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Tuesday, November 17, 2015

THE WRITING LIFE


Happy anniversary to me, happy anniversary to me...

It's been twenty years since I decided to become a writer, give or take. Actually my foray into fiction began with an aborted attempt at a novel when I was 21. That was back in '94, which would make this my 21st anniversary. So I've come of age. Not really. Twenty years, twenty one, who is counting years when the pages pile up so much faster!

That first novel was inspired by my relationship with then-girlfriend Isabella. We had met my senior year of high school and began dating in college. As part of the wooing process I promised to pen a novelized version of our courtship dating back to high school, with some dramatic twists for effect, and maybe some poetic embellishments. Not that her character needed many. Isabella was a foreign-born heir to a fortune with a wastrel father who had introduced his children to street drugs before they were old enough to see a PG movie unattended. I took a leave of absence from UCLA, where I was a third year undergraduate, major still undeclared, to watch our love bloom and hopefully to write about it. Ten pages into this romance novel I give the manuscript to Isabella who throws it back in my face.

"I do not like how my character is portrayed," she says. "Start over."

I never do. Instead I go back to school to finish my degree. BA, history, class of '95 thanks very much. I decided against an English major since English literature doesn't do it for me. I can't understand Shakespeare, and the thought of having to wade through Milton and Chaucer and Donne and whoever else's name appears in Norton's Anthology made my creativity shrivel to a stub. History was the quickest way to a college degree (read: to please my parents with a college degree) and so I took it. And history did involve writing numerous essays, so life wasn't entirely devoid of my passion.

But the business of pleasing others is exhausting and unsung, and after that failed first novel I began to wonder if fact-based fiction was for me. Or if Isabella was for me. Sure enough, we break up before the year is done, and afterwards my writing gets a second wind. I begin writing poetry, mostly about love. How many a poet heartbreak has inspired! And sometimes I write about sex. But mostly about love. Each poem was like a puzzle. The words were pieces (handpicked by me) which I then needed to fit together in such a way to conform to meter and rhyme scheme. If my poem made any sense that was icing on the cake. All great writers write for themselves. I wasn't great, but my efforts usually pleased me.

My love is like the grape-filled vine that grows stronger each day, began one poem. You turn the grapes into fine wine to chase my thirst away. Nice, right? Rather sing-songy, but nice.

After graduation I set about becoming a writer in earnest this time. This was the fall of '95. Twenty years it's been since then. I began by "career" by reading some Greek classics. Homer and the tragedians. Then I took a stab at reading the dictionary. You know, to familiarize myself with every word in the English language. Don't all writers do that? Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary became the tool of my trade. I didn't get very far. I think I made it midway through the letter A. To the word alcoholic, to be exact. And I was well on my way to becoming one. I couldn't bring myself to write a word of anything without first having half a bottle of red wine. You know, to get the creative juices flowing. A tequila shot followed by a beer became another favorite. Or a gin martini. (Three olives, dirty.) Most of what came out of my pen was a sort of slobbering on the page. So much for writing while shit-faced. But at least the pages were filling up. Longhand, journal writing mostly. About what I had planned for the day. We all must begin somewhere.

I made a second stab at that novel based on romance past, with Isabella and I becoming twins separated at birth who reunite in young adulthood and fall in love with each other only to learn that our love is forbidden both by God and by man. What can I say, I had been influenced by the Greek dramatists, who always have a reversal and recognition up their sleeve. Standard elements of the plot, these. Again I couldn't get past the first chapter.

So I filled my life up with distractions. I found a girlfriend, another former schoolmate. I got a job as a host at Arnold Schwarzenegger's restaurant in Venice Beach. And I turned my attention to screenwriting. Because hey, screenplays are only 90 pages, and on each page there's a lot of blank space. It's all dialogue, brother. Dialogue can't be so hard. I mean, I've been talking most of my life, right? And so I tried writing a screenplay. About twins. One good, one evil. And the end of the world. The plan was to use my connection at the restaurant to get the script to Arnold, who would play both parts. If only he'd read it. If only I could finish it! Again I shelved the unfinished work. Starting a script easy. Finishing one, not so much.

