Storytelling

Human beings are born storytellers. Quite literally – it’s in our DNA and may have been a driving force behind the construction of culture over the course of our evolution once language had come on the scene (and it is possible to think even before then, albeit in more limited ways). We use our stories to instruct, to inspire, to inform, to incline, induce, inculcate. Stories feed us when we are young and stay with us when we grow old, they shape how we view the world and each other, they shape how we approach our lives. Stories add a richness and a depth to human existence that is almost unimaginable in its grandeur and its sweep. Try to think what your life might be without stories; if you are anything like me you probably simply can’t.

Stories need storytellers, and we would be them if we can. The odds though are stacked against us, the way too steep, too hard. Who will read our scribbles? And if no one will then why bother? There are most certainly far better ways to spend one’s time then hunched over a keyboard in a dark room with the monitor’s blue light falling on the notebook where all your character ideas are kept, alone, hungry, and tired while cats wail in the alley outside. Yet there is that drive, that burn, and it will not go away. The story must be told, and the die must be cast, come what may.

We might be surprised. Some books resonate in deep ways with millions whose own cultural background may differ from the author’s but which may bend them towards the story nevertheless. Here is a touching example of one such book, whose deeply astonishing success the author was completely unaware of until shortly before her death. Irish/Irish-American writer Ethel Voynich’s 1897 The Gadfly was beloved by generations of Russians and Chinese while the novel remained (and remains) almost unheard of in the Anglophone world. Imagine that, being a bestseller in two countries whose people and languages are as different from your own as Russian and Chinese are from English (and each other). Martin Buber’s I and Thou similarly found fame first in translation (the English version, it was written in German), although it was fortunate for him that Soviet copyright laws did not prevent his receipt of any royalties. They wrote their books out of their hearts and plunged ahead with the process of publication, devoid of any and all guarantees and no doubt incredibly disappointed with the initial results. But what could they expect writing in the way/content they did, some might object. What can any of us expect regardless of the way we write or what we write about, goes the rejoinder. Placing something into the world is a messy and unpredictable affair at the best of times, and what a time it is we live in.

The story must be told. Voynich and Buber related to the conditions they found themselves in via pen and paper, and we do so through keyboards and word processing software (and maybe some of us with vintage typewriters – until the ribbon runs out and can’t be replaced). Not to write is a betrayal to ourselves, not to make our stories heard – by however many or few and for however long or short – is a betrayal to them. Writers write. And whether one chooses to publish or not makes very little difference, I think, to the larger picture of our lives and the sorts of people we are. Like it or not, if we are writers then we are storytellers in some fashion, and we stand in a very long tradition. That tradition has seen countless lives come and go, countless tales told and forgotten, countless hours spent in unforgiving and unrequited labors of love. Yet each link on the chain is connected to the next, and they all tumble down to us now. What will we do? What will we share? You tell me storyteller, I’m all ears.

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Making assumptions

Much has been made of late of media bias, the limits of political correctness in speech, and the question of just how free a speech the freedom of speech does or is meant to or ought to entail. What have unfortunately been far less examined are the conceptual assumptions that lie behind not only every spoken or written word but the generative thoughts themselves that give rise to those words. Each and every one of us are prisoners of our assumptions and those assumptions are closely tied in with our situational and linguistic contexts.

