Friday, 23 September 2011

Playtime with Chewbacca

I keep a Chewbacca the Wookie action figure on my desk, circa 1977. I don’t do this because I’m a Star Wars fan (I am), or because he reminds me of the dangers of not trimming my beard (he does). I keep him there for a far more important reason.

Back when I was 21, I attempted to write and publish a novel. Until that point, I had written mostly short stories and poetry. It was fun writing short stories and poetry, but now that I was 21 and an adult (seriously--I thought I was an adult), I decided that if I was going to publish a novel, I’d better buckle down and start studying.

So I studied. And studied. I read (nearly) every ‘how-to’ writing book ever published. I created graphs for my characters. I made sure each plot point was broken into a Beginning, Middle, and End. I followed the classic Hero’s Journey to the letter. I even developed an editing notebook stuffed with 50 pages of bullet point reminders.

Finally, after a few years of writing first drafts (six by my mid-20’s), I had failed to finish a book but succeeded in transforming into Buzz Killington. Writing was no longer fun. In fact, editing a single sentence became torture. I saw mistakes everywhere--nothing felt right to me.

So I quit.

Of course, I came back to it a few days later. You can’t just quit writing if you’re a writer, but I didn’t know that back then. So what was I to do? I still had the passion to write, but I couldn’t cope with the ascension of Mt. Edit. I fell into a dark cloud and stayed there for weeks.

Strangely enough, that cloud finally lifted when I read three more ‘how-to’ writing books:

‘If You Want to Write’, by Brenda Ueland
‘Zen and the Art of Writing’, by Ray Bradbury
‘On Writing’, by Stephen King

Wow--what a breath of fresh air! Instead of graphs and charts and outlines, these writers dove in and started swimming. They felt like I used to feel, back when writing was fun, an extension of life, a bit of magic in the otherwise mediocre. 

And this is where Chewbacca comes in. He reminds me why I started writing. My career began with him and Han Solo hanging out in a converted Tim Horton’s box, or Yoda and He-Man storming the pillow fortresses of Cobra Commander, or the unlikely union of Batman and Joker crashing into a plastic Hoth.

Why did I create these elaborate adventures in my bedroom? Because it was fun. And why did I later trade the toys for pen and paper? Because it was “funner”. Writing was a superior way to play. Now I could use anyone for my adventures. Now I could be anyone.

I think every writer needs a Chewbacca on their desk. Some of us take this stuff way too seriously.   

“But I am a writer,” you may say. “And this is serious business!”

No it isn’t, you dope. It’s fun, or at least it started out that way on your bedroom floor.

“But we must study the rules of grammar and style. We can't craft a story without them!” 
That's true. Grammar rules are vital to creating clear, clean sentences. By studying, you’ll learn to spot shortcuts such as weed words, -ly adverbs, and an excess of adjectives. But it doesn’t mean you have to treat every rule as if it were scripture. The rest of your life is weighed down by a plethora of imaginary ‘rights’ and ‘wrongs’, don’t bind yourself when you write. Art, remember, is about the freedom of expression.

But I know how you feel. You don’t want to screw up. You believe that if you read enough, and study hard enough, you’ll eventually learn every trick, tip, and tactic to make your novel perfect.  

Well, I have some bad news for you:

Nothing is perfect. Examine the greatest painting in the world, and you’ll find little brush hairs imbedded in the paint. ‘Perfect’ is a human concept. It doesn’t exist in reality. Your book will never be perfect, because it can’t be perfect. Feel better? No? Try thinking of it this way: even if your book could be perfected, and you achieved your goal, what then? You’d have no reason to continue writing. The drive would be lost, or at least severely dampened.

Remember Orson Welles? He came as close to perfection as possible with his movie Citizen Kane, and spent the rest of his life living in the shadow of that one achievement. The man didn’t eat himself to death because he was happy. No one likes Mrs. Pell’s fish sticks that much.

If I can’t convince you that writing should be playtime, that’s fine. It’s only important that I realize it, and that Chewie keeps reminding me when I bind myself in mental knots. But let me leave you with this one, final thought:  

Whether you write, play guitar, run for president, or farm cranberries, you are doing all these things for one underlying purpose: to pass the time until you die. And in the long stretch of years, your achievements will be forgotten. Even Shakespeare will fade away. I’m not saying this to depress you, but to remind you that whether you play or panic, the time will come when the words you struggle with will vanish.

