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Brad Listi

It’s Kind of Like Creative Herpes

March 2nd, 2009
by Brad Listi

LOS ANGELES-

Every writer I know has trouble writing. Joseph Heller said that once. I would echo it here. Personally I don’t know a single writer who has an easy time writing. Especially fiction. Fiction seems to be a special kind of pain in the ass. Or maybe I’m just projecting.

Another thing I would add is that a lot of writers don’t write very much. And some of them don’t write, period.

It’s a weird phenomenon. Might sound strange, but it’s probably true. I’ve seen it pretty often through the years. Writers who don’t actually write anything. Writers who call themselves writers even though they don’t actually do the work. Writers who look you in the eye with incredible sincerity at cocktail parties and bemoan the fact that they can’t catch a break and get a book deal, even though they have no regular writing regimen, have never finished a novel, and are nowhere close to doing so. It’s odd. And I suspect it’s very common.

And by the same token, nothing is more uncommon than a writer who writes and has an easy, breezy time of it. Just waltzes on through, no problem.

Arundhati Roy won the Booker Prize for The God of Small Things, which was published in 1997 to worldwide acclaim. John Updike, for example, was effusive in his praise, calling it “a work of highly conscious art—a Tiger Woodsian début.” It went on to become an international bestseller and a literary cause cèlèbre, particularly in India, where Roy was both deified and condemned.

In the interview blitz that followed the book’s publication, she would often claim, quite famously, that she didn’t revise a single word of it. The novel came out whole, as is, like some kind of golden turd.

And maybe it’s true. I have no reason to believe that it’s not true. And if it is true, Ms. Roy is pretty extraordinary and deserves our enthusiastic applause. She’s the rare exception rather than the common rule. And really, as a struggling member of the majority, you have to work pretty hard not to hate somebody like that, somebody who just coughs up a novel on the first pass and wins the goddamned Booker Prize. (And she’s beautiful, too.) She cranked out an instant classic sensation that will likely be read around the world for decades to come, and she did it on the first try. (And received nearly a million-dollar advance in the process.)

 

Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of writers have trouble writing.

And here it’s worth noting that Arundhati Roy hasn’t published a single word of fiction since 1997. Supposedly she’s at work on her second novel right now.

Let’s hope so.

 

I do not like to write. I like to have written. Gloria Steinhem said that once. I think this also rings pretty true. Writing is (usually) grueling. It requires a lot. Even this kind of writing, sitting here babbling into cyberspace, can often be grueling. Trying to think of something useful to say. Some days are easier than others. But it’s always a pretty good challenge. There’s always a bit of concern. You always sit here thinking: Am I embarrassing myself?

And the answer, of course, is: usually.

 

In the rear view mirror, writing is almost always easy to romanticize. When it’s not actually almost happening, it’s an absolute joy. You miss it. You fawn over it. You think of it in the fondest possible terms. (And when it is actually happening—meaning you’re actually, really doing it and having a time out of mind experience—which, proportionately speaking, isn’t really all that often—it’s an even greater joy.)

I think this is part of the reason why there are so many “writers” out there who don’t write. A lot of people, at the end of the day, just like to call themselves writers. They like the way it sounds. They like the idea of it. It reminds them of a time they once wrote—and wrote well. The romantic notion of it. The way it goes over at parties. It’s better than saying: “I’m a phone sex operator.” Or: “I change colostomy bags at the local nursing home.”

Then again, there are plenty of downsides.

And really, when I stop and think about it, it’s pretty confusing in a way.

And certainly I’m not trying to condemn anyone on any kind of eternal level, nor do I mean to imply that I have it all figured out. I struggle with the wide majority pretty much everyday.

In fact, there’s a part of me that stands in awe of anyone would ever lay claim to being a writer without good reason. Even the late great David Foster Wallace used to struggle with the identity; he used to balk when people asked him what he did for a living and would often say, quite awkwardly, that he “worked in English.” Or else he would say he was a teacher. This from a guy who was pretty much King Shit in the world of literary fiction. I find that telling.

 

I’m a writer.

If you’re not actually writing regularly, it’s sort of a ridiculous thing to say. And even if you are actually writing regularly, it’s sort of a ridiculous thing to say. There’s a certain amount of recklessness inherent in the claim. If you’re a writer who doesn’t write and you talk about writing in public and tell people close to you that you’re writing (even though you don’t actually write very much), well…that’s actually kind of masochistic in a way. Not to mention dishonest. But in a strange way it’s also kind of brave.

I like to joke that one of the best things I ever did in my career was to tell everyone close to me that I was going to write a novel back when I was twenty-one and dumb and fresh out of college. I remember right after graduation I went to a family wedding and stood around all fresh-faced and boozy talking to aunts and uncles and cousins and friends, wearing the coat and tie, receiving congratulations and answering twenty questions about the future.

“So what are you gonna do now? What kind of career path are you gonna pursue now that you’ve graduated college?”

“I’m gonna write a novel.”

“Really?”

“Without a doubt.”

“That’s terrific! What a wonderful thing to do!”

(By the way: People love it when you tell them that you’re gonna write a novel. Almost no one will tell you that it’s a shitty idea and a risky proposition at best. At least not to your face.)

 

So anyway: If logic doesn’t prevail, and you do wind up going that route, and you’re actually serious about it, and you actually try to write, then you have to gird yourself for the inevitable outcome. You have to be prepared to hear about it for however many years it takes. On holidays. At cocktail parties. Over dinner. Via e-mail. Your disclosure will follow you around like a phantom, like a curse, tugging on your pant leg at inopportune moments, shadowing your every move.

“How’s the novel going?”

“What?”

“How’s the novel going?”

“Ummm…great?”

“What’s it about?”

“Ummm.”

(I’ve said this many times before, and I’ll say it again: If you need a good shorthand response to the time-honored question “What’s your novel about?”, here it is: It’s about the death of hope. Log that one into your memory bank for use at a later date. It’s generally pretty foolproof, and it might well come in handy someday as a surefire conversation ender.)

 

So yeah. Another tangent on the writing life. I’m sitting here now, late at night, and my brain is starting to fade. I need to go to bed. I hope I’m making half-sense.

The central idea, really, is the oddity of it. The oddity of writing. Trying to put the words in the right order. How absurd it can often be. How excruciatingly difficult and maddening and frustrating, and so on. How much inertia is often involved. How much waiting. And how completely and utterly enjoyable it is in spite of these things for those of us afflicted with the disease. And that—all sappy romanticism aside—is most assuredly what it is. It’s a disease. It’s an affliction. Or at the very least, a compulsion. Or an obsession. Or an obsessive-compulsion. And it seems likely that you either have it or you don’t. And if you have it, forget about it. You’re absolutely fucked. There’s no stopping it.

And if you don’t have it, then you’re likely to know that, too, because you’ll be able to take it or leave it with relative ease. You’ll be able to write—or not—whenever you want. And it will have very little impact on your mood.

How do you know if you have the disease? Simple. (And I’m paraphrasing Lorrie Moore here.) Just try to do something else. Go ahead. Give it a shot. Be a barber. Or a tax attorney. Or a topless dancer. Or a private eye. Do that for a while, and see how it goes. If you still find yourself getting up two hours before dawn to sit in front of your computer to stare at a flashing cursor in a slack-jawed state of quiet frustration, profound elation, and mild-to-major self-loathing, then you know you’ve got the curse. You know that you’ve got the disease.

In which case: Start telling people. Make it public. Or don’t. It’s your call. It’s totally up to you.

And if you don’t have the disease, and you’re not really a terminal case, you can still tell people that you are a writer, if for some reason that floats your boat. Just be aware of the fact that, in doing so, you’re essentially telling people that you have a crazy, incurable disease that you don’t actually have—which is sort of a heavy thing to do, when you really stop and think about it.

-BL

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182 Comments »

Comment by Dawn Corrigan
2009-03-02 04:17:44

This is true, what you say here.

I would revise the Steinem quote (which I love, and hadn’t seen before) to say, I do not like to write. I like to rewrite.

My novel is about the rebirth of hope.

That is all.

Comment by Brad Listi
2009-03-02 09:21:19

I think we should have a comment board contest to see who can come up with the funniest conversation-ender when it comes to the question: So what’s your novel about?

Comment by Phat B
2009-03-02 10:15:37

I officially nominate the following:

“It’s about people coming to terms with things from their past”

This can also work for screenplays.

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Comment by Irwin
2009-03-02 10:24:54

I nominate:

”It’s an in depth exploration in minding your own fucking business”

”It’s about a boy who discovers he’s a boy wizard and goes to wizard school’

and

”It’s about the loss of feeling and what it means to be human in our increasingly de-sensitized world.”

 
 
Comment by Becky
2009-03-02 10:26:31

“It’s a poem about death.”

(This will turn off the laypeople. To turn off other poets, say, “It’s a poem about love.”)

