This week’s lack of a substantial post brought to you by an untimely tumble down a tvtropes wormhole.
This happens to me from time to time. (TV Tropes, for the uninitiated, is a treasure trove of all the things your favorite media do that has been done before, lovingly compiled and enumerated by legions of internet geeks and cross-referenced in such a way as to ensure that once you start to slide in, much like the Sarlacc pit, you will not easily (if at all) escape.) I watch a movie, I really enjoy it, and I want to deconstruct it a little bit, so I head over to tvtropes.org. This is a thing that, if I stop myself at all in the act, I call research, and it is — kind of. The site really is fascinating as a consideration of all the ways these movies and shows crib from one another and follow paths carved out ages ago, even if they feel fresh and new.
And it certainly can be inspiring and enlightening to see that all the ways that fresh and innovative film took the tropes we’ve seen before and tweaked them or inverted them or straight-up embraced them to such effective … um … effect. Invariably I get new ideas for my own story while browsing the site. Or I get new insights on things already happening in my story, that I can then flesh out and play up as I go back to work.
But as aforementioned, every page links to dozens if not hundreds of others, and they’re a bit like Pringles — you can’t click just one.
All of which is to say that while I should have been writing a pseudo-intellectual, slightly grumpy take on some thing or other, possibly writing related, possibly otherwise, I was spelunking in the page on Thor: Ragnarok instead.
Oh, also I re-watched Thor: Ragnarok for the more-than-enough-th time, because, why not?
I don’t usually do this, but I was editing and adding a much-needed section to my novel-in-progress and enjoyed it so much I just thought I’d post it. (Incidentally, it allows me to update the site and prove that I’m not just wasting time over here. Well… not all the time, anyway.)
It may not make the cut in the final version, but it was fun to write, and, you know, sometimes that matters.
“This place really needs a name,” Dina says. Linc peeks out around the potted ficus he’s managing. “What do you mean?” “I mean, it’s lame to just go on calling it ‘the hideout’ or ‘the lab’ or whatever you’ve been calling it. You’re a proper villain now. You need a name for your place. You know. Fortress of Solitude, or whatever. But for bad guys.” “That’s stupid.” “No, it’s practical.” Tonya sets the couch down in the corner, blinks to the fridge for a soda, and blinks right back onto the couch, kicking her feet up over the armrest. “Besides, I agree. So that’s two to one. We gotta name it.” Dina shuffles off to the kitchen herself, kicking her shoes off on the way. “Two to one.” Linc wants to point out to them that this isn’t a democracy, to remind them that this place is his, that Vector is his, that the plan to bring the Academy low is his, but it doesn’t seem worth it. “What do you have in mind, then?” “You’re a nerd, so it’s gotta be nerdy sounding, you know? Strike fear into the hearts of everybody with an IQ below 150. Something like … The Motherboard.” Dina tosses Linc a soda. He fumbles it before catching it by his knees. “Why The Motherboard?” “Because it’s where we keep our chips.” Dina rattles a bag of tortilla chips at him before gashing the bag with her ring and spreading a thick layer of chips on a plate. “That’s terrible.” “I kinda like it,” Tonya says. “It’s got some kind of ring to it.” “Nope. The two of you can vote to name it, that’s fine, but I’m holding out veto power over the name. We’re not calling it The Motherboard.” Dina has sprinkled cheese over the chips and tosses the plate into the microwave (stolen, along with the 70-inch television, from a Best Buy a few hours away). “That’s okay. I got a bunch of ideas. How about The WreckTangle?” “The Rectangle?” “No, the WreckTangle. As in, Wrecked Angle. Get it? Because math, right? Plus, you know. Get wrecked.” “Nice.” Tonya lifts her soda can in salute. “I dunno.” Linc leans against the counter, scanning the bank of monitors for news, or updates. Vector’s display shows the robot cheerfully making rounds on the mountainside. “I got one,” Tonya says. “The Trapezoid.” “I don’t —” “Ooh, I like that.” Dina flings the microwave open for her plate of nachos. “Right? Because it’s a trap. Plus…” Tonya glances around. This sounded cleverer in her mind. “Plus it’s got that z in there. That’s cool.” “There’s nothing in here that’s even trapezoid-shaped,” Linc points out. “And by the way, I’ll give you a dollar if you can tell me what a trapezoid is.” “I don’t know that.” Tonya crumples her can in one hand and tosses it at Linc. “Who even needs to know that after high school? Or in it, for that matter?” “If you’re going to call your hideout The Trapezoid, you should at least know what a Trapezoid is.” “It’s your hideout, not mine, damn!” Dina raises her voice around a mouthful of nachos. “Vector, what’s a trapezoid?” Vector’s screen types out an immediate response. Trapezoid: a four-sided shape with only one pair of parallel sides. “That. It’s that,” Dina says, pointing. “You owe me a dollar.” “That doesn’t count.”
