A writer is told by pretty much everybody that a writer is only a writer if that writer writes. And if you read those so-called “craft” books, a writer can only be a writer if that writer writes at least two hours per day. More is encouraged. Less is, well, fine, if you want to [audibly scoff] write fan fiction. Pick up any copy of Poets & Writers or Writer’s Digest and you’ll find advice like this. It might be cloaked in encouraging exclamation points but, in the end, every piece of writerly encouragement boils down to this: Just sit down and write.
The voice of the nagging compendium of writer’s advice looks at me like this when I’m not writing. She looks innocent, but she’s got angry opinions.
So, thusly, I am not a writer.
I cannot sit down to write 2 hours most days. I cannot, with certainly, count on anything beyond 30 minutes each day. And even then those 30 minutes are the foggy, dreary-eyed minutes after midnight when birthing words seems as impossible as birthing a baby through my eye’s lacrimal ducts. Some days I don’t even have time to register the guilt that comes along with being a writer that doesn’t write.
Imagine the pain.
At this point in my life I’ve typed many many volumes and hopefully have many meaningful volumes left. I’ve had some minor screenwriting success. I’ve written hundreds of movie and music reviews for various publications and been offered invaluable opportunities as a result. I’ve interviewed Tom Hanks and John Travolta. I was close enough to Paul Newman that I could smell his cologne. I’ve been through an MFA program. I’ve been published in literary magazines and tech magazines both online and off.
But apparently I’m not a writer. I’m just a guy typing a lot of disparate words.
I’ve spent 16 years of my life typing these words. Not all in fiction, though. Fiction has only been a more recent development. And it’s only been within the last couple of years that I could admit to anyone that I was a writer, even if I don’t wholeheartedly believe it — what with that burdensome guilt resulting from not writing all the time.
Sam Raimi beat me to it.
My “career” began with movie reviews and entertainment journalism before moving into screenplays and copywriting. Back then, I might have been more of a “writer” though. I hauled my 47 lb. Dell laptop/boat anchor to Caribou Coffee and sat for hours on end, just working and writing and drinking massive amounts of coffee. That right there was the sweet life. Unlimited time, unlimited potential… but only limited talent. It takes years to learn how to write and write well. And though my fledgling confidence soared, I was only a student with big dreams of writing a low-budget indie horror movie that spanned genres, gained some notoriety at film festivals before being picked up by a major studio and given a limited release… and ultimately selling big as a DVD.
I keep going back to this oft suggested 2-hour rule for writers. Quite honestly, it is a source of despair and envy and frustration. If I compiled a list of all the things I need to do each day I’m pretty sure I’d need a 48-hour day. Being a part-time stay-at-home father of two girls (one is 3 and the other is 6 months) more than half my day is already spoken for. I wake at 7:15am. I generally don’t get to sniff freedom until 8:00pm in the evening. By that time, I have two-hours of clear-minded time available for productivity. But that time is split fourteen different ways. Picking up the house (half-assedly), dishes, fleeting moments of face-time with the wife, working out, taking care of leftover tasks for my day job… yada yada yada… it’s 11:00pm and I didn’t even yada yada the best part. I haven’t even opened my laptop. Maybe I “wasted” twenty minutes during that time to relax — gawd forbid — play a video game or watch a sitcom on the DVR.
Meanwhile this nagging voice in the back of my head keeps whispering:…writers make time to write…
I have a response to this voice of collective holier-than-thou literary smugness.
“I can’t make time, cocksuckers. I can’t fabricate more time or patience out of thin air. I have to do the best with the 24 hours given to me each day.” And while I’m not always the most skinflint of time conservationists, I try. And often I fail. And those days are riddled with guilt. Sometimes I give up too easily. But when I give up on a day it’s often because I hear that voice, nagging, ever-present in the back of my mind….writers make time to write… …a writer writes… That voice does not often inspire me. It has been repeated and reinterpreted to the point of meaninglessness. I feel like a child that’s been spanked too much. I feel so much guilt from thinking these things while I struggle to find time to write that the guilt means nothing. It doesn’t inspire me. It often just leads to anxiety and sometimes, as it has in the past, depression. And ultimately more non-writing.
It is true beyond a reasonable doubt that writers must write. But like the end of Voltaire’s Candide, a writer (or really any slave to the creative drive), must also first tend to his garden, guilt-free, in order to create without baggage. When I am immune to the guilt, I am a writer. I scribble notes in my journals and on napkins and receipts in my wallet. My mind is always working and plotting ideas and fixes for broken stories. I’ll put all of those notes aside to tackle whenever it is I’ll next have 30 minutes or 2 hours of rare undivided, uninterrupted, unshackled writing time. But rest assured when I have the time, I’ll be a goddamn writer whether that voice approves of me or not.
So I have this story of mine called “Shoot Like You’re Awesome.” The story concerns a cog in the roshambo (read: Rock, Paper, Scissors not Eric Cartman’s version) tournament circuit. I wrote it as part of my MFA thesis in 2007. It’s always been, in my mind, the best story I’ve ever written. Nevertheless, this story has garnered 50+ rejections.
