Make Me Believe (or How I Learned to Stop Bitching and Give a Damn about Writing), Part 1: Wherein the Hero Is a Genius All the Time
When I was a kid, there was never any question of what I would be when I grew up. The combination in me of an introverted personality and love of reading lead inexorably in only one direction. I wanted to be a writer, and everyone agreed it was the best job for me.
As a kid who loved books, writing them sounded exciting. Books held all my favorite places. Who wouldn’t jump at the opportunity to create those worlds, breathe their air, tell their stories and be paid for the privilege? I couldn’t understand people who thought that writers were boring. Maybe the writers they read were boring, but not my guys. The authors I read were visionaries. Their books changed my world, and it was only natural that I would follow in their footsteps.
Strangely, no one noticed that, throughout my childhood, the pace of my reading stayed fairly constant, but I hardly wrote anything for pleasure. I imagine it didn’t occur to anyone to ask why. My school assignments demonstrated a clear talent for language and composition, so clearly I was learning something. The writing would come later – when experience had given me something to write about.
Fairly soon, adolescence came along and did just that. New experiences – one or two of them even kind of pleasant – came at me from all sides – but I still hardly wrote. It felt, not beneath me exactly, but taken as granted. Writing was a lot of work and the words would always be there if I needed them. I could afford to read and make out with my girlfriend, and save my effort for the times when emotions were high and my feelings demanded expression. Then I could let the words flow with grim certainty and intensity. Then I could be brutally honest and evocative. Then I could imbue the page with all of the passion that languished in the dungeons of my inexpressible heart. Then I could truly CREATE.
That’s how I became and remained, from the age of 12 until I was 22, an insufferable amateur poet.
I was never published. I won no awards. I was no one’s favorite up-and-coming artist. But I did genuinely love poetry, and my taste wasn’t bad for a farm kid. It was just a shame I sucked so terribly at it:
Penny-ante playing makes five-dollar gains.
but a facetious love makes an end to romance.
If we ever loved incompletely, it was for love’s sake,
No more did we sacrifice, no less did we both relinquish,
Than our life, our souls, our bodies, our minds,
For a love, blind to the torments of outrageous fortune.
We stood fast and took root in a rocky soil,
And made a tower for our affection.
And we worked and we toiled and we labored
Every day, every night, from first light to first light,
Until the work of love was done, and beheld
We a tower of rose and bone and silk and shamrock.
We build this tower every day, and we will never cease,
It is our life, our soul, our body, our mind.
We are each other and we are love and that’s what makes our world go ’round.
No more, no less, than a love that binds like no other.
Like no friend, nor acquaintance, nor father, nor mother.
We are the love that cannot be scarred.
Uncut and unrefined, we walk rough and awkward,
First steps in love, last steps out of bondage.
We will walk and we will kiss and we will share the world,
Our lives, our souls, our bodies, our minds,
And no man can halt our progression.
Love is not earned, but given.
And in the giving we have become one and the same.
You and I.
Nothing can stop us now.
Perhaps unbelievably, I didn’t realize that I had a problem until my junior year of high school. By then, I had set my mind on the University of Iowa and the Writer’s Workshop, where I fully expected to join a cadre of young writers on our way to greatness. However, to get into the writing programs, I’d have to present an impressive portfolio of work.
My portfolio was thin, grim and disappointing. My classwork was unsuitable. My poetry was myopic, dull and overwrought. The bits and pieces of stories I’d written were just that – bits and pieces. I had nothing finished that I could believe in – nothing to demonstrate that I was qualified to learn at the feet of the masters. I had to create work that measured up to the quality I’d seen in others’ which I admired.
The nights I attempted to write serious poetry were torturous. Traditional poetics never interested me as much as individual poems’ imagery and meaning, so I’d never bothered to practice them. I stacked alternating lines of grace and profanity, over and over, across page after page, creating towers of text, only to find that the finished piece was almost unrecognizable. Every one of my poems were malformed, unbalanced, diminutive monuments to hubris. The only good thing going was that nobody else had seen them.
So, I shifted gears. Fiction was my first love. Why not focus on what I knew? There’s nothing terribly difficult about telling a story, except telling it honestly, of course. And I knew all about honesty from my attempts at poetry. The stories would pile up like firewood. All I needed was one good paragraph from which to begin.
It was about three in the afternoon, October 12th, that L.B. Surrey drove up our driveway. I was at work, so my half-crippled mother had to call the dogs off and host him herself. Coffee and microwaved biscuits from the night before, I expect, which she must have fretted about, but she needn’t. The only ones who care about the quality of our fare are the ones who conspired to split their bids when we had to auction off the farm equipment. She still worries what they think. I don’t let them talk to me.
One paragraph was often all I wrote. Once in awhile, I’d complete a scene, but the effort left me drained and unable to see where a character needed to go. I’d spend hours over the keyboard, waiting for the answer. I refused to write down anything that seemed too obvious, too novel, too emotional, too bland or, irony of ironies, too inauthentic. The page was sacrosanct and I could not afford to let a bad idea slip in.
To further complicate matters, I was convinced that writing unemotionally was disingenuous. Almost as if I were a method actor and not a writer, I absolutely knew that in order to convey an emotion, I had to embody it first. It had to fill me and guide me like a magical invocation so that my words could be honest.
I still have no idea how that notion entered my head, but it was the most destructive of all my misapprehensions about writing. Because of it, my writing world was a living hell.
That’s why, over the course of ten years – 2 of them spent at one of the most prestigious creative writing schools in the nation – I never finished a single work of fiction. Not a novella, not a short story, not so much as a fictionalized Mars bar – nothing. Even as I sat for days, doing everything I knew how to do – reopening old wounds, wearing down pencil leads, abusing my mind and body, and refusing to sleep until I’d expended my last ounce of energy – I never finished a piece of writing that I liked, and I never liked a piece that was finished.
Ten years was, and still is, a very long time to fight. In that time, I ruined relationships, made enemies unnecessarily, embarrassed myself publicly and in private, and managed to barely keep my head above water for the sake of a career I didn’t have. Moments requiring action passed by me like fence pickets. Opportunities offered themselves, waited and disappeared while I sat in my chair, paralyzed. The good writing of which I was certain that I was capable refused to come out of me.
I couldn’t admit it to anyone, but that was when I began to realize that I wasn’t a writer at all. I never had been. Maybe, I never would be.
I began to feel reticent about reading books for pleasure. The better the story was, the more it illuminated the widening chasm between the work that I wanted to do and the work of which I was capable. The hours I spent reading dwindled to minutes, then less. I still kept a book on me, but I rarely read more than a few pages in a sitting.
As the months wore on, my friends and family began to realize what was happening. The great purpose around which I’d built my life wasn’t for me. There was no literary genius hidden up my sleeve. Erin Madsen couldn’t write. Tentative voices began to ask what exactly I intended to do with my life now. For the first time in my life, I had no idea.