Sunday, July 23, 2006

Is writing fun?

Ever? I mean do people have fun doing this? I'll admit to there being times when, ferinstance, I'll be in the shower and all of a sudden the perfect dialogue for a scene will bud in my head, and I stand there under the hot water zoning out till it seems to be, ya know, in full flower ... water dribbling down through my hair, fading the dye, pounding on my skull like it could actually knock the ideas loose. And twenty minutes later I'm wrapped in a robe with my hair sopping on my shoulders feeling like the computer should burst forth with booming chords of congratulations, because yes, hooray, I have done it, I have written The Perfect Scene and it pops and snaps with reality and familiarity and passion, and it's real, it's what I meant to say.

But then I back off from that, because "waiting for the muse" -- I mean, what else have I described? -- and waiting to be struck by the muse has nothing to do with my definition of being a writer, which is that writing is a job, it is a profession, and writers write, and even if it sucks and you feel like every word is being slowly hauled out of your guts on squeaky coal-mine train tracks, you are still Doing Your Job, following the next point in your outline, and unbeknownst to you, it may turn out that this plodding scene, on re-reading, is actually really good.

Here's why I create this snobbish distinction: Because I can't stand it when people act irresponsibly and then blame their artistic natures, as if good manners and great art are mutually exclusive. Pollack cheated on his wife and drank himself around a tree. Oh, but he made great canvases that ached with passion, so it's all right. It's not all right! You can't hurt people! You can ache with passion and still keep it in your fucking pants! When I've acted irresponsibly, it was because I was irresponsible, not because I'm a fucking writer. Those "guys who work in finance" are pricks too, and they don't make canvases that ache with anything, they make money. So? What's their excuse?

Here's what set me off tonight. I read my friend's new book, and it crackled with excitement. I could feel how much she loved writing it. She didn't have to tease out extra scenes to make it longer; hell, I had the feeling it was much longer, and she had to cut stuff. She inhabited her world in a way that I used to do and have not done in such a long time. My, that's a bit of truth-telling. It's a fact. I can barely remember what it felt like to write the best parts of my books, and even then, I had to be shoved back into my desk-chair by the encouraging words of my then-editor, who practically held my hand (a third hand, some invisible non-typing hand) the entire time.

What's wrong with me? Why do I fight writing on a good day, and utterly lose the ability to on a bad one? When I interviewed Eric Boghosian (do I sound likke Dick Cavett yet?), he said he had to "hate the book into existence." I knew exactly what he meant! And he's a good writer! So but... what is up with THAT?!

The easy answer is that like with any job, writing has good days and bad days. Ah, but I prefer to just assume I'm awful. That way I can keep myself away from the keyboard for one... more... day.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Vader Sessions

This is apropos of nothing, except that I have watched it about seven times, which means I've lost an hour of work time. But I truly think it is time well spent.

Monday, July 17, 2006

"Will there be snacks?"

Yesterday I heard A.M. Homes on the radio, talking about what it was like to accept a job working on The L Word rather than working from home, as she's done for even longer than I have. "I loved it," she said, "but I worried before I started there: Can I do a job? I have no skills. Will there be snacks? What if I get tired, will they let me lie down?"

My favorite job, the one I moon over endlessly with an ardor I don't even reserve for lost humans, did have snacks. And couches -- well-used ones. And the edge it had over freelance was that when I left, I was done -- no lying in bed, trying to ignore the siren call of my closed-but-blinking laptop.

Oh, for the halcyon days of Hearst. Oh, for a job like that now! The nineties are over. What will it be like if I get a job now? Is there an L Word for me? (Oh god, don't answer that -- I can think of all too many.)

Friday, July 07, 2006

Is this the secret to successful freelancing? I'LL JUST BET IT IS!

An editor who SRN (Shall Remain Nameless) was dishing to me about another freelancer. "She's not that good, but she gets tons of work, and I finally figured out why." Nu? "It's because she hands everything in three days early. Everything. Early."

Holy mother of mercy. Of course that's the secret. My entire career, I think I've stuck to, like, half a deadline. When I see the pink notation on my iCal that something is due today, that is my cue to start looking for experts. I see my deadlines as suggestions, silly ones. I've left more exasperated editors in my wake than James Frey. I've caused more tummyaches than green apples. I'm exaggerating, of course... a little.

