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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.
Writers—this one, anyway—makes no secret of preferring the created world to the real one. With the exception of Art and Music and the craft and care of good food which exist in this temporal space, the not-real world is my choice as the ideal place to live.
I devoted this space yesterday to an extended whine: the emotional wresting match of the current chapter (a Round Two that followed the very satisfying Round One of Chapter One) and the baggage that comes with it…the self-imposed quality demands on Writer Lynn; the state of feeling vastly underwhelmed with myself. Tough times, but not unexpected ones.
And here’s the kicker: In this internal altercation between perfect worlds and present ones, an ally. A dream.
At least, I think it was.
In the dream, I was telling someone about the greater meaning of the book; the huge idea behind the apparent one. I don’t remember who the tellee was, man or woman, friend or acquaintance newly-met. But I do remember the reaction. The nod. The smile. The brows raised in impressed approval. It was all I could have hoped for.
But I’m not sure whether it was real.
I subscribe to the idea that all acts and all beings in dreams are reflections of the dreamer. Even if that theory is nothing more than an expression of airy theory, the exercise of examining dreams offers profound insights into the state of the mind. But not being entirely certain whether an episode was real or dreamed…a thornier challenge.
I may prefer one world to the other, but I never have trouble telling the difference between them. Created World often creeps into Real World—carries the emotions, the characteristics, the chess-piece movement of the living work across the reality divide. The pleasant trespass can leave me weeping, smiling, frantically scratching at the notebook page—but I always know which world is which.
Not this time.
I am tempted to worry about the blurring of the line between real and not. Writers have enough trouble distinguishing between worlds without having to make a focused guess about which is which. I could worry. But I won’t.
The real/not-real gift is not such a difficult thing to accept after all. If the reaction of the smiling stranger was a dream, the sign of self-approval from a wiser and more forgiving me, I’ll take it and run. If that stranger’s reaction was, in fact, real but misfiled in an overtaxed brain, my reaction will be no different: take it and run.
I may be crazy. But I am not nuts.
Can a writer be said to have a favorite among all her stepchildren—her shelves and shelves of books? I do.
Here it is. Webster’s New Dictionary of Synonyms, ed. 1968 (graced with the presence of a most demanding photo assistant.) I bought it in a used bookstore in NYC many years after its publication. The frontispiece is marked “2.95” in pencil in a vaguely European hand.
It is one of the non-living things I would consider taking as my one saved possession from a burning house. My life has been lived in its pages.
The volume has been much used—and not carefully. The cover is stained. The edges are chewed. The spine is broken where it meets the cover. The pages are ecru with age. And I love it with an abandon that borders on rabid fanaticism.
Imagine…a book that will describe for you the minute variations in shades of grey, the subtleties of glorious color, the difference between one idea and another. I’ve opened it just now, at random. My finger has found the entry for foretell…and its cousins predict, forecast, prophesy, prognosticate, augur, presage, portend and forebode.
I lost it for a while, in one of the boxes of “Best Books” that have accompanied my moves. The relief I felt in finding it again is almost indescribable…the way I would feel discovering that lost Moe the Cat (see: demanding photo assistant above) was only curled up in a closet. It has pride of place, now, beside me; closed yet waiting.
I have sat with this volume for hours, literally, leafing through its entries the way an art connoisseur leafs through a Christie’s auction catalog. I study it the way I used to study font books back when I started in advertising. For the pure pleasure of it.
That one word is not exactly like the next…that there is a best choice in every sentence, every paragraph…that tarragon, for instance, will not flavor a dish the way thyme will…that the alchemy of magical phrases happens only when the elements are precisely and lovingly rendered: These are some of my favorite knowings as a writer.
My muse’s raiment may be tattered but, despite it, she remains queenly and magnificent. I go humble to her presence.
To switch up the imagery…on the map of Lynn, Here be the Mojo. The Mojo of Me.
