Matt W Cook

writer.former fundamentalist.christianly fellow

Month: November, 2011

How I Read

     Most folks are proud of the genres they read. The person who reads only ‘classics’ scoffs at the nerd who reads sci-fi. The person who reads only epic fantasy yawns at the one who reads literary fiction. I don’t understand that. I read everything.

     I enjoy Ernest Hemmingway. I enjoy Brandon Sanderson. I enjoy Tom Clancy. I enjoy Salman Rushdie. And it’s not hard to enjoy them all, if you read right.

     Books are not written to be judged anymore than people are born to be judged. With Amazon reviews and Goodreads, we’re all tempted to read things just for the joy of putting a certain amount of stars on the book. We get off on telling people how a book meets, or fails to meet, our precise expectations. But the author didn’t tell that story so you could judge it. He or she told that story to tell you something. Are you going to listen or are you going to grade him or her?

     All good stories are true, even the ones that never happened. It doesn’t matter if the story is in Paris, Randland or Arrakis. If the story is authentic, honest and true, it cannot be boring or trite or shallow. Even if it feels that way. Slow plots or heavy action or mythical critters can’t take truth, honesty and authenticity from a story.

     Life is made of many genres. Some people’s lives are fast-paced and full of strange, unique wonder. Some lives are slow and full of inner, nuanced wonder. All lives are full of wonder. And stories are, primarily, about lives.

     Give other genres a chance. Do you mostly read literary fiction? Read a sci-fi. Do you mostly read fantasy? Read something by Jane Austen. Do you mostly read Christian fiction? Read a book on Buddhist spirituality. And quit judging everything you read. Because the more you judge (books and people) the sharper your taste will grow. Until one day you will wake up and realize that you hate every book out there, because none of them can live up to your oh-so-very refined tastes.

     Don’t judge.

     Read.

A Letter I Got This Weekend

My consciousness received a letter this weekend. I figured I’d share it.

Dear Matt,
Hi there. Remember me? You’ve been shutting me out for a while now. And I see you’ve been busy while I’ve been gone. Think you got a lot done, eh? Think you’ve made progress, eh? Well, I just wanted to drop you a line to remind you that you’re not actually getting anywhere. In fact, everything that you’ve been doing is a colossal waste of time. You’re not good enough. You’re not smart enough. You don’t have ‘it’. I’d prove it to you, but you already know it, deep down. You’ll never achieve anything worthwhile in your life. You’re too old. You’re too dumb. That’s just the way it is. So you might as well delete that laughable WIP with all of its shallow characters and glaring plot holes. Because people are going to laugh at it. The same way people laugh at you behind your back when you tell them you’re a writer. Quit trying. You’re no good.
Sincerely,
The Imp on your Shoulder

I sat around thinking about the letter for most of the weekend. Finally drafted a response last night:

Dear Imp on my Shoulder,
Sod off.

I could stop there. I could leave this with a simple dismissal and get on with my day, but I feel like I ought to give you a bit more so that you’ll think again before writing me with your ‘advice.’

It’s true that my WIP is ugly and a bit malformed right now. I’m the first to admit it. It’s like a fetus. Kinda creepy looking and not meant to be exposed quite yet. Can’t stand on its own legs legs.

But I am good enough, smart enough, diligent enough to make it walk. No, I can make it fly!

I can prove it, too. I’ve done stuff, you see. I’ve written a book. I’ve travelled the world. I’ve learned another language. I’ve produced children. I’ve spread joy and love. I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!

What have you done, oh imp on my shoulder?

Nothing.

You’ve sat there for twenty-nine years bitching and whining. You’ve never helped me achieve any of my goals. You’ve never cheered for any of my successes. You’ve never been a meaningful part of anything good that I’ve ever accomplished. I’m not the waste. You are. And I won’t let you consume me. The very fact that I’m clever enough to push you away makes me clever enough to realize my dreams.

So sod off, imp. Precedent says you’re wrong. And even if it didn’t, I’d rather die with a thousand failed attempts than listen to you and try nothing.

Oh-so-very Sincerely,
Matt

Thich Nhat Hanh on Generosity

When you hammer a nail into a board and accidentally strike your finger, you take care of it immediately. The right hand never says to the left hand, “I am doing charitable work for you.” It just does whatever it can to help – giving first aid, compassion, and concern. In the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, the practice of dana is like this. We do whatever we can to benefit others without seeing ourselves as helpers and the others as the helped. This is the spirit of non-self.