Being early! I know bad writers who flourish because they're great self-marketers, but it never occurred to make myself the earlybird! That is effing genius!

In an effort to make my first deadline after this revelation, I included the due date in my article's filename. Where it stared me in the face the whole time I was working. SPLA-DAM. = I just handed it in on time. So. We'll see if that continues to work. If it does, I am going to be a LOT LESS POSTY in the very near future.

Sports writers have all the fun

God! Seriously! Whenever I read the sports pages or the official Mets web site, I think, "Jeez, I would love to be doing that, but I don't know a pick-and-roll from a hail-mary."

The Oscar Madisons of this world describe emotions, atmosphere, personalities. They rail against injustices. They develop themes that pop up throughout their articles, ending with a neat callback to the first graf. God! Sports writers do some fun writing.

I don't know, maybe the secret is to work for a daily paper where there just isn't time to scrutinize every word, or for hand-wringing over "hitting the right tone" or "voicing to our audience." You can't edit things to death when they're already halfway out the door -- or maybe this is just a romantic notion. I really have no idea, I've only worked in magazines.

I just would love to write like a sports writer, but about other stuff. Imagine? UCCCH, apparently I can't, as I just tried and the results are not, as they say, fit to print.

Hey, are you people as annoyed by I am by the popularity and endless emailability of that fricking Shamu story? What? Wasn't there a book about using dog-training principles in your relationships, like five years ago? Now she's going to get a book deal. I'm seven shades of green.

The not-nice part: "That's why I use it, too!"

Not so awesome was this one woman in the class who really sort of disproved all the encouraging stories I've been telling for the last few days. I know everyone has a good side or whatever, but this chick was just awful.

First of all, not that this matters, but she was morbidly obese. Her bulk was like a wall between her and the rest of the class; she would sit pushed back from the table, her notebooks and manuscripts fanned out around her, her face a mask of detached judgement, as if she was just waiting for the rest of us to say something that pissed her off.

Second, she was obsessed, I mean obsessed, with Irish culture. She was fully American and did not even have Irish heritage, but like a '70s-era hippie claiming to be emotionally half-Cherokee, she claimed Gaelic culture as her true heart's home. The thing was, she wasn't into, like, U2 and James Joyce and Dylan Thomas -- she was enamored with the kind of Irish trinkets you see going on sale at Hallmark stores in the week after St. Patrick's Day. She peppered her speech with references to "the blarney stone" and "Guinness." She named her cat Shamrock. Not Ceallach, not Meadhbh, not any other mysterious-sounding traditional Irish name -- SHAMROCK. Ach, begorrah, always after me lucky charms!

Third, and this is where it gets germane, her writing was Irish-themed, Dublin-based, yet weirdly absent of any actual Irish influence. The main character was a gal who worked in a factory and had lots of bad things happen to her. And lots of sexy things with long descriptions of slippery-this and firm-as-a-hurley-that. Worse, there were pages-long fantasies about delicate faeries, howling banshees, and fucking LEPRECHAUNS for god's sake. There was an Irish guy in the class -- by heritage, not by birth -- and he was all, "Have you ever been to Ireland?" and she was all "I took a tour once" and he was all "Cuz leprechauns don't really act that way in Irish folklore, that's kind of a Hollywood thing," and her face shut down even tighter.

Another night, she told us about her first unpublished novel, a searching, heartbreaking story about a poor boy's childhood of woeful misery that "got totally ruined when Frank McCourt's book came out and ripped off my whole story." "Uh ... wasn't his true, though?" the soap-opera writer asked. "Well, yeah," Shamrock allowed, and her face shut down again.

She hated criticism. When a classmate suggested she cut down the background detail of a minor character, she said, "But I put that in because someone in another class said I needed more background for him. Why did I bother?" The unexamined revision: plopping in prose because "I was just following orders"... good in a magazine article when your editor demands it, bad in fiction when your supreme editor should be your self.

Worst of all, though, for me anyway, was how much she hated her main character. "God, I keep rewriting this and making things happen to her, and she just won't stand up for herself," she complained. "I had someone beat her. I had someone rape her. I threw everything I had at her, and I could never get her to get angry and retaliate. She was such a wuss." WTF? How do you do that to a character? Just write her different! My god! It was like writing happens to the writer.

