A Case for the Pen: What Writing has Taught Me So Far

This is a bit on self-awareness, one that I’ll surely find myself writing again at 30, and at 50, and if I’m lucky, multiple times beyond that. I am, in modern parlance, getting exposed…only it’s of my own doing. Just over a year ago, I self-published my very first novel, a beach-set drunk and broken POMO love story about an incredibly talented young author, his hippie muse, and a few dark secrets of his regarding his past relationship and current indiscretions. Simple, I know. I titled the thing “Storyteller” because, I don’t know, that’s what sounded really good to me (although to anyone who asked for a deeper meaning to the title, got one, I’m sure). The prose is wonky, the story is okay at best, and the ending, though surprising, would have been better fit had I waited and rewritten as many times as I now see necessary. This book won’t go down in history for anything at all, it won’t even push beyond obscurity. Sure enough, you may now be wondering why I would write anything that would completely demolish the work that began when I was only 19 years old? I guess what I’m doing is daring to approach things in an Eastern sense rather than demeaning my own “product.” Upon reflection, I’ve gained a sense of what this book taught me, where I enact its insights in my life today, and how beneficial it was to employ the “don’t worry, be crappy” method of learning. To follow will be the main things I’ve learned from birthing my first work of fiction.

I – Writing as Thinking, rather than Producing

Chances are good that what I set out to do was far different from what I accomplished in writing Storyteller. I quite literally looked at a friend one night poolside over a rather loaded rum and Coke and said: “Yo man, I think I’m going to write a book.” Stoned to the gills, he replied, “Yeah, that would be cool.” That was the beginning of that, some real “I’m going to be president” shit. Back then I was in the same boat as everyone else; it was on the bucket list and that was that. Probably was never going to happen, probably wouldn’t let anyone read it even if I did get the thing written. It was all a pipe dream, no doubt, but 19-year-old me took action, and I’m thankful to him for that.

What I couldn’t predict was the insight that came with character creation, setting, and storyline…that’s “plot” for all of you flashcard weenies. I tried so hard to be conscious about what I was writing, I wanted it to be a good story, I wanted it to be shocking and romantic and beautiful and I wanted anyone who read it to “understand” it. I had dreams for the novel, or “the story” as I called it then to anyone who asked about it, and I lazily hacked away at what I wanted the thing to become for a number of years. I asked the opinion of few, and sought the assistance of emotion and alcohol because, well that’s what all of the great ones did right?

I had no clue what the real reason was for working on the book so diligently; I wasn’t going to make any money off of it, that was for sure. Maybe it would get me laid a time or two. Maybe there were girls at bars that were into that kinda stuff: “Oh my God, an author! That’s so hot!” Nope, not even once. Maybe I was just looking to accomplish something again, as I did in school, or in sports; maybe there was some sort of box that I needed to check off. Hey, check it out, I wrote a book! Who knows, it was a relatively long time ago now in terms of memory.

What I know now though, is that writing the damn thing ripped up some pretty nasty scars that I never knew I had; jealousies, bitter grudges, a yearning to be seen as talented and impressive, they all bubbled to the surface when I wrote about a bitter, jealous, and talented self-medicating whiz-kid who can’t quite keep his shit together long enough to see a week of clarity. In writing about the main character, Trent “T.C.” Strickland, I wrote completely and unconsciously about myself; maybe not directly, maybe not in any physical or talent resemblance, but in every other way that I’d be hard-pressed to voice to any friend or therapist alike. The entire thing, from page 1 to 260-something is an exploration of the archetypes of my own struggle, and for that, I’m certainly a better person. In writing about these aspects of my own life, I found myself actually working through them in real-time. I’m not saying by any means that I now walking completely straight lines everywhere I go, that isn’t the point. What I am instead trying to get across, is that the representation I employed in trying to map out and develop a story, allowed me to flesh out things about myself that I didn’t even know were there. I became the child playing house, or building castles in the sand. Sure, none of it really mattered, my book wouldn’t push society forward, but I seemed to be slowly getting my bearings somehow. By emulating real life, I was learning more about real life, more than I could learn anywhere else. This was puzzling to me, and still is, how can fiction force fact? How is it that I learned anything from telling a story that was completely fabricated? I still don’t have the answer. Maybe I’ll write it out someday and come to a conclusion, but I will say that I’d recommend it to anyone without answers of their own.