To begin, consider Citizen X, born in California in 1995. X came of age in a time when the internet was already as normal and as daily a tool as pencils and paper; indeed for X pencils and paper probably seem like somewhat strange devices and X could well be unaccustomed to using them and far less dextrous in their manipulation than X is with her smartphone. She will have a different mindset towards such tools as her parents do, her thinking is generational and historically bound in this way. And of course not only in this way. She also views many of the turn of the millennium social issues in a way that is common for her peers and the conclusions about them that she has drawn seem entirely self-evident to her; they are non-issues in fact. It’s all so obvious. She cannot imagine communism as anything other than a set of very cool logos and the “communist” countries she is aware of are either struggling (Cuba), false (China), or insane (North Korea). Capitalism and its darling child consumerism are the only ways of life she is familiar with and such are so familiar that she does not spend even a moment thinking about them. Again, self-evident. Being Californian also carries with it particular traits and perspectives as well, and these will moreover vary depending on if she is a southern Californian or a northern Californian. Her own familial situation and standard of living, wealth, resource access, etc. will play into how she perceives her world as well, as will her genetic inheritance and personality – partially based on that genetic heritage. She is socially, historically, economically, culturally, ideologically, geographically, environmentally, biologically, bound by a tremendous amount of influencing factors. All of these and more go into making her who she is and how she thinks and she had essentially no control over every single one of them. The eyes she looks out of will be fundamentally different than those of someone in her same age cohort born elsewhere, and will be different still – far more so – than those of someone older or younger than her, poorer or more wealthy, culturally varied, and on and on. Even her birth language will color how she thinks as each language carries within it a network of associations buried behind its terms. Her Californian American usage of “freedom” will have a substantially variant nuance to it, and maybe even a distinct meaning, compared with another person’s use of the equivalent term in, say, Korean. It will contain other assumptions.

And there is the rub. We have trouble even imagining the degree to which we are stamped out by the factory molds of these forces. We are unique individuals, of course, but we are hardly in charge of our own destinies for our destinies are tied up so thoroughly with the default selves we find ourselves being. (We can of course break out of these molds through much personal effort but that is a topic for another day (and probably another text and forum).) As it goes for us so it goes for our characters. Our characters will see their worlds through similarly blinkered lenses and it is our challenge to communicate just how their thought-worlds are structured in both their broad form (social, historical, economic, environmental, linguistic, etc. factors) and their narrow form (details of personal background, traits, goals, motivations, etc.). Some of our characters may share many of these points, some may be wildly different and provide the needed conflict to drive the story forwards, but all will have them and we must never forget that when writing and when trying to inhabit their points of view as we express them. This is a task that is far from easy but it is central to being a writer of fiction, central to being a creator of characters and worlds. Within these multitude forces there are some human universals, I think (emotions certainly, basic needs – not only of a physical nature – as well, amongst others), and digging those out too is part and parcel of the exploration. As Nietzsche might have said, we need first and foremost to be psychologists. Perhaps the first subject to examine on the couch should be ourselves; what other patient is nearer to hand? If we can find out how our own minds work we might have all the keys we need to unlocking others. And then from that solid grounding our creativity will be able to soar. Let’s let it.

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Final call: “Hollow” BPO

Due to some unforeseen circumstances we had to delay our By Prescription Only short story and essay (also poetry this time) showcase that was planned for late last year. We will now be running it this spring instead. The theme this time around will be “Hollow”, as announced. See the details below for more information and send us your stuff by the first of March. Happy writing!

  • 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: www.drugstorebooks.com (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: 01 March
  • Send to: drugstorebooks@gmail.com
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Being willing to fail

“If you want to get good at something you have to be willing to fail a lot.”

That was some advice that I overheard recently and it has stuck with me, particularly the “a lot” part. As we all know, writing is one of the very least rewarding endeavors that a human being can engage in. You will spend hundreds of thousands of hours alone, ruin your eyesight, forgo much enjoyment that could have been had, and frustrate yourself in endless cycles of obsession with the process and dissatisfaction with the results. Then your friends and family will not even consider what you’ve slaved over to be worth reading – they know you and know that you could not possibly produce anything worthwhile. And so you turn to strangers in the hopes that someone, somewhere, will love and cherish your work, perhaps thinking, consciously or unconsciously, that such a result will instill some value into all of that time and effort that you invested so heavily. But alas, no one is buying.

