Doing what’s been done

When I wrote Randolph’s One Bedroom I thought that I was doing something original. The book consists of twenty short stories but it is not strictly a collection of short stories per se because all of the shorts contain the same protagonist and numerous recurring supporting characters. The shorts also contain character development and growth, both for the protagonist himself and for some of the other characters. The careful reader will moreover note that the events relayed in the book take place over the course of a single calendar year, so that there is a strictly linear progression somewhat submerged in the background as well. I described the book as containing “serial shorts”, wishing to conjure up in the reader an image of a serialized TV program wherein each episode is a stand-alone story but whose characters and world the viewer gets to know little by little as the season goes along. The same is true of the book and so I thought the comparison apt. At the time it did occur to me that I was most likely neither the first nor the only writer to have produced such a work but I still thought that I was at least working somewhere outside the mainstream even if I was skirting the mainstream by doing so. I then found out that there is an entire genre of such works. Oops.

In my latest, and still as yet untitled work (I’m waiting for it to come naturally, though with the writing portion of the process completed I think it will be soon), I have created a chapter device which I think is entirely my own – at least in its whole if not in all its parts – though again that may just be due to my paucity of knowledge and I will later be embarrassed once more by thinking too much of my own work. I won’t say here what the device in question is because I don’t want to spoil the surprise, but I will say that the idea for it, like very many ideas which are felt by their bearer to be quite striking, came to me suddenly out of the blue, unlooked for and unexpected. A bolt of Thor’s lightning, a whisper of the muse, a nudge of the daemon. But please do keep an eye out for the book to appear in either late 2017 or early 2018 following the standard lengthy and painful editing procedures; more on that later, of course. The question, at any rate, that presents itself here is: Does all this (purported) creativity really matter?

I may well find that my allegedly unique device has been tried and true in the great annals of fiction writing – at least at some point – but aside from having to wipe the egg from my face that will not particularly bother me because I did not wish to add the device to my book solely because I thought it was new. Rather, I wanted to include it because it works, and indeed given the thrust and structure of the story being told I am convinced that it works exceedingly well even if it does make a fairly considerable demand on the reader at that point in their interacting with the book. Some readers will be turned off by it I’m sure, some will find it curious, and some will find it intriguing – maybe even fun. This I think should be the main criterion that we consider as writers. Forget about the old “But it’s been done before!” objection that you hear from tired keyboard hacks continuously depressed that they weren’t born as James Joyce. Of course it’s been done before; in a world of seven billion people who have been writing for at least five millennia what hasn’t? Naturally some things haven’t but whether what you want to do is one of them or not is, I’m sure, entirely irrelevant. Our only concern should be does it or doesn’t it work? If it does, and specifically in relation to the piece or book in question, then its inclusion seems entirely called for. There is little point to doing something just because it might be unusual, and if it has to be forced in it will undoubtedly be a poor fit. If, on the other hand, it slides into place and makes the whole more beautiful than it was then by all means go for it. Its originality must be secondary to the practical matters involved but if it in fact is original, unique, the first of its kind, then kudos to you for another feather in your cap. And if not then kudos to you anyway for making your writing that much better. When a reader closes the back cover, turns the last page, or exits the file, that is all that will matter. The brass tacks, at least how I see them, consist in this: Experiment yes, but always with an eye on the big picture.

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Solitude and self-sufficiency

As our long-term readers will know, we at Drugstore Books have mostly been painfully ignorant of that part of the internet dubbed “social media”, and indeed of nearly every other part as well. We were wired in different times and none of this came naturally to any of us, though we can perhaps be given credit for trying. Well, recently our own Paul j Rogers set out to correct all of that and as far as I can tell he has been successfully social media-ing for many months now. I’m able to keep track of some of his activities via the right sidebar doohickey on the front page here, where I can see all of his latest tweets since I don’t myself tweeter. One of his recent ones in particular caught my eye; it was a reposting of a Kurt Vonnegut quote to the effect that, paraphrasing, talent abounds but what is rare is the tolerance for putting up with the writing life.

