Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Mediocre Writing

I'm reading a book. It is by a Vermont author, taking place in Vermont. It's a murder mystery. I'm worried because I'm afraid that I'll be as mediocre a writer as the author of the book. Sometimes the writing is so ordinary and uninspired it makes me want to scream. The author is trying, I'll give him that. It is so naked and obvious that he is trying. He's doing things that I learned in school to try to do. He is trying to be a Good Writer. Got a little sex titillating. Got into the character's head. Put down a wooden, mandatory description where a description is needed. Thought of some interesting metaphors. People talk the way you would expect people to talk. And I have to stop my eyes from skipping over the page, skimming and distilling, I know that part of my intellect is not engaged, that is why I'm sitting back and analyzing the text, half way between despair and laughter. "Why bother reading it?" I ask myself. And there are several reasons. To know otherness. A warning of what might be waiting for me in my future. Hooked by plot, want to know what happens. Be a good girl and finish what you have begun. Finding seeds of redemption. Loyalty to a Vermont writer. I read and I am reminded of the phrases "Nothing is promised" and "Talent is inherent". The author of my novel is smart and no doubt educated. He has learned how to write. He has practiced his craft. Honed, smoothed, and found rhythm. And yet something is lacking. And I'm terrified that in me, when it comes time to write my book, something will be found lacking.

There are very few memories that I can point to and say, "There. That was a turning point." But one such turning point was the words uttered by the psychiatrist I was seeing when I was eighteen. He read my diary while he was on vacation. When he returned he said, "There were some ideas in it which have been thought before, there were some ideas in it which haven't been thought before. Has anyone ever called you a creative genius?" I, who had self-esteem caked in mud, dirty and low, was suddenly raised up high. He was a professor at Yale, and he would say things like, "At Yale this writing would get an A". I confessed to him that success wasn't easy. "When I write I bleed" I complained. His look said it all. "Then why not bleed? Bleed away. Keep on bleeding. And give us more writing."

I could have never gotten into Yale. My grades weren't high enough. And I worked for my grades, they represented my best effort. My test scores weren't high enough. And yet, something funny happened when I wrote an essay to try to get into Barnard and Columbia, the only two schools I applied to. I didn't have the energy or wits to apply to any more, a sign I believe, of my eventual breakdown. My world was narrowing, ordinary things were getting harder and harder to do. I wrote an essay about my parents divorce and the lack of meaningful communication in my household. What was said, I wrote, was that the things I heard were usually angry and hateful and left you feeling empty inside. My guidance councilor read my essay and said that before it I should include a paragraph apologizing for the intensity of emotion in the writing. "Nonsense" I thought, "Hit them hard and hit them fast with the writing. Don't dilute the effects with an apology. And anyway, since it is all true, why apologize?" I was pleased by my guidance councilor's wariness. It felt like I had succeeded in doing something dangerous, I had created writing that had reached out and bitten the reader. My English teacher's reaction was terse and caused me more pause. She looked at me with narrowed eyes, and said, "This will stand out from the rest." What do people think when they narrow their eyes? Something was being left unsaid. But the English teacher wouldn't say more, her body language dismissed me. A part of me then thought that if you bite people with your writing they won't like you anymore. Maybe my English teacher had learned from my essay what I was trying to hide. I had said, in my oh so brief essay, that I lived in a hurtful environment. And the conclusion that could be drawn, although I thought that I had successfully maneuvered away from making any conclusions, was that I was a hurt person.

