What Kind of Writer Are You, Anyway?
by Jeff Somers
Lord knows my public persona is a carefully constructed straw man made of assumptions, half-truths, ominously oblique remarks, and lurid facial expressions, which is to say there ain’t much meat to it. When confronted, in public, with a careful questioner who begins tugging gently at the loose threads that sprout from my opinions, declarations, and explanations, I can only run in fear and cower behind alcohol, meaning I pretend to pass out and refuse to be brought back to consciousness until the offending person is gone. It doesn’t help, certainly, that I am fact-challenged in most of my positions. I prefer to answer probing questions with brisk falsehoods, and hit the ground running hoping that no one bothers to follow up and discover how much bullshit is inside this wicker man.
This really only becomes a problem when I meet new people who previously have known me only through this zine. My established friends are used to my bullshit, and don’t even bother asking me questions any more – the common sense ones (“Would you like another beer?”) have obvious answers (“Yes, and be quick about it, damn your eyes!”) and the ridiculous ones never occur to them. One of the ridiculous questions which always occurs to strangers, however, is “How do you write?” or one of its tributary questions, like “How do you decide what to write about?” or “How much of your real life is in your writing?”
These questions are ridiculous because, to be honest, I can’t imagine their value to another human being. Write your way, baby, and don’t worry about mine.
Still, it always demands an answer, because if I go my usual route of hemming and hawing and then pretending to choke on a pretzel, people walk away with that look on their face I’ve come to recognize as jesus does this asshole even actually write his own shit? Note to self, begin investigating Somers. No one wants this. The answers to this writing questions aren’t easy ones. They’re complex philosophical issues concerning the nature of art and the creative process. Naturally I will now boil it all down to about 800 words and three bullet points, because I am either a) a genius or b) an asshole, and you can take your pick. There isn’t a complex issue I can’t boil down in this manner, and that’s why I am me, and you’re no fun to be with.
As I see it, there are basically three types of fiction writers in this world, from a philosophical point of view. Whether you write literary fiction, or historical fiction, or science fiction, or romance novels, I’ll bet you fall into one of these broad categories. If you don’t think you fall into one of these categories, I certainly don’t want to hear about it.
THE INNER SWINE DEMANDS THAT THERE BE THREE CATEGORIES OF WRITING PHILOSOPHY
Let’s say for argument’s sake that god appears as a burning bush in three people’s rec rooms one evening and commands them to write a story about wrestling a tiger. After making some impressive miracles happen to prove himself, the writers each sit down to compose their story.
1. The Hemingway Tiger-Wrestler: The HTW hops the next plane to Africa to go wrestle some tigers, believing firmly that all good writing comes from personal experience. They disdain ‘imagination’ as a device used by pussies, and insist that if you’re not writing about something you’ve actually done or lived through, then you’re just masturbating in writing. The HTW also firmly believes that life is for living and pursues new experiences tirelessly, trying to stock up amazing experiences they can then write about in pure, honest first-person prose. Every aspect of the story must be experienced directly. If, for example, the HTW makes a wrong turn in the African wilds and end up being attacked by, and therefore wrestling, a large Gorilla, they cannot simply assume that wrestling any large mammal would be a similarly painful and stress-inducing experience, and simply write an account substituting the word tiger for the word gorilla. This would be lying.
2. The RIF Writer: The RIF Writer believes strongly that reading is fundamental. While RIFfers are not necessarily against personal experience, they do not feel it is necessary to actually wrestle a tiger to write about it – or necessary that you be a secret agent, or that you know how to fly a plane to write about these sorts of activities. However, they also disdain imagination as a tool, if not for pussies, for ignorants. When in need of tiger-wrestling information, they will spend months researching the topic under the assumption that the towering human intellect, while capable of taking raw information and synthesizing it into a believable narrative, is incapable of just making up the pain, struggle, and terror of wrestling a tiger. When the story is done they’re experts on the subject, and pack their fiction with huge amounts of data and fact.
3. The Imagineer: The Imagineer sits down and just lets his imagination go crazy. Having never wrestled a tiger, or even been near a tiger, or even watched a Discovery channel film on the subject of tigers, he rolls up his sleeves, takes a quick nap, and writes down his dream images of tigers, then writes a fanciful story wherein Superintelligent Tigers from the planet Stripa arrive to invade the earth, and the hero has to win a climatic wrestling match with their leader, Snarl-ka. The wrestling match occurs in zero-g, and involves jetpacks, laser weapons, and an interdimensional fairy named Pica.
Then, there’s how I’d do it:
4. Me: I struggle for about three minutes with the sudden appearance of a deity I’d never believed in, then shrug and figure it doesn’t matter, but why fuck with potentially omnipotent burning bushes? If the burning bush wants a story, I’ll write a story. I’ve never seen a tiger up close, and I’ve never wrestled. But the idea of research makes me sleepy. So I just make shit up. I write about the smell of the tiger’s breath, rotting meat and terror, I write about how its fur is strangely soft and silky. I write about the claws slicing into my shoulder, and how the pain goes from intense to numbingly beyond my comprehension within seconds, negating itself, and I find that I can fight on ignoring it. I write about seeing my own abdomen sliced open, my stomach and bowels spilling out, and how I sit there in dumb shock as the tiger rips my throat out. I do this in about fifteen minutes, and it lasts about three pages. I then write fifteen more pages about lying there dead, being eaten by the tiger, and having an imaginary conversation with the burning bush as my soul withers away to nothingness, wishing for bourbon. For the five people in the world who have wrestled tigers, it probably strikes them as pretty fake and shitty right before they finally succumb to their injuries and die, clutching my story in their ruined hands. For everyone else, it’s probably as convincing as anything else they’ve read about wrestling tigers.
What’s the point then, eh? None, really, like so many of these frustrating articles. I’m constantly amazed at how people will discount imagination when discussing writing, as if making stuff up is a sin of some sort. There’s nothing wrong with writing fro experience, or seeking new experiences to write about. There’s nothing wrong with doing research to shore up the blank spots in your mind. There’s also nothing wrong with just imagining what something might be like, and sometimes a story that’s just entertaining and fun doesn’t need to be accurate or realistic. As our Teacher and Guide Gary Coleman said, it takes diff’rent strokes to move the world. And at least one surly boozehound with nothing better to write about.
From The Inner Swine Volume 8, Issue 3, September 2002