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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.
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.
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?
In a recent conversation with a work-friend, talked about the difference between bull-headedness and the commitment to one’s experienced point of view. For a writer, one cannot lay a word to the page without utter commitment. Without that commitment, one waffles, unsure; vacillates over one word or phrase or rhythm and another one. Without that humble “yeah”, a whirlpool lurks just over the horizon. Nothing gets done.
Have been through an extended spate of wha?’s lately. One word, another, all the same: the wonderful clarity that finds the right idea and express the first time is missing. One is not propelled into the idea by the from-the-inside-out certainty of the character’s place in his/her own world. Every phrase is a “maybe, maybe not.”
In cases such as these, the writer falls back on devotion. If the passage does not come together today, there is always tomorrow. Spend time, chip away at the edges of the challenge and, eventually, something will come clear. On some nights, the path is merely surrender: Give up tonight altogether, hope for better tomorrow.
The right choices are breathtaking. They are the smiling sated-ness of an encounter with a wonderful lover. They are the satisfaction that the mathematician feels at the conclusion of a provable equation. They are the open chakras, the meal for the mind, the purr of the cat, the grace of a friend.
The unmade choice is like being tone deaf. Not hearing the sounds in one’s own head—not hearing anything at all—is like being shut away from one’s own thoughts, closed off in another room to which one has no access. Not hearing the inner voice is the loneliest place in the writer’s experience. If one won’t talk to one’s self, who else is there?
A product of being tired, certainly. The fear of finishing a work that one loves, probably. The cost of Commerce and days at the job. Or, perhaps, too many back-to-back days at the page. Writers’ brains are wells that can indeed be tapped dry. And watching the inspiration trickle back a drop at a time is barely and rarely enough.
In the distance, I hear music.