There are very good reasons that established publishing houses are taking on less new talent and often balk at trying something experimental. Those reasons can be boiled down to two words, one of which starts with an “e” and the other a “p”. Late capitalism is a harsh mistress and were Lou Reed to get started now no one would be printing copies of “Venus in Furs” let alone churning out a run of, dare I say it, Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, yet both have enriched my life immensely. To be an artist in these waxing years of the twenty-first century is in large part to be a fool, and all the signs point to ever dwindling returns.

That is, of course, if you count returns in terms of dollars and cents. Many self-pubbers today unfortunately rush to publish their latest Great [insert nationality here] Novel without even properly going through the (admittedly grueling) process of editing and rewriting. I wonder just what it is that they’re after and can only conclude that it must be money and possibly fame. Yet if they are thinking that they can become like one of those people you read about in the circulars Kindle Direct Publishing sends out who have sold one million copies of their how-to on cleaning up pet waste and recently quit their day job to focus on writing then I’d say the odds are against them. Very enormously against them. To self-pub, or even trad-pub, these days is almost to ensure failure – there is simply too much being produced and too few readers to be had, particularly when you throw free web content into the mix. The love of reading and of books is so twentieth century they tell me…and every century prior to that for a good three to four millennia, I reply. Well, no one thinks in those terms anymore.

You won’t succeed if financial concerns are what drive you no matter what happens, certainly not comparatively. You can, however, increase your chances of something positive happening the more you try, a lesson of simple probability (some of the rules of which are described in a very approachable manner in this book, by the way). All of that trying though indicates something else: quite a lot of failing. “You have to be willing to fail a lot.” Are we? And if so how do we handle that? Expectations are inextricably tied in with motivations, and as a look at past posts shows introspection on why we even bother is a question that haunts. If you are an artist then you pursue your art, be it in the penning of songs about sadomasochism, novels about an oddly high freezing temperature for water, oil paintings about farmers committing suicide, or what have you. If you are not an artist but merely seek riches through art then a few choice words might be applicable which we do not need to go into here. We try and we fail and we try again and we fail again, such seems to be our lot. Such might be the human lot. But we never stop trying. Whether that is foolhardy or laudable I leave it to the pundits to decide; me, I’m going to keep failing.

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Reflected glory

It can be so depressing to pick up a classic. When you open Fitzgerald, Proust, Morrison, Goethe, Austen, Tolstoy, Woolf, you are not only faced with a work of profound beauty you find yourself staring into a mirror of your own inadequacies, and the glare of it all is harsh to say the least. John the Baptizer claimed that he was not even worthy to undo the sandal of the one who would come after him; he was not even good enough to qualify for that most minimal of the services that on the surface of things seemingly anyone could offer. Surely many of us who write are struck by similar feelings whenever we encounter one of the truly greats. What can I possibly do that would stack up to that?

Yet our times are awash in new works. There is no shortage of books coming out every year, every month, to say nothing of the essays, articles, shorts, and – yes – posts to literary websites. (Ahem.) There are of course a number of reasons for this trend. One is the near universal rates of literacy that the developed nations of the world now enjoy (and hopefully soon too the developing nations can achieve such levels). Another is the lengthy period of education that has become the norm, far beyond what our parents or grandparents typically underwent a mere one or two generations ago. Another still is the idea of democracy (even if not its practice) and the notion that each individual has, and should make known, their own views. Above all though is the advent of the internet and the vast changes that it has brought to communicative methods and publishing practices. Clicking open a browser we are daily greeted by a clamor of voices, a cacophony of published works. But despite it all we find ourselves returning to the classics again and again, those works forged in the fires of times when market forces were not so transparently behind the production of bestsellers and reading was an activity that you bent your will to and not just your head. Saying all this is not meant as an elitist critique of our contemporary situation – far from it – but instead simply as an appreciation for those writers and those works which, for whatever reason or reasons, have come to transcend time. What marked them? Daring certainly, the creative and innovative styles of expression they employed, the pure individuality of their poetry, their prose. The poetry, even, I think it’s safe to say, that dances within their prose. We read them and are awed.

