on writing

The Perils Of Creating Accidental Freaks

I don’t think about writing in quasi-magical terms very often, but unleashing a freak on an unsuspecting universe might be one of those times.All of that gibberish about muses and inner spirits and blah blah blah doesn’t do anything for me. In my world, writing is more practical than mystical: a construction job with words in place of two by fours. Want to write? Nail some words together. There you go: You’re a writer.

I’ve nailed a lot of words together–some pretty well, many pretty poorly. I try not to worry about them once they’re floating around in the ether; after all, once a story is published there’s not much point in fretting about it. The deed is done, no take backs!

That’s the logic that led me to start Why It Matters several years ago. While I might not put much stock in writing voodoo, I was deep into the dreaded writer’s block, and I needed a remedy. I knew exactly what caused my block: Mine wasn’t some betrayal by a nonexistent muse, but rather the paralyzing fear of failure.

“Failure” in this context meant specifically failure to write well. Failure of craftsmanship. Failure to get it right. This is not an uncommon fear, and it’s not specific to writing. Regardless of whether the medium is a story, sculpture, garden, bathroom remodel, career change, or relationship, the strategies for sidestepping failure to get it right look something like this:

  • If I don’t start it I can’t fail at it.
  • But if I do start it, if I never finish it I can’t fail at it.
  • But if I do finish it, if I never show it to anybody I can’t fail at it.

The last one doesn’t really apply to endeavors like new careers or relationships, but you get the gist: The best way to avoid failure is a preemptive strike.

Once I realized that this was the cause of my writer’s block, the cure manifested itself: nail words together, put them out there, watch as the world does not come to an end. An end? Heck, the world doesn’t even care what I write. I’m fairly certain that I could let my cat walk across my keyboard, publish the results, and few people would notice.

So the only two unwritten rules of Why It Matters are really just writer’s block remedies:

  • Post a story or essay each Monday. This establishes routine.
  • Don’t sweat whether it is “done,” whatever that means. This discourages procrastination via perfectionism.

Admittedly, I retroactively fix typos and minor grammatical problems, but for the most part once I hit the “publish” button, I don’t look back. November marks eight years of this exercise, and with over 2,000 posts I’ve only retracted two. One of those was the very first post I wrote. There’s nothing wrong with it, really. It simply fell victim to that same old fear of failure. The other was a PBCAK error, or Problem Between Chair And Keyboard: I hit “publish” rather than “save” while working on a draft. I recalled the piece and finished (or “finished”) it, and that was that.

Recently the latter scenario recurred, and while accidentally hitting “publish” twice over an eight year period is a pretty good track record, this second occurrence revealed to me a new (to me) writing dilemma. The piece in question was a short story, the nugget of which was pretty solid. The story’s protagonist had apparently cashed out of his overpriced California real estate and bought a fixer upper somewhere in the American south. He clearly left behind a daughter, but brought with him the callowness that led to the destruction of the life he was escaping (or that escaped him). In his new home, our guy butts up against both a home renovation dilemma and the locals, both of which teach him a little something.

I’m not sure how close to finished I was–50%? 75%?–before I accidentally pressed “publish” rather than “save,” but the story was far enough along that I debated whether to honor my self-imposed “don’t sweat whether it’s done” rule. I can always take this story the rest of the way if I choose to shop it around, after all.  Isn’t the more important thing in this forum to keep the dreaded writer’s block away?  And so even though it violated my “Monday” rule (this occurred on a Sunday), I let it ride: The half-finished story remain published.

That was a few weeks ago, and I can’t let go of the feeling that I’ve done that poor guy a great disservice. He was almost a human being with real feelings, real problems, real agency, and the ability to change. Instead he’s bent and broken, like some sort of failed genetic experiment that refused to die. He follows me, club-footed and drooling, demanding to know why I left him to flounder half-finished and poorly realized. I feel like Dr. Frankenstein after unleashing his hideous monster, only both Dr. Frankenstein and his monster are both fully formed characters.

That’s the new (to me) writing dilemma: A responsibility to the characters I create. It’s not their fault that they have been willed into existence. Once they’re here, it’s my responsibility as their creator to fully form them. I don’t mean that I must overwrite them with tedious detail–height, eye color, the contents of their pockets, etc.–but rather that those characters must be able to live whatever lives I’ve introduced them into.

