Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Wherein I get annoyed by some writers...

I'm going to admit to a personal failing. I'm competitive, though not ambitious. What that means is that I generate petty arguments within myself when reading another writer's work. Not all writers. If you are truly good, if your work catches me off-guard, strings together words I could never have dredged up from within, pierces my puny life with insight, and delights me... then we're good. I simply read in awe, bow down to you on the tatami mat and intone: Thank you for saving my soul with your words.

For instance, I can read E.M. Forster every day of the year, any page of any book and never compete with the man. All I want to do is lick his boots clean and turn him from gay to straight so I can flirt with him. He is that good.

Annie Proulx (short story writer made famous by "Brokeback Mountain") eats my soul for lunch. The apt word is her middle name. The understated insight is her last. Her words are so beautiful (even when meant to be ugly) that I hold my breath while I'm reading until I get dizzy from lack of oxygen. Good writing has that effect on me. It never occurs to me to compete with her as she is completely and totally out of my league. Even if I write until I'm 112, I will never get to where she is at 65.

Similarly, I remember reading Eudora Welty's "No Place for You My Love" nine years ago (in fact, before Welty died). I read and reread that short story so many times, I started dreaming of the phrases in it. I would be sleeping along when words would float in New Times Roman typeface toward me in curlicues and they would be Welty's words. I can still see the images, hear the words, identify the place in the story even having not read it since.

So yeah, I'm a word whore and am happily awed by truly great writing. I don't compete. I recognize genius, sigh and reread.

But when I read a contemporary who is a good writer... well, not so much. I get all itchy and irritable. I recognize the good writing, I appreciate that it makes me laugh or serves up a new metaphor like a new Thai dish. But I also, in the same moment, argue with it. I reluctantly keep reading (because, after all, the writing is good), but I grind my teeth and push the book away from me while I read. I imagine book deals being made by sleeping with editors (surely it can't be the quality of the writing!) and I'm disgusted.

I give the writer credit for timing (Dooce's blog comes to mind) or for good luck or for being famous already. But I hold back praise inside myself because if I admit that this is a good writer (a writer who writes like I do, who I consider not to be genius but good enough), then I have to admit that I haven't done what I say I wanted to do sooner.

It's my ego on the line. If this person who writes well enough succeeds, why have I not thrown open the door to publication sooner? Why do I sit content with blogging, graduate school, writing about writing, teaching writing, reading writing...? Hmmm?

The latest victim of my competitive disdain is Elizabeth Gilbert - author of Eat, Pray, Love. Yes, it's an Oprah book and yes, I did see her on Oprah, and yes, I was crazy with jealousy, irritation and judgments. She wrote her book at age 35. Well shit! I'm 46 already. She wrote her book in three different countries, paid to live there by her book deal. Well, dammit, I'm trapped in the midwest, paying my own way. She talks about God as though she knows something about it and was never a Christian nor a theology student. What nerve!

It's not that I need to be on the New York Times bestseller list (well, maybe I do, but I haven't really allowed myself to ever think about it... is that the problem?). It's that I see others do what they do in their thirties and forties and I get all up in my own grill about what I do with my days, what I said I wanted to do by now.

And I want to write that book... that book that is in me to write. I fear publishers (totally, completely with all the irrational twitchings that come with having grown up as the daughter of a published author who never seriously broke through until 65, though she's written 56 books). Publishers have the power to reject you, to publish and then reject you, to publish and then throw that hard work away into the remainders pile at Half Price books.

Today, I want to take a moment to declare that I'm tired of assuming that part of the pie that could go to me has already been cut up and served to other good enough writers.

2008: One resolution - to write my book. The end.

I'll let you know how it goes. In the meantime, I'm back to yoga and have chosen to love and affirm all those "good writers" rather than making fun of their hyperbole behind their backs.


R. Michael said...

I never considered myself a great writer...or even a good one for that matter but I do recognize them when I read them. They seem to play you like one plays an instrument.

I recently read some works by Toni Morrison and felt like a mouse being toyed with by a cat...letting me dash away briefly; always bringing me back under her control...I almost felt used.

Dave said...

I have been afflicted with that sense of rivalry when I see someone doing something cool that I imagine that I'm equally capable of but just haven't done yet. My problem (or at least one of them) has been that I get too interested in too many different things, which has resulted in a lifetime of dabbling in arts and media that take too long to get good at before I develop expertise and drift into some new phase.

But like you, writing has been my main thing, my fallback, because it's the one that is most easily portable and I could just pick it up and do it without having to purchase expensive supplies or equipment.

