Matt W Cook

writer.former fundamentalist.christianly fellow

Month: June, 2012

On The Creative Flow and Kidney Stones

     Sometimes there is a flow, y’know?

     Sometimes it all just comes out, rushing and tripping over itself to get on the page. It comes so fast and so hard that you spend hours and hours throwing it down, but the stream still doesn’t let up. Not until you’re finally mentally and even a bit physically exhausted. Then you pack up, go home and have a great day.

     But sometimes it’s different. Sometimes it’s like having kidney stones.

     You can feel the flow, deep inside of you. It wants out. No, it needs out. So you go to the place where you can get it out, but it doesn’t come the way you want it to. It comes out in frustrating trickles. And it hurts. It hurts so much that you don’t even want to do it anymore. So you throw it down and walk away.

     But you can’t stay away for long. You need to get it out. Even though every time you try, the pain flares up and you begin to hate the process.

     What do you do then?

     Keep trying. Keep working. I know it hurts. I know you can see blood in it and it kinda smells funny. That’s fine. It’s alright. It’s still coming out, and that’s what is important. Eventually the stone will pass. It’ll pass when the pain and the struggle is at its zenith. Then, suddenly, you’ll be cured and the flow will return.

     I’ve had creative kidney stones for a week now. It hurts. I feel like I’m bleeding onto the page. I’m probably going to miss my self-imposed deadline, unless this stone gets passed today. But I’m not too discouraged. I’m still standing over the toilet, trying my best. Sweating and groaning and swearing, but still here. It’ll pass one day.

     And, yes, I did just liken the entire creative process to urination. So there.

The Skynet Zombie

     We love hearing stories about creations turning on their creators. Those stories have made it into movies, novels and religions. There’s something pervertedly fascinating about watching the computer that we lovingly and diligently programmed come of age and attempt to overthrow its creators. And when the movie is done, we sit back and thank our lucky stars that our own machines haven’t turned on us.
     Or have they? (Bum bum bummmmmm!)
     The two most frightening monsters from popular mythology are, in my view, vampires and zombies. The vampire is terrifying because of its malice, subtlety, and power. Zombies are terrifying because of their swarming numbers, mindlessness, and unworldly stubbornness. And the biggest reason to fear them both is because they come from us and work to turn us into them.
     That wasn’t just a random segue. Watch, you’ll see.
     Now, when we talk about creations turning on their creators, we usually think of a Skynet scenario. The computer realizes that humans are a threat, so it decides to completely destroy or enslave them. Skynet is like the vampire version of the creator-killer. And Skynet is not real.
     But the zombie version of the creator-killer, I think, is already attacking. And we have hardly noticed.
     Phones, TV, games, music, film. Wonderful, beautiful creations. We have taken rocks from the earth and bound up magic within them. But magic, it has been said, is like a sword without a hilt. It’s better than no sword at all, of course, but it must be wielded carefully.
     All our toys and tools and gadgets have the capability of turning into mindless zombie hordes, marching toward our brains, eager to devour them. Our minds are always being pulled and torn at by the crowds we made. Texts, songs, trailers, games, social networks, blogs, Internets, news, politics, more more more! And we keep begging for more! More ways to take our minds to any place other than where our bodies are.
     Mindfulness grows difficult. Soon we’re living lives that have forgotten what a clear head feels like. We feel scatter-brained and full of stress all the time. And in order to assage the brain-pain, we open our tech and play some more. They take hold. And soon we find that we allow them access to our minds all day, every day. We always have the earbuds on. We are always punching buttons into our phones and tablets. We spend most of our time on our asses, staring at a glowing screen.
     Things have gotten out of hand.
     What, you don’t think so? You don’t think it’s a problem? I dare you to try an experiment. Turn off your music and games and TV and Internets for a couple days. Then notice how your brain works. See if your art has changed. See if life flows easier. Twenty bucks says it will.

The Song That No One Has Heard

     I’m kind of a sucker for devotional music from all sorts of religious traditions. I’ll shove John Michael Talbot, Yusuf Islam, and Krishna Das all onto a playlist together. They get along on iTunes, I wonder if they’d get along if they were all in the same room…
     One of Krishna Das’s best songs is Heart as Wide as the World.

I looked away
Your beauty too much to bear
Where could I run?
Your eyes,
I found them everywhere
All I want is to sing to you
The song that no one has heard

     I follow a lot of aspiring writers on Twitter and blogs. Sometimes it’s a tad discouraging because often they talk about ‘essential’ writing subjects like self-promotion, knowing the market and replicating past successes. Many good, talented, creative people just want to write a story that will sell.
     How low.
     I don’t know about other creative people, but I’d do this work even if I knew I’d never make a penny from it. I’ve been doing it for years and I’ve put time and money into it, but I’ve never gotten a cent back. Sure, I’d love to make some money. I’d love to be able to quit my job and spend my life writing. That’d be the cat’s meow. But that’s not ‘all I want.’

All I want…
… is to be a best-seller.
… is to be famous.
… is to get rich.
… is to be the next [insert successful name here].

