Category: Writing (page 1 of 78)

The “Starving Artist” Is Bullshit

Courtesy Warner Bros.

This is a discussion that’s come up over the last few days. I believe it was David Hill who brought it to light (as he tends to do, verbose and uncompromising firebrand that he is), and Chuck Wendig, of course, dropped the definitive word-hammer on the issue with trademark aplomb. All I can really add is my personal experience and perspective, which boils down to this:

Being an actual starving artist absolutely sucks.

I have been without dayjob work for almost two months. Freelance work has been difficult for me to find. I’m at the point of applying for whatever I can find, just to pay the bills. This is in the middle of needing to find a new place to live, preparing for summer events, and managing my bipolar disorder, anxiety, and interactions with other human beings.

Oh, and I should still be writing somewhere in there, right?

One of the reasons I applied to use the Writer’s Room at Seattle’s Central Library is that it is a quiet, secluded place away from just about everything that could distract me. I bang out words there without issue or interruption. But as much solace as I take from my productivity, I know that, for now, it is only a temporary respite. At some point, I have to leave the sanctuary. I have to face the pressures and requirements of the outside world. I need to acquire income, to pull my weight, to feed my body so my mind can keep making words.

Ideally, making words is what would feed me, but I have no illusions that such a day is far off. I have a lot of work to do to have anything publishable that can give me a living source of income. Until then, I need to figure out a dayjob. Because starving sucks.

Now, I haven’t actually starved yet, obviously. I’m hungry, sure. Approaching desperation, maybe. But I’m privileged like crazy. I’m white, male, educated, and have the support of family and friends. Other artists aren’t so lucky.

I want to echo Chuck’s sentiment from his post: take care of yourselves. Make ends meet any way you can. Get a foundation of some form of security under you, a roof over your head, a means to keep yourself fed. It will go a long way to relieving your anxiety and depression (which, as an artist, you DO NOT NEED) and help you be more productive and working harder towards your true, ultimate goal.

It’s what I’m doing.

And despite the steps in the direction of my goal being painful, confusing, and frustrating, I’m still making them.

You can, too.

Break Your Heroes

Courtesy Warner Brs.

We like to think of our heroes as strong. When they fight evil or overcome obstacles or succeed in their goals, we aspire to the same heights. Deeds of daring and feats of strength or cunning drive us to be the sort of people we want to be, impeccable and flawless paragons of the virtues we espouse.

Those sorts of struggles, though, are not what people like you or me face daily.

I think that I am not alone in regularly facing reminders of the failures from the past. People we’ve let down. Goals we’ve failed to achieve. Situations we’ve failed to resolve. Relationships we’ve failed to repair. A litany of shortcomings and false starts that goes all the way back to our first bad grade or broken heart.

Why should our heroes be any different?

Part of the problem I’ve always had with Superman (before Zack Snyder introduced me to a whole slew of new problems to have with the character) is that he is virtually flawless. Being superhuman in strength, speed, endurance, and knowledge makes it difficult for him to fail in any challenges he faces physically or mentally. While he does run into some emotional obstacles, his virtuous nature and righteous motivations rarely see him on the failing end of his endeavors. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I do like Superman, especially as a foil for Batman, but it’s hard for me to relate to the character, for the most part.

Not so with the likes of Max Rockatansky.

Especially as he is shown in Mad Max: Fury Road, Max is a thoroughly broken individual. He is motivated by a need to survive, fueled by anger and fear, and almost entirely selfish when he’s at his worst. But the experiences of the wasteland in which he roams and the plight of those he encounters awakens something in him. He never really escapes the trauma of his past – he is plagued by night terrors and assaulted by visions even after he embraces his righteous cause. And yet, instead of remaining in the thrall of his brokenness, he rises above it, to the point that others are looking to him for support and guidance, rather than treating him with distrust and derision. That, to me, is true heroism.

Therefore, writers, I encourage you to break your heroes.

“Kill your darlings” is a familiar phrase for many fiction authors, but when it comes to protagonists, there is a sadistic streak in me that says death is too good for them. The true power in our narratives, the thrust of the human experience that keeps readers turning pages and the thumbs of television viewers from changing channels, is in seeing broken people pull themselves together. Moreso than punching bad guys, rescuing prisoners, or saving the world, there’s an upswell of emotion that comes in a moment where you see the better nature of a character emerge from within the cracks of their outer shell.

Max: You need to take the War Rig half a click up the track.
Max begins to head towards the Bullet Farmer’s noise and madness.
Furiosa: What if you don’t come back?
Max: pauses Then you keep going.

