Saturday, January 07, 2006

The Writing Life (plus some sex and food)

Ah, finally, I’m sitting down to write about writing, as promised in my blog title! I’ve been writing seriously for almost nine years--April 2006 will mark my anniversary. I must say it’s a pleasure to hold my contributor’s copy of Best American Erotica 2006 in my hands and remember how uncertain I was, terrified really, that I would fail, that I didn’t have it in me to be a published writer. To be honest, the terror still lurks inside me—sure, I managed to publish forty-five stories over the past nine years, but can I keep doing it? Was it all a fluke?

I’ve come a long way since April 1997 and it isn’t all about the growing collection of books and journals that contain my work, all filed away on the “Donna shelf” of the bookcase. (Actually we have nine bookcases—I’m referring to the bigger one in the boys’ room). What has changed most profoundly is my understanding of what it means to write.

Many people—and I put myself at the top of the list even now when I supposedly know better--confuse the concept of “being a writer” and the humbler, but more interesting act of transforming sensual and intellectual experience into words on a page that other people want to read. Being a Writer is about image, the picture we hold in our minds about Writers, nourished by the media and even older cultural myths. There are two kinds of writers, right? The successful type, fabulously wealthy like Daniel Steele and Stephen King or any of Oprah’s picks. Their hot-shot agents, editors and even publishers return their calls within the hour. They have personal assistants, maids and pool boys. The entire nation hangs on their every brilliant utterance, their imagined worlds weave their way into our own fantasies so that they seem more real than what we’ve experienced ourselves. When you sit down to write your first novel, you know that if you achieve anything less than this, you are not a Writer. You are a Wannabe.

We all know what that means, too. These are the folks who announce at cocktail parties that they are Writers, when of course all they have to prove it are fourteen unpublished and unreadable novel manuscripts cluttering their file cabinets.

There is a middle ground here, the place where most writers, with a small “w,” reside. Your name is not a household word, although the editors of small, university-based literary magazines may recognize you by your cover letters. You make a few hundred bucks on a story now and then, if you’re lucky. But you have something better. Because it is the act of writing, not the state of Being a Writer, that makes your life so much richer. You don’t have to be published to reap the benefits either.

When I first started writing back in 1997, I was a sleep-deprived mom of a one-year-old. Each day flowed into the next with butt-wiping and mixing up Gerber oatmeal and mothers’ group park dates. How could anyone find excitement in a life of this? For me the answer was to write. And then everything, the smallest thing, became fascinating because I wanted to find a way to describe it truthfully, and sometimes beautifully. Every trip to the grocery store or Peet’s coffee yielded a new treasure: the mineral and seawater scents of the fish counter, the way a stranger held his coffee cup, which might find its way into my next story. My sex life shot off like a rocket. It was always good, but it got much, much better when I began to pay attention to what was happening inside of myself and between me and my husband. Eating became much more pleasurable when I focused on the flavors and the textures of my food.

Writing became a spiritual act, a richer way of relating to the world and myself. Not that I don’t celebrate when I sell a story. Not that I don’t feel a real thrill at making Best American Erotica. It is a dream come true. But what really makes me happy, deep down, is that I wrote a story that captures something about a foreigner’s experience of Japan and longing and the allure of fantasy and the tricks it plays on us, all themes that fascinate me. It’s never easy to write a story. Every one has involved hours of doubt and pain. But sometimes they work out better than you hope. Sometimes they let you soar.

So, if you write, keep at it. You’ll make the world a better place even if you don’t score a spot in the New Yorker. If you don’t, but you’ve always wanted to try, I recommend it. It improves your sex life and makes cookies taste better. What more can you ask for?

Well, that’s all for now. But I’ll be back soon with a nostalgic walk down erotica lane—a list of formative dirty stories I read on the sly in my younger years—plus more commentary on Best American Erotica stories, and a follow-up to my interview with Susie Bright, because I do have a lot more to say about sex and sensuality in Japan. Pour me a tokkuri of sake and I could go on all night…

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