I think the two things that make me a writer are my tendency to record what goes on around me, and the fact that it takes me a second to think of what to say. If my brain went directly to my mouth, or they somehow worked more quickly together, I could have been a better actor or a solo performer.
Anyone who’s ever heard me speak is thinking Wait, you think you should be talking faster?
I vividly remember improv scenes in my high school theater classes where my teacher/director was constantly trying to startle me into just reacting to my classmates , not stopping to think and choose my words before replying. My response was to get faster but not to get more spontaneous or more free.
What makes me a creative nonfiction writer instead of a novelist or a playwright or a poet is that for me, writing fiction feels inauthentic. I love and admire a great many writers who can mingle and mix their personal experiences into third party characters, or create entirely new people who feel genuine.
But every time I have ever tried to write someone else, it came out false, wooden, and tone deaf. It’s like I worked so hard to find this voice of mine on paper that those brain pathways can’t imagine a change of scenery that lasts longer than a few minutes or a slightly deranged sidebar.
When I really connect with a book or a film, it feels Real to me, and I know that somewhere behind it, an author either felt those feelings or lived that life, and if they have a good voice, you’re right there feeling it with them – it’s because truth feels different in the transmission than fantasy does. That’s also why I dig memoirs so much, even when they’re fictionalized or embellished, and why I find myself so critical of straight-up fantasy – "You could have chosen anything for that plot device – why did you chose that?" – because it’s more about choices than perspective. (Sidenote: This is why Twilight sucks despite the author’s knowing full well how to put 11,000 sentences together; she makes crappy choices)
On one of his recent visits, the Aged P and I were loitering outside Penn Station watching some young skateboarders ollie’ing and picking themselves off the pavement again and again; he pointed out the most advanced one was able to go off on his own and practice the same skill over and over again, willing to keep doing it until he mastered the trick.
I was lucky enough to be born with a voice people liked to listen to, but majoring in music taught me that I was not willing to go off and do it wrong a jillion times until I learned how to do it right. I like it best when music comes easy, when I’m rehearsing in a group, or when it’s just me and my keyboard – when nobody forces me to reconcile the experience of singing with what I actually sound like.
As soon as you add a listener, my confidence falls on the floor and its necklace breaks and the beads roll everywhere and now not only has it fallen, it has to stay down there because who’d have thought those beads could go so far – jeez this floor is uneven.
Um, just for example.
But when I write… I put what I think out there, and before I show it to another soul I have a chance to fix it. I’m free to make mistakes and misspell things and use too many words when there’s already a phrase for “someone who is sitting nearby paying auditory attention” (i.e. a “listener”)
When I finally show it to someone else, they can critique it because what I have written isn’t a part of me, it’s something I did. If I make the same mistake the next time, I’ll notice it and correct it when I re-read.
When I get notes on my singing, I have to carry them around in the top of my brain next to "breathe here" and "support this line" and suddenly my performance comes with an 8-track tape of little things to remember and it’s exhausting and what’s more I never get all of it right at once and if I can’t be Perfect, why bother.
Teaching, my Long term Goal, will come with an 8-track too, but I’m trusting that my instincts, the opportunity to prepare ahead of time, and having a chance every day to make it better will keep the spark alive. It’s also going to take a LONG time to get there, and I want to do it right (….shock).
So for now, I’m turning to writing. An amazing opportunity social-networked its way into my inbox, and I reached for it, and I got the gig.
I’m going to be a full-time writer in a few weeks, doing something that doesn’t always come easy, and isn’t always great, but something that is a process. When I get stuck, I know at least 5 actions to take that will eventually set my creative flow moving again.
I once Mortally Offended a very cute, very high-strung young writer named Ted by asking him how he liked to break out of writer’s block. A smarter young man would have said “I like to take pretty girls out to the movies and show off my kissing technique.” Instead, he stormed out of our email conversation in a sarcastic huff ("Oh really? You can END WRITER’S BLOCK?!") and I knew we were never going to live writerly ever after. Because he was a big freaking baby with a first time novelist’s delicate ego and arrogance.
Yes, there will be times I get stuck and times when I’m not funny and times when every single word that I type will be the wrongest word that has ever wronged. And my work will be pulled apart and hacked up and re-written and probably only one joke in 27 will actually get used by the head writer. But the next script, it’ll be 2 jokes. And then 5.
And by the end I will know how to write a script because of all the time I spent off in my corner writing and researching and rewriting and reading aloud. It’s almost like there’s been one coherent purpose in a lifetime spent watching Mystery Science Theater, mocking football at Superbowl parties, and learning how to navigate my ADD brain’s leapfrog tendencies. Like it all led up to this.
Wish me luck.