Okay, so here’s the thing, and this may come as a shock but: You do not have to hate what you make. You don’t even have to be modest. You don’t have to ask for pennies when you’re making gold.
I know, it’s hard. I’ve had my times where I started drawing and I couldn’t make a goddamn line come out right. I’ve stared at the flashing type line on my computer countless times, unable to figure out what comes next or how in the world to get this out right. I’ve gone back and looked at things I thought were great, only to find they were far from it.
But the thing is, in general, I don’t hate what I make. I love most of it. People come up to me and they feel a desperate need to tell me how good I am at writing or drawing, and don’t get me wrong, it’s great, but it’s also like they expect me not to think it. It’s nothing on them—it’s this idea drilled in that you can’t love what you do, that you always have to be struggling and striving and hating yourself, and you’re a dick if you say otherwise.
That, my friends, is How to Keep Others Down 101.
Look, nothing is ever going to be perfect. I should know—I’m often a perfectionist. I know everything wrong with what I make, but I also know everything right. That is what you focus on, and you take the wrong, you learn from it, and you do better next time. But that does not mean the first time sucked.
I’m tired of people thinking that they’re not talented, that their art isn’t good enough, no matter what everyone else says—even in spite of what everyone else says. That’s the desperation I hear in people’s voices: It’s from all the artists who just wouldn’t listen. I’ve been on the giving side. I’ve seen it, and man, it’s brutal when you know someone’s got talent and they just can’t, or won’t, accept it.
Maybe the fear lies in this: If you like it and no on else does, then there’s something innately wrong with you, right down to your tastes. So, if you don’t like it and others don’t, then you were right all along. But who the hell wants to be right about that?
We’re making art. Not everyone is going to like it, and you know what? That’s fuckin’ fine. No one has to, as long as you do. You are your first viewer, first critic, first audience member. If you were in that position with someone else, how would you be? Nice, probably. Your criticism would be constructive, supportive—you’d find the good things first and you’d point them all out.
So, why don’t you do that with your own work? Do it. Even if others don’t like it, you will, and once you decide enough times that you’re good or that thing you did was good or that part or whatever it is, you will build armor from that point on, and if other people don’t like it, you won’t give a fuck. You’ll know it’s good, and nobody is going to tear you down.
And guess what? That’s not cockiness. It’s power. You can’t expect everyone to support you, not in this bullshit internet world where everyone has an opinion they know nothing about. Trust me, you know better than they do.
Go make art, go love the art you make, thank the ones who think so too, and fuck the rest. You didn’t make it for them, anyway.
There’s a common trope in film, TV, and books, and that’s the idea that you can write the chase, but you can’t write the relationship. As Rob Thomas said of killing off a major character in the most recent Veronica Mars season: “There are not many shows about kickass detectives and their boyfriend at home.” He goes on to say: “There’s a reason shows end when the couple gets together.” (full article here)
I think it’s high time we start inspecting statements like “there’s a reason that ____” and “no story does ____”. Yes, there IS a reason shows and movies and books “don’t do that.” It’s because we assume that because there is this trope, then so it must be. Since it “works”, we can’t do something else. And so ensues repetitive and predictable writing. So goes the real death of many great stories.
To me, it’s gotten tired and boring watching the “will they or won’t they?” dance, knowing in your heart of hearts that they probably never will, and if they do, you won't get to see it. The Chase and Will They or Won't They? often go hand-in-hand. They're fine and they're fun...up to a point. It's like watching a house being built that never gets finished. Yeah, it's cool to make it and see how it's done, but if you never get to sit in it, if you never get to enjoy your life in it, what's the point?
It perpetuates the idea that the chase is the most important part. It’s where all the fun happens. Then you live happily ever after, or you end up in a boring, miserable relationship. We’ve black-and-whited an entire dynamic section of life. How uncreative is that?
The thing is, when I see a couple I want together, I actually want them together. I want to see them work their stuff out and make each other better and still be independent people. Hell, at this point, it’d almost be revolutionary.
