The first Wednesday of every month, writer Jeff Bowles muses on life, creativity, and our collective destinies as makers of cool stuff. You’re a writer, but have you ever thought about how or why? Here are some words to live by.
The Kid in the Machine
When I was a kid, science fiction was everything to me. Partially because my family instilled a deep love of the classics (you know, Star Wars, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, basically anything with the word Star in it), I watched movies and read comic books, collected toys and built model spaceships. At some point I decided I’d like to tell my own sci-fi stories, and at a relatively young age, I began writing my first novel. I didn’t finish it, of course, didn’t even get past page twenty, but you know, intergalactic star port descriptions are real tricky.
Even now, I still love a good space opera. I never stopped being a fan, never stopped dreaming of distant galaxies and intergalactic wars. In fact, my appreciation for all things speculative and nerdy only deepened, especially once it became clear sports and girls were out, but Lord of the Rings marathons were in. I love that epic fantasy stuff, that twisted horror, that magical realism and those far flung futures, and don’t tell anyone I went to high school with, but I’d rather read a good comic than indulge in any kind of respectable adult activity. Bill paying, for instance. Never did get the hang of that one.
That’s me, I suppose, but I know for a fact on some level it’s you, too. In many ways, the things we’re fans of help define us. I know you’re still a dorky kid on the inside. I bet the inner you still wears braces and drinks juice from a box. What really does it for you? What gets you excited as a fan? Classical literature? Hard-boiled detective stories? The biggest mistake I see many established authors make as they transition from nobody to “somebody” status is that they stop being fans. It’s almost like the red curtain to the whole show gets ripped away from them, and they’re left staring into the cold, mechanical under-croft of the modern storytelling machine. Jaded, I think is the word. You must make me a promise, guys. If you ever get to that place, have yourself a good movie marathon or read a book series that has always been your favorite. A storyteller who no longer likes stories? Criminal.
Ancient sages and modern neuroscientists agree, our personalities are not exactly what we think they are. More of a patchwork, really, a cobble of external influences, internal pressures, beliefs, both valid and invalid, mixed with a healthy dose of daily psychological wear and tear and deeply recessed emotional ideation we’ve tried hard to suppress or which has simply faded into our subconscious minds during the natural course of things. In some lesser known systems of mysticism (since we’re clearly on the subject), our conscious minds are more or less counterfeit anyway, are in fact the byproducts of heretofore unseen spiritual forces that influence our thoughts, our actions, even what kinds of truths we cling to, as essential and impressively ordered as they seem. In concrete terms, you are a body, you are a mind, but you are so much more. You’re the hidden watcher, the presence behind the eyes, the witness and willing participant of the little dramas and tragicomedies happening all around you. If you’re a storyteller, you exist in even stranger terms, because you’re both the creator and the created, and the work you produce is not really yours, but rather is divinely inspired and orchestrated to flow through you.
I mean, all well and good, right? Philosophy and practicality are poor bedfellows. Because while you’re sitting in your cramped home office in the dead of night, staring with hollow eyes at your ten-year-old computer monitor—you know, the one with the cracked screen you can’t afford to repair because you chose to be a “divinely inspired” writer—the work is never as easy as you’d like it to be. I gotta tell you, for people who literally conjure something from nothing on a regular basis, writers can be a grumpy and sour bunch. Sometimes all the passion and love and internal lexiconic fandom in the universe isn’t enough to kill that 2:00 AM headache you acquired from yet another impossible deadline. Life is life, reality is staggeringly persistent, and even the most grounded and stable amongst us can have epic bare-knuckle freak-outs. That’s an industry term, by the way.
To wit, I recently stumbled across a long and uncharacteristically honest social media thread that got my wheels turning. I’m Facebook friends with a lot of people in the writing business, and though I don’t personally know the vast majority of them, I’ve always felt a certain kinship with like minded individuals who’ve chosen paths very similar to my own. The original post asked the question, Have you ever quit writing long-term? Did you regret it? Now people in our culture are often inclined to save face and amass a front when it comes to their careers. Somehow, we’ve gotten it into our heads that the way we make money says more about us than our emotional or mental states, our long-term habits and behavioral matrices, or even our unerring innate natures, who we were before we became. After all, nobody asked you when you were five years old, Who is the essential you? They asked, What do you want to be? Like, can’t I just be the kid with a juice box who likes Saturday morning cartoons? No, teacher says, you’re an astronaut, Cindy. Next!
The responses to that Facebook post surprised me. I expected a lot of business about I’m a writer this, it’s what I do that, and there were some comments to that effect, but by and large, most respondents had to admit that if they hadn’t actually quit, they’d sure thought about it once or twice. One older gentleman actually said he gave up his very lucrative writing career years before and hadn’t looked back since. Good riddance, that was the gist. Now why would that be? Is this the norm? Isn’t writing supposed to be a joyful act?
