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Da Vinci’s Sfumato and Chekov’s Razor


Leonardo da Vinci introduced a mindset that every author should be employing in their writing, if they are not already. This mindset resulted from a technique da Vinci used in his paintings called sfumato, or “gone up in smoke”. I use it so often that I don’t think of it as a technique anymore, but I found it interesting to read the explorations of it by one most famous artists in history. The basic tenet of the sfumato technique da Vinci made famous, was to avoid using specific and concrete lines in his paintings. This might not sound like a novel technique to the accomplished artist of the day, but it was groundbreaking in its day. Da Vinci did not invent this technique, as some evidence suggests it dates back to the chiaroscuro effects used by ancient Greeks and Romans, but da Vinci took it to another level. As author Walter Isaacson wrote, Leonardo was so obsessed with using shadows and reflected light that he wrote fifteen thousand words on the topic, “And that is probably less than half of what he originally wrote,” Isaacson opined.

The sfumato technique also applies to writing. When an author begins writing a story, they characterize their main character with bold lines through unique, individualistic, and semi-autobiographical lines. The more an author explores that character, the more they chip away at strict characterization and allow the character to breathe for themselves in a manner that adds dimension. They characterize with shading and reflection, or refraction through supporting characters, until they have done little to characterize the main character except through their interactions with others and events. Their main character becomes more prominent through these literary devices, until the central character becomes the literary equivalent to an eye of the storm.

In writing, we call the sfumato technique “the show don’t tell” technique. The author uses supporting characters and setting to define their main character, and they use all of this to bring the events involved in their stories to life. The takeaway might be that the optimum characterizations are those characterizations that appear more organic to the reader. In other words, the author should be working his or her tail off to make the work appear so easy that the reader thinks anyone could do it.

Chekov’s Razor

The aspiring writer should also know the principles of Chekov’s Razor that they employ them so often in their writing that they don’t realize they’re using it. The idea of Chekov’s razor is that the first three paragraphs, or pages an author writes, are for the author, and the rest is for the reader. 

Anyone who knows anything about the writing process knows that the blinking cursor, or the blank page, can be daunting. To defeat the blinking cursor, the experienced writer starts writing. We can call this the discovery phase. In the discovery phase, the writing is gibberish that no one but the writer can understand. This is the “all play no work” phase for most writers, as it allows them to be creative. They love to write with an ending in mind, and they love the process of working to that ending. While working to the ending, the creative mind might change the ending, based on little points of discovery leading up to the original ending. Once that ending is changed, however, some of the little points leading up to it need to be changed. 

The greater takeaway for aspiring writers is to get the idea down before you forget it. Don’t worry about sequencing, chronology, grammar, spelling, or if this story is the base for the next great American novel. Just write it down and worry about all the editing later. Just writing a bunch of gibberish down, only the writer understands, opens them up to the subject matter. Once the author is in, the material might have the wherewithal to be in a near proximity to where a story lies, but the real story could take paragraphs, or pages, to develop.

Chekov’s razor focuses on threes, the first three paragraphs, and/or three pages of a manuscript, short story, or essay, but I’ve found this length arbitrary. When I begin a story, I think I have a full-fledged introduction on my hands. I don’t think anyone writes gibberish just to write gibberish, it feels like this could or should be the story at the time. I lock myself up when I try to determine if the writing is up to my standard, or if it’s going anywhere. I unlock myself by writing it and deleting later if necessary. 

 Chekov’s razor comes into play when we go back and delete if necessary. In those opening paragraphs is the gibberish that the writer used to familiarize them with the material. It was the entry point to defeat the blinking cursor.

In the course of writing past the blinking cursor stage, we discover pivot points that take us to the next stages of the story, but we don’t consider them anything more than what they are at the time. In the course of rewriting, however, we discover that the pivot point is the story. The frustration falls on two tracks, the first is that we fell in love with that original idea, and it’s tough to just walk away. The other is that we “wasted” so much time writing “the other” story that we loved. When writers achieve the ultimate point of objectivity, when they realize story is sacred, they begin sacrificing all the information they love to leave information you will. 

Thus, I don’t believe there is magic in the power of threes in employing Chekov’s Razor to storytelling. A central idea, or pivot point arrives in the course of writing, but the point of Chekov’s razor is to dump and delete the useless information the writer used to write the story.  

An important note to add here is that if most authors work the same way I do, we do not write for the expressed purpose of finding the core of our story. Our perspective is, we think we already have the story, and that the only chore involves building upon it. The discovery of the core of story often humbles the author and slaps them back to the realization that no matter how many times we write a story, the art of writing involves mining the brain for ideas rather than having a brain loaded with brilliant ideas. That conceit eventually reveals itself to those willing to write a lot of material, and it’s up to the author to recognize the difference for what it is, if they want a quality story.

It happens in the course of writing it, editing it after we’re done, or in the daydreaming stage that can last for days, weeks, or months. I do not enjoy deleting the chunks of material I’ve written, and I don’t think anyone does, but the quality author will develop the ability to recognize what portion of the story is for them and which portion is for the reader, and they will crib note or delete the part of the story that is for them.

I don’t consider the revelation of these techniques a glamorization of my process. I think it demystifies the process by suggesting that anyone can do this, as long as they write as often as they need to discover what should become the central focus for the reader. Every author needs to move past their conceit of their self-defined brilliance to find the story they’re trying to tell, and learn how to work from within it.

As I’ve written elsewhere, the most prominent use of Chekov’s razor can be found in Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis

How to Succeed in Writing XI: The Stages


“It is (the writer’s) job, no doubt, to discipline his temperament and avoid getting stuck at some immature stage, in some perverse mood; but if he escapes from his early influences altogether, he will have killed his impulse to write. –George Orwell

We’ve all read authors who write from what Orwell calls the “immature stage”. They get locked in a stage of life they will not, or cannot, escape. They hate their parents, they cannot get over the fact that someone of the opposite sex has dumped them in an unceremonious manner, or they cannot get past the fact that their political party cannot win, and those mentalities are reflected in their writing. If, on the other hand, as Orwell states, a writer is afforded the ability to completely forget the transgressions and tragedies that made him miserable in his youth –that which may otherwise diminish their mental health– they may not be the writer they could’ve been if they learned how to embrace those demons. A quality writer, if Orwell’s thesis is to be believed, is one of those rare individuals who is cursed, and blessed, with the inability to forget, while capably moving to the next stage of maturity, coupled with the ability to recall all of those sentiments and mentalities they struggled with in their effort to achieve more mature stages.

Maslow's_hierarchy_of_needsWe’ve all heard of Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs that lists the various needs a person must satisfy to achieve a sense of completion.  The initial stages of the hierarchy concerns basic needs (food, water, and breathing) that we take for granted, until they are not met. As this hierarchy progresses to completion, the needs become more complex, and the need to satisfy them more profound. There is also an idea that that person may take one level for granted –such as the need for friendship, and the need to be loved– and they may regress back a level. The basic structure of the Hierarchy of Needs suggests, however, that one cannot progress to next level, until the needs of the prior level are satisfied. Every person is different, of course, but the basic tenets are such that most people are not immune to the needs of a level you are currently on, and our stubborn refusal to accept the idea that we need more of whatever you currently have, has us stuck at that level.

Orwell’s addendum to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs pertains to writers. His quote basically states that while writers are not immune to the need to progress in all the ways Maslow outlined, and that their progress is elemental to better writing, it’s just as vital to the quality of the writing that they be able to tap into the angst that drove them to want to be a writer while mired in a previous stage.

The best, most stark example, may be the starving artist that wrote something while mired in a premature stage. The piece they wrote may have been beautiful on one level, but it was generally regarded as being on the cusp of brilliance. The beauty of their piece may have been contained its raw exploration of their vulnerabilities, but it was also considered a snapshot of what this artist might be capable of ultimately, as it offered no solutions. Their piece was more of a list of complaints with no end in sight, a characteristic that can be compelling in its own right.

As we’ve witnessed, in all crafts, some starving artists never reach their full potential. Some of them become trapped in the starving artist mindset, or elementary stage of need, and they never gain a complete enough understanding of themselves, and thus mankind, to achieve a greater, or more complete artistic piece. Or, they may have progressed through the channels of their needs so completely that they’ve lost their need to create artistic pieces. It’s also been the case that a starving artist’s original piece was so successful that the person became successful and lost the starving artist mindset that gave them fame, and every piece they write thereafter is retread. This lack of artistic progression may be as simple as the artist never progressing to the self-actualized stage.

