Tag Archives: Jonathan Franzen

Getting back on the horse

horse

So you’ve gathered it’s been quiet around here lately.  Perhaps the most ubiquitous topic for bloggers, aside from the Buzzfeed-esque “18 Reasons Why Something In Particular Rocks And/Or Sucks,” is the struggle with writing, in its many forms, whether it be the challenges in completing a manuscript and subsequently editing it to near-perfection and getting someone to pay to read it, or simply maintaining the often herculean effort of grinding something out with consistency of quality and schedule.  The problem is the easiest thing in the world to do is not write, and there are innumerable distractions standing between us, the keyboard and the time required to produce.  External factors such as the kid wants me to put together Lego with him, we have nineteen different errands to run, the laundry needs to be folded and put away, so-and-so is coming over, there’s a new episode of The Blacklist.  Internal factors like I had a long day at work, I’m tired.  I don’t feel like it today.  I have nothing to say.  I’m intimidated in living up to what’s come before, or the work of my peers (a frequent fallback for those of us who continue to be convinced despite copious evidence to the contrary that we’re  Just.  Not.  That.  Good.)

My writing teacher Lynda used to tell a story about the Muse.  She reminded us that those who sit and wait for the Muse to arrive are more likely to have Godot show up first.  You have to be willing to force your fingers to strike the keys in even the most random and nonsensical of motions to drag her goldbricking ass off her seashell and plop her down next to your page.  Basically, the best way to get over not being able to write is to write.  Even if what comes out in those initial phases is more suitable for flushing than publishing.  There’s a terrific reason why “getting back on the horse” is such a lasting metaphor for the dogged resumption of effort, as standing next to said mount and staring at it expecting forward movement is the very picture of futility (as expressed in my never-painted Impressionist work, Silly Man Staring At Horse And Scratching His Head At Its Total Lack of Motion).  I used to do show jumping when I was much younger, and as intimidating as some of those jumps might be, they weren’t going to get any less scary by circling them in perpetuity.  You just had to shake the reins, give your horse a kick and go full tilt.  And man, did it ever feel good to clear them, even if on occasion the horse’s rear leg caught the bar and tipped it over.  The occasional fault doesn’t diminish the nobility of the pursuit, nor does the fact that there are other more skilled jumpers out there who clear every obstacle without a single flaw.  It is easy to let oneself be cowed into stasis by the seeming facility others have with their words, the depth of their respective vocabularies and their capacity for assembling the most breathtaking imagery from limitless reserves.  Show me a writer who isn’t insecure to some degree – even Franzen-sized inflated egos have many strategic holes leaking helium.  But the choice is either succumb to that self-imposed pressure and never create anything again, or persist with stubbornness and get better by doing more and trying new things.  Write poetry, song lyrics, short stories, reviews, lengthy op-eds on whatever issue-of-the-day made you stop and think about it for a minute or two.  Eventually you find your wheelhouse, and once you do there’s no stopping.

In The King’s Speech, a movie I absolutely adore, King George V (Michael Gambon) rues the rise of the importance of radio communications in monarchical affairs, claiming that “in the past all a King had to do was look respectable in uniform and not fall off his horse.”   In the modern era, the opportunity to pull a Salinger, to create one lasting work and fade from the collective pages yet retain relevance, is a distant memory.  Our information-driven age is a ravenous monster consuming and digesting information as fast as, and in some cases faster, than it can be produced.  To vanish voluntarily from the zeitgeist for even a few days at a time is to invite the chorus of “I can’t wait for his next” to change its refrain to “Whatever happened to?” and eventually “Who was that again?”  Laurels are not rested upon easily, nor should they be.  Whatever the circumstance, you have to stay on the horse.

So as I climb into the saddle, I look ahead.  What can faithful readers expect?  Well, I’m going to see some pretty big-ticket performers over the next month so there will be reviews.  The recent political tribulations both at home and down south have provided plenty of fodder for some (ill-?) informed opinions.  We may look back at some classics and cast our spotlight on up-and-comers we find worthy of attention.  We may talk about being a dad, approaching 40, dreams of the future and regrets of the past.  The usual staples of dissecting Aaron Sorkin and dissing spam.  Laughter and tears and occasionally pretentious meandering.  But above all, there will be heart.  Always heart.  Because what is the written word really other than the beats of a human heart transformed into elegant strokes of ink?

