On Writing What You Want, Without Permission


“OK Boomer” is a thing now, used (understandably) by younger generations to glibly flip off older ones — not, I feel, to dismiss legitimate concerns, but to dismiss prevalent baby boomer / baby doomer attitudes of blah blah blah bootstraps, something something climate denial, yadda yadda but what about both sides. Is it fair? I dunno. You tell me: the younger generations are inheriting a world that feels like it’s being rolled right up to the edge of a cliff, a boulder about to be pushed off the precipice. Sure, yeah, hashtag NotAllBoomers*, but generationally, they’re the ones who took the freedom of the 60s and let it calcify into the osseous capitalist culture cemetery of the 80s. Meanwhile the millennials (often viewed as Anybody Young, much as the boomers are Anybody Old) and the Gen-Zers wonder why college is so expensive and why student loans are terrible and house prices are interminable and they’re accused of “killing” every boomer tradition likely in part because they just can’t afford it — and yet they get yelled at for affording *checks notes* avocado toast. So, “ok boomer” evolves out of that — a casual, perfect dismissal of the Old Man Yelling At Clouds.

Related (I promise), here’s something too I noticed the other day — I noticed that older people tend to ask for what they want. I went into a restaurant populated by some older folks and they were very particular about what they wanted. No, I don’t want to sit here, I want to sit there. Substitute gruyere for cheddar. No, I don’t like those bootstraps, I like these bootstraps, you sassmouthed dillywhipper.

I don’t say that as a knock — knowing what you want, and asking for it, is huge. And it’s something that I don’t feel you figure out until you get older. As a kid, I didn’t know to ask for what I want. In part because you’re told to take what you get. That’s the attitude, right? YOU GET WHAT YOU GET AND YOU LIKE IT. And that made me think back to the “ok boomer” thing, and how it’s a little bit of fuck-you-flavored resistance, a thumb-your-nose-at-the-olds thing, a bit of reclaiming agency — instead of RESPECT YOUR ELDERS it’s lol shut up. It’s a revelation of, “Yeah, no, we’re gonna reclaim our agency and skip asking for a better world, and start demanding one.” It’s a big thing. A vital and necessary generational spark.

And that made me think about writing.

When I was younger — and I think this is maybe true of younger, untested writers overall — you really, really want to Do It Right. You want answers and rules and a map and you want to follow that map. You want to to write to the genre and hit the beats and follow story structure and all that. And that’s understandable, isn’t it? Both in publishing and in the world at large we’re told there are rules. Ways things get done. Do this, don’t do that, don’t doom your chances, stick to the path, and you’ll be fine. The process is the process, ass-in-chair, x-words per day, stay in your genre lane.

But then, ideally, as you get older and more experienced in writing you realize, fuck that.

You start to see through that illusion — some of the biggest, bravest stuff breaks rules. It doesn’t follow a path. Yeah, you still gotta do the work, you gotta commit to this thing, but what that looks like isn’t like putting together an Ikea bookshelf. It isn’t set to some prescribed, predefined blueprint or structure. The best stories are the ones that became themselves, that were an emblem of the author’s heart and mind in some way, that embraced the rare confluence of narrative atoms that make up Who You Are. And I wish I’d learned that earlier. Don’t get me wrong — maybe there’s value in trying to follow the rules for a long time, because maybe that’s how you get practice, and maybe that’s how you mount up enough frustration energy to kick through the wall and find your own way through. But maybe it can also end up a sunk-cost fallacy. Maybe you don’t need all that time to try to do it how everyone else tells you to do it. And maybe some authors have a hard time breaking out of that mindset — that if they just get in line and follow the rules, it’ll all work out.

But fiction isn’t like that.

Publishing is, somewhat. By which I mean, you do need to generally follow some rules there — agents, querying, etc. Self-publishing is a bit more lawless, but you still gotta embrace the business side of things. Rather, it’s creatively where rules need to be subject to obliteration — order built from your own personal chaos. Order you made for yourself and your work — architecture you invented, not stole from someone else.

So, I’d advise authors — especially those in the midst of NaNoWriMo, and those writing fan-fic — to inject a little “lol ok boomer” into the work. To find a way to make your own demands in the work, of the narrative. To not ask for permission to write the book you want to write — and to write a different book than what the generations before already did write. Somebody will always be there to tell you why the story you want to tell isn’t right, or why you shouldn’t do that. But you know why you should. The story is in there. Your intestinal flora sing with the instincts necessary to do the work and tell the tale. Your heart knows what it wants; it knows the story it needs to tell. Don’t ask for permission to do that. Just write it. You are the only one for whom permission must be asked, and from whom it must be taken.