It is, purely so, but only when a person is free to pursue it without constant worry and stress. That thing about writers tending to become alcoholics? It’s a tad overblown, but it has a ring of truth. And that gentleman, he wasn’t the only one to chime in with similar enthusiasm. Now I am not what you’d call a seasoned professional, not really. I’ve published, I’ve faltered and thought I’d quit (several times, actually), and I’ve gotten back on the horse, back to the business at hand. Not because I had deadlines. There was no external pressure for me. Because I had something to say, new experiences I wanted to share, truths I wanted to communicate. And you know what gave me the courage to do it?
Star Wars. Star Trek. Battlestar Galactica. I hadn’t written in several years, long enough I found I was ready to be a fan again instead of a base, lowly, underdog creator. And being a fan, just like when I was eight years old, I found once more the desire to tell my own stories. I don’t begrudge a professional who is sick to death of the business and wants out for good. Truth be told, I’ve never been in that position. But I am intimately familiar with the love of these things, the passion, the unabashed joy. I’ve stoked those fires within myself my whole life, and I can’t imagine a day at least some part of me won’t thrill whenever I see Luke Skywalker blow up the Death Star. Sure, it’s nerdy as hell, but it’s home, it’s the place I do my dreaming.
My advice to those who want out before they’ve said everything they want to say: go home. Go and be the dreamer awhile. Maybe even a long while. Dreams can manifest as surely as dawn follows dusk, Spock follows Kirk, Jimmy Olsen is Superman’s best pal. If you as a very impressive, very professional adult can’t touch base with the kid in the machine, apart from having my pity, you have my condolences. Rest in Peace, the guy or gal you really are. Consider the possibility the world is the lie, and that you were always the truth. Drive and the creative impulse are not inexhaustible. This is very true. It’s also true they can be recharged and brought back to tip-top fighting shape as certainly as Green Lantern charges his power ring.
Plus, you don’t have to lug around an alien lantern and swear an oath every time you do it. Unless you’re into cosplay, and in that case, why waste time reading some dumb article? You’re clearly needed elsewhere, space cop. Hi, my name is Jeff Bowles. I’m old enough for beer, but today of all days, I’d like a juice box, please.
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Back when I began my M.F.A., one of the first questions I was asked was, “What is your writing process? To put the words in my head down on the page, right? I just write what I think and then revise, revise, revise until it comes out, hopefully, to something someone will want to read. That was my writing process, or so I thought. But, I learned that there is so much more to writing, especially if you are undertaking a novel length work, and every author has their own way of doing things. There is no right way to create story. We all have to find the ways that work for us.
Some writers are plotters, and some are pantsters, just letting the story flow, so they can be surprised right along with their readers at how the story turns out.. Those who are plotters find fabulous and creative methods to work out their plots, from using a whiteboard, to taping note cards on the wall above their desks, to good old fashioned outlining. While some authors, like Barbara Chapaitis, who was my “Chatting with the Pros” guest last January, are binge writers, who get an idea and then locks themselves in a room alone for days on end until the story is written.
Some like to do their writing at night, some in the morning hours when their creativity is at a high. Some write with their favorite music playing, while others require quiet in order to write. Some writers write everything out in longhand, while others type it out on their keyboards. Still others, like Kevin J. Anderson and Martin L. Shoemaker in their book, which I reviewed this month, “On Being a Dictator“.
It is a subject that has fascinated me, and questions on the writing process are commonplace in my author interviews, because everyone does it different. In fact, back in 2018, when I was running the “Ask the Authors” series, I ran a segment on it in both rounds of the series, which is soon to become a chapter in the Ask the Authors book, scheduled to come out later this year from WordCrafter Press. I think it fascinates me because there are so many different ways to approach writing, and some of them are very creative.
Like many things, writing processes change and grow as we do. Back then, I carried a notebook and wrote stories out in longhand if a computer wasn’t handy. I just wrote from off the top of my head and let the words fall as they may. I loved to write while my favorite music played, and since there were others in the house, it was usually blasting into my head through a set of earbuds. But now… Now I carry my laptop everywhere and do a lot of pre-writing activities in my head. (The writing process begins long before the words ever hit the page.) I seldom listen to music while I write because I too often catch myself singing along instead of writing. (I’m seriously considering giving dictation another go, because many ideas are lost because I can’t get them down right away.) And I outline, especially for novel length works, but even a little on short stories, too.
What is your writing process? I would love to hear about your own unique approaches. Let me know in the comments.
