Probably one of the most frustrating audience experiences in the world is when a character doggedly, determinedly does something very stupid. You see a character, say, utterly refusing to listen, or pursuing one goal without ever considering that, hey now, this might not be a bright idea, and it creates a sort of tension in the back of your head, like someone’s taking the lobes back there and slowly twisting them.
Stupidity and mistakes, you see, are things that have to be earned. All character actions must be earned, but stupidity has to be earned even more, I think – because it is the mistakes characters make, and their lack of foresight, that often drives forward great stories. Think of Greek tragedies, or Shakespeare, in which one character’s ignorance of the actions of another results in terrific, tragic ironies. Poorly done, these may feel like either contrivance, or something out-of-character.
Because these ignorances and actions (or lack of them) have to exist for a reason. And when there isn’t a very good reason there, it drives the audience nuts – because they can just see the resolution there, right in the open, but the character says, “NO, I WILL CONTINUE IGNORING EVERYTHING AND DO THE DUMB THING,” and it’s worse than in a horror movie when you can see the killer sneaking up on someone.
There are two shows that recently became first-rate offenders of unearned stupidity on behalf of plot. The first premiered its fourth season last night, and it showed no signs of fixing the issues that have become painfully obvious from season two: Downton Abbey.
I’ll summarize the example I witnessed last night (spoilers for anyone who cares):
The Lord of the estate, Grantham, previously had to share power with Matthew Crawley, the estate’s heir. Matthew has died, and now his half of the power could go to his wife, Grantham’s daughter, Mary. Mary is in mourning, and no less than three characters continue to speak up and say, “Managing the estate could make her happy!” But Grantham insists on not involving her, because she is fragile and in mourning, etc.
Now, this could be a functional conflict. For example, this could be a point where we explore Grantham as a product of repressed patriarchy – “I do not wish to share power with a woman, even if she is my daughter.” Why not? Well, the series has always been terribly wishy washy about criticizing the elite: if anything, every damn rich person on this show is secretly a big ol’ sweetheart and is only employing servants out of what is apparently a sense of charity. So Lord Grantham, who has previously been sort of a hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold-I’m-only-involved-in-this-corrupt-system-to-help-people kind of guy, can’t about face and suddenly be a rich shit scrabbling to control everything. Even if that’s a perfectly reasonable thing to do.
(This presumes Grantham’s character has been solid and stable for the past three seasons. It has not, however – another frustration. You can’t get involved in a character unless you can reasonably expect what they’ll do.)
Another way this story could work would be if Grantham were actually concerned about Mary, growing neurotically protective about shielding his child after such a devastating loss. There’s drama to be mined there. But it appears to nearly everyone that he’s mostly concerned with running the estate: Mary is the least of his concerns. This makes him out to be sort of a wincing, passive-aggressive turd, someone who isn’t strong enough to grab power and say, “MINE!” but also isn’t willing to give up power. He’s making a lot of noise, but he’s not doing anything. And he’s also not actually giving a crap about his incredibly depressed daughter, which is just hunky dory.
On top of all this, the show hugely prolongs this stupid conflict. Grantham seems to have an endless line of advisors telling him to get Mary involved, and he says almost the exact same line to each of them: “No, very fragile, must leave alone, thanks.” The damn thing goes on forever. This is something that could be sorted out with just a conversation, it feels: 4 minutes of show time at most.
It eventually begins to feel that he is opposing her solely to oppose her: which is exactly what the writers are doing. Grantham is not a person in this scenario: he operates solely as an obstacle to Mary’s arc. He’s a device, he’s not a person. He’s just a thing that unreasonably stirs up conflict for the sake of doing so. These sorts of problems riddle this show’s writing, where conflict is spun on and on and on and it feels like if everyone was just a reasonable person, this show would take place within about 16 minutes, rather than nine 1-hour episodes (or whatever it is).
Let’s look at another show very much on the other end of the TV spectrum: The Legend of Korra.
This is, of course, the sequel series to Avatar: The Last Airbender, and while everyone knew that it was likely Korra would suffer to a certain extent in the shadow of what was a universally acclaimed, incredibly beloved series, I don’t think anyone thought it would devolve into the steaming bucket of dreck that it did.
There are a bunch of issues with this show, among them that there isn’t a sustained conflict like Avatar had, and that there are no real stakes or threats for the main character, Korra: each season, a new Big Huge Problem has to be invented, and the show must contrive to get some of Korra’s skin in the game, beyond just the, “Well, I’m the avatar, it’s my job to give a crap about this kind of stuff.” This is neither satisfying, nor compelling.
