Angst Envy

by Pari Noskin Taichert

My dear friend Sandra Cline sent me an article about Matthieu Richard a.k.a. "the happiest man in the world."

My first thought?
"He must not be a writer."

As we saw last week in Louise Ure’s brilliant post — and the subsequent comments — many of us ink-stained wretches suffer from insecurities about our craft. You’d think we actually lived the life of those stereotypic souls who huddled in Parisian garrets, their desks covered with empty espresso cups, ashtrays overflowing with spent Gauloises, and only a single candle to provide warmth on freezing nights.

But, wait a minute . . .

Are we really being honest with ourselves when we dive into the depths of despond about our crappy prose? Is it possible we’re actually enjoying ourselves a little, benefitting from the divine pleasure born of an image of necessary torture for our art? Aren’t we noble, grand?

I won’t speak for you — though I hope you speak for yourselves in the comments section — but I certainly relate to this William Carlos Williams poem:

Danse Russe

If I when my wife is sleeping
and the baby and Kathleen
are sleeping
and the sun is a flame-white disc
in silken mists
above shining trees, —
if I in my north room
dance naked, grotesquely
before my mirror
waving my shirt round my head
and singing softly to myself
"I am lonely, lonely.
I was born to be lonely,
I am best so!"
If I admire my arms, my face
my shoulders, flanks, buttocks
against the yellow drawn shades, —

Who shall say I am not
the happy genius of my household?

We writers write for an audience. In truth, I think we’re a rather egotistical lot. This is neither good nor bad . . . just an observation. I mean, we write our stories and expect people to spend their time and money reading them.

Doesn’t that strike you as a bit confident, even cocky?

I don’t question our sincerity when the tremors of "ittotallysucksitis" shake our bodies. The breast-beating we do because our fiction is tripe, is real. And, we’d better step up to the responsibility of making sure our work is as good as it can possibly be.

I’m just saying that we might enjoy the angst more than we’d like to admit.

Here’s a fun last thought:
In one of my favorite episodes of The Simpsons, down-on-his-luck bartender Moe ends up at a writers’ conference that resembles the famous Bread Loaf. The fictional WordLoaf has such luminaries as Michael Chabon, Jonathan Franzen, Gore Vidal and Thomas Pynchon (the elusive writer appears with a paper bag over his head).

When Moe first joins a cocktail party with these literary giants, he pauses, a smile of awe on his ungodly face, and says (verbatim from my sieve of a memory), "Here I am, surrounded by the happiest people on earth  . . . writers."

Maybe there’s something to that.

Writers: What say you?
Readers: What’s your image of the stereotypic writer?

_________________________________________________________________________________

Program notes:
Next Monday, Feb. 5, I’ll be on my way to the New Mexico Chile Pepper Conference. J.T. will take that day for me (thanks, J.T.!). I’ll take hers on Friday, Feb. 9 with a LCC 2007 wrap-up. The next week everything will be back on normal schedule.

19 thoughts on “Angst Envy

  1. Alex Sokoloff

    Guilty, guilty, guilty!!

    My boyfriend says that I need to work myself into a frenzy to be able to write. (He also calls that “fear-based writing” but of course I ignore him.)

    I’ve always thought Nietzsche was dead on with this – “You must have chaos within you to give birth to a dancing star.” And if there’s no chaos immediately in evidence, I’m perfectly capable of creating it for myself.

    Reply
  2. billie

    There is a certain amount of keeping things off kilter that I know fuels the writing.

    And, yes, I agree – there is some ego involved. 🙂

    billie

    Reply
  3. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Hey Billie and Alex,

    The reason I wrote this post was because of Louise’s excellent blog last week. It made me think about some of the silly dances I do when I’m writing, during publication, and after.

    Alex,This has nothing to do with GUILT and everything to do with observation. The poem I cited creates an absolute celebration of our tendency to enjoy our dismay.

    Billie,”Off kilter?” Oh, yeah. I know I need a bit of angst to keep me moving forward.

    Reply
  4. Guyot

    Thank God for Pari. I love this post.

    I have long been in the minority. For years my fellow screenwriters in Hollywood would whine about the tribulations of writing. And when I started hanging around prose scribes I found many of them doing the same, though not nearly as many.

    My take was always, “Then go get another job.”

