The not-entirely-random thoughts of Chris Brecheen about writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Stop. Baby time.

Power to the people.
Right after my nap.
Kid grenade alert!

I know this is inauspicious timing, what with the new schedule roll out poised to hit and everything. But this can't be helped.

This is a strange story.

An ebola task force has been dispatched out of the local hero comitatus in Washington D.C. There not going to do much more than free up some local forces by keeping their eye on a few unsavory villain types in Sierra Leone.

Several superheroes from Seattle have gone to D.C. to shore up their front lines, and since the Temescal has been quiet, Sonic Gal, The Brain and another hero from West Oakland known as Codex have gone up to Seattle to make sure no one takes advantage of the light superhero presence up there. Wrecking Ball, Uber Dude, and a few other heroes have taken on extra patrols for the time being.

Sonic Gal and The Brain were going to take The Contrarian to Seattle with them. But then he started cutting a molar and looked like he was getting a cold. Even if Seattle sent down their stealth troop transport (The Fapper) the poor little guy would probably not be a very good passenger with all that sinus discomfort already going on.

So....I'm watching him. Alone. For four days.

I'll write when I can.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Does Talent Exist at All? (Mailbox)

Is there such thing as talent?

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer each Friday.  I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox. Seriously, we need more questions. I'm dying here.] 

Alexis asks: 

So....I've read your D&D talent thing [Author's note: Talent: A +5 Sword You Could Do Without] and bits here and there on your blog that make me think that you don't really think talent exists–that it's all just hard work. But then I read so many other people who seem to believe that there is some ineffable quality that makes writers good, and without it the struggle is pointless. So let's have it out officially, right now. Do you think there's such a thing as talent?

My reply:

A very (very) qualified yes.

Two quick logistical disclaimers before I dig into this.

1) I'm almost out of questions.


If you've always wanted to have a question answered by a washed up, over-the-hill writer who can't even say he's a has been because he never even was, now is your chance! I think I have one more week's worth, and then I'm going to have to start making stuff up from conversations I have in Taco Bell. (What sauce is writing like? PICANTE!!!)

2) This off-schedule mailbox has been brought to you by a surprise day off from child care. Dad was home on Wednesday and I got the morning off and was able to get this started (though not finished until Friday night, it seems). All the stuff I said on Monday about doing a major rework the posting schedule still applies, and The Mailbox will no longer be on Fridays after tomorrow's roll out.

Tomorrow I'll do photos of the little calendars I've been drawing. It's epic.

But on to your question, Alexis...

Fifty years ago the reigning school of thought in creative writing was that genius could not be taught and you could either write or you were wasting your time. They would even send crying people out of the classroom. "I'm sorry, but this is crap. You simply have no talent."

Then we learned more about how humans learn and really broke down what makes for good writing. (Plus crying students running out of classes is no way to populate an MFA program!) And we discovered that, lo and behold!, most of the skills that make for good writers are actually learnable and teachable. Of course fifty years ago, everyone wore tweed and liked Marvin Gaye, so I'm pretty sure I'm cool going with modern thought on this one.

Imagine what we'll think fifty years from now.

On the other hand, to say that every writer who has studied writing and written for exactly the same amount of time will produce exactly the same quality of work is absurd. Even accounting for stylistic variations, personal tastes, and the fact that not all writing is equally created for mass appeal, critical acclaim, or artistic integrity, such an assertion would be demonstrably untrue. Some writers take to craft with an extraordinary alacrity. Others (like me) have a vivid imagination but constantly struggle with the words and the language (and in my case, particularly my weakness with proofing my own copy). With the exact same amount of effort some writers will achieve great success and some will struggle to make ends meet–if writing ever pays the bills at all.

What is the X factor there? Could it be something we like to call "talent"? Do we have innate abilities or aptitudes that will simply carry us further and that's all there is to it? Are we like the snobby, tweed wearing, elbow patched professors of yesteryear who think that genius can't be taught?

