What Writing Is

It’s nighttime. Clear skies, full moon, the light so bright it throws shadows. You’re outside somewhere, rough, arid terrain without any sign of trees, just scattered clumps of low-lying scrub, pale grey in the moonlight. So some kind of desert, high or low.  You realize then that you should have some idea of where you are, of how you came to be there, but instead your mind is a blank.  As empty, as quiet, as the sandy hills that stretch out to the horizon.

Or maybe the reason you can’t recall is because you’re so distracted. Thinking about the one key fact that defines your situation. Your predicament. There, on your shirt, a spreading stain, a blossom in the darkness.  You keep telling yourself that it should hurt, that you should feel panicked. Scared. But instead you feel a mild contentment, waking up to that first day of snow, and knowing school is cancelled. You will never again face the dentist. Burden a friend with dark news. The bad thing you have always feared, it’s already happened, and somehow you’re still here.

For a while at least.

Most of you is stretched out in the sand, some kind of shallow arroyo, but your shoulder, your head, have found something firmer, a flat outcropping of rock. And when you reach up there, for no reason at all, you notice the strangest thing. The same stain, the same flower, is now smeared on its surface, thanks to your fingertips. Seeing this, everything changes.  Flips. You are no longer lying down. Are standing instead in some shallow cave, those same fingers finding a wall, telling a story, leaving their mark on the world.

Which means your contentment, your languor, is suddenly gone. In its place lie a series of choices. By the time the sunlight hits those hills, you won’t be there to see it, with whatever you are, whoever you were, bled out in the sand. Only maybe, before that happens, you’ll take a bit of that sap, that ink, and use it to scrawl something on the rock.  Your own name, perhaps, or the name of a loved one, or the one who left you there. To wait. To die.

Pointing fingers. Saying thanks. Or just painting a pretty little picture. All that matters is you’ve still got a choice, in the hours or minutes that remain.

A choice. Because that’s what writing is.

DIY

I was lucky enough to come of age, or at least in terms of music, during the early 80’s.  After all the turmoil, insanity and creative brilliance of the 60’s and early 70’s, rock music was experiencing a sluggish middle-age.  Elton John.  This week’s sensitive singer/songwriter.  The bloated epics of Yes and ELP.  For a kid who’d been born in some back alley, and raised in your neighbor’s garage, this unexpected slide into complacency was just about the worst thing anyone could wish for.  Where was the outrage, the piss and vinegar?  Had we really forgotten how to sneer?

 

And then, thank god, punk came along.  A big fat finger raised to the world, and if it ain’t Stiff, it ain’t worth a fuck.  From out of nowhere, there were suddenly thousands of bands, playing everywhere.  Or more like not playing, since most of them didn’t know how.  They had rude names.  Torn shirts.  Some snotty little jerk with spiked-out hair screaming into a microphone.  And because no one in their right mind would give them the time of day, they put on their own shows, formed their own labels, cut their own LP’s. It was the era of DIY. Do It Yourself, you wanker.

 

Part of this was purely reactionary.  An insecure kid, spurned by the big boys, deciding to build his own sandbox.  But there was an upside too.  Despite all the rancor, the puerile rage, DIY was a positive force.  A refusal to accept the status quo.  A realization that if the system wasn’t working, it was incumbent on us would-be artists to come up with something better.  And that’s a lesson that all of us writers—unpublished, self-published, or Stephen King—would do well to remember.

 

In a lot of ways the current boom in self-publishing echoes those DIY years.  And yet it’s obvious something’s missing.  We’re earnest, not angry.  Polite, not punk.  There’s a hesitancy, a hint of self-abasement, as we stumble along our way.  Because, obviously, if we were real writers, if we were Stephen King, then none of it would be necessary.  The borrowing money from your friends.  The weekends at the book fairs.  The constant drag of selling yourself to a world that couldn’t care less.  No wonder we all get discouraged.  Who wouldn’t, given all that?

 

So the next time you do, I suggest a cure.  It’s cheap, it’s easy, it works.  Get in your car, assuming it runs, and aim it any direction.  Find a long, open stretch of road.  Apply your right foot to that pedal on the floor until the windows start to rattle.  And the soundtrack?  Your call.  Still, if it were up to me, we’d go with the Sex Pistols.  God Save the Queen.  Four dumb kids all screeching away about not having any future.  But not to worry – none of us do.  Which is, of course, the reason we started writing in the first place.

Why We Write

I had a conversation not long ago with my good friend Kathy, fellow writer, human dynamo, and all around inspiration.  I was having trouble finding an agent to shop my latest novel, and she was doing her utmost to keep me from getting discouraged.  Her point was that in the end I really had no choice but to soldier on, since the alternative – not finding an audience for my book – would make the very act of writing it in the first place all but meaningless.  That writing is a form of communication, and without a reader out there, you’re pretty much just beating off.

Ordinarily I might agree with her.  I am, after all, one of those people who’s always thinking about the next thing, the goal not met, the step not taken, and the moment I finish any project, I want to share it with the world.  But what if there were no world?  No dreams of fame, no praise or profit, just the act of writing itself?

