Archive for the ‘The Writer’s Psyche’ Category

The one man most responsible for making me dedicate myself to writing is Ray Bradbury.

I grew up as a bookworm in a strict Baptist household. Our twice-monthly pilgrimages to the local library inevitably ended with my straining to carry a tall stack of books from our beat-up Opel to my bedroom.

My dad scanned each title before I checked books out. Acceptable fare included lots of folk tales and fables, tame classics such as The Secret Garden, every Hardy Boys book, and an amusing series about Freddy the Pig.

By age 12, I had devoured every book in the juvenile section of the library. I wandered into the adult stacks, where I found a book entitled Something Wicked This Way Comes. Raised on stolid but innocuous fare, I felt dark shivers from the title alone. I had no idea this was actually a young adult book – to me, it represented all the thrills forbidden to my young religious eyes. I snuck it into the middle of that visit’s book harvest, certain it would fail to pass inspection. Somehow, it arrived home with me.

Bradbury’s ideas and writing voice blew my budding mind. I thrilled to Jim Nightshade’s struggle against Mr. Dark’s deceptions. I creeped out as Mr. Dark rode a gothic merry-go-round backwards to turn himself into an evil boy my age. The colorful prose seared itself into my brain pan.

As soon as I finished the book, I went, Who is this author? How dare the universe fail to tell me about him sooner? I went on a Bradbury tear, devouring Dandelion Wine, The Illustrated Man, The Martian Chronicles, The October Country (and other short story collections) and, though it exceeded my intellectual prowess, Fahrenheit 451. In school, every author you’re pointed to – Twain, Eliot, Hemingway, et al – is dead. I felt delirious when I learned Bradbury was still alive and was still writing.

Compelled to become the next Bradbury, in seventh grade I attempted my first novel, a spy thriller unencumbered by any knowledge of how the world works. (Bradbury influenced me, but so did The Man from U.N.C.L.E., John Steed, and Mrs. Peel.) I gave it what I thought was a very ironically adult title: See the Corpse Run. When my dad gave me a big blank hardcover (the result of a publisher’s paper-and-binding experiment), I laboriously hunt-and-pecked my novel on a manual typewriter, then glued the pages into the hardcover so that I made a “real book.” I finished it in ninth grade, 97 proud pages long. My reading audience was my dad.

By age 15 I had sold seven or eight articles to very minor publications, but I thought I was king of the world because I got paid $25 for each of those articles. (One periodical even profiled me as “teen with a typewriter.”) I began high school and due to my published status, got put in a senior composition class.

This class required me to turn in a new story every Friday. The teacher kept encouraging us each to find our “unique voice.” That was the first time I’d heard that. I had no idea what my “voice” was. And I didn’t have time to find “my voice” – I was too busy expressing the million ideas in my head! So I copied Bradbury’s voice. I adopted entirely techniques I had subconsciously learned from him, such as setting atmosphere by personifying inanimate objects and giving them intentions. I wrote ironic flights of fancy very much in line with Ray’s (but a paltry echo of the master). By emulating Ray week after week, I aced the class. And I learned writing the same way he did: by writing.

Ray’s world seemed more vivid to me than the real world. Immersed in the Martian Chronicles, I remember watching America’s moon landing in 1969 and thinking, “Big deal. We’ll be on Mars in no time.”
I see Ray reflected today in other writers who draw no boundaries between fantasy, horror, and science fiction. Would Stephen King be the brand he is today had there been no Bradbury? Would there have been Star Trek? Star Wars? The whole body of work by J. J. Abrams?

In writing this, I wanted to consult some of Bradbury’s works. I’m startled to see I no longer own any. But at the end of Fahrenheit 451, people have become books. To fool the censors, they have memorized entire works. A woman could tell you, “I am The Old Man and the Sea.” A teen could say, “I am The Odyssey.” In that same sense, I absorbed Ray Bradbury. He is in me: laced as an integral shining vein through my imaginings; a hand that touched the pottery wheel of my creative impulses. I never met him, but in the pages of his words, he met me — and set me alight.