What is the life of a writer? It is first and foremost, I think, one of solitude. A preference for solitude, a willingness to exclude oneself and to eschew the social in favor of being left with one’s own thoughts in order to put them down on paper. This necessarily means missing out on quite a lot of what most people consider to be the finer points of life, or at least the most enjoyable points. Existing as a hermit in this way can have negative results on one’s psyche, and although such results might well prove beneficial for one’s art few of us, I’d wager, would profess a preference for ending up in the madhouse (metaphorically or otherwise). To be alone as often as we’re alone, and to thrive in such conditions, is of course not for everyone, and such considerations were no doubt a part of what Vonnegut had in mind. To be a writer is to turn oneself into a cactus; it is to take offense at someone’s suggestion for a drink or a meal together because it takes time away from your project; it is to object to being considered enough that one finds oneself invited to a party; it is to feel a deep annoyance at having to continually think up reasons to turn down those who simply wish to spend time together. It is to be a jerk. A prickly jerk. It is moreover to enjoy existing in that way, and to finding and building on the aloneness that writing requires through the cultivation of the inner strength – or obstinance – necessary.

Yet that is not all. It is also to desperately wish, to yearn, that the scribblings that one pours all of those hours and personal resources into be read, and, having been read, be appreciated. Now that is a tall order, a very tall order indeed. Just who do we all think that we are? The modern world is awash with media, waves of print pour over us in constant tides that could not be held back even if we wished to. Said print might come in tiny length determined bursts or even in the quasi-language of “hi how r u?” but the print is there nevertheless and one need not ever look far for something to read. Something to think about, though, well that is another matter. And that is generally what we go for, what we try to produce, even when we are primarily trying to simply entertain. After all, if it is just entertainment that a person is after they will hardly go for something to read; something to watch will do much better. And in doing better the time will be more smoothly, and more enjoyably, passed. But there will be no growth. So we sit in the dark in our little rooms and burn our eyes out on the dancing fonts that cascade across the canvases of our digital paper and imagine that someone will someday read all this and think something that we wish to cause them to think, or think something related to what we wish to cause them to think, or think something against that which we wish to cause them to think, but will anyway think. And then think well of us? That, I’m afraid, is much too much to ask.

Mr Vonnegut, I tip my hat to you again, sir.

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This year’s BPO

Welcome back after our summer break (winter break for our Southern Hemisphere friends, of course)! To get us started we want to begin by announcing our next BPO. Our By Prescription Only short story and essay showcase will run at the end of the year this time around and we’ve also decided to incorporate poetry for all those interested. As such there have been some slight changes to our submission details (see below) but nothing major. The theme we’ve decided on is “Hollow” and as the deadline is fairly close to when we’ll begin to run the pieces we’d like to make a point of encouraging early submissions in order to give yourself enough time for any edits that you decide to make following the feedback from us. And remember, what we do is to offer free editing services and the exhibition of your work, allowing you to reach a broader audience; full copyright privileges will always be your own. We also archive all of our past entries so if you’re curious to see how a completed work will look head over to our BPO page. Happy writing and we’re looking forward to what you come up with!

  • Theme: Hollow
  • Type: Essay, poetry, or short story
  • Length: Up to 8,000 words
  • Format: MS Word or TextEdit file
  • Title: Centered, Times New Roman 16 point; with a byline below also centered and in 12 point
  • Text, font and size: Justified; Times New Roman, 12 point
  • Spacing: Single, with block quotes separated by an empty line on both sides; paragraphs indented but section breaks separated by an empty line and three centered asterisks
  • Footer: (on the left) © Your Name 2016 (on the right – stretched to fit the length of the footer)
  • Quotation conventions: Double quotes (“hollow”) with embedded single quotes (‘hollow’) for reported speech, single quotes for reported thoughts, double quotes to mark text off (e.g. so-called “~~”), song titles, etc.
  • Italics: Use for emphasis, book/magazine/TV show/film/album titles
  • Spelling: British English, American English, Australian English, Canadian English, Kiwi English, whatever. Just be consistent.
  • Referencing: Any standard convention is fine as long as it’s used consistently; both footnotes and end notes are acceptable, though any applicable footnotes will not be included in the opening section posted on the site (but will be visible in the downloadable file)
  • Deadline: 14 November
  • Send to:
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Back in September

