You’re not the master of your story, and that’s okay

Hello! Are you writing a novel? Or perhaps a short story? Whatever the case, you’re a story-worker of some description. A screen-writer, a children’s author, a playwright. The title doesn’t matter. Whoever you are, this is for you.

Get over yourself.

That’s right. This is Alice’s motto, the password through Alicegate, and the anthem of Aliceland.

Your story is more important than you. You will die and be wormfood, a lump of bones, a smear of ash. Well, your story might be, too – but it might not. Alone of you two, it has the chance to live, to stay aloft on the hours of history, in order to live and teach hundreds of years in the future.

Still, we say we create our stories. We craft them, we put them together piece by piece, we imagine them, edit them, and polish them. We’re the writers, right? We’re the boss and the bee’s knees, we’re the shit and the dog that ate it. Right?

Well, the truth is, we’re no more than a mother giving birth. We hear the call, and the baby is seeded within us. We give it the space to grow. We protect it while it gets big in our belly. And when the time comes, we’re in a hell of a lot of pain, and then it’s out, and we’ve no more say in what it will become. Cue post-pregnancy blues.

(Sure, a mother has a strong hand in a child’s future once it’s out of her womb. Here the suckling and the story differ: once the latter is out of us, it is independent and fully learned. Thereafter, it will only teach us, not vice versa.)

Our stories aren’t our own. They just pass through our hands, briefly, on their way to greater spheres. That’s why, when you write, get out of the way.

I know. We’re tempted, every one of us, to somehow include ourselves in the story. To make that gibe at the politician we hate, to get our comeuppance on the girl who slighted us in junior high, to put a little salve on our hearts after that smarting breakup.

Alice understands. You’ve every right to grieve. But the story is not where you do that. The story is its own creature, a proud beast that must run unburdened by us.

We’re monkeys, of course, so we’re always tempted to figure out which monkey is behind which story. That’s inevitable, I suppose. Once an author hits it big, their name will dwarf the story title on the book cover. That’s our monkey nature, I guess. We grovel, fling poo, gossip, brown-nose, and do our damnedest to hide evidence of our misdeeds while putting our own name on a pedestal.

As a writer, though, please, please, please try to get over your monkey nature. Stash that poo, and forget the gilt awards. Let your story have the centre stage, and you exit left.

Write only what is relevant to the story. Write without prejudice. Write of hatred but without hatred. Write of love but do it without attachment. Write of lust and forget your shame. Write of death without fear of your own. Write with such abandon that you become annihilated in the furnace of your story, burnt with fire so powerful that even the cinders of your being are vanished.

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Gimmicks

Writer, what’s the first rule of using a gimmick?

That you mustn’t depend on the gimmick.

Also, Alice wonders whether it’s a coincidence that the first rule of writing an allegory is the same. Perhaps allegories are a kind of gimmick? Also also, anybody out there who still writes allegories?

Time, or why not to write every day

Let’s open with some age-old writerly advice: if you’re a writer, you should write every day.

Which is of course bullcrap.

Writing every day is a great exercise if you’ve never tried it, and if you find it agreeable, even better. But it is not a universal law. You don’t, in fact, need to write every day.

Why not? Because of how the mind works. Specifically, the subconscious mind.

It’s a misconception to think that we only do our thinking in that part of the brain that’s “awake” – you know, the one that “talks internally” and “weighs options” and where you have that cosy and/or terrified feeling of “being you”. The truth is, that’s just a small part of what the brain is. In fact, far beneath the sparkling surface of your conscious thinking, the brain is constantly at work, pumping thought into us, just like the heart pumps blood – all the damn time.

In fact, while acknowledging that I know jack all of neurology, I make here the outrageous claim that most of our so-called thinking is done without our noticing it. The conscious mind takes frequent breaks, often to check in on the subconscious to see what it’s supposed to be thinking. But the subconscious, the true 24/7 burger parlor of our mind, never rests, being always at work.

The best part? The subconscious is at work for us. That’s one of the reasons why, if you practice the flute and skip training for three days, you notice improvement although you did nothing but eat nachos and masturbate!

How does this benefit writing? Simple. You give your subconscious slack.

