What kind of writer are you, and what do you have to change or improve to be where you want to be?
Wherever you are in your writing career, self-reflection and the ability to change course is always a useful vehicle for improvement. I ran across some notes I’d written to myself a few years, lifted and repurposed from an ACT therapist’s manual about the different categorizations of therapists. The manual asked the reader to imagine that choosing which category they wanted to be in (Good, Very Good, or Excellent) was as easy as selecting items off a menu. Everyone has intrinsic ideas of what category they are in, and which category they want to be in. I decided to repurpose this idea for my own profession – writing.”
Empathy is one of humanity’s greatest assets. The reason that we’re able to enjoy stories is because we can easily slip into the thoughts, motivations, and lives of other humans. The origin of the word “empathy” comes from an ancient Greek word, empatheia, which means passion or physical affection. Our understanding of other people inspires passion in us, emotion. Social animals like dogs are much more intelligent than solitary animals like cats, because they have to be built to understand others. Our empathy is partially what makes us intelligent, and allows us to build society in the first place, because we can actually see other people. When you read a book, you’re empathizing, feeling passion for the characters. You’re strengthening your ability to understand others, and thus, improving the human race. (more…)
When the dream meets reality, you have to deal with real problems that the dream could never actualize. Many days I romanticized about being able to spend all my time writing, living in a solipsistic wonderland inside my brain, sipping coffee and vodka while I wore turtlenecks and a disdain of all worldly things. But right now I’m on about year four of a long-term writer burnout, a time in which I often wondered exactly why I was writing when seemingly most of the joy had been sucked out of it for years. Since I was 19 years old I’d been writing daily, with hardly any breaks except to work to earn money or to practice being miserable. “Real writers write every day,” I told myself, and so that became a chain around my neck that I used to hang myself.
There will always come a moment when the joy of discovering a new artistic medium (I.E, writing) is eclipsed by the fear of not being good enough.
The amount of courage required for a task does not necessarily equate to an equal amount of compensation, success, or satisfaction.
You are right to be afraid of the writing life. It is lonely and often without prestige. The amount of time and effort put into improving your writing or creating a work of writing is rarely rewarded with a satisfactory amount of praise or money. But at the same time, if you’re a writer and you’re reading this, this probably isn’t a deterrent to you. You probably understand that the reward of the writing life isn’t in the reward, it’s in the thing itself. The reward is in the moments alone when the words flow outward and inward, connecting you to the entire universe.
I think if I could give my younger self advice that I probably wouldn’t listen to it would be to actually learn to enjoy life. Which when said out loud seems silly and self-evident. But I spent a lot of time refusing to do anything that would sway me from the goals that I had (I remember becoming furious at a boy in college for wanting to spend time with me, because it was taking time away from writing), unaware of the reason for why I was doing such things, or that refusing to take a break would burn out the enjoyment for anything.
Nobody wants to pay you what you’re worth. For anything. Ever.
You don’t get into the business of writing because you wanted a quick way to make some cash. If so, day trading and prostitution would have been much more viable options. But you wanted to write, because it seemed like happiness was the most viable option and money wasn’t necessarily the way to achieve that. But like every other human being currently living in a Capitalist society, you need money to pay your rent and maybe enough to go to the hospital if you need your appendix removed. Anyone can start up a magazine, and even without offering any pay they usually have writers clamoring to submit and have their name in a byline.
It’s difficult to be human, but we all have very important jobs perpetuating the human race, and making ourselves better to contribute to the betterment of all humankind and ultimately the universe, probably shouldn’t be an easy job. Whether you’re a corporate executive, a coal-miner, or a kid who dropped out of college so he can fish all day and roleplay a werewolf on an IRC channel at night, it doesn’t matter. Your task is still critical – be human.
I haven’t written anything in nearly two weeks. I needed to take a break, but sometimes even when I feel like I don’t have the energy to write the engines keep burning. It makes it difficult to accomplish the goal of relaxation when you’re ready to spring at any time. I could sit down with a beer and a pizza and watch “Rich Kids of Instagram” on youtube to try to relax, but my shoulders would feel the tension of work unfinished and when I pressed my thighs together I’d feel the roughness of a match ready to ignite. Then I’d dream of upheaval, the hours would go by as I “relaxed” and then I’d haul my body as it smoked to my computer, to feel I was even more tired than I was before.
