Am I a Genre Writer?

It seems that there is not a professional writer out there who is not yet tired of the question “Am I a writer?” or “How do I know I am a writer?” So much so that I felt compelled to answer the question myself.

A more pressing question for me is, am I a genre writer? I fear that I am not. And here is why. The best selling writers in the world are all genre writers. According to Wikipedia, the only non-genre writers in the top twenty best selling writers in the world are William Shakespeare, Leo Tolstoy and Alexander Pushkin, all of whom had quite a bit of time to achieve that status. (Actually, you might say that Shakespeare was one of the earlier genre writers.) Genre writers are in great demand. They seem to get published a lot. Most of the books you see in book stores are genre books. If you are not a genre writer, your book will be found in a back shelf if you are lucky.

In order to become a genre writer, you have to be a genre reader, which I must admit that I am not. I have to push myself to read genre books. I see the workmanship in them. The best selling ones are usually very well designed. James Patterson’s books are so well designed I can picture the story board. They hold my interest, but more for their artistry than the immersion into the imaginary world. It is like looking at a netsuke sculpture of a philosopher’s house. I am mesmerized, but more by the astounding technique of the artist than by the story.

As a child I loved magic tricks. I never became very good at them, but I loved to perform them and I loved to watch them. Magic is a performance art, but less intuitive and more cerebral than dancing. A dancer projects emotions. A magician presents expertise. To me, genre books are magic performances. They expertly juggle plot points until they fit together in seemingly gravity defying ways. The outcome is predictable but you are awed anyway.

I have said it before and I will say it again. I would much rather be E. L. James than Faulkner. But you do not choose a genre. The genre chooses you. I am now in the process of constructing a Indy Jones-like story. For the first time in my life I am using plot constructing devices like Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet. It is taking shape nicely. The one thing that might keep me from finishing this project is my personal doubts about being a genre writer.

I take solace from the career of Maurice Leblanc. He was a serious writer who met little commercial success until he switched to writing mysteries, created the character Arsene Lupin, and became a legend. An unsuccessful literary writer, he was able to become a successful genre writer, though I doubt he read very many genre novels. Then again, back in his day, there were not very many of them.

He is one of the reasons genre writers are considered something below serious non-genre literary writers. People like him who have failed at literary works have become fabulously successful genre writers. But a lot have tried to make the same transition and failed.

Some writers take the reverse course. They become successful genre writers first, then try their hand at literary writing. In fiction we have seen characters like Paul Sheldon, protagonist of Stephen King’s Misery, a hugely successful author of Victorian romance novels, but one who really wants to write gritty inner city stories. He is mirrored by J. K. Rowling, a real life billionaire genre writer who, after the success of the Harry Potter series, wrote an obsessively realistic portrait of modern social ills.  The story of the genre writer who wants to be taken seriously is a genre unto itself. It gives the impression that genre writing is somehow easier than serious writing. Genre fiction certainly has more commercial opportunities. But that does not make it easier.

In fact, sometimes it is a lot easier to spill your guts than to create an imaginary world. We do not spill our guts, because we are all rape victims who want to keep quiet about the most painful memories of our lives. We do not want to be drama queens about being beaten to a pulp by our drunken, crazy parents. Partly because we blame ourselves to some extent. Partly because it seems prissy. Other people had it worse. Partly because you don’t want to rat out your parents or tell the world about your coward brother, now a respected professional, who let your parents do what they did, then remembers the incidents differently. Partly because you are already a man in the world. You have your own career and reputation in a field that has nothing to do with writing. Partly because you still have secrets your wife does not know about. So instead of telling the world about your shame soaked secret life, you construct a fictional story about fairies and wizards and werewolves. Maybe, you don’t have to make up anything. Maybe, if you had the courage to spill your guts, your own life story is all you need to tell. Maybe, it is easier to write about the stuff you know is universal pain, the common feelings that all victims can relate to, the shit drenched humiliation that we all know. Maybe, you should just fucking give it up.

But then you know it is not that simple. Over the years, through that failed first novel, through numerous drafts that went out with the trash, through all the quasi poetry that you doodled on your notebooks during class, you have learned that writing is not therapy. Maybe it is for you, but it is not if you want a publisher. The purpose of a book is to transport the reader to another world. A book must be crafted.

Once upon a time, you had a happy childhood. You were just an introverted kid who happily played with your imagination. You told stories to your friends and family. Then things got bad. And then your sexuality kicked in and made things worse. Then it overlapped with your teen angst and you had your first ever exposure to real literature. Then you started doodling fragments of prose on your notebook instead of studying math because your parents believed counseling was a waste of time and psychiatric illness was something to be ashamed of. In the process, the story teller child became a writer. Just what kind of writer you still don’t know.

