Thursday, May 29, 2014

On Triggers and Bravery

There's been a trend recently of authors putting "trigger warnings" in their work.  "This work contains subject matter that may cause feelings of…" That sort of thing. So I figured I'd take a few moments and post my thoughts on bravery and triggers, and the difference between being brave and pandering.

So… Art imitates life.  We draw our best inspiration from the world around us and we write from our human condition.  And in that condition, things happen.  It's not a pretty world out there sometimes.  Rape, murder, discrimination, kidnapping, mutilation, molestation… The list goes on and on of the atrocities that man visits upon his fellow man (and by "man" in this case I mean all of human existence).  And these atrocities are, more often than not, ripe for the picking of someone like me who is trying to tell a story.  I mean, who wants to read a story about a person to whom nothing happens?  No one, that's who.  Why?  Because it's boring.  And so we mine our own experience and we write about things happening to our characters because it makes the story interesting.  It makes the story powerful.
Pictured:  Life Imitating Art

A writer's job is to tell a story, but also to create an emotional connection with the reader.  We want to make the reader feel what we want them to feel.  Love.  Hate.  Fear.  Dread.  We want to twist those little knobs in the brain and make you care about our characters and what happens to them.  Which, to at least one train of thought, means that using trigger incidents is a dirty trick, kind of like cheating.  And to another train of thought, it's perhaps the bravest thing a writer can do. Follow me on this…

For many of us, our work stands as allegories of our own experiences (Stephen King's treatment of alcoholism in The Shining immediately leaps to mind).  Which, often times, means that emotional connection we make is between the reader and something akin to a raw nerve for us.  When the person who inspired a certain character passed away, so did her character, and I relived that heartache and sense of loss all over again so that I could build that emotional connection and make you feel what I felt.  I want to share my feelings with the reader because, in that sense, I am not alone in that someone else feels it too.  From the reader's perspective, he is not alone because he understands that emotion, and now ties him to the story.  We all do it.  We all use the little experiences we've had and we write about them in cathartic release so that our souls are no longer burdened with them, so our hearts no longer feel alone because we've put them out there and inflicted them upon the world.
Pictured:  Reader

So… Then there are triggers.

When we make a connection so strong that it goes beyond "I understand" and moves to "holyshiticanfeelpanicandihavetobemedicatedandmyptsdiscomingback…" you might think the goal has reached its ultimate conclusion.  We created an emotional connection so strong, it sent the reader into therapy.  But that's not really the point.  I jokingly say we "inflicted" our memories on the world, but what we're really doing is trying to make people understand.  We're trying to create some perspective.  And for many of us, that means offering ourselves up as sacrificial lambs and laying our souls naked on a cutting board. We are vulnerable.  We offer ourselves up to you, the reader.
Pictured:  The Metaphor of the Writer's Soul

Of course, that's not true of all of us.  Just because I've never experienced what it means to be raped doesn't mean I can't write an effective rape scene.  But, for me at least, I will go and talk to victims and try to get them to open up about their feelings so I can accurately portray them on paper.  And, by proxy, I am leaving them bare on the cutting board in hopes that I can make someone else understand what they've been through.

But what exactly are we doing?  Do we actually want to alienate our readers?  Do we want them twitching in the corner, or having a panic attack over something we've written?  Most of us are very good at writing emotional scenes, and put things that pluck at the heart and emotions in every line we write.  But do we brutally assault the reader with them for the sake of making a sale?  Do we have the right to play God that way?
Pictured:  Playing God

To me, the difference is intent.  If you use triggers specifically because it will be shocking, well, there's a market for it, but that doesn't make it good.  If you use those events to develop the story, the characters, to try to make the reader understand what that was like… That, to me, is what makes a book literature.  To me, that's the goal.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Taking a Day Off...

I'm one of those who is pretty much constantly talking about the "discipline" of writing.  Set a daily goal, meet it come hell or high water.  Set a routine and work work work.  And yet, there are days that, no matter how disciplined you are, the words just won't come.  So what do you do?  For many of us, we'll either work on another project (assuming we have one) or we'll stare intently at the blank page as the cursor blinks and mocks us with its happy little line.  Sometimes, we just begin writing, stream of consciousness, secure in the knowledge that, even if the thousand words we write today are crap, we can always go back and rewrite them, and tomorrow, that nasty case of writer's block will be gone.  The truth, however, is that many of us stare at the keyboard and slip slowly into madness as we blame everything in the world for our inability to form words.
Pictured:  Madness Personified

And that is the point of this week's essay.  Sometimes, you just have to take the day off.

