The High Cost of Writing

I know lots of people who can write anywhere. They go to coffee shops, libraries, they get up at four in the morning and write at their kitchen tables. I know other people who have some theoretical set of conditions under which they can write, but they can’t articulate what they are and can only point out what they are not. As in “I can’t write in my apartment. It’s not the right space.”

I don’t really have either problem. There’s writing I can do anywhere, and I do. I’ve had days where I’ve cranked out 10,000 words and still had time to do fun stuff afterward. Lately, though, getting time and space to write has been hard.

When I wrote a piece about a musician, I sang all the time. When I wrote about a woman who leaves her parents’ home to have an affair with a married man, I fought with my parents. I’m not the sort of person who has to go out and do something before she can write about it, but I do tend to take on the emotions of my characters.

It’s taken the occasional toll on my marriage. You see, my husband loves me. He loves me in that “can’t watch me suffering without trying to make me feel better” way. He also works from home, just like I do, and occasionally, he needs to ask me something or tell me something or show me something. Knowing that he could come walking in any second makes it difficult to really lose myself in writing scenes that require some extremes of emotion. If I’m writing anger, I’ll yell at him. If I’m writing a sex scene, I probably won’t get much more writing done.

The piece I’m writing now is full of self-doubt, loneliness, longing and fear. On Monday, I took advantage of being alone in the house for five hours to get some work done. I put on the playlist that I reserve for the project I’m working on, I re-read the stuff I had already written, and I thought about what had to happen next. And then, I began to cry. I kept blowing my nose and wiping my face with my handkerchief, but within fifteen minutes, it was soaked. So I got another. And another. My shoulders were shaking, my breath hitching in my chest, my lips were getting chapped from the hanky. Every once in a while, I had to stop typing because I had to put my head down on my desk and howl. Then, back to typing.

After a couple of hours, I had finished three thousand words. I had a whacking headache, my face was red and swollen, I had run out of clean handkerchiefs and I was exhausted. My family came home, but it was hard to enjoy their company. For all my exhaustion, I couldn’t fall asleep, though. Being over-emotional does that to me.

It wasn’t until the next day, after a wasted morning of trying to work but not being able to concentrate on much, that I gave in an napped. And when I say “gave in and napped,” I mean “passed out on the couch in my office.”

I admonish myself for not writing as often as I should, but if every couple of hours of productivity costs me a day of down time, I think I should be a little easier on myself.

Jesus Christ, It’s 1973

Every year at Easter, I force my little family to sit through yet another screening of Jesus Christ Superstar. I don’t cook a ham, I don’t color eggs, I don’t force anyone to attend church. This is my whole observance of the holiday – contemplation of an early 1970s take on the days leading up to the crucifixion.

Every year, the movie sparks a lot of discussion – what’s up with the people dressed in rags? They’re lepers. Why doesn’t Jesus like swap meets? They’re having their swap meet at the temple, and Christ thinks its inappropriate to have people turning His church into a marketplace. In Phoenix, we had our heads on straight. Our swap meet was the the parking lot of the place that had greyhound racing during the week. Why did people live in the middle of a crappy desert? Most of Israel isn’t a crappy desert. I hear it’s really nice. Is Pontius Pilate the same guy that invented the yoga? Yes.

The thing that came up this year was the fact that Jesus Christ Superstar came out in 1973, a year marked in my mind by the kind of soul-crushing shame that makes me want to dig a pit, fall into it and collapse in on myself as my body digests itself with the acid of horror.

I was 8 years old in 1973. Aware enough to know that I was surrounded by a culture that people would look on for decades as the nadir of human civilization.

New Seekers’ song “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” was not only still on the radio, it had been made into a commercial for Coke so we could hear it that much more often. The song “One Tin Soldier,” which had been used in the film Billy Jack (which I have never seen and about which I have no opinion) was still battering the airwaves with its antiwar bludgeon. The Rolling Stones’ “Angie,” while not a peacenik antiwar protest was nonetheless another giant bummer you couldn’t dance to. They get lost with other agonizing, horrible songs like “Wildfire” and “Run, Joey, Run” that came out while I was still cringing.

The clothes of 1973 were a combination of chunky, greasy, scratchy lumpy miracle fabrics and loud colors that looked good on the idealized anorexic frame of models, but looked horrible on actual parents. Kids were all stuck dressing like Holly Hobbie, a fad so popular that it spawned the “Little House on the Prairie” television series the following year.

