Amy Poehler, Blogging, El Gigante, Ernest Hemingway, Happy Birthday, Jason Starr, Joshua Jammer Smith, Leon Kennedy, Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech, Oliver Queenan, Philip K. Dick, Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarantino, reflection, Regenerator, Regenerators are evil and will give you PTSD, Resident Evil 4, The Old Man and the Sea, White Tower Musings, Writers, Writers Writing, Writers writing about writing, Writing, Writing about Writing, Yes Please
So I checked this time, I promise, this is the five-year mark. There’s no joke this time around, then again as I’m writing this I am wearing a Lion hat and a skirt.
Dignity, Gene Kelly once said, always dignity.
Spending literally half a decade writing essays for this blog must surely be a sign of dedication or else lunacy because nothing has brought me greater joy and misery. That’s not true. I need to be honest, Coffee brings me endless joy, this blog brings rather general contentment. I honestly don’t trust any writer that says that writing brings them joy or happiness or endless bliss. I don’t believe this because writing is a pain in the ass. It’s a lonely enterprise that only rarely pays off, and even when I’m able to get in my 300 words I can’t say that at the end of the day that I’m happy with what I’ve accomplished. It’s more general contentment. The work is done and I can be happy that I actually managed to get the work done instead of watching Resident Evil 4 playthrough on YouTube for the second time.
Having recently started the audiobook version of Amy Poehler’s Yes Please, I was delighted to discover that I wasn’t the only person who shared such a similar thought. Her introduction to the book begins with a discussion about the pain in the ass that is writing:
Everyone lies about Writing. They lie about how easy it is or how hard it was. They perpetuate a romantic idea that writing is some beautiful experience that takes place in an architectural room filled with leather novels and chai tea. They talk about their “morning ritual” and how they “dress for writing” and the cabin in Big Sur where they go to “be alone”—blah blah blah. No one tells the truth about writing a book. Authors pretend their stories were always shiny and perfect and just waiting to be written. The truth is, writing is this: hard and boring and occasionally great but usually not. Even I have lied about writing. I have told people that writing this book has been like brushing away dirt from a fossil. What a load of shit. It has been like hacking away ay a freezer with a screwdriver. (x).
I have to object to one thing in this passage. I literally put on a skirt and a Lion hat before starting this essay. The lion hat was an impulse buy I got because my sister has one and I love borrowing it so I can flit my wrist and coo in my highest fairy voice “Me-yow.” As for the skirt, I just love the feeling of the “sway.” Every garment ever made for men seems like it’s designed to pack one’s genitals away, and then just cover whereas as skirts give one a tremendous sense of presence. The fabric billows and sways as I walk and I feel either like an elegant lady or else Superman at his most fantastic. Wearing a cape gives me a similar sensation but alas capes have fallen out of style. I put both of these on before I wrote, but not because I was writing so this has probably been a waste of time describing it. But at least I wrote it down.
Poehler reminds me why I love her so much though because, apart from the dress-up line, there wasn’t a passage in this quote that didn’t resonate. So many authors and writers love to pontificate about the “process” of writing, and often this amounts to nothing more than clap-trap. There’s nothing worse than a writer talking about writing. And too often it reminds me of the line from The Departed:
Oliver Queenan: [during Costigan’s interview] We have a question: Do you want to be a cop, or do you want to appear to be a cop? It’s an honest question. A lot of guys just want to appear to be cops. Gun, badge, pretend they’re on TV.
Too many people want to appear to be writers because they seem to believe that writing is the hot ticket to fame and fortune and happiness but real writing almost never leads to this. Many people would like to appear to be writers because that means drinking coffee, writing beautiful thoughts in a little mole-skin booklet, and wearing tweed jackets while you read and smoke a pipe in a library. But this is horse-shit. Real writing entails sitting alone, in a room that is often simply a closet that stinks of your old rain jacket and your partner’s mismatched shoes, writing your thoughts or stories into a word processor while you try to avoid the impulse to pull up Resident Evil 4 on YouTube again. Yes again, that game is gold damn it.
Writing is sometimes ripping the words from your brain rather than letting them spill onto the page. Writing is almost never about rituals because sometimes you’re not in the mood to write but you have to push yourself.
