Trying Too Hard

I’m starting my third day on a focused work schedule, working on short stories and editing. Yesterday day was novel day and the day before I composed and scheduled my blog posts for the week ahead, as well as, and I blush as I write this, prepped a slate of Tweets for Twitter. That’s right – I have to write and edit them in advance – the equivalent of rehearsing a speech in the mirror. I tell myself that I’ll only have to do this until I get better at it, but I suspect the short, quippy, fleeting nature of Twitter is just not in my wheelhouse. I like full sentences. I hate emoticons. I refuse to put the app on my phone. I think about quitting it every time I use it.

GarbagcanpaperThis is not the post I had planned on posting. Inspired by the work of Rebecca Solnit on journalism, Dani Shapiro on personal truths, and an essay by Lu Hsun called “This Too Is Life”, I saw the threads of a post emerging about the responsibility of the storyteller. It was very high-minded and thought-provoking, with obscure references and some cutesy self-denigration, just so I wouldn’t seem like a literary snob.

So all those voices in my head were competing on the page. I had three, four, then five paragraphs. And it was a clunker. I was my high school writer self – all thoughts and finger-wagging and terrible structure. The output of trying too hard always looks like I’m trying too hard. There’s some authenticity in that, but no reason to impose it on a reader. You’re welcome.

Part of the paralysis and bad writing is borne out of my decision to be a “working writer”. Nothing is more damning than approaching the blank page with the weight of 51 years of rootless potential and desperate ambition. I keep missing the lesson that the things that I try least at seem to render the most reward. I put my nose back to the grindstone, flailing about with the most awkward and tiring efforts.

This is, in essence, the story of my life. I will work my ass off with little to no reward but that of having done the thing. Some days, it’s just not enough. But yay, I persist. When I was in high school, I ran track. I was slow. Very slow. So they put me in the 3200 meter run. You would score points for the team if you just finished, regardless of speed. For my senior year at the track awards banquet, I got the award for Best Effort. That’s going on my tombstone.

canstockphoto0404119I’m reading Angela Ducksworth’s Grit with a degree of irritation that comes when someone tells you something you’ve already rationalized for yourself. Yes, persistence and perseverance can win out over talent. But it can also be damned exhausting and demoralizing. I know I will always try, but maybe I wonder if need to dial it back a bit. I’m one of those people who’s always being told to relax. I respond to this in a laid-back and chill manner – bite me.

It occurs to me that if you put too much effort in, too much pressure on yourself, you’re bound to overshoot the mark. This would appear to have the same outcome as not trying at all, but I know there is a difference. Plotting and planning and working at my writing in any sort of methodical way is difficult right now. I’m too used to being a mood writer and I may as well plan on missing the mark for awhile. Discomfort is necessary for growth. 2019 is likely to be the most uncomfortable year ever.

Committing to the Mistake and Writing in the Age of That Guy

canstockphoto15407070The hunger divide between writing meaningful stories and writing what I am capable of feels like a gaping maw now. A novel draft I wrote in 2012 seems limp and unedifying. Great novels come out of periods of strife and war and social upheaval. My little domestic drama on paper seems out of step.

I lay in bed last night rewriting my entire novel. It had power and endurance and spoke to the demographics and polarity in our nation – the great canyon between urban and rural, educated and uneducated. It could not be read without raising one’s fist and yelling, “Hell yeah!” It was deep, with a whiff of posterity and the flavor of critical acclaim.

Then I pulled up to my keyboard this morning. The Post-It on my monitor yelled at me: Tell the @#$! Story. I need that reminder these days when my ambition gets ahead of my skill set. Every other day, there’s some new thing I think I should be doing with my novel. I nearly rewrote the entire thing in first person, partly because of this blog. Over the last five years, readers have consistently told me they like my voice or my authenticity and I wondered if my novel would be more readable with that voice.

canstockphoto12329206Except that it’s not my story. The words and pages belong to Madelyn and Jamie and a rural town in Iowa. They could give a rat’s ass about politics, so mired in their own personal shit, up to their ears in self-destruction and self-loathing. Their story is how they find their way out. It’s a story of redemption and the murky waters of forgiveness. Our story, the one in which a personality disordered person turns the national dialogue into bickering and toxicity, has no exit strategy. And happy endings take on quite a different meaning.

