When I go to the movies and the lights come down, I am hoping for one thing: that this movie will completely and irrevocably change my life. I want it to alter the way I see the world in the deepest and most surprising way imaginable. I want to laugh and cry until that thing I have lived with all my life, that thing that hampers my ability to see beauty simply and without judgement, becomes dislodged, and I am free in a way that defies description.
That is all I ask.
It is for this reason that I live in a state of near constant disappointment.
But then I see a movie like One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest or Breathless, or The Inlaws (the one with Peter Falk, not the one with Michael Douglas), or I read Jesus’ Son, and I know in my body there is a reason I am alive, that I have a purpose. J.D. Salinger said, “think of the book that you would absolutely love to read, and then write it shamelessly.”
When I was three my mother asked me what I wanted for Christmas. I said I wanted a pencil. Oh God, so badly, I wanted one. I ached for my pencil. I dreamt about my pencil. I had no interest in toys, only pretended to be so you didn’t think I was strange. I would have traded you a stack of comics a mile high and a sea of noisy plastic for my slender shard of graphite. I would close my eyes so that I could see it, so that it was nearer to me. I imagined holding it in my tiny hand. And I didn’t want just any pencil. I wanted my pencil, a pencil of my own, one that belonged to me. It would be a pencil that I would choose.
Because, you see, I had a plan.
My pencil was going to be a magic pencil. It was going to take me everywhere. And it had to be a pencil, because you can’t fix mistakes with a pen. I remember thinking the eraser was the most brilliant invention. Incredible. You can write with one end, and edit with the other.
I still remember running through the store with my brothers and my sister, past all of the toys, my little forehead hot with anticipation at the prospect of having my first, my very own pencil. My precious mother understood. This was serious business, and she did not hold back with the pomp and the circumstance. She understood that nothing short of a parade was necessary to usher in the singularly most important moment of my life.
It was orange, with a green stripe around the metal top, and a fresh pink eraser on the end.
Of course, at three years of age I didn’t know how to spell, but my brother taught me how to write numbers up to one hundred. I went through a thousand sheets of paper, moving my hand across the page, writing from one to ten, ten to twenty, and so on across and down the page. My heart rested when I was writing. As my hand moved smoothly across the page, I knew I had found what I would do for the rest of my life. (Thirty years later this image of writing became the final image in my first novel).
So many of my students and potential students come to me wanting to know how to get published and produced. They want their work to be read, to be seen. But what they really want is for themselves to be seen.
Here’s the thing. We do not need to be seen!
We are adults now. That time is past. We need to see ourselves.
We need to be more curious about the world of our story than about any goddamn idea of security, of fame, any idea that some kind of validation from outside of ourselves is going to make one bit difference. Fame does not make you a better writer, so what good is it? Of course, I’m the first to admit that when the writing ain’t working, I would love a little bit more of it, something to soothe the bruised ego, to temper the doubt and silence the critic. I have had my small acre of fame, and it nearly destroyed me. It killed my writer for more than a couple of years. Doesn’t mean I won’t welcome it again, but next time I’ll pay it the respect it deserves.
There is nothing logical about wanting to be a writer. The lives of artists can be awful, despairing, regret-filled exercises in futility. Writers and artists are some of the most wretched people you can ever imagine. They suffer, often needlessly, and are no more noble or wise than anyone else. These are desperate people, junkies really, jonesing for a hit of truth.
Writing is not for everyone. Maybe not even for anyone. Years ago, I taught a class at UCLA, a summer class, to a roomful of kids who were heading into their first year of college, and it turned out I was teaching their bullshit elective. I came in with guns blazing and was devastated to learn that they didn’t love writing as much as I did. Hell, they couldn’t have cared less. I wanted to hate them, these beautiful children, but they were smarter than me. They taught me how dangerous it is to care.
They seemed so apathetic, like they had spent the past eighteen years staring at a glass-boxed babysitter that taught them how to murder. Except one kid. His name was Mike. Mike was from Jersey. He was a trouble-maker, and doubtless came from trouble. The second day, he showed me his citation for urinating in public. (This, in and of itself is not necessarily the sign of an artist, but it got my attention). The fact that he showed it to me . . . damn, he was telling me something. He was pissed off (no pun intended), and when he wrote, he wrote with madness and joy. The world came alive to him when he wrote. It was palpable. He cared about the words. He valued them. He wanted to smash down walls, and break through to something that felt real. His writing was dangerous. It’s dangerous to care.
You never know who the writers are. Some writers are dogged, and become writers by sheer will, and some of us got roped into it at three without having any say in the matter. I’m a lifer. My failures exceed my successes, if I can call anything I’ve done a success. Perhaps that’s up to someone else. Or maybe there’s no such thing. I tend to believe there’s no such thing. In my heart of hearts, we’re all already free and there’s nothing to prove. Vonnegut said, “We’re just here to fart around, and don’t let anyone tell you different.”
I became a writer because I wanted to change the world, and yet I know, so deep down in my heart that it is impossible. It can never be done. And that is why I write.
I am rebelling against entropy.
I think about that kid sometimes. Mike. He asked for my email, but I never heard from him. I wonder if he’s a writer. I wonder if he got scared or sidetracked, or got into trouble that he couldn’t get out of. I wonder if he found a real job and rationalized why this writing racket was just another one of his bad ideas. I wonder if someone hurt him, told him that his writing was wrong. I wonder if he got some teacher who tried to tame him and drove him sane. I think about Mike, and all the Mikes out there who have something to give and have been silenced, or have become silent. It embarrasses me sometimes how much I care about writers, how it is sometimes the only thing that I care about. My heart aches for the Mikes, because I know that when I write, it is because I want to belong somewhere, because when I go to parties and people talk about bullshit, I want to scream. I write because it is my job to hold up my end of the bargain, so that when I meet another writer, I don’t have to feel like I’m cheating on them, because that’s how I feel when I don’t write. Like a man who is cheating on his wife. Writing has given me a life beyond my wildest dreams. And tomorrow I get to do it again.