The website Simple Psychology states that “Maslow estimated that only two percent of people will reach the state of self-actualization.”

Is Maslow wrong, or are we? Are we a member of the ninety-eight percent, and does this affect our writing in such a manner that we don’t have the objectivity necessary to write a compelling fictional character, much less conduct our lives in a self-actualized manner?

As one that has progressed through a stage fairly recently, I can tell you that that progression served my writing well. I would not say that I’m a member of the two percent, but I have progressed, and I didn’t wake one day with the realization that I had progressed either. It was only upon reflection that I realized that only after one of my fundamental needs was met did my writing progress. I look back on my “immature stage” and I realized how much better my writing has become. I realized that my inability to complete a piece was more of a commentary on my inability to progress through my personal hierarchy of needs than it was my artistic abilities. I’ve also managed to keep in touch with all of the angst that drove some of my earlier works to bring them to completion in a manner I may not have if I hadn’t progressed.

How to Succeed in Writing X: Blog Writing


Rule#1: If you have any respect for comedy, you should avoid trying to be funny. Comedy should almost be an accidental afterthought. It should be what happens in the course of numerous rewrites. A good one-liner is hard to find, and it usually falls in the lap of the unsuspecting. It’s rarely among those first thoughts that occur in a first draft. Those one-liners are often born and bred into you. It’s often what those who know your sense of humor find hilarious. It’s usually based on what you do for a living, and all of experiences you’ve had in life. Some of us may see where you’re headed, but most of us do not … not to the point of finding humor in it. Those jokes that you write that are more universally hilarious are probably either directly, or indirectly, ripped off from some other, more universally accepted vehicle. The path to the more honest, organic place of comedy is often found within a serious piece that takes twists and turns before that piece can be declared complete. It can also be found in bits that you add after rereading your completed, serious piece so often that the words bore you. It is also usually found the day after, the week after, the month after you’ve achieved the degree of objectivity necessary to land an honest and pure line that is funny in a more universal manner.

We all think we’re funny, but even the best of the best stand-up comedians will tell you that they rarely get it right in their first draft. They test their material before live audiences, and they shape, craft, and hone it based on the audience’s reactions. A writer usually does not have the luxury of a live audience, so they must trust their instincts, and as any experienced stand-up comedian will tell your instincts are almost always wrong. As a result, you need an audience, and if you’re unable to find one, the only substitute you have is an objective perspective that can only be gained through the amount of rewrites it takes to achieve it.

femisphere_mommy-bloggers1

Rule#2: If there any writers reading this blog in search of one useful nugget, let it be this: We don’t care about you, and we’re not interested in what you think. Your modus operandi (M.O.) from this point forward should be to manipulate your reader into believing that they’ve arrived at your opinions independently.

Uninteresting way: “I like fruit better than candy. Who doesn’t? You put a strawberry Twizzler in front of me, and a beautiful piece of nature’s own, and I’ll take the piece of fruit every time. It’s healthier, it’s succulent, and I would much rather support the strawberry growers association than some huge monolithic, candy corporation that doesn’t give a fig about my health.”

Interesting way: “Thanks to the innovations made in chemical enhancement, and the machinery on the production line adding a precise quantity of these chemicals to every licorice strip, every single Twizzler you eat is going to be perfect. Twizzlers, therefore, have the advantage of consistency, but what does this type of consistency achieve for the consumer? Is a twenty-seventh Twizzler licorice strip going to taste any better than the first one you eat? A strawberry, on the other hand, has a certain inconsistency inherent in Mother Nature, and that inconsistency may lead to a greater belief in the quality of its gems, through scarcity, but I find it hard to believe that anyone can eat a perfect strawberry without thinking it’s better than anything man has attempted to reproduce in a lab.”

Both of these versions contain variations of an opinion, of course, but one is so over-the-top that it does it little more than tell us what the writer thinks. The attempts to persuade are so loaded with an agenda that some readers may rebel, and those that agree will only have their biases confirmed. No reader will leave the piece believing that they have learned something new, or that the writer has used some ingenuity to express a point. By limiting the piece to what the writer thinks, they are telling us that don’t care what we think. The import some readers will have is that the writer is a wonderful person, and they’ve finally found a vehicle for spreading the word.

Rule#3: We are not interested in your process. “You may be wondering how I came about this brilliant blog … ”  We’re not. “A friend of mine asked what I thought about some take a famous person had on an extremely controversial topic, and I said this, and she said that, and this ingenious blog is my response to that.” Some people are curious about the creative process, I’ve seen them ask about it in various replies. Most aren’t. If you become famous, or you create a piece that generates a lot of interest, there may be some call for the minutiae regarding your process, until then try incorporating the delete button into your process a little more. It may help you get to the point a little quicker.

Rule#4: Try to be succinct. Though I’m sure that some may find it hilarious for me to tell anyone to be succinct, my M.O. is to express my thoughts as succinctly as possible. I do have trouble limiting the number of words in my pieces, and that may be my failing, but I do make that attempt. Venture out into the blogosphere and you’ll find numerous bloggers that do the opposite. They stretch a point out to the 1,500 word, universally agreed upon length of substantial pieces.

These blogs, make me think of that scene where a TV director signals the news anchor to stretch a segment out, with banter, to fill time until the next commercial break. Sports radio appears to have been founded on this concept. These venues attract people that can blather in such a seamless manner that the audience doesn’t even know they’re being blathered. One of the keys to being considered talented enough to fulfill such duties appears to involve being able to say the same thing over and over with varying inflections to keep the key demo watching through the twenty minutes of commercial breaks that occur in any given hour. Me thinks that some bloggers get caught up in this definition of talent, and they attempt to duplicate it with banter and blathering.

Rule#5: Be provocative. Some may read that word and believe that it is specifically devoted to shocking the reader into questioning their moral fiber, but I prefer to focus of the base of the word provoke. Provoke your reader into thought by leading them down a road that they may have never been down before. There’s two schools of thought on this. One is to come up with breathtakingly original material that no one has ever considered before, but this one is difficult if not impossible to do on a continual basis. The more opportune avenue is to take a relatively common idea and put a spin on it that few have considered before.

The most common avenue for achieving this is to take an event from one’s own life and attempt to provide a unique spin on it. If you are going to include your personal opinions of these events, you should do so within the context of the narrative. The best role I’ve found for the ‘I’ character in these pieces is that of the straight man looking out on the madness that surrounds. Your thoughts, if you feel the need to include them, should occur soon after the reader has arrived at that opinion. At that point, you can decorate with jokes of obviousness, or extreme analogies that exaggerate the already arrived at opinion. The latter should not be done from the new age, clever “I’m so dumb it’s entertaining” perspective that so many bloggers now obsess over.

We’ve all read those “A Day in the Life” blogs that are specifically not provocative, go nowhere, and contain nothing funny or substantial. Judging by the hundreds of replies that say nothing entertaining in return, they’re quite popular. I’ve often wondered why people read these blogs, but they have apparently tapped into some sort of universal appeal that I cannot. The basis for these otherwise mundane blogs is to set a base from which the author can make leaps into humor or ingenuity, but the reader has to click on the blog first, and they do, and the whole cycle proves that I may be so dumb that it’s entertaining, because I don’t understand why anyone would purposely click on the 101 things my cat did when they heard the can opener blogs.

Free Your Mind and Creativity Will Follow


“You just sit there young man, and think about what you’ve done!” is something that most of us have heard at one point or another.  We’ve heard this from a mother, a grandmother, or some authority figure in our lives.  Sitting in silence is an excellent punishment for a young mind that wants to move, explore, and participate, and the negative connotations we apply to such forced inactivity, may be the reason that some of us still avoid it as often as we can.  For some minds, however, it may be the key to tapping into untapped resources of creativity.