As ridiculous of a show as Riverdale is, that’s one thing I have liked about it. The characters of Betty and Jughead began in that trope and, despite some blips, actually manage to be together for an extended length of time. It doesn’t ruin their dynamic or make them boring. They’re both nuts in their own rights, and so is everyone around them, so there’s plenty of drama to go around. It's actually not a bad example, even if the show is just stupid fun. They both go on solving the crazy mysteries and conspiracies of Riverdale, and they don't even do it together half the time.
That’s one thing I enjoy about writing LGBTQ characters. You figure yourself out, you get together, and that’s still half the battle. It can be for any couple, but it is particularly so when a large portion of the world still fights against you—when you’re still figuring out how you fit into a world you might not feel comfortable in yet. Even there, you run into those tropes.
Will They or Won’t They? and the emphasis on The Chase are two of the many tropes writers can fall prey to. Killing off beloved characters or making a character do something horrible to ruin a relationship are often cheap fixes to a problem that doesn’t need solving. It needs writing. So, be creative. If you feel like you have to do something in order for your story to work because everyone else did it, take a second, and ask yourself “Do I actually?”
Don’t always take the easy route. It’s often the road most traveled, and we will find no new ways if you never veer off the path.
How do you feel about the idea that couples getting together is the death of a story? Let me know in the comments!
Have you ever read a book or watched something where the characters all just sort of…sounded the same? Where you’ve been pulled out of the story and thought “Nah, that character wouldn’t say it that way”? If you ever saw Secret Life of the American Teenager, the dialogue and delivery were 1. Terrible, and 2. THE SAME . That’s an extreme example, but a fascinating one in a twisted sort of way. If you really want to know what I mean, watch this. If I used emojis in my blog, I'd use the crying laughing face now.
When I write, characters develop their own voices. I hear them speak in my head, and I preserve their voices as much as possible. I recognize, though, that someone else may not hear the nuances I do unless I show them. Sometimes that means stutters and repetition and contractions and improper grammar. Sometimes, though, it’s just the words.
We all have a go-to thesaurus in our heads from which we’re prone to grab the most readily available words. Some of those thesauruses have just a few options and some have many. Either way, the ability to step back and see those words in your text is an invaluable quality. I’m here to point that out.
To make it simple, if everyone says “What’s happening?” a lot or “What’s going on?”, they may come out oddly similar. Is it the biggest deal in the world? Maybe not, but it does make a difference. While many readers may not consciously notice it, it will make your writing more real.
Here’s an example. We’ll use this dialogue as the control:
“What’s up with that?”
Simple, right? But what if it went like this:
As they walked into the kitchen of the old house, they couldn’t make sense of it. Instead of food and kitchenware, the counter tops were covered with bolts and wires and chunks of warped metal.
“What’s up with that?” said Joe.
“I don’t know,” said Alan.
Just then, Robert walked in, a bewildered look on his face. “What’s up with all this?”
Sure, not a huge deal, but our “Robert” and “Joe” have similar phrasing. A simple change could be this:
As they walked into the kitchen of the old house, they couldn’t make sense of it. Instead of food and kitchenware, the counter tops were covered with bolts and wires and chunks of warped metal.
“What’s up with that?” said Joe.
“I don’t know,” said Alan.
Just then, Robert walked in, a bewildered look on his face. “What happened here?”
And then, they don’t sound so similar. Their thoughts are separate, and their reactions are clearer.
“You hate me, don’t you?”
“Of course not. You know that, don’t you?”
“You hate me, don’t you?”
“Of course not. Why would you think that?”
I know these are incredibly simple examples, so bear with me. In actual writing, this could happen a page apart…or several. You might notice that three characters say the word “obvious” in a chapter or two. Don’t go thesaurus-crazy, though. Some characters should have similar quirks, like siblings or long-time friends. Many people use the same wordings. It can be used to show that two people have grown close. This is simply a writing tool at your disposal.
It applies to more than dialogue. I wrote a book a few years back that was third person, past-tense with two main characters. The narration is a little different for both, but I noticed that both of their sections said “lest”, like “lest that happens.” So, I changed one character’s narration phrasing to something like “in case that happens.” Subtle, but it made a difference. It set the tone, differentiated the two.
