Art by Michiko Stehrenberger
The Right to Write is an essential tool for all writers, even, or perhaps especially, for those who do not yet realize they are writers.
—Dave,Amazon.com reader(5 stars)
It was a familiar narrative — rapid, raw and confessional, with the usual half-bitten-off sentences, the usual dark stripe of guilt running through the center:
She was a marketing executive, 40-ish, successful, but finding herself more and more bored with it. On a whim, she’d signed up for a fiction class at UCLA Extension — what few people from her “business” life know is that she used to love to write fiction in college, in her 20s, way back when! But then, of course, for some reason . . . (faint exhalation) . . . she stopped.
Anyway, she loved this class, loved the teacher, met some really great people, felt all fired up, started three short stories she was really excited about . . .
And now, six months later, she finds she can barely drag herself to the computer.
“I was so frustrated last night,” she says as I pass her the salad. “I was so frustrated last night that I decide to start journaling ABOUT my frustration. I treat it like an exercise. ‘Okay,’ I ask myself, ‘why do I have such a hard time just SITTING DOWN AND WRITING?’ I make a list.”
She ticks off the items on her fingers.
“A) I hate the solitude of it. B) When I’m at home, it seems like there are just a million things I’d rather be doing — cleaning the house, watching Biography, giving myself a pedicure!” Wry laughter, recovery. “C) Every time I reread what I have, my inner critic turns on and I start feeling like maybe the idea of my story is not very good . . .” Her eyes grow wide — there’s moisture. Her voice drops.
“And then I start thinking about my dad . . .”
“The retired engineer?” I ask.
“Uh-huh. I think about how five years ago he wrote this novel, a mystery novel, and the sad thing is . . .” The hands close into fists. “He never DID anything with it! Never sent it out to one publisher, to one agent!” She refills her wine glass, shrugs, her tone turning casual. “Sure, the book had problems. It was 500 pages, some of the sections rambled, he hadn’t really bothered to edit it . . .” The keening timbre returns. “But to just LEAVE it! To just never follow UP, never DO anything!
“Do you see?” she agonizes. “Because of the WEIGHT of all this, I find it hard to give myself . . . Permission To Write.”
I ponder her situation. The unexplained 20-year break from writing, the hatred of solitude, the chronic revulsion felt when rereading her own pieces.
“There is another possibility,” I say.
“Yes?” she leans in.
“Maybe you’re JUST . . . NOT . . . A WRITER.”
That’s right — I said it to her, and I say it now to you . . . lounging as you are in Starbucks, Learning Annex catalogs fanned out in front of you, dreamily reading author essays ABOUT writing when you could be at home, reading our books! (Preferably in hardback. If those were still in print. Which they’re not. Thanks to you.) What this essay is, in short, is a long-overdue INTERVENTION . . .
Oh come on now! Come back here. Come back. There is a lot of love here, a lot of love, TOUGH love . . . and YOU’RE GOING TO ENJOY IT! That’s right. I’m going to SPANK you in this essay, and then I’m going to rub the red spot with my open palm . . .
Which is what we crave, don’t we? That’s why we are all so addicted, first of all — not to writing, but to writing WORKSHOPS. I’m in sympathy because I’m an addict myself. Barely reformed. In fact, it’s all I can do not to just RUN OFF AND JOIN ONE RIGHT NOW! Ohhhh yes. Just thinking about cracking open a Brand New Writing Workshop brings a sharp little pang . . .
The moment the Famous Writer sweeps into that classroom that very first day! The Famous Writer, typically a fabulously shattered-looking person in his late 50s — shattered and yet surprisingly . . . LEAN and LITHE (yoga?) in his boot-cut jeans and Navajo vest, crowned with silver-shot, yet leonine, hair.
The blue-and-white Kinko’s bag . . . the crisp cut of pages . . . the circle of pale faces . . . and your first critique! Which is absolutely terrible. The teacher (in little round John Lennon glasses today), as calm and unforgiving as a sheer rock cliff, seems to SEE RIGHT THROUGH YOU. “Sandra,” he announces, in front of the whole room. “You write facilely, and quickly, but without really THINKING. It’s like you’re AFRAID, AFRAID to go deeper. You might want to think about what makes you so AFRAID . . . to show up . . . on the page.”
