Dispatches, thoughts, and miscellanea from writer Jon Konrath

persona, content

I’ve been thinking more about content, which I babbled on about yesterday. There are a few conflicts involved in all of this, so bear with me.

Yesterday, I talked about content and method versus character and setting and plot. It might be helpful if you read yesterday’s entry, but for now, I’m going to ignore everything but content. A typical, writing 101 short story or Hollywood screenplay contains content – a protagonist, an antagonist, a dark and stormy night, a football player and the cheerleadr who loves him, and so on. The distinction that I would make between a typical story and something experimental or literary is that the purpose of the content is different, so the content is different. For example, the purpose of Dr. Benway in a William S. Burroughs book is different than the purpose of Dr. Niles Crane on the TV show Frazier. The former can develop in different ways because he’s not supporting this typical entourage of characters in the typical plot A/plot B sitcom script. More focus can be put on the characters (or the settings or objects) because they aren’t simple plug-ins to a prefab storyline. I think that’s the big distinction in literary fiction, and it’s what differentiates something like The Subterraneans and Weekend at Bernie’s.

So where do these heightened characters and places and objects come from? Writers write what they know, for the most part. This has been the major stumbling block for me and my writing career. I’ve read books by Bukowski, about his years of drinking, meeting different women, betting on the horses, living with almost no money and writing for an underground newspaper, living in roominghouses. I’ve read Burroughs, the trips into the jungle to find Yage, the travel all over the world, the Beat Hotel and Tangiers. And I’ve even been jealous of Henry Rollins, sleeping in the back of a U-Haul, a different city every day on the road with Black Flag. All of these people lived adventurous lives, while I haven’t. The closest I’ve been to being on the edge was maybe in college, but that’s nothing like On the Road. So part of my muse has been telling me that I need to go out and live to collect this content – to do like Hemmingway and fight in wars and fight bulls and drink 20 shots of whiskey for breakfast and everything else. And granted, if I could play the guitar or I found some gig that got me out of the house and all around the country, maybe I’d try it. But I’ve thought that the collection of content was a major deterrant in my writing career. I wrote one book called Summer Rain based on a summer in Bloomington, and it was fun to write (well, it’s still not done yet…) but I realized that there would never be a second book after this one, because if I stuck to this genre of autobiographical fiction, every book I wrote would be another Summer Rain.

But you don’t need to live it to write it, do you? Several of my favorite writers, most notably Mark Leyner, write stuff that never really happened. It’s all based on a mix of research, pop culture, current events, and sheer insanity. Someone like Leyner is pulling his content from the air, and it’s commendable work. When I mess with this, I find that the fictional content you create is only as good as the random junk floating in your head. I took a few weird college courses on music theory, cancer, third world politics, and astronomy, and I have a weird laundry list of interest and topics I like to read about, too. But when I do my best work on Rumored to Exist is when I do my best homework. I pick things up from other people, from newsgroups, from websites, from odd shows on the Discovery channel. And when everything works good, and when I’m saturated with this useless knowledge, the content flows. But other times, it doesn’t. And that’s what I’m trying to improve.

I just got interrupted, so I lost my train of thought. But what I think I was going to say is that I feel a need to research and challenge myself to look at new things and ideas, specifically for Rumored to Exist. I find that I need to look for a starting point for new and weird topics, and once that happens, everything snowballs and I’m doing plenty of good writing. My friend and fellow writer Michael Stutz recommended Robert Anton Wilson’s book Everything is Under Control, so I ran and got a copy of last night. He was 100% right – it’s this encyclopedia of weird conspiracy theories and secret societies that’s somewhat tongue in cheek and probably not even 10% correct, but it’s an excellent read. And now I’m thinking about Freemasons, Men in Black (not Will Smith), word virus theories, germ warfare, and a ton of other cool stuff. I have enough research material to keep me busy for a while.

The application of this material is the second part of what I talked about yesterday, the method. I don’t think I am going to be able to crack out a good explanation of this, since I haven’t even begun to think about it. But that’s a good discussion for later.

As always, I’m really looking for comments about this babble, especially since this self-discussion is becoming somewhat important to me. So please email me if you have any thoughts on the subject.