again.
This changed when my mother tricked me (TRICKED ME! TRICKED ME, I TELL YOU!) into reading A Wrinkle in Time, which of course was a FANTASTIC BOOK THAT I LOVED and it starred an ICKY, ICKY GIRL.
So yeah, I got over it. But I had help. Thanks, Mom.
2. WHEN I WAS A KID I WAS NOT A LITERARY SEXIST
When I grew up I was blessed to have access to a RIDICULOUSLY HUGE LIBRARY of science fiction and fantasy. When my parents read a book they didn’t throw it away, they stuck it on a shelf. At one point in my life, we had an entire rec room that was full of book shelves that had nothing but science fiction and fantasy titles on it that I could pull down and read through whenever I wanted. Not just books, but also magazines–entire back issue collections of Omni, Asimov, and of course Analog (TONS AND TONS AND TONS OF BACK ISSUES OF ANALOG). I grew up with a kind of scattershot reading history, because my parents didn’t really suggest too many titles, they just let me read whatever I found at the time. So I read Asimov and Heinlein and Pohl and Tolkien and Lewis and a whole bunch of writers whose names I’ve never remembered but whose books I’ve loved to bits.
But here’s the thing: I had access to these books because both my mother and my father, together, were fans. They both encouraged me to read, they both introduced me to new fiction, they both still enjoy it. So yeah, I grew up thinking it was perfectly natural for both men and women to want to read both science fiction and fantasy, so even though for a long time I didn’t want to read ABOUT girls, it never occurred to me (as far as I remember) that it couldn’t be FOR girls. Why wouldn’t it be?
3. GEORGE LUCAS AND BERTOLD BRECHT
I may have mentioned on this site how I imprinted on the character of Han Solo at a very early age. If I haven’t, you may have safely drawn that conclusion after you read Pay Me, Bug! (which I’m sure you’ve done, right? Right? RIGHT?)
But while George Lucas deserves the credit for creating the character that set me on my way to loving the rogue as an archetype, it was none other than BERTOLD BRECHT who made me want to write that kind of character forever, and ever, and ever.
When I was a Junior in High School I was in my High School’s production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle. Go look up that play. Read it. Pay attention to a character named “Azdak.” Pay specific attention to the way that character talks, then go look at anything Grif Vindh says in Pay Me, Bug!, and then try to convince me that I’m not ripping Brecht off.
YOU WILL FAIL. I ADMIT IT. I AM TRYING TO RIP OFF BERTOLD BRECHT.
I feel absolutely no shame in making that admission, though it probably puts me on a list somewhere, unrepentant commie that he was.
4. I STARTED SELF-PUBLISHING BECAUSE THE DOG ATE THEIR HOMEWORK
Pay Me, Bug! was actually submitted to one of the big publishing companies (uh, well, all of them to be honest), where it sat under review for about five or six years before I got an email that said “we’re sorry, we’ve lost your manuscript. If you want to be considered you’ll have to resubmit, though we understand if you don’t want to do that.”
This is, for the record, a lot worse than sorry, this isn’t what we’re looking for at this time and I’ll go on record as saying it’s even worse than we refuse to publish this tepid piece of filth because we do not wish to be responsible for our readers growing progressively more stupid each time they turn the page. It left me feeling pretty, uh, low for a while. It was not a shiny happy time. Eventually I picked myself off the floor and decided to self-publish because GOD DAMN IT WINDMILL.
I recognize this is not a particularly coherent explanation, but to be honest it’s the reason I do pretty much anything creative these days.
5. EXCEPT THAT IT DIDN’T
Four years after I got that email, I got an actual rejection letter from the same publisher. Arrrrrrgh.
(Note: I am not naming the publisher because honestly, there was no malice in either of these letters. No organization is safe from bureaucratic cock-ups. Not one. Still, it sucks to be on the receiving end of one.)
6. MY FIRST COMPLETE STORY WAS BRAZENLY PLAGARIZED OFF OF A VIDEO GAME INSTRUCTION MANUAL
(Note that I didn’t say “Ten Things About Me as a Writer That I’m Very Proud Of.”)
I have always wanted to write. I have not always been able to write. I have, however, always been surrounded by people who COULD write, and once it drove me so batty that I willingly committed plagarism just to impress him.