Ardent advocates of noise would disagree.  They would suggest that the best way to find that creative place occurs in the exchange of ideas.  The distracted mind, they would say, requires forced participation.  They also say that suggesting these minds need more space, and more silence, may allow the cracks of distraction to grow wider.

moronThe very idea that silence should play a role in the creative process seems antithetical to everything we’ve been taught. We, as a people, have spent so much time trying to create technological advances that put an end to silence that we’re now conditioned to believe that cluttering our minds with voices and images may lead us to finding individual, creative thought in that stew.  Some do, of course, as every brain works different.  Those that require more processing of information –conditioned to the same beliefs about the creative process– may buy a self-help guide to find out what’s wrong with them.  For them, the source of creative thinking can, more often than not, be found in the brain itself … If it is allowed to breathe a little.

As Dorothy Gauvin stated:

“Your mind makes connections between facts and experiences that may seem unrelated to a logical entity like a robot.  Imagination connects the dots and comes up with an ‘Aha moment’ we call inspiration.”

These technological distractions that we have, and all of the noise of the day, prevents our imagination from taking what we’ve learned to that place where all the dots can be connected to produce a creative thought, or what Ms. Gauvin calls ‘an Aha moment’.

“Remember the famous quote from A.A.Milne,” she writes, ‘Sometimes I sit and think and sometimes I just sits.’”

Some of us spent most of our time outside of the Socratic Method of teaching looking in.  We’ve witnessed other brains firing right along with the teacher’s.  The teacher hits them with a question, they fire right back; the teacher probes deeper, the students respond in kind, and a summary discussion ensues in which all participants are rewarded with like-minded smiles when they’ve reached the same conclusion.  Some of us have always wanted to be those people, and we have been … the next day.  The next day, we arrived in that class with an answer that would’ve knock our teacher right on her keister … If we had thought of it yesterday.  We wanted a do over.  We wanted to show the class that we had the perfect answer.  It was too late for us, of course, the class moved on.

Every mind works different.  Some minds are excellent for business, and school, and they can come up with the perfect solution on the spot.  With that perfect guide, they can delve deeper into the depths of the mathematical mind than either party imagined possible, or they do it so quick that some of us stare on dumbfounded.

The spoils for thinking often go to the quick, and that fact has led some of us to believe that we were the dumb.  Our “Aha moments” do arrive, but they arrived when we were walking down the stairs, after the meat of the discussion has long since passed, and we thought of all the things we could’ve and should’ve said. Our minds work different, and even if we realized this in school, we may not have been rewarded in the manner the quicker minds were, but it may have been less frustrating or embarrassing to realize that our brains work different.

If you have a “down the stairs, could’ve, should’ve said” brain, Ms. Gauvin writes, you may want to consider the idea of developing a routine that involves a moment, or a series of moments, where all you do is sit in silence to digest what you’ve experienced.  She writes that some meditate, some contemplate, and some “just sits” there in a manner that “suits their circumstances and personality”.  She says that once you figure out how your brain works, you should consider creating a regular period in which you experience silence in the manner high profile “professionals in Medicine, Sports, and the Arts” all do.

Feathers

“Free your mind, the rest will follow.” —En Vogue

Years after reading the brilliant, Raymond Carver short story Feathers,  I reread it.  I was confused.  I went back to the title of that story to make sure it was the same short story I read all those years ago and recommended to everyone I knew that expressed even a slight interest in fiction.  It was the same short story, of course, and it was just as good as I remembered, but I had so jumbled the details of that story that I misremembered it into an original short story.

Carver’s short story was so great that I experienced a creative high after reading it.  As an aspiring, young writer, I have to imagine that reading that story was equivalent to a young basketball player watching Michael Jordan drive the baseline against the Knicks in the 1993 playoffs.  Carver, like Jordan, made it look so easy that I thought I could do it.

The focus of Carver’s story was, of course, the main characters, but my focus churned on the side characters.  I identified with them in some manner I couldn’t grasp at first.  I decided to explore.  I decided that this exploration was worthy of a short story, my short story.

Upon rereading Feathers years later, I realized that the side characters were so far removed from the ones that I had created that no lawyer in the land could prove an infringement on, or plagiarism of, Carver’s material.  After getting over that initial spate of confusion, and some feelings of being so stupid as to misremeber those characters, I realized that I had come up with my first original “quality” short story.  And all of those leaps occurred in quiet moments where all I did was ‘sit and think’ about them and the short story, and my relation to them.

The Sounds of Silence

Silence can be difficult to find at times.  We spend so much of our time trying to keep our minds active, focused, and participatory that we’ve cluttered it with noise, under the proviso that “No TV and no beer make Homer crazy”, until we’ve reached a point where our lives are drained of silence.

If you’re one that needs a creative space of silence, and you’re able to find time for it, it’s important to note that there is no specific quantity of silence from which creativity is born.  Laying out such a provocative idea may lead some to say that it doesn’t work for them.  “I tried it,” they will say. “It ain’t for me.”  Our natural retort will be, “Well, how long did you try it?  How much effort did you put into it?”  It’s a pointless –square peg in a round role– discussion for some, of course, because all minds are different.  For those creative minds that don’t know how their brains work yet, and the others that have to deal with them, this may be an eye-opener.  For those that experience writer’s block, or creative fatigue, silence may be the one method they haven’t tried yet.

interactionYour silence should be drained of distractions.  We all have minor distractions that pervade our silence, such as what sassy Susie said to us the other day; the delicious burger that we’re planning to eat tonight; reliving the Blackhawks championship run; and how the stand-up comedian described going to the bathroom in the toilet tank as going top shelf, and we all have an almost unnatural propensity to dwell on those ideas.  To void your mind of such distractions, I like to think of the process the Tom Cruise character went through in the movie Minority Report, when interacting with the futuristic gestural interface to find the information he wanted in its database.

Not all silence should be active, or focused, but it does require a certain degree of participation to find the undiluted creative area.  Focusing yourself into specifics is difficult, of course, but if you can swipe these distractions away, you can achieve various specific, creative thoughts on the subjects of your own choosing.  The key to creative thought, in my opinion, is to create an eighth day in which you, the god of your creation, can rest with everything that hit you in the previous seven days.  The key is to avoid putting headphones on when you jog, mow, or workout at the gym.  Some may go so far as to “just sits” in a quiet room, others may take long drives alone to nowhere with the radio in the off position.

I found the perfect vehicle for freeing my mind, a while back, when I got myself the most brainless job imaginable.  I didn’t do that for this purpose, of course.  When I was forced, by management, to do away with all distractions for the ostensible purpose of placing all of my focus on a job that I could’ve accomplished in early R.E.M. stages, I achieved a state of blankness.  Not everyone is as fortunate as I was to have found such a tedious job, I understand, and for those of you forced to focus on a demanding job will need to find another avenue, but many have found silent moments to stew.

This blaring horn of creative silence can also be found in the most innocuous places like a doctor’s waiting room.  My advice: once you reach that point where you’ve waited so long that you’re so bored that the urge to pick up that magazine –you’d never read otherwise–overwhelms you, fight that urge.  Fight that urge and stare out at the dregs of humanity that wait with you.  Look at that guy with tousled hair and frayed jeans, in a short-sleeved shirt, and wonder why no one ever taught him how to dress.  When you’re engaged in the monotony of lawn work, fight the urge to wear headphones, and pick those dandelions naked … without aural accompaniment, or stimuli of any kind.  Free the mind from everything that you’ve been jamming into it for the previous seven days, and “just sits there” on an eighth day of rest, and the rest will follow.

The Debilitating Fear of Failure


“The reason we struggle with insecurity,” notes Pastor Steven Furtick, “Is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel.”

Some quotes educate us on matters we know nothing about, but the ones that stick take a matter we know everything about and puts a clever twist on it that changes our perspective. We all know failure, or some level of it, at various points of our life. Some of those failures have shaped us in profound ways that we assume everyone remembers the moment we enter a room, and some people will remember our failings, but will they remember their own, or will they compare our failings to their highlight reels.

Pastor Steven Furtick

Pastor Steven Furtick

“Acknowledging failure,” Megan McArdles writes in the book The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well is the Key to Success, “Is a necessary first step in learning from it.”

Some of us are old enough to remember the severe penalty for missing a rung on the monkey bars. An erroneous grab, at the very least, could land a victim center-of-attention status, as we attempted to find our feet. At worst, it would cause the pack of onlookers to send an emissary to the office with a call for assistance. These everyone-is-looking-at-you moments are so immersed in embarrassment, and pain, that few can see any benefit to them.

