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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.

 

Not in one place. Not in another. Not past the spell of the past work; not yet caught up in the new. The writer between books.

I am at the house. And I am not here. I am listening to the birds, to the wind in trees, to the absence of human sound, and it is only the placing of the description on the page makes any of it real to me.

A tilled field, I am. The fertile growth has been harvested, the remains plowed under. The fragile, exposed ground is left open to the sun and air, waiting for new seed and rain to green it; to turn it into something worthwhile again. Letting the field lay fallow is a familiar concept. The reality isn’t nearly so fulfilling. For now, I am a dustbowl waiting to happen, waiting for the substance of me to be blown away.

As a character reflects in the last work, “he hadn’t expected to be so…without.” I am, in this moment, without.

I mourn this lack, and I don’t. I don’t like it, but I understand it. Understanding it hardly makes it easier. Nothing will heal the raw and naked ground but the verdancy of a new work taking root. The feeling is a revelation of how deeply involved we were; of how exhausted the break has left us. Knowing doesn’t help.

We stand in the space between raindrops, writers do. In the vacant place that is suddenly us, we don’t dance between the drops—we wander, restless, wanting to be touched by something, hoping for the cloudburst (for the drizzle, even) that will make something grow. From that cloudburst will come discontents and gifts, separations and conflicts. And purpose. But that time isn’t yet.

In this arid country, we are praying for rain.

There comes an inevitable moment in writing a book when you realize that you don’t really need your tape recorder any more.

You hold its lifeless little body in your hand; the soul of its urgency has fled onto the page. You don’t keep it strapped to your wrist at night. Days pass without your feeling the desire to touch the button combo that scribes your thoughts. The tiny tape, once hot with ideas, lay cooling behind its clear plastic window. You keep the device close, even so, because without it the juju might disappear.

Sad. And not. It’s a wonderful awareness, knowing how the absence defines the work’s progress. Yet, how sad because you know that obsession has less of a daily place in your life.

Then one day, a thought born of a dream or insomnia or something somebody said on NPR. The tickle of a small thought that might flee without your capturing it. You run to the recorder’s place at your bedside, a warm body in cool plastic, the lover you don’t have. You run, wet from the shower, to capture the idea that must be held in trust for a book already completed, a germ that will change everything. A phrase. A cadence. A seed that contains all the DNA of the unplanted plant, waiting for earth and sun. Like love rediscovered, if only for a moment.

Soon the reluctance will come; the sad severing from the completed book. Soon enough, the process will start again—new ideas, breathless new love, new characters more real than real. The little recorder will safeguard them as it does the ideas past. The recorder will be the keeper of my spirit, the prover and champion of my midnight notions. My confidante and companion. For now, I’ll hold it in my hand, in memory and hope.

I will be a literary cyborg. And happy for that.

An awakening at 4 a.m. Of the best kind. A dream.

A living space on water, although in the dream I never saw the main house. This was a kind of exposed, semi-circular under-story, with accoutrements all around that offered the possibility that this could well be a living space: chairs, a lovely old enamel stove, tables…and, incongruously, water beneath, an ocean that should not have been there.

People were there in the space. I didn’t know them, yet didn’t mind that I didn’t. Creative, they were. Eagerly so. Generous in their shared inventiveness, unlike the experience in so many other creative fields. Somewhere, there was a creative director, a guiding force that we never saw—but it didn’t matter. The presence was felt.

This creative engineer encouraged unusual forms of expression without limiting the forms they could take; a mentor invisible. The creators were encouraged to find the possibilities even in the unlikeliest of products. In the dream, I found great power in something that was a cross between a seashell and an exotic spiral pastry…and it occurred to me that some unrevealed potential might be found there. Any object could be the spur to creativity—a tactile expression that wouldn’t require words on paper to express what one should think or feel about the project at hand. An unlikely method ever to adopt, certainly, but an encouragement of non-traditional ways of thinking. The legitimizing of wild fancy as a tool for the imagination. A realization that ideas are findable in every possible form.

And the dream, strangely enough, informed another lightning bolt about the book-in-progress: The freedom to redefine how creativity is generated…the essence of the group of artists at the center of the story, a group for which competitiveness is nonexistent and cooperation and encouragement are all.

