Timebomb: inspiration

From early on in life, we are expected to make a lot of big decisions before we have a clue how to make them.

So what do you want to be when you grow up? How’s your self-awareness, little Johnny? You’ve been alive almost 10 years, you should have it all planned out. You should know exactly what will make you happy. After all, failing to plan is planning to fail. Stepford wife platitudes, anyone?

Here’s the thing: what if we make a series of decisions by default? Society makes certain presumptions. At certain times, in certain places, there are expected courses of action. If you are good at X you should be Y. Procedures, processes that lead you in your thoughts, in your beliefs, in your actions.

What if you make those decisions that you are supposed to, because you are supposed to … and you one day realize that it’s not really working out for you? It’s not that your life is falling apart or you’re on crack … it’s more just an emptiness … a feeling that things could be better, could be great in fact … if only … but you can’t finish the train of thought.

What if you could have been so much more than the prescribed default? You just never had the time or the courage or the independent will to step outside the demarcated path.

Imagine who you could have been. Imagine what you could be missing out on.

Scary thoughts? Enter Martin Short, a man who makes the right choices. The sensible one, the one who does all those things that are easy to explain and justify and display to the world as neat paragraphs on a CV. A man who is readily reduced to paperwork, in life and in death.

I’m not Martin Short. My life does not make much sense when seen from outside, and that’s probably the best part of it. Whenever I’ve been too scared to be myself and instead tried to follow the road well-travelled, things have gone horribly wrong. Narcolepsy, an insatiable itch, a strange series of inevitable events that make the traditional path steadily less and less feasible — you name it. I don’t know if I believe in destiny as such, but I do feel that there is a kind of inevitability to being myself.

It’s hard to do things that may not work out and subject you to ridicule. It’s difficult to have the “pipe dreams” that are so easily ridiculed by those people who follow the rules in fear and reinforce themselves by trying to tear down anyone who lives larger than they do.

I’ve made the mistake of trying to look at my life and my decisions through the eyes of the average. Maybe I’m not average. Maybe you’re not average. Maybe none of us have to be average.

It made me want to write about someone who takes this process to its logical conclusion and finds something unexpected. The sedate, normal life is perhaps a seal that we try to plaster over the raving magnificence of being human. Break the seal — let your humanity be expressed.

I wrote about Martin Short, a man facing a personal crisis because he has taken the average to its logical conclusion. He’s knitted himself a cardigan, but by God, it just doesn’t fit. It makes his neck itch.

It starts to itch so bad, he starts cracking open. He starts to emerge; thoughts and feelings that he hadn’t allowed to exist now exist.

Things start popping for Martin Short. Life starts going a bit off course.

If that sounds like a good prospect to you, then you would probably enjoy my book.

I have a lot to say about the road less travelled. I’m on it as we speak.

Keep an eye on my blog, read my books. Maybe you’ll join me.

-Nick

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Bad Reviews

My topic of discussion today is a sensitive issue for writers: bad reviews.

The nature of creative expression is in itself quite slippery. We can’t really define what makes something good or bad. We can often describe characteristics of a good and bad things, but we fail to completely capture the “formula”, if yuo will. In fact, he line between good and bad is sometimes nearly impossible to discern. Often very good and very bad can be nearly interchangeable.

Not much comfort for van Gogh, I’m afraid. Good news for 50 Shades of Grey and Rebecca Black.

As I wrote in a previous post, we writers generally have to be made of sturdy stuff. It doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt to be lambasted with words, it’s more that — as with a bad song you keep hearing on the radio — frequent exposure creates a kind of familiarity. Eventually, grim and haggard, the writer starts to gain a kind of perverse enjoyment out of being hated and reviled. His thesaurus disgorges asperse, traduce, calumniate and more. He keeps coming back for more. It reinforces that excellent feeling of being “The Outsider” that augments the narrative process.

More importantly, the bad review often tells a far more interesting story than a good one. Don’t you hate those people who can never criticize anything because they’ve been trained by society to be so pitifully nice? Sometimes an appropriate cry of “fatso” is just the thing a child needs to motivate himself to start losing weight, rather than some dreadful encouragement from cake-wielding parents.

