Tuesday, May 1, 2012

On never being done


I should be done with Chapter 1 of Cocotte (19 illustrated pages, 4170 words, including stage directions), but I’m not. When did I start writing it? How? Its beginning is like a dream in my memory, its origins obscured. It was at least a year and a half ago. I finally finished finished it in January, which means it's almost done. In that time, I’ve been working on numerous other projects: short stories, half-finished blog posts, half-begun articles about food and things that piss me off and whatnot, a novel (at least I think that’s what it’s turning into), yet another comic book, and, of course, additional chapters of Cocotte. What I’m trying to say is, I can’t focus, and I hate finishing. Finishing is so final. Such a commitment. Saying something is finished is saying that I approve of it, and this is rarely the case. My writing, like my real life, remains irregular, jagged and half-done.

Every week before Ryan begins to draw Cocotte, I read over the page he’s about to draw. At this point, it will have been a few weeks since I last looked at it. When I first declared it finished (not because it was done but out of frustration and weariness over the endless minute nitpicks), it seemed okay, or as okay as it could possibly be after 15 revisions. But now I look at it and all I see is substandard. I rush to him on Sunday morning to tell him to stop in order to avert disaster, tell him I need to change it. What part, he asks. All of it, I say.

You’re crazy, he says, it’s fine. He suggests I remove some of the “fucks” uttered by Dave, I tell him that then it’s uneven, that then Valerie is doing all the swearing, and we need some symmetry. Look, we need to get it done, he says. Make a decision.

It will never be right, it will never be done, I can't make decisions (this is why I have no tattoos). I take out a few words, change a few more, cut two whole panels. It’s not right. This isn’t what I wanted to convey. I don’t even know what I want to convey, but I’m sure this isn’t it. A familiar panic descends upon me. This is not who I am; I am not a bad writer, but I haven’t yet learned how to be a good one.

There is no guide for fixing flaws. You can recognize them, and still be unable to know exactly how to eliminate them. You can improve on them, and notice a million other little problems. At some point you have to stop fucking around with it and make it do and present it to the world. It will be unfinished, and not exactly the way you want it, but the terrifying leap must be made. So you have my blog posts, my smattering of published works, my comic. I disown them all. Their public nature does not signify my approval, but a resignation on my part.

I find myself deficient in part because I compare myself to the excellent; this is some consolation. This is why you should read the best books possible if you are to be a writer (you can read bad books, too, but recognize them as such). Such striving will be bad for your soul, good for your writing. With every word you type, you will be mentally punching yourself because you will realize, with pain, that the aesthetics and power of your word bouquet do not equal (say) Joan Didion's, or S. J. Perelman’s, or Haruki Murakami's. I fuss over finishing because, in a sort of perverse optimism, I am convinced that I could write as well as them, if only I spend enough hours tweaking. But, I have not yet reached that threshold.


A method for quelling your self-hatred, of course, would be to read shit exclusively, and to turn around and consistently write better shit. Then finishing would not, perhaps, be such a soul-crushing experience. You will feel better about yourself, but you will still be writing shit. This is why we should be suspicious when we hear anyone sneer, after reading a terrible book, “I could write that.” Sure you could, maybe, but is that a worthy ambition? Is that a fruitful use of your time? I can make Chef Boyardee-caliber food, too, but that’s not really something worth being proud of, and then I would just be spewing more garbage into the world. Better to try and fail to put something good into the world than to intentionally create shit. I guess.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Don't fucking write what you know

I know it goes against all the advice on writing you've heard from the time you were a wee bairn, but try this: Don’t fucking write about what you know. What you know, unless you are like an astronaut or a former child soldier, is probably that not interesting to observers. Really. Your kids are cute, but not that interesting. Your husband is dull as shit. Your opinions on politics are better expressed by writers for Politico or the Wall Street Journal (just kidding).

You’ve never done anything. You’ve never saved a kid from a well. You sit around thinking about how you can finagle riches and widespread admiration out of devoting a couple hours a month to your stupid blog (I don’t do that, but I bet you do.) The most wrenching decision you make most days is whether to douse sriracha or sambal oelek on your noodles (that wasn’t intended as a sexual reference, I guess.)

