I will start by saying that I do not have to explain myself to you. Then I will go on to explain myself, out of some misplaced sense of duty, maybe. More likely because I feel threatened. Because I have called my own ambition into question and now I can’t stop thinking about it; because I worry that writing is a lazy and selfish thing for me to do. In some ways, I suppose it is, in that I am not working from 9 to 5 and have copious amounts of time to nap. I feel like the worst kind of fool, scribbling in my notebooks that cost more than I could possibly justify spending. Maybe I am just discombobulated because I recently woke up from a nap.
When you try to add your voice to the conversation, you start with the assumption that you have something important to say. This is a loaded assumption, and the younger and more inconsequential you are, the more loaded it is.
Apparently most creatives feel like imposters, except for the ones who don’t, and they’re insufferable.
And I wouldn’t want to be insufferable. Or presumptuous. But I do want to write. And I want to make waves.
Over the summer, I found myself living in Iowa City, having accepted a generous grant from my parents to participate in a fiction writing workshop. As my dog and I sat outside the neighborhood coffee shop, a man approached us. He had a used copy of Barthes peeking out of his shirt pocket. Both the book and the pocket were fraying at the edges.
He sat down, set his backpack on the chair next to mine, clasped his hands behind his head, and proceeded to make uncomfortable and unsolicited eye contact. Then, as though the five seconds of eye contact hadn’t happened, he leaned forward to pet my dog and ask his name.
“Ginsberg,” I reluctantly answered.
“Ahhhhh,” the man said. He got the reference, and it was satisfying for him. We talked for a bit about writerly influences, authors we don’t like, authors we do, and how we found ourselves in this coffee shop in Iowa. I explained the fiction workshop, and he admitted that he was a writer as well.
“Check out my piece in The Trickling Tributary Feeding Into An Unassuming River Review,” he told me.
Aren’t we something? Am I being unfair?
I drove to Iowa from my home in California, and on the way, I stopped at a burger joint in Arizona. I sat outside with my dog in the blazing heat and dry winds and waited for my food. A man approached us, his bald head sunburned and dripping sweat. He did not bother to make eye contact, or ask what brought me to Phoenix. He did, however, ask me if my dog was friendly, leaning over to scratch him behind the ears.
“What’s his name?” he asked.
“It’s Ginsberg,” I told him. He scratched the skin on his arm.
“You know I saw that on his collar, but I figured it was just the name of his doctor.” Oh, I remember thinking. Of course.
“Yeah, no,” I told him.
“My optometrist’s name is Ginsberg.”
“Is it?” I inquired. Are you sure it’s not the name of your lawyer?
“No wait. Eisenberg.” Right, I thought.
“Well, have a good one,” he told me, heading inside.
I wonder what it says about that man at the burger joint that his immediate assumption was that my dog’s collar said “Ginsberg” because that is his doctor’s name — has he never seen a dog’s collar before? Then I wonder what it says about me that I have a dog named Ginsberg.
I feel guilty, stupid and self-important. Both these men made me feel badly, and I wanted to apologize, but not too much, and not to them. I didn’t know where to direct my apology, but I knew I wanted to apologize the exact right amount while also taking myself seriously but not being presumptuous and also having confidence in myself. Take a Xanax, you might say, though if I take a Xanax, I will inevitably end up taking a nap, and if I am napping all the time then I cannot write.
I want to jot things down in my notebooks when the mood strikes me — for instance, right after either one of the encounters with the aforementioned men — but I feel self-conscious doing so in public. It is a weird mixture of self-conscious and defensive, and I find myself hunched over my notebooks, sheltering them from view, worried that the people around me will read over my shoulder and find out that I’m a fraud.
I am embarrassed by my writing, the content and prose rather than just the act itself, because it says things about me; it suggests I know certain things. I worry that people will read stories in which my protagonists make stupid and ill-advised decisions and think “Wow, I can’t believe she did that.” I practice the art of disassociation, though I never much went for that whole “the author is dead” school of thought. The author is very much alive, someone wrote those words that you are reading, and for me, this is where the magic comes from.
But if this is the case, then we can’t be afraid to write, or to take ourselves seriously. This line of thinking makes me feel empowered enough to be unapologetic and fearless, at least for today. We’ll see how I feel when I wake up tomorrow.
Someone once offered this advice: “write like your parents are dead.” Write like nobody is judging you. In fact, Allen Ginsberg was only ever able to write Howl under the premise that it was only for himself, that no one would ever read it. Then, of course, it became the rallying cry of a generation. I wonder if he was embarrassed. I wonder if he apologized to his mother. She did not come off well.