I often fantasize about the jobs I’d hold in alternate realities. Singer. Hair stylist. Travel Agent. I can’t sing a song that anybody would ever really say was worth listening to, and my bangs are terminally crooked despite the fact that I’ve been hacking them off myself for two decades now, but I do still confidently maintain that I’d make a fantastic travel agent. Continue reading
I have seen a good bit of the world, which for some reason has cultivated in others the mistaken impression that I might be a good source of counsel when it comes time to pack for a trip.
Let me assure each of you that this is not the case.
“I dropped out of college because I knew more than my professors did.”
“I often have to explain things to others because I just grasp stuff more quickly than most people do.”
“I often read books and think to myself, ‘I could have written that.’”
Is youth wasted on the young?
Sometime around one’s 30th birthday, to be certain, one realizes with a start the astonishing measure of self-absorption and small-mindedness that has defined one’s first decade as a card-carrying adult.
Post-adolescence is a time of vanity, ignorance, selfish pride. Of breaking hearts and being heartbroken. Of exploration, excess, and ego, and immortal pretentions.
And then, blessedly, it ends. One grows, and one reflects back with regretful aplomb. There is shame in the recognition, yes, and some measure of cold relief, too–one has, at least, improved and grown enough to recognize the degree of petulance with which one formerly moved about the world; to reject youthful notions of moral infallibility and to criticize them roundly.
Have you ever kicked a fire hydrant? Pleaded with a cell phone’s dying battery? Shrieked mournfully at that spinning, rainbow-colored pinwheel on your MacBook screen that almost always portends the certain death of the last hour’s worth of work? How well did it work for you?
Perhaps you’re more the pragmatic and even-tempered sort, slower to frustration and ire. Perhaps, unlike the majority of us, you’ve never fantasized about throwing a recalcitrant printer out the office window.
If so, congratulations on your mettle and measure. But don’t start smirking just yet.
You may well be doing something just as silly.
Here’s the thing: most committed writers labor under the aegis of a bigger picture; a closely or even loosely described set of goals for their work: where it will end up, how it will get there, what steps they need to take to make headway on that big idea.
And no time are such Grand Plans more lauded and more discussed and more cherished than at the start of a brand new year. Many writers use the occasion as an opportunity to recommit to doing more and better work, to achieving a few long-sought milestones and taking things to the next level, writing-wise.
And then, January 1 fades into the rearview, life kicks back into Crazy-Normal, and those heartfelt resolutions get left in the dust.
Oh, we still think of them. We still love them. We still scratch out their little footsoldiers – micro-goals – on our weekly to-do lists:
Write for two hours Saturday
Submit three pieces to literary journals
Send out four magazine pitches
Finish draft of novel by spring
And then, life intervenes, family and friends come calling, better-paying work distracts us, laundry piles up, and those very noble intentions get pushed to the bottom of the list before falling off it entirely for another year.
Cue guilt, and annoyance at feeling said guilt, and guilt at feeling annoyed at feeling guilty, and is it really any surprise that, for all intents and purposes, our Grand January Writing Plans are often quietly abandoned before we’ve even turned the calendar to February?
Here’s a thought: in 2015, why not resolve to stop arguing with your Writing To-Do List?
It isn’t a neglected friend to whom you ought to apologize and resolve to revisit next week or next month or next year.
And it isn’t negotiable. And you, in turn, aren’t a bad partner, friend, or parent because you insist on prioritizing its contents.
You’re not selfish. You’re not dreamy. You’re a writer, and your writing goals ought to be approached as inanimate, changeless little buggers. They are to be hewn to; not argued with, talked to, negotiated with under your breath. That’s as silly as chucking a piece of electronic equipment out a second-story window, and you’re above all that nonsense, right?
One last question: have you ever thought about what it is, really, that separates us humans from the rest of the beasts?
One of the biggest things, to my mind, is our ability to store our knowledge for future retrieval. To plan against a reality that doesn’t yet exist. What a gift! And our To-Dos help us to execute this small miracle.
With the ability to make big plans based purely on faith in ourselves comes the ability to fret and worry and lament when we fall short.
I hope you’ll join me, in 2015, in my writing resolution: to stop talking at little bits of paper and get down to work!
Hey, writer! When was the last time you took a good look at your own hands? I mean, a really, really good long look?
Sure, they’re fluttering in and out of the periphery of vision over the course of any average day, assisting in the picking up and setting down of life’s dull and delightful objects. But, most often, their task feels secondary – to hold up for inspection the things you’ve deemed far more fascinating: smartphones, babies, books, burritos.
