Matt W Cook

writer.former fundamentalist.christianly fellow

Tag: writing

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.

Thoughts on Thirty

     It happened.

     I’ve been dreading it for five years. I never thought it would come, but it did. I’m thirty.

     I think about death a lot. Most spiritual people seem to be fine with the idea of dying. Not me. Hate it. Rage against it. Thirty feels like a hefty victory for the Dark Stranger.

     And while the icy talons of my own mortality are certainly gripping tighter now, I was surprised to find that thirty greeted me with some very positive realizations.

     The first was the final end to a worldview that had been dying for a while. Since leaving high school, I’ve had reoccurring dreams where I find myself wandering the halls of Centennial Secondary School, lost and late for class. When I finally get to my class (always some kind of History with Mr. Oliver), I discover that I didn’t do any homework. And the rest of the dream is filled with shame and embarrassment as Oliver stares me down.

     On the night before my thirtieth birthday, I had the dream again. But it was different. I was still kinda lost and I still hadn’t done my homework. But I didn’t care. It was my homework to do, after all. It was my learning to get. I was not under the authority of the teachers in this new dream. The school was my place.

     So as I stand in the world, an excitable thirty-year-old, I realize I am not a child. I am no one’s ward. I am a man. An adult. And I do not think that man needs men to govern him. I am free. Under no one’s authority except for those who I chose to look up to. It seems simple enough, and the concept has been coming to me for a while, but it finally hit me hard on April first.

     The second wonderful gift of being thirty was the newly-discovered fact that I am now legally able to be ridiculous. You see, like alcohol and smoking, being ridiculous requires a certain amount of wisdom to enjoy responsibly. I did not realize this, but it turns out thirty is the age at which you may indulge in ridiculousness as will. Excellent. Thanks to the local seller of Prem for pointing this out.

     So, as a responsible ridiculous person, I have decided to sit down and plan out my ridiculousity for the coming year. Here are the ridiculous things I hope to complete before I turn thirty-one:

  • Write another novel. It will be my third. Stories are the best, most accessible and primal way of viewing and explaining the universe and the human condition. Every good story is true, even the ones that never happened.
  • Learn Calculus. Mathematics are the other way of viewing and explaining the universe. It’s less earthy and accessible, but I’ve been told it’s higher and more spiritual. And I’ve wanted to learn math for a long time. It’s nice that I’m finally allowed, legally.
  • Fix my body. Not that it’s broken, of course. But it could work better. And now that it’s getting older, I need it to function as best as it can.
  • Fix my soul. That one is a bit broken, though not as much as it used to be. And there is nothing–NOTHING–that does the soul better than throwing love around in every direction.

     What are you going to do when you get old enough to be ridiculous?

Cloak and Dagger

     My wife blew my mind with this year’s Christmas gift. She bought me a cloak. It’s amazing. It’s a woolen, brown winter cloak that reaches to my ankles and is warmer than any coat I’ve owned. It’s the perfect thing for winter. Best gift ever.

     But not everyone thinks so.

     You see, when you dress funny, people stare. I’ve always dressed a little funny, but I’m getting the impression that the cloak crosses a line. The stares are pretty blatant now. And not all of them are amused.

     So what do I do? What do I do when I walk through the grocery store, cloak flowing behind me, and kids start laughing? When old men roll their eyes? When people stare with that look that says ‘What’s wrong with that guy?’

     I smile, give my cloak a bit of a flourish, and move on.

     Because I wear clothes for only two purposes: Function and Fun. I don’t dress for strangers. I don’t care if people think I look like an idiot. Wearing a cloak is fun. You know it is! Everyone wishes they could wear a cloak. But nearly everyone is too afraid.

     Fear is dirty. Fear cripples every good thing you wish you could do. Especially creative things like writing and clothing.

     For a brief, tiny moment I wondered if I shouldn’t wear this cloak outdoors. But I knew that since I loved it, I had no choice. Because all the harsh stares in the world are nothing compared to the suffering of the man who makes his decisions based on what others will think of him.

     So I wear a cloak when it’s cold outside. And I write my book the way I want it written. And I live my life the way I want to live it. Anything else is dishonest. And woe to the man who is dishonest to himself for the sake of pleasing the world. That man lives a shallow life. That man lives a boring life. That man wastes his life. That man needs to read this comic from xkcd, pour his true heart onto a piece of paper and get himself a cloak.

The Next Tolkien

     I don’t want to read him.

     Not even a tiny bit.

     It would be like watching Aladdin 2. It would be like watching the live-action version of Blood: The Last Vampire. Why would I do it when the original is better in every single way possible?

     So why do writers want to be rehashed greats?

     If you ever, in your creative journey, imagine yourself to be the next Tolkien or Hemingway or Lewis or Eliot, stop. Stop right there. Don’t write another word. Because you’re doing something horrible.

     The world does not want another Hemingway. We have him. He’s immortalized in the things he’s created. We don’t need another. We need you. We need your thoughts. Your ideas. Your love and wit and stories.