That happy child who made up fun stories to tell was a genre writer. Maybe you just want to go back to that. Maybe what you are really doing is trying to put the genie back into the bottle. Maybe you are trying to look away from the experiences that turned you to literature in the first place. The genre novel looks, on the surface, like it has nothing to do with the sorry experiences that made you a writer. Isn’t that comforting? Is it really just commercial success that you want when you look away from all that? How can you go back to writing after you passed fifty, you have a successful career, a great family and still claim that you are doing it for the money?

Then again, maybe you are finally at peace with all that anger. Maybe you are over it, and you can finally tell the stories that happy child might have told had he grown up with less traumatic experiences. Maybe it is time to put it all down. Bury the hatchet. Let it go. If you can do that, then maybe you can finally grow up and become a genre writer.

A genre writer is not a cheaper, sold-out version of a serious literary writer. You may be destined to become a literary writer and you are just deceiving yourself when you try to write your genre novel. Or maybe, you are a genre writer with a literature complex and just want to be taken seriously. But nobody is taking a step down from the so-called serious literature when they go into genre writing. You do not choose your genre. Your genre chooses you.


The Four Act Plot Structure

Everyone talks about the Three Act Plot Structure. But have you ever heard about the Four Act Structure? It is the basic structure of classic Chinese poetry, and in places like Japan (probably Korea and China as well) students are encouraged to write all stories and essays based on this structure.

The Four Act Structure is defined by four Chinese characters signifying the “Opening” , “Developing”, “Twist” and “Conclusion”. Here is a simple example:

Susan is smart, cheerful and beautiful.
Anyone would fall in love with her in a minute.
My brother would never believe this.
Yesterday she said “Yes”.

The first line introduces Susan. The second line develops on the introduction. The third line skips to someone unrelated to the story. The last line presents the ending. The unrelated third line provides emphasis, a change of pace, and a new vantage point. It also provides the “break” into the fourth line. The structure could be used in a more elaborate passage as well. For example:

First Paragraph: A graphic report on a grizzly murder of a young black man named Joe.
Second Paragraph: A report that five similar incidents that have happened to other black victims in the same poor neighborhood.
Third Paragraph: An analysis that much fewer such murders occur in wealthier white neighborhoods.
Fourth Paragraph: Joe’s mother pleads that reforms be made to prevent further such incidents.

Paragraphs 1, 2 and 4 are about a poor black neighborhood. 3 is a departure from that area and describes a very different kind of neighborhood. This four paragraph article is something I just made up, but you might have noticed that many reporters have unconsciously adopted this format, although I doubt too many of them have been trained to do so.

Depending on what the third paragraph talks about, the general impression of the article can vary greatly. For example, the third paragraph might compare the frequency of murders in neighborhoods of similar economic situation in countries where guns are unavailable, in which case the article might sound like an argument for gun control. Or if the third paragraph focuses on wealth inequality, the article will seem to advocate liberal economic policies. If the third paragraph talks about Caucasians who behaved in the same manner as Joe with much less harmful outcomes, the story becomes a treatise on racial inequality. In each case, the third paragraph takes the reader out of Joe’s neighborhood to a seemingly unrelated environment. The twist can define the conclusion.

The four act story structure is as ubiquitous as the three act structure. It is just that not many non-Asian writers discuss it very much. Let’s look at the original Star Wars: Episode IV.

In the Three Act structure:
Act 1: Luke decides to follow Ben, fight for the rebellion and rescue the princess.
Act 2: Luke finds the princess, loses Ben, and escapes the Death Star.
Act 3: Luke blows up the Death Star and saves the rebellion.

In the Four Act structure:
Act 1: Luke learns that his father was a Jedi and hears for the first time about the Force.
Act 2: Luke follows Ben on an adventure and witnesses several incidences in which the Force is used.
Act 3: Lots of shooting, chasing, running and exploding that has nothing to do with the Force.
Act 4: More shooting and chasing, but Luke hears “Use the Force!” which he does and succeeds.

You can see that it can work just as well both ways if you are retro-fitting it to a completed story. In the Four Act structure, not only does Act 3 have little to do with Luke’s introduction into the world of the Force, but his mentor is lost during this act.

In the Three Act structure:
Act 1: The protagonist starts from a static situation, gets hit by an inciting incident and starts moving.
Act 2: The protagonist faces difficulties, surmounts them, suffers losses, then gets going again.
Act 3: Stakes are raised, difficulties are greater, he almost loses, then wins.