Most of those liable for such situations, have lowered the monkey bars, and made the ground so forgivable that one would have to fall from a skyscraper to receive any pain. Thanks to these and other technological advances, fewer children get hurt on playgrounds, fewer playground ride manufacturers get sued, and everyone is much happier. There is one casualty, however, the pain of failure.

No one wants to see a child cry, and we should do everything we can to prevent it, but pain teaches us.

After a near fall in a supermarket, the checker complimented me on the agility and nimbleness I displayed to avoid hitting the ground. “It could be that,” I returned, “or it could be said that only one so well-practiced in the art of falling knows how to lessen the pain and injury normally associated with it.”

I eventually did touch ground a short time later, at a family reunion. I also touched a parked car, and then I touched the ground again. Among the lessons I learned is that pain hurts. Had it been a simple fall, it would be hardly worth noting. This was one of those by-the-time-this-ends type of falls everyone will be looking, some will be concerned, and most will be laughing. I thought I had corrected my trajectory a number of times, but I was moving too fast. By the time it was finally over, I silenced just about everyone in the vicinity. The kids around me laughed, as kids will do when anyone falls, and my age-denying (Not Defying!) brother laughed, but if the Greg Giraldo line, “You know you’re getting old when you fall down, no one laughs and random strangers come running over acting all concerned,” is true, then I am getting old.

Most lessons in life are learned the hard way, and they are often learned in isolation, in that even our closest friends and family members distance themselves from us in these moments, so that they have no association with them. These dissociations range from laughter to sympathy, but the latter can be just as dissociative as the former if it’s done a right. The point is, no matter how we deal with these moments of failure, we usually end up having to deal with them alone. If we learn how to deal with these largely inconsequential moments, The more we deal with them, the better we are able to deal with more consequential failures down the road.

The point is that the lessons learned through pain and embarrassment, are lessened by lowering the monkey bars, providing a forgiving ground, and instituting zero tolerance bully campaigns. The point is that those of us that see little-to-no benefit derived from bullying, or that any benefits are inconsequential when compared to the damage done by the bully may eventually see the fact that few lessons in life are learned by the individual, until those kids enter adult arenas.

A quote like Pastor Steven Furtick’s, also tells us the obvious fact that we’re not alone in having moments of failure, but that those that can deal with them in the proper perspective  might actually be able to use them to succeed on some levels.

Artistic Creations

Any individual that attempts to create some form of art knows more about comparing another’s “highlight reels” to their “behind-the-scenes” efforts better than most.

In the process of becoming an artist, every individual artist has a shining light that influences them. That shining light provides a template for which the artistic form, that interests the young artist, should be accomplished. For the purpose of this discussion, let’s say that shining light of influence is Stephen King, since he is the most ubiquitous and influential author to most young writers of the modern age. After reading King often enough, a young writer may believe he can write like King. After repeated attempts, this young writer eventually realizes he can’t write like King, but in the course of those efforts he may have almost inadvertently created a voice that is somewhat his own. After repeated attempts to further develop this voice, some otherwise inconsequential person comes along, reads his stuff, and picks out a line or two saying, “That’s halfway decent.”  Buoyed by the compliment, the writer expands upon those few lines and begins to grow so divergent that the Stephen King influence is no longer as recognizable in his writing.

The point of this very succinct summation of the artistic process is that if the writer gets bogged down in any phase of the process, with the idea that he can’t write duplicate King’s highlight reels the writer is done before they get started. If that young writer eventually learns that taking that influence, from that influential writer, is simply a part of the process to developing a voice, he may be able to develop his own highlight reels.

1455Ernest Hemingway

How many times did Ernest Hemingway grow insecure when comparing his behind-the-scenes efforts to the shining lights that preceded him? How many times did he fail, how many times did he quit, and give up, under that personally assigned barometer, before finally finding a unique path to success?

Even in the prime of his writing career, Hemingway admitted that about 1 percent of what he wrote was usable. Think about that, 1 percent of what he wrote for The Old Man and the Sea, was publishable, worth seeing, and that which Hemingway considered worthy of the highlight reel that we know as the thin book called The Old Man and the Sea. The other 99 percent of what he wrote, proved to be unpublishable by Hemingway’s standards. Yet, this highlight reel of the Old Man and the Sea writing sessions are what has inspired generations of writers to write, and frustrated those that don’t consider all of the behind-the-scenes writing that never made it in the book’s final form.

mark-twain-6fa45e42400eea8cac3953cb267d66a33825a370-s6-c30Mark Twain

“Most of what Mark Twain wrote was dreck,” writes Kyle Smith.{1}

Most of us know Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, the highlight reels of Mark Twain’s writing. We know the infamous Twain quotes that occurred in the numerous speeches he gave, and the essays that he wrote, but it is believed that he wrote as many as 50,000 letters, 3,000 to 4,000 newspaper and magazine articles, and hundreds of thousands of words that were never published. Twain also wrote hundreds of literary manuscripts—books, stories, and essays—that he published, and then abandoned, or gave away. Almost all of it has been discovered over the last century, and placed in a home called The Mark Twain Papers.{2}

Very few of us are so interested in Mark Twain, or any of his writing, that we want to read his “dreck”. Very few of us are so fanatical about Twain that we want to know the material he, and his publishers, deemed unpublishable. Yet that “dreck” ended up fertilizing the foundation of his thought process so well that he churned out two highlight reels that many agree to be historic in nature. Similarly, very few would want to want to watch a Michael Jordan, or a Deion Sanders, practice through the years to tweak, and foster their athletic talent to a point that we now have numerous three to four second highlight reels of their athletic prowess. Their behind-the-scenes struggles may provide some interesting insight into their process, but they’ve become a footnote at the bottom of the page of their story that no one wants to endure in total.

nirvanain-365xXx80Kurt Cobain

When we hear the music contained on Nirvana’s Nevermind, we hear a different kind of genius at work. We hear their highlight reels. We don’t know, or care, about all of the “dreck” Kurt Cobain wrote in quiet corners. Most of us, don’t know, or care, about the songs that didn’t make it on Nevermind. Most of us don’t know, or care, about all the errors he committed, the refining, and the crafting that went into perfecting each song on the album, until the final form was achieved. We only want the final form, the highlight reels, and some of us only want one highlight reel: Smells Like Teen Spirit.

On an album prior to Nirvana’s Nevermind, called Bleach, Kurt Cobain penned a song called Floyd the Barber. “Where does the kernel of a song like that start?” Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell asked. Cornell may not have come from the exact same background as Cobain, and he may not have been influenced by the exact same artists as Cobain, but he presumably felt like his creative process was close enough to Cobain’s that he couldn’t fathom how the man achieved such divergence from the norms of musical creation. Those familiar with Cobain’s story also know that he was heavily influenced by the music of Soundgarden, and that fact probably confused Cornell all the more.

Other than Soundgarden, Cobain also loved Queen, The Beatles, The Pixies, The Melvins, and a number of other lesser known bands. How much of his early works were so similar to those artists that no one took him seriously? As I wrote earlier, it’s a major part of the artistic process that every artist goes through to attempt to duplicate influential artists in some manner. It’s a step in the process of crafting original works. When that artist duplicates those that came before them often enough the artist (almost accidentally) begins to branch off into building something different … if they have any talent for creation in the first place.

Divergence in the artistic process

Few artists can pinpoint that exact moment when they were finally been able to break the shackles of their influences, for it happens so progressively that it’s almost impossible to pinpoint. Most artists do remember that moment when that one, somewhat inconsequential person said that some aspect of their piece wasn’t half bad however. At that point, the artist becomes obsessed to duplicate, or replicate, that nugget of an idea. Once that nugget is added to another nugget, those nuggets become a bold idea that wasn’t half bad. Once that is achieved, another bold idea is added, until it all equals a “halfway decent” compendium of ideas that may form something good. At that point, the artist believes he has something that others may consider unique enough to be called an artistic creation in its own right. When enough unique, artistic creations are complete, the artist may eventually achieve their own highlight reels.

