Thursday, July 30, 2009

The writer's eternal question

It's the eternal question: do I pay bills, or write a blog post? Leave the dishes in the sink, or write a journal entry? Do laundry, or start a short story?

Sometimes, I choose to ignore all the petty little things that compose a household, and then someone informs me (usually the very morning they need it, like this morning) that they don't have clean socks or clean underwear. Or someone walks into my dusty house and I can almost hear their silent tsk-tsking.

I imagine this is why there were so few female writers in the past, at least among the lower classes, because they had no one to wash their laundry or clean their dishes. Writing used to be a luxury for women; maybe it still is.

I made a joke out of this in a very small magazine, in a special issue called The Lost Poetry of Women (and other people). [The issue was published 15 years ago, so obviously this has been a recurring theme in my life].

In one piece in that issue, Mrs. Gautama Buddha complained,

I hear you are growing fat. What else happens to a man
who sits around doing nothing all day?

In another piece, "The Annotated Shopping Lists of J.R. Smith," the housewife Jane Reed Smith's shopping lists from the 1950s were mined for the poetry she scribbled in the margins, such as:

I just know that, sometimes, the dishes be damned, I need to write, or I start to feel an underlying grumpiness that's almost like a bad taste in my mouth. If the days become weeks, I almost feel that I'm going crazy. I've been like this since I was a teenager, when I was stirred to write bad poetry and narcissistic journal entries in the quiet of my room late at night.

I finally recognize and acknowledge that I've got to express myself in written words on a regular basis–talking is never enough. Other forms of creativity can tide me over for a few days, but I always feel an urge to get back to writing, like a need to get back home, to the natural home for my thoughts.

Thursday, July 23, 2009


“Had-i-lay, did-i-lay, had-i-lay, pood-i-lay.”

These words don’t seem significant, yet nearly five million people have tuned in on youtube to see a young man utter this gibberish.

This is not the kind of video I normally seek out and I wouldn’t have known about it unless the young man in it, Brandon Hardesty, was featured on a recent cover of the Washington Post Magazine.

The same week the article came out about the popularity of Hardesty’s “Strange Faces and Noises I Can Make” video, my blog counter registered 1,200 hits. That’s 1,200 hits in 13 months; 1,200 hits for 66 posts, sometimes made with thought and great care, vs. millions of hits for one video made in a matter of minutes.

I have never assumed I can win over the eyeballs that watch videos of cute cats or naked sportscasters or goofy teenagers. The difference, of course, is between readers and audience. Reading requires thought, perhaps even a delayed gratification. Watching a video just requires a couple of minutes of your time. And it’s hard to imagine an essay going viral.

In other words, I am trying to console myself with the idea that I am seeking quality of readership vs. quantity. But it’s not entirely true. I still expected that more people would have read my blog by now—it’s been around for almost 15 months.

Yet, truth be told, I’ve done little to promote it, other than having it listed on a couple of web sites for writers’ organizations. I’d rather spend my small amount of free time each week writing it rather than advertising it. And I don’t know how to advertise it anyway, or how to help people find it other than sometimes posting links to it on my Facebook status line.

It goes to a deeper problem I’ve always faced as a writer—do I write for myself, or for an audience? I feel a deep satisfaction when I’m able to complete a story or essay/blog post; it feels like an accomplishment in and of itself. But there’s always another feeling there alongside it, a tiny discontent that can only be appeased if I know that the thing I have created has been seen.

So, I am looking for validation, no matter how happy the process of writing itself makes me. Not fame, but a recognition, a visibility. Without that validation, there’s always a little bit of melancholy, perhaps even a small amount of bitterness, in everything I write.

I don’t think my lack of popularity in high school can be blamed for this, though perhaps it feeds into it a tiny bit, like so many other slights in the whole history of my life, all these things feeding into what it is that makes me a writer. Without that urge for validity, maybe most writers wouldn’t write in the first place. Without that urge, I would write, but the things that I write would be entirely tucked in my drawers and never seen, not even here.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

The recession blues, all over again

Back in 1982 and 1983, I was making my slow way out of college. I wasn’t in a rush because I couldn’t imagine what I was going to do with myself once I was officially graduated and I didn’t want to leave Santa Cruz. My undergraduate thesis (on the Fourth Book of the Aeneid) was my excuse for lingering in paradise for another year, though I ended up expending more energy on scrounging money for food and rent than I did on research or writing. The thesis itself was written in a flurry, 60 pages on a manual typewriter, typed nearly non-stop the last week of the spring semester, still not totally finished the day I stepped up to the podium on campus in my silver go-go boots and free-box black dress to receive what turned out to be only a roll of paper. The actual degree was mailed to me a few months later, after my advisers had read the thesis and awarded me honors for it.

During those two years of lingering, I worked as a sort-of governess, a housecleaner and a babysitter. I tried to do elder care, which would have garnered me an actual paycheck, but the old lady died the day after I first showed up to her door. (Being Santa Cruz, my sometimes-psychic kundalini yoga teacher unexpectedly came to her house the exact afternoon I did, without my telling him I was going there; it seems he had been her counselor at one time in her life, and he just happened to visit her that day to check on her. He took me aside and whispered to me, “Her aura is black; she will die tonight.” And she did.)

