Wednesday, September 13, 2006

 

In Which You May Be Sorry You Asked...


Wow, what a bunch of great questions! And--woo-hoo!--instant blog topics for me. Why didn't I think of this sooner?

I'll tell you why: a good journalist needs just one quality and that's curiosity. But no one said anything about being the object of curiosity. It's odd, you know? Like being on the other side of the mirror.

But I asked for it, didn't I? And I need to write something for you tonight, as I'll be out of commission for the rest of the week. Turns out I'm going to be sequestered at a magazine brainstorming, the first we've had in a long while. I love brainstorming and miss it awful, so going to this will feel a bit like, I don't know, going on a school field trip. A school field trip where I have to journey into the city and find the private club to which the magazine has a membership, and where we'll be using one of the club's conference rooms. Which all sounds very swish, until you realize I'll be trapped in a room for 6-10 hours for the next few days, elbow to sweaty elbow with my fellow department heads and my bosses, all of whom will be expecting me to perform, to invent beautiful, compelling, National Magazine Award-winning story ideas at the drop of a hat. And I'll be wearing a jacket and tie the whole time (club rules). On the other hand, there'll be free lunch, and the men's room uses the better kind of ammonia puck in the urinals, so there's that.

Meanwhile, a few answers are forthcoming and, oh, here they are now. I've taken questions in no particular order, by the way. Which means if I skipped yours, I probably only skipped it today, and fully intend to come back to it. Some time.


Scruffy? What the--?


Oh, it's just stupid. Remember last winter when I decided to grow a beard? Well, you may recall that during that post I shared an embarrassing experience from high school, in which one of the priests (I went to Catholic high school. Four year of, well, sitting elbow to sweaty elbow with my fellow sufferers, while wearing a jacket and tie the whole time, now that I think of it) didn't believe that I had shaved before school. It was a requirement of the male students to be clean-shaven--just like Jesus--and he was sure I was lax, so I had to bring my razor to school and shave in front of him during homeroom so that he could check my stubble that afternoon and see for himself that my beard grew at the rate of a hirsute 30-year-old. The dink.

Anyway, a girl in my class named Gina--yes that Gina--loved to tease me about this incident and saddled me with the nickname Scruffy, a nickname only she used, by the way. I'm just one of those guys to whom nicknames do not stick. I don't know why, but it's always been that way. People have tried to use diminutives of my name, but only a very few--and usually only family members or very close friends--ever actually manage it. Most people end up using my whole long-ass first name. Sometimes they even use my whole name--first and last--when addressing me. It's very odd.

Aren't you sorry you asked?


Whassup with that secret ID, man?


Several of you asked about this, but in lots of different ways. Probably the best way to come at this is by answering Stu's question:

No, having a secret identity is NOT as much fun as you think. It's actually an awful lot of work. So why keep it up? Well, for one thing, the 20 or so people who have thus far uncovered it on their own would kill me if I told the rest of you (and since they now know who I am and where I live, they'd be in a pretty good position to do so, wouldn't you say?). It may not be all fun and games, but I will say this: It is occasionally very useful to be someone else. If you don't believe me, you haven't tried it yourself (and I heartily urge you to do so in the near-future). I wish I could give you a better answer, but that's pretty much the guts of it.


How didja get there?


Not surprisingly, there were lots of questions about my writing life, many of which I will answer in greater detail as the year progresses and I revive my Resume series to tell you all about the early days of my life as a Magazine Man. But Thimbelle phrased her query in a way I couldn't ignore: How do I know I'm a writer?

I know because I did something that's very hard for some people to do, especially people who are just out of the gate and think they might be bound for a life in letters: I made up my mind to stop being a WRITER.

Right. Confusing. I know.

But see, it's two different things, being a writer and being a WRITER. For years and years and years I was a WRITER (say it with a dramatic, deep, operatic voice, and maybe with an exclamation on the end), and I was insufferable. Not very good at it either.

My life as a WRITER went like this: I'd get an assignment, or come up with an idea, then I'd go to research it, and find myself turning on the WRITER when I got there. Or if I was in a circumstance that suddenly turned interesting, I would with equal suddenness turn on the WRITER and start taking notes in my head. And my notes were all over the place: I tried to take in every detail about what the room was like, what the people were wearing, what the quality of the light was like--endless minutia that sounded awfully important in my head but, really, was not writing so much as cataloguing. To make it worse, sometimes I would jot it all down in an important-looking WRITER's notebook--usually a Moleskine--and look owlish and thoughtful and important while I did it. That way, if someone asked me what I was doing, I could tell them, owlishly, thoughtfully, importantly, "I'm WRITING."

But you know what? Most of the stuff I wrote when I was a WRITER was absolute crap. Self-impressed copy staggering under the weight of too much detail, ultimately culminating in several thousand words about nothing. I had pages and pages of subject matter, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a single idea, a single original thought in any of that verbiage.

That's because for me, the act of transforming myself into the WRITER was just that: an act. I realized--and fairly late, if you want to know the truth--that fancying that I morphed into a WRITER at certain times was nothing more than pretense, and enervating pretense at that. I spent so much time and effort becoming a WRITER, I often missed what it was I came to write about.

