The Dog Paddle Upstream

I couldn’t sleep the other night. I was cold. I felt alone, disconnected and sort of forgotten. So, I sat on my couch in front of a dying fire and watched Netflix. I didn’t know what I wanted to watch, which is never a good sign, because usually it doesn’t take much to sell me on a detective story or a documentary. I settled on ‘Salinger’ which I had seen before, but didn’t really pay attention to. I watched it the first time so that a woman would think I was smart, but I don’t think she ever realized I was even alive after our initial interaction.

If you’ve never seen it, you should. Sort of. It’s about 2 hours long, and it’s about JD Salinger, and he was sort of a fucked up sad dude. You got a pretty clear sense that he was super arrogant and obsessive, serving in World War 2 unhinged him, he loved writing and hated all the trappings of publication and he treated women like dogshit. Still, it’s got some great visual stylings and interesting interviews. So I watched, hoping that I’d learn something about his craft, like how he learned how to string words together in such a way that profoundly affected so many people.

See, in high school, I had to read Catcher In the Rye, and I hated it. I didn’t have the appreciation for wordcraft then, I didn’t understand much about voice or connectivity to a reader, but I thought as a character and a story, it wasn’t all that great. The character was whiny, and seemed obsessed with “phony”. The way my teacher raved about the book, you’d think these pages were supposed to unlock something in my brain or that they’d be my Bodhi tree under which I’d discuss the truths of existence.

More like this book bored the shit out of me and I kept questioning why we were reading it. I filed the book away as something I read and could cross off the expected list of things writers read. I don’t even think there’s a copy of it in the house.

So there I sat, watching the documentary, where it explained how people made some great pilgrimage to this tiny town where he lived, and camped out in front of his house in the hopes he’d appear and dispense wisdom. And in his later years, he was kind of a dick. I mean, I get that pressure around him didn’t help his attitude, but someone drives 400+ miles, even if they camp at the foot of your driveway, give them something other than “You should seek psychiatric help”.

There wasn’t any direct section that broke down his style, leading me to look at the interviews and snippets of quotes about how writing affected people. So I had to work backwards. To deconstruct how he saw writing, and split that from how he saw publishing and people and love and everything else. This is what I came up with, upon reflection:

1. Writing is done for yourself. You’ve heard this one before in a lot of permutations. Don’t write for trends. Don’t write to satisfy agent or publisher demands. Let’s spin it a little more. Write to express your feelings. Write what you want, audience and sales be damned. Audience and sales are the consequence of good writing, and the best writing stays closer to yourself and your expression of the world than if it strays wide into trying to fathom what other people want. The audience and sales will come, but only if you write true to yourself.

2. Have a point to what you’re writing. Maybe you heard this a lot in school, where you have to write a thesis or term paper and you have a statement at the beginning you have to justify by the end thanks to your ability to look up quotes and use parentheses. But this is different. Skip that research concept. It’s nice that we can all do that, but writing isn’t a pile of footnotes and a works cited page. Writing has a point, because whatever you’re writing, be it a blog post or a chapter or a game or a greeting card is an exploration of an idea. Later, we spin this idea into a pitch, but while we’re producing, we can keep the idea on our heads: This story is about two people who fall in and out of love with everything except each other. This is a song about not lying and enjoying rear ends. This is a game about how a plumber is a bag of dicks and earwax. We hold that idea as though it’s an axis upon which our whole created universe rotates, and everything from the littlest burble of text to the greatest action chapter  is an extension outward from that axis, with roots we can trace and motives we can fathom.

3. Writing is tough. As said before and elsewhere, the act of writing, the mechanical flexing of fingers on keys, is the easy part. You can train monkeys to write junk. You can rip off bad writing with your own bad writing. But nurturing an idea out of your head and into a draft, then a draft into a finished draft, that’s tough. Ideas evolve, and they require more than simple bits tacked on here and there. There’s a fullness to an idea, it has components and depth, and you can’t just slap a few thoughts on paper and call it a masterpiece. (Well, okay, you can, but that doesn’t mean it’s any good. Remember the quote from Lincoln: You can call a tail a leg on a dog, but that doesn’t make it so.) It’s an investment into a creative bank, stocking a fund  of imagination and talent. Make deposits frequently, and they won’t always have to be substantial ones.