Overcoming external obstacles is impressive to be sure. But overcoming ourselves?

That’s a bit of the supernatural in everyday life, my friends.

The Flash Fiction Challenge

Courtesy floating robes
Courtesy Floating Robes

Since this week Chuck has challenged his writerly readers to come up with Flash Fiction challenges of their own, over here in my own writer-space I thought I’d talk about why flash fiction is, in and of itself, a challenge for writers. Serious authors bang out 1000 words or more a day as they propel themselves towards the completion of their drafts. They bend over keyboards and notepads, tapping or scratching out thousands of words on a daily basis. So why is flash fiction such a challenge?

Paradoxically, it’s because telling a story is easier with more words than less.

While it’s certainly true that a saga like Lord of the Rings or A Song of Ice and Fire would be diminished if it were not told with multiple volumes of text, it’s just as true that stories of equal poignancy have been told with a tiny fraction of such sagas’ word counts. Consider Hemingway’s shortest story:

For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.

Other authors have done similar work, turning a mere six words into fully-realized, powerful tales. I make no claims of being a Hemingway, a Whedon, or an Atwood, so I’m much more comfortable trying to tell a story in 1000 words rather than six. Still, it can be a great challenge. You have to show rather than tell in as few words as possible. You must keep the tale simple while ascribing adequate depth. Your characters need to come alive in just a sentence or two.

It is an amazing way to keep your writing skills sharp.

Writers burn out. It takes a lot of energy to create. As with any work of art, a well-written story costs the author in time and motivation and fatigue. This is especially true if writing is not the primary profession of the author; if time for writing must be carved out around the time occupied by another form of employment or other responsibilities, it can be even more taxing. As strong as the need to write might be, and as much as unfulfilled word counts might haunt the author, there are only so many hours in the day.

Flash fiction keeps the wheels greased. It quiets the authorial demons hounding you to get more shit done. Oh, you should still get it done, don’t get me wrong. It’s just easier to dispense with things like laundry and TPS reports and menial labor when you get just a little writing done. It takes the edge off, while paradoxically sharpening your nibs. And prompts, like those over at Terribleminds, make it even easier to get into the habit of knocking a little flash fiction out on a regular basis.

I recommend Chuck and his books and blog for a lot of reasons: the brilliance, the profanity, the fearlessness, the strength of character, the clarity of voice, the beard. But let me add one more reason: most Fridays, he issues his Flash Fiction challenge. If you’re inclined to write, I highly recommend trying your hand at meeting one of those challenges. Your writing will improve. You’ll tell interesting stories. And you’ll feel accomplished, as well as in good company when you read other entries. Give it a try. I highly doubt you’ll be disappointed in what happens.

Characters And Choices

Courtesy Focus Pictures

There are times when the simple route is an appealing one. Our protagonist characters make good decisions, and good things happen. We project ourselves into the lives of our heroes, orienting ourselves towards making brave, clear-cut decisions that yield beneficial results for everyone involved. It keeps the narrative straightforward and our protagonists squeaky clean.

If you’ve spent any amount of time in the real world, you know things are never that simple.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which if you haven’t seen, you should do yourself a favor and find to watch. There are no big bad villains to face, no world-ending threats, not even anything I’d call massively contrived, save for the science at the heart of the conflict. Still, you can overlook the contrivance because of the film’s focus on its characters, the choices they make, and the regrets that emerge as a result of those choices.

People face hard choices every day. Decisions need to be made in the name of survival, protecting those most precious, and preserving one’s self in the face of negative emotions, aberrant thoughts, or unwanted influences. People wrestle with their own demons in an invisible war that only manifests in their choices, and in the casualties left behind, in broken hearts and scarred souls. Not everybody comes out unscathed. Sometimes, nobody wins at all.

Your characters should not be any different.

The best characters, the one that truly engage with an audience, are identifiable as people, rather than ciphers or caricatures. And people make hard choices. People make mistakes. People pursue lines of flawed logic. And people can be corrected, adjust their courses, and try to make better choices in the future. It can be painful. It can be costly. It can haunt people.

The more you show this, the better your story will be.

Your characters don’t have to be perfect. Their choices don’t have to be perfect, either. It isn’t just slaying monsters or saving worlds that make our characters great; sometimes, overcoming one’s own obstacles and insecurities is more heroic than any of those great deeds. Let your characters confess their weaknesses. Let your characters accept responsibility for transgressions. And let your characters forgive those they care about who’ve wronged them. It will make the audience think, nod, cheer, and maybe even find a piece of themselves within the narrative that they can take home.

