Sunday, June 14, 2009

Writing Blows (August 2008)

Two things:

Thing one…I’m 39 today. How did that happen? Oh well. Pass the cupcakes.

Thing two…I’m writing again. I feel like such a dork saying that. Obviously I’m writing again; I’ve been doing all my writing right here on Offsprung. No news there.

But dorkier still, the very sentence “I’m writing again.” Like that should mean something. The fact is, I’ve always gone through these fits and starts of feeling creative and competent as a writer, and in the end nothing really comes of it. Just a few self-important late nights and scribblings. Sometimes I actually finish a story, but typically I don’t. Typically life intervenes. Or my wavering self-esteem intervenes. And gradually I put the writing aside, only to come across it years later and cringe at the truly mediocre work and my poor misguided earnestness all over the pages.

Like anyone attempting creativity, I’ve had a fair amount of setbacks and self-deluding ego inflation. My college boyfriend and I fancied ourselves writers. We took a workshop together with this jaded, turtlenecked, sexy-sour Baby Boomer dude straight from central casting. He was so much more impressed with my boyfriend’s work than mine, which truly was okay with me. My boyfriend was an amazing writer. I was proud just to be sitting next to him. Really, I was.

It’s just . . . there was this one particular incident that happened in the class that’s really stuck with me over the years. Professor Jaded asked my boyfriend to read one of his stories out loud to the class as a stellar example of good short-story writing. My boyfriend’s story wasn’t scheduled to be shared in class at all, but Prof J felt it was so good that he didn’t want us to miss out.

It went something like this: There was this protagonist, a thinly disguised version of my boyfriend and all his loveable sad-sacky insecurities. And then there was the protagonist’s girlfriend, a thinly allegorized version of my unique ability to make him feel stupid and inadequate. And then there was Kate Bush, who magically appears at his apartment door for an unconditional Lurlenesque one-nighter, lifting his spirits and renewing his self-worth . . . until the next morning when his girlfriend Bitchy McKnowitall calls to smack his fragile male ego down again with her annoying competence.

Boyfriend read, the class admired, and I just sat there cringing in the glow of his genius. It was one of those situations that’s so morbidly embarrassing, you can’t even admit you were embarrassed by it. What got me the most was that Prof J knew we were a couple and surely recognized the characters in that story. He’d gone out of his way to make sure I’d hear my boyfriend’s story in his own voice, knowing I’d be sitting right there next to my him for the whole dreadful mess. Why? What sort of a sadistic fuck does something like that?

At the time, I thought Prof J. did it to put me in my place somehow. I believed he’d wanted to demonstrate how significant my boyfriend’s work was and how fluffy mine was by comparison . . . and how fluffy I was by comparison. I remembered this line from Franny and Zooey (that I’m going to misquote because I can’t find a copy of it anywhere). It’s about an English professor dreading having to read piles of badly-written stories about girls who move to the big city because they “Want to Write.” He actually capitalized it. Reading that line made me hang my silly wannabe-writer head a little, that’s for sure. Salinger. That guy kills me.

Anyway. I sort of suspected it was bullshit. But that day in Prof J’s writing workshop was a defining moment for me. I decided I really wasn’t a writer and would probably never be anything more than a writer’s girlfriend. I was kicking ass in my lit classes, so maybe I could at least be a professor or something. And from that point forward, that’s how I imagined our future together: my boyfriend as the artist, me as his adoring academic in the shadows.

Well. None of that came to fruition, obviously. We broke up senior year and eventually went on to other career pursuits. That same year, I fell into a ring of fire with Mr. K., another talented writer and male-angst-bullshit artist. We were in a poetry workshop together where I had the pleasure of hearing him read an incredibly moving piece about his ex-girlfriend. D’oh.

But he wrote beautiful letters for me during the course of our non-relationship. I kept secretly hoping to show up in a story, but never recognized myself even remotely. Until a few years later. We were just getting back together after a long hiatus, and he gave me a new story he’d written. He presented it with a huge disclaimer, insisting that even though this character seems like me and this situation is very familiar, it’s a fictionalization and please don’t be offended.


I read it. And I did not recognize a word of it. Not even close. The character was clearly a satirization of somebody. But it was nobody I ever remembered being, or even affecting. When I asked him which parts were based on me, he got kind of shy about it, sheepishly directing me to a moment in a sex scene. Something I’d supposedly done with him at some point. Okay. Sounded like something I’d do, I guess. But how sad . . . the one detail that finally made it into his story was something I didn’t even remember.

As time went by, I let my relationship with writing sort of ebb and flow. I gave up on academia after completing my Masters, tried to teach for a while, and eventually ended up in the wonderful world of corporate communications and advertising. There have been little bursts of creativity here and there. There have been more writer-boyfriends, but no one who intimidates me like those first two. I’m not sure if that’s because those guys were actually that talented, or if I’ve just gotten more discerning. A little from column A, a little from column B, I suppose.

I want to hide under the bed when I read my alumni magazine sometimes. All these people I went to school with – some of them were obvious superstars at the time, but some not – engaged in creative pursuits. And successful, too. Getting plays produced. Books published. Working on TV series. And then there’s me, Floor “Potato Cooking Housewife” Pie. How did I get here?

It’s my own damn fault, of course. I got too easily discouraged and gave up. I’d try to write and censor myself before I’d barely got the words onto the page. Or I’d complete a first draft and not want to ever touch it again. Didn’t want to do the work. My former classmates who are seeing their creative works published and performed have been working their butts off to make it happen. I don’t begrudge them their success. If that’s what I want, I should follow their example and focus on writing again. Just do it, etc.

But what’s worse than being some pathetic college girl trying to write? How about being some pathetic stay-at-home mom trying to write! I know how much I truly love my vida loca with Impy and Chimpy, and I’m so grateful to women like Anne Lamott and Ayun Halliday for taking the stigma out of it. But I still can’t sit down to write without feeling a little like Peggy Hill going to work on her “Musings.”

The thing is . . . maybe I really do suck. It’s very possible that my writing will never be anything more than competent. And even if I do write something fabulous someday, the chances of publication are not great.

So, okay. But is that a good reason not to do it anyway? Who’s read To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf? Who’s ready to hear me misquote some literature again? Because there is the best, most inspiring, most anti-Prof-J moment toward the end of that novel. I should have it put on a sampler or something. Lily Briscoe is finishing a painting she’d begun years ago, euphoric, finally deciding that it doesn’t matter if the damn thing hangs in an attic or gets stuffed under the furniture for the rest of its existence. It’s about process. The mere act of picking up a paintbrush, the mere process of expression, the attempt at capturing something’s enough.

Speaking of “enough,” my 39-year-old fingers are actually falling asleep as I type. And the kids will be up in a few hours, demanding Magic Schoolbus. I really should sleep soon. But I’m going to keep writing whenever I can find the time and energy. Because what the hell. Art is process.

Happy 39th Birthday to me…

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