Polling Your Intestinal Flora: How A Writer Cultivates Instinct
About two years ago, I wrote a post about the uncertainty of being a writer, and how you solve that — to some degree, at least — by cultivating instinct. I’ve no doubt that some people are just born with keen authorial instinct, the same way that some people are born with vestigial tails or magic third nipples that, when squeezed, lactate a variety of flavored sodas.
But most of us have to cultivate it. We have to till the soil and grow the plant ourselves.
Nobody can do it for us.
Those writers you think are masters of the craft aren’t created that way. They aren’t supernaturally capable ninja writer-bots. When you read the work of a writer operating at the top of her game, you’re not seeing all the years of failed efforts, of work that wasn’t quite right, of work that was well-intentioned or built off of strong ideas but had slick and wobbly legs like a newborn fawn. It’s like this: imagine you watch someone enter a house in the dark and they move through each pitch black room like she’s goddamn Catwoman or something — no stubbed toes, no bumped hips on furniture corners, no boards squeaking beneath her feet. You think she’s got supernatural powers but the truth is, she’s done this before. This is her house. She walks around in the dark all the time. She knows this place. And it’s not just rote memorization — it’s that she’s so familiar with the shadows of this space, she can tell when they’ve changed.
You see the author operating at a high level and you wonder: why am I not doing that?
The reality is:
You’re only seeing the island, not the heap of volcanic material that pushed it out of the sea.
A house needs a strong foundation.
And the foundation of that house hides forever in the darkness of the dirt.
You’re not seeing all the time it took to craft the instinct necessary to do this thing.
Instinct is valuable because it’ll tell you which way to jump. It’ll give you the sense in the middle of a story that something is off, it’ll tell you if your character will have broken her contract with the reader, it’ll tickle the back of your mind and say that the plot is untenable or this description is too much or hey what’s the deal with you writing all these stories about orangutans that’s really weird, man. Instinct can even help you on the business side of writing, too.
Instinct feels like some sweet Jedi bad-assery. It’s bullseyeing womp-rats. It’s lightsabering shit with a blast shield over your eyes. It’s firing proton missiles into some imperial janitor’s open window as he huffs an e-cig on his a smoke break while some old dead dude whispers in your ear to slake your bloodlust and murder all all those people inside that moon-sized military base. (LUKE BABYPUNCHER USES HIS WEIRD MAGIC TO BLOW UP AN INNOCUOUS GOVERNMENT INSTALLATION. THEY SORTED MAIL THERE, STAR-KILLER. STOP KISSING YOUR SISTER AND HANGING OUT WITH SMUGGLERS AND THEIR HAIRY SEX GORILLAS.)
I think I got a little off-track there.
Point is, out of all the writing and storytelling advice I can give, the one that always floats to the top for me is that you need to cultivate your instinct as an author.
Question is, how do you do that?
ABR: Always Be Reading
A writer who doesn’t read is like a filmmaker who only plays video games. You’re like a chef who only eats protein paste, a dog trainer who only owns cats, a sex educator who’s never done the rumpy-pumpy and in fact is so ashamed of your own genital configuration you only handle your pink parts in the dark and with gardening gloves.
The foundation of your creativity is made of books.
So: read books. A lot of books. Done that one? PICK UP ANOTHER.
ABRW: Always Be Reading Widely
I know. You want to read what you want to read. You love horror, and by golly you want to write horror, too — so you read a lot of it. That’s cool. You should. But you should also read fantasy. And literary. And classics. You should read Joyce. And one or both Brontes. And Toni Morrison. I don’t mean these writers specifically — I just mean, you need a varied diet. You have a comfort zone. That comfort zone has soft, cushy walls. You need to hack into those walls with a machete. Find out what makes them comfy. Leave the sanctity of your padded cell. See what else the asylum has to offer. A limited diet of reading means all you can do is write the same thing you’re reading. You’re a copy machine spitting out facsimiles. You’re chasing someone else’s tail. As I’ve said before: you’re just a literary human centipede.
You don’t like romance? How do you know? Fuck off and go read some. Maybe you still won’t like it. But it’s important to read it anyway. Liking it isn’t part of the equation. Which leads me to:
Read To Understand
Read not to be entertained, but to be enlightened. Read not to be comforted, but to be challenged. Read to be disturbed, bewildered, saddened, disgusted. Read to understand.
What I mean is: every book is a nut you must crack*. When you read something, understand what it is you think about it. And why you think that. What is it about this book that works? That doesn’t? Why does it make you feel a certain way? Why has it failed to make you feel? Think of it as a pocketwatch. You need to bust it against a rock like a hungry otter and gaze at the inner workings. Read critically. Read to dissect. Read to digest.
*heh, nut crack sounds like butt crack
*I’m so sorry
Hey Now, No Need To Be A Book Snob
A story is a story is a story. Whether it is contained in an erotic novel, a middle-grade horror tale, a children’s picture book, a television show, a video game, a comic book, a comic book movie, a documentary about making a comic book movie, a Chick tract, a roleplaying game told by five people at a table, a story you overhear at the hair salon — these are all stories. You aren’t just a writer. You’re a storyteller. The mechanics of language are one thing. The architecture of story is another. It’s all important. You can’t just go ankle-deep. You gotta sink to the bottom. You gotta submerge. Disappear into all the stories.