Losing Michael: Teen Suicide and a Mother’s Grief
“The Making of a Memoir” is a bi-monthly blog series which explores the stages of writing a memoir as I write the story of losing my nineteen year old son, Michael, to suicide, through his story and the tale of a life without him and the grief I experience every day, even after he’s been gone for a decade. Some progress has been made toward the actual writing of the book since the last segment. I made a final decision on the title above for the book, and work on the cover is in progress with Art Rosch at Starrts Creative. Although there is still a lot of material still to sort through and compile what I want to include, I managed to work through a considerable amount. The going is slow, as I knew it would be, due to the emotional nature of the material and the memories some of it awakens.
In the last segment, “Stage 1: Prewriting Tasks“, I said I expected this book to be the most difficult story I have ever attempted to write, and that has proven to be true. In fact, it has proven to be difficult in more ways than I had imagined. This segment was supposed to be titled “Stage 2: Selling the Story”, but alas, unexpected “Obstacles and Roadblocks” has become a more appropriate title. Over the past two months, I run into several and I’m still trying to find a way around, over or through one huge one in particular – legalities.
Memoir can and should be a work of creative nonfiction. It is a true story told creatively, so as to capture and hold the readers’ attention. What memoir is not, is a work of fiction, with fictitional characters and places. You are telling a true story, something that actually happened, something in which other real people played different roles, and to tell the story, their parts must be told as well, even if the tale doesn’t portray all of them in a positive light. A good memoir must be told with honesty, from the heart.
As I sorted through the plethora of material I have gathered and saved since my son’s death: his poetry, writings and artwork; my poetry and writings; and oh so many photos, I couldn’t help but think about the other people involved, directly or indirectly with the story of the events leading up to Mike’s death and also the events that came after, and I realized that there were more than a few, people associated with Mike, and law enforcement officers, who might not want this story to come out because of the manner in which they might be viewed for their parts in his death.
It normally wouldn’t be a problem at all. I’m writing the story of events as they happened to the best of my knowledge. Many facts surrounding Mike’s death were suspicious, and for a time I believed that Mike might have been murdered. Things didn’t add up, but the proof to back up what I know to be true was withheld from me by local law enforcement. I no longer entertain the idea that Mike’s death was anything other than suicide, without the proof that the events happened the way I claim they did, I could be open to liable in telling this story.
The individuals involved wouldn’t really be a problem. The obvious solution is to change the names. Even in a true story, real people can have fictitious names, without damaging author credibility. Authors do this all the time; you just state that some names have been changed and readers won’t feel cheated.
The law enforcement agency and certain individual agents present a bigger problem. Do I change the names of the law enforcement agents? Do I change the name of the area they represent? How much can be changed before a true story becomes a work of fiction? The proof I lack wouldn’t portray the local law in a positive way and they know it, so they aren’t likely to have a change of heart about sharing it with me for the book. They play major roles in the events leading up to Mike’s death, and the story really can’t be told without their inclusion.
Although this issue has presented a roadblock that appears it might be unsurpassable, I have a couple of ideas on how I might be able to get around it. I need to let it play out and see. If not, I’ll look for a way to go over, or under if I have to. This is a story that must be told, and I’m determined to tell it. By the next segment, in June, I should be moving forward once more. I’ll let you know how it gets resolved. I do hope you’ll join me then.
Join me in my writing journey through “The Making of a Memoir” the second Monday every other month on Writing to be Read: February, April, June, August, October and December. To be sure not to miss one segment, subscribe to email or follow on WordPress for notification of new content.
Permission to Quit Granted – Alternative Means of Expression: Part II
By Jeff Bowles
The first Wednesday of every month, science fiction and horror writer Jeff Bowles offers advice to new and aspiring authors. Nobody ever said this writing thing would be easy. This is your pep talk.
A couple months ago, I talked about YouTube and alternative ways writers can express themselves in order to clear out writer’s block or perhaps simply gain perspective on career or creative issues. I consider the writer’s life a long-haul experience. Very often, we go through bursts of creativity and sheer writing bliss, only to end up in a long, slow burn of doldrums and low output. The first five to ten years of any writing career are all about figuring out our voices, our skill-levels, our likes and dislikes, and most importantly of all, our individual thresholds for, let’s say, soul-crushing rejection. After that, ultimate longevity is kind of a crap shoot, right? Well, sort of.
The workhorse model for professional writing doesn’t suit everyone. You may not believe me on that, but trust me, pragmatic holistics matter. Yes, in general it’s best to stay productive and avoid periods of low output, but it’s also a bare bones fact people seek and find inspiration in their own unique ways. For instance, it’s not uncommon for some very successful authors to disappear from the literary scene for years or even decades at a time, only to return in incredible, blinding flashes of brilliance. What do they get up to during those so-called creative droughts? Mostly, on an internal level, they live and experience a few more things until they feel they have something new to say.
