I just finished reading John Dies at the End by David Wong. The book is creepy, surreal, psychedelic, manic, absurd, sarcastic and crassly funny—all in all a good read if you don’t mind an occasional (or frequent) dick joke or a major plot point revolving around dog poop.
John Dies at the End reminded me of several books I especially loved during my late teens and early twenties: The Invisibles (a graphic novel series about a group of guerrilla fighters battling an evil government conspiracy involving magical/ inter-dimensional beings), Tank Girl (a graphic novel series about a girl with a tank who drinks too much, kills things, and shags kangaroos), Transmetropolitan (a graphic novel series about a drug fueled, violently insane, manic reporter and his two filthy assistants who topples a ruthless and corrupt president in the distant future), Johnny the Homicidal Maniac (a graphic novel about a homicidal maniac), and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (not a graphic novel…and I shouldn’t have explain it to you). My taste ran to self-destructive manic characters who either saw that the conventions of polite society were B.S. or saw that those conventions masked evil parasites (both metaphorical and literal in their respective universes). My taste made a certain amount of sense for an angst ridden and depressed young adult.
During that time I tried to write countless stories with similarly insane weird protagonists: a fraudulent medium who reads fortunes from the crumbs of potato chip bags and is always right, or a girl who after being turned into a hungry monster is pissed off that she been turned back into a human and is still hungry. Fun ideas maybe, but I never could get the stories to work. All I knew was I wanted to write in a mind-bending and profanity laden voice similar to those authors I loved. But with each attempt that I made, I only ended up writing bad copy laden with cliché. Maybe it was because I didn’t have the attention span required of those longer works, or maybe I didn’t do enough drugs.
But because I had a short attention span, I was writing poems the whole time. As I struggled with a story, I would get an idea for a poem and in an hour I could have the first draft down, and return to that frustrating story. At the time I treated the poems like I treated journal entries—an expression of current emotion—that I was slightly more likely to share with my friends. I never thought it would develop into anything—though to be fair at that time in my life I assumed I’d be dead in the gutter by age of 30 and only went to college out of spite. I took a fiction class and wrote horrible stories involving sarcastic vampires then I took a poetry class and wrote horrible poems with some good lines. By the time I graduated with a Bachelor’s in Creative Writing, I’d given myself over completely to poetry. After all my poetry improved by leaps and bounds, while my fiction was still a sad weak little thing. It was only in the last year of graduate school that I dared to start submitting my fiction, which by then had radically changed.
I think my focus on poetry is what changed my voice. Oh, I could still be creepy, sarcastic, surreal and even a little mad at times, but the focus shifted. I became interested in motivation, in images, in sound. I even wrote poems that were quiet and took their time. I still have a lot of anger in my work, but it is calmer, more focused, more self-aware, not the self-destructive manic energy I once so admired. And of course, this voice that emerged in my poems infected my fiction.
As I read John Dies at the End I couldn’t help but think, this is the type of book I once wanted to write. The moment almost tasted like failure—a goal I did not reach—but I’m still writing. I’ve published work, and I and currently submitting my manuscript to publishers (fingers crossed). I simply did not meet my goals in the way I thought I would when I was 19 and 20 years old. So my writing now owes more to Angela Carter, Italo Calvino, and Ai than it does to Warren Ellis, Grant Morrison, and Jhonen Vasquez, that does not mean failure.
In the end it just turns out that I had different things to say, but isn’t that the nature of writing. You sit down with a blank page and head full of ideas, and by the time you finish covering the page with words you have something completely different from what was in your head. I may not write in the voice that I’d once wanted to, there are already writers doing that far better than I could, but I write in voice that is my own.