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Category: About Writing (page 2 of 10)

Thoughts on Scalzi’s “You’re Not Fooling Anyone”

I’ve read a lot of books about writing. I’ve read books on character. I’ve read books on plot. I’ve read books on structure. I’ve read literary critique. I’ve read about genre, about symbolism, about publishing, about inspiration, about the creative process, about screenwriting, about fiction writing, about novel writing, about short story writing, about all sorts of things. And, in their own minor ways, each has been helpful to me. As it goes. I wouldn’t say that any of them have been truly inspiring, but when have you ever read a book about the mechanics of your craft that blew your mind? Yeah, I can’t think of one either.

A while back I stumbled across John Scalzi’s You’re Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop: Scalzi on Writing. I have been a regular reader of Scalzi’s blog Whatever for years and was a fan of his novel Old Man’s War, so when I saw that he had released a book about writing I naturally spent the 5 bucks for the Kindle version. And there it languished for ages as other books came and went and life passed us all by in a torrent of images and sounds and happinesses and sadnesses.

Recently, I was between books and decided to read something from my shelf that was on dead trees which is fine and all, but sometimes I don’t feel like carrying the book with me when I am not taking my backpack to and from work. The advantage of the Kindle is that it syncs with the Kindle app on my phone so even if I leave the device at home, I can continue to read on my phone while riding the train or waiting in a bar or doing whatever the hell it is. That’s not possible with a book on, you know, real paper. While riding the train one morning I decided to start into You’re Not Fooling Anyone. I have a hard time reading more than one fiction book at once, but no problem at all keeping track of a novel and a non-fiction book. Weird, I guess, but it also makes a sort of sense.

You’re Not Fooling Anyone is a collection of articles Scalzi wrote for Whatever between 2001 and 2006 that deal with many aspects of writing, but not with craft. Instead they deal with the lifestyle of a working writer, how to sell fiction, what to expect in the marketplace, what pitfalls to avoid as a working writer, what you can expect when working with publishers and editors, and a whole mess of opinion on the state and future of the market. They cover a whole lot of things that nothing else I’ve ever read covered in a Scalzi’s utterly matter-of-fact, no bullshit, this-is-how-the-real-world-works voice. And I appreciate that.

To explain that, let me digress for a moment. I have never considered myself an artist. I am uncomfortable with that label. I firmly believe that art is for other people to decide and my job, as a creator of things, is to do the damn best job I can on whatever the hell it is I am working on. It doesn’t matter if we are talking about writing or photography or editing video, I always strive to do the best I can at my craft. And that’s the important thing: to me, it is craft. It is no different than a skilled cobbler or builder of homes or tailor. What I do as a creative person is to craft things the best way I know how, to learn from the process, and to try and do even better the next time. I have always, and will always, prefer the term “craftsman” to “artist” and “craft” to “art” when referring to myself. “Art” gets stuck up in the clouds; “craft” is firmly rooted in the real world.

What resonated with me in You’re Not Fooling Anyone is that Scalzi clearly has the same opinion of the writing process I do. Specifically, that it is a craft, not some high-falutin’ higher calling from the muses. It’s not. That’s crazy. It’s no more a higher calling than driving a bus is. That doesn’t mean it’s not damn fun work that can be incredibly satisfying, but it is still work. Work work work. When I read him reiterating my opinions relatively early in You’re Not Fooling Anyone, I suspected that I had found something special. As I progressed, that suspicion was confirmed over and over again. The book is, possibly, the only book I’ve read so far on writing that got my brain buzzing with ideas. Not because he says, “Write this way or that way,” but because he got me thinking about my own writing in a different way by discussing the way he thinks about his writing. That’s the important thing. It’s so easy to get stuck thinking about your work in just one way that you can get mired in it and lose steam. To have someone or something come along and say, “Hey, have you thought about it this way?” is often all you need to work through it. Because that’s what we do, right? We’re creative people and we create, even if, as imperfect meatbags, we sometimes get stuck.

Lord knows regular readers of The Black Laser have read many thousands of words of me rambling on and on about my creative process (or lack thereof), so reading the same musings from someone else is a real kick for me. And makes me want to inflict even more rambling on all you poor sons of bitches.

