A Failed Writer’s Failed Attempt at a Verb List (2023)

Cover of A Failed Writer’s Failed Attempt at a Verb List (2023)

Read Conversations about Sculpture where the art critic Hal Foster chats with / argues against / interrogates / interviews the blue-chip artist Richard Serra, the man of big steel slabs and walls and arcs and torqued ellipses, mythologized thrower of molten lead and liquid rubber. Feel your fancy tickled—coochie coochie coo—when they get onto Serra’s Verb List (1967). Like the name suggests, it’s a list of verbs and topics, of actions that capture Serra’s goals and processes. A snippet: 

to roll   to curve   to scatter   to modulate

to crease   to lift   to arrange   to distill

to fold   to inlay   to repair   of waves

to store   to impress   to discard   of electromagnetic

You get the gist. Inhale the gist. Serra: man of acts and actions, molding matter, investigating space, constructing space. And Verb List helped send him on his way so why couldn’t it do the same for you? 

Except you’re not a sculptor, but a writer. You call yourself a writer, compose bios with the word shining in them like juicy salmon roe buried in the center of a fresh rice ball. A writer though some people tell you you’re only a writer if you get paid for your work, which you don’t; or if you have an MFA, whatever the fuck that is; or a platform with thousands of followers, but what’s a platform? Like scaffolding for the gallows? What’s a follower? And where does one lead them?; or have published books, which you haven’t though you often wonder why the agents and publishers aren’t calling because your ringer is certainly on; or are a good literary citizen, which you’re not because you don’t know what that means and the paperwork for said citizenship is beyond your comprehension and your ratty passport simply reads “art for art’s sake,” a nation whose population is aging into irrelevance and oblivion; or read for or edit a literary magazine, which you don’t because you’re too busy writing your own stuff that everyone else is too busy or tired or jaded to read, just one narcissistic scribbler crawled up their own ass like so many others; or attend readings or participate in workshops or join a community of fellow writers, which you could and should do but it’s partly the solitariness of writing that attracted you in the first place and anyhow your invitation to the reading was lost in the mail. So, ok, you’re not necessarily a writer though you read and write and that has to count for something, right? 

Thus, your list. An attempt at a list. This is you, listing, not just what writing is but what you want it to be, an enumeration of aspirations:

to write   to churn   to capture   to express

to deceive   to imagine   to palaver   of syntax

to discomfort   to trigger   of rhythm   of alienation

to amuse   of grotesques   to submerge   of disquiet 

Of course, to read seems like an obvious choice and even a prerequisite, but your writer acquaintance with an MFA who edits a lit mag doesn’t read anything but submissions, a never-ending stream of submissions the bulk of which insist on flirting with the maximum allowable word count, and tweets or posts or whatever the moguls are telling you to call them now, and anime subtitles on Crunchyroll simulcasts so maybe it’s not so obvious or required? 

To write, then, was a good start, but you think about all the writer personalities famous for their antics more than their words or works, writers who want to be writers more than they want to write, and about the writers who wrote one thing once, seemingly to secure a teaching gig, and then never picked up the pen or clacked the keys again despite their residencies and sabbaticals. Fair to say you’re getting stumped here—stymied, blocked— before you begin.

Try casting aside your preconceptions, dear “writer,” about what you want writing to be—is this the authenticity you read so much about in blurbs and reviews?—and acknowledge what it is or at least start to grapple with what it has become. Strip it of its myths and legends and realize what it perhaps always was. Recall already renowned yet still thirsty Walt Whitman writing angry letters to the press about his underappreciated genius. Remember careerist Philip Roth sitting by the phone for a call the Nobel Committee never made. Compose your list:

to network   to virtue-signal   to cancel   to pander

to promote   to perform   of credentials   of safe spaces

to moralize   of lived experience   to censor   of content warnings

to tweet   to compete   of poverty   to submit 

The list could go on and on and on as you could go on, stumble on, write on, beg and whine and cry out with writerly self-pity, but for Serra it was generative, a starting point, the first step towards an impressive and ongoing body of significant work with the final entry fittingly:

to continue

While for you it feels like an ending, a series of actions that silence, stifle, disenchant, mangle, suffocate, sanitize, deaden, crush—good verbs all, accurate, correct, in their fashion, but the one that makes the most sense, the logical end of your version of a writer’s Verb List, has to be: 

to quit

But here you are even failing at that.


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