Spring gives way to summer, and I need to cleanse my life. So the gal pal and I part ways, and I quit my job so I can devote myself full-time to writing. I move out of the house to get away from my two rambunctious brothers and take up residence in a guest room with three even more rambunctious friends. Around this time my brother is diagnosed with cancer, which only fans my flame. I figure if Justin can get blind-sided by terminal illness, so can anyone, so can I, and if I don't know how many days left on this Earth remain to me, I better enjoy the ones I have. So no more planning for a long life with a spouse and 2.4 kids. No more procrastinating. Now is the time to finish what I start. And so I rework my screenplay, change the title, alter the plot, and with the help of a buddy of mine get it into the hands of Arnold's agent. Nothing comes of it. Though the following year a movie does come out with my screenplay's title (Armageddon), but the plots are dissimilar. And two years after this Arnold appears in a movie about the end of the world (End of Days), but it wasn't my idea. The film involved the devil, a character I hadn't thought to include in my apocalyptic scenario. Woulda coulda shoulda.

There is a learning curve to this writing thing, I find. The more you do, the better you get. So several screenplays follow in swift succession. I experiment with genres. Comedy. Fantasy. Horror. Independent. Erotica. I vary the lengths of scripts and the time it takes to write them. I use a legal pad for one, a word processor for the next. I write a movie in three weeks. Nothing happens with any of them. So I turn my attention back to the novel. I take a pleasure trip to Brazil, have a lot of fantastic experiences, decide I must write a novel based on these experiences, so I rent a room in Rio and do just that. Finally I finish my novel, even get it into the hands of a few literary agents, and to this day the manuscript gathers dust on my shelf. Writing is the easy part. It's selling what you write that's not that exactly. And I'm not much for networking. Instead I write and live, live and write. I become a student of life, thrusting myself into every situation I can find. Traveling, doing drugs, working odd-jobs, relating to people, in bars, chat rooms, parks and pubs. In markets, bookstores, in video stores and on subways. Because it's all just material. So is the booze that goes down my throat in ever-increasing amounts. But boozing comes with the territory, right? Caution to the wind, fly by the seat of the pants is the life of the writer. Hemingway. Joyce. Fitzgerald. Bukowski. Faulkner. Kerouac. Capote. Poe. Williams. O. Henry. Chandler. Thomas and Thompson. Lushes the lot of them. All men. And now me. You know what they say about perseverance. Do it or die trying, and writing was killing me!

I get a job teaching high school, and get serious with another girl. I read tons, novels mostly, but also screenplays. And I actually make it through the dictionary. American Heritage. One thousand pages. Six pages a day took me about nine months. To the dictionary I add a thesaurus and a rhyming dictionary as part of my armamentarium. I experiment with all forms of prose. The short story, novella. Essays. Letters. Other novels and screenplays follow. Topsy Turvy becomes a Hollywood hit two years after I write a screenplay bearing the same name. Only the movie bears no resemblance to my own work. Is this as close to success as I am destined to get, seeing my title on the screen, but not my name or content? Too bad titles can't be copyrighted or I'd have a nest egg by now. And I watch as a friend of a friend writes a spec screenplay that sells for a million dollars and is a commercial and critical success, then he goes on to write another blockbuster before getting a chance to direct. But his dad was a megastar, so he had an in, and the film he directed was a major flop. There's always a catch.

But I know better than to compare myself to anyone but myself. And at least my work is becoming less autobiographical, which writing classes the world over call progress. I attend screenwriting seminars. Enroll in a novel workshop. Read more how-to books on writing. Refresh my grammar. The books teach me one thing: "those who can't do, teach." What about those who can't teach? After nearly nine years of trying to make it as a writer, I grow tired and disenchanted. So I quit my job as a teacher and go back to school, this time as a medical student. For a couple years I forget about writing altogether.

