Three reasons to rank life over art

art versus lifeStephen King’s memoir-slash-writer’s-companion On Writing came out when I was in college. Just as I was deciding that yes, I would actually devote my incredibly expensive degree to something called “Creative Writing & Literature.” The timing couldn’t have been better for my favorite author to become my mentor.

I learned a lot from On Writing, principles that I’d carry with me through the next fifteen years or so as a writer. Write every day — don’t wait for the “muse” to show up. Cut everything you don’t need out of your stories, especially the dull stuff. The road to hell is paved with adverbs. And if your beta readers are all quibbling with different parts of your story, feel free to ignore anything they don’t agree on.

There was one lesson in the book, though, that I wasn’t ready to understand. That I, in fact, dismissed out of hand. King said:

“Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.”

Art versus life: fight!

At that time, as a twenty-year-old with big ambitions for breaking into the world of books, I couldn’t disagree more with King’s statement. I would, in fact, build my life explicitly as a support system for art. I would get a crappy apartment with my best writing buddy Benjamin, find a crappy job to keep the lights on and the breakfast cereals stocked, and live for writing. 

So it went. After graduation, the plan went into motion. Every day, riding first the Metro train and then the bus back to my little redoubt on the eighteenth floor of the high-rise in Silver Spring, I knew the day would really begin when I sat down in front of that ugly old Bondi Blue iMac and started typing.

Because, you know, the only way to succeed — in a brutal field like book publishing — is to throw everything into it, right? To bend one’s fiber of being into the shape of a manuscript?

At the age of thirty-six, with an increased Wisdom score (largely due to my capable therapist), I think I finally understand where this idea goes astray. And why making art a support system for life, as Uncle Stevie urged all those years ago, is the way to go after all.

Here are the three reasons why making life into a support system for art will fail you in the end:

1. Success is out of your hands.
art versus life
The wheel of beer, Redbones, Somerville, Mass. If only Fortune were always this kind.

If you work as hard as you can at your art, that will set the stage for your success. But it doesn’t guarantee a damn thing. The blind, dumb beast known as Chance may just decide to shamble across that stage and wreck everything you’ve built.

Because you know what? Audiences are fickle. Tastes are subjective. Somebody better at bullshitting, with an uncle in the business, may claim the spotlight you were chasing. The director might be sleeping with your audition competition. You might break an ankle right before the big recital.

We should do everything we possibly we can to position ourselves for success. But that last mile doesn’t belong to us. We may fail for reasons we’ll never understand. If you’ve staked your happiness and self-worth on artistic success, you may never actually be happy. Which brings us to the next point . . .

2. The goalposts are always moving.

art versus lifeWhat does “success” mean to you?

For me, back in the early 2000s, success meant getting a book published with one of the big boys. So that was the goal I chased, over and over again. Never quite reaching it. Partly because, in retrospect, the novels I was working on still had significant room for improvement. But primarily because most of my query letters never even made it to the people they were intended for. 99% of unsolicited agent or editor queries tend to disappear into gigantic, teetering stacks of paper poked at by overwhelmed interns in the lonely towers of the City. (See point 1.)

Then I embarked on a crazy adventure, attracted a fair bit of media, and landed a book deal. The book based on my adventure, The Great Typo Hunt, was published by Random House (since merged with Penguin to become Random Penguin House), one of the biggest publishers in the world. Success achieved, based on the original definition I’d set for myself . . . right?

Nope. I told myself that I’d forgotten to specify to the success genie that I wished for a published novel, not just a nonfiction book. After all, The Great Typo Hunt was just a silly book about fixing signs with correction fluid and Sharpies. My life would only be complete, and worth something, if I published a book truly aligned with my heart and soul, like a science fiction or horror novel. So the goalposts got pushed back.

