The pen is not a sword. It is not a tool unsheathed by inspiration. I've heard some say it's nothing more than a prop creative people use to convince themselves that their art matters, a muddied feather tickling the retirement of a dream that was once fruitful but has fallen deeper into the vat of neglect. One could argue that such an outlook exists only as a byproduct of failure, revenge porn targeting a goal that was never fully realized. Or, it's a view harbored by someone still trudging along in today's competitive landscape, bruised, though refusing to sit idly by to view the inevitable decline. I fall into one of these categories. Though which one is still very much up for debate.
I've been writing for almost twenty years. One might ponder that amount of time and ask how it failed to produce more than these stories, or a screenplay or two, like a book, long discussed articles, a collection of short stories. Trust me, you would not be alone. I would love to tell you that neither fear nor laziness played a part. But truth in that statement would have no home. Like any relationship, it's been one marred with ups and downs. Some pieces, I've shared. Others, due to an unwavering cowardice, I've guarded from release, endlessly resewing until the whole of it all has been irreversibly reaped.
I launched this website in 2014. It was originally designed as an outlet for my photography, with a blog planned shortly after. But after learning one evening that writing about photography wasn't particularly exciting for me, it turned into something else, an avenue to share stories from my personal life, via a medium with which I had very little experience, or knowledge. After a while, it became therapeutic, if not for anyone other than myself. I was able to share things I may have never been able to otherwise. Embarrassing moments that replaced fear with relief. Anxiety with laughter. Like any artistic endeavor, it was riddled with detours, procrastination and total dick head approaches. But it was fun.
It kept me up late at night as my family slept soundly in their beds, welcoming doubt at almost every turn. When you're writing, you often make no distinction between the good and the shitty. You align encouragement with self pity, and beg for an audience to notice. The pride you occasionally take to bed with you, by morning, almost always turns to shame, gutting any attempt to justify the very thing you stayed up hours to create. You see the cave sized holes in your plots, the horribly constructed sentences and the skin you ripped from the backs of your heroes. The shoulders on which you use a ladder to climb shrug you off like dandruff while you ask yourself if you should even keep going. It's always this way. But maybe it should be.
Escape To La La Land
When I made the choice to relocate to Los Angeles in 2001, it was to pursue a career in screenwriting. For years, I had longed to write movies, to experience the emergence of script to screen and watch an idea of mine roll before an audience. I moved to a tiny studio apartment on Wilcox Avenue off Hollywood Boulevard, in the orbit of tourist central. Like every aspiring screenwriter, I had big ideas on what my first produced screenplay would be, who would star, direct and even what music would grace the soundtrack, something on which screenwriters have virtually zero say. But what did I know? My ambition, not to mention lack of experience was blinding.
I had visited LA the prior week with my brother Scott to scout apartments and explore the beginning stages of a new chapter in my life. I settled on the place out of pure convenience and an unwillingness to want to look any further. I just wanted to start this thing. The studio, only slightly larger than a standard sized living room, came equipped with a small desk that was attached to a pillar. This is where I wrote and outlined, at least during moments sans the clutches of porn, boredom, or the occasional trip to Amoeba Records to buy CDs I couldn't afford. Writing, itself, is a lonely process but when you're doing it in a new place far from your family and friends and the warm embrace of familiarity, it can be terrifying.
You pitch a tent in your own head. As much as I wanted to be unique, I knew there were thousands of people just like me clawing through the brick, who thought and felt the same way I did, who carried the one "idea" Hollywood producers were aching to get their hooks in. I was on an assembly line of dreamers on the path to stardom yearning to be crowned by Laverne's dirty glove. From my window, which faced the pool and other apartments in the complex, I could almost see the plans of others blossom before me. I would often find people typing away at their computers late at night - stories and characters fleshed out, plots and scenes retooled, shuffled. One guy across from me seemed never to be anywhere else. He may have just been watching Hussies of The Sunset Strip on his Dell, but maybe not.
In an attempt to meet more writers and try my hand at networking, I started working as an extra on television shows, walking back and forth in the background and faking interesting conversations with beautiful women. But it was difficult to meet people. For a brief time, the isolation fed my creativity. One instance came in the form of a screenplay I was asked to write for an aspiring producer I met at a storage facility I managed. It was for a B-Movie called Demon Turf, about a street gang whose leader gets possessed by an evil spirit, and must be stopped by the story's hero, the leader of the rival gang. According to IMDB, there is no such project in the works.
