Vulnerability (sadness and happiness) and Writing

I have had long stretches of sadness in my life. Not depression, mind you. I dipped an oar in that black river at the end of my annus horribilis; I learned the difference. Sadness is not intractable. It will seem odd to hear this, but I cherish my sadness. I do not revel in it, nor do I valorize it, but when it comes, as it must, I do not turn away from it as from an unwelcome guest. There are good reasons to feel sad. This past year has laid a few at my feet. I have made decisions that would, at some point, along with a bounty of other emotions, cause me sadness.

Sadness passes. So does happiness. I am happy by default. I have a sleep app that prompts me to reflect on how I feel at the end of the day. I almost always designate “happy,” even on days that I also tag as stressful. Even on days when I have felt sad at some point during the day. However, I do not feel happy exclusively, nor do I adamantly cling to that emotion.

When I grew up, my mother warned my brothers and me away from things that would make us feel sad. She policed movies and television shows that grappled with serious and discomforting issues like nuclear war or actual (not fictional) crime. The ugliness never plagued me as much as the shutting off of truth did. Information—truth—drew me with powerful magnetism. Even now after watching the news of the day, I can let anger and sadness pass even as the information remains. There are rare occasions when the cacophony of information drowns out other, happier possibilities. There are times when the information mixes with personal challenges and setbacks. The personal is harder to overcome.

I fortify my day with opportunities for joy. I surround myself with students—people who are younger than I am. They have avoided the cynicism that adults wear too willingly. I go to the gym and lift weights, then charge ahead on the elliptical for 23 hard minutes (530 calories burned!). This summer, I took my place at the table in the school library and worked at my book. I go home, cook dinner (steak, broccoli, and brown rice with avocado), then read. I head to bed at a reasonable hour.

Sometimes, happiness—extreme happiness—is necessary. The first big push for a new writing project requires a kind of ignorant and unabated bliss. There are 100,000 words ahead, and no one may ever read them, but I am going to write them anyway. I began this past book in the bountiful throes of such exuberance. Boundless joy carried me into the first hundred pages of my book. Fortunately, when the cause for that joy left my life, the writing continued. I was writing—at last!—and that became the source of joy for me.

The Doctor on Horseback

Even now, writing this, I feel happy. I look at a photograph from a year ago: the doctor on horseback. I am ecstatic. The novel had not yet begun. As far as the horse carried me, the novel carried me farther—and further. It helps to know the difference.

When I was depressed in 2002, I sought out a counselor, and he advised me that happiness was, if not an illusion, then, at least, a particularly difficult aim. He made this suggestion because I was tangled up in feeling that I was mistaken for not being able to feel happy. My relationship of the past 6 years had ended. I was teaching in a strange place, and my friends were hundreds of miles away. My mother had just gone through a harrowing battle with cancer. My father had just died. Happiness was, at best, elusive. And, perhaps most damning of all, I was not writing.

Writing is difficult—for the reasons I pointed toward above, but also because it requires a kind of vulnerability. One must, at once, care and not care at all about the reader. One must care, and not care at all, about the outcome of the effort. One must learn to love the process above all. This is true of life as well, but writing lays this truth bare in ways that many other kinds of work do not. It is work, and it is, absolutely, not.

No matter what other happiness—even joy—passes from my life, this more vulnerable happiness remains. It was always there, waiting for me to find it, perhaps waiting for me to need it. Finding it, and needing it, I am vulnerable now—open to a more profound sadness—but also open to a deeper joy. I write and proceed.

500 pages

I graduated from SUNY-Binghamton with a Ph.D. in English Literature/Creative Writing in 1994. Before I went to graduate school, I did not know what I wanted to be. I had written a little earlier in life, and had taken a fiction workshop while I was an undergraduate, but my sense of myself as a writer was hazy at best. Still, I had done some work and I applied to writing programs in the spring of 1988. I was accepted at Binghamton.

While I was in graduate school, I wrote stories, a novel that I shelved, some poetry, and essays. I also wrote a slew of academic papers. Mostly, I read furiously and widely, delving into a world of literature and philosophy that had not existed for me before I began this turn in my life. I still have many of the books that I read in those six years and they are either a bulwark or an anchor. Now, they seem more like part of a wall that divided my life into the time when I did not write, the time I discovered writing, and the time I stopped writing.

