It’s about eight months ago, close to two o’clock in the morning. I’m sitting at my desk writing about a man who dismembers himself, laughing out loud because of how absolutely stupid it seems. Every single bit of it feels irrelevant, inane, and ludicrous. There’s no doubt at that moment that I have spent the past seven months committing a slow literary suicide, creating a mangy three-legged dog no one will ever pet let alone adopt.
That’s when I have to expect to spend my whole life slogging it out every single day vomiting out my poison onto a keyboard so maybe someday somebody will love me enough to stop on the street and say how I’ve changed their life and how they would be rock-bottom right now, blowing night cruisers for crinkled Lincolns without my hallowed, other-worldly perspective. Sometimes you have to force yourself to believe in your work. Insecurity meets vulnerability meets willful arrogance. This is the part of the process where you realize that the only thing keeping you afloat is your ability to convince yourself that you’re not taking on water. The trick is, you're always taking on water, that’s what makes you a better writer, the fact that you are still a few steps behind with all possible directions at your disposal.
That’s when I have no other real option but to write through the laughter and the contempt and the frustration. I shave that three-legged dog and put a sweater on him. You’ll always remember what you wrote after these moments of resistance, the place where you just knew you had created something no one would ever want to read. The things you remember the most come right after you force yourself not to run away. This is the place where you really ask yourself why you’re writing at all. What do you want out of your story? Who’s it for?
The big question to ask yourself is, “Am I writing to make the reader happy or to confront them?” There can be room for both, but you must be intentional about the reasons you develop the story in the first place. The choice between whether or not to entertain the reader or violate them will move the story into completely different directions. This choice will define you as a writer, how far you’re willing to go.
For example, the American dream is “I want.” The American reality is “I got, and it wasn’t enough.” This idea can become an undercurrent, the true north for a narrative about greed, opportunism, and lust. A story with this kind of constant gravity towards understanding the futility of consumption and immediate gratification can offer opportunities for highlighting glaring hypocrisies in the life of your reader.
There’s a chance to make the reader uncomfortable by shining a light on every way they’re like the person in the story they’re supposed to hate. This is your chance to force empathy, to create a space for the consumer to choose self-awareness and introspection over the mindless emotion of judgment.
If you're interested in creating a story to entertain instead of provoke, your characters have to follow a more cookie-cutter approach storytelling. Bad guy versus good guy, there’s a problem created that is then solved. Write a coming of age period piece about a precocious teenage girl. People love that shit. You’ve got a built-in market of middle-aged women just waiting to crack the spine of your fan fiction spin-off of Pride and Prejudice. Picture Disney story-line without all the talking animals and musical numbers. That’s a formula worth rehashing in your own words if you’re looking to entertain.
Of course, I'm too harsh. Not all widely loved forms of entertainment are mindless. What is safe to say is that they’re simple. There may be a lot going on under the surface for someone willing to look, but that doesn’t preclude the average viewer from enjoying the ride. The art of entertainment is creating something that most people can enjoy. You choose your side of the aisle when you isolate yourself from the average reader with “uncomfortable” or “problematic” content.
Learning to own whatever side of the aisle you’re on is when writing or creating becomes natural. The moment you stop giving a shit about the average reader, and you start putting your work out like a homing beacon for every other person out there who isn’t interested in the fat old wife that is contemporary mainstream entertainment. Familiarity breeds resentment, people are bored of the laugh track, sometimes they want to be shaken up a little bit, confronted on a new level. Entertainment is distraction; elevation is confrontation. You don’t have to tell people to be sad; you just have to give them the opportunity to remember the last time they were.
It is not the writer’s job to cater to the lowest common denominator of human that is so consummately narcissistic that they believe that language itself should bow to their every whim. When you become the person, who believes that words are violence than you have lost touch with the very real violent nature of reality. Censorship is the enemy of truth, words are only weapons if you believe that thinking is somehow bad for your health. Censorship is a speed limit on the salt flats. It castrates creators forcing them to abide by the arbitrary line that defines what is appropriate.
There is room for hate; there is room for the grotesque because they represent what is real. It may not be directly connected to you, but right on the other side of the fence, there is very little room for the appropriate. The impulse to turn out the lights on the things that challenge us is nothing but weakness run rampant, the child-safe fantasy that we have created to protect us from realizing our place on in the food chain.
In my opinion, the best writing holds up a mirror. It should be uncomfortable for the writer to write, it should force them to confront themselves. The reader will feel it too, the authentic turmoil within the story, the primal urge to uncover the world at all costs. You have to write the things that confuse you, distract you, anger you. You owe it to the reader. The ultimate sin as a writer is to close your eyes and plug your ears, to let the limited ideals of the appropriate dictate your work. You must never be boring, but what is more important is that you must never be bored.