Conversation with Joan

as she read mURdEr cLuB cANDy


Some of an email exchange with Joan Barbara Simon as she read my novel mURdEr cLuB cANDy:

Joan:

Have you ever done meth? I’m reading Candy on her trip and whilst it sounds convincing to me, who am I to tell, I’ve never been there. Is it enough to have observed someone to be able to depict the experience?

ME:

Yeah, about 10 years ago. I have first-hand experience.

Now, I’ve gone the other way..even stopped drinking alcohol over two years ago..works better for me this way.

Joan:

Have you ever really watched a snuff video, Matthew? Did it turn you on?

ME:

No. It’s not something I’ve sought out. I don’t think it would bring me or anyone any joy.

The closest I’ve come to that was about 10 years ago someone in film school ambushed me, showing me a Faces of Death video of someone fatally shooting himself in the head. It did the opposite of excite me. I was extremely disturbed by it. It is something I wish I could un-see.

It is not pleasant for me to watch other people hurt, even in small ways. Sexually, I’m most excited by watching the other person get off, be pleasured..that’s what makes me tick. Moderate, mutual, consensual pain is ok for me. Maybe not that moderate. But consensual. Having power over someone doesn’t excite me sexually or otherwise. Not into power, think it’s for amateurs =) Except for mild power fantasies like a mutual consensual rape fantasy for example. Political power, social, sexual, whatever..infantile. No psychologically, spiritually mature person has a real need to control another. Not how I imagine grown ups treat each other. I have seen documentaries that show some people are only sexually excited by violence, not by others’ pleasure. They can’t help it; I don’t judge them. That doesn’t happen to be me, though.

Joan:

I’m totally squeamish. When the music gets scary in (even the most harmless) films, there’s me, diving under the duvet..

..and yet there’s something about violence that turns me on..

..can’t explain it..

..but I’ve never watched a snuff and I’ve never done drugs.

I get you (apart from the consensual rape..isn’t that an oxymoron?)

in Verses Nature we’ve got Carmina, who is the indignant victim of conjugal violence, yet the willing participant in love games with Tatar; games involving belts, barbed wire, bottles and other instruments which are never named, instruments leaving bruises which she carries home with her like trophies. I don’t need to explain that, to smooth out the inconsistency or make facts rhyme. We don’t rhyme. That’s the beauty and the fascination of it. Of us.

ME:

I almost asked, but I was afraid to discuss it any further. But I’m glad to know where you come out on it.

I may be more turned on by sexual violence than I think..I sure write about it a lot. I can certainly say I find it fascinating. Rape fascinates me but I don’t think, in the actual situation, I’d be able to get it up, because if the victim was distressed I would feel for them too much to enjoy myself. But I think about it and have role-played it. Truly, I find it fascinating and boring at the same time!

Normal violence is uninteresting to me. Just like shooting someone or beating someone. Torture is more interesting. Sexual torture more interesting. Mental manipulation more interesting. I don’t know, Joan, we’re strange creatures =)

Yes, consensual rape..it’s an oxymoron. Doh!

We don’t rhyme..one is not going to find a better summation than that, my friend. Well said!!

But the proof is in the pudding..my actual porn collection? 100% solo women masturbating. I like to see women happy (without having to see other men). I’m very straight, and very into seeing a woman get off. Very boring, perhaps, but it’s a pretty rock-solid measure of what I really like. Lol.

There’s a few men in some of them..I don’t hate my own kind that much =)

Joan:

I’ve never bought/had a porn mag. I remember coming home from school one day and my dad was at home with a friend of his. There was the cover of a porn film on the mantelpiece and I could see what I would then have called women’s privates. I left the room to get something and when I came back, the video had gone.

Porn would bore me, I’m sure. It’s all fake. I like what goes on in my own mind more. Sometimes it gets me going so much that I cum. Hands-free. Just my wild mind and my nerves out in the open.

I’ve just finished MCC and can’t make up my mind if I need a week to recover or if I should go right back to the beginning and start reading all over again.

Thank you for an amazing experience. Palahniuk, go back to your trailer park!

ME:

Thank you..thank you so much for reading it and sharing your reaction.

I will leave you to your imagination and open nerves..imagination is the best.

