The Ruin of a Writer
It’s Saturday afternoon and I sit at my computer, pounding away at a fragmentary ideaWHAT IDEA? that just might blossom into an essay or a story. I am oblivious to the bright sunshine that has finally broken through San Francisco’s weeks and months of gloom,HAVE IT LAND ON YOUR DESK OR ARM OR CAT? to the screeching children racing their bikes past my window, to the pale adults in shorts and T-shirts walking their dogs. OFF IN THE KITCHEN? ACROSS THE ROOM?Last night’s dinner dishes lie, crusted with vindaloo GREAT DETAIL Xsauce, in the sink. The sheets and towels in the washer wait damply to be dried. A stack of New Yorkers STILL IN BLUE WRAPPERSbeckons, undread. The refrigerator’s contents have dwindled to a chunk of cheddar, a bagged Caesar salad, seven kinds of mustard, and assorted condiments; even the milk expired last week. LEARNING TO DRINK COFFEE BLACKBut I am too busy writing to contemplate such banalities.
This writing class has ruined my life. I have become a woman obsessed—with words, with characters, with meaning. Everywhere I turn, everything I see and do is “material” demanding to be captured, massaged, and transformed into a new and different reality that I alone create and control. On the rare occasion that I read The New Yorker, it is with a jaundiced eye, readily dismissing world-renowned writers whose arc-less stories fail the “Adair test” promulgated by my teacher.
It’s even become a problem at work. My second floor office overlooks the courtyard and front door, nourishing my nosy nature with a view of all comings and goings. The other day as the CEO’s assistant left for lunch, I switched a conference call to mute and started typing. “Sarah slams down the phone and grabs the white leather jacket she just bought on credit with the still-pending bonus, her lovely, serene face contorting in anger. ‘Damn him,’ she mutters under her breath, wondering how many more times he’ll postpone her review. ‘Lunch’ she snaps at the receptionist, bolting out the door. Only this time, Sarah thinks, I might not come back.” A few minutes later the real live CEO stopped by my office to chit chat on his way downstairs. My face flushed with guilt and embarrassment as I nonchalantly switched the screen to Lotus Notes, asking “What’s up?” It’s bad enough that I was writing on company time …but about my own boss? VERY FUNNY PARAGRAPH! LOVE THAT!
How did this happen?
To be honest, I’ve wanted to be a writer since the third grade, when Mrs. Burnett, a pretty, blonde teacher who was about to be diagnosed with cancer, tacked my Christmas poem to the bulletin board.
“Christmas is the time of year
When everyone is full of cheer
When mailmen are busy bees
And people put up Christmas trees.” NICE
My heart swelled with pride every time I saw it there, adorned with a big gold star, best in class. The dyeDIE? was cast. That year I wrote and illustrated poems for Valentine’s Day, Easter, Mother’s Day, every possible occasion. 25 years later, when my mother died, I found them all in her bottom desk drawer. She was my first and most devoted audience.
The next year in Miss Thompson’s class, I branched out into short stories. My first effort, “The Moonies,” recounted the adventures of a lunar rock band that looked and sounded strangely like the Beatles, who had just burst on the American scene, turning masses of females into screaming ninnies—Miss Thompson and me included. I beamed as she read my story aloud to the class as an excellent example of creative writing, emphasis on the creative. Notebooks full of stories followed.
By eighth grade I had discovered the power of fiction based on fact, penning a series of humorous stories about a mischievous little boy named Dennis (as in the Menace) modeled on my younger brother David. Dennis could not avoid trouble, nor did he want to: hiding in the doghouse even after the police had been called to find him (cleverly titled “In the Doghouse”), yanking off Santa’s beard at Goldwater’s department store, downing all the left-over Manhattans after my parent’s New Year’s Eve party. Poor David, I made him famous—or infamous. For years everyone called him Dennis.NICE
In high school I shifted to journalism and the 5 “Ws.” I was especially good at illuminating the uniqueness in ordinary people—like my best friend Katrin, a petite, perky, red-head who fought bulls in Nogales on weekends or the husky, quiet Bill who designed album covers for New Riders of the Purple Sage. As an added bonus, the journalism teacher was busy having an affair with the assistant principALle, leaving the editorial staff unsupervised. Tales of our blender and pot parties became legend.
