Detonation #16: What to do when you feel like shit and nothing is fun anymore.

Navigating Life in a Literary Minefield

Like many a nitwit in quarantine, I was at first optimistic about my productivity. I suddenly had no plans. Obligations evaporated. My social calendar emptied out.  I’d get so much done. Life would finally slow down and I’d have time for everything I’d wanted to focus on but was too busy.

Then I had to homeschool three gremlins.

Then I was working in a bookstore pivoting to a phones-ringing-off-the-hook fulfilment center so fast it gave me whiplash.

Then, far from being isolated, I never had a single conscious moment to myself.

What a little idiot I was. What hubris. But it wasn’t as simple as being busy or mentally paralyzed because teaching me a hard life lesson is never that straightforward. I keep thinking I didn’t write at all over the last six months. I keep thinking I was totally unproductive and uncreative. I keep thinking I had a great summer, camping, swimming, and shaking the absolute shit out of fancy craft cocktails. I keep thinking that overall it hasn’t been so bad, that I’ve been okay.

Yet I did write two short stories, a novella, and query a publisher

Yet I did edit two books

Yet my buoyant moods are fragile, I’m latching hard onto anything I can hold up as proof of my uselessness, and I drink soooo much.

I’m a runner, right?  It’s my medicine, meditation, religion, and all my goddamned races got cancelled. Adventures in the mountains bursting with mud, suffering, exhaustion, and camaraderie by the light of my dim junky headlamp. I’ve been running, of course. What the fuck else is there to do besides attend some shitty virtual hangout where everyone is awkward and looks like garbage and I’m so self-conscious I spend most of the time staring at myself on camera wondering if I’ve always been this ugly. So I run. I signed up for virtual challenges and did a self-directed urban ultra-marathon. I’ve been running more than ever.

But I don’t feel fit.

But I feel worn out.

But I feel sick sometimes and hate my face.

Anger? Is anger the right response? It feels better than despair. How many nuanced emotions are realistically available under these circumstances? Anger is the spearhead. It drives forward with purpose and a message. Aren’t these detonations nothing more than angry little letters to a disappointing world full of assholes? I guess this one is for me. I did not lose my job. My family is safe and healthy. What do I have to complain about? Suck it up, there are people with REAL problems out there.

I guess what I am is sad and bored.

I guess it’s harder to find happiness in the dark.

I guess the heading to this post should’ve had a question mark because I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing or what the fuck to do.

I guess…I need a better damn headlamp.

Detonation #15: Do Us A Favour And Don’t Share That Covid Poem

Navigating Life in a Literary Minefield

The news is dominated by ‘rona coverage. Most online content is at the very least pandemic adjacent in focus. You could escape into a book but that requires an attention span, and yours went out the window in March, approximately eleventy-hundred days ago.

We’ve got COVID on the brain and it’s hard to make good art when you’re distracted.

The solution: make COVID art!

Well, aren’t you fucking original. I’m sure no one has thought of that. You must be confident that everyone is starved for yet more angsty plague-centric literature and especially poetry. We can’t get enough. Riveting accounts of weight gain, images of a soggy magpie, or LOLOLOL your quarantine-drunk, spear-wielding spawn rampaging through your 9am Zoom meeting. Here’s the thing, these experiences are now universal to the point of cliché. In other words, anything but novel.

And what’s with the relentless insistence on the essential nature of poetry in this bonkers world where your closest relationships are with your co-workers’ nostril hairs and double-chins? I’m not a doctor or anything, but I dunno how essential it is to read something that feels like reading nothing. Scratch that, less than nothing. A nothing that leaves a little bit of itself behind, like a tiny malignant egg laid in your ear, whispering its nonsense in poet voice.

