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Sunday, May 27, 2012

On Being Called a "Passionate" Writer


"Passionate": one word that, more frequently than any other, is applied to my writing.

Yesterday I submitted an excerpt from "Save Send Delete" to an editor. He wrote back this morning. "Passionate" was the third word in his email. He also called the excerpt "enthralling," which I really liked. That email will never be thrown away!

But … "Passionate?"

I just don't get it.

I am anything but passionate when I write. I am rational. What's going on in my head is very much not "pant pant" but "tick tock."

I'm a teacher and a dyslexic. I've devoted many hours to thinking about how the mind and body work. I note my own processes. I know how the inside of my head feels when I am reading a kissy-face novel, and I know how the inside of my head feels when I am balancing my checkbook.

I have different postures, locations, furniture, even CDs for each: Bach for the checkbook. Tchaikovsky for the kissy-face.

In day-to-day life, I am an emotional person. I produce tears just at the thought of the final ten minutes of the 1957 Cary Grant - Deborah Kerr film "An Affair to Remember." The scene where Cary Grant realizes that the reason Deborah Kerr didn't keep their planned rendez-vous atop the Empire State Building was that she'd been hit by a cab. If you need a good cry, or if you just need to get something out of your eye, you can watch that scene here.

Recently I was lecturing a friend who is thinking about writing for publication. "Why do this to yourself," I asked? "The rejections, the crashed hopes, the humiliations, the expense."

So many writers die young: Dylan Thomas after drinking eighteen straight whiskies, Edgar Allan Poe in someone else's clothes, F. Scott Fitzgerald after a year in which he sold fourteen – fourteen! copies of "The Great Gatsby." Women writers who commit suicide are their own genre.

"Why do this to yourself?"

Me? I write because I have to. No, I really have to.

I'm dyslexic, and something else. I don't know if there is a name for it. I'm very confused by supermarkets, for example. I experience them as a blur of stimuli. To find something I'm looking for amidst the confusion, I have to say its name to myself: "Oranges. Oranges. Oranges," and the names of the items I don't want. "These are apples. I want oranges."

I do the same thing when I birdwatch. I describe the bird to myself in words: "Striped chest, central dot, eye-stripe. Oh, that's a song sparrow."

Placing words on things defeats my cognitive dysfunction that renders the world a chaotic buzz. Words are the skeleton keys that unlock reality for me.

It is what I do when I write.

"Save Send Delete" concerns two things that have sucked my mental energy: God and Love.

When I sat down to write every day, I did not allow myself passion. Had I, I would still be crying at the desk. Crying and swooning and careening.

No. I was in balancing checkbook mode when I wrote "Save Send Delete." My posture was erect. I was listening to Bach and wearing Ma Grife, a severe, spinster-schoolmarm perfume that smells of citrus and juniper.

I never allow myself emotions while writing. I do, rather, what I do in the supermarket, what I do when birdwatching. I translate the overwhelming throb of reality that beats against my anxious brain like moth wings beating against a hurricane lamp. I don't say, "This is an orange," I say, "This is the way his eye moves when he tells a lie."

Drop by drop, item by item, bird breast by bird breast, I apply discrete words to discrete realities and the world comes to make sense. For the day, mystery is tamed, anxiety quelled, and I can find some cognitive peace.

This is a cool process. This is a rational process. Believe me. I'm an early morning, caffeinated, green eye-shade, add-subtract writer. Not a puffy sleeve, quill-dipped-in-purple-ink, absinthe-quaffing midnight writer.

"Passionate," though. People keep calling my writing "passionate." Why?

Here's why, I think. It's exactly because of my writerly process.

I tell my students: Don't use hyperbole. Don't use ad hominem. Don't bother.

The facts, ma'am. Just the facts. If you just report the facts, no embroidery, no hyperbole, if you just, as 12 Step puts it, "Show up and tell the truth," readers will shit their pants. The unvarnished truth is so rare.

That's what I strive for as a writer. Just to put the facts down on the page. To these facts, the reader brings his own passion.

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