Category Archives: uncle willy

On Writing

Jezebel takes on the prickly subject of women & memoirs in their post about Mary Karr, who says of her latest book: “I didn’t [write] it to help anybody. I did it for the money. I did it because I’m greedy and I like living in New York.”

Jezebel wavers before deciding to applaud Karr’s “narcissism” and “burst of arrogance,” but like some of the commenters, I wouldn’t leap to either of those judgements. First of all, it seems to me like Karr is laughing at herself, as she is — I hope? — when she attributes her success to the fact that God loves her. But secondly, if the market values her stories, as it has her previous two books, why *not* sell them? Why is it considered low-class to be straightforward about the fact that writing can be not merely a craft but a trade?

I wish I could make money writing. I am doing my damnedest. Or, well, I haven’t been for the last few months: what with absorbing the blow of my book not getting picked up, and then the much more destabilizing blow of my father’s illness & death, I haven’t had any creative energy at all.

My body is getting up every day and going to work. It is managing to eat and see people and even go to the gym. But my mind, to some degree, has stalled. It can’t comprehend a world in which I can’t call my father, or walk into his room to see him rereading Pickwick Papers yet again, or hear him groan, “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth ….”

At least I can still hear his voice. Last week, while cooking, I put on a movie in the background which I immediately heard him condemn as “Dreck!” It is very small solace but occasionally that will do.

Overall, though, my emotional immune system is out of whack, so stupid shit affects me much more than it should. Like the most recent Swarthmore Alumni Bulletin, which last time I managed to greet with the eye-rolling it deserved, and which this time led to a melodramatic crisis of confidence. My mother had to remind me that failure can build character, that there is something to be learned from the fact that you can fall and get up again.

A friend of mine recently voiced her fear that if she lost her current amazing job, she wouldn’t be able to look people in the face. Well, I’ve done it, and then I’ve done it again. As Mary Karr says, quoting Beckett, aspire to “Fail better.”

She also has excellent advice for young writers in general:

[O]ften what we’re most talented at we resist, because we think it’s silly, or small, or not good enough. I teach with George Saunders, a brilliant fiction writer, and he’s so funny. He went to Syracuse when Ray Carver and Toby Wolff were there, and he kept trying to write these gritty, minimalist, realistic stories, and then he’d have some bizarre thing in the middle of it, and Ray and Toby would kill themselves, and tell him, “Just do more of this! Just do this all the time!” And he’d be like, “I want to be a man!”

I will try to keep this in mind. I will also try to blog more, if only because it is a start.

Post #1400

Wow. That number is either impressive or depressing; I can’t decide. That’s how I feel about most things these days. Some mornings I wake up in a cold sweat imagining that I’ll have to arrive at my Swarthmore five year reunion with nothing to show for myself but a ring on my finger.

I’ll have stories to tell, God knows, some of which will appear in my upcoming book Never Marry a Short Woman: Narratives by ester, featuring the one where the priest died at the wedding, the one about being left in a coffee shop in Amsterdam at closing time with no money to pay the bill, and the one about how I lost my first job in New York because I was taken to the ER with a kidney infection.

Ha ha ha!, everyone will say. What delightful anecdotes you have, you pointless but amusing little sprite who got married at 25 (isn’t that sweet). Have you heard about my advanced degrees and how I am living in a third-world country making my own tofu and biking around digging wells to provide indigenous people with safe drinking water?

They will present me with a copy of their prize-winning thesis and I will bow my head in submission before retiring to a hidden spot under one of the many labeled trees to read it, weep tears of envy, and shield my inferiority from their eyes.

“You know, you don’t have to go,” my mother pointed out. “The people who attend are a self-selected group of those who have something they want to brag about.” True, O king, but to *not* go out of fear would be the real failure. The coward dies a thousand times before his death; the valiant only ever tastes of death but once, or so said some guy I once met at a bar.

Better to face up to my accomplishments, or lack thereof, with good humor. Also it would be good to stop comparing myself to other people, like my brother, who was sworn into the NY State bar yesterday, and my dearfriend Tamar who “matched” this week into her first-choice for residency, and the myriad other successful folks I feel I am surrounded by. Excelsior, my lovelies! Onwards and upwards! Don’t worry about me; I’ll always have Jesus.

My mother the brigadier general was here for three days to organize our initial packing-and-moving effort into the new place. Paid movers will be coming next weekend but we got a huge amount done in advance with the help of a small volunteer army. Maybe once I’m done being obsessed with boxes’n’bins and bubble wrap and tape I’ll feel better about everything, because stability really does tend to help.

It would also help if some publisher realized that my poor little novel is NOT a satire. If it needs a label, call it a koala, okay? Publish it and put it in the koala section and I will kiss your feet.