This year marks the first time that I’m taking place in National Novel Writing Month. In the past, I thought “Damn, that’s pretty friggen intense, writing a full novel in the space of one month.” And, well, that idea hasn’t really changed. What has changed, though, is I inadvertently did the same thing last year, ever weekday morning, as I rode the train from Canterbury to London, then back again.
I got it down to a method, you see. I’d wake up ungodly early, curse, make some coffee, get ready, and schlep down the big fucking hill and down the deserted streets of Canterbury by about 6:45. Then, I’d sit down on a bench at the rail station until the train pulled up, at which point—by now sweating quite a bit, this being August, and any time it’s above sixty degrees, I erupt into a ball of sweat—I’d pull on my headphones, put on Beethoven’s Ninth, and work on The Adventures of Cloyd Blank.
I’d long since passed the point of what I needed to do for my dissertation, and I kept with the book just to see if I could finish it. I knew I wouldn’t complete it that summer, though. I was planning on it being about 75,000 words and I was only about 20,000 into it at that point. I just made it a point to continue my up-until-then upheld writing schedule, and tried to see what came out of it.
See, one of the things that got me thinking seriously about being a writer instead of some dude who wrote stories as a way to amuse people, thus ingratiating himself among everyone in high school, and thus not getting his ass kicked on a daily basis (it worked!) was reading Stephen King’s On Writing.
Amongst all the grammar chapters which were oh-so-necessary but, well, not even Stephen King can make grammar interesting, there were a few chapters about what it takes to be a writer—to even have a chance of making it, as it were. And one of the most important points in the book was to write something every day. Set a goal—start small at first—and do that every day. Doesn’t matter if it’s a time limit or a word count, the point was to do something every day, and make that a firm part of your mind.
So I started doing it towards the end of high school, then stopped in college, because I discovered all the glories of drinking.
But, around the time when I snapped out of that haze when I returned from England in ’07, I realized that I needed to get back on track. I looked back at the writing I’d done in the past, and saw the vast improvement when I was writing daily, then the stagnation that followed, and decided that I had nothing to lose.
And—just about—since then I’ve kept at it. The result is that I’m sitting on a mound of unpublished stuff (some, admittedly, unpublishable—but hey, that’s why I have this site). But, the other result is that I’ve had three stories published and two under contract. And, what’s more, those suckers have promised to pay me for my nonsense.
Anyway, the point is that the whole write every day thing has a purpose other than making you think about going into engineering, chemistry, or something that doesn’t equate to massive amounts of rejection: It’s to make you realize that writing isn’t special.
Because, and I hate to counter everyone who’s ever filled your head with nonsense about The Muse, inspiration, dreams coming to life, or anything else that makes you start to think—even for a second—that you’re some mystical oracle bringing to life things in other dimensions, writing isn’t special.
That is, the act of writing isn’t special. Nor is the whole rush that you get when you get an idea. That’s just your brain/you entertaining itself/yourself when you hear/think of something cool. Nothing’s reaching across a cart and slapping you in the face with a hot dog.
All of that is just a metaphor for that cool buzz you get, and that’s The Truth.
(You can trust me. I have an M.A.)
But—BUT—that doesn’t mean that you should stop because it’s not fulfilling your hopes and dreams. You’ve still got the ability to tell a story that’s entertaining. Maybe your book will be the thing that brightens someone’s day. Maybe it’ll be something to get people to look at the world in a different light. If you ask me—little old cynical me—that’s so much better than hogging some New Agey idea of inspiration for yourself.
And, really, that’s the point of making yourself write every day. You push through all the bullshit that stoned-out poets say in their work and realize that writing a story is as normal and real as a whiff of a fart in a crowded subway.
Now, you may be asking yourself, “Jesus, what is wrong with this guy?”
To that answer, I bring you to Enlightenment as seen by a guy named Brad Warner. He’s a certified Zen priest and—like a lot of people—a published author. I mention him in particular, because his book, Sit Down and Shut Up introduced me to a take on Zen Buddhism that I really dug. The reason I dug the specific take was that it really tried to drill the understanding that enlightenment is no more important a thing than—guess what—a fart in the wind.
In other words, it’s not something to be glorified and concentrated on. Zazen, the meditating thing you see monks doing in movies about The Mysterious East, is an incredibly boring process involving nothing but sitting in an uncomfortable position, staring down your nose, and trying not to have thoughts. And, some would tell you, that process itself is enlightenment.
It’s the same in writing, really. You’re sitting at a desk—for example—with nothing in front of you for distraction. (God help you if you have something shiny in front of you. That, by virtue of being a physical object, is so much more interesting than your writing projects.) You’re concentrating on one thing and one thing alone, and in order to do that one thing, you have to perform an inane task: smash a keyboard enough to form words until you’re done for the day.
It’s beyond question that you need some sort of “inspiration” in order to write, otherwise you’ll just churn out either nonsense or a surrealist masterpiece. But the thing is that “inspiration” as a word has been co-opted by sleazy self-help gurus and dudes stinking of patchouli who really want you to see their new chapbook of poetry. So let’s not use that. Let’s think of something else that doesn’t reek of pretension. In the meantime, let’s stick with “Holy damn you guys, lookit this idea I got!”
All of the above is about why I’m sitting around for an indeterminate amount of time to write 2,200 words a day and, thus, have the bulk—if not a full—of a novel finished by the end of November. Because in order to get something done, you have to take away all the pretension and realize that your chosen career is incredibly stupid, but you like it anyway, because living in your make believe worlds can be fun.
This, by the way, is why I always say “I make shit up,” whenever anyone asks what I do. Because that’s what I do, and that’s what you, my writer friend, should do as well. Don’t bother with art. Just make shit up. Let other people tell you it’s art.