Writers on Writing: New York Comic Con 2022 Edition

This past weekend, I attended New York Comic Con. While I did not have a table this year, which was unfortunate because I have a new book to sell (you can help me make for it by buying it here), I was able to attend the various professional panels aimed at writers. This year’s slate of high-profile writers was particularly strong, especially in the fantasy department were Terry Brooks, Brandon Sanderson, and Diana Gabaldon offered insights into their writing processes and careers. Below, I have collected the advice I found most helpful and interesting from both the top names and from the many other writers who paneled, and loosely organized that advice around a number of themes. I hope you find them as helpful and inspiring as I did.

Writing Process

Me and Brandon Sanderson

If you’re writing process isn’t working, then change your process–Chuck Wendig

When faced with an overwhelming amount of editorial feedback or critique, change something small. Changing something small reminds you that you have power over the piece–Peter V. Brett.

You can write a novel in a year writing 400 words a day. That’s about 1-1/2 double spaced pages–E. Lockhart.

The only feedback you get until you publish is that wordcount number adding up–Diana Gabaldon.

Who do you listen to? A really good editor. Anyone else, I’ll listen to an see if they have anything valuable to say, but you get a lot of feedback from people who don’t know anything. You’ve got to stand up for yourself–Terry Brooks.

The best feedback is from people who already like your work but who want something slightly better– (in my notes, but I didn’t write down who said it).

Take something you love and put it in a different context. I loved Faulkner. I wanted to put the way he dealt with class, the rich and poor, in a new element. Tolkien’s structure seemed like the perfect structure for that rich/poor dynamic–Terry Brooks.

Write out of order to avoid writing block. Move to a different part of the book, either to an exciting part or to an easy part–E. Lockhart.

I usually go through about 10 drafts–Karen McManus.

On writing comics: I write differently if I know the artist, if it’s an artist I’ve worked with before. If I’m workin g with a new artist, I’ll describe more—Jimmy Palmiotti.

Plotting vs Pansting

Terry Brooks giving me some writing advice.

I don’t write in straight lines. I don’t write with an outline either–Diana Gabaldon.

There is no such thing as plotting or pansting. Every writer does both. They are tools. If you don’t use both, you’re not using all the tools available to you as a writer–Brandon Sanderson.

I always start backward. I know the whydoneit and the whodoneit, and then plot backwards–Kara Thomas.

I tend to start with the big idea, but I’m not sure what it means–Karen McManus.

Plotting is like a Jenga tower. If you take one small thing out, the whole tower can collapse–E. Lockhart.

Character Development

The “Titans of Fantasy” panel l-r: Sanderson, Brooks, Gabaldon

We are all people. People make dumb decisions. It’s ok for characters dumb decisions because that’s what real people do. That makes characters feel real–Wesley Chu.

Sanderson’s second rule: flaws are more interesting than characters themselves–Brandon Sanderson.

I did what most writers do. I gave the character a flaw or two–E. Lockhart.

As the character’s power increases, their power becomes more evident–Brandon Sanderson.

I try to include “good” characters who have to deal with mental illness. Most of American media is like if there’s someone with a mental illness in your book, they’re probably the bad guy. We need to change that–Dan Wells.

I consider the antagonist and the villain as two separate characters: The villain is evil. The antagonist prevents the characters from getting what they want, but they should be relatable. We should be able to understand to understand them. Our main character could end up going in that direction. One example is Ms. Marvel. There are villains in that show, but the parents are the main antagonists. Another is Lord of the Rings. Sauron is the villain. He’s pure evil. Gollum is the protagonist, but what decisions got him there? We can see ourselves making those same decisions–Brandon Sanderson.

Villains don’t have to be villains from the start. They just have different agencies—Karen McManus.

Designing Plots

Meeting NYT #1 bestseller Wesley Chu, with whom I discussed writing Martial Arts.

The thing that bugs me most is repeated plot arc. Too many writers write the same plot over and over again. It’s as if, because they were successful with the first one, they just hit the reset button on book 2 (or series 2, or season 2) and write the same thing again–Brandon Sanderson.

