Ep. 4 - SQaC Trilogy Part 1: Study
Commit to wuss out.
My book about the code-switching wolf-riders is coming along nicely. By that, I mean that the story is difficult every single day.
People wonder “where do good ideas come from?” I’m not dismissive of that question, and if I get a good idea someday, I’ll tell you.
It’s to my advantage to pretend that some muse descends from on high to fart MYSTICAL STORY ambrosia into my mouth or something. After all, if ideas are exclusive and spiritual, and if creatives are the professionals and their job is hard to do, creatives have less competition and more mystique. Art is more impressive when it’s rare and religious.
In the last episode, you saw me work out the idea in real-time, or as close to real time as I could really get at the time. You heard me ask “what if the American dream is a lie” and answer “I’ll write a book about a dude riding a wolf.”
You heard me ask a hard question and then totally wuss out. And that’s where good ideas come from.
Picture a visual artist. She has two options before her: she can choose to make a sculpture out of clay or she can choose to make it out of butter. Now, you probably think it’s better to use clay. After all, it’s easier to work with, it’s cheaper, the sculpture will last longer and taste worse. Whereas butter is notoriously buttery.
But it’s kind of impressive, isn’t it, when the artist chooses the more difficult material? It’s the reason you probably value a live pianist over a computer-programed piano. Even though a player piano is capable of more complexity than a live pianist could ever achieve, it’s not at all impressive – once you get past the technology involved – to watch a computer read ones and zeros.
But you can take that to its absurd conclusion. What if the pianist chopped off her hands and performed by spitting marbles at the keys. It would be impressive, in a way, but the music would end up sounding like spilled silverware or one of Paul McCarteny’s solo albums.
That’s probably the reason you’re listening to this podcast. Nobody really cares if I write twelve mediocre books. L. Ron Hubbard could do that. But if I write them in twelve months while documenting the process, suddenly things get more interesting. The effort involved becomes more worth observing.
But let’s return to the butter sculpture. Now that the sculpture must be made with a fickle material that looses structural integrity at room temperature, even a simple life-sized sculpture of a cow would – and did – cause Texas Senator Ted Cruz to tweet:
Wow, a cow made of butter. My girls would love it. In fact, the first sentence Caroline ever said was "I like butter.”
But the whole reason anybody would care about the cow made of butter is not only for the work involved, but ALSO for the result. “What does that mean?” you ask with your tiny, tiny, two-neuron brain. Well I’ll use my big ol smart-maker to tell you, if you can even comprehend my big words and stuff.
Comprehension is key. So once you’ve made things hard for yourself in one way, make them easier in another. Running a marathon in under two hours is impressive. Running a marathon in full firefighting gear is impressive. But try to do both at once, and you’ll fail, and your failure won’t even be interesting. Forming a cow out of butter is impressive. Sculpting said cow with your eyes closed is impressive. Try to do both, and you’ll end up with something that looks like Senator Ted Cruz. But I’m making this podcast harder for myself by insulting a political figure about his appearance, so I’ll dull that difficulty by referencing how unfair it is to criticize Ted Cruz’s weird or totally normal face. I’ll pretend that I’m being sarcastic when I tell you that I’m really smart. That’s a cop-out.
Art is a series of cop-outs. Even the most daring writers write using language. If I wanted to be really daring, I’d subvert language by fdas;adghius adfsjhasf;ohuawe. But it doesn’t matter how hard you make something for yourself if what you end up with in the end is a train-wreck of gibberish.
So, I’ve made things really hard for myself. By writing this book, I’m inherently critiquing the American dream by saying “no matter how hard you try, you can’t rise above your station in the eyes of some people.” I’m critiquing the idea that in America, anyone can be whatever they want to be. Somebody could be so accomplished that they become Senator of America’s second-largest state and STILL get made fun of for their butterface. I don’t want to have to do all that I want to do with this story AND be a white guy talking about race in America. I could give my amateurish take on race relations, but I can’t do that AND. It would, as I said before, consume my entire attention.
Okay, so is my advice to just do really hard stuff all the time?
No! Actually, do really easy stuff at first.
What would you think of somebody trying to carve a cow statue out of butter if they’d never carved before? Carved anything, I mean. What if this person could carve, but they’d never studied the intricacies of the majestic dairy cow and carved its udder on its head or something. I’d laugh at them because I’m a cow expert. That not where that goes, I’d say.
And the only reason you can hear my sonorous voice right now is that Mrs. Dinkledorf taught me goodly grammar in the grade of the first. And then I learned to type. And I read as many as five whole books before attempting to write my first novel.
