Cecil Castellucci is the author of The Queen of Cool and The P.L.A.I.N Janes, the first comic in DC’s Minx imprint. She’s also an indie rocker and a veteran nerd. So Cecil was more than qualified to present this phenomenal manifesto (complete with multiple self-portraits!) on the importance of nerd-dom in writing.
Read on and then check out Cecil’s new book, The Year of the Beasts, out today!
I am a passionate nerd.
Passion fuels creativity and passion feeds writing. Being passionate about something is being nerdy about something.
I try to follow that nerd radar like a beacon. Like a true North star. I think our nerdery can be our inner mine of writing gold.
Once, I lived in a tent on Hollywood Boulevard for six weeks while I waited in line to see Star Wars: Episode I. Did that help my writing? You bet it did. Living on the street was an experience. I had to deal with the police—not only because they were checking in on us to make sure we were complying with the law, but also because I accidentally slept next to a murderer and made him do an interview about Star Wars on a radio show and then had to give a statement to some homicide detectives. Our group formed a small micro-society that went from a utopia to a dictatorship to a revolution to a stable equilibrium, all in the course of six weeks. We were being made fun of by all of America on talk shows and in comic strips. Following my love of Star Wars made me experience things that I never would have, and all of those things eventually wove themselves into my work.
I also like outer space, a lot. You wouldn’t necessarily know that, since most of my novels have been contemporary YA novels, but the book that I’m currently writing takes place on a space station. In outer space. With aliens. I’ve been known to go to the occasional space lecture. My space-love has already made one appearance in my books: in my 2006 novel Queen of Cool, the character Stanley wants to be an exobiologist; he has a telescope and goes to star parties at the Griffith Park observatory. This is directly inspired by my experience going to the observatory on a regular basis.
Last year, I took my love of space a step further. I applied to a space science fellowship called Launch Pad, which teaches space science to sci-fi writers so that they get their facts correct. It was a week-long crash course, and I learned about suns and space dust and cosmology and everything. I got to drive up a mountain and look through an infrared telescope. That experience has already helped to shape my new book. For example, did you know that our sun is a third-generation star? If it were younger, we never would have had an Iron Age, because there would have been no metals on earth.
I also am a theater nerd. I take a lot of weird little theater workshops because I think that they help with writing, too. I’ve taken a marital-arts type of acting training called Suzuki/Viewpoints. I’ve taken Jungian dream acting class. I’ve taken comedy improv at the Groundlings and at Uncabaret. I’m about to take their Singers Anonymous class. The point is that I think an acting class gets you to create characters in a way that is different than with words on the page. It physicalizes what we do as authors. That is why this year, when I decided I needed more Shakespeare in my life, I took a Shakespearean lyrical speaking class with the Independent Shakespeare Company and discovered Henry VI, which actually is epic and sweeping and is helping me with that same new sci-fi novel I’m writing. Because it wasn’t just lyrical verse-speaking that I was learning about. I was also learning about Shakespeare and his life and times.
Being a nerd is all about learning as much as you can and soaking up new experiences. Let your nerdery challenge you to try stuff out that you are not crazily passionate about. One day, I woke up and thought that maybe I should go horseback riding. I never do that. I don’t really know how to ride a horse. But I went to the stable and they gave me the quietest, nicest horse, and I cantered around a trail. My perspective changed. The way that I was moving through the world, the height at which I was seeing things, the sound of the hooves on the ground were all sensual revelations. If and when I write an epic fantasy book, you can bet that I’ll be taking more horseback rides. But it also helped with other things—like right now, it’s helping me figure out how to create a four-legged alien. It also inspired me to make one of the characters in my new novel, The Year of the Beasts, a centaur.
Don’t let other people discourage you when a weird idea captures your imagination. When I was at the Banff Centre for the Arts, I went to the top of a mountain, because I’d heard that there was a neutrino detector there. Neutrinos slice through the earth every day and some are from distant stars that have exploded. There I was, in Alberta, with a bunch of authors, and I made them hike over to the next mountaintop just so we could see a weird little tower. They were curmudgeonly and kind of irritated, but once we got there, we discovered a recreation of a cabin from 100 years ago, where some mountain man lived, and those three other authors’ faces lit up. They were like little boys running around thinking about Canadian mountain men. And it excited me, too. It reminded me that you never know where a story is going to show up. Many of the things you see in life get filed away and bubble up later. Or they manifest in books in ways that I can’t really explain, but are there in the very fabric of the story.
Taking a weird class or going to a museum exhibition or going to a place, like a volcano or amountaintop, or doing something you’ve never done before, like learning archery or riding a horse, is being creative. It nourishes your palate. It opens doors to new ways of thinking about everyday things, and the physical act of doing something strange lends a grounded reality to our writing. So I ask you: What is it that you like to do? What is it that you want to try?
A part of me used to shy away from being too dorky about things, because some of my friends would crinkle their noses and sort of sniff, “Uncool.” Isn’t that silly? Even when I don’t care, I still kind of care. I suppose it hurts when someone shoots down something that makes your heart leap for joy. Being squashed in any way is unpleasant. So don’t squash yourself—expand yourself.
If you are a writer, I dare you to embrace your inner nerd. I throw down the gauntlet: whatever it is that you geek out about, take it to the absolute limit. Go to the next level. Because those things actually inspire and inform writing. May the nerd be ever in your favor.
Check out Cecil’s new book, The Year of the Beasts, out today!