I met the fabulous S.J. Chambers at WorldCon in 2012. Her fabulously strange story “The Şehrazatın Diyoraması Tour” appears in Steampunk World.
Originally, this post was going to be an appreciation of the underrated film The Rum Diary, but, nigh on my deadline to Sarah, I’ve changed my mind on doing that because I’ve come to realize that what I wanted to discuss isn’t something I learned solely from the film, but something I have been learning on my own over the past ten years as a writer. You hear from most scribe-sages that you’ve got to find your voice or style, but I have personally never heard much about gaining experience. If you have found your preferred syntax and have a grab bag of your favorite mellifluous words, great, but if you don’t have anything to write about, then basically you are playing scrabble. You also have to find your impulse, a word I’ve started using to describe the drive that makes a writer not just a skilled word-slinger but a poet in the mystical sense of the term.
Everyone’s impulse is unique and is hard-earned from experience and experience alone. Impulse takes time and can be elusive, and for those who are eager to write but have yet to find what to write about, this journey can become one full of fear, disillusionment, discouragement, and writer’s block, if not complete abandonment of one’s talent and dreams. Gaining experience doesn’t sound like a difficult thing to do, but I have seen too many people miss the rare occurrence of a double rainbow in the sky or dolphins hunting a beach shore because they are staring at their phone worrying over keeping up with the Facebook Joneses. Even among the older unplugged folk, I know people in my Florida hometown who have never seen the ocean, although the Gulf is only forty minutes away west, and the Atlantic just a few hours more east. So, I don’t think being open to or even appreciating opportunity and experience is natural to everyone.
It wasn’t for me, anyway. The first time I left the South was when I got a museum scholarship to New York City. I was 22 years old and had never traveled anywhere alone, much less been to a metropolis. There was immense culture shock, a lot of money spent, some friendships severed, and slight trauma induced, but after all that, I came back with unknown sights seen, conversations with diverse strangers spoken, thoughts never thought, and an all-around broaden horizon that made me begin to understand more of myself and glean more meaning from the art and literature I assiduously studied. Most of all, I realized the power of a posteriori over a priori learning and wanted more.
So let’s go back to The Rum Diary. The Johnny Depp film is an adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s novel of the same name, and is something of a Hemingway-esque roman à clef of the Doctor’s time as a news reporter in San Juan during the 1960s. The main character, Paul Kemp, is a failed novelist who flees the states for a clean slate. In the middle of the film, after all of his prospects (including journalism) seem to have hit nothing but brick walls, he laments while reading The Rime of the Ancient Mariner that Coleridge “…wrote this when he was 25. I’ve been dragging a typewriter around for 10, and I’ve written nothing.…I have no voice, I don’t know how to write like me.” He had the drive, but not the material until he meets several personalities who cast and reel in his life through a series of larks. In the end, he discovers that he has an extreme dislike for lying, corrupt, greedy people, and stumbles upon the impulse that opens the flood-gates to his writing.
When I saw The Rum Diary in 2011, Kemp’s melancholy admiration of Coleridge resonated with my own. At the time, I kind of felt like I had wasted my time after eight years of trying my hand at various modes of writing—from British jewelry copywriting to newspaper journalism to criticism to co-authoring a critically-acclaimed coffeetable book. I was dowsing in all directions and not digging any of it. I began to doubt I had didily to say. But when I saw The Rum Diary, I realized I was a late bloomer like Kemp, and all of that dowsing was leading somewhere. I was gaining experience, and that experience was being (albeit slowly) digested and gestated into my impulse.
I haven’t written as much, or met certain benchmarks as I had hoped I would in ten years, but I have been traveling and leaving the hotel, working odd jobs, and meeting and learning as much about people and their yearning and existential exigencies as possible. Publishing has become fast-paced, and feeling like a “slow writer” has given me a lot more anxiety about the whole thing than was really warranted. This is why I wanted to share this with people because I know how daunting it can seem when people are creating two or three finished products to your one, and how easy it can be to feel like you have to do more at the sacrifice of going out with friends, hopping in a car to go explore some hillbilly-guided caverns, or help out a sick family member, even though doing those things may do more for your writing in the end than sulking behind a computer screen. It is okay to mess around a little, and to live life and go out into the world. I have always believed that the whole point to writing is about living, and to do that you have to leave the hotel and send back postcards about what you have seen.
Many thanks to Sarah Hans for letting me send one to her and her readers today.
S. J. Chambers writes in Florida. Her fiction has appeared in anthologies like the Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities (Harper Voyager), Zombies: Shambling Through The Ages (Prime Books), The New Gothic with Jesse Bullington (Stone Skin Press), and in the forthcoming tomes: Steampunk World (Alliteration Ink), and Starry Wisdom Library (PS Publishing). Her lit fic series, Vintage Scenes, which are stories based on specific wines, will be running all year at Mungbeing.com. Also a non-fiction scribe, her essays have appeared at Tor.com, Strange Horizons, and Bookslut, and is co-author of the Hugo and World Fantasy nominated The Steampunk Bible. You can find her online at www.selenachambers.com.