In the Four Act structure:
Act 1: The protagonist is introduced in a static situation. His quest is presented.
Act 2: The protagonist embarks on his quest. Along the way he is faced with tasks he must accomplish in order to attain his objective.
Act 3: On the road to accomplishing his tasks, he meets obstacles, questions, doubts and inner conflicts.
Act 4: The protagonist completes his quest. He is changed through his journey.

But retro-fitting a structure to any given story is pointless. The structure is a tool for composing a story. How does the four act structure fair in that arena? Other than the fact that the entire canon of Japanese literature, and most of East Asian literature, was written to the four act structure, it has been proven useful to the few Western writers who employed it as well. Granted, some Japanese screen writers have said that adhering to the four act structure is less important than the emotional journey of the story, and some people argue that since the whole Hollywood community works with the three act structure, the four act structure in not necessary, it could still be a useful addition to your toolbox. Even Blake Snyder, in his book, proposes a story board composed of four parts. Act 1, Act 2: first half), Act 2: second half, and Act 3. The second part of Act 2 is the “twist”. In his Beat Sheet, the second half is further divided into four sections “Bad Guys Close In” “All Is Lost” “Dark Night of the Soul” and “Break Into Act 3”. The four act structure is there whether you are conscious of it or not.

It is really not a bad idea to be aware of two structures. Both structures should fit your story just as well. These are just tools for composing your story anyway. The more tools the better.

The Bechdel Test

Now known as the Bechdel-Wallace test, it is a test to measure the level of gender enlightenment in any given script or manuscript. It has three criteria. 1) The story must have at least two women in it who 2) talk to each other about 3) something other than men.

Needless to say, most Hollywood movies and TV programs still fail this test. One recent show that comes immediately to mind that passes this test with flying colors is Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. S.H.I.E.L.D. of course stands for (in its current enactment) Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division and is shady spook organization that is pretty much U.N.C.L.E. on steroids. In the first season, we are introduced to Skye (Chloe Bennet), an orphan and talented hacktivist who is picked up by S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Coulson, but who may or may not have retained her loyalty to the hacktivist organization that is against S.H.I.E.L.D. There is also Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen) a poker faced former soldier in the tradition of Sergeant Joe Friday.  And there is Jemma Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) who, with her partner Fritz, compose the two halves of a generic super-brain character that every science fiction show needs. The three have utterly different character traits. Skye is passionate with a natural disdain for regulations and tends to take more risks than she can reasonably handle. May is reclusive and secretive about her emotions while being a highly disciplined by-the-books soldier. Simmons is aware that she is exceptionally smart and is quietly egoistic but quick to acknowledge the things she cannot do (she leaves all code breaking to Skye).

The men, by contrast, are pretty much cookie cutter cardboard characters: The leader with a past, a hunky egoistic soldier and a brainy scientist with security issues.

The women, each with different ideas on loyalty, priority and personal boundaries, create a very interesting dynamic while they battle supernatural forces, alien creatures and betrayal by their own organization.

Is this what Bechdel had in mind when she came up with the test? Maybe. We have a “guy show” about members of a secret government organization flying around the world in a stealth aircraft populated by creatively composed women who are not defined by their relationship with men, and a few cardboard men who are just there to throw punches or be sounding boards for the women when called upon. (But don’t tell that to the male viewers. They think they are watching a guy show.)

It has only been 2 seasons so far, but the basic structure is so well made from the feminist stand point, that this show may become the template for future shows to come. Having three differently skilled women in a “man’s team” with different takes on how to trust, who to follow, what rules to break and when to assert themselves hidden under conventional serial plots, can be applied to a wide range of genres. And the male viewers will scarcely realize that the show is about women.

World Building

J. K. Rowling describes Mrs. Dursley as having a long neck that was useful for spying on her neighbors over the fence. But she never tells us who those neighbors were or what was it they did that Mrs. Dursley was spying on. Rowling probably knows. She knows everything about her world. She once said she knew the names of all the players in all the quidditch teams.

Readers do not have the patience to read lengthy descriptions anymore (or so they say), so there is a limit to the number of words you can cram into a book. If you create an elaborate world, you will have to create a lot of detail that you know you are not going to write. This applies to every genre.

For example, in order to create convincing characters, you should write a short biography for each during the writing process. The information in the biographies may not appear in the book. It is just some background knowledge that the writer has.

