Who are you, really?
This is a picture of me at age fifteen. I’m thirty-two now. I feel very little connection to the teenager holding that guitar. Imagine it for yourself, and go younger if you need to. When you look at a picture of yourself at ten, what do you feel? Is that ten-year-old you?
Mentally, developmentally, socially – I’m a very different person than the teen in that fairly embarrassing picture. I don’t know if that’s me, except in the sense that we share the same timeline. We came from the same parents – the teen is bodily the same as myself, at least to a degree. Philosophers Eric Olson and Paul Snowdon define this as the “somatic criterion” for personhood, but we’ll just call it “body identity.”
So, I do share a body identity with the kid in that photograph. I mean, our bodies regenerate, and over the course of seven years we are basically rebuilt from scratch, but that’s just a technicality. I share a continuum of body with that person; over time, we’ve shared the same cells. Case closed, right?
Maybe not. Let’s draw on the sort of high-brow literary reference you’ve come to expect if you’ve read a few of these blogs. The movie poster for Freaky Friday.
Let’s use the premise of this movie (a remake, I know, but I needed this tagline to make my point) as a philosophical thought experiment. These thought experiments are generally impossible fantasy, but they allow us to test our intuitions to determine if a concept still makes sense.
Read the tagline – it’s clear, and obvious to the audience, that the bodies are not the person. It’s also kinda sexually suggestive, but we’ll ignore that. The movie would only confuse and annoy the audience if we believed the body was the person. If that were the case, there would be no “swap” in Freaky Friday. Lohan would just act like her mom, and Curtis would act like her daughter, but they wouldn’t have changed places. So, the movie plays on intuitions that seem obvious to us – Lohan inhabits her mom’s body, and vice versa.
But let’s bring this higher up the intellectual ladder. One of the most important philosophers of the past five-hundred years, John Locke, defines identity in a form that fits what our intuition tells us when we observe the Freaky Friday premise. He defines our person by its psychological continuity. Meaning that when Lohan’s psychological continuity – her experiences, memories, personality, etc – jumps into a new body, that new body serves as a host for Lohan. The body itself is only a husk.
Okay, fair enough – maybe we’re our psychological continuity.
Except, what is that? Is it real?
To what degree are our psychologies shaped by our circumstances, by those who surround us, by our culture and society? If Scott Kelly had grown up in Pakistan, he would be unrecognizable from the Scott Kelly that exists today. The language, the culture, the society – it would all be so completely different that only the most basic and generic traits would be shared between us.
It could even be simpler than that. We all play multiple roles. When you’re a parent, are you the same person as when you’re a romantic partner? I hope not. Likewise for when you’re at work being a professional, rather than at home Netflix binging.
Let’s take these ideas of personhood to some extremes and see what we get. What if I faked my death? What if I abandoned the name “Scott Kelly” to such a degree that I could never answer to it again? My status, my various roles, my friends, my achievements, and those habits that might be used to identify me – all of those would be banished forever. I’ve already established that psychological continuity is far from concrete, so what happens when it’s severed completely?
The majority of my psychological identity would be stripped away. The memories would exist, but my ability to be the person who created those memories would not. That person is now “dead.” I would be my own ghost, in a sense.
So, we’re back where we started. Who are you? Take a person and start stripping away what defines them. Body, name, memories, experiences, ideals, social identity, personality. They’re all quite mercurial; none of these are solid foundations. So if you can only keep one piece, that cornerstone to a person’s identity, which is it?
Or does it exist at all?
This is the philosophical backbone of my Keep the Ghost trilogy, the line of questioning that led me to create the plot and characters and write the series. I think I put it more succinctly in Shadow Box. Below, find a brief, spoiler-free scene in which Sean – the narrator, who was forced to fake his death and become a fugitive – is quizzed by Morgan, his guide, about who he is now that he’s become his own ghost.
The world shifts on a boat; there is no stable point of reference. At all times rocking, sliding, floating. By focusing on Morgan, I can forget this—she sits at the opposite end of a twin bed from me, legs folded under her.
