of confession’s to focus attention on what’s
confessed while leaving the secret
mutations untouched. I once put the hose
of a vacuum on my penis and turned it
on. Honesty makes me feel so clean.
Some of you know I started out as a poet. Some of you might have surmised as much from reading my books, which generally treat plot as a back-door lover, to be treated with suspicion and kept in ecstatic servitude. There’s training to be had in poetry just like there’s training to be had in fiction, but the training in poetry tends to be more like acting class: find your deepest, most horrible, painful, darkest experience and drag it up for the joy of the crowd, who is really only there to see real, honest tears and breast-rending. Kind of like NASCAR fans.
It’s like the Xtreme Sport version of Write What You Know.
In the days before I got the bright idea to start writing novels, I ran that particular obstacle course. I dutifully ate the scorpions and walked the highwire, dredging up my childhood abuse and past relationships and anything else that seemed suitably dire to please a professor. It really makes for an alarming personality type: someone who has lost all notion of appropriate social filters, and views their private pain as public discourse.
You know, a blogger.
The thing is, I never learned my lesson, even when I turned away from what I had always been taught was “real” Literature, the literature of displayed agony, and started writing about monsters and pirates. And honestly, I think it makes me a better writer. Most literary rules are better off bent, and combining the ritualistic self-flagellation of confessional poetry with genre tropes makes a much more delicious cocktail than either the bucket of emo-blood or elven mead alone.
Because you have to write what you know. And most of us know two things: what we’ve read and what we’ve done. What we’ve read is speculative science and folklore. What we’ve done is starve for love, bloody ourselves black for parental approval, take stupid risks for stupider reasons, get lost the dark of life and maybe, if we were lucky, found our way into the light again.
Cue the old “you got chocolate in my peanut butter” ditty.
A lot of contemporary fantasy fails to satisfy me because it does not have the creamy center of genuine emotional experience. Most contemporary realism fails to satisfy me because it lacks a crunchy exterior of awesome. It’s not enough to create a magical world, you have to show me the hand of god in that world, and the author is god. If there is no emotional core, I don’t care how many tribes of elves you’ve invented. The fact is, none of y’all know what it’s like to be a young, blond farm boy dreaming up at the stars when a wizard shows up to dump the fate of the world on your shoulders and also hands you a crown and a girl. Life doesn’t work like that. The best books serve two masters: they show us what life could be like if everything was different, and they make us recognize ourselves with a start. They make us say: yes, that’s what it’s like.
To strike that balance, you must be like unto a World of Warcraft heroine: wear sparkly, leathery, fantastical armor that nevertheless shows all your secret parts.
You may not know how it feels to cast magic missile, but you do know what it’s like to irrevocably lose someone you love. To be abandoned. To be betrayed. To find joy and grace at the end of suffering. Those things are universal, and a legion of poetry professors exist to help you dredge up the details of those experiences. So use them, not the generalized LIFE ISSUES(tm), but the genuine and specific things that have happened to you–let it hang out, let your fetishes and your griefs and your hoary, bloody innards fall all over the page. The best writers can’t fool anyone. We know what they want, what they’ve never had. No one ever thought Delany was a straight, monogamous guy. Stop caring who sees your private places–or care, and teach yourself to be an exhibitionist. Readers are sadists–they’re there to see the wreck, and they want to see you cry.
You have to put your penis in the vacuum cleaner. Honesty will make you whole.
And then put in the dragons.