“An old racetrack joke reminds you that your program contains all the winners’ names. I stare at my typewriter keys with the same thought.” -Mignon McLaughlin, The Neurotic’s Notebook
Here in San Francisco, fog doesn’t cover or linger; it sweeps across the entire city in a matter of minutes. I never knew fog could move so quickly, and it’s put me in a weird mood: muddled, chilled, and slightly queasy. I’ve been wrestling with a few big life questions this past week, like what I’m doing out here, how long I’m going to stay, how to fix my increasingly dire financial situation. My boss sent me a link to the wikipedia entry on quarter life crises; apparently my constant worries are as natural as they are distressing. The role of writing – what to do with it, where to put it, how to someday (hopefully) sell it – underscores my overall concerns. It’s been hard to ignore this past week, when a post about my summer job sparked more interest than all the others combined.
It could be a question of timing. Is the mainstream media turning to horse racing because of Eight Belles, or the Triple Crown bid, or because the trash talking of Big Brown’s trainer, Rick Dutrow, is hard to ignore? Or do people find the industry, with its shady characters and Byzantine management practices, kind of intriguing? I won’t be back at the racetrack for another month or so, but I could honestly write about it until the cows come home. I have been writing about it – privately – for nearly a year and a half. I came to fiction relatively late in my academic career, and though I stumbled (balked) at the beginning, I realized that there was a wealth of material in my sleazy summer job and I ran with it. I love writing about the racetrack. I have notebooks full of little anecdotes and observations But right now, I’m just not sure what to do with them.
Unsurprisingly, I turned to my former fiction professor for advice. It turns out I’m one of many confused young people worried about what they’re putting down on paper. Alex Chee answered our questions with characteristic eloquence, citing Haruki Murakami’s essay on writing in this week’s New Yorker. It’s always good to have Murakami in your corner. The Summer Fiction Issue has been sitting in my bag for nearly a week now; I pulled it out and read “The Running Novelist.” I immediately drew all the wrong conclusions: I’ll never be a real writer because I don’t have the discipline to run every day like Haruki Murakami. That wasn’t even close to his point, but there were a few things in there that hit closer to home. There’s the idea that a natural spring of talent dries up, or that you can’t just want to be a novelist – you need to have something to write about and you need to actually go and write. He does argue well for his lifestyle: spartan, clear-headed, disciplined, productive. I do my best work late at night on a couple glasses of wine. It’s hard for me to relate.
I have something to write about. I just don’t want to waste all those ideas on bad writing. I know that no matter how easily the words come, I can only improve. I see it in the differences between the drafts I wrote a year ago and the drafts I wrote yesterday. But right now, people seem to want to read about the racetrack; what if they don’t feel the same way five or ten years from now? All these worries bring me to Ira Glass. Watch the clip below for his thoughts on bridging the gap between artistic desire and skill level. It’s always fun/weird to watch him as he speaks, and I think the second half of this clip is pretty hilarious.
Maybe it’s because I harbor an incredibly un-secret crush on the man, but everything Ira Glass says makes perfect sense to me. Sure, it’s kind of arrogant to say, “I want to be a writer because I have good taste in books,” but if you phrase it a little differently – “I really like to read?” – then that disconnect between what you want to do and what you’re currently capable of doing seems pretty understandable (and pretty frustrating). His advice – keep at it – sounds a lot like Haruki Murakami’s, or Alex Chee’s. It’s helpful and encouraging, but it’s like getting dumped for the first time and being told you’ll get over it eventually. What if I’m different? What if I never get over it? Or rather, what if I can’t cut it? What if I can’t bridge that gap, what if I can’t keep on writing? I guess the answer’s pretty clear; I just don’t think I’d make a very good investment banker.