A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Obsessive Compulsive
April 17, 2014 § 5 Comments
A guest post from Alexis Paige:
As a teenager when I thought “writer,” I imagined berets, rooms wispy with smoke, lithe fingers craned over typewriters, and international intrigue. Someone might have told me then that I was mixing up writer with spy. Someone might have told me it would never again be Paris in the 1920s. That it was 1991 in America and women wore absurd shoulder pads (like lipsticked linebackers), Bel Biv Devoe had not one, but two, hit songs on the radio, and every time I flipped on the news a fem-bot was talking about Clarence Thomas and pubic hair. My stand-out success as a writer had been a paper on Jane Eyre that my AP Women’s Studies teacher mimeographed and passed around to the class, and which I wrote the night before it was due. Under extreme duress.
Surely I had an undiagnosed mental disorder, for I could not simply sit down with one clean sheet of paper and write out a tidy, alpha-numeric outline and then follow said outline as I typed merrily for a reasonable window of time and during which I did not chew pens or sit in various weird bird postures in my chair. As I began the paper (if began is the right word for spending an hour choosing which notebook or journal to write it in, and another looking up mental disorders in the encyclopedia), I tore out sheet after sheet of the same bumbling intro paragraph. The discarded sheets littered the floor around my chair, next to an exploded pen, a thesaurus, and class notes that were written in two separate notebooks and in the margins of various vocabulary handouts. Perhaps I kept my feet up in the chair because the mounting paperwork felt like circling sharks, the floor like dangerous waters.
I radiated pride (and fake humbleness) as the teacher handed out my star paper, throughout which I had parroted the prior week’s vocab words (ignominy, bildungsroman, Byronic hero), but other than this one glittering paper, I had no reason to believe I could be a writer. I resisted writing, for one. I was undisciplined, only got in the chair once the conditions became so dire that I was like a NORAD analyst pulling the overnight shift. Yes, I was a strong student and loved to read, but my research papers were hopelessly disorganized, my arguments muddied, and I had written only a few short stories, bad Mother’s Day “poetry,” and some clever mix-tape titles. The short stories all starred “Alex,” a bumbling, suburban white girl who jogged by one “Sean O’Henry’s” house incessantly, and who spent untold hours listening to Prince tracks while making prank phone calls from the mission control center of her best friend’s bedroom. At the time, I thought fiction meant changing people’s names but leaving the soundtrack intact.
Further, I was so averse to clutter and paperwork that instead of writing phone messages for the priest at the church where I worked afterschool (Our Lady of Teenaged Hormone Repression, I believe it was called), I just memorized the names and numbers of the callers. Even if I could find the pink tablet on which I was supposed to take the messages, beneath the Hoarders-esque piles, I wouldn’t have written them down and added to the mess. (Almost no one called anyway, except Father Tom from our sister parish across town, The Virgin Mary’s Cherry, or Sister Deirdre from CCD, the Catholic education program we just called Central City Dump.) Father Joe would poke his head in to the office, and I would say, “So and so called,” and he would nod through the dust motes and slouch away into the caverns of the rectory. And then I would call around to all the girlfriends I had left only hours earlier at the end-of-sixth-period bell, to bitch about the clutter and speculate on the movements of one Sean O’Henry. Years later when I worked at a law office (as a FILE CLERK), the records room gave me the vapors, with its groaning cabinets and files like disembowelment wounds. Ghastly.
The point is somewhere in my heady staggering toward becoming a writer, I overlooked a central necessity: paperwork. Literal reams. Triplicate backups of printer cartridges. Piles of papers stacked all over your apartment that, despite how neatly arranged, yip and swipe at your attention constantly. Sticky notes written in semi-conscious cursive unintelligible the morning after. Stacks of books: the I-can’t-believe-you-never-read-X-stack; the stack to understand the how-can-you-never-have-read-X stack; the hopeless-bourgeois-climber stack; the stack to escape from the seriously-you’ve-never-read-X-and-call-yourself-an-intellectual stack; and finally, the books on your bedside table, the your-mother-doesn’t-even-love-you-lullabies-for-self-esteem stack.
So it probably shouldn’t have surprised me when the wheels fell off of my already tenuous sanity last week as I found myself searching for notes on a scene that I had written, oh some time fall? winter?, and which suddenly seemed urgent. This was the scene that was going to crack open my book. This was the Kafka ice axe scene, which had emerged brilliant and fully formed one morning while I inhaled a muffin and prepped for teaching an 8 AM composition class. Naturally, I marked its arrival on a sticky note and stuffed it in the back of whatever book I happened to be reading in fall? winter? The sticky/ scrap note situation in my life is dire, and don’t even get me started on the dust motes.
But even worse is the situation on my laptop, with its too-many and probably-redundant files of essays, memoir, and what-have-you. (It’s an emerging genre, okay? It’s an offshoot of flash transcription, okay?!) There are no fewer than I-have-no-fucking-idea-but-prolly-at-least-a-dozen drafts of my memoir-in-progress saved on my desktop and on various thumb drives, all with increasingly hysterical names:
and, finally, 2014KILLYOURSELF.doc.
So how can a writer manage all the minutiae and paperwork?
The hell if I know.
I wish I had some practical advice that would change your writing life—the 12 habits of highly productive people, the writerly equivalent of the perfect t-shirt fold, some filing system, a clever mnemonic. But I still have my oak tag journals from second grade. I still have every school notebook, every diary, every boozy journal I ever wrote in—all stuffed in one grandmotherly valise, which I only call a valise because everything sounds better in French. And for drafting I use what can only be called the Hot Mess Method.
My best advice?
Accept the hot mess, make tidy stacks once in a while, chew as many pens as you need to, write anyway.
Alexis Paige’s work has appeared in Fourth Genre, The Rumpus, Pithead Chapel, Ragazine, 14 Hills, and on Brevity’s blog. Winner of the 2014 New Millennium Writings Nonfiction Prize, she also received a recent Pushcart Prize nomination and a feature on Freshly Pressed by WordPress. Twice named a top-ten finalist of Glamour Magazine’s essay contest, Paige holds an MA in poetry from San Francisco State University and is pursuing an MFA in nonfiction from the Stonecoast creative writing program