Writing’s hard. It used to be kind of easy.
In high school I’d spend my weekends in my basement bedroom writing plays all the livelong night, some Kevin Smith or Quentin Tarantino proselytizing in the background. Usually, I’d take a break around midnight to hit up the Wendy’s out by all the car dealerships. I felt better than everyone else and whatever the hell they did with their weekend. (I’ll leave out the later scenes of me drinking wine and writing Kerouacian poetry in that same basement under the light cast by a lamp made from a wine bottle.)
My high school—spitting in the eye of virulent arts cuts—supported an annual Student One Act Festival (which I think and hope is still going on), so these chatty, greasy plays of mine always made it to stage, under my direction. The first play was about a platonic couple in a bomb shelter at the end, telling stories and playing Jenga; the second was a clunky, overreaching deal about the afterlife; next was one I still feel some pride for, a Vonnegut inspired romp based on a They Might Be Giants song about an old writer convinced people are stealing his ideas that included a Jehovah’s Witness being bludgeoned with a rifle; last was an art piece about two men who spend their days in a wheat field. There was a small pond cocksureness to this coming of age garbage, and I believe this prolific period was fostered only by a wonderful youthful ignorance. The writing didn’t have to be great; it was more important that I was doing it at all.
Comeuppance is the best gift anyone, not only artists, can receive. “Studying” creative writing while studying literature supplied a much needed shock. I have trouble saying I acquired much from “studying” creative writing—as in any practical information about plot, say, or genre, or sentence structure—but being amongst a mix of amazing and terrible writers made for a great education. As far as the great writers are concerned, the best thing you can do in any field is surround yourself with people who do the thing you’re trying to be with deftness and ease—at least perceived deftness and ease. I find this keeps you on your toes in a way insular gusto can’t quite. An equal but different drive comes from the slackasses and dillweeds that overran my program, people who put little thought and even less time into the goddamn doggerel they expected me to read and critique. The disdain I had for these fuckers made for and introduced me to a fire that propels me still. Every piece of shit I read sends me to my desk to do better, making spite another important fuel. I would never make any claims to the worth of my work, but I feel good saying that I work very hard at what I do, and strive not to waste anyone’s time.
Few salvageable pieces survived my three years of university. I spent a lot of time there trying and failing to write like Italo Calvino and Jorge Louis Borges, but did manage, in my last semester, to find a voice and approach that I’d go to bat for. In an Editing and Publishing class I produced a chapbook called You’re Stupid, I’m The Best that included a few stories that wound up in Pardon Our Monsters—a book that about 700 people actually paid real money for.
The other Monsters stories were written the year after university while pushing a broom and scrubbing tanks at a brewery. My friends were going into masters programs, and I was determined to do without that support, working a job that made me pretty tired and kept me kind of drunk. The work I did was without aspiration, though. I only wanted to write well. I had to be urged to submit a story, and so did so—to The Malahat Review, to name names—and after hearing nothing back I didn’t aspire to magazine publication until a few years ago. The same person who recommended I submit a story to a magazine, a former professor who continued reading and helping me with stories, recommended me to the captain of Vehicule Press. I sent sample stories to the editor of the Esplanade imprint of said press, was asked to submit a full manuscript, and about a month afterward I was told I’d be allowed to make a real-life book. I was twenty-three and this is not how the world works.
The few reviews that Monsters received were enthusiastic, but for the most part the book was quickly forgotten about, I’d thought. And I didn’t mind, or at least wasn’t worried. Having a book, however, made me eligible for grants, one of which I got, and made me interesting to agents, one of which I got. So I set out to write a novel for this agent, supported by this money. And it didn’t go well. For the first time, I found writing hard. Shit was expected of me. Every stupid day I sat down to work, I felt completely unable, irrevocably in over my head. In the midst of this daily dread, the agent who I was letting down informed me that I was short listed for and then won an award I’d never heard of for a book I hadn’t known I was writing. From there, writing got exponentially difficult for me.
I continued to not write a novel, instead writing some stories on the side that exist now as The Cloaca, which, as far as I know, not a whole lot of people know about. I gave up not writing that first novel, and started writing and throwing out another novel, which some other people gave me money for and which I’ve promised to that same agent. I should be writing that book right now, but I’m writing this instead. And this feels pithy, not as good or thorough or funny as it could be. But it’s free and for the internet, so who cares, right?
Failing’s the worst, but it’s the only result that I can ever count on. Every fucking day I sit down and fail fucking miserably. I did this in my basement years ago, with late night softcore on mute. And I failed big time in university, though never as bad as the fuckfaces who were convinced the drivel they’d managed was tops. And when I got a fulltime job, my failure was contained to the pockets of free time I managed. So I suppose writing’s always been easy, but it’s the failure that’s gotten difficult. Somehow I’ve found myself in a place where I say that writing’s what I do and is a thing I’m supposed to be good at. So when, out of sight, I spend a day producing plodding, trite dreck, the consequences of that failure feels more severe, intractable, fucking absolute.