So how do you want to spend your days? Filled with anxiety about the perfect word, or giggling like a child diving into the toy chest?

Friday, 16 September 2011

Writers and "Writers"

I haven't met many writers in my life, but when I do, it is a singular thrill. After all, it doesn't happen very often. Here is a person who speaks my language, understands terms such as word count and dialogue tag, and wants to know if my third-person is limited, or omniscient? They shudder at the overuse of adjectives, cringe when someone is doing "good" and not "well", and share the same forehead wrinkles accrued from hours of worrying about fictional people. They are often neurotic, pasty, and shy. They trip over spoken words, stare into space, and you know what? I wouldn't trade any of them for the world.

I just wish these encounters happened more often, but they do not (with the exception of Twitter, a recent addition to my life). However, I do frequently run into "writers". In fact, I've lost count as to how many "writers" I've met over the years.

"Writer": A person who fancies him/herself a writer, but does not actually write.

If you are a writer, then chances are you've met a "writer". A "writer" is someone who identifies themselves as a writer to anyone who will listen. Their qualifications usually fall within these four categories: 

A.)  They once wrote a poem in high school, therefore they are a "writer".  

B.) They started writing a novel at twenty. They are now thirty-five, and on chapter two. They are a struggling "writer".

C.)  They have a Byron, Wilde, or Hemingway quote for every situation. They are a literary "writer".  

D.)  They are dramatic, difficult, or morose. Their excuse? "I can’t help it if I feel things so much deeper than the average person. I am, after all, a "WRITER"!"

I want to make it clear that I do not hate "writers". I think everyone should write, and one poem in high school is better than no poem at all. But I do think there is a romanticism about writing that is often co-opted as an identity, like being a Goth, Punk, or Metalhead (are there still Metalheads? I hope so).

What bothers me about "writers" are not their affectations. I enjoy a good Wilde quote, and I've certainly been known to be dramatic, difficult, and morose. But I do write. Every day. I sit in front of my computer, and I type out a specific word count. I write when I'm exhausted, irritable, or sick. I've written after a brutal twelve hour shift, and on days off. It is sometimes tedious, sometimes thrilling, sometimes stomach ache inducing.

It is rarely, if ever, romantic.

And I think this is why "writers" will never be writers. What's romantic about hard work? What's romantic about self-discipline and self-deadlines? What is romantic about working at a minimum wage job in order to keep the heat on while you write? These are often the realities of the writing life. Sitting in a quiet room, typing. For hours. And days. And years.

Here is a typical conversation that I (and I'm sure you) have had many times, whether at a dinner party or some other get-together. I'm introduced to someone new, and in the course of conversation, I tell them that I am a writer:

"You are?" "Writer" says. "Me too!"

"Really?" I say, getting excited now. Sometimes, it's like spotting a Northern White Rhino. "What do you write?"

"Oh," "Writer" says. "A little bit of everything. I once wrote a short story about a guy who dies and comes back as a crow."

"Cool," I say. "Did you publish it?"

"Well, no," "Writer" says. "But I did get an A for it in Grade Twelve English."

"Ah," I say, as the old disappointment settles in. "What have you written since then?"

"Um," "Writer" says, swishing wine in her glass. "Not much. You know, life gets in the way. College, marriage, kids. But I once wrote a poem for my grandmother's funeral, and everyone really liked it. Would you like to read it?"

"Sure," I say, now totally deflated. Three days later, 'The Ballad of Gran Gladys' appears in my inbox.

I hope I'm not coming across as snarky, or God forbid, elitist. I don't believe that writers are better than anyone else. In fact, that attitude seems to be the purview of art house "writers", those decadent folks who delight in their clique more than their own output. But this has always bothered me. Call me crazy, but I'm of the opinion that a writer should, well, write. And to call yourself a writer, when 'The Ballad of Gran Gladys' represents your life's work, is unfair to those men and women who take the time, every day, to stare at a computer screen and sweat.

I love Salvador Dali, Norman Rockwell, and Gustav Klimt. I can smear paint on a canvas, but I am not a painter.

I adore Miles Davis, Sigur Ros, and Iron Maiden. I can rock out on my plastic Rock Band guitar, but I am not a musician.