You know how all the damn creativity experts say that idleness is the fount of creation? That’s what they mean, even if they can’t articulate it. You have to sit still, do nothing, and let your subsurface brain take care of business.

That’s why idleness, though it has a reputation of wasting time, is no time-waster at all. In fact, just to make another outrageous claim, I posit here that the subconscious is far more efficient than the conscious. It isn’t affected by the sluggishness of our conscious processes (which it doesn’t need), or by our deadly inner critics (which it doesn’t hear), or by divided attention leading to procrastination (on which it thrives).

Sometimes, we hear about the spectacular effects of the subconscious at work. Maybe we’re lucky and get to experience them first-hand. For example, you read about someone who wrote a thrilling play in the span of three days. Or a best-selling novel in a month. Maybe you’ve sat down, put your fingers on the keyboard, and a first-rate short story just came out of you in half an hour of concentrated brilliance.

What happens there? Simply that the subconscious has been hard at work – maybe for years – before something clicks and the victim spits out the finished product in time that seems phenomenally brief. And yes, the writer themselves may not realise they’ve worked subconsciously for years. Suddenly, they just “found the story in them” or felt “the play just wrote itself” and that “it was like magic”, or whatever phrase they use.

It’s not magic. It’s just the way our mind ripens things. One day, the fruit simply drops into our lap.

There are two dangers. The first is expecting that we can work that three-day magic without the preparatory subconscious work. Sometimes we can, if we’re terrific at impro, for example. Most of the time, we can’t. If you can turn off your inner critic, you can produce a jaw-dropping amount of work in a short time (the reason why NaNoWriMo exists). But that’s no guarantee of the work being coherent (the reason why NaNoEdMo exists).

The other danger? The part where I said do nothing, I meant it.

Today, the human credo is to stay busy: have a demanding job, a handful of intellectually stimulating hobbies, exercise daily, and subsist on three hours of sleep. (Really, especially the sleep part. What the hell do you think we sleep one third of our lives for? Cleanliness isn’t next to godliness, sleep is! Whenever you have the option to do something or sleep, choose sleep. God my witness, every time!)

But, being busy is anathema to the subconscious. If you keep cramming your brain, it won’t become overflowing with goodness. It’ll just suffocate.

Do nothing. Nothing. Waste time. Really, really waste time. Do not do any thing.

Okay, you can do some things. Some things the subconscious is okay with. Which things? Usually, rote stuff. Washing dishes. Walking. Weeding the garden. Stuff that lets the mind (and, mostly, the body) rest. For most people, I think you can’t go to the gym and hit a soul-flaying three hours of crossfit while expecting your subconscious to finalise your novel. For most people, I think, the body is the mind, too.

So, uh, ad summam? Love your subconscious, and it’ll return your love. Don’t think you can force it. Give it slack. Usually best done by giving yourself slack.

 

Post-script: what if I do write every day and I’m doing great? Well, uh, in that case you’re doing great, and probably don’t need to change anything.

Lightning and the lightning bug

Hello! This is Alice! I’d hate to be called a book nerd, but I have no problem identifying as a word nerd. Makes sense, right? Anyway, what up all you Twainspotters, let’s take a dip in the unquiet, tortuous sea of diction!

Do you know the paradox of words? They’re both

1) arbitrary, i.e. there’s no reason you couldn’t call your trusty steed faris (although I’d prefer you use her real name)

and

2) absolute, i.e. if you don’t call your steed a horse, how the heck are the sisters of your English langue to know what you are talking about? (Unless you call your mount a gelding, for example.)

The former is what gave birth to deodands, and the latter is why le mot juste is a point of honour to a valorous warrior of verbiage. Yet the latter is also why the former can belong to God under the law. (Look up deodands, you Vancians, you  might be surprised!)

The former of course allows existence to the fantastic phantasms of the New Sun, like jezails or anpiels, which is what happens when we take up old or obscure words and spin new meanings for them. Yet, magically, sometimes even the arbitrariness of a word suggests its essence. Could the anpiel be any old angel, for instance? Alice thinks not! (And indeed, what did the Enochian Anpiel protect?)

