I don’t typically struggle for writing topics. Nor do I often find myself without something at least distracting to say. But I used to feel a seize of fear in my chest when I sat down to write. It felt a little like being shot with a pong pong ball, and it would happen as soon as I tried to sort out my thoughts.
I was afraid that I’d manifest whatever I wrote.
The idea must have come from an R.L. Stine story I read when I was a kid. I should amend this by explaining that R.L. Stine was strictly off-limits in my home because his work was “too scary.” I didn’t find this to be the case. Clive Barker is too scary for kids, and that I know because I used to read his stuff at the library when I was about eleven. But R.L. Stine? He was the Stephen King of my seventh grade classroom. (Apologies to Mr. King, if you’re reading. Please sign my cast; I got it punching a dude for badmouthing you.) And the Goosebumps masterpiece about the typewriter that transformed the written word into reality wasn’t exactly horrifying. It just…stuck. Like a piece of gum between a molar and a capped tooth.
In fact, I started using this idea for gain before I became afraid of it. I was early in high school when I started featuring the same girl in every story. You know the age. Oh, she’d look different, have a different name. Different superpowers, because I was a teenager and I was obsessed with superpowers. But her voice was always the same, sassy and devil-may-care and brash. And she always ended up being best best best best best friends with the first-person narrator. I had a crush. Not on the character, although considering the success of Stephanie Meyers’s sparkly vamps, maybe I should have considered it. No, my crush was on the model for my Mary Sue, another girl who was in my English class and who I really barely knew.
Writing her into my life kind of worked for a minute. We ended up in a sort of long, meaningful staredown between bells, more a glower than a smoldering gaze of desire, but still. It was eye contact! Sustained, no less. Then the glare of love ended, and we never interacted again. Yet even at fifteen, I was an optimist. Ten percent of my desire had come to fruition! Even if I could manifest a fraction of what I wrote, I was clearly possessed of extreme power.
Thus I embarked upon my mission to get everything I ever wanted through the power of hyperbole. I wrote down my most profound desires and super-sized them by a factor of ten. The first-person narrator became the smartest person in the world. The first person narrator acquired fifteen superpowers in a single lightning strike. The first person narrator traveled to the edge of the universe and defeated first the Devil, then God, in separate climactic sword fights. The first person narrator met another best best best best best friend, this one sweeter and kind of a gossip, who had a weird habit of getting attacked by undead pirates or space pirates or psychic pirates or what have you. Pirates were big at the time. Then the FPN would swoop in and save her. Although the FPN always succeeded, the gossip just kept on getting caught. The FPN swooped in again. And again. And again. There were rewards for this, but I wasn’t old enough to really know what those would be so I just strongly implied that they would be the best best friend rewards ever.
Then the gossip moved away.
So FPN met a lanky field hockey player who joined her in her escapades. Oh the escapades they had! The FPN and the athlete fighting the alien hordes side by side, double-handedly liberating entire oppressed planets!
Then the athlete met a boy. Who I loathed. Of course. Though briefly tempted to work my wrath upon him with my pen, it came to mind that the athlete would probably be miserable as a result and I abandoned the entire idea before I’d even begun.
While this pattern was frustrating re:available interesting girls, I saw no indication that my strategy wasn’t otherwise sound. I was progressing through the belt system of my karate studio, for example. I wasn’t exactly ready to fence with and slay God, but I also wasn’t bad in the sparring ring.
As I got older, my concerns changed. I still wanted to get the girl, but I started to run into endings that I couldn’t tie up. What happened after the FPN and her winsome best x5 friend went home hand in hand? Were their parents chill with their sixteen-year-old daughters being besties x5? would it be cool to hold hands in school? I really didn’t know. I was afraid to stop writing in case the stories crashed and burned once I’d put down my pen, and I was afraid to keep writing in case I had to get 10% of a good outcome and 90% of a crappy one. What’s 10% of a held hand?
At this point, I was faced with the morbid possibility that I might have to write my life in grand form forever. What would happen if, having taken control of my fate in this abstract manner, I suddenly just dropped the joystick and let it have its head? Would it fizzle like a video game, or would it careen to its doom like an airplane?
