Seven Things all Writers Should be Told

Today I spent a fair chunk of my morning speaking to a writer from another country who was struggling. He’s got it bad in a lot of respects, and it gave me some insight into the writing lifestyle on an international level, and what we need to start hearing that we don’t.

First off, my friend lives in an oppressive culture compared to our own; the city he lives in is modern, and in theory the nation is democratic, but the practice is very different. Speaking ill of the government can get you arrested for sedition or locked up in a mental institute. Writing about politics even in weblogs is criminal at certain times of the year (no matter what your view), and the government controls all media outlets. He is forced to maintain a pen name totally alien from his real name in case he should accidentally say something objectionable, and often avoids certain topics in Internet chat because all ISPs are government-owned and monitored.

Censorship is intense and often carried out below the policy level. My friend was blackballed from one of the country’s few publishing venues (all of them owned by the same government organization,) for ordering a beer in a bar at noon, contrary to popular decorum. Worse yet, other writers have been getting at him, not for his own good, but because after years of being forced to digested a flavourless blend of sanitized pap, propaganda and elite haute couture (i.e. excessive amounts of Dickens and Shakespeare), they get irritated with creativity and imagination outside of those scopes.

This kid is brilliant, mark my words, the ideas are right on the pulse of Western Geek culture: fusing Hamlet and Star Wars, writing hilarious Clerks-style chronicles of his rotten job in the local mall, and wild, exasperated tales of the New Age scene with a dry tongue firmly wedged in cheek. When he took a brief vacation in America, he got tangled up with wild parties with drug dealers, occultists, Pagans, and free-love hippies that sounds worthy of Hunter S. Thompson. He proposed re-writing Jane Austen with vampires and monsters ten years before Pride and Prejudice and Zombies hit the scene… but on every step local writers have shut him down and caused him to leave brilliant ideas incomplete and buried in dust.

In college, bright-eyed kids dizzy with visions of becoming the elite and drunken on a love of high-culture Literature shot him down several dozen times. They were trained to be snobs, and they’d be damned if some imaginative guy in the corner was going to bring down the sense of illumination they got from rubbing gently up against he high-class end of White Man’s culture; they shot him down and laughed him out of class so often he eventually quit school. He just wasn’t pretentious enough for the post-secondary crowd. It was then that ideas like Star-Hamlet-Wars and The Vampire of Northanger Abbey were buried (and they are his ideas, hands off!)

After college he joined a writer’s circle looking for friends that would help him stay motivated to pour out his thoughts, but the same bitter snobbery and brainwashing kept coming up. When he tried writing a travel journal of the wild and woolly experiences he had of America’s punk culture, he was told “No one wants to read about your run-ins with American gang-bangers or having sex with exotic women”; That no one would buy anything with “sex and violence in it,’ and that he ought to grow up and get serious.

I have to wonder: where the hell these people have been? Most people in our mighty, media-driven Western world have sex as a side with breakfast and violence as a mid-afternoon snack. We read, watch and listen to it… and gods it would be different if it were written by a relative outsider to our culture; we could find a lot of powerful commentary seeing ourselves reflected through a foreigner’s eyes.

But everything he has to offer geeks, American underground readers, or Shakespeare aficionados with wicked humour is all tangled up because he has spent his whole life being told how “It” is done, or ought to be done. He’s been told what “people” want to read, without telling him which people those are, and shut out of publication by the same voices.

Nobody has told this guy once “I’d read that!” or “That sounds like a lot of fun!” even those of us who might like to hear it, because he’s gotten gun-shy. He’s got a perfect audience that is on some levels, half a world away, but on others just a couple of clicks. In talking my way through his labyrinth of doubts and ugly memories with him I found myself a a loss for words to comfort. I wanted to help, even if in some small way, but what could I do, honestly?

As a Canadian, I live in a culture that is uncomfortable with censorship, and one in which the Artist and the Intellectual sit in an honoured place. The writers I grew up with, Margaret Atwood and Douglas Coupland, never had to deal with other writers heaping emotional abuse on them, or fear that one rink could shatter their writing career, and they helped build a culture where I would never have to either. In then end, it was so outside of my experience I was left feeling helpless to do anything for him.

Hours later, I found myself thinking about his experience and mine, and what made them so different: particularly what I had learned growing up and trying to live as an artist in a relatively free society that he never had. In the end, I came up with seven thoughts to share that I believed could make a real difference to him, and others in his position… things we relatively free Western nations take for granted.

Every Genuine Voice has an Audience! If you are creative, unique, and unpretentious there will always be someone who wants to hear what you have to say. Don’t doubt it for a minute.

Don’t Listen to the Nay-Sayers! Those voices that tell you what “no one” wants to read about or hear, that no one will care, or that something will never sell are not worth listening to. Nobody gets to speak for the whole human race. The only thing they are showing is their lack of imagination.

Find Your Readers! There are people out there who care what you are writing; with IT being what it is you can always find them, you can always communicate with them./ Authors don’t get to sit in their lofty studies resting upon their laurels (let’s be realistic: crouching on their batter futon sorting fan email from spam,) anymore. The people are right there, and you can make yourself accessible, or even reach out.

Listen to your Readers! There’s no point to listening to the people who dismiss your work. Instead get yourself out there and listen to the people who want to hear what you write, and feel good about yourself for a change.

Don’t Wait for the Establishment to Say “Yes!” As in my friend’s case, they may never do so. If publishers don’t want to publish you, and other writers don’t want to support you, then be your own damn publisher and your own damn editor.

True Creativity Never Fits In! If you are really worth reading, if you really have a good imagination, you probably will never be happy no matter where you are. You’ve already decided to be a writer, which is a job that will never land you a steady cheque and may never reach even minimum wage in the Post-Clinton era; why do you care if the nine-to-fivers approve or if you live like they live? Live your whole life on your own terms.

Find Something to Remind You that “It” Can be Done! Somewhere out there not only is there an audience for your voice, but there are artists with similar feelings, aesthetics, or blessed lunacy! Pride and Prejudice and Zombies has the potential to remind my friend not that people laughed him out of English class but that somewhere a writer had an idea a lot like his, and made a success out of it! There is an audience there crying out for more!

Some of the things my friend wants to say are crimes in his country, and he is trying desperately to get out of that place so that he can say them, but a lot of what holds him back come from voices he’s better off not listening to, and the lack of voices telling him that he can. I came to realize that the best, maybe the only way I could help him was to offer a single competing voice of my own.

Well, that and to tell him that I agree: Hamlet would make an awesome Jedi Knight.

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~ by Brian Rideout on 30/03/2010.

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