There’s one guy who frequents this Starbucks more than I do [and I’m the Mayor, son. Foursquare official]. Our paths rarely cross since I like to post up on the first floor at a table where I can space out watching the traffic and he likes to clickety-clack with his laptop on his knees. I know he’s working on some sort of book because the manager here is extremely friendly in an obnoxiously loud and overfamiliar way, meaning he wanders through the cafe asking everyone what they’re reading/working on/studying for [the surliness that typically oozes form my pores being the only thing that keeps him from talking to me. It’s a gift].
The author is an Eastern Religions type; I can hear the sitar music blasting from his earbuds, his pants are made of hemp, his ponytail has that telltale vegan frizz. From what I’ve overheard from his conversations with the manager, his project is a self-help type of book on finding meaning in your life.
“So do you have a publisher? Where can I read it?” the manager asks in that booming voice of his that seems incapable of modulating its volume.
The author reties his ponytail. “Well, initially the first few chapters will be published online…”
It’s like I can hear the air get sucked out of their conversation.
At the Starbucks again, a pair in their early twenties come in, weathered Moleskines in hand. They post up at the table in front of me, scribbling away, reading their lines back to each other. The hope in their faces, the affirmation they’re giving each other, only reminds me of just how hopeless this all is.
Writing is possibly the most sinister endeavour you can try, because it’s so easy to fool yourself in to thinking you’re more skilled than you are. If you can’t skate, you’ll never develop delusions of being a professional hockey player. If you can’t hit a lay-up, you can’t trick anyone into thinking your future lies in the NBA.
But art, ohhh, art. Art is something different. If we make art, we can always comfort ourselves with the public’s misunderstanding as the reasoning for our own failures. If we’re not recognized as the visionaries we are, it’s never because we suck, it’s because other people didn’t get it.
What that couple at the table next to me didn’t know yet is that we are a dime a dozen. There are millions of us, we are crabs in a bucket and hell yes we will claw each other down the side in our own feeble attempts to make our way out. And I’m not trying to suggest I’m better off than them for knowing this. I would trade places with them if I could.
Once when I was back at the office, a woman I knew from the floor but not well mused how great it would be if we did something for National Novel Writing Month. “We could be like, your NaNo headquarters, and we could showcase all the novels that started as NaNos!” she said.
“All…two…of them,” I muttered, before announcing I couldn’t stay in the conversation anymore and had to leave.
“But Trail,” my boss yelled over the cubicle wall as I grabbed my bag and jacket, “you’re a writer, aren’t you?”
I shuddered as I hung over the side of the partition between our workspaces. “I don’t…I don’t really like to label like that,” I said. My boss looked bemused and puzzled.
“What does that mean?”
“I just…I haven’t earned it. I don’t think I’ve earned it, so I don’t refer to myself like that. It’s always been that with me.”
“But you write?”
“But you’re not a writer?”
“What are you, then?”
“I’m a guy who writes.”
“Huh,” said my boss, smiling. I didn’t need to say anything else. He drew his conclusions.
I loathe writing prompts. Never used a single one. I find something fraudulent about them, but I imagine that’s just my stubborn refusal to let go of the notion of ‘authenticity.’ There’s far more people writing things they have no passion for than those who are, and really, that’s where the money is. So I can acknowledge it’s a good skill to develop, despite how much I hate the idea of like, ‘here’s a photo of a chair, write a 200 word scene about this chair.’
But there’s one book in all my reading about writing that actually impressed me, The 3 A.M. Epiphany. A collection of 201 prompts designed to help build up the old literary toolbox, they actually don’t move beyond the typical writing workshop fare [example: a 400 word story that takes place completely in the narrator’s ex-girlfriend’s closet].
A few weeks ago I found a copy of the book in a used bookstore. The price was a little steep for me [for someone who wants to get paid to write, I am laughably stingy about paying other authors for their work], but I started flipping through it to see if it was still as good as I remembered. As I did, I immediately noticed next to the number of each prompt, a red checkmark. The previous owner had been making his or her way through the prompts one at a time.
And there, at prompt #40, the checkmarks stopped completely. They didn’t pick up again after a few pages, they never returned. How utterly heartbreaking. I bought the book immediately.
What was it about creating a fictional character out of combining two people you know that seemed so insurmountable, Previous Owner of The 3 A.M. Epiphany? Did you discover you didn’t know two real people well enough to create fictional characters from them? Were you a fantasy fan/fic type who preferred idealized archetypes than characters rooted on the ground [I’m a hater, I admit it].
You started so strongly, Previous Owner. I’ve no doubt you ploughed through those first 39 entries with fervor and enthusiasm, and then collapsed on that tragic, Biblical number. Forty days and forty nights, forty attempts to connect with your creative muse. But you collapsed. You and I seem like very similar people, P.O.
I feel like I’ve been doing a lot of collapsing lately. Not too long ago I heard someone described as “not having much of an interior life,” the implication being when that person is lying quietly on the couch on a Saturday afternoon, novel resting on chest, he’s not thinking about his place in the world, the choices he’s made in his life, his regrets. If he’s thinking about anything, it’s usually along the lines of, “maybe I’ll make a roast for dinner tonight,” or “I should try retiling the bathroom.“
This is not a knock on people like this. People like this are usually the people who do things.
Conversely, I feel like I’m all interior life. Fun fact: I started this post on February 8th! And I’d been thinking about it for weeks before that. Because that’s what I do. I think, I muse, I consider. And I never do. And when I do act, it’s just like Previous Owner: a hot tsunami of activity that slowly trickles down into a drizzle of shit.
So what do these 1,200 words amount to, then? Does it mean I’m going to pick up where P.O. left off, start attempting the prompts and leaving the results on here? A nice idea to consider, and tempting in its way, but I know better than to make any sort of pledges in February.
I guess what it all means is realizing that even if I know writing, or attempting to write, or putting something out there via this site, writing is an addiction. Writing as crack rocks. And no matter how hopeless I think it is, no matter how pointless I might think my every endeavour is, I feel powerless to stop.
Admitting you have a problem is the first step to recovery.