You’ve read Bukowski’s “So You Want to be a Writer?” and in spite of it all, though your stillness is in fact a kind of madness, it nonetheless “doesn’t come bursting out of you.” Not the way it comes bursting out of Bukowski.
“How to Become a Writer Or, Have You Earned This Cliche?” by Lorrie Moore says it in a voice a lot like the way you wish your voice could be, a voice you want so badly to steal. You like how she talks about failure. Failure is more your speed.
Still, you have no clue how to be a great writer. But you do finally know how to be a writer, and it has nothing to do with saying you’re a writer, planning to write, dreaming about one day being a writer, outlining projects, telling your bartender the plot of a project you’ve outlined, hanging out in coffee shops and bookstores, reading poems and essays about the fact that you want to be a writer, or getting a subscription to The New York Times so you can read poems and essays about the fact that you want to be a writer.
Of course you’ve always been eager to learn the craft, embrace your art and celebrate literature. But you’ve found these tactics impotent without the single vestige that, despite your many failings, has allowed you to meekly proclaim yourself a writer:
And besides, as you write, and write, and write, over and over and over, until the tips of your fingers grow numb and your wrists dully ache with each keystroke, context has forced its way into the crevices of your life. Journals and books accumulate in piles on your desk. You find you’ve signed up for the workshop advertised on the library bulletin board. You’re researching places to send your work and are putting money aside for a local writer’s conference. “In medias res” is now something you say.
The bulk of your writing is work you don’t feel like doing, but you somehow force yourself to sit down and write the crap you don’t want to write. Because if you don’t sit down and at least write crap, instead of what Ernest Hemingway called a first draft, you’ll have nothing.
This outlook is bleak, but you still have hope; the more you write, the more the muse comes.
Forcing yourself to write encourages you because now you’ve got words–words that are there because you overcame self-deprecating fear–and this encouragement in turn brings about your so-called muse.
You do everything you can to keep the words coming because the blank page is always going to be a fight you can’t escape. Because it doesn’t come, as Charles Bukowski says, “out of your soul like a rocket.” But you think that with some grunt work, you might be able to build a launch pad.
Maybe you write in a daily creative blog, material that can’t be published anywhere else and isn’t about perfection, it’s about getting words down. It’s an idea that occurred to you while reading about the Tibetan Buddhist practice of Mandala Sand Painting, by which intricate works of sand art are created and then destroyed to represent the impermanence of life.
And the first words you write–aren’t they impermanent too?
A document will be open on your computer screen, so that to access games and movies and social media, to not write, you have to face your words. Or maybe you packrat every snippet you create for later in notebooks. You’ve left them in places you can’t avoid seeing them. Places like the kitchen counter, beside the wooden bowl with your car keys and the water bill, opened to your most recent half-baked scribbles. If you go out, a notebook will be snapped up and taken with you, collecting bits of conversation, character, scene, stanzas.
You actually do love this thing you’re doing and you want it enough to be ruthless with yourself.
Writing, you notice, has residual side effects. Like how Tetris gets into your head, makes you dream of Tetris and think Tetris thoughts. This is your Tetris Effect. It’s your desire to finish what you’ve started.
And, as you damn well know by now, the task of writing is never finished–at least until you join the ranks of the lonely, poverty-stricken authors who have died of some horrific disease (maybe cancer like your dad), and half a century from now literary scholars realize that, after all, you were brilliant.
But today you’re alive, even if your father has passed, and your job as a writer isn’t over.
So now you’re writing every day. It may just be a few words, “fuck my life,” written in Comic Sans font. But hey, now you have a line of dialogue. Where have you heard the phrase? Comic Sans. That’s a bit of dark humor you’ve got there. Why not try for some more? Who says things like that? Are they as witty as you? Likely not. No one you know has the guts to use Comic Sans. So embellish. Create the characters your stories demand.
Yes, there are times that writing is difficult and depressing work. But you’re a writer, and the art of language has gotten into your head. Instead of seeing Tetris blocks crashing toward the ground, you slow down and see story, poetry, and art in the mundane. You see how much you’ve missed when walking from place to place, and you see it in terms of your obsessions, which leak into everything you set out to write. Now they’re leaking into the world you observe.
That man leaning cross-legged against the Wal-Mart, playing a guitar which has fallen almost imperceptibly out of tune with age, he’s tapping his foot against the air to the rhythm of a bolero. He sings in raspy Spanish like a broken saxophone reed, pronouncing zafiro as thafeero (as in “she is a beautiful thapphire”). As you lean to drop a few bucks into the man’s guitar case, the sway of his white loafers catches your attention. It’s the way your father once swayed his foot to Ella Fitzgerald, leaned back in his recliner–though the loafers they buried your father in were brown, shoes he wore until chemotherapy left him in a hospital bed, too emaciated to stand. Still he tapped his foot as he lay in bed, tapped to the bleep of the heart monitor as if it were the rhythm of a jazz song only he could hear.
You leave the man with the guitar behind, but now you see your father’s swaying foot in every leaf or branch or blade of grass swaying in the wind, in the face of every strange woman tilting back her head to check for rain, then forward again to keep her clicking heels from getting stuck in a sidewalk crack. You’re obsessed with the ghost of the old man’s movement, like some woman in a sapphire dress dancing to a jazz saxophone and Spanish boleros.
This is a good thing, you realize. Obsession is life. Obsession drives the writer forward, word by word by word. Embrace it.