Friday, February 15, 2013
I’m a craft freak.
My relationship with books, words and even wooden pencils is not normal or even especially healthy.
My car, my bedside, my jacket pockets are littered with little notebooks and odd scraps of paper. Alongside the books are piles of notebooks of all sizes and purpose. Pencils and fountain pens have a fetishistic fascination for me which can be disturbing and geeky to behold. I have more fountain pens and pencils than I will ever use but not as many as I want.
Being a craft freak is how I make up for not being the world's greatest writer. Maybe you can relate, I don’t know. It's just how I've adapted. It's an adaptation that has changed me. I started out hoping to be a great writer. Over time I am becoming the path itself. I am an enthusiast for language and for words well written. A well crafted sentence makes me swoon with pleasure. A passage from Shakespeare or Nabokov makes me mumble to myself with demented happiness.
I've come to the conclusion over time that writing is unique among the art forms in that literary talent is a precious luxury if you have it, but you can get by without it if you have sufficient enthusiasm. If you have to choose between talent and working very hard on the right things, choose hard work. Pay your dues at the keyboard and the talent might find you. If you want to draw or paint, you need certain brain wiring. If you want to be a musician you need certain brain wiring. But you can develop an ear for the written word if you read a great deal and if you teach yourself to read well. Quality fiction writing is a thing that can be learned if you have audacity, observation, fanaticism and an iron butt.
I'm an Apprentice Writer. Let me define that.
Many years ago publishers drew a line between "popular" fiction and "literary fiction". Popular fiction was the kind that people paid money for. Literary fiction was that endangered species of everything else. In my case I write literary erotica mostly.
The fact is very few people, I think Stephen King said it was less than 5%, make their income exclusively from writing fiction. These would probably be people who work in formula genres, such as television staff writers and most popular novelists. Nobody ever earns a living from writing poetry or short stories no matter how good they are. Writing literary short stories is for suckers; people who are content to write their hearts out for stuff very few people will ever read and for which you’ll usually get paid peanuts or nothing. But that doesn’t mean we’re not the happiest suckers in the business. Maybe you can relate, I don’t know.
Norman Mailer observed, and I agree, that you can't learn much from only reading the immortals, guys like Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, or Nabokov, names to conjure with. They're over your head for the time being, but they can give you an idea of how high you can reach. You'll learn more craft-wise by reading people on your own level and aspiring respectfully to reach past them. A bad story written by someone else is as valuable to your journey as a good story.
All those guys, Dostoyevsky and Nabokov, most of the time they didn't know what they were doing. They wrote shitty first drafts. The difference is, they knew how to work around this and they did it by writing their asses off and ferociously overhauling their work over and over. Ernest Hemingway rewrote each of his short stories up to thirty drafts apiece with a wooden pencil. Dostoyevsky rewrote his novel "The Idiot" five times completely from scratch, from the bottom every time, using notebooks and a dip pen while struggling with epilepsy and a gambling addiction. Nobody invited him to any Iowa Writers Workshops either.
It's great to be a genius, but hard work is better. Walk down the aisles in a used book store where the romance novels are; I guarantee there will be at least two aisles stacked tall with white and red Harlequin paperbacks that ladies of letters have been churning out in their spare time like hamburgers, writing in the kitchen when the kids are asleep, or at the laundromat or at their office desks during lunch. A person with heart can definitely do this.
We write erotic stories here. Erotic stories are the most ancient and universal genre of story telling, second only to religious mythology, going back to the Neolithic fires of people who hadn't learned to feel shame, telling stories to each other of nature gods who fucked lustily and gave birth to the world. Though often despised and banned, it’s a proud heritage.
We who write this transgressive genre are the literary equivelent of punk rockers. Literary erotica especially has a unique satisfaction. It searches for a kind of truth in furtive midnight sheets. A good love story should give love a bad name. A good sex story should give sex a bad name when it comes from licking your tongue in the dark wet spots of your soul and tasting and reporting about the human heart, and when its done right it stands for the ages, like King David seeing Bathesheba for the first time bathing nude on a roof top or Joseph being thrown in prison for refusing to fuck Pharaoh’s wife. People have been writing about sex for a very long time.
I'm a craft freak. Maybe you can relate, I don’t know.
I don’t think that my opinions about things are all that interesting so in the next several months I'm going to share everything I've found out so far that I know for sure is true about the act of story telling, and then I don’t know what I’ll do. God I wish it were more. Don’t ask me how to get a literary agent, I don’t have one and if you’re not making enough money to be worth stealing you probably don’t need one. Don’t ask me how to get published. I'm published and it’s not as big a deal as you might think. Don’t even ask me about blogging and self promotion because I’m not especially good at that either.
What I know is a good story when I read one. Also, I have a lot of faith. I fiercely believe that I have some bombshell stories down inside and anybody reading this has those stories within also. The problem I have, and maybe you have, is that these really good stories are buried under a big pile of bad stories. You have to dig them out. You have to dig down to where they are by shoveling shit with a keyboard faithfully and persistently until the day you hit gold.
That’s what I have faith in. I believe the gold is down there, every day I pay my dues at the keyboard. This faith has gotten me this far and from this day I find myself in the company of writers here at this very blog whose stuff I was buying and devouring long before I ever imagined I'd get to share the same stage with them.
Next month: “The Elements of Short Story Structure”
Posted by Garceus at 12:30 AM