Matt W Cook

writer.former fundamentalist.christianly fellow

Month: May, 2011

Pakistan, Productivity and Why I’d Rather Write Books

     My wife and kids are off to Pakistan in a week. I’ll be following them a month later. I’m stoked. I tend to get all glossy-eyed when I talk about Pakistan. Kinda like a high-school girl talking about the head of the football team. What can I say? Pakistan is my lover.

     That tends to freak people out a little. Then they ask what I love about it. And I have a really hard time answering them. I mean, the place is pretty rough. It’s hot. Stinky. There’s a few shady characters. Not much chance for the trendy nerd conversations I like having. But I love it anyway.

     My wife is running an informal little charity thingy. Helping out widows and orphans. She calls it i117, go check it out. That’s one of the reasons we’re going this summer. Hunting down folks suffering in extreme poverty and coming alongside them to make life better.

     I get bothered when I think about how much my country suffers. I have friends who are malnourished. Literally. I have family who had to cut their caloric intake when American bio-fuel companies started buying up all the rice and grain that used to be used for food. For four years I lived among a people who simply did not have enough.

     But now I live in Canada. And we have too much. Way too much. So I don’t really want to be productive. Because we’re producing so much that most of what we work 40hrs a week for ends up in a dump before it goes stale. Because we buy new printers instead of refilling toner. Because the average household drill runs for 16 minutes during its entire life. Because everyone on the street owns a lawnmower that they use once a week in the summer. Because we eat so much we’re dying because of it. We’re just producing too many things. We aren’t even consuming them anymore. And it can’t go on, friends. It won’t.

     So I’d rather write books. I’d rather sing songs. I’d rather dance. I’d rather do plays and cook fancy meals and drink tea with strangers and tell funny stories. Because those things don’t take up space and don’t take away from my friends in Pooristan.

     My old protestant work ethic is yelling at me right now. He’s telling me that hard work and productivity is a virtue. I figure he’s wrong, though. Our craze for being productive has made us the economic lords of the earth, yes. But you can’t have lords without serfs. And I think it sucks to have either.

     So I’d rather write a book.

Short Story – The Sodomite

This is a new one. I’ve been wanting to write it for a while but was never really able to make it work until just now. And I think it works now. It’s a bit of an exercise in trying to understand myself and my thoughts about life, Jesus and everything good. I was raised in a very conservative religious environment and have been moving toward something different over the past few years. The Sodomite is a bit of a parody of some very popular modern Christian parables linking the idea of substitutional atonement with a judge condemning a guilty crook and then serving his sentence. Anyway, enjoy it and pass it alone!

The Problem with Cliche

    They’re too big for their britches (Mua ha! Irony!).

    You ever notice how many times the word ‘said’ appears in a novel? Or ‘the’? Nope. You haven’t. Haven’t noticed at all. But if a book repeated a different word, like ‘noticed’, you’d notice. You’d notice fast. But you didn’t notice ‘the’ or ‘said’. Because those words are invisible. And that’s a good thing, because it’s kinda hard to write much without those words appearing on nearly every page.

    Cliches are invisible. That sucks, because the concepts packed into them are mind-bogglingly powerful.

    Armed to the teeth. Give yourself a mental picture there. That dude is seriously armed. His freakin’ teeth have weapons! Too bad it was written in a cliche and you didn’t notice it.
    He did it religiously. Religious people are generally unstable. They don’t listen to reason. They refuse to compromise or slow down. Anyone that does something religiously is suddenly an interesting person. Unless you use this tired cliche to describe them. Then they’re boring.
    The elephant in the room. Another great mental picture that has lost all of its power just because it’s been used a billion times. Though in The Kite Runner it made an appearance that breathed new life into it. Don’t ask me where, just go buy the book.
    What Would Jesus Do. Seriously?! Have you ever read what Jesus did? Don’t freakin’ use this unless we’re talking about someone who devoted their life to spreading love around everyone he met, preached a wild doctrine of love toward enemies and then embraced non-violence so much that he allowed a corrupt religious system to torture him to death all the while forgiving them. Seriously. Just don’t.
    On thin ice. Ever been on thin ice? It’s freakin’ scary. But if you read that you won’t be scared. Because it’s a gutted cliche. So there.
    Raining cats and dogs. Check out the mental image. Be blown away from that kind of rain. And think of a different way to express it.
    Smart as a whip. Whips smart, friends. They smart a lot. Just ask anyone who’s been whipped.

