The Con (Part Two)

(Continued from part one.)

As ridiculous as it sounds, there’s a certain je ne sais quoi to saying that you can be a writer, and after you say it enough times, you might actually start to believe it—regardless of whether or not you’ve ever actually written anything. And that’s when the real work of the con has to begin. At some point, you need to sit down in front of a computer or a typewriter or, if you’re a real glutton for punishment, in front of blank legal pad, and start writing. But you can’t just start writing. You need to have something to write about. You need to have something to say. And so you start pacing the room and talking to the walls and trying to figure out what, exactly, you want to write about.

Again, easier said than done.

And once you do, finally, settle on something to say, you need to convince yourself that it’s worth saying. Or not just saying—that it’s worth sitting down in front of your computer day-in and day-out for hours on end, and for days, weeks, months, or years at a time to get this idea out. While all of your friends are out having fun, you’ll gladly shackle yourself to your desk just to squeeze out a few more words. Because it will all be worth it in the end, you convince yourself.

Because…

Because…

Because…

Hmm. Maybe it’s best not to seek an answer to that.

Let’s call it the artist’s prerogative.

So the first con is the con you pull over on yourself. You convince yourself that you’re a writer and, as such, that you must have something important to say. It’s a bit of a circular argument, but it generally works for a lot of us.

But here’s the neat thing about living the con that is being the writer—it gives you plenty of opportunity to hone your skills as a storyteller. Because ultimately what you’re doing is playing a game. Here’s a character. Here are all of the details about her life. Here’s her problem. Here’s how the problem gets worse. Here’s how she eventually gets out of it. If you’re doing your job as a writer, you’re basically convincing your reader that all of these things are real. Or, if they’re not really real, that they could be real. Because just like the “mark” in any con, your reader really wants to be taken in. Your reader wants to believe—or at least to suspend disbelief.  All you have to do is make the story believable.

And how do you do that?

Well, it turns out that there are plenty of opportunities for cons like us to get together. They’re called workshops, conferences, and writers’ retreats, and they’re wonderful. Of course, when I say “con,” I mean it in the best possible sense. Because all writers face the daunting task of looking at a blank page—of creating something from nothing, for all intents and purposes—we’re in a peculiar position. The only real precedent I can think of is God and all that business of creating the universe. And to dare to do something like that—to invent something from whole cloth—takes a lot of guts—a lot of confidence, in other words. And that’s why we writers need to stick together, which in turn is why it’s great that we have all of the aforementioned venues for coming together.

While workshops and conferences are ostensibly there to help us become better writers, the real value of participating in such activities is that they give us, as writers, a chance to step away from our computers—at least for a little while—and get to know real human beings. Talk about our struggles. Share strategies for beating pesky things like writers block and the bigger issues of existential angst that plague us all. Let each other know that we’re not crazy. That what we’re doing is worthwhile. That writing is a perfectly legitimate pursuit.

Is it all just a shared illusion?

Maybe it is. But the bigger question is: what isn’t?

Real estate?

The stock market?

Majoring in English?

At the end of the day, or the end of every episode of The A-Team, anyway, what made Face such a compelling character for me was that no matter how big the swindle, his mark always went away happy. Along similar lines, the writer of fiction is the best kind of con there is because that’s also what we’re looking for—we want our readers to come away happy from whatever we’ve written. So, yes, maybe there’s a bit of circular logic involved in the way we writers convince ourselves that what we do is legitimate. But that’s the whole point of writing—to conjure something out of nothing, to create something that wasn’t there before, to arrange the mirrors to make the world believe in something that doesn’t quite exist but is, nonetheless, real.

Strayer University: An Odd Coincidence

You may recall that I recently posted a bit of information about Strayer University’s efforts at getting my dog, Pete, to apply to one of their degree programs. You may also recall that in addition to being a dog, one other obstacle standing between Pete and his lifelong dream of earning a degree is that his life turned out not to be long enough to see his dream come true. Sadly, he passed away a little over a year ago.

But now the saga has another twist:

This weekend, my wife and I had the privilege of attending my cousin’s wedding. The bride (my cousin) was glowing, the groom was a charming gentleman, everyone had a lot of fun, and it was a great opportunity for two families who, for the most part, had never met to get to know each other. And get to know each other we did over the course of a lot of eating, drinking, and dancing (or something quite like it).

After the reception, the party continued at the hotel bar where I met the uncle of the groom. He mentioned that he worked at a university in the Washington DC area. As an educator myself, I was curious to hear more, so I asked which university.

The answer: Strayer.

On top of that, he said that he works in the Office of Admissions.

I paused for a moment, wondering if I should mention Pete.

I mentioned Pete.

“You know,” I said. “My dog got a letter from Strayer a few weeks ago asking him to apply.”

“That happens sometimes,” the man said.

“He died about a year ago,” I said.

The man nodded and said his office got a lot of phone calls from people with similar complaints — letters going to elderly relatives in nursing homes, for example, asking if they’d be interested in furthering their careers by going to Strayer.

I asked why that happened.

The problem, he said, was that Strayer works with an outside marketing firm to reach out to potential students. It was the firm, in other words, and not Strayer’s Office of Admissions who extended an invitation to Pete to apply to one of the university’s degree programs.

So it seems I owe the Strayer University Office of Admissions an apology.

Moreover, the gentleman I spoke to was a very nice guy, and it turned out that we have a lot of the same concerns when it comes to higher education. We’re both distressed by the decline in reading and writing skills we see among incoming freshmen, and we both worry a lot about retention rates among matriculating students. In other words, we really want to see students who apply and are accepted into degree programs carry through with their course of study all the way to graduation.

And there it was: two families coming together and two distinct approaches to education finding some degree of accord, both on the same day.

In the end, I suppose, we all have more in common than we tend to think.

Interview with Steve Almond

Thanks (again!) to Steve Almond, this time for a great interview in The Nervous Breakdown. We chatted electronically about a number of subjects — including but not limited to my writing process, working with the Permanent Press, and any similarities I might see between my own mother and Audrey Corcoran, the heroine of The Singular Exploits of Wonder Mom and Party Girl.

This interview appears hot on the heels of my interview with Peter Schwartz in Dogzplot, so I hope my responses don’t contradict each other from one week to the next.