There is no inner beauty in being diabetic. Don’t tell your kid it’s OK. I might not be a parent, but as “The Outsider”, I sure do know better.

The point is, fire that missile. Take aim and annihilate. Dialogue, characterization, plot, anything and everything is a legitimate target. Don’t spare my feelings. Your sweet encouragement is making me diabetic. Give me some ugly truth. Give me some hateful subjective opinions. They could really help me see my work in a new light.

As much as I will not enjoy it, I want you to fire that missile. The only important thing I would like to specify is this: please do take aim.

Here’s an example: if you thought this post stank, a comment like “this post is shit” would not accomplish much. A comment like “this post was rambling and sanctimonious” would be a lot more valuable.

So, critics of the world, I address you: when you contemplate your scalding comment, I ask that you remember not to swing wildly at me. Hit me where it hurts. Our relationship might be a bit sick and co-dependent, but I would really like it to be meaningful.

Hardcore

Today I am going to play the iconoclast.

Writers are getting a bum rap, yo. We are seen as these sniveling little Woody Allen types hunched over keyboards. We’re so touchy when people don’t get us that we drown our sorrows in fine wine.

You think I’m that runny-nosed, bespectacled ninny? You see me wearing vintage cardigans in a ramshackle apartment full of meaningful eclectic curios?

I’ve got news for you, bro. I’m hardcore. Now let me tell you why.

Everybody wants to be a writer

Easy measure of hardcore: how many wannabes are there out there? Count the aspiring writers. Count the number of guys who want to write a book. This kind of imitation has to be worth some street cred.

Without writers there are no stories

We are responsible for masterpieces and disasters. An idea is the most powerful thing in the world, so the guy that writes down that idea is wielding a truly remarkable weapon. People go to war due to ideological disputes. Millions die. A movie or book can plant the idea that starts the next revolution.

Stop kicking us out, Mr Jones. Your daughter is doing well to hook up with somebody who wields these kind of weapons. Find me an accountant (barring the Parmalat and Enron guys) who has the potential to make this kind of impact.

Writers eat rejection for breakfast

Now we’re getting to the serious hardcore. Nobody likes rejection. Writers get it in their breakfast bowl on a daily basis.  No milk and sugar on this one, son. This breakfast tastes like despair. We pour heart and soul into a project. We don’t let a stupid thing like reality hold us back. We’re more persistent than telesalesmen. Sadly, most of the time that ends in disaster. Most of us only ever meet with disappointment. This should put me off, but it just encourages me more. Why? Because I’m hardcore.

In fact, right now I’m inviting you to buy my work and insult me. Tear it to pieces, come on here and make a fool of me. (is this an obvious ploy? I hope not)

Also, because writers are generally such sensitive folk, we feel things deeply. Being rejected isn’t such a big deal if you don’t care much about what you’re doing. This is seldom the case with writers. When you write something, it’s like your little ridiculous child. Imagine seeing your ridiculous little fat child being rejected when he tries out for the softball team. Dealing with that is hardcore.

Writers face fear

I’ve saved the best till last. Somebody who tells you they’re never afraid is either lying, deluded or insane. Fear is a natural thing. It’s being able to face fear that makes a person courageous.

Writers have several fears that hound them on a daily basis. Fear of a blank page, fear of rejection, fear of failure. Sometimes your introspection gets so convoluted that you start to wonder if anything makes sense. You doubt your own reason, especially when 50 Shades of Grey and David Ike are making McDonalds numbers (as Ludacris said, yo) and nobody seems to like your great literary masterpiece. It becomes hard to decide whether something really is any good after all.

But we’re like the terminator. We just don’t stop.

You will have to kill me to stop me writing. My severed fingers will continue to tap the keyboard.

Look into my red eyes. (Admittedly it’s from staring at a computer screen, but the similarity is not purely co-incidental) I am a writer. Now tell me I’m not hardcore.