Also, take care! The absolute side of the paradox makes people wondrously sensitive to words. The stranger a word, the rarer its use: twice can be too much, like “unquiet” was for Wolfe, and “tortuous” for Peake. For Peake, actually, far more than twice…

If you’re still with me, and haven’t abandoned me to my floundering confabulation, I urge you – if you are a writer, a reader, or even merely a casual cavorter through language – to do two things.

First, always look into the meanings of words. Know that they are not set in stone. It was Moses’s hand that held the chisel, too, not God’s.

Second, always take pains to find the right word. Know that once you place it, your word’s worth may be that of a foundation stone.

Until you go back on it, of course!

(Yes, always have mercy for turncoats and renegers. We wouldn’t be human without them.)

Not just lies

Every now and then, Alice stumbles on the old idea that fiction is a liar’s craft. That we writers spin careful untruths to create the web of our stories. You know, just making stuff up.

To Alice, this is an absolutely loathsome idea.

She could go on long tirades on the nature of language, memory, imagination, and the narrative essence of history, but that’s all really beside the point. The most damning thing in saying that fiction is lie-spinning is the avoidance of responsibility.

We writers have a goddamn duty in our writing! Our writing affects. That’s what we’re all wishing it does, right? Nobody says, “Doot do doo, I’m just typing away here, hopefully nobody ever reads my work and laughs, or sheds a tear, or has a thought of their own.”

We know – we hope – that our writing will be more than black squiggles on paper. But what about when it is? What about when our fiction hits like a divine hammer, and the world quakes? When Goethe instigated all those copycat suicides, he may have been tempted to defend himself by saying: “Well, it’s just fiction.”

Don’t say that. Own up to what you’ve done.

Fiction has the potential to be truer than reality, just as reality has the potential to be truer than fiction. This is the great, truth-warping paradox of language, and it is what we wield when we unsheathe our pens. Not all of us have the ability or the willingness to pursue the power to its fullest culmination, but in each of us, the trace of that power is present. The least we can do is admit it.

Do not belittle your fiction. Its root is the same force that exhausted God in six days. It can make creation tremble, and calling yourself a crafter of lies is diverting attention from the fact that the blows from your pen might be hurting said creation.

When is my time? On Gene Wolfe

This is for all us young creatures out here. Have you ever looked at your writing career and felt frustration? Have you stared at a blank screen, despairing that nothing comes through your fingers but dross? Have you ever held a rejection letter in your hands and wept, certain that you’ll never be anything?

I have. I am desperate and bursting with hot blood. When will my name gleam in silver letters on the spine of a hard-cover book?

Like all of you, in my hours of wretchedness I turn to my favourite authors for solace and education. Gene Wolfe has long been one of these: my marble pillar, supporting me in the marshes of shoddy prose.

He has always encouraged me to improve my diction, to look into the meanings of words, and further into the meanings of human habits. He has implored me to shroud my deepest messages, to forgo the obvious and withhold explanation, yet never forsaking clarity. Though I have never met him, he is in a very real sense my teacher.

Of course, he has his faults, like all men. The faults, too, inspire, because they humble him and thus place him among mortals, from whom we draw our mentors, who we are one day to surpass. Without faults our objects of adoration should be gods that allow neither doubt nor study, but only worship.

Let’s forget his prose skills and moral weaknesses for a moment, though. What can Wolfe’s career tell us, who despair at never achieving anything?

Certainly, he’s written a cartload of acclaimed works: The Book of the New Sun, The Wizard Knight, the Soldier duology, Pirate Freedom, The Sorcerer’s House, et cetera. Enough accolades to wither anyone’s will to similar fame. But let’s take a closer look!

When was he born, again? 1931. Make no mistake: though he’s still writing, he’s an old guy. And he’s made the bulk of his really good stuff in his later years.

Look at his most famous work, The Book of the New Sun. The dude crossed the threshold of fifty when that came out. Fifty! And his debut novel, of which nobody ever heard of, Operation ARES? He was nearly forty at the time. And, as reviewers point out, Operation ARES kind of sucked.

So how old am I again? As of this writing, I’m not even halfway through my thirties. Why do I despair, when all of time is on my side?

Human mind is impatient, and full of contradictions. We admire writers who have slaved on their works for dozens of years, and want to achieve the same in six months.