A few more years passed. I wrote a great story about gaming and virtual reality in the future, and struggled to get my agent to give it a shot, or other power brokers to even give the novel a look. Eventually, I just published the damn thing myself, as the e-book Player ChoiceSo there, now I was successful: I’d written a speculative fiction book that I could be proud of, and anyone in the world could read it. There was no longer anything holding me back.

Except — now I really wanted the novel to be read by lots of people, and to make tons of money and attract much praise and cause a huge clamor for my next book and do you see how poisonous this kind of thinking is? Scientists call this the hedonic treadmill: as you achieve more, your expectations rise in tandem, with no permanent increase in your level of happiness or satisfaction.

Career goals are important because you need to sustain your motivation. But they won’t give you a lasting sense of self-worth. That goes double for any career goals you’re trying to achieve through artistic means, because . . .

3. Art doesn’t love you back.

Sorry. Art is a monstrous bitch/bastard.

Because art comes from within you — whether it’s composing music, staging the perfect shot, or writing a story so honest it’s raw — it’s especially dangerous to equate it with who you are. If you are living for art, and the art you’ve just produced is a piece of shit, then your inevitable mental conclusion will be that you are a piece of shit.

Then flip the sides of the equation: that nasty little inner voice will whisper that since you are worthless, you will produce nothing of worth. And that voice would so love to be proved right.

Or how about the artist so maniacally committed to their art that they achieve success at a terrible personal cost? Wrecking relationships, neglecting children, setting dear friendships adrift because, they’ll say, “This is the most important part of me — this is who I am!

art versus life
Thomas Mann, world-class asshole.

History can provide us with many truly awful examples of this archetype. Norman Mailer stabbed his wife with a penknife. Thomas Mann skipped his son’s funeral to continue with his lecture tour (his son had committed suicide, as would three of his other children). Hemingway destroyed several marriages and two sons (see this NYT article, “Good Art, Bad People”).

And the artists themselves spin down into insanity, more often than not, because we need those relationships with other humans to stay sane. You can’t turn to a manuscript for comfort, advice, and understanding. You can’t fuck a painting. Art doesn’t love you back.

Who does? The people around you. Your friends, significant others, kids, pets, parents, extended family. These people aren’t just part of your life; they are life. But bonds with other humans are always fragile. People may not stick around if you’re chronically placing art over life (them). That’s the worst part about the “life as a support system for art” approach: it’s self-fulfilling. Sooner or later you look up, see no one left, and think: Finally I can concentrate.

Stephen King tells the story of moving his writing desk from the center of the room to the side, as a symbol of resetting his priorities. I’m attempting to incorporate gratitude exercises into my daily routine, to remember the importance of and my appreciation for the cast of non-fictional characters that make up my own life.

Because, you know, the books are important to me, but they aren’t the most important thing. It just might occasionally take a daily reminder to drill that into my thick skull.

Five noteworthy science fiction books so far in 2016

We’ve covered five horror books you should check out. Now let’s pop over to the science fiction side of the aisle. Here are five sci-fi books that have come out so far this year that people are buzzing about.

1. Sleeping Giants, by Sylvain Neuvel

science fiction booksThis story of an international quest for robot parts has an interesting, typically twenty-teens origin story: it started out as a self-published work that eventually caught the eye of a Big Five publisher once the book already had a movie deal. The big publishers have found a new risk-aversion strategy . . . publishing books that have already been published. In any case, it’s great to see an indie author make good here.

2. Infomocracy, by Malka Older

science fiction booksHmm, a “sci-fi thriller with election-year chills” — I am trying so damn hard here not to link to a certain other book that would also fit that description. Nobody likes a self-promoter. OK . . . I resisted. Anyway, Infomocracy sounds like an interesting take on the politics of the future. The author, making her debut, apparently graces the story with many details based on her own academic and international aid experience.

3. Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, by Lois McMaster Bujold

science fiction booksListen, I’m a couple of books behind in Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan, so please — no spoilers! I know I’m on dangerous ground here even to bring it up; I’m hoping to get to this latest book in the series soon enough. I just wanted to be sure that Bujold’s long-running saga is on your radar. Previous books have mixed science fiction, mystery, adventure, and romance brilliantly. I expect no less from this latest.

