On wanting it.

This post didn’t start out negative. I swear.

A writer friend of mine recently shared this slideshow that offers tidbits from the collection Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do. In the slideshow were several pearls of wisdom, but Susan Orlean’s quote is what I’d like to address today: 

“Wanting to be a writer is a huge percentage of what makes you be one. You have to want to do it really badly. You have to feel that’s what you’re supposed to be doing.”

That’s sure easy for a published author and New Yorker staff writer to say.

I originally thought this post was going to be about how reassured I felt by Orlean’s words—how I know now that I’m really a writer, because I want it so badly. I thought I was going to talk about how we can’t base our success on how much someone pays for our work.

And then I realized: that’s bullshit. Bullshit that I keep saying, because others keep saying it. So, one poor writer to another, let’s dispense with hollow platitudes for a moment. 

Wanting it isn’t enough sometimes.

The Orlean quote reminded me of a Saturday Night Live sketch from the 2008 election season, when Hillary was officially out of the running and Palin was the VP nominee for the GOP.

Image

FEY AS PALIN: It just goes to show that anyone can be President. …All you have to do is want it.

POEHLER AS CLINTON: (LAUGHS) Yeah, you know, Sarah, looking back, if I could change one thing, I should have wanted it more.

The idea that “all you have to do is want to be a writer and you are one” falls in the same category as “anyone can succeed in America” and “you’re guaranteed a job with a college degree.” They are delusions that people with money keep perpetuating, to the continued frustration of hardworking have-nots: are we not trying hard enough? Do we not want it bad enough?

I know Orlean isn’t saying that “if you want it enough, you’ll be a successful writer and make a boatload of cash.” She’s saying, “if you want it, you already are a writer.” But this means next to nothing in the land of capitalism, household bills, and student loans.

There was a time when writers could make a living for themselves on their talents alone; they didn’t live like royalty, but they got by. But this age of freelancing and adjuncting and the ever-shrinking list of periodicals that publish and pay for original work, especially from emerging writers without a platform, makes that whole “I write for a living” thing seem pretty impossible. Very few places are able (read: willing) to pay writers a living wage, leaving us to piece together a full-time, zero-benefits schedule between community colleges and jobs off Craigslist. And who has the desire to do anything but sleep at the end of that kind of day?

I’m not going to feed you a line of bull that this life is easy or that it even feels worth the trouble every day. Sure, it’s important to believe in yourself. And, yes, even without any viable prospect for a life in which my writing pays for itself, I will continue to write and continue to try. But the longer we deny that money  matters, that being well compensated for our work is as important as the act of creating it is, I don’t see the landscape changing in our favor.

…And in honor of the Ladies of SNL theme: This post was brought to you by Debbie Downer. Womp womp.

debbie

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Why do you write?

I’ll get to the pressing question above in just a moment, but first: a recap of my writing life since I dropped off the blog in May.

  • I’m published! Granted, it’s a critical essay, but I’ll take it. Sidenote: Mason’s Road is a great way to get your stuff seen and possibly published without any submission fee! Reading period opens soon; in the meantime, check out the awesome stuff in this issue.
  • My writing class at the library ended in May, and they’ve asked me to teach two workshops this summer: one on found poetry, one on horror/thriller writing for teens. The best news of all: this will be my first paying gig as a writing teacher. I hope to pick up the fiction class again in the fall with compensation as well. Fingers crossed!
  • My favorite memoirist and I have made a pact. At least once a month, we have to send out a story or essay to literary journals and magazines. I’ve never actively tried to get published (except for my above credit), so this is a somewhat scary and exciting endeavor. I’ve tagged her blog here in hopes that she’ll feel inspired and/or pressured to update.
  • I’ve just returned home from my last summer residency in the Fairfield MFA program. I graduate in January. Holy hell.
  • All of this excitement coincides with my final semester; I have to write and polish my creative thesis–the first 135 pages of my novel–by Halloween. No pressure!

I think that’s all. Now, for the question of the hour.

“Why do you write?”

One of my favorite writers and teachers, Rachel Basch, posed this question during our residency workshop last week. She said we should determine the answer, distill it down to one sentence, and paste it above our work space at home to keep us motivated. A great idea, no doubt.

For me, though, “Why do you write?” is one of those questions that, as soon as it’s asked, wipes my brain clean of any answer; the same is true for “What’s your favorite movie?” and “What are you thinking?”. I’ve had some time, now, to think about this, and I figured my groping for an answer would be a great way to get back up on the blogging horse.

Blogging horse.

