Learning To Swim

“Beginnings are hard. Endings are harder. And middles are a pain in the ass, too.” – Andre Dubus III

My writer friends and I always talk about writing as a long con, the kind that takes years and years and layer upon layer of deception and lies. At the heart of it, though, is an elemental and essential truth: the writing. Doing the writing, sitting in the chair and grinding it out—whatever ‘it’ might be—is the thing that you have to be honest about no matter how many tricks you try to pull.

I just got back to New York from a month in Florida, the truest home in my vagabond life. The last week of that month I was in St. Petersburg at the Writers In Paradise Writing Conference at Eckerd College, where I was so grateful to have received one of the Sterling Watson MFA Fellowships. Eckerd, to paraphrase Shakespeare, might be a small liberal arts college, but it has a fierce literary tradition.

My workshop piece at Eckerd was a project that, for me, was the equivalent of that run down bungalow at the end of the block—it had good bones, but was it worth saving? Would putting in dozens of hours of effort make any difference? Would it still be the dumpiest house on the street? It was my literary Love It or List It moment.

(For fans of HGTV’s formulaic import from Canada, you don’t have to wait until have the final commercial break; I’ll spill the beans right now. I decided to love it. Be Advised: This love will involve lots of swearing, gnashing of teeth, and staring at the screen wondering who on earth could ever think that was good writing.)

via BuzzFeed

via BuzzFeed

Campbell McGrath, my new favorite poet, had this to say during one of his lectures: “You don’t know you can do it until you fail.” Dennis Lehane said, “When you’re beating yourself up, try to remember that this is an exceptionally hard thing to do.”

The best piece of wisdom on this topic came from my teacher, the amazing Les Standiford: “When you’re learning to swim, you get water up your nose.”

So I’m back at my computer. I’m reading as much as I can and writing as much as I can and reading and writing and listening to the feedback from my peers and hearing the echoes of great writers in my head.

I’m all in with this long con.

And I’ve got a lot of water up my nose.

Listening to Silent Bob

The things that made me want to write and made me believe I had stories to tell are not things that get a lot of respect in the literary world or make me cool.

Here, in no particular order, are some of those things:

I'm not even supposed to be here today.

I’m not even supposed to be here today.

  • Kevin Smith’s movies Clerks and Mallrats.
  • The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and all related texts by Douglas Adams.
  • Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding.
  • Fargo Rock City by Chuck Klosterman.
  • The television shows Burn Notice and Arrested Development.

 

Several years ago, my friends and I got tickets to a Q&A with Kevin Smith at the Merriam Theater. There were expletive-soaked stories and lurid and graphic tales of sexual proclivities. Anyone who knows who Kevin Smith is would expect nothing less. What I didn’t expect was that some random dude would ask a question that would literally alter the course of my entire life.

Random dude: I want to be a writer, but I don’t know how to get started.

Smith: If you write, you’re a writer.

That’s it. It’s just that simple.

IMG_1674

I took this picture!

I have written about this before. I have talked about how that one simple answer lodged in my brain like the ear worm from Star Trek II:The Wrath of Khan. It whispered to me in my waking hours and screamed at me in the middle of the night when I tossed and turned and fretted and worried that I had missed my opportunity to do the thing with my life that really meant something to me. Somewhere along the line I had gotten the idea that my ideas weren’t serious enough or the things that inspired me weren’t important enough.

But I could write. I could be someone who writes.

So, let’s just say, when Silent Bob speaks, it behooves me to listen.

Today, I saw Kevin Smith again. The idea was that he and Jason Mewes (aka Jay and Silent Bob) would talk about their new book Jay & Silent Bob’s Blueprints for Destroying Everything at The Reading Room in Bryant Park. But Mewes is sick and didn’t make the trip from California. So what happened was another Q&A with Smith. But instead of a crowded theater in Philadelphia, this one took place in a leafy corner of the park in the shadow of the New York Public Library building—the one that I can never look at without thinking about Ghostbusters.

For an hour and a half, Smith took questions about his show Comic Book Men on AMC, Clerks, Dogma, Batman, Ben Affleck, and Ben Affleck as Batman. As he had in Philadelphia, he talked a lot about creativity and self-expression. He is a strong proponent of the podcast as a medium and as a way to capture the stories and moments with the important people in your life. “Everyone has a story to tell,” he said. “Just because you’re some random dude in New Jersey doesn’t mean you don’t have something to say.”

Since I saw Kevin Smith the last time, I have gotten an MFA in Creative Writing & Writing for the Performing Arts. I have a couple of published credits to my name and I’m working on a couple more. None of that is easy. There are lots of roadblocks and lots of gatekeepers. Smith talked about that today, too. “Don’t wait for someone to tell you what success is,” he said. If you feel good about what you’re doing–“if your side of the street is clean”–then keep going. Try. Just give it a shot. “You don’t have to wait to be invited into something awesome.”

Sometimes, you are lucky enough to come across the thing you need right when you need it. For me, the inspirational lightning has struck twice in the form of a guy from Jersey with a foul mouth and jorts.

L-1096-2T

Thank you, Out of Print Clothing.

So, I write. I am a writer. And I’m going to keep on writing.

And I’ll wear this Hitchhiker’s Guide t-shirt while I’m doing it.

 

 

 

 

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.