Writing a giggle at a time

I had a very bad case of senioritis in college. All I could see was my world ending, collapsing around me like a crumbling plaster ceiling (which did, incidently, attempt to cascade on my head a couple of years later, as it turns out). What was I to do? The US was in a recession, and nobody held dual major psych/English graduates in any kind of esteem, especially for entry-level jobs. I wondered what it was all for.

But graduate school glowed in the darkness like a beacon, since it’s the job of beacons to uh, glow, in low or no lighting. I loved writing and talking about literature and writing, after all, and so hey, becoming a professor sounded like a way to keep doing just that, with the added bonus of a three-month vacation.  So off applying I went. For two full summers I read every piece of “literature” listed in the front of my GRE Subject study guide—250 books, poems, essays, and plays. This was on top of my regular reading, and in addition to the thousands of books I’d already consumed up to that point.

The morning of the GRE rolled around, and I was up before dawn, because I had to make the 90-minute trip to Ithaca from Syracuse (New York loves its Greek town names), as I had only been able to get a seat for the test all the way over at Cornell. For those of you keeping score, Cornell’s campus is about three times the size of Syracuse’s, and I knew it like I know how to navigate through Dhaka. Add to this a very up-and-down terrain with few outdoor campus directories, and I wandered around the grounds like a psycho Roomba. I was sweating so much by the time I found the classroom I had a hard time holding on to my two number 2 recommended to bring pencils. I sat down at 7:54, six minutes to get my glasses fog-free before the test began.

So I must really love reading and writing. I approached my studies with love and appreciation that someone cared to spell out a series of words enough to make a story. I had my preferences and interests. I greatly enjoyed some novels, eschewed others, felt the range of emotions that they wanted me to feel as a reader, or that they never intended, “death of the author” what it is.

But let’s get real here. There are a lot of books out there that suck. We read them anyway. Or we pretend to read them. For every person who has read Ulysses, there are 16.4 who didn’t make it past page 30. And while I’m not saying anything qualitative about Ulysses (I actually have read it twice), I think it’s fascinating to see how many literary agents and editors write and blog about the terrible manuscripts that come across their desks. I wonder, “how bad can they be?” I think I may already know the answer, from direct experience, even.

In high school, I was a judge for our literary magazine. I still recall one poem that stood out from all the rest, for the worst reason: because it stunk up the room. It went something like this:

I love you

But you hate me

But

I still love you.

I theorized that they’d been inspired in the girls’ locker room, which was known to hold all sorts of miserable sentiment upon the insides of the actual locker doors. As if opening up some random metal lever could expose someone to the awfulness of a very short relationship’s terminus.

So for me, bad high school poems are the ground floor of poor writing. I don’t have a lot of other experience with terrible prose, although there was one potential hire who included in his cover letter that he was the author of The Emerald Throne, which was, get this, a fantasy novel. One wonders why someone would reference an unpublished novel that smacks of bowel movements when looking for an office job, but the title alone conveyed a kind of unintentional hilarity that I was sure would have me in stitches by page 5.

I understood that I was a literary snob. Even so, I am exhausted from the monotonous chastisement of would-be writers. “Just Because Your Mom Loved It Doesn’t Mean It’s Good,” or some such, is the number one message coming out from the myriad of agents, editors, and publishers who blog about their lives online. Okay, I get it. There are as many bad writers out there as there are screechers filling up the Falcon’s stadium in Atlanta for a chance to be the next American Idol. But given that I’ve heard this message about coming to terms with one’s own literary suckiness for 20-plus years, I’m starting to wonder if relaying the message isn’t working. Anyone egotistical enough to think that because their dog likes the book makes them a prodigy, well, they may not give a fig what Agent X thinks about their rationale. As long as people think writing is a way to make easy money and/or be famous, misoverestimated authors are going to add to the slush piles of publishing houses everywhere (but mostly New York City).

In fact, it seems like there’s a narrow range of egotism that’s acceptable in the publishing world: one must be stubborn enough to keep writing, even in the face of repeated rejection, because any writer worth her or his salt understands that of course, nobody gets their first book published (except ZZ Packer). But you also don’t want to be the crazy person who keeps peddling a bad idea, written into 13 different novels. At some point the insistence turns into delusion, and there’s no blood test to indicate when one has crossed the threshold. The first Harry Potter book, after all, was rejected a dozen times by agents, but Gone with the Wind was rejected 133 times. I can’t imagine how many people told Ms. Mitchell it was a fantastic book. If she’d written it now, would she have self-published it?

Speaking of mixed messages, agent blogs go on and on about the traits of hard-to-work-with writers. They make sense, generally. I mean, I wouldn’t want to work with someone who missed deadlines, who screamed about any criticism received, who was a petty thinker, or unreliable sort. But we’ve screened out most of the sensible people, haven’t we, by making the writing the number one criterion for entry into the club, with the high bar filtering through people with a large sense of themselves. How many team players are left in that scenario?

Anyway, I’m writing. I’ve written stories since my Mom put a steel Royal typewriter into the freezing front room of the house, and I would type—well, bang, actually—out stories wrapped in four layers of clothing, a scarf, and a wool cap, since Mr. Wizard had said that humans radiate 90 percent of their body heat through their heads. I had some corrective tape, but mistakes mostly just got written in. At Powell’s Block of Books in Portland last week, I came upon another Royal. This one had two spools of ribbon: one, the mainstay black, and one red. Wow. How different would my world have been? It was nice to have my moment of nostalgia, my arms sagging from 7 or 8 books I’d claimed for purchase.

You know what? I am a writer. A good writer, if I say so myself. Not the best, because I’m not that stuck on myself. But I like the things I write, or frankly, I wouldn’t devote such energy to them. I’ve parsed my writing in workshops with some really alcoholic, published authors. I’ve submitted myself to the whims and folly of the fearsome writing contest, like an ant taking on a flaming red dragon. I’ve done peer swaps for critique, sat through writers groups that never got anywhere near to writing anything, even if they were decent places to vent. I’ve come up with 67 Ineffective Methods to Prosper over Writer’s Block. I think I’ve earned some street cred here.

I’m not all that good at navigating the publishing world, but I’ll get there. And I think there’s an audience for my work. Hopefully I’ve hit the sweet spot for writers—energetic, focused, self-deprecating, persistent without being blind to my own limitations.

Oh, and I’m also nice, even if I get lost on the Cornell University campus.

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Categories: ponderings

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2 Comments on “Writing a giggle at a time”

  1. jen
    October 22, 2009 at 6:15 am #

    Everett, I’m buying your book as soon as it hits the stands. You are an amazing writer, and the author of the one blog I actually do try to follow. (I still giggle at the image of the UPS man and “animal husbandry advice” btw.)

  2. evmaroon
    October 22, 2009 at 5:16 pm #

    Jen, you are too kind. Thank you. Meanwhile, I’ve been considering what crazy thing I could purchase online so that he has to bring it to our house. Something to really confuse him, like a DIY vasectomy kit.

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