Sunday, January 09, 2011

Swarmed by the light: Motivated or … obsessed?

This week we've had blogs about all stages of a writer's career, from holding that new book in your hands to flogging it on the internet. Today's guest author, C.B. Forrest, reminds us, in his trademark powerful, elegant prose, of what is at the heart of it all. In Chris' words...

Now that Obama has successfully repealed the ludicrous ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT)’ policy for gays and lesbians serving in the United States military (there is something really twisted about allowing people to die for their country as long as they don’t reveal the nature of their being), I am today suggesting a revised version of DADT specifically for Writers and Readers.

In a nutshell: Don‘t ask questions which very likely will necessitate a false response (ie. ‘how is that book of yours coming along’, or ‘did you really, truly like my book?’) and, for the responder, don’t ever tell the truth. Period. It’s that simple, really. This version of DADT will allow all of us - writers and readers alike - to continue to live in our panacea. By the way, we don’t need to worry about this ever becoming law, since the Senate is ruled by Conservatives who tend to pay little attention to the arts …

This is all really just the long way around to my point: Talk is cheap. And don’t believe everything you hear. For example, last week I heard one of my literary heroes - Philip Roth - tell an interviewer that if he had to do it all over again, he definitely wouldn’t be a writer because “it’s very difficult, insular work”. Really? Is that why Roth, at 70, still pumps out a Pulitzer or National Book Award-winning novel every year? I felt like calling in and saying, “stop writing then, dude, if it’s such a chore.”

Yes, writing is very hard work. But nobody ordered us or otherwise forced us to this work. I’ve talked with dozens of writers of all stripes, genres, and stations in life, from mega best-sellers to the self-published, and I have arrived at this very unscientific conclusion: writers are obsessed, or at the very least strongly compelled, to put into words various aspects of the human condition. We don’t know why, we won’t ever know why, it just ‘is’. A fish swims, a writer writes.

Motivation is the single strand of DNA shared among all writers, published or unpublished. Let’s face it, gang, the odds are against us from the very start. They always have been, always will be. Each time we sit at the typewriter and stare into the possibility of a blank page, we are taking up the torch of this sacred faith. We pledge to complete this line, this page, this chapter, this story, to the best of our ability -- with absolutely no guarantee that other eyes will ever read it. So it has always been with this “insular” art form, and so it always will be.

As Barbara Fradkin recently told a young student with a novel in the works, publication is your end goal, of course, but it can never be the reason why you’re doing this. This is one game that quickly separates the dreamers from the doers, the meandering hobbyists from the full charter members.

A dear friend often reminds me of my response to her question twenty years ago about why I write. I was in my early twenties, always carrying around a tattered manuscript or bundle of napkins with scrawled notes. She wanted to understand the motivation, the drive. I shrugged and said, “I breathe, I write.” And it sounds corny, but it’s true. I’ve been writing since I was a kid hammering out clichéd little stories on a vintage typewriter my Dad smuggled home from work. In Grade 3 I had a story about burnt pancakes published in a school board anthology. The fire has burned in me as long as I can remember. Telling stories is in my marrow.

There is, of course, a fine line between motivation and obsession. Any spouse or partner of a writer can tell you on which side of the fence you’ve fallen on any given day. I tend to believe my writing moves through stages. I begin with pure motivation, but as the story and characters come to life, I nudge across the line to the territory of ‘pre-obsession’. By the mid-way point, when the light on the other shore is beckoning, I will admit I am in full obsession mode. I write when and how I can get it. In strings of words, a couple of lines, or maybe, if I’m lucky, a few pages in one stretch. It is during this stage that I simply can’t get the story out of my head.

The great drunken poet and pulp master, Charles Bukowski, was the first to employ Twitter before it was even invented. This guy sat in his boxer shorts and typed a billion poems via stream of consciousness, pumping out line after line, describing what was happening in his crap-hole room in south LA at that very minute, sending these little telegraphs from hell.

Love him or leave him, at least Bukowski did what so many others talked about. He put his butt in a chair and he wrote. He was compelled. He was motivated. He was obsessed. He performed his art with absolutely no guarantee of publication or success.

This Bukowski poem hangs in my writing room and reminds me of my duty as part of this sacred tradition. It’s titled ‘until it hurts’, from Bukowski’s book ‘what happened to the loving, laughing girl in the gingham dress?’

until it hurts

you have to wait until it
hurts, until it clangs in
your ears like the bells
of hell, until nothing
else counts but it, until
it is everything,
until you can’t do any-
thing else

then sit down and write
or stand up and
but write
no matter what
the other people are
no matter what
they will do to

lay the line down,
a party of one,
what a party,
swarmed by the
the time of the
out of the tips of

C.B. Forrest’s just-released novel, Slow Recoil, is the sequel to the Arthur Ellis Award-nominated The Weight of Stones. He lives in Ottawa where he is at work on a third and final installment featuring protagonist Charlie McKelvey. He is currently in ‘mild obsession mode’ and often appears unshaved.


Vicki Delany said...

Thanks, Chris. I loved the poem.

Hannah Dennison said...

Your post really got me thinking Chris. I sent the poem to my husband. It also made me realize that the reason I've been so grumpy this past six weeks is because I have taken a break from writing. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this, it sums up my own thoughts after reading what come across as complaining by writers like Roth.

I've been writing since I was a child and have only recently begun to pursue publication. Although I have no guarantee of reaching that goal, I know it will not stop my private communion with notebook and keyboard. For those of us who are not yet published, perhaps it's easier to remember that those are two separate things.

Barbara Fradkin said...

I too can identify! I was also hammering out cliched stories since I was six. Reams and reams of bad stories, bad television scripts, bad plays. I don't know what my mother did with them when I left home.

It's that passion to write that is the heart of most writers.

Barbara Fradkin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
gemgolf said...

A terrific blog Chris. It is comforting to know that most writers, even accomplished ones like yourself, seldom find the going easy. This in itself will not make me a better writer, but it will help motivate me to keep plugging away; which in the final analysis is the defining and bottom line.

Rick Blechta said...

Every time writing starts getting easy, I know I'm not going to like it by the time a few days have passed. Never fails.

Great post, Chris. Thanks!

J D Carpenter said...

I am embarking on Campbell Young #6, and you have reminded me, Chris, how much I love this work. And it is work. Every day, nine till ... oh, somewhere around noon.

Mary Jane Maffini said...

I love your books, Chris, so I am glad you are obsessed, er, motivated.