Joan:

To call this a stone cold masterpiece is right on. I can’t wait to showcase this on my blog! Do you think I could include some of our correspondence? I’ll always show you what I plan to publish so you can give it the green lights before it goes live. I think the conversations are great blog material if we have the courage to share it, precisely because they are authentic. But I don’t want you to think that any of this was premeditated. I can still ask you other questions which my re-reading of MCC will throw up; questions on style, or about the characters, etc. In fact, I’ve got one right now: Tell me more about Liss. Why did you create/need her? She’s quite savvy for a nine year old..in fact, what inspired you to come up with the plot?

ME:

Thanks for not laughing me out of the room at my boastful description of the book. I’m the last person with any objectivity to judge it. But as I think back on that book, I do think it has a technical..I can only say mastery..where stuff just came together correctly.

You are welcome to use any correspondence! I would love that. No need to give me a green light ability..I trust what you do. I’m honored that you’re choosing to write about it. I love the book and I don’t mean as its author..I mean as a person who is now equidistant from it with you. By the way, I recommended it to you, as I hinted at before, because I thought its mentality bore some similarity to your own. I am not trying to butter you up, but due to this book’s stylistic irruptions and subtlety I don’t think there are many people who would appreciate it as you have — and that is a special gift you have given me.

I started with the title, as I often do. I had notes for a quite different story which I abandoned the morning of starting writing, as I often do! I like to plan a story and then abandon it and write something entirely different.

This story is constructed from a few different angles, quite simply, and they just came together better than the mere author could have known:

– The title just came to me from my subconscious. It suggested at least a three-way ambiguity: does it mean a murder club led by someone named Candy or is it a statement of someone’s objective to murder a club called Candy or is it a description of hard drugs: murder club candy, candy being the drugs? I liked these ambiguities very much and felt I had a title I could write to.

– I am a huge fan of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and every derivative I can get my hands on. Even have a crush on Alice. But I feel the story has a problem: Alice doesn’t have to do anything to escape Wonderland. I don’t feel she earns her escape. In short: I think she should have had to kill the queen. Then her escape would mean something. Alice would have had to tarnish her morals in a way she would always be haunted by, in order to escape the queen’s world. I just always thought Alice should have killed the queen, and it’d been on my list of things to do as a writer, for a while, to re-tell Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland with Alice killing the queen. That happens here. Liss gets stuck in a Wonderland of sorts with her dad, led by a man in a white bunny suit (the white rabbit) and Candy is the queen in the sense that she is the lynchpin keeping this crazy party weekend going. Liss several times stresses to her dad that she needs to get home by Saturday morning for her Pilates class..same as Alice’s goal..she just wants to go home! Candy is keeping her there, like the queen, and in my version Liss has to kill the queen to end the party so that her dad will wake the fuck up, start being a parent, and take his freaking daughter to her Pilates class!!

– The specifics of the pool house drug weekend and the bars and the work environment and work characters are taken from real life..an exaggeration of a real party weekend from my history. Some elements are totally made up. Some elements are scenes straight out of my life.

– The one-character-per-chapter idea, I stole, like I stole the plot from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. That’s probably why this book works as well as it does: it’s all stolen, either from Lewis Carrol, real life, or William Faulkner in this case. As I Lay Dying does this same one-character-per-chapter design. I always admired it. I copied it. But I took it a step further and gave each character her own formatting and punctuation. Mostly I did this not for innovation’s or creativity’s sake but to make it easier to read..the reader knows, without even looking at the title of a chapter, which character they’re reading by the differences in formatting.

– Where did Liss come from? She’s the main character — we start with her and half the chapters in the book are from her pov. I guess she’s me. Frankly, a lot of life has felt like an out-of-control party to me, a dangerous, pointless party, whether it be work or family or literal parties. She’s a kid in an adult’s world — no power (except she takes some) — and I have felt like that often. The world makes no fucking sense to me. Stuff like this really happens. People do crystal meth with their kids. Jobs reward ass-kissers with no talent while a few diehards work quietly in the background to keep everything running. Rich kids like Candy are running around the suburbs of LA lighting people’s houses on fire for fun and breaking their things and assholes like me are (were) so bored with our lives that we went along for the ride. Liss is the out-of-control, scared me who finally does what is necessary to get back to normal life and learn some fucking Pilates. But that’s the point of the ending: the whole book, Liss encounters mostly untrustworthy, dangerous adults. Now she’s at her class awaiting her Pilates teacher. The ending, “She’s here,” is supposed to suggest the question: Is this going to be a good adult or a bad adult? Should we/Liss be glad that, “She’s here?”

