Open Book News

Faking It

The author, faking it. Tucson, AZ, 1999.

Writers' early careers are characterized by a sort of inconsistent confidence, a herky-jerky belief in themselves and their divinely appointed mission interspersed with paralyzing instances of clarity wherein they recognize that they have no earthly idea what they're doing. They'll be infatuated with an historical literary moment and stay up all night imitating its exemplars. Kerouac frequently figures in this process. Plath, too. It'll all mean a lot of false starts and questionable efforts, but there'll be a high volume of output, and the law of averages allows that some small percentage of the yield might not be half bad. Somebody in a position of so-called import – a “real” writer, a teacher – will say as much, and the young hopeful will be flush with a sudden filament-hot belief. The confidence thereby engendered tends to be of a janky, off-kilter variety, like the spin cycle's progressing as intended but the drum's off balance and making that kicking sound and the whole unit's kind of skipping gradually across the floor toward the furnace. But no matter; great things lie ahead.

Here's where many of us take that leap of faith and begin to self-define as, yup, Writers, announcing this allegiance – this calling – to the world unabashedly. The role comes to define us, and to colour family meals during significant holidays. It runs along the lines of, “So you want to be a writer, huh?” with a counterpoint of, “I am a writer, dad.”

Maybe this constitutes faking it. If so, go ahead and fake it hard. Any early and too bright confidence, even if unearned, might prove to be bankable, I want to think, against those innumerable midcareer instances of dread, the sense that your B.S. detector is still in one gleaming piece, but running an old, unsupported version of Windows. The machinery grows old and unreliable, or so it seems in post-midnight ceiling-staring sessions, the components no longer meeting plumb, their fits grown awkward, their lubricants dried and gone. Or potentially worse, the technology remains as reliable as a solid-state transistor, idiosyncratic but functioning, but the idea-fuel's all spent.

That's the danger, or anyway the fear. To be in the company of writers is to be surrounded by those nursing cases of imposter syndrome in varying degrees of severity, and/or a collection of the swivel-necked in constant, nervy pivot to see what's coming up behind them. The exceptions to all this, those few who know no fear, and who are steadfast in their self-assurance, are just about insufferable. You can spot them easily enough; they're likely to be the decrepit ones who'll shower you in dicta and directives, hard and fast rules by which they'll insist you stand, adherence measured in the production of lines they can compare to old masters.

No one's getting rich off this, or anyway no one on the extraction end of things, if we're speaking in terms of words as natural resource. Only those who make the machines which draw the words from the earth, or the oceans, or the atmosphere. Only those who control the sale of the refined product. In this industry all the old models from which you may choose are in their unique ways bankrupt and disproven, so make up your own. That's all any of us are doing anyway. You get so few chances to invent yourself in this life, so seize this one.

You're an apprentice only to yourself in these early years. There is no one to convey legitimacy upon you. There will those who claim to do so, or to have the authority to stamp you as such, but that authority is itself illegitimate. It's a shell game in a subway station and your train just pulled screechily in.

There will be bad words, a ton of them, which you'll be serving to burn off. This is necessary. Cleaning out the gunk. When you buy a new Brita filter you have to flush it out upon installation. Think of this as that, but treat all the water as the pure stuff. Talk large. Work larger. We make ourselves and are made by the work, but the process needn't be glaringly public. Put on the face that you one day hope to honestly possess. Make notes toward an acceptance speech. Call your mistakes experiments, but file them away as experience. You'll be wrong in much of this, but it doesn't matter. Coast on the confidence when it so rarely visits – gorge on it – and fake it when it doesn't. Call yourself whatever you want, and then invest your all in becoming it. Those ahead of you will chortle and grumble and they may even talk. Let them. What do their words mean to you? You'll eventually become what they are not and could never be: you. And by the time they realize that, it'll be too late.

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