For someone who aspires to write, nay, to be a writer, the work of actually writing often fills me with what strikes me as an incongruent sense of dread.
To be a writer necessitates the actual smithing of words. This is not lost on me, nor does the exhortation I’ve heard from every real, true blue, honest-to-God writer on the subject, that writing MUST be a daily practice, surprise me. Kinda makes sense actually. That doesn’t mean I have to like it though.
Truth be told, I don’t really. Like writing that is. I’m similar to Steve Almond, who, while speaking on a panel in Boston that I attended years ago, said that “writers will find anything to do that will allow them not to write. The dishes, the laundry, whatever.” I’m pretty good at finding things to distract me, recent deactivation of my facebook account notwithstanding.
But aren’t you good at it Ben, at least some of the time, and moreso than many other things? Yes. I’m a decent writer. Especially at first blush, and especially when compared with the general populace. I can whip out a pretty damn palatable first draft of whatever most of the time: school paper, short story, record review, email to a friend. After that though, I have to go to work on it if I want to realize my full potential to use the chisel of my pen to uncover the beautiful form trapped in the marble block of the blank page. The operative word there is work. I’ve given a lot of thought to the fact that some of the things I’ve been quite good at in my life, like writing and making music, are things which I got as much or more pleasure from having done as from actually doing. That thought has led me in a couple directions.
The first is that maybe I should go out and find something that’s actually fun to DO. Not as a replacement for the things that require hard work. But something that doesn’t require me to impress myself or anybody else. Something that I want to engage in simply for the act of engaging in it. Painting, trap-shooting, roller-hockey, whatever. I’ve experienced this to some degree with cooking. Part of the problem with writing and making music is that I’m hyper-aware of what other people are going to think about what I’ve made. This leads me to be self-critical, to try too hard, and generally conjure an invisible crowd huddled behind my shoulder who, by dint of their mere presence, suck the fun out of the process.
I readily accept that many things worth doing require pain or sacrifice to do well. The question my situation begs is, why do I want to write? As pompous as it may sound, I can honestly say that there’s a real part of me, small though it may be, that wants to write in order to bless other people. The blessing may be simply in provoking them to think, but that’s a real blessing.
Reading Michael Chabon’s thoughts on genre fiction gives me some hope in the possibility for the reconciliation of fun-having and meaningfulness-making in writing. He’s a huge proponent of genre fiction and forthright about his belief that all fiction is primarily entertainment. This from a man who is now routinely hailed as “the greatest prose writer of his generation.” Mysteries? Sci-Fi? Literary fiction about the demise of the nuclear family and the unresolved nature of modern life? It’s all meant for pleasure, for stimulation, for ESCAPE, every bit as surely as each of those disparate genres are imbued with the latent potential for profound commentary on the experience of being human. I find hope in this. I recognize that sometimes laughing my spleen out is more therapeutic than cracking my head over Kierkegaard or plowing through Moby Dick because I feel like a tool for not having read it.
I’m also deeply aware that there’s just something innate about the process of creating which calls to me, and which I love. The idea that in the act of making we are joining with God, are becoming co-creators, resonates deeply with me. It’s as though we were made to create. I long to find the seams at which the primal draw toward creation and the pleasure of uninhibited imagination most closely intersect. I heard a profound clip from an interview with record producer Steve Albini the other day (on textism.com). I’ve transcribed a tiny bit here:
“I know that bands have and should have a very protective, proprietary opinion of their own music. They should. It should be for them. I think pretty much all decent records are made with, if not complete disregard, with significant disregard for everybody who isn’t in the band. When I hear incredible records I feel like the people involved in those records were on some kind of a mania that was possessing them and that only they could fully grasp. And if they tried to dumb it down for other people it wouldn’t be as awesome, because it wouldn’t be as complete an exposure of their mania.”
Sometimes you gotta just tell the invisible crowd to piss off. Toward that end, all the story ideas I have right now are about crazy things that seem FUN to write about to me. I don’t have any desire to write about every day life. Which doesn’t mean that I don’t want to engage real human emotions and experiences and the war between righteousness and evil that permeates our world. I just want to do it in a way that I can actually enjoy doing. I suspect this may mean, as I’ve said twice now but probably need to say a bunch more times than that, trying to let go of the idea that I’m writing primarily for other people to read. Scarier still, it may mean admitting that I don’t have to write, or that being a writer, at least in the estimation of others, is not as important as my own opinion on why I write and why I write what I do. Maybe I’d be happier taking a pottery class or trying to bake my way through a book of pies, or finally going and working with horses like I keep talking about doing. But no, I want to write… on my own terms.
My hope is that I can live into whatever it is that I do with more of a sensitivity for what brings me life and pleasure. My hunch is that this may be a useful star to steer by in virtually anything I do, even service to others. Find what makes you come alive, one of my professors once told me. Only there will you find the motivation to do what needs to be done and to do well that which you feel called to.
I have but one life to live.