But the big issue that makes this show so frustrating to watch is that everyone’s an irredeemable idiot. For example: Korra’s homeland gets invaded. She goes to the President (someone we’d never seen before) for help, and he refuses. So what does she do? She goes to the general directly underneath the President and asks him to basically commit treason, and go off and wage a war with her. And he agrees. As if to say, “Sure, I wasn’t doing anything today, let’s go kill some people and start an international conflict!”
This is dumb. Unimaginably dumb. Just, incredibly dumb. And they get caught, and rather than having them both shot – as most leaders might do – the President just gives them a stern talkin’-to. So not only was this dumb, but it was also pointless. One gets the impression that, like Downton Abbey, the writers grew aware of how much time they had to fill, and decided that the easiest way to do so was to fill it with very dumb characters prolonging non-issues.
But let’s also look at another example in this show, where Chief of Police Lin Beifong – possibly the best character from season 1, and a distinct influence on City of Stairs - is presented with some evidence from one of her detectives, a main character, about a public attack in the city. What does she do? Does she investigate? Does she follow up on his leads? Does she listen to him for more than 9 seconds? Absolutely not. She just shuts him down, calls him a rookie, and refuses to listen about what is quite obviously The Real Plot in this storyline.
This is outrageously frustrating to watch, because previously she had been a highly competent character. BUT, in this situation, she can’t be, because then she would see the problem and fix it – and for the plot to continue, the detective needs to “go rogue” and do some old-school investigatin’, which the show apparently deems much more interesting. So Beifong must be an idiot this season for that plotline to happen.
So there you are. A handful of examples of what is, for the audience, one of the most egregious types of Bad Writing.
Now, this is actually much easier to do in writing than one would imagine. I’ve done it myself, when I write a synopsis, and then months later when I’m way down in the guts of writing the story, I go back and check the synopsis/outline and think, “I need to make this thing I said was gonna happen actually happen.” And so I force it, and this results in some very out-of-character moments that just don’t make sense.
It is, for me, a very inorganic and bad way to write, and it always results in someone who ordinarily would be smart enough to do The Smart Thing suddenly having to do The Dumb Thing in order to Make The Plot Go.
In the end, I usually have to go back and completely restructure the plot, because a plot is a living thing that gets dictated by the evolution of the characters. If you want your characters to live and breathe, then the plot must also do so. Is this easy to do? No, not really. But it’s necessary if you want to avoid having the audience members slap their heads in unison as they watch your characters fumble around like a bunch of damn loons.
I might have some pretty big news to announce sometime soon, but for now I thought I’d talk a little bit about a subject that’s bothered me for a long time.
Creativity is usually thought of as being inherently mysterious. This is chiefly because creativity is usually experienced from the audience’s perspective: you are not seeing the process, you’re seeing the product, which, if successful, is engrossing and communicative in all kinds of exciting, thought provoking ways.
Since (I’m gonna go ahead and trot out the a-word) art does stuff to you in such weird, unseen ways, people assume its creation occurs in a similar manner: art is made in a mystic, impenetrable series of suggestions and obfuscations leading up to, I don’t know, something akin to revelation for the artist, which the artist then shares with the audience. Every act of creation, one might imagine, is an epic journey, one dedicated prophet scaling the mountain to capture a few licks of fire in their hands.
Because of this assumption, people usually chock up any success in art to talent, which is as inexplicable and arbitrary as they imagine creation to be: “It’s just something that person is good at,” they might say. “They have a natural ability. Their brains have antennae that receive signals the rest of us don’t even know are there.” What is unspoken is, “These people are chosen to do this. It’s a gift.”
This is crap.
I personally know that though talent is indeed real, its participation in the final product is often much, much, much more minimal than most people seem to think.
When I was in high school, I was setting up myself to eventually one day be a professional classical violist. For those that don’t know, a viola looks like a violin, but is really more akin to the cello. It is usually relegated to a supporting function in any given performance, possibly because it’s a little harder to make a viola sound nice; more so than a violin or a cello, at least, which musicians seem to agree have designs that make it easier to create prettified music.
I was pretty good at the viola. I placed in a lot of competitions. I was always first chair in my orchestra, and when I played for chair placement in competitions, I usually got second to fourth or fifth chair. (Rarely first. More on that in a bit.) This was for two reasons:
1. The viola was a lot less competitive than other instruments. Kids prefer the spotlight, which the viola rarely gets. So that made it easier.