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Comment by Gloria
2009-03-02 10:44:06

Ha! That’s brilliant

I was ghost writing a book with a friend last year. If anyone asked what it was about I would tell them that it was about the emergence of the ego in mankind as a defense mechanism against a traumatic event, which we all shared, and now store in our collective unconscious. No one ever questioned it further.

 
Comment by Becky
2009-03-02 10:59:43

Totally. Straight over their heads. That’s another strategy. Or you could borrow a nonsense phrase from the Postmodernism Generator:

http://www.elsewhere.org/pomo/

 
 
 
Comment by Patrick George
2009-03-10 13:50:10

Yes, it was Fran Liebowitz who said most writers loath writing but love “having written.”

 
 
Comment by Irwin
2009-03-02 04:58:22

I hate writing. I love writing. It’s a love/hate thing.

This is a weird analogy, but writing to me is like having a bath when I was about 7. I’d hate the prospect of having to do it, but once I got into it I didn’t want to get out. Once I’m sat down writing I never want to stop.

I’ve had a couple of dreams in my life, usually as a direct result of watching films. Everytime I watch a Bond film I consider applying to MI6. But the one dream that never dies is writing.

I think you told me I had the disease.

And fiction is a pain in the ass. I think the hardest thing is coming up with an original story, or that’s where I struggle anyway…

Comment by Brad Listi
2009-03-02 09:22:02

I told you that you are diseased.

Comment by Irwin
2009-03-02 10:26:08

You’re not the first, and you won’t be the last…

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Comment by Brad Listi
2009-03-02 11:37:56

It’s a blessing, really.

 
Comment by Irwin
2009-03-02 15:39:52

I just realised you linked to one of my blogs. (I tend not to open links if I can avoid it, because 9 times out of 10 it will crash the internet.)

Also, I couldn’t thought you were making a joke, like I was a rabied rat or something.

 
Comment by Irwin
2009-03-02 18:12:45

for some reason I’ve dumped ‘couldn’t’ into the middle of a sentence.

I should probably give up this writing lark..

 
 
 
 
Comment by Becky
2009-03-02 06:02:54

“Especially fiction. Fiction seems to be a special kind of pain in the ass.”

Of course, my immediate though here is, “You don’t write much poetry.”

Ultimately, I think every writer thinks they’re tackling the most challenging, masochistic genre out there.

I’m a writer who doesn’t do much writing.

For the moment, I mostly think about writing and work with other writers to get still other writers published.

But the more I learn about writing, the more I’m beginning to think that any schmuck can write (and regularly and diligently), but it takes a truly dedicated idiot to sit around trying to accomplish writerly things with other writers and creative people. To use a tired but appropriate metaphor, it is like herding cats.

So, to an extent, to say “I’m a writer” indicates a lifestyle choice as much as a vocation or habit. That is what I’ve decided. When I was writing 300 poems in a year and tossing out 280 of them, I though anyone who wasn’t churning stuff out at that rate had no right to call his/herself a writer. Not when I was obsessed the way I was. Not when I was glued to my computer, trying to write the next great American poem. At 25. Save the world and shit. I. Me. I was it. I was a writer.

Bleh. “Writer” is a personality trait–perhaps a flaw. Whatever it is, you know, more or less instantly, if someone who describes themselves that way is full of shit, whether they’re writing much or not.

Comment by Brad Listi
2009-03-02 09:23:39

Yeah, it might even be harder to say you’re a poet—to lead with that. And yes, generally speaking, I think it’s true that the type of writing that gives you the most pleasure is also the type of writing that bugs you the most.

Comment by Becky
2009-03-02 10:13:39

Here’s how it goes (after a hurriedly masked look of “is she serious?”):

“A poet? That’s cool. I don’t really GET poetry, myself…”

Without fail. Every time. I swear to God.

What they mean, of course, is that they’ve never tried and really have no interest.

It makes me want to kick people in the teeth. But then they might not buy my book someday.

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Comment by Matt
2009-03-02 11:01:08

My last girlfriend immediately dismissed all of my poetry without ever reading it. Because evidently, ALL poetry is self-indulgent angsty teenage crap not worth reading.

I’ll admit I’m a mediocre poet, and am certain my professors mostly gave me As for effort and thorough workshop feedback. But still.

I’ve had similar experiences to yours in public. See my post a bit down the page.

 
Comment by Becky
2009-03-02 11:40:23

I get pissed about people saying that in general. About poetry, I mean.

Other literature majors. LIT MAJORS. “I don’t really get poetry. Don’t really care for it.”

Well then you are in the wrong line of study, my friend.

That’s what I want to say. “Why don’t you walk across the street to the journalism school if you’re only interested in prose and fiction.”

 
Comment by Dana
2009-03-02 12:19:25

This won’t surprise you, but I don’t get poetry. Only that’s not really true, because I do like some poetry — I just can’t imagine ever sitting down and reading a book of poetry. And what Rich Ferguson does — I like THAT. There are probably a lot of people out there that I would like, but don’t even know about.

But anyway, I have said that before — in fact I think I said it to Rich, but it was really just a shortcut for “I don’t know very much about poetry.”

 
Comment by Becky
2009-03-02 12:49:57

I maintain, completely, that most people who say, “I don’t like poetry” are actually saying “I’m intimidated by poetry.”

I know because that was me. And I had a creative writing teacher who finally cut right to the chase and called me a scaredy-cat, basically.

My fiction was awful, but my prose was florid. “Do you like poetry,” he asked, and I launched in to the standard diatribe about how I thought it was stupid and didn’t make any sense, and I didn’t have any patience for that kind of beating-around-the-bush shit.

And after trying other angles unsuccessfully, he called me a chickenshit.

And I’ve been a poet ever since.

True story.

 
Comment by Irwin
2009-03-02 15:51:00

Alot of people are intimidated by poetry, but it’s not their fault.

You can’t really expect a 14 year old to really dig Wordsworth or Blake of Coleridge— or even Whitman.

And that tends to scare people off for life.

I prefer prose to poetry, and I’ve been exposed to some awful and intimidating poetry.

But I’ll never dismiss it because its poetry. I have great respect for poetry, and Dana mentioned Rich Ferguson, I really like what he does, or what I’ve heard anyway. Because it’s exciting and engaging.

School tends to drop kids in at the deep end of poetry, some kids swim, some drown.

 
Comment by Becky
2009-03-02 16:17:59

I was sort of a Jack Sparrow story, then.

Devoured by the Kraken, sunk, and brought back from Davy Jones’ locker, slightly crazier than when I went under.

Something like that.

Honestly, what it usually takes is one poet that you really identify with and one really good guide to show you what’s in there. Once you realize the basic tools for reading poetry–once you have that epiphany–it’s like the heavens open up…or the ATM malfunctions and just starts spitting out money at you.

You can tell by my kick-ass similes that I’m a poet.

 
 
 
 
Comment by Beth
2009-03-02 06:14:38

I have the disease. There’s no 12 step program to cure it. Instead of an STD version, I have the OCD type…. Compulsion to write, those voices in my head, constantly narrating…..looking at everything in the world with a skewed vision as to how to capture it on paper…

If there was an elixir to fix this, I wouldn’t consume it.

An author friend (who’s done two series) said once that writers only stop writing because of deadline. Otherwise, we would be reworking and rewriting forever (except that Roy woman you mentioned). She’s right.

Brad, we have a state-wide competition for 7-8 grade writers here -I coordinate our Region and the tournament is this Saturday. 45 schools. They travel from all over to get here at 8 in the morning, and in 3 rounds of writing, 40 minutes each, have to write a great work based on a prompt they are just given. By hand and in pen. 3 times in a row. I don’t know how they do it. Their work is immediately judged against their peers. But you can tell the kids who have the worst of the disease- they’re the ones standing on the stage with the trophies at the end of the day.

It’s an awesome affliction.

Comment by Brad Listi
2009-03-02 09:24:12

Beth, where is your gravatar?

http://www.gravatar.com

 
 
Comment by Jeffrey Pillow
2009-03-02 06:17:13

I’ve been trying to remember Arundhati Roy’s name for a week now. Who was the female writer who said she never revised a single word? I kept asking myself. Now it’s revealed again. I read The God of Small Things in a Violence and Representation seminar once. My professor gave the quote from Roy you noted. I’ve been trying to live by that: not editing or revising, just writing, no matter what comes out. It’s fun. But when I’m finished (whenever that will be), I’ve got a lot of editing to do.

Loved this article and agree with just about every word. Behind my back I always wonder, not really care, but wonder what someone says when I say I’m writing a non-fiction book or a novel. I know they think I’m a *dreamer* and they couldn’t be more write. It’s good to dream. And it’s good to try and make a dream a reality.

Comment by Brad Listi
2009-03-02 09:26:25

It beats bailing hay.

Comment by Tawni
2009-03-02 13:54:04

A lot of things beat baling hay, said the former farm girl. Itchy, heavy bales of hay, sticking to your sweaty skin.

Except grouting tile. I recently grouted tile and decided that I have finally found the activity I will be performing eternally in hell. (As I sit between Ann Coulter and Billy Mays, listening to “We Built This City on Rock and Roll” on a constant loop, I mean.)