Maybe you’re compelled to indulge this shitty impulse to wax lyrical over a pile of rocks or giving birth in a rain barrel as a metaphor for social distancing. Maybe it quells your anxiety or lubes your ego to think someone might read your tortured placental images of loneliness and swoon. Maybe they will, but it’s the kind of swooning you do when you find the cat busily decapitating a rabbit on the front porch. The kind where it seems physically impossible to have eaten the amount you just vomited.

Real talk, okay? Poeming about COVID is not a noble pursuit. This drivel is for you, so stop inflicting it on others. We’re all struggling to find ways to cope and function in such times. Your poetry may be a balm to your soul, but it’s an acid bath to mine, so Jesus frick-fracking Christ, keep it in isolation.

P.S. Octoclot was in a mood when she wrote this. She’s also a wretched hypocrite who admits to writing a poem or two herself.

Detonation #14 – Such Times

Navigating Life in a Literary Minefield


“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.

“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

I’ve always loved those lines, and they’ve never been more apt. Such times indeed, and so true. We all have to decide what to do with the time that is given us.

So, of course, we’re totally wasting it. And I’m not talking about the last couple of months, trapped in our homes and clinging to sanity with alcohol and Netflix. Nobody is going to begrudge a little demotivation and aimlessness right now. It’s an unusual and uncertain glitch in the matrix.

But it will end and there will be a new normal. What will you do then? Try to wiggle back into your old life? Because, really, who’d want to live in those boring old times, doing the same thing day after day, year after year, living on the dying carcass of global free market capitalism? 

Well, regular people, I guess. And there’s no shortage of them. In fact, in an informal poll where I browsed both Facebook and Twitter for a six and half hours every day for ten years, it was obvious that a majority of social media users, which is to say everyone on the entire planet, is so bored and boring and unenlightened they’ve outsourced their life to a drinking bird. Like clockwork, the bird dips and another meme blasts forth, another tweet is retweeted, and the noise cloud that is our reality gets slightly noisier.

Of course, at the moment, most of this is complaining or fist shaking. Life is shit. You’re making my life shit. Don’t you know you shouldn’t do this? That you can’t do that? And now, because people are nasty, we have snitch lines. Is this the fucking Spanish Inquisition? If you see a few people walking down the street, less than two meters apart, don’t fucking call the cops. Don’t write letters to the editor. Don’t complain about it on Facebook. Look, I get it, I do. Every time I wander out to the park for some fresh air, there are milling groups of people with t-shirts that say “Oh no, the Economy” or “Cull the Weak.” Every time I go to the grocery store I see people going the wrong direction down clearly marked aisles. Makes me wish I’d brought the woodchipper. But I smile and wave and maneuver far around them. I don’t call the cops. Or complain. At least about that, complaining about complainers currently consumes most of my free time.

Damn the irony.


Right. Interesting times, which doesn’t have to be a curse. I’d posit that if you pull your head out of the social media Khazad Dum, you’ll notice there’s a damn remarkable world both inside and out worth writing about.

And I’m not talking about poetry.

Please do not write personal plague poetry, or as Lola so elegantly puts it, “Poetic observations of a nature so shallow they appear to be fathomless.” I’m not saying it’s impossible to write decent poetry about living in your kitchen, baking bread, and calling the cops on some poor neighbor who happens to break the two-meter rule, but… yeah, it is. Same goes for plague prose. Give it time. Give it a year or two. If we need to flatten the curve on ANYTHING, it’s to make sure everyone doesn’t write about the exact same thing happening to everyone, regardless of how much nightmare fuel is being poured on the fire. You think the emergency wards are taxed now? Wait until everyone is forced to read about the horrors, or possibly pleasures, of social distancing, or about what happened to all the toilet paper.

No.

There are far better uses for that pent-up wellspring of emotion, both now and into the new normal. Whether your life is currently a smoking crater, or not, you’re experiencing something novel that hasn’t happened in a hundred years and probably won’t happen like this again. There’s a lot of passion out there, generated by wanting to see other people punished for doing things you don’t understand aren’t technically against the law. Capture that passion. Capture the fear. Capture the determination to make them pay by killing or torturing them in your next story.