    All this to say that cliches are packed with power. Their substance is wonderful and I love having a list of cliches handy just so I can dig into them and feel their depth. But when it comes time to express their meaning, I have to pack them in a different box. Because they’re invisible. It’s like those preachers who use their religious words so often that, suddenly, they become invisible and no one has any clue what they mean by gospel or word or saved.

    So walk away from cliches, friends. Avoid them like the plague.

Strange Things I’ve Learned About Writing

Some of the strange things I’ve learned about writing and all the sucky struggles that come with it.

  • Busyness does not even enter into it. When I first started writing I was working as an elementary school teacher. I taught two grades at once, every weekday. I received my textbooks a few months into the term so I was always very busy with lesson plans, homework marking, test writing, math re-learning and all that silliness. And within a year I had the first draft of a novel finished. The next year I was gloriously unemployed with nothing but leisure time. Despite my desperate yearnings, I wrote nearly nothing. The amount I write, I found, has nothing to do with how busy I am. Like Jello, there is always time for writing if I want it.
  • Multitasking sucks. Driving while listening to music. Cleaning while listening to audio books. Eating while reading. All these multi-tasking habits that I was raised on have been nothing but a burden to my craft. When I turn them off I have more success. So I’ll often drive to work in silence. I try to eat with nothing in front of me. When I read, I do nothing but read. When I work, I do nothing but work. And the mind is sharper for it. And the work is better for it.
  • The search for the ideal environment hamstrung my writing. Not because it was hard to achieve. But because when I finally got it (and I did), it sucked. A huge desk. An optional typewriter. Epic music in the background. It all served to distract. Now I try to write in places that are uncomfortable. I use the tiny ledge of a counter in the kitchen. If it’s too hot, I let it be hot. If I want a snack, I refuse to get it. Writing under perfect conditions is distracting because life is never perfect. And stories are elevated reality, not idealized reality.
  • Glorious things only look glorious from the outside. Remember Dragonball Z? Remember how in nearly every episode there was a scene of Goku flexing like a crazy person while golden flames danced around him and glorious power filled his body? It was always kinda inspiring. I used to figure the same sort of thing would happen in a perfect writing session. So I was always disappointed when it turned difficult. But look at Goku again! From the outside all we, the viewers, get to see is the fire and light and power. But look at Goku’s face. There is pain and effort and heartbreak there. The end result was wonderful, of course. But the summoning of the power was harsh and bloody and raw. That’s the way it is with writing. Pain and blood in the inside. Glory and beauty on the outside.
  • Writer’s block is a lie. Or at least a misnomer. It’s just what happens when the mind and heart turn lazy. And there are two good cures for laziness. Sleep and work. The situation dictates which one is needed.
  • Everyone’s process is different. Stephen King hates outlines. Brandon Sanderson loves them. They’re both right. There is not a lot of writing advice that is true across the board for everyone. Finding my own process instead of relying on the processes of others was one of the best things I ever did for my writing.
  • Resistance is everywhere. Crouching the the corners. Sneaking up from behind. It never leaves you alone. Best be on the lookout for him.

Foolishness Times Ten

Foolishness: noun – Lacking good sense or judgement. Unwise.

  • Thinking hard work is a virtue all by itself.
  • Doing what you don’t love.
  • Discounting wisdom that comes from a source you don’t like or understand.
  • Steeping your tea for longer than two minutes.
  • Hate
  • Uttering the dreaded “I can’t”.
  • Producing too much. Consuming too much.
  • Judging.
  • Settling.
  • Thinking any good change will be easy or welcomed.

