Sunday, August 28, 2022

Housepaint

“There’s always a tweet or two floating around about how writing should be enjoyable. If you hate it so much, why would you do it.

Because I’m insane, Jeana.”

-Lauren Hough, “Tell Me How It Ends”

*

It’s weird how some memories stick. Not the big, obvious ones — I’m not talking about the weddings and funerals of it all. I’m talking about like how you remember going with your dad to your grandparents’ house to paint while they were south for the winter. You know it must have been ’97 or ’98 because of the “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” audiobook that your dad played while you were painting, and also the fact you’d never heard of Harry Potter before – it must have been right on the cusp.

The thing is, there’s no good reason for this to stick out in my mind. It shouldn’t mean anything, it has no emotional charge – there was no heated argument or heart-to-heart conversation or Dark Secret Revealed. If I really had to imagine how I felt that day, I would guess I was probably annoyed. But I was always annoyed when I had to do chores. This was nothing out of the ordinary.

And yet the persistence of that memory is so strong that this weekend, faced with a couple long days of painting the house, the obvious choice of companion was another Harry Potter audiobook. Not to recreate the past, exactly, but to give it a kind of bookend. Okay, here we go. This is what I do when I’m house painting. I get it from my dad.

The painting felt very good. Long, slow work. Lots of details, and lots of fucking up — paint on the baseboard, paint on the carpet, paint on the top of my head. Nothing to do but press on. As one of my old teachers used to say, “there’s no such thing as painter’s block.” You start and go on to the end.

I haven’t been writing much the last few months. I complained to a writer friend about this, and she pointed out that sometimes you just need a rest. That when the “last few months” include a father-in-law’s hospital stay, new jobs, and a move, maybe it’s okay to take a small break.

But it’s hard to trust rest sometimes. “Taking a break” sometimes feels like “forgetting how to write and why I do it at all.” It doesn’t help that I haven’t been reading very much either, and so it was difficult not to feel like some essential part of myself had gotten up and walked off. Was this really “rest,” or was this more like “dissolution?”

And then, for no real reason at all, last week I started writing again. Cautiously, as these things usually happen. It’s like trying to get someone else’s cat to take an interest in you. You know what you hope will happen, but you also know, if you want it too much, somehow that scares it away. So I sat down each day, surreptitiously set a timer, and started to work on a story. I told myself all the while that it was no big deal, it didn’t matter that much, and I was probably just writing crap anyway.

Maybe I did need a rest, but I think part of what got things back on track was listening to Mike Nagel on The Lives of Writers podcast. During the interview, Nagel talks about the “posture” writers take toward the world. He describes how it was his admiration for that posture in other writers that helped inspire him to start writing himself. Something in my head opened up. I kept kicking that phrase around for a while – the posture of the writer to the rest of the world.

Really, this is all a writer has to offer. “This is what I see, and what I think it means.” That has to come first, and that has to be present in the writing before there’s any thought about publication or getting an agent or selling a novel. But I’m always tripping over the latter. I’m always dragging it around like an anchor, trying to decide whether or not a story will be publishable before I’ve even finished the shitty first draft.

I don’t think you can have a posture towards the rest of the world if you’re constantly asking the world to have a posture towards you.

When I read Lauren Hough’s essay, “Tell Me How It Ends,” I was nodding along through the end, but she had me right from the start. If you hate it so much, why would you do it? If writing — or not writing — is such an aggravation, causes so much navel-gazing and garment-rending and gnashing of teeth, why not go do anything else?

It’s long, slow work. The writing, yes, but also the thing behind the writing, the reason that keeps you coming back to the work. “This is what I see.” Finding the meaning, fucking it up, trying to find it again. Even if it shouldn’t mean anything.

Sunday, August 14, 2022

Clearing Things Up

We're in the process of moving. It's going to take us a while, but as a part of all that I've spent the last few weekends trying to get the new house ready while it's still sitting empty. Mostly that means painting and cleaning or mowing the lawn, but yesterday I arrived to discover that storms had knocked down some pretty enormous tree limbs on top of our fence and into the yard.