If you start paying attention to the way people talk in life, you’ll begin hearing the differences. Especially in a place like Los Angeles, you get all sorts of ticks and habitual phrases. I first became aware of this with phrases used to ensure understanding. Personally, I usually say something like “Does that make sense?” or “You know what I mean?” But I’ve also heard:
“Do you see?”
“You feel me?”
I’ve also noticed a vast collection of acknowledgements:
And so, so many more.
Do you see what I’m saying? There are so many ways people communicate the same things. If you wanted, you could sit in a coffee shop or a mall and listen to how people speak, the different ways they communicate that you might never think of. Everyone has a different education, different people influencing them, different media consumed. We’re an amalgamation of those things, and your characters should be too.
Recently, I’ve started making notes in my phone when I noticed someone saying something that I wouldn’t think of. I heard someone say “such and so forth” when they were explaining something instead of saying “and so on” or “etc.” I would never think of that! Another time, someone said “What’s it called?” when they couldn’t think of something, but it was to such a degree that they used it when it didn’t even make sense. “Oh, yeah, I need to leave by, uh, what’s it called, 4:00?” Like that.
I find this phenomenon fascinating. I may never use those exact phrases, but, hey, maybe I will. Either way, they remind me that people are clever, illogical, simple and all things in between. Most importantly, they say things I’d never imagine.
Now, this may be stupidly obvious to some of you, but it can be refreshing to take yourself off autopilot, no matter what level you’re at. Your dialogue might be perfect, but it never hurts to take a look.
I’d love to know if you’ve found this useful! Let me know in the comments down below.
Ah, writer’s block. If you’ve ever written something, you’ve probably made its acquaintance at some point. If you haven’t, kudos, and what the hell are you doing right? Please tell me.
I haven’t figured out a miracle cure to this age-old dilemma. I’m not sure there is one. Not all stories and blog posts and poems and essays are made the same. Certainly not all people are. But there are a few things I do that have helped me move forward when I’m stuck.
Have you ever heard couple’s talk about how they won’t go to bed angry? They’ll resolve their conflict before lights out as a hard rule. Recently, I’ve implemented a similar practice. Instead of just going to bed or doing something else when I get a little stuck, I sit there, and I think until I come up with a solution to my problem. It’s actually worked pretty well. I think in this age of bombarded notifications and easy scrolling and quick consumption, it’s a lot easier to pick up your phone and endless scroll than it is to stare at any sort of incomplete project that isn’t just flowing like an Amazonian waterfall. Sometimes, if you just sit, you’ll find you only needed a few more seconds to figure it all out.
I haven’t been perfect about this, and I’m a little stuck on one of my books at the moment. When you’re not a planner, it tends to happen. But still, I’ve found it helpful a number of times. It’s also helpful to throw your phone across the room (onto a soft surface, preferably).
Another thing that has been helpful for me is to consume art. This could be TV shows, movies, books—whatever. I couldn’t tell you the amount of times that I read a book or watched some great (or terrible) show and it made me realize a solution to the writing problem I was having. Maybe I’ll encounter a character like my own, or a storyline so vastly different that it makes me realize my story could be something else. When I am stuck only flowing out, I find it useful to flow in. To be presented with ideas that are not my own, so that I may steal and alter and think differently.
As I write books, I find this extra true when I am not reading, which happens a lot. I’ll finally pick up a book and suddenly I’m writing a story I was completely stuck on.
Recently, I was watching Umbrella Academy on Netflix (Robert Sheehan was fantastic), and it made me reevaluate what I was writing. My story has a certain closed off quietness, and in Umbrella Academy, the goddamn world is about to end. The apocalypse is days away. And it’s made me think that maybe my story could become much bigger. Maybe it can be something different than I thought. Sure, I’d have to sacrifice some things, maybe make some edits, but it might just be what’s missing. I’m playing with the idea, trying to figure out what might work. I was 28k words in at the time of this. Like I said, I’m not a planner.
And I wouldn’t have had that thought, just as I’d become stuck, had I not begun watching that show. I’m still not sure, but the gears in my mind are turning, and I think I’m onto something.
