The Brutal Writing Process (and Quotes and Tips to Help You Through It)

If you’re a writer, or if you’ve ever tried your hand in writing in any form, you’ll know that the process of writing is a brutal process. Probably not the blood-sweat-and-tears kind of brutal (although there may be cases when one or all three are physically involved), but certainly straining enough: late hours spent staring at your word processor, trying to find the next good line, or maybe empty packs of chips and instant noodles and cups of coffee littering your desk, too busy as you are to cook or go out to get real food. The writing process may sound romantic, but in reality, it is not, any many writers – published or unpublished – are struggling to pin their ideas down neatly on paper, in a piece that people would want to read. There are no definitive lists telling you what the writing process exactly is, or how you’re going to experience it, as it is a personal endeavor. Only you will be able to find out how your own writing process – and in turn, your own habits, strengths, and weaknesses as a writer and as an individual – is.

That said, however, it is always helpful to take a few tips and inspiring quotes from authors who have already published their written work. Here are some tips and quotes from popular authors, on writing:

  • “My writing process often begins with a question. I write down ideas and let them stew for about a year. Then, when I sit down to write, I make a list of characters and try to see how they fit.” – Cynthia Voigt
  • “Never stop when you are stuck. You may not be able to solve the problem, but turn aside and write something else. Do not stop altogether.” – Jeanette Winterson*
  • “The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.” – Terry Pratchett
  • “You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence.” – Octavia Butler
  • “Work on a good piece of writing proceeds on three levels: a musical one, where it is composed; an architectural one, where it is constructed; and finally, a textile one, where it is woven.” – Walter Benjamin
  • “Do it every day. Make a habit of putting your observations into words and gradually this will become instinct. This is the most important rule of all and, naturally, I don’t follow it.” – Geoff Dyer*
  • “Find an author you admire (mine was Conrad) and copy their plots and characters in order to tell your own story, just as people learn to draw and paint by copying the masters.” – Michael Moorcock*
  • “For most of the process, nothing but faith, fueled by your own stubbornness, will be pulling you along. The work that you’ve done on the book so far won’t be much comfort, because so much of it will be insufferable crap, until the very last moment, when you figure out how to fix it and everything comes together.” – Kristin Cashore
  • “There are three secrets to writing a novel. Unfortunately nobody knows what they are.” – W. Somerset Maugham
  • “You might not write well every day, but you can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.” – Jodi Picoult

Those are just some of the tips and quotes from writers who, like you, have struggled (and certainly) continue to struggle with the writing process. There’s a lot to be said about writing and how to write, but ultimately, how it goes – and how you deal with the bumps and frustrations along the road – is your own personal experience, something that only you can deal with (although something that can be lightened by going out every now and then, and distancing yourself away from your work). The important thing is always to write, to continue writing regardless of how bad you think your first draft is. 

Keep on writing!

*Note: Quotes with an asterisk are from The Guardian’s “Ten Rules for Writing Fiction.” Check it out for more tips on writing!

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An Introduction to Slipstream

It’s been pretty quiet on CreativInfluence lately, and we’re not going to make any excuses for that. But as a sort of comeback post, it seems appropriate to discuss one of the “newer” genres of literature – “newer,” because it’s less of an actual genre that has surfaced and is negotiating its own generic boundaries, and more of something that has been pieced together from existing genres. Which, one may argue, is basically the case for a lot of genres in writing. But I digress.

What we have here now, folks, is a neat thing called slipstream, which sounds like a pretty slick genre. A quick look at the Wikipedia page on this subject gives you this:

Slipstream is a kind of fantastic or non-realistic fiction that crosses conventional genre boundaries between science fiction, fantasy, and literary fiction.

The given definition doesn’t sound quite as helpful as it should be, as it still does sound rather vague. How does slipstream cross “conventional genre boundaries” between genre fiction and literary fiction? In fact, we exist in a world where writing has become experimental in terms of genre identity. What defines science fiction? What defines fantasy? There are things we call science fantasy, even, and military fantasy, to name a few. How tenuous are the so-called conventional genre boundaries of these genres, and how does this tenuousness affect slipstream’s attempt to challenge these boundaries?

That may be a story for another day. The answer for the penultimate question in the previous paragraph, interestingly, may just simply be slipstream. We are already questioning genre boundaries anyway. Are science fiction texts defined by their settings, their features – aliens, space, the like? Likewise, fantasy fiction? How can genre fiction be literary? Slipstream tries to answer that. There are texts that are elusive enough that they cannot fit a single genre, and so have to make one “new” genre to encompass that.