2. I was pretty talented at music.
The way I know I was pretty talented at music was that I could intuitively feel the way the music was going and the way it wanted to be played. I knew the beats, I knew the flow, I knew when a note was sharp or flat, and once I heard a piece two or three times I could probably play the melody back to you with only a couple mistakes. Given a few minutes, I could probably play most of it acceptably well. I played piano as a kid too, and I still recall picking out tunes on the piano from the far more complicated symphonic works I was practicing on the viola, much to the irritation of my teachers.
Most kids couldn’t do this. Some kids could do it better. But on the most part, I was one of only a handful of kids who could sightread and mimic music without working too hard at it.
But as stated above, I almost never got first place when I competed. I usually got beat, often by a handful of the same girls, year after year.
Why? Well, just because I was talented at music, it didn’t mean I had an overwhelming passion for it.
I know that now. Because now I know how I write.
When I’m working on a book, it’s like only a third or less of my brain is functioning at any point in time. It becomes very hard to focus on my day-to-day life: I find myself getting into the car with my family with absolutely no idea where I’m going or what’s happening. I never have any idea what’s happening later in the week, or the month, or even that day. When I go to sleep, I’m thinking about the story, and when I wake up and shower, I’m thinking about the story. Often I randomly open up the story and scan pieces of it to make sure it’s okay. I email myself notes about it in mid-conversation, to the infuriation of everyone around me. I’ll randomly think of an error or a problem in the story – “Shit, I said these guys were tri-lingual at the start and later I say all foreign languages were phased out hundreds of years ago!” – and I’ll have to fix it right now, right now! And if someone mentions a problem with the story, it’ll bother me until I fix it, making it hard to think about anything else.
I didn’t do any of that kind of shit when I played viola. I wanted what I played to sound good, but it didn’t really bother me if it didn’t. I didn’t obsess over it. And I definitely didn’t work at it. Rather, I coasted, winning acclaim from the lower tiers but never really trying to make my way at any higher levels, because I think, perhaps subconsciously, I knew that this wasn’t something I especially wanted to do with my life. I liked people telling me I was great – who doesn’t, especially at sixteen? – but I had no ambition to build on that.
So when it actually mattered, I got my ass kicked. Because there were kids out there who felt the total opposite: music obsessed and bothered them on a preternatural level. They went to bed and woke up thinking about music. They learned other instruments so that they could learn more about their original instrument, exploring the differences and similarities. They spent hours and hours and hours in the practice room – something I personally dreaded and hated. And on the buses to and from performances, they’d sit there and read scores, full orchestral scores, as if they were books. They couldn’t imagine not doing this.
So I was a kid who had talent but possessed no particular desire or drive to do more with it. As such, I eventually did not do much with it: in college, I switched my major to English and started thinking about writing. And that made me pretty happy.
Talent, y’see, is maybe 5% of what makes the creative process. The rest of it, as I can personally attest, is gristle and tedious bullshit: it’s trying, trying, trying, trying, trying, trying and trying again. It’s work. It’s hugely imperfect. It’s ugly as hell. It is frustrating and, frequently, stupid. And ideally it’s a far cry from the finished work, because odds are behind any good work is an ocean of blood, sweat, and tears. (For me, it’s work to the degree that I don’t dedicate my books to anyone anymore, because I don’t wish to mentally associate my loved ones with something that might’ve beaten the shit out of me, or bothered the hell out of them as I worked on it. Would a miner dedicate a particularly good chunk of a coal to his mother?)
The difference is who’s willing to do the work. Talent can make some difference. A talented person who works will probably find success slightly easier to obtain than a person with less talent who works.
However, a talented person who does not work will always, always, always find less success and less reward than a less talented person who does work. A person who works, who really, really works, can teach themselves things that easily make talent a moot point.
There’s a choice implicit the creative process – “Are you really going to work at this?” – and no one is really chosen or given a special gift to succeed.
This made me think, in this order:
1. “Oh, awesome!”
2. “They must mean best books so far in the year. Not the year’s best books.”
3. “Hm, no, they mean best books of the year. That means…”
4. “Oh my god. It’s November. It’s November!“
Let’s skip back in time to 2004.
I was 20 years old, and I was thinking that, given my recent survey of graduate school, it sure would be more fun to be a shitty, impoverished, drunken genre writer rather than a shitty, impoverished, drunken graduate student. So I was writing my first attempt at a novel, unaware that it would be, in its final form, a good 470,000 words, a massive, ridiculous, terrible, blimp of a story whose length and density would make the Simarillion blush and cause the monocle to fall from the Bible’s eye and into its tea.