I know we’ve all had them.  Those moments when we surprise ourselves.  When a phrase or a sentence pops up out of nowhere, like Athena, fully-formed, from Zues’ head.  When a word you didn’t know you knew turns out to be the one word, the only word, for that spot.  When a character finally breaks her chains, suddenly says something or does something you didn’t expect, and the beautifully-crafted plot you’d devised is rendered obsolete.  Writing is discovery.  Not knowing what you want to say till after you’ve sat down and said it.  It is the moment of creation, the spark the arcs the gap, and everything that comes afterword, the words themselves, merely fossils.  Artifacts.

Not that artifacts don’t matter.  They’re the only way we can capture that spark, know there even was a Zues, or a man called Sherlock Holmes.  And if I had to choose between one or the other, the act itself or its echo, I don’t know which I’d choose.  But I do know this.  If what happens to our words gains primacy, if our obsession with notoriety, or our frustrations at not finding it, starts to sour our souls, strip the joy from the craft of writing, then that would be the real crime.  A crime that makes something as harmless, as human, as beating off seem mild by comparison.

The Hypothetical You

Throughout this venture, you might notice repeat usage of a certain word.  That word is ‘you’.  And while it might come as unpleasant shock, ‘you’ do not exist.

It could be argued that that all writing is nothing more than a transcribed conversation, a dialog between an author and his or her imagined audience.  The key word being imagined.  In order to lend these words meaning, I have to pretend that some someone is, or will, or someday might, actually sit down and read them.  When all along the far more reasonable supposition is that there’s no there there, no you being ‘you’, and I’m engaged in a monolog, not a dialog.  An actor addressing an empty house, wondering at the lack of applause.

As readers, there’s a duty we must often assume.  The suspension of disbelief.  But there’s a much greater leap of faith every author is asked to undertake.  We have to achieve the arrogance, the stupidity, to pretend that anyone really gives a shit about what we have to say.  That the ‘you’ we use is more than a convention, a pretense, but an actual, living human being, somewhere out there in the ether.  Knowing all along it’s most likely a fiction, the one that makes all fiction, all writing, even remotely possible.

So thank you for being there.  Or not being there, as the case may be.  In imagining you, I imagine myself, which is after all what life, what writing, is all about.

The Actual Me

Back in my thirties, I decided to do something stupid.  Write a book.  But because I wasn’t a total idiot, I decided to hedge my bet.  I’d always been a fan of John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee novels, and lamented the fact that he’d never gotten around to concluding the series before his demise.  But, hey, no problem dude.  I’ll do it for you.

Six months later I had my book.  Was it any good?  Who knows?  Like the naïve fool I was, I started to shop it around.  Find a name in Publishers Marketplace, a query and first five, plus of course a SASE because this was before the Flood.  And then, miracle of miracle, someone actually wrote back.  The capo de capos at a very prestigious Manhattan agency, bearing unwarranted praise.  She said she wanted to shop the book.  Thought it had a promising future.  And all I could do was ask myself, was it really just that easy?

No, of course not.

Two weeks later, a second letter.  Bad news instead of good.  Turns out the MacDonald estate is keeping poor Travis under lock and key.  So, by mutual agreement, I took that same book, changed the names, tweaked the plot, and returned it to my agent.  She proceeded to shop it around.  And though it received its share of nods and nibbles, no one wanted the thing.  Time to regroup.  I wrote a second mystery, no beach bums this time around.  Another novel after that, this one mainstream fiction.  My aim was improving, I was learning to write, but none of that seemed to matter.  Because the target, the one I’d nicked once, was slowing pulling away.

At that point, you have a choice.  You can quietly retire from the field of battle, with your honor still somewhat intact.  Or you can keep reloading.  And based on the fact I’m sitting here, all these years later, still searching for the right words, you can probably guess which path I chose.  But at least I’m not alone.  Seems as if there’s thousands of us, blindly firing away.  An army of fools, too proud to surrender, armed with blanks instead of live rounds.

A Life Missppelled

Q:  So why is this thing called missppelled anyway?

A:  Because all the good names were taken.

So think about it.  Over sixty-million domains registered at Bluehost alone.  And then factor in all the other hosting sites.  All those websites and blogs.  Some incalculable number of entities, whether individuals or corporations, fighting it out for keystrokes.  Eyeballs.  Buzz.  It’s a miracle every word, every phrase, every combination of letters hasn’t already been snatched up by some greedy tween, holed up with his tablet and Red Bull.

Which meant I had to cheat a little.  Take a word that everyone knows, and give it a gentle tweak.  But I’d like to think that this random act might hint at something greater.  That the very act of missppelling might define both this blog and its author.  For one thing, our main concern here will be the act of writing, the embarrassing presumption of authorship, and what is writing but a whole lot or words, spelled one way or another.  And if one is foolish enough to undertake that most sacred task, the discovery of Your Voice, then we’re told that voice will insist on being unique.  One of a kind.  And chances are, when it screams, when it whispers, proper spelling won’t count for much.

So here’s to making lots of mistakes.  To fucking up, and getting lost, and losing your shirt now and then.  Everyone knows the very best stories are the ones where something goes wrong.  Everyone knows the very best stories are the ones we can’t ever get right.