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January 8th, 2012

The writer as hired gun

All of us who write hear popular misconceptions about craft that just make us grit our teeth. One of my favorites is the notion that anyone can write, that it's essentially just talking on paper. This week I was chatting with a gentleman who has a long history as a psychiatrist, and he's written a book about his more unusual experiences; he was perturbed because he'd given the book to exactly one agent (who a friend set him up with), and that agent hadn't gotten back to him...in TWO WHOLE MONTHS, because he's ready to do the talk shows NOW. I bit my tongue and managed not to ask this fellow (who I actually like and whose stories really are interesting) if he thought I could become a psychiatrist after talking to just one person and waiting two months.

But one of the most irritating myths I encounter - especially among other writers - is the notion that writing to a theme you've been given, or writing from someone else's idea, is some form of prostitution. "Sell-out" is another way of putting it. These writers talk about following their muse and pursuing their art and suffering from writer's block and waiting for inspiration to strike.

To put it very politely: That's a gigantic load of crap.

Sure, if you've glanced at my resume, you know I've spent a big chunk of my writing career working as a hired gun, especially in screenwriting. I've written for frothy children's cartoons that I would never have created on my own. As a screenwriter, I've written (and we're counting here only things that have been produced) horror movies, thrillers, action films, disaster films, science fiction movies, and children's animation.

That's a whole lot of whoring right there. We haven't even gotten into my prose writing yet.

Except I don't think of it as whoring my talents out, nor do I see it as mere craft put into the service of the almighty Buck. Here's why:

To me, the purpose of any fiction writing is to provide a reader with an emotional journey. A plot serves as the vehicle, and characters are needed to drive that vehicle. The characters need to be compelling, and need to be recognizable in some way to the reader, either as parts of themselves or as people they've known. The road for the journey is paved with emotions, anything from horror to love to joy to regret. The superior writer will be able to present all this in a particular style, one that can be recognized almost instantly. The best writer will provide the reader with some insight into their own lives or the world around them.

Does the plot need to be wildly original? Hardly. Look at a few genre classics - Matheson's I Am Legend, or (to slide sideways into another genre), Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice - and you'll see a vampire novel and a book about infidelity, hardly incredibly original ideas for books...but of course the way the stories are presented makes them stand-alone classics.

Now, let's add onto that another element of writing that I don't hear talked about much, and maybe it's something that is just a personal obsession for me: One of the reasons I write is to understand. I think people are the most astonishing things in the universe, and much of what we do baffles me. How, for example, could a man be a hunter and yet cry over the death of his dog? How can the very wealthy be blind to the ailments of the poor? Do women possess any of the violent tendencies that sometimes lead men to become serial killers? Is love for an animal intrinsically less valuable than love for another person? These are all questions that I've pondered in a short story, and occasionally asking the questions in that form has made me feel that I had at least the beginnings of understanding.

So, how does this play into the argument that working as a hired gun is not an act of creative prostitution?

Let's take the last piece I was asked to write where I was provided up front with many of the specifics. This was a short piece which is really less a short story in a themed anthology and more of a chapter in a shared world novel. I had to write about military actions in a zombie/human war, presented in the form of actual military reports. On top of that, I had to keep my story within the bigger arc of an overall story, and I had to coordinate specifics with the other writers in the book.

Why ask me to write a military story? Do I have any experience whatsoever in that area? Absolutely none. Nada. Zip City. I knew writing this would involve a tremendous amount of research, would take up a great deal of time, and would be very difficult. Yes, the editor is an old friend, and yes, the pay would be decent...but those things aren't why I said "yes".

I agreed to write the story because war is a universal human condition, and one I've seldom explored in my past work. I saw the opportunity to explore how soldiers must render the enemy faceless, or give into lethal empathy. I was challenged by the notion of establishing style in the context of stolid military reports, and creating plot and involving characters within that context.

The story was indeed (quite frankly) a bitch to write...but I was more than happy with the end result, since I felt I'd learned a little along the way, maybe about the warrior's mindset, and maybe about my own.

Granted, not all stories a writer is hired to develop are as immediately interesting...but I believe that a writer should be able to take any situation and find something of interest in it. You want me to write a kiddie show about ballerinas who turn into superheroines? I love it, because I get to tell little girls they can be powerful, too. Want me to write a disaster movie? Great, because to me "disaster" could easily be a synonym for "family relations", and I'm going to write you a hell of a study of a troubled family...who just happen to pursue hurricanes. Need a new Halloween novella? Well, now you know I've only just begun to explore that holiday in my fiction.

None of this, by the way, is meant to suggest that not writing to a predetermined theme is somehow a lesser creative act. It's not, of course. Listen, I know that Joyce's Ulysses - which I use as example only because many scholars consider it to be the pinnacle of 20th-century writing - didn't start when somebody said, "Hey, Jimmy boy, here's twenty quid to get you started on a story about a woman named Molly Bloom!" But on the other hand, it's also worth noting that Ulysses is based in part on both Joyce's interest in the Greco-Roman myth of Ulysses (Odysseus, in the Greek) and Joyce's own earlier book A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

I think the next time I hear someone voice that "writing for hire is prostitution" nonsense, I'll point 'em to this essay, and then ask them what they've done to challenge themselves lately. Because if a writer isn't challenging her/himself, then it's just all creative typing...or another form of prostitution.