One kind rejection a few months ago, one of those “I loved it but…” rejections, mentioned a flaw in the story that caused something to click in my head. The editor of the rejecting lit mag suggested that though she loved the story’s humor and the depiction of the main character’s eccentricities and single-minded obsession, the ending failed to deliver a punch worthy of the rest of the story. I’d always been reluctant to change the ending. The story is analogous to my own experiences as a writer: struggling to place my own work in literary journals, disappointment, unjustified rejection. I wanted the main character (Westinghouse) to lose and then soldier on, silently, resolute and without emotion. As writers, we’re trained by seemingly endless failure that we can’t get too high or too low… that we just… keep… writing. And for a long time this is how I felt. Resolute. Confident. Every so six months, I contemplate giving up writing altogether but after a few days of inactivity I’m drawn back to the blank page. There’s just too much going on in my brain to walk away. Writing is a disease I endure, for the most part, willingly.
After receiving the aforementioned rejection and another half dozen or so in close proximity, I forced myself to pause and consider that this story I loved so much might need to be retired, for good, and never thought of again. But I couldn’t do it. Not yet. I decided to give it one more edit, one more last ditch effort to save “Shoot Like You’re Awesome.” I considered all angles. And the more I hemmed and hawed the more angry I got about my experience trying to find this story a home. The culmination of this rage resulted in this post back on March 14th: Putting Fun Back in Short Fiction? In summary, I lamented the boilerplate-loving nature of many of the major lit mags who refuse to give off-beat, humorous fiction an audience.
Vader chokes the bitch that steps out of line.
The click came when I embraced this anger and gave myself an outlet for my frustration. The grind of submitting work to literary magazines wasn’t about “enduring.” It was about fighting. It was about raging, but ultimately continuing the grind after coming back down to Earth. Even Steven wasn’t the answer. So instead of the story ending with reluctant, silent hope, I harnessed my more honest recalcitrance so that Westinghouse might rebel, if only briefly, in a fleeting moment of weakness. And there it was. Weakness. I had thought Westinghouse’s weakness had been his single-minded obsession that lead to social and emotional inadequacy. It turned out, his obsessions, like my own pursuit of writing, had been his strength. It could be a tantrum in the wake of failure that would make him human. With this in mind, I re-edited for the billionth time, but instead of cutting (as per every other suggestion) I added three full pages to the short story, pushed the word count over 3500 and slowed down the ending to give Westinghouse a chance to lash out, somewhat irrationally. After the new edit, I sent another round of submissions and went about working on other projects. Hope had been restored, at least until I started receiving those brand new rejections for a story I felt had become stronger than ever.
Late last night, after an epic four hours of watching the highly entertaining The Hatfields & McCoys (coincidentally, a story all about irrational rage), I checked my email before going to bed and received that long awaited acceptance for “Shoot Like You’re Awesome” from the literary magazine P.Q. Leer. Visit their site. Feed them some traffic. I really dig their style and sense of humor. That they had enough sense to publish my favorite story is just extra sauce.
Writers, if you love a story that no one else loves, stick with it. Listen to the criticism but don’t necessarily take it to heart. If you really love a story, there shouldn’t be a such thing as a last chance. Also, Star Wars wisdom aside, maybe sometimes it’s better to give in to your hate, if only just a little while. Also, at some point, make some time to watch Kevin Costner, Tom Berenger and Bill Paxton go all dueling hillbillies against each other.
I’m not going to rage too much about this whole fiction snub for the Pulitzers… enough of that has been done, more earnestly, on Twitter and the Interwebs. But in case you hadn’t heard, the Pulitzer committee deemed no book of fiction worthy of the grand prize. Why? Because one book must win a majority of the vote. Which means that this could have been the best year for fiction in the history of the world but because the committee couldn’t largely agree on which earth-shattering tome belonged at the top of the heap nobody gets a trophy, and everyone gets parting gifts. Thanks for playing, here’s an assortment of cheeses and a cheap Bordeaux that may or may not taste like feet. Michael Cunningham and critics Maureen Corrigan and Susan Larson, the three-person fiction jury delivered the committee 3 books, down from the original 341 and that 18-person committee shat the bed. No 10,000 prize. No spotlight on excellence. No furthering the sales or expanding the readership of great literature. Instead we have this:
Fiction: no winner
The three snubbed nominees were Train Dreams by Denis Johnson, Swamplandia! by Karen Russell and The Pale King by the late, great David Foster Wallace. That’s right… one of the authors is farkin’ deceased and even that–even the thought of a final reward to one of the great writers and thinkers of the last metric crap ton of years–couldn’t push that 18-person committee to a final conclusion. I think I speak for every writer, of any genre, when I say “FIX IT.”
In the meantime, Pulitzer VIPs, while you’re off fixing a broken system that has done exactly the opposite of its intent, I will suggest a few ways by which you can settle these disputes in the future. I’m not merely going to point fingers. I’m a problem solver.