“This is my revolver,” Morgan says, holding up a snub-nosed thirty-eight. “That one is yours.” She points to my identical gun, which is tucked into a leather holster on the floor next to the bed. “Give it to me.”
I lean across the bed, stretching past the circle of light shining through the little porthole window of our cabin. The gun is lifted to the sunbeam; Morgan’s hand enters its glow as she takes the weapon.
Our two pistols are laid out on the sheets between us. Morgan opens the cylinder of each and shakes the bullets into a waiting hand before depositing them in her lap.
“This gun is mine, and that one is yours,” she says. “I always recognize which one is mine by checking here.” She holds up the revolver she’s identified as her own—a pink smear of nail polish stretches across the grip. “I didn’t wait until my nails were dry, once, and so it’s got this little mark on it.”
She begins to disassemble each gun, using a small screwdriver to remove the cylinder and grips, placing the parts on the bed in two separate collections.
“Let’s say I do this,” Morgan says, and picks up each gun’s cylinder in her hands. She swaps the two, taking the gleaming, machined metal parts from one pile to the other. “Which one is my gun now?”
“That’s still your gun,” I tell her, pointing to her pile. “It’s just got my cylinder in it.”
This time she picks up the grips of the guns, and her nail-polish stained grip is traded for mine. “What about now?”
“Well, that’s tricky,” I say. “If I swapped these two while you weren’t looking, you would think this was your gun.”
“Except I’d be wrong?”
“Well, yeah. The frame hasn’t changed, and that’s the biggest piece.”
“Okay, so it’s in the frame.” Morgan swaps the grips and cylinders so that each are in the piles from which they began. Then she picks up the steel frames—barrel, trigger and base—and swaps them. “Now?”
“I don’t know,” I answer. “I guess the frame is the gun, so we swapped. Even though you’ve still got your grip with the mark on it, and the old cylinder.”
“And what if I sat here and switched every screw, spring, and pin in the guns, but kept the original frame?
“I have no idea.”
“That’s a good place to start,” Morgan instructs. “So, how much of you needs to be swapped before you’re no longer Sean Reilly?” She points to my head. “Everything about you is constantly changing, always rebuilding and adapting. Where is your frame?”
Poor Traits of an Artist as a Young Man: Kill the Ghost
Little hard to write about this one, because it’s not done. As of the time I’m writing this, it’s about a third of the way completed, and I’m happy to tell you I’m very proud of it. If you enjoyed the first two books, you will love this. And yes, Sean will have his redemption – his journey will come to an end. No cliffhangers this time.
I’m also trying an entirely new technique. I’m leaving behind the split-mind (italics voice) from Shadow Box; Sean is now fully reunited with himself. The book hits the ground running, beginning a couple of hours after Shadow Box ends, and Sean’s dead within the first four chapters.
Yeah. You’ll see.
I am trying a new trick with this book, as I’m prone to do with each new writing project.
See, an advanced form of writing I strive to do includes binding together all of your metaphors and similes. You don’t just say “shadows crossed the man’s face” in the Keep the Ghost trilogy. The term “shadow” has a special place in this series’ mythos. If I say someone has a shadow across their face, I’m trying to tell you they have issues with ego projection. Same deal if I make use of the term “ghost” or one of its variants, like “wrath” or “spectre.” I’m trying to draw attention to the soul of the person who I’m referencing.
But let’s take it a step further. There is what I’m calling a ‘metastory’ in Kill the Ghost. The literal rafters from which the scenes hang. In the metastory, Sean is lowered by a silver thread into the underworld, and then the thread is cut. He’s trapped in the depths of the series’ version of hell, and only the clarity of self and banishment of his own shadows, gained by his previous adventures, can guide him out.
So as you read the novel, look for these themes unfolding – this basic metastory is woven through the entire novel, and Sean’s journey through the underworld works itself through the plot literally as well as metaphorically.