– The front quote, “The only way to catch tiger cubs is to go into the tiger’s den.” First of all, it’s a fortune cookie (like a real fortune cookie from the real world), and they order Chinese that night, so the [very light handed] implication is that this fortune was Liss’s fortune that night. And I guess there is no second of all..it explains itself differently to each person.

– At some point in the Candy drug monologue starting on page 191, there is a secret message written in the bold words..after a certain point, if you read just the bold words, this secret message un-weaves itself from the rest of the text. There’s no hidden message in her first drug monologue but the wildness in formatting rises and falls with her high. I wrote this book during an 11-month mostly sober period but I drank alcohol strategically when writing Candy’s scenes. I wanted to make them crazy, so I got crazy and wrote some crazy stuff. The rest of the book I wrote sober.

– The “Mondo marcio, eh?” (Rotten world, right?) phrase was written by my sister for the purpose of this book. I employed her help in this one spot where I couldn’t come up with just the right phrase. The concept of “rotten” was perfect for the sentiment I was trying to get at earlier in these notes by saying the world is crazy and people do meth with their kids. I combined this with “Ma petit poire” (My little pear) to get the phrases working together, in French and Italian, to give the idea of rotten fruit..or the juxtaposition of fresh fruit in a rotten world. I think, technically, this is one of the book’s best moments.

– Along these lines, I thought it would be really a turn if we spent this whole book thinking Liss’s dad is completely irresponsible and that’s awful and blah blah blah and then when she gets home things are worse! At least her dad doesn’t hit her!!! Her dad is irresponsible, dangerous, neglectful, but he loves her, he’s sweet to her. Liss gets home and we find out that maybe it was better she was with her dad and not her mom all this time!!! Hahaha. Mondo marcio, eh? =)

I could say a whole lot more and it’s obvious that I don’t mind talking about my book and myself. But I’m going to stop here and just deeply thank you, Joan, for making the effort to read my book and being someone who can appreciate it. It’s a gift to me — and so are you.

Your brother in words,

Joan:

Matthew, William Faulkner was to be the subject of my thesis until about half a year before the thesis was due, then I switched to the Canadian feminist, Nicole Brossard. I read and admired As I Lay Dying too. Some bowl-me-over passages in there (as in The Sound and the Fury). The book was given to me along with the recommendation to dare to write my novel in the first person. So, we have that — Faulkner — in common too!

MCC is a masterpiece, no doubt about that. What you call the book’s irruptions is a large contributory factor to its success. If people are put off by it, they’re not your target audience. Having said that, I really do think your miles better than Palahniuk and he’s extremely popular, so you never know. Actually, you don’t even need to know. You just need to do your thing and not worry about “them.”

The novel emerges, only partially under the author’s control. True talk! In this uncontrollable/uncontrolled space is where genius lurks. We have to trust it. I’m attaching a few pages from the introductory chapter of my thesis where I talk about the dialogical relationship between the author and her/his work. This passage sums up how I proceed. Need not be the case for everyone.

I get what you’re saying about Alice, about the need for more agency. When I say her name, I also think of a snake’s hissing. Follow up associations: Adam & Eve, innocence, tree of knowledge. You opt for a pear instead of an apple; that’s ok :) Your Alice makes a mockery of our notions of childhood, like it’s a room you may choose to inhabit or get chained up in.

This book definitely deserves more exposure, Matthew. I admired Things Said in Dreams. MCC is..I can’t find anything that fits, that does it justice. It’s better than Faulkner, too, and yet you’ll have a hard job to get scholars talking about you cos they’re so cosy on their closed circuit. One of the reasons why I turned my back on academia. I got two of their most coveted qualifications just to show that I can, but it doesn’t mean I’m like them. I’m like you.

Hug from you sis,

ME:

BTW, I used different music for different characters to help get their different cadences.

Liss was several songs from Bizet’s Carmen.

Dad was “The Four of Us Are Dying” from Nine Inch Nails’ The Slip.

God, I wish I remembered what the others were. I have only guesses.

Winnie might have been Vangelis’ “Conquest of Paradise.”

Jacobi might have been the “This Devil’s Workday” from Modest Mouse’s Good News for People Who Love Bad News.