And that wraps it up for us. We’ll be back with new content in September, including another By Prescription Only series in the second half of the year. Also, don’t forget that this is the final week of Smashwords’ site-wide July sale. Get your free copies of Randolph’s One Bedroom and Tomorrow, as the Crow Flies while you still can:

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Readers and non-readers

A forewarning here to begin: This post could well come off as snobby. It isn’t intended that way, of course, but I do think it’s fair to exercise a bit of judgment and a bit of criticism when it comes to this topic. And the topic, as you’ve no doubt gathered, is reading. Or rather reading or not reading, which boils down to activity or passivity, engagement or perception, growth or stasis.

I started to think about this because a couple of people have recently told me flatly that they are “not readers”. I was surprised to hear that both because the two in question are intelligent individuals interested in the world around them and because I hadn’t ever really imagined a life without reading. In hearing that some people quite simply never read though (and here of course I mean never read anything of length as of course they read in the sense of labels, emails, printed advertisements, etc.) I was forced to consider what that might be like and what some of the personal results might be. In thinking about that I then started to think about capabilities and potential, growth and development. Quite naturally central to all of these concerns are the imagination and the act of thinking itself.

When we read we are engaging all sorts of parts of our brains and processing information at very high levels. To get an idea of how important this is think of how a computer might “read” something. In that case the machine just chugs along following the instructions laid out in its code without having anything going on at any kind of metalevel. A computer cannot interpret anything even if it can solve problems (and sometimes creatively solve problems as with recent AI software that plays go or chess with impressive skill); a computer cannot be right or wrong, it can only do or fail to do (and that is not the same as being right or wrong). For a computer “reading” its instructional code no feelings are in play and no personal experience is occurring. Such might even well be impossible as, for instance, if a computer is programmed to “feel pain” it will not actually be feeling anything, it will simply be alerted via a sensor or sensors that it is in a place where potential damage may happen and ought to move. Try placing your hand on a hot stove and see if that is the only information your brain gives you. A computer is, and will remain I think, at a much, much lower mental level than we are even when we are at our laziest.

Let us now consider our laziest. I suppose that a non-reader spends a great deal of time watching things, and even if those things are videos of professors giving lectures about particle physics the viewer is using much less of their brain than they would be if they were reading about the topic purely because of how the information is being received. Of particular importance here, I think, is the difference in imagination. If the video includes charts and graphs and images about the particles being discussed (as it likely would) then very little imagination needs to be engaged at all. If the video is only a person talking then some imagination might come into play but not a great deal as too much attention will need to be focused on the words being said; the act of listening takes up a lot of energy (as all married couples know). Additionally, and for the same reason, there will be less critical thought going on and more intuitive judgments as to whether or not the viewer agrees with the speaker. This is why politics is such an emotional business; in the gut reaction world of debate the actual content of what is being said takes a backseat to the perception of what is being said, and if that damned bastard dares to disagree with how I see things then I will need to defend not only my point of view but my very self. I’m on the line here! Or so we naturally tend to feel. Not so when reading.

When we read we are far removed from the writer who produced what we are reading and who is the “speaker” in question. We cannot hear her and she cannot see how we are reacting. (This goes for watching a video too, of course, but there we can see the speaker (even if he cannot see us) and that engages all sorts of natural social reactions from our biological programming – think of how excited people get about soap operas.) This distance gives us the space and the time to slow down and consider. We also do not need to engage our listening faculties and therefore have lots of energy to spare which can be used for judging or critiquing or expounding on or appreciating what we are reading. We are moreover deeply engaged in the use of our imagination, and this goes for nonfiction as well as fiction as whatever it is that we are reading we need to visually take in the type, process the meaning of the words, place them in their context, and then – amazingly, really – interpret the whole lot and apply it to our lives and situations. This is an incredibly complex and remarkable human ability. To simply sit and perceive something is the polar opposite of all this; it is artlessly to let the meaning, interpretation, images, sounds, and contextual interplay be handed to you with your only mental effort being to stay awake and pay attention. This may have its place, we all love sitting on the couch after a long day and being entertained (and historically our time is no different from the past in this regard; theater was of course the first TV), but if that is all we ever do then I think we have lost something very beautiful and we have willingly minimized our human potential.

