Where I’m writing to

I have no idea. No, that isn’t quite right: I have no consistent idea. Sometimes I think I’m writing to my wife or to my children, either now or in the future. Or to my parents or siblings or ancestors in the past. Sometimes I entertain myself with thinking of writing to a massive audience of readers, either now or in the future—preferably while I’m still alive. Sometimes I think I’m writing to one of the many versions of myself, but they disagree so that no matter which version I make happy I leave at least a half dozen others frustrated or angry or heartbroken.

Mostly, though, when it works, I think I write to a sensation. It feels like my legs at the end of a speedwork session on a track or a treadmill, when I’ve run hard, then rested a bit, then run hard, then rested a bit, on and on like that for four or six or eight repetitions. And each time the rest part ends and the hard bit is about to begin again, a twinge of fear grips me about whether I’ll be able to stand the hard bit, but I start running hard anyway. Each time the twinge and then the pushing through it. And when I finish the last one, my legs weak and my lungs struggling for breath again and my skin looking like I’ve stepped from a shower and the lenses of my glasses flecked with sweat and dried sweat, and I want to leap in fatigued satisfaction.

When the writing works, the words hit the page or I tweak them this way or that, and seeing them in the daylight I almost gasp in a fear that says, “Shit, did you really just do that?” and then I know that I had to put it exactly that way and that it never would have occurred to me before I put it that way that that was exactly how it should be said.

I’m writing to the payoff of uncertainty. Writing for a payoff isn’t hard; I spend most of my time trying to get the payoff (or possible payoff) out of my head. Writing to uncertainty is hard, but most of the time I don’t have any choice because certainty isn’t really what I’m after; most of the time, I reside in uncertainty uncomfortably but by choice. And most of the time, uncertainty doesn’t pay off, or it does but I don’t recognize it because it doesn’t look like what I wanted.

Every once in a while, though, uncertainty does pay off in a way so visceral and explosive and absolutely true that even I can’t miss it. And a good bit of the payoff comes from the surprise, the discovery of something that I didn’t realize I possessed—and that perhaps I don’t possess but that language, or the circuit between language and me, does. You see? That’s what I mean: the payoff of uncertainty. I never knew that phrase until now, but it’s been waiting for me in that place. The place I’m writing to.

Where I’m writing from

This is my (until this point) secret: Almost every time I contemplate writing, I feel afraid. Thoughts of sitting down to write pass through my brain, and on what I can only describe as the muscular level, I find myself avoiding pen, paper, notebook, word processing program, typewriter, pencil, notecard, tape recorder (I once bought a voice-activated one in case I was driving and any ideas came to me), and any other implement or device for putting words next to one another. I don’t know how many other writers, or would-be writers, experience fear when they contemplate putting down words; mine took up residence with me and shows no signs of leaving.

Sometimes my fear takes the form of boredom; at other times it arrives in the guise of restlessness and jerky energy. My fear has presented itself as depression, lust, fatigue, indecision, a need to exercise, a need to clean or cook or read or look up long lost friends or watch episodes of Law & Order: Criminal Intent that I have seen so many times I know the plot as soon as I see who’s going to discover the body. My fear has demanded that I do more research, that I review the research I’ve done, that I give up because no research exists, that I organize the research I might do. It has asked that I prepare myself spiritually, meditate, pray, stretch, or read a portion of sacred text from a smorgasbord of religious traditions (and some secular ones). It has driven me to plan, to abandon all planning and wait for inspiration, and to give up the very idea that I might ever become a writer of any kind and embark on a career in customer service.

Now, here’s the part where I’m supposed to launch into the requisite attack on fear. Here’s where I tell you how I’ve overcome and triumphed in spite of fear’s tenaciousness, how I’ve learned to find a way out of the dark cloud or fog or some other metaphorical representation of obscurity and into the bright light of hope and courage and fearlessness so that I can now spin words endlessly from my lion’s heart. But that’s not my story.

Neither will I tell you how grateful I am for the presence of fear in my life. I’m not going to say (though I considered the idea) that fear has helped make me the writer that I am—though that may be true—and that since its part in my journey has been essential, I cannot celebrate my identity without celebrating the fear too. I won’t say that not because it isn’t true but because it isn’t what I really feel.

