Who is the best writer?

Alice asks Google.

Google responds! “The Best Writers of All Time.” Top 10: Nothing but dead white guys! Figures.

Alice imagines the Board of the Best Writers convening – a gathering of the shambling dead, their flesh rotted, mummified, or blasted off entirely, so that they droop as inert skeletons, mouths hanging open in a slackjawed grin. Their conversation consist of nothing but silence or wordless groans. They hunger only for the brains of living writers.

The upside? Once you’re rotten, nobody knows what colour your skin was.

Or do they?

The thing about dead writers (usually dead white writers) is that there’s more of them every minute. Then, in Litican there’s Book Pope with his Writing Cardinals, choosing who among the noble, rotting dead gets a spot at the Best Writer Round Table. And based on that, there’s always someone out there trying to guilt-trip Alice into reading something she doesn’t really want to read, but if she doesn’t, she won’t be “genteel” and “well-read” and “cooltivated”.

Well, screw you, Book Pope. Alice has long since decided that she will read what she will read. To keep up with the canonised white guys, plus all the hot new white guys, plus everything in between, would be to suicide under a tottering mountain of printed word.

Alice does like recommendations. She does like it, when someone points out to her something that might be worth reading. But she hates obligation. Obligation is, all too often, just a veiled attempt of trying to boss Alice around.

History is too full of text for even full-time historians to make sense of it. For Alice, to feel guilt over things she has not read is senseless – akin to feeling guilt over the fact that you can’t be a competitive swimmer, sharpshooter, figure skater, hockey player, discus thrower, chess master, and ski wrestler all at the same time.

On the other hand, ignorance isn’t bliss, either.

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All the can’ts

I can’t write because I don’t have the time. I’m a single mother, I work two day jobs to support my children. I can’t write because of all the household chores. I have to cook, vacuum, do the laundry, the groceries, the yard, walk the dog and repair the doghouse.

I have to read all these books, see all these friends, phone all these relatives, do all this exercise, sort all these photos, edit all the photos I’ve sorted, post all the photos I’ve edited. I can’t write because I don’t have the time.

I can’t write because I have no energy. After the day’s chores, I’m spent. I’m exhausted from sitting all day in the office, I’m exhausted because I jogged ten miles, because I cooked a five-course meal, because I went to CrossFit, because I played with the kids and weeded Grandma Ellie’s overgrown garden.

I can’t write because I have nothing to say. I have no words. Everybody I talk to, I tell the same thing. I have no words. What could I say. I can’t write.

I can’t write because everything I say is garbage. I can’t say anything new. I can’t put a new spin on old things. All the stories in the world have been told already, anyway.

I can’t write because I’m sick. Yesterday I drank a bottle of Jack, today I’m so sick I can’t even open the blinds, light hurts, sounds hurt, just thinking about opening the laptop and typing a word hurts. And I’m also sick because I banged my shin on a coffee table, because I have recurrent headaches, because I have a queasy feeling in my stomach sometimes, my tooth hurts, my head spins when I get up too fast, and I have to see the doctor, so I can’t write.

I can’t write because I’m horny. People have less and less sex these days. But I have more and more. I need to fuck, so I can’t write.

I’m going to write soon, I promise. But first, I have to read all these books. How to Live Like a Writer and The Three Golden Rules of Writing and The Writer’s Guidebook to Writerly Writing. I have to be prepared. Before I can write, I have to know how to write.

I can’t write because there’s an emergency! My daughter fell down the stairs, Grandma Ellie saw a spook, I have aural migraines, they must be symptoms of brain cancer!

Alright, alright, there’s no emergency. But I can’t write because I need some peace and quiet. This house is so noisy with all the kids, and my head is so noisy with all the thoughts. I need a Buddhist temple, a serene pine forest, a tranquil lake, hundred-year-old parchment and a quill from the tail feathers of a black swan. I can’t write on a laptop at home, inspiration won’t come.

I can’t write because I’ll fail anyway.

I can’t write because nobody will read it.

I can’t write because I’m scared. I’m scared that somebody will read it. I’m scared that I’ll fail. I’m scared that I won’t fail. I’m scared that I’ll be mediocre. I’m scared that I’ll be good.

I’m scared.

I just can’t, okay?

