Dear Holy Writing Spirit,
Please let me not trip over my words tonight. Please take the marbles from my mouth and the lead from my tongue. Grant me patience both with myself and with “The Process”. Guide my hand with the pen, and turn my ears towards your messengers. Allow me to be a conduit for your writerly grace and to know a glottal stop when I see one . Imbue me with perfect diction and let my hands lay down by my sides, lest they pinwheel about my wrists in nervousness. Forgive my overuse of elipses, cleanse me of the sin of starting sentences with “and”, and deliver me from clichés,
Now in the hour of your finest performance,
This is the prayer I recite every Tuesday night. Every night now for three weeks, I have sat around a table, along with a dozen other students, with one of my literary heroes. I have made it seem like it’s all cool to be sitting five seats from my literary hero and reading my writing out loud, but it is not cool, people. No, it is not cool at all. It is an anxious, sweaty- palmed affair in which I bend the corner of my papers back and forth in anticipation of having to speak I am so nervous. And why? Because the combination of being in the same room as one of my literary heroes AND the pressure I’ve put on myself to make this class THE CLASS to END ALL CLASSES and to make me finally write that book is making my head implode. I have to consciously remember to breathe. I have to remember to be calm and to breathe and that hey! The instructor puts his shoes on one at a time just like the rest of us!
Oh, but the agony of trying to stay present when all this STUFF is swirling around in my head. Stuff like: why does this book matter anyway? Why should anyone want to read it? Are you going to trip over your words when you read? You HERO is listening, dummy! What if his eyes glaze over and you bore him? WORSE! What if your stuff is so bad he is stunned into silence? How will you live afterward if your literary hero hears a bit of this book you’ve been writing and his reaction is that of a man watching a Great Dane take a dump in a baby stroller?
These past few weeks of writing were particularly challenging. Not only was I nervous about reading, I was nervous about WHAT I was reading. The week before last, this thing kept coming to me, both from my classmates and from my writing coach. The thing was a question. The question was: where are YOU in all of this? Somehow, I’d begun to write a memoir and I wasn’t IN IT. And everyone could see it. Either I was a master at writing a character into obsolescence, or I SUCKED at showing up in my own work. It seemed strange to me that I could achieve such invisibility, given that I come here every once in a while and tell you about my arthritic knees and my intestinal distress, but I’d heard it now from several people. I wasn’t showing up in my own work. It was like I was invisible.
So I spiraled into some real darkness and I went back to lying on the leather couch of my mind and asking: okay, LoLo. When did you first make yourself invisible? No clear answer came back. I was just aware of a vague sense of hiding behind telephone poles for most of my life. Not real ones, of course, but something figurative, something large enough to peek out from behind to observe the rest of the world, but something that would hide me entirely if I wanted to stand with my back up against it.
Eventually, I pulled out of that dark place. On the third day, I woke up and said, “Ahhhh. That’s better”. I went back to the drawing board and cranked out another chapter and this time I made sure to start most of my sentences with “I”. I was putting myself in my book. I had thoughts and feelings and not all of them were around Cheez Doodles! I was doing it! I was expressing myself!
I can’t tell you precisely when that shift from Describer to Narrator happened. It might have been the conversation I had with an old friend of mine- a musician who has made his way to Broadway. He said something to me about how ALL of us, actors, musicians, writers… all of us live with doubt. And all of us need to create and perform in the face of that doubt. In fact, you could postulate that the only thing separating an artist from a non-artist is that the artist lives in his fear and acts anyway.
I also spoke to a very good friend of mine who is a professional photographer and she echoed the sentiment of my musician friend- that all of us, ALL HUMANS, cringe in fear at the idea that we are subject to criticism at all times… especially those of us who put ourselves out there ON PURPOSE to be critiqued and loved and reviled and adored. Again the message came through: your desire to crawl under a rock when things get ugly is no excuse for not trying.
Really, what came out of all of this was the idea that I have a VERY fixed idea that because I want this so badly, it should come gracefully and easily. I may have read ONE too many articles of the Zen of Pulling Weeds or some shit because EVERYONE I talked to has the same reaction to my insistence that this should be easy: WHAT ARE YOU? NUTS? NOTHING in life is SUPPOSED to be easy, dummy! The things hardest fought for are the things you treasure most. Sometimes that thing is a difficult childbirth. Sometimes it’s being unemployed for a long stretch only to find your dream job at the end. I know of very few parents who would trade in their kids for an easier time of things. That’s how you fall in love with your creation: you work alongside it. You fight for its survival. You change in the process.
