X marks the spot

1

E, the spouse responsible for the name that makes me sound, as one livejournaler sweetly pointed out, like some kind of porn star, has returned to a faraway island for attempt number two of a private rocket launch. His brother, K, went with him and is blogging about the experience.

2

The producer of SAW, Greg Hoffman, died recently of natural causes at the startling age of 42.

I always liked the story behind the making of SAW. This, at least, is how I understand it: Hoffman discovered a short film (eight minutes) that told a gory story about a serial killer. He decided that it must be made into a full-length movie and unleashed upon the public; he convinced the other two guys at his production company and they raised a million bucks in financing. They never sold the thing, either — they kept the movie rights, instead of bargaining them away for distribution — which means that when SAW grossed 100 million they were the ones who saw the profit.

The part I like, though, is that Hoffman was not just a producer but a guy who loved horror movies. He didn’t just cast a calculating glance at the marketplace and say, “Where are the R-rated horror films of yesteryear that used to scare the bejesus out of us? I bet if we make a decent one, we would be rolling in cash.” He knew the genre. He had respect for it. He didn’t just slam together a cheap bloody exploitation flick in order to make a few bucks off foreign and straight-to-video sales; he put together the kind of movie that he himself wanted to see, which was a well-crafted, oddly satisfying (if deeply contrived) hardcore horror movie that did not insult its audience. He was also lucky and smart: lucky because nobody else was doing this at the time, which made for a lack in the marketplace; smart to recognize this, to act off his convictions.

3

Writer-types love to ask each other, ‘Should you write for others, or should you write for yourself?’. I hang out at a virtual workshop where this question comes up every few months or so and generates endless threads (which often digress into issues of high art vs. low, charges of elitism, etc). But the assumption behind the question always seems to be:

a) If you write for yourself, you must be Self-Indulging in strange little fictions that would completely alienate any other kind of reader; you are thus doomed to obscurity and poverty and crappy day-jobs but at least you are holding true to your Personal Creative Vision which means you are a person of Great Artistic Integrity and may cling tight to a sense of deep moral superiority

and

b) if you write for others, you are a commercial hack and sell-out. You might get rich, but you’re still a total loser.

But what if the gap between these two options could collapse into a third:

c) you are writing for yourself as a reader. You are writing for that other self that craves a particular kind of story, is always searching for it on the bookshelves, can never…quite…find it (but discovers other wonderful things along the way). Despite what some parents and teachers told us — at least those of us who grew up in the thick of the Self-Esteem Movement — we are actually not so singular and unique and special in every way. If I want a particular type of story, I highly doubt I am alone in this; other readers want that kind of story too, and if I can get good enough to tell it effectively, maybe those readers will find their way to it and slap down $6.99 or $12.99 or $29.99 (depending if it’s mass-market, trade, or hardcover) for the experience. We live in a society that puts such incredible stress on the individual I think we forget to think about ourselves in communal terms — what we have in common, instead of how we are distinct from each other or how we stand out from the crowd. Write for yourself and, if that writing is good and deep and honest, of course it will resonate with others, because life is just a great big mirror hall (known as ‘the human condition’) where everybody’s reflected in and reflecting off each other.

And I realize I’m using some movie dude to make a point about writing, but hell, it’s late and I’m tired* and it’s a point that applies to storytelling in general.

But the thing about writing for yourself is this: you have to know who you are, and you have to be able to embrace that, despite what the market seems to want, or your peers seem to want, or the people whom you want to be your peers seem to want. We’re writers because we don’t have a lot of choice in the matter; we need to do it, and, frankly, we’re not all that equipped to do anything else (it’s not like we do this for the health benefits). But I also suspect we don’t have a lot of choice in what we write, either; those deep blind forces of personality drive us in one general direction. Our own ego and greed might fight this — we crave fame and huge advances yet we’re drawn to rich complex literary stories, for example — or we have a Harvard degree and a ‘literary sensibility’ yet can’t shake a deep-seated love for Stephen King, despite those in our writing workshops who sniff and mock us.** The biggest clue to who you are as a writer is who you are as a reader, and if you’re not writing for that other, reader-self, perched as she is in a slightly different section of your brain, then you’ll most likely lose whatever slim chance you ever had of making it in the first place.

But it’s this element of writing — knowing yourself as a person, which leads into knowing yourself as a writer — which is one reason why we get better at this as we get older; why the literary success of a teenager or early twentysomething is such an exotic and erotic and much-discussed thing, and tends not to get repeated (ie: sophomore slump, followed by oblivion/burn-out)***.

* Plus I live in LA, so this probably cannot be helped. Sadly.

** A pox on them, I say. Ignorant fools!

*** Unless, of course, you are Zadie Smith. But most of us are not.

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