Friday, November 11, 2005

losing myself

Sometimes I wonder if I've forgotten how to write worth a damn. The rest of the time, I'm convinced I have and wonder if I ever knew.

There used to be a time when I thought I was a good, even an above-average, writer. I churned out stories like clockwork. Working for a newspaper gave me the ability to focus on a story, settle on the main talking points, order them, and then get them written under deadline, sometimes a tight deadline. At my peak, I remember writing six news stories in a single day.

I used to write humor too. While I was working a full-time job, I could still help churn out three Brothers Grinn mailings a week, and usually produce a humor column and a set of editorials for the newspaper as well. I have no fewer than six awards hanging on my study walls from the New Jersey Press Association for my writing. The one I'm proudest of is for an editorial I wrote calling for equal treatment for gay couples and their families at the municipal pool.

And was it really only a few years ago that I was on the verge of completing a novel with my best friend?

It was. It seemed like a major dream of mine was about to come true, and now ... now, I don't know what's happened. I can sit at the computer for hours, staring at the screen and having nothing to show for it, or idling away the time online, skimming the Internet and visiting one site after another. I thought things would get better after I left CHRefugee, and maybe things did, but I still spend a lot of time visiting blogs written by friends of mine, reading things by people I've never heard of before, and pouring over material I have only the slightest interest in.

Writing? I don't know how to do it anymore, and it drives me crazy.

Oh, I can still edit all right -- most of this blog, for instance, is simply edited versions of e-mail I've written to other people, although another sizeable chunk of it was cobbled together from posts I made to the aforementioned CHRefugee -- and I appreciate the irony of complaining in a written medium that I can no longer write, much as John Milton once composed a poem that his blindness kept him from writing poetry.

But still, it's frustrating. As I recently remarked to a close, personal friend of mine who is also a writer, we do not write because it is a hobby, or an interest, or an amusement. We do these things because we must. Artists who do not create succumb to despair; writers are not fully alive unless we write. Unless we can disappear inside a story or a character for a length of time and then surface only to discover that we have actually created something worthwhile, that we have strung together our words in such a way that we have communicated a piece of ourselves to the world at large, we are not fully human.

Writing was never a job to me. It was, and remains, an act of worship. It is the place and the means by which I draw closest to the Divine, where I grasp the eternal and surrender the temporal, where I slough off corruption and feel, for a fleeting moment, the exultation of Christ.

I can't do it anymore, and that's killing me inside.

I've had a book that has been sitting, undeveloped and waiting for me, for five years. A humor list my best friend and I run for a while reached a distribution of about 1,100 people. I have a graphic novel I'd like to write with another friend, and I can't get a single four-page sequence written out, even just the dialogue. For about three years, that has laid mostly dormant.

I've been fighting hard to revive the Brothers Grinn list, but the spark isn't there like it was before. We used to get three mailings a week; nowadays we're lucky to get two. I labor for an hour or more on an entry for a mailing and my partner writes back: "This is crap."

And it is crap. I really can't argue with him. I tried to do a piece on the Bush administration's morally inexplicable refusal to forbid torture during interrogations of enemy combatants, and it wasn't funny. It was obnoxious. I've rewritten the damn thing three times, drastically, and it still doesn't work. I'm stuck on obvious jokes, cheap sarcasm and one-liners instead of actual wit, and I try to cram in every possible wisecrack I can, with the result that even I can't tell what the piece was supposed to be about.

I'd like to blame this on my old job. Working at WCN, quality writing wasn't possible. I had to churn out articles to fill space and not to report news, and I wasn't able to sit down and concentrate on a single piece. There was always other stuff demanding my attention. I had editorials to write, layouts to do, story development to work on with a reporter, story editing so my reporter could go home at a decent hour, phone calls to take, press releases to edit, and on and on and on. By the time two years had passed, I had lost the ability to lose myself in a story, to edit my own work, and to write succinctly.

I used to be a good writer. I wish I could remember how it worked.

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