Matt W Cook

writer.former fundamentalist.christianly fellow

Category: writing

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 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.

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.

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.


     And just like that, my anti-addiction struck. And it struck hard.

     I’ve been addicted to a few things in my day. Some good. Some bad. I used to be addicted to cigarettes. And anyone who’s been on those will tell you that it’s not a matter of the intellect that gets you to smoke. It’s a deep, passionate and physical need. I knew it was hurting me. But the hurt from smoking was not as bad as the hurt from not smoking.

     I’m still addicted to some things. Food, for example. If I even go half a day without food, I feel a pain in my body and mind and soon it’s all I can think of. There are a few other things like that in my life. Water. Air. Third-wave ska. Stuff like that.

     But my present addictions are nothing compared to my anti-addictions.

     If an addiction is a physical / mental need to do something, then an anti-addiction is a physical / mental need to not do something. Ever had that? Here’s how it works:

     You sit down to do something very good. Maybe to paint a picture or plan a party or spend time praying or meditating or get moving on your ridiculous novel. Suddenly you feel a deep well of hate rise up within you. You look at your computer and you scowl. You can feel your whole spirit rebel against the idea of doing that good thing. It’s all the symptoms of an addiction, except it’s pushing you away. Steven Pressfield calls it Resistance. I call it a serious, life-stopping pain in the ass.

     When you feel the resistance, there are only two ways of success, so far as I can see. First, you can try to plow through and have faith that the road will clear in time and you’ll soon stop hating the thing you love. This is the best way.

     But sometimes it doesn’t work. Sometimes the resistance, strengthed by negative distractions and attidutdes, is too strong. The demons pull at your creativity and piss all over it. Some demons can’t be cast out with hard work alone. Some demons need prayer.

     I’m a spiritual person, though not really religious. And I believe in the power of mystic prayer. So when the resistance is hard, I stop. I turn off the screen. I pull my legs up and close my eyes and breathe. I let my thoughts leave as I become mindful of my breaths. In. Out. In. Out. Breathing in I calm my body. Breathing out I smile. Dwelling in the present moment, I know it is a wonderful moment.

     And my mind and heart calm. The demons stop screaming long enough for me to cup my hands to my face and utter the sacred words with deep mindfulness.

     “Our father which art in heaven,
     Hallowed be thy name.
     Thy kingdom come.
     Thy will be done on earth
     As it is in heaven.”

     And they flee. My spirit soars and touches the source. I float on the goodness of the great compassionate source of the universe.

     And when I’m done my communion I open my eyes. I can hear the story being whispered in my ear now. I say “Thank you, thank you” and take the story and put it done on paper.

     I win.

A Billion Stories to Tell

     I’m about 18,000 words into book two. And I’m dry inside.
I had another idea for a book. A great idea. Just as good as the series I’m on now. So I thought that my dryness in the sequel meant that my muse wanted me to write the other idea first. I got 2,800 words in before I turned dry again.
     Then I had another idea. And another. And then I remembered.
     The muse has a billion stories she’d like you to tell. And she couldn’t give a rip which one you do first. If she had her way, you’d be somehow writing them all at the same time. And then you’d have a nervous breakdown because muses don’t care much about human frailties and the like.
     I haven’t written much in about a month. Maybe more. And I’m starting to feel it.
     When the creativity doesn’t seep out, things get stale inside. It’s like a pool with no stream running out of it. It stays still and grows stagnant. And it stinks like poop. It needs to flow or else nothing but mosquitoes and parasites will live there.
     Stop blogging, Matt. Go write a story. Write about the Bard and his wife. Write about the Chronicler and his god. Write about the people of the Expanse and call their tragic stories into existence. And when you feel the wells of self-pity rising up within yourself, think about the blinded Skotons and the doomed men and women of Al Ryaal. And count yourself lucky.
     Write, Mr. Cook. It is your calling. Your well-being is at stake. And the world wants to hear your story.

