re.volution: embracing the dragon within

gtown library 001mono

I find myself in an uncomfortable transition period as a writer. Since 2009, when I started writing fiction in earnest, I’ve found that I have two distinct writing styles. There is my poetic style, which is in fact two styles in itself, and my prose style. While there were times I interspersed the two, for the most part, I kept them separate.

I’ve written poetry — some good, some bad — since I was 20 years old. I don’t think I was ever consistent because there were two voices within me and I never figured out how to integrate them. There is the emotional voice, the one people respond to, and the lucid, intellectual voice, the one that says whatever it is I wanted to say. In my early work, it was rare for me to close my eyes, so to speak, and just let out the emotions in a rant. On the few occasions where I did  so, the words came out jumbled and the work, frankly, was a piece of crap.

On rare instances, I’d manage to marry the emotional content within the framework of the piece, creating clear images without the clutter of maudlin emotionalism (which I despise) but with enough feeling to get my point across. These works began to get published, even though I usually didn’t understand what the editor saw in the piece.

the smooth cowhide
vibrates
stirring both the air
and something long-suppressed
within me

In many ways, I still don’t like that poem, but an editor did, enough to publish it. I suppose it’s because i allude to emotion, even though I can’t feel it in the piece. And that gets me to my next point. Even today, people respond to work they tell is full of emotion. Now, while I’m writing the work, I can certainly feel the emotions that leach into it. I can be a torrent of emotive power: laughing, raging, crying … suffice it to say I’m often feeling what the work requires. However, I am in character at those times, allowing the piece to flow through me. It doesn’t come from me, and it doesn’t reside in me when the work is complete.

Often, usually … always … I sit on the piece for days, weeks. Whom am I kidding? I sit on them for years. I am not shy, nor am I concerned about negative criticism. WordPress is too civilized a society for that. No, I don’t release the work because I can never feel the emotion that I thought I’d injected into it. In the poem above, it wasn’t gentle pride I was feeling, nor blank observation — I was bloody angry, full of rage born of my understanding of the truth about African history. I was remembering drumming with an African dance company, and the sense of homecoming that engendered.

But none of it showed up in the poem. Yet the editor liked it, for reasons unknown to me.

I stopped writing shortly after that, and several other poems were published. Rather than being encouraged, having editors reinforce what I thought was crap, while rejecting what I liked, made me feel I was never a writer after all. I tried my hand at fiction, but to honest, I was terrible at it. In retrospect, I’ve come to realize it was because I didn’t understand how to tell a story. I’ve likewise come to understand the editor liked my little snippet of a poem for precisely that reason: it was a story. Sure, there were pieces omitted, but those were parts the reader can imagine. It resonates not because it’s full of emotion, but because it taps into the place where someone else can access theirs.

I get this now, but only now.

There has been a similar journey in my development of a prosaic style. Understand my word choice here. After all, what does prosaic mean? Let’s look at dictionary.com’s definition:

From dictionary.com

From dictionary.com

Commonplace or dull; matter-of-fact or unimaginative — having the character of prose rather than poetry. These definitions didn’t just happen by chance. To some extent, they are emphasized all the time. I learned to write prose, and to tell stories, not in literature classrooms, but at work, writing proposals to customers. Almost ad nauseam I was admonished, “Take out the marketing speak!” “You didn’t sell the story.” “It needs to be simpler.” It was a valuable lesson and one I learned well, if painfully.

To my surprise, when I took my first-ever writing course, a critique collective for poetry writing, they were saying the same things for different reasons. Poets were told to strip out all of the unneeded layers and leave only the rawest emotion. Opposite perspectives, to be certain, but the reasons were identical. Writing, I was being told, was to move to reader in some tangible way towards action. Doing so in the simplest terms were preferred. Even in poetry, lyricism was frowned upon.

And so, I my writing style evolved. I would conform to hordes of writers and readers clamoring for simple prose. I would bend to the will of the Twilights, the 50 Shades of Shit, the unending reams of crap I could never make myself finish. And I tried, I did.

