Let’s talk about process. Let’s pull up the shades and let some air in and console those of you who, like me, have no idea how to do this, because you grew up in a very uptight family, where people kept stiff upper lips and sat in duck blinds for whole days at a time, freezing and taking tiny sips from a flask while they waited to shoot a Canada Goose right out of a hard blue autumn sky. In that world, either the ability to write happened to you by accident– maybe you were bi-polar, or alcoholic, or one of your parents was a painter or a composer or even a writer, so you kind of osmotically got it, or you were, like Stephen King, a natural. If your answer is none of the above, you didn’t get the skills. And then, when you finally asked your teacher in grad school how to become a writer, he said the ability to write is a gift. If you don’t have it, nobody can help you.
Part of my mission in life is to refute that assumption. Anybody can learn this art of making a story, the same way anyone can learn grammar, or running, or jump shots. There’s no right way, or one way, but there are lots of tried and true habits that can help. Including: you must read, and watch movies, and harvest the best parts– the aha moments when you think, wow, I never saw that coming, when the book reverses itself, and you realize that every single character is actually a ghost.
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.