* just so we’re clear, I want to get ahead of anybody who’s going to still be like BUT THIS IS AGEISM #NOTALLBOOMERS. I hear you. I do. You, or a Boomer You Know, may be great. But do recognize that younger generations casting distrust toward older generations is a classic tune with a beat we can all dance to, and to quote Wikipedia, “Boomers are often associated with the counterculture of the 1960s, the civil rights movement, and the “second-wave” feminist cause of the 1970s. Conversely, many trended in moderate to conservative directions opposite to the counterculture, especially those making professional careers in the military (officer and enlisted), law enforcement, business, blue collar trades, and Republican Party politics. People often take it for granted that each succeeding generation will be “better off” than the one before it. When Generation X came along just after the boomers, they would be the first generation to enjoy a lesser quality of life than the generation preceding it.” So, just nod and smile and go with it. It’s not about you personally, okay? But if you’re that upset about it — it just might be.

** I also recognize that even by using it, my not-yet-old-but-certainly-not-young ass has only further reduced the potency of “ok boomer”

* * *

WANDERERS: A Novel, out now.

A decadent rock star. A deeply religious radio host. A disgraced scientist. And a teenage girl who may be the world’s last hope. An astonishing tapestry of humanity that Harlan Coben calls “a suspenseful, twisty, satisfying, surprising, thought-provoking epic.”

A sleepwalking phenomenon awakens terror and violence in America. The real danger may not be the epidemic, but the fear of it. With society collapsing—and an ultraviolent militia threatening to exterminate them—the fate of the sleepwalkers and the shepherds who guide them depends on unraveling the mystery behind the epidemic. The terrifying secret will either tear the nation apart—or bring the survivors together to remake a shattered world.

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25 responses to “On Writing What You Want, Without Permission”

  1. At 74, I found your boomer comments quite enlightening since my friends and I are all Democrats, interested in a sustainable future and, yes, have a voice. Plus, I love your blog posts. They help keep me young at heart and writing.

  2. OK Boomer is fine, but unfortunately relegates the actually pretty fine “Silent Generation” to the same status as the “take credit for everything that happened when they were kids, which obviously they had nothing to do with” Boomers. Those Silent folks invented Rock and Roll, for Dog’s sake (and they called them ‘silent.” Irony much?)

  3. It’s official. Everyone hates me. Ask me if I care. Yeah, I am that Conservative who cares about sustainability, the Feminist against promiscuity, the Classicist against close-minded, same-shit, different-trademark fads. Yes, I am pissed off about envirochic because of all the whippersnappers using the myth that humans did climate change as an excuse to instill dictators, not to mention the fact that youngun’s are hoarding everything (including planet-killing pets) at obscene levels, no matter how much they tweet about “minimalism,” and while the fad-obsessed are pretending humans did climate change, they’re ignoring the fact that a) it’s a normal thing the planet does, b) no, we can’t prevent it, and c) are you so sure your dictator is going to equally distribute potable water, etc. instead of just schtupping children and collecting cars that way Communist dictators usually do? Don’t get me started. Keep your fucking labels to yourself because NONE of them fit. And, no, it’s not OK to try to sell me grooming product with the word “bitch” in the name. And, get the eff off my property. The dye from the 400 glossy Communist pamphlets you littered the street with is starting to kill my lawn.

    • I’m with you, though wouldnt call myself a conservative…and at 54 not sure if I’m in boomer category. I like to think of myself as feminist, even as I roll my eyes at many of the current outrages. Write on, sister!

    • Er, a grooming product? As in a dog grooming product? Hate to tell you this, but the technical term for female dogs /is/ bitches.

      P.S. I think you’re on the wrong blog, mate.

    • We’re taught very early on in school that for every action, there is a reaction. That goes for being rude, disrespectful and inconsiderate just as much as it goes for being destructive, flippant and uncaring. We are stewards on this planet, and if we all think “gee whiz… I don’t need to pick up my trash or think about investing in sustainable tupperware because in my heart, I know the planet has gone through several environmental changes over its long life. I’m only here for less than a hundred years. So what?!” … we are all doomed. Seriously. Smog, polluted water (Hello, Flint….!) and dying marine life. These are all preventable things. If you don’t understand that, I don’t know what kind of schooling you’ve received and I’d like to at least suggest looking into learning about how you’re effecting the planet.

  4. #youfixtheworldkid love, gen x. My younger millennial cousin had a desire to talk about entertainment so he started a website and started podcasting. He lets me talk about movies on there too. He saw a thing he wanted and rather than ask for what he wanted he made it happen. Drive forward millennials, but stop for coffee, cause I’ll ride with ya but I like coffee

  5. Funny that the “don’t trust anyone over 30” generation is now pouting because younger people are sassing them. It’s hard to have sympathy for a generation that did whatever they wanted, got rewarded for all of it, and refuse to let anyone else have anything (not even a livable world). My entire generation (X) got passed over and screwed over while being lectured about trying harder and smiling more. Keep doing what you’re doing, Millennials and Gen Z.

    • Dude, I was 100 percent self-supporting at 19 (2 alcoholic parents. The only reason I wasn’t fostered out was because I didn’t seek help for the violent abuse until I was 14, i.e. less than 2 years from aging out of the system. So, I just got written off. It was 1974 and “child abuse” wasn’t really a thing yet. I’m literally lucky to be alive.) I put myself through college and wound up living without a car for 13 years while paying off my loans. Give me a call when all my overdue “rewards” finally show up.

