Thursday, June 4, 2009

My Screwed Up Writing Life: A response to the great Jim Belshaw

On his blog, Personal Reflections, Jim Belshaw has written his thoughts on the struggle to identify oneself as a writer. Jim, a very good writer of everything from academia to business, is writing a non-fiction book on the history of New England, Australia. It's a weighty tome, and it involves skill, vision, research and great passion about the topic. Fortunately, Jim has all of these qualities.

In his post, he tells us about the distinction he used to make between those who write using the words as a tool to make a point/ get a job done and those who do it because writing and the exploration of it is central to how we express ourselves.

Jim points out that a writer is someone for whom the writing is central, not just a way to get a point across. They must do it. He's given me an unexpected nod, acknowledging me as a writer.
I'm immensely flattered by this.

But it always wasn't like this for me.
California Delta
I never wanted to be a writer. I wasn't one of those kids who hang out at poetry jams with a portfolio of poems, or a notebook. In my small town, no one read poetry outside of a textbook. There weren't role models to show me writers existed beyond the back page of book jacket, no book fairs or reading groups.

Instead, creativity came in other forms. I'd draw, going through reams of paper. As a teenager, I'd buy ridiculous patterns from Germany and France to make my own outfits. I played the piano and flute, discovered Basie, Brubeck, Earth Wind and Fire, along with Bach in one stupendous year. During hellishly hot summers, I rode my bicycle for miles along levees for hours, and shunned company during our summer holidays to walk alone on the beach. Later, I received my college degree in fine arts, though I can't remember the name of a single classmate. Everything I did was training for being a writer. But the cradle was learning to be alone. That I didn't mind and still prefer my own company probably is the sign of someone destined to become a writer.

An artist or a writer will tell you that it takes precedence over everything --sometimes badly so.
I like writing more than mothering, than keeping house, than money, than being married. I like it more than being nice. And this is the time when writing is a real nuisance because balance isn't something we're very good at. Admittedly, writers are hell to live with, and our worst roommates are ourselves.
The hierarchy of a writer's life (if left to themselves) would probably be like this:
  1. Writing
  2. Cat or Dog
  3. Heat and AirCon
  4. Food
  5. Sex (though sex can jump to 3, it may never take the place of 2. And the writer who replaces number 2 with sex is usually seen as slightly off-kilter later on in life --see Norman Mailer).
Fortunately, we rarely get our way, thus rendering lists like the one above useless. Our lives are complicated and we learn that the writer without stress, or one who gets their way all the time is thundering, but dull (see Gordon Lish).

Lastly, I agree that writing in itself is a craft. I learned it on the job, through a writer's program in workshops, and studied poetry. Interestingly, I've learned less from books on writing than I have from novels by great writers such as Harriet Doerr, Thomas Keneally, Eric Newby, Edward Abbey and through the rewriting process. Perhaps this is what separates the wheat from the chafe --we've had people pushing us along, those who have offered critiques on a weekly basis. Though we don't mind being by ourselves, we didn't get here alone.

Writing is a gigantic puzzle that I see and hear. I've learned the importance of rhythm in writing. By manipulating tempo and sound through choosing the right words, one can shape the mood of piece, infusing it with artistry.

But alas, every writer gets stuck. Simply put, writing is thinking. And sometimes we over think, we get too intellectual, we worry about things we can't possibly predict, when in fact we should write more spontaneously. When I find myself in a tight spot, I turn on some jazz and just start pounding to the beat, letting the words spill out and finally, yes... I'm at it again, experiencing the pleasure of putting images into words.

Just like Jim.