I shy from the idea of talent is that it is talked about like it is some sort of secret formula that will make someone a good writer and that if one has it, nothing else matters. What really matters is work. If you work hard and write hard and read like you're supposed to and make sure you've got the basics down and are never to good to learn a little something then you will improve. It's that simple and it's VERY predictable. Almost no art can be counted on to have such a predictable and immediate learning curve as writing.

What most people say when they confer the honorific of "talented" on an artist is that the art is good. ("The wickedly talented Adele Dazeem!") They have no idea the years of training and hours of work that have gone into what they're looking at.

The problem is when you conflate these two uses of the word, and suddenly "talent" means you don't have to work.

I've seen writers who don't work every day, don't work every week, don't work consistently every month, barely have one first draft of a manuscript to their name, who have turned in the same short story in four different classes, wring their hands, bite their lower lip, and make impassioned pleas to get a teacher to tell them whether they have "talent" or not. And I mean these motherfuckers stop the whole class with a "Can you just tell me if I have talent?"

Like that's going to matter, you lazy fucking.....okay deep breaths Chris. Deeeeeep breeeeaaaaaaths.

We don't really do this with any other skill. (I mean some people do, but we roll our eyes at them and really don't lend it the credence we do with writing.) No one who doesn't go to practice and misses half the games says with a quivering lip, "Tell me straight coach, do I have what it takes?" No one who began a job last week corners their boss and says, "Am I a prodigy or should I just quit now?" No one who picks up an instrument says to their community center teacher while they're learning their first scales "Can you tell if I'm going to.....make it? Where can I find a manager?"

Because that's fucking absurd. Yet somehow in writing, we forgot about the work part.

The problem is, it's absolutely impossible to know what "talent" might actually be. Maybe in fifty years we can strap babies to MRI's and then follow the ones with the big linguistic centers or something. But right now there is absolutely no way to differentiate it from that which can be taught and learned.

Is it a family that instilled the value of books? Is it parents who used big words when you were growing up so that you not only were precocious, but you actually knew what that meant? Is it the teacher who read your story aloud to the class in first grade and made you want to feel that feeling again and again like your first hit of crack cocaine? Is it the subtle words of encouragement from a mentor to never give up that was the closest thing to a father figure you had? Is it learning the power of the written word as a formative experience by watching an intercepted note make Lisa Kulber cry for lunch? Because if it's those things, there's no real reason you can't start at twenty, or thirty, or sixty.

Or is it all just a genetic advantage in the linguistic centers of the brain, and some amino acid cocktail that adds up to writer juju? Where do the advantages that are truly innate separate from someone who works hard.

Thus, when I say there are things that make Billy-Bob a better creative writers (and there are) like imagination, intelligence, some kind of education, command of language but also linguistic flexibility, empathy, sense of pacing and story, a flare for the dramatic, or a sense of subtext, it is still very difficult to know where Billy-Bob the innate human ends and Billy-Bob the product of his environment begins.

And not to put too cliché a point on it, but if Billy Bob ends up in an MFA program or a published writer, statistically speaking, his intelligence had less to do with it than whether or not he was white.

Imagination can be cultivated by exercising it. Linguistic playfulness is nothing more than a command of language so complete one knows how to break or bend the rules for effect. Pacing and drama come from reading or even watching TV or film. Subtext can be taught. Even empathy isn't impossible to develop. Technically none of us have any of these abilities when we're born. We're all shit stained egomaniacs who couldn't figure out the symbols in an Updike novel. They're all learned skills. Only intelligence is something we're born with, and psychologists are still struggling to figure out what is genetic and what comes from our early childhood experiences.

The nice thing about talent though, is it almost always dovetails rather nicely with interests. If you have a passion, you will probably cultivate the abilities around that passion. Whether it's self selection or subtle reinforcement, you don't get a lot of talentless who really want to do something with all their free time. Tone deaf musicians aren't a pox on the industry because they don't tend to like music with the kind of lifetime dedication that musicians do. (I'm talking about real musicians now, not the deluge on the first couple of episodes of America's Got Talent.) People who have very unmathmatical minds don't burn to be engineers. The number of writers who don't have a pretty good command of the language, or some sense of pacing is usually pretty low*.

