The Hazardous Materials of Writing

by Wholesome Rage | 14 December 2017

Rape, drugs, suicide, abortion, depression, oppression, infidelity.

Beginner storytellers — film students, poets, authors, songwriters, all of them — seem to have a fixation on making their first stories about the most powerful things they can think of. Almost always, it boils down to the list above. Throw in stuff like child abuse and PTSD, why not? People coming out to an angry, homophobic family when you’ve never gone through the same? More often than not, they don’t have much personal experience with the subject matter, but they think that this is what makes for a great story, because it’s powerful subject material.

This is the only time my advice stops being about how to fix elements, how to improve, and just becomes a single word; Don’t.

I think the best way to explain this is to remember that writing isn’t just an art, it’s a craft. It’s technical knowledge and experience and practice. While not everyone agrees what makes for a good story, we can at least understand that there are wrong ways to do it.

Right? Can we at least agree on that? Good.

Usually I compare writing to carpentry. It’s how I visualize it. Instead, I’ll be comparing it to a science, specifically chemistry.

Right now, the subject matter I described is pentaerythritol tetranitrate. It’s a plain white powder, and you want to figure out how it ticks. You know it’s one of the most effectively powerful materials out there, and you can’t wait to play with it. You saw your lab professor messing about with it, and he made a hell of a show out of it, he didn’t freak out when it got on his skin, awesome.

Then he sees you even looking at it and he panics. Why?

Because he’s at the third stage of what I’m talking about here, and you’re still at stage one, not realizing there are stages at all.

So I just bounced from writing to carpentry to chemistry to stages. I’m sorry about that. Stay with me a moment.

The first stage is simply knowing what you’re working with at all. A white powder you saw your professor fuss about with. Rape, drugs, suicide, abortion, depression, etc. is that white powder. It’s the same stuff you see your professor working with, you know it’s powerful, you think this is the good stuff. You don’t understand why they’re freaking out that you’re doing the same stuff he was doing.

Second stage is knowing that pentaerythritol tetranitrate is the raw form of Semtex and is the least stable of the modern military explosives. This is what landmines are made of. This will blow your goddamn hand through your lab partner’s sternum. Second stage is when you’re genuinely goddamn scared of it. This is when you start to comprehend the severity of what you’re working with, when you actually appreciate the danger of it, and you realize I probably shouldn’t be touching this. Holy fuck, you were about to hold it over a bunsen burner without safety equipment just to see what would fucking happen. What is wrong with you.

I would argue, and I would argue it passionately, that the first time you’re ready to deal with the hazardous materials is the first time you no longer want to even try. When you finally understand how just not ready you are to do it. Don’t touch that shit until you are legitimately scared of what might happen.

The problem is, there’s three stages. The professor you saw fucking about with it, that made it look awesome, that made it something you want to try? The reason you took this class in the first place? Why’d he panic when you tried to do the same thing? He even took his safety goggles off to rub his eyes at one point!

You’re looking at the veteran. The guy who’s had so much practice he makes this look easy. And here’s the trickiest part of all; He makes it look easy not just because he knows exactly what to do, but what not to do. All you’re seeing is what he does, it’s much harder to study the things he’s not doing because you don’t think to look for it, you don’t even know enough to look at stage one. You can’t see what’s not there, and what’s not there is the mistakes he’s figured out after years and years of practice. He knows it doesn’t detonate if you drop it, he knows it doesn’t catch fire easily if you handle it right, but more importantly, he knows exactly when to stop.

And if you try to copy him without the same experience, you’re going to get yourself hurt and maybe a lot of other people too.

Words are powerful.

Make sure you’re only working with the materials you’re qualified to handle.

Now, I should make this equally clear; This doesn’t mean these topics shouldn’t be written about. One of the reasons they can be so powerful is because of how important they can be to talk and think about. No, this isn’t an issue of if, but when for artists.

When something blows up in your face, it’s much harder to study and learn for next time. These high risk topics are liable to end badly for new storytellers, and should be avoided until they have more experience, not because they shouldn’t be allowed to write them, but because theses are bad topics to learn with, and other topics should not be seen as lesser when starting out.

I cannot stress enough that I call these subjects high risk and not mature subject matters, and I do it with good reason. They’re not more adult, and the alternatives aren’t more childish. The emotions you can tell with them are just less intuitive, obvious.

Trying to learn to write those ideas is less immediately appealing, but they still result in some of the most important stories we hear, the most interesting to read. They aren’t lesser topics, by any means. It’s harder to understand why they make for good stories, but that’s an important thing to learn too.

Work on character pieces and what-if’s. Find your own voice. Figure out how to write characters distinct from yourself. Walk before you can run.

Then we’ll open the cabinet again and see if you still want to mess with the hazardous materials.

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