That Thing We Do
I sometimes get the urge to do a little meta-analysis of this thing, this writing words down for people to read thing (spare me the hyphens). I started getting paid for writing when I was 22 (this was theatrical writing or sketch comedy, and it’s not like we’re talking about a lot of money, but I bring it up sometimes when someone suggests that I join a writing group or some other bullshit). For nearly 20 years, my writing has been published in a variety of newspapers, usually every week and sometimes twice a week. You could say I’ve been a professional writer for nearly 40 years. A really bad one, or unsuccessful one, but one.
So whatever you call me, I think it’s not far-fetched to say writer. I’ve written a few books, so I guess you could say author, and I do, but mostly it’s just tapping on keys.
The problem with analyzing this is that, if I start talking about things I avoid because they annoy me when I read then from other writers, I get into trouble. Because everyone is a writer now.
Months ago, I got some pushback, in a fun way, on my suggestion that alas was an inappropriate exclamation in writing, because it’s never heard off the page. Unless it’s said ironically. And I could be wrong. I don’t travel the country, listening to hundreds of millions of people talk. I’m making an assumption. According to Google, alas was almost out of common usage by the 1950s, although it had an uptick in the early aughts. When people started writing for publication.
I mean, I don’t care. It was a throwaway observation. It doesn’t bother me in the least. What matters is that I try to avoid this sort of thing, drawing attention to the written word by tossing in an archaic term that no normal person would ever utter or even use in ordinary writing. It probably seems to the writer just a convenient word to express a feeling that we all immediately understand. To me, it feels like I’m just drawing attention to something. Look, an old word. Or a big word, or a fancy adjective or adverb that causes my eyes to glaze over.
Alas, poor Chuck. I knew him, Horatio.
And there are so many contemporary options.
Unfortunately is fine, but pedestrian, sure. A phrase would work too. Alas is short, but so is drat and forsooth and I rarely see them. Just my opinion, and that’s all it was, an observation and an opinion.
Again, though: Everyone writes now. And everyone thinks I’m talking about them, when I almost never am.
I once wrote a piece about my concerns about certain young people I admired, who were working their way in the world and becoming professionals, and they had the most unprofessional crap on their social media feeds. Not Nazis. I mean, personal stuff. Tweeting to ex-boyfriends about how much they hurt them. Bitching about parents. Worse stuff, really. I worried it was going to hurt them down the line in their careers, which is hardly a new worry for anyone.
Three people I knew assumed I was writing about them (I wasn’t). One of them deleted her Twitter account after reading it, horrified and humiliated, which I only found out a couple of years later.
I don’t know how to fix this, because it’s part and parcel of the things I enjoy about this era. Easy communication and exchange of ideas. If someone wants to argue about alas, it’s an actual conversation and it’s fun. No skin off my nose. I’ll use alas in everything I write if I thought it would be entertaining. It’s not evil. I think it’s a little old-fashioned, that’s all.
So, c’mon, man. Use the word if you want. I’m really not judging. Just making noise. You’re writers, write what you want and feel. I’m not your guru.
Because I’m not really a writer, and that’s so complicated I’m not going to get into it. I’m not , though. Even in just practical ways, I failed at all of this. I’ve been writing a long time, in a relatively prominent place (not that prominent, but in a newspaper that tens of thousands of people read). If good things were going to happen to me, I suspect they would have. I’m just not that good, and I have no niche, no subject to draw people with specific interests.
Oh. I also despise the term storyteller. I’ve seen some professional storytellers. These are actors, often bad actors. Some are fantastic, of course, the ones we’ve heard of. But I tell stories and I don’t want that label. It’s trendy and I want no part.
I don’t want to stop. I’m more interested in conversation. If I found a better outlet, I’d take it. If I thought just reading my columns and other writings in a twice-weekly short podcast was a better idea, I’d do it. If I thought I could get away traveling around retirement communities and possibly schools, talking about stuff and engaging in conversations, I’d drop writing gigs in a second.
Phillip Roth was a writer. Hemingway was a writer. Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, Harper Lee, Ann Tyler, even John Grisham and that guy who writes the DaVinci Code stuff. Writers all.
I’m not, and that’s all. That’s the way I look at it. Writing like this is filling up time until I figure out what I’m good at.
And at this point, that’s probably working at a drugstore, stocking shelves and being polite. It’s a little late for life to take a drastic change, other than a bad one.
There are so many good writers. I don’t feel bad. I do think I have something left to say, and I might figure out a better way of doing that. Or I might stick with writing and just try to get better, but time is getting short.
But I certainly could scale back on being snarky about certain writing choices. No one is particularly snarky to me, and I get so lost in a single sentence sometimes I need to scatter infinity stones along my clauses to guide me back to topic.
Some of you are writers, by the way. Sid, Gordon, Liz, Melodee, Hope (just regular readers).
Not I, in my mind. Just a guy who failed along the way. I’m fine. Got friends, got a roof, got food. I can stock a shelf. I may do that soon. There might be a story there. Someone else might tell it better.
I do believe I could be a coach of some sorts, for those people who want to explore the idea of writing for publication. I read a lot of these people. Give me an hour and I honestly believe I could help them dump words like alas and this weird fascination with puns and alliteration. Alliteration is hard to avoid, and once in a blue moon it amuses me enough, but really is just happens, at least to me. Usually re-reading do I notice, and sometimes I move words around to avoid too many similar sounds (good reason to read your writing aloud first).
But I’m keeping on, because it gives me a purpose, and a platform, but I’m going to remain unrecognized and not worth the trouble. Alas.