ON WRITING: WORK, INFLUENCE AND BEING OPEN

My day-job takes me all over the province of Ontario with the consequence that I meet a lot of people. Small-talk plays a big role in my average work-day. Topics include sports (of which I have scant interest) cars and travel (topics I enjoy), music and arts (which I love) and other interests.

When I tell strangers that writing is one of my great passions, the response is usually envy, positive interest or an expression reminiscent of a deer caught in headlights. Sometimes the response is “Gee I wish I could write, but it’s just too hard!”

Writing is a difficult process made even more challenging by the writer’s own sense of self-doubt, impatience and even feelings of guilt. There are days when I log on to my computer and stare at the blank screen all the while wondering what the hell I’m doing or why I’m even bothering with the task. On really bad days, a voice at the back of my mind whispers in sibilant unctuous tones: “This story sucks! Nobody is going to read this shit! An army of the world’s best salesmen couldn’t sell this crap!”

On days like that I tell the Voice to shut the hell up. Then I persevere. In the past I would try to put down between 2500 to 3000 words a day. Nowadays I’m more forgiving. As long as the output averages between 500 and 1500 words per day, the Voice of Doubt fades away. Even if the end result gets cut from the final manuscript so what? The important thing is to make the effort and remember that the work has value to someone, even if only to you. Like any activity be it carpentry, metal working or sex, the more you practice the better you get.

Another key point to remember is the role of a writer in society. Those who are truly passionate about the craft don’t give a damn about respectability. Writers are both conveyors of opinion and purveyors of entertainment and knowledge. Their job is to hold a mirror up to an aspect or aspects of society so that society will engage in self-examination. A reader doesn’t have to agree with the writer’s point of view so long as the result leads to critical analysis and thinking.

During the 1800’s Charles Dickens was loved by the public and hated by a great many wealthy elites. His novel A Christmas Carol is a case in point since it attacked the behaviour of Victorian Era businessmen, while simultaneously celebrating the joy of human connection and family – subjects whose real value is unquantifiable by bankers and businessmen. The popular uproar caused by that novel contributed to the creation of the modern Christmas Holidays, though it’s doubtful that Dickens would have approved of Black Friday sales and consumerism. Dickens, himself passed away in relative poverty.

Therefore many of the difficulties encountered in the act of writing are created by the writer’s own lack of clarity as to why they are working on their manuscript in the first place. Each writer is different. I have many reasons for pursuing the craft. The higher purposes revolve around my sense of outrage at the iniquities in society (in particular the mistreatment of women and the working poor), the inherent brutality of modern management methods, distrust of any and all authority and a disgust with what I perceive to be a superstitious obsession with “free” markets, religion and ideology. Yours might be radically different or similar and that’s fine. Difference is an integral part of being human.

My less intellectual motivations for writing are rooted in an unabashed sense of scepticism towards most popular fiction and the writers and publishers responsible for filling bookstores with such drivel. I can recall walking into a high end book store in Dublin ten years ago and being struck by how many pointless books abounded on the shelves. Even now as much as I enjoy going into bookstores, I still marvel at the amount of useless and derivative merchandise on display.  Voyeuristic biographies of celebrities, derivative thrillers in the style of older, sometimes deceased authors written by characterless men and women possessing few of the literary gifts of those they are plagiarising. The publishers of the late Robert Ludlum’s novels (an author of whom I have enormous admiration) have successfully churned out millions of copies of poorly constructed ghost written prose under that author’s name – fifteen years after the man’s death! The same can be said for the late Tom Clancy.  Where Ludlum and Clancy were genre defining giants, the publishing industry seems content to promote mediocre copy-cats rather than being open to innovation.

Some will argue that I’m being snotty but I feel justified in my disgust. The current state of popular literature saddens me. Publishing houses like commercial banks are risk adverse when it comes to promoting actual growth. Instead of identifying stories and genres that will resonate with the reading public, most of today’s publishing houses are walking a path towards stagnation. In turn they are dragging down the culture and the reading public with it.

Certainly part of the problem lies with the existence of the internet and the increase in self-publishing. However there is also a lack of imagination on the part of commercial publishing houses in identifying and developing cultural phenomenon. These failings have always existed (Stephen King was told that his work wasn’t commercially viable) but they have been aggravated by changes in technology and the numbers of would-be writers pouring out of writing schools. It must be remembered that JK Rowling’s masterpiece series the Harry Potter novels sat in a slush pile for months until it was noticed, not by a professional agent but by an intern. In short, the most popular and culturally significant fantasy series since the Lord of the Rings trilogy might never have happened.