No one gives a shit about any of this. No one wants to hear it. It sucks, because if you’re a writer you probably don’t have an exciting life. There are a few exceptions, like Iceberg Slim and Rue McLanahan. But the rest of us have dull lives because we just sit around and write, and writing about that kind of sedentary lifestyle is limiting. So you’ve got two choices: you can be incredibly funny, witty, and talented and somehow make it interesting to talk about your ball-scratching husband and your kid who thinks cats lay eggs, or you can make interesting shit up.

I discourage you from the former choice. Chances are, you’re not witty and talented. If you actively think you’re witty and talented, chances are even slimmer. Wit and Talent are things  you just come across if you're fortunate, like finding USD750 in a shoe at the Goodwill*: they're not attributes you can count on happening, and it's best to plan for a life without them.

So, armed only with your talentlessness and lack of wit, and an inexplicable, perhaps detrimental desire to Be A Writer, your challenge is to create something that people will want to read. “People” doesn’t have to mean “most of the literate public” or “Michiko Kakutani” or “that guy I’ve been trying to fuck for five months now”; you will probably have to be satisfied with a few aspiring writers who only comment on your blog to get you to click on their blog. BUT. Here are your choices: you can describe the inner workings of your own head, which, we’ve already determined, are dull and fairly ordinary. OR you can set to wonderin’. “Hm. What if there’s this couple who are in love but disagree vehemently about the desirability of achieving technological singularity, which the female of the couple is working to bring about?” Or: “Camille Claudel spent the last 30 years of her life in a mental institution; what the hell did she do on a typical day? I’m going to make up a story about it.” Or: “What if there was this superhero with a really benign superpower, like an excellent sense of smell?”**

I find that little exercises like these limit me in a liberating way. You can still write about honest and familiar emotions, but you’re approaching these from a different perspective, an invented one. I’ve met many people who don’t like writing fiction because it is too open, too difficult to set parameters; but it’s fun when you invent your own parameters.

For a long time, I was like Quentin Tarantino in that all my characters were me. They all spoke the same, had the same drives, unless they were the Nemesis, in which case they were way too obvious, like, rapists and capitalists and shit. I had a breakthrough about 5 years ago, when I decided to write a story from the perspective of a small boy. At that point, it was one of the best things I’d written. I wrote a bunch more from a male’s POV. I wrote a couple of historical-ish pieces. I started a historical blog in the voice of an abhorrent upper-class woman. This involved research and some amount of hewing to the confines of actual events. When you know what your limits are, getting to an endpoint becomes like figuring out a puzzle; there may be several ways to solve it, but only one outcome, or at least a finite number of them (this is a good case for outlining one’s work, which I have never done in earnest). Trying to get outside of my own experiences - what I know -- was enormously eye-opening. My characters are all, of course, still me, in some tiny way, but they're disguised as people I've never met.

I don’t know much, so it doesn’t make sense to write what I know. Don't listen to advice. Or, do listen, but try to think about why it's wrong. All platitudes regarding writing are just platitudes anyway, and shouldn’t be taken too seriously.

_____
*Happened to my friend.
**All real-life examples of shit I'm writing.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Comment Policy: Keep It Negative

I know I’ve presented myself as an emotionally fragile human being, and it’s true, I am. I think anyone with a blog/Twitter account is, because people like us need constant attention/feedback/love. It’s a pathetic way to live a life, and I can’t recommend it to anyone.

BUT, I fear that projecting this very accurate portrait of my personality means people politely refrain from leaving negative comments on my blog, and this is the opposite of what I want to happen. I WANT negative comments. I want you to tell me what’s wrong with my blog and me, because 1) I’m a narcissist and thus prefer negative attention to no attention, and 2) I want to be the exact opposite of blogs that have comment policies demanding that commenters must “keep it positive.” Those blogs are boring and suck and are boring.

Anywhoo, I want you to disagree with me. I relish it. If I disagree with your disagreement, I’ll tell you so & probably rant about it for several blog posts. If I agree with your disagreement, I’ll offer retractions. Your negative reaction will push me to be a better person. People who think I’m dumb inspire me to be better. I had a teacher in 4th grade who thought I was great, gushed over me in conferences, and told me I’d be president someday. Was I inspired by her? Most assuredly not. I’m about as far from president as you can get without being a non-English speaker, and she kind of got my hopes up needlessly. On the other hand, my 5th-grade teacher hated me, repeatedly told me I’d amount to nothing, destroyed all my stories/artwork, and called my parents in for a special conference to berate me in front of them & tell them what a slacker I was. While painful, I’ve devoted my life since then to proving her wrong, to trying to be a good person & better writer/artist. I haven’t proved her wrong yet, but that’s the thing: she was absolutely right, I am a slacker & a fuck-up, and she called it and I respect her for that. My 4th grade teacher, on the other hand, the one who told me I’d be the 1st female president, was full of shit and obviously can’t be trusted. If she hasn’t retired yet, she should be forced to resign.

