Finished “On Writing.” Finally came to the conclusion that Stephen King is a congenial enough guy, but also a bit of a bully. Dispensing homey, kitchen wisdom that seduces with its lack of syllables and art— “cat got your tongue?” “wouldn’t shake a stick at–” The language is so friendly you might be tempted to think he’s your friend. But what he’s really doing, the subtext, is drawing a careful line in the sand, a circle around real writers, the ones who get it, or have it, and keeping everybody else outside.
What I have been doing: chewing compulsively through writer blogs— writers talking to each other, talking about writing, talking about their books, writers giving helpful advice. Most of them make me want to quit. Stephen King writes a nearly perfect book about writing and after reading it I’m ready to hang it up for good. Everything he says makes him seem so much smarter than I could ever hope to be, intimidatingly smart, his homey, small town dialect notwithstanding. And then he writes, if you aren’t enjoying yourself, don’t write.
My chest caves in with despair and lack of air. Some writers enjoy doing this. (Why? Because they were well-liked as children? Because they aren’t perfectionists? Because they have such huge egos they actually believe perfection can be attained, or has been attained, by them? Because they have practiced long enough? Because they have Aspberger’s?) However it happened, writing is so much fun for them that when they aren’t writing they share helpful tips, starting with, writing should be fun.
I am blessed to have a peaceful marriage, to a person that I really, truly, love. Steady, daily love, the good stuff, a person I am glad to see every morning after more than thirty years. I don’t have the same juju with writing, which turns out to be the great, unrequited love of my life. Every day has felt stolen, wrestled, cajoled, torn, cobbled. Every day I ask myself, should I have been a therapist? A teacher? A lawyer? I keep trying to change, but in the end, that’s the writer I turned out to be. Stephen King writes because he can’t not write, because he enjoys writing too much to stop. I fight to write, every day, against relentless doubts and fears. I write like somebody leaning into strong headwinds, trying to make it home without a coat or a compass. I write lost, and frostbitten, and terrified— when I am not hiding under my covers, taking a nap, planning alternate careers. I am not brimming with stories. I am a slow drip. I answer no to every “You are a writer if…” question on every internet quiz I have ever taken.
But still. There are all these years. I’m still here. Could we count those years for something?
I want to say, to myself, to all those other writers who might be out there, tormented and tongue-tied, not having fun, dreams buried under too many obligations and distractions and negative self talk: don’t give up. You’re still here.
Suddenly this energy, out of the silence, this desire to write, which was almost entirely taken from me, pushed out by chores (laundry, to do lists, house-cleaning, gerbil-feeding, plant-watering, lawn-mowing, toilet replacing, dinner cooking, doctor’s appointments, play-dates, basketballs that must be found, or pumped up, or bought fresh because they are flat forever), or my cold, which came from who knows where. Writing vanishes, poof, like that, gossamer threads, spiderwebs. You must have a very boring life to write. Still pond. Alexander McCall Smith gets on a plane and passes the time by typing ten thousand words of his novel. He must have some kind of a freak brain, that allows him to block out the conveyor belts, the wands, the bag check lines, the shifting seat companion, the turbulence, the flight attendant demonstrating floatation devices. I can’t pay attention when the phone rings in the background. When a toilet flushes downstairs.
I read Dani Shapiro yesterday. Still Writing. It was incredibly helpful. The deceptively difficult task of staying on track*. The holy grail of practice. The sense of fraudulence.
She said trust yourself as a writer, and, helpfully, you will probably never fully trust yourself as a writer.
Find a few good friends to read your work, and use them.
The internet is crack.
You will resist the practice. That is part of the practice. The secret of your story is hidden in the resistance. Try not to walk away. Because if you walk away, and you come back, you will still be lost. Maybe more lost, depending on how long you walked away for, and how you walked. (Walking, for example, is better than walking to the Internet, or lunch with friends, or a house cleaning project.)
The internet is crack.
And she said something that sounded like “practice is everything” (my new favorite saying): you think the goal is finishing this novel. You think it’s getting published. You think it’s getting good reviews, and watching it rise up on the best-seller list. But those are just the flotsam and jetsam side-effects of the actual and only goal: practice. After you finish, you have to begin again. And again. And again.
The Internet is crack.
And the fact that she said those things, and I already know those things, made me think, in a different way than I have before, oh. I must be a writer. And then she said the thing that made me love her less: real writers don’t make outlines. Oh no, I thought. I make outlines.
Well, we all fall victim to it. The ironic habit of saying, there is no right way to do this, let me show you the right way. She should have said trust yourself and stopped there.
(*You think that the number one requirement for being a good writer is skill, but actually, the first and possibly only requirement is stamina. She called it endurance. Are you still here, doing it, after all the failures that will inevitably pile up around you?)