But I digress. My baser motivations for writing are two-fold. First I want to write the kind of books that I would enjoy reading. Second, like many writers I simply want to be understood.

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Other expressions I hear from strangers whenever I mention writing revolve around how much they wish they could write. At those moments I recall the late John D. MacDonald who when presented with similar remarks would say “Really? I always wanted to be a brain surgeon!”

He would later add that if someone wanted to write then they should go ahead and write. Excuses be damned!

I’m often asked where I get my ideas and the answer to that can be found everywhere. I might have read something in a newspaper or a history book that gets the creative juices flowing. Once, while walking down a street in Eastern Ontario I saw a townhouse with its front door ajar and bag of groceries on the front step. When I got home I wrote notes for a tale about a kidnapping gone unnoticed until after the victim had perished. My mind tends to go to dark places!

Inspiration for stories and dialogue happens at work or at play or even at night when I’m trying to go to sleep. In that regard, my day-job serves as both a means of resting the creative brain and as a source of material. However I try to avoid falling into the trap of so many story tellers who celebrate the banal. Whenever I see stories on bookshelves about shopping, dinner dates, drinks and other middle-class angst I start to feel sleepy. Such literature while reflective of middle class ideals seldom conveys either excitement or content.

There are of course exceptions to that rule. Bret Easton Ellis, the author of the novels Less Than Zero, American Psycho and Glamorama is skilled at satirizing the emptiness of popular culture and the banal aspects of modern life.

However some of my biggest influences are writers whose politics are the complete antithesis of my own. When I was a teenager I discovered the works of Jerry Pournelle whose Jannissaries Series is one my favourite science fiction franchises. Pournelle describes his politics as “to the right of Genghis Khan” and while I disagree with pretty much every single one of his political views I can’t fault either his prose style or its clarity. Pournelle’s work does suffer from ideological bias however, but that in itself was a lesson I took to heart. In Lucifer’s Hammer, one can discern a palpable dislike for Black Nationalists and environmentalists who are portrayed with cartoon simplicity. However the story itself is excellent, once the reader discerns and dismisses such ideological nonsense.

Around the same time I started reading Pournelle’s works I came across a novel by the late William W. Johnstone titled The Nursery. The story revolved around a demobbed US Army colonel named Mike Folsom recently returned from the Vietnam War to settle his parents’ estate in a small town in the American South. Upon arrival, the protagonist learns that the town has been taken over by a church loyal to Satan. Armed with an AK-47 and his devout belief in Jesus Christ, Folsom proceeds to take down the Satanic Church and free the townspeople from Satan’s clutches. The Nursery is a violent pornography steeped in its author’s prejudices. Johnstone’s politics lay to the extreme right of Pournelle. He was a Christian Fundamentalist and his works were infused with loathing for liberals, gays and lesbians and an underlying contempt for democracy. Nevertheless reading The Nursery taught me a lot about how to write in a clear, engaging style. My own novel City of Steel (currently at the editing stage) is in some ways an antithetical tribute to Johnstone and his politics.

Another influential book I encountered around the same time as my first readings of Pournelle and Johnstone was F.Paul Wilson’s The Keep.  Wilson’s politics are libertarian and The Keep is effectively a rational scientific reimagining of the Dracula Myth. The novels antagonist, the mysterious Rasalom derives supernatural powers from human suffering. Throughout the ages he has allied himself with tyrants and tyrannical governments to promote violence, hatred and agony on unimaginable scales. Rasolom’s nemesis, the equally mysterious though less powerful Glaeken is representative of the individual’s responsibility to stand up to evil and the burden’s that such responsibility places on the individual.

I doubt that if Pournelle, Wilson, Johnstone and I were sitting in a room together that we would agree on much. My own politics are humanist and most right wing and libertarian beliefs are anathema to mine. But all of that misses the point. Each of these authors whom I disagree with prompted me to consider my positions on many issues which in turn enriched, if not changed my own perspectives on said issues. Their works also made me a better writer, the same way that the works of less extreme writers like Jonathan Kellerman, John Grisham, Stephen King, David Gemmell, James Herbert and Jack Ketchum helped me develop my own style.

I suppose that key to being a writer is a willingness to be open to the world and open towards those you disagree with. That isn’t to say one should be tolerant or accepting of all points of view. It is merely to say that being open to understanding a point of view regardless of whether you believe in that perspective or not can shape your writing in a positive way. If the writer is to be an effective mirror with which a society can reflect, then it is better to understand the all angles and slants of that reflection.

When it comes to writing I find the best approach also applies to people. Openness and acceptance of doubt can be a positive force when allied with common sense and vision. Sure, it’s difficult but the rewards can be immense.

 

   

  

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