The example that comes to mind for some reason is Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman, that tragic salesman who has died a million deaths since his introduction in 1949. Willy owns a car and a house, is married to a long suffering wife with whom he shares two adult sons. He has a career, or more specifically the remains of one. He has human problems.

When performed, Willy can throw things, scream, take off his coat, lie down, drink a glass of water, smirk, and tie his shoe. In fact, Willy can do almost anything that you can do, except this: He can only speak the words that Arthur Miller put into his mouth, and he is obligated to die at the end of the story.

If Miller hadn’t treated Willy Loman with care, he would have limped through the last 70 years a deformed homunculus, a gross parody of a human being. The words he must speak would not sound like those of a real man with real problems. His actions would seem nonsensical, his death unnecessary. Making Willy Loman real was Arthur Miller’s sole obligation to the character.

Characters aren’t the only creations that must be treated with care. Consider San Francisco’s Millennium Tower. Completed upon an unstable foundation in 2009, the building has sunk 16 inches already and tilts visibly. Or think of the amateur drawings and paintings you’ve seen whose subjects are forever stuck with their oil and charcoal deformities. I’ve created plenty of those in my time, too.

Of course, sometimes we celebrate these misshapen homunculi because of their imperfections. The Shaggs’ songs are eternally broken, for example. If in 500 years their recordings still exist, they will still be out of tune, out of time, twisted beasts that almost resemble what they were meant to be.

And so at least as far as Why It Matters is concerned I must resolve competing priorities. On one hand there are the two simple rules meant to remedy writer’s block, on the other the desire not to accidentally launch broken Frankenstein monsters into worlds in which they cannot thrive. I’m guessing that the problem can’t be governed by a hard and fast rule, but must be addressed on a case by case basis. Am I struggling with writer’s block? If so, perhaps I err on the side of “stick to the schedule, don’t worry about the rest.” But if things are going okay, it’s not fair to leave a character twisting in the wind like my California expatriate. That’s just mean.

Regardless, I’ll keep nailing words together and hoping for the best. It’s better than waiting for some non-existent muse to drop in and rescue me.

Categories: on writing

4 replies »

  1. I have had a hard time getting to my computer to read e-mails, and I had lost a Monday in there at some point – I found it, started to read it, but due to interruptions the story sat up all day on my laptop and never got read.

    So, I just hit the link and read the story now. Normally I would give it a five star and move on, even though I had questions, but you have opened the door to this discussion and I can feel comfortable saying that the story did not feel finished. Of course, I immediately thought it was too sophisticated for me, that I just wasn’t “getting” it. What was there was so beautifully written (thus the 5 stars) but something fell off a cliff somewhere, and as I usually do, I sighed and thought it was me, I was just not very bright, that I had not picked up on the brilliant subtleties of the piece.

    So, maybe your reader is a third thing to consider in what should you do about this 3/4 written story. If you had left it alone and not written this piece about it, I, as a faithful reader, go on feeling like a dim-bulb who needs to be hand held through a short story, never once thinking that maybe the writer made a mistake, and my confusion is well warranted.

    I love the story, and when I finished, I wanted….something. I always want more of your writing, so I know that feeling, and that was not it. Sadly, I am way too comfortable with feeling stupid, but sometimes I get tired of it, and I am grateful for todays piece letting me know that for once I am not the dummy in the room, that actually, yes – more was needed in this story.

    Whatever you decide to do with it, you might consider making your choice outside of the confines of your schedule, despite the fact that your schedule has kept you here for me, and a lot of others, for eight years. Eight years!! How do we thank you for all of this time and wonderful content, offered for free for eight years?

    I know that I certainly don’t write “This seems unfinished to me” after one of your pieces. It is a different situation if you had sent it to me privately and asked my thoughts – I turn into a different person entirely. I am confident in offering my suggestions, I am kind and always make it clear that this is just my opinion.

    But to write “I love this, but something is missing from the main character” without being asked? Never. I would never have the balls to do it, plus it seems ungrateful – you offer yourself up weekly, asking nothing of your readers except to show up and enjoy themselves, and to critique your story would be rude and ungrateful.

    I guess this is my long winded way of saying if this has been dogging you, then wade back in and perform some surgery on poor Dean. Making him into a whole person helps you move on, and it helps me not feel that oh-too-familiar sad sack “god, you are stupid” feeling, just for a little while.

    I have rambled, and I have to leave – I cannot go over this comment to see if I am making any sense at all, and once I “post comment” – there are no takebacks on this end either. It’s kinda nervewracking.


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