I give up, writing. I think.
The first story I wrote was in 1989, when I was 11, after an earthquake interrupted the World Series. It was a short story about humans discovering two warring nations beneath the surface of the Earth – one benevolent and friendly, the other violent and obsessed with power.
The last story I had published was seven months ago: a sultan in an ancient Muslim paradise must decide which of his three sons should succeed him. Two of the sons, the twins, are fools; the third son is born of a slave girl and never speaks. The father gives them a test, a magical bird. Whoever gains the most with it will gain the throne.
The last story I wrote? I don’t remember.
Many of my friends are successful/aspiring writers. Sometimes that’s cool. Writers are weirdos. They’re grown-ass adults who voluntarily spend much of their lifespan alone, obsessing about the world of make-believe. Company helps. Ever seen a mental patient on the street versus one in a psych ward? Company helps. Sometimes knowing so many writers blows. Because just like when you were in elementary school and always comparing your height to your peers, as an adult writer you end up comparing your life to the people you know who chose to be the same lonely make-believe weirdo you chose to be. Yet comparing yourself to another writer is a fool’s errand, since it’s impossible to ever really know how any other human being is ever really doing, much less one who excels at storytelling. Writers excel at manipulating reality and spinning believable falsehoods. Writers are basically taking selfies 24/7, only selfies of places that don’t exist. People who take selfies look like they’re seizing the day, but stopping life to freeze a frieze of it’s not carpe diem. It’s carpe cellulaire.
Knowing a writer is like having sex with a writer – you may only interact with them, but by extension you’re interacting with every writer they’ve ever known. Every week, someone you’re one or two degrees removed from has a short story published in The Paris Review, or wins a scholarship to this summer’s Bread Loaf conference, or lands an agent. You can’t go a day without someone humblebragging about the 50,000 words they just wrote for NaNoWriMo; even though the “No” in NaNoWriMo stands for “November,” your vigorous go-getter types cheerfully extend the prompt to the rest of the calendar, ‘cuz #blessedbymuses #childrenofthequill #writerordie.
I want to be a writer. But it feels like the type of dream that life reveals as not-in-this-lifetime. I used to want to be a baseball player. I was pretty good up until 15, 16. Then I learned I couldn’t hit guys who threw over 80 MPH. 80 MPH’s slow for real ballplayers. My dad’s in his sixties and can still hit 80. And so “baseball player” was tossed into a box in the attic of dreams that don’t fit anymore.
Truth is, I write all the time. I write this blog. I cover the Knicks for one website. I write book reviews for another. For work I’m constantly writing – lesson plans, emails, comments to students, letters of recommendation. But fiction writing? Fiction?
I’d kept up with fiction pretty well for a while. More than half the stories in Superman, my short story collection, have been published. For two years I’ve shared biweekly Skype workshops with two tremendous bicoastal writers. I regularly make notes on a novel I’ve started, a short story I’m editing, and other ideas, some just flickers of a notion, others with entire notepads of research devoted to them.
The last year or so, the work has ground to a halt. Mostly because the other work – the one that pays for niceties like food and shelter – takes up so much time. That’s not true. It isn’t that it takes up so much time. It’s that it takes up so much energy.
When I started teaching, I thought it’d be the perfect complement to fiction writing. I’d get ideas for characters and names from my students; I’d notice categorical errors in their writing to look out for in my own; my brain would slip from critical thinking to creative thinking like an old man slipping into a warm bath.
Reality check. My job fucking exhausts me. By the end of the semester (and I’m not the only writing professor this happens to), there are mornings I wake to see with surprise that I fell asleep the night before in my work clothes. Every final month of class, I start mixing up words or using words that are nowhere near the one I wanted. I’ll want to know if a friend wants to get breakfast and ask them, “Do you want to blue ladders?”
I used to try to map out writing time. “OK, I’m working today from 10-7:30. I’ll get home, eat, chill for a half hour, and then I can write from 9 until midnight.” But as my job takes more and more effort (‘cuz I’m always learning how much more I could be doing to be good at it), there’s less and less leftover for other interests. Literally every semester, I get this one kind of headache, different from the post-concussion migraines. I’ve gotten in enough by now to recognize it: it’s from overexerting my mind. Overwork a muscle and you pull it; overwork your brain for weeks on end and it fucking hurts. I think to myself “I’ll write first thing in the morning. That’s when the mind’s clearest, anyway.” Then I wake and my brain’s aware I’m considering thinking, and it says “Fuck that!” There are mornings the pain is still there. Adjuncts are the migrants of academia. That’s not just a clever metaphor. We work hard for two reasons: because we love our students, and because we have no choice. #adjunctordie
The creative mindset doesn’t come from flipping a switch. That may sound like snobby crying, but I’ve spoken to enough people to know that’s the case for many. I can spit out a piece on the Knicks anytime, anywhere. Drop of a hat. Fiction’s different. Refracting a slice of our world’s mad easier than creating one of your own.
Writing’s also like sex in that no two people do it exactly the same way, but a lot of them work within the same range of positions. You can’t tell your brain – rather, I can’t tell mine – “OK, at 9:30 we start storytelling. Got it?” Not when my brain just worked it’s gray little ass off for 9-10 hours. That’s right. My brain has an ass. And that ass is BANGIN’.
Every semester my schedule changes, my workload changes, and I think “Oh, cool. This time, finally, I’ll have plenty of time for my stories.” Soon enough I’m overwhelmed with work, the fiction takes a backseat because rent/groceries/predatory student loans can’t, and I’m not writing anything. It’s like when I make a budget for all my bills, conclude I can cover everything and still have money left over, then realize I forgot to include food. After everything else in life’s taken care of, I don’t feel like there’s enough left over for my stories.
I moved to Long Island about six years ago. My goal was to earn my MFA and make a living somehow in the field of writing/editing. I got my MFA. I’ve been teaching three years now. I’ve made money as an editor and even some as a writer, for sports pieces and book reviews. I accomplished what I set out to. How am I supposed to feel about not writing fiction anymore? Do I lack the resolve that others who’ve led much harder lives than me possessed? Am I just a mewling, whimpering twat? Or is the guilt I feel the psychic residue of spending years close enough to others’ dreams to confuse mine with theirs?
For years I wanted to compose music for a living. I walked away from that when I was 20. My head is still always playing around with notes, phrases, chords. I close my eyes and there are songs being written, all the time. I didn’t want to connect my love of music to a career. The songs were for me, not others.
I haven’t written a page of fiction in months. Haven’t finished a new story in two years. My mind is still always playing with arcs, twists, character traits. Unlike music, fiction – stories – have always interested me insofar as how I can make them interest others. The stories aren’t for me; they’re for sharing. They exist outside of me; when I’m lucky, I align right as a prism and they filter through me. I close my eyes after all the exertions and exhaustions of life and the stories are still there, writing themselves, all the time. They’ll always be there. I’ll always need them. I can’t tell if they need me anymore.