In college my writing predictably assumed a more serious, academic posture; with weekly poli-sci, psych, and philosophy papers to write it was tough to get “creative.” In those prehistoric, pre-computer days, rough drafts were handwritten and then typed on the Olivetto with little margin for error, White-out notwithstanding. Under the relentless eye of Killer Miller, my notorious advisor, I was forced to focus and edit, turning that rambling 20-page draft into 10 pages of (hopefully) original, insightful analysis. I also made the acquaintance of the critical essay—the art of a persuasive argument with a beginning, middle, and end—and a hook. This structure worked miracles in print but later proved inadequate in persuading children under 18 of anything.
For most of the intervening 25-plus years, writing has been part of my job—as a management consultant, a marketing communications professional, and an editor-in-chief and a think tank of futurists. Proposals, reports, presentations, business plans, press releases, marketing collateral, scenarios, monologues, manifestos, books, articles, interviews, op-eds—I’ve written and edited them all. Along the way I’ve mastered a few tricks, battled for serial commas, and word-smithed to my hearts content. But I’ve also successfully avoided writing anything in my own voice with two exceptions: an annual Christmas letter, beloved by friends but despised by my family who are, necessarily, the protaganists in the sitcom of our life; and an office version of The Night Before Christmas featuring a different topical Santa each year (e.g., George Bush as Scrooge) delivering presents to my coworkers. For decades, I’ve justified the dearth of creative output with the same two excuses: I have nothing to write about and no time in which to write it. Disengenuous? Undoubtedly.
And now this writing class has ruined me— I have too much to write about and not enough time. I live a life—and in a place—that is rich with characters and experiences. I have no children presently at home to conveniently interfere with creativity. I have a voice that is slowly but relentlessly revealing itself to be something different than I imagined—or frankly, hoped (No Didion here, sorry to say.) I have writing partners that offer critical feedback and unconditional support. Adair, our mentor, not only knows how to write but how to teach. I have discovered that any idea is worth pursuing even if it sputters out; you never know when that discarded fragment will resurface and shine in a different context. And I’ve realized that experimentation, not perfection is the objective; focusing on the latter is the biggest obstacle to progress for a writer.
Happily, I’ve also learned that the laundry can wait, the dishes can wait, even my husband can wait. But beware, like Sarah, I may not be coming back.
Snapshot #1 Saturday, February 20, 2016
UPSTAIRS ON SCOTT STREET
Buttery, flaky, almond –encrusted coffee cake –my mouth waters, and I can almost smell the sugar from where I am sitting on the far end of the overstuffed sofa.
This entire yellow house on Scott Street is a pastry of a building….one large-multilayered cake filled to bursting with sweet things, crunchy moments , buttery artifacts of intellect, energies diverse, creative and self-rising. Spaces hard to get to because there are so many layers, so many steps, you think you might die before you get to the layer you seek.
A flaky delight of a wooden, mellow yellow birthday cake, a wedding cake of a house, layered with words, successful and failed.
The House on Scott Street, a house of language and vaulty ambitions.
A sound dresses the cake with an icing of softly clicking computer keys, a torrent of pens scratching on blank paper, yield a mountain of ecstatic language, coated in the molten lava of keystrokes and pen swipes.
The Yellow Mansion of Many Minds on Scott Street, crawling with the lit candles of ideas of the hundreds who have come to be baked into it. A quick snapshot of a place as a pastry, where every crumb is nourishing. No result actually matters in itself, only the process of letting the countless ingredients self-choose, tossing themselves into the wide bowl.
THE DINNER PARTY ON PAGE STREET
Our upper flat is homosexually clean…LOVE THAT PHRASE and by that I don’t mean it’s clean of homosexuals, but rather it’s as clean and perfect as a place can be. Gorgeously so.
Because I am not a gay man, and because I am by nature a messy woman, my home can never look like this.
I am chastened when I walk in, because I know I would never employ a toothbrush to clean the corners of the fireplace mantel the way my darling ex Paul does when he sets out to clean. If you ask me to clean a space, count on it being messier when I finish than it was before I began. And you never want me to iron one of your shirts. Never ever. I have ruined shirts. Expensive ones.
Sweet and helpful women come to our house twice a month and retrieve us from the detritus of our lives.
Anyway, last night, the upstairs flat looked as usual gorgeous. And the 8-person dinner party soon assembled. The table was set with all the best, measured-to-place china , with flowered salad plates in the center of each. From the kitchen came smells of mid-Eastern food, most delivered from Palmyra, our favorite go-to place on Haight Street, and a couple of dishes that Stephen decided to cook himself: a fabulous moussaka, and a rice and lentil dish extraordinaire! Many wines fueled the conversation, and it was loud and steady all the way through the two Whole Foods – bought cakes that were the flourish of dessert: A Chantilly Cream, and a Chocolate Explosion.
An Epicurean evening.