Matt W Cook

writer.former fundamentalist.christianly fellow

Tag: writing

An uplifting Dhammapada for writers

Quieten your mind.
Reflect.
Watch.
Nothing binds you, you are free.

You are wise.
You are free from desire
And you understand words
And the stitching together of words.
And you want nothing.

I want nothing.
I am free.
I found my way.
Whom shall I call teacher?

Adapted from Dhammapada 24

Koheleth on Finding Something for My Hand to Do

There are Many Things I’d like to write about today. And most of them are rather large.

I’m writing an epic fantasy trilogy about faith, love, and zombies.
I’m writing a sci-fi novel about interstellar wormholes and MMO empires.
I’m writing a novella about a girl growing up in a place that hates what she is.
I’m writing a short story about subterranean Olympians.

Dore_Solomon_ProverbsWith Many Things comes Choice. And Choice asks me, “What do you feel like writing?”

It’s a devilish question. I can’t figure out what I’d like to do. Every moment of my life I have fleshy urges that push me in one direction or pull me from another. When I ask that question during writing-time, it does little more than distract.

Then I remember what Koheleth said about it:

“Whatever your hand finds to do with your might, do it.”

That reminds me that whatever I find to do, I might as well do it. But there’s another way to translate that line:

“Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might.”

That reminds me to see whatever it is trough to the end. And the conclusion reminds me of the stakes:

“Because there is no working or planning or knowledge or wisdom in the grave to which you are going.”

One day I won’t exist, like I didn’t before I was born. So I might as well do something, and do it well, while I have the chance.

Idea Wisps

smoky wispsThey come to me all the time. I bet they come to you, too. Washing dishes, on the bike, cooking. A few magical wisps of a scene appear. A few exceptionally clever lines. An original plot that just begs to be allowed to grow.

I hold it in my head as hard as I dare while finishing the dishes—I’ll crush it if I crumple it too hard. And it seems intact when it’s done. Until I try to type it out.

I can’t seem to lead into it. It’s just a wisp or a few lines or a general plot. It has no context. No place to attach itself. Like a single atom, which cannot exist unless bonded with something else.

So I shake my head and smile as the wisp floats away. I don’t begrudge its uselessness. It was fun to think about. Fun to chew over. And I’ve also noticed that when the wisps are breezed away on the wind, they leave a scent that never seems to go away.

Some of the best writing

Late, as usualIt’s right after you thought about going to bed. You decide to squeeze in an hour of Skyrim. Then your mind wanders a bit—the game can’t hold it. It drifts toward to that thing you’re writing. You pause the game to brew a cup of herbal. While the water’s on, you grab your manuscript and flip it open to the next bit to work on. You read it for a bit. You’re not planning to do anything with it tonight, of course. You’ve already filled your daily quota. But there’s something sticky about it. When you touch it, it’s hard to put it down. You grab a pen and make a few notes in the margin. Just a scribble. But then the scribble takes off on its own. Before you know it, you’re in the chair with the too-bright desk lamp shining on your wonderful doings. You’ve got a paragraph and a half done and your face takes on that goofy blank you get when something grabs you. And there’s something else going on. A smile plays at the corner of your mouth. You’re not just making the thing anymore. You’re consuming it. You’re not just writing the story. You’re reading it and enjoying the hell out of it. When the kettle on the stove whistles, you jump in surprise, then run to get it so you can get back to the desk before you miss anything.

You don’t get to bed until late. But you sleep wonderfully.

Writing Mantras #1

I love mantras.  Not (just) those ancient words and sounds used in meditation, but the slogans or sayings that remind me of important things.  I used to paste them up on my wall at college in a valiant effort to get out of bed early and win life.  They’re handy little ways of fighting resistance and keeping myself on the path I want to walk.  Here’s an awesome writing mantra for you:

One step at a time.

Pretty simple, eh?  You’d be tempted to throw it out because it’s so simple and boring.  Heck, it’s so boring that you can’t even cite who said it first.  Everyone says it.  But it’s one of few concepts that has truly had a measurable impact on my writing, my family, and my life in general.

I’ve got a great imagination, and that lets me feel how huge a huge project is.  So when I sit down to write a 180,000 word novel, I can feel the weight of its impossibility.  And then I think about the necessary sequel.  And what after that?  Holy crap what am I doing?  This is too big!  I’m not up to this at all!

But a little work every day gets the work done.  One scene at a time.  One step forward every day.  I don’t need to feel 180,000 words on my back.  I’ll deal with 500 at a time.  At 500 words a way, the novel is finished in a year.  It works with pretty much everything, too.  I don’t think about raising my kids to be heros, I think about playing with them and being their hero today.  I don’t think about publishing and getting rich and famous, I think about getting this one scene done tonight.

One step at a time.  The best part is, it’s the only way to do anything anyway.

Writing Foreplay

No, not writing about foreplay.  That’ll be a different sort of post altogether.

