Blame it on incorrect wiring. That for some genetic reason I am unable to pick up on social cues. Most people don’t observe this about me, maybe not at first, but eventually some will cotton on. They might notice my style of speech. Rambling. My legs. Restless. The weird social tics. The forced grin and roving eyes after even a few minutes of polite conversation. Deer-in-the-headlights.
Incorrect wiring explains why I’ve spent much of my life studying and emulating people in an effort to discover the ‘right’ way to behave and speak. Interactions continue to baffle me. At fifty-one I’m barely better than a toddler.
This can drive a person to put pen to paper, or fingers to the keyboard. Maybe, a person with incorrect wiring thinks, I should write what I actually mean to say since face-to-face experiences are so fraught.
At the age of seven I got interested in writing fantasy stories. It was the beginning of what could have become my great Underworld Series, a sprawling saga about fantastical subterranean creatures who interacted in absurd and amusing ways. It could have become — but never did. Those stories are lost. I tossed them in the trash in disgust or my mother did. See the thing is, I went and told my mother about these fantastical things I was writing about. Prematurely. Here’s a cautionary tale. In the early excitement of creation when writing is so much damn fun, way funner than dealing with real people like older sisters who might tie you up to the stair railings on a whim and leave you there wailing, a writer can burst with the desire to share their stuff.
This is about timing your sharing. About choosing your early audiences appropriately. My mother is and was an artist herself, though not a writer, but even back then she might have recognized the creative process and trod more softly. She didn’t. When I spilled the beans about my project, about this subterranean place where my characters lived — Underworld was my name for it — she didn’t praise or applaud. She didn’t say how clever I was. Okay, okay, in all fairness I don’t recall if she actually praised me or not. The single thing I recall from this incident is her telling me that under no circumstances was Underworld an appropriate name for a happy fictional realm. Underworld, she told me, was another name for hell.
I knew a bit about hell back then. This was something every good Catholic kid learns early. It’s a handy stick for parents to brandish over children, for priests to harangue parishioners about and even, not joking here, for grandmas to terrify their grandchildren with by opening up books filled with classic illustrations of hell.
In my pre-teens and still in elementary school, I took up my pen again and wrote steamy romances about certain classmates. One particular boy I had a crush on appeared at the bedroom window of another classmate, a popular girl whom I had reason to believe this boy was sweet on. In this same episode my crush climbed through the girl’s window and discovered her standing there waiting for him. Naked. The end.
This was fantasy again, but now the sexual kind. And in this case a preemptive pre-teen curtain descended before any innocence could be breached. She had taken off her clothes. He’d seen her naked. The end.
Later I would experiment with absurdist endings, invoking my own version of deus ex machina before I knew what those words meant. A happy family on a stroll through a golden meadow, bees a-buzzing, birdies a-tweeting, the heavens shining — when in their midst leaps a gorilla holding a banana.
In junior high I got my first true encouragement as a writer when my English teacher urged me to enter a national writing contest. Much to my surprise, a few months later my teacher informed me I had won third place. The topic was science fiction and the story detailed some rather mundane events in the life of a futuristic schoolgirl. The most salient point, in retrospect, was that she wore a device on her wrist, a device similar to today’s Apple Watch. Even more salient perhaps was how distracting the device was for the schoolgirl, and how she wasn’t paying attention in class. If only I’d sent the story to Steve Jobs, maybe we could have cut a deal. Or maybe he might have foreseen the havoc he would wreak on the next generation’s ability to concentrate. Their frenetic lack of focus.
I dabbled at writing for years afterwards until finally, at age forty, I committed myself to the craft. I purchased my own computer, separate from our busy family computer, and built a weird little writing nook in the loft above my bedroom closet. I penned a few things and self-published two fiction chapbooks. And soon, in a matter of months, I’ll have a trade book out with my name on the cover. Throughout all this scritching and scratching and keyboard tapping, I also performed various ancillary writer jobs. Editor. Manuscript reviewer. Jury member. Director of a reading series. Creative writing instructor.
Incorrect wiring is one thing it seems. But motivation is another. Motivation is a complicated thing. Writing can counter failings, can be a balm for incorrect wiring, can even bring delight. But writing can also lead to despair. Ultimately, however, the formula for motivation is dead simple. You want to be published. End of story. This is what writing means. Take off your clothes and stand there. Naked. Hope to hell people applaud.