Friday, September 2, 2022

Am I A Writer, Past or Present Tense? By Josh Stallings

 Q: Do you love writing or having written? Is the process enjoyable or a necessary chore to get to where you want to be?

A man of many hats.

A: As a kid I wanted to be an outlaw. My pop and I wore diapers for bandanas and robbed imaginary trains. When I was seven I saw a film called Dear Brigitte where 10 year old Billy Mumy falls in love with the movie star Brigitte Bardot (played by Bardot herself) and writes her love letters. Mumy was a freckled redheaded kid near my age. Watching it I fell in love with Bardot. The idea of being an actor, or even better a movie star, seemed like the perfect dream. I wasn’t aware that acting and “being an actor” were two very different deals. I studied theater, fighting to keep that dream alive. Luckily it was crushed by my lack of talent.

I stumbled into film editing, when what I really wanted to do was… wait for it… Direct.

Looking back I see I had two conflicting goals. To have a job title that impressed strangers, and to work in a field that used my dreamy creative brain. Because I work entirely intuitively, film would never be a great match for me. Studios need you to explain everything before you do it. 

The amazing Hong Kong directer John Woo said that in Hong Kong the day before shooting an action scene he would walk the set early, first alone and then with his fight choreographer. They would design it, rehearse it, and then shoot it as one piece with multiple cameras. Coming to Hollywood he was required to storyboard months ahead of time, and get the sequences approved before shooting. It took the intuitive nature out of his work. John Woo loved the craft of directing film so much that he was willing to be a film director, with all the baggage that came with it. 

When you write a book it mostly impresses other writers and if you’re lucky a few librarians. At least that’s been my experience. Yes, I am aware there are some writers that transcend this and become pop stars of sorts. But how many writers outside of reader conventions would anyone recognize? I’m not sure of the number, but I bet we could fit the living ones in an elevator.

An example: My new optometrist asked what I did. I told him I was a crime writer. “Oh…” He said, unimpressed he went on, “Steven Spielberg shot scenes in a building next to this office. What a nice guy.” Yep, clearly working in a building next to where Spielberg shot is cooler than being a writer. And for me, that is good news. 

Ego will kill my work faster than an over zealous academic editor. Ego tells me I’m too cool for the room, and that I have all the answers. If I listen to ego I stop exploring and struggling to make the work better. 

It takes a huge amount of ego to stare down a blank page and start typing. That same ego will destroy good writing. How’s that for a flipping dichotomy?

I start a new project knowing both the idea and the writer (me) are flawed. I may fail miserably. That’s okay. I have time. If I keep working at it and believe in my process I will find the book hidden inside all the brain noise. 

I don’t write so strangers will call me a writer. I write to keep from going mad. I have these stories and people floating in the imaginary primordial ooze waiting to find form. I always have. As a child I lay in bed and made up epic tales before sleep. I see now I have always been a story maker, it took me a while to become a story teller.

“I think the difference between a lie and a story is that a story utilizes the trappings and appearance of truth for the interest of the listener as well as of the teller. A story has in it neither gain nor loss. But a lie is a device for profit or escape. I suppose if that definition is strictly held to, then a writer of stories is a liar—if he is financially fortunate.”

- John Steinbeck, East of Eden 

I love the craft and hard work of bringing a book into existence. Love is the wrong word for some of the stages, endure might be more accurate. The scary, you fucking imposter feeling when I start a new piece, is awful and exciting. Then one day I start to see the road map of the book stretched out before me, both tone and plot become inevitable, and I feel safe that I am writing the right book. And often just when I’m sure I know where I’m heading, something new shows up. I struggle to fit this new thing into my “plan.” Inevitably the story, like all the others does find its end. 


With the first draft done, I look forward to working with editors refining it, glad I discovered the head, gut, and tail of the beast. Nearing the end of this process I feel melancholy. I am stepping out of a world that I’ve lived in for a long time, knowing I won’t be able to return to it. 

Funny, as a reader I can return to a beloved book, find new things, hang with old friends. As a writer, my collaboration with the book is over when it is published. I am banished from its world.

I love writing, it gives me a way to live that makes sense. As for having written? I don’t know how to live in the past tense. I can only impress strangers with work I have already moved on from. I wrote a character that broke off their rearview mirror so they’d never look back. I did it to remind myself to live in the present tense.

I am not a writer. I am not a man. I am not a father. I am not a dog owner. I am simply Josh Stallings, a guy who wears lots of different hats on any given day.

I am a lucky bastard.  


Susan C Shea said...

You are indeed a lucky bastard, especially for not letting Sir Ego get the upper hand!

Brenda Chapman said...

I love your candidness (is that even a word?!) I think we all feel like imposters, but for me it's after the book is published. Not sure why we have this complex, and am amazed sometimes that we all keep going ... Thanks for sharing, Josh.

Catriona McPherson said...

As you so often do, Josh, you've knocked this right out of the park.

Josh Stallings said...

Thank you all. Next time my head tells me I’m an imposter I’ll tell it to talk to my talented friends Susan, Brenda, and Catriona!

James W. Ziskin said...

Damn, you write amazing stuff, Josh.


Josh Stallings said...

Jim, as do you my friend. And thank you. I never know, like all writing, if it will resonate. We write words and send them out, cross our fingers and do it again.

Gabriel Valjan said...

Thank you for your honesty, and thank you for mentioning the feelings of being an imposter. I enjoyed the snout to tail analogy for editing, and I appreciated the Steinbeck quote (not known of it).

Michael Leffel said...

Another insightful presentation, could of been titled Zen and the Art of Writing. I relate to it in a different as with construction, I put my all into something I crafted, heart and soul, much like a its my child when finished it is no longer mine, as a child leaving the nest. It is the world's to do with as it pleases. Hell sometime I would get a call back to rip it all out and replace it with something else, and there inlies the ego getting smashed, but then I build something else.

We are all the sum of our experiences and as the great western philosopher Popey said "I am what I am and this all that I am."

Ann Mason said...

You are indeed one of my favorite writers. Keep it up you old bastard. 😘