Friday, July 13, 2012

800 Words: The First Anniversary

A year ago today, I posted my first 800 Word topic, a review of V. S. Naipaul's A Bend in the River - it's the one of only true book reviews I've posted this year because my reading habits are so haphazard that I rarely read a book from start to finish. I often even find that I have more success finishing books if I read them backwards, starting with the last chapter and letting it progress in reverse order. In the meantime, my deceptively illiterate self has written hundreds of thousands of words on topics as diverse as Aaron Sorkin, Leos Janacek, Bashar al-Assad, Mad Men, Homeland, Ray Bradbury, Religion, the Euro crisis, Billy Crystal, Clint Eastwood, Thomas Quasthoff, Diablo Cody, Handel's Messiah, Christopher Hitchens, What constitutes a "Jewish" movie, what the 21st century 'classics' are, The Beatles, Occupy Wall Street, Christopher Columbus, my generation, Jewish music, Bach, Sibelius, Lieber & Stoller, the American Prairie, Joseph Epstein, the Orioles, Barack Obama, The Simpsons, Johnny Cash, Jon Stewart, The Producers, Twitter, La Regle du Jeu, Vanya on 42nd Street, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Johnny Cash, Harry Potter, China, and the differences between Baltimore and Washington. I've shared all kinds of details from my private life - the type of which I always poo-poohed when other people did the same. God help me, I've even tried my hand at some fiction. And most amazingly to me, I feel only as though I'm just getting warmed up.

So I suppose it’s fitting that right as I approach the one-year anniversary of my beginning this 800 words thing, I should get hit with a minor case of writer’s block. The whole point of this exercise was to prevent writer’s block. No matter what the quality was, or what the subject, I would issue 800 words a day on whatever topic I could. If I have not managed 800 words a day on whatever subject I like, it’s because my ability to conquer writer’s block turned out to be successful beyond my wildest imaginings.

In the last year, I’ve written 190 of these 800 Words posts, but on average each post is probably about 2000 words long. I’ve had a number of posts that well exceed 4,000 words, and the subjects just keep coming. And that doesn’t even count all the various posts I never finished – at least a quarter of the ones I begin exist in an unfinished state on my computer. How the hell did I write so much?

I hope that when I say ‘writer’s block’ I mean it entirely tongue in cheek because there is no such thing. It’s not that we ‘writers’ should all have endless facility and craft, it’s that to even call myself a writer would be incredibly presumptuous, as I suspect it would be for anyone to define themselves with such a specific identity. For years, writing was something I compulsively did as I pursued other activities. As the failures began to stack up – as a poet, actor, theater director, film director, philosophy student, composer, conductor, violinist, journalist, newspaper critic, political operative, and investor – I couldn’t help noticing that writing was something to which I kept coming back. I began to wonder, what would happen if I just wrote for myself? Just me and a keyboard, no trying to compete with the world, no trying to garner any sense of outward accomplishment. Even if nobody else knew that I was doing something really well, I would know. And thus was this project born.

I could, of course, try something other than self-publishing and attempt to market myself to magazines, newspapers, websites, group blogs, but that runs the risk of another disappointment setting in. No longer would I have the time to do as much writing as possible, and no longer would I be able to keep this part of my life completely separate from all life’s other disappointments. Such an act would be a fool-proof recipe for “writer’s” block.

Growing up, I never set out to be a writer. I wanted to be an orchestra conductor, and over the years I tried my hand at all those professions I listed above with varying degrees of success and less varying degrees of failure. Frankly, my disorganized self was not well-matched for any other calling than this one. Writing is the most basic artform there is, and the most learning disabled person can become a great writer. If you can talk ,you can write; and oh my, how I can talk…

I recently met a rather interesting person at some social functions. Like me, this person is clearly a marathon talker, but he’s also everything I’m not – tall, thin, extraverted, self-confident. Unlike me, he’s clearly supremely good at selling himself and frankly has already gotten me to go to some parties to which I didn’t even want to go. He’s also an accomplished writer, with long articles published in some of the most famous newspapers and magazines in the world. A few days ago, I saw him again and asked how much writing he does aside from what’s published – and his answer, while disappointing, was in no way surprising. The morbid egotism of the writer’s life apparently holds no appeal to him, and he would much prefer a life of action to the isolation which a writer’s life requires.

What sane person wouldn’t prefer a normal life to the writer’s life? No one has an obligation to develop their talents, and if a person is capable of an easier, more enjoyable life by doing something other than creative work, why would they subject themselves to the endless toil, frustration, and misunderstanding which defines an artist’s life? Great artists are made, not born. The talent must be there, but there has to be an endless series of setbacks to make a person believe that retreating to solitary confinement for hours every day to dwell in a private world of their own making is a good idea. ­­­­There has to be a bottomless source of existential angst to make a person want to wrestle with weighty subjects rather than merely entertaining ones. Nobody grapples with the unanswerable questions of existence unless life forces them to do it. For any person to whom life’s been unceasingly kind, the weightiness of life’s real problems is a stupefying bore. Some of these people may become writers, musicians, filmmakers, but they only know how to strive for entertainment, not enlightenment. Their sights are lower and they do not crave a greater understanding of the world, because all they know about it is how to enjoy it.

Whatever I’ve accomplished in the last year on this blog is for other readers to say (if I have any…), but I will be arrogant enough to say that what I do on this blog is art – good art, bad art, it doesn’t matter. I have now done an average of more than 800 words a day on this blog for a whole year and for the first time in my life, I can say with a clear conscience that I am finally an artist.

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