Cullen Cheats Quotas: Why I Write

Every so often, if I determine that the pieces hold up and they’re not surging with precious, precious lore that must not be subjected to thieves (a lot of my better stories take place in the same, closely-guarded universe, sorry about that and also here comes the end of the main sentence so sorry about that too), I’ve decided to post some of my external writings on this blog. I’ll attach this same disclaimer to each noting that this is recycled material. An ephemeral difference, yes, but I am after all a man of principle (and therefore suboptimal income). This particular piece is an essay written a few months back explaining why I write. Enjoy.



Why I Write: A Laborious Strain of Escapism

            I knew writing as a concept before I knew the word itself. As a kid lying in bed and trying to fall asleep, I turned first to my mother. When she had the time, she would sit on the bed or next to it and make up something on the spot. Of course, the stories were silly ones; all bedtime stories are, in their way. A bedtime story is as much about bonding as it is the actual story. They’re spontaneous things, little firecracker tales that would be wasted on seriousness. Tell a serious bedtime story and you’ll stop dead to realize it needs s’mores and a campfire. This tradition of ours continued as I entered elementary school, and first faced the stress of dealing with other children, and it survived even after Mom introduced me to books. Then, at some point in First Grade, I decided I was going to write a book. The result was the kind of book you’d expect from a First Grader.

I have good reason to snicker at anyone who praises the creativity of children, because I happen to remember that my book was largely appropriated from other sources, and the rest of it just wasn’t much good. It concerned a naval frigate, the Lafayette, a warship lifted wholesale from Goldeneye 64, one of the earlier James Bond games. The plot was just about the most cliché thing this side of romantic comedy: the captain of the ship, yours truly, was stranded on a desert island after the Lafayette crashed for no particular reason. A six-year-old doesn’t have the tech jargon streaming through his neurons to explain these things. The rest of the crew existed solely in a brief reference at the opening of the book, and as to the length of the work I believe I’ve already doubled it here. I fuzzed the numbers a bit by illustrating it, and in my youthful hubris I had its twelve or so pages laminated. I received a Caldecott award for that thing, which as a cynical adult just proves to me that children’s awards are pinned-ribbon lies. But I began to understand how easy it was to wash free the troubles of the day by bathing in a storm of ideas.

If my life’s story were written with better focus, in this paragraph I’d tell you that receiving that award spurred me to devote myself to writing then and there. In that moment, as my parents looked on (except both were and are doctors, and couldn’t be present for everything, and this wasn’t that grand an award), I stood up and by word alone hurled myself upon the altar of writing. That didn’t happen. Child-me found a much better form of escape from then on, in the dancing pixel and digital platoon. In other words, I discovered gaming. I still read stories, but it wasn’t until I sat at home one day at sixteen that I said, without the tiniest provocation, “I want to write.” What a damned disappointing kick-off! No build-up, only the tiniest justification. It’s believable in the same way that it’s believable Lieutenant Waverly Wray of the U.S. Airborne infiltrated German lines and stopped a German counterattack of over a thousand men when he happened to come upon their eight-man command group with only two guards, at which point he killed them all with one shot to the head. I use this example because it’s also a true story, and between the two of them and my other life experiences, they explain why I knew from the start it was genre fiction I’d spin out.

Real life has rules. It has a labyrinthine array of them, and the vast majority lack the niceness to declare themselves as they impose on our hospitality. Life, in fact, has so many infernal rules that most of us lose track of them. Buried in there somewhere is, “Crazy things happen all the time,” countered by “Crazy’s crazy, be it ever so common.” On some level, I knew that I didn’t want to write realistic fiction because I already understood that it had to match the average of reality. It couldn’t be too mundane, for readers tend not to take kindly to stories more boring than their own lives. Yet, it couldn’t be too exciting or weird, because even it if was physically possible people would swear it could never happen.

Where do they draw this line, exactly? Who divides real from unreal, and how in blazes do they set the border? It wavers year by year; I think our anonymous ‘they’ are drunk when they get around to updating it, and if they’re not then they have to correct their error in the following edits. So, I decided to cheat. As with any genre-fiction writer, I picked a genre where I could set my own damn borders, and roar as loud as I pleased “Keep your rusty lived-in pick-ups off my sci-fi lawn, you plebeians!” I should clarify that I’ve nothing against realistic or literary fiction or whatever namby-pamby term its bones are bent into by academia. I’m fond of it, but in the same way that the U.S. Air Force is fond of the U.S. Army: they’re good at holding down ground and all, but they’re still another branch and I’m sworn to give ’em shit, Sir, sorry, Sir!

The first of my story ideas grew by tangent and spontaneous multiplication out of idle musings I had while playing computer fantasy RPGs (note the gamer’s obligate game-genre organization: platform, then game; ‘fantasy RPG’ is one concept, not two). If some NPC droned on for too long or I got to thinking about the characters in my party or lost a boss fight (or won it), indeed if anything happened at all, my inner monologue delivered an instant novelization. This was how the words first infected me, and it was as subtle as it was swift. Soon they spread through my whole brain; the disease was and remains terminal. The same sickness took hold of my will that day at sixteen, and has never released me since. As an aside (does this essay have a front to put sides on?), artists are always a breath from talking about themselves as patients and their art-lust as an illness, or perhaps perversion. I blame this on society. Not in any specific or scientific sense, I’m just blaming society, that abstract mass of blank faces which gives imagined insult and receives real in return.

