I keep learning - life is rarely one or the other thing. Almost invariably it is both. Opposite ideas walk side by side down twin corridors. The corridors are separate. The ideas, opposite ideas, live separately. Joy keeps pace with sorrow - all of it simultaneous but strangely apart. So much interior, but we aren’t split in two, even what we hold in total secrecy, privacy the more polite the notion. We relegate and move forward. No wonder then the madness of life. In the middle of the happiest moments we are struck with grief, ineffable (whether by choice, convention, or requirement) but present. Just like the mourner who stares at a casket and inwardly smiles. It’s not one thing. Unlikely to be clear, ever to be clear.
Novels fall flat (to me) when intentions of the writer are made too clear. Clarity is best left for windshields and those needing steering. Clarity isn’t the same as honesty when you take to your work. Honesty traverses twin corridors as well. Honesty is harder than clarity, because it rests with the responder, and response may vary. Allegory interests me but it supposes so much. Commonality is all around, but so is staggering diversity.
In pursuit of characters full and round, falling back on what we think we know never works. It is easier to write the extremes, harder to hack out a center space. It’s all that interests me right now.
It’s odd work lately, an ongoing conversation with nobody but myself. I feel hollow as a straw.
Over the last six months, for the first time I can remember, I didn’t want to write at all anymore. I have never felt less like a writer. I didn’t know what to do next.
2012 was a slow year. I wrote a few stories. The stories are shabby, too - weakly pleading a case for sorrow unearned. Sometimes I felt the happy flip of my stomach when a sentence came out shiny, but shiny sentences and dime-store sentiments are not the thing.
I realized, slogging through the sodden attempts, pages heavy with trial and error that fell to the side of error - what the problem was. I saw myself on a trapeze swinging wildly between caring too much and too little. I cared how I did things more than what I did, and cared how I said things more than what I said.
Whether I like it or not, I’m a solid person happiest in the kitchen with a pot of soup and a radio. The revolutionary inside me lives mainly in my heart, and these last years, like Bukowski’s bluebird, I’ve rarely let him out. It doesn’t help.
I’m not as edgy as I think I am. For example, I like symbolism. To admit this, I feel like writing’s stodgier version of Margaret Thatcher. I want to write about having, and not having - money, love, and hope. But not the way I thought I would. All I know has undergone tremendous schism - my private world warm harbor, life outside it ever more roiling.
The mind gets lost in it. I still find myself wishing for a thing that will not come. I think instead about a wild-eyed woman on her front porch swing holding a bottle of unopened nail polish remover, a dog in front of her, and a flea comb. “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth.” Fortitude is a funny thing. Keep your mouth shut and end up shorn. I think of the same woman half a world away with her hands on the plinth of a classical deity's statue, it’s marble mouth poised to swallow the sun. Lamb or lion? I still dream of lions.
I’m freer now. I worry less. This creative thing I do, quite privately now, is a strange business. More than ever, by necessity, it is very solitary. I don’t talk about it anymore with anyone, because I’ve said too much already. I write about it here, but mainly as a record of my own thoughts. A year from now, I won’t feel the same, and with these ramblings I can see what I thought today.
I think about it now, digging into work I never meant to do. Sometimes I feel like the shepherd tending little, lost lambs, and (ever less but still some) I am also a lost lamb looking for a shepherd. That is what the work demands. The work is the work, not my identity or connection to the world around me. This quiet distinction makes the world new again through my fingertips.
There's a writing prompt in there for you somewhere. Are you a lamb or a lion? Sheep or shepherd?
“Home is a name, a word, it is a strong one; stronger than magician ever spoke, or spirit ever answered to, in the strongest conjuration.” Charles Dickens
The light in the new house is beautiful. Hard to capture in a picture. There’s something about the tall space and high windows, with their blue sky and clouds above that feels dreamlike. The light might be my favorite thing about the place we now call home.
I think it’s funny how the brain wants so to acclimate when we’re happy. I can already navigate the rooms in the dark, and I’ve lived places where that never really came. Correlating are my feelings, of course. I want to be here. There were places I were that I never wanted to be. And now I’m not there, so that’s probably something. It is good to want to be here.
“Here” is both true and false though. I want to be here, in this particular space. But I also want be here less specifically in a physical sense. I want to be “here” at a point when life feels good. I could be “anywhere” and I would still be here.
I think that for writing there is a similar sense of satisfaction of the emotional place we’re at with it. Struggling as my direction changed, as my vision veered one way and my abilities another, I have waited patiently for the next idea I feel absorbed by, sinking into it, feeling home in the idea.
Analogous, I contemplated moving the many months before it happened. I thought about furniture, we drew floor plans, and I considered it all so carefully. I spent time knowing it before I really knew it. Now I’m navigating in the dark just fine and that’s how I do things. That’s the part of the process I’m in now, a long and contemplative period getting to know this new idea and different voice. Then, a couple of heel clicks, and before you know it, you’re home.
Never let it be said that writing and science don’t mingle.
Here’s a word for you: cryptobiosis.
How does that relate to writing? Keep reading.
Artemia salina is crytobiotic. It has adapted to life in its indigenous Botswana, able to survive the dry season by going dormant, ceasing the metabolic functions of life until conditions are again favorable. How beautiful is that?
If an organism like Artemia salina can do it, so can a writer. In the writing life, conditions often become unfavorable for a writer to produce his or her best work. Stress, illness, overcommitment, outside responsibilities, grief - these things can overwhelm the creative process. Through discipline and consistency, the writer can try to overcome these hurdles. It doesn’t always work. The stereotype of the drunken, depressive writer is well known, and in moments of block, I get it. Anything not to think of the words that will not come.
Writers are hard on themselves. The rejection, the solitary hours, the emotional openness of the process all take a toll as it is, when writing is going well. When it isn’t, channel the lessons of Artemia salina. Go dormant for awhile. It may seem like the rainy season will never refill the lakes where creativity flourishes, but the rain returns. Adapt to survive.
The species Artemia salina is better known by its trademarked name, Sea Monkeys. I got some for Christmas. I’m awfully glad I did.
So for this Monday, think about a lesson you can learn as writer from a product of childhood nostalgia. How is your writing like a Slinky, or a Cabbage Patch Doll? What lesson can you learn from Snoopy? Feel free to comment with a response.
My Sea Monkeys, just under the surface of the water.