Bryan Joiner

Why then I

Tag: Writing

The Key to Writing

It was a slow day at work (more to the point, I’m moving slowly, even if I shouldn’t be) and I hadn’t written here for awhile, so I decided it was probably time for a blog post. And why not one on writing? It’s something I do a lot and probably don’t talk about as much as I should, because it’s probably the subject on which I have the most knowledge to impart. I’m not talking about past participles or present pluperfects, because I couldn’t teach you what those are, nor am I an peanut gallery grammarian (I am vicious with with my own prose, but only insofar as I know mistakes when I see them; I never bothered to learn what most of them are called) I’m talking about the act of writing itself, of putting words together to make sentences, not in theory but in practice.

During the period in my adult life where I was the most preachy about writing—which, perhaps not coincidentally, was the period in my life where I was doing the least of it—I had a phrase that I was ready to repeat to anyone but most often ended up telling my satisfied self: “The key to writing is to write.” I was, I confess, on to something. One cannot become a better writer without doing the hard work of writing every day, the exact same way one cannot become a great runner without running every day, or one (presumably) cannot become a great chef without cooking every day.  At the time I was saying it not to describe my  habits, but to describe my past ones at the Queens newspaper, where I wrote hundreds of thousands of words that ultimately landed me unemployed by choice, but unemployed nonetheless. I wanted credit for the life I had lived instead of enjoying the life I was living.

I still wrote, and wrote a lot, but without much discipline. My mind would wander from subject to subject, and my output was frighteningly erratic. I could write nothing for months and then write 20,000 words in two weeks. Most of these words went nowhere, and passed before no one’s eyes but my own. My computer is a graveyard of unfinished project after unfinished project. I have taken pains not to erase most of them in the event that, some day, I have the courage to face them and make them into something readable, but that day has not yet arrived.

It turns out that when I said, “The key to writing is to write,” I was only partially correct. There are a lot of other things that help; things that I’ve done virtually all my life, but never as rigorously as I do now in the service of my own work. The first is reading. For a long time I thought that reading was important to writing merely to give the author a platform from which to have an authoritative voice; something of a pile of books to stand on. That is important, but it’s not the only part that is important, nor is it even the critical part. There would be periods of months at a time over the past few years that I wouldn’t read a book at all, because I was satisfied with the amount which I had read. I was underestimating, greatly, the process by which gradually reading one’s way through a book influences one’s ability and inclination to write. I had become the hare and the tortoises were passing me. I have forever rallied against being labeled as a “writer,” because it’s a meaningless, self-applicable title. I wanted to be published first. That led to an unfortunately long neither-chicken-nor-egg scenario for my career, which ultimately righted itself to a degree when I moved to Brooklyn, shut off the TV, and began acting like a professional writer. That meant moving through a book at all times, and putting some words down every day. The important thing for me on the writing side is to keep the restrict0r plates on, so to speak. I stop myself at 750 words, which I’ve already bumped up from 500, in order to maintain my enthusiasm about writing from day to day. As a journalist, I have always been goal-oriented: get the article done, get it edited, get it published. A writer’s job is different: it’s process-oriented, and no amount of guffawing about my past is going to change that.

The perfect sentence, the perfect beer

Day two of year two brings epiphanies, but only in the subway, where my writing-in-the-mind is impeccable. Today I dreamt-authored “throwing words around concrete walls, but the walls are never any less cold, gray, or unforgiving” while I traversed the 14th Street tunnel between the V and and 2 lines. When I crafted that sentence, I was walking up the slight incline that means you’ve finally reached Seventh Avenue, only to descend again onto the busy 2 train platform, a platform I used to frequent late at night when it meant a ride home. I can’t remember the last time I was there (nor can I really remember the context of my words), and I felt no particular nostalgia for it as I boarded an uptown 3 within seconds of getting there. I felt a slight pang of nostalgia when I ascended to 96th Street, but not for years past—for Super Bowl Sunday of three weeks ago, when I left the very same station to meet Ryan and walk to 125th Street to take the bus to Astoria. We were both excited to take the bus. It’s exceedingly rare that it’s a more attractive option, both aesthetically and practically, to reach a destination that’s amply served by the subway… but there it was. The day was cold, crisp, and sunny, and having flaked out on an early morning run to let the earth warm up a bit, we crunched up Amsterdam Avenue toward Columbia and promises of the M60, with its university student then crosstown traffic then airport employee user pool, sprinkled all the time with people like us who just wanted to go to Astoria and get to ride over a bridge.

Tonight, though, I was just going to Whole Foods for the second time in the last year. The first time had been 20 minutes earlier at the Whole Foods on the Bowery, which is perfectly nestled along one of my dozens of comfortable commute-home routes. I was looking for a specific product that had been recommended to me earlier in the day, and the Bowery location didn’t have it. They didn’t appear to, at least, and I looked several times. Often, after work, I’m not the in the mood for rejection, and this one of those times: I wasn’t asking, especially because I had been told that the product I sought was most assuredly at the 97th Street location. I was excited to go to 97th Street until the recommender had pointed out that I could try my luck at the Bowery, and I was a little bummed that it would be so easy. When it wasn’t, I took it as a sign to skip the ride home and head uptown. In terms of things getting my attention, this had it. I suppose it’s time to be come with it. The product is the “best beer on earth,” according to this, and it is called Brooklyn Black Ops, and apparently was brewed in a seriously limited run that is pretty much over. You can’t find it any more, or something. I like good beer, but most importantly I like things that sound cool, and the process of obtaining them making them even cooler, and that’s before you get to its wonderful, wholly-fabricated lore:

Brooklyn Black Ops does not exist.  However, if it did exist, it would be a robust stout concocted by the Brooklyn brewing team under cover of secrecy and hidden from everyone else at the brewery.  Supposedly, “Black Ops” was aged for four months in bourbon barrels, bottled flat, and re-fermented with Champagne yeast, creating big chocolate and coffee flavors with a rich underpinning of vanilla-like oak notes.  They say there are only 1,000 cases.  We have no idea what they’re talking about.

Simply put, the idea of chasing all around the city for one of the final bottles, which is supposed to pretty much blow your taste buds and liver (11.7% APV) to smithereens, was incredibly an incredibly appealing hunt on a gray, warmer-than-normal day on which I’d rather do anything than come home and stare at the TV. I never doubted that I’d find it at the 97th Street location, and I did. Then I went into the internal deliberation of one bottle vs. two bottles, which only arose because of the price. I settled on one. The joy was in the chase, and to savor every last minute of it as I would every last drop… and now it sits in my fridge, ready to go. It was an effort not to pound it tonight, but with its punch, I needed to put it off one more day. It won’t live until Thursday. I’ll probably write something after I drink it. I might even write it down, but I might not, and it might become another example of perfect craftsmanship dissolving into the void… and you’ll have to settle for the second-rate stuff like this.