Thursday, April 2, 2009

Thank You E.B. White

I consider myself a writer. I’ve been writing for years and I don’t mean just e-mails. I’ve written articles for magazines, journals, and websites, I’ve written press releases and marketing pieces, but I haven’t yet accomplished publishing what I really want to: something considered creative. Although I’ve practiced my imagery, produced great opening lines, established interesting beginnings, I seem to have trouble with getting through the middle and working to a satisfying end, except with poems; children’s poems are really hard to get published, never mind paid for, and a novel…well, I can’t even get through a short story.

I’ve taken courses at numerous colleges, subscribed to magazines, studied authors I admire, and still I can’t seem to come up with even a short story that is complete and I’m satisfied with. Does that mean I’m not a writer? Pondering this fact led to a bout of depression. I needed a jumpstart to kick my creative energies back into gear. I went back to reading as much as possible and listening to NPR, usually surefire methods for stirring my creative juices. I read "Mr. Be Gone" by Clive Barker, "This I Know is True" by Wally Lamb, and "Cottonwood" by Scott Phillips in rapid succession. All really great books, all very different. But still I had no light bulb moments, the quill remained still, no clicking keyboard keys, not one original thought popped into my head for all my efforts.

Daily NPR reports focused around the downward spiral of our economy. One day while listening to the radio, hoping for inspiration, I received a call from my mother. She said one of my siblings was being forced into bankruptcy. I turned off the radio deciding some mindless internet time might be a better way to go for the time being. I learned all about AIG paying out enormous bonuses with tax payers rescue money. It all certainly wasn’t good for my peace of mind. Some people may become creative under duress, I discovered depression wasn’t working as a creative stimulant for me. “Maybe I’m just not trying hard enough”, I thought. Maybe I was “half-assing” it, as my father would say.

In the spirit of not being a half-ass I got serious about my drinking and smoking. “Maybe this will do it”, I thought morosely. After all some of the most famous writers were drunks, drug addicts or suicidal: Sylvia Plath, Ernest Hemingway, Carson McCullers, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Edgar Allen Poe to name a few. Unfortunately walking around with stained lips from the wine and a headache from too much smoke was making me feel like a bad clown. Besides, I discovered how messy it can get trying to type while holding a wine glass and a cigarette. I did spend quite a bit of time pondering just how in the hell Hunter Thompson did it. I also spent a goodly amount of time trying to look pouty, sexy, mysterious. I thought I might as well look like a 1940’s Movie Star, I mean image matters, right? If you are trying to be a writer you should look good doing it.

All that really happened was that I couldn’t think straight, I kept getting smoke in my eye and wine stains on my words making everything illegible, and that really wasn’t what I was going for. If I couldn’t make sense of it how would anybody else? Wandering aimlessly around the house waiting for inspiration to knock me in the head I noticed things had gotten kind of disorderly. It dawned on me that all I really needed was to get organized. I thought it was might be like the way I cook, if there are dirty dishes in the sink and the counter is cluttered nothing comes out properly. I end up with Hungarian Goulash when I was going for Beef Bourguignon.

I walked upstairs to my desk and looked at piles of papers, notebooks, and drawing pads. Sticky notes, most of them indecipherable, were stuck on walls, lampshades, empty wine bottles and dirty wine glasses. Pens, pencils, and boxes of books were scattered and stacked everywhere. A damp towel hung over the back of my chair, stray papers covered the floor. Quite frankly it was disgusting. I couldn’t imagine how anyone could be creative amongst such squalor. What in the world had I been thinking? I threw open the windows, took a deep breath and dove in.

It took twice as long to clean up the mess as it had taken to create it. I got so busy cleaning and organizing that I didn’t write a thing. I have to admit that I got a bit annoyed when the family wanted me to cook dinner and do some laundry. They had been tip-toeing around for days. Did they not know how to push the buttons on the microwave? Pull the dial on the washing machine? How is a woman supposed to get anything done? I was beginning to empathize with Sylvia Plath and that scared me. I decided I needed to take a break and sat down to watch some DVDs.

I watched "Sideways", "Bottle Shocked" and "Stranger Than Fiction". Wonder of wonders, my thoughts were stirring, fingers twitching. I uncorked a bottle of Ramey Cabernet Sauvignon, what I felt would be a really inspiring California wine, lit a cigarette, settled down in my uncluttered workspace and began banging on the keyboard. I reminded myself to just let it flow, don’t edit, don’t over analyze, just write and go back to re-work it later. I stuck to it, smoked a few more cigarettes, sipped from the bottle of wine. You’d have thought I’d learned my lesson on the wine/smoke front. I smelled really awful - booze, smoke, sweat from the exertion – but other than that I was feeling pretty good. I was hopeful, encouraged, actually I was damn proud of myself. “It’s gonna be all right”, I thought happily.” A good night’s sleep and I’ll take a look at it again in the morning. Maybe I’ll have something worthwhile.”

I kissed the children on the head, let the dog out for his evening constitutional and headed for the shower. I wanted to be relaxed, reinvigorated, and once more sweet smelling when my man came home. He was usually quite patient with me, but I didn’t want to end up depressed AND alone. I grabbed a book from one of the now neatly ordered shelves and slipped between the sheets. The volume was a compilation of essays by E.B. White, one of my favorite authors.

“The essayist is a self liberated man, sustained by the childish belief that everything he thinks about, everything that happens to him, is of general interest”, wrote E.B. in the forward. “He is a fellow who thoroughly enjoys his work, just as people who take bird walks enjoy theirs. Each new excursion of the essayist, each new “attempt”, differs from the last and takes him into new country. This delights him. Only a person who is congenially self-centered has the effrontery and the stamina to write essays.”

“Now that kind of sounds like me”, I thought, “except for the man part.” Then I realized I was thinking of myself as “congenially self-centered”, but there you have it, that is basically who I am. I thought about the words I’d just written and I thought about what E.B. had written, then I thought it might just work for me. As my family will attest I’m stubborn as a bull and tenacious as a bear with a honey jar, so I was thinking I probably had the effrontery and stamina part covered. E.B. was saying that I could write about what I see, how it relates to me, what I find interesting. After all it worked for him.

Maybe, just maybe I am a writer after all.


Daisy Soap Girl said...

Hey! You did it! You put together cohesives words and paragraphs that painted a great picture. I would say you are a writer with just a little writer's block. Try Julia Cameron to try to unblock a little.

Beth said...

Thank you!! I'll give Julia a read.

Peter J. Crowley said...

Write what you know, become a metaphor for your friends the times we live in, if you want to write a novel it is I think the most difficult. Some have a format some know the end before they start. Be you a friend has a wonderful novel from her family she constructed from her families past adding editorial license blending the history of the period her grandparents lived and expanding on their kids life's. We all have writers block. A couple years ago Wally Lamb was here for a photo session and I asked him when the next book was due out. His answer eleven months ago.
enjoy pjc

Max said...

Hey Beth,


You are a writer, but it seems to me that you need to chill!

I loved reading this post: you kept my attention all the time (that is the stuff a writer is made of) :D!