Princely advice

Hello! This is Alice. Do you guys know Queen Elizabeth’s consort, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh? He said a thing once that’s loyally served as my guiding star.

To paraphrase, he said never to talk about yourself. And why? Because nobody cares. Deep down, everybody is interested in themselves, and nobody cares to hear who you are, or what you do.

I’ve always thought that was kinda comforting. Y’know? Don’t have to prove anything to anybody, ’cause nobody cares. I can just be me, and not be bothered by any asshole.

(Yeah, I wish… but hey, that’s not the topic for today.)

I realise that Prince Philip’s advice can be scary for some. If you’ve lived your whole life dependent on others’ good opinion, well, that kinda eats at the foundation of your being, don’t it?

Try living by it sometime, though! There’s a special kind of power in getting to decide for yourself as to what constitutes a good life.

Anyway, what I actually wanted to say is, Philip’s words may seem doubly scary for writers. We want others to hear what we’re saying, right? We need people to hear us, and we need them to care! Is there anything worse than writing a story and having nobody read it? Philip must be dead wrong!

Well, not quite. You see, when you write a story, that’s not you talking.

The story talks. You’re just the interpreter.

There’s two advantages in thinking like this, I believe. First, if your story doesn’t hit big, hey, who cares? It’s water off the bird’s back. You’re just the interpreter, after all.

Second, if your story does hit big, well, who cares? It’s nice and all – but you’re just the interpreter. What a great safeguard to keep your ego from swelling!

Heed the Prince, peeps. Nobody cares!

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Don’t explain the joke!

Hey, what up you jokesters? This is Alice. Her life and affairs are a sad joke, but this post isn’t about that – this is about jokes, writing, and never ever in a million years explaining your puns.

Let’s get to the point right away! What’s the best pleasure in hearing a joke? Getting it.

What’s the worst? Having some dorky know-it-all put on his cheeky glasses and telling to you what was so funny about it. And why’s that the worst? Because they’re hijacking your electric, sizzling, God-given right to get it.

We’re writers. We’re impatient, right? I know I am. When I crack a joke, I want the audience to burst into laughter right away, dammit! Or when I insert a clever palindrome into my carefully crafted sentence, I want a stranger across the room to wink at me knowingly. I want them to get it (because that’s the best pleasure) and I want to know they got it!

However, the thing is, my wanting doesn’t make a damn difference. And when the chips are down, I can’t know. Not for sure.

I mean, no matter how hard someone laughs, they might just be doing it out of politeness. Or because my joke made them think about another joke, and they were laughing about that.

That’s why I’m tempted to explain. “You got it, right? Right? The frog said that because…

NO. STOP IT.

It doesn’t matter. Coach yourself in that, honey. It doesn’t matter. If they get it, fine. If they don’t get it, also fine.

Overexplaining destroys things. In Alice’s opinion, it’s far worse than underexplaining.

Also, we don’t all work at ADHD speeds. Some of us take time in working out what was so clever about it in the first place. I’ve personally taken upwards of five years to get a joke. Let us slow-pokes have our time.

Thinking more broadly, lots of stuff falls under this: jokes, quips, puns, clever things you said to your mum, parting shots of all kinds, conundrums, puzzles, pop culture references, intertextuality, etc. In this vein, I wince every time someone says, “See what I did there?” Or, “Pardon the pun.” Same principle.

Okay, I ran out of things to say. Peeps, don’t stand on your jokes. No joke is strong enough to stand the weight of even the skinniest of us.

Buckwheat and being boring

Y’all boring? Alice is boring as a turd.

Today, pretty much nothing happened. I ate nachos and scratched under my bra. Also, I haven’t written half a word for the whole week. Yesterday I bought a carton of milk, because I was planning to cook some buckwheat, which I didn’t do. Instead, I lay flat on the couch and stared at the ceiling: my most stellar achievement of the day.

Today, I don’t give a fuck about fame, happiness, being successful, being a productive citizen, getting trophies, earning money, having babies and fixing the future, comparing well to the average, matching standards, or being decent.

All I’ve managed is being boring. Also, I didn’t poop my pants, which is a kind of achievement, maybe?

If y’all haven’t been boring in a while, try it out sometime. After all, most of us don’t lead shining lives of success. Most of us just scrape by.

And, despite whatever lies they tell you in The Picture of Dorian Gray, don’t flatter yourself that you’re more exciting in your writing, or whatever. We are not in our writing. Style and authorhood are lies.

Rodin tore down his masterwork because he thought he was in it, and he was bloody wrong. They rebuilt it, anyway.

We writers are rather like the sphincter. Most days, shit comes through us. Some rare days, there’s a bit of gold lodged there in our turds. But the gold isn’t of the sphincter.

Nothing is of the sphincter, really. Not the shit, either. The sphincter is just the gate. We are just the gate.

Embrace your sphincterness, fellow writers. Embrace boring.

