329 – Writers in Stories
Writers sometimes struggle to portray other professions in stories, but it turns out they have trouble portraying their own profession as well. Fictional authors are always portrayed as rogue geniuses who love suffering and never practice or revise. Why is that, when it’s so unlike the experiences of any actual writers? That’s our topic for this week, as we drill down on what it means when writers write about writing. Also, why they need to stop telling us that an in-universe piece of fiction is good. We’ll be the judge of that!
Generously transcribed by SpacePineapple. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle. [Intro Music]
Oren: And welcome, everyone, to another episode of the Mythcreants podcast. I’m Oren, and with me today is…
Oren: And so, today, I am a writer in a story, which means I never plan anything, inspiration comes to me in a bolt of lightning, I never edit my work, and I always write at a coffee shop.
Chris: Or in a library with lots of books in the background.
Oren: Sometimes the library. You know, a combination library/coffee shop is a pretty good bet.
Wes: Or you’re following around detectives to all the cases that they go, because you have to have that constant source of inspiration.
Oren: Yeah. So, okay. Just a quick question. I haven’t actually seen much Castle. I’ve seen a little, but does he actually write very much?
Chris: (laughing) Does he get any writing done in that show?
Wes: That’s kind of a funny thing. They kind of show him writing, but certainly, you see the books that he’s published, and they’re clearly doorstops. So, I was like, when is he writing all this? They’re not showing us all the paperwork that the detectives have to do. I mean, he could be writing during that time, but they’re not showing it.
Oren: ‘Cuz Castle is about him basically solving crimes, right? That’s what happens in Castle?
Wes: Yeah. He’s kind of, just for the inspiration, because he’s written so many books, and then he kind of does join in to help with the crime-solving.
Oren: Right. I know that the premise is that he’s a mystery writer who goes on investigations for inspiration, but the actual action of the show is him solving the crime, as I recall.
Oren: So that would actually explain why the episodes that I saw of Castle, I actually like more than most stories about writers that I see, because him being a writer is kind of secondary. His main job is to be Nathan Fillion and solve crimes.
Oren: Writers get weird about writing in their stories. Like, if a writer puts a writer in their story, it’s 90% chance things are about to get weird. And it’s just kind of off-putting to me, so I would prefer it if they were just a detective who, off-screen, writes some books sometimes, I guess.
Wes: I noticed that, a lot of the Stephen King that I’ve read, he puts writers in his story. In Salem’s Lot, the main character, Ben Mears, is a writer. He returns to Salem’s Lot for a change of scenery, to maybe start writing, but then gets quickly dragged into this whole “there’s a vampire in this small town” situation. And instead of him writing about it, he’s trying to not die, and that was way better. It’s just his job.
Oren: Once people start philosophizing about writing, I immediately know it’s not gonna be good. I’m in for a bad time. And I’ve noticed this happens more often when the story is about a novelist. Not always; Game of Thrones got real weird about TV writing at the end, but I’ve noticed that people tend to have a more realistic view of what it’s like to write a TV show. But for some reason, whenever they have a novelist, it’s like the novelist is some weird, mythical creature who does things that cannot be understood by mere mortals, and it gets weird. I don’t like it.
Chris: I think that it’s better when it’s grounded in reality. And a lot of times, what you have is screenwriters writing about screenwriting, and they’re talking about their own job, right? And they tend to make, sometimes, more funny commentary on it. Whereas, when you get into, “oh, I want to tell a fanciful tale,” (laughs) that’s more likely to happen with novelists, even novelists writing about novelists.
Oren: Yeah. I mean, I would expect novelists writing about novelists to be more the way TV show writers are when they write about TV show writers. ‘Cuz when you watch those episodes, they tend to be very self-deprecating, and have a lot of jokes, and make fun of the process, and usually at the end, still be somewhat uplifting, right? There’s a Stargate episode like that, there are several Supernatural episodes like that. There’s at least one (Star Trek) Deep Space Nine episode like that. But even when both TV shows and novelists write about novelists, they just get weird about it.
