Fiddling at the End of the World
In Lovecraft’s “The Music of Erich Zann,” the titular character plays alien music upon his viol to keep some kind of otherworldly horror at bay. Each night he plays more and more frantically until, at last, the Stygian horrors of Chaos claim him, compelling him to play even while dead. It’s one of my favorite Lovecraft tales.
Increasingly, I’ve been feeling a little bit like Erich Zann. I think maybe a lot of us have.
It feels as though the wheels are coming off civilization. I’ll spare you the details, but you probably know what I’m talking about. We are facing chaos and uncertainty, dealing with various kinds of trauma and suffering, and our opportunities for combating this or changing it in any substantive way are few. All we really have to keep us going is art.
I say this because, for all we can talk about fighting and working and resisting and so on, the fact remains that you can’t actually live for doing that. Not if you want to retain your sanity, anyway. We fight on the battlefields so that we may live at home, and as the battlefield and the home become increasingly the same place and exist in the same sphere, how do we or can we escape from…you know, all of this shit?
For many of us who are artists/creators of some kind, we keep creating (or try to, anyway); for those of us who are not, we consume the art with equal greed. We artists throw ourselves into our work; our audiences throw themselves into the worlds we create. For me, I don’t want to write about the real world for obvious reasons, but nevertheless I find myself writing about it anyway, in oblique ways. Like Erich Zann, I can’t keep the chaos completely at bay – I am only mortal – so it creeps in, bit by bit. Like the narrator of the story, the audience is intrigued by the glowing edge of that realness. The fictional and the factual exist in tandem, never really separated. Fiction is a way of looking at something without really looking.
I’ve been playing The Witcher III: The Wild Hunt, and as Geralt walks through Velen beneath the trees straining with the weight of hanged men, there is a certain dark parallel there to our own world. I find it soothing, though, in a way – as Geralt, I can slay the monsters and defeat the unrighteous (or try to, as best I can). If I can’t save people, maybe I can at least avenge them. In this case I am Zann’s audience, listening through the door.
But the artist – the author of The Witcher books/games, myself in my own work – we have to look out that window into the chaos. We have to face it to make the art, and we play and we play and we play and it doesn’t seem like enough. It isn’t actually enough, is it? Zann dies trying. Perhaps nothing so grandiose happens to the author who looks at the world’s ugliness and fashions it into some shadowy reflection with a lot more drama and a lot less despair, but we shouldn’t fool ourselves: very few books change the world. Very few stories rewrite history. We as a society spent 50 years screaming about Orwell’s 1984 and we went and did it anyway.
You have to look, though. You’ve no choice. The idea that we can produce works that are separate from our current times is the height of arrogance – we are, by necessity, products of the world around us. Like Erich Zann, we cannot choose what is outside our window. We can only take a hard look at it, take up our viol, and try to make it better.
Or die trying.
Calling the Muse, Achieving the Zone
Writing is an art form. Like all art forms, it is difficult and requires great concentration to do well. The trick with writing, though, is achieving this level of concentration. To this end, I am sometimes jealous of my brethren in the performing arts. When a person is rehearsing their guitar or dancing in a studio, there is something of a tacit assumption among the laity (i.e. non-artists) that they ought not interrupt. There is clearly something important happening – this artist is concentrating – and they know they should wait until they are through. We writers enjoy no such social bulwark between their art and interruption. The basic assumption made by many when I say I am “writing” is, basically, that I am doing nothing important and may be interrupted whenever for whatever reason. This is probably because a substantial portion of writing involves staring at the wall and occasionally mumbling to yourself, doodling in notebooks, and googling weird things.
Now I guess I could make this post into a stern admonishment of those who would dare intrude upon a writer’s daydreaming, but that isn’t where I’m going with this. Those who know me well – my family and friends – understand the importance of this concentration and everybody else probably doesn’t care enough to listen anyway. I cannot assume the world will bend over to make sure I can sit in my office undisturbed for hours a day – I am not so lucky as that. Nor is, I’d wager, the vast majority of writers out there, professional or otherwise.
The challenge, then, becomes how one can cope with or avoid such interruptions. Everybody’s tolerance is different, too, and everybody’s ideal writing state differs. Some concentrate well out in the world, surrounded by the white noise of a café, an espresso within reach. Some throw on the headphones, crank up the music, and drown out the world. Me? I prefer solitude and silence. I need this quiet so I can hear the words. I need solitude so, when I pace around and mime swordfights or recite snippets of dialogue to myself, I don’t have to explain or justify myself. I am free to wholly inhabit the world of the story or novel – body, mind, and soul.
My day job is that of a college English professor. During the semester, in addition to incredible piles of student work to grade (~2400 pages per semester), I also have meetings to attend, e-mail to keep up with, and students popping into my office, knocking on my door, asking me questions. Now, this is part of my job – no complaints – but it interferes with my ability to produce. At home I have two small children, a wife, and a dog who all deserve my attention. Optimistically, I could perhaps secure for myself a half hour to maybe an hour a day to write, usually late at night.
The persistent advice given new writers is “write every day.” You’ve got to put your ass in a chair and produce, dammit! Do it! NO EXCUSES, SLACKER!
