To write like God

Why is there evil? Why did God, in omnipotence, create pestilence and genocide? Why do the weak suffer though God is said to be benevolent?

This is a topic I’ve talked about previously, though never from such a biblical angle. I beg you to bear with me. They say every artist only has that one painting in them, the one they keep trying to bring out in all their paintings. Maybe this topic is that painting for me.

So, why is there evil?

In short, because that’s how creation works. You, who create, understand this in your bones.

It’s not possible to create a thing that is good. Neither is it possible to create a thing that is beautiful. When you look at the naked core of creation, only one thing is possible for you: to create things that live.

That is why there is evil. Though good, God could not create a creation that was good. He could only create a creation that lives – and it lives by its own free will.

The creation and all its creatures just slipped through God’s fingers like so much fine sand. All he did was breathe life into them. He couldn’t choose. Choice was reserved for the created.

Like, think of motherhood. As mothers, we can’t choose to bear good children. The gametes join, and they grow into something. All we can do is hope that this something stays alive.

This concerns deeply all you artists. Ya wanna write, paint, or sing like gods? Then you gotta surrender to it. What you create will flow through you. It wants to live, so it cannot stay in you. It wants to be free. It wants to be unburdened by you.

The child cannot stay in its mother’s womb, and neither can the story stay in your imagination.

Once it gets out, you can rule over it no longer. In fact, it was never for you to rule. You were the seedbed. In you, the seed had a safe nest. In you, the seed drank the fresh rain and basked in the sun. Through you, the seed burst into the world. You gave it the foundation, the outlet, but the rest was up to the seed. The glory is not with the seedbed, but with the bright green shoots that reach toward the light.

Recognise your seedbedness. You are no author. You are not in control. When you know this, and accept this, you will write like God.

Hard work is a lie

Hello, peeps! This is Alice.

A short trawl through the quotesphere turns up a ton of sayings praising persistence. You know the type: Never give up. Work hard and success will follow. According to internet, if you just “stick to it”, you can achieve anything.

Well, guess what, peeps? Alice calls BS. If we’re talking ’bout success, hard work is not the way.

What is, then? Well, recently I read an interview of Kari Enqvist. She named the two main ingredients of the success soup. The first is networking. In short, knowing people gets you places. Being buddies with the boss. Drinking with the good ol’ boys. Makes sense, right? Humans work in herds, because the herd is a power multiplier.

The second is luck. People may not want to admit it, but life is pretty random. We live in an age of unprecedented order, so it’s easy to think there are clear rules in life. It is not so. Scratch the shining surface of orderliness, and beneath you’ll find the scintillating colours of chaos. That’s life. Luck rules.

Oh, there’s a third factor, too, pointed out to me when I read another interview, this time of a Swedish nobleman. Yes, you guessed it. Success is inherited. It’s easier to be rich if mama was rich. It’s easier to be famous if papa was famous. It’s, get this, even easier to be smart if mama was smart! The nobility lives, folks. Equal opportunity for all is a big ol’ lie.

So, to sum it up: You wanna succeed? Easy. One, be born rich. Two, know people. Three, get lucky.

Hard work gets the fourth place. Maybe.

All right! Depressing part ends here. There’s a silver lining, and I wanna look at it, too.

First, if you like doing something, like being an artist, but don’t like working hard, this is great news for you! You can flip the bird at all the anxiety-inducing persistence mantras. Instead, let yourself be a lazy loafer.

I know being lazy isn’t fashionable in our super-charged, by-the-minute scheduled world, but you know what, kids? Creativity is born right there, in idleness.

Second, if you wanna get good, hard work is totally your medicine. If I work hard twelve hours a day, can I become a master at spinning flaming poi, painting watercolour landscapes, or dealing with mentally unstable humans? Yes, I can! (Just recognise that being skillful and being successful are not synonymous.)

Third, hard work can be a pleasure all on its own. The same goes for, say, training. The best reason to work hard or to train hard is just that: because you love the work, or because you love to train.

Do it for love, peeps. Love the work that you do. When the chips are down, that’s the only real reason to do anything.

(Okay so I was kinda lying when I said hard work is a lie… but it is a lie the way people link it with success. So there. Imma stop my frothing now.)

Birds aren’t free

We humans have the ignorant notion that birds are free. Well, have I got news for you: they ain’t!

Birds can’t fly as far as they want without eating and resting. They are at the mercy of predators, the elements, or both. Many are forced to undertake gruelling migratory flights. Most, if not all, have invaders ravaging their homelands.

And guess what, peeps? In just the same way, imagination isn’t free either.

Honestly, our imaginations are pretty caged. They’re limited by what we know and have experienced. Mostly, when we do something imaginative, what we really do is copy one another. The idea that we could be “completely original” is both repulsive and false.

Yes, repulsive. It suggests that we are indebted to no one – that we are totally our own masters, creating wonders from emptiness, fuelled only by our heart’s genius!

Yup, bullshit. We all owe our creativity to creators who have preceded us. Could Rhys have written without Brontë? Susanna Clarke without Dickens? Wolfe without Vance? Like them, we’re all of us up to our ears in debt.

Let us not feel bad, though. That debt is how things should be. Humans don’t work alone, even when they want to. In fact, all of our work is based on the work of our foremothers. And that’s all right, because they worked hard to get us here.