I write because I always have. I was raised in a house where my parents pushed me and my siblings to do whatever we desired. I tapped, I skated, I sang, I acted. If I’d cared enough, I could have pushed myself to make a living out of most of the things I tried as a kid, but none of them stuck. What was always there, what I never even realized I’d been doing all along, was writing.

The first thing I did when we got a computer was figure out how to do columns in WordPerfect and make a full-color newsletter for the kids in the neighborhood. I would force my brother and sister to take my reading and handwriting classes after school, with the help of a mini-whiteboard and old schoolbooks. I wrote a multi-chapter murder mystery in elementary school that beat out the middle school for best story and an essay about my hero–my dad–that landed me a meeting with Ruby Bridges. I typed up letters to the editor for my father and went on to write controversial editorials for my school paper on abortion, same-sex marriage, and our high school civics program.

I never put two and two together. I went off to college and all but forgot about writing. It wasn’t until my father passed away that I remembered. When something like that happens, it clears your decks of anything superfluous and leaves you only with what matters most. French and politics fell away, and writing rushed in. I wrote everything down: every memory, every question, every fear, every dream. It hurt, but it felt good. For the first time, my brain and heart were working together. A light bulb switched on somewhere, and I found my soul again.

So, that’s why I write. Why do you?

Long time, no post.

It appears I haven’t blogged in months; I’ve funneled all of my writing into a huge paper for my MFA. But since I’m feeling all sorts of weird today, I decided it was a good time to get back into it. Apologies now for what will, most likely, be a very disjointed, total bummer of a post.

I feel restless today: a feeling that’s become commonplace since starting my MFA. Before, I was content with my job. It paid the bills and let me exercise my French. Hell, it got me out of bed five times a week while I slogged through the grief of losing my father. I’m grateful for that. But now that I’ve rediscovered my vocation in life, the waiting is wearing me down.

There’s nowhere to go and nothing to do in this moment. I need this job for the vacation time, or I can’t finish my degree. Even if I could leave, what would I do? I think I’ve been a starving artist in all of my past lives; it seems carved in my bones that I should only be drawn to endeavors that make me zero or negative dollars. Why can’t I have a passion for screwing people out of their money? Or cutting people open and sewing them back up? Why is my fire lit by solitary work that has no value in this culture unless it’s bastardized into Hollywood drivel?

I have no good answer. I guess no writer does. Maybe that’s why so many of us stick our heads in ovens or wade into a river with stones in our pockets. I don’t think what I want is difficult or complicated; I just want to live, doing what I love. I guess a lot of people live their whole lives without being that lucky. Here’s hoping I’m not one of them.

Back on the mainland.

Yesterday, I returned to Rhode Island from my third MFA residency in Mystic, CT. For ten days, I sat in pews, on beds, and around all sorts of tables, workshopping and eating and writing and reading and listening. More than 24 hours since leaving, my mind still buzzes with stories and inspiration. I’m letting the “real” writing marinate until tomorrow, but I felt a blog was in order after some time away.

Man, my English kicks ass when I get back from Enders, but don’t get used to it. I can see disjointed, grammatically incorrect posts coming down the pike. Damn that 40 hours a week of French.

This residency was not at all what I expected. To say morale was low would be an understatement–or, actually, an overstatement. It was in the toilet; pardon the pun. (I’m sorry. I’ll stop.) You see, by Day Three, the men’s bathroom had overflowed several times. By the end of Day Five, most students moved off-campus, since they had to shut off the water in the main residence hall. Yes, it was a full-blown “Septic Emergency.” My friends and I decided to stay behind, the Great Unwashed, sneaking showers and nursing plastic cups of Franzia while the sane students went back to their cushy hotels with private showers and running water. Wussies.

We made the best of it, but on a social level, there was a bit of a “funk” going around. When it hit me, it was the I’m Not Good Enough funk. The I Shouldn’t Be Here funk. When you spend 95% of the year on your own, working your butt off on your own stuff, you come to the Island with some pride. Good pride. Pride that says, “I kicked some ass on the page this semester, and I’m ready for workshop.” Your stuff is better than it’s ever been, and you have every right to feel accomplished. But there’s nothing like student readings to suck the confidence out of you. So much talent in one room, in one program. It got to me. After a good workshop experience and reinforcement from my buds, the funk passed. Franzia helped.

On a work level, though, this residency was a big one. I thought I got a lot of good ideas last time! This time around, with the expansion of my story more-or-less in place, the feedback I received was about characterization. This semester, I won’t be going out, but in. My characters need deeper roots, desires, consequences. It’s time to raise the stakes and really get inside these bad boys. I’m scared and excited all at once; this is really happening. I’m writing a novel.