I was writing in the library at my college campus, and I knew exactly what I was doing with the story. I must have been doing it right, of course, because I was just slathering on words left and right, as disciplined and thoughtful with my prose as a six year old is with icing. But then I got to one point in the story – a really big, really important part – and the words just… stopped.
The entire book – by then a hefty 130,000 words, probably – froze cold.
Was this writer’s block? No. I knew what was supposed to happen next. I knew how the book was supposed to end. I knew what would happen to all the characters. And I thought I knew who all the characters were.
The problem was that, in this Big, Really Important Part, the protagonist encountered a character unlike any other in the book so far, a foreign, alien, incomprehensible being that I suddenly discovered I had no idea how to write.
Was it some fantastical entity? A Lovecraftian horror? Some tortuous, unfathomable monster?
No. It was a woman.
* * *
Let’s go ahead and walk this back a bit.
I’ll go out on a limb and say that I didn’t make the most of my college career. I’m not talking about grades (those I did pretty good on) and I’m not talking about partying (I remember about 15% of weekends post-junior year), I’m talking about socializing and figuring out how to be a real human being, cross-pollinating with the vast menagerie that is human existence, gaining perspective and learning how to communicate with – and be responsible to – other people in your life.
That stuff I wasn’t so hot at, and I didn’t take advantage of my time in school to get any better at it.
So this isn’t to say that I just sucked at understanding girls. I was bad at a lot of things. But that was definitely one of them. I had some valid reasons (I had a speech impediment I was working to get out from under) and some that weren’t valid at all (I was a solipsist little idiot), but the fact of the matter remains that, in my head, I had been chugging along quite merrily for what, if I’m lucky, was about a quarter of my life thinking of 50% of my own species to be Other.
I didn’t realize it at the time, of course. That moment when I was writing, when I suddenly found the excessive gush of words dwindling to a sputtering drip, that was likely the first inkling I had that I was hurtling through life sporting a massive blindspot. I didn’t really understand what I was experiencing, but I think that, in some unspoken, anxious way, I knew something was wrong.
Sometimes I think I might be an anomaly. This isn’t normal, right? This was just a unique set of circumstances, right?
Then I take a look at other male writers whose writing is pilloried for having ridiculous female characters, and I think – Naaaaah.
I’m the perfect example. I was every one of these dudes.
* * *
How did this happen? Well. There were probably countless ways my experience of the world was carefully walled off from females, some of them my own doing, some of them not.
Except for my mom, we were an all-boys house. On my mom’s side of the family, everyone had boys, about 15 of them total. I recall very, very few girls to play with when I was little, but for a long time we lived out in the country. When I was 10 we moved to my first large city, and I recall being flummoxed by this overwhelming presence of girls in domestic scenarios: they were just living across the street from us, right over there!
Despite this, I remember a distinct feeling of inaccessibility, as if there were invisible dividers between me and them. I was an avid TV watcher, and I watched hours of Friends and other female-friendly shows with an almost scientific eye, trying to discern exactly what the hell was going on in there, what made these social interactions so natural – how were they just, y’know, talking? That never happened to me. I never just, like, talked to them. How did this occur, and why? I never figured it out.
But I did good in school. I did all right, really.
How weird it is that I was able to sail through high school and even college without genuinely befriending a single female. How strange it feels that I could be successful at anything without needing to socialize with them in any genuine manner, without making them a part of my life, social or professional or what have you.
I was never asked, I feel like, to consider them an equal, a peer. It certainly never occurred to me to do so.
I wonder, now, if this is nature or environment – does society sort us into separate groups, and encourage us to do Girl Things and Boy Things? I ask because I watch my son, now two and a half, innately gravitate toward superheroes and trucks and smashing and bashing and yelling and roaring and jumping from high places, all very Boy things, without any real encouragement from me. I don’t tell him to love Superman for his smashing and crushing abilities (he has still not gleaned any of Superman’s sanguine pacifism), yet he does.
Are we hardwired for this? Are we programmed to be different, and does this difference mean we will not understand other humans in the most fundamental of ways?
What a depressing thought.
* * *
The real issue is, there are a lot of professions and manners of living in contemporary society where this is completely functional and sustainable. There are just tons and tons and tons of ways for me to live in this world without engaging women in any manner, without giving six hot wet shits about them, without understanding them or even trying to.