Slipstream falls between speculative fiction and mainstream fiction. While some slipstream novels employ elements of science fiction or fantasy, not all do. The common unifying factor of these pieces of literature is some degree of the surreal, the not-entirely-real, or the markedly anti-real.

The main thing about slipstream is that it has to be unreal. So perhaps one can also consider it magical realism. Or fantastic literary. A lot of names and words can be used to describe slipstream, but one cannot truly feel what it is until one is given a sampling of the genre’s texts. British writer Christopher Priest (who is, apparently, and incidentally, a slipstream writer himself) offers his own list of top ten slipstream books, and the list is marked by names like J.G. Ballard, Angela Carter, and Jose Luis Borges. Priest also gives Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale – a dystopia that does not necessarily carry the traditional elements of science fiction (incidentally, it won the 1987 Arthur C. Clarke Award, which is a prestigious award given to the best science fiction novel among a list of nominated texts) – as an example of a slipstream text, and cites authors such as Haruki Murakami and Gabriel Garcia Marquez as slipstream authors.

If it gets a little confusing, that’s alright. The authors mentioned, as well as the texts given, all test boundaries of the genres they’ve been fit into. They go outside of their generic boundaries – J.G. Ballard’s Crash, for example, is not necessarily science fiction, but it carries elements that invite your suspension of disbelief – and define their own settings and content. If you can’t define slipstream with a clean definition, you can at least get a sense of what it is through the authors and the works associated with it. Here is a great article called Slipstream 101 by the Science Fiction Research Association, and introduces you to the basics of slipstream. You may want to look at that post and read through all of it.

What one can get from slipstream, though, is this: that you can also test your writing boundaries, or the boundaries of the genres that you know. Let elements of other genres bleed into your own writing, because that can add zest and flavor to your piece. And not just your own piece – it’s amazing what you can find when you run through a list of books and read through them, the common feature of all these texts being that they refuse to be confined to one specific genre. This allows for the luxury of experimenting with the text. Try to expose yourself to slipstream – it might yield some interesting results.

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Quotes to Help Overcome Creative Frustration

Some of the most frustrating things that people experience stem from creative projects. Artists of all kinds, especially, are never truly satisfied with what they produce. I’ve been told once that a work of art is never finished – just abandoned. And sometimes, it doesn’t matter which of the two you do. Whether you return to the piece or abandon it, you’re throwing yourself off a cliff – endless frustration from the former, and haunting from the latter. Meanwhile, you spend copious amounts of time on your piece, while others watch on and think you’re wasting your time.

These ideas, though, are formed under the impression that creative projects are not worth doing. Not to sound like I’m excluding certain kinds of people, but sometimes we find it true when we say that artists understand each other better than most people.

It is inevitable to feel frustrated, though, and so I step in armed with a few quotes from artists themselves, in the hopes of inspiring.

Here is one from Dilbert creator Scott Adams:

Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.

Another, this time from American poet Langston Hughes:

An artist must be free to choose what he does, certainly, but he must also never be afraid to do what he might choose.

Japanese author, Haruki Murakami:

For me, writing a novel is like having a dream. Writing a novel lets me intentionally dream while I’m still awake. I can continue yesterday’s dream today, something you can’t normally do in everyday life.

And finally, from English author, Michael Morpurgo:

Encouraging young people to believe in themselves and find their own voice whether it’s through writing, drama or art is so important in giving young people a sense of self-worth.

Going through the quotes, we can get a general idea: art is an expression of the self, filled with mistakes and pitfalls, fueled by passion and pushing yourself further. So, like what the Adams quote says, being creative means making mistakes. Your creative output will be a mistake, not to everyone, certainly, but there will be people who will look at what you’ve done and say that they don’t get it. That they don’t see the value in it. It bears repeating, though, that creative ideas stem from the self, and end with the self, and creative frustration stems from – among other things – attempting to meet your own expectations while attempting to meet the projected expectations of others. Whatever you do, you will get mad, you will arrive at a point where you wouldn’t want to continue. But that’s part of life, and that’s part of the creative process.

It’s an idea that this site has repeated over and over again, in several posts, over the past several weeks, but constant reminder is a wonderful thing. Creative projects exist because you feel that they have to. Creative projects must be done because you have envisioned them. The idea is brilliant, it’s in your head – it’s in the translation that the work becomes arduous, the hours long.

