Here’s the writer’s paradox (or, a writer’s paradox, for there are many). Writing is this highly individual art, yet we must be well-socialized to do it well.
It’s stupid, really. And it’s probably a major factor in the cascading neuroses that most writers seem to suffer from. Our brains are broken to begin with — we spend our waking moments imagining strange worlds we’d rather live in, playing god (and devil) to characters we spin from our wobbly brain Jello. So we’re living in a fantasy world from the go.
Then, when we’re actually creating the stories — breathing life into the characters, weaving the world out of loose threads — we have to withdraw entirely. Nobody can help us when we’re writing. We have to walk this road alone, armed with nothing against the dark unknown except our (limited) wits and our pens. Self-imposed solitary confinement. (It always strikes me as bizarre that solitary confinement, by the way, is one of the “worst” punishments they dole out in prisons. To go into a dark place with no human contact with only my thoughts? Meals provided? Sign me up. I might come out the other side insane, but I’d have the most interesting things to say.) We struggle alone, we succeed alone, we fail alone, we talk to ourselves alone.
But, see, that’s the thing. We’re telling stories about people. Fake people, sure, but people meant to be convincing representations of real people. Which means the author has to know how people act. How people speak. How they think. And while we’re working in solitary, spending more and more time clanging around inside our own heads, we’re getting farther and farther away from actual real people, from genuine interpersonal speech and behavior.
It’s a paradox.
Social media can help, sort of? You get to reach out from your cave of isolation and get some of that interaction without actually going to the trouble of leaving your cave. But it’s not a substitute for real interaction either, because social media is just a bunch of other shut-ins putting forward a persona, a version of themselves that bears some relationship to who they really are without actually showing you who they really are, what they really do, what they really say.
I don’t have an answer for this problem, except to say that the writer probably has to put more work than most into spending time in the real world interacting with real people. Which, for many of us, is difficult — because what we really want is to be shut away in our solitary confinement, writing away.
I picked up Mark Manson’s latest offering, Everything is F*cked, at my local library on the New Releases rack. Readers of the blarg will know that I love profanity, especially when it pops up in places it doesn’t belong (like a book title!). So I was intrigued. Of course, I also quickly realized that this is the same Mark Manson who wrote The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, a book whose title also pleased me mightily but which I never bothered reading because I figured — I’ve kinda got that covered. I’m notorious — and it drives my wife nuts — for not caring about what other people think, for giving the metaphorical finger to social niceties, for just putting my head down and minding my own business. But after reading Everything is F*cked, I’m rethinking my decision not to read The Subtle Art, if for no other reason than that I want to hear more of what Mark Manson has to say, on virtually any topic.
Anyway, I got the book and immediately began my campaign of defacement of public property, i.e. dog-earing the hell out of this book. Almost every page featured a passage or two that made me sit bolt-upright, the gremlin in my brain shouting “YES” at the top of its lungs, so this book took a beating. A loving, well-meaning beating (Dog-earing books shows them you care!), but a beating nonetheless.
Because I loved this book. I loved it so much that I had to read it slowly, digesting its insights and offerings over time, like the Sarlacc devouring its victims over thousands of years.
The thrust of the book is that Life is Pain, and the better we can understand and embrace that fact, the better off we will be.
While this isn’t particularly surprising news for an atheist at least passingly acquainted with cosmology and the physics of the universe, it does rather put things into perspective.
Rather than try to review the entire book, I’m just going to provide some quotes from its pages, for your own edification and mine.
The Feeling Brain drives our Consciousness Car because, ultimately, we are moved to action only by emotion. That’s because action is emotion. (33)
Much of the first part of the book is given over to the dichotomy of Thinking Brain / Feeling Brain, and how we think that we live our lives with the Thinking Brain behind the wheel, but we really don’t — the Feeling Brain is always driving. Anyway — this quote in particular is relevant to me because this is a concept I’ve attempted to communicate to my Acting students, if never in such succinct language. So I’m gonna be assimilating this quote for future use.
