Writing in Public

We’re sitting in a large, very hygienic, somewhat impersonal chain coffee shop talking about writing. I can tell it’s a chain because there are no fliers scotch-taped to the front window or tacked to a bulletin board like you would see in a neighborhood coffee bar, with ripped paper corners hanging off below them like flaps of lacerated day-glo skin. Instead of a surly and painfully sexual barista swaddled in tattoos and cat-eye glasses like Lois Lane back from the island of the cannibals, which is who you rightly expect to serve you coffee in these places, there’s a team of middle-aged food service workers whose every response has been scripted in some handbook. It all seems somewhat theatrical and baroque.

The leader of the writing group is talking to me about building my writing “platform”. I originally joined this group because I had a perverse need to write in front of other people, something that I assume is or should be banned in public places in rural states as an obscene act. I’m like a dirty child who can’t stop touching himself at family gatherings just to make the little girls squeal. I have this sick need to read and write in public places where everyone else is zipping around like wind-up toys. I find it makes people palpably uncomfortable if you sit and read in places like this and even more so if you’re writing. I remember a drunken Congressional page moron in a Capitol Hill diner once yelling over to my table: “I hate fishing bookworms!” I waved and smiled. I do it to stick a grubby thumb in the eye of people like that.

So, I just assumed the “writing group” was the same sort of thing: a gaggle of dysfunctional perverts gumming up a hyperspeed “society” by scribbling in public places. I brought my notebook and pen with me to their meeting – the mere words “notebook and pen” get me turned on – and planned to sit in the corner luridly filling page after virgin page with obscene scrawl. Occasionally, we’d gnaw off a hunk of bread and wolf it down with a gulp of java while licking our lips lasciviously and spilling on the growing piles of text-splattered sheets of paper. It would be filthy and anarchic.

When I got there, I saw they all had laptops.

Now, I can work on a laptop. But I prefer to work on a typewriter and I most prefer to scribble on sheets of paper, which accumulate around my living space like the dead on a battlefield, the majority of them going lost forever. It’s a sickness I have: a mania. I simply have to uncork this flow of words that run through my head in multiple tracks at all times and let them gush all over the place without so much as a mop handy. I write all the time. I write short stories, screenplays, theatrical scripts, novels, novellas, history books, jokes, poems, songs, and memoirs. And, when I’m done, I have no more interest in them than an ingrown hair that I’ve yanked out. I forget them. I lose them. I flush them away.

The lunacy of this became evident to me when I started digging through the files on an old computer and rediscovered a semi-completed novel that I had completely forgotten about. It was roughly 125 pages long and dealt with the “mind-body problem” as a war between two rival cults fighting in the streets of Toronto for their own particular reality: one grossly embodied and the other a sort of pure light of digital “Gnosticism”. The police get involved and hold a press conference about the special squadron they have to address the mind-body problem. Things get violent. I never wrote past that point. I couldn’t recall writing any of it.

The point is that for me writing is a sort of compulsion. I am trying to get better about it, but I still remain ambivalent about “doing something with” my work. I enjoy receiving criticism and being torn to shreds by readers and lap up their critiques like a loyal dog. I take their suggestions to heart and write something totally different and new. But I am not particularly compelled by “success” or “validation”. I am not ambitious.

The people in the writing group demonstrate varying levels of ambition. There is a teacher who has written a sci-fi novel over the last four years and wants very much to sell it to a publisher, but does not want to receive criticism. There’s an academic couple that seems to write for the sheer joy of it, as a break from the academic writing they do in the necessary quest for tenure. There is a former stock trader who once went to China on a lark without any contacts or knowledge of the language and survived for two years. He very much wants to get his memoir published. I find his story fascinating, but am mystified to hear that he hates to read books and, as a result, is not aware of how quotation marks function, thinking they have to increase by one for every new sentence of dialogue.