The dream’s environmental imagery—as real as reality, although I have never seen any of it—gave me a way to richen the story’s physical space. The energy in the dream room gave me other ways to expand the idea of art’s Divine light and send it into other places throughout story; told me how much richer the metaphor would become if I applied multiple touches. The dream pushed the concept; reminded me of a solution where I hadn’t even seen a problem.

The channel to the invisible. In the constant slog that the commerce-job has been, in this craft-driven stage of the book’s re-writing, that clear channel has been rarely in evidence. I’ve missed it. Last night, I went back to the place of the gifts in dreams. And heard lessons I’m even now trying to decipher. Lucky me. Very lucky me.

This is what it feels like.

The chapter—the momentous act that the entire book has been building to—owns me. Before I wake and once I do. In the choices I make for the day. In what I eat. In the shower I don’t take. In the exercising I don’t do. In the head-clearing catnaps I time to fuel me for what will be written next.

I am the woman in the bubble, holding her breath against the world’s getting in.

The feeling. The overwhelmingness of it. The slam. I stand in front of the avalanche that I called down upon myself and I invite it to come. Breathless, knowing how hard it will hit. Excited and resigned, knowing that, once I’ve called it, there will be no running away.

I write through the fidgets of avoidance; through the sudden, needless urgencies that ask me to do this or do that. On weekends spent at the page, I give myself the evenings off, to let the internal batteries fill. I go to sleep with it inside me. I wake with it still there.

And the day at commerce is intolerable.

The glittering, fragile, horrid, consuming, wonderful bubble is still around me. I nurture it. I don’t want to let it go, this umbilical that binds me to the breathless place in the ethers. I sit at my desk listening to the music that has decorated and informed the scenes. And I am crying…thinking what madness this would be if any of my co-workers should catch me at it…feeling the desperation of knowing that I cannot, can never, hold on to such an ethereal thing.

This is not a thing that can be called up at will. It is a welling from the inside, rich and tenuous and terrifying. I don’t want anything but this. Ever.

Draw the curtains. Take away the world. Leave me be. The writer is not here. The writer does not want to be. She is busy holding her breath. And the world may not come here, where I am.

Commerce wants my days. It’s the trade I make. The stuff I must write so I can write the stuff I want to write.

The gift I give me in the morning…the last thing I do before preparations for the day consume me: I read myself. Not my moods, or the creakings of a body still strung with the spiderwebs of sleep that I can’t brush away–this is a reading of a paragraph or two from the earnest-but-way-too-tired efforts of the night before. A paragraph whose singing might carry me through the day. A reminder of who I am.

It is a spare gift, admittedly. But it is full of grace and light. A reminder of why it’s worth it, those hours of adapting my desires to demands that are beyond my natural ability to love.

Even the half-cooked meal that is an unfinished passage is brain-food. It is my own personal Breakfast of Champions with the power to carry me into the day with a well-nourished fortitude. Ask me whether I would be willing to cast off the job entirely to live the twilight-life of the hopeful writer…not sure that I would. I trade the luxuries of a wonderful apartment, spur-of-the-moment decisions to hit the steak-frites trail and the handy, pantried case of wine for the teeth-gritted tolerance of writing for others’ needs.

Commerce makes us expendable, despite the best we can do. The nature of business makes us disposable; lambs too easily sacrificed on the cold stone of the bottom line. In the space in which we write as Writers, the act comes first. We worship in the house of the sacred word. The considerations that come once we are published…well, that’s another carton of curdled milk.

For now, I carry myself into the 9-5 hours with sentences full of promise. The mysterious deer that wanders into Central Park, an urban wonder soon to be slaughtered by dogs. The steeple bell that sounds in an imagination that sees the darkness that will end the day. The man who has lived by the graces of his art, only to bring himself to the dire understanding of what that commitment will really cost. Even when the writer is willing to open herself to exactly and only what everyday life offers, the Glorious Ordinary is limited and small next to imagining’s gifts.

And so I remind myself. I hold the better me with the same cramping fingers that grip the life vest that spares one from drowning. The gift I give me is the understanding—despite all the tearings and assaults of real life—of who I actually, truly, am.

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.

UnknownThe truth of the writer is a phoenix-truth: every day we rise from the ashes of the previous day’s shortcomings. In each new day at the page, we have the chance to get it right. To do it better. To find the small, exquisite alchemies that bring us closer to the ideal that keeps us alive.

