Because

I do not know of a cure for writer’s block, nor for bad advice. Both must be worked through. Fortunately for the story that got into Mulberry Fork Review, I wanted so badly to finish the damn thing that I took on both at the same time. Yes, in my mind, I am some kind of X-Man. Like Kurt Wagner.
(I’ve been reading early 90’s Excalibur… it’s great.)

Flitting images of swashbuckling olympics aside, I know that I started the story Lawrence and the Last Days of Knowing at least five times. I don’t even want to think of how many titles I ran through, but I can say that the very first draft was labeled “Story to refute that magazine writer that pissed you off.” First drafts have the least helpful titles. A few of the false starts were to correct the point of view, then to correct it again, and then “was I sure, I think maybe third person really was the best…” but the real problem was not in POV, but in myself. I wasn’t up to the task that I built in my head. I was attempting to convince myself that one writer could have Metalocalypse volumes of fame while still keeping the story’s feet in reality, and I made the idiotic move of having a main character who didn’t buy it.

I realized after growling at Gatsby(long, unrelated story) that I’d written a Nick Carraway. I really dislike Nicks. Nicks are author filters, used to step back and pretend that you aren’t a part of all the things you wrote. And I understand why Nicks exist. It is flipping horrifying to own all the things that spin out of your head, but the story couldn’t work with a filter. I wrote my main character as the most fervent fan of the absurd idea that the premise hanged upon, and drew the strength of the story through his mad love.

And I still couldn’t finish. Writing’s a bitch, yeah? I got over the block, but I had no roads to the end. Because I was scared. I had this fairy tale about writing and I wanted it to be perfect (oops) because it started to become this manifesto… and all the little sound-bites of writing advice that I’ve gained over the years started to come loose and show themselves like beans when you stir the chili after it’s been simmering a few hours. Hah, my head’s full of chili. Anyway, one of those oldest bits of advice, everyone’s heard it, “show don’t tell” would yell at me when I was in my groove, and my groove would stutter and stop.

Maybe it’s because I’ve never really understood the difference between showing and telling, maybe it’s because words are have always been a telling device in my head, maybe it’s because I’m still unsure which is right and which is left and they both look like “L’s” dammit, I know that trick already, but somehow along the years the word “because” became intrinsically linked with the idea of “telling.”

And then I read The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. And Milan Kundera (bless him) told me what his characters did, and then, right after that, I got a “because.” This caused this thought, or this action, or this feeling, and I was suddenly past the interface, no longer reading the words on the page, but understanding where and why these people were.

So I went back to the manuscript, I opened that one hundredth draft, and I attacked everyone in that story (all 3 characters!) with “Because.” I found a groove. My 100th first draft was full of cause, it had an end, and then, Then! I could finally begin to edit.

Never trust sound-bite advice. There’s too much space outside a simple phrase for all sorts of fears to nest and grow until you’re suddenly afraid of the only thing you really need. Be fearless, and read Kundera!

Lawrence in the Last Days of Knowing is over at Mulberry Fork Review right now, along with many beautiful stories (I especially loved Revlon Red by Patti White, which is one of the prettiest stories about a family I’ve ever read.)

a good vocabillary* means not saying swears in front of your boss…

I cuss a lot. It’s a problem that I address every three years or so, because that’s about as much time as it takes for me to recognize that my problem has come back from the last attempt to eradicate it. I was thinking about cursing, and all the swears that I know, because I was writing a short story while listening to Crass (really good band, especially the song Bata Motel) and at the end of the first draft my dialogue was almost entirely comprised of the eff word.

That was intentional, sort of. The story is for my little brother; a special project of his. He’s a punk kid, and the world in which the story is set is quick and gritty and speaks in short bursts from the heart. “Fuck” is heart language. But, as I was editing down the speech into something legible, I started thinking about all of the numerous lists I’ve read on literary magazine websites that outline what they do not want. Almost all of them mention gratuitous cussing (or excessive cursing, or an exuberance of swears). And it’s not because their poor little milquetoast eyes can’t handle having their delicate sensibilities rattled.

