Discover more from Welcome to the Hammer Party
The Edge of the Possible
On the membrane between what has already been done and what was impossible until today.
Welcome to the Hammer Party.
My new novel EVERYBODY KNOWS comes out on January 10th. It’s been getting great reviews and early buzz, which I’m very appreciative of.
I also appreciate Jason Bovburg for this very wide-ranging interview about my career.
I’m also going to be doing several events to promote the book, so if you’re around please come visit.
January 12th: I’ll be at Murder by the Book in Houston.
January 30th: I’ll be at the Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale, AZ.
February 8th: I’ll be at Left Bank Books in St. Louis.
And after that I’ll be appearing at the Tuscon Book Festival, the LA Times Festival of Books, and more cool things that I can announce soon.
EVERYBODY KNOWS is a book I’m very proud of, and I hope you check it out. You can pre-order it here (use the code BESTBOOKS22 for a twenty percent discount on your whole order) or from your local bookstore.
Thoughts on Writing
The Edge of the Possible
I’ve talked a lot about my use of the tool I call a “spirit board,” a short document I create at the beginning of a new project with a long list of influences, all of it designed to tune the writing to a precise and unique frequency. Alongside the list of influences, I include some short, essential rules that I try to keep in mind as I write.
The most important one for me to remember is FIRST YOU MAKE IT, THEN YOU MAKE IT GOOD. Keeping this in mind is what allows me to create first drafts without too much pain.
BEGINNER’S MIND, which I learned from the band Sunn0))), means that as you get deeper into the craft and your career, you must remember that vital feeling that led you to become a writer in the first place, and what you set out to accomplish. We’ll talk more about this in a later issue.
A newer one, which I again took from Sunn0))), is MAXIMUM VOLUME YIELDS MAXIMUM RESULT.
This one is less universal than the others. There’s certainly a place for subtlety and minimalism in this world. Just not in my writing. I’ve chosen to embrace pulp, the literary version of turning the volume all the way up. (This is also why I have the word LURID in 36 pt. font in my current spirit board).
And another new one, and the thing I want to talk about today: WRITE THE THING THAT WOULD HAVE BEEN IMPOSSIBLE YESTERDAY.
There is a membrane between the possible and the impossible. When you create something that has in a meaningful sense never existed before, you are pressing against that membrane, bringing more of the infinite into the world. That’s a good thing. But it is not easy to create something truly new. Most of what we do in our lives is firmly in the middle of the possible. You drink water, you piss, you write a scene that is more or less like another scene you’ve written someplace else. Anything unique or new is on the level of the trivial. This is the life of repetition, which is a life drained of living - the devivified life Freud linked to the death drive. It’s impossible to not live part, or even most, of your life this way, at least in the world we live in now. It is difficult to live at the edge of the possible all the time.
You can find that membrane, which is both inside you and outside you. You can press on it, that you can exist right there at the place where new things are made. In the most extreme form, this would mean creating a whole new type of art or mode of creation. Alain Badiou, whose ideas I am mutilating severely in this essay, is mostly concerned with achievements on the grandest scale - the invention of twelve-tone scale, Bretch’s influence on theater, things like that. If you’re that level of genius, well, congratulations. Thanks for reading. But I also think that any artist, any storyteller can move towards creating something that is new and exciting in their own work.
It’s easy in the beginning, isn’t it? When you are young and the realm of what you have already achieved is small, it’s easy to expand that field, and it’s easy to pour yourself into your work, to keep pressing that membrane out and out and out. This is why first novels and albums often times are the best, because it is an artist pushing their talents to their natural walls, energy flowing freely. Sophomore slumps are terrifying in part because when you only have one work to define your art with, that one piece of work now defines the possible for you. You write cozy mysteries with a twist. You write country noir based on samurai movies. You make sex comedies about teenagers fucking pies. Whatever it is, you now have to make a choice. How can you best harness your skills and do it again without, well, just doing it again. How can you press against the now defined limits of your work, staying true to yourself without becoming repetitive?
There is only one thing I’m sure of: you have to keep pressing. It’s the only way to stay alive. Maybe by switching genres, or forgetting about genre entirely. Maybe it’s in the language, or experimenting with a different type of character. Maybe it’s in the mode of composition, or in the themes, or the subject matter. Maybe it’s just ambitious in a way you’ve never been before. Remember, you don’t have to blast off to the outer realm of the impossible - you just have to press against the borders. However you do it, this engagement with the impossible, using the unique tools that only you possess, will not only feel better and more exciting (it is literal revivification) but lead you to create the art that you and only you will ever be able to create. And if that’s not the highest purpose of an artist I don’t know what is.
When you are, say, writing the rough draft of your second epic Los Angeles crime novel set in the aftermath of the first, you might start to feel like writing the first one was like running through a field of untrammeled snow, and now the field is muddy and you’re just running in circles. The solution to this is twofold. First, change your mental diet. If the first one was powered by reading Ellroy and David Peace, switch it up and start watching lots of Giallos and re-reading Megan Abbott. A different diet will push your brain in new directions, and will change the all-important tone in ways that will hopefully feel new. And the second part is to recognize exactly where that membrane is in your work, to know what you’re capable of today and how you can push past that tomorrow. To listen to the you inside yourself that knows what this book is supposed to be, and follow it - it will not deceive you, and it will not retreat into dull repetition. There are no rules to this. You have to figure it out yourself.
That’s why they call it art, friendo.
That’s it. Party’s over. Buy my book, huh?