Jameelah Lang is a nonfiction editor for Gulf Coast and a creative writing PhD student in fiction at the University of Houston. Her fiction has appeared in The Kenyon Review, and she has received awards and support from the HUB-BUB/Hub City Writers Project Artists Residency, Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.
Sunshine, Bunnies...Blah Blah Blah
Oct 19, 2012
People don't like happy stories, and that's the truth. You may have heard, "Happiness writes white on the page," which basically means, "Keep your happy story to your damn self, because we don't want to hear it." This goes for life, too, and if you were to sit down with most people, you would think almost everyone in the world is in a horrifying, damaging relationship, because we're all, "I can't believe
what he said about your hair." And all, "She never, ever, never makes dinner, not even turkey sandwiches."
But the truth is, we have our happy moments, all of us. We just don't share them as much. I have almost never heard anyone say, "You know what, Bob is just really thoughtful, and he brought me Boston Market for dinner, which is my favorite, and then we were super happy."
I think the same goes for writing. A few weeks ago, this professor I respect a whole lot told me she doesn't ever tell anyone when she's writing consistently, or when she's happy about what she's writing, because it will jinx it. A curse, a curse! More often, in the copier room we're all, "Oh my god, I haven't written in a billion years." Or, "I tried to write today, but instead I ended up thinking about my lunch, which, tuna casserole, the recipe is on Food Network, you should try it."
But the truth is: I'm writing now. Sometimes it goes pretty well and sometimes it's like trying to force myself into a pair of jeans from 1998. Sometimes I sit there for like two hours and stare at my screen and then I get into the Twitter/Facebook/Gmail Doom Cycle. But, sometimes, I sit there forever, and then slowly, I write something, and then I write something else, and then I write another thing. And the truth is: it's not all good. And also: I'm absolutely certain that I'll have another dry spell, maybe next week, and it's going to suck really bad, and then I'll be all, "You should have been an engineer," and my mom will be all, "You should have been an engineer," and then I'll stay up, late at night, past when everyone is asleep, and I will type, "How to be an engineer," into Google over and over.
But for now, here are some things that helped me begin to write every day. I give these to you, with love, in the hopes that they will work their magic on you. I give these to me, as a permanent record on the Internet, of good times, so that when I'm watching Jersey Shore
in bed for hours on end and looking up engineering programs on the Internet, I can also look back here and say, "You know what, sunshine and bunnies and happy times are totally real, and those are totally valid feelings, and you totally can reclaim that if you want."
The Woodmans, directed by C. Scott Willis
In our house, we watch documentaries about inspiring animals, messed-up families, or cowboys. This documentary is about a family of artists, so yeah. At one point in this film, George and Betty Woodman (parents of photographer Francesca
) are talking about their lives as artists--and about how lazy other, younger artists are--and they say something like (I'm paraphrasing): You go into your studio every day. If you don't have any ideas, you sit there and sharpen pencils. You keep sharpening pencils. You sharpen pencils until you have an idea. I like this sort of brute-force idea to art and writing: you sit there and you work, and it doesn't matter if you like it or not. This is your job. You avoid the Twitter/Google/Facebook Doom Cycle at all costs. You absolutely do not need to know what your sixth-grade teacher looks like now, you don't.
Michael Phelps in the Summer Olympics, 2012
This picture lives above my desk, and when my friends come over, they're all, "You looove him," and I'm all, "Um, yeah, have you seen that man flutterkick?" but that's not my point here. This summer, I watched the Olympics, and I hate the Olympics. I was feeling down on my writing, and I needed a good excuse to waste my day ("It only happens every four years!"). Here's the thing I like about Michael Phelps: after the 2008 Olympics, he had a total existential crisis. He gave up on swimming and got out of shape and someone took a picture of him with a bong. But then, he was all, "What the hell am I doing?" and he got his life together and trained again and then, of course, the rest is history. I love this story not because I like sports (I don't) and not because I generally find inspiration in stories of athletes (I don't) but because that was me: I was the one getting chunky and giving up on swimming. The message for me here was (and is): don't beat yourself up; just get into that pool and swim your swim.
"How to Tell a True Baby Story" by Matthew Salesses
People write a lot of great advice pieces for writers (here are two by Carmeil Banasky
and Alexander Chee
; and, of course, the famous Dear Sugar letter
). Matthew Salesses is the editor of The Good Men Project
, and he writes many things that I like, but I especially liked it when he wrote this piece, in which he tries to describe what good fiction is for his students. "Serve your heart on a plate," he writes. "I mean, what was it that cut your heart out of you? Write about that. Leave your heart outside, in the cold; give it to someone else." Sometimes I get bored when I'm writing, which mostly just means that I'm being lazy or Facebooking too much, and then I remember to try to be braver, or more ruthless with myself, like Matthew Salesses, who saves his baby from the Playground of Doom and Disease and then forges ahead and writes about it, bravely.
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