Let that passion infuse your work.

When this does end, don’t flush that passion away and go back to your old life. You only have so much time, you know, and you’ve probably wasted enough of it writing poetry.


Detonation #13: Schrodinger’s Trunk

Navigating Life in a Literary Minefield

Warning: Explicit language and mature themes. If you’re offended by such things, you might want to venture elsewhere.

***

There are writers that never waste a word they’ve written. Once they start a project, sooner or later, they will see it finished and published. These people exist, we all know who they are, and if you happen to be one of them…

I’m not sure where you got the outsized self-confidence it takes to believe everything you cook up is worth eating… but I’m not here to yuck your yum, I just don’t think I’m talking to you.

For the rest of us, once you’ve been at this a while, you will have generated a large body of discarded work colloquially referred to as trunk stories. You know the ones I’m talking about. Stuff we started and didn’t finish. Stuff we finished but couldn’t sell. Some of it is plain shit. Some had perhaps more-than-shit potential but blew up on the launch pad. Some of it was desperately trying not to be shit, but the harder it tried the shittier it got. Whatever the reason, the trunk is where they go to die. Except that’s not exactly what happens.

We think of a lot of the junk in our trunk as potential. We reserve the right to pull these stories out one day, blow the dust off, rework, and maybe get them published. You could say these stories are neither dead nor alive, or more accurately they are both dead and alive. They exist in a state of quantum superposition until you lift the lid and observe them.

So, the question becomes: is it worth a possible Raider’s style face meltening to break the seal on that ark and see what all is going on inside your personal writing hell?

Consider the following case study.

Lola Silkysocks has got it in her dotty little head that she wants to pull one of these dreadful novel remnants out of mothballs and have another go at it. As always, she turns to her accomplice Noggy Splitfoot for feedback.

Lola: Did you read the first chapter?

Noggy: Um, yeah…when did you say you wrote this?

Lola: That bad?

Noggy: You’ve definitely grown as a writer.

Lola: Is it salvageable?

Noggy: Wait, you’re serious about this? I thought we were just sharing shitty old drafts.

Lola: You’re such a bastard—are those sirens? Where are you?

Noggy: *engine roar* No time, Silkysocks. Meet me at the rendezvous point in half an hour. Bring a shovel.

Lola remains unsure. There’s a lot to like, even love, about that novel. The premise, the characters, even the writing in certain places is good. Like really good. But there’s a lot that’s fucked too. Jumped up dialogue, info dumps, thready world building, leaning too heavily on tropes. But that’s not the bit that’s really broken. In fact nothing is broken. It’s doing exactly what a first draft is supposed to do: sucking with the cyclonic force of a Dyson upright. Those flaws are all fixable. And if it were that simple, we’d all be the writer I mentioned at the beginning of this essay. Nothing would be unsalvageable

Where is that dividing line between set aside and trunked? Hard to say, and probably different for everyone. For me it’s when the writing feels like a shed skin. The writer I was back then is not just grown, but kind of gone. I can see where I’m trying so damn hard to be clever, I can read a passage and know what book I was reading at the time that inspired it. I can see these things and even see how to fix them, but it would always feel like trying to slide back into that old skin.

Sometimes it isn’t like that. Sometimes a story just wasn’t ready to be written at the time you started it. The idea too fragile and complex to be rushed. Your skills not developed enough to execute properly. Sometimes years go by before that story pokes its way out of the trunk and opens itself up. Sometimes that story is a skin you needed time to grow into.

There’s a lot of metaphors flying around this essay, it’s confusing, and I don’t care. There’s something about potential. The allure of imagining all possibilities, all at once. Until you open that lid, your stories are everything they never were. I’m not saying it’s a bad idea to re-evaluate old work. But what do you have to gain by collapsing that wave function?