It’s coming soon, and I’ll let you know the moment it’s available. And just for coming along this far, I’ll give you the opening paragraphs as they exist today:
I am damned. Seven months ago, I committed a sin against the earth. For that, I’ve earned her wrath.
She cries out to me, always. A loathsome wail I feel in my marrow. But then, she’s going to be mad – my open grave makes for a deep wound.
Gambled my way this far. But, it doesn’t seem to matter how fast I run – fate wants this travesty corrected. I cannot escape a force that moves at the speed of dark.
Whatever hand on high holds my thread lets out a few hundred feet of slack – the plane’s nose tilts earthward, scything through the white shroud toward the ground. Everything ends, even the sky.
Way down we go.
I have some other entries planned in the series, if you’re interested in reading more. Things covering my influences, my writing process, maybe going a little deeper into some of the unreleased works I discussed here. Let me know what you think by dropping me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or leaving a comment below.
As always, thank you for reading!
Poor Traits of an Artist as a Young Man: Shadow Box
My first sequel since Liq, which no one read.
There are some great things about sequels. I took a major risk in the first five chapters, kind of pulling a trick to hopefully delight and surprise the reader. Never would have tried that in a first novel, because there’s too much world-building to do.
I stored up on inspiration before starting Shadow Box. Raymond Chandler was my guiding light – the 1950’s noir author of hits like The Long Goodbye. If you’re unfamiliar, any time you see a hard-drinking detective in a crummy office waiting on a stunning blonde to fill his life with treachery, that’s Raymond Chandler’s influence.
I read all his books. The guy can write; he’s got one-liners that make me jealous. In fact, in the opening paragraph of Shadow Box, I pay homage to the master.
He has a great line about staring into a killer’s eyes. He says they were “as cold and dark as the space between two stars.” I played with the line in Sean’s opening introspection on his Holbox hotel room, simultaneously referencing the climax of Keep the Ghost. “I open my eyes, but fail to catch the dream that woke me. Just a white expanse of ceiling, as clean and innocent as the space between two scars.”
Shadow Box is more mystery than Keep the Ghost, which devolves into more of a suspense/thriller in its second half.
In terms of the evolution of my writing, it’s my favorite book to date. Dripping style, fast-paced and I took great care to further the philosophical questions of Keep the Ghost.
In Keep the Ghost, Morgan makes faking your death sound great – just start over fresh, a brand new life. But can anyone do that, or only someone with Morgan’s particularly loose grip on reality? What happens when Sean tries to recreate himself in her image?
Shadow Box happens.
For the next entry in the Poor Traits series, click here.
Poor Traits of an Artist as a Young Man: Keep the Ghost
When I sat down to plan what would eventually become Keep the Ghost, I had certain goals. I wanted something I could market under the guise of genre fiction, but still be distinctly my own book. Sounds like the same recipe for disaster that led to Ten Minutes to Midnight, I know. But I had a better balance in mind this time.
I leaned much further toward my own instincts and the style I’d developed writing The Blue. I wanted it to be immediate again, an uninterrupted stream of conscious book written in first person present tense. I knew some people would dislike that, just like they’d dislike my reliance on semicolons and dashes. But I like it; it’s mine, and it is very distinct. Some readers love it, some hate it. But, it’s not average.
That was the issue with Ten Minutes to Midnight – someone else could have written it. Whether my novels are great or crap, I want the reader to have no mistake about who wrote it. It can only be me.
A crime television show, Forensic Files or something similar, got an idea stuck in my brain. In it, a man had faked his own death to receive his own life insurance money. He then resurfaced with dyed hair and was immediately caught.
When I was pondering what genre to lean into for this book, mystery caught my eye. It could be gritty and modern like [sic] and The Blue – I didn’t need any fantastic elements, and it left a lot of room for character study. What if I combined the mystery genre with the existential trend that had always been driving focus?
It got me thinking. Fake your death, and what is left? How much of a person is made up of their relationships with others and those influences, and how much is core to that person? Their soul, if you will (or ‘ghost,’ as I prefer.)