     Low! Low! Low!
     I look up to the sky and to the infinite space it rests beneath. I look to the Hand that sparked it and all the glories that dwell within it. And all those petty desires fade like a fog when it is faced with the sun’s fury. One desire remains. One thought. One driving force.
     All I want is to sing to you the song that no one has heard.
     And I’m the only one who can sing that song.
     And you’re the only one who can sing yours.

Eighth Year

     The problem with expressing sentiment, especially romantic sentiment, is that it can so easily seem trite. Most folks wander on to Facebook on their anniversary, armed with dozens of exclamation points, and throw down one of many packaged statements about how happy they are that they married whoever they married. Everyone does it. And that’s what makes me approach this subject with trepidation.
     You see, my marriage is better than everyone else’s.
     I know, I know, that sounds arrogant and maybe even a bit offensive. But I really believe it. You know all those things that married people fight about? Money, sex, kids, events, family. We don’t. Like, ever.
     And you know how married people can’t wait to get away from each other and do the guy’s night out and the girl’s night out? We don’t really understand that.
     And you know how they say that your first year is the honeymoon and it all goes downhill from there? Well, to be completely frank and honest, that’s just bullshit. I have no other word for that destructive idea and if you ever find yourself uttering it, please jam your foot deep inside your mouth.
     Sure, I have problems in my life, just like everyone else. But my wife isn’t one of them. But how can I express that without blending into the crowds of people who can hardly stand their spouses most of the time but give them lip service on special days of the year?
     Maybe I can’t. Maybe there’s no way to sound unique and special. And, in the end, that’s fine.
     Because the second month of marriage to Ruth was better than the first. And the third was better than the second. And the ninety-fifth was better than the ninety-fourth. So every month seems to be the best month of my life. And that’s pretty cool. I may die of happy soon, and I can’t think of a better way to go.
     So here’s to you, Ruth. Here’s to the love we feast upon and the luminescent beings we are evolving into together. The ride’s been great so far and I feel like we have hardly even started yet. May our love continue to cast out all fear. May our hope always endure. May our faith in each other and in this radiant Universe in which the mystery of love happens grow and flourish.

Life as Temple Run or Minecraft

     Have you ever felt like life is kinda like Temple Run?
     The game only just came out for Android. It barely runs on my phone, but I can’t stop playing it. You take on the role of Guy Dangerous, an explorer with a ridiculously impressive cardiovascular system. You start the game being chased by skull-faced monkeys through an unending temple maze filled with traps and stumps and fire-breathing statues. You run until you die.
     How do you win? You don’t. The maze goes on forever. No matter how skilled you are or how many hours you devote to the game, you always die.
     Is life like that? Is it just a Temple Run where I try to get the farthest I can before the skull monkeys eat me? Is it all just a game of ‘He who dies with the most toys wins’?
     I’ve been on a long, interesting spiritual journey since high school. I’ve gone from atheism to Christian fundamentalism to something else altogether. But one of the things that I’ve never been able to shake off is a deep and resentful contempt for death.
     As an atheist, death was a thing to be avoided at all costs because it was the end of everything. It was the bitter reality that threatened to swallow me whenever I gave it attention.
     As a fundamentalist, death was the gateway to hell for nearly everyone I knew (and, I thought, perhaps for me, as I feared sometimes my theologies would be too incorrect to get forgiveness). The final, unforgiving act of God.
     But now, what is it? Is it really the end?
     I feel like life is a little bit more like Minecraft. Some critics look at the game and scoff saying “It’s pointless!” And they refuse to play. But for others, there’s something special in it. There’s something special about building grand structures in an infinite world. About walking through gateways and slaying evil monsters. About reaching The End and destroying the vile Ender Dragon.
     And what happens when the monsters are all slain and the mighty works are all built? What then?
     I’m not totally sure, really. I can only think of two possibilities.
     Either the old, atheist Matt was right, and there is nothing beyond the grave. Not even darkness.
     Or, as I think these days, the Great Teacher was right when he spoke of another Kingdom that was not of this world. Of a place where Love gives life. Where life comes abundantly and where mankind is reconciled with the source of Love and Life. Where my acts of love and creation live on and rejoice with the other works of love and creation that we have made together with God.
     So I run, mostly confident that I’m not in a game that can only end in death. If I’m right, all my joy today is building toward an endless joy that will one day witness the death of death. If I’m wrong … I’ll never know.
     Keep creating.