Now comes the biting of the lip, stiff haughty exodus to the bathroom, collapse onto the floor, sickening whirl of white tile, etc., etc., blah blah blah, four weeks later, new pages, delved deeper, hugs/ relief/tears/laughter/cappuccinos. Eddying up from the debris that night is a knot of feisty, like-minded “You go, girl!” sisters (and one guy, a lawyer, Doug) — fabulous, empathic people you want to stay in touch with forever, in fact, here’s an idea: “Let’s start our OWN writers’ group!” Hosting the first meeting, Doug leads a walk-through of his million-dollar home in the Palisades, points out the guest cottage he’s remodeling so he can finally have A Quiet Place To Write.
The guest cottage, which has . . .
Skylights. Exposed beams. Mexican paver tile. Views of the Pacific. And is that even . . . a small fireplace? Doug gets to write in front of a fireplace? The rest of you are instantly stricken, try not to show it. When Doug goes on, says his dream is to “take a year off and Write a Novel,” it sounds like he’s going to visit some wonderful spa . . . like he’ll have all the pleasure of curling up before a fire and READING a novel, except that now he’ll get the added bonus of fame.
“I’m just so sick of all the bullshit at the office!” Doug exclaims. “The politics, the dishonesty, the sheer drudgery of doing the same thing over and over again . . .”
Of course, as he’d find out — were he to put the years in — that’s exactly what being a Writer is like.
Okay? Here comes the Tough Love. Bend over.
Take everything horrible about your day job — the repugnantly selfish co-workers (your writers’ group), hostile vendors (aloof publishers, agents), kidney-squeezing boredom in the continual pointless loop, even the manning of a booth for your product at a conference in the fluorescently lit Anaheim Convention Center to which, humiliatingly, no one comes. Multiply by 10 and imagine doing that for decades, with no health insurance and less-than-minimum-wage pay. Voilà: Life of the Writer.
Put another way: If “showing up on the page” is so healing, why have so many of our greatest writers been fall-down-drunk alcoholics?
Perhaps it’s because no one’s buying their books.
And now you see the unfolding of my deeper message, my spiritual call to arms. To be blunt, here are the top three global resources getting scarcer as we approach the year 2000:
People Eager to Read the Fiction of Others
That’s right. For the first time in, I believe, written history, there are far more fiction WRITERS on Earth than fiction READERS. How did we get here? Take the self-help movement — which says we should all tell our stories, whether we’re “writers” or not. Add the plunging price of computers — which enable us to print 20 copies of said story and, via yon whining snowmobile of the Writer’s Market, plow these manuscripts onto the fragile ecosystem of the world’s nonprofit literary magazines, magazines we’ve never bought nor seen, nor do we plan to.
Indeed, the problem’s so bad, literary magazines have developed form letters they send back to would-be authors in vain attempts to get them to actually READ the publication. The Cimmaron Review: “If just one out of six people submitting stories to our magazine bought just one annual subscription, we could afford to stay in print!” Gordon Lish: “Save yourself the postage, save yourself the bother, save yourself the wasted time and the wasted hope — by first earning an APPROXIMATE notion of the manner of attitude underlying the prose and poetry constituting an issue of The Quarterly.”
It’s why yon PEN/Faulkner Award–winner (boot-cut jeans, leonine hair) is hard-pressed to find 50 people who’ll pay $25 for his new hardback. However, he has no trouble finding 100 people who’ll pay $400 to learn to write . . . FICTION! Which no one will read. Except maybe the students they then take on. See? It’s a pyramid scheme!
In short, there is a serious Attention Span problem in this country, and if you must write — and I respect that — please write RESPONSIBLY. Consider the fragility of our biosphere. Let’s borrow a page from that nasty Gordon Lish. For every 20 manuscripts you send out ($5 in first-class postage there/back x 20 = $100), you should buy five literary magazines ($5 x 5 = $25). For every writing workshop you take ($400), you should buy four (literary, a.k.a.: NONSELF-HELP) books ($100). Before taking that year off and writing a novel, ask yourself, “When’s the last time I sat down and READ one?”
Be very Native American in your thinking. Take only the Self-Expression you need. Give back where you can.
On the other hand, if you’re the sort of person who, after a long day at work, would rather kick back and watch Biography, WATCH it. Enjoy it. Don’t feel guilty. By not writing:
You’re not perpetrating a legacy of silence in your family . . .
You’re not stifling your inner child . . .
You’re not being commitmentphobic . . .
You’re just YOU . . . a person who doesn’t really enjoy writing. And that’s beautiful.
Sandra Tsing Loh is the author of a novel, If You Lived Here, You’d Be Home by Now, and a collection of essays, Depth Takes a Holiday.