I got a pruning saw and cut as much as I could, which turned out to be nearly everything except the heaviest part of the branch, a good twelve-foot section at least 24-inches around at the base. This was also the piece that lay on top of the fence, which seemed like a very precarious situation. The fence itself is made of steel wire, installed as a deterrent against the neighbor's grazing cows and horses, so it held up surprisingly well. Even so, I didn't think it was good for the fence to leave all that weight sitting on top.

I struggled a while trying to twist it this way and that, thinking if I could just push it far enough I could get it to roll itself off of the wire, but it didn't go very well. The branch was too heavy, for one thing, and I was working out there alone. The best I could do was to kind of hoist it up a few inches, but after that there was nowhere useful to go -- all I could do was set it back down on the fence, which was exactly the opposite of what I wanted to do.

I also kept having visions of the wire fence suddenly snapping. I imagined it would be like a broken guitar string, except that since this was a piece of industrial wire built to stop a full-grown cow it would snap with such force that it would slice me in half like that scene from Ghost Ship. So I would hoist the branch up, roll it around a little, then slowly lower back down on the fence, hoping that nothing would snap. I did this several times, which was not a deliberate attempt to tempt Fate, but sure must have looked like one.

Fortunately, Fate was busy with other things at that moment, so the wire held. I went inside and found a small stepladder, which I was able to position underneath the branch and relieve some of the weight on the wire. Then I bought a new pole saw.

I guess I have a nervous disposition, but by this point a full-sized chainsaw seemed like a sure-fire way to get myself killed, or at the very least lose a limb. I'd already dropped a log on my foot and taken a blow to the arm by that point, and I took both these injuries as proof I was an inexpert branch trimmer at best. Adding a chainsaw to the equation seemed like a terrible idea.

But a chainsaw on a stick? That seemed more promising. Plus, the blade of a pole saw is only eight inches. As I type this, I realize that's still plenty enough to do serious damage to oneself, but when you're standing there in the aisle at Lowe's and comparing the two, the pole saw seems very sensible.

"Oh, no, I'm not one of those extremists you see waving around full-size chainsaws. I use a moderate chainsaw. On a stick!"

By the time I got back to the branch, the neighbor's horses were out and grazing right by the fence. Beautiful animals, but also very large, and there were three of them gathered together eyeing me somewhat suspiciously.

Which, I can't say I blame them. If I were a prey animal and saw someone approach with a chainsaw, I think I'd get a little bit spooked. So while my ideal cutting position would have been on the neighbor's side of the fence, I decided I'd rather cut from an awkward angle than get stamped into paste by a small herd of horses.

In the end, the pole saw worked fine. Angle notwithstanding, I cut enough off the limb that it finally snapped and took all its weight off the wire. I stood there, admiring my work for a moment and feeling grateful to be in one piece, when I became aware that the horses were watching. I turned to look just as they turned to leave, but not without a final snort as they went. The horses were not so impressed.

Sunday, July 24, 2022

Throw the Ball Back

There’s a scene early on in E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial where ten-year-old Elliott first meets the alien. Well, “meets” might be the wrong word. Here’s what actually happens:



Part of what makes this scene work so well is the way it's set up. The audience has seen enough of E.T. to know he's not a man-eating monster, yet the scene plays out like a horror movie: Elliott is outside in the dark, his path lit by a sliver of moon. Meanwhile, his oblivious family laughs and goofs around in the house. If this were a cabin-in-the-woods slasher flick, Elliott would be the first victim, killed and dismembered while everyone else was in ignorant bliss.

So at the end of this scene, when the baseball rolls out of the garden shed, we can understand why Elliott screams and runs for his life. As the audience, however, we also recognize something that Elliott can't. That baseball, so gently returned, is an attempt by E.T. to make contact. There is a message there in that moment, but Elliott isn't able to see it.

As a metaphor for the unconscious, it doesn't get much better than this. Dreams and ideas spill from our minds all the time, like baseballs rolling out of a shed, but we don't always recognize them for what they are. An image, a line of dialogue, a name – each an attempt to make contact.