And, sometimes, writing isn’t fun.
Whenever I tackle these “Happy Birthday” essays, I always am panicked that it will be nothing but me bitching about how my writing sucks. I’m terrified that I’ll fall into the depressive episode where I’ll bemoan the fact that any and all books I’ve published were only self-published and therefore inferior. I’ll wail fantastically about the fact that this blog has brought nothing in the way of professional success or avenues into the publishing industry. And I’m always worried that they will be nothing but me sucking on a pity-dick and wishing I were someone like J.M. Coetzee or Philip K. Dick or Alison Bechdel. Birthdays are opportunities to reflect on accomplishments in life, and what one has done with one’s time, and especially when one hits birthdays that are increments of “5” there’s a more profound impulse towards determining whether one has wasted one’s time.
I don’t think I have.
Writing doesn’t make me happy most of the time. And if I can borrow from Poehler, honestly most of my efforts on this blog have felt like carving at a refrigerator with a screwdriver. Most recently I finished a review of arguably my favorite film of all time, Pulp Fiction by Quentin Tarantino. This is something that, by description alone, should have been an enjoyable exercise, and while I won’t lie that writing the essay did bring my satisfaction when it was done, the act of writing it was largely frustrating, and it took hours out of my Sunday which is, usually, my only real day off from life and work.
Instead of drawing, instead of reading, instead of hanging out with friends, instead of spending time with my wife, instead of playing video games, and instead of watching Resident Evil 4 because it’s amazing damn it, I spent my afternoon alone writing about a film that’s brought me an immense amount of joy.
Even writing this yearly reflective essay is not exactly an enjoyable sensation, but it’s one that I cherish because it gives me an opportunity to reflect on something that has become so much a part of my life. If I’m not enjoying writing then why do I continue doing it?
Because I do enjoy it.
And there’s the paradox.
Looking at another writer attempt to explain the craft of writing I thought I would look at a writer’s been influential if not a bit problematic. Ernest Hemingway is a man whose work I admire and then despise and then love and despise again before I reconcile it as just the work of a frustratingly brilliant asshole. Yet despite this I can’t help but quote the latter portion of his Nobel Prize acceptance speech because it feels like a perfect summation my feelings about the craft of writing:
Writing, at its best, is a lonely life. Organizations for writers palliate the writer’s loneliness but I doubt if they improve his writing. He grows in public stature as he sheds his loneliness and often his work deteriorates. For he does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day.
For a true writer each book should be a new beginning where he tries again for something that is beyond attainment. He should always try for something that has never been done or that others have tried and failed. Then sometimes, with great luck, he will succeed.
How simple the writing of literature would be if it were only necessary to write in another way what has been well written. It is because we have had such great writers in the past that a writer is driven far out past where he can go, out to where no one can help him.
I have spoken too long for a writer. A writer should write what he has to say and not speak it. Again I thank you.
Every attempt at writing feels like the start of something new; it’s a chance at something new. And yet for me, this isn’t completely true. Every essay on this page is ultimately about me, but it’s also about some book that I’ve read, or some film that I’ve watched, or some song that I’ve listened to. And that rings hollow to me as I write more and more because why should my take, my opinion, my assessment, my review, or my ideas about a work matter? It might be because I’m living in a time period when so many people are making livings off of this very structure and I’m seemingly giving it away for free. What is a free idea in an age where eery thought is followed by commercial placement and every would-be “influencer” is asking kindly for “likes” and “subscriptions.”
The voice of a writer, or a thinker, is becoming a cheap commodity it seems because there are so many voices talking and mine is already so very muted by its own self-depreciation.
Yet despite this, writing does feel like some sort of effort. It still feels, every time I begin a review of a history book or yet another song by TOOL, like a chance to say something about my experiences and my humanity. And rather than simply giving in to my frustrations, this blog has sustained some theme: maybe my voice isn’t relevant, and maybe I do have something to say that’s worth writing.
