Ten years ago, I wrote another blog whose purpose was also, ostensibly, to generate creative sparks and inspire me to write more often. As I described that blog then, “It is my intention to use this daily exercise to jump-start my too-long-dormant creative energies, and perhaps generate some worthwhile material this year.” Sound familiar?
Because this current blog was born of this month’s Camp NaNoWriMo creative challenge to write a novel, and science fiction is my genre of choice, I thought it’d be worthwhile to reprint this old but still relevant blog post—written 10 years ago to the day.
What’s interesting is to look back through my own slow glass at myself, 10 years ago. While my current life is different in many profound ways, other things are depressingly unchanged. In the intervening decade, I haven’t published anything of note, and here I am, 3,650 days later, still pecking away at a blog that maybe three people will read. A rational person would conclude that such lack of progress means I should give up on writing and focus on a different hobby or activity. But to me, it simply proves that I need to write, even if only for the three of you.
written April 11, 2003
In his short story “Light of Other Days,” written the year I was born, science fiction writer Bob Shaw formulated the concept of “slow glass.” In brief, slow glass is glass that is so opaque that light takes as long as ten years to pass through it. From a practical standpoint, then, if you looked through a window made of slow glass, you’d see events that took place outside that window ten years ago. In his story, Shaw explores the lives of a man and woman whose marriage is in its death throes. While on vacation, they visit a slow glass merchant and notice the man’s wife and child through the window, playing inside the house. When they enter, however, the house is deserted; only then do they realize that the window is made of slow glass, giving the lonely man his final glimpses of his long-dead wife and child.
With his unique plot device, Shaw keenly illustrated how we are prone to look through slow glass in our own lives. Sometimes we focus too sharply on the present through the lens of the past, illuminating our lives with the “light of other days.” The older we get, the more memories we accumulate. It becomes easier to look backward instead of forward. In bad times, especially, it can be seductive to look back at better times gone by, embracing nostalgia and indulging regrets.
This example shows the best of what science fiction can achieve. Though too often the genre doesn’t rise above the little green men and space battles of popcorn movies like “Independence Day” and “Star Wars,” the best SF utilizes the conventions of the genre to comment on the human condition. Time travel, alien visitation, space exploration… all can be dramatic tools to tell a story about the universal struggles we go through in our lives.
To some degree, this has been part of the formula for the long-lived success of the “Star Trek” franchise. Most of the best episodes of the series (in all its incarnations) deal thematically with one human issue or another. In the “Next Generation” episode “Redemption,” for example, the Enterprise responds to a potential civil war on the Klingon home world, but ultimately the story is about the conflicts between duty and family honor with which Worf wrestles. The movie “Star Trek: First Contact” featured battles between the Enterprise crew and the Borg, but at its heart was Picard’s fight to overcome his inner demons.
Ultimately, the best storytelling does more than just tell a story, more than merely entertain. The greatest stories teach us about ourselves, comment on what makes us who we are, how we deal with the constant struggle from cradle to grave. What makes science fiction so effective—and perhaps what attracts me to it so—is its ability to utilize speculative, imaginative concepts as metaphors: otherworldly devices to tell very worldly stories.
Some morning freewriting….
Cats like to think they are aloof, mysterious creatures, but really, they’re as easy to read as a children’s book. When a cat purrs, you don’t wonder whether or not it’s happy. Same goes for a low, throaty growl; the cat might as well be saying “You don’t want to be near me right now.” And every cat is born knowing exactly how to show you that it’s bored and couldn’t care less.
Peter sometimes wished he were married to a cat. He’d have to clean up the occasional hairball, and once a month his wife might scratch the hell out of the side of the couch. But at least he’d be able to read her emotional state and not have to figure out whether no means yes this time.
No, women are the true enigmas of the animal world. The Sphinx might have the body of a cat, but its head—where all games start, after all—is that of a woman. The Riddler, that most cryptic of all Batman villains: he wore a mask, so how do you know he wasn’t a she? And what was Churchill speaking off, calling it “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”? Mother Russia.
To know the mind of a woman is to peel back the mysteries of the universe and understand life’s greatest secrets. But one might as well try to walk upside down on the top of the sky.
After sharing this new blog, I received a link from a writer friend with a list of fantastic writing tips from none other than John Steinbeck. In the Paris Review article from which the advice was taken, the author describes a familiar feeling to me. That as soon as one begins to write, “one stiffens in exactly the same way one does when one is being photographed.” I can relate to that, as I keep waiting for the flash to fire—the only difference is that I don’t have a goofy smile on my face as I wait.
I’m going to try to incorporate some of this advice into my daily writing, with hopes I’ll have at least some success.
- Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.
- Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.
- Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.
- If a scene or a section gets the better of you and you still think you want it—bypass it and go on. When you have finished the whole you can come back to it and then you may find that the reason it gave trouble is because it didn’t belong there.
- Beware of a scene that becomes too dear to you, dearer than the rest. It will usually be found that it is out of drawing.
