It took me at least a year of college to learn to live with my Midwestern sincerity. I went to a school on the West Coast full of super smart people. That was bad enough — being kind of average intelligence on a campus full of freaking geniuses. But on top of that a lot of my peers were from LA, The Bay Area, NYC and the Boston area. Each of those regions has its own version of cynical irony through which to approach life. I hadn’t learned cynical irony yet.
To say the least, then, I was a fish out of water in my freshman year. It was a hard year. A good high school friend committed suicide two weeks after I last saw him during Christmas break. My girl friend broke up with me because she was having a hard time with the concept of a long distance relationship. And I really felt out-gunned in class and sitting around the bong circle late at night. There was a time there when I was suicidal. It just felt like I didn’t get anything about real life. I didn’t fit in. I was just not on par intellectually or socially with most people I went to class with.
Two things saved me. First off, I had close friends from both home in Missouri and at school who continually reached out to me and stood by me and kept me laughing at myself and at life. Those friends are still a huge part of my existence and they all know who they are.
Secondly, I figured something out about myself that I never thought was very special at all: when I sit down to write, ideas come to me that don’t show up easily any other way. Characters, story concepts, book titles, scenes, and full-blow characters just pop into my head. Stuff used to come so fast I didn’t have time to get it all down.
It happened with music too. I could find a simple chord progression on the guitar, play it over and over until the groove was fully etched into my subconscious and then start singing and whole songs would just flow out of me. I could sit in the library and start with any random line from a book and an extended poem would almost seem to flow out of my pen.
Was any of what I wrote back then any good? …Meh… Some material was promising, most was sketchy, maybe some was pure crap — occasionally I found gold. What was weird, though, was the feeling that accompanied these moments of creation. I felt lit up and more connected to life than ever before. The best way to put it is that significance was happening within.
I learned over the course of several years to pay attention to that feeling of significance. Sometimes I’d sit down to work and it wouldn’t be there. And what came out would be difficult and seem bland and pointless. But I also learned overtime to just keep going and to trust my gut, because inevitably something would click and then I’d be off.
As I say, it didn’t occur to me that this was anything special. In a way, I’d always been like that. I thought everyone was (that’s a whole separate discussion, by the way, because I think everyone is and they just don’t know it). It wasn’t until I had a conversation with an older friend who I respected a great deal — Schy Steinberg — that I began to realize maybe my tendency to be overly sensitive and overly sincere was connected to this creative drive that overcame me when I sat down to write.
Schy said something like, “Well. You basically just seem locked into your gut. You need to play with that. Some people have that ability. They just spill their guts when it’s time to create. A lot of us have a hard time finding the right thing to say. You don’t care.”
Schy also said that when he first met me my response to everything he joked about — inevitably earnest and naive — seemed the height of irony. He said he was taken aback and even confused. Who was this guy? How was he that quick on the uptake to actually throw his cynicism and sarcasm back in his face with such feigned naive heartfelt seriousness?
That conversation cleared a lot of stuff up for me. I don’t know what happened to Schy. He transferred at the end of the year. I can’t find him on Google. But back then in the 1970s, all of a sudden I had an answer to interacting with my super intelligent, overtly mocking, misanthropic friends: just be myself; trust my gut; take seriously what was said to me. I also had a similar understanding of the writing process: spill your guts; let the potency of personal improvisation and free-form thought enter the world. Don’t give a shit. Let it rip.
I showed Schy some of the story starts I’d been working on. They were about college students struggling with lost love, suicide, divorced parents — the usual. He liked them enough. The only thing he felt strongly about was that my characters needed to be more interesting. “Make him a geology major carrying a rare Luger. Make her a gifted soprano with small tits who wants to fall in love. Don’t have those two guys just start out in a Mexican Standoff. Make one of them a drug dealer from Pasadena with two kids whose mom died of breast cancer and the other one an atheist archaeologist in search of some secret religious document.”
What Schy taught me, maybe, is all you need to know as a writer:
- Be sincere when you spill your guts. Honesty, love of life, and emotion go a long way when you’re trying to tell a story.
- Make your characters larger than life by presenting them through detail.
Think about it: you can do almost anything to a character if you’ve established them as a geologist with an interest in World War II weapons or a sexy opera singer in search of love.
I’ve been toiling away ever since that freshman year back 37 years ago taking people seriously, trusting what comes out of my gut, and hanging on to my Midwestern sincerity like it’s a magical teddy bear that will get me through just about anything. Overtime I’ve kind of learned to be more cynical and ironic when I need to be (I’ve lived in Philadelphia for over 30 years!) and I’ve developed my own sarcasm about this fucked up, mean old world. You can find all sorts of first draft work here on this website to see what I’m talking about. I do my best to identify this first draft stuff. You can track down a boatload full on the “Work-in-Progress” page here.
Why am I writing about this today? Well, I’ve been searching for a toe-hold to focus some of my blog entries on and I think I’ve found it. Spilling Your Guts is the most important thing you can do as a writer. It’s not easy. It requires trust and faith; you have to read more than your write; the hard part comes in editing and re-writing; and sometimes — often, maybe — you need to understand that what comes out of you may not be something that your mother will appreciate. Censoring yourself needs to be seen as either an evil or as a form of fear-worm that you need to bottle up and put in the back of your bookshelf.
I promise then to write more about spilling your guts over the summer at least. There are many reasons to be an independently published writer, but the virtues of spilling your guts and then getting that mess out there for others to read is the prime reason I know of for becoming an Indie Writer. Fewer and fewer people actually read fiction these days. There’s a reason for that. Too much of what passes for marketable storytelling is sanitized and predictable. The new world of indie books means less censorship by publishers and more raw, honest storytelling.