If you are a writer, you should read this book. If you are a person who makes things that might not be words, you should read this book. If you are not a creative person (WHO THE HELL ARE YOU PEOPLE?) but are curious what the brain of someone who makes a living being creative is like, you should read this book. It’s that good. And it’s incredibly accessible. There are no academic blatherings about post-modernism here, just opinion earned through years of hard work and experience. I sincerely hope we get a second volume of 2007-2012. It’s been five years and I would happily spend another 5 bucks on the Kindle version.

A Brief Review of Kelly Link’s Stranger Things Happen

I cannot stop talking about this book. Kelly Link’s Stranger Things Happen is one of the most moving, masterful collections of short stories I’ve ever read. I literally (read: figuratively) cannot believe how good it is. Reading it even upset me because I am fairly certain that I will never in my life be able to write something this good. It is so good.

I picked up the book one afternoon last summer at Word here in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. It’s a lovely independent book store and if you’re ever in the neighborhood, you should go there and give them your money in exchange for books. Who doesn’t need more books? It was with that thought in mind that I entered Word and browsed through their well-curated selection. Stranger Things Happen was one of the four or five books I bought that day and as soon as it got home it went directly onto my bookshelf and was forgotten. Such is the fate of many books languishing upon my shelves.

After putting down The Girl Who Played With Fire, the second of the dragon tattoo books, which was entirely unremarkable and didn’t warrant my continued attention, I pulled Link’s book off my shelf, dusted it off, and threw it into my bag for the train. I swear I nearly missed my stop because I had my face buried in the book. I didn’t want to get off the train. And I always want to get off the train. I hate the train.

The book contains 11 short stories on all sorts of topics with all sorts of characters (and a lot of cats). They are magical without being ridiculous, difficult without being abstract, feminine without being saccharine, fantastical yet completely real. (Isa, I wrote yours first.) She has managed to blend the real and the unreal into a wholly believable tapestry. The stories are full of mystery and sadness and love and death. I can’t believe you have not already purchased the book. It is SO good.

The quote by Jonathan Lethem on the cover sums the whole thing up quite nicely.

Kelly Link is the exact best and strangest and funniest short story writer on earth that you have never heard of at the exact moment you are reading these words and making them slightly inexact. Now pay for the book.

And guess what? You don’t have to pay for the book! You can download it for free at her website. But I think you should pay for the book because it is amazing and you would be a fool not to support her efforts. I ordered her second collection of short stories yesterday (which is also available for free) directly from their website. Read the book and then come back here and tell me how much you loved it. I loved it. I am sad it is done. However, I intend to do a TBLR of one of the stories. Look out for that.

Thanks for kicking ass, Kelly Link.

A Letter From a Friend and My Response

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine wrote me an incredibly sweet e-mail. With her permission, I am posting it and my response here for everyone to marvel at.

Hi Joe,

I was wondering how you find time to do the million things that you seem to do, be it post to your tumblr, post to blacklaser.net, find all videos you either love or hate, write as Torgeir, review bars, record short stories, etc etc etc to the nth degree?

I’ve been toying with the idea (for a while now) of starting a site where I would maybe review some things I like, heap scorn upon things I dislike, discuss the flotsam and jetsam of life in general, perhaps while trying to be funny sometimes. I get all these ideas in my head about things I want to do, I even get as far as lighting the match, but I just can’t seem to catch myself on fire. Within a few days of thinking “I should start a blog/site!” I circle back around to thinking “When would I even find time to write up a post? Who cares what I think anyways?” (Perhaps I need to care less about people caring? It would be funny if this were the simple secret to success in blogville.) Not to mention I work 40+ hours a week, at the end of which the last thing I want to do is look at another computer. I’m even writing this from my work email, as I loathe getting online at home that much.

I guess I’m wondering how you get inspired, or what propels you forward from thought to action? I need a dose of that, so I’m asking people who seem to fit a lifetime of personal achievement into each week.

If you’re too busy to answer (ha, see what I did there?), then please take this picture as tribute. Seriously though, if you don’t have time for this or don’t have anything to divulge, you can just reply with a picture of a shrug, no hard feelings.

Thanks,

Monica

Well, Monica, you’ve asked me a number of questions that I have a lot of thoughts about. In fact, I’ve been thinking about your e-mail for some time and have put together some ideas that are a bit of a synthesis of things I’ve written here before. I am going to jump around a little bit in answer your queries, so bear with me. I will touch on everything.