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Comment by Becky
2009-03-02 14:04:30

Nothing smells better, though.

Than hay, I mean.

Also, like a lot of “barn people,” I like the smell of horseshit.

I’m going to write a Proustian opus on it, I think.

 
Comment by Tawni
2009-03-02 14:27:36

Best smell ever.

We had one of those giant silver corrugated steel outbuildings on our farm, in which we stored all of the season’s hay to feed the horses during the winter. The bales were stacked twenty feet high in places. I used to crawl around in there and build forts, or just hide and read a book. I dearly loved the hay barn.

Hay, horseshit, saddle leather and that grain with the molasses mixed in that the farmers call “sweet feed.” All make me swoon nostalgically.

And I eagerly await your Proustian opus. :)

 
Comment by Becky
2009-03-02 14:42:25

It’s intoxicating.

And not to be confused with cow shit, which just stinks.

The Barn. Such a heady place. Whenever I’m back after a long absence, I have to just stand in the aisle and savor the aroma. Grab the nearest equine and huff its neck.

Dirt, poop, grass, grain, leather, and dust. Beautiful.

Did your barn also have a shavings pile? That was a fun place. Ours had 30+ horses, and usually a mountain of wood shavings for their stalls. Took up almost a whole barn. You could ski down it.

 
Comment by Tawni
2009-03-02 15:00:33

Any time I drive past a cow or hog farm, I have to drawl in my most farmer-ish voice, “Smells like money!” My husband hates when I do that. (Which makes it even better, of course.)

I was going to add dust to my list of nostalgic smells, but I meant the dust that rises off a horse neck when you pat it, and didn’t know how to say it. You totally knew what I meant anyhow.

We used that cheap yellow chaff/straw/hay for the stalls, and fed the horses from the good fescue or alfalfa bales. (No fescue for the pregnant livestock obviously.)

The wood shavings sound like they might be huge pain in the ass during stall mucking-out time. Yes? But I bet they smelled dreamy when they were clean. Mmmmmmm. Woodsy.

 
Comment by Becky
2009-03-02 15:22:43

Well, one thing that was nice about them was that, of course, most horses don’t soil every square inch of their stalls, so you could pick out the dirtiness, clean up the wet spot, and scrape the clean stuff from the edges/corners.

It was kind of a pain, but also economical. And it did smell good. And I never knew anything else, honestly. As I’m thinking about it, straw seems more difficult. How do you find the little nuggets without taking EVERYTHING out? Did you deal in cattle, too? Because that’s a whole other kind of poop, honestly. Not too many nuggets.

Ah well. We’re creatures of habit, I guess.

Look how fascinated everyone is with our discussion. Riveted. Unable to even talk about anything else.

 
Comment by Tawni
2009-03-02 18:07:13

They are totally riveted.

Sorry! Didn’t mean to leave everyone on the comment board waiting in suspense for my entirely interesting “straw answer.” I left to make dinner and work out. (It just gets more and more riveting, doesn’t it? Try to control yourselves, everyone.)

You’re right. Straw wasn’t very absorbent and didn’t work very well. I remember just shoveling out the entire stall, rather than only getting the nuggets. We had a coop full of chickens and we used the same straw for their floor and to pad their nests. My parents are incredibly cheap, so maybe they just had us use the chicken coop straw in the horse stalls to save money? It’s not like THEY ever mucked out the stalls, so they wouldn’t care if we had it harder than necessary.

We only had a few horses, a donkey, some 4-H sheep, chickens, ducks, geese, a pig; never cattle, thank goodness. Cow pies are so yucky. I would have been so jealous of your 30+ horses. I was a total horse freak. My little artist sister grew up to sculpt those realistic horse models for the Breyer company. She’s living our 12-yar-old girl dreams.

What kind of horses did you have on your farm?

 
Comment by Becky
2009-03-02 19:14:36

Oh, it wasn’t mine. It was just the one I rode at and had to work at in order to help pay for my riding lessons.

Three days a week helping with chores (two weekend afternoons and one Saturday morning) bought me one extra lesson a week. My parents paid for the other lesson, for a grand total of two lessons a week, but I was still constantly at the barn, either working or riding. One of the best periods in my life. My first job, really, but working for something I wanted more than money at that age (11-18). Eventually I got a (very green) horse for reasonably cheap and worked there and rode other people’s horses to help pay his board.

So those 30 horses were comprised of school horses, boarded horses, show horses. Mine was just the one. A huge dark bay Thoroughbred (17.2h) called Dexter.

I rode hunter/jumpers. That barn was mostly Thoroughbreds, Warmbloods, Appendixes, and a few nice quiet Quarter Horses for the beginners. I still get to go out and teach little kids every once in a while. It’s like coming home.

 
Comment by Becky
2009-03-02 19:22:29

Uh. That should say two weekDAY afternoons.

 
 
 
 
Comment by Becky
2009-03-02 07:00:23

Though I do want to add that the only poem I’ve ever written that garnered any kind of recognition was one I wrote in 30 minutes and never edited. People loved it. I didn’t even know what it was about or if it was about anything. I feel no particular affection for it.

This sort of thing happens a lot, I suspect.

Comment by Brad Listi
2009-03-02 09:24:43

Was it called “The Golden Turd?”

Comment by Brad Listi
2009-03-02 09:25:29

I think we should have a comment board contest to see who can write the best impromptu poem called “The Golden Turd.”

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Comment by Brad Listi
2009-03-02 12:22:31

(Nobody likes my contests.)

 
2009-03-02 12:46:53

Prizes. You need prizes.

 
Comment by Gloria
2009-03-02 12:53:09

He used to give away free copies of his books. Now he makes us buy them.

 
Comment by Brad Listi
2009-03-02 13:10:55

Pay up, sweetheart!

 
Comment by Tawni
2009-03-02 15:04:54

I LOVE your contests, Brad.

*makes out with free copy of Attention. Deficit. Disorder.*

 
 
Comment by Becky
2009-03-02 09:59:28

It was called Si, Artimesia. Inspired by Artimesia Gentileschi, but having really very little to do with her in the end.

I wrote a whole herd of ekphrastics and poems that were “portraits” of painters. By and large, people seemed to like them. I was sort of indifferent. I don’t even really like art that much–just artists and their fucked-up lives. So maybe that detachment helped.

You must be detached from a golden turd. Otherwise, it’s just a golden dingleberry.

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Comment by Brad Listi
2009-03-02 11:40:24

Well, now that you’ve told us all about it, why don’t you post “Si, Artimesia” so we can read it?

 
Comment by Becky
2009-03-02 11:47:36

Fuck no.

It didn’t win a pulitzer or anything. Just some crappy monthly award from The AAP. The judge was…I don’t remember his name. The editor of the Drunken Boat. It was years ago.

It’s not hard to find, if you’re so interested. In my defense, all I can say is that I’d only been writing poems for 9 months when I wrote it. I’m sure it’s awful. I look at it now, and I feel nothing. Not a thing. Like I didn’t even write it.

 
Comment by Becky
2009-03-02 11:49:15

And it appears I spelled her name wrong. Bush league, man.

 
Comment by Irwin
2009-03-02 11:54:23

Everything I write I think is crap. Every novel I’ve started I’ve abandoned.

Every blog I write I think is the one where I reveal my complete lack of writing ability.

Every time I submit something to a magazine I think they’re going to laugh at me.

Honestly, were it not for the editor at Kerb, Brad and all you folks who read what I write I would still consider myself less than average.

And if you’re all just humouring me, keep it up!

Self criticism is essential. I’m going to look for it when I get back, I’m sure it’s beautiful.

 
Comment by Becky
2009-03-02 12:08:35

Perfectionism is a blessing and a curse. Compliments make me deeply uncomfortable. I want them all the time. They gave me that prize, and I was happy, but only until I decided it was because the competition was a piece of crap.

And so on. There will never, ever, be anything I can write or do that will satisfy my perfectionism. If I won the goddamn Nobel Prize for Literature, I’d say it meant shit unless people were still talking about me in 2,000 years. In 2,000 years, I’d look back from heaven or Valhalla or wherever and say they’re reading it wrong.

And so on.

I go through periods when I write furiously, trying to conjure up that perfect storm, and periods in which I don’t even bother trying. What’s to be done? Nothing.

 
 
 
 
Comment by amanda
2009-03-02 07:23:52

A couple years ago, I took a writing workshop not for instuction but for the weird companionship that comes from sitting in a room full of people who are all wrestling with words and self-doubt and who at the same time feel compelled to share their work with someone, anyone, who will listen. It was awful!

One evening, I was speaking with the instructor after a particularly grueling class and I said something along the lines of “I don’t really fit in, and am having a hard time with the work I’m tackling right now because it’s sort of personal and just won’t come out right.”

Her response? “All writers want to believe they don’t fit in, and that their work is really tough. It’s because they need to believe that they are uniquely special.”