Just don’t go watching and reading and avoiding your own work. That’s not the point. The point is to make you look at things you might not otherwise look at, so that you can take that new knowledge and apply it to what you were doing before.
Also, go for a walk! Stop staring at screens and look at the world. Let your mind wander. You’d be surprised what you realize.
Those are some things I’ve done that have helped me become unstuck. What do you do to handle writer’s block?
Growing up with The Three Stooges as my family has pointed out something to me: the immense, age-defying, life-changing effect that you can have on people. We’ve all witnessed that, I’d imagine, with celebrities we admire and artists and philosophers. We’ve seen what one man/woman can do (David Bowie, JK Rowling, Stan Lee…), but it’s distant. We are the effect of it, or maybe we’ve witnessed it, but we haven’t all created it.
For me, I’ve been a conduit for that effect. I have watched people light up and laugh and become filled with love and nostalgia just because I said that my great-grandfather was Moe. Men, women, strangers, friends, young, old… It’s like wielding a little bit of old, inherited power. “You made my day,” I’ve been told.
The Three Stooges were Jewish men in a time when parts of the world hated anything Jewish. They were their own kind of funny—an iconic kind of funny. They could be appreciated by anyone. They struck something, something I don’t think people strike often these days. Their humor needed no language. You could see it, quite literally. But it was more than that. They loved what they did, and so did others. Myself included.
And they knew. That’s the thing. I can’t speak as much for the other guys, but my dad told me that Moe would keep photos and things in the trunk of his car, so if ever he got recognized, he would have something to sign and give to them. That’s a kind of appreciation often lost these days. They knew what they had. They knew what that meant.
“I recall that every Christmas my dad played Santa to the children at an organization called the Spastic Children’s Guild. These were young children with spastic paralysis. Moe would go to downtown L.A. and haunt the wholesale houses. These were places owned by fans and people he knew from Brooklyn days. He would ask everyone he contacted to donate toys, clothing you name it. As payment for the donations, he’d tell a joke and have the donors in Stooge stitches. My dad was always concerned about helping “the underdog.” He would always say how lucky he felt to do what he loved to do and make a living while doing it.” – Joan Howard Maurer, my grandmother (read the original article here)
Despite the slapstick violent humor, that’s the kind of person he was. He saw the other side. He knew who was watching, and he cared too. I think that’s part of why they’ve endured so well.
I forget sometimes about the other side of art. I’ve always tried to be vocal about what I do, and about the fact that you just have to write and keep writing. Some of the younger friends I had back in my teens would come to me for advice—and they still do. They remember from back in the day. New ones too. And you know what? That’s so cool. Not everyone can say that.
It’s no Stooge-level impact. I will never be exactly what they were (which is totally fine), but I can see a small power forming, a small ability to impact other people.
It’s all the more reason and motivation to continue. I’ve come this far, and I’m starting to see that there are people on the other side of my art. I recognize that I’ve set myself up as someone who is going to “do things”. I can see it already, thanks to the Stooges and the stunning effect they created, and I know it is no small thing to matter in someone else’s world.
I was not one of those kids with my nose in a book, destined to write them because hell, I lived in them more than the real world. Wasn’t me. I watched a lot of TV shows and movies—hundreds and hundreds. All the men on my father’s side were screenwriters. I grew up watching my great-grandfather and his brothers smack each other around in the Stooge shorts. Visual, physical comedy. Kids in my schools were actors, and it was (and is) a regular occurrence to have the streets in my neighborhood turned into film sets. It’s what I knew. That was real life for me!
I did love books, though. My mom used to read to me all the time when I was young. Mystery books, ghost stories, fantasy—all sorts. But reading myself? It was too slow. Too much effort, I guess. I used to buy books, even, but I didn’t get through them.
One of my teachers when I was about 8 or 9 years old made us write short stories. Truthfully, I didn't like her, and I wasn't happy about it, but I didn't have much of a choice. She gave me a prompt about how a cow got its spots. It was about a “ranbow spotted babby cow.” I could not spell for shit, and it was not my finest work.
would never ruin the books. That year, Prisoner of Azkaban came out, I watched it, read it, and then...I was stuck. I needed more!