I’ve since finished dozens of short stories and half of three different novels (four if you count an equally abortive revision on the last one). I’m always overflowing with ideas, and there’s a very real danger that the new ones overrun my resolve and blanket the fertile plains of an established piece with wars of endless revision. I write for several reasons, and I’m going to state them explicitly here because I never hold subtlety for long without digressing unto incoherency. First of all, I like this reality, really, but sometimes it and I need a break from each other. So I go visit a world or a universe I’ve spied through the scrying-bowl[1] of a page, and when I’ve been fatigued by laying out its rules or ordering the lives of its people, just living my own seems pleasant again. Then too, as Dickinson once said, “I dwell in possibility,” though with respect to that luminary of lines, prose is quite fair enough for me. Actually, having to organize my possibilities into sentences, paragraphs, chapters and ultimately books imposes some much-needed order on the rabble. I often wonder if I write more because I enjoy it or as self-defense against the endless tide of notions which war for expression through me. But I do enjoy it. I have absolute control within the imaginary worlds I write. Do I want the forest to be purple? Ha, then purple it is! Should my main character be a ten-foot hyper-intelligent snake? Why not indeed! Do I have reasons why these things make sense within the world? Of course I do, it’s easy to explain the rules when I make the rules for the explanations! And when I write, I can screw around with language whenever and however I want. Even this essay has a distinct style from my other pieces. It’s a bit on the academic side–well, shoot, what’s an essay without a little stiffness, pardner?– but I’ve sprinkled tonal shifts and the odd jibe through its Cambria to Frankenstein some life into it.[2]

There is a broader Cullen McCurdy style as well, although I’m not nearly so disciplined in building it as I should be. I like my sentences rhythmic and punchy, a smith hammering a bevel into the longsword he forges or the Bavarian master at practice with the gleaming final weapon. But then sometimes I want the style to fit its content, or I want to change the mood in a passage, or I’m just beginning to feel repetitive, and then I write a long meandering sentence with too many commas and a trailing end to convey uncertainty or desperation. I am not above self-referential diatribes (in fact, I live by them), and diatribes in general are frequent flyers on my cerebral starship.

The one thing I refuse once I start is the excuse of brevity, which at this point I doubt I needed to state. I say ‘excuse,’ not reason, because I hold the two separate. Am I writing a beheading? Why, it just so happens that a clean decapitation is fast and brutal and—see, poor bastard’s dead already! Am I writing of two grand armies drawn up for battle beneath a swelling thunderstorm, spread over a vast plain and with each general moving to counter the other? Let it be slow, ponderous, the marching men tamping down dry grass underfoot, the horses a-canter on each flank, archers shoulder to shoulder in front. One arrow laid on is a knock; ten are a rattle, and ten thousand a low moan across the plains. Enough size makes the swiftest thing the work of eons. My point is that I believe if readers want to imagine things for themselves, they will do so. It’s impossible I could be so specific as to totally stymie them. In the meantime, they read for my author’s impression of the story. Description is important to me both for the power of vivid imagery in its own right, and because the way I picture the tale and its actors is part of what makes the story mine.

In no small part I write because only in writing do I find enough freedom to explore everything that I wish to, and then some. In other arts my talents fall far short of my ambitions, and as far as swordfighting, my other great passion, now that has rules if I want it to be swordfighting and not stagefighting.[3] In writing my limits are the only limits, and I can strain them without wearing myself down. An hour spent tying characters and plot to each other strand by strand of sentence has the same soothing effect on me that twenty minutes’ meditation does, with the bonus of being productive. In exchange for the dangers of eyestrain, I’m able to type almost quickly enough to keep up with my own mind. Where words spoken aloud and halted or clipped or garbled with synonyms become inelegant, in typing my constant revisions and swap-ins are invisible at the end. I don’t stutter, I substitute.

And last of all, in writing I can go on for as long as it takes me to reach the end of an idea. The previous lines hover there so I never repeat myself but for emphasis, and a monologue long grown filibusterous if spoken flows serene between the margins. If the language appeals and the ideas entertain, my readers will let me prattle on for hours and hours without so much as a batted eye or curled lip. In writing, I can be as fluid or halting, as sweet or as wrathful as I wish. I can be the best and worst versions of myself, or someone else altogether. I become an Egyptian Priest of the Old Kingdom; with each word I sing the world into being. In short, I can be a wordy stuck-up narcissist without anyone realizing it until I observe that I am. I write because, as Orwell noted, somebody will probably read it.


[1] Fantasy concept: a seemingly ordinary bowl of water that lets you spy on basically anything. The Mage-NSA is gratuitously overpowered.

[2] Note the reference to Frankenstein in a sentence which might just be too experimental, as simultaneous self-deconstruction and foil against critique. Truly, my genius is peerless!

[3] The difference: Swordfighting teaches how to kill other fighters, stagefighting teaches killing common sense.

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