Thus, the transitoriness of our existence in no way makes it meaningless. But it does constitute our responsibleness; for everything hinges upon our realizing the essentially transitory possibilities. Man constantly makes his choice concerning the mass of present potentialities; which of these will be condemned to nonbeing and which will be actualized? Which choice will be made an actuality once and forever, an immortal "footprint in the sands of time"? At any moment, man must decide, for better or for worse, what will be the monument of his existence. Usually, to be sure, man considers only the stubble field of transitoriness and overlooks the full granaries of the past, wherein he had salvaged once and for all his deeds, his joys and also his sufferings. Nothing can be undone, and nothing can be done away with. I should say having been is the surest kind of being.
I had a good conversation with The Russian recently about heartbreak. He was telling me about a girl he loved (who did not love him anymore). She had found someone else. He sat across me in the back of a dimly lit hole in the wall, sipping on a beer.
"I can't decide if the past is this thing that's forever gone, as in, nothing, or if it's this thing we'll carry with us always."
These words stuck with me. I could not reconcile these two poles. Some days I feel like what happened, no matter how precious to us, exists as nothing more than a fading memory. Other times the memories are so vivid, so strong, they're overpowering, they are present, we are present, recycling the emotions we once had over and over and over again.
So then - is the past gone forever, or does it last forever?
I think the answer is both.
Indeed, such is the paradox of those we loved - our togetherness no longer exists, yet stands still as a pure memory, fixed and immutable.
As long as you remember them, some people will stay with you forever. They will be with you always. The memories take on a life of their own, sustaining themselves. Even forgetting them doesn't change the fact, that, for a time, you two loved one another. For a time, she was yours, and you were hers. There is a brute, wonderful simplicity to that fact. Let it sit with you for a moment. In moments of sadness it will bring you peace.
It came to an end, but it will always have happened. Even when both of you are dirt in the ground, the past stands forever, unaffected by the sands of time.
At the end of your days, give thanks.
What you have experienced, no power on earth can take from you.
A friend commented on my book recently, and said she liked the story but didn't like the prose.
I thought this was an interesting thing to think about. How can you like a story but not that words that make it?
There's two ways to look at prose: either as a purely utilitarian device or as an end in and of itself. Jake Seliger often talks about the importance of having the text of a novel advance the language in some way, either through structural innovation, or beauty alone. The concept of a poem is this idea personified. But why, then, are novels so clearly a different form than poems?
It's because the story is what bleeds through. The words are like windows into the narrative. Sometimes, even if you think the window looks like shit, you still want to peer through, staring into the other side.
An important piece by Scott Alexander on how moralization and quasi-religion rehab culture is massively fucking up the treatment of heroin addicts.
It's the same type of bullshit that's disrupted the ability of Insite to save lives in Vancouver.
Society is fixed, biology is mutable. People have tried everything to fix drug abuse. Being harsh and sending drug users to jail. Being nice and sending them to nice treatment centers that focus on rehabilitation. Old timey religion where fire-and-brimstone preachers talk about how Jesus wants them to stay off drugs. Flaky New Age religion where counselors tell you about how drug abuse is keeping you from your true self. Government programs. University programs. Private programs. Giving people money. Fining people money. Being unusually nice. Being unusually mean. More social support. Less social support. This school of therapy. That school of therapy. What works is just giving people a chemical to saturate the brain receptor directly. We know it works. The studies show it works. And we’re still collectively beating our heads against the wall of finding a social solution.
Jack Cheng is one of the people that inspired me to become a writer and have a real go at publishing a book. Instead of going the traditional publishing route, he launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund the development and printing of his first novel, These Days, which is about a young designer in the New York tech scene falling in love with a girl who doesn't even own a cell phone. It was a wonderful, contemporary book that tapped directly into the beautiful mess that is the millennial generation of relationships (or for that matter, all relationships, I guess). I liked the ending as well - it was brave in its realism, and although I won't ruin it for you, despite Cheng being an idealist, he doesn't let that inflate his characterization of love in the traditional romantic sense.