… silencing the Thinking Brain will feel extremely good for a short period. And people are always mistaking what feels good for what is good. (37)
I don’t have a whole lot to add here, except to say that this phenomenon is probably responsible for a lot of the tribal behavior we see these days. You know. Politically. And so on. Ahem.
The pain may get better, it may change shape, it may be less catastrophic each time. But it will always be there. It’s part of us.
It is us. (106)
If the first half of the book is an examination of how our brain deceives us, the second half of the book is an exploration of the thing that drives us — which is pain, and more to the point, an avoidance of pain. We’ve sort of become slaves to the idea that we’re supposed to be happy all the time, that pain is this thing that crops up from time to time, but with the right outlooks and attitudes, we can avoid it or fend it off completely. Nonsense. We are defined and created by our pain, in the same way that the application of fire and heavy blows from a steel hammer create a sword.
Children are the kings and queens of antifragility, the masters of pain. It is we who are afraid. (230)
Antifragility is this concept Manson deals with a bunch in the final quarter of the book: in a nutshell, stress makes an antifragile thing (person, structure, idea) stronger. And because most of us try to hide from pain, our bodies and minds lose this quality. But kids, who haven’t yet been beaten down by the world, don’t know enough to hide from pain, so they run towards it — and this has the paradoxical effect of making them stronger.
The book is a fascinating read, and for a guy who has been sort of wracked by anxiety over the past year or so, it was an empowering and enlightening read.
It also gave me the best summation of my feelings as a writer that I have ever read:
The fam and I just got back from our vacation to the sunny (actually not so sunny) beaches of South Carolina. Weather was cloudy and overcast with threats of rain each day which actually made the trip delightful — not too hot, no sunburns, and the occasional afternoon cloudburst. Batteries recharged; time to get back to work around here.
Here, then, are five things about vacationing with family.
Kids’ Energy Management. Being back and forth to beaches and pools and outdoor events and sights will wear the kids out. And I dunno about your kids, but when my kids (especially my adorable little girl) get tired, they get angry. You gotta keep their energy up. That means feeding them sugar in irregular large doses. Candy, ice cream, funnel cakes … just shovel it in. Eat meals at odd times. Routine is for the boring. And don’t even think about feeding them a vegetable — this is vacation, for science’s sake.
Your Energy Management. All the problems your kids will have go double for you, because you’re old and tired. Luckily, the same advice also works. Lots of sugar, lots of huge meals at odd times (preferably fried food whenever you can get it, which is always). The golden ticket? You’re grown, so you get to add alcohol to the mix. Do so liberally. Bedtime is for suckers.
Putting the Kids to Bed. Odds are, the sleeping arrangement is gonna leave something to be desired. It is what it is. And if you’ve been doing it right so far, they’re hopped up on sugar anyway. Leave them to their own devices, and they’re gonna invent games to play, babble at each other for hours on end, and otherwise avoid falling asleep. You need help, and the TV is your friend. It’s full of all sorts of programming that will distract and then zonk your kids right out. We discovered that the Weather Channel is excellent for this — their programming is somehow fascinating and boring enough to make you wish you were watching paint dry all at the same time.
Mornings Are The Best Time. I know this never happens, but you might get lucky: since the kids are so wiped out, there’s a good chance they could sleep in an extra twenty or thirty minutes. You might feel compelled to seize the opportunity for a few extra Z’s yourself. Fight this impulse. Morning is a magical time — you just don’t appreciate it at home because you’ve seen it. Away from home, the magic is unmistakable. Have a tea. Meditate. Write. Run. Whatever. You can nap later.
If At All Possible, Get Your Mother Drunk On Margaritas. Man, oh man, the things that will come out of her mouth.
The prompt for this week’s SOCS post is open book, point, write. Now that sounds great and funny and creative for most people, but the problem is that our house is run by this little monster and his little monster sister, and as a result our house is full of their books.