Artistic Aspirations

So you woke up this morning dissatisfied. Your day-to-day life is somehow insufficient. It might not be extreme discomfort, but there is a lack of fulfilment. You wonder if what you are doing really matters. You start to have one of those existential crises.

I have those too. Almost every day. I am a writer; this sort of omphaloskepsis is what keeps me going.

So deep into your existential crises, you pop online and start questioning the modern equivalent of the Oracle of Delphi. Yes, Google. You hammer out some search phrases in the hope that some existentially-adept individual will come to your rescue.

If that was how you found this post, Google failed you. I am just as confused as you are.

There was a time when life was simple. You’d run away from predators, eat, fall asleep under a tree and thank your lucky stars you weren’t chewed to pieces. Your life was pretty pointless … or was it? I don’t know what I would have done back then. I would have been too busy trying to find something to eat to spend much time or energy on things like this blog. I don’t think cavemen were big on blogging.

Today, we are even more confused than the poor cavemen trying to decide what to do next, naked in the forest. Now we’re clothed with an illusion of certainty that tells us we are supposed to know what we are doing.

But we are still naked in the forest.

Isn’t it strange that as the dominant species on this planet, we are basically enslaved by work? And the majority of work is painfully boring and repetitive. Surely we could have made things a bit more fun for ourselves by now!

You are supposed to follow your passion, but good luck finding it. Mark Cuban wrote a nice post about this vaunted ideal. You won’t have a chance to really explore the world because we have to get you specialised and schooled and ready for corporate life as quickly a possible. There is no time to lose worrying about a meaningful life. These silly things pale in comparison to the importance of a reliable income.

And good luck if you want to be a writer, a musician, an artist. You are screwed. Everybody tells you that you must follow your dream, but looks down on you for doing so. The struggling musician is seen as a ne’er do well. People either encourage him unconditionally or condemn his aspirations as unrealistic. Often both. The passionate writer is doomed to eventually give in and write the next 50 Shades of Despair. Of course you should follow your passion, provided that passion is commercially viable. Otherwise don’t think you’ll be marrying my daughter, Mr-Passionate. Take your guitar and your delusions elsewhere. Go get a real job.

Without those guys who take chances and follow their passion, there would be no writers, musicians or artists. We would have a pretty grim world to live in. But nobody is supposed to do it unless it is commercially viable. But it won’t be commercially viable when you start, but you must follow your passion, no matter what. But you’re a failure if you don’t earn enough money. You’re a freak and a mess if you don’t have an orderly life.

So make up a passion that works and follow it. Be yourself provided you’re just like me.

I’ll be proud of myself if I can face that gaping uncertainty. To say that I didn’t know if anybody would like my work. To give up my starry-eyed illusions of certain success and trade them for the courage and fortitude to accept the possibility of failure … and to keep writing anyway.

Last night I had dreams of disaster. I felt the devil’s hot breath on the nape of my neck. My responsibilities, the pressure of running a functional life, the infinite amount of energy that has to be expended to be Nicholas Cross, writer.

I woke up this morning dissatisfied, just like you. I faced the blank page. I wrote this blog post and now I’m inviting you to condemn my artistic aspirations.

We writers are crazy, aren’t we?

50 Shades of Frustration

I’ll bet you’re expecting me to go on a nice rant about the decay of modern civilization and how the scale of 50 Shades of Grey’s success supports the Mayan prediction of a fast-approaching apocalypse.

In fact, I have rather mixed feelings about the whole thing.

First of all, as a writer, I am undeniably jealous. Of course I assume that my work is much better (though there’s always the chance that I’m delusional) and therefore deserves much greater commercial success. I naturally think of the great starving writer/artist archetype. Some poor frustrated genius who cuts off his ear in distress and flings it in the face of his critic, bellowing “You just wouldn’t LISTEN to my symbolism”.

Vincent van Gogh: Self portrait with bandaged ear

Look at what you made me do, philistine!