I’m a nobody blog writer, an amateur novelist, one of a million dotting the literary landscape. A shrub in a forest of Redwoods. Why do I have an ego that says I should be writing bigger? And do readers always need to read bigger? I have no doubt that some startling, long-lasting work will come out of this period in history. And when colleges get around to updating their classics list, books written during the Trump era will be on it.

I’ve been reading Paths of Resistance: The Art and Craft of the Political Novel, edited by William Zinsser. My writing tip #234: Don’t read books on writing while trying to write a novel. First of all, it usually sheds bad light on whatever you are writing and secondly, it can make you overly ambitious. The novel I am writing was never meant to be bigger than it is. While there may be unintended insight or themes that emerge, it is not going to be the muckraking sociopolitical novel of which I daydream. Maybe next time.

Perhaps this will all be a mistake. I’m an imperfect perfectionist, the covert kind who looks careless on the outside, but demands creases and no slouching on the inside. The kind of perfectionist whose whispers gnaw away and slyly suggest that perhaps my mother was right. It feels like I’m making an intentional mistake – knowing that there are more important things to write, knowing that there is more at stake in the world than ever before.

canstockphoto25064666In a moment of clarity, as I wandered about the gardens this morning, I thought about how the real trick to anything is to fully commit to it. Ten years ago we started ripping up our lawn bit-by-bit, replacing grass with perennials. There were many times when I doubted it would ever look like the English garden I fantasized about, but each year, I took up more lawn, tried different plants, and dug in with all the enthusiasm of a novice. I hit a point of no return and for many years, our yard looked like a bad idea.

It doesn’t look like an English garden now. Not enough sun, too many tree roots and the grass is still determined to retake its ground. But I love it. Plants are maturing and things that I’ve moved and divided and tried again and again are finally filling in space. It’s pretty and colorful, and it gives me pleasure. Even though I’ve done my best, it doesn’t match my fantasy and won’t make a magazine cover, but it has become something unto itself. A labor of love and persistence.

I learned in improv comedy workshops that if you commit to the sound, the word, the actions of your partners, it becomes real to the audience. They are in the moment with you and nothing outside of that matters. If I write the story as well as I can write it, maybe I will have the good fortune of a shared moment.

canstockphoto4158276Perhaps, in the scheme of things, sharing moments with others is pretty damned important. If we can imagine solidarity and connection, there’s a possibility we can bring that into the world. Isabel Allende wrote, “I think I write so that people will love each other more.” Who needs to write any bigger than that?

Telling True Lies

canstockphoto13593413I’ve been stuck for a long time, re-writing bits and pieces of my novel. It’s the windmill at which I’m constantly running. I’ve come to question whether I have enough skill or ambition to be a writer.

When I read about other writers, I learn that they’ve been writing since they had enough manual dexterity to hold a writing utensil. Testimonials in this writing culture always say “I have to write”. I’ve written similar things. Earlier this week I wrote that I get a little more odd when I don’t write for awhile. I get so hopped up on words that they saturate everyone around me and putting them on paper provides some relief.

I’ve been telling myself that I’m a writer for several years now, but it’s a lie. I write – sporadically, in fits and spurts. I have a rough draft of a first novel that hasn’t engaged me. I set goals only to stroll leisurely by as they die from neglect. But then I write a blog post and it’s like lancing a boil. I feel a sense of relief – I can tell myself once again that I am a writer.

This last week, I had a come-to-Jesus talk with myself. I looked at the truths that I’d been avoiding. I have a little talent. I have very little ambition. My ambition for writing has been the same as for anything else I’ve done in my life. I am the jack of many trades and master of absolutely nothing. I’ve never taken anything all the way.

canstockphoto21574383For all the whinging on I’ve done over the years about balance and writing and family, the fact is, my life is about as balanced now as it will ever get. I love my family, I have friends, I’m not in a tight spot financially, I’m relatively healthy – ambition just seems like a huge expenditure of energy that would only take away from what is, it seems to me, a pretty damned good life. So why this repeated banging of my head against the wall? My ego desires that which my ambition ill-reflects.

