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2006-06-29 2:37 PM
On fear and stuff
I wrote this over two years ago, before twins, before CREDO, and before I LOVE YOU, I'M SORRY, AND I'LL NEVER DO IT AGAIN, partway through the first effort to make CUPID & PSYCHE. My producer (at the time) didn't want me posting it, because it didn't make me look enough like a rock-star director.
I just stumbled over it today. Since I no longer work with that producer, here it is.
In which the writer talks about himself,
And Lo, his agony and suffering,
So you may want to skip it.
1. Dust Ruffle
When I was maybe six, my bedroom was at the end of what probably wasn't a long, scary hallway. I was an introverted, intellectual child, so I knew there was nothing evil in the blurred rectangle of shadow under my bed. It didn't matter. Coming back from the bathroom at night, stepping across the threshold, I'd take a running leap, too quick for them to grab me, and then airborne into the bed--whump! Safe!--as long as hands and feet didn't extend beyond the edge of the mattress. I tried to stay centered and small as a matter of policy.
At the time, I wouldn't have articulated "monsters"--would probably have dismissed the word if you'd suggested it--but a presence existed, with chitinous claws like chickens' feet. Or something. Something that would feel hard and clicky if it closed on your ankle.
I almost never got down there and looked. On balance, a flying leap from the doorway seemed more prudent. But every so often, a rarely-used neural connection would align, a weak current would flow through the little-used courage circuits, and I'd be down on my knees, my face bent over where yellow eyes might be staring right at me once I lifted the dust ruffle, and--sometimes--I'd put my fingers right up there, right where the claws could grab them, and lift it.
I felt it was necessary. "Potential" would have made as much sense to me as "monster," but at least I could look into myself once in a while and figure I'd done something scary, and for some reason, that was good. I'd found out I could do it. There were plenty of things I was too scared to do, but sometimes I could lift the dust ruffle.
2. A Request
Please don't let me stay this stupid forever. Thanks.
Also, please don't hold it against me
that I don't believe you're out there.
Also, if you were going to help me out with the stupid thing
Until I said I don't believe you're out there,
The hell with you.
I didn't mean that.
Maybe fifteen years later, the dust holding my marriage up finally collapsed and my sister loaned me some Spenser books. Twenty-one and filing for divorce, I wanted to know how to behave. I still probably don't know--it turns out the brutal honor of the Marlowes and Spensers doesn't always fit into a too-delicate temperament--but for a brokenhearted kid looking for a code, it was as though the missing piece of a Chinese woodblock had been locked into place with a sharp twist.
"Potential" may have made sense to me then. I don't know. Mostly, I remember quoting lines from Spenser novels as though they were my own ideas. I told someone, censoriously, that "one does not speak ill of another's beloved." I learned to toss off "pretty to think so" as though I'd been through a war--more or less--and tried out a little Hawk ("That ain't the way, babe,"), and then found out "pretty to think so" was Hemingway, so I went and read Hemingway, and tried frying apples like Spenser did in Susan's kitchen. Reading Hemingway became reading Steinbeck, and when Spenser quoted Faulkner, I went and got Faulkner. I read Chandler, I read The Faerie Queen, or at least part of it, I bristled when Bernie Rhodenbarr tossed a mild jab Spenser's way, and at some point, with practice, the code wasn't just in books. Nobody else had told me how men were supposed to behave. Humans, yes. Men, no.
My first try at a novel was to see if I could do it. I didn't know what "mystery" meant then--had no inkling of genre, subgenre, transcenscion of genre, Bouchercons, Left Coast Crimes, or Supporting Your Local Independent Mystery Bookstore--but it was a mystery. There was almost no mystery on my shelves--just all the Spenser novels and a growing collection of classics that eventually displaced I, Robot and Ringworld.
I was pretty sure I could write a novel, having written a short story I liked and leafed through a few mysteries at the bookstore. Everything seemed lacking, compared to my memorized Spenser, and I thought I could do better than at least the worst of them. So.