 

Also, anybody got a good recipe for buckwheat porridge? The kind you make overnight in an oven.

Be weak

Hello! This is Alice. Do you know the saying about the bug and the windshield? That one night, you, the bug, will meet the windshield of a speeding car, and SPLAT!

It means that no matter how badass you are, somebody out there is – and will always be – stronger and better than you. And when you meet that somebody, all you’ll be is a wet spot on the pavement.

What does this mean for us, the writers?

There will always be another writer out there who will exceed us in every category. Someone whose characters top ours. Someone whose plots blow ours out of the water. Someone whose dialogue dazzles in comparison to ours, whose powers at description make us look like sausage-fingered Sunday painters.

And that, dear friend, is liberating.

It is liberating to be surpassed, liberating to be outranked, liberating to forever stand in the second-to-last place.

Why?

Because, for the strong, there is a relentless pressure to stay strong. Goodness is expected of the good, genius of the geniuses. But what is expected of us, the mediocre? Mediocrity. If that.

For us, there is no demand to be strong. No primal race to slay the lion. It’s just us, the mediocre little us, standing unnoticed in the waving grass, not bothered by those who want the lion killed, free to just stare at the sky.

Don’t pine after the lion killers, my friend. It is comparison that kills.

When we compare ourselves to others, we settle the leaden weight of expectancy upon our shoulders, and that weight makes it that much harder to trudge on. And yes, some of us whisper in our minds, “You’re only in competition with yourself.” But that’s a bullshit truism. If the idea of competition is there, it doesn’t matter if the opponent is Carter or yourself – it’s competition regardless, and competition is a merciless knife. Don’t let it cut you.

Call me morbid, but I prefer waiting for death to struggling to prove that I’m strong, good, or honest. That struggle takes my energy away from more meaningful things. And even should I succeed in that struggle, where would that take me? Ahead of my peers. But is that any place to be?

Humanity isn’t a solo event. Remember it when you meet the windshield, and don’t fly headlong at it. Instead, shake hands with the windshield. Make friends with the windshield. And know, deep down, that the best of us are just sacks of easily-crushed organs once the robot overlords arrive. But never get smug about it.

Revel in your weakness. Don’t compare. Encourage, instead, your fellow weaklings on this shared path of mediocrity.

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.

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.

Icelandic sagas and the art of detachment

Previously, Alice talked about how people find patterns in the sparsest of details. But that was about visual perception. What does it have to do with writing?

To begin with, people have a tendency to over-explain and to over-share.

Examples of the former: Alice drinks a glass of water, and in response to her friend’s look, explains, “I was thirsty.” Alice buys a new dress, and tells the cashier, “I’m treating myself. Sometimes it’s nice to treat yourself, you know?” Alice goes for a walk by herself, and later says to her friend, “I just want to be by myself sometimes.”

Examples of the latter: all of social media. Such as this blog.

We have a deep-seated need to let everybody around us know. We’re constantly telling each other what we’re thinking, feeling, or doing.

This bleeds into writing, too. We want to get the whole beautiful cacophony in our heads onto the page, and from there into the head of our reader. So we describe our characters, their thoughts, delve into their motivations, paint out the milieu, include bits of world-building, chart the history of our created world, the history of our characters, their childhood woes, their emotions, what they see, feel, all the sensations, sounds, smells, all the goddamn five senses, words, words, words.

Wait! Why do we do this, when we know that people find patterns in the sparsest of details?

Alice supposes we get too stuck up with our ego. We forget the reader. We just want to get it all out, so that people can see what a wonderfully beautiful inner world we have. However, the reader has a beautiful inner world like that, too. That is the only reason why any text works at all.

So, trust the reader. If you don’t, you’ll suffocate their imagination with verbiage.

Alice thinks the Icelandic family sagas illustrate this point nicely. They may not be everybody’s medicine, but what is? Not my advice, and not anything. But anyway!

The style of the sagas is amazingly detached. We don’t get much in the way of description. The cast of characters is diverse, but the sagas are sparing on character details, outward or inward. In addition, and more importantly, the sagas pass no judgement. Stuff happens. The narration makes few comments on it. What happens is often neither good nor evil, neither foreboding nor common, neither awesome nor humdrum. What happens simply happens.

Njál and his household is burned. Everybody dies. The narration asks for no sympathy. Kári begins his long revenge. The narration neither condemns nor exalts him. Grettir spends eighteen  years as an outlaw, and dies just before he would have been pardoned. For the entirety of the saga, there is no wallowing in misery for him. We just see what goes on.

And it’s magnificent.

The gaps in this kind of storytelling are food for human imagination. Emptiness, not richness, activates the mind.

By biting their tongue, the writer may leave such gaps in their work. By slaughtering their chattering ego, they may write just enough to activate the imagination of their reader. No more.

This is the art of detachment. You, the writer, are not important. So shut up and paint your story with as few brushstrokes as possible. Your reader’s imagination – where the magic really happens – takes care of the rest.