It’s good to be back on the mainland, especially with this fire alive in me as I type. I can’t forget to rekindle it over the next six months. This fits perfectly with my New Year’s resolution: finish what you begin.

P.S. I have another story to tell, after this one. It came to me on the Island.

Balance.

My life never seems to have any sort of balance to it. If one portion of my life is going well, the rest is usually in the shitter. Like now, for instance, I’m kicking major ass at work, so it’s hardly surprising that the personal and writing portions of my being are circling the drain. I’m eating like shit, I’m feeling like shit, I’m writing like shit.

I wish I could attend to one thing without everything else going nutso. Or, better yet, I wish I wasn’t so single-minded and could juggle things more effectively. Instead I just chuck the same ball up in the air, over and over, while all the others roll around on the floor.

Sure, I have a lot on my plate: marriage, grown-up responsibilities, a full-time job, a full-time degree program, a novel-in-progress that’s making me plumb the depths of my grief every day. But everyone’s plate is full. I don’t know how to get better at this, but I hope I figure it out soon.

On the bright side, my final packet will be in the mail very, very shortly. As in, tomorrow morning at the latest. And my mentor will have it all electronically tonight. I can’t wait to wash my hands of this semester. It’s been difficult, even painful at times. I was pushed to new limits, and I learned a lot about myself as a write and a person. But not having to touch my own writing unless I want to until after the New Year is a glorious feeling.

Okay, off to try to learn how to juggle.

Good news all around.

If you couldn’t tell from my last post, yesterday was rough. I still feel somewhat trapped and stifled today–it’s an ongoing condition–but some encouragement came last night and this morning that reminded me why I’m here.

My faculty mentor sent me feedback on my third packet by e-mail last night. I had known when I sent the stuff that it hadn’t been my best work; a lot of it was a very rough first draft that I didn’t have time to re-work or infuse with the real nature of the characters. There were, however, sections that were difficult for me to write, given the sheer emotion behind the scenes, and she apparently thinks I did a good job at capturing this:

“Once again, you’ve proven that you have an uncanny ability to utilize concrete details to evoke complex feelings. My eyes were brimming with tears reading this whole last scene. “

Sure, there were sections that she believed needed work, and I agree. But knowing that I do have the ability to reach someone–not just someone: a published author–with my words was enough to make my night. She also liked my essay on Anna Karenina…though it wasn’t the kind of essay she was looking for. Whoops!

This morning, I opened my GMail to find a message from the woman who supervises the writing class I run at my town’s library. Yesterday, I’d asked her if the library was hiring, in my perpetual efforts to put my name out there. They aren’t, but she did say:

“I will happily write you a terrific letter of recommendation:  I’m very impressed with your classes, your organization and how well you work with the group!”

So, that was nice to hear. Both of these instances reminded me that there is a pretty big reason I have to stay in this job: I do have talent, in writing and teaching, and I have to pay my dues before I can do what I love. So, for now, paying to write and teaching for free is how it has to be. And maybe that’ll bother me tomorrow, or next week, or next month. But right now, I’m grateful for this job and what it’s given me the chance to do.

Fact to fiction

I tell you, I’ve learned more about myself in the past two semesters of writing than I have from mulitple stints in therapy.  For instance: when things get hard, I get paralyzed.

I finally put my second-to-last packet in the mail recently, after much procrastination. In the end, I came up with 20 pages of original work instead of the required 25: a gap I will have to reconcile in this month’s work. I’m less worried about the extra five pages in this packet than I am about the reason getting 20 pages was like pulling teeth.

Writing comes easily to me when what I’m writing is completely–or mostly–fictional. That’s why my last packet felt so easy and was so successful. There’s a freedom in totally making things up that lets me really spread out on the page. It’s when the work hits close to home that I have a problem.

This packet focused mainly on the main character’s relationship with her family: specifically, her brother and sister. These characters are modeled heavily after my own brother and sister, and something about this makes it terribly difficult to make them three-dimensional characters. Do you ever try and explain the meaning of a word, but keep using that word in your definition? That’s what it feels like.

But the difficulties did not only lie in trying to bring certain characters to life. I focused most of the pages around the death of the main character’s father and the aftermath within her family; ripped from the headlines of my life, as it were. Four years later and in the context of fiction, my father’s death is still not easy to write about. When I finally bit the bullet and tried, I got down a few lines, cried; got down a few more, cried again. You get the idea. I know this meant I was on to something real, but it was also really scary and paralyzed me for a while afterwards.

My first instinct is to step back from the super-realness of this packet and do some fleshing-out of some more fictiony areas. But some unfamiliar voice inside is telling me to push on that painful place between fact and fiction and see where it goes.