     Don’t aspire to be like anyone you’ve read. Aspire to be yourself.

     This is why so many urban fantasies seem exactly the same, today. Too many people want to be the next Meyer. And that’s why there were so many young-kid-turns-wizard books a few years ago. Too many people wanted to be the next Rowling. Not nearly enough people were brave enough to strike out on their own, find their own voice and stories, and pour themselves into their work.

     You remember those bracelets people used to wear with WWJD on them? Good advice for life, to be sure. But some people are tempted to put on WW(insert favorite author here)D when they are writing.

     But what would you do? What would you write?

     Write that.

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

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.

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.

No Plan B

     I call my dad Dave. Or The Dave when I think he’s cool. Which is often. He’s the cat’s meow.

     He runs his own software development company. He’s been doing it for almost as long as I’ve been alive. From a distance he looks like your average, button-pressing manager-dude (I obviously have no idea what managers do). So when I was in my mid-teens and he asked me what I wanted to do with my life, I was scared.

     I wanted to act, deep down. And I was pretty sure I was good at it. It was the only thing I wanted out of life at that time. But how do you tell your father that? Especially when your father has been working at the same office since you were born? I was thoroughly expecting one of those sit-com lectures about thinking of your future and not wasting youth on silly things like dreams and acting.

     So I hedged my bet. I told him about an interest in the arts and acting, but I quickly assured him I intended to get a business degree or something to fall back on if that dream evaporated.

     He got serious. He looked me in the eye, which was freaky because we were driving down the QEW.

     “Don’t have a backup plan,” The Dave said. “No plan B.”

     He explained that if my dream was acting, I ought to, nay, need to sacrifice everything else. If it’s acting, then throw all your chips into acting. Acting or bust.

     I was pretty shocked.

     I shouldn’t have been.

     If I had paid attention as a kid, I’d have seen that The Dave is no normal businessman. When he was young and newly married, he quit his profitable factory job to go out on his own and start a photography business with his buddy. Everyone was scared, but his dad told him to go for it. His dream changed as the years went on and it evolved into the software company it is today. But the point is, he chased the dream and cut his safety net. He had no plan B. And he won. He’s one of the only people I know who loves going to work in the morning.

     My dreams have changed since that talk. But I never forgot what he said. And I think it’s still true. If my dream is writing (and it is), I’ll spare no effort or expense to bring it to life. I’ll sacrifice time and responsibilities on its altar. I’ll refuse to hedge my bets. Because hedging your bet is insulting to the dream. It’s like signing a prenuptial agreement. It feels safe, but it’s ugly and false betrays the sacred vow you’re taking.

     Find the dream. Marry it, forsaking all others.

Can’t Have it All

     You can’t have it all. Where would you put it?

     I never really wanted it all. I wanted a lot. But not all. Some things just don’t appeal.

     I wanted a lot, though. And it seemed reasonable. I wanted to excel as a family man. I wanted to write novels and get paid for it. I wanted a stellar blog that was updated every day and earned a million positive comments. I wanted to get a degree of some kind, like mathematics or anthropology. I wanted to like under a Neem tree in rural Sindh. I wanted to rock faces at WoW, 3v3 (Shadowplay ftw!). I wanted to read every book ever written. I wanted this. I wanted that.

     But where would I put it all?

     A day is like a room. It only fits so much. And when it gets overcrowded, you run the risk of damaging some of your stuff.

     Can’t have it all. Gotta toss some stuff out. Or at least cut back.

     I tried so hard to blog every weekday while writing sermons and novels and playing with my kids and dating my wife and practicing guitar and doing yoga and reading Urdu and playing craft and doing protests and going to work and reading Hemingway and HOLY CRAP ARGH!

     Can’t do it all. Because when you try to do it all, you suck at everything.

     So I’m going to do it some.

     People first, of course. Especially the wife and kids. Because that’s where love and the future are.
Writing second. That’s the dream and I’m not ready to let it go after so much progress.

     Everything else?

     Don’t rush me. Still trying to find shelf space for the first two.

     How much are you trying to accomplish? Is it too much?

Neil Gaiman on Writing

A Writer’s Prayer

Oh Lord, let me not be one of those who writes too much;
who spreads himself too thinly with his words,
diluting all the things he has to say,
like butter spread too thinly over toast,
or watered milk in some worn-out hotel;
but let me write the things I have to say,
and then be silent, ’til I need to speak.

Oh Lord, let me not be one of those who writes too little;
a decade-man between each tale, or more,
where every word accrues significance
and dread replaces joy upon the page.
Perfectionists like chasing the horizon;
You kept perfection, gave the rest to us,
so let me earn the wisdom to move on.

But over and above those two mad spectres of parsimony and profligacy,
Lord, let me be brave, and let me, while I craft my tales, be wise:
let me say true things in a voice that is true,
and, with the truth in mind, let me write lies.

Neil Gaiman