I was immediately offended, but in that way that just as quickly clarifies into a sense of “fuck you for being so right!”

Ohhh writing, why do you torment me so?

Comment by Gloria
2009-03-02 10:28:19

I’m currently taking a writing workshop. I’m going tonight, as a matter of fact. Only, I love it. I’m a bit of an attention whore. So, sitting in a room full of other women, vomiting out some piece of writing in eleven minutes and then reading it aloud and having everyone commend me on how amazing I am is turning out to be a brilliant experience. I’m pretty sure that this type of reinforcement is no good for me in the long run though. I have zero discipline to work hard when there’s no external reinforcement coming at me. So, then, the only times I can sit down and write when I’m alone is when some idea attacks me and the only way to get rid of it is to sit and write it down. But then I never do anything with it. I think I have the disease.

Comment by amanda
2009-03-04 07:00:00

Yeah, I found myself in a room full of women who critiqued one another’s work on a scale inverse to the apparent skill of the writer. So, if you read something awesome, they would tear it apart; if you read something stunted and awful, something suggesting you think “everyone has a story to tell, and anyone can be writer if they just put pen to paper”, they would faun over the piece.

On the one hand this was generous–like only dishing out as much as the person can take. So, if you seemed delicate and like you were giving things a try and really, your writing stank but you were also only doing it on a whim, the ladies would handle you with kid gloves. If you seemed like you really, seriously wanted feedback and hoped to wrestle a publishable piece into submission during the course of those 12 weeks, they would give you what you were asking for–vicious, honest, brutal and critical feedback to take you down a peg and ensure that you worked out ALL the kinks before sending that manuscript to your agent.

Nonetheless, the priss in me couldn’t resist thinking, “oh come ON! That story was practically a tiny dollhouse built from sugar cubes and glued together with syrup! Tell her it was crap and let’s get on with things!”

(I suppose this references the lovely “I might be an asshole” piece posted by Gina the other day…heh…oops…)

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Comment by Megan
2009-03-02 07:50:13

This was great, Brad. The Steinem quote’s a keeper. I find it very reassuring that sometimes it takes award-winning writers 12 years to finish a second novel.

It’s more like a creative yeast infection. Herpes is too…tragic.

Comment by Brad Listi
2009-03-02 09:27:04

Yes, Megan. But a yeast infection goes away with medication.

Herpes is with you for life.

 
 
2009-03-02 08:09:15

It’s an incurable UTI: A burning itch, frequent trips to release with infrequent success, occasional bleeding due to irritation, mild discoloration of the by-product, it has severe consequences if left unattended and is most definitely embarrassing to confess.

Always wipe front to back.

Always.

2009-03-02 08:12:05

p.s. back to Gina’s ‘Asshole’ diatribe for a moment?

Booker Prize, schmooker prize. I hated The God of Small Things. Couldn’t make it through. Kept falling asleep.

 
Comment by Jessica Anya Blau
2009-03-02 08:17:19

Another thing my mother never taught me!

Comment by Jessica Anya Blau
2009-03-02 08:18:11

I was referring to Front to Back.

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2009-03-02 12:01:24

Yeah. My mom never taught me that either.

Somethings you just have to learn the hard way.

Ahem.

 
 
 
Comment by Brad Listi
2009-03-02 09:28:00

I have a physics question: How the fuck does someone wipe back-to-front?

I’m having a hard time even envisioning that.

Is there a YouTube video we can call upon?

Comment by Becky
2009-03-02 10:01:53

It helps to have a vagina.

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Comment by Gloria
2009-03-02 10:29:24

This is true on so many levels.

 
 
Comment by jessica Anya Blau
2009-03-02 10:05:56

To wipe front to back you reach from behind you to wipe. If you have an enormous bottom and a short arm, it can be pretty hard. But assuming somewhat normal anatomy, most women can handle it.

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Comment by Jessica Anya Blau
2009-03-02 12:30:13

Oh yeah. I meant back to front.

 
 
Comment by Gloria
2009-03-02 10:10:19

It involves the arching of the back and the hyper-extending of the shoulder. It can be done.

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Comment by Becky
2009-03-02 10:23:38

That’s front to back. He’s talking about back to front.

Seems simple to us because we have wipeables in the front.

 
Comment by Brad Listi
2009-03-02 11:43:07

This is all so confusing.

 
2009-03-02 11:57:54

Dude. Just think of a reach-around, but in reverse.

 
Comment by Becky
2009-03-02 12:15:30

If you’re a girl, to wipe from back to front (for PEE, never poop), you reach down the front and go from chode to clit.

You never wipe your ass this way because you’ll get shit where it isn’t supposed to be and give yourself an infection.

Some women won’t wipe back to front even for pee for the same reason.

Frankly, I think if you’re careful, back-to-front isn’t a problem for the pee-wipe, as long as you’re careful and you don’t routinely leave shit all over your ass.

Are we all on the same page now?

 
Comment by Brad Listi
2009-03-02 12:21:02

I’m gonna need to see some pictures.

:)

Comment by Gloria
2009-03-02 12:23:31

Who the hell are you talking to?

 
 
Comment by Phat B
2009-03-02 12:23:46

If by same page you mean “totally turned on” then yes, we are on the same page.

 
Comment by Brad Listi
2009-03-02 12:24:12

And by the way, I love how the longest thread on a post about the writing life has to do with how women wipe.

This comment board never ceases to amaze me.

 
Comment by Gloria
2009-03-02 12:26:37

Good job, Becky. I think your explanation is spot on. :)

 
Comment by Becky
2009-03-02 12:38:25

I couldn’t stand the PUSSYfooting around.

There was an issue to be dealt with.

It is dealt with.

Boys, I’m sure you can get the illustrations somewhere online.

 
2009-03-02 12:44:12

Do I win a prize for starting it? ;)

Here’s an annoying, yet hilarious link with a little song to help you remember.

FYI: “Patting” is also an option.

 
Comment by Gloria
2009-03-02 12:54:43

I agree, Becky. No need to beat around the bush.

 
Comment by Becky
2009-03-02 12:57:31

Verily.

 
 
 
 
Comment by Jessica Anya Blau
2009-03-02 08:16:24

I often feel strangely embarrassed to say I’m a writer–I feel like I’m lying, or like I’m making something up. There’s this strange idea that you have to be famous, or have won the Booker Prize or the National Book Award in order to actually claim that you ARE a writer.
I often say I’m a housewife. It’s a conversation ender. No one has any interest in a housewife. And sometimes I say I’m a teacher. That’s a conversation ender, too.
Once I went to a party and said I was a pole dancer. People were much more interested in me (even though I look nothing like the fantasy of a pole dancer).

Comment by Brad Listi
2009-03-02 11:44:04

I often say I’m a community college teacher, and people never believe me. They automatically assume just by looking at me that I’m a pole dancer.

Comment by Jessica Anya Blau
2009-03-02 11:47:55

Wait, I thought you were a pole dancer, too! It’s those heavy-lidded eyes–they scream POLE!

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Comment by Brad Listi
2009-03-02 11:56:45

Damn. I thought it was the butterfly tattoo on my lower back.

 
2009-03-02 13:43:42

Funny. He screams Czech to me.

Ba-dum-bum.

 
Comment by Brad Listi
2009-03-02 13:56:59

I laughed.

 
 
 
 
Comment by jmb
2009-03-02 08:28:52

I think you’ll get lots of Amens from this chorus.
No one realizes the incredible amount of mental anguish it takes to crap out just a handful of decent words, arranged in a semi-attractive and lucid pattern.
Crap, that’s the magic word. We write often but so much of it is crap so we dont tell people we write because then when they ask
“What you been writing lately?”
the true answer - outside those damned flashes and lies of epiphany - is
“Crap. Crap-garbage. Foolishness. Half-truths. Flim-flam. Spraying little streams of Silly String in the air, ha ha.”
So you decide to put your hand to something useful, that has a practical beginning or end like mowing the lawn or cleaning the bathroom and soon as you are just deep enough in the project where you cannot exit quickly - you know what happens right?
Yeah, you know.

That’s why when people ask what I do I say: “I play the music at the skating rink.”

Comment by Becky
2009-03-02 08:41:11

I keep it a secret, too. Only my closest friends are really aware how important it is to me.

Others might know, but they forget. Like I sometimes forget that a friend of mine plays the bagpipes. He doesn’t talk about it much–it’s not like he’s ever doing it when we’re hanging out…so I forget. It’s just some weird hobby of his that isn’t really relevant; no one really understands it or can maintain a conversation about it.

Until you discover that it’s not just a weird hobby; all this time, he’s been a Shriner–plays in the bagpipe band and goes to meetings and practices and everything. A 25 year-old Shriner, just so he can play the bagpipes. It’s this major part of his life that he never, ever talks about.

He will probably never make money bagpiping. But he is a bagpiper. He’s got a kilt and everything.

Comment by Brad Listi
2009-03-02 09:29:44

That is sort of awesome. A bagpiper.