My stories got more outlandish as I ran out of ideas for what I wanted to do. New girls appeared and they fought with the old ones, many of whom I couldn’t get rid of because they had become friends. I also wasn’t sure what would happen to my ex-crushes if I shuffled them out of the plot. Would they fall into some kind of void? It was either keep them in or face my feelings for them, and that was an increasingly obscure and difficult storyline. There was no good way to resolve the women in my life because, frankly, I never gave them a chance to resolve themselves. It was weirdly terrifying that I might have been a character in some of their own sympathetic endeavors. Better to get my FPN involved with someone less problematic.
So within a year at college, I had the inevitable unproblematic boyfriend. Let me clarify: I still pined after women. But I was determined to get the story into an easer track. Here’s where I made my mistake, the mistake that all magical writers eventually make: I started rewriting myself to fit the plot. I’d forgotten to write the FPN – a critical layer of security, in case you want to try this at home; FPNs contain safety valves that don’t allow a characterization to affect your own innate properties – and had begun to perform an Escher-esque feat of editing that was both painful and nowhere near healthy. I recast the character known as “me” into a devoted heterosexual sidekick in a plot whose outcomes focused less on adventure and heroics and more on…well, on the ideas and interests of the new main character. It had to be that way. For the plot to work.
At the same time, I got this crazy idea that all would be well if I could just not be the dyed-in-the-wool freak that I felt I was. Success hinged on staying extremely still and not upsetting anyone. That meant that I couldn’t do a lot of talking. Since I talk when I think, that meant that I couldn’t do a lot of thinking. I dumbed down my classes and skipped anything that looked hard. I avoided developing a personal sense of sartorial flair. I wrote to formula on homework, but at night, I was a demon of over-the-top order and regimentation codified in massive columnary feats of wordsmithing. My boyfriend, poor man, was my main prop. I had no ambition anymore except to be a cog, a forgettable member of the discard pile that took up space as inoffensively as possible until death. But that ambition was huge. It went so hard against my personality that the effort to conjure it was monolithic.
The gears began to grind. I was stretching the fabric of reality and my own sanity, and my soul squeezed out like water from a rag. My fingers flew over the keyboard to make it right, and my efforts got weirder and weirder. I turned into a dragon and so did he, because there couldn’t be a me without a him to keep me from the me who wasn’t enjoying this. I died and my angry ghost possessed a volcano that could never blow up because he was Pompeii and everyone I loved lived there. Ideas started hitting me like bugs on a windshield – or maybe more like windshields on a bug. Babies in the road. Busses slowly crushing my rib cage. Tiny women in cocktail dresses climbing the walls of my dorm room as they hissed at me malevolently. And all the while me laughing, smiling, insisting that I WAS FINE and HAVING FUN and THIS WAS GOOD. I wrote faster. I wrote all night, in secret, deleting and rewriting again and again and again.
The crash came hard, and with it came the consequences. But it also destroyed the chassis of the life I’d written, and I’ll always be grateful for that. Any half-decent witch will tell you that it’s harder to undo magic like this than it is to do it in the first place. I didn’t undo it so much as it broke into a billion pieces, leaving me to start over. If ever there was such a thing as a lucky break, this was it.
It took a year for me to write again, and when I did, I wrote product summaries of flip phones for $10 a pop. Then I did some spot grammar editing for administrators at my grad school. A few words about a used Toyota. Someone’s annulment petition. I didn’t really consider writing writing. Fiction was obviously out of the question. I wasn’t even willing to go in for third person after the previous debacle. Not memoir, because I was concerned that I’d accidentally change stuff. Even a ten percent shift in something that’s already happened could be catastrophic. I even managed to date a little. Eventually. Cautiously. Carefully. Not gonna lie: It was a little scary feeling like I had no control. But how much had I ever?
Ten years later, I sit in front of a screen filled with some of the most personal information I’ve published in years. It’s not quite magical. I’ve worked in several layers of protection based on some basic spellwork, some Strunk & White, and some old Burroughs lectures. I think it’ll be all right. For those of you who came here for more cookies, well. Sometimes even cookies are tough to chew. You probably know about that. Who hasn’t tried a little storytelling sympathy in their lives? Who hasn’t been burned by it?