If there is any kind of writing that epitomizes the idea that “writers write to write, not to be read” it must be the so called “fantasy” writing, which involves lots of world building. Much of what the writer writes is hidden from view. You might write the entire history of a kingdom and little of it will ever appear in the story. The more elaborate the fantasy world, the smaller the proportion the reader will see.

As a consequence, all fantasy worlds begin to look alike. All dystopian futures begin to look alike. All space travel stories begin to look alike. But in the mind of the writer, there is a distinct world with distinct images, landscapes, and inhabitants. How do you project that elaborate world to the reader? How do you explain the world without lengthy boring expositions?

First, you must grasp the correct definition of world building. You do not start your world building by saying “Barahir, son of Hador, was the eighth Ruling Steward of Gondor, and was succeeded by his son Dior” or “The Thermians are under attack from Sarris and need the help from Jason who will activate Omega 13”. You are just attaching names to characters, places and devices. That is not world building. World building is when you attach emotions and personality to places, customs, objects and characters.

A British royal wedding is a massive event resplendent with ornate carriages, marching soldiers in period uniform and church bells resonating through the city. A Japanese Imperial wedding is a somber and private series of ceremonies held within the walls of the Imperial Palace with little music and less fanfare but much sanctity and seriousness. Same event, different emotions. These emotions are what make your world.

When creating a stage, it is easy to be tempted into making up fantastical names for everything and describe strange landscapes under the assumption that these things, when amassed in sufficient quantity, will explain the world we created. They do not. But whether or not Hobbits drink and dance during weddings or young wizards-to-be suffer peer pressure on the Hogwarts Express are important elements of world building. Ron Weasley feels a little bit inferior because he does not have the money to buy treats on the Hogwarts Express. The fact that such emotions exist in the wizarding world is an important element.

World building entails the creation of large amounts of information that will not be included into the pages of the novel. But it is ultimately about emotions. A sacred cave does not have a sign outside that says “Sacred Cave”. You have to make it sacred through the attitudes of your characters. And in the modern novel, in which lengthy expositions are shunned, you have to cut straight to the chase and describe what people are doing there and how they are feeling.

And that is why we never learn what Mrs. Dursley was looking at when she spied over the fences, or the names of all the quidditch teams. We do not need those to understand the world around them.

Blake Snyder Beat Sheet

And now that I have mentioned Blake Snyder, I am obligated to mention “Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet” or “BS2”.

Blake Snyder was a Hollywood script writer who suddenly died at age 51, one year younger than I am now. In his instructional book on screen writing Save the Cat he proposes a plotting plan based on 15 plot elements (beats) which is very useful and complete. When I was a young aspiring writer, I had to discover something like this on my own, which was far less complete and amateurish. His method has spawned a “Save the Cat” computer software and his “Save the Cat” website is still up and operating. They have a list of movies whose scripts have been reverse engineered using the beat sheet.

I have little to add to this so if you are an aspiring writer, you should explore and learn from the website yourself as much as possible.

With that caveat, let me examine the beat sheet of Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece JAWS. Why this movie? Because I am an old fart, and because this is a great movie that does not fit the beat sheet very well. It is a good case study on what you might do when your story does not fit the template.

Here is how “Save the Cat” website tries to fit the movie to the template.

Set-Up: A relaxed beach bonfire party segues to a couple sneaking off to skinny-dip… but during the jaunt the young woman goes missing. The next day we meet Sheriff Brody (Roy Scheider) and follow along as he is called to the site of the girl’s disappearance. There, the girl’s body is discovered washed up on shore and, though we don’t see it, the reactions of the officers convey how gruesome the sight. Back at the office Brody fills out a report on the incident, typing in “Shark Attack” as the cause.

Theme Stated: As Brody heads off to work his wife tells him to be careful and he laughs it off, replying, “In this town?” It seems danger can infiltrate even the sleepiest of small communities if we’re not vigilant.

If you are familiar with the movie, you should know that the scene where Brody heads off to work (“In this town?”) is after the woman is attacked by the shark and before the body is found. So “theme stated” is in the middle of “set-up”. Also, “Set-up” is supposed to be the description of how normal life would continue forever if the “catalyst” did not send the protagonist on a journey. (Luke Skywalker bored and frustrated on a desert planet is a “set-up”.) “Theme stated” is supposed to be an ominous statement that explains the moral/meat of the story. (“Money isn’t everything”, “(what could happen) In this town?”, “You must learn the Force too, Luke, if you are to travel with me to Alderaan” etc.)

So the structure is actually:

Opening Image – Underwater scene

Corpse on the first page– woman attacked by shark

Set up – family of New York cops in a peaceful New England town.

