Letters from a Young Whatever #6: Living a Life with Ardor
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People will say that MFAs are bullshit. You don’t become a good writer by going straight from college to graduate school, by sitting around tables and talking about books. People say that MFAs teach us the “correct” way to write: how words are supposed to sound, what details we’re supposed to use, the proper shape of a plot, the way an ending’s supposed to feel. People say that MFAs produce writers who produce the same old boring story.
I remember reading some article, shortly before I began my MFA program — I think it was in Poets & Writers — which talked about how writers have this reputation of being crazy and drunk. The author of the article was saying her grad program was the opposite — that they all stayed in during the weekends and wore braces at the keyboard to prevent carpal tunnel.
I’ve heard that it’s fairly common for people to find it difficult to write the first year or two after graduating from writer school. Some of us don’t do it often, and when we do, it often comes hard. Some of us stop doing it at all. Personally? I wrote two stories the year after I graduated. The longer of the two was three pages.
When I moved back home last June, it was still difficult to write. I heard voices in my head at the keyboard, telling me I hadn’t paid enough attention to the language, that this character hadn’t changed enough, and I shouldn’t use second person, present tense, adverbs, or too many adjectives. It was painful to write because I couldn’t stop following the rules.
Ever since I was very small, I’ve had this problem where I felt like my emotions were overwhelming me, so much so that sometimes all I could think about was my need to contain them. Ever since I was I was very small, I’ve had this problem where I felt like I didn’t fit in, couldn’t figure out the rules, and all this was something I needed to hide.
This led to me judging myself, which led to me harming myself in basically every way possible: suicide attempts, self-mutilation, placing myself in dangerous situations with dangerous people, general recklessness, depriving myself of sleep and food, taking on too much, taking on too little, being a shitty person to those I loved, drugs, booze, drugs, booze, more drugs — I could increase the list ad infinitum. In the end, the actions I took to suppress the feelings led to numbness, and numbness is the worst feeling of all.
And then I got sober and the numbness wore off, but the judgment stuck around a little longer, sloughing itself off slowly. When I was in the outpatient mental hospital, after my “breakdown” in January, I was introduced to Dialectical Behavior Therapy, which focuses on acknowledging your emotions and not judging them (among other things). While in therapy there I heard: Yes, you are different. Yes, you do indeed have “more” emotions than most. But all of this is just fine. In fact, all of this is an asset.
All of this is fine. I’m fine. I’m allowed to burn on like a motherfucker, and that is totally fine. Learning this was, as a therapist would say, a breakthrough.
This one Flaubert quote keeps coming up in my life: at a reading, in conversation with friends, on the internet. It’s the one that says, “Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so you may be violent and original in your work.”
Well, if that isn’t an enormous dump of bullshit. Isn’t that a nice excuse to live a boring life.
If we, as writers, are the nerve endings of society; if the only people for us are the mad ones; if prose is the autobiography of ardor; if the only calibration that counts is how much heart people invest and how much they ignore their fears of being hurt or caught out or humiliated; if the only way to fail at life is to abstain — then how the fuck are we supposed to do this by following rules, by suppressing emotion, by typing and living in neat little boxes, by being regular and orderly in our lives?
I’m really curious to know what those carpal tunnel brace wearers’ stories read like. And I’m also curious to know if Flaubert was even serious when he wrote that.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my realization that following the writing rules is bullshit coincided with my acceptance of my own undeniable craziness, which coincided with me liking my writing again.
There is, of course, a fine line between living a life of ardor and setting one’s dial to self-destruct. There is a balance between living a life of violent originality and sequestering oneself to boxes built of rules containing keyboards. We can’t burn ourselves out. We can’t spend so much time living that we never sit down to write.
When I first got sober, I was terrified that I’d become normal. But I discovered something interesting: you actually become less normal when your weirdness is no longer tempered by long nights closing down bars and/or getting stupidly high, because by doing these things you become predictable. At first, this unbridled weirdness manifested in finding new ways of imploding my life, but as I became more experienced in being sober, in being healthy and happy, it slowly began to mean finding a more careful way to punch my fist through the wall.
I’ve developed a personal code for living a life of violent originality in a way that doesn’t harm anyone, and this is what it looks like:
— Say ‘yes’ to any opportunity given to you, even if it seems impractical or stupid. Especially if it seems impractical or stupid. Stupid decisions are sometimes the best ones — it is only required that you make these stupid decisions carefully.
— Find ways to write, even if it involves regularly staying up till 6am.
— If something makes you uncomfortable, it means you should probably do it.
— Allow yourself to fall in love with people who are not the best for you on paper if something quiet whispers that doing so would be the best for your heart.
— Live with your mom, yes, when you’re thirty, if doing so allows you to focus on what’s important and repair all the wrongs you’ve done to her.
— Don’t make a back-up plan. Back-up plans are for orderly, regular little bitches.
— Do occasionally blow important things off to do things of “lesser importance,” especially if these lesser things are things like going for a walk in the canyon when the day is clear and the light in that hour is golden, or eating something greasy and fattening with your forever best friend.
— Go to work, and teach those students with your heart bursting through.
But here is the most important part of all:
— Slow the fuck down.
This might seem counterintuitive to living a life out of ardor, but it’s not. The glorious moments in life — the ones that you will remember, that you will write about — will pass you by if you don’t cling on to them with ferocity. Recognizing these moments and drinking them in is the best way to grab life by the throat.
When life overwhelms you — because it will overwhelm you — let it overwhelm you and then take some deep breaths. When life breaks your heart — because it will break your heart — let yourself cry. When life angers you — because it will anger you — allow yourself to feel that burn, allow your heart to pound, allow your whole body to shake, and know that the pain will soon go away. Because it will go away.
The woman at work, the one who just annoyed you by doing her job and telling you what to do — well, she is like you, and she is also in pain, because she is human. Talk to her. Your father loves you, no matter what you do, so call him. Your friend is your friend, your lover is your lover, because of your flaws, not despite them, so love them, and, more importantly, let them love you. Go down to the beach and watch the sunset. Go dance, and sing, even though and especially because you suck at it. If you meet someone new and they interest you, get them to be your friend. Do something nice for someone just because you can, even if it eats into your “you” time. If you read something you like, send the writer an e-mail and tell them you like it. Go play with your dog. Lose track of time while reading a book. Do things like sit on your patio for hours with only a pack of cigarettes and your headphones, because music is one of the best ways to feel things while sitting still. And for god’s sake, don’t second guess yourself and wonder if you sound like an inspirational poster — because we all need an inspirational poster every now and then. You need to slow the fuck down and take a good look at life and the world you’re living in, because if you drive on the freeway at night and look at the lights in the right way, they will seem like stars.
PREVIOUSLY: Letter #1: Leaving the City I Love / Letter #2: I have feelings for you, Cat Marnell / Letter #3: I’m a Writer and I’m Better Than You / Letter #4: Why I Write Fiction / Letter #5: Supernatural Bread
— Juliet Escoria writes things in California, and is just about finished with her first book. E-stalk her here.