Something, though, has kept me from embracing this struggle. Everyone who has passed on that bit of wisdom circulating around the Internet right now ,“Lean into it”, I have wanted to shove hard into row of parked motorcycles.
The Perfectionism is dying a slow death, but it still rears its mangled head from time to time. I have found myself stumbling, wanting to impress my instructor and classmates, leaving my willingness to experiment at the door in the name of making a good impression. I am actually embarrassed at how intimidated I am. I feel like everyone else is so witty and charming and funny! I can hardly string a sentence together. My words leave me regularly. I find myself in this very awkward game of Charades, where I am subbing out wholly formed thoughts for wild gesticulations. My classmates lean in and try to discern what I mean by *wave hands in circles, swivel head, make guttural noise, stare at tabletop for uncomfortable seven seconds and wave hands some more*. My classmates aren’t just good at writing, either. They’re good at talking about their writing. About their thought processes and how they go from point A to point B. They’re having meta conversations about what it’s like to think about their writing. I’m still stumbling over fucking verb tenses. For god’s sake. Their stuff is SO good. Their pieces are charcoal sketches of nudes. Mine are hairy firetrucks and my name signed in crayon trailing off the page. They are waxing philosophical about film and theater. I am laboring to push out words like a manatee with twins on the way.
I do this a LOT- get all star-struck and tongue-tied in front of other good writers and then I want to crumple up into a ball my version of “art”. I think it’s a little, um, weird, because my level of discomfort should be inversely proportional to the level of celebrity. But my celebrities aren't the normal ones so my nervousness is a little, well, extreme. To wit: one of my best friends went to a Beyonce concert a few nights ago and she sent me a text telling me she’d just about peed her pants in awe at the woman. Truthfully, if I came face to face with Beyonce’s quadriceps, I might be liable to let go a little trickle. But, really? I don’t think about Beyonce except when someone mentions her name. No offence, Mrs. Knowles-Zee (which is, I’m SURE, what you call yourself). You are amazing; you’re just not as cool to me as, say, Ira Glass or Oliver Sacks.
“Normal” celebrities don’t do it for me. One time, at bookclub, talk ran right into celeb gossip and the ladies were all Ryan Gosling this and Ryan Gosling that and I was like WHO IN THE HELL IS THIS MAN with a baby duck’s last name? Everyone in the room just then turned to me and their heads began the slow, awkward swivel of the possessed/incredulous. Someone pulled up a picture on their phone. I stared. I squinted. Nothing. I didn’t know him from Adam. Incredulous looks from the ladies circulated. Do you think she’s okay?, they whispered to one another.
The problem is that I don’t see a lot of (American-made) movies, and I don’t watch TV much. Instead, I read. A lot. Heavy stuff, too. Like right now, my favorite book is a five-hundred page treatise on the origins of cancer. I can’t put it down.
Here are some factoids about me that might clear up why my heroes run so left of center. I have never, ever in my life done two things:
Smoked a cigarette
Bought a women’s magazine
That should do some of the work in explaining why I can’t point Ryan BabyDuck out of a lineup, or why I think of rum before I think of actor when I hear the word “Gosling” and why a child’s dose of cough syrup is enough to get me high, and why I can’t identify 80% of Hollywood on name alone.
Ask me about the fascinating connection between the brain and the guts, though, and I can point to the exact PAGE the article is on in my subscription to Mother Jones. Or if you want to read that gorgeous story about the beekeeper in The Sun? Yeah, I got you covered. Oh, and if you want a short history of how autopsies have historically been performed, you just let me know. I’ll be returning “The Emperor of All Maladies” to the library in about one week.
I never think that what I’m reading is so weird until I find out that the rest of the world wants to know about the Royal Baby that was just born and I’m like “Royal baby? Is that Nigerian princess who keeps spamming me pregnant?” I’m much more interested in how my food is produced, which one of my bath products contains Methylparaben, how to excise a lung… these are the things I’m reading about.
And none of that seemed so weird or cloistered (or soooooo very indicative of the fact that I live in Seattle) until I got to this class and realized that all my reading has done me no good. I don’t have a working knowledge of Shakespeare. I haven’t seen very many movies. I’m more familiar with the fiber content of graham crackers than I am with filmmakers. It leaves me feeling like I’ve shown up to a MENSA meeting with a baloney sandwich in my hands and an Archie comic stuffed into my back pocket.