There’s little incentive to notice them. And this strikes me as odd. So do it now. Have a good, long gander. What do you see? Look carefully: your hands are miraculous, surprising, ordinary, and, for my money, entirely underappreciated.
You’re in good retroactive company. I’m first writing this by hand, in fact, down here in Mexico, though by the time it reaches its final destination (your eyeballs), it will most certainly have been converted into little perfect lines set neatly upon a screen somewhere or other. I am fine with that, but I’d like us to travel backwards together for a moment, so we might better appreciate the strange and wonderful deconversion that is right now taking place.
Let’s jump backwards a couple weeks, to a kayaking trip I took in the Sea of Cortez. To the moment when I rediscovered my hands.
Picture me there, wedged into my sleek, water-going canoe, still land bound, beached atop a thin spit of glittering sand in southern Baja, dodging hornets and practicing my stroke.
My tour guide, Sergio, came by and gently adjusted my wonky grip on the double-ended paddle. As he did, he pointed to the constellation of tiny white and pink scars along the topside of my right hand and joked, “You must be a boxer.”
It’s true that I’ve been hard on my hands: a lifetime of immodest tree climbing, reckless vegetable chopping, and bare-bones travel in bug-infested climes has marked them up and good.
I’m no prizefighter, but because I earn my (modest) living as a writer, my hands are, in a sense, also my fortune, my indispensable weapons, shepherding my thoughts from head to screen or paper day in and day out, to varying degrees of success and financial recompense.
Funny, then, how rarely I think about them. I never even really noticed all the scars I’d accumulated until Sergio pointed them out to me that balmy day in Mexico. How could someone who writes for a living spend so little time thinking about or even looking at her hands?
I suspected immediately that technology was to blame. Because I like blaming things on technology, but also because of the inclinations inherent to my own writerly process. I love to journal and sketch, but I do my serious writing almost exclusively on the computer. And I’m just old enough to recognize the novelty of this fact: I was born in 1981, to a father who worked at a supercomputer company and dug new gadgets, and I can still recall the day he brought home our very first Apple Macintosh computer. It was 1984. Reagan was about to be reelected president. I was three years old. I stood in our foyer, rapt, watching Dad struggle to haul the large white box with the stylized apple on the side of it in through the garage door, his face alight. My sisters and I crawled all over that magical white box like overgrown ants, feelers up, sensing that something special was about to happen to us. And it did.
I’ve done my best thinking with the help of a keyboard screen pretty much ever since. It feels like a superpower, hooking my brain up to a keyboard and letting the mushy contents pour incongruously forth. The fact that my penmanship is completely atrocious is rendered, suddenly, irrelevant. My hands can track time with the speed of thought. I am superhuman!
In some sense, Microsoft Word is probably deeply responsible for the contours of my creative process when it comes to writing. It has calibrated my brain to think in cuttable and pasteable chunks, and to create in a dump, arrange, dump, arrange methodology.
It works well. I prefer to think in chunks, because this approach seems to mimic the organic processes of idea generation, which also happens in non-linear bits and blurbs. As I rearrange, I make new connections and clarify my conceptions. It feels so easy. So right.
One strange consequence of my exclusive allegiance to the medium, though, is that when I’m writing, I rarely, rarely look at my hands. I look, instead at a screen, on which my words appear as if by magic. Oh, the hands keep on at their important work outside that visual frame. But they are often tapping away in obscurity, for all intents and purposes, invisible. I was trained this way. I can still recall the typing lessons I took in fourth grade, when Mrs. Hobizal placed pieces of white computer paper over our hands, thereby forcing us to hammer out strings of practice text without looking down:
The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.
The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.
We went at it, again and again, for weeks and weeks, until we were a veritable menagerie of pint-sized transcribers, our small hands pounding furiously away at the sticky beige keys. And it worked. By college, I could type 80 words a minute.
But, surely, something organic and analogous became lost along the way, didn’t it?
Let’s reverse course, again, forward from the fourth grade computer lab and back to the recent past, to Mexico, and to what happened just a few days after the kayaking trip, at the start of the portion of my trip that I’d intended to use as a writing retreat. Tragedy! The cord for my MacBook began to fray, right at the joint that connected it to the surge protector, over the course of two equatorial days. I tried to press the wires back together, to jiggle and rig the thing into submission, but all I got in response was a few nefarious sparks, a weird burny smell, and a mild zap to the thumb. The thing was dead. And, as a result, my MacBook was out of commission. My plans were dashed.
