I’ve spent the past thirty or so years obsessively pounding on typewriters (wow, is that dating myself or what), tapping on keyboards and scribbling in notebooks, trying in vain to somehow resolve my passionate desire to write with the grim fact that my forays into fiction, screenplays, game designs, and technical texts have always terminated with a desperate desire to ram a steel spike through the resulting manuscript while holding said manuscript firmly against my skull. The only outlet that has ever given me slight enjoyment was a brief and unromantic fling with Blogging – and it always felt too stream-of-consciousness to satisfy my rampant literary urges.
However, over the past decade or so I have, with the emotionally lubricating aid of whisky and wine, embraced e-mail as a medium through which to launch missives that provided self-justifications, demands for acknowledgement, and the blow-by-blow of at least one minor nervous breakdown. Most members of my small circle of friends have thus been trapped at their monitors when my emotionally laden thought-bombs exploded from their in-boxes, much like a briefcase nuke covered in happy-face stickers. They probably thought “Oh goody! A message from Nick,” only to become buried in psychological rubble comparable to ground-zero at the World Trade Center by paragraph five.
So it feels surreal that I find myself writing something personal that is intended for an audience of more than one. You see, I learned a new word just a couple of weeks ago – Essayist. For me, this is a profound word, one that gives sudden and cataclysmic meaning to what I have until now considered my guilt-ridden little rambling indulgences.
But let me provide a little bit of background before I go on.
As a teenager, I was as capable of forming a coherent paragraph as I was of performing neurosurgery. Given my poor academic performance, the only upside was that my lack of skill was unlikely to endanger lives other than my own.
It seems to me now that there was an unstated but nevertheless iron-clad rule within my family home that “Thou shall not create!” — add an Olympian thunder-clap here for emphasis. My father was unconsciously determined to crush even the slightest artistic aspiration – I’ve never forgotten nor forgiven him for saying, when I first dropped out of Film Studies, that he’d always thought I “wasn’t creative in that way.” I’m certain he believed his words were supportive; a statement meant to comfort his artistically-autistic son. Way to go, pop.
Perhaps my dad is simply incapable of making a positive statement without adding some form of qualification. Inevitably comments begin with “It’s all right, but…” My childhood efforts were thus doomed to be harshly critiqued and quickly judged inferior. At the age of twelve I recall plagiarizing song lyrics for a poetry assignment because by then I -knew- that I wasn’t capable of writing worthwhile words. This, it turns out, is a common practice, and I can count myself fortunate that my taste in music was suitably eclectic to avoid detection.
But writers seem to have no choice but to write. It’s like breathing – trying to stop will kill you. With sufficient time, distance from my dysfunctional biological family, and the support of my carpet-bombed-via-e-mail friends (my real family — sorry ‘bout all that), I finally reached a place where a small talent with language started to mature.
What has this got to do with the magical word Essayist? Well, a bunch of things happened over the course of the past few years…
First, while enduring my self-imposed sentence in the city-sized mental institution known as Los Angeles, I came to the conclusion (in my companionship-starved-and-only-semi-coherent mind) that the reason Internet dating had been such a thumping, dramatic failure for me was because it’s impossible to box myself into a five-hundred-word canned biography. I’m lousy at marketing myself, mostly because I know just how complicated and screwed up I really am. I decided to take a different approach – writing a series of articles, each one focusing on a different aspect of who I thought I was. My plan was to post them on a web site where potential mates could experience a more complete representation of moi.
I never did put the articles up. I stopped abruptly after spending a Sunday afternoon writing about my fascination with BDSM (for the less sexually informed, that’s the kinky stuff with whips ’n chains). I finished espousing on this favorite, but socially-taboo topic, and then I read what I had written.
It scared the hell out of me. I can’t recall my exact reaction, but it was something like “This isn’t me! I must be lying about this! If I’m lying about this, then everything else I’ve been writing is probably a lie!” And that was the end of the website plan. In retrospect, I’m fairly certain I was simply confusing the intellectual fascination with the whole idea vs. any sort of need to pursue it – the appeal was in the structured and formalized nature of personal interactions within that “scene”, a subject I’ll get around to some time or another.
