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The 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.
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.
Watching a cat watch birds through a plate glass window (as mine watch prey on the balcony of my 14th-floor apartment, and at ground-level at the river house) is a remarkable thing.
The hunkering down…the stealth, the creeping…the careful concealment…one is seeing the instincts, the naked need, of the predator-born…the innocence of a hunted thing protected—whether they understand it or not—behind an invisible barrier. The cats know what they want. They know that they are supposed to want it. And yet, they seem to know that the wanted thing is inaccessible behind the glass; if they didn’t, we’d have an endless series of broken windows to answer for.
Birds—in this case, the house finches that sing so beautifully (and tormentingly) from the balcony railing> The birds that come closer to visit the small dish of birdseed I leave out for them. Birds and the cats that desire them. Such a funny thing. Hunting is the art of stealth…no creature knows that better than cats do. But as they watch, the cats make little noises that would surely give them away. Or is it that they possess some arcane cat-knowledge that tells them these noises are something that birds can’t hear? Or do cats, to their own ears, sound like birds?
A hunting cat is a creature for whom the world has shrunk to two things: cat and Other. It’s much like a writer writing…except in our human self-delusion we convince ourselves that our ability to multi-focus is a sign of some intrinsic superiority.
Writers stalk the world, oblivious (most of the time) to our separation from it. We watch from our perches of emotional concealment. We make little noises to ourselves that mimic the patterns of human interaction. And we’re very, very lucky not to run headfirst into the plate glass that marks the boundary between the rest of existence and ourselves.
We are cats at the glass wall. Wanting the thing we desire but never catch. Welcome to the metaphysics of the 14th floor.
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.
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.
In an unexplainable moment, I am complete in the company of friends unknown to the real world.
I am grateful for momentary gifts of the ecstatic word. Surprised, shocked, at the depths of despair that come with knowledge of the realities outside.
I am full of hope, faith, darkness. All of them fleeting, as they should be.
A few words with a dear friend, today, in the midst of a satisfying day at the page. She has read 300 pages in two days—and not, I think, simply because I needed her to. What is it about the restorative faith of a friend; the favor in an honest response that may well carry the sting as well as the honey?
Went back to find where she was in the work; found myself reading as she did, in a gulp. Rediscovered with fresh wonder the seventy pages left to her. And was gloriously reassured (at a time when I am as likely to chastise myself as to offer praise) that I have created exactly what I intended to.
If one is wise, one does not climb that rose-covered ladder of satisfaction. One examines it from safe distance, knowing that, with the next word, page, chapter, one must scale it all over again. For the instant it is sweet and sustaining. But the thorns will always be there.
But not today. This was a day of cold outside, warm creation inside. And, from that single friend, all the encouragement I have been waiting, wishing, hoping for. For a moment, I could release the doubt and let it fly. For a few precious hours, I could let the uncertainty go away and give myself unquestioningly to the beloved thing.
We write to make echoes in the darkness. We write to make our voices whisper against an eternal silence; to be Here. These are neither new understandings or original ones, but they are, in this minute, abundantly mine.
I am a writer.
I rejoice that perhaps you are.
I wish for you, on rare days like this one, all the emotional honey that my dear friend gave to me.
Call the writer “quirky”: It comes as no surprise to her. We know what we are; organisms just enough like our peers to pass as normal, but separate. Apart. In full knowledge of the fact that our seeming-normalcy is a pretense and a disguise.
In the pursuit if character, I am capable of feats of mental stalking that, exercised in the world, would put me in jail. I possess the infinite capacity to fall in love with strangers. I carry photos gleaned off the internet as points of reference. I can extrapolate a person’s entire nature from a few moments’ exposure. Mine is a joy that dances on the head of a pin.
A confession, this….
There is, in my current acquaintance, a man who is truly one of the most beautiful male beings of my experience, past or present. His is a charm magnified by a seeming refusal to acknowledge how extraordinarily beautiful he is. Well-mannered, well-humored, even-tempered, an exemplary husband and father (at least by reputation), he has become the physical model for my title character. I do not know him, but I think the world of him. And adoration will avail me nothing.
Understand, I don’t expect it to. I do not—not even in wild, private fantasy—expect anything more than passing courtesy from a person who will never be a friend; who will never sit and talk and share with me. And that’s where the writer disconnects from reality.
The conversations I want—need—to have are simply unavailable to me. The emotional pickpocketing that would let me capture a reaction, a thought, a feeling are not within my right to request. In a perfect, nonjudgmental life, I would sit this lovely man down and question him about his regard of himself; his understanding about his place in the world, his thoughts about what happens around him. In my rarefied neighborhood, this is not an unreasonable curiosity…but in the “normal” world it would get me branded as a dangerous eccentric and harasser, not the innocent and well-meaning eccentric I am.
One does not approach another person saying “I want to pick your brain.” One does not spend time collecting secret glances in order to fix a mental image of how an eye crinkles just so, or a smile takes over, or a concern passes in a momentary cloud…or what makes that person weep or laugh. Well-socialized humans simply do not act this way. The honesty of our emotions—even innocent ones—is not acceptable public coin.
I don’t want to got all creepy over you, I want to say; I just want to borrow your brain for a few minutes. Not a nasty want, like a foot fetish or the want of someone who climbs the wall into a celebrity’s garden, or the acts of a teenage boy holding up a pinup poster with one hand. This is an odd thing, but an easy one to excuse. And the fact that it cannot, will not, come to fruition is my loss. And my regret.
As a writer, engaged in the perpetual collection of souls, I wish this one thing for myself: the courage to be truly insane. And the bail money to get me out of stir should I dare to exercise my curiosity.