I mean, hey, it was the Fifth or Sixth grade, all right? And as a sixth grader this guy could write incredible, full-length stories in a voice that sounded at least ten, fifteen years older than he was. He wrote some fantasy but the one story I really remember was horror, and it wasn’t monster/slasher horror, it was psychological stuff that scared the bejezus outta me. He could do that.
I couldn’t. I tried. But I couldn’t.
So one day I was sitting in front of our Commodore 64 playing the Temple of Apshai, reading through the rulebook, and I noticed an introductory story at the beginning of the book. The story was about a guy named Brian Hammerhand who gets off a boat, walks into a bar, and action ensues… and I loved that story. I mean, it was actually a pretty decent story, as far as I remember, and I thought back to my friend in school, and… I sat down and HAND COPIED THAT STORY, WORD BY WORD. Then the next day I showed it to my friend… and he liked it.
Man, what a horrible feeling. It was a rush from the praise followed by the hollow realization that I had absolutely nothing to do with that praise, further followed by a realization that if he ever found out I’d copied that story he would lose all respect for me, and his respect was what I’d been trying to win in the first place.
So yeah. I was a pre-teen plagarist. I like to think I’ve moved solidly past that — but, uh, hey Stuart, if you’re reading this, this is awkward.
(I should note that this particular plagarism has been kind of hard to shake. Eight years ago I was reviewing the draft of a story I was writing and I saw pieces of the plagarized story in it. Not word-for-word, but it was there. I was suitably horrified.)
The good news is I bounced back from that shame and moved on — I decided that if I was going to impress someone, it was going to be because of something I created, not copied. And it’s a good thing I got over that as early as I did, because…
7. I HAVE ALWAYS BEEN SURROUNDED BY PEOPLE I CONSIDER BETTER THAN ME
In every creative endeavor I have ever attempted — from writing, to acting, to music, to webcomics, to writing again — I have been surrounded by people better than me. Hands down, no question. I might feel a bit envious of it, but I’ll admit it, and (happily) I can be an ethusiastic fanboy about their work, because damn, IT’S GOOD. One of life’s great pleasures is to be able to truly enjoy something excellent that someone else does — it’s even better if you know and like the person who did it. I don’t know why that is, but it is, at least for me.
One side effect of being around all these brilliant people is that I find it always pushing me to try to do more. When I wasn’t trying to brazenly plagarize video game fiction, I was trying to actually finish writing something of my own… left to myself, I would have quit, but I was surrounded by people who were making outstanding things, and what they created was a constant reminder how awesome making outstanding things actually was. It took me until I was in my 30s before I actually finished a full-length novel, but when I did it was the result of being spurred on by seeing what my friends were doing, and wanting that for myself. Brilliant friends and colleagues are a great thing to have for that reason alone.
8. THE MOVIE AMADEUS TERRIFIES ME ON AN EXISTENTIAL LEVEL
Yes, the movie Amadeus, released in 1984, starring F. Murray Abraham and Tom Hulce. TERRIFIES me. And the reason it terrifies me? Antonio Salieri.
Amadeus isn’t a move about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, it’s a movie about The Other Guy Who Isn’t Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The historical Antonio Salieri was a respected composer in his own right, but in the movie he’s mediocre at best, and the biggest comparison between Salieri and Mozart is that Salieri is filled with PASSION for music, loves making it, labors over it with meticulous care… and what he makes is, essentially, “meh.” In waltzes Mozart (see what I did there) and brilliance shines in every thing he creates, he makes it look easy, and also he’s a jackass everywhere he goes.
Salieri can’t reconcile why God would grant him such passion for his art, but gift him with so little talent. At the end of the movie he declares himself the patron saint of mediocrity. The thing that haunts me about this movie, to this day, is that Salieri saw himself as someone who had more passion than he had talent.
I frequently see myself the same way. Probably a lot of artists do in every field, though I’m not sure they all associate it with that damned movie. But every time I sit down to write, I hear a little voice that says “hey Salieri.” And I push it aside and keep working, because that’s what you do, but it’s always there. Some days it’s louder than others, some days it’s easily batted aside, and some days it drowns out everything else.
I expect I’m going to battle this for as long as I keep writing, which frankly is a little depressing.