I think your buddy might be missing out. You’re at some party and you tell some chick that you’re a bagpiper, and you’ll probably get laid.

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Comment by Becky
2009-03-02 10:42:45

I don’t think his girlfriend would much care for that.

He’s one of those sort of average (though not ugly) guys that goes around with a really hot girlfriend and confuses people: “WTF is going on there?”

Who would suspect bagpipes? No one.

 
Comment by Brad Listi
2009-03-02 11:58:35

Exactly. And how do you think he got that hot chick?

He bagpiped her.

 
Comment by Dana
2009-03-02 12:28:10

LOL!!

 
Comment by Becky
2009-03-02 13:05:00

Honestly, they are two of the strangest people I’ve ever met. I mean that in the best way possible, of course, but I’m pretty sure neither of them could be with anyone else.

Goofballs. Utterly. Hilarious and custom-made for one another.

 
 
 
Comment by Brad Listi
2009-03-02 09:30:46

And what do they say in response?

Comment by Irwin
2009-03-02 10:31:42

”Can I blow your pipes?”

”Can I fondle your bag?”

I’m now going to write a short pornographic film set in the world of professional bagpipers.

‘Bagpiping’ sounds like dirty slang.

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Comment by Dan
2009-03-02 17:30:12

How about, “Can I bag your pipe?” Or “Can I pipe your bag?” Or “Dude, I bagpiped the shit out of that girl/guy last night!”

 
 
 
 
Comment by Greg Olear
2009-03-02 09:39:35

I think it’s Tolstoy who has a good line about this…he says (and I’m paraphrasing) that because anybody can accomplish the mechanics of writing — putting pen to paper, that is — that people think banging out a novel isn’t that hard…anybody could do it, if they just chose to sit down and do it. And Tolstoy said, Nobody says that about a violinist, that they could play a beautiful piece if they just picked up the instrument, but it’s the same principle.

Someone said this, too: you’re not a writer until someone else says you are.

And Roy is full of golden turd. No one doesn’t edit. Except maybe Kerouac on his coke binge writing “On the Road,” and it shows.

Comment by Becky
2009-03-02 10:54:40

Have you read _The Subterraneans_?

Twice the speed (that is, Benzedrine pills, “bennies,” not coke, I don’t think), half the time, non of OTR’s relative cohesion. Nothing so much as reliable punctuation.

In his defense, however, it is reasonable to say that given the same amount of time and the same amount of drugs, most writers couldn’t do nearly as well, perhaps ESPECIALLY those that rely too heavily on craft. There’s something to be said for ecstatic…ejaculation.

Comment by Becky
2009-03-02 11:04:28

*not even so much as reliable punctuation…

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Comment by Brad Listi
2009-03-02 11:52:13

Uh-oh, Greg. Now you’ve stepped in it.

Don’t…mess…with Jackie boy…

(Becky loves him.)

And at the risk of sounding haughty, I would add that On the Road was written stone sober in about three weeks’ time, at a girlfriend’s apartment. (This is according to a book I read a while back called Subterranean Kerouac, which was written by one of Kerouac’s last editors.) What distinguished OTR from much of Kerouac’s other work was the relative stability and sobriety that accompanied its composition. Kerouac was just hunched over a typewriter for three straight weeks, and this girl he was staying with kept bringing him food and coffee. He was an exceptional athlete (football player at Columbia) and tended to treat writing as an athletic competition of sorts. Hence the marathon sessions at the typewriter and the 1,000-foot scrolls of butcher’s paper or whatever.

Another book that’s commonly thought to have been composed under the influence is Fear and Loathing. Not true. It, too, was written (relatively) stone sober. And the trip to Vegas that Thompson took while on assignment for Rolling Stone was also a relatively sober enterprise. The reason it reads so realistically, of course, is because Thompson had done all those drugs in other times and places and knew what the experiences were like firsthand.

Few writers can write well while under the influence. That’s my guess.

I’m terrible past two glasses of wine. Drug of choice: caffeine. Always.

Anyway….

 
Comment by Becky
2009-03-02 12:22:22

It’s not Jackie. It’s Ti-Jean.

That was his nickname. His real first name was Jean (or Jean Louis), and “ti” is a French diminutive that his French-Canadian grandmother (I think) used. “Little John.” Like in Robin hood.

N00bs.

 
Comment by Brad Listi
2009-03-02 12:25:49

Oh, so now you’re a member of the family?

For the record, I actually knew that. Ti-Jean.

 
Comment by Becky
2009-03-02 12:34:11

We’re all one, Brad.

We’re all family.

Especially Jack and me and other people who are awesome.

 
Comment by Becky
2009-03-02 16:40:24

Here’s one for the hippies:

“I want to work in revelations, not just spin silly tales for money. I want to fish as deep down as possible into my own subconscious in the belief that once that far down, everyone will understand because they are the same that far down.”

And just a good one:

“I hope it is true that a man can die and yet not only live in others but give them life, and not only life, but that great consciousness of life.”

 
Comment by Brad Listi
2009-03-02 20:39:14

Ti-Jean.

 
Comment by Becky
2009-03-03 05:43:23

A was going to post a link to a video of him, but all the old film is so crummy, it didn’t do very well in the digital transition.

But it’s out there, and he’s kind of like a puppy. A puppy with a big, grating accent who can talk about Jesus in such a way that you don’t realize it until an hour after you’ve posted the quote.

I thought that was about writers at first.

 
 
 
 
Comment by Jon
2009-03-02 09:43:42

My question is…. once the writing is finished, and your book and/or screenplay has sold, and it’s going to become part of public consciousness…

How do you separate your actual “Self” from the work that you produce?

Is there any true separation? When you eventually Google yourself, to see what people are saying about your work, and you stumble across something nasty, how much do you take it personally? Is it possible to distance yourself? Do you say “Well, they’re talking about the work, not about ME, so it’s alright, no harm no foul…” Or does it stab you to the heart of your creative soul?

This is something that I am going to have to deal with soon, and I’m not quite sure how to approach it.

Comment by jessica Anya Blau
2009-03-02 10:20:03

This may sound sort of hokey, apologies if it does. I actually say to myself, sometimes aloud, that I am not my work and that I exist exactly as I am whether the work exists or not. This should be applied to everything, rejection, criticism, even praise, which you don’t want to count on to define you because it, too, will dissolve into nothingness. Everything, the good and the bad has to exist outside of you and float outside of you so that you remain who you are no matter what’s happening out there.
I know, I know, sounds very So. Cal. and touchy-feely, but it works for me.

 
Comment by Brad Listi
2009-03-02 12:12:19

My two cents: Neither criticism nor praise is ever (absolutely) true. The tendency, of course, is to feel hurt and angry when reading a shitty review, and elated when a good one comes along. Believe in either too much, and you’re doing yourself a great disservice. The truth is that the “truth” about your work is always somewhere in the middle.

I remember not long after my book came out, I got two emails in the span of a week. One of them was from a young woman who read my novel in one very bleak night, and she told me that it was one of the best books she’d ever read and it prevented her from killing herself. Sort of heavy, but also quite heartwarming in a way. I felt great, getting that letter. Maybe two days later, I got an email from a guy who absolutely tore the book to shreds and told me to go fuck myself, essentially, for wasting his time.

It’s actually kind of funny in a way. And really, within the context of art, it’s totally appropriate and even normal.

In theory, it’s a bad idea to believe in criticism or praise, because when you do so, you’re focusing on things you can’t control. You can’t control how people will respond to your work, and when you react to it, it winds up detracting from the thing you can control—namely, how well and how hard you work at your writing. Easier said than done, of course, but that’s the nut of it.

One of my favorite ways to think about it comes in this quote from Kingsley Amis, who said: A bad review always spoils my breakfast, but it never spoils my lunch.

That’s how I try to approach it myself.

Comment by Irwin
2009-03-02 17:39:45

I have to say, I’ve never hated a book enough to write to the author personally to tell him to go fuck himself.

Then again I only really skim-read Attention. Deficit. Disorder…

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Comment by Brad Listi
2009-03-02 20:38:14

Heh.

Great art provokes strong reactions!

 
 
 
 
Comment by Gina Frangello
2009-03-02 09:52:11

This is brilliant, Brad.
I love to write and am not prone to writer’s block. I binge write. However I’m fucking amazingly talented at making my life so busy and chaotic that I have no time to write on a daily basis. Which really, I think, just amounts to an Overwhelming Fear that if I were able to write more regularly, the “block” would find me and I would come to hate writing. For me, writing is like the guilty affair. I’m hot for it and passionate about it because I can’t have it that often. I teach and run a book press and have 3 small children, etc. A day of writing is like sneaking off to the hotel room on the wrong side of town. It’s hot.
If I were ever to have an endless stretch of time before me in which to do nothing but write, I would possibly be paralyzed.
I tell my students exactly what you say here, and what Lorrie Moore, a former prof of mine, wrote, yes: if you can do anything else, by all fucking means DO. Do you really want to be broke and embarrassed at cocktail parties for the rest of your life because no one understands what you do and why you aren’t as famous as Stephen King if you’ve been babbling about it for so damn long? No, I thought not. Go become a lawyer if you can. Even working the counter at Starbucks sounds pretty good.
But if you’re Incurable then none of that will matter.