Good morning, me. Everything I need is right in front of me. Coffee is within reach. Prism-rainbows are dancing on the walls. And the writerly will, the spirit, is in my head.
I have the unfortunate habit, sometimes, of not being where I am; of being where I’ll be next. Knowing that the termite guy is about to get here, knowing that the ride to SGF is ahead, knowing all the stuff that needs to get done…these are the things that occupy my head.
So instead, in the writing, I go into prep mode. I hold the work at a distance… like one of those dogs on YouTube, made to hold the biscuit on the snout until the release command comes.
There’s something cool in that. It’s foreplay. Delayed gratification. A forced space to consider what must be considered. I’m chompin’ to get to it. But I’ll review instead of write; read instead of create.
Moments like this wouldn’t be possible without the preparation of the days that preceded this one. As scattered as my head has been, I at least have that to claim for myself. The transcribing of notes from numerous sources, the loose ordering of them (I’ve begin naming those files “[CHAPTER#] Construct” to make clear the identity of the working document), and, in this case, a re-reordering in outline form—an absolute necessity in a chapter as technically complex as this one.
Tricky. I’ll confess this much: It’s a chapter built upon a “conversation”, a shared research, between an aware-comatose person and the woman at his bedside. A one-sided, two-sided collaboration. Whoa. The work of pulling off a feat like this one is huge. And daunting. And exciting. And I can’t wait to get it under way.
Okay, I cheat. I cheat on the lover in myself, that delayed gratification commitment I made. The coming of the dark is a scary place when the beauty of the work lights the days. As the sun sets on full days of exhausting work, I linger at the page, sometimes. I tease. I tweak. Too tired to get down to anything serious, I throw words at the screen to see whether they’ll begin to sing to me; whether they’ll be willing to play.
I leave the TV on as the dark comes, noise, only. I resign myself to sleep. The little tape recorder comes to bed with me…in the hope that the night will be as generous as the hard-won day. And tomorrow, it will start all over again.
Bless this writer’s life.
I’m like a cat, that way. I cherish a certain amount of order. Predictability. Quiet. Unlike writers who live happily in excess and turmoil, I am a sailor in my head; I favor calm waters of circumstance upon which the ideas can sail.
Calm has been hard to come by, lately. Balance has been available in minutes, only. I am beset by much uncertainty. Body blows to an admittedly unsteady ego. Job searches. Homes disrupted in the craziness of water and demolition damage and an imminent move. My brain grabs a couple of intense, dreamless hours a night, then wakes busy and holds sleep at a distance.
This is not productive time, this insomniac-attempt to plan Step A to Step B to Step C. It is racket, buzz, noise in the mental attic. And the work has suffered for it. I have found it impossible to trust my choices from sentence to sentence. I haven’t been able to hold anything in my head for more than a minute. I barely have two brain cells to rub against one another.
Even so, I turn to the page with gratitude. Despite the writerly ADD that sent me to check for new leaks every ten minutes, I got a chapter finished. And another. And notes assembled for more…and a possible decision about combining two chapters into one. The return of balance in small steps. At least for now.
Tylenol PM is a gift to writers. And maybe exhaustion is, too. I woke looking forward to the day, whatever it might hold. Maybe the calm won’t last the day. Maybe it won’t last the hour. For now, the good night has given me a good day. For the writer, whose life unspools out of a steady head, I’ll take it. Whatever it turns out to be.
The truths of the world in which I live. A morning in which the car needed a jumpstart and a trip to the shop. The daily roller coaster of writerdom. And bad, bad news from an adored friend (this, the most powerful of all.)
Reality is fine for some people. Not so much for me.
Has it always been like this? For me? For writers? For me as a writer? Preferring an inner life that gives one at least an illusion of manageability?
We prefer to live in the clouds. We prefer to live in a world in which things come out right (if we wish them to); a world in which good friends don’t get sick, and people are the best of themselves. Not a world of sunshine and puppies—not nearly. But a world of kindness, in which good wins and bad does not. A world where love is.