But wait, there’s more…
9. I AM ONE OF THE MOST ARROGANT PEOPLE YOU WILL EVER, EVER MEET
I am not a shrink, and I’m not entirely sure how you can have a worldview where: a) you think you are surrounded by people better than you, and b) part of you is convinced that you’re nothing but a mediocre schlub, while at the same time c) being firmly rooted in a feeling of your innately superior talents, but I know it exists, because hi, my name is Chris Wright, and I’m talking about myself. Even when I am beating myself up mercilessly for producing nothing but generic mediocrity, there is, at the very core of my being, a voice that is ABSOLUTELY CONVINCED that I am a misunderstood genius and someday I WILL SHOW THEM, I WILL SHOW THEM ALL (which, as frequent visitors to this site may know, is one of my goals in life).
Now, for the record, I don’t particularly like that guy. Arrogant-me is not a nice person, and he is not an especially compassionate person, and he is not a particularly generous person. If arrogant-me had his way, I would turn every single conversation I ever came across about me, about me, about me. I would demand, DEMAND I SAY, that the world LOVE and VENERATE MY GENIUS. Seriously, he’s a prick. And I devote an enormous amount of time and energy making sure the world sees as little of him as possible.
I need him, though. He’s the one who sits me down in front of the keyboard to write. He’s the one who gets me to throw my work out there, consequences be damned, because it won’t be seen any other way. He’s the one who tells me that what I produce has value even if what I do isn’t succeeding. If it weren’t for him I would be keeping what I create to myself, desperately wishing I had the courage to share it, or even worse I would be not creating at all, wishing I could.
I need that little shit. I just need to make sure he doesn’t ever WIN.
10. GOD DAMN IT WINDMILL
My rationale from #4 needs a little more explanation, so here we go.
Along with George Lucas and Bertold Brecht, I guess I need to add Miguel de Cervantes to my list of People Who Are Responsible For Me Making Questionable Life Choices. Lucas and Brecht because of the stories I often feel compelled to write; Cervantes because of Windmills. Fucking Windmills.
However, I need to make clear that there are really two interpretations of Windmills that you can take from Cervantes’ work: one is classical (that is, windmills as Cervantes probably intended them to be understood in his work) and one is American (that is, an understanding of windmills that would make Cervantes roll his eyes and wonder if we were maybe eating lead paint chips when we came up with that notion). I prefer the American interpretation. Please pass the lead paint chips.
The classical interpretation (as I understand it, and keep in mind that I haven’t been to college in a VERY LONG TIME) is that Don Quixote was trying to live by an ideal that didn’t exist in the world, because he was crazy, and while some of those ideals are rather nice on paper the fact that he refuses to accept reality makes him a comical but sad figure, which is underscored by him relentlessly attacking a thing that WILL NOT MOVE FOR ANY REASON WHATSOEVER BECAUSE IT IS A WINDMILL FOR CRYING OUT LOUD IT IS JUST TOO BIG.
The American interpretation, on the other hand, can be summarized as “fuck it, that windmill is GOING DOWN.”
It probably isn’t actually going down, you know, but in the American interpretation Don Quixote is actually genuinely heroic, though comical, and not at all pathetic, despite being off-his-rocker crazy. He’s heroic because he’s chasing an ideal that is better than what the real world permits, and his dedication to that impossibility is ennobling.
(The “American interpretation,” now that I think of it, is more part of the musical than the novel.)
Yeah, I like the American interpretation, and I’ll keep it, thank you very much. When so much of the artistic life appears to promise nothing but failure, then you need to be willing to shove reality into a small corner and tell it to shut up and stop bothering you because YOU’RE WORKING. In many respects I sort of view Don Quixote as the St. Jude of artists (St. Jude is apparently the patron saint of lost causes) and his windmill-tilt is the catchecism by which we learn his wisdom… and that’s as far as I think I go with that because I’m really not Catholic.
The point is that creating art is, in many ways, a high-risk activity. Not “high-risk” in terms of putting your life in immediate danger (though I suppose if you inadvertently anger the wrong people that is possible) but definitely “high-risk” in terms of pouring your mind, body, soul, finances, and future security into something only to see nothing ever come out of it. And even today, with the presence of the Internet, and the levelling of the playing field it appears to produce (at least until the cable companies destroy Net Neutrality and all the walls come up again–so, you know, until next month) there are no guarantees of success, and plenty of opportunities for failure and discouragement, as well as mediocrity. So why do it?
Because “God Damn It Windmill” is why.