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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.

8 thoughts on “Don’t Say Fail

  1. I think that’s very nice, safe advice for someone who has already made it to give. If I sound bitter, it’s because we tried it and the universe only took care of us if not getting evicted counts.

    I shouldn’t leave comments this early in the morning after bad dreams. I’m sorry.

  2. Yes, Denis Johnson did say that, and I was mighty surprised because the status-quo advise is, “Don’t quit your day-job.”

    Sometime in the next few days I’m going to write up my impressions of his reading/talk, also, or at least I was going to until I read your post — feels like it will be redundant…Ah well…So it goes.

    Am disappointed in myself for not remembering you’d be here in Portland — seems like we discussed this in comments awhile back?

  3. I really want to thank you. I was one of the people you sent a copy of that story to back in the day. And that para you cite here is one of the most powerful experiences of Chicago I have ever had. I read it, filed it away in the brainmeats, and then I was on the brown line going out and that ENTIRE paragraph ran back through my head. I just wanted you to know that the whole experience really stuck with me.

  4. I agree with Annika, and I say without any bitterness, what a cruel piece of advice told by a writer “who’s made it.” Especially in a weakening economy.

  5. I’ve thought about this some more (I am way less bitter today) and I am going to totally contradict myself. I still think it is ASS advice for the masses, but I think YOU should quit your dayjob. Go 100% freelance for a while and see if you are able to devote more time to your own writing. If it doesn’t work, I think you will find it relatively easy to get back into the rat race, but I think it would work.

  6. Every time a writer who has ‘made it’ gives that kind of advice, I sort of… eh. I like what Annika and Jadepark said. There was another writer, I forget who, who said if you couldn’t write and read x amount of each day (and it was a fair chunk of each day) you didn’t want to be a writer or something like that. They were in a pretty comfortable position to say that. idk. I like the saying ‘the universe takes care of those who take care of themselves.’ 😉
    Just make sure you’re looking after you, in all aspects of your life. The rest will fall into place.

  7. Some writers give the “quit your job” advice because it worked for them. I personally know several who did, and they never regretted it; and then there are the writers who quit and later succeeded. I think it’s not very fair to attack them for being successful now, and giving that advice, when at the time when they quit their jobs they had not yet succeeded.

    I quit my job and career twice, not for writing, but for my children. The universe did absolutely take care of us, but not very well! Ha ha! We were dirt poor; but we still had more than most people in the world. Quitting and being poor gave me the courage to know that I could always survive and still be happy. Granted, we had to change how we lived. That’s only common sense. We also had to change where we lived; life is full of tradeoffs like that.

    I don’t think quitting the day job is the answer for everyone; but I do think some writers (or people) hit a point in their life where they have to go in that direction. Or maybe quit the day job you do have and get a job that feeds your soul more, so that you’re a better writer and more attentive, whenever you do write. I found that working in a book store and working at a literary journal were far more conducive to my writer’s mind than my work as a therapist or my advocacy work.

    Nova, I find that after conferences I always come home a little worn out and depressed. Everything sounds good from the stage, but then we return to our real actual lives. It’s good to get the advice from others; but in the end you still have to follow your own way. I’m confident that you will, and that if you need to quit your job, or need to change jobs, or need to do anything different, you’ll do it. Being a writer is not easy; it’s a lot harder than getting up and punching a time clock. Please be kind to yourself too (and, yes, stick with the routine and the goals).

  8. Pingback: What Award-Winner Denis Johnson Had to Say « Lisa’s Words at Play

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