Failure is My Business

I love Raymond Chandler. His writing is my favorite kind of beautiful. From drunken descriptions like, "I smiled at him. He smiled back. Hawkins smiled at me. I smiled back. Everybody was swell." to the revelation of complex emotions in the most cynical way possible ("I hoped she was paying her own rent. It didn't make any difference to me--I just liked it better that way."). I could spend a whole day talking about Raymond Chandler and not feel like I wasted a second of it.

Right now, I'm stuck in the worst stalled revision of Halo (a.k.a. How to Kill Yourself in a Small Town) that I've ever been in. I spend most of my day marinating in thoughts like, "I should roll it back a draft and say, 'Screw it. It is what it is.' I should throw this story away and work on something else. I hate this story. I love this story. Why does it hate me?"

I don't want to give up. I know I'm on the edge of something good. If I can just finish this revision without killing myself, all the plot holes will close up--I just know it--but working on it feels like trying to pull teeth from somebody much bigger and less sedated than me.

So, how do you make yourself keep going? No, seriously, I'm asking. Not having any idea is almost as frustrating as not wanting to work on this revision when I'm so close to the end.

Whenever I don't know what to do about something (anything, really, not just writing), I default back to reading. All of my favorite books and stories, the things that made me want to write in the first place, things I've never read before that people have said I should, classics, trash, articles, research, whatever. I still haven't found any answers, but I did find something encouraging in the introduction Raymond Chandler wrote to Trouble is My Business.

"As I look back on my stories it would be absurd if I did not wish they had been better. But if they had been much better they would not have been published. [...] There are things in my stories which I might like to change or leave out all together. To do this may look simple, but if you try, you will find you cannot do it at all. You will only destroy what is good without having any noticeable effect on what is bad. You cannot recapture the mood, the state of innocence, much less the animal gusto you had when you had very little else. Everything a writer learns about the art or craft of fiction takes just a little away from his need or desire to write at all. In the end he knows all the tricks and has nothing to say."

Okay, I realize that to some people this might read like Ecclesiastes, where nothing under the sun is new and everything is futility and death. But guess who has two thumbs and also finds Ecclesiastes encouraging?  There's just something about knowing you can never do as well as you hope to do that makes me feel good about being alive. Like, if I'm going to fail anyway, then I'd like to fail as spectacularly as possible and have fun while doing it.

At another point in his introduction, Chandler says, "As a writer I have never been able to take myself with that enormous earnestness which is one of the trying characteristics of the craft." That's probably the best thing any writer can shoot for--not to take themselves too seriously since we're all going to fail anyway. And if somebody other than me enjoys the end products of my failure, I'll be happy. I just have to get to that end product.


A Human in Three Dimensions

Two weeks ago—April 26th, specifically—was the anniversary of my granny's death. For that that reason and others that will become obvious as you read, this post is dedicated to her.

Because I was the oldest child in my family and I played softball, basketball, campus bowl, and track, I spent a lot of my pre-driving years with my granny. She worked in town, so most days she drove me to early mornings, then picked me up when afternoon practice got out. I had two options when I was riding with Granny to and from school: I could listen to her talk about my books, my hair, my clothes, my friends, my parents’ friends—she had an opinion about everything that existed and some things that didn’t—or we could listen to music.

My granny loved music. Bluegrass, hymns, old country, Charlie Pride, Andy Griffith. Music spoke to her—she told me so once after I sang a special at church, that music touched her when preaching couldn’t, it told her about Heaven and what it would be like to be loved and safe. This was something we had in common.

Some kids hate their parents’ and grandparents’ music. I loved it. Especially this one group—the Kingston Trio. They were so funny and smart. “To Morrow” was my favorite of their songs. (If you’ve got time, you should definitely check it out. You’ll need two or three listens.)

Being just a dumb kid without any concept of context or history, I assumed that music like the Kingston Trio was par for the old-people-course. More recently, when I finally found all of Granny’s old tapes and dug some Kingston Trio music out of the internet, I learned differently. The band became popular on the college scene because of the way they made fun of bureaucracy, questioned authority, and because of their sincere desire to see change in capitalist America. Adults at the time hated them.

When I was a child, I couldn’t appreciate why Granny was the only person I knew who had even heard of the Kingston Trio. I’ve grown up a lot since she died. I’ve lived places besides Emden, listened to music that you would never hear in Missouri, stuff people around here would think was blasphemy or communism, one. (Communism being the least forgivable.) Now I can appreciate that my granny was listening to rebel music.

When I was a kid, all Granny was to me was the person I pushed away from, somebody to be different from and sometimes to argue with just because I wanted her to be wrong. It’s been until I’ve gotten older that I started to see the full picture. Granny had an opinion about everything and no fear of telling people what it was in a time when good women didn’t. She and my grandpa couldn’t have children—another strike against her—so they adopted. When a teacher told one of Granny’s children that he couldn’t make a family tree because he was adopted, Granny called that teacher up and told her we were all children of God and that made us all adopted, thank you very much. When the preacher told her that she couldn’t teach Sunday school anymore because she didn’t wear skirts all the time, Granny told him she’d like to see him climbing over fences and chasing cows in a skirt. She was first person I’d ever known who stopped going to church because she didn’t believe in the way that the pastor was preaching the Word. She understood that there was a difference between questioning the authority of the ordained man and the authority of God.

Granny was our family’s—probably our entire rural community’s—original dissenter. I wish I’d gotten more time to get to know that side of her better. People like her, people who didn’t let labels or expectations define them, paved the way for people like us the same way the Kingston Trio paved the way for bands like the Mountain Goats.