Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Writing: Fun, Easy, Tedious, Impossible

I encounter a fair number of people who want to be writers, so they say. They think it sounds fun and easy. But they spend very little time doing the thing that writers do, which is writing.

Yeah, I have it easy. I'm both a housewife and a writer. Actually, neither of these are particularly easy (
let's face it, kids aren't that stimulating to hang out with 15 hours a day; and writing with kids around is actually physically impossible). But they are enjoyable (at times) and fulfilling activities. And I don't particularly cherish ease in my work. I want to be challenged. I've had easy jobs, like office jobs where I just sat all day, and maybe did some data entry. They were blessedly easy, and horribly boring.

Ease is relative, as is fun. When I went back to work after I had twins, working in a kitchen seemed like a welcome respite from the unending demands of raising children, even though it often meant staying until three in the morning scrubbing the floor with a mixture of an ammonia-based cleaner and bleach. It was kind of fun. And when the work was done, it was done. I went home. (In fact, they forced me to go home.) I read. I watched LOST. And I wrote. I wrote even though it didn't bring any rewards and no one read what I wrote.

I think people (and by "people" I mean "people who think it would be nice to be a writer," which is a category that encompasses most people, so, in other words, "people") totally have the wrong idea about what it means to be a writer. Writers write. A lot. End of story. If you want to be a writer, then do it. Being a writer means you have to write. Having written a poem five years ago doesn't make you a writer. Wishing you could write the next Twilight so you can make lots of money so you never have to write again doesn't make you a writer. Some writers are professional, some aren't, and the only difference is that one category gets paid. That's it.*

Getting paid is nice. But you don't get paid a lot. (By "not a lot," I mean, "about what I got paid for a night of babysitting in the early 90's.") The best thing about getting published/paid is that your family, who up to this point has considered you mildly Asperger's-y and/or delusional about your abilities, begins to think maybe you're not quite headed to a life of mumbling to yourself over morning coffee at Burger King, as they'd always assumed.

There is this idea that writing is easy. And it is; bad writing is incredibly easy. My first drafts pour out of me (sometimes, if I'm the mood, which I'm often not). Yeah, first drafts are easy and fun. But good writing? That is impossible. It's not the difference between easy and hard; it's between easy and impossible. It's like the difference between flying a paper plane (easy) and trying to fly by flapping your arms hard (imp-- you get the idea). But that's not a fair comparison, because there is objective criteria for determining whether you are flying. You're either on the ground or you aren't. Not so with writing; there is only a vague feeling (or less subtle than vague, like a punch in the crotch un-vague) that what you wrote is the worst thing in the world and will probably even lose you some friends. And so you change it. And you change it again. Then you move this paragraph, and cut that sentence, and oh, Christ, now you've fucked it up. That paragraph didn't make any sense in that context, but now that it's gone, the entire tenor of the piece is altered. You should be a cook, not a writer.

I'm pretty sure that when people say they want to write but don't write, they probably don't want to write as much as they think they do. It's kind of like fame: people want to be famous without fully considering the implications. (I don't think fame sounds like much fun at all, unless you could do it without being recognized or ever having to appear in public or having your former friends resent you for your fame or dealing with the inevitable downfall/early drug-related death once the public falls out of love with you.) I think people think they should want to write, because books are prestigious, and feel bad on some level that they don't enjoy it (that's the best hypothesis I can muster to explain this phenomenon).

But if you really do love it, then do it. What's holding you back? Money? It's free, baby. There are no start-up costs. (If you're super-impoverished, go to the Salvation Army and pick up a semi-used spiral notebook for 25¢.) This gives writing a distinct cost advantage over its more expensive artistic brethren, like film or sculpture or painting. Is time holding you back? I know you're busy, but we all have our free moments. Yes, even you. I found time (rather, I made time, which is why my house is so filthy, but we all make sacrifices) even when I had a full-time job and 3 kids ages 4 and under. Now, if you have two full-time jobs and 4+ kids, I'll accept that you truly don't have time to write, but otherwise, shut the fuck up and find an hour a week.

