You Are Not a Beautiful and Unique Snowflake

Listen up, maggots. You are not special. You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake. You’re the same decaying organic matter as everything else. – Tyler Durden in Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club

Writer’s are a fragile bunch.  We are primarily solitary creatures, except when we are gathering with other writers to talk about writing.  We spend most of our lives dancing to music that exists only in our heads, talking to characters no one else can hear, and trying to effectively communicate what they say to everyone else.

That can be a lot of pressure.  Sometimes it can be overwhelming.  In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott writes about the delicate psyche of the writer and the oppressive gravity a blank page can place upon them.  I think sometimes we let ourselves get frightened by the gravity and scope of what we are trying to do.  There are so many things to worry about.  There is plot, characters, theme, setting, dialogue, grammar, spelling.  We may invest hundreds of hours in a work of fiction that sucks and no one will ever read.  We want to write something special, something that means something.  We want to write the great American novel.

Anne Lamott deals with this by telling herself she only has to write what she can see through a one inch window.  What I do is far less romantic, and likely the by-product of a blue-collar upbringing.  I remind myself that I am not special.  I cannot sit and watch a beautiful masterpiece flow from my fingertips.  I am working.  That requires practice, attention to detail, stubbornness, and the little bit of skill I possess.

I am not special.  Thousands of writers are facing that same blank page at this moment.   Hundreds of thousands of writers have faced millions of blank pages, and amazingly they have managed to be filled.  The Library of Congress has 33 million books, not even a small percentage of all the writing done when you include magazines, screenwriting, playwriting, etc.

I am facing the same problem as everyone else.  My answer will be the only thing different.  When I stopped writing for awhile, a lot of it was about pressure.  Some people around me who had read my stuff said I had talent.  I felt pressure to perform and to do so immediately.  Write a best-seller, my ex-wife used to say, so we can live on the money.  She was trying to be supportive and encouraging, but a few rejection letters later, I stopped submitting.  It was one thing for Ray Bradbury and Stephen King to say to persevere through rejections, they could literally crap on a sheet of paper and a publisher would buy it.  But I am not either one of them.

Lately, I’ve been going to writer’s groups, and that has made the difference.  I realized that I am not special.  I am not the only writer struggling to start a literary career.  I’m not even the only writer in my sub-genre in this city.  Hell, for all I know, I’m not the only writer on my block.  Somehow, that all makes me feel better.  It calms my agoraphobic social phobia enough to get to work.

You don’t worry about mowing your lawn correctly because everyone does it.  You don’t worry about shoveling snow the right way.  You just shovel it.  If you are working on a car, you know other people have done the same repair before and you just go do it.

When I approached writing this way, suddenly the blank page wasn’t near as offensive.  Writing is just another thing I do.  I love doing it, but in the end, it’s just another project.  A blank page is nothing.  I’ve filled them before.  My colleagues are out there filling them right now.  My fellow writers of the Dead Horse Society, the Writers of the Weird, and the Lawrence Writer’s Group are out there punching keys along with me.  Some of our stuff will be good, some of it great, some of it God awful, but it will be there.

I’m not a beautiful and unique snowflake, and that is fine by me.

Opening a Vein

“There is nothing to writing.  All you do is sit at a typewriter and open a vein.” – Red Smith

Writing can be difficult, especially knowing what to write.  I’ve been reading several blogs lately about ideas and the constant influx of them when you don’t need them, their apparent extinction when you do, and writing prompts to get them going.  After all, to steal a concept from Red Smith, we are going to be spilling our life out onto the blank page for all to see.

Everyone has seen the daily writing prompts that give you a vague scenario with which to run.  I’ve never been a fan of those.  To me, it feels like I am writing a story for someone else, rather than for me.  I’ll use one in a pinch, but I don’t feel those stories have been as successful for me.

I prefer using words to spark my writing, single words or phrases taken out of context.  My method is a variation of Ray Bradbury’s technique.  My understanding is that Ray Bradbury would sometimes have nothing but a title.  He would then sit down and write about that title as fast as he could, after all, he was writing on a coin-operated typewriter.  One of my favorite Ray Bradbury stories “There Will Come Soft Rains” actually comes from a poem by Sara Teasdale of the same title.  The poem itself was a definite inspiration for Bradbury, as both deal with a post-apocalyptic setting.

What I normally do is pick up a book of poetry and flip to a random page.  My favorites for this are Emily Dickinson, Edgar Allan Poe, Sylvia Plath, and others of that sort.  Pick someone who has a similar feeling of story to the ones you want to write.  I use these because my work tends to be a little bit dark sometimes, as was theirs.  From that random page, I pick a word or phrase that strikes me.  I’ll know when I see it.

As I wrote this, I found a random Plath poem.  “On Looking into the Eyes of a Demon Lover.”  Sounds promising.

Here are two pupils
whose moons of black
transform to cripples
all who look:

Right away, “moons of black” strikes me.  There has been a lot of mythology based on lunar cycles.  There are definite possibilities there.  Werewolf stories are a bit cliche, so you might think past that first thought, but ancient cultures hold a lot of rich information, as well as man’s inherent fear of the dark.  The appearance of stars moons and planets has been an obsession of mankind’s throughout history.

each lovely lady
who peers inside
take on the body
of a toad.