Yes, there are people who (for example) do not pick up on subtext at all, but they generally do not have the sort of relationship with fiction that creative writers do and thus don't go on to badly want to be creative writers. They might be more inclined to pursue non-fiction, where other aptitudes like precision of language are valued. But talent and interest usually dovetail.

You just don't end up with a lot of people who have real drive and passion to be writers with absolutely no sense of writer skills*.

*I mean the real writers, not those wanks who never actually write and are sure they're going to get famous one day...and end up directing movies....like Kevin Smith. (Man I really need a more up-to-date pop culture example.) There are a lot of those people, they show up in every art where you can "get big," they are tragically stupid, and what they lack isn't talent, it's a realistic sense of how life works.

What you USUALLY see is not two people who have put in equal effort at vastly different points though. What you usually see is someone using "talent" as a codeword for "shortcut." What you usually see is someone who hasn't put in any effort wanting to get the nod that they will become rich without that decade of struggle that just about every writer has to go through. They want to know what the result will be before they put in all the effort.

This is entirely the wrong question. Not because we all don't want to know if the years of toil are going to be worth it (everyone wants a crystal ball), but because the real question is this:

Would you do it anyway?

That's what really matters. If you're writing for fame or wealth or publication it's never going to be as fulfilling as you think it will be. But the writing will. The writing always will. If you knew today that you would never be published, never make money, never get a book deal, never have a fan.....If you knew that for sure, would that stop you from the simple love for the act of writing itself? Because it's the writing that will change your life.

Now...all that said, there are people who try very, very hard to improve their writing, read voraciously, think creatively, and never seem to pass a point where they get published or maybe aren't publishing more than a couple of stories a year. They succeed, but it is with very limited returns. There may not be anything teachable, cultivatable, or practicable that is holding them back. And perhaps the easiest way to understand what is going on is that they don't have as much talent as the writers of comparable work who have gone on to achieve better things.

There are also writers who eclipse us all. Shakespeare, Faulkner, Morrison, Marquez. No matter how hard we work, none of us will achieve their skill and poise with words. Ever. And it is folly to compare ourselves to them. If we were as gifted as they are we would be wunderkind and already know it.

Most of us fall in the middle somewhere. Our skill will improve with practice.  Our career trajectories will largely be based on how hard we're working. If we make money, it will probably have more to do with the kind of writing we're doing and our willingness to promote than the absolute level of skill.

But you'll never know if you don't put all that work in first, and that's the pisser of it. That's the reason why it's madness to do it if you don't love the shit out of it for its own sake.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

A Big Reminder (And A Little Reminder)

What is the BEST Y.A. series?  

Our "October" poll is no doubt going to run into November, but we should try to get back on track, so we're not running polls into the next month for the next ten years.

We badly need additional nominations for our Best Young Adult Series poll. If we don't get a few more titles (and a lot more seconds) this ship might not sail. 

Please please please please go to the original post so that I don't have to tabulate results from two different places.

The rules are there, as well as the complicated definitions of Y.A. literature and why I'd rather be inclusive with our nominations and not an enforcer.

While you're at it, take a slip down to the lower left side to the long black poll (technically our "September" poll) and vote on the best Y.A. novel. This poll will only be up for another week.

And don't forget that those of you who voted when the poll first came out can now vote again as your I.P. address is logged only for a week.

Monday, October 13, 2014

What Is Going On??

Hello Readers,

It's probably about time to try and share a few of the things that are going in the turbulent maelstrom that is Writing About Writing's writer's brain. The last week we've been off schedule (and have flat-out missed a couple of entries), and I was hoping to have the whole thing gift wrapped up in a tidy little bow by today along with some explanations that would make you all nod sympathetically and say. "There there, Chris. There there. I'm only surprised you held out as long as you did." However, this weekend turned out in many ways to be worse.