In 1973, my mother had a lot of friends who did a lot of drugs and often had nowhere else to go but our house. I can’t count how many times someone at our house broke something, and then went limp with hysterical laughter at the mess they had caused. Or how they would, in their inebriated haze, try to have serious conversations with my siblings and me. They failed to make the slightest bit of sense, although it was apparent that in their minds, they were relating to us at some very deep and spiritual level because they grokked us as human beings. These people are why I never got involved with drugs in any significant way.

But the blind self-absorption wasn’t just my mother’s friends. All over America there was a fascination with the 1920s, especially The Great Gatsby and its cast of characters who spent all their time contemplating themselves and each other. Everyone played backgammon, spending tons of money on little suitcases full of tiny poker chips over which they could pose with drinks and pretend to be intellectual for the benefit of equally drunken pseudointellectual onlookers. And the 1970s was when the adults all decided that sex should be moved out of the dark bedroom and into the living room, dining room or front yard, where we could all see it.

How can you be 8 years old and not be scarred by the skin-peeling embarrassment of it all?

But Jesus Christ Superstar somehow escaped all of it.

As an opera, it’s a story told entirely in song, but no one song tries to contain the whole narrative, so we avoid the whole weepy story ballad agony. The clothes are mainly the kind of clothes that dancers still wear today – close-fitting pants and tops that allow freedom of movement. And the story itself isn’t one that will go out of fashion anytime soon.

So that’s my real celebration of Easter. That Jesus Christ was crucified and died for the sins of 1973, redeeming what would have otherwise been the worst year of all time.

Was, Is, Shall Ever Be

There’s a part of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell that rings very true for anyone who’s ever struggled with mental illness. Jonathan Strange has just drunk a tincture intended to make him insane, and wonders if he’ll know when it has taken effect.

After a few minutes he looked out of the window and into the Campo Santa Maria Zobenigo. People were walking up and down. The backs of their heads were hollowed out; their faces were nothing but thin masks at the front. Within each hollow a candle was burning. This was so plain to him now, that he wondered he had never noticed it before. 

Mental illness mocks time, making it impossible to remember what things were like before, or understand how to make things different in the future. Mental illness can feel like epiphany – like you’re only just figuring out the truth. It’s worse when it feels like a truth that everyone else has known all along. “Why didn’t I notice this before? How could I have missed this?”

I’m at the beginning of another depressive episode, and I can tell, not because I’m sad, but because I just don’t care about anything. But the worst part is that I can’t remember why certain things should be important, or what it felt like when they were important. And yet, I know that’s a bad sign. One of those things I’m supposed to look out for. The kind of thinking that, unaddressed, could lead to much, much worse down the road.

My newest doctor asked me why, with my history of illness, I didn’t get help long before. The question surprised me, because it seems so obvious. When you’re depressed, you can barely summon the energy to get out of bed, shower and get dressed – how would you possibly gather the strength to research a doctor, make an appointment and then go? And when you’re not depressed…well, there’s nothing to cure, is there?

Time will tell how this new doctor chooses to tackle the challenges that my last doctor wasn’t exactly up to. Funny, it’s hard to remember how things were when I was seeing that other doctor.

You’re Doing It Wrong

I’m in the middle of putting together interview questions for Peter Riva, a literary agent with International Transactions. It’s hard to come up with inventive ways to ask the same four questions that everyone asks literary agents and publishers – What kinds of literature are popular right now? What can I say in a query letter to make an agent want to represent me? What’s the magic word? WHAT DO I DO?

I’ve also spent the last week catching up on submissions to the Diana Woods Memorial award competition. I’ve been going through upwards of 25 submissions a day, looking for those that grab my imagination and make me want to say yes. I’m up to four.

That’s what it comes down to. It’s what no agent, no publisher, no editor is going to say flat out. Chances are, your stuff just isn’t that interesting. Our award was started by the family of a woman who passed away in November of 2012, so a lot of what we’re getting is “this person close to me died.” It’s sad, but considering that every human being ever born will suffer the same fate, ultimately not newsworthy. Another big chunk is people’s childhood memories, but unless you’ve just been named Pope or you’re the person that went on to invent fire, your memories are really only precious to you and the people close to you. It’s grossly unfair, but people like Snooki Polizzi get book deals because people want to find out what single thing they did to succeed.

The problem is, not even people who get it right know what they did, or they’re embarrassed that what they did wasn’t what everyone else is being told to do. I went to a writer’s conference about twelve years ago, and the speaker was a novelist of Asian extraction whose name you would probably recognize, and she gave us the same advice as everyone else. “Only send your best work, research your agents carefully, personalize your letters…” But she had to say that it’s not how she got her agent. She was writing her first novel while she was in grad school and her professor had told an agent, and that agent had called her at home and asked to represent her. Another successful novelist had made copies of her full manuscript and handed them to everyone she met, until at last her manuscript was picked up by an agent. I have a friend who did it the old-fashioned way – querying 87 agents before he found representation, but I have tons more who gave their manuscripts to friends of friends.

