Dear reader, don’t take this personally, but sometimes I think of pursuing another line of work. It’s not you, it’s me. Writing is just so hard. The words don’t seem apt, sentences come loose, a draft seems more deserving of the delete button than your readerly attention.
In my experience, nothing is so likely to rob a middle-aged writer of modest accomplishment of the feeling that he was meant to be a writer as the act of writing itself. Want to know what does make him feel like a writer? A tumbler of scotch, company, and a good story to tell about something already written. In the glow of former triumph I always feel like a writer; when writing is still going on, I feel like a schmuck.
I once met a novelist who told me that when her work is going well, she feels a great sense of wonder at what just came out of her. Sometimes, she added, it brings tears to her eyes. Oh, I said, I too sometimes cry when I write, when every word seems fatuous and even the slightest degree of truth and beauty seems utterly unattainable—or, say, half of the time.
When I try to think of a more desirable job, I start by asking myself, What am I really good at? Unfortunately, the things I am really good at correspond to no particular profession. For instance, I am very good at catching flies and killing bugs.
I do get a lot of practice at catching flies, because I have kids who always leave the front door open. See, I could not make it as a professional parent, having failed to teach my little ones such a basic skill.
What I do is stand in my kitchen—a wonderfully small kill zone—and wait. The mind is clear as my hands float in front of me. I note the speed and landing preferences of Mister Bug. Is he favoring the window or the back door? The countertop? The cabinets? I quickly determine whether this job calls for a magazine (of which there are many at my house, one side effect of spending so much time trying to be a writer) or the cold death slap of my bare hands.
I just love this work. It calls forth my inner calm. I feel no inhibitions and, afterwards, great satisfaction.
I have other skills, too; for instance, I am really good at finding keys and other lost objects. Just this week, my wife Cynthia asked if I knew where the checkbook was, coating her words with the faintest suggestion that I was responsible for misplacing it. I took only mild offense, having a clear memory of returning the checkbook to her bag after paying dues to my Gaelic football club a few days earlier. But the gauntlet had been thrown.
Almost everything lost, I know from vast experience, is actually nearby. And there are very few places where anything is likely to be. Quickly, I examine Cynthia’s bag, the home office, living room, etcetera, and am almost certain the checkbook has to be in the car, even though Cynthia says she has already searched the car.
I step outside and the air is thick with anticipation. My confidence swells as I open the car door. I work from obvious to less obvious: seats, door pockets, console, floor space, under the seat, deeper under the seat. It’s almost as if I’d hid it there myself when my hand alights on an unseen baseball glove, and then I reach under the baseball glove. Eureka! What makes this especially gratifying is the fact that the only person to have driven the car in the last few days is a certain woman I know, who looks just a little embarrassed when I tell her where I found the checkbook.
Recently I read an article in the New York Times about a pair of writers who had found work congenial to their special skills. It was a shallow lifestyle piece, of which I would disapprove, except that shallow lifestyle pieces constitute a major reason I so regularly read the Times.
These two writers in Brooklyn (of course!) are making bread by writing toasts and other special occasion speeches for fathers of the bride, wives of the birthday boy, and so on. I have actually lent writing help to a number of toast-makers of my acquaintance, and from attending many weddings it doesn’t surprise me that there is a market for this kind of editorial service—not because your average wedding toast is so bad, but because some of them are so good. Several times while listening appreciatively I have thought a best man’s speech just had to have been professionally written.
Now, I would go into this business myself, but I am actually a much better wedding reception dancer, especially if you like goofy, inebriated wedding reception dancing. But, of course, there’s no money in that.