The Uneasy Question of Why I Write

Salutations once more dear reader.

Upon the return from a little holiday I found that the postman had left some extreme technical black metal in the post box. Not everyone’s cup of tea I’m sure, but a part of me always feels a sense of awe at the effort that lies behind being able to perform such musical gymnastics.

Such an aural assault requires, surprisingly, skill……

Anyhew, as I mentioned I had the good fortune to have a holiday, a feat only made possible via friendships and those small windows of opportunity where busy people can organised a respite. I hoped I would finish the basic draft before hand but with the finale playing hide and seek I couldn’t quite close it. However, the end isn’t far off now and then I can begin one last round of edits and alterations before Christmas. Then into the New Year with the first round of test readings.

Updates aside, I thought I’d write a little something regarding a conversation I had during my sojourn. I became (inadvertently) embroiled in a grilling about my goals and aims as a writer, partly because of my attitude towards JK Rowling and George RR Martin (no, I’m not a big fan of either). What interested me were the notions of fame, envy and pride that came to my mind. I found these worthy of consideration as I wended my way through the wine sodden days.

What it prompted was a question I’ve considered before: why do I write? For fame, for fortune, for recognition or some sense of superiority? Do I care how much money either of these authors made? Maybe I have some romantic notion of “seeing myself in print.”

Let’s start with the money, and the obvious; If I wanted to be rich then writing probably isn’t the best option to making my millions. There are certainly less risky endeavours. But that isn’t to say I don’t believe it unreasonable to consider it as a means to securing some kind of financial harvest at the end of the day. After all, we all have to pay the bills.

Still, I’m certainly under no illusions that I might never be a big earner. Let’s just say that money isn’t the driving motivation, more of a back seat driver. That isn’t to denigrate anyone who writes professionally as a career. We all have our place in the world, but I would suggest that if all of us only created with the aim of profit, then it would certainly stifle creativity to a point where every creative endeavour was completely homogenous. With reference to the above video, there would certainly be very few bands like Inferi. It would no doubt dull the palette and we would never get see such quirky gems for us fantasy/sci-fi readers like: The Iron Dragons Daughter, Little Big, The Anubis Gate, The Year of Our War, Lord Of Light, Rogue Moon, Roadside Picnic, To Stand On Zanzibar, the Blue World etc.

Otherwise every book would be dystopian futures and medieval swords and sorcery…….

(Curious thought here – sci-fi is perhaps far less generic than fantasy in that respect and with regards to the public arena………)

Anyhew, so if I’m not in it for the money, why do I write? One idea that came to me was that, as a fan of the genre, I care about it. I’m in a relationship with it. It is why I feel bad for fans of Game Of Throne who started reading the books  and wondered if they’d ever get a written conclusion. No one likes to be left hanging, suspended, just as in a relationship where you’re waiting for that resolution to the moment, for that message that says,  “I’m safe”, “see you at 8” or “I do.”

And we get passionate about it just like anything that we care about, and yes, maybe there is a sense of egotism, a superiority to me that says I can do better, but moreover I want to bring something to the table that’s worth reading, something that as a fan I would enjoy reading myself, something that would invest me in the characters and their exploits, in their highs and their lows.

So maybe there is a sense of self satisfaction to my creative endeavours. I like to think that my ideas are, if not special, at least good enough to praise – otherwise there’d be no point trying to create something.

Now, I’ve already written about the origins and inspirations of these stories but I’d like to add to it. Bill Fay (a bin man turned musician) once said that good songs aren’t written; they are discovered, that the musician is in themself an ear to the cosmos listening for melodies to write down.

Begging the essential question: “Who is the sender?”

This seems to me to be salient as  to where my ideas come from. When I’m writing I’m in a flow and often it all just seems to pop out of me into existence. In this moment of creation, there is no sense that my objective is fame or money or recognition. Nor is there, initially, a sense of a plan, and so I wonder if I act like a vessel waiting to be filled, an antenna to creativity, a radio operator waiting to hear the crackle of signal over the cosmic airwaves.

Which leads me onwards to the (perhaps overdue) conclusion: the question is itself irrelevant. All attempts to answer it require raking over the muck of vanity and egotism, over notions of accomplishment and respect, over fame and material accumulation. To me the question is moot because writing is something that I have done and continue to do as a process now as natural as breathing. I might be better at breathing of course, but I’m getting better at writing every moment I spend working on it.

So maybe I act as a relay for the stories floating around in the aether, catching them and transform them into words that can be delivered to those that want to read it, hoping that I might get paid and just enjoying the creative act.

After all, it’s all out there, and all I need do is keep listening with the volume dial turned up a notch.

Please feel free to leave a comment. I’d love to hear some thoughts on the subject.

DJC

 

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The Joy of Restraint

Salutations dear readers.

Following my standard pattern of doing some blogging and then just disappearing for months on end it seems that the cycle has come around and here we are in June with an update on what’s been happening.