So yeah, how do we writers work? We read. We find ideas that catch our fancy. Then we pour our fancies onto paper. We don’t really have a thought of our own – I know I don’t. I’m just copying others. And how could I not? Countless of artists have gone before me, and they’ve thought all the thoughts worth thinking already.

So, I’m a copier. But I’m not going to feel bad about it.

Conversely, I’m not going to feel bad if someone else takes my hard work and rides to glory on it.

Why should I? It’s what humanity has done for millennia. I cast my bread upon the waters, for I trawl those very waters for my own bread.

Alice Question Extravaganza, vol. 2

Hello once more, this is Alice! Tags and awards make rounds, the wheel of fate spins, and the arrow lands upon Alice. This time, the mistress of fate is the lovely Melissa Rose Rogers! Again, Alice won’t nominate anyone.

To be frank, Melissa is a newer acquaintance of mine. I have little in-depth knowledge of her, but she seems sweet, clever, alert, and savvy. One of her aspirations is screen-writing, which is highly important! You see, much as it saddens me to say so, screen-writing is the writing of the future, quite apart from novels and like. Ergo, every writer should be proficient in screen-writing. Melissa is.

Also, she’s photographed sharks circling over a sunken ship. How awesome can you get?

Anyway, on to the questions:

If you could have lunch with anyone in the world, who would it be?

My mother. She’s an irritating little boozer. I could use that lunch to try and talk her out of the goddam habit!

Yes, I know. The question is set up so you’d be inclined to choose some historical or modern celebrity, or something. But suppose I chose Lord Nelson, everybody’s number one lunch companion? He might be delighted to find himself alive again, depart the lunch table, and embark on a destructive naval campaign of global scale! Wouldn’t want that.

The real trick with wishes is to wish small. So yeah, my mother.

What word annoys you the most?

Creativity. Just, yech. It gets bandied about so much it doesn’t even mean anything any more.

When you were six, what did you want to be when you grew up?

A space fighter! Yes baby, I had it all clear in my mind’s eye. I’d have a wicked beam-gun (kind of like the Nintendo laser gun), and a really sweet, glossy, green-and-blue jumpsuit that my mother had made for me. And a baseball cap. In that getup, I’d be racing through the stars, fighting nefarious enemies, and… you know… being cool. The dreams of six-year-old me didn’t really go further than that. Good thing my dreaming ability is now much more well-developed.

I’d still jump at the chance to be a space fighter, though.

Is there a movie based off a book that disappointed you?

I don’t know. I haven’t seen that many movies where I’d also read the book. What comes to mind is the Lord of the Rings trilogy. That kinda sucked.

Is there a dessert you find overrated?

Cake. My God, CAKE. It’s like the mother of evil advertising! I fall for the promises of cake every time: so foamy, so crispy, a balance of perfect sweetness, tempered with tanginess, and lovely chewiness that melts your jawbone! And it’s a lie, every time. Cake never delivers.

Besides, if I want dessert, there are tons of better options: gelato, pudding, toffee, rolls, even pie! (Pie is usually pretty icky. But compared to cake, it’s up there in the third or fourth heaven!) And lastly, port. Oh Lord, I despise drunkenness, but… port. Turns my gonads liquid.

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

I don’t know. I don’t think I was a very bookish child. Maybe Moominpappa’s Exploits. That’s still a great book.

What’s something that always makes you smile?

Elves with pistols! And Relm from Final Fantasy VI.

Is there a book that you wish was a movie?

Elric of Melniboné. In a bizarre way I’m fond of the original Conan the Barbarian, you know, the Milius film. Yes, it’s a platter of cheese on top of a slab of bad acting, but some of the images just make my mind spin. I’d like for them to make Elric into a film of that scope – no cheese, but the same kind of cinematic ambition.

The 2011 Conan was stupid, of course, and most films of the genre are ghastly in their pandering. I know it’s a pipe dream, but I want a swords & sorcery film that’s actually thoughtful and artistic and goddam credible. I want Elric to be that.

Elric books mostly suck, though. Just like Conan. See, more parallels?

Is there a disease you wish the average person knew more about?

Yes! That disease in Judge Dredd, where he goes to that weird planet, and the man he’s tracking has contracted a local disease that makes parts of his body slowly disappear! So, when Dredd meets the guy, he’s full of square holes! I want the average person to know all about that disease!

Yes, out of all fictional diseases that I know of, that one is the stupidest. But it’s stupid in a pretty funny way. “Hey! Where’d that bit of my leg go? Well, whatever. For some reason, I can still walk normal.”

What is your least favorite movie?

You mean a movie I absolutely loathe and despise above and beyond all the other movies I loathe and despise? You must know me well, for I loathe and despise most movies in existence!

Jokes aside, I don’t know. “Least favorite” doesn’t imply outright hatred, anyway, right? It implies that if given the choice of watching something, it’d be near the bottom of the list. Something unpleasant, something trivial, something you wouldn’t want to give a minute of your life to. Right. Manchester by the Sea, you’re up!

If you could only read books by one author for the rest of your life, who would you choose?

This is a very evil question. As a writer, I need to be able to read my own works, if I want to edit them and improve. But I also need to read broadly to keep my blade sharp. I’m afraid that if I had to so choose, it would be a mortal blow to my work.

In fact, if faced with such a wicked predicament, I would probably stop being a writer.

If I could.

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.

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.

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.