If you’re the kind of writer who must hit the brakes every now and then, and by the way, I count myself among you, it may come as a surprise that there doesn’t exist a whole lot of information and support for your way of doing things. The workhorses of the world would have you believe you’re failing if you don’t put down your 2,000 words every single day. But you aren’t. Trust me on this. You’re still doing the job. Even quitters are doing the job. You’re smelling the roses, paying the mortgage, getting married, divorced, remarried, having kids, whatever it is. In essence, you’re telling the story so you can, you know, tell some more stories.
Quitting is a misnomer anyway. I’m not sure good writers ever actually quit. We say we want to, go through the motions, but sooner or later, the bug bites us again. Shamefully, we may disappear into our little domiciles and caverns and pine away for all the stories we never got to tell. But this attitude is borrowed, I can assure you, from a culture that sees reflection and seclusion as things slightly lower than sin.
Just quiz yourself for a moment. The last time you got yourself into a writing funk, wasn’t it because you had something bigger to do? You had to work on your insecurities or your fear of success, or maybe your great aunt died and left you a billion coupons for that buffet place she loved so much but that only serves your favorite brisket on Sundays. An unlikely scenario, sure, but you get the point. Writing doesn’t occur in a vacuum. As much as we may dislike the idea, every word we lay down reflects who we are, who we’ve been, what we believe and value, and the places we yearn to go.
It all depends on your purpose as a storyteller. Does anyone really have a purpose in this world? Yes, I believe we do, though you may feel free to disagree. As an avatar of the workhorse archetype (Family: workhardimus, Genus: unflappabilititus), your purpose may be to write whatever, however, whenever, and for as much money and prestige as possible. A worthy fate if there ever was one. If, by way of alternate example, your countenance and mean represent the BIG IDEA archetype (Family: trickleinspirationmaximus, Genus: deletekeywornout), you may make a habit of cooking a single manuscript for fifteen years before realizing it was good enough to show people eight years ago.
Is there a wrong or right answer here? I don’t think so. Is one of these writers lazier than the other? Arguably, but I don’t think dedication is the ultimate watch word. We’re looking at the sum rather than the parts here, and that makes all the difference.
Art, like life, is a product of time and gestation, and some ideas simply can’t be rolled out in the span of a few months or a few years. Let’s say all you want to write about is a clan of trolls that need to hatch a plan to infiltrate the King’s armory (why not? Substitute a diatribe for or against the Trump Administration, if you like). Every one of your writer friends tells you to plug away until the damned thing is finished, but instinct screams at you to put the story away because you don’t fully understand family dynamics during wartime, social patterns in relation to ground-dwelling malcontents, or the trials and tribulations of Diet Coke-swilling Presidents. I’m telling you to follow the instinct.
The relative complexity of the story you want to tell and your ability to execute it depend entirely on where you’re at as a person and a creator. An eighteen-year-old could write her magnum opus as easily as a fifty-year-old, it’s just the soul of one finds itself prepared many years prior to the soul of the other. So prep your soul a little. Here’s my recommendation if you’ve tried the 24/7, 365 model and found it wanting: live a little between projects. Forget what you’re working on right now, shelve it; yes, I’m giving you permission to quit. Here’s a real test of mettle. Can you forget all about your big dream? Can you go back to being a regular civilian non-writing-combatant? Knowing in the back of your mind when you return to work at some distant point in the future, you’ll be changed, the world will have changed, you’ll have packed on a few years, losses, wins, regrets, and that your stories will thank you for it?
Sometimes alternative means of expression require us to express nothing at all. To me, making something from nothing is a lot like breathing. The inhale, the brink, and then at last, the release and relief of a nice grateful exhale. Take in oxygen like a prize fighter or a Buddhist monk. Breathe until your belly fills with all the desire and longing you can stand, and then let it rightfully explode. Awaken to the possibility of laziness. I mean that. Sit on your butt and watch The Price is Right, or go to work every day and pretend to care about earning a living. In one hundred years you will be dead. Sorry if that’s a bit of a spoiler. Now did you write two books or forty? Would you rather have written fifty? No doubt, but tell me, was it your role to do so? Were you driven to do it? And can you really call that life of yours a waste because you lived how you were compelled to live?
To be blunt, don’t live by other people’s standards. Just in general, don’t do it. If you’ve got the drive and the nerve to chase your star, chase it as hard as you can. But if survival and struggle are all you know and you’re damn tired of it, understand there’s nothing to be gained by producing a mountain of crap for your name to sit atop as you relax into a neat pile of old bones. Individuality is far more central to our world than most people have the ability to recognize. One-size-fits-all only works in plumbing fixtures and baseball caps. Don’t knock yourself out with this story or even the next. Put it down if you need to. Put it down. Put it down. Put it down.
Then go for a walk and pick up a winning lottery ticket, meet the love of your life, or get an autograph from the leader of the free world that sends you reeling back through space and time to meet the man who invented Diet Coke. Stranger things have happened. I’m sure of it. Until next time, everyone.
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