Theme stated – “What could happen in this town?”

Catalyst – dead woman found

Reaction 1 – “Beaches closed till further notice”

Counter Reaction 1 – Mayer Vaughn et al pressure Brody. “Don’t rush to cry shark.” (note: In the original book, Brody is a New England local. In the movie, he is an alien transplanted from New York city in search of a more peaceful life. Here, Brody is at a disadvantage because he is deemed an alien who does not understand the needs of the locals. Our hero has a weakness.)

Debate 1 – Brody broods. “That’s some bad hat, Harry.”

Catalyst 2 – A local boy is killed.

Reaction 2 – “Let’s go kill the shark!” Soon a dead tiger shark is brought ashore. Ding dong! The witch is dead!

Counter Reaction 2 – Brody is not convinced. Neither is Hooper the shark specialist.

Debate 2 – Brody and Hooper cuts open the tiger shark. It’s not the right shark. Hooper finds a shark tooth. It’s not the same shark. They try to convince the mayor. They fail.

Catalyst 3 – In spite of the coast guard protection, another victim is killed and Brody’s son almost dies.

Since this is a movie about Brody, Hooper and Quint going out to sea to kill a shark, half the movie is the build up to actually setting out on the hunt. Trying to fit this script on the BS2 feels forced because Spielberg’s script has a more rhythmical structure of Catalyst-Reaction-Counter Reaction-Debate-Catalyst-Reaction-Counter Reaction-Debate.

Debate 2 is longer than Debate 1 and Catalyst 1, 2 and 3 have sequentially longer, more elaborate buildups.  In “Reaction/Counter Reaction” 1 and 2, Brody team and mayor team switch sides. Brody provides Reaction 1, mayor team provides Counter Reaction 1. Mayor team provides Reaction 2, Brody team provides Counter Reaction 2. Note that in both cases the Reaction is “Boom! Bang!” and Counter Reaction is more cautious. Reaction has BGM and/or sound effects. Counter reaction has sound of wind or waves in the background.

Catalyst 3 leads to the capitulation of the mayor team. The mayor finally admits he was wrong and allows the beaches closed and Brody to go on a hunt with Quint.

A similar pattern can be seen on many voyage movies where someone needs to be convinced before the protagonist is allowed to set sail.

My point here is, if your story does not quite fit on the template of BS2 or any other plot template, try doing a refrain of the plot elements, or beats. These elements are called “beats” for a reason. They are supposed to be the beat of the story.

Plagiarism Phobia

There should be a word for “a true story that nobody can believe”. I’ve experienced a few, one of them directly related to writing.

It was in 1975 in Cleveland Heights. I was 12 years old and my then best friend and I would get together in his room in the attic and write stories that came to our minds. Our best idea ever was a science fiction story that involved a boy bored out of his mind because he lived in a boring place with grownups who did not care about his problems. Then one day a pair of robots from another planet fall out of the sky and tell him that he must go on an adventure. One of the robots had a cylinder body with a dome on top and his name was AD-1. The other robot, can’t remember the name but it was also a combination of letters and numbers, was more humanoid in shape and spoke with a British accent. Me and my friend were both Star Trek fans so we tried out a few titles that were all Star Something, but none of them quite seemed to fit so we kept the working title on the project. It was the “AD-1 story”. Eventually, my friend moved to Florida and my family moved back to Japan. The project was never finished.

A few years later when Star Wars was released, I was totally furious. I kept saying “How could this be happening?” I learned two valuable lessons from this experience. One is that there is no such thing as an original story. All stories are old. The other is that it never makes any sense to fear that your ideas will be stolen. We all have the same ideas anyway. If I had a dollar for every million dollars ever made by story ideas I can claim to have thought of first, I would be retired by now. It is not the ideas that count, but the quality of the work you put into it.

In Save the Cat, an instructional book on screen writing by Blake Snyder, the author tells you to try pitching your story ideas to complete strangers to see their reaction to it. He writes “I have no fear that anyone will steal my idea and anyone who has that fear is an amateur.” Truer words were never spoken. Ideas, as stand alone elements, are worth nothing. Breaking Bad was a brilliant show, but the idea of a cancer patient plunging into a life of crime to leave something for his family is a concept I have been playing with for ages. I am sure a lot of writers had the same idea. We all have the same ideas. It’s the work that we put into it that counts. Anybody who has any talent at story telling has more ideas than he has time to write down in his entire lifetime.

