Month: August 2016

A Real Pick-Me-Up

Someone I care about has recently been reminded that at the core, most human beings are one perceived deprivation away from crushing the skulls of anyone in their way. If you’ve been to the grocery store before a hurricane or stuck at a malfunctioning traffic light, you know this is true.

It would actually be a relief if there was evil, if perhaps something icy and conniving could creep into our spirits and make us do horrible things. Then we could call it a sickness, a syndrome, some kind of awful infliction like locusts or a storm.

But what I’ve seen throughout my life is that assholery is always the same simple equation:

A = Deprivation (real or perceived) + Opportunity + Rationalization * Mob Think

I write horror, so lots of people ask me what scares me. Here’s what scares me:

All of our belief, all of our conscience, all of our intellect can be subsumed by the ancient callings of our beastly hearts if it means even the slightest improvement to our safety or group status. When it happens, we are masters at rationalizing it as justice.

And worst of all, it’s likely to be either by accident or exigency. Much of the time we don’t even “mean” it. (I know I haven’t when I’ve been the malfeasor.)

Cosmic horror? We should be so lucky to have an uncaring and ambivalent evil like Cthulhu instead of the flailing want-monsters all around us every day.

I don’t hate people (truly). I don’t call cataclysm upon us all. I just wish people were more…attentive? Perceptive? Careful? Contemplative? I don’t know.  

I wish I could hand out little business cards that say, “Really? Is this what you’re doing with 200,000 years of consciousness?”  

Confessions of a Non-Fiction Failure

I can think of at least five kinds of writing that I do better and more easily than fiction:

  • Gently-worded diplomatic overtures in the workplace
  • Bally-hooing business propaganda
  • Letters of advice
  • Hoaxed letters, email messages, and news articles that amuse and terrify people
  • Contemplative blog and journal entries

(I suspect I’d be pretty good at speechwriting, too, but I’ve never had the opportunity to find out. I used to be adept at love letters as well, but these days I’m like, “Hey, it’s awesome you’re alive. Let’s go eat pizza rolls and watch true crime.”)

In fact, it wouldn’t be hard to argue that fiction (description, exposition, dialogue, plot, etc) is actually the kind of writing I’m WORST at. It’s certainly what I feel least comfortable doing, as though my mind doesn’t work that way naturally. I don’t even know how to practice at it, though I’ve written thousands of exercise paragraphs.

If there’s a story of mine you like, there’s a good chance that it isn’t structured like most stories. It’s a teenager’s science fair paper or a near-death experience or a series of letters or fragments of research books or a fake acknowledgements page from a book about ghosts.  

Now that I think of it, I’m not sure I even believe in fiction, the arbitrariness of story-time, the contrived third-person stance outside of events. Most of what I write pretends to be non-fiction, as though I’ve chosen the wrong genre to tell it.

(I lie and exaggerate too much for ethical reporting, alas.)

As I struggle on this next novel, I’m wondering about my future as a writer of fiction. Between writing the only two chapters that exist, I wrote an entire 16,000-word novelette while cackling insanely with amusement. What was the difference? The novelette was stitched together from many forms and perspectives — fake books and newspaper articles and court transcripts.

A few things bother me about writing that way:

  • It feels like a cop-out to avoid learning to write more “storylike” narratives.
  • Editors hold it at arm’s length because it isn’t as “satisfying” as normally structured prose. Most people want to be told a story, not to have a bunch of linguistic Lego blocks dumped at their feet.  
  • How long before it becomes a schtick? “Oh, a new Ludwigsen story. This one’s told entirely in Craigslist missed connections!”

Even so, I’m still deeply uncomfortable writing stories that don’t somehow explain or hoax their existence in the real world. The forms that please me like newspaper articles and diaries and letters fit so much better with my aim of making stories part of our lives. Everything’s a story if you look at it close enough.

I guess this is just my fair warning that even if it shortens my career or loses me readers, I’m going to keep telling my stories as fake found objects.

If you’re looking for authorial-voiced guy with a pipe in his mouth (“In the hinterlands of Merlindor, the ancient cobbled roads wind unguarded through primeval forest…”), that isn’t me.     

How We Went Off to College in 1991

Twenty-five years ago today, I embarked on my  journey to Gainesville to start school at UF. By an interesting coincidence, my niece Katie is starting her OWN college career at UF this fall, and I’m sure my sister will take the same pictures of her in the dorms that she took of me.

It's a desk, it's a closet, it's a bed, all in one!

It’s a desk, it’s a closet, it’s a bed, all in one!

I arrived with a milk crate and maybe two boxes filled with the following:

  • The CD boom box you see here.
  • The CDs behind me, heavy in U2 and Guns N’ Roses but speckled with Journey and REO Speedwagon.
  • A giant box of 5.25” disks for my portable/luggable SX-64.
  • A thin quilt.
  • A towel.
  • Toothpaste and toothbrush.
  • A couple of portfolios to write and take notes in.
  • Some clothes, including my fancy Hypercolor t-shirt that changed color when you touched it, as was the style at the time.

Karen, realizing I was an idiot, took me out to buy a dorm refrigerator, a toaster, some eating utensils, sheets for the bed, and some food. If I’d chosen to go to any other school, I’d probably have died.

(Insanely, I only applied to UF because, what, they wouldn’t take me?)

It’s hard to overstate how staggeringly dumb I was at eighteen going to school, a weird mixture of feeling divinely destined to do great things but also completely ignorant of how to actually function in the world. My total savings for college from high school jobs was $150. My plan was to get an English degree, get famous from writing, and then run for President of the United States some day.

