find what you’re good at

Don’t you hate those off-hand comments that stick in your head for the rest of your life? It makes me wonder sometimes. I work with teenagers, and they’re always going through some crazy shit, and every once in a while I’ll give them advice and sometimes it’ll be a bit heavy-handed or … I dunno, just wrong, and then I’ll go off and wonder if I’ve just given them the phrase that they will torture themselves with for years to come. 

Poor birds. I feel their pain.

“If you could figure out how to write fiction the way you write emails, you’d be golden.”

This is what the man once told me. An ex. A successful advertising director. A nice man, but an opinionated one nonetheless.

And this sentence, good god, has run through my head on repeat over and over and over. This jotted-down aside has completely shaped the way I see my writing. Which, lemme tell ya, is annoying as all-get-out.

I’m paraphrasing the man, obviously, it was probably more something along the lines of “You’re a genius when you’re not doing that thing you always wanted to do, why don’t you stop doing that and beat your brain into a pulp trying to figure out the solution to this toxic riddle I am saddling you with?”

Or maybe it was “You’re funny when you write emails. Why aren’t you funny when you’re writing everything else?”

To which I first thought—BRILLIANT! It’s the feedback I’ve always been looking for! Now I know how to be entertaining!!!! YEEEESSSSS publishing success here I come!

And then I thought, well, does that mean I’m only funny when I’m talking about myself? Because that is what I usually do in emails. Or is it just the form of the email itself? The fact that I’m writing TO somebody, and not just to some blobby universe-thing? Eventually, after the years passed and thirty passed with them and I was left still pondering this wrinkly, cryptic piece of advice without being any closer to solving it, I began to think that this was actually the meanest thing anybody had ever said to me. I mean, what the fuck, man? How am I supposed to do that? What were you even trying to do there?   

He was probably just trying to be nice. Egads. Moving on.

It haunts me, this single sentence, day in and day out. The relationship has turned to dust in the Australian outback, and yet the sentence lives on. Rejection after rejection. I know how to find my voice, and once I find it, I’ll find happiness success sitting cozily together, wondering what the hell took me so long. And yet, the riddle lives to befuddle another day.

My husband and I talk about this sometimes. He is convinced that I should do non-fiction, and my heart belongs to the invented. He thinks I should write poetry, and I have a burning desire to write trashy romance novels. I think there’s a famous poet who once wanted to write novels, and a famous novelist who wanted to write poetry, and they were friends, and it was the greatest disappointment of both their lives that neither of them were successful with their true loves, and only successful with the good-enoughs.

I would remember who either of those people were if I liked either of their work, but I don’t particularly. But I do remember thinking to myself, what the hell, guys? Why not just be happy with being successful? I mean, who gives a pickle if you can’t be a famous, internationally celebrated novelist if you’re a famous, internationally celebrated poet? How about this; why don’t you give me your shin and I’ll give you something to be sad about?

But now, part of me gets it. Part of me understands the bitter decision to forego your true love to pursue something you’re better at. It’s like wanting to be a traveling rodeo star if you’re an overweight panda bear living in the 1930s, back before panda bears, much less overweight ones, were allowed to straddle a green stallion and ride that sucker as long as their panda hands could keep on holding on.

In short, I’m an overweight panda living in the 1930s. My dream, I’m beginning to think, is nothing but the stuff of grey matter. It lives in my head, and will never find its form elsewhere.

I don’t want to be a funny nonfiction writer. I want to be a hilarious novelist. One who also makes people cry through the belly laughs. That is my dream, Universe, and I am burying it. I am putting it into the ground and blinking very hard as I turn on my heel and walk into the sunset.

I give up. I failed. Because this is the thing—I haven’t learned. Sure, I’ve studied everything there is to study about writing fiction, and read a million novels, and deconstructed them and read interviews on technique and simultaneously loved and hated Stephen King for being not only brilliant and rich but also an apparently OK guy. I’ve done screenwriting classes and absorbed inspirational quotes as though they were ultra-nutritious suppositories. Up one end, out the fingertips. Or so one hopes.

But I didn’t learn. Because the thing to learn is this. It’s not what my dad said.

Here’s what my dad said. A lot. In fact, my dad still says this all the cotton-picking time.

“Find something you love, and get good at it.”

Imagine, now, that this is coming from the mouth of the world’s happiest man, and you’ll discover exactly how unhelpful that particular chestnut can be. To illustrate, my dad is seventy-one, and when I called him the other day, he told me that he’d just gotten back from his annual check-up at the doctor’s office.

“Yep,” he said. “The nurse asked me, ‘Mr. E, what meds are you taking these days?’ And I told her, nothing. And she said, ‘Nothing?’ And I said, ‘Aspirin. When I have a headache.’ And then the doctor comes in and tells me that I’m fitter than he is, and he’s about forty-five, and asks me how I stay in such good shape. And I told him, ‘I have six beers every day. Not five. Not seven. Six.’ And he tells me, ‘Well, Mr. E, you’re doing something right, so you just keep on at it.’”

The moral of this story is, never listen to the happy people. Listen to the miserable ones. You learn more.

Because it’s not “Find something you love and get good at it.” It’s “Find something you’re good at and learn to love it.” I thought this was just a slightly mean but slightly true motto for most marriages, but I guess I was wrong.

So the something I’m good at is writing obsessively about myself. Now, I just have to learn to love it. In the spirit of this mantra, I am continuing this horticultural adventure. Because the most interesting thing about my life, I think, is that I live in France, surrounded by Seasons, and I have a walled garden plot that was once a family’s lifeline during World War Two. At least, that’s something I think I can learn to love to talk obsessively about. What’s not to love about plants?

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