It’s summertime for us in the Northern Hemisphere; take up a book and beat the heat by exercising your brain a bit. Who knows where it will take you? And on that, here are two for free, courtesy of Smashwords’ site-wide July sale:

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There are two main schools of thought on when to give a title to your work in progress, and any number of variations between those poles. The question mainly concerns the timing but there are perhaps some unforeseen consequences that result from the stance you take on the choice, and it is those that this post will concern itself with. The question then, boiled down to its simplest, is this: Before or after?

If a writer decides on the work’s title before they have started writing or before they have made very significant progress then there is a good chance that the title itself will play a deciding role in how the events in the narrative develop. This may not necessarily be the case, however, if the writer is the sort that prior to any actual typing meticulously plans out each character, scene, and detail beforehand and then unfailingly sticks to that blueprint. I am not sure how many writers there are of this type though; my own approach is radically different and so it’s hard for me to imagine working in that way. At any rate, if a writer does not have virtually the entire novel planned out then the subconscious pull the title exerts on the thought processes undergone when engaged in writing is at least likely to be moderate and may even be significant. That could be a positive, however, guiding the writer as she directs her characters towards their goals and the overall plot’s climax. The title may even be a clue as to the nature of that climax, or to the broader meaning that the author wishes to express through their work, as Nick has pointed out in regards to Thomas Pynchon.

On the other hand, if a writer instead puts off deciding on a title until the entire work is finished – perhaps even stubbornly refusing to consider a title before then and banishing thoughts related to such when they unintentionally crop up (that’s where I’m at with my current project) – then the writer is creating a sort of distance between the events within their book and the presentation of those events via whatever the title may turn out to be. The freedom from being influenced by the title you’ve chosen, whether subconsciously or consciously, may carry a price though. After all, a book’s title is crucially important as it is the very first approach a reader will make to your work and we needn’t labor the point of how important first impressions are. Still, there may be good reasons to keep one’s options open, and perhaps primary amongst them might be a positive view of intuition and the benefits that can come from trusting it. After the final words have been typed and the entire story arc has been neatly tied off (or purposely left open) then there will naturally arise within the writer – any writer – a feeling towards the project and that feeling may perfectly capture the mood and the ethos of the book. It is a bit of a gamble, I suppose, but trusting that that inner voice will carry through could have better benefits than deciding on the title ahead of time.

Of course, even if a title is chosen ahead of time, and I’ve done that with essays in particular on many occasions myself, an author can always take a loose view towards it and allow themselves a commitment-free attitude. The guiding effects of the chosen title will still be there but not to the degree that they become overriding. If, as the project develops, it becomes apparent that the title just somehow doesn’t fit anymore, then it can always be jettisoned in favor of another that is more apt and the exercise of having first chosen a title that the work outgrows will have been instructive when it comes to deciding on another title. The bottom line quite naturally is that there are no hard and fast rules but that, as with everything related to writing, it behooves the author to think through this point ahead of time and consider what they would prefer: a guidepost on the journey or a flash of insight at its end.

Of the titles to my existing projects, only Tomorrow, as the Crow Flies was decided ahead of time. With the others I preferred to put the choice off and let the project tell me itself, as it were, what it wished to be called. As I said, that’s the approach I’ve taken on my current work in progress as well. And speaking of, don’t forget that ebook versions of Randolph’s One Bedroom and Tomorrow, as the Crow Flies are free all month on Smashwords as part of their site-wide July sale:

And if you like those, I still recommend getting the paperback versions.

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Buying self-pubbers

There are those who, for one reason or another, will not buy indie/self-pubbed books. I suppose it has something to do with the idea that the quality must be lower, or that the writing hasn’t been properly vetted, or that it somehow “doesn’t count”. All of those reasons, and reasons like them, are based on a misconceived view of what it is to self-publish.

