Tag Archives: writing

On Writers

Writers are special people. Except for the fortunate few who can afford to live on a farm in the Netherlands and write 19th century pastoral poetry, most writers aim to please. That is, we write to sell. And writing to sell means being commercial. And being commercial means selling out. And selling out means not being a “real” writer who composes lovely haikus on milking Holsteins, but being a craphole writer who turns to Wikipedia to research Dutch cows and who seeks external validation in the form of dollar bills. Preferably big dollar bills. If we’re lucky, Hamiltons.

As writers, this is the source of all our issues.

The brain of a writer contains a huge tropical storm of garbage, sprinkled with a few tiny nuggets of treasure. Not unlike high-functioning schizophrenics, writers spend countless hours mining their own psyche for bits of inspiration. Sometimes the writer’s mind can yield great things. Most times, however, it’s just a repository for shameless self-indulgence. For example, a sampling of my random thoughts from today: “I just don’t get eyebrows. It’s like an island of hair on my face.” / “Stop staring at the fridge: you just ate two steaks an hour ago.” / “How much do egg donations go for these days? How many months of rent is that?” / “Why can’t human beings have three separate holes, two for waste and one solely for reproduction?” / “Who will ever love me???” / “Fine, go treat yourself to some ice cream.”

Some might think I’m crazy, but I ain’t.  I’m just a writer. And most writers are a little crazy. A little eccentric. A little smelly.  We fancy ourselves to be high-minded, beret-wearing hipsters who create Art & Culture, complete with a showy vocabulary and a penchant for the Ironic (and unnecessary capitals).  But really, we’re just hiding from the truth. And the truth is, most of the time, we believe that we are terrible writers. We believe that we create literary fecal matter that would be better served lining horse stalls than being read or performed by anyone other than our immediate family puppets. Writers are nothing if not neurotic. We’re flighty, we’re flaky, we’re strange, and we enjoy wallowing in our many insecurities.

Writers always worry about whether we’re being smart enough/profound enough/funny enough for an audience that will never be wholly satisfied. We slave over word choice and act breaks and storylines that may seem insignificant to everyone else but which causes us devastating internal turmoil and despair. We edit and re-edit.  We second-guess our second guesses. We frequently pull avada kedavras on our computers in stylistically-imbalanced fits of rage. CTRL-A-Delete. CTRL-A-Delete. CTRL-A-Delete.  And in addition to churning out daily doses of horsewallpaper, writers find numerous ways to procrastinate.  Whether it be cigarettes, alcohol, armed robbery, or gummy vitamins (my personal preference), all writers must find a vice upon which to blame all their troubles if things do go awry.

But then one day, amidst the haze of smoke, drugs, guns, and folic acid, something amazing happens. The cloud of mediocrity floats away, taking with it the banal dialogue and the unnecessary plot twists. The sky opens up. The story becomes strangely clear.  Suddenly we’re left with something that, despite all its previously-ulcer-inducing pockmarks, actually seems… good. And we truly believe, that after all this time, after all we’ve been through, we’ve finally managed to produce something that could be considered great — nay, brilliant.

And then we wake up the next morning, and we think that it’s crap again. CTRL-A-Delete.

Such is the life of a writer.

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The Bipolar Writerly Life

There are some days when I think I’m an honest-to-goodness genius.  On those days, I feel like a veritable gift to this world, like sliced bread, or sunshine, or Jesus.  I can cure ignorance. I can defeat stupidity.  I can bring about a new age of enlightenment with my words.  Someday, somewhere, there will be an uber-flattering marble sculpture of me, in a pretentious garden overrun by hipsters and indecipherable modern art, right next to a Starbucks.

On other days, I feel like an honest-to-goodness nutcase. I’m a meager also-ran, something that never quite lived up to the hype, like fungus, or acid rain, or JaMarcus Russell.  I can’t write. I can’t tell jokes.  I can’t slowly corrupt the hearts and minds of the general public.  Someday, somewhere, I’ll end up shuttered in a small studio apartment, typing away as my cats nibble on my toes because I haven’t fed them in two weeks.

Welcome to the roller coaster ride of the potentially-bipolar, oft-alcoholic television writer.

