Monday, October 22, 2012

“A Meditation on the Contours of Absence”

A few Fridays ago, I had the pleasure of spending time with some of my writer friends. We—a fellow graduate of the program, her husband and one of our instructors—met in Annapolis to attend a lecture by James Wood, a pretty incredible literary critic (New Yorker) who spends some of his time at Harvard. I decided to go less because I wanted to hear Wood and more because I looked forward to the company. I’d been feeling very disconnected from the creative process lately, and I knew whatever conversations might pop up between Jen and Bill and I would be a tonic, even if a temporary one at that.

And so when we learned the lecture had been canceled, I couldn’t help but marvel at my good luck.

We found a corner table in an Irish pub (Annapolis does not seem to be short on them), and ordered a round and the conversation soon turned to writing, and more specifically, why I wasn’t. Which, you know, I’ve covered here in the recent past. It’s not a mystery. I’m overwhelmed and terrified of accessing all the painful “stuff” that comes with loss. That was no revelation. But something else was.

But first, I think I need to back up a moment and talk about this question, “why write?” People have asked me that in the past, and I’ve had this particular conversation with other writers.  It can be an arduous task, even when there’s not the immediate specter of loss looming in every corner. I’m not unique in the art of avoidance. Yes, my writing friends and I agree, the payoff is worth it. When you hit upon something, when that epiphany cracks open the world in front of you, it’s euphoric, but the process. Ugh. The process can be hell. I remember a decidedly non-writing friend of mine, after listening to me complain about a particularly difficult bout with a short story, exclaim--with no small degree of incredulousness-- something to the effect of, “why on earth do you do it then?” And honestly, I couldn’t answer.  As I said, it’s not the first time someone has asked me that, and the only thing I could do by way of response is shrug my shoulders and mumble something like, “I just have to…”

I’ll say here that answer isn’t necessarily wrong. Something, somewhere inside really does have to, though it seems a pretty cruel joke to feel compelled to do something that at times can make mucking out the Augean stables feel like scooping up kitty litter.

It wasn’t until Friday night that I figured it out. We started talking about Ann Carson (who is quite possibly the smartest person on the planet, certainly one of the finest writers. Not convinced? Pick up the Autobiography of Red and then we’ll talk), and Nox, the artifact she created about her brother, Michael, which one experiences, rather than reads. In much too simple an explanation, Nox is Carson’s attempt to get at something—her brother’s life, his death (the news of which did not reach her for several weeks, as Michael’s widow didn’t know how to reach his family),their estranged relationship, all of that “stuff.” And to do it, she not only uses her words, but words in translation, images, photos, scraps of paper—these little bits of her life and his, little scraps of quantity that hopefully add up to something. 

Hopefully. Because it never really does. The title I’ve used, “Meditation of the contours of Absence” is a quote from Meghan O’Rourke’s New Yorker review of Nox. I re-appropriated it here, because that’s exactly what I do, every time I sit down to write. I meditate on the outline of something that isn’t there—be it loss or love or grief or regret or anger or pain. I’m forever trying to get at something that can never, no matter how hard I try, be captured.  I might get close every now and then, but I’ll never actually reach the goal. And that’s a terribly frustrating thing to grapple with. This acknowledged rock that will, no matter how many times I get close to the top, always roll back down. And yet, I keep pushing it back up. Every time.

And every time, I think, This is it. It’ll work this time. 

Monday, October 8, 2012

What is and what should be

It's 8:46 pm on Monday night and I should be at a bar. Seriously, I was invited to some kind of literary/performance something something by a friend of mine. I wanted to go--I've been feeling disconnected from writing in general lately and thought the event (whatever it might have been) would've been a good way to re-connect. And I was all ready. Then, about 10 minutes before I needed to leave, I suddenly wasn't so ready.

I don't know exactly what happened; although it's never been easy for me to get involved in new things on my own. So maybe it was social anxiety. Maybe I was not up to the exhausting task of entering a room full of strangers and either pretending to be perfectly comfortable in my skin or pretending to be perfectly capable of making interesting small talk. Maybe it was something else.

My friend Maxine--who's had her share of grief in the handful of years I've known her (and who has managed to steer her way through it was a grace that I find astounding)--gave me some advice right after my father passed away. She said that I should respect my grief and give it room. And that made perfect sense to me. It was probably the best, most comforting thing I'd heard.  And so maybe that's what I did tonight. I gave the grief some room. Because I think that's what happened. I think this whole weird couple of months reared it's weird head tonight. It does that sometimes. Suddenly something happens. I'm fine one moment, then the next...not so much. And I can't explain or predict it.

And I was looking forward to going out tonight. Like I said, I've been feeling disconnected. I've been trying to write, but I guess I'm blocked or something. But I can't figure out if there's something in my way or if I'm in my way. Lordy knows I've got novels worth of stuff bouncing off the walls of my brain, but I can't decide if it's moving too fast for me to capture, or if I'm just too scared to access it. I don't know.

What I do know is I got knocked sideways a few months ago. One minute it was a brand new year, I was getting ready to start a new job and I had just celebrated my 40th birthday surrounded by great friends and my family. And then, four days later, it all came crashing down. And while I think I manged to crawl out from under the rubble, I'm still a bit shaken and dazed. How long will it last? I'm not sure. Those in the know tell me the first year is the hardest. If that's the case, I've got about nine months under my belt.

Here's to hoping the next year is better than the last.