The mystery needs to matter to the character, not just to the reader who is trying to figure out the mystery. There have to be character consequences for the reveal–Karen McManus.

Don’t have your conflict shoot your reader’s empathy for your character in the foot–Brandon Sanderson.

All mysteries have a reveal. Not all mysteries have a twist–Kara Thomas.

Point of View

Best Advice I’ve received as a writer panel w/ Chuck Wendig, Naomi Novak, Wesley Chu, Terry Brooks, Peter V. Brett

First person turns on how interesting the voice of the character is–Brandon Sanderson.

If you’re writing a scene, and you know it’s a good scene, and it’s an important scene, but it’s just not working out like it should, change the point of view. You’re probably writing it from the wrong perspective–Diana Gabaldon.

Writing Rules

Mystery/Thriller panel w/E Lockhart, Karen McManus, and Kara Thomas.

You should violate every rule–Terry Brooks.

The value of rules is that they make you look at your writing and analyze it in a technical way–Naomi Novak.

All writing rules are bullshit–Peter V. Brett.

But bullshit fertilizes–Chuck Wendig.

All writing rules amount to “don’t write badly.” They attempt to turn an art into a science–Naomi Novak.

Use writing rules like cooking, not baking. There are rules like ‘don’t dump in the whole package of salt’ and recipes are important when you start, but eventually you don’t have to follow the recipe exactly, unlike baking. You’re going to be tasting, adding more or less flavor according to preference. There is a preferential aspect, a matter of taste–Chuck Wendig.

50 years ago, the rules were different. 50 years from now, they’ll be different too. Trends come and go. What’s commercial comes and goes–Wesley Chu.

Pitching and Finding an Agent

How Not to Succeed in Comics Panel w/ Scott Snyder and Brian Azzerello

Querying sucks–Wesley Chu.

I was at a party once and an agent asked me what my book was about. I [was hesitant to share my book because of all the big authors he represented]. He told me “You don’t refuse books; I refuse books. If you want your book published, you have to put your work out there–Peter V. Brett.

I was trying to write to the market. It wasn’t until I wrote the books I wanted to read as teenager that I was able to sell my work–Karen McManus.

Reading

Joe Illidge at the Comic Book School Editors on pitching and professionalism panel.

Read outside your genre. Find the things that people do well in those other genres you love to read. They have skillsets and ideas we don’t have. Find out what they do and bring that into your own genre–Terry Brooks.

It’s not a matter of genre, it’s a matter of patterns–Diana Gabaldon.

You have to read mindfully and critically–Chuck Wendig.

Everything you read impacts you–Terry Brooks.

One of the things that makes us most worried as writers is that we’re going to copy someone else, and yet we’re an amalgam of all we’ve read and experienced. We need to look at what’s influenced us and tear it down to the emotions and then build it back up into something new–Brandon Sanderson.

General Advice

Brandon Sanderson and Dan Wells

When you work with people you like, all of your bad decisions seem good–Brian Azzerello.

Writers need to experiment. Writing the same thing for a long time would be a mistake–Terry Brooks.

Find people who you can tell the truth to, and who will tell the truth to you–Scott Snyder

You’ve got tp challenge yourself. You can’t rest on your laurels–Terry Brooks.

On imposter syndrome: I picture myself reading my book in front of a whole crowd at Yankee Stadium, and 60 thousand people are going “boo!”–Scott Snyder.

Sometimes, the magic works–Terry Brooks.

Influence people in a positive way. Give them an experience in space and time–Terry Brooks.

In the final analysis, your work is your brand– Joe Illidge.

Humorous Comments

How do I title my book? Poorly–Dan Wells.

On giving a 5 minute answer to a lightning round question: Have you seen the size of my books? That was fast for me–Brandon Sanderson.

I enjoy the process of writing. Once it’s done, I couldn’t care less. Except for getting paid. I enjoy that–Terry Brooks.

——-

Final Thoughts

There was so much variety in the advice given at nycc this year. Each of the writers took their own path and some of them disagreed with each other. There is not one way to succeed, there are many. Find the advice that speaks to you and implement it. It is, ultimately, comforting to know that their are so many paths to success.

