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As writers, we don’t always go sanely toward our solutions. Instead, too often, we suffer toward them. Reasoned arguments are lost to us. Our little mental slot cars that get us from Chapter One to The End have flown off their tracks.
And, suddenly, everything we know is wrong.
There may be no worse feeling for a writer than suspecting that the thing we’ve done, the thing we’ve committed to, sweated over, felt such complete confidence for, is crap. And maybe not just the passage or the page, but the whole thing.
Each of us has a critical little gremlin on our heads that speaks to us as we write, and waits to have its say when we’re not. Is its voice right or wrong? Is this our surreptitious, lurking, ever-present self defeat getting the boot in? Or is truth and awareness speaking to us as frankly as it can?
If you’ve ever twisted the water out of a washcloth—if you were the washcloth, not the twister—you can imagine how writers feel at times like this. If you’ve ever walked a maze, lost, too far in to turn around, too anxious to continue, you know that there’s no easy way back.
We want to believe that a hard-won ability that lives under the surface of us. If we sink into black water, get in over our heads, we want to believe that that a foundation of craft or talent or instinct will give us a solid place to stand; a place to catch our breaths and recover. But sometimes our feet never touch down.
Better sense tells us that, with a little distance, a little more hard work, we can recover. We can see the story’s honest faults and fix them. But unlike the place of pain that yields answers—eventually—panic makes everything impossible. We flail. We get sucked under. We lose our direction and the will to find the surface. And we drown. We get eaten, as the Radiohead lyrics say, by weird fishes.
For writers, so completely defined by the act that drives us, this is a paralyzing, terrifying place. Without the writing, there is no us. The brilliant, three-dimensional world is still and grey. We float like ghosts in the airless space, not wholly dead and nowhere near alive.
So, in the midst of such a moment, I’m turning to this confessional. And here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to shut down the page and set the work aside. I’m going to eat something. Take deep breaths. Clean the apartment. And find the faith in myself that will let me see the work’s flaws with a cool, unhateful eye and find the whatever to address them.
Those weird fishes? They’re all around. The trick is to swim with them. And not be eaten alive.
I know some. Not all. Not yet.
I know the sound of your voice.
And the shape of your body as you stand.
I know why you smile. I know when.
I know you, fingertips and feet, and the gray in your unshaven face.
I know you in the morning, your eyes across the pillow.
I know your silences and your guilt and your mistakes;
your secrets and the mask you hold against the world.
I know what you do in this world—I know what you intend there,
although I don’t yet know why.
I know the passion you will not confess.
And your resistance and refusal and the generous you.
I know what will shatter your world,
and the assassin role that authors play.
To write, we must first love.
And hope that our plot obeys that love.
We must know the character down to the faintest breath,
and still hope, always, to be surprised.
To imagine completely, love helplessly, ruin willingly,
is a control, a luxury, that real life does not permit us.
Did we see these moments clearly and remember them well,
in the hyper focus alive behind the writer’s eye…
or did we merely imagine them?
The adoration of characters in a created world
elevates our private silences, and yet spoils us for so much else.
It sours us for the mundane, even as it exalts the fleeting and the ordinary.
And, in our most closely held honesty,
we know we have surrendered the truths of the beating-heart life
for something that will never keep us warm or hold our hands;
the friend that a solitary grownup can cherish,
perfect, outlandish, imaginary, and undeniably real.
The city is quiet on this July 4th holiday; abandoned by people with other places to be. My city, now. Mine.
I have turned my seat toward the window, not the wall. This is what I see: Out the big window, the brassy silver of a hot day. The air is fuzzy; a haze of unresolved clouds to the south. Cars countable on one hand down the long length of Denver’s Lincoln Street.
Entry hall and desk to the right in the open plan space. Kitchen and dining in a counter clockwise sweep. Art everywhere, in every minute-hand tick of view. Kristina’s green painting. Beside it, a Van Gogh print with the same green; the artist’s rope-seat chair echoed in the antique chair below it. Through the door to the bedroom, an encaustic abstract in brown wax and black ink, like looking at the lath of a very old house. Paintings, small ones, faces, small angry cat, abstract; then left to a new monotype that explodes in the eye, black like Franz Kline and Motherwell, red-dotted like Adolph Gottlieb asking for attention in the space. Black chair, black coffee table, a march of street art on the slanting gallery wall behind.
Pressed to my side, little grey Amelia, full of insistent need, face on the laptop, paw resting the length of my thumb, a furry tracer of my movements on the keyboard, dozing in her crunchy purr.
Not in the writing, yet. But in the head where the writing happens; the place of molecular attention and itchy contentment. The full place. Notebook and tape recorder offering up small feasts. Quiet fluttering with thoughts, directionless, seeking a place to land. No one. No other place. Nothing missing. No regret. No need in the where I am.