By being forced to fake your death, you are burning away your old identity. In this case, you can never even answer to your own name again. So, what rises from the ashes? Is it purified somehow? Will the experience leave you with some sort of enlightenment?
Keep the Ghost was the first novel I released with no intention of finding a publisher. I would prove to the world that my books have a market, even if that market wasn’t a well-worn path just yet. So I started bringing my novels directly to readers, mostly likely using a method that brought you here in the first place.
And I need you. Early signs for Keep the Ghost are great – it’s been downloaded over a hundred thousand times, hit the #1 free novel spot on Amazon, received 160+ reviews on Amazon with a 4.4 star average. But that’s just the beginning. To really prove myself, that number needs to be over a thousand.
So, please. Help me with my journey. Leave a review, even if it’s just something short and simple. Share the book with a friend, tell them about it. You matter – you are, literally, my only hope.
For the next entry in the Poor Traits series, click here.
Poor Traits of an Artist as a Young Man: The Blue
I wasn’t about to stop writing, but Ten Minutes to Midnight wore me out. I was exhausted with trying to chase success, with trying to fit a mold. So when it came time to write another novel, I was sick of trying to bend to trends. That only led me to failure.
It is a book that contains my deepest fears and insights on humans and human interaction. The Blue follows the path of Derek, an alcoholic and struggling painter who finds himself stricken with face-blindness, a real disability in which the sufferer cannot recognize anyone by their appearance. Not even themselves.
Isolated by his condition, Derek finds himself in the center of a legal battle over a car crash which resulted in the death of a mother and her children. He’s hunted by the surviving members of the family, ostracized, and left struggling with the nature of reality itself.
It is my shortest book, at around 50,000 words. I also further developed my style; rather than the flashback/forward structure of [sic], I wrote in one uninterrupted first-person narrative. The reader lives the book with the narrator.
The Blue is my choppiest book, in that I stayed away from semi-colons and dashes but stuck with small, simple sentences. It’s a divisive style, and it will bother some people. Others love it, and my biggest fans tend to swear by The Blue as my best work.
At one point, it was the #1 most downloaded free e-book on all of Amazon.com. It’s been downloaded around 80,000 times. By a weird coincidence, I met NYT bestselling author John Lescroart through a mutual friend who’d sent him The Blue. He was impressed by the book, and we talked on the phone about it.
I love it. I’m happy to take stylistic risks. The Blue is probably my personal favorite of my novels. The reviews are mixed, but then the reviews are mixed on some of what I consider to be the greatest books ever written. This is the sort of novel that speaks to me the most.
For the next entry in the Poor Traits series, click here.
Poor Traits of an Artist as a Young Man: the lost novel
I was on the right path in terms of ability. However, any competent author can write a bad book. A movie can be filmed beautifully, but still be terrible.
I was bitter over [sic]’s rejection from Simon & Schuster. So, I decided to write something more commercial, something that fit the popular trends of the time but still carried my brand and style.
A young adult supernatural book. I already had a bunch of fans on Wattpad, and Wattpad is primarily made up of teenage girls between the ages 13 and 18. As you might imagine, this was around the era of the “Twilight” phenomenon and supernatural young adult stories were all the rage.
Ten Minutes to Midnight is about a group of kids who uncover “the truth,” in an existential sense. Except if they tell anyone the truth, that person immediately dies.
Drama and action ensues. I completed the book, had a cover made, sent it to my agent – ready to move forward with this hybrid attempt at commercialism.
But something became apparent as I began reflecting on it. This book was poison, because it was average. Boring. Normal. I’d cut too much of myself out. I’d much rather have an audience that hates me for my particular style than one who cannot pick my books out of a lineup.
Never got into this to be normal. I never released Ten Minutes to Midnight to anyone. It remains locked in my vault, a reminder that I can’t sell out. Whatever came next had to be true.
For the next entry in the Poor Traits series, click here.
