I have this beat up Microsoft keyboard with the home-row letters worn off. It’s what they call “ergonomic” and I bought it because I was typing so much that my hands were cramping painfully. I try to imagine how my wrists would feel with an ancient mechanical typewriter, the typebars jamming up and the ink ribbon drying out, and I thank The Powers That Be that I wasn’t born into an era where writing was still a physical struggle as well as a mental one. All around my work space are the little totems and trinkets that I use to make writing easier; my computer is loaded with software that makes editing a breeze, every pencil and notebook is within easy reach. I’m sure that most writers have their own areas arranged in a similar way. But, every so often, I glance around and wonder “How exactly did all of this come about?”
We come to writing from different directions in life, from different backgrounds and experiences, and we put a distinct stamp on the words that we craft. How much of that uniqueness is a product of the way that we put those words to paper? Each creative artist has a different method to lull themselves into a state where they can bring a project to completion and often, the delicate balance between our thoughts and the techniques that we use to record them is more important than the words themselves.
This may be a blasphemous position to take, but there are some things about writing that I’ve discovered that would be surprising to most people who don’t spend the majority of their day either pacing, talking to themselves, or shackled to a keyboard. I spent two complete years doing exactly that. At a certain point I realized that, surprisingly, I didn’t really mind it at all and had, accidentally, morphed into a writer. I can say that with no arrogance because, although I’ve always enjoyed a good yarn and have always respected writers, I never aspired to be one. I was, at the time, (like many writers before me), a frustrated musician.
I became so broke because of music, not once or twice, but for the third time, that I finally felt compelled to write in order to support such an expensive habit. This realization came about more as a result of my casting about the room looking for things of little personal value that I could sell, than from any truly artistic need. My writing career started because these items that I had written were all that I had left to sell. They were mostly remnants of lyrics or sections of libretti that I had conceived, all of which had an actual musical score designed for them. I gathered what pieces I could that seemed to have some sort of reason to them, and began to compile them into a logical form. That was my first book. The selections that didn’t make their way into that book became my first short stories, which were all originally poems. (I would like to think that I show a lyrical style in my writing, because if I don’t, then the pieces were grievously malformed in their original intent.) The strangest thing about these pieces is the vast difference from where they were supposed to go and where they eventually ended up. This isn’t the most surprising thing about writing that I’m presenting to the current reader, but one of many that I’ve wondered about as I went over that beginner’s hump that I think all professional writers must traverse.
Another curious thing that I found was the fact that I came upon a system of writing, a pathology of a sort. I realized at some point that all great writers must have had a system, a work space, ingrained habits, routines, schedules, rituals, idiosyncrasies and all of the other quasi-superstitious eccentricities that mark them as writers. I developed mine, and I found that my system was, in truth, far more valuable than any amount of talent that I may have presumed to possess. Without the system, the talent would have been worthless. Yet with the system, I was able to produce so much drivel that a small percentage of it was able to be passed off as marketable. The system was the key. An even stranger thing that I found was the fact that any amount of distraction was enough to make me virtually unable to sit down and write, but that the particular form of that distraction seemed to change. One day, any small noises in the region would be enough to halt my flow. On another day, I would write in the same room as a blaring television that was successfully competing with traffic noises directly outside. On yet another day, it would be the heat that would preclude me from completing my task, and I would follow that up with banging out two thousand words in a summer swelter. I realized simply, that things had to be just so, and in a way that I couldn’t define concretely but that I could instantly recognize intuitively. I wouldn’t even attempt to write in an environment that spoiled that concentration. I also found out, during my self-imposed time of exile, that there are a lot of writers. I mean, a lot. This humbled me and made me see that it really wasn’t talent or intelligence that would bring your work to the public. There were so many talented people writing so many intelligent things that you could never be sure that your ramblings would be noticed in any appreciable way. So, at some point, you have to labor at it. Straight manual labor. I mean late hours, early mornings, reading the same thing five, six, seven (or more) times. All of the things that you were writing to avoid, you have to do in the end. There is no free lunch. It sucks, but it’s true.