This essay was originally going to be about Philip K. Dick. Last year a friend gave me a small stack of PKD books, all of the novels, and they’ve sat on my shelf just taking up space and very little attention until earlier this year when I decided to finally sit down and read through them. I started on The Man Who Japed, and then followed it with The Man in the High Castle, and as of this writing, I’m halfway through the Penultimate Truth. PKD was an author that I was aware of, particularly as an author who was filled with paranoid yet philosophically profound ideas and digging into his work has been interesting. Yet I wanted some understanding of the man’s approach and thoughts to writing and I was fortunate to find a small article about his correspondence with a pulp-fiction author.
The essay is largely nothing but quotes but it did provide an interesting insight to the role of author correspondence, a facet of society that seems largely irrelevant in this age of instant messaging, but there was one brief quote by PKD that seemed relevant to this latest installment of my Happy Birthday essays:
After I write a really successful story I always say to myself, “By God, now I can die happy!”… The process of life goes on; I change, the world changes; new combinations arise and the old ones are lost. But here on this handful of paper is one of these combinations, my reactions and responses, the sum of my personality and character as it interacts with a particular idea-experience. The idea never came to me before; it’ll never come to me again. But look, man. Here it is!
I miss the ocean. Several years ago when I just out of high school my family took a trip to Galveston. And while the I recognize that the ocean on this island is nothing compared to the majesty of the Pacific or the Atlantic, to a land-locked southern-boy like me it was still an incredible sensation. I remember walking down the beach watching the tourists, some of the beautiful women. I remember sitting in the balcony of our hotel room and reading Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea while listening to seagulls whine for scraps of food from tourists. I remember swimming in the ocean and discovering, right as a wave slammed into my chest, that on the edge of it a man-o-war was inches away from my face. I remember digging into the sand on the beach and discovering that I had dug up a baby horseshoe crap, it’s exoskeleton still invisible giving me a glimpse of its internal organs while it’s feet scrambled for equilibrium. But above everything else, I remember the waves.
Every wave is exactly the same, and yet each wave is different. Like a fractal, it’s composed of the same structures and waves and particles, and yet the repeated pattern creates infinite complexity when setting against the enormity of the horizon. I just remember sitting on the edge of the ocean, letting the waves hit me, and just giving up to that tremendous feeling of possibility.
My mother took a picture of me, sitting in the ocean and contemplating, and it’s still one of my favorites.
I can’t remember the sensation of each of those waves, but I remember the overall effect of them. Likewise, I can’t remember the sensation of every single essay, but I can remember the sensation of finishing them. Not happiness per-say, but general contentment. I’m glad that I wrote them, and I’m glad that I gave the time to them that I did, because even if it didn’t “get me somewhere” professionally, it did at least reaffirm my sense of myself and my voice.
I get so frustrated with the public image of writers and their work because too often it’s a flaccid and superficial portrait that belies a deeper truth about writing: it’s hard work. Writer’s accomplish something incredible in their work if they’re truly dedicated to the craft and labor of writing, and looking at this blog I feel that I’ve developed a deeper appreciation of that fact. One single work that creates a momentary flash of public response and acclimation is lovely but it doesn’t mean that one has accomplished anything. It’s the slow and steady dedication that reveals the real strength of character and will.
Five years, half a decade of writing, and I have a real sense of what this work has meant. It has been a chance to see that possibility and complexity that comes from my passion, and insanity, for writing.
And now, if you excuse me, I’ve gotten more than my 300 words, and I’ve earned my Resident Evil 4 time…unless it’s the part when Leon gets to the Regenerator in which case I might just say fuck it and watch some OSP. The latter won’t give me any PTSD.
Thank you for your time dear reader, and thank you for reading.
All quotes cited from Yes Please by Amy Poehler were quoted from the Hardback Day St. press edition.
I’ve provided a link to Hemingway’s Nobel Prize speech if the reader would like to read it in full. It’s really not that much longer than the passage I quoted, yet another reason to love and then hate and then love the man again:
I’ve also provided a link to Jason Starr’s essay “Writing Is a Lonely Business: James McKimmey, Philip K. Dick, and the Lost Art of Author Correspondence”:
I really like music, and I really like listening to music while I write, and this leads me to discoveries such as the video below. If you don’t like Super Mario…you’ve got some attitude buster.