When did Cobain finally begin to branch off? How did he become divergent, and creative, and different on a level that made him an organic writer to be reckoned with? How many casual statements, spray paintings on walls, and other assorted personal experiences had to occur before Kurt Cobain had the lyrics for Nevermind? How many of different guitar structures did Cobain and company work through, until he arrived at something usable? How many Nevermind lifted music or lyrics from other failed songs, casual strummings in a closet, and offshoots of other guitarists? What did Floyd the Barber, Come as You Are, and Pennyroyal Tea sound like in those moments when they first found their way from notepad to basement practice sessions? How many transformations did these songs go through in those practice sessions, until they were entirely original, and transformative, and legendary additions to the albums they were included on? If Cobain were alive to answer the question, would he acknowledge that Nevermind is a 1% highlight reel of about a decade of work? Most of us don’t care, we only want to hear the highlight reels, so we have something to tap our finger to on the ride home from work.

Cobain’s highlight reel, Nevermind, proved to be so popular that record execs, and fans, called for a B-list, in the form of the album Incesticide. That album proved Cobain’s B-list was better than most people’s A-list, but what about the D-list, and E-list songs that proved to be so embarrassing that no one outside his inner circle ever knew they existed?

The point is that some of us are so influenced by an artist’s highlight reels that we want to replicate it, and duplicate it, until we become equally as famous as a result, and when we don’t, we think that there is something wrong with us. The point is that the difference between a Mark Twain, a Hemingway, a Cobain, and those that compare their behind-the-scenes work to an influential artist’s highlight reels is that while these artists recognized that most of what they did was “dreck”, they also knew that their behind-the-scenes struggles could be used as fertilizer to feed some flowers.

So, the next time you sit behind behind-the-scenes of your computer keyboard, tattered spiral notebook, or whatever your blank canvas is, remember that all of those geniuses —that so inspired you to be doing what you are doing right now— probably spent as many hours as you do staring at a blank page, or a blinking cursor, trying to weed through all the “dreck”, that every artist creates, to create something different, something divergent from all those creations that inspired them to create. You now know that they succeeded in that plight, but you only know that because the only thing you want to see, hear, and read are their highlight reels.

{1}http://www.forbes.com/sites/kylesmith/2014/02/20/what-mark-twain-van-halen-and-dan-rather-teach-us-about-failure/

{2}http://www.marktwainproject.org/about_projecthistory.shtml

How to Succeed in Writing IX: The Influential Writers, and Other Influences


Like any other person who has attempted to create something artistic, an artist’s appreciation of another’s work is limited and unique. An artist’s appreciation of another’s work is similar to an athlete studying game film on a future opponent. After repeated viewings, you understand their modus operandi. You are able to pinpoint what they do well, and their failings, and you’re able to learn from all of them. One author’s ability to characterize may impress another artist in one reading, and another may impress them with their particular brand of engaging dialogue. After another artist gets it, they’re usually bored with it, and they move onto another author. To use the sports analogy once again, the artist can usually spot the stitches on another’s fastball long before the casual observer can. This isn’t what artists are trying to do, it’s who they are. They would love to simply read another’s work and appreciate it in the same manner a casual reader would, but they can’t turn that portion of their brain off. An artist reading another’s work can get so hypercritical and appreciative of the little things another author does to move a story along, or characterize, that they can’t enjoy that simple, little story in total until they have thoroughly explored, and drained, whatever value they believe another’s work has for them.

Most writers will claim that their writing is now entirely free of influence once they’ve found their voice. Some might judge this self-promotion, and others would say it’s just impossible to believe. As any writer who has written a great deal knows, it’s almost impossible to escape influence. Whenever a writer turns a phrase, completes a block or dialogue, or characterizes, there was some influence there. If it wasn’t Chaucer, or Hemingway, that influenced the writer in this manner, it may have been their freshman Composition 101 teacher. If it wasn’t Stephen King, or Faulkner, who taught them how characterize, it may have been a movie or a television show that embedded that particular brand of characterizing deep in their brain. Something, somewhere influenced them in some way they may not know now that they’ve reached their twentieth year of writing, where their writing material that is so fresh, and unique, that they can’t even spot the influence anymore. They may have worked so hard, for so long to achieve a unique voice that they feel they’ve achieved it, and they may have to some degree, but there was a starting point that formed a foundation that is now so embedded in the manner in which they write that they can’t see the influence anymore.

Those who belong to the latter group believe they have reached the pinnacle of individualistic style, that contains no influence. They might dismiss this article as nothing but a point of curiosity, but the new writer wants to learn how we arrived at point D in the process, the following is a list of those influences who lubricated the slide:

10) Brevity. If “Brevity is the soul of wit” no one was funnier than Ernest Hemingway. An economist of words, Hemingway avoided complicated syntax, and it has been determined that seventy percent of his sentences were short, simple sentences.{1} Hemingway was the anti-Joyce (James Joyce) in this regard. Whereas Hemingway “KISSed” us (keeping it simple for we stupid people) with his prose, Joyce dangled complicated, multi-syllabic, and invented words before us, and he often teased us with a carrot on the stick of his words’ meaning. Whereas this may have made Joyce’s fiction wonderful, historic, and transcendent, most of us didn’t know what the hell he was talking about. Whereas most readers need translation, and transports in time via a well-written guide, and a degree in Joyceisms to understand Finnegan’s Wake, Old Man and the Sea can be enjoyed in an otherwise carefree afternoon. This isn’t to say that Hemingway’s prose is not complicated and carefully structured for meaning, but with Hemingway’s fiction, meaning is derived upon reflection and through personal interpretation. The meaning of Hemingway’s prose is established through dialogue, action, and silences —a fiction in which nothing crucial or at least very little— is stated explicitly. He purposely avoided outright symbolism in what he called “the theory of the iceberg”. This theory stated that facts float above water, but the larger, supporting structure and symbolism that build the foundation do so out of sight.

Hemingway“No good book has ever been written that has in it symbols arrived at beforehand and stuck in,” says Hemingway. “That kind of symbol sticks out like raisins in raisin bread. Raisin bread is all right, but plain bread is better.” He opens two bottles of beer and continues: “I tried to make a real old man, a real boy, a real sea and a real fish and real sharks. But if I made them good and true enough they would mean many things. The hardest thing is to make something really true and sometimes truer than true.”

Hemingway was more of a storyteller than he was a writer. The interested reader, who doesn’t have a whole lot of time on their hands, may want to consider reading either the short book Old Man and the Sea or The Short and Happy life of Francis Macomber. The latter is a short story that captures the essence of Ernest Hemingway, and it teaches every writer the greatest principle every writer should employ in their daily activities: Story is sacred and flowery prose is largely self-indulgence.

Carver9) Images. Raymond Carver was also a minimalist. Most of my favorite writers were. Carver employed evocative and provocative images to tell a story. Short stories were his forte. The short story Feathers captures the essence of Raymond Carver, better than any of his other stories in my humble opinion.

Carver’s stories, and poems, focused on misery and dirty realism. His characters were low class, beer drinking, hardworking, slobs that readers can’t help but picture in stained tank-tops. Carver claimed that he was inclined toward brevity and intensity. His writing focused on sadness, loss, and alcohol in the everyday lives of ordinary people — often lower-middle class or isolated and marginalized people.

8) Characterization. John Irving engages in the flowery prose of his mentor Charles Dickens, but he does so (for the most part) effortlessly. Irving is not a minimalist in other words. Irving’s John_Irvingworks teach us, more than any of the authors listed here, to work your tail off to hide your effort. One read through his magnum opus The World According to Garp teaches us that it shouldn’t be a chore to read through one’s work. No other authors listed here, save for maybe Hemingway, hides his brilliance better than Irving. The reader gets to know Irving’s characters in what I call a “Holy Crap!” manner. Irving doesn’t use physical characteristics to describe characters, and he doesn’t use the inner voice techniques that most of us do, yet the reader learns their characteristics in a story after story and a passage after passage manner, until we know them so completely that we say, “Holy crap, this author’s brilliant.” I realize this methodology is borne of the “show don’t tell” basic of storytelling, but in my humble opinion, no one does it better than Irving.

Irving has chapters of setting, primarily in the Northeast, and his settings can appear a bit laborious at times. Unlike all of the authors on this list, there can be large chunks of Irving’s narrative where nothing happens, as he frames you up for what’s about to happen. Irving does “a story within the story” as well as anyone in the business. As I said, though, Irving achieves his stature in the world of literature through effortless characterization.

