June 7, 2012
I’m going to post a few of the things I’ve written since I “ended” my blog. None of these have ever been made public before, but I like them enough that I thought I’d share. Up first: “Writing is hard”.
You’ve been invited to a dinner party.
At this party, there will be people from all walks of life. There are doctors, teachers, students, janitors and executives. And they would all very much like to meet you.
These people are part of a society, a group that wields immense power. They can, in essence, decide your fate. They will determine whether you’ll sink or swim, be a household name or be forgotten at once.
There is only one problem.
For some reason, every one of them is under the impression that you’re an archeologist.
You are not an archaeologist. You never have been. You only have a rough understanding of what the term even means, frequently mixing up the terms archeologist and anthropologist.
You can’t come clean; you might as well end your career on the spot. Your only choice is to fake it, to fall into your new-found role and try, somehow, to play the part of the delightful archeologist. Luckily, you have roughly a month between now and the party. You can spend that time learning the basics of archeology, figuring out the terminology, and weaving together some believable stories to share. It’s going to be rough, though — let’s not forget that the guest list also includes the Dean of Archeology, archeology students, and award-winning archeologists, assuming that something like archeology has awards. And you will have to fool them all.
Unfortunately, after that party you’ve been invited to a gathering of people who believe you to be a police officer, and after that you promised you’d drop by a party where everyone hopes to hear you recount how you overcame that drug addiction you never had.
Given all this, you’d think that all writers must be geniuses. They have to know more than a single person — they have to know enough to fake a thousand different people and a hundred different professions. You have to know all that you know, plus enough of what every character knows that he or she becomes believable.
There are a couple ways out of this. One of these is adopting a functional alcoholism. Many writers take this route, and it works quite well for them, though I can’t put my finger on why. Some are just honestly good at faking it; see Stephen “I hate your talent” King. Others spend years studying the required backgrounds of each of their characters — if your character is a archaeologist, you spend a year bringing yourself up to at least University-level archaeology, and make friends with a couple career archaeologists (see Michael Crichton) (I didn’t say this method was always necessarily successful).
Great writers are the ones who are so annoyingly clever and painfully intelligent that they seem to be able to trick you into thinking they’re an astrophysicist on the spot. If something will drive me to adopt functional alcoholism myself, it will be the existence of these people.
A popular adage in writing is to “write what you know”, and this is why. Unless you pour years into research, or were born with such natural intelligence and keen empathy that you should be running the planet, you’re going to have a damn hard time tricking anyone into thinking you’re a archaeologist when you have a BA in “English”.
But while it’s damn hard, it’s still possible. You write what you know, but what you know is fluid. It changes every day, though conversations, observations, and, yes, cold research. And, if you’re really, really good, you learn to fake it just well enough that everyone who reads your words is fooled.
I am not intelligent, I am not clever. I don’t think there’s a single published author whose shadow I do not stand in. But I intend to crash a few dinner parties. I’m going to be the asshole drunk in the corner, trying to convince people that I was, in fact, the first person on the moon. I will be the world’s least convincing chemist, an unbelievable archeologist. And with enough practice, one day I might just fool some.