Chris: Yeah, it’s a whole literary culture … stuff … where I’m pretty sure it comes from—Wes, you can help us identify the tropes.
Wes: If you’re like, “oh, it’s crafty”, in the terms of, writing is the craft, it’s a high craft. I’m writing about somebody who practices the high craft. I have to be high craft about it. Yeah. It’s like, “so let me fill you in on how this goes,” and it’s whimsical and magical and amazing, and it can only come through—like what Oren said—a bolt of lightning is inspiration.
Chris: It cannot be defined.
Wes: It can’t be defined. Well, there’s a character that just is locked up and secluded from the world with no experience of anything, and somehow writes a masterpiece. Okay. (laughs) How?
Chris: The thing that really surprised me when I was writing a post about this—stories about stories—is that there were two different stories about characters who wanted to become literary martyrs. They wanted to die for the perfect story, and that is too far. No, let’s not. Nope, nope, nope. That’s taking your craft too seriously to a whole new level, except you’re not taking it seriously, because you don’t think you need to put work into it. You just shut yourself in a room and deprive yourself of sleep and food, and smoke lots of cigarettes and drink, and then somehow the perfect novel emerges from your stream of consciousness.
Oren: If I suffer enough, then I will be a good artist.
Chris: But suffer in a very secluded way, right? We’re not going to go out in the world and suffer. We have to suffer alone in silence. We have to be very introverted about our suffering.
Wes: I have a very good quote from a writer, as a character in a story, for this suffering. In, once again, Stephen King, his book, Misery, a character, Paul Sheldon, is a famous novelist who writes this series who stars a character named Misery. And most people know that he gets captured by Kathy Bates in the movie. It’s not Kathy Bates in the book, (laughs) because she didn’t like the way he ended his most recent book. And so, she traps him in his house, and eventually cuts off one of his feet, and forces him to write the new book.
This quote from the literary wisdom, if we can call it that, the main character offers is, “Writers remember everything… especially the hurts. Strip a writer to the buff, point at the scars, and he’ll tell you the story of each small one. From the big ones you get novels, not amnesia. A little talent is a nice thing to have if you want to be a writer, but the only real requirement is that ability to remember the story of every scar. Art consists of the persistence of memory.”
I’m like, uh, okay. That’s convenient in this story where you’ve been tortured.
Chris: I guess if you only write creative non-fiction.
Wes: Right. (laughs) Yeah. If it’s all memoirs like that, but you’re right. This attitude that you have to suffer for your art is pervasive, and a lot of writer characters put that back out into the world.
Oren: What really gets me is stories where writing or storytelling in general is just portrayed as being very easy, like anybody can just do it. Just write a story, it’ll be super riveting, no matter what their previous skill set was. And it’s just hard for me to imagine how an author could sit down and do that, right? Every other profession, when they look at the way their profession is portrayed in stories, very often they’re like, “oh, well, that’s not really how it is,” and that bothers them.
But for some reason, with writers, we write our characters like Kvothe (The Name of the Wind), who is not a writer, and as far as I know, has never written anything other than music, and is suddenly like, “I’m the greatest storyteller, and I will tell this story greatly,” and they’re all like, “yes, Kvothe, you are the greatest storyteller, and you do tell the story greatly.”
Or in Ten Thousand Doors (The Ten Thousand Doors of January), some guy, who I think before was some kind of professor, was like, “I’m gonna tell this amazing story that is just the greatest, and I’m told it’s the greatest by the characters in the story.” And it’s like, do these people have to practice? Did they have to work their way up from short stories? Do they have a trunk drawer full of stories that they had to get rid of because they were just not salvageable? Where is all of that? (laughs)
Wes: Yeah. It’s tough when writing is a skill. Most people write and most people read, so it’s very accessible. Most of us are terrible at drawing. (laughs) I can’t draw, but I can type words on a page. So it’s like, the access point is so low, (sarcastically) so clearly, anybody can do it if they just try hard enough. ‘Cuz I write all the time, so it’s not perceived as a skill, because it’s so ubiquitous.