This is a pernicious lie. I attempted to adhere to it for a number of years (when I was single and had no kids or dog or anything) and the attempt was a miserable failure. An hour a day just wasn’t enough time for me to be truly productive. I had to spend at least half that time getting myself into the zone. Then I wrote for the other half and, often, about half of that was terrible. Then I’d have another day to wipe away that zone and I’d have to sit down and do it again. It was, frankly, a bit demoralizing and my work suffered.
See, getting into that zone – that state of concentration where you inhabit the world of your writing – can take time. There are few people who can plant before a computer and BAM – the words flow. Sure, it happens. More often there is a process, a ritual. For me, it takes about half an hour assuming my writing engines are already primed. At the end of a semester (such as the one that just ended for me yesterday), it takes me a day or two to prime the engines. Then, though, I can produce like crazy–I get whole days basically to myself where I can focus and devote myself to my craft. In the eight years I tried writing a little each day, I produced 2 novels. In the eight years since I’ve been a professor and been granted the blessed Semester Breaks, I’ve written 4 novels and twenty short stories, many of which have been through several revisions, many of which have been published. I really don’t think I would have been able to do that with an hour a night.
Everybody is different, though. I know people who are able to juggle their lives and sink right into that zone each night and produce consistently. The point is that writing, just like any art, requires us to be able to sit down and unpack the coils of ideas that have glommed up our brain, sort them out, and wait for them to start building something. In my silent cube in my empty office suite, I stare at the wall and feel something coming – something emerging from the clouds, like an alien vessel descending towards Earth. With practice, I hope I can get better at doing that, more flexible, more versatile. I hope someday I will find a lifestyle even better suited to my authorial needs. The wages of my years of effort, though, is that at least now I know what I’m looking for.
Find your own zone. Mark it. Remember how to return. That, I think, is one of the greatest skills a writer can possess.
- I’m going to be on the radio! Tune into AM Ocala Live at 9:35am EST on Monday, 12/14 on WOCA to hear me talk with hosts Larry Whitler and Robin MacBlane about the Writers of the Future Contest and my own upcoming work. If you are in North Central Florida, you can listen in on either 96.3 FM or 1370 AM. It should be fun!
- The Iron Ring is still on sale for a mere 0.99 on Amazon, but not for long! A great holiday read! Go and get it now, before they raise the price back to a daunting $1.99!
Writers: The Morlocks of Creation
Read a thing on a friend of mine’s facebook feed today. It was a picture of a Craigslist ad or similar that went something like this:
I’m looking for a fiction writer who can write a series of books in the Paranormal Romance, Werewolf Romance, Christian Romance, or Military Romance genres. You must think creatively about the topic I give you and write a full book (5000 words) that is unique and original and that will attract readers. Must have lots of description. I will pay $40 (Canadian) and a $5 bonus if delivered within 5 days. Copyright will revert to me upon publication. Send a writing sample.
Two things here (well, a lot more than two, but let’s focus on the big ones, shall we?):
- What kind of idiot would ever sign up for such a thing?
- What the actual fuck is this poster thinking?
What’s sad here is probably somebody gave this a shot. Being a writer is depressing, lonely work at times and getting a quick $45 is probably tempting if all you’ve had is Ramen Noodles and multivitamins for a week and a half between pulling doubles at TGI Fridays. But holy crap, writers, don’t you dare do this! Don’t! Hell, I’d pay you $40 US to not do it. (please note: I have no actual money. Just, you know, making a point)
I’m reminded of this wonderful, expletive-laced rant by Harlan Ellison which I will share with you now:
The man is right, dammit. We are living in the middle of a society that is constantly and aggressively seeking to devalue art and artists. I talk about writers here, but it may as well be anybody we loosely categorize with the flavorless moniker “content creators.” Actors, graphic artists, musicians, sculptors, writers – performers of any stripe – have been reduced to being seen as hobbyists with nothing better to do or lazy bums who will dance for a nickel.
Granted, there are always dilettantes – that guy who comes up to the lead guitarist in a band and says “hey! I play guitar! But I gave it up – I like making money.” Yes, we (by “we” I mean “actual artists”) dislike that person for belittling our art and they suck and so-on, but the person who’s worse – the person who is far, far worse – is the person who expects you to perform your task for free. If you consider yourself a professional, the answer should be no. It should always, always be no. Be polite, of course, but tell them to walk. Professionals, by definition, get paid. Maybe not a lot, but still something.
Artists may not run the government, they may not drive the economy, they may not fight the wars or pave the roads or build the houses, but they create the culture. They fashion the very ineffable substance that makes our daily lives bearable. Ever gone to work humming a song? Ever imagined yourself as this or that great hero or wished for romance of the kind you read about in a book? That stuff – the stuff of living – is made by artists, most of whom are pretty near broke or, if they aren’t, are working a side-job and squeezing in their passion between shifts and kids and meals and their love life and everything else. Like the Morlocks in HG Wells The Time Machine, they make your life more liveable while they toil in the shadows. Ponying up the occasional Eloi isn’t too much to ask, right?