These are the writer days. The best ones. A most peculiar zone of comfort that resists explanation—although I guess I’ve done exactly that.
Happy Fourth of July.
I’m going to tell on myself.
A once-a-year quirk, a lapse, a moment of ditz: In the excited anticipation of an event, I show up early. Sometimes a week early. Sometimes, as in last year’s Frieze art show in NYC, a whole month.
In the minutes of puzzlement about why nobody else has appeared to attend the event, I learn to laugh at myself. I look for the lemonade in the lemons I’ve handed myself. And it’s okay.
Sometimes, it’s more than okay.
Tapas, I told myself tonight…a way to redeem a gaff from total loss status (not that any redemption was needed.) A few blocks’ walk. A restaurant noisy with an after-work gathering of fellows.
Suddenly, in the willingness to bare myself to myself, the writing comes. Nothing earthshaking. Not the ahahhh lightning bolt that I’ve been waiting for. But instead, that rare place where apartness and honesty come together in something wonderful.
I am alone; separated from the intimacies that other people take for granted. I like it there.
My mind is free to wander without distraction. My own reflection in the restaurant’s mirror tells me a truth about myself that will become part of a character for the next book…a me-in-part, as they all are. The apartness soothes. It embraces. It stings, then kisses the hurt place better.
In the mile-plus walk home—and the choice to walk rather than cab ride the distance—in the milky light between storms, in the reflections that soften the hard glass of tall buildings, in the streets emptied of outliers gone home after the workday, wonder is. And it belongs to me utterly.
I don’t know whether I’d be willing to trade this cherished apartness for the human pairings that seem so normal, so desirable, in everyone else. I exist without the mechanism to shut out the world. In constant companionship my attention is channeled in the direction of The Other; pulled like a tide to an unavoidable shore. I can’t be alone without being alone. And knowing that I have loved ones in the world is made even more sweet by the absence.
I’ve always been apart. And on evenings like this one I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
The holidays can be tough enough. Throw in a case of the flu and the challenge becomes more…interesting. Interesting—a nice word for it.
Christmas retreated from my catalog of enthusiasms a number of years ago. In the bad, long-term relationship that I wasn’t self-possessed enough to escape, I adopted a smiling, benign indifference to it. Safer that way. In the years since, I’ve used the cherished silence of the house to let words find me; in the vacation week between Christmas and New Year’s, I’ve braved the chill in long, thoughtful walks on the goes-nowhere road outside and let the universe find me. Days were filled with the page; nights, with the thought of the page. The hours were full.
Not this year.
Being between books is hard. Being beset by the challenge-to-confidence that is the search for an agent makes everything harder. Keeping one’s emotional balance is a difficult thing when the winter silence is silence only. Then, enter the flu.
The 900-mile drive to the house was almost alarmingly easy, even after a 4 a.m. departure. No visits from the Muses during the long drive…but never mind. By the time I’d arrived and unpacked, the illness set in for real: the body-twisting cough, the hammering exhaustion, the Niagara of sinus.
Keeping one’s heart open to creativity is pretty impossible when you’re sleeping 18 hours a day. So be it. Job One is the dutiful avoidance of self-pity. Exist to get well—fair enough. Do the dishes five at a time, the length of time one can stay upright. Read. Indulge in movies that take little attention. The other stuff, the good stuff, the stuff that takes psychic strength and confidence…the reassurances that yes, you are a real writer and, yes, it’s just a matter of time and added effort until an agent finds you and your friends actually get around to reading what you’ve written and, yes, the story is in there even if it’s hiding…those understandings will just have to wait until you’re well.
When you’re sick, the darkness lets the black dog in. The holiday is a festival of expected happiness and the promiscuous see-what-a-wonderful-life-I-have celebrations of others. The night is not Possibility, it’s just night. The silence is just silence. The blessed, glorious week of solitude is an hourglass of lost minutes. And that damned, ever-present self doubt, that knowledge of the too-thin veil that lay between you and the big, empty, indifferent world: That, my dear ones, is the very real wolf at the door.
So, here is the list of tasks at hand. One: Get strength back. Two: Find the joy that’s so clearly around you—the peeks of sun on grey days, the birds in the back yard, the eagles circling behind the house. Three: Get back on the horse. Write those letters. Transcribe those notes. Pet a cat. And four: Kick the black dog out into the darkness from which he came. You can’t overcome a feeling by pretending it doesn’t exist. Feel it, face it, move on. We are not held hostage by truth: The door is right there, and the key has been in our hand all along.
We hear voices, writers do. A word, a thought, an expression, a rhythm, an idea.
In the sweet silence of our self-defined isolation, we close ourselves off from what the eyes can see, uncork the tops of our heads and let the universe float in. We marry the invisible. We know mystery. And joy. And ecstasy.