What I think is at the core of such prejudices – let’s call them what they are – is the view that a self-pubber is a writer who unskillfully hacks words out, sloppily formats them into something resembling a book, and then throws it up on the internet and demands to be considered an “author”. There might be such people but knowing what goes into actually writing a whole book I highly doubt that they are very many. If a person is committed enough to put the months, the years, into writing and editing a book to completion then they are very likely to want that book to be the absolute best that it can be. This of course requires heavy editing, and anyone serious about editing will know that it in turn requires other sets of eyes. There is a great deal that we simply cannot see ourselves, and the distance and objectivity (or at least what is more objective as true objectivity is an impossibility (some thoughts on how that applies to writing fiction in that linked post as well)) that others bring to our projects are incalculably helpful. Make no mistake about it, outside editing – when done well – is as selective a vetting process as that done by the trad-pubbers. The main difference between the two being that editors working on a self-pub project are far less inclined to further vet for sales potential. Moreover, the quality of a self-pubbed book may, and may even often, be of a higher degree than a trad-pubbed book as frequently in the trad-pub world books that are considered certain to sell (in other words, middling drivel aimed at the lowest common denominator) will be published even if the quality is low. The chance of that also happening in the self-pub world is still real, however; as I have said elsewhere, the best way to see for yourself is to crack the thing open and read a bit; Amazon’s wonderful “Look Inside the Book” feature lets you do just that.

The picture is more complicated yet, though. The rise of print on demand services has changed how a great many books are being bought and sold. More than a few of my Oxford University Press books – surely a stalwart of the trad-pub world – ordered through Amazon Japan have arrived bearing the stamp of having been printed by Amazon itself. Other times I’ve ordered books where the publisher has been listed as such and such only to find on the matters page that it has been published by CreateSpace, and still other times books I’ve ordered have had their publisher listed online as CreateSpace Independent Publishing yet on the matters page an imprint name is listed. What is going on in such cases has more to do with paperwork than it does with editing, vetting, quality, and the like. In order for an imprint to list itself as the publisher on Amazon it must be officially registered as a business; many imprints will naturally ask themselves what the point of all that would be unless of course they intend to become a full-fledged business à la the trad-pubbers, who also typically use printing services to produce the finished product. What is CreateSpace but a printing (and shipping) service? For organizations like us there is little incentive to go through the process of registering a business somewhere particularly given that our editing services are not done for profit. A Drugstore Books book will have its publisher listed as CreateSpace on its Amazon page but all CreateSpace actually does is print and then, via Amazon, ship it. The proofing, editing, vetting, and in many cases formatting (on that, CreateSpace now offers formatting templates which can, but need not, be used as well) has all been done by us and we won’t put out a book that we can’t stand behind. Once again, we do not do this for profit, although we hope that our authors will be able to themselves profit from the sales of their books. So why not buy a self-pubbed book? If done well it will have gone through the same production process that a trad-pubbed book will, and if it hasn’t been then the risk of such is comparable to that carried by trad-pubbed books. What is necessary is simply to let the writing speak for itself.

Incidentally, here’s your chance to buy some self-pubbed books for nothing. Ebook versions of my Randolph’s One Bedroom and Tomorrow, as the Crow Flies are free all month on Smashwords as part of their site-wide July sale:

If you like those, I recommend getting the paperback versions. Wink!

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Renewal, or Resurrection?

In last week’s post we discussed the leftovers that a writer leaves behind her when she dies, her many projects that just never quite got off their feet but which served, undoubtedly, the very worthy cause of providing practice, ideas, procedures, and the struggle, the endless struggle, that we all appear destined to go through in our writing lives whether such ever produces a pay off or not. Jumping off from that topic are two related subtopics which I think warrant some consideration and will therefore be the subject of this week’s post.

