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.

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