Archive | Writing RSS feed for this section

Tonstant Weader fwowed up

12 May

by Jess

Parker is pissed that I dragged her into this.

A friend of mine once described me, in what is still my favorite compliment ever, as “a post-punk Dorothy Parker.” This is extremely flattering! And also false. However, it is not quite as false as other flattering things that have been said about me, and thus provides the crux for today’s writing-related neurotic fit.

(And yes, believe me, I’m aware how completely dull it is to write blog posts about writing, and also it’s dull to write long posts about yourself. It’s not strictly kosher for me to complain about it period, because I have been a huge drag on the subject lately and everyone is fed up with me. Luckily, nobody reads this blog!)

I have often said that I am not a writer so much as I am a sentence-maker. I know a lot of words and can manipulate them into a pretty handsome sentence, which is sufficient for my day job, which mostly involves expressing research in a readable way. (Actually doing the research is another story, since I am also extremely indolent.) Good writing, on the other hand, involves a certain clarity of idea and image and a knack for effective structure — plus it involves not getting maudlin or preachy, as I often do when I try to write. Writers need to have a point and make it with style — it’s not enough to be a dab hand with sentence construction. Sentence-making is to writing what draftsmanship is to art.

I am not, when I say this, trying to coerce people into doing the “no you’re a great writer blah di blah” game, but that’s usually what happens. And I’m sure they’re sincere! But they also have an unfair bias, namely that they are usually saying this to me on gchat. And while I’m not really a writer, I am kind of a wit.

I’m not going to offer any evidence for that bold statement because I am a quivering pile of self-doubt and I feel like anything witty I post here, people will think “hmph, that’s not so funny.” So you’ll just have to trust me so that I can get on with the rest of the post, which is this: I am funny in conversation, and in gchat conversation that falls under the category of “writing” or at least “typing,” but when I actually TRY TO WRITE SOMETHING FUNNY I can’t do it. And when I try to write something not funny, god help us. Apparently I react to my discomfort with the vulnerability of claiming authority (which everyone does when they write something, no matter how diffident they are; they don’t call it AUTHORity for nothing) by getting SUPER FUCKING PREACHY. Sort of like “well, I’m afraid of heights because I might fall down, but by damn, as long as I’m up here, I’m spitting on someone’s bald head.”

There are a number of bloggers who also seem to be at their best in conversation — as much as I love Tiger Beatdown and The Sexist, for instance, I might love Sexist Beatdown more. And the conversations that constitute Monkey See’s “I’ll read it if you will” book club are transcendent. Plus, and here is where I bring it back to Dorothy Parker, there are of course famous writers who are known mainly as quipsters. But — and this is key — all those people also write other stuff. That is, they become well-known as writers, and that is why they get to put their chat transcripts all over the internet/their clever barbs all over the Bartlett’s.

I have long been trying to figure out a job description that will suit my unique skill set, which includes: memorizing lyrics on the first or second listen, ferreting out dirt about people I don’t like on the internet, and having very strong opinions on the 90s computer adventure game Monkey Island. Most of those don’t immediately present any ideas. “General wittiness/charm” does in fact suggest a career option, which is “famous writer who sits around getting drunk and dispensing bons mots.” I would be great at that! I’m just not sure there’s a way to rocket to the top of the career track without doing, you know, the whole writing part.

Mom’s vagina monologue

4 May

by Jess

When I was a kid, my mom got me a T-shirt featuring a Lichtenstein-looking comic book heroine with the thought bubble “Never yell at your children, they’ll grow up and write a book about you.” As a gift for a writer’s child this was basically code for “I am permanently three minutes away from mining the peaks and troughs of our relationship for material, and therefore I assume you’re doing the same.” In fact Mom would probably feel vindicated if she knew I was writing about her right now. (She’ll see this eventually, and probably bristle, but trust me, Mom: there was part of you that just said “I knew it!”)

At the time I didn’t understand why people dipped into the personal-writing well. It seemed cheap and hackish, the ultimate in lazy research. This was before I was fully in touch with what an indigent ass I was going to turn out to be. Now, personal writing sounds terrific — you mean you can just sit at home and write about your feelings, without having to read books or do interviews or anything? But back then, when it seemed like I might still grow up with a work ethic, I was indignant.

But Mom didn’t always resist the easy way out. She wrote a lot about me when I was a kid and a teenager, and a lot of it was embarrassing or overly personal. I credit that in part for my guardedness, which on the whole is a trait I value, so it wasn’t all bad, but I did eventually say “enough, I am not a personal-essay topic generator.” I believe it was after the piece about how my bra straps always showed when I wore tank tops, an essay that my coworkers clipped and taped to my door. I basically said okay, we are not doing this anymore. I believe the exact wording involved a lot of “MY LINGERIE” and “NATIONAL NEWSPAPER” and “OMG.” [1]

This worked for a while, but lately Mom has slightly altered her interpretation of “do not write about me anymore” so that it means “focus all your writing on the subject of parenting and children in general and your children in particular.” I’ve been tolerant about this because I am generally a nice person and because I have my own unrealistic writing projects to think about, but today she sent me and my sister a draft of a book proposal, because she wanted to see if we were “comfortable” with it. Not only does it involve extensive monologuing about her parenting experience, but it references not one but BOTH of our vaginas. Something about my sister putting in a tampon, and something about me having sex — I have to say I didn’t read it too carefully due to EYEBALL-MELTING HORROR at the COMPLETE EXPLOSION OF BOUNDARIES.

My response was to calmly and deliberately burst into flames. Then I wrote what I was pretty sure was a reasonable email given the circumstances: “I don’t want to have to make a very ridiculous list of rules like PLEASE DO NOT TALK ABOUT MY VAGINA FOR NATIONAL PUBLICATION. I kind of thought that when I said PLEASE DO NOT TALK ABOUT MY UNDERWEAR FOR NATIONAL PUBLICATION, its contents were implied.”

Thankfully, while I can only give 99 percent odds that you will not be hearing about my vagina in this space, I think I can accurately say that I’ve eliminated the chances you’ll be reading about it in your local bookstore. Mom spends enough time on the internet to understand that when I AM VERY CAPPY it means that I ought to be taken seriously. It did get me thinking about personal writing, though. Having grown up, as it turns out, totally shiftless, I find the idea of no-research writing compelling, but there’s always a certain amount of labia-gazing that’s implied when you decide to write about your own life. I just described a friend’s book project, with much love and total faith in her abilities, as “200 pages of someone staring up her own uterus,” and I will read and love her book but in fact that’s what it is.

On the whole I think it’s a higher-integrity move to write about your own vagina (metaphorically!) than someone else’s, but other people are crucial to all the lessons you learn that might be interesting for an audience. (Lessons learned on your own tend to be, to continue the metaphor to an offputting degree, masturbatory.) Eventually someone else’s genitals (metaphorically!) are going to get in the way. I’m doing some desultory work on a thoroughly doomed Modern Love column right now, and I’m very aware of writing things about the other person involved that are both completely unflattering and incontrovertibly recognizable. Is it ever fair game to turn out someone else’s underwear drawer for your own work? If they’re your child and owe you everything? If they’re an abuser and have squandered any right to consideration?

Probably in the long run I’m better off staying guarded, which I’ve grown very good at — not least because I don’t really know how to end personal essays, as you’ll see starting in this graf. But of course the guardedness and the laziness vie for priority. Better to suck out on research by just barfing emotions on a page, or better to protect yourself and others?

[1] This is a lie. OMG did not exist at the time.