Writerly Musings

I’ve been stalled on my writing for quite awhile now.  I haven’t worked on Solitude of the Tentacled Space Monster for a few weeks, nor on any short stories.  I pulled out "Burying Uncle Albert" recently with the intention of revising it for the fifth or sixth time, but since I did so, it’s been sitting untouched in my notebook.

The causes of this malaise are multitudinous, I think.  First, there’s the house thing; buying a house without being sure that our current house is going to sell anytime soon is stressful, as is the whole process of keeping the current house terrifyingly clean the whole time, just in case someone decides to swing by and take a look during the day.

Second, work has been crazy.  Since I went into overdrive a couple of weeks ago to build our time tracking system, I haven’t really slowed down.  I’m productive but I feel like all my creative energy is pouring into clever and well written (I hope) PHP code.

Third, my lungs just won’t cut me a break.  Typically, I’m fine for a week or so, followed by at least two weeks’ worth of flareup.  I’m getting over another one just now, one that lasted less than a week, so let’s hope it stays away this time.  Still, when you’re sick for a very long time, even if it’s just a mild illness, you begin to wonder if you’re ever going to feel healthy again, and that’s a depressing thought.

Of course, all those reasons are BS.  I’ve written plenty while under similar stresses, and sometimes even under more.

Mainly, though, I’ve sort of been reevaluating my goals as a writer.  I’ve moved past the notion that I will ever make a living as a writer (I know that there are some writers, like the otherwise sensible Bentley Little, who don’t believe you can call yourself a writer unless you’re making a living at it, but I call BS on that), because I just don’t think that’s going to happen, not without either upping my productivity to epic levels that preclude everything else in my life or achieving some sort of miraculously breakout novel that will shoot up to the top of the bestseller lists and stay there for months at a time.  Or going to Stephen King route and doing both.  While I suppose it’s possible that Solitude will achieve that level of popularity, it isn’t very likely.  And I just don’t have the energy to reach the level of productivity that would be required for the first option; neither the energy, nor, honestly, the creative juices.

Besides, my current job with the University provides much better health coverage than I would ever manage to obtain as a full-time writer.

Likewise, I don’t think I’ll ever be a major prize-winning writer; none of my stories will ever be nominated for a Hugo or a Nebula (because, frankly, I don’t write in the genre those apply to), and I doubt I’ll ever be nominated for a Bram Stoker award or a Pushcart Prize, let alone a Pulitzer or a Nobel (though a man can dream).  I’ve read a number of those prize-winning stories; and they’re either so good as to make my own paltry efforts seem faintly ridiculous by comparison, or they’re so obtuse that I’m convinced editors buy them and people vote for them for fear of looking stupid if they don’t ("Hm, this story confuses and puzzles me and I have no idea what it’s about; I’d better buy it, or people will think I’m stupid for not understanding it").  My writing is neither that good nor that esoterically incoherent.

In a way this is all kinds of liberating.  For one thing, I can discard that piece of advice I find in most of the writing books, the piece of advice that bugs me every time I see it: "Write to your audience".  Hah. As if you know who your audience is.

More importantly, though, this all lets me give myself permission to be more experimental with my writing, to explore styles and themes that I was afraid to before (even though I learned decades ago that "experimental fiction" is simply a synonym for "retch-inducingly bad".

So having examined all this and having discarded "Get Rich!" and "Win Prizes!" as motivations for writing (but still keeping them in the "Wouldn’t it be nice to…" category), I can focus on what I really want to do with my writing.  That boils down, really, to two goals:

  1. To entertain people; and
  2. To make people think.

I want people to have fun while they read my stories, to laugh and generally have a good time, but I’m also interested in getting people to think, primarily about themselves and about the way they interact with the world around them.

Does that sound pretentious?  I think it sounds pretentious.  But it really boils down to saying, "Here’s a problem this character’s facing that may be similar to a problem the reader might be facing, so let’s see if the character’s solution works for them or not; either way, it’s at least one idea."  Which doesn’t sound like much to me at all.

Now, having recently read articles about global warming, poverty, genocide in Africa, and so on, there’s also a big part of me that wants to interject some themes of social justice into my writing.  I’m never going to be an ecologist or a conservation biologist who goes out and figures out ways to restore endangered habitats, nor am I ever going to be an anthropologist who goes to remote locations to find ways to preserve ancient ways of life for endangered cultures. I don’t have a lot of money or time that I can throw at these global problems, though, and the same health issues that plague me today also prevent me from ever seriously considering the Peace Corps or even AmeriCorps.

So I figure I can use my writing talents to address such concerns.  The challenge, though, is to figuring out how I can work these themes in to the stories that I do write.  I don’t want to write yet more screeds about the dangers of global warming or how awful things are for the poor; scare tactics and the like just don’t work, I think; heck, recent attempts to turn global warming into a national security issue and play it as a threat as dire as terrorism have just resulted in increased cynicism about the topic.

Of course, there’s a third goal in addition to the others listed above that I want to reach:

3. Be read, and read widely.

Put this goal ahead of "making money", and, what with the Internet and all, all kinds of possibilities open themselves up.  I could distribute my writing for free on my website (I already distribute some of my stories there, though there seems to be very, very little traffic on my site), or make photocopies and pass them out on the street corners.  To be read widely, though, the stories still have to be entertaining, which means the quality still has to be there.  There’s nothing at all wrong with being entertaining, even though self-professed experts frequently downplay the value of entertainment.  I see this all the time on a horror related mailing list I belong to, where Stephen King is bashed on a regular basis while horror authors who are decidedly not entertaining are regularly lauded.

What it boils down to, I suppose, is this: I like fiction that both entertains me and makes me want to be a better person.  And so that’s what I want to do for others with my own fiction.

