Who in their Right Mind Would Be a Writer?

a-m-boyle Struggling WriterA writer buddy of mine phones up and tells me to meet him on the first tee in 45 minutes.

Say no more.

I love hanging out with writers. I love their lack of common sense, their desperation, their vulnerability, their implausibility. Their impossibility!

Who in their right mind would be a writer?

I especially love watching movies about struggling writers.

Joe in Sunset Boulevard, and Roy in You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, and Henry in Factotum, and Charlie in Adaptation, and The Ghost Writer, and of course Miles (Paul Giamatti) in the film Sideways.

Miles (introvert, pessimistic, depressed) spends most of the story waiting to hear from his literary agent. The news won’t be good. Writers don’t show up in stories as symbols of success. They are setups for failure.

Someone should make a movie of my life.

Forget the first 40 years, they were altogether too glamorous. No, my life more truly started when my 13-year-old son called a meeting to say, “I’m in Grade Seven, Dad, and I’ve attended fifteen different schools.”

I said, “Wash your mouth out with soap,” but it turns out he wasn’t exaggerating.

“Pops, I want you to settle down,” he said.

So I quit shooting films, traded camera for keyboard, and decided that henceforth I was a writer. It was great. I soon became so broke that my son’s mother sent support payments from Hawaii.

Once, I forced my son to accompany me to the Welfare Office. They gave me so much money it was humiliating—rent, medical and dental care, bus passes, food vouchers, extra cash. I had to cut them off.

Though I soon acquired a stable of clients, every November it seemed I was scrambling to pay the rent. I sucked up my pride and hit the streets to sell door to door. Water filters, home insulation, sports videos, memberships, you name it, even vacuum cleaners.

I spent eight hours performing a demo for an Italian household. The extended family showed up to watch and applaud as my machine hoovered that mansion top to bottom. I thought they were going to adopt me. Alas, no sale.

I remember one cold, dark and stormy night somewhere out in Vacuumland huddling in a phone booth, demo machine in one hand and phone in the other as I listened to my agent promise me my script was all but sold. Alas, optioned three times, it’s yours, cheap.

One day the Revenue Department came snooping around to deny me my business expenses. It didn’t take her long to realize she couldn’t squeeze blood from a stone. Lost for words, she said, “Well, Mr. Reece…keep writing.”

Thank you, Ms. Klenck. And I did exactly that.

type-inI entered writing competitions—the 3-Day Novel Competition, Short Story Challenges, Screenplay Competitions, and Pitch-a-Plot workshops. But it is with special fondness that I remember the “24-Hour One-Act Play Competition”—all of us wannabe playwrights sequestered into one room.

Twelve hours into my scenario about a kid who is abducted off a golf course (well, they tell you to write what you know), I thought it would be wise to review what I’d written. I pushed back from my typewriter (that’s right, a typewriter!) and unenscrolled the paper from the rollers.

Typing on dot-matrix computer paperI was typing onto dot-matrix computer paper, you know, a continuous feed. I separated the sheets along the perforations and made a nice little stack which then fell to the floor. Thirty-five UN-NUMBERED sheets all helter-skelter.

I couldn’t organize the pages, couldn’t find the continuity, couldn’t put Humpty back together again. If I didn’t bolt from the room I was going to cry. It was 4:00 a.m.

Walking the streets, I was Miles and Roy and Henry and every fictional writer who ever agreed to let their creator thwart them to the point of despair and even self-loathing. Why weren’t the cameras rolling?

At a convenience store I suffocated my existential crisis with anchovy & garlic pizza. That I was a writer caused the proprietor to reflect on his own life, roads not taken, etc. Lamenting his lack of courage to lead an art-committed life, he said something along the lines of:

If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”

I knew there was a reason, besides my son’s ultimatum, why I was a writer.

At the same time I realized why I love movies about writers. As symbols of failure, writers depict Everyman at the brink of surrender. The struggling writer shows us what deep down we fear most—that the meaning of a life is to leave our old selves behind.

To be a writer is to have the courage to become unselved.

Spirits bolstered, I returned to the drama den—and damned if my abduction story didn’t win First Prize.

My words since then have earned me a million bucks, which, admittedly, spread over twenty years is a modest living. But I’m proud to count myself as someone struggling to bring forth what’s in him.

Who in their right mind would be a writer? I think that being a writer indicates nothing but right-mindedness.

But getting back to my son—I’d ring him for a golf game except the kid is doing so well that he’s off playing Pebble Beach. Last year it was The Old Course in St. Andrews. Next month Augusta National, it wouldn’t surprise me.

I might have to tell him to settle down.

PJ & son back then

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Comments

  1. Yvette Carol says

    Hi PJ, whenever you come to mind, I know there’ll be a post from you soon. Within three days of thinking, ‘I wonder when the heck PJ’s going to post again?’ there you were. Ha ha.

    It’s sad that writers are symbols of failure. And it’s true. My youngest son shows signs of creative intelligence and imagination – something his father sniffed out might mean the worst of possible career choices in his son’s future – so my son came home saying, “Dad told me, whatever you do in the future, don’t be a writer.” The reason being that a career as a writer is akin to having no career at all, and definitely won’t make you enough money to live on. His dad had spoken to him at length, apparently, to insist he choose something more sensible. What could be less sensible than this life of ours?

    To become ‘un-selved’ is terrifying to 90% of the population, and most people don’t want to be touched by that sort of nonsense. While others who live and breathe the imagination seek it out and will not rest until they have achieved precisely that breakthrough. You put it perfectly, as always!

  2. says

    Thanks, Yvette… lovely thoughts. I guess all outsiders are symbols of failure in the eyes of the mainstream. It reminds me of Leonard Cohen’s long-ago mentor who, concerned for Leonard’s onward path, asked him: “Are you sure you’re doing the wrong thing?”

  3. yvettecarol says

    That’s so good, it goes straight into my ‘Great Quotes’ file. Love it!
    As my spiritual mentor, Erin Lees said, ‘The answer can never be found from the state of consciousness that the problem arose in.’

  4. says

    Nice article Pj. I love your writing! I should probably do some work, but I’m having too much fun browsing your site and reading articles. Ah, an irresponsibly happy writer reading about a writer am I.

  5. says

    Thanks for looking into this blog. You might send some of your writer/clients this way if they’re keen to understand “how fiction really works.” No one really knows why, but the musing over it is a way of life. Warm regards. ~ PJ

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