Why are writers so insecure? Today I’m going to tell you!
Many, many years ago, back before I even considered myself a writer, when I was just working on a play kind of as a lark, when I was just scribbling odd little nothings to myself in notebooks (which would become the blog posts and morning pages of today), I had an interaction with my sister. I couldn’t tell you what the substance of the interaction was, or what we were talking about, or what I said, exactly, or really any details of the interaction — except for one.
And this detail, well, it stuck in my consciousness like the rusted-out bicycle that a tree grows around. I shaped myself around this comment, almost certainly to my detriment, in the intervening time. It ate me up from the inside, turning me into a neurotic mess of a writer, shaking my confidence the way earthquakes used to shake buildings before they started putting buildings on wheels.
Here’s the situation. I was home from college — or maybe just visiting my folks after college — or, hell, maybe it was before college, who can tell, that’s how bad my memory is but it’s not the point — and talking to my sister about something. Who knows what. And I said something.
What I said, I could not tell you today under pain of torture, except to say that it was an attempted witticism, a stab at something snarky, a foray into wordplay that went wrong. I felt it going wrong in the moment of saying it, the way a major league batter just feels the home run when it leaves his bat, or more precisely, the way he feels that he hasn’t just missed the pitch, he’s tipped it, at dangerous speed, probably past the protective netting, probably into the face of an unsuspecting fan, or worse, a kid, where it will knock out teeth or shatter cheekbones and necessitate a carefully-worded statement from the front office and probably an apology tour in the media. The words felt like that, coming out of my mouth. (Whatever they were.)
I knew, to put it bluntly, that I had botched my attempt at making good words, and botched it badly.
And my sister said to me, in that hurtful way that only your little sister who’s taken a lifetime of your crap can say, “wow, you’re a real wordsmith, aren’t you?”
You know that scene in every action movie where the building (or the car or the villain’s fortress or whatever) is exploding — just going entirely to pieces, irreparable damage, nothing but fire and pain and devastation filling the frame — and the hero (or heroine, this is the 21st century after all) is totally cool, walking away from it without a care? Or the end of Star Wars (episode IV or VI, reader’s choice) where the fateful shot is away, the heroes are flying off into the dark of deep space, and the villains keep flipping switches and coolly saying things like “fire on my mark” but they don’t know that they’re dead already?
This was like that.
“You’re a real wordsmith, aren’t you,” would stick in my brain and shape me more than I’d like, and certainly more than I’d care to admit, for years and years and years.
Every now and then, sometimes while writing, sometimes not, I’d hear it again, playing on a loop in my brain, and it would never fail to demoralize.
Wrote a sentence in my novel I’m not too sure about?
“You’re a real wordsmith, aren’t you?”
Used a totally inadequate word because I couldn’t think of the perfect one?
“You’re a real wordsmith, aren’t you?”
Said something totally idiotic in a everyday conversation?
“You’re a real wordsmith, aren’t you?”
Just sitting there watching TV, not even thinking about writing at that particular moment?
“YOU’RE A REAL WORDSMITH, AREN’T YOU?”
Everything I write, I have to contend with that voice in my head: it’s good, sure, but is it wordsmith good? So I second-guess myself to death. Is this creative enough? Is it clever enough? Smart enough? Or could any schlub with a pencil and half a brain come up with something better?
Then, once second-guessed, it’s only natural to third-guess the problem. I could make it better by throwing in MORE words. Better words. ALL THE WORDS. Or maybe get rid of the sentence entirely — the words can’t be dumb if there are NO WORDS AT ALL.
This thinking leads, like a boulder down a mountain path, to overthinking, until the boulder turns into a self-doubt and self-loathing black hole, population: me and everything I have ever written.
And while I internalized that comment, like an ingrown toenail, or like the point of that Morghul blade working its way inexorably toward Frodo’s heart, my sister got to walk away and never think about it again for the rest of her life. Probably the most she ever thought about it was in the very next second after she said it, to say to herself “good burn,” and then forget about it forever.
