Subterranean Press Magazine: Summer 2007
Column: Lansdale Unchained #1 by Joe R. Lansdale
JUST DO IT
ENJOYING THE WRITTEN WORD WITHOUT BEING OWNED BY IT (but always have a savings account and a piggy bank, or in my case, I have a bear and a dinosaur and a Batman bank, and a few mutual funds.)
This is the first article of a column I’m calling LANSDALE UNCHAINED. I intend to write about pop culture: writing and art and comics and movies and anything related. Sometimes the relations may be tenuous, but I’ll do the best I can.
Let me tell you a secret. Everyone enjoys recognition, a little fame. Let me tell you another secret. If you like it too much it’ll eat your guts out. In creative endeavors, like writing, it’s the curse, baby.
You start out writing because you enjoy reading and then you write to please a certain in-crowd, usually other authors, or for some, critics and reviewers, and then pretty soon you find an audience, and that my friends is both good and deadly.
We all like to have an audience. You don’t have someone reading you, then you don’t get to sell your nifty writing, and if you don’t sell it, it doesn’t matter if you’ve written a lot or not at all, because a creative endeavor for most people is sharing. No sharing. No writing. When it’s in your desk drawer, it might give you a hard on when you go over it, or make your nipples stiff (depending on gender), but it’s not satisfying if there are no readers. Reading aloud to the dog doesn’t count.
There’s something inside the creative mind that thinks it has something someone would want to read, see, or hear. It takes some ego to believe that. Even the quietest, most withdrawn of authors, like to believe they have some worth, if only in that one area. Writing.
But if you find an audience, you began to give your audience what you think they want. Some people can do this very well. They can become rich and famous. They can have so much money that when they fart they blow out spare change, but good as this may be, it can ring a bit hollow if your creativity is within one constant artery, because eventually, that artery gets filled up with plaque of the non-artistic kind, and you’re just pumping it out, but it’s not a clean pump, because all that plaque you know, it’ll make you grab your chest from time to time, and eventually, it just might kill you, creatively anyway. Now, just knocking it out, find that audience and giving them exactly what they want at the expense of all else is not a bad thing if your job is as a prostitute where a certain rhythm of movement, or at least a willingness to take a fucking will get you by, but as an author, well, brethren and sisteren, (yeah, I made that one up) ‘tain’t so good.
Sometimes the publishers can be a problem. They may want to restrain you. Sometimes that can’t be helped. If your publisher doesn’t want you to say pussy or fuck or shit or prick or have pronouncements against the powers that be, if you think religion sucks the big ole donkey dick but they fear their readers like sucking the donkey dick, and they want your work to be about kitties and puppies and to be non-offensive, and you aren’t that kind of writer, well, you can be, to put it mildly, disappointed.
Doesn’t mean you can’t modify if you have to, but it does mean there’s a difference in modification or adjustment, and bending over and greasing up.
You write to please everyone else but yourself, you might as well get a job at the grocery store sacking groceries. Because you do everything but what you want to do, you aren’t happy. You aren’t writing for love. You will find yourself reading less, because you no longer know how to enjoy it. Or because you have developed your own formula for success, and it’s frustrating to read others who don’t share your formula. Perhaps because it sounds different and you think it should be only one way. You are a Baptist of a writer, and they are a Methodist of a writer. You’re both working for the same deity, but you have different angles of attack, and of course, like all pious Christians, you think your sect knows the truth and theirs doesn’t. The mind narrows, and so does your taste and your ability to absorb new things.
Face it. We’re all a little that way. But if we recognize that we are, we don’t have to let that aspect of ourselves overwhelm us like some sort of outer space parasite.
Bottom line is if you think you know how it’s done and there’s only one way to do it, you are on your way to creative destruction and will soon live in a creative world that lacks greenery and is nothing but dry, white sands. It’s uncomfortable there. It sucks your soul empty and shits it down a dark gopher hole.
I know. I’ve seen it. I have friends who have done quite well financially through chasing what they thought was popular, only to be like the dog chasing the car. When they catch it, it wasn’t exactly what they expected or wanted.