It wasn’t that I hadn’t tried to find meaningful work, or better paying work. But jobs were slim and hard to come by. Paradise had its price. For every job listing, dozens of people showed up. People who were qualified to over-analyze Beckett and Joyce were taking jobs at the campus library or in bookstores—if they were lucky. To get a job at Bookshop Santa Cruz or any of the other independent bookshops around town was a mark of prestige. More likely, those lit majors worked at the bagel bakery or restaurants or, worse, at the cannery or the chewing gum factory. But I couldn’t even get a job as a waitress. I showed up at restaurants, wet from bike rides in winter rainstorms, wearing my thrift store clothing, to receive a firm no. I hadn’t worked as a waitress for a few years, and there were many more people available who wore better clothes and had kept their restaurant resumes active. Or they had connections.

I applied to be a copywriter for a computer software company (turned down immediately when I confessed I’d never used a computer), a waitress at various cafes and restaurants, a bus boy at India Joze (I couldn’t pick up enough weight to manage it), a cook at a tofu burger restaurant. No-no-no. No one wanted me. [That was the year my friend, Chandra, and I made collage postcards that we didn't know how to sell.] At one point, I took a part-time job at the Santa Cruz Boardwalk, operating a spinning, tilting ride that played an 8-track tape of Fleetwood Mac over and over, all day long, but I left it to work as a live-in babysitter for a doctor and his wife out in the woods of Soquel, for $300 a month and a small, kitchen-less cabin to live in. That job was washed away when the 1982 winter floods brought mudslides and impassable roads.

I managed to squeak by, my last few months there, until the end of the spring of 1983, but once I finished my thesis, it grew harder and harder to find reasons to stay, especially with most of my friends going on to graduate school or internships and jobs elsewhere, and a new crop of students rushing in. Not knowing what else to do with myself, I followed a boyfriend to Idaho and was surprised that I found work there as a preschool aide and a bookstore clerk (though I only made $4/hour, and had no insurance.)

Maybe it’s always a little difficult to find meaningful or well-paying jobs in a college town because there are so many other students looking for work, and maybe it was doubly difficult in Santa Cruz because it’s one of the most beautiful places in the world—redwood forests and fields of wildflowers and grasses, blue beaches below. But the recession of the early 1980s also, surely, played a part in my inability to find a job. Yet, I didn’t know this at the time. I thought that’s the way it would always be for me, never having really actively sought work before—that I was unemployable, and back to my elementary-school standing of being the last kid chosen for the team. The lesson I took from the experience was that writers/artists really don’t make money, no matter what they try to do.

I think about those desperate months every time I read a newspaper article these days that discusses the economy and references 1982 as having the worst unemployment rate since the Great Depression, and thereafter. That recession had a long-lasting effect on me. Whenever I apply for a job, I never assume that I will be hired; I lack the presumption of being wanted. 

I wonder if there are young people going through similar emotions these days, especially writers and artists who are already wondering what they can do in the marketplace with their skills, maybe not wanting to be in the marketplace, anyway, except by necessity. It's hard enough being a writer anytime, but recessions are hard on creative people. It's hard to face rejection in nearly every facet of your life. So, it's especially amazing to witness the people who keep at it, who plug on, year after year, no market ready to welcome them, still somehow sure that what they are doing needs to be done, what they are writing needs to be said.

(Photo--My graduation day, Cowell College, UCSC, 1983).

Friday, July 3, 2009

Solitude vs. the beautiful, chaotic hum

I’ve just returned from being out of the country for two weeks. During that time, I didn’t write anything but a postcard to my mom, assuring her that I was still alive. I attempted to write a couple of short emails to business contacts, when I had a few stolen moments on someone’s computer, but the French keyboard was so frustrating to use that I gave up (or, rather, gqvé up) after a couple of sentences. [A blog post appeared here last week through the miracle of Blogger’s post-dating feature—I’d written it before I left on my trip and it automatically uploaded while I was gone.]

The weird thing was that I didn’t feel a desire or need to write. This is an unusual feeling for me. Since I have known how to use a pencil to shape letters and words, I’ve had a persistent urge to write my thoughts down, though in recent years that urge has been satisfied by writing weekly essays rather than the daily journal updates of my youth.

I wasn’t experiencing any kind of creative constipation, but felt like some other, more visual/experiential part of my brain had been activated. I only wanted to take photos and make short movies of Parisian scenes, and to walk and take it all in—to eat luxurious meals, feel the breeze on my face, listen to street music, smell the pastries and chocolates—without attempting to describe any of it.

Perhaps in order to write about something, a writer must step back, set herself apart from things in order to filter and describe them. But in France, especially on the streets of Paris, I wanted to be a part of the beautiful, chaotic hum. Maybe if I’d spent a few weeks there I would have grown tired of it, or would feel a need to step back and return to the deep solitude I seem to only achieve during the writing process.

Now I am back in my quieter neighborhood, looking out to a narrow forest of oak trees from my bedroom window. My cat purrs on my bed, birds are speaking urgently to their kin outside. It is calm and maybe a little dull, but somehow it is stimulating for me—or is stimulating another part of my brain that was inactive during my European adventure. Thoughts and ideas for essays I could write began pouring out of me the day after I got home, especially after this morning’s walk on the sleepy streets around my house. I am suddenly a homebody, wanting to hang around the house, eat simple salads, pull weeds in my yard, and write. I am no longer yearning for pastries and people-watching on the Metro. I want to belong right now to a large but invisible community that is quiet and shaped by words, to seek immersion in ideas not crowds. I need both things—noise/conversation and quiet/thoughts. Finding the balance is an ongoing event in this writer’s life.

(Photos by Beth Blevins)