The Question

I'm on a self-imposed solo "writer's retreat."

I also did this two years ago, and with a specific charge: I had to finish a new screenplay I had been toiling with, because I was convinced that I was one period of isolation away from being able to hold the script for a brilliant-yet-also-commercially-viable script in my hands. And it worked. I completed some 70-80 new pages in 3-4 days. I got to the end. I typed those two glorious words, "FADE OUT," printed it, pierced it with two brass fasteners and headed home.

There was only one problem: the script sucked. Even when I spent virtually the next 12 months revising it, it still sucked. It was a great premise without a great story. And it centered on an interesting idea for a character who, once actually living on the page, was a waste of the alphabet. I had chosen to work on that script because when I described the premise to people (an odd one for me, because it was science fiction), it made their eyes light up. "That's the one you have to write," they would say. And so I listened, diving into sci-fi movies and literature, bowing at the altars of Philip K. Dick and H.P. Lovecraft--even finally watching "2001: A Space Odyssey" (on my iPhone at the gym; don't hate me). After the retreat, I devoted every Friday of an entire year--a huge sacrifice of otherwise billable hours--to revising it. I could never get it to work. I still don't know what it's really about, or what the hell to do with it.

So here I am, in the same cabin in Minnesota, sipping coffee by a fire, again convinced that I need a "period of isolation" to write. But this time, I have a different approach (obviously, since I'm wasting an hour this morning writing about the experience instead of living it). There are no hard deadlines. There's no specific project. I brought my computer, a notebook and pen, a guitar, and two books: James Joyce's Dubliners and a collection of Raymond Carver short stories--because "The Dead" is the only piece of literature that screams "genius" to me and compels me to read it periodically, and because there's just something about Raymond Carver that speaks to me ... not necessarily the subject matters, but the style, its precision.

If this retreat does have a goal, it's a broad one, and one that I find hard to articulate. It has something to do with trying to figure out whether or not an artist lives inside of me. This is a big issue for me, as I've always identified myself as a creative person, but only on the middling level of "craftsman," never "artist." Art is serious business. Art comprises depths that I literally cannot fathom. The question I seek to address has something to do with the way I just described myself. Is that a bunch of self-deprecating bullshit, or is it a truth that I simply need to embrace and stop feeling guilty about?

If, as a creative person, I seek to create nothing but what I find "fun" and "natural," then I do what I did last night when I arrived here: I take out my guitar, compose a rhythm in GarageBand, spontaneously pound out a simple riff, build some parts around it, save it, share it and hope people like it. As for writing, I write things like what I'm writing right now. Thoughts, essays, travel journals. If I'm truly moved, I lapse into poetry, but that usually requires being in Ireland. Rarely do I truly "feel" like writing a screenplay, a short story, God forbid a novel.

Should I see this as a sign of what I should truly be doing? I could, except that it's never enough. If I go down this road too long, I inevitably run up against some other piece of superior creativity, or "art," that moves me, and that I find far more complex, emotional and meaningful than anything I've ever done. And I find myself longing to do THAT. I become convinced that whatever THAT is (a Raymond Carver short story like "Cathedral," perhaps, which I re-read this morning) is completely accessible to me. The only reason I don't go there is because it's frightening, and it's hard. I could be THAT, and in some ways I'll never be happy with myself until I achieve THAT, so maybe I should just go face the fear (and the work) and do it, as if I can.

Except for this: There's that word, "achieve." Why do I use that word in describing this creative version of White People Problems that I struggle with? That word says "ego" to me. That word says "obligation" to me. That word says that there's something from the outside that's also driving this. Where does my expectation of any of this come from? Is it truly from within, in which case I would say that it's something I need to face ... or is it originally from without, some expectation I felt at an early age from my father, directly or indirectly (in which case I might just need to let it go)?

My father, to his credit, never placed THAT particular pressure on me or anyone else. He wasn't concerned with his children being artists; he was concerned with them being educated. But when I looked at his writing, which I did in depth when compiling his works for a book I presented him on his 70th birthday, I felt the same issue. My dad was fundamentally a writer, but he ended up in high-level academic public relations. He "naturally" wrote short stories. He did a masters thesis on John Dos Passos. I remember him re-reading Proust's Remembrance of Things Past for fun. In the basement. With a baseball game on the TV.

I feel like my dad wanted to be a writer, but he chose the more practical route and journeyed, as so many writers do, from journalism to PR. He clearly wanted to be married, wanted a family, wanted a "normal" life. He was deeply traditional in that sense, and must have decided that to have both, something had to give. And to his credit, he made it work. He didn't sell out. He didn't become some corporate PR flak; he did his job well in the atmosphere he most believed in (Catholic liberal arts academia), at a place he truly seemed to love (Notre Dame). Did I sense some bitterness about that decision? Did I feel a sense of "sacrifice" in my dad's gait, his expression, his drinking? Or am I reverse-projecting? I honestly have no idea. My father didn't carve out time to write novels and short stories. He didn't go on writer's retreats. He was perfectly content to read spy novels and The New York Times. His sole literary expression was the family Christmas letter, which was the perfect merging of everything he valued in his life.

What's that perfect merging for me? It could be exactly what I'm doing, and so perhaps my job is to stop looking over my shoulder, thinking that I should be doing something grander, something deeper, and to realize that my feelings of artistic inadequacy are an illusion--the undisposed byproduct of some kind of weird childhood guilt. Or perhaps that's completely wrong. Perhaps what I need to do is take that vision over the shoulder seriously, explore it more fully, realize that it's okay to see myself as an artist, and not have to choke on that word when describing my self.


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