Ontario Writer’s Conference 2012

     I asked my mom to come with me to the Ontario Writer’s Conference this year.  Not because it was Mother’s Day.  Just because I like hanging out with my mom.  So there.  My brother came as well.  Because I like hanging out with my brothers, too.  I’m one of those strange people who enjoys sitting around with each and every one of my family members.  I think that’s nice.

     The conference was gold, of course.  I did a workshop with Canada’s premier sci-fi author, Robert Sawyer.  I listened to a passionate talk from Marina Nemat, author of Prisoner in Tehran.  I chatted it up with other people in varying stages of their writing walks.

     Before arriving, though, I was a little apprehensive.  I’ve been writing steadily since 2005.  I’ve been to conferences and read many how-to books.  I had that deliciously arrogant thought that maybe there was going to be nothing for me to learn at the conference this year.

     Now, it wasn’t that arrogant for me to think that.  Most writing resources are pretty much identical.  They give you a list of things to do or things to avoid doing.  Avoid adverbs.  Use descriptive words.  Avoid telling.  Use showing.  Avoid flowery, complicated words.  Draw from life experience.  And then, at the end of the list, the last point is always to ignore the rules and write free.  Which is kinda like saying, “I have no idea how you should write, but I needed something to blog about today.”

     And it’s not just blogs.  Most books on writing are just the same thing repackaged and dusted off.  Except, of course, for Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art and Brenda Ueland’s If You Want to Write.  Those books are the cat’s meow and every single writer and artist ought to read them.  Like, now.

     So I wasn’t sure what I’d get out of the conference this year.

     Thankfully, it turns out I am just a very arrogant dude and there is still a good deal of stuff for me to ingest.  I came away from the conference with a notebook full of ideas and a burst of optimistic energy.  Because this sort of conference doesn’t give you lists of dos and don’ts.  Conferences give you real people who are doing what you do, only better and for a longer time.  And talking with people who do what you do is always helpful.  Even when you can’t make a list of why it was helpful.

     Thanks, OWC!  It was a great time!

Pacifism and My Violent Book

     I’m a pacifist. Not a passive-ist. A pacifist. I am against violence in all forms for any reasons. Strange, eh?

     I wrote a book that has a lot of violence in it. Bad guys killing and harming good guys. Good guys killing and harming bad guys. Alignment-unknown guys killing and harming … everyone. Blood and death and harm and stuff. It almost makes you wonder how I reconcile that with my beliefs.

     I also tend to enjoy media that has violence in it. Game of Thrones is probably my favourite show in TV right now. And if you’ve ever seen a more violence show, I’d be surprised. And I’d ask what kind of sick cable channel you are subscribing to. Most of the books I read have violence. Every video game I play involves blowing something up.

     So what gives, Matt? You some kind of ridiculous hypocrite or something?

     Probably. But not for that reason.

     I find violence reprehensible because of the suffering it causes and the damage it does to the violent’s soul. But I cannot deny that violence has been a part of the human experience ever since we crawled out of the goop. I’d be willing to bet that everyone has an ancestor who took lives through violence. It’s engrained in us. That’s one of the reasons most people find the idea of pacifism so repulsive.

     Art is not idealized life. It’s elevated life. Art (literature, paintings, performances, TV shows, etc) needs to show every true aspect of life. And one of the most basic and foundational truths about the lives we live, is violence and death. Like Hemingway said, “All stories, if continued far enough, end in death, and he is no true-story teller who would keep that from you.”

     A writer, or any other artist, has no right to keep from his or her reader those things he disagrees with. That’s one of the reasons why I find it very difficult to reader Christian novels. They are sterile. There is no shit, only poop. And it’s not poop that ever hits the fan.

     I hate violence in any situation. But it’s a part of life, so it needs to go in the stories I make. Just like I hate malice and conflict and suffering and sickness and cancer. These horrid things are all around us. The writer who leaves them out of his book had better have a good reason for it.

