The presidential election is pretty hard to ignore, as it’s taking up all the space in the media these days with speculation about who is going to win the primaries. Two months in, the field has narrowed considerably and all those GOP hopefuls (and uh, Martin O’Malley) who thought they had a shot with those strong 1% poll numbers have been dropping like flies. Readers of this blog who have followed my writing on these matters know I have been no stranger to long political rants about the current system and its lack of choice for voters. I more or less swore off the political analysis in the wake of the 2012 major party conventions, witnessing them to be no more than tired propaganda factories reflecting the current sad realities facing our vox populi.
That bug hasn’t left me entirely, and when I started this blog I did say I would write about this stuff occasionally. The funny thing about being laid off from a cushy office job is that you no longer have time to read over all the depressing news in the world. It’s gotten so bad that I have become one of those Americans who almost solely gets their news from The Daily Show, and even that platform I had problems with up until Trevor Noah gave it the comedic kickstart it desperately needed. I have found this is not such a bad thing, as following the dreck of disinformation pouring out of the major news outlets is hardly the best use of one’s time these days.
If you’re reading this I assume you’re familiar with the state of affairs up to this point, but I will give a pithy summary nonetheless: Bernie Sanders accelerated over on Hilary’s left flank, pointing out her very real contradictions in taking gigantic amounts of Wall Street cash (just like her husband) and attracting a wave of support for the simple action of not sounding like the bought and paid for candidates of the Democratic Party’s past. And on the GOP side, the clown car began last summer exceedingly full of candidates who didn’t have a chance in hell of scoring the nomination, and one guy who fell into that category who might wind up winning anyways. I might find some hate thrown my way for writing this, but to me there’s no denying that Trump is an ideal mirror of our society and its pathetic attempts at creating “democracy” in the day and age of the Deep State and the endless “War on Terror.” For in Trump we see all the aspects that the moneyed class worships: a “self-made” man that was basically born rich and allowed to fail multiple times without consequence. And yet at the same time he uses his talents against the establishment by braying certain code words to the GOP base, many of whom thought Dubya and his torture regime were way too liberal.
While we have a ways to go in this here contest, the important lesson here is to not count out the underdogs. What the establishment media still does not understand is that things are looking especially bad out there in this day and age. We are eight years into the economic “recovery,” having seen the majority of economic gains soar right up to the .001%, and those jobs that have been created are of the vastly menial variety. We’ve hit peak malaise in this nation, as reflected by the two outsider candidates, but it’s your humble author’s opinion that only one of them has a platform up to the challenge. I suppose that’s reinforced by Trump’s inability to articulate what he would do if he gained the most powerful position in our government, but then again he’s only reflecting another disposition of those in his class, which is to do do whatever they want without worrying about the aftermath. The 2008 economic crash (which I’d wager maybe about a quarter of Americans to this day even fully understand) proved this point on a massive scale.
Which brings me to the ultimate point, and that would be the one of voting. Is there a point to this action, which we are told every four years will really make a difference? It’s hard to advance an argument in the affirmative when people like Sheldon Adelson are attempting to use their billions of corrupt dollars denying the rights of millions of people. I can only speak from personal experience, having jumped on the bandwagon in voting for Obama in ‘08 only to be too ashamed to pull the lever for the drone-assassin-in-chief a mere four years later (I made my choice for the Green Party candidate, who was arrested the day before - yay democracy!). It’s just hard for me to say go out there and vote in the general election because it literally will do nothing for you these days. The vastly more important work is out there on the streets, because if you haven’t noticed our nation is literally crumbling before us, both on a societal and infrastructure scale. So go out there and vote if you desire, but if you want to truly make a difference start agitating your local governments and ask them why they don’t feel #blacklivesmatter, or start bothering them about disinvesting from companies that profit from the destruction of our environment. Or check out the increasing agitation against horrendous Supreme Court decisions like Citizens United and begin calling for a Constitutional amendment banning money from our political process.