Unlike “suits”, who can point to their steady paychecks and flashy business cards to justify their existence, television writers are simply defined by whether they’re working or not working.  If it’s the former, then they’re poppin’ bottles at the club and brushing up on pedophile jokes for the writers’ room.  If it’s the latter, then they’re eating condiments as dinner entrees and telling family members that they’re working on a novel.  As a new writer, the insecurity of it all is a bit terrifying.  One person can think you’re great; another person can think you’re a flaming pile of feces.  Rejection in the writing world is commonplace.  You often hear that it’s not personal, it’s business… But when you’re the business, inevitably any rejection can make you feel like you’re one step away from homelessness/extinction.

Of course, it’s exhilarating to live a crazy, volatile, follow-your-ridiculous-dreams kind of life.  For now, I’m OK with the fact that my bipolar writerly life sometimes involves me eating ice cream in bed, watching House Hunters on repeat, and feeling like a failure.  But I’m banking on having more good days than bad ones.  And if that’s the case and all goes well, I’ll probably turn into a self-absorbed, self-involved, narcissistic prick with a marble statue.  I’m sorry.  Please don’t pee on my statue.

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Loving (Not) Having It All

Back in September 2008, I started this blog as an escape from the daily doldrums of the corporate world.  I originally began writing because, like many people just out of college, I didn’t know what I wanted to do.  The real world wasn’t charted out like the first 22 years of my life.  Before, I simply went from one school to the next.  Suddenly, on the cusp of college graduation, I was faced with a litany of decisions I had to make.  What city did I want to live in?  What career did I want to pursue?  What did I want to do with my life?

It was a great problem to have, yet I agonized over the decision: to follow the typical corporate path (finance > some cushy job > a life of picket fences and clam bakes) or to pursue some ridiculous, crazy, unclear, undetermined, unknown dream.  I wanted to have it all, but I was quickly realizing that I had to choose.

For 2+ years, I did the safe thing.  I worked at a big company in a glossy building with a stable salary.  I immersed myself in spreadsheets and statistical models, seeking refuge in the certainty of numbers.  And while this life was great, comfortable, and even enviable, I still yearned to do something different.  So throughout all of this, I wrote over 200 posts and 80,000+ words on this blog, covering topics ranging from Ryan Seacrest to friend feudalism to choosing between New York and LA.  I’d come home after long nights at work and write TV scripts.  I still held out hope for the undetermined dream.

And then it happened.  Last week, I got an offer to write for television.  It’s a small show on a small network, but it’s an opportunity to actually write words that will go on paper and then get on air.  So, on Tuesday, I quit my corporate job.  I waved goodbye to the glossy, black building, and I left behind the comfort of the safe and the known.

It’s somewhat terrifying to be heading off to the writers’ side, where there is no certainty, no tried-and-true formulas that can be applied like in the corporate world.   Yet, no one can ever have it all; at some point, we all have to choose.  And at least now, I feel like I’m much closer to answering the question of what I want to do with my life.

I have been incredibly lucky throughout the past three years, and I could not have done any of this without the support of my family, friends, and colleagues.  I suppose the theme of this blog must change, given that I’m no longer clawing my way out of the corporate world.  Still, I will continue to write on this site, rambling about grammar, technology, and growing old with cats… However, if you expect the quality of my posts to improve now that I’m a professional paid writer, please don’t hold your breath.  It’ll still be the same old drivel… unless I get this crap optioned for TV.

 

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Living in an Angsta’s Paradise

I have officially become a tortured artist.

I had never believed in that crap before.  To me, the “tortured artist” was an anachronistic idea that allowed angst-ridden weirdo-artists to swath themselves in alcohol, drugs, and sex addiction.  Were their lives really that hard?  I doubted it.  

Then, I moved out to LA in my vain attempt to break into the writing world.  In all my vanity, I  had decided that it would take me two years, tops, to break into the TV writing biz, get on a show, convince network execs to give me a deal, and then write comfortably from the cold, unhappy winters of the East Coast, corrupting the minds of the 18-49 demo with intellectualized, comedic, drivel. 

I’m only three months in, but I’m already behind on my very-unrealistic two-year plan.