Because, let’s face it, I’m a guy, and in any professional environment, odds are that I’m going to walk through the door and on the other side is gonna be another guy. And because we’re both guys, that fundamentally shapes the nature of our exchange: it dictates what we say and how we do work and how we relate to one another. An all-male environment, even if it’s in groups of twos and threes and fours, is its own environment with its own laws and rules and mannerisms. And women have nothing to do with it, except in the most perfunctory and peripheral of ways, IE, Something For Guys To Talk About.
So there are many careers where I could just keep going and live like this and be probably pretty successful.
Writing isn’t one of them, though.
Hence why 20-year-old-me, to his utter bafflement, found his novel grinding to a halt. And I was really, really surprised by it.
* * *
Why? Well, because I’d been told I was a good writer.
It’s true, I’m not bragging. I’d been told in a variety of places that I could string a word or two together in a pleasing fashion. My teachers told me. And online, when I wrote for forums or commented on things, a lot of people said I was really good at it.
So I couldn’t be the problem. I already knew that I was good! I’d been put through the Focus Group of the Internet, and come out with a thumbs up! And the Focus Group of the Internet is an objective and impartial judge, right?
The internet, for the SFF-inclined, is like a certain political party that found itself totally flummoxed to understand why its candidate had been defeated despite having heard for about six months that a victory would be certain: it’s an echo chamber. It’s being told that you’re absolutely right by people who believe and do the same things you do. It’s white dudes who like video games reading stuff written by white dudes who like video games for white dudes who like video games*.
The problem with writing is that, if you’re doing it right – if you’re trying to use writing to understand yourself and more and more of the world – eventually you have to understand that your version of The Whole World is actually probably about .0000000000076% of the actual real world.
That’s something to remember: you’re always in the minority, to some degree. Even if you feel like you’re the majority, in reality, you’re almost certainly not. There is no plurality in the world, there is no Everyperson, there is no Default Mode to being alive: the second you draw breath you are, in some manner, cordoned off into a very specific method of existence, and odds are you will spend your life struggling to understand all the others.
And that’s what writers do. Or, at least, they’re supposed to. I sure as hell didn’t, in my first shitty book.
I struggle, now, to list the various crimes my first novel committed:
It did not fail the Bechdel Test so much as fall to its knees before the test and clumsily commit seppuku.
It had one female character.
She was, in a metaphysical way, kept in a box.
The drive of her character was that she really liked and wished to support the protagonist, a man. He was actually probably the only character she interacted with in the whole of the story.
And she died in the end, sacrificing herself for him, and he found himself healed by her sacrifice, finally whole while she was utterly destroyed.
* * *
What prompts this piece, this weirdo and probably significantly pathetic confessional, is a post from John Hodgman’s tumblr, where he quotes Junot Diaz in a speech about how hard it is to teach boys to write girls.
I’ve seen some skeptical reactions to it – Surely this is an exaggeration! – but I look back on 20 year old RJB and I can confirm that, nope, this is no exaggeration. Boys today can blossom and progress and learn to put together prose in a pretty satisfactory manner without ever understanding what the everliving hell is going on in the minds of half the population.
The lesson some take away from Junot Diaz’s speech is, “Dudes suck,” and this inspires a lot of defensive caterwauling, a mass venting of bruised egos. Many assume Junot Diaz is a woman (he isn’t) or assume he’s some shitty, unknown writer (he won the Pulitzer Prize), or they assume that he is actively blaming them, telling them they are Bad, that they are Bad People and they should feel bad**.
He isn’t. He’s saying that you live in a place and a time where, if you’re a guy, your ignorance can run wild and no one will call you on it.
And if you’re a guy, hearing that should anger you.
Because he’s saying that you have had walls built around you, that you have bricked yourself off from the world and been told that it’s okay, that you have been denied knowledge of what so many other people think and feel and do. You have a huge advantage in this world, being a guy, but because of this advantage, there is so much you are blind to, so much you’re actively encouraged not to know or understand. You’re allowed to stagnate and decay and just rot.
And even moreso, you’ve been trained to actually fight being allowed to pull down the very walls you build around yourself! You’ve been taught not just to drink your poison, but to love it! You’ve been programmed, in some ways, not only to harm yourself, but to hate anyone who tries to stop you!
What a con game, right? We’ve been cheated and we didn’t even know it. Sure, we get the privilege, but the cost is one hell of a lot of ignorance, ignorance to the extent that you’re hardly even aware that you’re privileged.
What a con game. And so often we’re the ones conning ourselves, or allowing ourselves to be conned.
* * *
Here’s what this all boils down to:
You use a lot of muscles when you write, and learning to write means training all those muscles to be responsive, strong, sensitive, and coordinated.