That admiration, however, is no reason to sigh and click “trash” on your work in progress. The more we are exposed to what has been done, to what experiments and studies have gone before, the more we realize that everything has been done. There is nothing new under the sun, as Qohelet recognized nearly two and a half millennia ago – but he still wrote his book and what a beauty it is. I would like to suggest that we who write do not stand in the shadows of the greats but rather in their lineage. We are them now and who knows what our works will become? It may be puerilely optimistic to think that someone in ten, twenty, fifty, or one hundred years may find value in something that we’ve written today but the world is filled with far stranger facts than that and the experience of being human, after all, is not something that changes so abruptly nor so completely. And so what? And so we write, we give, we labor and we struggle and we leave all judgments of the adequacy or inadequacy of our own works to others. We do not write to be loved, we write to be; to be ourselves in this time and this place with these feelings and these thoughts and these reactions to the realities that now confront us. We speak out of our own era because historically we must, and we speak out of our own hearts because our honesty and integrity demand it. We who write become fully ourselves only through our writing; surely any of the luminaries listed above would agree with that.

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Your will and their will

Although not unique to us will and intention are two of the foremost hallmarks of a human being. Each of us have any number of objectives that we are attempting to accomplish or to see happen or brought about at least partly through the efforts we make, and our actions and plans are aimed at such. Many of us will even have recently made New Year’s resolutions to that effect, and some of us will have so far been able to keep them. These objectives are of course different from mere desires or wants in that we actively pursue them and expend energy, time, quite possibly money, on trying to ensure as far as possible that they are realized. Other people will often be involved in our plans and although we do tend to recognize that their presence represents something of a question mark in the whole affair it is fairly easy for us to forget that they too have their own objectives and that their wills and intentions will likely not align with ours.

On the other hand, much of our days are probably not spent in a single-minded and dedicated struggle to achieving whatever it is that we are presently bending our will towards. We will have errands to run, we will have duties to attend to, we will have work and social engagements that require the same limited resources of energy, time, and money. We will also be culturally influenced and our attention will be taken by the things that others in our circles are concerning themselves with and which we find, largely by default, to suddenly be of concern to us as well. We open a news page or click on a link and what we see or hear takes us in a different direction and consumes yet more of our energy, time, and maybe money too. Our will may waver under the onslaught of the ever-present now of the multitudinous distractions that define modern life. But hold that thought, I just need to check my email. On and on it goes.

As with us, so it is with our characters. Katy is bound and determined to win first prize in next month’s spelling bee but Bob is bound and determined to wine and dine her in an extravagant lead-up to her thirtieth birthday which she will never forget. Both of them are after Katy’s time and energy but Katy cannot know what Bob is also after nor can Bob know just how Katy is experiencing the places he takes her to on his tour of all the starred restaurants in the greater Kansas City metropolitan area. He may know of her championship spelling aspirations and may even be helping her study but his intentions in doing so will be other than her’s. The two may even find that their wills clash.

So much so obvious; of course. Yet where does this leave us in our writing? Are we telling our story from Katy’s perspective or from Bob’s? Or from outside both of them? Who is the main character and who is the supporting character? The decisions that we make on these issues will influence – often quite subtly – how we approach the narrative we are creating. If Katy is our protagonist we may be tempted to shrink Bob down to a one-sided character who is only experienced via the lens of Katy, her will and her intentions. We might even think it right to do so if we are telling the story from Katy’s first person point of view. That, however, would be doing a terrible injustice not just to Bob but to our human experience of life. We all quite naturally look out at the world through eyes that are fixated on the will and the intentions born of the brain behind those eyes and driving what our seen hands and feet are doing. We see others as assisting or obstructing our will and our intentions, neglecting to take note that what they are up to is based on their own will and intentions. They aim as we aim, and so does Bob as Katy does. No matter how much of an accessory Bob is to Katy’s important story of the road to spelling stardom he remains an individual in the fullest sense that Katy is, and so when we write him we must keep all of that in mind. It’s Katy’s tale, sure, but the sequel could just as easily be Bob’s; that is, if he is allowed to really be Bob and not just here’s-Katy-with-Bob. A nuanced difference perhaps, but an important one I think.

