2005 Odyssey Writing Workshop graduate Jason S. Ridler is a writer, improv actor, and left-wing military historian. His novels include Hex-Rated, the first installment of the Brimstone Files series for Night Shade Books; Rise of the Luchador; and Death Match. He’s also published over sixty stories and numerous academic publications. FXXK WRITING! A Guide for Frustrated Artists collects the best of his column of the same name, and his next historical work, Mavericks of War, is forthcoming from Stackpole Books. A former punk rock musician and cemetery groundskeeper, Mr. Ridler holds a Ph.D. in War Studies from the Royal Military College of Canada. He lives in Berkeley, CA and is a Teaching Fellow for Johns Hopkins University.
You’re a writer, a historian, and also an improv actor. How has doing improv impacted your writing? What lessons have you taken from improv and applied to writing?
Improv has provided many things that help me be a writer: being socially engaged in creating art with others; the nature of performance and stagecraft in reaching an audience; tools for brainstorming; a life outside of “all I f***ing do is write and be in my head,” which acted as an antidote to a lot of the writer b***s*** about being special because you’re a loner who does art (writing is also a great way to AVOID dealing with people and problems: improv helped me crack that code); improv uses less conventional storytelling tools and tactics that allow you to play with the absurd and normalcy and break expectation; improv also champions mistakes and failures as awesome means to new ideas (writing …. not so much); and it’s fun as hell. Improv and its gifts are now just a part of the complex lab of the imagination that exists in my storytelling brain.You’re also known for working on multiple creative projects at once. How do you balance different projects?
Fun answer: not well! Honest but boring answer: fiscally. Does this project have a bigger payday or is it more important to my career? Then it gets more time during the day and week and month. I used to say YES to everything because I was so poor I couldn’t turn down anything that made some cash or might make cash down the road. Now? I have to be more selective and invest in projects with richer returns. Thus the only work I do for free is improv (though I do get paid for it on occasion). Also, in a general sense, I like to have large and small projects. Novels and history books and teaching jobs, and then short stories, articles, and other things. I’ve discovered after hard years and bitter tears that while I love depth, I get to it via breadth, and I’ve got a skill set that few else do because I do variety instead of singularity. It’s been a harder road, but it’s led me to far more amazing places and I hope it pays off in the end (though I fear I’ll probably die at work).
You have taught a class called “Writing from the Heart,” both online and in person. How does writing from the heart strengthen fiction writing?
It cuts through the b***s*** and the noise of cliché and trope and market demands so that you can write about what you ACTUALLY care about and not what six major publishing companies care about. If they end up being the same thing, great. If you can find a way to sell what you love to them in a clever disguise, AWESOME. But I’ve never seen writers more frustrated than when they’re playing with other people’s mythologies instead of inventing and exploring their own (be it mass media or other), to paraphrase William Blake. Don’t just be a third-rate Neil Gaiman. Give me YOUR version of gods and devils and tricksters and power. Give me your pantheon of the imagination. Even better? Do it without MAGIC!
You’ve always been eager to help other writers and celebrate their successes. How has this affected your own writing? What advice do you have for writers looking to help others on their own creative path?
I’m not sure how encouraging others has impacted my craft at all. I mean, it feels good. And sometimes there’s payback of a kind. And in fact, while I like to encourage, I also like to critique and have been hated in some writing circles for having the audacity to critique successes in publishing as much as celebrate the accomplishments of folks who might be seen as peers.
Best way to help others … don’t lie to folks about the hardships involved in publishing. Challenge conventional wisdom. I started my column FXXK WRITING because I was tired of hearing the same ten pieces of advice for beginners as if it were wisdom for those kicking the can for years. And I read excellent articles about NOT GETTING YOUR DREAM JOB and realized I needed to do this for myself to unwind the beginner b***s*** mentality and a weird sense I was getting from some people that publishing and success was fair.
Most young writers want to live off their writing so they don’t need a day job. Which is the same as saying, “I’d like to be the 1 Percent of Publishing.” How about write something great instead? And keep getting better? And keep getting a better payday? And keep getting better gaming a very unfair business to your advantage? Best thing I can offer in terms of career advice should you become successful is this note: just because you’re successful doesn’t mean the system isn’t rigged. Don’t be one of those people who claims everything is fair just because you succeeded, and equate your success solely to your efforts. That’s will-to-power b***s*** that is very seductive because so much of writing is awful. But it’s b***s*** nonetheless and one idea I keep seeing in people who become very successful. Most are white people like me. Try and tell anyone who isn’t white that being white didn’t have SOMETHING to do with your success and see what kind of reaction you get!
Beyond that, I’d also suggest you develop a very good “b***s*** detector” as Hemingway put it. Learn how to critique your own work. Learn from better readers and editors, but also stand tall on your ability to smell your own b***s*** and make your work better without being beholden to a teacher or guru or content strategist with SEO training. Don’t be a fastidious s*** about it, as if only you can understand your genius. Far from it. Learn when you’re being lazy. Learn how to make your own work shine by knowing what works and what doesn’t in your writing.
With beginners, my goal is to help them find what they’re good at. Almost everyone has a strength or talent or insight. We often can’t see it because it’s buried in being a beginner! So, I focus on positives first. Writers are great at cutting themselves to pieces, but when you’re at the foothills of your career you need to hear what you’re doing well, too, so you don’t waste your time trying to be something you’re not (unless that’s how your talent unfolds!). I have a pretty good mind for finding themes and strengths and showing it to my students in ways that stick in their heads. That’s my gift as a teacher: I can find the good and help them make it shine.
Here ends Part 1 of our interview with Jason S. Ridler. In Part 2, which will be posted next Sunday, Jason will talk about his Odyssey Writing Workshop experience, why it’s important for writers to keep learning, and what drew him to writing about the 1970s Hollywood porn industry in his novel Hex-Rated.