The Writing Life
Sit. Fidget. Jump up and get out in the world.
I've been avoiding writing about "The Writing Life" ever since I first heard those words about 10 years ago. When I hear them, I hear the voices of high school and college friends, of my uncles and my cousin Mark, who would have rolled their eyes and maybe punched me, gently, in the face, for even trying to weigh in on the subject.
They would say the phrase seems pretentious; it's pretentious to ponder the writing life, even more pretentious to write about it in a newspaper such as this one, with its history of doing the serious work of preserving our democracy.
By comparison, the writing life, at least as it concerns me, is not so interesting. I just re-watched "All the President's Men," which I do every year or so, and, every time, I marvel at how interesting Woodward and Bernstein's lives were at The Post, and how well the film explains the reporting process, its doggedness and randomness, and how great an excuse it is to get out in the world and ask every seemingly obvious question you can think of (What books did the man check out?), because you never know, you might bring down a government that has it coming.
When I watch that movie, I also think about how mundane my own "writing life" can be. For example, I'm putting together this essay, not in a bustling metropolitan newsroom, but in a shed in my backyard. I have a sheet draped over the shed's window because without it the morning sun would blast through and blind me. So I'm looking at a gray sheet, which is nailed to the wall in two places and sags in the middle like a big, gray smile. And the sheet is filthy. And the shed is filthy. If I left this place unoccupied for a week, it would become home to woodland animals. They probably would clean it up first.
And here is where I spend seven or eight hours at a stretch. Seven or eight hours each time I try to write. Most of that time is spent stalling, which means that for every seven or eight hours I spend pretending to write - sitting in the writing position, looking at a screen - I get, on average, one hour of actual work done. It's a terrible, unconscionable ratio.
This kind of life is at odds with the romantic notions I once had, and most people have, of the writing life. We imagine more movement, somehow. We imagine it on horseback. Camelback? We imagine convertibles, windswept cliffs, lighthouses. We don't imagine - or I didn't imagine - quite so much sitting. I know it makes me sound pretty naive, that I would expect to be writing while, say, skiing. But still. The utterly sedentary nature of this task gets to me every day. It's getting to me right now.
And so I have to get out of the shed sometimes.
One thing I do to get out is teach a class on Tuesday nights. Back in 2002, I co-founded a place in San Francisco called 826 Valencia, which does everything from after-school tutoring to field trips, publishing projects and advanced writing classes for kids from age 6 to 18. For the last eight years I've taught a class, made up of about 20 high school students from all over the Bay Area, and together we read stories, essays and journalism from contemporary periodicals - from the Kenyon Review to Bidoun to Wired. From all this reading we choose our favorite stuff, and that becomes a yearly anthology called "The Best American Nonrequired Reading."
Sometimes we read things that are okay. Sometimes we read things that we find important in some way - that we learn from, but that don't particularly get us all riled up. And sometimes we read something that just astounds and grabs and makes its way into the bones of everyone in the class. A couple Tuesdays ago someone on the teaching committee picked up a journal called Gulf Coast, published out of the University of Houston, and he found a story called "Pleiades," by Anjali Sachdeva.
None of us had read this author before, so we read her story without any expectations. But one page into it, I thought, Man, this is a great writer. This is something different. This shows great command, wonderful pacing. The story - about septuplet sisters conceived via genetic manipulation - could have been told in a thousand terrible ways, but she's managing to make it sing. In the story, after the initial triumph of conception, the sisters begin to die, one by one, leaving Del, the narrator, alone and forced to choose between awaiting her fate or taking control of her destiny. The story seemed to me some kind of small masterpiece, and I hoped the class felt the same. But I knew to temper my hopes; often I love something and the kids think I'm nuts. This time, though, I didn't have to wait long to know I wasn't alone.
Gabby, who takes an hour-long subway ride from East Oakland every week to come to this class, was leaning forward, waiting to speak, practically holding her copy to her heart. Describing what she loved about it, she made an impassioned speech about connectivity, about the limits of science, about Del's search for a more human, even humble, path, and what this means to her, to us all.
Nick, who had brought his own little sister to class, was floored by the ending - how, in the final act, the protagonist reclaimed a life both made possible and doomed by science. At the end of the class, when we voted Yes, No or Maybe, all the hands said Yes and I went home feeling electric about the possibility of the written word. I don't need to be reminded of it all that often - I'd just read Philip Roth's "The Humbling," and holy hell, that guy, even at 76, can still write something so ferocious, kinky, horribly depressing and yet full of the manic mess of life! - but truthfully, any reminder helps. When you spend eight hours in a shed to get a few hundred words down, you need every bit of inspiration you can get. And the best place to find inspiration, for me at least, is to see the effect of great writing on the young. Their reactions can be hard to predict, and they're always brutally honest, but when they love something, their enthusiasm is completely without guile, utterly without cynicism.
And I thought, okay, the writing life - damn that phrase - it doesn't have to be romantic. It can be workmanlike, it can be a grind, and it can take years to make anything of any value. But if, at the end of it all, there's a Gabby who holds the words to her heart and rides the subway through the night, back to Oakland, thinking of what those words on a page did to her, then the work is worth doing.