For one of my essays I wrote for my UT admissions (I did get accepted, by the way, but California called to me instead) I wrote about how important it was to have playtime, not just in a philosophical sense, or that it’s “nice to take care of yourself”, but because of mental processes that are taking place when the brain is disengaged from its task. Something called the default mode network, which is only active when you’re not focused, solidifies memory and enhances creativity. It’s not noble to work yourself to death, it’s inherently foolish. Think of the brain as bicameral, bifurcated. It needs dreams and waking, night and day, elation and sadness, stress and relaxation.
It’s easy to forget, that every process is purposeful.
Even the ones we don’t want.
Sometimes I wake and cling to a cup of coffee because I feel like if I don’t have something to hold onto, I’ll be thrown off the Earth.
Some days there is no center to me.
I drink gin and brush my hair and I try to force the Californian sunlight to make me into something better than myself.
Donald Rumsfeld, former secretary of state, coined the phrase “Unknown unknowns.” There are known unknowns, things we don’t know, and unknown unknowns, things we don’t even know that we don’t know.
I know that I could improve upon my Spanish, I know that I write too much about crazy mothers and small-town prophets, I know that I panic and freeze in moments of crisis, I can snap at people I love when I feel irritable, I don’t take enough time to appreciate consciousness.
I can work on these things, because I know that they’re there.
But I also know there’s a dark side I can’t yet comprehend just behind me, something mysterious, a void glinting in the shape of my shadow.
And that -thing- whatever it is, might be crucial to the years coming forward.
Except, I don’t know what it is.
That’s where the default mode network becomes crucial. It fills in blank gaps, makes connections that you cannot while you’re stuck staring intensely at a problem.
I know that once I started actually searching for the answers then I found them – epiphany upon epiphany unearthed themselves, like a shower of rainbows that came bursting from my dirty clawing fingernails. Even when I’m not working, the subconsciousness is set upon the answers. There are things I know now that a year ago would have been incomprehensible to me, that if someone had explained them to me I wouldn’t have understood, not until I felt their shape.
I think one of the most difficult things to write about is a character experiencing epiphany. Knowing something you didn’t know before, because all the pieces that you’ve acquired throughout the time before have suddenly converged into a full understanding. Written poorly, it can seem like magic, like the writer trying to force a plot point forward, shoving the character through a hole in the pages. That’s because epiphany isn’t really a conscious process. It’s something underwater and deep, but still, crucial to our understanding.
But oftentimes, it’s really the only way to learn – great effort yielding nothing but dirt and more dirt, and then suddenly-
Jewels and blood, showering you with resplendence, gnosis.
I want to learn how to write about that moment. I think it’s one of the most beautiful human experiences.
And I want more of it for myself.
To turn the unknown unknowns at least into known unknowns. That’s all I’m asking for now.
Tomorrow I go back to write, back to the page with all its mysterious terrors, turning over stones. The perpetual questing machine. Maybe it will yield nothing – but searching always has a way of turning up more answers than inertia – doesn’t it?i
The act of writing day to day is such an isolating experience. I rarely leave my little den except to take my puppies to the park, or maybe go to the grocery store to pick up more chicken jerky and k-cups. Mostly I enjoy my quiet. It gives me the focus to take the everyday deep-dives into the snarled web of my consciousness, and occasionally bring back something useful. But it can also be derealizing – you can lose touch with reality, with the idea that what you’re doing has any use or value. Live too long in a dream, and the dream begins to warp you.
The moments when you can actually see the effect that your writing has on the outside world are rare. Going into a reading and meeting with other writers often seems to give me shellshock. Everything is actualized and real. You get to see the writers themselves, projecting forth the creations they made inside their isolated neurological soup. This past Friday I was asked to participate in Laura Lee Bahr’s “Bahr Crawl,” in which she travels across the country taking part in readings with other bizarro authors.
I read an except from my short story, Skin Suits, which will be out this year in A Breath from The Sky from Martian Migraine Press. You can see my transformation – from the protagonist in black, to the suit of “Sara” in the blue fur. I hadn’t really practiced my transition – so I think there were a few seconds where everyone thought I was stripping in the middle of my reading. Gabino Iglesias said he thought I’d finally snapped.
Laura read from her short story collection Angel Meat, out from Fungasm Press this year. Everytime I step into a room with Laura, she seems to make the air brighter. She’s radiant and vulnerable and open. I think the cover of her new collection manages to accurately capture her likeness
I crawled out of my cavern the other day to talk to J David Osborne on his podcast, The JDO Show. We talk about working on videogames, different game narratives, horror movies, my time with a group of vindictive witches, near-death experiences, gnosticism, Philip K. Dick, augmented reality, and why life isn’t as bad as we seem to think it is.