Because when it comes down to it, our lovely democratic system has actually become a system of oppression, set up to create the illusion of choice. Sure it can be changed, but that’s going to take a hell of a lot more than voting in the 2016 election.
It’s time for another update on my year-long experiment in living (actually reading) fictionally. For those of you following along at home, the first book I tackled was Oscar Wilde’s fascinating 19th century novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. Next up is Ernest Hemingway’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1952 novel The Old Man and the Sea.
Having not read much of any Hemingway outside of For Whom The Bell Tolls, which was based off his experience in the Spanish Civil War, I was past due to catch up with his better-known material. My wife encouraged me to read this as it’s one of her favorite books, and I can definitely see why. Hemingway was known for his tight sentence structure and there is no better example of such writing than this novel. Once again I don’t want to spend much time on the plot or influence of this book but let it suffice that this is a book about struggle. Struggle against that major goal in your life, struggle against your own personal demons, or struggle against some external force. The pure brilliance of the novel is that by keeping the story simple, Hemingway allows each reader to take away whatever he or she can regarding their own life. This helps lead into the first major writing lesson I found in this work.
First: Keep it simple. This adage is quite familiar to those who have read Hemingway’s work for years, but it especially rings true in this book. It can be said that not a whole lot happens in this novel, but what matters is how it is told. Through the simple language the reader feels they are right next to the fisherman in his boat, witnessing his travails in hooking the marlin and his strife in fighting off the sharks that attack it once it has been killed. Similarly, the author brings you right inside the internal and external monologues of the main character Santiago as we witness the conflicts roiling his soul in his attempt to land the biggest fish of his life. This is a writing technique that I hadn’t really considered and is one I hope to possibly use in the future. Hemingway had me hooked from the first pages of this novel, and I read with rapt attention all the way through the ending, which does not disappoint but offers a bold shot of illumination as I considered this book through the prism of life itself. This brings me to the next huge lesson as a writer I pulled from this book.
Second: Using a novel to tell a deeper truth about life. Hemingway’s final published work has been analyzed to death and read by countless children and adults who have found their own meaning in the fisherman’s battle to hook the marlin. All I can really speak to here is what I took away from the story, which is that each one of us has our own “marlin” in our lives that we are constantly pursuing. How many of us have sought a goal such as this and caught up to it, only to find “sharks” arrive to tear and drag away the carcass? Due to a lack of preparation, Santiago finds he has very limited tools to help him both keep the line going and fight off the sharks as they try to steal his prize. How many of us have felt the same disappointment in ourselves that he did, vowing to do better next time? The sheer force of the elementary language causes us to view this story as a metaphor for our own lives, and is written in such a manner that anyone can take away a parable that fits their own struggles. That is a major accomplishment for any writer, and proved without a doubt this man deserved the Nobel Prize in Literature the year after he published the work that would draw him international renown.
As with Wilde’s novel, this is another one I would highly recommend for any writer who wants to see a near-perfect example of the use of language to tell a deeply complex story. Once again we can learn volumes through the text itself, and while Hemingway was no stranger to offering advice to other writers, it is through his own work that we can learn the most.
Up next on the agenda for my year of living fictionally: Lillian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who Played Post Office. Or as my wife would put it, an example of “reading for pleasure” and a forcible ingestion of a type of genre book I would normally never take a second look at. Of course, this was before my time working at a bookstore and learning about the value of various niches. Stay tuned for another essay on that book as we carry on - and as always feel free to toss me your own recommendations for later in the year.
(Part one of this essay involved the more superficial reasons of “why to write.” In this next part, I will attempt to dig even deeper into the reasoning behind our creative impulses and how to harness them for your art.)