Indy Fantasy Writers: Alice Gristle! — Iain Lindsay, fantasy author

Iain Lindsay, the ever-friendly author of newly-minted The Hand of the Stormis talking to fantasy writers about book covers. Alice takes part! She is humbled to be in such excellent company…

Okay, gentle peeps – you know the drill. This blog is fortunate enough to be able to host a series of interviews with indy fantasy authors, covering various aspects of their work and the self-publishing process. Last week we talked to Richard M. Ankers, and today we will be chatting with the delightfully mischievous Alice […]

via Indy Fantasy Writers: Alice Gristle! — Iain Lindsay, fantasy author

 

Desperation and the cult of happiness

Hello! This is Alice. Christmas is coming! Time to talk about sorrow, despair, and the dark suicide country of the north, Finland. (Incidentally, Finland is also the home of Satan Claus.)

“Positive thinking” is ubiquitous these days. Always think happy! Sunshine sunshine, cozy cozy, pep talk yourself to balmy beaches and mountaintops and golden success.

Yes, positive thinking has merit. Alice loves encouraging self-talk too. But positive thinking must never crowd out another driving principle of humanity – sadness.

Alice firmly believes that sadness, sorrow, even occasional despair is healthy for human beings. No, not healthy… More like integral. Necessary. Alice wants to pay homage to the vast sadness in herself, because it drives her writing.

Think about the great stories of your life. Did everything always go well in them? Of course not. The story was set in motion because of a great misfortune… Latro was hit in the head and lost his ability to form memories. Titus Groan’s mother was tyrannical and his father insane. Elric’s cousin was killed. And ever after, these sadnesses drove the story forward. In some cases, the characters struggled with their sorrows for the rest of their existences. And the stories were great because of this struggle.

Look out of the door now. Look past the glossy Christmas decorations, beyond the filtered Instagram photos and the white smiles of advertisements, into your own life. You’re a human being. You must have felt sadness once. And that’s okay. That’s as it should be.

Sadness is not a weakness. It’s not a sign that something went wrong. It’s simply a sign that we’re reacting in a healthy way to our outside world. Because, yes, on the other hand, something did go wrong. Something always goes wrong. Clouds cover the shining sun in the end. Your mother dies in the end. Night falls, and crops die. Sadness is simply a way of dealing with that.

Alice lives in Finland. In Finland, people kill themselves a lot. Now, that’s not a good way to deal with sadness. Neither is denying sadness through relentless positive thinking.

Alice wants to nurture sadness. Alice finds strength in it. Words flow like tears. Sadness mixes with joy, creating a mortar stronger than steel. And her text blossoms with the full colours of life. (Well, sometimes it does.)

Yes, Alice acknowledges that there is an illness called depression. This is a real medical condition. Saying “just be happy” doesn’t help with it. Neither does “just nurture your sadness”. Depression happens. When it does, seek help. Rosalind Robertson wrote a short guide, a place where you can start. Excellent reading, especially if you’re a member of the cult of happiness.

Also, if you think I made a typo somewhere, know that Finland is also the land of BLACK METAL.

Fantasy unequals escapism

For some, reading fantastical stories is the perfect getaway from everyday life. Whether it is riding against the Angrborn with Sir Able, or dwelling on the attic with Skellig, fantasy offers us a door into another world, where we may forget our mundane worries for a moment.

That is good, of course. Escapism is a wonderful balm. But Alice feels it is not the whole truth to the concoction called fantasy.

Gaiman, paraphrasing G.K. Chesterton, says:

”Fairy tales are more than true – not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”

That is well said. Fantasy inscribes our bones with words of fire. It turns our sluggish blood into rivers of molten metal. It holds our hands when we cross the shaking bridge. It tells us how to live.

The Knight is not just a childhood dream of being a hero in a land of myth – it is a treatise on truth and honour. Wise Children is not just a Shakespearian roller-coaster ride – it is a vision of a wondrously plural family. Even The Dying Earth, for all its pulp sensibility, is a window into another way of thinking, another mode of action.

To an extent, all writing does this. All writing seeks to affect, even if only slightly. There is no writing that is “neutral”. Each piece of text is an act of influence, consciously or unconsciously.