“If you want to write, if you want to create, you must be the most sublime fool that God ever turned out and sent rambling. You must write every single day of your life. You must read dreadful dumb books and glorious books, and let them wrestle in beautiful fights inside your head, vulgar one moment, brilliant the next. You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads. I wish you a wrestling match with your Creative Muse that will last a lifetime. I wish craziness and foolishness and madness upon you. May you live with hysteria, and out of it make fine stories — science fiction or otherwise. Which finally means, may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world.”
― Ray Bradbury

For the comments: What did you make of Ray? Or what other writer fired your imagination?


If you’ve got 10 minutes, this well-crafted documentary can inspire you.

In East L.A., a 9-year-old boy made his own DIY arcade out of cardboard, and persisted “staffing” it on weekends — even though he only had one customer. (Seriously, who’s going to go to East L.A. and play cardboard arcade games?)

But Caine earned his big day. Sure, there was a social media-savvy “angel investor” who helped, but payday would never have come if Caine had given up.

Nothing in the world can take the place of Persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan ‘Press On’ has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.

–Calvin Coolidge

If you’re a one-of-a-kind artist like Caine, keep going! Persist!

Last weekend, a friend invited me to the Fremont Zombie Walk, an annual event held just north of Seattle, Washington.

I have no idea what started this custom, nor who is behind it. But each Independence Day weekend, a community of people arrive made up as zombies and simply celebrate their own odd brand of creativity.

On the 4th of July weekend in 2010, the Seattle Zombie Walk earned a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records for having the most zombies in one place.

On Halloween 2010, a city in New Jersey stole the record by gathering 4,053 zombies.

So on July 2, 2011, Seattle tried to muster its zombie might and get the record back. My quick-n-dirty iMovie, below, shows some of the result.

The audio at the beginning isn’t as clear as I’d like, but the dialog goes like this:

Organizer: “Zombies! What do we want?”

Zombies: “Brraaaiinnnss!”

Organizer: “When do we want ’em?”

Zombies: “Brraaiinnnsss!”

What does this have to do with writing? Nothing directly, I suppose. But personally, I found the unleashed creativity inspiring. Someone set a general theme — “Be a zombie” — and people not only responded, but responded with every kind of style flourish imaginable. I saw zombie children. Zombie tourists. A zombie cheerleader. Zombie Elvis. Zombie Santa. Zombie Nun. Zombie Star Trek Crew. Zombie characters out of video games. Basically, if you’ve seen it in pop culture, there was a zombie version of it.

So, today you’re looking at a marketing piece, or you’re stuck on your novel or screenplay. Get playful. Tap into the creativity that flowed freely when you were a kid pretending. Take the creative challenge you’re facing and have fun with it. The creative juice is still in you.

C’mon. There’s no way the Dead have more creativity than you. Use your bbrrraaaaiinnnnnss!

When I was a kid, school authorities could frighten me into conformity by threatening to list a minor behavioral infraction on my “permanent record.” I imagined a blacklist of devastating shame that would pass from one authority figure to another, and follow me forever. Now, with social media, that nightmare has been realized.

Everything you do publicly on the Internet is practically etched in stone. Thanks, search engines! (Photo by Bee Wolf Ray on Flickr.)

I’d really rather write an entry encouraging slow adopters to jump on board with Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Foursquare, blogging, and the rest of the social media panoply. But I’ve concluded that from a professional perspective, every single letter you type into a social media expression should result from the question, “What would someone wiser, kinder, and more thick-skinned than I am write?” (And even, “Would that person respond at all?”)

A brouhaha that occurred recently on a book review site triggered my renewed caution and introspection. I think every writer who anticipates promoting themselves via social media should take a look at this.

A likable guy who uses the screen handle BigAl specializes in reviewing books published in the Kindle format. He posted a very reasonable review of The Greek Seaman, by Jacqueline Howett. As is common with social media, readers commented on the review. One of those commenters was the author herself — angry about BigAl’s review. What follows must be seen to be believed. I recommend you read BigAl’s review, and the initial comments on it (note that it is not worth your time to read all of the more than 300 comments that resulted). I’ll wait right here while you check it out.

Back already? Were you as stunned as I was to watch the author destroy her own reputation in a few brief hours?

I think your professional reputation might be able to recover, in time, from your insisting that grammatically tortured sentences you wrote had “no flaws.” You can later say “Since then, I’ve learned better.” But when you try to negate a reviewer’s opinion by counter-posting positive reviews from your own relatives, you lose credibility. And when you finally tell the reviewer and all the commenters, more than once, to eff off… I think you just wrote Game Over across the top of your career.