Chris: Well, it’s a soft skill versus hard skill dividing line, right? Where a soft skill, generally, anybody can do it. It’s about how well you can do it, right? Whereas, the harder a skill is, on that soft versus hard spectrum, the more you will recognize that you just can’t do it. And if you draw something and it doesn’t look like the real thing, that’s the hard skill aspect of it, making it look like a thing. That’s easy to see, that you’ve just done it wrong. (laughs) But that’s not the same with writing. So, that’s the problem. That’s one of the reasons why people think it’s easy.
It is very weird that writers who, at this point in time, should have worked very hard to become as good as they are, would then put that in their books. I’m wondering if it might just be a personal fantasy. I mean, for Kvothe, at least, he has to be absolutely the best at absolutely everything, right? So maybe that’s supposed to be more a statement on how awesome Kvothe is, and not a statement on how easy storytelling is.
Oren: Yeah, that’s probably true. I mean, Kvothe is really great at everything, so I guess it would make sense that he’s also great at storytelling. I mean, objectively, he’s not—his story is meandering and boring—but in the story, we’re told it’s great.
Chris: In DS9 (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine), “The Muse,” which is this really funny one where Jacob—the sexy, sultry, news alien muse shows up. And, you know, “I can unlock your creativity, get you to stop censoring yourself.” (laughs)
Oren: “But I can do it sexily.”
Chris: “Sexily.” (laughs) There is definitely an aspect of that where it feels like Jacob’s like, “Hey, wouldn’t it be great if I could take this easy path to fast success,” right? And instead, in the end, he has to actually study and work hard. At the same time, it’s clear that the writers are still in love with the idea of the muse. They even just love that character, because she doesn’t get arrested. (laughs) She just turns into a ball of golden light and flies off, even though she was draining Jacob’s life force.
Oren: Yeah, there’s definitely a thing where, at the end, Jake is all sad that she left, and there’s kind of a feeling of, “Well, we couldn’t let her kill you, but we understand it’s very sad.” (laughs) I’m sorry we had to save your life, Jake. It’s a bittersweet ending.
Chris: That one’s really weird, because there’s clearly an element of, this was the easy route where he had this muse touch his pressure points while he wrote stream-of-consciousness, and it was a brilliant novel. And that’s like, sorry, you can’t get there the easy way, you have to take the hard way. But at the same time, the writers clearly were not willing to let go of that idea, or to say that the answer is not just to stop censoring yourself. (laughs) They weren’t willing to say that just writing stream-of-consciousness and not censoring yourself is not going to turn into a brilliant novel. But that, I think for me, goes along with the “this is some sort of weird fantasy” theory, and that’s why writers keep doing it.
Oren: Right. That also plays into the whole “natural brilliance,” which… people have that idea with a lot of different crafts, but I just find it particularly common in stories, in writing. And that’s the thing people think in real life, that you have to be born a writer, even though I think most professional writers, if you ask them in the real world, will say that’s not true, but then they could write it in their fiction an awful lot.
Chris: Yeah. I think I see it more with the idea of storytelling, because I don’t think people understand storytelling as well as they do with actual writing. But there is a craft book that I read and covered when I was comparing books on writing fantasy on the blog, where somebody just straight up was like, “well, if you’re a natural-born storyteller, then you can learn.” It’s just like, (sarcastically) really? You’re gonna tell that in your book on giving advice for writing fantasy books?
Oren: Look, it’s important to leave yourself an escape route for when your book doesn’t work. It’s like, look, if my book works, it’s because my book was great, but if it doesn’t work, it’s because they weren’t naturally talented.
Chris: Mm-hmm. It does seem to be a problem. That happens a lot with this. So, should we talk about some specific works besides “The Muse”?
Oren: I mean, but “The Muse.”
