I have half-assed many things in life, but hardly ever my writing.
Writing is where my exhibitionistic tendencies and craven need for praise collided.
So when my English 110 instructor, Shayne, announced on the first day of class that we had to write a journal–three entries a week about anything we wanted to write about–I was all in.
This was in 1984, and English composition still had a hazy hangover of 1970s, born-to-late-to-be-a-hippie-but-really-want-to-be hanging over it–which was great. By the time I was an English comp teaching assistant in the early ’90s, it was steeped in literary theory. Roland Barthes and Jacques Lacan and Jacques Leotard had published their big books in the ’60s, but their structuralism and poststructuralism and deconstruction and Lacanianism and postmodernism had taken a while to filter down to actual writing classes; they were more concerned with writing about writing more than writing itself. Which was also great. But it was all new to me, and by mid semester I was just happy to get things turned in on time, let alone deconstructed.
The freedom of mid-’80s English comp flowed over into in-class writing assignments and exercises, too, yielding more chances for me to show off and seek praise. One day we free-wrote in class to 1950s-era magazine advertisements as promps. I called mine “Man in a Grocery Store with a Lot of Bread.” It was a short story about a man hoarding 20 loaves of bread to be ready for nuclear attack. “But don’t you think you’ll get tired of all that bread before the nuclear winter?” a boy asks him. “That’s why I have this canteloupe,” he says, and then the sirens start going off. Another day, she asked us to bring in records with our favorite music. I brought in a Lou Reed song called “Leave Me Alone,” only to be upstaged by a young woman who brought in Cindy Lauper’s “She Bop” and delighted in telling us all what it was really about. And then there was the time she asked us to write about some favorite song lyrics.
In true born-to-late-to-be-a-hippie-but-really-want-to-be fashion, I picked Jackson Browne’s song “The Pretender.” And in true overachieving English nerd fashion, I didn’t just write a few sentences about what it meant to me, but wrote an essay framed by a story–which may or may not have actually happened–of me sharing a copy of the lyrics I kept in my wallet with a friend at a party.
I looked forward to my instructor’s gushing response to my deep analysis of Jackson Browne lyrics. Instead, she wrote, “Boy, Tim, we must be reading ‘The Pretender’ in 2 different ways! I’ve always thought those was pretty depressing stuff (at least the 2nd part).”
Of course, it had been “the 2nd part” that I had praised as being the perfect distillation of my life to that point–girls, gathering material possessions (clothes, records, Polo cologne, and a pair of Bass Weejun penny loafers, mostly, bought by overworking myself at McDonald’s), and the future. It was kind of a distillation of my high school experience, in chronological order. As such, the “future” part was the least well-developed–I’d only started thinking of myself as having a future six months or so earlier–but it was key to the whole thing–and why I didn’t understand what my instructor found depressing about it:
I dreamed of a future, a future far away from high school and all the phony friends I had there. In a way, my dream of the future was a combination of my previous fascinations, bundled together and place din front of me, rather than behind me. They became goals, reasons to go away for schools, reason to stop playing around and start studying, reasons to try to do something with my life. I was bored with the present, nauseated by the past, but fascinated by the future.
Of course, with 36 years’ of hindsight, this is depressing in every way. Not only is the original lyric depressing–“I’m gonna be a happy idiot, and struggle for the legal tender, where the ads take aim, and lay their claim, to the heart and the soul of the spender”–but my interpretation is depressing, because the future I was “fascinated” with didn’t go far beyond material success, which I had no idea how to achieve, or how little that kind of success would come to mean to me beyond helping to provide for my family and keeping the creditors at bay another month.
But at a higher level, my future was not one of being “The Pretender,” but “The Pretenders.” I pretended to be an editor. I pretended to be a historian. I pretended to be a journalist. I pretended to be a PR flak. I pretended to be a technical writer. And I have done well at all of these things by picking up scraps of information here and there, various writerly tricks and gimmicks, mashing them up, and writing with confidence about things I knew little to nothing about.
When I listen to The Pretender now, it’s not the title track that gets me, but “Bright Baby Blues”:
I've been up
And down this highway
Far as my eyes can see
No matter how fast I run
I can never seem
To get away from me
No matter where I am
I can't help thinking
I'm just a day away
From where I want to be