I’d time-traveled, backwards, unwillingly. Pen and paper were my only available recourse. But I never work with pen and paper! It hardly seemed even worth trying. It just wasn’t even the way I thought anymore.
I pouted furiously for a day or so, then I grew interminably bored and reluctantly took up my travel journal. And I wrote. And wrote. And wrote. I wrote till my phalanges were sore, and then I wrote some more. Little mini-essays, lists of ideas and future goals, meditations on regrets, all summoned forth in my sloppy, singular chicken scrawl, dozens of pages replete with arrows and strikethroughs and little barely legible addendums crowding the margins out of existence. It was painful, but also sort of enlightening.
Even after I gave in a few days later and trekked to the next town over to purchase a brand new, exorbitantly priced MacBook cord, I kept on taking up the notebook. And I kept on thinking about these hands of mine.
I concede, now, the sloppy, organic (that word AGAIN!) elegance of working by hand. To watch as ones fingers grip a pen and litter words across the blank page is its own kind of magic. As with a computer, I am focused largely on the words, but I’m looking at the magical hand, too, with its 27 fragile bones, its meaty, quivering tendons, its constellations of scars and freckles and moles.
I take up a pen, and I am, suddenly, intimately connected to the process of creation; I require no intermediary or intercessor, no translator. This feels a lot like what the Zen Buddhists call Direct Transmission – unfettered experience of truth – and I am doing it all by myself.
No doubt, writing by hand is a messy, sloppy affair. There is no “delete” key. Only strikes through and exings out. When I create work by hand, I toss out behind me a trail of inky breadcrumbs that I can follow backwards, later, to the sources of my inspiration. I can backpedal. I can examine my process and trace my patterns of thought as they spread and blossom outward like cracks upon the sugar-spun winter ice.
I can give abandoned metaphors their due elegy by permitting them to live, forever, at the scattershot outer reaches of each page on first, second, third drafts. I can scribble and scratch and forgive myself the false starts and niggling imperfections without needing to erase them from existence forever.
Writing by hand asks us to acknowledge and examine process in some rather profound ways. We cannot hide from the imperfection of our iteration, our half-formed ideas, our vague and later-junked conceptions.
A printed page is a pretty thing to behold, no doubt. Crisp, clean, with no mumbly half-thoughts congregating in the corners, no run-on sentences clobbering up the atmosphere, no spontaneous reworkings sprawling themselves immodestly across the mid-sections of our gathered thoughts. No rouge modifiers, ever late to the party and flanking themselves willy-nilly across the words and lines.
For any writer, the computer is a magical instrument. It keeps our hands free of callouses and ink stains, pliant and unsullied as a baby’s rear end. It eases the path, it keeps the shoulders and neck from cramping themselves into an upside down question mark. It abides ceaseless reworking. It lets us organize our work in non-linear and unconventional ways if we please.
But it also erases the vital understory of How We Got Here. And that, too, is a tale worthy of the telling, don’t you think?
So I challenge you, dear writer, to challenge yourself – and to think more deeply about your own writing process – by changing up your own preferred medium once in awhile.
You’ll hate it. And for that reason, you’ll love it.
Note: This was originally a letter I wrote to an editing client. But I liked it so much I’ve decided to share it here.
Hope the rewrites are coming along. I just came across a fantastic article in The Atlantic Monthly about author Fay Weldon’s perspective on the futility writing and it gave me the chills. A case of just the right words at the right moment, or at just the wrong moment, as it were, for me, lately.
Weldon riffs on on Camus’ old conceit that “One must imagine Sisyphus happy” and presents it as an essential metaphor for anyone having a serious go at writing. I love the visual of Sisyphus pushing the boulder up and up the hill, and smiling all the while, because though his efforts are futile, there is a certain elegant rebellion to the act. We think of him with pity and consternation, because how could anyone be happy in the face of such a grossly impossible task?
Like Camus and Weldon suggest, maybe we’ve got this particular ancient Greek all wrong … Maybe we are painting him with the colors of our own judgments and self-imposed limitations. Perhaps he is improbably happy, if for no other reason than because his decision to doggedly pursue an impossible passion is an act of wonderful, ridiculous defiance. Defiance of the odds, of expectations, of conventions, of a universe that sometimes seems not to give a shit about us at all. What a metaphor for the creative process! And, of course, the larger article is a very nice meditation on the joyful futility of writing anything at all. Check it out here.
