Writing

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.

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.

The Con (Part One)

When I was about eight or nine years old, the coolest show on television was The A-Team. If you haven’t ever seen The A-Team, the basic formula for every episode was that four war criminals would roll into town in a black van, build a tank out of a broken-down tractor and some spare oil barrels, and rid the world of evil-doers by setting off bombs and shooting up the place with machine guns. If you remember the show at all, you probably remember it as a vehicle for Mr. T, who played big, bad B.A. Baracus.

All of my friends wanted to be Mr. T. Which was kind of odd, because all of my friends were skinny white kids who weighed about seventy or eighty pounds. Mr. T, by way of contrast, was a muscular African American man with a Mohawk who was prone to saying things like, “I pity the fool!” and “I ain’t getting on no plane.”

He’d say it very gruffly.

It was very intimidating.

Recognizing that there was very little likelihood that I’d ever be Mr. T, I gravitated more toward a character called Face, who was played by Dirk Benedict. Face was a con man. At least, that’s what everyone on the show called him. At the time, though, I didn’t know what that meant, so I asked my mother, and she told me that it was someone who is good at talking and tricking other people into doing things for him or giving him what he wants—usually money. This sounded pretty good to me, and I decided right then and there what I wanted to be when I grew up. (My novel, by the way, is available at Amazon.com and other online retailers.)

The trouble with aspiring to be a con man, I soon found out, was that there were no real opportunities for kids my age to break into the field or to get tips from professionals. Sure, there were movies like The Sting and Paper Moon, but they lacked the firepower of The A Team, so I wasn’t especially interested in them. Ten years later, I went to college and was further disappointed to learn that nobody offered a major in the art of the con. So I did the only thing I really could do given the circumstances, and I became an English major.

I’m guessing there are at least a couple of English majors reading this, so you’ll forgive me if I’m stating the obvious when I say that engaging in that particular field of study provides the perfect proving ground for anyone interested, as I was, in following in the footsteps of my favorite character from the A Team.  People say things to you like, “English? What are you going to do with that?” And you have to be ready with all of the answers that English departments always give to justify what they do: “Well, I could always be a lawyer,” you say. (That’s the one they teach us to say first.) “Or a teacher. Or go into advertising.”

And then, if you’re like me, you make the most ridiculous claim of all.

“Or I could be a writer.”

(Continued tomorrow.)