Thursday, 16 June 2011

The Shame: A Post About Writing

Boy oh boy, do I ever regret tearing writers a new one for writing about writers and writing! Because I’m about to bore you silly with 2000 words on the very subject! Consider me chastised. I am my own worst critic, I assure you all.

You know those people who call themselves writers who are mostly just well-read, earnest people with especially obnoxious affectations and over-doting psychiatrists? Tenacious D famously skewered the type in an episode of their HBO series. This is how I personally imagine all writers. I expect they surround themselves with curios they’ve chosen especially for their oddity so if anyone ever sees their little writing lair, they can concoct some enchanting story about how the objects inspire them. I imagine they cultivate extreme habits. On the wholesome side: rising daily at 3AM, scaling the local rock face, breakfasting at the summit on the same scrumptious seed mix, and then sitting down to write no fewer than 5000 words before lunchtime. On the degenerate side: starting the day at 1PM or later, chain smoking obscure cigarettes, purposefully ignoring the conventions of hygiene, suppressing any emotional language except what goes onto paper, and steadfastly refusing to find joy in life. There’s no in between in my imagination.

Consequently, I hate the writers of my imagining because they must clearly be insufferable. I have personally known a handful of people who have done everything in their power to confirm these prejudices to me. I am thankful to them for reminding me how right I am about everything. But I do hate their writerliness. Deeply.

The reason I bring it all up is because I’ve started thinking about my own writing habits and wondering at what point one starts to affect the conceit of referring to oneself as a “writer” and thereby conjuring up all those repulsive feelings in others. A friend who has a fledgling career as a professional illustrator says that she toyed with her professional identity for years before finally deciding that she should just tell people she’s an artist, and then she felt obligated to fulfil what initially felt like a lie. And so now she is one. If I didn’t hate the archetypal writer so much in my head, I might do the same and see what happens.

But, I’m sad to say, I indulge in a few writerly activities.

1)      I have been writing for a long time. Well, we all have in the mechanical sense. I mean I have written for my own pleasure since just about the age I learned to read. My parents will tell you how I typed a fictionalised account of a summer holiday on Cape Cod on my sister’s word processor when I was a child. My fury at discovering that it was basically an electronic typewriter that didn’t allow for inserting corrections without retyping everything after it was what can only be called artistic in its scope. After about 6 months of working on this thing, I gave up at the grizzled age of nine because I didn’t have a sufficiently sophisticated system to hand for revising my work. What a diva!
2)      I have been writing consistently since starting. I have kept journals, written stories, essays, half a dozen unfinished novels, stylistic exercises, magazine articles, reviews, advertising copy, blogs... I have what I would consider a reasonably wide range of experience 99% of which is down to my own personal desire. Only a tiny portion of it has been done for work purposes.
3)      I am completely worthless when it comes to personal deadlines. Which explains why I keep promising to keep this blog stuck to a timeline and then blatantly ignoring myself. I don’t know why I even bother, but somehow ignoring the deadline does seem an integral part of it. On the plus side, I don’t think I’ve ever missed a professional deadline.
4)      I think about writing ALL THE TIME. When I hear interesting turns of phrase or I witness an especially unbelievable incident (however insignificant) or I hear an excellent anecdote, I squirrel it away in my head for future use. I often write them down on little bits of paper. I know “real” writers supposedly carry little pads of paper around with them for this purpose, but I have found post-its, backs of envelopes, cocktail napkins, and various other detritus to be perfectly serviceable. I am swamped by these bits. I’m always terrified I’ll forget a really good one, but I don’t. The bits of paper are more security blanket than anything else.
5)      I read like a writer. That is, I spend an exceptional amount of time reading lots of different writers hoping to learn something about their style that I can steal on the sly.

Do these things make me A Writer? I don’t think they do, somehow. And not just because writers to me are the above-mentioned horrors. I can’t imagine writing for a living, even though I think I might enjoy it. I just can’t imagine doing it. Maybe that’s because I think I might enjoy it. There’s something too vague and unstructured about the concept—perhaps I like the boundary of the office. It’s something I leave everyday and come home to escape it. Perhaps I’m somehow afraid of blurring that boundary.