There are plenty of books in the world I wish I had written. There are plenty of great pieces of prose, great lines of dialog, great innovations in plot development I wished I could steal. But in my 52 years of life there have been only two story ideas I wish I could have thought of first. One was Jurassic Park and the other was Harry Potter. But I have read some other writer say that he had the same idea as Michael Crichton but did not pursue the story because it seemed too convoluted. And the stories that may have influenced Harry Potter have received more attention than due. And these are exceptionally good ideas. Most other stories owe more to the sweat and toil that went into them than to the ideas per se. Think of all the teenage vampire stories. The only thing original about any of them is the perspective. The rest is all about the execution, not the story idea itself.

The good news is, any random idea you can come up with has the potential to be the next Star Wars. Almost all the stories ever written by mankind had existed by the time of the Greek poets. We have been rehashing the same stories ever since. Once every century or so, a truly new plot element is added to our collective lexicon that can significantly garnish an existing story. A vampire. A space alien. A pedophile. A private detective. Once those ideas are introduced, everything else falls into familiar structures. There is no such thing as an original story idea. The flip side of that is that your idea is every bit as original as anyone else’s.

In the 38 years since Star Wars, I have been observing movies and novels carefully. I have very rarely come across an idea that I could not have come up with (Jurassic Park), or should have but never thought about (Harry Potter). My experience tells me that ideas, in the absence of the effort to turn then into full blown stories, are worth nothing. Ideas alone are rarely worth stealing. So don’t worry about your ideas being stolen. If you have to worry, it merely means that you are incapable of coming up with twenty ideas just as good or better. Most story tellers can.

There are so many people out there who say that they have a terrific idea for a story but do not have the time to write it down. No shit. Me too. I once demonstrated that I could come up with one story idea every minute for an hour. Given a noun, I can build a story around it. If you say “cat”, I would say “A cat gains the ability to speak and instructs his owner how to rob a bank”. It takes about ten seconds. You could do that too with a little practice. Ideas are dime a dozen. It requires little or no effort to produce them. What takes effort is writing them down and structuring a marketable story. Also, you can never know which idea will sell unless you market test them by telling them to people. There is no sense in being stingy about telling your ideas.

This is not to say that writers cannot get screwed. It simply means that an idea without the infusion of hard work and skill is not a marketable product. And as such, there is little to be gained by stealing it. So do not be afraid to share your story ideas with total strangers. Only amateurs are afraid their basic ideas will be stolen.

The Invisible Blog

My blog received a respectable total of three views yesterday.

There are two things you can do when nobody is looking. Take your pants off and do something that would be embarrassing if anyone were watching, or debase yourself in any way imaginable in order to get more people to look. You may end up doing similar things either way, but the former is dependent on the assumption that nobody is looking and the latter is founded on the hopes that more people will. So which to choose?

This is a familiar question for me. Having been born the son of the most famous doctor in town, I have been living in a goldfish bowl all my life. At the same time, most of the rumors about me did not resemble me in the least, so I could go about my business in obscurity if I chose. Thus, for much of my youth, I have lived my life as an on-again off-again invisible man. Playing the undercover investigator of the rumor mill, I was just famous enough and unknown enough to be able to hear what was being said about me from people who did not know they were talking to the very person they were talking about.  Invisible and talked about. Story of my life.

The internet is a funny thing. Anyone could spy on you in depth and dig up the most embarrassing thing about you if they applied themselves to it. But unless you are a movie star or a terrorist, nobody is very interested. In most cases, you are an open book and a nobody. The NSA knows the size of your condoms, but nobody cares when they dismiss you on Tinder.

Now getting back to writing, (the topic of this blog, remember?) it is indeed a dire situation when you are an open book nobody looks into. Maybe this is the psychology behind the NaNoWriMo phenomenon. Suddenly all the kids who were playing basketball when geeks like you and me stayed indoors writing stories are turning the writing process into a mass sporting event. Since every person is an open book, everybody wants to write one. Why not be famous?  Your nut sack is hanging out anyway, you might as well have the bugging paparazzis to go with it.

Here is why not. Firstly, being medium famous is no fun. You get the prying eyes without the adoring smiles. Secondly, the privacy of not being looked at tends to disappear at the most inopportune moments. That embarrassing thing you did in your college dorm party could go viral when your kids are old enough to watch it. But mostly, writing for fame is for suckers. If anything is more misdirected than writing for money, it must be writing for attention. Think of a bestseller novel from the recent past. Gone Girl for example. Can you remember the name of the author?

So just because nobody is reading my blog, it doesn’t mean that I can comfortably open my fly and scratch my balls. Nor does it mean that I should do that in a desperate attempt to attract more readers. The bottom line is, I am not writing for the readers and neither should any writer.