Look, I get it.  You're serious about your craft.  This "writing" thing isn't a hobby… it's a career.  And you are dedicated.  Committed even.  However, like any job, if you become too serious about it, you will be.  Committed, I mean.  No, I'm not condoning slacking off.  And I'm not saying that this isn't a serious endeavor.  But what I am saying is that, even for the greatest writers in history, sometimes the words just don't come. 
Pictured:  Words!  Where are the words?
The tendency that we all lean toward is to barricade ourselves in our little caves lit only by the pale glow of our computer monitors and shun all life until something breaks in our brains to get the words out.  Hours may pass, or even days in which we eschew all rules of personal hygiene and social convention fearing that, should we leave our seat, the muse will alight and, finding us absent, depart without leaving so much as a piece of muse-shit on our chair.  We tell ourselves that we are dedicated.  We are artists.  We are writers.  And there's another word for that.


Pictured: Harold, the Hermit
You cannot force creativity.  You cannot force creativity.  You can develop all the tools you need to create the greatest book in the world, and still, some days, the words just won't come.  So what do you do?  Instead of sitting around and beating yourself up over it, you need first to forgive yourself. It happens to everyone.  Just like locking the keys in your car or moments where you just feel blah, it happens to everyone.  And it's nothing to blame yourself for.  It's nothing for which you should beat yourself up.  It happens.  The next thing you need to do is push the chair away from the keyboard, stand up and (Gods help you) go outside into the (cursed) sunlight.

Pictured:  Writer exposed to direct sunlight

Go out on a date.  See a movie.  Get a drink.  Go for a jog.  For pity's sake, go interact with people.  And whatever you do, do not talk about your work.  There is nothing writers like to do more than talk about their work.  In fact, many writers like talking about it so much, they rarely ever get down to actually doing it.  But for one evening, you're not a writer.  For one evening, you are going out masquerading as a "normal" person.  For one evening, you need to get out and actually enjoy life.  And then you'll notice a funny thing… When you get back, your writer's block will be gone.  It's true.  Because when you let go of that vice-like grip on your imagination, it relaxes and is allowed to flow again. 
Pictured:  FREEDOM!!!
Just remember:  don't make a habit of it.  Take your one night off, enjoy that burlesque show you've been hearing about.  Go home, get some sleep, and allow yourself to indulge for one night.  Feel that?  That weird thing that your face is doing?  That's called "smiling."  Then, the next day, plant your butt in your chair, and get back to work.  It was just a mini vacation, after all.

Friday, May 16, 2014

The Soundtrack of Our Lives

This week, I'd like to just touch on a subject upon which every writer disagrees:  Background noise.  Of course, we don't say that.  We say "Do you write to music" or "I need complete silence" or "I can't write to music with words" or "have you ever heard of Cradle of Filth" or a thousand other things, but it all comes down to one thing:  Background noise.  None of us agree on it because nothing works for everyone.  I, for one, can only write when there's just a hint of activity in the rest of the house, or with music with no words that fit the mood I'm trying to achieve.  Here's an example:

That one generally works when I'm trying to write a scene that's supposed to be terrifying and intense.

That one generally doesn't.  Though it does make pretty much anything funny.

For some people, classical music is the way to go:

For others, Rock and Roll

For others, something… else…

I guess the point I'm trying to make is that it's all a matter of personal preference.  But, if you're using music or not, how can you make this work for you?  I recommend using headphones, if you can stand such things on your head while you're trying to concentrate.  Noise-cancelling headphones will… well… cancel out the outside noise that can invade your thought processes.  What that means is whether you're using them for listing to your own music, or using them to block out everyone else's, they work.

You could also try earplugs, but I find the things to be hateful and intrusive.

Pictured:  Hateful in blue, intrusive in yellow.
Since I'm not such a fan of either, I go with the old stand by…  My mp3 player (okay, fine… it's my iPhone) and a cheap pair of old computer speakers.

Check the pawn shop… It's where computer speakers go to die without dignity.

Again, the point here is not to say "you must write as I tell you…" but to say "this is how I  do it, and it works for me.  Might not work for you."  I think, if you're just starting out, you owe it to yourself to try as many methods as you can.  With music.  Without music.  With words, without.  Only songs containing a rocking oboe solo.  Only songs composed on a digeridoo.