This unclear communication between the unconscious mind and the conscious can feel very alien. Or maybe it actually is alien. In her book Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert suggests that ideas are not actually ours. They are a “disembodied, energetic life-form … completely separate from us, but capable of interacting with us – albeit strangely.”

She continues:
“When an idea thinks it has found somebody – say, you – who might be able to bring it into the world, the idea will pay you a visit. It will try to get your attention. Mostly, you will not notice. … The idea will try to wave you down (perhaps for a few moments; perhaps for a few months; perhaps even for a few years), but when it finally realizes that you’re oblivious to its message, it will move on to someone else.”
If we are fortunate enough to recognize an idea when it knocks on the door, Gilbert says we then have a choice: Do we say no to the idea, and refuse to engage? Or do we say yes and commit to bringing it to life?

Gilbert explores these two options, but she doesn’t answer something more basic: How do you know which ideas to say yes to? When the baseballs land at your feet, which ones should you reach for?

Stephen King may have an answer.

Here is a guy with no shortage of ideas. Despite his popularity and prolificacy, King doesn’t use ghostwriters or hire “co-authors” to write his books for him. He seems to be the genuine article, someone who loves to write for the sake of writing and consistently publishes books that sell well.

How does King write and publish at that pace and still manage to sort his good ideas from the bad? By letting himself have time and space to forget.

A writer’s notebook is the best way in the world to immortalize bad ideas,” King said, speaking at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. For King, memory is a tool like a sieve. Over time, the small, lousy ideas slip through the gaps. The good ideas, however – the ones with real substance – stay reliably caught in the mesh.

It only makes sense: if an idea isn’t good enough to hold his attention, how will it hang on to his reader? And so maybe it is for the rest of us. If Gilbert is right, and the din and distraction of daily life drowns out a potential idea, maybe that's a filter you need. It may be that the ideas you notice, or the ones that you never forget, are the ones you most need to send into the world.

Sunday, July 17, 2022

Running in the Dark

Jogger running at night
This is a much nicer night run
than you get in a shed.
For my first 5K I trained mostly indoors. My apartment complex had a small fitness center that wasn’t much bigger than a garden shed, just large enough to fit a couple of treadmills, an exercise bike, and an elaborate weight machine that offered a full body workout to anyone smart enough to decipher each of the stations.

My retail job kept me working odd hours, and I was never a morning person, so a lot of my training runs happened at night. The fitness shed offered a quiet place to practice that didn’t require me to run along the side of the road. It was dull, and repetitive, and awfully quiet. I don’t know how many other residents used the fitness shed, but I almost never saw them at night.

Once I got my routine down pat – thirty-minute sessions to cover three miles – I decided it was time to run my first race. Something official, the kind of race that costs money and requires registration and would give me a definite rank.

I found a calendar of events online and picked the one that was coming up soonest, a fundraiser for a cause I no longer remember. The race started in a park then ran along a canal before it circled back to the starting line. My pace was slower on pavement than it was on the treadmill, but I at least finished the race without pause. When it was over, I got my complementary banana and bottle of water, then I drove myself home.

It wasn’t the kind of thing that calls for much fanfare. I didn’t ask my family and friends to come watch, or to cheer me on from the finish line. It would have taken them longer to drive to the park than it took me to run the whole race. My girlfriend was already at work when I got home, so I took a shower and then laid on the couch. Maybe I watched some TV.

So at first blush, this does not seem like core memory fodder. I’ve since run half-marathons and obstacle courses, and while nobody would envy my performance those races are at least notable. I ran them with friends, had family show up, and went out after to celebrate.

But in my personal canon? Of the runs that really mattered, the runs that I now mark as milestones, that first 5K is at the top of the list.

*

When I was twenty-one, I wrote a novella. It wasn’t my first – I’d been working on longer form stories for a while, trying to work my way up to a novel. But this was the first one that worked.

I couldn’t tell you why. It was written after a break-up, so maybe writing gave me something to focus on, but for the first time I could kind of see how it was done, how you could maintain the words of a story over seventy pages and how the right narrator with the right problem could help you sustain it. Though I’d written novellas before, this was the first one I shared with a writing group, the first one I thought might be worth someone’s time.