To that extent, all writing is fantasy. Even the grimmest realistic prose, even the blandest economical non-fiction, is a writer’s interpretation of what the world is, could be, or should be. Fantasy does the very same. It just does it in a more overt, more audacious, or more flamboyant manner.

Ad summam: To escape is good. But never think that is all fantasy is good for.

On geasa

What is a geas (pl. geasa)? It is a taboo or a magic prohibition found in Irish mythology. For example, Cú Chulainn had a geas which forbade him from eating dog meat. If he violated the geas, evil would befall him.

Alice also has a geas, although it is less severe than the one Culann’s hound bears. If Alice breaks her geas, no great evil will befall her (she thinks). Her geas was not put on her by a witch, either. She put it on herself.

Alice’s geas is this: In her fiction, she may not write a character who is exclusively identifiable as a male.

Why does Alice have a geas like this? Why does she choose, willingly, to restrict her writing? To put it simply, she thinks it will – paradoxically – enrich her writing. You see, in mythology, Cú Chulainn also benefited from his geas. True, it restricted him. But if he honoured the geas, it would bring him power, as well. I believe the same about my personal geas.

Taken to the realm of writing, geasa are a reflection of a wider truth: restrictions feed creativity. Some may preach that creativity flourishes in limitless freedom. For some, this may even be true. But I feel that if I have such freedom, I will flounder in an endless sea, paralysed by its immensity.

By caging my creativity, instead, I help it grow. Creativity is, to me, finding a limit, testing it, seeing how it could be surpassed.

We impose limits on our writing subconsciously, too. In fact, all of our writing is predicated on limits, either in obeying or exceeding them. We decide to write a novel. Or we consider ourselves poets. We write only in Portuguese. We write in genre. We mix genres. We look for a voice, integrity for a character, a setting, a tone.

Text does not survive as an amorphous mass. In fact, text itself is a limit. We could express our energies through music or painting. But for some reason, we have chosen to chain ourselves to the written word.

All living creatures are, ultimately, bound by severe limits. We look at the birds and envy them their freedom. But birds must obey the winds, the rain, the strength of their wings. All creatures are bound by their senses, intelligence, or mortality.

For Alice, taking upon a geas is simply honouring this primeval fact.

Shit filter

Hello! This is Alice. Today she wants to talk about one of the most important things a writer can own: the shit filter!

The world is full of shit. Our cities are built upon great networks designed to manage it. Our businesses, institutions, and communities teem with it. Both our ads and our art, our foes and our friends, wallow in shit – some but rarely, some each day of their entire lives.

Shit is good – it humbles and fertilises. Shit is bad – its weight depresses and veers us off course. (And it stinks.)

A writer’s life is similarly full of shit. This is like gravity. Denying it won’t change the fact that if you trip, you’ll hit your head. For a writer to survive her life, therefore, she needs a shit filter.

The shit filter works in two ways. First, it filters out the shit that outside world pelts us with. Our garbage-like entertainment and porn. The gloating egoists we butt heads with at meetings. Our Ouroborean bureaucracy, which seemingly intends to grind us to dust, instead of helping us.

Second, the shit filter helps us deal with our inner shit – an even more important task! It can clean up our garbage-like habits. It can kick out our own egoism. It can tune out the jabbering voice of the inner critic. It weeds the rampant gardens of our writing, so that the beautiful flowers can bloom.

Some call the shit filter “a thick skin”. Very good! Alice thinks this is the same thing. Only, Alice likes the idea of shit more than a skin like armour.

For Alice, armour sounds like a wall. You block out the bad things. You become a little, hermetically sealed bubble, where you are safe from evil influence. Shit, on the other hand, is an ever-present fact of life. Most of us have a little hole at the bottom, where shit comes out delightfully regular! And this is good, because shit is good!

Shit brings nutrients back to the soil. It creates biogas. It carries away what we can’t use, so that somebody else can (like the incredibly bad-assed dung beetles). For writers, shit humbles – we, whose writing is shitty, have no right to our bloated self-importance. Shit is a sign-post – its absence signals to us the presence of wisdom. Shit ferments – in the endless reams of shit we write, a pearl of greatness can be grown.

But we need the filter, because too much is too much. So, be kind to the sewer systems of your own life. Don’t let them get clogged.