Wes: “The Muse.”
Chris: Which is great for a laugh.
Wes: There’s a really weird book that I like called The Nonexistent Knight, by an Italian author named Italo Calvino. And I suspect you both would be incredibly frustrated by this book. (laughs) It starts out as a tale of chivalry, and there’s this knight, Sir Agilulf, and basically, this knight is a suit of animated armor. There’s nothing inside the armor, but this animated spirit of chivalry is this knight. The writer’s writing about it and commenting, and there’s war and stuff, and there’s a squire for this knight. And then, there’s this mysterious other knight-soldier, and the squire falls in love with her.
But the writer of the story, the narrator, starts getting sidetracked, and starts losing interest in the Nonexistent Knight as a main character and following the plot threads as she goes down. And in the end, she realizes that she’s in the story herself, and she’s writing her own rescue. And I don’t know, it doesn’t make any sense, (laughs) but it was definitely that writer “creating the world-as-story as they go”-kind of thing that happens in some stories. Almost like how, in Supernatural, Chuck was like, “Well, I kind of have some idea of what’s gonna happen,” then they can use that to their advantage. I thought that kind of played into it as a character writer who’s affecting events as they’re writing them.
Chris: Right. ‘Cuz he’s writing the Supernatural books. I have a real good example of that. It’s not speculative fiction, but the movie, Adaptation. So the main character, Charlie Kaufman, is the screenwriter, Charlie Kaufman. (laughs) And he’s writing about his own—it’s heavily based on his struggle to adapt a book called The Orchid Thief that basically didn’t have a plot. It was just about orchids, (laughs) but he didn’t wanna make it formulaic. So he had a lot of writer’s block, because this was just—the book did not lend itself towards the story very well.
So, in Adaptation, he is writing the screenplay for Adaptation in the movie and having writer’s block. And one of the funniest things is—one thing that is fictitious in the movie is, he gives himself a twin brother that he can be jealous of, who seems naturally successful. And apparently, the screenwriting of the movie is credited to both him and his fake twin brother. (laughs) Like his twin brother is real and they wrote it together.
Oren: This is three levels deep of fake reality. What is happening?
Chris: One of the funniest moments is when he goes to this seminar on screenwriting, and this character’s supposed to have anxiety and depression, and one of the ways it’s expressed is, there’s actually a lot of voice-over of his internal narration in his head about how insufficient he is, or what have you. And then the person giving the seminar is like, “And don’t do voiceover. It is so tacky.” And then the voiceover kind of pauses for a second, (laughs) like he’s embarrassed of his own voiceover in the moment, so it gets a little meta. But that one, again, is pretty good, because it’s very grounded in the writer’s own experiences. It’s not off romanticizing what storytelling is, and his “oh, I’m trying to bring out the story without just adding drugs and car chases to it.” And that kind of struggle is interesting. Oren, do you wanna bring up another one?
Oren: Well, I was just thinking about how . . . If a story is going to have a writer in it, I feel like it is useful to talk about some of the difficulties of writing, and I kind of appreciate what you were just talking about. Like, going to a screenwriting seminar and trying to figure out what you’re doing. That’s relatable. What really bothers me is when writers write excuses for themselves. This happens several times in (Star Trek) Voyager.
They have more than one episode that’s a story about a writer, or in this case, a storyteller, because the later one is Neelix telling the episode story to some kid. And in that episode, Neelix gets annoyed because one of the kids is like, “Hey, that tech thing you’re talking about, it doesn’t work that way.” And Neelix is like, “You’re being a pedant. Stop expecting my tech to be consistent.” And it’s like, okay, writers, I get that keeping track of all your tech is hard, but it’s annoying to the viewer when you say a thing works one way in one episode to make your conflict work, and then the next episode, it works a different way.
Chris: It breaks immersion. It makes it feel not real. It’s not fun.
Oren: And no one’s perfect, but it feels weird for you to get mad at the audience for expecting consistency, ‘cuz that makes the show better. It’s a show about sci-fi. It’s about technology. It’s better if the technology works the same way in each episode.
