Walking the Cat . . .

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Thoughts on Writing

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What is a writer?

Well, the simple answer is, a writer is someone who writes. Easy enough to explain something by citing its definition. Bricklayers lay brick, dancers dance, musicians make music, and writers write. Simple.

But why do writers write?

The answer to that question is a bit more complex. It is, as they say, a whole other ball o’ wax. The reasons people choose to write are as varied as the writers themselves. I could list all the reasons for writing by it would take up more time that I’m prepared to spend on this post. For those interested in exploring the topic, l suggest you pick up a copy of Margaret Atwood’s Negotiating With the Dead, A Writer on Writing. She offers an extensive, although by no means comprehensive, list of reasons why writers write; some of them surprising, others not so much. One reason that appears elsewhere in Ms. Atwood’s book, although not among the listed reasons for writing, is that it’s a comparatively easy thing to do. There are no prerequisites; no intellectual or educational background is required beyond a certain facility with one’s native language. That, and the determination to see the process through from beginning to end. After all, it is, as Neil Gaiman is supposed to have said, simply a matter of putting one word after another on the page until you’ve finished saying whatever it is you want to say. Simple, right? Not really.

There’s a small addendum to Mr. Gaiman’s description that’s worth noting if one aspires to be a published writer. (Not all of us aspire to that lofty goal, but I’ll get to that in a bit). The addendum is, that along with putting one word after another on the page, a should be able to put the right word in the right order after another on the page. Makes this ‘writing thing’ a bit trickier, don’t you think?

Ernest Hemingway once described the act of writing as, “You just sit down and open a vein.” Ironic, considering Hemingway did a lot of his writing standing up. I’ll confess that Hemingway’s description is a bit more strenuous the Mr. Gaiman’s, and anyway most writers – not all, but the majority – manage to confine their bloodletting to the page. Suffice it to say the actual process of writing lies somewhere between the two extremes. I, myself, picked writing because it was one of the few things I was suited to that didn’t require an inordinate amount of time trying to dislodge the dirt from under my fingernails.

So, what’s it like, being a writer?

For the most part writers live pretty much to way everyone else does. Most of us have ‘day jobs’. We get up, get the kids ready for school, go to work, attend PTA meetings, grocery shop, pick the kids up after school, get the car washed, the tires rotated, go to the barber or the hairdresser, maybe go on vacation when we can afford it. Pretty much the same thing everyone else does, except when all the other stuff is done, we write; usually late at night or early in the morning, and sometimes on the weekends if there are no soccer, baseball or football games, or piano or ballet recitals to attend. We’re just like everyone else. We’re kind of like witches in that respect; you can’t tell just by looking whether we are one or not.

Writers also tend to be avid readers, and we read across a wide variety of subjects and genres. I’ll give you an example. My own small library contains books on history, biography, memoirs, religion, business, art, writing, cooking, science and politics. I have thrillers, literary fiction, classics, philosophy, occultism, humor. books on photography and crafts, wine and winemaking, books and book collecting. And these, in one way or another, inform my own writing, as well as the way I tend to see the world around me. By reading how others viewed their world, I gain insights into my own world, and how it came to be the way it is. It’s also a handy how-to for using words, a turn-of-phrase that, with practice, helps me improve my writing.

Writers have always experienced a peculiar, Janus-like relationship with the non-writing public. Being among the ‘creatives’ in society, we are encouraged, even celebrated, in our ability to provide entertainment for the masses; to allow them to slip the bonds of their work-a-day lives and enter realms where good and evil battle endlessly for supremacy, and where good doesn’t always prevail, at least not until the next installment rolls off the presses. Then the god smiles on the writer, and the critics praise his efforts and lament the dearth of creativity in society, and presses roll out another spate of how-to books exclaiming, “You, too, can be (or become) more creative!”

