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why & how we write what we write

November 29, 2010

one of my favourite music videos – beautiful violin riff, and pretty stunning imagery. i still can’t really figure out what is happening in this video – i can see that there has been a fire, and the black figures either represent the ashes, the crows that are also shown, or physical manifestations of actual depression or mental illness. the figures are gender ambiguous and in that they are more physically intrusive. they oscillate between loving to brusque to violent. one of my favourite parts occurs at 2:55 – it’s kind of like what i feel when i write, this odd and possibly imaginary character touching me like that, both a comfort and a threat. yeah? and finally, there’s something off about the redeeming character at the end – he’s a sort of wooden deux ex machina, and i don’t quite trust him. i prefer the threatening, faceless characters. at least they are passionate.

why on earth did i start this post?

oh yes. why we write what we write. this is a pretty large and amorphous and difficult subject. i guess i’m using the pretentious royal “we” in my title, so to clarify: by “we” i mean “writers.” since i am a part of this unruly and deviant group of libertines, i feel that maybe i can speak to them and about them.

anyway. lately i’ve been giving a lot of thought to why writers write what they write. people question me about this a lot – i guess it’s because i tend to write a lot about queer culture, but i don’t identify as queer. more specifically, i tend to write about gay men (as opposed to gay women) – although i do also write about drag queens and transgendered people, too. my parents really wondered about my proclivity for this subject matter, and i never really had an answer for them. i do give a lot of thought to this, though, and i’ll come back to it.

a lot of my writer friends get immersed in specific subjects or topics. souvankham thammavongsa came to queen’s university back when i was in undergrad, and although her poetry didn’t work for me, i was more fascinated in the way she was so wholly obsessed with her subject matter – in her case, fruit and insects. she was totally, totally obsessed with writing about oranges and fireflies and i was boggled that such a seemingly mundane subject matter could hold her attention for so long.

so where do writers find things that they become immersed in?

everywhere, i suppose. i carry a little red notebook with me so i can write things down. i like to write down overheard phrases or snatches of things that i’ve read. one of my stories – “cricket” – came from a four word phrase that i heard somewhere. (“cricket the drag queen” – i think that i sniped that from david wojnarowicz’s close to the knives.) i like to collect words (“osculation.” “atramentous.” “ekphrasis.”) and see if i can make a poem or a story from them. i like the weirdo words that are hard to find in dictionaries. i also have stickies all over my widget dashboard on my mac computer, and they are just filled with random frigging sentences and collections of words that i’ve found on the internet. one sticky is dedicated just to weird phrases, things that make absolutely no sense, like “strawberry street extension” and “golden far darter” – i like the consonance of these things. i like the way these words sound together. they may seem like gibberish but something might come out of them one day. another sticky is dedicated to story ideas that come to me as i’m on youtube or whatever else – things like cold case files and pompeii and dance marathons. i’ve turned at least one of these ideas into a screenplay/stage play. i also have dozens of word documents that consist of only one sentence or only a title that are saved in many folders – sort of stunted ideas for poems. i have half written stories everywhere. maybe one day i will come back to them.

i guess that sort of explains how i catalogue ideas. but the why is the harder part to explain.

i tend to write more about people than objects, so if you want to find out why a writer writes about inanimate things, this is probably not the post to read. i collect people like i collect phrases. a few of my friends have had a good laugh at the people i collect – namely because they are all men who are queer or close to queer. they all have a very specific look to them – high cheekbones, beautiful faces, slender bodies – and they all sort of move in the same way. what attracts me to them? talent. i like when someone is good at what they do, and i become interested in a person when i see passion. i like to write about david wojnarowicz because he was a vitriolic writer and because he was an artist. i like to write about vaslav nijinsky because he was said to be such a beautiful dancer that he danced himself mad. it’s the slightly macabre, the weird, the beautiful that attracts me. sadness. a lot of the people i write about died prematurely – a lot of them from AIDS, some of them from mental illness. if there is an element of the sad to somebody, i am more attracted to them.

people tend to write about what they know very well, or what they have experienced. visceral, hard-won things – love, sex, sadness, elation. i do this when i write poetry – if something happens that really moves me, i try to pin it down on paper. often, the extremes work best – i think that it is a very great skill to write something incandescent about a topic or an event that is mediocre or middling.

and people write about the places they have been – this is something that i have less talent in. i really want to write about the summer – about the extreme canadian north and about the nuances of ireland, but i have trouble with this. i have friends, however, who very handily write about the places they have visited and the things they have seen.

and some people just get hooked on ideas, wonderful quirky ideas – my friend kevin spenst is tweeting Finnegan’s Wake but using his iphone and seeing what the phone autocorrects and then just sticking with that. writers keep their eyes open and take gimmicks and transform those gimmicks into pieces of writing. writers read and they stay alert and they go on walks and keep their eyes peeled and then file away any inspiration or weird idea that they might have for later. inspiration can come in the oddest of forms. some of my story ideas have come from when i used to edit for a fan fiction web site. listen to music beyond your comfort zone and put yourself in a different time period. open up a book and use a random number generator to take you to a random page, and use the first sentence on that page as a poetry or postcard story prompt. go out with a group of writers or friends and order lots of beer and then use that same book for a group postcard story writing party, and time yourselves, and only give yourselves 3 minutes to write a story on a cue card, and then read all of your stories aloud to each other. look at art – even if it is amateur art on deviantart. you want a goldmine for poetry? check out my latest obsession: wikipedia’s list of unusual deaths. you want a goldmine for short stories? open up the bible and read isaiah 34:14. read anything in the bible, especially the old testament. god was mean and god was nasty and god was great. one of my favourite forms of poetry is the glosa, in which the poet borrows four sentences from another poet, and then writes a poem in conversation with that original poet. amazing! i wrote my own conversation with al purdy. the point of that ramble was this: there are prompts and inspiration all around you. you cannot claim writer’s block on writing in general – ever. there is always something to write, in some form, about something.


back to why i write about gay men. if i had a dollar for every time i have been asked about this, i would be a rich woman, or at least have a wider savings account. writers go through phases of subject matter, but if this is a “phase” it’s lasted years. the best i can answer is this: there is a physicality to the way that two men move together. while women and men are sometimes considered yin and yang, there is a whole different kind of power that is very visible, very tangible when two men are together. in the sphere of straightness, this was deemed “unacceptable” a long time ago. straight men don’t really ever even dance together for fear of being called out on it, and that is just not right. i like the way that men move together. i like the physical language of two male bodies – not because it is the “other” or because i am necessarily fetishizing it, but because it’s an innate expression of human bodies. in fact, i think it is most telling in the way that people react to my subject matter. i’m writing about men who have sex with men, which has existed forever, just as long as straight sex and straight love. and plenty of sonnets and plays and stories have been written about straight love, so i’m just balancing it out.

some people like to write about what they know. i like to write about what i don’t know, and i hope that this makes me a stronger writer.

marlene wilson's sketch of rene highway. click on the photo to see more of her dance drawings.

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