Here’s the truth: More often than not, fear has beaten me. More often than not, I’ve walked away from the page because my head was crowded with the possibilities of my failure—again—as a writer, because I could picture readers (partner, children, family, friends, former professors, former colleagues, other writers, agents, publishers, critics, scholars, intellectuals, bookstore and library patrons, people who speak languages besides English reading my work in translation) rejecting my weak, regurgitated ideas, my trite phrasing, my convoluted syntax (see above), my incoherent structure. More often than not, I’ve considered the possibility that my failing was inevitable and that furthermore when I failed, no one out there would even really care.

But here’s the good part: I’ve figured out that none of that really matters. The odds of my success or failure in writing making a substantial difference to anyone but me are quite low. Which means that I have nothing to prove, no one to win over, no one to disappoint. I have only myself and this discipline of writing that I have taken on for reasons which remain unclear to me. I have only this space to step into and explore, this universe of possibility to absolutely bugger up or absolutely knock out of the ballpark or—more likely—wander about in and clarify in some miniscule way meaningful only to myself. But that’s reason enough to try.

So rather than a foolproof method for understanding writing and guaranteeing success in whatever situation at whatever time, the romance with language that I discuss here should probably be read more like the diary of a would-be lover trying his damnedest to figure out what his relationship is actually about, how to maintain it, and why it’s worth the trouble. It’s my way of trying to accept the fear (and other neuroses), stay sane, and actually keep writing. Wish me luck.

The Panama Canal

Romance is the Panama Canal, an exotic place swathed in green, full of palm trees and coconut trees and ferns and rain forest. Perpetually hot and humid, squeezed between the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean. It is a marvel, a wonder of the world, an imaginative triumph. Yet it is also concrete and massive machinery and huge pumps, locks deep enough to accommodate ocean liners and Navy craft. It is waterways dug by monstrous backhoes and steam shovels, blasted by tons of dynamite, a vessel of earth lined with the bones of the men who died building it. The Panama Canal is real; the Panama Canal is romance.

I haven’t found romance outside the realm of reality. Romance has only worked for me when I’ve grounded it in reality. When I fail to understand, it’s because I forget the truth about imagination, which, of course, deals with the realm of the “might be.” It projects what doesn’t yet exist, at least not in its imagined form. In this sense, I always write in imagination’s playground; all writing—until it is finished—believes in what hasn’t yet been brought into being. Imagination requires faith.

But it also requires more. With all due respect to Dr. Einstein, my imagination is not more important that my knowledge; in fact, my imagination has no use without my knowledge—by which I mean my acceptance of reality–just as Might be has no use without is. Is constitutes the ground for might be. When I ignore or reject is, I at best postpone and at worst prevent might be from coming into existence.

When I’ve ignored the writer I am now, I haven’t done the work or created the conditions necessary for me to become the writer I want to be. When I’ve dealt dishonestly with my strengths as a writer, I’ve ignored my gifts and become discouraged. When I’ve failed to recognize my weaknesses, I’ve become arrogant and stagnant.

Imagination at its most powerful somehow sees into the nature of things at this moment of existence; it achieves insight into the possibilities that the current reality presents. The imaginative person sees the possibilities present in certain aspects of the current reality that others ignore. This imaginative insight only feels magical or fantastic to the rest of us because we cannot or will not accept elements of reality (or implications of those elements) that the creative person does accept.

We make the same mistake about imagination that we do about romance. Neither state of being or thinking revolves around some misty hokum, though both often feed on a sense of wonder at the nature of existence. The fullest love isn’t blind; it’s accepting of the strengths and the weaknesses and the possibilities of who or what is loved.

No writer can develop by turning her attention to only the “beautiful” or “good” in language or focusing only on the “ugly” or “bad” in language. The writer must recognize as much as she can all the aspect of language, accept them all, and keep her eyes and skill and intellect and imagination open to them all; the writer must learn to love language for what it is, not what she would like it to be, and she must not resent that it is not as she would make it. This is how I have to look at writing in general and at each piece of writing I work on in particular.