Drinking from the Firehose

Posted: January 3, 2012 in Uncategorized
Tags: ,

I’ve been thinking about something for a while, and maybe you guys would be interested in hearing my ideas about it.

A while back, over last summer, I wrote a story called “The Girl in the Junkyard”. It was a story about a teenage girl who lived in a massive junkyard outside a future city. She was essentially living as a hunter-gatherer in a post-industrial wasteland, fighting for survival every day. In it, bad things happened. I’m not going to say exactly what, but it was really dark.

I showed this story to a few friends. One of them was my roommate freshman year. Eventually I talked with him about the story, and he said something that I hadn’t thought about before.

“I liked the fact that you wrote about people who society tends to forget,” he said. “It was an interesting idea for a story.”

“Huh,” I said. I paused, and thought about it. “I hadn’t thought about it that way.”

“Your story wasn’t a critique of modern life?” he asked. “Because I thought that you had a pretty important message there.”

“Nope,” I replied. “In fact, I didn’t really have a message with that story.”

“Then why did you write it?” he asked.

This gave me pause for a second. To be honest, I was a little surprised at the idea that I needed a reason to write a story. Why couldn’t the story itself be the reason I wrote it?

Why did I write that story in the first place? For that matter, why do I write at all?

And then I realized something about how most non-writers think about writing. And I understood why my friend had thought that I had a message in the story.

When we take English classes in high school, we read works that have already been pre-judged as “great”. This is why we read books by writers like Hawthorne and Twain, Fitzgerald and Hemingway: a massive category of people who I call the DWAMs: dead white American males. (Okay, fine, we also read Shakespeare, and occasionally we read a book by a black man or a Mexican woman, but really most students learn about gringos in their English classes.) When we read a “great” book, we tend to analyze it based on “themes”. We learn about how the major theme of To Kill a Mockingbird is racism, how The Crucible is about the anti-Communist witchhunts of the fifties.

So a non-writer, with four years of English classes under her belt, makes an assumption that when a writer sits down to write a story, the writer says, “Aha! I want to write a story about man’s inhumanity to his fellow man (for example)!” Having decided the underlying theme to her work, the writer then starts to come up with a plot, a bunch of characters, a setting, and then uses them as interlocking elements to tell her message. The writer, in this case, can be compared to a composer who writes a fugue, using the different… um, notes and things (I’m not a musician, so I have no idea how to make this analogy properly)… as elements of the whole. In this case, the writer uses all the elements of her story as notes, and the overarching theme of the work as the total fugue.

I will tell you one thing: almost no writer I know writes like this.

In fact, I’m very distrustful of any writer who says that she writes because she “wants to send a message”. This is why I don’t like allegory or satire, because the work is almost entirely “message”. It’s definitely this way with Orwell: I don’t enjoy 1984 nearly as much as I do other works of fiction. I think 1984 is stilted. Its characters seem like wooden puppets that the author uses to speak his message; its setting merely a stage for Orwell’s political theater. Basically, whenever I hear that a book has a great “message”, I avoid it. Books with messages, in my experience, are a lot like people with messages: melodramatic, one-sided, and prone to half-hour rants that everybody else ignores because the person never stops talking about her goddamn message.

(As long as we’re talking about it, I don’t trust any writer who is trying to “revolutionize literature”. It’s because, when you look at it, the writing is rarely good, much less revolutionary. True revolutions are accidental. The way I see it, every revolution throughout history that happened because a bunch of people decided to get together and revolt has failed. Only the quiet, unintentional revolutions succeed.)

So, when it gets right down to it, why did I write “The Girl in the Junkyard”? For that matter, why do I write at all?

I can’t speak for all writers (just like I can’t speak for all people, because everyone’s different), but I’ll tell you why I write:

I write because if I didn’t, I’d go completely crazy.

Seriously. I’ve been writing as a hobby since 2003. When I was eleven. I’m nineteen now, which means that for I’ve been writing for almost half of my life. This means I’ve trained my brain to think in stories. Furthermore, it means that my brain makes stories all the time.

I’m not kidding. It’s getting to be a serious problem sometimes. I literally can’t stop making stories.

Only about 5% of the stories my brain makes ever make it down on paper. I think of it with an analogy that Scalzi used once, only slightly modified: it’s like drinking from a firehose. You’ll manage to suck down a few drops at a time, but even when you do, the vast majority of the water will escape you.

Writing down these stories helps, though. Once I’ve written down a story, it can leave my head. I can stop thinking about it, since it’s gone. I can make room for new stories.

If I didn’t write these stories down, I feel like my head would become a pressure vessel. It would slowly get hotter and more pressurized in there, until my brain underwent catastrophic failure.

In this extended metaphor, this means I’d go crazy.

I guess that’s what I’m getting at. I don’t write because I want to change the world, or make a lot of money, or get laid, or send a message. I write because I don’t have a choice. I write because I can’t stop. All I can do is hang on.

I think this might be the key difference between a writer and an author. An author is a person who is either famous or influential because of her writing. And you know what? A lot of authors aren’t writers. I don’t think Harper Lee is a writer, even though she’s definitely an author. She wrote To Kill a Mockingbird, and then hung her Writer Hat and Fictioneer Goggles up in her closet. She hasn’t written anything since. She’s merely remembered for writing one gorgeous, brilliant book. She’s a great author, no doubt, but she’s not a writer. Not anymore.

Whereas a writer? A writer does one thing: a writer writes.

And a writer doesn’t write for any other reason than this: she literally can’t stop. Because stopping the flow of words leads to madness.

Okay, bizarre writing theory rant over. Now to go and watch some Eureka, because what better way is there to spend an afternoon?

~ Ian

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