I was on the phone with my mum the other day, discussing the impending upheaval in my life — not only a potential new job but a definite move of house, whether it comes with the new job or not — and I realised that despite the very serious nature of the choices I’m facing this year, we were both laughing an awful lot. It made me think about why I spend so much of my time amused at basically everything that happens to me. One of the things I often hear from people, both in brickspace and online, is that I’m capable of making ordinary things funny. It’s something I prize, because I’m not what you would call a funny person, but I can see things as funny. And I think that’s a huge key to my writing, as well, which I didn’t work out until, well, just now.
I don’t know when my sense of absurdity developed or how, not like I know other things. I know when I found my work ethic (college — late but at least lasting) and I know where my aesthetic sense comes from, because my family gave me that, between my gran the painter and my parents who took me to tons of museums and performances when I was young. I don’t know how I learned to find the ridiculous in the ordinary.
I wasn’t a class clown as a child, and the way in which I express my view of the ridiculous isn’t necessarily spontaneous. It comes through in my writing because I sit and think about how to frame things. Some of it is turns of phrase picked up from here and there, but that’s just dressing to the essential viewpoint I have on the world. I didn’t necessarily believe my high school English teacher who said good writing comes from honestly expressing the way we see the world, but I do now, because I’ve done it.
The next story I’m hoping to work on, called Tunnel, primarily concerns the way in which families interact, and in real terms concerns the structure of Chicago, the way it’s built on Other Parts Of Chicago, and the way we have this massive underground network of passages that nearly nobody knows about. Really, the latter part came first; I wanted to write a story about the underground, and the sibling issues came out of that (and, admittedly, out of my own issues with my brother). But there’s an aspect of the story which keeps trying to take over, and it’s the ridiculous aspect: I call it Bob And The Dragon.
Because see, in this world, there’s a dragon living under Chicago. The dragon is a fun fantasy element; the ridiculous part is that very few people ever encounter the dragon, and the only one who seems to care about him is a guy named Bob. Bob is incredibly ordinary, he’s just a dude in a suit and he doesn’t have much life drama or any ambitious aspirations, but in his spare time he is a dragon tamer. Bob is the one who rescues people from the dragon and buys it expensive sushi and hugs it when it eats people he doesn’t like. Bob is ridiculous. Even the other characters think so.
And I don’t know where that ten-degrees-off-normal viewpoint, which allowed me to produce Bob in the first place, comes from. Possibly from the fact that I wasn’t an especially funny child; I spent some of my childhood and most of my teen years angry, because I was smart and could see that I was surrounded on all sides by bullshit. I can remember my mother telling me it’s not bullshit, it’s just hoops to jump through, and not thinking that was particularly better, but it’s true: much of life, much of the time, is a series of hoops. Some are fun; some are just tedious, and would be unnecessary if more people either saw them at all or called them out when they did. Dress codes, for example, are 1% necessity and 99% ludicrous. I like wearing suits and I still think it’s stupid to make me wear something less comfortable and less efficient to move in for the sake of appearing “more professional”.
When you see how much bullshit you spend your life putting up with, and the rituals you have to undergo — for me, at the moment, all my annoyance at the interview process is coming to the fore — you can either laugh or get angry. I’m too damn lazy to spend my entire life angry, so I suppose, at some point, I chose to laugh. Very likely the novels of Terry Pratchett had a huge influence on this decision as well, since he’s especially good at laughing at bullshit. However it happened, it is the base I stand on to write my stories.
Writers build worlds — it’s a necessary part of what we do. Even if your world is a realistic one, even if it’s nonfiction, you have to re-construct reality within your work. If your world’s not realistic, or if it’s only loosely based in reality, you have to do more. Personal viewpoint influences how that world is built to a massive degree. You don’t have to see a laughable world; you can be angry at what you see and want to change it, or you can see the world in shades of fantasy, or any other viewpoint you happen to have. But having a firm and critically thoughtful view of the world, knowing what you see and what you think of what you see, is absolutely necessary. Until you have that, writing for other people is a struggle that will fight you. Writing, and fiction in particular, demands every part of you, and it’s difficult to give it so much if you don’t know what you’re handing over.
In my case, what I tend to give my writing is laughter; either with the world or at it. Both are effective in their own way.