Poor Traits of an Artist as a Young Man: enter [sic]
Despite mixed results from my work between Jimwamba and Frightened Boy, there was never any thought of quitting. Frightened Boy was gaining traction online, and I landed a new agent. She gave me the hint that young adult was blowing up right now, and that I may have an easier time targeting a concept like Jimwamba to teenagers.
She might be onto something.
[sic] was a new novel that copied the central premise of Jimwamba. The game remained – tag someone on the back, and they have fifteen minutes to change their lives. Except now it was a story about teenagers, and written much more competently. I pulled in many elements from my personal life, but it was in no way autobiographical. There’s a big difference between a diary like Jimwamba and a novel inspired by my childhood. [sic] felt real.
For the first time, I pulled a book together the way I’d always dreamed. Motifs, themes, recurring elements, a direct attack on our assumptions about life. I became much more critical of my own work, refusing to write the next chapter until I knew exactly where the story was moving. My career was stalling, and it was because of my material. Enough wild creativity; I needed control, direction, something to temper my outlandish surrealist tendencies.
It was time to evolve. If I had any doubt about a scene, it was replaced or deleted entirely. Brutal self-reflection. The book may have wound up at sixty-thousand words, but I cycled through well over a hundred-thousand words of material that didn’t make the cut or was reworked entirely. This has been my process ever since.
I first released [sic] on a webpage called WeBook, as part of an audience-voted contest. [sic] won the whole thing; suddenly I had offers of representation from three different literary agents. The tables were completely flipped from just a year before.
So I chose one. Over the course of a year, I was in serious talks with Simon & Schuster over publication of the book. A new editor on their youth fiction imprint was smitten with my novel, and said it was the sort of book he got into the industry to publish.
But the larger editorial board disagreed. I received a very lengthy and polite email from the chief editor at Simon & Schuster’s young adult imprint, Pulse. [sic] wasn’t being published. It was too different – people didn’t want to be challenged like this, it didn’t fit their mold. The market wasn’t proven.
I was crushed, I’ll admit. The process of choosing an agent and having them shop your book around takes about a year, and at the end of the long road I found defeat.Still wasn’t about to be done writing, though. I write because I love it – when I wrote Kid, Dark Scary Monster, and Steam, virtually no one read them. But I still wrote them, because I have to write. If I’ve got forty novels written by the time I die and no one has read them, so be it.
So I put [sic] on a new type of website, a sort of Facebook for authors and readers. It’s called Wattpad, and it turned [sic] into a huge hit.
It’s been viewed over a million times, with fifteen thousand individual votes and hundreds of comments. I started getting emails from people who really tried to play my hypothetical game of changing your life in fifteen minutes. I still get those emails today. Just a month ago, I got a letter from a teenager who said he’d read [sic] over ten times in the past two years, that it helped him through a crisis. Students started convincing their school libraries to order copies, and I still get a spike of paperback sales around Christmastime as parents order copies of the novel for kids who fell in love with it on Wattpad.
A group of student filmmakers from Bosnia turned their favorite scene from my book into a short film and entered it into a contest. You can view it here.
Christopher Pike, the guy whose books I devoured when I was thirteen, read it. He messaged me out of nowhere saying he really enjoyed it. We exchanged messages for a few weeks; he offered me some industry advice. This was a first from me – mutual respect from an author who I was a fan of.
One thing I became aware of, is I started to feel like I’d passed that 10,000 hours mark. You know, the hypothetical amount of practice required to “master” a craft. From Kid up until this point, I’d written seven novels. And not first drafts or outlines – completed, rewritten, best-of-my-ability books. I’d received guidance from a wide audience, as well as from professional editors, authors, and agents. My voice was developed, my style coming easy and natural when I sat down to compose.
[sic] taught me I was on the right path, even if mainstream presses weren’t willing to roll the dice on me. I stood in a park and sold printed and stapled copies of my books before, and I’d do it again if that’s what it took. Luckily, self-publishing and the world of e-books has developed around my career, and now I’ve got the ability to grow fans directly.
And that’s where you come in.
For the next entry in the Poor Traits series, click here.