What I Meant to Say

Oh. I forgot the whole point of this morning’s post, well, the reason I started writing it anyway. I meant to talk about how completely, unabashedly insecure I’ve become with my writing. I have no idea how it can be that I’ve gotten more experience, and am a better writer for it, I hope, and good and encouraging things have happened, and yet I am still a jittery, insecure mess whenever it comes time for someone to read what I wrote.

It makes no sense. I don’t remember being this insecure about people reading my work in grad school, and maybe I should have been back then.

You should have seen me before the workshop at Tin House. I was massively nervous about how people would react to my story—visuals of being slammed plagued me—and then the workshop happened, and I sat there taking notes, and most of it was good. Really good. People liked it, like really liked it. What did I think would happen, they’d run me out of the room with sharpened pencils, smacking at me with scribbled-over copies of my story?

My workshop leader, in my conference, said she hoped I saw how much the class responded to my story and how they connected to my main character. It was good she reiterated it because there was a point at which I didn’t, couldn’t see. I see the confidence in some writers and I am begging for it. How do you feel so sure of yourself? I used to be sure, but I think past rejections have stomped me down. It’s really hard to write your best when you have a massive loss of confidence.

There. That’s what I meant to say earlier.

Don’t Say Fail

There’s this thing about writing conferences (I sound so wise and I’ve only really been to two… well, if you count AWP as a lightning-fast taste of a conference without time to do any writing then I guess three) is you have these ENLIGHTENING MOMENTS while walking around being a so-called Writer in which you decide to:

  • Motivate
  • Write more
  • Write more often
  • And all things will fall into place then

But then, of course, you get home and you’re flat-out exhausted and the delayed red-eye home sure didn’t help. I’ve been home how many mornings? Two, three? And only today did I drag myself through the pouring rain to the café I currently have a crush on to write before work. Problem is: Don’t feel like writing. So scattered. So anxious about book things. So unsure of absolutely everything I was so sure about just a week ago.

I may have failed this morning as a writer, but there’s always tomorrow. I just have to get back into my routine. That’s the thing about me—I thrive on routine. There’s a rhythm in it, a point at which it becomes natural. I’m just having a hard time getting back in after the disruption of being away, that’s all.

I have a lot to say about the conference / workshop / whatever it was; maybe it’ll all flood out in separate posts. But one thing I keep thinking about is Denis Johnson’s closing remarks after his reading the last night of the conference. (He read from the novella being serialized in Playboy: pulp fiction, about which he admitted that it wasn’t good writing and that he had a 10,000-word-a-month deadline, so maybe that was supposed to explain why. Even so, the levels of my disappointment cannot be measured.)

First, I should say a little bit about how I discovered Denis Johnson. In the late nineties, in some New York City classroom, I was a young fiction writer unsure of what a story could or should be. One of the books everyone was talking about was this tiny little story collection called Jesus’ Son (there was no movie then, so this was the first I’d heard of it). Some people loved the stories in it. Others hated it with a passion near equal to the love. There were debates among the lovers and the haters and, of course, I had to decide for myself. I read “Car Crash While Hitchhiking.” I read “Emergency.” I read “Dirty Wedding.” What is this book? I thought. I’ve since read it numerous times; read it aloud to poor E, insistent that he hear certain stories again and again and again; photocopied stories and sent them to friends… I don’t know what it is about that book, I still don’t have the answer, except that I didn’t know stories could be like that. Here’s the opening of “Dirty Wedding”:

I liked to sit up front and ride the fast ones all day long. I liked it when they brushed right up against the building north of the Loop and I especially liked it when the buildings dropped away into that bombed-out squalor a little farther north in which people (through windows you’d see a person in his dirty naked kitchen spooning soup toward his face, or twelve children on their bellies on the floor, watching television, but instantly they were gone, wiped away by a movie billboard of a woman winking and touching her upper lip deftly with her tongue, and she in turn erased by a—wham, the noise and the dark dropped down around your head—tunnel) actually lived.

Of course I didn’t expect the reclusive Denis Johnson to read choice bits from that collection (though you know there were many of us in the audience secretly hoping). But anyway, he read. I’m not a Playboy reader (surprised?), so this was the first I’d heard of his latest fiction. This was in an outdoor amphitheater overlooking a pond with a bike path around it, so sometimes when a writer was reading at the podium, a lone runner would flash past the “stage”—sprinting past the audience; I thought it was hysterical. At the end of Denis Johnson’s reading, there was a Q&A. He seemed reluctant to answer questions about his writing process at the panel the day before (even admonishing something for pronouncing Jesus’ wrong), but that night he did take the time to answer some questions.

