Matt Dillon and Lili Taylor are so good in this movie it’s almost uncanny. As the alcoholic writer Charles Bukowski, Dillon hits the perfect note in his role, a degree right between resigned and apathetic. Taylor shines in bedraggled glory as his long-suffering girlfriend. They’re broken, they’re hopeless, yet they’re still throwing the middle finger to polite society. And in post-war Los Angeles—a repressive 1950s environment that could stifle anyone’s creative chutzpah—we see just how much of society is really begging for that middle finger.
It by Stephen King
Big Bill is the leader of the Losers Club. As a kid, he’s intelligent and thoughtful, although he suffers from a debilitating stutter. He grows up to write “horrorbooks” (as another character calls them) very similar to a bestselling author you might have heard of in real life…
The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
Bilbo’s tale of “There and Back Again” starts with him snuggling up in an overstuffed armchair with Hobbiton’s equivalent of guilty-pleasure junk food for a cozy night in, and ends with him fighting—and vanquishing—a gigantic brutal dragon for a mountain of gold. If you’re one of the few people in the world who has not yet read The Hobbit, you need to. Like, now. Go! Read it! We’ll wait.
Benno von Archimboldi
2666 by Roberto Bolano
Bolano’s behemoth masterpiece 2666 begins with four academics who are obsessed with the mysterious writer, Benno von Archimboldi, as they try to track him down through Europe and then Mexico. Archimboldi remains an enigma until then end of the book when the reader finally gets to meet him up close and the mystery is slowly and satisfyingly revealed.
Portrait of the Artist as Young Man and Ulysses by James Joyce
If you’ve ever felt like the label “tortured artist” was invented just for you, I suggest you get acquainted with Stephen Dedalus. He’s confused, he’s bitter, he’s sensitive and interesting, and he’s very, very well-read. By the time you travel with him through the beginning of Ulysses, the mind of his friend Leo Bloom will be a walk in the park in comparison.
Breakfast of Champions, Slaughterhouse Five, and others by Kurt Vonnegut
Kilgore Trout might actually be as famous or more than Kurt Vonnegut. He appears in so many of Vonnegut’s books that readers start to think of him as an old friend and wonder where he is when he’s not around. And yes, he’s a thinly veiled representation of Vonnegut’s alter ego—but does any character exist who’s not a thinly veiled representation of a writer’s alter ego? I rest my case.
On the Road by Jack Kerouac
Kerouac pushes “thinly veiled” into the territory of “all names have been slightly changed.” Sal Paradise is less a narrator than a wild and rollicking camera eye that records everything, hell bent on taking the reader with him on the adventure. And of course, who can resist his partner in crime, the incomparable Dean Moriarty? But that’s a whole ‘nother story…
Lestat de Lioncourt
The Vampire Lestat by Anne Rice
Interview with the Vampire was one vampire sitting down in front of a tape recorder and letting it all hang out. The Vampire Lestat is Lestat himself making his rebuttal against the not-so-flattering tell-all that resulted from it. During the course of his tale, Lestat explains how he killed a pack of wolves single-handedly, became a vampire, and managed to live as a bloodsucker in inimitable Oscar Wilde-like elegance and style. A must read for vampire fans, and even for some who aren’t.
Gustav von Aschenbach
Death in Venice by Thomas Mann
Mann set out to write this book as an exploration of the concept of passion as “degradation and confusion.” And by the end of this story, it really couldn’t get any more degrading or confusing for his protagonist, the respectable and uptight writer Gustav von Aschenbach. It’s not surprising that Mann ended up winning the Nobel Prize in Literature because this is one of the best banned books of all time.
Henry “Hank” Chinaski
Post Office, Factotum, Women and Ham on Rye by Charles Bukowski
Whether he’s drinking, betting on the horses, or making-and-breaking-up with yet another new woman, the charm of Henry Chinaski is utterly irresistible. No, he can’t hold a job. And he drinks a little too much. But his life really sucks. In his place, you would have problems with steady employment and would drink a lot too. If you’re having a bad day—or worse, a bad year—Chinaski is the way to go.
Saint Gut-Free, Director Denial & Comrade Snarky
Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk
I know, I know—it’s technically three writers rolled under the heading of one. But the cast of aspiring geniuses that populate Palahniuk’s fictional writers’ retreat in Haunted are all so disgusting and hilarious that I couldn’t choose just one. Each character tells a story: Saint Gut-Free’s makes you feel queasy, Director Denial’s makes you feel icky, and Comrade Snarky’s might make you lose hope in humanity in general. Classic Palahniuk at his finest.
