People like to tout about Nietzsche quotes as if the guy weren’t a prolific author who, by virtue of having a staggering mind, often contradicted himself. His philosophy is something much different from Plato’s “THE ONLY WORTHY GOVERNMENT IS ONE BY A PHILOSOPHER-KING!” N’s philosophy is a bit more like a labyrinth – twists, turns, and, at the end (if there can really be an end to a philosophy), a pretty big reward for gathering some meaning from it. Leaving the maze, if we’re keeping to the metaphor.
But I’m not here to post about Neeters (as his friends called him) in a general sense – I’m talking about one quote in particular – that one about how the act of creating requires inner conflict. Or something like that – the thing about quoting translations is that you run into different wordings of the same thing. Still, you know what I mean.
In my experience, the sort of people who like to use that term aren’t so much writers as fans of Nietzsche. They populate vast tracts of writers’ workshops, churn out long treatises about the shallowness of modern living, wear black, and, on the side, read a lot of Gore Vidal and Noam Chomsky. You may have had some interaction with them in the classroom, thought about how strange it is that they never really write anything, and then – a couple of years later – meet them in a coffee place.
“Hey man,” you say, expertly hiding the fact that you hated them two years ago. “How’ve you been doing? Still writing?”
The answer is almost a universal constant. “No. There just wasn’t anything happening anymore.”
Or something to that effect. You may get something like they could never get published – or they found their true calling in video installation art – or they started writing [shiver] poetry. Whatever the case, it’s no big loss to the world of words. There are entirely too many writers and magazines out there who focus on the same old tired exhausted sighs resulting from the sudden realization of the vapidity of modern life. That retail is (shocking) not perfectly compatible with their dreams.
Look, I get it. It’s retail. You’re not getting paid a fortune to sit around, look bemused, and jot down the occasional paragraph of Franzen-clone fiction. I’m not a fan of it either. But, again, this isn’t what this post is about.
This post is about The Process.
The people who write about the vapidity of modern life don’t get The Process. (Okay, there are some that do. There are some whitewashed-MFA-fiction writers out there who really treat writing like it’s a job. But I’m not attacking them. I’m attacking this totally fictional strawman.) They’ll throw the Nietzsche quote out there – and others like it – like it’s an excuse for not writing, or not working on the [shudder – I hate this word] craft.
Writing is a brutal process. It’s on par with Zen training. To be a writer means that you have to strip your ego down to its bare essentials – you have to understand what makes you you. No, I don’t mean that you go around saying “I am an Author;” I mean you understand yourself at a base level – in a way that a lot of people will never approach. You have to destroy the ego and uncover the self.
If Zen is sitting around, staring at a wall in the hopes that, some day, you’ll get to grasp what it all is, then writing is the same thing, but with a keyboard and a red ink pen instead of a zendo. You’ve gotta be in tune with yourself, know how you think, know what makes you tick, and you have to make that jive with the language of everyone else. That sounds weird, I know. Who doesn’t know who they are? Who doesn’t express that in their daily lives?
You probably know plenty of people who don’t. That guy who’s all smiles, firm handshakes, and white teeth – but, at some level, you can tell that something is off about him? There’s just some thing that makes you you shiver when thinking about the dude, or just interacting with him. Like a less-stabby Patrick Bateman. For whatever reason, he’s the kind of guy I’m talking about.
What I’m getting at is you have to get over the idea that writing is contingent on chaos. Because it’s not. Writing is a job like any other, and, like any other job, if you’re going to perform on a consistent basis (however you want to define that), then you’ve gotta have stability. There’s a reason Keruoac never wrote while he was on the road. Or why Stephen King (yep, him again), keeps a ridiculously strict schedule, why Dickens went on nearly cross-country walks.
They built themselves a regimen, kept to it, and produced. It’s nearly the complete opposite of chaos, isn’t it?
Let’s also not forget that – yeah, he may have written fiction, but Nietzsche was a philosopher and not an author.
Part of me wants to wrap this up with a summary – or something bordering on a moral – but I don’t think I can. I mean, I’ve still got plenty of undisciplined days. (Especially now that I’m job hunting as a full time job instead of being able to get into the office early to work! [That, of course, is an excuse. One that I really need to ditch.]) So who am I to tell you all of this? Who am I to tell you that you’re doing it wrong?
You shouldn’t really listen to me about this stuff – unless you’re desperate. (Or looking for an editor!) Part of the awesome thing about being a fiction writer is making your own rules. Many people can’t write in the morning. That’s when I get my best work done. A lot of people can write in groups. I can’t; that’s when I start talking to people about books or video games. A ton of people take part in Friday Night Writes, which breaks both of my above rules.
So, find your way, but if you’re going to listen to anything I think, you should hear me when I say you need to develop a system. Chaos is only good for Orks and poets.
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.