The Writing Life: Writing on the Edge of Crazyville by Lisa Ahn

After I finished my first novel, I had several lengthy, insightful conversations with Oprah Winfrey. Our dialogue was the stuff of legends – and it took place entirely in my head. Oprah adored my literary masterpiece. She chose it for her book club – just before it won a Pulitzer. On national television, my comments were sparkling, my laughter magnetic. Oprah’s eyes welled with tears as I read aloud. The audience adored me.

Two years after finishing my first novel, I have yet to find an agent. I’m rewriting the book yet again – for the fourth? fifth time? – on the rare days when my post-concussion head will allow that much concentration. Strangely, Oprah hasn’t called.

I try not to spend too much time in Crazyville, but I know I’m not alone there. Most writers pay a visit. In our minds – which, let’s face it, is where we live a good part of every day – we are alternately famous and failed. We chat with celebrities in the morning. By afternoon, we start to worry that we’ll be the literary equivalent of Crazy Cat Lady, crushed beneath stacks of unwanted, uncelebrated, unpublished pages. We travel a rollercoaster of pride and desolation, depending on the daily page count, the acceptance/rejection ratio, and other quirky barometric factors like how much chocolate or caffeine we’ve managed to consume by lunch.

We’re used to hearing voices in our heads. At any one time, I have at least a dozen characters up there, waiting to be written. Add an imaginary Oprah or a string of enthusiastic agents and no one really notices. They like to offer commentary on my unplucked chin whiskers, the deplorable state of my wardrobe, and the calories in my milkshakes. It’s like hosting a family reunion where all the cheek-pinching, spandex-pants, kvetching aunts and uncles never go home.

Crazyville isn’t the exclusive realm of artists, either. Parents often pay a call. I’ve gone there as a mother, no pen in hand. During my daughter’s first preschool gymnastics class, I imagined her Olympic medals. When she developed an interest in art, she was the next Georgia O’Keeffe. Dance classes, at age four, led to fantasies (mine) of the New York City Ballet. An early aptitude for math meant that she would be a rocket scientist for NASA by age twelve. I’m not the only parent to birth such fantasies. Just stop by any Saturday soccer field and listen to the chants.

It’s normal, really. As parents, we want our children to be successful. As artists we want our creations – our imagination’s children – to be seen and vetted. If we have any sort of imagination, we dream, and if we dream, we might as well dream big. We buy lottery tickets to fantasize the winnings. We watch Survivor to visit islands of intensity. We read The Hunger Games or Harry Potter to enter a world where extremes are normal and everything is extraordinary.

No one fantasizes about scrubbing the toilet or drilling the seven times table or slogging through a string of Mondays. No one makes daydreams out of drudgery.  But most of us never get to Hogwarts. We don’t live in sparkly realms of Very Far From Average. We scrub the toilets, drill the seven times table, create a small presence in a large world. We inhabit Ordinary. That’s why we visit Crazyville. It has elastic, generous borders. Everyone fits in.

As a child, I wanted to be a famous dancer, in defiance of my two left feet. As an adult, in graduate school, I sought academic accolades. As a new mom, I aimed for maternal rock star status. As a writer – you guessed it – I’d meet Oprah.

It turns out, I’m not remotely famous, nor likely to become so. My typical day is an erratic bounce of homeschool lessons at a pockmarked table and story sessions at the keyboard. I teach my kids. I write. I scoop the dog’s poop off the lawn. I scrub crusty dishes and fold wrinkled laundry. I cook haphazardly and without reference to the recipe.

It’s not where I thought I’d be, at forty-two.

It’s better than I imagined.

For all its playful merits, Crazyville has its limitations. It’s something of a carnival mirror, a riptide-force distortion. With my vision set on Oprah and gold medals, what options do I fail to see? In a recent article entitled “Redefining Success and Celebrating the Ordinary”,  Alina Tugend  reminds me that, “life doesn’t have to be all about public recognition and prizes”  (NYT, 29 June 2012). If that’s all I can imagine, then there will never be “enough” success to satisfy. My dreams will be boxed into a corner, hemmed in by anxiety and the endless search for more. I won’t see the everyday in my quest for the spectacular. I could miss my entire life on the way to Someplace Big.

