Strangling Mermaids: More Writing Myths That Need To Die

Point of fact: I’m the guy at parties who tells you that urban legend you’re passing around — about the AIDS needles in the McDonald’s playground ball-pit or the dead baby used to smuggle cocaine or the chihuahua-that’s-actually-a-rat — is bullshit. I don’t know why. Everybody has fun telling those kinds of stories and there I am, pushing my glasses up the bridge of my nose, murdering misinformation — and, oh, fun — in equal measure. I’m just skeptical, I guess. You tell me that the punch in the punch bowl is spiked with vodka, I’m likely to ask, “Did you check Snopes? SNOPES OR IT DIDN’T HAPPEN.”

I bring the same measure of myth-killing (and subsequent accidental fun-murdering) to writing. Writers often live or die by magical thinking, and that’s all well and good when it’s not fucking with your mojo. But myths often contain secret dangers. The Mexican Pet legend — i.e. the chihuahua-that’s-actually-a-rat — contains a not insubstantial seed of xenophobia and racism. “Oh, those silly disgusting Mexicans,” it says, “with their dog-like rats and their rat-like dogs. You just can’t trust things from wacky Mexico!”

And thus I find it instructive to shine a light in dark spaces.

It’s probably annoying.

But, too bad. Here I am, once more kicking over logs inside the writer’s mind and seeing what squirmy little wormlets lurk underneath. Let’s tackle some more writing myths.

“All It Takes To Be A Writer Is To Read And Write!”

If ever there was a piece of advice that was more dismissive of the act of writing, I don’t know what it is. At the heart of the advice is this: if you really want to learn how to write, then the only things you need to do is read books and, in turn, write them. Boom. Done. From there, you’ll… I dunno, just figure it the fuck out.

Can you imagine if we believed that true of other skills?

“Piano? Ehh. Just listen to some Billy Joel and then go flop around on this Casio keyboard for an hour and a half. You’ll pick it up.” “Painting? Sure, sure, here’s a bunch of Bob Ross VHS tapes, just put those on and then fingerpaint a bunch of happy little trees for a few weeks. You’ll be Leonardo Picasso in no time.” “Truck driving? Yeah, fuck the CDL. Just watch me do it, then you have a crack at it. That’s all you need. No, don’t worry if you mow down a church picnic or some shit. Them churchies have had it too good for too long.”

Reading and writing are two critical components of learning to write. True. No argument. But to suggest that’s all it takes is ludicrous — this isn’t fucking Skee-Ball. Writing’s got a lot of moving parts, many obscured behind a metric butt-ton of abstraction. This idea misses first that going out and living your life is a critical component to being a writer: you learn about stories by living your own stories. You also learn storytelling by hearing stories told, not just by reading them or writing them. Further, this removes from the equation any power you might get from writing classes (compositional and up) and writing advice, both of which are not only functional, but for many, fundamental.

Newsflash: I read a lot as a kid and I wrote a lot, too.

It didn’t make me a bestselling author at age 12.

The classes I took? The writing advice I read? The conferences? The sit-downs with other writers? The notes from editors? All of it, instructive. All of it putting me where I am today.

“My Characters Control Me!”

Despite how it sounds, I don’t actually want to destroy the magic implicit to storytelling. A very real magic lives there, and while I believe that writing is a craft, I’ve come to further believe that storytelling is an art.

But for me, the focus of magic must be internal, not external. Magic shouldn’t happen to the writer; the writer should be the one in control of the magic. It’s the difference between having your penis stolen by black magic sorcerers or, instead, being the sorcerer who uses his magic to steal penises. Right? Right.

So it always amazes me when writers speak of their fiction — and, in particular, the characters within that fiction — as being somehow alive, as if they’re real people running rough-shod over your story because these characters just don’t give a raw red fuck what you, the writer, want. Does that mean I’ve never been surprised by my characters? Of course I’ve been surprised by my characters. But I don’t attribute it to them being real. Instead, I high-five my subconscious mind and say, “Nicely done, part of my brain, I approve of your decision.” I mean, it’s not like comic book writers are like, “Yeah, I don’t know why Superman just took a Kryptonian Super-Shit on Hawkman. It’s just, hey, that’s Superman. I don’t control him. That crazy motherfucker does what he wants. The underwear on the outside? His idea.”

Here’s proof that you control your characters. When next you sit to write, have one of your characters just take a handgun and shoot himself smack dab in the head. You can go back and erase it — but did he fight you for control of the gun? No. No he didn’t. (And if he did: seek help. Or call a penis-stealing wizard, because maybe that dude has some advice on controlling your shit.)

“I Write Because OMG I Have To Or I’ll Explode!”

Again, another thing that gives short shrift to writers and writing. Writers write because they want to write. We’re not compelled to by some outer force. We are not mouthpieces of the divine.

Further, writing isn’t a mental illness. (Though it may feel that way at times.) We are not compelled to do it like slavering word-junkies. Christ, if writers were truly compelled to write, you’d probably see a lot less video game playing and a helluva lot more actual writing getting done.

By acknowledging that we want to write and must force ourselves to do so, then… drum roll please, we actually do so. Don’t be so dramatic to think that you’re metaphysically or psychotically forced to write by elements beyond your control. You cede that kind of authority to spectral hands then when the day comes you don’t write, well, that’s probably because the Powers That Be demanded it. Oh well!

“By Performing That Action, I Will Have Given Away My Thunder!”