Then, and I didn’t take notes so if you were there and I heard this wrong please say, he answered some question or other about being a writer. I don’t remember the exact question. But I do remember his answer: Quit your job, he said. His advice was to not wait until you have the book deal to quit your day job; quit your job now, so you can write and get yourself the book deal.

“The universe will take care of you,” Denis Johnson told the audience of rapt writers. And look at him as an example: He quit his job, life was hard, his wife left him (but she came back), but all the while he kept writing (and, as we now know, he has since won a National Book Award).

Quit my job? Is that really the answer? Maybe quit my job and move out of the most expensive city in the country…

Some said this “quit your job” advice was meant to be sarcastic, but I took it seriously. You must take risks, yes? You must trust in yourself and give it your all, no?

He’s given this advice before.

All I know is I’m not trying hard enough. Sacrifices should be made. If I give my notice at work and default on my student loans and can’t pay the rent, do you think I should cite Denis Johnson? I wonder if the universe would take care of me… Hey, universe, give me a hint here.

In the meantime, I’m heading off to work now. I didn’t write this morning. I hope to be better tomorrow. I must call upon my MOMENTS OF ENLIGHTENMENT:

  • Motivate
  • Write more
  • Write more often
  • And all things will fall into place then

Yes? No? Let’s say yes.

After Workshop

My silence this past week had a purpose: I was away in Portland, Oregon, for the Tin House Writers Workshop. I had a midnight flight back home Sunday night, but it was delayed and didn’t leave Portland until 2 a.m. I’m not sure if I have jet lag or am just tired from a very tiring week?

So much to report, but I’ll say a few words now, because who knows how tired I’ll be once I go back to the day job tomorrow:

It has been an insanely long time since I lived in a dorm. E was with me—his screenwriting partner lives in Portland and they were working out a script—so we shared a double in a men’s hall. SO WEIRD. The rooms were very sparse. The beds were so narrow we had to pull the thin mattresses onto the floor. Let’s just say I’m looking forward to sleeping in my own albeit uncomfortable bed tonight.

My workshop was with Aimee Bender, a writer I’ve loved since first discovering her in a literary journal where I assisted as a work-study student and then especially in her first short story collection, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt. So it was very strange to be sitting in a room with her, and stranger still to have her read my writing. As a workshop leader she is fantastic.

In workshop, I went up on the first day. I really don’t know how it happened. Aimee asked for volunteers; someone said she’d go first, and then there was this long moment of silence in which no one wanted to go second. All at once my hand shot up and I said, “I’ll go.” I have no idea why I did that except I knew, if I got it over with on Monday, I’d have the rest of the week to have fun. This theory worked, actually. I was exceptionally nervous to be workshopped for the first time in years, but it went very well. People responded and I was very flattered. Of course, there were suggestions, and I’m thinking hard on Aimee’s advice from our conference especially. I also made some writing friends; we’ve said we’ll trade work. I hope so.

So much more to say about the week; maybe I’ll talk about it later.

But, finally, the city of Portland: what a wonderful place. I spent most of the week on the beautiful campus of Reed College, but what I did see of the city was very influential. I could live there…

Jumbled Head

I leave for the plane Saturday. Writing workshop awaits. So much to do, so much to do, so much to . . . Having a hard time thinking straight. Thoughts jumbled up in there include:

How I’m loving my new website design. Which isn’t my design—it’s e‘s design. And he sort of didn’t plan on designing it that way, I just said I wanted something more “noirish” and “cinematic” and was having trouble describing it in actual physical details, then saw his website and said “Could I have that?” and, well, let’s just say he was kind enough to let me steal it.

How I want chocolate.

How it occurred to me today that I rub people the wrong way. Or in some other way annoy them. But no one ever tells me how or why, so I’m left guessing.

How I have all those workshop stories to comment on and I’m really behind and I can’t do them on the plane because I plan on sleeping.

Packing: socks?

Packing: how many shirts is too many shirts for a week plus one day?

How I have to finish my outline and send it to my awesome editor, now forever known as AE.

How my outline really is almost finished, I’m just taking my time reading through it, though I don’t exactly have the time to be doing that, but you can’t rush me when I’m writing, you just can’t.

How I’ve written more of a rough draft and less of an outline, but whatever.

How I’d like to change my life irrevocably by March 31. (March 31 = the day our lease is up.)

How I want chocolate.

How e probably wants to figure out a whole new website for himself now and I probably shouldn’t have stolen his.