But during clinical rotations involving twelve-hour days doing grunt-work at the hospital, my creativity withered and I found myself going crazy. The hospital grind can be soul-killing to the artistically-bent. And so again I picked up the pen. And for minutes here, an hour there, between assisting in gall bladder surgeries and seeing patients, at dawn and after I got home from work, and sometimes in the wee hours of the night, I'd write. Two novellas came out of med school. One about a murder on a reality TV show, the other about a middle-aged man with writer's block. Neither sold.

When I graduated I finished a book based on my brother's life. I asked the question, What would have needed to happen for Justin to have been cured of cancer? Answer: He would have needed to fall in love. And so I wrote a love story. I promised myself that if The Invincible Man didn't sell I'd give up writing fiction altogether. It didn't sell. I guess the ending wasn't happy enough. Friends called the book depressing. But is life really about happy endings? Maybe that's why we read fiction. But I prefer realism. In real-life Justin died. In the novel he survives, but has to live without the love of the girl who made life worth fighting for. So I self-publish the thing, which has become the fate of so many of my books. That was four years ago, and four copies have sold. Better than none.

In medical residency I transitioned to nonfiction, writing a book on nutrition. This was also a form of autobiography since nutritional medicine was my specialty. Leaving medicine after a year I continued to churn out essays at a break-neck speed. I needed the money, and each 500-word article I wrote paid only $25. I probably made $7500 before calling it quits. That's a lot of essays. At the time I was dating a girl in the film industry who encouraged me to once again "be creative," so I wrote some more fiction which now takes up more space on my shelves.

Recently a friend and I were talking about my literary efforts. "Imagine if someone gave you the opportunity to become pregnant and see the infant to term," I told her; "you'd grow fat and nauseated, suffer hemorrhoids and varicose veins and all the other inconveniences of pregnancy, including mood swings and bladder dysfunction, and after nine months of suffering through this, all in the name of love, you give birth to a still-born child. Would you choose to become pregnant?" Of course not, my friend said. And she is not alone. Sure, pregnancy is an experience, and as part of the process leading to viable life, to an adorable little cherub that you get to coddle and cuddle and usher into the world where that little person grows up and makes her name, hell yes pregnancy is worth bearing, and labor too. Call them necessary evils, because they lead to the boon of life. But if every pregnancy resulted in a dead child, most people would refuse to conceive or have their sanity questioned.

My writing efforts have been analogous to churning out stillbirths. I birth one corpse after another. My manuscripts sit on my shelves or get stored on my hard drive, only to be forgotten. And revisiting what I have written is like visiting my dead baby's grave. I place a (figurative) flower atop my (brain)child, perhaps shed a tear, and say: Ah, would that my little ones have lived! Do you find this depressing? Realism often is.

And yet I continue to write, and my efforts continue to far outdistance my success. And it's been twenty years. Or twenty-one, if you're counting. Twenty or twenty-one years, and counting. In all: 13 screenplays, 6 novels, 3 novellas, and an assortment of other "stuff" (poems, short stories, parables, treatises, pamphlets, essays and posts). All merely my resume to a job that ain't hiring, at least not me. Not so far.


So why do I keep on? Is it out of habit? Do I arrive enjoyment from sitting for hours at my desk eyes fixed on a screen while my fingers frenetically peck away, putting dreams into words in search of an audience yet to materialize? Not sure. Maybe I derive some twisted pleasure from the process of my pregnancy. Call me crazy. But it's the longest relationship I've ever had. And overall there's more good to the writing habit than bad. If I could say the same about a person I'd probably be hitched with 2.4 kids.

And so I write on, an hour a day on most days, sometimes more, so much more. Because I don't have to, and even when I do, what does it really matter anyway, so no pressure. I wonder if I really even want success, or would writing then become a chore? And so I am content for now to visit my stillborns at the stillborn cemetery of my shelves, to do it or die trying. At least I gave up drinking.

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