Block’s writer

Gutenberg BibleI’m sure we’ve all heard the narrative a hundred times over: I’ve been a writer since I first held writing implement to fingers. And my Mom loves my stories, and all my friends say my book is a bestseller. And then we’re supposed to laugh condescendingly, because this little intrepid person is so clueless, clearly, about the publishing industry. Oh, if they knew about the publishing industry, we think smugly to ourselves, they’d know that Mom’s opinion doesn’t matter, and all their friends are wrong.

Just to give this some dimension, the US published 172,000 books in 2005, according to the geeks who count such things. Of these, let’s be generous and say that 200 of them counted as “best seller” status. (Anyone remember French Women Don’t Get Fat?) That’s one tenth of one percent of everything published that year. Of course, most of these books don’t even dream of topping any list: Unsolved Problems of Noise and Fluctuations, a fantastic tome on physics, probably didn’t make it to people’s holiday wish lists. But even taking just the fiction, memoir, poetry, and narrative nonfiction into account, the likelihood is very, very low, trust me.

This isn’t to say people shouldn’t write down their stories, or whatever things they have cavorting around in their heads. It just means that most stuff goes nowhere, but on a page, in a notebook, or onto the hard drive of a computer. And that’s really okay, because the vast majority of our human endeavor to create the amazing is actually quite awful. Total drivel. Buzzard crap, or that Canada geese shit that turns everything green and stinks of high heaven—hey, it was a life experience I won’t ever forget.

So why write, even? If it all sucks, why bother?

My answer is my answer alone. I write because it gets better when I rewrite it. The third time around, it starts to sound nuanced. The fourth revision I’m making specific language choices, listening to the rhythm of the words, the believability of the dialogue. The fifth time through I may do something drastic, like change the tense, cut the first 7 pages and have the narrative begin at a new point. Actually, I usually chop out my beginnings, trusting that the quotation I heard a long time ago is true: One should start a story like one would pick up a puppy, a little behind the front. I have no idea anymore who said it, maybe St. Vincent Millay or Doris Lessing or Eudora Welty. Now that woman wrote a lot.

By the time I get around to the tenth revision, I’m just nitpicking words and it’s more like talking about nothing at the end of a coffee date than actual editing. I just need to declare it’s over, we’ll meet again someday. At this point I’ve cleaned it up, swept out excessive prepositional phrases, changed sentence structure, evaluated my tone, simplified, simplified, simplified, and attempted to really cast a light on my characters without overwriting them. I like it when readers pick up different aspects of my protagonists, when they almost like the foils to those protagonists, but for the fact that they’re really despicable.

If enough time goes by, my relation to my stories changes. I used to think of this as watching the story fall behind me as I charged ahead, a steam engine train of a person. I now see that we’re both moving, in some kind of random, and certainly unpredictable direction from each other. Sometimes we swing back around, like a comet passing through a solar system every 76.2 years, and old ideas make a new kind of sense to us. But sometimes we never occupy the same space again. Maybe that was the story best understood by my 17-year-old self, and my 39-year-old brain simply doesn’t want to hang onto it anymore. Or maybe I’ll enjoy seeing where I once was in capability, craft, and idea, even as I acknowledge that I’m in a new place.

In any case, I’m glad I’ve written down as much as I have. And while I would be thrilled, say, with an appearance on Ellen, I’m not presuming anything I write would be a bestseller. It’s true that after years of messing around with fiction, with literary analysis, and the reading of thousands of books, I really needed to write a memoir about my transition.

I really haven’t talked about why with anyone except my writing coach, Lea, who has more than one hand on the pulse of the universe and who I see as a really friendly, astute guide through this whole publishing rigamarole. First, I had some demons to exorcise, and writing was the best way to do that. A lot of that writing was just for me, not for any book, and most certainly not for anyone else’s retinas. But it did let some of the experience percolate and then steep, and gave me a blueprint for organizing the past 6 years into a sturdy narrative. There was some motivation stemming from my “mentoring” of a young female-to-male transsexual who was asking many of the same questions I’d pondered at the start of my experience. I’ve spent copious hours online, asking and later, answering the strangely narrow-banded litany of inquiries people have about transitioning: will my family hate me forever? Will my partner desert me? Am I just disfiguring myself? These are really all smaller branch questions that have popped out from one solid root question:

Am I crazy?

The answer none of us wants to admit is, maybe. Maybe we/you/they are crazy. But we’re probably not crazy, because crazy people don’t formulate questions on the Internet, research their options in a rational way, get opinions, sift through information, try different methods of managing what turns out to be an illness—crazy people behave less from a place of information gathering, and more from a place of irrational. Crazy people respond differently to the therapies around gender identity dysphoria. Transsexual people see their happiness and sense of well being increase dramatically after even the most mundane or simple changes to their sex and gender identity.

Could a memoir bring these points across? I thought so. Could I tell a story in which a fairly ordinary person realizes something extraordinary? And has the daring to see it through? Could I make getting a sex change seem like the right notion for a protagonist? I thought about it and decided yes. I don’t think I’m the trans Messiah; this isn’t an especially rare narrative, even as it’s certainly a twist on the boy meets girl tale.

And heck, in this memoir, there is boy-meets-girl, if readers are okay with boy-who-used-to-be-girl-meets-girl-who-usually-likes-other-girls.

Perhaps agents think the concept is too out there, and that’s why I’ve had trouble selling this. But I believe in this story and this project. I know that there are thousands of people who would guffaw at the hilarity I’ve lived through, and fret through the hard parts, and have questions like I’ve had, about medical services and people’s judgment and how strange it is to see the world through completely new lenses. I have faith in this book, and I just have to keep pitching it, even as I work on other stories that want their 15 minutes of fame on my keyboard.

I used to spend a lot of time getting stuck as a writer, but then I pushed through on the memoir project and now everything I bottled up wants to come out to play. And that’s how I know the memoir is a story that needs telling. And though we may cross each other in space at some point, hurtling in new directions, it will retain at least a core of interest for me, and hopefully for some agent and publisher out there.

And hey, my sister thinks it’s great.

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Categories: ev's writing, ponderings, Uncategorized

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One Comment on “Block’s writer”

  1. March 25, 2010 at 1:45 pm #

    My answer is my answer alone. I write because it gets better when I rewrite it. The third time around, it starts to sound nuanced. The fourth revision I’m making specific language choices, listening to the rhythm of the words, the believability of the dialogue. The fifth time through I may do something drastic, like change the tense, cut the first 7 pages and have the narrative begin at a new point. Actually, I usually chop out my beginnings, trusting that the quotation I heard a long time ago is true: One should start a story like one would pick up a puppy, a little behind the front. I have no idea anymore who said it, maybe St. Vincent Millay or Doris Lessing or Eudora Welty. Now that woman wrote a lot.

    This is my answer too! Fantastic. Definitely needs a x-posting on FRY BUTTER, since we’ve been painfully lacking in any book/writing stuffs, which is hilarious, since we’re all – you know – writers.

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