Finally, keep in mind that it’s okay to be frustrated. It’s okay to feel like you want to give up, it’s okay to look at what you’ve written, and say, “I don’t like it.” But always keep the quotes in mind: that you have a choice in your creative output, you have the final say, it is your sandbox, it is your dream. It is the ocean for you, the one that only you can explore – sometimes, you just get stranded in the middle, sometimes you just feel hopeless because you’ve been sailing for hours but cannot see the land.

So feel frustrated, but also work hard to overcome that frustration. Besides, your story won’t write itself.

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Creativity from Simplicity

Few people, I think, actually want to complicate things. Simplicity is key, or so the saying goes (along those lines, of course), and complicating things can be both impractical and time consuming. That’s why a lot of students prefer not to close-read or over-interpret texts handed to them in their high school literature classes and college general education lit classes. But complicated texts – especially the modern and post-modern ones – can’t be avoided, and it’s definitely frustrating if finding out the meaning of something feels like a futile task, best left to literature majors. The thing is, while complicated – or complicated-sounding – passages sound impressive, they’re also harder to understand and appreciate, unless you like that kind of thing. And therefore simplicity is sometimes preferable to dense passages talking about the waste land.

Despite what is easy to believe – that a dense narrative, or really anything that’s studded with adjectives, verbs, and punctuation is something you’re supposed to read and appreciate over simple passages – simplicity has its own merits. And I’m not just talking about simplicity of language, but also simplicity of subject matter. A lot of texts written are dense not only in how they are written, but also in what they talk about, and often these delve into a lot of philosophical or metaphysical subject matter. Political, sociological, ethical – a lot of things. And while literature often succeeds in that regard, it will eventually get taxing if you’re just reading similar things, over and over again.

With that, I direct you to one of the poems by American Romantic, William Cullen Bryant. The poem is entitled “The Yellow Violet,” and talks about a simple flower and its merits, against the showy, gaudy blooms that blossom during the spring time. Here’s a passage:

Ere russet fields their green resume,

Sweet flower, I love, in forest bare,

To meet thee, when thy faint perfume,

Alone is in the virgin air

It will no doubt be better, if one were to read the poem in its entirety. But Cullen Bryant – and other poets and authors during the American Romantic period – extolled the virtue of simplicity, noticed every day things that people often took for granted, and crafted beautiful poems, beautiful verses, that celebrated simplicity and the every day quality that these simple things take. Another would be “Ode to a Nightingale” by John Keats. We go back to “The Yellow Violet,” and see that the language is not dense, but light and airy, beautiful and perhaps perfectly capturing the beauty of the yellow violet during its days of solitary existence by early spring. It’s not heavy, it’s not complicated, and it’s a quiet piece, beautiful and unhindered by too many bells and whistles.

What am I getting at, then? Creativity can be inspired by simplicity. A lot of people dream of writing the next big thing, the great novel of today that will be a classic tomorrow, the kind that has political statements and theological inquiries and food-for-thought. Existential crises galore, in other words. But take cues from Cullen Bryant.  Creating something out of something simple can also be detoxifying, purifying. Simple is beautiful, in other words.

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Voice Recognition: Why the Creative Voice

When reading a story, one can perhaps immediately establish the tone the piece is taking. Sure, it’s easy to talk about in terms of technicalities: first person, or second person, omniscient, limited – these are things, tenses, that a piece takes on in order to ground the reader to some point in time, or to establish a relationship between the reader and the text. It forms boundaries – or a semblance of boundaries – so that the reader will be given a frame through which he or she views the text. It may sound to the reader as if the text is happening at the moment, or as if the text is talking or referring directly to the reader, or as if the text sounds so detached to the reader that even the narrator sees the entire narrative through a lens. There are a lot of ways in which the text could be viewed, and the tenses and the voice count.

The creative voice – the voice of the text – matters, precisely for the same reasons I’ve mentioned earlier. The voice – the manner in which the text was written, how it sounds, how the narrator sounds to the reader – counts a lot. If the reader is new to the text, and has just found it, the reader would most likely test out a line or two, maybe a paragraph, to see of the voice jives with him or her, to see if the voice is easy or jarring, and to use this immediate impression as a springboard from which the reader takes off. Will the reader continue to read? Is the voice too easy? Does it sound like a kid talking, or does it sound so complicated and technical that it could ward off the reader or not get the reader’s interest? It’s definitely important to consider that, whether in reading or in writing, the voice exists in that manner because the author did it that way, and therefore there must be some reason why the author did it a certain way.

