Monday, July 26, 2010

Letters to a Young, Middle-Aged, or Geezer Writer, XX

I call your attention to a situation you will undoubtedly have met in your ongoing attempts to develop your writing craft.  The situation begins when you present yourself to work on a project you have already launched.  You are in effect coming in at day two or twelve or three hundred, no matter how long, as long as you've developed some sort of feel for it and have an attitude for it that you bring as part of your working routine.  But today you find you have no regard for the project, no anticipation to get going, no splendid flow of ideas and possibilities fluttering about you.  To put it bluntly, you are stuck.  Not only that, your hand is caught in the cookie jar of self-consciousness:  writer, stuck in the midst of project.

It sometimes helps to turn to your exercises, the random notes you frequently make when a vagrant impression seizes your imagination and threatens to run off with it.  Or you make the quick switch of priority to your blog.  Working at something else is in its way going after a fly with a fly swatter; you become focused on the purpose at hand, bringing you away from your awareness of being a stuck writer and back into your process, your accustomed working medium,wherein there are flies buzzing about you everywhere.

But this doesn't work, either.  Now you are not merely stuck and self-conscious about it, aware of the clock ticking away your time for this particular writing session, you are fucked.  You begin openly to wonder if the project were any good in the first place and why you'd spent so much time on it in the second place and who would want to read about this subject, and this is something so awful you couldn't even be sure of finding a member of your family to tell you how original and wonderful it was.  Seems to me that is being fucked, all right.

And so, what are you going to do about it?

You have two approaches, each involving the work of any writer other than you.  In your travels, you will have no doubt come across a work of such aching awfulness that the mere thought of it is enough to restore your missing balance, convincing you that somewhere in the world someone is a worse writer than you, a worse writer who is nevertheless published.  If the work is as truly bad as you claim, there is little doubt that reading a chapter or two will convince you that your own work is so lacking in substance as to make this seem not half bad in comparison.  If that does happen, you should get rid of this book immediately because it is not bad enough to be doing its work on your behalf.  Remember, you want a work that has preferably been on the New York Times Bestseller list.  It is a book you can hate not because you are jealous of the author's success with it but because it is genuinely atrocious.

Remember, you are doing this because you are fucked; you are doing this for self preservation.  You must force yourself to read page after page of this book until its flaws stand out above its virtues, where you can see places where the writer made wrong turns, where even decent editorial suggestions could not wrench it back into anything resembling a competent story.  You read until you sense that even you could do better.  Then you are no longer fucked and can get back to work.

The other approach is to find a work of such resonant sublimity that you recognize once again that there are writers who have the power to lift the sunken spirit to a place where you understand that being fucked is always a momentary thing.  You know this because you are able to recognize sublimity when you see it in print and even though you are badly fucked and can never hope to write at such a level, still, you can feel some of the sublimity seeping through your adverse credit report on the state of your own ability to write.  You continue reading for several pages beyond where you recognize the sublimity, feeling it metaphorically under your wings, lifting you to the exact place where you realize that one of the reasons you write is to lift yourself and others.  You now have awareness of a goal and a purpose, one you will have to strive to reach.

And just for the absolute hell of it, you set down this inspirational book and pick up the first one, the one with resonant awfulness and you think hell yes, I'm on my way again.  Hell yes.  Just watch me.

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