      • Hi Kell, I am looking for my cousin who was adopted at birth and was born 12/25/1959. Could this be you?

  6. I dunno, maybe it’s time we stopped labelling chunks of people as problematic and started labelling behaviours as problematic (overconsumption, planned obsolescence, blaming people for not rising above circumstances beyond their control…). Because not everyone in age group A is like B, or has C life experiences or D attitudes.

    • Yes! And on the positive side, encourage good behaviors like working hard, persistence, justice, preparedness, and so on. Because character transcends generational labels.

  7. Thank you for writing this post. I’m working on a novel I was told I shouldn’t write. I’m sure that’s part of the reason I haven’t finished it. I will throw caution to the wind and just write the story given me by my muse.

  8. I’m barely a boomer..kind of a caught on the tail end. But I get it because sometimes I look around at my peers and those just a tad bit older and I’m like wtf? I can’t imagine how some people sleep at night knowing that they are leaving a world in the midst of self-destruction. Yuck. I was teaching a freshman class of history in a Lib Arts college when the Towers fell. I spent the whole week discussing momentous events in American history that dramatically changed the nation’s course. Believe me, that was one, and it didn’t make us better or stronger. It made us paranoid and violent. And I wonder what future students will read about us, and the paranoid, violent, greedy society we’ve turned into. I mean, I’m hopeful that they won’t still be that. I’m really hopeful that in 18 years my now 18 month old grand daughter actually has a democracy to wake up to and not some kind of fucked theocracy that masquerades as America. I’m so angry about the world she’s going to grow up in…and really, it is our fault.

  9. Whenever some pup tries to cast that shade my way all I can think is “You jealous twat/wanker” and go about my business with a smirk.

    And YOU, Wendig. Not since the Goodman and I, flu-ridden, sweated and groaned our way through a shared copy of “the Stand” have I been laid so low by a flock of germs AND a compelling novel. Will I survive? For comic relief, I turn to the impeachment hearings.

  10. Every generation in history has made changes that improved their circumstances in one way or another; each subsequent generation benefited from those changes. Did they make mistakes? Screw things up? Yes. But they also drove progress forward. We would’t be where we are today (technology, cars, etc.) without those brave generations of thinkers and do-ers. Instead of whining about what any previous generation did that might not have been perfect, consider and praise all the things they did right and ask yourself how you can make things better for the generations to come. You can’t have progress without change; you can’t have change without fallout of one type or another. No one ever set up to “screw up your world”.

  11. I find it fascinating that most of the comments are responding to the boomers, not the message. Okay, I thought it was pretty silly to frame “write what you want to write” as a metaphorical response to boomers (of which I am one, even though I was too late to be a real hippie), but I shrugged it off as a mistaken choice of frame narrative for the post you were writing.

    Nonetheless, I will respond to the actual message anyway, part of which I disagree with. I personally think that following the rules for a while is what makes you a good enough writer to break out of them and create something different. Many of the greatest abstract painters learned standard techniques first, before they broke the mold and created something new using the old techniques they had already mastered.

    By contrast, I as a boomer was told to express myself, what did I need rules for? Until I realized I needed to learn some basic techniques of plot structure, characterization, pacing, etc. beyond what a Ph.D. in literature taught you — the whole thing from the writerly side — before I would be able to write my own shit. *I* wish I had concentrated more on the rules earlier, in order to have a handle on the craft without wasting so many years on crap I wrote for personal fulfillment. OTOH, maybe those were just my million words I had to write before creating anything salable.

    Obviously, YMMV.

  12. Not wanting to proclaim membership in that coveted ‘Clan of the Always-Victimized’, I must concede that I’ve spent much of my life – including well into adulthood – trying to please others; forfeiting my own dignity and self-respect so others would not get offended by me and what I do. Tiptoeing around others’ sentiments only leads to a battered sense of personal worth. I finally realized that wasn’t working for me, so I said to hell with the feelings of other people, especially those I don’t know or really care about. Now, at the ripe slightly-past-middle age of 56, I’m happier with myself than ever. I’ve always been a writer, and my current situation allows me to pursue my creative ambitions almost full-time. Followers of my blog know fully how outspoken and irreverent I can be. Either way, Chuck, we scribes need to keep writing and keep fighting!

  13. I am right on the line between GenX and Millennial. When the boomers, some of whom are commenting here offended, cry about being dismissed by the younger generations that they harmed, I want them to have to walk a mile in my shoes. Where I have had to work incredibly hard, and sacrifice a great deal, just so my children at twelve and fourteen have even a chance to do better than I did.

    You boomers, as a voting bloc, as stewards of this beautiful world, sacrificed my generation. You’re trying to sacrifice my kids. To hell with you.

    As to writing what I want? Given I started writing fanfic in notebooks before the internet was anything like commonplace, that’s one delightful lesson that I learned early. 😀

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