Where to Start, When to Finish

I’ve been thinking about this writing thing for a few weeks now, how I’ve let it slip away, yet again. I ask myself why I do this, which is typically the close of the cycle – get the itch to write, write for a few weeks or months, begin to write less, stop completely in a short span of time, question why I’ve done this after a month or two or three has passed since my last turn at the keyboard. Some people learn from experience, others are only engaged enough to repeat.

Regardless, this question, this eternal “why” that keeps coming back up in my life as a writer, never really gets a solid, honest answer. I’ll drop a “I was really busy and just go out of the swing” on my subconscious to keep it quiet for the time being. But those, and the other answers thrown out to push back both question an my self-loathing, are less than the cliché of hollow. They are lies. This time I decided to answer the question honestly. And what I came up with was both shockingly simple and frustratingly inane.

Where to start. When to finish.

This was the most simplistic expression of my answer, and the first, that came to mind if I allowed myself to be completely honest. Deconstructing each portion of the answer, however, was slightly more complex, however bordering on commonplace.

Starting anything new is hard. A new workout routine. A new career. When it comes to writing, initial ideas may germinate quickly and furiously. But there is a significant amount of work and dedication required to take those ideas and expand them into something worth taking the time to write or expect someone to read. And in that work there is an equally weighted emotional investment. An investment that I may not be willing, or able, to outlay coupled with the fact that the investment is tied to the crafting of something engaging and personal, regardless of the topic. If it is neither, I have then failed more deeply than if starting a new workout routine. It’s easier to just not bother starting.

Finishing is just as difficult. Should this be the last drink? Should I call this relationship finally over? On the rare occasion that I would bother to take the risk to start a new work, I would be plagued throughout with how to finish, and not just the story as a whole. How to finish the first chapter. How to finish the outline. How to finish the important conversation in that would lead to next plot point. How to finish, in essence, everything in the work. Because with finishing, each point of completion, I would be that much closer to taking the work to the final step – putting it out there to be consumed and critiqued. With the investment required, why would one do such a thing? It is simpler to walk through life with the knowledge that you posses great ideas than to actually share them with anyone and be told differently.

Now that I understand and acknowledge both of these concepts in regards to myself as a writer the correction is simple.

Start every idea, regardless of its merit. And know when to quit.


Living the Unworn Dream

A number of months ago a curious little news story started to take hold across the last five minutes of local evening new broadcasts across the country. It should have been a blip across our cultural landscape, but the story is back as chronicled in the February issue of Blender magazine. It‘s about a boy who convinced his parents to let him stop going to high school full-time and focus on becoming a professional video game player, and one who only plays Guitar Hero III.

Shock. Horror. Distain. What the hell were his parents thinking?

I’m certain that a majority of people who heard the story thought the exact thing, then waved it aside with all the other marginally interesting snapshots of stories that flood through our consciousness after eliciting an automatic moral response that falls squarely into one of two extremes - right and wrong. And I’m careful to classify this as a story snapshot because most people weren’t exposed to all the pictures from the trip between “normal high school kid“ to “professional Guitar Hero III player“. I was one of those people, one who only caught the video bite shown sometime before the late night talk show block started. I was one who couldn’t believe that a respectable mother and father would allow their son to drop out of high school to play video games all day long. But then I remembered something from Junior High School. One of the boys stopped going to school so he could focus on gymnastics, full time. He eventually made it to the alternate American Olympic gymnastics team.

Where is the difference? The root cause that drove these people, both still children, into a lifestyle that isn’t normal can be distilled to one simple personality trait - drive.

Blake Peebles - 16 year old Guitar Hero III phenom - was quoted in the Blender article, which I’ll paraphrase, as saying that playing video games isn’t always fun anymore. But he still does it. I bet that kid who followed his passion for gymnastics felt the same after his five thousandth back flip. Unlike what most kids are taught today - quit when things get hard - this kid is sticking with it, even when the dream job starts to feel like just a job. And there are fallacies in the original story as told in its 120 second time slot (stories must be edited for content which makes them sound resonable to the general populace). Blake was working with a private tutor and is now attending an on-line high school three to four hours a day on top of ten hours of Guitar Hero III practice. That practice isn’t just sitting in front an Xbox 360 with his guitar controller. There’s strategy to review, culled from nearly hundreds of on-line sources. Competition sechedules are reviewed as new ones are cropping up and each has to be weighed in terms of prizes, media coverage and location to determine if they are worth attending. And the multitude of possible book, movie, reality television show and novel ideas need to be reviewed and refined as Blake and his family understand that this is a temporary situation, one that needs as many back-up plans as the family can develope.

If we distill all this down, what we're left with is this kid is treating what most adults see as a huge waste of time more seriously than most of those same, judgmental adults treat their own careers (and that’s assuming they all even have careers and not just jobs; there’s a difference). And there are a number of skills that this kid is learning at a very early age, one at which he may actually be able to use those skills later on in life when it really matters - determination, persistence, balance and commitment. But those aren’t even the best of the lessons that this young man has learned.

The best is that life is a path and not a hedged maze. You can go out of the well-worn areas. The backlash that the family endured, especially from on-line sources, was intense immediately following the first story about their decision. Parents across the country let the Peebles know, with extremely pointed and curse-filled language, how much they disagreed with their decision. But Blake didn’t care about what people thought, only that he was living his dream. And his family only cared that they were there to support him on his unworn path.


The Thin Skin of a Bubble

While driving around in the early evening this Saturday, I had the rare opportunity (at least for me) to catch the best game show on NPR, Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me. If you’re not familiar with the show, the base premise is that a panel of celebrity guests, each of whom is playing for a listener that’s registered to be a contestant, answer various types of trivia questions. The winner gets a custom recorded answering machine outgoing message by Carl Kasell, semi-famous NPR newscaster; my opinion, that’s one of the best single prizes ever offered on a Nation Public Radio game show. Hands down.