Well, for a start I stopped going to the cafe to work, and while it is certainly important to find somewhere where one can work, I opted to make a space in a spare room where I set up a desk and my old record player. The upshot of this is no more stress trying to get to the cafe in time to claim my preferred seat before the cycle brigade make their sprawling conquest of the shop. As a result I’ve been listening to plenty of vinyl and am currently in the depths of an afrobeat binge – I don’t remember how I came across Fela Kuti, but his story was fascinating.

Anyhow, more importantly I started to double up on my day to day sessions where I could, writing both in the morning and the evening and sacrificing some of the less virtuous past times. The pressure, you see, is on.

For a start the book was becoming huge. Not necessarily a problem for fantasy, but a potential problem for a first novel. Publishers see BIG and think COST! A good friend of mine asked if I could not break it up, but it didn’t seem likely. Pondering the problem I thought I would remove the first chapter of about 4k words as it was somewhat disconnected (but still vital to the story). Realising that there was a small story between it and the main bulk I decided that I would fill it in. Two months later and I’m in the final arc of what might have been a prequel, but now makes the whole thing easily split into a nice trilogy of moderate sized pieces.

And the title of this post? Well, it wasn’t to do with my accidental clicking on something called Shibari You Can Use. Consider me enlightened, but I now have bondage rope appear in my recommended items thanks to those pesky algorithms.

No, what I refer to here is that working on this previous segment, there was a sense of limitation to the story. There was no chance to go wandering down creative tangents, or to deviate into grandiose plot sequences. It didn’t mean I couldn’t be creative or inventive, but rather there was a simple joy in just filling a gap that already had a size and shape.

The aim now is to have it revised within a month or two and sent out to test readers. Then begins the work of writing the proposal for it – one element of which is the bio for yourself, something that I have played around with. I wrote a new one recently late at night for this blog by way of experimentation.

For now it’s back to the grind as I wait for the postman to bring some more vinyl, this time offerings from Fela’s son Seun.

And as the year swings into summer, I’m certainly feeling a surge of optimism. Until later then, dear readers.

 

The Origin Of An Idea, Part 2: Inspiration, Execution And A New Synthesis

Another week rolls around and this time I’ve been getting over that hump a little more every day, reliving some of those early moments in my own work that make me smile or give me a tiny ego boost. As I move through it I am also well aware of just what has inspired many of the ideas, characters and situations, and by a strange coincidence I came across one that was in an old comic book I found stashed away. Somehow the busty thief had been the inspiration for one of my own characters.

Yet where does one draw the line of plagiarism? Is it alright to use an idea that you found elsewhere? This is a thorny issue for sure, and it perhaps applies to many of the arts. Certainly in the realms of music there is a great debate about who copies who, who is inspired by who, about whether you can claim something as your own if you sample etc.

And just as a musician will be an avid listener of music, so too are writers avid readers. I can claim to have read a huge amount of sci-fi and fantasy, as well as a lot of non-fiction – politics, anthropology, science etc. Out of all of that I reaped many, many ideas that stuck with me, that I liked and thought about, situations in novels that touched me or thrilled me, characters and settings that could be explored in so many different ways there isn’t enough time in one life.

I would argue that at some point we all reach a form of critical mass, where everything that we’ve absorbed goes into the melting pot of our imaginations. There’s so much in there it all becomes indistinguishable from its original source, and as you write it comes out via the filter of you as a person, thus rendering it in your own voice. You are the lens that casts what came before into a new light: you create a synthesis which transcends any one thing of itself. This is what I refer to in the title as execution. How you execute the story, how you take all that was familiar, used up and done before and make it special. Take as an example Pulp Fiction, a movie that contains plenty of familiar characters from the pulp world of crime stories. I found this little snippet on Wikipedia:

Tarantino explains that the idea “was basically to take like the oldest chestnuts that you’ve ever seen when it comes to crime stories—the oldest stories in the book…. You know, ‘Vincent Vega and Marsellus Wallace’s Wife’—the oldest story about…the guy’s gotta go out with the big man’s wife and don’t touch her. You know, you’ve seen the story a zillion times.”[8] “I’m using old forms of storytelling and then purposely having them run awry”, he says. “Part of the trick is to take these movie characters, these genre characters and these genre situations and actually apply them to some of real life’s rules and see how they unravel.”[55] In at least one case, boxer Butch Coolidge, Tarantino had in mind a specific character from a classic Hollywood crime story: “I wanted him to be basically like Ralph Meeker as Mike Hammer in Aldrich‘s Kiss Me Deadly [1955]. I wanted him to be a bully and a jerk”.[25]

What makes this movie so great was its execution – the unforgettable dialogue and the manner in which the movie was put together, the way the threads intertwine with each other. It takes what’s been done before (hitmen, crime bosses, a boxer reneging on thrown fight etc) and creates a new synthesis that transcends the original ideas into something special. Hopefully this is what we can achieve as writers, taking ideas that appeal to us, that inspire us or stick in our minds and forge them into something new and special.

 

#4 The Procrastinatrix: A Domestic Goddess

Proud and regal, she calls to me as I sit here, staring at the screen of my laptop which miraculously isn’t filling up with words of its own volition. She soothes me with soft words, and suggests that I might feel better if I take a little break…..