The next incident on my mountainside-high-speed-no-brakes drive to enlightenment took place after I’d returned to the safe sanity of Vancouver — My Uncle, a playwright of some renown in the UK (and probably recognized by a half-dozen ardent theatergoers in a handful of American cities) published a book. It wasn’t a novel – it was more akin to an autobiography.
I read the paragraphs he had written. There was none of the casual wordplay that had permeated his prior fictions. These were the remorseful ramblings of an aging man who wished he’d made vastly different choices throughout his life. He called it a diary, and perhaps that’s what it is best described as. But I learned more about my Father reading that single book than I have in a lifetime of not knowing him.
There is no significant social statement to be found in the recounting – just personal and family history. No issue of global relevance is subject of the discourses. It is, at most, his singular subdued voice asking, after so many years, “If this is what I have done, than who am I?” And while I can understand my own fascination with his oft-dark musings (so many relate to my own father and thus my own life), it has occurred to me only recently that most everyone who has read the book has not the slightest connection to the events described therein. Yet a great many people have read it, and apparently liked it.
Wondering idly in a momentary aside, I ask myself if dear-old-dad ever compared his life to that of his father’s. I know now that they are alike in many ways, and it strikes me that he thoughtlessly followed the template of his upbringing while raising his own children, if for no other reason than it never occurred to him that their might be alternatives. Trapped within history, unable to look beyond it, one is doomed to walk the same path and make the same mistakes. But I digress, as I am often prone to do.
The third thing that happened was a recent (but very minor) psychological breakdown (edit – it was actually more properly an ‘autistic meltdown’, but that’s stuff I’ll cover elsewhere). I’ll leave the details of the actual event aside, since it warrants an entire essay of its own. However, out of it came a clarity that I had lacked – a willingness to see the things that I had done while trying to turn myself into someone I was not. Finally, I began to accept who I am, which led me back to the things I had written in LA, and the realization that I hadn’t lied about a damn thing after all. The real lie had been the fiction of pretending to be someone I wasn’t, pretending to not like or want the things that were important to me.
Are we there yet? Almost…
The last piece of the Chinese puzzle I’ve been trying to assemble throughout my life came from the most unlikely of locations – the “Special Extras” packed in with the DVD release of “The Incredibles”. On the second disc is a ten-minute video essay by Sarah Vowell, who performed the voice of Violet in the film. My jaw dropped when I saw it – here was a woman I felt an instant affinity for, though it took me a bit of reading to understand why.
It turns out that Sarah Vowell is, among other things, a highly regarded political essayist. While I have no interest in politics (or most other forms of societal self-mutilation featured on CNN) I found myself absolutely riveted by her words. Insightful, sharp, flippant, sarcastic, self-deprecatory — it is a style and manner that I have aspired to in my own meanderings, though I certainly don’t suggest that I have the breadth or skill she exhibits.
But, because of her, my words suddenly felt legitimate. What I had written, and how I had written it, were not entirely the mad scrawls of an untrained/skill-challenged/wannabe author — and while there might not be gold-in-them-thar-hills, there was perhaps a bit of silver.
Click… Click… Click… It goes together like this (in the James Burke-ian fashion): Personal journals + Uncle’s diaries + Clarity of mind + Essays are legitimate = YOU ARE AN ESSAYIST, idiot.
It simply never occurred to me that there was acceptability in a written form that was, from my perspective, relegated entirely to scholarly critiques and sadistic school assignments (though by the time I was in my second round of Film Studies I had taught myself to excel at the later, and actually enjoyed writing the damned things). In short order (thank you, Internet!) I found dozens of compelling contemporary essays that were musings on humanity in general and the authors’ relationship to it in particular. Who would have thought that people would be interested in other people… Duh!
This is what I have come to understand…
The things I write do not need to be relegated to the void. While my opinions may be nothing more than potentially ill-informed speculations, there is no reason that I should refrain from expressing them. And though the format that works for me may not be acknowledged in the same manner as a novel or screenplay, it is the way that I write, and more importantly it is the way that I truly enjoy writing.
That’s why you’re reading this – my essay about discovering that I like writing essays. I hope you found it a little entertaining, though not perhaps as drenched with ironic observations as it might have been — I’ll save those for subsequent acts of self-expression.
Oh, and all those essays I wrote in LA? Well, they need a bit of work, but I’ll get around to publishing them here eventually.