Potato Chips

Okay, I lied about POV. We’ll get to it, in all its abstruse and gloriously obscure detail. But that’s long and technical, and first I thought I’d say something more important.

If you know me you’ll know I’ve said this before, but it’s well worth re-visiting. I figure people reading this probably run the gamut — professional writers, fan writers, aspiring writers, and readers and viewers who just enjoy thinking about the elements of what they’re participating in as an audience (since being an audience is in fact quite a participatory thing; you can’t dance when one partner’s sitting down).

I’ve seen some excellent writers back away from trying to enter the professional world because it’s just not something that interests them; and that’s reasonable enough. Every year the number of books by new authors that are printed and sold goes down; I’ve heard all the theories — market fragmentation, illiteracy, leisure hours going to the Internet instead of the page — but the plain facts can seem unwelcoming. As for scripts, not everyone can move to Hollywood, and geography is still a big part of making a career there. And then, perhaps commercial fiction just doesn’t seem your cup of tea.

But I’ve seen other writers, just as excellent, back away because — although they’re clearly packed taut with talent — they think there’s some bar there, some Berlin Wall of the mind — basically, a big sign at the end of a nowhere road that says, “Anything you try to write will be lifeless. Boring. A canteen of sand in the desert. Don’t even try.”

To them I say: potato chips.

When you’re growing up you learn that all that deliciously crispy stuff fried in fatty oil is bad for you. Going through a bag of Halloween candy in a day is bad for you. Riding a Harley Davidson? Too dangerous, bad for you. Smoking, which looks cool as anything? Also bad. Iced doughnuts! Impulse sex without condoms! Blowing your paycheck on supremely cool black boots! Bad, bad, bad!

When we write, however, the laws of the universe do a one-eighty, and all these things are good. By which I mean that whatever pleases you, whatever excites you, whatever you obsess about, whatever glittery thing holds your interest, whether it’s some complicated and spiky relationship between two characters or the last days of the American Civil War or the possibilities involved in Schrodinger’s cat — this is your lawful subject matter.

Do not complain to me, “But what interests me is an obscure political event from 1899. And it’s been made clear to me that nobody else in the world finds it exciting,” because I will say, “Congratulations.” Do not complain, “I want to write slash professionally, and there’s just no market for that,” because I will say, “Good for you!” Do not sigh and say that you want to write a romance, and a billion romances have come before, so what is there new to say? For I will pat you on the back and offer you a celebratory drink.

Your own personal joie de vivre, that’s what’s new. Your take and your words are what’s new. The only thing you can do to sabotage yourself is to lose the glimmer and convince yourself that writing must be vitamin-filled and rule-abiding. “Every detective novel I pick up at the bookstore does this, so that’s what I should be doing.” There is no should, to paraphrase Yoda. That way lies unsugared Cream of Wheat. Do not ask “How can I make my novel like everybody else’s?” because that sound you will hear is me gnashing my teeth.

This is what is meant by “write from the heart.” I once got into a disagreement with a couple of authors over this very advice, and it took a while to figure out they thought I was talking about writing sentimentally. No, no — you are the definer of what’s in your heart; if it’s a line of equations, but you love those equations, bring them out into the open air so we all can see them. And the first thing you have to do is stop worrying about looking like a fool.

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve hesitated, writing a scene, and thought, “If so-and-so happened, I think that would be incredibly cool. But it’s risky; I could fall right on my face. People will read it and think I’m an idiot. I probably am an idiot for even considering this…” And then, pretty often, I’ll do it. Not always; sometimes I decide the critical voice by my ear has a point. But other times I squash that voice under a pillow, because I know how often love begets love.

E.F. Benson, humorist and author of the grand Lucia novels, also wrote a book called Secret Lives, about a group of upper-class men and women living on a particular street in London in the early 1930s. One of the main characters is Susan Leg, an incredibly bland woman who was once a typist living in a cheap room in Brighton. She’s now wealthy, with a townhouse and a Jeeves-like butler, and it all comes from her secret life as a bestselling author of lurid novels — joyously over-the-top things chock-full of evil noblemen, beautiful heroines, and princes who are bound and gagged and threatened with red-hot pokers.

