Sunday, March 11, 2012

A Lesson from Joan

The best bit of writing advice I have received did not come from my late grandfather—a columnist and failed novelist in Sydney…no, not Nebraska—or my mother, or any high school English teacher, or Stephen King, or Anne Lamott, or even Strunk and White. Nope. Joan Rivers. Ha! Did not see that slider coming at your knees, did you? I don’t know if it was the quality of the advice she gave me, or more the impeccable timing and directness. But…it’s a roundabout story that starts here and ends with catching a big carp. I promise.

So…I do actually fish some during the winter. But I did not this year. I never really look forward to it, by any means…winter fly fishing is generally a miserable and sad sort of affair. Most of us here in Colorado do it because we can and because we can’t help it. If we are able to go fishing and there is at least an average chance of catching fish (even if they will be sluggish and our fingers will freeze) we will still do it. It’s Colorado being a very bad mother who never takes her child’s toys away and sends them to bed. They stay up ‘till two in the morning and subsequently speak gibberish and bite the other kids at school the next morning. But this year my toys did get taken away and I was sent to bed…with Joan Rivers—so to speak. At the end of last year I was offered a big writing assignment. A reputable publisher of things fly fishing contacted me and asked if I was interested in writing a book for them. The editor had the idea and even the title of the book in mind and just needed a stooge to write it. I panicked. There was no way I was qualified to write a technical book. I can keep it together for a paragraph or two, or tell a long-winded, disjointed story from time to time…but a whole book? And I couldn’t cuss? Forty-five thousand words with not a single, beautiful and therapeutic f- bomb? What? And it has to be done in four months? Really? My initial reaction was to decline the offer and retreat back to my comfort zone of unpaid, unedited blog blather.

That night I sat on the sofa, stoking the fire and stuffing popcorn into my face and watching free television on laptop Hulu…generally feeling and looking like a slug going nowhere. I was catching up on a show written and directed by one of my favorite stand-up comics, Louis C.K. (think contemporary Seinfeld but darker…he has no friends, two kids and never gets laid). This particular episode ends with Louie attempting to commiserate with and make out with fellow comedian, Joan Rivers. The old bird smacks him around a bit and talks some sense into him. He has just walked off a gig in a Trump casino because the crowd wasn’t paying attention and the lounge venue was pretty lame.
“I’m just tired of all the bullshit,” he tells Joan.
She smacks him around some more and points a very crooked and judgmental talon at him and yells. It’s a funny scene, for sure…but sitting there that night, looking and feeling like a pathetic blob with popcorn kernels collecting between belly rolls and couch cushions…I felt like the old bitch was yelling directly at me.
“You don’t quit a job,” she scolds.
It sank into my brain and later that night—while restlessly asleep—Joan kept on…at me alone this time. She yelled at me for being lucky enough to be an actual working writer (about fly fishing, none-the-less!) and turning down a paying gig! What was I thinking? Complaining that the time line was too demanding and it wasn’t my idea anyway…and it’s a “how-to” so…blaaaah. Good grief, man! It’s a paying job!
“What are you?” Joan shrieks in my dream. “A trust fund baby?”
I awoke feeling emotionally cougar-bitten, and brow-beaten. But knew, without any second-guessing or self-doubt…I had to take the job. Say yes. No matter what it was or how difficult it was going to be to have to compromise and work with a real editor again. It would be a long, hard haul…but I had to do it. I am a working writer. This is my job. End of story.

But, of course, it was not the end of the story. I busted my ass for the next one-hundred-thirty-three days straight. In-between customers at the fly shop. After dinner and on weekends. Right through some fantastic late-fall fishing, Thanksgiving, Christmas, the new year, my birthday…never took a day off. Couldn’t. And now it is spring again. March. The snow is melting fast down in the flat land, the carp and bass lakes are thawed and the rainbows are moving toward shallow gravel to spawn. And I have delivered my work…all forty-five-thousand painstakingly cuss-less words, a stack of photos and even some pen-and-ink illustrations…on time and with a smile. Done. I walked back into that dimly-lit lounge, did my bits, didn’t disparage The Donald or his tacky casino…and my ass got paid.

And my first day off in over four months is actually a sunny, nice day with no wind—maybe a better reward than my advance check or seeing my name on the cover of another book. Good weather. And actively feeding carp…!

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