Burning the eternal oil



Today I was asked a question which is frequently put to me and which I no longer dread to answer: that of what I do. I answered the question, as I am qualified to do, being both published and paid: I am a writer. It still seems a little surreal at times and I do have to remind myself occasionally that it is a fact. How this situation came to be is well-documented in this blog. To summarise: got pissed, fucked up, lost everything and ended up homeless; fucked up some more, fucked around a lot and nearly lost my life; found myself and found a new life which allowed me to do what I love: write. This wreck just needed an oil change.

The line of questioning continued and I was asked how I write. Suppressing my inner pedant, I answered the question which the inquirer’s intonation suggested more likely: how might they become a writer?

My route to becoming a professional writer is not one which I would recommend, even if the experience was part of the basis for my debut novel. There are many authorities greater than me but I’m perhaps more accessible, so just as I share much of my actual writing – when I’m contractually free to do so – I don’t mind sharing advice with those who ask and in the public domain, with those who don’t. It helps me as well, because writing this blog fills in the gaps when I’m between projects for publication in webzines or print. 

Although I’ve been writing for around 15 years, I’m still finding my feet now that it’s my full-time job. I hope that someone finding themselves in the same privileged position as me, where they are able to write for a living, might gain from these notes, as I continue to post insights into the writer’s life I’ve found.

Writer’s block has been troubling me of late, not because I lack ideas but because my particular writer’s life has become truly full time and greatly consuming, my fervent mind being as it is. With three novels in the process of being written, as well as various articles, features, comments and short stories in the pipeline, I have had to concentrate as fully as possible on the project which is driving me the most as a writer: the pure concept of The Inner Leviathan, my second novel. I am almost fully immersed in the universe which this saga occupies, escaping only occasionally and briefly to work on other projects and take care of life in the real world.

Writing can be a lonely existence but it needs to be, albeit partially; as lonely as the worlds which the writer creates and which they alone inhabit during the creation process. We have each other; we have our peers, our editors, agents and test readers but in the greater scheme of things, we are set adrift in our own worlds. For the most part, that is a good thing, for we have freedom: of expression, invention and so much else. Sometimes though, I seek solace in the words of others, specifically about writing. In the past, I have turned to Marcia Golub and her excellent volume, I’d Rather be Writing, which addresses many challenges facing the freelance and self-employed writer, chief among them being procrastination. The book is one which ought to be in every writer’s reference collection, dealing as it does with overcoming obstacles which writers place in their own way to do anything but write. It sounds odd perhaps that someone who is passionate about something should avoid the very thing which they enjoy but it’s true: we do. Golub’s observations of why writers do this are different to my own but nevertheless, the book is a good read and one which other writers may relate to, like I did. What I’ve concluded though is that all of my personal distractions are there to be removed, out of mind, so that I can concentrate on writing. Rather than seeing things besides writing as distractions, I use them to my advantage and furtherance as well.

Like each individual story which I am the author of, writing in general has become almost my entire life. I know this is not universal among writers but it is also true of many of my close peers. Some of that group, I met while studying with The Writers’ Bureau. Like me, at a certain point in life, they felt they’d let themselves and others down by abusing the privileged life and education they’d been given and wanted to prove something. Others I met while I was mentoring for the RSA, where I worked with others who had substance abuse and addiction issues, like me.

I do have a regained lust for life, now that life has become what it is. I could never go back to any part of the old lives, least of all working for someone else. I’m too volatile; too free to be caged again. And I’m certified mentally ill.

A lust for life which sleeps as little as I do, because it simply can’t be switched off. All of life is ripe for harvesting writing. Every waking hour could create a new world at any point. Everything we read is information to be absorbed and any written word can be the genesis for something else. There is no escaping the writer in dreams either: I sleep with a notebook and pen next to my bed, to note down dreams. Almost everywhere I go, I carry a notebook with me to simply write things down as they occur to me as ideas for fiction or non-fiction pieces. Recently, I was watching one of my uncut horror DVD imports, when a piece of macabre prose occurred to me. Horror writers have to be imaginative, not only in coming up with ideas but with their language. Horror fiction is full of cliches, so we have to be inventive with metaphors and similes. Armed only with the written word, us writers are, upon initial assumption, lacking in tools to convey a situation when compared to other artists. As I’ve noted before though, what we have is a greater captive audience of our readers’ imaginations.

As I wrote in The Paradoxicon, the most affecting Video Nasties which one might watch would be recordings of one’s own nightmares. So writers – horror writers in particular – have to get inside the reader’s imagination and take control of it. Then the writer will sometimes lead that reader’s imagination somewhere it may not go of its own free will, by taking themselves out of their own comfort zone and writing material which they themselves find disturbing.

Horror movies are a very good source of material for the horror writer. Not for plagiarising, nor even coming up with ideas. Most good writing is more imaginative than the majority of celluloid media and many good movies are adaptations of books. Where horror films are useful to the writer is in presenting graphic imagery, which the writer will try to convey the unpleasantness of with words alone. The really skilled writer will take the imagery even further than the moving image is able to by describing things twice, using metaphors and similes.

The film I watched was Mermaid in a Manhole, from the Guinea Pig series. It is a title in the collection of every aficionado of savage cinema, like me. The scene which prompted me to write this passage was pretty grim in itself: a mermaid has been washed into a city sewer by a flood and exposure to contaminants in the sewer water has irreparably damaged her flesh.

As the mermaid is pulled from the sewer, blisters which have formed on her upper body rupture as they come into contact with the air above ground. As the blisters burst and ejaculate yellow pus onto the pavement, gaping wounds are exposed on the mermaid’s body. Each open wound pulsates and bubbles with blood, like the mouth of an aborted foetus, gasping for air. The mermaid’s lower half is spasming. A sharp blow to the head of this fish would stop it.

How much of that did I actually witness and what did I imagine? What images have I placed in the readers’ minds? More than they might be allowed to see in film? The term “Nasty” was one which applied to writing long before the Video Nasty. Writers have freedom of expression and expression itself is freedom.

The midnight hour will soon approach, then the early hours will follow. Fuelled by cafe au lait, a little alcohol and lots of cigarettes, I work on. Some of my more creative and imaginative work is produced in the twilight zone: a well-oiled, perpetual machine.

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