Who’s your favorite fictional writer? Tweet at me and let me know!
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Sometimes we get sidetracked from our current writing project. A life crisis occurs, we get a promotion at our day job that includes more hours to be worked, or we get an idea for a new project that’s just begging to be written right now. These are all valid reasons for putting your novel on the shelf and planning to come back to it later. And these are not the reasons I’m addressing in this post. Instead, I’m talking about the situation where you’re halfway through, or three quarters, almost there…but you just can’t seem to pull through it. You feel blocked, congested, and hopeless when you think about your chances of ever having a completed manuscript to show anyone.
Why is this happening? You got this far, so why can’t you keep going? What’s stopping you?
It’s called Fear. Also known in some circles as Resistance.
Fear is a sneaky, snaky kind of operator, and it specializes in using your own voice to trick you. It wears dozens of different masks. But once you spot Fear at work and you know what you’re dealing with, your odds of dissolving it go up astronomically. When it comes to finishing your novel, you can recognize Fear in a few different costumes:
In this guise Fear tells you that your writing isn’t good enough…yet. It promises that if you just revise a couple more times, and comb through every word again, you can make your novel perfect. What is Fear’s definition of “perfect”? Well, it never gets specific on that. It implies that it will be everything you ever dreamed, and no one in the entire world will have cause to criticize it, ever. Of course, reading this now you can see how irrational that is. But when Fear starts whispering the promises of the perfect in your ear, it’s much harder to resist.
Solution: Get to know the difference between “polished” and “perfect.” Polished is when you’ve given it your best effort and the end result is that you show it to someone—anyone. Perfect is like chasing the horizon. Polished is you moving forward. Perfect does nothing but hold you back.
We all have idols, and as writers our idols tend to be other writers. And when we first start writing, we tend to imitate those writer-idols we love the most. So when we read back over our work, it’s very easy to think, “This doesn’t sound half as funny as David Sedaris. I’m so lame.” Or, “Charles Bukowski managed to sound like an alcoholic and a profound poet, I just sound like an alcoholic.” The truth is, you are not David Sedaris or Charles Bukowski. You are not anyone else but YOU. And that’s actually totally cool. Because the world doesn’t need another David Sedaris or Charles Bukowski. It needs you.
Solution: Self-acceptance. You are what you are. That means you look like you, you act like you, and yup, you guessed it—you write like you. Write like yourself, and then set the goal to learn to like your own writing.
The Myth of Never-Been-Done-Before
Because our culture is filled with adoration for those who broke through those barriers of the never-been-done-before—Picasso, Beckett, Steve Jobs—we get obsessed with this notion that if something has been seen or done before, then it’s not worth creating something similar now. This is absolutely not true. Think about the character of Merlin. How may wizards have been based on him? For instance, Richard Harris played Dumbledore in the first Harry Potter and Ian McKellan played Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings. Can you picture either of those actors saying, “What?! Another wizard character? It’s so overdone! I won’t do it!” Of course not. Because no matter how many wizards show up in our stories, there is always room for one more. It’s the person behind the wizard—the writer or actor—who makes all the difference.
Solution: Google “archetypes” and see what comes up. Look into it. Seriously. You’ll see that everything has been done before. Just like the human body comes with two hands and ten fingers, it also comes with a human brain. We don’t think that differently from anyone else on earth. After you’ve studied up on archetypes, revisit your previous task of self-acceptance. Learn to love your own ideas simply because they came from you.
You’re Just Plain Scared
This one is the hardest, I think. There is no solution that makes you magically not scared anymore. I was so terrified of finishing my first novel that I kept writing, and writing, and writing…for months after I should have been done with it. When I finally wrapped it up, I’d written over 900 pages.
Do you know how difficult it is to find someone willing to read your 900-page attempt at a first novel?
I don’t regret doing things that way because I learned a lot. But later I saw that I let my fear hold me back. I was so scared that I wasn’t cut out to be a writer that I didn’t even give anyone the chance of being my first reader. And I still get scared. But the difference now is that I keep moving through the fear. I write that last chapter anyway and then hope for the best.
Solution: That saying really is true, you know. Feel the fear and do it anyway.
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