Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Go To Bootcamp?

Once upon a time, I was a science fiction writer.

Okay, maybe that's a bit of an exaggeration. I wrote science fiction. I was even published. Here's a link to the Locus Magazine Index of Science Fiction entry for me. I even won an honorable mention in the Writers of the Future contest.

And then, my sweet, dear, kind wife gave up a bunch of money so I could go to a writing class with New York Times bestselling author Dave Wolverton. You might know him as David Farland, author of The Runelords series. It was a great workshop, very educational, and very magnanimous of my wife to get me there. There are times when, in my self-deception and near-sighted frustration at the fact my writing never really took me anywhere that I want to blame my wife for being unsupportive. Such is near-sighted and unappreciative. She's been patient and amazing.

So I went to this great workshop with Wolverton, who worked together with me on an outline for a story, helping me flesh out a fully realized world, and a fully realized story. It was everything a guy could ask for. It was an amazing thing I'd been handed.

And I blew it. I choked. I never finished the story. In fact, I never, ever finished another story after that. I haven't even tried to write fiction since.

The first time I remember genuinely getting a reaction from an audience to one of my stories was in fifth grade. I wrote a series of stories featuring kids in my class, and when I read them aloud, the other kids loved them. I loved that they loved it.

I kept writing in sixth grade. To say it was derivative would be an understatement--I literally wrote only using existing characters. Sledge Hammer, Thundercats--I was basically writing fan fiction and turning it in for credit.

The big transition came in Junior High, where I actually wrote a story using an original character. It was a hybrid of a bunch of stuff I read in comic books--my love of Snake-Eyes and the Joker were apparent in my main character of a psychotic ninja who roamed around the country breaking in and out of asylums as the mood struck him. I don't know if it was characterization or my copy-cat roots that made me decide to have him quote movie lines as much as possible--that was the way I talked, so I certainly thought it made for interesting dialogue, and couldn't possibly be a creative crutch.

By the time I was in high school, I was already collecting rejection letters from Sci-fi magazines. First Analog, then Asimov's--but the stories were slowly becoming more and more mine.

One of my favorites was about two guys who were receiving government funding to study alien abductions. In order to maintain their funding, they fake abductions using rubber masks with voice boxes and a helicopter souped up with lights and spaceship sounds. One of them decides they can get more attention if they give somebody symptoms of a disease that's becoming wide-spread, and then make it look like the aliens cure them.

Except the biologist they let in on their little charade double-crosses them. It turns out she thinks she may have found a cure for the disease, but she needs somebody to test it on, since she's no longer licensed to do human trials. She decides these two guys who are lying about their alien cover-up are the perfect patsies. She gives them the real virus and her "cure."

One of the guys--the one who's not as keen on the plan--decides to test it out on himself before he gives it to some innocent person. He takes way too much of the virus, and realizes by morning that the symptoms aren't fake--he knows he's got the disease, and he pretty quickly realizes the "antidote" doesn't help.

In a scene I still love, he puts on one of the fake alien masks and drives in his convertible to the campus they work at to confront him about the whole scam, about what hypocrites they are. They got into this field to prove aliens really existed, and in their zealosy to further their work, they had turned into the very types of frauds they had despised for discrediting the field back when they'd been young and idealistic, full of innocence and nobility of purpose.

That scene resonated with me as I wrote it, and it still resonates with me now.

Don't get me wrong--the story was terrible. In my youthful ignorance, I actually had the guy "preparing" what would turn out to be a virus in a pot on his gas stove at home, as directed by the biologist. I guess I figured that was the closest thing he would have to the bunson burners I "knew" real scientists used.

But the story itself came from everything about who I was at the time--my love for James Randi and debunking fakes and conspiracies, my love for science fiction, and my own youthful belief in idealism and doing what you knew was right, even if it meant self-sacrifice.

And that alien mask on that guy while he argued about what hypocrites they'd become--that was powerful to me.

By the time I'm in college, my writing is coming along, and I get that story published I link to above. I first share it in a science fiction writing class, and the reaction of my classmates is much the same as the reaction I received all those years ago in that fifth grade class room. The story is published, and I feel like things have come full circle. My career is about to begin.

Well, years go by. I get married. I start a family. Things happen, and eventually I have responsibilities that drain me, leave me too tired to write most of the time.

I still write, here and there. And I get encouraging letters, here and there. I send out stories, but get back encouraging rejections. I join writers groups, and get back strong praise in them as well, but I can't seem to close the gap.

It's encouraging and discouraging all at once. Rather than writing new stories, I start spending way too much time going back and revising and rewriting old ones. My output slows as I try to punch up the old stories--add new plots, trim away excess words.

This is when my wife makes the way for me to go to Dave Wolverton's writing workshop.

He does a fantastic job, and lays it all out. In a way I've never understood before, I see writing as the wonderful mix of art and technique and originality and interaction and wonder and mystery and openness and plainness that it is.

I choke. In the middle of all of it, I choke. And somewhere along the line, I decide I'm going to give up writing. "For a while," I tell myself. "Until I get everything else sorted out."

I don't write anything for years. I barely even think about writing.

And then Scott Card decides to have his annual literary Boot Camp in San Diego this year. Just a hop, skip, and a jump away.

And then the President decides to send me a check that makes paying for boot camp not seem like such a leap.

Back when I was writing, I wanted to go to the Boot Camp every year. But for the last few years, it hasn't even been an issue. I haven't given it much beyond a second thought.

But this year it was different. This year, I couldn't help but feel like I should go.

Why? Was it just the close proximity? Was it the money? I hadn't written in ages. What made it different?

