The Happy Writer

How can a story, or even a line of prose of any sort capture the sound of the morning wind in the city?

[Uh, oh… Here’s where I go all literary…]

The traffic moving slowly, crawling through the shadows, that murmur that merges with the clouds passing above and the man putting out his garbage with the clatter-click of his beer bottles rattling against the concrete step. How does a line of prose capture that? And the smell? The chilly morning when the temperature is perhaps just at the edge, where one is unsure of whether to wear the spring jacket or the winter coat, opting (as I did) for the spring jacket and then leaving it unzipped so that the cold filters in and makes you feel alive. That smell then on the breeze, which is cool and crisp and fresh, the smell of spring before the trees have burst forth but after all traces of ice and salt have disappeared.

How does a novel capture that? And what purpose would it serve if it could?

James Joyce wanted to include the world within his prose. Something like the above, written as a dialogue of thought using the functional mechanics of the mind, the way things actually work inside the brain. He included everything. His was an art of inclusion to the point of abstraction. Let’s juxtapose this against Samuel Beckett, Joyce’s protege, who went in the opposite direction, writing huge tracts about nothing at all. In fact, creating an art of nothingness, which seemed to summarize the world’s state so much better than everything…

And yet, they both suffered from the same constraint, the covers of the book. The story on paper. The novel. Beckett broke free by turning to the theater. He broke through the “fourth wall” if we must assign some metaphor.

Just yesterday, I heard someone mention Godot on the radio. They were talking about the Attorney General and the release of thousands of pages of information where everyone was talking about the AG and yet nowhere did he appear. How strange that Beckett would be mentioned in this manner, and how symbolic. Thousands of pages about nothing at all and yet the sum must add up to a whole. There must be a meaning to all of that _stuff_ and in the meaning is the man, the AG. The Godot of the scandal.

I wrote this in the cafe this morning:

Nothing could please me more than the death of the novel. This isn’t a vindictive statement. Not at all. The form itself does not displease me. I even derive pleasure from it when time permits.

That’s rather the point though. The novel as an art form requires a commitment of time and focus. Precious commodities these days.

When do we have time to consider the novel? On an airplane? In a hotel? Certainly not in our homes and certainly not in our regular daily lives…

I am a man who appreciates leisure. I do all that I can to fill those hours with meaningful pursuits. Obviously there is an inherent paradox in this statement.

Yet, if I cannot find the time to consider the novel (or establish that block of time by force), who can?

Then again, this isn’t quite pure either (but it is stuffy!). I want to end it as my primary form of literary expression. I want my writing to feel as real as that moment this morning while I was walking down the street, listening to the breeze and sensing spring in the air.

I feel alive, and alive in such a way that I cannot be concerned with whether or not my tale makes sense. It isn’t supposed to make sense. It is a state of Unreason.

I’ve read the essays of many novelists who have decried the death of the novel, but none that have openly welcomed it as I do. I find the novel a frustrating art form to grapple with in part because my interests are too varied and changing to spend a great deal of time polishing the knob on one particular vein.

This is a rather funny way of saying that I’m too lazy to write a novel, but it’s true.

I have enough energy to write thousands of words every day, but no inclination to go back and make them palatable. Besides, when I do that, when I go back and really work the words over, I end up making them so stylized and self-conscious that they mean nothing. They are pretty and forgettable. It’s a big world. I’ll leave that to someone else.

My wife asked me if I had some perverse need to fail, if I took comfort in the fact that I could not be a success. I scoffed, but in fact it is probably true. I like to fail. It makes me happy as strange as that sounds. And so, if I embrace my failure as a permanent situation, completely unavoidable, do I simply stop worrying about the outcome and then succeed by default? What happens then?

Well, that is a strange line of thinking and probably worth several thousand words, but today is a morning for other thoughts. There is no time to consider failure. I have time today only for love.

This morning I went out for a run. This was my first run in weeks. Over the last two years, I’ve gained something like 30 pounds. That’s a lot, even for a man with a build like mine (broad shoulders, a little above average height). So, to say that this is my first run in weeks is inherently untrue. It is my first run in years, though I’ve been running off and on.

While running, I tend to talk to myself. That talking is not so different than my writing, except that (of course) none of it gets recorded unless I remember to do so when I sit down to write. That sounds like an obvious statement, but my mind works like this constantly. It is always moving, from one idea to the next, from one sense to another. It is a hive of activity and despite my best efforts I cannot change that fact.

That brings me back around to the 30 pounds. Those 30 pounds represent my effort to cage myself. For two years, I’ve tried to be something I’m not. It started slowly but by degrees my world turned and grew inward. My external persona became more and more focused but my soul, yes my very soul, turned inside out. I began to expand, quite literally, breaking through waist sizes at a slow and steady pace until I reached this state.

This is not the first time this has happened. I once went on like this for five years and gained 170 pounds. Another time I gained 60 pounds. Yet, each incident was marked by a sustained effort on my part to conform to an expectation. That expectation could be my own (unlikely) or it could be some weird manufactured expectation an amalgam of sensory impressions, societal assumptions, and the flash opinions of those I come in contact with. Regardless, at some juncture along the way, I find that I’m living some strange life derived from someone else. I’m living, well, I don’t know who’s life but it’s not mine.

And then I go for a run.

That first run is so liberating and beautiful. It feels like the whole of the world is flowing into my body at once. I breathe in such a way that I taste the edge of night and birth of the sunrise. I sweat and my body feels good slipping around against itself. In short, I wake up and find myself human again. Fat, but human.

But most of all, I am happy.

