Don't Kill Yourself Over Your Art

“True artists kill themselves at their peak to prevent themselves from making bad work.”

Okay. So this. I’m so sick of this. I’m so tired of people thinking that madness is a prerequisite to making good art.

I know too many people who think they have to suffer in order to create. Like, people who will intentionally go out of their way to make themselves uncomfortable, unhappy, or even in pain in order to create better art.

Stop this. Just. No.

In the first place, where is the fucking logic in that? Look. Stop sweating it. The world is already a miserable enough place as it is, and you really don’t have to go out of your way to find suffering. Just wait. It’ll come to you. Chill the fuck out.

Secondly, this idea that art comes from madness or that the two go hand in hand is crap. And even if it wasn’t, YOUR ART IS NOT WORTH IT.

Let me say that again.

YOUR ART IS NOT WORTH YOUR SUFFERING.

If your art makes you uncomfortable, if your art makes you depressed, if your art is compromising your unhappiness in any way at all FUCK YOUR ART.

Good art does come from hard things. I’m not going to argue that. But the two aren’t synonymous, and it’s so fucking dangerous to think that way. More importantly, there are other ways of creating. Throw away this notion that your best work has come out of some of your darkest moments. If that’s what you think your peak is, I have good news.

You haven’t hit it yet.

So if you think you've hit rock bottom, and your sitting on the valley of your life as an artist, here are some things to try before calling it quits:

1. Make shit. Not art.

Let yourself fuck up. Not everything you create is going to be beautiful. But your creativity isn't a well that you can dreg dry. It's bottomless. You'll go through dry spells, but that doesn't mean you're broken. Wait it out. Rain always comes again. And don't fear ineptitude. You're making art, not building a bridge. No one's going to die if you fuck up. Allow yourself to suck. 

2. Follow passion, not pain.

If you're living with a mental illness, that shit is not your superpower. You don't have x-ray vision, or an insight into the world that "normies" are lacking. Sorry to rain on your parade, but if mental illness came with cardholder benefits, wouldn't we all be vying for it? You're limiting yourself and your art when you define yourself by the confines of an illness. Choose to focus instead on the things that get you fired up. Choose to define yourself by something other than your art.

3. Try not being an artist.

And by this I don't mean give up on your art completely. But have you ever tried being something other than an artist? What about a stamp collector? A jogger? A small-time ice skater? The miraculous thing about art is how very not mystical it is. It's not a religion, and if you devote yourself to nothing than its practice, turns out you're probably cutting yourself off from a lot of different sources of inspiration. Try drawing from the mundane rather than the maddened. You might save your sanity a couple extra years.

I'm aware that this all comes across as being very salty, and while I have a fair amount of anger towards this perception of art to work through, please know: I'm not angry at you if this is how you feel about your art. For a long time, I too, felt I had peaked at 15.

But please. Please know. You are worth more than your art. You have infinitely more value than anything you could create, and that is beautiful. You will find a way to create and be happy.

Please don't kill yourself over your art.

One of my favorite screenwriters, Max Landis, has a video on this topic, which I'll link to here. I highly recommend. If you need someone to talk about this, or anything, the comments section below is always open.

Shai Cotten

Adapting for TV: The Magicians

Adapting for TV: The Magicians

I FINALLY DID IT.

I finally finished reading Lev Grossman’s The Magicians.

I started watched The Magicians SyFy TV adaptation mid-February, and quickly realized that I needed to be reading the source material.  Stalking “The Magicians” tag on Tumblr led me to believe that there was more to the story, and to the central theme of the series - the crippling depression that haunts the series main character, Quentin Coldwater, even as he steps foot into a world of fantasy and magic, and his quest to escape his own miserable existence.  I hurriedly bought the first installation off Amazon (you can find it here) and started reading it alongside the first season premiere.

If you haven’t read the books, or if you’ve read the books, but haven’t watched the series, let me just tell you: the TV adaptation and Lev Grossman’s novel are two entirely different beasts.

Shai Cotten

I Am Worthy of a Creative Life

I Am Worthy of a Creative Life

After wrapping up a meeting downtown for the pre-production of After Oil, my webseries with Jessica Naftaly, I headed down to a new cafe on Main Street and grabbed myself an iced coffee.  While I was sitting out under the awning, I slipped out my copy of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic and decided that, right then and there, I was going to finish reading it.

It dawns on me as I’m writing this that Big Magic is the first book that I’ve been able to get through all summer.  I found myself nearing the end, and when I approached this quote, I felt I was about to cry:

Shai Cotten

Why Do We Love Horror?

