I am Not a Painter
Alexis E Santí
WE ARE CELEBRATING AT OUR STORIES, WE ARE FIVE YEARS OLD! Blow the candles and make a wish everyone. For the past five years we have been pushing out reviews to everyone who has come to us. It has been a hard long slog and I am not so sure how many years we have ahead of us.
In life we have certain battles, slogs against imagined or real opponents. For the past five odd years I have been fighting a literary system that rewards only the 2% of the writers who have something noteworthy for their pages. I have begun to begrudgingly accept the fact that it is a hell of a lot easier just to not give a damn than to give feedback to everyone as we do. As this issue is about to come out I am forced to cancel our XYZ contest in exchange for an open submission period of two weeks (September 10th until October 1st). Go ahead, submit. We will be providng some general reviews and we won’t be asking for reading fees either. We’re still ahead of Narrative on the moral scale. Oh, snap!
This submission period seemed to me to be particularly difficult. Maybe I just can’t keep up with the volume anymore, maybe I’m juggling too much. Maybe I’m tired of the sacrifice of my work, writing, etc.. without the payoff that I am seeing the writers that I have supported. Lemons, lots of lemons. We received a number of very pointed comments back from writers this contest period who did not appreciate our feedback. The most criticism that I believe we’ve ever received, period. They let me know. I try to handle this as best I can, I offer to re-read the piece, be in contact with them. I get why they’re upset, they want to know that they were listened to and somehow in the commentary or the page-by-page edits they didn’t get what they were looking for. It happens. When these exchanges happen and the last emails crisscross the information highway I always wonder though—did I lose a writer from believing in themselves? Because the truth is I do care. I want every writer to come away with something about their work, I know it’s a lot.
One of my favorite poets is Frank O’Hara. If there is anyone I would like to meet alive or dead it is Frank. If there is anyone that I wish I could be more like, it is Frank. He wrote a poem called, “Why I am not a Painter.” You can read it here. It is a hell of a poem. All of his work sings because they let you know who he is, the way he sees the world, with no filter, no high minded bullshit. It’s just frank and his personism thing. In Frank’s poem he never gets around to actually saying why he is not a painter (did you read it yet?) but I am far too didactic, too much of a logical thinker to give you that sort of ploy.
I am not a painter because when I play with words I am free. I get to be who I want to be, go where I want to go. The reading rainbow bit, I love me some Levar Burton, baby. Books. The only thing I really know how to do is write. It’s when I feel the most like myself and they only time that I see who I am. I know some of you feel me on this. Writing though, the thing about it is that writing is damn hard—at least professional writing, the creative literary sort is hard. I have been paid a lot of money to do the other kind, say the marketing kind. I was once paid well over six thousand dollars to write up a company’s sales quarterly kick off powerpoint and ensure that I used rock-climbing metaphors. Climb to the peak! Stap on your gear and focus on your goal. That sort of stuff. Six grand. Who says you can’t make a living with an English degree? The other stuff though, the stuff of the literary world, it’s hard, friends. If it was easy everyone would be published these days. Maybe that is part of the shared writers frustration, that as the arbiters of art have moved online in droves (some completely fucking unqualified to do so) that the line between vanity and distinguished have become blurred. Take James Frey for example. Please take him. I hear he’s actually reviewing books and runs a publishing company. Let me not digress. Literary writing is a brutal profession and I do not recommend it for the light of heart.
All arts are tough, even painters. I do believe, however that there is something especially brutal about the craft of writing. My wife is a musician and we have this discussion often. In her career, community is an integral part of the process, at the time of writing this essay she is putting the wraps on her third record. There are scads of players on the record, a community of supporters who give her good cheer. Then there’s the shows, people actually drive from their houses and show up to her gigs around town and sit there. They sit there and wait—hours and hours—to listen to her play. The thought of it, it just boggles my mind sometimes, especially since the only thing that I do for hours and hours is stare out of my window at my desk while I’m working on the next novel. Us writers, we do this work in a bubble, in a brutal horrible and painful solitary confinement. We are alone with our character, and our plots and our visions of where our novel is going with no outlet but sometimes our own sheer madness. Is it any wonder that so many of us suffer from the ills of depression, mania, narcissism and disorders which plague the mind? Further, is it any wonder why so many others of us feel the deep rooted need to just get out of our heads by any means necessary, to pop the cap, light the spliff, crack the whatever? It is difficult, very difficult to make this a healthy life. If there is anything that I can share with you that I have learned in my 35 years it is this.
To make this life, to truly make this life, a life of balance is something that takes work. First, I think all of us need to get out more often, we must find support from writers around us—and lean on one another. This is, perhaps, what is the greatest asset of the MFA program as we know it, it is a place where the community of writing comes first and foremost. There were many beautiful nights where I listened to my colleagues at Mason read their work and then, something marvelous happened afterwards, we all went out together and discussed it. Second, you have to take it easy on yourself as a writer—just because someone doesn’t publish you doesn’t mean that you’re no good—many of my essays are all seemingly about this point: the business of what gets published is subjective and is not a reflection of art, period. That’s it—years of essays in one sentence. You see, I have to believe this—because I know that pieces I reject get published elsewhere and I know that pieces that I accept are dissed at other places. It’s just how it works (now we should not appear to contradict or ignore the seemingly huge body of essays that I have written that urge others to edit, revise, keep pushing their drafts!) we all get rejected and one must develop a thick skin over it. Third, and this is something that I never thought I’d write about it a million years—you have to take care of your body and your mind. I think having a healthy outlook on your work will help with the brain stuff but it won’t help the interaction between body and mind. Let’s face it—writers tend to sit around too much and write. We all need to get off our butts and take care of ourselves. Whatever it is that you like to do, yoga, jog, walk, bike, mountain climb—strap on your gear and face the summit! You should be doing it at least a couple times a week. Why? Because you’ll live longer, what other reason do you need besides that?
You see, the whole point of writing is to live, to live on the page and to live in the physical world. Past Reading Rainbow and all that. Writing is the only thing in my life that I do where I feel my truest self. It is the only venture that I undertake that I am absolutely 100% satisfied that I am doing the right thing as put down words on white paper. I have been doing it my whole life, since I was a little boy and the writing has always been there to comfort me, to drive me crazy and to let me know that I existed in this life. Bausch told us something that is beyond wisdom I believe, something so true to life that I find myself gaining great solace when I am reminded of it, he would say when discussing doubt, and discussing the will to continue to keep working on something as audacious as being a novelist, all one has to do is to stay alive. To stay alive and keep writing and keep working at it. That’s all you need to do, is stay alive. To not die before your time is the point of it all, to not go softly or with big bang and to cheat us from your beautiful work. That’s what I’m going for and the yoga three times a week damn well helps.
I am not a painter. I am a writer, there you have it now.
Leslie Santí & Alexis E Santí
Alexis E Santí founded Our Stories while completing his MFA at Geroge Mason University. He continues to serve as the Editor in Chief of Our Stories. He his fiction and essays have been published extensively. He's been interviewed a bunch, most recently at the ReviewReview. He digs the yoga and tries to have fun once in a while.With some luck he and his lovely wife, the singer songwriter Leslie Sanazaro Santi will be living in Ithaca this fall. More about Alexis can be found at www.alexissanti.com.
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