One of the biggest muscles in there, in that vast network of fibers and tendons that make up the Writing System, is Empathy – the ability to understand other people who are, arguably, not like you at all.
This muscle is quite hard to develop. It’s not like plot, which in some ways is a bicep – elementary to develop, and showy – it’s more like one of the weirdo muscles in your back, like the trapezius, one of the interstitial pieces of muscle that you forget is there but basically dictates whether or not your whole arm works.
If your empathy muscle isn’t strong, you don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of writing a good character, because you won’t understand how all humans – men, women, homo sapiens in general – work.
The empathy muscle of a dude isn’t inherently weak. It’s allowed to be weak. It’s encouraged to atrophy. It’s like abs in baseball – how many home run kings have kind of saggy guts? Do they need to have a washboard stomach to pound out home runs? No. In this same manner, guys are encouraged not to waste time on empathy: it is not integral to the game they’re assumed to be playing.
But that doesn’t mean that it can’t be strengthened. It just takes work, and humility, and a lot of patience.
* * *
That story of my first shitty book took place about 10 years ago. I’ve written 10 books since, 4 of which have been published, 1 of which is about to be published, all of which, I feel, are very different. I’ve also gotten married and had a kid and gotten a job in a profession in which the male gender is in the minority. So things have changed a lot, and I sometimes wish to categorize my adolescent inability to write women as a newbie writing mistake, much like splitting infinitives or copying Star Wars.
I’d do that if I thought that this newbie writing mistake didn’t articulate a larger issue. I’d do that if I didn’t think tons of other young male authors out there may likely do the same thing I did – and might get that mistake published, and might even get acclaim, in certain circles, while finding condemnation from others.
I’d say this was just an ol’ fashioned writing problem if I didn’t think this was perpetuating some bigass problems going on today. But unfortunately, that’s exactly what I think.
I’m not sure if I’m good at writing women. I’ve talked about it before, and to be frank I’m not comfortable saying I’m good at writing any “type” of person at all, because in essence that’s a claim that I understand people, and I’m not sure I do.
Really, I’m not sure if anything I do is successful – to me, writing is like operating an animatronic show from a small room with a lot of gears and levers and no screens: I can hear the oohs and aahs from the audience occasionally, but I have no idea what the performance looks like.
But I appreciate that writing has taught me where I’m weak. I appreciate that it’s taught me where I’m blind and ignorant. And at the end of the day, I’m happy I picked this profession to toil at, even if it’s for that reason alone.
*I wonder if the issue is just a symptom of “you write what you read.” You regurgitate the narrative elements you consume. And I look back on the books, TV shows, and movies I watched as a kid, and I wonder – were any of the female characters interesting? Maybe I didn’t know how to write a good female character because I’d read so few of them.
**Some also believe he is saying that women are better by default. I disagree. I believe he’s saying women are better because they’re forced to condition themselves to be better. That doesn’t make them all good, however – there are plenty of awful women writers out there who can’t write a character to save their lives. It’s just the odds are that women will be better at writing many more different types of character than men will be.
My own dumbass opinions.
But seriously, I wouldn’t weigh into a conversation unless I felt like I had something good to say, and this is something I pretty devoutly believe in regards to the way I interact with my audience:
Basically, I try not to.
Well, that’s not totally true. I have this blog, and I have a twitter feed, and I do interviews and, in a very fundamental way, writing something is a very direct way of interacting with an audience.
But what I seriously, fervently believe is that the reading experience is a profoundly individualistic, private, and hermetic experience: it is not a relationship between writer and reader, but rather a relationship between reader and text – or perhaps the text is a lens or mirror through which the reader views and forms a relationship with themselves.
So while I have some problems with the piece that started this fans vs. creators debate, I generally agree that the worst thing I can do, as a writer, is intrude, elbowing my way into that very private and very delicate reading experience, and muddying up something that, ideally, is terribly pure.
I did this for you, for you to read. I didn’t do this for me. And when you discuss something I made, what you are discussing is what you read, but not - and I really cannot stress this enough – it is not what I wrote.
Though illogical, I have found this is quite true.
For example, there was one instance where I was at an event and a reader told me in great detail about a scene I had written that she loved, going on and on about the various aspects – and all I could think is, “What the hell is she talking about? I don’t remember writing that…”
I had, of course. But she had read it in a manner so inconceivable to me – not bad inconceivable, just something I wouldn’t had thought of – that upon recounting it, it sounded like a totally different book.
