Writing, Writers, Self-Deprecation and True Love

Writers take themselves way too seriously. I say “themselves” rather than “ourselves,” because I, naturally, am different. I don’t even know where the commas go. Nor do I care. That’s how not seriously I take my writing. Editing, on the other hand, I take very seriously. Same with proofreading. Shame I can’t do either.

Anyway, like I was saying, writers take themselves way too seriously. Especially those writers who always knew they wanted to be writers. They’re the ones who wrote a short story on construction paper when they were five, only to have their parents react as if their kid had just written the Great American Novel; the ones who started calling themselves writers even before they had completed their first year of high school, and who, when asked what they wanted to be when they grew up, would roll their eyes, and with a sneer betraying contempt for anything as soul-murdering as growing up, reply, “a writer.” Then they waited, expecting (even hoping) that the person who had asked the question would dismissively say something about “making a living,” and “being realistic,” to which they could respond with some existentialist query like, “what is ‘a living,’ anyway?” just to further piss off whomever had initiated the discussion. Yep, that type. The ones who listened to The Cure way too much, or the Smiths, and who thought they could channel Salinger (or at least his principal protaganist), if they just became a little more cynical. Not that any of what I’ve just written is cynical of course. Like I said, I’m talking about others. I’m different.

I only started writing with any intentionality about a decade ago, and I had no idea that writing would play any significant role in my life until quite recently.

Oh sure, I wrote those short stories in grade school too. But ya know what? They sucked wind. And yes, I got a bit better by junior high, and even submitted a piece to a contest held by The Twilight Zone magazine, to which I received a little note from the editors in reply. It read: “Really nice effort for a twelve-year old!” Given that I don’t think I had mentioned that I was twelve, this led me to conclude that either the editors at the magazine were clairvoyant, or the story must have sucked so much wind that they simply couldn’t imagine it being written by someone even one month into their teens.
Discouraged thusly as a fiction writer, I turned to more political concerns. My first research paper, this time in eighth grade, provided what I considered a prime opportunity to compose a hard-hitting, well-documented deconstruction of the movement to reinstitute school prayer across the nation. I even thought up a truly brilliant (if I do say so myself) title for the work: “Our Father Who Art in Homeroom.” (Hey, I said I didn’t take my writing seriously, but I am very intentional about my titles). Unfortunately, my teacher (or rather the librarian who was, for some reason, given the task of grading the effort), marked me down for precisely that reason, claiming that by altering a Bible verse in this manner I had engaged in sacrilege. That this was a public school, where such things are supposed to figure in exactly not at all, appeared to matter little. That, and being forced to attend assemblies for a Christian youth group (which, ya know, is always great fun for a Jew) pretty much pushed me over the edge into political radicalism.
In high school I wrote a few columns for the campus “underground” paper. As a side note, any school that has an underground paper is a school with a lot of people who believe themselves to be writers (and of an especially hip and subversive type at that) against any and all evidence to the contrary; people for whom the regular school paper is too “establishment,” and whose staffs are a bunch of ass-kissers–the literary equivalent of the Pep Club. We, on the other hand, existed to shake things up, to expose corruption in high places! Or if not, to at least spill a lot of ink screaming about the injustices of the dress code, or some such thing. Just to show how alternative we were, we’d make sure to sneak a “damn” or “hell,” into our screeds, which we would then publish anonymously, just in case college recruiters (or our parents) happened across one of our mimeographed manifestos.

In college, I continued to dabble in writing, and there came to understand the way that words could elicit hostility of a most vicious type. And so it was that I received my first (though most certainly not my last) death threat for something I had written. It came via a phone call to my dorm room, the first semester of my freshman year, after a piece I had written on U.S. support for Guatemala’s military dictatorship was published in a campus political magazine. The caller, who identified himself as Guatemalan, insisted that the dictator was really a good guy, that the only people who disagreed were communists, and that the “model village” program (which had forced indigenous persons into virtual concentration camps under the control of the Army) was a benign humanitarian effort. Since I hadn’t been there, I had no right to criticize, he explained. I noted that I also hadn’t been in Dachau, and neither had he, but surely we could both rely on the testimony of those who had been when it came to passing judgment on the amenities. He didn’t like the comparison, and perhaps it was a bit overdrawn as analogies go, but it hardly justified what came next, which was the part where he said that if I didn’t stop writing such lies about his country, he would have me killed. Good stuff, this writing thing.