Why? Because once Google picks up your mistake, it will follow you forever.

Getting something removed from search engine results is like asking the US government to change your Social Security number: it is theoretically feasible, but it takes a long time, a lot of expense, and nearly superhuman effort to pull it off. So for the rest of Jacqueline Howett’s life, anyone who searches on her name will find her regrettable inability to absorb constructive critique. And it’s not just Google that is the problem: after the first 10o comments on BigAl’s review, you see snarkier commenters visiting from Twitter and Facebook, where people were mentioning what a hilarious ass the author was making of herself.

Wise advice from a parking slot in Costa Mesa, CaliforniaWatching the whole sobering incident motivated me to search on my own name. I’m happy to report that I found no examples where I advised readers to execute biologically implausible imperatives. But I was startled to see that where I had sent some business documents to limited, carefully selected recipients, some of those recipients had in turn re-posted the documents for the whole Internet to see. It reminded me that on the web, you dare not write assuming a limited audience and a specific context: eventually, all audiences might see your writing, without any context.

If you hope to make a career as a writer, you cannot avoid social media; nor should you try to. But let the fight over the Greek Seaman remind you that, regardless of how the “social” part of “social media” may attack or provoke you, whatever you write back remains on your permanent record. Your goal now is to exercise enough care and wisdom to make that a plus.##

Afraid to write deeply? Join the crowd.

Deciding to unleash everything you’ve got onto the page can feel like a high-risk endeavor. Performers have it comparatively easy. As they sing or act or dance, performers can sense the audience reaction in the moment. If the performance sucks, the performer finds out immediately and has a chance to correct course. If the performance soars, the performer senses that from the audience right now, and can use that support to achieve even more.

A writer, in contrast, writes her heart out, alone, and must create page after page without feedback, daring to believe that somewhere in the remote future someone will like her writing.

Thus, many of us writers sometimes feel an absurd tension about writing. We have a frightened aversion to the thing we love to do. Forget nuclear power: there is no fuel more powerful for getting things done than a writer trying not to write. If they put a Writer Procrastination pump at gas stations, we could end our dependence on foreign oil. (And psychotherapists would be the new oil sheiks.)

How do you push past the fear and get to work? I was considering this while watching the finale of Project Runway, which culminates in finalists presenting their clothing at a major fashion show in New York. Each season, the ending two episodes repeatedly show the three finalists staring red-eyed into the Confession Cam and sobbing, “It’s just so much pressure! But winning is my dream! Everything is at stake!”

I mean, seriously: what creative person can do their best while holding in mind “Everything is at stake”? They’d do better work if they reminded themselves, “It’s just fabric. It’s just sewing. It’s not life and death, it’s just a fashion show.” They certainly would feel better.

Any time you’re writing, you have two narratives in play. The primary narrative is the writing itself, the part you enjoy and that you accomplish with ever-growing skill.

The secondary narrative occurs in the part of your mind that darts around like a frenzied border collie. It tells you that what you’re writing today is your last chance to prove you’re not a loser. It says your family will never understand what you wrote. It insists the prudes in your life had no idea you harbor such dark imaginings.

Writer’s block means you’ve loaded the moment with an over-the-top narrative of how everything is at stake. Cut the secondary narrative off, and you can focus on the primary narrative.

How? Call this technique what you will: Getting over yourself. Coming to your senses. Finding your center. Reaching inner peace. Prayer. Mental discipline.  The point is to quit loading the writing with a bunch of mental yammering that has nothing to do with the task at hand.

Though the self-judging narrative seems powerful, none of it is real. Your perception of the past is not real. Your projection of the future is not real. What is real — what you actually have to work with — is this moment, this day, this hour. Your sitting and thinking and typing is real. Your imaginary argument with your critics is not. Which means, you can stop it. Just enjoy your craft today without linking it to what is, in the end, irrelevant, brutal self-condemnation.

You’ve heard the maxim that no one can serve two masters. Become a slave of the article or chapter or scene you are writing now. Focus on getting this one short assignment right today. Empowered by your attention, the piece will grow strong enough to chase your imaginary ghouls away. Let today’s passage be your master, and you will master today’s passage.