Solitary Confinement

I used to want to be a writer. Not just a person who writes; I wanted to be a WRITER. I wanted people to tell stories about how I would get up at 4 AM and do a bump of cocaine and hammer away at a typewriter for 9 hours before I drank my daily bottle of dilaudid and fucked one of my 12 mistresses. I wanted my weird tics to be described in great detail later, like how I had never been in a swimming pool or how I was deathly afraid of stone fruits. I thought that because Hemingway wrote standing up, or Hunter S. typed with only 2 fingers, or that Joyce wrote basically all of Finnegan’s Wake with a crayon on cardboard, that I merely had to be an eccentric with a substance abuse problem and my talent would carry me to fame.

Turns out, you have to write to be a writer. You have to be alone and in a room and you have to sit down and work. It was only much later, after I had failed to maintain interest in learning how to write, both through formal schooling and haphazard attempts at long-form writing, that I realized that I didn’t know how to actually write. I probably still don’t. I overthink everything I put on paper. I hate my own writing and I’m perpetually embarrassed by its frequent lapses into cliche and high school-level melodrama.

I never really wanted to be a person who writes. I thought it was beneath me, and that true eccentric artists like me could just drink gallons of wine and coast into ubiquity by dropping the occasional zeitgeist-altering poem or something, and the harems would follow. This is folly; it masks a fundamental fear of failure and lack of self-confidence. It’s also a lousy excuse for a bad work ethic. Here are three facts about writing:

  1. A writer is someone who writes. The person who put those little blurbs beneath the pictures in your IKEA catalog is a writer, with just as much claim to the title as E.E. Cummings or Salinger. Especially Salinger.
  2. The mechanical act of writing carries with it a sensation which, in itself, is motivation for being a writer. Whether it be with a stubby pencil on filthy little scraps of paper (Bukowski), a quill on parchment (Billy Shakes), or a vintage typewriter on fair-trade organic paper (that dickweed at the coffee shop), writing is a physical act. You are whacking ink into a page and creating a plane of existence and that should be satisfying to your motor processes.
  3. There is no “type” of person who writes. Writers encompass the same number and variety of demographics that societies in general do. A writer is not a hard-drinking noir stereotype, an eccentric gun-nut, or a hook-nosed journalist pounding away at a keyboard in a smoky room.

I’ve always been a voracious reader, and I think that’s part of my inability to create with consistency in the past. I created a mythology of all these writers in my head that could never be lived up to. I thought for years that I wanted to be Dr. Gonzo, flying through the desert with a noggin full of barbiturates. I glamorized the coke-fueled nihilism of Bret Easton Ellis. I thought that Vonnegut was, in person, a whimsical freewheeling humanist who regularly spouted off-kilter wisdom about God and nature and everything else. Until about 7 years ago, when I stopped writing anything that wasn’t required for school, I nursed an unhealthy belief that the life of a famous, culturally essential writer was right up my alley. As it turns out though, I was not mentally or emotionally prepared to be the type of writer I had created in my head, and to make things worse I was operating under the false assumption that there was no other way.

What I’ve come to realize in the past half decade is that Hemingway was a depressive bully. Hunter S. was a drug-addicted deadbeat dad. Kerouac was an annoying little lily-white Ivy league prick whose personal experience with black America is the very definition of naivety and white privilege. I don’t want to be a bad father, or a drunk, or a suicide. I don’t want to slap women or hunt lions or even get laid by strangers. I like getting up and going to a conventional job. I crave routine and stability, and I need to be told when I’m drinking too much. Writing, as I had previously defined it to myself, was solitary confinement. There was no creativity without that sickness, that self-abuse. I hated myself and my own writing so much that I needed to punish myself for it, and to imprison myself in it.

Luckily for me, you don’t have to be a WRITER to be a writer. I can put my daughter to bed at night and also write about people dying in Mexican knife fights. I can go grocery shopping twice a week for organic produce and use coupons and still write about Martian sex offenders, if I please. I can drive a sensible car and pay my bills and not be in fucking pain all the time and still craft a poem about something ugly or beautiful or both. It’s not about me. It’s not always about exorcising demons. For so long, I thought my best writing only came out when I was experiencing enough trauma to qualify for disability payments. What I didn’t realize was that these were the times when the words were forcing their way out of me without my consent. When I was at war (the real kind, in Baghdad, not the metaphorical war we all fight in our hearts), I wrote two or three of the best poems of my life. I couldn’t help it, that was just my way of getting the fear and hopelessness out of me so that I didn’t curl up and die. I’m slowly now coming around to the idea that these ideas and conversations with myself don’t always have to come spilling out because my body can’t contain them. I can pick and choose them at will, and I can show them to the world and feel okay if they’re terrible. For me, in order to keep being a writer, I have to be alone in a room and sit down and work. I have to forgive myself for not being a troubled genius or a hard-living brute. And I have to enjoy the machine for what it is, a tool to tell a story. So I’ll see you tomorrow, back at work again.