You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you. – Bradbury
And if you can’t write, maybe just get drunk. A teacher of mine once said, “I’ve known a fair number of writers who spent their time drinking when they should have been writing. And I’ve known even more who were writing when they should have been drinking.”
True, that. True, that.
“Don’t try,” Bukowski said. But trying is all there is. All he did was try. If he’d stopped trying, he’d have died long before writing Post Office, Ham on Rye, Women, Hollywood, “The Most Beautiful Woman in Town,” “Kid Stardust on the Porterhouse,” and the stories in the posthumous Tales of Ordinary Madness, outstanding things that people need to read and talk about.
So try. You’ve got to be tough to be a writer. Think: James Crumley, Andre Dubus Sr., Raymond Carver, Kurt Vonnegut, Flannery O’Connor, Vladimir Nabokov, James Baldwin, Shirley Jackson. These are some of the people who define tough. They ate nails. Pour one out for Charles Bukowski, too, even if you don’t buy his romantic hustle and don’t believe he was as hard as he tried to seem. If a person writes one good story, that is direct poof that that person took a handful of nails and got down to business. One good story, in itself, is something amazing. There are people who would pay big money to produce just one and can’t or won’t or think they can’t.
What about P.D. James, John D. MacDonald, Elmore Leonard, Charles Willeford, Ursula LeGuin, John Fante, Denis Johnson, Truman Capote, J.D. Salinger, Melanie Rae Thon? Read them with reverence and awe. Go take your hat off at the grave of Theodore Dreiser. Go absorb some brilliant Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald and then apprentice yourself to Michael Ondaatje and Paul Bowles and Isak Dinesen and learn all you can about the work of Somerset Maugham. What? You haven’t read anything by Maugham except The Moon and Sixpence? Shame on you. Shame. Go to the library and get The Razor’s Edge. Now. And while you’re there, get Labyrinths by Borges and anything by James Jones and everything by Anita Loos. Will you? Will you read John Cheever? Will you start?
So try. It’s a miracle that any stories get written at all. And the aforesaid writers produced many good stories in spite of the undeniable and obvious fact that the universe hates, fucking hates, serious art and artists of any kind. And the world especially hates writers who aren’t in the service of momentary commerce. In fact, all good writers are exceptions to the rule that says if it isn’t easy, you have no business making art, and if you were any good, you’d have made it by now. That’s the publishing industry talking. That’s the Random House Marketing Strategy. That’s the substance of jacket quotes and blurbs that say so-and-so is the Next Brilliant Voice of American Literature. Forget that. There are no rising stars. That light you see up there is already dead.
It takes so long to get any good at making art, especially fiction writing. It takes so much endurance and dedication and authentic, highly personal unattractive suffering. Once you get an idea of how badly the process is going to mess with your life—usually several years after you’ve made a serious investment into becoming a fiction writer—you’re either hooked on the energy and don’t care or you’re in the process of losing things. You may and probably will lose spouse, custody, car, respect of family / friends / self, teeth, your temper, your self-confidence, your identity as a functional and enfranchised member of grownup society and, without a doubt, that crappy job you’d hoped would give you more time to finish your novel. Maybe you’ll lose all of the above and be reborn as some purified Zen idiot who only knows how to write and lives in a flop house. And maybe that will be the way for you.
I got hooked on the energy of the creative process and stopped caring around 1997. Although I’ve had many moments of caring—convulsive episodes of remorse and dread that come on like a special kind of writer’s epilepsy, I’m still at it. My worst moments have coincided with various losses from the list above. But I still have my teeth and my spouse and no one ever took me that seriously as a functional adult anyway. So losing that one was moot. Otherwise, it has been a long road to get a book and 20 stories in print. I’m proud of that because I have to be, because that’s where my 20s and most of my 30s have gone. Now I’m 38 and getting close to books 2 and 3—a new collection of stories and a novel. And that has to matter to me. I have to care. I’m compelled to try, to keep going, to fight, to get up every day and put my time in even if those nails hurt when I swallow them. Like a junkie who might die from cold turkey, I’m too far along to ever get out. I have my bad moments. But I’m never quitting the juice.