Now of course I earn a fair amount of my income from writing (the rest is basically talking to people, which I also find relatively easy to do, and portable.) But I'm not as self-gratified by writing grants (which produce a lot more money for others than they ever will for me) or other work/training related documents. So I think I pretty well get where you're coming from reading that Oprah-self-help stuff and thinking "jeez, why isn't it me living that adventure...?" Maybe that's a big reason that I don't spend much time reading books that I can breeze through - I'd rather read stuff from literary masters like John Updike, whose way with words is humbling in every respect, or highly focused and sustained thinkers who intrigue me but whom I know I can never compete because I'm just too easily distracted and eager to pursue ephemeral amusements after too much silence.

And writing books... huh! I wish you well! Seriously! I have pondered that one many times and ways over the years but now I'm not so sure that I have that book in me, at least not at this time in my life. I've given too much over to family stability and domesticity and don't think I have all that much to say in a book form that hasn't been covered adequately by others. But you're not me and I hope you see this one through!

Meanwhile, I see my daughter now with three books in print (illustrated, not written, but still!) and several more on the way. And she's just 22 years old! But I really have no interest in competing with my own kid!

carrie said...

Good for you. Write the book. At this point you can't worry about what happens after that. Nothing can happen until the book is written.

I'll be rooting for you from the bleachers. ;-)

Cheryl said...

Good for you, Julie! I never have even claimed to be any kind of writer--good, bad, or otherwise--so I don't have the kind of "I could do that" feeling when I read. But oh, how I do love a well-turned phrase and stories that transport me to place I wouldn't even know to consider if it were not for the good writers out there.

You strike me as the kind who can do anything you want once you set your mind to it. I look forward to your posts about the process, but mostly, I look forward to reading the book. You'll have at least one sale. :)

Steve said...

So what is the book about?

Keren said...

[cheerleader]Go Julie, Go Julie![/cheerleader]

You're a most definitely good writer. I get irritated at only ok books too, and I don't have the urge to write - not even slightly.

I love your blog, so I suspect I'd enjoy what you had to say in a book. You'd have a UK sale here!

julieunplugged said...

Steve, funny you should ask. I have two books that I need to work on actually. I've got a book related to homeschooling started and plan to complete that this year.

But the other one is the one that has been sitting with scraps of notes, starts and stops, and outlines for at least 8 years related to the theological/spiritual journey I've been on. (Oh no! Not another one of those!) Yeah, actually...


Sentient Marrow said...

Write, write, write and then write some more. I know you are familiar with "The Artist's Way"... I highly recommend picking it up again at this point. I am restarting it on Jan. 14th with a couple of women I met online and we are sharing as we go. I had made it to about week 6 with full gusto and week 10 with nothing left and life getting in the way. Anyhow, in those first 6 weeks I could definitely see a change in my energy and creativity in regard to writing and creating. So, there's my two cents.

R. Michael said...


would love to read a book about your spiritual journey. I think it would speak to a lot of people.

I don't know if you are familiar with Brian Sanders book "Life After Church" but it talks about some of the issues facing those of us contemplating leaving the church and the reasons why...but it is not his journey...which I think would be more interesting to me than a "how to" book about leaving. you go girl ;<)

julieunplugged said...

marrow, thanks for the rec. I have read it and her other book "The Right to Write."

I'm at the point, like you suggest, where I need to write, write, write. I've got some good jumping off materials that I'm using to help catalyze new ways to think about the events, ideas and moments that I hope capture what I'm aiming toward.

I'm excited to see where your writing takes you!!

mariam said...

I don't get that feeling of "i could have or should have written that" when I am reading a really good novel, because, honestly, I've tried writing, and I just don't think I have the endurance. I have felt that way about songs and poetry, though. Leonard Cohen is one of those that I feel as if he's lifted the words right out of something in me.

Any way Julie, go for it. Time keeps speeding up.

Elleann said...

I'm totally with you regarding other writers and the I-could-have-done-that syndrome. It's a killer. But good on ya to make 2008 the year of The Book. GREAT resolution!! Are you talking non-fiction, btw?

Katrina365 said...

You go, girl!!

julieunplugged said...

Elleann, the genre I write in is called creative non-fiction. It would be similar to the kinds of articles I wrote for the UPI column, but fleshed out a bit more. Usually creative non-fiction has an autobiographical character.

Thanks everyone for your enthusiasm. It helps! I'll keep you posted.

SusansPlace said...

Read "Eat,Pray, Love" in one day...loved it!! lol I too was blown away by the idea of being paid to live in exotic locals and eat all that awesome food and write about it all!

You can always self-publish. Don't let finicky publishers stop you from writing!!! Don't give up on your dream...there is a book brewing in you. I promise to buy it and I want it autographed too!!
Having said that, did I tell you I had a freelance editor "edit" the first third of my story? Now I just need to muster the courage to do some rewriting. I need more conflict. ;-)