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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.

Crap.

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 island me. Surrounded by not-there, not doing.

Waiting happens. It’s what writers go through—a kind of lying fallow to replenish ourselves; a waiting for the story to happen. I understand it. I don’t have to like it.

In the emotional stall that is the search for an agent (a combination of day-job demands  and inertia born of the outright, consuming, paralyzing fear of non-acceptance), one observes and one wonders:

Where is that line for defining what defines a writer? Where does our creative identity live? How do we find ourselves between the hairline cracks that lay between want-to-be, need-to-be and absolutely-is?

Those hairline cracks are fissures, sometimes. Chasms. Without the writing (or painting or sculpting or poetry writing or musicmaking or dancing or acting), what are we? Do we exist at all? Or are we just fooling ourselves?

A self-condemning stealthy fear waits to ambush us; tells us that a writer without readers is a failure; a mere wanna be. And that wanting is never, ever, ever going to be enough fuel to take us the whole way to is.

The need to write churns and prods, sometimes more, sometimes less…but is that need a legitimizing worthy of the claim I am a writer?

Perhaps the asking is a kind of answer. Recognition of need is, in itself, a confirmation of need, a pointing to a place in our natures that wants filling. But how do we get the rest of the way?

Is-a-writer is achievable only by the actual doing. And when one is gathering straw for the story’s brick, when one is waiting for the one agent, the one publisher, to see one’s voice as unique and worthy, that affirmation is a faint voice crying in an inner wilderness. We’re back to the uncrossable gap between is and want; to the self-fulfilling, self-defeating oroboros of wondering whether we’re truly what we’ve spend hours and years telling ourselves we are.

Why wait for that acknowledgement, that approval? The fact is, we do—no why about it. The most magnificent operative voice in the world wants an ear other than one’s own. We sing/dance/write for our own pleasure, but a creative effort without an audience is an effort half complete. We tell stories. Tell. Tell to someone. Without the someone, the story is just a magnifier of doubt. A self-indulgence. An unfulfilled and perhaps frivolous desire.

And that razor line? It’s the one that cuts through our hearts. Cuts our souls in two.

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.

Yes. But.

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?

Realistically, no.

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.

 

Long days in the office and the limited energy they leave in their wake. Too few hours left, claimed by too many things. Cooking dinner. Eating it. Feeding cats. Changing clothes. To exercise or not in those rare remaining minutes. Or to write.

This is what I want.

To spend time with me. And with my characters. To immerse in the mind of a man who knows that this will be, if all goes well, the last night of his life; the man observed by a woman who is trying desperately not to believe what she knows to be true. The reality of the things you can’t un-know.

What I want: I want to be in love. And I am.

It is a sacred trust, this partnership with the invisible. One gives all or gives nothing. To be full of the melancholy of it, to be a paper boat on its rough waters, to dive so deep that there is no other night, no other room, no other person; a writer owns a gift that is closest to being in love—which may be why so many of us exist without love’s outward manifestation.

The ecstatic lives here. All possibility does. And in that inconstant realization is the thing that conquers despair and defeat and the challenges of not-good-enough. Do we have our crippling doubts? Yes. Always will. But the grace of moments like these when the Unseen smiles at me, when I’m actually looking across the room at the person who was the physical print of the main character, when I know that in a few minutes I will run home and throw myself to the created world as if it were a lover waiting between smooth sheets…I’m holding up my end of the partnership. The things I sacrifice are not sacrifices at all: They are choices gladly set aside for a greater, grander choice.

This is the life I live because I choose it to be so. A silence that is far, far from empty; a self that is fully self, fully given. Isn’t that what love is?

Are we more confident by day than by night? Or are we just stupider?

By day, we writers are creature of light, drawing energy from an optimistic inner sun. We are fearless and confident. Problems in the work are merely possibilities as yet undiscovered. Give it time, we tell ourselves; it will all come right.

By night—especially at the end of long days at the page—we are weak-willed drivellers. The moments that delighted us, the romance in the words, are caught in a vortex of crippling despair. We are doubtful about the whole product. We are afraid. We are terrified breathless.

Day is strength. Night is doubt. The story we loved at noon is hopelessly idiotic at nine. The characters are vapid; the plot, vaporous. What the hell were we thinking? And why the hell have we been thinking it for three years?

There is no way around the pink elephant in the room. We tell ourselves and others that this book is just a very different creature, not readily recognizable as a comfortably familiar genre. At night, all we can see is that the elephant is just improbably, halluncinogenically pink, nothing more.

At night, our daylit confidence dissolves. Our optimistic regard of our talents melts like frost under a heat lamp.

Day tells us that hard work will, eventually, get us where we want to be.

Night tells us that we are talentless shlubs that no effort can possibly redeem.

Now the too-polite smiles will come. The friends who have professed eagerness to read the work will not finish it. Or they won’t comment on it. Or it will just disappear from the list of things you talk about together. They won’t tell you why, for fear of the hurt that you and they both know will result.

Now the doubts will come. The certainty that we will forever be relegated to the limbo of the mediocre-almost; of the hobby writer; of the dabbler. The worst place in the world for a dedicated wordsmith to be.

Which is why I’m going to bed. To not-think. To let my tired brain wait for the day to recharge it. To delude myself afresh—or to find my hope again. Both. Or neither. Over and over and over again.

Jury duty. It happens.

It’s a responsibility I take seriously—although I haven’t yet had to draw the line at the kind of cases that would demand my excusing myself. And, as I waited to be called for a panel, another kind of learning.

A woman was sitting within my sightline. Young. Serious. Had her little laptop open, writing something. I watched her, trying to get a clue from the pages’ formatting what it was she was working on. I had brought my laptop, thinking that I would use any lengthy delay to do what the young woman was doing.

And no.

A page is impossible for me to tackle when I know I’ll soon be interrupted. But there was something more significant for me in the hesitation. I found that I couldn’t devalue the act by carrying it out in a public place. Writing in that court waiting room would no longer have been the magnificent act that demands everything of me; it would have been expediency.

What we do in private, and what we share with the world are two very different things.

For some, writing is extroversion. Or concentration so perfect that the world goes away. Not for me.

Having 15 minutes is not like having 15 wonderful ones. One does not make love on a street corner. The world is too present. The energy of passersby and higher skies do not make the act richer. I am the writer of the closed room and drawn curtain. We love in the light, but we love apart from all, in magnificent isolation.

Was it insincere, what the young woman was doing; an affectation? Of course not. Is there a right way to work, a right environment? Of course not. She did what she was comfortable doing. And so do I. I will never be a writer who works in cafes and coffeehouses and waiting rooms. My public displays of affection will be confined to kisses and handholding. The rest is a series of acts in a most personal of spaces. This writing is mine. Until it’s ready to fly free to a heart other than mine.

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