That time ended in 2018 when I considered moving away from family and the jobs I held in Norfolk. I had been separated and divorced for four years. Calamity at one of my jobs resonated in my life. I was at sea. I needed to find a ground that was not defined by the needs and desires of other people. I needed, frankly, to be selfish and directed. I do not believe that it is a surprise (to me at least) that my colleagues sent me packing with the book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck when I left in August of 2018. Message received.

Because I did give a fuck — too many fucks — not just in my professional work and personal life, but in my writing. Unlike some of my one time classmates, I felt called to writing not so much because I had a need to express myself, but almost in spite of any need to exclaim, “Here I am!” I was obsessed with getting at some ineffable and intractable truth that existed outside my narrow sense of self. I wrote with an evangelical zeal. Can I say that art motivated by such a keening has little easy air to breathe? It does not. My stories, even when they were fantastic, needed to tread more often on the ground.

When I started writing this blog in 2014, I was in China to adopt my daughter. I started to write about simple human truths that were grounded in my simple human experiences. I hoped that my observations would have some resonance with others, but I wrote without too much of a concern for an audience. The work proceeded in fits and starts after that initial push. And then it flared into this—a daily practice of reflection and direction. That fire lit the flame of the novel I finished in August and has carried me into a second.

My writing projects since May of 2018 have produced over 500 pages of words. Some are good. Some are better. My nonfiction has been largely about my writing and writing in general. My fiction has just been a story about a Djinn, almost a retelling of an older—much older—story, with some of my preoccupations thrown in for good measure.

Writing (fiction and nonfiction) has felt revivifying. I have enjoyed the deeper reflection and playful invention. The writing has come more easily and far more consistently than anything else and at any time I have ever written. Ever. I have looked forward to the task and have left it—whether I write for an hour or the better part of a day—feeling replenished. More will—and does—come.

When I shared this insight—500 pages! More is coming!—with a friend, I did so with the proviso: “in spite of the past year.” She corrected me: “Because of it.” Perhaps so. Perhaps I spent the past year and a half knocking myself off my moorings just so that I could get this work done, just so that I could reclaim all that I had feared was lost.

I told another friend that I felt a kind of urgency to write. She worried that I was ill or distressed. Yes, I have been distressed. Old wounds have haunted me and focused my attention. I have allowed them the space to heal. And have used the writing to help me heal.

While the writing has helped me gird myself against that distress, it has also allowed me to wrap myself in joy. I feel that joy more profoundly now than when I was starting out some thirty years ago. The old uncertainties have fallen away. I do not ask, “Is it good enough? Will there be another? Do I have the right?” Instead, I take solace in a more durable method that suits my heart and mind. I go this way.

What’s next…

I am in between.

Leaving the world of one book for another—even though I was only in that other world for just over ten months—is a discomforting experience. I feel as if I have broken up with my old book. I have put away the music I listened to while I was at work on that book. No more symphonic Led Zepplin. No more Gorecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. I wonder about the habits of place and duration that propelled the writing of that novel. Can I still go to my Sunday retreats? My place in the library? I’m not married—a blessing and a curse—but I can see how putting one book down would have seismic effects in my personal life. Fortunately—and unfortunately—those changes were already built into this project.

Hahn/Cock by Katharina Fritsch

I spent an hour or so in front of the blue chicken in the tower display of the National Gallery of Art’s East Building going through songs to build a playlist of new music. I have resorted to familiar places—they are still full of energies that may urge this new project on. But “Monekana” by Deborah Butterfield will not call to me, reminding me what constitutes my magical horse, Bellapari. I will miss Bellapari.

Monekana by Deborah Butterfield

What I take forward is a method—because although Butterfield’s sculpture will no longer sing its mythic song full of infinite purpose, something else will open doors to vision that I have not yet seen. I recall that even the Gorecki that drove two months of writing came only after I heard a snippet of it in an episode of Legion. Gifts come from everywhere. Even my Emira untethered herself from her initial source. All that remained constant was my presence at a keyboard, and my presence will be what carries me.

