Tuesday, May 31, 2011

When I First Fell in Love

I was sixteen years old the first time I became so immersed in writing, I lost hours to it without realizing it. I was alone in the house, writing a story upstairs at the family computer, and when I finally finished and started down the stairs, the light had changed. The outside world had gone from full daylight to dusk, and I experienced that beautiful displacement. I’d forgotten myself completely, so deep was I in that story.

It is that feeling, that disconnection—a kind of un-being, of escaping into my own head--that I have sought like a drug ever since.

In many ways, it was a heck of a lot easier in those days. I had no idea what I was doing, so the writing was fitful, bold, sentimental. Even better: I had no idea how bad the writing was. Not knowing gave me a certain brazenness. A courage. I plunged in, blissfully ignorant of the distance between the story as it existed—whole—in my imagination, and the barely coherent jumble of sentences before me, both too messy and overly tidy, too abstract, simultaneously melodramatic and intolerably boring.

John Cheever says he can’t write without thinking of the reader, but I have to peel the world off completely. As completely as I can, anyway.

There’s a price to be paid for experience. For learning, in some small degree, bit by bit, what the heck I’m doing. Because it gets so much harder to peel the world off, to enter that place. In fact, the longer I write—the better I get—the more discriminating I am. The more I can see just how much I suck.

I think that when people say writing requires bravery they mean a number of things. In a sense, it’s what I keep writing about here, in this blog. How to overcome your writerly fears. You’re afraid of what you’ll encounter—what truth you don’t want to see—and you’re afraid you’ll give too much of yourself. You’re afraid you’ll give years of your life to a pursuit that will never pay off. You can do the math, count up the number of aspiring writers versus the number of success stories. You’re afraid you are a fool to keep at this. You think: I’m wasting my life! I could be out there, jumping on the trampoline with my kids.

You’re afraid, as I am, that you suck. You’ve been writing for a while, reading, learning, discussing, studying, and now, God help you, you no longer simply fear it: you know it. You know you suck.

Here’s your chance for bravery. Prove your mettle. Because good writing is not about not sucking; it’s about writing anyway. It’s about having eyes to see your own weaknesses and pushing past them. You have to see how bad it is before you can make it better.

I love what Michael Cunningham has said about dealing with your own shortcomings: “Fearlessness in the face of your own ineptitude is a useful tool to have.”

So there it is: be fearless.

You’ll never fully regain the euphoria you first felt that made you fall in love with writing. Or, maybe you’re not like me: maybe you experience it all the time.

Or, maybe, like me, you’ve decided there’s something really wonderful to the act of pursuing. To trying to recapture the giddy recklessness of those early writing days. To writing with that kind of heart and with the discriminating eye of experience. The pressing on, trying to get better, trying, always, to find your way in.

Finally, that’s all any of us have, isn’t it? The reaching?


jessica handler said...

Sometimes I think my arms are simian from the reaching, but you're right, it's what we do.

So happy to share panel space with you last week. An honor. (And that question I meant to ask you as a sidebar? It's passe now.)

towriteistowrite said...

"In fact, the longer I write—the better I get—the more discriminating I am. The more I can see just how much I suck."

Ain't that the truth.

A member of the local Sisters in Crime chapter says we improve by a process of "smart recognition: making mistakes and realizing that we've made them" and that we must learn that "each time the red pen touches the paper, the manuscript gets better." More words to live by.

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