(A CHEERFUL, MEANDERING “HOWDY-DO!” ON THE CULTIVATION OF UNUSUAL MINDS)
by John Skipp
HI, KIDS! I’m your new substitute teacher – oh, yeah, BOO! I know. I’m sorry, too – but Mr. Keene, Mr. Clegg, and several other distinguished faculty members are sick at home with novel-itis, so I was asked to fill in.
Let’s just MAKE DO, shall we?
Today’s class is not gonna be about storytelling, per se. It’s gonna be kind of informal, though you might want to take notes. Feel free to take your shoes off, put your feet on the desk, put your shoes on your hands…in short, LIVE A LITTLE!
It’s that kind of a class. Less about ways of writing than ways of being.
Which brings us to today’s lecture.
* * *
Most if not all of my favorite writers are exceptional weirdos, in one way or another.
I like them because I like the strange ways that they think, and the ways in which they choose to express it.
You can talk about story till you’re blue in the face – and if you do, you’ll look like Smurfs, which would be TOTALLY HILARIOUS – and, yes, HELL yes, I like a good story, too.
But that’s not why I read.
I read because I love to surf the brainwaves of unorthodox thinkers, and see what THEY’RE making of all this.
By “all this”, I am of course referring to “life”: that staggering amalgam of everything that’s ever happened, will happen, might happen, or is happening now. To anyone, or anything. Ever.
Flat-out: if you’re a writer, you will never run short of subject matter, and that is a fact. You’ve got EVERYTHING to choose from, and an infinite number of ways to play it.
You can write about anything you want, any time you want. And so can anyone else.
So if I’m reading your book, what I’m interested in is how YOU think.
What YOU bring to the party, as opposed to everyone else.
Now, stories are cool because they give us POTENTIALLY NON-BORING FRAMEWORKS for exploring, and expressing, this whole “life” thing. They give us a sense of momentum, if we’re lucky; and if we’re REALLY lucky, they give us some payoff for all of that endless setup.
They also allow us to play with characters; and if we’re EXCEPTIONALLY lucky, those characters will be fascinating, too. They will see things, do things, experience things in ways that are inspiring, or exciting, or entertaining.
They will give us fresh eyes, to see the world in different ways.
If they don’t do that, they’re just TAKING UP SPACE. Just stuck on the bus with the rest of us.
And the exact same thing goes for story.
Which is why I see both character and story as functionaries to the greater purpose of writing.
Which is: SOMETHING INTERESTING TO SAY.
Which comes, in my experience, from taking the time to actually cultivate an unusual mind.
For example: let’s talk about clichés, which are great…IF YOU DON’T MIND HAVING YOUR LIFE SUCKED DRY.
Cuz here’s how they work: clichés gain all of their currency from telling us powerful truths about ourselves. That’s why they endure, and become clichés.
They tell us the truth, oh yes, they do – but then they tell it to us over and over, in EXACTLY THE SAME WAY, EVERY TIME – until we almost come to HATE the truth, cuz it’s so boringly fucking self-evident.
All it takes is ONE LIVE WIRE, to make the whole thing come alive again.
ONE PERSON: wading into the fray, with such a fresh, vivid, singular perspective that reading them is like waking up from a long, dumb, pointless dream.
They liven things up because they’re so alive inside – so genuinely interested in all the worlds that spin, both in and outside them – that they can tell us things we never knew about things we see EVERY SINGLE DAY.
Lighting them up, from different angles. Soaring above, for the overview. Sinking so deep inside that you’d think their cells were talking to you.
That’s what an interesting character does.
What an interesting person does.
What an interesting writer does.
My favorite writers – weirdos, one and all – are great for me because THEY STRETCH ME, in scintillating ways. They put me in unusual shoes, and make me walk through strange landscapes and situations that change me in ways I could not possibly expect, because I’d never seen things in quite that way before.
That is pretty much all I ask.
In cinematic terms: DON’T JUST PLOP THE CAMERA IN THE CENTER OF THE ROOM. Anyone can do that, and most everybody has.
Gimme an unforeseen angle.
Give me another way in.
I will thank you forever, and I won’t be alone.
In conclusion: GO BE INTERESTING! Cultivate your unusual mind! Live life emphatically, observantly, ecstatically. Remember that nature abhors a vacuum – and, baby, that goes double for me – so keep off of our shit list by filling yourself to the brim with odd ways of knowing, and seeing, and being.
That way, even if you get stuck on the bus, you’ll be full of ACTUAL THINGS WORTH SAYING. Which just might result in amazing stories. And the rest of us will think you’re great, cuz you made the time go by like THAT!
Speaking of which…our time is up! See you next month!