In the flux and grit of her memoir, The Gift of An Ordinary Day, Katrina Kenison suggests that “success lies as much in our ability to behold the world before us in gratitude and wonder as it does in owning things and doing things” (56). “Ordinary” might not be a snappy dresser, but it has a wealth of other gifts. It turns out that “stepping up to one’s life adventure doesn’t necessarily mean doing extraordinary things. It also means coming to understand that, viewed in the right light, through the right eyes, everything is extraordinary” (Kenison, 90). For me, the question becomes how to develop that vision, those “right eyes”. As a mother, I find that the physical, the visceral – the hugs, and the snuggly bedtime stories, the scent of their hair – is grounding. Writing is different. Writing is mental. The only physical components are a sore butt and a stiff neck from sitting too long in a cheap desk chair. So how, as a writer, do I come to terms with ordinary? How do I skitter out of Crazyville?

I found one pathway in Ariane Conrad’s interview with the artist Ran Ortner in The Sun (June 2012). Ortner paints the ocean, and he paints it large: his canvases extend to lengths of over thirty feet. By many definitions – critical acclaim, scale, artistic achievement – his paintings are extraordinary. Still, Ortner defines talent not as a mystical bequest from a benevolent Muse but as “just the inner need” (7). He argues that “genius” is, in Stephen Hawking’s terms, “’radical humility,’ for only when one truly and deeply does not know is one open to what is possible” (9). Talent is the compulsion itself, and genius comes from not knowing, from being, in essence, lost.

I recognize compulsion. It’s what pulls me out of sleep with a plot turn or a phrase. The drive to imagine, to create, is what sets me in the middle of a swarm of chatty characters, Oprah sipping coffee with Great Aunt Ermitude. I’m pretty good at lost, as well. There are spaces between keyboard keys, between pen and page, spaces where the words fall through, where they tangle and refuse articulation. The inner need, the restless chatter, pushes through the blanks. I am familiar with lost, with compulsion and not knowing. I can do those well.

Creation can’t stop there, though. Ortner links that inner need to a larger debt, the responsibility of the artist. We are meant to make a contribution: “This is our moment in the sun. Let’s dance” (11). It’s no audition for Dancing With the Stars. It’s just a simple two-step, a shuffle, twirl, or dip. We offer up that “inner need”, our bumbling quest and its resultant explorations, our every wayward stumble. When we paint a picture or tell a story or stitch a quilt, we are testifying to the magic of the ordinary. We are seeing with Kenison’s “right eyes”.

Such simple gifts may put Crazyville out of business. If the ordinary is already extraordinary then there’s no reason to switch neighborhoods. I’ll stay inside the weedy lawn, beside the flecks of house paint. My kids might never be on television. They are happy, on their bikes, riding on a crooked path. My novel, in its third or fifteen incarnation, might never hit the bookstore shelves. But I’m still going to reshape it until it fits the contours of my dance, until it’s crossed those stubborn gaps and taken on its proper form.

I am writing ordinary. It’s not a lottery of dreams. It’s figuring out plot points while I drive the kids to swim lessons, and jotting down dialogue in restaurants. When I’m not having imaginary interviews with Oprah, I notice the secretary’s squint, the Frankenstein lurch of the toddler on the lawn, the ER doc’s sandy-beach inflections, the way the dog exhales in one large, contented puff. I grab a pen, just this side of Crazyville, far enough away to make something small and ordinary, but with my particular shine.

Still, I’m on the border. Close enough to hear the phone. You know, just in case Oprah calls.

lisa ahnLisa Ahn’s writing has appeared in Prick of the Spindle, Spectra Magazine, Toasted Cheese, and RealZest.com, among others. She is a writer and homeschooling mom with a new puppy under foot. Her days begin with a mad scramble and end with a book. In the middle, there is a jumble of multiplication tables, Greek history, biology experiments, piano lessons, and storytelling. She holds onto her sanity with the help of too much caffeine, just enough chocolate, and an abiding love of words.Visit Lisa online: http://lisaahn.com/
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  • Julia Munroe Martin

    “It’s not where I’d be at 42…” and “Crazyville has its limitations…” How I can relate to this post, to those statements, Lisa. And when you’ve had those conversations with Oprah, did you see me there, too? Because that’s one of my well-known haunts as well. I join you just this side of Crazyville. Great post!

    • Julia, I did see you there — the studio audience gave you a standing ovation! Thanks for joining me in Crazyville. It’s nice to have your delightful company.

  • SJ Kirsch

    Writing on the edge of Crazyville. Dancing on the edge of ordinary. Beautiful!

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  • Loved that last line especially . . . I’m always on the border too.