I bought two books today at Barnes & Noble downtown in the Pacific Place Mall. This Year You Write Your Novel by Walter Mosley, and A Poetry Handbook, by Mary Oliver. I like reading books about writing by writers.
The woman ahead of me in the checkout line was buying the Associated Press Style Guide. I know this not because I saw it, but because the clerk asked, rather loudly, “Oh, do you write for the AP?”
She wasn’t quite so loud in reply, so I didn’t hear her response. Whatever it was, he pressed it. “Are you a reporter? Who do you write for?” She said something about writing an article. He said “Wow! You’re being published in the New York Times! That’s amazing.”
He talked his way through the transaction, so delaying it. Eventually she moved on and I approached, putting my books down.
“A Poetry Handbook?” he said, my ears flapping with his volume. “Who here is a poet?”
I’m guessing he used this phrasing since I was with Christine, and I could be buying the book for her. I ignored him. I pretended to be struggling with the debit card machine. He half-heartedly asked if I was a member, and thankfully didn’t attempt to upsell me.
Then he pressed the issue. “Are you a poet?”
I gave him a look. In the mirror in my mind, it was a quizzical, are-you-stupid look. Did he ask self-help book purchasers if they were lonely? Did he ask Story of O purchasers if they were into S&M?
“That’s an awfully heavy label to put on somebody,” I said.
Here’s where the two philosophies of naming yourself come in. One says “You should call yourself what you are and what you want to be, because the naming helps you become that thing.” The other — the one I subscribe to — says “You are a product of what you do, not what you want to be.” It is all about action, not intention.
When I was a kid my next-door neighbor and his friend put dirt and leaves and a small ant colony in the bottom of a large jar. Then they would catch a bee and watch as the ants took the bee down, swarmed it until dead, and disassembled its body. It only took minutes. Then they’d catch another.
I think of loaded words, like “poet” or “artist” or “writer” as the bee. Full of ego and pollen, bustling around. All of the intention in the world, all of the rights of the privileged. I think of the ants as the work produced. When you produce a lot of poetry, and you work on your craft and your work improves, it’s like the ants in the jar taking down the bee and destroying it. The work is all that’s important, not the label on the person creating it. The work consumes the label, and therefore defines it.
The clerk took in my admittedly snide comment, and ignored it as he picked up the Walter Mosley book.
“Are you going to write your first novel?”
I know what he wanted. He wanted me to know that he was a writer. He worried that I was a better writer than him. He was jealous that I was buying books about writing while he was working. And, he probably sized me up and thought that I didn’t look like a writer. That he was probably a better writer than me. The snideness in his tone told me that much.
And I know because I’ve felt those things. That self-doubt and worry when you meet someone who might be better than you at the thing that you so very much want to be the best at. I am ashamed of those feelings and try to bury them. He was obvious, and it irritated me.
So, I could have tried to craft some snide remark. Part of me wanted to, but then I thought that this man knows nothing about me, and isn’t really curious to. His questions were parries more than queries. They were about him, not me. And really, this whole transaction is about me buying some books and spending time with them to learn what I might. It’s not about a relationship which is going to end in a moment’s time.
“That’s the idea,” I said. I said that yes, I did want a bag. I thanked him, and we went upstairs to watch our movie.
The Walter Mosley book, by the way, is most excellent. I haven’t opened the other yet.
Posted by: Martin McClellan
On the date of: October 5, 2008 06:52 PM