The Story(ies) I Tell Myself About Being (a "Writer")

by Elison Alcovendaz

"The only thing standing between you and your goal is the bulls$%# story you keep telling yourself..." - Jordan Belfort

Recently, a friend and I had been discussing the difficult parts about pursuing writing and I realized I wanted to write a blog about it. But if you've read my blogs then you know I always try and look at the positive side of things. The problem is, this wasn't a "positive" topic. We'd been discussing loneliness, rejection, feeling things too much. I didn't think I could write about it without people thinking I was soft. I decided to pursue writing and had to deal with the consequences. Man up. But my friend challenged me to write a blog that centered on how I truly felt, no punches pulled. And so I started to.

The problem is, there's no way to write this without sounding like a whiner. And certainly no one wants to hear someone whining about something they made a choice about. In fact, upon reading an earlier version of this blog, Patty said the same thing. She didn't like it. It was unlike the things I'd written before. Self-indulgent and self-piteous. And she is right. But let's face it - everything we do online is self-important. Every blog. Every status update. Every photo. We want people to think we're clever, smart, politically active, funny, pretty, that our kids are cute or hey, look at what my child can do because I'm such a good parent! Probably the things we do in real life, too. The jobs we have. The clothes and makeup we wear. The houses we own. The bumper stickers we put on our car. The ways we feel we "make a difference." So fair warning - this blog is probably self-indulgent and a bit self-piteous and I'm sorry for that. But if I'm going to write truly about what this blog is really about - the story(ies) I tell myself about being a writer (and other things) - then it kinda has to be. Because I hope that, by the end of this, you'll think I'm honest.

***

From Anne Bradstreet's "Contemplations"

O Time the fatal wrack of mortal things
That draws oblivion's curtains over kings,
Their sumptuous monuments, men know them not;
Their names with a Record are forgot,
Their parts, their ports, their pomp's all laid in th' dust.

Nor wit, nor gold, nor buildings scape time's rust,
But he whose name is grav'd in the white stone
Shall last and shine when all of these are gone

***

The other day, Patty and I were at BJ's with a group of people for a friend's birthday, and sitting across the table from us was a couple that we chitchatted with. You know, so how do you know so and so, did you catch such and such game, what are you going to order, yada yada? The woman taught at the same school as the birthday girl, but the husband was a research scientist with a PhD doing incredible work dealing with soldiers coming back from war with motor injuries. He talked for a while about his job, about his PhD program, and his dissertation, then after fifteen minutes or so he stops and asks, "How about you? What do you do?"

Stop, I tell myself. Think. A few weeks before I told myself that when people ask what do I do, I was going to say "write." I write. I'm a writer. This was the first time I'd been confronted with this question since I'd made this covenant with myself, and I knew the awkward conversation that could soon follow. "Oh, have I read anything of yours?" for example, to which the answer was usually "Probably not." And so I took a moment to respond to my confabulator with an added qualifier or two:

"I work in an office during the day, but if you ask what do I do, the answer is write. It isn't paying the bills yet, but I have been published several times but in smaller magazines and, well, you know."

"Ah," he answers, and I can't tell if his expression is one of amusement or derision.

I smile and sip a strawful of strawberry lemonade.

***

Here's a trailer for the new movie Whiplash:

"There are no two words more harmful in the English language than 'good job'."

***

Art is always and everywhere the secret confession, and at the same time the immortal movement of its time. - Karl Marx

Here's my secret confession: I want to do something great, or more specifically, write something great. I want to write at least one thing that would be read centuries from now. I want to write something that makes people hold their hands to their hearts or, upon finishing, set the book down slowly, already lost on a pathway of thought they'd never considered before. I want to write something that the most astute readers would complete and wonder how in the hell the author accomplished that, just the way I've done with so many stories. I know. It's self-centered. It's self important. And yet, as much as I try to ignore it, I feel it under my skin, haunting all the time.

Is it immortality I want? No, not technically. Physical immortality seems like the worst thing anyone could want. But to think that someday, your name or your deeds and maybe your whole life would fall into one last whisper, or get blown away on a piece of dust, I... I just don't know. But this is why many of us have children, isn't it? That there's something inside us that makes us want to have pieces of ourselves out there when we're gone? To have our blood live on? To make sure that we have our fingerprints on this earth? If we really looked down deep into ourselves, would we admit that this is at least part of the reason?

But flesh is flesh and flesh rots. Well-told stories don't die. 

***

I once heard the following, though I can't remember where:

Nine out of every ten people thinks they have a story to tell. Of those people, one out of ten will actually start writing that story. Of those people, one out of ten will try to turn that story into a book. Of those people, one out of ten will actually finish writing that book. Of those people, one out of ten will actually try to publish that book. Of those people, one out of ten will actually publish the book. Of those people, one out of ten will make a profit from their book. Of those people, one out of ten will be able to write full-time. 

***

Picture from Wikipedia.

Picture from Wikipedia.

So why has the Mona Lisa's popularity persisted for centuries? Here are a few reasons:

1) The mysterious smile. 

