All or nothing

Per last post (hello, February!), baseball did come back. If you’ve been paying attention, it hasn’t been going well for my Phillies, but there’s a lot of season left. There isn’t a lot of season left for hockey, though, and the Penguins exited the playoffs in an ugly fashion. Not going to lie about that–I mourned for the end of this season. I mourned for a lot of reasons. I’m still mourning it. However, I took some solace in the Penguins’ AHL affiliate’s bid for the Calder Cup, and the IIHF World Championship and the really surprising playoff landscape are deeply entertaining. There’s a reason I’m talking about these things here, though, and it’s that my writing’s really jazzing me right now. But I’m not talking about that. I’m going to talk around it all, and I will tell you why.

G. W. Hawkes once told me, as an undergraduate at Lycoming College, that talking about one’s work is a mistake if a primary motivator to write at all is to discover the story itself. Joan Didion says pretty much the same thing in “Why I Write”:

Who was this narrator?  Why was this narrator telling me this story? Let me tell you one thing about why writers write:  had I known the answer to any of these questions I would never have needed to write a novel.

That discovery is, too, why I write, but more importantly, how I write. The window of interest after I understand the answers to those questions is short, at least in any actually productive, generative way. (I will maintain something that I can only define as a crush on my characters indefinitely, but that never leads to plot or story. Mostly it leads to spending more time deciding what they’d order at a coffee shop than what I’d order at said coffee shop. Most of them, actually, would never have walked into the coffee shop in the first place. They judge me. I feel shame.) The process of discovery is longer and lusher in a novel, of course, and that’s what I prefer, but I’m in a fit of short stories right now, and the process is much more confined.

What I’m learning while writing these short stories, then, is that I can’t hesitate when something’s moving forward. I need to be writing, and I only give myself enough of a note at the document’s end that I know a place I can pick back up in the morning. It’s another variation on the “stop in the middle of the sentence” strategy. The breadcrumb trail cannot lead all the way home for me.

That certainly isn’t true for everyone. A friend of mine makes most of her writing breakthroughs through discussion: seeking questions from the outside that the work hasn’t answered yet. I’m not going to lie: I’m horribly jealous. It makes the process both social and visible, and though I’m not what anyone would call particularly social, there is undoubtedly something lovely about discussing something one loves. And if one doesn’t love writing, why would anyone do it? The visibility issue, too, would be nice when, as many other writers have noted, “working” also looks a lot like pissing around on the internet, staring at the ceiling, or walking so many circles around the block that the neighbors are getting a little nervous. If I could make my process more tangible (and I’ll take conversation as tangible in this case), it might pass more clearly as “work” to the rest of the world.

But that doesn’t work for me. I talk, and the story withers. That means, when friends and family say, “What did you do today?” (because I teach, and my semester is now over, and thus I must be “on vacation” and thus I must defend that I did something with those hours, in a stereotypical Germanic Protestant sort of way), I get to reply with the always-convincing “I wrote some stuff.” I can’t say, “I got X to this important moment” because X might decide to backpedal after twenty pages of meaningful progress because I’ve spoken the moment’s name. What is worse than that is when the person who asks what I did today follows that up with, “What happens after that?”

Answering with “good question” (which is my go-to reply, and it is absolutely true about 95% of the time–I don’t know until it happens on the page) basically undoes most of the ground I might have gained from the People With Jobs Who Don’t Get 2.5 Months Of Not Going To The Office. But the worse answer for me, for the story, is any one where I a) am able to respond with actual content b) actually do respond with said content.

So I try not to talk about it (which is damn hard when you’re incredibly energized by what you’re writing), at least until there’s a draft to be dissected. but that leaves a lot of pent-up…everything. What is there instead, what else can I do in the hours that aren’t spent writing?

Most of the time, I feel guilty about any time I could be writing but am not. Sometimes, though, I can convince myself that it’s okay to do something else. It all becomes grist.

One of the things I do, mentioned above, is pay attention to a lot of sports. I was feeling a little ridiculous about that one Tuesday night while I had the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins’ game on radio feed in one ear, the Phillies on the screen, and the Flyers’ last gasp and the Nationals/Pirates on website updates. I was so overstimulated, so nervous–particularly because the BabyPens went into double OT to stay alive in their series–I was paralyzed in my chair and didn’t realize that I was freezing, had forgotten dinner, and was sitting in a stupidly uncomfortable wooden chair in the kitchen when I do have a sofa.

I crave that kind of absorption. Sometimes it happens with the writing, but there’s no evidence of it. So forget it ever happened. More usefully, it makes me incredibly happy, even if that experience and me weeping into my homemade granola over the end of the Penguins’ season doesn’t sound happy at all. I dig in, obsess, become fanatical. I enjoy the hell out of it.

That fanaticism–the act of “geeking out”–smacked me upside the head in the No Headline AudioZine: Issuepisode 6. It is appropriate for me to say “smacked me upside the head” in this case because this is, according to the creators, the Ramones issuepisode. (Can I take a minute here to love on the word “issuepisode?” Doing it anyway. I enjoy portmanteau words.) In the fortyish minutes of eclecticism, humor, and occasional curmudgeonliness, there’s a two-part piece called “no, you’re not.” It is, at its heart, about the appropriation of geek/nerd/dork, etc., and how it’s now “cool” to be those things (and this is a good time to mention it all because Avengers and everything Joss and Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss and Felicia Day and Jewel Staite and and and). The hinge in “no, you’re not” is that if it’s simply about consumption and display of the consumption, it isn’t very much different than any other consumption and that is, well, kind of lame.

