September 2019 marks the twentieth anniversary of Jay’s decision to become a writer. His gift to you all this celebratory year is DO IT – Twelve hard lessons on learning by failing, succeeding by accident, never giving up and saying FXXK WRITING all at the same time. You’re welcome!
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Writers who don’t read are shit. Writers who only read shit can be good. And writers who are shit often read well. Bottom line – no matter what kind of shit you write, you must read to feed your imagination and see how 4000 years of brilliance, mediocrity, and hackwork in human communication have done the job.
I was a late reader. Like, nineteen years late. I’d suffered school stuff, plus a handful of books with titles like THE FROST GIANT’S SUMMER LAIR and YOUR CODE NAME IS JETTA, plus a couple failed attempts to read Lord of the Rings (my sister promised that if I got to the Prancing Pony and met Stryder, I would be hooked . . . I never got past a drunken birthday party for little people).But reading as lifestyle? Nah. I was a music junkie during my formative years. But when the band broke up and I hocked my guitar for rent, books became the new drugs. Each reading-era taught me something about the craft I would later hold on to and try and apply.
There was the initial love of anything recommended to me – Jim Thompson, Margaret Atwood, J. G. Ballard, JRR Tolkien (I skipped everything before Stryder and the book became a fun D&D adventure with less dirty jokes), Clive Barker, Orson Scott Card, Judy Blume’s serious books for kids, Star Wars novelizations, Star Trek history texts, and more. During this tasteless period., I’d learn that cool fiction could kinda be anything, so long as the characters were interesting and doing neat shit.
Then came my self-imposed crash course in literature during undergrad, when I tried to kill my ignorance of cool books by reading tons of Dashiel Hammet, Joseph Conrad, Isaac Babel, Patricia Highsmith, Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, George McDonald, Mariano Azuela, Albert Camus, Tolstoy and Goethe, Octavio Paz, Mary Shelly, E. Nesbitt, William Faulkner, Franz Kafka, Richard Wright, more Jim Thompson, among others. I learned that books are cultural documents and, as Charles Wilfeord called it, case histories of the writer. They capture the mind of a time and a place as well as a story. Also, themes fucking matter and great artists suck the life out of their themes from a a zillion angles.
When I thought I’d become a science fiction writer (HAHAHAHA!), I pushed myself again to turn the 2 hour commute to my job as a cemetery groundskeeper into a lab for the imagination with Brian Aldiss, Alfred Bester, William Gibson, Lisa Tuttle, Ursula Le Guin, more Philip K. Dick and Jim Thompsn, etc. I learned . . . that I had a smaller appetite for science fiction than pop culture had led me to believe…that outside of the people already mentioned I didn’t give a shit about world building, or thought experiments, or extrapolation as much as the people in this world who suffered and struggled.
In 2000 I found much love for the work of horror and dark fantasy fiction from Joe Lansdale, Richard Laymon, Gary Braunbeck (he wrote a messy masterpiece, THE INDIFFERENCE OF HEAVEN, which is a mindfuck of a great read), Steve and Melanie Tem, Poppy Z. Brite, Gemma Files, Tim Waggoner, Tom Piccirilli, Norman Partridge, Brian Keene and even MORE Jim Thompson (the dude fits almost everywhere in my imagination). It was in horror, more than any other genre, where I found a full and unflinching (if often ugly) freedom of the imagination – here was the worst and best of humankind, cruelties and courage, ugly emotions and uneasy truths. There was also lust, sex, and various strains of mysogyny that sucked, but I preferred the raunch and unflinching reality (ugly, sexy, liberated, oppressive, violent, sensous, rotten and sweet) of horror compared to the puritinical and sanitized world of science fiction and fantasy, and started taking chances with such subjects in my work. I also read two Stephen King books. They were okay.
In 2003-2009, as I finished doctoral work, I read exclusively short stories (since that was all I had time to write). My only goal was to learn as much about form and style as well as substance as possible, and to champion an eclectic approach: I aimed for one-story-a-day from authors like Raymond Carver, Amy Hempel, Bernard Malmud, Roger Zelazney, Haruki Murakami, Charles Grant, Elizabeth Hand, more Patricial Highsmith, Robert E. Howard, collections like Alberto Manguel’s Blackwater books of fantasy fiction from across the world. I learned deeply about form, theme and structure, and how most writing rules are for beginners before you take risks and make your own decisions.
Then, slowly, reading fell away into the disaster years of my existence, when I largely abandoned writing with the same drive and abandon of my first decade, then stopped for a blip.
And that’s the important part. Reading is active. Much media is passive. Reading is a laboratory experiment in your mind with other people’s worlds and your own imagination as the duall engine of creation and entertainment. Without it, part of your imagination starves. It may feast in other quarters, and that can be a good thing (especially if you’ve avoided autobiographical material).
Without reading, something in my creative heart dies.
In 2014 I won a fellowship and was able to focus on researching and writing a history book for a whole year-and-a-half! While history books dominated my shelves, my love of improv theater burned hot for about five years. I read bios of Steve Martin, Marc Maron, Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Martin Short, Patton Oswalt, as well as works on the history of theater. It taught me TONS about hidden sources of creativity and storytelling
I only realized this truth very recently. For about a year, my reading life was tied to teaching material, mostly Alexander Solzhenitzian, William Goldman, Ernest Hemingway, Ray Bradbury, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Yevegny Zamyatin, Donald Westlake, Zora Neale Hurston, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Anthony Burgess, Hunter S. Thompson, Ken Kesey, Truman Capote, Langston Hughes and Sandra Cisneros. Teaching these works taught me just how crazy good they were with language alone, and how near perfect their work could be because they’d cracked the code of the right combination of words for masterful impact on character and structure.
But when I was free of teaching, burned out and depressed, reading lost its luster. Then, when I was 60K into a new novel, I got injured. Part of recovery meant sitting and doing nothing for 30 minutes.
And here, I started reading again. Nelson Algren. James Ellroy. Philip Caputo. Yes, still too dude heavy, but the gift they gave me was something I didn’t expect.
Glimpses of the future. Not the false-promises of science fiction futures which are almost always about the horrors and fascinations of the present in different kinds of costumes, but a real imaginary future.
I rarely think of the future. Trauma, depression, learning challenges, poverty, defense mechanisms, and predilections of personality have crippled part of my ability to project and plan and maintain events into the future outside of rigid structures and clear pathways. When suffering from severe hardship, especially the past year, I largely lost the ability to picture a future with me in it. Everything was about surviving the present.
And the future became a fabled land, a lost civilization, an Oz I would never see.
Then I started reading. And writing.
And dark holes in my psyche were lit.
I thought of novels I wanted to write. Three of them. All different. One a crime/mystery. One a horror and nostalgia piece. The last a historical suspense. Books that would take years to finish. Books that I could only write with the skill set I had now.
Books that only existed in the future. Ones that required my continued existence.
Viktor Frankl, psychoanalyst and Holocaust survivor, noted that in the death camps many died from a lack of “why”, despair consuming them because there was no thing they could yearn for in that industrial purgatory of death and malice. But many endured because they had some “why” to keep going – a wife to return to, a clock they built in their mind that they would one day see in reality, a song, a friend, anything that swam in their mind in the present that promised a future.
That observation has stuck with me throughout twenty years of hardships far more insignificant than the death camps. But it was no less true.
To be a writer, one must live, one must write, and one must read. None are a substitute for the other. They are the trinity that holds up your work.
So, read, mutherfuckers.
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