Writing is a JOB. You get the job done. You tell the story, it doesn't tell you. For God's sake, I thought, get a grip on your story!

So this is the thing: would Allan Ginsberg have encouraged Shamrock if she had approached him the way I did? Would it denigrate his encouragement of me if I found out he had? Are there people who should not be encouraged, or does Shamrock deserve the same ego-stroking as me? Is encouragement just one tool in the writer's toolbox?

Because I'm really awful. I don't want Shamrock to torture her characters or her classmates or her teachers. I don't want her doing what I do. I want her to stop. I want her to take up knitting. It stresses me out to think of all those words pouring out onto pages somewhere, piling up, half-cooked plots rubber-banded together in a box on a shelf surrounded by other boxes on a green-painted bookshelf in a rent-controlled one-bedroom in Gramercy Park. I want to scream at her, "YOU ARE NOT A WRITER! PLEASE STOP! YOU ARE USING UP ALL THE WORDS! AND FOR FUCK'S SAKE, CUT BACK ON THE CORNED-BEEF-AND-CABBAGE DINTY-MOORE STEW!!!"

Then again, I'm no Alan Ginsberg.

Turns out I'm not so nice (part 1)

Oh jeez. Meanwhile, after all these nice encouraging memories, I'm going to backslide into cynicism. I took a writing class a few years ago, a "finish-your-novel" workshop that I hoped would force me to do just that (and it did). The teacher told me to take something out of the novel, a major character thingee; she said it was a cheap gimmick and that I had enough meat in the story without it. "You used it to get you into the relationship between the girls, and now you can get rid of it in a revision."

It was a fine note, but I disagreed with it, as did the rest of the class -- seriously, they rounded me up after class to have drinks with them and demanded that I leave that little characterization in. It was so sweet. This one woman, who had written for soap operas for years and had also worked as a customer-service rep for a hair-color company with the lead singer for Living Colour -- told me a story about a boy who was a violin prodigy. He went to play in front of a maestro, who told him "you don't have it. You don't have the fire to be a professional violinist." The prodigy realized he would never be great and gave up violin and became a successful something-or-other and lived a mild but happy life.

Years later he came across the maestro again and asked, "How did you know I didn't have the fire?" The maestro said, "I didn't. I said that to everyone, figuring that if they really did have the fire, they'd take my criticism as a challenge to prove me wrong. By giving up, you proved me right."

Jeez! Okay! Anyway, the woman's point was, don't get sidelined by criticism. Take what you think you can work with and if something does not feel right, ignore it and do what your heart tells you. (My heart pretty much always tells me I suck, though, so I'm not sure that's the best advice for moi.) I remember her eyes widening as she told me to keep writing the way I wrote, that it was great, that it spoke to her, and that it was real. So that was pretty awesome.

The un-awesome part is getting too long, and I hate long blog posts, so stay tuned.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

More on this age-factor thing

Literally the nicest writer I ever met was Allan Ginsberg. He wins the Madfoot Award for Greatest Kindness by a Total Stranger with a Literary Pedigree. I was working a gross "special sales!" job at Houghton-Mifflin. It was an awful secretarial gig, and the atmosphere was utterly high-school. My boss was the worst combination of thinks-she's-cool and is-an-anal-retentive-nerd. In fact, she bore a certain resemblance to a certain Steve Carell character... but that's another histoire. Let's just say it was awful and soul-killing and I was young and lost and mourning the death of Kurt Cobain.

So I trudged out for lunch one day (I had to eat at 2 so I could cover the phones while the cool kids had their lunch) and plopped myself down at the counter of Zen Palate in Union Square. My eye was caught by a beautiful light-skinned black man dressed all in white fluttering around someone next to me at the counter, who turned out to be Allan Ginsberg. Right next to me! At the counter!! I sat there for as long as I could (I can be very blase when I need to be, NYC is bursting at the seams with celebrities of every stripe) but finally had to say something.