I’m not going to lie. When impelled to check myself, so to speak, to reflect on my motivations, I have to admit that I love that I can call home and kind of school my dad on what’s going on in MLB and tell him about Bryce Harper and the stitches in his face because my parents don’t spend all day with the Gameday widget open in their browsers. My parents don’t spend much time in front of screens. (I aspire to be like that someday.) And it’s not necessarily because I want to show off the knowledge (okay, maybe a little–no one’s perfect–but I also acknowledge that there are a lot of people who can totally school me on most of it, too, and I love that because that’s learning), but because it’s also something I can talk about with the people who first put sports in my life. People with whom I don’t actually have that much in common outside of sports and an inclination to identify wildlife in the distance and roadkill as I drive past it. People who are, also, the people who have done a lot of things the hard way so I can do the things I do. I am grateful and excited to have something at least a little relevant to say.

My dad, at least, appears not to be annoyed by it, definitely doesn’t discourage it. My mom will listen because at least then I’m talking about something. Maybe it’s making up for the weeks that I simply drop off the face of the earth, or for the fact that both my dad and my brother are pretty quiet people and my mother and I are not. With most of my coworkers (who are decidedly not sports people), there is the BBC and what-are-you-reading chatter wherein I get kind of embarrassingly flappy-handed. So much so that a friend and colleague told me, last week, while I was babbling kind of incessantly and indiscriminately about both Russian hockey and the BBC Sherlock production, that he likes that I own it. That I don’t censor it. I took it as a compliment because I think it’s good to really, really like things. Lots of things. But that’s another issue.

As it pertains here, I think I get so excited about all of these things that are more or less on the periphery because I can’t talk about the other big excitement in my life: my writing.  Because talking about my writing is bad for my writing, at least in any way concrete enough to make sense to a second party. If one’s chosen task and (not-so-chosen) method is inherently solitary, inherently silent, what can one do with all of that built-up noise? I do a lot of things, but that’s a different energy.

Maybe most folks out there don’t have built-up noise.

I have lots of it. This is some of it. The rest of today’s will come out now, since the Phillies are playing and the Kings/Coyotes game is about to start. I have a completely inexplicable attachment to Slava Voynov–why would I be interested by a rookie for the LA Kings? The Kings only really became relevant to me when the Nashville Predators dropped out of the playoffs because I had to have someone to cheer for in the West. It’s band-wagonish. It really is. But I can’t bring myself to not care about it. I can’t bring myself to detach. I can only let everything well up and out, to let it bubble over.

I’ll also spend the rest of the night trying to figure out an ending for a short story that’s been lingering for weeks, and the less said about that, the better.

9 thoughts on “All or nothing

  1. Great read–and thanks for the kind words! Wouldn't worry too much about our mean-spirited sniping: we got zero beef with anybody who “owns it”*; what we got beef with is somebody who claims, say, fandom *without* following their team, or people who love Joss Whedon and comics and don't read books without pictures, or who love TV and have never watched a movie without a special effect. Because, yeah: there's consumerism, and I'm all-in when it comes to hating on that, but there's also this savage, pernicious current of self-imposed infantilization that my generation seems determined to wallow in, and I'm sick of it. But like I say: we ain't talkin' 'bout you, yo!

    *Though I confess some beef with the property/economics metaphors that seem to be absolutely baked into every aspect of English, like “owning” something in this weird sense. Just try to talk about anything that's important to you without them: “valuing” your time, “investing” your energy, “profiting” from a discussion…


  2. Thank you for the instruction manual for how to care for you. I hope to someday be as good for you as you have been for me. I really do want a small action figure of you now. I wish to build a shrine.

    I choose to believe what you're saying here is that you need your cup of joy to runneth over for writing, and sports maketh with the running. And once you prime the pump and getting the writing going, the writing maketh with the running, too. So you are a very runny person. I'll leave now.


  3. You are in the very best of company:

    “It begins with a character, usually, and once he stands up on his feet and begins to move, all I can do is trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does.”
    ― William Faulkner


  4. See, I love the curmudgeonliness and I enjoy opportunities to reinvestigate my reasons for doing just about everything. (With my students, I call it reflection. With myself, it's usually indulgent navel-gazing, but at least I'm aware of it.)

    The absolute prevalence of “production” in the English language is both terrifying and fascinating. It was terribly handy during grad school for paper-writing purposes, but now that I've been out of that for a while, I realize that I either never had or have completely forgotten other ways of discussing things.

    Thanks for reading!


  5. Again, it would be the least action-y action figure ever.

    But despite my desire to never, ever be categorized as a “runny person” (all I can think of is eggs over easy and eggs gross me out), that's pretty accurate. The more I'm doing, the more cylinders are firing for me. There is a tipping point, of course, and the types of things I'm doing affects it all, too, but–the more I'm writing, the easier it is to write. The more I'm writing, the more energy I have for everything else.


  6. I wish technology had been advanced sufficiently that I could have recorded a lot of GW-isms while at Lycoming. With my phone or something. I would replay them a lot.


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