Now I’m not knocking money and I won’t say I haven’t written some things for a few bucks in my time, but it’s never been my driving force. I have written the things I’ve wanted to write with as much passion as I could bring to them, and for as large an advance as I could manage. I’m no idiot or blind idealist. But I believe you have to do your work, not the work you think you should do to satisfy some unknown audience. You can’t write for others, because, who are the others? You can’t please everyone, so don’t try. You can only write for yourself, and you can only be yourself. So if your ideas are sharp and clean, put them down. If your ideas are a bit messy, unzipped pants and exposed genitals, then you got to go that direction. Next time out, you might find your muse is all dressed up with a coat and tie, sophisticated. Time after that, the fickle witch may be wearing Bermuda shorts and a sports bra, drinking cheap beer from the bottle and scratching her ass. Time beyond that, nothing but a smile, her pubic hair shaved in the shape of a heart. (Remember, muses are traditionally female, so I’ve gone with that image. You want a boy muse, hell, you’re the creator, go for it. Let him flap his pecker at you if you like.)
You have to follow that muse where it takes you. The bright places, the dark places, the distant planets, the center of the earth, or just over to the 7-11 where you think you saw the story of your dreams behind the doughnut counter.
So you go at your work because it is your work, and it grows out of your subconscious, not some overly conscious design to please. To put it together in such a tedious way that it hits all of the tenets of “good storytelling” will end up knocking you ass over heels, throwing you face down in a puddle.
Here’s a secret. Listen up. Everyone wants the secret, and I’m going to be pretentious and offer it to you. Good storytelling is just good stories well told with conviction. You should want to know how grammar works, but you don’t want it to work you. You should have some idea of structure, but you shouldn’t be afraid to branch off the standard scaffolding. Hell, if you want, tear it down. Understand how it works, then mess with it.
Okay. A confession: I don’t want to sound too high and mighty after giving you this valuable secret (later I’ll reveal where you can buy all your ideas), but I want you to know, I’ve written for money. I like getting paid. I always want to know how much something pays and can I get more than that. That’s just common sense, money jobs can be jobs for love, I still think like that. I want to get paid for doing what I can do that not everyone can do. Being paid for being in love, that’s pretty high cotton.
On the occasions I took the work for money, because there was really no choice. I had to make a car payment, or stick something back so I could write one I was dying to write but knew had about as much chance to make big money as a crippled monkey selling pencils on the one street corner in a dirt road town called Podunk, but I always put as much of myself in them as I could. Sometimes there was less of me available, but I gave it what I had. In a few cases, because I still went at it like I loved it, I came to love it. And the results were a pleasant surprise. But there’s a difference in working to eat, and just making more money. At some point, how much money do you really need?
There were other times when money wasn’t a question at all.
I was just in the mood to write and I let it go. I wasn’t thinking: Wonder where I can sell this? I was just writing. Nothing profound, but something moved in the back of my head and I sat down at the machine and wrote. Whatever came out I let come out. I wanted to be surprised. Sometimes the surprise wasn’t all that good and had to go back in the box, so to speak, never to raise its ugly head again. Sometimes it wasn’t amazing, but it was curious and I felt the world might like to see it, so I released it into the wild.
Often, I was right to release it. Now and again, maybe not so much.
These writings were not always brilliant, or my best work, but they were me and they came out of me in rush of excitement, or at least mild curiosity. I learned I was happier than the guy or gal who sat up late at night trying to figure how to repeat what they had done before so that they might repeat the success of before, and the one before that.
Again, I like success. Who doesn’t? The Bestseller list is cool. You make big money when you hit it. That kind of success is good, but I don’t want to be, and refuse to be its bitch. I get there, I want to get there on my own terms.
And let me tell you the most wonderful surprise of all. Sometimes these whims, these urges, turned into the best of my work, and they sold really well. That was a neat surprise. There’s an old adage, and in my case it’s been true. Do what you love, and the money will come.
Of course, when you the money comes, don’t be stupid. Save some of it. We all like to eat. And the old adage, well, shit, it isn’t always right. But mostly. So be smart with your money and never be so prideful as to not do a project for money, but again, don’t base your career on that. The difference in a hack and a professional is attitude. Remember, I never said don’t write for money. I said don’t let money be the reason you write.
Oh, and that secret about where you can get all your ideas. I’ve changed my mind. I’m not telling.