Writers – and this applies especially to journalists, whether they write books or newspaper and magazine articles – have also always had the responsibility to “speak Truth to Power”, to expose, whenever possible, the misdeeds of governments and corporations, and provide the public the information necessary to combat the abuse of power. Then the god frowns on the writer, and governments and corporations berate him or her for the “misleading information”, “the lies”, “libels”, “unfounded accusations” and “unsubstantiated rumors”. These centers of power and influence have always viewed the writer as suspect, unreliable, and possibly subversive. Writers who continually joust with those in power have often been described in stereotypical terms; alcoholic, drug-addicted and mentally unbalanced, all to discredit those who question authority; and not only those who currently challenge authority, but those who would do so in the future.

That’s what it means to be a writer. It’s just like any other job or avocation. You have your good days and your bad. Like my mother used to say, “You pay your money, and you take your chance.”

In the end, I guess, it really doesn’t matter what type of writer you are (or become); whether you labor in the public eye like Stephen King, John LeCarré, or Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, or you labor in secret like Winston Smith, the reluctant hero of George Orwell’s 1984, or even if you write a single word. It doesn’t matter what you do, what matters is that you do it. But if you’re human, and I’m betting you are, sooner or later you’ll give in to cacoethia scribendi, “the itch to scribble”. Just be warned, if you scratch that itch once, you won’t be able to stop.

 

 


 

“I Hate My Job!” . . .(but do you, really?)

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It’s absolutely astonishing how often you hear this complaint; from friends, co-workers, even complete strangers.  You’ve more than likely even voiced it yourself, at one time of another during your working life.  If you were to believe everything you read in magazines, newspapers and online, or hear on television and radio, you would undoubtedly come to the conclusion, there is no one, anywhere in the world, who actually enjoys what they do for a living.  No one.  Anywhere.  And therein lies the rub. . .

It seems counter-intuitive to spend four, six, eight, or however many, years of schooling, preparing to go into a particular line of work, one you love (or think you do, anyway), enter the workplace armed with all (or nearly all) the skills needed to succeed in your chosen field, work for a few years, (perhaps even moving up the “ladder of success” in the process), only to discover you really can’t stand what it is you do.  It just doesn’t make any sense, really.

But if you were to examine all the reasons you supposedly hate your job, you’re bound to come to the conclusion you don’t really hate your work.  You love the work; you love doing what you do, you just hate all the “other stuff”.  Boring meetings.  Unrealistic schedules.  Micro-managers, Superfluous paperwork.  In short, what you hate is all the crap you have to wade through just to do the work.  It’s enough to make you throw up your hands and run screaming (as soon as possible after quitting time) to the nearest bar in a vain attempt to slough off the despair that’s gripped you.  So you sit there, in the cool semi-darkness, sipping your second (or third?) beer, vodka/tonic, martini, or what-have-you, thinking about how much you hate your job and how you would love to extricate yourself from the soul-crushing prison it has become.  You know, quit the “9-to-5” job and start a “consulting” business, or maybe try “freelancing”.  Those are enticing ideas, sitting in a bar, but in the “cold light of day”, they’re very scary and potentially very, very expensive.

There are alternatives, and they don’t involve taking any undue risks, like the ones associated with changing employers or freelancing, etc.  The alternatives are called “Hobbies“.  Wait a minute.  Don’t start laughing just yet.  Think about it.  Hobbies require little, or no, upfront investment.  Likewise, there is no risk involved (unless, and until, you decide to take them).  Hobbies allow you to explore other employment opportunities (almost as if they were designed that way) without sacrificing any financial security you’ve accrued  through gainful employment.  Hobbies also have the added benefit of being a proven stress reducer.  Let’s face it, by the time you get home (be it a mortgage-laden house or an overpriced apartment), you’re so stressed out, so emotionally and physically drained, you have no desire to do much of anything but “veg out” in front of the TV or mindlessly surf the ‘Net, then drag yourself to bed, sleep (fitfully) for a few all-too-brief hours, only to wake up and repeat the entire process.  Not so with hobbies.  They have the benefit of being relaxing and invigorating.  There are some hobbies that promote a Zen-like atmosphere most conducive to meditation which, in turn, allows access to that under-nourished creative sense we all possess and which your job has nearly starved out of existence.  Even people who pursue hobbies closely associated with their workaday life experience renewed interest and creative focus in what they’re  doing.

