Can I Write?

I’ve had kind of an up and down last couple months, and part of the reason is that I’ve started writing again. Specifically, I’m taking a writing class with Grub Street, which is a creative writing organization in Boston that provides instruction and support for fledgling writers.

A friend of mine suggested it to me. I was looking for something to do with my free time, for a hobby. Anybody who knows me knows I have lots and lots of things I’ve tried over the years, from sailing to Kung Fu to homebrewing, but…it gets complicated.

You might say that one of my hobbies is “trying new things.” And I’ve tried a lot. But very few have stuck with me, in the sense that most of them are things I pick up, try for awhile, and then put back down again.

I struggle sometimes because I find that most people don’t have this same approach, at least as far as I can tell. Most people have one thing they do, and they focus on it. Maybe it’s playing softball for the company team. Maybe it’s multiplayer video gaming. Maybe it’s their job. Increasingly, I find that, for many friends, it’s their kids; there isn’t much time left over after job/spouse/child/household to do more than watch TV and go to bed.

There are temporary arrangements as well, like grad school. You start, you do it for awhile, but there’s always either a light at the end of the tunnel or a point where you have to say goodbye, depending on how you look at it.

We don’t have kids. Grad school is done. My job, while far from easy, benefits from the fact that I’ve effectively been working in IT for a decade and a half, since I was a sophomore at Syracuse (yes, skills I learned working the help desk at Bird Library and the Newhouse Lab are sometimes more relevant than anything since). And my gig with Accenture–flying out every Monday, coming home every Thursday, thrown into an absolute maelstrom of a project–hardened me, prepared me, so things come a lot easier now. It was the Catholic school of my professional life, you might say.

So I started thinking back to all the things I’ve tried, all my hobbies, and I thought that maybe it might be fun to pick one, to go back to it, to try to integrate myself with other practitioners, to find new friends, to find more of myself. I emailed a local fencing school–I was secretary of Syracuse’s fencing club at one time–and Grub Street. The writing school got back to me first.

There are several things abut that decision that are scary. First, there’s some fear when you take part in any activity where at least some of the people are already enthusiasts. I think back to when I did the First Year Players as a freshman; I had acted all through elementary school and high school, even had a play that I wrote produced when I was about 16 or 17, and my superlative was “Most Dramatic”. Despite all this, I couldn’t have been more different from the other kids I met in this acting club for non-drama majors. These kids were seriously into this stuff; they were a 10 on the scale and I was maybe a 3.

What would happen at this new writing class? Would I find that I wasn’t nearly as into it as the other participants? These guys were the type of people who read legitimate, adult fiction, the kind you find in literary journals or at least in the front section of the bookstore. Me? I like sci-fi and fantasy. My literary tastes have a culinary equivalent in Chili’s. I find “deep” fiction boring and irritating and I feel the same about “the classics” as I do about Citizen Kane: yeah, great. It’s a sled, and you’re so insightful and intelligent, talking about the human condition. Good for you. Can we watch Commando now? How about RoboCop?

This doesn’t mean that I don’t prefer quality writing, in terms of mechanics: good word choice, realistic dialogue, variable sentence length and structure. It’s just that I want a good plot to go along with it, and no, I will not work to understand the subtle nuances of it unless I enjoy it enough to give it a second reading simply because I thought it was cool and fun the first time. I’m not doing literary analysis unless there’s some tit-for-tat, like a letter grade, or you critiquing my work in exchange.

But that’s me. Maybe that’s not everybody else. And what happens if I’m in a class with 11 other people who are pretty sure A Tale of Two Cities is as good as literature ever got, and anybody with fond memories of something called “Xanth,” or, God forbid, anything by Neil Gaiman (didn’t he write comic books or something?) has juvenile taste and has no place in a class about the craft of short stories? What happens then?

I have a paranoia about judgement. It’s easier to self-judge, then be pleasantly surprised, than to have somebody catch you off-guard by putting you down then you felt like a rock star. My personality is very fear-based. Yes, it is exhausting to be me.

But is that what happened? No, of course not. My classmates are great, are producing some great stuff, and are giving me great feedback. Like a rock singer on American Idol who has to sing country, I’m being challenged to explore different types of writing and different approaches. And so, my second fear–that they might not like what I have to write–is not something that I’ve had to confront, either. Oh, I’m sure that not everybody loves every aspect of every one of my stories or essays, just as I might not love the particulars of a classmate’s story, but we all focus on the technique, on making sure that the characterization is good, that plot points are authentic and believable. I do that for others, and they do that for me.

So that’s good. But there’s one other thing: the fear that I might not actually be able to write.

Let me clarify: I know that I can write, in a certain sense. There was one Sunday where I practically wrote the entire A section for the Daily Item when I interned there; my article on the state of IT education in the six school districts we covered was massive, but editorial liked it, so they ran the whole thing. I know I got good grades in English. I know that plenty of people tell me that they like my writing, that I’m good at it. If we’re being honest here, I like to read what I’ve written–certainly far more than I like to write it in the first place.

Here’s the challenge: let’s assume that I’m in the 99th percentile of English-language writers who are actively doing any kind of writing, in terms of pure mechanics. Eh, maybe say that I’ve got a good eye for plot and an imaginative mind, too.

Great. So I’m better at it than the CEO of my company, than the airline pilot who flew me to Philly every week, than the guy who changes my oil or my personal trainer or Pablo Picasso.

Which would be great. If I were competing against them.

For me, writing is about having people read your stuff, and, ideally, like your stuff. It’s about publication. Emily Dickenson? A hack. She was incredibly talented but she kept everything she ever did in a drawer. Didn’t even bother putting it out there. Writers write, and writers publish.

Otherwise, what’s the point? I don’t have this manic desire to tell stories that nobody will ever hear. Writing is WORK. It is HARD. Yeah, these blog entries are fun and so are Facebook posts or any type of relatively mindless prose where you’re not editing, you’re not revising, you’re not second-guessing every turn of phrase, every character motivation. It’s hard, and I barely spend much time doing it. It’s not my job. My job is doing computer stuff. And computer stuff is a cakewalk compared to writing.

That’s why taking a writing class is so terrifying for me. Say I sign up for a fencing course: what’s the worst that can happen? I realize I’m not an Olympic-class fencer? That’s ok, I never thought I was. Or I start focusing on brewing beer. Some batches are better than others. That’s fine…I’m not trying to start the next Boston Beer Company. It’s just for fun.

Can’t writing be just for fun?

Maybe. But I’ve got a lot of baggage that goes along with it. A lot of short stories in school literary journals; a lot of writing teachers telling that I was pretty good. A lot of potential. It was, at so many points, so close to becoming a legitimate career for me, that it’s not something I can just treat like a pure hobby.

So the question becomes: can I write? Can I write well enough to get published? I don’t know the answer, but I know that that’s my goal…not to quit my job and do this full-time, not to have a regular article in the New Yorker or or even the Improper Bostonian, one of our free local weeklies. Just to get a photocopied ‘zine with a circulation of 30 to read one of my stories, to say, “yes, of all the stuff we’ve read, even though we don’t know you, don’t know your history, but your work stands on its own, and we’d like to put it in print.”

Can I write? I don’t know. I’m finding out.

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One Response to Can I Write?

  1. Jim says:

    Write for yourself and not for others. Don’t take their criticism as a negative and see if their suggestions would help your style. For example, I find some of your writing as insightful and some as self -indulgent. Work with that and the understanding that is not a negative.

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