Candy..how can I not know Candy? Ugh.

Not that it matters.

But thank you so much for talking literature with me. You’re opening up a conversation I so often only have with myself.

I have to thank you for your compliments.

I’m not one to get a big head..I think the book is the most important thing, not the person who wrote it, you know, but..

Your acknowledgement of my work feels really nice.

Thank you. I owe you in ways I will probably not be able to repay but I can at least give you my thanks.

Joan:

I owe YOU, Matthew. This is the best book I have read in a long while. It gives me hope that there are people out there who do not succumb to mere surfaces!

Have to say:

from your MCC notes:

“I don’t believe in the publishing industry anymore so this book is going to be really good.”

Love THAT!!

ME:

HA! I forgot about that note!!!! =) There’s definitely a relationship!!

Joan:

How did your belief in the publishing industry impact on your writing, Matthew (and why did you let it???)?

ME:

You’re asking the hard questions, Miss Simon, and I expect nothing less. I’ll be completely honest with you.

When I wrote my first book, Snowbunny, that’s exactly what I thought the cutting edge of what I could do, was. It was stylistic, and I believed “the publishing industry” would embrace it as genius and publish it. I was universally turned down with the reasoning that my book was “too experimental” — and turned down laughingly. In my view, if your book isn’t experimental, then you haven’t written anything at all. That discouraged me, as back then I had publishing and writing tangled together in my mind.

In my next couple of books (Things Said in Dreams and Camp Lake), I continued to write exactly what I wanted to write — I think that’s shown by the content of those books (they’re very me — they’re my soul). But again, no one wanted to publish them — and I knew TSID at least was worth publishing. TSID they didn’t like the ending — too realistic — they wanted a school disaster book without the disaster and I was like: this is the actual life American kids are living. This isn’t an exaggerated book, this is (with respect to the disaster) more or less real: military personnel on school grounds, children using military weapons in mass killings that they wouldn’t have had if the military hadn’t made them in the first place, etc. They definitely didn’t like the idea of the main character being a passive psychopathic killer who lets the whole thing happen — but I wasn’t about to write some Wonder Woman character who saves the world — that’s not realistic (and it’s not who most readers would be able to relate to — I wrote the protagonist as the person/position most people would be in, in such a situation..a bystander..the book is about bystander evil). Anyway. Fucking literary agents wanted to re-write my book (“We could publish it if you change the ending.”) I was like, no, that’s not how this works.

With Camp Lake, several agents said they personally liked it but they could never get a major publisher to touch a religious book. I was like: It’s not a religious book!!! Did you read it?? It’s about a bunch of murderous incestuous druggie twenty-somethings who happen to be working as counsellors at a Christian camp doing a horrible job watching over their campers — as their youth group leaders did to them when they were young — the book is about not living up to your responsibility as a caretaker of youth. And..the spiritual journey of the main character is that of a Christian moving toward being an atheist. That does not a religious book make!! It has to take place at some kind of camp — and it needs to be specific or it won’t be believable (as any liar knows). They were like, Nope, sorry, major publishers won’t touch anything with a Christian angle. And I thought to myself: bet they would touch it if it was some marginalized religion — then it would be edgy and cool. But to write a book taking place at a Christian camp — unacceptable.

So I wasn’t writing books just to make them publishable..clearly..I failed at that even as a side goal. But after my literary agent interactions for those first three books, I had lost any illusion that these people were into finding good books and publishing what they liked and believed in. It was all about the sales, the perceptions, and a certain kind of moral gatekeeping that made me lose respect for literary agents and any publishing house that would rely on them. There was a freedom, therefore, for MCC because I really didn’t think anyone but me would ever read it.

I’m not fool enough to have ever (ever, in any context, in school or since) written something for someone else — I write for myself, so I can live with myself — and baby, can I live with myself =) But there is a freedom that thought in the MCC notes gives me, above even that..at this point I’m so far off the publishing path I doubt I’ll ever get back on.

Maybe, to close the loop, I have to say:

With MCC on, I felt one less eye looking over my shoulder.

And in conclusion, from ME:

This has been some great correspondence!

Joan:

This has been an amazing, intensive, inspirational exchange! And the good thing is..there’s more to come :)

Love,

ME:

For me too, Joan — amazing! I’ve felt really brought back to life in the literature department with our recent talks.

/deep bow

Joan:

Deep bow returned.