Hi-yo, Silver.  Away.

An embarrassment of riches

There's gold in them thar cranial recesses.

Writing is one of the easiest things in the world not to do.  That’s the primary reason most people don’t do it, and why those of us who profess to be writers are always struggling to force the words out.  It’s doubly ironic in that no one is born a literary wunderkind, and like muscles, writing only improves the more you do it – so why do the distractions and excuses continue to mount?  It’s too nice a day outside.  The game’s on.  My partner is lonely.  I was in front of the computer at work for nine hours already.  The new trailer for Prometheus just turned up on YouTube.  I’m just not feeling it today.  I need chocolate.

Here’s the problem, I think.  When you go to the gym, if you can’t do 150 pushups in one attempt, no big deal.  You’re not going to wallow in the pit of failure and whine about how you’re never going to get to that magic number.  You might be satisfied with doing 60.  The next day you go back, and you do 70.  Then 80, then 100, slowly and methodically increasing your stamina until you reach your goal and strut around with pecs and guns like The Incredible Hulk.  And really, although you might feel a little inadequate next to the no neck wonder at the leg press who looks like he’s never eaten anything other than chicken breasts, raw eggs and protein shakes, you’re really only competing against your own physical limits.  And you always have a reassuring notion in the back of your mind that it is just a matter of persistence, that eventually your body will toughen up.

Doesn’t work the same way with writing.  When you write something you know is bad, it’s a bodyblow to your ego.  The pathetic cobbling-together of syllables in front of you might as well have been scrawled in crayon by a three-year-old, you hate it that much.  Off to another blog to find some inspiration.  Wow, that’s really good, I can’t write that well.  Everyone is so much better than I am.  Why can’t I show a penetrating insight into humanity like Jonathan Franzen or be as witty as Terry Pratchett or sound as intellectual as Christopher Hitchens, or even be as effortlessly funny as that 19-year-old girl who blogged about her missing underwear?  Hitchens in particular is incredibly intimidating with his line about how most people have a book inside them, and that’s where it should stay.  If you are looking externally for validation of your self-criticism, throw a stone, you’ll hit some piece of literature that will make you feel hopeless.

We like to mock those daily affirmation exercises where you are instructed to stand in front of a mirror and tell your reflection over and over again how special you truly are, no matter how silly you feel doing it.  I suggest that perhaps there is a writer’s equivalent that isn’t quite so Stuart Smalley.  Because the praise we get from others doesn’t ever seem to crack that veneer of insecurity that is always telling us that “no, we actually do suck.”  When I’m mired in that self-loathing spiral, I like to give some thought to some of the other ideas in the hopper that I would like eventually to put to paper.  As I’ve mentioned, I have a novel that I’m finishing.  I also have its partially-written sequel and, because I cannot tell the entire story in only two books, the eventual third installment.  I have a young adult book that is a reflection on a personal tragedy from my teenage years, of which I’ve penned a single chapter.  I have a premise and outlines for a thirteen-episode television series.  I have what I think is a killer idea for a high-concept screenplay which came to me in a dream a while back.  And I have this blog – this is my ninety-first post and I’ll likely pass 100 before the end of the month.  That’s not an insubstantial volume of work.  And there very well may be more lurking in the corners of my brain yet to be discovered, and I’m kind of excited to find out what they are.  That is enough to keep me going, to silence the voice of Pazuzu ever taunting me with visions of spectacular failure.  To throw the foul-mouthed bastard down the Georgetown steps.

With all due respect to the late Mr. Hitchens, if you think you have a book inside you, then write the damn thing.  Maybe you won’t get past the first page, maybe no one will ever read it but your significant other.  And you know what?  That’s perfectly fine.  It may be gold, it may be merely pyrite, but you won’t find out unless you dig it up.  Isn’t the promise alone worth getting out the shovel?