She was rescued from the typing pool by Mr. Cartwright, a publisher, who knew a good thing when he found it. Here are his thoughts upon reading her first manuscript:

It was preposterous to the last degree, but there was a sumptuousness about it, and, though nauseatingly moral in its conclusion, there was also fierceness, a sadism running like a scarlet thread through its portentous pages. Above all, it was written con amore; the gusto of Susan Leg blazed in it like some magnificent conflagration, and Cartwright knew very well that gusto in a writer begets gusto in a reader of similar tastes. From a selling point of view, no book can have a more valuable quality.

I’m not saying, go forth and write joyfully atrocious bestsellers. I’m saying, open the door that excites you, not the one you think you have to. When you’re writing at your best — okay, when I’m writing at my best, but I think this is true of most writers — you’re inspired and excited and scenes come to you when you’re in the shower or walking or lying in bed at night. Because these characters and their twisted relationships fascinate you, and you’re continually asking yourself, “What if?”

When you write that way, it’s the pure product, and as Mr. Cartwright knew, when a reader who’s at all similar in their tastes reads it, that white-hot love and energy communicates itself to them; they see the story through your eyes. They’re as hyped as you are — more hyped, in fact, because you’ve been living with it for a while and crafting it, and it’s all hitting them with the shock of the new.

So use the thing you love, whether it’s a television show or the life of Descartes. As it happens, I love television. After I watched the X-Files episode “3” I thought, “That’s not how I’d handle Mulder and a vampire.” So I wrote a story about a neurotically focused detective who looked strangely like Duchovny in my head, and his relationship with a woman vampire and how it plays out while he’s solving a case. The story appeared in a Datlow & Windling anthology and was a finalist for an International Horror Guild award. And while that and a token will get me a subway ride, I honestly think it succeeded better as a story than the episode that inspired it did as an X-Files episode.

But my work is… too weird, too simple, too unfashionable, too awkward and it doesn’t know how to button its coat properly! What if it is? None of those so-called practical concerns matter if you’re in love, because in writing, all that matters is that the potato chips taste good. And those impulses to guide your work by what other people are doing? Those voices telling you that it’s all wrong, and you should be louder or softer or more fashionable or marketable? Those are the bad voices. The only guide you can afford to listen to is the obsessive, lovestruck thing inside you that keeps insisting it finds some particular subject utterly fascinating. Do not shame this part of yourself. Take it by the hand and lead it to safety.

I mean, that thing inside that fell in love with, say, The Lord of the Rings (or Jane Eyre or The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, or whatever does it for you) back when you were a teenager — that’s the thing that made you want to write in the first place, isn’t it? Please, don’t paper over it now with the blah, blah, blah of what the world has convinced you is literary maturity. Because that would be a lie.

Some years ago I read a Bruce Springsteen interview, in which he talked about how he’d changed — how at one time, music was sacred religious ecstasy to him, and all he really cared about, and now it was just one room in a larger life with a wife and family. And I knew what he meant, and that that time had passed for him, but I still thought, “Bruuuuuuce. No. Bruuuuuuce! Don’t walk on by!”

Of course, I’m a bit of a hypocrite, because I work in television. And that gives you moments, episodes, even occasional seasons of being high all wrapped up in a luxury sedan of frustration. This is true of everyone in television and film, to a greater or lesser degree, and I include executive producers and network executives; it’s an art form in which so much is out of your control. And under the circumstances, my occasional dips back into prose are a great refreshment. (Agent: “You mean you actually had a few days between projects? Did you rest?” Me: “Uh… I wrote a story.” Agent: “A lot of clients I would yell at about that, but for you, I think a short story’s as good as a week at the beach.”)

Every now and then, you need to go straight to the potato chips.

So write about a galactic empire, with lots of sex and beheadings. Write about the life of a woman living alone on the coast of Cape Breton, and what happened when she learned to drive. Write about a time-traveling insurance salesman. If you’re a fannish sort of writer, take whatever characters please you best, melt them down to their archetypes, and then re-fashion them into a version that gives your take on them, in a world of your own creation. Don’t force; play. Fall in love. You were not meant to be one of the hollow men.

Or as George Lucas told Mark Hamill when he was worried about taking on a difficult role, “Do what you want. Life’s too short.”

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