It appears, unfortunately, that the drive to tell a story no longer drives Mr. Irving. His more recent books have become more and more political. Some could say that Mr. Irving has always been political, and if you read A Prayer for Owen Meany and Garp again, you’ll see that. If that’s true, he used to be a lot more subtle. Story used to be sacred to him, and politics used to be a secondary concern to him.

It’s almost become a cliché that writers of my generation claim Irving as a primary influence. Like most clichés though, there’s a reason claiming Irving as an influence has become so prevalent among those in my generation. It’s because he has achieved the bestseller list through almost effortless, beautiful writing, and by not conforming to current norms. Irving just does what he does, and we have all accepted this to a degree that he can do whatever he wants, and we’ll all greet him with open arms. Claim King or Koontz as an influence, and artistic writers will dismiss you with a yawn; claim John Grisham, and they’ll dismiss you with a laugh; but Irving has managed to keep a foot in both the literary and best-selling world, and he does it with rich, rewarding, and effortless characterization.

7) Asides.  Some may dismiss Chuck Palahniuk as a splatterpunk writer that engages in shocking prose that grosses out and titillates the reader. It is true that Palahniuk goes for the jugular in much of his writing, and some may say too often, but anyone that has read, or seen, Fight Club (they’re strikingly similar) knows that Palahniuk (almost) always has a story to tell amid the chaos in his works.

PalahniukPalahniuk may have some of the best, most interesting vignettes and asides in the business today. He is heavily influenced by Stephen King, as evidenced by his heavy use of refrain style use of repetition, but one should not mistake this influence as outright mimicry. Palahniuk has carved himself quite a niche in the literary world, with works like Fight Club, Choke, and Rant. Rant proved to be especially valuable to those writers on the lookout for a new way of telling a story. While the style is not unprecedented, Palahniuk used it in such a unique manner that those that have read the story considered it revolutionary.

Chuck describes his style of writing as “transgressive” fiction. Transgressive fiction, as defined by Wikipedia, “is a writing style that focuses on characters who feel confined by the norms and expectations of society and who break free of those confines in unusual and/or illicit ways.”

After the novel Lullaby, Palahniuk began writing satirical, horror stories. His work is big on unusually dark and absurd philosophical asides that are so farcical that the reader can help but think of them as true. These asides are non-fiction factoids within his fictional works that, according to the author, “Are included in order to further immerse the reader in my work”.” {2} This author hates metaphors and similes. This author loves to mess around with the traditional styles of storytelling to presumably keep it interesting for him and us. Some of the times this methodology works, as it did in Rant, and some of the times it doesn’t, as it didn’t in Pygmy and Tell All. His forays into illogical, but fun, splatterpunk writing, works in most of his books, but anytime a writer puts their stock in shock they are going to try outdo themselves every time out, until they produce a book like Snuff in which the novelty of the over-the-top shock wears thin quickly.

6) Pace and Formula. No writer, in modern fiction, displays the virtues of pace better than Dean Koontz. I challenge anyone to read the first half of his book Intensity and say that this man is not in the upper echelon of thriller writers today. Koontz knows all he needs to know about architecture, gardening, and all the other minutiae of his Southern Californian locale to make his setting interesting, but Mr. Koontz can cause a reader to flip pages on pace with any of the great suspense/thriller writers of our day. He may also be the safest writer on this list.

Dean-KoontzWhy is Koontz safe? He strives for the mainstream. His books have mass appeal to most age groups and both genders. He is a publisher’s dream in that he knows how to knock out a best-seller on an annual basis without offending anyone. If you’re a writer who seeks the formula to mass appeal, and the bestseller list, I can think of no better author to read … this side of James Patterson. That having been said, there is a formula to Koontz’s writing. How can there not be in a catalog that lists 112 titles, with twenty-eight bestsellers among them, without an inoffensive formula? A formula is good to some degree. To some degree, a formula will provide a reader a solid foundation of comfort that the author can shatter in the pages that follow. There is a formula, and a relative level of comfort that Koontz readers have come to expect, and while we should try hard not to dismiss Koontz on this basis alone, it’s difficult not to do so. All of his characters are much too safe. His female characters are incredibly and consistently intelligent, and his male characters are “safely” reliant on the female’s intelligence and ingenuity … Even his bad guys are safely bad. Then, Koontz exasperates whatever problems his works have in this regard by trying to be funny. His humor is so safe, conformist, and pedantic that it almost seems to be self-effacing, nerdy humor, until one reads enough Koontz to realize that this is this man’s sense of humor.

If you’re looking for edgy, offensive, different material that most people are uncomfortable reading, Koontz probably isn’t your guy. He does write some edgy material, but he doesn’t do so on a consistent enough basis. If one were to gauge mental health by a writer’s fiction, Koontz would likely score higher than any of the authors listed here, but that has resulted in less dangerous, less angst-ridden material. He’s mainstream, and there’s nothing wrong with that if you’re looking to write mainstream fiction. One of the other exceptions to this rule, aside from Intensity, was the novel Life Expectancy. These two books are the must reads in Koontz’s catalog for any writer seeking the edgy and different.

5) Writing fiction. What can be written about Stephen King that hasn’t already been written? If you are a writer that hasn’t read King yet, you’ll probably want to get on the train. He’ll teach you the good, the bad, and the ugly of writing. While it’s almost impossible to read everything he’s done, most writers have an extensive King library. If they don’t, they should probably have at least ten of his books.

KingKing has it all, and most honest, seasoned writers will begrudgingly admit that he has had an influence on them at one point in their process. If The Stand is too long for you, then the writing community will require you to read Misery, Gerald’s Game, It, or any of his classic, early works like The Shining. Some artistic writers may scrunch their nose at King, because he is so ubiquitous, but his influence on modern fiction cannot be denied in just about every novel written after 1990.

Some say that King invented the common man horror, but many say that almost every piece of fictional horror involves the common man. King did work the working joe into his fiction more than most however. As stated earlier, King builds horror through repetition. He usually has a nickname for his monster that gets repeated often enough that the reader feels a horrified endearment to the monster. He also may have not been the first to work music into his horror, most notably nursery rhymes, but he did it more often and with more mastery than most, and it influenced a generation of horror writers.

4) Hodge Podge. As written in the introduction of this piece, writers read other writers in a unique manner. There are so many varied ways that a writer can reach point D in the process that attempting to catalog all of the influential writers, and their influential moments in fiction, would be book length, and very few readers would be interested in all of the ways in which this writer achieved that point. So in the interest of interest, we will try to whittle these moments down to a few of the most prominent. In the area of the influentially absurd humor, there have been few that captured it as well as Robert McCammon did in Gone South, or Gary Shteyngart in his work Absurdistan a book that was heavily influenced by the monumentally influential book A Confederacy of Dunces John Kennedy O’Toole.

As for horror, there have been few, this side of King, that have been able to capture common man, suspenseful horror as adeptly as Scott Smith did in A Simple Plan and Ruins. Smith’s ability to build to horror in a casually sequential manner is almost unprecedented. The only problem with Smith is that he has only written two books in twenty years, and while there is nothing wrong with the man’s quality, his fans would love a little more quantity. Although Thomas M. Disch’s M.D. was not the greatest horror book ever written, and it ebbed and flowed more than the other books on this list, the work provided moments that have influenced this writer as much as any of the pieces described previously. Some of the imagery Thomas Harris created in the Red Dragon book, and in Phillip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint (not a horror but just as laden with images), have led many writers to pound the table in frustration with their attempts to duplicate their provocative imagery. For various reasons, and in various ways, all of these authors had a huge influence on this writer’s attempt to get to point D.

3) Mood. Nothing influences mood better than music. Listening to music gives the writer a certain setting from which “different” fiction can be achieved. If a writer wants to write a period piece, for example, they can select the music from that era, and attempt to achieve that mindset. This is similar to the attempts that the main character in Richard Matheson’s Somewhere in Time to achieve time travel. In this story, the main character wanted to go back to the year 1912 so badly that he attempted to hypnotize himself into the belief that he was. He surrounded himself with 1912 in his hotel room, and he wore 1912 clothes, listened to 1912 songs, and ended up believing he was in 1912. Music affects me in the same manner. I prefer non-traditional, non-linear music to shake my brain out of the patterns it might fall into in long settings, until I can convince myself that I am non-traditional and non-linear. I, of course, do not make the conscious efforts to do this in the manner Matheson’s character did, but through repetitive listening of certain music, I have been able to achieve something “different” on a number of occasions.