She can always find any number of little things to take interest in, like recycling that cardboard or just tidying the kitchen a little……

I swear I’ve never been so meticulous about cleaning my teeth.

The Procrastinatrix has me in her grasp, and now I stare out the window wondering why I still haven’t finished that chapter I was so eager to type out.

A God or Goddess?

As I mentioned in my previous post fantasy has some deep roots in mythology, amongst the most obvious examples being J.R.R. Tolkien’s understanding of northern European myth and the book I am reading to my son, Three Hearts and Three Lions draws on the same source, much as Poul Anderson’s other notable work The Broken Sword. There are a whole host of themes to be found, and again in a previous post I made mention of clichés being comfortable, being familiar; wizards with pointy hats, witches with cauldrons, heroes and dragons, kings, virgins and transformative magical powers, not to mention a pantheon of deities. Aside from the persistence of these ideas in (supposedly) predominantly Christian nations which is testament to the endurance of myth, folklore and older pagan ideas about the cosmos. We know them, remember them, see them recycled not only in the genre of fantasy but also in many movies, music, games and even children’s cartoons:

(NB Don’t watch this on drugs kids, you wont need them)

My question, and one I should note for future investigation, is how far does this subsconscious understanding go? Are we so at home with certain concepts that we can perhaps extrapolate something about the nature of our own society from it? Bruce Lincoln drew my attention to the fact that the priesthood controls the religion, and that the deities and myths that go with that religion structure the cosmos, reinforcing the order of society as something ordained and natural.

With this in mind we might point a finger at my use of ‘goddess’, but how would it have felt to have a domestic god instead? It seems comfortable to make this anthropomorphic embodiment of a homely situation into a woman, and as much as that may seem to be a patriarchal stereotype, it is one that endures in popular culture nonetheless. As gods and goddess are associated along gender divides so we often think of gods of war, lightning (spermatic, inseminating male power!) and law, all good things that go with civilisation, while we have goddesses of the home, nature, childbirth and love.

So, would you rather a domestic god, a golden haired, golden bearded, rip-muscled divinity brandishing a three headed scrubbing brush? He smites limescale! He lays waste to sinks full of washing up with devastating floods and sends prophecies to the kitchen table seared into giant, well-done steaks.

No no no, this must be a goddess because her words are like silken strands of moonlight, caressing me softly into idle action. Ooooh, that foul temptress…….

PROCRASTINATION #7

I sip my tea, regretting how minty fresh my teeth are for a moment. I think that perhaps she has put something in it because I’m losing focus. I stare a while longer, making small attempts to write something until I get distracted by something else to do. The tea goes cold and so so requires another one to be made while I wait with patience for the first line to come to me, the first line that will lead to a something finished. Sitting back down with a fresh, steaming cup I get ready but something out of the corner of my eyes calls to me……

PROCRASTINATION #8

Split ends are like being haunted in this respect, always spotted lingering at the edge of your field of vision. I exorcise those that I see, but as with the worst hauntings it doesn’t take long for the disturbance to start up again. It’s not vanity I tell myself, despite getting the kind of looks from woman that say they want to scalp me and get a hair transplant. I laugh! Vain? Me? It’s just that their split ends dammit! THE SPLIT ENDS! They call to me, like sirens gently singing, illuminated as by shafts of golden sunlight that stream through my window. Trimming the first one you capture is a victory, leading you to hunt for more.

This is absorbing work, for their song is never ending!

PROCRASTINATION #9
To escape I flee into the future and fight against the pixelated enemies in Warframe. I become a great warrior fighting for the Lotus. She is our guide, our conscience. We must fight, for our enemies multiply and seek our destruction. I tell myself that it’s just one mission, just one foray into the heart of the enemy. Who the hell can resist being a bad-ass space ninja after all?

Such digital distractions have become an extension of the domestic realm, and if you let yourself be taken in by their increasingly complex and involving universes it is like accepting the goddesses own opiate.

HERESY

There is but solution, and that is to get out! Get yourself away from the infernal machinations of the goddess! Slip away when you can, break the tea cups, shave your head, and uninstall these digital distractions. Got to get out of the house.

To be sure I have uninstalled Warframe while the goddess wasn’t looking (in fact I removed Steam altogether). I got sick of what devotees refer to as the grind, a term referring to the endless pursuit of goodies that can be harvested from games where you level up and build things and power up your equipment with more powerful modifications. It’s the same reason I stopped playing Diablo II, TitanQuest, Torchlight and others. You reach a point where it’s just not fun anymore. It’s literally a grind. It ends up being nothing more than habit, and they have designed it to keep you coming back by giving you a reward every time you log in, so logging in becomes a habit that is itself rewarding. I made a conscious decision to break this habit.

I felt better immediately.

I have a friend who writes and she says that if she stays at home then she finds it hard to get any writing done. She hits the local coffee shop and works for three hours. I’m of a mind to do the same now that a local coffee shop has opened just 10 minutes walk from here. You just have to remove yourself from the temple of distractions, from the house of the goddess.

Escaping, we embark on the quest into the wilderness (or coffee shop), there to grind at something more important as we seek instead the Muse.

Perhaps I can borrow a toothbrush while I’m out there…….