Real versus realistic

In books and in life

Photo by Fr Antunes via Foter.com under CC BY-NC-SA

My book Things Said in Dreams is written with a female narrator. When one of my female relatives read it, just about the only thing she had to say about it was that it was ok but it didn’t sound like a woman. When my sister loaned it to one of her friends, her friend said she had to keep checking the cover to remind herself that it was written by a man because she thought it sounded so realistically female—like something that only a woman could write.

One of the elements that detractors of TSID’s female narrator point to is that in the first chapter, she punches her mother’s girlfriend as part of their conversation—a playful punch. They say that a girl would never punch someone. “Girls don’t tend to punch people.” Etc. Excuse me. Have you ever hung out with girls? They punch people, too. It’s real—it really happens, I have seen it—but that doesn’t make it realistic for every reader because they have these stupid/limited ideas of what women do. They’re stuck in their stereotypes.

One of the favorite books of our time is The Secret History, which features a male narrator extraordinarily written by a woman. I could say the sex scene in the book doesn’t sound like what I think a sex scene written by a man would sound like but that would be missing the point. Donna Tartt’s Richard Papen has sex as written and thinks of sex as written. And while it might not be realistic to some men, that doesn’t mean it’s not real. What’s in a book is real because that’s the way it is written.

Something that cracks me up about Things Said in Dreams is the story behind this series of four sentences that appear on the second page. The narrator says:

I would make an excellent kidnap victim. I’m pliable. I come with a vagina. I don’t care about my life.

Men (especially) go crazy when they read this text. They object like crazy. They call me crazy. A woman would never say this, they say. It’s completely unrealistic. Well, it may be unrealistic to them, but the funny thing about this piece of text, which is the one most cited when people tell me my narrator doesn’t sound like a woman, is that it was written by a woman.

Around the time I was writing TSID, I was having a flirtatious text exchange with a woman and we were consensually and safely playing out a kidnap/rape fantasy. That text that everyone thinks no woman would say is not only something a woman might say, or something a woman would say, it is something a woman did say. I pretty much copied her text out of our conversation and pasted it into my book.

(I later asked her if I could use it and she said I could use anything I wanted.)

Imagine how funny and how absurd this situation is to me. People tell me this piece of text betrays the believability of my female narrator—the text is unrealistic to them because they have very narrow ideas about women..and they don’t have interactions with women that are nearly as interesting as mine.

The text is documentary—literally copied and pasted from a woman’s text to me. And yet it remains unrealistic to some.

I guess I’m asking us all to consider, in a larger sense, that there is a difference between real and realistic. The world is a broad and wild place, and many things happen here which are totally real—but seem totally unrealistic to us.

They’re all my favorite

20 books by 38

Photo by Sharon Drummond via Foter.com under CC BY-NC-SA

On the 6th of March, 2014 at the early hour of 6:29am, I Tweeted: “My medium-term goal is to have written 20 books by the time I’m 40.”

It is now 10:49am on the 17th of June, 2016. I am 38 years old, and about a week ago I finished my 20th book.

I am counting novellas as full books..I count 1000-page books as one book, so I am definitely counting 100-page books as one book. I am not counting unfinished books, short stories, or very long essays. I am not even counting plays and screenplays as whole “books”—my 12 plays and screenplays are collected into one book, and I am counting that as one book (which is ridiculous, but, whatever).

My reasoning for wanting to complete 20 books by the time I was 40 was that I thought 40 might be a hard birthday for me, and I thought if I had completed 20 books by my 40th, it might make things easier.

There are a lot of lucky people who have managed to stay alive for longer than I have, but to me, 38 is not young. In my mind I’m always 17 and I have to remember, now, that people I meet might be a lot younger than me and my crassness/jadedness/directness/maturity will be a shock to some of them, where it is commonplace among some people my age and older. I have to remember that by default, to some 20 year olds, I am a creep before I ever open my mouth. I can’t just have fun with everyone I meet—there is a power differential that is realer than concrete and that deserves my respect. Mostly, it’s just that I remember more often that my clock is running out. And it will run out, someday, finally.

This makes each day more special.

This makes each potential conflict less important.

This makes it so that I don’t have to get my way.

This makes it so that I think more carefully about how I spend my time.

