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DO IT—TWELVE LESSONS FROM TWENTY YEARS IN THE ARTS | LESSON 10: COMMENCEMENTS 

September 2019 marks the twentieth anniversary of Jay’s decision to become a writer. His gift to you all this celebratory year is DO IT – Twelve hard lessons on learning by failing, succeeding by accident, never giving up and saying FXXK WRITING all at the same time. You’re welcome!

Years ago, a colleague argued that “the best writers were the ones who sold well. Great sales means a writer is a better storyteller than their competition.” Just for a moment, forget the idiot logic of this statement (if a book sells one copy, and then four years later becomes a bestseller, did it become better?), or how it ignores things other than “storytelling” that make a book successful (context, zeitgeist, trends in publishing, celebrity endorsement, racial and gender preferences built into social structures that impact sales and audiences, blind fucking luck). From the level of craft their argument was dumb. Sales can tell you one legit thing . . . how much a book has sold. And even then, such numbers are subject to hand-wavery and lying as with all stats. Beyond that, we have a debate about quality.

My colleague’s argument remains a childish love-letter to mythology capitalism and art-as-Social-Darwanism, but it reminded me that for many people the desire to write books is really the desire to be a successful novelist who doesn’t work a day job, AKA: winning the lottery or a jackpot at bingo. Improving the quality of your work is not a direct function of sales (and thank Christ for that). So, how does it happen? One means to improve your work is to abandon what field you think is home and see how you feel on farther shores, a career of perpetual commencement. At least if becoming a better writer is a goal.

Three genres made me think I could be a writerScience Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror. Sure, I loved them, but they also seemed accessible. Literary novelists seemed to emerge from the aether of academia, were old, and most wore cardigans and scarves. But William Gibson looked like the janitor who smoked dope at my high school. Stephen King spoke like a baseball coach from Northern Ontario. I wished Nancy Kress was my English teacher. Couldn’t say the same for Mordechi Richler (who, in hindsight, is flipping awesome).

My initial foray into writing was a gauntlet of military SF, suburban horror, sword and slashing fantasy crapola with occasional quiet literary pieces, the earliest of which I sold. They were garbage and that’s what I was told young genre writers wrote – garbage. And I never would have tried it if not for that humble truth. SF/F folks who started in porn, pulp, and trash magazines could rise above the din and make cool novels. I was too ill-educated in the history of literature to realize that every author starts by writing garbage. Larry Brown, a highly esteemed author of dark Southern literature, noted “if you had read my hundred forty stories or the first four novels, you would have to contend I had no talent. You would have had no other choice.” If I’d been a better reader, I may have gone a different way.

But I churned out buckets of bad genre stories while my reading life changed. Yes, I read George Alec Effinger and Lewis Shiner and Poppy Z Brite, but four years of university had added Fyodor Dostoyevesky, Michael Ondaatje, Octavio Paz, Toni Morrison and Fay Weldon to the mix. And while I still count Philip K. Dick as a perennial favorite and influence, actually reading science fiction was boring me to death. Instead, I commenced an affinity for realism, magic realism, crime, and postmodern fiction.

I also graduated from the Odyssey Writing Workshop, and found deep friendships with the more eclectic students whose reading tastes were far wider and weirder than mine. Soon, I felt like a young musician hanging with the local bar band, hunting for lost LPs and rare 7” records with names like Faulkner and Borges and Fantomas more than Scalzi, Doctorow or Lake (these were the hot young guns of SF/F, basically one peer group ahead of us). Then, for about eight years, I tried to love genre fiction more than it loved me. Hey, cut me some slack, it was where all my friends hung out!

But in the land of SF/F the “best” writers with “major” book deals found me shrugging. Awards seemed to matter a lot, and gaming them seemed to matter more. The soap opera infighting was cute until it was exposed to house much hate and racist/misogynist vitriol (and bless those who have pushed it back to the edge of the Neutral Zone). I did find more oddballs and common soldiers, though. Most leaned toward the dark side of genre lit, and I still maintain my passport for the Island of Misfit Toys that is the horror genre. But I soon left these familiar shores.

I made friends with ex-junkies who wrote amazing crime novels, and grit lit editors who did nasty and amazing work for bizarre side-stapled magazines right before they went extinct. I was befriended by a communist genre novelist who helped save my non-existent career (and fed me while I was close to being homeless while others in the field watched me drown). I found writers inspired by Larry Brown, David Goodis, Flannery O’Connor and read deeply from literature not reviewed at Locus or Tor.com.

And with each of these commencements in reading, my writing changed. And always for the better. Some writers are sledgehammers who only like to drive one spike (Bentley Little comes to mind, Guy Kay another). Awesome. They do that kind of novel well. But when your reading life becomes a desert because the genre no longer sings your tune, the work suffers. Decisions must be made – are you a genre writer who likes all that OTHER stuff, or are you a writer who needs to write that other stuff? Because your imagination needs to feed on work that enthrals you with language, theme, structure and story. And for me, most genre fic left me starved.

My career shows that trajectory of reading life and writing life. My first handful of novels were breakneck, hyper-violent genre fiction (though “with a heart,” as one reviewer said). A student of hardboiled horror from guys like Joe Lansdale, Gary Braunbeck, Tom Piccirilli and Norman Partridge, I vented my angry spleen into the iconography of genre monsters and populated these stories with fat vampires, punk rock detectives, luchadores and zombies. and With the Brimstone Files series, I added sex, drugs and the supernatural. And they were fun to write. Still are. But as my reading life shifted, so did the work on the page. Subtext, dialog, and how the world reflects the emotional interior of the characters began to obfuscate the two-fisted hijinks and tournaments to save the world (PRO TIP: the easiest plot in the world is a tournament. We all know the stakes. It generates tension with every round. We all know what the climax will be. We all want to see the underdog win. Thank you Bruce Lee and JCVD, masters of kung fu plot).

In the last batch of novels you can see me evolving as a writer. Putting new ideas and skills to work. Falling forward. Making new mistakes. Writing my way out of who I was to who I am now. I have nothing against genre fic. How could I? But I also have no eternal love or sense of obligation to it. My obligation is to my craft, to work only I could make. And in seven years, I’ll probably look in the rearview mirror and see more signposts of novels and flavors of writing left behind. I hope so. Because if you don’t change, you die, creatively and otherwise. I haven’t written my best novel yet. To do that, I need to say goodbye and hello and keep moving onward.

PS: There are tons of wonderful contemporary writers working today in genre fields. My picks of people I can still read and vibe include: Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Nick Mamatas, the late Project Itoh, Steve Tem and the late Melanie Tem, Jeffrey Ford, Joe Lansdale, N. K. Jemison, Leah Bobet, Gemma Files, Ken Liu, Peter Tieryas . . . and if your name isn’t here, it’s because I forgot!

Jason S. Ridler

Jason RidlerJason S. Ridler is a writer, historian, and actor. He is the author of The Brimstone Files, and his latest historical work Mavericks of War was called a “visceral read that is also an important piece of scholarship” by Pulitzer-Prize winner Richard Rhodes. He is a Teaching Fellow at Johns Hopkins University and teaches creative writing at Google, Youtube, and for private clients.

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