To Necessity, the Mother of Invention

For much of my life, I’ve had insomnia.  My mind races with ideas.  It isn’t anxiety, not always.  Just ideas going through it and distracting me from sleep.  Perhaps it’s that I’m really a night person.  When I’ve had the chance to work night shift, it seems to suit me.  Whatever the case, since I was a teenager, I’ve always had trouble falling asleep at night.  Often, to try to quiet my mind, I’d tell myself stories.  It’s something I’ve done for almost as long as I can remember.

These stories were often indistinct, the inventions of a mind too tired to be awake and too restless to sleep.  One character regularly figured into the stories early on.  His name was Jack.  A roguish sort, heart of gold, rescuer of children.  Mainly, he was the guy who kept me safe from all of the terrible things in my mind at night.  Jack would be distilled and morphed into different characters in later stories I would write, but he started as my shield against insomnia.

I mention any of this only because there is another common feature to many of those stories.  They often began with the phrase “I need you to do something.”  The words were often spoken by an older man, white hair, long grey beard.  The “something” was never described.  It appeared in my mind like a prelude before jumping right into the action.  The “something” would be revealed as the story unfolded.  It was my version of “Your mission, should you choose to accept it…”  The phrase set the stage, and I could relax into the story, eventually falling asleep.

As anyone who has ever kept a pen and notebook by their bedside could tell you, if you don’t write down your ideas when they happen, they get lost easily.  Probably none of those stories were wroth writing down.  But as I sat here, trying to write a story beginning with “I need you to do something,” I found myself wishing I could recall them.

Pen and Paper

A couple of decades ago, I tried to write on my computer.  For some things, I still do.  Writing emails or academic papers seems to go just fine on a keyboard.  But for prose, fiction, and journaling, I never got fully comfortable with the computer.  Even after writing my first novel on a computer, I found myself going back to pen and paper.

Mind you, this is a completely personal preference.  I do not think one way is inherently better than another.  It’s just that I started writing long before I got a computer, and pen and paper are the means I used.

It probably helps that I love office supplies.  Even as a kid, I enjoyed those stores as much as toy stores.  My dad and grandpa worked out of my grandparents’ house, and the basement always had pens, pencils, note pads, file folders, and so on.  I never wanted for the tools of writing.

Over the years, I have had different favorite pens and different preferred notebooks (composition notebooks, anyone?).  Generally, these have been inexpensive, though I admit that my current favorite notebooks fall on the pricier side.  (I still use inexpensive legal pads for a lot of my writing, however.)

The other day, we were walking by an art supply shop.  On the door was an advertisement for a limited edition Cross pen, Star Wars themed.  I’ve only ever had one Cross pen in my life, an engraved one given to me by my sister.  Normally, I wouldn’t consider such an item, but I thought I might splurge.

While looking over pens, I asked about fountain pens.  I’ve never used one before, but I was curious.  Now I have three bottles of ink, which together cost more than the pen I bought, and I can safely say I have a new favorite pen; my most expensive favorite yet.  It is easily the most fun.  And luckily, the ink washes off of my skin very easily.

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My Rules for Writing*

  1. No 2-dimensional, cartoon villains.  (Think the Emperor from Star Wars.)  These aren’t real people.  People have motivations.  People are complicated.  Villains should be people.
  2. All narrators are unreliable.  Even without dishonesty, events will look different from different perspectives.
  3. Don’t be afraid of the supernatural.  Use it to tell stories.
  4. Don’t overuse it, either.  It will get stale and lose its capacity to inspire wonder and instill fear.
  5. The world doesn’t make sense.  Not everything gets explained or tied up in a neat little package.
  6. Alienation.  People don’t completely understand one another.
  7. Listen to your characters.  These are their stories.
  8. There is no such thing as fate.  The good guys can lose.
  9. Really examine your characters’ plans; look for loopholes and flaws.  Either plug them or explain why they don’t matter.
  10. In the service of the story, all of these rules can be broken.

 

* These rules are merely descriptive, not prescriptive.  Other people should follow their own style.

What If?

Something a little different to kick off 2017: some questions that plague me.

What if God created the world as an experiment, and it failed, but he didn’t have the heart to destroy it, so it sits forgotten in his closet?

What if reading was a sport more popular than football, baseball, or soccer?

What if no one ever lied?

What if everyone who had died could watch you whenever they wanted?

What if everyone in your life is merely playing a role they were hired to play?

What if we could fly as easily as we could walk?

What if we had never invented war?

What if we never died of old age but we also lost the ability to reproduce?