If ten percent of what I write from now on comes true, let it be this: magic never gives you what you don’t already have. So work that cosmic energy in your head, don’t read too much into it, and take a deep breath. You’ll never kill God, but you can probably take out a few demons.
As though hit by a blast from a giant hair dryer, my hometown of Somerville is melting. The snow is first to go, but I can’t help but notice how much of the infrastructure is crumbling, too. Roads, for example, which have developed some truly impressive potholes. The front steps of our apartment building, which have buckled under the weight of the snow. Sidewalks. Small dogs that have been stuck in snowdrifts for months, surviving only because batty old ladies bring them kibble whenever the constant blinding snowstorm abates. I do believe that ice may be all that’s keeping some of this stuff together. (Especially the dogs, who have adjusted to their new existence and would be traumatized by release.)
My guess is that this summer will be at least as ridiculously overwrought as this winter has been. Some junk science and a horde of squalling liberal fascists suggest that we now live on a planet of constant meteorological opera. But, as Nostrodamus once said, that’s bullshit. What is opera to me? I don’t even speak Italian.
In other news, today I pick up our first farm share of…THE SPRING. It will include beets and carrots and rosemary and apples and a bunch of other stuff that I will cram into the slow cooker tonight while I read another book for Sidekicks, write another article for ForeWord, whip up a library-themed article for to enter a competition, finally catch up on my work for No Flying No Tights, and blast into the upper atmosphere with the sheer power of my awesome. And, of course, I’ll catalog about a million books before all that. No biggie.
It always seemed like a minor miracle that I’d made it onto the bus, even though I typically showed up twenty minutes before ETA and it normally arrived half an hour late. Squished into a window seat with my backpack and whatever gear I’d decided to haul along that day, I’d watch the empty glass hut right where I’d just been standing outside, half expecting to see myself still waiting there, oblivious to the presence of the bus. Eventually, the noise of the giant metal engine would rise with shuddering effort, straining against inertia like a bull against a yoke. The view outside the window would slowly begin to scroll away. It would accelerate until it was just a rhythm of telephone poles zipping past, each embedded in a humanless rural landscape. The effect was almost abstract. The poles framed stretches of flat green – cornfields – and high, dark, shadowed green – stands of trees. Every once in a while, when we passed a house, a riot of color broke the pattern like crayon on a wall.
The rumble of the bus’s engine was dangerously gentle and quieting. Over an hour and a half of rolling, hilly country roads and the maternal back-and-forth swaying of the bus in motion, I fought sleep and frequently lost. I’d find myself jarred back to wakefulness by infrequent, apparently random stops to pick up people who waited outside of abandoned garages and veterinarians’ offices. These interruptions in our journey always occurred in a location so surrounded by forest and devoid of habitation that I wondered if the new passengers were just living in the woods. How did they know that a bus would stop outside of the old weigh station at the corner of Route 5 and Stanton Road? How did the bus know that someone would be there, eager dollars clutched in hand, waiting to be installed in a seat and transported away from the middle of this blank green nowhere and borne off to a place that might or might not prove more useful to their purposes?
I would leave the bus when it arrived in my home city, clumping heavily down the corrugated steps and squeezing my enormous backpack out through the narrow door. I never quite believed I’d pulled the miracle off until I was back in my tiny, bedbug-infested white rented room on Petit Street. With the door shut, I’d collapse on my specked bed among the hidden hordes of parasites. Only then did I allow myself to relax, to shake, to sob with the certainty that today I would miss my ride home.
Despite everything else that happened, I never did.
In preparation for the assured failure of my New Year’s resolutions, I am performing a death-defying NaNoWriMo this year. As I did last year. I like to pregame my holiday distraction rituals. This time, I’ve given myself a bit more of a margin for success by doing up a novel that I’ve already started to write.
Its working title is “God is a Rubber Ducky.” I sincerely hope that I’ll think of a better one before the whole thing is through. It’s about how God accidentally incarnates as a rubber duck because he’s too out of touch to realize that it’s not the real thing. As a result, he gets a front-row seat to the reactions of Earth inhabitants to his Heavenly policies. Yes, I might be on a God kick at the moment. What can I say? He’s a bastard but he’s a damn funny bastard. Like Archie Bunker. In addition, I’m a lifelong recovering Catholic who is kind of thrilled that a giant perfect man isn’t hanging out in the sky, itemizing my mistakes. THAT is why God gets to be a rubber ducky in my story.
