Whenever I hear writers talk about waking up each day with joy because they are so curious what their characters might do that day, I get a sudden and deep twinge of annoyance. How can that be? Writing is not a pleasurable experience, wringing out the thoughts in your head and rolling them out into a readable form which others can empathize with has always seemed, to me at least, an agonizing process.
It is true, some words can be transmuted into readable meaning more quickly than others. Sometimes, there is such a painful nettle in the side that not writing it out can cause more pain.
But true writing, the kind of writing that lasts, the kind of writing you want to read again, instead of the reactions to it, is the kind of writing that is hard to produce. And it is precisely that production process that instills a dread in me whenever I sit down at my computer.
This all seems dramatic. I should mention I never sit down with the intent of brushing a masterpiece worthy of a glass case and white gloves. Maybe it is the blinking black line and blank sheet of paper that cause this dread. They both can acutely remind me of my inadequacies.
Absolutely, there is worse dread in the world than a paucity of words intended for a group of entitled or maybe just altogether bored twenty-somethings. And it is very possible a large majority of people who read this website will never even see this article. Still, I wish I could express to someone how much dread I feel when I think about my writing, how I have not done enough of it for it to impact anyone beyond a couple of lonesome tweets and a few thumbs up.
At my age, D.F.W. had already written a great number of his best essays, many of them appearing in well-known prestigious publications. Updike had his first novel published at 25. McCullers, 22. And here I am at 33 with three unpublished novels, a smattering of useless short stories, and a litany of blog posts, many of which I once dreamed of as great essays but are now debased into triviality because of internet commentators adding their opinions, devaluing each piece, making them instead into a jump off for arguments between strangers and another small chunk of crud to increase revenue for giant corporations like Sprint and Viacom and God knows what other soul-sucking groups this website caters toward for its survival.
The only solution to my dread is to write, but that is also the problem. The more I write, the more it seems insane to do so. And so the more blank pages I look at, the stronger my dread becomes.
There was a time, when I first started to write for myself – as opposed to reviews of other’s work – when I felt impassioned and dedicated and purposeful even.
It was at the end of my first year of living in Seattle. I had moved there to become a man. If I had stayed in Sioux Falls, near where I grew up, I would have died, I think. I no longer believed, though I couldn’t tell my family, that I did not believe in God. I had to move away from the place where it was expected of me to do so, where it would be assumed I would find a church, and after that, when everything was right with me and God, a wife.
Everyone was married and having children and settling into a life I could not attain but was beginning to understand I did not want. So I left, and it was good. Seattle was healthy. I was meeting people and going places other than my apartment and being part of things. I was working a lot as well. One of my jobs was waxing yachts, and in the rainy season of winter in Seattle, that kind of work dries up.
So by the end of that first year I had the mornings to myself, and for the first week of that free time I played video games, like I had in Sioux Falls. But instead of that being a nice numbing escape, it made me feel as though I missing out on something I should be doing. It reminded of my time in Sioux Falls, when I did things to eat up time, to forget my life.
I wanted to remember my life, and it hit me on that following Monday how I would. For several years, I had not written. In college and right after I had wanted to be some kind of writer. I did freelance work for music magazines but stopped because I’d grown tired of writing about other people’s art. I wanted my own.
And so, just like any other first attempt at fiction, I wrote about the first time I fell in love. My story, I jealously believed, would be original because it was not just about romantic love, it was also an agape unrequited love story between me and the creator of the universe.
So I wrote, and it felt essential. It also seemed impossible to ever finish anything into a coherent piece, a ‘novel,’ but it was absolutely essential. When I finished, I wrote another. This time I went to my childhood. But I didn’t want it to be just about childhood, as that was too “cliched” – from the guy who wrote about falling in love for his first novel – so I would make it science fiction.
At the time, I was reading a lot of Phil Dick and thought I could so something similar. I couldn’t, so it didn’t turn out, unsurprisingly, but I strove on because I was getting better. So I wrote another, this time about what was happening in my life at that very time. A bit meta, I would say, but because it was easier to recall writing it did not strike me as useless. I woke up each day with clarity.
Then came short stories, then blog posts, and another book full of rejections. Those, however, never filled me with dread. They have always been a prodding to do more. What has really begun – and very recently – to bring dread is the futility of my pursuits. That even if something was published it would not make me rich. It would not provide for a family. It would even put a roof over my own head.
And if it can’t do that, what is the purpose? To be remembered? To feel connected to a greater struggle that everyone goes through but not everyone goes to the bother of recording?
I guess? But accomplishing even that would be a piece of lint compared to constructing a skyscraper or finding a strain of bacteria with healing properties or engineering some kind of new energy for the world. What are words in comparison to any of that?
Nothing. And so here I am looking at another blank piece of paper. In it, I see the totality of everything I have ever done.