Myth of the the Writer’s Identity

Myth of the the Writer’s Identity

A question that seems to come up time and time again on podcasts, blogs and forums is this: “When do I know that I’m a writer?”

Answers and advice vary in profundity. There’s: “Not until you’ve written your 5th book;” “When you get paid;” “Believe in yourself that you are a writer and you become a writer;” “a writer writes.”

All of which is a crock of shit, because the question itself is flawed. Here’s a crass allegorical joke:

It’s Scotland, somewhat stereotypically. A man walks into the bar and asks the bartender for a drink. The bartender pours up a beer and slides it over to his patron.

The bartender says, “Pre’y good beer, thar, dunchoo thank?” and the patron agrees that it’s a good beer. “But they doon’ call meh McClarty the beer pourer, naw doo thay?” The patron assumes that people do not call him by that particular name. “Pre’y nice bar here, dunchoo thank? But they doon’ call meh McClarty the bar builder, naw doo thay?” Again, the patron assumes that they do not. “Und such ah nice stone wall outside, duncha thank? But they doon’ call meh McClarty the stone masun, naw doo thay?” The patron is getting a little anxious for the point.

McClarty says, “But yeh fuck ONE goat…” 

The point being is that you’re often recognized for the things that you do and that may or may not be the things that you want to get recognized for. That’s beyond your control. The world is going to label you a certain way and that’s generally fine because there’s a 90% chance you’re a decent person– you’ll be labeled as a nice friend, a compassionate parent, a brilliant engineer… or you might be a bad person. Did you know that Stalin wrote poetry? Your high school friends will remember the cringe-iest things about you and that’s fine because you’ll hold their biggest embarrassments at ransom.

You might not get recognized for your writing, at least not in any critical capacity, and that’s fine too.

There are ways, though, to increase your odds, which is, you know, to write as often as you can, constantly improve your work and maintain a decent regimen to produce quality work worthy of recognition. Focus on your writing habits and open yourself to criticism; focus on projects that culminate in cohesive products so that you may move onto the next one.

You might be wondering, then, why I put “a writer writes,” in the bullshit category of common quips? Because, while true, it’s still in the hopes of attaining the “writer” status and while the advice asks you to focus on the grindstone, it’s still an ego trip. Although perhaps “trap” is the better word. As I’ve said before, buttressing your ego with art probably isn’t the healthiest move.

A lot of people want to have written a book and the belief is that you must be a writer to have written one. That perpetuates a certain fantasy that’s detrimental to the actual two components that are required to create anything: time and effort. That fantasy stands as a prohibitive wall between your goal of writing your novel, or screenplay, or mollusk-based erotica (you know, whatever you’re into) that prevents you from devoting that essential time and effort.

Actually writing isn’t sexy. It’s lonesome work that robs your loved ones of your time. It’s studying narrative structure in books and film until it’s ingrained into your fingers. It’s reading the same sentence over and over again until it doesn’t make sense. It’s trying to make sense of a history of stories in such a way that your own can wedge itself into. That doesn’t get a whole lot of light in the “Hollywood” portrayal of writers. The much maligned Californication doesn’t focus on the actual writing (an entire novel is apparently written off screen, hunted and pecked on a typewriter no less) so much as it fixates on the booze and the tits and the oh good lord my life is shit because I’m a shitty but handsome personMidnight in Paris doesn’t focus on the writing either, favoring instead to examine the ways authors compare themselves to the classics. While that movie does a better job about describing the work (“writing and re-writing and re-writing the re-writes…”), it still fails to snare an honest moment of writing. Even one of my favorite movies, Wonderboys, which does an excellent job of depicting the distractions and pressures of “writers block” and the fetishization of manuscripts, still doesn’t have a scene longer than two seconds of actual writing. In fact, Goddammit, one of my most hated movies probably has the most accurate portrayal of writing– Goddamn Gatsby has Nick Carraway, in a montage, stressing over his manuscript and organizing the pages fastidiously. But Gatsby doesn’t count, because the movie is garbage and it still seeks to romanticize the art. Which is what movies about writers do. They make the title a tantalizing trophy for the shelf.