I'm trying to summon that first-book fear so I can write about it, but I can't. It's been too long, and I've written better, harder books. But I know each has felt the same: Every one is a kneeling by the bed, face bent over where they'll be staring if I can bring myself to lift the dust ruffle. Every time, I'm ashamed by the shortcomings of the last one and afraid of the next one, and every time, looking back at each, it's no longer scary. The ones I'm writing--those are what scare me. I keep trying to work at greater capacity, and each might be the one I'm not good enough to pull off.
An image I've had with me a long time is of water crashing through a rough hole in a block wall, like a breached dam. The water pressure is enormous; it blasts through, nearly horizontal. Each ragged chunk of block, each irregular protrusion at the hole's edge, impedes the water; in cross section, the gusher has the shape of the hole. Can I knock those bits away if I work hard enough? Can I not only recognize my assumptions and natural biases, not only confront them, but destroy them? How much can I get out of the water's way? How much can I reduce the extent to which my limits of perception and ability impede it?
Should I? Which is more interesting, the hole, or the water?
Personality and identity are all mixed and tangled up with assumptions and biases. I'm not even sure which is which--so what is it, exactly, that I'm taking the sledgehammer to? Which is another dust ruffle that's scary to lift: Is there anything all that rare and valuable about my personality and identity, that preserving them is really that important? What's a gain, and what's a loss?
Somerset Maugham said,
There are three rules for writing the novel.
Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.
I can tell you two of them: 1. Start. 2. Finish.
The third may have to do with coffee.
6. Zero Crossing
My first book got published. I'd learned so much that I couldn't bear to read it, and I started another one so I could try to do it right. After that got published, I thought I'd done it right, so there was no point doing it again. So the third was different, but then I couldn't bear to read the second, and the fourth was different, so I couldn't bear to read the third.
Then, for reasons that included Walker ceasing to publish mysteries, I found myself at a zero crossing: No one expected anything from me, so all doors were equally open--or equally closed. I could write book five, but I was relatively certain that if I lifted the dust ruffle again, I'd see dust bunnies and cracker crumbs. I could already see them.
So what next? The hallway ahead probably wasn't long and scary, but with all doors equally open--and equally closed--now what?
7. Gotta Dance!
People complain about musicals. They say:
Nobody just stops in the street and breaks into song.
I say you know the wrong people.
When I'm feeling glib, I say this:
The reason I spent a year and a half writing a feature-length screen musical, and the reason I'm now trying to make the movie, is that when I write, I'm not composing music, and when I make short films, I'm not writing, so something's always frustrating. CUPID & PSYCHE lets me do all the things I love and have gotten good at: Music, writing, film direction, creative stuff, logistical stuff, project management, new and old collaborations, the excitement of the unknown, huge near-impossibility, and so on. All in one project.
I also say this:
I know some amazing, creative people, and I like working with them, so I wrote parts for them.
And it's true, but. But there's true, and then there's the truth; and well, I'm not sure what the truth is. Giving up a mystery career scared me, even though it was never really what I was aiming for anyway. Seeing the next cycle of books by writers I know made me feel pretty stupid. Then when the same names bloomed on the shelves another year later, because mystery is a book-a-year business... Totally my choice, can't complain too loudly, but still. My name's not there.
There are compensations. When music I've been laboring over in headphones, on my laptop, turns into a finished audio production with great singing and acting in it, that's like suddenly being hit in the eye with a sunbeam--and discovering this ugly barge you've been standing on turns out to be just the right place to catch a beautiful sunrise. And then looking over thataway, and somebody else is catching it too. Just the two of you up this early, nobody else near the water.
And writing letters to people you dream of working with--that's scary-but-fun.
And actually working with them. When people ask how it's going, I can sling a few names around and make it sound really impressive, or I can make it sound like some numbnuts' rusted backyard swingset. It's brought me into collaboration with people I never even expected to meet, let alone leave Oo!--what if-- voicemail messages for. But the truth--the truth is, the dust ruffle's just partway lifted yet. There may yet be yellow eyes. So this may be a good place to be.
And as far as I know--he said modestly--it'll be the first screen musical with a Maguffin.
A few dinners ago, a friend accused me of being a thrill junkie. Maybe, I guess... but I'd much rather do without the fear. It makes my organs wear out.
Problem is, I like the results.
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