Wes: It should’ve always just been boats and magic, like you said.
Oren: Yeah. That’s my reference to my theory that Star Trek should have been a fantasy instead of sci-fi. (laughs) I do legitimately think that Star Trek would have been a better show if they could have afforded a shuttle landing sequence early in the show, and then they hadn’t invented the transporter. My God, the transporter causes so many problems.
Chris: It does.
Oren: But I’ll tell you what … Voyager did give us the Vulcan Dictates of Poetics, which—I desperately want to read that book.
Chris: I think we need to, at some point, just make up what the Vulcan Dictates of Poetics is.
Oren: Just have to write the Vulcan Dictates of Poetics. Ah, that’s great, because that’s from the episode where Tuvok and Tom are trying to write a holo-novel together.
Chris: Worst-case scenario is the episode.
Oren: And Tuvok is, like, “You know, the Dictates of Poetics clearly state that a character’s actions must flow naturally from the character’s established traits. And then Paris is, like, “yeah, but sometimes you just gotta have them act weird for the sake of a plot twist.” And it’s like, no, you don’t.
Chris: People like plot twists. You know, you can also have plot twists if the character’s acting in character.
Wes: Well, I think you guys should write that book of poetics, but you should write a book about you guys writing that book of poetics.
Chris: Worst-case scenario is great, though, because it’s like a face-off between Tuvok, who has clearly studied writing and storytelling at some level and knows what he’s doing, and wrote a really popular holo-novel that everybody likes, and Paris, the renegade white boy that the writers really liked, who’s there to balance out the marginalized characters or something, who has beginner’s hubris, and is like, “I’ve always wanted to write a novel,” and then tells Tuvok, “no, you didn’t want to finish it, so I get to finish it now. Your book. I mean, their argument is very realistic. What’s weird is that the writers seem to think they’re equally right.
Oren: Probably the weirdest example that I’ve ever seen of a novelist showing up in a novel is the Kim Stanley Robinson book, Pacific Edge. You guys have probably seen this at least a little in some of my posts, but for anyone who hasn’t… what happens is, Pacific Edge is a utopian future, basically, where everything’s great, and everyone pitches in to do community service and do necessary work, and it has mutual aid, and it’s all great. And the actual plot is some guy who wants to develop a hilltop, and the main character doesn’t want him to do that. But in the middle of this, after chapter one, suddenly, chapter two starts with what appears to be notes from Kim Stanley Robinson about writing a utopia, and how it’s hard to write utopias.
And it’s like, what is this? When I was listening to it, I didn’t even know that it’s supposed to be in italics, I guess to set it off from the rest of the text. So it really felt like authorial notes that had been left in the manuscript by accident, and it was super weird. And it wasn’t until, I don’t know, halfway through the book, that it became clear that this—‘cuz at the beginning of each chapter, we would have more of this, where this character would just talk about this book he was trying to write. And it just sounded like Kim Stanley Robinson was talking to us about this book he was trying to write, and I was very unsure what was going on.
And then, about halfway through, some stuff happens that didn’t happen in the real world, like he describes some kind of disaster that is a fictional disaster. And it’s like, okay, so this is fictional text. This is not authorial notes. What was the point of that? It was in there, so clearly, it was supposed to do something. But all it really does is give us, I guess, a little backstory on the world, ‘cuz it describes a little bit of how the world collapsed and how this utopia needed to be created, but that gets told in the actual story, too. We get the backstory there, as well. So why was that there?
Chris: Yeah, too realistic.
Wes: Yeah, and weird.
Oren: It was just very strange. I just did not get it. To me, it felt like—I’ve seen this, also, with authors who feel like, if they open up a chapter with quotes from an in-universe novel, or an in-universe piece of writing, that that’s just automatically good. Middlegame did that, too. Where Middlegame opened a lot of its chapters with quotes from this in-universe novel that I hadn’t read because, you know, it didn’t exist. It actually does, now. The author went on and wrote that novel, so you can go read it if you want, but at the time it didn’t exist, so of course, I hadn’t read it.