And because the house is full of their books, that literally means that their books are everywhere, so when the prompt says to reach for the nearest book, and you do it in good faith, you come up with this:
And you don’t get an awesome word like “psychotherapy” or “Mondrian” or “motivation” or “clown car” (sure that’s two words but it’s a great concept in the book I should have reached for: Everything is F*cked by Mark Manson, more on that later). No, you reach for a Pete the Cat book and you get a word like “bat”, and it’s not even a usage of bat that’s fun for a writer to explore like, I dunno, vampire bats or something, no, it’s a literal bat because Pete is literally playing baseball. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I hate baseball (almost as much as I hate golf). Still, I’m a good soldier, and the prompt says to use that word, so here I go.
But but but, the prompt is also a Stream-of-Consciousness prompt, which means write whatever comes to mind, and my mind is decidedly not on bats or baseball. So I’m going to remain a good soldier by sticking to the intent of the prompt and going where my mind takes me, which is pens.
Literal pens, specifically, in fact one particular pen in particular, but also pens in the larger sense, the metaphorical sense. (See, if there were a Pete the Cat story about pens, we could have jumped straight to this point instead of all that dithering about with bats.)
Pens are on my mind because I’m having a sort of existential crisis about pens lately, and if you think that’s a silly thing to have an existential crisis about, then obviously you’ve never held a proper pen in your life. (Ok, that’s a little hyperbolic. A little.) Actually, I need to back up.
I’ve been writing by hand a lot over the last couple months, and when you do a thing a lot, you want to make sure you’re doing it right, which is to say, efficiently and, if possible, pleasurably. And while my Pilot G2 pens have been my go-to for years, with all this writing by hand, I wondered if there was a better option. (Writers, let me do you a favor. Stop now, if you value your sanity.) Well, you do a quick google on the issue, and you fall into a hole. Long story short, I invested a ridiculous amount of money in a single writing instrument (though not nearly as much as you could spend if you were of a mind to — the hole on pens goes DEEP) and quickly fell in love with it. It writes so smoothly! It feels so satisfying in the hand! All the good things! Seriously, if you fancy yourself a writer and you haven’t tried writing with a fountain pen, you are depriving yourself.
Thing about fountain pens, though, is they run out of ink and have to be refilled. I planned for this by buying some ink refills when I bought the pen, but I’m too clever for my own good; I took them to work with me (since that’s where I was doing my writing by hand at the time) and left them there. So my super nice pen ran out of ink, and I had no ink with which to refill it.
(Here I must detour to say, I know the amount of thought I’m putting into this is ridiculous. I KNOW. Okay? But again, if you think this is a silly thing to have an existential crisis over, then you obviously haven’t spent any time in a head anything like mine.)
It came time to write this morning’s pages and my fountain pen was down for the count. So I reached for any old pen sitting on the shelf, and I was immediately reminded why I have so quickly taken to fountain pens. The writing felt scritchy, the ink didn’t glide onto the page as smoothly … and as a result, writing my pages was not as much fun as it’s been lately.
Here’s where the existential crisis comes in. I’ve pretty much made it my mantra not to care about brand names, celebrity endorsements, advertisements … anything like that. If it does the job, it’ll work for me has basically become my phrase to live by. I only shop store brands at the grocery store, I order off-brand sneakers … I don’t even know the brand name of the clothes I’m wearing now. I drive my wife nuts because she has wanted to upgrade our almost-20-year-old Camry for years but I wouldn’t dream of it. Why would I? It runs fine. So why am I getting twisted up like hair in a blender about my pens?
Here, I think, is why: the fountain pen, for one thing, feels really nice to write with. It’s hard to describe, but it literally glides on the page. And when you’re writing multiple pages at a whack, it makes a difference if the tactile experience itself is enjoyable or irksome. Also — the fountain pen just looks like a Real Writer’s Tool. Seriously. Look at that thing!