 
Comment by Autumn
2009-03-02 10:36:47

I caressed my computer screen and it spit at me. What gives?

I loved this post.

Comment by Brad Listi
2009-03-02 12:14:48

You need to find the g-spot.

(Thanks, Autumn!)

 
 
Comment by Richard Cox
2009-03-02 10:48:34

After I finished a novel a month or so ago, I decided I was going to take some time off from writing. Burnout, I told myself.

But after a few weeks I started tinkering with a new idea in my head, and then started making notes, and I guess there isn’t a cure for this disease except death.

Comment by Brad Listi
2009-03-02 12:16:25

Maybe writers, when they reach a certain point, should be destroyed like horses. And made into book glue.

 
Comment by Tawni
2009-03-02 14:07:19

I’ve read two of your books (t.b.a. and Rift) and am presently reading The God Particle.

I’m immensely enjoying your disease, Richard. :)

Comment by Richard Cox
2009-03-03 09:26:44

Thank you, Tawni. If I’ve infected even one person, it’s success!!

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Comment by Matt
2009-03-02 10:49:03

I’m a writer. I say it with pride, even though my list of publications can be counted on one hand, with a few fingers left over.

For a long time though, I didn’t advertise it. Not out of shame, mind, but because of two very frequently repeated circumstances:

1.) I immediately get asked “Well, what do you write? Is it anything like (fill in popular author’s name here)?” And I have to say no, I’m not a genre writer, I focus on general fiction or mainstream lit–terms I started using because people’s eyes would glaze over when I just said “literature.” Apparently there’s a large section of the book-buying public that is completely oblivious to the fact that there are reams and reams of fiction books that don’t fit into any of the horror/mystery/scifi/fantasy/romance categories.

(Before anyone pounces on me, I read and enjoy all sorts of genre stuff. I just can’t write it.)

2.) The person I’m talking to is one of those with the Idea ( and I’m sure other writers here have shared this experience): They find out that I’m a writer, and confess that they’ve always had a big Idea for a great book/script/tv series etc. but they don’t know what to do with it and if we were to get together, we could bring the Idea to fruition and make scads and scads of money. They always envision some sort of 60-40 split, of course.

To which I always tell them, the Idea is only 10%. The rest is all the ass-in-chair hard work: research (when needed), writing, rewriting, soliciting criticism, rewriting again…if I’m doing 90% of the work, I’m taking 90% of the credit/profits. What they should really be doing with their Idea is the same thing I do with mine: sit down at the desk, turn on the computer (or open the notebook or whatever) and start typing. First one word, and then another, and then another, until they’re done.

My token response these days for when someone asks what my novel in progress is about: “It’s about the same thing every other peace of great art is about.” “I’ll give you hint: three letters, and the first on is ’s.’”

Comment by Irwin
2009-03-02 11:00:22

You’re writing a novel about Sam too?

I love writing fiction, but I’m much better at writing non-fiction. I always lose faith in my ideas.

And I struggle between writing identities. I want to write serious fiction in first person, but most of what I write, fiction wise, is incredibly silly third person stuff.

I’m also finding that once you get accustomed to the almost instant feedback nature of online writing I crave almost instant feedback

Comment by Matt
2009-03-02 11:28:11

Yes, yes. Dear beloved Sam.

I make myself finish whatever it is I’m doing, regardless of whether I’ve lost faith in it or not, because I can never really tell whether something is working or not until I can see the complete thing.

I don’t give good goddamn about my writing identities. I like to tell stories. Some of them are sad, some are funny, some are unsettling or creepy…and sometimes I’ll write it as a short story, or film script, or stage play, or a poem. Whatever format serves the story best. The world tries to pigeonhole us enough as it is. I’m not going to do that to myself.

And dude, legions of your countryfolk have established entire careers on work that is incredibly silly, and also very intelligent and sublimely wonderful. I mean, let’s see: Oscar Wilde, P.G. Wodehouse, Terry Pratchett, The Pythons, Fry & Laurie…this list could go on for pages. Nothing to be ashamed about.

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Comment by Irwin
2009-03-02 11:48:25

I’m trying to get better at not bailing out. And I am actually pretty sure my third person stuff is funny. I was reading back some of it, from a few years ago, and it still made me laugh. It didn’t feel as though it was written by me.

I have a strange lack of confidence when it comes to writing, screw it, I’m going to re-write bits, write new bits and pull it all together.

It’s very stupid and self-deprecating.

If I’m going to finish anything though it’ll be that, at least I have a full plot for that. Actually for 2-3 years it was a couple of short stories in one place, then about 3am a few nights ago I suddenly had an idea that would bring them all together.

It really has got to the point where I need to finish something of length and be a ‘proper’ writer.

I have finished stuff, that was equally silly. Good god, this may be an epiphany. I’m a silly writer….

And don’t forget Douglas Adams… the silliest/best series of books I’ve ever read.

 
Comment by Matt
2009-03-02 12:24:37

It’s very easy to be dour and sad and depressing. Humor takes practice and talent.

 
Comment by Irwin
2009-03-02 16:02:55

The annoying thing is humour comes very naturally to me, and its infintitely more fun. But I keep getting the feeling I want to write a ‘proper’ novel.

Fuck it, as of tomorrow I’m mapping out my ’silly novel.’ I found an old list of characters that made me laugh.

I do quite like the idea(s) it’s basically intertwining novellas set in one town leading up to the apocalypse. The cause of the apocalypse, I’m convinced, is mildly hilarious.

Hell, it’s the only idea I have that has a rough beginning, middle and end…

 
 
 
Comment by Gloria
2009-03-02 11:09:39

I don’t talk about my writing with my mom. Ever. At least, I don’t initiate the conversation. Any time I’m bitching about my finances, or my divorce, or my crappy job, she always has the same response, “Well, I just can’t wait for you to publish that book you’re working on! You’ll be the next JK Rowling. You know she also was a poor single mom, and you’re such a great writer….” For the record, my mom has read a total of TWO short pieces I’ve written. And I don’t even write fiction, which I’ve explained to her, but she still brings up the Rowling example. Like, perhaps if I just came up with a brilliant story about a boy wizard… And every time she launches into this, I have to dig my nails into my table to keep from screaming. I write narrative nonfiction. I tried to explain this to her once. “It’s like the stuff Sarah Vowell writes, Mom.” Who’s Sarah Vowell? Dig the nails in further. Or worse, “So, it’s like the Chicken Soup For The Soul books?” Somebody fucking shoot me. I feel like screaming at her - “NO MOM!IT’S ABOUT YOOUUUUU!” But then I don’t. Basically, when my mom calls we stick to conversations about the weather and the children.

Comment by Irwin
2009-03-02 16:05:21

For some reason I never mention my writing ambitions to my parents. I think mostly out of fear that they’ll read it. It’s nothing embarrassing either, it’s just the idea of them reading it weirds me out.

It’s also because I know my relatives would be just like your mom.

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Comment by Jordan
2009-03-02 11:07:56

I don’t advertise that I’m a writer. I don’t deny it, either. I’ll be the girl writing long notes-to-self via text message. I’ll ask you for some paper at your house party. The inspiration almost always hits at strange times, and it’s nearly impossible to harness when it does.

I’ve never set myself the goal of painstaking novel writing. I’ve never liked the idea that creativity might one day feel like a chore, no matter how rewarding the final outcome. My first piece of fiction was a 198 page [unfinished] Word document about *Nsync. I started it in 6th grade. It was solid proof of my awesomeness. My mom tossed the computer “without thinking” one weekend while I was visiting my dad. Still breaks my heart.
Wah!

 
Comment by tammy allen
2009-03-02 11:07:56

I’m an Advertising Copywriter. I always get a blank stare.

Comment by Tawni
2009-03-02 13:33:33

I was an Advertising Copywriter for a while for a television/cable company. I know what you do, Tammy. Are you radio, television, print, or all of the above?

Comment by tammy allen
2009-03-02 14:08:07

All of the above

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Comment by Joshua Jackson
2009-03-02 11:59:40

I do not have it. But you guys do, which I am greatful for.

Comment by Joshua Jackson
2009-03-02 12:01:17

“grateful”, not greatful. I hate typos. Sorry.

Comment by Brad Listi
2009-03-02 12:19:44

It’s a symptom of the disease, Joshua. Are you sure you’re not a closet case?

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Comment by Dana
2009-03-02 12:58:28

I’m definitely a closet case. I think I was about 11 when I started my first novel.
I won some little awards in high school (fiction and non-fiction) but when my education ended prematurely without a degree I never thought about it much anymore. When I got online and started communicating through the keyboard my love of writing came back immediately. Not that I’ve written much of anything structured, but I do love to craft emails and posts in forums.

 
Comment by Irwin
2009-03-02 16:09:13

Reading this made me think about how long I’ve been writing.

