Saturday, September 12, 2015

Liam Callanan Sorts It Out

In the 18th in a series of posts on 2015 books entered for The Story Prize, Liam Callanan, author of Listen (Four Way Books), gets a reality check.

I have never once complained about the writing life, because I have never had a bad writing day. I have never begrudged the cursor blink-blink-blinking out from a blank screen. I have never begrudged the computer letting me spend a day filling that screen without bothering to tell me what I’d written was terrible. I have never begrudged another writer’s success at triumphing over either of these horrors, or over the Times’ best seller lists. I have never nursed a headache brought on by such begrudgements. I have never procrastinated by looking up words I just made up, and that’s because I made up this paragraph, and did so entirely of lies.

I write fiction, I lie, it’s what I do.

And what I do is lead a fortunate life, as a woman two weeks ago reminded me. This is not a lie, and neither this: April is the cruelest month only for lilacs; for writers, especially those who teach, August crueler still; all you’d planned to achieve in that sunny, supposedly empty stretch prior is now called to account. In my case, the tally took place at an outdoor café table in Milwaukee. It was gray, 60 degrees—August can also be a cruel month for Milwaukeeans—and felt colder whenever the wind blew a nearby fountain’s spray across me, colder still as I read the pile of pages before me. Could I have really misspent the summer writing this?
An awful lot of pages

A waitress came with coffee, and returned every so often with more. No one else sat down nearby, a bitter relief. Not only was what I had before me the worst book ever, but I was the worst writer ever. And by extension—worst husband, worst father ever. I hadn’t finished yet—there were an awful lot of awful pages—but it seemed likely I’d prove to be the worst person ever.

Who could argue otherwise? I was lolling about on a Friday morning, drinking coffee that, if I’d had to pay for it out of funds my writing had earned that summer, I could not have afforded.

The waitress disagreed. With all of this, though only the last part explicitly: I did not have to pay. “Working here, I get a free breakfast,” she said. “You can have mine.” I shook my head. She nodded to the pages. “Is it a novel? We were all making guesses. I said, gotta be a novel.” I mumbled something about how probably no one but me would call this mess a ‘novel,’ and that—

She waved a hand. “You’re doing it,” she said, and smiled, and left. I slipped a 400-percent tip under my cup and then I left, too.

When I get together with other writers, over coffee or alcohol or whatever else recent pay will pay for, the talk often turns to how terrible a life this is. How the bad days outnumber the good, how good writing is no longer recognized, how we no longer recognize quite why we ever started doing this. There might be worse jobs, we say—and some are doing those jobs, at least part-time, since so few of us are actually surviving solely as full-time writers—but really, what could be worse?

This: an alternate reality featuring the same morning, same fountain, same me, but only coffee on the table, no pages—because I’d never written them, nor any of the thousands that came before. I saw this the moment the waitress turned away.

I didn’t call her back, so I don’t know why she bought me the coffee, only that she’d said what she said with a curious smile, like she was somehow proud of us both. I don’t know if she thought she was throwing a buck in an open guitar case as the artist huddled with his art, or if she won a bet in back and was paying it forward. I know what it felt like, though, which was, for a change, good.

No lie: Some days, the writing is its own reward. Other days, coffee’s the reward. And once in a great gray while, it’s being reminded that there will be time enough to sort out whether the work’s good or bad. For now, there’s a hot mug, a cold morning, a kind smile, a simple truth: Writing is the gift I get to do, so long as I do it.