If I were a man, if this were the nineteenth century, I would have a study, and not only would everybody stay away from my study like it was the cave of a mythic, terrifying creature, somebody (probably my wife) would be making me breakfast, putting it outside my door, making my bed, feeding the kids, making sure the house was tidy, so that when I came out I didn’t get ruffled.
Do I want that, that tyranny of rule, the biggest room in a small house, bigger than the living room, or the kitchen, forcing all the kids together in one small room at the back, so that I can Write? No. Nope, don’t want that. So this is the struggle of finding the time to write, in a house where labors are shared, in a person (me) who has trouble finding and holding attention. This time really matters to me, this time is brittle. Attention broken, attention splintered, attention lost. “I know you’re writing but can you just answer this question tie this shoe find my glasses call school and see if they’re open today remind Siri that Jesse is coming for a play date?” And then you come back to the table and start again.
I read about Flannery O’Conner, who, I didn’t realize, died of Lupus when she was only 39. And in that fleeting time made herself famous, that’s how hard working and talented she was. Speaking of confidence, when asked what motivated her writing, she said, “I’m good at it.” The person who asked the question was so baffled by her confidence that he thought at first she had misunderstood him.
I recall, as I have before, the boy in my playwriting class, who read his play out loud and had to stop because he was laughing so hard, overcome with delight at his own romping imagination. I sat there in my dry, tortured silence, wondering what it would be like to be so pleased by your own words, so taken with your own stories. I asked my teacher, way back then, “how do you get the words to flow like that,” and he said, basically, “I have no idea. If I could tell you, I would be a rich man travelling the world instead of a poor teacher sitting here talking to you.”
What I would say to myself now, sitting here, after all these years, is that it’s much harder if you’re not burbling over with delight at yourself, but you can still sit down every day, for some hours, and find your way to something. That would be Melville, probably, Van Gogh, and Cezanne. Artists who kept after it, doggedly, not always joyfully, finding their skill with bullheadedness.
I am not afraid of success. For some reason that idea makes me angry, makes me furious, makes me enraged. I can’t remember who said it, but it’s a commonplace that haunts me, that was thrown at me once, and I don’t even know what it means. Here it is: I am afraid of failing, of getting trapped in silence. Worse: what if I open my mouth to speak, or sing, and the song that comes out is croaked and broken, people can’t bear to listen to it, they wander away, and now they know two things they didn’t know before: how bad my voice is, and how much I wanted to be listened to. Wouldn’t it be better to bake cakes? Everybody likes cake. Isn’t this a fool’s game, the path of egomaniacs, narcissists, dreamers?
My writing practice is about becoming comfortable with that fear, touching its bristly, oily fur, running my fingers behind its ears, learning not to back away from it, learning to get past it, and sit down at the table and work.
This morning I read about Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ernest Hemingway. Two such different men: one of them austere and puritanical, but generous, with a deep, connected, sexual relationship with his wife; the other insecure, bombastic, alcoholic, and cruel (or at least unkind) to the four wives he went through. What they had in common: each was disciplined, working four hours every morning, hurricanes and hangovers and death in the family notwithstanding. And each struggled to find acceptance. Both kept writing through rejection after rejection, finding and refining and polishing a style, until something finally clicked. By the time they found acclaim as writers the hard work had made them writers already, whether they had acclaim or not, the title writer could not be bestowed or taken from them. Hemingway wrote his mother– “you cannot know how much it pains me to think you are ashamed of this when I know it is not to be ashamed of.” And still he kept at it, over and over.
Anyone can make themselves a writer, just by having the resolve to show up for it, over and over, until they understand what they want to say, and how to say it.