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?