I’m a half-goals, half-non-goals person: like there’s not some number of books I want to have written before I die—who gives a shit. Much more important to me is that I live each day according to my small set of ideals (take care of myself, treat others well, write).

By the 10th grade I was trying to write a novel. I could get 20 pages, 30 pages, but I couldn’t get any farther ‘cause I didn’t have the patience. I wrote a novel, finally, when I was 25 (Snowbunny). I was so excited about it and then I learned that no one was going to publish it—it was too experimental. Well, I thought if you weren’t doing something experimental you had no business writing a book! It was a long time before I wrote my second book—I was 31. That was Things Said in Dreams. By that point in my maturation as a human being, as a writer, I truly did not give a shit whether anyone else ever published or liked that book because I knew it was good and it was my opinion that mattered to me more than anyone else’s. In fact, with that second book, I had written something as good as I ever wanted to write. I satisfied myself at that point and I have been playing ever since.

I have nothing to prove to myself anymore, and I haven’t for a long time. So when I write, I play. I play with my big mind, and I cross over the lines that shall not be crossed! I believe writing is the job of brilliant degenerates and great writing always comes from these. I revel in a sentence every few years—I think I’ve written maybe two great sentences in my 20 books. And certain books have worked out to satisfy me more than others: Things Said in Dreams, Of Bicycles and Boardwalks and Oceans and Ships, and Clarity;)if I had only written those three, it would be enough. Camp Lake is special to me because it’s thematically autobiographical. But I have never written a book that wasn’t the absolute most meaningful to me book that I had to write at that moment, so I could never really pick a favorite—they’re all my favorite.

All my books are free.

Their home on the web is readmybooksforfree.com:

https://readmybooksforfree.com

Their alternate/backup/redundant home is: readmybooksforfree.co:

https://readmybooksforfree.com

That backup site shows the 20 covers in a way that clearly conveys there are 20 of them (there’s an extra cover in there for a long essay so actually 21 covers are shown).

So I wrote more books. So I’m getting older. I’m glad I finished my goal early so I don’t have to think about it (I wasn’t thinking about it much anyway—until I saw them laid out on that backup site earlier today, I thought the number of books was 15 or 16). I don’t think turning 40 is going to be hard (if I’m lucky enough to get there). There’s that saying, “What counts is not the years in your life but the life in your years,” which may be tentatively attributed to Edward J. Stieglitz and which was generously rephrased by me. That’s how I want to live. With life in my years. With life in today. No matter what I’m doing, or if I’m doing anything at all.

Writing as a performance art

A method for making the first draft the last draft


First of all, this isn’t writing advice, ok—it’s just me describing a process I sometimes follow. I’m not telling you what to do. I’m telling you what I am doing.

My first book was not performance art. It was written over a period of years and some chapters of it were edited heavily. Then the whole thing was edited over a period of years. So, in the sense that a performance is an uninterrupted, near-flawless execution of action and movement, that book was not a performance. I went backwards and forwards. I went over it many, many times. Yes, large portions of it are hardly changed from the first draft, but the last chapter, for example, was created by editing and re-editing the Book of Revelation until it is hardly recognizable..so that is a level of revision that hardly fits with the one-time elegance of a performance.

Skip ahead thirteen books to book fourteen, my current book. Now I write from 5:45am to 6:15am, I write 1,000 words during that time, and aside from logical errors and spelling mistakes, that first draft is the final draft. I have been moving closer and closer to making the first draft the final draft.

What this requires is preparation.

In that first book, I had very little preparation. My outline would have fit on about one page, if I had had a written outline. Recently I wrote a 1,000-page book from a 200-page outline (that’s 63,000 words for the outline—that’s longer than a medium-sized novel). Then I wrote a 1,200-page book from a 1,200-page outline. That is a critical point: where I have written as much or more in preparation for a book than the size of the book itself. This becomes much more like a performance. The actors, crew, director of a play spend many times the amount of time preparing for a show than the length of one performance of that show. And that is what I am doing with my writing.

I am getting it so that my preparation allows me not to draft but to perform during that tiny half-hour window when I write my thousand words for the day.

What is the preparation?

