Illustration: Istvan Banyai
I moved out of the closet after a couple years, and by then it was a huge relief; the closet, it turned out, was good as a novelty but hard to maintain. It was dusty in there, and I felt a little trapped. People laughed when I told them, said I was coming out of the closet and all that. It did feel liberating to get out, but my hope had been that the closet was actually a way to get closer to the scarier feelings: to combat repression, not to court it. And in fact, I did write two of my darkest stories in there. Monster in the closet? Found a couple of those. Lynda Barry has a comic strip called Holy Terror, where her character Marlys provides excellent instructions on how to tolerate horror movies. "I learned a great way to watch scary movies...," she says. "Pretend you are the frustrated monster."
By going inside the closet to write, I was trying, in some very literal way, to follow her advice. But ultimately, the closet was a little too symbolic, too neat—it was too fun to show people, to show off, which had nothing to do with the actual two hours of work.
The idea of the contract, by the way, caught on. People wanted to do it. I haven't looked at one in a while, but at that time I kept forwarding Sarah's template* along, and several other writers took up the task, individualizing it to their needs (two pages a day, four hours a week, no nonfiction allowed, only nonfiction allowed); they, in turn, started up contracts with others they knew. The two steps are fairly direct: Make or modify the contract in a way that is suitable, and realistic, and then find someone to take on the e-mail/notification role, someone who will acknowledge what you are doing, and know that it is hard, and that it is important. Someone who will call you on it if you stop.
It's an externalized discipline, but it's a formal step on the way to making the contract with the self.
Another budding writer I knew was curious. We were at lunch, and she was intrigued by the contract idea, but halfway through the conversation, she leaned forward over her place setting and whispered, conspiratorially: "This contract is only for good writers, right?" The question caught me completely by surprise. Um, I said, after a minute, no. The contract is for all writers. It's completely separate from what is good and bad. It is entirely about investment in process. It's not about publication; it's not about workshops, or prizes, or critics, or book jacket photos. But in the prioritizing of voice, things shift. They improve. As far as I'm concerned, if a person desires to write, it's worth trying to find a way to do it, even five minutes a day, and what happens to the writing afterward is a separate issue. The act of doing it has enormous value on its own.
With all its wonderful bureaucratic stick-in-the-mud specificity, the contract is then also a fighting gesture against the ever-present idea that writers walk around with alchemy boiling in their fingertips. That we are dreamy wanderers carrying a snifter of brandy, with elegant sentences available on call. It's such a load of crap. Sure, there are writers who work this way, who embrace their writerliness and are still able to get work done, but most I know have found their voice through routine, through ordinariness, through some kind of method of working. Guilt and dread, after all, are creativity killers. And isn't the greater mystery here supposed to be about the work itself, as opposed to the person and his dreamy wanderings? Routines are not mysterious. That's why they're fun to talk about—because we can. And if the fantasy of writerhood is punctured, the focus, then, can shift to where the most interesting and magical mysteries arise: on the page itself, in the paragraph or sentence or scene that comes from a place unrecognizable in the mind.
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Aimee Bender teaches creative writing at the University of Southern California. Her most recent novel is The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake (Anchor).
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