Monday, December 01, 2003
ESCAPE FROM GENERICA
You asked for it. Oh boy did you ever.
So first off it bugs the shit out of me that I feel like I have all this amazing insightful and amusing shit inside my head that I can write down and it will come out magic and sparkling and people will read it and laugh and cry and go on and on about how talented I am but when I sit down to actually write it all down I end up reading about last year's tv shows or the history of mormonism or who's gonna win the Omloop het Volk next year, and I get distracted and order a pizza and eat the whole fucking thing, and drink like 3 of the free Cokes that my job generously provides because they think I'm here working. And what bugs me even more is this: when I actually get around to writing I end up using clichéd styles like run-on sentences, colons to preface a thought, or footnotes. What the fuck?
At the end of the summer I went on this amazing bicycle ride, I mean it was just huge, and I went over all these mountains and down trails and it was raining and foggy and I started before the sun came up and finished after it set. The day after all I could think was, "Wow, I can't wait to write down everything I was feeling and make people feel that feeling I got at the bottom of that hill or how it really was scary when it got dark and it was foggy and I was hallucinating" -- but how the hell do you write about that without seeming like some product of early 21st-century America with too much free time and not enough real drama so you have to go invent it for yourself? My answer to that problem is I try but then I get distracted by some fascinating new website and I forget all about it, until I read some blog by somebody who can actually write and does and wants to hear about intangible problems that make me feel weak, so there you go.
And here's another one: Here I am working at this enormous company that has its cool sides but certainly has its down sides too and I'm afraid of melding into a generic employee and as a defense all I can think of is how "different" I am from everybody else here. Primarily because of my facial hair. No, really. Isn't that pathetic?
Well, I hope you enjoyed that.
I apologize in advance for changing your real name to “The Rambler.” I know you’ll hate that nickname. You’ll associate it with the song “Ramble On” by Led Zeppelin, a perfectly wonderful song but one that will suggest to readers that you’re the kind of guy who wears an old “Houses of the Holy” T-shirt, ties your hair back into a graying ponytail, and refers to joints as “doobies.”
But I took a leap and called you “The Rambler” because you do ramble on, and because I couldn’t think of anything better, and because choosing a specific name is better than signing you “A Guy” or “A Person With Facial Hair,” because, for all its negative associations, “The Rambler” is a character, not just “A Person Who Rambles” but a person who’s known around town as the most ramblingest rambler in fifteen counties. The Rambler. For better or for worse, with all the stigmas and negative associations included therein, critics be damned.
In your letter, you describe supposedly breathtaking moments in the most general, self-conscious terms imaginable. In order to translate your experiences into more vivid language, language that will engage and involve you and make distractions less likely, you need to do three things:
1. Use your critics for good, not evil. Some say you should kill your inner critics, but I suspect you have tens of thousands of critics in your head, many of whom are the authors of that “amazing insightful and amusing shit” of which you speak. Kill the critics and you mute your own voice. Instead, herd those critics into a bar and get them drunk. Send some of them to the grocery store and see what they have to say. Tie some up and make them eat nothing but black olives and watch nothing but movies starring Mel Gibson for an entire week. Make some of the others read your bike trip notes. What do they think about your experience? Do they think you’re a shriveled-up little poser? Their thoughts should be included in your bike trip journal, or else your voice will be far too self-censoring and blandly positive to be remotely interesting. If half of you hates you, you’d better let that half have a voice, too, or you’ll wind up with a very small, weak, fake-sounding voice in your writing, with the implied, muffled, angry voices hidden just out of sight, but not disguised enough that the reader can’t see them. Readers enjoy writers who admit to every side of themselves, who can see around things. Readers dislike feeling that a writer has blind spots and defensive stances.
2. Become sociopathically overconfident. See how boldly I guess about what readers like and dislike? I’m preposterously full of myself when I’m writing. Where would Norman Mailer or Gore Vidal be without their massive egos? They’d be slouching around the house, writing self-doubting but vague letters to the rabbit. As Frances McDormand’s character said in “Almost Famous,” “Be bold, and mighty forces will come to your aid.”
3. Be more specific. Anyone in the world can tell you this, but I’m just cocky enough to repeat their advice and pretend it’s my own creation. You talk about feeling vaguely great but not being able to put it into words? That’s because a vaguely great is the most difficult feeling to put into words. Instead, I would try to put very specific and non-vague feelings into words. Even if they’re not sweeping and epic and fantastic, you won’t ever learn to write about sweeping, epic, fantastic feelings if you don’t practice with mundane, pathetic, dissatisfied feelings first. You write what you can write about in specific terms and leave the vague, big feelings for people who write and write and don’t get distracted by pizza constantly.
Writing in specifics means forcing yourself to be specific about as much as possible. You mention “some fascinating new website” – a website about what? Why was it fascinating? Can you tell me in 100 words, then narrow it down to about five? You refer to “cool sides” and “downsides” of your job, but don’t even hint at what either might be. Where did you go on your bicycle ride – or rather, what was interesting or weird about where you went? If nothing was interesting about it, move on, but surely there was some aspect of the location that was interesting. Remember, don’t just get specific in order to get specific. You choose which specifics are interesting. For example, I could tell you that I’m writing this from a room that’s painted red, on a dark purple couch, and I’m drinking lukewarm tea, and there’s a feather duster within reach, but the only interesting thing is that there’s a bone tucked into the cushions of the purple couch because my brother’s dog saw this cluttered room and figured it was a really good place to hide something that you didn’t want anyone to find. He saw the dust on the floor and the papers on the coffee table and he figured the chances of anyone straightening up in here were slim indeed. He didn’t let the feather duster deter him.
Here’s another thing: I think that the bone in the cushions is the most interesting detail. There are plenty of people who would think some other detail was more interesting. I don’t give a flying fuck about those people. I write about what’s interesting to me, period. I don’t have any choice but to focus on those things that are interesting to me. If I guess what’s interesting to others, I write shit. That’s why I say you choose which specifics you focus on. Make sure it’s an active choice. Check in with yourself and ask: “Do I really care that the bike was bright yellow? Does that add anything? Does the fog matter, unless I go into what it felt and looked like? Does anything matter, aside from why I was on the trip in the first place?” You have the power to be more than a generic employee and a generic writer, but it means taking risks and forcing yourself to focus on very very small things, and building a picture out of those very small things. Surely there’s something smaller and stranger than facial hair, something that you carry around with you, an unfounded worry or a terrible memory of some seemingly unimportant moment or a tinge of paranoia when it comes to small dogs wearing little red shoes.
4. OK, there are four things you should do. I lied before. The critic who says you shouldn’t write in run-on sentences and shouldn’t use clichés? That critic you can kill. He was created from the ghost of elementary school teachers and freshman composition TAs and from the guy who programmed MS Word to change “TAs” to “Tas” automatically because obviously “TAs” is incorrect and MS Word knows that better than you do. The “Elements of Style” Critic, he had things to offer for about fifteen years, but when you reach the age of 22, you earn the right to write however the fuck you feel like writing. I’m not saying you won’t stumble on tons of worn-out phrases and overused ideas and really awful run-on sentences, but you’ll abandon those things when you’re good and ready to. In the meantime, you need to write the way you write. Aside from pushing yourself onto the fertile soil (a cliché!) of specifics, you need to keep your writing loose and free and rambly. You’re The Rambler, goddamn it! Rambling for you is like breathing!
So ramble on, fair Rambler. Ramble on!
Oh yeah, and -
5. Edit yourself mercilessly.