This Crazy-Making Business Called “Writing”
J.C. Hutchins is one of those guys who I admire the hell out of for his eye-goggling work ethic and the talent he brings to bear. I also call him a friend. I also call him “Honey Snuggles Tickle-belly Nuthatch McGee,” but that’s between him and me and none of you can get in the way of what we have. Whatever. Point is, lately I’ve been making hay about authors who are going at it themselves, and you want a top-shelf high-octane example of an author doing it right every day, it’s Hutch. He’s got a new project out, a serial storytelling event: THE 33.
Trust me when I say: you wanna check it out. Here’s JC, then, to talk about This Thing We Do.
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This is a crazy-making business, this writing thing. It’ll drive you goddamned nuts.
You walk this preposterous tightrope, this impossibly delicate strand hanging between the Here And Now — our real-life meatspace with its endless insistence, and its distracting jamming-the-thumb-on-the-doorbell-ding-dong-ding-dongdingdong of Twitter and Facebook, and its bills and crying babies and mortgages and flat spare tires — and a Somewhere Else, the place where your soul swims, deep-diving for the words that do the things in your mind justice.
The words always flop onto the computer screen as soggy things, never quite what you wanted, but they’re better than nothing. And it’s better than not writing, right? It’s better than ignoring what you were born to do, to herd words.
What a thankless, ill-paying profession.
It’s the best job I know.
This writing thing is crazy-making because it demands you to run with the thing inside you, that shaggy thing that never stopped playing make-believe. Hell, you’re a wordherder. You know how this goes: Sometimes it frolics, and sometimes it lumbers, but it always breaks the china. The thing is a blessed pain in the ass. It can be pretty insistent, especially when you’re not writing. You gotta feed it, you know, lest it wither.
Running with this beastie alienates you from others, too. Norms. People with different talents, folks who spend a little less time in their heads than you do in yours. Or a lot less, depending on just how far inside your noggin you are. Me, my brain’s a frickin’ IMAX 3D theater, the fancy kind like the one across town, with the plush reclining seats and the Super Gulp cup holders in the armrests. I’d never leave, were it not for dumb things like using the bathroom and feeding the cats.
This alienation — this half-step out of sync with the norms — can confound an artist. It most often breeds doubt and fear. You can never decide if what you’re writing is Shit or Complete Shit (answer: it’s better than you think, but still needs a polish), but in the bleak weeks writing your book’s second act, you’re absolutely certain you should’ve listened more closely in math class. If you’d done that, you’d be a computer programmer with a spiffy German car right now. You wouldn’t be puking your feelings onto a Word doc to make payments on a shitbox Chevy.
Crazy. It’s all kinds of crazy, man. It’s uncertain. It’s lonesome. It’s just you and the words — the fucking words, the things that aren’t alive but are, the rats in your attic, baby, the things that keep you up at night. There are the great days when they’re your ally, and not-so-great days when they don’t return your calls. And it really is a miracle, come to think, this whole writing thing. Birthing stories and characters. Making them do interesting things. And finally, eventually, sharing your big fat wordbaby with the world.
Of course, miracles are crazy-making, too.
I’ve been in the crazy-making business for longer than I haven’t. First as a newspaperman, then as a novelist, then as a transmedia writer. I’ve busted ass on articles that became the next day’s fish wrap, spent years crafting and promoting good (but quickly remaindered) novels that you’ve never heard of, and helped create award-winning, groundbreaking viral TV & film campaigns that are no longer online. I’ve done more good work than bad, and never, ever phoned it in.
Wayyyy back in 2008, a whimsical notion occurred to me. In my head, I envisioned a series of episodic short story sci-fi / supernatural adventures. Some of these adventures would be serialized and span a few episodes (kinda like a four-issue comic book arc), while others would be presented as standalone one-shots. They’d all be packaged like a TV series, see, with seasons and recurring characters and villains, and Big Personal Problems for the protagonists, and a Great Big Conspiracy fueling the multi-season narrative.
I chowed down on that idea and started riffing on it, riding that creative wave like the high it genuinely is, brain buzzing as the notebook pages filled up and up, inventing mythologies and characters and episode storylines. Prequel fiction? Plotted it. Spinoff fiction? Planned it. Dude, I even picked the music that’d be the intro anthem for the goddamned audiobook. This shit was on.
It was a crazy concept with crazy characters and crazy inspirations: a super-sized salute to the TV shows and comics of my childhood, where science and sorcery coexisted, where city-stomping lizards roamed and roared, where cars could talk, where every hero had a code name.
I pondered this creative concept for months, knowing only that I desperately wanted to write it. I didn’t have a clue what to do with it after that. It wasn’t a conventional project; I knew traditional publishing wouldn’t touch it. 2008 was too early in the indie ebook game to know with any certainty if it would fly. The idea was risky. The entrepreneur in me loathes risk. Risk is harder to write, harder to sell.
Turns out, it didn’t matter. Life is complicated. Life isn’t like the stories we write; it’s not obligated to be narratively fair. It laughs at concepts like Chekov’s Gun, flings poo at foreshadowing. And so, life threw me several hand-grenade curveballs not long after I cooked up that strange fiction idea, and I — being financially unprepared — was left with a smoking crater that had once been my checking account. Fun sci-fi stories about code-name heroes would have to wait.
And it did. And did some more. And did even more, after that. For five years, it waited. It withered.
But like I said, it’s a crazy-making business, this writing thing. It’ll drive you goddamned nuts. And that’s what this idea did. It stuck with me, like a sliver of popcorn between the teeth. It wouldn’t let me forget. It nagged, man. It was the shaggy thing, the thing that never stopping playing make-believe, rapping on the window of my childhood bedroom (the room I reckon we all still have in our hearts), pleading to come outside and play.
So a few months ago, I finally said fuck it and did just that.
Dunno if it’s risky. Dunno if I’m gonna bleed out on it. Don’t care anymore. Stories gotta get told, s’all I know.
I won’t shill hard for The 33, other than to point you to its page at my website, and to say that I’m proud of what I’ve started, and am keen to keep writing in its weird, warped world. If you dig what you see, give it a spin. Costs less than latte.
And so. Back to the crazy. The cray-cray. The rats in the attic. The preposterous tightrope between Here And Now and Somewhere Else.
Say. A tightrope. Come to think, that’s a scary place to be. Kinda dangerous, dontcha think? Being up there, so high?
I mean, what if you fell?
A part of me is absolutely convinced that while your loved ones — the ones who genuinely understand that if you’re not writing you’re not living — want you to do this writing thing, the rest of the world doesn’t. It’s a hostile place, a thing that hunts wordherders with its endless insistence, and flat spare tires, and jamming-the-thumb-on-the-doorbell Twitter and Facebook updates, and hand-grenade curveballs. It doesn’t want you to do this. It doesn’t want you to succeed at this writing thing.
It will conspire. It wants you to fall, hard.
I’m here to tell you that it’s okay to fall. It’s human to fall. And it’s okay to forsake a thing for a while — perhaps for even five years, as I did with The 33. But don’t you dare walk away from it, not for good. Don’t turn your back on the shaggy thing, and that soggy first-draft copy. Don’t you dare ignore what you were born to do: to herd words.
Stay in the crazy-making business. It’s the best job I know.