I won’t pretend that writing is going well. Or, to be more specific, that this challenge is going well.
But first, let’s define “well.”
If by “well” one means that one is writing a story every week and that those are not shitty (as predicted by Mr. Bradbury) then yes, I am not doing well. If one, however, defines “well” as writing either super shitty stories (as predicted by me) or failing to sit down to create some form of a sentence every day, I would say it’s going brilliantly well. As in, Mr. Bradbury, it is just not fucking possible to sustain this speed and intensity. So, I win. Also, Happy frigging birthday. I hope you are happy, wherever you are.
Naturally, when I find myself failing at things, I turn to anything and everything that can distract me from that fact. Reading old journals (mostly redacted for fear of parental police although why I thought they would 1)be snooping, or 2) be offended by my use of “language” I have no idea), downloading podcasts, checking Facebook repeatedly for fear I might miss some important article that will change my entire perspective on, I don’t know, EVERYTHING!
In my avoidance, I stumbled upon a pile of old video cassettes (remember those?), scratched up old VHS things that have been sitting around collecting dust for years. Naturally, since I have two columns to write, two short stories to edit, and have the draft of a novel that gained so much momentum thanks to a fellowship at VCCA earlier this summer staring me in the face, it became apparent that these had to be converted ASAP. And so they were. And then played. And replayed. And photographed while being played. Let’s just say, that particular project went really well.
I thought that I was well on my way to yet another afternoon of splendid procrastination. I was pleased. But serendipity is a bitch.
Let me rewind a little. (Get it? VHS humor there.)
See, over the summer, I have been thinking a lot. I should have spent all that time writing, but thinking crept in. I had a lot of time at the residency, hours upon hours in which to sit at my desk and ruminate over the fate of my protagonist who, goddamit it, does not know how to follow instruction or direction. (No, he is not based on me. Shut up.) Also, I had just finished reading Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing, an accidental find while I was twirling about with joy at a public library in Durham while bemoaning the lack of such pleasures in Dubai (yes, simultaneously). For anyone who has read the book, simple and effective, it is sort of like listening to a friend give you moral support. Or like sitting in a therapy session for writers. Or like…well…reading a book that speaks to you.
Somehow, in this process of writing and thinking and thinking and writing, it occurred to me that I tend to redact a lot of “what I know.” That instead of writing it out, I tend to, in fact, NOT write a lot of what I know, leaning in favor of the imagined in order to create distance between myself and the characters. This, in turn, leads me to emphasize, or if you must get technical, overwrite in parts. The self-consciousness, driven in part by comments from casual readers of my work asking me if it’s always me I am writing about (thanks, no really, thank you) drive me to let go of restraint in writing because I feel I must “earn” the perspective I am writing from and somehow differentiate it from me, the writer. It goes against everything I believe in in real life, this idea of giving a shit what anyone thinks.
And yet, somehow, this shit giving crept in.
To be fair, I didn’t fully realize this until later in summer when I was at the Sewanee Writer’s Conference, in a workshop with Christine Schutt and Tim O’Brien (I’ll give you a minute to get over the envy) where dead silence rang in the room (I will stick to the wording although I can hear Christine say “How does silence ring?”). I was confused. Then worried. Then panicked. And then desolate. I was also a lot more emotions but you are not Dani Shapiro, or a therapist, so let’s just stick to these.
My story sucked ass. It just did. At least in the unedited draft form I had presented to CHRISTINE SCHUTT and TIM O’BRIEN. Let’s all pause for a collective cringe.
Then I had my one-on-one meeting with Christine. We spent a good hour slashing and trashing and taking things out and I sat there imagining hitting myself over the head with my own manuscript thinking “you know this, idiot.” I did. I knew it. But I had, in my attempt to show that I knew what this character was feeling and thinking, overwritten. I had chosen “loveliness” over grit, and words over sparseness. And I had to ask myself why it was that I felt the need to add when I have spent years becoming comfortable, even excited, with the idea of “killing my darlings.”
Serendipitously (a loop. Also a VHS reference), I was also newly acquainted with a fantastic book. Well, I met the author before the book, but having read it, I must say the words left me far more in awe than the person (kidding, kidding). Matt Summell’s Making Nice literally came and fucking sideswiped me. Now had I not been thinking and debating this idea of emotional honesty and redacting my own feelings and thoughts, I suspect I would have read it, admired it, and shelved it along with some of my other favorites. But as it was, the raw emotion of the stories jarred me out of…whatever it was that I was in. Malaise? Fear? Something. Whatever flame Schutt had fanned, this book turned the into a full on raging burn-the-house-down type of fire.
And I would have successfully managed to bury that fire until it was a whimpering piece of ash, had it not been for the videos I found. Me, as a child. My father, an army officer. My mother, my age now, beautiful. My brother, legs and head, a four year old following me as I followed the video camera. My favorite uncle who died in a helicopter crash shortly after that video was filmed. The men and women whose faces I knew so well then, whose hands and gestures I can recall, but who I no longer know.
The barrage of ideas that followed was unexpected. It was an urge, mostly, to…just…understand. I cannot put it any other way. It just made me want to understand. Myself. Them. Simply. Directly. Just to get it.
Here was a different life, a different me, different people. And yet, all the same. This was a life my parents left. For my brother and I. It sounds almost wrong to say that in a moment I understood, but I did. I saw something, all of a sudden. I had a perspective. I was slashing through my interpretations and loveliness of words and memories and nostalgia and all of a sudden, something was clear.
That’s it, I think. That clarity. That definition. That’s where the excitement lies. That’s serendipity.