When I am supposed to be writing, I often think about the faceless finished works I will publish. I imagine my mom calling me, asking what Sunday my essay appeared in the Times, so she can track it down in her stacks of unread newspapers. I picture my name in the elegant font of the New Yorker or in block letters on the glossy cover of Oxford American. I am witty and unsentimental, but deeply touching and also fearlessly critical. Early on, I am compared to Anne Lamott. Later, to Joan Didion.
After numerous more publications — Harper’s, The Atlantic, Ms. Magazine — I am featured in Best American Essays, because although I pretend to ride the avant-garde train, in truth, I just want to be loved by as many people as possible. Simultaneously, Amazon releases one of those neat 20,000 word Kindle Singles by yours truly. It is embraced by women and smart men in their late-twenties to early forties. This all happens very quickly, by the way, so that I can keep up with my student loan payments and my semi-indulgent lifestyle. What follows is inevitable: my first book, a collection of my essays; a true book made of paper and glue and thread (paperback first will do).
And then, my memoir, the title of which I have thought about considerably over the past fifteen years. I could go with something popular and unoriginal: The Fishmonger’s Daughter. That story would focus on my formative years, of course, so much to tell there. I could easily hop on the addict-in-recovery train and focus on my many bottoming-outs and eventual sobriety. I might use a single, edgy phrase for that title, something like Flushed or Bottoming Out, or else a longer title-subtitle, Alcoholic-Sex Addict: a Story of Change. (That’s the super-true tell all version.) There’s always the option to steal the title my sister proposed for her own memoir she never wrote, A Nun Beat My Father, although let’s face it, no one will be surprised if I plagiarize her, and how fun is that? Why not try something plain and descriptive: White Feminist, or The Girl Who Ate All the Girl Scout Cookies and then Lied About It? Then there’s the enigmatic title, the one no one understands but everyone is embarrassed to ask after: Scuttleboat or Dagerreotype. I might focus exclusively on my year as a public school teacher, a position I was let go from because of my classroom management issues and inability to handle stress. It will be an indictment of American Educational Policy and the Common Core Curriculum (always hot topics) called Broke Down: One Teacher who Failed. Finally, perhaps the memoir might be about my life as a writer: Death to Adverbs and Other Things I’ve Learned About Writing.
At times, something about sorting through this fantasy temporarily sates my desire to write, and I turn on the television or acquiesce to click-bait or — gasp — open a book by someone else…only to feel terrible and bereft later. A professor once told my class that discipline is the difference between doing what you want now and what you want most. When will I be disciplined? When will I establish the early-to-rise routine that so many writers swear by? When will I have a neat and clean office with a desk? When I will stop making excuses? I am convinced that I would be a baller writer if I would only do the work. The work is all that matters. No writer has ever achieved the accomplishments in my fantasy by not working. Not one. Because the work is difficult, and endless, and takes courage.
Though I’m tempted, I am not going to make a highfalutin resolution to do the work, not today, because the same professor also told us that resolving to accomplish something satisfies the desire, leaving us right back where we started — not doing the work. I think the trick is to stop expecting myself to rise before dawn and write for six hours in yellow legal pads while standing up at a podium (Mr. Hemingway, you set the standard impossibly high), nor to allow bouts of depression to envelop me and keep me away from the work (Kafka, you were brilliant, but also very unhappy.) It is further unrealistic for me to run 10 kilometers and swim 500 meters each afternoon. (I love you, Mr. Murakami, but that will never happen.) But maybe I should get a typewriter and retype my own sentences to get into a rhythm (I’ll try anything once that works for you, Ms. Didion.)
I want to keep my desire on the edge. I am a mercurial creature, and I embrace this totally. My unfinished works are nothing compared to my finished works, few that they may be.
New memoir title. The Mercurial Creature: A Memoir.