    Writers are egomaniacs. As are most artists and ALL performers. And writers, especially male writers, know that our job is lame. We write stories. Jeez, my 5-year-old daughter writes stories.

    So to compensate we love to talk about the blood we leave on the pages, opening our veins and all that crap. How much we struggle and fight, the anguish, MY GOD THE ANGUISH!!

    We’re writers. We love doing it even when it seems like we’ll never find the next word in a sentence.

    And forgive my little tangent, but… these male writers who try so hard to prove they’re macho, hardcore, ass-kicking MEN… we’re not men. We’re writers.

    Firefighters are men. And cops. And crab fishermen.

    We’re not men. Not Eisler, not Child, not Cannell, not Parker, not Huston, not Block, not Ellroy, not Thompson, not Woolrich, not any of us. We’re writers. We write little stories for a living.

    Sure, we can write about men kicking ass or saving women and children, but do we do it? No. Because we can’t.

    Because we’re writers. That’s what we know, and that’s what we love.

    Reply
  5. louiseure

    Guyot, you’re a man’s man. One who knows not to take himself too seriously.

    I love the William Carlos Williams poem, Pari. It puts me in mind of those Right Said Fred irrational but memorable lyrics, “I’m Too Sexy For My Shirt.”

    I don’t know that writers feign angst. I don’t. Mine comes from insecurity.

    But I also know that this job is more fun than anything else I’ve been paid to do in the last fifty years.

    Reply
  6. Elaine Flinn

    Oh, Pari! This is terrific. I mean – absolutely terrific. And Guyot’s comments are a hard act to follow – because frankly – I don’t ‘suffer for my art’ either. I have fun with it – and hope those who read my pithy contributions to Mysteryville have fun along with me.

    But as far as angst and egomania – sure, it’s part of the package whether you write, paint, sing or act…So I stand along with you all…guilty as charged.

    Reply
  7. Naomi

    “Happy genius of my household.” I love that.

    My husband can relate. He always teases me, “I wrote a book. I wrote a book.”

    There is a halo effect at work here. Outsiders give me much more credit than I deserve. And my husband knows the ugly and silly truth of our household.

    Reply
  8. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Guyot,Bingo.

    Louise,I hope it doesn’t come across that I think we’re feigning angst. Absolutely not. Many of us just enjoy it more than we’d care to admit; it’s part of the pleasure of suffering for our art.

    Hell, I’m often tortured while writing — but there’s a guilty pleasure in that, too.

    Bill,My husband and I have scandalized many other parents when we tell that that we’ve watched the Simpsons with our children from the beginning of their little lives. There’s no better comment on current culture that we can share with our kids on a weekly basis.

    The episode with Wordloaf is one of my favs.

    Elaine,I love your comment. You’re enjoying the guilt. heh heh heh

    Reply
  9. B.G. Ritts

    As my ability to arrange words in pleasing or appropriate order is relatively inadequate, I find it to be thoroughly gratifying the vision of authors ‘dancing about’ to encourage their muse.

    Other than this new picture you’ve placed in my mind, Pari, I don’t believe I’ve ever had a specific idea of how I saw writers working – or at least think about it much. I tend to over analyze enough things without also trying to ruin the book I’m about to spend half a day with.

    I sometimes think that knowing too much about the writer’s process, at least before reading a book, can leave a reader thinking about things other than the story as they read. They’re looking for specific preconceived ideas that that brings to their reading process instead of just getting into the flow of the book. I think waiting to examine the story until after it’s been finished is better. This reminds me of the accuracy subject too.

    After I had finished Nevada Barr’s ‘Blind Descent’, I sent a copy to my sister for her to read, at least the caving and cave rescue sections. I wanted to know if she had been accurate with her descriptions and my sister is a caver and teaches cave rescue. If I had known anything was seriously out of whack beforehand (which there wasn’t), I wouldn’t have enjoyed the read nearly as much because I would have been looking for specific inaccuracies.

    But there are always exceptions. For instance, knowing Sasha takes hits from a whipped cream can is something I look forward to while reading your books because I’ve done the same thing – even if under different circumstances. And while reading SJ Rozan’s latest book, knowing she’s an architect put an extra smile on my face when some construction things were mentioned – but that’s probably due more to my engineering background than anything else.