I think these movies/series exemplify the nefarious side of the ego-trapped coin. That many seeking to be a writer want the validation of having written a book without applying the effort to actually write one. The reason being, I think, is that they assume it makes them sound intelligent enough to get laid. These chuckleberries don’t understand the self-loathing, disappointment, or solitary ecclesiastic heights of the creative process, or the frustration of mild success. After some years of this, I stand aghast. Why would you want to pretend to be a writer? Don’t you know that this is a sickness?

Don’t pretend to write to get laid. Don’t write to get laid (because that’s just not gonna happen, friend). Don’t get down on yourself because you’re not famous. Don’t let the title of craft steer you away from the craft itself.  Don’t give yourself a title at all. Dig into the work because you’re lucky enough to be crazy enough to enjoy this literary parade. It’s better to think of yourself as just someone who writes than a writer. 

And if anyone claims to be a writer at a party and claims Hank Moody as one of their influences absolutely do not fuck them.

And keep the goat alone.

A Comedy of TERRORS

A Comedy of TERRORS

Spoiler alert for Stranger Things. And Breaking Bad, kinda. And comedy in general.

If you ask any jackass on the street to define comedy, they’ll likely just say “It’s funny. BURRRP.” Well, that ain’t helpful. So let’s talk comedy. Specifically, let’s talk what comedy looks like in literature and television and study its spine.

Let’s start by saying that comedy, by definition, isn’t always funny. And what’s less funny than talking pretentiously about William Shakespeare? A professor once told me (so it must be true) that Shakespeare* distinguishes comedies and tragedies thusly:

A comedy is the story of an outsider joining an in-group / society. (Integration)

A tragedy is the story of an insider forced out of an in-group / society. (Isolation)

That’s it. Apply it to any modern movie and you’ll find that it works. What about a story about a family man who alienates his friends and family in the pursuit of power at the cost of societal decay?

breaking-bad-hair-art
Tragedy. That one was easy.

What about the story of a guy too cool for school that has to go back to school and falls in with a group of lovable ragamuffins?

community-season-six-yahoo
Also easy. C’mon, it’s in the title.

Dan Harmon is the premiere television comedy writer of the decade(s), having championed Community (above) and half of Rick and Morty. Here are his rules of writing every episode of anything ever:

  1.  A character is in a zone of comfort,
  2.  But they want something.
  3.  They enter an unfamiliar situation,
  4.  Adapt to it,
  5.  Get what they wanted,
  6.  Pay a heavy price for it,
  7.  Then return to their familiar situation,
  8.  Having changed.

When you think of the Shakespearean definition of comedy, you see why this works so well episodically, especially with the Community series in which the zone of comfort is literally being accepted by a society. You have the tragic turn of an insider becoming an outsider, and then the comedic reintegration in a linear progression.

Sometimes you have comedies and tragedies playing out in parallel– take the story of a weird girl with psychic powers becoming best friends with a bunch of adorable dorks (integration) searching for their missing dork friend (broad integration):

stranger-things-on-netflix
Exploding G-men brains: comedy gold

…and mix it with the story of a sweet girl hanging out with a bunch of cool kids (integration) who drink beer and have sex and pay no consequences whatsoever.

barb-stranger-things-shannon-purser_article_story_large-large_transsfxwnnhossudzbpg8a9lxgnplncb4jbmotpfyxdp7d8
Oh right.

The tragedy of Stranger Things lies in the alienation of Barb– the cost Nancy pays to trade up into a higher in-group. You can chart out a hell of a whole lot of micro comedies and tragedies in that show and you’d still be hard pressed to label it solidly in either camp. Because it’s rooted in horror.  More on that later.

Now that we’ve covered the macro structures, let’s back up for a bit and examine the basis of all comedy so that we can cover the micro– I’m talking irony. The definition of irony is simply a contradiction of expectations. Now, the primary theory  of laughter is that it creates a social bond between those in a group, signaling that theirs is a safe place. I think of why I laugh nervously– to tell others that I’m not dangerous (or sometimes to awkwardly attempt to make a tense scenario a more amicable one). So let’s blend that with a model that explains why irony is funny to us on an evolutionary level:

A group of hunters are walking through the woods looking for food to kill. They hear some grass moving violently and they think it’s a tiger waiting to pounce on them. They send Kevin, agreed to be the biggest asshole of their group, to go and check it out– Kevin looks in the grass and finds… nothing. It was just the wind. He laughs to the other hunters to nonverbally communicate that everything is fine and they laugh back to confirm everything is indeed fine.

