No One Best Way: Confessions of a Novelist and (Ex) Punk Rock Kid
One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned while creating my writing career? Here it is:
There is no one best way to become a writer.
There is no one path. No one background. No one class, education, religion, race or creed required. Examples abound, from every facet of life. This fact should be a kind of freedom.
But when I started, back in the 20th century, I was convinced only certain kinds of people were allowed to become writers. That there was a check list of youthful experience all writers needed by the time they were twenty: all writers are born knowing they will grow up to be writers; all writers spend their teenaged years dreaming and working toward writing a masterpiece; and all writers have read all the greats of literature, both popular and classic, before they graduated high school.
If this was the test, I was boned.
Until I was nineteen, I didn’t give a shit about reading or writing. I watched relentless hours of TV, and loved gutter entertainment: comic books, slasher flicks, Dungeons and Dragons and, of course, pro wrestling!
My deepest love was rock and roll and its dirty variations: punk rock, heavy metal, grunge and, later, country (Johnny Cash can kick any emo band’s ass thrice over. Them’s just the facts). And, more than anything, I wanted to be a musician. I ate, drank, and slept music. My head was filled with songs, guitar arrangements and sounds, lyrics, album covers. I dreamed about touring, living out of a van, eating scraps and barely keeping the tank full as you went from one shit gig to another. No dreams of rockstardom. No arena shows. I wanted the blood and scabs of a hard working, do-it-because-you-love-it rock and roll band. I learned guitar, sorta learned to sing, formed bands, made demo tapes, got on the radio, played a bunch a gigs, got a few solid reviews, had some measure of respect from the local indie scene, and took a year off from school to practice my art . . . and then, in a fit of Spinal Tap-like implosion, the band I’d worked so hard with finally disintegrated.
I was nineteen. I’d spent five years busting my ass, and my dream was dead. But another one sparked.
With my band gone, I went to university because I enjoyed history and had a scholarship. It required I take a full course load each term, and I filled my schedule with any courses that required a cool reading list. See, during my year away from school, I worked at a now dead indie bookstore called Lichtman’s. And over that year, I learned to love literature. Especially fiction. I devoured Jim Thompson, Timothy Zahn, and Orson Scott Card, and a lot more. My friends in university shoved wonderful books in my hand by Rainer Maria Rilke, Franz Kafka, J. G. Ballard, Harlan Ellison, Ursula LeGuin, and Philip K. Dick. Even if history was my main degree, I gave myself an underdog education in fiction I loved, taking classes that introduced me to a diverse cadre of influence like Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, Alice Walker, Albert Camus, Mary Shelly, Fay Weldon, D. H. Lawrence, Lewis Carol, E. Nesbitt, and more.
And, after I sold my imitation Les Paul for rent, I decided I wanted to give writing fiction a shot, too. I loved this stuff as much rock and roll. I had an enthusiasm for it that was manic. And something, I don’t know what, said I probably had the knack for making stories.
For some, this decision is easy. They always knew they wanted to be a writer, they’d studied how, and started young. Until I was in my mid twenties, I had no clue about how to do it. Worse, I’d already watched one dream die, and it had shaken me to the core. I wasn’t sure if I was up for another attempt. And everything I’d read about writers seemed to say I was already behind the eight ball: I had no background in theater and script writing, nor did I work as a journalist or on my school’s literary mag (if we even had one), I didn’t have a creative writing degree, and despite my best efforts I felt woefully under-read.
Thankfully, I also had an attitude problem, born from all the adversity of being in a punk rock band and a general disdain for people telling me what I can and can’t do. When all these negative thoughts came through, about not being a real writer, of not having the proper background, of not being steeped in the classics, I said two words and then got back to work:
When I met conceited assholes at writer events who thought my love of crime fiction and pro wrestling was stupid and embarrassing, and those negative voices came back, I remembered those two simple words:
Thankfully, that’s not all I did. I read more. And deeper. I found essays by writers I admired, like Joe Lansdale, Gary Braunbeck, and Richard Laymon, all of whom concurred that what makes a great story is the unique nature of the writer, their loves, hates, passions, embarrassments, all tied to their command of language. If you’re different, that’s good. Don’t be cookie cutter. You’ll stick out as a first class “you,” as opposed to a second class someone else.
Seemed pretty punk rock to me.
And as I toiled, learning the basics, writing garbage and collecting rejections, I started to mine more of my own “stuff.” Vampires with low self esteem fighting for chump change in backroom bar brawls; kids holding their own MMA tournaments in their backyards; and a novel featuring a washed up punk rocker and a pro wrestler who fight crime!
No one told me I had to be a punk rock kid with a handful of family tragedy and a love of pro wrestling to make it. Who in their right mind would? Because the truth is, you don’t. You don’t have to be anything but you. Because there is no one best way to become a writer. Find your own way, and then bust your ass.
And if you ever feel like there’s some kind of biographical test to become a writer that you’ve failed (have you had a thousand cool blue collar jobs? Are you rich with disposable income flying out your ass? Have you gone to war? Are you a peacenik? Do you live in a big city? A gothic small town?), remember to mine your own heartmeat, all the weird stuff that makes you you, work to get better every time you pound the keys, and then go tell that feeling two simple words…
Psst? Wanna see where my love of crime fiction and comic books led me? Check out CON JOB, the second Spar Battersea novel, available now on kindle for $2.99!
– Jason S. Ridler, Ph.D