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you're no longer the cure
august 1, 2014
The first time I ever remember writing was when I was in first grade.
I went to a Catholic school. Every authority figure in the hallways and classrooms wore black. Nuns and priests. St. Mary's Grammar School, on Greenwich Avenue in Greenwich, Connecticut. (Decades later, when Mary and I were lying side by side in bed on the opposite coast of the country, in California, smoking pot, talking about our childhoods, I referred to St. Mary's Grammar School and she reared her beautiful blonde head back. "'Grammar' school? How'd you get there, by stagecoach?") Our playground was a black-tarred section of pavement located behind the school. Bloodied knees, elbows, chins.
I remember it was around Christmas. The nun who ran first grade like Boss Daley ran Chicago decided we would re-enact the nativity scene. Because, remember? Catholic. The nuns crammed about a hundred kids from other grades into our classroom for the big event. Standing room only, along the walls and blackboards. Quite the sad lot. Some of them now dead. I forget who got to play Mary and Joseph. I was cast as one of the Three Kings, though I can't recall which one. Each of the kings had a piece of colorful fabric (something that would otherwise have been made into a window curtain) safety-pinned to the back of their white shirt, to suggest royalty.
Did I have any lines? Probably something like, "Mary and Joseph, this myrrh is for your new baby, Jesus." (I keep forgetting what myrrh is. I Googled it: It's an "aromatic resin" used for perfume and healing wounds. Probably the last thing a baby wants.)
(Soon after Mary and I moved to Texas, in the late Eighties, the place where I found a job used to have a nativity display each year in an empty cubicle in our section (so I heard during a pre-Christmas meeting), but when it came time after New Year's to pack everything in boxes, some items from the scene would invariably be missing. Stolen. Joseph, a mule, straw. (Who steals straw?) So they had stopped the practice. But now, the head of the department wanted to revise the tradition. But how to protect all the figurines and props? A raised hand suggested everyone in our department be responsible for one figurine or prop, which we'd take home once the display was dismantled, then bring back to work the following year for the next display. My hand shot up. "Dibs on Baby Jesus!" I meant it as a joke. No one was amused. And I mean, they were really, really not amused. A fart would have gotten more forgiveness.)
Anyway, I was nervous about having all these eyes staring at me, one of the three kings, and concerned that my voice would come out as a croak when I had to deliver my line.
So for the first time, without even thinking about it, I became a writer. I pretended I was someone else, reporting in my head on what my character was doing. And that distancing helped! Made me less jittery. Because that's really what writing is. Seeing something, then removing yourself from it by recreating it.
Over the years, I've written a lot. Last time I calculated, over one million words. So, this Lately, I want to write about some of the things I've learned about writing. And the creative process. Specifically, the traps into which writers can fall. I am not an expert. Just one more person down in the imaginary trenches, trying to get through the latest challenge. But even if the pick ax in your hand isn't real, it still follows certain rules.
So here are six different traps into which a writer can fall.
It's Worthless! All Worthless! - Not finishing what you started. This is a problem that seems to particularly affect young writers just starting out, although it can recur later in a career. A great deal of enthusiasm about a new idea they have, can't wait to get it down, but then about the second or third page, self-doubt creeps in. Is it really that great an idea? Hasn't it been done before? Is it too slight an idea? You were really excited planning the story in your head, taking notes, but now that you're knees deep, it seems lifeless. No enthusiasm left. Part of this reaction, when it's a young writer, meaning someone just starting out in their craft, regardless of their actual age, comes from fear. Am I really a writer? Or just a pretender? If I actually complete a story, and submit it, am I going to just be laughed at? Or dismissed with one generic rejection notice after another? And you very well might be. It takes time to learn how to write. How to create. Sometimes, years. But if you never finish any project, you're never going to succeed. I mean, that's kind of obvious, right? So make your best effort, and submit it. If it doesn't work out, start on a new project, taking what you learned from the first project. And keep doing that. Until you have something you are proud of. To use one of the hoariest of clichés, if you never rise up off your hands and knees and try to walk, you're not going to walk. You're only going to walk if you keep rising back up each time you fall on your face. If you don't like falling on your face, don't write. Pretty simple. Because if you're a real writer, you're going to get back up and fall on your face over and over again, because that's what writers do. They can't help themselves. It's a part of them. Which leads to the next trap:
Bigger And Better! - This trap affects writers who have had some success. They wrote a story or novel everyone loved. Or many loved. Glowing reviews. Heartfelt fan letters. "You changed my life!" It's a great validation. But now, although they have an idea for their next story, they know it's not going to launch as many fireworks as that other story. It's a smaller story. Not as dramatic. Not as heart-stopping. So, if they're stupid, they don't write it. Hold out for The Next Big Thing. The next story idea that's going to "confirm the promise" of that first big story. Well, let me tell you, that's going to take a while. You may go a year or two before that next big idea happens. In the meantime, you're pushing perfectly good, smaller ideas away. Out of fear that if one of those quieter ideas is your next story, you're going to disappoint. The truth is, one of an artist's greatest powers is the power to disappoint. To be truthful to who they are, rather than who they imagine readers and critics want them to be. I've written stories that I suspect are probably going to be successful, and get some notice. You probably have too. But I've also written a lot of stories I know are going to be a hard sell, and won't get much attention. But that's just the way it is. I want to write all the stories inside me. Not just the ones I think will be popular. Because if I only write the "sure thing" stories, I'm not being true to my talent. I'm just trying to churn out top 40 hits, not album cuts. And here we go to our next trap:
I Shall Please! - This happens when a writer starts writing not what they really want to write, but rather what sells, or what they get praised for, or what a girlfriend, boyfriend, editor, fan base wants them to write. You get praised for the humor in your stories, so you start putting more humor in your new stories. An editor tells you that you really made mountain climbing come alive in your latest piece, so now you're planning all these new stories with grappling hooks in them. Your significant other wishes you'd write more sensitive male characters, so all these guys who burst into tears at the sight of butterflies come churning out of your printer. You got great notices about a story with a political bent, so now you're just writing about the Middle East. I mean, if you truly enjoy writing about 17th Century China, by all means, absolutely write more stories in that setting. Because that's you. But if you're only writing those stories because that's what someone else wants you to write, probably not a good idea. It's not who you are. You're no longer the cure. You're the placebo.
The Story You Don't Know How To Write-- A story exists, even if you don't write it down. Right now I have about three story ideas that I think are great, but every time I try to write them, I get bogged down. It's like trying to drive a car with four flat tires. It's just not going to happen, folks. After I re-frustrate myself the fifth or fifteenth time, I finally decide, I am not meant to write this story. I'm filing it away, forever. That's not to say there aren't abandoned story ideas you can revisit and after a few more strikes with the flint a spark finally flies. That does happen, and it's glorious when it does. Let's burn down a building. But if you have a story idea and after countless attempts it just doesn't take off, give it up. Because otherwise you're going to find yourself writing an "It'll Do" story, where you're not writing a story because you really want to; you're just putting words down on a page, grinding away, to be able to say you finished the story. That's not cutting off the dragon's head. That's just swinging the sword.
Writer's Block - You used to turn out stories on your typewriter at a rapid clip. Scenes, descriptions, dialogue-- They just flew out of your mind down to your typing fingers. Tap, tap, tappity-tap. Big grin on your face. But now you start a new story, and…Nothing. That first sentence stutters. The sap no longer rises. Embarrassing. Troubling. This has happened to me a couple of times, and it is disconcerting. Why can't I just keep doing what I used to do? But you know what? I think writer's block is a gift. It's your subconscious telling you, it's time to move on to something different. At least for a while. If you've been writing one type of story up to this point, maybe you need to consider another type of story. Next-door realism? Try something extravagantly bizarre. Or vice versa. Prose writer? Do a play. You are a vast, unexplored continent. Don't keep writing just about the coastline. Get a machete, hack your way into that green jungle. Who but you knows what colorful birds are flapping branch to branch one mile in?
Am I Blushing? - This is the tendency of writers to sometimes become more conservative in their writing as the years go by. Less willing to be risky, or to embarrass themselves now that people they know are reading their stuff. I think this is an important point that perhaps is not discussed as much as it should be. I've addressed this issue before, in an interview, so I'm just going to quote from my answer:
All of which is to say, Writing is not about people. Writing is about the page.
You were once a child, your head fucked-up, and your only defense against the shriek of the world was a pad of humble paper, a blue-inked pen. Your constant companion. Never forget where you came from.