How I’m selfish. (Case in point: The conversation we were having when he was walking out the door and the moment in which I spread my arms wide and said, “But that could save my life!” Why my life only and not his?)

How I should dye my hair tonight but you know what maybe I’ll do it tomorrow.

How I want chocolate.

Packing: sunscreen? lotion? do we have enough soap?

How I want chocolate.

How I need more time to write. Much more time to write.

How I won’t get it. How I should not, then, turn on the TV. How I should do this thing and that thing and pack the socks and do the dishes and where’s the iron and I must do my workshop comments and I’m starving and where’s dinner and oh right I didn’t order it yet and, of course . . .

How I want chocolate, the great reoccurring theme of my life.

New Spot

I’ve found a new morning writing spot for the weekdays before the day job eats my life away for 8+ hours. The new spot is a great place—not a corporate monster chain, for one thing, so my mocha money is going to the local community and not to wherever it used to go before—and it also has the most incredible, amazing coffee, just YUM. There are enough tables empty in the mornings so I seem to always find one (though I worry about when classes at NYU start up again in the fall). Free wireless, though that may or may not be a good thing. And—nothing against the homeless, or the club kids, or the drunks—but the only people hanging out in my new spot are people reading or writing, keeping to themselves, not attacking customers or breaking windows or sleeping on the tables or screaming at six-thirty a.m. about what a great night they had / are still having before they take the PATH train back home.

But, alas, all is not perfect in my new spot.

My new morning writing spot opens at seven a.m., about a half hour later than I need to get my writing jaunt kick-started. It’s also a little bit of a longer walk, and I have to take a different subway line to work, but so far that’s been a negligible difference. It’s really just the fact that it opens a little later than I want it to that bothers me.

This morning when I woke up I was dead tired so I flirted with the idea of going back to sleep on the couch. Just for fifteen minutes, I told myself. Then, realizing I couldn’t get into my new morning writing spot till seven anyway, I gave myself full permission to linger and drift off for those sweet fifteen minutes.

When I was at last showered and dressed and ready to leave to write, it was a minute to seven. So they’d definitely be open by the time I made it there—great!

Except . . . As I said, the new spot isn’t a chain. It’s not fast-food coffee, and I guess there’s no obligation to open the doors when the sign says they’re supposed to open the doors. When I got there it was close to ten minutes after seven and the doors were locked. A line of coffee-starved customers was on the steps outside. “They’re not open yet!” they told me. Inside, the workers could be seen, talking, fiddling with a register, standing there waiting for, what, I’m not sure.

I made a flash decision. I had to go! I have an outline I’m tweaking now, mere days away from sending it to my editor, and I was late enough. So I left the steps of the awesome coffeehouse and rushed for the closest—you guessed it—Starbucks. Where the doors were open, the line was short, the coffee isn’t incredible though it’ll do, and the wireless sure ain’t free so I couldn’t even upload this post until tonight.

So I found a corner table and began to write. Then a crazed man sat nearby and started doodling madly on napkins. He slunk over to me and handed me this note, the ballpoint letters put down with so much pressure they tore the napkin open in spots:

Google: Jeff Fisher
Star Bucks
Madonna
World Peace

I’m on my way to Nashville
Tell everyone online please
Blessed Be.

I ignored the napkin at first—it’s best to ignore crazed strangers in corporate coffee chains early in the mornings when they still have their hospital ID bracelets on, I’ve learned.

So he scribbled some more and slunk over to me once again before leaving to give me a page torn from a magazine covered in ballpoint doodles including: a fuzzy bunny, a butterfly, three smiling faces, birds, flowers, and a shining sun.

So I’m telling everyone on the internet. Jeff is on his way to Nashville. And I wouldn’t have known if I’d spent my morning somewhere else, as planned.

Even so, tomorrow I’m going back to the new writing spot, the good place. Please, please let them open on time.

My Own Worst Enemy

…is sitting right here, her hands on my keyboard. She thinks she’s helping me write my novel. But what she’s really doing is spewing out the longest so-called outline in the history of the world, saying it’s the only way she knows how to write this novel, though she knows it’s completely unnecessary and she’s only making things harder. She’s writing the rest of the book when she knows she’s not supposed to be writing the rest of the book, and I can’t seem to stop her! And whenever she gets to a difficult scene she makes excuses and erases things and says downers like “I caaaan’t!” and goes online to check Facebook or message boards or blogs and then she looks back at her progress and panics at the chapters left to do and gives me heart palpitations.

I wish she’d leave me alone so I could write!