Six years later, I finished revising a novel. By that point, it wasn't my first, but with this one something was different. I could see how the pieces fit together, how a finished draft could help guide your revisions. Somehow, with this novel, editing a 70,000-word story felt like a challenge instead of a chore. Diligently, I edited the book until I had my first polished draft. But it wasn’t right for submission.

Last year, I sent a novel to agents. It was a polished draft of a book I’d worked over and over again to make it the best that I could. Throughout the submission process, I A/B tested query letters and tracked agents on a spreadsheet and worked my way through an entire copy of The Writer’s Market. I collected a lot of rejections, a couple small nibbles, but not a single acceptance.

What do these three pieces – the novels and a novella – all have in common? Two things, really: They were not published. And yet, for me, they were milestones.

*

Sometimes I think I talk too much about failure on this blog. Writing, after all, is entirely optional. Nobody’s making me do this, and no one would care if I stopped. If I’m going to be all doom and gloom about it, why bother? If it doesn’t make me happy, why do it?

The most honest answer is that I love writing. And like any love that lasts past the honeymoon stage, it’s not always kittens and rainbows. A big part of writing is trying to maintain intrinsic motivation in the face of worldly indifference, not just to your failures but even to your success. If you’re looking for recognition or validation out there, you’re not going to find what you need. It’s a cup that will never fill up.

Yeah, yeah, sure, sure. Everybody knows this stuff intellectually. I’m not exactly breaking new ground by suggesting that writers should focus more on the work and less on results. That’s a theme that’s as old as the Bhagavad Gita, territory well-trod by the Stoics. I can’t say I’ve got much to add.

But putting those ideas into practice is a real motherfucker. That's why I write about failure. “Focus on the work and not the results” sounds good until you’ve collected your hundredth rejection. Then it's back to square one, as they say, except you ain’t getting younger, so you’re actually on square thirty-nine and still have nothing to show for it.

So, like I said: at this point, the honeymoon’s over.

*

To commit yourself to anything is to run in the dark. It is to accept, over and over again, that the work may never be seen. While you’re putting down miles in the fitness shed, it feels like the rest of the world is doing more sensible things, and having more fun. What keeps you going, then, step after step?

If I write about failure a lot on this blog, it’s because I keep asking myself these questions. But it’s not hard to find people with answers. There’s a whole cottage industry of gurus and life coaches and creative advisors eager to offer you help. (Your first answer is free. The rest are by monthly subscription.) A lot of this advice isn’t any more or less sophisticated than Nike’s “Just do it,” which itself can be read as a simplified version of “focus on the work and not the results.”

Except, that’s not entirely right. “Just do it” was inspired by the last words of a death row inmate who was eager to get his execution over and done with. You can hear the impatience in the motto, feel the tug of frustration. They’re the words you mutter as you sit on the couch in your running shoes, scrolling through Facebook instead of driving to the gym. Get up. Get up! The sooner we start the sooner we’ll be done. Because, to paraphrase Dorothy Parker, you might hate running, but you love having run.

*

The first time I trained for a half-marathon, my long-distance runs coincided with NPR's pledge drive. Somehow it worked. Somehow, listening to volunteers urge me to donate to my local affiliate station was a better soundtrack for running than any of the music I had.

When the pledge drive ended, I switched over to podcasts, the longer the better. I discovered that if I’m trying to put in ten miles, a three-hour rambling interview beats a curated Spotify playlist every time.

I can’t tell you why this works for me, but I can tell you what it feels like: It feels like sinking in. To run ten miles requires surrendering myself in a way that a three-miler doesn't. For a three-mile run, you can put on fast music and pick up your pace and try to get it all over quickly. That doesn’t work for a long run. Ten miles will always feel long, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Even fast music won’t help.

Lately I feel like I’m writing in sprints. Five hundred words here, five hundred words there, wedged into the rest of the day. Quick bursts, just to keep up the habit and complete a shitty first draft I know I’ll be cleaning up later.