If you dissect that, you essentially have, in my terms:

  1. Set up (We’re hunting!)
  2. Expectation (Kevin’s gonna get et!)
  3. Punchline: A contradiction of that expectation (It was wind all along! We’re safe!)
  4. Return to normalcy (Hahaha! We’re hunting!)

That’s the basis of every joke ever written. You’ll notice it’s almost impossible not to tell a joke without telling a story and that it’s elements are not unlike any other particular scene.

I tend to write humorous books. Here’s the first paragraph of the 9th chapter of The Fish Fox Boys in which our heroes enter a dilapidated mall after the decline of civilization:

Adam and Fred walked carefully through The Mall’s vast, moss-covered corridors, past windows of the storefronts and restaurants that were now strangled by vines and shattered by trees growing through the glass. At first they were startled by what they thought were several people frozen in time, until upon closer inspection, they discovered that these were simply what the old world had called “mannequins.” Fascinated, they poked and prodded a mannequin sporting capri pants and a vest.

Without really thinking about it, I had written through those four steps:

  1. Set up (We’re walking through a scary old mall!)
  2. Expectation (There are frozen people!)
  3. Punchline: A contradiction of that expectation (Oh, those are just giant dolls wearing clothes! We’re safe!)
  4. Return to normalcy (Hahaha! Let’s poke ’em! We’re farting around in a scary old mall!)

A lot of that humor has to do with irreverent tone and pointing out absurdity, but the tone doesn’t become irreverent and the absurd isn’t examined until the end of the paragraph. And I’m going to posit that #4 is where the true humor lies (Let’s poke ’em!), instead of the punchline (Just mannequins!). If you think about how Mitch Hedberg delivers jokes, the laughter is almost always a beat after he says the punchline and comments how dumb his jokes are which also serves to recenter the audience before his next joke. You also have TV comedies like The Office where the punchline is delivered followed by a talking-head shot to capture the more human, often funnier reaction to the punchline (which also contextualizes the audience to the true nature of the characters on screen). The last step is even the funniest in the hunter-tiger model which tells the universal truth that laughter is contagious. You don’t need a joke to make people laugh, you just need laughter.

Back to horror (you thought I forgot! Shame on you!). A while ago, I had to the opportunity to see Robert Brockway read from the second installment of his brutal and genius punk-rock-horror series, The Vicious Circuit, and during the Q&A, a woman asked him how he could take subject matter that’s so inherently foul and horrific and still make it so goddamned hilarious. His answer was that the set up of a joke and the set up of horror is almost exactly the same, just with a different outcome. To use the hunter-tiger model again, there could have just as easily been a tiger waiting in those bushes to eviscerate Kevin. And writers like Brockway prove that the other hunters can still laugh at the end.

In my paragraph from The Fish Fox Boys, the punchline could have been replaced with a horrific payoff– that the people frozen in time were exactly that, stiff inanimate bodies standing around. Again, I think, what counts is the #4 Return to Normalcy (and how you define normalcy in your work). Fred and Adam could have screamed and runaway… or they could still poke the bodies and make fun of their clothing.

It makes a lot of sense to me, that laughter is so closely related to fear. We know that it’s the social cue of safety and the release of anxiety. It’s one of the reasons why going to a standup comedy show feels almost like a more powerful religious experience for me– the catharsis of that internal anxiety being coaxed out by a charismatic comedian and diminished by a room full of other homo sapiens telling each other nonverbally that everything’s fine. But that initial anxiety is necessary. You ever have to switch a sitcom off because it made you feel too anxious? Because you inadvertently mumbled, “Oh God”? Exactly. What makes us feel uncomfortable is also what makes us laugh. As a sidenote, I think that’s why slapstick was/is so popular. (See Buster Keaton’s House Falling on Buster Keaton)

It’s on that anxious axis that all  stories swivel.

