Photo by Aaron Burden
The Apostrophe Blog
There are so many avenues to what one can easily call “failure” in this so-called writing life. A while back, I rearranged many aspects of my life so I could more easily prostrate myself on the altar of the written word, figuring that was a surefire way to get the work done. I’ve had fits, starts, and many, many days of self-doubt and self-disgust. All that time “hard at work” seems to have left me with very little to show for it, at least in terms of “products” publishable in today’s literary marketplace.
What to do? Lower my expectations? Be happy for my tiny successes? Throw in the writing towel?
The answer you desire is within you.
That was the fortune in my cookie after a tofu curry noodle lunch a while back. There are days when it definitely feels true that words are all we have. I have Samuel Beckett’s pronouncement on the subject featured prominently on my website’s opening page. And then there are other days when it’s painfully apparent that words will never be enough.
For me, this seems to come particularly true whenever I cling to the writing “dream”—which translates to some myth of all the wonders that are “life-as-writer,” I guess—in large part because I can’t figure out what else to do with (the rest of) my life. All this time invested, all this study, work on craft, learning to self-edit, finally claiming my identity as someone who writes, blah blah blah. How could I possibly give all that up?
There’s so much to discourage even the most stalwart and self-confident of our tribe. It’s not only because of the rejections, the mass mailings from small-press publishers and literary journals of yet another contest they want me to enter (and, of course, pay a reading fee for) when I have my next poetry manuscript done. It’s not that I don’t want to work hard, even harder, to get better, to be the best I can be. And it’s not that I don’t want to keep writing, to have words be a touchstone in my life.
These days, there sure seems to be a word glut. The world is overflowing with information from published and emerging writers who have come to inhabit all manner of print and virtual niches: bloggers, commenters, experts, pontificators, pundits, blowhards.
Words, words, words. It’s all too easy to find myself drowning in a scribbled sea of words—la, la, la, la, la, la, I can’t hear you let alone get around to reading you these chit-chattering days. I can’t believe I’m the only person who feels this way.
This lament has been voiced before. In Becoming a Writer, a wise little book originally published in the 1920s, Dorothea Brande urges us to keep our own counsel, in solitude and fairly close to the chest:
“The writer is at a disadvantage shared by no novice of the other arts. He [sic] does use the medium of ordinary conversation…when he exercises his profession; and he has no impressive paraphernalia to impose respect on the layman. Now that everyone has his portable typewriter, not even that badge of his profession is left to the young writer.”
Other issues bubble up as well. I am troubled by the existence of so many writers even as there appear to be fewer and fewer readers. Add to that the growing cult of the writer as celebrity/performer, as marketer of her or his work to a shrinking yet devoted (if you are lucky) audience. Given the emphasis on self-promotion, it’s easy to grow weary of the egos, and, at times, the sense of entitlement that now seems to accompany literary folks who make their livings in the academy teaching yet more others to write. And I haven’t even touched on the issue of standards and quality. That is a whole other proverbial “can of worms.”
I guess I always wanted this choice of mine, this dedication of my days to words, to feel more joyful and less catch-as-catch-can and, at times, so darn hard. Which takes me back to that fortune cookie: The answer you desire is within you. OK, I want to believe that. So what’s the trouble then?
I’ve even begun to wonder if it’s the way I’ve conceived of and practiced my engagement with the so-called “writing life” that’s really the issue. There are days when it seems like it isn’t generous enough, large enough, interesting enough, moral enough, stimulating enough, brave enough, bold enough, connected enough, good-crazy enough, calming enough let alone meaningful enough to warrant spending so much time alone in a garret or an indoor/outdoor-carpeted basement, a coffee shop or a cubicle fiddling with words. That it’s too far from that feeling you get in those pure-hearted moments of living when you simply be rather than do. Instead, there’s so much striving along with the forever need to work harder and do more, more, more. So much trying and trying again. So much learning to live with some version of continuous failing—does anyone have a better word for all those rejections?
Allen Ginsberg’s famous Mind Writing Slogans start with Chogyam Trungpa’s adage (which may or may not be related to a similar comment about art in general from William Blake)—“First thought, best thought.” If only I could believe that my best work could grow out of that!