Five hundred words, let’s just get this done, and then I’ll start working on dinner. It’s hard to sink into a fictional world when you’re in that kind of headspace. The words on the page stay inert. You’re not thinking of the result, but you’re not in the work, either. You’re somewhere else, a middle ground where “just do it” means “just get it over with.”

As creative ground, that’s not especially fertile. But as existential ground – trying to find the “why” that keeps you at work with no hope of external reward – this kind of thinking is death.

*

You know what a broken-hearted twenty-one-year-old has in abundance?

Time.

I took time when I wrote that novella. The story was a place I could go, a “somewhere else” when I didn’t want to be around people. I took time with those novels, too. For different reasons, maybe, but both in writing and in the revisions I gave myself the time to sink in for the long stretches needed to spark the “vivid and continuous dream,” as John Gardner calls it.

Lately, I realize, I haven’t been doing that. Maybe I’ve gotten too gun shy, maybe I think too much about failure, or maybe life’s just gotten busy. Probably, if I’m being honest, it’s a combination of all the above. But as I’m asking these questions about motivation, and about how to focus on the work and not the result, I wonder if that's a kind of estrangement. If the question itself isn’t so much something to answer as it is the symptom of not being sunk in the work.

Because I don’t know if you can argue yourself into finding your “why.” But if you keep on in the dark, taking step after step, the answer may find you instead.

Monday, July 4, 2022

COVID!

Well, it finally happened: My wife and I got COVID last week.

Statistically, of course, it was probably inevitable. There's only so long a person can duck and dodge an endemic disease before it finally catches up with you. I'm also keenly aware of the fact that our case was pretty mild. Whether that's because we were infected by a weak strain, or because we've been vaccinated, or some combination of both, I am grateful that our symptoms haven't been more severe.

But even mild COVID has been pretty exhausting. I spent most of the weekend lying on the couch. When that got too boring, I would make an excursion to the bedroom and lie down in there for a nice change of pace. Sometimes I'd manage a nap, but most of the time I'd just sort of stare at the ceiling and think about the dull ache radiating from every square inch of my sinuses.

Coincidentally, this downtime came at the end of a week-long experiment with making time to do nothing. I've been trying to get better at this after watching Barbara Oakley's lecture at Google on learning how to learn. One of the key ideas in her talk is that the brain needs time to do diffuse thinking; in other words, time when the mind is left alone to wander.

That sounds so easy, but diffuse thinking time isn't "time spent scrolling through Facebook" or "time spent catching up on a book," or any of the other hundred little tasks that you might use to fill up five minutes. Diffuse thinking requires a certain amount of boredom and free association, and perhaps a degree of solitude.

And so, during lunch time all last week, I would take my food out to the front porch, sit in a rocking chair, and refuse to do anything in particular. This immediately provoked anxiety. What if there was a work crisis? Or a family emergency? There I was, sitting outside like some kind of caveman, when the civilized world was in its hour of need!

Nothing happened, of course. When I came back inside from my lunch hour, I did not discover a flood of texts and voicemails pleading for my help. As the week went on, I began to relax. I watched goldfinches work over the seedpods dangling in the leaves of our birch tree. I watched chickadees poke around in our peaches. And I watched the procession of cats, dogs, and their people that goes along in front of our house every day, whether or not I'm out there to see it.

Did I have any great insight after a week of this? There might not have been any thunderclap of epiphany, but I did find myself writing again with more regularity, and story ideas began to percolate. The well fills slowly sometimes, but that's alright. Slowly is better than nothing.

By Friday, it was clear my symptoms were getting worse. The scratchy throat and headaches weren't going away, even after Dayquil and ibuprofen, and I found it harder and harder to focus on much. By Friday night and on through Sunday, my mind was too tired even to wander.

Then finally, today, the worst of it seemed to be over. My wife and I took a long walk under the hot early sun of July. We stopped every now and then so she could pick mulberries off of the trees or so we could take a long sip of water. We promised ourselves not to push it, but by the time we got back we'd done our ten thousand steps and then some, glad to be out of the house and into the heat and not talking about much in particular.

Housepaint

“There’s always a tweet or two floating around about how writing should be enjoyable. If you hate it so much, why would you do it. Because I...