Matt W Cook

writer.former fundamentalist.christianly fellow

Tag: writer’s block

The Storyteller as Translator or Calliope Mumbles

       Creative people debate about where creativity comes from. It’s either something born deep within us that we painstaking bring out. Or it’s something on the outside that we reach out and touch. For the most part, whichever view helps you be creative is probably the best.

       I’m in the second group, though I think the first group is on to something. I think the stories come from an outside Source. I believe that muses are spiritual thingies (yes, thingies) that whisper our stories in our ears. And I think that they’re always whispering.

       Have you heard them? You probably have. Whenever a brilliant idea for a story or a painting or a recipe or a dance forms in your mind, that’s the muse poking you. You’re filled with excitement and you rush to your computer or sketch pad to throw that idea into the world. But as you pick up your pen, you stop understanding. Your muse is mumbling. Or she’s speaking a higher tongue. Either way, the story is not as clear as you thought it was.

       Two choices, at this point: (a) Decide you’re not really an artist after all and the story sucks and throw your tool away and walk because it was a stupid idea to begin with. Or (b) write it down anyway. Move forward. Trust that you are not being given a crap story and commit to seeing it through.

       (b) is, of course, better.

       The muses always give good stories. Alas, they speak no English. As creative people we are meant to listen deeply to their sublime tongues and work out the story they want us to tell. It’s a hard, harsh discipline. But if we’re faithful to the story, the muses will be faithful to us. The universe wants her story told, after all. But she needs a translator.

       Stories are from the Outside. But it’s our painstaking translations and revisions that show them to be the glories that they really are.

When Your Story Isn’t True

    I was stuck.

    Ever been stuck?

    On a creative project?

    It’s not writer’s block. It’s something different. Something elusive and singularly frustrating. A large, pulsating tumor of Resistance.

    This particular Resistance was centered around a certain section of the story. It pricked at me because I knew exactly what needed to happen. I tried every strategy I had heard of to break it.

    I tried outlining it to death. Useful, but the Resistance stayed.

    I tried leaving it and rewriting other parts of the book. Productive, but the Resistance stayed.

    I tried reading lots of fantasy books to jump-start my inspiration. Fun, but the Resistance stayed.

    I figured it out last night.

    I was bored. Restless. Distracted.

    That meant my story wasn’t quite true.

    You see;

Every good story is true. Even if it never happened.

So if the story is not good, it’s not true. And there are two possibilities when you find that your story is not true.

    (a) You have added false things to your story. Is there something false about your plot, characters or world? Falseness stands out in a story like the sound of nails on a board. Find the false and cut it out.

    (b) There is some important truth missing.

    It was (b). There was something missing. Once I realized it I immediately knew what it was. Scenes. Characters. An entire sub-plot. It’s a lot of stuff. Maybe ten thousand words of stuff. Or more.

    Now, if this was any other job I’d be upset about it. I’d be tempted not to add it, because of all the work it’s going to be. It could be a full two weeks of writing. And that’s if all my writing sessions are good ones.

    But I wasn’t upset.

    I wasn’t discouraged.

    I was elated.

    It doesn’t matter how much work a good story needs. I’m not too upset that George R.R. Martin took 5 years to write A Dance With Dragons. It was a good story. A true story. It was worth 5 years.

    And my story will be worth however long it takes to write.

    Will yours?

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.

How to Win

     I’ve been winning for a month. Or nearly a month. When you win it’s hard to keep track of how long you’ve been winning. It’s easier to count the days slip by when you’re losing.
     Are you winning?
     We all seem to have something inside us prodding us to do something. The something is different for each one of us. Maybe it’s music. Maybe it’s film. Maybe it’s cooking or dancing or painting or sewing or reading or praying or humanitarian aid or jogging or karate. But it’s something. And we feel like it’s our thing to do. So we make plans, set goals and sit down to do our thing. And then, as we approach the starting blocks, it fizzles out and dies.
     We feel tired. We feel angry. We feel depressed. We feel like we’re no good a it. We feel like we’ll never accomplish anything. We feel resistance.
     My thing is fiction. There is nothing I like more than a good story. I’ve wanted to create my own for as long as I can remember. I’ve had fleeting successes, but I’ve never really been a winner. Until this month. I’m winning now. Every single day. And I think I know why. Shall I share?

     Know the Enemy.
     There is something insidious that works against anything good, creative or beautiful. It seeks to destroy, inhibit and pervert anything happy and alive. Steven Pressfield calls it Resistance. Theologians call it Sin. I’ve come to call it Hate. I call it that because of the way it rails and bites and spits with no goal other than destruction. Have you felt it? When you sit down to write your story? When you wake up early to start your spiritual disciplines? When you think about putting on your jogging shoes? It’s relentless. It’s evil. It makes you hate your thing. It wants to take you down.
     Once I realized it, I understood that every excuse I made for not doing my work was rooted in Hate. And every time I accepted those excuses, Hate won. And my thing was not created. Hate wants all things creative to cease. It’ll do anything it can to kill them. When you know the enemy is there, you realize that every step in the right direction is war. You realize that sometimes you have to work even when you’re hurt (emotionally, mentally, spiritually, physically). Because Hate is always crouching at the door, and it’s desire is to destroy you and your art.
     And once you see the enemy, you accept that you must kill it if your thing is to live. And you can take the old Aiel purpose and make it your own: “Till shade is gone, till water is gone, into the Shadow with teeth bared, screaming defiance with the last breath, to spit in Sightblinder’s eye on the last Day.”

     Know the Ally
     Hate stands against you and your work. Love stands with you. Love, the greatest virtue, is primarily a spiritual and creative thing. Love always builds. Love delight in existence. It was for Love that God made the world. It was in Love that he put a part of himself in every human. And, through Love, we can create and achieve.
     All good creativity comes from the Outside. Its root is divine. And when we realize that it is not born within us, but outside us, we see that we can beg for it. We can reach out to the Creator and ask him to send a Muse to kiss our spirit so we can go forward and do what we were meant to do.
     And Love, of course, is stronger than Hate. For Love is, foundationally, something. While Hate, foundationally, is a non-thing. Love tends toward order and peace and life and existence. Hate tends towards chaos and violence and death and entropy.
     With an Ally like the Creator, how can Hate win? With Love we can trample the brats of hell under our feet and give to the world whatever gifts we have to give.

     And so I am winning. And I shall continue to win. And one day you will see the fruits of my victories.

     When will I see yours?