What if nothing you do matters?

What if everything you do matters?

What if The Lord of the Rings were a work of history rather than of fiction?

What if everyone could know what anyone else was thinking?

What if everyone looked the same and believed the same things?

What if you are merely a side character in someone else’s story?

What if animals could talk?

What if you are lucky at cards or love, but not both?

What if the world stopped spinning?

What if everything you do or say were reported in the media?

What if every year the slate was wiped clean, and we all got to start over?

What if right here, right now was all that there is?

What if everything you believe is wrong?

Asymptotic Transversality

Do you ever have phrases just pop into your head, no idea what they mean or even if they are real phrases?

I was just sitting here, staring at my notepad, pen in hand, not writing.  It is Thanksgiving, so something about being thankful seemed appropriate, but nothing was coming.  There are a lot of different tricks I use to try to get the words to start flowing.  Sometimes I use prompts.  But often I try to clear my head and let opening lines, characters, situations, or some such suggest themselves to me, hoping one of them will strike a chord and lead me to something more.  And sometimes the page stays blank.

A phrase popped into my head: asymptotic transversality.  No joke.  That phrase appeared, fully formed, in my mind.  I had no idea what it meant or what it was doing there.  So I followed it around a bit, see where it might take me.  My first thought took me to science fiction.  Perhaps it was some sort of measurement or phenomenon that a futuristic device could scan for.  But that thought stopped there, refusing to go further.

So I tried again.  This time, it was a completely nonsense phrase that a character used to try to impress people.  Maybe it was even part of a pick-up line, to show how smart he was.  That, however, seemed like a stretch, even for me.  I began to think this was just one of those creative dead ends, and it was time to move on.

But I was just curious enough to search for the phrase online.  Sure enough, it is a mathematical concept.  Based on a few sentences on the first page of the search results, I couldn’t hope to explain it.  Maybe if I did some research and studied for a bit, but my curiosity didn’t take me that far.  It has been a long time since I last found myself in a math class, and I don’t think I’ve heard it before.  But it seems strange to think I just happened to independently come up with a phrase that actually has some meaning in an academic discipline.

So as I sit here, this Thanksgiving, trying to come up with stories and thinking about obscure mathematical concepts I can’t remember ever coming across before, I am amazed at the mysterious workings of the human mind.  I am thankful for it, on top of every other thing I have to be thankful for.

But seriously, how did that pop into my head?

Kafkaesque

Two of my favorite authors are Franz Kafka and Philip K. Dick.  I suspect each has had an impact on my own writing.  I know that I like crafting stories that leave characters and readers wondering about what is going on, that leave room for the reader to speculate.  I hope I am effective when I attempt this, but I know I set out to achieve it some of the time.  I’d be in denial if I didn’t acknowledge the impact that Kafka and Dick have played in developing my own voice.

(Usual caveats apply.  All garbage is still my own, not to be blamed on others.  And further, my understanding of their works comes from my reading of them for pleasure, not from formal study.)

One of Kafka’s short stories has had a particularly marked effect on me.  “In the Penal Colony” is a wonderful and horrible story. In it, a man seeks to understand his own crimes by subjecting himself to the execution machine he has used on others.  Instead, his machine malfunctions and just slaughters him without revealing his crimes.

We seek meaning in life and in death.  We want to know why, or at least that it is all part of some larger plan.  Unfortunately, that knowledge – even if true – often escapes us.  Tragedy happens, and despite our wishes, we don’t often find out why.

Perhaps Kafka is too bleak.  But even if so, we are often left in the dark by an incomprehensible world.  Some of my stories attempt to articulate my own bouts with confusion, the times when the world has confronted me with its senselessness.  And sometimes we don’t need fiction to demonstrate the inscrutable nature of the world.

Today we wonder at the world.  Not for the first time, and not for the last.  Our hearts go out to the people of France, and human beings all around the world.  Even if the world doesn’t make sense, we can still act with compassion for all who share it with us.

The Blank Page

The blank page is both a blessing and a curse. A writer picks up the pen with the purpose to fill the sheet. Heroes and villains, love and tragedy all wait to be brought into existence, born from the ink pressed to paper. There are stories to be told. They may be frivolous or weighty, light-hearted or somber, but they must get out.

Sometimes, however, the words don’t come. The blue lines with nothing but white space between merely mock, refusing any words that try to rest upon them. The stories will not come; the ink does not flow.

When the writer sits down, there is no telling which sort of page this one will be. It may reward or frustrate. Yet, no matter how good or how bad the experience is, a writer always comes back to the blank page.

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