I would never call myself a painter or a musician, because I have not put in the time and energy to earn those titles. Writing, like music or painting (or ballet or acting or stand up), is a craft which needs to be studied over a period of years. It's hard work. You can smoke the cigarettes, drink the wine, and take long road trips to find the "deep well of your soul" (whatever that means), but are you writing? Are you tapping those keys, scratching with that pencil, growing those wrinkles? 

You'd never expect to meet a brick layer who doesn't lay brick. Why are you so different?

Friday, 9 September 2011

When a Man Writes a Woman

I've only worked with an editor once, and that was years ago. Back then, I suffered from an editing phobia (no, seriously, it was a phobia), so I was looking forward to someone else doing my work for me. The results were less than spectacular. Not only was she expensive, but she barely touched the manuscript except to tell me that I shouldn't use the word which too often. Wow, thanks.

However, she did leave a lasting impression on me. As I handed her my manuscript, she flipped open the first page and said, “Oh, your protagonist is female. I look forward to seeing how a man writes a woman.”

I stared at her for a moment, trying to figure out what that meant. Writes a woman? I’d never before thought about trying to write male or female. I just wrote characters that happened to be male or female or ghost or robot or...

Turns out, this is a belief that’s been kicking around for years. And it doesn't stop at gender.

W.P. Kinsella, author of ‘Shoeless Joe’ (later made into the movie ‘Field of Dreams’), came under a lot of heat for writing short stories about a fictional reservation in Northern Alberta. How dare Kinsella, a white guy, write about Native characters? How could he possibly know what it’s like to be a Native kid living on a reservation?

Arthur Golden, author of ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’, has been criticized for writing a first person account of a Japanese girl during WW2.  How dare he, a fourty-one year old American male, attempt to write as a girl from another time and culture?  

Pulitzer Prize winning author, Annie Proulx, wrote the short story ‘Brokeback Mountain’. How can she possibly speak for the gay men of North America?

There are two major problems with this line of thinking.

First problem: How do you write according to gender or race without falling into stereotype? How do you write ‘Native’, ‘Japanese’ or ‘gay’? How do I write ‘female’?

I once read a ‘How to’ book on the proper way to write for men and women. It taught that men are strong and silent, so you should give them very little dialogue. Women, however, are emotional and rarely stop talking long enough to breathe, so give them tons of dialogue. This way, your characters will feel authentic, and your reader can keep track of who has a wang, and who doesn't. 

But does this damage more than liberate? Fiction from the early half of the 20th century is full of female characters who swoon, shriek, and are about as smart as your average doorstop. These were written by male authors trying to “write a woman.” The result is a horrible misrepresentation, a caricature. Yes, I'm sure some women are fragile as glass, but I've met more than a few who could give Rambo a pounding. That’s because, in real life, there is rarely such a thing as a ‘type’.

Second Problem: How can you write with both hands tied? 

Imagine how dull it would be to write only according to your gender or ‘race’? Instead of allowing my imagination to stretch to its limits, I’d be stuck with White Canadian Guy. “Hmm, what should my WCG get up to in this book? Go for a coffee? Watch a hockey game? Try to figure out the appeal of curling?” I would have retired a long time ago. I don’t want to write about myself. I want to escape. Everyone loves a good escape--that’s the high of writing. How can I do that with my WCG?

A slave working on a plantation during the Civil War, a woman living in a polygamist colony, a WCG with a robotic brain ... ah, now we’re talking. Now I’m dissolving into that bliss called imagination.

W.P. Kinsella defended his position with a very simple point. He reminded his critics that what he writes is called fiction. Words on paper, not real people. If his characters don’t meet an expectation of race or gender, then don’t sweat it--after all, they never existed. His native kids aren't living on the Rez, Golden’s Japanese girl never survived WW2, and Ennis and Jack aren't up on that mountain.  

I agree with Kinsella, although I would also add this point:

When a writer decides to create a character, he or she is venturing to create an individual. Wow, imagine that? An individual. Someone with their own thoughts and feelings. Isn't that a good thing? Don’t we want to foster more individuals? Is it okay for a woman to be less feminine, or a man less masculine? Or the other way around? Or a mixture of both?

Strange, that fiction sometimes gives us a better representation of reality.