The Haunting: How To Conquer The Shame Of Being A Writer

Photograph by Allan Amato

The question is where to begin. One option is last autumn, when I was walking the dog past a construction site where a half dozen masons were third-floor-high, standing on scaffolding, laying bricks. A single hod carrier was mixing mortar on the ground and running it up a ladder, along the scaffolds, to each of the masons. His looked like the job you give the newbie: an apprenticeship where you learn the value of fresh, perfectly mixed mortar. The hod carrier never stopped moving, always lugging something heavy. While I watched, one of the masons shouted to him. Balanced at the top of the scaffolding, he shouted down, “Way to go, dude! I love the way you keep the mud alive!”

I love the way you keep the mud alive. The balance of those vowels sounds, and the way the words are so paired: love with mud, I with alive, the with… the. My head repeated the words all afternoon. They’ve been echoing in my mind since that day, almost a year ago. These days the building is finished. The tenants are a take-out pizza place, a head shop, a Pita Pit and an H & R Block. The bricklayers left months ago, but that sentence lingers. It haunts me.

Long before any of us would ever hear the name Syd Field, we’d watched the same movies often enough to dissect how each story worked.

Another place to start this essay is Dallas, Texas, a couple years back, when I was on a book tour. My aunt and some cousins live near Dallas, and the night before my event at the art museum, we had dinner. After a couple drinks, my aunt announced that she owed me an apology. It seems that when I was a teenager, no one in our extended family thought I would amount to very much in life. Throughout high school, none of my relatives could fathom why I didn’t get a decent job. By that they meant a job in a warehouse, or on a farm, doing labor like the labor my family had always done. From the age of sixteen until I graduated from high school I worked at a movie theater, eventually as an assistant manager, but always doing whatever work was needed. Tearing tickets, ushering, selling concessions or running the projectors. In retrospect, everyone I worked with was a teenaged misfit who found that a nighttime job was easier than a high school social life. We’d watch the same movies a hundred times. No kidding, but our smallest auditorium – we had three – ran the movie “Grease” for over two years. The print was so worn that it broke at least once every showing. After closing each night, at one in the morning, even with school the next day, we’d sometimes sit in a large circle on the lobby carpet, my misfit coworkers and I, and play a game we called “Box Office.” One person would invent the premise for a film plot, the next person would have to invent the first plot point, the person after that would add a new plot point. The story traveled around the circle with the plot gaining tension as it progressed from person to person. To play well, one had to remember all of the past plot points and riff off of them. To revisit objects and events which had been introduced long before, then almost forgotten. To us this was a game, a way to postpone returning to our everyday lives. But it was also an excellent exercise in storytelling. Long before any of us would ever hear the name Syd Field, we’d watched the same movies often enough to dissect how each story worked. We’d memorized the roadmap of every Romantic Comedy. The cute meet-ups, the complications and introduction of obstacles. The job paid minimum wage, $3.25 per hour at the time, and it was fun and exhausting and challenging, but it wasn’t work. At least not according to my family. Not that I knew this at the time.

This is why I love plot twists, hidden aspects of reality that suddenly force you to reevaluate your history and identity. While I thought everything was just peachy on the home front, according to my aunt I was the butt of endless jokes. Minimum wage was for losers. Even a job pumping gas paid five dollars an hour. Hammering together pallets at the pallet mill paid eight. My family was kind enough to keep their jokes hidden, but my aunt’s confession wasn’t a complete surprise.

While I’d never admit it, I’ve always harbored a shame about wanting to write. Even fictional characters who aspired to the same goal made me squirm with unease. Every Thursday night, as we watched the television series The Waltons, I waited in dread for the inevitable scene where Richard Thomas’ character would talk, rant, whine, shout or type feverishly about wanting to become a professional writer. The weekly outburst always came as some version of “With all these noisy kids distracting me, I’ll never be a writer!” Or, “Daddy, now I’ll never get to go to Boatwright College and become a writer!” Each tantrum made me shudder. To me writing wasn’t real work. And anyone who thought it was, he’d never really grow up. John-Boy Walton’s pride was my shame. I hated him for saying such impossible aspirations aloud. Such aspirations also seemed to demean the blue-collar folk who had to tolerate listening to them.

Shame on me for wanting to do something so worthless. Shame on me for not accepting the life my family lived. Shame on me for shaming them. 

You’d think the future would vindicate me, as it did Earl Hamner, Jr. Here I was, decades later, sitting in a fancy restaurant in Dallas, buying dinner for relatives as my aunt kindly and honestly admitted my family was wrong when they’d predicted my eventual failure at a silly pastime. Nevertheless there it was: the shame.

It wasn’t until I read Mark McGurl’s book, The Program Era, that I saw how my shame might be the shame of every writer. To generalize, McGurl cites this perception that writing isn’t worthwhile labor as the reason why writing programs have taught it as a craft, in workshops, stressing discipline and craftsmanship, always in an effort to legitimize this silly, shameful pastime.

While I’d never admit it, I’ve always harbored a shame about wanting to write. Even fictional characters who aspired to the same goal made me squirm with unease.

What a wonder to see that secret feeling expressed in print. My shame is everyone’s shame. It’s obscene to enjoy something this much and still call it work. My own training wasn’t the grind that McGurl describes. Tom Spanbauer, who still teaches writing in his home on Thursday nights, Tom managed to make our weekly workshop feel more like a party. However, when he described the actual process of writing, even he called it “Going down into the mine.” Creating a first draft was “Shitting out the lump of coal.” More no-fun metaphors. As if to make the work even more difficult, he taught a style of writing often called Minimalism, a style that brings with it a seemingly endless series of rules: Latinate words are forbidden, as are abstract measurements, adverbs, pejorative language, received text or conceptual “thought” verbs. In short, no six-foot-tall men, or 100-degree days, or ugly dresses or “remembering” or “realizing” anything. It is the Trappist sect of writing. Difficult, squared. If anything comes easily you’re doing it wrong. So of course I loved it. At last, writing was real work.

What’s more, even if you’re a devote Modernist, there’s still the icky remorse around writing. Even if your work sells to millions. Last year, at the Chateau Marmot, over dinner and drinks, lots of drinks, the thriller writer Chelsea Cain copped to the fact that in her greatest moments of insight and epiphany, she’s almost always alone. It doesn’t help that writing is solitary. There are no co-workers. No chain gang or teammates. Chateau Marmot or not, she’d acknowledged a sad truth about our vocation. That said, there are small consolations. Chelsea had hurt her leg, and the next day a movie star helped her with her crutches. 

What’s more, I’m glad my aunt apologized thirty years after those inside family jokes.

Most of all, my thanks will always go out to Patrick McGurl for saying the un-sayable. Acknowledging the big shame. It almost vanishes once you realize everyone – except John-Boy Walton – shares that feeling.

The only time the shame returns, just for a twinge, is when I see people doing “real” work. Like running mortar up and down ladders. Or laying brick on a scorching hot day. But even then, someone says something incredible, a sentence that needs to be collected and preserved. Even if it’s only one sentence and doesn’t even make sense out of context. Even if it’s just beautiful.

 I love the way you keep the mud alive. There it is. My job, such as it is, is done.

*Header photo by Allan Amato


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