Anthony Burgess once said “Writers write to write, not to be read”. Let’s keep it that way.

The Inadequate Writer

I would first like to offer my sincere congratulations to  Stephanie Feldman on the publication of her first novel The Angel of Losses. She spent more than a decade struggling to write and her third book has finally been accepted for publication. She recently wrote and excellent article about her experience as an unpublished author titled Failing in Art and in Life. (Please take the time to read this. It is a good essay.) I don’t quite see how she failed in life, but she failed in art for the duration of the time she was an unpublished writer, which she describes eloquently. She also describes how her life outside of writing, although not objectively a failure, felt like a failure. This part is not really given its due. She does convey that a normal life can feel like a disaster when your writing is unsuccessful. But she seems (at least to me) to be pulling the punches on the magnitude of this burden on the non-writing part of your life.

I have been an unpublished author four times longer than Mrs. Feldman. I also have a flourishing professional life, one that I long resented being born into. I have, over the years, developed an admittedly grudging sort of appreciation for the undeserved lottery win I was born with. I have a PhD in relation to my work and I have lectured in five countries. I have contributed to two translations, co-authored one book, contributed four book chapters, published two essays, one newspaper article and fifteen academic papers. I have saved lives most other professionals in my field could not have saved. I am developing my method to save more lives. Most of it is thanks to the easy trail that was prepared for me by my forebears. From a perspective similar to the one that sees Feldman a sort of success because she is married and a mother, I am seen as a success in the sense that I followed the footsteps that had little or nothing to do with my own accomplishments. But I have never published a novel and I have been living in denial of the toll it has been taking on my self-esteem for a long time. I live under the burden of being an unpublished writer, but one that is seen, by the casual observer, as a success. You might say that I am something of a Feldman-on-steroids. It sounds rather pretentious to say, at this point, that I see myself as a failure. Thus I am reduced to saying that I feel myself as being inadequate.

To give you a little context, I come from a long line of people who have achieved a great deal more and garnered much more respect than I have. I have, and always had, plenty of reasons to feel inferior and inadequate. I was never an overachiever. But at my age I have finally gained the perspective to realize that my feelings of inferiority and inadequacy are poorly balanced with my objective standing in the world.

That said, being a failed writer is a terrible burden on your soul. If your mother tells you to become a lawyer or a doctor or such, but your heart tells you to become a writing cowboy, be that writing cowboy and go off to the sunset. Being responsible will not free your heart. In fact, your failure to write will tarnish every other accomplishment you have made. Writing and publishing may seem like just one more thing you need to cross off your bucket list. If you are a writer at heart, it is not. It is the respirator on which your soul survives. I am no Einstein. I am no Hilary Koprowski or Albert Schweitzer. But I should not have to be ashamed of myself. Just as Bernhard did not have to be Glenn Gould, I should not have to be Koprowski or Schweitzer or even a published writer to be happy with myself. But no. I have to be.

Feldman writes that living through the black hole of failure will make you care less about what other people think about you. Half truth. Firstly, you are the “people” that matter. You do not care what “people” think about you only because you think about you much worse than they possibly can. Secondly, you do care about what people think about you, just not your boss at your day job. Readers, reviewers, agents and publishers can still break your soul. She knows this of course. She writes with a tone of transience “Well, there’s a happy ending to my story. That third novel became a book. Let’s take a moment to enjoy that.”

Yes, let’s. Just like how I briefly enjoyed the publication of my non-fiction works. Like I briefly enjoyed all the other accomplishments along the way. But the nagging feeling of incompetence, inadequacy, insufficiency, call it what you will, just keeps chipping away at the soul of a miserable failure.

On the brighter side, misery, however vain or inconsequential, is good for the writer. Unhappiness breeds stories. Sadness begets humor. Despair nurtures poetry. Perhaps my prolonged failure was the necessary incubation time for my books to come. I like to think that way anyhow.

La Japonaise

Over dinner last night, my son told me a funny story. It was the story of the Monet exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. La Japonaise is a painting by Claude Monet of his wife Camille ‘in Japanese costume’ and a blonde wig. The Museum commissioned an authentic replica of the kimono that appears in the painting and invited visitors to wear it and take photos in front of the painting in an event called “Kimono Wednesdays”. No sooner than the event started, a group of Asian Americans started protesting the “Orientalism” and the  event had been cancelled. The punch line of the story was, the same event was held in Japan while the famous painting was on a travelling exhibit last year and nobody in Japan was offended.