I also began to see that productivity could be worth more than creativity, a disheartening truth that I resisted for as long as possible. I have an associate who publishes comic books and graphic novels. Once, he explained to me exactly what his company looked for when contracting artists.
“I see so many great illustrations come across my desk,” he said, “but great artwork doesn’t matter all that much to me.” I recall looking astounded at such a bizarre remark. I’d known him for years at that point and I knew he that he had really great taste in comics. He continued, “Generally, I look for consistency. I want characters that look the same in each and every panel. Also, I want artists that can complete a high volume of panels monthly. If they can’t, they’ll be useless if a comic is successful and becomes serialized. Who cares if an artist can draw something amazing, but it takes them forever to produce it? What good are they if they can’t reproduce it?”
His position clearly illustrated to me the difference between a consumer of art and a producer of art. This relates as much to the written word as to graphic arts, and for those of us that are drawn towards telling stories through text, I saw that we would be wise to concern ourselves with how much we can produce and how fast we can produce it.
I gravitated towards writing not because I felt that I was any good, or that anything that I wrote would be interesting to anyone, but because I wanted a job where I could remain alone. Writing seemed like something that I would be able to do without interacting with anyone at all. I know, it sounds like I’m some sort of agoraphobic recluse, but in reality I’ve never been able to pull that off. I’ve spent most of my life fantasizing about this lifestyle where I never have to actually interact with the people who read or listen to or view any of the things that I’ve created. To stare them in the eye and attempt to explain exactly what I meant or implied seemed almost too much to bear. Yet I also always knew that someone out there would find some of the things that I wrote entertaining, simply because I found almost everything that I read entertaining, and I read almost everything I could get my hands on. I think that most aspiring writers feel that, somewhere out there in the world, in some country, there is someone who needs to hear exactly what they needed to say; that they could craft the verse or paragraph that would change the way a person would view the world. I knew this must be true because of all the things that I had been exposed to that had changed the way that I viewed the world.
I feel the people around the world who are like me, I can sense their presence. I’ve become aware of them through their writing. I’ve read things and found snippets of thoughts that reassure me that I am not alone and that there are parallel thought processes grinding away out there. And standing in between us, interrupting this communication is the commercial aspect of writing. I’ve always had a strong sense of distrust of the publishing world, in both the music and print industries, and I am not trying to be a hater, or be bitter about the business end of things, but it has never seemed acceptable for me to try to solicit the things that I wrote in any way. I felt that they should never require marketing or selling because their value should be obvious. Not in the sense that I was some kind of amazing talent (because I’ve never felt that), it’s just that I’ve never had to be convinced that anything that I’ve read or listened to was good. It was always so glaringly obvious to me, and nothing and nobody would have been able to convince me otherwise. I’ve never needed to have art or literature or music marketed to me, so why should I have to convince someone else that what I write is good. I simply wanted to write and record things that made some sort of impact on a select few. Anyone who did not have to be convinced, you understand? It wouldn’t count if I had to sell you on it. It had to be spontaneous or it wouldn’t have meant anything at all. But if an artist retains an attitude like that, their work can sit for years, archived, waiting for someone to come along and ask for it, for someone to say that they want to release it. That’s certainly not the way to score a record deal or a publishing contract.
As creative artists, as creative people, we’re torn between the desire to express ourselves and the desires of our audiences. Do we wish to entertain them, educate them, convert them, or simply to connect to them? Do they want to be entertained, educated, converted or connected to? It takes time and energy to produce any work, no matter how trivial that work seems at the time of creation, and we have to weigh the energy expended against the chance that the work will be widely read.
For writers, that is the dream, where the important things that we’ve written will find their audience. Not important in a worldly sense, but important in an intimate and personal sense. The things that we’ve written are for our friends, friends that we have yet to meet. They were written as personal notes and essays addressed to people just like us. People that we would enjoy being around, people who are unlike the contrary people that we’ve met in our daily lives. They know who they are because they will be the very few who feel a pang of familiarity with our tone. They will remember some of our experiences. They are unlike the majority, but they are concealed amidst them. We miss them like old friends and we have not yet spoken to a single one of them. A writer’s dream is to gain these distant companions who truly understand.