by Matthew Wade Jordan
I attended my first writer’s conference in 2012. Those ten or so days among meadows and butter yellow cottages were rewarding but fraught. The conference was rewarding in that it was fruitful. I met a lot of great people, collected from the craft courses and workshops some useful habits and things to consider, and was introduced to contemporary writers I’ll be reading, and hoping to run into again, for years. (“Oh, I know her,” I can’t wait to say. “She was, um, cruel in workshop.”) I left the conference with a much clearer sense of what I would need to do if I wanted to turn this hobby of mine into something more than a hobby. That’s valuable, you know? And, I saw a moose.
It was fraught, however, because I felt, perhaps naively, that the stakes were high. I’d been–I’ve been, I should say, dwelling on the distinction–writing fiction for several agonized, fickle years. I’ve little more to show for all this time and effort than the faith of some fine people (which does mean something), a “Not No” or two from agents, and a handful of kindly worded rejections from respected journals. The shameful hours I’ve spent boring my poor, dear friends with the inessential details of this dim, selfish pursuit; the bar tabs I’ve picked up suddenly, guiltily, to account for those hours, as if twenty-five dollars not spent is sufficient to make an evening in my company sufferable. Acceptance to the conference was a big deal for me. Writing is important to me, the habit of it, the vague sense of its potential, and yet I often feel that I know nothing about it. I don’t have an MFA. I didn’t major in English. I’m not a part of any “literary scene.” The conference was a chance to meet and learn from people who care about the same things I care about, who know what the hell they’re doing. They might even know why they’re doing it.
I imagine that most people who arrive at writing as a hobby, and then as a craft, and then as a career, begin the journey from a place of buzzing, appreciative idealization. They are, as Saul Bellow put it, readers “moved to emulation.” Young writers, like Little Leaguers half over a Major League railing waiving their dads’ old mitts, are fans. They’ve read Great Books — one at least — and been Changed and Inspired. They perceive in literature, in its expression of human hopes and limits, everything they’d like to be, yet they respect it as something beyond their capabilities, something larger and greater than themselves. They view its craftspeople in an according light, and continue to, until one day they find that they themselves are practiced enough, and lucky enough, to raise their eyes from the page, look around, and see a landscape of peers — lucky enough to look at themselves and admit that their aspiration has been realized. In that moment, I have to imagine that the accomplished writer must also admit that they are not an embodiment of twinkling celestial genius. The craftspeople they so admired, whose achievements they’ve modeled their lives after, must be, essentially, just like them, mustn’t they? Ambitious people, perhaps with some native talent, who’ve developed a particular skill. To think otherwise would be to disengage from the facts — these now-accomplished writers have known themselves their entire torrid, boring lives. They had the clap once, or were afraid they did, anyway; their husband, a sad, slow-witted man they love because of his love for them, opened his veins but failed to die (he’d taken ibuprofen, not aspirin, the dumbshit); they act weird when they drink too much; they’re addicted to pull-tabs. The accomplished writer is not something distinct from and beyond the rest of us. The accomplished writer is a person who, simply enough, has the fine luck of having mastered a beloved craft.
So the aspiring writer misapprehends what it is to be a writer. Writing isn’t a state, it’s an act. Being a writer is doing writing.
If you have your doubts, I suggest this exercise:
1. Go to a book signing, and listen attentively to the people in line around you. Listen to the lady with the canvas tote bag ahead of you, to the blowhard in large plastic eyeglasses behind you. Listen until you hear their reasons for being there.
2. Attend a writer’s conference. Sit down across the table from someone you admire. Chat with them as you would with anyone else. (Heads up: There’s a good chance they’ll try to sleep with you.)
Writing is craft, not magic, although it’s the magic of the very best craftspeople to convince us otherwise. Being a writer is doing the work and business of writing. It’s fair to compare a gifted writer to a gifted doctor, engineer, carpenter, sculptor. It’s a pretty understandable job — at least once you’ve put in the effort to understand it.
Nevertheless, perhaps because we’ve all come up in this aspirational ecosystem, because we’re all spattered and dazed by it, because we are all, at root, fans, writers often talk about writing, about being a writer, as if it really is something special. Even amongst themselves, I learned at the conference, some writers — emerging writers at communal tables, established writers behind a podium — are prone to speak of their craft as a blessing or burden, as something mythic, as native and precarious to the authenticity of one’s being as their own beating heart. It’s not a job description, it’s a calling. (Or worse: a personality type.)