  • First of all, a suitable outline. What “suitable” means is up to me on each project—but some level of outline wherefrom I can look at my plan each day and know what to write. Depending on how much knowledge about my story I already have in my brain, my outline might be sketchier or fatter. This doesn’t have to be formally written—or written at all! If I can outline in my head, great. I have worked only from a mental outline (or less) on about half of my books. I don’t actually have to have an outline—if I understand my story/world well enough, that may be all the preparation I need in this department. The key is to be in a state where every day I know what to write or can write based on the content and organization of my brain.
  • For me, the rest of my preparation is how I spend the vast majority of my day when I’m not actually writing. I don’t engage in any arguments. I don’t follow or discuss politics. I don’t watch great films. I don’t read great books. (Crappy books and veg-out movies and TV are ok—the reason is I don’t want to be affected by anything of too great a magnitude that is someone else’s work.) Next: listen to my dreams. Often, on the day I plan to start writing something new, I’ll have an especially vivid dream that screams to be put in the novel. Also, I don’t look back at what I’ve written at all until the whole book is finished. No editing until the whole book is finished. No going back to check if a sentence accomplishes what I wanted it to accomplish. No looking at what I’ve already written. Other than that, I cultivate the art of doing nothing—which is when my mind gets ready to write. I don’t think about my book at all except when I’m actually writing. It’s a waste of writing energy—I want that energy concentrated into my actual writing period. If an essential idea for the book pops into my head, I might open the outline, type it in, and close it as quickly as possible. But no OCD loops about the book. Let it go. Do everything else I can do—play games, sleep, walk, listen to new music. Do everything but work on the book—hence my mind is recharging with respect to the book.

That is the preparation. What about the writing—the performance?

  • Turn on my writing music.
  • Open the book document and outline.
  • Read what the outline says to write next.
  • Keep my fingers on the keys at all times—I cannot write if my fingers aren’t on the keyboard.
  • Start right away. Don’t think. Listen. Within seconds of placing the cursor at the end of my book document, I should be tapping those keys. Curtain up!
  • Write down exactly what comes to mind in exactly the words my mind presents it to me. There is a me, deep down, that is making things up. I tap into that voice and I listen to it and I just type whatever it says. I’m not actually a writer; I’m a typist. When my mind modifies what the deep down voice is saying, my mind is always wrong. The deep down voice is always right. So I put away my revisionist consciousness and I listen to the story that is being written deep down within my mind and I write that, exactly. Philip Glass says he doesn’t write music..he just listens to the universe and taps into music that’s already been written and he writes that down!!++ This type of conduit behavior also works well with writing as a performance art. I don’t have to do all the work. I just listen, then type. Never edit. Never go back.
  • Write to my word count, or page count, or time limit, and then stop. This is extremely important. Stop. Curtain down. Close the book document and outline as soon as possible, make two backup copies on different networks, close the cover of my laptop, and walk away. Just back away. I’m done. That was it. That was the writing for today, and it’s perfect, and I won’t change anything in it but logic and spelling errors (someday). Other than that, I don’t go back, and that’s why writing like this is writing as a performance art.

Some writing is more like quilting, some is more like engineering. With Brattleboro Stories, I quilted together many scraps into a patchwork. With Davina, I researched, modeled, engineered. The first and last sentences of her book were written two years before the book was done, months before we finished doing interviews. So I’m not suggesting all writing be performance art, but I am saying that’s what I’m doing on my current project, and it’s a circus worth of fun.

The writing affects your mind

I am not a dispassionate secretary when writing

Hard day. Hard writing day. Ya think they’re related? Yeah.

I like to think I can write scene after scene from a memoir chronicling an extremely difficult time in my life and then have my “non-writing” self be a purple unicorn with sparkles all over its motherfucking horn, but I am sadly mistaken.

There is no “non-writing” self. The self that writes scene after scene from that difficult memoir is the same self that’s shopping for groceries, trying to converse with my family, trying to maintain a regular sleep schedule.

It doesn’t work.

The shit affects me.

A guy named Robert Frost said, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” Yeah, well Robert Frost is right, in my meagre experience. Writing isn’t a job of dipping one’s big toe into the lake. It is a job of diving from a tall platform into the lake. Naked. With sharks.

One of my favorite fortune cookies says, “The only way to catch tiger cubs is to go into the tiger’s den.”

Writing is a profession of going into the tiger’s den.

Over. And over. And over.

Because the good shit ain’t on the surface. If it was then everyone could write a scene that made you cry. That is why I say, over and over and over, that this life—not just this job, but this life—is about breaking yourself every day and growing something from the pieces.

