No, the title doesn’t refer to a forgotten garage band from the 60’s (although it would be a very good name) but rather to another on of his those entries that covers a couple of things of dubious relevance to one another that I will try and combine into one, universal point by the end. It’s a good exercise for a writer, cause in many ways that’s what we do. Let me break it down real quick: we get an idea for a story, we start writing it, we follow our hero until he or she gets what they want/don’t want/didn’t know they wanted, and then we try to tie it all up in one cohesive bow. You see, we don’t always know what we’re trying to say as writers––at least I’m not 100% sure all the time––but if we trust ourselves and our characters, we often come up with a name for the soup that’s been simmering in our heads by the last word. So let’s give it a try.
First of all, I’ve been fighting a cold. Or it could be a sinus infection. I seem to have it almost ready to tap out, but my right nostril refuses to give up the fight. So I medicate, try and eat the right things, and do my best to get lots of sleep; all to varying degrees of success. February into March in New Jersey has to be the most inhumane time of the year. Cabin fever has completely set in, temperatures fluctuate in the middle of the night leaving you to battle with your blankets in a barely conscious state, and in the off-chance you are feeling ready to go, you realize you’ve already broken everything you got for Christmas. Each day is like another daily slog in the gulag. At times, I can hardly motivate to eat. And when a little cold threatens to disrupt a pending trip overseas, I curse the very eyes of Baby New Year. If that brat was within reach I would boot the fucker into the ocean. If he’s reading this, keep your poopie diaper off my lawn or I’ll do it, I swear.
But enough of my moaning. A very generous and tireless literary agent by the name of Nathan Bransford (He sounds a bit privileged doesn’t he? Like he might have been naughty at some point in his teens and pushed his daddy’s catamaran into the pool causing him to miss that weekends polo match.) has a blog where he encourages discussion among writers and lends us a peek inside the highly secretive and dangerous world of publishing and government assassins. Okay, maybe the government assassins part is mostly my own fabrication, but anyone who has spent a few months there and doesn’t admit they’ve become a better writer as a result is either lying, not trying, or Baby New Year (cause he’s a little fucker, as previously established). Anyway, yesterday Nathan posted a Ten Commandments for the Happy Writer that I found to be very helpful–if for no other reason than printing it out affords one a paper-thin, desktop target for aiming one’s head. Below, the list, in brief, and my personal translations:
1. Enjoy the present
Basically, he’s saying to not live in the future all the time. Writers tend to be dreamers, and I agree. Even worse, Sagittarian writers like myself tend to be in a permanent waking coma. We walk into stuff a lot, which explains the steel-tip boots and evolution of bat-like radar.
2. Maintain your integrity
Don’t let desperation be your guide, forcing you to do whatever it takes––lie, cheat, steal, parade around a boudoir dressed as a sheep––to get to the top. In other words, don’t be another James Frey. A Million Little Pieces, huh? Yeah, like if the pieces were dollars or, better yet, my heart, you duplicitous scamp!
3. Recognize the forces that are outside of your control.
This one really hits home, because he’s saying that writing is basically a huge gamble. You can be great, work hard, do everything right, and still never catch the breaks. When you think of it in terms of being one sperm on its way to the egg, you get a better picture about how sticky the situation can be.
4. Don’t neglect your friends and family.
Pretty self-explanatory, here. As single-minded as you might be about your project, you do still need them. I mean, you can sit your manuscript in the kitchen for as long as you want but is it going to bring you a beer? Not very likely. I may or may not have translated this properly.
5. Don’t Quit Your Day Job.
This one’s pretty obvious, too. I think it was the great Native American artist Little Sand Painter who said, “No paint sand if no food eat and wigwam mortgage no pay”. Yes, I’m quite sure that’s how it went.
6. Keep up with publishing industry news.
You do have to know the lay of the land if you’re going to explore its hills and valleys. If you don’t, you’ll end up clinging helplessly to the flotation device of blind folly. Once you start mixing bad metaphors, you’ll really know you’ve lost it.
7. Reach out to fellow writers.
I found this one to be very important. Feedback of any kind brings you closer to your goals. It helps direct your decisions, and at the very least, keeps you from feeling alone. I would stay away from those who are too bitter, though. I think it was the not so great Native American soothsayer Little Black Cloud who said, “Sun go down…that’s it, tribe screwed, night forever”. I’ll have to check that one, but I think I’m close.
8. Park your jealousy at the door.
I hate jealousy. So what if you’re writing the next great American novel but everyone else is too busy reading some fancy, teen reader baloney about a boy wizard and the school where he learns his life lessons? I mean, what are the odds that thin premise will last past a single book? Your turn will come if you stick to it. In other words, don’t give up on that story about the talking eraser that’s fed up with being clapped every day and goes on a cross country journey to find its long lost sibling who’s being enslaved in a chalk testing factory. It won’t be long before your genius, too, is recognized for what it is: lunacy and blind luck.
9. Be thankful for what you have.
I have a little cold, and frankly, it can go to hell. But I think what Nathan is saying here is “be thankful that you’re somewhere between a starving child in a third-world country and a loveless, incontinent spinster being propped up for another spoonful of Ensure. And you know what? I’m right in the middle, and dammit, I’m grateful.
10. Keep writing.
For those of us who have no choice, this one is really superfluous. I mean, if you’re a real writer, you don’t even need all ten commandments. Nine is plenty. It’s also an odd number, and if nothing else, writers are an odd number.
That said, I’d like to add to the above, if I may. Consider these, if you will, the “lost” commandments:
11. Keep a steady supply of sweet alcohol at the ready. Thanks to Steve Fuller for that one. I fully concur. Should be number one, really.
12. Have some inspirational photos on your desktop to keep you going. Running horses, breathtaking waterfalls, goatse––whatever it takes to keep your eye on the prize. Have it at the ready and lose yourself in its magical charm when you’re feeling a little…stale.
13. Trust in yourself. I’m not even going to make a joke about this one. The very second doubt forces you to step outside the process and go about it objectively, you’re applying too much of your conscious mind. It’s behind that irritating lobe where you’ll find the answers. They won’t give you unfettered passage, but they will always require you to cut through the brush to find them. That’s because our minds really are a jungle; a teeming ecosystem of experience, emotion and faith. If we believe that somewhere within lies a precious gem waiting to illuminate our souls, then we’ll keep chopping. But if you try and hire a helicopter to find it while sipping a brandy and singing jazz standards, all you’ll get is a headache trying to peer through the thick, protective foliage of imagination’s canopy. Nearly lost it at the end there, but the point is this: do the work, and do it the hard way. There’s treasure in them thar hills.
So, as we arrive at that unholy, odd-shaped number of 13, I return to write through my cold and my fatigue. Why? Because I must, and in my effort I forget about both for a bit. And I forget about February into March, in as much as I don’t focus on what it’s done to me–rather, like many who have found the way before me, to use it.
And there’s your bow, my friends. Below, some Chet Baker to see you out. I wanted to post a video of him singing “Do it the Hard Way”, but alas, couldn’t find one. Instead, I’ve decided on his duet with Elvis Costello on “I’m a Fool to Want You”. As you watch Chet puff the opening melodic salvo, you can almost feel the miles in his face. When he finds his embrochure, one gets the sense that he’s put everything he has into those first, few, sad notes––notes that may or, once again, may not deliver him. I find that reading of this entry to be just as fitting. Sure, we’re fools, but do we have a choice?
I’ll leave you to answer that one on your own. See you.