01 September 2010

Why I Write

I was looking for a better title for this post; maybe one will come to me.  The present one is just a little too literal for my tastes.

I have some personal shit bothering me, but since I have a strict policy against telling the Internet about anything non-trivial that's bothering me, I'm going to open up personally about something entirely unrelated.

It's just how I roll.

I told my first story when I was about three.  I was going to say I "wrote" it, but I didn't know how to write yet, so I dictated it to my dad.  I couldn't begin to tell you what the story was about, save that traffic lights were probably involved somehow.  Until age 10 or so, I was obsessed with them.  I'm still more interested in them than, I would imagine, nearly the entire rest of the population of Earth, but really, it's not that hard to be interested in something almost everyone else thinks is too obscure, unremarkable, or stupid to pay attention to.   He wrote the words in big block letters on sheets of unlined whipe paper.  I illustrated, of course.  Then we stapled the pages between two sheets of construction paper (in my mind's eye, they were red, but who knows).  My mom was my first audience.  She raved about it.  Moms always do.

In second grade, we had a story project.  The teacher gave us a handout with the first paragraph of a story--an astronaut landing on the moon (if I remember right, the astronaut's name was left blank and you had your choice of pronouns, so girls could have girl heroes and boys could have boy heroes).  We were supposed to finish the story and, of course, illustrate it.  My astronaut was devoured by a moon monster named Doom (spelled "Doum") with fifteen foot teeth; the illustration showed the climactic scene in exceptionally gory detail, for a second grader.

My teacher, to her credit, didn't make me tone down the violence in the picture or change the ending, which I think a lot of teachers would (shit, today I'd probably have been called down to the office for counseling).  After she'd collected and graded everyone's assignments, she printed out copies of them and distributed them in a booklet for everyone to read--as near as I can tell, this was my first non-family audience.

I bombed.  Part of it was the misspelling of "doom", but--and remember, my memory is pretty hazy about all this--more of it was just that the story was weird or wrong somehow.  I think the general idea was stories are supposed to have happy endings; we didn't follow the astronaut all the way to the moon just to see him devoured whole by a space monster with giant teeth.

I guess this is the point in the story where I'm supposed to say, "And from then on, I heard their jeering voices in my head whenever I tried to write.  You see, I internalized their criticism and it manifests itself as my self-doubt."  But that kinda, uh, didn't happen.  I have no idea why--I'm not trying to claim any special moral character here.  I just thought my story was good.  It had a giant space monster who ate an astronaut!  Despite the reception it got, I still remember that assignment fondly.

Incidentally, I told my first "your mom" joke in second grade.

 In seventh grade, I got it in my head that I was going to write a novel.  In fact, I was going to write it in class, in a notebook, and get it published and be a writer.  Writing it in class would be a good way to spend the time I wasn't spending taking notes or paying attention or reading the assignment or doing my problems, which was all of the time because in seventh grade, my academic performance fell off a cliff, giving my mom fits.  My school district stopped giving out "F's" on the assumption, I guess, that an F sent too negative a message; the grade scale went A, B, C, D, E instead, and I don't think the "E" was fooling anyone.  The problem was one that would dog me pretty much since then: pure dumbfuck laziness.  I aced tests, but in classes where homework is worth 50% of the grade, if you ace all your tests and never turn your homework in....  But boredom in a fine motivator, and it motivated me to write.  And what I wrote was a novelization of Final Fantasy IV (known in the US as Final Fantasy II at the time), a jrpg I played to death on the Super Nintendo.  The plan, I think, was to finish the book and then go to Square with the proposal--a media tie-in novel written on spec, by an American, for a Japanese company, based on the badly translated US localization of the fourth game in a series.  Judging by some of the stuff I've seen on SlushPile Hell, this was not the worst plan anyone's ever had for getting published.

I eventually ran out of interest and never finished it (I got pretty far along; for those of you who've played the game, the last scene I wrote was when Cecil returned to Baron and killed the fake king).  I wish I still had that book--five or six Mead Neatbooks, completely filled with smeary pencil block letters--but sometime in high school, I loaned them to a friend and they never returned.  That I was still willing to show them to other people in high school says something about me and my writing, but I'm not sure what; it could say that my writing was exceptionally good for seventh grade, but more likely it says I still had no idea how bad it was even with a few years to reflect on it.  Still, it gave me a taste for big projects.  You could tell so much story with a novel. 

It was the first time I thought about publishing as a realistic option, too.  Now, granted, looking back, it wasn't actually realistic.  But still, I was thinking about it.

(Fun aside: I remember, about the same time I was writing that piece, I read something by Arthur C. Clarke about one of his very first short stories, which he claimed was "mercifully lost".  At the time, I thought: "Ha.  My first novel is great.  I guess I'm better than Arthur C. Clarke.")

None of this really answers the question, though.  I guess I'm dancing around it because I don't really know myself.  I don't actually have many "creative" friends, so I've never had a chance to sit down with a group and ask why they do it, either.  I'd say the stories are just in my head and I'm just compelled to write them down, but they're not.  There's vague bits in my head; a setting, an important scene maybe, but the rest I have to put together.  Stephen King compares it to digging a fossil out of the ground--the story's already there, he just has to dig it up--but while On Writing is probably the best book on, ahem, writing that I know, for me the process is different.  For me, putting together a story is a conscious act, like building a shed.  The shed doesn't "emerge"; it comes together piece by piece, and every one of those pieces has to be measured, cut, and hammered into place.  HI doesn't feel like a fossil that came out of the ground; I don't know how it could, with all the hours I've spent trying to make things work together properly.  Every good idea in there only came after laboriously examining, testing, and in several cases, implementing five or ten bad ideas first.

Part of why I write, certainly, is because I enjoy the process.  When everything is flowing the act of writing is immensely fun.  First drafts are a particular joy because you're not worried about anything.  Fuck it!  Write it down!  Who cares if it sucks?  (Answer: you will, when you're trying to fix it next draft).  There's a lot of problem-solving to it.  "How do I get characters X and Y into location A without it being contrived?"  That kind of thing, and there's a thrill when you solve it.  I do very little of my problem-solving at the keyboard.  When I run into a jam, I can end up thinking about it for days, turning it over and over in my head until I find a way out.  Sometimes I have to set it aside entirely and let the subconscious work on it, but in general, I don't trust that process--it's always on its own schedule and who knows what weirdness is floating around down there?

Something I think I write because writing is the only thing I'm really good at.

In the next update: a bit more on how I write, using HI as the example.  Will serve as a "history of HI" post for whoever's interested, too.


Neal Coleman said...

You write the same reason I do math and other people do philosophy and physics and carpentry and any damned profession that requires thought: the tantalizing pursuit of a problem, the dogged hounding until it is solved, the transient ecstasy of the solution, and the perpetual satisfaction of retrospective contemplation of the solution.

(Is "dogged hounding" redundant?)

Matt said...

Wow, that's way better than anything I could have come up with.

Dogged hounding IS probably redundant (DOGGED hounding IS probably REDUNDANT), but there's a poetry to it.

Neal Coleman said...

It would now be appropriate to quote me on a blog or Facebook page or signature or back cover of a soon-to-be-published future Hugo Award-winner.

("You write the same reason ... the solution. The Humanist Inheritance fucking rocks. Read it. Read it now. -Neal Coleman")