I collect my failures, but not my success. Hope dissipates, dread grows sturdy. A habit of mind.
He smokes too much dope. He knows this, each time the burn hits the back of his throat he tells himself this has got to stop, and then the floating starts, all the edges of the world get softer, and he forgets, again, the list of things he should be doing instead. He vaguely remembers the time before he started, a time when he would wake up in the middle of the night, sliced by something cold and sharp— the idea that he might have gotten poisoned by the old taco he ate just before going to bed, or that the ticking he heard was somebody in the house, or an electrical wire shorting out, a spark, smoke, everything about to go up in flames. Back then he would wake up tired, if he ever went back to sleep, which wasn’t clear, was he sleeping, or just counting until time blurred into something droning and dark. When he came into the kitchen, bumping into things, not remembering where he put his history textbook, or even if he had history that day, his mother would say, touching his cheek, “you always look so happy.” He saw himself once, reflected in the glass door of the microwave, a stupid half-smile on his face. He did look happy, which was a joke, really, too bad she couldn’t see into his head.
How many joints? One a day, minimum, if there’s a party, more. It didn’t seem like much until some girl asked him straight up, really, how much, and he said thirty a month. He rounded down, and still her eyes got wide. He had to get a job to keep up with his habit. Walked into the corner store and signed up to work, three afternoons a week. His parents talk about the job at dinner parties. He heard them once, calling him a go-getter. His father said I didn’t have his drive, that’s for sure.
What’s on the list? Get into college, number one. He’s not even sure what college means, more parties, more dope, not having to smoke in the park. The advice column his mother left on his bed said “find your passion.” So that’s on the list. The cheerful article pointed out you can start looking as early as fourteen. The sooner the better. Practice guitar, then, that should go on the list, because his twelve year old dream, musician, is starting to fade. The other day his father said “I always wanted to play the bass–” and shuffled off, stooped and gray, to take care of some house project, clean the gutters, replace the steps. Also on the list: make a list. Stick to the list. Do your homework. Exercise more. Eat healthy food. Don’t screw up. Don’t get old.
It’s not just a joint. Every single joint is different, each one brings a slightly different high, the surge of hope, the adrenaline rush, the sleepy peace of a sweet dream. They’re like blind boxes, you never know until you touch the flame to the tip what adventure will unfurl with the wooly smoke. You get better at it, he wants to say, at letting go, holding yourself in that delicate place between exertion and inertia. If you push too hard, you crush it, if you don’t stay alert, the whole thing sails off without you, like a good idea you forgot to write down. He knows how to catch the first surge and then float, like Aladdin, watching the subtle changes in space and time, kinks and ruffles most people never notice. He knows now that time isn’t what it appears to be, that it doesn’t unfold neatly, in an orderly fashion, one minute after another, until the end.
The internet is busy with writers, their opinions on writing, and books, and movies, and girls, and habits, and politics, and some of it is interesting, and some of it is helpful, but it also sets my mind whirling and buzzing at an uncomfortable pitch. The world is chock full of clever multitaskers. I struggle to get my teeth brushed. Other peoples’ opinions make me nervous.
And now, almost everything I read online has the power to make me nervous: how the publishing industry is imploding, or how you need to choose your genre as a writer, or how writing itself is obsolete because of Instagram. I feel like one of those cart horses, hobbled by peripheral vision. I need hoods over my eyes to keep me from startling, to help me plod forward, following the lines in the road.
The lines in the road: be kind to yourself. Keep the goals small and simple. Forgive yourself for not being as slickly perfect as you had hoped.
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?)