I’m talking in vague terms here, and it’s easy to get confused. Let’s put it this way: think of the text as someone talking to you. Does the text talk with ease? Does the text talk in clipped sentences? Does the text engage you and involve you, in how it was written, or does it alienate you? If you think of the voice of the text in these terms, it will be easier to establish your footing and your relationship – whether emotional or otherwise – with the text. If you’re writing, especially, it might be good to consider what the effect of your narrative voice is on your reader.

What does this mean? Bottomline is, if the voice doesn’t sound good, or if it doesn’t flow well, or if it does not work with the narrative or achieve that desired effect, it will certainly be problematic to your reader. The effectiveness of the voice relies on how well it is written, and how well it sounds. You might have a good, beautiful, flowery text, with a lot of things and images going on, but if it doesn’t sound like the voice is doing you any good, it might be a problematic kind of voice for you. Or, think of it this way. If the text is read aloud to you, do you suppose you’d like how it sounds like, being read aloud?

Of course, the voice – and how good it sounds – may also be a matter of preference, but that’s one thing to think about, don’t you think? Don’t keep the voice too complicated – if you’re writing – or try at least not to alienate the reader with the way the narrative and your characters are speaking. Establishing a good first impression is key, wherever you are and whatever happens, and it’s in the sample that a reader randomly picks out and in the voice which presents itself immediately that may make or break the reader’s relationship with the text.

 

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Why Fairy Tales are Appealing (and the Creative Things We Can Learn from Them)

Fairy tales these days are hastily associated with one of the biggest names in the entertainment industry: Disney. One certainly can’t deny that Disney’s done a lot to deliver fairy tales in easily digestible, not-quite-morbid visual treats, the kind that kids and adults alike can enjoy. Disney-fied fairy tales give the stories happy endings, and don’t capitalize on the dire implications that are present in original versions. There is no lady who cuts off parts of her own foot so she could force the foot into a glass slipper. Sleeping Beauty doesn’t get pregnant and give birth – while still sleeping – in the Disney film. And while Hercules’ story is not a fairy tale, Disney has altered the narrative so much that one would be, maybe, shocked to find out that Hercules – while pretty strong – isn’t the gallant gentleman that he is in the Disney film.

But the Disney versions of fairy tales deliver a specific thing, and probably wouldn’t have worked as well, if they had depicted fairy tales in their original forms. Which is interesting, because a lot of people seem to be more interested in the original – and considerably more morbid – versions of fairy tales, despite the Disney films having special places in peoples’ hearts.

The fairy tale’s enduring appeal may be, in part, because of Disney’s treatment, but if it ends with Disney, then certainly the implication is that the fairy tale is not appealing in itself. Fairy tales often talk about princes and princesses, true love and happy endings, trouble in the middle, godmothers and evil witches, dragons and all sorts of terrible creatures that threaten to keep the prince and the princess apart. But though it’s easy to read the fairy tale as a straightforward story of magic and wonder, there’s certainly a deeper meaning. Fairy tales, among other things, may serve as critiques of expectations of beauty, of the desperation for one to have a beautiful, comfortable life – so much so that one is willing to sacrifice parts of himself or herself to achieve this. There are troublesome villains whose motives may not be entirely clear at first glance, but some of them are actually ostracized and oppressed, and these often plant seeds of hatred.

There’s always the didactic element in fairy tales, but sometimes these tales – especially the ones during the Victorian era, when fairy tales weren’t necessarily limited to the Grimm stories, among other things – deliver valuable lessons that are relatively more dense and nuanced. Fairy tales can be interpreted in many different ways, without compromising the element of enjoyment. That’s why children and adults alike may be able to appreciate them. Look at the fairy tales by George MacDonald, for example. The Light Princess presents reversals of gender roles (it is the princess who saves the prince) – something rather radical, considering the era in which it had been written. Mary de Morgan wrote A Toy Princess, which may be read as a critique of the impractical and pointless ceremony of the upper class, of too much dependence and embellishment put on royalty, of the beauty and practicality of a simple life.