But don’t forget that laughter is also the language of play and, whether you’re torquing the tension of a horror or a thriller piece or polishing the jokes and tone of a humorous work, remember that there’s a lot to play with here using the simple mechanics. And if you ain’t hip to this writing scheme, then, well, do what makes you laugh.

Unless that includes, you know, doing real-life horror stuff. GET THOSE KITTENS OUT OF THAT BURLAP SACK, KEVIN.

 

*I’m pretty sure that Shakespeare himself didn’t actually make those distinctions and that definition likely precedes the bad bard by some hundreds of years.

Character Sketching: Dungeons & Dating Websites

Character Sketching: Dungeons & Dating Websites

The first book I wrote (that has still gone unpublished, a-boo-hoo) came from the desire to summon a character into literary being that was so chaotic and anti-authoritarian (yet ultimately harmless) that he would rip through whatever situation I placed him in and get me to a finished manuscript. He did. Over the course of 50,000 words I got to know the guy. Then I threw 90% of the book away and started over (as is the fate of first drafts of first books), this time with more intimate knowledge of my character. I started with a concept and ran it through a machine of events and conflict. Ding! A character was born.

So as not to waste that much time and paper, however, character profiles and sketches were invented to save the author some hassle. It’s helpful to have a reference for all of the dramatis personae flying around a story. I agree. I have a hunch, however, that a lot of profiles focus on the character’s appearance (which usually translates to dry prose when described over and over…) or their general backstory (which can be interesting, if you go into one or two character’s histories in a novel, but quickly turns into a slog).

Writing a character profile is difficult, I think, because it’s hard to describe ourselves. You lovebirds on OKCupid know what I’m talking about– when there’s a gun up to your head to describe yourself, you end up talking about the music you like, the hobbies you enjoy, and how invested you are in your career. Vague. Which isn’t always a bad thing.

It’s better than, “Hi! I’m Dina! I’m 5’7″ I wear black eyeliner and leather boots with black jackets with pink buttons with little butts engraved in the copper and when I was growing up in an orphanage by the dragon lagoon, I found a pendant that farted when I prayed to it…”

It’s even harder to describe other people. Enjoy this familiar scene I have prepared for you:

“Tell me about Steve.”
“He’s funny.”
“Oh?”
“And smart.”
“I bet he’s shy, as well.”
“He is a little bit shy, but really fun once you get to know him.”

Uncanny, right?

Now here’s the Godfather of noir, Raymond Chandler, describing Phillip Marlowe:

“down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor—by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.

“He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him.

“The story is this man’s adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. If there were enough like him, the world would be a very safe place to live in, without becoming too dull to be worth living in.”

Damn, right? Here’s a few takeaways: Chandler is focusing on values. On basic motivations. On attitude. He knows how Marlowe is going to handle any situation, before he knows what the situation is. That kind of confidence is what can allow you to improvise.

Let’s say you write a scene in which your hero is fleeing a kill-squad of robots, only to run into her evil twin brother, wielding a machete. BAM. Writer’s block. You flip to your character sketch. It says, “She has a sick belt buckle.” Oh no! You keep reading. “She’s really funny.” That could come in handy later, but is currently useless. “Highly aggressive and brutally violent to a fault.” Phew, you exhale, wiping perspiration off of your brow. Now you know that you hero would kick her brother in the chest, grab the machete and start swinging wildly at robots until they overwhelm and imprison her for robot crimes.

Bad example, but you get the idea.

So how about this? Spend some time making character profiles (even with your currently written ones) and identify some key characteristics.

  • “What is their general attitude?”
  • “How do they respond to conflict?”
  • “What is their way of speaking?”
  • “What do they find despicable?”
  • “What do they believe in?”
  • “How sick is their belt buckle?”
  • “What can break them?”

Once you have the answers to this, or a list of rules that summarizes those values, you should have a pretty keen mental shorthand of your character’s behavior in addition to a concrete reference.

And hey, while you’re rolling your character’s stats, you might as well take another page from Dungeons and Dragons and try using the alignment spectrum and decide where you character falls and why. Want to use archetypes? Consult the enneagram which offers motivations behind archetypal behaviors.

Tired of writing? That’s cool, too.

Take a break and get to know thyself.