So far, I have a pretty bitchin’ beginning and a pretty awesome end, but getting from one to the other has been a bit of a trick. God’s immobile, you know, since rubber ducks are incapable of movement. The angels look for him but they either can’t find him or they “can’t find him”, if you know what I mean. He’s got to live through half a century of U.S. history without turning into a divine version of Forrest Gump. It’s going to have to get pretty weird.
Recently, I realized that my personal meterstick of success is whether or not you write. This is sort of a jarring epiphany. It explains too much too accurately. I voted for Obama because his book turned out to be a better story than Romney’s did. I think Atul Gawande is a great doctor because he happens to have written several books. He probably sucks as a surgeon, but what do I care? Everything I know about sawbones comes from the podcast. Gawande’s got books! And they’re pretty good! Sign me up for surgery, doc! Take anything that looks unused.
This attitude opens up a number of worrying vulnerabilities. Hell, I just elected for open-option surgery, and I’m not sure I wasn’t serious. Taking candy from babies doesn’t begin to describe it. If a hedge fund manager had a book, I’d probably hand over my life savings without batting an eyelash.
What I can’t decide is if this delusion is some kind of internal construct fabricated by my brain to convince me that I’m at the top of the social food chain. Probably. I must be an expert if I write so much. But the fallout is just not sustainable. I can’t go giving my wallet to every pickpocket with a Cracked article. Part of the problem being that I don’t have a wallet, having nothing to put within it viz the public service job and moonlit writing gig.
On the other hand, suppose I did have a wallet. We’re walking down the street, me and my wallet, having a great time together, when suddenly a hedge fund manager and a pickpocket spring out of the bushes. The pickpocket says, “give me your wallet! I have a Cracked article!” The hedge fund manager says, “no, give ME your wallet! My book is on the New York Times Bestselling Business Hardcover Nonfiction List!” Who do I give my wallet to? The hedge fund manager, obvs. He has more write-fu. His write-fu-ness overpowers the pickpocket, who leaves in shame.
Now suppose that I had written a New York Times bestselling book, too. The pickpocket has no chance even if he’s alone because my write-fu overcomes his. He slinks away, dejected. However, what of the hedge fund manager?
“My book is nonfiction! That takes technical expertise,” he growls.
“Well my book is about polka dotted dragons and requires imagination,” I retort.
“Mine’s read by adults!”
“I’ve got the teen market!”
“Mine’s about real problems!”
“Mine’s good for mental health!”
“My editor is better!”
“I publish on my merits and not my brand as a TV personality!”
At this, the hedge fund manager reels, his puffy, veiny red face approaching critical blood pressure levels. Soon, his eyes explode and he runs off, howling. My wallet and I, hopefully not too badly splattered, continue to walk down the street.
The only problem with this scenario is that I have not yet written a New York Times Besteller and therefore continue to be vulnerable to exploitation by other writers. I’ve decided that I need to repair this state of affairs as soon as possible. Meanwhile, however, I’ll need to be clever. I wonder what I’d need to pay Dennis LeHane to be my bodyguard.
Recently, I wrote a blog for my employer, Wilmington Memorial Library. I realized that it was growing by 100 pageviews per month, not because it was unique or stellar, but because I was posting every damn day. Yahtzee! Why am I not doing this in my very own life? I asked. Why am I not utilizing my writerly talents to absorb the adulation of the throbbing masses?
I could come up with no answer, so I decided to pick up on Strange Days again. As I have little to talk about at the moment, I will talk about music.
Right now, I am listening to Treats by Sleigh Bells. I fucking love Sleigh Bells and I don’t care what that says about my personality, taste, or prospects. I have a fiancee who loves me despite Sleigh Bells, a family who tolerates me even when I insist on liking Sleigh Bells, and readers like you who might even, possibly, also enjoy Sleigh Bells. Treats is currently my very favorite Sleigh Bells song. I don’t know why. I don’t care enough to navel-gaze about it. It’s just a hardcore song that makes me feel like a badass. Here’s the music video. Maybe you can figure it out.