Real writers, I came to realize (and not without help), don't go from becoming an ordinary person into some sort of extraordinary WRITER being. You're either a writer or you're not. If you, whatever it is that makes you a writer is on all the time. And if you're not, then you're just a WRITER, six letters worth not much more than a Scrabble score.

Eventually, I reached a bit of a crisis point where I had to decide if I was a writer or just a WRITER, if writing was something I was, or if it was just another identity I adopted, as false and as gaudy as a Halloween mask.

So, with no small amount of hesitation, I made a few changes.

For starters, I stopped taking Moleskines--or most any kind of notebook--to places where I was supposed to be absorbing impressions (obviously, for things like press conferences, or any place that matters of fact were being imparted, I took notes. That's basic reporting, not writing, and it’s something entirely different). If I met a person with an unusual viewpoint or occupation or arrangement of features, the WRITER was no longer there to self-consciously--and self-importantly--record his impressions. Instead, I made a deliberate choice to interact with the person, as myself, as MM. I talked. I listened. I gave that person all the attention I used to devote to being the WRITER.

Later, after the moment was over, after I'd digested what had happened, I wrote down what I thought of the experience. Instead of trying to write it like a WRITER might, I tried to recount what happened as I, MM, saw it. The easiest, most natural way to do it--and it's a method I still employ today--was to write it in the form of a letter to a friend, someone close, someone who already knew what an odd, wonderful, brilliant guy I was, someone I didn't need to impress, someone who neither needed nor wanted any convincing that I was a WRITER. After I wrote the letter, I'd set it aside for a bit--sometimes an hour, sometimes a day. Then I'd come back to it and see if I'd actually had anything to say. Turned out I did, but it was nothing the WRITER would have ever come up with.

That's how I knew I was there. That's how I knew I was a writer. And it wasn't a choice, really. It just...was.

And now, see, a bunch of you are scratching your heads, thinking What the hell is he talking about?

But hey, you asked.

I'll answer some more when I get back. Feel free to keep the questions coming.

Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead


Comments:
I'm very glad they asked, actually.

I wrote a (fairly poor) novel during National Novel Writing Month last year, during which I told many people I was writing a novel, and it was only when I finished it that I realised that it wasn't actually a very good story at all. It fizzled out without any particular ending.

I like your explanation of the difference between a WRITER and a writer, and I like to think that my blog reflects my ability as a writer, while my book reflects my inability as a WRITER.

Leastways, I hope so. If not, then I haven't got the gift at all. :)

One who listens.
 
Excellent explanation! I laugh because I think I stumbled upon being a writer (not a WRITER) simply because I wrote something for a professional publication my dad edits. He didn't have time to do it, so I did it, and his boss's LOVED it, so I'll be doing more. I felt like it was more of a 10th grade term paper, but oh well!
 
That's one of your gifts MM, giving an understandable visual descriptive to a process, and having it make perfect sense! Not to mention, making it look soooo easy too.

I'm curious - did you ever get an apology from the dink priest when he was proved wrong? I'll be you just got a turned up nose and a HUMPH!
 
Good answers so far, looking forward to more.

Writing is a hobby to me, not the sort of thing I intend to make a career out of or any money really. So, because of that, I think the all-important sense of WRITER hasn't ever really taken hold of me. Just the same, however, I have allowed myself to get bogged down in details from time to time.

My blog which I started a few months ago presented a challenge in creativity which helped to limit such bogging details though. I write short stories, a thousand words or less, based on some random stock photograph I happened to choose (seems like a contradictory statement but it's true). I still have a long way to go before I'm anywhere near where I want to be but I'm working on it and I think I'm making progress :-)
 
I totally get the difference between writer and WRITER.

Before I chose the career of full-time father, I chose the career of full-time writer. I wrote cover stories for a bi-weekly mag in The Valley. My assignments were given with very little notice, and consisted of "We need 4,000 words on the latest non-traditional fitness trends, and we need it in three days."... Whee! The only way to get it done was to be a writer, to call a bunch of people and have real world conversations with them, and then write my article as though I were having a real world conversation with the reader. There are other writing strategies, but that one works for me. Now if only parenting were as easy!
 
I think your explanation is marvelous, MM. I understood the distinction between the two immediately. Thank you.
 
On how you know you're a writer: I love that answer.

The difference between being present and cataloging details is one I understand well. I've felt it more acutely when photographing; sometimes that process usurps the experience of being somewhere.

I still dig my Moleskines though. I'm sure it'd be safe to bet that all my notes combined would be sparse compared to yours. ;)
 
What is your favorite thing that you've ever written? Your wife's favorite? And, if neither is a blog post, what's your favorite blog post that you've written?
 
I think one nickname stuck, asswipe, right BB?

I think I remember the story about the priest and the beard (sounds like a set up for a joke put that way).
 
And now, see, a bunch of you are scratching your heads, thinking What the hell is he talking about?

No, see, I know what you're talking about. And it's comforting to know that you went through a WRITING crisis, too.
 
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