Tag Archives: advice

Writing from the Heart

Last year’s novel was concerned with Memory and Mistake, and it’s greatest fault—and the reason it’s sitting in the vault, aging for a spell before I go back over it—is that it is largely written from a state of removal. From the first page, the “writer” states that he is writing about his writing more than he is writing about the life that his writing sprang from. And by the time the denouement starts to form, like a storm accumulated from the dust and wind and moisture of the traversed landscape, the Blackbird Variations, 3 retreats into a fractalling demurement of self reference, interpretation and critique that is so freaking dense and uncalled for that I’m sure anyone who made it that far would end up chucking it across the room, shouting: “What the hell is your problem, Benjamin? Why is it so hard to just tell a damn story?”

I let my mind guide my prose, and while some people can pull this off, I’m not one of them. My wheels spin so tight and quick that all too soon they spend the grist they’re fed, and begin to masticate their self-same mechanism.

Probably the greatest complement I’ve ever received, as an artist, was voiced 10 years ago by a four year old girl. She said to her mom, while describing the stories I would make up for her class while they ate lunch: “Benjamin tells stories from his heart.” And yet every time I tell a story to a blank page, my head steps all over the heart and tries to get the blood portioned out into a 42 fluid ounces, labeled and tested and siphoned of hemoglobin.

There has to be a way to cheat this.

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The Artist has a Split Tongue, too.

To have at hand a vessel

to restrain the dualness

of my heart’s polluted wrestle

its wisdom, foolishness.

I ever seek to edify

but in the wake of my creation

at once I criticize

my inspiration as inflation.

From The Blackbird Variations, 3 — Chapter 9.) Broken/Open


Re: 90% of Writerly Advice on the Interwebnet

It feels like most of the writing advice that gets bandied about the talkosphere, a la “Awesome Writer’s 9 tips of Howto” boils down to:

  • Be straightforward
  • Don’t not be straightforward
  • Various variations on straightforwardness
  • There’s no way I can tell you how to do what you want to do, so just ignore my advice and write harder

Straightforwardness is great and awesome and magnificent at getting points across and captivating the audience and building a readership and making a ‘sure thing’ — but why aren’t there any 9 tips from James Lookitmereinventinglit Joyce or David Footnotefootnotefootnoteaside-thatruns300pages Wallace? Where’s the bastions of ambition? Where’s the brave author who espouses cleverness and trickery and tells us: “Psst, kid. You wanna know what writing is? It’s the imagination, made tactile. And you know what that means? It means that writing is infinite, and in it, anything is quite literally possible. However, it’s gonna take you f’n years to pull off, but if you work your fingers to the bone, experimenting the hell out of plot and character and language, you are going to make something that quite possibly has never been before.”

To be straightforward: An increase in complexity causes an exponential need for mastery. And what does mastery require? Not much. Just your life.

And there is an audience for hardmode literature. But they just happen to be hardmode themselves—they are not easily amused.

“The fool who persists in his folly shall become wise.” —Wm. Blake


How I have Failed as a Writer, Part I

Impressive stat number one: I estimate I have written close to 2 million unique words in the last sixteen years.

Realistic and contrary stat: I have had a total of 20 words published, and that was in an article on internet piracy, in which I was wrongly accused of copyright infringement, as well as misquoted.

Both of these stats will change in the next few months, because 1) I have decided to self publish and 2) I have figured out what my freaking problem is.

My problem, in a nutshell: I have been doing every possible thing with the written word except for doing the one thing people want to have done to them, through the written word—which is to be given a moment wherein they forget their own lives and the act of reading, and are “swept up” in a tale.

My problem, mashed into nutbutter(yum!):

There are two positive and two negative moments from my teen years that have effected me as an artist, and only last year, with the writing of The BBVv3, have I been able to pin-point and lay them to rest.

First the positives: at 14 I contracted mono and was blessed with being allowed to do independent study (I loathed my highschool, and the next year secured a transfer). In independent study I was given a book that I haven’t been able to find the name of. It was about right brain/left brain politics and brain storming and such, and it propelled me into written expression. Before then, I had written some stories here and there, but afterwards… Well, there was this girl, named Brittney. She was a year older than me and I knew her from youth group and because I was not so much a ladies man as a girl’s boy I hung out with her and her friends quite a bit. Then I started to have some feelings for her, and I put these feelings onto paper, and as soon as I did so, it was like I had dropped a match onto a in late summer Northern California prairie. I burned through page after page of… stupid stuff, but I noticed that my feelings actually became stronger and more distinct when I wrote them. And, presaging the addictions to come, I was hooked on the act of poetry—moreso than the girl it was nominally directed to.

The second positive, isn’t a specific incident, but I recall several moments in my teens and later where I would be consumed by a proto-physical creative urge. Almost sexual in its intensity, but rather than being focused in my loins, it seemed to radiate from the crown of my head, and I would end up climbing trees and onto roofs, or crawling under tables, brimming over with this almost nightmarish sensation of prescience-without-context. I can’t really describe it. But I knew it had to do with making art—or, making art was the only thing I knew that could act as a channel for this sensation.

So: the contraverse: this unfortunately has to do with my father, so I’m running a little too close to whining by bringing this up, but, in writing the previously linked autobiographical account of my early twenties, these two events really made some sense of the extremity and severity of my “rebellious” actions, post childhood.