Below is a talk Cheng gave at a festival about how he approaches fiction writing. Instead of viewing the creation of the book itself as his singular role, he took on everything, much in the way that an artisan might personally complete every component of his work. Cheng hand-coded the digital versions of his novel, filmed and narrated the beautiful promotional video, type-set the text, and even designed the cover. You can see how much he cares about his work, and it's a beautiful thing. A book is an experience, and the form in which it arrives does matter. The way the text appears on the page matters. The way the pages feel in your hand matters. Now, in the long term, that sort of effort is probably not sustainable. But as an expression of love for the actual work of artistry, it's amazing.
The big take-home message from Cheng's approach to art is that you can do it yourself.
So many people want to do something but waste time waiting for permission from someone, or waiting for the gatekeepers of an industry to tell them that they're good enough.
Do it anyways. You can hire an independent editor, cover designer, and book designer yourself. You don't need anyone else's permission.
When you write a novel about a white supremacist virgin misogynist, people will deliberately avoid asking you a question they'd ask anyone else who'd written a novel:
But if they'd ask me, I'd tell them: I am every character.
All the people in my book live inside me. I carry a piece of them with me, everywhere. When I finish my novel, I'll be sad to see them go. I wish all of them well. I empathize with them. I can see how they'd react to certain events, how they'd move through a certain space, the thoughts they would think. When I about bad things happening to them, it makes me sad. When I write about happy things happening to them, it makes me happy.
The truth is, I feel more empathy for my characters than I do for many people I meet in actual life. I feel this empathy because I have to - because to write a character is to know them. To know them, first and foremost, is to feel their pain.
But that's not really what this question is about, is it?
What people really want to know is who you based each character on.
I have drawn from both my experiences and the experiences of other people to draft all of my characters. They are chimeras, synthetic fusions of memories and friends and people I have loved, spread outwards from a single shard penetrating the ground, like a tree growing roots in all directions.
The tricky thing about writing is you can't judge your characters. If you write a novel about a bad person, you have to present their faults in a nonjudgmental way. To judge them is to break your ability to empathize with them.
Bad people suffer too. Everyone bleeds.
Here's Steve McQueen on Epps, the slave-master and main antagonist from 12 Years a Slave:
To McQueen, debasement is a necessary condition for sympathy, which he finds much more interesting. For instance, he feels sympathy toward the plantation owner Edwin Epps, played diabolically by Fassbender, whose attention Patsey has the misfortune of attracting. This confused me.
What binds every human being together is the ability to suffer. This is the thread that links all of us, even the psychopaths who we think are beyond redemption.
There is another answer to this question, though, of where characters come from. My friend recently commented that writing was akin to magic - the ability to construct full people out of thin air, to create these miniature minds housed inside your own. To an extent, she's right. Here's Cory Doctorow on his "simulator" theory of writing, which reads dangerously close to the "just-so" stories endemic in evolutionary psychology, but is nonetheless a compelling idea and worth reviewing:
I think we all have a little built-in simulator in which we run miniature copies of all the people in our lives. These are the brain equivalents to computer games like The Sims. When you get to know someone, you put a copy of them in the simulator. This allows you to model their behavior, and thus to attempt to predict it. The simulator lets us guess which of our fellow humans is likely to be trustworthy, which ones might mate with us, which ones might beat us to a pulp if they get the chance.
I don't believe in the literary concept of distance. Fuck distance.
Particularly if you're writing a story from the first person, distance is your enemy, not your friend.
The time to step back is when you're analyzing and rewriting your own work, but not when you're in the trance of actually composing it. No matter what the advice books say, you must not break this trance. The trance is your friend, the means through which you construct your own simulators, until they break free and run around in your head, whispering ideas for new scenes at two in the morning, when you can't sleep because you're still thinking about your novel.
Bleed - bleed with all of your characters, and you'll write something that can move another human being.
If that's not the purpose of art, then I don't know what is.
people I admire
Bret Easton Ellis