Wednesday, January 20, 2010


Something’s gone all corporate and motivationally haywire in me today. I loathe the idea of resorting to slogans, to power words, to pictures with profound metaphorical weight in order to get my butt squared in the writing chair and to get my mind organized enough to put words down and try forcing them into coherence. But today, I look at this picture of the waves in Oregon and think of a word to keep me going: Drive.

Ultimately, for me, writing isn’t a very joyful act. Riding bicycles: fun. Cooking and eating and shooting the shit with my friends: fun. Watching sports on TV: fun. Playing fetch with my dog (she tosses the ball and I run for it): fun. But writing? Seriously? True enough, I’ve heard writers going on about how much joy they take in their work, how they can’t wait for their time alone with words each day, but usually, I dismiss that kind of talk as either 1) lies spoken by writing teachers who think they have to be superpositive about writing in order to be good writing teachers; 2) truths spoken by loser-ass humans who wouldn’t know what to do with themselves if they weren’t immersed in the desk-bound, dust-covered life in the arts; or 3) a combination of the aforementioned. I admit to feeling occasional joy spending time alone with another writer’s words – Dostoyevsky comes to mind, or Sylvia Plath, or Elmore Leonard – and this joy owes probably to the work already being done for me. I relax in my chair, open the book, and it’s that simple: the words are great. But to sit at the desk and contrive new words, of my own, words that have to measure up in some way with the masters throughout the ages? Fuck that. It can’t be done.

So the answer is to quit writing altogether, right?

Obviously, that’s the wrong answer. I reminded, incidentally, of an arrogant colleague in lifetimes past who believed exactly that: a new short story must be conceived and executed with the idea of entering the pantheon of all great short stories. I believe it’s wrong to think that way. I believe it’s the height of egomania to think that way. I know, for an absolute fact – and you certainly will agree with me – that I am never going to produce something on the level of the great literary masters: Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Mann, Grass, Bolano, et al. Even if could, even if my brain and talent could combine to pull off such a feat, I would never achieve that if I believed I could achieve that, because to believe such a thing is to put the ego before the work, and when the ego controls the work, the work is about the person who made it, not about the broader humanity that makes the work art in the first place.

Holy shit. Did I just get lost in space, or what? Sorry. I had a really bad acid trip twenty years ago, and sometimes my brain can’t pull out of a dive.

Still, there’s the dilemma all writers face: You can’t measure up to Shakespeare. He’ll kick your ass up and down the block every goddam time. Guaranteed. In fact, you really can’t measure up to anybody, simply because other people aren’t you.

So why write? It’s not because you have to; it’s because you want to use your way of channeling experience into words to form an organized, calculated record of your brain’s activity on earth. Maybe it doesn’t mean much in the long run, the work, the unhappy hours trying to wring metaphorical blood from the metaphorical rock of the language. By the same token, the waves don’t mean to destroy the beach they slam into, but they keep coming nonetheless. The sand grains become smaller and smaller.


  1. You know, when shit like that comes pouring out from my fingertips I have to squint at it really hard and wonder if it's just the rejection letters talking. Still, I come back to the keyboard, resigned to tap out a mediocre turd that will never measure up or be read by anyone but me.

    I can't lie to myself and say I want to share my stories. pffft, that's an even bigger lie...unless I'm ready to admit to that masochistic streak driving my choice of 'worthwhile activity.'

    But there is something indelible about the words, even ones such as mine. Longwinded meander to say thanks for validating me, Professor.

  2. I'm thinking, its something akin to a liver transplant, maybe?


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