And so, every afternoon, as I toil through a corporate job which pays the bill but doesn’t get me any closer to the so-called “dream” of writing, I have the following (highly-annoying) conversation with myself:

OK, let’s set the stage for this little discussion.  Topic: my quarterlife crisis.  Yes, again.  Fine, this isn’t really a quarterlife crisis, unless I live to 100 – so if you want, we can probably call it a 30%-life crisis.  Well… then again, by the time I die, everyone will be living past 100 (hey, hey, healthcare).  That would make for a really long Happy-Birthday-from-Smuckers segment on the Today Show. Network television will be gone by then anyway.  Okay.  Get back on track.  We’ll call it a quarterlife crisis.  Although, “crisis” is much too overdramatic: perhaps it’s more of a “dilemma”?

Back to my dilemma.  Not that I’m freaking out, but… What am I doing here?  Am I doing the right thing?  If I want to write, shouldn’t I just quit my job and write?  But, it’s good to have a job.  And it’s not like I’m sitting on an unlimited pile of money.  Could there be alternative options, between this corporate life and the peripatetic, never-employed existence as a writer? (Is it weird that of all the writers I’ve met, 99% are men who wear Coke bottle glasses? Not even exaggerating).  Would I be better suited for advertising / journalism / magazine editing / or even academia? Should I settle on an existence that could take me back to the East Coast? Because although I could kick it in LA for 2 years, I’m not sure how I’ll feel about it after that.

Maybe I should get an MFA.  Or an MBA.  Or maybe I should just start a routine of lying in fetal position every few hours to facilitate the osmotic transfer of ideas?  My friends all have legitimate jobs with workable hours and fat salaries and the promise of steady employment.  I could do that too, if I wanted.  But I don’t.  Or do I?  Maybe I just don’t know what I want.  (Heightened panic.)  What am I doing with my life??!?

Let’s watch Where Are They Now? Clips from The Biggest Loser.  That makes me feel better.  At least I’m not on the verge of a hypoglycemic coma.

I ate six cookies today.  Maybe I am…

Let’s get to the denouement.  I’m extraordinarily lucky.  I have options.  That might not seem like a good thing now, but in the long run, it is.  I just need to make up my mind and choose… choose the path I want to go down… — Why can’t I do it all??!?! — Calm down, crazy.  Keep doing what you’re doing.  Stay in your job, and continue to write on the side.  — Even if I’m only writing educational finance parodies to ‘80s music??? — Sure.  Because, one day, you’ll have a breakthrough.  And if not, then at least you’ve tried, and you won’t ever regret it.

— Are you sure I won’t regret not selling out earlier?  Because the time value of money says I’ll regret it. —

You nerd.

Yeah, you’re right.

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Random Thoughts on… Writing

I started writing at age six, with my short story “The Chilly Penguin”. My mother tacked it up on the refrigerator, with my drawing of a penguin, and dreams of a writing career took off. In elementary school, I wrote such masterpieces as “Ananse the Spider-Dog” and “Life or Death”. In those pieces, I admit the punctuation was a little hazy, the adjectives were limited to “scary” and “happy,” and the text suffered from phrases like “his eyes literally popped out of his head” (from “Life or Death,” age 12). But I kept on going.

In middle school, writing was just venting in the form of prose. While cleaning out my room a few years ago, I found a journal that I don’t remember keeping. On the cover, it said: “Keep Out. You are invading my privacy.” I felt like I was actually invading my own privacy when I started reading it, because my voice sounded so unfamiliar. Staying true to my OCD-ness, apparently I used to rate days on a graded scale (some things never change). I also kept my journal entries in sections. For example, every day I had the following sections to write about: events, guys, news, rating, crisis, quote to remember, reminders. I only kept the journal for 6 days though, because there were no entries after Tuesday, November 3: “Events/crisis: Mike asked me out online. Rating: 92.5 A.” A note from my friend Maura was also attached, folded into a paper football:

“Hey, what’s up? N2MH. I’m in History now and I just finished my test. I’m sure that u care!? I didn’t know what #16 or 17 (one of those) was. It was easy though. So whats happenin? anything new? Who do u like? Or is it still Sean…or who? U know the 2 people I like right? don’t tell anyone though cuz not a lot of people know. Only like u, Laurie, Danielle, Shauna, Steph, and Devon know…”

The note was signed: “WB, LYLAS, 26611” …I have no idea what 26611 means, but I’m glad that I left “LYLAS” behind in the ’90s.

