New post on the age-old debate over on It’s Just Brunch. Featuring one of my favorite movies of all time: Girl, Interrupted.
Check it out!
New post on the age-old debate over on It’s Just Brunch. Featuring one of my favorite movies of all time: Girl, Interrupted.
Check it out!
Click on over to It’s Just Brunch and tell me about your favorite words!
It’s official: I am incapable of keeping any kind of New Year’s resolution.
However, I have been insanely productive in pretty much every other way in the past three months. The most exciting thing that’s happened, the reason I’m back to blogging here, is that my friends and I have started a new website for writers! It’s called It’s Just Brunch, and we just went live today!
The point of It’s Just Brunch is to give writers a space to talk in a laid-back kind of atmosphere…like brunch! During the week, we post blogs about different aspects of the writing life; the three of us come from different places and have different interests, so you can expect a pretty wide variety of stuff! And every Sunday, it’s brunch: a short video from the three of us, chatting about writing and other ridiculousness over mimosas. We’ll have special guests dropping in and guest bloggers, too!
I’m so excited to share this new project with you guys. If you like what you see here on my blog, you’re going to LOVE It’s Just Brunch. And if you’ve got requests for a blog or brunch topic that we can cover, let me know in the comments and we will put them on the menu! (Get it?)
Thanks for reading,
I got my mind soundly blown yesterday.
It was Alumni Day for my MFA program, a day for graduates like me to invade the residency in progress and get our semiannual fix of high-level literary exchange (and cheap wine and friends).
I almost didn’t go. I was driving north on 95, toward the little island where the residencies take place, and I almost just kept driving: out of Connecticut, into Rhode Island, and back to the dark silence of my apartment, now cat- and wife-free. It had been a long week for me, and so much of me just wanted to collapse in on myself and not think, or talk, for a while. The thought of having to tell a new audience how “okay” I was in spite of everything, after doing that non-stop with friends and family over the holidays, drained me before I even took the exit.
But I had to go. Because Baron Wormser was going to talk about Emerson.
(If you don’t know Baron Wormser, you’re doing it wrong. And by “it” I mean reading, and living in general. His creative works are rich and introspective and fresh and can be so damn funny. He reads a passage of poetry or prose aloud and a new, deeper meaning slides into place. I had seen him give a seminar in the past on James Baldwin and ran out and bought Notes of a Native Son. In short: read everything Wormser has written, and then see him in person if you can.)
I can’t capture everything Wormser said about Emerson and put it here for you; even if I could, I wouldn’t. But what I can tell you is that I am still thinking about the seminar twenty-four hours later. I am still thinking about freedom.
In the passages of Emerson that Wormser presented and analyzed, the idea of freedom was always in the foreground: the freedom to know one’s true self, the freedom that comes with genius, the freedom of writing what others are scared to say. In America, the word freedom has been manipulated commercialized to the point where it’s hard to know what it means to be truly free anymore. But to Emerson, it was simple: freedom is the opposite of security. Freedom is fear.
We’ve put a premium on security. We surround ourselves with stuff: tangible, material goods that make us feel prosperous, important, safe. Feel real. But if Emerson is right, and I think he is, all this stuff that we touch and hold is a wall we build between us and the knowledge that reality lies in the intangible and the abstract. And that’s scary.
Maybe I’m way off. Maybe this isn’t what Emerson meant at all. But as Baron read his words aloud and as people around me weighed in, I sat quietly and wrote only this, because it buzzed in my head and wouldn’t stop until it was down: what you fear most is the only thing you can know for sure.
I am afraid of many things right now. Nothing is stable; nothing is certain. But in Emersonian fashion, I’m letting myself feel the fear and the instability. Security rushed out, and I’m not filling the vacuum with stuff or meaningless relationships; not this time. I’m sitting with the uncertainty, and with my fear. I am face-to-face with this very human terror, but it’s as if I am outside of myself, above myself, able to acknowledge that I am scared, able to experience the fear, but it doesn’t consume me. I am leaving the void open, and rushing into it is a deeper understanding of not only myself but also the nature of fear. And I am freer than ever before.
The terror we feel about the unknown is more real than anything we can hold in our hands. Security is an illusion that shackles, stunts, suffocates life and creativity. Embrace fear, embrace the void, and you are free.
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.
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.
I find I often need to get to a place of intense longing or sadness in order to write anything of substance.
Here are a few songs that take me there.
“L’hymne à l’amour” – Edith Piaf
Pretty much anything by Edith works wonders. This one especially.
“If it kills me (Casa Nova Sessions” – Jason Mraz
Unrequited love. If longing runs deeper than that, I don’t wanna know about it.
