It is not yet 7:30 on a Thursday night, and I am in my pajamas, brewing a cup of chamomile. Chamomile is the flower of defiance. It says, I live in New York City, am not 90, and don’t have children, and I’m still staying in. I’m even using the big mug. I’m gonna sit right here and sip on this motherfucker all night long.
I was going to attend a reading (Doing Things); at a popular local bar (Where the People Are) by two women who are memoirists and work at literary magazines (Experiencing What I Want to Do/What I Care About). So it meets all three of my life objectives, which I use to help me make decisions about leaving the house. But I have a good reason for canceling my own tenuous (I was never really going to go, was I?) plans: I have freelance work to do! Fulfilling, challenging freelance work that will pay me actual money to practice my craft, which, let’s face it, is in serious danger of reinventing itself as binge-watching “Bojack Horseman” on Netflix (the best thing on television right now go watch it oh my god what is wrong with you put this down and watch it) and repeating back to the hipsters outside my window their own stupid, uptalky sentences. I am sorry that I literally just do not care?
But the thing about writing is, like Dorothy Parker said (and every subsequent writer who quoted her when writing their own writing books), I hate writing; I love having written.
It’s a painful, demoralizing, upsetting, tooth-grindy, ulcer-making, lonely, rotten activity that thrusts my shoulders to my ears, makes the inner critic go into full-on gleeful spite karaoke, and probably doesn’t matter to anyone anywhere. The thing is, if I don’t do it, the voice in my head drives me batshit crazy. Believe me, I’ve tried not to do it. Which is also what every writing teacher and writing book says to do. Don’t write unless you absolutely can’t do anything else.
I don’t take that to mean “Don’t write unless you can’t be a seamstress, maitre’d, shrimper, or veterinarian”—because I could be all those things, for as long as I’ve held down any copywriting or editing job, surely. But even then, the call to write is one I can’t ignore for long without becoming an irascible and unhappy husk. Which is what I’m afraid I’m turning into. I am constantly editing and revisiting my old work, but the last time I wrote anything new, from scratch…? Can I even do it anymore? Stupid husk!
Part of my calcifying process has involved avoiding this blog. Even verbally abusing it. Blog. You sound like something that comes out of a face by accident. Blog. Horrible people have blogs. Like that insufferable narcissist Julie Whatever from Julie and Julia, who even the delightful Amy Adams couldn’t make tolerable. And I’m an asshole for having a blog. Somehow, all my friends with blogs are amazing and I love them and am thrilled whenever they update it, because it’s like getting truth-drunk with them somewhere. But mine will be miserable, tedious, and loooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooong-winded.
The last time I posted something here, aside from the couple of extemporaneous poems inspired by my Stygian daily commute (except the Styx delivered you unto Hades, where an eternity of interesting problems were thrown at you; all that waited for me across the Hudson was Newark—no more, oh rapture!), I was facing something I felt I could not endure unless I wrote it out first. It was the primal wail that came from years of grief, trauma, love, and fear, hurling itself into the wind as part of my tiny human struggle against death. The last thing I wanted to say before sun exploded. Writing teachers (and, again, those damned books) are fond of asserting that work written from anything less than that is not worth the paper its printed on. Which, when a certain type of person (me, in my late 20s) hears it, inspires a punk rock art monster fever high that makes you beat your chest and look for babies to devour whole, etc. But with age, you begin to realize that no one else is holding themselves (or writers, generally) to that standard. If they were, there’d be a fraction of the books published. And you just can’t survive that level of trauma on a constant basis. I mean, can you? Can I? Am I surviving it now?
Someone (possibly me) once described being human as the messy result of wanting things that directly conflict with each other. (Okay, it was me. I found the old note. I hope you’ll still respect it.)
This is what I want: to make great art.
This is what I want: to be happy.
I can’t sustain the level of desperate urgency required to make great art. But you know what? Despite all evidence to the contrary, I know people can do both—I know several of them personally, and that small glimpse into their unicorny lives means everything to me. Without it, I wouldn’t know it’s even possible, or what it looks like.
I think I know how to do it, too. Make great art and not be suffering in order to do it. I know from Cheryl Strayed’s chapter “Write Like a Motherfucker” in her Tiny, Beautiful Things (which I listen to each day when I walk to the L, as a meditation). I know from Dani Shapiro’s wonderful, reassuring and empowering Still Writing. I know from older manifestos, from Stephen King’s On Writing to Joan Didion’s “Why I Write.”
It’s this: you get down on the ground, you get real humble, you let go of your expectations of yourself, you shut out what you think people will say about it (good or bad), and give yourself room. It was never helpful for me to read things like “trust yourself!” I can’t get that far. After all, lots of terrible and boring people trust themselves. I have to not think about that at all, prepare to suck, and, as Bob would do, Baby step to the blank page. Baby step through the first sentence. Baby step through the second one….
It’s like that thing EL Doctorow said that, again, EVERY WRITING BOOK EVER has quoted:
Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.
I’m putting this here as a baby step: I think I know the framework that my memoir has been looking for. The one I can’t write another word without. I’m afraid of saying this out loud because it might be a stupid idea that fails miserably after several months of working with it. But it’s the first time I’ve thought about the memoir—half of which is languishing as a bunch of 1’s and 0’s in the same cloud where JLaw’s nudie pics live–with anything other than dread and sadness since 2009.
So I’m getting on the floor again. It does not escape me that several of my blog posts have, over the years, been about this balance between happiness and devastation, about paralysis by self-aggrandizement. This time, I’m not crying. I’m not hopeless. I‘m not roasting a chicken to avoid the work. I’m getting on the floor to go about my business, which is the business of making the best art I can. The rest is not my business.