A Dying Old Bus

     It was winter, so the windows were closed. Not that it helped much. A stray stream of air slipped through the cracks in the glass that the riveted-on piece of plexi-glass was not able to stop. But the bus was crowded, so it wasn’t so cold. That was good. It was surprising how cold Pakistani nights could get. Never below freezing, of course. But chilly enough to wish that vehicles and houses had heaters.
     The bus was like any other. Every square inch was decorated with gaudy colors and hangings. Lights flashed all over the inside and out whenever the driver touched the brakes, which, mercifully, was not often. The plastic seats were all ripped up and barely fixed with mismatched scraps of coloured plastic. The floors were sticky with spilled drinks and candy wrappers. Yep, just another normal bus.
     I was lucky to still have my seat. Most of the other men were forced to stand while the women claimed seats. That was nice, I thought. In a country that was not exactly known for gender equality at least women were guaranteed a seat on a bus.

     That bus was special for me. While I sat on it I looked around and built a clumsy narrative in my mind. I paid special note of the windows, the seats, the ancient Hindi music screeching from faulty speakers. When I arrived home I sat at the computer and wrote it all out. It was even clumsier on paper. But in my eyes I saw something. A tiny whisper rose from the scratchy writing: ‘Are you a writer?’
     The paragraph grew and I added characters. They took on roles and emotions and generated a plot. The next thing I knew I had the first draft to a 100k-word novel. I held it in my hands after printing it off for the first time. ‘Am I a writer?’
     Nothing ever came of the novel. And I’m okay with that. Because it was the first step. It was practice. I’ve left it behind and I press forward. But it’s funny to think back to that bus. That clunky bus scene never even made it into the final product. But that’s okay. Because it served a role. It got me to write a novel.
     That novel was only ever read by a handful of people. And that’s okay, too. It served a role. It was practice. It told me to write. And I’m still writing because of it. It’s amazing to think about the things that made you move forward, isn’t it?

     I love Pakistani buses. They represent something very precious for me. They represent the pursuit of creation. Do you have anything like that?

Short Story – Found in a Room

I really think that nerds are going to save us all when the zombie apocalypse comes.

Found in a Room is the result of my over-active mind examining my apartment and mentally preparing myself for the inevitable invasion. When it comes I think I’ll be decently prepared. I wrote it more than a year ago with a great little writing circle I was a part of. I’d love that circle to come back!