4. Too Like the Lightning, by Ada Palmer

science fiction booksAnother debut author just like in items 1 and 2 on this list, Palmer has received high praise from Boing Boing for this novel (first in a series) about life in the 25th century, where religion is a banned topic and humans affiliate based on beliefs or hobbies rather than geography (this latter idea is actually the foundation of Older’s book, above). Some reviewers call this book dense and challenging as a caution to the reader.

5. The Assimilated Cuban’s Guide to Quantum Santeria, by Carlos Hernandez

science fiction booksI met Hernandez in February at Boskone, where he made great contributions to, among other things, a panel on “nifty narrative tricks.” Our fourth debut author on this list gives us a short-story collection that Publishers Weekly called witty and insightful. I’m looking forward to checking Quantum Santeria out after I’ve waded through the remaining four hundred pages of Seveneves.

So, what else belongs on this list? Let me know!

Two-sentence horror stories – Vol I

Looks like I’m going to see Joe Hill speak at the Music Hall in Portsmouth tonight. Somebody gave me a free ticket. Odd coincidence, since I just featured The Fireman in my list of five noteworthy horror books this month.

In honor of Mr. Hill’s visit to our ‘umble Seacoast, I’d like to present a collection of two-sentence horror stories. These are brand new and making their world debut.

1. “Gentle Song”

two-sentence horror stories

2. “Orderly Policeman”

two-sentence horror stories

3. “Virtual Identity”

two-sentence horror stories

4. “Wayne Gretzky”

two-sentence horror stories

5. “Between the Sheets”

two-sentence horror stories


Well, this writing thing doesn’t take so much time after all, does it? Post your own two-sentence horror stories and let’s keep the ball rolling!

Five noteworthy horror books out this May

I’ve got my ear to the ground. To the spooky ground. So, uh, I wanted to tell you about the five most promising horror books out this month. Or, you know, the five most promising supernatural thrillers, or dark fiction books, or whatever the hell(s) we’re calling them these days.

1. The Fireman, by Joe Hill (May 17)

fireman horror booksBack in February at Boskone, I went to a reading (a pretty intimate reading, actually — got to love conventions) by Mr. Hill. He read a chapter from The Firemanand it was pretty scary stuff. Basically there’s a disease spreading around the U.S. that causes its victims to spontaneously combust. So even if you haven’t caught it yet, you don’t want to be standing too near someone who has . . .

2. Burned: The Thrice Cursed Mage, Book 3, by J.A. Cipriano (out now)

burned horror booksContinuing with our toasty theme, looks like readers are responding well to the third book in Cipriano’s urban fantasy series about a guy who hunts down demons and whose right hand seems to be on fire. You’d probably want to start with Book 1, Cursed.

3. The City of Mirrors, by Justin Cronin (May 24)

city of mirrors horror booksThe City of Mirrors is Book Three of the Passage Trilogy, which people keep telling me I need to check out. So I will. I’m not going to read the description too closely for this one because of “teh spoilerz,” but Stephen King says it’s a “thrilling finale to a trilogy that will stand as one of the great achievements in American fantasy fiction.” I’m sold.

4. Sweet Lamb of Heaven, by Lydia Millet (out now)

sweet lamb of heaven horror booksThis one got a writeup in Slate, albeit under the label of “metaphysical thriller.” An Alaskan woman and her daughter are on the run from her aspiring politician husband. Holed up in a hotel in Maine (hello, nice to see you), the main character discovers the truth behind her daughter’s supernatural ability to make voices come out of the air, and then things really get weird. So yeah, Sweet Lamb of Heaven.

