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Nick Mamatas: Some Hells (for writers)


Nick says:

There are innumerable hells in which a writer can find himself or herself, and no heavens at all. Sick narcissists don’t deserve heaven, after all, and there’s a gateway to hell on every page someone might write. I suppose the following list can be seen as yet another set of “tips” or “writing advice”, but this list is not meant as advice. If anything, it is a map, created by a wide-ranging reader and often-frustrated teacher. Heaven is not on this map, and worse, it is the sort of map that needs to be read while still folded up as often writers exist simultaneously in several locations at once.

And now, some hells.


They get worse as they go.

The Hell of Sighs and Cringing is where many aspiring writers go. Their stories are all finger-wagging or unsophisticated revenge tales. Stop doing that, they hiss at the reader, but they are the ones who should stop. There is never a need for a story about the importance of fair-dealing, or that serves to make valid the claim that good fences make good neighbors, or that one should always be true in romantic relationships, or never molest children. These stories cannot persuade readers who love molesting children or cheating cashiers at the grocery store, and those readers who agree with these theme don’t need to read them. The road to this hell is a hope for a just universe, and perversely these very inadequate writers think that if the universe were just, they’d be its God. In the very depths of this hell some very experienced and acclaimed writers are frozen in ice, moaning that it is so unfair that the novel is superfluous to the culture. Let me tell you this, my child and my children: get down on your knees and thank Jesus that the novel is culturally superfluous, and that these monsters are encased in black glaciers of futility and uselessness forever.

The Hell With No Exit is definitionally inescapable—no hell is escapable, but this is the hell of failing to escape via escape. All fiction is “escapist” on some level—even weighty classics or experimental fiction promise escape from our personal problems (which lack thematic resonance and thus a sense of importance) and from the gray world of sense-making respectively. Writers are readers initially, and often especially enjoy the sense of escape reading offers. Their writing is designed to cultivate that escape…but writers cannot escape a prison any more than a live-in warden can. Even on vacation the warden is still thinking about his responsibilities back home. In the hell of escape, there is no escape. These writers obsess over their settings or characters, fetishizing them—making them ever stronger, which just makes the prison walls thicker. Attempting to get ones creations to approach some “reality” won’t allow a writer to escape into it as their work will never be real, and once in this hell they can never escape from it.

The Hell of Being Covered in Scar Tissue These writers can’t help but pick at their scabs—the injuries of early childhood, of their seminal (and semenal!) sexual experiences, or even (the poor dears) the trauma of memories of the first good books they ever read. Their writing is the expression of a grudge, and even lacks the social sanction of moral instruction. The grudge can never fade, the wounds never fully heal. The writers make sure of that, by raking their nails over their skin purposefully, in order to stay hurt and stay writing. In this hell, the scarring is truly permanent, as it can outlive the writer’s own flesh. Why do writers drink? Not to numb the pain of life, or of their special awareness—it’s anesthesia for daily self-administered anti-cosmetic surgery with rusty scalpels. Self-loathing is a powerful emotion; if you don’t start off as ugly and as fowl as you think you are, you’ll be sure to end up that way in this hell.

The Hell of Idiot Slavery is the home of many successful writers, especially those pre-occupied with story. The more sophisticated, but no more intelligent, denizens of his flaming hell may call it “Story” or “narrative”, but they all just mean the same thing: stuff happens so that readers can be happy. Dumb readers, usually. In this hell, there is only one story, and on some level everyone knows it—that’s why they speak of “the story” and not “stories.” Stephen King attempted to escape this hell once, but instead found himself shouting at a catering hall full of other authors during the National Book Awards as though addressing resentful high school students in a Maine classroom. What did he see in his hell that drove him so mad? Simple—he thought he was in another, better hell, picking his scabs, but he wasn’t. Story is like being chained to an oar, rowing a boat through a dead sea, only to one day realize that the drums have stopped, the overseer has abandoned ship, and the hold was always empty anyway, but you row on because you are still chained and there is nothing else to do except wait to starve. Then you recall that you had bought a passenger ticket and put the chains on your wrists and ankles yourself, for fun.

The Hell of Endless Vomit Here, you never eat, you only spew. The “food” is inserted anally, and roughly, on a continuous basis via some devilish and rubbery reverse-enema kit. Here are the writers of what used to be called “potboilers”, and also of instructional material, ten-dollar joke books (like this one), spam e-mail advertising copy, press releases for cigarette companies, scripts for industrial films about electroplating, and the like. Once, this was a higher hell, because sometimes the potboiler or instructional guide actually did pay enough to allow one to write one’s good novel. However, all hells are full to bursting now, and as supply goes up and demand stays constant price falls and so all those damned to this hell can do is plant themselves on a tubular rubber spike, open their mouths, and aim streams of projectile vomit at one another, forever. It’s all instructional guides, service journalism for tourists, and advertorials about boner pills. In the midst of the great plain of this hell, bombarded from every direction, are the writers whose writing-advice guides outsell their novels or poetry collections, and those to credit for some other writer’s superior career.

The Hell of Being Tossed off a Cliff Forever These poor writers didn’t even realize they were in hell until rough hands grabbed them, dragged them to the edge of the nice meadow in which they were having a picnic lunch with their agents and editors, and off they went. The cliff never ends, but the rocks and branches protruding from the cliff face get harder, sharper, and reach out to buffet limbs and bang heads. Though there is a constant rain of writers falling from the cliff and bouncing off the walls, every single writer thinks he’s the only one in this hell. This is the hell of former best-sellers, cult authors whose work has fallen out of print, writers who cobble together unsuccessful self-publishing schemes in the hope of looking productive for the sake of a community college job, and all those people who published one short story or article in a decent venue one time. The mere fact of having formerly published doesn’t bring one in to this hell; it’s the continuing to write, or the giving it up, that sends writers here.

The Hell of The Spike In the Head Thousands of pages, all useless and stupid. Beginner mistakes, ossified and valorized for years. Some decent reading material on the shelves, maybe, but nothing in the brain. It may take years of people in this hell to decide that they are “ready” to submit their work, or take a course, or show their friends, and the spike in the head throbs and burns. When they’re critiqued, it’s an attack, when they’re casually rejected, it’s a lie. Every writer is a sick narcissist, but these are the worst of the lot, untreatable and incorrigible. What they see in their “mind” just isn’t what is on the page. Writing is intuitive, but reading is supposedly an exercise in ruthless logic—they badger and browbeat and demand why why why they’re not any good, cite chapter and verse (and imaginary conversations) that explains why their stuff really really is good and makes perfect sense. But the world won’t listen. And worst of all, this hell is proof that Dante was wrong—one cannot descend or ascend. You may be in three hells, and you’ll always be in three hells, but there is no way out.



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