The Alpha Primitive

Film reviews, essays, commentary and sundry writings

Going Home Again, Part 1

One of the most overused clichés in a sea of overused clichés is the ideal of writing what you know. I've always hated the phrase. I got where I am today specifically because I wrote what I didn't know. And here I am, one of the most well loved authors of the past decade. I don't have any intimate knowledge of most of my more popular subject maters, and this is why I have come to the conclusion that all that truly makes a good writer is skill. I possess more finely honed skills than most, and am all the better for it. You stick you neck out and you take a chance and it can lead to something great. But what happens when you have nothing about which to write? No matter the skill set at your disposal, you can't write if you have no subject. You can write about writing and the art of writing, but such reflexive and reflective approaches can only get you so far without true inspiration. Hell, I'm trying to work right now, staring at a blank sheet of paper in front of a blank word processor screen with its sad, solitary little cursor flashing in the top left corner. I take a sip of coffee and come close to spitting it all over the paper. It's gone cold and chalky. More disappointment. I've got to move. My ass hurts. My legs are starting to seize. The last thing I should do is get up from my chair. I've got deadlines that need to be considered, publishers and fans breathing down my beck for new content. This is what I get from writing so much so quickly. Thirteen bestsellers in five years. Twenty-two total in the last decade. Successful movies that have broken records at the box office for films that don't have men running around in capes or explosions every two minutes. To implement a bit of a bad pun, I've written myself into a corner. Fuck it, I need to move.

It's too sunny out. My eyes can't adjust quickly enough, my corneas burn and I need to shield my face like some kind of goddamned vampire. I used to get out of the house. I would get up, bang out thirty pages of manuscript like it was nothing and enjoy the world guilt free. I hate guilt. It doesn't make sense to feel guilt. I usually don't feel guilty about anything; I'm a successful guy, and it doesn't come up too often. That was a pretty conceited turn of phrase, but I don't really know how else to say it. Walking to the Dunkin Donuts on the corner to get a half decent cup of actually hot coffee should give me some time to think, clear the cobwebs, get some original thoughts flowing through my brain. It's not like I don't have any ideas at all. I could just throw out another book in the Songs of the Diamond cycle in a fortnight without breaking a sweat. But it's not challenging. And as much as my many fans would probably hate me to say it, I think the whole fantasy genre has gotten rather stale and played out. I want to do something new, you know? No zombies or vampires or hard boiled detectives or sword and sorcery epics. It's all too derivative. How could I possibly remove myself from the shadow of Tolkein or Hammett or any number of other literary giants. I want to move the world in an entirely new way. I want…coffee. I take my slightly sweetened black coffee from the man behind the counter, hand him some change and take a tentative taste. It's not world shattering stuff, but it'll do.  I thank the man in his little paper hat, though he is barely beyond a boy, and take my leave of the establishment. There's a charming little bench across the quiet street. I walk over, pull a crumpled packet of cigarettes out of my shirt pocket. I shake one out, light it, inhale deeply. The smoke envelopes my lungs. The stimulants head straight for my brain. It tastes like death, but also like home. This is a disturbing thought, but I shake it off. I sit and I sip and I smoke. And I think.

I look out at the main drag of this sleepy little hamlet and I wonder how I got here. There was a time when I would never even have considered living outside the limits of a city. I grew up in cities, went to colleges in cities, worked in cities before my writing career took off, wrote in cities, lived in LA to be closer to Hollywood when every single book I wrote was being turned into a film. I think LA's what did it, really. It's such a different vibe than Philly, Boston, or Chicago. I didn't like it there, which is an understatement. They still make movies out of my books; I've reached the point that I just don't care anymore. I used to be on set, working with the screenwriter (when I didn't actually write the screenplays), explaining motivations to actors. It burned me out. For whatever reason, I decided to try out suburban life when I left LA, and found a quiet little burg in Vermont. Nobody really knows who I am here, which is a nice change of pace. It can get boring, and on a day like today I do wish that I could simply walk to Downtown Crossing or the MFA or take in a Sox game without having to worry about driving three plus hours to get to Boston and back. The pros generally outweigh the cons though, and I've quite enjoyed my time here. The cigarette is burned to the filter, the coffee cup emptied. I have no excuses now, and should return to my writing room that is fast resembling a dungeon of Lovecraftian horrors.

The frustration that is inherent in writer's block can drive even the strongest willed writer to the brink of sanity. You feel broken inside. You have the tools, the skills, you may even still have the confidence, but you don't have the ideas. It's like you're a carpenter that is all set to start work on a masterpiece of a house; you've got all your tools, nails, wood glue, etc. and you've been carpenting for years and are among the best in your field. But you get to the work site and discover that all your wood had caught fire overnight and all you were left with was ash. Suddenly you're stuck, and you've got these expectations and people counting on you and can't do what you were born to do. It's difficult to remain optimistic in such situations, not necessarily for the long term, because you know that shipment of wood will be delivered sooner or later, and you know the ideas will hit you eventually. But the interval is just hell.

I should listen to some music. I usually don't like to listen to music when I'm writing; it has a tendency to inform the process too artificially, inserting moods that I can't fully control. But there are times that drastic measures must be taken. I grab my iPod, plug it into my speakers. I scroll through the artists absentmindedly, pausing here and there, looking at albums but never really deciding on anything. This sense of discomfort and confusion has permeated every part of me. I need to do something, accomplish something. I just throw the MP3 player on shuffle, and Tom Waits' raspy drone floats through the speakers, the minimalistic crashes and bangs of guitar, upright bass and percussion riddle the silence with bullet holes of dissonance. This isn't exactly music to relax to, but it's better than the crushing heaviness of an empty room, quiet and alone. "Hoist That Rag" continues to rumble along; I sit and listen, tapping fingers and toes somewhat along the beat of the drums. The song ends and the silence returns. I shut off the iPod. That really didn't do a whole lot. I try to imagine what my mental process was like when I first came up with Songs of the Diamond or The Era of Heartache or any of my other books. But I've got nothing. I'm having difficulty remembering much of anything, process-related or otherwise. This one little chink in my armor shows up and everything goes to hell from the top down. It's like someone grabbed the wrong Jenga block and it all tumbled down, neuroses flying everywhere, confidence slipping away into inky blackness.

I don't know how long I proceeded to stare at the wall across from my monitor. My mind restless and blank, I took to examining the cracks in the plaster, black protrusions into a sea of off-white, spindling out in every direction with no discernable rhyme or reason. No patterns except what the eyes decide they want to see. A few splinters come together to look remarkably like a pair of eyes peering at me with disdain and disappointment. Great, even my wall is getting into the act and lost faith in me. More cracks, more shadows and pictures that aren't there, more tricks of the mind. The passes and I just keep looking at this wall. I tell myself that I'm fascinated by the false images, but I'm really just looking for any excuse not to look at the blank screen, the monolithic flashing cursor. For a moment it sounds like it's making noise every time it disappears and callously comes back into existence. A terrible banging sound deep in the canals of my ears. My own personal tell tale heart. I shake out the cobwebs; the sound disappears. This time around, the silence is a boon. My eyes flutter across the room until they rest on a picture frame on the nightstand next to the makeshift cot I put in the far corner of the writing room for use when I'm too exhausted to drag myself to the master bedroom up a flight of stairs. There used to be a picture in that frame. My thoughts turn to Victoria.

TO BE CONTINUED