I'm supposed to be hard at work on two non-paying projects and I find myself at a creative standstill. I hate a standstill. Unlike other people who become terror struck at the initial sight of a white sheet of paper in the typewriter/blank computer screen or a fresh and unmarked canvas, my creativity comes to a grinding halt even after I've already proved to myself that I know what I'm doing.
I have a file cabinet full of published clippings. Articles and book reivews from magazines, literary journals and newspapers going back to 1991. I don't have a problem finding words, and the whole twentyfivewords
reference to this blog has to do with an editor who tried to get me to use fewer words in my pieces. Give me 600 words and I'll use 850. Oh yes, and my father who quickly bored of my wordy explanations when I was a kid and repeatedly said to me, "Don't build me a watch, just tell me what time it is".
I have art projects that I've finished, much of it stuff that I never thought I'd do and about half are projects that people paid me to do. Regardless, the word artist freezes on my lips when people ask me what I do. I'm not really sure why. Maybe it's because I haven't suffered for my art. Sure, I've suffered...but not for the art. I'm not a starving, x-ray of a person living in a garret with paint under my nails and a tubercular cough. Am I an artist who writes or am I a writer who happens to be able to slap paint onto a piece of furniture and have it come out decently? I feel that it's greedy to say that I'm both, and being artistic is really just a bonus anyway. All I ever really wanted to do was to write...even when I was a kid and played detective. After I read Louise Fitzhugh's Harriet the Spy,
a young girl who wrote compulsively about the world she observed around her, I realized that I wanted to be just like her...minus her boyish attire and addiction to lettuce & tomato sandwiches.
Why am I telling you this? Because two things happened recently. The first thing lasted for about two minutes. I was at an auction benefitting the high school where two of our kids are students and a good number of the school's older alumni were there. I was introduced to a man by a mutual friend, and after hearing my name he turned to me and said, "Oh, yes...the writer". He then went on to explain that he had met me at the home of my former editor and that he recognized my name (the last of which is long and hyphenated and not all that common around these parts...as opposed to the notion that I'm famous or important...because I'm not). Rather than be flattered, I was struck dumb with fear because I knew that his next question (and it was) would be to ask what I was doing right now. And because I'm not doing ANYTHING with regard to writing right now except for this blog, I cleverly turned the conversation to the topic of our mutual friend, the editor who fled these parts for a plum role as editor at the New York Times. Lucky Dog.
The second thing happened about a month ago when I was asked by the local Optimist Club to speak about books. Now, I've got to say right here and now that public speaking doesn't bother me at all. I don't get all that nervous when I do it. I used to teach in several different capacities (and still do) and I've spoken to groups of adults on many occasions that required me to write something first and I harbor no doubts when someone asks me to point out a book that I think is good or bad. But my first question to the poor guy assigned the task of getting me to sign on to this gig was, "Why in hell are you asking me?"
True, my name is still on the masthead of the local alternative paper, but I haven't pitched, written or published anything for them in many months (my choice...and more on that in another post). Unlike Harper Lee who only wrote one novel in her entire life (and let me pause right here and now to insist that I'm in no way comparing myself to her) and it was a long, long time ago, yet no one in his/her right mind would question her proper designation as a writer. For me, the years of toil at the keyboard don't continue to give me that distinction unless I'm actively working on something. I am only as good as my last project, and if that project was over a month ago and there's nothing new on the horizon, I feel sunk.And sunk I am
as I make notes for a speech I have to make on the 10th of this month to a roomful of people who are waiting for me to speak to them about the tremendously subjective topic of reading and books. And what can I say that won't make them my enemies right off the bat? Should I talk about my utter contempt for the romance genre? Should I "out" myself as a reader who doesn't read chick lit
so that the men in the room will lend half an ear to what I have to say? Do I blast the men in the room who never read books by female writers or those which have female protagonists and then haughtily remind them that the celebrated author of Frankenstein
was a female? (That always caused the 8th grade boys in my classes to blow a couple of brain cylinders when presented with that glorious fact).
I'll probably get by okay...I usually do. But there will be that lurking fear someplace that what I'm saying is just so much bullshit and that the next question someone in the audience asks will force me to reveal that my opinion is just my opinion and not that of an expert. Or...at least not an expert on a national scale...just a low-paying local scale...and even that one, not so much. That my last paid writing gig was months ago and that the one which takes so much of my time right now is not only non-paying (this blog) but mostly a secret so, ssshhhh, don't tell my parents or any of the people on the PTA boards I slave for or my neighbors or the rest of my family beyond my two sisters and one best friend whom I told more than a few weeks ago.
Aren't we all just fakers anyway? I mean, one day you're sitting in your senior English class in high school listening to the teacher talk about the brilliance of Steinbeck's "CanneryRow"
and wondering if the guy you're dating is secretly screwing around with this skank named Beverly (yes...he was) and the next thing you're a desk jockey shuffling paper and e-mailing clients. In between that time was college and the first job...and then marriage and/or kids. How many of us have held more than one job? How many of us have trouble answering the question "what do you do?" with a one-word answer. (doctors and lawyers need not answer this) Can you? What about those who have held several jobs in their adult lives? Those of us who live in the part-time world. Those of us who spent a sizeable portion of our prime years home with kids and subsequently killed off some of our best brain cells. What happened to you, to me, to any of us since we were kids just figuring out how we wanted our lives to go that prepared us to be an EXPERT on anything? I mean...I brush my teeth at least three times a day and that still doesn't make me an expert.
And now...because I haven't really been researching books or reading the publishing catalogs or intensely reviewing anything of note (even though my bedside table is groaning under the weight of unread tomes), I have to feel like an expert about something I love but don't feel confident enough about to begin acting the part of literary cruise director for a bunch of strangers.
I mean...am I the only person who approaches new projects with hesitation and doubt? Talk to me, people!