The best analogy I can think of is a grizzled, whiskey drinking detective in a formulaic police procedural — and his awareness of himself as a grizzled, whiskey drinking detective in a formulaic police procedural. You’ve seen this film I’m sure, or another a lot like it: Problematic But Somehow Likable Man Is Brilliant At Work Yet Destroys Everything He Touches™. (“I’m a cop, you son of a bitch!” or “Everybody who gets close to me gets hurt… I’m a cop!”) The themes are the same with Writers™, the burning too brightly, the bondage to grand ideals, the resignation to tragedy, but the specifics are typically different. The violence, for one. Writing really needn’t be violent. Another difference: writers, who are nearly as anxious about spoken words as written ones, are generally better than movie cops at avoiding cliché. Many are, anyhow.
This obsession with the job and the identity structures supposedly behind it comes through in a great deal of literary fiction — there are a fuckton of novels about writers. A partial list of work (that I love) in this vein: Sophie’s Choice, Nazi Literature in the Americas, The Savage Detectives, 2666, Pale Fire, Wonder Boys, Crossing to Safety, Misery, The Lesson of the Master, Hunger, Herzog, Tropic of Cancer, Ask the Dust, The Ghost Writer. If you throw in the campus novel — which I would argue is fair game as the university is the paying gig of so many writers — the list metastasizes.
Perhaps these, or some of them, are examples of “writing what you know.” Maybe it’s difficult to write your fourth or fifth, or even first, novel and not turn to the romance of your own frustration and toil. But to focus hundreds of pages of characterology on a writer suggests a belief on the part of the author that this character is fascinating enough to warrant the focus, engrossing enough to carry the novel.
This endorsement of the interestingness of Writers™ extends beyond the fictive. (A day or two on certain magazines’ Twitter or Tumblr feeds will verify this for you.) Even some very successful writers, people for whom the comforts of their accomplishments are the commodities of everyday life, comment on writerly existenz in grand language, blurring the lines of writerly work and self. Eugene Ionesco: “A writer never has a vacation. For a writer life consists of either writing or thinking about writing.” W. Somerset Maugham: “We do not write because we want to; we write because we have to.” E.L. Doctorow: “Writers are not just people who sit down and write. They hazard themselves. Every time you compose a book your composition of yourself is at stake.”
These quotes, of course, emerge into naked day from a forest of context. They were called for, somehow. Perhaps they’re from an essay on craft; maybe some coy, fire-eyed darling at a cocktail party, a paperback twisted in lissome hands, was simply dying to know what it’s like to actually be such a strange and compelled creature. They could be a memorable sliver of a lecture delivered to the paying customers of a writer’s conference like the one I attended. These are not inappropriate sentiments. They are, however, articulations of their authors’ public understandings of what a writer is. They imply a category distinct, a sense that doing writing is a particular form of being, and that this particular form of being is, for some reason, remarkable.
I don’t know. I’m skeptical.
Two weeks ago I overslept and was late for work. It was cold, though not near as cold as January mornings should be, and, out the door, I stuffed my hands into my pockets. Cold air burned the nude skin on my wrists. I stopped for espresso knowing that it would make me later still but needing to sooth my addiction to caffeine. Being addicted to caffeine makes me feel urbane. I drank the espresso too fast and it spilled down my chin. I was wearing a scarf (wearing a scarf also makes me feel urbane) and the espresso stained it. The scarf belongs to my wife. She got it for Christmas some years back from her mother, who is dying slowly in a nursing home. Her illness has made her ball one fist very tightly. Every time we visit her I, or somebody I love, cries, or leaves overwhelmed by all the misery crammed into and abandoned at that reeking hospice, or both. I thought of how angry my wife would be that I wore this scarf, this scarf, and then stained it. I thought her anger at some unknown future date was better than espresso on my shirtfront all day that day. I thought to set myself a reminder to have the scarf dry cleaned, and to never mention any of this to my wife. I now was even later for work, and flustered by the spilled espresso, and I walked as quickly as possible down 14th St. toward Metro. Young mothers and nannies pushed strollers filled with chubby infants dressed in the wonderfully bright clothes small children get to wear. Middle-aged daycare attendants walked slowly, leading ropes held by groups of pre-K children, top heavy with puffy hooded parkas, six to a side, a dozen or more to a rope. Baby trains always get me. I smiled at a little girl with a big head of curls who was looking at me while we waited for the walk sign. One of the day care attendants smiled at me. They must see this, how people love small children, all the time. Doesn’t it get sickening, like the same delicious food again and again? Like Turkish delight in, uh — ? What book was that? A man getting a breakfast muffin or something at Subway swung the glass door out into the foot traffic, almost hitting me, and a great pink rage flew up. How people living in a city can be so inconsiderate, and I don’t even mean discourteous, when at all times they’re twenty feet at most from another human being, is beyond me. Does proximity blind us? You’d have to be