The most famous smile in the world has been called inviting, innocent, sinful, and a countless number of other adjectives. Several studies have been done to determine why the smile creates different emotions in the viewer but to no consensus: maybe it depends on your angle, your height, the noise in the room, the stuffiness of the room, or maybe, it's the stories we tell ourselves about the painting, which invariably, are stories we tell about ourselves.

Do we want Mona Lisa's smile to be emblematic of a secret affair because we enjoy salacious stories? Do we buy into the secret of Mona Lisa really being a self-portrait and smiling as though a joke or maybe Leonardo coming to an understanding about himself? Or do we want, as we stand in the Louvre, wishing our kids would behave themselves, to think that Mona Lisa to be wearing a weary smile because she finally was able to get away from her kids and sit down and rest?

2) History

On August 11, 1911, the Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre. The investigation lasted for two years (even Picasso was questioned!) until the thief was finally found after attempting to sell the portrait to a known art collector. Some say the Mona Lisa wasn't very well-known outside of the circles of art historians and critics until this theft, which made it widely recognized.

3) Technical Brilliance

By all accounts, the Mona Lisa is a damn good painting. According to the Louvre's website, the Mona Lisa is the "the earliest Italian portrait to focus so closely on the sitter in a half-length portrait." It goes on to explain that this was a new "artistic formula," which included being generous enough in the space of the frame to include the model's upper body without the shoulders touching the edges. At the time, this was unheard of. In addition, the Mona Lisa is known as one of the best examples of sfumato, a Renaissance technique that added smokiness to a painting, allowing colors and tones to blend into each other. If you look at Mona Lisa's eyes or even the background landscape, you'll see it. 

4) The Painter

Leonardo da Vinci was known famous during his time, which as any art historian will tell you, is rare. Most artists become famous in death. But during his lifetime, Leonardo was known for what he's known for now: being a great inventor, architect, mathematician, and artist. The church and wealthy patrons commissioned him for paintings, murals, and inventions and he was close friends with royalty. Rumor has it he even died in the arms of King Francis I of France, as depicted by the French painter Ingres here:

from Wikipedia

from Wikipedia

Such a person, in this day and age, would be known as a celebrity. And so it seems that while Leonardo was one of the most technically brilliant painters we've ever seen, that wasn't actually what made it stand the test of time. Stories did that. Stories about Leonardo the man, about his intentions with the painting, about the theft, about the smile, and ultimately, about the stories we tell ourselves upon gazing at the portrait. 

***

I sometimes wonder what is too much to desire from the world. If you have a spouse you love deeply, a spouse who supports you, healthy kids, a house to live in, a not-that-bad-job that pays for food and the occasional vacation, and you live in a country not plagued by war, and you have the ability to have a generally happy and positive outlook on life, can you ask for more? Is it okay to do so? Are you crazy to think it? 

I've spoken to several friends who fit the above and it seems the advice mirrors Hazel's. Get to the next day. Do what you can. Know the difference between what you can change and what you can't. When the kids are out of the house that will be your time (because that time is guaranteed...). I had a professor who said it was pretentious to say "I'm a writer", that it's better to say "I am writing" or "I am not writing." But what to say when people ask? If I say "I'm a writer", do you think me pretentious? Do you think me false because it isn't paying the bills? Can I say "I'm a writer" if I have been published in some magazines? Or do I need a book deal? Or is it enough to sit at a desk writing then furiously erasing because that voice in your head tells you no one is going to like it, no one cares, that even though you want to write something great, deep down you know you probably don't have it, you care too much about what others think, you got too much other stuff going on, and besides, those rejection letters told you you suck. Would that be enough? Could I say it then? When would I know (and could I know?) that I've actually done a "good job"?

***

There's a scene in the film The Fault in Our Stars where the two protagonists are sitting in a park, watching kids play. Both are teenagers with advanced stages of cancer, though the girl, Hazel, is currently successfully being treated while the guy, Gus, has recently found out that he is going to die soon. Here is a snippet of their conversation (courtesy of screenplay found here):

GUS:... I thought I was special.

HAZEL: You are.

GUS: Yeah but... you know what I mean. What?

HAZEL: I do know what you mean, I just... I don't agree. This obsession with being remembered --

GUS: Don't get mad --

HAZEL: But I am mad! I think you're special, is that not enough? 

GUS: Hazel --

HAZEL: You think the only way to live a meaningful life is for everyone to love you, for everyone to remember you. Well guess what, Gus, this is your life. This is all you get. You get me, and your family, and this world. And if that's not enough, well I'm sorry, but it's not nothing. Cause I'll remember you, I'll love you --

GUS: You're right --

HAZEL: And I just wish... you'd be happy with that. 

GUS: You're right. I'm sorry. I'm sorry. 