An Open Letter to my Muse

     Dear Muse,

     We need to talk.

     I want to start by saying that I’m really grateful. Honestly, I am. You’ve given me some amazing things. Two novels, dozens of stories, and so many ideas that I’ll never be able to use them all. It’s great, really.

     And those moments when you come right beside me and we really churn out the goodness? Nothing is better than that. Remember the time we sat in that coffee shop in the dead of winter? There was that chapter that we just couldn’t deal with, then suddenly, boom! There it was! Five thousand words in, like, an hour! Good times, eh?

     So, I’m totally thankful. You know I am.

     But we still need to talk.

     There’s no doubt that the work is best when you’re there doing it with me. You are the talent. You are the flash. Without you, it’s all dull and flat. No doubt at all. But, here’s the thing. I show up everyday. Every single day. I’m here while I’m working and I’m here on my days off. I’m here when I feel like it and I’m here when I don’t. I’m here whether I have the time or not. Because I treat this thing seriously.

     I really wish you’d show up more often. Because I feel like I’m doing my part.

     Now, I’m not trying to blame you or anything. I don’t know much about what a muse does when she’s not helping mortals create. Maybe you’re busy. Maybe you’ve got a family or something. Maybe there’s some muse day job that you need to deal with. I get that. But I have a family and a day job too, y’know?

     You know I love you and your work. I just wonder if maybe we could work out a schedule so that we could get together at the same time. That way we can avoid those awkward moments when you show up just as I’m drifting off to sleep or driving in the car.

     And if that’s not possible, I totally understand. If the way it is is the way it’s gotta be, I can accept that. I’m willing to work around your schedule. Just wanted to throw that out there.

     Anyway, I’m still your biggest fan. Thanks for the great run around you gave me this morning.


Thoughts on Starting a Novel

     The Shadow’s Daughter is done. A couple beta readers are pouring over my final revision and I can’t wait to deal with their considerations, but for now, it’s done.

     When I started The Shadow’s Daughter, I had no idea where it was going. I was doing two strange projects at the same time. One was about a very typical rag-tag group of adventurers off to find a mystic artifact (blaaaah). The other was a series of romantic serials I was writing for my wife. Both those stories died, and from their ashes rose The Shadow’s Daughter, first book of The Chronicler and the Bard.

     Yay, and stuff.

     So now that The Shadow’s Daughter is done, I turn my eyes to the next installment.

     I had forgotten how it felt to start something new.

     I once heard that writing a novel is like walking through a dark wood with a lantern. You only get to see a couple steps ahead of you, but you can get through the whole forest that way.

     Whoever said that didn’t mention the most obvious characteristic about walking through a dark forest with only a lantern.

     It’s scary as hell.

     Seriously, what if you get lost? What if you lose the path? Worse, what if the path is so well travelled that there’s no point in walking it? What if you’re going the wrong way and you never should have entered this stupid forest and why didn’t you wait until daytime and OMG I’M FREAKING OUT!

     So, there’s that.

     It’s also lonely.

     You don’t get to write novels in tandem. And when you try to talk about an unborn novel, it never goes right. People look at you as if you don’t know what you’re talking about. Because, frankly, you don’t. Not yet. You’re still wandering around in the woods.

     Scary and lonely.

     Which is why I’m glad I believe in muses.

     The muse is that strange spiritual critter who tells you the story. She’s the lantern you’re carrying as you wander through the woods. She’s Navi from Zelda who keeps saying “Hey, listen!” And while she may annoy the hell out of you sometimes, she knows the way. She knows the story that she wants you to tell.

     She’s the one who won’t let me get side-tracked or lost. She’s done this before, too. For a jillion years her and her kind have been whispering tales into our ears. She knows what she’s doing. And that’s nice.

     So here I am, just entering the woods again. I’m holding my lantern high and peering into the darkness. I take a step forward, and the lantern’s light stretches a bit further. It’s going to be okay. No, better than that. It’s going to be freaking awesome.