I was doing some picking up and light reorganization in my living room when I found a black binder behind some things on a bookshelf. When I pulled it out I found that it was a printed copy of a manuscript I wrote more than 10 years ago called Blue. Blue was envisioned as a big family drama heavily inspired by episodes of “Six Feet Under” and Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. I don’t think I have a digital copy of this book anymore. I lost a hard drive in late ’06 and then another a few years later so most of my work from this time period is lost. Over the last week or so I’ve been reading sections from it aloud to my wife before bed and boy, do I have some thoughts about it now. It almost seems unfair that my wife gets this perfectly preserved window into who I was when I was 24 years old. More than a photo album, this book- a great big emo time capsule overcrowded with song quotes from early 21st century indie bands- says a lot about who I was then and what I thought life was all about. It also gives me a lot of insight into my evolution as a writer and, in it’s raw poorly edited form, highlights my biggest creative Achilles Heel.
First off, on a very personal level, there are a lot of funny 24 old delusions that I see now in Blue and they make me laugh. Like how all of the “mature” characters were accountants. I thought I really understood stuff back then and wrote characters that were 10, 20, or 30 years older with the kind of confidence that only idiots and fools can manage. At 24 I was barely out of college and literally started writing this book while I was staying with my mom. I barely had a real job let alone a career. I had more debt than income and I don’t think I owned a piece of furniture that wasn’t very second hand. But I was damn sure I knew what the inner life of a 60 year old woman was all about.
I was also surprised to discover that there was a lot of doing it happening in the book and by doing it I mean the sex which I was clearly an absolute master of at 24, as all 24 year old are. The truth of course is that I started writing this on Valentine’s Day after going out stag to a party that depressed the shit out of me because I was nursing a relatively fresh heartbreak. I remember that I sat in my car in the parking lot in my mother’s apartment complex after bailing on that party either waiting for her- that haunting 24 year old her- to call or pick up her phone or say what I wanted her to say or say something at all and she didn’t. I took all that rejection and awkward longing and I started writing this book. So, it’s not surprising that it’s crazy thick with sexual and romantic frustration but back then I thought that was subtext. I thought I hid my feelings the way writers can in thoughtfully obscured characters and plots but reading it now it reads like a business cat emoji, self-conscious tear stains, Neutral Milk Hotel songs, a dirty cartoon of stick figures doing it, and a tiny note scrawled in the margins that says “but why didn’t the pretty girl…?”
Anyway, as satisfying as it is to kick my younger self around a little bit for being young, the constructive thing I’m getting out of re-reading Blue is seeing a really bad writing habit on full display without any hint of self-consciousness. It’s like my creative super-villain is just hanging out in that book, totally not hiding at all, kind of waving at me and pretending we’re best friends. Part of me is like, “dang 24 year old Erik, he was right fucking there and you just invited him over to watch Gilmore Girls WTF?” and the another part of me sees the value in getting to know my enemy, the Lie of Scarcity.
The Lie of Scarcity is the lie that creators tell themselves when they are convinced that the thing they are making needs to have everything in there because there will never be another opportunity to create a thing ever. It’s a lie that there’s a finite number of creations you can create, a scarcity of creative output, and therefore you better stuff it all in there whether it fits or doesn’t fit. It’s a lie I catch myself believing all the time. It’s a lie I find myself whispering right now. “Put more in this blog post, Erik. ALL THE JOKES. ALL THE THEMES. MORE PICTURES OF OTTERS.” I have to say no, shut up, this blog post has enough in it, and otters don’t even have anything to do with this so why would I put them in here? But in Blue, I did not say no. I gathered up my feelings and experiences and reflections of my entire life and I put them on the page and I’m telling you guys, that make the page pretty crowded.
In no particular order here are some of the big ticket plot points in Blue (SPOILERS): mental illness, cancer, bad sex, alcoholism, the death of a spouse, sex addiction, bulimia, coming out as gay to friends and family for the first time, suicide, good sex, abortion, chemotherapy, Catholicism, puritanism, drugs (obviously), weird sex, turning 30, 12 step programs, genital lice, homophobia, divorce, and kind of boring sex. I’m probably missing some of the sex in there and some of the other drama but you get the general idea that there was not a life event I knew anything about that wasn’t included. I was clearly ambitious but in a book that was around 400 pages long there was nowhere near enough room to cover each of these elements (and the NINE main characters) with appropriate care and consideration. Some things came out as well-thought out, if a bit lacking in depth and wisdom, and others were well under half-baked. I got feedback that it was challenging to keep track of everyone and everything that was going on back then but I discounted it. I couldn’t imagine the narrative working without all the switchbacks and subplots and reading it now, I know I was right. The narrative wouldn’t work which is why I needed to fundamentally reconsider the narrative itself. I needed to get past that Lie of Scarcity, tell my anxious writer brain that wants to write every writing thing every time I write, and find the beating heart of the story, the part of the story that was true and necessary and personal. I know now, and I knew then, what that was but I complicated it. It would have been better to write 3 books with some elbow room in them than to write 1 standing room only but I guess when I was 24 the only future I could imagine was becoming an accountant and I needed to say what I had to say before the accountant truck picked me and took me to the business things store to get my ties and highlighters.
I wish that I could read this book now and not relate to the anxious urgency 24 year old Erik felt writing it but I can’t. I still feel it. I don’t know what story will be my first to break through, to be my published success story. As I write this, it’s the one year anniversary of my literary agent expressing interest in representing me. A year ago, I was sure that was it. I was sure I was on the fast-track to my dreams. But I’m still writing. Will the book that initially got my agent’s attention be the one? Will the next one I wrote? Will the one I’m working on right now? Those questions are with me when I sit down to write and the Lie of Scarcity tells me I better be sure I’m writing enough. I never know what story will be my first impression and I never know which one will be my last. No writer ever does. It’s why the Lie of Scarcity can be so insidious. It’s also why you should keep your old shitty writing to remind yourself what’s at stake.