4. Planning isn’t writing. There’s a time to plan out what you’re going to write. And a time to write it. I know a lot of mediocre-at-best writers who have planned for years because they think the best plan in advance will produce the best book later. They tinker more with that plan and less with how they write the words, and wonder why they’re spinning in circles and at best getting pats on the back at the mutual admiration society meetings that pass for writing groups. I’ve struggled for a long time to find a way to express my thoughts on planning and writing, and to date, the best explanation I got is – it’s the fog of war in a video game. You know there’s a whole map out there, you can press the button and see it, but the details of it are unknown until you get there. You have to explore (write) to discover the map (the story’s development). Don’t go to extremes and say you’re supposed to write and NOT plan either. Sketch out that plan, have a direction you set off in, but ultimately be willing to crumple that plan and use what the exploration tells you to inform and create a new map.

5. When the current goes one way, be willing and capable of going against it. Remember a few years back when everyone was writing vampires or zombies? Remember how lots of people said things like “If you’re not writing vampires or zombies, it won’t get seen by people”, and how quickly that metamorphosed into “Stop writing about vampires and zombies dammit, we’re tired of that!” ? That was the current going one way. You could go against it, sure, but many voices who have interests in keeping the current going would shout down that you shouldn’t if you wanted whatever carrot they were dangling. But there are just as many carrots to be had for going across the current or against it, even if you’re dogpaddling upstream or running over the water. You don’t HAVE to  (remember you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do, ever), but if you feel you should or need to, go for it.

6. Draw boundaries. Okay so Salinger drew some extreme ones. He lived in seclusion. He locked himself away in a “bunker” to write. He fucked up his marriages and his kids with his coldness. He was a dick of high caliber. But the idea was there – the idea that there are some barriers you need to erect. I’m not talking about things you don’t like to do, or things you don’t know how to do and you’re afraid of screwing up, I mean there needs to be some areas where you’re not writing. Everything you do, everyone you know, everything you enjoy, hate, love, fuck, taste, reject, know about, shun, embrace, dance to, smile at or bitch it is going to influence your writing, and there’s no escaping that. But, you need some stuff in your life that isn’t the act of writing … if only for the simple fact that it will influence your work later. Me? I play games and watch movies and cook and complain and get moody and rock out to loud music. I draw a boundary around things I will and won’t talk about. I share a lot but not everything. My choice. For me. And I don’t have to explain it to you. Boundaries help temper things by reinforcing why they’re important. Which helps you focus on them.

If I had to add another, it would be:

7. You’re never going to find all the answers all of the time, just some ephemeral and situational answers occasionally. I never quite understood the people who would go to Jim Morrison’s grave (I don’t like The Doors, so that doesn’t help) or the people who would go seek Salinger like he’s got exclusive access to a vault of info and if you’re lucky, he’ll give you a piece and your world will forever be enlightened. Um, no. Those guys are just dudes. They’re human and frail and fragile and fucked up and regular. The musicians and writers we think “speak to us” really speak through us, since they’re as much revealing our existing information in new ways as they are elaborating upon it. Look, I love the Dave Matthews Band, and I’ve been to a concert, but at no point to date, did Dave ever come off-stage mid-song, walk up to me and tell me some great secret of existence. Do I like the music? Totally. Do I think there are ideas conveyed in those songs that are good and resonate with me? Absolutely. Am I going to track Dave down when he’s 70 and ask him for guidance? No, because that’s weird. Any answers I need, I can get, because the songs and books and art have given me tools to do so, not just glorified their respective creators.

I would encourage you to check out the documentary and see what conclusions you draw. You might surprise yourself.

Happy writing.


Oh, one last thing – I’m giving a Writing Workshop this coming Sunday at Dreamation, from 12 to 3pm. I don’t know the specific location yet, but when I do, I’ll tweet it. I’d love to see you there. It’ll be three hours of writing advice, discussion about publishing, creating and making things and likely some strongly worded opinions about things.  

The blog resumes on Tuesday. 

Posted by johnadamus

Leave a Reply