I am a genius, just look at my glasses!

In late February I went along to listen to a talk given by Baroness P.D. James called ‘Murder and Mystery: the Craft of the Detective Story’. She gave us a brief history of her life, focusing on how she developed her Adam Dalgliesh series and Death Comes to Pemberley, which was recently adapted by the BBC. It was an interesting insight into the thoughts and creative process of such a noted author, but one thing which James said really stuck with me:

If you are an author, you will write.

It’s not a radical idea. It’s the genius paradigm: you couldn’t stop Shakespeare writing plays, Mozart lived for composing masterpieces, painters gonna paint. The idea that true creative souls must find an outlet is precious to those of us who believe ourselves to be creative souls. The question ‘why do you write?’ has been polled a hundred million times on every writing site which has ever existed, and the response ‘because I need to’ (or something along those lines) is always popular.* Creativity is a force of personality, not something which can be learned from WikiHow, and for unpublished authors and poets in particular the idea that writing is a compulsion rather than a skill makes us feel less like lazy, feckless wannabes and more like tortured but time-restricted geniuses. Stephen King probably has probably been quoted saying something to support this idea, so it is law.

*Super scientific research: my writing site of choice (Critique Circle) asked the eternal question in February, and 54.6% of those who responded answered, ‘Writing is to free the stories trapped in my head. They will not let me rest until I get them out’. I am going to scientifically refer to this category of response as the ‘genius category’ because I’m not entirely convinced I used the word ‘paradigm’ correctly in the second paragraph… (Here is the page the poll is on, for your viewing pleasure. You need to be a member to view the page).

Fake it ’til you make it.

While I completely understand the thinking behind this idea and often feel the romance of creative passion and the oppressive drive of imagination myself, I also think it’s a horrible way to think about writing. When someone says ‘I know I am a writer because I need to write all the time or I’ll go mad!’ it turns creativity into a pissing contest. Every other Wordslinger in the room examines their own drive to write, and if it’s anything less than ‘Dangerously High’ then ahhhhh… Hobby writer.

There are two ways to respond to the call of the genius category:

  1. Acknowledge you aren’t motivated by a constant and unrelenting urge to write;
  2. Pretend that you are.

Lots of people choose option one, and I don’t blame them. There are plenty of other great responses to the question, ‘Why do you write?’ which may not place you in the genius category, but hold a different and equally valid sort of pride. For example, the second most popular response in the aforementioned poll was, ‘Writing is for people to enjoy. I want people to laugh, cry, think, be comforted, or be challenged’ (29.2%). This category of creative – and this, I think, extends to all of the creative arts – has the audience in mind. They are the storytellers, concerned about creating art to be shared. It’s a motivation I think we can all understand. Some want to entertain, some want to provoke; it’s difficult not to consider how your work will be received, and so we tailor the style, the content, the meaning, with our particular reader in mind.

Personally, I hate it when people put so much emphasis on the entertainment side of storytelling that they scowl upon those who deign to think about meaning (see my previous post which includes a mini-rant on the subject) and so I am suspicious of anyone who calls themselves a ‘storyteller’, but I can see what they are getting at.

‘Art without an audience is simply an act of mental masturbation’ 

– Couldn’t find a source for this, lots of people have said it..

On to the second way one can respond to the challenge of the geniuses: fake it. This is what I do.

I don’t simply mean that one should proclaim oneself to be a creative mastermind at all opportunities, Wilde-style (I mean, if one wants to do this one can but I doubt one’ll make many friends). What I do when faced with the problem of wanting pure author-ness to pump through my veins but not really feeling it – whether this be due to writer’s block, distraction, or feeling like writing is becoming a bit of a chore – is try to get into the ‘author zone’. I suspect many of you will already get what I’m saying.

For me, that means putting on my glasses, busting out my fancy pen and notebook, and dressing in my ‘lounge jammies’ in an attempt to play the part of the sloppy but sophisticated young soul who will write many future novels. I even call myself by a different name while I’m writing, because if I adopt the character and look the part I am much more likely to get in that zone and finish that story. Starting this blog was part of constructing that role, because ‘Jude Jones, Author’ is a modern writer. I even read more now than I did a year ago, because ‘Jude Jones, Author’ is aware of what the market is doing.

The cake is a lie.

