What HP Lovecraft Can Teach Us About Programming the Reader

One of the many reasons I love pulp fiction from the early 20th century is that writers like HP Lovecraft can have a line like, “the moon was gleaming vividly over the primeval ruins” (from “The Nameless City“) and actually get away with it. If I wrote something like “gleaming vividly,” my teachers would have beaten me publicly for about an hour. Is it gleaming? Really? Do you have any idea what that is? Vividly? What does “vividly” look like? Do you even know? If you know, how come you’re not showing it in concrete terms? If you don’t know, fuck you, why are you writing it? Oh, the beating would be vast and terrible.

Instead of telling the reader that the moon was gleaming vividly, the harder, more powerful, more evocative and immersive technique, is to show the gleam, show how it’s vivid, show how the ruins might look primeval using descriptive language. That’s the way I was taught. But HPL can get away with lines like this because he’s consistent. And this brings up a deeper lesson about fiction writing: stylistic consistency is more important than any given stylistic choice.

In other words, Lovecraft will write a line like “the moon was gleaming vividly” and we will have to either accept it or shut the book. If we accept it—okay, it’s pulp fiction or it’s HPL or we’re just feeling generous that day—then he hits us with “It poured madly out of the dark door, sighing uncannily as it ruffled the sand and spread about the weird ruins.” Wow. Take it or leave it. Do you want to enjoy the story or not? It’s no fun if you have to complain about the writing. So you take it. And then he’s got you: you’ve decided to let him have as many adverbs and vague adjectives as he wants. You’re going to let him tell you that the sigh was uncanny (what does “uncanny” sound like, eh?) and the ruins were weird (can you think of the last weird ruins you’ve seen?). He has trained you to read and appreciate his fiction rather than trying to meet your expectations.

Some great fiction writers can do both. F. Scott Fitzgerald, for example, can write idiosyncratic prose and also ground those weird (!) choices in hard-edged concrete description. People think he learned this through his association with Hemingway, but that’s according to Hem in A Moveable Feast—a great book but likely packed with exaggerations and a few outright lies. Hem might have learned it from Gertrude Stein, but the idiosyncratic flourish we’re talking about is less evident in his work probably because he had such a strong background in news writing. He had to make his prose acceptable to the reader (something that also helped him support himself by selling stories to LIFE and The Saturday Evening Post in an era when you could live that way).

Lovecraft is great in other ways. Still, when I read a passage like this, I have to smile: “In the darkness there flashed before my mind fragments of my cherished treasury of daemoniac lore; sentences from Alhazred the mad Arab, paragraphs from the apocryphal nightmares of Damascius, and infamous lines from the delirious Image du Monde of Gauthier de Metz. I repeated queer extracts, and muttered of Afrasiab and the daemons that floated with him down the Oxus.”

I know HPL sets himself the very difficult task of writing about states of consciousness that have only a tenuous connection to everyday life. So maybe that’s the reason for many of his writerly choices. I do take a certain daemoniac enjoyment of how he disregards certain modern conventions.

Read my latest at Splice Today . . .

 

 

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On Knowing If You’re Any Good

Vintage circus photo sad clown antique photograph poster wall

 

If you’re a writer, you’ll live your life not knowing if you’re any good.  And you’ll die not knowing.  I think John Berryman said that. 

After Phil Levine published his first book of poems, people said, yeah, but can you do it again?  Then he did it again.  Then they said, yeah, but have you been featured in the New York Times Review of Books?  Then he got a review.  So they said, yeah, but have you won any major awards?  He won several.  Then they said, yeah, but we remember you back when you were broke in Detroit.  You’ll always be a bum

There is no escape.  Nobody from the old neighborhood wants to see you get ahead.  It’s a law of nature, the Bumfuck Reflexive Property.  You can ruin your life if you burn your emotional energy wondering whether they’re right.  Every moment you spend doing that is a waste.  But all writers do it.

Hang around with writers and artists and you realize they’ve got a particular tangible proficiency at their kind of art.  Maybe they were born with it or, more likely, they worked hard at developing what little gift they had into something presentable.  The gift, whatever it is, is real and observable.  But whether they’re mediocre or brilliant, derivative or original, a flash in the pan or someone whose art is set to be preserved in the basement of Cheops, you will never know.  More significantly, they will never know. 

If you like their work, great.  If you don’t, you can always recall the time they were broke and living in the projects across from Wayne State.  HA.  HA.  HA.  Let’s all laugh at the sad clown.  Some people and their lousy choices.  Am I right?  If they were any good people would want to pay them for their work.  I mean, that’s just common sense.