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Happy holidays

From the Winter Solstice to Pepper Pot Day the holiday season is upon us. We at Drugstore Books wish you only the happiest of times with family, friends, and undecorated aluminum poles. We’ll be back in January with a lot more posts, an upcoming By Prescription Only showcase, and some long-awaited new titles for our Book Rack. Till then!

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Plumbing your depths

To our readers: Our deepest apologies on the site being down for a few days from early last week to early this week, we had unexpected server difficulties. The issue has now been resolved but we’ll be examining ways to help ensure that it doesn’t happen again. We’re looking forward to providing you with more thought-provoking blog posts and to launching some exciting new titles over the course of the next year so be sure to keep on visiting the Drugstore.

***

Almost exactly one year ago I wrote a post about beginning a new novel and how I planned on taking elements from myself to fill out and define the main character. In that post I highlighted how common a technique doing such is, citing Herman Hesse and Kurt Vonnegut as two luminaries who provide examples of the practice. I also mentioned that by doing so “your main character’s head is your head” and thus “it’ll be much easier to get inside it.” On that aspect of “getting inside” there is an earlier point made that writing about people that you actually know, rather than just imagine, can add depth and edge to your characters that otherwise might not be there. A year on from that post and with lots of writing in between I want to revisit the idea with some fresh perspective.

First of all, whatever my intentions may have been, my main character ended up being only a very little bit like me. I am grateful for that in some ways as there are many things about my main character that I came to dislike (as a person, not as a character) in the course of writing. I was able to really get into his head though, and certainly my starting point granted an easier and smoother entry there. In writing him too I realized how cathartic the practice of writing can be as I took parts of my psyche and exaggerated them in my character, working through elements of my self that might have remained hidden had I not been so introspective in my writing process. That was illuminating, actually, and I feel like I can say that I personally have made some progress towards better mental health as a result – no small thing.

Elements, then, of me became elements of him but he does not reflect me in either totality or even in an exact degree regarding those very same elements. How so? For each of us, wonderfully complex as we are, our wholes are much more than the sum of our parts. In the final stanza of “Fever 103°” Sylvia Plath (I’ve been reading her a lot lately) includes the very striking line “My selves dissolving, old whore petticoats”, implying that she has a number of “selves”, a number of “faces” that she inhabits, embodies, exhibits, etc. as she turns towards the world around her. Of course she is not speaking only of herself, this is a statement of universals; we all, the case can be made, have a vast number of selves and there is no singular “me” (the case can also be made against this view – and I would make it – but I here use “selves” as different from Self (or me or I) in order to differentiate and to refer only to this idea of “faces” or “masks”). Her old “selves” dissolve, they are dirty and discarded, as she forges a new identity and new way of being, of relating to the world. In this she experiences herself as a multiplicity.

She experiences herself; now we have come to the real rub of the matter. If I am writing a character based on someone I know, or on a type of person that I know, my view of them will be based on my interactions and experiences with them. I know them only in that indirect way, and how they see themselves will necessarily be different from how I see them. What does that mean? That in truth I can but write a caricature of them even if I have associated with them for many years and think of them as being one of my closest friends. My knowledge of them is only – and can only be – knowledge gained from the outside; even if they open their heart to me and share all their deepest desires I will experience that sharing through the lens of my own mind and my own thinking and my own feeling and my own being. I can never have their view of themselves as it is from the inside. For that, for that purely error free and impeccable view, I have but one source and one destination: myself. How then to write who we know? The answer seems clear; write out of yourself, scour your own depths of being (your own “selves” or “faces”) for elements, take from this or from that and then from there build and expand. Naturally in the course of such an undertaking elements of others that you know or have observed will come into play and there is no problem with that, nor is there any real issue with the inevitable failure to have an inside view of someone else for when it comes to your characters you do have an inside view. You have made them, after all, and it is your challenge to inhabit their heads to the full extent that you inhabit your own. How well you are able to do that, I think, will depend on how well you are able to explore your Self.