So please. Honesty reigns here, kind of. I mean, if you just think I’m fat or have a big nose, I don’t really want to hear about it, because I already know & there’s nothing I can do about it short of giving up my nightly bottle of Côtes du Rhône, and that ain’t happening. But, if you think I’m a shitty writer or I’ve said something shitty & untrue or put forth a lazy opinion, consider this my permission to you to call me out, because I can at least try to be a better writer and thinker. I’m emotionally fragile, yes, but frequent public beratings will toughen me up.

Shittily yours,

Kat Vapid


Sunday, October 30, 2011

On imitation and originality

You can’t write anything new.*

You just can’t. Don’t try. Don’t try to be new. Don’t try to be clever. Don’t try to find something out that no one else knows and be thought a hero for sharing this information with the world. Originality is dumb. Originality is impossible. The cult of originality stems from the idea that ideas are important. Ideas aren’t. The important part is the execution. We wouldn’t be so impressed by the pyramids millennia after their creation if they had remained sketches on papyrus.

The cult of originality stems from the idea that art is a moment of inspiration. As any artist knows, it’s not. It’s a process, at times a grueling** one, but hopefully one that is, on balance, fun and rewarding. Non-writers sometimes share their ideas with me and put a dollar amount (typically USD1 million) on their potential. I don’t really like to share my ideas because I know they’re shit. The same 4 or 5 stories are told over and over:

1) Somebody wants something and doesn’t get it and is sad.
2) Somebody wants something and gets it and is happy.
3) Somebody wants something and doesn’t it get but learns something along the way so is better off and they’re happy.
4) Somebody wants something and gets it but it turns out they didn’t really want it after all so they’re sad.
5) Two (or more) people fuck hard and there’s not really a plot but you can masturbate to it (this really could be 2a).***

The really interesting part is not the idea. The interesting part is the fact that the same story can be told over and over and we don’t get bored (unless Nicholas Sparks is telling the story). That either says something about humankind’s propensity to be easily entertained, or about humankind’s capacity to create fascinating shit out of nothing.

Everything is a reworking of something else. Our senses limit what we can comprehend or feel, but we can still comprehend a sight more than a barnacle (say), and we can festoon our ideas with flourishes that a razorback clam (say) is incapable of. The five storylines I summarized above aren't interesting to read, but in agile hands they can be fleshed out to the point of Art. Everything is a variation, no matter how closely the artist tries to hew to the original. The same is true for story and style. Even close copying gets you something different. This is why films get remade, why songs get covered.

Once, at a reading when I was about 16, I asked a writer I admired if he consciously tried to imitate other writers. He gave me a weird look and said, “No. You shouldn’t do that. Only amateurs do that. Find your own voice.”

I tried to follow his advice, for too long perhaps, but eventually found it was ridiculous. I tried to create a new voice, but there is no such thing. I mean, you can invent something totally new but it will be unintelligible, and thus worthless. (Another lesson: don’t listen to the advice of people you admire; what works for them may not work for you.)

In striving for an ideal, we almost always fall short. This is true in writing (ask any writer whether the book they wrote was the one they had in their head) and in language itself, where you have this thing called the phoneme: a group of phones (sounds) that speakers of a language will recognize as a single entity. Every sound we think of as being consistent – such as /p/ or /ä/ or /sh/ -- will be pronounced differently from region to region, from speaker to speaker, from word to word. The /p/ at the beginning of please is actually quite different from the /p/ at the end of top. So: in trying to achieve a single sound, /p/, we arrive at all sorts of nonsense that don’t match the ideal we have in our heads. And that’s just one sound. Aiming for a certain type of story or style can result in infinite variations.

