The wild rumpus

I saw Stephen Elliott read tonight. He read a lot of beautiful words, one after the other. He read from The Adderall Diaries and the screenplay-in-progress for Happy Baby, a film based on his novel of the same name. I wish I could remember the delicate and abrupt way the words turned. But instead I remember this: sitting in the front row watching him describe what it meant to write nonfiction.

"When you're in your twenties, you are so worried what everyone else thinks about you," he said. "When you're in your thirties, you don't care what they think. When you're in your forties, you realize they were never thinking about you at all."

I've heard versions of this over the years, from teachers, writers, friends. But tonight I heard it differently. I thought of how much I long not only for the impulse to write, but the knowledge that I have something actual to say. I spend my days reading and re-reading and editing and revising technical texts that have the practical strength to make things happen, the same way a recipe writer jots down precise instructions for other chefs to follow. But when it comes time to write my own things, to spoon up my own emotional grit, I keep feeling like I'm coming up empty.

I know why it's happening, too. It is the obsession that writers sometimes have that someone is already looking over your shoulder, that each word must impress, that an idea must be fully formed before it is worth, well, anything. When I was a teenager, I'd sneak into my parents' den to write on our family computer, and anytime someone opened the door, I'd growl. They'd never be there to snoop; half the time they wouldn't even notice I was writing until I'd snapped in my chair. That's the great paradox about writing; nobody cares that you are a writer until you have written, and why shouldn't they? Few people are as impressed by someone training for a marathon as they are by someone who has just completed one, in record time, no less.

Perhaps the greatest irony of all is that all I seem to write about these days is how much I want to write.

It's similar to the desire for immersion. You want to understand the words, the cultural cues, the accents, the subtlety of exchange, before you can even conjugate the verbs. The only way to learn is to let yourself be helpless; to hang in limbo, not knowing if what you're saying is absolute crap, or culturally insensitive, or idiotic, or just plain unintelligible, until the day comes that you actually stop thinking about the words themselves, and instead you focus on the meaning behind them.

And that is what I learned (or, rather, learned again) from Stephen Elliott.