Even though my unintelligible notes from middle school may have had something to do with it, the ultimate downfall in my writing ambition began in high school, with my ninth grade English teacher, Ms. Bailey. A large and commanding woman, Ms. Bailey instilled upon us the impervious system of punctuation and grammar. We studied only examples of flawless writing, where a ‘who’ was different from a ‘whom’ and abbreviations such as “they’re” and “it’s” were always written out in their long form: they are, it is. I could no longer end a sentence with a preposition. I could no longer put in dashes without counting the words in between the dashes (they must not exceed eight).

“You are high school writers now,” Ms. Bailey would say. “You are adults, and you are writing for adults. Where is your topic sentence!”

I also learned that in high school, there were many more rules for writing that weren’t written in The Elements of Style. Just like our dress code, which stipulated a no-jeans policy, the social code stipulated a no-emotional-crap policy about writing. People didn’t like reading about “my best friend” dogs or “and now she’s dead” grandmothers. The awkward silences during class made it evident that no one quite knew how to respond to Brian’s essay on his uncle’s debilitating illness. It felt wildly inappropriate to point out that he needed a better transition from his third paragraph to his fourth. After that, everyone wrote about happy things, like baseball games and carnivals. Like Ms. Bailey said, in high school, the adult audience was very particular.

It seemed that as I got older, writing became less about what I wanted, and more about what everyone else wanted. Frivolous days of writing about spider-dogs and cold, tuxedoed fowl were way in the past. Instead, the audience became the ultimate judge. “Serious” work was shunned in high school, then embraced in college. As a person first and a writer second, I could not help but be influenced by my readers’ expectations. I learned this the hard way when I passed in my first essay in college, which I titled “Shit Happens”. I felt that the title was rather meaningful, as I was analyzing Tim O’Brien’s experiences in the mud fields from The Things They Carried. However, the title was not so received well by the expository writing professor.

Rejected. Bad grade. Humiliation.

Ouch.

Throughout college, the inner writer in me died a bit. I forgot all the reasons why I started writing, and I went on to study economics and go into corporate finance instead. I’d like to think that my entrance into the finance world has singlehandedly ushered in the recent crisis, but I am probably giving myself too much credit (if only the markets could pick up some of this credit… Ha. Ha.).

In September, I started this blog with the intention of getting back into writing. Through the past few weeks, I’ve been going back and reading some of the writing I did when I was young, from old stories like “Life or Death,” to my middle school notes adorned with doodles of flowers. There is something about the pure, unadulterated voice that makes these pieces fun to read–it’s the knowledge that my writing then had been true, natural, and unfazed by matters of practicality and rules in writing and life in general. I wrote then simply to tell a story that I wanted to tell.

Today, the punctuation has become routine and easy, and the writing has become hard. I guess if you’re solely writing for the approbation of critics and professors then you forget why you started writing in the first place. So now, I’ve tried to take a different approach. I no longer worry about whether I used too many parentheses (though arguably, yes, I could cut down), or whether I threw in the litter too many clichés (is it a cliché to use a cliché to discourage clichés? Or is that irony?). I no longer worry about adhering to writing rules and expectations. I’ve learned from my ongoing, love-hate relationship with writing that I’d rather share with others those issues that matter most to me. I’d rather write for fun, for the pure enjoyment of telling a story I care about, because I want to.

I want to write about the smog in LA, the nightlife in New York, and my great, great hometown sports teams in Boston. I want to write about how strange I think parents are when they name their children after fruits. I want to write about chilly penguins, sweaty ostriches, uncensored mud fields, middle school dramas, and the achingly mundane world of accounting. I want to write about rising ambitions, falling stocks, my wavering opinions, my undetermined priorities, tacking stories up on the refrigerator, love, true love, ironic love, clichéd, sentimental love, love for people with good intentions, love for loving what you do, writing, imagining, constructing, creating, how I enjoy it all, and how much fun I have with all of it… this is what I want to write about, and this is why I started writing.

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