I was comforted by reading The Renaissance Soul by Margaret Lobenstine, because like many of her clients, my interests have been short-lived and intense, then I’m onto the next thing. I have a passion for knowledge, but not for the pursuit of excellence. There is no limit to the number of subjects that interest me and every time I tell myself I’ll follow through to some expertise, I find something else. My cognitive bias is at work – rationalizing all these incomplete endings by an ever-hungry pursuit of knowledge.

As you get older, you see the themes and patterns emerge over the course of your lifetime. In my twenties, I believed that people can change – that they can will themselves beyond their nature. In my forties, this seems like dubious optimism at best and willful ignorance at worst. If I stripped away all the layers, learned skills, coping mechanisms, the bravado and brass, all the mannerisms and quirks, I am the same as I ever was.

As a child, I learned to lie with alacrity. Hungry for approval, fearing what were sometimes dire consequences for minor misbehavior, I could look you in the eye and lie my ass off without a twitch. I’d get mad if you didn’t believe me. When I was six, I was on the playground with a classmate. We were goofing around and I fell down and ripped my tights. My family was poor and I drove my mother into rages with the pairs of lost gloves, lost lunch money, stained and ripped clothes and misplaced anything.

canstockphoto23479633I convinced my friend to walk home with me, leading an unknowing lamb to the slaughter. My mother opened the door to us and immediately saw the shredded tights. I knew what was coming. With a quivering lip and tears in my eyes, I blubbered, “Scottie pushed me down on the playground.” She angrily told him to go home. The lie did not work. But that is the first time I remember feeling guilty for lying.

There were lies of survival and then there were the weird lies. In eighth grade, I once told a new friend that our family used to own a baby grand piano. Since my family had just moved from an apartment above a tavern, to the floor above a dilapidated gas station, I’m not sure why anyone would believe that or why I was compelled to lie about musical instrument ownership.

During my daddy issue phase of dating, I dated a jealous drinker. This was funny (eventually), since I fail at small talk and flirting and really, I just don’t inspire that much passion in other humans. But drunks will be irrational, accusatory bastards at times and so I lied some more. My number of past boyfriends grew incrementally smaller until my hymen almost completely grew back.

The older I got, lying became more difficult, especially as it grew unnecessary. I had healthier relationships and more self-confidence. Fear was no longer a factor, nor was the need to impress anybody a priority. Lying became insulation, little pretensions to keep me sound.

I’d lie to get out of social commitments, saying I had to work when all I wanted to work at was remaining un-showered while curling up with an Agatha Christie novel and slurping rainbow sherbet. In my current life, my tribe knows me. I can say “I’m feeling very surly and introspective, so I’ll have to pass” and it’s an easy, honest moment. And it has made it easier for me to say “yes” at other times.

These days, the polite lies get a pass for guilt. There’s no point in hurting someone’s feelings unless they’re asking you to help them with a move or whether or not they should marry the guy that “borrowed” their life savings to start a head shop. The lies that seem less excusable are the ones that I’ve been telling myself. If I keep lying to myself, nothing will ever change. And something inside me has to give.

canstockphoto10829751I’ve been out walking in the woods this week. Some days, I think that if I just keep walking, the pretensions would slide off of me, all the raw neediness would be exposed, and I’d see whatever truth it is that I am supposed to see. Meditation in motion.

The truth is, the universe doesn’t give a shit whether I write or not. I imagine that the universe would prefer that some of us would just shut up – it’s a noisy planet. The truth is, I won’t die if I don’t write and I don’t owe talent or ego anything.

The truth is, I just can’t seem to let it go, this idea of writing, this idea of actually being something. And this novel – the truth is that it’s awful because I’ve been trying to be a real writer and I’m not one. But I’ve always been a bit of a liar and sometimes liars who don’t lie anymore are really good at telling stories.