“But I’d finally reached a point where the prospect of not writing a book was more awful than the one of writing a book that sucked.” ~Cheryl Strayed
Of the three things I’ve learned since I’ve started watercolor painting, what startles me the most is that I don’t care if I’m any good at it. It also forces a perspective shift that I hadn’t expected, and a patience that I didn’t know I had. Unlike writing sentences, you have to wait for the first layer to dry. There is a forced pause in the creative act. With writing, I can type type type without ever having to pause. To think. It’s very easy to keep going to the next idea and the next idea. Whereas watercolor has two speeds. Hurry up and paint the thing so that the pigment and water swirl and do wonderful things. Or hurry and wait and wait until one layer is dry and then you can work on the next thing. For instance, when you paint a landscape, you have to create the sky and horizon first, and then you have to work your way towards the foreground. I haven’t taken an art class in high school, and even then I volunteered to model more than I drew. It’s such a delightful break from things that do not involve writing poetry, nonfiction, fiction, essays, all the work things. A mixed medium to explore and think about while I try to write and rewrite this book.
Somewhere around the time we stopped making mix tapes and buying CDs and started downloading our music from slow dial-up internet, I decided it was a good career plan to get into debt and become a teacher. My grades were suffering because I couldn’t work a double as a cocktail waitress and make time to go to the computer lab to type my papers. My typing skills weren’t great: I had fucked off in typing class in high school with a friend, a cute boy who made me laugh. I saw the debt as worth it because it enabled me to cut back on working double shifts. I had somebody telling me new things to read and stories of history I had never considered. I swan dove–chin out–chest out–into being a full-time student and part-time worker. Turns out this was what I was looking for my whole life.
At the end of this pursuit, at the distant horizon, I would become a teacher.
I tried to ignore my comfortably middle-class classmates who fucked around by getting drunk every night, pretending to have done the reading in the class. I learned very quickly that if I referenced a page number in the reading, the teacher would beam towards me and I’d have an upper-hand on the losers who suddenly looked down at their books nervously hoping the teacher wouldn’t call on them until they had a chance to scan the page. I’m not sure I was aware of how referencing the page was a signal of close reading, I just noted that’s how the handful of smart people in the class did it. The ones who were taking shit seriously. How the teacher did it. I saw my school loans in the distant future the same way you might accept your utility bills to keep the lights on. To keep water flowing out of your taps. To wash your clothes. To make sure a truck rolled up to your driveway and took away your trash.
I’d marvel when I was forced to go see counselors as part of some class or some degree checkpoint, and I’d try to make an appointment around my ever-changing waitress schedule. When I’d finally sit across from a counselor, they’d ask me my plans, and I’d tell them. “Do you have family members who can help you? Surely there is somebody who can help pay for your tuition so you don’t have to work.” As if it’s that easy. I never went to an advisor again. I took a zero on an assignment when I transferred to another school. Their advice wasn’t worth the gas money to get to campus.
Somewhere between the time our country elected the puppet of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld and Elliot Smith killed himself, I decided I could no longer spend the rest of my career planning for how I would pay for my bills when I was “off-contract.” This acceptable euphemism of the tenured to describe the time where you’re not paid but you’re not eligible for unemployment despite the small stack of degrees I had earned. The letters AA, BA, MA mean nothing when the bills are due. I sorted that I made more money an hour telling lies to lonely lawyers as I served them drinks than I did helping students learn how to read. How to write. My so-called calling didn’t pay my phone bill four months out of the year.
Somewhere around the time when I could no longer lie to students and say it was a good idea to become a teacher and I decided to go back to school, I applied for a loan to consolidate my car payment and some credit card debt. “Do you have a family member who could gift you the down-payment? Anyone in your life who can pay half of what you’ve applied for?” Would I be sitting here asking for this money if I did, I thought.
Somewhere between the time that Americans learned what a “sub-prime mortgage” means and the president sought economic recovery advice from men who worked for Goldman Sachs, I graduated with a second Masters degree paid for the tuition-waiver of Washington State and USDE. I swapped credit card debt for years of loan deferment, and I entered the job market as an instructional designer with a focus on online education. Five years later, the world is a very different place, and again, I’m lucky during unlucky times.
