Tag Archives: Writing

The State of a Modern Writer

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Recently, my hubby and I tried to work together. He is a writer, too, though I doubt he would call himself this out loud, or even thinks of himself in this way; what I mean, though, is that he writes for a living. That he is a demographer at work on a dissertation and I am a daydreamer at work on a novel seems irrelevant when it comes to actually doing the work: both of us, after all, have to get our lovely little asses in our chairs and write.

 Sometimes we try to do this together. It does not work often; we are different creatures. My hubby likes coffee shops and office spaces, the gentle pressure he feels to work when other living beings are thinking and moving around him, ostensibly doing their own work in the world.

 I prefer to work at home, alone, where I have a little writing desk wedged into a corner of our living room, facing the wall so as not to become distracted. But distractions abound. There are dishes to be washed, after all, and snacks to be eaten, and back-to-back marathon episodes of Sex and the City to watch. There is also, of course, the couch, where yesterday, after changing into my workout clothes with every intention of walking outside by the canal, arms pumping, I proceeded to sit down and watch television for three and a half hours until I realized I needed to get ready to meet my hubby for a social gathering we had planned. At which time I stripped, showered, and re-dressed myself in what I hoped was casual chic before leaving the house, never having written, or worked out, at all.

 So. Today we went to the public library, my demographer-hubby and me.

I will sing the praises of my local library, whatever local library that happens to be, until my dying breath. I am a believer in libraries. I am, you might say, an enthusiast. Scratch that: I am an unapologetic evangelist.

Just not today.

Today the library was so crowded that I could not think. There was no room for my precious characters, only the obnoxious sounds and rhythms of real, live people doing real, live things—like making video calls from public computers (is this a thing now?) in supposedly sacrosanct places like the library.

The librarian directs me to the Quiet Room. Oh, I must be mistaken, I want to say, I thought the library was the Quiet Room. Like, of the universe.

I feel defeated. I return to my table, where my hubby is writing, silently and dutifully, his gorgeous ass in the chair at the shared table we’ve managed to stake out in the bustling common room. 

I’ll be right back, I tell him. He raises an eyebrow but says nothing.

I find the aisle where they keep the books about writers. Then I find the aisle where they keep the books about everything else. I come back to the table with an armful of books. My hubby looks up at me. “I thought you were going to write,” he says.

“I am,” I say. “This is writing.” Except we both know better.

So I sit down. I sigh. I flip through my books. I untie and tie my shoelace. I open my laptop. I think less than charitable thoughts at the woman behind me, who is gabbing at someone in a different time zone, the on-screen image fuzzy and frozen but still, apparently, close enough to the actual likeness of the person to merit the call. I go to the bathroom. I sit back down.

I whine about the state of the modern library to my hubby, who nods sympathetically and listens politely but then returns to his work because he is, in all ways, a better person than I am. 

I stare at the blinking cursor on my screen. I close my eyes, take a deep breath, and promptly begin to fret in silence about the state of my misanthropic, curmudgeonly soul.

And this, it turns out, is the perfect condition for writing.

So there, in that quiet room of the universe, I write.

 

How to Write in a Sick Person’s Body

photo-48This post originally appeared on Good Letters, the blog of Image Journal, on October 16, 2013.

Not too long ago, just as spring was turning over into summer, I awoke with a slight numbness in the fingers of my right hand. The morning was early yet, the sky outside still dark, and as I wrote, my fingers were a little slower than usual to find their keys. By the end of the day, I was fumbling in the most ordinary of tasks, like opening a jar of peanut butter or reaching for a doorknob.

The next morning, I dropped my toothbrush; days later, I could no longer sign my name, which struck me as somewhat scandalous. I could not brush my hair (a secret vanity of mine), or unbutton my husband’s shirt (a secret pleasure of an altogether different kind).

Before the end of the week, I found myself in the radiology unit of our local hospital. As the technician pushed me into the MRI machine, I thought of medieval monks with their halos of hair and the coffins they climbed into each night to sleep.

Time is an altogether other force in the tube—it operates by a different set of rules—but inside, holding myself stiller than still as each scan sounded its blaring alarm, I did not worry so much as wonder at this swift betrayal of my body. Even then, in those early days, my body did not seem unkind to me.

By the time the diagnosis was confirmed, nearly two weeks after the onset of my first symptoms, it seemed oddly anti-climactic, almost beside the point. Time passes and time does not pass. And so already, even then, when I heard the words multiple sclerosis, what interested me most was not the disease so much as the disability, because if my hand failed me once, falling away from me like so many strings of a marionette, it could fail me again, and how could I write if I could not feel the keys beneath my fingertips, hear the rhythm of my words as they made their first noisy appearance in my early-morning world?