Just be aware that it's not the answer to every problem. Do you really want to write full-time, or even part-time? How about 10 hours a week? Anything becomes tedious if you do it enough. Tying your shoes is exhilarating when you first learn how, but I'm guessing the charm has worn off if you are over six years old. To my kids, riding the bus is a joy on par with a visit to Chuck E. Cheese; but, the bus is considerably less entertaining if it's your only means of getting from your home in Columbia Heights to your job in Apple Valley (note to non-Minnesotans: that's a long bus ride). People think writing is fun because they don't do it enough. Novel things are always fun. But if you, for some reason, had to ride a roller coaster eight hours a day (I don't think there's an actual occupation that requires this, but just pretend so I can make my point), you might have a new perspective on what "fun" means.

Nothing is fun all the time, even the thing you love the most. And if you're doing the thing you love the most, and you're still not happy, you're kind of shit outta luck. Because then you realize your unhappiness is due not to the world oppressing you, but due to your being a whiny cunt. And so your self-hatred grows. Are you prepared to make this discovery about yourself?

I will continue to write, despite having already made the discovery that I hate myself (there's alcohol to deal with that problem). Whether I get paid or not, whether I get published or not, I'll write. And if you want to be a writer, the good news is, all you have to do is write. The bad news is, writing is impossible.** Accept the impossible and you'll do fine.


*Okay, I'm leaving out the part where professional writers do have to spend more time at their craft and do have to tailor what they write for the public's/editors' taste. But that's it.

**And you probably won't get paid. But if you love it enough, you'll do it anyway.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Hey kids! Writing exercise time!

Writing exercise: Write an excerpt from a fictional book review.

"Practical yet lofty, timeless yet ephemeral, lyrical yet phonetically drab: it is no small task to encompass all of these facets of literature in a single work, yet Delbert Zeta-Jones has managed to do exactly that. Walking Around Nkrumah Circle In Circles is what any travel memoirist in the age of the iPad strives to be: a study in contrasts."

"In The Courage to Smell, Beth Obama has spun a stunning yarn – perhaps even a fable, in the Thurberian sense; though in its best moments, it attains a parable-like state, peppered with allegorical elements – of precocity, bullets, and tragedy in the age of the Smartphone. But ultimately, Obama’s parable is, at heart, about the redeeming power of a mother’s perfume."

"Despite – or perhaps because of – its glib humor, The Brigadier General of the Hebrides, by newcomer Winn Winklevoss, fails to live up to the promise implicit in the table of contents (that of inspiring the kind of inner fortitude required to be a haberdasher in the age of the Kindle). It quickly degenerates into a masturbatory ménage-à-trois, a sort of guts-and-glory tale of pacifism, a needlessly prudish exercise in carnal debauchery."

"Were I to give pro bono advice to a bookstore patron contemplating the purchase of Akosua Ray Cyrus’s new novel, E Pluribus Unum, it would be: caveat emptor. The opus reads like the work of a woman who is not in toto compos mentis. Cyrus has said in interviews that she considers this volume to be sui generis, 'a sort of memento mori for the Skype generation.' But far from being a rara avis, the work is little more than a vox nihili; id est, it is not simply ars gratia artis. Cyrus’s modus operandi is to use every cliché from thinly-veiled ad hominem attacks on the alumni from her alma mater, to the cheap deus ex machina she rolls out for the finale. She owes the reading public a mea culpa."

Monday, January 17, 2011

Envy: The Impossibility of the Erotic Dream

At 22, I was a community college dropout and a waitress in a pizza place downtown. The year 2000 was nearing, and I was not close to any of the goals I'd imagined I would have achieved by that pivotal year. The goal that had persisted throughout my childhood was to be a writer. There were other possibilities I'd considered; at age 4, a doctor/lawyer/actress hybrid; at age 9, an archaeologist; at age 15, a professional revolutionary.

But Writer was the one I returned to. Specifically, a published writer. I imagined I'd have to move to Manhattan, where I'd entertain the bohemian literati on my balcony, which, in my mind, was identical to the one where Annie Hall and Alvy Singer conducted their subtitled conversation.

