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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.
NPR interview. Could have been me. Sounded like me. The writer’s struggle between the demands of life and the life of the page. The challenge of human relationships in a headspace where the art is all.
One of the most telling comments was in answer to the question about how the writer dealt with comments from those folks closest to her who read her work. Her husband, a writer, was the person whose involvement promised to be the most challenging. “You want people to be honest about the work,” she answered; “…to be honest and love it.”
A number of the readers with whom this writer shares her work understand that abiding need. A few do not. Some, like dear, wonderful friend Kay (who is reading for the first time) have the thoughtful good sense to ask how the writer wants them to respond; what sort of response would be the most useful. Others have the lovely consideration to tickle one’s vanity in harmless ways, knowing how much certain types of sharing mean. Some say exactly the wrong things. But they mean well.
Such foolish creatures, we writers are—like children presenting handmade valentines to beloved teachers. We want people to read. We want them to like what they read. Overly sensitive wretches we are, who listen too hard to what is said to us, interpret it too critically and react too strongly.
When we receive half the reaction we hoped for our pique fills the sky.
Sometimes we find distance and balance in what we hear and how we react. But not often. Our reactions are as unguarded, unreliable and uncontrollable as our tenuous relationships with life.
Our lives come complete with moments of fear. Some of those moments approach terror…realizations that real life is not what we think it is, what we want, what we know, what we’re comfortable with. The standing-outside-ourselves that casts a hard, harsh light on a spare, inward, dedicated, isolated existence.
A life of the mind is such that the outside world can be stark and ugly in comparison. Sometimes, we don’t hear the answer we want. Sometimes, we don’t even hear it from ourselves.
This is about as honest as it gets for a writer. For a person.
I have a low rejection threshold. And one of the toughest assaults to my self-awareness is my newfound ability to admit it.
In an article shared on FaceBook today, Mary Doria Russell (the author of the amazing book “The Sparrow”) revealed that she had been dumped by her publisher or ten-plus years. This, a woman who has written a book that still appears on shelves, is still talked about, has not lost its ability to steal breath…dumped. She has found another publisher…but….
So where does that leave the rest of us?
And it is that reality—for me, a pre-reality in that I have not been pursuing the channels that will get me back in print—that lays me low.
Truth to tell? I’m terrified.
Other writers, creative artists, “normal” people have thicker skins. Mine resists calluses. In the condition of being an open nerve ending that so well describes me, I am the antithesis of the soul who can swim despite the undertow of disapproval.
Rejection and I have a solid hate-hate regard of one another. Hell, I can’t even stomach rejection on online dating sites. The message I just received, “Thank you for your attention, but I am not interested in pursuing a relationship”, has laid me low. A person I don’t even know—who does not know me—has rejected me. And I don’t understand why.
A vicious circle, this: try, fail; don’t try, don’t fail—but never succeed. Sometimes, the idea of not making the attempt is much more comforting than the prospect of the bad answer. Alone is better…unpublished is better…than the unsuccessful opposite. I am beyond sense. Beyond reason. Way-way beyond my ability to rein-in the feeling racing out of control.
Sometimes I feel as if I am one bad moment away from turning my face to the wall.
And the rest of you, that wonderful, solid, steady majority who lives beyond the paralysis of doubt…how do you manage it? Is it something you might bottle and send over here? I am foundering in the shallows of me. And I am listing to one side, taking on water, with no life vests in sight.
Fascinating. Special. And lovely in its way. The observer’s perch in a too-real world.
I don’t mind eating alone. I rather like it. My very sensual relationship with taste is often best served by a one-on-one experience rather than a ménage a trois. And there are added benefits…ones that remind me of the grace that is being a writer.
A couple sat at the table beside me in this close-in little French bistro. Clearly first-date country: the questions, the laughs, the lean-ins, the what-do-I-say-next…the art of “I’m interested.” Fascinating to observe the progress of this fledgling relationship—especially given my inexplicably less-than-stellar reception in Dating World, recently. The couple and I had some dear exchanges. They didn’t seem to mind my being so close; wasn’t a choice. As I got up to leave, the woman rose and embraced me…affection is glorious, even from a stranger, even if you’re not sure what prompted it.
