Monday, July 11, 2011
HOW TO BECOME A GREAT WRITER
I read your fantastic piece for the NYT Magazine, and as an aspiring writer, I have to ask: where (and how) did you learn to write like that?
Well, it's a pretty simple process, really. It begins at the dawn of time. BANG! Matter is created out of thin air, while God looks on skeptically, feeling a little bit conflicted about the whole thing. Maybe He should've created something a little different. Rocks? Hurling through the dark void of space? It doesn't seem that promising, and He wants to just erase the whole thing about 50 trillion times over the next 13 billion years. Still, He tries very hard to resist the urge to destroy the universe. He goes out and gets fall-down drunk on boxed wine instead.
Eventually, one of the rocks grows some ooze capable of reproducing itself like a really nasty bacterial infection. The kind of ooze that likes the ooze equivalent of Australian-themed steakhouses and Vin Diesel vehicles thrives while the ooze that enjoys the ooze equivalent of underlining lengthy passages in good books becomes vexed and lonely and fails to procreate. This process repeats itself until you have lots of fit, enthusiastic monkeys putting on dusty, bloody versions of "The Fast and the Furious" for screeching crowds, while the director, a self-loathing specimen with very little arm strength and bad vision, laments the contrived nature of his creation in a dark corner of the cave-stadium. One lady monkey disagrees, mostly by backing that ass up into our sad little friend, who at first thinks his elaborate wet dreams have becoming a waking hallucination. Alas, just a few months later, our little friend is trampled to death by a woolly mammoth because he can't see more than a few feet in front of him and he's not very good at running fast or paying close attention to monkey warning sounds around him. In fact, at the moment of trampling, he was picking dirt out from under his monkey fingernails and contemplating the impossible void at the center of even mundane daily activities. Goodbye, sad monkey friend!
Several million years later, your parents meet and love/hate each other. You are born, and you love/hate yourself. Your loneliness leaves you with a drive to write. For about 10 years, your writing is just a way of feeling a little less lonely. You write really stupid shit, and you don't like it, but what else can you do when you're feeling sick inside? Eventually, though, you need a job and you can't think of anything that seems worthwhile to do aside from writing. Yes, you are a self-indulgent, self-important little worm of a man, aren't you? I completely agree.
So you write a lot. And as you write, you ask yourself, over and over, really, what's the fucking point? Aren't plenty of good writers out there already, doing exactly what you are working so hard to do half as well? Aren't they making next to nothing? Do they have real glory in their lives, or are they just pathetic like you are? Why do you have to be so fucking self-important anyway? Why can't you just be a doctor like your brother, or an accountant like your sister? Then you could afford to eat at Australian-themed steakhouses, like they do! What you want, more than anything in the world in that moment, is to eat a fried onlion the size of your head, along with three cold beers and a small salad with blue cheese dressing and a medium rare steak and a little loaf of that soft wheaty bread with lots of butter on it.
But you keep writing instead. In your writing, you oscillate between being bold (which you invariably regret and feel shame over) and playing it safe (which other people seem to prefer, but which puts you to sleep). Even though you get paid (next to nothing) for playing it safe, you are occasionally bold. You persist in enjoying your boldest work much more than your safe work, so you continue down a bold path. Why just cobble sentences together reasonably well? Why not actually say something that's worth hearing? Oh Christ, how fucking self-important, that thought. Yes, I hate you, too. Who wouldn't? You are fully justified in hating yourself with a white-hot passion.
Year after year, you consider your work marginal. You fight the urge to destroy it, though, mostly by going out and getting fall-down drunk on boxed wine instead.
Many years later, at around the time you start to become painfully aware of the fact that you're weaker and uglier and more feeble than you've ever been in your entire life and that it's all down hill from here, you read something you wrote and you think: "That's good stuff. I'm pretty goddamn good at this, in fact. Maybe. Or maybe not. Probably. Sort of." You feel good about it for about 3 minutes. (13 minutes if you've been drinking.)
Meanwhile, God is still looking on skeptically, wondering if he should trash the whole thing and start over.