blind to throw a glass door wide into a crowded sidewalk. I almost told this asshole all about what a fuckstick he is but then I saw he was one of the guys from the halfway house down the block. I actually didn’t see this so much as guess it from the shabbiness of his workboots and the lines on his face, deep as waves on a great blue lake. So I let it go. Poor guy. Who knows what chain of bad luck and bad decisions landed him there? Why am I so quick to anger? Why am I so quickly disappointed? Why does each and every quotidian disappointment seem like an affront? Why does each affront make me want to identify and destroy its cause? Will the distance between the world I inhabit and the one I’d prefer always, always hang before me like a carrot slick with rot? I waited at a crosswalk for a few seconds and weighed the risks of jaywalking. Before I stepped off the curb and into the street, I looked both ways. I looked both ways again. I distrust my ability to establish fact from observed phenomena. I looked again to my right and stepped out into the street. This is America. The car that would kill me would come from my left. On the street’s other side I walked past a restaurant (I just had an awful time spelling restaurant) that offers a mangled pastiche of contemporary cuisine. $29 New York Strip Steak; $14 Buffalo Chicken Sandwich; $8.50 Hummus & Oven-Warmed Pita. The restaurant’s name is Hutch. The inimitable smell of McDonald’s French fries was in the air. There isn’t a McDonald’s for miles. Where’s the nearest McDonald’s? My grandmother used to have collectible McDonald’s drinking glasses with images of Mayor McCheese and Grimace on them. Everything else in her home was tasteful, restrained and quiet. Had she ever eaten at McDonald’s? How did she get those glasses? Did she get them for her grandchildren thinking we did or would love Mayor McCheese, as a Senior Vice President for Marketing at McDonald’s had known we would? I do love Mayor McCheese. I love my grandmother. I ought to call her more. If I did, I could ask her “Whatever happened to those glasses?” I walked across a small plaza where a small group of black men with bullhorns and paperboard placards occasionally congregates to promote a bellicose, anti-Semitic, and homophobic form of Christianity. “If King James was a faggot — “ I’d once heard one scream into a bullhorn before I skittered away as fast as possible, sensing danger. I rounded the waist-high concrete wall that anchors the vaulted glass canopy that covers the escalators that lead to the Metro station’s mezzanine level. At the head of the escalator stood a young man, maybe seventeen, maybe nineteen, in a flat-billed Cincinnati Reds hat and a dark brown leather jacket. He was talking to another young man who was leaning over the wall. A girl about their age stood next to the kid in the hat and, together, they blocked the entrance to the escalator. I stood behind them for, I don’t know, two seconds before adopting the posture I reserve for when I’m outrageously put out. Four, maybe five, seconds later, I say “Excuse me.” I could hear the anger in my voice, and maybe he could, too, because he turned to me, rolled his eyes and sneered in the sort of dismissive scowl one sees on high school girls on TV. “Fuck you, herb,” he said, and turned back to his conversation. I imagined gripping the black rubber handrails of the escalator for leverage and kicking him as hard as possible in the small of the back. I imagined the heel of my dress shoe leaving a welling burgundy crescent in his skin. I imagined his thin body contorting unnaturally backward like a reed cane, quick and supple, flexing before the corrective strike lands. I imagined him flying face-first down the escalator’s gnashing metal stairs. The girl grabbed his elbow, and made him move aside, and I stepped onto the escalator. As I walked down the escalator steps I imagined his impact on their jagged edges and his rough tumble down to the mezzanine. I imagined his leather sleeve being caught in the stairs’ grinding teeth and his terror as he realized he would lose that arm, at least, and his abjection and his fervent, repentant wish that he could go back just a few seconds and not be such a piece of shit. Around the time I was swiping my fare card, I killed my fantasy. I took deep, mindful breaths. Why am I so quick to anger? Why is everything an affront? Would I have become so irretrievably angry at a person dressed as I dress? Who speaks as I speak? Are the overt and subtle artifacts of societal aesthetics steering my perception of the world? Is that a problem, if those perceptions are never acted upon? How might somebody abandon everything they know? Warm yellow LED lights indicated my train wouldn’t come for another three minutes and as I waited for the train I cataloged the things about myself I would change, if such change were available to me. The kid in the Reds hat and his polite female friend walked past me. I was shocked, and watched them as if they weren’t possible. He was supposed to be a bloody, whimpering tangle on the mezzanine. On the train I typed an email to myself.
Subject: personal essay?
Body: idiot thinking on metro. does imagination mean anything?
My employer asks that all new hires take a test. The results of my test recommend that people talking to me “Be Brilliant. Be Brief. Be Gone.”
I have yet to dry clean my wife’s scarf.
The other day I saw that email, bold and black, unopened. A couple days after that I got down to the work of transmuting a thing I thought into a thing I could sell. That’s being a writer, I guess. I’d like very much to be interesting, but to think that I am is to disengage from fact.
Matthew Wade Jordan contributes to Shitty New Yorker Cartoon Captions.