Within these mirrors
the world inverts:
the fond admirer’s
burning darts

“Within these mirrors” sounds great  Mirrors are a mysterious thing.  You look at them, and they look right back at you.  Mirrors could be used literally, or as a metaphor.  It opens a lot of possibilities about other realms, other words, what a person sees about themselves when they look into a mirror, and who knows what your reflection is doing when you are AREN’T looking at it.  Haven’t you ever felt that if you could just look quickly enough, you would catch that person in the mirror NOT mimicking your every move?

turn back to injure
the thrusting hand
and inflame to danger
the scarlet wound.

I sought my image
in the scorching glass,
for what fire could damage
a witch’s face?

So I stared in that furnace
where beauties char
but found radiant Venus
reflected there.

 Three strike me out of this last grouping.  “the scarlet wound,” “what fire could damage,” and “where beauties char.”  The scarlet wound brings up images of Hawthorne, but if  you look past it, out of context and think of what the color scarlet makes you feel, and how many different types of wounds there really are, you can probably get a nice short story out of it.

The other two deal with another inherent fear of humanity.  We rely on fire for our survival, but we have never learned to control it.  It’s like a wandering spirit.  We can try to contain it, but we still end up burning our houses down.  It goes where it is going to go, despite our persistent urgings to the contrary.  There are several metaphorical meanings of fire, as well as Hell itself.  There are bound to be ideas in there.

My next step would be to type those words at the top of the page.  I’ll develop a small, vague premise.  For example: A person at the end of their life reflects on their past sins and the unknown fate of their soul.  I am getting that from “What Fire Could Damage” and “Where Beauties Char.”

If you are saying that isn’t a very complex idea, you are right.  I’m a seat of the pants writer.  I have no idea what this story will be about, who will be in it, or how it will end.  That is the beauty of it.

I won’t know till I ask the character.  Is the person is young, old, male, female…alien?  What has this person done?  There are lots of levels of sin.  What is this person dying of?  Is the person ultimately saved, or condemned to the fires they feared?  Do they die, or do they live?  It will depend on who I find.

I could write that story four or five times and have them be totally different.You could get four or five premises out of the same quote by making different interpretations, and I latched on to five phrases in the poem.  This one poem could provide me with a dozen possible stories.  The key for me is looking at the phrases out of context and determining what they mean to me.

Best of all, these are my veins, not another person’s.  I am just using Plath’s words to help me find them.  (My suicide analogy paired with a poem from Plath, who committed suicide, was not intentional and not meant to offend anyone.)

Go get a book off your shelf and find yourself a story.  Poems are best for me because poets have to carefully choose every word.  If you don’t have poetry books, you can find entire poems online.

If it works for you, you’ll have another tool in your writer’s toolbox to fight writer’s block.  Good luck and keep writing.

Mirrors to Remind Ourselves

There is a quote in the movie Memento.  “We all need mirrors to remind ourselves who we are.”  I thought of that movie in relation to writing, just recently.

I was shocked to realize that I did not have a copy of any of my writing from my college creative writing courses on my laptop.  In a panic, I checked my USB drives.  No luck.  I’d erased all of them at one point or another for large files needed for work.  My desktop computer had recently decided it’s motherboard was of no use to it anymore, and in turn, was no use to me.

In a last ditch effort, I headed to the garage.  There, beneath the piles of corrugated cardboard boxes from Amazon that I always mean to recycle was my old laptop, which I had always meant to erase.

That laptop has a sort of sentimentality to me.  A majority of my writing has been done on that device.  Up until a year ago, it had been my faithful companion since 2002.  The case is worn, dark tarnished spots mark the perfect outline of where my palms rested on the keyboard.  There were keys missing, an unfortunate side effect of letting my son near it as a curious two year old.  The case was heavy, which what its only redeeming quality, since technology had rendered it nearly as useless as a paperweight.

But, booting it up…slowly…waiting…until…finally, there they where, copies of my work.  Not everything I had written, but a large chunk of it.  Catastrophe diverted.

I was shocked to find, going through the file names, that I didn’t remember writing many of them.  I could even tell you the premise of half of the stories.  I found myself thinking of Hemingway, whose wife Hadley lost all a suitcase full of his unpublished fiction.  Hemingway had been devastated, and blamed her for the loss.  I now understood how he felt.

I am not Hemingway, not even close, and I had no one to blame but my own carelessness, but opening one of the stories and reading a few paragraphs, I quickly realized that I could never have reproduced them.

I am a different person and a different writer.  I was Leonard from Memento, looking in the mirror at the words I had written, trying to remember what had made me put them there in the first place, trying to decode what they meant to me and why they had been important.  I have never been one for photo albums, I have never understood them.  I know where I have been and who I have met.  But looking at the writing was to remember who I had been.  They are the mirror I need to remember who I am.

We all need our metaphorical mirrors, whether they are photos, trophies, writing, collections, or simply fond memories.  We have to know where we have been if we are ever going to figure out where we are going.

I am looking forward to re-writing a few of the stories.  I have no doubt the re-writes will be drastically different than the first drafts, as there is a drastically different writer looking at them.  Still, it should be fun to look back on the young man I once was and see what the man I am today thinks of him.

Hopefully, they get along.

Lost Files by Peter Hoey

Writing:  Finished two short stories, re-writing two others.

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