At first, I thought I might keep it a secret, this new disease, because privacy is a long-lost treasure in this world. I was eager to set something apart, to call something mine and mine alone. It made me feel powerful, toting around this secret knowledge, harboring this (mostly) invisible disease in a body that is, if you are the kind to trust appearances, young and healthy and able.

So I made a private resolution to tell no one. But, of course, it did not last. It turned out to be a perverse and misguided effort, far too exhausting to maintain. Secret ills, after all, are quite different than secret pleasures.

So here I am, much to my own chagrin, writing about it, not because I want to (I do not, in fact), nor because I feel the need to “come out” with it or to “identify” with it or even to “process” it—no, nothing so noble as any of that. I am writing about it simply because it happens to be in my way, this disease.

Before my diagnosis, I woke up at five to write for two hours before heading to my day job. I sacrificed sleep, exercise, and, on more than one occasion, meals, so that I could tap out my fanciful stories on this ancient laptop of mine.

Sometimes, as the saying goes, there is no way out except to go through, so here I am, doing it the only way I know how to do anything, which is to write my way through it, trying to navigate the gnarled, foreign landscape that my body has become, with words as my unsteady compass.

There is a whole trove of literature about sickness, I know—a rich tradition of “illness memoirs”—by writers who are also doctors, scribbling story ideas on prescription pads in between appointments with patients who may also be writers themselves, like me.

But to be honest I am not all that interested in reading about the experience I now find myself to be living. I am too restless; I do not have the patience for it. Once is enough (and too much, at that).

What interests me, rather, is how to be in this new body of mine that seems to demand so much more time and attention and, yes, feeling, than ever before. When I most want to escape my body, with its sudden, myriad betrayals and petty idiosyncrasies, how might I manage to burrow still deeper into myself, to take up refuge in this body of mine that has disappointed me so, and therein find the monk’s cell where I can write?

A Baptism by Dishwater, Courtesy of Mary Oliver

photo-47On days like today, when I wake up early enough that the world still has a kind of blue-lit darkness to it, I feel as though the world belongs to me alone. Snow covers the ground in patches and the sky hangs low. I stand at my kitchen sink, looking out over the canal outside my window, where wild geese gather, honking happily at me in the cold morning air.

I sip my cup of matcha, then feel the fluttering of an old woman at my back, a gray-haired poet moving about my kitchen, making impossible exhortations as she roots around in my green cupboards: “You do not have to be good,” she says. “You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”

I try to believe this.

In the fall, outside this same kitchen window, there sprung a beautiful, bright red bush. It was an unworldly color. All season long, washing dishes at the kitchen sink, I stared at that bush in my bare feet, half-expecting it to burst into flame at any moment.

Some days, there was the rustling of leaves, a sound that, if you did not strain too hard, might be a whisper.

I have nobody who can confirm this, but I should tell you: I believe I am my best self when I am standing alone at my kitchen sink. All manner of things happen to me on that little rug where I wash the dishes. Geese descend. Poetry arises. A bush alights.

And the voice of the burning bush, as it turns out, sounds a lot like Mary Oliver.

Sometimes, on days like today, for one brief, blessed moment, I manage to answer the call of the geese, take up my place in the family of things. I stand on holy ground.

Then the light shifts, the moment passes, and it is only me again, standing in front of a smoldering bush, my hands warm and wrinkled with dishwater. I look out the window in wonder.

The canal has frozen over in the night and now a few geese tentatively venture out onto the ice, thrusting their webbed feet onto the cold hard surface of the water. Every step an act of faith. The rest of their gaggle looks on from the safety of land, watching and waiting, performing their own acts of faith. I know it as well as they: All is holy now.

When you wash the dishes, a Zen proverb says, the dishes also wash you. A reverse baptism of sorts.

So I swallow my last sip of tea, then plunge my hands into the soapy water, wash the mug in slow, concentric circles. My bush has turned to ash on the cold winter ground.

Still, the geese come, tiptoeing over the frozen ice in all their wildness.

A Peculiar Case of the Body Snatchers

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As it turns out, I have a body.

I am thirty years old, but this is news to me.  

I have spent much of my life in my head, contemplating and imagining and daydreaming and worrying and, of course, reading and writing. All of these skills are very good skills to have, I believe; for me, they are essential to meaning-making and good storytelling and, that very best thing of all, love, love, and still more love. (Which is to say: the good life.)

