Mar 04, 2014
For the Next Time You Get the Urge to Apply to Law School/Business School/Medical School/Google
Claire Fuqua Anderson
About a week ago, I went to a wedding. The bride was a college friend, the groom a man she met in dental school. Judging from the engagement photos, they are good at their jobs. At one point during the reception as my partner and I came off the dance floor, a gentleman who was an old friend of the bride's parents, recognized my partner and me from our college days and started talking to us, asking us what we do, etc.
"We're fiction writers," we said. His reaction was fairly typical: expression of general discomfort, repetition in the interrogative, tone of mild disbelief and certain doubt.
He rephrased the question—was our plan to write books that made money?—and together my partner and I said yes. This poor man was visibly pained. We had taken a wrong turn somewhere after graduating from a college that pumped out engineers. He cringed until we said that we were also teachers. Now teaching he could understand, but still, with our college degrees, we should be making, and I quote, "lots of money. I couldn't agree more.
"Life's not fair," he said knowingly, shaking his head. Another friend of ours from college came up and joined the conversation. I could see what was coming. At learning what my other college friend does, the gentleman's face lit up. He seemed to have some personal stock, actual pride, in my friend whom he'd just met. "Google!" he exclaimed.
Okay. So on the one hand, the exchange was just another reminder that the capitalist society I live in is obsessed with material wealth and measures human value by net worth and not, say, capacity for feeling. Perhaps talking to a stranger at a wedding is a useful exercise in attempting to justify what I "do" in economic terms. Just another reminder of the attitude of the general public, represented in this man, who, while he may not devalue art, struggles to see the artist as viable.
On the other hand, he's right—life's not fair. Millions of people on this planet have families to feed and lack the adequate means of doing so. Millions of people work in factories, fields, warehouses, sewers, and Google offices, for the majority if not all of their waking hours, and do not take joy in their work. Millions don't have access to the education that dispenses the golden ticket that ensures—oh, wait. And I get to read and write and sit in front of my computer trying to record my freaking thoughts when another girl is dunking fryer baskets across the street. Life's not fucking fair.
Here is what I've decided to take from the conversation at the wedding: kindly go fuck yourself, sir. Go away and let me write in peace. Without meaning to, he tossed a log on the fire. I don't even necessarily know how, or if it comes down to a rational argument about the reasons to write or the virtues of literature—I think more likely he tapped some deep competitive spirit, fostered in the youth basketball league, that still comes out when I play board games. Without a shred of malice, this man was able to put a face to the enemy inside of me who crops up and says that writing is pointless and that I suck at it. He offered resistance, something to push up against. And for that, I am grateful to him.
I don't think it's a coincidence that I've had "Royals" on repeat and stuck in my head for the past week:
"We're winning Pulitzers in our dreams"—seriously, try it. I also recommend Pharrell's 24hoursofhappy as a writing pick-me-up:
So many writers have articulated better than I can the relationship between self-doubt and writing and fought to keep the doubt from winning. Cheryl Strayed's mantra "Write Like a Motherfucker," originally from her column "Dear Sugar" on The Rumpus, has spawned a whole merch line. (She and Dan Savage are probably my favorite advice-givers in the whole world.)
A few years back on the NANO Fiction website, poet and former NANO Fiction editor Glenn Shaheen wrote an essay called "Why Do We Write" that humorously calls into question our answers to that question. "The answer most often posted is 'I write because I need to. Because I can't picture myself not writing.' Well, that's ridiculous. We need to eat, and we need to breathe, and to some lesser degree we need human contact as part of a communal species, but we don't need to write."
More recently, thanks to Gulf Coast's own Will Wilkinson, I discovered Rachel Yoder's fantastic "Four Short Essays from 'The Hard Problem'" published in The American Reader. "One time I was in therapy for being sad," she writes, "and while I was there I learned about The Power of Positive Thought. I know this sounds like magic and/or fake and/or antithetical to the open-eyed truth telling to which we've all dedicated ourselves as writers, but if you would like to not kill yourself after years and years of sitting at a desk with little or nothing to show for it, it's a really great option."
In a talk I heard recently, Elizabeth Strout described "surviving" the only writing class she ever took, a workshop taught by Gordon Lish. She remembers one thing he told her: "You're good, Strout, but you lack stamina." Strout shrugged and said, "And that was good for the next twenty years." She mimed the act of writing and repeated her own mantra: "I do not lack stamina, I do not lack stamina." The lesson here? I don't know. Get pissed off. Find some hater and write to show them. Take stock in the words of writers who face the same doubt—and let Google work for you.