I suppose it’s sad when an artist hasn’t learned how to fail (or how to stubbornly and angrily reject failure), when she takes the Bumfuck to bed and makes love to it, when she’s covered in despair, when she finds herself thinking about her choices.  The rest of us chose to avoid that humiliation early.  We were smart and didn’t even try.  Or if we did, we never let anyone see it and gave up shortly thereafter.  And look at us today.  We just got back from our annual trip to Florida.  It’s a good life.

But she has to spend some nights staring at the wall, probing for answers that will never come.  Because her friends and family don’t know what to tell her, even though they have many strongly held opinions on her work and direction in life.  Her teachers didn’t know (even the ones who praised her back at clown school).  And ultimately, she doesn’t know, can’t know, even if she wins a Golden Bozo next year and gets to put “Genius” on her resume.  She might just be a lucky clown, a clown of the moment, a one clown wonder.  How do you ever really, truly know if you’re any good?

Genius.  Hell, she can barely afford lunch.  And so the questions: am I actually a no-talent, deluded ass-clown?  Was taking out a loan to go to clown school the worst decision of my life?  Should I have listened to my old high-school friend who went straight into an apprenticeship as a waste management professional and who is now debt-free, pumping out the city’s shit everyday for a middle-five-figure salary?  The dude owns his own house.  He loves reminding me how debt-free he is.  He loves it.

Can I say the same?  Do I love being a clown?  I thought I did.  But now that I’m out of clown school, I feel so alone.  At least back there I had a useful amount of social friction, mutually shared productive spite, the catty competitiveness of nervous art students to hold me up and distract me. 

Now I only have these four walls and the dirty mirror over the sink and the constant message that if it doesn’t make money, it’s a hobby, not a calling.  A life spent vacuuming out the municipal sewer, by that definition, would be the Grail Quest.  But that tract house and the vacation package in Florida speaks for itself.

How good do I have to be to take clowning seriously, to argue that it is my reason for living and not just a lukewarm pastime that regularly torments me.  Sometimes, I wonder what good is—if it is something metaphysical, some hidden imprimatur, some mysterious proof, like divine grace received only through predestination.  Do we know it when we see it?  Or do we see it because we only know what we’ve been told? 

How much telling is good?  How much showing?  If I get the emotional effect I want by the last line of my story, does that justify anything I do along the way, any narrative impropriety—like Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” one of the most structurally verfucked stories I have ever seen that nevertheless works?  It works because it moves me.  Me.  Not necessarily you. 

What’s more, when I get to the end, I know in the way that comes from having spent too much time with fellow ass-clowns, that “Hills Like White Elephants” would have never gotten a pass in clownshop.  Poor sad clownbear.  Put on your hardhat and gas mask.  There’s shit pumping needs to be done.

I read the New Yorker and The Paris Review.  For clowns, those are basically trade publications.  Those clowns really know how to do it.  They know what’s good, what’s right and wrong about art and culture, what should be published, what should be condemned.  The people they feature—man, that is some serious clown shit.  They really push the clownvelope.  In fact, they are so serious at times that their work transcends everyday clowning and enters the Mime Plane.  It’s a micro universe.  All the mimes who ever existed and who ever will exist live there in an eternal limbo that can fit on the head of a pin.  And yet it’s enormous.  Space and time.  You know.  Like warm bubble-gum.

But I stay away from the mimes, like Alice Mimero and Jonathan Mimezen and Jeffrey Eumimedies and Mimeberto Eco.  Their work is—I don’t even know how to describe it—it’s mysterious.  Like pushing the wind or the transparent box or juggling the invisible chainsaws.  Somehow, it’s supposed to seem dangerous or terrifying.  Risky.  But when an invisible chainsaw slips, there’s only invisible blood.  Hard to see.  You have to pretend it’s there.  Mime stuff, you know.  Everyone acts like they get it.

And yet they’re held up to us as the cultural elite.  How does that work?  Why are we still encouraged by the Big Six to think of these clowns as mysterious and compelling?  I guess only those who put out effort to remain mysterious will continue to be seen that way.  And perpetually wrapping yourself in a glamour of mystery is a lie.  Because no one is actually that.  But we lionize our artists.  The publishing industry runs a lion circus.  We want to believe they know something we don’t when they jump and roar.

Them lions is pathological.  All they know is that gazelles are tasty.  And us?  We don’t even know that much.

I might know that shit stinks and pumping it for a living is a bummer.  I know I’d give a hundred tract houses and a timeshare in Pensacola not to have that be the substance of my Grail Quest.  I’d rather squander my life writing, even if I am a no-talent ass-clown.