Friends of friends. That’s what it comes down to. If someone knows your name, they’re more likely to give your work a chance. It becomes less about the work and more about the relationship. That’s why, if you change the name on a story published in the New Yorker, nobody wants it. Not even the New Yorker. Because the New Yorker doesn’t want really great fiction. They want New Yorker writers.

So, the final word is that the thing you should be doing is what everyone else is doing. Move to New York. Crash the parties where all the editors (and editorial assistants) are hanging out. Buy the drinks. And in the time that you’re home, recovering from all the lunches out and parties ’til dawn, hone your craft.

Aspirations, Witnesses, Prognosticators: My AWP Experience

This year was my first experience at AWP, although last year I remember everyone asking each other “Are you going? Are you going?” In the halls of your local MFA program, it’s like asking if you’re going to see God appearing at the Hollywood bowl where he’ll be interviewed by Richard Dawkins, who will then receive his just and appropriate punishment.

I went because I’m the editor in chief of a literary magazine, although I haven’t been to a writer’s conference in many years. Even before I started grad school, I knew that I had grown out of the kind of conferences offered in consumer publications like Writer’s Digest. I was tired of the same advice, the same invocations of Joseph Campbell and Anne Lamott, tired of writers of lackluster popular fiction using themselves as shining examples of craft in a thinly-disguised bid to sell a few more books to students eager to learn. There is no one more gullible than the unpublished writer.

I don’t know whether the crowd (11,000 absolutely qualifies as “crowd”) was any different than at those events, but I was. Years of writing, reading, learning, and working in the writing world have taken me out of that crowd and into the smaller, more select group of those for whom the shine has worn off. I walked the book fair floor and talked with other publication editors, commiserating about our editorial woes. I remarked on the disconnect between the perception of the crowd and the perception of the presenters and panelists. For instance, in four different panels, a question from the audience included the presumption that there’s no market for short stories. On the other hand, I’m hearing from publishers that short stories are enjoying a resurgence – e-readers provide a perfect channel for shorter fiction.

I did love the talk about writers promoting themselves. The best thing I heard was in a panel that talked about the need to cultivate relationships with bookstores and libraries, to make good use of social media, to connect with one’s fan base. As an introvert, the thought of having to cultivate a lot of friendships that may be useful but would certainly drain any energy I would need for writing was depressing. Until someone got up and said “Don’t do ALL OF IT!” The biggest thing was to be a nice person. Promote your friends and colleagues. Be genuinely happy for and supportive of their work. Heck – I’m doing that.

There were also a million people talking vaguely and gloomily about the future of publishing, but each sad pronouncement began with the claim that more books are being published than ever before. More books, more independent publishers, more channels through which a writer can reach readers…not sure where the crisis lies.

Actually, I am. Sturgeon’s Law says that 90% of everything is crap. That is to say, 90% of the writing that would be collectively produced by the people gathered in that room is unreadable. Given the state of submissions to the magazine for which I work, it’s true. But there doesn’t seem to be anything standing in the way of those people who have put in the time and effort to get beyond the crap phase.

I had a good time at AWP. I met some really nice people, I talked to a lot of my peers in publishing and I had a lot of crappy drinks with lovely people. Most importantly for me, though, was that I figured out how to get even more out of next year’s conference.

Can’t Buy Me Love

The Pirate is sitting across the table from me writing his own blog post. He just got an email from the Sundance Institute about six films chosen to counter the “delusions” of Valentine’s Day. The thrust of the email is that normal love stories are unreal, and the desire to think about love in a way that makes you happy is not just naïve, but stupid.

I’ve been disturbed for a long time about the trend to denigrate anything that isn’t 100% good and wonderful and wholesome – and, in fact, even some things that are. For instance, I defy you to name a single popular musician whose work has earned a gold record or won a Grammy or has otherwise reached a large audience, but whose personal life has not been the subject of tabloid gossip. In some instances, such as Jennifer Lopez, the tabloid gossip outstrips the star’s recognition for her actual work. In the case of artists like Michael Jackson or Yusuf Islam (formerly Cat Stevens), or even Richard Wagner, people’s opinion of their behavior colors their opinion of the work.

Politicians, who, up until Kennedy, were mostly well-respected as civil servants trying to do good for their constituents, are now among the most likely to have their private lives dissected in such a way that the kind of lapses in behavior that all of us have from time to time are magnified, discussed and interpreted in ways that paint those people as monsters.