I listen to a wide variety of music when I write, always switching to keep it fresh, but some of my favorites are Mike Patton, John Zorn, and Trey Spruance’s Secret Chiefs. These musicians (not rock stars) create an aura I find conducive to writing edgy, “different” material. These artists, like so many of the authors described above, created something that that seemed impossible before they did it. They are truly skilled in making the listener feel different, and that anything can be accomplished in a certain setting. Miles Davis creates an aura that allows you to focus at times, but his music can be a little too aural at times, and David Bowie’s music can be a little too focused, and this causes me to be distracted when I listen to what his music is doing. The band Pavement can create some chaos in your mind and shake you out of your doldrums, but they, too, can be a little too focused at times for that atmosphere writers need to create.

Everyone’s mom told them that distraction-free silence was conducive to concentration. Yet, every mind works differently, and I have found —much too late for success in school— that I need distraction to achieve focus. It may not make sense to those blessed with normal brains, but I need a Goldilocks amount of distraction —not too hard and not to soft, and not too aural and not too structured— for me to concentrate and focus.

2) Movies.  Most of the best storytelling being done today, we have to face it, is being done in the movies. If a Quentin Tarantino were born in the late nineteenth century, he probably would’ve been a novel writer. He, like all great movie makers of this era, has the storyteller’s bug, but he doesn’t have the patience to sit behind a typewriter/keyboard and compose prose that can take months and years to produce. These storytellers of our era are taking advantage of the technology offered them and telling their stories on screen. One thing movie makers can teach aspiring writers, that reading the Russian authors won’t, is to get to the point. Their audience, our audience, and the audience doesn’t have as much patience for brilliant prose as previous generations. We have a short attention span, and with a few exceptions (David Lynch, Wes Anderson, and Tarantino of late) most movie makers whittle their scripts down to the germane.

1) My writing.  Most readers would consider it egotistical to list “my writing” as the greatest influence on my writing, but that is not the intent. It is only added, because I hold my best writing out as beacons in my career that I want to smash the next time I write something new. It is important that every writer examine what they’ve written on a consistent enough basis that they always try to write better, and different, stories every time they sit behind their keyboard.

{1}http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ernest_Hemingway

{2}http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chuck_Palahniuk

How to Succeed in Writing VIII: Insatiable Curiosity


This is my letter to those of us who have an insatiable curiosity who haven’t achieved anything in the field yet. This is a letter to those who haven’t found their artistic voice just yet but know it’s somewhere between their favorite authors, and the thousands of other books they’ve read and them. Continue that search I say, and if you find it, follow it in any direction it commands. It might take you through some odd rabbit holes and dark forests, but all paths eventually lead back to you. It might not make much sense why we a particularly obscure piece of literature by some obscure author interests us, but I advise you to purchase it and see if it pays some artistic dividends.

I didn’t know any of this when I started, but I ached to express myself in some way. I didn’t know how to express myself, but the desire to do so was enough to guide me passed the heartbreaking critiques I received. I was not the prodigy I thought I was when I first started in other words. I was not a gifted intellect who just needed a canvas, but I was a curious sort who loved processing the data I saw in my otherwise boring days into creative non-fiction. When I started this venture, I tried to hard to spin the stories I had into something gargantuan, but I found the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth far more compelling. It took decades for me to realize that I was never going to be Stephen King, Dean Koontz, or James Patterson, and it took me a little longer than that to be okay with it. Thanks to a couple of articles and books, I discovered that I was a creative non-fiction writer before being creative non-fiction was cool, who reported on the facts, as opposed to an out and out artist who could spin an organic web. 

I knew I was different, but I didn’t know how to service those variables in a constructive manner. My worldview was different too, but I had no idea how to create a vehicle for it. This mystique I created of being a writer also became counterproductive over time. I wanted to create this world without doing the work. Every time I wrote, I received more evidence that I probably wasn’t as good as I thought.

Some of the people around me were quite generous in supplying notices to bolster this notion I had that I probably wasn’t as skilled as I thought I was. The one key characteristic that carried me through all that was that I had/have an insatiable curiosity. This level of curiosity can be embarrassing at times, as it can override good sense. When I’m involved in a relatively unique experience my curiosity gets the best of me, and while I might know how and why things work, on a certain level, some odd part of me wants to “rework them” with you to understand how we all arrived at that conclusion. It can be embarrassing, because most people provide the A-Z mechanics answer with that “of course” tone. I then share the “of course” tone in my answer, and both of us consider me a little dumber in the process.   

One element of the “of course” findings involved me wanting to be more interesting than I was, but I never quite made that leap. There is an A-Z checklist to being interesting, some have it, most don’t. How do you achieve it, in a room setting, at a Thanksgiving Day dinner? I compensated for my short comings by studying those around me. I developed a mental, A-Z checklist of those characteristics, but I was never able to employ them properly. 

“Why did you talk about that instead of this?” I would ask scintillating conversationalists. “Why would you think anyone would want to know how you roll out a sleeping bag, in a tent, while on a camping expedition? Everyone considered it hilarious, I know, but why did you think anyone would? Why did you say the in the third sentence of your presentation, instead of the more common the? Is it all about how we tell such stories, or provide a hilarious retort? Why do we react differently to two people who say almost the exact same thing?” Some people might add to such a story, others might take a leap from that joke to add one of their own, but I would study and later interrogate the storyteller to try to understand the process of joke telling, storytelling, and what separated them from those who can’t tell a joke or a story as well. I understood it on a macro level, but those finite details of being interesting plagued me. What’s the difference between Jerry and Lou and Daniel and Ron? It’s obvious to anyone paying attention that Daniel has simply checked out. I don’t know what roads he’s been down, but somewhere along the way, he determined that no one is interested in what he has to say. He gave up ever trying to be engaging. He just knew he wasn’t, and for reasons inherent to his nature, he knew he never would. Most entertaining and engaging people don’t put a lot of thought into it, they just have fun, but others learn the process as they go. I am perpetually frustrated by my separation from those who are entertaining, and I discovered that in the process of trying to understand the “it” factor they have, I was trying to understand more about myself.  

I didn’t do any of this for the purpose of developing high quality material, it’s more a byproduct of it. I am curious to a fault, and I write that word fault with the idea that some people who know me well consider me stupid, naive, and stupidly naive. When they explain it to me, I feel stupid and naive, because on some level I knew how it worked, but there is this sense that I want it reworked for me, so I can understand it again, more thoroughly, down to the grains of construction.  

How deep is our sense of curiosity? How deep into the organic grain of construction are we? What do we do with the information we find? Most of it is not useful, in an artistic sense, but organic curiosity often leads to aimless fascination that just might produce a grain of inspiration.   

It’s in these grains of construction that I discovered an individualistic interpretation of what it means to be a writer. A lot of new, and longtime, writers write, speak, and hypothesize about the process of writing. We speak about having post-it notes all around them to capture the ideas of the moment, or a moment, before they forget them. We talk about the tools we use to create, the mood we need for proper creation, the setting, the mindset, and everything that we’ve defined as the characteristics of being a writer, but how do we transport all of that into an interesting idea? 

The best route to developing interesting ideas is to have the most boring childhood imaginable. I don’t know how boring someone else might view my childhood, but I can report that I spent vast amounts of hours doing nothing. With the advent of cell phones, this might be a thing of the past, but I spent those hours doing nothing but thinking about stuff. I rewrote and editing real conversations I had thousands of ways, and I spent so many hours fantasizing that I became the adult and the storyteller I am today.  