You ever have a feeling of drudgery when you sit down to do your thing?  You love writing.  You always have.  But these days when you try to actually get down to work, you feel overwhelmed and utterly intimidated.  You can’t remember how you managed to write two and a half novels.  You feel like you don’t know where your story is going, despite your detailed outlines and plans.  You stare at the computer screen and feel such a revulsion toward your task that you are afraid you were never supposed to be a writer.

You’re not in the mood.

You have a headache.

You’re tired.  You have to wake up early the next morning.

You’ve forgotten how fun writing can be.  You need some foreplay.

Open a fresh document.  Write these words:

Writing can be such a drudgery.

And then write some more.  Tell the page what you think of it.  Tell the page how pissed off you are about your lack of inspiration.  Rail and complain.  Beg and plead.  Pour out all the negative feelings in your soul onto that page.  Don’t stop.  Don’t think.  Let it go.  Just let it go.

Until you stop.

Then open your novel again.  Go to the scene you have to write.  You’ll feel better.  You’ll be in the mood.  You’ve had your foreplay.  Time to take it home.

Sometimes Art is Like…

Sometimes art is like the little girl who was drawing a picture in art class.  Her teacher walked over to her and stood behind her for a moment, trying to figure out exactly what her student was drawing.  It was nearly impossible to make out.  The girl’s crayons danced on the page, scattering colours and shapes all around.  In some places it was wild and frenzied.  In others it was sober and serious.  In a few places, it looked downright childish and silly.  Finally the teacher couldn’t be bothered to guess anymore.

“What are you drawing, dear?” she asked.

“God,” the student replied without looking up.

The teacher gave a wry smile.  “But no one knows what God looks like, dear.”

The student leaned in close to her page, sticking her tongue out as she laid down a streak of deep red.  “They will in a minute,” she said.

Sometimes art dares to touch the things that cannot be touched.  Sometimes it tries to see the things that cannot be seen.  Sometimes it succeeds and turns around to show it to us.

Tragedy of a Satisfied Soul

     I’m happy with the things I’ve done. I’m happy with my first novel. But, reading it over, I found I was not satisfied. I had to write another. So I did. And I am happy with it. Much happier than I was with my first. But still not satisfied. So now I’m a third of the way through my third novel. I like it. I’m happy. But I won’t be satisfied. Oh no. Never.

     Satisfaction kills art. I wonder if that’s why Prometheus and the Star Wars prequels could come from such great minds yet be such disappointments. I wonder if Mr. Scott and Mr. Lucas looked back on their amazing accomplishments and thought, “Well, I’m obviously great. No need to push myself on these new films. They’ll be great, too.”

     I love my most recent novel. It’s precious to me. Just like my daughter was precious to me when she was first learning to talk. I was happy that she was experimenting with words and I smiled when she said things like “I ate-ed my food.” Happy. But not even close to satisfied.

     You see, if she were to talk like that for the rest of her life, some of my happiness would fade. She wouldn’t be reaching her potential. She wouldn’t be expanding her potential. She wouldn’t be living the fullest life she can live. So I encouraged her to push herself. To learn more. To express herself more. To be who she really is.

     I’m happy with my work. I’m happy with the levels of love that I’m pumping into the world. I’m happy with my spiritual life. But not satisfied. Not even close.

Because I have no idea how strong my love is.
Because I have no idea how powerful my spirit is.
Because I have no idea what wonderful things I can create.
And until I see these things born in their full glory, I’ll always be reaching.
Always be pushing.
Always be groaning.
Always be shunning the tragedy of the satisfied soul.

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.

On a Free Mind

     We rarely set our minds free.

     Usually we yoke them to distractions that force them to walk paths that deepen into ruts. We keep them running alongside music and books and socializing and gaming and movies and all those other wonderful things that I love so much. Those things are wonderful. But our minds need to be free sometimes. They need to graze and get free-range goodness. They need to explore those strange, sensual forests off to the sides of the road.

     To walk without destination or entertainment. To sit alone in the coffee shop and wonder about the beautiful strangers around. To let your mind run freely around.

     It will most likely stare at you once you let it loose for the first time. It won’t be used to this freedom and it may not remember what to do about it. But given time, it will remember and take off running into the woods. What will it bring back? Something good, to be sure.

     The mind that has been chained and entertained and focused for too long is afraid of being free. That’s one of the reasons we sit down to write or paint and compose and nothing comes. Not only that, but a deep feeling of revulsion sometimes arises. Sometimes we look at the page and say “Dear god, I do not want to do this.” Our minds have become domesticated. They are not longer the vibrant, proud wolves of the wildernesses. They are chihuahuas. Pretty. Cute. But bred for uselessness and novelty.

     So let your mind go, now and then. Resist the urge, once in a while, to read a book or listen to music or play a game just to ‘pass the time.’ Why would you want the time to pass? You’ve only got a little bit of it, and when it’s out, you’re dead.