Tuesday, January 17, 2023

Mr. Zero, One Thing, and Ira by Gabriel Valjan


Q: The balance between Life and Work can be difficult to manage as a writer, because we all ‘work at home’. How do you succeed, and fail?

I’ve failed at this Life-Work balance thing multiple times. What I have to say on the matter is borne of Trial and Error, so proceed with caution. What works for me might not work for you. To use the tired metaphor in circulation for travel, it’s been a journey.

Since I’ve cited pop culture, allow me to quote from two movies. Why my subconscious reverts to two films with Billy Crystal is a mystery. First, from City Slickers:




            Curly: Do you know what the secret of life is?

            Mitch: No, what?

Curly (holding up one finger): This.

Mitch: Your finger?

Curly: One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and everything else don’t mean shit.

Mitch: That’s great but, what’s the one thing?

Curly: That’s what you gotta figure out.


The second quote is from When Harry Met Sally. Harry Burns is with his friend Jess, a writer, at a football game. He tells Jess that he has discovered that his wife is leaving him, and the hired mover Mr. Zero knew a week before he did. Jess responds that ‘marriages don’t break up on account of infidelityit’s just a symptom that something else is wrong.’ Harry’s colorful response was all subtext: Life happens, and he had have no control over his wife’s behavior.


The ‘symptom’ was Ira the tax attorney.


Two points I want to make here. Knowing that you are writer is huge. You found your finger, the one thing. Don’t underestimate THAT because most people go through life wandering the aisles. I did. I wasn’t a writer until my early 40s.


My second point is Perspective, with a capital P, because Ira exists.


Writers will write no matter what. Some writers, such as John Kennedy Toole, receive their due posthumously, while, others such as Robert B. Parker and Mickey Spillane, were explicit, in that they wrote for money and didn’t give a damn what anybody thought, including critics.


Publishers are fiscally conservative, and they want what sells. There is a reason why Hollywood recycles films from yesteryear. Publishing is not a level field. Fifty Shades of Gray was a serial on a blog that gained traction and was then rushed into print without so much as Spell Check. E. L. James was a pseudonym of a successful producer for the BBC, whose sister wrote The Hunger Games. Some people know people. Keep writing.



Perspective is the Balance.


A former friend once told me that writing was nothing more than exercising your ego. His remark hurt because writing matters to me. I had found my finger, my one thing. If there is democracy, it’s that we all have mortality in common. We live. We die. Put another way, it’s a decision on how to use your time. Statista (2021) says the typical American watches three hours of television daily. If we become what we behold: we are the zombies, we are The Walking Dead. Three hours is a lot of not writing.


People ask me how I can write crime fiction because I’m writing about awful people doing awful things. My response is that we all have to be criminals with our time. Writers have to be ruthless, stealing whatever free time they have. Lori Rader-Day wrote during her lunch hour, on weekends and vacations. She wrote her way out of a miserable job. Rob Hart wrote on post-its.



Perspective. Live to work, or work to live? Do what you love and it’s NOT a job.


Life found a way of telling me I was a writer. Ira handed me a cancer diagnosis. I fought back by writing so I didn’t lose my mind. In those horrible months, I underwent radiation, survived it, only to watch a dear friend die in a matter of days. He once sang professionally and loved it. He stopped to take care of his ill mother and never returned to the stage because he was terrified of rejection. No exaggeration, the man had the voice of Sinatra in his prime. I promised myself I would not live my second chance at life in fear. Sense of perspective.


Being ruthless doesn’t mean you have to be a bad person. Simply, prioritize what matters to you. In simple terms, it could mean less TV, or doing what Richie Narvaez and his friends do: they throw themselves out of bed early and write at 5am. In a perfect world, those in your life will understand, or not. I don’t know.


To paraphrase Brian Johnson from Breakfast Club: People see you as they want to see youin the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions. It’s never been easy, nor will it ever be, but it’s your life.


Pay yourself first because no one else will. That, I bet, is something Mr. Zero knew.


Screw Ira.

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