And yet, spending so much time in my head sometimes gets me into a bit of trouble.

For starters, a permanent crease (read: wrinkle) has settled between my eyebrows, such that it looks like I’m perpetually in deep-thinking mode, even in those rare moments when I truly am just staring off blissfully into space, for once not taking myself too seriously—not taking myself any way at all, actually. (Now that I think about it, I suppose my face really has gotten stuck “that way,” as the adults in my life always warned the child-me that it would. I did not know then the hazards that too much thinking could pose to a person’s soul, much less her body. Sigh.)

I am what I believe they call too cerebral. (As if you hadn’t gathered as much already.)

And so, when my body began failing me, at first I did not notice; or I noticed, but I did not heed it. Who needs a body?

Well, I do, it turns out.

After a brief hospital stay (all is well, thankfully), I realized that this body of mine needs me as much as I need it. That is to say, it requires a certain amount of sleep each night, and daily exercise, and three sound meals a day. It needs to drink water each day (and not, say, subsist on a liquid diet of pop or coffee or my beloved chai tea), and to stretch and move about whenever possible instead of succumbing to the sloth-like stupor that inevitably sets in after eight hours in a cubicle; and it needs to touch and be touched by another similarly embodied human being (it is surprising the things in life, both great and small, that can be cured by a good, strong dose of spooning).

And none of these things, of course, can be done telekinetically (much as we might wish our bodies to be like so many spoons, bending this way and that way with thought-power alone).

This stubborn physicality is one of the greatest gifts of the human condition, I believe, and not only in the obvious pleasure-seeking ways we tend to think of at first blush (though certainly those, too, of course).

If the Good Book and the cult sci-fi classic are to be believed—if, that is to say, from dust we are created and to dust we shall return, one way or another—then perhaps, in this fragile, glorious in-between time, we could stand to think a little less and be a little more.

(And, of course, by “we” I really mean “me.” Sigh.)

It is in these bodies, after all, that we live and move and have our being. So, as seems to be my mantra lately, a little less thinking just might be good for me.

Maybe, with a little bit of practice, I’ll be able to un-stick this poor face of mine, after all. 

Confessions of a Rookie Blogger

 

IMG00038-20110107-1358I cannot tell a lie. I have blog envy. You know the blogs of which I speak (er, write): those hip, beautiful, impossibly current and tirelessly relevant blog entries that someone, somewhere out there in the ether, devotedly posts in such timely and regular fashion as to make the rest of us (read: me) look, well, lazy. (After all, the title of this blog just about necessitates that I, in fact, post in fits and starts, wouldn’t you say?)

These blogs are witty. Or full of beautifully staged photographs keenly stylized so as to look precisely un-stylized. The bloggers have christened themselves with clever nicknames. Or they’ve christened their readers with clever nicknames (because, you know, they actually have readers—scratch that, they have followers).

Some days it’s enough to make this rookie throw up her hands in despair.

Because, to be honest, I find the Internet—and all its constant, continual updating of information and commentary—to be, well, exhausting. Sure, I waste as much time as the next writer reading Buzzfeed accounts of the nostalgic whimsy of the Koosh ball when I should actually be, oh, I don’t know, writing. But I find it over-stimulating, this kind of reading—it’s burdensome, draining. I still operate in an increasingly shrinking universe where paper rules. I find comfort and rest and beauty in the pages of physical books. I need to hold the story in my hands, feel the weight of the words as a physical presence in the world. (The word made flesh, you might say.) But I digress. (Sigh.)

Here’s the thing: I think my reluctance to take up blogging seriously (which is to say, consistently) has less to do with my own laziness (stay with me here) and more to do with my own tendency to take myself a little too seriously. In other words, I think too much. And sometimes I overwrite (shocker, I know).

When I think about that first blog post I wrote oh-so-many months ago (it may as well have been light-years ago, such is the nature of time in this age of the Internet), I cringe: it may have been right for something (one hopes), but it doesn’t seem to fit the nature of a blog post (or so I’ve gleaned from my own limited experience as a reader of such things).

Are there blogs out there that parse out the nuances of blogging? I don’t mean the occasional how-to posts by those other, experienced, successful bloggers. I mean bloggers whose blogs actually cover, as their sustained topic of interest and exploration, the blog as a genre? (In this self-referential age of comedy, there must be, no?) Because, as you might have guessed already, I have no idea how to blog. It strikes me as such a painfully self-conscious and labor-intensive way to write—but then again, what isn’t?

So, all this to say, my new commitment to this humble little blog of mine is: Think less, write more.

Wish me luck.