Unlike any other art form I can think of, the physical mechanics of my craft are put to good use on a daily, if not hourly basis, by virtually everyone I have any contact with in the course of any even day.
Permission slips, reports to bosses, shopping lists, homework, love notes — all require exactly and precisely the same skill in producing letters and stringing them into words as that possessed by Shakespeare, Steinbeck, and Plath. Once your motor skills are developed enough to clutch a pencil, you’re pretty much assured of being able to write.
And frankly, it produces nothing. This thing I know how to do — the only thing I know how to do — is literally no thing. There’s nothing to hold, nothing to put on a shelf, nothing to clean yourself or feed yourself or warm yourself with. That which is tangible about writing is not, in fact, the writing, but the scroll, paper, screen on which it’s found. The letters themselves do not exist, save for the medium which conveys them. The “writing” of which we speak when we talk about the art or profession of writing is not — really — the formation of letters on a surface (that which anyone can do with a pencil), but rather the arranging of words in the mind.
And yet for me this process is almost as mechanical as the pencil. I think of my process, so to speak, as something close to construction. There’s also music to it, rhythm — an ugly/dissonant brick will be rejected — but it’s building. It’s foundation, layers, mortar, structure. Architectural flourishes are important, as they are in any construction project, but if they get in the way, they have to go.This is especially true when I’m writing to a specific length, as I almost always do: 750 words or (oy) 200 words is precisely that: 750 or 200 words. The house can’t exceed the lot on which it’s being built. If the choice has to be made between a solid foundation or a lovely bay window — the foundation wins. Oh, the many delicate fruits of my artistic mind that have been stripped from their branches and thrown on my compost piles! Oh, the humanity!
I suspect that this is the real reason that I don’t write fiction. It’s often assumed that anyone who self-identifies as a writer has a novel or collection of poems under the mattress, but not me. I long thought — really, really long — that this non-literary writing of mine was a lesser form, something I should aspire to overcome, and I only recently came to understand that I frankly don’t care to overcome it. I don’t want to build new worlds, or find alternative ways to envision the one I’m in. I want to talk about the one I’m in. I want to take one tiny corner of the vast slag heap of human reality and find where the pieces fit together and sort through the bits that were mis-cobbled and mis-labeled and need to be broken apart and put together differently. Even the things that work right, the stuff that’s like clockwork — I want to pry off the back, see the works, and then screw everything back into place.
But because this bears a more than a passing resemblance to what is simultaneously one of the most pedestrian acts of literate human life, and the stuff of fantasy and high literature, I find that (even among writers), there’s often very little understanding of what I do.
Carefully constructed arguments that describe painful realities and prescribe vital solutions on the pages of the nation’s largest newspapers may be, for instance, referred to as “letters.”
“An op/ed,” I want to say, pulling myself up to my fullest 5 feet 4 inches, “is not a letter!”
“As if!” I hunger to add. “I am an essayist, sirrah!”
Whereas on the other hand, when I publicly bemoan the fact that I’ve failed find a way to continue to ply my particular trade — essayists having gone the way of the glittering literary salons of the early 20th century — I’m told that what I do is art, a calling, something mystical that requires only my mind and my willing spirit. Not a job — I must, I am told, simply write.
All of which is hopelessly complicated by the fact that I actually do write, quite a lot, in yeoman-like fashion, stringing words together for other people, expressing their thoughts for them.
But not my own. Not very often, or, indeed, almost never.
What I want, what I worked toward, what I to this day dream of, is a job which allows me to use these no-thing producing skills in order to go through our slag heap and reflect back up to the world what I’ve found. This is my skill-set, it’s one I’ve honed, and I want to use it to pay my bills. I don’t want to simply write — I want a job.
Oh it’s a hard life, I tell you what.
I suspect I’m not the only professional who feels woefully misunderstood both by the larger community and often within her own profession. “I’m not a nurse!” I can imagine some saying. “I’m a nurse practitioner!” “I’m not a mechanic!” others may cry. “I’m a -” — see, I’m too ignorant to even know what a non-mechanic mechanic might be called.
I further suspect that I’m not the only creative person called on to simply create, with little or no thought to whether or not my creations will ever be seen in the light of day, or if I will ever be compensated for my efforts.
But I am the only one who can figure out what the hell all this means for me, and I haven’t yet. And that, for now, has got to be my job. Whether it pays, gives me joy, or puts my skills to good use, or not.