The weight of it! That nib! (Horrible word, that — “nib” — but who cares, the point of this thing looks like something Shakespeare himself would have used) The user of a writing utensil like this, my brain whispers in my ear, is a user who Knows What He Is Doing When He Puts Pen To Paper. I just feel like a real writer when I use it, and being suddenly deprived of it makes me feel the ever-dreaded less than.
Which is STUPID. A pen no more makes the writer than the clothes make the man (an idiotic expression if ever I’ve heard one). But the heart wants what it wants, and my heart wants my Real Writer’s Pen back. Which is why, even though I dutifully wrote my Morning Pages with an Any Old Pen I found in the drawer, I plan on picking up more ink when I head out later today.
I know, I know. It’s stupid. First world problems in the extreme. What can I say? My brain is broken; this is just the latest example.
The post that I wrote the other day, about Morning Pages? That was not the post I set out to write.
The post I set out to write was this one, but to talk about what I want to talk about here, I first had to talk about my morning pages. What they are, how I use them, my process in writing them. All that is here, but that post turned into a 1500 word gallivant, and my unofficial limit for these things is 1200 words so … yeah. I’ll credit the fact that I was able to rattle off 1500 words on a thing I didn’t even intend to talk about to the fact that my creative wellspring has sprung anew (again, see the previous post).
Anyway. The thing I wanted to explore is this: in my writing, I swear at myself. Like, a lot.Tirelessly. And with great gusto.
The situation doesn’t much matter. It’s equally likely to happen when I’m talking about something I love as with something I hate. I use it to express positive and negative emotion. Basically, I just use it. I love swearing.
Part of it is because I’m of two minds about words that carry a taboo. On the one hand, my critical thinking brain reminds me that words mean only what we agree they mean, and therefore have only the power we give them. (For a lesson on this, I heartily recommend the short story “The Appropriation of Cultures”, by Percival Everett.) Being an atheist helps, here; there’s no higher power dictating that this word is bad and this word is good and this word if spoken earns you a one-way ticket to eternal torture. Words are just collections of letters and sounds that we as a culture agree mean certain things. On the other hand, our culture has certainly agreed that there are words you shouldn’t use in polite company. And since my job in large part entails cultivating future humans into actual productive humans, that’s a standard I’m more-or-less obliged to uphold.
That’s why I take pains not to swear (too much) in my online interactions; even though my online persona isn’t necessarily identical to my walking-around persona, they’re close enough that it behooves me to be cognizant of the things I say around here. I keep a lid on the things that would otherwise come out of my mouth.
But in my not-for-public-consumption writing? In my morning pages, my first drafts, my notes to myself in the margins of my writing projects? The lid comes off. If the use of certain words could condemn you to eternal torture, I would probably owe several infinities’ worth of torture to whatever loving deity were meting out the torture. I call myself rude names. I lambast the things I’ve written. I call myself out for the things I need to write in future drafts. It’s self-abuse of the most vile kind, except I don’t view it that way. It doesn’t make me feel bad when I read over it again — it makes me laugh. It’s just how I talk to myself. It’s the opposite of a Big Deal; my own private joke with myself on the public-facing me who can’t speak or write that way.
And it made me wonder how other people do the same thing. Not if — because I feel it’s a pretty safe assumption that anybody who does any sort of extended self-talk, via journal, notes to self, or otherwise, has their own style of idiosyncratic talking to themselves — but how.
I remember that I had to read The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin in a college course, which contained several excerpts from his journals, his lists of personal maxims, stories of his early writing jobs. And I remember thinking: personal journals? Bull Sharknado. Maybe some polished versions, sure. But it’s not like he went into whatever random entry he wrote to himself on Bleptember the blargteenth, schleppenteen schlippity bleven, said “yep, that’s the one” and dropped it into the book. You just know that the margins of his journal were full of comments like “Ben, you self-important, pompous, wig-wearing f***. How can you take yourself seriously writing this s***?”
Maybe it’s just me.
Anyway, I wrote this entire entry to tell you about that one weird little thought that crossed my mind: Ben Franklin scribbling insults at himself with a quill pen in between drafting the backbone of our nation.