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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.
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.
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.
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?