Which brings me to your question: what am I thinking, career-wise? Hem. It changes, moment by moment. The last month has been rather hard on the heart. A whole lot of rejection, and a whole lot of me being unwilling to take the advice I so freely dole out to my clients, my writers: Keep on! Rejection is inevitable. Focus on improving yourself. Pout briefly, then keep going. Doors closing and opening, blah blah, etcetera, ad nauseam. The problem is, I’ve secretly hoped it wouldn’t apply to me. To everyone else, sure, but note me. I don’t want to take my own medicine. Why? Because it’s bitter as hell. Because it smarts going down. Because the lumps and bumps are for other people, but not for me. Alas! The horse-pill of writerly rejection is a non-negotiable. I get that now. We all want to be the exception, deep down. Maybe it’s the way we’re brought up in this country, made to believe that if only we apply ourselves and try sincerely, the world will welcome our talents and reward us generously with money and accolades. If only it were. We are all unique, special snowflakes, but only until the gods rain piss all over our tiny, precious dreams and we go melting immodestly back into the clay.
That said, over these long, lonely weeks in Mexico of pouting and simmering and broken computer cords and sipping rum and swinging lackadaisically in hammocks and bartering with the universe and making threats to myself to never try and publish another thing again, I come finally to this: frittered time, wasted opportunities and squandered talents ought to terrify us far more than they do. At the least, doing nothing with our gifts certainly ought to scare the shit out of us slightly more than taking up that dusty boulder for one or a thousand more gos up the hill. No matter where it’s all leading. Too many people give up on themselves. I’m an easily discouraged person, I suppose, but to deem myself, at the ripe age of 33, a washed-up, never-was writer strikes me as a wee bit dramatic, even for my excitable sensibilities.
In short, I’ve determined to keep at it with the personal writing projects. As far as money-makers go, I will continue to edit manuscripts such as yours, as this is fulfilling and heartening and perhaps a regular essential reminder that it’s all connected, and that the laws of the universe apply to us all, no matter how many fancy writing degrees we have hanging on our walls (or, as in my case, stuffed into my desk drawer with coffee stains on them). That’s a lumpy lesson, indeed, but an important one, and one that is being given to me over and over, so I might as well acknowledge it and get on with things. I’ve also decided to pursue professional copywriting more aggressively, again, because I enjoy it and because it keeps the lights on.
It’s a long game, I suppose. I get that now. So, to borrow a line from Camus and the article above, I’m going to imagine myself happy and soldier on accordingly. Here’s to boulders, and mountains yet to climb! Here’s to 2015!
Kirk: “Well, there it is. War. We didn’t want it, but we’ve got it.”
Spock: “Curious how often you humans manage to obtain that which you do not want.”
– Stark Trek, “Errand of Mercy,” aired March 23, 1967
Dear Type As:
I know you’re really busy making the world a better place and all, but can we talk for a just minute about Type A people?
Actually, I want to talk, too, about Type B and Type C and Type D personalities, but I figured you might lose interest if I opened this letter by saying that I wanted to talk about those other kinds of people. After all, both of us knows that a sustained interest in the eccentricities of the planet’s quieter folks isn’t always one of your strongest suits. But I’m not trying to pick on your orderly and outgoing tribe. I know you can’t always help it.
Do you ever fantasize about your own personal Path Not Taken?
I don’t mean the path that would have led you to a better-paying career, or a nicer partner, or a different, cooler city to live in. That’s boring. Everybody fantasizes about those things, for obvious reasons.
I am currently finishing up the first draft of my first-ever e-book! The backstory: three years ago, against the advice of many, I left a budding career in journalism to build my own freelance copywriting and editing business, and since then, I’ve fielded a regular stream of emails from and about people searching for a way to make writing pay.
Most of the emails go something like this:
“Hi, Erin! My brother/friend/co-worker needs some help. He’s always been a great writer. His teachers told him so. We tell him so. But he’s lost. He hated his last job and now he’s unemployed. Do you have any advice for him?”
Yes. Yes, I do. And I am currently in the process of fashioning what I’ve learned into a short guide for newbie writers. The first hit is free! And I’d love to know what you think.
Tough Truth for Writers #1: You are not Don Quixote.
Matter of fact, neither am I. And neither is that guy in your writing group who just scored his first book deal, or your sister’s friend who made a zillion dollars off ads on her Quirky Mommy Blog. I’m not trying to be harsh. In fact, I don’t even blame you, Dear Writer, for hoping that maybe we were Don Quixote. (It would certainly explain our rumpled clothes and the wheezing chariots we drive ourselves around town in.) After all, every culture since the dawn of the alphabet has romanticized Itinerant Dreamy Creative Types.
Every good movie has one, and so does every interesting family or group of friends, and we love them for their wandering ways. We let them sleep on our couches. We sometimes lend them cash. We fawn over their adventuring spirits and invite them to all our dinner parties because they’ve got, like, the best travel stories ever.