I’ll tell one more story, and then I’m out:
During the Writers of the Future Workshop, my fellow writers and I were let loose on Hollywood Boulevard to talk to a total stranger as part of our “24-hour story” exercise. I talked to a number of people, but maybe the most interesting was this one guy hawking CDs by the Chinese Theater. He was yelling as people passed by, trying to give them the hard sell on his music, hassling strangers. He had a shield up around his inner self – he was the carnival barker, not the guy putting his love on the street for others to walk over. I’ve worked jobs like that before, and it’s pretty demoralizing, especially when it’s your own work you’re hawking. So, I walked up to him and bought a CD. “How much,” I asked.
“Whatever you got, man, that’s fine.”
I gave him twenty bucks.
His eyebrows shot up. He got quiet for a second. He took my hand and he shook it. “Thank you.” He didn’t seem to think that was enough. The shields were down now – I could see this was an important moment for him, even if only a small one. “I just want you to know…” his voice cracked a little, “I want you to know that I’m really good, okay? I’m not just talking. My music is important to me, and I really think I’m good.”
That right there was worth the twenty bucks.
Pay the writer. Pay the artist.
- I’ll be signing copies of The Oldest Trick at Pandemonium Books and Games in Cambridge, MA on October 1st from 7pm-9pm. Come check it out!
- I’m heading up to Dover VT for the Independent Film and Television Festival this 24th-27th! I’ll be giving a presentation on World Building in Science Fiction and Fantasy on Saturday morning at 11am. The rest of the festival looks great, and time is running out to get passes and lodging. Hopefully I’ll see you up there!
Of Chain-mail Bikinis…
Okay, gentlemen, I have a serious question for you: What is the deal with the picture on the right here?
I’m following the idea that she’s showing a lot of skin – I am a man, after all – but you kinda lose me as soon as you get into ‘crouching over dismembered bug-aliens and wielding battle-axe’. This gets my circuits all jammed; I’m not sure how it doesn’t for you.
Let’s skip the part where I point out how this is objectifying and degrading to women – we all know that. I’m even going to jump past the clear ‘realistic’ problems here (why on earth would anyone go into battle naked? I mean, even the Celts painted their whole bodies blue. And what’s with those blades sticking off her arms? You can’t tell me that one of those wouldn’t wind up stuck in her ear or back…). I want to get down to question the basic, underlying assumption here: Why do men consider this sexy?
The difference between this shot and the picture you’d encounter in your average skin-mag is really only a couple things: the weird glowing eyes, the bizarre armor, the weapon, and the dead things. I would like to address each one in turn, if I may:
- Glowing Eyes: I have been laboring under the assumption that we, as human beings, are attracted to other human beings. How is it an attractive thing for this woman to not be a human being? Like, she might eat you. She certainly seems violent and odd (look at her toes!). Granted, everybody’s got weird fetishes, but I really don’t get this. Human women are clearly superior, and in a wide variety of ways.
- Weird Armor: So, the ostensible sex symbol is clad in pointy, sharp things. Is this some kind of metaphor that appeals to the underlying assumption among geeky men that they will not, cannot, and should not be able to have a romantic relationship with a woman who they consider actually beautiful? In the first place, that’s pretty damned sad; in the second, it is also untrue. Also, how the hell is she supposed to reach over her head without impaling herself? How do you, as a geek, not concern yourself with that?
- The Big Damned Axe: Phallic imagery – I get it. I mean, it’s an axe and not a sword, which sort of messes with the metaphor a bit (it’s a chopping weapon, not a thrusting one – get it?). What I find strange about the weapon as phallic image in this context is that it – being a penis – is being wielded by a woman. To kill things. Doesn’t this strike you, penis-owning male, as somewhat…uncomfortable? I mean, I’m all for women having power and equality, but you can’t seriously sit there and tell me that’s what this picture is about, can you? As a sexual fantasy, why would you want the sexual object to have weaponized your own sexual organ to, potentially, be used against you if you misbehave? Is this an S&M thing? Anyway, I don’t find it all that attractive…just…odd.
- The Dead Things: You know what doesn’t go with sex? Violence. Any kind of violence. At all. Ever. It is disturbing that anybody, anywhere thinks otherwise under any circumstances. When we add in the fact that she has, apparently, just slaughtered a wide variety of bug aliens, it gets weirder. I can tell you with perfect confidence that one of the least likely times my wife will want to get it on is immediately after I have crushed a cockroach with my bootheel. Indeed, that is one of the times I am unlikely to want to get it on. Violence/killing things doesn’t go with sex. I shouldn’t have to say this.
The chainmail bikini thing is a bizarre fetish that I don’t understand. I mean, the women are attractive and everything, but they don’t make me want to woo them. We can be friends, sure, but they’re going to have to show me that they can be nice and kind and funny and smart before we get to the whole ‘making out’ stage. Does this mean I’m intimidated by strong women? I rather doubt it – I have a lot of strong women in my life and I admire and love them a great deal. Don’t fool yourself into thinking the above picture is about women being ‘strong’; it’s a reflection of a regrettable and disturbing lack of confidence among geeky men and their confused and often stunted views of the opposite sex. It’s more sad than anything else.