So what can we get from this? Simple. If you’re taking cues from fairy tales, it’s this: that we should be able to try, at least, to craft nuanced narratives that are deep enough for them to be read in certain ways, but light, easy, and fun enough for the younger audience to be able to appreciate them. In short, be able to find what can appeal to your audience. Certainly, the fairy tales already do that, Disney-fiable as they are, even. Fairy tales are timeless stories, perhaps more enduring than the modern classics we have today. They’re valuable gems that deliver lessons and meaning, and are told in a manner that is easy to comprehend but certainly beautiful in their simplicity.

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Future Imperfect: The Creative, Profound Ways Cyberpunk Deals With Crime and Humanity

Cyberpunk is one of the many subgenres of science fiction, and primarily deals with dark, futuristic locales, cyborgs, and criminal intent, and often takes on a noir feel. Think about urban nightlife, populate it with a lot of cybernetic things, flying cars, and outrageously outfitted criminals, and you’re probably going to get the feel of it.

It’s an interesting subgenre, because it deviates from the instantly conjured image when science fiction comes to mind – that is, stars, space, robots, colonies on other planets, and aliens. Cyberpunk grounds science fiction perhaps a little closer to home. In fact, a lot of the early cyberpunk works are interesting because to us, they’re familiar now. Take Synners, or Neuromancer. While not familiar in the sense that what they’re showing is reality, we have at least reached the level of technology where what has happened in early cyberpunk fiction is not impossible by today’s standards.

But sure, the Internet is not a mystified spectacle, and we’ve all had our fair share of visuals and virtual realities, experienced in different ways. The one thing that cyberpunk deals a lot of with is crime, since a lot of cyberpunk fiction anchors events in seedy underbellies with black market technology, and cyberpunk is able to negotiate with crime in so many creative with.

Take the Japanese anime Psycho-Passfor example. The premise is intriguing: in a futuristic Japan, the Public Safety Bureau solves crimes and attempts to preempt crimes by analyzing an individual’s Crime Coefficient – that is, the likelihood of him or her committing crime. Machines are everywhere in the series, and much of the technology the viewer is presented with figures out a person’s psychological state, this being the basis of whether or not one has criminal tendencies and the means to kill. And certainly it’s a brutal series, and certainly it challenges ideas and morals. Is it unethical to capture someone who’s only likely to commit a crime, but has not actually been caught red-handed? Is it alright to just rely on Dominators – guns that determine someone’s Crime Coefficient, and depending on the Coefficient, choose whether what you shoot is a paralyzing shot or a lethal one? The dependence on technology is obvious, and one questions whether the approaches are humane, whether there is even room for a human thread to run in the Public Safety Bureau’s line of work.

Psycho-Pass reminds me of a – not necessarily cyberpunk – short story by one of science fiction’s biggest and most influential names, Philip K. Dick. You might be familiar with the movie, but [The] Minority Report started out as a story about a Commissioner John Anderton, and the Precrime system, which predicts – through the help of people called ‘precogs,’ essentially people who can see into the future – which crimes will be committed in the future. And, accordingly, apprehend the criminals before a glimmer of criminal intent even sparks in their minds. It’s an interesting concept that deals with the question of whether or not someone should already be arrested before the crime is even committed. If, without a doubt, an individual would be guilty of a certain crime, then is it humane to arrest the individual while he or she is still innocent? But of course, it’s not that simple, because you will find out in the text that the Precrime system is not actually a hundred percent accurate.

There’s also the film, Blade Runner, which is based on Philip K. Dick’s book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? It involves an authority figure – a Blade Runner – called Deckard who’s tasked to apprehend renegade Replicants – essentially androids (and they look like humans – no immediate, on-the-spot way to figure out of they are Replicants) made to be shipped off to colonies where they’re supposed to do menial work. The film puts into question ideas of humanity, and what makes one really human.

There are, of course, much, much more cyberpunk works worth reading and seeing, and many of them – like any good piece of fiction – unsettle and make the individual questions things which are otherwise taken for granted. Cyberpunk is amazing, because it’s unrealistic but also realistic, in the way that the worlds and what is happening in them are familiar, in the way that the dynamics presented in them are familiar, except clothed in a lot of neon, grime, and cybernetic fixtures.

