This blog has been quiet for a little while: I was here the whole time, but writing a book. In the meantime, I’ve had a number of new short stories published, most notably “The Translator, at Low Tide” in Clarkesworld, “Redder” in Nightmare, and “The Bombardier” in Three-Lobed Burning Eye, as well as a tiny nightmare for the Tiny Nightmares anthology from Catapult Books, called “Joy, and Other Poisons.”
Creator is a flattering but ominous title. Even creative, that horrible adjective hacked free of nouns: for all its ugliness, the word was meant to flatter, and perhaps to protect. Apart from the usual ways in which such flattery is intended to mislead in the outer world—that is, to make you think your kind of work isn’t work and that you shouldn’t care about fair payment or treatment—it is also misleading in the inner world, in what it might say to you as an artist about what is expected of you. You don’t, e.g., actually spew forth raw creation from an ineffable singularity nestled in your insides to put it out in the world, though it may sometimes feel that way, and though the idea of being a creator might seem to demand a self-image in this genre. The problem with this self-image is the accompanying self-expectation that when that intestinal spigot stops working you should take a wrench to it.
What it is, I think, is more that this you is more porous than you might know, or if you know, than you tend to remember. You are a vessel, if you like, a giver of shape, a shaper of form, and what you are giving shape to, what you are shaping the form of, is an expression of the experience of being in, of, and against the world. This is a nebulously vague definition because it’s necessarily a vast universe of expression: all of life’s expression is art, imo, and almost none of it is considered art, partly for the sensible reason that if you make a word mean quite so many things it stops meaning anything at all, and partly for the ugly reason that art—or Art, rather—has always been carefully bounded by privilege and prestige.
The reason I’m flouting the sensible reason here is because I think it’s often useful to go back to first principles. At root, there is something concrete and valuable in the idea that to be a person is itself art. A person is a knot, both Gordian and Möbius, tangled and tight, of self in friction with the world; personhood cannot be unknotted from this because personhood is the knot, and self/world only different surfaces of the same plane. The world moves through the self; art is everything that expresses that movement. It can be sublime, ludicrous, ordinary, ugly, or awful, just like the world, or anything in it. It doesn’t matter, to this perspective, what kind of art it is, or whether it’s a prestigious form or not. (Well, it matters to gatekeepers of prestige, but those are the opinions that matter the least.) It doesn’t even matter, at this juncture, whether the art, the thing itself, is any good.
For a title, I’ve always preferred the plainness of writer, myself; for a long time I thought of artist and creator as alternatives undesirable in the same way, to be avoided as pomp or pretension. They are both still those things, sort of? But now, at least, the two seem to have grown apart to me. They go in different directions.
All this is because I wrote (or rather, when I wrote this essay, was still writing) a novel. Part of the excess waste product is thoughts like this. I already know it’s a load of wank, you don’t have to tell me.
The functional affordances of the writer’s self-image have material consequences, it seems, from day to fucking day. I can’t afford to think of myself as a creator because of the problem of the spigot and the wrench; it can be paralyzing. I’m not suggesting this is a universal or even shared problem with these specific words and images, necessarily. I am suggesting that any writer might find it helpful to reconsider the words they write on their own meat and bone, much the same way as we edit the words on the page. So, for instance, I’ve learned that artist doesn’t grate on me the same way now. I think creative and creator became popular partly out of that class discomfort with artist, as a defense against accusations of pretension. And that’s understandable, it’s the same reason I still prefer good old writer, for its purely descriptive plausible undeniability. People can always point at your shit and say it’s not art because it’s crap, for instance—this is a nonsense but also a commonplace. But they can’t very well say it’s not writing, is it? There are words on the page and everything.
This is why I think going back to first principles is helpful. It broadens the horizons of what we consider art; it puts art in its proper place, which is everyday life, in our artful living. Do we not all sing and dance and make jokes and tell stories? These things bring us joy because we recognize the life and the death in them. There is no higher art than a perfect joke told to a loved one at exactly the right moment. There is no higher art than their answering laughter.
There’s a little note scrawled on the calendar on my table to remind myself that the work is itself the reward. I don’t care if that’s corny: I care if it helps, which most mornings it does.
There are always layers of intention and desire going on when you sit down at your desk to write. There are many implicit questions. Do you hope to get paid for this? Do you hope that it will be read and loved? Of course you do: of course I do. But my note reminds me those are questions about what you want—and which outcomes are, ultimately, in other people’s hands—not what you’re doing. About the latter, the only question is: will you be glad to have done this work, even if the doing was all you got for it?
The answer ought to be yes, I think, for a writer of fiction, but things aren’t always so clear. It depends on the project. So it’s a good question to ask, I think. It clarifies.
But yes, for me this time, the answer is yes. I wrote that sentence first when the manuscript was around fifty thousand words: I still had half the book left to write. It’s easy for me to say yes to it now, I think. It was harder then. This is not the first book I’ve written (I wrote that one fifteen years ago and promptly put it in the bin) nor even the first draft of this book (which it seems I’ve been writing in some form or the other since 2016) but this time was different. This time I knew it would work, and it did.
This is the sentence the draft of this essay ended on, abruptly, several months ago when I was halfway into the book: it feels like a fever, hyperreal, like the book is writing itself while I try to keep it from burning through or leaking off the page.
I do feel like I’ve come very late to the game of novels (though I’ve also gathered over the years that this is a common feeling among first-time novelists.) I didn’t intentionally set out to spend most of a decade selling a hundred thousand words of short fiction (and reading probably a thousand novels) before writing a book of my own, but … well, that’s how it’s worked out. Except in the very general sense that experience is experience, I don’t think of writing short stories as practice for a novel—a notion that has long annoyed short story writers by subordinating one entire form as junior apprentice to a rather different one—but on the other hand, reading novels is, especially if one reads widely and a little wildly. So I think the long wait was well-spent.
The book I wrote (that I was still writing, at the beginning of this essay) is strange. I think you’d like it. Or I hope so. I hope I will too. Do I think of it as art? Yes, kind of, even though the whole concept is still a little cringe when it comes so close to home. Well, it’s my bloody book so it’s high art to me, of course it is, and high gramarye besides. Or perhaps I mean low magic, though I wouldn’t know whether to call it high fantasy or low. That’s a question that revolves around the idea of a secondary world, and that seems wrong on some levels (and right on others.) But this is what happens when you attempt to speak with the stones of somebody else’s typology in your mouth. Look, with any luck you can peg it on the scale of high to low yourself, some day; in the meantime I’ll call it middle fantasy, perhaps, like a middle kingdom or a middle child. A middle world, a muddle, a midden.
Art is, in the parlance of our times, inessential; we don’t need it to survive, only to live. To make art is to receive art—these are the isomorphic, symmetrical movements into and out of the vessel, i.e., that the cup is filled and the cup is emptied. Art is made, which is to say it is received, by the flow of the world through this strange elongated vessel which is the span of a life, the great human centipede of a life lived in time, mouth questing to the future, asshole aimed at the past.
To be received, art must be given; this is grace, which here does not presuppose a god or a deep pool of accumulated cosmic star points but is only the recognition that unearned privilege is as much part of the inner world as the outer. Sometimes a gift is given, and we must learn to accept it gracefully. Given such a gift, and pain for a catalyst, sometimes, and time spent huddled in the tunica intima, right up there against the rushing red flow, there may result some new expression of the world in the world—some glorious coughed-up hairball, some sublime gut-slime, a great and mighty shit that the world will struggle to flush away. But it still won’t have been created, exactly: only in dreams do we hold the hammer and stand at the forge.