Nurture your patience. Writing is a long con. Not just creating a single work, whether a novel or a volume of poetry, but the entire growth of ourselves, as we dig in our roots and develop our shoots, so that we can, at long last, blossom in the full splendour of the sun.

Also, to put things further in perspective: never forget that the mistakes in The Book of the New Sun range from infuriating (Kim Lee Soong) to inexcusable (all the fuckable ladies).

So yeah. Plenty of time to take a lesson or two, and become better than the brightest beacons in the black seas.

Our time is coming. Work toward it.

Organicity

Hello! This is Alice. She’s happy to announce her wondrous discovery: organicity is a word the dictionary recognises! Isn’t it wonderful? A bit clumsy, yes, but far above its super clunky counterpart, organicalness!

Anyway, this is a companion piece to what I wrote earlier about authenticity. I sought to understand authenticity in terms of truth; organicity, on the other hand, I associate with life. When I try to determine if a text is organic, I ask myself: is it alive?

Like authenticity, organicity is one of my guiding principles. And yes, like authenticity, it’s just as nebulous. So, apologies in advance for any randomly colliding thought trains!

So, what makes a text “organic”? When is a text alive? Here are some guidelines.

A living text doesn’t exhaust itself

Wolfe’s metric for a good book was that he could read it again and again, and it would keep giving him joy. A living text is like that: not a one-trick pony, nor a one-hit wonder, it reinvents itself between readings, so that every time I pick it up, it’s new. It’s a cornucopia, a wondrous Sampo or a cauldron of plenty that keeps nourishing me until the end of my days. Better yet, it gets richer and richer in subsequent readings.

A living text isn’t a slave to structure

The text may follow the hero’s journey, or fit into a three act structure. It may be divided into chapters, and adhere to a grammar. But it is not defined by these things, like humans are not defined by their skeletons. They may give it shape, but the shape merely serves the greater thing, a thing above all shapes, forms, chains, and limitations.

A living text isn’t a slave to story

A text may tell a story, but a living text isn’t a story. It may tell a hundred stories, but it is not one of them, nor even the sum of them. A living text may even contradict or make fun of its own story. Life itself doesn’t have a story. Neither does a living text.

A living text doesn’t end

Books end once you’ve read the last page and closed the back cover. But the text isn’t the book. The book is just the media, a slew of paper and ink designed to deliver the text, which is born in your brain. And if the book delivers you a living text, it keeps on living after the book has been closed. Ink and paper cannot contain it: it lives in larger spheres, where infinity alone is big enough to cradle it.

 

Now, as I’ve written these guidelines, I see that they all say pretty much the same thing. Well, so be it. I guess the root of all life is more or less the same.

How am I to write a text like that, then? How can I catch a spark of that life? Well, my dear Alice, try one of these:

1. Explore unrelated tangents.

I know, I know. You’ve outlined a tight plot in three acts. You’ve pared down your list of scenes to a minimum. But still, why don’t you try that path down there? It probably doesn’t lead anywhere, and maybe the characters won’t really learn anything. But, for heaven’s sake, don’t bind your text up until it chokes.

Unbutton for a while. Let the text breathe. And if the digressions keep bothering you later, you can always cut them out.

2. Be interested in the world, not just the story and the characters.

You can craft the perfect protagonist, then kill her off in the first chapter, and your world won’t care. (Much.) And if you let it, your world can spawn you another protagonist just as good as the first one. Ain’t that a marvellous thing? Won’t you take a look at the world, by itself, and see a bit of what it can offer?

Take my word: the world doesn’t revolve around you, Alice. Neither does the world of your text revolve around your characters. No matter how much you love them.

3. Be ambiguous.

Write clear, write concise. We’ve heard that one before, right? And I’m not telling you to pepper your sentences with some, thing, about and mostly. I am telling you to pick at the contradictory knobs in your characters, and poke at the weird spots in your world. Explore the unexplainable, but don’t try to explain it. Withhold your opinions. Leave room for more than either or.

Ambiguity is lifeblood. If you don’t give your reader any ambiguity, you might as well not give them a text at all.

…and lastly, I suppose, don’t force yourself on your story, Alice. The prettiest gardens grow without human interference. So does your text. You are, at best, just the medium.