I am not naïve. I am not a hothouse flower. I lived in the Big City long enough not to be. I have seen ultimate cruelty and unimaginable good. And yet. How dangerous is it to want that other place, that quieter one? What happens if you try to live there? Where does the other world go? And what happens when you’re forced to go out and dwell in that world again?
I remember a time in which I was so immersed in writing that the re-emergence into the world—for something as simple as a trip to the grocery—was shake-making; akin to agoraphobia. In NYC, one is inoculated, surrounded by people 24 hours a day. But here…where life is car to cube to car to store to car to gym to home…one is more isolated. And to add an isolation by preference? Oh my.
To my dear one, if you read this, my thoughts are endlessly with you. To life, a plea to please leave me alone for a minute. To my hands, please stop trembling long enough to let me type. Reality does not sit well with me today.
Please let the ideas be there.
Please bring the joy.
Word gods, I’m speaking to you…
Inspiration, show yourself. Forgiveness, you’re invited, too.
Challenge me, brain. But be gentle with me. Treat me as kindly as I promise to treat you.
Let me take time to remember my friends.
Let me be confident enough in what I do to soar. Let me be humble enough to seek the next great place inside.
Let me do what writers do, and not suffer for it.
Let me find my patience.
Let me find the love. Let me find my characters. Let me find me.
To be told that one is brilliant, yes. Want.
To feel it, want that more. To be it: Want that most of all.
To give written voice to that breathtaking, self-created turn of phrase. To be able to bring one’s self to tears—for the right reasons. To describe something in a way that makes even the writer want to read it again. To make the characters live. Want. Want. Want.
Do people who are truly brilliant ever consider brilliance as an internal measure of themselves? Do they want it? Or are they too busy just being it? When is brilliance a thing that is apparent and indisputable? When do you know whether you have it, even in its smallest spark? Is it a striving? Or is it the lights-on of everyday existence?
Does brilliance reside in the reader’s understanding of it? Or is it just there, beyond taste and transitory judgment? Who knows? And who gets to say?
Dear friend Melody says “Well, maybe it’s good that you don’t see your work as brilliant. I have to wonder how many writers out there think their work IS brilliant, but they’re really shit sandwiches. I would think if you considered your work brilliant, you’d never try to perfect every word and phrase and page.”
But the wondering? That’s the rub.
In that ether of not-knowing, of struggling daily, of seeking to impose meaning where none exists naturally, of finding the delight and the music…in all of that, one wishes one could leave that question behind. Writing is the marathon in which one never quite reaches a finish line. The astronaut who never quite made it to the moon. The…well, you get the idea.
It is a far different thing than self-doubt, this seeking-out of the Elusive Thing. I want it, the Brilliant. I’m willing to work for it. Will Work for Words.
For as long as I can remember, I have been the kind of person who can’t let things go. Much is taken into my head; little is ever surrendered. I am a person who wears her interests to tatters. A pit bull who grips the things she loves and shakes them until the stuffing goes flying out.
That’s a good thing for a writer.
When I love my characters, I adore them. I may not love all of them equally…but when I love them I have a very hard time letting them go.
The fact is, I don’t want to.
This habit becomes a little problematic when the character is based, at least in part, on the physical and emotional characteristics of a real-life person—qualities I have gleaned (and, I am obliged to face this, surmised) from my researches.
I have turned myself into the emotional equivalent of a stalker.
It’s a useful…ummmm…skill, that emotional death grip. It helps to make characters as alive on the page as they are in my mind. But it is a very, very odd self-knowledge to be living with.
It is one thing to laugh at one’s own obsessions. It’s another thing to live with them. And it’s yet another thing altogether to, in one’s secret heart of hearts, smile at them in the dark.
And that is what I will continue to do. I know I will. Until somebody, somehow, somewhere, manages to pry them from my mental fingers.