– Thich Nhat Hanh, Living Buddha, Living Christ

Buying a Skateboard

     I saw a skateboard in Value Village today. It was pretty slick. I hopped on it and pushed myself around a bit. I can’t skate. Never really tried. But in that moment, I wanted it. I wanted it bad.

     So the wheels in my head started turning as I desperately tried to stay upright. Should I buy it? I thought of all the other crazy things I’ve tried picking up over the years.

     There’s that cool ocarina I got off the Internet. It may be one of the coolest instruments in the universe. I was going to learn to play it and wander around hillsides, stopping in at taverns and playing for my supper. Where is it now? In some drawer somewhere.

     There’s that book I have that teaches you how to turn old T-shirts into usable clothes. I got a sewing machine and made a laundry bag and a couple sexy shirts for my wife. Where is it now? I actually am not sure.

     And there’s that that pair of Rollerblades I was sure I would use to zip around Toronto, reducing my carbon footprint and tuning my body into that of a bronzed god. The skates are packed in a storage bin and my body is far too squishy to belong to any self-respecting god.

     Wow. So it looks like I don’t complete the things I start. I looked down at the skateboard and prepared to toss it away.

     But wait.

     I got a guitar when I was young. Kinda kept at it. I can still kinda play, too. Gives me joy.

     I tried writing stuff when I was in Pakistan. Kept at it. Finished a few dozen poems, short stories and 1.99 novels now. It’s my thing.

     Wanted to learn a second language. Aur abhi mujhe Urdu ati hai. Alhumduallah!

     Whoa! I finish some stuff.

     So when I look at the skateboard at my feet, I gotta ask myself only one question: “Will I be bound by precedent? Or will I strike out and try new things, fully aware that I don’t always finish them? Will I stay doing the things I’ve always done or will I stretch myself and evolve?”

     In the spring, I’m gonna find me a skateboard. Maybe I’ll use it twice and never touch it again. But maybe, just maybe, I’ll learn how to use it. Maybe I’ll cruise around town on it. Maybe it’ll become a new, vibrant part of my life like Urdu and writing.

     Better to waste some resources in the pursuit of new skills and experiences than to sit around doing the same thing over and over again.

     So go out! Take a yoga class! Try barefoot jogging! Learn parkour! Try a LARP! Do something new and forget about whether you will keep doing it or not. You’ll be dead soon, after all. And it’s better to have a dozen unfinished experiences behind you than to have nothing at all.

Writing Exercises – Emma and Nathan

I have decided to write some opening scenes for novels I never intend to write. I don’t know the stories behind these openings, but I want to analyze them to see what sort of story could be expected from them.

     Nathan took Emma’s face in her hands and kissed him. The kiss was deep and honest. It was their first. Emma felt sick in the middle of it, knowing it would be their last.
     “I love you,” Nathan whispered. He pulled back and gazed deep into Emma’s eyes. “I love you so much.”
     Emma stroked his cheek. “I love you, too.” It was not a lie.
     He pulled her close and hugged her. It was better than the kiss. Easier. Emma reached into her sleeve and pulled out a thin dagger. A flick of the wrist and it was done.
     Nathan noticed the wetness before the pain. He reached up and touched the place on his neck where she cut him.
     Emma pulled back and looked at the questions in Nathan’s eyes as his life drained from his throat.
     “I’m sorry,” she muttered as she cleaned her knife on Nathan’s sweater.

Considerations:
     Some promises are made right off the bat. First, Emma is the protagonist. She’s the only interesting character that’s not dead, after all.
     Second, the stakes are high and violent. This novel cannot be about Emma trying to find a cute guy or trying to outdo her high-school rival. Unless her high-school rival is running around killing people. It’s gotta be dark or else it’s disingenuous.
     Short, choppy paragraphs help in violent or action-filled scenes. It makes things feel quick.

Opening Paragraphs

     I decide if I care about a story or not in the first couple lines.

     In a perfect world, this wouldn’t happen. In a perfect world, I’d read every story. I’d give every author the chance to tell their tale. But I don’t have the time or energy. So I give them a couple sentences. Or, if the book comes recommended or the world seems interesting, a chapter.