When I was a kid, I used to be terrified of the dark.  I had chronic nightmares, and not only was I convinced that there was a monster living in my closet, but that my dolls moved when I wasn't looking, and that my house - along with most of the houses in my hometown - was inexplicably haunted.

Although my childhood was largely characterized by an overactive imagination and predominately defined by fear, I did not entirely shrink away from the macabre fantasies which plagued me.  Instead, in a way, I embraced them like a calling.  The shadows and demons of my childhood were my Narnia.  My Pan's Labyrinth.  Something to be overcome; an adventure to be had, no matter how paralyzing.

So when I was old enough to have finally gotten my hands on a horror movie with some friends, I didn't flinch away as a kid tormented by nightmares might.  I ran towards my fear.

I've been writing horror stories - or stories that delve into the macabre, at least - pretty much ever since I started writing.  I've been consuming horror films for years, and attempting to write or produce my own since I was a teenager.  When people ask me what sort of screenplays I write, I typically reply firstly with "horror".  I normally get one of two reactions: an ecstatic, "Oh, that's so cool!", or a definite affirmation that they could never stomach doing such work; they feel they cannot even stomach watching horror movies.

The misconception I typically pick up on in these scenarios is that since I am an avid horror movie fan, I don't watch these films through my fingers with my hands in front of my face, or with the sound cranked to the lowest volume.  In fact, I do.  Despite the fact that this is the genre I write in, like most moviegoers, I scream and cling on to friends when jump-scared.  I get grossed out by gore.  I yell at the screen and put the blankets over my head when the main characters do something ridiculously stupid, undoubtedly leading to their demise.

I have a feeling that most fans and creators of horror alike have the same relationship with the genre, though of course I could be wrong.  But if the people who are creating these stories are just as terrified of them as the people who actively avoid them, why are they creating them in the first place?

Writing in horror, in a way, could possibly be a form of self-assurance.  In classes on philosophy, I have learned of the concept of "the sublime", which deals with subjects that typically strike awe and often fear into the hearts of viewer.  When witnessed through a lens of "art" or "fiction", pieces applying this aspect, we are able to truly appreciate the awe, when we would typically be overwhelmed by a rightful terror.  You wouldn't stand before a tsunami or a hurricane, or some other natural disaster and pause to think about how incredible the event is.  You're concerned for your life.  Art lets us admire that which would typically be fled from.

This is the epitome of horror.  Of course, you wouldn't typically seek to find the awe or magnificence in the crimes of an ax murderer, or the demons and ghosts that lurk in old colonial houses, but somehow horror aficionados manage not just to make the circumstances of childhood and everyday nightmares view-worthy, they also make them entertaining.

By transforming nightmare into fiction, we create a way to engage with horror in way in which the feeling of our life being in jeopardy is minimized, if not eliminated.  If you are someone plagued by macabre fantasies, having that level of control over what happens in said fantasy gives you - as a creator or as a viewer - a significant sense of power.

Horror might not be for everyone, but I strongly believe that it has an appeal that is intrinsic to our human nature.  Engaging with what it is that we fear in a safe space makes us feel powerful.  That sense of power - of purpose - is what gives us a rush of catharsis, a feeling of release and triumph that is ultimately the goal of all good storytelling.

Shai Cotten

What No One Ever Tells You About Writing a Novel

At the start of this year, I made a promise to myself.  Like ever other New Year's "resolutionist", I started making lists of my goals for 2016, and on that list - just like any other year - I wrote "get published".  This year however, I also started making a smaller list that I considered "actionable goals"; small tasks that I could do every day to break down my goal into something manageable.  This is what that task list looked like:

  1. Blog every week
  2. Submit to writing competitions
  3. 15 minutes of networking a day
  4. 15 minutes of drafting query letter a day
  5. 15 minutes (minimum) of revising Ravage a day

Of these five goals, as you might have guessed, I've only (barely) adhered to the first two.  I've hardly ever checked on my social media, with the exception of maybe Pinterest and Youtube.  I gave up pretty quickly on the idea of drafting my query letter once I discovered that a third of said letter consisted of my "credentials" as a writer: degrees, awards, positions of significant employment, certifications of merit - aka, all things of which I do not possess.

But I simply cannot condone the fact that I have not even stuck to the minimum minutes of revision a day I set out for myself.  I had honestly thought that 15 minutes was an incredibly manageable expectation, something I could do to work around the screenplay drafts, reading assignments, and short essays that I have due for school.  I was so sure of this that I marked a date on my planner - February 29th - and circled the words, "Ravage content edit due".

