Running on Empty

A newspaper column on the Internet.

Month: November, 2012

‘You Fucking Fail. Then You Do It Again.’

I’ve been having some trouble with writing lately. Not the what, or how well, but the why. The whether.

When I watched Hurricane Sandy unfold, the stories of destruction and tragedy, the words at my disposal felt shamefully trivial. Then the election happened, and again the stakes seemed too high to reduce to a handful of characters. And then I started thinking about how many words there are out there, just the raw sheer volume of stories and Tumblrs and tweets and articles pouring into the ether every minute like the water rushing into the PATH stations, and wondering if the addition of substandard ones just cheapens the value of the rest.

Then I fell down one of those existential rabbit holes.

In the right state of mind the writing life is one of endless renewal. Every blank page or screen is a bright fresh morning; every day yields the opportunity to teach or learn or be surprised.

In another, less charitable state, writing is also a daily scavenger hunt for new ways to disappoint yourself. There is literally no limit to the exciting story ideas that will ultimately lead to dead ends. Every week sees the launch of a quirky new independent magazine or online journal that will not want to publish your stuff. And do not forget your own boundless capacity for hackneyed, awkward prose! Thanks to the technologies of self-publishing, you don’t even have to wait for an editor to save you from yourself. Just post that sucker, and bam – your half-baked idea is out there, for good.

I write with two specters sitting on either shoulder. One of them says “Just put it out there! Don’t wait for permission! This is how it gets done now! Dorothy Parker would totally have had a blog!” And the other one says “Would this be equally at home on a Blogspot with unicorn pictures in the margins? Are you a wry original voice or a non-ironic version of A Room of Jean’s Own? Is it more embarrassing to call yourself a writer and not publish anything, or to call yourself a writer and publish this?” And I can’t tell which is wearing the devil horns and which the angel’s shroud.

A brilliant cartoon by Michael Leunig.

I miss my office in New York. Everyone there was a writer, the freelance, self-employed kind with nowhere else to work. You could turn to any other person in the room at any time – say at the coffee pot, or in line to use the printer – and say Hey, do you ever wonder if your dreams are just humiliating delusions? and they would say Sure! and you could say Great and go back to your desk feeling better about things. Now I write at home or in the public library. I know I’m not the only person who thinks these things but it can feel that way in a room alone, or in a room with an old man scratching his nuts and reading a communal copy of The Telegraph.

There is value in waiting to write or speak until you have something to say. But you can also ride that to the point of paralysis. I can tell that I am worrying too much about what happens to the words once they leave my control when I stop writing. Or when I write and won’t show it to anyone. Or, worst of all, when I write and let the worry infect the work until I don’t recognize the voice at all, and then go back to not writing.

It’s comforting to remember that none of this is new. I had similar angst about six months ago. I thought about it, then I wrote about it, and then I moved on. In a recent email my high school English teacher reminded me that I once burst into tears when I couldn’t get an in-class essay to read just the way I wanted it before the bell rang. Maybe I just need to put in my calendar a semi-annual reminder: your job is to write, not to worry about what happens next.

And alongside this reminder I will pencil the note to read and re-read this interview with Elizabeth Gilbert until I have it committed to memory (who is such a good writer and it is NOT FAIR to dismiss an author as “chick lit” just because their work receives a critical mass of positive attention from women aaaggh let’s talk about this later):

I’ve always been really surprised—and I really remain very surprised—at people who don’t think they have the right to do their work, or feel like they need a permission slip from the principal to do it, or who doubt their voice. I’m always like, What? What? Fucking do it! Just fucking do it! What’s the worst that could happen?! You fucking fail! Then you do it again.


For a Family Abroad, a Thanksgiving Journey

It’s late Tuesday night after work and I’m elbow-deep in a bowl of pumpkin batter for my daughter’s London preschool class. The children are encouraged to share with the class their Special Cultural Traditions. Last week was Dewali. Before that it was Black History Month, which in Britain is October and not February. Next month I will dress her in a red shirt and black pants so she can play Hunter #4 in their safely secular Christmas performance of “Peter and the Wolf.”

This week, however, is Thanksgiving. We are Americans. Thus the mini-muffin tray and the can of Libby’s I’ve been saving in the back of the cupboard for the last 11 months. No eggs, though. You can’t bring treats with eggs. Or nuts. Some rules supersede special traditions.

I did not expect this, that my child would be the one in the class from someplace different. Not someplace exotic. There is nothing exotic about being an American in London, or in most of the world for that matter. Our culture precedes us like medieval minstrels, a garish parade of Miley Cyrus and KFC and “Friends” re-runs everywhere, always, in perpetuity.

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