It was pretty frightening to suddenly realise I’ve actually been trying to write a novel since I was 10, possibly younger.

If I ever finish a novel I’m going to call it ‘Chinese Democracy.’

 
Comment by Greg Olear
2009-03-02 17:34:25

Hee hee. That’s a good one, Irwin!

 
 
 
 
Comment by John
2009-03-02 12:22:09

I wish I had the disease called “self-confidence.” I sit in front of a computer for hours at a time, but rarely does anything… ANYTHING survive the merciless “select all, delete.” I’ll read what I just spent hours on, automatically compare it to my betters, realize I will never live up, and then kill it all with one mighty blow of my little finger.
I have the writing disease, what Michael Chabon calls “the midnight disease”, but unfortunately not the talent or education to go with it.
Thusly, my stint in the Air Force doing military acquisitions. Now THAT’s life!

Comment by Matt
2009-03-02 12:33:08

Fuck that. Finish it. That’s the most important step right there. Then stick it in a drawer or something for a month or so, and come back when you think you can look at it more objectively. Sure, it might still suck, but then again it might not; you might seen things in it you didn’t notice or think about before, you might identify what some of your particular weaknesses are, figure out how you can fix them.

All those people you consider “your betters” spent years practicing and honing their craft, and had to deal with rejection and insecurity as well.

Comment by Becky
2009-03-02 13:59:00

I tell myself this kind of thing all the time.

Then I remember that The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock–a pillar of American literature and one of its first true poetic masterworks–was written when Eliot was 22 years old. A sort of goof. Just a kid giving it a shot. No real experience.

Then I consider burning everything I’ve ever written.

I should find idols with less native talent. I would probably feel better about myself.

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Comment by Matt
2009-03-02 15:18:27

Eliot also wasn’t distracted with all of the day-to-day crap we had to deal with. I’m actually a little terrified to think about what he might have done with the Internet.

(In the chat room the women come and go, talking about Michelangelo)

I may never be equal to Kurt Vonnegut or Edgar Allen Poe or David Foster Wallace, but that doesn’t mean I’m a talentless twerp who’d be better off becoming a CPA. I might never write anything that becomes an American classic, but that doesn’t invalidate my desire to write or my status as a creative person.

Mind you, it took me the better part of ten years to firmly reach this conclusion….

 
Comment by Becky
2009-03-02 17:21:40

I tried to write a poem once, about the sort of mob scene of poetic influence that exists in my head.

It didn’t turn out very well, but it was interesting to consider.

What it would look like, what the situation would be, if they were all sitting in a room together, doing their stereotypical worst.

Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton trading sobs, trying to out-lunatic one another, Ginsberg shouting and pounding his pulpit, Whitman running around naked, Kerouac drunk, head lolling, him carrying on about stars and beautiful girls, and T.S. Eliot, like some kind of creepy rector presiding over the whole mess, trying to calm everyone with that hypnotic, tremoring voice of his.

I love that scene.

 
 
 
Comment by Irwin
2009-03-02 16:34:19

Thats the main reason I’ve never finished a novel.

The one I’ve decided I’m going to write, no matter what, I gave up on after reading Douglas Adams, Kurt Vonnegut and Tom Robbins.

Everything I write I doubt and dismiss, but other people seem to like it…

Comment by Becky
2009-03-02 17:54:41

I think it’s good to read, and read a lot. But I try not read too much too close to the actual act of writing.

For one, I’m a mimic. Whatever I’ve been reading finds its way into my writing and I can’t sustain a voice. It’s not purposeful…just a bit like trying to remember the words to one song when a different song is stuck in your head. Whatever I’m writing will sound like it was written by 2,3,6 different people.

The other reason is exactly as you say–I hover over every word, wondering if it’s as perfect a choice as the one I just read. I can’t get anywhere. I’m evaluating stuff before it even makes it on to the paper.

It’s no way to work.

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Comment by Irwin
2009-03-02 18:27:40

I’m a terrible mimic.

I like to think eventually my ‘influences’ blend into something unique to me. The novel I’m writing (so pretentious) started directly after reading Kurt Vonnegut for the first time and in the stuff I wrote two years ago that really comes across- with constant references to Slaughterhouse 5 as well.

It was basically one step from fan-fiction.

 
Comment by Becky
2009-03-02 18:45:12

It’s a real pitfall. I mean, you have to look out for this kind of thing.

I’m always noticing the things that stick, though–those things that actually become part of my voice and don’t go away.

“I mean”/”you know”: I start/end a lot of sentences this way. I know better somehow, but it has some kind of extra symbolic value to me…things written that way are supposed to read a certain way. It’s not carelessness. I think it’s Holden Caulfield’s voice.

Calling people saints and rectors and all that religious terminology is the Beats…

They’re just little habits I notice that other people wouldn’t, necessarily, but I know they aren’t native to me. Parasitic voice. Something like that. Symbiotic, but parasitic, anyway.

 
Comment by Irwin
2009-03-02 19:16:53

I tend to find I’l lread something, mimic it and then slowly it will fade out— but like you say, some stuff sticks.

I picked up a lot of expressions and phrasing from reading Hunter S. Thompson, and I used to repeat or embolden word like Vonnegut for a while.

I started reading Listi’s blog and Chuck Palahniuk at around the same time— and consequently started writing very minimalistic sentences.

I do think though that I have my own style of writing— people have told me so, but influences add to it, blend in. Thats why, although I’ve been fighting it, I’m suited to writing humorous fiction. My natural writing style is light hearted and ‘funny.’

I think the trick is to keep influence in check- not let your writing become a cheap parody.

 
Comment by Becky
2009-03-02 19:41:14

It’s difficult to write honestly when you’re writing as someone else.

I think it has something to do with synthesizing. Once an influence is synthesized (whatever the hell that means) you can use it. It comes naturally and doesn’t look like bad literary photoshop.

 
 
 
 
Comment by jess
2009-03-02 12:38:31

hahaha this reminds me of the stewie/brian thing from family guy that my boyfriend always does whenever I mention writing, “So uh, how’s that novel going? You been working on it…three years now? Got lots of pages? Good protagonist? Some conflict? Everybody learns a lesson in the end? Some friends become enemies, some enemies become friends? Working on a title are you? ahhh I look forward to reading it.”

Comment by Dana
2009-03-02 13:08:12

Ha! That is perfect.

Oh and Brad, I liked your contest idea. I vote for Irwin — ”It’s about a boy who discovers he’s a boy wizard and goes to wizard school’.

 
Comment by Becky
2009-03-02 13:10:15

I hear that gag in my head every single time someone tells me they’re a writer, especially if I don’t really believe them.

“Got a…beginning, middle, and an end?”

 
Comment by Tawni
2009-03-02 13:26:44

HA. Jess… I love that! I found that Family Guy clip and stuck it on my MySpace page for a while because it was just so perfect. :)

Comment by Irwin
2009-03-02 16:30:15

Have you seen the episode where Stewie is making a music video and Brian does the ’so your making a music video…etc etc’?

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Comment by Tawni
2009-03-02 13:24:09

“Writers who don’t actually write anything.”

You once wrote about this in a MySpace blog. About people who say, “Oh, I might write a book someday,” when you (Brad) mention during getting-to-know-you polite conversation that you have a published novel. As if it is the easiest thing in the world to write a book and get it published.

I thought about how irritating that must be for someone who actually works their ass off writing every day, between all of the other demands of a job and a life. I experienced the musician’s versions of it when I played in bands, so your writer version instantly became a pet peeve of my own.

I now find myself immensely irrtated anytime I hear someone call themselves a writer. “Ooooh, I have a MySpace blog in which I can’t be bothered to spell check or even capitalize properly where I write about my boring Dear Diary day-to-day problems and now I think I’m a writer,” I will snidely think about them in my head.

Not very nice of me, but seriously, there is a difference. I am hesitant to involve money or publicity in my definition of what makes a “real” writer, so I don’t want to involve the “Published or not?” question, but I definitely know what doesn’t make someone a writer. I know for certain that if a person doesn’t actually write or really work hard at it, it seems like an incredibly pretentious thing to claim to be a writer.

Comment by Gloria
2009-03-02 13:27:26

“Ooooh, I have a MySpace blog in which I can’t be bothered to spell check or even capitalize properly where I write about my boring Dear Diary day-to-day problems and now I think I’m a writer”

Wait…that doesn’t count?

Comment by Tawni
2009-03-02 13:38:33

Oh, wait, um.. uhhhh yes, of course it counts. Ahem. EVERYONE’S a writer. Right? *innocent smile* ;)

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Comment by Lyrian
2009-03-02 13:47:08

Ha! I was reading all these comments, instead of writing! Shit!

Comment by Brad Listi
2009-03-02 14:31:54

Mwahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha

2009-03-02 15:48:01

Clearly everyone is taking a snow day, not just us nor’easters…

(how the fuck do you make that auto-scroll happen?)