I wanted your explanation gift wrapped for you, but it turned out my life (and my brain) was behaving more like this:

But there are people out there supporting Writing About Writing who deserve a lot more than for me to crawl into a shower and cry for another week while I post Youtube videos, so let me try to give you the "work in progress" highlight reel of what is going on just so this next week's ongoing train wreck makes a little more sense.

  • If you have no earthly idea at ALL, remember that my crazy superhero stories are not JUST crazy superhero stories. They are like magical realism–except with superheroes. You might have to learn to metaphor, but the truth is all there. The mailbox a week ago Friday has lead to one of my biggest struggles as a writer, and rearranging my schedule is turning into a nightmare.
  • It turns out that there are generally two struggles when striking back against the sinister specter of Not Enough Time™ and the quest to find time to write. There is the initial struggle to carve out the time, and then there is a secondary campaign to defend that time from incursion.
  • Writers joke (bitterly) about how no one respects their time because they sit in front of a computer and might even be staring out a window, but it is not the random stranger who doesn't get it that frustrates the writer. The closer and more supportive someone is about the idea of writing in general, the more difficult it can be when they think their thing should be a special exception.
  • That thing everyone in the whole fucking universe tells you about how you won't really have free time ever again once you have kids? It's ALL TRUE!! If you somehow do have time, the chances that you will successfully say to your long-term partner "Stop right there, lambikins, I need to use this time to write," and not end up on the working end of a guilt trip, an uncomfortable, or a Soviet-made AK-47 with a top mounted grenade launcher is infinitesimal. 
  • I cannot indefinitely spend every conscious moment writing or cleaning or caring for a baby (or maybe teaching ESL). I love writing, and I can probably do more 80 hour weeks than most people before I burn out as long as 30-40 of those hours are writing, but eventually I will succumb. I have even had trouble lately just finding time to read. And trying to write without reading is....it's like trying to only exhale.
  • The last week or so has led to one of the worst mood crashes since I wrote about my typical artist struggle with depression. I'll spare you an embossed invitation to the particulars of my pity party. There isn't any German chocolate cake left and the bevy of strippers (both genders) totally no-showed so I'm just sitting here binge watching The West Wing with a party popper in my hand.
  • I will share this one story from the pity party: I woke up this morning determined never to eat again (except kale, dry oatmeal, and vitamin supplements, of course) because I'm feeling overweight and unlovable. Then eggs Benedict were (was?) delivered to the house (by loving peeps). I cracked from my kale and shame diet in seconds, and the food was so deliciously wonderful. The universe, it seems, is not without a benevolent–but entirely fucked up–sense of humor.
  • I am working on some changes to the updating schedule of this blog. Not just little changes I often talk here during the new semester or if Unsupportive Girlfriend suddenly changes her schedule at work. (These are changes I usually refer to as "fiddling with the knobs" or "tweaking," and there is a new update schedule posted that no one but me cares about an no one but me follows and no one but me gets upset when I'm behind on.)  The changes coming, however, are actually huge, massive structural changes that I can keep up long term.
  • Tomorrow I have to remind people to vote and nominate in our current polls, but you should expect to see the conclusion to Self Reflection Sucks by this weekend. (Saturday at the latest.)
  • Before the weekend is over, you can expect the unveiling of an entirely different kind of update schedule.
So now you know. This week will probably be a little like the last. But if my calculations are correct, when this blog hits Saturday....you're going to see some serious shit.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Self Reflection Sucks (Part 2)

Continued from Part 1

I couldn't move. My eyes were stuck on the shard of the Mirrorshield.

You're not a real writer. I thought. Forty years old, and you triumphantly hold up your mediocre numbers and dollars a day as some sort of yardstick of success. Weren't you supposed to have a book written by now? No, instead, you barely write fiction at all these days, do you? A few minutes here or there if you can spare it. All on the back burner while you whore yourself for page views. You and your precious process. Your process is,"hang on." Your process is, "don't let the world see what a sham you are." You haven't taken a good look at yourself in years.