So I was just like, what is the relevance of that quote? I guess the main characters in Middlegame sort of resemble the characters from that novel, but not in any way that really affected the plot. It’s not like the character’s in the novel, even though both of them have read the in-universe novel. They never use it for anything. They’re not like, oh, well, this happened in the novel, so we can solve this problem with that knowledge. That never comes up. It’s just a thing that was in the background. I was like, what? Why is this here? Yeah, it was very strange.
Chris: Too realistic. Make it more story-like. Another good one that has a writer in it is—we talked about DS9 (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine), “The Muse,” which is terrible. Hilariously terrible. But a good one is “Far Beyond the Stars.” And I think this is another one where the writing is pretty good, because it’s just not about that, really, but this is one where Sisko gets a vision from the Prophets. And it’s specifically about, during the war effort, when he’s getting discouraged, like this war is never gonna be won, maybe I’ll step down and stop fighting it. And he has a vision going back to—
Oren: It’s the ‘50s, somewhere.
Chris: —where he imagines that he’s a science fiction writer working for a short story science fiction magazine, and there, he is writing about a commander of a Deep Space Nine who was black, named Benjamin Sisko. And this is, of course, when nobody would imagine a black commander of a space station. And in the time period, the idea is that what Sisko already is is somebody else’s dream, that in that backstory, in that vision, seems hopeless. The oppression of black people seems hopeless. It seems like this is just a fever dream that can never come true. He writes a story about the actual, real Benjamin Sisko, but then he’s not allowed to publish it. His manager agrees to publish it with the idea that he’ll just write, “oh, and it was all a dream” at the end, and that will somehow make it okay. But then, when the publisher sees it, they pull the whole issue, and he gets fired, just for putting a black man as the protagonist of his story.
So, in that situation, having black people gain rights and not have so much oppression against them feels like the losing battle and the hopeless dream. Whereas, in Deep Space Nine, that’s already been accomplished. So then, that lesson is taken away, and then Benjamin Sisko’s like, no, I will keep fighting the fight. So that’s where writing comes into it, but it’s cool because we see the whole writer’s room, and they’re not the same people, but we see all of the actors of Deep Space Nine playing writers, playing science-fiction writers who work at this place. And it’s, again, it’s not really about writing. And I don’t think that his writing process is necessarily what we would normally consider—oh yeah, he wrote several different drafts of this Deep Space Nine story he’s writing that everybody says is great, but you know, for one thing, that’s not really what the story is about. And for another, we have an obvious explanation for why he writes this incredible Deep Space Nine story, just out of passion, very suddenly. And that’s that it’s part of the vision that these Prophets are giving Benjamin Sisko.
Oren: And I mean, that episode is just very, very good. And I honestly think it’s really good because it’s about racial justice that uses writing as a device. And the only real statement it makes about writing is the importance of diversity and representation, which is both A) true, and B) fairly simple and straightforward, despite what some people might want to tell you. And so, I feel like that was an easy thing to—or maybe not easy, but that was a useful thing to structure the episode around, as opposed to trying to make some deep point about the writing process or what have you.
So that is a really good note to end the episode on, because that’s just, you know, most of my examples are like “ah, I didn’t like this,” but I did really like “Far Beyond the Stars.” So I think we will go ahead and end on a positive note.
Those of you at home, if anything we said piqued your interest, you can leave a comment on the website at Mythcreants.com. Before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons. First, we have Kathy Ferguson, who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next, we have Ayman Jaber, he is an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally, we have Danita Rambo, and she lives at therambogeeks.com.
We’ll talk to you next week.
Chris: If you like what we do, send a few dollars our way through our Patreon. Every cent goes into the hoard of gold we lounge on like dragons. Just go to patreon.com/mythcreants. [Outro Music]