And failed, largely. Now, to be fair, I’ve only ever received 1 negative review by someone who said, “This dude can’t write for shit.” (I paraphrase here.) One isn’t bad. So, I know my published works have been … good. But fuck, since when have I ever shot for “good?” Good and shit are synonymous, in my opinion. So here I was, in a conundrum: the kind of writing I enjoy — my heavily poetic, lyrical style — is out of fashion and the style that’s in fashion, prosaic, isn’t selling.

Black Hill Snow 1-8-10 080bw

I suppose the smart thing to do would have been to quit, and I did, 3 times. But see, the thing of it is, I like to write. And, God help me, there’s this voice inside that says it could eventually be the best thing I’ve ever done, and I’ve done some pretty good shit. So I didn’t want to quit, not really. Borders Books quit, but I’m still here.

Frustrated, I decided to say, “Fuck them. All of them.” Whoever “they” are. I wanted to write the kinds of books I like reading, and few of them were written in my lifetime. I’m still a poet at heart. I thought that meant that I should quit once again, and for the last time, and write stuff just for me.

So I did, but this time, I didn’t tell anyone.

And then, like a bolt, an interesting thing happened. I started noticing that my writing blog viewership jumped every time I released my “old-fashioned,” non-prosaic writing. I published excerpts from the writing style I’d adopted, wherein, for the 1st time ever, I married my deep love for poetic language with a simpler prose style. To my surprise, people seem to like it much more than any of my previous work.

Finally, I was listening only to myself. We have to write for ourselves, paint for ourselves, shoot for ourselves, or we will all die inside. Maybe no one will ever read these books. Maybe my stories remain unread. I’d like them to be read, because I think they’re beautiful. But see, I’m okay if they’re not. I’m still learning anyway. It’s damned hard to write the way I’m trying to write. Simple prose is, well, simple.

Rockville 2-27-10 020bw

It’s easy to look at the scene above and say, “The study rooms were full of readers in silhouette. Jean sat alone, in the far-right booth, with her legs stretched before her.” If I do, when I’m in chapter 4, I don’t have to go back and re-read chapter 1 to re-learn the narrator’s voice and make sure it’s consistent. I don’t have to remember that if all my narrators speak in my lyrical voice, then all my work will sound alike. If I go for simple prose, it’s only about the story and not the words.

But, fuck, I’m only about the words.

And so, the scene above begins to leach emotion for me. Suddenly, it becomes, “The others sat in clustered clumps of clattering clowns, their erect aspects silhouetted by the decaying urban sunlight, and trumpeting their intent to follow the herd, be upright, join the group. Jean sat apart, her back to them, slumped over her solitude like an unloved jewel, never seeing herself not as apart, but in front of the herd.”

And so, I learn her, from inside, where she’s been all along. There is a joke my love and I share, when we aren’t bickering with the voice of pent-up dragons, and that is, “It’s better out, than in.” I tell you this, my doubting friend, if you are a poet, it’s best to let the dragon out.

He will kill you from within.

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13 thoughts on “re.volution: embracing the dragon within

  1. My dear friend, I love some of what you have written and other things not so much. I love your Stream Series even though I hate to read. Hard as Roxx is a difficult read for me as it is interesting and well written but something just makes me not like the main character. Some of your short stories hit me in my core and they are not difficult, while others seem to make me want to shut my computer down because they seem like a series on television that I abhor watching.

    Bill, you are an awesome writer and my love/dislike relationship with your work has nothing to do with you as a writer. I look at the things in my life that I completely turn away from and when I read something akin to that I cannot get away from it fast enough. This may not be giving you a fair shake as a writer, but you really don’t have to prove anything as a writer to me. You once told me to “just write it, what the reader does with it has no bearing on your story.”

    Keep writing from that place that gives you the harmonic balance. 🙂

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    • Amy, writing is a mirror, slightly damaged so that it allows light from behind to leach into the reflection, coloring the readers’ image. We are supposed to allow people to see in the work they can see, and not worry about whether it was what we’ve intended.

      Roxx is a hard read, and a complex character. I didn’t model her as a likeable sort. In fact, she is very much Clint Eastwood and Bruce Lee, neither of whom played pleasant folks. She would rather kill than reconcile. For those who can’t identify with such behavior, she won’t resonate. Were I smart, I would have made her sexy, like a video-game heroine. But I’m not. I let her be who she is, even though I knew almost no one would like her. I’ll take your word that some of my stories are like TV. My 1st 3 books were Fantasy Fiction, which is interesting, as I never read the stuff. But during the time of my life when I wrote them, I needed the escape.