So I suppose the reason why I’m stalled in my writing now is that I can’t figure out how to do that.  Of course, there’s only one way to learn how to do that, though.  And that’s to just sit my butt back down at my desk and start writing again.

And, fortunately, I think I may have talked myself into it.

Hoofing it

On Saturday, Jennifer and I went on a "garden tour" in Sacramento, in the area near where our new house is located.  Some of the houses in the area are in part of Sacramento called "The Fabulous Forties", and it’s where the politicians and lawyers and other assorted scum live, but it’s a nice area anyway.  Some of the gardens were really nice (others were quite bland).  We looked at them and tried to come up with some ideas for the garden in the surprisingly spacious back yard of our new home.

ME:  I’ve got an idea for our back yard.

SHE: Oh?  What?

ME:  Pirates!  Pirates of the Caribbean!

SHE (after a momentary blank stare): Um.  No.

ME: Why not? Pirates are cool!  We could design the carriage house like the front of a ship, with a figure head and a mast and everything, and put up skeletons and treasure chests.  And have a Jolly Roger!

SHE (predictably): No.

ME: Come on, Jennifer!  Zombie pirates!

SHE: I said no.  No pirates in our garden!

ME: Not even just a little?

SHE: No, no pirates!

ME: Just a Jolly Roger, then?

SHE (after a few moments of thought): Fine.  A small one.  Hidden away.  In a corner.  Maybe.

ME: Fine.  Hmph.

So we trudged on for another half block or so, looked at another couple of gardens.  Then I had another idea:

ME: How about ninjas?

SHE: No.

ME: Robots? Aliens?

SHE (lovingly): What the hell is wrong with you?

Should have seen that one coming.

We also went to the new house, just to scope out the neighborhood (walking distance from Trader Joes: check) and happened to meet a couple of our neighbors to be.  One of them breeds show pigeons; I had no idea there was such a hobby.  His wife is a gardener and says she knows everything there is to know about shade plants.  This is good, because I know nothing about them, even if they’re growing in pots of dubloons.

I think the new house is going to work out well, even if the pirates are banned from our garden.

In other news, I went to the Whole Earth Festival at UC Davis yesterday.  I’ve gone to just about every WEF for the past twenty years (missed last year’s because we were in Ireland), and after awhile you get used to sights like the skinny man in the unflattering fur loincloth toting the recycling bin (the guy dressed as a Borg and riding a penny-farthing bicycle that I saw a few years ago still stands out as unusual, though, even by WEF standards).  I was taken aback by the older woman with the nice gray hair and surprisingly youthful figure who also sported an immaculately groomed goatee.  I was kind of disappointed in the dearth of politics-related booths though.  The anarchists were there with their well organized booth, as were the Green Party and two (count ’em, two) Barack Obama booths.  But that was it.  In the past, there were so many more.  And there were no booths from religious groups at all, which surprised me: no Baha’i’s, no Jews for Jesus, no Christian Apologeticists, nothing.  I did see a group of Hare Krishnas (reformed, I guess, since they were not wearing robes and they had hair) chanting.  And while I saw dozens of environmentalist booths, I saw few political action booths: nothing about Darfur or Somalia or Armenia or the Basque.  Not even a single booth dedicated to the plight of Iraqi civilians.  I was actually really looking forward to seeing some of these booths and learning about the issues.

Perhaps the organizers of the Whole Earth Festival are engaged in a process of removing everything that might possibly be offensive to someone?  I don’t know.  It was disappointing.

Good music, though.  As always.


By the time we got to the corpse flower at UC Davis’s botanical conservatory yesterday, it had pretty much stenched itself out.  The flower blooms, at full strength, for about 18 hours, from what I hear, and it had started doing its thing the day before.  While we wandered the campus looking for the conservatory, we encountered people who told us that the flower could be smelled from two or three buildings away; and one professor I spoke with today says his jacket still smells.

But there was still some of its pungency there.  We walked all the way across the campus and made our way through the maze of greenhouses, and stood in line for a chance to get up close to the flower and smell it.  It stood about three feet tall; not the tallest corpse flower bloom in the world, which was apparently two or three meters in height, but respectable nonetheless for a guy like me who’s used to seeing flowers that are no more than a couple of inches high.  I couldn’t smell the flower until I got right up to it, which was sort of disappointing.  Still, once I was close, I could detect a very definite smell like rotten meat or fish.  And a botany student very helpfully held a small battery powered fan up to my face so that I could get a better whiff of the thing.

A three-foot tall flower that smells like rotten meat!  Awesome!

Surrounding the pot with the plant were pots with clones of the same plant, none of them blossoming.  We could see the plant in various stages of its life cycle, which was pretty interesting.  And there was also a small display of the various insects that are attracted to the bloom and that act as the flower’s pollinators.  You know: dung beetles, blowflies, that sort of thing.  Critters that are attracted to that sort of smell.  The insects were all mounted in a display case, which is fine with me.  Much as I appreciate the wonders of the natural world, I am not particularly inclined to get friendly with a dung beetle.

On the way back to the car, Jennifer and I speculated on how such a thing as the corpse flower could have evolved.  It probably evolved the way most life forms on earth did, with lots of trial and error on a good bit of luck over millions of years, but Jennifer held out for an extraterrestrial origin. Who knows? She could be right.

Me, I’m happy to place the corpse flower in the same category as the duck-billed platypus: the category of things that prove that God just has a weird sense of humor.


For some reason, corpse flowers fill me with joy, and Ted the Titan, the corpse flower at UC Davis, is now in bloom.  I’m hoping to go see it sometime this week, because I’ve never seen one up close.

Anyone wanna see it with me?

Update:  Jennifer and I are swinging by the UC Davis Botanical Garden on our way home from work this evening to drink in the flower’s pungency.

Corpse Flower