Well, that night one of the questions that came up was a player had to identify the one true news item out of three given. All were in reference to the modification of esteemed works of literature. The first choice I can’t quite recall. I have some ghost of a memory that it was centered around Hamlet, or another seminal work of Shakespeare’s, but I could be totally off base. The next was regarding a new experimental version of The Death of a Salesman, one in which a fourth Act has been added. It focuses on the criminal case brought against the company Lowman worked for, which is trying to prove they were directly responsible for his death, and which is staged like an episode of Law & Order. Dum-DUMM!

But the third, the one proven to be true (and which the player guessed as being so), was in regards to the modification of Jane Austin’s most loved novel Pride & Prejudice. The new version, which will be coming out soon (you can pre-order your copy at Amazon.com right now, if you’d like), is titled Pride & Prejudice & Zombies: The Classic Regency Romance - Now with Ultraviolent Zombie Mayhem! I couldn’t make this up if I tried (well, maybe if I tried as you’ll read later). The book contains all of the original Austin text, unmodified, but adds in a number of new chapters which tell the tale of Elizabeth dealing with the zombie menace which has come to her sleepy, stuffy village. While trying to navigate the minefield of social relations between the rich, Elizabeth must also navigate the deadly threat of shambling hordes of brain-hungry undead.

This got me thinking. We’ve seen the raping of television properties as they are turned into big-budget, Hollywood movies (which have an ever increasing reliance on Will Ferrell taking the male lead). So, to resurrect a dying print industry, is the new target of artistic rape literature? While listing to the radio, I was certain that the rework of The Death of a Salesman was the most likely answer as there are always directors taking plays in funky directions - Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf staged with an all male cast, Hamlet set during World War I and Glengarry Glen Ross cast with all female actors so the director could take it topless. But when I realized, after doing some Googling, that P&P&Z was a truth, I heard the bubble of literary pop culture, well, pop. It was barely audible, but there nonetheless. Bubbles pop all the time and no one hears them (it took us all about 12 months before we collectively heard the real estate market bubble pop; same with the tech stock bubble in the late 90’s). The author didn’t even bother to do this with a respected work of American fiction, but one written by a Brit (we swipe all our good television shows from them, why not sack their cache of literature, as well).

Don’t get me wrong, though. I’ve joined the Facebook group for the novel and will be pre-ordering my copy shortly. But why only add to the existing text instead of completely imagining a new story for Elizabeth that reworks the existing novel? With a little more thought it came to me. It’s a smack to the face of academia. Seth Grahame-Smith, the co-author, is taking a big eraser to the line that separates Canonical and Contemporary literature. That's not a bad thing. And you can’t fault Mr. Grahame-Smith with his choice of zombies, which are only equaled by pirates and ninjas (put all three together and you may just have a Contemporary equivalent to the Divine Comedy, Odyssey and Tom Sawyer in one work). Shakespeare was writing for the masses, an Elizabethan Jerry Bruckheimer. Dickens, Hugo, Tolstoy and the rest were printing many of their works included in the great canon of literature as serials, to ensure they were getting at least a monthly paycheck, and therefore attempting to appeal to a larger section of the populace to ensure good sales numbers with each printing. A great work of fiction can spring up anywhere, just because it’s 50 or 100 or 500 or 1000 years old doesn’t automatically make it great. We only call the current canon of literature “great” as they’ve survived history, world wars, social evolution, reality television, George Lucas and the ongoing subjugation of the internet with pornography.

That then turned me to thinking about what’s next and how can I get in on it. Why not take other works of literature that show up on the Harvard Classics list and give them each a new life with some additional chapters that speak to a modern generation of readers. One could expand on the sliver of homo-erotic subtext in Moby Dick and explore what was really bothering Ahab, being on a ship full of swarthy men for months at sea chasing a big, white whale named Dick. Sancho Panza, while roaming the land with Quixote, could have really been on the run from Spanish drug dealers he‘d double crossed with Quixote being their best client. War & Peace could be expanded to tell not just the story of five great Russian families during Napoleon’s quest for world domination, but mirror that with the quest of a group of Terminators sent back to eradicate the origin of John Connor’s bloodline that is rooted in those five families. The possibilities seem limitless.

But should that be the goal in regards to the tradition of American art and pop culture? Should we be looking for the quick fix to what ails our faltering literary tradition, or should we be bolstering the determination of contemporary novelists and their search for stories and Truths which will transcend the next 1000 years and the catastrophes and blips of social change that occur during that time? That’s a lot of questions that I can’t answer in black-and-white, but possibly with a shade of decaying green-gray. That is that Mr. Grahame-Smith has done literature a great service, only if it’s allowed to be a singularity and not the norm.

That nearly silent pop I heard wasn't a bad thing for literature, only the bubble itself was what was wrong. The hope is from that popping bubble the release of a potent gas has come about. A gas that may fuel a whole new turn in the tradition of literature. By taking a great work of fiction, turning it around and presenting it to a new crop of readers opens the possibility for the emergence of new writers that want to take our modern tradition into realms that would never be accepted before P&P&Z. Those who would have never been exposed to Austin’s work or the work of her contemporaries. From there the slope can become slippery as one navigates through the wealth of literature available, both past and present. Only by ignoring the socially acceptable path can change take place, be it in regards to race, sexuality or the amalgamation of literature into one historical line that runs through human existence.

Austin was never truly aware of the impact her work would have on the whole of literature, even if it took the addition of flesh-eating undead to make it happen. I can’t wait to read how it all plays out (I just hope that Lady Catherine gets eaten alive by the end).