Dorothea Brande offers a way to navigate these contradictory tempests, these inevitable vulnerabilities so many of us experience when we embark on a writing-focused life:
“It should not be your sensitive, temperamental self which bears the burden of your relations with the outside world of editors, teachers, and friends. Send your practical self out into the world to receive suggestions, criticisms, and rejections…Criticism and rejection are not personal insults, but your artistic component will not know that. It will quiver and wince and run to cover, and you will have trouble in luring it out again to observe and weave tales and find words for all the thousand shades of feeling that go to make up a story.”
Which leads me to the answer within: Surely there is a more lively and joy-giving way to be working with the written word. Change the how, not the what. What is the what, for me, anyway?
I turned to writing when I was a kid. Why I must have liked it, right? I turned to it again when older to try to make sense of the wreck I thought I’d made of my life. I turned to fiction to capture all the characters I’d let into my life, to share their stories with the world. I turned to a novel to tell the saga of the peculiar and left-behind place where I’d grown up, the people who endure there, the ones who get away, the ones who stay. I turned to memoir to write about one of the most important people in my life after I learned, belatedly, of his death. I turned to (really returned to) poetry to write about that person and that death when I realized I needed what only poetry has—music and shadow, echo and painting—to tell the story of how his presence constantly undid me and how his absence had rattled me so. I continued with so much of this writing for all these years because people outside myself—teachers and classmates, partners and friends—told me I was good at it. I sometimes wonder: Did I once ever ask if it was what I actually wanted to do?
At this juncture, I’ve begun to wonder if maybe I’m too private to ever be brave enough to make my way with words. Maybe I can’t take the numbers, the competition—all the strong, increasingly younger writers being churned out of the writing programs that have sprouted like dandelions, or mushrooms after a winter of Oregon rain. Maybe I can’t take the uncertainty one has to learn to live with—as W.S. Merwin wrote, if you have to be sure don’t write—now that I’m up close and personal to what I said I wanted to do. Maybe it’s all the recent news of cancer deaths and diagnoses and treatments with a sudden heart attack thrown in to remind me time is running out. Maybe I simply want to do something else with the rest of my life. Maybe I’m bored.
Then there are the other times. Sun coming through my writing room window and an empty day in front of me to read, dally, live in the luxury of finding what I’m wanting to say—the proverbial courting the muse. The surprise of an unexpected verb that makes its way into a line in a poem that unfolds onto the blank page. The way I can lose myself for hours, finding a word, fiddling with words. The sweetness that rushes in when people tell you they’ve read your work and it touched a familiar nerve or spoke to their hearts.
The answer I desire is within me? I want to want this, want to love doing the work, want to feel joy and challenge and soaring when I’m writing. For most of my life, I believed writers had the answer, no, I believed writing did. Lately, I guess, I’ve started to doubt even that.
All of this fretting starts to seem self-indulgent and pointless, especially when I re-read an old print copy of a series of essays by Michael Ventura from the Austin Chronicle in November 2005. Ventura’s writing about the looming convergence of what was then called Peak Oil and global climate change could have been lifted from an issue of Stewart Brand’s CoEvolution Quarterly, a magazine I read with religious devotion thirty or so years back.
How did we all get so derailed from those idealisms and truths? How did people who came of age in an energy crisis, let alone the injustices carved in sharp relief by the Vietnam war and the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, convince themselves it’s OK to live totally absorbed in our precious and protectionist—as well as too-precious literary—worlds?
Ventura’s words echo with a truth that I, for one, am needing to hear right about now:
“Look…I’d like my cozy, convenient writer’s life to continue as uncharacteristically tranquil as it’s been lately, writing my novels and poems and columns, downsizing as gracefully as I’m able, living with a truly delectable slowness, testifying to the truth of Caroline Casey’s sentence ‘Beauty is abundantly available to the unhurried mind.’ But I look at the facts as I understand them and can come to no conclusion but that these too-convenient days are numbered, and I’d best enjoy the present, behave alertly, and be ready for a storm, always remembering the three qualities that Henry James noted were most important in a human being: ‘Kindness, kindness, and kindness.’ [sic] Life is about to become both slower (with more opportunities for beauty) and more urgent, governed by necessity rather than desire…We will be called upon to do more, and be more, than we thought ourselves capable of…Once upon a time wasn’t that all I asked of life?”
The answer you desire is within you.