      At this point, I’ve reconciled myself to the fact that for many reasons, I won’t be a financial success with my writing. That’s okay, as I’ve already been blessed in that way anyhow. I’ve changed and my writing changes with it. I think we all have to figure out what’s inside and trust the process of letting that out. I used to get depressed that people don’t rush out to by my books. Now, I don’t think I even care. Either they’ll like them or they won’t. I’m no longer trying to figure that out. Maybe before I die one thing will resonate with enough people that I’ll be a “success.” In the interim, I may as well write the way I’ve always wanted to.

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      • If you had made Roxx like a sexy video game heroine I would have liked her so much less. Maybe when I get completely through the book I will look at her through different eyes and be more understanding of her abrasiveness.
        If we don’t converse before the holiday I do hope your Thanksgiving is wonderful.

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  2. I’m still trying to let the dragon out. The door has been welded shut. I think for me, finding the right readers (for critique) is essential. I’ve had so much trouble with people unable to critique properly or, in some cases, possess poor reading comprehension that they’ve collectively welded the doors shut. I’m working on it. Pieces like this are helping. I’m so glad you take the time to write these.

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    • I struggled with finding the right readers for years, without success. But I keep coming back to the single piece of advice Stephen King gives that I placed above the rest. He says we should find one reader who “gets” our work and write all of our stuff for that person. In King’s case, it was his wife, Tabitha, a talented writer in her own right. I wrote the 1st two Stream books with one person in mind, and the books reflect her persona. The third one, frankly, I wrote purely because I wanted to tell the story. I wrote it for grandkids I may never have.

      Likewise, Roxx was written for a single reader, who was my top cheerleader. I even thanked her in the credits. My current writing is for the woman I’m in love with. She’s brilliant, talented, challenging, and responds to the voice I want to write in rather than the one others respond to. As a result of finding the ‘right’ reader, I’m improving daily.

      Trust me when I say your door isn’t welded shut. When we haven’t written, or when we doubt our own imaginations (like I did, right up until my 3rd book) we can form so much rust that it’s hard to get out what we want. The best thing to do is keep writing and look for the one person who always gets you. Personally, I’ve found critique circles to be the opposite of helpful. I’d rather have a single cheerleader than a room full of (not successful) experts.

      If you write what pleases you, you’ll get to where you want to be.

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      • Thanks, Bill. I really appreciate these thoughts. I’ve thought that I should right for my wife who’s my biggest cheerleader and who “gets” my stuff. We like the same kind of stories so it fits. I’m trying to compose a longer piece right now and it involves a strong female character, because that’s what she likes.

        Thanks much for all your thoughts on this. 🙂

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  3. I think being able to accept yourself as fully as you can is an enormous benefit to anyone, not just those wishing to write. In rounding out your own character, you learn to round out the characters that you create. Emotions dictate everything we do, so to not be emotional about anything, and to be objective is impossible and an excuse in my mind not to accept the highly subjective and emotive nature of any experience, even if the emotional response is one of boredom or indifference. Every thought carries with it a raft of emotional references, or hormonal triggers that we choose to either suppress or express fully.
    In my mind the only way to engage a reader is by appealing to them on a personal emotional level, then you will have them hooked, even if all you get is their vehemence.

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    • Most best selling books aren’t really that emotional. And although a lot of readers are, statistically, 50% of people, myself included, don’t use their emotional selves as their primary interface to the world. While I like the idea of tapping into my emotional center in order to write, it’s going to be limited to those things that are emotional triggers for me. I think what I’m learning to do better is identify my characters’ emotional triggers and use those.

      But I still want to ensure that I’m writing with balance, otherwise I’ll wear people out.

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  4. I looked at the room, my hopes dashed. There was nowhere I could sit alone. I stopped, struggling with my choices . . . sit with the crowd, hoping from the lack of interaction that comes from anonymity, or sit apart but still near the lady with her feet stretched out before her and hope she too had lost all desire for human contact.

    I chose without premonition my life would be forever changed.

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