The Laddie Fancies Himself a Poet? Not Really.

I’ve been going through my writing archives and compiling a master document of preferred editions of my work. It feels like we’re all one reckless cough away from death, and I hate to leave a mess to clean up after I’m gone.

Early in my career (like, 1998-early), I sometimes wrote poems with ideas that didn’t quite sustain a whole story. Here’s one that I’m trying to decide if it should go into the omnibus.


Biscuits
Waiting for biscuits, crunchy butcher-sweeping goodness in a box!
If I watch the baby, I’ll get biscuits.
            Don’t let criminals get the baby.
            Don’t lick the baby and wake her up.
Watch the baby until Mama gets home from the supermarket.
She’s bringing home biscuits!

Smoke
Seeping from the laundry chute in a gray, billowy thundercloud.
Keep the baby safe from smoke.
            Smoke comes from fire.
            Fire could hurt the baby.
Get the baby from the crib and run.
Save the baby!

Fire
Sparkling, flickering, melting fur and tail with red-orange fingers.
Keep running down the stairs
            Don’t stop because of your burning tail.
            Don’t stop because of your simmering lungs.
Run outside away from fire.
Save the baby!

Fault
Burning through my fur and
PRIMARY SYSTEMIC FAULT IN LOCATIONS
           0010 0000 0E00 008E
           00E0 08E0 0880 0000

BACKUP SYSTEM ONLINE
Run through the door!

Door
Get through door without hurting baby;
Find Paramedic
If no Paramedic then Fireman Else Policeman
           If WATCH BABY then BISCUITS Else BAD DOG
     ERROR LOCATION 08E0

Stop
Place baby on ground gently, like a puppy.
INITIATE PRIMARY SHUTDOWN
     AUDITORY INPUT SUBSYSTEM
          VALUE = “Good boy! We'll take care of her now.”
BISCUITS? Y
SHUTDOWN.

Confessions of a Fiction Writer

It’s taken me twenty years of writing fiction to admit this, but I hate fiction.

Don’t get me wrong: I love lying, I love making things up, I love sharpening and blunting the corners of reality with my words.  

But I’m deeply uncomfortable with the arbitrary structures that are supposed to make good fiction like Freytag’s Triangle, the Hero’s Journey, and all that Save-the-Cat bullshit. Also, disembodied third-person storyteller voices narrating from Beyond can go fuck themselves; who are you and what’s your angle, pal?

Give me a good hoax any day. Give me a wobbly unpredictable story made of fake newspaper articles or letters or lab notes or journal entries or police accounts or depositions, and I’m with you all the way.  

(Ever wonder why so many of my stories are told in the first person and/or woven together from found objects? It’s not JUST because I suck at exposition.)

For some reason, I have the heart of a forger, so my fiction tries to explain its own existence as something other than fiction. It might have to do with discovering horror non-fiction as a kid before the made-up kind, haunting the section of the elementary school library with the books about ghosts, missing people, and UFOs that were supposedly true.

One of the greatest compliments I received for my work is the undergrad at ICFA who asked me after a reading of “Night Fever” if I planned to write any more stories about this amazing Charles Manson character I created.

(Maybe it shouldn’t be.)

The trouble is that I forget this all of the time, and there’s a phase of my writing where I grind hopelessly at a “normal” narrative wondering why it doesn’t feel alive to me. Eventually I remember to flip the con man switch – thanks, Dad, for the bullshitter genes! – and I start to enjoy the work a lot more, imagining how it will affect a reader.

That’s the key to a hoax: it has to involve empathy, extending your emotional reach to imagine what would convince other people. You can use that for evil, selling shares in things that don’t exist. Or you can use it for weirdness, convincing readers that a balloon has made it across the Atlantic like Poe did.

I use it for weirdness because it isn’t fun unless the audience eventually enjoys the artistry of the hoax.

That’s why I’m so compulsively and bluntly honest in the real world: most lies are boring.

Ice Breaking for Writers

You’d think after twenty years of various kinds of teaching, I’d have inured myself to ice-breaking activities at the starts of classes and meetings, but no, I still don’t like them.

There is a slug-like creature deep inside me who would rather lurk at the edges of a gathering and judge the people there instead of participating. That creature, too, curls and twitches when exposed to all of the ordinary ways that people get to know each other.

For me, an icebreaker would be, “Who here has ever experienced something science can’t explain?” THAT is how you get to know people, going straight to their crack-pottery.

Yet I know that they’re a necessary evil, and the true reason I don’t like them is the same reason that the slug would rather ooze: entropy is easier.

So it is with returning to writing day after day, another endeavor that requires icebreaking. For me, there’s a huge mental or emotional barrier before getting back into creative work, but knowing that doesn’t make it easier to get through.

What’s nice – though not required – from a writing session for me is absorption: getting back inside the thing so that I can look back out through its eyes again, able to intuit what feels right to do next. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls it flow, but George Saunders has a metaphor that makes better sense to me: an eye doctor flipping through the lenses to feel which is better for the total vision.

Getting to that state is difficult, but I’ve come up with a few tricks:

  • Open a file, read a little of what I wrote before, and tinker with a few things that don’t look or sound right to me.
  • Ask myself a question in writing about the work in progress (sometimes as simple as “What the fuck is going on?”) and then answering also in writing.
  • Open a new document and paste in the parts of the work in progress that I am certain I want to keep, leaving the iffy ones in the old version.
  • Write a photograph I don’t have, describing a place or a person or a feeling from my past that hasn’t been otherwise recorded.
  • Write a Postcard Story based on some image I find (though I seldom have energy to write the original thing once I finish one).
  • Type out a passage from a work I admire in a similar voice or point of view (first person, third person) to get a feel again for how prose flows. Sometimes I’ll type in a passage from my own work.

All of these are on-ramps to getting back into my work, and there are countless passages in my journals where I leave them half-finished to go back into the story that has suddenly returned to me.

This is where I’m supposed to say that writing isn’t always fun or easy, but I’d guess that even plodding ahead is a kind of icebreaking, albeit slow and painful. And with so few pleasures to be had from the publishing of writing, why shouldn’t you make creating it as enjoyable as possible?

My best work has come from “tinkering,” the word that best describes the low-pressure experimentation that’s required for me to create.

I build stories the same way that Roy Neary built his model of Devil’s Tower in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, one smudge of mashed potatoes at a time.