So yes, I admit, my memoir is hard for me to write.

Magically, somehow, I want it not to be.

But you know what, if I’m going to spend the time doing it, it better be hard. And it’s not hard in the ways that I expect. It may not be hard to write the sentence—it may be hard to recover from having written it. I can lie at the keyboard and make all the appropriate textual changes—that part seems easy. But it has a hidden cost: the four-hour nap, the me that is emotionally shredded at the end of the day, incapable of normal activity, running around like a rat in a maze.

That’s where the hard day presents itself.

The time at the keyboard is hard, no doubt. It took me eight hours to write my quota today, and for me that’s about as long as a (non-manic) writing day gets. It took me that long because the scenes stirred up so much shit inside me that my fingers didn’t want to type another word. I resisted psychologically.

Some books, some days, I feel organized and healthy at the end of my writing. I hope I feel that way at the end of this book, at the hopefully meaningful conclusion. But some days, when the content is personal and hard, I have to curl up in bed like a tiny mouse and stroke my heart with comfort content from the internet. Which is what I’m about to do.

Use your words

Supplying and withholding specifics in dialogue writing

When I was young and yelled for something, my mom always said “Use your words!” Using your words is a wonderful technique in adult life as well =) But what about when you’re writing dialogue scenes? Sometimes, not allowing someone to use their words gives a powerful effect.

Here’s a sample scene to aid our discussion:

Amy and Jaymz accused me of doing fewer loads of dishes because they had told me to find a new place to live — they said that I was shirking on my chores after they politely asked me to start looking for where I could live next.

It all came down to a single day when they were working in the yard. They claimed that they had done two loads of dishes that day to make up for my supposedly having not done any dishes that day and that I had not done any dishes that day specifically to punish them for asking me to find a new place to live.

“Amy, I would never do that. I’m not mad about your request for me to leave. I am looking for where my new place will be, and (because you were in the yard much of the day) you didn’t see the complete picture on the dishwashing situation, which is that we’ve done three loads of dishes today. I did one of them. Whenever there were dishes to be done, when Jaymz didn’t beat me to it, I did them. Jaymz seems happy, on occasion, on the weekends when he isn’t working, to do the dishes for me sometimes.”

Amy and Jaymz claimed that I was lying about the number of times I had done the dishes. Amy said she had noticed a change in my behavior since she had asked me to leave.

“Amy, I don’t feel a change and I am absolutely not upset with you. I don’t love you less or anything like that! It’s your house. I’m thankful to you and Jaymz and Daniel for welcoming me here, warmly — which you certainly have.”

Now, what have I done? There are two oppositional sides: it’s Amy and Jaymz versus the narrator. I want you to side with the narrator, and one of the ways I have tried to make this happen is to take away the words! from Amy and Jaymz! When their side of the argument is rendered, exact words of dialogue are not given. When the narrator’s side of the argument is rendered, exact words are given.

Why does this encourage you to relate to the narrator?

You know how actors who play villains always say that they have to find one thing to like about their character, no matter how diabolical, in order to give a realistic performance? That helps them make the character more specifically human. Well, a similar thing happens when people put their thoughts and feelings into specific words: they become easier to relate to. Even when someone is expressing something unwanted or scary, when that expression is cast into specific words, it gives us something to relate to. They become more human and less of the enemy.

By taking away Amy and Jaymz’ words in the scene above, and instead just summarizing what they said, I am allowing the reader to a) fill in the blanks with ideas of their own that are a lot worse than anything I could think of and b) not fill in the blanks, but subtly wonder what these people actually said—and that wondering is a lot worse than anything I could actually write for their dialogue.

I write:

Amy and Jaymz claimed that I was lying about the number of times I had done the dishes.

Now that’s quite horrible! Polite people wouldn’t be doing this in the first place! By not saying exactly what they said, the reader starts to wonder what kind of out-of-bounds accusation actually happened here! Did they actually say, “you’re lying?” We’ll never know but to claim someone is lying is a charged act. Did they do it directly? With innuendo? The reader spends a split second wondering these things and hopefully it’s a thrilling split second.

So: use your words!

But consider, in your books, taking away the words strategically, to make the bad guys badder, to make the mystic more mystical, and in general to intentionally decide when part of a dialogue is concrete, and when it is abstract, in order to manipulate the moments at which your reader is given the words and the moments at which they are left empty handed.