Three Farmers

     Three farmers, hard and thorough and in love with their land. They lived close to each other, surrounding a crystal pond where fish splashed and frogs grunted. Theirs were the largest and most fruitful fields in the region, it was said. Farmer Bob grew all manner of vegetables. His carrots were as large as a man’s arm. His tomatoes nearly burst with juicy tenderness. And his potatoes were so perfect as to be meals in themselves. No one could ever complain about his vegetables.
     Farmer Joe, living in the field next door, grew grapes. And what grapes! Massive purple grapes that quivered with juice, so heavy on the vine that they nearly brought the fences down each year. Brilliant green grapes without a drop of sour. Shiny red grapes that made a man despair of eating any grapes but these. And the wine that was produced from all these grapes was responsible for most of the best parties in the region.
     Farmer Tom was the last farmer surrounding that crystal pond. His fields were full to the bursting with the most beautiful, yellow grain. The heads of his grain were massive and weighed the whole stalks down by the time harvest would come around. Every health-conscious mother in the region would only buy bread made from his grain and every serious-minded drinker would only buy beer made from his barley.
     Farmer Bob, of course, counted his own crops as the proper crops befitting a farmer. For without vegetables who could live in any kind of health? Farmer Joe, of course, counted his grapes as the most fitting crops for a true farmer to grow. Because without the sweetness of fruit and wine, what reason can there be to live? And, of course, Farmer Tom decided that grains were the kind of crop a farmer ought to cultivate. For bread and beer go together to make a circle of well-being. Being neighbours, they would often consult each other on these topics and visit each other to try and win the other to their side. They would go to Bob’s house to feast on his vegetables, which they all had to admit, were very fine. They would sup at Joe’s house and enjoy his merry-making wines. And they would eat at Tom’s house, having full measure of bread and beers. And so they continued, disagreeing, feasting and benefitting the village.
     In the course of time, things changed, as things are wont to do. And one of the farmers, I cannot remember which, realized a startling truth. Each farm drew, as the life-source of all its crops, from the crystal pond. The crystal pond that each farm touched. And a devilish thought crept in that first farmer’s head: “I have need only to reach out my hand and hinder the flow of water and their crops would begin to suffer! And then the ignorant townsfolk would see how frail the crops of my neighbour are and, in contrast, how hardy my own are!” And, walking with that thought, he hindered the flow into his neighbour’s field. And so the crop suffered.
     On the very same day another of the three farmers was walking through town and saw the townspeople buying wares. A rather large family was buying a great deal of a crop that was not grown in his field. He frowned and said unto himself, “If only they were not so ignorant as I, then they would see how very inferior the things they are buying truly are.” With that thought in his head he found for himself an empty box of soap and, standing upon it, raised his voice and, in language unbecoming of an honest farmer, began to deride and insult the crops of his neighbour. Thus his neighbour’s sales fell sharply.
     The third farmer, on that very same day, was out spraying for bugs along his crop. He looked over the fence to his neighbours yard and thought thus unto himself: “This chemical I spray is fine and good for my crop, but I imagine it would be lethal to these inferior plants of my neighbours. Here, if I were to simply cross the fence and spray a bit here and there, I would severely harm his growth.” And, with that violent thought, he did just so. And many of his neighbour’s plants died.
     A field lay without water. Another steeped in poison. Another becoming a byword in the village. Disagreement in horticultural procedures turned into malice. And not longer were there vegetable feasts at Bob’s house. No more wine was drunk in Joe’s house. No more bread and beer were consumed at Tom’s house. And the farms suffered, as the farmers only spoke to each other in derision. And the crops suffered from the constant attacks of the other tenders of crop. And the village suffered, for they were swayed this way and that. And the vegetables grew small and runty. The wine turned sour and stale. The bread and beer became common and base. And, lo, the fields turned fallow and the music left the town. For the good honest farmers, each toiling under the same sun, sought to tear their neighbour’s efforts down rather than build up their own.

Ontario Writers Conference

Was a blast! I’m still reeling from the exhausting glory-fest that it was. Here are some things that have stayed with me so far:

  • Setting is powerfulGwynn Scheltema led a great workshop on crafting setting to push your reader in the direction he ought to be. It was probably the most informative session of the day.
  • Connections are powerful – I had never really taken my writing ‘outside’ before. To meet others who were at similar progress levels to me was a very comforting experience. I made some great new friends and I hope I’ll see them again as we chase our stories.
  • Spirituality must be practical – There was an amazing author who helped me one-on-one with some of my writing (which is now listed as one of the most encouraging moments I’ve ever had) told me an amazing story of two Taoist monks which brought forth that life-giving truth about how anything spiritual must be practical.
  • The first draft is the hunk of marble – Just get it down. Then begin to chip away to reveal the masterpiece.
  • Stories are sacred things – Because they are acts of creation. Because they hold meaning. Because they give life. Because they hold so much more meaning than sermons or lectures or lessons. And that makes the writing of stories a sacred thing.
  • Writing is hard work – I knew that already. I also knew that anything good is hard. But I think I know it even more now. That’s a great thing to remember because it means I won’t be seeking the ‘ideal’ writing mode or mindset or environment. It’s like a job. Show up every day. Play hurt. No calling in sick.
  • While the specifics of publishing look confusing the core is very simple – Write well.
  • Your writing space ought to be ugly and uncomfortable – You’re not on vacation, after all. You’re writing, for crying out loud.
  • I am a writer. – My one-on-one session was one of the positive experiences my writing life has ever had. It went just about as good as it could have. But that’s not why I’m a writer. Even if it had been a horrible experience, I’d still be a writer. Even if my Blue Pencil mentor had written pages of harsh criticism and marked up my whole piece with piles of corrections, I’d still be a writer. Because writers are just people who write, not people who get paid for writing. And I write. I create stories. And stories are little universes. So I look at the label with respect and a touch of awe. And then I step forward and own it. And that feels pretty damn good.
  • Thanks, OWC. It was a great time. See you next year.