At one point, I had decided that nothing was different. I had decided not to go.

But three things changed my mind.

The first was a talk that J.J. Abrams gave at TED. My father introduced me to TED, and sends me links to good talks every once in a while. After checking out a They Might Be Giants show he emailed me about, I saw a link to a J.J. Abrams bit, and decided to check it out. Here it is: (Strong Language Advisory)

In the video, he talks about a mystery box that he got at a magic store when he was a kid, and that he has never opened. The mystery box, to him, represents infinite possibility. So long as it remains unopened, it could be anything in there. He talks about his love for the mystery box.

I completely understand. This guy's speaking my language. His explanation of how cool the unopened mystery box is completely resonates with me.

But I have this other epiphany that probably only me and my wife can really appreciate--that I'm treating my life like he's treating that mystery box.

I'm a big fan of choices. My wife knows that I like to leave as many options open as possible for as long as possible, because I don't like the idea that when the time comes that one particular option becomes clearly preferable, or when a new and altogether better option presents itself, I haven't blown it by selecting a lesser option and sealing off passage to all others.

I've done this with my life. I've left my potential sitting unopened because I'm so enamored of what might be inside and don't want to spoil the picture of what it could be.

But the problem is, life doesn't sit patiently waiting the way the box does. Every morning, a new day gets opened up, and what's inside is not a factor of wishing or dreaming or hoping. It's a matter of doing, and if you spend every day just "getting by," comforting yourself with the hope that tomorrow's mystery box holds something exciting, chances are your days will begin to become remarkably similar to one another.

So his speech simultaneously intrigues me, with its discussion of infinite creative possibilities, as well as chastises me, as I realize that while leaving boxes of magic tricks unopened is a fun and intriguing game, leaving your own life unrealized is a tragedy.

The second thing that changes my mind is a talk by Michal Ballam called "The Creativity Factor. You can listen to it in Real Audio or Windows Media online, although the quality isn't great.

But the talk is about the importance of creativity in the lives of the young, and creativity in the lives of all of us. He talks about how one group of students from one class was encouraged in their creativity by a teacher who wanted to develop the potential in each of them, to let them be true to who they were, instead of focusing on what they couldn't do. And the miraculous way that, as the students developed the talents they were good at, the combination of confidence and trust they built in themselves made other things seem to come easier.

The final thing was not something I read or saw recently, but rather something that's occurred to me as I've pondered why I got so frustrated with writing and why I stopped.

I've blogged before about the book Bonds That Make Us Free.

In that book, C Terry Warner talks about being true to who we really are.

He talks about when he was studying the arts.

One evening when I was nineteen, I was walking along upper Broadway in Manhattan with Suzanne Miller, talking and looking in store windows. I had met Suzanne in one of Stella Adler's acting classes at Stella's studio, which at that time was located on Central Park West. Suzanne had a fierce integrity and a vigilance against humbug in herself that impressed me from the first moments I knew her. These qualities had already exercised a strong influence upon me. Nevertheless, she caught me completely by surprise that night by asking me: "Do you love yourself in the theater or the theater in yourself?"

The question stopped me in midstep. I knew I couldn't answer it the way I wanted to be able to answer it. I didn't have to search my memory to discover that I couldn't; I knew it immediately--or possibly I should say, I knew it already, even before she asked. Indeed, I knew that this had been the question for me all my life, though I had refused to acknowledge it before. It wasn't a question about the theater only, but about my motivations for everything I had ever done. Did I love what I was doing, or did I love myself in doing it?

In that moment a choice lay clearly before me. I could spend my life assembling, feeding, and protecting the egotistical, ravenous, and addictive fiction I called my self--or I could refuse it every sort of nurture and let it die an unregretted death. I knew that unless I somehow could leave off my project of promoting and protecting myself and instead open myself to life, I would be doomed to a lifetime of self-involvement.

The question she asked is based on a quote by Russian playwright Constantin Stanislavski: "Love the art in yourself, not yourself in the art."

So caught up was I in the situation he describes, that it took me several readings of the book to realize even so much as what he was saying. It took me even longer to realize that it applied to me.

At some point, I had lost sight of the fact that writing was once something I simply loved to do. Writing had become my salvation, my doorway out of my dead-end job, my path to money and recognition and salvation. When it denied me all of those things, I hated it for it. I gave up on it.

I even remember the exact rejection letter that tipped the scales.

In my age I had become the man I'd written about in high school, stripped of idealism and writing stories he hoped people would buy instead of writing stories he desperately needed to tell. I had the mask on, the voice box, changing who I was, because I was trying harder to be marketable than I was to be honest.

That's not to say a story I needed to tell didn't slip out here or there--one of the last stories I ever wrote, "His Full Fifteen Minutes," is also one of the most honest and heartfelt.

But the question I had to ask myself, and the one that made me decide that I do want to go to boot camp, that I do want to start writing again, is this one: Do I love writing enough that I would do it even if nobody ever paid me a dime for it?

That's the question that tells me whether I should start writing again. That's the question that tells me whether I should pay for boot camp. That's the question that tells me whether I should take time that could be going to homework or my wife or my kids or cleaning or exercise and spend them alone. Typing.

And that's what art should be. That's what art has to be.

When it's all said and done, I still might not get into boot camp. There is an audition process. If that's the case, I'll still go to the writing class, and I'll save myself a bunch of money.

But either way, I'm still going to start writing again.

It's what I do.

1 comment:

Anthony said...

How exciting to see someone get back to the roots of their dream. I too recently started writing again although I'm not nearly as far a long as you. I am submitting my first entry to the WotF contest this quarter.

Good luck friend.