Hazel was wrong about two points:

1) It's not about being remembered, necessarily, it's about knowing you impacted the world in a way that lasts, otherwise, why are we here? If you look at Adam and Eveit's ultimately a creation story. God solely had the power of creation, but when Adam and Eve ate that apple, they now became creators, too. They were aware of their bodies, of their ability to procreate, to create new life. And they also were now filled with knowledge, which would allow them and their ancestors to create everything we now have in the world. I just want to create something that lasts. 

2) Gus wanting to do something great does not mean he's unhappy with his life. "This is your life. This is all you get." Patty and I discuss this every now and then. When I'm down about the number of rejections I'm getting, or when I'm frustrated because I can't seem to write or when I do write nothing good appears on the page, or when I'm too tired from work and the crap life sends our way, I like to check in with her and make sure she knows this does not mean anything about how I feel about her or our relationship. I hope she believes me. No, I know she does. 

***

One of the first things I discovered about fatherhood was that my father was right: it was hard, and it kicked the S&$* out of your life plan - Lev Grossman

You may or may not have read my blog about the fear of fatherhood. If you didn't, here's a synopsis: I'm worried that I will lose myself. I worry that this great thing I'm supposed to write will never happen, and as I move up at my day job and we have kids and life continues, I'll have less time and energy to do so. Every post I've read on FB posted by young parents happen to be about how tiresome it is, how crazy it is, how sleep-deprived it is, and oh, by the way, it's also the best thing I've ever done! People have told me all the time: now's your time to write. Once you have kids, it's going to be so difficult. Soooooooooooooooooooo difficult. You don't even have time to sleep, much less write! Get to it! But it's just not happening now. I've written a lot over the last few years, but none if it is earth-shattering.

And so I think, maybe I should write something that could just bring some money in to lower the pressure from other aspects of life. So I'm writing a satirical novella I hope to self-publish and bring some money in. Even if it's a $100 a month. And then I think, well, maybe I need to feel fulfilled by how good my life is. I know it's good. Beyond good. This itch do do something special, maybe it's like Hazel said, I'm special to those in my life, that should be enough. And then I think, maybe I need the experience of fatherhood to get me to this great story I'm supposed to write. Maybe it's not about losing myself, but finding a "new myself." I even bought a book entitled, When I First Held You - 22 Critically Acclaimed Writers Talk about the Triumphs, Challenges, and Transformative Experience of Fatherhood. There are some legit writers in there. Lev Grossman (see above quote). Anthony Doerr. Rick Moody. Benjamin Percy. And then I think, if they could do it... 

***

I've spent more time at doctor's offices and more time getting tests in the last two years that the first 33 years of my life combined. I've got more strange things going on in my body than I care to admit. It's true, I'm not the best at taking care of my physical body. I'm unsure how to navigate cultivating bodily health and brain health. 

Here's a picture of one corner of the room I'm currently writing in:

On the shelf at there far end of the photo are 210 books. On the table, 54 books I don't have any place to put. On the floor by my feet, another 30. On the shelf behind me, another 250. On the three shelves to the left, 214. On the console table near the front door, 17. Upstairs, 22. At work, 8. Being housed at my parents' house until I have more shelf space - 80. 

Out of these 885 books, I've read 267. An aunt once walked into the den and asked me if I'd read all of these books. Upon hearing I hadn't even read half, she asked why did I have them? It didn't occur to me then, but now I've realized having these books so close to me represents all there is to know, all there is to learn. I read and write every day. Reading and writing takes time. How do you fit in going to the gym? Cooking a healthy dinner? There's only so much spare time in the day. A finite amount. Yes, make time, but where? The only two people that come to mind when thinking of people who are really fit and also who I'd consider to be really learned, widely read people are two professors, but they're professors. They've dedicated their lives to words and books. What about the rest of us? 

If this sounds like an excuse for my high BMI, then you'd probably be right. I made these choices. But, given a finite amount of time in the day, it seems there are two choices: give my body as much time and health as possible to write this great thing or actually try and write the thing. 

***

I'm afraid this has turned into a self-pitying blog post. Has it? I hope not. Someone told me the other day my blogs were too happy; they always resolved things in a positive light. They wanted to read about some kind of internal struggle. So here you are, though I can't promise it won't end positively. That, too, is a choice. 

***

Nine out of every ten people thinks they have a story to tell. Of those people, one out of ten will actually start writing that story. Of those people, one out of ten will try to turn that story into a book. Of those people, one out of ten will actually finish writing that book. Of those people, one out of ten will actually try to publish that book (I am here). Of those people, one out of ten will actually publish the book. Of those people, one out of ten will make a profit from their book. Of those people, one out of ten will be able to write full-time. 

And once you can write full-time, I tell myself, you can write that great thing you've always wanted to write. 

***

There's a different story of the conversation at BJ's that I constantly replay in my mind. I'm drinking a glass of strawberry lemonade. My confabulator is talking about his job, where he researches ways to help soldiers who've come back from war without the ability to move certain limbs. I nod a lot, tell him how interesting that is, because it is, and then when he stops and asks "What do you do?" I'll say "I'm a writer" and when he asks "Have I read any of your work?" I'll smile and say, "Possibly."