Writers on Writing #68: Michael Farris Smith
We all need to create John Gardner’s vivid and continuous dream. We need characters that have their own voice and walk their own way and drink their own drinks. We need setting and scene and plot and tension and all those other things you’ll find in any book ever published about the art of writing fiction. But it’s been my experience that we need a little something else, too.
I suspect it’s a trait most writers have though it’s not the one you hear them talk about at book events or literary conferences.
“What is your advice for a beginning writer?” an eager attendant asks from the fifth row.
“Have a bad attitude. You need some defiance, some rebellion in there somewhere to push you along until you get good enough and then you’ll need it even more.” That’s never the answer, but maybe it should be.
I’ve heard about my bad attitude from the time I was hip-high. Teachers, principals, coaches, umpires, referees, Mom, Dad, judge, girlfriends, bosses, cops, wife, friends. They all agree. Smith, your problem is your attitude and that quick fuse of yours.
I nod and keep going.
I’ve done some of my best work when writing mad. Mad about rejection, mad about writing up to a dead end, mad about having to teach Freshman Comp. Whatever. My anger has been notorious for morphing into hell-bent energy and that has cost me jobs, relationships, weekly allowance. It has gotten me tossed out of the game, fined by the courts, suspended. But it has saved my writing life on plenty of occasions. It drove me when I was an infant in the craft, taking a beating in grad school workshops. It drove me when I finally published a story and then became impatient because I hadn’t published another story. It drove me when I had finally read enough novels to believe that I could do it if I tried hard enough and then when I discovered how difficult that was, it drove me some more.
I’ve inflicted that anger onto my characters. Quit standing around, I’ll tell them when they are too boring or passive or afraid. Do something. Say something. Poke your finger in somebody’s eye. And then I say to the other characters in the room, are you gonna sit there and take that? Did you see what he just did? Do something. Say something, for God’s sake.
And off we go.
Writers have been defined in all sorts of ways, whether just or unjust: romantic, out of touch, nihilistic, pessimistic, intellectual, cerebral, eccentric, highfalutin, dreamy. The list goes on. But I think we should add words like defiant, insolent, and pissed-off to the list. Because I realize now that all those times I was throwing my bat, or sneaking in or out, or climbing over a fence I wasn’t supposed to climb over, or making a quick left when I saw blue lights, I was only prepping myself for the writing life.
So write mad.
But revise in tranquility.
Michael Farris Smith is the author of Rivers: A Novel and The Hands of Strangers: A Novella. His short fiction and nonfiction have been widely published, including pieces in storySouth, The New York Times, Catfish Alley Magazine, and more. Rivers has appeared in Esquire, The Washington Post, The New York Times Book Review, among others, and has been named Best Fiction of 2013 by Bookriot, Daily Candy, Hudson Books, and other outlets. He lives in Mississippi with his wife and two daughters. Visit him at michaelfarrissmith.com