(Which, to be fair, is shockingly plausible in this election year.)

What I needed was advice from someone I believed. Karen was as helpful as a sister could be, and so was her husband Marty, but they weren’t privy to just how deranged I was.

So here’s my advice to myself back then. Maybe there’s something here for you if you or a loved one is going to school this fall, too.  

  • English, really? You’re going to take ten courses for the major and enjoy the reading for only three of them: Intro to Science Fiction, Poe, and Major Critics. There’s a reason we have to assign this shit so it doesn’t get forgotten.
  • It’s going to take about half a decade to recover from the turgid kind of writing you learn to do analyzing dead fiction.
  • You’re going to feel inspired and happy with both the lectures and reading for your History of Journalism class. Follow that feeling.
  • Take some classes in public relations and marketing. You might be surprised. It’s like making up hoaxes for money!
  • Man up and put yourself in the way of actually writing stuff. Take writing classes. Submit short stories. Don’t chicken out when The Alligator agrees to publish an op-ed and all you have to do is go down to the office and give it to them on a disk.
  • Basically all you have is a weak talent for saying and writing weird things in surprising ways, and all that crap about programming and law school and psychology is a blind alley.
  • No, you aren’t crazy. Those weird emotional fight-or-flight explosions are panic attacks. Go tell a doctor about them. In the meantime, lay off the caffeine because it’s basically liquid anxiety.
  • You’re going to discover a book called The Outsider and Others one night in Library West and it’ll be awesome, but for God’s sake, don’t write like that.
  • The moped is fucking ridiculous and it breaks down all the time because it’s made by angry Yugoslavian communists. Just keep the bike.
  • It turns out that you learn mostly by creating outlines of what you read and hear in your own words.
  • It’s probably a good idea to shut the hell up about politics for the next few years because you really don’t know what you’re talking about. In fact, keep that up the rest of your life.
  • Don’t install Doom or Wolfenstein when you get that 486 PC. You’ve finally shaken the video game habit.
  • That girl you’re in love with is a person, not a destiny.
  • There’s a lot more I can tell you, but it all basically boils down to lighten up, for Christ’s sake. Swear more. Use more contractions. Use fewer participial phrases. Read more Stephen King. Don’t be so pissy about noise and football crowds. History isn’t watching.   

Clarion, Wayward Will Part 4: The Moon’s Turned Black

I didn’t think I’d write any more about my Clarion writing workshop experience ten years ago, but since today is the exact anniversary of a moment I actually learned something, I’d like to commemorate it by passing it on.

By this time in 2006, the six-week workshop was winding down to its last days and I’d handed in my final story for critique. After weeks of trying to write carefully plotted science fiction stories that ended up quivering on the page like botched abortions, I’d reached my inevitable “fuck this” moment.

We all have a “fuck this” threshold, right? Where you realize there’s no hope of doing something the way everybody wants so you just fling something out, like throwing your tennis racket into the stands? That’s where I was.

For my last story, I returned to being funny and mean with “The Moon’s Turned Black,” about a genetically-resurrected Algonquin Round Table quipping through the apocalypse in our moment of greatest need. I’d written it as something of a gift for Aimee after a couple of conversations about Dorothy Parker.

(That’s lesson one, by the way: write to amuse someone specific instead of a faceless multitude.)

So we all sat down in our circle of couches and chairs as the summer thunderstorms rolled in for the early afternoon, and for some reason, that’s what I remember most about it: how dark it seemed in the room. A good dark, though — a cozy dark.

It was darker than this.

It was darker than this.

(Lesson two? Find your comfort in the things you love wherever you find them.)

Each person offered their critiques and I was stunned at how positive they were, if not glowing. One person said not to change a word. Aimee said she felt like it was written just for her, which it was. Someone asked who the fuck Dorothy Parker was, but I let that go. Kelly and Holly, our instructors, seemed to enjoy the story and had great suggestions for it that excited me for revisions.

(Lesson three? Don’t do anything someone suggests to your story unless it excites you with a feeling of recognition.)

It was a big moment that I desperately needed. I was pretty sure that I’d be going home as one of those people who leave Clarion to never write again, having realized they don’t have and can’t get what it takes, but the general approbation for that story hinted that maybe there was something in me after all.

(Lesson four? Don’t give a shit about whether you are or aren’t a “writer.” Do you like doing it? Do you enjoy entertaining people? Then who gives a fuck what they — or, for that matter, you — call you.)

So I went home to find out what that something was, sitting down for many sessions with a journal in the library to figure out what I had to work with and what I didn’t. I call this the “Fix It or Fuck It” list, where I decide whether it’s worth improving what I didn’t do well (character, description) or working around it (plot).

(Lesson five? Nobody teaches you writing. You decide what to practice and improve by looking honestly at your own work and making adjustments.)

I’m not sure how much of the weird inter-social aspects of our particular Clarion helped or hindered me, though I met some wonderful friends and a life partner there (no, Steve, not you: Aimee). And I’m not sure if I needed the full six weeks away from my normal life to boil me down to my essentials.

What I needed was a calibration of my expectations of how much talent I had and how much I had yet to learn, and I doubt I’d have gotten that any other way.

(Lesson six? Some fiascoes are necessary, if you only know how to use them.)

[If you’re curious, I’ve posted “The Moon’s Turned Black” on the site for your bemusement.]

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