First, should you start a blog. I mean, you didn’t ask me this directly, but it’s what your second paragraph is hinting at. What do I think? Of course you should…if that is something you are motivated to do. When I first started The Black Laser back in 2008 (so long ago!), I didn’t really have a good idea of what I wanted the place to be. I knew I wanted a venue to share my photos and writing and whatever in one collected place. I made this site with a vague direction (black and pink, a bunch of text, uh, maybe videos?) and then just let it evolve as my fits and fancies dictated. Did I know in 2008 that by this point I’d have posted nearly 500 music videos? Of course not. I didn’t even consider posting music videos back when I was getting the site up. Did I know that I’d have an entire section devoted to letters I’ve written to things like the 23rd St F station or Coffee or Ugg boots? Of course not. The letters were just something I thought would be fun one day so I wrote a letter. And, you know what, it has turned out to be a lot of fun for me to write those things. They don’t take a lot of energy or thought and, most importantly, they make me laugh.

That is key to this whole thing: it has to be fun. If it isn’t fun, you won’t do it. I don’t very much like getting massages (weird, I know), so I never do that. I quite like drinking beer, so I do that all the time. I also quite like writing on The Black Laser, whether I am bullshitting about some music video or cross-posting my Torgeirs or analyzing my creative path or whatever the hell I am writing about, I like it. It is enjoyable for me. My advice is, unless you’re making money on it, don’t limit yourself to a certain content type. Just post whatever you like, whatever you are motivated to create. That way you will find success. And as a side bonus, you will see your writing get better. Mine certainly has over the years I’ve been doing this. I go back and read some of my early posts and think, “Man, that could have been written better,” but so it goes. That’s life. You do enough of one thing and you’re bound to be good at it. Hopefully. At the very least, better at it.

I would also advise not to get too self-critical when starting out. It’s romantic to think that a bunch of people from all over the place are going to be coming to your site and criticizing everything, but that is just a fantasy. Especially at the beginning. The people who will be coming to read initially are people you know, Facebook friends, Twitter folks, meatspace friends, whomever. So don’t worry about it. Post what you like, put a little thought into it, and just do it. I mean, fuck it, life is too short to not do things because you’re worried about what some nameless, faceless twit on the internet thinks about it, right? It’s for you.

I think I might come across as a classic oversharer, but the contents of my various social media are, in fact, highly curated. I specifically do not post certain types of material on The Black Laser, my Tumblr, Facebook, or Twitter as a matter of good practice. Because I share these things with many types of people in my life (friends, family, clients, the world), I only put things on them with which I don’t mind being identified. I only mention this, because I think that’s an important thing to consider when thinking about your potential blog. Sure, yeah, you might not have many readers at the beginning, but people will find it and it would be a real drag for them to read something there about themselves that you didn’t want them to read. Classic OOPSIES moment.

Next, let’s touch on inspiration. You asked me about what inspires me to continue doing what I am doing. A number of things, in fact. Fear mostly. Anxiety. A sense that I am wasting my life away. This dread that I am throwing my future away. The desire to share. Because I like it.

But let’s back up for a moment. You commented that I am a person that seems to “fit a lifetime of personal achievement into each week,” which, while incredibly sweet and slightly shocking, is exactly the opposite of how I feel about my life. If you click the “Inspiration” or “Creativity” tags beneath this post, you will find plenty of posts where I am struggling with my lack of inspiration, with this sense that nothing is coming, this feeling that everything is a waste. I never feel like I am doing enough, creating enough, achieving enough. I always feel like I could be doing more. Enough so that if I get home and sit around and watch a movie, I genuinely start to feel guilty. Of course, I still sit around and watch movies from time to time, but I don’t really enjoy it. It’s not relaxing for me.

I was discussing your e-mail with my therapist a few weeks ago, just after you sent it. I was telling her exactly what I wrote above. She asked me why I thought that was and I couldn’t give her an answer. My ability to create and communicate with people is inherently tied into my sense of self. And why shouldn’t it be? Even this response is deeply personal as I discuss my thoughts and fears and ideals. This is a representation of who I am, and, even more, who I’d like to be. And I guess the idea of not pursuing that to its fullest is terrifying to me. She asked me what would happen, how would I feel, if I cut myself some slack and let it slip a little. I told her that in the times I have done that my brain goes crazy, I start to feel insane, and am driven back to work, even if it’s something as trivial as posting music video reviews on The Black Laser. I have to be making something all the time. She asked me if I could feel relaxed. I told her the only way I know to relax is to create things. That’s true. When I am done with this, I will feel great. Something’s been done. Something’s been made. I can chill now.