The gist was this: "I know you were considered awfully scary in the fifties, but to me you're more of a beloved uncle, because my parents have taken me to see you read since I was in diapers." Then I told him that when I was at Columbia, we read an account he wrote about being on LSD on the South Lawn and seeing a giant hand coming out of the sky to grab him, and then we used to lie on that lawn and try to invoke the hand (though I, for one, was too chicken to drop LSD). He got a huge kick out of that, laughed and said "You're kidding!" and I smiled and turned back to my fried wheat-gluten stew when he asked, "But what about you, my dear? What do you do?"

"Ach!" I waved my hand. "Nothing interesting." "No, no!" he insisted, bending forward slightly, not letting me turn away. "Tell me what you are up to." This was how my parents' friends would talk to me, the ones who'd known me forever and were genuinely interested in how I'd turn out. Was Ginsberg just acting the part of an interested party because it fulfilled some inner need for attention? Did he just love acolytes? Who cared! He made me feel like I had a voice again.

I blurted out that I had tried to be an actress and standuppy-person, that it was too hard, that I'd given up and taken desk jobs, that I hated the desk jobs, that I couldn't fit in, that I didn't know what I was going to do, that I was writing kids' books and thought I could do that but wasn't sure... He took my hand in between his two and shook his head and clucked his tongue and patted my hand (patted my hand!!) and said "My dear, do you know that I worked in advertising all through my twenties? I hated it! Do you know how old i was when Howl was published? Thirty! There's time. Relax, you'll find your way."

At that moment I would have laid down my life for that man. Honestly. You know how people talk about meeting Bill Clinton and feeling the charisma roll off of him like heat off a jet engine? It was like that, only I honestly think he got joy out of making me (and my ilk) feel encouraged. It is such a generous way to be. It is so easy to be snooty and derisive, but makes the world a much more loving place to be interested, open, and kind.

I know that sounds completely retarded coming out of my cynical mouth, but it's entirely possible I have a soft side.

Monday, July 03, 2006

I know this isn't exactly a revolutionary statement, but...

Frank McCourt is a really good writer. And the thing is, he didn't start his first book till he was like 100. That is such a fricking important lesson for writers who are being bullied by non-writers or asshole-writers for not publishing anything of note before the age of 18 or 24 or 30 or whatever the cutoff age might be at that moment. In college I was working on a piece of short fiction for my Mary Gordon class when a lanky crew cockswain peeked her head in the door to ask what I was doing. "Why are you wasting your time?" she asked, oblivious to the very existence of Emily Post or her ilk. "Every story's been written. You're just part of the endless rehash."

That was just irritating, but it was downright damaging when a guy who somehow wormed his way into boyfriend territory interrupted my description of a really good fiction writer with a question along the lines of "what have you written lately, anyway?" Actually, his statement was a lot meaner and a lot quieter, and I'm not going to bother mulling it over here, but the utter inanity of it is what interests me. Unlike sitcom acting, unlike being a shortstop, unlike teaching, unlike childbirth, unlike lead guitar, unlike almost any other job or vocation or art or creative activity, writing is something you can legitimately hope to excel at even as your skin grows liver spots.

I'm not sure if I'm allowed to quote at length in a blog -- I'll try to keep it to below 250 words, like they do at magazines -- but like McCourt's students at Stuyvesant, I have trouble keeping compositions to a minimum:

In the world of books I am a late bloomer, a johnny-come-lately, new kid on the block. M first book, Angela's Ashes, was published in 1996 when I was sixty-six, the second, 'Tis, in 1999 when I was sixty-nine. At that age it's a wonder I was able to lift the pen at all.

Oh, that wasn't so hard after all. McCourt makes everything easy: reading, quoting. Such a nice guy. Of course, every aged accountant with a Dell isn't going to have an Angela's Ashes in his soul, but it literally doesn't hurt anyone for him to hope he might.

In my case (wtf? it's MY blog! Let McCourt start his own frickin blog!), I've written a crapload of books, three of them even in my name. Despite the dismissive attitude of the William Morris agent who briefly inherited me when the one who'd signed me left to breed, I like my little paperbacks. I think they are better than that Traveling Pants book he held in such high regard. (I'm not even going to dignify that title by italicising it. I am rebellious and eloquent.) Two of these books are even dedicated to the asshole from 2 paragraphs ago (he didn't like how I phrased the first one). So I have no worries that I'll hunker down and type out some brilliance relatively soon.

Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow. But shoon, and for the resht of my life.