Tropical Wisdom

palm treesI have shoveled the driveway five times in the past seven days. This morning was number five. Another round of ‘wintry mix’ is headed this way for Wednesday into Thursday. That will be six or seven or maybe even eight. Somewhere between the mailbox and the front door, it occurred to me that it has been exactly a month since I was in Key West complaining about how loud the air conditioner was at night and wondering why I had only packed one pair of shorts.

The Key West Literary Seminar is what took me to The End. I have put off writing about my adventure down the Overseas Highway it in part because I wanted to keep it to myself–the deep, dark secret handshake of the San Carlos Institute on Duval. But today, while I swore oaths at the snow gods and shoveled and swore and shoveled and swore some more, I decided to share some of the tropical and topical wisdom I gained during my time in the Conch Republic.

Good writing is the result of the hard work of writing. A lot.

Scott Turow addressed this issue head-on. He was talking about ‘the writing life’ and the people who spend more time talking about writing and drinking coffee or whiskey with other people who like to talk about writing more than doing much actual writing. “If you write,” he said. “You are a writer. If you don’t, you’re not.” Hanging out at Grumpy’s in Brooklyn or a Starbucks in Santa Monica with a latte and a laptop doesn’t  make you a writer. Words on the page. Day after day. That’s what it takes.

Earth shattering? No. Comforting? Oddly, yes. Hard work I can do, even if it doesn’t always pay off.

Not thinking you are good enough is the only thing that makes you better.

I’m paraphrasing Carl Hiaasen here. As someone who aspires to write funny, satirical fiction it means a lot when someone you admire openly admits to fears and insecurities. Camille Paglia said something once about no great art coming from people with high self-esteem. And knowing that Hiaasen worries that people won’t find the humor in his writing, it gives mere mortals like me hope.

High school is a noir thriller. Law school is mean on purpose. And just living to tell the tale can help your fiction.

Megan Abbott asked, “What is more noir than high school?” It is the time when you are the most curious about the world and your place in it and when your illusions start to be shattered.

Law school, Turow said, is a challenge to the identity of the students. You find that your very identity is transformed, often “without your consent.”

I made it through both, admittedly more scathed than unscathed, but, as Stephen L. Carter explained, it makes me question things and ask, what if? What if that one fact was changed? What if that character made a different decision? What if the story was told from someone else’s point of view?

Finally, this:

“Nobody starts out smart. That’s why we read books.” — James W. Hall

Is Crazy Contagious?

coffee cupsWhen you quit your full-time, benefits paying job and tell people that you want to be a writer they, understandably, look at you like you’re crazy. Which is okay, because you are crazy. All good logic dictates that this is would be classified as a bad idea. Or, at the very least, not very smart. Then when you decide to go to back to school and get a writing degree the men in white jackets really start to circle. In two easy steps you have gone from a person who receives money on a regular basis to a person who pays money on a regular basis. Again, on paper, not very smart.

But paper is exactly where the alchemy starts to happen. I started writing—on purpose, with a purpose—and reading, and talking about reading and writing critically with my professors and classmates. I was spinning my own intellectual gold. And no, I can’t write a check with that gold just yet, but I have a real shot of doing something that makes me profoundly happy.

That sounds incredibly hokey, even to me, and I’m a person who cries at TV commercials. But in addition to the work I am doing, I’ve met some truly amazing people, who, like me, are doing this crazy thing that makes no sense. One friend in particular had a story like mine. She was working at a good job making good money with a 401(k) plan and medical insurance. And she quit. Just like me.

“I just didn’t want to do it anymore,” she said when we first discovered our shared insanity.  “I needed to make a clean break from my old life to my new one.”

Exactly.

IMG_7681Recently, she and I visited Sunnyside, Washington Irving’s home in the Hudson Valley. Irving built his charming little cottage on the banks of the Hudson just north of New York City at a time when he was one of the most famous men in America. The tour guide, a historical interpreter in period dress, explained that strangers would walk the wooded path and knock on his door uninvited.

Sunnyside

“I guess they hoped some of the genius would rub off on them,” she said. She laughed. My friend and I joined in, but only as polite cover because we didn’t want to be found out.

“Our Washington Irving,” she said, always referring to him as ‘our’ Washington Irving, “…was the first American to earn his living solely from writing.” The guide explained that he had tried his hand first at the family business and then as a lawyer. But neither really stuck.

My friend and I exchanged glances again. Her eyes got wide and I caught a glimpse of a recognizable spark. I knew we were thinking the same thing. No, not that either of us would be the next Washington Irving, but that sometimes going all in does pay off. Even Irving had to be brave—or crazy—enough to try.

Inside Sunnyside, in the room with Irving’s desk and built-in napping spot, the guides tell the story of Washington Irving and a famous letter he sent to Edgar Allen Poe. Poe, as the fable goes, was struggling to find anyone to publish his stories. He sent them to the famous man of American letters for feedback. Irving replied with an encouraging letter urging Poe to not give up and to keep writing. And, as every 8th Grade English student knows, Poe did.

The postscript to the story is that later someone asked Irving about what he saw in Poe.  He replied something like this: “The stories were strange and I’m not sure I understood them, but I never want to discourage anyone from writing.”

I, like our friendly guide in her enormous hoop skirt, am paraphrasing, but the sentiment remains the same. Irving knew this writing thing is a crazy business. He also knew that sometimes all it takes to keep going is a kindred spirit to smile in your direction. In my case, I not only have some amazing new writer friends, I also have an incredibly supportive family and my old, dear friends who probably knew all along I would do something like this.

Sure, we’re crazy. Sure, it might blow up in our faces. But I don’t think so. One of my oldest friends, who was with us for the tour at Sunnyside, took our picture by Irving’s gazebo. “It’s the two writers!” she said when we looked back at the digital images from that day. When I look at the picture I do see writers, but I also see alchemists, mad scientists, and yes, strangers knocking on Irving’s door hoping some of the genius rubs off.