I tell you all this not to shame her, but to shame myself. To purge the poison by first acknowledging the fact that I’ve been poisoned. The fault in this tale is not hers for saying the thing, but mine for taking the thing and wrapping it in silk and tucking it away in the secret place in my mind to take out and fetishize and fixate upon.
It’s hard — nigh impossible, I’d almost say — not to do this. When we identify so closely with what we create (as authors and artists of all stripes must, by necessity), then an assault on that thing becomes an assault on us, in much the same way that, oh, I don’t know, a high-profile sports star saying disparaging things about certain people in positions of power makes people that like the disparaged person come to hate said high-profile sports star, even though they have no personal stake in what was said at all.
AHEM AHEM I DIGRESS.
Our work is a part of ourselves, and that’s not a bad thing — but we also have to be able to see our work as not a part of ourselves. To see that the words we write aren’t themselves who we are, but instead just a reflection of who we are in the moment. And, most importantly, those reflections can always be improved and changed — and we don’t have to beat ourselves up over them.
She wanted to write a story, so she sat down at her desk to do just that.
“I can’t possibly write without the right tools,” she thought, although she had an entire desk full of pens and pencils. (Just not the right ones.)
So she loaded up her car and her cash and went to the store to buy pens and pencils and new-and-improved ink that were just right for this story and special paper made in the tradition of ancient Egyptian papyrus which wasn’t particularly relevant to her story but the thought of which appealed to her mightily. These things she took home and, just to test them out, wrote her grocery list upon them, and they were as lovely as she had hoped. So she sat down to write.
But the temperature in the room was a little bit stuffy.
“I can’t possibly write in these conditions,” she said. “What if I begin to sweat? And the sweat drips upon the paper and the ink, so carefully picked out and perfect for my purpose, smears, leaving what I’ve written unreadable?”
So she got up to adjust the thermostat. As she did, she happened to glance out the window and see the weather. Delightful! Sunny and breezy and oh-so-inviting.
“Actually,” she said, “It would be such a treat to sit outside, surrounded by nature, to feel the breeze upon my skin and the sun upon my face. Such things would surely bring me even greater inspiration and make my story that much more perfect.”
So she gathered her belongings, her new pens and perfect paper, went to the front porch, and there sat down to write her story. But as she sat, she found that the outside was not at all like the comforts of her writing desk, and was perhaps not suited to the task at all. There was no place to rest her special paper except for her lap, which she felt was not the most conducive position for writing, and her pens, when they were not in use (which was often), tended to roll off her leg and clatter upon the woodwork with a noise not at all restive to her ears.
For that matter, come to think of it, while the sun did feel nice at first, it made her uncomfortable after a time, and she found herself wishing for shade. The breeze, when it blew, alleviated this, but also whisked her pages away, so that she had to chase them into the yard and down the street.
Also, there were bugs, which were not especially helpful to her practice. So she went back inside.
As she sat back down at her comfy, perfect desk, though, she made another unhappy discovery: the thermostat, previously adjusted, had cooled the room rather too much. She adjusted it again, and was again distracted by the lovely weather outside, even though she knew it hadn’t worked out well previously.
The temperature fully suited to her creative needs, she sat down, finally, to write. But there was something else.
“What if I get thirsty?” she wondered. Truly, it would be a shame to begin her task only to be interrupted by a minor physiological annoyance. Luckily, she had an entire assortment of heated caffeinated beverages to alleviate this problem. She spent the next twenty minutes brewing the perfect cup and waiting for it to reach the perfect temperature.
At long last, it was well and truly time to write. She sat down, sipped her heated beverage.
Unfortunately, she could think of nothing to write.
“What I need,” she said to herself, “is some inspiration.”
So she set aside the story she had not yet begun to write and went in search of other stories. She started with a book she hadn’t yet finished, working her way through a few chapters. She then moved on to an old favorite film whose concepts and themes had always intrigued her. True, she’d seen it before, but a fresh viewing was sure to send up some creative sparks. Then, finally, to a TV show which she didn’t have a particular personal interest in, but she had heard good things.
Fully saturated with inspirational material, she returned to her chair. But by now, the sun had gone down.