So, I did the logical thing: At age 13, I started writing a book. It ended up 30,000 words. A tiny novel. It was part of a trilogy. I’d put a lot of effort in, and that was when I knew I had to do something with it—that I had to become an author. All because I was waiting, and I wanted to live in another story like I had in Harry Potter.
Hey, whatever gets you going.
Sometimes, I feel like an imposter. I wasn’t one of those kids—I didn’t live in books until I was 12. Why should I get to write when I didn’t always love to read? When I don’t read every day? There were many years of my life where I would happily say that I hated reading. Now here I am. I get funny looks when I say that I hated reading, and yet, now I’m a writer. I still fall out of reading and will read only a book or two in a year. Other times, I’ll read several in a week. But even so, I’m still writing books, and I love to read when I do. I just didn’t grow up with the habit, but I know what I am, no matter how I came to be.
Does that make me any less of a writer? No, it doesn’t. You don’t have to fit the standard to be something. You just have to be it. It doesn’t matter if you find your passion at 4 or 44 or if you spent years obsessed or 6 months. You’re not an imposter. You’re not any less. All that matters is that you’re doing it, whatever it is. That’s the only difference between those that are and those that are not.
So, what are you?
I want you to take a good look at that title. Starving artist. That romantic, brooding musician who sleeps on a couch and has holes in his clothes and drama so high he’ll probably write in blood. That struggling actor who lives in his car and works three shit jobs and runs on Adderall. The waitress with dreams that can’t catch a break. The writer who just can’t make a deal fly and is bitter of trying, like it almost makes it better to have failed.
I’ve seen it. I grew up with it all around me in Los Angeles. You could call it a side effect of hustling, of drive, of perseverance. We all know it. We’re meant to live it—prideful to accept it. It excuses the failure, the pocket change exchange, the short on rent and sleep. Chase the bitterness with alcohol. Laugh at the narcissism with a side of self-doubt and nothing for dinner.
But take another look: starving artist. Not aspiring but starving. Not trying. Not climbing. Not up. I’ve seen it romanticized, idolized, held onto like a badge of pride. Scars. Tattoos. Holier than thous. You’re tough. You’ve earned it. Hell, you don’t even want success, anyway. You’re right by being wrong. You’ve beaten the system, right?
Who fed that bullshit to you? You were slung an insult and you took it like a truth. Experience has value, and so does drive. Bloody your knuckles and bloodshot your eyes until the sun comes up, and if it doesn’t work, do it again. But there’s still a lie. There’s still something not quite right.
As much as society loves art, it shits on the artist. “Get a real job.” “You contribute no value, but I’ll pay $15 to see your movie and claim I can do better.” And the best: “Can you do it for free?” and the anger that ensues when you won’t.
Starving artist. That’s what they tell you. That’s what they want you to be. Why? Because if you think it’s the dream to starve as an artist, that it’s just “part of the struggle”, then they have you. They own you, and they don’t have to feed you. They can keep you down, because you think you gain meaning from squalor. That’s the dark dream, the life you have to live, or success can’t be real.
You can have millions but be an addict. You can have billions and want to die. Why? Because you were taught to be starving. You were taught that you don’t deserve to have more, that you have to suffer and starve for it. You were never meant to break out of the 9-5 ‘til you die life. You were taught to fail, even when you have success. Artists are supposed to starve, right? You’re not the breadwinner, right?
Fuck. That. You are the light in the dark. You are the music in the silence. You are the words no one else could say. You are the mirror. You are fucking magic, creating something out of nothing. You are terrifying, because you can change everything. Don’t sell yourself short, because the rest of the world would love to, and they'd be happy to see you starve. They'd be right all along.
Don’t buy the toxic fantasy they sold you. It wasn’t made by an artist.
Starving artist. Bullshit.
I have learned that there are two primary types of writers:
Truth be told, I’m the main one I know who fits into #2, but I’m definitely not the only one. Like Neil Gaiman says, “Writing a novel is like driving through the fog with one headlight out,” and then he goes onto say that you can’t see very far ahead of yourself. Ain’t. That. The. Truth.