1. The Pulitzer Games.
You’re readers, right? I do have to clarify these days. Even if you’ve not read the Hunger Games, you’re knowledgeable of the premise. Drop your finalists into a North Carolina woods with their choice of analog weapon (bow and arrow, mace, whip, blow darts laced with frog poison, a boombox fueled by the collective works of Nickelback) and let them have at it. Televise it. Of course, since DFW can’t make it, that leaves two. Even better for you. Fewer paperwork, logistics, etc.
Edge: Karen Russell. She’s sprier by three decades, kinda sorta looks like a brainy version of Katniss and based on her book, figures to handle herself in a swamp, i.e. adverse conditions, with aplomb.
Karen Russell wrestles gators for fun.
2. Today Show Cage Match
The ultimate in Today Show gimmick events. They’ve done weddings and weather. Now they can do hyper-educated MMA. In a dome-like cage. Lauer announces. Microphone drops from the ceiling of the studio. Ann Curry’s the ring girl in a sequined bikini and Roker referees (and he no longer requires vertical stripes!). I’m not necessarily suggesting Beyond Thunderdome rules. We’ll allow tapouts. But if you’re a young writer, do you give up on your wildest hopes and dreams just because of a few broken bones? Dizziness? Decaying consciousness? Hell no.
Edge: Denis Johnson. He’s never struck me as a dude that you wanted to corner. Quite frankly I’d be intimidated by sitting in a seat behind him on an airplane. WHATEVER YOU DO, DON’T KICK THE SEAT! He’s got those crazy eyes. Dude’s seen some things… I know. I’ve read Jesus’ Son.
Denis "Crazy Eyes" Johnson.
3. Fiction Slamline
Can you imagine hologram DFW in one of those uniforms?
Sort of like a hybrid between Drumline, Step Up 3D and a Poetry Slam. Each author would take turns reciting passages from their fiction. No cheat sheets allowed, call and response style. One steps up, then the next, then the next. Meanwhile the crowd gets rowdy, fists pump, witty barbs are tossed about like popcorn. “Johnson writes in decidedly primitive stages of reflection!” or “She is the pimple of the age’s humbug!” The judges start nodding their head in appreciation and awe. DFW could attend in the form of a hologram. If Tupac can do it, so can David Foster Wallace.
Edge: Hologram David Foster Wallace. Brainy, dramatic and doo-ragged take this one, even from beyond the grave. His delivery might be a little wooden, but nobody could out-think DFW, even as a digital projection imitating life… in 3-D.
David Foster Wallace. The headband plays. Even in 3D.
Let’s see. Final tally…. that’s one win for each of them. Shit. Oh well. I guess the Pulitzer committee got it right after all. And to think I just wasted everyone’s time with a trifle of an argument that amounted to nothing. There’s just no reasonable way to decide these writers’ fate. No way, indeed.
I haven’t lost my sh!t about this particular topic in a few years, but like the hook from “Holding Out for a Hero,” it’s always there, lurking in the back of my mind, ready to cloud all conscious activity until I spin Side A of the Footloose soundtrack for three straight hours. At which point I will either eradicate Bonnie Tyler from my mind or pass out from Kenny Loggins overload. (Which could never happen. Not really.) My beef has nothing to do with music so permit me to rampage about my life of writing for a few paragraphs. I do hope you are sufficiently entertained by rage-fueled hyperbole. I speak today of literary narrow-mindedness.
I don’t mean to trod on the coattails of the magnificent 1948 Judy Garland/Lena Horne/Gene Kelly/June Allyson/Mickey Rooney flick but sometimes there’s no other way around it. Truth be told, I’ve never seen this movie and I’m just ripping off the title for a rumination on the relationship between writing and music. But seeing as how I’m providing more press for this movie than it’s received in fifty years, I feel I’m paying my royalties.
The interwebs have been abuzz (in certain circles – not the normal world, of course, since everyone else is busy discussing important things like maybe Occupy Wall St.) with furor over MFA rankings published in the Sept/Oct issue of Poets & Writers. After all, bloggers are generally writers and because we’re writers we have things to say about everything. Of course the masses would take arms against their supposed oppressors. As an MFA graduate myself, I’d been non-stop furious for weeks now. Okay, actually I’ve been entirely disinterested in the rankings. Nothing more than noise. Poets & Writers had decided to fill a void of information. MFA programs flourish in my mind due to two factors: reputation and location. I wanted to go to school in Maine so I did. If P&W wanted to attempt to make something official so be it. Was my school even ranked? I don’t remember. I checked the list out of mild curiosity before placing that issue along with my other writing mags in the basket next to the toilet. I’ve not been ignorant of the rumblings but they haven’t interested me. Until I stumbled across a blog post by the managing editor of the Missouri Review.
I will save this picture on the off chance that one day I can build my DREAM house and find this architect and this decorator and tell them to make me a dining room like this. I think it's one of the first formal dining rooms I've ever really liked.