Being happy is not popular in the literary world. To feel pure joy at just being alive, well, this isn’t really acceptable is it? We aren’t supposed to feel happy. We’re writers after all and we’re supposed to be depressed and searching souls who are never quite satisfied with the way a thing looks or how it sounds. We can’t be happy. No. Who wants a happy writer on their hands?

That sounds pretty crass, I know. However, I think we might agree that it is generally true if we consider the plight of a happy writer.

We, societally speaking, have a hard time generating interest for happy writers. Smiling writers on book covers only sell when they are selling genre fiction. There is nothing wrong with genre fiction. I happen to like it myself. But in literary fiction there is supposed to be a deeper meaning. After all, if we’re going to wade through self-indulgent prose isn’t is necessary that we feel like we’ve learned something of the universal, a step towards enlightenment, the great sigh of satisfaction at having consumed an acknowledged work of art and derived moment of oneness with another human being who has plumbed the depths and returned with The TruthTM.

I am, by nature a happy writer, not a neurotic writer. A neurotic writer scrubs and scrubs their prose until it shines, until there is no flaw whatsoever. I do not love my warts, spelling errors, diction, grammar, and the like drive me to distraction. But I am not obsessed by it.

Hearing that, someone would say that I am not a writer at all. Yet I am writing. That cannot be denied. If I am obsessed about anything it is spewing all of these thoughts, ideas, words, visions, stories, observations, rants and rages, odes to beauty, raw emotion, poems, quotes, and more onto the page. I like volume. I like mass. I like a thing that is big and unwieldy. Big ideas excite me. Big ideas that are messy and undefined I like even better.

The unhappy writer though is never pleased with the big idea. It has to be parsed into its constituent pieces. Trimmed and hacked into a symbolic shell of itself.

I may be drifting towards being unfair to unhappy writers. I’ve spent a lot of time working as an unhappy writer, and so I think I’ve earned my stripes there. But perhaps it is unfair. The world does love it some unhappy writers though. You’ve got to admit it.

When a writer is happy, we wonder exactly what it is they have to tell us. Are we supposed to be overjoyed at their happiness? I mean, why would I read a book unless I was myself unhappy to begin with? Wouldn’t I want to spend time with someone as unhappy as myself? Perhaps so. It seems like it to me at least. The really happy writers are generally shunned, but perhaps that’s because they write too much about sex. The unhappy writers never seem to get laid and then that’s probably the plight of most people generally – not getting laid enough.

Does it make sense to summarize the entire plight of literature into the pursuit of sex?

I suppose I should end here now that I’ve completely exhausted the stream of thought. It is probably enough to say that I feel a period of intense and chaotic creativity coming upon me. I am going to do my best to keep it free-flowing, unchained, unpredictable, raw, but above all — happy.

8 thoughts on “The Happy Writer

  1. Enough on the running thing already!

    In the Animal Kingdom,there are two reasons to run: to get food, to keep from being food. Everything else is insane!

    When I retired from the Army I swore I’d never run again. Broke that oath once or twice…mostly to keep from getting killed. Bullets landing in your general vicinity have a strange way of motivating.

    I do walk…alot…up mountains and through forests whenever possible, but running? Urgh!

    I think I have a similar problem on the writing though. So many things going on in my head I’d love to put them all to paper, but don’t.

  2. You interest me. I find myself drawn in, coming back day after day to read more, again and again.

    I’m not quite sure why yet. I’ll let you know when I get that lightbulb moment.

    But today you drew me out enough that I wanted to say hi and let you know I had been hanging around.

    I, by the way, am a happy writer. One of those ones who smile a lot and have been given an extra dose of enthusiasm to make up for those among us who prefer the lights on low.

    And, by the way, I run.

    It’s nice to read…meet you. ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. I think there’s a lot to the notion of writing and running being more or less the same thing.

    I’ve been running long distances for over twenty years now and I can tell you that the hardest parts of running are … get ready for it … starting and, having started, not stopping. And having eventually stopped, retiring to your other activities, and then, at some arbitrary interval, starting again before you have lost the benefits gained from your previous session.

    Running distance is about building on routine bouts with your mental limitations. I say mental because long-distance running is all about your ability to exert your mind’s will over your body’s. Successful runners are mentally strong, and by that I mean able to defeat the impulses their bodies generate and transmit.

    The hardest part of laying off is not that first session back. Indeed, you often run far better than you might have imagined you would. Nay, my good friend. It is the second session that is the true test, because here your body will rebel. And will continue to do so for the next three weeks after that. But then, one day, the stiffness begins to resolve itself, the aches disappear, and for a moment, you are free of worldly cares and in the runner’s zone. Here is where you perform at your peak. Each day you return to the run to achieve your peak, to stay in it, to ride that wave as it were until at some point the complaints of the world flood back in upon you and the real challenge, the battle to continue running begins anew.

    Does that sound like writing?

  4. @wendi Thanks for saying hello! The birthday post on your site reminds me of my family’s Birthday Week: both of my sons, myself, and my dad have birthdays in the same five-day span. It’s insane.

    I’ve been a little down of late, kind of like a 100 watt bulb in a 40 watt socket, but that seems to be changing. More writing not less appears to be a good cure. I’d like to put myself back into that sunny place more often.

    @craig Wow! Another long-time reader with a first comment! Maybe this running thing isn’t so bad after all. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    In my opinion, distance running and writing have a lot in common, including the big high of a serious long run. I remember when I was training for a marathon back in 2001. I was doing 6-7 miles a day and 10-12 on the weekends. I’m nowhere near that kind of shape now, but as you point out it isn’t a physical thing – it’s mental.

    Indeed, it’s a lot like writing.

  5. @J.L. Heh. Very good point. I usually feel like puking right around the time I work up enough nerve to share my writing with someone …

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