I tried to tear my eyes away, but the mirror just kept dragging me deeper and deeper into the self reflection.

"Months, it took me to negotiate with the forces of the underworld to bribe my way out of corporeal death," Warlock said, still whispering in my ear. "And another two to learn all the quirks of this cadaver I'm riding in. Do you have any idea how complicated women's plumbing is? That little brat's parlor trick ruined everything I had going. But the advantage of a year without a body is that it gives you time to plan."

"And oh, how I have planned for this," Warlock said.

"I'm just a sidekick, Warlock," I said. "The worst thing I'll do is write a scathing blog post about you."

"Oh you needn't tell me how useless you are, Chris," Warlock said. "Do you even actually have any powers, or are you literally riding the coattails of your cohort?"

"Literally would mean they were wearing coats you know," I said.

"Um...don't correct me," Warlock said. "It sickens me. Oh and by the way, Mr. Creative Writing major. It's DOCTOR Warlock to you."

"No it's not," I said.

"Yes. It is," she said.

"It's not. You're not a doctor."

"I am. I have a doctorate in occult studies from Penbrook."

"That's not an accredited university!" I said.

"Shut up! It's an honorific."

"Do I look like the kind of person who's going to honor your stupid mail-order degree?"

Warlock's hand darted out and grabbed my arm. A searing pain lanced up my arm and radiated into my chest. I heard a clipped scream, and realized it was my own. I felt like my soul had been scorched–which given Warlock's proclivities, was probably not too far from the truth. I felt my mind almost unhook from the mirror, and my eyes almost return to my control as a result of the agony, but Warlock let go of me an instant before I could tear my gaze away.

Instead I just couldn't escape the horrible reality about who I was, what I'd become, and how neither of those things was a writer. I was some half rate blogger–and that was on a good day.

"Well done, Chris," Warlock said returning her voice to a whisper. "That was quite well done. You very nearly tricked me. But you'll not get away this time. Your soul is mine. And I shall burn it like diaphanous tissue and masturbate to your ethereal screams."

"Well, that was....really graphic," I said. "I guess being dead for nearly a year makes you want to put the necro in necromancy."

"You'll not trick me again, you powerless hack of a writer," Warlock said. "However, I must stay my hand for just a moment. I've promised something to someone who arranged this little meeting of ours."

"Hello again, Chris," ChronoTron said, stepping into my peripheral vision. "Or I suppose the appropriate greeting is, 'We meet again.'"

"Appropriately cliche," I said. "Seriously, no one from the future has original lines?"

"Sarcastic to the last, I see," ChronoTron sighed. "No matter."

If I could just move. If I could just look away from that horrible reflecting mirror that was sucking me deeper and deeper into self doubt.

"Listen....ChronoTron," I said, unable to keep my voice from shaking. "I've been thinking. I have to tell you. I think it's time we saw other enemies. I need some space."

"Are you trying to break up with me as your nemesis?" ChronoTron asked? "Because that's actually pretty funny with you paralyzed, powerless, and suffering from crippling self doubt."

"Yeah," I said, struggling against the inexorable slide into the mirror's reflection. "Well, I just don't tend to have nemeses for very long. Honestly, I get bored. I have trouble committing. It's nothing personal, you're just not as interesting to me anymore." I could see in my peripheral vision that he was setting up the biggest time syphon I had ever seen. If it was to scale with the other weapons he'd used, it would steal all of my time in a single blast.

"You're right," he said, unfolding a tripod. "In a just a moment, you'll no longer be my nemesis."

"Yeah, well, I'd really rather break up with you," I said. "If it's all the same."

"I decided I needed some help from your time in order to defeat you," ChronoTron blathered on, ignoring me. "Fortunately your list of enemies is rather extensive. And one of them had an ace in the hole–a small shard of mirror that makes you realize how small and pathetic and not-a-writer you really are."

