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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’ll admit it. I’m getting older. An old soul, a young spirit, an aging body. I’m content to have it so. As I often say, living beats the alternative.
But I’ve seen some signs that are part of the constant surprise that is “geez, I never thought what was true of my elders would be true of me”: an increasing fondness of routine. An aversion to disruption. And the uncontrollable distress that comes when things go wrong in horrifying combination.
This past week was marked by repeated, unresolved car troubles that robbed me of my restorative weekend at the river. And by the knowledge that bad things were in the wind at work. I found this combination creeping into my thoughts at all hours, stealing my sleep, digging at my insides. And then Monday came.
Each of us waited for the footsteps to pause behind us; the voice that would summon us with a somber “I need to talk to you.” It was like waiting for a Mafia hit that you knew was coming—you just didn’t know where. The doctor’s return to the room with the world-shaking, “I’m afraid it’s not good news.” Losing one’s job is an awful, soul-tearing experience. And it’s one that’s still too fresh in my memory.
I wasn’t one of the folks who was asked to leave, although six wonderful people weren’t so fortunate. These tearful good-byes from people who have given everything—their time, their dedication, their tireless labor—to a company, only to have the rug pulled out…it borders on the criminal. And what’s left for the rest of us is a combination of black-hole loss, despair and a touch of guilty gratitude that it didn’t happen to us. This time.
One of the things that was most difficult for me personally was an inward-thing: the tunnel-vision effect I remember only too well from my bout with unemployment six months ago. The robbing of the pleasures of the soul. The refuge of Nature that all but vanishes. The one place I could reliably turn to for joy and peace held none of those qualities. I might as well have been spending my days in a windowless concrete room.
Nature is not a comfort I can offer those who have lost their jobs. For them, only my heartfelt sympathy and support will speak to that work-related betrayal of trust. And for myself, in this numbing aftermath of near-loss, I can only hope to climb back up our of the hole and find my soul again.