RR: On Writing for the Soul Bird by Bird

I recently read a Grantland article about Donald Westlake. Westlake is one of those authors I’ve been a fan of for years without realizing it, and seen the influence of in tons of other works without knowing he was the one who deserved the credit. Lovecraft was this way; in addition to the macabre in general, when I actually sat down to read one of his collections in high school I realized that I’d first read one of his collections when I was about 8, then spilled milk on the book and had to retire it. I remembered the Yuggoths as from some eerie dream, at first, but as I got further into “The Whisperer in Darkness” there was this dawning realization that I’d seen this all before.

Which is really rather Lovecraftian in itself

Anyway, Westlake, who wrote under a bucketload of pseudonyms, produced the inspiration for the muddled and oddly-paced Parker, which is probably not remembered for much. It did feature Jason Statham instructing J-Lo to strip for wire-examination purposes. I watched the movie because I was excited to see Statham go up against Michael Chiklis, particularly with the latter having languished in the pillow-wrapped No Ordinary Family—a discussion of the squandered potential there would be an entire other post.

Parker was not good, but watching it I was reminded of a movie I do love, the last film where I felt okay about liking Mel Gibson: Payback. The character Gibson plays in Payback, Porter, is basically the same character he plays in Get The Gringo (a film I also mostly enjoyed, but didn’t feel as okay about enjoying). However, it wasn’t until I read the Grantland article about Westlake that I realized that Porter and Parker are literally the same dude. Just, you know, licensing stuff.

Payback is a great movie, and I heartily recommend it. Stay the hell away from the Director’s cut, though; after seeing the movie in theaters, and spending an entire summer just re-watching it and Get Shorty—in many ways very much the same movie, though the latter is from the man who gave us Raylan Givens—I still remember how excited I was to find a DVD of the director’s cut at a Shopko bargain bin. No one had every heard of the damn movie, and this was before the proliferation of quick-and-easy streaming (though, you know, go legally stream Payback for free and tell me how that goes). I was beyond ecstatic to show my then-girlfriend-now-wife, as well as my roommate, this incredibly dope flick. I kept talking about how beautifully the ending wraps up all the loose ends. However, the ending to the director’s cut is terrible; worse if you’ve tasted the sublime original end. So don’t do that to yourself. If you’re gonna see the flick, and you should see it, find the original release.

Porter/Parker is a gruff, driven, almost laconic anti-hero, and his exploits over 24 books (which I didn’t know existed until last week) no doubt inspired several similar iterations. Reading about Westlake, who wrote Parker as Richard Stark, the descriptions of his writing style—both in terms of approach and output—thoroughly appealed to me. It was as a balm on a fevered brow. I’ve been reading books on writing for decades, always standing at the edge of the pool, terrified to jump in and be a writer because I…don’t know, actually. It’s never been concern about lack of talent, because bruised and fledgling as my ego might be there’s always been praise available where the writing’s concerned. I think it was mostly fear of being destitute, which I’ve always associated with saying “Hey, I’m a writer!” When destitution’s found me for other reasons, that’s never provided much of a charge to devote myself to creative works.

Still, I’ve been officially and fully a guy who writes—and plays video games, and puts together models, and is occasionally indolent—since I left my teaching job last summer. I’ve had my wife’s support, and my brother’s support, and the support of my friends. One of those friends is himself a published author, and a fervent believer in dedicating himself to x words daily, steady output, and getting things out there. Having an example of that approach, which is echoed so much in discussions on writing I’ve seen from so many authors, is inspiring yet difficult, because that’s not how I write.

To which the nagging, mocking voice says “That’s because you ain’t a writer, son.”

So now I’m typing with the hand not engaged in shooing that voice away from its sinister orbit, and I elaborate: that’s not how I prefer to write, and not how writing feels right for me. It’s challenging to know if that ever works, if that’s an excuse or an explanation. For me, writing is something that flows, abundantly and compellingly. I tend to sit down with the majority of a story laid out in my head, and the rest spins up from crystals like making cotton candy. I always write this way, whether it’s this blog post I’m putting together at 4 in the morning or any of the dozen novels I’m working on. I stymie myself with: “No, I can’t just go disappear and do nothing but write, I have husbandly responsiblities!” This despite my wife actively instructing me to write, and then being at work which gives me ample time to do so. I also second-guess myself, for instance with how many times I’ve used “saying” in this blog post about what a great writer I am. Or realizing that mentioning one published author, without mentioning either of the others, is inaccurate and possibly sinful. Which leads me to worrying I’ve left someone else out, rather than reflecting on the uplifting sensation of possibility that having so many connections with writing should engender.

Mostly, though, I’ve struggled with this idea that I’m supposed to write one particular way, scaffolded and specific and particular, and that any approach that aimed to be faster or more aggressive or less aggressive or more organic was incorrect.

Westlake, though? Dude was walking by his typewriter and then boom, another three novels. That’s promising as hell.

This post is a product of my random-writing-roll table, wherein I roll up assignments that I have to complete for myself, because giving yourself homework is fun! This prompt was “Writing frustrations” and I ran from there.

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