I tried to struggle, but I simply couldn't look away from that horrid little shard. I tried not to doubt myself, but they crept in everywhere. I wasn't writing fiction because of the baby. Life was too busy. It wasn't my fault. But then again a real writer would have found the time–found a way. I was a poseur. I didn't even have a book deal.

"Better now than in ten years when we're committed," I said, struggling to no avail. "I just really need to work on myself right now, and I can't be tied down to someone who wants to fight all the time. I'm a sidekick, you know. You deserve someone better. I just don't see a future with you."

ChronoTron laughed. "You know, ironically, you're absolutely right about that." He aimed the syphon. "You'll want to step back Warlock. Not unless you're not doing anything important for the next fifty years."

Warlock took a step away from me, and was immediately replaced with a 57' Chevy blasting Rock You Like A Hurricane.

Technically Warlock wasn't replaced so much as crushed by the 57' Chevy. It slammed down from the sky, trunk first, splattering Warlock's new body all over the pavement, but it was so quick and unexpected that the illusion was almost perfect.

Everyone paused. The only sound was the Scorpions: "My body is burning/ It starts to shout/ Desire is coming/ It breaks out loud." Then the sound of pedestrians screaming and running for cover as they realized supers were having a fight on the street.

A smokey outline of a vaguely human torso, coalesced from under the Chevy oozing out and past my head. "I fucking hate you!" it yelled at me as it puffed away.

That's when Wrecking Ball landed next to the twisted hulk of car, leaving two impact craters where his feet hit the sidewalk.

"Oh," ChronoTron said. "It's you."

"Yep." Wrecking Ball said.

With no further banter, Wrecking Ball swung at ChronoTron, but half a meter from ChronoTron's head, Wrecking Ball's fist slowed to a crawl. ChronoTron gave it an amused look and stepped easily to the side.

"Time dilation field," ChronoTron smirked. "I sort of figured you might show up, so I took a couple of precautions. Your ridiculous strength won't be so useful if it takes your fist thirty seconds to reach me."

"Yeah?" Wrecking Ball asked. "Did you put one on your little machine too?" He punched the time siphon. A glittering explosion of thumbnail-sized debris scattered from his fist, leaving only the smoking tip of the tripod remaining.

"FUCK!" ChronoTron screamed. "Fuck! Fuck! FUCK!  Do you have any idea how long it took to make that?"

"Gee," Wrecking Ball smiled. "I guess now you're really out of time."

ChronoTron pulled a smaller syphon. "Fuck you!  No matter. The old fashioned way will work just fine on immobile boy over there."

"Yeah, I wonder how your time toy works against wrestling moves?" Wrecking Ball said spreading his arms and trying to reach around ChronoTron.

"Fortunately, we don't need to find out," ChronoTron said. "I really did expect you. And the time dilator is only one of the couple of precautions I took."

A sense of foreboding flooded over me. As if struggling with self reflection weren't enough, I now got the distinct impression that something terrible was about to happen. Wrecking Ball dropped his arms to his side and looked around, doubt crossing his features.

"And while I definitely would have liked if Warlock could have at least survived the opening....move," ChronoTron said, "the little mirror she brought has served its purpose, and so has she. So now I think it's time for you to meet my second little bit of insurance."

The shadows around us deepened. The sense of foreboding grew. A breeze caused every goosebump on my body to stand at rigid attention.

"I see you survived our last encounter Wrecking Ball," a silky, androgynous voice said from all around us. "I shall be more...thorough this time." The darkness had grown into a local dusk. Shadows reached out from everywhere towards Wrecking Ball like long, greedy fingers.

Wrecking Ball spun left and right looking for the voice. Fear etched his face. "Chris," he gasped between terrified breaths. "I can't..... I won't be able to....."

The color drained from his face as the first of the long shadows reached him. "It's Harbinger!"