We don’t try for this, not deliberately—not in the blessed woolgathering phase of a book’s creation, anyway. Is just…is.
Charles Wright called it “the silence that turns the silence off.” But sometimes, in that silence, in that waiting, we are alone.
Without the voices, who are we?
I’ve been living in the limbo between worlds, facing the realities of selling the current book while making space in the head for the next one. I have three books in the hopper, and energy enough to work toward selling only one of them at a time.
And the silence right now is only silence.
Knowing doesn’t help. Knowing that the voices will rise in me like a choir. Knowing that my voice will find a shape. And an audience.
But now, the high, tight ringing in my ears is the only thing that comes close to a word from elsewhere. The characters and the world they inhabit still stand at a stubborn distance, knowing what they know, yet sharing none of it with me.
I am the slow-witted, patient animal in the empty field, waiting for her master’s call; hearing nothing but the damndest silence.
Sing, self. I’m ready.
Agent queries are the writer’s time to be gutsy, fearless and resilient. Or to pretend to be.
Pretend is the operative word, here. Fearless ain’t the natural order of things. Inside every writer is a failure waiting to be exposed. Terror scratches at the back of our heads like the lioness in that much-seen YouTube video—the one that tried to eat a toddler’s head through a glass wall. Fear is the lion. It’s hungry. It’s relentless. The claws and fangs of rejection are always back there. The question is, what can we do about it?
Good news: As a writer, I’m not alone in fearing rejection. Bad news: Every writer is alone in that fear. Given the content on the websites I’ve been reading, writers are a single organism of quivering neurosis.
Makes sense that we would be. We spend months and months in the company of characters who are more real than the breathing phantoms around us. We flee from the world in favor of a more fulfilling (and, let’s face it, often way more interesting) space in our minds. We write and rewrite. We polish and we suffer. We embrace and cast away. We are nudged by the lover-page in the dark hours; we are exiled to the islands of ourselves. And now, we must put a busy cadre of agent-others in the position to send us packing. Nice.
The most honest, self-aware thing we can say is that the prospect scares us shitless.
One of the poisonous pools of doubt comes from having be picked up by the first agent who saw my first book…and published by the first publisher who read it. Being declined (and, full disclosure, I haven’t yet toted up enough rejections to count on one hand) proves the worst things we believe about ourselves. Forget the soaring passages that sing to us, even now. Forget the voice that is so strong that, barring terrifying self delusion, it is driven by a real sense of wonder. Forget the honest accolades that have come from beta readers who’ve seen the work. One word of anything less than praise speaks to the hack, the fantasizer, the trembling Ordinary in us all.
Don’t the words shine so brightly off the page that the agent must see the glow through the avalanche of query emails? Shouldn’t the power and potential be instantly apparent?
As we wait, we’re caught between the equal urges toward hand-wringing and neck-wringing. We are possessed with reading about triumphs despite adversity: “[author’s name] was turned down by [appallingly large number of] agents, and the work is still in print”; by self-induced platitudes such as “all books aren’t for all agents; all it takes it one.” Thanks. I’ll remind myself of all that when people tell me how ugly my baby is.
Time to make failure my ally; to make fear my best friend. The agent is out there. The publisher is. The audience is. It’s my job now to find them. The work that should have been finished isn’t done at all. And the only sure way to guarantee not being published again is to do nothing.
Book finished. Now the really hard part begins: making mental space for the words of those First Readers whose reactions are your first clues whether you’ve succeeded in your creative mission or have just succeeded in proving yourself barking mad.
Writers wait as for reactions patches of parched ground wait for rain. This is neediness exposed to the horizons of us. Inner landscape focused skyward where the readers are, waiting for any drop. Any drop. We tell ourselves that we are as steady and accepting as a flatland, ready to accept whatever falls to us. We’re lying.
We want the torrent of response. The Noah-flood that will wash the doubt away. It’s a lot to ask. The most secret secret of this desert country inside us is this: We glean the hints that come our way. We store positivities in our rain-barrel heads to review them later in private; tiny lifeboats to bear us up on imaginary oceans.
We hope to find the oasis of good opinion from our test readers. We hope for kindness—but not at the expense of truth. We hope that the moments of wonder will find other hearts besides our own. And okay, let’s be completely honest, we hope to irrigate our thirsty souls with free-flowing praise.
To those friends who have gotten through the first chapters in the past week, to writer friend Donna Baier Stein (her new book is Sympathetic People) who finished the read first, who has found the delicate, generous balance between frankness and praise, who knows from deep personal experience what that dance on arid land is like, many, many, many thanks. You are my drops of rain. The ones that, one at a time, fill glasses and buckets and solitary planets where waiting writers live.