Tough task, that.

Doubt is built into who we are. We are our own mythical serpents, swallowing our better selves whole, from the tail up. Grace is tough to come by when we have a mouthful of our own refusal. And it’s nearly impossible to find self-forgiveness when we’re choking on our shortcomings.

I’d rather write, I tell myself, than spend time crafting a letter to the agents who will take this burden out of my hands. In the limited time (and with the more limited energy) I have to fight for a chapter or a paragraph or a sentence after the workday is done, I’d rather craft a half-assed few words than the other, hated task. I’ll tackle the submission letter when I’m done with this book. Or the next one.

No.

I know that’s a procrastination, even though there is truth in it. And the procrastination is a knowledge as shaming as it is genuine. But how does one un-swallow one’s self? What happens to the writer if she succeeds, sadly, in consuming herself?

We do not vomit ourselves back into the world. We do not decide to untangle our lives as we seek to untangle the locked-in secrets of the story. We wish that someone were there to take the burden away. We are chewing on our own tails. And the bite sinks deep.

This space has been a writer’s love song. To notebooks. And tape recorders. And self-created book soundtracks. And improvisation as a path to inspiration. Now, another way to find one’s way into a scene through the labyrinth of thought.

I’ve always done this technique, in a sense; collected notes scattered over pages, assemblies that contribute to the form taking shape in my head. And today, a variation. The lightning round of coerced innovation.

The laundry list.

A little background. In this scene, the main character turns the beautiful creation that he has come to love; remakes it into something dire. Vile. Fear-making. An inescapable “sticky darkness” that will be his self-defense, his weaponized wonder. The chapter—the experience of those foul creations—is written, as they all are, from the POV characters pov. A living of a bottomless dread, of the worst of a human soul.

Enter The Laundry List. And yes, readers, this is an open book examination.

Thesaurus.com is my cheat of choice: From it, I drew a list of words that described the abhorrent, the impossible, the foul, the unbearable. Already knew what the contributing categories would be…simply set myself free in word-wonderland to gather up the grandest, most horrific gems I could find. I let them fill me up inside, until my brain was afloat in them; until my thoughts foundered near drowning. A kind of total immersion method acting, with words as prompts rather than memories.

Did it work? At this moment, I think so. I’ll know with a re-reading, the perspective of distance. I’ll let you know.

Love and kindness are easier for me to write than pain and cruelty. At least, that’s what I choose to tell myself. An end-of-relationship scene in a previous book, drawn from a memory revived, laid me flat for two days. Not this time.

In this new technique, a strangely painless source of despair-memory. Something worth going back to when we need to write from the most difficult places.

An experiment that led to an idea that led to a question.

I opened my head and let the words spill out. Into a tape recorder, during a wide-awake evening visited by no special muses. Hmmmm.

I often use the tape recorder for late-night visitations of phrase or plot or character. I am often found with my head bent over my desk, trying to catch some flitting thought with the butterfly net of my microphone. I have recited long, outlined sequences to get my head around their slippery substance. But opening the heart and letting fly, never.

Have I unearthed a viable technique? Riffing a scene without plan or forethought…then transcribing those notes into Word as the literal bones of the chapter?

Throwing and idea off the top of one’s head, to learn later whether it is real and writeable—a scary thing.

There are several asks in the task, I think; several requirements. The writer/reciter must be fearless. Like dreams written down in half-sleep, what is revealed in daylight may well be complete crap. Listening to what is spoken live and unconsidered is terrifying stuff.

To pull off this impossible feat, I think that one must be in love with the sound of one’s own voice. To hear one’s self cough up garbage, one must grow a thick skin. To listen to crap—as enthusiastic and well-intentioned as it might be—is to court shame. One must face down one’s own capacity for bullshit and stupidity; must be fearless in the very real possibility that we will discover how absolutely ordinary our brains are. Great notions aren’t always great—even if we convince ourselves that they are.

Perhaps the value of the exercise is in the exercise itself, rather than in what the exercise reveals. The on-your-toes of it. The open Chakras of it. The no-fear of it. And, of course, the off-chance that something surprisingly good will come of it; that we will indeed see some tiny brilliance that we struggle so hard to believe is alive in us.

Riffing, live. Fear and love. At the same time. The endless and essential challenge of being a writer.

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