Humans like imitating. (Remember the great pleasure you took in repeating your kid brother's pleas of "STOOOOOP! STOP COPYING ME!" during long car trips?) We take someone else’s actions or words and we expand, we manipulate, we interpret and experiment with it. This is the beauty of creativity, and its foundation. You cannot create something from nothing. You take what you have, and you fuck with it. You copy, and in copying you inevitably vary. In the variations is art, yes, but it is the similarities that make the variations possible. Van Gogh: “Lots of people copy, lots of people don’t copy. I copy. I find it teaches me things and above all it gives me consolation.” Copy, sure. There is no such thing as your own voice. If you’re inventing a completely new voice, you will be inventing your own alphabet and syntax, and no one will understand. Then you get silly things like the films of Andy Warhol and Joyce Wieland.**** And do we not write, above all, to be understood?

____________________
*Every time I make a blanket statement like this, I eventually think of a reason why it's total bullshit. I'll probably write a refutation of this post in the coming weeks. Sorry if I wasted your time.
**'Harder-than-watching-TV grueling,' not 'Donner-party-style-adversity grueling.'
***Kurt Vonnegut has a brilliant, graph-based assessment of the basic reappearing storylines and says that the best stories, like Hamlet, do not fit the above formula; as in life, the morality of the story is ambiguous.
****Please don't kill me for this sentence.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Rejection

Rejection.

Re-ject. What does ject mean? Re- is a prefix, so ject must mean something.

You look it up, because something has to occupy your time while you wait for all these rejections. Ject is nonsense in English. The word comes from Latin, reicere. To throw back. “Here,” an editor (slushpile reader, whatever) writes in a rejection letter, “I’m throwing this back at you, because it sucked.” Well, they don’t say that. Nobody says what they mean. This has always been a problem for me, because I’m not good at detecting subtexts. The slushpile readers say, instead:

“We enjoyed it, but it’s not quite right for us.”
“Thanks for the look, but I’m afraid we’re going to pass.”
“It’s a nice story, but unfortunately, we don’t have a place for it in upcoming issues.”
“This is without a doubt the most brilliant piece of writing from a contemporary author that I’ve come across in all my days, yet I’m afraid the thick and plebeian reading public is simply not ready for a work of such preëminence (nor are they ready for the English umlaut).” [I made this last one up.—Eds.]

And, always, some variant of:

“We wish you best of luck in placing it elsewhere.”

Thank you. Thank you so much. Luck will be required. You’re basically a gambler. You’re waiting for that hit, that high, that jackpot that comes from acceptance. You’re waiting for money, and meanwhile you make lattes and cry on the inside.

Then rejection arrives as a kind and lengthy form letter: “This is no reflection on you as a writer.” Well, yes, in fact, it is. If you were a good enough writer to be in their magazine, you would be in their magazine.

And that’s just the fiction side. You’ve had better luck with writing little pieces for content mills ("How to Replace a Roll of Toilet Paper"), & you're working your way up to GQ. But big magazines are busy; if they’re not interested, they just ignore you. You go on waiting, month after vacant month, wondering if you are more like Vincent Van Gogh – talented, unrecognized – or more like the shitty poet whose blog you found when you drunkenly googled “interminable sadness,” the poet who rhymes “cleric” with “enteric.” 

You should be happy to be rejected, you are told, because it is an inextricable part of the writing process. You write, you get rejected. Everyone. Good and bad. Well, are you good or bad? That’s the thing with writing, you’ll never know.

These lines by W.S. Merwin, in which Merwin recounts a conversation with the poet John Berryman, illustrate the nagging doubt that being a writer entails, but which one must ignore if one is to get anything done: 

I asked how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can't

you can't you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don't write

I mean, holy fuck, such enviable insouciance about one’s life work! But such insouciance masks, perhaps, a deeper despair about one’s own abilities; as the poet Michael Collier pointed out, “Clearly [Berryman]’s thought long about this issue because he’d like to know how good he is.”

We’d like to know if we’re good because we’d like to know if it’s worth it to eschew social outings, “Breaking Bad,” a day on the beach, a clean house, a purslane-free yard, board games with our kids, the GOP debates….you know, if it’s worth it to avoid the things that the rest of humanity seems to do without complaining. You have little time to indulge in these activities, and when you do, you undertake them with a nervous unenjoyment; because you do some undignified thing that makes you money and then you write (unless you are a good writer, in which case writing is the thing that makes you money), and those two activities pretty much cover your days. We wonder, we receive no answers, we submit, we receive no answers, we keep going, we write, we think about our friends having fun watching “Breaking Bad” or reading a breezy novel on a breezy beach, but we keep going and wondering and submitting and being ignored.