That couldn’t be the reason… think of all the unedited manuscripts they stomach on a regular basis. These editors have seen things that’d make a grown man cry…

Okay, back from the trenches. They’ve read it all before. And I’m sure you’ve already arrived at the conclusion that swear words lose their power if used too often, so I’m going a different direction with this. Swears are cheap.

I mean, shit, man. It’s bottom shelf language that we grab in a pinch. (Literally , too, btw. You pinch your hand between a radiator and a fan belt and you will be screaming “fuck.”) And yes, it has its place in literature. There are many places in a story where a single obscenity will do more for you than the most intricately built sentence, but if you lean to heavily on the curses in lieu of something a little higher, the story is just going to sound stupid.

My boss has heard me cuss before. But for many years some of my coworkers thought I just didn’t. Because I keep that shit contained. I work around the words my heart is screaming, so I don’t sound like a dumbass in front of my boss. And I think that’s really what the “limit your cursing” comes down to. It isn’t so much a container on the power that the occasional Piss might have, but a challenge, to make sure that you are capable of writing without it.

*As well as cussing, I enjoy deliberately misspelled words that further enforce the tenuous construction of a sentence.

Butts

I was thinking about drawing butts the other night while my head was swimming and I couldn’t sleep. My subconscious was playing around with the prospects of being a fuckup, and I’m going to try and re-create that stream of consciousness here.

Anthony Clark, the fellow who writes Beartato once recommended that the first thing drawn on a pretty new notebook should be a butt. Drawing a butt breaks up the sanctity of the blank page, and frees you to draw whatever else you like with impunity. It couldn’t be worse than a butt.

This appeals to me, as a fuckup. I’m not so great with words; I forget the ones I need when I speak, and I spend a lot of conversation time staring blankly while my hands pantomime the actions I associate with the nouns I need. When I write, I am more connected to my vocabulary, but there are still moments in which I have no idea if there is indeed a word for that face you make when you realize you’ve been talking to someone you’ve mistaken for your high school English teacher for the past ten minutes.

Seriously, is there a word for that? There should be.

I do not write long-hand. (Those muscles have atrophied, and can never be rebuilt.) I can’t draw a butt on the heading of my first drafts. Well, I could, this is a touch screen, but I’m not going to do that. Also, touch screens suck. They don’t register my hands as living. But anyway, I try to remember Butts when I’m writing a first draft. There is nothing sacred about a blank word document. I do not need to preserve some beauty inherent in nothing, nor am I obliged to so carefully choose my words that everything written will sing with Whole Story Truth in a first draft.

J. D. Salinger wrote on a typewriter. He used only his pointer fingers, and jabbed out every single letter that way. Salinger was great. But I write with my fists. I should explain. I developed the ability to type shortly after I developed the ability to read, and while my handwriting looks like an insane mess, I type in whole words the way I read in whole words without picking apart the letters. Where am I going with this? Stream of consciousness, right, just keep going… I write with my fists. Full bore, lets go, don’t stop, if you slow the mocking screen saver will come on and taunt you…

First drafts are the time to draw butts. Expiriment with language because you cannot remember the proper way to say things. Invent a word when you need it. Keep running, and let the story fall into place while you go. It’s a race between brain and hands, who will create the world first? Whatever happens, if you reach the end YOU WIN.

The reward is editing. I flipping love editing. And the editor’s brain is different than then one you use for first drafts. Yeah, it might cry in shame at the first draft attempt to create the word “fartgrubbler,” but it might just as easily enjoy the strange and naturally beautiful structure you accidentally built into the story. (Read a lot of well structured authors: your first draft brain will graft some I-beams into your own writing.) And second drafts are the time to divide those errors and leave in the accidental beauty.

What I’m advising is to never fear the butts. Make ugly things, there will be greatness there, too. But slowing down to worry over the possible mistakes that might make it in will keep you from achieving any spontaneous beauty. And the surprises are the best part of writing.

Now, this looks nothing at all like the flitting thoughts racing across my alcohol-addled head at two in the morning, but I kind of like it. It’s tres first draft. And I’m going to be a bit of a fartgrubbler and press “publish.”