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Our server has been down

Our deepest apologies to our readers for suddenly going offline and being down for a few days. Unfortunately the server which hosted our site had some issues and we were caught just as unawares as all of you. The issue appears to be solved for the time being but over the course of the coming year we will be looking at ways to achieve a more lasting and stable service. Our apologies again. We’ll be back with a new post tomorrow.

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Boring crap about nothing

Being middle-aged I now consider myself entitled to the odd (frequent) curmudgeonly rant and so fair warning that this post will contain some. Entertainingly curmudgeonly though, I hope.

I recently read a review of a new novel about a Japanese-American couple living amongst the Japanese community in Los Angeles. The wife is a mixed Caucasian American and Japanese American, her father of Irish extraction and her mother Japanese. The husband is a “pure” Japanese American and condescends on this point to his wife, declaring that any child between them would be “more Japanese than its mother”. Into this situation comes a female graduate student from Japan to work with the husband and the wife suspects infidelity, though she does warily befriend the student and the two of them travel to Japan together following the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011. Also at some point apparently a murder is involved somehow. In reading the review I thought the plot lame, tired, and boring, but then in thinking of that judgment something struck me: is it really the plot that matters?

I haven’t of course read the actual book and almost certainly I never will given both the depth of my current reading list and general lack of time but it seems likely that my reaction to the review was overly harsh, and that in part due to how the review itself was written. Take the husband’s racist attitude; if that is included then the book seems to be setting itself up for an extended exploration of identity. That is a very, very interesting topic, and a timely one. What question is being asked with more fervency in our era than that of what am I – where do I fit – and what does it mean to be me in this place and time? That topic is especially pertinent when it comes to a culture like Japan’s where ethnic “purity” is lauded so highly and is so intensely tied up with nationalistic issues, even to the point that schoolchildren are taught what it means to “be Japanese”. Surely those considerations and how the characters deal with them in their own internal struggles are far more interesting than the externals. The inner exploration that a book allows, where we even have access to characters’ thoughts, gives every writer a powerful tool that should never be overlooked nor underestimated.

As an example of a story where the externals are everything consider Star Wars. Now, I am only familiar with the movie series and not the many spin-off books and so I can only comment on that, but nevertheless it seems fair to say that what takes center stage in the tale is the action and events, even allowing for the fact that aside from techniques like an overdubbed narration we typically don’t have access to explicit thoughts in films (that is where the actors’ expressiveness comes in). There are many thoughtful movies where the main element is the characters’ inner lives but Star Wars is not one of them. (Admittedly, Luke Skywalker’s identity struggles in the original one and to an extent the following two of the first trilogy arguably fit this model and that is certainly what makes the three classic films the only really decent ones in the series of twenty-five or however many we’re up to now.) Without any pathos involved a story about flying around shooting things and running from one puppet-filled locale to the next is ultimately pretty shallow and, frankly, boring.

To be human is to have experience, to not only undergo the events that happen to us and to take the actions that we do in the wide world in which we live but to feel each and every tiny detail all along the way. What separates us from, say, a robot or even the most advanced artificial intelligence is that fact of feeling, that fact of the internals of which we are aware when we pause to look at them and which affect us in thousands of ways even when we are rushing about desperately trying to get this or be there and currently unaware of them. We have feelings that involve far more than just locomotion or objectives and every writer worth their salt will need to take such into account. Every writer worth their salt, I’d say, will need to place them centrally in any story. And every writer worth more than their salt, it seems to me, will make them the core of their story. That is what makes the difference between boring crap about nothing and an exploration of the human and the human condition; even if it is about “nothing”.

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