Saturday, April 16, 2011

Conversational Chicken

It begins in childhood, the need to be noticed, to prove we are worthy of notice. With the first words, a child defines himself by his parents. My dad can lick your dad, little boys say, hands curled into fists and chin thrust forward. Little girls go to their fathers, too, but not for a fight. A little girl's dad is defined by his job. My dad's an aerospace engineer, one little girl says to another whose father works in a warehouse or is just a cop, never really understanding what an aerospace engineer is or what he does. It sounds impressive and that's enough.

As children grow into adults, they learn the meaning of aerospace engineer and leave it behind to count their possessions: a color tv in a neighborhood where most tvs are black and white, a sporty car for teenagers, a great vacation to somewhere exotic or at least trendy, and the one upmanship continues as children grow into their own identities and rely more on their own accomplishments: graduated in the top ten percent of their class, or the top one percent, accepted to the Air Force Academy or submarine training in the navy, and the accomplishments pile up. Job, college, career, and so on add to the list until the day when children become adults and are measured by their bank accounts -- or by their fame, or infamy.

I remember the first time I was able to say, "I'm a writer," which was followed by, "Anything I'd recognize." A blush and a lopsided smile and, "Probably not unless you read -- magazines." I squelched the urge to stop at 'read'. Everyone reads. The disappointed "Oh," was all it took to deflate my pride and here comes the fall.

I've learned to point to my published accomplishments, but not all of them. No one would stick around for a list that long, and nothing was really all that noteworthy, unless you count the Chicken Soup for the Soul books or the Cup of Comfort anthologies. Everyone likes a feel-good story and I've contributed my share. I'm a little less willing to come out with "I'm a writer these days" because it is followed quickly by, "I always wanted to be a writer." I manhandle my inner smart aleck into a dark closet because she wants to say, "Since about five seconds ago," and sneer. This is quickly followed by a disclaimer. "But I just don't have the time."

The ability to commiserate with someone who doesn't have the time to be a writer has long since eroded and been placed by, "Do you watch TV?" The person nods and I add, "Give up 30 minutes a day of TV and you will have the time to write." I can see the wheels turning. They've been caught dissembling, but these hive minded people adapt. "But you could write it for me. I have a great idea for a story." I cringe inwardly while I am regaled with what is at best a derivative combination of whatever is the flavor of the month and the heart rending story of abuse or addiction, neither of which I want to touch with a ten meter cattle prod. I have stories of my own to tell and I do not have the time or inclination to pursue someone else's disjointed confession or hodgepodge of vampires, werewolves and space ships.

This is what I call a conversational game of chicken. I offer solid advice and they counter with excuses and story ideas that are horrendous at worse and boring at best. Been there done that. Once again I counter with, "That's the kind of story you'd have to write yourself," all the while looking for the nearest exit or trot out a convenient, and true excuse: "I have to get going. I have to finish working on my book." I am after all a busy writer and my stomach isn't as strong as it once was. There is also the added complication that my inner smart aleck has just broken free and is struggling for control of my voice.

Everyone thinks it's glamorous to be a writer, which is true if you're Jackie Collins or Scott Turow, but here in the trenches it's not so glamorous. Most of us in the trenches still have day jobs. We are wage slaves carving out a few hours, or minutes, to write. We sacrifice.

Four years ago, I gave up watching TV and had the cable cut off. It was sucking up too much time. I haven't even turned on the TV in months, about six months to be exact. It sits gathering dust in the living room where books are piled on every available surface, books I've read and reviewed and really need to get boxed up and carted off to Goodwill or Volunteer of America, those that aren't proofs or ARCs, which cannot be sold. I almost look forward to ebooks since they don't take up much space and the big publishers who end them take them back after 55 days. No stacks and piles of books to box or worry about. I might even be able to reclaim my living room one day.

My day is segmented into wage slavery, reading books for review and writing. I manage to sandwich in eating (when I remember), the occasional shower and even brushing my teeth. There's not much I can do about the going to the bathroom; that controls me, I don't control it, at least not any more.

Yes, it's a glamorous life I lead, most often wearing the same clothes for days because I don't get them sweaty or dirty sitting at the computer. And there are more times than I can count when I'm busy marketing, promoting and finally able to get into the writing zone where time has no meaning. That's the best, when I'm in the Zone. Nothing else matters until I realize that it's nearly 4 a.m. and I still have to get up for my daily stint of wage slavery -- but only for two more years.

More has been piled on the sacrificial altar of writing: vacations and buying books. I have decided that the more money I save, the sooner I can quit my day job and have the time to write full time and maybe breathe the occasional dose of outdoor air without having an errand to do or a schedule to keep. I look forward to those times. I don't mind the sacrifice because the end result is me being able to write full time and that's worth giving up anything. There will be time for buying books to read for pleasure and vacations to warm and sunny places (or cold and snowy terrains in secluded cabins with a big fireplace blazing away), and there will be time for leisure and unbroken sleep and the occasional restaurant dinner with linen napkins and waiters and sommeliers, just not right now.

There is no way to get all that into a short game of conversational chicken, although it would work admirably to run off any would-be writers who have always wanted to write. Instead, I smile and nod as I back away and head for the nearest exit because I have work to do. After all, if they're not willing to sacrifice a few minutes of television every night, it's not likely the will ever be anything more than someone who has always wanted to write. No sense letting my inner smart aleck out of the closet for that.

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