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



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.

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