At the Keys

Eyes closed, fingers on the board, Letting what is around me and inside me come through me. Warm house. Sleeping son. Sleeping partner. Dog sits on the rug by the fire. Dryer turning, offering its warm sound. Inside: also a pearl. Not sure from where; why I found it today. Why now but not always? What is covering it when I feel a void instead? I remember reading how Eckhart Tolle just sat on a park bench one day, spending the entire time watching the people pass in front of him and the leaves shimmer in the wind, and how he just smiled, suddenly aware of life’s bounty. He said he stayed there all day and was never the same after.

And so my eyes are still closed now, because somehow I worry that if I open them the pearl will go away. I’ll look at what I’ve written, critique it, erase it, doubt it, and then the long line of anxierty that stretches toward uncertain futures will light up, and the thick roots of regret and pain that go into the past will surge again. No, I want to compose from this open place, where more truth than I can edit in or out resides.

What is it that I did today that brought me this gift? Nothing unusual. Perhaps just a bit more patience, a bit more restraint, a bit more kindness than was necessary. I apologized to someone today for saying something cold and mean. I listened to my son’s complaint instead of dictating it away. I kissed a dog. I wrote a friend and told her I needed her help. I sat down here, even though I didn’t know what I was going to say and believed I’d find something waiting to come out. I believed in my mind, and in my fingers, and in my knowledge of these imperfect vessels called words. I believed I could keep the barking voice … no, now I want to open my eyes to erase that, but I won’t.

I remember that on the first day of ninth grade, I learned that an eleventh grader had killed himself the day before. The whole school was shocked, and for first period I had an English class with a funny, charming man named Mr. Vedro. He told us to pull out ten sheets of paper, a pen, and to just write. To not hold back. And I filled those pages with my confusion, not caring about traditions or arcs or lessons. I wrote the pain. It was not pretty. But I still have those pages in a box under my bed called “memorabilia.”

There is so much talk in writing about editing, about revisions, about going over and over something until every word sings. I believe in that. I often help writers with my pencil when they haven’t done enough with their own. I cudgel my words into neater packages. But sometimes I just want to let the first truths drip onto the page, to believe that their crude essence holds something worth their unwieldy weight. That sometimes a pure chunk unfettered can do the job of fifty leaner phrases. (Already, I want to modify that: I’ve already thought of a better way to say it. But I’m keeping my eyes closed, and the delete key is too risky up there in the corner. So I need to write myself out of it. Kerouac once said that On the Road was so multilayered because he was writing it on a typewriter and therefore couldn’t erase anything. If he lost track of his narrative he had to write his way back to it. That’s how his trip had so many turns. Some Asian cultures call this “fish soup,” telling stories in wide, roundabout ways, all the ingredients thrown in.)

This is not my preferred way of being; I like order, tidy lines, doing one thing at a time, well. But tonight, I didn’t know what to say yet wanted to write. If I didn’t let myself go completely I wouldn’t even turn on the machine. And so I will open my eyes in a few moments with a promise to correct only misplaced keys and stray punctuation but nothing else. To have faith that sometimes the channel is opening, and delivering words that don’t need distillation.

Living the Word

What to make of the oft-heard dictum that writing is hard?

For one, I don’t think writers have a corner on the market. Obviously it takes skill, study, and discipline to get the words right, but this is true for any creative endeavor. Maybe we hear more about “writer’s block” than “painter’s block” because writers write about it! But, yes, writers, like all artists, need to practice, and study the masters, and spend many hours working on their craft.  As Oscar Wilde once said, “I spent the entire morning inserting a comma; I spent the whole afternoon removing it again.”

But what of the times when an artist just can’t face the empty canvas?

Up until recently, I’d experienced a frustrating season of not writing as much as I wanted to. I had a lot of free-floating artistic angst; sometimes this imploded as hopelessness, other times it exploded in tiny fits of envy toward other writers who were seemingly more prolific than me.

I feel pain when I don’t write, because I’m happy when I do; nothing like the river of words cascading down the page. But often in life I leave this place of glory — sometimes aggressively marching off, other times getting distracted away. This is what is difficult — the inexorable separation from the very pursuits that make me happy. What I’m not writing, the grace I’m not feeling — this, to me, is the hard work of writing. Writing itself, then, is arduous because it is difficult to get to.

I believe there are some hidden passages back to the creative sweet spot. I taught a course recently at the local community college called “Write Where You Are.” In it we aimed to shed the delusions of the writer we should be and embrace instead the writer we already were. What we found is that we were all writing — sometimes on the back of a shopping list and sometimes in an email to a friend — but the words were there to prove it, even without the validation of a contract or a book editor’s stamp of approval. We had all become so enslaved to the story of our own underproduction that we couldn’t see our own virtuosity. A friend of mine told me her version of such artistic re-framing; she started calling her creative time “the making hour” instead of “when I’ve got to write.” Sometimes she wrote; sometimes she knitted, but the fact is she was being creative and fruitful, with much less stress.

Still, there are times (days, months) when I just don’t feel like writing.  Some may rush to tag these seemingly unproductive periods with the label of “writer’s block,” but I like to approach the impasse differently. I think most writers fret needlessly over their pencil’s silence. I once heard a radio interview with the novelist Richard Ford. After being asked what he thought about writer’s block, Ford replied, I don’t. “When I’m not writing,” he said, as best I can recall, “I’m busy living, which gives me material for writing later on.” As another story goes, in Buddha’s day monks spent most of their time wandering. It was only during the three-month rainy season that they actually came in for formal practice. And here we are freaked out because we didn’t meditate (write, paint, sculpt) during our pre-assigned slot today.

Artists, then, have a choice: to label an unproductive period as a failure, or to unwring their hands and dig them instead into the fresh dirt of the days ticking by. Because if quiet periods are labeled as dead, what material will artists draw from when inspiration somehow picks the lock on their door and grabs them by the collar again?

I say abandon the self-recrimination, and honor rather than curse the broken pen. Fill the buckets with life’s rich imperfect waters and believe the words will arrive again. Seeds find the fallow field. As Wendell Berry put it, “The unhappiest people in the world may be the ones who think their happiness depends on artistic success of some kind.” I sometimes wonder whether this burden, which I truly believe is self-imposed, is part of why so many incredible artists fall irretrievably to their demons.