People whose personal lives are beyond reproach aren’t safe. We can’t believe that anybody is truly good, so in the absence of actual dirt to dig up on people, we start rumors.  When I was a kid, it was completely uncool to admit to liking Mr. Rogers, even if your childhood was uncertain and you found his unceasing expressions of support and acceptance comforting. People express the same rancor even toward fictional characters who don’t show a negative side – characters like Barney the Dinosaur or Mary Poppins (who acknowledged that she was “practically perfect in every way”).

I object to this ongoing need to strike down anything or anyone that makes us feel that we should try to be better people. When you’re in love, you want to be a better person so that the object of your desire is proud of you. When you admire your heroes, you strive to emulate them and work hard to accomplish your goals. What’s wrong with that? I’ll tell you what media thinks is wrong with that – there’s no way for them to monetize that feeling. America is run on the principle that for our economy to work, everyone must be buying things all the time, and if you’re taking long walks in the woods, holding hands with your beloved, or staying in and cooking spaghetti for two, or sitting up all night talking, you’re not spending money. You need to be reminded that love is false, and to get someone to walk with you, eat with you, talk with you, you need to buy a lot of stuff that will keep them interested.

Similarly, if you’re committed to being a better person – a better athlete or singer or artist – our society tells you that what’s important about those people is not the results they deliver. It’s the image they present. So you need to have the clothes and the hair and the dazzling white teeth, not the hours of exhausting work developing yourself at a skill before anyone even notices you. Because nobody makes any money off that.

So, what are we allowed to love? What are we allowed to express unashamed delight for?

We’re allowed to love our favorite brands. In fact, companies spend billions of dollars trying to ensure that we do love our favorite brands. Brands are not just lines of products, they’re lifestyles, dreams, aspirations. You’ll never be able to have Warren Buffet’s success, but you can buy the same kind of espresso machine, vacuum cleaner, paper towels that he does, and feel that you’re somehow the same.

We’re allowed to love food. I Googled “I love food” and got 985 MILLION results.  Food has become ridiculous. In most restaurants in America, the portions are excessive – 2-3 meals’ worth of food served to each diner, thousands of calories in each course of each meal. We’re told that this is a good thing – that more food is a “value,” and we believe it because we can’t get enough chocolate cake and french fries. 

We’re allowed to love sex. America is famous for its twofold relationship with sex – worshipping it on the one hand with advertising that sexualizes everything from cars to clean dishes, and villifying it on the other hand as shameful and sinful. We can say that we love sex so that all of our friends will know that we’re normal, but we aren’t allowed to demonstrate it, or even say it too often. There’s a line here, folks.

But America can’t monetize love or admiration. Those things serve no purpose in the Corporate State, so they will be rooted out and discarded, replaced by dissatisfaction, insecurity, and the notion that if I buy something, I’ll feel better.

Lemme know how that works out for you, Corporate State. In the meantime, I’m married to that guy who’s also sad about love-bashers, and tonight we’re staying in and amusing ourselves by having a long, interesting conversation. Take that.

Film #6: C.O.G.

C.O.G. is based on a David Sedaris essay of the same name. The film follows David, who’s run away from his family in New York to Oregon where he plans to pick apples. First he works on a farm picking apples from trees. In just a couple of weeks, he’s offered a job at the apple processing plant. He has a run-in with a man from work who tries to rape him, so he can’t go back to the factory, and he can’t go back to the apple farm, so he ends up with a bitter, born-again vet who tries to teach him both how to cut slabs of jade into novelty clocks and how to accept Jesus.

Overall score: 4 out of 4

There was a lot of meat in David Sedaris’ original essay, and the writer/director made excellent use of it, leaving all of Sedaris’ salient points intact and expanding the religion theme to movie proportions.

My one question was whether the viewer would need to know David Sedaris and/or his work to understand everything going on, since the director chose to downplay David’s homosexuality until the end, and the actor playing David may have been a little snarky (like Sedaris himself), but he didn’t have either Sedaris’ soft, high-pitched voice or his slight stature. There was very little to suggest that the character David was gay, aside from one scene where a farmhand asks him if he has a woman and David denies it vehemently.

Otherwise, the film captured Sedaris’ own brand of unsparing, self-mocking humor. There were some really great lines: “What have you got against the Bible?” “It’s poorly written.” And there are many scenes that made me laugh in sympathy for a kid who was clearly trying to find himself and stumbling painfully in the process.  If this movie were picked up for theatrical release, I’d go see it again.