The whole reason I wanted to take this class was because I saw the instructor perform a few years ago and his monologue was what made me think I could make a go of this writing thingee. And now that I am in front of him, I’m acting like a Nervous Nellie. I took this class because I wanted to use it as a tool to flesh out this book I’m working on. Somehow, though, I’ve let my nervousness eclipse my focus and I’ve been loathe to work on the book.
The instructor is only ONE of many indie-celebrities in front of whom I’ve made myself sound like a broken Whoopie Cushion. There was this one time when I met one of my musical idols, Dan Bern. He was playing in my city, in my neighborhood even. When I walked up to him after the show to flirt/chit-chat, I made a complete and utter fool of myself. Again, a little bit of trivia to help paint a picture here: I live with a particular form of cognitive dissonance when it comes to physics. I cannot properly gauge the distance between two locations. Miles mean nothing to me. Tell me distance in minutes, and be sure to throw in landmarks or I will never understand what geography you are pointing to. Anwho, when Dan Bern, my idol, told me he had just come from SeaTac, the town that is synonymous with our airport, an airport just thirty minutes away by car, I asked if he had flown from there to here, the club we were standing in. In other words, instead of taking a moment to process the information, take in a few molecules of oxygen, synthesize it with what I already knew about time and space, and perhaps form a follow up question, or maybe just stand there and shake my head dreamily like a NORMAL star struck person, I summoned up all my bravado and asked if he had flown from the airport to the venue. In essence, I’d asked him if he had gotten into a plane and flown the approximate three minutes it would take to cover the roughly twenty mile car ride. He stared at me blankly, wondering how I didn’t know the geography of my OWN FUCKING STATE. “ No”, he said with an appropriate amount of exasperation and pity in his voice. “I drove here”. Like a normal person, was the implication at the end there.
So yeah, me and celebrity – we don’t do so well together. My brain melts around people I admire. I keep thinking I’m meant to rub elbows with big names, but when I actually do, I wind up saying THE most inane stuff. I once stood in line WITH NO BOOK TO SIGN just to shake hands with Stephen Tobolowsky at a book signing event. When I got to him, all I could say, like he was some veteran coming home from war, was: “Great job sir. You really inspire me”. You know what? I didn’t say that at all. What I said was, “You. Are. Beashhhhhh. Ohgod. I. Thank you. I’m sorry I don’t have a book. You. Should know. Aiiiiiiiiii”. Then there was the sound of hissing as my brain off-gassed from death by atrophy. So, yeah. I can wreck a two sentence sentiment in no time flat. There were probably about a dozen or so OTHER sounds I used to “talk” to Stephen Tobolowksy, but I have necessarily blocked from my memory so that I am not horribly disfigured by the weight of my own shame.
Today I am taking a moment to collect my breath and my thoughts and to remember that we are all human, all of us. And that unless I am told otherwise, I should just presume that everyone else is just as nervous and tongue-tied as I am, in front of celebrities or not. Everyone is finding their way. Everyone is making hairy fire trucks in the privacy of their own home and maybe they are much more practiced at shining them up before they bring them to class.
Sometimes, The Holy Writing Spirit answers my prayers, and it sounds like this:
Dear Little Child, Wandering in the Desert of Your Own Mind,
How DO you read your work in front of your writing heroes? Ah, if only I could reveal the answer to you! I acknowledge your difficulty, though. You probably haven’t yet learned the art of dismantling your gods. That’s all. You're just now starting to see how absent you’ve been from your reading and isn't that helpful? After you go home and the adrenaline ebbs from the shores of your self-awareness and your breathing goes back to normal? See? You're doing alright. Listen. First of all, do you not remember the first of my laws? There is no God of Writing but the One God of Writing. Thou shalt not worship false idols. I’m sure this guy is great and all, but, seriously. Do I need to inscribe it on stone tablets or something? Buy their books and go to their shows, but remember who fills you with wordy life day after day after day. Not those yahoos. Me. ME! TREMBLE BEFORE ME, THE LORD, YOUR WRITING GOD! Lol! Just kidding! I love throwing that shit in from time to time. Hey. Listen: you must learn to calm down. You will never glean all there is to glean from those you adore (and there is stuff to be gleaned, for sure) in that state of starry-eyed palsy . You must gracefully take your heroes off their pedestals and you must raise yourself up tall. Only then, with the pedestal out of the way, will you be able to see what there is to see: you are all human. And you are all trying to tell a story.
Now go tell yours.