On Illustrated Poetry, Nick Offerman, and Following Your Dreams

The great Nick Offerman offers this gem of advice in his memoir: Paddle Your Own Canoe: Not everyone will like the cut of your jib, but many others will. One simply needs to seek those others and somehow trick them into buying tickets to your production of Gangsta Rap Coriolanus.”

This colorfully worded sentiment goes against much of the advice offered to aspiring creatives, which involves things like chasing trends, researching the right key words and hashtags, and writing to the market.

While I would never advise a creative not properly research the market, there is, too, a value, in making the weird thing you want to make, market and trends be damned. Make the weird thing. Find your people. Create your own market.

I found Offerman’s words particularly inspiring as I read them just as I was preparing to release my book Into That Darkness Peering, a collection of gothic horror poetry and flash fictions, written by me and illustrated by Marika Brousianou.

This book, which just came out last week, is comprised of fully-illustrated, stand alone pieces. It is an illustrated book, but not for children. It is not really a straight poetry or fiction collection, but it’s not a graphic novel either. I was really hard to choose categories and key words for it on Amazon and Lulu.

What it is, is really cool. It came out beautifully, and, yes, it is the perfect time to release a book of gothic horror tales. right on time for Halloween.

I’ll drop a few sample images at the bottom of the post, and if you want to check it out, the book is available on Amazon in print and electronic formats. It is also enrolled in Kindle Unlimited, so you can read it for free if you subscribe to that service.

It may not be gangsta rap Shakespeare, and I may not be Nick Offerman, but I hope you, my own band of miscreants and weirdos, will give it a chance and buy it.

In Honor of Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie signing a book

Like everyone else, I am shocked and appalled by what happened to Salman Rushdie this past week. Not only is Rushdie one of the greatest living authors, he is also a champion of free speech and a model of principled bravery in the face of real danger. He is also one of my favorite writers.

If you only know Rushdie from his most famous and controversial work, The Satanic Verses, you should check out some of his other work as well. The booker-winning Midnight’s Children is, deservedly, his most highly regarded novel (and probably the right place to start if you are a Rushdie novice), but my favorite is Haroun and the Sea of Stories, which masquerades as a children’s fantasy book, but is actually about the dangers of censorship.

I’ve also learned a lot as a writer from Rushdie, who, in his melding of Eastern and Western traditions, often breaks a lot of so-called “rules” of writing. Here is a blog I wrote about his used of adverbs back in 2021.

Blog post on Rushdie and Adverbs

Please join me in wishing Rushdie a speedy recovery. Get well soon.

Rules, What Rules: Avoid Alliteration, Always?

In the first post I published on this blog, I bemoaned the reductive nature of writing advice. “If you write like everyone else,” I wrote, “your writing will read like everyone else’s.” While I have gotten away from that theme from time-to-time, I try to return to it every now and then as part of my series: Rules: What Rules? which consists of a series of blogs that deal with common pieces of writing advice, and then present a famous work–by a successful author–which breaks those rules. My aim is not to criticize these authors—I enjoy all of them, that is the point. Rather, I present their works as examples of successfully writing, which might cause you to reexamine the writing “rule” critically. I am not advising you to ignore these rules, rather to take control of your own craft, and consider your choices actively. As always, I believe there is more than one path to success, more than one formula for great writing. Consider these posts synecdochally. The specific rule is not the point; it speaks to a general attitude which is prevalent within the contemporary writing community.

In each blog post in this series, I will give a brief summary of the rule, followed by a case study of a successful author, work, or series that breaks that rule. Finally, I will provide some analysis of the rule and the alternative techniques the featured author makes. Since the posts in this series will not necessarily be consecutive blog entries, I will link each piece to previous entries.

Previously in this series:

Dialogue Tags

Eliminating Adverbs

The Rule: Avoid Alliteration, Always

The pithy way this rule is usually stated is derived from a 1986 Writers Digest article by Frank L. Visco which took the form of a list of “rules” the author had “learnt” (sic) over the course of his writing career. The article, which has been quoted in numerous places, has been circulated widely, especially in recent years, through meme culture and social media. The statement in question leads off the set of rules, in which the statement of each rule violates the very principle it purports to teach.

