I had that feeling again, of being both intimidated and stifled by the plethora of people out there, pitching tents on the Internet. A crowded, clamoring forum, everybody listing accomplishments, outlining projects, trying to seem more successful than they actually are. The most popular bloggers have a similar bio: some failure led to a great success, the writer (consultant, motivational speaker, life coach) reinvented, baptized by fires of defeat. A more likely truth: we are not always improved. There are short straws and long straws and we will draw some of each, and some people will draw more of one than the other, not always because they deserve it. There’s failure—I tried to be a professional athlete and didn’t have enough talent; I wanted to write but lacked drive. And there’s bad luck— I wanted a happy marriage but never met anybody; I wanted a long life but got sick. It’s hard to talk about defeat, especially in the can-do cyber-universe. Every narrative is subtly framed as a step in the direction of eventual triumph. A consoling template until we meet a road block that won’t be moved, or until the road dwindles to a path, and then a trail, and then disappears. How do we talk about loss? How do we talk about aging? How can we talk frankly and truthfully about life without talking about death?
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.
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?)