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Comment by Gloria
2009-03-02 13:52:11

So, I have these yoga pants, right? I also have a yoga mat, a yoga video, a yoga book, a jump rope, an exercise ball, and some free weights. I’ve met with a personal trainer. And for the first three or so weeks after meeting with the trainer, I was diligent about doing my exercises. Then we got hit with a massive snowstorm up here in Oregon and the city shut down for two weeks and I was stuck alone in my 500 square foot apartment and I quit doing yoga. I also started smoking again. I quit smoking again, but I just can’t do the yoga. I really want to. I think about doing yoga. All the time. But I just don’t.

My writing is kind of the same. I left school with hope and skill and discipline and desire, but then life got in the way big time. Horrible. You have no idea the amount of fires - veritable explosions - I’ve had to put out in the last two and a half years (some of which are still burning). And now - zero discipline. I still write. I write all the time, but I don’t do anything with it. I don’t develop it into anything. I don’t edit the ton of shit that I have (some of which, if polished, probably isn’t shit at all.)

I have no discipline.

I guess I’m not a writer.

Comment by Tawni
2009-03-02 14:16:07

I think you’re a writer who has a full-time job and two young children, Gloria. And anyone who thinks I’m making excuses can either: 1. Drive to your house and watch your twin boys for a few hours every night so you’ll have time to focus/write, Or: 2. Shut the hell up.

Give yourself a break, dear lady. xoxo.

Comment by Karen
2009-03-02 16:06:27

Tawni,
I always love your comments and think you are the coolest of cool. I just wanted to mention that your comments on this board make my day. That is, after reading what Professor Listi has taught us that day, of course.

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Comment by Gloria
2009-03-02 16:14:09

Yeah. She’s kind of a bad ass.

 
Comment by Tawni
2009-03-02 18:18:19

Awwww. And now you (and Gloria) just made my day. Thanks. I’m all smiles. :)

 
 
 
 
Comment by Sheree
2009-03-02 15:17:32

Hey Gloria, Doing Mental Yoga changed my life: http://www.yogabeans.com/2008/09/dandasana.html

I was five years old when I began teaching my grandfather to read. By the time I was seven I began writing short stories for my grandfather to read to me.

I’m a closet blogger. I write because I like to amuse myself. I write because I love words. I love listening to people talk. I will sit for hours and listen.

I was a dirt poor mixed breed ridge runner kid whose elders shook the bushes for rabbits and fished rivers for their dinner. They plowed fields and slopped pigs. Their land and their words were all they ever had in life. I write because I can.

Great Post Mr Listi.

Irwin Shuddup and write! I got a hundred bucks on you!

Comment by Gloria
2009-03-02 16:08:51

That link is hysterical. Thank you.

Comment by Sheree
2009-03-02 16:33:52

That link got me escorted out of a cafe once. I was disturbing others with my weeping snorting shoulder shaking snickers.

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Comment by Irwin
2009-03-02 16:17:02

Yes Ma’am.

I’m going to go for it. It’s something I’ve been working on on and off for two years.

I’ve accepted my destiny as a writer of flimsy, silly fiction. I’m setting myself a deadline too. Finished by the end of the year. I promise.

Comment by Sheree
2009-03-02 16:41:31

Irwin,
Its flimsy, silly fiction that has kept me calm during some of the darkest moments in my life.
If I win the bet the hundred bucks will be wired to you immediately. I promise.

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Comment by Irwin
2009-03-02 17:02:01

My favourite books are actually flimsy, silly fiction: Vonnegut, Douglas Adams, just discovered Tom Robbins and my favourite Steinbeck novel, Cannery Row, is pretty surreal.

Are you allowed to use dead ‘celebrities’ as characters? my climax sort of hinges on that.

 
Comment by Sheree
2009-03-02 18:28:19

Psssst: http://www.fallsapart.com/biography.html

All I can truly say to you young sir, is write what makes you happy. You’re a wonderful story teller who spends way too much time second guessing his writing instead of telling his story.

See the link please and thanks.

 
Comment by Irwin
2009-03-02 19:22:25

Thanks.

I’ve written the title page. I’m about 0.003% in.

I’ll have written a chapter by this time tomorrow. Thats a promise.

 
Comment by Sheree
2009-03-02 20:11:23

I’m busy working on a story entitled: The Farting of Ways. Its a tragic tale of a young girl who farts in public for the first time in front of a boy she has a mad crush on but must tell goodbye because she’s moving back to the west coast in less than a week. Heh, I’ll never get a pound of flesh for my efforts, but I’ve nah care. I’m laughing down deep on the inside while writing it. See ya round young sir. I’ll be keeping an eye on my bet though. I cannot wait to take this fools money from them and wire it to you for some fun and adventure.

 
Comment by Sheree
2009-03-02 20:23:32

or clean socks. That post cracked me the hell up when I read it.

 
 
 
 
Comment by eric dinyer
2009-03-02 15:59:04

The thing about writers, that drives me slightly zany, is, they are always telling everyone they
are writers. As if to convince themselves more than their conversation companion. And honestly, no one gives a shit. Steve Jobs, when asked about the Amazon Kindle book reader said the following,”It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore. Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year. The whole conception is flawed at the top because people don’t read anymore.”

Comment by Brad Listi
2009-03-02 16:05:20

And that, Mr. Dinyer, is pretty depressing.

But on the upside, more books are being sold than ever before. So people must be buying them and then not reading them?

Anyway: Where’s your gravatar?

http://www.gravatar.com

 
 
Comment by Sheree
2009-03-02 16:51:25

I bought two dozen books last year. My mother in law reads everyday. On this site alone I have found a few works by writers here that i will purchase and read this year. I am always on the hunt for new writers and thanks to Mr Listi I now have a new crop of wonderful writers to eagerly read.

Now get back to writing all of you! I’ve got hard cash burning a hole in me pocket!

 
Comment by Dan
2009-03-02 17:52:49

I write a weekly humor column for a small-town newspaper. Every Monday night, I spend between 4 and 8 hours squeezing out another one of these 750-word iron-studded nuggets. The process (sorry to mention “the process,” but you pretty much asked for it) feels kind of like the writing life in microcosm: you spend a bunch of time agonizing over the work, second-guessing and berating yourself, then–exhausted and full of self hatred–you send it out. It gets published, some people enjoy it, some people think it’s stupid, and, all too soon, everyone forgets about it. Then you repeat the cycle the next week. And yet, despite all the pain, it’s still great fun, and I wouldn’t stop doing it for the world (and no, I don’t get paid).

Anyway–excellent little essay, Mr. Listi. I’m always glad when another writer reaffirms the fact that yes, we all fight the same battle day-in and day-out.

 
Comment by Jennifer Neal
2009-03-02 18:45:45

haha….I called into a Blogtalkradio show you were on once about a year or so ago and you told me the exact same thing.

A few months after that I had tons of writing gigs.

Now I’m in another slump.

:(

But I keep at it.

Now I usually just say, “I haven’t really written anything in awhile, no….”

Still at my customer service job.

And guess what?

I write about that.

I probably have enough to turn THAT into a novel but hey….laziness kills.

As Meghan Chiampa says, “Laziness is fear.”

Perhaps she’s right.

 
Comment by Rachel Pollon
2009-03-03 11:11:27

How timely this post is. And, aaah, did I need it. I just got myself back into a revising of something, after too long a period of avoiding looking at it, and I feel so much happier. Like I’m meant to do it. Not because the world couldn’t do without it or me — for surely — but because it’s just something that actually makes me happy when I’m not hating myself for my deficiencies. Oh joy, the writer’s life! By the way, I never identify as a writer. Until I’ve got a real track record to fall back on as proof, I’m “working on my writing.” And also, the old standby, “raising my puppy.” But I do think your advice to pronounce it would be powerful also. I’m here… baby stepping and maybe backdooring, and hopefully soon, throwing a debutante’s ball over it.

Thank you for writing, Brad. !! :)

 
Comment by Erika Rae
2009-03-03 21:34:32

I’m late here, of course, but I just wanted to say that I LOVED this post. Too exhausted to comment with anything useful to say, but suffice it to say that this is one of my favorites. Ever.

 
Comment by Patrick George
2009-03-10 13:54:34

In that Bukowsi documentary, Born Into This, there’s an interview where he’s asked: “How old were you when you realized that you were a writer?” I’m sure, the interviewer expected some kind of answer like, “when I was eight, I realized I couldn’t live with out it.” But instead, Bukowski just kind of stared blankly into space and said, “Nobody knows they’re a writer, people only think they’re a writer.” Then there was a silence.

 
Comment by Aaron Dietz
2009-03-18 20:00:55

I do SO get the “How’s the novel?” thing and it’s annoying because it’s just too personal of a question. Besides, when someone’s pitching a no-hitter, you don’t say, “How’s the no-hitter going?” When someone’s trying to make three bucks in change so they can afford a shower, you don’t ask them how far they have left to go! When someone’s trying to get pregnant, you don’t…well, actually, people do kind of do that.

 
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