And, unfortunately, I gotta disagree with Senator Ted Cruz on this one. Now, I know he claim “the first sentence Caroline ever said was "I like butter.”” And that’s wrong. I think her first sentence was “Yes.” Or maybe it was “no.” Or maybe Caroline’s first sentence was “Ted, what kind of psychopath feeds their daughter straight-up butter all by itself, and, Ted, what kind of butter-savant would respond to that with their first ever construction of words to make a qualitative judgement not about your or mom, but about butter, and why, Ted, if all that were true, my first sentence would thereby define for the rest of eternity whether I would “love” a cow made of butter, Ted, you horrific parody of human communication, you prophetic exemplar of why human democracy is doomed to perish in its own filth?”
See, we start simple. Your first steps will not be your best. But only in trying for your best every step of the way to your steps get better. Do not practice mediocrity.
That’s almost all the advice I can give you, actually. All done. Podcast over.
It’s in practice that things get weird.
So, how does this apply to my code-switching wolf-rider story? Well, the way I make sure that this book is good practice for me is that I try to set myself concrete goals. I’ve got three distinct ways of making sure I practice writing well. I study, I question, and I commit. Today, I’ll focus on studying.
1) Alright – on studying, let’s focus.
So, one way I study writing is by reading. I don’t mean that I read books on how to write – well, not just that. I read every day. It doesn’t matter what exactly I’m reading. If what I’m reading is good enough to hold my attention, that’s what I read.
You’ll find that you’re already halfway done with this step. You will naturally consume what you long to create. If you’re a chef who hates food, a novelist who doesn’t like novels, or a builder who doesn’t like architecture… well, I’m sorry for your wasted ambition.
(In fact – just a side note… I’ve never met the food-hating chef or the building-indifferent builder, but I’ve met SO MANY WRITERS who don’t read. Does that strike you as weird? Does that strike you as someone trying to find an outlet for some other ambition that isn’t the writing itself?)
You’ll consume what you naturally like, and you’ll try your hand at what you naturally like. Congrats. You’re a natural. This next part is natural, too: your taste in what you like will change. Let’s consider, for instance, a person who grew up reading and loving the Harry Potter series. Statistically, I’ve just described you, so I’ll tell this story in the 2nd person.
Anyway, let’s follow you as you wait for each Harry Potter book to come out. The first one is awesome. You love the characters and the world, and you secretly wish you could be Harry or one of his friends.
But as you pre-order the sequel in the scholastic catalogue, you get a bit nervous. What if it’s different? What if Harry and his world changes? Your questions are answered as you place the second book on the floor and prop your head up on a pillow and devour page after page… yeah, it is different, and you like it! Harry has been changed by the events of the last book, and he uses his new character traits to face down problems that would have destroyed book one Harry. So you finish reading and pre-order the next book.
As time goes on. Something weird begins to happen. Each book is slightly different from the last. As Harry and the others get older – as you, the reader, get older – the books get more complicated. Some people say that the series is getting darker, but that’s not exactly true. Good often triumphs over evil. Harry and his friends are made better, for the most part, by the trials they face. But the books are definitely introducing complexity. And you wouldn’t have it any other way. Reading that first book is nice, but you crave something more, more dangerous, more challenging, more… well, true. The first book is really good, and it’s your favorite, in some ways. But it’s your favorite introduction. The other stories are like stories on a building, each one only possible because of the foundation beneath.
And you reach the last book. You either like the direction the book went, or you didn’t. Maybe you loved how much (blank’s) death made you grieve. Maybe Harry’s reaction to stress helps you categorize the difficulties life throws your way. But maybe you know the truth: that Hermione ended up romancing the wrong dude in her love triangle.
But Harry Potter isn’t all you read. You found other books that you like as much – or even better than Harry Potter. You might have found that you like the Harry Potter movies or video games more, and suddenly you’re playing Pokemon or watching The Godfather. What happened? The whole time you were just doing what you liked. You still can’t explain why, but it was completely natural FOR YOU to go from reading Harry Potter to being a professional bodybuilder. Your friend had a different trajectory, and she says that Harry Potter led her to her current marriage.
Through this whole journey, you were unknowingly conducting experiments on yourself. By trying new things, you found what you did and didn’t like. You liked the parts of Harry Potter that were about Hagrid, so you thought it might be cool to try being a big beefy buff body builder. Or maybe your friend liked Snape, and to this day she finds herself falling more and more in love with her brusque partner who does good deeds in secret.
This is going to be kind of an upbeat podcast, in the end, because studying what you love is, in some ways, the most natural thing in the world. There are, however, times when you won’t have the time or energy to conduct your experiments. There are times in your friend’s life when she loves her Snapelike partner, but there are other times when your friend has to buy Snape groceries or stand up for Snape when Snape is misunderstood, and it’s not fun anymore, it’s tiring and your friend just wants to divorce Snape and go sleep by herself and eat Ben and Jerry’s forever.
But keep trying, you know? You won’t always like studying what you’re studying. Just remember why you studied it in the first place.
That’s really all I’ve got to say today. Start small, end as big as you can. Enjoy yourself.