Day 12 of #1000wordsofsummer 2022
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Today you will write 1000 words. Because if you are looking for a way to be more empathetic, writing can help. Perhaps you want to understand your loved ones a little better or even just the world around you. Like: how do we get through the messiness of this life without a little more understanding and compassion? Those thousand words a day can help you carve out a path to a more emotionally generous place. Every day you can write yourself a little closer to seeing the other side of things.
Today’s guest contributor is Rachel Syme, a Staff Writer at The New Yorker who writes some of the most entertaining profiles in the business and knows a lot about the way things smell. She is working on two books; one about writing letters, and one called Magpie, forthcoming from Knopf. A Penguin Classics edition of Rona Jaffe's "The Best of Everything" with a new introduction from Rachel will be available for pre-order later this summer. She is also, of course, absolutely charming on twitter. Her charitable contribution goes to Third Wave Fund.
Rachel talks to us today about Jacqueline Susann and the joys of writing:
“I have a photograph that I keep over my desk of the late writer Jacqueline Susann gabbing on a white rotary telephone. In the picture, Susann is wearing a short, gauzy peignoir nightgown, glitter-dusted house slippers and, impressively, a full set of lashes despite being otherwise dressed for a night in. She is leaning back in a desk chair with her feet flung up onto a bookshelf, and she is beaming. I do not know exactly when the photograph was taken, but it must be from sometime in the 1960s, the decade when Susann transformed herself from a failed actress into the kind of splashy literary celebrity who sits for author portraits in her pajamas. Susann’s first bestseller was a 1963 book called Every Night, Josephine! about her rambunctious standard poodle (the Marley and Me of the ‘Mad Men’ set), but it was Valley of the Dolls, her 1966 potboiler about three striving New York gals and the pills they pop that made her a household name and moved millions of copies. She wrote the book quickly and sloppily; according to her editor, she typed her drafts on pink paper in all capital letters with eccentric punctuation, and ‘added revisions in a large, forceful circular hand, with what looked like a blunt eyebrow pencil.; She didn’t really think too much about structure or narrative consistency – those were pesky problems to solve later – and instead she pecked out frothy, zingy passages about sex and showbiz, catfights and callous men, barbiturates and barbed bitchy asides. Is the book…good? Is it…camp? I don’t know that Susann gave either question much thought. She did not have the time. In 1962, Susann learned that she had late-stage, terminal breast cancer and that she had perhaps a decade to live (she made it twelve more years). She wrote all of her bestsellers under the heel of this knowledge. Right before her mastectomy surgery, which she had before she wrote any books at all, she wrote in her diary, ‘I can’t die without leaving something—something big…I’m Jackie—I have a dream. I think I can write. Let me live to make it!’
I keep this photograph above my desk for a few reasons: To remind myself we are all writing against the clock, whether or not we know how long we have. To remind myself that a person who wrote ‘I think I can write’ in fact went on to write one of the top-selling books of the entire twentieth century (and at lightning speed – she churned out words at about the pace you are doing so now). But it also reminds me not to take writing so seriously. I don’t know if you’ve read Valley recently but…the book is a total blast. It contains phrases like ‘New York was steaming—an angry concrete animal; and ‘Broadway doesn't go for booze and dope! Now get out of my way, I've got a man waiting for me.’ It is, in every way, a book that feels like a hot bubble bath in the summer: indulgent, irrational, a little nauseating. But it struck a chord because it was fun, and because Susann clearly had fun writing it. She lived in a glamorous hotel on Central Park West (ah, the days when people lived in hotels! She had a tuna fish sandwich brought up by room service every day so she could write through lunch!) and she wore Pucci everywhere and her husband was her publicist and together they had an extremely good time making her famous. Susann never talked about writing as a struggle; she clearly had bigger, more existential fish to fry. If anything, she infuriated everyone else who chiseled out sculptural sentences and felt deeply invested in literary quality (Truman Capote, for instance, shit-talked her on every late night program he could book). She was everything that was wrong with books! She wore marabou and wiglets! But she enjoyed what she made, and, more importantly, she made something that people truly enjoyed.
I think that we all want to write something great. That’s why we sit down at the desk, isn’t it? Be honest. You want to be Truman Capote, not Jacqueline Susann (or at least the Capote who wrote In Cold Blood and not the one who ultimately alienated all his socialite friends by writing a very Valley-esque novel). But what if you threw that idea out of the window, just for today? What if, instead, you tried to have a good time? I know, writing is torturous. It often feels bad and useless. To quote Nora Ephron, the hardest thing about writing is writing. But the real drug that keeps me coming back, I’ve found, is not the moments when I know I’m writing well. It’s that one percent of the time when I’m having so much delirious fun that it feels indecent; when I feel like a kid again because I am click-clacking out words to please myself and not thinking at all about the outcome. I’ll chase that one percent forever, even if it comes around once a year. My favorite writing I’ve ever done is about the silliest topics – perfume, kitchen gadgets, caftans, high-waisted jeans, trashy Hollywood tell-alls – mostly because the more low-stakes I think something is when I approach it, the more I can just get out of my own way and just start riffing. And maybe within the riffing, there are two or three sentences that sing, and maybe one of them is a keeper.
So I suppose my advice to you – and like most writing advice, you can take it or leave it – is to try to have a bit more silly, frothy, heady joy today when you sit down to write. What would you really like to write about? Pick anything! Anything at all!! It doesn’t have to be something that connects to the current project. It’s better if it doesn’t! If it is great, you’ll find a way to use it later, I promise. The goal is to produce a pleasurable little scrap of writing, a few buttery, flaky paragraphs that are just for you. Maybe it’s a meditation on an old leather jacket. Maybe it’s a menu of new cocktails you invent on the spot. Maybe it’s a gossipy email to an old friend. Maybe it’s a list of things you have languishing in various online shopping carts. Maybe it’s a description of a truly disgusting smell. Maybe it’s a few paragraphs about how summer feels in your hometown. Maybe it’s a collection of random facts about dead famous people that you like to break out at parties. Maybe it’s an argument in favor of a particular brand of seltzer. Maybe it’s a short story you invent about whoever you can see outside your window right now. Maybe it’s a fake DM conversation between clandestine lovers. Maybe it’s a scene about a nightclub performer who has a full nervous breakdown in the street (wait, Jacqueline Susann already did that).
It can be silly! It should be silly! I am not telling you not to believe in your work, or not to believe that your work can be powerful, meaningful, and can change hearts and minds. But I am telling you that sometimes, to get to the gooey center, you need to spend a day on the chocolate shell. You need to wear glittery flats and have long aimless conversations on the phone and write something frivolous on pink paper. Trust that it will all add up to something. The goofy writing days can be just as fruitful as the hard ones, and sometimes you need the former to crack the latter. Believe it or not, if you can find joy in your own writing, readers will feel it. They can sense the exact sentences where you were having a good time. Be a little ridiculous today. And here is the picture, if you need it too.”
Good luck today! Only a few days left.