This was the first screenplay I was ever "hired" to write. Like with any new writer on a dust scraping budget, payment was contingent on whether or not production began (spoiler alert: it didn't). I stayed up hours writing this thing, acting out dorky knife fights and reciting terrible dialogue in the middle of my apartment. The night before the screenplay was due, I had a ticket to see two of my favorite bands, Grandaddy and Super Furry Animals play The Fonda Theater on Hollywood Blvd. While this would normally be cause for celebration, I could barely keep my eyes open, nearly sleeping upright among the crowd like an inflatable pillar a mere tap would send to the floor.
When I arrived in San Jose the following evening for my birthday, it wasn't long before the script became an instrument of self promotion. In my head, I was a working screenwriter who had just spent 48 hours churning out page after page of expired cheese. Alcohol-fueled delusions of grandeur birthed the belief that I was doing something meaningful, artistic even. I was proud. Then the descent came, as it always does. The crash follows and the runway of doubt welcomes your home. This is the feeling that cuts your goals to shreds, driving a spear through the heart of every creative decision you've ever made. I knew a revised plan was in order. When I returned to LA, it was back to the drawing board.
long live the return
The next year and a half kneeled to further delays. I wrote when I felt like it and was never happy with the end result. The secret master plan I had conceived within the safety net of my own four walls revealed nothing more than a misconception of self worth. I couldn't keep a single idea in focus. One month, I wanted to write one script. Another, something totally fucking different. I had even planned to film an earlier screenplay I had finished when I moved back to San Jose. I probably only told myself this to make the trek back less humiliating. The experience of living here, somewhere new and unfamiliar had made the tail wag often but, in the end, folded nicely between my legs as I hobbled back home to San Jose.
All the women I could never talk to and people with whom I failed to network were like ghosts in a horror movie that haunted my inaction. I invited distractions at every corner. I went to the movies religiously and saw bands play any chance I could. I did everything but pick up the pen. Before I moved back to San Jose, I made a promise to myself that the writing would continue, and that no regret would be had. I had spent 3 years in LA and shared moments with friends I'll never forget. When you take advantage of it, the culture and nightlife in LA can be incredible, intoxicating even. But the city is a cave in a wide open space. You have to venture out, and get inspired. I did something else. I fled, abandoning the city I had once so vehemently pursued.
I moved back to familiarity and comfort. To routine. The adjustment took some time but as irony would have it, I ended up writing more than ever. But I wasn't alone. Packed in the U-Haul amidst the second hand furniture and cheaply made concert posters was the monster, every artist's most ardent supporter. The thing that rallies against you, that paints the sidewalks below your feet promoting everything you lack, the beast that continuously slaps the tool out of your hand, whatever that may be. The pen, the paintbrush, guitar, hammer, are all instruments of your desire and goals the monster yearns to impair. It relishes in your indecision like a child in the ball pit at a birthday party. I used to think these things were my demons. Most people do.
Demons are what some feel alter the choices you make, usually developing later in one's life. Monsters have been around much longer. They're the same things that hid under your bed as a child, or took refuge in your closet, their shapes and sizes determined by the imagination of the children they tormented. They follow you through your life, speaking to you, inserting fear into everything you hope to accomplish, or believe you can. As you age, it's no longer the scream the monster seeks. It's failure. Humiliation. Doubt. It turns the world into a closet and your relationships the bed from under which it reaches out to grab you. Any opportunity it gets, it whispers in your ear. "The pen is not a sword. It is nothing more than a prop you use to convince yourself that anything you do matters."
I hear this every day. Even now, as I write this, the voice remains loyal in its mission. But we determine the effectiveness of its message. Its direction. Sometimes, it wins. But not today. With the pen seized sturdily in my hand, pressing a bleeding tip at the start of a page, I look the monster in the eye and yell “Fuck you! Fuck fear. Fuck failure. Fuck giving up.” It turns away, lowers a defeated head on a pillow and floats off to sleep. Until tomorrow, when the monster rises, marshals its resources and tries again. It will never stop. And neither should you.