- If you are using dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.
Writing daily is hard stuff. Sitting down and facing a blank screen without knowing what you’re going to write is like standing in front of your house and contemplating where to go. The possibilities are endless; you can start walking in any direction, including three dimensions—you can climb up a tree or down into a canyon. You can make your way to the airport and board a flight for anywhere in the world. You can walk onto the freeway, into oncoming traffic, creating your own drama in the process. You can walk into the restroom designated for the opposite sex, creating a different kind of uproar. You can walk over to a homeless person and buy him a sandwich, or walk an old lady across the street. You can walk into the surf until you’re in over your head, or walk across a frozen pond until the ice breaks. Or you can remain standing in front of your house, paralyzed by the infinite choices and unable to begin walking.
That’s what it’s like for every writer who sits down in front of a blank computer screen or sheet of paper. Without knowing what you’re going to write, without planning where you want to go, you just sit staring like that sojourner in front of his house, paralyzed by limitless choices. To take a step, to make a choice, is to close off other options. You took a step to the right, but what if left was really the best way to go? You turned east, but maybe you would’ve had the time of your life if only you’d turned northwest.
Some might envision a dark and gaping maw full of sharp teeth as the most terrifying thing imaginable; but for a writer, that most horrific of all monsters is the one that opens its hungry, blankly white mouth to pull you down into an empty, wordless oblivion. The white page, the blank screen. If you can fight darkness by filling it with light, then a writer’s best defense against the Great White Beast is to start firing words at it like bullets. Fill that bastard with dark black slugs of letters, compose sentences that will slice it like swords, pummel it with paragraphs.
In other words, just start walking.
What is it that I want to say? Perhaps that’s the greatest single question I need to answer. I want to write, I want to call myself a writer, but I don’t write. I jot down ideas that occur to me, I join writerly organizations, sign up for writers’ events, even plunk down cash for writing courses. Then I sit down at the keyboard and nothing happens. I think it’s a matter of my environment, so I go to the coffeehouse to write. I take the laptop out to the garage. I use an app to thumb-write on my phone in a bar, thinking a beer will loosen the creative muscles. Nothing.
I blame distractions like Molly or the demands of life in general, so I set my alarm clock to wake me up at the crack of dawn. Start writing before the world wakes up, so my mind is clear and fresh, uncluttered by the daily stuff that becomes white noise by mid-afternoon. And yet still I sit staring instead of typing. What is it that I want to say?
I come up with ideas, themes, mere frameworks for stories. Gimmicks, high concepts that are good seeds, but they are not stories. I still remember Viki King’s point, that a story is not a structure that your character walks through; your character is the story. That one idea is probably the most important piece of writing advice I’ve ever learned. And yet still I sit and stare.
Is the problem that I don’t know what it is I want to say? Or that I don’t know what my character wants to say? That I don’t even know my characters at all? How do I start on page one without knowing them? How do I get them talking if I don’t know what they want to say? How do I get to know them?
“Write what you know.” That might not be the most important piece of writing advice I’ve ever learned, but it is the most trite and over-prescribed. So do I create characters that are shades of me? Do I use characters to voice my own feelings and beliefs, as expressions of myself? The times I’ve done that, it feels transparent and boring, almost amateurish. Is it because I myself lack depth? (If so, I shouldn’t be writing.) Or does it just seem too obvious that I’m not stretching myself enough?
And yet, if your character is the story, and you should write what you know, then how else to write a compelling story than to create a character that is part of you? How can you intimately know your character if he or she is not, in some form, you? Sure, you can get creative and develop a character from scratch:
Yasmine pushed back her raven-black hair and wiped the tears from her eyes, thinking about the people she’d just killed. As an only child, she’d grown into an independent-minded person, and didn’t hesitate to make tough decisions. But this decision—even though the alternative was worse—made even her question herself.
But how believable can you make characters wholly created from spun mental cloth? The logic behind writing what you know is that it makes your writing more authentic and believable; because you’re writing about things you know and care about, your true voice comes out. So if you create characters from scratch—and thus create your story from scratch—is that in essence the opposite of writing what you know?
Tom Bird is right about one thing: if I let my left brain get in the way, I will never write a single word. Regardless of what the answers are to the foregoing questions, my characters and stories will remain in the ether if I let my analytical brain sit there, looking over my shoulder, while my creative brain tries to write. “Write faster than you can think,” he says. Good advice, but I still need to know where I’m going. Like a kayaker who rows full-out, I can get far quickly by exerting myself to the maximum. But if I just pick a random direction, who knows where I’ll end up? Maybe I’ll get lucky and reach my destination in record time. But more likely than not, I’ll end up getting myself lost in the wrong direction even faster than I otherwise would.
Tom Bird’s technique is solid, if I am at least generally pointed in the right direction. So know where I want to go, and then start rowing like hell. But how to know where I want to go? Which brings me full-circle back to the question I opened with. What do I want to say?