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.