Your creativity is not a newborn rabbit, so frail that even the mildest startle causes its tender systems to shut down. And yet I continue to hear about how this or that (outlining, prep-work, revising, editing, etc.) somehow damages the author’s creativity by robbing the project of its rare magic. Or, put differently, “It’s just not fun anymore.” You wrote an outline and it ruined Christmas.

You know what’s not fun? A bad day of writing. You know what else isn’t fun? When your word processor poops the bed and crashes in the middle of writing a paragraph. Rejections aren’t fun either. Neither are bad reviews. Or paring down word count. Or excising a beloved character. Or, or, or. Point is, writing isn’t a giggly run through a tickle-factory. The process is host to an endless array of cold realities. If your story idea is so fragile and crystalline that doing prep-work — or simply talking about it with a friend — then your story wasn’t worth much of a shit to begin with.

A corollary to this features discussions about money and publishing, as if discussions surrounding those things tarnish the high-and-mighty art of writing. If money somehow cheapens writing for you, then your notion of writing was really too wan, too feeble, to survive. In this day and age, with a competitive market and a fast-exploding self-publishing market, talking about advances and book prices is meaningful and necessary. Just because you don’t like it doesn’t mean the adults don’t still need to have the conversation.

If you truly feel that way about money and art, great. Prove it. Don’t get an agent. Don’t contact a publisher. Give your work away. Online. On street corners. Wherever. Just hand it off. Because, fuck money, am I right? Fuck sustainability. Fuck feeding your kids or your dogs or paying for health care or buying bags of scrumdiddlicious Funyuns (or their snacky-food counterparts, Munchos and Bugles).

Go ahead. Just give it away.

The moment you say, “Well, I’d like to get something for it…” is the moment you enter the money discussion. And it’s also the moment where I stick a bomb in your dickhole. FOOOOOM.

“My Ideas Are Super-Secret-Smooshy-Special!”

There exists a notion that the foundation of the writing life — that the curly pubic-coil that comprises a penmonkey’s most basic DNA — is a foundation made of ideas. This is why the question is always, “Where do you get your ideas?” Because people place an incredibly high value on them.

Ah, but — this high value doesn’t hold a lot of water.

Ideas aren’t that meaningful by themselves. I’ve seen some writers stymied because they “don’t have a good idea.” An idea isn’t the backbone of a story. It’s isn’t the whole pig. It’s just the squeal and maybe the tail and that’s it. The idea’s the thing that gets you off the ground, but it’s not currency. It’s not a secret treasure. Most ideas aren’t even that original. I don’t know if stories even have original ideas.

What’s original — and what matters — is the execution of an idea. The question should’t be, “Where do you get your ideas?” but rather, “How exactly did you make good on this idea and sit down in front of the computer day in and day out and give flesh and bones to this notion and then, beyond that, how did you give breath to that flesh and bones and make that story get up and dance instead of being just a hollow gas-bag of unfulfilled, unoriginal, ill-arranged, who-gives-a-shit ideas?”

But I guess that question’s a little too wordy. And besides, if writing is just about ideas, then how easy it must be! Eeeee! Giggle snort! Tickle-factory, here I come!

What else? Your turn. What myths sustain — but can also harm — the writer’s life?

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62 comments

  • I think a big myth is that writing is easy because everyone’s so supportive. The reality? Not so much. Don’t get me wrong; there are people out there who are supportive of a “hobby” that requires you to spend hours sequestered away from them, thus paying more attention to your computer than to them, but they’re few and far between. And most of them are writers, too, and understand that necessity.

    Sure, everyone wants to say “Hey, I knew her/him when he/she wasn’t a world-famous author! I always knew they’d turn out right!”. But when it comes right down to the nitty-gritty of forgotten appointments/dates, the constant irritation of hearing “Just another paragraph!”, the annoyance of “Sorry, I can’t – I’m on deadline”, and the just plain, “Sorry, gotta write while it’s hot”, not many who don’t have the same drive and passion can handle it.

    Thus, writing often becomes a solitary journey, and the writer is listed as a selfish jerk who can’t pull him/herself away from his tickle-factory long enough to be a decent human being.

    Yeah. As if writing weren’t hard enough, am I right?

  • Yes yes yes. See also people who say “I LOVE writing.” I don’t know anyone who actually makes their living by writing who says they love writing. We all say we love having written. Very different proposition.

  • agree with most of these, except for the fact that some people -do- feel an overwhelming urge to write. It’s called hypergraphia. Several famous writers and artists have had it, including Lewis Carroll.

  • Brilliant article. I really hate when writers talk about characters controlling their lives. I think at this point, people just say it because they think that is what is supposed to happen.

  • Hmm. There you go again, raining on my parade. I like to believe I and my ideas ARE Super-Secret-Smooshy-Special, thank you very much. And I do feel compelled to write. I have an over-active imagination, and if I don’t write some of the ideas I get down, they repeat in my mind enough times to drive me freaking insane. Writing makes the ideas quit repeating, and so I can come up with new ones in peace.

    I can’t explain my need to write. I even took a year-long break from writing, determined not to write anymore, ever again…only to write poetry consistently, and suddenly be hit with such an idea for a novel I couldn’t resist writing again. Even though I did not really want to write, I soon was doing so anyway. So, there! :P

    Thanks for bursting my bubble on my Super-Secret-Smooshy-Special-ness. Have a great day, and happy writing!

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