If we’re being honest, probably not a lot. I mean, there’s a reason you trunked that story in the first place. Schrodinger’s cat was most likely dead before he dumped it in the box and lifting the lid is only going to let out the smell.

But the curiosity is killing me…

Detonation #12 – Subversion Recursion

Navigating Life in a Literary Minefield


Readers expect if they pick up the twenty-second volume of their favourite thriller series it’ll be more of the same, a creaky wheezing corpse dragging itself forward with rotting fingerbones. These sorts of books are where the money is. The boilerplate of the industry. Month after month, year after year, these books are churned out assembly line style for the public to ingest, absorbing three sad calories of literary enjoyment, before shitting them into the trash or closest used bookstore. 

It’s an ugly cycle. At some point people started buying these books based on firehose marketing and celebrity endorsements and in response more books were written to cater to those buying tastes, ad infinitum. It’s not a secret, far from it, authors know there is a certain magic formula that if they are talented enough, or lucky enough, to master, they can join the ranks of the serializers.

Not just the serials either, the entire mass market oozes sameness. The books look the same, the titles sound the same, the plots are indistinguishable except for the anti-hero’s cup size and eye colour — blue steel or smoky aluminum. Writing by rote. Writing by formula. Everyone wants to be the next James Patterson or Steven King or J.K. Rowling or George R.R. Martin. Rich and famous, with terrible movie adaptions and mansions full of dirty money sex dungeons.

Hmm, that actually doesn’t sound so bad. Where the hell was I going with this again?

Oh right, total lack of imagination in the pursuit of sell out success.


The ability to conjure ideas from the billion facets of existence and assemble them into unique works of music, art, and writing is a superpower with unlimited potential, so it really grinds my gears when writers, who have the entire universe of possibilities to play with, take the same old tired elements and assemble them in bloody identical ways. Sure, they may brighten or darken the paint some, and give the work a clever name and twist the marketing, but it’s typically a clone of a seminal work, and a shittier one at that.

Stories in a particular genre and sub-genre are going to have similar and even required elements. A murder mystery, by definition is going to have some sort of murder and quite possibly a mystery. A thriller should thrill. Noggy loves heist stories. Lots of people love zombie or werewolf stories, half the world either loves or hates vampire stories, traditional or glittery. There are haunted house stories, cosmic horrors, cryptids, occult detectives, you name it. Some sub-genres are narrow, some are wide, but they instill a little order to chaos that is the literary landscape. As I mentioned, there is an expectation that if you pick up a book in that sub-genre it should actually, you know, not be false advertising.

That’s not what my little rant is about though. What I am talking about are overused tropes and by-the-number formulaic bullshit. 

Sure, it’s easy to write yet another school for bizarre weirdos novel, packed with bullies and not-so secret secrets and angry, clueless teachers — sorry teachers, you know how it is. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

Does every supernatural detective story, mine included, need to pay homage to a certain hard drinking, chain smoking, trench coat and fedora wearing reprobate from the 30’s? Does every epic fantasy novel have to involve an orphan from a purged royal family who grows up to be an assassin with legendary abilities because their father was king of the horny gods? Does every single heist series have to start with a book that’s entirely about putting a misfit, yet oddly exceptionally uniquely talented crew together?

FUCK NO.

Subvert those tropes. Do it!

We already discussed in a previous episode that if you want to write, you need to read. Period. And it often helps to read the sort of stories you want to write. Subverting tropes requires intimate knowledge of them. You need to know where the boundaries are and what you can twist, and hollow out and fill with explosives, and, in the end, completely break.

Does your haunted house story require a gothic New England farmhouse complete with a vengeful revenant left over from the original occupant’s penchant for baby ear soup? Nope. There are a thousand elements ripe for subversion. And I’m not talking easy ones like making the house a brownstone apartment in Manhattan and the ghosts aliens. Who says the house needs to be a regular house? And who says the ghosts have to be regular ghosts? I’m not saying write a story about a construction site porta-potty possessed by ghost pepper hot wings, but I’m also not, not saying that.