The reading experience is 70% work done by the reader, not the writer, and when you bring your own perspective and state of mind to my stuff, you are by default changing it – giving it nuance, color, beauties, associations, problems, and conundrums I could never hope to. The human mind is a wonderfully, tantalizingly strange thing, and it is endlessly more complicated than any book could ever be. My job is to give you fuel, and get out of your way.
So I don’t want to be included in discussions of my work. Ideally, my opinion is moot, irrelevant. I cannot tell you if your opinion of me or what I wrote was wrong, even if I feel it obviously, obviously is: what you read is what you read, and I shouldn’t have any say in that.
People think writers have power, but ideally, I think it’s quite the opposite, or should be. We aren’t even part of the equation. What you read is infinitely more powerful than what I wrote.
(Writers should know this. We’ve all been in critique groups where someone – maybe us, ourselves – tries to tell a critic that, “Well, I know you thought you saw a problem here, but what you didn’t get was that I was trying to do blah blah blahditty blah blah. So everything you thought I did wrong was actually totally, completely right!” And what needs to be said then is, “Whatever you were trying, I didn’t know about it, and this did not work for me.” And that should be that.)
In addition, having the writer in the room while their work is being discussed is super uncomfortable. I liken it to parents tagging along on their child’s honeymoon, and sharing a bed in the same room: they did their part, now they need to get the hell away. When they had a panel on American Elsewhere at Readercon, I was relieved that I couldn’t attend. I wouldn’t want to even be near that, let alone in the same room. I’d have spent my time sweating in the bar.
This is my own personal take, my own policy. Others may disagree: today, when fervent communities can form in any niche, and access is more or less boundless, some audiences might want to be deeply, intimately involved with the writers and creators they adore. They might even want to see give and take in the actual text, in what the creator creates, art and artist formed by the will of the audience.
Me? That creeps the everliving shit out of me, and I’d never want to have such a weirdo cult of personality, but hey, different strokes for different folks. One of the things I like about my twitter feed is that it actually denies access: it’s purely ridiculous jokes, most very stupid, so those looking to glean insight into my creative process will probably be stonewalled. Someone pointed out that I was, in a way, fondly trolling my own fans with my twitter feed – and while that’s not totally right, it’s not completely wrong, either.
Some might say that a work can be improved by knowing the author, that an author’s story or attitude can make the work better, but that doesn’t make much sense to me. It sounds like prejudice, like assuming my mom’s opinion of my work would be unbiased. And moreso, what if I were to die? What if there wasn’t any “me” to know? Would my writing lose power because I wasn’t there? If so, it must not have been very good writing in the first place.
I want you to like my book because of what it was, not because of who I am. And if I thought readers were reading me only because they “knew” me or liked me, rather than because I wrote a good book, I’d probably be severely depressed.
I consider myself a very reluctant participant in the inevitable publicity game, and sometimes when I’m getting ready in the morning, with last night’s sleep still hanging on my back, I wistfully fantasize about being successful enough where I can be a total recluse, and no longer have to opt into a program where I, Robert The Writer, Robert The Total Stranger, am put on display to pitch and sell a book – a work not intended for me, meant for relationship I will never be a part of, nor should I be.
I’m turning 30 next year. I was 16 when the towers fell, so I’ve spent about half my life living in the shadow of their absence. As such, it’s a little hard for me to get perspective on how things were before, because sometimes I can’t tell if I’m being nostalgic, or if things were genuinely different.
But I read a lot of books and watch a lot of movies and TV, because to do what I do I sort of have to act as a sponge for narratives and devices of all kind, and slowly I’ve felt something accumulating inside me, a sedimentation at the back of my head. And I frequently wonder if this isn’t just in my head but inside of everyone’s, or perhaps the larger generational mind, a tumor growing in the zeitgeist – or maybe it is the zeitgeist itself, I’m not sure.
For a brief moment after 9/11, pure, basic, unadultered good versus evil stories prevailed, fantastical tales where the bad guys were ugly and wore black, and the good guys were colorful and obviously kind. Hence why The Lord of the Rings made it onto every Oscar ballot in numerous categories, and swept them in 2003, despite being (as I have found upon rewatch), pretty cheesy and not completely solid movies, in any sense.
But as the years passed, and as we as a global community tried to fix the various world wrongs that became so blatantly apparent 12 years ago, we started to reject that narrative. It didn’t work for us. It was like we’d opened ourselves up and tried to put an organ inside ourselves that just didn’t belong there, and we fell to our knees and vomited it up.