But you?  I’m not so sure about you.  Maybe you’re not one of the Cheops Basement All-Stars yet.  Maybe you’ll always be a bum somewhere in municipal Detroit, freezing in your bloodied clown suit.  But I can tell you one thing.  You’ll never really know if you’re any good.  And you won’t be able to look at others for the answer.  They’re all a bunch of ass-clowns, too.

All you can do is keep at it, day after day, hoping somebody somewhere sees what you see.  All you can do is show up.

Writing the Hard Thing

Writers on the pain of hindsight in publishing: 'It's like a bad breakup – you have to move on ...

If I could tell you the number of stories and novels I’ve begun writing and not finished, we’d be here too long.  But “not finished” doesn’t mean “discarded.”  It means what it says. 

The difficulty comes when I’ve convinced myself that I’m one sort of writer (the consistent, cheerfully productive kind) as opposed the other, less glamorous (or, at least, less visible) sort—a slave to the vicissitudes of the moon or some shit, the guy with 25 ongoing projects and an inability to stop working on any of them. 

I know this about myself.  I tell myself that it’s all part of the bigger creative process.  I imagine all these incomplete pieces fermenting, cross-pollinating, mutating.  Nothing lost.  Everything in motion.  And I take refuge in those ideas and metaphors so I can keep working.  Being a writer, I tell myself a story.  But it might be bullshit self-deceit.

The Romantics smoked opium to get closer to the moon and further from the Victorian head trauma of  “productivity.”  And when my genre writer pals do highly Victorian social media posts that go, “Sigh.  Only 10 pages today,” I wonder whether they’re writing from inspiration or simply turning a lathe in some Dickensian word factory.  Productivity equals commercial success, while moonbeams are their own reward.  Still, I have word count envy no matter what I do. 

The problems of productivity and self-deceit are at the center of trying to write the hard thing.  They are the essential obstacles in making the fiction I came here to make instead of clocking in and lathing out a bunch of words to satisfy something or someone else.  I don’t want to produce that which has been assigned to me by industry, necessity, or convention.  I hate obeying.  But am I achieving anything in my disobedience?  For that matter, is achievement even the point?

When yet another publishing industry blog post comes out sounding like the vehement Alec Baldwin scene from Glengarry Glen Ross, I feel repulsed.  I don’t want to spend time creating a fucking audience platform.  Being an artist is not about “closing.”  Just doing the actual writing takes up all my energy.  I don’t want to frame pieces of my fiction as marketable units.  I want to sit in a moonbeam and make something that arises from my own unique imperatives and disposition.  I want the serendipity of inspiration.  I live for it.  And I resist the overtures of commercialism dedicated to consumption and to bullying artists into seeing themselves as part of a service industry.

Unfortunately, I also can’t avoid wanting the world to read my work and maybe give me some money so I can feed and clothe myself.  It’s terrifying sometimes.  Years ago, at an AWP conference, talking with a publisher after I put out Gravity, my first collection of stories, I felt like Nunez in “The Country of the Blind”—faced with the choice of getting what I loved if I voluntarily blinded myself or seeing clearly and climbing out of the hidden valley forever.  In the end, I chose to keep my eyes.

“If you want to get a second book out using the momentum of your first,” he said, “you need to complete the manuscript in less than a year.  More than that and people forget who you are.  You won’t be able to position it.  You’ll be starting over.”  Six years later, my second book was done.  And he was correct: from the marketing, word factory standpoint, I was starting over.  From a creative-process standpoint, those six years were predicated on the six that came before.  I wasn’t starting over.  I was writing something hard that had emerged from my ongoing creative process, something I couldn’t have written in under a year.

Finishing writing in one’s own time instead of in service to the word factory is difficult.  Discovering one’s limitations as an artist and then transcending them is very difficult.  Putting in the years is difficult.  Doing this up to and beyond age 30 is not only difficult but scary.  Nevertheless, all can be accomplished if one is willing to believe in something greater than the word count.  One says, it’s all part of my creative process and tries to calm down.  One decides not to read (or write) certain self-aggrandising Facebook posts.

Of course, there might not be a bigger process.  Maybe there is only Random House, Amazon, AWP conference ugliness, building a platform, positioning and branding, and Best American Monotony.  Maybe.  Maybe we exist in a world full of cynical anti-creative money-making ventures, cautious art, and nothing else.  It’s always possible.  The thought of it sometimes keeps me up at night, especially in those blocked periods of worrying and not writing.