After college, I lived briefly in a “press collective,” which was just a more glorified version of the earlier underground paper–only this time, rent and utilities were involved. We all lived together in a big, filthy (and, we would soon learn, thoroughly haunted) hovel on Robert Street in New Orleans. Therein, we would smoke a lot of pot, eat a lot of lentils, and do pitifully little writing, to say nothing of publishing. But we did host a drag show, featuring the now-famous Varla Merman, festooned in a Pucci cat-suit, for one of the roommate’s birthdays. I have no idea why I never wrote about that before, though I feel confident that I know why Varla never did.

For the next several years, I did little writing at all. Rather, I turned my attention to one or another activist effort. When work as a professional radical was scarce, I labored at any number of decidedly non-literary grinds: stocking shelves for a furniture store, then a fa-fa gourmet food and wine shoppe (the degree of fa-fa-ness evidenced by the extra “p” and the “e” at the end of the word “shop”), or dressing up as the Easter Bunny at a local mall, or coordinating a fashion show at the same mall, and serving as the DJ for the event. When even those kinds of gigs became hard to find (or simply too unbearable to contemplate), I sold my childhood baseball card collection, which was valuable both in terms of dollars and sentiment, for less than one-fifth its value, just to get through a few more months until one or another activist organization would come calling, as thankfully they would, and I could find myself on track once again.

But even then, I did very little writing.

And when I did, it appeared that in the eyes of those reading my work, I had reverted back to the sucking-of-wind days (or perhaps had never left them behind to begin with), and so every time I submitted a piece for publication it would be rejected. The Nation Magazine even paid me $50 once, just to not publish something I’d sent them, but also to make sure I didn’t submit it anywhere else. They call it a “kill” fee, which seems like a strangely appropriate term, don’t’cha think?

By 1995, I was in the mood to write again, feeling as though I had something to say. So I wrote a book. Ok, not really a book. More like a booklet, or pamphlet. But because “booklet” and “pamphlet” seem so, well, amateurish—and in spite of the fact that I did not and do not take myself seriously as a writer!—I would tell people that it was a “mini-book.” I have no idea what a mini-book is, and neither do you, because there is no such thing. There are just books, and everything else. To call a pamphlet a mini-book is like calling an allowance a mini-paycheck, or an abacus a mini-computer, or a bronze medal a mini-gold: it is, in a word, dishonest. But it sounded better, so I went with it. Because not only do writers take themselves too seriously, readers also take writers way too seriously, and will allow us to get away with unparalleled quantities of bullshit for a really long time. (As evidence of this truism, please note how long you’ve stuck with this blog entry).

When it comes to bullshit, it was my wife—at that time a mere girlfriend—who finally called me on mine, by giggling a bit when she saw the size of my mini-book (no, really, I’m talking about the book here). “Oh,” she said, before grabbing it (again, the book, seriously), reading it cover to cover in about an hour (see, I told you it was small), and saying that even though it wasn’t really a book—and this she proved by noting the lack of an ISBN, as if the spiral binding hadn’t been sufficient evidence of its inauthenticity—she still thought it was great.

And thus I decided to keep writing. Because even death threats, kill fees and being patronized by the editors of Twilight Zone Magazine seemed worth it, if out of all that pain one might find one’s true love. And trust me, anyone who will love your work, even when it’s really not all that impressive, is the very definition of a soul mate.

So perhaps writing is worth it after all. Maybe it’s even something we should take seriously. Very seriously indeed.

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