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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.
No posts lately. Between Commerce and tiredness, there’s been nothing new to say.
Was walking across the parking lot next to the beautiful building in which I live; thinking how grateful I was to be living there, how wonderful the architecture was, etc. etc. I felt myself trip. A crack, a frost heave on the pavement, and I was airborne. Headed for a very very hard landing. And yes, you do feel every second of it…the faceful of pavement, the cracking of bones and teeth, the leaving of skin. Not good.
I knew how bad it was when I saw the face of the man who rushed over to offer assistance, and again when my buddy Carlos at the lobby desk blanched at the injuries I hadn’t yet seen. The blood dripping onto my hands was a pretty good indication, the wincing of Emergency Room staff was another.
I’ve spent ten days recuperating. I got back to work four days after the accident. Stitches are out. I’m forming nice new skin. My brain is bruised. I’m better but not well. And there is a strange grace in this literally painful situation.
Question One is “How do I feel?” Question Two is “Can I give myself leave to not do all I want to do?” Question Three is “Am I up for writing?”
The answers are quite extraordinary. And they all add up to the same thing:
I find myself forgiving the true awfulness that my appearance has been. Abandoning my concealing sunglasses and going barefaced before shocked and inquisitive eyes. And more. Sharing my passion for words, for the non-commerce writing with the demands of a finite, limited and physical self. Doing what I feel, even if it exists in conflict with what I tell myself—what I know—I want.
Life has some pretty bizarre lessons. Healing takes many forms.
A thing we do, on nights when tired won’t let us do anything else. A thing we do just to keep the scent in our nostrils; to tease ourselves about what is possible:
We read. We read ourselves, our notes, the hints of what’s to come.
Not that anything makes much sense. Not that, at eight p.m. on a ragged Thursday, we are capable of much else than staring at the tv. Not that we should be doing anything other than taking a Tylenol PM and going to bed.
The collected notes prepare us for the next chapter. They are the gameplan for what’s to come. The scent. The taste. The things we give ourselves to remind us of the wonderful potential that is ahead of us. The notes.
This is a preliminary suggestion of what’s ahead. The notes for the Method Acting that the chapter will become.
And most of all, it’s a reminder not to let it get away.
Even the committed quest that a story is can get away from us at times. Sometimes, in those reluctantly-admitted moments of emotion, we want to run fast and far; to blow the story off and sleep for a week. That’s an excuse that gets us nowhere. The whiff of the work is the scent of the fine meal; we may not be hungry now, but when the hunger kicks in we’ll be ravenous.
This is the moment in the relationship in which you are tempted to tell yourself that you have fallen out of love. It is a momentary thing; instantaneous. No one can love all-in at every moment. But we must.
So this: I sit with the laptop on the surface for which it was named. Hoping that the osmosis of proximity will put the ideas in my head…like learning a foreign language in one’s sleep.
I have loaded the veggie bin and the freezer. The menu prospects at Chez Lynnie are pretty exceptional. I may escape for a weekend hour or two to a local art museum; I may stay here on Island Me all weekend. Sleep. And write. And hit the gym. And tap the new case of Cotes du Rhone Viognier. And cook. And find my way into the chapter that is right now placeholding on my lap.
Can’t wait for the weekend. Where the writing is.
When a writer spends a weekend of work and fails, at day’s end, to have come up with anything exciting, where does the fault reside?
Is it the idea? The style? Or the writer herself?
Some chapters are anchors. They hold the plot in place; they establish what must be known. They don’t fly—they trudge dutifully toward that next, more exciting place. And yet, the same anchor can feel like something entirely not-good when it’s tied around the writer’s neck. The darkness is deep. And it’s a long way from the bottom.
Face it, Self. Some days are just blah. One is born there, lives there, seems destined to die there. Those stones in our shoes that ache so badly on the long walk to Story are ones we placed there ourselves.
In the Land of Blahs, we make mistakes. We judge ourselves unkindly. We throw babies out with bathwater. We do not see forests for trees.
Sometimes the Wizard of Blahs has a point. Sometimes the Wizard is telling us something we need to hear. Sometimes the Wizard knows the difference between good enough and better. And sometimes, he’s just the little bald guy behind the curtain.
I seem to recall going through something like this during the writing of The Spiritkeeper. There, too, I found myself facing an opening that lay deflated on the page, that gave the story nothing. That sad awareness led to a far better way in. That instance isn’t this one. And sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference. Or the reason for it.
A long thing, this yellow brick road of storytelling. Its cobbles aren’t smooth. Its way is winding. Its destination is not clear; false directions wait all along the path, with no friendly scarecrow to point out the right one. And frankly, the journey itself is one damned big pain in the butt.
And the nastiest little secret of all: The Wizard is me.