Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The (Re)writing Life, or A Room of One Zone

The other night I was sitting at my desk in my apartment, blissfully alone, and all of a sudden I thrust my arms in the air, leaned back my head, and said audibly and excitedly, “I love being a writer!”

This doesn’t happen all that often, at least not with such showy enthusiasm. But the other night was different because while writing can be hard, there are times when it runs like silk across your cheek. That night I was working on a novel, one that I had started in February 2009 and abandoned about a year later. I returned to it hesitantly because I wasn’t sure it was going anywhere. So the first thing I did was read what I had already written, about 35,000 words. To my surprise and delight, it was better than I thought it was. So that gave me some motivation to dig in.

Now, this is the second novel I’ve attempted; in fact, its file name is “NEWNOVEL.doc.” The first one has been languishing under a small pile of form rejection letters and while I intend to revise and resubmit it, I felt I needed to take a break from it. Also, from July to the end of the December last year I was essentially homeless, staying on friends’ couches and in their guest rooms as I separated from my wife. The lack of personal space and privacy made it impossible to do any writing for myself.

Now that I’m in an apartment, however, I have those few nights when I’m not with my kids to fill with writing (Virginia Woolf was right: one does need a room of one’s own). I found it a fairly simple matter to pick up where I’d left off and before I knew it I had a new, clear vision of where the story should go. I foresaw a new character entering the story a couple of chapters hence and suddenly it dawned on me that a 3.000-word scene I had written years and years ago and that had remained on my hard drive a narrative orphan in need of a sympathetic context, would fit perfectly in that space.

As I wrote towards the moment when I could merge the two pieces, I found myself experiencing that transcendent phase of writing where the characters take over and begin writing their story themselves. I know that sounds a little precious, if not downright flaky, but I’m telling you this happened at times with my first novel and now it was happening again. I was sitting there pressing the keys and I was doing more reading than thinking. The situations and dialogue just came out of nowhere and my fingers struggled to keep up with the story I was watching unfold on my screen. In fact, there was one scene that when I started writing it I told myself, “They’re going to get together and do this thing but they are absolutely not going to have sex.” I was thinking that because the last time these two characters met they unexpectedly (to them) ended up having sex. Now that they were getting together again (they’ve not begun dating yet, these are chance encounters), I felt it was essential – for credibility’s sake and narrative flow – that these two people not do the same thing again.

But apparently they liked it the first time around because, swear to God, I was writing perfectly innocent dialogue and things were going along just fine when all of a sudden the guy blurts out, “Is it OK if I kiss you?” and then she says yes, and the next thing I know they’re rolling on the floor. I didn’t plan that at all, but it came onto my screen with such inevitability that it couldn’t have come from any other source than the characters themselves. (Of course, if the scene works, I’ll take credit for it; I think it does.)

Anyway, it was during this time when I was at least as much observer as creator that I thrust my arms in the air and exulted in my career choice, which, though it’s proven to be a difficult way of making a living, enriches me often.

Of course, the phrase “career choice” suggests that I could have been any number of things but chose specifically to be a writer. In many ways that’s clearly true but in another sense I think I was born to be a writer. Though I wasn’t sure for a long time exactly what type of work I would do in my life, I probably always knew that writing would be a major part of it. Whatever my employer, whatever my job title, in terms of my identity it’s almost always been a simple matter: I am a writer.

I am a writer because I have always loved words. Ever since my older sister taught me to read The Foot Book by Dr. Seuss when I was in kindergarten, I have loved to look at words. Dr. Seuss delighted me because I saw that you could play with words; different words that looked and sounded the same could be arranged to create funny but meaningful verses. From that time forward I was a voracious reader and perhaps not coincidentally have always been a good speller: I just know how words are supposed to look.

When I entered school and had to write papers I found it to be a stress-free and successful enterprise. I knew that some of my peers fretted over the blank page they had to fill but to me it was a welcome opportunity to let all the words running around inside of me to fall out in any order I chose. Writing to me was fun, and creating something new where nothing currently exists still excites me.

As a kid I always got good feedback on my writing. It wasn’t anything I consciously worked at, so I came to see it as a sort of gift. Other of my peers got the good looks, the big brains, or the athletic ability; I reaped the writing crop. If it didn’t make me popular, at least it was something I could take pride in.

In fact, I distinctly recall my junior high and high school English classes. All my teachers tried to teach me the method and style they preferred. It would take me a couple of papers to master their process and I would get good grades. Then the next term or the next year, I would have a different teacher and have to learn another method and process. And again I would adapt, but never really adopt. I knew how I wanted to write and merely accommodated my teachers until I was old enough to do it my own way. I’m sure there are molecules of their instruction within the granules of my style but I retained control of the proportions.