The college essay that I showed to my guidance councilor and my English teacher was not the first essay that I had written. The first essay that I wrote I showed to my friend Toby's father. He was a psychiatrist who worked primarily with recovering alcoholics. Toby had gotten into Yale. Toby's parents worked hard to make certain that all their children were healthy and successful. Toby's father was emphatic. You don't want to submit this essay. It shows that you are psychologically damaged. The college won't want to take you. I don't remember what I had written, something about me being a wolf and aggressive, take the bull by the horns sort of person, an admirer of Ayn Rand's books. In short, I thought I'd been positive. I had read Toby's essay that she used to get into Yale and she wrote about a mouse. I suppose it was a daring mouse, but privately, I thought it read like a children's fairy tale, hokey. I was dismayed and ashamed by Toby's father's reaction but I took it seriously. A new essay had to be written. I suppose what I did next was to instead examine myself, I took a look at what was happening all around me. So you think I'm damaged. Well, what caused the damage? What I had said in the first essay, and what Toby's father had concluded from the first essay, was all the more shocking because they were two very different things. It was like he had accused of masking myself. So when I wrote the second essay I was emphatic, there would be no mask. Every word would be precise and true.

In addition to the college submission package the student had to mail a check to a national testing center and have their official SAT scores sent to the colleges of choice. I knew exactly what I needed to do but I was frozen and couldn't do it. I believe the letter and check sat on my desk in my bedroom. It was the creation of catastrophe. Columbia immediately rejected me. Barnard sent several letters saying that the SAT scores were missing from my file. Eventually the Vice Principle of my school called Barnard and told them that he was an authority figure, he knew me, and this was my score. I don't know what was said in that phone call. I do believe that my acceptance letter was dated from the day of that phone call. My memory is corrupt but I think that I confessed the unmailed check to the Vice Principle, and that this confession freed me enough to send it. The phone call was to say, "The scores are on their way, and by the way, these are the scores." I hope too that the Vice Principal had something nice to say about me. Every time the school won a debate I'd stop by his office and announce our win. I was captain of the debate team, and under my direction, we might lose an individual debate, but overall, the school would always win. It seemed to me that he was the only adult who cared what was happening with debate.

I used to have dreams about being rejected from the Big College all the time. In my dreams I then go to a little school, a community college, near home. These schools only care that they are paid money upon admission. Lots of students, of varying intelligence and seriousness, go to these schools. Sometimes when I dream I am mentally ill, sometimes not. When I dream that I am mentally ill it is never that I have a specific diagnosis, only that everything is very difficult for me to do and the students around me have a much easier time with everything.

When the psychiatrist called me a creative genius I was still in school at Barnard. I had not yet become overwhelmingly psychotic. I was only depressed, not yet schizoaffective. My mind was breaking but it was not yet broken.

Now I wonder what has healed and what has been destroyed. What is possible and what is beyond my reach. I have tried three times to write a book. In June I am going to start to try for a fourth time. This time I dare not fail. I rejected motherhood and had myself sterilized so that I would have the freedom to become a writer. Being called a creative genius gave me hope for success. What I have, so far, is basically failure. No book completed. Bits of writing in newspapers established for the mentally ill. My sister, as I write, is trying to become a mother again. She is busy raising her first. I made a choice when I was in my twenties and now, in my forties, I return to that choice and wish to honor it.

If I had never met the psychiatrist from Yale I don't know if I would have had myself sterilized. I would not have been so committed to becoming a writer. What would I be without the memory of his enthusiastic encouragement? That man has had more power over me then either of my parents.

And in my secret heart of hearts, I ask myself, aren't you glad there is no child clamoring for your love and attention so that you are free, in peace and quiet, to read, and then read some more, hour upon hour of reading? And if you so love to read, would it not have come to you, on your own, that you might wish to write a book? "I bleed when I write" I said before the walls of my mind came crashing down and I faced schizophrenic ruin. But never mind the mental illness. Writing was never easy for you. If you bled then, you will bleed now.

I think Barnard wanted me because I bled for them and they liked it.

I think I can write a book if I have enough courage to bleed, day after day and not stop in horror of the pain. I don't really bleed when I paint. This has led me, for a decade, through my thirties, on a detour. The past two days I have been painting in little fits. I start and then I stop and all the while I am bored. I really don't want to paint anymore. There is not enough challenge.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Don't worry. Your writing is so NOT ordinary, mediocre or uninspired. At least not what I have read so far.~Mary