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Strange Love: Unhappy Endings in Literature

Most people take the fourteenth of February – Valentine’s Day – as an opportunity for a person to (and I apologize in advance for how chokingly saccharine this might sound) shower love on his or her special someone. So of course – but this may also depend on the culture, and on the country – February 14 means a lot of chocolates and flowers, couples going around, Valentine’s Day specials on television and elsewhere, and the world bleeding profusely with fifty shades of red. Basically, most – if not all – jump on the bandwagon, taking it as a chance to prove undying love.

Literature is, of course, rife with love stories of all persuasions, transcending ages, transcending generations, transcending real-life love stories that have come to an abrupt – sometimes violent – end. But love in literature is balanced. The sweet is tempered by the bitter. Death rears its ugly head to tear lovers apart.

For a season-appropriate post, I’ve come up with a list of tragic or unfulfilled love stories in literature, to remind us that the world is not always –as Taylor Swift puts it – “burning red.”

John the Savage and Lenina Crowne

Not necessarily the “couple” of the narrative – one can argue that Bernard Marx should instead be partnered with Lenina – but this comes from Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Unfulfilled, due to the two’s inability to see eye to eye, and the nature of Lenina’s upbringing – conditioned as she is by the World State – which automatically flicks an off switch to feelings, whenever these genuine feelings arise. In the neat, systematic, futuristic society of Brave New World, there doesn’t seem to be any real room for love.

Clarissa Dalloway and Peter Walsh

I heard someone say that Peter Walsh is Clarissa Dalloway’s biggest “what if,” but we will never know. Two central characters in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, Clarissa Dalloway, prior to the events of the story (in a sense, because Mrs. Dalloway is very fond of flashbacks/time skips/general messing up of the timeline) marries the sensible Richard Dalloway, who is able to provide a stable family life for Clarissa and their daughter, Elizabeth. Prior to Richard, however, Clarissa was involved with Peter Walsh, who spends a significant part of the narrative attempting to convince himself that he doesn’t love Clarissa anymore, years after their break-up. It’s an interesting story peopled with interesting characters, and Clarissa and Peter certainly attempt to test the bounds of the idea of the “biggest what-if” for a good part of the story.

Greek Myths

The Greek myths themselves are overflowing with strange or unfulfilled love stories. “Pygmalion and Galatea” is about a sculptor who falls in love with his sculpture. “Orpheus and Eurydice” and the Persephone myth both use the Underworld as a prominent setting in crafting – or breaking – the love story. And of course, we have Narcissus, who falls in love with himself.

Adolf Verloc and Winnie Verloc

The Verloc couple – from Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent – suffers from a love story that is completely devoid of romantic love. Instead, Adolf Verloc acts as a father figure – in terms of what he brings to the table, literally and figuratively – to Winnie and her brother. The Secret Agent culminates in an awakening that consummates what is essentially a marriage of convenience (Verloc was a practical choice for a husband, being able to provide for Winnie’s family) in the most interesting of ways: a dagger through Verloc. Who kills him? Winnie.

Romeo and Juliet

And this one goes without saying. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, contrary to popular belief – or what the songs tell you – is not a romance. It is a tragedy. And while it’s easy to cut out the rest of the play from consciousness and keep only the legendary balcony scene in your head (certainly the media has been able to do this), it always pays to remind yourself that the teenaged Romeo and Juliet die – and by their own hand – at the end of the play.

Many pieces of literature cast a rather grim lens on what might otherwise be something just beautiful, but certainly it’s worth remembering that not everything about love is beautiful. Look at it this way: at least literature has the courage to tell people what they refuse to see, or believe.

Happy Valentine’s.

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What It Takes to Write

It goes without saying that the world today has achieved the level of technological advancement that allows us to do virtually anything at a pace that people long ago, perhaps, had only dreamed of. While we are, of course, already in the year 2015, and flying cars are nowhere to be seen, it’s still impressive to think about how much civilization has managed to achieve in the span of a few decades. To put things into perspective: about eight years ago, memory sticks that had 1GB were already big. Today, we have sticks with around 32GB of space. 1GB is not enough for most of us.

But of course, the march of technology – and the purported advance of civilization towards the future, with this march – is also terrifying, as much as it is fascinating and exciting. Everything is wired and seen, people know when you read the messages they send you, and if you are ignoring these messages. New crimes spring from new technology. New pastimes and preoccupations, as well. The point is, everything’s fast, and there’s a burgeoning, active, pulsing culture that capitalizes on the visual and the piecemeal. In short, the world’s spinning too fast, and while the machines have no problem keeping up, the people do.