(I would like to give props to one teacher of mine, Mr. Ernest Chamberlain, who introduced us to the essay form but always advised us against trying to use humor. His reasoning was that if the jokes fail, the whole piece would fail. As James Thurber was my favorite essayist, however, I couldn't resist writing something funny - and I didn't care much to be told how not to write. When he read my graded work before the class, he admitted that while his advice was sound, I had nevertheless succeeded.)

My older daughter is a wonderful writer and I see how her teachers are trying to restrain and mold her instincts into something that sinks to the baseline of her peers, thereby making it easier to quantify its quality. Rightly or wrongly, I tell her to play their game but never lose her own distinctive style. All her teachers have recognized her ability to write with a strong voice and depth of imagination but apparently there’s not a big place for that in the state educational frameworks.

So anyway, I get through high school and it’s time for college. What am I to major in? Communications was kind of a big-tent major so I chose that but took a lot of English classes. We read good books but the classroom discussions threw me for a loop. Everything was existential this and existential that. Suddenly the plot of a book wasn’t good enough; we had to explore its meaning. What was going on in the story was always an allegory for some form of political repression or something. This over-intellectualization of a perfectly good piece of fiction bored me silly. I’m not saying there isn’t a place for symbolism and literary analysis, but it seemed to me to take the fun out of the book.

Back in high school, I can remember an English class where we spent the entire class time one day discussing why Robert Frost repeated the line “And miles to go before I sleep.” I fantasized that if Frost himself were still alive and present in the classroom he would’ve slapped the teacher upside the head. Maybe there are some writers who want their readers to look up from a page and wonder for a while, maybe a long while, what the writer is actually saying and why. I should think I would want my readers to be able to digest what I write on the go and keep turning the pages.

After two years, I had to choose between Mass Communications and Interpersonal Communications. The former was mainly radio and television; the latter dealt more with sociological and psychological issues. I actually preferred the latter, specifically a course on Persuasion Theory, but it didn’t seem to have much of a career arc associated with it. At the same time, I wasn’t that interested in working in broadcast media. So I jumped ship and became a Journalism major. At least I would always be writing. (A - Always. B - Be. W - Writing.)

By the way, I would recommend journalism training to anyone who wants to be a writer. Anyone can write complex prose with florid details and fancy words; it takes real work to be succinct, clear, direct, objective, and factual. Journalism training taught me how to gather and prioritize information; craft tight, meaningful, active sentences; and conduct interviews and research. While I never desired to be a newspaper reporter, and never really have been one though I do write occasionally for a weekly newspaper on a freelance basis, I use my journalistic skills every day, no matter what kind of writing I do.

After college I got a job doing public relations for a trade show producer. I wrote all right: the same press releases over and over again, just changing the names and places and dates. One release announcing the show, another announcing the keynoter, another announcing the numbers of exhibitors and attendees expected, another announcing the numbers of exhibitors and attendees that actually showed up, and another announcing next year’s show. I did that for about 10 different events over the course of a year. This wasn’t writing, it was typing.

I left that company and went to another company, a small entrepreneurial firm that made digital fonts. It was a completely different culture and while during my first year there I was still dissatisfied being a PR guy, at least I was around creative people and working for a company I thought was doing something interesting. Then one day, the copywriter in the marketing communications department left the company. I had gotten to know people in the department and thought what they were doing – creating brochures, ads, and product packaging – looked fun. So I asked if I could give it a shot. They agreed, the results were good, and so the company ended up hiring a PR person to replace me and I became a copywriter, which I still am more than two decades later.

Writing fiction, however, was a whole different ball of wax. I’ve never really been about fiction; born on Lincoln’s birthday, I was attracted to history books and biographies while as a journalism-trained PR person and copywriter I was always involved in the factual. But a few years ago, a colleague dared me to enroll in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), an annual rite of writing in which participants are urged to compose a 50,000-word novel during the month of November. That’s when I began my first novel, but since I’d had a baby just three months before, I didn’t have all the time I needed and so it actually took me two or three years to finish it (if, in fact, it’s even finished yet).

Concurrently, I do a lot of freelance writing and look for opportunities to publish short stories and essays and the like. Unfortunately, I seem to have lower standards for my blog than other publishers have for their titles because it’s proven difficult to get my name and work in widely distributed publications. But no matter, this is a writer’s life and it’s the life I apparently was meant to lead. It’s required a few revisions along the way, as well as reimagining just what kinds of writing I want to do and am capable of doing, but for all its ups and downs I still feel fortunate and happy to say it: I am a writer.

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