I recently came across my last journal. I’ve kept a journal in some guise fairly consistently since age 8. I begged and begged my parents for a diary from pretty much the moment I was able to write, but for reasons still mysterious, my mother thought diary-keeping an unseemly activity for that young a child. When I was 8, I finally received a diary, complete with key lock, as a reward for uncomplainingly wearing my eye patch. It had pink ballet slippers on the front, and said “My Diary” in pink script. The edges of the pages were gold, and there was one page for every day of the year. It was only about 4 inches high, and I treasured it. I confided in it as though it were another human being. I wrote not in an aide-memoir style, but as if I were telling the story to the diary, and as the ink absorbed into the pages, the diary’s sympathetic brain was absorbing the words, and nodding with understanding.

Around the time I finished this diary, I read The Diary of Anne Frank, and I came across the concept of addressing one’s journal by a person’s name. I shortly started a new journal and gave it the name of one of my best friends. I essentially wrote a letter to that friend for every entry. That changed the situation dramatically. Now I had an audience in mind when I was writing, a real and specific person. I realized after a little while that I wasn’t quite as free with my confessions. I drafted them to sound like what I might say to that same friend in real life. I hid things from my diary!

Since I was going through the rages of puberty at the time, I wrote more than ever. There were boys and friends and parents and periods and boobs and all kinds of things happening that I didn’t feel equipped to handle in the confines of my skull. Onto the page they went. The result was that the second journal filled up quickly. I got another. This one I called by the name of another good friend, not quite as close. I became a bit more guarded in what I revealed to her. But she was a more fresh-faced kind of friend, so I found that my writing was nicer. That one, too, filled up quickly. My next journal got a third name, an even less close friend. Things broke down slightly. I wrote to this journal the way I talked to this friend: with effort and superficiality. It was pointless. I slogged through it out of sheer will, and when I graduated high school, I put it away with the others.

Some time in college I started journaling again. This time, I forwent the journally journals that you buy from stationers, and I bought a plain black composition book. I wrote in black ink only to keep things completely even-keeled. I don’t know exactly what my purpose was, but it made sense then, and it still does to me now. I left out the naming ritual, and it liberated me to just write. I wrote reams. I wrote about things I had never really written about before—politics, world events, serious relationships, economics, religion, sex. I filled several books in rapid succession, including one I took to New York City for the summer I was 19, where I chronicled relishing the crackling sexual energy of the city. On the cusp of graduation, I recorded the details of a confusing sexual encounter, and spent months afterward revisiting it and reasoning through it. I brought one with me when I arrived in England as a master’s student, and it is this one that I have found recently. It is mostly an account of the death throes of my relationship with a former boyfriend. Passages have been torn out. Of one page, only about an inch of text remains. I recount vivid dreams about the decay of my feelings. In the aftermath I say happy things about my student life and the personal freedom I am experiencing.

And then suddenly I have met a new person. I log page upon page of our text correspondence (how 21st Century of us!), without commentary. In the last entry, from early 2006, I say I think I may be in love, and the reasons given are elegantly simple. My life had changed.

I had met the Husband.

For reasons unknown, I stopped writing a dedicated journal at that point in life. Possibly the fact that I was writing a dissertation, as well as the fact that I had started a LiveJournal contributed to it. At some point over the next year, I tore the pages from every other diary or journal in my possession and fed them to my mother’s shredder. Only this last journal was kept. I think I kept it because it was unfinished, and somehow destroying it whilst incomplete was all wrong.

I’ve decided to start proper journaling again. Private journaling. It’s hard to say, but it seems like this has lost some popularity in recent years due to the ability to share what is essentially your journal with the world via a blog. But I find that the more I blog, the more I realize there are things I would like to write about that I don’t want to share with the world. I really fought this concept for a long time. Why write anything down unless you expect someone else to see it? But the fact is, I have done this my whole life. When I fed my old journals to the shredder, I wasn’t angry or sad or in a fit of pique. I just didn’t need or want them anymore. All the problems I had worked out in them were over. I do sometimes wish I could go back and read how my 19-year-old self saw the world or how I reacted in real time to various events. So maybe I won’t kill my future journals. But they are genuinely for me. Not for an audience. So you’ll pardon me if I indulge in one more writerly conceit now and then: reclusion. I know my friends will keep me from letting it all translate into insufferability. Right?

1 comment:

  1. I'll help to keep you grounded, but if I know you you, you'll remain somewhere between two types of curious habits.
    Please keep writing, whether for public consumption or not. You clearly have a talent.