I did go to New York at age 19, by Greyhound, anticipating my new life for two full days and a night as we rode through Madison, Chicago, Cleveland, the whole green length of Pennsylvania. For a summing-up of that experience, it is illustrative to refer to this story narrated by Mel Brooks, in which a young he, as a young man, meets the legendary Cary Grant and is so excited he can barely speak or function. He is dazzled in the presence of such mighty celebrity. Cary Grant -- Cary Grant! -- even invites him to lunch. And then Cary Grant invites him to lunch a second day. By the end of the week, Mel is actively avoiding Cary Grant: "I had nothing more to say to him!" In a similar vein, I was dazzled when I first disembarked at the Port Authority, but I found that after a month, New York and I had nothing left to say to one another.

So I wrote in Minneapolis instead. It was second-best. Okay. I revised my plans. I worked in obscurity.

I did some other shit too. I was in this stupid band that played to empty coffeeshops and bars. I traveled around the country (by Greyhound, mostly; sometimes by car or plane) to see friends and new places. But mostly, I was a community-college dropout and waitress. And not even one who got the good, Friday-night shifts. I got weekday lunches. (And this was when Clinton was president.)

In June of that year, friends began graduating from college. The four years since high school had sped by, obliterating the past into a flat jumble in my memory. I should have just stayed in college, I thought. I could be a college grad now. I could be checking the 2nd-to-highest box on warranty cards, if I ever bought new appliances. It was about the seventh in a series of panicky, existential crises.

I went to a good friend's graduation from art school. I had witnessed her evolution as an artist since we were high school freshmen together. She drew manga before I had ever heard of manga. I was really happy for her, but I also sat through the ceremony stabbed by feelings of regret and jealousy that I tried unsuccessfully to subdue. She had a solid base for her future plans. I was just being silly with my life.

Later, at her graduation party, we sat on her porch swing and ate cantaloupe and tortilla roll-ups. She told me about her plans to move to L.A. with her new boyfriend. It was a vision that seemed hopelessly beyond my reach, and she was discussing it with enviable insouciance when she interrupted herself and said, "I'm so jealous of you."

I nearly choked on a piece of melon. "What? Why?"

"I've been wasting my time in college for the last four years and you're living your life. You already have an apartment, and you're in this cool band, and you've traveled all over...You're an adult. Like, what have I done? I live with my parents."

"But you're moving to L.A! You have a degree now! You can do anything!"

"Eh. I'll get some crappy job. If I'm really lucky I'll get to assist an animator's assistant or something. That's if I hit it big."

"My job is horribly crappy, trust me."

"But you don't have loans to pay off. And you're in a band! I don't know, I'm just second-guessing all my decisions."

The lessons from this barely need to be stated. But, in case you are dim: 1) Everyone's life is enviable to someone, 2) People who appear to have enviable lives probably don't. These are things that I know, rationally, are true, but have a hard time remembering in day to day life.

What we desire, once we achieve it, rarely has the effect on us that we assume it will. V. S. Naipaul: "We seek sex, and are left with two private bodies on a stained bed. The larger erotic dream, the god, has eluded us. It is so whenever, moving out of ourselves, we look for extensions of ourselves." Our vision never matches the reality. We achieve a goal (maybe), we are momentarily pleased. And then everything is the same again, mostly. No matter what we achieve or change in our lives we can never, in the end, escape ourselves. For most of us, there isn't a magical point at which everything is permanently okay. And who would want that kind of stasis, anyway?

So we see those who have what we think we want, and we are jealous. Jealousy is just misdirected striving. It's understandable, but unproductive. I have to constantly remind myself of this.

Most of us are equally miserable, albeit for different reasons. Not a happy conclusion, but nonetheless. To reference Annie Hall again: "I feel that life is divided into the horrible and the miserable....The horrible are like, I don't know, terminal cases, you know, and blind people, crippled....And the miserable is everyone else. So you should be thankful that you're miserable, because that's very lucky, to be miserable." 

The best we can do is to find the beauty in "two bodies on a stained bed" after the erotic dream has dissipated. There is beauty in this too.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Lovely morning

 Lovely morning on the block, I guess.

 Not my block. I wouldn't tell you where I live.

Not my block either.

Lovely morning for a walk.

Lovely morning for cathedrals.

Lovely morning at the High Bridge. I took a picture of sunrise over the Mississippi but alas, I'm an asshole with a camera. You'll have to use your imagination.

Lovely morning at the ol' coal plant.

Lovely morning along the tracks.

Lovely morning in the sky.

Good morning from the cold, quiet edge of the world.