Now, let me share a quote from one of my favorite authors, the late, great, science fiction/transgressive fiction writer J.G. Ballard:

I would sum up my fear about the future in one word: boring. And that’s my one fear: that everything has happened; nothing exciting or new or interesting is ever going to happen again… the future is just going to be a vast, conforming suburb of the soul.

– J.G. Ballard

Doesn’t that sound rather unnerving? Does our day and age, our considerably modern time period, embody what Ballard had prophesied back in the 80s? Think about it. If you spend your day running in routines, talking about the same shows, the same things, the same books, the same jobs, over and over, and thinking the same thoughts as everyone else, wouldn’t that hit Ballard’s mark? Our culture’s fast, our technology is fast, all-seeing, virtually godlike if you knew how to manipulate it. Anything – or anyone – that can’t conform to the standards set by our ‘futuristic’ society will sink into obscurity.

So what does this have to do with writing?

We’re living in a world where eye-popping visuals are the order of the day. We’re living in a world where ease is valuable, where comfort and convenience are things that are supposed to make people feel happy. We’re living in a world where a lot of people are finding it hard to find their place, trying to catch up. This places writing – the process of, and the writers themselves – in a tenuous position. An interstice, if you will. Writing has always been a very valuable skill, and ages ago, very few people knew how to read and write. When you get to read and write, you’re literate. But today, a lot of people know how to do this, and it’s almost being taken for granted. Meanwhile, we are bombarded with material that strives for originality and freshness in execution, but everything can be boiled down to general skeletons that embody general plots. It doesn’t matter if it’s the television or what. Take away the special effect of movies and you’re left with the plot to work with. It’s certainly easy to get lost in virtual culture and the visual realities presented to us.

Now, what does it take to be a writer in the modern age, considering that writers occupy an uncertain position? And how relevant is writing? Following Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight saga is Fifty Shades of Grey, which started out as Twilight fanfiction. It seems anyone can just churn out underdeveloped fiction and become bestsellers. And people flock to this.

It’s interesting, because people are starting to read a lot, but while the readership is there, there’s an important ingredient missing: thought. Substance. A collective consciousness thinking of the same shallow thing stagnates a society that ought to be marching forward. And sure, books become bestsellers, and sell enough and the writers themselves get paid nicely, but if satisfying readers’ whims is all the writer does, then the writer is escaping a very important responsibility. That is, to enrich readers intellectually, perhaps spiritually, morally, and socially.

Again, what does it take to be a writer, in the modern age?

One, awareness. Writing substantial content is not an exercise that can be done with only half the mind working. Likewise, writing substantial content cannot be done if the writer exists in his or her own bubble, shut off from the world and suspended in his or her own consciousness. To be able to write something moving means to know what makes people’s hearts and minds run. What genuinely moves them. What genuinely terrifies them, and what genuinely opens their eyes.

Two, patience. Especially today, everything’s going really fast, and people favor a lot of cut-up “fast food” material running their way. But writing cannot be “fast.” Whatever you write assuredly won’t be perfect the first try, because that’s not how things work. That is, if you even manage to finish what you’ve been writing. It takes a lot of patience to write. It’s not a walk in the part.

Three, discipline. It’s easy to throw off your routine, it’s easy to dismiss and forget the purpose of writing. But if you want to write, and if you want to write good, you have to develop your discipline, and master yourself.

Finally, four, courage. The writer should already be aware, and if that is a given, it’s very valuable for a writer to be able to expose what he or she is aware of, in such a way that potential readers will be able to accept, understand, and digest. Reality shifts a lot, and it’s true especially nowadays. It’s true, when you move from the middle-class area to the slums. It’s true, when you see how corruption seeps into the daily workings of your office. It’s true in a lot of aspects, but it’s easy to forget that reality changes, and there is no absolute reality. And so the writer’s job is to re-shape that reality, and expose the many threads of reality to people.

That’s what it takes to write, I think. And it certainly sounds like a challenge. Writers meet all kinds of people, and many of them may prove resistant to new or unnerving ideas. But that is what it means to be a writer in the modern age, yes? That’s what it means, to be a writer, period. To challenge and unsettle, to shape and reshape realities, to disorient and reorient, because a writer’s purpose is to make people think, and expose the truths people are afraid to look at.