And then, the group leader is kind and helpful, and considerably more so than the average Ontarian. So, I have no animosity towards her as she tells me all about different writing “platforms” but I have to admit that I find it all overwhelming. She reminds me of a patient niece explaining to her dim Uncle how to record an answering machine message. The gist of it all is that, if you want to be published today, literary agents are looking to see that you have a built-in “market” for your book, cultivated through social media or the Internet or some other media “platform”. Since I have written a book recently and am making half-hearted attempts to “pitch” it to literary agents, she’s trying to help me. I appreciate her efforts. But, since I’m largely clueless when it comes to such matters, it’s about like someone trying to explain fractions to their dog.

“One thing you might want to try is ZipZip,” she tells me. “It’s a new app that allows you to upload pictures of your notes so that your readers can vote on them.”

“Okay, I’ll see…”

“Or, are you familiar with Floozle-Zorp? It’s a new social media interface that allows you to share your drafts with your audience as animated gifs. A lot of writers are using those on their homepages I’ve noticed. You have a homepage, right?”

“Uh… I’m thinking about getting one…”

“Oh, well you can do that for next to nothing with FlarpFlarp! Don’t worry! I’ll send you the link!”

Again, she’s trying to help and make conversation, but it all leaves me feeling a bit like a cat in a washing machine.

Writing is my mania. But there are these two manias that seem to have seized hold of nearly everyone I encounter now and they’re interrelated: the first is this technophilia and the second is this fixation on the presentation and advertisement of the self.

Admittedly, it might be where I live. Hamilton, Ontario has recently “branded” itself as “the Ambitious City” in an attempt to “attract” higher income workers and investors to come and drive out us flakes and deadbeats. They’ve got a PR campaign and advertisements and posters and things that help to clarify that they believe there are respectable ambitions and ones that don’t count. Starting a business, running a business, launching a restaurant, writing PR, or in some other way trying to make money, is the sort of “ambition” that the city officially smiles upon. Much of what is now expected of our local politicians amounts to advertising an image of the city. They’re pitchmen. This image of the city, in turn, promotes an image of its ambitious people – the ones who matter. It’s an advertising loop. People here talk all the time about hype and hyping and hyper-hyping.

The thing is I’m a musician and writer and painter and most of the people I gravitate towards are terrible at advertising, fairly bad at self-presentation, and even pretty dreadful with technology. My friends have ambitions that run the gamut from painting something they saw in their mind during a recent acid trip to putting their recorded music on cassettes and giving those cassettes away for free to the perennial getting laid more often. None of them will likely be featured in any PR campaigns.

And, to be fair, I did just read a lot of Ernest Hemingway, so I do recognize that there have long been writers who focused on self-presentation and creating their own legend at least as much as they cared about writing. Chateaubriand and Byron were not really far removed from Elvis Presley in image presentation. And I went through my own requisite Hunter S. Thompson phase as a teenager that was as much about the image as the writing. But, let’s not forget that those guys actually wrote like they were fighting their way out of a bar on fire. At least at first, before their legends took over. The celebrity Hemingway almost never again wrote as clearly and powerfully as the unknown Hemingway.

At some point, there’s really no avoiding the lonely work of just carving your manic thoughts onto the cave wall in the pitch darkness. All this self-promotion is beside the point. The truth is writing is a private vice and writers are perverts. Especially if they do it in public.

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Rufus is an American curmudgeon in Canada. He has a PhD in History, sings in a garage rock band, and does a bunch of other stuff.

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3 thoughts on “Writing in Public

  1. I find his story fascinating, but am mystified to hear that he hates to read books and, as a result, is not aware of how quotation marks function, thinking they have to increase by one for every new sentence of dialogue.

    This is amazing. I want to bask in the horrific glory of his drafts. I don’t want to read his book, it doesn’t sound like my thing. I’d really like to flip through it and stare, though.

    Also you are wonderful, and I can tell you as a modern college student that social networking technology is a disgusting travesty, offensive to all true technology users, network operators, and social individuals.


  2. Submit the book to Amazon’s slush pile. Someone will eventually read it, and if it’s any good, amazon will publish it.

    “actually wrote like they were fighting their way out of a bar on fire”
    … that’s pretty catchy.


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