Nothing replaces the human mind, it’s the best device for creative thought ever invented. We shouldn’t need post-it notes, recording devices, or anything more than a well-honed brain. We record that which is memorable, or noteworthy, material. If it is, in fact, noteworthy material, it will stick. It will gestate in your brain, until you have a completed idea of that which you have experienced. In the curiosity regarding the organic grain of construction, the creative mind will eventually understand as well as, if not better than, those who constructed it, for the purpose of rewriting, or reconstructing it with a creative spin. 

james-joyceAre you Kerouac or Joyce?  One style of writing that new writers, and complicated artistes, laud is the Jack Kerouac and James Joyce style of writing called stream-of-consciousness (SC) writing. SC writing is a style of writing that plays out exactly as it sounds: An author sits down and composes 300-700 pages of prose in a matter of months. The SC author does little to no editing and revising, because in the strictest definition of SC writing there are no mistakes in a contextual or conceptual sense. “One error is a mistake, two are jazz,” some say Miles Davis once said. Contextual mistakes, according to those who pursue this form of writing, and the painter Pablo Picasso, are subconscious leads. What could be seen as an errant stroke by some was something to build on for Picasso, Davis, and Joyce and Kerouac when it came to writing. They saw mistakes as the subconscious guiding them down a path they hadn’t consciously considered before. Both of these writers were forced to fight off editors and publishers in the belief that their works should remain as is.

kerouac“I write to entertain myself,” those who adhere to the Joyce/Kerouac style say. “If anyone else is entertained, that’s gravy.” The reason we started writing in the first place was to see if we could take all of our influences and combine them with our inner voices, to achieve stories that would entertain us. Too much editing and revising takes the spontaneity right out of an artistic creation, and trying to make my pieces relatable to all is impossible, so why would I spend too much time trying to correct conceptual and contextual mistakes?

Have you ever read James Joyce’s Ulysses? How about Finnegans Wake? Most normal humans, of adequate intelligence, need a guide to help them understand all of the references and allusions Joyce makes in these works. All of Joyce’s jokes and provocations were “in-house” references that he understood, and that you can understand too…with a reference guide that’s almost as lengthy, but they’re not enjoyable books as a standalone. No one will know what the heck you’re talking about, in other words, when you write in Joyce’s SC manner. You will know, as Joyce and those that lived in Ireland at the time knew, but your reader won’t know. You will only frustrate them. “Can’t you see that A led to B, and C was the result?” Oh ok, they say, now I get it. As frustrated as you were with them, it wasn’t their fault that they didn’t get it. It was yours, and you need to edit and revise more.

Most new writers should be advised to follow the editing and revising school of thought for just this reason. This line of thought suggests that a story matures in the editing process. It suggests that the framework of a story can be borne in the stream-of-consciousness (SC) stage, but that the marrow of a story is created when we go back and live through the story again and again, until we reach the readability stage. This theory also suggests that editing and revising stories gives the author greater objectivity than he can achieve in the creation process. Objectivity gives the author the chance to attempt to read the story in the manner a reader may read their story. It gives the author some distance from the relatively narrow position one is in while creating the piece, and they can correct some of the errors of flow and characterization that may not be apparent in the creative process.

We “editing and revising” writers find it hard to believe that Kerouac and Joyce were able to develop their story, their characters, their pace, and their setting on the fly in the manner they suggest. It just doesn’t seem feasible—no matter how brilliant they may be—that they could make all of the connections, and all of the asides mesh well into a story on the fly, but if you believe the Kerouac myth—that Kerouac created—he wrote his classic On the Road in a drug-frenzied three weeks on a scroll of paper. How much of this myth is true should be left up to historians to debate. What cannot be debated, however, is the fact that Kerouac and Joyce submitted relatively raw pieces of work that achieved historical status. What also cannot be debated is that—if everything they’ve said about their process is true—they should be held out as the exception to the rule that editing and revising are the keys to achieving a complete and readable story.

Most of us are not a “Man of Golden Words”, to borrow a phrase from lyricist Andrew Wood. Most of us write stupid things, bad scenes, flat characters, sloppy sentences, too much setting, unnecessary asides, and our flow isn’t quite right the first time through. We also write “great scenes” that appear foolish in revision. Most of us need advice, a second reader, and a vocal read-through. Most of us are not spontaneous, artistic geniuses, and our work could use a lot of sprucing and pruning. In this refutation, I go back to the organic construction of the grain. I believe that writing a brilliant line, as Hemingway would, requires numerous rewrites, reworking, and shape shifting. If I rework a line seven different ways, I might eventually produce enough material to isolates the germ and protect the interiority of my idea. If you are an artistic genius—and I’m not one of those who claims that no one is, out of spite for not being one—God love you. I wish I was one who could spontaneously create something that appears so simple without having to work so hard at it.

Editing and revising are definitely not the fun part of artistic creation. They are, for the most part, tedious activities that require training and discipline, and training and discipline are not the artistic principles that complicated, non-writing writers want to endure when they think about, talk about, and write about the process of their creations. The Joyce/Kerouac process appeals to them, because it makes them feel more like an artistic genius. Writing should be about writing, they are likely to say. It should be spontaneous, so that it’s still fun, and when they can’t spontaneously create, they tell people they have writer’s block. Writer’s block is a fundamental element of the complicated, non-writer’s writing life, and they all have their processes to help them out of it. True writers, in this writer’s humble opinion, never experience writer’s block. They may have moments in which they are more inspired than others, but to be unable to think of anything to write just seems impossible to those of us who have written so much that we’re now disciplined enough—after hours of exhaustive training—to always write something.

Fruit and Flowers: On that note, for the rest of us who don’t receive divine inspiration for artistic creations, there is a cure: “Paint fruit and flowers!” Flipping through various collections of art, I was surprised to find so many mundane and simple creations by artistic geniuses. Flip through any Van Gogh collection, Picasso collection, or Matisse collection and you’ll find them—relatively boring and mundane paintings of the sky, shrubs, trees, fruit, and flowers. I was shocked at how many of these paintings there were in the anthologies of these artists. Why would such talented artists waste their time painting such seemingly benign and boring paintings? Answer: They were keeping their artistic muscles taut and honed. They were learning the art of using color and contrast, and prominence and shadowing. They were finessing their God-given talent. They were becoming artists, in other words, and they were getting better, and when divine inspiration eventually struck they would be ready for it. Some of the complicated, non-writing writers have this Hollywood image of writers that tells them they need to be inspired to write. These writers know that their best material will occur when the Danube River is just outside their hotel’s window sill at a time when the first storks make their appearance in Petrovaradin. These writers know they can’t be too happy, or too sad, and that they need the finest Colombian coffee scents in their nose to receive divine inspiration. A drafty writing room with Gatorade and Diet Sunkist is just not conducive to inspired writing. They’ll tell you that they have writer’s block, when you ask them what they’re writing.  “Well,” I want to scream at them. “What are you doing about it? Try writing Fruit and Flower stories!”

“That’s easy for you to say,” will be the theme of the “complicated” writer’s reply, “but I can’t write when I’m not inspired.” If I were to see something they wrote that was at the artistic genius level, I would have no ammunition in these conversations, but they’re usually just boobs like me who want to purport some sort of artistic genius persona. They’re usually not writing anything at all. They’re usually just lazy, complicated, non-writing writers. “Write something stupid,” I want to say. “There are fruit and flowers everywhere. You don’t need to write Crime and Punishment every time out, but if you continue to write your Crime and Punishment may fall out from between the cracks.”

Therein lays the key to great writing, in my humble opinion, for if you continue to fertilize the seed with the dung of creating so many pieces that are not worthwhile, you might eventually create a flower. Others (most) will never produce a Ulysses, a World According to Garp or a Crime and Punishment style flower, and they may become so frustrated that they don’t want to continue. Those people probably shouldn’t continue. This isn’t for everyone. It’s for the incredibly talented individuals, and those with incredible amounts of perseverance.   

This may seem antithetical to everything I’ve written over the course of these How to Succeed in Writing blogs, but the question is a vital component to writing fiction, non-fiction, creative non-fiction, and everything in between. Do you enjoy writing, expression, and artistic creation, or do you want to be famous? Have you created a number of good works, but none of them are of the highest quality? How do you handle that? Do you feel like an utter failure, or are you aching for more? If you’re a complicated artiste that hasn’t achieved the fame you believe you should’ve at this point, you may want to give up. Maybe you just weren’t meant to be a writer in the first place. It’s a very important crossroads for you. If you have the temerity to push ahead, there are a number of things that you can do to keep ‘it’ all shiny and honed until you receive divine inspiration.