It’s like reading about nuclear war or the earth dying from climate change: you have no agency, no option to mitigate the damage, soulless politicians are making horrible decisions, and there is only one way this can end.  Apocalypse.  Tragedy.  No one at the wheel.  Inhuman corporations controlling everything.  And death, ignominious and unnoticed, unless you get with the program and start churning out formulaic units. 

Capitalism wins.  It usually does.  But if there is a bigger process at work in your struggle to be an artist, it can’t have anything to do with metaphors of productivity on a factory timeline.  That is a reality you must not accept.

How does a writer know what’s real?  Is it moonbeam or production line?  Is it both?  Can it be both?  Andy Warhol, Ernest Hemingway, and David Bowie say yes.  For the rest of us, maybe not.  For every Warhol, Hemingway, and Bowie, there are multitudes who weren’t lucky enough to have their unique artistry coincide with commercial demand. 

Hugh Howey likes to write about Wool the way Elon Musk talks about launching a roadster into space: let me tell you about my unique genius and the origin of my success.  But self-publishing fame and running a car company have one thing in common that never gets discussed: they exist because they are timely.  So it is with any highly lucrative creative effort.  And that intersection has to do with luck.  Meanwhile, someone out there is no doubt making Peking opera, but they are unlikely to be buying villas on the Riviera anytime soon.  Nobody cares.  Their units don’t ship.  And yet they also have the favor of the moon.

Writers are especially predisposed to misunderstand what is real—what is objective versus just a moonbeam.  They spend a lot of time deliberately thinking in metaphors, some more useful than others.  And if they’re not paying attention to their minds, they can mistake such metaphors for objective reality (which, incidentally, has nothing to do with capitalist realism).  Over-absorption in a world of imaginative metaphors can become a source of anxiety when the non-make-believe world reaches out and reminds us that we can’t live totally in our imaginations.  Make your Peking opera, sure, but also accept that the six years you put into it mean nothing in terms of branding and positioning.

A writer will see something and begin to imagine things about it—everyone does this, but writers seem to do it with particular intensity—and before long the writer starts to feel like he or she knows it or, even worse, is it.  Then something from the world of physics and money communicates: no, you are not that.  You can’t imagine yourself to fame and fortune if you’re doing original work.  You might get lucky, yes, and I hope you (I hope I) do.  But commerce and true creativity exist in different spaces.

So I look at my 25 open projects with a bit of trepidation as the days go by.  I’m turning 46 this month.  I’ve published a lot of stories in magazines and two books.  These have been hard things.  Are they enough?  Will they ever be enough?

Don’t worry, I tell myself.  There’s bigger process at work.  There must be.

Of Trouble, Money, and the So-called Writing Life

There is a writing life.  And you could lead it if you could only get past everything else, which is to say yourself.  This is what a lot of writers eventually believe, even if they don’t start out that way.  Maybe you believe it, too.  It’s not the wrong way to think (tell me there’s a right or wrong in this business and I’ll show you how that’s both right and wrong), but it is naïve. 

So be naïve.  There are worse things for a writer, like crippling cynicism or despair or (absolutely lethal) early unwarranted success.  And what is success?  Before we get into that, let’s start with trouble, which means we have to also start with money because they’re inseparable. 

I was going to call this, “Of Trouble and Money,” but I realized that’s too broad.  It covers everybody.  And this is a post aimed primarily at writers and at those closeted egomaniacs grappling with the concept who call themselves, “aspiring writers.”  So I added “the So-called Writing Life.”  But that, too, is just a label, a concept, a paper hat, an identity that often proves to be more trouble than it’s worth.

You need something else, a different paper hat to stave off Bob, who works in IT and hates himself, at the dinner party you were coerced into attending.  Bob despises everything in the world, but he’ll despise you so much more if you put on the writer hat.  So you say, “I’m an English teacher” (nice and boring; he feels superior; well done) or “I’m a copyeditor” (also boring; satisfyingly obscure) or “I’m between jobs” (could be true; boring; allows Bob to feel superior and has the added benefit of desperation cooties, which will make Bob excuse himself in 30 seconds and avoid you for the rest of the evening).  Say anything other than, “I’m a writer.”  You don’t need the paper hat to lead the life.

You just need to lead the life.  And what does that entail?  First, trouble.  You have it the minute you make the decision to put down words that amount to anything more than a grocery list.  There’s the art, which takes a lifetime.  There are the ponderous exigencies of time and space that seem to conspire against you from the beginning, making it very difficult to get anything completed.  There are many pencils to sharpen and bagels to eat and horrific dinner parties to endure.  There’s your recalcitrant mind, your spouse, your family, your friends, your old pals from high school at the reunion, your outright enemies, the publishing industry, crotchety reviewers, and posterity, which you won’t be around to appreciate but which you’ll worry about nonetheless.  There’s needing to eat.  And there’s existential dread that you’re wasting your time, which you’ll laugh at until it starts laughing, too.