That’s a short-esque memoir-ish exercise where I try to be Chuck Palahniuk. Kinda sucks, right? I kinda want to go into a basement and beat the shit out of some strangers now. We can call it Class Resentment Club. Just kidding. For realz, I just read his latest book on writing, and it paralyzed me for an entire day. Check it out if you’re into les belles lettres. Consider This: Moments in My Writing Life After Which Everything Was Different.
Like now. When I think about writing and how to communicate the passing of time.
First let me say, that I’m not a die hard fan of his work but I know plenty folks who are. When Fight Club (the book, not the movie) dropped into my circle of waiters-who-read, they loved the violence of the book. Dudes gonna Bro, what can I say. They made me laugh at their perspective on books. Personally, I loved the scene where Tyler Durden slaps some sense into the convenience store about how he was going to spend the rest of his life. It’s a beautiful twist of what you expect and what actually happens. When Tyler describes his apartment, the Ikea furniture, and the things that own you, I was close to weeping. The disgusting brilliance of how they made soap from the liposuction fat. My Bro Bookclub didn’t want to talk about that “class shit”–those scenes never left me. Sitting in the movie theatre, I watched Brad Pitt and Edward Norton capture everything I imagined. Perfectly. I had lost touch with the Bros at that point, but I’m sure they loved the Meatloaf cameo just as much as I did. “Fucking Meatloaf as Bob! Can you believe it?”
I miss movie theaters and bookstores. You?
When my library announced curb-side pick-up recently, I hopped on the chance to order books. I searched for watercolor, watercolour, and books on the craft of writing. By the time I got my chance with Palahniuk’s book, I had forgotten I ordered it.
It’s the best book on writing that I’ve ever read. “I shit you not,” I’d say to my Bro Waiter Bookclub if I remembered their names. If you were my student, I’d tell you to buy this book. (Another sentence-style I’m stealing, if you read it, you’ll see it).
Throughout the book he includes “post cards from book tours” and I loved all them. One of the last ones in the book, he uses this refrain to show the passing of time. A model of what he teaches. Perfection.
Here’s my favorite:
“Soon after the death of my father, but just before answering machines and disposable cardboard cameras began to disappear, I flew to London” (p. 223).
Also amazing, and “hella fucking brilliant” in Bro Bookclub-speak:
“In the last days of road maps and telephone book, before global positioning systems and ride-sharing apps, my French editor hosted a dinner at her apartment on the Left Bank” (p. 227).
If you weren’t alive to watch the phasing out of this technology, you could research. If you were alive, you’re instantly struck with nostalgia and you remember where you were. When you purchased your last disposable camera. Ordered your last AAA Trip-Tik and so on. The reader has to do the work.
Throughout the book he advises that you need a clock and a gun in your work.
Where has this book been my whole life?
The clock marks time, and the gun–well, I really need to go back read more of what he says about that because I got so hung up on the advice about time. How to mark time. How to describe time. How to place time.
The gun, though, he sums it up with “the moment after which everything is different” (p. 226).
Yes, somewhere between the time I read that advice and now, I’ve written pages and pages of the “Somewhere between this and that” like I’ve done above. A revelation. It’s like a ten ton bell. Holyshit. So fun to do. If you’re searching for a way to write about time, especially during a time when it’s so meaningless. We live in a sea of Wednesdays right now, so I think that’s why I’ve been struggling a bit with writing. With everything. Will I share those sentences eventually? Maybe. Maybe not. Either way, this edict still rings true: “I don’t want to die without scars.” Thanks, Chuck. Me too.
Another brilliant post, Alyson. I just finished Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir, and now it looks like I’ll have to read Consider This. Thanks for the nudge. Always.
Thank you, Bethany! I haven’t read Karr’s book in a while, so that’s a great recommendation. Hope words and sentences are coming together for you. Thanks for reading even if it takes me a month to respond.