But as you may have noticed, especially if you’ve tried to nominate yourself for the position, what our culture doesn’t do is pay anyone to be an Itinerant Dreamy Creative Type.
Even IDCTs with multiple writing degrees and a good measure of natural talent are unlikely to find anyone waiting at the foot of their bed each morning, offering up wads of cash in exchange for the first rights to trumpet their eloquent observations far and wide. Even when those observations are really, really fantastically crafted.
We are not Don Quixote. But like him, because we are writers, we feel irresistibly, cosmically compelled to seek out strange and interesting fodder for our literary reveries, to chase shadows and inspirations to the far corners of the earth, or, at least, the far corners of our minds. So, like his, our paths will inevitably wind and twist. And this is where the trouble can start.
For many would-be-writers, the first part of the story goes something like this: Your sister wanted to be a lawyer. So she majored in political science, earned admission to a respectable law school, took out her nose ring, wrote for the law review, and eventually landed a cushy government job. Your best friend wanted to be a legal secretary. So she scored a filing job at a downtown law firm straight out of undergrad and worked her way up over the course of half-a-decade, taking advantage of free on-the-job training and saying “Yes” to every promotion until, voila! Legal secretary at 26.
And then there was you. Maybe you majored in English, communications, or creative writing, or at least you fantasized about it during those interminable, soul-sucking chemistry labs. Maybe you stayed up all night reading Raymond Carver short story collections and writing bad fiction that became, over time, slightly less bad and maybe even eked its way into the realm of good. Maybe you wrote a column for the college paper and thrilled at the rush of being published – and read, and discussed – by your peers. Then, graduation. By default (and the need to, like, eat every day) maybe you ended up working in an office doing corporate communications or managerial work or some other thing that was only tangentially, if at all, related to the written word.
Or maybe you reformed your writerly ways earlier on: you penned poetry and plays all through high school, then opted for the fast-track into early adulthood and became a teacher or a cop or a construction worker or a cocktail waitress. Now you’ve woken up five or 10 or 20 years older and you are longing to reconnect with your youthful love for the quiet craft. You mightn’t have written, I mean really written, anything in years, but the itch is back and worse than ever. It’s not too surprising. If you’ve got writing in the marrow of your bones, it will always call you back, eventually.
Or maybe you are just starting out your career, and determined to give the writing biz a shot, because you like working with words and you figure it’s worth it at least to try.
Whatever your story, and whether or not you’ve ever even read Don Quixote, I’ve got some good news. The happy reverse of this rusty coin is that you wouldn’t probably want to be Don Quixote anyway, even if you could. Because he’s so wrapped up in reveries that life ends up happening to him and not for him, and that’s no way for a creative person to live.
Now it’s your turn: Any other Bohemian archetypes you find yourself pledging questionable allegiance to as you fashion yourself into a writer? Dean Moriarty? Truman Capote, perhaps? J.D. Salinger? I’d love to hear about them, and about how they help and hinder your progress.
Forget the short-shrift gestures, the achy-breaky looks, the profound silences. Forget ever, ever leaving anything unsaid.
But, ah! The hand-penned poem, the stumblingly sincere email missive, the drunken, napkin-back confessional. These are the mightily longed-for asseverations of a writer’s native tongue. They are ardently imperfect. And they are beautiful.
As I may have mentioned one or a thousand times since I arrived in Spain back in early June, our terrace has a front-and-center view of Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia.
This sprawling, Roman Catholic Basilica is a work in progress, to put it mildly. Construction kicked off in 1882. It’s supposed to be finished by 2026, on the centenary of Gaudi’s death. (Tragically, ironically, unbelievably, he was struck by a tram while crossing a street near the church, headed to another day at his life’s great work. I can just picture him, starry-eyed, gazing up at the unfinished spires, and BAM! Poor guy.)
Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.
At 2 p.m. on Valentine’s Day of this year, I am sitting in a coffeeshop in Milwaukie, Oregon. I am doing some writing. I am watching the world go by.
A tweaker stumbles in the door. He’s carrying a small, crumpled bouquet of flowers. He orders a very large cup of coffee and then he twitches his way to a table near mine. He sits down, but he can’t hold still. He’s jumping and wiggling all about and slurping at his coffee. He keeps clearing his throat, and so violently that I develop sympathetic neck pains.
The Tweaker is clearly feeling the love this holiday. He cries out “Happy Valentine’s Day!” to every person who walks past. He strikes up a conversation with the wall.