My writing life – it implies that I’m a successful writer, which isn’t really true. The first time I typed the title it came out “My Writing Lie,” a Freudian slip of the left index finger perhaps, but it made me wonder if I shouldn’t have just back-spaced this one and gone to bed early.
I like to write though, and I’m a real-live college English major – granted, all you need for that is to have carried around a moleskine notebook or two in college and know what OED stands for – that and maybe recognize whose protagonist Nick Carraway was. In any event, I’ve always thought it was better to hold a BA than a BS considering how certain profanities tend to get abbreviated.
I was born “verbal,” my mom said – “so was your sister.” But was it a facility with words or just an incompetence in mathematics? Regardless, I took to paper early in life and produced a number of mediocre essays in 8th grade English. The book reports were a little better, but there’s really only one youthful story that I would still stand behind. It was my very first piece – a 4 page, 37 word dramatic short written on red construction paper with a sharpie as a 9 year old. It was entitled “Bobcats in the Night” and based on a semblance of true events where my dad let me follow him outside with a flashlight one winter night. At one point while thrashing around the bushes on the way back from the tool shed, I happened upon a momentary gleam of bright eyes under a spruce tree. I suppose it could have been a bobcat but was almost definitely a small possum or raccoon that we’d scared shitless. Like I cared – I’d have written that it was a saber-toothed tiger with an oversized set of oversize fangs if I thought we could have gotten away with it. By that point though, my sister and I had read an illustrated book on the Ice Age, so I knew that prehistoric creatures couldn’t be in northeast Pennsylvania as of 1999. I later overheard some of my parents’ friends cracking up at the drama of my “Bobcats in the Night” title, but I still think it was probably truer than anything I’ve written since.
I won two writing prizes in college. The volume of contest submissions at Lehigh University was down that semester (I later learned), but my Creative Lit professor still gave me a hug and said I should be “very, very proud.” Most of my writing projects since college have been stuffed deep into garbage cans or died on dusty hard drives of outdated computers. I think of one piece in particular that I slaved over for the entire year that I lived in Central America. It was loosely mystery fiction – over 20,000 some words of meandering plot and poetic metaphors describing tropical almond trees and yellow beach crabs. Another one that sticks out was a short story I wrote about the drudgery of loading moving trucks in New York – my summer job between college semesters. I called it “My Blue Collar” and submitted it optimistically to a small literary magazine called The Rag. It was rejected.
Now years later, I’ve had a few pieces actually get published, but my writing career still consists mostly of me hacking away at a keyboard in caffeinated isolation and staring wistfully up at The New Yorker’s 1 World Trade Center office at night. Getting into print is a tough business – maybe even a futile one given the wave of digital media that’s made physical books seem almost as irrelevant as payphone booths. But I still send out a flurry of publisher query letters every couple of weeks and keep the mailer daemon busy trying to guess magazine editors’ email addresses. There’s no equilibrium in my pursuits really – just a continual vacillation between enthusiasm and despondency, one minute chasing my Muse ecstatically for the perfect phrase and then wondering the next why anyone ever bothered to create language at all.
My creative process is haphazard – historically it’s been a spontaneous scribbling down of thoughts and phrases on whatever paper products are closest at hand when the inspiration hits – the back of a parking ticket, my roommates’ mail, a torn piece of napkin. Naturally, I file nothing away and lose most of my random notations. I should carry a miniature moleskine in the breast pocket of a tweed jacket, but I never dressed like an English major even when I was one. Some scribbles end up in my writings nonetheless. Idea-wise I’ve found my sweet spot is to be working on 4 or 5 different pieces at a time so that I can switch between them whenever I get bored or lose my flow. Near the end of some of them, I’ll call on my sister’s UVA master’s degree to ask for a few minutes of constructive criticism and overall feedback. Usually I then proceed to argue against every edit she suggests for a few minutes until I realize she’s right on almost everything.
Writing is a battle – always a war within my mind that half the time I don’t even want to fight but still do – haltingly for weeks at a time, typing with a furious obsession, quitting with disgust, re-starting days later with a new angle, quitting again angrily… It’s a masochistic practice, yet cathartic too. Creative essays are my crossword puzzles, sudokus that course through my brain as I walk through the bustle of Tuesday morning traffic and sit down to dinner at night. They’re frantic and failing attempts to capture life patches of distress and beauty and irony – attempts to do any of it just a little justice or to place it better in my mind. Always accompanying it too is the hope that the result is something slightly fresh and new – that it’s not been thought of and said the exact same way before.
“You’re verbal,” my mother said. And for better or worse I think it’s true.