Pictured:  Second most effective way to irritate EVERYONE.

You get my point, right?  Experiment!  Figure out what works for you, and run with it.  Adopt it as your own.  And if you already have some advice on the soundtrack of your writing life, leave it below in the comments!

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The Importance of Art

Art.  It's a word.  It's expression.  It's subjective.  Webster defines it as something that is created with imagination and skill and that is beautiful, or that expresses important ideas or feelings.  So that means that practically anything can be considered art.  Paintings, sculpture, knitting, film, performance, and yes, even words. But that's just it… Why are these things important? 

I grew up in a land where "artists" were referred to as "artsy-fartsy" and were made fun of.  "You can't make a living with art," they said.  "An art degree is useless.  You'd be better off getting a degree in business/agriculture/computer science…"  In the world where I grew up, "art" was the realm of children and finger painters, sissies and overly-emotional twats that cried at the drop of a hat (and used pretentious words like "twat"), and the people who dared indulge in their creative side were mercilessly ridiculed and bullied.  Welcome to Redneck Texas.

To be fair, there's nothing wrong with blue-collar sensibilities.  Hell, if it weren't for those life-lessons, I wouldn't have the strong work-ethic that I have.  But where I grew up, there was a strong sense of practicality, and, let's face it, art is seldom practical. 

Pictured:  Awesome, yet impractical

The one saving grace that I had was in the first person to really encourage me to be creative:  My mother.  My father was the one who gave me my drive, my determination (some would say bull-headedness), and my ability to do just about anything I put my mind to.  But it was my mother, Nancy Johnson, who instilled upon me the notion that maybe I could create, and maybe it was worth something.  So, while on the one hand, I learned a great deal about the business of life, my mother taught me what living was about.  Does that make sense?  No?  Let me try to explain.

Pictured:  Your life.

Look at ants.  They live their lives doing a specific job.  Despite what Disney or Pixar tell us, they don't have much of an "off hours" life.  Ants work themselves until they die in a single-minded pursuit of getting their job done.  Why?  So that the next generation can get the job done.  And so on and so forth.  Now picture your life like that of an ant.  You go to work, put in your eight hours, go home, eat, and go to sleep, only to wake up the next morning and do it all again.  Now imagine it was seven days a week instead of five.  I mean, after all, that's what ants do.  And that's what people do when they get trapped in the ant-like cycle of their daily lives.  They work and work and work to make money, so they can buy things, that allow them to work more, so they can make money, so they can buy things…  You get the idea.  If you're like me, it would drive you mad.  

There's an old saying:  Work to live, but don't live to work.  Yes, we all need jobs.  We all need to make the almighty dollar so we can afford things like houses, cars, smart-phones and food.  We need the paycheck to keep our lights on and our bellies filled.  In short, we must work in order to live.  

But it is art that makes life worth living.  

Art is, at its basest level, an attempt at communicating something emotional to the audience.  It's a handshake between artist and audience.  It's the artist saying "This moves me.  I want you to understand why, and I want you to feel it too."  Think about that for a moment.  Think about the last song that brought you to tears.  Think about the last painting that left you breathless.  Think about the last story that terrified you or the last performance that inspired you to greatness.  What would you be doing without those things?  What would your world look like?  Grey?  

Pictured:  BLEH.

Artists are not common at all.  The world needs people who run the day-to-day, because without them the world falls apart.  But the world also needs artists because, without them, the rest of us fall apart.  We lose sight of our humanity.  We forget what it's like to feel.  We forget what beauty is, or what it means to be inspired.  Without artists, we forget why we have weekends off.  We lose the many inventions and innovations created because some creative genius asked "What if."  Without art, we lose our souls. 

The beauty of creation lies at the heart of an artist.  Whether it is born there or is bred from nurture, it is a fragile creature, too easily silenced and smothered by those who don't see the world the way we do.  We change with the ages, but our spirit remains the same.  We are the ones who ask "What if."  We work to live, but art is what makes life worth living for. 

Pictured:  A world worth living in.
If you happen to see an artist, be it a writer, dancer, sculptor, painter, musician, film maker, or any other of the millions of types of art out there…  If you happen to see one, recognize what you're looking at:  Someone who makes your existence bearable.