I don't normally write about writing itself. I find that to be extremely self-indulgent. And revealing. Nor do I make writers characters in the things I write. There's this thing called "The idealized self." That's the theory that the main character of the story is the author, with a few traits he or she would like to possess added in. That's why I smirk when I see a novel about a writer who solves mysteries, is loved and cherished by the entire town, and gets laid a lot. Parade your subconscious naked by the bay window why don't you?
Today I'm going to break my self-imposed ban on writing about writing, for reasons that will become clear in a minute. I have some advice for people trying to write. It has nothing to do with the rules of the language or finding a literary agent, and everything to do with attitude and perspective. The urge to write is an extremely delicate mindset. It comes and goes on a whim, and if you don't swim while the water's fine, you might not swim again for weeks. You have to keep conditions so that you can swim at a moment's notice, and do as much as you can to keep the atmosphere conducive to swimming. Here's a few tips on how you can achieve this over-extended metaphor.
The first thing most of you learn is that when the urge comes on you, you get down and write. It's like a person who has absolute authority over you. They say "Jump" and you say "Sure. Long jump up or straight up?" The Ancient Greeks came up with the idea of heavenly creatures that would inspire artists and give them their ideas. The Ancient Greeks, who named everything short of fast food, called them Muses. There were seven of them, each in charge of a different artistic endeavor.
Of interest to writers are Erato, muse of love poetry; Eut?rpe, lyric poetry; Kalli?pe, epic poetry and philosophy; Klio, history; Thalia, comedy; and Melpom?ne, tragedy. The Muse inspires, the writer writes. Melpom?ne whispers in the ear of Shakespeare, and "MacBeth" is born. Erato speaks through the dreams of Billy Ray Cyrus, and "Achy Breaky Heart" is given to the world.
As you can see, sometimes things get lost in the translation.
Parents have their babies to wake them up at 3 AM. Authors have their muses. You will have noticed that a muse is a harsh mistress. We're talkin' whips and nipple clamps harsh. If you don't do what your muse says immediately, she might say "to hell with you," and hook up with that garage band down the street for awhile. When a muse slips you a note, you write. Now, bitch.
This isn't always convenient. You might be at work, having sex, hanging from the carriage of a 747 with one hand 17,000 feet above the earth, and you can't exactly get to your word processor in these instances. My advice is that unless jotting down what the muse tells you would a) immediately get you killed, or b) prevent sex, get writing. You don't have to believe in muses to write, but it will help if you have some kind of spiritual connection to writing to get you in the writer mindset. Writers can really learn a thing or two from athletes and drug users here.
You might see the connection between athletes and drug users (ahem, Dwight Gooden) but not between athletes, drug users, and writers. I shall explain. Athletes are the most superstitious breeds of people on the planet. When they're doing well, they make sure that they do absolutely everything the same way so as to not fuck with the streak. Hockey players, for example, only shave when they lose. Or, if they happen to have won on a day they died shave, they make a point of shaving. They'll eat the same foods. Coaches have been known to get the same person singing the national anthem in order to preserve a winning streak.
If they're doing poorly, they'll try something radically different. Sometimes it's silly, like wearing different coloured shorts. It could be anything. Writers too need these habits. Many have identified the times of day when they are most productive, and do their work then, regular as clockwork. If you don't have any superstitions, get some. If you find that you wrote better after having extra onions on you submarine, then pop a breath mint and get another extra-onion sub. If you write better naked, strip. Or put on a fucking parka and mukluks if that's what it takes. Just remember the magic words: don't fuck with a streak. Don't ask why it's working, just write.
Closely tied in with the Athlete/Streak Theorem is the Druggie/Equipment Theorem. People who engage in any pursuit that uses equipment specialize the stuff. Carpenters have a favorite hammer, or saw. They can tell you what's so special about the blade or grip that makes it perfect for them. Drug users build bongs or pipes, or have a drug kit that they use to measure and prepare their drugs, which they maintain and use with care. If we go back to athletes, they have equipment that is precisely tailored to their play style to the nearest micron. It's part practical, part superstition. Psychologists call it "the fetishization of equipment."
Human beings are natural but selective collectors, and it doesn't matter what background or situation they're in. They collect things. Quite often they don't quite understand why, or may not even notice they're collecting, but nearly every human being collects something. The strangest things get collected too. I for example collect different foreign words for "penguin." Why? Damned if I know. I can only assume it's because I'm quite mad.
Allow me to show you some of the highlights of my collection:
Hindi: ChoureeItalian: PinguinoMandarin Chinese: qi'eCantonese: kay ngo'In both Bulgurian and Norwegian it's "pingvin." The significance, if any, is unclear.
I seem to have wandered a bit. My Muse told me to go in this direction, so blame her. The point I was trying to make is that authors too should become equipment fetishists. This art is being lost in the days of Windows dominance when nearly everything is being written with Microsoft Word. But fortunately it's an easy art to recover. All you need to do is find tools you use to write that work for you. Then you collect them and fine-tune them so that they're just right. Find a grade of paper you really like and have all your stuff printed on it. Get your work bound in a certain way. I wrote a series of short stories, and they were all separately bound with a grey cover.
Some people actually write better long hand. In which case you should find a grade of pencil or pen that you like and write exclusively with it. If it's a pencil, constantly sharpen it to the edge you prefer. I actually find that certain things I write are produced better in different formats. Ever read "The Dark Half" by Stephen King? In that novel Thad Beaumont's other pen name ego George Stark wrote with pencils, while he wrote with a typewriter. That's the idea.
It doesn't have to be just equipment either. Environment has a lot to do with it. Maybe a candlelit room with incense burning. Some writers are lucky enough to have a specific place where they do their writing. Doesn't have to be a cabin in the woods--I recently contemplated turning my walk-in closet into a writer's only office. Write in the tub if that what works (just be careful, especially if you're using a word processor.)
And once again, don't be afraid to try something strange and radical. Chuck Palahniuk, who wrote Fight Club, actually wrote his novel in public. He did all the editing and the fine-tuning in private, but the raw work was done at bars with his friends cheering him on and shouting out different stuff for him to throw in.
This stuff might seem ridiculous, but it works. I know, because I tried altering my writing habits to these guidelines, and it produced this article in one sitting. Previously I'd done all my writing on my home PC, but I began to suspect I was associating it with work and playing games, and this was probably confusing my Muse. She thought I should be playing Diablo 2 or something instead of writing.
So, recently I helped fellow CoN artist Samantha Craggs do some moving. She was had an old Brother WP-1700mds word processor that she was going to throw out, but gave it to me instead. So I took it home and I carefully cleaned it up (fetishization of equipment in action), and set it up in my living room. The keyboard feels like it was built just for my fingers. After running a few tests on the 3.5 inch drive, I wrote the raw text of this article. It had plenty of extra characters when I changed it over, need plenty of editing, but it worked. I now associate that old word processor with creativity. I plan to do some more writing on it.
This, essentially is why I wrote this article and broke my personal vow not to write about writing. Not for me, but to basically please my Muse. Like I said. Don't fuck with a streak or what works, and when your Muse tells you to do something, obey Mistress or she'll spank you.