Secondly, as a human being I feel a kind of pretentious need to revile bad writing. It doesn’t really matter whether I’ve read the book or not — I have an idea of what constitutes good literature and I feel quite sure that my recognition of the inferiority of this popular book somehow makes me intellectually superior to “the herd”.

But despite these points, I really don’t think it’s such a bad thing that 50 Shades of Grey has taken the world by storm. In order to share my perspective with you, I’d like to pose some questions:

Is popular really so bad?

I like popular stuff. I enjoy rap music and hamburgers and superhero movies. I despise artsy movies, even though I am a writer and enjoy weaving tapestries of symbolism and so forth. I really don’t feel good about Finnegan’s Wake, either, despite much critical acclaim. Maybe what’s brilliant is not all that clear cut after all, and maybe there’s something to be said for satisfying material. A cheeseburger is satisfying in a different way to a fillet bearnaise, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a right to exist (or to outsell the fillet bearnaise).

There is no way to predict what will be popular and what will drive people’s taste. From some perspectives, almost anything can appear brilliant (James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake for example). Maybe this uncertainty is part of what bothers us, while we all clamour to recreate 50 Shades of Good Luck, despairing that we just can’t win that lottery by betting on the same numbers that won last time.

Are we being consistent?

Let’s do a thought experiment. A completely average guy, a bad writer, a poor worker and a generally unremarkable person buys a lottery ticket and wins.

I can’t say I deserve this, but nor can you!

Sure, you might feel a bit envious, but you can’t really say the money wasn’t “deserved”. He bought his ticket, faced the same odds as the rest of us and got lucky.

So now let’s take a completely unremarkable writer who writes a book, persuades a publisher to promote it and lucks out, earning a fantastic return. As much as I’d like to feel this is somehow unfair, it strikes me as more fair than the guy winning the lottery.

After all, no matter how bad a book may be, it takes work and perseverance to write it, and more work and perseverance to get it published. Happening to run a lucky trend is just that: good luck.

The silly thing is that we now all assume that the only literature that is commercially successful is rubbish. We then go further and assume that only crap will be successful. Do you really believe that?

Isn’t it nice that any work has the potential to succeed?

Imagine if the only successful novels were works of poetic genius. Good luck making a living, bucko. Maybe it’s a good thing if popular fiction can be created easily. Doesn’t it excite you that you could create the next world phenomenon? Perhaps a simple fantasy or a story you would like to tell your child could capture the imagination of millions and make you rich beyond your wildest dreams. Is it really so bad for that possibility to exist?

So what are you waiting for, pretentious writer?

This is a call to action. Get off your high horse. Believe in your work enough to stop complaining about the fairness or unfairness of a random process. Create something glorious and put it out there. Accept that you are writing for somebody other than yourself. If the work gains popular appeal, you can make money. If it doesn’t, have enough self-esteem to know that creating something great is a reward in itself and you do not need to be validating by a mass market of lunatics.

Create the best thing you can and who knows, it might be the next world phenomenon.

And hey, will it really kill you to write something that somebody might actually enjoy reading?

(Speaking of that, you should buy my books. A couple of hundred thousand sales would really add authenticity to this post.)

Fellow writers out there (or anyone else), let’s hear what you think.

UPDATE:

I am amazed. I discovered the following quote from 50 Shades of Grey in a post by Danzo over here:

“His finger circled my puckered love cave. 
“Are you ready?” He mewled
smirking at me like a mother hamster
about to eat her three legged young”
I went through a rollercoaster of amusement, astonishment, shock, horror.
I had heard that the books were bad. I had naturally assumed that I knew what that meant. Clearly I was mistaken.
This is like a religious moment for me. Or maybe something more like what a young soldier feels in Vietnam when he witnesses his first atrocity. My mind is now blown open like the stomach of a putrefying corpse.
I had thought 50 Shades unremarkable, but maybe I was wrong. Perhaps it is bad enough to be remarkable.
Is this a recurring theme in popular culture? Remarkably good or bad are in some sense the same — either will succeed.
I’m afraid to consider the possibility that remarkably good is losing its place…