Wednesday, April 21, 2010

How to Avoid Writing, Ver. 2.0

Voltaire. Detail from an engraving by Baquoy (ca. 1795).

Back in 2007, I posted an essay titled "How to Avoid Writing." A couple weeks ago, I read in the local paper that the creative writing department of a local university was holding a contest. The winners would receive tickets to a reading by David Sedaris. I didn't know much about Sedaris, but I thought I'd take a crack at the contest, so, on the advice and with the editorial assistance of my son the former English major, I did some major revision of the 2007 essay. I won second place. Here is the revised version:

Those of us who are compelled by temperament, neurosis, or outright madness to put pen to paper or bang away at a keyboard often suffer from a stronger urge, which is the compulsion to avoid writing. Why should this be? If I don’t want to write, why don’t I just do something else with my time? I could polish my spoon collection, shampoo my pet wombat, or water my okra seedlings. But I feel I must write. As inadequate as I feel when writing, I may feel even worse if I don’t write. How can I call myself a writer if I am not writing? So, then why do I avoid it? Perfectionism is a factor. If I am not able to produce verbiage on a par with John Updike, with flawless use of simile, metaphor, gerunds, and undangling participles, why bother? The blank page reflects my anxiety, guilt and self-doubt. I am reminded of the brilliant humorist Robert Benchley, who one day rolled a fresh piece of paper into his typewriter and typed “The.” Different versions of the story have him staring at the paper for a prolonged period of time, then smoking his pipe, going for a walk, joining a poker game, meeting up with friends, drinking, or some combination of these activities. When he returned to the typewriter, he stared for a while at the solitary word “The,” finally added “hell with it,” and quit for the day.

Numerous impediments may get in the way of writing. You need to be prepared. If you chose to scribble your thoughts on paper, you need to remember where you left your favorite pen. If you use a computer, you need to know which of those little sliding things at the top of the computer screen produces a hanging indent. Indeed, you should know what a hanging indent is, and how it should be used. Research such as this takes time. Should I just launch into an essay or short story without knowing how to turn off that cartoon paper clip that thinks it knows what kind of document I am typing and cloyingly offers to help me write it? I think not, and wading through help menus takes time.

Beyond the pure mechanics of writing, it is necessary to have in mind something to write about, and to have in-depth knowledge of the subject. Aye, there’s the rub. Cable news pundits may pontificate on any topic at will without rigorous study of the issues, but as for me, knowledge is power. As Albert Einstein once said, “Chance favors the prepared mind. Don’t be caught with your intellectual knickers down!” Or was it his cousin Manny Einstein who said that? No matter. The point is, before fanning the fires of creativity, the writer must make sure his mental tinder box is full of wood shavings and gently-used toothpicks. The writer must be always prepared, ready at a moment's notice to produce a paragraph by rubbing two Boy Scouts together. He must be ready to spend as much time as necessary to hone his craft—not by writing, but by doing other things that seem dreadfully important at the time.

For instance, take the time I sat down to write about a letter that was handed down to me from my grandmother. Her brother had written to her while he was working away from home, early in the twentieth century. He mentioned in the letter that his scalp was itching because he had rabbits, and that my grandmother should be careful because there may be rabbits in the letter. Holding the envelope in my hand, I was fairly certain even a baby bunny couldn’t fit in there. I was absolutely sure that a fine upstanding young man like Great Uncle Charles would not have been in the grip of delirium tremens, longing for a drink of rotgut whiskey while imagining small furry mammals crawling over his head. My best guess was that “rabbit” was a slang term for head lice. Is this common knowledge? It wasn’t to me--what a wonderful opportunity to dive into research and avoid writing!

In days of yore, research involved going to the library to riffle through the card catalog and pore over The Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature. Those quaint practices have been rendered obsolete by the internet. It is interesting that as I type this essay on a laptop computer wirelessly connected to the internet through my home network, squiggly red lines appear under the words internet, wirelessly, and even squiggly, indicating these words are unrecognized by the word-processing software. I can understand how squiggly may be suspect, as it is a lame word, but perhaps it is time for internet and wirelessly to become accepted parts of the lexicon. Or perhaps I just need to upgrade from Word 97.

But I digress. Being connected to the World Wide Web, I go to the modern equivalent of the card catalog and The Reader’s Guide—Google (another red squiggly line appears). I type in “rabbits” and “lice.” References to scientific experiments involving the two species appear, but not too far down the list is a link to an article by P.J. O’Rourke published in The Atlantic in 2003. The essay is an account of his daughter’s infestation by head lice and includes facts he had gathered by researching the topic in the New England Journal of Medicine and other sources. One of his sources was The American Thesaurus of Slang, published in the 1940s, which gave the following synonyms for lice: seam squirrels, shimmy lizards, and pants rabbits. I believe these sobriquets apply to pubic lice, more commonly known today by the trans-species appellation crabs.

Ah, now, armed with knowledge, I am ready to write. Or am I? Should I not go to the primary source myself? Of course. Perhaps The American Thesaurus of Slang is in the public domain and available online. I Google the title. Alas, no electronic version is available, but there appears a link to Worldcat.com, which tells me that a tangible copy sits on a shelf at the local campus of Indiana University, a tantalizing 13 miles away. Should I go? No, wait. In the endless list of links produced by Google is a review from a librarians’ journal. I must read it to know if it’s worth the effort to go on a quest for the book. The reviewer is gaga over the book. I must have it. Alas, I don’t have checkout privileges at the university. I go to the public library catalog online. The library doesn’t have The American Thesaurus of Slang, but does have a copy of the more recently published Thesaurus of American Slang. Maybe that’s close enough. Another blessed respite from writing calls to me. I could drive to the library, find the book, perhaps browse the CDs in the Sights and Sounds section, and maybe read a magazine. No, I tell myself sternly, I must write.

But first, I’ll see if a copy of the older book is for sale. After all, any writer worth his salt should have his own copy of this invaluable reference material. A search at Amazon.com reveals that the book is out of print, but a few used copies are available, ranging in price from less than eight dollars to more than a hundred, depending on condition. Thirty to fifty dollars would buy a copy in good condition. Hmmm…have to think about it.

And so, I push back from the keyboard with a sense of deep satisfaction. Mission accomplished! I have avoided writing—sort of.

Acknowledgment:

The author is grateful for the editorial assistance of Daniel P. Cory, J.D.

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