So when I came across the quote at the top of this post from Ray Bradbury—I think I read it once before, years ago, in an interview with him or something—I started to think about being in east Africa and about writing and isolation. I started to think about what it means to keep calm and carry on as an artist when most of the “reinforcing hits” from the outside world (the sort of identifications that our culture uses to let us know who we are) have vanished. It’s easy to keep trying when people are telling you that you shouldn’t give up your day job. That was pretty much my MFA program and at least major sections of my PhD. The hard part is when you find yourself in a culture that doesn’t even care enough to want to starve you out.
Most people here in Bujumbura are grateful that the political situation is reasonably stable. They like the fact that they can work, that their families are okay, that the government isn’t systematically killing them. If I said something like, “Hey, I’m having a bitch of a time with closure in this story I’m writing,” I’d likely get a polite smile and a thumbs-up. If I said something like, “I’m doing this working artist thing because it really matters to me,” the Burundians I’ve met would likely agree—with all their characteristic tact and quiet reserve—that it is a very good thing to do. But a population worried about typhoid and tomorrow’s dinner may also tell you to take your difficult plot arc and try to eat it. Will your characterization take away my daughter’s fever? No? Ah, excuse me. . . .
Most writers here, the few there are, work in isolation—way more isolation, it seems, than is usual or necessary for the creative process to work. I think it might be different in neighboring countries; though, I hesitate to speculate at this point. I can say that Burundi is still recovering from the last 20 years of political instability. And as a foreigner here, as one of the few North Americans, I’ve often found myself turning inward, focusing on how my professional, artistic, cultural identity contrasts with the dominant ethos of the people here. I’m told there is a gentility in Burundi that does not exist in many other parts of Africa. But I might extend that: there is a gentility here that does not exist in many other parts of the world. How, then, does a 38-year-old writer construct himself in a context where the sort of social friction that fueled his work in the USA simply does not exist?
My only answer—at least, the only one I can come up with right now—is to keep writing and hope the question answers itself. Keep trying. Don’t stop. And this is what I recently told a student from years ago who emailed me with the Big Question. No, she was not proposing. She wanted to know what I thought her chances were for a career in creative writing if she went to a MFA.
In my capacity as a creative writing instructor, people are always asking me the same thing: whether I think they have talent to, you know, go pro. I try to be nice about this when they ask me, but I have no idea how to answer this question. I can say, look, you submitted two great stories to the workshop. I think they’re great because I liked them and felt moved by them in certain ways. Please note that not everyone felt the same way in the critiques. Also understand that my opinion is just one among many. I do not have the ultimate secret formula for quality writing in my back pocket. I can tell you what I see. And maybe I see more than the student critiquers because I have been doing this longer and to a more intense—some might say desperate—degree. But that’s it. Only YOU can determine if you have talent. You do this by trying to produce something of value every day.
Most often, I say: I have no idea and then feel bad when they decide I’m being disingenuous. I imagine that in the minds of most adult humans, the same script is running daily (given certain variations): what if I lose the house? What if she’s really going to that motel on I-80 instead of yoga class? What if I fail, I freeze up in the clinch? What if the deal falls through? What if that spot on my leg keeps changing color? What if I can’t perform? What if they already know I’m a fraud? What if they’re laughing at me behind my back? What if it all goes away? What if inside me there is just an empty void? The writer adds two more: what if I’m deluding myself about wanting to be a writer? What if everyone who says they like my work is lying?
Well, what if? You don’t have to eat too many nails to be a writer—not handfuls, at least. Maybe you just swallow one roofing nail every day you can’t write. After a while, you’ve got a stomach full, poking through to other organs, tearing you up little by little. I don’t know if Ray Bradbury ever ate nails; I know less about him than some others. But I do know he wrote some very cool novels. I know he learned things about being an artist that I don’t know—yet. I know if I try hard enough, I will eventually discover such arcana. Even if I’m the only person in Burundi writing a story set on a train in Nebraska. Even if I’m in an empty room with a notebook and a bowl of rice with Pili-Pili sauce next to me. Even if I have to eat nails. Even then.