While the article is a bit tongue-in-cheek, the rules it professes are, by and large, considered “good” advice by the writing community.

Alliteration, especially when done excessively, is supposed to be distracting. It supposedly takes the reader out of the story and makes them focus on the delivery rather than the content.

And yet…

There is a long tradition of using alliteration in English language literature. In fact, alliteration has been there right from the beginning. Anglo-Saxon epics, such as Beowulf, which is considered by many to be the first foundational text of English literature, is built around an alliterative structure. Seamus Heaney’s landmark verse translation keeps this structure, and his translator’s introduction explains his methods, the anonymous poet’s techniques, and the traditions upon which they both draw better than I ever could.

Shakespeare used alliteration (Love’s Labour Lost, for example), but I’d like to begin our discussion in earnest with a poet from the next generation, Alexander Pope whose poem Sound and Sense is both a poem and an instruction manual for writing poetry. Throughout the sonnet, Pope uses the techniques he wants his reader to learn, most of which have to do with the sound the language make, including alliteration, but also rhythm, meter, assonance, and consonance. These devices are categorized as “sound and sense” devices to this day. In the couplet that gives the poem its title, Pope writes:

‘Tis not enough no harshness gives offense,
The sound must seem an echo to the sense:

This couplet states the poem’s argument, which is that the poet–or any writer for that matter–should use their devices in harmony with, or to accentuate the content and/or message, of the piece. Throughout the piece, Pope uses the devices he intends to teach, but does not name them explicitly.

Pope employs alliteration throughout the poem, including in the above-quoted couplet. The leading “S” sound is repeated 3 times in the stanza’s second line, and five times in the next couplet:

Soft is the strain when Zephyr gently blows,
And the smooth stream in smoother numbers flows;

The alliterative sound is not necessarily in consecutive words, which is actually the correct way to write alliteration. As least where poetry is concerned, alliteration is not, as it’s commonly defined the repetition of a sound at the beginning of a word, it’s actually the repetition of that sound on the stressed syllable.

One of my favorite examples comes from Edgar Allan Poe’s most famous poem, The Raven:

And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain

The repeated S sound occurs at the beginning of “silken” and “sad,” but in the middle of “uncertain” and “rustling.” But read the line out loud. Notice how the S sound falls on the stressed syllable, whether it comes at the beginning of the word or not:

AND the SILken, SAD, unCERtain RUStling

If you transpose “silken” and “sad”, the alliteration won’t read as well, first, because of the meter, and secondly, because the alliteration won’t sound as natural.

The reason Poe’s line works so well is that the sound does, indeed, echo the sense. Not only is there an onomatopoeia in the “s” sound, which mimics the curtains rustling in the wind, but the hypnotic use of alliteration combines with the trochaic meter–the opposite of iambic, which is the most common English language meter–highlights the dream-like quality of the encounter (“while I nodded nearly napping”; the nightmarish Raven perched atop the bust of Athena, a symbol of rationality)–to “shush” the reader to that dream state with the repeated, soporific “s” sound.

When I wrote my poem, The Widow’s Walk which was recently published, fittingly, in Love Letters to Poe, I attempted to emulate Poe’s alliterative style. The opening line of the poem reads:

She wends her way around her walk
And round and round she goes.

Scanning the opening line, we get:

she WENDS her WAY aROUND her WALK

The alliterative “w” sound is used on the stressed syllable (although I use iambic rather than trochaic meter in this poem.)

Some might say that alliteration is an antiquated device found mostly in older poems (and poems like mine which pay homage to them), but modern poets use alliteration prominently as well.

In her poem, Fugue, from her new book, Call Us What We Carry, superstar inaugural poet Amanda Gorman writes:

excerpt from “Fugue” by Amanda Gorman

The first line of the excerpt employs alliteration in the same manner as Poe. The D sound is repeated on the stressed syllable. Later in the excerpt, Gorman uses alliteration in a similar manner to an anglo-saxon poet, as she moves the “f” sound around to different places in her lines.