I had a hearty laugh at the story as I heard it. Can you understand why it was funny? Do you get the joke? Stories tend to lose their humor when you have to explain it line by line. I have tried it many times, struggling to translate American humor into Japanese. “You see, changing a light bulb is a representative example of a simple task…” You may still not find it funny even when you finally understand why this is a joke.

Why is this story funny? Because the protest is just as divorced from Japanese culture as the painting in question. If posing in front of an “Orientalist” painting in period costume is a mockery of Japanese culture, self-aggrandizing protests pretending to represent Japanese sentiments is equally so.

A quick search reveals that the protesters have some curious arguments such as that “ japonisme is part of the larger narrative of Orientalism within the context of places colonized by Europe and the U.S. as a means to generate iconography that reinforces stereotypes that justifies imperialist domination and enslavement”. I hate to be the one to be bringing this up, but Japan was one of the imperialist colonizers, not the colonized. The protesters are every bit as ignorant as the people they are accusing of ignorance.

Some more thoughtful bloggers have pointed out the problems of the protests. But over analyzing the issue misses the larger point. The protest is just another rendition of the California roll. It is an Americanized derivative of something Japanese created to service American needs and demands. The protesters admit as much. “Having the uchikake made in and tour around Japan does not validate the cultural appropriation specific to American history. Japanese people in Japan do not face the same under- and misrepresentation that Japanese-Americans and other AAPI do here.” Just as the California roll is a reconstruction of Japanese food to suit the preferences of the American consumer, the protest is focused on American problems that have little or nothing to do with Japan or Japanese culture. It may not exactly fit the term “appropriation”, or maybe it does. The bottom line is, the protesters do not care about Japan, Japanese culture, or what Japanese people think. They are “appropriating” La Japonaise to serve an American agenda.

The good news is, Monet can still offend, raise controversy and get people to think, however superficially, about the blending of cultures.

Finding Your Own Voice

Peter Sellers, best known for his contribution to Blake Edwards movies like The Pink Panther, appeared as a guest on the Muppet Show one time. He was discovered in the dressing room in the process of trying to disguise as Queen Victoria. The disguise was, quite hilariously, not going well.

“Don’t worry,” said a muppet, “on this show you just be yourself.”
“But I can’t be myself, because I’m not myself, you see” said Sellers cautiously.
“Can’t be yourself?”
Sellers lowered his voice to a hoarse whisper and confided,
“There used to be a me, but I had it surgically removed.”

In an interview for the TIME magazine shortly later, Sellers was asked what his real voice sounded like.
He answered,
“Something like what you are hearing now I suppose”
then retracted,
“No, maybe I am trying to sound more posh.”
Then he tried out several voices in search of his true voice before he finally gave up and admitted that he had no idea what his voice really sounded like.

Peter Sellers, true to his comic persona, was both funny and tragic in his real life. It seems so strange that a man cannot find his own voice. He was 53 years old and had just completed Being There, a movie that was to give him his second Oscar nomination, and he could not find his own voice. When I read about it I was seventeen years old and I thought the story was somewhat surreal. I am now 52 years old and I still have no idea what my literary voice sounds like.

I have been writing for forty years. I barely have anything published to speak of.  Some professional technical book chapters here, translation work there, a stray magazine article or two. None of them literary. My fictional work spans from Ghibli-esque children’s stories through genre comic adventures to erotic rubber reality novels.

What is my voice? Where is my voice? What does it sound like? I am not even sure a writer really needs a distinct voice. I can paint a pastel picture of prepubescent children coming to terms with their fears or an adult-only spray-paint-and-engine-grease mural of sexual obsession and spiraling drop into the rabbit hole. I am sure my voice differs in each piece.  Am I to forfeit my other voices in favor of just one?

A friend suggested that it all boils down to what I want to write. But what I want to write shifts with my mood. We read to experience alternate lives. It is the job of the writer to transport the reader to other worlds. I believe it to be inevitable that the writer himself is taking on an alternate identity when he writes. Writing is a disguise habitual story tellers wear. And if you wear disguises, however superficial, for a large part of your life, you lose sight of your own voice. You lose sight of yourself.

Peter Sellers died of heart failure only a short while after I read that interview. But I feel that it was his spiritual heart as much as his physical heart that failed him. He lost sight of it and it stopped beating. Writers beware.

I am sure finding my voice, finding my heart, is important. The failure to find it could be problematic to some degree or another. But the struggle of a fifty something man to find his own voice seems less than surreal to me now. In fact, it seems rather natural and unavoidable that a man who lives in disguise loses grasp of his voice. This cannot be a good thing.