I find that labels are the worst thing in the world for artistic expression – Ornette Coleman
Underground. This is a word my writing mentor used to describe the second novel I’m working on. Initially, he thought I was writing in the crime genre. After reading the last excerpt I sent him (he’s essentially read 80% of the draft), he has removed the crime genre moniker and replaced it with ‘underground.’
I could not be fucking happier. If you have to label my work as a fiction writer, label it underground. I don’t care to put labels on what I do, but apparently, society demands labels on people, places and things in order to bring forth the appropriate reaction to what’s in front of them. So, if I must label my work, then I will label it ‘underground’ just to shut everyone up.
For those who need a little clarity on the definition of underground in this context, here it is courtesy of Urban Dictionary. I had to correct the grammar. I have no idea who submits stuff to Urban Dictionary but I really like this person’s take on ‘underground’:
Underground is about passion. Of course, the word is misused and abused. A true underground artist will create music/art from the heart as opposed to something tailored to a commercial market… Underground artists can have a long career out of the often destructive gaze of mainstream media…
There are people who are good, even great, at following the rules. I’m very competent at being a good citizen. I’m a decent photographer. I’m a decent CrossFitter. I’m a decent dressage rider. I’m decent at a lot of things.
But when it comes to writing — fiction, in particular — I want to be the best I can be. There is still lots of room to grow and develop to do in that regard. Being the best isn’t measured in the number of books I sell — although it would be nice to sell a boatload of books. But that’s not the brass ring for me. It’s about being able to tell the best story I capable of telling. It’s about becoming a really good, and hopefully great, storyteller.
For me, being a storyteller isn’t about understanding the various genres that inhabit the literary world and adhering to their individual conventions. I see conventions as rules. Are they rules? Guidelines, maybe. But they feel like rules to me. While I’m pretty competent at following the rules. It’s been hard to abide by any of the literary genre conventions that have popped up in front of me.
Why should creativity and artistic expression operate within a box of rules or conventions? I’ve proven to myself and to my writing mentor time and again that following my gut instincts has served me well in my development as a writer. My instincts couldn’t give a shit about conventions. When I dive into the art of storytelling, the last thing I give a shit about is genre conventions or genre, for that matter.
The sign says ‘Go right.’ I spray paint the words ‘fuck you’ on the sign and go elsewhere. It’s not a blatant show of rebellion on my part. It’s just I can’t abide by it. My instincts won’t let me. There are people who thrive under conventions/rules. I’m not one of them. I know whatever I create by following conventions will be subpar. It won’t be the best I can do. I’ve tried. It hasn’t happened.
But leave me alone to focus on storytelling with the barest of rules — i.e. make sure the story has a beginning, a middle and an end and loaded with complex, interesting characters — and I will to explore, experiment and discover to me heart’s content. Free to create something I would be proud to have my name attached to.
It seems labels are necessary. For better or for worse. Labelling creativity shouldn’t be necessary. In fact, it’s harmful.
I was talking to a friend yesterday evening. I keep nagging him about going out for coffee and catching up since we seem to see each other every six weeks or so. A little more frequency would be nice. We talked about the label of ‘underground.’ He gets where I’m coming from as an artist, as a writer. In the important ways, we’re very much alike. He likes ‘underground’ as a label applied to me and my writing and the way I look at life. I like to it, too. A lot.
So, if you feel compelled to label me because you don’t know what to make of me or my work, label me underground. I won’t bite your head off for calling me that. I’ll thank you if I’m in a good mood.
Ultimately, underground just means I am being me.