Later in the collection, Gorman highlights alliteration as an essential literary technique, one which defines the poet, and speaks to the power of poetry. In her poem “Memorial”, Gorman writes:

But why alliteration?
Why the pulsing percussion, the string of syllables?
It is the poet who pounds the past back into you.

Thus, arguably the biggest contemporary superstar in poetry (is that even arguable at this point?) uses alliteration in her poetry.

Gorman, Poe, Pope, and the Beowulf poet refuse to avoid alliteration; the rest of us should follow their example.

***

Alliteration works in non-poetic writing as well. One of my favorite examples of alliteration in prose writing comes from Charles Dickens’ description of the storming of the Bastille in A Tale of Two Cities:

Deep ditches, double drawbridge, massive stone walls, eight great towers, cannon, muskets, fire and smoke. Through the fire and through the smoke — in the fire and in the smoke, for the sea cast him up against a cannon, and on the instant he became a cannonier — Defarge of the wine-shop worked like a manful soldier, Two fierce hours.

Deep ditch, single drawbridge, massive stone walls, eight great towers, cannon, muskets, fire and smoke. One drawbridge down! “Work, comrades all, work! Work, Jacques One, Jacques Two, Jacques One Thousand, Jacques Two Thousand, Jacques Five-and-Twenty Thousand; in the name of all the Angels or the Devils — which you prefer — work!”Thus Defarge of the wine-shop, still at his gun, which had long grown hot.

In the first line of each of the two excerpted paragraphs, Dickens uses similar phrases which feature alliteration. In each example, Dickens’ uses the repeated hard “d” sound to represent the thud of the cannons against the walls of The Bastille. Like Poe’s, Dickens’ alliteration is also onomatopoeia, and, therefore, as Pope advises, even in prose, the sound echoes the sense. Moreover, the missing “d” in the second paragraph highlights the fact that one of the two drawbridges has been taken out by the rebels’ cannons. The missing “d” sound highlights the missing drawbridge.

Another more modern example is found in the film V for Vendetta, written by the Wachowskis and directed by James McTeigue. In one of the most popular scenes from the film, V, played by Hugo Weaving, gives a speech in which nearly every word begins with the letter “v,” in tribute to the Alan Moore’s comic which inspired the movie, in which each chapter title is a “v” word (in fact, many of the “v” words used in the speech are taken directly from those chapter titles).

V for Vendetta “V” speech

When I watched the movie in the theater, this speech drew appreciative applause from the audience, who seemed thrilled by the alliteration as the speech built to a crescendo–take that, Frank L. Visco!

Of course V for Vendetta followed a long tradition of comic book alliteration. The great Stan Lee loved alliteration, especially when naming characters: Peter Parker, Sue Storm, Read Richards, Matt Murdock, The Fantastic Four, the list goes on.

I could go on as well, but I think I’ve made my point.

Analysis

So, why is alliteration looked down upon? It seems that it’s because people misinterpreted a joke. Visco, who ironically uses alliteration to criticize its use, was clearly writing tongue-in-cheek. One could even say that the fact he opens with the alliteration “rule” shows he recognizes its power. Meme culture has contributed to the proliferation of Visco’s rules, and, as with so many other things, its has stripped the the original article of its context.

While it is true that alliteration can take a reader out of the story or be distracting if its used poorly, the same could be said for any literary technique. A bad simile or metaphor will take the reader out of the writing just as quickly; poor rhythm in poetry will do the same. Any device can be overused, and the writer must strive use them all judiciously. That is true about alliteration, but it is not unique to alliteration.

The fact is that proper alliteration makes writing memorable, which is why it often used in marketing. It is a signature device of writers ranging from Edgar Allan Poe, to Stan Lee, Charles Dickens, to Amanda Gorman.

Avoid it at your peril.


Be sure to check out the links page to read some of my published writing, and to follow me on TwitterInstagram and Facebook.

On Goal Setting

This time of year, there’s a lot of talk about resolutions and goal setting. Here are some things to think about when setting your writing goals for 2022:

–It is important to set goals with outcomes you can control: For example, a goal of making X amount of submissions is better than a goal of being published by a specific publisher or having your work accepted for publication X amount of times. In the first case, you are in control of whether you achieve your goal. In the second, someone else controls the outcome.

