Sunday, February 21, 2016

REVEALED AT LAST! Where the Ideas Come From

Number 7 gave me explosive diarrhea!

Readers of Kurt Vonnegut recognize the drawing
and handwriting style immediately.
Like anyone familiar with history who spends too much time thinking by himself, I, too, nurture a healthy loathing for what Mark Twain referred to in his final, most misanthropic days as, “the Damned Human Race.” While such loathing inspires much of my SAGA OF THE DEAD SILENCER series, as it must inform any good post-apocalyptic drama, disgust with human civilization is not what drives my writing.

It took decades of writing all kinds of other crap until, somewhere while writing my first published novel, Bleeding Kansas, that I understood where my drive to make up stories comes from.

I did not get enough quality play time as child.

Like most children, I liked to play. Unlike most children, I didn’t enjoy the company of other children. I liked being surrounded by my toys, and directing the drama without interference. I built towns out of shoeboxes and used whatever was at hand—set ‘em up, knock ‘em down. The hero rises from the wreckage and boom! bam! pow! restores order to the universe.

I would use model spaceships, half-finished models of airplanes, rubber lizards and snakes, whatever it took to drive the narrative to a crescendo of madness only a hero with a will of steel and a heart of gold could hope to overcome. For me, the best representation of the creative process has always been the opening scene of the 1995 animated film Toy Story.

[EDIT: I had a video of that here. YouTube took it down. Oh, well. Go stream the film if you haven’t already.]

In a variation on the growth-through-struggle theme, once the conflict was resolved, my rebuilt city was always somehow better than ever. This part was especially important to me, not simply for the closure, but because I felt bad for what I put the imaginary characters in my stories through. It was my way of making it up to them.

Alas, I was not a complete freak. I did get lonely. Often, whether I wanted it or not, I would find myself among others who always had to do things this way or that, and while I went along to get along, it was never very satisfying. Not that I was a lot of fun, either. I’ve always been moved by George Orwell’s honesty in his essay “Why I Write,” that, being a lonely sort, he’d “...developed disagreeable mannerisms which made me unpopular throughout my school days.” That was me. Not even a complete freak, but close enough for government work.

As I was coming out of a particularly productive writing session, I flashed on something else other than the little boy in the middle of the floor, making gurgly explosive noises among the little army men and the giant lizard. I thought of my favorite Christmas memory, the one that gives me the warmest-fuzziest of feels.

I’m 12 years old, hunched over my desk in my room, the smells of turpentine and modeling glue stinging my nose. The radio plays the current hits of December 1973, while I make sense of this Pirates of the Caribbean model involving moving parts that I found under the tree this morning. In this case, I have to to be able to push a button and make a skeleton pirate with a sword cut a chain over a barrel so another skeleton can make good his escape from the giant octopus swamping their raft.

As with most cherished childhood things
I have no idea what happened to this.
Thanks to the turpentine I’ve been using for paint thinner, the raft looks like genuinely sun-bleached driftwood. I can’t believe I made simple white Polystyrene plastic look like this. The barrel looks like a fresher, different kind of wood—in short, like a wooden barrel, and I’m pleased with myself for recognizing the difference. The giant octopus is a hideous, fleshy and inflamed pink-red, and my skeletons are looking sharp for a couple of dead guys in rags. But will the skeleton’s sword come down to disconnect the plastic chain and save the day?

I remember sitting there astonished when it worked that first time. I remember the deep breath I took as I set it up. Surely it couldn’t work a second time. I have no talent for this, or so I’ve been told in one form or another all my life.

It was the happiest Christmas ever for me as a boy. I had given and received the best gift ever. That I could build something and make it work—as someone who heard all his childhood how “you got book-sense, but no common sense,” this was the epiphany of epiphanies. No adult ever encouraged me. I found this one out all on my lonesome.

And so it is when I work on a piece of writing. I’m getting the pieces painted just so. And when I push this tiny button here, a specific chain of events must follow, or I swear I’ll have a fit.

Things don’t always work to spec, of course. Sometimes you have to improvise. Adapt and overcome, as our friends in the U.S. Marines say.

The happiest place on Earth. In the corner of a small
room in a finished basement, somewhere in
crumbling north Colorado Springs.
But that’s the romance of the process. That’s what inspires me as much as anything. The very act of sitting down and building a world, creating a situation within that world, and making it work. To build a hero, flawed enough to recognize his face within ourselves, but with the steel will and heart of gold to go against the Evil and make things right—this little boy didn’t get to do it enough. There was never enough time. People and things got in the way, as they tend to do.

So here we are. One day I’ll grow up and give it up, I suppose. I expect I’ll be plenty old, and good and ready to die by then, and that’s just as well, too.