They’re your characters. The choice is yours.

Becoming A Master Builder

Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

I may not be a Master Builder. I may not have a lot of experience fighting or leading or coming up with plans. Or having ideas in general. In fact, I’m not all that smart. And I’m not what you’d call the creative type. Plus, generally unskilled. Also scared and cowardly. I know what you’re thinking: “He is the least qualified person in the world to lead us!” And you are right.

I can’t be the only one who relates very well to Emmet’s speech.

For the whole maybe half-dozen of you who haven’t seen it, in The LEGO Movie, the protagonist LEGO Minifig, a construction worker named Emmet, literally falls smack into one of those prototypical genre-crossing movie plots. There’s a thing that the antagonist is going to use for something nefarious, the protagonist has another thing that can stop the first thing, and the plot revolves around getting his thing onto the other thing (phrasing). There’s even a prophecy, a rhyming one at that, which tells of the destined hero saving the day by being skilled, imaginative, brave, powerful, smart, and I think there’s something in there about them smelling good, too.

The twist is this: Emmet is none of those things.

He freely admits this, in a speech given to a room full of ‘Master Builders’, franchise characters in Minifig forms who can change whatever they want about the world around them. Their only limits are their imaginations. Emmet, on the other hand, is a stickler for instructions. He’s a construction worker; he follows blueprints. When there is no blueprint, he gets lost. And while he may be friendly and a bit of a goofball, his relative incompetence becomes a pretty major hindrance when he stumbles upon the thing from the prophecy.

A protagonist in a story like this tends to be described as an “everyman”, a perfectly average and decidedly unremarkable individual to whom extraordinary things happen. We are meant to relate to this character, to place ourselves comfortably in their shoes. Emmet does this well by owning up to truths some of us avoid facing: we’re not perfect. We’re failures. I for one have lost count of the times I’ve come up short when facing various situations or challenges. Despite living in mortal quaking fear of letting down the people I care about, I have done just that, on more than one occasion. How can I be a master of anything if I can’t even be a decent programmer, or a consistent writer, or a reliable and honest friend? There’s no reason the wonderful people I love should give me the time of day, considering how spectacularly I can fuck things up. I can’t deny the truth: I’m going to screw up. I’m going to disappoint. I’m going to fail.

Swamp Creature: Is this supposed to make us feel better?!
Emmet: There was about to be a but…
Gandalf: You’re a butt!

Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures
“Well, you were right about him being a ding-dong.”

But I’m going to try not to fail anyway.

The hidden strength and power in Emmet, and The LEGO Movie in particular, has nothing to do with prophecies (Vitruvius made it up, anyway) or special magical items (actual mundane things given hilarious verbal spins) or astonishing powers (although I do wish I could put spaceships together as fast as Benny does). It’s sheer willpower. It’s determination. It’s stubborn, downright thick-headed devotion to simply doing the best he can with what he’s got. Sure, Emmet gets scared. He messes things up. He gets played for a sucker and lets people down.

That doesn’t stop him from doing everything he can to make things right.

That’s what makes a Master Builder. That’s what makes a person more than the sum of their failures. We cheer for Emmet because, in a way, it’s cheering for ourselves. When good writers give us good protagonists, they don’t give us perfect paragons of virtue or strength or power. They give us people. And people are flawed, thoroughly and terribly and irrevocably and beautifully flawed. I’m flawed. You’re flawed. All of us are flawed. But our flaws are not just negative attributes to be ticked off as grounds for denial on some worthiness test. Our flaws give us strength. Our flaws allow us opportunities to overcome them. Our flaws make us better people, in whatever pursuit we follow in our lives.

Emmet has no special training, no inborn power, no secret item that allows him to overcome his flaws. He just commits himself to being better than he was. He makes plenty of mistakes, and bad things happen, but that doesn’t curtail his motivation. He carries on the best way he knows how, and in the end, he doesn’t need a prophecy to prove to himself, to his friends, and to us that anybody, no matter how ordinary or average or unskilled or cowardly or butt-like they might be, can do the same.

I may not be all that smart. I may have trouble with motivation and focus. I may admonish myself to a worrying degree. I will continue to fear the disappointment and anger of the people I love. And I may find myself wondering if the wounds I have suffered, and more importantly, those I have inflicted on others, will ever truly heal.

But I cannot and will not allow those things to prevent me from getting up, dusting myself off, and doing my utmost not to fail. To make amends. To create new worlds. To rebuild bridges even in the wake of fires. To bring people to life. To be, in the context of all of the above, a Master Builder.

And if I can do it, what’s stopping you from doing the same?

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