5. The Loney, by Andrew Michael Hurley (May 10)

loney horror booksRated B+ by Entertainment Weekly,  this debut novel by a British author is about a guy forced to reckon with terrible events from his past when a kid is found dead on the misty coast of Lancashire. Apparently Stephen King has already read this one and liked it too. Come to think of it, I’m sure he also read The Fireman, since his son wrote that one. You know what, maybe it wouldn’t be so hard to get Uncle Stevie to blurb my book too? (Ha.)

So, what did I miss?

The best Star Wars movie? KOTOR 2.

best star wars movie

OK, asking which Star Wars movie is the best is setting myself up for a fight. But it’s May the Fourth, so I’ll ask it anyway — what do you think?

What if I told you (cue the Morpheus meme) that the best Star Wars movie is actually a game . . . and a decade-old, notoriously broken game at that?

Guess I’m really asking for a punch in the Naboo now. But let me introduce you to Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic IIaka KOTOR 2.

Whereas all the movies have subscribed, more or less, to a straightforward “good versus evil” system of morality, KOTOR 2 is ballsy enough to bring up the possibility that the Jedi, in adhering to a strict, uncompromising code, could actually be in the wrong. And that, maybe, the Sith have a point.

You (or rather, the main character) are continually forced to confront these questions by an elderly, blind, former Jedi master named Kreia, who is one of the most fantastic characters ever to grace any video game, not just a Star Wars game. Kreia asks tough questions about the supposedly binary Light and Dark Sides of the Force that nobody else seems to be asking.

For example, after doing the typical RPG hero thing and giving a few bucks to a refugee in need, Kreia asks you: “Why would you do such a thing? Such kindness will mean nothing, his path is set. Giving him what he has not earned is like pouring sand into his hands.”

If you defend your actions, saying you were helping the refugee to survive and to find hope for the future, Kreia goes on:

“The Force binds all things. The slightest push, the smallest touch, sends echoes throughout life. Even an act of kindness may have more severe repercussions than you know or can see. By giving him something he has not earned, perhaps all you have helped him become is a target.”

In a few short sentences, Kreia provides more justification for a Republican Sith / Dark Side worldview than we’ve been given in hours upon hours of Star Wars screen time. Maybe it’s not all about mustache-twirling evil; maybe there’s actually a coherent philosophy underlying the actions of the villains.

Later, Kreia critiques the Jedi’s monk-like approach to upholding their principles:

“Turning away from that which tempts you or causes you fear is not strength. Facing it is.”

“It is only through interaction, through decision and choice, through confrontation, physical or mental, that the Force can grow within you.”

I mean, that’s not only an argument for the value of, erhm, player choice, but also for an active approach for shaping one’s own character, rather than the passivity that the Jedi seem to advocate.

I’m not saying Kreia’s right — there’s a lot of different ways to look at this question (e.g., Western vs. Eastern philosophy, determinism vs. free will, etc.) that don’t hinge on one side being “right” and the other “wrong.” That’s what makes this approach to the Star Wars universe so fascinating . . . it’s set up, at least potentially, as a clash of competing philosophies rather than “bad guys want to destroy the world because evil, and good guys want to stop them.”

The lead designer for KOTOR 2, Chris Avellone (most famous for the monumental achievement Planescape: Torment), admitted that he used Kreia to challenge the existing lore: “She was questioning everything about the Star Wars universe that I thought should be questioned.”

Maybe, you say, this particular universe doesn’t need to be questioned — maybe it’s just meant to be an extended allegory, a simple tale of space wizards versus the forces of darkness. And that’s fair. I’m not sure George Lucas initially had anything much more sophisticated than that in mind.

But I love that it contains the possibility of stretching out into something more complex, and that’s where KOTOR 2 really shines: as both a tribute and challenge to the source material. The game was released as a buggy mess but has since been cleaned up in the “Restored Content” version, largely created by fans who saw the storytelling potential in KOTOR 2 and wanted to help it shine through.

I’ll grant you, though, that the new Star Wars movie was pretty damn good, and I’m looking forward to seeing it again.