Kage Baker felt very strongly that work was an an anodyne, a panacea. It was a refuge from sorrow and an antidote to care. “All that matters is the work,” she gives Mendoza to say, in her very first novel – the statement was carved on the bedrock of Kage’s heart.
Of course, first you had to find the work. That was the trick of this philosophy, because mere busyness wouldn’t do. It had to be the real thing, the work of the heart, the endeavour that defined and formed you. Only in service to that work could you be assured of comfort and healing. Anything else was just fidgeting.
When she first began to write seriously, hoping to make it as a pro, getting into the mood to write was a big problem. She knew she had to have a foolproof method of guaranteeing she could sit down and produce, and she worked very hard to establish that. It’s not as easy as it is to slouch into the office, sit down at your desk, sign in to the soul-less company website and start processing orders or claims or ads. But you had to have some way to approach the daily work just as if it were something so orderly and mundane. Even though it was world-building, or spell-casting or evolving entire civilizations out of air and the scent of the sea …
Kage, who indulged her superficial superstitions with great enjoyment, therefore built an entire ritual liturgy of “Getting ready to write”. She had to have a view of the outside, and it had to be to the West or North; South and East were not conducive to industry. She had to have a special glass to drink from – it had to actually be red glass. (EBay was our constant friend.) She would carefully touch all the juju she had adorning her desk; figures of Eugene Krabbs and Zeus the Thunderer, Churchy La Femme and Shan Yu, the marmalade jar of sea-water she kept beside her sextant. She would play as many games of Free Cell as it took to win one – only one, no indulgences, then it was time to work.
I don’t have Kage’s well-adapted skills at personal rituals. I have the sort that just make you nuts until you satisfy them, and then the only reward is that you don’t go nuts. I’ve consciously adopted some of Kage’s pre-writing rituals – the sites she checked, the webcams she looked through each day. It makes me feel good, but not ready to write. Just a little more connected to her. And that’s an undeniable comfort, but she was absolutely right about one classic thing – you don’t write because you feel good.
You write to make yourself feel good. You write because life is unendurable, and a new life must be sought and wrapped around your shoulders like a magic cloak. You write to distract yourself, to hide from the monsters, to block the view of Hell outside the shattered windows of your life. Do you really need to suffer to make art? I don’t think so; a lot of artists have said so, but I think their art and their misery were coincidental. Being happy didn’t prevent Kage from writing, for all that it comforted her when she was sad.
I don’t think it hinders me. Being happy, I mean. When I am … I’m not as mindlessly joyful as I used to be, but it sure doesn’t seem to screw up the writing. And while I don’t have the knack (yet) of drowning my sorrows in work that Kage so ably demonstrated, I feel I am approaching it. I can see how this thing works, a little. I am beginning to believe I will master it someday.
I have been working on a story for a collection of Kage’s stories from Tachyon, Dear Readers, as you all know. It’s based on a half page of Kage’s notes and a lot of conversations on Highway 101. That is “Pareidolia”, which had to be doubled in size at the last minute. This morning at 3 AM I finished it. My first beta reader has read it and pronounced it good. My second beta reader has it now. My publisher has it also, and I am awaiting his judgement on changes, deletions, additions, or the kindly advice to give up and find some new obsession for my old age …
But the final few sessions of writing – ah! That was incandescent! I could feel the momentum bearing me along like the jet stream last night, the words coming so fast I couldn’t type fast enough. I was in the groove, I was at the peak, I was nothing but eyes and a voice on the wind and I loved it …
I could get used to this.
Of course, the wonderful Jacob Weisman may hate the story. Even if he doesn’t, I know I will, by the time it sees print. It’s postpartum blues for a writer, and Kage went through it with everything she wrote. I felt the same way about Nell Gwynne II, at least until I held the finished book in my hands. Even so, I haven’t gotten the courage to read it through yet.
But … I could get used to this, too. I feel alive tonight. I feel like I have a right to be alive, and work to do, and matters to accomplish.
Lizard men. That’s it. The lizard men of Los Angeles are calling me …
There’s a glorious image – you surfing wave after wave of The Best There Ever Was, words flying like a spray of stars onto the pages. I am so happy for you!
Kathleen, you make me smile. Thank you so very much.
“You don’t write because you feel good. You write to make yourself feel good.” I’m going to embroider a pillow. Or at least print up a sign, and hang it where I can see it. What a grand woman you are. 🙂
We should all have it made up and framed, in the style appropriate to each of us. Needlepoint, cross-stitch, a nice manly copper-plate or stencilling for some of the gents … maybe a coloured glass mosaic for Dre, eh?
This is perfect for this morning where SWAT teams are searching house-to-house in the town I used to live in. I find myself wanting to write to ease the pain, to make sense of things, to make things beautiful.
This is the quote I will take away from this post:
“You write to make yourself feel good. You write because life is unendurable, and a new life must be sought and wrapped around your shoulders like a magic cloak. You write to distract yourself, to hide from the monsters, to block the view of Hell outside the shattered windows of your life.”
Thank you all. And here I though I was being whiny and self-involved! Another good example of how truth sneaks up on you from behind.