Ask Critical Questions
Why do I like this character? What’s wrong with this plot? Why is this working? Why is it not? Could I write that sentence differently? Better? Worse? I could (should?) probably do a whole blog post about the important questions writers might want to consider as they read a book — but in this case I’ll just say: the goal is to take all the little parts of the story, dice them apart, and look at their constituent pieces. How do they hold up separately? Or as a whole?
Write A Lot
Is it Stephen King’s one million words? Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours? Chuck Wendig’s six shitty trunk novels and four billion tears spilled onto the dry dead earth of literature and publishing? Choose whatever arbitrary number you like, but the idea remains the same —
You do this thing by doing this thing. You learn to write first and foremost by jolly well fucking writing. It’s the same advice I gave to my toddler son on how to urinate outside:
Just point your thing and let it go, man.
Did I Say You Could Stop Yet?
Whoa, whoa, hold up, you’re not done. You don’t just stop. You don’t hit an arbitrary word count and the meter goes ding! — you do this again and again. You write and you write and you rip the words out and you slam them down onto the paper and you keep doing it until your heart explodes and the Reaper takes you to whatever reward waits hereafter. (By the way: Hell for Writers is a smelly angel whispering an ever-worsening Amazon Rank in your ear for all of eternity.)
Our toddler has this thing where, when he tries something the first time and isn’t immediately performing that task at superhero levels, he gets really frustrated. So we have to keep drilling into him: practice, practice, practice. Yes, there exist those who can sit in front of a piano without ever having seen one before and end up playing a perfect concerto the first time, but those people are called ROBOTS and they must be destroyed before they learn to like the taste of human meat.
What I’m trying to say is:
The writing doesn’t end. And really, why would you want it to?
Art Imitates Art
Sometimes, you have to write like someone else before you can write like yourself. We mimic. We imitate. We practice as if we’re other people. I know, it gets boring, but another toddler story (the childless amongst you are probably rolling your eyes but ha ha ha this is my blog, suckers): our tot, B-Dub, approaches new situations sometimes as if he’s a Transformer. He was having a hard time in his swimming class until he learned to pretend to be one of the Rescue Bots — see, in the show, the firetruck named Heatwave recently learned to manifest a second vehicle form: a fire boat. So, the tiny human was able to pretend he was someone else, and it gave him a lot of confidence. It wasn’t the toddler having to be brave, it was someone else, and he got to try new things — and get better at them — by pretending to be someone else.
You don’t really want to end up as an imitator, but a lot of this whole “cultivating your instinct as a writer” thing is very much about the journey, and not just the destination.
No, Really, Go Read Writing Advice
Writing advice gets a bad rap. Here’s the thing, though — it’s all in how you treat it. If you treat it as gospel? You’re dead in the water. If you treat it as a challenge to the way you think: you’re a winner who wins, and what you win is a cheeseburger slathered with the sweet relish of instinct.
Okay, I feel like that was a very Guy Fieri-ey metaphor, so let’s just move on.
What I’m saying is, each little snugget (snippet + nugget) of writing advice is something for you to pick up and examine. Each offering is a challenge — is this reasonable? Does this work for you? Or is it a hot armload of horse-hockey? Sometimes, to understand how we do things, we need to understand how other people do things. Maybe because we’re looking for ideas. Maybe because it helps us clarify our own understanding of why we personally reject that way.
Fail Without Fear
We don’t learn a lot through success by itself. That sounds strange, but it’s true. I throw a basketball at a hoop and — swish — first time in? I don’t know what the hell I did. But I get one shot in and nine missed, I start to see how I can do that better. And suddenly, I start making more baskets. We make sense of our efforts through failure.
Success is only seen clearly when compared with our fuck-ups.
Rejection is a part of this. Writers despise rejection because it hurts us; but that sting so keenly felt can also be clarifying when we let it. Whether this is rejection by a friend who reads it, by a publisher, by an audience, by a reviewer: rejection is meaningful. Not always individually (“UR BOOK SUCKS, TURDLINGER! GO EAT A BUTT” is probably not all that valuable a critique), but as a whole, rejection can do a lot for us. Even at its most basic level, it toughens our heart against the slings and arrows of future rejection, allowing us to grow and move past it without dissolving into a puddle of briny tears for four days. (I only weep for two days, now. #blessed.)
Talk About It
Sometimes? Sometimes you just have to talk about it. Go out to a movie, go get pie with friends. Read a book? Get online to chat about it. Have a story problem? Go talk to someone. Talking about The Work — ours and everybody else’s — helps us hone our writing knives and story swords.
Instinct isn’t something that happens overnight. It comes as we demonstrate our skill. It grows as we explore our talent. It shines brighter every time we fail and then examine our failure. It lives in the background, a voice that starts out too quiet to hear but with practice and conversation and debate and every sentence written and every book read… it gets louder. Until soon it’s yelling in our ears, telling us things we already know but about which we were too naive to listen.
* * *
The journey to become a successful writer is long, fraught with peril, and filled with difficult questions: How do I write dialogue? How do I build suspense? What should I know about query letters? How do I start? What the hell do I do?
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