I messaged a friend as I headed into the last chapters “How did it take so long?” That is a long story, and it feels sadder and more pointless on reflection than it was while I went through it. Maybe the years away will end up having whet the creative blades to such a point that I will cut through the next and the next and the next book with the same—if not ease, then precise and playful resolve.

I have loaded the playlist, and gone to visit the angels. Bring on the thieves.

Stevenson Memorial by Abbott Handerson Thayer

Writing the Dream

It is different for each of us, but being a fiction writer means living a large part of one’s life in the realm of make-believe. Wait, that’s not quite right. It means that we build something new—over and over again—in the land of make-believe. Fiction writers are artists of the possible. Sometimes the possible looks an awful lot like the everyday, and sometimes it does not. Sometimes the possible is just as sad or happy as the everyday, and sometimes it is happier or sadder. We decide what it will look like and how it will feel, and then use our prose to create a circumstance in which those visions and feelings come to life. In the most prosaic terms, we make the hammer that the protagonist drops on his bare foot, breaking his toe, and sending him into howls of hurt and anger. The hammer, the hurt, the anger, the foot—and the rest of the protagonist—come from the writer.

One of the joyful challenges of writing is not simply making a world that does what I want, but in making a world in which what I want makes sense. There is a difference. I am certain that all writers struggle with the switch from a world in which they create everything—and in which most of it works—to the world in which they do not—in which the deft use of language has absolutely no impact on reality, or worse, in which their singular ability to shape the world is denigrated, or produces an opposite effect than intended.

John Gardner said the goal of fiction is a “vivid continuous dream.” That’s a damn good metaphor for how fiction should work. The whole piece needs to bind together with the logical and artistic consistency of a dream—nothing that wakes the reader from that dream can be included. But a dream—with all its truth and disjunction—is hard to create intentionally. We’ve all seen—or read—dream sequences that were stupidly obvious. A great dream draws us in, surprises us, and finally wakes us from slumber wondering, “What the hell was that?”—and maybe, if we are lucky, driving us back into sleep for the chance to retrace our steps back to that magical lost garden. There is a reason that we pour over books of dream interpretation to discover the real meaning of the nightly synchronized swimming show our brains orchestrates for our (dis)pleasure.

The odd thing is that the real world sometimes feels more like a poorly written dream than my fiction does. People behave in random—seemingly so—ways. We are subject to momentary desires, and desires that have little to do with our present circumstances. No amount of professional therapy will ever translate a deep understanding of our pasts into a reasonable pattern of behavior in our present. Knowing why we are who we are does not give us the sudden ability to act other than we have been. If characters in fiction acted the way people do in life, we would all throw the books out the nearest windows.

When we write the dream, we must select and we must focus. The genuinely random bits of life must be jettisoned for a kind of “unity of effect” (that’s a term that Poe uses in the “Philosophy of Composition”) Hence writers fall back on routine while they write—trying to evoke this unity by listening to the same music (if they do) while they write, or writing in the same space, at the same time of day, using the same pen or pencil or computer, and the same kind of paper—or typing in the same font. The tricks are endless. The goal is the vivid continuous dream.

And yet, we are like the actors in Shakespeare’s time: we get our roles—just our lines—and little else. We must pull our parts together based on the parts we have already played—young lover, perfidious King, lascivious barmaid, starry-eyed daughter. Or so I imagine. Somehow, perhaps, we craft a starry-eyed King, or perfidious daughter. Shakespeare did.

When I was a child, we had a favorite book in the house. It had split pages and you could make new animals by combining the top of this animal, the middle of some other, and the bottom of that one. Some of the combinations were absurd—and that was the point. So, we experiment and put our stories together.

As for what to do with real life, I do not have an easy, or a happy answer. It will not be shaped. I write this even though I work as a teacher, a so-called shaper of young minds. Too much has happened in my life that has defied shaping. Like a fairly conscious dreamer, I have learned to act on the stage of the unconscious—which happens in the waking life just as much as the sleeping—and to fly into the tornado that devastates the landscape. I avoid destruction. I cannot stop the tornado though.

And here’s the secret: when I write, I pray for the tornado. Everything else is wind too calm. I need a wind wild enough to carry me. And it does.