I am always running out of time. Every day, every hour, every minute, it seems, I am smashing up against deadlines. Last week, in an attempt to do something nice for myself, I signed up for an online workshop to write a short story in seven days. And I did it. That’s the part that still amazes me. I know it’s only a first draft and Anne Lamott’s mantra (that each in their own way is particularly shitty) certainly applies here—but I did it! I constructed something out of thin air from start to finish. And more importantly I submitted it. This is huge for me.
You see after years and years of reading and wanting to be a writer, I don’t really have much to show for it. Four years of a weekly blog and almost daily journal entries (and that little thing called a thesis that took over my life) but nothing I would actually give to someone to read—complete with characters and actual dialogue. 4700 words and it’s mine, all mine.
It wasn’t easy. I had to ignore things: people in my life, pets, projects, baking… Even so, there was something hypnotic about coming back to the words I had written. But then there were the times when the words wouldn’t come and I told myself it was a farce; I always said I wanted to be a writer, but I was all talk and no action. When you read a book that path is opened up, waiting for you to follow it through to see what’s up ahead. When you’re the writer, you’re down on your knees laying the brick; the path stops wherever you are. The illusion of control can be intoxicating, but often it’s just debilitating.
Because I ignored most everything in my life last week, I find that I have fallen behind in important matters. Today’s deadline nearly did me in, to the point of a complete and total meltdown. There just was not enough time for me to get the house in order before we went on vacation. Yet we plunged on. We tidied and cleaned and made beds and hoped that the neighbors coming in would look the other way and miss the spiderwebs I hadn’t seen or ignore the state of my fridge when reaching in for the catfood (Pretty easy since the light is broken) At the eleventh hour M and I threw a bunch of stuff into a our duffle bag. I grabbed the toiletries and tossed them into a cardboard box that hadn’t yet been recycled and we made our way –first to grab T from his last period class and then to the ocean. After an hour into the trip I felt the chains to work and home loosening as I took a sip from my canning jar filled with days- old coffee now iced and improved. I wondered at how simple and uncomplicated it all could be.
What made the long cartrip worthwhile was listening to the radio, which I never do. I got the chance to hear an interview with Alice Munro, one of my heroes, as she talked about her work and winning the Nobel Prize. She touched upon about being guilty when she was writing and feeling that she should have been doing other things. I guess we all have those voices in our heads.
I’d rather shut those particular ones out and focus on the ones who champion writing and short stories and being able to do the things you want to do even though it feels like you life is half over. But the reality is that it takes work, you can’t sit by the sidelines. You’ve got to wade in deep and when you’re there you can feel the way the words slip through your grasp like little fishes. And so you practice. You get up each day you write and write and write some more. You hone your craft, learn to negotiate and compensate for the way the water bends and your thoughts refract. Accept the way the things you want elude your grasp. Even so, all is not lost. For “There are things you can’t reach. But you can reach out to them, and all day long.” (Thank you Mary Oliver.)
This evening I found these words in an article Lorrie Moore wrote reviewing Munro’s “Hateship Courtship, Loveship, Marriage.” I have this particular book on CD. It lives in my car and I often pick a disc at random just to let the words wash over me. When I read Moore’s loving take on the book I found this passage by Munro especially inspiring. It helped me to put it all in perspective. I too want to find those words in my head and in the air. I want assemble them, maybe reconstruct my creation and feel giddy over the results. To make time in my life for the work and know that it’s worth it. Perhaps that’s enough for me to call myself a writer.
‘The coffee was reheated, black and bitter—its taste was medicinal, exactly what I needed. I was already feeling relieved, and now I began to feel happy. Such happiness, to be alone. To see the hot late-afternoon light on the sidewalk outside, the branches of a tree just out in leaf, throwing their skimpy shadows. To hear from the back of the shop the sounds of the ball game that the man who had served me was listening to on the radio. I did not think of the story I would make about Alfrida—not of that in particular—but of the work I wanted to do, which seemed more like grabbing something out of the air than constructing stories. The cries of the crowd came to me like big heartbeats, full of sorrows. Lovely formal-sounding waves, with their distant, almost inhuman assent and lamentation.
This was what I wanted, this was what I thought I had to pay attention to, this was how I wanted my life to be.’
Yes, and absolutely yes. Keep reaching. It’s the only way. And, by the way, if you’re doing this, you are a writer. I’ve been afraid of claiming the word for a long time, but we shouldn’t be.