So, when the polls are busted out and I’m asked ‘Why do you write?’ I hit the button that says ‘Because I have to’ because, rather ironically, I feel I have to. And it’s all a lie – there, I’m breaking rank, I said it! Day-to-day me has a dangerously vivid imagination, yes, but it’s usually occupied by characters that I have no intention of writing about. To produce short stories, chapters, or even blog posts, I need to put on my costume and adopt a persona – I need to convince my mind that it belongs to an author before I can start producing the kind of ideas and standard of writing which I aspire to someday publish. I split myself a little, maybe, but only to separate the useless Netflix-addicted slob from the inspired literary mastermind which I know is in there somewhere. And it works. I’m not saying that what I produce is genius, but at least I feel like I’m producing something which fits the image I want to achieve.

As my idol, Dr Frank N. Furter, once said, ‘Don’t dream it, be it’. Well, once a day I put on my corset, draw on my eyebrows, and perform the fabulous number called writing. I just hope I don’t get shot with a beam of pure anti-matter at the end. I might break character.

JJ.

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Short (HA!) stories.

Like most wannabe writers, I intend to write a novel at some point.

It’s all planned out – mostly in my head, but some parts on paper too – and I’ve already knocked out a few chapters here and there. The problem is, I don’t have any time to commit to writing it. At least, that’s what I tell myself and anyone who asks about it. The real problem is, I’m lazy and impatient. I love writing, I love my someday-novel, but I’m easily distracted and have a tendency to not finish things (see last post on ‘The first bad idea I ever had’).

This is the main reason why I decided to try my hand at writing short stories.

I can usually bang out a thousand words or so before my mind starts to wander, so short stories seemed like the perfect way for me to work within the bounds of my short attention span and actually maybe someday possibly finish something. All I would have to do is come up with a concept for a story and I would be golden.

Now, I know that there is a huge difference between writing a novel and writing a short story; when you’re trying to fit a whole narrative into 2000 words every single one of those words has to be doing something. What you can take a chapter to say in your epic sprawling trilogy, you can only afford a few words in your magazine piece. The technical aspect of writing a shorter piece of fiction is something which I went off and tried to learn through a summer a flash fics and Asimov’s SF magazine, and I found that it suited me. I’ll write the novel someday, but for now short stories are to be my children!

Short stories are awesome. 

In theory, anyway. The problem I find myself running into is this: where do you start? Coming up with an idea that you can fit into 2000 words is difficult, especially when you’re used to breaking out the A2 paper and developing the shit out of everything. From reading the short stories of other writers it seems that shorter fiction can, at its best, convey a huge amount of poignancy and emotion in the most efficient way possible. Edgar Allan Poe only needs a couple of pages to spook you, and J. G. Ballard can turn your brain inside-out in only a couple hundred words.

I want to write something which is meaningful or thought-provoking in someway, but it feels inorganic to start with the thought and build a narrative around it. On the other hand, when I come up with what I think would be an interesting story or plot I feel compelled to try and drag a ‘point’ out of it, whether the point is there or not. The situation is made more difficult by the fact that on any of the writing forums I use the general feeling is anti-thought, pro-plot: writers should be concentrating on telling interesting and exciting stories, not trying to say anything in particular. I don’t mean to suggest that anyone is saying that stories shouldn’t have a message or a meaning behind them – just that admitting to thinking about this message is not the done thing. It’s not cool. You seem like a pretentious asshole if you’re putting meaning before storytelling.

Of course the best stories are those in which the meaning is subtle and emerges from the story effortlessly, but how the hell are you supposed to create meaning consistently if you’re not allowed to think about it? At the same time, however, ‘I want to illustrate the dangers of reading too much Philip K. Dick’ is not the easiest of starting points, and can require the same sort of mental exhaustion to pull a story out of as… well, reading too much Philip K. Dick.

So where do we start?

With the creative ignition or the resulting thought? Is starting with a message like going outside before you’re fully dressed? Is not thinking about the message like trying to make your breakfast with your eyes closed?

I’m probably over thinking this. Who says you can’t come up with both simultaneously? No one. Both story and message evolve together, along side each other, to eventually become a coherent whole.

But it’s a frustrating process. Sometimes you have a point to want to convey, but you can’t figure out how. And that sucks. Sometimes you have a story you want to tell but you can’t help feeling it’s a bit pointless or vapid. That sucks too. Do all stories need to convey a message? No.  But as a reader the stories I enjoy most are those which force me to put down the book and just think about that for a minute. Page-turners are brilliant, but I’m a fan of the thinkers. Those are the kind of stories I want to write.

Basically, I wish I was Philip K. Dick.

JJ.