First of all there are the dead projects which suddenly rise up, phoenix-like, on their own. By chance I happened to read this story in The Japan Times: On Sunday about five volumes of the translated works of Osamu Tezuka (writer and illustrator of the Astro Boy and Black Jack comics) that quite literally gathered dust for a quarter century before an American publisher picked them up. If you click on the link above you can see a photo of a very pleased looking Frederik Schodt, who spearheaded the 1978 translations that were still somewhat ignominiously tucked away in a drawer in Tezuka’s offices when that picture of him at a signing for his nonfiction book on the world of Japanese manga was taken in 1983. (Coincidentally, Tezuka’s monumental twelve-volume Phoenix is itself now available in English.) What happened in those twenty-five years when Schodt and his associates’ laborious translations lay dormant? Quite a lot, naturally, the upshot of which for them was that the world turned in such a way that Tezuka’s work became of interest to a wider audience and happily there were all those translations just waiting to be read. Things could of course have gone the other way and those translations might have unceremoniously been tossed into the burnable garbage pile when Tezuka passed away and his Takadanobaba, Tokyo, offices were cleaned out. This is a reminder that the work we do needs to be appreciated by its producer for itself, not necessarily for the results that it may (or may not) engender.

Which brings us to our second point, that of the work that can only be seen as dead as things stand from our current perspectives and viewpoints. While chatting with my brother over the weekend he brought up a past practice novel of mine which he generously read. I can’t remember the context of the conversation nor why he might have mentioned it but the book, for all its many flaws, seems to have stuck with him. What my brother could not get over – and which, I imagine, ruined the entire story for him – was the lead character’s decision to have a monkey’s tail surgically attached to the base of his spine. That was done in protest to certain political events taking place within the book and was, from my point of view, one of the hooks within the plot intended to throw the reader and keep them turning pages. My decision to write that way was very strange, I recognize, but then that book was written during the first of the George W. Bush years and the world was filled with many strange and inexplicable events; someone literally giving themselves a simian’s rear appendage somehow made sense. I cannot now imagine that novel of mine ever seeing the light of day but my work on it was highly instructive, as were the reactions of the two or three people who read it.

Schodt no doubt considered his translations dead until they weren’t. I most certainly consider my work dead too, but then we never know how the circumstances in which our writing is received will change. Books have their own lives after all, and sometimes those lives will not begin until very many years after their author has died. In such cases the author may not seem to benefit from the manner in which the world shifts, but to make that judgment would be to overlook the importance of the process and focus exclusively on the results. Writing is pain, deep pain, and must be worked through to achieve growth; that has nothing to do with being widely read and even less to do with being paid. As we cannot possibly predict the shape and form that the world in which we and our works are embedded will take what we are left with are two features: our ideas and our struggles. There may be merit in revisiting old works and pulling out core plot devices, character traits, relational quirks. There may be merit in revisiting old works and renewing them wholly, building them again with much of the scaffolding still in place but told in a fresh way. Then again, there may not. Regardless of the life or death of what we do, what we create, it is the doing it that drives us on and that contributes to our improvement. Such thoughts are of little comfort when we’re trying to put food on the table, but then our world may shift in that area too and we may be lucky enough to be alive to see it.

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Leftover words

It used to be the case that when a writer passed away you could sometimes find unpublished works tucked into drawers or safes, hidden under beds, stuffed behind sofas. The debris of ideas that could have been. These were often accompanied by notebooks filled with writing notes, some detailed enough that they were, at times, thought to warrant publication in their own right. Thinkers seem to fill this category with both Ludwig Wittgenstein and Martin Heidegger having their notebooks published basically as the notebooks they were (Blue and Brown for the former, Black for the latter), and alternatively with Friedrich Nietzsche’s being worked into the posthumous book The Will to Power. Then too in the world of fiction we have unpublished stories, ideas, chapters, plans, being worked into books and series by the sons of well-known authors. Christopher Tolkien’s editorial work on his famous father’s manuscripts has won the thanks of many a Middle-earth fan, while the same could perhaps not be said about Brian Herbert’s work (with Kevin J. Anderson) on the elder Herbert’s Dune series (I for one couldn’t even make it through the Prelude trilogy and I inhaled Frank Herbert’s Dune books like a drowning person who has just managed to surface gasps for air).

Nowadays things are different of course but I’d wager that a look through any writer’s cloud files or USB memory sticks will reveal many a typed word that is destined for nowhere. I have a full finished novel, a third of a novel, scattered chapters for two other works, and a complete storyline for a book-length comic that are bound to be wearily deleted by my daughter after I’m dead and that’s just what comes to mind without looking. I’m sure my fellow soda jerks would concur with this and maybe also mention the related topic of the work they’ve lost into the ether or had eaten by the back seats of taxis while cruising around Seoul. What are we to do with all these leftovers?

