I took a strange route to becoming a writer. Comic books, wrestling, RPGs, punk rock, history . . . these were the arts that dominated my horizons. Writing lurked inside them all, I guess, and each one brings a different thing to the table.
I was a musician throughout high school. Music defined my existence. And for a long time, I was a punk rock kid (though I had long hair that feathered like a 70s rock god). I formed bands, wrote songs, played gigs, got paid in beer. Not a bad part time job for a seventeen year old in Toronto.
Punk rock has infused a lot of my work. I tend to write at a high tempo. I enjoy stories with ragged edges and gritty subjects. And I don’t mind making an ass of myself on the printed page now and again. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t LIKE to write a crap story any more than I like rejection slips. But I know a lot of writers who worry about their stories getting out there in the world. They want it to be perfect. They don’t want their salad days around for anyone to see. Lots of pros are like that, too. They’ll go back and “fix up” a story they wrote twenty years ago, clean it up, make it read like they wrote it today instead of yesteryear.
Other art forms don’t muck about with history so much. Sure, you can see a band do a new take on an old classic (like those 1001 MTV Unplugged performances, which, with the exception of Nirvana’s performance, seemed little more than a novelty show with the emphasis on novelty). And remixed and remastered material is about the transmission, not the content. Can you imagine the Sex Pistols cleaning up the bizarre number of layered guitar tracks on Never Mind the Bullocks? Imagine what Zen Arcade would sound like if it was “fixed”? I shudder.
There was some debate going around a few years ago about the deluge of “competent stories.” How this was a bad thing, maybe. How it was a result of workshops turning out cookie cutter fiction, perhaps. How no one was writing dangerous, I guess.
I don’t know if I have a live dog in that dead fight. Jeffrey Ford said it best: the only thing any of us can do is write the next story, make it as good as you can, however you can. But I wonder if that fear of the perfect story is an ingredient in people not just cutting loose and maybe growing a bit, even if you fall off stage. I think you should always try to make whatever story you’re writing as good as it can be. Sometimes the result is just a neat little ditty of a tale. Other times it’s one of the gems in your bag of holding. You should always try and give it everything you’ve got, and try and grow a little or a lot each time.
But you should be cool with the results, whatever they might be. Even if its competent, it’s still part of the body of work you’re creating, the story of your stories. And sometimes those ones can be pretty cool, like the third song on an album, after the hooky first two, that all of sudden comes alive after hearing it a few times.
Ever love a band, and watch how they progress over time? How they become different versions of themselves? The rough and tumble early years, all energy and glory and barely a clue, but the spark of something greater than what you’re hearing? Then the next album comes out and it’s more solid, and there’s one song that is just screaming above the range of the others? And then the next, when, goddamn, they’re doing stuff they’ve never done before, but it’s still clearly them, but just better and more gripping? Then a breakout album where this may indeed be the greatest band of all time . . . and then a few clunkers where there’s one brilliant song and a lot of filler, and then some recovery album where they’re in total command, not nearly as racious, but still pulling out all the old tricks and having a blast?
Am I the only one who would hate to see this kind of journey erased and replaced with a greatest hits package?
Liz Hand once told my Odyssey class, if you’re going to fail, fail gloriously. Push yourself and learn, even if you make a goddamn mess of a story.
There are connections here. There are lessons. I think I’m applying them under the wire. But I’m tired and can draw no proper conclusion, so I leave you with the words of Rod Serling.
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