Best of all, there’s no “mickey mouse” nonsense involved in a hobby.  No meetings.  No superfluous paperwork.  No nitpicking micro-manager staring over your shoulder.  There’s just you and the work.  And you can make it as difficult or as easy as you like.  You can even make mistakes!  There’s no “dark cloud of failure” hanging over your head.  You can do it over or throw it away,  It’s your choice.  And isn’t that what it’s all about, really?

How not to become a writer. . .(pt. 2)

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It’s funny, really, the things you remember about certain events in your life, like where you were when JFK was shot, or the moon landing . . .

Cathy was standing in the kitchen doorway; not standing, really, leaning against the door jamb, bare feet crossed at the ankles, her blond hair pulled back in a ponytail.  She was wearing jeans and a T-shirt and nibbling on her lower lip the way she did when trying to decide on the right moment to . . .

She righted herself in the doorway, deciding, I guess, now was as good a time as any.  “Steve,” she said, padding across the livingroom toward me.  “We need to talk.”

I knew, even then, that particular line meant something serious, something requiring my undivided attention, needed to be addressed, and the way Cathy was standing over me, arms folded across her chest, confirmed that hypothesis.  I closed the book I was reading and as casually as possible so as not to betray my anxiety, said. “Okay, babe.  What’s up?”

Her expression softened a bit (Cathy always took on, I guess you could call it a “flinty” expression when broaching a serious subject; like she was prepared for a shouting match, if it came to that), and she settled onto the sofa, shifted around to face me and tucked her feet up under her.  Cathy was tall — 5′ 9″ in her bare feet — with a tall woman’s feline grace, and the way she folded herself onto the sofa enhanced the effect.  (Did I mention I love cats?)  “Steve, I think it’s time you got a real job.”

I can’t say I was shocked.  We’d had this conversation before.  Well, not exactly this conversation but one very like it.  They usually involved me explaining, yet again, about the need to have ample time for writing, how it was only a matter of time, one good break and our present difficulties would be a thing of the past.  Cathy would tell me how good my writing was, how it wasn’t really my fault I couldn’t catch a break and that she understood how important the writing was to me.  It would go on like that for a while, then we would hug one another and resolve, each of us, to do better in the future.

“But I have a real job,” I said, barely trying to conceal my indignation.

Cathy reached over and laid a hand on my arm.  “Honey, I know that,” she said.  “And you’re really good at what you do.  But it’s been four, nearly five, years and you haven’t made any real, significant progress.”

“Getting published doesn’t happen overnight,” I countered.  “It takes time.”

“I realize that.”  She withdrew her hand and assumed a no-nonsense attitude.  “But you, we, have to face facts.  We haven’t been able to save any money, the car needs work, and with the baby coming we’re going to need a bigger place to live.”

“Cathy, I know money’s tight right now,” I said, preparing my usual rebuttal when something . . .different registered in my consciousness.  “Wait a minute!  Did you say, ‘a baby coming’?”

Cathy didn’t say anything at first.  She just looked at me with a sheepish, almost-but-not-quite contrite expression and nodded.  Her ponytail shook happily as her head bobbed.  “I’m pregnant,” she said, finally.

That night, lying in bed, listening to Cathy’s steady, contented breathing, I stared into the darkness and tried to imagine fatherhood.  Doctor bills.  Clothes.  Food.  School. Orthodonture!  What if we have a girl?  Dance classes.  Dresses.  More orthodonture.  Boyfriends!  Try as I might, I couldn’t seem to ‘get my head around it’.  And underneath it all, peering out of the dark like a cat from a paper bag, was the question, When was I going to find time to write?  The answer was going to have to wait, for now.  First thing in the morning I would go down to the restaurant where I tended bar and talk to the owner, Bill.  Maybe, if I explained the situation to him, I could pick up another shift of two.

With that I started to drift off to restless sleep.  But the question was still lurking in the dark, waiting for an answer . . .(to be continued)

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