“What’s going on here Ross?” I said aloud, in the café, staring at the highlighted blue words on my screen as I hit the delete button again. The eject button on another shit idea I tried to force out of my head.
“I don’t know Ross” I wrote.
I’ve been coming to the same places for the same reasons for months now. I’ve been looking at blank screens as I take the first sip of my coffee every single day. Deleting sentences on the second sip. I keep going, sip for sentence, until my coffee cools, I get frustrated, take a mouthful and then just stick with something. Sometimes I just force a sentence out of my head and then square up to it, sparring with it, line for line, until it runs its course and I knock it out. Or it all gets highlighted blue and I go home to lick my wounds.
I’m sitting looking at what I’ve written so far. I’m trying to stop myself from taking the cap off of my highlighter and dabbing that delete button again. Because I should be writing short stories. Because that’s what I want to do. Because if I don’t try to write one every day I might not ever write the story I want to write. That story I know that’s inside me somewhere that will define my life as a writer and give me a point of reference for all future stories. But on some days I have to be honest with myself. I have to look down at all of the word documents open and concede that ‘today won’t be that day Ross.’
I’ve only been doing this for a little over a year. I’ve been writing different stuff for a lot longer. I wrote stand-up comedy for years before I ever thought of writing fiction. They both involve pens and paper working together is a desperate search for appreciation and acceptance. But the similarities end there. Comedy is a different beast entirely. The transition between writing for the eyes and writing for the ears was a difficult bridge to cross. But I had to find a way to do it because I suddenly found that I didn’t feel like being funny all the time. Funny can be a difficult thing to squeeze out of you at times, because even when you’ve injured your funny bone and only barely have enough breath to breathe, let alone laugh, you have to push through it. You have to find your angles and spew your sadness onto someone’s lap and hope everyone finds it hilarious.
I was a storyteller on stage. I had a very tight formula for telling stories. I would start the writing process with the punchline. The last big laugh. For example: I shit myself outside a comedy club five minutes before I was due to go on stage. I would find that big laugh at the end and then work backwards. Because comedy is all about twists. You have to protect your punchlines very carefully because if the audience sees them coming, they fall flat. This is particularly important as a storyteller. You can’t invest ten minutes of the audience’s time taking them on a journey and then give them an ending they all saw coming. That’s a combination of bad writing and bad acting. But you get your end point. Then work back. You build the story and work out how to cover the conclusion. This can be done through the plot or tone. For example:
“The big tranny saw me look around the bar and noticed that I was uncomfortable. I knew that I was uncomfortable. She knew that I was uncomfortable. So we both just decided that the best thing to ease the tension would be for us to kiss each other.”
Given the fact that this was written in bold and your eyes were probably drawn to the punchline before you read the set up, this doesn’t work on paper. Nor is there enough of a set up to do it any justice. But on stage, told in full, this works. Trust me… The idea here would be to take them one way by making yourself seem uncomfortable even recounting the situation. You do this through your body movements and your tone. You stutter a bit, squirm on stage, and then smack that punchline like a pornstar’s ass. Confidently, forcefully and unapologetically. The change in your mannerisms is enough to get a reaction, but blend that with a hidden punchline and juicy ending and you’ve got your standard formula for a comedic story.
But remember, if you are telling a story, and this isn’t specific to the stage, this can be in social situations, or on the page, you have to remember that a story needs to move like China’s GDP graph. It needs to grow over time towards the point it’s at today, taking peaks and troughs along the way. People need smaller laughs before you get to the big one at the end or they’ll get bored. So give them a funny character, a little simile or metaphor, a turn of phrase and then move the story along. Repeat this all the way to the end, building pace and laughs as you go and you’ve got your comedy. It’s really simple, but it takes practice.
But this isn’t what I set out to write when I sat down with my coffee this morning. I brought out a cheat sheet with writing prompts on it and I told myself that I’d sit down with it and try to skud something out. But I got distracted writing about comedy. It’s like reminiscing about your first love. You remember her fondly if you grew apart, but hate her intensely if she pulverized your feelings. You either remember the good and forget the bad, or vice a versa. Comedy broke me over and over again but in the end we grew apart. Writing fiction is doing the same thing to me, but I can’t help but feel I’ve got a life partner by my side now. I can put up with the crushing blows because I don’t have to suffer them in public.
I write because I have to. I feel my brain cramp up if I don’t use it every day. Writer’s block is the scariest thing I come up against. It’s the only common thing that can throw me into a spiral of depression. I’m pretty thick skinned with most things and normally handle my shortcomings with maturity and positivity (thank you stand-up comedy), but writer’s block is something different. And because I fear it so much, I fight it every day and force myself to write something.
But as I mentioned earlier, this is all new to me. I’m not an English Lit grad who thought that he could do it better. I didn’t do a course in Creative writing and sit in coffee shops armed with a style manual and Macbook. I have absolutely no training in this art form and know very little about the rules and structures in place. The only things I know how to do are turn a phrase inside out, weave imagery together in a tight web, and tell a story (thank you stand-up comedy).
I’ve flirted with the idea of getting some formal training in the past, but the prospect of it always worried me. I don’t want to know the reasons why I write the way I write. I am a sucker for the mystique I feel when I’m writing. I like the feeling that it’s coming to me naturally. I like the challenge of growing my own editor inside of me, someone who knows how I like my stuff being edited. But I know that everything I know has seeped in gradually from reading other writers, but I don’t want to know the ins and outs. I’m happy enough cooking from taste, know what I mean?
Basic grammar is something I would encourage everyone to ignore when writing fiction. There is no place for it in writing. You can start sentences with ‘because’ or ‘and’ if you want to. You can have sentences with only one word. You can put line breaks in anywhere you like. Using punctuation as a form or timing and pacing is one of my favorite things to do. If you find yourself applying the freedom of poetry to the style of prose you can do some pretty interesting things with cadence and rhythm. Using lots of full stops in a paragraph can slow your stuff down and give the reader a chance to think. But using a lot of commas can keep a rolling speed going if that is what you’re trying to achieve. I’m an advocate of forgetting what you know and doing whatever feels right.
I’m working on a style right now that I hope to get into full swing in the next few years. I’m not going to go into the details of it because I’m very excited about it and I hope that it will be something that will help to set me aside from some other writers and will hopefully drag me away from emulating Raymond Carver! But in the last couple of weeks I have been putting covers up with each story. I am going to keep doing this because I have been drawing a lot recently. Every time I feel writer’s block working away at me, I start drawing. My desire to create stuff can be a blessing and curse sometimes. But I like the idea of building up a strong sense of aesthetics and using that to strengthen my writing. I like to think that the drawings that I’m doing support my stories and give people who might be coming to my writing for the first time a good idea of what my writing will be like.
What I’ve written here is a cop out. I didn’t have any stories to work on. Well, that’s a lie. I have plenty of unfinished stuff I could have been doing, but when I don’t feel that I’m in the mood to tackle a particular thing, I just write something else. And I don’t have any ideas today. I spent four hours working on a drawing last night and my head is in pencils not pixels.
I understand that some people might interpret what I’ve written as being deeply arrogant. Others might overlook that and think that what I’ve said is of no value. And I know that I’m not in any position to tell anyone how to write. I’m just telling you how I do it. One word at a time. Fading the word ‘delete’ on my keyboard every day.