“This will never do, the light is not quite right,” she moaned. She adjusted the lamp so that the light fell, not so much directly upon her and her work, but rather against the wall, sort of splashing down almost by accident across her desk, and this, she felt, set the right ambient mood, and she was pleased.
“Well, the light is right,” she thought, sitting down once more, “but the silence is positively unnerving.”
She turned on the radio, but the music and the lyrics soon distracted her; what she needed was the right music, so she began to search and search, curating just the right playlist to suit the ups and downs and dramatic swells for the story she was now sure to write.
The playlist was 78 hours long, which she felt might be a bit excessive, but she could always audit it later.
Everything was, now, finally, and without exception, perfect.
She sat at her desk. She drew back her sleeves. She grasped her pen. She checked her watch.
Well, it had been a good effort, but it was simply too late to write tonight.
“I’ll try again tomorrow,” she said, laying her pen down on her blank pages and turning off the lamp.
In my writing this morning, I found myself musing: I wonder if cavemen got depressed?
So… this happened.
(For some reason I imagined the cavemen with British accents. Probably all the Good Omens and Ricky Gervais comedy specials I’ve been watching.)
Int. a dingy, shallow cave. A few unwashed loincloths litter the floor. DAG sits staring into the ashes of a fire that burned out several hours ago at the very least. THOP enters, his shadow stretching long across DAG, who either fails to notice or fails to care.
Dag: Hmm? Oh. Thop. Morning.
Thop: I should say so, Dag. The sun’s been up for 15 minutes. What are you doing?
Dag: What do you mean?
Thop: Are you serious?
Dag: About what?
Thop: Dag. It’s Monday morning. Hunting day. The antelope are waiting.
Dag: Are they?
Dag: The antelope. Just standing around thinking, gee, it’d sure be great if we got chased, hunted, and eaten today, are they?
Thop: Don’t be ridiculous. It’s a figure of speech.
Thop: It’s time to go hunt, Dag.
Dag: I don’t know, Thop. I’m just not sure I’m feeling like it today.
Thop: Not feeling like it? What are you talking about? We’re hunter-gatherers. Hunting is one of two things we do in life. You don’t feel like it?
Dag: I just feel sort of lost. Kind of … I don’t know. Spiritually icky. You know?
Thop: No, I don’t. If you don’t come on the hunt, you won’t eat. That’s a promise, Dag. The others won’t stand for it and neither will I. So get your loincloth on and let’s go.
Dag: Oh. Well, all right then, I guess maybe I’ll just starve. Waste away. Wouldn’t take very long, we’re all half-dead just waling around here, aren’t we?
THOP sighs in exasperation and heads for the exit. DAG stops him.
Dag: Remember me, okay? Or don’t. It doesn’t matter anyway, in the scheme of things, does it? Nobody will remember any of us after we’re gone. Hunt the antelope, don’t hunt the antelope — what does it matter? This life is meaningless. The hunt is meaningless.
Thop: The hunt is meaningless? Fine, Dag. I’ll just go tell that to Erk and Pog and the rest, then, we’ll hang it up, shall we?
Dag: What’s the point? We bag an antelope, it delays our deaths by a few weeks. But that’s a few weeks more we’ll be suffering, isn’t it?
Thop: Bugger all this, mate.
THOP makes for the exit once more, but DAG isn’t done.
Dag: You remember Egg? Had a tooth rotted so badly he couldn’t eat. Moaned about it for days. Finally he got fed up with it and hurled himself off the cliffs by the river. Remember him?
Thop: Of course I remember Egg. He was our best hunter; we gave him a hero’s sendoff.
Dag: I envy him.
Thop: What, you want an effigy of twigs and antelope dung burned in your honor?
Dag: No, I envy him his end down there on the rocks. He had it right, you know. Took an instant of pain before his sun went down rather than weeks and weeks of the agony of slow starvation. The agony that the rest of us still have to endure, day after day after day. Not such a bad trade, when you think about it, is it?
Thop: (After a long pause.) Dag.
Dag: Yes, Thop?
Thop: Get your prehistoric ass up off that rock, get a loincloth on, and come hunt antelope with us. I’ve had it.
Dag stares morosely into what used to be the fire for a long moment.
Dag: Oh, all right.
Together, DAG and THOP and the rest of the clan would indeed go out to hunt antelope and bring back a feast.
But Dag’s heart wasn’t really in it.
And, just because it’s never really exited my consciousness, here’s a blast from the past that may or may not have had a subliminal influence, as well.