How to be a better unsuccessful writer – Using your fucking eyes

This is the part of the show where I  give unsolicited advice based on the entire year I’ve spent being an unpublished writer.

Last week, Warren Ellis published this item to his Tumblr feed, and for some reason, it has unlocked an important principle  for me.

Writers, artists, comedians, whatever, will tell you that  in order to create work that’s meaningful, you must “have experiences”, you must “get out there” and interact with the world.  Because the work of the creative professional is to describe, via their chosen medium, the relationship between the person and the world. 

Art can be about anything, but fundamentally, what makes us want to consume it is a curiosity about how the artist expresses something that most people (we call you “normies”) find very hard to express.  Ionesco famously said that he wrote plays to show other people what it was like to be him. 

I don’t think any given artist will tell you right off that’s why they do what they do; if you were to ask me why I write, I would say something like  it is an attempt to communicate with a higher fidelity.  But ultimately what I must admit is that the *thing* that I am trying to communicate, my message, anybody’s message, is what is my relationship with everything else, or what is my interpretation of that relationship.

So taking as given that the last hop from artist to audience is about communicating this relationship, there must be a first hop, from the world to the artist.

I’d heard the advice about “having experiences” before, probably first in Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon Days and most recently from Jonah on the Nerdist Podcast, and I never paid a lot of attention to it.  I assumed it was advice against becoming a shut-in who loses (or never gains) any useful perspective on humanity and the human condition.  I figured that since I read a lot of books and left the house every day to go to work and talked to people and subscribed to RSS feeds, that I couldn’t help but have “experiences”.  Experiences are just events that occur when you are present, right?

But when I read Dr. Ellis’s post, just a simple snip-and-re-tumble like I do a thousand times a week on my Posterous, I didn’t see him just scrolling through his Google Reader as he killed time during lunch.  I got a very clear picture of him mining his news feeds for an Experience.  And he was doing this while looking  at the world with his Writer’s Eyes.

He wasn’t just out there in the world living, scrolling on a website.  He was doing Research.  And I get the impression that he does this all the time.  Warren Ellis has experiences, but he pays attention.

That is how we find new and interesting grist for our mill.  The point is not that the criminal blackjacked a random policeman just for his jacket.  I mean, it’s vaguely interesting in an historical, sociological sense, but only taking it as far as that is not art.  That’s just journalism; no, worse, it’s “reportage”.  Like any stupid machine or graduate student can do.

What’s important is how that story made Ellis feel, and how he noticed how it made him feel, and how the relationship of that event (both the historical event and the event of the article about it being published) interacted with his own psychology and endocrine system to secrete some kind of vile juice that is Distillation of Art.  He’ll combine it with other fluids and smear it onto OpenOffice, and what emerges is a simulacra of what it’s like to be Warren-Ellis-In-The-World.

I don’t know about you, but I would very much like to experience that.  Or at least consume it.

Love Song for Buster Keaton (it doesn’t rhyme)

Using frequency analysis to uncover hidden meanings in musical theatre