Second, money.  Another pernicious idea.  A demon.  The basis of all well-being in our mentally ill society.  Getting it.  Having it.  Spending it.  Losing it.  Cycle, cycle, cycle, over and over.  Writing doesn’t work on money.  And the writing life doesn’t know money exists.  All writing wants is more writing.  All money wants is every part of you salted on a plate.

A young horror writer I know recently told me that he feels small presses are fine, but his goal is to make a middle-class income off his writing.  So he has to go for bigger game.  I told him that I thought it was possible, that I thought he could do it, and I was being honest.  You can earn a middle-class living doing just about anything if you make that income level your goal and subordinate all other considerations to it.  I admire his clarity.  I never said, “I want that.”  I only said I needed to write because if I didn’t I’d get (more) mentally unwell.  For me, it’s a matter of health.  For him, wealth. 

We’re both writers.  But he’s going to get what he wants because he actually knows what it is, which gives him wisdom.  Very few writers are healthy, wealthy, and wise.  All I ever knew was that I didn’t want to not write.  When I did write, I was happier for it.  I’m still on that track: write so I can avoid having not written, then get busy with all the other compulsions and machinations of my day, which are ultimately in place to facilitate one thing: me being able to avoid not writing again tomorrow.

So you eat the trouble-money sandwich every day.  And if you can keep it down, if you can do your art on a regular basis with a free and sincere mind, you’re leading the writing life—insofar as we can call it that, since most serious writers will be equally serious when they tell you that’s no way to live.  Go into plastics.  Sell computers.  Operate a used car lot.  Go make Bolivia great again.  Manage a bowling alley and spend all your free time watching spaghetti westerns and smoking weed.  Care for a kitten.  I guarantee, in the end, that kitten will make you happier than your writing, even if, from the beginning to the middle, your writing saves your life.

But what is your life worth?  If you have an idea that it comes down to being a success and you can say what that is, you are most assuredly wrong.  If you only have a compulsion to not not write, welcome to my world.  I can’t be wrong because I can’t be right.  Every morning with my coffee and steno pad, I’m a formless pulse, trying to be someone else, somewhere else, in my head.  And that doesn’t make a body solvent.  It doesn’t make people want to put your books in urns in the basement of a pyramid.  You’ll get paid by teaching or working for Bob the IT professional or washing dishes in the back of Harley’s Place.  And don’t complain.  You made your choices.  Complaining is for Bob, not you.  He doesn’t get to do what you do.

So you accept that you’ve made this writer’s bargain.  You’ve gone down to the crossroads and agreed that, in exchange for being able to live the writing life, you will never have a two-story house in the suburbs and drive a car that doesn’t look like a dirty toaster.  You will be mindful of your whining.  You will be grateful for this divine gift that makes you weird and ecstatic and keeps your head from exploding.  And you will get up day-in and day-out and sit at the desk and go out of body to that place where your characters may be earning their middle-class incomes and driving new cars and having break-up conversations over linguine at the Chez Paul.

Maybe you’ll be a horror writer.  Maybe you will attain your income goals.  But I suspect that in order to accomplish such a thing, you’ll have to get past those goals along with everything else and exist in a liminal space where all that matters is the writing.  In the meantime, you should know that cardboard inserts in your shoes can prevent your socks from getting wet.  And a place that serves bottomless coffee is a joy forever.

Read my latest on Splice Today . . .

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Writing out a few sentences by Nakamura to see how they feel.

There was something evil in the glow of the room’s blue lights.  I felt the weight of the man on top of me.  He could no longer move.  His eyes were closed.  I stared long into his face.  I realized that I wanted him.  I wanted the passion he had until a moment ago.  I wanted his shoulders, which were quite muscular for his age, and his naturally tan face.  I got out from under his body, sat in a chair, and lit a cigarette.  I had to wait like this until he fell into a deep sleep.

It was raining outside.

The Kingdom, Fuminori Nakamura (trans. Kalau Almony)

FYI: New Story Forthcoming in Visitant Magazine

A recent short short of mine, “You Are Somewhere Else,” is forthcoming in Visitant and should be available online.  As usual, I will post the links when the story comes out. – M

STEM, Scientism, and the Decline of the Humanities – my latest on Splice Today

Read it here: https://www.splicetoday.com/on-campus/stem-scientism-and-the-decline-of-the-humanities