We found we needed something different instead. And when we figured out what that thing was, we flocked to it.
It’s tough for me to think of a movie that’s more seeped in the taint of 9/11 than The Dark Knight. I saw it 6 times in the theater when it came out, but I feel increasingly ambivalent about the movie as I get more distance on it: I dislike its unearned tragedy, its forced misanthropy, the way its main characters feel like passive ragdolls being buffeted by an overpowering wind. I dislike its cold, abstracted, distant city, bereft of plant life and goodwill, full of shadows and suspicion. I dislike the movie’s helplessness, and the way the movie’s environment feels seeded with inexplicable explosives and violence and pain.
And I dislike how the movie, in some fashion, rejects heroics: the average people of this movie genuinely hate and fear the protagonist, who voluntarily collects more and more of this rejection as the movie goes on, unilaterally doing what he feels is right even though throngs of civilians scream at him to stop. The antagonist they accept, maybe even understand: their position is not, “Everyone must do whatever they can to find and stop this monster,” but rather, “There is a monster among us, yes, but why must you provoke him?”
They say this as if this monster and this hurt and this violence was always there, always will be there, and they just have to learn to live alongside it. The movie never really questions the monster: he is what he is. He is an thing, a force, not a person, and thus is eternal, and ever-present. And at the end, when the film limply tries to suggest that the monster may be wrong, the feeling one gets is that the film is not trying to convince the audience but is rather trying to convince itself – and failing.
It’s this sense of inevitable destruction, this floating paranoia and devout belief that disaster and massive, massive wrongdoing is unavoidable, that I think increasingly defines my generation, if not the world. It’s been 12 years since 9/11, and a horrific war rages on in the Middle East, and we’ve more or less retreated from most of the heroic postures we struck there less than a decade ago. It’s been 5 years since the financial crisis, and everyone who was responsible for it not only got away with it, but actively profited from it, punishing civilians while the authorities looked on, either helpless or attempting to assume the image of helplessness. And it’s been less than a year since we discovered that, yeah, actually, the government is recording every single thing you do. We haven’t yet experienced the consequences of this, not fully, but we all seem to agree that we will.
Today, the must-see TV event of the season is a show about a man whose inevitable death causes incredible, unimaginable suffering and hurt. We have watched this show for several seasons, knowing he would die, knowing that all the preventative measures he took would be repaid in pain. And what’s made this show so watchable is the feeling that everything is on the line, that anyone could die for any reason, however coincidental or pathetic: some of us watch convinced that most of the main characters and even ancillary characters will die, and the only question is whether the protagonist’s infant daughter will survive.
In our hearts, we feel the fates and furies watch us closely, and they have no talent for mercy.
This isn’t the only example of a narrative that captures – and perhaps exploits – this free-floating sense of dread. But why do we expose ourselves to such pain? Why is this, of all things, our entertainment? Why do we subject ourselves to narratives whose sole purpose seems sometimes to punish us?
Is it because, perhaps, we wish to experience all the ills of the world indirectly? Do we believe we are headed for inevitable destruction, and we wish to glimpse it first to ready ourselves for this end, like a person plummeting to their death, peeping through their fingers at the cement reaching up to them? Is this who we are now?
I remember when I went to Washington D.C. last year, and was walking the city at night, and I was trying to find the White House. I was coming from the Lincoln Memorial, and I got a bit mixed up, and wound up approaching the White House from the wrong side: I came to the backyard rather than the front, in other words.
The backyard of the White House features a wrought-iron fence and heavy shrubbery, so I had to walk a few feet to peer through to actually see the house. And when I did, I saw I wasn’t alone: there were two men in uniform standing in the darkness, among the leaves, and they were watching me very carefully, and somewhere in the shadows I saw the glint of assault rifles and combat gear.
That is the image I remember so clearly: the brilliant white house lit up many yards away, and there, in front of me, the black fence, the dark leaves, and the shadowed soldiers watching me, fingers near their triggers.
I walked away. I felt disturbed. But not, I think, as disturbed as I should have felt.
When we left the city, my boss, an older gentleman, remarked with an air of dismay that the city had changed so much. “When I was here, in the 60s and 70s,” he told me, “you could go anywhere, and no one would stop you. Everything was open.”
I found I couldn’t understand what he meant. The idea was inconceivable. Because while the armed guards had definitely threatened me, it never occurred to me that they could not be there. They had to be there, didn’t they? Didn’t they have to be there for what was coming, whatever that might be?
They call us Generation Y, but perhaps a more fitting title would be Generation Dread.