Friday, November 11, 2005

Life with Fred

In my library of books on writing, none is more idiosyncratic than Damon Knight's Creating Short Fiction. (My favorite book on writing, in case you're wondering, is John Gardner's The Art of Fiction. That's where I go whenever I need reassurance that it's all worthwhile.) You may remember Knight as the author of To Serve Man ("It's . . . a cookbook!") Creating Short Fiction is his first person/intensely personal compendium of advice for novice writers. He gives the reader lots of snarkworthy passages, not least of which his annotated story "Semper Fi." I don't want to indulge my snark glands, however. I give Knight a hell of a lot of credit for throwing himself into this book so wholeheartedly. My favorite bit shows up early on. Knight refers to his muse as Fred. Mind you, he doesn't call Fred his muse. Fred is his unconscious mind -- or not: "Unconscious" is a lousy term, by the way -- it isn't unconscious, it just has trouble communicating. "The silent mind" would be better, or maybe "the tongue-tied mind," but I prefer to call it "Fred." Knight gives the reader much good advice on nurturing the relationship with Fred. You don't have to accept all of Fred's ideas ("Remember that learning to write is just as difficult for Fred as it is for you"), but At some point, you must begin to use at least part of what Fred sends up. If you don't, he will become discouraged and indifferent, just as you would if nobody answered your letters or adopted your suggestions. Knight adds that writers need to be faithful to Fred. If you promise him you'll write tomorrow morning, you'd better be at the typewriter. Jilt Fred too many times and he'll stop providing you with good material. Knight's best advice, in my opinion, concerns feeding Fred. To be productive, Fred needs a lot of stimulating input -- odd facts or fancies to knock together, insights, specimens, interesting data of all kinds. I think Fred needs a hell of a lot more than odd facts or fancies. Fred needs you to keep your eyes open: pay attention to pop culture, watch movies, listen to different kinds of music, and READ. Could Alan Moore have written Watchmen if he'd never read Conrad's Heart of Darkness? How about Richard Adams's Watership Down, AKA The Bunny Aeneid? I don't think Adams's book would have had such staying power if he hadn't been a good student of epic literature. But I don't think Fred enjoys force-feeding. I'm thinking of Christopher Vogler's much-touted The Writer's Journey, which might be subtitled, The Applied Joseph Campbell. Do I really have to study mythology to write a powerful hero-centric novel? Despite Vogler's argument that his approach is "a form, not a formula," I find the conventional "Hero's Journey" story path to be as artificial and constraining as a Twelve Step Program. At what point will Fred rebel and cry, "Enough already. Let me tell the damned story MY way!" So, yes, you ought to feed Fred, but don't make him sit in a lecture hall listening to boring sermons day in, day out. Fred likes a varied diet. The only genre I haven't read is the Western -- and I'm getting there. Give me time.
I can't help but think my Fred is a chick. And not just any chick, but a lusty bitch with an evil temper and a wicked sense of humor. I'd call her Wilma, except Wilma was always such a milquetoast. I'd rather call her Elvira.
Oh, yeah. That's my muse. D.