Thursday, August 21, 2014

War Chests

I think all writers are the creative equivalent of crazy cat hoarders.

Lately, I've been reading a pretty great biography of Charles Fort, a man often called the father of modern paranatural studies. He was an interesting guy. You never really get a solid idea of just how seriously he took himself: religious groups loved him because he poked fun at science. Scientists disliked him because he was comfortable trolling around the fringes of the world, looking at things like showers of frogs or mirage cities or flying saucers while at the same time giving him grudging respect because he had a love of poking holes in overly-convenient theories. He tended to occasionally call his own fans crazies.

He lived in a comfortable halfway point between seeing his own role in life as necessary and being very aware of how ridiculous he was. One of his friends wrote a rather glowing review of him once in the opening of his book, "Lo!" and his main response was something along the lines of "you do realize that I'm just an old guy with bad eyesight who shares an apartment with a couple of parrots, right?"

He had a habit of keeping vast archives of what can only be called "weird shit." Boxes and boxes of the stuff. Notes and observations written on scraps of paper. Newspaper clippings. All organized according to topic: philosophy, astronomy, ethics, botany and the like. Occasionally, he'd get sick of it all and burn it or otherwise get rid of it. More often than not it would accumulate and get turned into wondrous books.

Even before he made a career as a collector of strange and wonderful information and as an observer of odd phenomena, he was a fiction writer. He'd collect metaphors.

Every time he thought of an interesting description or characterization, he'd write it down on a slip of paper and put it in a box. When he was short of ideas, he'd sift through his collections until he found something inspirational.

By his own account, at one point he had forty-thousand of the things, in boxes all over his apartment. At a low point in his life, before he turned to the paranatural, he burned them all, something which caused his friend, Theodore Dreiser, a great deal of distress.

I have to wonder how common such information hoarding is.

I recall an account of John Broome, I believe, the guy who created the modern version of the Green Lantern. He was famous for keeping filing cabinets full of weird clippings and notes. Stuff he could write into stories, interesting tidbits of information like factoids about astronomy or whatnot. The collection, by the time he died, was apparently massive.

It doesn't seem uncommon at all, at least among a certain generation. Back when you had to physically stump your way to the nearest library, uphill both ways, through knee-deep snow while fist-fighting angry wolves the entire way, it was pretty necessary to keep a war chest. After all, you'd never know what you'd need and when you dealt in the esoteric, you'd never want to look a gift horse in the mouth when you did run across something interesting and potentially useful later on.

These days, the internet fulfills a great deal of these needs. It always amuses me just how easy it is to sound like I know what the hell I'm talking about. I take a fair amount of joy in setting stories in locations I've never been to, because Google Maps will let me walk down the place's streets. My characters occasionally will wax philosophical on things I really don't have any knowledge of, simply because a quick stroll down a few pages of search results will give me enough to be a convincing charlatan. If I get something wrong, I blame the characters for being wrong. Easy.

But sometimes the internet fails you. Not because the internet isn't as good as a traditional library, but simply because there's so much knowledge to be had that you forget it exists. You run across something awesome and shiny, don't write it down somewhere where you'll bump into it later on, and then you forget it exists. I keep rediscovering interesting things I've forgotten and then kick myself for forgetting them.

I think there's something of value in going back to the cat-hoarding of Fort or Broome. As awesome as the internet is, it's really great to have a place you can go to for random interesting ideas you've collected, because face it, the internet is full of boring and terrible shit and there's no central curator of interesting things out there, except for you.

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