That due date is now less than a week away, and I have not even revised past my third chapter.

The process of writing and revising is different for every writer, and I know a lot of the authors that I greatly admire look forward to the revision process.  John Green has been known to say "that all writing is rewriting", and while I tend to agree, I've heard from a lot of authors - established or just starting off - that they find the process of revising infinitely easier than completing their first draft.

I beg to differ.  Then again, this is coming from someone who hasn't completed a new first draft in the last three years.  That being said, I probably still have a lot to learn from authors like John Green about the process of revision, but in the odd chance that I'm in the minority here, I thought I'd share some insights into what it is that makes the writing process the easier one for me; the things no one ever really tells you.

1. It's never easy

Okay.  I know I just said that writing is the easy part.  But the truth is, nothing is easy, fun, and enjoyable %100 of the time.  Not even the thing you're passionate about.  But if I've learned anything from participating in NaNoWriMo it's that, that's okay.  In fact, I don't know I would have ever completed a novel if I hadn't been introduced to the process from that mindset.

When you're writing a novel in the context of NaNoWriMo, furiously pounding out words on a daily basis at an incredible pace, slugging your way through to 50k, you know what you're signing up for.  It's not going to be easy, and it wasn't going to be any easier, honestly, if I gave myself the permission to sleep in and only write 500 words a day - or not at all.  Trust me, I've done both.  What makes writing difficult isn't the work itself, it's the way you think of the work.  Not to be overusing John Green here, but like a lot of authors, I know he initially condoned the concept of writing a novel in 30 days.  He felt it was a fruitless task, because simply no one can be expected to write a good book in a month.  The fact of the matter is, no one can be expected to write a good first book: period.  The process of writing isn't about being "good".  If anything, it's about sucking.  If you're a practicing writer, writing on a daily basis, the ratio of great material to crap that you'll be writing is probably 1:3, and that's if you're lucky.

But you simply cannot sit around and hope to wait it out through the bad parts.  The only way out is through.  So give yourself permission to suck.  You won't enjoy yourself all of the time, but once you allow yourself to fail, you'll enjoy yourself a whole lot more.

2. Things change

It might seem like a no-brainer, but the truth is that a lot of people - myself included - walk into the writing process with very strong convictions.  That kinda motivation is to be admired, but at a certain point that ambition can go so far as to get in your own way.  A part of becoming a good writer is being flexible.  Your original vision for what this book was going to be may change.  You may have to make sacrifices in order to continue your story.  You're definitely going to have to make those sacrifices when you revise.  Besides, there is always the incredibly real chance that you may fall out of love with the story you first started writing.  Whatever the case, you do what is necessary.  You cut your favorite scene.  You trash the ending you've been planning since last year.  That character you were so sure everyone was going to love?  You kill them off.  Whatever it takes to get the story flowing, whatever it takes to reinvest yourself in what it is you are writing: that is what you do.

3.  You don't always win

I've said this a lot now, but this, to me, is what stands out as being the first big obstacle all writers have to overcome: and that's a fear of failure.  The truth of the matter is, your first draft is going to suck.  It doesn't matter if you take five months to write it, or if you take five years.  There is no such thing as a good first draft.  So don't try to make it perfect.  Just try to make it work.  And have fun!  The first novel I ever started writing, before I was ever introduced to National Novel Writing Month, was essentially a glorified rip-off of the World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King storyline.  If I looked back at it now, I'm sure I would have myself a good laugh.  Honestly, the first novel I finished for NaNoWriMo wasn't much better.  But that's okay.  Writing a bad draft or even giving up on the first draft of your manuscript altogether isn't the end of the world.  It may feel like it at the time, but get comfortable with the idea that not everything you write is going to the next big American novel.  I might not have had the most original ideas when I was writing in middle school, but when you're writing in a mindset similar to a fan-fiction writer, the love you have for your story overrides any standards of success or other expectations you might be putting on the work you're doing.

So if you're thinking about writing a novel, or haven't been able to finish your first one yet, my advice to you is:

Don't wait.  And don't worry.  If you can tackle the story in your head with the same enthusiasm, flexibility, and imagination as any of the stories you are a big fan of, that passion will translate, and you'll have a finished manuscript within your hands in seemingly no time.

And then you'll be where I am.  Making resolution lists when you should be revising.

Have you got any tips on writing or revising?  Leave them in the comments below!  God knows I'm in need of some.

Shai Cotten