II – Don’t Believe what you Read About Artists

Inspiration is temporary bullshit, if you sit around and wait for it, you’ll never get anything done. I’ve come to hate the word muse as well, and I know, I used it early to describe the plot of my story – case-in-point. The idea that there has to be a person there to knock your proverbial socks off to get anything on the page is garbage and old-world. I had a “muse” back then, and she was a bitch. It took me forever to give myself credit for writing the thing as I always figured she was just that damn inspiring, I even dedicated the book to her; but she didn’t write the book, I wrote the book, she was just tantalizing. I don’t wait for all of that anymore, it’s about sitting down and trying to get something on the page, and having reverence for the fact that it isn’t easy to do. This is something like humility I guess, something like having a lack of control. That’s my muse now, the unknown, the opportunity to be shitty or to be somewhat gratified by what I put down. One of my artistic heroes, Sturgill Simpson calls it “working on the sound;” Robert Pirsig called it “putting in good minutes;” it’s whatever you want to call it, but it’s moving the bit forward and then cleaning it up the best you can.

I used to believe in the quirky genius until everyone and their mother became one. It used to mean something to be all Zen’d out, to be a Rockstar, to be a little different or off, now it seems that’s the norm and I think the consequences of that are going to hurt, and they’re going to hurt bad. To me it seems, that quirk without skill is just called being fucking weird. In a world that manicured, it’s impressive to be genuine and straight-forward, it got a president elected, and made Joe Rogan history’s most-heard-from interviewer. The pendulum is swinging back, it’s going to pay in the coming years to be a little square, and a little polished, and it’s going to be really tempting to resist this in the name of progress. But progress isn’t just about being new and exciting, it’s about the work as well, it’s about quality. It’s about the ugly hours that build something that lasts. Don’t fall victim to the flashing lights; they burn out eventually and if you’ve hedged your bets on them alone, you’ll just be left with useless spoil.

III – We’re in a Critical Period for the Survival of Literature

This is possibly a nail in the coffin for my chances at a book deal, but it would be hypocritical for me to not be honest. The book people took the bait long ago, the American literary machine has turned into fast food. My best guess for what happened, was that the publishers saw the success of Harry Potter, and immediately began to search for the recipe. Look around you: easy to read, series-based, fantasy-heavy, mass-market fiction. For better or worse, it’s what we have. It’s no wonder there is no millennial great one yet, you are what you consume.

I’d like to be clear; this is no knock on the utility of these books. They are perfect if your intent is to be entertained, to settle in on a nice rainy Sunday and escape for a while, but they aren’t moving the needle, they aren’t nourishing the collective consciousness of a society that maybe needs a little better nourishing. Mass-market fiction has a place on this earth, and it has value, but not the kind of value we should aspire to. Bob Dylan and Michael Jackson both had value, but they didn’t serve the same purpose. We’ve lost a little bit of that; we’ve lost a little soul and we’ve gotten too rigid. Fiction, the dream state, has always been the first step toward big ideas. There are no rockets to space without science-fiction novels, there is no social progress without Sinclair and Huxley and Harriet Beecher Stowe, and there won’t be any more if we just continue writing about dragons and werewolves, so sorry. Although these books are good to read occasionally, consider them a cheat meal rather than your main source of cognitive nutrition.

By now I’m sure I seem like the staunch old man who wags his finger at you when you laugh at church, and trust me I hate that guy too. But I am concerned. I worry about these things far more than I should at my age. The cognitive nourishment of society? Give me a break, go be with your friends! I get it, I know, but I think we would be helped to pay a little better attention to what’s going on around us. It’s easy to distract oneself, but it takes a little something of the gut to pursue the bad shit head-on, and we’d all be a little better off for choosing to do so. By now I’m sure you’re deciding how to make fun of this, or how this sort of thinking is exactly the material for a perfect boomer-meme, or how this whole essay is starting to lose your attention, but if you will pay attention to that feeling for just a second, you’ll see that little bit of rot it’s causing inside of you, the bit that turned even the “free-thinker” movement into a sideshow. We can just make fun of everything, sure, and in doing so we can choose to solve nothing at all.

With all of that being said, I think this kind of loose and informal writing has done me some good; after all, this was never for you anyway. I’ll call this an essay but it’s really just a rant, better here than on Facebook though. I’m working currently on a new book and hopefully it gets done so you don’t just have to read from my sick little 19-year-old brain anymore. The next one is an exploration of hell on earth, and what that looks like on the individual level. It’s going well so far but who knows, I can’t make any promises. Finally, hopefully no agents read this and oust me from the commercial-publishing world before I even begin; but hey, what can you do?

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