And the rejection letter arrives and we’re pissed off about it, but we also cherish it, just a little bit, because it’s some assurance about the quality of our writing. It’s life, throwing something back. “Here,” says life, “I’m throwing this back at you, because it sucked.” And then, foolishly, we write some more, because even deeper down than the wall of insouciance masking our hurt feelings, and even deeper still, beyond the hurt feelings that we only display to friends who we know will find our vulnerability quaint…deeper than all that, we really don’t give a fuck that life thinks we suck. We just want to be sure one way or the other.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Why the Fuck Do I Write?

Writing is an effective method of speaking without having to listen. I don’t like to talk to people. I get nervous and have to pee. Sometimes I become so filled with anxiety that I convince myself I am peeing in fright, which makes me more anxious, which increases the sensation that I’m peeing. Then I try to think about cunnilingus to calm me down, and that usually works. But it’s best if I avoid having to listen to people in the first place, and that’s why I write.

Face it, I don’t want to fucking listen to people. I want to imagine that I’m the only person that matters in the whole world. Some jerk (maybe it was my mom) once told me, “You have an amazing personality; you should share it with the world!” (Well, maybe I dreamed it, I don't think even my mom would go that far.) See, that attitude is what's wrong with the world. Look, I don’t write out of altruism. I’m not helping other people when I write, I’m wasting their time. I’m a cold and calculating female. I don’t feel the need to share things with other human beings, because what the fuck have they ever done for me but turned me down for sex when I most needed it?

Humans don’t even really need to write anymore. If you need to express yourself you can just record a rant on YouTube. You don’t even need to be able to sign your name, else why would the e-signature exist? Yet it keeps hanging around, like children even though they, too, are now obsolete. Writing pops up everywhere when there is a perfectly reasonable substitute: texts instead of phone calls, poems instead of songs, Twitter instead of making inappropriate comments to fellow bus passengers. I mean, NO ONE on the planet would rather Skype than e-mail. If a friend asks us to Skype with them, we instantly cut off all contact, because that shit is so far from normal. (We even prefer image-free phone calls to Skype, because we like the option of being able to masturbate through our phone calls, because we’re not listening anyway and we have to keep busy somehow while the other person is talking.)

There you have it: we keep writing because we don’t want to fucking listen. Fran Lebowitz: “The opposite of talking isn't listening. The opposite of talking is waiting.” Writers get to avoid all that. I don’t really care about what other assholes have to say, and that is why I write.

Comments are allowed but discouraged.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

I like Bill Holm

Look, if for some reason you want to read about Minnesota, bypass the Garrison Keillor rack at your local Waldenbooks. The poet Bill Holm was a more estimable chronicler of Minnesota life. I was going to write a lengthy post about him, but since I’m shite at criticism and don't really understand literature, I’ll just leave you with this thing he wrote about prairies and the personalities they nurture:

There are two eyes in the human head -- the eye of mystery and the eye of harsh truth -- the hidden and the open -- the woods eye and the prairie eye. The prairie eye looks for distance, clarity, and light; the woods eye for closeness, complexity, and darkness. The prairie eye looks for usefulness and plainness in art and architecture; the woods eye for the baroque and ornamental....Sherwood Anderson wrote his stories with a prairie eye, plain and awkward, told in the voice of a man almost embarrassed to be telling them…; Faulkner, whose endless complications of motive and language take the reader miles behind the simple facts of an event, sees the world with a woods eye. One eye is not superior to the other, but they are different. To some degree, like male and female, darkness and light, they exist in all human heads, but one or the other seems dominant. 
...Like a long symphony by Bruckner or Mahler, prairie unfolds gradually, reveals itself a mile at a time, and only when you finish crossing it do you have any idea of what you've seen. Americans don't like prairies as scenery or for national parks and preserves because they require patience and effort. We want instant gratification in scenic splendor as in most things, and simply will not look at them seriously. Prairies are to Rockies what Paradise Lost is to haiku. Milton is cumulative; so are prairies. Bored for days, you are suddenly struck by the magnitude of what has been working on you. It's something like knowing a woman for years before realizing that you are in love with her after all.

--From "Horizontal Grandeur," The Music of Failure.