There is nothing wrong with dreaming big, with wanting to be published by a specific publisher or publication–I have a few myself, just like any writer–but the best way to get there is to focus on what you can control rather than worry about what you can’t.

–Focus on the process, not just on the product: You need to hone your skills and develop the attributes of a successful comics creator. In addition to goals about completing projects, submitting, and publishing, commit to improving an area of weakness in the new year. Perhaps you need to work on writing more realistic dialogue, better metaphors, etc. Maybe you need to improve your business skills, such as marketing, social media management, crowdfunding, etc.?

Athletes develop their attributes by training to run faster, jump higher, or lift more weights because they know that these exercises will translate into better on course performance. Chess masters study specific, isolated “problems” in addition to playing full games. Professionals, like lawyers and teachers, are required to complete many hours of professional development classes to maintain their licenses. It behooves creators to develop their skills, as well. Practice intentionally, and your work will improve.

Here is a blog post I wrote a couple of years back in which I discuss goal setting and intentional practice in greater detail.

–Strike a balance between goals that are attainable and goals which challenge you: There has been a movement in goal setting recently which encourages people to set attainable goals. Setting attainable goals builds confidence, which is important, but it is also important to set goals which challenge you. If your goals are too easily achieved, you are not pushing yourself enough. While not reaching a challenging goal could be disappointing, upon reflection, you may find that you’ve advanced further by partially achieving a big goal than you would have set a lower goal. As always, it is important to strike a balance between the two extremes, and…

–Know yourself: Are you the type of person who needs the confidence boost of a series of smaller, achievable goals, or are you a person who does better when you challenge yourself? Are you being honest with yourself about your current skill level? Your strengths and weaknesses? Your assessment of your previous year? Only by knowing yourself can you set the goals you need to take your creative journey to the next level.

A Story In Honor of Neil Gaiman’s Birthday

It’s Neil Gaiman’s birthday today. Gaiman is my favorite living writer, and has been hugely influential on my writing life.

When I was a young writer, I met Gaiman at a reading he was doing in support of #Sandman Endless Nights. He signed books after the reading, and we were allowed to have one other book signed in addition to the new Sandman volume. I chose to have him sign Stardust. As he was signing it, I told him that Stardust was the first book I read that resembled the book I wanted to write. He responded that he wrote it because he he wanted to read a book like that and no one else was writing it.

This interaction was probably the most inspiring conversation I had with a writer, and gave me confidence to pursue my writing more seriously at a time when I really needed it. I will always be grateful to Mr. Gaiman for this interaction, both for his message and for the kindness he showed me amidst the hours he spent signing for and interacting with his legions of fans.

There are many other ways Gaiman influenced me, including the way he brought me back to comics as an adult, the way he writes across mediums and genres, and the way he marries the humorous and the macabre, but it is this brief encounter for which I am most thankful.

Happy birthday, Neil Gaiman.

Into This Darkness Peering: A Collaborative Inktober Project

As a writer, I’ve long-been jealous of visual artists’ social media pages, especially during this time of year. Traditionally, Inktober is in full swing, and if like me, you follow a lot of artists, you look forward to the myriad of posts which dominate your timeline in response to various art challenges. As a writer, I wanted in on the action. I wanted a way to get more eyes on my page, and to connect with the community of visual artists with whom I might collaborate in the future.

Last year, my friend Gene Hoyle, a long time comics writer and publisher, organized a project called Pagetober, where writers and artists were supposed to collaborate on an inktober project: writers would write something for artists to draw throughout the month of October. It was a great idea, but it kind of fizzled out, and I’m not sure if any of the projects were completed.

This year, I tried again. I approached Marika Brousianou, with whom I had collaborated before, about illustrating a series of flash fiction and poetry throughout October. Thus, “Into The Darkness Peering” was born. So far, it’s working out well. We are 2/3rds of the way through the month, and so far, we have posted something every day on each of our social media. The reaction to the project has been excellent, and we are going to collect the results into a book later this year, and sell some of the individual pieces as prints as well. I have high hopes for the project, which I hope to have ready for con season next year. I like the idea of having prints at my table, which would give it a visual appeal beyond what I would usually have as “just” a writer.