     Some books open like a textbook. Like the author wants you to understand how wonderfully complex their world is before you meet the people in it. Frankly, though, I hardly care about your world if I don’t love the people in it.

     Other authors try a bait-and-switch. I did this with my first novel. It was dirty. My opening scene was an action sequence with guns and blood and stuff. But the novel was about love and culture and a bunch of people chatting in coffee shops. Dishonest. If I ever resurrect it, that opening will be cut.

     But sometimes, glorious times, the author makes you care in a single line. It’s not a formula. It’s not a science. It’s like meeting a new person. Sometimes you just hit it off. Sometimes you just decide to be yourself and that authenticity works.

     Here’s an idea for a slick writing exercise: Write the first few paragraphs to a novel that you never plan to write. Make it good enough to bother you that it doesn’t exist. If you can pull that off, you’re dancing.

Plot, Character and Bags of Wit

     I recently finished The Sun Also Rises by Hemingway. It reminded me of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

     I think every Literature Major across the planet just shuttered.

     But hear me out.

     I was asked what the plot to The Sun Also Rises was. It took me about twenty minutes to answer. And I think I answered it wrong. I sometimes feel the same way when people ask me what The Hitchhiker’s Guide is about. There’s not really much of a plot to it. People complain about holes and the absurdity of every single character and story arc in The Hitchhiker’s Guide. But characters and story arcs are not the point. The story and the characters are just the skeleton to which the massive muscles of wit are attached. Just the bag in which the wit is stored. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a big, beautiful bag of wit. The wit is high and lovely. And if you understand that when you start, you’ll love the book and the lack of coherent plot won’t bother you at all.

     I feel like The Sun Also Rises is similar in a nobler way. The story is the characters. It’s Brett and Cohn and Jake. You cannot put anyone else in their place.

     Other stories are devoted to plot. Replace Harry Tasker with James Bond and you’ll still get a neat movie. But put Robert Langdon in Robert Cohn’s place and everything falls apart.

     Hemingway created real people. And real people don’t need plots and gimmicks to be interesting. They are interesting and beautiful and ugly and tragic and glorious all by themselves.

Revision, Rewriting, Redoing

     I finished the first draft to my second novel on October 30th. It’s a rush to hit the save button and laugh over the epic word-count.

     Now what? Print, pack and send off to the drooling masses?

     Not for a long, long time.

     I’ve compared the creative process to giving birth. It’s messy, painful, and sometimes you can’t remember why you’re doing it. But the baby at the end is always worth it. After the baby (novel) is born, what do you do with her? Do you dress her up, pat her on the head and send her off into the world? Not a chance. She’s not ready. She’s not complete. She cannot stand on her own two feet yet. So you spend the next few years raising her.    

‘The first draft of anything is shit.’ – Ernest Hemingway

     Thankfully I love rewriting and revising. I’m already halfway done my first pass. I have no idea how many passes I’ll need. It’s a great feeling to finally squeeze out the first draft. It’s an even better feeling to mark it up with red pen and turn it into the novel that it’s meant to be.

     I think a lot of people get discouraged as they write because they recognize what they’re writing is crap. The thing is, it’s supposed to be crap. The first draft is just giving birth. It’s bloody, loud and not a thing you’d invite your neighbour to be a part of. You do it in secret, or maybe with a ridiculously close person. The baby needs to be cleaned up before you trust her with extended family. And most of the world doesn’t get to play with her until you decide she’s ready.

     It’s the same with your novel. Don’t worry if it seems whiny or trite. Don’t worry about the shallow dialogue and the painfully obvious plot holes. It’s supposed to be that way. Your revisions will fix everything. Everything.

     So write that crap. You can clean it up later.

Thich Nhat Hanh on Community (Sangha)

When we live as a Sangha, we regard each other as brothers and sisters, and we practice the Six Concords – sharing space, sharing the essentials of daily life, observing the same precepts, using only words that contribute to harmony, sharing our insights and understanding, and respecting each other’s viewpoints.  A community that follows these principles always lives happily and at peace.

– Thich Nhat Hanh, Living Buddha, Living Christ

How To Breathe.

I’m wonderfully busy. Sometimes, when you’re busy, you forget how to breathe. Thich Nhat Hanh reminded me this morning:

Breathing in, I calm my body.
Breathing out, I smile.
Dwelling in the present moment,
I know this is a wonderful moment.

Happy breathing everyone.