At 15 my father found some poetry I had written to a girl—to the girl after Brittany, I think, for after she had convinced me I didn’t really like her, I found another object for my adoration to be ‘inspired’ by—and then another, and then another. But dad found one of these poems and he got quite angry at me for the language I was using. I wasn’t being sexual, but rather highly metaphorical, evoking grand natural imagery to evince the boundless charge of my feelings. He said that only God was to be spoken of in that manner. That only God can be loved like Mountains and Sunsets and great big old storms, and it was wrong of me—I’m not sure if he used the word blaspheme, but that was the connotation—to compare a mere girl to the grandeur of creation. Thereafter, I never showed him a thing I created, and if he came across any of my writings it seemed he would laugh when I was attempting to be serious, and become angry when I was attempting to be humorous. This caused me to have a very, very high standard, but also caused me 1) to hide myself, actually, scratch that, to obfuscate myself, and 2) to doubt the worth of everything I produced, to see its faults and to consider it ‘not good enough’.

The second incident is rather weird, and personal, but if we aren’t personal when we’re navel-gauzy [sic], then what’s the point?

So at 16 my parents took me aside and they told me that, after praying for me, they felt that I had “Something to SAY.” We were in a church and that church was on the boring side, and my parents were on the Pentecostal side, so there was a tension that somehow landed on my shoulders. After my siblings had gone to bed one night, we stayed up praying and they ‘anointed me’ with oil, saying, again, that I had some sort of God-delivered WORD to impart to our community.

This didn’t have an immediate effect on me. I had been graced with enough self-doubt to not feel myself the prophet all of the sudden, but the seed was planted: that whatever I ended up producing had to have a super-normal worth to it. Once I was out of their house and encountered the first wave of depression in my life, that weight sent me reeling into abuses of the heart and the nervous system and… not least of all… the English language.

(it’s dinner time now. part II forthcoming)


In Defense of Myth

In a writing group I’m grateful to be a part of, I got called out for using masculine and feminine stereotypes. Here is the tail-end of my defense:

Literature follows an escalating curve: from myth to legend to romance to novel to “meta-fiction.”

Each tier has its own laws and guidelines, and when I go into myth and fairytale I assume a thicker pen, and a brighter palate.

In the beginning, there are binaries — single celled organisms who eat and poop and not much else — cartoonish representations that, as time progresses, descend/evolve into increasingly complex entities, with more dextrous appendages and greater amounts of volition and articulation.

Which all goes to say: I totally dig what you’re saying [about the adverse effect of stereotypes on actual people], but when we invoke the giants, they lumber about clumsily, tangling powerlines, toppling celltowers, smashing through our warm little domiciles with careless momentum. They have massive digits good for pushing and pulling, and use simplistic, deafening growls for words.

Likewise, there will be nothing so evocative as talking about “The White Man” or “The Angry Woman” — there’s something about these terms that move us on a primary level, and they force us to reckon with or reject them outright — but still, even when we deny them defiantly, they irritate us with their repulsive attraction.

As to why there’s such a breadth of form in this collection — I’m not a polymath, but I am a polygenreiste. I’ve always worked in multiple forms, partly because any given style doesn’t encapsulate what possesses me to be expressed, and partly due to my Intention Surplus Disorder (aka “over-ambitiousness”).

The problem, however, remains ‘accessibility.’ My myths always require commentary, and my commentary is too rapid and changeable to hammer down into a flat, print-worthy form. I blame this on the woman in me, who speaks in loops and purls — who the man in me can never peg down to just one definition, or statement, or even climax!

“Riddles and hogwash!” hollers the centaur, as the little girl draws her questionable answers in the receding surf.


Going Pro (as an artist, as a critic)

There is a line between an amateur and a pro, and it isn’t making money, it’s realizing that one’s product is distinct from one’s person.

If a writer asks for your opinion, give it to him honestly. You do both your judgement and his work a disservice by pandering to the conceit of his “feelings.”

And beyond pointing out the wrongs and weaknesses, one might try to find what the other is attempting to do, and urge him to do it better; perhaps telling him to avoid X, Y and Z until he’s got A, B and C down.

But it is important, if one’s criticism is to be useful, to tailor it to the parameters of the work in question, and avoid the cliche’s of critique (i.e. “show not tell”) which, in a subtle way, exert a homogenizing influence on the creative process. Each work of art really only works well when it is in tune with itself. This is what makes writing so damn hard, and why critiques often miss the mark.

In the end, if his desire to be a good writer is stronger than his desire to be liked, he will buckle down and put in the time and effort required. And, should you strive to make your critique a work of art, then the art of writing itself will be enriched by your contribution.


the PREantePENultimate POST

From another r/writing thread

Some superfluous advice for the Beginning Writer:

Make sure you read as much as you can. Branch out of fiction, find a vein of philosophy you enjoy—that will help to build your thinking muscles for later on, when you’re ready or want to dip into deeper concepts.

(A semi-related anecdote: when I was a teenager I wanted to be a poet. I understood that poetry needs to be wed to music to garner the praise I was after, at least in the culture I’m from. And seeing as how I was shy and more often than not disappointed by the lyrics of the bands I liked, I decided to focus on writing stories instead. Years later, burnt out on stories, I picked up a guitar, and found that songs fell out of me, like rabbit poop scattering across the carpet. It puzzled me how much a struggle it was for the musicians I knew to finish a song—when, as a writer, all I needed was a good chord progression, a change or two, and the lyrics came on their own. I knew how to listen for them. Which goes to say: other pursuits will feed into your writing, and give you an advantage, or, rather, increase the value of your product. (As an aside, I can’t record music for sh*t, but I love writing songs, they alleviate my poetry compulsion))

Also, write for people and write for yourself. Get good at action sequences and descriptions, but experiment with language when you can. I believe that Writer’s Block is not so much an absolute block as an indication that your imagination wants to take things in a different direction. As the proverb goes: “There is always fruit in the forest.” So: be playful. Remember that the entirety of writing is a human construct, and there are no absolutes, only varying degrees of clarity, immediacy, and sympathy between writer and reader.