“Jolene” – CAKE
A genuine jam, a girl taking a chance in the night to break out of her quiet life, out-of-control love. Yeah, yeah.
“Gravity” – John Mayer
I’m usually not a fan, but damn. Keep me where the light is.
“Grey” – Ani DiFranco
…And it’s October 2007 again. (Used only when completely necessary. Knocks the wind out of me for hours.)
What are some of your writing songs?
Last night, my wife and I were talking about writing. Given that I am a writer, you may think this kind of thing happens pretty regularly.
You would be wrong. And so was I, in at least one way.
The conversation began as a discussion of What Writers Talk About. For her, in most cases, the stuff we say to one another isn’t all that interesting; as a reader, she wants to know the What–the subject of our work–and all we seem to talk about is the How: the process, the edits, the self-loathing and general despair. As a result, we then turned toward the Why: why don’t we talk more about what we’re actually writing?
If you can believe it (as you should, from reading this blog), my response was: fear. A fear that my idea will be found wanting, or that the listener won’t understand the concept, or that my explanation will outshine the work itself: that someone will find out that I’m not really a writer at all. Instead of telling, I keep it inside, thinking I’m the only one who can understand, until everything is perfect and ready to be shared.
But it’s funny: as soon as I started talking to a non-writer about the What, I wanted to keep talking. I confessed that I haven’t touched my novel since January, because I’m scared of the hard parts (file under: Crying While Writing). I told her that the ideas are there, ready to be written, but putting my fingers to the keys brings everything back so clearly that hiding seems so much better of an idea. I mentioned the raw-beyond-raw short story that’s been slowly growing momentum since last summer, and not in terms of abstract ideas. I told her the plot. The What. I suddenly wanted to read it to her; it was the craziest thing. In telling her the What, I had given her advance access to the fledgling world I was creating. It made me want to take her even further down into it.
Why on earth had I waited? Did I think she was going to knock around inside the new world like a proverbial bull? That she would peek behind the scenes, tell me my seams were showing? Sharing even this greenest part of my writing got me excited to write again. Rapture replaced fear, and I read her the opening scene. My brain buzzed the rest of the night with new ideas spawned from our conversation and the simple act of reading words aloud.
I realized then that, while I sometimes told myself that I didn’t share my stuff with non-writers because they wouldn’t understand or I feared they would take it personally, the real reason was that I didn’t think it was worth sharing–that it needed to get to some enlightened, pristine level before anyone who didn’t fully understand the process could read it. I’ve squandered years on this kind of doubt, all while an incredible source of encouragement and feedback sat two feet from me on the couch, wanting to be let in.
We need readers; I know that writers always say that. But we don’t need them just to read. We need them to listen, even in the earliest stages. If you have a reader in your life who you’ve been afraid to let into the deeper levels of your writing life, just do it. Today. No matter how scary it seems. Tell them everything.
See what happens.
I’ve been feeling quite restless lately.
It’s something that happens to me from time to time: an itch to change course, start over. I am rarely, if ever, at liberty to do much with the feeling; change of this kind usually requires a good deal of cash, or time, or both. So I let the feeling stay for a while, and eventually it passes.
But this is different.
For two years, writing was mandatory, thanks to my MFA program. I had books to read, chapters to write—deadlines, even. All of that went away in January, and into the vacuum of structure rushed a whole lot of great stuff. I became an adjunct at a community college and the editor-in-chief of my program’s lit journal (which is accepting submissions, by the way). My library writing class continues, and I was asked to judge a fiction contest for Fordham University. I even signed on to write a critical review of The Color Purple, with all that spare time I have.
It is, as I said, all great stuff. Great for my resume, and for me professionally and personally. But part of me wonders if I haven’t overbooked myself with good things as a way to avoid the truly hard thing that I’m meant to be doing—finishing this novel—and if this buzzing in my head is just words, backlogged.
I haven’t added a line to my novel since I handed in my thesis (the first third of the book) last semester. Hell, I haven’t written anything creative since then. There was so much momentum in the MFA: the good kind of pressure on which I thrive. And now, I’m left to my own devices to create my own routine. And I’ve failed, so far.
I keep thinking that some sort of left-brained calendar will help, and maybe it would. Maybe it would at least silence the buzzing and clear the cobwebs if I knew that I’d put time down, on paper, to put things down on paper. But I turned 27 this year, and I know myself pretty well by now. The calendar will fall prey to my right-brained aversion to routine for the sake of comfort, and I will be here again, whining on WordPress about my mental constipation.
I think it’s time to give in to the right brain, to listen to the buzzing instead of trying to manage it. Lefty, you’ve done right by me for some time, saving me from panic with spreadsheets and lists. But I’ve got to turn the keys over to your counterpart and start listening to the only schedule that matters.
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