That First Step is a Doozy

A black and white silhouette of a woman putting a finger to her lips. Shhh.

Silence comes easier than exposure. It is perhaps why I’ve written so little here over the last few years. The public discourse has become raw, unfiltered, and not at all circumspect. Revealing, but not necessarily enlightening. We’ve accustomed ourselves to knee-jerk reactions and assumptions in real time, as many of our transactions are in digital shorthand. We’re a few short steps from LOLs to just grunting at each other. Perhaps re-joining the public sphere is my way of pushing back on a world that operates in acronyms. Maybe I’m just getting old and irritable.

Autumn brings on a sweet melancholy that puts me in a state of unrest. I feel the need to clear the decks, wipe the slate, and expunge whatever mental beasties have taken up residence in my brain. So here I am, beginning to write again of self, of life, of finding perspective in order to regain my equilibrium. It’s scarier out here on the information superhighway than it was when I started this blog in 2012. You’ve barely pulled into the lane before you’ve been honked at, cussed out, corrected, and finally, just to make sure you don’t make this mistake ever again, run off the road into a ditch.

I should be at a point of fearlessness. My life is more than half over. There’s no career-building, toddler-juggling, or rat-racing left to be done. Now it’s me and whatever bad habit chickens have come home to roost. Sleep injuries, slackening muscle, and 14 pairs of eyeglasses, each with its narrow purpose (no reading expiration dates-driving in the dark-working on computer combos). This is where I’m at and it sounds, from my description, that I should be huddled in a corner mourning my deterioration. On the other hand, time has sorted out what is and isn’t important in the most inefficient way possible – slowly making me too tired to give a shit about stuff I’ve spent a lifetime giving a shit about.

A beanstalk growing out of a typewriter with a globe on top. Pretty nonsensical.

I’m a few months away from graduating with my MFA in Creative Writing. For those who still engage in the MFA or not to MFA argument, I don’t have any answers. There’s no magic beans for writing and even a degree won’t change that. I will be teaching more, though, which is a surprising joy that I’ve discovered over the last couple of years. I’ve finally given up the ghost on short form social media. It had a deleterious effect on my mental health in terms of anxiety and constant adrenaline shots of rage. I’ve resigned myself to never knowing what anyone is talking about ever again.

It’s a few weeks away from the midterm election. I’m working as an election judge and hoping not to catch COVID or a bullet (insert wry laugh). My mailed absentee ballot was accepted yesterday. I put out the VOTE! sign in my yard. I’m volunteering in a voter education organization. This all adds up to me not having to pay attention to pundit-polling fuckwits anymore. Might keep it as a permanent policy. I’m not delusional about the power of the vote – when a loud minority has worked so hard to delegitimize our elections and suppress voter participation, a vote either counts more than it ever has or not at all. Either way, voting is one of the few things in our locus of control.

Perhaps this is less an argument against silence, rather an advocacy for the judicious application of our voices – where they will be heard or where they are needed. Neither bystander nor chicken little be. And unlike the whiplash reactions of social media, we can take a beat, write a few drafts, break through the hardness and habituation of personal opinion in order to cultivate curiosity. I think the road ahead will become more difficult and there will be a tendency to stratify opinions into intractable, inflexible ideas at the exact moment when adaptability, creativity, and joy are needed to survive. Nobody fights harder for a better world than someone who recognizes the joys in it.

A circus trainer putting his head inside a lion's mouth.

There are fires everywhere and no matter what you do, there’s always someone there to explain how you’re doing it wrong. Perhaps this is why social media is not a good place for most people – you become paralyzed by the possibility that what you say will be judged harshly, no matter the intent. I’ve leaned into discomfort, knowing that I will make mistakes, whether it be in regards to social justice or the environment or well, anything. As a writer, the fear of making mistakes is untenable. We only find our way by making the mistakes first and hoping that a kind friend or competent editor reigns in whatever insensitive, incoherent garbage we create before it hits the public eye.

My writing always starts out as a dear self until the ripples carry me far enough away from ego to get some perspective. I know that by the end, I will have learned something. If you find something here, all the better. I am here, ready and willing to make mistakes. Go make yours.

