12 March 2010

There Is No Spoon

by guest columnist Mike Elrod.  Follow him on Twitter.

When it comes to writing there are really two ways to go about it. 

You can write by the rules, or you can let it all out. Many would be writers are stifled by the rules of grammar, punctuation, even spelling. These however, are but the tip of the iceberg when it comes to putting a story to page. Many of us set out to write the great American yada, yada, yada. We study for years how the greats have done it, how the stories high school students are forced to read are the ultimate example of human achievement in written form.

This is bullshit.

The truth is that if you’re going to write you have to learn the rules and then let go of the rules. You have to define your own territory of the written language. You may end up being the only one in the world who ever gets it or thinks that it’s worth reading but that doesn’t matter. It really doesn’t.

Being stifled by the rules of writing is one thing that we can all relate to. At least we can all admit to it. There is something far more detrimental to honest writing however. It’s the guilt of writing what we truly believe. I myself have been wrapped up more times than I car to remember on some moral dilemma or another. If you’ve ever read much of my reviews or articles you know that my hero is a certain big blue boyscout. I want to live by the example that character has always been for me.
I can’t however, write by that example.

If I’m going to be honest with my pen, my paper, myself, I have to let go of the notion that I can only write those things that will inspire people. Those things that will encourage someone to pick up the mantle of truth, justice, and the American way. If I’m going to write, I have to be free of those things. Free to leave them and free to come back to them if the story works out that way.

In a sense I’m a situationalist when it comes to writing. I have to be. A situation dictates a character’s experience and thoughts. At the same time I have to ask myself whether or not this character will give in to the circumstances or not, or even find some other option on which to act. The honest writer even knows that not all characters can have the mental or emotional capacity to see all or any of the options and that sometimes there simply aren’t any to begin with.

The temptation in writing is to lead your audience by the nose to the outcome you want them to understand. The ending is where you want to impart your wisdom upon them and leave your mark on the world. I said in my first article for Multi-Hyphenate that I strive to write on the level of Alan Moore. Nothing has changed about that but what I can more clearly state now is that the beauty of Moore’s writing lies in the fact that he gives you his ending. He doesn’t expect you to come out of it with a definite sense of right and wrong. Instead, he wants you to come out of it thinking.

Writing by the rules of morality is not the way to accomplish this feat. If you are going to be honest you have to give your characters a chance to be who they are. They may not be the next messiah. They may simply be ordinary in the end. They may be something else entirely by the time you get there. To fear the world’s brow beating for writing the best serial rapist story out there may be the very thing that keeps you from finding your own voice.

Too often we try to equate characters with their creators and in doing so we limit ourselves in our own projects. If we could just admit that there is a darkness in us that needs to be put onto paper as much as the light we might find ourselves in a new literary revolution and maybe even a revolution of the human soul. The next chapter of our story could be written if we just allowed ourselves to do it.

If you ever find yourself writing for DC as an author for Superman do you really think you’ll be able to write a convincing story of why he doesn’t kill if you’re not willing to look at it from a desire to do so? The pain a character feels in his morality that is sent shooting out of the panels and into the hearts and minds of readers is directly related to how much they understand the desire to break that moral code. It’s also directly proportionate to the amount the author is willing to admit his or her own issues with such a code.

Comics and their characters have always been a strong basis for my own morality. I would never encourage anyone to write the greatest serial rapist story the world has ever known by experiencing that character’s life first hand. I would however encourage an author to acknowledge his or her ability to become such a person. It’s the horror of the knowledge of who we could be that sends shivers down our spines.

It’s not good enough to write a story that teaches a moral lesson only because we’re afraid to write anything else. The fear of inspiring others to do harm is one that haunts me every time I sit down to write All That Lives. However, while I refuse to wash my hands of such a concern I also have to admit that it is in the horrors of who we could be that we find the capacity to be better than who we are.
Don’t be afraid to write a story with no morality or one that disagrees with your own. It’s okay to write something that turns your stomach. It’s okay to write something that involves Care Bears for that matter. Don’t lose yourself in the world of your characters. 

Just document it as you see it happen honestly and unabashedly.

Mike Elrod is an instructor for a small college in the North Georgia Mountains where he spends his days helping students research their papers as he pines for the city. By night however, he reviews the show Supernatural for Pulptone.com. He also writes a graphic novel along with Michael Carpenter who produces amazing artwork about growing up and the zombie apocalypse in the South that is in the process of being renamed as you read this.


mona said...

That was an interesting point Mike. . . something I had never really give any thought to.

Sara Plays House said...

"The truth is that if you’re going to write you have to learn the rules and then let go of the rules."
You could swap out "paint" for "write" in every line of this piece, and this would be what I would tell my students when they wanted to jump headfirst into abstract art.
Lovely piece, as always, Mike.

Michael said...

Thanks to both of you guys for reading!

Sara, I have to admit that the line you quoted is due to Tyler's editorial skills. So much props to him!

Lesley said...

Love it. The process of creativity can be so daunting when we let our fear of the unknown or even the scary known hinder us. When we are secure enough to let ourselves explore, or just let go the inhibition, what exhilarating new adventures we can have -- whether it be writing, painting, sculpting, building, or composition in any form.

Michael said...

Glad you like it Lesley! I have to admit that much of this was inspired by Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. He approach to writing works for everything.

-j. said...


The problem is not so much the rules of language, but language itself. Good writing is an attempt to put into words that which cannot be contained by words. The rules simply help to establish the means by which to make thoughts understood by others.

Michael said...


Thanks for reading. I agree that language itself is limited in it's ability to express ourselves and the world. However, I think that many people are hindered by the fear of being perceived as immoral in their writing rather than just letting it go and writing something meaningful for them. The rules of grammar can be adhered to in the same manner which eventually stifles the creative flow.

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