When I was small, I remember taking a series of tests. I remember sitting next to my mother as the results were read aloud. My math scores were unparalleled; I exhibited deftness in understanding numbers and how to manipulate them. As a child, I’d managed to ferret out the logic within stories that depicted scenarios involving distance and time. On the other hand, my reading comprehension and writing scores were unremarkable. This baffled us because I’d been reading and writing for as long as I’d been alive, and if you asked me now to calculate the tip on a bill divided three ways, I’d reach for my calculator. No one considered the binary nature of these exams, tests that were designed to measure one’s aptitude and predicted the sort of career for which a child might be suited. For years I endured advanced math classes and much of my days amounted to playing with protractors and scientific calculators, while the spaces in between were dominated by books and short stories I’d written on loose-leaf paper.
No one thought to understand that my relationship to words was mathematical. No one imagined that I’d solved these riddles not because I had an affinity for math, but because I was so drawn into the narrative. Out of all the things I could do in this world, writing is the one thing that gives me assurance. I know I’m good at it, and the question is always one of maths. How do I get better? How do I manage the distance between this word here and the better word over there? Because the mark of a good writer is in how they navigate the subtleties, how one could find the combination of words that make others see. How can I make this sentence leaner (subtraction)? How can I make this dialogue operate like a nesting doll, working on multiple levels (multiplication). How can I write about loss in a way that puts your heart on pause (division). And how do I get to all of this in the most efficient way possible (Pythagorean theorem, a2 + b2 = c2, Euclidean geometry).
Writing, for me, has always existed as a combination of exhausting surgery and constant maths. Often I think of an image of a nesting doll because whatever I intend is never what is, and a story of mine always operates on a multitude of planes (multiplication). There exists a difference between writing simply and being simple, and the work, for me, is about how to achieve the cleanest line possible while maintaining this whole textbook of equations.
Last week I read a post on Twitter where someone wrote that there is no good or bad when it comes to writing–there is only the best you can do.
I call bullshit on that.
Not everyone can be a writer, nor should they be. And I’m not talking about the person who pens posts about their outfits or their day, rather I’m speaking about those who don’t have it but fake it and call themselves a writer because it’s the vogue thing to do. Ironically enough, writers have never felt trendy because we’re always the fringe, we’re always told that nothing we ever write sells. People don’t want dark. People don’t want complicated. People spend their whole days dicking around on the internet to avoid thinking at work and when they come home the last thing they want to do is…think. People read cereal boxes and lists and they want their words fed to them. People don’t want advanced maths (hmm, this is middle/high school math of which I’ve written), they want their reconciliations–they want what they are missing.
Hmm, so they want addition?
I don’t care if people call my writing remarkable, incredible, amazing, or any such adjective. Ego strokes and pats on the head don’t interest me. I’m 38. I know I’m good–the question is how do I get to that next place, that next line, that new story. You’re good but you’re too smart, too dark, too obtuse. You make people do all this work.
Fuck you and your dumbed-down version of a life.
Maybe I’m feeling blue because I see so many people who call themselves writers rewarded for mediocrity. The motley lot laud these “writers” for their “brand-building” (look at all her Instagram followers! Imagine all the books she’ll sell!) as opposed to observing the architecture of what’s on their page (or screen, if you’ll have it). I see people who run a blog where they prattle on about just! how! hard! it! is! to photograph their outfits every day and suddenly they put on the hat of marketer, consulting “big brands” on how they can build their brand. I read a post on Facebook where a friend of mine bemoans the fact that her not-so-smart but ambitious assistant is now a Vice President of a company. I scroll Twitter and land on a full-time role as a Director of a Health + Wellness Brand, the first in two years that piques my interest, and then I read the requirements and apparently to be a director you only need four years of experience.
People say, ignore all that! You do you! Keep pushing along! Keep smiling, keep shining, to which I want to respond, Please. Shut. Up. I’m exhausted by all the mediocrity being rewarded when the necessary failures are what have pushed me to achieve. If I was always told that I was great, would have I ever read more, tried harder, revised more? Or would have I been complacent for having achieved a first draft?
I turn 39 this month and I look around and wonder what I’ve really achieved, and whether all of it matters. Does it matter that I’ve written the greatest book I can write to date when people who can’t string together a sentence get multiple book deals? Does it matter that I am offered projects to clean up rookie mistakes made by those who call themselves marketers but don’t have the experience? Does excelling matter when the great lights and applause shine brightest on the feeblest of attempts.
I don’t know. The only solace I have this week are books written by women from whom I can still learn. Women who are artisans with the English language. The blacksmiths of literature, a dying breed.