I recommend all writers consider doing a similar project, especially my colleagues within the indie comics community. Why not take advantage of a popular hashtag to drive more traffic to your page? Why wouldn’t you want to engage with the community of comics artists with whom you hope to collaborate in the future? Why not work towards a modular project which you might be able to sell in different mediums?

Below, I have posted a few samples of our work so far, but I invite you to follow along and see all the pieces, on both my own or Marika’s social media pages.

#IntoThisDarknessPeering Written by A. A. Rubin, illustrated by Marika Brousianou
https://www.instagram.com/thesurrealari/
#IntoThisDarknessPeering Written by A. A. Rubin, illustrated by Marika Brousianou
#IntoThisDarknessPeering Written by A. A. Rubin, illustrated by Marika Brousianouhttps://www.instagram.com/thesurrealari/

Kusama’s Cosmic Nature and Reading Beyond The Dictionary

A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of seeing Yayoi Kusama’s Cosmic Nature at the New York Botanical Garden. It was a spectacular art show, at once timeless and original. Her sculptures and installations—unlike many that I have seen—integrated with and enhanced the pleasure of seeing the trees and gardens, and the bright colors, organic colors, and illusions of infinity were perfect for a late summer day spent walking around outside.

And yet, when I think about the name of the show—Cosmic Nature—I can’t help but think about how different it is from that which I normally associate with the word “cosmic.” When I think of the word “cosmic” I think of outer space, of the old Hayden planetarium I used to visit as a kid, and of the feeling of infinite falling I always experienced when the lights went out and the stars came on. I think of great powers, of Thor and Captain Marvel and Adam Warlock, of brightly colored comic book pages by Jack Kirby and Jim Starlin. I don’t think of polka-dotted pumpkins.

Now, please don’t take this a criticism of Kusama, her work, or her title. As mentioned above, I loved the show. It is all part of a larger rhetorical point about the way each person’s experience affects the way they associate with certain words. What point? I’ll get to that in a moment.

I know…I know…

I will. But first…In my time, recently, hanging out with indie comics and horror writers, I’ve encountered a large community whose first association with the word “cosmic” relates to the work of HP Lovecraft. Now, I’ve never, personally been a Lovecraft fan: I prefer my horror gothic to cosmic (and that was before I learned about his racism), but his fans are legion, and, in the circles in which I now travel, it is as likely as not that the word “cosmic” conjures the images of Cthulhu and the Elder Gods as anything else in the mind of the person with whom I’m conversing.

These definitions of “cosmic” all derive from the same source, yet they connote very different things. According to The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, the cosmic means either “Of or pertaining to the universe as an ordered system or totality; universal; immense; infinite.” It can also mean, “belonging to the universe as opposed to earth; extraterrestrial,” and “characteristic of the vast scale of the universe or traveling through space.”

Whether it’s the planetarium, Marvel’s power cosmic, Lovecraftian gods, or Kusama’s artwork (in which many pieces address the infinite through her use of mirrors, and where the polka dot motif is supposed to hint at the ways stars and planets are seen from vast distances) each of these uses of “cosmic” fits the dictionary definition. And yet, the mood and tone—the feeling one gets from each of these interpretations is vastly different, and, therefore, the connotation of the word—especially on first reading it in a new or unfamiliar context—is likely to be different for every reader (or viewer) depending on their own, personal experience.

About a month ago, I wrote about reading the dictionary with an eye for etymology. I suggested following Tolkien’s example and diving deep into word origins to find a subtext that gives a richness to your writing and a consistency to your themes. It is a technique that I still believe in, and I practice I intend to explore further. But, as a counterpoint, each artist must be aware that their audience’s experiences and contexts—and therefore their associations with certain words—may be different from their own. We all bring a piece of ourselves to our engagement with art, and there are a myriad of permutations within the cosmic vastness of the human experience.


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