Committing to the Mistake and Writing in the Age of That Guy

canstockphoto15407070The hunger divide between writing meaningful stories and writing what I am capable of feels like a gaping maw now. A novel draft I wrote in 2012 seems limp and unedifying. Great novels come out of periods of strife and war and social upheaval. My little domestic drama on paper seems out of step.

I lay in bed last night rewriting my entire novel. It had power and endurance and spoke to the demographics and polarity in our nation – the great canyon between urban and rural, educated and uneducated. It could not be read without raising one’s fist and yelling, “Hell yeah!” It was deep, with a whiff of posterity and the flavor of critical acclaim.

Then I pulled up to my keyboard this morning. The Post-It on my monitor yelled at me: Tell the @#$! Story. I need that reminder these days when my ambition gets ahead of my skill set. Every other day, there’s some new thing I think I should be doing with my novel. I nearly rewrote the entire thing in first person, partly because of this blog. Over the last five years, readers have consistently told me they like my voice or my authenticity and I wondered if my novel would be more readable with that voice.

canstockphoto12329206Except that it’s not my story. The words and pages belong to Madelyn and Jamie and a rural town in Iowa. They could give a rat’s ass about politics, so mired in their own personal shit, up to their ears in self-destruction and self-loathing. Their story is how they find their way out. It’s a story of redemption and the murky waters of forgiveness. Our story, the one in which a personality disordered person turns the national dialogue into bickering and toxicity, has no exit strategy. And happy endings take on quite a different meaning.

I’m a nobody blog writer, an amateur novelist, one of a million dotting the literary landscape. A shrub in a forest of Redwoods. Why do I have an ego that says I should be writing bigger? And do readers always need to read bigger? I have no doubt that some startling, long-lasting work will come out of this period in history. And when colleges get around to updating their classics list, books written during the Trump era will be on it.

I’ve been reading Paths of Resistance: The Art and Craft of the Political Novel, edited by William Zinsser. My writing tip #234: Don’t read books on writing while trying to write a novel. First of all, it usually sheds bad light on whatever you are writing and secondly, it can make you overly ambitious. The novel I am writing was never meant to be bigger than it is. While there may be unintended insight or themes that emerge, it is not going to be the muckraking sociopolitical novel of which I daydream. Maybe next time.

Perhaps this will all be a mistake. I’m an imperfect perfectionist, the covert kind who looks careless on the outside, but demands creases and no slouching on the inside. The kind of perfectionist whose whispers gnaw away and slyly suggest that perhaps my mother was right. It feels like I’m making an intentional mistake – knowing that there are more important things to write, knowing that there is more at stake in the world than ever before.

canstockphoto25064666In a moment of clarity, as I wandered about the gardens this morning, I thought about how the real trick to anything is to fully commit to it. Ten years ago we started ripping up our lawn bit-by-bit, replacing grass with perennials. There were many times when I doubted it would ever look like the English garden I fantasized about, but each year, I took up more lawn, tried different plants, and dug in with all the enthusiasm of a novice. I hit a point of no return and for many years, our yard looked like a bad idea.

It doesn’t look like an English garden now. Not enough sun, too many tree roots and the grass is still determined to retake its ground. But I love it. Plants are maturing and things that I’ve moved and divided and tried again and again are finally filling in space. It’s pretty and colorful, and it gives me pleasure. Even though I’ve done my best, it doesn’t match my fantasy and won’t make a magazine cover, but it has become something unto itself. A labor of love and persistence.

I learned in improv comedy workshops that if you commit to the sound, the word, the actions of your partners, it becomes real to the audience. They are in the moment with you and nothing outside of that matters. If I write the story as well as I can write it, maybe I will have the good fortune of a shared moment.

canstockphoto4158276Perhaps, in the scheme of things, sharing moments with others is pretty damned important. If we can imagine solidarity and connection, there’s a possibility we can bring that into the world. Isabel Allende wrote, “I think I write so that people will love each other more.” Who needs to write any bigger than that?