In the first part we looked at how to take events and actions and scenes from your own life and see the story value in them. But how do we even come up with such things in the first place? As I wrote in the last part, ultimately this decision will have to come from your own heart, just as our life experiences don't match up very well. But in a way, isn’t that exactly the point? You ought to be able to describe your dreams and desires much better than I could, and are the only one who can view deep into the well of ideas within yourself. So how do we access this part of ourselves: the one that seems a mystery even to us, the observer of our internal life? To briefly return to the more superficial part of all this, it needs to be a clear signal from your subconscious that can also be turned into a good yarn. Returning to my first novel, Our Senior Year, the signals from my subconscious were the feelings I was experiencing during that year of my life. But I wouldn’t have had anything without a proper story. Therefore I had to add other aspects to the story, either by repurposing other things that happened in my high school days or even making stuff up. You can do the same thing - just hone in on a strong memory from your life. What were you feeling at that time? Can it be expressed through the written word? If so, get that part down first, and then see what’s missing. This can be done in myriad other ways, but I’ve found that if you harness a good idea from your life first, it can lead to the rest.
For as Picasso supposedly said, “art is the lie that lets us see the truth.” At the end of the day this is what you should hope to accomplish with your art: creating an excellent lie that lets the world see your inner truth. This could be the simple truth about growing up in a small town, dealing with its high school residents, and your religious family, as it was for me. Or it could deal with your own set of specific circumstances. Remember, this is your best asset. Nobody has lived your life before, and nobody will since. Draw from the most volatile of your own experiences to get the best results. I’m not saying any of this will be easy, of course. Putting your own personal pain and misery on paper for the world to see isn’t a smooth prospect even for the best of us. I anguished over what people from my hometown and family would think before I published that first book. But I don’t worry about that anymore, because I created a falsity that told a truth about myself and the universe of a small town. As long as you are being true to yourself and your story, you shouldn’t give a damn in the world what anyone else thinks about it. (Ok, you’ll have to care about what some people think, like your editor, but that’s a ways down the road.)
If that doesn’t work, you can go more abstract or less. A simple look around you may suffice. Can you tell a story about the people you see near you, or your apartment, or your home, or your neighborhood? Or if you want to go more granular, consider your deepest held beliefs and principles, and try to puzzle out why they exist. If you think this country is messed up and going adrift from the intent of its founders, try to gauge why you feel that way. Is it because our democracy is failing? Is it because people are apathetic? Write an essay corralling your feelings that may be of use in a larger story. If you have feelings for another but you are ashamed or afraid of them for whatever reason, try to figure out how they are holding you back and put it into words of your own choosing. We are getting more in the territory of dealing with the overall picture of life here, but any writer worth their salt can tell you this is the center of the “why write” question.
“Write what you know” is a platitude worthy of being ignored if you think you can, but there is a reason it has stuck around for this long. And that’s because it works. It works because it’s so simple. What do you know? Think about the thousands of answers to that question, any one of which could lead you down a rabbit hole into a story idea you didn’t even think was hanging out among the inner recesses of your subconscious. Or maybe it’s sitting right there in the open, waiting for you to understand how well you know it. This could be your feelings for another person, the way you view your occupation through the prism of the current society, or how you deal with setbacks and advances in your own life. The point is, only you know how you’re going to react to these things, and therefore only you will know where the story lies. And if it’s not in that particular thought, move on to the next one until you find it.
This second part of the essay is rambling into esoteric territory, so I’m going to leave the topic alone for now. I hope that you have found a bit of guidance into the “why” of writing through these posts, but if you didn’t please know that what works for one writer won’t always work for another. At the end of the day all I can hope to accomplish is helping others locate what I have found within myself that allows me to press forward with my writing. The “why” for me is easy: I have found what I’m meant to do with my life, and now comes the hard part of refining it and trying to find a modicum of success. But in order to figure out that big “why” we must first locate the initial “why:” why we sit down to pour our hearts and thoughts out onto the page in the first place. Once you discern that within yourself, you’ll be ready to start creating stories.
John Abraham-Watne is an author and freelance journalist located in the Twin Cities, where he lives with his wife Mary and their two cats. This blog is his attempt to catalog all the events that culminate a local writer's life.