    I did find your discussion of a couple weeks ago about ‘Mental Space’ (http://murderati.typepad.com/murderati/2007/01/mental_space_th.html) interesting. It reminded me of watching Kent Krueger jotting away in his notebook in the Madison B’con hotel’s café, even as it filled, and me wondering how he did it, since I pretty much need absolute quiet when I work.

    Reply
  10. louiseure

    Understood, Pari. Taking inordinate joy in the angst is part of the business. For me, it can lead to such glorious sentences as: “Oh woe is me! I have a deadline!”

    Reply
  11. JT Ellison

    Love it, Pari! I’m another who doesn’t suffer ridiculously for my art. I decided long ago that writer’s block doesn’t really exist, it’s just the story saying things aren’t working, changes course immediately.But damn, it is fun to whine about!

    Reply
  12. Tom, T.O.

    You and Louise make a good pair, and I think JT hit it: everybody likes to whine/complain, only now it’s “venting.”(Damn! Alex! You already have a boyfriend?!)My idea of the stereotypical writer? Someone who does a lot of hard work. Listening to you all at book signings, I have discovered you’re all different, and I just pray you don’t pull a Hemingway or Fitzgerald on us–we want you around to keep us entertained.

    Reply
  13. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Naomi,That’s my favorite line in a favorite poem.

    B.G.,I agree with you about process and accuracy; I don’t want to know until after the read.

    Glad you liked that mental space article. I just wish I could be in public with my laptop and really create.

    Louise,Good.

    J.T.,I didn’t believe in writer’s block until writing SOCORRO. Now, I’m not so sure. But the part that is absolute crap is all the junk we put on ourselves that render writing so difficult that we become *creatively constipated.*

    Reply
  14. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Tom,I’m amused. Yes, “venting.” Isn’t that a wonderful word. I always picture one of those pressure steamers . . .

    Re: Hemingway/Fitzgerald, I know I speak for all of us when I say, “We plan to stick around as long as we can.” I just hope we can keep entertaining the whole time we do.

    Reply
  15. billie

    Love the comments.

    I don’t have the kind of angst about how hard it is to write, blood on the pages, etc.

    I ADORE the writing part.

    It’s fitting the time into an otherwise crammed full of stuff life that I angst over.

    When it comes right down to it, I can write in the middle of the living room with one kid watching X-Files and another one listening to XM radio, corgyn barking like mad at galloping horses outside, and four cats trying to lay on the keyboard of my laptop.

    But it’s so much more fun to say “I can’t get ANYthing DONE with all this chaos!”

    🙂

    billie

    Reply
  16. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Billie,Do you find a million and one excuses NOT to write, though?

    I find that my life provides all kinds of reasons to procrastinate — and then I get into this spiral of “not-enough-time” to “don’t have enough time to get into the story, really” to “I’m not writing, OMG!” to “I’m not a writer” to “just one sentence” to “five pages a day” to “this is tripe” and then the cycle repeats.

    Reply
  17. billie

    Pari, what happens to me is if I start into that cycle you describe, and yes, sometimes I do, I get certifiably crazy, and it starts to erupt. An absolutely visceral sense that my head is about to blow through the roof of the house. Everyone in my family knows the signs, and all of them become incredibly cooperative to my getting either the quiet I need OR the long weekend away to get some bigger blocks of time.

    I don’t tend to get distracted by things like housekeeping or inane tasks invented to get me out of writing … but I do get torn between writing and other things I love – riding my horses, being with my children, getting caught up in spontaneous learning projects with them, etc.

    Sunday was a fine example – there were a dozen things to do here, most of them “fun” – and I was at the line with needing to write. I let half of those dozen go b/c, that particular day, I knew if I didn’t write I’d be “monster mama” by today.

    It was a bit easier and lots more structured when I wrote outside the home, but now I tend to write late at night and early in the a.m. before the household gets stirring. Fortunately for me, I don’t require a lot of sleep!

    It is a balancing act, for sure. And not one I have mastered, but my mood is definitely linked to the writing process, and staying sane is a big incentive to stay generally focused with my writing projects. 🙂

    billie

    Reply
  18. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Billie,That’s really funny.

    It’s gotten to the point sometimes that my children will look at me and say, “Mommy, don’t you think you ought to go write for a while?”

    That’s when I bow my head and laugh.

    Reply

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