I remember, in college, I took an acting class as a prerequisite to a directing class I wanted to take. Every week we had a standing assignment to spend 20 minutes at home just relaxing. Every week I’d come in and my professor would ask me how I did and, without fail, I told her I couldn’t relax. About three quarters of the way through the semester she had me stay after class to try and help me to learn to relax. She laid me down on the floor on my back and instructed me to close my eyes. She touched my shoulders and flinched. She might have actually said, “Holy shit!” I can’t remember; it was a long time ago. But I do remember her being quite shocked at how much tension I held in my shoulders. I told her that I couldn’t relax and now did she understand how tense I was? I left the class feeling vindicated in my inability to relax, but no close to achieving the goal. Oh well. I figured it out later.

So, where does my inspiration come from? Everywhere and nowhere. Everywhere in the sense that as I wander through life doing things, I like to soak in everything around me and funnel that into whatever the hell it is I am thinking about or working on or planning. Nowhere in the sense that my own constant sense of dread propels me all the time. I honestly feel like I am throwing away my life if I am not making things on the regular. Sure, I experience a normal ebb and flow of creativity, just like anyone. And sure, I get lazy and tired and fucking distracted—wow, so distracted—just like anyone else. I know these things about myself, yet I cannot allow them to win. It is part of why I’ve always set goals, guidelines, limits, quotas, or whatever I think will motivate me to stay obligated. I’ve always liked working with other people in teams since I am incredibly motivated to put out work when I know someone else is counting on me. When it’s only me and there’s no financial reward to be seen, it’s much harder. But if I make myself accountable to myself and to my readers on The Black Laser who are following along my year’s theme, then I find it much easier to stay on track. Does that make sense?

This all ties in to your question about where I find the time. I don’t. I make it. I work at least 50 hours a week, every week, often with late nights and weekends popping up and keeping me in the office. And, as an editor, my whole day is being creative. When I get home I rarely have much juice left to try and be super cool writer guy, so I just do what I can. I say, “All right, Joe, you’re going to write 500 words. At 500 words you can either stop or, if you’re feeling it, keep going.” That works nicely for me. It’s a system I’ve used for years. Do I always write 500 words? Fuck no! If I get home from the office at midnight after a fourteen and a half hour day, you can bet your sweet ass that all I’m going to do is go to the bar next door for a beer and then come home and go to sleep. But if I come home after a normal 10 hour day, I do try and do something. Do I always? Nope, but the thought is there. Sometimes you can’t force it. The weekends are often good for this. I’ll wake up, go out, eat, wander, run some errands, and then come home and produce before going back out for the night. In the end, it’s fun for me, so it’s not a hassle to make time for it. It also keeps me from feeling like a crazy person, which is always nice, you know?

To sum this whole thing up, if you want to make a blog, do it! Don’t limit yourself, and don’t make it a chore. If you have fun doing it and regularly think, “Man, it would be fun to blog about this!” then you will find yourself making time for it. And it doesn’t always have to be enormous blocks of text or things you spend a ton of time on. Lots of people have had incredible success on Tumblr just posting silly photos along a particular theme or just having curated collections of things or whatever the hell people do on Tumblr. The Black Laser was conceived as a place for me to write, so that’s what I do here. Think about what you might want to do (don’t get to specific) and just do it. I think you’ll have fun with it. And if you don’t, stop doing it. Done and done.

Thanks again for the note. I hope this was helpful.

Sincerely,

Joe Dillingham
The Space Pope
Torgeir The Black Metal Extremist
The Black Laser

Month of Letters Challenge: A letter appears!

Today I received my first piece of mail for the Month of Letters challenge from the originator of the idea, Mary Robinette Kowal. Pretty sweet. She sent me quite a pretty postcard on fancy paper with shiny highlights surrounding the flowers. In case you can’t read the lovely (shit) photo my laptop took, let me transcribe for you.

February 1, 2012

Dear Joe,

I saw your blog post and thought I would drop you a line. I has been very exciting to see how enthusiastic people are about the challenge. I hope you get lots of mail.

Yours,

Mary Robinette Kowal

How nice of her! This postcard is, in fact, my very first piece of mail and it came all the way from Portland, OR. I am pretty excited about it. I do hope I get more (hint hint) and will be sharing anything I receive here barring sensitive or personal information. Want to get Black Lasered? Write me a letter or postcard.

