A year ago, I followed Nine Inch Nails around for a week. It was the whole Deadhead experience: endless hours logged on the road with near-strangers, midday naps while lined up on the concrete in front of arenas, midnight runs to In-N-Out. The concerts were beautiful, and the close-knit family of fans traveling from gig to gig repeatedly affirmed my faith in humanity as they helped each other out time and again.
They also really pissed me off sometimes.
No one knows drama like hundreds of sleep-deprived sun-addled Nine Inch Nails fans. People cut in line, tweeted lies to further personal interests, read offensive jokes aloud off their iPhones to pass the time, and engaged in the baffling practice of ruthlessly bashing the very musicians we had spent so much money and time and energy to see. Throw in plenty of travel with a carful of relative strangers, all with their own particular quirks, and interpersonal stressors skyrocketed.
My coping skills for maddening situations are to unload with a friend or write about it. I was stuck in the equivalent of a traveling sardine can with other fans, so calling up my partner to vent was completely out of the question. Even writing was impossible since most of my time was spent shoulder-to-shoulder. (I knew I should have bought that $30 iPhone privacy screen before I went.) Unable to cope but desperate to make it through, I spent a lot of time Thinking Hard, trying to sort out a better way to handle anger than squelching it for the most part and getting passive-aggressive when it all became too much to bear.
I eventually realized that I had an object lesson right in front of me. Anyone who’s heard a couple of Nine Inch Nails songs knows that the guy behind the band name, Trent Reznor, is an angry, angry guy. His lyrics are fabulously cutting, sarcastic, and even cruel at turns. His stage presence follows suit, with the throwing of instruments just part of the status quo. And yet, to hear him speak in interviews or to read his lengthy online posts is to reveal a well-spoken, reasonably-tempered, even calm personality. It was just the balance I sought to strike, but how?
Finally, as I watched him scream and throw things on stage the way I wished I could after one of the more frustrating days of my trip, it dawned on me: channeling anger into one’s creative output could potentially free up the rest of the artist from all that vitriol. While one’s point of view can and probably should be consistent between one’s personal and creative life, the amount of emotion sunk into it can be wildly different. It made sense, I realized, to be as emotional and impassioned within the art as I felt like, while still maintaining my core values of openmindedness and radical acceptance in my actual person-to-person interactions.
Obviously, some anger needs to be acted upon. Sometimes anger is a symptom of a situation so broken that steps of some sort must be taken. But if you’re anything like me, you can take the steps that need to be taken, resolve the issues, and still have some grudging, grouchy anger about the whole situation. I handled myself as honorably as I could during the trip, but what to do with all of these lingering feelings weeks after I got home?
I realized that I didn’t even have to be realistic in my writing. It was unlikely that I was 100% correct in my assumptions about the reasons behind anyone’s actions, and since I write fiction, all I needed were story components that were realistic in the general sense — not necessarily realistic about the particular situation I encountered. (In the same vein, my theory about Reznor’s angry art/balanced self is just something I overlay upon what little a fan like me sees of the whole picture; it’s unlikely to be entirely correct, but it doesn’t need to be in order to give me ideas about what I want for my own reality.)
I thought about some of the fans I’d seen who seemed desperate to get as close to the band as possible while also badmouthing them at every opportunity, and where that dichotomy might originate. From there, I thought about the clash between a musician’s public persona and real life, and the problems that might occur if a rabid fan of the persona met the real person and found that the things they thought they loved were nonexistent. It was a short leap from that to playing with my familiar genre of mixing humans and robots, both of which have some interesting perceptual problems about the other. Out came “Star Fucker,” about an obsessed fan who gets a little too close to her idol for comfort. It wound up one of my favorite stories in ROBOTICA, and to my surprise, a lot of my lingering anger about the weirdnesses of that trip’s fan wankery truly was exorcised from my psyche by writing it.
Now I don’t just stop at anger. Lust, exhaustion, grief, euphoria, longing, fear, boredom — any situation evoking emotion can be worked through in fiction. The stronger I feel about a situation, the better it seems to work, especially because I’m motivated to focus on the little details that drive me nuts and weave them into the story. The reality of the emotions I work with then shine through on the page, and that’s what it’s all about: a story world realistic enough that readers can get lost in it.
Plus, it’s cheaper than therapy. When’s the last time a counseling session paid royalties?