The best book about writing I have yet read is On Writing by Stephen King. I finished it yesterday, and I hope to begin it again today. No other book has boosted my morale so much. Sitting down to it was like chatting with a friend, a friend who is a bestselling novelist and wants to help you become one, too. That's a good friend. And that's a novelist without jealousy.
To be writer is to fight back jealousy and envy of other writers. Hopefully the writer wins once in a while, for otherwise he will find friendship with other writers rather shallow, and he will write one too many obscene poems about Margaret Atwood. Obscene poems about successful Canadian poets were rather a feature of Toronto Spoken Word nights in the 1990s. I survived the scene as long as I did by writing comical short stories instead of poems. I offered no chapbooks for sale. I didn't bother competing.
Except for the Open Mic sign-up sheet. Few writers actually came to Spoken Word night to hear each other's poems. Are you nuts? They were there to read their own stuff. Okay, I admit that this may be overly cynical, and that some were there to support their friends and maybe even learn something. However, the dark energy swirling around the sign-up sheet suggested that something rather more self-interested was going on. The sign-up sheet did not appear at once, but when it did, there was a shift in the room like iron filings feeling the pull of a magnet. Whoosh! Anxious, sweating, eager bodies--mostly male--all jostling around the ticketseller's table, all waiting for the chance to write their names down.
Then, name written down, the writer could relax and sit down. Maybe even order a beer, if he had that kind of (i.e. any) money. If he suddenly didn't feel his work was "right", he might start writing a riff, right there and then, during the featured performance. In hindsight, I should have been learning from the featured performers, not just passively listening to them. But at least I never said, when I got to the microphone, "Okay, so I wrote this while I was listening to Martin there." It's amazing how many people said this with pride, as if we would all admire them for the freshness of the piece, the total possession of their concentration by the Muse, the newness and nowness of it all, ya dig?
The lust for the sign-up sheet was something I understood, even as I resented the jostle and crush. Reading my stories and hearing the silence and then the laughs and then the palpable expectation of more laughs was addictive. It was awesome. It was the best. Twice I was a featured writer myself (thank you, Clara Blackwood), and being asked to feature felt better than being published. (When I sold my first freelance piece, I felt really weird. When I sold the second, I got stomach pains so bad, I thought I had appendicitis.) I didn't want the money--I had a well-paying day job--as much as I wanted the audience.
So one day I found myself just as jostling, anxious, sweaty,and eager as the most self-deluded Charles Bukowski wannabe, totally consumed by lust for the sign-in sheet. I forget if I got to write my name down in time or not, but I felt awful either way: icky, dirty, carnal. I didn't want to be that kind of writer. So I quit going to Spoken Word. As far as I could tell, 45% of what I heard there was okay, 50% was total crap ("Okay, so I wrote this while I was listening to Meagan there..."), and only 5% was worth the hour-long bus ride from Hamilton. And 1% of that 5% was the sound of my own voice.
Now I'm sorry I quit. What I didn't understand then was that the audience was giving me something much more than a rush: they were giving me feedback. And in return I was giving them value for the entry fee. Lusting after the sign-in sheet didn't make a writer a jerk. What made a writer a jerk was boring the leg hair off the audience with ill-prepared stuff he had tossed off while ignoring somebody else.
What I also didn't understand then was that the guys all wanted to be Charles Bukowski for a reason, and so I should have been reading Charles Bukowski to find out why. I am talking fifteen years ago, and I STILL haven't read a Charles Bukowski poem.
So here is a link to a Charles Bukowski poem I found after I was listening to myself there, and interrupted to ask why on God's green earth I never bothered to ask any of the poets what poems they recommended. And, as luck would have it, Bukowski's "So You Want to Be a Writer" is pertinent to this discussion. For one thing, it is about being a writer, and for another it explains why I had to listen to so much crap.
What Bukowski counsels sounds reasonable to me, but he forgot to mention editing. Just because it comes roaring out of you doesn't mean that it's wonderful and everyone will love it. Sometimes you have to go back, put in the commas, correct the spelling and take out half the words.
But otherwise, yeah. Sort of. A girl in Poland asked me how to become a writer. I asked her if she was writing already. She said no. I told her either to write or not to write and forget about becoming a writer. A writer is someone who writes as long as he has something to write with and on. He does it because he would go nuts if he didn't, or because he really wants to. Because it's fun. Because not doing it is weird and uncomfortable, like skipping Mass on Sunday.
Sometimes I write to kill pain. If that girl with the voice that could cut lead pipe and never stops talking gets on, I search my bag in agony for a pen or a pencil. Heck, I'd use an eyeliner if I could get it sharp enough to write easily. Then I search again for a notebook, a novel, a supermarket receipt. And then I start writing. Anything to get in the zone and block out that girl. Jings crivens, she tears the will to live out of you. And she's an actress, she lives at the community college at the end of the route.