The Month of Letters challenge

You all know how I love challenges, so when I read a post by Mary Robinette Kowal when she challenged readers to write and send a piece of mail every day in February, my brain perked up and I started thinking about to whom I would write.

Here is her description of the project.

I have a simple challenge for you.

  1. In the month of February, mail at least one item through the post every day it runs. Write a postcard, a letter, send a picture, or a cutting from a newspaper, or a fabric swatch.
  2. Write back to everyone who writes to you. This can count as one of your mailed items.

All you are committing to is to mail 24 items. Why 24? There are four Sundays and one US holiday. In fact, you might send more than 24 items. You might develop a correspondence that extends beyond the month. You might enjoy going to the mail box again.

Letters! I love letters! I love writing letters! I never receive letters though, which is a drag, but I wish I did. I mean, there is even a whole section of this very site dedicated to letters. Wonderful.

Would you like me to send you a letter? I have quite a few to write. Send me your mailing address via e-mail (if you know it) or on the contact form.

Would you like to write me a letter? Sweet! Please do! If you know my address, use that! If not, how about my mailing address?

Joe Dillingham
No6
36 W 25th St FL 15
New York, NY 10010

Great. I look forward to sending and receiving mail in the month of February.

Creative Projects-December: The Return of Torgeir, or, I Was Half Healthy!

December was a decent month for me creatively. I managed to bring back good old Torgeir in a significant way. I really enjoy the hell out of writing that guy because it gives me a venue to be a complete dick. I often don’t believe the advice I am giving as Torgeir, but there are other times I kind of think that he’s totally right on. And then I get to slip into some recollection of his past in Norway and I am allowed to go totally nuts. And get dark. Really dark. And then I get to close the whole thing off by completely contradicting myself and recommending some of my favorite black metal to you guys. I get all sorts of positive feedback about the Torgeir columns that I haven’t gotten from anything else, so that is super great and inspirational to keep doing it.

As far as slowing my roll, that was more of a mixed result.

For the first half of the month I was very good about hitting the gym 3 times a week and eating super well keeping to my 80% paleo guidelines. And no doubt, I felt really good about it. I hit 190 pounds for the first time in I can’t even remember. I stepped on the scale expecting my usual 195~200 and the little red line stopped at 190. I actually yelled, “Holy shit!” in my apartment. Aloud. By myself. I proceeded to tell a bunch of people, of course. What would The Black Laser be without me broadcasting every stupid little thing I think or care about into the wild voids of the internet?

I had noticed that my body was changing, that I was acquiring better definition on my torso, but I just chalked it up to vanity. Then when I saw the 190, I realized that all the fucking push-ups and pull-ups and squats and all the other nightmarish things they were having me do actually made a difference. Holy shit, right? I was psyched.

But then Christmas party season rolled around and, as one does every single year, I spent the next three weeks drunk the entire time. It’s hard to motivate to get to the gym at 8am when you’ve only been asleep for three hours at that point. Oops. And then I went to California and sure as hell wasn’t going to the gym while I was there. Also drunk the whole time. And then I came back the 27th and have had no real excuses not to go except that I am a lazy fuck. And I ate badly. Stupid holidays.

So that’s no good. But what are you going to do? I am all paid up through May so it’s just a matter of getting my ass there. I can do it!

Look out for a wrap up of the entire Year of 12 Creative Projects and Slowing My Roll soon. Should be interesting to go back through the whole year.

Tate Shots: Maurice Sendak

This is a charming interview of Maurice Sendak, author of Where The Wild Things Are. I am always a big fan of creative people talking about being creative and their process and struggles. Check this out. It is really great.

Terry Gilliam on Kubrick VS. Spielberg

Even though he comes off as a little bit of a dick, Gilliam’s comment on the nature of art is valuable and true. Effectively, that the best art leaves strings hanging for the viewer/reader/whateverer to figure out for themselves which, I believe, creates a more intimate experience. There’s nothing like having to work for comprehension to help make a thing feel like it is your own, to build a bond with a work, to internalize it, to have it affect you. When handed all the answers, things are boring as hell. It’s one of my major pet peeves with YA fiction and, really, a lot of SF/F. I get so bored when everything is explained. Just put things in there and let us work it out through context. That is one of the things I really enjoyed about Gene Wolfe’s work. Creativity is problem solving. Jeez, that’s like my new mantra.

And like women, the easy ones are boring. There’s nothing more boring than a woman who throws herself at you. It’s the difficult ones we all like and go after. Art. Women. Women. Art. They are the same.