I wrote in a poem once that I am “ruled by ruled paper.” I buy ten-cent notebooks at back-to-school specials and proceed to make lists and notes in them throughout the year. Things like stop by the bank, make brownies, email Sean, scoop cat’s litter box, update google calendar, GRADE, work on chapbook, Casandra’s open house?, call for eye exam. There are other cryptic notes, which, after a few days, I either can’t decipher or I’ve forgotten their meaning: Hitchcock On Demand, give her the book, $50 cash or check, 1:00 p.m. (with no date or location), tell them about Octavia Butler (who? my students? maybe?). And on the very margins of that scrawling — bleached hostas, like Beetlejuice-suit pinstripes in the sky, You Can’t Have Vertigo and Dance Like Beyonce, I Have Taxidermied My Grief.
That’s me, on the course of any given day, trying to write.
If you’re reading this, chances are, you know what I’m talking about. You might be a parent, or be taking care of a parent. You might be working at your pay-the-rent and pay-the-bills job 60 hours a week. You may be unemployed. Or depressed. You might be suffering from a chronic physical condition that leaves you with little energy. You might be mentally ill. You might be more than one thing on this list. (Just like me.) But, chances are, in your life, you have had a time when fitting in writing has been a challenge. And that has made all the challenges in your life even more difficult.
I am in one of the best situations a writer can be in. (Outside of being independently wealthy and having Chris Hemsworth, shirtless, serving me mai tais and Dove Bars by the pool of my Hawaiian compound while I adjust the umbrella of my beach table to keep the glare off my laptop. That would be a better situation.) My husband works full-time and has benefits through his work. This has enabled me to work at teaching and writing. But I have two kids. And my dad died of bladder cancer. And my mother-in-law died of brain cancer. They needed care before they died. And helping take care of people you love — that’s what it means to be a human being in this big book of life. And I believe being a decent human being ranks above being a “writer.”
And also? Right now I am as fat as fuck, so I really need to try to get some exercise every day. And I need to cook with real food because those shitty processed foods are trying to kill us all. I have friends who I want to listen to and spend time with. We have a house and we have had an assload of snow this winter and that has made everything harder to do — walk the dog, go to the grocery store, you name it.
Even me, with all my privilege, sitting here typing away on my pretty nice computer, I struggle to find time for my words. For my art. For my calling.
I hate the way Internet writing has become all about lists and breathless headlines. You’ll Never Believe What Happens Two Minutes In! At 1:34 YOU WILL CRY! Six Things Never to Say to Your Dog. 12 Feminine Hygiene Products to Avoid. Thirteen Things You Never Knew About My Hemorrhoids. When I bitched about it on Twitter, my friend Chelsea responded and said, “We’ve become lazy readers, haven’t we?”
We have indeed. And this is hard for me to admit because I am a busy and (mostly) productive person, and I have very real things competing for my time to write, but I can also be a lazy writer. It is more fun to get a quick hit of likes on Facebook or retweets on Twitter than it is to sit my ass in the chair when I am tired or bored or avoiding grading or even facing an existential crisis. It is much easier to bake muffins or cookies then figure out whether I want my novel to be in past tense or present tense or a combo of the two. This laziness/lack of motivation is complicated even further because I cannot write in public. Some writers can write in coffee shops, but I feel exposed and there is too much noise. Some writers find music helps them concentrate. All but the most gentle classical music distracts me.
My writing space was ideal when my kids were younger. It is right next to the kitchen, so I could write while dinner was in the oven, and I could hear them playing with their toys or watching Blues Clues. But now that they are older, and frequently have friends over, my writing space is in the hub of my home. People walk past my computer all the time. Sometimes my kids (and their friends) need to print something from their Google Drives. So I save, close-out, and stand-up. This is life. Interruptions. The interruptions make me lose my place. The lack of privacy makes it hard for me to concentrate.
I don’t have to teach today. The house is quiet. The dog sleeps at my feet. The cat is in the chair next to me. I hear the gurgle of the fish tank in the other room. I wish it could stay like this for hours. But my kids have a half-day of school today. And according to my ten-cent notebook, I have to go to my son’s school conferences this afternoon and to the grocery store after that. I will take my notebook and pen with me.
It is easier for me to make excuses than to sit down in the chair and process the grief and losses of my life through art. It is easier to make soup than confront on the page what I have done in order to survive. I’m not fucking around here. Sometimes I wish I was. Sometimes I wish I could write something light and airy. Something with fast cars and women in designer shoes. I wish I could fetishize capitalism and believe in the fairytale of romantic love. But no, I want to know where hydrogen comes from. I want to know about the origins of mental illness. I want to explore the nature and the battle that is day-to-day love — to explore fully the boundary of the self and the world. If it isn’t real and true, I don’t want any part of it. If it doesn’t risk anything, why am I wasting my fucking time?
Most days, if I was headed to the page to write about an English librarian who solved crimes in his spare time, I might have a better chance of making it to work every day.
I just mentioned the word risk in the paragraphs above, didn’t I? I don’t risk the way a firefighter does. Or a soldier. I don’t risk the way a woman guarding her child from an invading army does. So I understand that some people have a problem with using the word “risk” when talking about writing. (I mean, even the very most popular and best-selling books these days have hardly any readers. If statistics can be believed, I am reading and buying books for about 200 hypothetical and statistical people. So even the best-selling author risks much less than the average reality TV “star.”)
But I will argue that there are other ways to die. There are ways to live that are dishonest and untrue. We are privileged to sit, take time, and create art. Also, to discuss art. But privilege doesn’t mean easy. Privilege doesn’t mean there’s no cost to your mind or body.
And to paraphrase Poet Laureate Ted Kooser: No one ever started a war or murdered anyone while he or she was busy writing a poem.
I didn’t write the great American novel by the time I was 30. I didn’t have my first book by 40. I have four manuscripts—one nonfiction, one chapbook, and two novels — each in various stages of writing, revising, and editing. I still have a lot to learn. When I sit down to write, I also sit with this disappointment. I am a good writer. But so are many other people. Many people are better than I am. Many people are more successful than I will ever be. I must learn to sit with this loss also when I come to the page. I began my literary journey at a time when many authors were maturing into theirs.
I’ve just had the sudden urge to check my notebook and see what else I need to get done today.
I’m not going to give you a list. I’m not going to give you 20 Things Successful Writers Do! I’m not going to tell you what time of day to write or how to write or where to write or what you are doing instead of writing. After all, I only know what I am doing instead of writing. What I am going to tell you is that I struggle too, even under circumstances that are desirable. I struggle. I am 46 years old. I don’t really feel old, but I also know 20 years ago, I did not carry this wellspring of loss. I didn’t realize that the deeper and richer your life gets, the more you have to lose. (Protect my children, I whisper to the god I don’t really believe in anymore. I have withstood everything you have handed out, life. But please protect my children.)
I have so much more to write about now. And so much less time.
No list. No exclamation points. But I am going to put this, from Mary Oliver’s The Summer Day, on a sticky note and put it on my computer screen today. I invite you to do the same.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?