The evening reminded me. Of the great gift of writerdom. Of deliberate separateness.
As we gather fruits of the human tree, we are immune to the things that sting. We share, in ways we could never express to a fellow human, the loveliness of a first encounter, of the dance of seduction, of pain and promise and joy. We celebrate awkwardness. We feel the twinge of not-quite. We watch love at its beginning and, sometimes, at its end. We do this innocently and without judgment. Apartness is a virtuous place.
Observerdom is the protection against loneliness. It takes us from isolation into the realm of Us. We do not shock. We are not disappointed. We do not fear silence. We know that there are only so many colors in life’s paintbox…but, oh, how magnificently they combine.
For the observer, life is ever full. The conversations are unpredictable. The possibilities are endless. The view is high and wide, the emotions are perfumed, the outcomes are unpredictable. We may not, except by happy accident, feel the human touch that we might long for, but the rest is glorious. This is the human universe. Welcome to the skyshow.
The knack for observing aspects of character: Happened the other day in the office. Asked, the writer noted some qualities of a co-worker’s nature. Was asked to repeat the feat for someone else, a breathless “Now do me!” moment. Funny.
It’s an ability surprises some people. They regard it as some sort conjuring trick; parlor magic. Not to me.
To me, it’s a symptom. Of something writers spend our lives doing.
We sit in the high, Emily Dickinson window of ourselves, watching what happens around us; watching what other people are, seeing how the pieces and parts move.
Don’t mistake this observing for judgments on people’s characters. It’s not that, although judgment does happen. It is, instead, a holding-apart of ourselves from safe distance. That high window is our protection, our safe vantage. Where we sit is where we prefer to sit. It is the place that wants us to return when we stray from it. The place where we are happiest.
An observing nature makes life complicated, sometimes. The adopting of a single committed viewpoint among many can be difficult when the writer finds value in most of them. We seem wishy-washy. We seem to be without strong opinion. It’s not that. Not at all. Call it an omni-directional point of view, an encompassing vision. It’s what we are made for.
We are the high window, the Emily Dickinson perch. And the one who looks out from the world from that sacred, quiet place. And, in a way, we are what we view. The view has an isolation built into it. And we like it that way.
Not a dig at my writing brothers and sisters. Not nearly. Instead, call it a curiosity:
Whether as the landmark measurement of yearly writers’ events or as a passing note on FaceBook, the posting of the day’s output seems to wield an almost mystical importance. I’ve done it myself. I’ve never been quite sure why.
The number of words achieved through the intellectual and emotional wrestling match that is the day at the page seems a strange yardstick for triumph, as if we were marking an ascent of Everest rather than the quality of output. Sure, it indicates the dedication of the day. But what is it really?
Writing a novel is a marathon made up of a series of sprints—work (and in this I am speaking of those of us who write while holding full-time jobs) fit into dedicated weekends and the hours carved into weekday work nights. And perhaps that’s what bothers me.
The number is a passionless one. Numbers always are. Yes, it is the evidence of the accomplishments of altitude or mileage, but not a sign of what getting there cost…the hours and hours of lonely roadwork, the toll of altitude sickness in the strictly solo climb.
For all its exultant joy, Writing is emotionally expensive for those of us who do it. It is often the choice between a weekend day spent working and a trip to the movies; between breaking the back of a feisty chapter and dinner with friends. It is—especially, I reckon, for those of us who write for a living—a constant battle against brain drain. Noting the progress of a living story as if it were a tote board of output seems to under-serve both the breathing characters and labor pains that brought them into the world.
As I said, I have, in the past, joined my compadres in the observance. Not sure that I’ll do it any more. Writing is more to me than a creative odometer…it’s the way we get there.