Well, it is for me, anyway.
Several years back, I gave one of my books to my brother to read. The thing is, my brother is not a reader, and while he really liked my book, it took him a year to finish it. That meant I had some time to twiddle my thumbs, but…that’s boring. I write, after all. That’s just what I do.
I remember seeing the streetlight outside one night, and I thought of a figure, and I thought of a voice, and I just started writing. What was it about? Didn’t know. Who were the characters? I’d figure it out. I purposely kept moving forward. I didn’t go back and change things. That was my rule. Maybe some characters come in a little later than usual. I mean, I didn’t know they existed yet, so they just had to end up there. I ran with it. I kept going. Soon, I knew more and more. Eventually, I knew all 200,000 words of it, and I finished the first draft. Twice as long as the book my brother was reading.
Maybe if I really tried, I could have planned it all from the get-go. Honestly, I probably would have dropped it. After all, I couldn’t see too far down the road. I just had to keep driving, slowly at times but driving, until I saw enough signs that I knew where I was going.
I do that with a lot my writing. Maybe I know the middle, but not the end. Maybe I know the end, but not the middle. The thing is, I don’t care. I keep writing. Sometimes, I get stuck on one book, and I work on another. Either way, I always try to keep writing, even when I don’t know what I’m doing. Especially when I don’t know what I’m doing.
Sometimes this means that you realize something you should’ve done differently halfway through, and you’ve got a whole editing task on your hands, but that could happen either way. Writing is an adventure. Sometimes I walk into a scene and, just like life, I don’t know what’s going to happen next until it happens. Someone could die by the time the scene is through that I thought would last until the end. It’s like living your story as it happens. That makes the future hard to predict sometimes, and the end a distant thing. I don’t think that should ever stop you. You don’t have to know everything, not until the end, and sometimes not even then.
Here’s the thing about writing advice, though: There is no one-size-fits-all. There is no right way to write. The only right way to write is whatever the hell gets you to write. Maybe you need to plan every scene, but consider that…maybe you don’t. Consider that maybe you just need to write and keep going forward until you’re done. If you’re always planning and never writing, go write. Take that risk. If it turns into a monster, dissect the good parts and build a better monster. It’s nice to get it right the first time, but you don’t have to. That’s what second drafts are for.
As a writer, moments and experiences have value to me that they might not otherwise. Sure, everyone learns lessons and changes and grows from the things that happen to them, but for me, there’s an added element: Whatever happens, now I can write that better.
That means the good things. That means the bad things. It means emotions, too. Heartbreak, fear, happiness—I can take that and bottle it up inside words, and I can make you drink it.
It doesn’t make the bad things okay, but it gives them a value they might not have for someone else. It gives me an upper hand over whatever hell I find, and an added joy over the good that I encounter. I don’t just passively witness the world. I take it.
I can have a friend call me, drunk and driving at midnight, confess in three words something that made me never talk to him again, and, at least, now I can write that. That terrible sinking rock in my stomach, that chaos, it's all mine now.
I can be harassed with a friend by a crazy chick in a big white truck. I can watch as her car hides behind a corner and her headlights turn off as she waits for us. Now I know what that’s like. I know the tricks. I can write that kind of crazy.
I can watch someone speak with such a weight that you hang onto the silence between each word like it’s almost as important as the thought itself. I can write that.
I can take the way it feels when I walk down the street at night, when everyone is just a hum in their houses, the freeway rumbling in the distance, and I am quietly witnessing the world when no one else is looking.
You get the idea.
The same goes for drawing. I watch people: how shadows fall, how lips settle together, how the lines of faces meet impossibly seamlessly. I constantly take note of the way the world looks and sits and moves. And yeah, I can write that, too.
Look. Listen. Feel. No matter what, take it in, note it down in your head or on paper, and use it. Whatever your art, live. Pay attention. There’s a world out there, and it’s your job to capture it in a way no one else can. Nothing will make your art as real as life will.
And when that fails, just make it up with confidence. That’s the real key to all of it.
Let me know in the comments if you’ve had any experiences that changed your ability to write. I’d love to hear.