QUESTIONABLE LESSONS ON THE CRAFT OF WRITING DECIPHERED FROM SOME SHITTY TRANSLATIONS OF MY ‘WHAT WOULD I SAY’ RESULTS

By Matthew Burnside

If you’re like me, then that sonofabitching What Would I Say app took over your life for at least a week a few months ago. Yes, I agree it’s annoying, and yes, I agree that it’s better at poetry than I will ever be. And while 90% of the virtual word vomit is clearly nonsense (“Don’t mind the hot Christian girls, all the children will thrust gingerly” + “Pop quiz hot shot: what is a Donkey Prayer” + “a dickhole from which appears the Wild Wild West”), that magical 10%, if you’re in the right state of mind (sugar-high on a giant Ziploc bag of left over Halloween candy and depressed at the dizzyingly high number of post MFA-fellowships for which you are not qualified) you’ll find possess an aphoristic quality, a cryptic wisdom equal to the profundity of a thousand Zen koans. So, feeling deep the other night, and maybe even a bit lonely (“My best friend, the Internet”), stone-cold convinced valuable lessons lay locked in the algorithm-derived gibberish, I clicked through a few hundred times and attempted a few shoddy translations at the results in order to pry some morsel of meaning on the subject of writing.

Here’s the top ten that resonated with me and my coinciding perfectly (il)logical interpretations.

1. “rubbing peanut butter into my novel while crying”

There may come a time when apparently everyone around you is coming out with a new novel and you’re the only one in the world without anything to show for yourself. Like Wile E. Coyote damned to return to the drawing board again and again, interminably stuck at square one in scheme-hatching purgatory in a room rife with faulty ACME traps as everyone around you poses with their prize road runner taxidermied head, you’ll feel hopeless and ineffectual. In those moments, remember this: Rolf Kalmuczak wrote and published more than 2900 works in his life. Have you heard of Rolf Kalmuczak? Probably not. What about Harper Lee? Chances are, you studied To Kill a Mockingbird in school. Most people have. It is the only novel Harper has published to date, and it’s great. All this is to say: the goal isn’t to write a hundred mediocre books or even a hundred half-decent books. If you can just write one great book, you will have caught a far greater road runner. And writing a great book takes time, so take all of it that you need. Pay no mind to those cartoon harefooted hunters pumping out material like it’s a race. It’s not a race. It’s not a race. It’s not a race. So put the peanut butter away.

2. “SCREAM, my workshop”

If you’re doing the writing thing MFA-style, don’t worry too much about impressing your peers in workshop. Follow your weirdness. Experiment. Take risks. Some of your peers will appreciate your willingness to go where others are wary to take their words in such an environment. Some of your peers may not be able to grasp your vision or aesthetic, and this is OK. Carry on with your good work in either case, and don’t write to suit your workshop. Nothing kills true creativity more than peer pressure.

3. “Trust the machinery of words”

Don’t create something because it’s what will sell, what is easiest, what is comfortable, what is expected of you, what their idea of “literary” is, what you’ve been taught – either directly or indirectly – to produce throughout your English education or MFA. Create something because there are tiny imperceptible ghost pistons punching away at building something – you’re not entirely sure what, and this is why it’s so important to finish – to put some deeply inexpressible somethingness into expressible terms. Trust the machinery of your intuition. Create something because it’s entirely possible it won’t sell, precisely because it is so difficult, unexpected, averse or foreign or elusive to “literary.” Create because it is something you could’ve only taught yourself, and then extend that most difficult lesson to all the world. Whether they take it is – as it always has been, will be, should be – up to them.

4. “Our tragedy today is a license.”

The worst day of your life could probably yield ten good stories. Wring it. There is nothing you can’t write about as long as you write it with sincerity.

5. “only one rule to remain everlasting in language. Lick Lightning”

Whatever your litmus test for good literature is, no book should leave you feeling nothing after you shut it. For me, good literature has always confirmed my present state of aliveness, either by pissing me off or leaving me a weeping bag of skin – heartbroken or in awe or in denial or intoxicated, under the spell of someone’s secret version of the world I had never fathomed before. I know I’ve read a book worth reading when I close it knowing the world is both bigger and smaller than before I opened it. For the most part, I think rules (for writing) do more harm than they do good, and when I sit down to write I am constantly trying to unlearn them. I’m listening instead to the internal logic or rhythm of the story. But if I had to have one rule, it would be you have to keep the reader reading by any means necessary. If you keep the reader reading: you win.

6. “for first draft summon a wolfpony”

Obviously a wolfpony doesn’t give a shit about what it tears up in its path. It doesn’t concern itself with niceties, with waving hello to bunnies as it terrorizes the forest. Doesn’t care about the clods of dirt tangled in its fur or thorns underfoot or shit in its teeth. It hauls ass and takes no prisoners because it is a FUCKING WOLFPONY. I think you see what I’m getting at here: for the first draft, don’t worry about polish. Just get it all down on the page. Like a wolfpony, you can wave to the bunnies (then eat them) and wash yourself in the river later.

7. “Pay attention to a writer, the right to fake a bomb.”

Who knows where words come from? Who knows why they come at all? And most importantly, does it really matter? At the end of the day, you’re going to write because you’re a freak and you have words inside you that need out. Let them bleed. Don’t question them so. They know what they’re doing, even if they may require some help from you later on to sterilize, wipe off the excess, and arrange the red puddles into a cohesive fresco of feeling, meaning, or whatever finality of effect you’re gunning for. A teacher once told me if it ever comes down to your grand pre-ordained plan for a story and the language wrestling its way into a completely different direction, always follow the language’s lead. Chase it. Don’t lose it. Though you as author may feel like the guide, the language is the one with the built-in compass.

8. “new York publishers. Salinger knew very definition of hell”

A wise writer once said when it comes to publishers go with the one who loves you. Upon being told Holden Caulfield was crazy by a big time New York publisher, JD Salinger wept, then he stood up, vacated the building, and called his agent to tell him to get him the hell out of the deal which would have surely published Catcher in the Rye. What the big time New York publisher could never/would never understand is that JD Salinger was Holden Caulfield, and Holden Caulfield was JD Salinger – and to be called crazy is the most dismissive thing one could do to another human being. You might as well call a person fictional.

9. “You have to settle with being a human being.”

While you’re busy writing about the lives of others, don’t forget to live your own. It’s hard enough just being a human being, but it’s even harder being an artist. Allow yourself some leniency, and don’t get caught up in trying to beat every other writer in the history of writing, because that is an insurmountable task. If you view all other writers as your competition, I think you’re missing the point. There is only one competition: yourself. Only two perpetual challenges: getting down the story, and getting the story right. With patience, sincerity, and a healthy sense of humor to combat all the tiny rejections along the way, you will eventually get the stories right, and it will be as joyful a process as it was frustrating.

10. “Righteous WITHERED TITS and the almighty pen: a fucking bear trident.”

Self-explanatory.

*Some Honorable Mentions (which I honestly couldn’t decode):

don’t stare into armor while smoking”

the human story does not entail Cyrus the damn Virus”

Everyone be armed with their harps. I must be high on watermelon”

I have assassinated the last Burrito”

French kiss the cosmic comrade”

Punchdrunk on a fart”

Matthew keeps a list of his sins at Matthewburnsideisawriter.tumblr.com.

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