Find an angle, run naked with it. You know you can. Don’t be afraid that you’ll never get published by the big five, or one of their imprints, and get that sex dungeon. Write weird, terrible shit, that has its own unique soul and flavour, and take that unoriginal WIP, wrap it in a tarp and stash it under the Aztek’s trunk liner next to the trencher and gasoline in anticipation of the next wolf moon and a satisfying internment.

It’s for the best, it really is.


Detonation #11: Keeping Your Muse Lubed in the Time of Contagion

Navigating Life in a Literary Minefield

Warning: Explicit language and mature themes. If you’re offended by such things, you might want to venture elsewhere.

***

Welp, the world’s on fire, folks. Like really this time. If you’re not there already, it’s likely a matter of when and not if you’ll end up locked in your hovel, let out once a week to drive the Aztek to the feed lot for your family’s alfalfa ration. God willing, the liquor stores will deliver.

And lest you think we don’t take this seriously, let your Auntie Octoclot assure you. WE TAKE IT FUCKING SERIOUSLY.

Amazon is going to clean up, and the rich will emerge richer than ever. You think this plague is the great equalizer? Think again. Maybe you’ve got it worse than most. Chances are you still have it better than some. Those inequalities are immortal, but you aren’t. Statistically you’re likely to survive, but a shit ton of people are dead, and a lot more will follow. This is a crisis.

So, in a time of economic death rattles and social distance (which we know you’re doing as best you can because you also take it fucking seriously) the question becomes…

How do we get through this?

Art is needed now more than ever. It’s the balm we’re all desperately seeking to escape or at least soften this reality. But wow is it hard trying to stay inspired when your theoretically homeschooled kids have gone feral, you’re trying to work from home, or scrambling for any work at all, separated from your friends, and suddenly cellies with a partner whose middle name you actually forgot in the last twenty years.

Let’s talk about creative process. Right now, your muse is probably drier than a Death Valley creek bed. She needs a little lubrication and you may have heard that everything is material, but you can’t just grease her gears with any old gunk. A prime example would be The News. There’s staying informed, and there’s gorging on catastrophe causing an overgrowth of doom and wiping out all your healthy creative flora.

A case study:

Lola and Noggy attended a gift exchange last solstice where Lola ended up with a dubious (and expired, she would later find out) bottle of g-spot stimulating lube. How was she to know it was a joke?

Noggy: You’re not gonna actually use that are you?

Lola: Well, it doesn’t taste too bad. Kinda like toothpaste. What could go wrong?

I don’t want to frighten you. This story ends happily, thanks to Canesten, but Lola learned a lesson that day.

The wrong lube will only crank your creativity up long enough to burn it into a pile of yeasty ashes. So, for fuck’s sake, stay informed, but don’t cram a world’s worth of toxic news in your pussy. I forget where I was going with this. It’s been a weird couple of weeks.

Lola: Nog, I have to tell you a story.

Noggy: Not if it’s about your vagina.

Lola: All my stories are about my vagina.

Noggy: You know other people can hear you, right?

In fact, Lola respects her vagina a great deal. It works hard and she tries to give it everything it needs to be happy. Your muse deserves the same consideration. So, lube her up with something nice, something that will last, that’s compatible with your creative chemistry.

Read the books you’ve been meaning to get around to, listen to the amazing quarantine concerts being livestreamed, take one of those cool virtual tours every museum on earth is throwing online, go for a run at night. For the love of Gary, don’t poison yourself when there is so much delicious creative nourishment to be found so easily.

I think we’re going to look back on this pandemic as a time of great tragedy but also of great discovery. Moments like this are defining. So, stay healthy, stay slick, and who knows what you’ll slide into.

***

P.S. Hang tight, critters. We’ll get through this together, 2 metres apart.

xo

Sarah & Rob