Towards a New Literary Culture, with a Note on Secret Identities

Inspired by this blog post, I started to think about my secret identities. I, too, tend to sing a lot – but only when no one is around to hear it. Since sometime around third grade, I began to see myself as a physicist at heart – or, more accurately, a cosmologist – and I still do. On the other hand, I also see myself as a philosopher. And an anthropologist.

I do realize that I’m none of those things. While I’ve read extensively in popular science titles, I’ve had no formal education in any hard sciences beyond high school. I did study quite a bit of philosophy in college and took a few classes in anthropology. But I’ve never done any of the real work that’s essential to actually being a cosmologist or philosopher or anthropologist. To claim that I am is an insult to those people who really are.

But this is about my secret identities. The ways in my heart-of-hearts that I’m the hero of the movie of my own life.

My deepest secret identity is as a writer. I should make something clear from to outset – I am not a writer. But I’ve always wanted to be one. Once, when I was in high school, I dreamt that I wrote a 350 page novel and I saw every word of it being typed on a computer screen… and when I woke up, I couldn’t remember any of it. At various times, I’ve tried my hand at poetry, short stories, and essays. I even took a year-long playwriting class in college. I’ve had several teachers who strongly encouraged my creative writing. I’ve been told that I have a gift for creating characters – interesting, dimensional, believable, unique. I’ve been told that I write exceptional dialogue. And I have all kinds of issues and themes I want to explore.

Where I fail as a writer is in two key areas:

  1. I’m hopeless at creating environments, or, as literary critics would call them – milieux.
  2. I have no stories to tell.

So I have these interesting characters that can talk about big ideas in intelligent and entertaining ways – but I have nothing for them to do and no place for them to exist.

That’s a bit of a problem.

I find myself wishing that I could give my characters to other writers, to see what they could do with them. Or that someone else would give me a plot and a setting to put my characters in, to see what they would do.

It’s frustrating. There are certain writerly things I’m good at – but I’m not a writer because there are too many other things that I can’t do. I have original creations that I want to be able to contribute to writerly culture – but I don’t have any way to do so because I’m not a writer.

It’s somewhat analogous to the difference between a singer and a singer/songwriter. Every band wants a singer/songwriter, someone who can write and sing their own lyrics. But there are a lot of great singers out there who can’t write original songs. They can absolutely kill in their interpretations of other people’s tunes – but no one wants them in their band because they can’t write.

This gets me to thinking how much I sometimes wish that the culture of writing was more like the culture of music. Because (and I’m about to contradict my analogy in the preceding paragraph) music has a huge amount of freedom for collaboration and reinterpretation. More to the point – it has deep respect for collaboration and reinterpretation. You don’t have to create entirely original work in order to make substantial contributions to musical culture.

I want to see a culture of active collaboration, exchange, and reinterpretation in writing. A thriving culture of literary mash-ups, if you will.

There are two specific examples I have to try and explain what I’m envisioning:

Example the First:

I went to see an original play at the Northlight Theatre in Skokie, IL. I don’t remember what it was but I do remember one scene in particular. And I remember walking out of the theatre being profoundly dissatisfied with the way the main character responded to another character in the scene. I kept thinking, “What he should have said was…” My understanding of the character wanted him to go a different direction. When I got home, I sat down at my computer and rewrote the scene, giving the main character a whole new monologue and altered the dialogue so he responded the way I wanted him to. I find myself doing this a lot when I’m watching TV or movies, reading, seeing a play, etc. – hearing in my head what I wish a character had said.

I envision a whole literary culture based on this sort of writing, in which different authors take on each other’s work and modify it. A culture of “This is how I would have written this scene”. Undertaken with genuine respect and a sense of fun, as a vibrant conversation between creative individuals conducted through their written fictions, I think this could generate amazing work!

Example the Second:

I once wrote a ridiculous, silly science-fiction short story inspired by my best friend’s nickname. While the short story I wrote was pretty dumb, in the course of writing it I invented my own alien race. I created a unique physiology for them complete with evolutionary explanations for their abilities; I gave them a culture and a history; I created a comprehensive bio-socio-anthropological dossier for them. And I’m really proud of it! I think my aliens are really good!

But they’re wasted on me. I’m not a good enough writer to be able to use them.

What I want to do is give them to someone who can. To find a truly gifted SF author and say, “Here you go! Have fun with them!” It would be so exciting for me to see what they came up with! Larry Niven did something like this when he opened up his Known Universe to other authors for the “Man-Kzin Wars” series. Also, the book series that are set in the Star Wars and Star Trek universes require writers to share characters, plot lines, settings. These are a couple examples of many similar science-fictional universes. So this culture does exist, to an extent – but it’s not the same as taking your personal creation and giving it, wholly, to someone else to use. I want to see something more like that, more individuals exchanging personal creations, and to see it in other genres beyond SF.

Or I could just be trying to compensate for the fact that I’m not a very good fiction writer.

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