1,158 Words a Day

     You know what happens when you have certain writing goals and then you go and live in the woods for four days?
     It gets tough.
     And when the going gets tough, the tough get going.
     Where the hell they go, I have no idea. But they get going. Alas, I am not tough, so I have to stay here and work. Sometimes I wish I were tough so I could just leave.
     My counter says I need to write 1,158 words every day until the end of the month to hit my goal. That’s kinda serious. A thousand words is a decent day. That means every day has to be decent. But we all know that every day can’t be a good day.
     But that’s a really funny thing to say, isn’t it? It’s like all those times I used to hang out with friends talking about how we can be better Christians. And we’d always talk about how impossible it was to actually be good and how people who thought they would be good were bad because thinking that you’re good is bad and thinking that you’re bad somehow leads you to be good but not too good because you’re bad.
     Kinda defeatist, even though I understand why we used to talk that way. But whatever spiritual benefit there might be in self-deprecation, I don’t think there’s much to be had in other life pursuits. 1,158 words a day is doable today. What about tomorrow? Tomorrow doesn’t exist yet, so why are we talking about it? I know what I can do now. And that’s all that matters.
     Mleh. I should get back to work. Selasis is in the middle of a very awkward conversation, and he needs to have an even more awkward one right after that. Shyyl is hungry and bleeding and I probably shouldn’t leave him in that state for too long. Achae is pretty messed up, and its cruel to do that to a child. And Pari and Jaedon are still where I left them, and if I don’t get them out of there, I expect they’ll be dead soon. So for their sakes, I should stop writing this semi-narcissistic post and find out what happens to them.

Joe and his Tuna

     A true story from the Cook household:

     The boy was eating his tuna casserole. He loved how it tasted. He was filling his mouth so full that it hurt to swallow. But it was worth it.

     Suddenly a thought came into his head.

     “Mommy, is this chicken?”

     “No,” his mother said.

     He sighed with relief and started filling his mouth again.

     “It’s tuna,” his mother continued.

     “Fhisofiadfs!” he said. Which, if his mouth had been empty, would have sounded like, “Fish?!”


     He looked down at the plate, covered in bits of animal corpse, and frowned. “These fish had to die so I could eat them…”

     He looked up at his mother. She shrugged. He looked back at the fish.

     “Fish,” he said. “I’m so sorry that I’m eating you. But I’m starving. You can go in my belly with the noodles and then you can play together.”

     And he continued eating, a little more sober and mindful than before.

     “Ha!” his sister cackled, pointing her finger. “You’re talking to dead chicken!”

Open Letter to My Mind Which Gave Me a Great Idea Before I Fell Asleep and Took it Away When I Woke

     I thought we were on the same side here!
     I mean, I trust you so much sometimes. I give you so much credit, and then you go and screw me over like this?
     I treat you really well, too. Way better than a lot of people. I always try my best to keep you stimulated and active. I give you great things to eat and wonderful activities to play with. All I ask in return is a bit of consistency. And maybe a better memory.
     As I lay down to sleep last night, you shocked me. You unraveled beautiful, living things about the novel. They were so good that I laughed in bed. I looked around for a scrap of paper or my phone to write them down, but I couldn’t find them.
     “Don’t worry,” you said. “These ideas are huge. There’s no way you’ll forget them. Not a chance!”
     You allowed me to remember that you gave me great ideas. I even kinda remember who they were about. Selasis and Fable, I think. Something about slavery. And … swords? Argh!
     They were wonderful and deep intricacies of character and emotion and motivation. And now they’re gone. Gone gone gone. Why did you do this to me? Are we not on the same team? It’s enough to make me believe my religious friends who tell me never to trust you.
     If you weren’t safe and holed up in my skull, I swear I’d take a broom handle and—
     Yes, I remember now. Oh yes, thank you, that was very nice.
     Er, um. Sorry about all that. We cool?

Writing with Growing Ideas

     The funny thing about writing a novel is that life still goes on while you write it.
     My first book, The Foolishness of God has a very definite agenda to it. An agenda that I don’t really subscribe to anymore. It seemed scary when I started to realize how separated I had become from that book. Because when you write something, you immortalize it. You set it in stone.
     An idea is a living thing. It grows and changes. Sometimes it gets cancer and starts to die. Sometimes it mutates and gets super-powers. Often it just keeps getting harder and crustier and kinda ugly. But it’s always doing something.
     I sometimes feel like I was a kid who found a caterpillar. I was so excited about this neat critter that I killed it, pinned it to a board with a clear little label, and preserved it under glass for all the word to see. Little did I realize that the caterpillar was destined to grow into something else. Did I kill its beautiful destiny?
     But that metaphor isn’t perfect, is it? Because the caterpillar still lives. The ideas are still growing and forming and fighting in my mind. So it’s not like I killed the critter. Rather, I took a picture of it.
     Suddenly my old novel has a new purpose. It is a chronicle of where I used to live. A photo of my heart and mind five years ago. And, just as suddenly, I’m no longer ashamed of it. It has a place. I don’t know what sort of place it would occupy in your heart, but it has a special place in mine.
     So it’s not scary anymore, either. I can write my stuff, knowing that three years from now, my outlook on the universe may be very different. But that’s okay, because each work is a snapshot of the artist’s soul. It’s like taking pictures of your kids as they grow up. You don’t throw out the old ones because they no longer accurately reflect what your kid looks like. You treasure them, fondly remembering the people they used to be. And, looking at that cute but underdeveloped child, you appreciate where they are now. And that’s a special thing.