I’m ending this post with another quote from Ballard, and hope you take it into heart:

I admired anyone who could unsettle people.
– J.G. Ballard

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Divide and Conquer: The Habits of A Writer

Whether published or unpublished, full-time or part-time, writers have daily habits and obligations that they need to deal with. Probably you’re working a nine-to-five, or probably you’re still a student. It’s understandable – you have a workload you simply can’t ignore, although on occasions circumstances allow you a bit of downtime. So you use that downtime to sit in front of your computer and watch videos until the sun rises. In between, you manage to squeeze in around five, maybe ten minutes – and if you’re lucky, a half-hour’s worth – of writing something, and it doesn’t even matter what kind of written piece it is. Just as long as you write.

I said it a lot before – taking advice from strangers on the Internet, like me, is sketchy, unless we strangers have concrete proof that our advice works. And even then, it might not work for you. But humor me first, because I certainly hope you can relate: writing does not, and perhaps cannot have a place in your daily routine. There’s the feeling that writing isn’t just something that can be as regular as your job, or the classes that you have to take every day, and you just can’t commit to projects that you start because you know you’ll never finish them anyway. Maybe in a few years, when you’re living a comfortable life thinking of nothing but your writing. If that day ever comes.

But if you do want to improve your writing – and writers out there usually do – you will want to make a habit of actually writing. And I say writing, because that is a vastly different activity from trying to write, the operative word there being “trying.” Writing means your attention is on what you’re writing, and you’re not preoccupied with thoughts of whether you should actually be writing. For starters, just write.

And it’s perhaps going to be a bumpy ride, incorporating writing and easing it into your routine. But if you want to go on a journey, the clichéd – but true – answer is that you have to begin somewhere, right? Bodybuilders don’t start out buff. Likewise, writers don’t churn out wonderful, moving pieces after the first try. It’s possible, I suppose, but rare. Uncanny, even. But the important thing to do is that you have to have a sense of how you spend your daily life. Don’t think about writing for the moment. Think about what you’re actually doing every day, sans writing. Do your best to estimate the number of hours you have to spend fulfilling schoolwork, or going from one place to another. If you want to go extreme, you might also want to think about how long it takes for you to bathe and how long it takes for you to finish your food. Getting a good sense of how you spend your time, and where you spend your time, will give you a good sense of whether or not writing can be comfortably involved in your day.

I also say where, because there are times when you’re in a certain place at a certain time when you don’t feel like doing anything at all, much less write. So recognize your daily activities, and where you spend them, and then think about writing. I’m not saying that writing should be low priority, but there are, certainly, things in life, obligations, that we cannot ignore. So think about your schedule, and think about the details, and think about the where and when, and think about where, in the chaos of these things, you will, so you think, be most comfortable with when it comes to writing.

Writing regularly does not necessarily mean a daily business, although the ideal is that you will be able to write something, anything decent, every day. I’ve already said these things in previous posts, of course, but it pays to repeat it until you get it in your head that writing is part of your daily – or weekly – rhythm. I suppose the best thing to compare writing to is physical work-out. I doubt many of us started out with a regular work-out routine that we followed aggressively, almost, perhaps, religiously. You start out small – light weights, fifteen minutes of cardio, maybe ten to fifteen squats a day. But the more you incorporate you routine, the easier your body – and you’ll be surprised to find, your time – acclimates to these changes. And then you can be more aggressive. So writing can be an every-other-day thing, a thousand words or two thousand. And you don’t have to be overly meticulous when it comes to writing – just write whatever comes, as long as you’re managing to write. The habit will ease into your habits and will eventually become a regular thing for you, something so natural and so normal that you have to do it every day. Or every other day.

That being said, bear this in mind, too: the aphorism that Rome wasn’t built in a day applies, certainly. Don’t worry too much about the quality of your writing, so long as you’re satisfied with it. To get into the habit, write first for yourself, and then think of others second. Certainly, like Rome, I doubt Joyce managed to pen down Ulysses in a single, smooth swipe, with his wit and his dense prose appearing on eight-hundred or so pages in one go. Although of course this is Joyce we’re talking about. And then you think of Finnegans Wake.

Some light joking aside, I’m not saying that this will be easy. Life happens, and if you’re not dedicated enough to your craft to be able to set aside time to work with it, it will not work with you. I’m also not saying that you should just drop everything else and just write, because in reality, that’s not really a good idea. I’m saying, though, that if you do get into the habit of writing, and if you incorporate it in your routine, someday you will produce something that will make all those hours worth it.

Like most things in life that you work hard for.

 

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