It’s a good question. Heidegger never intended for his notebook to be published, Nietzsche clearly had plans to publish his but in a reworked way, and given Wittgenstein’s attitude towards publishing I’m not sure if we can say one way or the other how he might have felt. On the other hand, Frank Herbert had wanted to do four more books in his original Dune line but they were set to take place after the end of his sixth – which turned out to be his last – while the posthumous work based on Dune that we have takes place before, during, and after the original saga. As with Wittgenstein I’m not sure how J.R.R. Tolkien would have felt about The Silmarillion but that work does, I believe, stand on its own (and credit where it’s due for the editing work). What is interesting is that, unlike what Plato did with the tragedies he wrote in his pre-philosophy days, none of these people actually destroyed the work they chose not to do anything further with. It is possible that each saw value in the writing but that they considered such value to either not be of a high enough level such that they wished to release it or that the value contained was of a more personal and emotional sort. In my case I suppose I haven’t deleted my old files for the latter reason, although there is probably the idea lurking somewhere in me that some part or parts of those abandoned projects might possibly be salvageable in some yet to be determined way at some (far off?) future date. All of that writing and thinking was of course good practice, and any writer worth their salt will have at least some dead piles of pages (or bytes) pushing up daisies, and more perhaps need not be said. Well, just this: a lot of those early works of mine are better left locked away; I will admit to that.

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On melancholy

Happiness is not a writer’s friend. When looked at in a way that extends beyond the blinkers of one’s narrow and necessarily personalized day-to-day the world can seem a horrible place. What’s more, underneath all of the tragedies that greet us our human condition is one of servitude, in one way or another. And this inescapably so, be it to ideology, community, economics, social obligations, domestic concerns, even simple biology. In the midst of this our fundamental mode of being has become the pursuit of distraction; “I can deal with some psychic pain/If it’ll slow down my higher brain” as Elliott Smith once sang. We have learned, or been trained – however you wish to see it – to get out of our heads, to equip ourselves with full sets of answers prepackaged and ready for consumption, to journey through our time in as unthinking and as artificially high a way as possible. Put succinctly, we escape. Each and every day of our lives. Except for the writer.

The writer is not allowed this luxury for the writer is called upon to observe. The writer must stare down the reality that faces him or her in the place and position of her birth, from within the society out of which he pulled himself to turn back and stare at it. The writer must look into that awful gaping maw and withstand the stench of what rots within, internalize all of the pain and longing, and then somehow, in some unspoken manner, process it and reflect it back. The writer must remain raw. Towards this end I think that melancholy is the writer’s best friend.

What is remarkable about melancholy is that it is more of a mood than an emotion, it is the background colors to the painting whose detailed foreground demands our attention. Joy, grief, anger; they consume us, they leave us blinded to all else, they demand – and get – our full awareness for their entire duration. Melancholy does not do this. Melancholy rests beneath the surface and prods all of the more well-known, well-felt, emotions into being. Melancholy keeps the façade of our emotional lives alive with the ripples of the experienced; it is a constant reminder of the depths that lurk beneath, an open sore, an old injury that no amount of tending will ever really make go away. Melancholy keeps us emotionally sensitive to all the vicissitudes of life.

Why would we want this? Why would we wish to know all the pain that marks existence? Why would we seek to carry the hurt that, once born, exists in some way forever? And are we not the very purveyors of at least some of the entertainment that allows others their escape from “real life”? I have no answers to these questions that range beyond what I can say for myself. Each writer will have to struggle with them and, if writing is truly something they cannot but do, find some method of acceptance of the responses that come from within. These questions do, however, provide a challenge to us in our approach to this burden that we find on our shoulders: If writing, if the writing life, is an ineluctable part of who we are, then how shall we approach it? As the blind leading the blind, filling the world with pointless drivel? Or as fashioners of the mirror which frighteningly does not distort what it reflects? That is another question we can only answer for ourselves, but I know how the writers that have stayed with me would reply. It takes courage and nerve to really look at the world and say what needs to be said; melancholy is the cold comfort that results, and it is also the ally that allows us to continue.

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