Writing the previous post, about the way I experienced written SF as a young'un, brought back to mind a realization I came to about my reading habits, something I only twigged to over a long period of time. I wasn't reading because I was seeking escapism; I was seeking something even greater. I just didn't know it at the time.
At first, it was escapism, and I knew it. Star Wars and Star Trek (and every other "escape") were ways to fantasize, to think about something that wasn't me or my moment in time. But there was another impulse lurking under that one, and I couldn't even put words to it, let alone figure out why it mattered, until I was much older.
See, for as far back as I can remember, I always sought the escapes, but I could never understand why they always seemed to fall short of what I expected of them. And for the longest time, I misattributed this impulse; I thought it was because the thing in question wasn't entertaining enough. Maybe the next thing, whatever it was, would do the job.
But the next thing never did do the job completely. Oh, it would entertain, and sometimes I would have another nice piece to add to my custom fandom chess set, as it were. But more often than not, I found myself saying, "I was looking for something else, and I didn't find it here." Rarely did I find such things in straight literary fiction or in the classics, either. There was some undefinable something that could exist in any of those places at once, or in no place at all, and there seemed to be no reliable guide to finding it.
The easy explanation came first: I was picky, that's all. I just liked certain very specific things, and there wasn't a way to tell in advance if I was going to like it. Nothing unusual there; just plain old human nature and taste coming into play. Most people barely know their own tastes anyway. But, again, I couldn't rid myself of the feeling that there was something else underneath that sense of perpetual disappointment and frustration.
I think the answer came to me when I was temping at some firm in New York City. Summer of 1990, if memory serves. The job wasn't very demanding, so I spent many a lunch hour writing down things for a novel I was sketching. Said book has since been lost for keeps, from the look of it. (I shed no tears for its disappearance.) But somewhere during that time period, a thought materialized: Is this my answer to all that?
I didn't even know what that was supposed to mean at first; it was just this impulse that rose up all on its own, with words attached to it. But again it came back. I'd read, or see a movie, or thumb through a comic, and when my feeling of disappointment was especially profound, another feeling would always rise in concert with it: I should go make something of my own.
Maybe you know this in another form, the old saw that the best criticism for one movie is the making of another movie. (The exact wording of that chestnut has always eluded me.) But with me, the impulse to do just that came long before I ever heard such a descriptor.
Now it became clear to me why I kept going back to the well, even when I kept coming up dry. I was trying to provoke myself into doing better.
Classic writerly arrogance, if you want to call it that. Every author has squirreled away somewhere in the musty attic of their soul the belief that they can whip it real good; that they can best all winners, sinners, and beginners; that they are the Greatest Of All Time and could prove it if they could only just get a goddamned month off, completely off, to write that thing they've got in mind.
Dilute this poison down to a dose that's not toxic, though, and you have a dandy stimulant. Taking inspiration — even "negative" inspiration — from other things is how a great many projects come into existence at all. The trick is not to let it remain a reactionary impulse, where you create something out of a sense of jealousy, or a need to take revenge.
I'll have more to say about that particular aspect of this feeling in a future post.
Other Lives Of The Mind